A notorious sloth cartel kingpin vanished. We tried to find him.

In northeastern Colombia, poached baby sloths are sold to tourists as pets. For decades, one man appeared to dominate the trade.

photographs by Juan Arredondo
Published 12 Jan 2022, 10:45 GMT
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A young man offers a baby three-toed sloth for sale to passersby on a highway in Altos de Polonia, in northeastern Colombia. The town is one of several hot spots in the region for the illegal sloth trade.
Photograph by Juan Arredondo, National Geographic

To be a sloth catcher, you have to be an extraordinary climber.

Yilber Benites and Yarlis Morales take off their T-shirts and flip-flops and disappear up the tree. Flashes of flesh and fabric weave through jostling branches as the young men, both 20, climb higher. Bare skin, they’d said, helps them grip the bark, making it that much easier to scale a towering Cecropia and lessening the risk of a fatal fall.

Poachers in Altos de Polonia examine a mother sloth and her newborn baby after cutting them down from high in a tree in November 2019. Poachers want babies, which are small and docile, when they’re a few months old to increase their chances of survival. This newborn was too young to take.

We’re about two miles from Altos de Polonia, the village where they live in Colombia’s Córdoba department. I’d followed them across bushland and farm fields, scaling and sliding under fences as they searched for sloths. Climbing’s the easy part, Benites says—spotting a sloth can take days.

About 50 feet up, Benites starts hacking with a machete at the base of a branch. I can make out a ball of brown fur wrapped around the limb, which shakes with each blow.

“There’s a baby!” comes an excited shout. The fur ball is a mother sloth with an infant in her arms.

A final blow of the machete, and the branch splinters and falls, slowed by limbs and foliage. The men rush over and lift the branch. The mother is clinging to it, eyes wide, clutching her newborn to her chest. She slowly sweeps her free arm in an arc, as if creating a shield around her body. The men pull back her arm to get a look at the baby.

Too young, they say. If they took the infant now, it would die.

They carry the sloths back to the base of the tree, and the mother, her baby still hanging on tightly, sprints up to safety.

I had no idea a sloth could move so fast.

The mother sloth, stunned from the fall, sweeps her arm toward the poachers in a defensive motion. People often mistakenly think sloths are easygoing and unperturbed by human handling—their faces even give the impression that they’re smiling. But the animals are stressed easily, and many poached from the wild die quickly in captivity.

During three years of reporting on the wildlife tourism industry, I’d become familiar with the demand in Latin America and beyond for sloths as viral video-starring pets and as photo props for tourists visiting Amazonian Brazil and Peru. I’d also seen what tourists don’t see—how these docile, delicate animals, almost always babies, are kept in small cages, often dying after a few weeks in captivity. But what I hadn’t seen was the supply side of the illegal trade in sloths—how they get from tree to cage.

I’d come to Colombia to find a man named Isaac Bedoya, described by the Colombian media as Latin America’s most notorious sloth trader. The country’s wildlife authorities estimate that he and his accomplices captured and sold as many as 10,000 sloths into the pet trade during the three decades before his arrest in 2015.

Two years later, Bedoya, despite being under house arrest, was caught selling sloths again, but for reasons that remain unclear, police didn’t pursue new charges. Since then, there have been no new press reports about his whereabouts or activities. Is Bedoya still the top trader, and if not, who has taken his place?

In Córdoba, I began my search, accompanied by photographer Juan Arredondo, and Natalia Margarita, our Colombian field guide, who’s from Bogotá.

The sloths

Sloths are misunderstood, says biologist Tinka Plese. People think of them as slow and goofy, she says, and that misperception lends them a sense of novelty that makes them popular as pets. Plese runs Fundación AIUNAU, a rescue facility near Medellín for sloths confiscated from poachers, found orphaned, or rescued from the pet trade. The facility has rehabilitated and released at least 300 sloths back into the wild since 1996.

