Site icon Conservation news

Son of Cali Cartel leader tied to Colombia-Hong Kong shark fin trafficking

  • Although Colombia banned the fishing and trading of sharks in early 2021, their fins — taken from sharks in Colombia and around the world — have continued to feed a global industry worth $500 million per year.
  • This is the story of the largest seizure of its kind ever carried out in Colombian territory. A shipment of more than 3,400 shark fins destined for Hong Kong was intercepted at the airport in Bogotá in September 2021.
  • For the first time, this investigation reveals the owner of this contraband: Fernando Rodríguez Mondragón. He is the son of the late Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, who was the leader of the Cali Cartel, once one of the largest drug trafficking organizations in the world.
  • This investigation reconstructs the shipment’s route from the department of La Guajira, on the border with Venezuela, to Colombia’s capital, passing through the mountains in the department of Valle del Cauca.

In September 2021, Colombian police received an alert from a shipping company urging them to inspect some cardboard boxes that were about to be exported to Hong Kong from El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia. It would turn out to be the largest seizure of shark fins ever recorded in the country.

Six months had passed since Colombia had completely prohibited the fishing and trade of sharks, but upon opening the cardboard boxes, the police found 3,493 fins from five shark species, four of them at risk of extinction. The fins were camouflaged among 117 kilograms (258 pounds) of swim bladders, an organ that allows fish to stay afloat. Dried and processed, shark fins and swim bladders are both sold in Asian markets as delicacies.

At the time of the bust, the authorities revealed some details. They announced that between 900 and 1,000 sharks had been slaughtered for the shipment, that it appeared the swim bladders were also being trafficked because the exporter did not have permits to sell them and — interestingly — that the cargo came from Roldanillo. This inland municipality in the department of Valle del Cauca is more than a three-hour drive from the port of Buenaventura, on Colombia’s Pacific coast.

Why did the fins come from a place so far from the ocean? More importantly, what companies were behind this and to whom did the shipment belong?

Shark fins being seized at the airport in Bogotá. Image courtesy of the Secretary of Environment for Bogotá.

For nine months, a team of journalists from Mongabay Latam, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Armando.Info examined dozens of documents from the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia (Fiscalía General de la Nación de Colombia in Spanish) to answer these questions. The journalists submitted more than 40 requests for information to different public agencies, tracked the suspects’ activity using social media, traveled to various places to reconstruct the route of the illegal shipment and interviewed more than 20 people, including officials, witnesses, fishers, scientists and other experts.

The emails and reports from the Office of the Attorney General came from a leak of more than 13 million documents. Our journalistic alliance, along with 40 other media outlets from around the world, had access to these documents through a project called NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, which the OCCRP led with support from the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP).

The outcome is this investigation, which reveals, for the first time, that the enormous intercepted shipment of shark fins belonged to Fernando Rodríguez Mondragón, the eldest son of the deceased head of the Cali Cartel, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela. As a result, three weeks prior to this story’s original publication in Spanish on Nov. 9, 2023, Rodríguez Mondragón was arrested through a court order.

This investigation also reveals a new method of shark fin trafficking and the existence of a lucrative illegal trade in swim bladders coming from Lake Maracaibo, an area taken over by illegal armed groups that threaten and terrorize hundreds of Venezuelan fishers.

Bogotá: The story of the seizure

The documents from the Office of the Attorney General revealed that on Aug. 23, 2021, a shipment left Maicao — a city in the northern Colombian department of La Guajira, near the border with Venezuela — on its way to Roldanillo 1,100 kilometers (684 miles) to the southwest. The shipment, traveling via a courier service called Servientrega, was addressed to the company Comercializadora Fernapez S.A.S., which is owned by Rodríguez Mondragón. His father, Rodríguez Orejuela, also known as El Ajedrecista, or the chess player, died in prison in North Carolina, U.S., in 2022.

The shipment, which the documents from the Office of the Attorney General said belonged to Fernapez, was in Roldanillo for three weeks and then was sent to Bogotá. At that point, Luis Alberto Cardona Bonilla, the man who picked up the cargo and would be in charge of shipping it to Hong Kong, entered the story.

However, this plan did not go as the traffickers hoped. The cargo, valued at $30,000, was intercepted before leaving the country.

