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Agent goes ape in smuggling sting

MIAMI -- The black-market gorilla that snared a Mexican zoo director in an animal smuggling sting was actually a burly federal wildlife agent dressed in a fur suit, wildlife officers acknowledge.

To add authenticity, genuine gorilla manure was shoveled into the agent's cage, courtesy of Miami's MetroZoo.

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The ruse worked so well that when the 'gorilla' revealed his true identity and stepped out of his crate to make the arrest, the terrified zoo director tried to leap from the parked plane where the crate was stored.

'We kept telling him, 'We're police! We're police!' But even after the agent took the hood off, he couldn't believe a gorilla wasn't coming after him,' said Monty Halcomb, special agent in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's southeastern region.

Holcomb said he and the gorilla, a wildlife agent whose identity is being kept secret, were able to keep suspect Victor Bernal from leaping six feet to the runway.

Bernal, director of zoos and parks for the Central Mexican state of Mexico, was arrested Monday night at the Opa-locka airport. He and two aides, Maria Eugenia Villada and Margarita Barrera, and two Mexican animal importers, Jose Luis Alcerreza and Eduardo Berges, were charged with violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

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All five appeared before a magistrate Tuesday and remained in federal custody. If convicted, they would face up to 10 years in prison.

Federal agents said the suspects paid $92,500 to obtain an orangutan and a gorilla for the Toluca Zoo in Toluca, Mexico. The zoo's gorilla had died and the suspects hoped to secretly replace it, the agents said.

Berges called primate dealer Matthew Block in Miami, who alerted federal agents. Block, who recently was charged with violating endangered species laws himself, agreed to cooperate with the wildlife service in a sting.

He introduced Bernal to an agent who posed as a primate dealer. The agent took Bernal to Parrot Jungle and MetroZoo, and showed him a 7- year-old gorilla and a baby orangutan that purportedly were for sale.

Bernal agreed to buy them and asked for a pilot, a plane and fake permits for the animals, the wildlife agents said.

The Customs Service provided an unmarked DC-3 plane, and MetroZoo provided the cage and the gorilla manure. The Wildlife Service provided the gorilla.

'It was a small gorilla, but he was a large agent,' said Dan Gelber, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office. 'Apparently it was a very good costume.'

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