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Sixth Defendant Pleads Guilty in Connection with Illegal Sea Turtle Smuggling

WASHINGTON – Esteban Lopez Estrada, a Mexican national, pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Denver to one felony count of smuggling and one felony count of money laundering in connection with the smuggling of sea turtle and other exotic skins and skin products into the United States from Mexico, the Justice Department announced today.

Including today’s plea, six of the seven defendants detained in the case have now pleaded guilty: Chinese nationals Fu Yiner and Wang Hong; Mexican national Carlos Leal Barragan; Oscar Cueva of McAllen, Texas; and Jorge Caraveo of El Paso, Texas.

Lopez Estrada 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 Branch of Special Operations. Lopez Estrada and six other defendants were arrested on Sept. 6, 2007.

Lopez Estrada was indicted in two separate indictments related to the smuggling of sea turtle and other exotic leathers and exotic leather products into the United States from Mexico. As set forth in the indictments and acknowledged in today’s plea agreement, Lopez Estrada operated a business in Leon, Mexico named Botas Exoticas Canada Grande, 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. After arranging sales to customers in the U.S., Lopez Estrada sent the exotic leathers and leather products to his co-defendants Caraveo and Cueva in Mexico for clandestine importation into the United States. As payment for the skins, boots, and belts, he received international wire transfers from Colorado to his Mexican bank account.

A sentencing hearing is set for April 30, 2008 at 2:30 MST.

“Lopez Estrada is the sixth defendant to plead guilty as a result of this undercover operation,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Justice Department will continue to work with investigative agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service to prosecute the illegal smuggling of protected species such as sea turtles and to insure that those who engage in such activity cannot regard the United States as a safe market for their illegal products.”

“We mean business when it comes to protecting endangered sea turtles,” said Troy Eid, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.  “Kudos to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Branch of Special Operations for making this possible.”

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, skins, 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. CITES also restricts international trade in many other species of wildlife, including some involved in this case, which are deemed at risk of extinction and are, or may be, affected by international trade. United States law independently 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.

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.