Man jailed for 24 Months for Smuggling Protected Sea Turtles

WASHINGTON – Esteban Lopez Estrada, a Mexican national, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Denver to 24 months in prison for his participation in the sale and smuggling of sea turtle and other exotic skins and skin products into the United States from Mexico, the Justice Department announced today.

Along with the prison term, Lopez Estrada was sentenced to three years supervised release and a $1,700 fine, the amount in the defendant’s possession at the time of his arrest.

Lopez Estrada and ten others were indicted in Denver in August 2007 following a multi-year undercover investigation named Operation Central, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Branch of Special Operations. Lopez Estrada and six other defendants were arrested on Sept. 6, 2007. All seven of those individuals have pleaded guilty: Chinese nationals Fu Yiner and Wang Hong; Mexican nationals Carlos Leal Barragan, Martin Villegas Terrones and Esteban Lopez Estrada; Oscar Cueva of McAllen, Texas; and Jorge Caraveo of El Paso, Texas. Fu Yiner and Wang Hong have been sentenced to 138 days of imprisonment and 167 days of imprisonment, respectively, and Carlos Leal Barragan was sentenced last week to 16 months of imprisonment.

Lopez Estrada pleaded guilty on Feb. 8, 2008, to one felony count of smuggling and one felony count of money laundering. According to the plea agreement, Lopez Estrada operated a business in Leon, Mexico, named Botas Exoticas Canada Grande, through which he bought and sold exotic leathers, including sea turtle, caiman, ostrich and lizard skins; manufactured boots and belts from the skins; and sold the skins, boots and belts to customers in the United States. After arranging sales to customers in the U.S., Lopez Estrada sent the exotic leathers and leather products to his co-defendants Caraveo and Cueva in Mexico for clandestine importation into the United States. As payment for the skins, boots and belts, Lopez Estrada received international wire transfers from Colorado to his Mexican bank account.

At today’s sentencing hearing, the government successfully argued that Lopez Estrada’s sentence should take into account more than 400 pairs of sea turtle skin boots and shoes and other items which were seized from Lopez Estrada’s business and residence by Mexican authorities in September 2007. Lopez Estrada had offered to sell and smuggle the items into the United States, but the transaction was interrupted by his arrest. The seizure of the boots and other items in Mexico was the result of close cooperation between United States and Mexican authorities, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the FWS, the Mexican department of justice (Procuraduria General de la Republica or PGR) and the Mexican environmental protection agency (Procuraduria Federal de Proteccion al Ambiente or PROFEPA). In addition to the seizure of wildlife items from Lopez Estrada, the Mexican authorities seized other sea turtle and wildlife items and made a number of related arrests in various areas throughout Mexico during September 2007, as part of a coordinated takedown with U.S. law enforcement.

“Today’s sentence is in large part the result of effective cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican governments in the investigation and prosecution of individuals who unlawfully kill endangered and protected wildlife in Mexico and then illegally smuggle that wildlife into the United States,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The kind of international collaboration shown in this case makes both of our countries stronger. We intend to continue this cooperative relationship with Mexico, and we also hope to continue and establish similar relationships with other countries around the world that share our desire to curb the illegal exploitation of our wildlife and natural resources.”

“Today’s sentencing demonstrates that those responsible for environmental crimes will receive prison time,” said Troy A. Eid, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.

There are seven known species of sea turtles. Five of the seven species, including Hawksbill sea turtles, are listed as “endangered” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Sea turtles are sometimes illegally killed for their shell, meat, skin, and eggs, which have commercial value. International trade in all sea turtle parts for commercial purposes is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, also known as the CITES treaty, a multilateral treaty to which the United States, Mexico, China and approximately 170 other countries are parties. United States law requires that wildlife entering the U.S. be clearly marked and declared to customs or wildlife officials upon entry, requires permits for trade in or handling of many species of wildlife and prohibits commercial trade in endangered species, including all sea turtles.

Six of the seven sea turtle species inhabit Mexican waters and nest on that country’s beaches. All killing of sea turtles, taking of eggs and sale of sea turtle products has been illegal in Mexico since 1990. Public campaigns and grassroots efforts have widely informed the public of these restrictions. Nevertheless, the illegal collecting of sea turtle eggs, hunting of the animals for their meat, skin and shells remains one of the leading threats to their survival. Sea turtle products are used as food, clothing and decoration. Sea turtles are slow-growing, late-maturing animals. About one percent of hatchlings make it to adulthood, making reproductive adults ecologically significant to the population. The illegal killing of one adult for its skin, meat or shell does the same “damage” to the population as taking many thousands of eggs.

This prosecution is the result of an investigation conducted by the FWS Branch of Special Operations, led by Special Agent George Morrison. The case is 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.

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