Black Market in Birds : Smugglers Big and Small Bring Illegal Fowl From Mexico Into U.S.

Times Staff Writer

A dozen jungle-green parrots, their heads styled with dazzling yellow and scarlet feathers, huddled close together inside their chicken-wire cages, which were displayed on a street corner near downtown. The birds squawked, took friendly nips at each other with their lumpy beaks, and occasionally munched on sunflower seeds.

"I take good care of the birds; it's my business," said the bird-seller, Marcos, a chunky man in a short-sleeved shirt. "The small ones, los cotorritos, they sell for $25. The larger ones, they cost $60. They're all young; six months or so."

The largest parrot had his own cage.

"That's el loro , a Mexican yellow-head," Marcos explained, speaking in Spanish but using the English term, accustomed as he was to dealing with prospective U.S. purchasers. "That costs $150."

Could a buyer legally bring a bird back to the United States?

"You have to hide them," Marcos explained.

Wouldn't a parrot make noise crossing the border?

"Just put him in your purse and close it," Marcos assured the prospective buyer. "There's no problem."

Marcos' street-sale concern is a tiny, but highly visible, manifestation of what authorities say is a thriving, multimillion-dollar business along the U.S.-Mexican border: The sale of birds and other wildlife and animal products for eventual illegal entry into the United States and lucrative re-sale. From Tijuana on the Pacific coast to Matamoros in the Rio Grande Valley, buyers with an eye toward U.S. markets purchase everything from parrots to iguanas, from sea-turtle eggs to tarantulas, jaguar skins to monkeys. Threatened and endangered species are caught up in the flourishing trade along with more commonplace creatures.

"The border has been a major problem for us for a number of years," said Jerome S. Smith, deputy chief with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's division of law enforcement in Washington.

Recently, however, the problem--and the effort to stop it--has taken on new dimensions with regard to bird-smuggling, perhaps the largest single component of the illicit animal trade from Mexico. As the birds become rarer and their values soar, officials say that threatened birds from throughout Latin America, as well as Asia, Africa and even Australia, are now entering the United States via Mexico, just as South American cocaine is often transshipped through Mexico.

Poses Health Threat

Besides further depleting already-dwindling bird populations, the flourishing trade poses a serious threat to U.S. pet bird stocks and the domestic poultry industry because of the possible spread of exotic avian diseases.

In the last six months, Smith said, officials have detected the illegal entry into Mexico of about 250 palm cockatoos, magnificent black birds found in only three countries--Australia, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Commercial export of the bird is prohibited from all three nations, Smith noted. The birds, which are being smuggled into the United States 8 or 10 at a time, fetch up to $10,000 apiece north of the border.

Meanwhile, enforcement efforts on the U.S. side are increasingly targeting the leaders of well-organized bird-smuggling rings.

In October, U.S. officials in San Diego arrested Jose Jesus Gomez Valdovinos, a 41-year-old Tijuana shopkeeper who authorities say is one of the major Tijuana suppliers of black-market birds. Previously, prosecutors had obtained convictions against a U.S. middleman and pet-outlet operators in Louisiana and South Carolina who had allegedly purchased more than 300 yellow-naped Amazon parrots from Gomez. The birds, prized for their bright colors and mimicking abilities, had a street value of more than $250,000. Gomez was lured across the border by an undercover operative promising payment of a $20,000 debt for previously purchased parrots.

"We think he (Gomez) is one of the big operators," said Charles S. Crandall, an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego who is prosecuting the case against the Tijuana man, who has denied the charges. "This is one of the few opportunities that we've had to actually get inside a ring."

Yet officials acknowledge that most smugglers are never apprehended.

"The cases we make are only the tip of the iceberg," said David Klinger, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C.

The flourishing trade has alarmed conservationists and others concerned about the future of many of the birds, some of which are already severely threatened by deforestation, habitat destruction and other factors.

"We believe that the populations of many of these birds, particularly in Mexico, are being affected substantially by this trade," said Jorgen Thomsen, a biologist with TRAFFIC (U.S.A.), an arm of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington.

In Mexico, too, the depredations of native bird populations and species from other nations has alarmed the growing numbers of conservationists, who are harshly critical of what they see as government inaction.

"If this contraband trade continues, by the year 2000 we will have lost 80% of our native species," said Alfonso Cipres Villreal, a Mexico City architect who heads an independent activist group called the Mexican Ecological Movement. "Disgracefully, the government allows this to continue."

Laws Ignored

In response, Mexican officials maintain a stony silence or insist that they are fighting the illegal trade. In fact, Mexico has many laws strictly limiting export of species, but experts say that the laws are largely ignored, the penalties are minuscule, or enforcement is hampered by corruption and bureaucratic confusion. However, new laws, with stiffer penalties, are expected to be in place by early next year, indicating an increased awareness of the problem.

Still, Mexico remains one of the few nations in the Americas that has failed to sign the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna, which requires special permits to allow the export of most types of parrots and many other animals. The convention is considered a key tool in maintaining the populations of threatened animals.

Mexican wildlife officials "are kind of operating with one arm tied behind their backs," said one U.S. official familiar with Mexican law-enforcement efforts.

