Border Pesticide Initiative Results in Prosecution of 50 defendants for Smuggling Dangerous Chemicals

SAN DIEGO CA (7/9/2021) – A San Diego-based effort to block the smuggling of dangerous Mexican pesticides into the United States has resulted in the prosecution of more than 50 defendants for environmental crimes and the seizure of nearly 1,000 containers of illegal Mexican pesticides so far.

The Border Pesticide Initiative group was formed at the end of 2019 and includes the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the U.S. Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Homeland Security Investigations; the California Department of Toxic Substances Control; and the San Diego City Attorney’s Office.

The initiative began in response to complaints that law enforcement officers were being injured during the eradication of illegal marijuana cultivation sites on public lands by exposure to powerful Mexican pesticides not permitted in the United States.

Of the more than 50 defendants who have been charged federally, 14 were convicted of felonies and 26 were convicted of misdemeanors. The defendants have been ordered to pay more than $60,000 in restitution to cover the cost of disposing of the pesticides. Eight cases have also been filed by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office under California law for possession of pesticides found at the border.

The pesticides imported by these defendants were labeled in Spanish and did not bear any registration number showing that the products were approved by the EPA, as required by law for pesticides intended for use in the United States. The lawful importation of pesticides requires a Notice of Arrival to be filed in advance with the EPA to allow for inspection, which none of the defendants provided.

The pesticides most frequently encountered in these cases are those containing the active ingredients of carborfuran and methamidophos, which are cancelled pesticides not permitted to be sold or distributed in the United States. Carbofuran, sold in Mexico under the trade names Furadan and Qufuran, is classified by the EPA as Toxicity Category I, the highest toxicity category, based upon its lethal potency from absorption by ingestion, contact with skin, and inhalation, and has been cancelled in the United States since 2011.

Methamidophos, sold in Mexico under the trade names Metaldane 600, Tamaron or Monitor, is one of the most acutely toxic organophosphate pesticides and is similar to a class of chemicals that were originally manufactured as chemical warfare nerve agents. Methamidophos was cancelled in the United States in 2009. The application of these chemicals on public lands has been documented to pollute streams and soils and kill wildlife. Moreover, cannabis users are also at risk from exposure to pesticide residues. During the smoking of cannabis, pesticides are transferred directly into the blood stream, increasing the potential for exposure.[1] In one study, the pesticide transfer rate of carbofuran into cannabis smoke from glass pipes was as high as 70 percent of the initial concentration in the plant.

Two of the felony convictions noted above were the result of verdicts rendered by trial juries. On July 9, 2021, Veronica Perez of Hemet, California, was sentenced to 60 days in following a guilty verdict by a federal jury in San Diego in November 2020 related to the charge of smuggling unregistered pesticides into the United States. Perez concealed twenty containers of zinc phosphide (sold under the Mexican trade name Fosfuro de Zinc) in her purse and failed to declare the items at the border when she attempted to cross into the United States from Mexico on July 11, 2019. Consumption of a single zinc phosphide pellet can be lethal to a small bird or mammal.[2] Ingestion of seven drops to one teaspoon of zinc phosphide would likely kill a 150-pound person.[3] Perez also had Qufuran and Metaldane in her vehicle.

On May 26, 2021, Selene Elizabeth Barraza of Visalia, California, was convicted by a federal jury in San Diego of smuggling 25 containers of illegal Mexican pesticides and fertilizer, including Metaldane, and Furadan, into the United States from Mexico. On February 26, 2020, Barraza failed to declare the pesticide containers when she attempted to enter the United States with the pesticides concealed under the middle row seats in her vehicle. Barraza is scheduled to be sentenced on August 20, 2021.

On June 18, 2021, Felix Gutierrez Valencia was sentenced to 90 days in custody, ordered to pay a fine of $2,500 and restitution of $8,807 for the cost of disposal of the pesticides he smuggled, and also ordered to perform 100 hours of community service during his three years of supervised release. Gutierrez had smuggled 48 containers of various pesticides, including Furadan, Monitor and Rodentox (which contains zinc phosphide). Gutierrez had concealed some of the pesticides in cereal boxes and boxes of cookies. While his case was pending, Gutierrez offered another individual $40/bottle to smuggle pesticides. That person was caught at the border with another 38 containers of pesticides, including Furadan.

