Leapin' Lizards! Smuggler hides dozens of lizards and snakes in his clothes

Oxnard, California - A 30-year-old Oxnard, California, man was indicted on federal charges and accused of smuggling more than 1,700 reptiles into the US, hiding some animals in his clothing while crossing the US-Mexico border, prosecutors said.

Jose Manuel Perez was arrested at the San Ysidro port of entry between the US and Tijuana, Mexico (l.), while hiding over 60 lizards and snakes in his clothes (r.).
Jose Manuel Perez was arrested at the San Ysidro port of entry between the US and Tijuana, Mexico (l.), while hiding over 60 lizards and snakes in his clothes (r.).  © Collage: IMAGO/ ZUMA Wire & Screenshort/Twitter/USAO_LosAngeles

Jose Manuel Perez was charged on Thursday with two counts of wildlife trafficking, nine counts of smuggling goods into the US, and one count of conspiracy after allegedly transporting the animals for a black-market business.

His sister Stephany Perez (25) was also charged with conspiracy.

Prosecutors allege that between January 2016 and February 2022, Perez, his sister, and others used social media to buy, sell, and arrange delivery of wildlife in the US.

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Perez was arrested on February 25 at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, authorities said, after attempting to cross the border while hiding 60 reptiles — including dozens of lizards and four snakes — in his jacket and pants pockets as well as his groin area and pant legs.

According to the indictment, he told customs officials he had nothing to declare, then backtracked and said that "the animals were his pets."

"The defendants allegedly advertised for sale on social media the animals smuggled from Mexico into the United States, posting photos and video that depicted the animals being collected from the wild," the US attorney's office for the Central District of California said in a news release.

The animals included Yucatan and Mexican box turtles, baby crocodiles, and Mexican beaded lizards that prosecutors said were imported from Mexico and Hong Kong without the required permits.

Some animals were picked up by unnamed co-conspirators at Ciudad Juarez International Airport in Mexico and shipped by car to El Paso, for which Perez paid the transporters a "crossing fee," prosecutors said.

Other times, according to the indictment, Perez and another person traveled to Mexico to buy more animals that had been taken from the wild to smuggle them into the US.

Once stateside, the animals were transported to Perez's home, first in Missouri, then in Ventura County, prosecutors said.

Perez faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for each count of smuggling and five years in prison for each count of conspiracy and wildlife trafficking. His sister faces a maximum of five years in prison for her conspiracy charge.

Cover photo: Collage: IMAGO/ ZUMA Wire & Screenshort/Twitter/USAO_LosAngeles

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