By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - A Southern California couple has been indicted in San Diego federal court on charges of smuggling sea turtle eggs into the United States from Mexico, officials said on Wednesday, a first for prosecutors in the border region.
Jose Jimenez, 64, and Olga Jimenez, 52, both U.S. citizens, were charged with one criminal count each of conspiracy, smuggling, unlawful trafficking in wildlife and importation, according to the indictment filed on Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Melanie Pierson said the indictment marked the first time criminal charges have been brought in the Southern District of California for smuggling sea turtle eggs.
The eggs came from "clutches" of 100 to 200 laid in the sand by two species of sea turtle, olive ridley and Kemp's ridley sea turtles, officials said.
Both are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and both are subject to protection under the 1981 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which the United States and Mexico signed.
The turtles lay their eggs in the sand on beaches in southern Mexico before returning to the ocean. In Mexico, Central America and some Asian cultures, the eggs are thought to have aphrodisiac properties.
According to the indictment, Olga Jimenez obtained 911 eggs in Nayarit, Mexico, loaded them into a cooler and boarded a bus to Tijuana, a border city just south of San Diego.
Her husband then drove to Tijuana, where the couple allegedly moved the eggs to two coolers, covered them with fish and shrimp, and then passed them off to a hired driver, without informing him of the eggs.
Pierson declined to provide any details on how the smuggled eggs were intercepted.
Ocean protection advocates who have been working to protect turtle eggs applauded the bust.
"Men eat sea turtle eggs because they believe it's an organic version of Viagra," Faye Crevoshay, executive director of conservation group Wildcoast, told Reuters on Wednesday. "That has done terrible harm to the species and we think it's great that they are going to be prosecuted."
If convicted, the couple could face sentences of up to 25 years in prison. The indictment also seeks the criminal forfeiture of the eggs.
(Reporting by Marty Graham; Editing by Curtis Skinner and Sandra Maler)