Parrot smuggling blamed for devastation of Latin American bird populations

May 31, 1994|By Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- Austin, Texas, police weren't sure what they had stumbled upon when they stopped a Chevrolet Suburban in February 1992 and spotted boxes crammed with 70 baby Amazon parrots.

Federal agents and wildlife experts said that the pre-dawn traffic stop and seizure of the smuggled birds with a U.S. retail value of $70,000 led last month to a 20-count federal indictment in what they describe as one of the nation's largest parrot-smuggling operations.

Investigators and bird experts said the case is a microcosm of a major smuggling operation on the Texas-Mexico border, responsible for the illegal importation of more than 25,000 birds a year.

"It's the second-most lucrative type of smuggling on the border after dope. It's easy to do. There's very little enforcement of it," said James Conner Broadus, a Rio Grande Valley parrot breeder who has assisted federal agents in smuggling investigations.

"It's as difficult to stop as drug smuggling, and I don't think they get 5 percent of what comes across," Mr. Broadus said.

On April 21, a 20-count federal indictment was unsealed in Corpus Christi, Texas, charging 12 people in Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Miami with conspiring to smuggle birds. Four others have pleaded guilty to federal charges, authorities said.

Jesus Maldonado, a Sandia, Texas, resident charged as the ringleader of the 10-year smuggling operation, was sentenced April 28 to five years in federal prison in connection with the Austin seizure.

U.S. Department of Justice prosecutor John Webb said the sentence "is one of the most severe ever handed down" in a U.S. wildlife prosecution.

It is a measure of the growing concerns about a trade that is devastating Central American bird populations, experts said.

In Mexico, smuggling has reduced red crown parrot populations by 80 percent and yellow-headed parrots by 90 percent in the past 20 years, Monterrey researcher Ernesto Enkerlin said.

"The problem is that we're so close to the U.S. border. It's just like a magnet," he said.

New York Zoological Society bird curator Don Bruning said that some birds, such as the scarlet macaw, "are essentially gone throughout Central America. They've been eliminated largely because of the bird trade."

Laws in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras ban the trade in parrots, and U.S. law bars the importation of birds illegally taken from other countries. But peasants who snatch the two or three fledglings in each nest can earn a month's salary for one chick, experts said. In the United States, experts said, one parrot commands $800 to $1,200.

The U.S. buyers range from full-time smugglers to winter Texans, who sell the parrots when they return north.

Bird experts in the United States said the yellow-naped and yellow-headed Amazon parrots involved in the Maldonado case are smuggled because they are difficult to breed in captivity and are prized for their ability to mimic human voices.

They live up to 50 years and mate for life. Mating pairs usually produce only two or three chicks per year.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Joe Ramos, who investigated smuggling along the border from 1984 to 1993, said that smugglers who get birds past border patrol checkpoints at Freer and Falfurrias, Texas, are "home free, practically. It becomes very difficult for us to prove where the birds came from."

Sellers then claim that their birds are U.S.-bred and often move illegal birds through aviaries so they can be "laundered" or passed off as domestically raised, he said.

Agent Ramos said he believes that 25,000 birds cross into Texas

annually.

Parrot experts and some federal officials said they believe that that estimate is conservative, and some said that as many as 100,000 parrots may be brought in illegally from Mexico each year.

Mr. Bruning said the problem became significant after 1972, with the creation of federal rules that all legally imported birds be quarantined at U.S. Department of Agriculture labs for at least 30 days.

The regulations followed a 1971 outbreak of exotic Newcastle's disease, often carried by Central American parrots, that decimated the California poultry industry and cost $57 million to eradicate.

"The quarantine requirements changed everything," Mr. Bruning said. "The prices went up after that, and smuggling became increasingly profitable."

A 1992 federal law has halted virtually all legal importation of parrots.

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