He is a “fugitive” to the justice system and a “missing person” to his family, who think he might even be dead.
Manuel Suárez dreamed of being a great cattle breeder, but the dream slipped through his fingers.
Suárez owned a farm in the tiny hamlet of Cezar, in rural Galicia. The property had enough land to house 30 cows, but Suárez kept buying more. The cows gave birth, and he ended up with 100-plus head of cattle.
He had so many cows that he was unable to round them all up in the evenings, and the wolves killed quite a few
They were all dairy cows, and they each had a name. He loved them as though they were his flesh and blood.
Then, a little over five years ago, something snapped inside the head of this single man with a solitary lifestyle.
He holed himself up with his black-and-white Holsteins, ignoring all warnings from the outside world, and ultimately turned his two pastures of sweet green grass into a bovine holocaust.
His relatives say they had tried to warn him: “Manuel, you have to sell, you can’t keep so many cows. Why do you want so many calves if they eat but don’t produce anything?”
“Calves are the future,” the breeder would reply every time, right before getting angry and adopting a violent attitude.
Things came to a head late last year. Officers from Seprona, the Civil Guard’s environmental protection department, showed up on his property. So did inspectors from the regional government of Galicia. Then, a group of environmentalists known as the “Masked Riders” began arriving in nearby towns on horseback, calling for justice. Finally, there was a visit by a delegation from the Betanzos courthouse and a forensic expert who declared that Manuel suffered from “delirious idealization” and needed to go see a psychiatrist.
The Masked Riders dropped by on several occasions and took photographs of the shocking state in which the Suárez cattle were being kept. These images are available online and show cows agonizing next to dead comrades, cattle with udders made bloody by a fungal disease, and sick and starving animals standing knee-deep in filth.
One day, the group of caped activists – who go by the pseudonyms of Zeus, Theo, Achilles, Ulysses, Lúa and “Thalía, the lady of 20 mysteries” – announced that 87 head of cattle had died at the Suárez farm in under one year.
He had so many that he was unable to round them all up in the evenings, and the wolves killed quite a few. Sometimes he would wake up in the morning and find a half-devoured cow still clinging to life, and be forced to sacrifice it.
Others died giving birth, or soon later from starvation.
The cattle breeder was ruined and couldn’t afford the vet bills anymore. His electricity was cut off, and he milked the cows as best he could, using a generator. By then, the price of milk was already rock bottom, but suppliers had long since stopped buying from him anyway.
He could not afford feed, either. Sometimes he would rustle up a few bags of dry bread, but that and the grass from two pastures was not enough to feed so many mouths.
“He would go hungry in order to feed his animals,” says his eldest nephew Gonzalo, in an attempt to exonerate Manuel.
Showdown at the farm
Gonzalo is now in charge of the 30 cows left on the property by the vets from the regional government.
They showed up on January 20 with a court order to take away all the dying animals. Civil Guard officers were with them for protection.
Delirious and armed with a pitchfork, Manuel Suárez attempted to stop them from taking his precious beasts. He assaulted two officers, then, realizing the enormity of what he had done, leaped out one of the barn windows, raced across the pasture in his blue overalls and green rubber boots, and disappeared into the wooded mountains beyond.
The Civil Guard consider him a fugitive and are charging him with assaulting members of law enforcement. A patrol car believes it located him in Lugo, but he quickly vanished back into the brush before officers could positively identify him.
He holed himself up with his black-and-white Holsteins, ignoring all warnings from the outside world
He is not coming back because he thinks he is going to prison. “Please, mention in the news that it’s not true, in case he reads it and comes back,” pleads his brother José Luis, who has been appointed administrator of Manuel’s assets by a court. The judge decided to declare Manuel Sánchez unfit after considering all the reports of animal abuse, the dire health conditions at the farm, and his assault of the Civil Guards.
“He is an intelligent man who would not listen to reason and couldn’t see what his problem was,” laments his brother. “He always wanted to be a cattle breeder, and had studied for it.”
But the Civil Guard question the family’s claim that they don’t know his whereabouts.
“He is not a missing person like the family claims, and it is very likely that somebody is helping him,” insists one officer.
Manuel’s relatives say that on the day after he ran away, they left a package of food for him in O Cadavón – a craggy area where he and his cattle used to take refuge from the wolves – but that the package remains intact.
“We combed the entire area together with neighbors: the rocks that might afford protection, the abandoned windmills... Later we looked where the Civil Guard say they spotted him.” Then, on the fourth day, Manuel’s cellphone went dead.
Since his departure, five more calves have been born on the farm.
English version by Susana Urra.