SoCal couple accused of smuggling 911 endangered turtle eggs

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SAN DIEGO — A man and a woman from Hemet have been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the smuggling of 911 sea turtle eggs into the United States from Mexico, federal authorities announced.

Olive ridley turtle nesting on Escobilla Beach, Oaxaca, Mexico (Photo: Claudio Giovenzana)

Olive ridley turtle nesting on Escobilla Beach, Oaxaca, Mexico (Photo: Claudio Giovenzana)

The eggs were from two sea turtle species — Olive ridley and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.  Both Olive ridley and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles were initially identified as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1978 and 1973, respectively, according to federal authorities.

Both the U.S. and Mexico are signers to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Under that convention it is illegal in both nations to trade in Olive ridley and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles or any part of those sea turtles, including their eggs, without permission from the respective governments.

According to the indictment, Olga Jimenez, 52,  boarded a bus in Nayarit, Mexico destined for Tijuana on Nov. 23, 2014, with a large cooler containing approximately nine small plastic bags filled with a total of approximately 911 sea turtle eggs.

Meanwhile defendant Jose Luis Jimenez, 64, drove from Hemet, California, to the Mexican border and crossed into Mexico as a pedestrian with two small coolers, authorities said.

The indictment alleges that at the bus station in Tijuana, the defendants moved the sea turtle eggs from the large cooler to the two small coolers, concealing them under layers of ice, fish and shrimp. The defendants allegedly gave the coolers to the owner of a pickup truck to bring to the United States, telling the driver the coolers contained only fish and shrimp.

According to the indictment, the defendants then crossed back into the United States through the pedestrian lanes, after which Olga Jimenez placed a call to one of the occupants of the pickup truck in order to determine whether the sea turtle eggs had successfully entered the United States.  The indictment seeks criminal forfeiture of the eggs.

The investigation into the smuggling operation by the Jimenezes was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Law Enforcement, according to federal authorities.

Federal authorities did not release information regarding the relationship between the two suspects or how they were arrested.

The pair of alleged smugglers face numerous federal charges.

According to the indictment those charges include: Conspiracy with a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine; smuggling with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; importation contrary to law with a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine; unlawful trafficking in wildlife with a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and criminal forfeiture.

Jose Jimenez was ordered to appear before federal Judge Janis L. Sammartino on Jan. 14 for a hearing on all motions in the case.  Olga Jimenez, who was arrested in Arizona, was ordered to appear in federal court in San Diego on Dec. 16 before the duty magistrate.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, both Olive ridley and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles gather in large groups off shore and then come ashore all at once to nest in what is known as an “arribada.”

Females nest once or twice a year, laying clutches of approximately 100 eggs and burying them in the sand on the beach.  The indictment alleges that during the spectacle of the “arribada,” the nesting sites are vulnerable to poachers, who collect the eggs for sale for human consumption. The eggs are considered a delicacy in Asia, where they are reputed to have aphrodisiac effects.

Olive ridley sea turtles inhabit a broad range extending in the South Atlantic Ocean from West Africa to South America and in the eastern Pacific Ocean from Southern California to Northern Chile.  Adults weigh approximately 100 pounds and have olive/grayish-green heart-shaped shells, according to federal officials.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the smallest marine turtle in the world. Their top shell is grayish green and nearly circular, with a pale yellowish bottom shell.  Adults weigh approximately 100 pounds and are found in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean from the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico to New England.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement, along with our agency partners, is committed to investigating people who exploit endangered and protected species to line their own pockets,” said Jill Birchell, special agent in charge of the agency’s California/Nevada office.

Said Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries: “Smuggling wildlife of any kind, especially endangered species, is something we take seriously. We will not tolerate violation of federal and international laws regarding the illegal trade of endangered species, and we will continue to take a hard stance in combating wildlife trafficking.”