Yilber Morales, 20, places a captured baby sloth into a box in his home in Altos de Polonia. Morales is part of a third generation of residents who make a living poaching and selling wild animals on the highway near the town, a busy artery for Colombian vacationers heading to the Atlantic coast.
Morales uses his phone’s flashlight to check on the young sloth, captured the day before at the request of a buyer. December through February are typically the busiest months, when he and his friends can sell at least 30 sloths. “I really want to stop,” says Morales, who provides for his mother and nine siblings. “I feel like I don’t have another option.”

There are two species of sloths, both targeted for the pet trade. Three-toed sloths are gentler and in greater demand than two-toed sloths, which can be “rabid and furious,” Plese says. To make them easier to handle, poachers often pull out their teeth and cut back their long nails—sometimes so roughly that they sever their fingertips.

Sloths are uniquely adapted to live, eat, sleep, mate, and raise their young in the canopies of trees in tropical rainforests across Central and South America. The flower-like clusters of broad, rounded leaves of Cecropias, for example, form a crucial part of sloths’ diets. They’re fragile creatures, experts say, that don’t easily get over the trauma of being plucked from their treetop homes, kept in cages, and fed the wrong food.

“They all come very hungry, very thirsty, very exhausted, and very depressed,” Plese says of sloths brought to her sanctuary. “For every one that has come here, three have died. Sometimes they come here to die in peace.”

The number of sloths rescued or surrendered to Fundación AIUNAU began spiking in the mid-2000s, Plese says. Traffickers “were selling babies out of fanny packs” along Route 25, the artery north from Medellín into the heart of Córdoba’s sloth country. The region’s spectacular biodiversity, proximity to Central America, and ocean accessibility make it a nexus for poached wildlife, a major illicit enterprise in Colombia, alongside human and drug trafficking.

The investigator

Amaury Javier Tovar Ortega has a stuffed sloth toy on his desk and a mugshot of Isaac Bedoya on his computer screen. We’re in his office in Sincelejo, in northern Córdoba, where he’s a criminal investigator with the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia. Bedoya is the same age as he is, Tovar tells me—they’re both 50.

Sloth trafficker Isaac Bedoya stares out of the computer screen of Amaury Javier Tovar Ortega, an investigator with the Attorney General’s office in Sincelejo. Bedoya spent nearly three decades trafficking sloths—around 10,000 of them, Tovar estimates—near his hometown of Colomboy. In 2013, following a months-long investigation, Tovar arrested him. Sentenced two years later to house arrest, Bedoya was soon on the road selling sloths again.

Tovar remembers first seeing sloths for sale on the side of the road as a teenager in the late 1980s when he visited his aunts in Colomboy, one of many small towns that dot the fertile farmland of Córdoba. This is the valley of the Sinú River, an artery that winds through verdant grassland and tropical forest to empty into the Caribbean Sea. The region is believed to hold one of the densest populations of sloths in Colombia.

The highway through Colomboy connects Bogotá and Medellín, in central Colombia, to the popular seaside cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena in the north. Colombians who buy sloths, Tovar says, are overwhelmingly road-tripping vacationers acting on impulse; they pay anywhere from £22 to £145 for a baby.

“There would be eight to 10 people on the road, holding one or two sloths each,” Tovar recalls. 

As a boy, he says he had a fascination with animals and nature, but “the sloth sellers didn’t bother me then because I didn’t know it was a crime.” In college, he studied agriculture, then went to work for a reptile skin dealer, where he was responsible for making sure that the exports met international wildlife trade regulations. During the mid-1990s, he worked with a sloth research project, helping observe the behaviour and eating habits of wild sloths. 

A weather-worn sign on a highway outside Montería, in the province of Córdoba, educates drivers about the need to protect wildlife, including sloths, monkeys, and turtles. Córdoba has long been the center of Colombia’s illegal sloth trade.
Controlling wildlife trafficking in the lush landscape of Córdoba is complicated. Much of the forested territory, home to an abundance of sloths, is under the sway of the Clan del Golfo, Colombia’s largest drug cartel. Poachers often make agreements with clan members allowing them to operate in cartel-dominated territory.

