Pubdate: Fri, 31 Oct 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Tracy Wilkinson, Reporting from Mexico City

Mexico Under Siege


A Recent Raid in Mexico City Turns Up a Menagerie Filled With Big Cats
and a Monkey, Another Case of an Alleged Cartel Boss Collecting Rare
Exotic Species.

The hippo and crocodiles were statues made of glass and cement. But
the lions and tigers were real.

It was one of those odd things drug traffickers do. Like decorating
their assault rifles with gold and diamonds.

When Mexican authorities raided a secluded mansion on the outskirts of
the capital recently, they did more than capture 15 alleged
traffickers. They also discovered a mini-menagerie in a faux-jungle
complex of caves, pools and pagodas.

There were cages holding two African lions, two white tigers and two
black jaguars. Very Noah-like. Each pair was a male and female. There
was also a monkey, sans partner.

It was the third time in recent years that Mexican authorities have
made such a find, and similar collections have been seen elsewhere.
Notorious Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar maintained a 5,500-acre
hacienda in his country with a zoo that housed giraffes and elephants,
until he was shot to death by Colombian security forces in 1993.

Drug-trafficking bosses, some of them at least, like to surround
themselves with exotic animals. They do it because they can, and
because they like to show off. They do it, experts say, as a sign of
their virility and bravado. It's a trophy, a status symbol.

"Any kind of animal that is very rare, expensive or exclusive -- white
tigers, very expensive pedigree dogs, tropical birds" -- is what these
gangsters favor, said Maria Elena Sanchez, head of the Teyeliz animal
advocacy group. "It is their declaration of power."

They have the money to purchase the creatures, legitimately or on the
black market, and to maintain them. The tons of red meat that lions
need to consume, for example, cost big bucks.

They have access to the illicit smuggling rings that can procure
animals that are often on endangered-species lists. Animal traffickers
and drug gangsters share berths in the same murky, violent underworld.

But when the criminals are captured, the fate of these creatures can
be bleak.

Here in Mexico City, federal authorities this month raided the
"narco-mansion," as it is being called, near an area known as the
Desert of the Lions. Police arrived in the middle of what was
described as quite a party. Bottles of liquor and pieces of bathing
suits remained in the aftermath.

Authorities said they arrested 15 people -- 11 Colombians, two
Mexicans, a Uruguayan and a U.S. citizen. The Colombians were
allegedly connected to a major drug ring in their country and included
four women. One of the Mexicans was the disc jockey son of a famous
actress and her singer husband, a hint at the availability of some of
Mexico's show business folk to the highest payer.

But it was the animals that typified the excesses of the alleged

"A lot of people like to possess exotic animals," Adriana Rivero, a
senior official with the government's environmental protection agency,
said in an interview. "But it costs a lot of money if you are going to
do it legally and in a way that maintains the dignity of the animal's

In addition to paying for the food, she said, the owner ideally should
have a caretaker on staff who is specialized in handling the species,
plus a regular veterinarian. And animals of such size need space,
light, shade and so forth.

Though it is not clear whether the occupants of the mansion had such a
support staff, the surroundings in which the lions, tigers and jaguars
were found were more than adequate, Rivero said. They were kept on the
elaborate compound until eventually being transported to a zoo in

And they were found to be in good health: Their coats were shiny and
they did not seem to fear humans, she said.

If anything, the giant cats may have been overfed. They were a bit