Illegal trade: Raiders of the lost conch

Inside the global trade in an endangered species.

After months of watching and waiting, wildlife officers pounced in a morning raid. Accompanied by about 20 colleagues, special agent David Hubbard of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service descended on a building in Hialeah, just north of Miami, carrying a federal search warrant. The target: the headquarters and processing facility of two seafood companies, Placeres & Sons and Caribbean Conch Inc. The authorities corralled employees together in the lobby, identified them, and told them they were free to leave. With one of the owners, Ramón Placeres, looking on, Hubbard and his colleagues began emptying filing cabinets. Techies removed hard drives from computers and began making exact copies for later forensic examination. “I fully expected to see the Ollie North shredder running and a big pile of shredded documents,” Hubbard recalls. “But they didn’t get rid of anything. It was all right there. I don’t know why they didn’t shut everything down and try to cover their tracks.”

On the opposite side of the continent, Patrick Porter of Environment Canada’s Wildlife Enforcement division visited a tiny office on Vancouver’s Hastings Street. It belonged to a father-and-son seafood company, Pacific Marine Union. In Toronto, Porter’s Ontario colleagues raided yet another fishmonger, AIP Seafood Co.

This day, Feb. 6, 2007, was the climax of Operation Shell Game, an 18-month cross-border investigation into an organized network of companies and individuals that traded in endangered species. There was no ratcheting of pump-action shotguns, no tattooed villain taken down on the hood of a police cruiser. But make no mistake: the investigators had waded into a messy underworld, and they knew it. Just two months earlier, Hubbard had interviewed a jailed Colombian cocaine smuggler who’d been in on the action. Now, the special agent sought a paper trail to confirm the remarkable story he’d been told.

He would not be disappointed.

Seafood and cocaine may seem oceans apart, but they have more in common than you might think. Just like other illicit commodities, trade in endangered species occurs in the shadows all around us. In trucks, container ships and hidden compartments in suitcases, bear gall bladders, rhinoceros horns, parrots, orchids, caviar and mahogany wander far outside their natural habitats. They find myriad end uses, be it exotic travel keepsakes, ingredients in esoteric aphrodisiacs, live pets, foods or building materials. Interpol has claimed that among black markets the illicit wildlife trade is rivalled only by narcotics and arms. Its value has been estimated — in the absence of any reliable evidence — at between US$10 billion and US$15 billion a year.

The targets of Operation Shell Game pursued a modest niche in this gargantuan market: an endangered mollusc biologists call Strombus gigas — or, more commonly, queen conch. And if the smugglers had been just a little more careful, they could have been rich.

Just what is queen conch? James Martin, a Crown prosecutor in Halifax, hadn’t encountered it in any of his local restaurants. But at a sentencing hearing last November for Placeres and his conch-trafficking niece, Janitse Martinez, he needed to provide at least a vague description to Judge Marc Chisholm. He turned to literature and local equivalents. “If Your Honour is not familiar with it from reading Lord of the Flies — which was the only place I ever saw the word before, to be frank about it — I have seen the shells themselves in my travels south,” he explained. They were large, Martin explained, and the meat inside had a texture reminiscent of scallops.

The conch has long been a major source of protein in the Caribbean. It’s also a popular export — particularly to the United States (which accounts for four-fifths of international demand) and to distant runner-up France. Conch is served raw, marinated, chopped or minced. In the kitchen of a skilled chef, it might be fashioned into sautéed medallions in rum-butter sauce — or at a roadside dive, perhaps conch fritters. Its shell is sometimes sold as a tourist curio, or ground up as mortar for driveway asphalt.

Typically found in waters shallower than 30 metres, on a sandy sea floor or amid a bed of manatee grass, the queen conch’s beige shell features a flaring outer lip and a series of spectacular whorls like a spiraling mountain road. It hobbles about slowly using a single muscular foot, feasting on grass and algae using its highly extendable proboscis. A lucky conch can live 30 years.

Fishermen often cut that short. Traditionally, they hunted for conch in small boats on day trips, free-diving with long hooked poles called “conch staffs.” But in many areas, old-fashioned techniques have given way to modern diving technology, including scuba gear. This not only increases the number of conches harvested but also allows divers to reach them in deeper waters. In some countries, such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, the fishery has become more industrialized still, with motherships up to 35 metres in length collecting conch from fleets of smaller craft. The wholesale value of annual landings has been estimated at US$60 million.

Increased fishing intensity has taken its toll. A report by Traffic, an organization headquartered in Cambridge, England, that monitors wildlife trade, noted that while information on queen conch populations is sketchy, the best available data paint a grim picture. “After decades of intensive fishing,” it reported, “the stocks in the majority of the queen conch range states can now be characterized as over-exploited.”

