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Seventh Defendant Pleads Guilty in Turtle Smuggling Case

WASHINGTON – Martin Villegas Terrones, a Mexican national, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Denver for his role in an illegal smuggling operation that trafficked in protected turtle species, the Justice Department announced today.

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 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. Villegas and six other defendants were arrested on Sept. 6, 2007.

“This international investigation spanned two years, involved an undercover sting operation in Denver, resulted in seven arrests, and culminated with seven guilty pleas,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The United States is not a safe market for illegal products and this investigation and prosecution is a warning for those who may consider trafficking in protected species.”

“Seven guilty pleas later, the message has been sent: Trafficking in sea turtles doesn't pay,” said Troy Eid, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado.

All seven of the defendants arrested in September 2007 as a result of this investigation have now pleaded guilty: 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. Fu Yiner and Wang Hong have been sentenced to 138 days of imprisonment and 167 days of imprisonment, respectively.

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.