It was then, Tovar says, that he “got to know how mother sloths would cry out when their babies were removed,” he says. “I started to become interested in prosecuting those crimes. I wanted to protect sloths.” 

In 2004, he decided to make a career change. He took a two-year course in technical investigation and criminology at a college in Sucre and in 2008 joined the Office of the Attorney General as an investigator. 

By the mid-1990s, Bedoya had become a familiar face to Tovar on his drives to and from Colomboy. Bedoya would approach a car first, Tovar says, and when he gave a thumbs-up, accomplices would grab sloths stashed in holes they’d dug by the side of the road and hold them up for buyers to consider. 

“Bedoya’s behaviour was the behaviour of a leader,” Tovar says. 

As we talk, Bedoya stares out of the computer screen—narrow face, eyes dark and defiant, skin glistening with sweat. 

Tovar toggles from the photo of Bedoya to documents he amassed during a year-long investigation, from early 2012 to April 2013, aimed at catching the man he’d observed casually for years. 

Bedoya was angry, untrusting, and poorly educated, Tovar says, but “he ran a highly organised criminal enterprise. Undoubtedly, it was a cartel.” They did most of their business between November and April—the beach-going months and sloth birthing season. The men kept a map marking the locations where they’d found females about to give birth, Tovar says.

Tovar says he saw Bedoya selling sloths more than 200 times between 1985 and 2015. He estimates that Bedoya and his team sold three sloths a day for six months of the year and as many as 10 a day between December and February—amounting to about 10,000 animals over three decades. 

Tovar and several fellow officers spent months hiding in the bush around Route 25 in Colomboy, photographing Bedoya and his accomplices as they sold sloths. On April 3, 2013, they made their move. 

In a pickup truck, Tovar and a female officer posing as his wife slowly approached Bedoya. In the back, four officers from the attorney general’s office were hiding in boxes. Fifteen other officers were waiting in the surrounding hills. Tovar and his partner stopped next to Bedoya, and the female officer pretended that she wanted to buy a baby sloth. Bedoya asked for $37 (£27). Tovar negotiated the price down to $25 (£18).

Bedoya left the roadside and returned with two baby sloths. When Tovar pretended to reach for his wallet, he dropped his hand out of the open window and banged on the side of the car. That was the signal to his colleagues to move in. 

As police rushed in, Tovar arrested Bedoya, charging him with illegal use of renewable natural resources. 

Colombian law prohibits the unauthorised capture, possession, export, use and sale of renewable natural resources, a category that includes wild animals. Violations carry a prison sentence of between five years and more than 11. 

In January 2015, while Bedoya was awaiting trial, local police caught him selling sloths again. They let him go, according to Tovar, who says he doesn’t know why and had no jurisdiction to intervene. “If you care a lot,” Tovar says, “something will happen. If you don’t care, nothing happens.” 

Four months later, a federal judge sentenced Bedoya to five years and four months of house arrest for the original 2013 charges. Bedoya’s attorney had struck a plea deal that resulted in the light penalty—and the dismissal of a separate charge of damaging the environment. 

Handing down a penalty is one thing; enforcing it is another. By 2017, Tovar says, Bedoya had broken his house arrest and was selling sloths again. The National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC), the agency responsible for monitoring Colombia’s prisoners and prisons, didn’t respond to National Geographic’s multiple requests for comment. 

One day in 2017, Tovar says, Bedoya spotted an approaching police car and as he sprinted away, a truck grazed him. Within months of the accident, Tovar says, Bedoya was back on the road selling sloths. He wasn’t arrested again.  

“I believe Isaac became addicted to sloth trafficking,” Tovar says. “I knew he wasn’t going to stop … These are very poor regions. With the sale of one sloth, he can eat for 10 days.” 