Over-exploited fisheries are prone to sudden collapse, as demonstrated by the cod fishery on Canada’s east coast. Its abrupt deterioration during the late 1980s and early 1990s threw tens of thousands of workers into unemployment. Something similar has already happened to parts of the conch industry. For example, residents of Key West, Fla., so identified with the mollusc that they called their region the Conch Republic. Spurred by declining stocks, however, the state closed the commercial fishery in 1986 and subsequently banned all harvesting. For reasons that are not fully understood — but just like the cod — the recovery of Florida’s conch population has been slow and complicated. Bermuda, Mexico and Venezuela have had similar experiences.

Robert Glazer, an associate research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, has studied the creature since the mid-1980s; he’s concluded that self-sustaining populations require at least 200 conches per hectare. It’s thought that the males and females find each other by following pheromone trails, he says. “You need to have a minimum density to even have any type of reproduction occurring.” Back in the 1970s, hundreds and even thousands of queen conches were found in a single hectare. Not anymore. “It’s unlikely that they will achieve 200 individuals per hectare in most locations where conch are harvested,” Glazer says. “To ensure that densities are high enough in isolated pockets, it’s important to have conservation measures in place.”

Such measures arrived in the finest bureaucratic tradition. As concerns about harmful wildlife trade mounted worldwide during the 1960s, negotiations began that led to the drafting of an agreement called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The idea was that governments would identify species at risk by considering their respective populations, their habitat and distribution, the extent of trade and other factors. They could then establish sustainable harvests by instituting a system of quotas and permits. CITES entered into force in 1975; Canada is among its 172 signatories.

The treaty classifies species in one of three categories, depending on the severity of the perceived threat. Appendix 1 is reserved for those precariously close to total extinction — such as the black rhinoceros, which by several accounts has been the species most affected by commerce due to trade in its horn, highly prized in traditional Asian medicine. CITES typically bans all commerce in such species. Appendix 2 covers species that may become threatened by extinction if trade is not regulated. This classification generally allows trade, provided export permits are obtained from the country of origin. (Importing countries sometimes demand import permits as well.) When member states choose to unilaterally protect a species and want other CITES parties to assist in implementing restrictions, they can apply to have it listed on Appendix 3.

By the early 1990s, the frenzy to harvest conch provoked concerns about over-exploitation. Glazer says he and other researchers didn’t believe the species should be listed on CITES. “We didn’t feel there was any real danger of it becoming extinct,” he says, noting the distinction between survival and commercial viability. But in 1992, the CITES animal committee voted to list conch on Appendix 2 anyway. “It was getting toward the end of the day, and they just rubber-stamped it without realizing the consequences,” Glazer says. “Some of us like to say that for the wrong reasons, the right result came about.” The conch now had a guardian angel.

The change had broad implications. Of the 36 states whose waters have significant queen conch populations, only two — Haiti and Turks & Caicos — are not parties to the treaty. To most Caribbean nations, queen conch represents far and away the most commercially important species protected by CITES. Since 1992, most of those countries have attempted to protect it through some combination of size or gear restrictions and no-take zones. Conch has also been subject to several outright trade bans.

And that’s how the story of Operation Shell Game begins.

During the summer of 2003, CITES warned that Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Haiti were dangerously overfishing their conch stocks. It also decried illegal harvesting and fraudulent reporting. Under pressure from CITES, Honduras and the Dominican Republic agreed to stop issuing export permits for the mollusc; Haiti didn’t respond, so CITES members were asked to suspend any imports from that country until it fell into line. The resulting embargo effectively banned all queen conch exports from the three countries. They were also home to some of the world’s richest conch-fishing waters.

This sudden supply shock had a predictably perverse result. Jim Stylianopoulos, a seafood buyer at Montreal seafood trading firm En Gros Pierre, used to deal in conch. In Montreal, he says, it was a niche product sold exclusively to the Haitian community. Before the embargo, says Stylianopoulos, “it was very available. Everybody was selling it and it was very cheap…. It was about $1.75 a pound.” (That’s about 80¢ per kilogram.) During the embargo, he adds, the wholesale price reached nearly $3 per kilogram. Investigators say that at the height of the moratorium, conch retailed at between $7 and $9 per kilogram — rivalling lobster and other prized seafoods. At those prices, conch trafficking became more alluring.

On March 14, 2006, a truck crossing the Peace Bridge from Fort Erie, Ont., into Buffalo, N.Y., was stopped for a routine food-safety inspection. It contained more than 900 kilograms of frozen seafood consigned to a company near Miami. The labels on the cardboard boxes read: “Frozen Whelk Meat, Product of Canada.”

