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.

As the five men got out of the car at Parrot Jungle and walked toward the entrance, two U.S. Customs agents sitting at a picnic table, playing tourists, snapped photographs. Inside the park, to the exuberant screeches and calls of exotic parrots and macaws, four more enchanted-looking agents trailed the visitors with a video camera. Bernal eagerly produced his own compact camera and took snapshots of the orangutans and chimpanzees. (In one photo, Se*or Blanco cuddles a little red orang.) The party left Parrot Jungle in midafternoon, still too early to show up at Metrozoo, so Pic centsn and Block dropped off the Mexicans at their hotel and returned a few hours later.

Bill Zeigler met the five at the zoo's front gate, led them to an enclosure where Moja waited, and left. Pic, in his testimony at trial, recalled Bernal commenting that the gorilla watched them with a human, knowing expression. On the way back to the hotel, Berges and Bernal have said in testimony and interviews, the undercover agent informed them that the zoo's real gorilla had been moved elsewhere while damage from Hurricane Andrew was repaired but would soon come home, whereupon the interloper would have to leave. And if a place could not be found for him, he would have to be killed.

"I remember Jorge Pic said, 'Hey listen, guys, if you don't take this animal, I'm going to sacrifice it.' It was in the car going out of Metrozoo," insists Berges. "You don't forget something like that -- it surprised me. Victor said, 'No, tell him I'm going to pay the whole amount and come back in two or three months with the documents.' And they say, 'No, no, we can't do that.' I can swear it in front of anybody." Any recordings made in the car leaving Metrozoo were not introduced into evidence at trial, but Pic is equally certain he never threatened to kill the gorilla.

Later that evening Pic and Block met back at the Fish and Wildlife offices in the Doral area to listen to the tapes and discuss logistics. Block walked into his office, Pic recalls, carrying a box about the size of an attorney's briefcase: "He says, 'By the way, is this what you're looking for?'" The gorilla suit Block produced was exactly what Pic had in mind.

It looked as though he would have to use it; Bernal wanted the gorilla and one of the orangutans and was willing to take them immediately. The day after the field trips, Bernal, Berges, and Alcerreca flew back to Mexico City to arrange financing, to catch up on other work, and, prosecutors allege, to give Bernal a chance to set up a covert reception point at the Mexico City airport from which the gorilla was to be trucked to Toluca, bypassing Mexican customs. But before they left Miami, Jorge Blanco insisted on a cash payment of $2000 for chartering a plane and pilot. He and Block also showed the Mexicans legitimate U.S. export documents, which they said they had obtained with bribes, to be filled out before the animals left the country.

Alcerreca and Berges returned to Miami six days later; the following day, January 22, Bernal's assistant, Maria Eugenia Villada, arrived to help with financial details, along with an employee of the parks and zoos public relations department, Margarita Barrera. Bernal himself came a day later. Before Bernal returned to Miami, however, he ordered the gorilla's destination changed on the export documents -- from Mexico City to Tijuana, nearly 2000 miles to the northwest. The address was a racetrack and zoo owned by Bernal's friend Jorge Hank Rhon, whose business card was confiscated from Bernal when he was arrested. Bernal asserted at trial he changed the address to divert public attention from the expensive purchase. But the government contends Hank Rhon was Bernal's smuggling contact. The son of Mexican agriculture minister Carlos Hank Gonzalez, Rhon was fined by U.S. Customs in 1991 for attempting to smuggle a rare tiger across the border. His father is one of Mexico's most powerful and wealthy politicians and a mentor of former Mexico state governor Ignacio Pichardo.

Villada began making arrangements for $92,500 of the State of Mexico's money to be wired to Matthew Block's bank account. The total price for the gorilla and orangutan was $250,000, the balance to be paid by a check made out to Bernal from the State of Mexico. Villada received confirmation of the money transfer late in the afternoon of January 25, a stormy Friday. A few hours later Block and Pic met Bernal, Alcerreca, and Berges at their hotel. In two cars, the group headed to the Opa-locka airport. (Block had brought along a young orangutan and was putting her to sleep with a baby bottle.

The tape transcripts are loaded with hints and downright warnings by Pic centsn that the gorilla didn't have any papers, that no legal permits to export the animals existed, that the documents Pic and Block provided the Mexicans were not legally obtained. But Block and Pic also had told them early on, according to trial testimony, that the proper papers could be obtained.

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