Atun Alba:

Cocaine, Tuna, and Free Trade

           Through the late 1970s the Colombian cartels steadily built up their tuna fleets, sending drug cargoes directly to the United States through such ports of entry as Miami. The "drug war," which began about halfway through Reagan's first term, forced a change in trafficking strategy. The cartels began to use Mexico as an entrepot. The Mexican and Colombian tuna fleets would take their cargoes up Mexico's west coast to Ensenada and other tuna-processing plants.

           By 1988 the Mexican fleet--with 70 big boats--had become dominant in the smuggling operation and its growth offered a useful paradigm of Mexican politics. President Jose Lopez Portillo invested $1.7 billion in the government-owned tuna fleet, supplying the boats with cheap oil from the state refineries. Then, as the fleet began to haul in enormous revenues on atun alba (i.e. cocaine) as one Caracas newspaper called it, the fleet and canneries were privatized, and shares divided up between various prominent Mexicans in the ruling PRI.

           One of these investors was Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of the former Mexican president and now in prison as a suspect in the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Colosio. His wife was arrested while trying to withdraw money from a $100 million Salinas account in Switzerland. The Mexican parliament recently agreed to investigate Raul Salinas's tenure as head of Conasupo, the state-owned food agency. The suspicion is that Salinas skimmed hundreds of millions off Conasupo's operations and used warehouses and transportation networks for drug shipments. Among Salinas's holdings was one of the biggest canneries on the west coast of Mexico. The current fisheries minister of Mexico, Carlos Camacho, is also heavily invested in the Mexican tuna industry.

           In the early 1990s a shadow fell across the sunny world of atun alba smuggling. This shadow took the form of the campaign of Earth Island Institute, based in San Francisco, to set a dolphin-safe standard for tuna fishing. Soon, the United States and EEC countries passed laws making it illegal to import tuna caught by methods endangering dolphins. The methods in question were largely developed by U.S. tuna fleets in the 1960s, targeting the eastern Pacific yellowfin tuna. Schools of this particular species swim below dolphins, and the tuna fleets would look for dolphin, encircle them with a purse seine net and winch them and the tuna out of the water. As many as 10 million dolphins were thus killed between 1970 and 1990.

           With these new laws the lucrative tuna markets of the United States and Western Europe were closed to tuna caught by the Mexican, Venezuelan, and Colombian fleets, which continued to use the old purse-seine technique. One ironic consequence was a tuna glut on Mexico's domestic market, and the prized fish became a Conasupo staple for prisoners, school children, and the destitute. The Mexican tuna fleet began to shrink, thus limiting overall smuggling capacity. At this point the interest of the narco-traffickers and the theories of neoliberal trade economists began to merge.

           In 1991 the Mexican government, then headed by Carlos Salinas, challenged the dolphin-safe tuna laws before a GATT tribunal and won a decision against the United States. But at that time the United States had veto power over GATT rulings affecting U.S. domestic standards and the Bush administration promptly exercised this veto.

           With the passage of the NAFTA agreement at the end of 1993, the picture changed. The Mexican government issued two threats. First, it would go before a NAFTA tribunal and argue that embargoes on Mexican tuna constituted a restraint on free trade. Next, it would go to GATT's successor, the World Trade Organization, and lodge the same complaint in a venue where U.S. forces no longer had veto power.

           With these two threats, Clinton and Gore faced a dilemma. They knew that they would lose in any NAFTA or WTO venue, since an important goal of these free trade agreements was precisely to outflank national environmental laws. But if the first major suppression of U.S. sovereignty was to occur over so fraught an issue as dolphin-endangering tuna operations, the Clinton administration would face public outrage from a vital sector of its own supporters. It was one thing to have a WTO ruling, acting on a case brought by Venezuela, striking down portions of the 1990 U.S. Clean Air Act forbidding the import of reformulated (i.e. "dirty") gas; this created no stir in the press. Nor did a ruling allowing the import of PCBs into the United States. But dolphin-safe tuna was political dynamite.

           In the fall of 1995, President Zedillo came to Washington for talks with Clinton and Gore. The prime topic was a rescheduling of Mexican repayments of U.S. bailout money following the peso's collapse in late 1994. Next on the agenda was Mexican tuna. Zedillo again raised the specter of a WTO complaint; Clinton and Gore duly assured him that the problem would be more prudently solved through domestic legislation.

           The Clinton administration kept its word and duly recruited Senator John Breaux of Louisiana and Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens to gut the Marine Mammals Protection Act and overturn the U.S. ban on dolphin-unsafe tuna. As revealed in an earlier Nature and Politics column, this measure has been endorsed by five renegade environmental groups: Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, Center for Marine Conservation, Greenpeace, and the National Wildlife Federation.

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