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TV REVIEW : Stunning Look at a Cocaine 'Godfather'

February 14, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In one sense, "Frontline's" new report about the bloody, spectacular life of Colombian narco-kingpin Pablo Escobar, "The Godfather of Cocaine," is beside the point. Escobar is becoming a fading historical figure, the flamboyant leader of the once-powerful Medellin drug cartel, now dwarfed by the more powerful Cali (Colombia) cartel, which is run by shrewder and more shadowy men.

But the tale of Escobar is an extraordinary look into the functionings of the violently demented Colombian political and business culture, how the United States can't possibly get to the bottom of the money-drenched cocaine business, how crooks can become saints and how Colombia paid a dear price for Escobar's escapades.

*

A strict Catholic upbringing did nothing to stop Escobar from drifting into burglary, car theft and finally drug-running, which led to drug cargo flights to and from the United States. Claims by some that Escobar felt he was merely building a multimillion-dollar business ignore evidence (on view in some amazing film clips shot on Escobar's lavish estate), such as the prominent display of one of Al Capone's cars.

An elaborate 1982 U.S. sting operation finally uncovered proof that Colombian cocaine smugglers weren't rogue cowboys on the loose, but a tightly knit cartel based on spreading the risks of doing business. It indicated the building blocks of a nightmarish scenario that nearly came true: The Medellin godfathers could command such a fortune (eventually in the billions) and pressure officials to do their bidding that they could essentially run the Colombian government.

This baroque saga rises to operatic heights: Escobar's wave of assassinations, his terror tactics (including the mass murder of much of Colombia's Supreme Court), his imprisonment in more of a palace than a prison, his near-comic escape, and his unlikely capture and death. It makes Tom Clancy's "Clear and Present Danger" mere vanilla by comparison.

You can sense the astonishment--to this day--of U.S. and Colombian officials recounting how much fear Escobar injected into the drug war. Behind it all, though, is Escobar's mother, Hermilda, blind to her son's evil, and the Medellin poor who still say Masses in honor of a drug kingpin who helped build housing to replace shantytowns.

Escobar's thirst for blood isn't the Cali cartel style, and we'll probably have to wait many years for the story on how this new, corporatized, powerfully discreet operation also came to an end. If it ever happens.

* "The Godfather of Cocaine" airs at 9 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28 and KPBS-TV Channel 15, and at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.

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