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Businesswoman who complained about cartel extortion and illegal fishing is shot dead in Mexico

How Americans are arming Mexican cartels
New documentary examines how Americans are arming Mexican cartels 06:49

A Mexican fisheries industry leader who complained of drug cartel extortion and illegal fishing was shot to death in the northern border state of Baja California, authorities said Tuesday.

Unidentified gunmen killed Minerva Pérez, the head of the state's fishing industry chamber, in what state prosecutor Maria Elena Andrade described as a direct assassination attack that riddled the victim with several gunshot wounds.

The killing Monday in the port city of Ensenada came just hours after Pérez complained of widespread competition from illegal fishing.

But in the previous months Pérez had also complained that drug cartels are extorting protection payments from fishing boats, distributors, truck drivers and even restaurants.

Andrade said, "We are investigating all of the issues related to whether this was linked to conflicts involving fishing."

Pérez had complained at a news conference that "illegally fished seafood goes to the same markets as legal seafood, but without the production costs," or the environmental standards that limit net sizes to protect endangered or protected species, like sea turtles.

minerva-atenea.jpg
Minerva Perez Latin American Summit for Fisheries and Aquaculture Sustainability

For example, Pérez talked about "fishing nets whose mesh isn't the right size." Nets with mesh that is too small or tight may sweep up juveniles or species that aren't the target.

Andrade said those complaints are part of the investigation into Pérez's killing, but at present her earlier charges of cartel extortion are not.

"We are very strong on the issues surrounding fishing activities," Andrade said. "We do not have any formal complaint about extortion payments."

Julio Berdegué Sacristán, Mexico's newly elected secretary of agriculture and rural development, condemned the killing in a post on social media, echoing Pérez's complaints about corruption.

"We must eradicate illegal fishing in Mexico," he wrote.

Baja California Governor Marina del Pilar also condemned the assassination in a social media post.

"I am committed to working tirelessly so that what happened does not go unpunished," the governor wrote.

According to the Latin American Summit for Fisheries and Aquaculture Sustainability, Pérez worked in several companies in the fishing industry, earning her master's degree in administration in 2002. In 2003, she obtained the first commercial permit for clams in the Gulf of California, the summit said.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Brookings Institution, said the case illustrates how unwilling the government has been to address repeated warnings about drug cartel involvement in seafood production and distribution in some parts of Mexico.

The government has been "completely indifferent and deaf to pleas from within the industry - from small fishers to large industry actors to seafood processing plants - to provide protection against the cartels," Felbab-Brown said.

"One would hope that the horrendous death of Minerva Pérez will finally spur the government of Mexico into action," she added.

According to the Tijuana newspaper Zeta, Pérez publicly complained earlier this year that drug cartels were demanding protection payments for every pound of clams, fish and other seafood bought or sold along the coast.

Mexican cartels are strong in coastal areas because they also operate smuggling activities there. And cartels in many parts of Mexico have expanded into kidnapping and extortion to increase their income, demanding money from residents and business owners and threatening to kidnap or kill them if they refuse.

An employee at one seafood distribution company in Ensenada, who asked not to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals, said the extortion demands have long been common knowledge in the industry.

"Everyone from the smallest fishing firm to the biggest companies" are victims of gang extortion, the employee said.

It's not just seafood: Mexican gangs and other illegal actors have also targeted avocado production.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to confront the cartels under his "hugs not bullets" policy, which instead seeks to use government hand-out programs in hopes of gradually reducing the pool of people the drug gangs can recruit from.

López Obrador has insisted the policy is working despite figures released Tuesday showing his administration saw almost as many killings in June - 2,673 - as in the month before he took office in December 2018, when the nationwide homicide figure stood at 2,726.

Last month, Claudia Sheinbaum became Mexico's first woman leader in the nation's more than 200 years of independence.

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