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Press Release

Pesticide Smuggling Ringleader Sentenced to 8 Months in Prison

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of California

For Further Information, Contact:
Assistant U. S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson (619) 546-7976

SAN DIEGO – Sofia Mancera Morales, the ringleader of a pesticide smuggling organization, was sentenced to eight months in custody in federal court yesterday, having previously entered a guilty plea in which she acknowledged obtaining illegal pesticides in Mexico and delivering them to others to smuggle into the United States. When handing down the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge John Houston also ordered Morales to pay $7497 in restitution for the cost of disposal of the illegal pesticides.

According to sentencing documents, Morales recruited individuals on Facebook, offering to pay $40-$150 for each box of six 1-liter bottles delivered to the United States. Morales directed her recruits to deliver the pesticides to a self-storage facility near the border in Calexico, after which they were required to send her photographs of the pesticides in the storage unit as proof of delivery prior to payment. Morales paid recruits to lease self-storage units in their own names and instructed them to provide her with the keys. Recruits caught at the border with pesticides reported that they had seen items delivered by others in their self-storage units, including pesticides, veterinary medications and alcohol. One recruit delivered almost 1000 bottles of pesticides in a one-month period, while others advised that they had delivered pesticides 2-5 times per week.

The pesticides involved were primarily Bovitraz and Taktic, which contain the active ingredient amitraz in a concentrated form (12.5%) that renders it a cancelled and unregistered pesticide. Amitraz is an acaricide that is registered in the United States. to control varroa mites in honeybee colonies at a much lower concentration (3.33%) than the smuggled product. At a permissible concentration it is also registered for use in dog flea collars. In addition to posing risks to the bee population, misuse of amitraz-containing products in beehives can result in exposures that could cause neurological effects and reproductive effects in humans from consumption of contaminated honey. Animal toxicity studies indicate that amitraz is slightly toxic by the oral and inhalation routes and moderately toxic through the skin. Reproductive effects seen in animal studies include a decline in male fertility and a reduction in live births. Moreover, signs of neurotoxicity from exposure to amitraz were seen in multiple animal species, including central nervous system depression, decrease in pulse rate, and hypothermia, and based on human studies, humans appear to be more sensitive to amitraz than
animals. Amitraz is also classified as a Group C possible human carcinogen based on rodent studies suggesting that long-term exposure could result in cancer.

Federal law prohibits the distribution and sale of cancelled or unregistered pesticides. 7 U.S.C. §136j(a)(1)(A). Only pesticides registered with the EPA may be imported or sold in the United States. 7 U.S.C. §136o(c).

“In exchange for ill-begotten profits, this cavalier smuggling operation was more than willing to risk the public’s health and the honeybee industry, which is critical to pollinating our food supply,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “This office and our law enforcement partners will not stand idly by in the face of pesticide 3 smuggling. Perpetrators of environmental crimes will be investigated and held accountable.” Grossman commended Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen DaPonte, and the law enforcement agents at Homeland Security Investigations and the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division who worked on this case.

“This defendant recklessly orchestrated an illegal large-scale pesticide smuggling operation. These pesticides are banned from importation into the United States because they are highly toxic to humans, wildlife, and the environment,” said Chad Plantz, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) San Diego. HSI, along with its partners from the Environmental Protection Agency – Criminal Investigation Division, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section are committed to preventing these deadly pesticides from entering the United States.”

“The pesticides involved in this case pose serious public health and environmental dangers,” said Special Agent in Charge Scot Adair of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division in California. “The sentence in this case demonstrates that individuals who intentionally violate smuggling and environmental protection laws will be held responsible for their crimes.”

                                     Case Number 20cr3054-JAH
Sofia Mancera Morales            Age: 53                      Mexicali, MX

Conspiracy to Smuggle Pesticides – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 371
Maximum penalty: 5 years’ imprisonment and $250,000 fine

Homeland Security Investigations
Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division



Updated June 9, 2022

Press Release Number: CAS22-0609-Morales