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Struggling to stop the smuggling

Miami is the nation's hot spot when it comes to illegal animal shipments. There, underfunded inspectors match wits with well-connected smugglers.

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 5, 2002


MIAMI -- On a steamy July evening, a man who had traveled from Nigeria stepped off a plane at Miami International Airport and collected four bags.

A U.S. Customs inspector called him over for a search. The man brought three suitcases. Somehow the fourth wound up in a corner. The search found nothing improper.

After the traveler left the airport, though, somebody noticed the bag he left behind and peeked inside. That prompted a call to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inspector Marjory Walker.

From the abandoned suitcase Walker pulled three ivory tusks, three python skins, a crocodile hide, a leopard skin and the skin of a smaller African wildcat called a serval, all illegally smuggled into the country.

Walker did not bat an eye. A Pittsburgh native, she has spent five years working in Miami, the wildlife smuggling capital of the South. Wildlife inspectors in Miami have encountered every creature imaginable, from monkey skulls used in Santeria rituals to boa constrictors stuffed with cocaine.

At the bottom of the abandoned bag, though, was something Walker did not expect: the owner's card.

"He's a fashion designer on Miami Beach," Walker said. Ditching the bag was smart, she said, "but you shouldn't put your business card in the bottom."

* * *

Every year, 12,000 legitimate shipments of wildlife or wildlife products come through Miami. Nobody knows the number of illegal shipments.

Miami's federal agents have found marmosets hidden under hats, Cuban parrot chicks tucked in a woman's bra -- one per cup -- and 45 red-footed tortoises stuffed in a man's parachute pants.

"Anything that walks, crawls, flies or swims has a price on its head," said Mike Elkins of the federal wildlife agency's Atlanta regional office.

Interpol has estimated wildlife smuggling rakes in more than $6-billion a year, ranking it just behind drugs and firearms. In South Florida, the lure of easy money has snared doctors, graduate students, even a missionary financing his ministry in Peru by sneaking snakes into Miami.

It's not a foolproof way to make a buck. Ask the woman who hid sedated birds under her skirt as she rode in a wheelchair. The birds woke up and set the skirt to flapping.

Lots of smugglers are amateurs, like the guy who tried sneaking more than 40 Cuban finches into Miami by hiding them inside hair rollers taped to his legs. His pants didn't hang right, tipping off inspectors.

But there are plenty of professionals too -- often people in the legitimate wildlife trade who have slipped across the line.

"Almost all the big reptile dealers have been involved in smuggling in the past," said Teresa Telecky, director of the wildlife trade program at the Humane Society of the United States. "And if you look at the top dealers from five years ago, since then the top three have all been convicted of smuggling."

One notorious smuggler indicted in Florida boasted to an undercover federal agent that he could get any kind of animal a buyer requested.

"It only depends on how much certain people get paid," bragged Keng Liang "Anson" Wong, sentenced last year to nearly six years in prison.

As with diamonds, rarity enhances value. Some collectors will pay top dollar for a species even if they're driving it to extinction.

Four years ago, a cruise ship comedian and a dive instructor tried smuggling in 20 rare White Cay iguanas. Because there are less than 200 left, all living on one rocky island in the Bahamas, the pair figured to sell each for $1,000.

But all 20 died en route, and the smugglers got caught. Prosecutors argued that because they had caused the death of more than 10 percent of the population, their actions may have doomed the species. The comedian got 14 months in prison, the dive instructor two years.

* * *

Faced with the deadliest snake in Africa, inspector Harry Spencer reached for his needle-nose pliers.

He stood inside a British Airways warehouse on the edge of the Miami airport. In front of him sat a plastic foam cooler marked with a crude skull and crossbones.

A wildlife inspector for 14 years, Spencer peeled off the strapping tape on the lid, then pulled out a plastic container "like the same thing you go to Publix and get your potato salad in."

Inside the plastic box was a white cotton bag, and inside the bag was a black mamba, notorious for its fast-acting venom and aggressive temperament. Touching the bag with his pliers, Spencer dumped the snake into a clear plastic tube the inspectors use to view dangerous reptiles. The black mamba struck repeatedly at the tube.

"I tell ya," Spencer said in his slow Mississippi drawl, "he's really p----- off."

Spencer and two colleagues worked their way through the rest of the shipment, which included eight snouted cobras. When they were done, Spencer sealed the cooler tighter than he found it.

His wife is a teacher. She never hears about his adventures with black mambas.

"We made the rule when we got married," Spencer said quietly. "We don't talk about work."

* * *

Miami is a hot spot for wildlife smuggling because it's such a hot spot. The tropical climate makes it an ideal second home for Third World species. The multiple airline connections help make it attractive for smugglers bound for other parts of the globe.

