Two Southland men, along with representatives of two local companies, are due to be arraigned in Los Angeles in the coming weeks on federal charges of illegally trading in live corals that are protected by an international treaty but are frequently used to decorate aquariums.
Jose Torres, 42, of Gardena is charged with unlawfully attempting to export to Mexico some 20 varieties of live corals protected by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — known as CITES, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
One of three indictments issued Sept. 20 alleges that Torres submitted false records to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that omitted the corals and understated the size of the shipment.
In a second indictment, Jorge Vazquez, 39, of Garden Grove is charged with unlawfully attempting to export live, CITES-protected corals allegedly hidden in Pringles potato chip cans and discovered during a baggage inspection at Los Angeles International Airport.
Vazquez later admitted that he packed the corals into the Pringles cans, then placed the cans in his mother’s luggage for her to transport to Mexico, according to federal prosecutors.
Two Inglewood companies — Renaissance Aquatics Inc. and Lim Aqua-Nautic Specialist Inc. — and Chet Bryant, 37, of Houston are charged in a third indictment with unlawfully importing live, CITES-protected corals from Vietnam and submitting false records to conceal their unlawful activity on seven occasions over a five-month period.
According to court documents, the corals were hidden from view in shipments containing other wildlife. The indictment also charges Renaissance and Bryant with conspiracy and attempting to unlawfully export live coral.
The indictments allege the defendants violated various federal statutes, including smuggling laws, the Endangered Species Act and a conservation statute known as the Lacey Act.
“The mountains, plains and oceans of this planet are under constant assault from those who would harvest these resources without end,” said acting United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown. “The corals in these cases were being trafficked for the sole purpose of decorating fish tanks. We will enforce federal laws that control the trafficking of wildlife to ensure the ongoing survival of plants and animals that all serve an important role in the environment.”
USFWS Special Agent in Charge Jill Birchell said wildlife smuggling is a “trans-national crime that often decimates not only wild populations of animals and fish, but, as in the case of smuggled live coral, the very habitat that imperiled wildlife depend on for survival.”
The defendants will be summoned to appear for arraignment at the downtown federal courthouse in the coming weeks, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Each of the three indictments alleges multiple charges, including attempting to export wildlife contrary to law, a count that carries a possible penalty of up to 10 years in federal prison. Bryant is charged with seven counts of wildlife smuggling, each of which carries a potential maximum of 20 years behind bars.
–City News Service
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