A shipment of swim bladders traveled southwest from Maicao, in northern Colombia, to the municipality of Roldanillo. There, shark fins from the port of Buenaventura were added to it. The shipment of swim bladders and shark fins was then sent to Bogotá from Roldanillo. At El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, authorities confiscated the shipment before it could be sent to Hong Kong. Green arrows indicate transport routes for swim bladders; orange arrows indicate transport routes for shark fins. Image by Mongabay Latam.

The fins had been processed, meaning they had been dried and skinned. This is how they are sold in markets in Hong Kong, where consumers buy them to prepare a soup called yúchì tāng. This soup is a status symbol and can cost up to $200 in a restaurant. To make yúchì tāng, the fins must be skinned. According to several experts interviewed for this report, skinning shark fins requires a complex procedure that involves the use of specific chemicals and knowledge that only the Chinese have. A poor processing method could cause a fin to lose its value. This is likely why it is unusual to find a shipment of processed fins in Latin America.

“This is the first time that we are aware of a legal case in which fin processing took place in the nation where the sharks were caught prior to them being exported,” states a study by Diego Cardeñosa, a biologist with Florida International University in the U.S., and several colleagues. For the study, the team analyzed the results of 214 molecular samples gathered from the seized fins to determine which shark species they came from.

This characteristic, besides being new in shark fin trafficking, concerns experts because they realize it could complicate the fight against wildlife trafficking. According to Cardeñosa, when a fin is processed, it loses its shape and color.

“[I]f we begin to have skinned fins, we have a problem, because the identification gets complicated,” Alicia Kuroiwa told this team of journalists. “Then it cannot be known without a DNA test which species of shark they correspond to.” Kuroiwa is the director of habitats and threatened species at Oceana Peru, a nongovernmental organization that investigates shark trafficking in Peru, among other issues.

In fact, according to Cardeñosa, it’s most likely that traffickers have started to process the fins before shipping them in order to avoid detection. “The Chinese are very conscientious with that process,” he said. “Although there is still not sufficient evidence, we believe that there must be Chinese people coming to these countries to teach people how to do this.”

The fins were processed, which means they were dried and the skin was removed. Image courtesy of the Secretary of Environment for Bogotá.

This value-add also implies larger profits for an industry estimated to transact $500 million per year. According to Stanley Shea, marine program director of Bloom Association Hong Kong, an ocean conservation NGO, the price of 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of shark fins varies depending on three factors: whether they have skin, whether they are processed and which shark species they come from. “We have seen species listed on CITES, processed [and] dried (without skin), that range from $171 for 500 grams (1.1 lb) to $677 USD for 500 g,” Shea said. “The product with skin is cheaper, given that the retail market in Hong Kong is mainly based on processed fins,” he added.

Molecular tests conducted on the fins seized at the airport in Bogotá found that 60% came from silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). The IUCN Red List categorizes this species as vulnerable. According to the study by Cardeñosa and his colleagues, the second-most commonly identified species was the scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), which is critically endangered. This was followed by the endangered pelagic thresher (Alopias pelagicus), the vulnerable bull shark (C. leucas) and the near threatened tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).

The 3,493 seized fins correspond to five species of sharks, four of which are at risk of extinction and the other listed as near threatened by IUCN. Image courtesy of the Secretary of Environment for Bogotá.

All of these sharks are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement that aims to ensure that the trading of wild species does not threaten their survival. For this reason, special permits are required to export these sharks or their parts. Not only did the shipment destined for Hong Kong have no such permits, in violation of the international treaty, to which Colombia is a party, but it never could have had them because in Colombia, the fishing and sale of sharks and their parts has been banned since March 2021.

Moreover, the more than 100 kgs (220 lbs) of swim bladders in which the fins were hidden did not have the required documentation either. At the time of the seizure, Cardona Bonilla presented an expired permit that the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Authority (AUNAP) had granted to Fernapez in 2019 to sell fish products. That permit only authorized the sale of fish products within the country; it did not authorize exportation, much less the exportation of shark fins.

Roldanillo: The warehouse operating behind closed doors

Rodríguez Mondragón is sometimes referred to as “the chess player’s son.” In Spanish, this phrase — El hijo del ajedrecista — is also the title of a book he wrote in 2007. The book tells the story of the Cali Cartel from an insider’s perspective.

