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Celebrity handbag designer sentenced to 18 months in prison for smuggling crocodile handbags

MIAMI — A leading fashion designer whose accessories were used by celebrities from Britney Spears to the cast of the “Sex and the City” TV series was sentenced Monday to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty in Miami federal court on charges of smuggling crocodile 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 high-end 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 has sought leniency for the celebrity designer, describing her journey as a divorced single mother of two children in Cali who designed belts on a home sewing machine for friends into a fashion icon who could compete with the likes of Dior, Prada and Gucci.

They showed in court a video, from 2019, of top buyers from Bergdorf Goodman, Saks and other retailers praising her creativity and productivity.

“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.”

However, the government countered that she had acquired great wealth and an opulent lifestyle, which contrasted with the couriers she recruited to smuggle her merchandise into the United States. 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 worth as much as $2 million into the U.S.

All of the hides were from caiman 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.

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.

Gonzalez, addressing the court before sentencing, said she deeply regretted not meticulously following 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.”

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