There are an estimated 120 African hippos loose in Colombia’s labyrinthine waterways today. The name hippopotamus has Greek origins. Literally translated the word means, “river horse.” The animal’s genus is Hippopotamidae.
Hippos are omnivores, meaning they eat most anything they can catch. A fully grown male hippopotamus can weigh upwards of 3,300 pounds. Hippos look sweet and cuddly. They’re not. An adult hippo can run at 30 mph and is legendarily mean-tempered. Hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, accounting for some 500 dead Africans per annum.
Around the world hippos are considered threatened. However, the hippos in Colombia have no natural predators and are breeding like enormous toothy bunnies. If active culling is not introduced the population should reach 1,400 animals by 2034.
A handful of big males have been castrated and released thus far, but, as one might imagine, this is a fairly onerous chore. It apparently costs around $50,000 to castrate a single hippo. Considering the technical challenges it still seems to me that professional hippo castrators are grossly underpaid.
These 120 animals all descended from a single male and three female specimens purchased in New Orleans in the late 1980s by Pablo Escobar. When he wasn’t collecting exotic animals, Escobar ran the Medellin cartel, the most ruthless and successful of the sundry Colombian drug organizations. How the world rid itself of Pablo is a story most sordid.
Pablo Escobar was born in December of 1949 in Rionegro, Antioquia, Colombia, the third of seven children. His dad was a farmer and his mom an elementary school teacher. Some people are born with a sweet tooth or a proclivity for sports. Pablo Escobar was born without a conscience.
As a teenager, Escobar would steal gravestones and sand them down flat for resale. He made money in high school by selling counterfeit high school diplomas. Escobar and his buddies stole cars, smuggled cigarettes, and peddled fake lottery tickets. In the early 1970s, Pablo kidnapped a local Medellin executive and returned him in exchange for a $100,000 ransom. This was clearly where the real money was. By his 26th birthday, Pablo Escobar had three million dollars in a local bank.
Seeing the meteoric rise in demand for cocaine in the US, Escobar organized to meet it. By the early 80’s Pablo was seriously rich. He bought 7,000 acres of prime land in Antioquia for $63 million and built Hacienda Napoles, his luxury estate. The facility included a bull ring, an ample lake, a sculpture garden, and a functioning zoo. That’s where the hippos came from.
When he felt threatened Pablo took human life with wanton abandon. In 1985 the Colombian Supreme Court was reconsidering the extradition treaties between Colombia and the United States. Escobar was displeased, so he bankrolled an attack on the court that ultimately killed fully half of the Supreme Court justices.
On the surface Escobar maintained a Robin Hood-style life, giving generously to local charities and infrastructure projects. Such generosity bought him the loyalty of locals that was to be invaluable later while he was on the run. However, along the way, he also murdered some 4,000 people.
Some of his targets were police officials he had terminated via professional sicarios (hitmen). He undertook a sprawling bombing campaign as well. Eventually, Escobar successfully lobbied the Colombian Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution to prevent extradition to the United States. With this legislative adjustment in the bag, Pablo Escobar surrendered to authorities along with a pledge to desist all criminal activity.
Escobar was remanded to a luxury prison of his own construction called La Catedral. This facility included a football pitch, a bar, a Jacuzzi, a giant dollhouse, and a waterfall. However, it became obvious that Escobar was still running his cartel’s activities while technically incarcerated, so he was ordered moved to a more conventional facility. On July 22, 1992, Escobar escaped during the transfer.
A dedicated unit of Colombian special operators called the Search Bloc was formed for the sole purpose of hunting down Pablo Escobar. The Search Bloc enjoyed the support of the US Joint Special Operations Command. Delta and DevGru instructors trained the Search Bloc in advanced close combat techniques.
In addition to the Search Bloc, Escobar was hounded by a vigilante mob known as Los Pepes. This was short for Los Peseguidos por Pablo Escobar or “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar.” These guys were flat-out terrifying. Before the dust settled they had murdered some 300 of Pablo’s associates to include his lawyer and a variety of family members. They also destroyed a great deal of the Medellin cartel’s physical property.
