Agents bust international shark finning, drug trafficking conspiracy

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Sept. 4 (UPI) -- A federal prosecutor announced that a multi-agency law enforcement operation has busted an international shark finning and drug trafficking conspiracy, resulting in a dozen arrests and the seizure of millions of dollars worth of gold, silver, diamonds, drugs and illegally traded wildlife.

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia Bobby L. Christine announced Thursday that agents of Operation Apex have arrested 12 members or associates of the Wu transnational criminal organization and shut down two businesses, one in Florida and the other in California, for participating in wildlife and drug trafficking, shark finning and money laundering.

Agents of the multi-agency task force arrested the suspected gang members and conducted 22 federal search warrants from coast to coast, confiscating some $4 million from bank accounts, $1 million in diamonds and about $3 million in gold, silver and other precious metals.

The agents also seized more than six tons of shark fins and 18 fish bladders harvested from the endangered totoaba fish, which is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia.

About 18,000 marijuana plants, 34.5 pounds of processed marijuana and multiple guns were also retrieved from the searches, authorities said.

"Millions and millions of dollars in cash, millions and millions in gold, millions in diamonds, tens of thousands of illegal plants and that is a one-day snapshot of what we believe to be a decade-long conspiracy -- a one-day snapshot," Christine said during a press briefing on Thursday.

The 37-page indictment charges suspects, who come from California, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Michigan, and the two businesses with mail and wire fraud, possession with intent to distribute and to distribute controlled substances and money laundering, which carry potential penalties of up to life in prison without parole.

Others are likely to be implicated as the investigation proceeds, Christine said, who added that the conspiracy stretched from the United States to Canada, Mexico to China and into its criminal underworld.

According to the indictment, the conspiracy began as early as 2010 when its members submitted false documents and used front companies and dozens of bank accounts to launder the money they earned through their illegal activities, including shark finning which is the practice of catching sharks at sea, cutting off their fins and throwing the injured animal back into the sea to die.

"Shark finning is aimed at supporting the demand for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy," the indictment said.

Federal laws protect certain species of sharks, but state laws vary concerning shark finning, with it being legal in Florida but illegal in California.

The indictment states the Wu gang used the Florida shark fin business as a front for the California company that would ship the fins to Hong Kong.

Aurelia Skipwith, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which initiated Operation Apex, said the mission began in 2015 as an investigation into the trafficking of the fins of sharks, the apex predator of the ocean.

In 2018, while investigating, her agency discovered that the same criminal organizations behind shark finning were also behind drug trafficking and money laundering in Asia and central and north America.

This elevated Operation Apex to become an organized crime drug enforcement task force, the first for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she said.

"We are one government working to stop wildlife crime and prosecute criminals who try to profit by wildlife trafficking," she said. "Ultimately, our work will save animals so that future generations will be able to see them in the wild where they belong."

Since 2016, more than 35 tons of shark fins that were in transit through the United States have been seized, she said.

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