Beyond the stalls lined with love potions and Santa Muerte statuettes, Mexico City's labyrinth-like Sonora market houses thousands of caged animals.
Rows of visibly distressed kittens, puppies, piglets, lambs, goats, and giant rabbits are crammed into the tiniest of cells. Alongside them are tanks containing iguanas, turtles, piranhas, and enormous toads used for witchcraft, plus a huge variety of caged birds, including canaries, turkeys, and peacocks.
But the most exotic animals for sale are those hidden from view.
"The Sonora market is the nucleus of animal-trafficking in Mexico City," Dr. Leonora Esquivel, cofounder of the animal rights group AnimaNaturalis Mexico, told VICE News. "You can find any kind of animal there. They aren't all exhibited but if you have the contacts you can get toucans, monkeys, lions, etc."
When VICE News made a discreet inquiry, one vendor pulled a tightly wrapped ball of cloth from a shelf packed with opaque tubs and cardboard boxes.
Unwrapping it, he revealed a meter-long Texas rat snake that had been bound so tightly it could not move. The asking price was 700 pesos, or about $40. Moments later, a police officer came strolling past, seemingly unfazed by the chaos around her and the relentless cacophony of screeching animals.
Asked whether all this was legal, officer Jimenez dodged the question with a sigh. "I think it's inhumane," she said. "There have been denouncements but they never do anything. It's the most terrible thing."
'It's very well known that they sell these kinds of animals in this place but there are never operations to capture the traffickers or rescue the animals.'
The authority tasked with investigating animal trafficking is PROFEPA, Mexico's federal agency for the protection of the environment.
"It's obvious that PROFEPA and the Sonora market are in collusion," Esquivel said. "It's very well known that they sell these kinds of animals in this place but there are never operations to capture the traffickers or rescue the animals."
Although many exotic animals can be obtained legally in Mexico, Esquivel said illegal animal trafficking is one of the country's most lucrative illicit business after drugs and arms trafficking.
As with drug trafficking, Mexico is a strategic gateway to the US market for exotic pets. "About 60 percent of the animals that pass through Mexico from South America are headed for the United States," Esquivel said.
Esquivel noted that about 70 percent of illegally trafficked animals die during transportation in "truly cruel" conditions. Nonetheless, the sale of the surviving 30 percent remains highly profitable, she said.
The legal market also appears to be thriving.
A group of dead black iguanas seized by Mexican environmental authorities (Photo via PROFEPA)
Anyone can keep exotic animals under Mexican law — but they must come from breeders accredited by the Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).
Many businesses, like DS Exotics, Obsidian Reptiles, and Animales Exóticos sell all manner of wildlife, apparently legally, over Facebook. Another company, Los Ciervos, even rents out species such as elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and tigers for use in "commercials, films and private events."
In Guadalajara, Mexico's second biggest city, the Exotic Planet pet store sells reptiles, arachnids, exotic birds, and even lemurs and monkeys. For $200 (3,500 pesos), customers can take home a foot-long baby Morelet's crocodile, a species native to Mexico and Central America that grows up to lengths of up to three meters.
Exotic Planet will even arrange for the legal sale of lions and tigers raised in breeding centers in Mexico. Cubs go for $4,070 (70,000 pesos), while fully grown adults cost around $7,000 (120,000 pesos), a staff member told VICE News.
"As long as it's legal, I can get you any animal you want," he said.
The animals in the store look well cared for and their legal registration numbers are clearly displayed. Yet the staff confirmed that they have no responsibility to ensure customers can keep their pets in a healthy environment.
Esquivel said many owners end up abandoning their pets when they realize they don't have the time, space, or money to properly care for them.
PROFEPA only investigates owners when their neighbors complain, and Esquivel alleged that inspectors are bribed into not confiscating pets in many cases.
Aside from the physical and psychological damage many pets suffer, Maria Garcia Dominguez, an activist who has spent years rescuing neglected animals, said exotic species also pose a serious security risk.
"The year before last I rescued a lion from a property in Mexico City," she told VICE News. "One day it leapt from its cage into the neighbor's garden. Imagine if there was a child there."
Even jaguars, a species listed by PROFEPA as in danger of extinction, are legally available if they come from accredited breeders.
"I can get you a jaguar cub for about $4,650 to $5,230 (80,000 to 90,000 pesos)," said the owner of a breeding center that houses pure-bred domestic animals at a spacious, secluded property just outside Guadalajara.
Showing off images of a jaguar on his phone, the breeder told VICE News he has also sold monkeys, pythons, panthers, and tigers, with the last tiger cub going for $5,800 (100,000 pesos) about six months ago.
The vendor only brings in exotic species upon receiving advance orders, but he insisted they all have the necessary permits, though he declined to disclose their origins.
Given the minimal regulation in Mexico, many animal rights campaigners are more focused on ethics than legal technicalities.
"We must look beyond the question of having the right papers and demonstrating that you're the 'legitimate owner' of the animal," Esquivel said. "We must question whether we should be keeping these animals in our homes. And we believe the answer is no."
However, much of the demand for exotic animals comes from criminals with little concern for ethics.
Jose Luis Montenegro, the author of Narco-juniors: The Power's Heirs in México, told VICE News that exotic pets have become status symbols for young drug-traffickers looking to flaunt their wealth and power on social networks.
"He who does not post photos with exotic animals is not a 'narco-junior,'" Montenegro said. "Panthers, tigers, and jaguars are the most common. The more exotic they are, the more attention they draw."
'The children of the biggest capos do it as a means of showing off their impunity from the government.'
Owning such an animal is a means for low-ranking cartel members to make their name, Montenegro noted. Higher up the hierarchy, "the children of the biggest capos do it as a means of showing off their impunity from the government."
Montenegro said exotic pets are most fashionable among young members of the Sinaloa Cartel headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who infamously escaped from a maximum-security prison last month for the second time.
El Chapo's son Alfredo Guzman has posted dozens of photos on what is believed to be his personal Twitter account of pet lions, tigers, and cheetahs. The large cats are often curled up inside the younger Guzman's luxury sports cars.
Such pets are often seized in raids on drug labs and ranches that belong to cartel operatives.
In March, PROFEPA seized a lion, a tiger, and a bear found at a property linked to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel in the town of Ocotlan in Jalisco state.
In the last two months alone, PROFEPA has seized 36 unlicensed animals from a zoo in Guanajuato, and 29 reptiles and amphibians from a private residence in Aguascalientes, as well as recovering several lions, tigers, jaguars, and pumas from across Mexico.
Relocating them has become such a problem that on Wednesday, August 26, Mexico's Navy participated for the first time in an operation to transport 11 big cats and a coyote to the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Denver, Colorado.
Dubbing the voyage the "journey to freedom" PROFEPA said it will relocate a total of 25 large mammals to the sanctuary this year, making it the biggest such operation in Latin American history.
Still, many activists remain unimpressed. Mexico's problem, Esquivel affirmed, is "a lack of education about keeping animals" exacerbated by the "enormous corruption of the authorities."
Victor Hugo Ornelas contributed to this report.
Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker