Mexican judge frees suspect of poaching in vaquita habitat
MEXICO CITY (AP) — A judge in Mexico ordered the release Friday of a man accused of illegal fishing that endangers the world’s smallest porpoise.
The arrest of Oscar Parra in September had been depicted as an advance in efforts to save the critically endangered vaquita marina, of which fewer than 30 remain. Instead, it has proved an embarrassment.
Police in Baja California state had claimed Parra was a lieutenant of the Sinaloa drug cartel who also oversaw fishing for totoaba, a fish that lives in the Gulf of California, around the port of San Felipe. The Gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez, is the only place the vaquitas live.
Vaquitas have been decimated by nets set for the totoaba fish, whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in China and commands high prices. Totoaba are also a protected species and fishing for them is prohibited, but criminals equipped with go-fast boats and apparently allied with drug gangs catch and sell the bladders.
On Friday, the federal judiciary council said a judge found evidence police hadn’t told the truth about how they arrested the man. It appears police told two different versions of what happened, neither of which were true.
In an initial press statement Sept. 13, state police said they pulled the suspect and two bodyguards over in two vehicles on a highway following “several months of hard investigative work.”
But according to the judiciary council, police said in court documents they were conducting routine patrols on the highway when they saw one of the trucks broken down on the side of the road with the hood up. They stopped, saw assault rifles and drugs in the vehicle and arrested the men.
But a federal judge said relatives submitted evidence that state police actually dragged Parra and the other two from a house three hours earlier, beating him and taking him to the vehicles.
“It is evident that these people were not arrested in the way that the police described,” the council said in a statement.
While Mexican police once routinely carried out warrantless searches and arrests, under Mexico’s new criminal codes if police don’t tell the truth about how an arrest was carried out, the arrest is illegal and the suspects can be freed.