California Man Found Guilty of Smuggling US Corals to Mexico

Corals are seen at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 4, 2009, during an expedition called Reefs, Rigs and Wrecks. (Dr. Ian MacDonald/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via AP)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal jury found a California man guilty Thursday of attempting to smuggle live U.S. corals to Mexico, in violation of domestic and international laws protecting the threatened marine organisms.

Coral are essential to marine ecosystems due to their reef-building capabilities. Coral are also extremely vulnerable to warming oceans and are protected by an international treaty known as the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.

Prosecutors said Jose Torres, 44, attempted to illegally smuggle the coral to Mexico and filed false records for wildlife he intended to export.

During a three-day trial in 2013, the government presented evidence that a Mexican company named Gabriela Herlinda Medina attempted to purchase fish and coral from Torres.

Torres, a resident of Gardena, California, identified himself as the owner of the company Orca International, according to court records.

Under pressure from the Mexican company to complete the purchase, Torres attempted to send a shipment of coral in January 2013, before the CITES permitting process was completed.

That month, Torres visited the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service district office in Torrance where he told authorities he was shipping 16 cartons of fish.

The federal agency was unaware that Torres had in fact packed and was ready to ship 40 boxes of protected coral.

After leaving the Torrence office, Torres drove to Los Angeles International Airport and provided AeroMexico staff false shipping documents and 40 cartons to be transported to Mexico.

Upon inspecting Torres’ cartons, federal authorities found 474 undeclared items, including many CITES-protected coral.

The coral were recovered as part of a law enforcement initiative called Operation Jungle Book.

As much as one-quarter of all ocean species depend on coral reefs – which cover only 2% of the ocean floor – for food and shelter.

Torres faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II has scheduled a Feb. 10 sentencing hearing in Los Angeles.

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