Ecuador and Colombia, among the most biodiverse countries in the world, face a daily struggle against the illegal trafficking of animals destined for international markets, a profitable activity for organized crime.
“The trade of protected animals is Colombia’s third largest illegal industry after drug and human smuggling. […] Exotic birds, monkeys, frogs, turtles, pythons — are animals desired as pets, for their meat, as an aphrodisiac or for their skin,” said The New York Times on May 3.. “Wildlife crime not only strips our environment of its resources; it also has an impact through the associated violence, money laundering, and fraud,” International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) Secretary General Jürgen Stock said in July.
In 2017 alone, Colombian officials and wildlife preservation groups rescued more than 23,000 animals from trafficking, the New York Times added. “In only six months of 2019, Colombian officers prevented 3,000 endangered species from being trafficked, commercialized, and exploited,” Army General Luis Fernando Navarro Jiménez, commander of the Colombian Military Forces, told Diálogo.
In Ecuador, the Armed Forces' effective control and initiatives against the illegal wildlife trade helped to disrupt criminal groups in the territory. In the first quarter of 2019, authorities seized more than 6,730 wildlife species, the newspaper El Tiempo reported.
There are 1,252 vertebrate species considered to be endangered in Ecuador, according to the Ecuadorean Ministry of the Environment (MAE, in Spanish). “Despite strict international laws, Ecuador is used as a wildlife stocking hub,” Pedro Gualoto, a wildlife technician for MAE, told the press. As part of its environmental strategic plan, Ecuador and Colombia have subscribed to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates wildlife management.
The illegal wildlife trade is “a bloodthirsty business” that moves about $20 billion per year, similar to the figures managed by drug and arms trafficking, the World Wildlife Fund states on its website. The international drug trade moves about $340 billion per year, according to Argentine newspaper Infobae. The database of the France-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Union for Conservation of Nature ranks Colombia and Ecuador among the 10 countries worldwide with the most endangered species.
Border security assessment between the Ecuadorean and Colombian armed forces is long-standing. The two institutions have been working together for many years to counter crimes that threaten biodiversity, such as illegal wildlife trafficking, illegal mineral extraction that pollutes rivers with mercury, narcotrafficking that generates deforestation, and illegal fishing off the Pacific coast, which are all activities that yield exorbitant profits for organized crime.
“Traffickers use border areas to avoid pursuit by Ecuadorean and Colombian authorities, at their convenience. The difference between jurisdictions, legal frameworks, and capacities allows illegal groups to have escape zones to avoid capture or the seizure of their illegal goods, or of the money collected,” said Gen. Navarro. “In this criminal modus operandi, species are taken through riverine ports to Colombia or abroad. [Smugglers] use altered or fake documents, they make sub-records of high-volume shipments to make them appear legal, or to evade customs control.”
“It’s imperative that the intelligence gathered by the defense sector serves as a guide to operations against wildlife trafficking, so that the authorities can use international cooperation tools, such as mutual legal assistance and joint investigations across country borders,” Jessica Graham, president of the Washington, D.C.-based NGO JG Global Advisory, told the press.
An example of this cooperation is the partnership of governments worldwide with INTERPOL and the World Customs Organization, which conducted Operation Thunderball on June 4-30. The operation enabled more than 1,828 operations in 109 countries, resulting in the confiscation of more than 25,000 endangered species. The authorities arrested 582 suspects in the combined operation, said INTERPOL.