In drug trafficking hub, artist is in demand

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With a gilded, 4-foot statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe tucked under his arm, Jose Espinoza clambers up the Italian-marble staircase, past the Jacuzzis and gigantic Corinthian columns, to a domed chapel inside the ornate mansion of a particularly successful Sinaloa "farmer."

Espinoza installs the Virgin in her niche on an elaborate cedar altarpiece that he carved by hand, a la early Baroque. Around her dance rosy-cheeked, feather-winged angels that Espinoza has painted on the walls and ceilings, an enveloping palette of pale blue skies and cottony clouds. Jesus Christ and God the Father are there too.

The multimillion-dollar mansion is one of many in this strangely wealthy city that Espinoza has been hired to adorn in recent years. Given Sinaloa's well-earned reputation as the cradle of Mexican narcotics trafficking, it is little wonder who is footing the bills.

"I don't probe," says Espinoza, 51, a broad-shouldered man with a helmet of silver hair, bushy black eyebrows and a hearty laugh.

Espinoza is known as one of the region's finest artists. He might also be called home decorator to the narcos.

In his case, though, it's not curtains or carpeting he's supplying but room-length murals, gold-leafed ceilings and Grecian cornices. His work provides a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and criminal.

Their death-styles too.

Here in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacan, Espinoza also specializes in painting religious imagery on the opulent mausoleums that serve as the final resting places for hundreds of traffickers slain in Mexico's raging war on drug cartels.

The architectural excesses, in the fast-growing cemeteries and in the mansions that have popped up on the slopes of this hilly city, might not be surprising in Bel-Air or the Hamptons. But Sinaloa is -- judged by its official economy -- one of the poorest states in a poor country.

Most of the real money in Sinaloa, of course, is in the vast illegal network that has been producing and shipping marijuana and heroin to the U.S., and taking in billions of dollars in profit, for generations.

In one mansion where Espinoza works, the vaulted doorway is big enough to drive a Brink's truck through. A row of caryatids (columns formed entirely by the sculpted body of a woman) flanks one side.

Another manse is so tall the owner demanded (after construction was almost complete) that an elevator be installed. Once that place is finished, water will spout into the pool through the mouths of chiseled stone tigers.

In another home, you can lie in the Jacuzzi and observe Espinoza's depiction of the Birth of Venus gracing the domed ceiling.

"It's very contemplative," he says wistfully. "Some of the houses are so big, you lose perspective."

Local wags sometimes call the style "narc-itecture."

Carrara marble in earth tones coats children's bathrooms; one walk-in closet the size of an auditorium has a crystal central island of drawers for easy spotting of jewels and other accessories. Once, Espinoza spent a year installing pure ebony railings and fixtures in a hillside residence that vaguely resembles the Pantheon.

In a sprawling hacienda, Espinoza painted room after room with portraits of Spanish flamenco dancers, their lacy red-and-black costumes soaring 20 feet toward the ceiling. The owner's wife was a fan of flamenco. Joke on them: The dancers' faces are his nieces'.

But these aren't clients you can really joke with. You never dispute a payment or make excuses for missed deadlines or say something like, "But you didn't ask for hand-woven Sardinian lace."

Actually, they tend to be longer on the money and shorter on the taste it would require to know anything about Sardinian lace. Still, it's a delicate business. You don't challenge, you don't question, you brace yourself for the demands and complaints, especially from the narcos' wives, who can be shrilly exacting.

The owner of one house roared up in his silver pickup, tires so oversized that the vehicle towers over others on the road. In a red baseball cap and sparkling gold Rolex, and with the Nextel cellphone favored by many here because it's hard to tap, he spoke at length about the shrimp business that he said had made him rich. A high school dropout who grew up on a farm, he had both swagger and the accent of the countryside. He sought to explain his idea for the mansion going up around him.

"I like something between the Classics and Louis XVI," he drawled. "But I've traveled a lot and like what I see in hotels, and so we are trying to do that here."

Espinoza's fame circulates by word of mouth, aided by loose-leaf portfolios with photographs. He doesn't even own a computer.

He says he doesn't ask too many questions of the steady stream of people who contract for his services. That's sort of a motto of self-preservation for many here in Sinaloa. What might be seen as collusion or complicity is a fact of life. Residents tolerate their drug-trafficking neighbors, or do legitimate business with people otherwise known as gangsters, out of fear or resignation. The phenomenon is true in many parts of Mexico but nowhere more than Sinaloa because the drug trade is so enmeshed in the state's history and culture -- celebrated in song, honored at festivals, yearned for by young men and women seeking thrills.

"People here are born with it, they grew up and developed with it, they see it as normal," Espinoza says. "If you try to tell them something different, they don't understand."

A descendant of Spanish soldiers who populated Sinaloa in colonial times, Espinoza started painting and sculpting figurines as a child. His father, a tomato farmer, and his mother, a seamstress, doted on him, using the little money they had to buy precious art books and fine brushes and easels. He sold his first painting at age 9.

Espinoza says he was always a devout Roman Catholic, schooled by Franciscans and the ultra-conservative Opus Dei, and so icons and religious images were a natural subject for his artistry. Church officials commissioned him to paint the murals lavished on the walls of the Santa Ines and Espiritu Santo churches of Culiacan. He was even commissioned to paint St. Jerome for the pope, he says.

If he sees a contradiction in working for the church and working for traffickers, he doesn't mention it. There is no client he will refuse, he says.

"It is not up to me to judge anybody," he says. "I do not agree with drug trafficking. I have never taken drugs. I have helped pay for rehab for friends. . . . But I don't judge anybody."

And yet, there is a contradiction, or so it would seem, between the deliberate beauty of art and the harsh, bloody ugliness of a violent business like the running of drugs.

Whatever the moral and mental gymnastics, Espinoza is meticulous in his work. For the dome of one mansion, he sketches the figures he plans to paint on translucent tracing paper, then re-creates the outlines on the ceiling, climbing over the roof and down a narrow ladder to makeshift scaffolding that suspends him in the air.

At the Culiacan cemetery, mausoleums are so elaborate they can rise two stories and feature central air conditioning. Relatives keep them supplied steadily with bottles of tequila, cans of Tecate beer and Snickers bars. They are adorned with party balloons, flowers, crucifixes and toys representing some of the departed's favorite guns and trucks. Many were young men in their late teens and early 20s who died violently and can be seen in pictures posted at the crypts cradling automatic rifles. Their families visit regularly, to toast and remember.

Espinoza was hired to decorate his first mausoleum nearly 20 years ago. It was erected for a woman caught between a trafficker husband and a trafficker lover. She and her two young children were slain in a gruesome rivalry between the men. A portrait of the smiling mother and children floats on the ceiling "as if going off to heaven," Espinoza says.

He rationalizes this work, saying he paints for the survivors, for bereaved families who may not have been involved in the dirty dealings of the deceased. "It helps them in their communion with God. It helps them in their grief."

Given his clientele, it is no surprise that the Mexican army has raided Espinoza's studios. But they went away empty-handed.

"I am an artist," Espinoza says.

"People don't go to museums anymore, no one has time for contemplation. So at least, as they lie in their Jacuzzis, or climb their staircases, they can contemplate a beautiful work of art."

wilkinson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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