Endangered Sea Turtle Trade Has 8 Behind Bars

     SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (CN) – Federal prosecutors created a new task force Friday against environmental crimes in Puerto Rico after taking down a ring they accuse of selling endangered turtles for human consumption.
     The eight newly arrested individuals are Roberto Guzman Herpin, 34; Madelyne Montes Santiago, 37; Edwin Alamo Silva, 50; Juan Soto Rodriguez, 45; Ricardo Dejesus Alamo, 33; Jose Javier Rodriguez Sanchez, 40; Iris Lebron Montanez, 53; and Miguel Rivera Delgado, 55 – all residents of Patillas and Arroyo.
     Prosecutors charged the group Thursday with felony and misdemeanor charges, including aiding and abetting violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act.
     The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has lad an undercover investigation of the illegal trade in sea turtles for human consumption since 2011, the Justice Department said.
     A forensic lab with the agency purportedly confirmed via DNA analysis that the illegal operation has resulted in the illegal take of 15 individual endangered hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate) and seven endangered green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas).
     Puerto Rico’s waters are designated as a critical habitat for both species. Endangered leatherback sea turtles, the largest species of turtle in the world, also nest in Puerto Rico. Prosecutors say 500 to 1,000 hawksbill nests are laid each year on Mona Island, Puerto Rico.
     The green sea turtle population has declined by as much as 65 percent over the past century, and the leatherback sea turtle population has also dropped greatly, they added.
     Of the 25 endangered and threatened animal species in Puerto Rico, 21 are found nowhere else on earth, the Justice Department said.
     “For instance, there are only 200 Puerto Rican parrots (Amazona vittata) remaining, with less than 50 left in the wild, making it one of the 10 rarest birds on earth,” it said in a statement.
     Prosecutors say the new environmental task force has three specific goals:
     “Improve investigative coordination among the federal authorities who are responsible for protecting public health and the environment.
     “Coordinate the available federal resources and improve the dissemination of information between the federal law enforcement agencies to better protect human health and the environment.
     “Improve environmental awareness of the community to recognize violations of federal environmental laws and regulations.”
     The eight defendants face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

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