MIAMI — A federal agent disguised in a gorilla suit and placed in a cage helped nab Mexican zoo officials who were attempting to smuggle primates to their homeland, a prosecutor said Tuesday.
The Mexicans, including Victor Bernal, 57, the director of zoos and parks for the interior state of Mexico, were shown real gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees at Miami-area zoos, authorities said.
They were told the animals could be smuggled to Mexico and that they would be delivered Monday, authorities said.
"But it's risky and dangerous to use a real animal, so we had to use a willing substitute--an agent in a gorilla outfit," Assistant U.S. Atty. Dan Gelber said.
The agent was placed in a cage at the Opa-Locka airport, supposedly to be flown to the Toluca zoo in Mexico. Bernal and two Mexican middlemen took delivery of him, authorities said.
Gelber refused to discuss how the Mexicans were fooled at the airport, except to say, the arrest came "very soon after they saw the agent in a gorilla suit."
Miami MetroZoo curator Ron Magill, who supplied the cage for the phony gorilla--complete with "Live Animal" stamped on the side--said he never believed that the suspects would fall for the $92,500 sting.
"It's like a movie. I'm really surprised anyone could be that gullible," he said. "But they fell for it. It just goes to show money doesn't equate with intelligence."
The case began Jan. 6 when one of the Mexican middleman, Eduardo Berges, 31, called a Miami primate dealer, who tipped authorities, according to Fish and Wildlife agent Jorge Picon.
Berges said the gorilla at the Toluca zoo had died, but Mexican government officials had not publicized the death.
The state governor wanted a replacement quickly, the agent said. Berges said he also would be interested in orangutans, even when he was told that trafficking in the animals was illegal, according to investigators.
"We agreed to provide them with the animals with false permits," Gelber said. "It was very clear that it's illegal to send these animals without proper documents and permits."
Bernal, Berges and Berges' partner, Jose Luis Alcerreca, 45, were arrested after the "gorilla" was delivered at Opa-Locka. Two women who accompanied them to the United States were arrested at a hotel.
All were charged with trafficking in primates in violation of federal laws protecting endangered species. Bernal was ordered held Tuesday on $250,000 bail; bail was set at $100,000 to $200,000 for the others.