Feds bust U.S.-Mexico smuggling ring


WASHINGTON A three-year undercover operation conducted by federal agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led to the arrests of five individuals for their roles in illegal international trade of exotic skins and parts manufactured from sea turtles and other protected species of wildlife.

The arrests, made September 6th, 2007, were part of a joint operation with Mexican authorities and came following the return of two indictments by a federal grand jury in Denver, Colo., in August.

According to the 54 conspiracy, smuggling and money-laundering charges in the two indictments, the defendants smuggled approximately 25 separate shipments of wildlife skins and products between Mexico and the United States between early 2005 and 2007.

Shipments were comprised of more than 700 tanned skins of sea turtle, caiman, python and other protected species, as well as over 100 items, such as boots, belts and wallets, manufactured from the skins of those species.

The indictments allege that nearly $60,000 was paid to the Mexican suppliers of the illegal skins and products, in addition to crossing fees paid to the alleged smugglers. Sea turtles are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

CITES is a multilateral treaty of which the United States, Mexico and approximately 170 other countries are parties. It also prohibits international trade in sea turtles or their parts or products for commercial purposes and also restricts international trade in many other species of wildlife involved in this case which are deemed at risk of extinction and are, or may be, affected by international trade.

Five of the seven species of sea turtles are listed as "endangered" in all or part of their range, pursuant to the according to the Endangered Species Act. A sixth species is listed as "threatened." Six species of sea turtles are found on and along the coasts of Mexico.

Arrested in Denver, Colorado today were Carlos Leal Barragan, of Guzman, Jalisco, Mexico; and Esteban Lopez Estrada, and Martin Villegas Terrones, both of Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. Jorge Caraveo, of El Paso, Texas, was arrested in that city. Oscar Cueva, of McAllen, Texas, was arrested in that city.

Jorge Caraveo, Maria de los Angeles Cruz Pacheco, Carlos Leal Barragan, Octavio Anguiano Munoz, and Esteban Lopez Estrada are all charged in the first indictment with multiple counts of smuggling sea turtle skins, items manufactured from sea turtle skins, and other wildlife skins from Mexico into the United States.

The suspects are also charged with money laundering by receiving payment for the smuggled goods via international payments from the undercover agents.

A second indictment alleges similar criminal conduct by Oscar Cueva, Miguel Vazquez Pimentel, Martin Villegas Terrones and Esteban Lopez Estrada. Lopez Estrada is also named in the first indictment.

They are charged with conspiring to smuggle exotic skins into the United States contrary to law and to transfer funds from the United States to Mexico with the intention of promoting the smuggling, along with substantive counts of smuggling and money laundering.

Each conspiracy count in the indictments carries a maximum penalty of five years' incarceration and $250,000 in fines. Each smuggling and money laundering count carries a maximum penalty of twenty years incarceration and $500,000 in fines.

An indictment is merely an allegation and each defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.

Today's arrests and the execution of search warrants in the United States and Mexico are the result of a joint operation between the Department of Justice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Branch of Special Operations and Mexican law enforcement authorities.

This joint operation represents a significant milestone in the ongoing cooperation between United States and Mexican law enforcement agencies with respect to protecting both countries' wildlife and natural resources.

The cases in the United States are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda McMahan of the District of Colorado and Senior Trial Attorney Robert S. Anderson and Trial Attorney Colin L. Black of the Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes Section.

The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Branch of Special Operations.