But the main reason Miami is so popular with wildlife smugglers, said Telecky, is that "it's the easiest port to smuggle animals into."

That's because there are so many wildlife shipments pouring into Miami and so few inspectors to check them out, she said. A 1994 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found Miami had the lowest rate of inspections in the country.

On their best days, inspectors peek into only three out of every 10 legal shipments. They don't have the staff to stand watch at the airport baggage carousel.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service is chronically underfunded," Telecky said. "Congress never gives them enough money."

The big smugglers, on the other hand, will spend plenty. Take the case of Viktor Tsimbal of North Miami Beach. Tsimbal paid couriers $500 each to slip Beluga caviar into the United States. In 1999 his couriers smuggled in 11,000 pounds -- more than the entire Russian export quota for the year.

Tsimbal provided his caviar couriers with airline tickets, hotel accommodations and prepacked suitcases, according to wildlife agent Jennifer English.

Tsimbal could not avoid detection. Miami wildlife agents nabbed nine couriers at the airport. One was nailed by a U.S. Department of Agriculture beagle trained to sniff out illegal food items in luggage.

Last week, Tsimbal pleaded guilty to wildlife smuggling, obstructing justice and laundering nearly $400,000. He could face 25 years in prison.

Overworked and understaffed, wildlife inspectors and agents have to try to match smugglers with savvy and persistence.

In December 1999, Coast Guard officers boarded a sailboat off the Florida coast. They found boxes of illegal cigars and a cage full of birds. But the smuggler opened the cage and the birds flew the coop.

He didn't escape the law, though. A wildlife agent retrieved 21 feathers from the cage bottom. Wildlife experts identified them as coming from Cuban melodious finches. That was enough evidence to net the smuggler four months behind bars.

* * *

No case better exemplifies the battle of wits between smugglers and Miami wildlife agents than U.S. vs. Bernal.

It started a world away with the seizure of six baby orangutans from a smuggler in Bangkok, Thailand. That seizure led to the arrest of a Miami animal dealer who had brokered the illegal shipment.

To avoid prison, the dealer agreed to cooperate with federal agents. When contacted by a Mexican official about buying a gorilla, he helped set up a sting.

Victor Bernal was director of zoos and parks for the state of Mexico. The gorilla at his zoo had died and the state governor wanted a replacement, quick.

Bernal came to Miami to see what the dealer had to offer. The dealer introduced him to an underworld figure named "Senor Blanco" -- actually wildlife agent Jorge Picon. Picon took Bernal to see primates at the Miami MetroZoo, spinning a story about how they were his merchandise and that he had bribed the zoo employees. (Zoo officials were in on the sting.)

Bernal flew home and got approval from Mexican officials to spend $92,000 on the deal. He said he would return to Miami to collect his ape.

So now Picon needed a real gorilla -- or a reasonable facsimile.

"I don't know where Jorge got the suit," said now-retired wildlife agent Terry English of his ultimate undercover assignment. "It was probably one of the cheapest gorilla suits you can imagine.. . . . We were counting on the fact it was going to be dark."

The agents borrowed a DC-3 from Customs and parked it at the Opa-Locka Airport. Inside was the costumed English, in a borrowed MetroZoo cage filled with gorilla dung so he would at least smell authentic.

When Bernal climbed into the plane to check the merchandise "he stood looking through the little front door of the cage," English said. "I felt like he was getting too close. . . . so I took my forearm and I hit the door as hard as I could. . . . He jumped back and made the statement, 'Boy, that's a big one!' "

When the pilot -- also an agent -- told Bernal he was under arrest, English figured he could step out of character.

"I was about to sweat to death," English said. "I was still a heavy smoker and I was dying for a cigarette. So I opened the door of the crate."

Hearing the door creak, Bernal turned around -- then tried to jump out of the plane.

"He thought that gorilla was going to kill him," English said. The two agents grabbed Bernal and handcuffed him. Then English pulled off his mask.

"I have long white hair and a beard as well, and my hair was all matted. He freaked out again."

The Bernal case in 1993 made headlines around the country, many of them involving bad puns. But Bernal got just 70 days in jail.

* * *

A day after Walker picked up the fashion designer's bag at the airport, she had the evidence spread out across the office floor to document everything. Then the phone rang.

The guy was back at the airport, looking for his suitcase.

Walker notified Picon, who dashed over to the airport and questioned the designer. The answers he got left him shaking his head and putting together a criminal case.

"He said he knew it was in the bag but he didn't consider it to be wildlife," Picon said. "It goes to show you how people think you're naive and think you believe their stories. I've been around the block. I've spent 32 years in law enforcement."

Picon smiled. "I didn't buy the story."

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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