By Mica Rosenberg
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Hundreds of police raided illicit markets to crack down on the lucrative trade in wild animals and rare flowers, arresting 15 traffickers across Mexico this weekend in one of the biggest swoops of its kind.
Rich in flora and fauna, Mexico is a major hub for animal trafficking where locals buy lizards, macaws and tropical fish in city markets and smugglers move endangered species across the country's border with the United States.
In three days of raids, authorities netted 4,725 wild plants and animals -- 113 different species -- including 762 parrots and other types of birds and 67 reptiles.
The operation also found more than a dozen threatened mammals like wild boars, white-tailed deer and three tiny puma cubs in a cardboard box in a warehouse in southern Mexico.
"This is the first operation like this on a national scale," Environment Minister Juan Elvira said on Monday. "We recovered 3,500 trafficked orchids, that's a record."
Animals and plants sold on the black market cost just a fraction of the price of legal breeds, and more than 90 percent of them sold unlawfully die in transit, authorities said.
Interpol estimates the global illegal trade in live species and animal parts to produce luxury goods, medicines or folk remedies like aphrodisiacs is worth up to $20 billion a year.
Officials could not put a value on the animals and plants recovered but said the aim was to reverse the harm caused by taking protected species out of their natural environment.
"We recovered 377 parrots from Oaxaca state. These little animals can be sold for up to $50 each so we're talking more than $18,000 in just one case," said Hernando Guerrero, the head of Mexico's environmental protection agency PROFEPA.
Traffickers approach poor indigenous farmers, many of whom do not know what the species are worth, and pay them a few pesos to collect them from the jungle, said Elvira.
"They are taking advantage of this population," he added.
Most of the species are sold locally but the United States is also one of the largest markets for banned pets and animal products, making Mexico a busy corridor smuggling species from across Latin America and other parts of the world.
Mexican drug lords have been known to collect animals like big cats as trophy pets or hide narcotics in wildlife cargo.
In June, a Mexican was caught in the capital's airport after arriving from Peru with 18 tiny endangered monkeys stuffed in socks and strapped in a girdle around his waist.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)