PECOS, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) –  A man from El Paso pleaded guilty Tuesday to his role in a scheme to illegally sell protected living rock cactus plants, following an investigation by special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations.

Harry George Bock II, 47, pleaded guilty to mislabeled exports.

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“Individuals who deal in protected native plants are not only doing damage to the environment, but they are stealing from the American people,” said Erik Breitzke, acting special agent in charge of HSI El Paso. “HSI will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to investigate and prosecute these criminals to ensure the protection of these West Texas natural treasures.”

From May 2017 to August 2018, Bock conspired with others in a scheme whereby they submitted false identification of actual living rock cacti (Ariocarpus fissuratus), a protected species, with the intent to export and sell the plants for financial gain, according to court records.

(credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

On May 14, 2018, 41 living rock cacti shipped by Bock were seized by authorities at the International Mail Facility in Chicago.

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In 2012, Texas-based FWS special agents uncovered a substantial trafficking organization smuggling thousands of protected living rock cactus from the Big Bend region of West Texas. The cacti sold for as much as several thousand dollars apiece on the black market.

Cooperative investigative work led to the execution of six residential search warrants served mostly in remote areas of far Southwest Texas where the living rock cacti naturally occur. The living rock cacti were advertised through Internet sales and mostly consummated with end purchasers from Europe and Asia. Several parcels containing the live cacti were intercepted at international mail facilities and were found to be falsely labeled, which substantiated felony charges to the sellers.

The living rock cacti are afforded protection through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and listed as Appendix I protected plant species that prohibit foreign commerce. Categories of the species are listed as threatened with extinction and limits international movements to scientific research and zoological display.

Bock remains on bond pending formal sentencing. No sentencing date has been scheduled. Five other people were prosecuted and sentenced in relation to the scheme.

Thousands of live cacti seized by law enforcement during the investigation were cared for and donated to non-profit entities through assistance from the Sul Ross State University.

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