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Book Review

Simple Tale of How U.S. Helped Bring Down a Drug King

KILLING PABLO: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, \o7 By Mark Bowden\f7 ,Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, 296 pages

July 03, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The story of how U.S. Army intelligence experts and Delta Force commandos helped Colombian police track down and kill Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cocaine cartel, in December 1993 is rife with implications for the United States as it embarks upon a $1.3-billion effort, complete with Black Hawk helicopters and trainers, to eradicate cocaine production in this South American country over the next two years.

Mark Bowden, a veteran Philadelphia Inquirer reporter whose bestselling book "Black Hawk Down" described the Delta Force's ill-fated attack on a Somalian warlord in Mogadishu earlier in 1993, is clearly aware of those implications. But he leaves them for us to articulate.

Bowden simply tells his story, aided by interviews with top U.S. and Colombian sources and access to classified documents, including transcripts of telephone calls by Escobar that were monitored by an American unit called Centra Spike in aircraft crammed with high-tech surveillance gear.

It is a compelling, almost Shakespearean, tale: how a small-time hoodlum from Medellin parlayed the cravings of U.S. drug users and his own organizational genius into a criminal empire that almost toppled Colombia's fragile democracy; how his incarceration in 1991 ended a year later when he walked away from a luxury prison he had built for himself; how Colombia, desperate, allowed U.S. soldiers to operate in its territory and let a death squad use the most brutal methods to bring down Escobar.

At his peak, Bowden says, Escobar "built small, remote-controlled submarines that could carry up to 2,000 kilos of cocaine from ... Colombia to ... just off Puerto Rico, where divers would remove the shipment and transport it to Miami in speedboats. He would send fleets of planes north, each carrying 1,000 kilos .... Eventually he was buying used Boeing 727s, stripping out the passenger seats and loading as much as 10,000 kilos per flight. There was nothing to stop him."

A multibillionaire with a private army, Escobar gave Colombian authorities the option of plata o plomo-- a bribe or a bullet. He bankrolled politicians of every party. His sicarios, or paid assassins, killed presidential candidates, in one case by blowing an Avianca jetliner out of the sky with 110 people aboard. They killed judges, prosecutors and hundreds of police officers. They kidnapped and killed enemies' parents, wives and children.

Escobar's weakness, Bowden says, was that he believed his own propaganda about being a populist hero who provided Medellin's poor with housing and soccer fields. He could easily have left the country after his surrender in 1991 but instead stayed and fought, like Macbeth, adding another chapter to Colombia's century-long history of La Violencia. Bowden lucidly summarizes that history. If his story has heroes, however flawed, they are Colombians such as Col. Hugo Martinez, head of the special police unit that pursued Escobar, who could be neither bought nor scared and who kept going when the situation seemed hopeless. The Americans were technically adept but prone to interagency squabbling, tolerant of human-rights abuses and contemptuous of the host country.

A 1989 memo by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney defined anti-drug activities as a "high-priority security mission," clearing the way for the U.S. military to operate in Colombia. The jetliner bombing that same year allowed the first Bush administration to redefine Escobar as an international terrorist and covertly abet his assassination. The death squad, Los Pepes, which wrecked Escobar's organization by killing as many as six of his supporters a day, had troubling links both to Martinez's police and to the rival Cali cartel, whose clout in Colombia rose as Escobar's fell.

Escobar's death from the bullets of a police squad led by Martinez's son did not halt cocaine's flow to the U.S., Bowden notes. He lets Joe Toft, former chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration office in Bogota, have the last word: "I don't know what the lesson of the story is. I hope it's not [just] that the end justifies the means."

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