With sentencing in Pecos, authorities deal blow to cactus black market

Living rock cacti are native to only a small region in Texas and northern Mexico, making them rare and therefore appealing to traffickers.

In a front-page story last year, The Big Bend Sentinel reported on efforts by the federal government to rein in what it calls the “cactus black market.” In a report from November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it had dealt a “major blow” after four traffickers were sentenced for their role in harvesting, smuggling and selling “living rock” cacti, which are native to the Big Bend.

Those sentences are part of a years-long and multi-agency effort to crack down on such smuggling. Though living rock cacti aren’t endangered, their unique geographic distribution gives them a number of legal protections, including under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Exporting them is a felony.

That black market took another blow this month, as a man in Pecos pleaded guilty to his role in just such a scheme.

Henry George Bock II, 47, allegedly mislabeled living rock cacti to export them abroad. In 2018, authorities said they seized 41 living rock cacti at the International Mail Facility in Chicago, Illinois. All were allegedly mislabeled and shipped by Bock.

By mislabeling the cacti and non-protected species, Bock intended to “export and sell the plants for financial gain,” the Department of Justice said in a news release last week. Bock pleaded guilty to one count of mislabeled exports.

“When you mess with protected Texas cacti, you’re messing with Texas,” John Bash, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in a statement. “My office will continue to work with our law-enforcement partners to protect our State’s natural heritage.”

Bock has not yet been formally sentenced, according to the DOJ release. The agency also said that five other people had been prosecuted and sentenced for their role in the scheme, though they declined to name those individuals or comment on whether there was a direct connection between this case and the one the Fish and Wildlife Service publicized last year.

It’s unclear if authorities suspect Bock was working with a few accomplices or part of a much bigger conspiracy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Regardless, the DOJ says authorities have found a “substantial trafficking organization” responsible for “smuggling thousands of protected living rock cactus from the Big Bend region of Western Texas” dating back to at least 2012. The ensuing crackdown has led to everything from package interceptions to residential search warrants throughout the desert Southwest.

In 2015, for example, authorities seized 3,500 living rock cactus, which were later placed in the care of the Plant Resources Center at Sul Ross State University. Many of them were still in garbage bags when they made it to a university greenhouse.

“A cactus lover would never put these in a garbage bag,” Karen Little, who runs the greenhouses for the center, previously told The Big Bend Sentinel. “These people are doing it for the money and preying on cactus lovers.”