The shipment would have piqued the curiosity of a seafood expert immediately. Whelk is a carnivorous marine mollusc found in cold waters in the North Atlantic. Though sometimes eaten by people of Italian extraction — they call it scungilli — this tough meat is not especially popular, and fetches meagre market prices. As it turned out, the inspector — who worked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — wasn’t a seafood expert, so it didn’t occur to her to wonder why someone would ship this ill-favoured product all the way to Florida. But then again, she wasn’t illiterate, either. When she opened one of the cardboard boxes, inside she found smaller, blue boxes labeled “Fresh Frozen-Peeled Conch Meat.” The inconsistent labelling alone violated U.S. law. As there was no obvious food-safety issue, she handed the matter to a colleague at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

David Hubbard used to patrol national parks like Yellowstone and the Everglades, chasing poachers and directing traffic. His job brought him in contact with wildlife investigators; about five years ago he decided to become one, and he hasn’t looked back. The file landed on his desk in Miami.

He knew a major investigation when he saw it. Because it involved seafood, he phoned a colleague at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which handles national fisheries law enforcement. And since the shipment came from Canada, he also knew he’d need to reach across the border for help. His colleague in Buffalo put him in touch with Environment Canada’s Wildlife Enforcement division. The hunt was on.

Resolving the meat’s identity was simple enough. Samples were sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s forensic laboratory in Ashland, Ore. (The facility calls itself “the only crime lab in the world dedicated entirely to wildlife.”) DNA testing established that it was Strombus gigas.

Queen conch is not found anywhere near Canada’s frigid waters. The label was clearly false. Where did it come from? Hubbard had a hunch it was Haitian. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has been plagued by political instability for years and has virtually no export controls. “When conch comes up, that’s one of the places we look to first,” Hubbard says. His Canadian counterparts sifted through customs declarations and confirmed his suspicions.

Hubbard also began looking into the background of Caribbean Conch Inc., the company to which the shipment was consigned. He sifted through customs records to find out what they were shipping, and to whom. And he phoned industry insiders to learn more about the company. On its face, Caribbean Conch was insignificant; profiles claim it employs just five people and brings in about US$1 million in annual revenue. But its owner, 34-year-old Janitse Martinez, is the niece of Ramón Placeres, owner of Placeres & Sons Seafood Inc. Hubbard had heard of that company — it’s one of Miami’s largest seafood dealers. The two companies are distinct and licensed individually, but operate out of the same plant in Hialeah.

Meanwhile, Canadian investigators worked their side of the case. Documentation accompanying the shipment established that the importer was a Vancouver-based company called Pacific Marine Union Corp. Conch seemed a bit outside its traditional territory. The company’s website indicated that it focused on products from the Pacific Ocean; according to one advertisement in a trade publication, it traded sole, grey cod, pollock, skate wings and red rockfish. Incorporated in 2003, it was unprofitable, debt-ridden and had just two employees: Korean-born, Russian-educated Zamorro Gabriel Shone, in his late 20s, and his father, Michael. A profile recently published by Industry Canada, however, claims the company has offices in Russia, the U.S. and Mexico, and has a head count of 30. Another apparent incongruity: Pacific Marine Union portrayed itself as a veritable guardian of vulnerable aquatic species. “Just as we’re learning to really love the stuff, the supply may be running short,” its website declared. “Therefore our company will set forth efforts to conserve ocean resources.” Those efforts, needless to say, proved highly unorthodox.

The Buffalo incident prompted Canadian authorities to watch seafood imports more closely. “Basically, we were looking at anything that could be frozen seafood from the Caribbean,” says Sheldon Jordan, an Environment Canada wildlife enforcement officer based in Quebec City. Later in the year, officials learned of a large seafood shipment that had arrived in Montreal from Barranquilla, Colombia, in September 2006. Vaguely described as “frozen conch meat clean,” it lacked CITES permits. It probably was worth about US$200,000 wholesale. By the time the Wildlife Enforcement Division intercepted it at a Montreal importer’s warehouse in November, it had already been in Canada for two months. (Citing the ongoing investigation, Jordan declines to identify the location.) Some had been sold locally; of the original 18,000 kilograms, only 10,000 remained. And there was something else. The boxes bore the label of yet another mysterious company: Vonamar.

Once again, investigators needed to establish what species was actually inside the white boxes. Environment Canada sent three meat samples in tamper-proof packages to the Trent University Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensics Centre in Peterborough, Ont. A lab technician extracted some mitochondrial DNA from the meat samples, sequenced it, and compared it to known sequences from species that could have supplied the meat. The idea was not so much to prove it was queen conch, says lab manager and professor Brad White, but rather that it could not be anything else. Sure enough, the test excluded the less commercially desirable and unprotected species of mollusc, but not Strombus gigas. Bingo.

