Since his death in 1993, the image of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar has been shrouded in mystique. Escobar, whose accrued cocaine wealth once earned him a nod from Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s richest men, has become, at least in U.S. pop culture, the personification of the kind of bravado only exhibited by the most criminally successful.
Since his death in 1993, the image of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar has been shrouded in mystique. Escobar, whose accrued cocaine wealth once earned him a nod from Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s richest men, has become, at least in U.S. pop culture, the personification of the kind of bravado only exhibited by the most criminally successful. This week a less well known aspect of his legacy came to the forefront of the Colombian news cycle, when it was announced on Friday that hunters had killed one of three hippos that had escaped from the kingpin’s villa and had been surviving in the countryside for two years. At the height of his prosperity, Escobar had established a private zoo, home to the slain hippo, at his lavish estate called Hacienda Napoles. The Colombian government took control of the estate after Escobar’s death, but authorities apparently failed to secure the animals, as a family of three hippopotamuses, managed to elude their wardens and escape to a region known as the Magdalena Medio.
On June 18, marksmen took down the male hippo, affectionately called “Pepe” by some campesinos. According to the Colombian daily El Tiempo, the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Central Antioquia (Corantioquia), and the Colombian Ministry of the Environment authorized the killing, citing the dangers posed to people and property in the region. Carlos Andrés Valderrama of the Neotropical Wildlife Foundation explained: “The animal had become very aggressive and had killed seven calves and attacked various fishermen.” [Author’s translation]
Though Corantioquia’s director, Luis Alfonso Escobar, described the “sacrifice” as a “last measure” taken only when authorities had exhausted efforts to transfer the hippopotamus to a zoo or other facility, some campesinos and animal rights advocates condemned the operation as cruel. The ensuing scandal dominated the headlines in Colombia’s major news outlets over the weekend. Andrés Ospina, who blogs at elblogotazo.com, called for [Luis Alfonso] Escobar, Valderrama, as well as Claudia Mora, of the Ministry of the Environment, to be immediately dismissed from their respective offices. He situated the animal’s killing in the context of the brutal violence that characterizes Colombia’s internal conflict, writing “Somehow it seems that our country is convinced that weapons are truly the definitive solution to endemic and complex problems.” [Author’s translation]
Ospina went on to criticize the part the Colombian Armed forces played in Pepe’s death, referencing the Calibío Battalion’s support of the hunters. He asked, “How can the fate of a defenseless little animal be left in the hands of a security force, surely as ignorant as any about environmental issues?” [Author’s translation] One of the most notorious of the newly released photos of the operation shows a group of soldiers posing triumphantly behind the hippo’s immense, lifeless body.
Pepe’s death came days after the UN High Commissioner on Refugees released its annual report, estimating that that Colombia has attained the dubious distinction of surpassing Iraq, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to become the nation with the most internally displaced refugees. In a country whose government has neglected the poorest, most vulnerable of its citizens, millions have been forced to leave their homes, seeking respite from violence, only to find themselves persecuted and subjected to more violence, often at the hands of the state itself. In this context, Pepe the runaway hippo becomes a macabre but surreal symbol of the victims of the refugee crisis and the war as a whole. The painfully inevitable comparison of his death to that of innocent Colombian people adds insult to injury by lending the situation an air of tragicomedy.
For the campesinos of the Magdalena Medio, there is nothing funny about state sponsored violence. In El Tiempo, Carlos Andrés Valderrama explains that the Calibío Battalion’s role in operation that killed Pepe was to cordon off the hunting area, so as to avoid any accidental harm to the civilian population. The Battalion’s history in the region makes their role in the maneuver rather disturbing. In the past they have shown little regard for he safety and security of the civilian population. Rural organizations such as the Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) have documented numerous extrajudicial killings at the hands of the unit. Many of the dead were so-called “false positives,” that is, civilians murdered by the Colombian military and later classified as guerrilla fighters killed in battle. In resource rich regions like the Magdalena Medio, the goal of the false positives is twofold. First, these downed “enemies” represent progress in the fight against the guerrilla. Second, disrupt and terrorize communities and push survivors from their land, thus freeing it for exploitation by those allied with the government.
A well documented example of one such death was the murder of campesino Aicardo Antonio Ortiz on July 8. Ortiz was a resident of Puerto Matilde, a village where many inhabitants are active members of the ACVC, and where there is a rich history of collective resistance to military intervention. Early that morning, members of the Calibío Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Flórez shot and killed Ortiz in his home. A neighbor spotted Ortiz’s body and alerted other villagers, who sent a commission of fifty people to reclaim the cadaver. According to alternative news website Prensa Rural, when the campesinos confronted Flórez, he said that the soldiers had gone to Ortiz’s house because they were told that three members of the guerilla were hiding there. He claimed that Ortiz fired the first shots in what evolved into a battle between soldiers and the guerrilla, and that upon searching the house his men found a radio, a grenade, and a revolver. Residents of the close-knit Puerto Matilde say they knew Ortiz to be a civilian, not a guerrilla collaborator, and point out that they lived too nearby not to have noticed a prolonged gun battle. In the case of Ortiz, his fellow villagers have chosen to remain in their homes and defy the continued militarization of the region. Nevertheless, the soldiers achieved their immediate goal: another “guerilla fighter” brought down.
The Calibío Battalion’s supporting role in the killing of Pablo Escobar’s pet hippopotamus becomes less shocking when compared to its active role in the killing of human beings in the Magdalena Medio. One begins to wonder why the mainstream Colombian media was so readily consumed by the controversy surrounding the hippo’s death, and why similar frenzies don’t form each time a civilian is killed by the military. Why has Pepe become a household name, and not Aicardo Antonio Ortiz, or for that matter Luis Sigifredo Castaño, Róbinson Alberto González, José Gustavo Castañeda, Carlos Mario García, Miguel Ángel González Gutiérrez, or Luis Horacio Ladino Guarumo, all residents of the Magdalena Medio killed or disappeared by the Calibío Battalion in the last five years?
Recently, the vast number of “false positives” denounced by organizations like the ACVC has, in fact, led to official investigations which have in turn produced the arrest of over four hundred soldiers and the conviction of sixty seven, as well as the firing of three generals and eleven colonels. However, the scandal has not prompted an overhaul of the “democratic security” policy of President Álvaro Uribe, a hardliner whose demand for results in the fight against the guerrillas seems insatiable. There is still a long way to go on the path toward peace and justice in Colombia. In the meantime, a closer look at the whimsical case of Pepe the hippopotamus reminds us that beneath the surface of even the most sensationalist headlines, we can find the real story, a story of catastrophic state sponsored terrorism, and of the communities fearlessly resisting such violence each day.
Carmen Andrea Rivera is an independent journalist and activist based in Berkeley, California. She is currently a producer on the weekly radio magazine La Raza Chronicles (KPFA, 94.1 FM).