By MANUEL VALDES
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.”
The government usually calls zoos for help because they have the expertise, equipment and vehicles to transport large animals, said Frank Carlos Camacho, executive director of the wild animal park Africam Safari in the central Mexico city of Puebla and president of the national association of zoos.
“There’s some risk involved in handling animals like big cats, bears and large herbivores,” Camacho said.
He said he has heard of drug cartel zoos that included giraffes, buffalos and camels.
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.
Animals are also used in the drug trade as smugglers. Over the past couple of years, traffickers have tried to ship drugs inside frozen, cocaine-stuffed sharks, snakes fed with bags of cocaine and bags filled with transparent liquid cocaine inside containers shipping tropical fish, Reuter Cortes said.
As with drugs, Mexico is a main corridor for the illegal trafficking of animals to the United States. The country also has a healthy domestic demand for animals, with big cats found in some urban markets.
In July, Mexican authorities seized more than 5,500 illegal animals and plants during a nationwide three-day operation.
Not all exotic animals, however, are as lucky as Zambada’s monkeys. Many animals found in drug cartel captivity or in private homes suffer from malnutrition or have been de-clawed or de-fanged, said Nucamendi.
“It’s a symbol of status and power,” he said. “It’s a bizarre psychology for the people that keep these animals.”
As he showed off the zoo’s grounds on a recent afternoon, Nucamendi jumped over a barrier and knelt to greet Diego, a 2-year-old jaguar, who responded by pressing his face against the chain-link fence. Diego’s former owners in Tijuana used to charge for pictures with him, Nucamendi said.
Elsewhere in the zoo was a 3-decade-old elephant seized from a circus because his owners didn’t have the proper permits. Workers joke that the elephant is an illegal immigrant because he was sneaked from the U.S. to Mexico.
An 8-month-old male lion cub, also called Diego, arrived malnourished from private owners. Now fatter, Diego plays with two other lion cubs also on exhibit.
As for the squirrel monkeys, they’ll be moved to a bigger exhibit being planned in a remodeling of the zoo.
Although some of the confiscated animals had finer housing before, their new homes offer genuine care from the people watching them.
“It’s more important for us to guarantee the welfare of these animals than the criminal investigations,” Nucamendi said. “That’s our duty. We offer our bodies and souls for the welfare of these animals.”
Manuel Valdes can be reached at http://twitter.com/ByManuelValdes