Venezuelans are used to going to great lengths to obtain everyday items. Under the country's late president Hugo Chávez and his socialist party, basic foodstuffs have become scarce. Some Venezuelans wait hours for groceries, while others resort to smuggling items like chicken, flour, and toilet paper across the border from Colombia.
Shortages of rare fish and exotic coral probably can't be blamed on Chávez, however.
Yesterday, Venezuelan national Oscar Cordova-Cobian was charged with smuggling marine wildlife after TSA agents at Miami International Airport found more than 100 specimens of live corals, clams, and fish in his checked luggage.
Cordova-Cobian nearly got away with his crustacean caper. The 42-year-old had already passed through MIA security and was waiting to board a late-night Santa Barbara Airlines flight to Venezuela when TSA agents spotted something fishy inside his checked luggage.
TSA called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and an FWS agent interviewed Cordova-Cobian's cousin Javier, who was still at the security gate. Confronted with an itemized receipt for $2,070 worth of sea creatures from a Hialeah pet store, Javier confessed that Oscar planned to resell them in Venezuela for more than twice that amount.
The FWS agent alerted Homeland Security, and Cordova-Cobian was prevented from boarding his plane. Instead, he waived his Miranda rights and readily admitted to the FWS agent that he had ignored the advice of the Miami pet store and was smuggling sea life back to Venezuela without the proper permits.
(None of the corals, fish, clams, or "live rock" was endangered. However, under international law, individuals must obtain permission before exporting them to other countries.)
In fact, Cordova-Cobian went even further, volunteering that he had smuggled in the past.
Describing himself as a "marine hobbyist and non-practicing dentist," the Venezuelan admitted to previously "exporting approximately 100 marine fish totaling roughly $2,000 on his previous visit to the United States, in his luggage. Cordova-Cobian added that he maintains a company website, granjadecoral.com, on which he advertises marine life, and previously owned a pet shop in Venezuela."
An hour later, Cordova-Cobian copped to having two other suitcases full of sea critters. He pleaded not guilty in a Miami federal court Monday and faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
Cordova-Cobian is far from the first person to try to sneak wildlife through Miami International Airport. In 2011, a man was caught trying to board a flight with turtles and snakes stuffed inside pantyhose.
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Florida has a brisk black-market animal trade. Last week, the owner of the well-known Miami shop Art by God was convicted of arranging an illegal shipment of black rhino horns overseas.
The international coral trade, meanwhile, has exploded in recent years as advancements in technology have made home aquaculture labs possible.