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.

How Alcerreca and Berges happened to become interested in acquiring a gorilla for the zoo isn't clear; they claim they received an inquiry from an employee of the Mexican state finance department, a woman who was a trusted assistant to Victor Bernal, head of the state's Natural Parks and Zoos Commission. Bernal, on the other hand, testified that Alcerreca contacted him from time to time since 1990, proferring several endangered or exotic animals, and that in early January 1993, Alcerreca told Bernal he could get a gorilla. Matthew Block says Alcerreca and Berges had sought to buy gorillas and orangutans from him as early as 1991, but after he informed them about the strict regulation of such purchases, the matter was dropped. This time, Block alleges, the two were not so picky about paperwork.

The government's first surreptitious audio recording in the case picks up a January 6 phone call from Berges and Alcerreca in Mexico City to Block in Miami. Berges says he usually did the talking for the 46-year-old Alcerreca when English was required, and spoke to Block on most occasions. In the January 6 call, Berges broaches the subject of a gorilla for the Toluca zoo, apparently not for the first time, and Block says he thinks he heard of one for sale; he'll check it out and call them back. When Berges asks for orangutans, Block tells him he does know of some available (Block's long-time business associate, Dr. Bern Levine, part-owner of Parrot Jungle, breeds orangutans). Seventy-nine subsequent telephone calls were taped, 72 of which either Pic centsn or Block initiated to Berges or Alcerreca.

By the time Alcerreca, Berges, and Bernal had checked into the Airport Hilton Hotel on January 12, Fish and Wildlife agent Jorge Pic centsn had prepared as elaborate a ruse as possible, given the short notice. After inquiring of zoos around the country about borrowing a gorilla and being told he was crazy, Pic centsn went to Metrozoo's general curator, Bill Zeigler. Pic centsn proposed bringing his "clients" to see Moja, the zoo's ten-year-old male gorilla. He would do this after the zoo had closed for the day. "That way I can tell them you work for me and I'm paying you under the table to keep [the gorilla] for me," Pic centsn recalls telling Zeigler. Another reason he wanted to visit late, he explains, is that people at the zoo know him and guess when they see him that he's on the trail of some illegal activity. Zeigler was amenable but said he first had to get approval from the zoo director and Metro-Dade officials. That done, Pic centsn planned his next move. Zeigler already had agreed to lend him a cage. "Once I convinced the folks it was my gorilla, what if they want it?" Pic centsn mused. "Now I have to produce a gorilla, and the only thing is to get me a gorilla costume." So he went shopping. There was a nice gorilla suit at a store in Coral Gables, but it didn't look authentic enough. He mentioned his quest to Bern Levine, who remembered one of his Parrot Jungle volunteers had worn a gorilla costume to a party. He'd see if he could get it. Pic centsn also arranged with Levine to bring the Mexicans by Parrot Jungle to look at some baby orangutans before they stopped at Metrozoo.

On January 13, at the Airport Hilton coffee shop, the cool, well-mannered Block introduced the abrasive Jorge Blanco to Alcerreca, Berges, and Bernal. They got into the back seat of Pic centsn's rented gray Continental for the drive south to Parrot Jungle, Block in the passenger seat. The entire time Pic centsn wore a microphone on his waist and a recorder strapped to his ankle, picking up very unclear conversations about Miami, the recent Hurricane Andrew, and the deal that Senor Blanco wanted to make with his new friends. (Pic centsn had planned to back up his own tapes of unreliable clarity with an expensive Customs recording system, but it never functioned, he says. Most of the government's recordings were left out of the evidence at trial as a time-saving agreement between the defense and prosecution.)

Some very valuable animals had been bestowed on him in payment of a debt, Blanco explained conspiratorily. He was keeping a male gorilla temporarily at Metrozoo and some baby orangutans at Parrot Jungle, and was bribing employees to care for them. But he wanted to get rid of them fast before someone figured out they didn't belong there. "I have a lot of business to the Caribbean basin, I do not want the...U.S. government to come down on my ass and arrest me because of a freaking gorilla or orang," Blanco tells his prospective clients in one exchange. "Because if they come down on me with that shit, then they might discover other stuff that I do, that, you know, is not for nobody to know about here."

Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the complicated legal process by which endangered apes end up in zoos would probably have serious questions about such a bizarre and apparently corrupt arrangement. On the other hand, as defense lawyers attempted to point out at trial, bribery has different connotations in Mexico than in the U.S., and the scenario didn't necessarily seem suspicious. Besides, according to Berges, his and Alcerreca's only contact with the wildlife business had been through Block; they assumed the well-known primate dealer knew what he was doing and did it legally.

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