People all over the world keep exotic pets like this tarantula crawling on the hand of Kate Pearce, a zookeeper at the London Zoo, on Jan. 4, 2011. But without an export license, the creatures can't leave the US. Photo by Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images.
When federal inspectors in Texas lifted the black blanket draped over two canisters in a Ford Econoline van heading to Mexico, they didn't expect to find tegus, tortoises, Chinese water dragons, iguanas, scorpions, Jackson’s chameleons, tarantulas, Indonesian blue tongue skinks, frogs, geckos, anoles, Nelson’s milk snakes, plus an assortment of other lizards and serpents.
But that’s what federal prosecutors said US Customs and Border Protection officers uncovered Aug. 3 in the inspection lane out of Hidalgo, writing in a criminal complaint that “several small fabric sacks sealed with tape that moved and emitted a foul odor" were pretty good clues something was up.
Those were the snakes. Then the officers saw the reptiles. And some insects, followed by the spiders. They counted 92 creatures, total, which were being fed by three fruit fly cultures.
“It's not something that you would typically just, you know, find,” US Customs and Border Protection Laredo Field Office spokesperson Paul Pauza told Coffee or Die Magazine. “They took a closer look, and then the seizure occurred.”
People all over the world collect exotic animals, such as this iguana, which was seen at the Jember Fashion Carnival on Aug. 6, 2022, in Jember, Indonesia. But they can’t leave the US without proper export paperwork. Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images.
Authorities have charged three Mexican men — Jonathan Roberto Rojas-Casados, Roberto Rojas-Ramirez, and Roberto Angel Roman-Alvarez — with smuggling goods from the US, a charge that could land them in prison for a decade.
Rojas-Ramirez, 50, allegedly told investigators he’s the father of Rojas-Casados, 27, and the father-in-law of Roman-Alvarez, 31. Rojas-Ramirez and Rojas-Casados were in a red Ford F-150 pickup truck, and Roman-Alvarez was driving the Econoline, but they were journeying together to Mexico.
"We have not seen the evidence beyond probable cause to detain, and we really do not have all of the information yet," Doug A'Hern, the court-appointed attorney representing Rojas-Ramirez, said in an email to Coffee or Die Magazine. "If it appears that the government can prove their case, we will take the appropriate steps. If not, my client looks forward to exoneration."
The attorneys representing the other defendants didn't respond to Coffee or Die's requests for comment.
People all over the world keep exotic pets, such as this Argentine black and white tegu seen during the “Pet Expo Championship” in Bangkok on Aug. 30, 2019. But they can’t leave the US without an export permit. Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images.
Court records reveal that Rojas-Casados claimed his father in Reynosa offered to pay him $60 to help move a box of animals from the US to Mexico, but they didn’t have an export permit to bring the animals over the border.
To lawfully export an animal or its byproduct, a traveler must fill out a wildlife declaration form from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rojas-Ramirez allegedly told the US Customs and Border Protection officers he was going to receive $400 to carry the creatures into Mexico.
Mexico also requires import paperwork for exotic animals, which the three men didn't have, according to prosecutors.
Tortoises and turtles, like this hatchling spotted in Texas on July 31, 2006, can't be exported from the US without a permit. US Environmental Protection Agency photo.
On average, US Customs and Border Protection officers seize 264 invasive pests and 2,548 other materials marked for quarantine, everything from plants to bush meat.
But the Hidalgo bust was still kind of weird.
“To see all these, like, the creepy-crawlies and stuff, it's definitely a rare occurrence,” Pauza said.
Pauza told Coffee or Die the two vehicles were seized and the animals turned over to US Fish and Wildlife Service agents, who deposited them at a local zoo for proper care.
During a Wednesday hearing in McAllen, US Magistrate Judge Nadia S. Medrano ordered the three defendants held without bond, pending trial.
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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