According to the documents from the Office of the Attorney General, between 1993 and 2000, Rodríguez Mondragón was a partner and board member of Fundecali, an organization whose Spanish name translates to the Foundation for Comprehensive Human Development. Between 2003 and 2014, this company was included on a list of specially designated narcotics traffickers by the United States Department of the Treasury.

In 2002, Colombian media outlets reported that the police arrested Rodríguez Mondragón after finding heroin in his apartment in northern Bogotá and that he had to face justice. The Office of the Attorney General did not share this record to confirm the outcome of this process, but the Judicial Branch’s official website states that he was convicted and that he was released in June 2005 on a suspended sentence. Faced with this question, Rodríguez Mondragón told our journalistic team that this was all “a setup to be able to put the family in the public arena, because at the time, Señor Gilberto Rodríguez had been released.”

After serving his sentence, Rodríguez Mondragón settled in the municipality of Roldanillo, which was once one of the centers of activity of the so-called Norte del Valle Cartel, which formed after the deterioration of the Cali Cartel. In 2017, in the Los Llanitos neighborhood of Roldanillo, Rodríguez Mondragón opened his company, Fernapez. According to records, Fernapez is dedicated to the “wholesale trade of raw agricultural materials and live animals.”

Image is a reproduction of a document showing the renewal of Fernapez’s registration with the Chamber of Commerce of Cartago, a city near Roldanillo, Colombia, where Fernapez is based, with modifications to highlight relevant details done by Mongabay Latam.

This would be the first clue to answer a key question in the story of this trafficking: Why did the shipment go to Roldanillo instead of traveling directly from Maicao to Bogotá, which is a shorter trip?

According to testimonies obtained by our journalistic team, the shipment stopped in this mountainous city, 178 km (111 mi) from Buenaventura — Colombia’s main commercial port on the Pacific coast, in the department of Valle del Cauca — to load the shark fins.

“We knew they worked with fish, but what people say is that it was not to sell [them] in Colombia, but to sell them to the Chinese because they pay more,” said a woman about the place where Fernapez was operating by her house in Roldanillo. “There, they worked behind closed doors, and only packing [the product],” she added.

Other neighbors we consulted agreed with her statement and added that they noticed the company had two Chinese employees, but no Colombian employees.

“The business was operating there for a few years, but they left,” said another resident who lives near the property. Indeed, according to real estate records, the house that belonged to Rodríguez Mondragón was sold in November 2021. In other words, as soon as he learned of the seizure of the 3,493 shark fins at the Bogotá airport, Rodríguez Mondragón took out all the money he had in his company and sold the house for 68 million Colombian pesos (approximately $17,000 at the time). Rodríguez Mondragón confirmed this himself, telling our journalistic team that “the company went bankrupt as a result of the problem.”

Along the same lines as what these neighbors said, the one-year permit that AUNAP granted to Fernapez in April 2019 — which Cardona Bonilla showed to police on the day of the seizure at the airport, in an attempt to justify shipping the cargo — specifies that at that address in Roldanillo, the company had a storage warehouse that contained fish, including sharks. Among the species that AUNAP had authorized the company to store and sell were silky shark, whitenose shark (C. velox) and Galapagos shark (C. galapagensis). As stated, on the day the shipment was seized, not only had the permit expired but it was also invalid anyway, since the new law prohibiting the trade of sharks had already taken effect.

Image is a reproduction of a one-year permit for commercializing fishery products, issued to Fernapez by the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Authority (AUNAP) on April 25, 2019, with modifications to highlight relevant material done by Mongabay Latam. The permit had expired when the shipment of shark fins was seized at the Bogota airport in September 2021.

Although the neighbors we consulted were not certain they had seen shark fins, they did remember a strong, constant odor of seafood. “That was a smell of fish, but rancid,” one neighbor said, which is characteristic of fins when they are wet as well as when they are in the process of drying.

