The El Paso, Texas, port of entry from Mexico ranks among the nation’s top five for catching illegal wildlife shipments, part of an estimated $23 million-per-year wildlife trafficking industry. And Nogales, Arizona, leads the nation in pounds of illegal products seized. At Nogales, it’s often dead frogs. In El Paso, powdered rattlesnakes, a Mexican folk medicine thought to cure various diseases, dominated the 3,614 shipments of illegally trafficked wildlife products between 2004 and 2014. Shoes made from water monitors, crocodiles and their reptile cousins, caimans—a quick Google search on which will return an option to buy a dwarf caiman, which can grow to nearly 5 feet in length, for $300—were also among the items collected, as were, of course, the high-profile ivory and horns from endangered elephants and rhinoceroses.
Despite this buzzing business in neighboring states, New Mexico currently has no designated border officials monitoring for those products, and no set fines or law enforcement authorized to make arrests if illegal wildlife products are found. Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), working in tandem with the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators and Defenders of Wildlife, has filed a bill to change that.
"El Paso is the third largest port entry of wildlife trafficking in the US, so it's coming up from South America … then it runs through the state in the southern part. So it is an issue in New Mexico—we have a trafficking problem," Stewart says.
The Wildlife Trafficking Act would set fines of $5,000, or two times the value of the item (whichever is greater), for a first offense. A second offense could lead to a fine of up to $25,000, or three times the item's value. For perspective: A single rhino horn is estimated to sell for roughly $175,000.
"This isn't jail time—this is high fines," Stewart says. The goal is to erode the profitability of these markets, rather than try to arrest everyone involved. "These are run by essentially organized terrorist groups. … The only way to stop them is to stop their cash flow, and so fining them and arresting them and taking these animals' parts is the way to do it. I'm just following the lead of other states."
There's no hard data to define the scope of the wildlife trafficking issue in New Mexico, says Michael Dax of Defenders of Wildlife, but he agrees that if El Paso is such a hot spot, it's likely some of that commerce is moving through New Mexico.
"We don't have any US Fish and Wildlife Service officers posted at our ports of entry, so that's just very much a practical thing coming from the fact that the US Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have the resources it needs to fully staff all the ports of entry across the country," Dax says.
Stewart's bill would enable law enforcement officers to charge with a misdemeanor those found with products made from threatened species and an intent to sell them. Officers with the Department of Game and Fish, the state parks division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, the department of public safety, the livestock board, sheriffs' departments and municipal police would get new enforcement powers. Ivory-handled guns, antiques, and musical instruments are exempt. Recovered products would go to the Fish and Wildlife Service or to education and research, where DNA testing could pinpoint the source and help reveal the illegal traders' routes.
"We look at this [law] as an extra tool for law enforcement," Dax adds, and it could ripple to affect other criminal activities. "Very often, the same people who are trafficking arms, drugs or humans are also trafficking illegal wildlife, and it's used to fund other activities."
The United Nations has linked human trafficking, frequently of children, to criminal activity that harms marine life, and found the spike in illegal killing of elephants in the late 2000s tied to organized crime and rebel militias in Africa.
Former president Barack Obama signed the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act in 2016, making wildlife trafficking a serious crime and committing the US to addressing it. The need for state-level laws to complement that law has repeatedly been a topic at the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, according to Stewart.
The next step for the bill is a hearing before the Senate Conservation Committee on Thursday, Jan. 26.