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Luxury handbag designer jailed for wildlife smuggling, making merchandise out of protected species

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(NEW YORK) — A luxury handbag designer has been jailed after pleading guilty to smuggling purses made of the skins of protected reptiles, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Nancy Teresa Gonzalez de Barberi, found of the luxury handbag company Gzuniga, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Monday for illegally importing merchandise from Colombia to the United States that was made from protected wildlife, authorities said.

Mauricio Giraldo, an associate of Gonzalez, was also sentenced to prison, according to the Department of Justice.

“Gzuniga was ordered to forfeit all handbags and other previously seized product, banned for three years from any activities involving commercial trade in wildlife and sentenced to serve three years of probation,” officials said. “Gonzalez was sentenced to 18 months in prison with credit for time served, a supervised release of three years and to pay a special assessment. Giraldo was sentenced to time served, approximately 22 months based on incarceration in Colombia and the United States since his extradition, a year of supervised release and to pay a special assessment.”

Another co-conspirator, John Camilo Aguilar Jaramillo, had previously pleaded guilty on April 8 and is set to be sentenced on June 27, authorities said.

Gonzalez, Giraldo and Jaramillo are Colombian citizens and were extradited to the United States to face the charges brought against them.

The caiman and python species the company was making bags out of are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which both the United States and Colombia are signatories. The trade in caimans and pythons is not completely banned but is strictly regulated under CITES rules.

“The United States signed on to CITES in an effort to help protect threatened and endangered species here and abroad from trafficking,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division in a statement released by the Department of Justice on Monday. “We will not tolerate illegal smuggling. We appreciate the efforts of our many federal and international partners who have helped with the investigation, extradition and prosecution of this case.”

The conspirators brought “hundreds of designer purses, handbags and totes into the United States by enlisting friends, relatives and even employees of Gonzalez’s manufacturing company in Colombia to wear the designer handbags or put them in their luggage while traveling on passenger airlines,” authorities said.

Once the merchandise was in the United States, the bags were delivered or shipped to the Gzuniga showroom in New York to be displayed and sold.

“The United States, in company with the international community, has established a system for overseeing the trafficking in protected species of wildlife. That system relies on a system of permits and oversight by many agencies and demands strict compliance by all those engaged in such trade,” said U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida. “The press of business, production deadlines or other economic factors are not justification for anyone to knowingly flout the system and attempt to write their own exceptions to wildlife trafficking laws. In cooperation with our international partners, our Office will continue to require strict adherence to laws that protect our endangered species.”

An indictment charged Gzuniga, Gonzalez, Giraldo and Jaramillo with one count of conspiracy and two counts of smuggling for illegally importing designer handbags made from caiman and python skin from February 2016 to April 2019.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deeply committed to combatting wildlife trafficking in all its forms. The Gonzalez case underscores the importance of robust collaboration with federal and international partners to disrupt illegal wildlife trade networks,” said Assistant Director Edward Grace of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement. “This investigation uncovered a multi-year scheme that involved paid couriers smuggling undeclared handbags made of CITES-protected reptile skins into the U.S. to be sold for thousands of dollars. The Service will continue to seek justice for protected species exploited for profit, and we will hold accountable those who seek to circumvent international controls meant to regulate their sustainable trade.”

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