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Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World'S Greatest Outlaw

By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001

Reviewed by Robin Kirk
Researcher, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch

Medellín is a well of desire. Its slums perch on steep Andean slopes, staring down at the opulence of the flats. Violating the rule in Latin America, the poor live high and the rich live low. The steeper the street, the more desperate the desire. The people staring down at the swimming pools and the Ferraris don't hate the rich. They want to be them. Along Medellín's shopping avenues, you can buy designer labels - just the labels, mind you, carefully trimmed - to whipstitch into your wardrobe.

Born in Medellín, Pablo Escobar learned this lesson early. His grandfather smuggled a Colombian homebrew known as tapetusa in empty coffins and hollowed eggs. Escobar followed in his footsteps by smuggling cigarettes, liquor, clothing and household appliances. Then, a friend told him about cocaine. It was easier to haul and generated fabulous profits.

In Killing Pablo, reporter Mark Bowden writes about Escobar and the hunt that led to his death, presenting it as one episode in the continuing soap opera of America's war on drugs. For Bowden, Escobar's genius was not innovation - cocaine was already being imported to the United States when he financed his first kilos - but savagery. Escobar would do anything, absolutely anything, to win. "He wasn't an entrepreneur, and he wasn't even an especially talented businessman. He was just ruthless. When he learned about a thriving cocaine processing lab on his turf, he shouldered his way in. If someone had developed a lucrative delivery route north, Pablo demanded a majority of the profits - for protection. No one dared refuse him."

By 1981, Escobar had killed and threatened his way to the top. U.S. authorities detected only one in every hundred inbound cocaine flights. A plane could take as many as 400 kilos of cocaine a trip. At five flights a week, that meant over $2 billion a year, a fifth of Colombia's annual exports, right behind oil and more than the value of the country's entire annual coffee harvest. Escobar was king, El Patrón, the Boss.

Bowden's last best seller, Black Hawk Down, told the inside story of how eighteen American soldiers perished in Mogadishu, Somalia. Bowden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, uses a similar narrative technique in Killing Pablo. Others have chronicled in better detail Escobar's fabulous wealth, shocking violence, and the destruction produced by his obsession with converting his fortune into political power. Where Bowden excels is in describing how shadowy American teams helped track Escobar down and kill him in 1993. In doing so, he exposes one of the ugliest truths about America's effort to stop drugs at the source. Billions of dollars have been spent seizing cocaine and eliminating traffickers like Escobar, yet with little apparent effect on the amount, price, or purity of the drugs reaching the United States. For Colombia, the truth is grimmer. One of the key forces allied with the Americans to bring Escobar down was a rival cartel, which grabbed Escobar's routes before his body was cold. Bowden shows that "killing Pablo" has had no lasting effect on the amount of illegal narcotics sold on U.S. streets or the violence that now claims over 3,000 Colombians a year.

Based on fresh research and hundreds of interviews, Bowden reveals how U.S. military and intelligence agencies used sophisticated surveillance techniques to track Escobar. A top secret U.S. Army team known as Centra Spike used Beechcraft airplanes packed with specialized equipment and ground-based teams to locate Escobar. Then, they passed the information to the Colombian police in hopes that the police would kill him.

Qualms were few. During his career, Escobar had ordered hundreds killed, placed dozens of bombs in crowded cities, and even brought down a commercial jet, killing all on board. Bowden makes the Americans into clean-cut good guys. He admires the technological know-how and can-do convictions that were used, displaying a Tom Clancy-like gusto for the hardware and hard-body values.

Bowden isn't as interested in the broader implications of America's role in the hunt for Escobar, which is a pity. Twisted motives and hidden alliances are the key to the story, not Yankee ingenuity or muscle. In the end, American technology proved remarkably ineffective. The fat, arrogant, lazy, pot-smoking, sly, and vicious Escobar moved in Medellín like it was his own boudoir, gleefully slipping from house to house while changing cell channels and verbal codes.

It finally took other drug lords to run Escobar down. His rivals in the city of Cali bankrolled a group that called itself People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar, PEPEs for short. Bowden explains how the PEPEs implicitly coordinated with the Americans. But Bowden is too cautious for my taste in interpreting the import of the relationship between the PEPEs and the United States. The PEPEs erased Escobar's hiding places far more thoroughly than Centra Spike and should get equal credit for his death.

To anyone reading the daily news, the law of unintended consequences for hunting Escobar down seems as glaring as America's continuing love affair with illegal narcotics. One of the PEPEs, Carlos CastaĖo, now leads Colombia's paramilitaries. He is waging the most brutal war in the hemisphere, ostensibly against leftist guerrillas, but actually on thousands of defenseless civilians. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency claims CastaĖo continues to traffic, using his fabulous profits for Uzis and mortar rounds.

Killing Pablo is a gripping autopsy of failure. Yet Bowden seems oddly unwilling to draw any conclusions, using the book's last lines to muse that the final meaning of Escobar's death is unknowable. It's as if Bowden spent all his time stringing dates and conversations and radio waves in chronological order, but never stepped back to ask why we should care.