MIAMI — They looked like plastic Easter eggs, but when airport inspectors opened the shells, they found not chocolate or candy, but 72 unhatched pigeon eggs illegally smuggled from Cuba.
Federal investigators said Rufino Blanco, 47, intended to hatch the eggs and sell them through his pet store, El Morrillero, named after a type of pigeon.
Blanco and his daughter, Claribel Blanco Cuellar, 21, pleaded guilty Wednesday to illegally importing wildlife from Cuba into Miami. When the daughter was first questioned about the eggs -- found wrapped in cotton with source and parentage written on top -- she said they were for Santería ceremonies. That cover story was quickly disproved.
It is a violation of federal law to import fish or wildlife, including eggs, without declaring them. Importers also need a federal license.
Now, both father and daughter face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000. Sentencing was scheduled for March 3.
Rufino Blanco did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Court documents said the investigation began June 7, when Claribel Blanco was stopped by Customs and Border Protection officers at Miami International Airport who noticed the 72 viable eggs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture seized the eggs and started an investigation.
USDA regulations require specific documentation for imported pigeons to show they are free of communicable diseases.
Eight days later, when a USDA investigator asked Blanco more questions, she said she had picked them up from an uncle during a trip to Cuba.
"Prior to her return to the United States, her uncle Ramiro Diaz gave her the 72 eggs to bring back for her parents for use in Santería ceremonies,'' the affidavit quoted her as saying.
Blanco told the investigator that her parents had a list of people who would get the eggs.
But during the interview, her father, Rufino Blanco, arrived and agreed to talk.
His business, El Morrillero at 9544 SW 40th St., specialized in selling racing and homing pigeons, authorities said. It offered pigeons with Cuban origins for sale through an online chat room, and buyers came to the pet store.
Rufino Blanco is frequently mentioned in conversations about where to purchase pigeons on Palomeros Cubanos, an online message forum for pigeon racing enthusiasts. The forum includes photos of pigeons, tips on what to feed them, how to de-louse them and notes how to identify lost and found pigeons based on tiny rings owners place around their legs.
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