The mother 

Finding Bedoya will be a challenge. No one seems to know where he is. Tovar and prosecutor William Orlando Jacquiel say he may have been released early from house arrest. Only INPEC would know. The 2013 indictment lists Bedoya’s home address as “one side of the El Carmen neighbourhood square” in Colomboy, a town of about 4,000 people. No subsequent records in his case provide any more details.

Paula Villada has been working at Fundación AIUNAU in Medellín for more than 10 years, where she and founder Tinka Plese care for rescued sloths. Speaking frankly about the horrors she’s witnessed in a decade of looking after abused sloths, Villeda says, “I have faith, but I no longer have faith in humanity.”

We start our search in Colomboy at the police station, a small, squat building, standing alone on a dusty plot just off the main highway. Natalia goes inside to ask about Bedoya’s address, while Juan and I wait by the car. 

She returns minutes later. “They don’t know who he is,” she says. We’re stunned. How could the police in a small town not know about a notorious sloth trafficker living under a multiyear house arrest in their jurisdiction? Monitoring convicted criminals under house arrest isn’t their job, an officer told Natalia; it’s INPEC’s responsibility. 

Tovar says that police in small towns are rotated regularly, which may explain how he’s escaped notice. Nonetheless, he says, with a high-profile case such as Bedoya’s, the officers should have known who he was. 

In town, we meet a young man named Joaquín Basillo and two of his friends outside a snack shop. Basillo says he knows Bedoya but hasn’t seen him in a long time. 

Villada looks on as a four-month-old two-toed sloth eyes a snack. Each year, the center receives dozens of sloths from regional wildlife authorities or members of the public. Poachers, Plese says, sometimes clip sloths’ nails so drastically that they sever their fingers. Some take out the teeth of the more aggressive two-toed sloths. Others are malnourished. “Sometimes they come here to die in peace,” Plese says.
A baby two-toed sloth peeks out of a basket at Fundación AIUNAU. The baskets, Plese says, provide a cozy retreat, mimicking the warm embrace of their mother’s arms. Two-toed sloths are not as heavily trafficked as three-toed sloths because they can be more aggressive toward humans. “If there’s something I’m really proud of,” Plese says, “it’s that I’ve never been bitten by a two-toed sloth!”

Isn’t he under house arrest? I ask. They laugh. 

“The bracelet, the house arrest … it’s all fake news,” Basillo says. The batteries are rarely charged. You know how Colombia is, the men joke. Since 2016, Bedoya has come and gone as he pleased, Basillo adds. Last he heard, Bedoya was in Antioquia, south of Córdoba. 

“Do you want to meet his mother?” 

We hop on motorbikes and whizz toward the edge of town. Splashing through mud and past cows, we stop at the apex of a hill and walk down to a small farmhouse in the valley. 

A donkey tied to a post brays as we introduce ourselves to Bedoya’s mother, María Encarnación Guevara, who waves us onto her covered patio and motions for us to sit in plastic lawn chairs arranged in a semicircle. Warm and welcoming, she at first thinks we’re from the government, coming to speak to her about pension checks she’s been waiting for. Basillo explains that we’re journalists, here to ask about her son. 

Rescued two-toed sloths snack on apple slices at Fundación AIUNAU. Founded in 1996, the organization provides a tranquil environment for sloths rescued from the pet trade that mimics their natural habitat—complete with tree branches, hanging food, and minimal human contact. Over the past 25 years, Plese has rehabilitated and released more than 300 sloths back to the wild. Three times as many haven’t survived.

Smile gone, Encarnación sits down, her posture stiff. “I was widowed 10 years ago,” she begins. “If it wasn’t for Isaac, I wouldn’t have been able to make a living.” 

“Three years ago, he quit [selling sloths] and is now just working—farming.” I ask where, but she ignores my question. 

