Toluca, Mexico The three tiny squirrel monkeys led a life of luxury on a 16-acre ranch, surrounded by extravagant gardens and barns built for purebred horses.
More than 200 animals, ranging from mules to peacocks and ostriches, lived on the ranch in central Mexico and hundreds more stayed on two related properties, many in opulent enclosures. Also kept on the grounds were less furry fare: AK-47 assault rifles, Berrettas, hundreds of other weapons and cocaine.
The ranch’s owner was Jesus “The King” Zambada, a leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. He had developed a love for exotic species shared with other kingpins. Just two days before Zambada’s arrest, police confiscated two tigers and two lions from a drug gang hideout on the forested outskirts of Mexico City.
As federal authorities capture a growing number of gang leaders, many of their pets are being driven from their gilded cages into more modest housing in the country’s zoos.
That’s proved overwhelming for some institutions, which are struggling to cope with the influx. But it’s also giving Mexican animal lovers a bounty of new creatures to admire.
Like Zambada, who was apprehended in October 2008, the squirrel monkeys sit in state custody, chirping away at gawking children at the Zacango Zoo, about an hour outside Mexico City.
Their previous home “was a very big enclosure made of good quality material,” said Manlio Nucamendi, the zoo’s coordinator. “But they didn’t have the right diet and medical attention.”
Mexican forces have discovered drug cartel private zoos that housed tigers, panthers and lions among other animals of exotic breeds, though the federal Attorney General’s Office, which supervises all seizures from drug gangs, couldn’t provide an exact count of the number of animals seized.
Whatever the number, officials have been challenged to house the armies of confiscated drug cartel animals.
“Within the limited resources of the Mexican government, there are a lot of efforts to ensure the welfare of these animals,” said Adrian Reuter Cortes of the conservation group the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico. “But even the zoos have limits, and can’t welcome all the animals.”
As the cinematic gangster film “Scarface” portrayed in 1983, private zoos have long been considered status symbols for drug kingpins eager to show off their wealth.
Descendants of Colombian drug boss Pablo Escobar’s hippopotamuses still roam his private zoo in Colombia, which became state property after his killing and is now a tourist attraction. Three of the beasts escaped and lived in the wild for two years.
Some kingpins also use the beasts for more nefarious purposes.
Leaders of the ruthless Mexican Zetas cartel have been rumored to feed victims to lions and tigers kept in their properties, local media have reported.