By early December 1993, Pablo Escobar had been on the run for sixteen months. Guided by dedicated direction finding assets tracking his radio phone, the Search Bloc closed in on the flat where he was hiding out. Eight Search Bloc operators stormed the apartment with ample backup troops pulling up in support. Escobar and his bodyguard, nicknamed “The Lemon,” piled out a back window and fled across the rooftops. Both men were cut down like dogs. When the Search Bloc shooters got to his body they found Pablo Escobar, the richest most powerful criminal in the world, dead from a gunshot wound to the right ear.
This resulted in quite the famous photograph that showed the Search Bloc operators posing around Escobar’s cooling corpse like some recently-bagged whitetail. Studying this photo demonstrates an eclectic array of small arms. As their operations were brief, frenetic, and typically executed in heavily built-up areas, weapon and ammo commonality would not be as important as might be the case in an austere field environment away from resupply.
The rank and file shooters carried license-produced Israeli Galil assault rifles made in Colombia by INDUMIL. First fielded in 1972, the Galil was a hybrid design that incorporated the action of the AKM, the 5.56mm chambering of the M16, and the side-folding buttstock of the FN FAL. The first prototypes were actually built on milled Valmet receivers illicitly smuggled into Israel during the developmental process.
One shooter carries what looks like a Mini-Uzi. Introduced to Israeli Special Forces troops in 1954, the full-sized stamped steel 9mm Uzi submachine gun helped carry the fledgling Jewish state through some of its darkest days immediately after independence. The Mini-Uzi utilizes the same fire controls and magazine but is markedly more compact. It also sports a spunkier 950+ rpm rate of fire as a result.
One Colombian operator carries a Model 653 Colt Commando assault rifle. A precursor to the modern M4, the Model 653 features a thin-profile 14.5-inch barrel and standard round handguards. His 653 sports a pair of magazines taped side by side.
The shooter in the foreground confounded me. At first brush, I thought his rifle was perhaps a chopped FN FAL. The dual magazines appear to be .30-caliber, and the side-folding stock looks about right. However, there appears to be a charging handle of some sort on the right, and the front sight/gas block arrangement doesn’t seem quite right for an FAL. If nothing else the FAL has its charging handle on the left. What do you think? Post your thoughts in the comments section below, and let’s figure this out together.
The Rest of the Story
At the apex of his power, Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel was bringing in $420 million per week, or around $6 million each day. With a net worth of about $25 billion, Escobar was one of the richest men on the planet. In the late 1980’s he offered to pay off Colombia’s $10 billion national debt in exchange for exemption from any extradition treaties with the US. In 1992 while on the run with his family Pablo actually physically burned $2 million in cash keeping his daughter warm.
Escobar had more cash money than he could ever spend. He stashed it in warehouses and buried it in fields. Around 10% or $2.1 billion was written off annually as misplaced, destroyed by the weather, or eaten by rats.
Escobar built local hospitals, housing projects, and soccer stadiums for the poor of Medellin. He was elected to the Colombian Congress in 1982 but forced out by a justice minister who exposed his illegal dealings. Escobar had the minister killed.
Escobar’s solution to his life’s many challenges was summed up in his motto “Plata o Plumo.” This literally translates to “Silver or Lead.” If he could not bribe his way to a solution then he had those responsible killed. In 1989 his cartel planted a bomb on board an aircraft carrying a suspected informant. 100 people perished in the crash.
Pablo Escobar died the day after his 44th birthday. To this day nobody is really sure who fired the fatal shot. However, his son Juan Pablo reported later that his dad had told him many times that he would never allow himself to be captured alive. Should his arrest be imminent his plan was to shoot himself through his right ear. Escobar’s recently-fired SIG SAUER handgun was indeed found on the roof alongside his body when the Search Bloc reached his corpse.