(KTLA) – An Oxnard, California, man has been charged for illegally importing more than 1,700 reptiles into the United States, 60 of which were found hidden in his clothes last month at the Mexican border.
Jose Manuel Perez, 30, was charged with one count of conspiracy, nine counts of smuggling goods into the U.S., and two counts of wildlife trafficking, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California said in a news release. The superseding indictment returned Thursday adds allegations to an indictment originally filed on Feb. 24.
According to authorities, the new allegations include some accusing Perez of crossing into the U.S. from Mexico by car with approximately 60 reptiles – including dozens of lizards and four snakes – inside his pockets, groin area and pant legs in late February.
At first, Perez denied to customs officials that he had anything to declare but later told them that “the animals were his pets,” the indictment alleges.
From January 2016 to February 2022, Perez; his sister, Stephany Perez; and their co-conspirators used social media to buy and negotiate the sale and delivery of wildlife in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice. They allegedly posted photos and videos showing the reptiles being collected from the wild.
Among the reptiles imported from Mexico and Hong Kong were Yucatan box turtles, Mexican box turtles, baby crocodiles and Mexican beaded lizards. All were imported without required permits, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
For those reptiles smuggled from Mexico, co-conspirators would collect the wildlife from Cuidad Juarez International Airport and eventually ship the animals by car to El Paso, Texas, the news release said. Perez paid his co-conspirators a “crossing fee” for each pickup – the amount of which depended on the number of reptiles, the size of the package and the risk of being detected.
Perez and a co-conspirator would travel to Mexico themselves on some occasions. During these trips, live animals that had been taken from the wild were purchased and brought into the U.S.
Once the animals were in the U.S., they were allegedly transported to Perez’s Missouri residence and, after he moved to California, his residence in Ventura County.
According to the DOJ, Stephany Perez helped in the illegal wildlife smuggling business while her brother was incarcerated in the U.S. She has been charged in the indictment with conspiracy and is expected to appear for an arraignment in the coming weeks, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Jose Perez has been in federal custody since his arrest on Feb. 25, following the incident at the border, and is scheduled to be arraigned on Monday in Los Angeles.
If convicted of all charges, authorities said defendants would face a statutory maximum sentence of five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge. Jose Perez would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years for each smuggling count and five years for each wildlife trafficking count.