Yucatan is considered the safest state in Mexico. Its inhabitants are not accustomed to kidnapping or decapitated, nor to clashes between criminal groups. There is an apparent tranquility. Unlike other entities, shootings and deaths do not happen in colonies or bars in the city, but in the ocean, during the capture of sea cucumber, an activity controlled by criminal organizations.
To learn about the phenomenon, I traveled to the Yucatan coast and witnessed the way in which the “pepineros” operate, who allowed my presence when they saw that it was a journalistic exercise.
After several meetings and through a confidentiality agreement, they agreed to talk about this business and take us to a “sancochadero”, that is, the place where they process the sea cucumber;a secluded spot among bushes, mangroves and tropical trees, whose only way to get there is in a motorized boat.
The “pepineros” are the men who dive in the depths of the sea in search of this species. They are mostly Yucatecans who have dedicated their entire lives to fishing, but it was in 2010 when they discovered the gold mine that was on the seabed of their beaches.
And it is that this business has reached millionaire dimensions , according to the latest figures, in Dzilam de Bravo -port located just one hour from Merida- the kilo of raw cucumber costs up to 150 pesos. If it is marketed “boiled” (cooked) the price can reach up to one thousand or one thousand 400 pesos. In Hong Kong and China, this marine animal reaches up to three thousand dollars per kilogram.
In Mexico, because it is a protected species, they only authorize around ten days a year for legal commercialization. However, this is just a letter on paper. Senator Daniel Ávila Ruiz, in an interview for VICE accused the state and federal authorities of being part of the mafia, and assured that fishing cooperatives linked to political figures guard tons of this species and take advantage of the lifting of the ban to sell documents and bills The product stored throughout the year.
One of the largest seizures in history occurred in the Hulkín freezer, in May 2017. The Attorney General’s Office (PGR) reported that it was 5.5 tons. However, Armando Herrera, manager of the fishing company, told us that they were more than seven tons, and that his price reached $ 9.8 million pesos.
I looked for the delegate of the PGR in Yucatan, Juan Manuel León y León, to know the details of the case, however, he said he could not give statements about it, and that everything should be dealt with through the department of ‘social communication’. Despite our insistence for several weeks we got no response.
“David” is a man who is not afraid to speak, but for the safety of his family we will maintain certain anonymity. He is our contact with the black market of sea cucumber. He is from Tabasco and has been in Yucatán for more than a decade.
“The sea cucumber is a negotiation, but it is also a break in the mother, as in everything, our bosses are the ones who win the most, I have had to bring to his office briefcases full of bills every week”, he said while driving us by boat to one of the many sancochaderos on the Yucatan coast.
I ask David if the authorities are colluded in this business.
“Of course they do, they know the business and they allow us to work because they get a good slice of it. “I’ll give you an example, we parboiled the sea cucumber away from the port, in places of difficult access, and are the authorities themselves such as the Sedena, or in its case the Navy, and the elements of the Secretary of Public Security who they throw us the whistle and they give us notice of the operatives “.
After telling me about the collción between the pepineros and the authorities, David tells me that he began to deal with the soldiers from the moment they stopped him: “Once the soldiers stopped me with cargo at a checkpoint. I agreed and from that moment we started the relationship, now every time I pass by, I greet them and give them one or two thousand pesos for refreshments, it is clear that their superiors know the business “.
In recent years, robbery with violence in the sea has been increasing, as documented by Milenio Novedades in one of its notes entitled “Pirates shoot a ‘cucumbers’ furtive in Dzilam de Bravo … assure that hooded assaulted a boat.”
One of these cases was Jovani DMR, just 16 years old, who died from a gunshot wound on the high seas caused by enraged Isla Arena fishermen; those who were tired of the robberies did justice by their own hand against who-presumably-was a member of a group of “Modern Pirates”, who would have tried to steal a couple of engines.
“Before, we did not carry weapons, we did not need them, but now we have to do it,” explains David. “There have been many assaults on the high seas, they are pirate ships that come to steal all the cucumber that we have captured during the day, and it does not work either.”
But the deaths are not only due to violence, more than 50 cucumbers have died in the depths of the sea in the last five years, victims of a decompression in the blood system to emerge too fast to the surface.
Before the fishermen found the sea cucumber at ten fathoms deep (approximately 8 meters), at present they have to submerge up to 22 fathoms due to the scarcity of the product. Each boat brought an average of one ton; today they get 80 to 100 kilos per day.
The work is arduous. The men who traffic with the species work six to seven days a week, from 4:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night. In order to endure physical exhaustion, several of them consume cocaine.
“If there was no sea cucumber, there would be fewer problems, people with other customs have arrived, alcoholism has proliferated, and above all drug use,” said Julio Villanueva Rivero, mayor of Dzilam de Bravo, during an interview.
From very early, the pepineros go up to a fishing boat, they take gasoline, marquetas of ice, in addition a little of cookies or chocolates to recover energies after leaving the water.
“You put on a waistband of three weights (weighing about 600 grams) which in turn is tied to a hose, which feeds us oxygen when we dive in. Basically it is an air compressor (like the one used in the tire repairs) only that this device has a filter made with coal, cotton and two or three feminine towels that purify the air we breathe under the sea, “David told us, while the boat was moving towards the sancochadero.
Once on the seabed, collect the cucumbers and put them in a sack, outside the product is stored in a refrigerator with water and ice. If this is not done, the cucumber begins to die and a “baba” spreads that gives it a strange taste.
WELCOME TO SANCOCHADERO
In appearance, the place looks like a rudimentary laboratory located in a tropical paradise. The walls and ceilings are trees and palm trees, just a few meters from the sea. All dressed in shorts have a friendly and relaxed attitude.
As soon as I got off the boat they invited me to eat from an aguachile that they had just prepared.The reception was very familiar; For a moment I forgot that this place was an illegal place.
The cooking process is basic. In pouring dishes one meter in diameter pour the salt water. There they place the cucumber and later on high heat they make it boil, all this in less than an hour. The fire comes from the wood and sometimes they use butane gas.
There are some refrigerators buried, so I ask David what they are for:
“There we keep the parboiled cucumber, sometimes the Navy overflies this area and we have to protect everything under the sand so as not to be discovered, that was my idea,” he replied with a proud smile.
“What is true that many of the fishermen who die are abandoned at sea?” I ask David.
“I know of fishermen from Santa Clara, San Felipe and Dzilam de Bravo who have abandoned their companions who drown in the depths, place stones on their feet and send them to the bottom of the ocean, or bury them in the sand of the mangroves, although they do it with the “outsiders”, they are mostly inexperienced people who come to the port in search of work, it is easy to disappear them, it is not that they are murdered, I clarify, rather they avoid giving explanations to the authority and put the business at risk. “
“Who do they sell the cucumber to?” I ask.
“I’m not sure, but I think there are several drug cartels involved, I just follow the instructions of the bosses (the owners of the freezers), they tell me ‘such a day you have to carry cargo’, then we upload all the refrigerators to the boat and we go to high seas in the early hours of the morning, where an enormous yacht with dozens of armed men intercepts us, I do not even see their faces, I just spend the coolers with cucumbers. “
“Are not you afraid of being hurt?”, He finished.
“Well, at first I was afraid, because there were so many of them and they could shoot us at any time, but now I understand that this is a business,” David finished. “They need fishermen to collect the cucumber, and we need someone to keep buying it at a good price.”