A Las Vegas man who tried to sneak 115 oven-ready iguanas into the United States from Mexico has been sentenced to two years in prison for illegally importing the reptiles, authorities said on Thursday.
A federal judge ordered Eliodoro Soria Fonseca, 38, to serve 24 months in prison, the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of California said.
Fonseca was arrested as he tried to cross into California through the Otay Mesa port of entry, south of San Diego, last June with the iguana meat packed in coolers.
A search found the beheaded, skinned, and deboned bodies of 115 green iguanas weighing 159 pounds (72 kg) hidden beneath fish in the coolers.
"According to admissions in his guilty plea, the defendant imported the iguana meat for the purpose of serving it as food to humans," the attorney's office said in a press release.
Green iguanas are eaten in Mexico and Central America. They are enjoyed in stews or roasted and served in tacos or flautas, usually with condiments. Some recipes recommend parboiling the reptiles first.
But iguanas are also regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). While they are not endangered, CITES say they may become threatened if trade is not tightly controlled.
Fonseca, who said he obtained the iguanas in Nayarit in western Mexico, had neither an import license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor any CITES permit from Mexico's wildlife management authority.
According to sentencing documents, a researcher working for an iguana conservation program in Mexico concluded that removing more than 100 iguanas from the Nayarit area essentially "means that the local population was technically wiped out."
The sentencing hearing noted the risk of food poisoning from iguana meat, which prosecutors said frequently carries salmonella bacteria.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Xavier Briand)