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Uncertainty, protests, following San Felipe fishing leader's arrest
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n the sun-baked and struggling Baja California community of San Felipe, few people can command a crowd like Sunshine Rodríguez, leader of the largest fishing federation in town.

This holds true even as he sits behind bars outside Mexico City.

Since Rodríguez and his wife were arrested late last month, demonstrators have been demanding their release from federal custody. Crowds have blocked the road leading to San Felipe, converged outside government offices in the state capital of Mexicali, and briefly on Wednesday prevented access to the Calexico Port of Entry.

Rodríguez’s attorneys say he is being accused by federal agents of transporting liquid meth—allegations they claim are are trumped up, saying the drugs were planted. His supporters have avidly risen to his defense.

But Mexican authorities have a different story.

While not commenting on the arrest, high-level officials in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration say Rodríguez has been under investigation for a different kind of crime: trafficking in the swim bladders of the giant totoaba fish, an endangered species found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

On Wednesday in Mexicali, cries of “Freedom for Sunshine” rose from the demonstrators gathered in near the U.S. the port of entry. They waved signs calling him a political prisoner, and carried a banner calling for his release. They accused the government of arresting Rodríguez in retaliation for his opposition to a government program aimed at protecting the critically endangered vaquita, a porpoise endemic to the upper Gulf of California.

As the border protest ended, several dozen moved across town to the offices of Mexico’s environmental secretariat, blocking the entrance. And later, as night fell, they closed the street outside the federal Attorney General’s Office. They shared food, chatted, and held signs that read “Justice for Sunshine” and called him a political prisoner.

“The government is acting unjustly in this case,” said Daniel Nolasco, a 44-year-old fisherman and father of five. “Just as Sunshine has spoken up for us, we have to now speak up for him,” said Javier Nolasco, his 42-year-old brother, and fishing companion.

The Nolasco brothers belong to the federation of fishing cooperatives led by Rodríguez, and the loss of their leader has them feeling particularly vulnerable: “They want to get rid of us fishermen. How are we going to pay for our children’s studies?” asked Daniel Nolasco, verging on tears as he spoke.

The anxiety has not just affected members of the fishing community in this town of some 30,000 residents that is about a two-hour drive from Mexicali and the U.S. border.

Following Rodríguez’s arrest, the top Mexicali municipal official in San Felipe announced he would be resigning, to “join the social struggle,” saying there was little he could do from his government position to ease the crisis that has enveloped San Felipe.

José Luis Danigno López did not name Rodríguez in the five-minute video he posted on Facebook on Tuesday, three days after the arrest. He spoke of the unemployment “creating many social problems” in the town, and said he would “join the people.”

“We all have a right to a job, as long as it’s legal,” he said.

Despite unprecedented government surveillance of the upper Gulf, the illegal totoaba trade has been rampant off the coast of San Felipe. Authorities say that the poachers are part of an organized crime network that involves catching the totoaba, smuggling their bladders to Asia and selling them on the black market.

Rodríguez’s detractors have long accused him of being part of tototaba trade, accusations he has repeatedly denied. But it was not until a report earlier this month on the Mexican television network Televisa that Mexican federal authorities stated openly that Rodríguez has been under investigation.

“Without a doubt, he is one of the individuals who is most suspected of this type of activity,” Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s environmental secretary, told journalist Carlos Loret de Mola.

At the time of his arrest two weeks later on Nov. 25th, Rodriguez’s attorneys say he was returning from Christmas shopping across the border in Calexico, with his wife and their two children, ages 10 and 3. Both Rodríguez and his wife, Sara, were taken into custody by members of the SEIDO, a federal unit that targets organized crime.

The next day, they were flown to Mexico City. On Sunday, the prosecution is scheduled to present the evidence for the arrest at a hearing in the Santiaguito penitentiary outside Mexico City, according to the Mexicali website, Periodismo Negro.

Though he owns several small fishing vessels, or pangas, Rodríguez is more businessman than fisherman. But he has become the voice for hundreds of fishermen who face an uncertain future as Mexico’s federal government has ordered a gillnet ban in the upper Gulf of California--a measure aimed a protecting the vaquita.

A fiery public speaker, he has no problems communicating—in Spanish as well as English. Rodríguez is a native English speaker who was raised on both sides of the border, attending schools in north San Diego County, including San Dieguito High and Palomar College, he said in an interview earlier this year.

Five days before his arrest, Rodríguez drew applause as he spoke words filled with Mexican nationalistic sentiments and angry accusations against environmental groups and the Peña Nieto administration. “The environmentalists want to do away with your families, with all of the fishermen,” he said. “People want to work, people want to support their families.”

International environmental groups intent on saving the vaquita species, now down to fewer than 30 individuals, have been the target of Rodríguez’s wrath. Among them is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has since 2015 sent vessels and volunteers to remove illegal totoaba nets in the upper Gulf, earlier this year obtained a restraining order against Rodríguez after he threatened to sink a Sea Shepherd vessel, and burned a panga in effigy.

Since then, “we haven’t had any problems,” said Capt. Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd’s CEO and founder. Two Sea Shepherd vessels are currently in the Gulf, steering clear of the trouble on shore. “We’re staying out of the harbor and carrying on looking for and confiscating nets,” Watson said, adding that a third ship is on the way.

Gillnets have been banned throughout the vaquita’s habitat since April 2015, which has all but eliminated legal fishing off the coasts of San Felipe and the community of Golfo de Santa Clara in neighboring Sonora Rodriguez was among the dignitaries on stage accompanying Mexico’s president as he made the announcement, and initially endorsed the program.

The aim of the federal effort has been to prevent vaquitas from becoming ensnared in the nets, and drowning. But while the legal fishing has been curtailed, the vaquitas have continued to die in illegal nets set to catch totoaba fish, whose swim bladders are sold in Asia at high prices to consumers who believe in their curative powers.

Since banning the gillnets, Mexico’s government has been paying fishermen to stay out of the vaquita’s habitat. But the compensation program has been flawed, and has had little oversight, said Alejandro Olivera of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of a number of environmental groups that have been monitoring government efforts.

In many cases, people who should have been registered were not on the compensation list, while others have received compensation with no justification, he said. And though the Mexican government agency INAPESCA was tasked with devising alternative fishing gear that would not capture the vaquita porpoise, this has yet to happen—forcing extensions of the compensation program.

As the months pass, members of the fishing community have grown increasingly worried that no solution is in sight, and they will have few alternatives. This month’s late compensation payment has further stoked their fears.

“There’s no certainty for anyone, not the fisherman and not the vaquita,” said Olivera.

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news...story.html
Más vale pocos pelos, pero bien peinados.
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