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Wildlife trafficking case offers rare glimpse into the exotic animal trade from Mexico

Wildlife trafficking case offers rare glimpse into the exotic animal trade from Mexico

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MEXICO CITY — Just south of the US border, the trafficker was preparing to load his car with contraband when he got a message from his accomplishment.

For years, the men had carried out one of the most successful cross-border trades in illicit wildlife, moving millions of dollars in exotic animals across the Rio Grande, many of them endangered species.

There were the crocodiles, the boa constrictors, the Central American river turtles. But this morning’s run was particularly challenging: six adult toucans, known for their loud squawk.

“Tape their beaks so they do not make noise and tie them up very well,” one trafficker messaged the other.

What the two men didn’t know was that their communications would wind up in the hands of US federal prosecutors. Those intercepts — over more than four years — led this month to one of the country’s highest-profile beliefs of a cross-border wildlife trafficker.

Jorge Alonso Gutierrez, a Mexican citizen, was sentenced to three years in prison for his “role in a conspiracy to smuggle protected reptiles from Mexico to the United States,” the Justice Department announced.

The Justice Department’s indictment included a startling glimpse into the inner workings of the wildlife trade between Mexico and the United States, where thousands of animals are trafficked every year. Between 2015 and 2020, Gutierrez helped smuggle more than $3.5 million in exotic animals between the border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso — the epicenter of the cross-border trade, according to government statistics.

Once Gutierrez helped get the animals across the border, investigators said, his accomplishments put them in boxes and mailed them across the United States. Over and over, US postal workers were unknowingly delivering endangered species—some of them extremely venomous.

Between 2007 and 2017, nearly a third of all wildlife seizures in the United States were made in El Paso, an average of roughly one exotic animal seizure per day. Gutierrez was part of the reason the border city had become a cornerstone of the trade.

“Gutierrez was an important target within this conspiracy, because he served as a ‘clearing house’ for all of the wildlife this group trafficked from Mexico into the United States,” said Gary Donner, the lead federal prosecutor in the case.

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The variety of animals confiscated at the El Paso port of entry and at other border crossings is vast — from plastic bags of salamanders to duffel bags of tiger cubs and trailers of addax antelope. But Gutierrez had come to specialize in birds and reptiles, in part because of the growing demand among US customers.

Mexico’s own environmental protection agency has recently made high-profile raids on stash houses, seizing animals that appeared to be destined for the United States. Last November, Mexican law enforcement agents seized more than 15,000 animals in two properties in Mexico City, most of which were species protected under the international agreement regulating the trade of wild animals.

Mexico has the second-highest number of reptile species in the world, behind Australia, making it a major source for traffickers of snakes, lizards and turtles.

Gutierrez often received the animals at the airport in Ciudad Juárez, and he paid airport employees not to inspect the packages, according to the Justice Department investigation. He then handed the animals to another trafficker, Alejandro Carrillo, who smuggled them by car into El Paso. Carrillo was awarded in March to one year and eight months in prison.

“Once in the United States, the wildlife was shipped via Fed Ex or US Postal Service to US-based customers. On many occasions, animals died during transport,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

In a single day in January 2017, the men transported what seemed like an entire reptile park across the border in a single vehicle. The haul included terrestrial arboreal alligator lizards, spiny-headed tree frogs, red-lipped arboreal alligator lizards, helmeted iguanas, Yucatán spiny-tailed iguanas and conehead lizards.

“The stuff you sent is safe,” one of the traffickers messaged after crossing the border, before mailing the animals to customers in Florida and California.

One of Gutierrez’s colleagues messaged that the “Crocodiles were risky, because they bark and are delicate,” according to messages intercepted by the Justice Department. He instructed the other trafficker to “tape their snouts.”

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Environmentalists have grown concerned that the growing cross-border trade in reptiles is already making a tooth in biodiversity across Latin America.

“The reptile trade in the US is booming, and the demand for rare endemic species has grown,” said Juan Carlos Cantú, the director of programs at Defenders of Wildlife in Mexico. “Many of these species have very small populations and many are classified as endangered or threatened, so this illegal trade may bring some of these species to the brink of extinction.”

Sometimes the reptiles are trafficked south, from the United States to Mexico. Mexican criminal organizations often request exotic species that originate in Africa and Asia and transit through the United States.

In spring 2017, for example, Gutierrez helped transport 30 African spurred tortoises, 11 Gaboon vipers and four black-necked spitting cobras into Mexico.

But it was the toucans — bound for a customer in California — that Gutierrez perhaps struggled with the most.

By the time they arrived in Juárez, they were already visibly weak. Gutierrez wrote a message to his customer: “I have the toucans and they are dying.”

He attached a video of the dead or dying birds, according to the indictment. Then he took the ones that were still alive into Texas, and sent them in the mail.

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