Soon after the Montreal seizure, Environment Canada received word from a third party (whom investigators won’t identify) that another shipment was en route to Canada. Placeres & Sons had in fact sent another container of conch — worth an estimated US$200,000 — aboard a 300-metre ship, the Israeli-flagged Zim Barcelona, to Halifax. By the time word reached the Miami company that its earlier shipment had been seized, the second had already been offloaded and shipped by rail to Montreal.

Martinez phoned Federal Express and arranged to have the second container shipped to Honduras, presumably to elude capture. It returned by rail to Halifax in December 2006, from where it was to be placed aboard another container ship, the Zim Savannah, registered in Liberia. Before that could happen, Environment Canada detained it.

Leslie Sampson, a wildlife officer based in Halifax, inspected the container. It was filled with 50-pound cartons, each of which contained 10 five-pound boxes wrapped in plastic. He noticed they also bore the “Vonamar” name. Sampson randomly gathered 19 meat samples and sent them to Trent University’s lab for testing. Again, they proved consistent with queen conch.

As 2006 drew to a close, Operation Shell Game had nabbed enough conch to make a swimming pool of chowder. “As far as confiscations go, it is by far the largest we’ve ever had in Canada,” says Jordan. “We have nothing to compare it with. It’s right off the charts.” Moreover, rifling through customs records, investigators flagged at least a dozen suspect shipments in total, dating back to early 2005.

The seizures were so large, in fact, that they attracted international attention. The head of Interpol’s working group on wildlife crime, William Clark, gave a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington in March. He named conch among a list of recent seizures that ranked “the largest in history” — coral, ivory, shahtoosh (neck hair from Himalayan ibex) and abalone being among the others. Behind the apparent surge in traffic, he said, is the increasing involvement of organized crime. Hiding amid the growing volume of international trade, the underworld is bent on reaching customers in wealthy countries ready to fork over good dollars, euros and yen for exotic products from the Third World. “This is mostly a vanity market where nearly all products are devoid of any substantial benefit for human health, welfare or security,” Clark said. “There are clear indications that illegal trade in wildlife is on the increase, and outpacing efforts to suppress it.”

Operation Shell Game proved his point. Despite its early success, the investigation quickly became a huge distraction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just 220 investigators for the entire country; Environment Canada’s Wildlife Enforcement division has 65. “This is the biggest thing we’ve done,” Jordan says. “At any given time, we probably had up to a quarter of our staff nationwide working on this.”

Could Operation Shell Game keep up with its growing, multinational list of suspects?

The biggest break came from Juan Carlos Martinez-Velez.

Martinez-Velez was born on the island of San Andrés, a densely populated speck in the Gulf of Mexico, east of Nicaragua. It’s part of an archipelago of small islands and keys belonging to Colombia — an area with a rich history of piracy. It’s also home to Colombia’s most important conch-fishing waters. Martinez-Velez — or “Juanki,” as he was sometimes called — melded these two local traditions into a career of swashbuckling maritime banditry.

Martinez-Velez owned a seafood processing and marketing company called Vonamar LTDA, which had a facility in Barranquilla (750 kilometres to the southeast) and a fleet of boats. In early 2002, Vonamar managed to secure an annual quota of 32 tonnes of queen conch to be taken by small-scale fishermen in the San Andrés archipelago. That meant the company could obtain the necessary CITES export permits from the Colombian government and ship its product to lucrative foreign markets. Even better, Colombia wasn’t included in the subsequent embargo.

There was just one problem. Harvesting restrictions prohibited San Andrés’ artisanal fishermen from using scuba gear. And as elsewhere, the area’s conch populations were in terminal decline. Action peaked in 1988, when local fishermen landed 800,000 kilograms of meat. Populations and harvests have both fallen dramatically since, and illegal harvesting is rife. Could Juanki really get enough supply from San Andrés’ fishermen?

In May 2004, Vonamar shipped 500 kilograms of conch directly from Barranquilla to Placeres & Sons in Florida. Trouble was, for some reason Vonamar hadn’t secured an export permit as required by CITES. (The company later described the shipment as “trimmings” of conch — i.e. waste left over after the mollusc is filleted.) Vonamar sought a permit retroactively, but the Colombian Ministry of Environment, Housing and Territorial Development balked and began an investigation. After that, Vonamar couldn’t get export permits because Colombian authorities weren’t at all certain where the stuff came from.

Ironically, Martinez-Velez’s shady dealings probably spared him many years in prison, because he traded in another commodity as well, one authorities were far more concerned about: cocaine.

