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Texas Man Pleads Guilty to Smuggling Protected Sea Turtles

WASHINGTON – Oscar Cueva of McAllen, Texas pleaded guilty today in U.S. District Court in Denver to a felony count of conspiracy to smuggle protected sea turtle and other exotic skins and skin products into the United States and to launder funds in support of that smuggling, the Justice Department announced.

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 Branch of Special Operations. Cueva and seven other defendants were arrested on Sept. 6, 2007. Two of those defendants, Chinese nationals Fu Yiner and Wang Hong, pleaded guilty to smuggling charges earlier this month.

Cueva was indicted together with co-defendants Miguel Vazquez Pimentel, Martin Villegas Terrones, and Esteban Lopez Estrada, all Mexican nationals, in connection with the smuggling of sea turtle and other exotic leathers and exotic leather products into the United States from Mexico. As set forth in the indictment and acknowledged in today’s plea agreement, Cueva received sea turtle and other exotic skins, boots, and other products from his co-defendants in Mexico, and brought the skins, boots, and other products into the United States in violation of U.S. and international law. In furtherance of the smuggling activities, Cueva also participated in the transfer of funds from the United States to Mexico.

According to today’s plea agreement, Cueva smuggled into the United States wildlife parts and products with a total fair market value of between $200,000 and $400,000. A sentencing hearing is set for April 18, 2008 at 2:30 M.S.T.

“Oscar Cueva pleaded guilty today for his role in a smuggling ring that killed protected wildlife for monetary gain,” said Assistant Attorney General Ronald J. Tenpas. “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.”

“The agents who proved this case are the best of the best,” said Troy Eid, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.  “This is one of the most important protected sea turtle cases in history.”

“The slaughter of sea turtles and the black market sale of their skin further threaten already imperiled species,” said Chief Benito Perez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. “Work on this investigation by our agents and Federal prosecutors shows that those who traffic in protected wildlife will face serious consequences for their crimes.”

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.