Celebs loved Colombian designer’s purses. Miami feds say she used skins of rare species

For years, a Colombian designer was shipping luxury handbags made from the skins of exotic reptile species to New York and selling them for more than $2,000 each to A-list celebrities such as Britney Spears, Salma Hayek and Victoria Beckham.

The Colombian’s creative purses were sold at Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus and other high-end department stores.

They were also clutched by characters on HBO’s hit series, “Sex in the City,” set in the very New York borough, Manhattan, where Nancy Teresa Gonzalez de Barberi made her first big splash.

But the meteoric ascent of Gonzalez, who started her fashion business decades ago out of a modest home in Cali, Colombia, took a stunning dive when she was arrested last year and incarcerated in her homeland before being extradited last month to face criminal charges in Miami, according to her lawyer.

Gonzalez, 70, is accused of illegally importing merchandise made with the skins of endangered caiman and python species by using couriers to carry hundreds of her handbags without proper permits or declarations through international airports in Miami and New York, according to an indictment filed in South Florida.

“What they did to this lady is unconscionable,” her defense attorney, Sam Rabin, said on Monday. “She spent 15 months in a horrible Colombian prison before she was extradited to Miami. They drove her out of business.”

Colombian designer Nancy Gonzalez as she was extradited to the U.S. on charges of smuggling exotic animal skins. The indictment was filed in Miami.
Colombian designer Nancy Gonzalez as she was extradited to the U.S. on charges of smuggling exotic animal skins. The indictment was filed in Miami.

While she spend months behind bars in Colombia, Gonzalez was granted a $750,000 bond by a magistrate judge in Miami federal court under a joint recommendation by her defense attorney and federal prosecutors. Gonzalez, who pleaded not guilty, is staying with her daughter in South Florida as she awaits trial in late October.

Rabin said that Gonzalez’s handbags, purses and wallets were made from the skins of captive-bred caiman and python, not technically from wildlife protected under international endangered species laws. He also said that she had obtained proper licenses and declarations for the vast majority of her merchandise shipped to the United States. He also argues that only a fraction of her products were sent without the required documents because in those instances, she was in a hurry to deliver them to her showroom in New York.

In the indictment charging conspiracy and smuggling offenses, federal prosecutors present a very different picture of the designer and her handbag business, whose products go by the brand name “Nancy Gonzalez.” She is charged along with her New York-based company, Gzuniga Ltd., and two employees who worked for her Colombian manufacturing firm, Diego Mauricio Rodriguez Giraldo, who remains in custody and pleaded not guilty, and John Camilo Aguilar Jarmillo, who is at large.

The indictment accuses Gonzalez, her U.S. firm, Gzuniga, and the other two defendants of soliciting friends, relatives and employees of her manufacturing company in Colombia to act as couriers and transport hundreds of designer handbags on themselves or in their luggage while traveling on passenger airlines to Miami International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport between February 2016 and April 2019.

Another one of Gonzalez’s employees, Paola Soto, played a central role as a courier, according to prosecutors. She pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and smuggling charges and received an initial prison sentence of 2-1/2 years under a plea agreement with prosecutors Tom Watts-FitzGerald and R.J. Powers. But her punishment was reduced to about nine months after she cooperated as a witness against Gonzalez and the other defendants.

Another employee, Eric Schneider, general manager of the Gzuniga showroom in Manhattan, also pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor charge and awaits sentencing as he cooperates with prosecutors. He’s been convicted of “knowingly” selling about 1,000 caiman-skin designer handbags and clutches that were made from endangered species and illegally imported from Colombia.

“Once the designer handbags were smuggled into the United States, they were delivered or shipped to the Gzuniga showroom in Manhattan, New York, where they were put on display for high-end retailers to view and purchase for re-sale in their stores,” says a news release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. “The average retail price for these ‘Nancy Gonzalez’ brand handbags was over $2,000.”