Stray dogs are just as common in the streets of Thailand as pigeons in New York, and are treated about the same – with indifference, or annoyance at their pervasiveness. But some enterprising Thai villagers have turned the trapping, killing and butchering of stray dogs into a lucrative underground trade that nets big profits for everyone from poor farmers to high-level government officials.

In ‘The Dog Meat Mafia’, a four-part special investigation into Southeast Asia’s booming dog trade, The Global Post examines just how this grisly business came to be.

At the heart of the trade is the village of Ta Rae, which was settled in the 1880s by Christians fleeing persecution and remains almost entirely Catholic — a rarity in this Buddhist nation. The people here have come to depend on the income generated by the illegal dog meat trade, and dogcatching earns a lot more than working in the rice paddies.

The villagers involved in the trade corral the dogs and sell them for $10 a head to distributors in Vietnam, where dog meat fetches three times the price of pork. Farmers are eager to give stray dogs — considered a nuisance for their propensity to eat chickens — to roaming collectors.

Phumpat Pachonsap, a Nakhon Phanom province parliament representative, says corruption in government has allowed the practice to become more prevalent than ever.

“The exporting of dogs, it’s a mafia. It’s a big network involving lower-level politicians up to high-level politicians. There’s a huge profit. The benefit is huge. The profit is huge. Even the police are getting money out of it,” he says.

Given the effect on the economy, and the wallets of those involved, the practice isn’t likely to stop any time soon — especially because demand from Vietnam is ever rising.

“I’ve never stopped to ask if this is wrong,” says ‘Wit’, a dog-collecting boss who spoke to the Global Post on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s a way of life, passed down from the older generations. This is what my family has taught me.”