Second Texas Man Sentenced to 16 Months in Prison for Smuggling Protected Sea Turtles

WASHINGTON (LAWFUEL) – Oscar Cueva, of McAllen, Texas, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Denver to 16 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, Cueva was sentenced to three years supervised release and has the option of paying $5,000 to a specific sea turtle awareness program, perform 350 hours of community service for the benefit of a sea turtle conservation program, or participate in a public service announcement about the dangers and consequences of sea turtle smuggling.

Cueva 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. Cueva and six other defendants were arrested in Texas and Colorado on Sept. 6, 2007. All seven of those individuals have pleaded guilty. Mexican nationals Carlos Leal Barragan and Esteban Lopez Estrada, who smuggled sea turtle skins, boots and other products made from protected species, were sentenced 16 months and 24 months imprisonment, respectively. Texas boot dealer Jorge Caraveo, who smuggled sea turtle boots and skins, along with hundreds of additional exotic boots, was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. Chinese nationals Fu Yiner and Wang Hong, who smuggled items made from sea turtle shell parts, including guitar picks violin bows, were sentenced to 138 days and 167 days of imprisonment, respectively. Mexican national Martin Villegas Terrones has not yet been sentenced.

Cueva pleaded guilty on Jan. 18, 2008, to conspiracy to commit smuggling and money laundering. According to the plea agreement, Cueva operated a business in McAllen called La Cueva Western Wear, 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. Cueva crossed the border between Reynosa, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, daily and frequently concealed footwear and skins of exotic animals in his vehicle. In Reynosa, Cueva received exotic leathers and leather products from co-defendants in Mexico for clandestine importation into the United States. Cueva received “crossing fees” as payment for his smuggling activities.

According to the plea agreement filed in the case, during the undercover portion of the investigation Cueva smuggled approximately 200 sea turtle skins, 40 pairs of sea turtle skin boots and 100 pairs of boots made from other exotic skins requiring inspection and permits. In addition, Cueva smuggled hundreds of pairs of boots made from exotic skins during the last several years for sale through his business.

At today’s sentencing hearing, the court found that the fair market retail value of the skins and hundreds of pairs of boots and shoes smuggled by Cueva during the past several years was more than $200,000. The investigation of this case involved 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). Mexican authorities seized many hundreds of 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.

“This smuggling ring exploited the illegal killing of countless protected turtles for their skins, all in the pursuit of a profit. Oscar Cueva will now serve prison time for his actions,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The U.S. government will continue to work cooperatively with Mexico and others to curb the illegal exploitation of our wildlife and natural resources.”

“Those responsible for killing sea turtles for their skins and bones will be held accountable,” said Troy Eid, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.

There are seven known species of sea turtles. Five of the seven species 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 many subsequent generations of the population. The illegal killing of one adult for its meat, skin 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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