A gangster lives a fast, dangerous life — especially Mexico's brutal narco-chieftains. Just look at their houses. With the prospect of death never far away and plenty of money to burn, it makes sense to spend lavishly on a mansion — especially a fortified one. The locals have a term for the style: narquitectura.
Some are built like castles, intended to express authority and feature lavish interiors and pens of exotic pets. Others are tucked into tony, upper-income neighborhoods, making their gaudiness less conspicuous. But a gangster's house, no matter where it is, is going to be ostentatious and idiosyncratic. Some house are simply way too big, with furnishings seemingly chosen at random and in an apparent hurry. Damien Cave, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote that the mansions look they were built and decorated "as if on a shopping spree with a deadline imposed by a dangerous profession."
But the defining aspect of narquitectura is paranoia. Walls or gates are a must. Many gangster cribs have few windows and resemble command centers as much as homes, including business-like meeting rooms and advanced security systems. Drug cartels have even carried over some of the tacky luxury into death with elaborate bulletproof tombs. Narquitectura estates often turn out to be lifelong investments — no matter how short those lives are.
Few drug lords matched the excess of Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Arguably the most powerful Mexican drug boss of the 1990s, Carrillo assassinated his way to the top of the Juarez Cartel and was infamous in the U.S. for transporting billions of dollars worth of cocaine on a fleet of private jets.
His vanity was reflected in this oversized mansion, named "The Palace of a Thousand and One Nights" after the Middle Eastern folk tales. Estimated to be worth $5 million, the mansion now sits abandoned and covered in graffiti in the posh Colonia Pitic neighborhood in the northwestern Mexican city of Hermosillo. Authorities have since taken steps to demolish it. Carrillo died in 1997 during a botched plastic surgery operation.
This Greek and Indian-inspired Mexico City mansion wasn't technically owned by drug lords. It was actually owned by drug trafficking middlemen. In 2008, 15 people, mostly Colombians who arranged coke-trafficking trips to the Beltran Levya Cartel, were arrested after Mexican security forces raided the estate. The gang leader, who went by the name "The Seagull," also kept exotic animals. On the premises were cages housing exotic cats ranging from lions, tigers to panthers. Oh, he also had a hippo and two crocodiles.
No drug lord mansion is complete without an underground pool, we suppose. Here's a closer look at Mexican security forces inspecting a dingy underground grotto underneath the Mexico City mansion, seen previously. Look like a fun place to hang out? Didn't think so.
Exotic animals, like this white lion rescued from gangsters in Mexico City, are a common status symbol for wealthy narcos. Jesus "The King" Zambada, a Sinaloa Cartel boss whose ranch was raided in 2008, was known for keeping more than 200 animals, including ostriches and peacocks. Unfortunately, it's doubtful that drug lords have the best interest of the animals in mind. After being seized by the government, many animals have been found malnourished. There are also so many animals being seized that Mexico's zoos are struggling to keep up.
Photo: Mexico Public Safety Department
Barbie's Dream House
The partially ransacked home of another Beltran Leyva Cartel ally — that of Edgar "The Barbie" Valdez Villarreal — could be along the border given its western (or in Mexico, northern) themes and its expansive horse ranch. The mansion was actually situated outside of Mexico City, and the scenery is decidedly much greener than near Valdez's hometown of Laredo, Texas. But Valdez, who played linebacker for his Texas high school football team, kept close to his roots.
The Beach Resort
This home, formerly owned by a major financial manager of the Gulf Cartel, was relatively unassuming in the resort city of Playa del Carmen to the south of Cancun. And it's comparatively smaller than the kinds of the narco mansiones we've seen elsewhere, even if still a bit gaudy. But in many of Mexico's resort cities, the cartels keep a lower profile. An ongoing offensive by the government has also lead many gangsters to seek out more modest pads.
Life After Death
If mansions are a way for bosses to try and outdo each other in life, then tombs are a means to carry over the competition into death. Months before Heriberto Lazcano was killed by the Mexican marines, reports circulated that the Zetas boss had constructed a grand modernist tomb for himself in the central Mexican state of Hidalgo. Since his death — and the theft of his body from a funeral home by a gang of armed men — it's been rumored that Lazcano may one day end up at the tomb.
Generations of Sinaloa Cartel gangsters are buried at the Jardines del Humaya cemetery in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. Some tombs are built out of gold, ivory and bullet-resistant glass; and feature amenities such as stereo systems and electricity. Elyssa Pachico, a drug-war analyst at Latin America monitoring group InSight, wrote that the tombs are an expression of excess, "which the cartels have adopted — in terms of violence, weapons and materialism — to survive in a crowded marketplace."