A California man accused of smuggling thousands of reptiles from Mexico into the US over the the span of six years was charged in the case Thursday — about a month after he was arrested at the southern border with some of the creepy crawlers hidden in his pants.
Jose Manuel Perez, 30, was busted by border patrol agents on Feb. 25 as he tried to cross the San Ysidro Port of Entry in his car, U.S. Attorney officials said.
The agents discovered about 60 bearded lizards, baby crocodiles and snakes hidden inside his jacket and pockets — and even on his groin area, according to prosecutors.
A superseding indictment filed on Thursday alleged Perez, of Oxnard, Calif., attempted to smuggle the reptiles by tying them up in small bags and stuffing the live animals down his pants.
Perez allegedly told the border patrol agent that the reptiles were his pets.
Federal prosecutors allege that Perez and his sister, Stephany, worked with a network of “middlemen” to smuggle more than 1,700 animals into the US from January 2016 to about Feb. 25, 2022, according to the superseding indictment.
Prosecutors estimate the total market value of the wildlife at more than $739,000.
The animals — including Yucatan box turtles, baby crocodiles and Mexican bearded lizards — were imported into the US from Mexico and Hong Kong without proper permits required by an international treaty, officials said.
Perez was charged with one count of conspiracy with 14 overt acts, nine counts of smuggling goods into the U.S and two counts of wildlife trafficking. He is expected to be arraigned on March 28.
Stephany Perez, 25, has been charged with conspiracy and will be arraigned in the next few weeks, federal authorities said.
The Perez siblings allegedly worked with their co-conspirators to negotiate sales through social media and arranged the wildlife to be transported to the Ciudad Juarez International Airport in Mexico.
The animals were then transported by car to El Paso, Texas by their co-conspirators, who allegedly received “crossing fees” each time they made it through the border with the live animals.
According to the indictment, one of the alleged co-conspirators corresponded with Jose Perez on Jan. 14, 2016 and said dealing with 12 turtles was “quite an ordeal” because “the box is quite heavy, and of top of that, those chopos (turtles) bite hard.”
The sibling’s network of co-conspirators involved smugglers in Mexico, Indiana, Florida and even Perez’s girlfriend, according to the indictment.
The animals were transported to Perez’s residence in Missouri but after he moved to California, the animals were shipped to his home in Oxnard.
The siblings allegedly used social media to sell the reptiles, some of which are protected and endangered species, authorities said.
If convicted of all charges, the defendants could face a statutory maximum sentence of five years in federal prison for the conspiracy charge.
Jose Perez could face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for each smuggling count and five years in prison for each wildlife trafficking count, officials said.