Colombian celebrity designer Nancy Gonzalez's fall from grace was sudden and spectacular: taken in handcuffs from her luxury home in Cali last week to a Bogota jail cell, accused of smuggling protected animal skin purses into the United States.
The 77-year-old is now awaiting a ruling by a Colombian judge on whether she should be extradited to the United States, where she risks a 25-year jail sentence.
Gonzalez's purses, clutches and wallets sell for thousands of US dollars apiece, have appeared on catwalks and TV shows and grace the shelves of high-end shops around the globe.
But according to an indictment from prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida, dated April 26, more than 200 of the caiman- and python-skin products sold in the United States were imported illegally.
Gonzalez and two employees of her Gzuniga company, the charge sheet states, conspired to smuggle bags made of protected animal skins between February 2016 and April 2019 without the permit required under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The goods were brought to the Gzuniga showroom in New York City by the accused for the purpose of "enriching themselves upon the sale of the contraband products in the United States," said the indictment.
Individuals were allegedly paid to bring the bags from Colombia to New York on commercial flights, and coached to lie about the provenance of the goods if asked.
Gonzalez and her co-accused face one charge of conspiracy and two counts of smuggling.
- Not 'black market' -
According to her website, Gonzalez's bags are handcrafted in her native Cali by a team of artisans.
The site says her bags are sold at over 300 luxury retailers, including Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Harrod’s and Tsum.
Her designs were also featured in an exhibition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Among Gonzalez's famous clients are Salma Hayek, Britney Spears and Victoria Beckham, according to specialized portals.
According to the Florida indictment, the animals that provided the skins were not on the CITES endangered list but fell under a category of species "that had to be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with survival."
This means that trade in products obtained from such an animal required a permit, which Gonzalez allegedly failed to obtain.
Elmer Montana, a lawyer for one of Gonzalez's employees, told AFP that the skins used to make the bags were "obtained by Nancy Gonzalez... from certified farms which are supervised by the Ministry of the Environment.
"These are not skins that she buys on the black market" in one of the world's most biodiverse countries, where reptile trafficking is rife.
Footage released by the Colombian prosecutor's office showed the glamorous businesswoman led away in handcuffs after a raid on her luxury home in Cali last week.
A court must now decide on her extradition to the United States, a process that can take weeks or even months, according to defense lawyers.
A judge had denied Gonzalez's request for bail pending a ruling.