The story goes like this: according to Martinez-Velez’s own lawyer, Joaquin Perez, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization largely financed by the narcotics trade, forced his client to smuggle drugs. It seems the AUC often turned to the seafaring peoples of San Andrés to do their dirty work, and Juanki came from a long line of fishermen. According to Perez, the AUC presented Martinez-Velez a grim choice: either deliver drugs for them, or die along with his father, wife and children. (Martinez-Velez’s brother, Perez claimed, had already been kidnapped and killed.) The AUC is not to be trifled with: Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, accuses the group of massacres and murders, and claims that it is tolerated, even supported, by elements within the Colombian military.

Martinez-Velez became what’s known as a “go-fast” operator, running powerful speedboats loaded with cocaine from Colombian ports to destinations throughout the Caribbean. Hundreds of such shipments leave from Colombia’s north coast each year. Martinez-Velez didn’t own the cocaine he smuggled; his job was purely logistical. Early in his career, he brought empty vessels back to port, and later he captained them. He paid crews and arranged for refuelling, sometimes bartering petrol for cocaine. “Go-fast” operations typically last just a day or two — in between runs, he kept his boats at a gated area near Barranquilla. According to Hubbard, this venture eventually supplied Martinez-Velez the US$1 million or so he needed to start up Vonamar.

As the name suggests, the “go-fast” business offered plenty of excitement. A typical coke boat might be 10 or more metres long, with two or more 200-plus horsepower outboard motors on the stern. Some can reportedly reach speeds of up to 70 knots (about 130 km/h) — more than enough to outrun ordinary naval and coast-guard vessels. Their fibreglass hulls are sometimes painted a dull blue, rendering them difficult to spot in daylight.

Martinez-Velez’s brisk trade in cocaine eventually attracted the attention of Operation Panama Express, a long-running initiative by multiple agencies of the U.S. government — including the Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida — to disrupt the drug smuggling trade. It began investigating Martinez-Velez in 2003. Soon, captured drug smugglers co-opted by Operation Panama Express were saying plenty about Juanki’s business. Investigators began intercepting his phone calls. The net tightened.

James Krause, a senior special agent with ICE, penned an affidavit seeking the smuggler’s extradition from Colombia. The document reveals the dramatic risks of Juanki’s “go-fast” business. For example, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted a vessel carrying more than 1,400 kilos of cocaine in 2002 and arrested four Colombians; Krause claimed the shipment was associated with Martinez-Velez. Five years earlier, in 1997, the Colombian National Police boarded a vessel called Karen on one of the keys near San Andrés. Martinez-Velez himself, along with seven other men, was detained.

Even when the authorities could be evaded, the trade was hardly safe. According to Krause’s affidavit, Martinez-Velez met with a Colombian cocaine supplier in November 2000 and agreed to receive 20,000 kilos of cocaine to transport. The following month, Juanki arranged for three go-fast vessels to run shipments of 1,200 kilos each from Rio Guachaca, Colombia, to Belize. One sank, killing its crew. Four months later, he arranged for two more shipments from Rio Guachaca to Mexico, but lost one of them with all hands.

Krause got his arrest warrant, and Juanki made a run for it. Authorities caught up with him in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and arrested him on allegations of drug smuggling. The Venezuelans shipped him to Colombia in May 2005. The following February, the Colombian government granted his extradition to the U.S. to stand trial on three separate conspiracy charges stemming from his alleged efforts to import and traffic cocaine. In late 2006, he pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy charge in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

Facing hard time, Martinez-Velez played the only card he had. While awaiting sentencing, he spilled his guts to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about his life as a conch smuggler. He sat down with special agent David Hubbard in December 2006 for two and a half hours. “I don’t know what the typical Colombian drug runner is like, because I haven’t met that many of them,” says Hubbard. “But he didn’t come across as what you would picture. He was kind of soft-spoken.”

Juanki’s revelations were critical. “Up until that point, we didn’t know when, where or who came up with the ideas and set the wheels in motion,” Hubbard says. “He was able to tie all that together and give us specifics on who did it, where they did it, everything.”

Throughout his interrogation, Martinez-Velez insisted that he kept his narcotics and seafood businesses separate. But as the grilling wore on, Hubbard recalls, Martinez-Velez admitted that on one occasion he paid for a shipment of conch and spiny lobster in Jamaica using a quantity of cocaine. “He was telling us this to explain that we didn’t understand the way it was down there,” Hubbard says. “Cocaine is used as currency down there, he was saying, and it’s common in the seafood business to pay for seafood with cocaine.”

Having intercepted combined shipments of drugs and endangered species in the past, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long suspected that Colombian drug cartels are involved in illegal wildlife trade. The drug connection didn’t surprise Canadian wildlife officer Sheldon Jordan, either. “I was a customs intelligence officer and analyst for 10 years,” he says. “I used to [investigate] narcotics when I was with customs, and what I see here is the exact same methods, the exact same routings. Often it’s the same people.”

