The Animal Welfare Institute, a non-governmental organization that promotes the humane treatment of animals, bestowed its prestigious Clark R. Bavin Law Enforcement Award to the Department of Justice and the Fish and Wildlife Service for their successful work in Operation Central, uncovering and prosecuting 4 sea turtle smuggling rings that were operating full-scale supply networks in Mexico and China. These operations were carried out with the full cooperation of the Government of Mexico.
"Those honored by the Animal Welfare Institute for their contributions to this case included Service special agents and Justice Department prosecutors. This award appropriately recognizes the talented and dedicated prosecutors in the Environmental Crimes Section, who worked tirelessly to break up these international smuggling rings," said Ignacia Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for Justice Department's Environmental and Natural Resources Division.
Working closely with authorities in Mexico, Operation Central uncovered 4 sea turtle smuggling rings – 2 based in Mexico and 2 in China – engaged in illegal trafficking in endangered and threatened sea turtles and other protected species, and products made from their parts. The investigation and prosecution stands as the largest probe ever of the black market exploitation of highly endangered sea turtles.
Several species of the illegally traded sea turtles nest solely in Mexican waters, and this illegal trade had a significant impact on these species' populations. The market value of the wildlife parts and products at issue was estimated at well over one million dollars.
The complex multi-year investigation resulted in 12 individuals being charged with more than 50 counts of conspiracy, smuggling, and money-laundering. The investigation included the execution of search warrants in 5 different U.S. states and the arrest of 8 of the charged individuals, 6 of whom entered U.S. jurisdiction from Mexico and China. The Government of Mexico cooperated by conducting simultaneous arrests in Mexico of Mexican citizens suspected of engaging in similar criminal activity in Mexico.
All of the defendants arrested in the United States pled guilty and were sentenced. This effort curtailed illegal trade in a significant population of endangered sea turtles and other wildlife, and forged a cooperative and successful relationship with Mexican law enforcement authorities engaged in wildlife protection.
"Let there be no doubt: the United States is not a safe-market for illegal wildlife products," said Assistant Attorney General Moreno. "We will continue to work with our allies around the world to stop the destructive practice of illegal wildlife smuggling."