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Press Release

Sea Cucumber Smuggler Sentenced to Eight Months Jail

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

Assistant U. S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson (619) 546-7976    


SAN DIEGO –Claudia Castillo of Tijuana was sentenced in federal court today to eight months in custody for smuggling endangered sea cucumber into the United States from Mexico. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey T. Miller handed down the sentence and also ordered Castillo to pay $12,000 restitution to the government of Mexico.

Castillo previously pleaded guilty to Conspiring to Import Merchandise Contrary to Law, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371 and 545.

At the time of her guilty plea, Castillo admitted that between January 19, 2018 and September 4, 2019, she conspired with others to smuggle and illegally import sea cucumbers of the species Isostichopus fuscus into the United States from Mexico. Castillo obtained bags containing approximately 2 kg of the sea cucumbers from others in Mexico and would either smuggle the packages into the United States herself, or deliver the packages to others she recruited in order to be smuggled into the United States. Castillo directed the individuals she recruited to deliver the sea cucumbers to a self-storage unit near the border in San Ysidro, California, where the sea cucumber could be accessed by others for further transportation and sale

Castillo had the individuals she recruited provide her with photographs of the sea cucumbers within the self-storage unit as proof of delivery, and when delivery was confirmed, she would pay them $7 for each bag that was delivered. Castillo herself was stopped at the border with six bags of undeclared sea cucumbers hidden in her vehicle in May of 2018.

The sea cucumbers involved were identified as Isostichopus fuscus, a species listed on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).  In order to import a CITES species into the United States, the importer must comply with CITES and its implementing regulations, pursuant to Section 1538(c)(1) of Title 16 of the United States Code.  Sections 23.13 and 23.27 of Title 50 of the Code of Federal Regulations prohibits the importation of species listed under Appendix II and III, without a CITES certificate of origin and a CITES export permit from the originating country.

Castillo knew that neither she nor her assistants possessed the necessary CITES documents for the sea cucumber. In order to import a commercial quantity of sea cucumber into the United States, a license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is required, pursuant to Section 1538(d)(1) of Title 16 of the United States Code.   Neither Castillo nor her associates possessed such a license.  The fair market value of the sea cucumbers illegally imported as a part of this conspiracy was between $40,000 and $95,000.

Judge Miller required payment of restitution to the government of Mexico of $12,000 for the loss of their natural resources, based on the defendant’s ability to pay.

“Illegal trafficking in fish and wildlife is big business,” said U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer.  “We are committed to working with our law enforcement partners to protect endangered wildlife.” Brewer thanked prosecutor Melanie Pierson and U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents for their hard work on this case.

“Illegal wildlife trafficking is a serious crime that impacts species around the world including important  marine species that are critical to the ocean ecosystems,” said Dan Crum, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is committed to impeding this illicit trade coming through our borders, and hope that today's sentencing will send a message to others who choose to ignore the law.”

DEFENDANT                                               Case Number 19cr4039-JM                        

Claudia Castillo                                              Age: 49                                   Tijuana, Mexico


Conspiracy – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 371

Maximum penalty: Five years in prison and $250,000 fine


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Office of Law Enforcement

Updated June 9, 2020

Press Release Number: CAS20-0609-Castillo