Prison Sentence for Smuggling Internationally Protected Turtle Parts into United States

WASHINGTON (Lawfuel) – Carlos Leal Barragan, of Ciudad Guzman, Mexico, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado to serve 16 months in prison and three years supervised release in connection with his sale and smuggling of internationally protected sea turtle skins and sea turtle products from Mexico to the United States, the Justice Department announced.

Leal Barragan and ten others were indicted in Denver in August 2007 following a multi-year undercover investigation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Branch of Special Operations. The operation code-named Operation Central, investigated illegal sales of sea turtle parts from China and Mexico. Leal Barragan and seven other defendants were arrested on Sept. 6, 2007. All seven defendants have pleaded guilty to charges related to the investigation.

As set forth in the indictment and acknowledged in a previously filed plea agreement, Leal Barragan’s family has been involved in the tanning of sea turtle hides, purchased from fishermen, for many years. The skins are sold to boot makers in Mexico and are sometimes smuggled to boot makers in the United States. Leal Barragan sent three shipments comprising approximately 360 sea turtle skin pieces, along with sea turtle boots, belts and shoes from Mexico to undercover agents of the USFWS working in Colorado during 2007, in violation of U.S. law and international treaty. The value of these items is approximately $30,000.

“Today’s prison sentence should serve as a warning to anyone contemplating smuggling sea turtles and other protected species into the United States,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Justice Department will continue to prosecute these illegal acts to ensure that those who engage in such activity cannot regard the United States as a safe market for their illegal products.”

“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, 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 makes 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 USFWS 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 Trial Attorney Robert S. Anderson and Trial Attorney Colin L. Black of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section.

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