The baby jaguar had to die. At least, that’s what the superstitious Rio Grande City drug-trafficking organization believed was necessary for its next shipment of marijuana, cocaine, or meth to slip undetected past U.S. border authorities in deep South Texas. A ritual sacrifice, complete with candlelit prayer to bless illicit cargo, had preceded other successful drug runs, after all. So, a five-week-old jaguar was declawed, and its canine teeth were filed down in preparation for the ceremony.

How the jaguar cub ended up in the hands of drug traffickers remains uncertain, though Jim Stinebaugh, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who worked the case, says it’s a safe bet that it was sneaked across the border from Mexico to Mission, probably sedated and hidden in the trunk of a vehicle. The man accused of illegally obtaining the jaguar was already under investigation for his role in the cartel when FWS seized the animal. In September of 2021, after federal agents started making arrests in the drug case, the man fled to Mexico. Authorities eventually caught up with him in April of last year. He was arrested in Cancún, Mexico, and sent back to the U.S., where he was charged with violating the federal Endangered Species Act, a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and $50,000 in fines. He has pleaded not guilty

Stinebaugh made the short drive from his home in Magnolia, just north of Houston, to Katy, where he met another agent who was transporting the jaguar from the border. He collected the cub and took it home, nestled in a dog crate in the back seat of his pickup. Confiscating a baby jaguar is just part of the job for Stinebaugh, who has spent two decades investigating the big business of exotic wildlife trafficking in Texas. 

He is one of about a dozen FWS agents tasked with stopping animal trafficking along the Texas-Mexico border. Global profits exceed $7.8 billion annually, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Of the 1,525 seizures that FWS recorded at the U.S.-Mexico border from January 2020 to September 11, 2023, more than 85 percent occurred in Texas, accounting for 17,317 animals and exotic animal parts—such as a South African ostrich and shark bones. The issue is getting more attention than ever from the government as criminal networks that smuggle drugs and people have diversified their portfolios to include wild animals. 

Tips pour into agents’ offices from a concerned public or paid informants about shipments of big cats, snakes, spiders, turtles, primates such as capuchins and marmosets, and other creatures being smuggled into and out of Texas. A wildlife seizure dashboard from the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. that tracks the illicit trade of elephant ivory, leopards, pangolins, rhino horn, and tigers, found that Austin has been one of the nation’s top seizure locations over the past decade. “It’s not that hard to smuggle something in if you’re willing to take the risk,” Stinebaugh said. “There are people here who want these animals, and they’re willing to pay a premium for them.” There is no such thing as a typical buyer. Some are wealthy Texans with money to burn, and others are influencers who use exotic creatures as photo props. Just as often, though, animals are snatched up by middle-income buyers looking for an unusual pet. 

One of the most profitable and popular animals trafficked today is the spider monkey. This primate might sell for a couple thousand dollars, or less, in its native range, an area that extends from central Mexico to the tropical rainforests of Bolivia. That same primate in the U.S. might be sold at four times the amount on the black market. FWS agents are tipped off to monkeys for sale in Dallas or Houston on a near-weekly basis, according to Stinebaugh. “If you’re buying a spider monkey here in the United States and you’re paying in the eight-thousand-dollar range, that son of a gun was smuggled out of Mexico, I guarantee it,” Stinebaugh said. But for authorities to bring charges, a smuggler has to be caught in the act. More often than not, once they cross the Rio Grande and hand over their cargo to buyers, the criminals escape scot-free. 

There are, of course, notable exceptions. In 2022, a young woman and her sister came through the Port of Laredo. After an initial screening found a monkey in the back seat, they were asked to stop for a more detailed inspection of their vehicle. Instead of pulling over, they took off, but not before agents got their license plate number. “She sold it to a guy, and then that guy sold it to a wannabe rapper who does these ridiculous YouTube-type videos,” Stinebaugh said. “This guy was posting the spider monkey all over YouTube.” The monkey was recovered, and the twenty-year-old woman pleaded guilty to smuggling a spider monkey into the country. She was sentenced to time served and two years of supervised release. 

