As dusk settles on the Magdalena Valley, the jungly middle stretch of Colombia’s great river basin, the hippopotamuses bawl and snort. The indelicate groans of these multi-ton beasts border on comedic, but mostly their ruckus is a fearsome thing—a primal ritual that has churned these waters ever since Pablo Escobar imported four hippos to his narco-sanctuary, Hacienda Nápoles, in the 1980s.
The hippos came not from Africa but from America, the nation whose appetites and prohibitions would catapult the cocaine king onto the Forbes billionaires list. He went shopping for them at the International Wildlife Park, a bygone drive-through zoo outside Dallas that featured camel rides and a boxing kangaroo. For one male and three females, plus a menagerie of other exotics, Pablo reportedly paid $2 million in cash.
Flown to Colombia on a military-grade Hercules, the hippos found paradise in the swampy heat of Hacienda Nápoles, halfway between Medellín and Bogotá. During the 7,000-acre retreat’s heyday, when the fortune of cocaine was still new and wondrous and too opportune for most Colombians to question, Pablo opened Hacienda Nápoles to the public: “Son, this zoo is the people’s,” he told his eldest, Juan Pablo. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll never charge, because I like that poor people can come and see this spectacle.”
The hippos have not only survived their master but multiplied: to a bloat of twenty-nine, or thirty-six, or maybe sixty. Nobody really knows.
Over 20 years after his death, notorious cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar is undergoing a renaissance. In 2014, Benicio Del Toro starred in the biopic, Escobar: Paradise Lost. El Padrino’s legend is currently being re-examined in the hit Netflix original series Narcos, and Javier Bardem is filming Escobar, alongside Penelope Cruz for a 2016 release.