MIAMI -- They looked like plastic Easter eggs, but when airport inspectors opened the shells, they found not chocolate or candy, but 72 unhatched pigeon eggs illegally smuggled from Cuba.
Federal investigators said Rufino Blanco, 47, intended to hatch the eggs and sell them through his pet store, El Morrillero, named after a type of pigeon.
Blanco and his daughter, Claribel Blanco Cuellar, 21, pleaded guilty Wednesday to illegally importing wildlife from Cuba into Miami. When the daughter was first questioned about the eggs -- found wrapped in cotton with source and parentage written on top -- she said they were for Santeria ceremonies. That cover story was quickly disproved.
It is a violation of federal law to import fish or wildlife, including eggs, without declaring them. Importers also need a federal license.
Now, both father and daughter face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. Sentencing was scheduled for March 3.
Rufino Blanco did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Court documents said the investigation began June 7, when Claribel Blanco was stopped by Customs and Border Protection officers at Miami International Airport who noticed the 72 viable eggs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture seized the eggs and started an investigation.
USDA regulations require specific documentation for imported pigeons to show they are free of communicable diseases.
Eight days later, when a USDA investigator asked Blanco more questions, she said she had picked them up from an uncle during a trip to Cuba.
"Prior to her return to the United States, her uncle Ramiro Diaz gave her the 72 eggs to bring back for her parents for use in Santeria ceremonies," the affidavit quoted her as saying.
Blanco told the investigator that her parents had a list of people who would get the eggs.
But during the interview, her father, Rufino Blanco, arrived and agreed to talk.
His business, El Morrillero in Miami, specialized in selling racing and homing pigeons, authorities said. It offered pigeons with Cuban origins for sale through an online chat room, and buyers came to the pet store.
Rufino Blanco is frequently mentioned in conversations about where to purchase pigeons on Palomeros Cubanos, an online message forum for pigeon racing enthusiasts. The forum includes photos of pigeons, tips on what to feed them, how to de-louse them and notes how to identify lost and found pigeons based on tiny rings owners place around their legs.
One posting, made by a user named "EL MECCA" on Jan. 17, 2009, tells someone looking to buy Cuban pigeons to reach out to Rufino Blanco. "Go by Rufino's pet shop ... He took out about 15 chicks from eggs brought from Cuba, go see if he is selling them ..."
Blanco didn't have an import/export license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hadn't declared any wildlife imports. That didn't stop Blanco from describing his imports, however.
In his first interview with the investigator, Blanco talked about how he had gotten two or three shipments of eggs from Cuba in the past and sold all the birds except one, the affidavit said. Diaz, the uncle in Cuba, did provide pigeon eggs for his business, Blanco said, although he described his daughter's recent shipment as "unsolicited," according to the affidavit.
In a June 30 interview, Rufino Blanco went on to describe how he had received an earlier undeclared shipment of six pigeon eggs from Cuba. Three hatched; he sold two pigeons and kept the third in the store.
The man who bought those two pigeons told an investigator that he bought them for $200. He also recalled Rufino Blanco telling him, at about the same time Claribel Blanco smuggled in the 72 eggs, that he expected a new shipment soon, the affidavit said.
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