Pablo Escobar's Hippos Are Running Wild

The late Colombian drug lord spent some of his cash on a private zoo, which the Colombian state took over after Escobar was killed. But now, deadly hippopotami have fled the reserve.

Hippos on the lam
Hippos on the lam
Sergio Silva Numa

PUERTO TRIUNFO — A rare public good left by Pablo Escobar is the Hacienda Nápoles park. In the 1980s, it had been the all-powerful drug kingpin's private zoo, which he'd filled with valuable wildlife from around the world, including no fewer than 80 hippopotami.

But even this family-friendly piece of the Escobar legacy has an ugly side, as Colombia's Environment Ministry reports a rash of potentially dangerous hippos have escaped the premises in southern Colombia.

Pablo Escobar's Hacienda Napoles — Photo: Pascaweb/GFDL

The Environment Ministry now confirms that 10 hippos have left the confines of the nature reserve. "This is an alert so people are aware how dangerous they are," said Environment Minister Luz Helena Sarmiento.

Those immediately affected are likely in the nearby river port of Puerto Triunfo, and authorities acknowledge that they are not sure how to deal with the problem, which first began five years ago when two hippos escaped from the park.

One of them, named Pepe, wandered, wallowed and cavorted for three years around the middle sector of the Magdalena river in Colombia's Antioquia department, until shot in June 2012 by authorities concerned it was a public danger. The other escaped hippo, Napolitano, was recently caught in an operation involving the Environment Ministry, Army and Discovery Channel.

Back to Africa?

But now the risk appears to have multiplied. David Echeverri, head of fauna at the regional wildlife entity CORNARE, says 40 or 50 hippos may be out now in this sector of the Magdalena river. There were 30 hippos in the park in 2009 and now there are 23, he said, and they tend to give birth to five or six calves a year.

For the animals, it is a space problem. Hippos are territorial and "expansionist...gradually having to move on, fighting over territory," Echeverri explained. "It is very difficult to control. Indeed at night, when they come out of the water they can travel up to 10 kilometers."

He added that hippos "are not good natured. There is a potential danger to residents and livestock."

Carlos Valderrama, a veteranarian who helped catch Napolitano in 2009, said hippos can kill humans if they perceive them as a threat. "They eat crops and prevent fishing in rivers they live in and although this has yet to be seen here, they can spread disease," he explained. "Also, we do not know the effect they will have on native species or waterways. We are not in the African plains."

Nobody wants them back in Africa, as they could transmit unspecified "biological agents" there. Zoos say they can't handle the beasts. Valderrama says this leaves few solutions, of which the most "viable" is to shoot them. "Nobody likes doing that, because we are precisely in the conservation business" and hippos are "an exotic species." Otherwise he said the males could be castrated, making them less aggressive — a "titanic and risky endeavor... more so if we don't know where they are all located."

For its part, the Environment Ministry has declared it has "no resources" to deal with the problem now.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!