On September 3, the US District Court for the Western District of Texas sentenced Jorge Alonso Gutierrez, a Mexican citizen, to three years in prison for his “role in a conspiracy to smuggle protected reptiles from Mexico to the United States.”1 Gutierrez admitted to acting as the middleman between several Mexico-based suppliers and US-based customers and was part of one of the most successful cross-border schemes to illegally trade wildlife in the United States.
Between 2015 and 2020, Gutierrez helped illegally move more than $3.5 million in exotic animals across the border in El Paso. This movement of animals was part of the reason that city became the epi-center of illegal wildlife trade in the United States, with almost one third of all wildlife seizures occurring in El Paso between 2007 and 2017.2 According to the Justice Department's announcement, Gutierrez smuggled protected species across the border without permits, in contravention of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)3 and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).4
CITES is an international agreement among the governments of more than 180 countries which aims to ensure that international trade of wild animals, plants, or animal or plant products does not threaten the survival of these species.5 The agreement works by requiring a permit to import or export a species listed on one of three appendices, based on what level of protection the species requires.6
The Endangered Species Act is a key statute in the US government's implementation of CITES. The US Fish & Wildlife Service is the designated authority to carry out the US government's obligations under CITES, and, through the ESA, maintains its own list of species that are endangered or threatened around the world.7 The ESA makes it unlawful to take a listed species without a permit, where “take” can mean “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”8
Gutierrez's recent sentencing is the most recent example of the Justice Department's general enforcement effort to pursue criminal sanctions for violating the ESA, the Lacey Act, and other related crimes. The action reflects international recognition that the illicit trafficking of wildlife is a serious transnational crime that not only threatens species survival, but also biodiversity, human health, economic development, security, and the rule of law.
1 See Department of Justice, Mexican National Sentenced for Trafficking in Wildlife (Sept. 3, 2021).
2 See Kevin Sieff, ‘Tape their beaks': Wildlife trafficking case offers glimpse into clandestine animal trade from Mexico, The Washington Post (Sept. 11, 2021).
3 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, March 3rd, 1973, 993 U.N.T.S. 243.
4 16 U.S.C. Ch. 35.
5 See What is CITES?, CITES.
6 Appendix I includes species threated with extinction, Appendix II lists species for which trade must be controlled to ensure their survival, and Appendix III contains species protected by at least one country. See How CITES works.
7 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, CITES, International Affairs.
8 16 U.S.C. § 1352(19); see also 16 U.S.C. §1538.
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