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 "Senor 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 Senor 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. Senor Blanco's cover was blown 10 years ago, but he keeps on catching crooks.
Senor 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 Senor 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. Senor 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.
Law enforcement officials estimate that smuggling wild animals and products made from protected species is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business. Only a few of the cargo containers that stream through Miami, one of the most popular destinations for smugglers, are inspected. But Picon's evidence room is still full.
There are matching chandeliers made of precious triton and staghorn coral, boots made of sea turtle skin, the stuffed head of a black rhinoceros, ivory canes and sperm whale moisturizing cream. Each item is voraciously researched by Picon.
"One day he is an expert on sea turtles, the next day it's sea horses," evidence custodian Eva Lara said.
Picon devours wildlife policy manuals but does not watch television (except soccer games) and is correspondingly clueless about pop culture.
"Ace Ventura: Pet Detective?" he asks. "What's that?"
Picon likes secrets. He maintains a secret cold storage facility -- "If I told you where it was, I'd have to kill you" -- that holds more than 40,000 pounds of confiscated queen conch, worth $2 million, and eight tons of illegally imported caviar. Here's the worst part: None of it will be eaten. The agency used to give away confiscated edibles, such as ducks seized from hunters out of season. But fears about food poisoning and lawsuits ended the practice years ago. Now Picon is forced to send caviar, conch and all the rest of the perishables to a landfill.
The toughest seizures for Picon to fathom are the loads of sea turtle meat. He fell in love with sea turtles in the 1970s when he went undercover in the big turtle slaughterhouses of Nicaragua. Since then, he has hopscotched the Caribbean, posing as Senor Blanco, owner of the fictitious restaurant, El Ancla. In Puerto Rico, he makes nice with the restaurant owners and the fishermen, then asks for "carey," the local slang for sea turtles; in the Virgin Islands, he asks for "fanduca."
"Everything is in Espanol, because if it is in English, forget it," he said. He is the only Spanish-speaking wildlife agent in the region, though he says he has tried unsuccessfully to persuade his bosses in Washington to bring on more.
Sometimes, there is no way to avoid sampling the sea turtle steaks they bring him.
"It tastes like veal," he said.
Then he makes the sign of the cross.
Picon plans to retire somewhere in the Caribbean. Ever the undercover mystery man, he is vague about his plans. He cracks a thin smile and hints that he is not through obsessing over sea turtles: "I'll be around."