Miami is a hotspot for illegal trafficking of endangered wildlife, a crime doing widespread damage to the world’s biodiversity as well as to economies and politics of some of the poorest parts of the world. Until recently, authorities have had a hard time putting a dent in this underground economy.
But money laundering and other racketeering crimes have recently received intense attention from the international community combating the illicit trade. The shift in strategy has begun to show results.
Miami’s place in a global crisis
From an elite undercover crime unit fighting South Florida’s wildlife traffickers to Viper the wonder dog, Miami-based teams from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have their work cut out for them. "Definitely one of the top five in terms of wildlife … Basically we're the hub for Central and South America and the Caribbean," according to Viper’s handler, a USFWS inspector.
Illicit wildlife trafficking is the world’s fourth-largest illicit industry behind drugs, counterfeiting and human trafficking.
The trade benefits terrorist organizations and the world’s most corrupt governments, leaving some of the world’s poorest countries without their tourist-attracting wildlife. Rhino horns fetch only $167 a pair in Africa but sell for over $60,000 when they reach China.
Although we usually think of people being arrested at Miami International Airport with animals crammed into a suit case or their clothing, an intense and growing international focus is now following the money that makes illicit wildlife trafficking possible.
Money laundering getting to the heart of the crime
Recent international agreements now have dozens of countries agreeing to treat wildlife trafficking as a money laundering offense. The U.S. Congress recently passed a law allowing prosecutors to use wildlife trafficking to pursue money laundering prosecutions.
Money laundering in the U.S. potentially carries fines of $500,000 or twice the value of the laundered money, and 20 years in prison. Because money laundering is one of the elements of federal and state racketeering or RICO laws, handling illegal wildlife and the money that goes with it has now become very serious business.
As the Miami Herald reported on July 10, the World Customs Organization and Interpol recently arrested nearly 600 suspects arrested in one historic sweep that also rescued nearly 10,000 live turtles and tortoises, 1,500 live reptiles, 23 live apes, 30 live big cats.
"It's landmark. It's the first time such a large joint network has been mobilized — across 109 countries," an Interpol wildlife expert said.