Spanish authorities have dismantled two criminal gangs and arrested 21 people, including a British national, for the illegal trafficking of exotic animals including huge tortoises shipped in crates piled on top of each other.
Simultaneous police stings were coordinated across the country, including the capital,Madrid.
According to an exclusive statement from the spokesperson of the Nature Protection Service of the Spanish Civil Guard (Seprona), Ana Prieto, the investigation turned up at least 300 animals of different species, some of which were found dead.
Reportedly, the exotic animals had been sent from places like Mexico, the Amazon, northern Africa, Australia, South Africa and the Middle East.
They were smuggled illegally into Europe in order to breed and commercialise them.
Prieto said: “There were two modus operandi, first of all, they got the original documentation and falsified it in order to justify the extraction from the origin countries of species that are not allowed to be transported.”
The sergeant added that another way they operated was to use ‘mules’ who hid the exotic animals inside their suitcases and took them through airports or ports in order to introduce them into Europe.
The people hired as mules usually carried eggs such as those taken from reptiles or occasionally even small live animals that were put in their luggage, and according to Prieto: “some of them arrived at their destination dead”.
Some of the suspects reportedly belong to a network of veterinarians, who were responsible for providing the fake documentation to make it easier to sell the illegally obtained animals via official channels.
During the operation police found many massive tortoises crammed into a small space, even piled on top of each other, some of which were already dead.
Each tortoise could have a market value of EUR 30,000.
The suspects, whose names and nationalities have not been revealed, have been arrested and charged with the crimes of animal trafficking, crimes against flora and fauna, faking documentation and belonging to a criminal gang.
Prieto also confirmed that there was at least one suspect of British nationality.
They have been sent to the judge to await processing.