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Luxury handbag designer sentenced to prison for smuggling bags made of python and caiman

Salma Hayek, Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham are among the celebrities who bought the designer's handbags.
Handbags Python Caiman Smuggled.jpeg
Posted at 5:11 PM, Apr 23, 2024

A leading fashion designer whose accessories were used by celebrities from Britney Spears to the cast of "Sex and the City" was sentenced Monday to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty in Miami federal court on charges of smuggling python and caiman handbags from her native Colombia.

Nancy Gonzalez was arrested in 2022 in Cali, Colombia, and later extradited to the U.S. for running a sprawling multiyear conspiracy that involved recruiting couriers to transport her handbags on commercial flights to high-end showrooms and New York fashion events — all in violation of U.S. wildlife laws.

"It's all driven by the money," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, who compared Gonzalez's behavior to that of drug traffickers. "If you want to deter the conduct, you want the cocaine kingpin, not the person in the field."

Lawyers for Gonzalez sought leniency for the celebrity designer, describing her journey as a divorced single mother of two children who designed belts on a home sewing machine in Cali for friends into a fashion icon who outcompeted the likes of Dior, Prada and Gucci.

"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," they wrote in a memo prior to Monday's hearing. "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."

The attorneys said the 71-year-old designer has already paid dearly for her crimes. The Colombian company she built, which once employed 300 mostly female employees, declared bankruptcy and stopped operating after her arrest.

They also argued that only 1% of the merchandise she imported into the U.S. lacked proper authorization and were samples for New York Fashion Week and other events.

Gonzalez, addressing the court before sentencing, said she deeply regretted not meticulously complying with U.S. laws and that her only wish is to hug once more her 103-year-old mother.

"From the bottom of my heart, I apologize to the United States of America. I never intended to offend a country to which I owe immense gratitude," she said, holding back tears. "Under pressure, I made poor decisions."

Prosecutors countered that Gonzalez had acquired great wealth and an opulent lifestyle, which contrasted with the couriers she recruited to smuggle her merchandise into the United States. The couriers were instructed to say that the items were gifts for their relatives if they were asked any questions by customs agents.

"Her mission turned into producing felons," said Watts-Fitzgerald. "She tried to rewrite the law for herself, to do it her way."

According to the testimony of her co-defendants and former employees, ahead of important fashion events, Gonzalez, described as a micro-manager, would recruit as many as 40 passengers to carry four designer handbags each on commercial flights. In this way, prosecutors estimate that she smuggled goods that fetched as much as $2 million in the U.S. Gonzalez's attorneys disputed the claim and said each skin cost only around $140.

All of the hides were from caiman, a close relative to the alligator, and pythons bred in captivity. Nonetheless, on some occasions, she failed to obtain the proper import authorizations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, required under a widely ratified international treaty governing the trade in endangered and threatened wildlife species.

In 2016 and 2017, she was warned by U.S. officials against sidestepping such rules, making her conduct particularly "egregious," Judge Robert Scola said in handing down his sentence.

Prosecutors had been seeking a stiffer sentence of 30 to 37 months. But Scola said he was taking into account the nearly 14 months she spent in harsher conditions in a Colombian prison awaiting extradition. Gonzalez, who has been free on a bond under confinement at her daughter's home in Miami, must surrender on June 6 to begin her sentence.

Although trade in the skins used by Gonzalez was not prohibited, they came from protected wildlife that requires close monitoring under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known by its initials as CITES.

Salma Hayek, Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham are among the celebrities who bought Gonzalez's carefully crafted handbags. Her work also was included in a 2008 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Gonzalez's attorneys showed in court a video, from 2019, of top buyers from Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and others praising the designer's creativity, productivity and humanity — comments prosecutor Watts-Fitzgerald said the retailers likely regret today.

"They must be regretting they were ever put up to that and if they heard it was presented in court they would cringe," said Watts-Fitzgerald. "They have their own brand to protect."