Former DEA chief: ‘Cartels use tigers as killing machines’

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – While the tiger cub recently seized by APD during a shooting investigation in Albuquerque might be cute now, cubs like this can represent a very dark and dangerous side of crime in our state. 

Experts say you can trace these cubs directly to powerful drug cartels.

“This has been going on since about 1980, and the trend continues,” said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA. “Exotic animals are very prestigious within the cartels.”

He said the trend started decades ago with Pablo Escobar.

“On the sprawling ranch on the outskirts of Medellin, where he had his own private zoo yet giraffes. He had exciting birds, he had hippopotamuses, and his zoo was worth several millions of dollars,” said Vigil. “It was almost a prerequisite to entering the high-ranking drug trafficking organizations if you had your own zoo, you have made it in the drug world.”

Vigil says Mexican cartels quickly started copying the move, and today, they can serve as pets, or take on a more sinister role.

“They would use animals to torture or kill their rival gang members,” said Vigil. “When they’re going to use them as killing machines to kill their rivals, they will starve them. So when they put a human being into the cage with them, they will ravage them.” 

He says two tiger investigations in a matter of months in the metro highlights the cartels’ growing presence in New Mexico.

“Without question, the individuals that had these pets were either cartel members, or they were either, you know, taking these animals to sell them to potential cartel leaders in in Mexico,” said Vigil. “Not too many people here would have really the resources to buy an exotic animal like that. So I certainly strongly suspect that even if they were not tied to the cartels, that just like people sell weapons to the cartels here in the States, they also sell exotic animals.” 

Vigil says he would not be surprised if investigators find more exotic animals hiding across the state.