“When he can’t come home, he finds a way to send money,” she says. I ask how she felt after he was arrested.

“I would feel very hurt by the things people were saying about him,” Encarnación says. She takes a deep breath. “I believe there’s a way to make money without crime. It’s the word of God.”

She pauses, leans forward in her chair, and raises her voice: “Many people were [trafficking]. But he was the only one people were pointing fingers at.” She jerks her head toward Basillo and his friends.

“You, you, and you all did it,” she says, jabbing a finger at each. “Why my son?”

The men don’t respond. “I’ve heard some people continue doing it, but it’s not my business,” Encarnación says, throwing up her hands.

She stands up and walks toward her front door. Our conversation is over.

I leave dismayed. I’d come to Córdoba in search of a kingpin; I’ve ended up chasing a ghost. 

The young guys

Colombia’s most powerful transnational criminal organisation, the Clan de Golfo, is one of several paramilitary groups that control territory between the villages along Route 25. Its leadership accommodates poachers in their domain in exchange for tip-offs about police or army operations, says Alexis Mendoza, head of Córdoba’s environmental police unit. 

A two-month-old clings to a tree in his enclosure. Baby three-toed sloths are in high demand as pets in Colombia—and as props for selfies throughout Latin America and in the United States. At AIUNAU, the lucky ones who manage to thrive are released after about a year. “When people talk about rehabilitation,” Plese says, “they think you just feed the animals. I spend days and nights just observing them. They’ve taught me so many things. I call them kids from the forest.”

“It’s mutually beneficial,” he says, and it further complicates efforts to stop sloth poachers. With only seven officers to patrol 9,000-square-mile Córdoba, the environmental police unit is already starting at a disadvantage. 

That means younger sloth catchers, such as Yilber Benites and Yarlis Morales, the men I saw catch a sloth outside Altos de Polonia, can be confident that they can conduct their business with virtual impunity.

On March 30, a little more than a year after I’d accompanied Benites and Morales, the area’s lead environmental authority—the Regional Autonomous Corporation of the Sinú and San Jorge Valleys, or CAR-CVS—announced that it had set up a checkpoint to interdict wildlife trafficking on the highway that runs past Altos de Polonia. The agency’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts featured a photo of police standing on duty at the exact spot where I’d first met Benites. 

I’ve tried to get in touch with Benites and Morales since our time together, with no luck. I want to know if the checkpoint or the pandemic have affected their sloth trading activities. According to Mendoza, roadside wildlife trafficking slowed in the initial months of the pandemic as domestic travel all but halted. But online trafficking of wildlife—especially birds and turtles—increased while the country was under lockdown. By early 2021, however, roadside trafficking had ramped up again, Mendoza says. 

The day after CAR-CVS announced the checkpoint, they posted again: “Registration, control and environmental education activities continue in the district of Altos de Polonia.” 

Several Córdoba residents commented on the posts. One man called the move a photo op and said he’d driven past the location and not seen any police, and a woman later said she’d seen people continuing to sell wild animals along that stretch of road.

CAR-CVS did not respond to a National Geographic request for comment.

On December 11, CAR-CVS returned to Altos de Polonia. Residents, officers said, pelted their van with rocks and other heavy objects, smashing the windows. A CVS spokesperson told local media that the action was retaliatory for the agency’s attempt to control wildlife trafficking in the town.

When Natalia, Juan, and I first saw Benites and the others from afar in late 2019, they were just four young men on the side of the road, holding sticks. Drooping songbirds, their ankles tied to the sticks, perched on top. Occasionally a bird fell off and dangled from the string, until one of the men set it back. 

The hot sun was baking us all. 

We greeted each other, the meeting having been pre-arranged by a local friend of a contact of Natalia’s. They were about to go looking for a sloth they’d spotted earlier, and Benites invited us along. 

“It goes back 50 years,” Benites said of the sloth trade as we walked past the village toward the forest. “I started to capture animals when I was nine. My father taught me, and my grandfather taught him.” 

