A California man plead guilty to smuggling hundreds of reptiles into the United States.
The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that the man plead guilty to two counts of smuggling goods into the United States and one count of wildlife trafficking. The man and his sister, who was one of his accomplices in the trafficking scheme, smuggled more than 1,700 wild animals, mostly reptiles, into the country over a period of six years. The man was arrested in February trying to cross the border into the U.S.
The suspect and his accomplices used social media to coordinate the smuggling operation, which they ran from January 2016 until his capture, the DOJ said. “The smuggled animals – which included Yucatan box turtles, Mexican box turtles, baby crocodiles and Mexican beaded lizards – were imported into the United States from Mexico and Hong Kong without declaring them to U.S. customs officials or obtaining permits required by an international treaty known as the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES),” prosecutors said in their press release.
According to prosecutors, during most of the smuggling runs from Mexico, the suspect’s accomplices retrieved the animals from Ciudad Juarez International Airport, and transported them by car to El Paso, Texas. The accomplices were allegedly paid a “crossing fee” for each border crossing, which was based on the number of animals, the size of the package being moved, and the risk of his accomplices being caught by authorities.
Once the animals were in the U.S., the suspect allegedly had them transferred to his home in Ventura County, California, and sold the animals to customers across the country. In other cases, the suspect allegedly traveled to Mexico himself to retrieve the animals; he rented a house in Tijuana and trafficked the animals by car across the San Ysidro point of entry approximately 36 times between February 2021 and 2022. The suspect used an alias to hide his involvement in the scheme, prosecutors added.
The suspect was arrested while trying to enter the U.S. at the San Ysidro border crossing on February 25. He was caught with approximately 60 reptiles, including baby crocodiles, beaded lizards, and snakes, which he tied up into small bags and hid under his jacket and in his pants, the New York Post reported in March. He told authorities that the animals were his pets. Three of the recovered reptiles died during the attempt. Law enforcement officials estimated that the market value of the smuggled reptiles totaled more than $739,000.
The suspect also reportedly tried to escape from authorities after he was released on bond in May. On the day before a court hearing he had requested, the suspect removed his court-ordered ankle monitor and fled to Tijuana; he was apprehended by law enforcement a few days later, and has since been returned to the U.S. and held in custody.
The suspect will be sentenced on December 1. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison for each smuggling count and up to five more years for the wildlife trafficking charge, prosecutors said. The suspect’s sister and co-defendant will go to trial in February 2023.