Oxnard man pleads guilty to wildlife smuggling, trafficking charges
A Ventura County man pleaded guilty today to federal criminal charges for illegally importing into the United States more than 1,700 wild animals – including 60 reptiles found hidden in his clothes earlier this year at the United States-Mexico border.
Jose Manuel Perez, a.k.a. Julio Rodriguez, 30, of Oxnard, pleaded guilty to two counts of smuggling goods into the United States and one count of wildlife trafficking.
According to his plea agreement, from January 2016 to February 2022, Mr. Perez and his accomplices used social media to arrange for the smuggling of wildlife – primarily reptiles – into the United States, typically from Mexico.
The smuggled animals – which included Yucatan box turtles, Mexican box turtles, baby crocodiles and Mexican beaded lizards – were imported into the United States from Mexico and Hong Kong without declaring them to U.S. customs officials or obtaining permits required by an international treaty known as the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
For the animals smuggled from Mexico, Mr. Perez’s accomplices retrieved the wildlife from Ciudad Juarez International Airport in Mexico and smuggled the animals by car to El Paso, Texas. Mr. Perez’s accomplices were paid a “crossing fee” for each border crossing – the amount of which depended on the number of animals transported, the size of the package and the risk of being detected by the authorities. Mr. Perez then had the animals shipped to his family’s residence in Ventura County, where he resold the animals to customers across the United States. Throughout the process, Mr. Perez used the alias Julio Rodriguez to conceal his involvement in the scheme.
On other occasions, Mr. Perez himself traveled to Mexico to obtain wildlife. He rented a house in Tijuana and crossed into the United States from Mexico at the San Ysidro Port of Entry approximately 36 times from February 2021 to February 2022. On February 25, Mr. Perez was arrested while attempting to enter the United States with 60 reptiles on his person, hidden in his clothing in small bags. Three of the reptiles died during his smuggling attempt.
On May 1, Mr. Perez was ordered released on bond. On June 5, the day before a court hearing he had requested, Mr. Perez removed his ankle bracelet used for court-ordered location monitoring and fled to Tijuana. On June 16, Mr. Perez was apprehended in Mexico. Mr. Perez was returned to the United States on June 16 and has remained in custody since then.
Law enforcement estimates that the wildlife smuggled by Perez had a total market value exceeding $739,000.
United States District Judge Fernando M. Olguin scheduled a December 1 sentencing hearing, at which time Mr. Perez will face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for each smuggling count and up to five years in federal prison for the wildlife trafficking count. Stephany Perez, 26, also of Oxnard, Jose Perez’s sister and co-defendant, is scheduled to go on trial in this case in February 2023.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service investigated this matter. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Homeland Security Investigations provided substantial assistance.
Assistant United States Attorneys Matthew W. O’Brien and Brian R. Faerstein of the Environmental and Community Safety Crimes Section and Senior Trial Attorney Gary N. Donner of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division are prosecuting this case.
– Katherine Zehnder