Designer Nancy Gonzalez Sentenced for Smuggling Animal Skin Bags of Protected Wildlife from Colombia

Nancy Gonzalez was sentenced to 18 months in prison for smuggling handbags made of python and caiman from Colombia

Nancy Gonzalez sentenced

Photo: Dept. of Justice/ Pexels Tom Fournier

Latinas in fashion are known to bring their culture into their work but Colombian handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez took it too far. Born Nancy Teresa Gonzalez de Barberi, she was known for her dyed animal skin handbags which were not only staples on the red carpet but in Hollywood including shows like Sex and the City after making its debut at the iconic retailer Bergdorf Goodman in 1998. The 71-year-old designer, whose bags were used by celebs including Sofia Vergara and Salma Hayek, was sentenced to 18 months in prison, three years of probation, and a three-year supervised release for illegally smuggling bags from Colombia to New York and breaking international law. Many of the bags were made out of the skins of caimans and pythons, protected in both countries, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Not long after her arrest in Colombia and extradition to the U.S. in 2022, Gonzalez’s company Gzuniga Ltd. declared bankruptcy and has since stopped operations, the Associated Press reported.

“From the bottom of my heart, I apologize to the United States of America,” Gonzalez said to the court during her sentencing hearing. “I never intended to offend a country to which I owe immense gratitude. Under pressure, I made poor decisions.”

According to friends and family, Gonzalez was initially designing belts on a sewing machine from home. When she transitioned to purses, she employed a team of local artisans in Colombia, almost all women, to make the products out of exotic animal skins. In 1998, she debuted her collection at Bergdorf Goodman, a luxury department store on Fifth Avenue in New York and grew to more than 300 stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Harrod’s, as well as two boutiques in South Korea and Hong Kong. She reportedly employed about 300 people, mostly women, before the company declared bankruptcy, ABC News reported.

Between 2016 and 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office (USFWS) found that Gonzalez had been paying over 40 people to wear or hide the bags in their luggage on passenger flights to the U.S. There, they would ship or deliver them to her showroom in New York to be sold. If questioned by customs officers, they were told to say that the bags were gifts for family, BBC News reported. While the exotic trading of caimans and pythons isn’t banned and the animals in question were bred in captivity, the import was done without the required permits, which is against international law.

“The Gonzalez case underscores the importance of robust collaboration with federal and international partners to disrupt illegal wildlife trade networks,” said Edward Grace, assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement, in a statement. “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.”

Along with Gonzalez, her associate Mauricio Giraldo was sentenced to 22 months in prison and a year of supervised release. Another associate, John Camilo Aguilar Jaramillo, will be sentenced in a court hearing scheduled for June. Both men are also from Colombia and were extradited to the U.S. following their arrest.

“She was determined to show her children and the world that women, including minority women like herself, can pursue their dreams successfully, and become financially independent,” her attorneys wrote in a memo before the designer’s hearing, ABC News reported. “Against all odds, this tiny but mighty woman was able to create the very first luxury, high-end fashion company from a third world country.”

Gonzalez will reportedly not appeal her sentence, according to her attorney Samuel Rabin, and will only serve approximately one month in prison, he told USA TODAY, as she spent nearly 14 months in a Colombian prison awaiting extradition.

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