on July 18, 2013
I'm old enough to remember and understand very well the hunting down and killing of the infamous Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cartel. Mark Bowden is an author who knows how to engage his reader into a reporting story. He picks great topics, which helps, but the arch of the story, the people, the level of detail are all expertly handled. Bowden strikes me as one of those authors who can take a story you think you have little interest in and make you interested.
The story in Killing Pablo is straightforward: The rise of Pablo Escobar, the efforts of the Colombian government to capture him, the ever increasing interest of the United States, beginning with President Ronald Reagan, in Escobar as a part of the war on drugs, and the use of technology that kept Escobar on the run and eventually led to his being found and killed by a special Colombian police force. The story of the rise and fall of a criminal cartel.
Escobar began building his cocaine empire in the early 1970s and was fabulously wealthy by the late 70s. He was listed several times as one of the richest men in the world with homes and property scattered across the globe. At its height, the Medellin cart was exporting cocaine into the US in stripped down 727s, feeding the cocaine craze of the 1980s. Escobar did not create his wealth by being nice. While charismatic, humorous, and often stoned man was remembered as quiet by many that encountered him (leading to the frequent inability to match the man to his crimes), Escobar and his cohorts were brutal. If bribery did not work, kidnappings and murder were easy choices. The apartments of police officers were bombed, the families of journalists were kidnapped and killed, their bodies messages. Over and over again, Bowden tells the story of men and women assigned to track down or deal with Escobar who are murdered--men and women supposedly assigned to the task in great secret. Escobar's reach, particularly in Medellin was vast. Later, as the hunt narrows in on Escobar, the police task force created to hunt down Escobar, Search Bloc, realizes that one of their officers guarding an entrance to its offices, overhears orders for raids, warns Escobar, who eludes the authority's grasp yet again.
The Colombian government is wracked by inefficiency, bureaucratic infighting, corruption, and fear. Escobar always seems to escape their clutches because the government simply cannot get its act together. However, what is surprising is that so many did pursue Escobar when he demonstrated time and again an ability to kill them or their family members with impunity. Bowden notes several times where a dozen police are killed in a day. Presidential candidates, judges, lawyers, and journalists perish over and over again. Yet, they trudged on, and Colombia has its heroes in the search for justice.
With Reagan's war on drugs and then the bombing of the Avianca Flight 203, conducted by Escobar in an attempt to kill a Colombian presidential candidate, were two turning points in this hunt. Reagan's focus allowed for the first active engagement of the US in Colombia by way of a top-secret Army signals surveillance group called, at the time, Centra Spike, along with CIA and DEA participants as well. Centra Spike's primary abilities rested on triangulating communications with ever increasing accuracy (a practice quite easy today...or just use the GPS chip in our smart phones--but a feat of skill and engineering in the 1980s). Centra Spike's role was strictly limited, however. Then the bombing of the Avianca flight allowed President George Bush to classify the hunt for Escobar as a national security issue. Delta Force arrives in Colombia shortly thereafter in a training role for Search Bloc, though rumors persist that Delta Force team members participated actively in raids and even fired the fatal shot on Escobar.
Yet, Escobar eludes them. Over and over again, he narrowly escapes. A paramilitary group called Los Pepes begins destroying Escobar's property and targeting his friends and family. Their goal, keep Escobar from disappearing forever. How much was organized by the US and Colombian governments? Officially, nothing. However, Bowden is an expert at charting the appearance of Los Pepes, which implies the US knew more than it has let on, even if less than the rumors suggest. Regardless, Los Pepes was an extra-legal effort that succeeded. And then...a Colombian officer refining their own signals intelligence in an effort to prove they are just as capable as the Americans, stumbles upon Escobar, who perishes in a gun battle with police. Or did he? He died. That much is known. But...well, read this excellent, immersing book to find out.