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.

Ironically, the guilty verdicts were not cause for rejoicing for many wildlife conservationists, especially those working for years to see Matthew Block in jail. Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) in South Carolina, has begun a campaign to publicize what she calls "the worst travesty I've ever seen." Besides press releases to various media worldwide, McGreal has written to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, calling for an investigation into the government's conduct. "The Mexicans really did nothing, compared to Block's vile crime.... Yet they are in jail, not him," McGreal wrote to prosecutor Lewis on May 19. "In my opinion, they should not get any jail time at all."

McGreal, a relentless crusader connected to an international network of activists, was instrumental in first linking Block to the Bangkok Six debacle and continues to monitor his legal and business affairs. "Despite its 21-year battle against wildlife crime, IPPL believes that entrapping people with no criminal backgrounds and engineering degrading, humiliating, and demeaning publicity for the 'sting' victims while aggrandizing themselves, meanwhile letting a real criminal jet the globe, is an outrage and total waste of taxpayers' money," reads an IPPL press release. Now, in one of those unusual quirks of this case, animal advocates around the world are expressing their sympathy and offering support to family members of the two Mexicans convicted of violating wildlife laws.

Jorge Enrique Pic centsn, senior resident agent in the Miami office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a 22-year veteran of undercover operations in Latin America and the U.S., and he has caught some mean animal smugglers in his time. Most of the time the Colombia-born Pic centsn, his thinning black hair combed neatly back, occasionally donning reading glasses, looks almost professorial. But when he goes undercover, a rougher persona emerges. As "Jorge Blanco," the long-haired, bearded, foul-mouthed mafioso who had just the right gorilla for the unlucky Mexicans, the 46-year-old Pic centsn played his part with relish.

In late December 1992 or early January 1993, Matthew Block, who had been cooperating with the government for a few months, reported to Fish and Wildlife agents that some clients, Mexican businessmen, were eager to buy a gorilla to replace one that had recently died at a zoo in Toluca, just north of Mexico City. The mere nature of the inquiry -- the fact they had gone to Block instead of through the time-consuming but legal channels within established zoological organizations -- alerted Pic centsn that something was wrong. "Bells just rang all over my brain," he says. "I think [Block] is telling me something too good to be true; you just don't find people asking for gorillas at the drop of a hat. So I conferred with my superiors and Guy Lewis, and they said give it a try and see what happens."

Not that he or Block actually had a gorilla, or any intention of selling one to the Mexicans. Trade in the highly endangered apes (about 30,000 remain in the wild, experts estimate) is prohibited by U.S. endangered species laws and international treaties under most circumstances, and then only after securing several permits. Acquisition of a gorilla by any North American zoo must be approved by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Even transporting a gorilla is a delicate and risky business that requires the presence of a veterinarian and several handlers. However, to lay the proper trap for the prospective buyers, Pic centsn would have to find a gorilla. "I tried to obtain a real gorilla," Pic centsn recalls, "but people said I was crazy."

The sting as set up by Pic centsn and his agents, with help from the Fish and Wildlife regional office in Atlanta, never was reviewed by the service's Undercover Operations Review Committee in Washington, D.C., or approved in writing by service director Mollie Beattie, the procedure prescribed for undercover operations of that type in the service's Law Enforcement Division policy manual. Pic centsn says that's because it was an emergency.

Block and Pic centsn already had teamed up on a bust just a few weeks before the gorilla sting. In December 1992, acting on another tip from Block, Pic centsn had accompanied his new informant up to Elkton, west of St. Augustine, where he won the confidence of bird dealer Clement Solano by posing as a wealthy wildlife buyer. Pic centsn and five other gun-wielding Fish and Wildlife agents then suddenly arrested Solano, who had several species of illegally imported (but not endangered) Australian birds for sale.

Solano, however, had been a mere warmup for the Mexicans, who arrived in Miami a few weeks later. First came Jose Luis Alcerreca and Eduardo Berges, described by prosecutors as wildlife dealers, then Victor Bernal. Actually, Alcerreca and Berges handled several enterprises through two different companies, mostly brokering sales of marine equipment to Mexican governmental agencies. (When they were in Miami, according to Berges, they were also overseeing construction in Fort Lauderdale of four boats commissioned by the Mexican government.) But for some five years before their arrests, Alcerreca and Berges also had brokered the sale of hundreds of laboratory monkeys to the Mexican government for medical research. The animals came from Worldwide Primates, Matthew Block's company in Miami. The two had personally met with Block a couple of times and had developed a good business relationship. According to Berges, they also knew nothing of Block's legal problems, much less his agreement to become an informant for the government. So it was logical to think of him when they learned the Zacango Zoo in Toluca, the capital of the State of Mexico, needed a gorilla. The zoo's male specimen, King, had died of pneumonia in December, leaving bereft a female and the throngs of children who loved to visit.

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