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'Scorpions' sign didn't protect smuggler

A U.S. Border Patrol agent who tried to import rare tortoises in a box labeled "scorpions" pleaded guilty on Tuesday to animal-trafficking charges, the Justice Department said.
/ Source: Reuters

A U.S. Border Patrol agent who tried to import rare tortoises in a box labeled "scorpions" pleaded guilty on Tuesday to animal-trafficking charges, the Justice Department said.

It turns out that scorpions also draw an extra look from federal agents.

Rene Soliz faces a maximum one-year sentence and will resign from the Border Patrol after entering his guilty plea in Texas on charges that he illegally attempted to receive 15 Tanzanian leopard tortoises, the department said.

Under an international treaty on trade in endangered species, the tortoises are considered potentially threatened and cannot be traded without an export permit.

But they are often sold as pets and carry a market value of about $50 each, Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames said.

Soliz in 2006 contacted a leopard tortoise dealer in Tanzania and asked to buy eight of the animals as the first deal in a long-term relationship.

In April of that year, however, a U.S. Customs inspector at New York's Kennedy Airport intercepted a package bound for Soliz, the department said, citing court statements.

"The package was labeled as containing 50 live scorpions. When a U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector opened the package, he found 14 live leopard tortoises and one dead leopard tortoise."

The shipment lacked the required export permit, and Ames said it was clearly meant for resale: "One tortoise is a pet, 15 are not."

There are three species of scorpions also subject to trade restrictions, Ames said, meaning imported scorpions often bear scrutiny from customs agents.