Violence in El Salvador has reached crisis levels in recent years. In 2015, the country of 6 million people tallied more than 6,600 homicides, giving it the worst murder rate in the Western Hemisphere.
A government crackdown last year brought drown the number, but the country still saw a staggering 5,278 killings, many of them stemming from clashes among rival gangs and government forces. The bloodshed has continued into 2017, with about 10 people murdered every day. To put all that in perspective, it was a momentous occasion when El Salvador went 24 hours without a single killing in mid-January, as The Washington Post reported.
Over the weekend, the violence claimed a different kind of victim. On Sunday, a beloved hippopotamus from El Salvador’s National Zoo died after a mysterious and brutal attack the week before, according to the Associated Press.
Zookeepers said in a news conference they noticed last Tuesday the hippo, named Gustavito, behaving strangely. He had stopped eating, the zookeepers said, and was spending most of his time hiding under the water in his enclosure. They said they didn’t get a chance to inspect him up close until Thursday because he refused to leave his pool. When the zookeepers did get a close look at him, they found he was suffering from “bruises, lacerations on the head and body, cramps and abdominal pain,” the Ministry of Culture said in a statement.
Zoo staff tried to save Gustavito, but he died of his injuries Sunday evening, the AP reported. He was 15 years old.
Salvadoran officials said someone had likely entered Gustavito’s enclosure on Tuesday night and beat him with “blunt and sharp objects.” Rocks and pieces of metal were found in the area, they added. Zoo director Vladen Henríquez said Gustavito had wounds on his feet and face that could have been caused by an ice pick.
“There were injuries inside his mouth,” probably inflicted “when the animal tried to defend himself,” Henríquez said, according to CNN.
Authorities said they had launched a formal investigation but did not say what might have motivated the attackers. The zoo is temporarily closed, and zookeepers said they will perform a necropsy to determined how exactly the animal died.
The extreme cruelty of the attack on Gustavito was matched perhaps only by its brazenness. Whoever approached him certainly would have put his or her own life at risk in doing so. Hippos are generally aggressive creatures, not to mention large and powerful, with males like Gustavito weighing 3,000 pounds or more. The National Wildlife Federation ranks them among the most dangerous animals in the world, responsible for killing thousands of people every year.
Born in Guatemala and brought to El Salvador 13 years ago, Gustavito was considered one of the zoo’s iconic animals, and his death prompted an outpouring of grief. Some people left flowers at the zoo’s gate, the Associated Press reported. Others mourned him on social media with the hashtag #TodosSomosGustavito (we’re all Gustavito) and the phrase “forgive us Gustavito.”
Some connected his death to the ongoing violence in El Salvador. A cartoon circulated on Twitter showed a wounded Gustavito sitting in front of an outline of El Salvador with the word “violence” inscribed inside. In the image, Gustavito asks, “Why are you like this?”
“We’re angry,” Carmen Rogel, who often brings her grandson to the zoo, told the Associated Press. “We didn’t know they had killed Gustavito and were surprised when we arrived and the gate was closed.”
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