ELLIOT SPAGAT - Associated Press - Posted on Tue, Dec. 21, 2004
SAN DIEGO - They tried to enter the United States in the wee hours of the morning, many of them stuffed in black metal boxes inside a silver Nissan pickup truck.
After being rescued by a border inspector, they spent months in captivity while U.S. and Mexican officials negotiated their repatriation. An official from Mexico City flew to the border city of Tijuana to greet them Monday.
They are not illegal immigrants. They are smuggled parrots - 90 red-headed and lilac-crowned Amazon parrots believed to have been captured in the tropics of southern Mexico. Authorities said they were likely to be sold at flea markets and pet shops, mostly in Southern California, for up to $800 apiece.
The birds will be quarantined in Tijuana for 40 days and then probably be chauffeured on an all-day trip to Oaxaca state, their likely original habitat.
"We're going to have to ask someone for a ride because we don't have any money in our budget for this," said Ricardo Castellanos, the Baja California state delegate of Mexico's Environmental Protection Agency.
These birds get to head south for the winter, but few smuggled prey are so lucky. Agents estimate they find only a fraction of parrots that are sneaked into the United States and - even when they do - few are repatriated.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service typically auctions them - as well as monkeys, snakes, lizards, tortoises and other critters that are seized at border crossings, helping defray quarantine costs. Zoos occasionally adopt them as well.
Some smuggled parrots are believed to be roaming the western United States, including two or three flocks in San Diego's tony Point Loma area. John Brooks, a Fish and Wildlife agent, speculates that border agents released some decades ago or that pet owners decided to release them.
Smuggled parrots are believed to be a possible source of the exotic Newcastle disease, which recently resulted in the destruction of 3.2 million birds, mostly chickens, in California, Arizona and Nevada.
"Today's repatriation represents the best possible ending," Marie Palladini, resident agent-in-charge for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Los Angeles region, told reporters at a Customs inspection lot at San Diego's Otay Mesa port of entry.
Authorities said parrot smugglers are as ruthless and imaginative as human traffickers. Birds have been found in hair rollers, toilet paper tubes, glove compartments and tire wells. One smuggler got caught with parrots in her dress pockets.
The birds are sometimes sedated or forced to drink tequila to stay quiet, Palladini said.
Castellanos, the Mexican official, estimates that five parrots die on the trip north for each one that makes it across the border.
Joel Valencia told a border inspector that he was ferrying clothes and tamales when he tried to enter the United States at San Diego's San Ysidro port of entry Aug. 28. Agents found 48 Lilac-crowned Amazon parrots, 66 half-moon conures (four of them dead), five cardinals and six mockingbirds, according to an agent's affidavit filed in federal court in San Diego. They were stuffed in metal boxes and paper bags inside his silver Nissan pickup.
Valencia told the agents that he paid $3,000 for the 125 birds, which were pegged at a retail value up to $39,600.
Valencia, who crossed with his wife and children, confessed to smuggling birds 15 or 20 times before. He sold them at swap meets near his home in Perris, 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Oscar Solorzano of Tijuana, Mexico, was arrested Oct. 30 trying to cross at Otay Mesa with 45 Amazon parrots in his green Nissan Altima, according to an agent's affidavit in federal court in San Diego. Solorzano told agents that he was unemployed and agreed to smuggle the birds for $500, which he was to receive after delivering them to someone at a McDonald's restaurant.
Both men have pleaded guilty to smuggling charges and could be sentenced to up to five years in prison next year, said Anne Perry, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the cases.
Agents believe the latest captures suggest that bird smuggling is taking off. Forty-two Amazon parrots were captured Friday night. Perry, the assistant U.S. attorney who has earned the nickname "Bird Lady" from some colleagues, thinks they are being sold as Christmas presents.
"They can live to be 60, 70 years old," she said. "They're noisy and they're messy, but they're pretty."