Teen sentenced to six months in prison for smuggling border tiger
A rescued Bengal tiger cub and companion Sumatran tiger cub have been given their new names. Meet Moka, Bengal Tiger (lighter color) and Rakan, Sumatran Tiger
When Luis Eduardo Valencia was caught at the border last summer with a tiger cub riding shotgun on the floorboards of a Camaro, he held himself out to be a naive 18-year-old who had bought the wild animal on impulse after seeing one being walked on a leash on the streets of Tijuana.
But prosecutors say the smuggling scheme was not just an ill-advised pet purchase.
His cellphone records unveiled what appears to be an established cross-border wildlife smuggling business, according to court records filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“[T]he monkeys I get them for 2500 and the white tigers for 6k, I mean regular tigers, the white one goes for 10k,” reads one text message he is accused of sending a fox vendor who was in the market for a tiger. “The jaguar goes for 8k and panthers too and the lions go for 5k.”
Luis Valencia of Perris was sentenced in San Diego federal court to six months in prison for smuggling border tiger.
On Tuesday, Valencia — who had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to illegally import tigers — was sentenced to six months in prison for smuggling the 6-week-old Bengal cub.
“This is a crime against nature, as well as the laws of man, and it requires punishment if we’re going to send a message to the public that we’re not going to tolerate this,” said U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Battaglia during the sentencing hearing.
Lawyers for Valencia tried to paint the defendant as a wildlife enthusiast who impetuously purchased the wild cat with the intention of making it a pet.
“He had a lapse in judgment, allowing his passion for animals and youth to overcome obvious common sense,” Robert Schlein, attorney with Robert Schlein & Associates, told the judge. “He now knows that having wild animals as pets is just not something that’s possible.”
The prosecution, however, said Valencia never intended to keep the animal, providing text messages obtained from the defendant’s phone of conversations about selling a number of federally protected species.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson also outlined a family history of drug sales and money laundering, which included Valencia’s father and grandfather.
“The defendant’s history and characteristics are far more consistent with a junior member of a smuggling organization rather than an innocent young man who made a youthful error in judgment,” Pierson said.
As for the cub, that’s a happier ending. Named Moka, which means “chance,” the cub became a media darling and popular addition to the San Diego Safari Zoo Park. His seizure prompted the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., to send an orphan Sumatran tiger cub to be his companion. He is named Rakan, or “friend.”
Moka could grow to weigh as much as 600 pounds.
Illicit wildlife trafficking is estimated to be a $7 billion to $23 billion global industry, with the U.S. being the second-largest market behind China, according to experts. The ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border are a major thoroughfare for such black-market animals.
Valencia was stopped at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Aug. 23, driving a Camaro with no license plates. When the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer spotted a small animal at the feet of his passenger, Eriberto Paniagua. The passenger said at first it was “just a cat,” but a closer inspection found otherwise.
Paniagua produced paperwork indicating the tiger was shipped via Aeromexico Cargo from Mexico City to Tijuana and stated — falsely — that the species is not covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES. Under CITES, a license is required to import such animals.
Valencia first told agents that he’d bought the cub for $300 that same day after he saw a man walking a larger tiger on a leash in Tijuana. But agents found text messages on his phone and made him acknowledge that he made the purchase arrangements days earlier.
A further probe of his cellphone revealed Valencia had intended on smuggling a second cub that day, according to court records. In a conversation with the seller, Valencia discussed giving the cub anesthesia for the trip and fitting it into a truck.
“it can’t be sedated. At that age it will die,” the vendor wrote about a 5-month-old cub.
Valencia responded: “What can we do so it doesn’t make any noises?” and “Can it be given a little bit of anesthesia?”
The vendor answered that the cub would fall asleep after it ate.
A photo was then sent of Paniagua, appearing to measure a secret non-factory compartment under the back seat of a vehicle. “Do you think the big one will fit?” Valencia asked.
The vendor gave the price of $9,500 for “the white one” and warned Valencia to stay away from the parking lot at the Tijuana airport to avoid federal law enforcement there.
Valencia asked his girlfriend to bring a Camaro to him in Tijuana, so he could drive it into the U.S. He told her money and keys could be found in the car’s gas tank.
Crossing records show the same Camaro had traveled between the U.S. and Mexico at least three times, driven by different people.
Investigators found another conversation on the phone, a series of text messages between Valencia and a person in Sherman Oaks who sells foxes.
Valencia was apparently trying to buy a fox or monkey and told the vendor, “I used to have a tiger but I sold it to my big brother.”
The vendor then became interested in buying a tiger and asked Valencia about his business. “I got it from Mexico when it was a baby and I crossed him by the border in the car. I got it for 2k over there,” Valencia said.
Valencia sent the vendor several photos of tigers and bragged that his source in Mexico could get all kinds of animals, including jaguars, lions, panthers and monkeys.
After Valencia’s arrest, investigators with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife got a hotline tip that he had another baby tiger at his home in Perris. They served a search warrant there but found no tigers. Valencia’s mother told investigators that Valencia was not home and had stayed the night at his girlfriend’s house. It is not known if her home was subsequently searched.
However, a horse was found living on the family property. In a brief interview after his arrest, defense attorney Robert Schlein said Valencia worked training Andalusian horses.
“He is not part of any ring or organized smuggling of tigers,” Schlein said. He added: “It’s just a serendipitous story.”
Valencia has several family ties to drug-trafficking organizations, prosecutors noted. His father was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine in Colorado.
A grandfather was indicted on accusations of laundering money for a drug organization in 1995 and was eventually arrested in 2011 on separate charges of distributing heroin and meth and money laundering. The grandfather was arrested in that case at the family home in Perris, where 9.5 kilograms of heroin were also found.
Valencia’s aunt was also charged in the case, and another aunt is married to a person wanted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for extradition to the U.S.
Valencia’s Facebook shows signs of some of that influence. Investigators found videos of cockfighting and photos of him posing with various guns and making gang signs, according to court records.
The material is “more consistent with the life of a junior member of a drug trafficking organization, rather than an innocent young man who made a youthful error in judgment,” Pierson wrote.
Valencia’s passenger, Paniagua, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is set to be sentenced next Monday.
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