Celebrity fashion designer jailed for smuggling protected wildlife handbags into US

23 April 2024, 12:06

Nancy Gonzalez was sentenced to 18 months in jail on Monday
Nancy Gonzalez was sentenced to 18 months in jail on Monday. Picture: Getty

By Will Conroy

A Colombian fashion designer has been jailed for smuggling handbags made of the skins of protected reptiles into the US for fashion shows.

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Nancy Gonzales, 71, was sentenced to 18 months in prison in a Miami federal court on Monday after breaking an international treaty by illegally importing bags made from pythons and caimans.

Gonzalez, who has made handbags used by Britney Spears and Sex and the City actors, admitted to recruiting couriers to carry up to four products each on commercial flights for high-profile events such as New York Fashion Week.

The designer was arrested in 2022 in Cali, Colombia and later extradited to the US, with officials saying she enlisted friends, family and employees to transport the bags between February 2016 to April 2019.

The handbags were made from animals bred in captivity and were worth up to $2 million, according to prosecutors, but Gonzalez’s lawyers said each skin cost around $140.

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The trade of pythons and caimans is not banned but is tightly regulated under the rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which the US and Colombia are signatories to.

Gonzalez did not secure the necessary import permits these regulations require.

"This investigation uncovered a multi-year scheme that involved paid couriers smuggling undeclared handbags made of CITES-protected reptile skins into the US to be sold for thousands of dollars," said Edward Grace of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

He added: "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.”

The bags were worn by Victoria Beckham and Salma Hayek, according to the Associated Press, and were sold in luxury stores including Harrods, according to Women’s Wear Daily.

Gonzalez told the court: “From the bottom of my heart, I apologise to the United States of America.

“I never intended to offend a country to which I owe immense gratitude. Under pressure, I made poor decisions.”