WASHINGTON – Jorge Caraveo, of El Paso, Texas, was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Denver to serve 18 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.
Along with the prison term, Caraveo was sentenced to three years supervised release and a $300 special assessment.
Caraveo 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 (USFWS) Branch of Special Operations. Caraveo 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 to serve 16 months and 24 months imprisonment, respectively. Chinese nationals Fu Yiner and Wang Hong, who smuggled items made from sea turtle shell parts, including guitar picks and violin bows, were sentenced to 138 days and 167 days of imprisonment, respectively. Mexican national Martin Villegas Terrones and Oscar Cueva of McAllen, Texas, have not yet been sentenced.
Caraveo pleaded guilty on Jan. 29, 2008, to three felony counts of smuggling. According to the plea agreement, Caraveo operated a business in El Paso, Texas named the Juarez Boot Company, 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. Caraveo crossed the border between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, daily and frequently concealed footwear and skins of exotic animals in his vehicle. Caraveo received in Juarez exotic leathers and leather products from co-defendants in Mexico for clandestine importation into the United States. Caraveo received “crossing fees” as payment for his smuggling activities.
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 Caraveo during the past several years was more than $200,000. He will be required to relinquish title to the boots and shoes made from exotic skins which were seized at his Juarez Boot Company business in September 2007 that he cannot produce import certificates for.
The investigation of this case involved cooperation between United States and Mexican authorities, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the USFWS, 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.
“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.”
“Hurt sea turtles, do 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 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 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 Senior Trial Attorney Robert S. Anderson and Trial Attorney Colin L. Black of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Crimes Section.