WASHINGTON – Martin Villegas Terrones, a Mexican national, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for his role in an illegal smuggling operation that trafficked in protected sea turtle species, the Justice Department announced today. Along with the prison term, Villegas was sentenced to three years of supervised release.
Villegas pleaded guilty on March 11, 2008, to federal smuggling charges in connection with his sale and shipment of endangered sea turtle skins and skin products from Mexico to the United States.
Villegas and 10 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 Branch of Special Operations. Villegas and six other defendants were arrested on Sept. 6, 2007.
“Seven arrests, seven guilty pleas, and seven prison sentences should send a message to anyone considering smuggling protected wildlife into the United States,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Justice Department will continue to work with our international partners to apprehend and prosecute the illegal smuggling of protected species such as sea turtles and to ensure that those who engage in such activity cannot regard the United States as a safe market for their illegal products.”
“Hurt sea turtles, do time,” said Troy Eid, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.
All seven of the defendants arrested as a result of this investigation have now pleaded guilty and have been sentenced. Those include Chinese nationals Fu Yiner and Wang Hong; Mexican nationals Carlos Leal Barragan, Esteban Lopez Estrada, and Martin Villegas Terrones; Oscar Cueva of McAllen, Texas; and Jorge Caraveo of El Paso, Texas.
Several species of sea turtles are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. All seven species of sea turtles are also protected internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), a multilateral treaty to which the United States, Mexico, China and approximately 170 other countries are parties. Importation of sea turtles into the United States for primarily commercial purposes is strictly prohibited by CITES and U.S. law.
This prosecution is the result of an investigation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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.