Local woman plays part in international smuggling ring

Selene Barraza smuggled banned pesticides used to grow marijuana into the U.S., toxic ingredients could be transferred into the blood

SAN DIEGO – A Visalia woman convicted of smuggling large amounts of banned pesticides into the country is now considered part of a larger conspiracy to use hazardous chemicals at illegal marijuana grows.

On July 9, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Southern California announced it had prosecuted more than 50 defendants for smuggling nearly 1,000 containers of dangerous Mexican pesticides across California’s southern border. One of the defendants, Selene Elizabeth Barraza of Visalia, was convicted by a federal jury on May 26 for smuggling 25 containers of pesticides and fertilizers banned in the United States, enough to last more than 100 years.

Barraza was arrested on Feb. 26, 2020 after she failed to declare the containers hidden under the middle row of seats in her vehicle while attempting to enter the United States in San Ysidro, Calif. Twelve of the containers were metaldane and six were furadan, both classified by the EPA as Toxicity Category I, the highest toxicity category, and may not be legally imported, sold, distributed or applied in the United States.

The active ingredient in metaldane is methamidophos and is one of the most acutely toxic organophosphate pesticides and is similar to a class of chemicals that were originally manufactured as chemical warfare nerve agents. Methamidophos was canceled in the United States in 2009. The active ingredient in furadan is carbofuran, which was banned in the U.S. for its lethal potency from absorption by ingestion, contact with skin, and inhalation. Carbofuran was banned by the U.S. in 2011. Barraza is scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 20.

Barraza’s arrest was part of a San Diego-based effort to block pesticide smuggling at the southern border. The Border Pesticide Initiative Group was formed in late 2019 and includes the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the U.S. Department of Justice, Environmental Crimes Section; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Homeland Security Investigations; the California Department of Toxic Substances Control; and the San Diego City Attorney’s Office.

“All of these law enforcement agencies have come together to protect people, wildlife and the environment from extremely dangerous pesticides, and the result has been an overwhelming success,” said acting U.S. attorney Randy Grossman. “But this effort has also been a sobering reminder that trafficking in pesticides is a prolific problem. Those who commit these crimes care about profit, not people, so this ongoing enforcement action should force them to rethink their priorities.”

The initiative began in response to complaints that law enforcement officers were being injured during the eradication of illegal marijuana cultivation sites on public lands by exposure to powerful Mexican pesticides not permitted in the United States. The application of these chemicals on public lands has been documented to pollute streams and soils and kill wildlife.

“The results of these recent prosecutions clearly demonstrate that individuals intentionally violating pesticide and smuggling laws will be held responsible for their crimes.” said Scot Adair, special agent in charge of the EPA’s criminal enforcement program in California. “EPA will continue to work diligently on the Border Pesticide Initiative with our law enforcement partners. We are committed to holding responsible parties accountable for actions that put entire communities at risk.”

Moreover, cannabis users are also at risk from exposure to pesticide residues. During the smoking of cannabis, pesticides are transferred directly into the blood stream, increasing the potential for exposure. In one study, the pesticide transfer rate of carbofuran into cannabis smoke from glass pipes was as high as 70 percent of the initial concentration in the plant.

“The chemicals banned from importation into the U.S. are highly toxic and hazardous to humans, wildlife and the environment,” said Cardell T. Morant, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego. “What’s most disturbing is that some of the chemicals can be transferred directly into the bloodstream of cannabis users.”

Barraza was one of two felony convictions with the other being Veronica Perez of Hemet, Calif. On July 9, 2021, Perez was sentenced to 60 days in prison for smuggling unregistered pesticides into the United States. Perez concealed 20 containers of zinc phosphide (sold under the Mexican trade name Fosfuro de Zinc) in her purse and failed to declare the items at the border when she attempted to cross into the United States from Mexico on July 11, 2019. Consumption of a single zinc phosphide pellet can be lethal to a small bird or mammal. Ingestion of seven drops to one teaspoon of zinc phosphide would likely kill a 150-pound person. Perez also had qufuran and metaldane in her vehicle.

The pesticides imported by these defendants were labeled in Spanish and did not bear any registration number showing that the products were approved by the EPA, as required by law for pesticides intended for use in the United States. The lawful importation of pesticides requires a Notice of Arrival to be filed in advance with the EPA to allow for inspection, which none of the defendants provided.

“This is an example of what can be accomplished when multiple agencies work together for a common goal to protect human health and the environment,” said Hansen Pang, Chief Investigator for the Office of Criminal Investigations of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Of the more than 50 defendants who have been charged federally, 14 were convicted of felonies and 26 were convicted of misdemeanors. The defendants have been ordered to pay more than $60,000 in restitution to cover the cost of disposing of the pesticides. Eight cases have also been filed by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office under California law for possession of pesticides found at the border.

“Protecting our region from environmental toxins is an office priority,” San Diego City Attorney Mara W. Elliott said. “As part of the Border Pesticide Initiative, the City Attorney’s Office works closely with the U.S. Attorney and other law enforcement agencies to protect Californians from exposure to lethal chemicals and hold accountable those who illegally traffic these dangerous substances.”

On June 18, Felix Gutierrez Valencia of Perris, Calif. was sentenced to 90 days in custody, ordered to pay a fine of $2,500 and restitution of $8,807 for the cost of disposal of the pesticides he smuggled, and also ordered to perform 100 hours of community service during his three years of supervised release. Gutierrez had smuggled 48 containers of various pesticides, including furadan, monitor and rodentox (which contains zinc phosphide). Gutierrez had concealed some of the pesticides in cereal boxes and boxes of cookies. While his case was pending, Gutierrez offered another individual $40/bottle to smuggle pesticides. That person was caught at the border with another 38 containers of pesticides, including Furadan.

On March 26, 2021, Beatriz Santillan of Menifee, Calif. was sentenced to 70 days in prison and ordered to pay $20,079 restitution after pleading guilty to smuggling 56 containers of seven different types of illegal Mexican pesticides, including Qufuran, Metaldane and zinc phosphide (under the Mexican trade name Rodentox) into the United States from Mexico. Santillan was in possession of receipts showing three prior purchases of similar pesticides, and a search of her phone revealed chats with associates regarding the tending and cultivation of marijuana plants, including the use of the pesticides.

On April 27, 2021, Saul Flores Banuelos of Apple Valley, Calif. was sentenced to 60 days in prison and $1,200 restitution after pleading guilty to smuggling Qufuran, alcohol and medications into the United States from Mexico.

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