Poaching and wildlife trafficking in Mexico and at the border have taken place for years, but the trade has changed in important ways since Stinebaugh’s father was an agent on the same beat back in the seventies and eighties. Social media now makes it easy for smugglers to advertise animals and reach more buyers. Criminal groups have also fed China’s voracious appetite for wildlife and organs used in traditional medicine, such as bear gallbladders. Starting a little over a decade ago, as Chinese buyers were scooping up massive quantities of sea cucumbers off the Yucatán coast, as well as other rare animal species, Mexican drug cartels took note. “They insert themselves into the relationship and essentially force the Chinese traders to be interacting with the cartels and not directly with the local population,” explained Vanda Felbab-Brown, author of The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It. “It’s really the big commercialization and internationalization of poaching and wildlife trafficking in Mexico.” 

A significant portion of wildlife smuggled through the U.S. ends up in China, though how much is hard to say. “Direct routes would be easier, and there is direct smuggling too,” Felbab-Brown said, “but smugglers often use circuitous and multiple routes to evade all enforcement or to bundle various contraband.” The environmental impact of wildlife trafficking today would be concerning enough, but as Felbab-Brown explains, the global commercialization of the trade poses a significant risk of spreading zoonotic diseases such as rabies or bird flu or even, potentially, viruses related to COVID that can pass from animals to humans. “Even in the legal trade, maybe five percent of the wildlife legally imported is examined for diseases,” Felbab-Brown said. 

Weak penalties are part of the problem. Smuggle drugs or other illegal goods across the border, and you could end up spending life in prison. But violations of the wildlife law most often used to prosecute traffickers, the Lacey Act, carries a maximum one-year sentence. As wildlife trafficking has become entangled with criminal networks, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security responded in June 2023 by creating the Wildlife and Environmental Crimes Unit, aimed at tracking shipments, forfeitures, fines, and seizures. “We hold their [smugglers’] feet to the fire to tell us everything they know to help us take down the next tier of criminals in their organization,” said Elliot Harbin, senior advisor of the new unit. 

At the lowest rung of the trade are young people, such as a Mexican teenager caught swimming across the Rio Grande in August, holding a backpack above his head with seven spider monkeys inside. Drug cartel bosses at the top of the food chain deal directly with Asian buyers, selling animals for top dollar. 

Mexican criminal groups—primarily the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel, according to Harbin—have diversified their portfolios to include an array of animals and animal parts, such as reptiles, scorpions, snake glands, songbirds, and tiger teeth. Some animals are kept as pets or by collectors piecing together a menagerie, but investigators say others are desired for quasi-religious or cultish purposes. “There are ritual sacrifices, but there are also charms and amulets made from animal parts,” Harbin said. “We had a case a couple of years ago in Dallas where a shop owner was smuggling hummingbird carcasses into the country and turning them into love amulets.” The shop owner was charged with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to one year of probation and a $2,000 fine.

Investigators say that because ill-gotten wildlife is in higher demand in Asia, and fetches a considerably higher price there, cartels are now shipping animals abroad and getting paid in the ingredients for fentanyl and methamphetamines, avoiding the hassle of laundering the proceeds. One wildlife organ frequently traded is totoaba bladders, also known as fish maw and as “the cocaine of the sea.” These bladders come from a large, slow-growing fish found mainly in the Sea of Cortez. The bladders are prized in China as a delicacy and as a traditional medicine. They are typically sold for about $10,000 apiece, and for as much as $150,000, depending on the size and condition of the bladders, as well as geographic location, according to Harbin. “The bladders are used in gourmet dishes, and they’re also a talisman, a symbol of power and wealth that supposedly gives off some celestial powers,” Harbin said. According to Harbin, recent efforts to shut down cross-border shipments in California are pushing criminal organizations further east along the Southwest border. “Texas might start seeing some of the things they haven’t seen in the past, and [contraband] might get through if they’re not looking for it,” Harbin said.

Animals are smuggled not only from Mexico to Texas but also in the other direction. In one such case, in 2022, a border agent in plain clothes overheard a suspicious conversation between three men headed south at the Hidalgo Port of Entry near McAllen, so he flagged their Ford Econoline for inspection. Inside he found two boxes with more than 160 animals in small plastic containers and fabric bags, including ball pythons, black poison dart frogs, Chinese water dragons (a lizard popular as a pet), emperor scorpions, forest armadillo lizards, iguanas, and red-eyed tree frogs. All of them were destined for buyers in Mexico, and many of them were endangered species. The men were convicted on charges of attempted exportation of wildlife and were given sentences ranging from time served to a year in prison.

