Fancy a pet jaguar cub? How about a rare parrot? The trade in wild animals in Mexico threatens some of the world's most exotic endangered species. At the Sonora Market, a bustling bazaar, traders illegally sell animals alongside exotic herbs and folk cures in the heart of Mexico City's often lawless center.
MEXICO CITY -- Fancy a pet jaguar cub? How about a rare parrot? The trade in wild animals in Mexico threatens some of the world's most exotic endangered species.
At the Sonora Market, a bustling bazaar, traders illegally sell animals alongside exotic herbs and folk cures in the heart of Mexico City's often lawless center.
Outside the market, a crowd gathers around a man claiming to have magic powers who takes a snake from a bag, letting it sink its fangs into his finger to drip blood onto Tarot cards.
Inside its labyrinthine corridors, conservationist Juan Carlos Cantu shudders as a vendor stuffs a rare bird into a cage. Around him, stalls are packed with endangered yellow-headed parrots, boa snakes and squirrel monkeys.
Stall holders say they can get any animal and deliver it to your home, even young jaguars, crocodiles and eagles.
"It would take an army to stop this," whispered Cantu as he edged his way through the stalls. A policeman seemingly unconcerned at the illegal sales stood just steps away.
It is the massive scale of the parrot trade that has Cantu's U.S.-based group Defenders of Wildlife most worried.
Mexico, one of the world's most diverse ecosystems, boasts 22 types of parrots, of which half are endangered and all but two protected. Some species have fewer than 10,000 birds.
Defenders of Wildlife estimates that up to 80,000 parrots were captured illegally in Mexico last year. Cantu says 80 percent die before they are sold.
It is illegal in Mexico to sell protected birds or to export parrots, but the laws are largely ignored.
In the 1970s and 1980s, most of Mexico's illegally traded birds were smuggled across a porous U.S. border, often tucked in cardboard tubes and drugged with tequila to stifle their calls.
Now, declining wild populations, stronger domestic demand and a general border clampdown mean 90 percent of parrots are sold within Mexico in markets and by street vendors.
LIKE THE DRUG TRADE
Illegal animal trafficking is barely viewed as a crime in Mexico, Cantu said, with everyone from rural policemen to judges turning a blind eye.
Violators can receive prison terms of up to 12 years, but this very rarely happens. Prosecutors have a hard time convincing congested courts to be strict with bird sellers in a country plagued with drug trafficking and kidnapping gangs.
Federal environmental agency Profepa does occasionally raid the market, freeing parrots, turtles and iguanas.
But with little power and few funds, it can only seize animals and impose fines. Many times, vendors are tipped off by corrupt cops to surprise inspections.
The day after raids, sellers are back with new birds and reptiles, hawking endangered animals for as little as $200.
"The volume they move in comparison with what we can do is so great. We don't have the money or men to really do a forceful job," said Jose Antonio Buendia, a senior official at the agency.
Defenders of Wildlife is pushing for a permanent ban on the sale of Mexican parrots. But, Cantu says, illegal sales will never stop until Mexicans break a tradition of bird ownership that stretches back to the Aztec empire.
"It's like the drug trade: we know where they are but there is nothing we can do. As long as there is demand, there will be a market," Cantu said.