Armed with information from Martinez-Velez, Operation Shell Game was ready to move. Investigators obtained and executed search warrants in Florida, Toronto and Vancouver in early 2007. They weren’t looking for conch — they were looking for a paper trail.

One month later, five investigators from Environment Canada met with their American counterparts in Miami. They interviewed Janitse Martinez, the owner of Caribbean Conch. According to investigators, she was not particularly co-operative. They turned instead to their trove of seized paper and electronic documents, hunting for information on the dozen-odd suspect transactions they’d identified.

Evidence hid in plain sight amid paperwork from Placeres & Sons’ legitimate business. Its accounting software, for example, provided details on individual transactions. Using data analysis and charting programs, investigators began to understand how the various parties operated. Special agent David Hubbard says Martinez-Velez’s story checked out. And in subsequent interviews, Martinez began singing about her own role in the conspiracy, and those of her associates.

Leslie Sampson, the Halifax-based wildlife officer pursuing charges against the Floridian smugglers in Nova Scotia, also found what he needed. “All of a sudden, here’s a copy of the shipping documents you’re looking for,” he recalls. “And here’s a copy of instructions to have this shipped.” The documents, Sampson alleges, showed that participants understood their obligations under CITES, and made a concerted effort to avoid fulfilling them.

The 27,000 kilograms of intercepted conch meat proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. Records showed the Miami companies began smuggling the product just months after the CITES embargo had been enacted. All told, between September 2003 and the end of 2006, investigators claimed the ring had illegally shipped 120,000 kilograms of queen conch from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Colombia. Environment Canada estimates that could amount to as many as one million individual animals. “That would be like filling seven semi trailers,” Jordan says. Or put it this way: It’s larger than Colombia’s entire annual quota. This was the Cali Cartel of Conch.

Operation Shell Game commenced its legal assault last September. Environment Canada laid charges against Placeres and Martinez in Nova Scotia provincial court under the auspices of the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (shortened to the ungainly acronym, WAPPRIITA), the legislation through which Canada enforces CITES. Both were also indicted in Florida on conspiracy charges. A dozen WAPPRIITA charges were also laid against Zamorro Shone and his company, Pacific Marine Union, in B.C. provincial court. No charges were laid against AIP Seafood, the Toronto dealer.

Through seized documents, customs and banking records, interviews with participants and other sources, Operation Shell Game assembled a picture of the ring’s inner workings. It’s been fleshed out in court documents, press releases, and interviews with Canadian Business. The case has not yet been tested in court, but nor has it been publicly challenged by any of the alleged participants.

According to this version of events, Martinez-Velez’s Vonamar and Ramón Placeres, the Florida seafood dealer, legitimately traded conch and other products prior to the embargo. But things became more complicated after the embargo began in September 2003. In his interview with Hubbard, Martinez-Velez related how Placeres bought more than 50,000 kilograms of conch from an unnamed supplier from Honduras — and wanted to get the stuff into Florida. So Placeres, the Honduran and Martinez-Velez met in Barranquilla in January 2004 and struck an arrangement: the Honduran’s people would rendezvous offshore with Vonamar’s boats and transfer the product. Vonamar would return to Colombia, process and package the stuff. By claiming it as local product, the company could then use its quota to secure CITES permits and ship the stuff to Placeres & Sons in Florida. They were, in effect, laundering the mollusc.

For some months, Vonamar successfully shipped conch directly into Florida. But things fell apart when Martinez-Velez went on the lam on drug charges. Soon after, Colombian officials uncovered Vonamar’s illegal shipment of conch “trimmings” into Florida in May 2004. “When Martinez-Velez went on the run, it’s my guess that the people running Vonamar at the time no longer had the government contacts to bribe in Colombia — or they weren’t willing to engage in the illegal activity,” Hubbard speculates.

As Juanki’s legal problems multiplied, the Floridians looked elsewhere. Martinez, Placeres’ niece, secured conch from a company called Seven Seas in the Dominican Republic. Seven Seas sent two shipments to Toronto, the larger being a shipping container filled with 18,000 kilograms of conch. These shipments, too, were accompanied by CITES permits. Hubbard alleges that these documents weren’t valid, but notes that the Dominican Republic disagrees. Portions of these shipments were later sent to Caribbean Conch in Florida.

Meanwhile, during the summer of 2004, Martinez e-mailed Pacific Marine Union in Vancouver, and the two companies began scheming. They conspired to have conch shipped from the Caribbean to Toronto, repackaged and relabelled at a cold storage facility, and sent south into the U.S.