In fact, in certain cases, this distinctive odor is what has allowed authorities to carry out their operations. This is what happened in April 2023, when police in Tumaco — Colombia’s second-most important port on the Pacific, about 300 km (186 mi) by sea from Buenaventura — found a sack of 386 undried fins being transported in a truck owned by Inter Rapidísimo, a transportation and courier company. The fins had been camouflaged inside two layers of plastic packaging and covered with plenty of coffee grounds in an attempt to mask the odor. Even so, “They realized it immediately because it smells horrible, very intense,” said a specialist who worked on the identification of the shark species after the seizure and who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

Two other neighbors also stated that the police were almost constantly present at the building where Fernapez was operating. “They made food for them,” one neighbor said. The neighbors added that in the days after Fernapez vacated the building and sold everything, police were present who had been sent from Cali, apparently because there was a lack of confidence in the officers who were serving in Roldanillo. According to sources we consulted, the Roldanillo police seemed to be very close to Rodríguez Mondragón.

As part of this investigation, this journalistic team requested records from the police of their inspections on the Fernapez property. However, this request was denied because the files contained classified information, according to the police.

Buenaventura: The nerve center of the shark trade

Two neighbors of the Fernapez building added that the fish was brought from Buenaventura, the port closest to Roldanillo, about a three-hour drive away. Using a right of petition, our team of journalists obtained information from the Secretary of Environment for Bogotá that confirmed that this was indeed the origin of the fins seized at the airport.

That makes sense because according to official statistics, Buenaventura is where the largest number of sharks are trafficked in Colombia. According to data from AUNAP, the General Maritime and Ports Directorate (DIMAR), the Navy and the National Police, of the 22 shark or shark fin seizures carried out in Colombia between 2016 and 2020, at least 14 occurred in the department of Valle del Cauca, of which 11 were in Buenaventura.

Even after the national ban on fishing for and selling sharks began in March 2021, the situation only worsened. Data from the Ministry of Environment show that at least 23 seizures of sharks and their fins occurred between the law entering force and July 2023. In most of these cases, the animals or their parts came from Tumaco near the border with Ecuador, or from Buenaventura.

There are also cases in which, even though a seizure may have occurred in another area of the country, the parties responsible came from Buenaventura. For example, in April 2022, coast guard officers from Bahía Solano, on the northern part of Colombia’s Pacific coast, were inspecting a boat named “JD” that came from Buenaventura and found two ice boxes with 30 sharks missing their heads and tails. The same thing occurred in November 2022, when Coast Guard officers from Bahía Solano found 114 sharks and 89 fins on a boat named “Los Pescadores.” In fact, the fins intercepted in Tumaco, the ones packed in bags with coffee grounds, also came from Buenaventura.

Sharks being confiscated on board a boat named “Los Pescadores.” Image courtesy of the Colombian Navy.

Our team visited the main market plaza and the Galería de Pueblo Nuevo, a food market, in Buenaventura and confirmed that it’s still possible to buy an entire tollo shark at a very low price. (Tollo refers to small-bodied sharks, often in the genus Mustelus.) These sharks’ oil is also sold in full view of locals and visitors.

A source from the Colombian Navy acknowledged that it is almost impossible for maritime authorities to control shark fishing in Buenaventura and other nearby ports. “Buenaventura does not have formal docks,” the source said. “Here, any house’s patio that overlooks the sea is a dock, and the ships are docked there. There is a lot of informality and lack of control because it is too broad to go to and control all those places.”

The commander of DIMAR, Captain Alberto Buelvas, said this “is one of the big problems.” For that reason, “We are always aiming, with the administrators on duty, to [build] a single large coastal fishing dock where the cargo gets moved, where the fish gets moved,” he said.

Scientists and environmentalists also warn of another serious problem. After the law banning shark fishing and sales was established, sharks stopped being considered a fishery resource and therefore it is no longer AUNAP’s responsibility to oversee them. “Law 281 was issued, through which the national government declared the shark a hydrobiological resource, which happens to be the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment,” said Sandra Angulo, AUNAP’s regional director in Cali. “We, as a fisheries authority, no longer have jurisdiction over this issue.”

According to Angulo, this is why when AUNAP conducts control operations and finds sharks, “what we automatically do is inform the proper authority, which is the Ministry of Environment, and then they begin their procedures to do the entire seizure process.”

Juan Manuel Díaz, Colombia programs coordinator for the MarViva Foundation, a marine conservation organization in Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama, said that since the declaration of the new law, “there are no longer records of how many [sharks] are captured” and the entire trading process has “turned into something very dark.”

Our journalistic team requested the Ministry of Environment’s comment, but received no response as of this article’s publication in Spanish.

