Colombia’s Escobar: two opinions, too many hippos

Paul Maritz/ CC BY 3.0

More thanobar twenty years ago, on December 2, 1993, Pablo Escobar, the pioneer of Colombia’s cocaine trade, was killed on a rooftop in his native Medellin by police.

A man who is believed to be directly responsible for the deaths of over 4000 people, the majority of people in Colombia still know of someone whose life has been affected by Escobar. Many remember him not only for his notorious crimes, but also for his generous donations to the poor and his support of many underprivileged families such that the cocaine, the money, the power, the cartel structure, the reach of his actions and decisions have morphed this man into popular culture, still influencing present-day Colombia.

From the 1980’s up to his death, Forbes magazine listed Escobar as one of the richest men in the world. His drug empire controlled every facet of the Medellin Cartel – a vertically integrated, hierarchical criminal enterprise that imported cocoa base from Peru and Bolivia, processed it in Columbia’s jungles, and then flew it to the US in staggering large quantities to networks that distributed Escobar’s cocaine. With the incalculable sums that were delivered back to Escobar, he brought protection from officials, and existed with impunity, completely above Columbian law and the reach of the US agencies that sought his extradition.

Among the poor of Medellin, Escobar was thought of as a kind of modern day Robin Hood. His nickname was Don Pablo, as having grown up poor himself Escobar identified with those who had little. Escobar built soccer fields and public parks, and began food programmes in deprived neighbourhoods. One of the most generous donations Escobar ever made was to fund the creation of an entire suburb. Word came to Escobar of around 700 families who were living at the city’s dump, scavenging food from the garbage. Horrified, Escobar built and donated over 1000 apartments, with no charge for any of the residents.

They named the community “Barrio Pabmuglo Escobar”, and the moniker sticks to this day.

Criminal and philanthropist, the legacy of Escobar has also altered Columbia’s wildlife for good. The excesses of one of his residences Hacienda Nápoles included several large pools, a 1,000-seat bull ring, a private airstrip, and a zoo. Escobar imported many African animals, such as zebras, giraffes, and hippopotamuses and after his death, and the subsequent requisitioning of the estate by the Colombian government; the majority of the animals were transferred to other zoos – except for the hippos. They had thrived in the artificial lakes built for them, and reproduced at an alarming rate. Escobar began with 4, but the estimated wild hippo population of Colombia is now unknown, and while hunting parties have been sent out to cull the growing population, it seems to make little impact on the spread of Escobar’s hippos.

For a drug-lord such as Escobar, the myth, reputation and global notoriety could not be more paradoxically juxtaposed than the warning signs that surround his dilapidated villa. They read:  “Stay in your vehicle after 6 p.m., hippopotamuses on the road.’’