If Mark Bowden can be considered a prominent author, it is likely because of Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, a 2001 film based on Bowden’s book of the same name. In fact, Killing Pablo will also be a movie, to be released in 2011. Bowden is a journalist of sorts, whose forte is police or military stories; you can tell because all of his publicity photos make him look like a rough & tumble badass in order to fit his image as a documenter of other rough & tumble badasses.
Killing Pablo is, as the title suggests, about the hunting and eventual killing of Pablo Escobar, one of (if the the) most notorious drug kingpins in history. In 1989 (coincidentally, at a time when American demand for cocaine had skyrocketed), his cartel controlled 80% of the global cocaine market, and Pablo himself boasted a net worth of about $25 billion. Pablo was killed in 1993 by a secretive group of Colombian police and American Delta Force operatives at the end of a year-long, 600-man manhunt that cost literally hundreds of lives. This book is an attempt at chronicling that year, for better or worse.
Bowden isn’t prone to contemplative navel-gazing like, say, Sebastian Junger. The latter is concerned with character dynamics as much as historical action (and this sometimes to his detriment); Bowden, at least in Killing Pablo doesn’t seem to care overly much about making his readers understand or care about the story’s actors; even historical context is limited to the minimum amount necessary to appreciate what’s happening. It’s a visceral and immediately gratifying approach to the subject, but you pay for it later on. The story begins in 1948, a year before Pablo Escobar was born: the Cold War between the Americans and the Soviets was just getting underway, and South and Central America was entering a gauntlet of rising and falling dictatorships. Pablo, originally quite poor, was a millionaire by the age of 22, capitalizing on the many opportunities for drug traffickers to be had in those days. But we don’t get much more about Pablo’s history, his rapid rise to power, or the conditions which made a cold-blooded murderer and drug dealer so popular to his home town of Medellín1.
The story really begins with the assassination of popular liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989, which Escobar’s cartel was almost certainly behind. Mere assassination was old hat for Escobar: he had, by this point, ordered the murder of many hundreds of rivals, political enemies, and civilians who happened to get in his way. He had also bombed planes and buildings, to boot. Though of course Escobar’s cartel was a criminal organization, it had fought its way to an uneasy standstill with the existing powers in Colombia: Escobar was too power and violent to trifle with, and of course he was unafraid to go after the family members of his enemies in an effort to dissuade them. The assassination of Galán, however, convinced the newly-elected president César Gaviria to go after him, not least because of pressure from the United States to choke the flow of cocaine from the south.
In a story so absurd it must be true, Escobar negotiated a deal with the Colombian government: he would publicly “surrender” to the authorities and go to prison, but it would be a prison built by him, in a location chosen by him, and staffed with guards employed by him. The result, La Catedral, was a lavish mansion built on top of a hill outside Medellín, which Escobar stayed “imprisoned” for about a year while carrying on the cartel business as usual. When he tortured and murdered four of his lieutenants there, however, the Colombian government once again moved against him, seeking to put him in a real prison. Their attempt to recapture him failed: he walked out the back gate and disappeared, sparking the year-long manhunt that culminated in his death.
The manhunt itself is rather typical fare, like something out of a Michael Bay movie: little vignettes of particular actors storming around offices, or having moments of realization, or coming close to capturing Pablo but barely falling short. Actually, the mechanics of the hunt of Pablo Escobar are by and large uninteresting: such things are mostly logistics and boring detective work. Even the final firefight is brief and perfunctory. Far more interesting are the political ramifications, which Bowden does, to his credit, talk about at some length. First, the line between drug trafficker and upstanding citizen was not easy to draw in Colombia: many of the politicians involved in Pablo’s killing were themselves later accused of financial involvement with the drug trade (Attorney General de Greiff, for instance).
Second, though Colombian army/police (known as the Search Bloc) were nominally in charge of the manhunt, there were U.S. Delta Force operatives in-country, assisting with the operation. This is important because Colombian law forbid such troops to be on Colombian soil in an active military capacity: officially, Delta were only acting as “advisors” and so did not technically run afoul of that law. As is usually the case with military “advisors”, however, they tend to do a lot of shooting when no one’s looking. Bowden speculates that a Delta sniper may have fired the bullet which ultimately killed Pablo; he also surmises that Delta operatives participated in raids, though he admits that if they did, they—purposely—left no evidence.
Most interesting of all, the year-long hunt saw the rise of a vigilante group calling itself Los Pepes (Los Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar; “People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”) which itself went on a murderous rampage, killing Pablo’s business associates, their relatives, and Pablo’s relatives, and destroying the Cartel’s supplies. Some believe that Los Pepes was financed by the rival Cali cartel; Bowden seems to think it was a front for the Search Bloc itself, and potentially Delta Force too; or, alternatively, the Search Bloc members mimicked Los Pepes as a convenient cover. In any case, these hundreds of death put pressure on Pablo, who became increasingly paranoid as his family and cartel began to fall apart around him. Pathetically, the crimes of Los Pepes seem about as terrible as those of Escobar himself in the sense that they likely killed as many innocent civilians as they did real criminals (and besides which, vigilante justice is rather a contradiction in terms).
The one aspect of Pablo’s life which Bowden should have emphasized more is the way that the citizens of Medellín loved and revered him (and even Colombians at large, though to a lesser degree). He was, in a twisted way, considered by some to be a a modern-day Robin Hood, in part because he masked his ruthlessness with public works like churches and playgrounds2. To this day, his death is still mourned by a subset of the population, mostly the poor who had benefited most from his fitful philanthropy.
The Escobar that Bowden presents is largely one-dimensional: he is neither particularly vilified, nor is he celebrated. His ambivalent status in the Colombian public eye and his particular ruthlessness are presented with a flattened effect and quickly replaced by some more minute technical detail about the Search Bloc. Killing Pablo really is about just that, and sadly nothing else. Bowden has written a well-researched account of Escobar’s death, but fails to give much of a reason why anyone should care about it, its ramifications, or the culture that created him; it’s a missed opportunity on Bowden’s part, and a damn shame.