Leader of animal trafficking ring sent to prison following investigation by HSI Houston, federal partners

HOUSTON – The leader of an animal trafficking ring has been sentenced to federal prison for selling endangered wildlife in violation of the Lacey Act following an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI)-Houston, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General.

Savannah Nicole Valdez, a 21-year-old resident of Houston, was sentenced in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to 15 months in federal prison to be immediately followed by three years of supervised release. Valdez pleaded guilty to the charges in February.

In handing down the sentence, the court considered that Valdez was previously sentenced to two years of supervised release for smuggling a monkey into the United States and high-speed flight from an immigration checkpoint. The court revoked her supervised release in that case, and she received another month to run consecutively with this prison term.

The investigation began in the summer of 2023 when authorities discovered several advertisements posted to Craigslist offering exotic birds for sale including keel-billed toucans and yellow-headed amazon parrots; both federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act. Law enforcement identified the personal cell phone number of Valdez during the initial investigation. They found the contact number listed for the animals was, in fact, the same.

A subsequent undercover operation involved the sale of two keel-billed toucans and a Mexican spider monkey. On July 28, 2023, her mother arrived at Memorial City Mall in Houston to deliver the toucans and accepted $3,000 as payment. Her mother would later admit her daughter had arranged the sale. On Aug. 1, 2023, Valdez then coordinated the sale of a Mexican spider monkey for $8,500. She had her sister deliver it on her behalf.

The animals have been transferred to zoos within Texas.

Valdez was permitted to remain on bond and voluntarily surrender to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility in the near future.

For more news and information on HSI’s efforts to aggressively investigate illegal wildlife trafficking in Southeast Texas follow us on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @HSIHouston.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.