“People dry the fins on top of bamboo, on bamboo mats, but they are no longer large fins,” a Buenaventura fishing engineer knowledgeable about the management of shark fins, who asked to remain anonymous, told this team. “They are small because the size of the species is getting smaller and smaller.” The fishing engineer added that it’s possible fins are moved to be dried in other municipalities that are less humid than Buenaventura, such as Roldanillo.

Maicao: The origin of the swim bladders

According to records from the courier company Servientrega, which are among the documents from the Office of the Attorney General, the shipment of swim bladders was sent from Maicao to Roldanillo by Stevenson Bautista Moreno. When the Office of the Attorney General requested information about this person from DataCrédito, the risk center that compiles all available information on the payment liabilities of people and companies, its answer was that this name did not match the identification number that was provided. Therefore, the identity of the first link in the chain was a mystery.

However, this journalistic team analyzed social media accounts and registration documents and was able to determine that the person who sent the shipment from Maicao is, in fact, the same person who appears on the Servientrega records, but with subtle spelling differences. His real name is Stivinzon Bautista Moreno.

Stivinzon Bautista Moreno. Image via Facebook.

Bautista Moreno’s Facebook profile contains photos and videos from 2018 and 2019 that show swim bladders — also known as “maws” — being processed in a plant that, according to information found on his social media account, is located in a neighborhood in Maicao. Some photos also show him posing with swim bladders, weapons and wads of cash. There are also allusions to famous drug lords, such as Pablo Escobar. Among his contacts are several swim bladder traders in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Pakistan, some of which also sell shark fins, sea cucumbers and other marine products that are highly sought-after in Asian markets.

Information provided by AUNAP also allowed our team to confirm that no permits to process swim bladders have been issued so far in Maicao or in any other place in the department of La Guajira. This would indicate that the plant where Bautista Moreno processed the maws was operating secretly. However, AUNAP does not have any reports on this matter.

A detail from his social media account added an additional clue to this story. A photograph taken in 2021 shows a poster on a wall in a place where Bautista Moreno was posing with swim bladders, and the words “Pesquera Kike” are visible. This is the name of a family business in the heart of the marketplace in Maicao. It is one of the municipality’s oldest and most well-established fish markets. Its owner, Teobaldo Enrique De Moya Barcelo, claimed not to know of Bautista Moreno, even though the two appear together in a photo hung on the wall of his business. It is also apparent that Bautista Moreno often communicates on social media with several members of the De Moya family.

YouTube video player

Swim bladders, or maws, being processed. Video via Stivinzon Bautista Moreno’s social media accounts.

Until now, it has not been possible to establish who supplied the swim bladders that Bautista Moreno shipped to Fernapez in Roldanillo. However, this investigation managed to confirm that the maws are being trafficked from the northern part of Lake Maracaibo to Maicao.

Our journalists traveled to northern Lake Maracaibo, in the Venezuelan state of Zulia, where the most fishing activity has been recorded. There, Toas Island, just 40 km (25 mi) from Maicao, is one of the centers of this activity; most of its 12,000 residents dedicate themselves to fishing. The most commonly sold products are maws, mainly those of corvina, a term that can include several fish species resembling sea bass.

However, criminal groups known as “pirates,” who operate armed with high-caliber rifles, control the distribution operations. Local fishers said they can earn up to $170 for 1 kg of maws, but the owner of one of the fishing organizations on Toas Island, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, said that to be able to work they must pay the armed groups $50 to $100 per boat every day. Even so, that does not protect them from the possibility that the pirates could surround their fishing boat and steal their largest corvinas and their maws.

In this criminal dynamic, where there are surcharges for all supplies, including gasoline and motor oil, and extortion payments are made to government security agents, the area’s fishers say their own earnings are often minimal. Some have dared to sell their maws outside of the armed groups, but the response to this has been ruthless. There are accounts that the pirates have even dismembered some fishers and tied their body parts to the boats as punishment and as a warning to the rest of the population.

Maws, mainly those from corvinas, fish resembling sea bass, are the most commonly sold product on Toas Island. Image courtesy of a local source.

Sources whom this team consulted said the maws are eventually purchased in the area by people of Asian origin, but they added that some of this product is sent to Maicao.

There are two main routes to reach Maicao by road. The first begins in the town of San Rafael del Moján, where boats arrive from the islands in the northern part of the lake. The second begins in San Carlos, northwest of Toas Island. From either origin, a traveler could deviate onto the unpaved trails of the porous border between Colombia and Venezuela, which are controlled by criminal groups.