Why the circuitous route? With the embargo in place, investigators say, inspectors along the southern U.S. borders were on the lookout for contraband conch. But their counterparts in the northern U.S. and Canada were likely unfamiliar with the species. The conspirators hoped to avoid scrutiny. In one e-mail later read aloud in Vancouver court, Shone explained to Martinez: “If your conch meat goes from Mexico or Nicaragua to U.S. directly, you will take much more risk than Canadian route with border and FDA issues…moving the products from Canada to the U.S. is almost like domestic delivery. Therefore, you can reduce the risk a lot.” Shone also suggested mislabelling the conch to avoid attracting attention.

Martinez found yet a new supplier. Anthony Simon, a 58-year-old Haitian national and Montreal resident, was CEO of La Compagnie de Pêche Antillaise SA, of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Simon was attempting to start a seafood business in Miami, and in searching for partners he came across an Internet ad from Caribbean Conch. In May 2005, Simon and Martinez signed a contract through which Compagnie de Pêche Antillaise would export Haitian conch into Canada. Simon understood that the arrangement flouted CITES, but decided to do it anyway for personal gain.

According to his lawyer, Richard Dansoh, it was the first time Simon had dealt in conch in his 30 years of seafood trading. Martinez sent him US$19,000 to buy product. Simon acquired it from Haitian fishermen, who were ecstatic to have his business; they were drowning in conch because the embargo had dried up their market.

Shone was assigned the task of finding a company that could pick up Simon’s conch at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, repackage and relabel it, obtain the necessary customs documentation, and export it to Florida. He selected AIP Seafood. By the end of the year, AIP had received four shipments from Simon and sent the mislabelled product on to Florida. As per Martinez’s instructions, the first was described as clams; the rest were passed off as whelk.

A fifth shipment of “whelk” arrived in Toronto in mid-January 2006. But by then, Simon had tired of the arrangement. According to Dansoh, his client had earned less than $4,000 in profit. And Martinez fussed over the product’s quality. “Martinez was difficult to deal with,” Dansoh explains. “It just wasn’t worth it.” So Simon sent her a cheque refunding the remaining balance of the initial US$19,000 she’d provided, and ended the relationship. “From the beginning, this was not a transaction that he was proud of,” Dansoh adds.

Things got worse two months later. An attentive FDA inspector intercepted a shipment of conch on its way from Canada across the border into Buffalo. The Floridians must have realized they’d been discovered. It may not be a coincidence that just six weeks after the Buffalo seizure, FDA inspectors visited Caribbean Conch’s Hialeah facility for a health-and-safety inspection. (They issued a stern warning for infractions.)

But even that didn’t stop the smuggling. According to investigators, the Florida companies found customers in Quebec. Sampson alleges that two separate parties in Montreal agreed to purchase smuggled conch from Placeres & Sons in limited quantities and sell it locally. “The owners in Florida were bringing it in through something like a consignment-type deal,” Sampson says. “My understanding was that it was going to the Asian communities and the Spanish-speaking communities [in Montreal]. It was going to shops and restaurants.” The smuggling finally ceased after Environment Canada seized the two shipments in Montreal and Halifax in late 2006.

If there’s more to the story, nobody’s talking. Through their lawyer, Placeres and Martinez declined to be interviewed by Canadian Business. Shone did not respond to interview requests.

The fates of the accused loudly demonstrate at least this much: the risk-conscious smuggler is far better off dealing conch than coke.

Martinez and Placeres initially pleaded not guilty last year, but each later pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Miami. Because both co-operated with investigators, prosecutors asked for reduced punishments. In late January, they were sentenced to two months in prison and one year supervised release. Placeres was fined US$10,000.

In November, Placeres and Martinez also pleaded guilty in Nova Scotia to charges of illegally importing queen conch into Canada and exporting it into the U.S., in violation of WAPPRIITA. Each was fined US$20,000.

On the other side of the country, in early January, Pacific Marine Union pleaded guilty to two WAPPRIITA violations (of illegally importing conch into Canada and exporting it to the U.S.) and was fined just over $78,000. Charges against Shone, the CEO, were dropped. But by then, word of the company’s criminal conduct had sullied its reputation. Soon after the charges were announced, HSBC, Pacific Marine Union’s banker, forcibly closed its accounts. At sentencing, Glenn Hubbard, Shone’s lawyer, estimated that the 27-year-old and his father had combined credit card and bank debts of more than $132,000, and that both have difficulty making even minimum payments. Hubbard claimed his client had been “wilfully blind” but not greedy when he smuggled conch. “They were trying to mitigate a failing business,” he claimed. Justice Smyth, who noted Shone’s deliberate efforts to conceal his crimes, was unconvinced.

