Players: Jorge Picon
Undercover to Bust Wildlife Smugglers
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page A15
MIAMI -- Jorge Blanco was 19 years old -- a college student, an innocent bystander -- when he got caught in the crossfire of Colombia's endless civil strife nearly six decades ago. Barely five months after they buried him, his nephew was born.
The baby's grandmother, in a stroke of mystical symmetry, ordained that her new grandson would take the first name of his dead uncle. They called him Jorge Picon.
The grown-ups talked about Jorge Blanco so much that Jorge Picon could envision him in vivid detail. An idea formed in Picon's head and has endured for all of his 57 years.
"I was reincarnated," Picon said matter-of-factly. "I liked to think that I was him."
The long-dead uncle evolved into an alter ego of Picon, who plans to retire at the end of the month after working for 30 years as a kind of high-stakes pet detective. First as a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement agent and later as the head of the agency's Miami enforcement office, Picon has built an undercover persona using the name of his uncle.
He slips into flashy boots -- preferably the skin of some endangered creature, from the evidence room -- and introduces himself as "Señor Blanco," a shady Colombian with a foul mouth. Invoking his uncle's name to catch bad guys makes Picon feel as if he is avenging his uncle's death. Sometimes Señor Blanco is a restaurant owner, making deals for endangered sea turtle meat. Sometimes he is looking for rare birds or exotic reptiles.
The smugglers, apparently, do not read newspapers or watch much television. Señor Blanco's cover was blown 10 years ago, but he keeps on catching crooks.
Señor Blanco's public unveiling stacks up as one of the wackier moments in the annals of the international rare and endangered species racket. Picon -- who oversees Fish and Wildlife law enforcement in South Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- had been tracking a Mexican government official who wanted to buy a gorilla and illegally transport it from Miami to Mexico.
Picon got a bright idea: He drove over to Coconut Grove and bought a gorilla suit.
On a rainy night, he assumed the role of Señor Blanco and met the Mexican official at the little airport in Opa Locka, north of Miami. A DC-3 waited on the runway with one of Picon's agents inside wearing a gorilla suit. Señor Blanco sealed the deal for the phony gorilla and busted Victor Bernal, then Mexico's director of parks and zoos.
By the time the case came to court in 1994, the saga of the cop in the gorilla suit was all over the late-night talk shows. Jay Leno was calling. Everyone wanted to talk to the guy who pulled a fast one with a guy in a gorilla suit. Picon demurred, saving his talking for the courtroom. He helped get a conviction, but Bernal was sentenced to only 70 days in jail.
"I was very sad, very upset," Picon said.
It was a familiar scenario in Picon's line of work. Sentences tend to be light in animal smuggling cases, he said. Unless the smugglers are multiple repeat offenders or their crimes are particularly heinous, they often get away with a fine or just a few days in prison.
"It's very easy to smuggle wildlife," Picon said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company