Last month, Colombian wildlife officials raided a marketplace in Girardot, three hours to the south of the capital, arriving in a motorcade, sealing off the area and swooping up the captives: monkeys, songbirds and raptors, dozens of endangered animals.
"It was a perfect operation," said one official, exulting in having prevented the sale and possible slaughter of the protected species.
Raiders recovered more than 32,000 illegally sold animals last year in lightning operations reminiscent of Colombia's more publicized raids on traffickers of cocaine and heroin.
But they could not prevent smugglers from moving tens of thousands of other endangered animals to the United States and Europe as pets or skins or, in some cases, aphrodisiacs and folk cures.
Colombia's fauna has been devastated as a result. Native monkeys, birds and reptiles such as the bare-faced tamarin, the toucan barbet, and the Magdalena caiman are in danger of extinction. The country's 1,600 species of birds are in steady decline. Wildlife authorities say they are hard-pressed to fight an illegal trade whose global value the World Wildlife Fund estimates at $20 billion a year. Interpol says the animal trade is the world's second-largest illegal business after drug trafficking.
Interpol agents point out that with U.S. demand for illegal reptiles and reptile parts worth an estimated $1 billion a year, it is impossible to stop the illegal export of iguanas and caimans. The scarlet macaw, which can be bought for $1.20 in the Colombian jungle, will sometimes bring $5,000 in a U.S. pet store.
Wildlife experts say that Chinese, Japanese, Sicilian and Russian gangsters are also heavily involved in the wildlife trade. The Cali drug cartel also participates, using regional fishing fleets to smuggle both drugs and animals through the Caribbean to the United States and Europe.
"Police agencies around the world are facing the fact that the drug smuggling goes hand-in-hand with wildlife smuggling and vice versa," said Craig Van Note, the executive vice president of Monitor, an international ecological association.
Penalties are generally lax here for drug offenses, and they are practically nonexistent for animal trafficking. No Colombian has ever served the mandated six-month to three-year sentence for the crime.
"According to Interpol statistics, crackdowns on drugs in producer nations have encouraged drug traffickers to put their money into animal smuggling, where controls are looser and penalties much less severe," said Manuel Burgos, the director of the National Institute of Wildlife Resources.
Colombia's 70-year-old animal-smuggling business has traditionally consisted of informal networks. In the vast Amazon and Choco jungles, in the densely wooded eastern plains and on the largely unguarded Pacific and Caribbean coasts, impoverished families have been supplementing their incomes for generations selling macaws, lizards and monkeys. Major dealers have pulled in incomes as high as those in the drug business by delivering the animals, live or dead, to the pet stores and boutiques of Miami, Amsterdam or Rome.
But drug traffickers know the smuggling routes especially well. They ferry their live cargo to the coasts of Florida, across the wide and porous Mexican border or directly to U.S. airports, often using ingenious, if cruel, methods.
They cram animals inside the door panels of cars, stuff them into suitcases and hide them amid bananas and other cargo at sea. The Bogota chapter of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, or WSPA, estimates that 9 out of 10 smuggled animals die as a result. But with huge profit margins, the smugglers can easily afford the losses.
"Animals who leave the country in good condition die on their journey from overheating, suffocating or poor nutrition," said Luis Carlos Sarmiento, an official of the WSPA in Bogota.
The United States, with only a few hundred customs agents assigned to monitor the animal trade at airports, is ill-prepared. Inspectors miss an estimated 90% to 95% of animal shipments arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, according to Myles Frechette, the U.S. ambassador in Colombia.
A vast internal market complicates the situation. Colombians delight in collecting native parrots, tortoises and monkeys as pets. The late Medellin cocaine boss Pablo Escobar bought and smuggled more than 1,900 animals and imported rhinos and kangaroos for his private zoo.
Superstitions and folk cures abound. In Bogota, a small group of urbanized Indians sells feathers and teeth from exotic species as charms.
On the coast, hundreds of iguanas die each year when locals extract eggs from the females. Eggs of endangered marine tortoises also are eaten and said to have aphrodisiac qualities.
The Colombian government, desperate to stop the destruction, licensed about 150 animal nurseries during the last 10 years. It allowed entrepreneurs to "borrow" iguanas, caimans, boas and other animals from the environment, raise them in captivity, and then exploit the second or third generation commercially. The idea is to allow a sustainable use of the animal population.
But officials seem to agree that the best solution is to somehow reduce the insatiable and ever-increasing demand in the United States, Europe and Asia.