Celebrity handbag designer Nancy Gonzalez jailed for wildlife smuggling

Nancy Gonzalez pictured in 2018
[Getty Images]

A Colombian luxury handbag designer who pleaded guilty to smuggling purses made of the skins of protected reptiles has been sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Nancy Gonzalez, who has made handbags carried by Sex and the City actors and Britney Spears, was sentenced on Monday in a Miami federal court.

Gonzalez, 71, broke an international treaty by illegally importing bags made from caimans and pythons.

Officials say she enlisted relatives to bring handbags and totes into the US.

Both Colombia and the US are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which protects caimans - which are similar to alligators - and pythons, according to a statement from the US Department of Justice.

The trade in caimans and pythons is not banned, but is strictly regulated under CITES rules.

Gonzalez never secured the necessary import permits required by regulators.

Between February 2016 to April 2019, officials say Gonzalez recruited friends, family and employees to transport the bags on passenger airlines to the US, before then sending them to her showroom in New York.

The bags were worn by celebrities Victoria Beckham and Salma Hayek, according to the Associated Press (AP), and were included in the a 2008 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

According to Women's Wear Daily (WWD), the bags were at one time also sold in luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Harrods.

"This investigation uncovered a multi-year scheme that involved paid couriers smuggling undeclared handbags made of CITES-protected reptile skins into the US to be sold for thousands of dollars," said Edward Grace of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The Service will continue to seek justice for protected species exploited for profit, and we will hold accountable those who seek to circumvent international controls meant to regulate their sustainable trade," he added.

Gonzalez was arrested in Cali, Colombia in 2022 and extradited to the US to face the charges.

"From the bottom of my heart, I apologise to the United States of America," Gonzalez told the court, according to the AP.

"I never intended to offend a country to which I owe immense gratitude. Under pressure, I made poor decisions."