News and Press Releases

MIAMI WILDLIFE SMUGGLERS PLEAD GUILTY

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 21, 2010

Wifredo A. Ferrer, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Samuel Santiago, Caribbean Area Manager, United States Department of Agriculture, and Eddie McKissick, Resident Agent in Charge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, Miami Office, announced that Rufino Blanco, 47, and Claribel Blanco Cuellar, 21, both of Miami, pled guilty in federal District Court in Miami today to charges related to the attempted importation into the United States of seventy-two (72) undeclared pigeon eggs from Cuba in violation of the Lacey Act, Title 16 , United States Code, Sections 3372(a)(1) and 3373(d)(1)(A).

According to the allegations in the Indictment and statements in Court, in June 2010, Claribel Blanco Cuellar returned to Miami from Cuba with the eggs secreted in her luggage. When inspectors from Customs & Border Protection (CBP) located the contraband, Cuellar claimed they were for her father Rufino Blanco, to be used in Santeria ceremonies. In fact, Rufino Blanco’s intention was to hatch the viable eggs and market them through his pet store, El Morrillero and though on-line chat rooms, to devotees of the homing/racing pigeon community.

United States District Court Judge Jose E. Martinez, who accepted the guilty pleas in this matter, set sentencing for March 3, 2011 at 1:30 pm. The defendants each face a possible term of imprisonment of up to five years, criminal fines of up to $250,000, as well as a period of supervised release of up to three years.

Federal law prohibits the importation of fish or wildlife into the United States without proper declaration to both CBP and the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). Additionally, in many instances, an importer must hold a valid Import/Export License from FWS to engage in commercial activities involving importing and exporting fish and wildlife. The Lacey Act specifically defines the term “wildlife” to include any wild animal, alive or dead, including without limitation any wild mammal, whether or not bred, hatched, or born in captivity, and includes any part, product, egg, or offspring thereof.

According to court documents, the shipment at issue was color-coded, with the eggs divided into six sets, each secure inside a cotton-padded plastic Easter-egg shell. Information regarding the eggs was written on the plastic shells, documenting the source and parentage of the eggs. According to a written factual statement signed by the defendants, Rufino Blanco offered Cuban-origin pigeons for sale through an on-line chat room, referring potential buyers to his pet store. Agents who visited the store found it devoted exclusively to the sale of racing and homing pigeons.

According to USDA’s Animal Plant health Inspection Services-Veterinary Services, USDA regulations prohibit the importation of viable pigeon eggs unless accompanied by a certificate from a veterinary officer of the country of origin, certifying the eggs derive from a flock or flocks found free of communicable diseases. Several such diseases, notably Newcastle disease and European fowl pest (fowl plague), are of particular concern and carry mandatory quarantine requirements preceding any importation to avoid the risk of disease propagation to domestic poultry stocks and wild avians. USDA considers Cuba as a source country for potential Newcastle disease, as well as the H5N1 avian influenza. As a result, it was necessary for all the merchandise in this case to be destroyed by USDA authorities.

Mr. Ferrer commended the investigative efforts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Fish & Wildlife Service, and Customs & Border Protection, which brought the investigation to a successful conclusion. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Thomas Watts-FitzGerald.

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A copy of this press release may be found on the website of the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/fls. Related court documents and information may be found on the website of the District Court for the Southern District of Florida at http://www.flsd.uscourts.gov or on http://pacer.flsd.uscourts.gov.

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