They monitor where adult sloths and pregnant females are, Benites explained, but they have to search farther away now as farmers clear more forest for crops. He said they sometimes also keep baby sloths at home, feeding them cow’s milk and waiting until they’re a few months old before selling them. 

He and Morales and two friends work together, Benites said. They sell 20 to 30 sloths in December and January alone, earning roughly £75 to £150 per animal and splitting the take four ways. 

“We sell animals out of necessity,” Benites said. For children in Altos de Polonia, “you finish high school, and that’s it. The government ignores us.” Options are limited, either to working on neighbouring farms, for what barely amounts to a living wage, or poaching and selling animals, he said. 

Morales said that in the past, CAR-CVS has tried to help people in the community by holding workshops to teach them how to make and sell handicrafts such as woven bowls, on condition that they stop trafficking animals while participating in the program. The young men tried it, he said, but they had to buy their own supplies and pay for space at a market in Bogotá, and by the time community members split the proceeds, it just wasn’t worth it.

As we walked, they suddenly spotted a sloth high up in a tree—an adult male. It was invisible to me. “We might not have degrees, but we have a lot of knowledge about animals,” Benites said. “Sometimes we have more knowledge than people in [CAR-CVS]. Why don’t they take us to work with them?” 

Then, about a hundred yards from the tree with the male, they saw the female in the Cecropia tree with the baby that they judged too young to take.

The owl

The last time I saw Benites, we were in a mall food court in Montería, an hour-long bus ride from his home. He’d said he wanted to talk more, so he made a detour on his way to Medellín, where he was heading to sell a poached owl. A middleman there had a client who wanted the bird as a pet. 

He stashed the owl somewhere before sitting down to talk. After graduating from high school, Benites said, he went to a local technical institute to train to be a medical technician. It’s a steady job with a decent salary. But school cost about £60 a month. “Selling animals is how I paid for it,” he said. 

Money had been particularly tight ever since Benites was 10. That’s when his dad, who drove a taxi and also sold animals, went to work one day and never came home. His body wasn’t found, and Benites believes an armed group killed him. “They were disappearing a lot of people at that time,” he said. Increasingly, it fell on Benites to take care of his mother, six brothers, and three sisters. 

He tried to stay in school. But he couldn’t keep up with the fees and dropped out. That’s when he turned to poaching full-time. 

It made me recall something Mendoza, the environmental police officer, had said: Many people in rural Córdoba are poor, but they don’t all traffic wildlife. Benites’ livelihood was a product of desperation compounded by personal tragedy—and his own choices.

I wanted Benites to understand that publication of this story could put him at risk. He said he knew that and started to cry. I did too. “I really want to stop,” he said through tears, “but I don’t have another option. I hope to God things will get better.” 

I got in my taxi, and Benites went off to collect his owl and take the bus to Medellín. 

This, as it turns out, is the sloth “cartel.” Not a sophisticated, interconnected criminal enterprise but supply and demand at its most elemental: tourists wanting baby sloths, and desperate young men hunting them down to sell for a living. 

Individual roadside interactions add up to a market. The elusive Isaac Bedoya is believed to have trafficked 10,000 sloths over 30 years—some 28 a month. That’s about the same monthly number that Benites and Morales, who represent a new generation of strivers, said they sell during the peak season. It’s barely enough to survive, Benites said. “If I continue like this selling animals, I won’t make it. The money we make, it’s just enough to eat.” 

When I asked Benites and his friends in Altos de Polonia if they knew where I could find Bedoya, they responded with blank smiles. Then they admitted they didn’t really know who he was.

Reporting for this story was funded in part by the Society of Environmental Journalists' Fund for Environmental Journalism.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

Natasha Daly is a staff writer at National Geographic where she covers how animals and culture intersect. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Juan Arredondo is a Colombian-American photographer whose work focuses on social inequality and human rights issues. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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