Jose Manuel Perez, of Oxnard, entered pleas to two counts of smuggling and a charge of wildlife trafficking.
Prosecutors said that from 2016 to this February, Perez and his accomplices used social media to arrange to smuggle animals from Mexico and Hong Kong. Most were reptiles and included Yucatan box turtles, Mexican box turtles, baby crocodiles and Mexican beaded lizards, a statement from the US Department of Justice said.
It is illegal to import these and other animals without permits under an international treaty on the trade of endangered species, the department said.
Perez paid accomplices a crossing fee to drive animals from Mexico to El Paso, Texas, where he had them shipped to his family's Ventura County home and resold them to customers throughout the US, authorities said.
He also made about three dozen trips to Mexico himself to pick up animals and on February 25, he was arrested while trying to enter the US with 60 reptiles hidden in bags of his clothing, prosecutors said. Three of the reptiles died.
The smuggled reptiles were worth about $739,000, authorities estimated.
Perez fled to Tijuana, Mexico, in June while out on bond but was quickly captured and returned to the US. He could face up to 20 years in federal prison for each smuggling count when he is sentenced on December 1.