Gorilla Warfare

Vilified by animal protectionists, indicted for smuggling, praised by the feds. Matthew Block surprised everyone. Maybe even himself.

Zeigler, happy to do his part in thwarting potential smugglers but not eager to get involved in legal intrigues, says he left immediately after escorting the group to a holding area. There Moja, the zoo's nine-year-old, captive-born male gorilla, did indeed appear to be the perfect find for Bernal. Pic centsn states in court papers that he explained to the Mexicans he was bribing a zoo employee to house and feed the gorilla and that he wanted to sell it as soon as possible. Victor Bernal decided he wanted the gorilla and a baby orangutan.

Bernal disputes nearly every element in the government's story. He won't discuss his case with the news media on advice from his attorney, but he did grant an interview in late February to a representative of the Animal Welfare Foundation, a Washington, D.C., group that has been active in monitoring Block's case. Bernal told the foundation representative that he had repeatedly inquired about the necessary CITES permits, which take months to obtain. But he said he believed his hosts when they insisted they were in the process of getting those permits, and that the animals would have to be killed for lack of space if he couldn't take them immediately. The price for both primates was $92,500, to be transferred from a Mexican exchange house to Block's bank account.

Once the transaction had been settled, the Mexicans, according to the government's criminal complaint, turned to the elaborate task of bribing Mexican Customs officials to allow the animals into the country. Bernal, the complaint says, was even ordered back to Mexico by the state governor to bribe authorities at the Toluca airport. Bernal's attorney, Donald Bierman, calls this part of the government's account "one of the most stupid proposals in this whole thing."

Finally, on January 25, Bernal, Berges, and Alcerreca accompanied Block and Pic centsn to the Opa-locka Airport, where the gorilla was being loaded onto a "chartered" plane. Pic centsn had arranged to borrow an old Customs Service DC-3, piloted by an undercover Fish and Wildlife agent, to fly the gorilla to Toluca. The orangutan was to be shipped on a later flight. Everything was going smoothly until Moja the gorilla stood up, opened the door to his cage, and stepped out into the plane, heading straight for a dumbstruck Bernal.

Pic centsn isn't saying which of his agents got the assignment to don a gorilla suit and sit in a cage that included a few scoops of gorilla dung thrown in for authenticity. But the act was a success: Bernal, Berges, and Alcerreca were arrested at the airport. Agents then stopped at the Hilton Hotel near Miami International Airport to pick up two other state employees of Mexico who had helped with the deal. The next day the funny story about the agent in a gorilla suit made news everywhere. Jay Leno wanted him on the Tonight Show.

Bernal and the other four were not amused. "I never knew Mr. Block before," says an embittered Bernal, "but he deceived me and lied to me." Attorney Bierman adds, "Block turned a simple inquiry into a big case by telling lies and setting people up." International politics also played rough with the five Mexicans. One condition of their release from jail on bond was written assurance from the federal government of Mexico that it would ensure the return of its citizens to the U.S. for trial if they fled to Mexico. The timing of such a request was unfortunate, coming as it did only seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court infuriated the Mexican government by upholding the controversial 1989 kidnapping of a Mexican doctor by U.S. drug agents. Mexican officials refused the bond request, and the five Mexicans remained in jail in Miami for ten days, until U.S. Magistrate Linnea Johnson agreed to a modified release arrangement. Four of the Mexicans charged in the gorilla caper have since been allowed to return to Mexico to await their May 17 trial. Victor Bernal, however, is still here. Today he is staying in a suite at a Fort Lauderdale hotel. As a condition of his bond, he reports by phone every day to U.S. Pretrial Services or to his attorney's office.

On January 27, the same day as the Mexicans' bond hearing before Magistrate Johnson, a federal grand jury handed up a new indictment in the Bangkok Six case, an indictment that would replace the original four-count charge against Block. The new indictment, which named Kurt Schafer as an unindicted co-conspirator, charged Block and three others with one count of conspiring to violate U.S. and international endangered-species laws. Matthew Block had purposefully implicated himself in a felony.

Arraigned before Magistrate Johnson the day of the indictment, Block by coincidence found himself in the same courtroom with the five Mexican citizens who had wired $92,500 to his bank account two days earlier. (Prosecutors won't say what they did with the money after the arrests.)

Along with the dramatic new indictment came a new agreement: Block would plead guilty to the one felony conspiracy charge, and expect his vigorous cooperation with the government to help mitigate his sentence. Pleading guilty to a felony results in the loss of the right to vote and to carry a gun, although those rights can be reinstated. It could also mean revocation of Block's animal import license. But the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides each case individually, according to agent Pic centsn, and a felony doesn't automatically mean the loss of a license.

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