Demand for exotic game species in Mexico has caught the attention of wildlife investigators in recent years. With the appropriate permits, exotic species such as ibex and nilgai, and animals raised in captivity but extinct in the wild, including the scimitar-horned oryx, are legally sold in Texas and taken out of the country. But some sellers forgo the permits, and because southbound traffic faces little scrutiny, the chances of getting caught are low. “And if you get caught, you lose your animals, you go buy some more animals, and you try it again,” Stinebaugh said. 

To see the exotic trade up close, I headed to a legal auction in Harper, a tiny town 23 miles west of Fredericksburg, early one morning in mid-July. This monthly event attracts buyers and sellers from across Texas, Mexico, and the Southwest. A few dozen potential buyers sat in beat-up metal chairs as the auctioneer shouted at a kid beside the concessions stand to hurry and tag the bird cages. Any Texas resident who gives the auction house some basic information has the legal right to buy an animal here, provided that animal is not endangered or otherwise subject to federal or state restrictions. Investigators say anything bought, sold, or traded is a candidate to be shipped to Mexico. Some animals are more popular than others. Cockfighting roosters are particularly valued in Mexico and the Philippines. One cage after another was plopped down on a table for sale. Silkie hens, Bourbon Red turkeys, Lavender Orpington hens, and black roosters all went to the highest bidder, some for less than $20. 

As the morning turned to afternoon, the bidding began in earnest. Several wildebeest sold, including an adult and its calf for $3,500 each. A red stag sold for $1,700, four rheas went for $170 per bird, and a pair of large turtles sold for $2,500. “They make good soup,” the auctioneer quipped. Several scimitar-horned oryx sold for around $3,000. “We have found that some of those animals are being sold to buyers in Mexico,” Stinebaugh said. “It’s a status-symbol thing, and there’s quite a bit of money being made.”

One of the most powerful tools investigators have to fight wildlife traffickers is the Lacey Act. Under the law, investigators can bring charges, regardless of where the crime occurred, just as long as there is a triggering act in the United States. “If you violate a wildlife law in Mexico and you bring it over here, we can charge you [under] Mexican law,” Stinebaugh said. Once the animal is in Texas, however, it can be exceedingly difficult to prove it was smuggled across the border, and even more so if state law places no restrictions on ownership. Many trafficked animals that come from outside the U.S., such as spider monkeys, are not protected by Texas law. 

Every once in a while, there is no one to look after a confiscated animal, so an agent is stuck taking the creature home. “I’ve had all kinds of things back at my house, from bald eagles and hawks to parrots,” Stinebaugh said. He once made a seizure of caimans, which are similar to alligators, and left them in his bathtub, but failed to mention it to his wife. “She goes into the bathroom, and the bathtub is full of baby caimans,” he recalled with a hint of comic nostalgia. “She’s never quite let me forget it.” The jaguar cub slept in Stinebaugh’s den. “Oh, you can see why people would want them,” he said. “It’s a beautiful animal.” He fed her meat paste squeezed from a tube, “and the little devil bit the dickens out of my thumb.” The next morning he loaded the cub into his government pickup and drove to a hotel in The Woodlands, where handlers from the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans took possession of her. 

Last December, Congress passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act as an amendment to the Lacey Act. The law aims to end private ownership of big cats and makes violation a felony offense, punishable by a fine of as much as $20,000 and five years in prison. In late September, an Alamo couple became the first suspects charged under the Big Cat Act after trying to sell a jaguar cub to FWS agents in the parking lot of a Dillard’s in McAllen. Before their arrest, the couple also sold agents a margay, or tree ocelot. (The ocelot trade was in the news last month, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shared a viral photo of an ocelot coat that included fur from the faces of several of the endangered cats, and that had been turned in to the Dallas Zoo.) “We’ll crack down and there’ll be a chilling effect,” Stinebaugh said. “But wildlife trafficking isn’t something that you crush and it’s over. It’s a constant battle.” 

There are, however, some cases that end well. These days, Reina, as the jaguar is known at the zoo in New Orleans, is a staff and visitor favorite. She loves the water, plays with boomer balls, and drinks goat milk. She also enjoys the scents of lavender, coffee grounds, and other animals. “She has a naturally curious personality,” said Melissa Lee, a spokesperson for the zoo. “She is thriving.”