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An Elephant-Sized Hole in the Border

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From a Times Staff Writer

Authorities were trying to figure out Monday how smugglers managed to sneak an elephant past customs agents in April at the Matamoros border checkpoint.

Benny, a 9-year-old Indian elephant who weighs 3 tons and has been performing in the state of Mexico as part of the Brothers Vazquez Circus, was smuggled across the border in a tractor-trailer container, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials confirmed Monday.

Mexican customs agents noted the trailer but waved it through, according to the newspaper Reforma, which broke the story Sunday.

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In a subsequent article, the paper--citing unnamed police sources--said the case may be related to an allegedly corrupt customs agent. The agent was relieved of duty later last year for unrelated offenses.

American and Mexican officials are jointly investigating the case, said Tom Bauer, spokesman for the U.S. wildlife service. Import and export of wild animals of any kind is illegal without a license, Bauer said. Additionally, trade in Indian elephants is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, he said.

Guillermo Vazquez, one of the owners of the circus, was quoted in Reforma as saying that he had bought the elephant in Texas and had sought proper papers for export. But he became frustrated with delays and red tape, he said, so he hired a “coyote,” who charged him $4,500 to sneak the elephant into Mexico.

Vazquez had also tried to conceal the elephant’s identity by calling him “Dumbo,” the paper said, but this proved difficult because the pachyderm responds to commands only when addressed as “Benny.”

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