California man charged with smuggling 1,700 reptiles into US

Jose Manuel Perez is expected to be arraigned on March 28

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A California man was indicted Thursday on federal charges connected to illegally bringing in more than 1,700 reptiles to the U.S. over a period of at least six years.

Jose Manuel Perez, 30, also known as "Julio Rodriguez," has been charged with one count of conspiracy, nine counts of smuggling goods into the country, and two counts of wildlife trafficking. 

When he was caught in February at the San Ysidro Port of Entry at the U.S.-Mexico border, the man was carrying 60 reptiles – dozens of lizards and four snakes – hidden in his clothes.

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The Oxnard man is expected to be arraigned on March 28 in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

In a statement, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California said the superseding indictment adds allegations to an indictment initially filed on Feb. 24. 

The new allegations include 14 overt acts in the conspiracy charge, and the indictment alleges that Perez eventually told customs officials that the animals were his "pets."

Perez's sister, 25-year-old Stephany Perez, is also charged in the indictment with conspiracy and will be directed to appear for an arraignment in the coming weeks.

From January 2016 to February 2022, the siblings and their co-conspirators used social media to buy and negotiate the terms of the sale and delivery of wildlife in the U.S.

They allegedly advertised for sale on social media the animals smuggled from Mexico, including photos and video that depicted the animals being collected from the wild. 

The co-conspirators would pick the wildlife up from Ciudad Juarez International Airport in Mexico and ship the animals by car to El Paso, Texas. 

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Jose Perez paid the co-conspirators a "crossing fee" for each border crossing, with the amount depending on the number of animals transported, the size of the package and the risk of being detected by the authorities.

Sometimes, Jose Perez and a co-conspirator traveled to Mexico to purchase additional live animals that had been taken from the wild. 

Once the animals had been shipped into the U.S., they allegedly were transported to Perez’s then-residence in Missouri.

Jose Manuel Perez, 30, of Oxnard is charged with smuggling more than 1,700 reptiles into the United States, including 60 found hidden in his clothes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in February 2022.

Jose Manuel Perez, 30, of Oxnard is charged with smuggling more than 1,700 reptiles into the United States, including 60 found hidden in his clothes at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in February 2022. ( US Attorney L.A. @USAO_LosAngeles)

After he moved to California, the wildlife was shipped to his residence in Ventura County.

Stephany Perez, also of Oxnard, allegedly assisted in the illegal business, particularly during two extended periods when her brother was incarcerated in the U.S.

The animals, including Yucatan box turtles, Mexican box turtles, baby crocodiles and Mexican beaded lizards, were allegedly imported into the U.S. from Mexico and Hong Kong without obtaining permits required by an international treaty known as the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

If convicted of all charges, the defendants would face a statutory maximum sentence of five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge. 

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Jose Perez – who has been in federal custody since his arrest on Feb. 25 – would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each smuggling count and five years in prison for each wildlife trafficking count.