At a border crossing between the United States and Mexico, border officials said they found 60 reptiles in an Oxnard man's pockets in February. He claimed they were his pets.
Six months later, that man, Jose Manuel Perez, pleaded guilty to smuggling more than 1,700 wild animals into the U.S. over a six-year period, according to federal prosecutors. The 30-year-old pleaded guilty to two counts of smuggling goods into the U.S. and one count of wildlife trafficking.
He faces a maximum of 20 years in federal prison for each smuggling count and up to five years for wildlife trafficking, according to prosecutors.
Perez, who also went by the alias Julio Rodriguez, used social media to arrange his smuggling operation between January 2016 through February 2022, which focused primarily on smuggling reptiles into the U.S. from Mexico and Hong Kong, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. Those reptiles included baby crocodiles, Yucatan box turtles, Mexican bearded lizards and many more animals, prosecutors said.
Perez did not declare the animals to U.S. customs officials or obtain any of the necessary permits required under the international treaty known as the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), according to prosecutors.
Instead, Perez boasted on Facebook about his trips to Mexico, where he gathered reptiles and posted photos and videos to potential buyers, according to prosecutors. He also used several accomplices as part of his operation, who were paid a "crossing fee" whenever they smuggled the animals across the border, prosecutors said. He also used his sister's PayPal account and had the animals shipped to his home under his mother's name, but it's unclear if his mother was involved in the operation, based on court documents.
From February 2021 through February 2022, Perez crossed the San Ysidro Port of Entry roughly 36 times after he rented a home in Tijuana. On Feb. 25, Perez told border officials he had nothing to declare, but was directed to a second screening area, where he was told that they would perform a physical search, according to prosecutors.
He told customs officials that he had his pets in his pockets and that was how he transported them to and from his home.
Officials found 60 reptiles hidden in Perez's jacket pockets, pants pockets, groin area and pant legs, prosecutors said. From the batch, three of the animals died.
Perez was arrested on Feb. 25, and on May 16, he was released on bond, but less than a month later he removed his tracking ankle bracelet and fled to Tijuana. On June 16, he was arrested again in Mexico and returned to the U.S. He remains in custody and is scheduled to be sentenced by a federal judge in December.
During the smuggling operation, prosecutors said all the animals had a total market value of more than $739,000. His sister, Stephany Perez, 26, is schedule to go on trial early next year for her alleged involvement in the smuggling operation.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.