Agent in gorilla suit helps catch alleged animal smugglers


January 27, 1993|By Rachel L. Swarns | Rachel L. Swarns,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- The smuggling suspect peered into the crate and admired his prize. It looked like a gorilla. It grunted like a gorilla. It stank like a gorilla. But it wasn't a gorilla. It was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent working under deep cover -- and deep fur.

The suspect, a Mexican zoo chief, fell for the ruse. The feds promptly arrested him on charges of violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Surprise No. 1.

Surprise No. 2: The gorilla got out of the crate.

Mexican zoo chief Victor Bernal freaked out. He screamed. He ran. He even tried to jump off the plane where the crate was stored at Opa-Locka Airport.

"We kept telling him, 'We're police! We're police!' But even after the agent took the hood off, he couldn't believe a gorilla wasn't coming after him," said Monty Halcomb, special agent in charge of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Southeastern region, who posed as the plane's pilot.

Federal agents say the Mexicans paid $92,500 to bring the gorilla to the Toluca Zoo in Toluca, Mexico. Their own gorilla had died, circumstances unknown. The Mexican government, for some reason, wanted to make sure no one found out.

So Eduardo Berges called Michael Block, one of the world's busiest primate dealers, based in Miami. Mr. Berges thought Mr. Block would deliver. He never dreamed that Mr. Block would turn him in.

But Mr. Block was under a little pressure. He had been charged with violating endangered species laws himself, alleged to have acted as the middleman in a smuggling deal that left three baby orangutans dead.

Mr. Bernal met with Mr. Block and the supposed seller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife senior agent Jorge Enrique Picon, in Miami Jan. 12.

Mr. Bernal wanted a pilot. He wanted a plane. And he wanted fake permits for the primates.

On Monday night, agents were ready. When the Mexicans arrived, a DC-3 plane from the U.S. Customs Service was waiting. Inside was a gorilla in a cage. The cage came from Metrozoo. The gorilla came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Also on loan from Metrozoo: a few shovels of authentic gorilla manure.

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