A Bulgarian journalist took a deep dive into the world of black-market Yucatán sea cucumbers, a lucrative, high-demand export that has been linked to corruption, violence and drug use in fishing villages.
Svilen Petrov, a 31-year-old marketing manager and co-chief editor of Maritime Herald, gained the confidence of several pepineros, divers who risk their lives to catch the leathery marine creatures.
The fishermen took Petrov to one of many hidden sancochaderos, where they process the sea cucumber in a secluded mangroves forest reachable only by motorboat.
Pepineros live dangerously, diving deep underwater, sometimes only to have their haul snatched by armed pirates.
Stakes are relatively high. In Dzilam de Bravo, a kilo of raw cucumber is sold for 150 pesos. If it is marketed as cooked, the price can reach up 1,400 pesos. In Hong Kong, it fetches $3,000 dollars per kilogram.
In Mexico, because it is a protected species, only 10 days a year are set aside for legal fishing. The rest happens outside the law, although a source told Petrov that some authorities turn a blind eye to the activity in exchange for a cut of the revenue.
Divers are often former fishermen, but fishing stock has declined in the last 10 years. They work six to seven days a week, from 4 in the morning to 7 at night; many use cocaine to keep up.
The entire enterprise has become a curse on the community, said Julio Villanueva Rivero, mayor of Dzilam de Bravo.
“If there was no sea cucumber, there would be fewer problems,” said Villanueva. “People with other customs have arrived, alcoholism has proliferated, and above all drug use.”