The Totoaba Illegal Supply Chain – From Mexico’s Totoaba Cartels to China’s Totoaba Maw Wholesalers
An Illegal Trade Killing the Vaquita

In response to the dire circumstances facing the vaquita as by-catch of the illegal totoaba trade, in 2018 Earth League International (ELI) commenced an intelligence gathering operation called Operation FAKE GOLD. Since then, ELI has been discreetly investigating totoaba trafficking and the Vaquita situation, mapping and researching the entire illicit totoaba maw (swim bladder) supply chain, from the Baja California peninsula in Mexico to Southern China’s Guangdong Province, and identifying all the most important players.

ELI investigative and research operations identified 14 different totoaba/wildlife international trafficking networks operating between Mexico, the U.S. and China, and over 40 Persons of Interest (high-level international wildlife traffickers and middleman), with links to Mexican organized crime and a significant convergence with other serious crimes, such as money laundering, human smuggling, drugs and corruption.

FAKE GOLD is an ongoing operation, currently providing U.S. and Mexican authorities with Confidential Intelligence Briefs (CIBs) and intelligence updates in order to support the investigative work of law enforcement agencies and facilitate the arrest of the key players. Given the nature of this delicate and dangerous project, part of our activities are confidential and shared only with our law enforcement partners.

UPDATE 22 MAY 2023:
With the technical support of Earth League International (ELI), after a long investigation, U.S. Law Enforcement agencies decapitated totoaba trafficking from Mexico. Near San Diego, U.S. law enforcement agencies arrested two of the most important totoaba and marine animal traffickers, who have been operating between Mexico, the U.S., and China for many years, making millions of dollars, undisturbed.
These arrests were facilitated by the discreet investigative work of ELI’s team over the past few years as part of ‘Operation Fake Gold.’


Operation Fake Gold report
Operation Fake Gold – Saving the vaquita

The vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, is nearly extinct due to China’s demand for the swim bladders, or ‘maws,’ from a giant Mexican fish called the totoaba. By-catch from the Illegal fishing of totoabas with the use of gillnets is killing vaquitas. In fact, the use of gillnets for illegal totoaba fishing is endangering the entire marine ecosystem of the Upper Gulf of California. The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated that, as of November 2016, no more than 30 vaquitas remained. Analysis of 2017 acoustic monitoring data showed that the decline of the vaquita has continued unabated.

The retail price of totoaba maw on the black Chinese market has been recently quoted up to USD 46 per gram in China. The price of gold is currently hovering around USD 40 per gram. This is why totoaba maw can be considered ‘fake gold’ and why the totoaba fish became swimming gold for Mexico’s fishermen. A fisherman in San Felipe, Mexico, can earn more in one night catching a few totoabas than they may otherwise earn in a year.
Through Operation Fake Gold, Earth League International has identified what can only be described as “Totoaba Cartels” in Mexico. The totoaba cartels specialize in the poaching and trafficking of totoaba swim bladders – the bottom half of the supply chain. The chain starts in the villages of San Felipe and Santa Clara along the Gulf of California coast, but moves quickly to central smuggling operations in cities like Tijuana and Mexicali.

Our investigation has found that the cartels fund the Mexican fishers and fishing cooperatives, and then sell the swim bladders to a group of well-connected Chinese traders and businessmen residing in Mexico. It is those Chinese traders that facilitate the smuggling of totoaba maws to China – the top of the supply chain.

Vaquita - Terra Mater Factual Studios
A Vaquita (Credits: Terra Mater Factual Studios/Malaika Pictures)


Primary findings (redacted) from Operation Fake Gold include the following:

  • Totoaba maw is now more precious than gold.
  • San Felipe, Mexicali, and Tijuana, Mexico, are the primary hotspots of the bottom half of the illicit totoaba maw supply chain.
  • Totoaba trafficking is facilitated by both Mexican and Chinese networks based in Baja California – what we coined ‘Totoaba Cartels.’ They are involved in other criminal activities and illegal trafficking. We identified at least 14 main Totoaba Cartels and over 40 international traffickers.
  • Totoaba trafficking has become as lucrative, easier, and less risky than drug trafficking – this is why the totoaba cartels formed.
  • Among other networks, a so-called Elder Chinese “gang” out of Tijuana developed and ran the totoaba maw trade for a number of years, along with other illegal businesses, allegedly including money laundering and human smuggling.
  • Smugglers transport totoaba maws to China primarily via air routes, always avoiding direct flights, and generally in checked luggage.
  • The maws are smuggled through transit countries such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, many times along routes used for drug trafficking according to Earth League International’s sources. The Unites States is both transit and destination country.
  • Demand for totoaba maws in China are relatively stable even though the product is illegal, with buyers generally well-off, middle age or older, and from Shantou and the greater Guangdong Province.
  • Totoaba maw pricing varies significantly based on weight, appearance, and whether it is domestic or foreign (from Mexico), whether it is male or female, as well as between retail shops.
  • Three significant totoaba maw wholesalers were identified in China. Each supplies a significant quantity of maws to the retail market in Southern China.


  • Dead totoaba on the beach in San Felipe, Mexico. Photo credit: Earth League International

The real ‘fake gold’ is the totoaba female maw only (bigger). Raw female swim bladder, from 500 grams to 2 kilograms, is larger and thicker than the male’s and is valued at each level of the supply chain as follows:
– From fisherman to first buyer: USD 3,500 to 5,000/kg
– From San Felipe buyer/transporter to Mexicali buyer: USD 5,000 to 8,000/kg
– From Mexicali buyer to China buyer: unknown
– Retail price in China: USD 20,000 to 80,000/kg

Earth League International believes that dismantling all the various networks associated with the totoaba black market is the best chance to end totoaba trafficking. This effort should begin with the middlemen – those Chinese nationals in Mexico who supply the market in China. Ultimately, though, the root of the problem, the demand, must also be destroyed.

ELI’s director Andrea Crosta inspecting totoaba maw seized in Hong Kong (Credits: Gary Stokes)

We identified the complex factors surrounding the extinction of the vaquita and the destruction of an incredibly important ecosystem. It is not only about the fate of the vaquita, but of the entire eco-system of the upper Gulf of California. Efforts now must shift toward the protection of the Gulf of California in general. The Gulf contains incredible marine life that will also be destroyed by the continued use of gillnets and the continued exploitation of its wildlife.
Our Team has worked tirelessly in the field to gather the intelligence needed by authorities to disrupt the totoaba illegal supply chain, and ultimately, curb illegal fishing in the Gulf of California. Much of the detailed data gathered during Operation Fake Gold only appears in a Confidential Intelligence Brief (CIB) that has been prepared and submitted to law enforcement authorities in Mexico, China, and the United States. The CIB contains all the non-redacted data gathered regarding the key players, their networks and enablers, and the complete modus operandi of these traffickers and traders, including concrete evidence of illegal activity uncovered during the investigation, as well as hundreds of photos and hours of relevant undercover footage.

The documentary ‘Sea of Shadows’

Finally, the initial phase of Operation FAKE GOLD has been filmed as part of the most important documentary on the vaquita to date,  ‘Sea of Shadows’, acquired and distributed by National Geographic/Disney.

Produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios in collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, it was directed by Richard Ladkani/Malaika Pictures. Sea of Shadows, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2019, winning the Audience Award.

Download the only public report here (2019): EAL – Operation Fake Gold – Final