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Designer Nancy Gonzalez Pleads Guilty to Smuggling and Conspiracy, Her Attorney Says Why

Accessories designer Nancy Gonzalez pled guilty Friday to federal charges of illegally importing python and caiman skins to the U.S. from Colombia.

After being indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for charges of illegal smuggling and conspiracy, Gonzalez, who is a Colombian citizen, was extradited earlier this year to the U.S. from Colombia in a joint effort between U.S. and Colombian authorities.

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Gzuniga Ltd., the Colombia-based business that Gonzalez started, was also named in the indictment, as were two other individuals. Her legal team entered a guilty plea for Gzuniga for one count of conspiracy and two counts of smuggling for repeated illegal importation of designer handbags made from caiman and python skin from February 2016 to April 2019.

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In adherence with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which both the U.S. and Colombia are signatories, python and caiman skin are protected.

The designer’s exotic skin handbags have attracted a celebrity clientele including high-profile style setters like Victoria Beckham. As a sign of her label’s prestige, it was mentioned in the 2006 American film “The Devil Wears Prada,” when Anne Hathaway’s assistant character received a major fashion overhaul, and Gonzalez’ signature handbags were also featured in the 2010 film “Sex And The City 2.” Gonzalez’ designs were at one time a key resource in 300 leading luxury stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lane Crawford, Harrods and Tsum.

Established in 1998 by Gonzalez, a mother of two, the company’s first collection — eight styles — debuted at Bergdorf Goodman. Her company’s site claimed that the bags were sourced from local artisans in her hometown of Cali, Colombia, and that nearly every member of her all-female team were provided with day care for their children.

Her son Santiago Barberi Gonzalez, who died in 2017 at age 40, co-founded the company and served as president and chief executive officer. The luxury accessories label specialized in vibrant colored styles and ventured into collaborations with some top-notch artists including KAWS, Will Cotton, Jenny Holzer, Dr. Lakra and Jim Hodges.

Gonzalez’ attorney Sam Rabin of Rabin & Lopez said Monday that Gonzalez had pleaded guilty “directly to her judge rather than negotiate with prosecutors. She did this because she has faith in our courts but not in the Department of Justice and its prosecutors who have treated her most unfairly. They took the equivalent of an elephant gun to a mosquito when a fly swatter would have sufficed.”

Rabin also claimed that the actions that were taken by the government resulted in Gonzalez “being unnecessarily incarcerated in Colombia with drug dealers and terrorists for more than one year while awaiting extradition to the United States, being put out of business and her hundreds of employees becoming unemployed.”

Rabin claimed via e-mail, “Her crime was not obtaining the proper paperwork for some samples so she could meet deadlines to get her goods to buyer’s shows. All of the purses that were sold in retail stores were properly documented. Less than 1 percent of her purses were imported without documentation. None of the animal skins used in her products came from animals taken in the wild. The skins came from farm-raised animals to ensure that they did not impact the population of animals in the wild.”

Gonzalez and the other defendants entered their guilty pleas Friday in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Florida. They will be due back in court for sentencing on Feb. 5. The 70-year-old designer is potentially facing up to five years in prison on the conspiracy charge and up to 20 years in prison on each of the smuggling charges, which could be followed by a term of supervised release.

Gonzalez is also facing potential fines of up to $250,000 on each count, or twice the intended gain from the relevant conduct, whichever is greater. In addition, Gzuniga faces potential fines of $500,000 on each of the three counts of conviction, or twice the intended gain from the relevant conduct, whichever is greater.

Gonzalez and the other defendants allegedly solicited friends, relatives, and employees of her manufacturing company in Colombia to act as couriers and transport the designer handbags by carrying them or in their luggage while traveling on commercial airlines. After arriving Stateside, the designer handbags were allegedly delivered or shipped to the Gzuniga showroom in Manhattan, where high-end retailers could purchase them to sell them in their respective stores. Federal prosecutors have claimed that conduct involved “hundreds” of Nancy Gonzalez purses, handbags and totes with an average retail price of more than $2,000.

An additional defendant in the case was also extradited from Colombia and is awaiting trial. A fourth defendant is not currently in custody.

In July 2022, a dramatic, music-scored video tweeted by Colombia’s attorney general earlier showed Gonzalez being escorted by authorities from a luxury enclave in Cali. The attorney general’s office said that the mission was the first of its kind in Latin America to deal with exotic skin accessories.

Friday’s guilty pleas were revealed by U.S. attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida, the assistant attorney general Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and special agent in charge Stephen Clark for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office of law enforcement, Southeast region.

Meanwhile, consumers can find Nancy Gonzalez handbags on resale sites like Poshmark, The RealReal and Fashionphile, among others — many with discounted prices.

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