By the time of this article’s publication in Spanish, neither Bautista Moreno nor De Moya had responded to questions sent to them by our journalistic team.

Hong Kong: A frequent recipient

Ho’s Import & Export Ltd. is the name of the company that was going to receive Fernapez’s shipment in Hong Kong, according to the documents from the Office of the Attorney General.

According to information from the National Directorate of Taxes and Customs (Dirección de Impuestos y Aduanas Nacionales, or DIAN, in Spanish), Ho’s Import & Export Ltd. is Fernapez’s main buyer. In fact, since Rodríguez Mondragón launched his company and began making shipments abroad, Ho’s Import & Export Ltd. was always its main business partner. According to official records, it is located in an industrial building in Tuen Mun, a remote area of Hong Kong. Upon visiting this site, however, journalists could not find any company with that name.

In the last three weeks of December 2018, Fernapez carried out its first three exports for $86,750. In 2019, the company’s sales skyrocketed and it carried out 24 exports, shipping almost 14 tons of swim bladders and animal feed products, for a total of $816,000, to Chan Man Kin, Sui Man Wholesale and Ho’s Import & Export Ltd. That year, Fernapez also exported mangoes, dragonfruit and passionfruit to Canada, but in the following two years, Rodríguez Mondragón’s business focus was mainly on swim bladders — the same product that camouflaged the seized shark fins at the airport in Bogotá. In 2020, the company’s sales reached $550,000, and in the first nine months of 2021 before the seizure took place, the company exported swim bladders with a total value of $495,000.

A seized shipment of swim bladders at the airport in Bogotá. Image courtesy of the Secretary of Environment for Bogotá.

An important fact is that all of the shipments were classified with a tariff code that corresponds to animals’ bladders, but not to those of fish. However, the description of the cargo specified that these were swim bladders.

According to the former director of DIAN, Juan Ricardo Ortega, customs agencies are in charge of presenting exporters’ documents and carrying out the tariff classification. The problem is that “Colombia does not review the exporter’s tariff classifications. There is not a lot of oversight here,” Ortega said. He added that marking a shipment with a code that does not correspond to the correct product “clearly is a crime; it is falsification of public documents, and it is a serious crime.”

On the other hand, because the permit that AUNAP had granted to Fernapez had expired in 2020 — and even before it expired, the company only had permission to trade within the country — it is possible to infer that all of Fernapez’s exports of swim bladders were illegal.

Rodríguez Mondragón, in a deposition he presented to AUNAP for the administrative investigation the agency had opened against him and that this team reviewed, defended himself by arguing that selling maws “does not require permission from AUNAP.” The reason, Rodríguez Mondragón said, is that swim bladders are “leftovers whose other possible fate is incineration or being disposed of as waste.” He claimed the same when consulted for this investigation: “In Colombia, swim bladders are fishing waste,” Rodríguez Mondragón said.

However, Henry Gómez, the lawyer for the Technical Directorate of Inspection and Surveillance at AUNAP, argued that “one cannot have the idea that swim bladders are a leftover, a waste.” The main reason for this, he said, is that “they represent an economic profit, and that is one of the conditions that a fishery resource must have [in order] to be considered as such.” For this reason, to sell swim bladders, it is necessary to have a permit from AUNAP, Gómez said.

Another notable point is that in 2020 and 2021, almost all of the shipments of swim bladders sent by Fernapez were valued at $30,000, although there are considerable differences in the shipments’ weights. For example, in 2021, of the company’s 19 exports, 11 weighed 300 kg (661 lbs) and were valued at $30,000. However, there were also shipments weighing 117 kg (258 lbs), 125 kg (276 lbs) and even 49 kg (108 lbs) in December 2020, but the value was the same for each: $30,000. The shipment that was seized at the Bogotá airport also had the same value, but weighed 225 kg (496 lbs). Why were so many shipments with varying weights always valued at the same amount?

Image is a reproduction of a Fernapez packing slip for a shipment to Ho’s Import & Export Ltd. in Hong Kong of 300 kgs (661 lbs) of swim bladders sold for $30,000, with highlighting to show relevant details done by Mongabay Latam.

