A hippo in Escobar's former private zoo
Benjamin Witte

Asian long-horned beetles in North America. Tropical parakeets in the capital cities of Europe. The plague of frogs Bart accidentally unleashed that time the Simpsons visited Australia. Yes, invasive species are a growing problem in our globalized world. And yet there's something absurdly uncommon about the animal invaders that, over the past quarter-century, have made a home-away-from-home in the area around Doradal, in the Antioquia department of northwestern Colombia.

For one thing, they're big. Huge, in fact, and with long canine tusks. They're also linked in a very direct way to one of history's most notorious gangsters: Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar, who died 25 years ago. And with no natural predators in the area, they're multiplying, according to a recent article in the Spanish daily El País.

They're hippopotamuses. Escobar's hippos, left over from when he was spent a sizable chunk of his drug money on exotic animals. And as far as anyone can tell, there are about 50 of them — maybe more. Counting them, as Carlos Mario Zuluaga, director of a Colombian government agency called CORNARE explains, isn't easy. "They're not cows. We can't get close to them," he says. "They're wild animals, and they're in the wild."

We don't have a manual for how to handle them.

During the height of his cocaine trafficking days, Argentine daily Clarin remembers, Escobar built a palatial estate called Hacienda Napoles — now a popular theme park — where he also created his own personal zoo, complete with giraffes, elephants, ostriches and yes, hippopotamuses.

There could be about 50 wild hippos, maybe more — Photo: FICG.mx

After law enforcement officials hunted down and killed the fugitive narco-terrorist in late 1993, Colombian authorities seized the property along with its animal inhabitants. But they missed something — four hippos — which Escobar had smuggled into the country with money he earned from all that coke he smuggled out.

The animals survived, prospered and reproduced. And for years, no one in the area knew what to do about them. Given that they were among belongings left behind by the famous criminal, the animals were technically the responsibility of law enforcement. But going after hippos was the least of concerns in a country that is only now ending more than 50 years of civil war.

Finally, in 2013, funds were given to CORNARE, a river management body, to sterilize the hungry hippos — if they could. Not knowing the first thing about the African species, the agency used some of the money to hire biologists. They, in turn, came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to capture the animals and relocate them in zoos — before someone gets hurt. But that, as they've learned, is easier said than done.

"We don't have a manual for how to handle them," says David Echeverry, one the CORNARE biologists. "There are a lot of them. They're loose. Free. They weigh three tons. And they can reach speeds of 30 kilometers an hour." No, it's worth mentioning again: they are not cows.

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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