Four Individuals Indicted for Smuggling Tropical Bird Species from the United States to the Dominican Republic

Deceased birds recovered from the ocean.

On Thursday, May 9, 2024, a federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico returned an indictment charging four Dominican nationals with smuggling wildlife from the United States and Lacey Act trafficking, announced W. Stephen Muldrow, United States Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico.

According to court documents, on or about May 3, 2024, defendants Frankluis Carela De Jesús, Waner Balbuena, Juan Graviel Ramírez Cedano, and Domingo Heureau Altagracia traveled together in a flagless vessel departing from San Juan, Puerto Rico to the Dominican Republic. The purpose of the travel was to smuggle various species of tropical birds to the Dominican Republic for financial gain. When the vessel was approximately 30 nautical miles north of Puerto Rico the United States Coast Guard (USCG) approached the vessel, witnessed the crew throwing objects overboard, stopped the vessel, and boarded the vessel. A number of the objects thrown overboard were successfully recovered by the USCG from the ocean waters and were identified as wood cages containing tropical birds.

A total of approximately one hundred thirteen (113) deceased birds, depicted in the indictment, were recovered from the ocean inside the wood cages jettisoned by the defendants. The defendants lacked any license to export the wildlife and failed to declare the tropical birds as required by federal regulations governing the exportation of wildlife.

“The defendants violated laws protecting tropical birds and regulating the international sale and exportation of wildlife.  When confronted by law enforcement, the defendants tried to cover up those crimes by killing the protected birds by throwing them into the sea while still in their wooden crates,” said U.S. Attorney Muldrow. “I commend the excellent collaboration of the prosecutors and our law enforcement partners who remain steadfast in their commitment to protecting our wildlife.”

“This successful apprehension of four smugglers highlights the unwavering resolve of Coast Guard Sector San Juan, we work daily to interdict a wide range of illicit activities in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” said Captain José Díaz, Commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Juan. “Unfortunately, the cruelty displayed by the smugglers in this case resulted in the loss of over 100 exotic birds. We will not stop in our commitment to control illicit trafficking in our region.”

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will work tirelessly to investigate brazen attempts to smuggle exotic birds from Puerto Rico,” said Edward Grace, Assistant Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement.  “Thanks to the quick actions of the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the four smugglers were caught before successfully concealing their crimes and evading capture. Their decision to recklessly jettison smuggled birds and other evidence from their vessel resulted in the death of numerous exotic birds.  This case underscores the cruel reality of the illegal wildlife trade and our commitment to vigorously pursue those engaged in wildlife trafficking. We will continue working towards fully prosecuting these criminals to the fullest extent of the law.”

“As part of our ongoing efforts to safeguard our borders and protect our communities, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) remains steadfast in our commitment to deterring smuggling activities of all kinds, including the reprehensible trade in wildlife,” indicated Christopher Hunter, Director of CBP Air and Marine Operations in the Caribbean. “AMO is dedicated to working collaboratively with our domestic and international partners to combat wildlife smuggling and uphold the rule of law.”

The defendants had their arraignment and detention hearings today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Marcos E. López of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico and three were ordered detained pending trial. Domingo Heureau-Altagracia was placed on home confinement. If convicted, they face a total maximum of fifteen years in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection are investigating the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth A. Erbe, Environmental Litigation Coordinator is prosecuting the case with the assistance of Trial Counsel Patrick Duggan of the U.S. Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section.

An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

SOURCEUnited States Attorney's Office, District of Puerto Rico
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