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.

Bernal doesn't speak English and says he left the dealing to Alcerreca and Berges, and that since in all such transactions the exporter is responsible for the paperwork, he wasn't aware until the night before the gorilla was supposed to be flown to Mexico that something was wrong with the permits. By then, Bernal testified, even though he began to have second thoughts, he was sure Pic centsn would not return their money, and he was confident in any case that once the ape was in Mexico he'd be able to secure proper documentation.

When the five men had gathered on the runway, Pic presented the completed export documents to Bernal, who became annoyed when a big raindrop splashed on one of the papers. After placing the documents in a folder, Bernal climbed inside the plane to take a look at the "gorilla." That's when Pic, on the ground with Alcerreca and Berges, whipped off his baseball cap and waved it over his head -- the signal for the bust. Bernal, stunned to see the gorilla opening the cage, backed toward the ladder. The pilot and copilot, also undercover agents, pulled him into the plane and a few seconds later brought him down to the tarmac, where they forced him to kneel alongside Alcerreca and Berges with his hands on his head. Moments later the two women, Maria Eugenia Villada and Margarita Barrera, were arrested at their hotel.

Berges didn't testify during the trial. His attorney, Frank Quintero III, reasoned his client couldn't add to the information already in evidence, and that it had been proved Berges wasn't present at a key meeting at which Pic showed false permits to Alcerreca and Bernal. After all, Quintero posited, Matthew Block had more to do with the case than Berges. However, Quintero did attack the Fish and Wildlife Service. Among other things, he cited records showing that of the sixteen shipments of primates entering the U.S. through Miami last year, not a single one was inspected by the service. Nine of those shipments went to Block's Worldwide Primates. "They've known as early as February 1992 [when Block was indicted in the Bangkok Six case] he was involved in criminal acts, yet no inspectors met his shipments," Quintero asserted. "He's still doing business. They should be doing their job and stopping people like Block instead of cutting deals with him. But it is a lot easier to create a crime than to stop one."

Victor Bernal's Miami attorney, Donald Bierman, opted for a different approach; he believed his client would do well on the witness stand. Bernal is a lawyer, married with three children, and proud of his long career as a state and federal employee. Tall and slender, with well-trimmed gray hair and mustache, Bernal sat calmly during his trial, his expression slightly unbelieving. As director of the State of Mexico's Natural Parks and Zoos Commission since 1989, Bernal oversaw fifteen parks, two zoos, and a reserve for migratory monarch butterflies. He held prominent positions in several wildlife conservation and zoological organizations. Before his trial began, he declared his confidence that the proceedings would clear his name and allow him to resume a normal life in Toluca. "Why would I have any need to do the things they have accused me of?" Bernal asked in consternation. "I'm an honorable person."

Other Mexican government officials seemed to agree. State governor Ignacio Pichardo, Bernal's immediate supervisor, wrote to the U.S. Attorney's Office here vouching for his friend. The state also paid at least part of Bernal's legal fees and hired a Mexico City lawyer to accompany him on his numerous court dates, along with Miami attorney Bierman. The Mexican attorney general's office attempted to intercede on his behalf with the U.S. Department of Justice. That effort, though, was unsuccessful.

From the witness stand, Bernal told the jury in detail about his good reputation and professional accomplishments. And the tactic may have worked to his favor with some of the jurors, a few of whom said afterward they felt positive about Bernal's character but had no sense of who Eduardo Berges was, only that he spoke English and thus had to have known more about the questionable goings-on than Bernal.

But neither man could credibly argue he hadn't committed the acts recorded on audio or videotape. Ultimately the defense of both had to be an attempt to discredit the government for inducing them to do something they wouldn't have done otherwise. But defense lawyers say it's becoming ever more difficult to successfully use an entrapment defense because several Supreme Court rulings in the past few decades have given the government wider leeway in staging crimes while requiring defendants to prove they were not predisposed to participate. The mere act of inventing a crime doesn't technically prove entrapment, even if jurors may have an aversion to that act. One juror explained: "If, for example, we knew nothing about the law and they presented this case to us, we would have said it was entrapment."

"Now it's almost impossible to win on the entrapment defense," says William Kunstler, one of the nation's most prominent defense attorneys, interviewed by telephone in his New York office. "In this day and age, with juries looking for more and more law enforcement, they're inclined to believe [entrapment] is the only way you can get these guys. We've become so panicked over crime, we think we can stop the drug trade, end crime in the streets by making more draconian sentences, more laws to make it easier to convict."

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