Just days after his sentencing in Vancouver, Shone was back in business. He flew to Los Angeles to trade some more seafood. But Special Agent David Hubbard was waiting for him. By coincidence, Shone was secretly indicted that very day by a grand jury in Miami on two charges relating to his alleged role in mislabelling conch destined for the U.S. market. “Obviously he wasn’t in the system to be picked off,” says Hubbard. “We tracked him around L.A. for a little bit. It turns out that he went to Ensenada, Mexico. He stayed down there a few weeks doing some business.”

According to authorities, Shone crossed back into the U.S. via a border crossing in Mexicali — considerably east of both Los Angeles and Ensenada — just after midnight on Feb. 21. He was in a truck driven by an unidentified Mexican national, carrying two aerated coolers filled with live ling cod — a fish found along North America’s West Coast — destined for the Korean community in Los Angeles. “It’s an unprotected species,” Hubbard notes. “Although obviously, it has to be declared to the Fish and Wildlife Service because they’re bringing them in live, and to the FDA because they’re going to be sold for food, to make sure there’s no bad stuff in them. None of that was done.”

Shone was arrested, and the Mexican was fined $1,400. Hubbard claims the driver explained to customs officials why he and Shone avoided the seemingly more convenient crossing south of San Diego: there’s no wildlife officers posted at Mexicali. Says Hubbard: “He said they were coming through that border crossing because they’re normally waved on through. Nobody knows what they’re looking at.”

A magistrate judge in California denied Shone bail. U.S. Marshals flew him to Miami to answer the new charges, which have not been proven in court. If convicted, he faces a maximum of five years in prison.

Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of the legal difficulties of his former partners, Anthony Simon landed at Miami International Airport aboard a flight from Port-au-Prince in mid-January. He was promptly arrested. It so happened that a grand jury indicted him on Jan. 10 — the same day as Shone — in connection with the smuggling. Accused of conspiracy to illegally import queen conch into the U.S., he initially pleaded not guilty, but later changed his plea. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on May 29. In March, Simon also pleaded guilty to a WAPPRIITA charge in Toronto and was fined $25,000. Dansoh, his U.S. lawyer, told the Toronto judge his client is funding a study aimed at helping Haiti become a CITES signatory, but had “jumped the gun” by trading in the species without permits.Even after he’d cashed in on the dividends of betraying his fellow conch smugglers, Martinez-Velez, the Colombian “go-fast” operator, fell hardest. In recognition of his assistance, the U.S. Justice Department asked the court to significantly reduce his sentence. Last October, a Florida judge dealt him 87 months in a federal penitentiary — far less than he might otherwise have received according to America’s harsh sentencing guidelines for narcotics offences.

What happened to his company remains something of a mystery. In an interview, Martinez-Velez told Hubbard the Colombian government had swooped in after his arrest and seized Vonamar’s assets, along with more than 36,000 kilograms of Placeres’ conch. Last summer, one of Hubbard’s colleagues visited Vonamar’s former facility in Barranquilla while in the country on another assignment. “It was abandoned,” says Hubbard. “All the windows were broken out, all the doors were gone.” And yet, during the investigation Hubbard saw e-mails from individuals holding themselves out as Vonamar representatives, dated after Martinez-Velez’s arrest. Conch appeared in Canada in Vonamar packaging — shipments Martinez-Velez knew nothing about. And somehow, Hubbard believes, that 36,000 kilograms of conch escaped the clutches of Colombian authorities. He says Colombian officials are now taking action against Vonamar’s former general manager.

But with ringleaders Martinez and Placeres successfully convicted and fined in Nova Scotia, wildlife officer Leslie Sampson’s job wrapped up late last year. All that remained was for him to deal with the 20,000 kilograms of seized conch on his hands — enough to host one heck of a cook-off.

Environment Canada sent a small quantity of the shellfish to zoos and wildlife refuges in Atlantic Canada as animal feed. One of the recipients, Baikal the Siberian tiger, poked and sniffed at some thawed queen conch fillets in December. His own species has been hunted nearly to extinction owing to demand for its fur and ingredients for traditional Chinese medicine, but it’s unlikely his CITES status influenced his culinary verdict; Baikal simply decided the Caribbean delicacy wasn’t worth eating. Spot and Tina, two African lions, were similarly picky.

The felines reside at the Cherry Brook Zoo & Vanished Kingdom Park in Saint John, N.B. According to director of zoo development Lynda Collrin, Alexis, a snow leopard, enjoyed playing with the contraband seafood. Only the foxes — Maggie, Silver, and Sylvester — approved of the taste. They could eat only so much of the stuff, however, and space in the zoo’s freezer was limited. Most of the seized conch went straight to the compost heap.