On March 26, 2021, Beatriz Santillan was sentenced to 70 days in prison and ordered to pay $20,079 restitution after pleading guilty to smuggling 56 containers of seven different types of illegal Mexican pesticides, including Qufuran, Metaldane and zinc phosphide (under the Mexican trade name Rodentox) into the United States from Mexico. Santillan was in possession of receipts showing three prior purchases of similar pesticides, and a search of her phone revealed chats with associates regarding the tending and cultivation of marijuana plants, including the use of the pesticides.

On April 27, 2021, Saul Flores Banuelos was sentenced to 60 days in prison and $1,200 restitution after pleading guilty to smuggling Qufuran, alcohol and medications into the United States from Mexico.

“All of these law enforcement agencies have come together to protect people, wildlife and the environment from extremely dangerous pesticides, and the result has been an overwhelming success,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “But this effort has also been a sobering reminder that trafficking in pesticides is a prolific problem. Those who commit these crimes care about profit, not people, so this ongoing enforcement action should force them to rethink their priorities.” Grossman commended the exemplary work of prosecutor Melanie Pierson, who specializes in cases related to environmental protection, and Environment and Natural Resources Division Trial Attorney Stephen Da Ponte, as well as the federal and state agencies participating in the initiative, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); the California Department of Toxic Substances Control; the U.S. Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section; and the San Diego City Attorney’s Office.

“This initiative demonstrates our commitment to protecting public lands, human health, and the environment through continued enforcement of the laws regulating the importation, sale, and distribution of dangerous pesticides,” said Jean E. Williams, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to work closely with our federal agency and state partners to ensure that those who import and use these prohibited chemicals are held fully accountable for their crimes.”

“The significant number of individuals arrested throughout this multi-agency initiative highlights the pervasiveness and dangers of illegal substances being smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Cardell T. Morant, Special Agent in Charge of HSI San Diego. “The chemicals banned from importation into the U.S. are highly toxic and hazardous to humans, wildlife and the environment. These smugglers often use the banned chemicals for cultivating cannabis. What’s most disturbing is that some of the chemicals can be transferred directly into the bloodstream of cannabis users, so it’s important that HSI and all the partner agencies participating in this initiative continue to prevent these toxic chemicals from being smuggled into the U.S.”

“The results of these recent prosecutions clearly demonstrate that individuals intentionally violating pesticide and smuggling laws will be held responsible for their crimes.” said Scot Adair, Special Agent in Charge of the EPA’s criminal enforcement program in California. “EPA will continue to work diligently on the Border Pesticide Initiative with our law enforcement partners. We are committed to holding responsible parties accountable for actions that put entire communities at risk.”

“This is an example of what can be accomplished when multiple agencies work together for a common goal to protect human health and the environment,” said Hansen Pang, Chief Investigator for the Office of Criminal Investigations of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“Protecting our region from environmental toxins is an office priority,” San Diego City Attorney Mara W. Elliott said. “As part of the Border Pesticide Initiative, the City Attorney’s Office works closely with the U.S. Attorney and other law enforcement agencies to protect Californians from exposure to lethal chemicals and hold accountable those who illegally traffic these dangerous substances.”

DEFENDANTS Case Numbers

Veronica Perez Age: 40 Hemet, CA 20cr0869-DMS

Selene Barraza Age: 34 Visalia, CA 20cr1442-DMS

Beatriz Santillan Age: 29 Menifee, CA 20cr2178-GPC

Saul Flores Banuelos Age: 56 Apple Valley, CA 20cr2179-JLS

Felix Gutierrez Valencia Age: 40 Perris, CA 20cr2058-JLS

SUMMARY OF CHARGES

Smuggling – Title 18, U.S.C., Section 545

Maximum penalty: Twenty years in prison and $250,000 fine

AGENCIES

Homeland Security Investigations; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Investigation Division; California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Office of Criminal Investigations

Contact: Assistant U. S. Attorney Melanie K. Pierson (619) 546-7976

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