The Mysterious Mexican Gorilla Caper

A notorious animal smuggler. Some eager buyers. A bizarre sting operation. A dark and stormy night. No wonder the jurors could hardly believe what they were hearing.

Two U.S. Customs agents hidden in a trailer office at the Opa-locka Airport captured the scene on blurry black-and-white videotape. The old DC-3 transport plane, its belly underlit and a cargo hold open, waiting on a runway in the dimness of night while five men drift distantly in and out of camera range. The ground is shiny from rain; lightning flashes. Suddenly more figures, a dozen or so, swarm out of nowhere. They force three of the men to kneel at gunpoint and handcuff them. About then a dark, hulking figure climbs from the plane down a short ladder and walks away from the scene in the direction of the hidden camcorder. It's unmistakably a blond man's impassive face atop an ape's body. The ape's head is tucked under an arm. Still walking, businesslike, he lights a cigarette and veers out of the picture.

It was the sting that had everyone laughing back in January of last year. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent dresses up in a gorilla costume and crouches in a manure-laden cage to nab three Mexican citizens in the act of allegedly attempting to smuggle a real gorilla out of Miami. Jay Leno wanted but didn't get the agent on his show. A Mexican newspaper claimed the incident proved "the U.S. judicial system is one of the most corrupt in the world." Another published a special cartoon section entitled "El Changogate" (in Mexico chango means monkey) which, among its panoply of gorilla and law enforcement jokes, features one ape declaring, "This animal act by the agents of imperialism is an assault on NAFTA!" The normally responsible Washington Post ran an editorial with nearly every fact wrong, repeating an apocryphal story about the gorilla grunting, "You're under arrest," yanking off his mask, and chasing the screaming smugglers around the plane. "It is a moment we deeply wish we could have observed ourselves," the editorial added.

That moment never happened, just as a real gorilla was never available for smuggling, and just as most everything related to this case isn't exactly as it appears. The gorilla caper is only one subplot in a five-year saga starring the baron of wildlife dealers, Matthew Block of Miami. Set in the murky and duplicitous world of animal trading, where truth shifts and loyalties divide, the tale is shaped by unlikely alliances and unforeseen outcomes, until a fake gorilla fits right in with the rest of the illusion.

All told, five Mexican nationals were arrested on the night of January 25, 1993, and charged with conspiring to violate U.S. laws regulating trade in endangered species. Two of the accused went to trial May 2; the other three agreed at the last minute to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for dismissal of five other charges. After a two-week jury trial before U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, the two were convicted of three felonies and two misdemeanors each. Victor Bernal, a 58-year-old former top official of the State of Mexico, and 33-year-old businessman Eduardo Berges face up to seventeen years in prison and almost one million dollars in fines apiece. Both remain in jail while awaiting sentencing on July 18.

The punishment in store for the Mexicans is far harsher than what Matthew Block is likely to suffer for a crime much more serious and detrimental to the world's endangered ape populations. Block played a central role in the gorilla sting and in an earlier arrest of a Jacksonville bird dealer; so central, in fact, that the arrests would almost certainly never have occurred had it not been for Block's legal difficulties in late 1992 and early 1993. He was facing prison time after pleading guilty in connection with an aborted plot to smuggle six valuable baby orangutans from their native Indonesia to Moscow in 1990 -- the notorious "Bangkok Six" case. Three of the orangutans died after being flown from Singapore to Bangkok in cramped crates, causing an international uproar. None of the participants in the smuggling conspiracy has been arrested except Block, who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors -- become an informant -- in exchange for reduced charges and, he expected, leniency at sentencing. Block didn't get what he was expecting, due to still other strange twists in the story. Currently he is free while appealing a thirteen-month sentence.

As for the government, which put some sixteen agents to work hundreds of hours over three weeks to spin a web around the Mexican gorilla-buyers, the resulting publicity was overwhelmingly positive. Some posttrial news reports lauded the breakup of an international smuggling ring, although the existence of a ring would be hard to conclude from evidence presented at trial. Neither defendant had any criminal history, and no endangered species were saved, since none had been for sale, although prosecutors contend the buyers would have sought a gorilla through other illegal channels had they not been arrested. "We're here because in 10, 20, 40, 100 years, my children, your children, our grandchildren, can go to the zoo and look at one of these animals," Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis said in his spirited closing argument to the jury on May 16.

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