Wildlife trade case offers rare insight into the exotic pet trade from Mexico

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MEXICO CITY — Just south of the US border, the trafficker was loading his car with contraband when he received a message from his accomplice.

For years, the men had conducted one of the most successful cross-border illegal wildlife trades, transporting millions of dollars’ worth of 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 screeches.

“Take off their beaks so they don’t make noise and tie them up,” one trafficker told another.

What the two men did not know was that their communications would end up in the hands of US federal prosecutors. Those interceptions — spanning more than four years — led to one of the country’s most prominent this month beliefs from a cross-border wildlife trader.

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 look at the workings of the wildlife trade between Mexico and the United States, which traffics thousands of animals each year. Between 2015 and 2020, Gutierrez helped smuggle more than $3.5 million worth of exotic animals between the border cities of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico and El Paso — the epicenter of cross-border trade, according to to government statistics.

After Gutierrez helped get the animals across the border, researchers said, his accomplices put them in boxes and shipped them across the United States. Time and again, American mail carriers unknowingly delivered endangered species, some of which were extremely poisonous.

Between 2007 and 2017, nearly one-third of all wildlife captures in the United States took place in El Paso, averaging about one exotic animal catch per day. Gutierrez was one of the reasons the frontier town had become a cornerstone of commerce.

“Gutierrez was a prime target within this conspiracy because he served as a clearing house for all the wildlife that this group smuggled from Mexico into the United States,” said Gary Donner, the lead federal prosecutor in the case.

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

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

Mexico has the second highest number of reptile species in the world after Australia, making it a major source for snake, lizard and turtle smugglers.

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

“Once in the United States, the wild animals were shipped to US customers via Fed Ex or US Postal Service. On many occasions, animals died in transit,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

On one day in January 2017, the men transported what appeared to be an entire reptile park across the border in one vehicle. Captures included terrestrial tree alligator lizards, spiny tree frogs, red-lipped tree alligator lizards, helmeted iguanas, Yucatán spiny-tailed iguanas, and cone-headed lizards.

“The items you sent are safe,” one of the traffickers reported after crossing the border before sending the animals to customers in Florida and California.

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

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Environmentalists are concerned that the growing cross-border trade in reptiles is already putting a dent in biodiversity in Latin America.

“The reptile trade in the US is booming and the demand for rare endemic species has increased,” said Juan Carlos Cantú, program director 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 could push some of these species to the brink of extinction.”

Sometimes the reptiles are smuggled south, from the United States to Mexico. Mexican criminal organizations often request exotic species that come from Africa and Asia and travel through the United States.

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

But it was the toucans—on their way to a customer in California—that perhaps Gutierrez struggled the most with.

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

According to the indictment, he attached a video of the dead or dying birds. Then he took those who were still alive to Texas and mailed them.

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