In Honduras, the Law of the Jungle Abides

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A zoo full of wild beasts founded by a murderous drug trafficker. A presidential family, deeply involved with the zoo’s owners, bearing the name “Lobo” (Spanish for “wolf”). The law of the jungle still abides in Honduras, where the one who bites first — or strongest — rules.

Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga is undeniably an animal lover. On top of having confessed to the murder of 78 individuals, he also admitted to using drug profits to build a zoo in western Honduras. He made these confessions in a New York court — not as a defendent, but as a witness testifying against Fabio Lobo, another self-confessed drug trafficker who is also the son of former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

Rivera Maradiaga’s zoo remains open to the public. An hour away from San Pedro Sula, one of the world’s most violent cities, the Joya Grande’s 20 hectares pop up in the middle of a green valley.

*This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity and length, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

With 538 different species to feed and care for, the zoo provides work for nearly 70 farming families nearby. It hosts more than 50 big cats, including dozens of lions and tigers, five of them white or albinos; mountain lions; jaguars; and ocelots. The zoo also has four hippos, a handful of camels and dromedaries, alpacas, ostriches, South American tapirs, apes, bison, wildebeest and emus.

Four crocodiles of Central American origin swim in an artificial enclosure, circling a small island where spider monkeys take refuge. The bird sanctuary hosts blue and red macaws, cockatoos and toucans. Guinea fowl, Japanese pheasants and hens stroll among the visitors.

Rivera Maradiaga, the former leader of the Cachiros cartel, built this zoo with his brother Javier because of his love for animals and because capos are known for their extravagant tastes. But most of all, he built it because he could.

Registering his animal collection as a zoo allowed Rivera Maradiaga to buy and import new species easily. This would never have been a problem on the Honduran side, but a zoo facilitated the legal paperwork abroad. Which is why the capo made his zoo public.

Joya Grande has seven cabins and four trailers for rent, along with two swimming pools, a zipline, restaurants and cafes, a go-kart circuit and a paintball court, a small train and an artificial lake. In the middle of the lake sits a small island with the statue of a white horse rearing up on its hind legs — a peculiar figure in a zoo full of felines, but a hint at one of Rivera Maradiaga’s other animal obsessions.

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(Image of the horse sculpture. Credit: Víctor Peña/El Faro)

The project is as much an imitation as a homage to Pablo Escobar’s reknown eccentricity: the Cachiros went so far as to select the same colors and typography for their trademark as Escobar’s Hacienda Nápoles.

The brothers also drew from northern customs, commissioning a “narcocorrido,” or “narco song,” in the park’s honor. The song, strongly inspired by the genre’s classic “Caminos de Guanajuato,” became a hit in Honduras.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of NarcoCulture

Rivera Maradiaga lived in Tocoa, Colón, 300 kilometers away from Joya Grande. But he would fly in by helicopter from time to time, sleep in his own personal cabin and enjoy breakfast on the terrace. Before touring his different big cats, he would go visit Big Boy, Honduras’ only giraffe.

Big Boy was the favorite of Rivera Maradiaga, a man who recently confessed to dozens of homicides in New York. Big Boy is on everybody’s lips here, but nobody pronounces the name of the owner. Here, he is simply known as “The Master” (“El Señor”).

On the night we visited Joya Grande, we asked to stay in a cabin. The manager led us to a simple wooden construction: two beds, a porch and a balcony. “It was The Master’s Cabin,” he told us, emphasizing the word “master” as if speaking of Che Guevara or Rubén Darío. “That’s where he would stay when he came.”

A cabin with two double-sized beds costs $200 a night. For half that price, one can sleep in one of the trailers nearby, each furnished with a double bed and a stool marketed as a single bed. These prices are colossal in a country like Honduras.

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(The preferred cabin of “The Master.” Credit: Víctor Peña/El Faro)

Between 2003 and 2013, the Cachiros were the kings of Honduras’ underworld. They became the main link between Venezuelan and Colombian trafficking groups from the south, and the powerful Mexican cartels, especially the Sinaloa Cartel. They bought off politicians, soldiers and police officers. They associated with powerful businessmen. They even succeeded in surviving the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya and the country’s subsequent isolation on the international scene — the door of global commerce slammed shut for Honduras, but the cocaine trade was booming, as was the number of Hondurans looking to make a dime as traffickers.

The Cachiros never made it to the Forbes list, yet estimates put the cartel’s portfolio at a billion dollars during its peak. The assets seized by authorities since their fall include a palm tree plantation, construction companies that laundered millions of dollars in government contracts, a mine — and the zoo.

*This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity and length, and reprinted with permission. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.

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