Alfonso Miranda, president of the Committee for the Sustainable Management of the Jumbo Flying Squid (CALAMASUR), a trade group with stakeholders in Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Mexico whose main market is in Asia, said he cannot make sense of that difference. Although he has years of experience in the private and public sectors as the former minister of production in Peru and vice minister of fishing, he said he has never seen a fishing or agricultural product with such a large price fluctuation in such a short amount of time. “To me, it sounds like cheating, although I do not know by whom,” said Miranda. As an example, he added: “Fishmeal could have cost $300 in the year 1998 and today cost $1,600, but that changed in 25 years, not in 25 days. There is no market that can fluctuate that way, with that extraordinary margin of difference.”

However, there is another detail. “That the numbers are fixed is very strange. The numbers are never so absolute,” said Ortega. “It is so easy to cheat in Colombia that people do not even bother to hide it.”

In response, Rodríguez Mondragón said that the difference is that the value of the swim bladders varies according to the species of fish. For example, “the corvina is more expensive than the hake and the tambaqui,” he said.

What did Rodríguez Mondragón really export in all those shipments? In the case of the swim bladders that were seized at the airport, according to Gómez, the lawyer from AUNAP, “in reality, what they were doing was concealing the export of what was intended to be shark fins.” How many times were shark fins sent in shipments that had been labeled as “bladders”?

According to Ortega, the former director of the DIAN, “there is not much interest” from Colombia in verifying that the exports truly correspond to the product that was declared. “Unfortunately, there is no collaboration, and with China there is nothing. Today, China is a big facilitator of laundering in the world, so the level of coordination is zero,” he said.

The shipment of swim bladders and shark fins that was seized at the airport in Bogotá. Image courtesy of the Secretary of Environment for Bogotá.

“When a criminal wants to export drugs or wants to export shark fins, he will not openly say that,” said Alberto Lozano, the former director of the Colombian government’s Financial Information and Analysis Unit (UIAF). “He is going to tell many lies, and some of the lies that he is going to tell are financial ones.”

Lozano said he believes that since “money laundering is hiding the origin of the payment,” then in Fernapez’s operations, “if the facts were confirmed, there would be asset laundering.”

In fact, according to the information accessed for this investigation, the Office of the Attorney General opened a legal process regarding asset laundering after the seizure at the airport in Bogotá. The legal process was still in the inquiry phase until at least September.

Fernando Jiménez, the specialized director of crimes against natural resources and the environment within the Office of the Attorney General, told our journalistic team that Rodríguez Mondragón is under house arrest at his home in Roldanillo. This measure was court-ordered after he was charged as a “perpetrator of the illicit use of renewable natural resources in combination with the crime of wildlife trafficking with an increased sentence for the trade of shark fins.” The case is currently under investigation.

Rodríguez Mondragón told our journalistic team that he plans to appeal the charges against him. “I am innocent. I am gathering overwhelming evidence that will prove that I had nothing to do with the shipment of this cargo to Hong Kong,” said Rodríguez Mondragón. He added that the person responsible for this is a Chinese citizen who had an employment contract with the company. “He abused trust and sent some shark fins to Bogotá to be exported to Hong Kong without my consent while I was taking care of myself with COVID-19 outside of Roldanillo,” Rodríguez Mondragón said.

Rodríguez Mondragón also shared two videos from his company’s security cameras in which his employees can be seen handling the shark fins. He claimed the videos are in the hands of the Office of the Attorney General. However, he did not provide proof to rule out his participation in the operation.

Our team of journalists attempted to contact this Chinese citizen accused by Rodríguez Mondragón using the email address that appears on his visa application, but by the time of this article’s publication in Spanish, there was no response.

Cardona Bonilla did not send responses to our questions either. Police sources said that he is a “fugitive of justice” and that he is currently being sought in order to “break up the entire organization.”

Banner image by James O’Brien for OCCRP.

This article was first published here in Spanish on Mongabay’s Latam website on Nov. 9, 2023.

Editor’s note: This article is part of “NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order,” a transnational journalistic investigation on global organized crime, its innovations, its myriad influences and those who fight it. The project, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) with support from the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), began with a leak of emails from the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia that was shared with Mongabay Latam and 40 other media outlets around the world. These journalists examined and corroborated the material along with hundreds of documents, databases and interviews.

Exit mobile version