In the United States, authorities fear that smuggled birds may be carriers of various ailments, notably Newcastle disease, a lethal virus that is highly contagious among birds and potentially catastrophic for legal pet birds and for the U.S. poultry industry. In the early 1970s, U.S. authorities in California spent almost $60 million to destroy millions of chickens and otherwise eradicate an outbreak of Newcastle disease that was believed to have been caused by black-market parrots.

That experience led to the institution of a quarantine system for all imported parrots. Each year, 250,000 parrots are legally imported into the United States, most of them from Latin America, according to the World Wildlife Fund. U.S. authorities say tens of thousands are smuggled in across the Mexican border; additional birds are brought in illegally through other points of entry.

Smugglers Organized

As with the illicit drug trade, organized rings now appear to control much of the bird-smuggling industry, although U.S. tourists returning from Mexico often attempt to bring birds back clandestinely. (The birds cannot be bought back legally without a Mexican government permit, which is extremely difficult to obtain. Legally imported birds must also clear quarantine.)

The growth of large bird-smuggling rings is indicative of the many parallels between the illicit border markets in drugs and animals--terms such as "safe-houses," "runners" and others are commonly employed in both industries. False vehicle panels frequently used to conceal smuggled drugs are also used to move birds through border checkpoints.

"We find that many of our more serious violators switch back and forth, from wildlife to narcotics, from narcotics to wildlife," said Smith of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It depends on how much heat is being put on them in one business."

Profits from smuggling birds can rival those of moving illegal drugs. A parrot purchased for about $35 in Mexico can fetch 10 times that or more in the United States.

Unlike convicted drug violators, however, bird smugglers face a much lower risk of serving extensive jail terms, because penalties are lower and judges are less likely to impose lengthy sentences.

"You get a judge with all kinds of drug cases and murders before him, and he's not likely to see a parrot case as a big deal," said Tom Smylie, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional office in Albuquerque, N.M.

The birds are moved across the border in a variety of ways. The creatures are stuffed into purses, boxes, and into a variety of vehicle parts--in hubcaps, false floors or panels, spare tires and even in the space usually occupied by air filters. Often, the birds are tied in sacks or in socks and their beaks are taped. ("They're like little mummies," said one official.) Sometimes the birds are fed tequila-laced feed or pills to ensure their silence. Many birds--some say most--die from stress or mistreatment before ever reaching the United States.

In one case, 121 of 163 lilac-crowned parrots seized in an undercover operation in Nogales, Ariz., died because they were packed so tightly. "If they had not died from suffocation, they would likely have died from stress," said Jose Ramos, a wildlife agent who worked on the case.

Hampering law-enforcement efforts is a lack of resources. The regional Fish and Wildlife office in Albuquerque, for instance, has only about 30 agents to cover more than 1,500 miles of border in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Moreover, much of the enforcement along the border is focused on the drug-smuggling and illegal immigration, leaving little room to concentrate on the illicit wildlife trade.

"The Border Patrol has thousands of agents out there and they can't stop people from coming across illegally," Smith said. "What can we do to stop birds?"

In the United States, smugglers sell the black-market birds to pet suppliers, pet shops and collectors. Once across the border, it can be virtually impossible for U.S. investigators to distinguish between the black-market birds and legal ones, making it difficult to bring cases against U.S. outlets dealing in smuggled parrots. (Most violators are now prosecuted under the federal Lacey Act, which makes it illegal to sell or receive wildlife taken in violation of any state, federal or foreign law.)

In one odd success story, confiscated thick-billed parrots from Mexico have been reintroduced to a former southern Arizona habitat, the Chiricahua Mountains, once a haunt of the Apache war chief Geronimo. The once-plentiful thick-billed parrot, which disappeared from its native Arizona and New Mexico habitats by the 1930s, is one of only two parrot species native to the United States; the other, a parakeet native to the Carolinas, died out early in this century.

"We're hopeful the parrots will thrive in those Arizona mountains once again," Smylie said.

In the recent San Diego smuggling case, investigators were able to infiltrate a ring that, according to court documents, brought hundreds of yellow-naped Amazon parrots across the border in early 1987. Many were contaminated with Newcastle disease, court papers said.

Runners brought the birds across the border concealed in vehicle panels, then took them to a "safe house" on Tequila Way in San Ysidro, whence they were transported to a ranch in North San Diego County, officials said. The birds then were shipped by air freight to major animal suppliers in Louisiana and South Carolina. Three defendants have pleaded guilty in the case and a fourth was convicted after a jury trial.

The alleged Tijuana supplier, Jose Jesus Gomez Valdovinos, has been linked to more than 3,000 birds allegedly smuggled into the United States since 1982, according to the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego. Gomez and an alleged accomplice are being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego; each man faces 30 years in jail and $1.5 million in fines.

Gomez allegedly sold many of the birds out of his Tijuana shop, Herreria San Jose, an unpretentious storefront that is festooned with metal bird cages and colorful paintings of parrots, along with blankets, pottery and other tourist items.

Inside some of the cages in a store annex sit brilliantly colored parrots, but the current store manager, who gave her name as Maria de Lourdes, insisted that Gomez never sold birds.

"These are lies they're telling about Mr. Gomez," she said, adding that she had worked at the shop for several years. "This is an injustice."

On a downtown street corner less than a block away, Marcos the bird salesman stood over his cages, trying to hustle up some business, as the parrots huddled together against a winter chill.

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