A look behind the war on drugs
Reporter pursues Escobar story in 'Killing Pablo'
By Adam Dunn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The thought of doing a book on Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, and his pursuit with the help of U.S. forces, hadn't even crossed Mark Bowden's mind until the day he saw a picture of the trafficker, dead, in the office of a U.S. military man.
He recalls the scene in his new book, "Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw" (Atlantic Monthly Press):
" 'What's that?' I asked.
" 'That, my friend, is Pablo Escobar,' my source said. 'I keep that on my wall to remind me that no matter how rich you get in this life, you can still be too big for your britches.' "
That conversation led to dozens of others, with American military men, their Colombian counterparts, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, countless other members of the war on drugs, and several other sources, including CNN reporter Mike Boettcher. Bowden's research first resulted in a series for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now this book, which takes note of the important -- and sometimes covert -- role that U.S. military personnel played in Escobar's pursuit.
Events in the war on drugs, observes Bowden, have not always gone according to plan. But in the case of Escobar, a vicious criminal who operated with impunity, events finally led to his death. He wouldn't have been threatened, said Bowden, without a unified front from his opposers.
"I think it was the willing cooperation of the Colombian government, which, combined with the eager assistance of Pablo's enemies, created a full-court press," he said in an interview. "Imagine if the Taliban turned on Osama bin Laden and asked the U.S. for any and all help finding and killing him. I doubt he would last as long as Pablo did."
Trail of a millionaire
Pablo Escobar was a legendary fugitive. According to the book, at the peak of his power in the mid-1980s -- centered in the region around the Colombian city of Medellin -- he was shipping as much as 10,000 kilos per flight of cocaine in converted jetliners to America. He owned innumerable luxury residences and automobiles and in 1986 he attempted to enter Columbian politics, even offering to pay off the nation's $10 billion national debt.
But Colombian politicians denounced Escobar and barred him from their offices. Escobar and his followers, bent on revenge, assassinated policemen, government ministers, and, in 1989, the popular Liberal Party presidential candidate, Luis Galan.
Colombia became a dark zone of kidnappings, car bombs, and private armies, fueled by an unholy mix of fringe politics and drug profits. At this time, says Bowden in his book, the U.S. started providing military advisers to train the Columbian Search Bloc, a group of special police units under the command of Colonel Hugo Martinez in methods to "capture" Escobar, who was now locked in open warfare with the Colombian government.
Ostensibly, the U.S. mission was merely to train the Search Bloc; in actuality, says Bowden in the book, the U.S. counterterrorist unit Delta Force and an Army intelligence unit called Centra Spike assisted Martinez's men.
Escobar was caught once, when the Colombian government struck a deal with him to send him to jail. But the jail was barely even a gilded cage, and from within its country club-like walls Escobar continued his drug operation. In 1992 he escaped during a botched military raid.
Soon after, a group of self-described patriotic Colombians called "Los Pepes" emerged, an anti-Escobar death squad that killed as many as six of his associates each day. In the book, Bowden mentions rumors that Los Pepes and the Search Bloc were closely related -- something that would be problematic for the United States, as such a relationship with a vigilante group would violate American law.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, concerned that the rumors could be true, ordered all secret American military units out of Colombia. The Search Bloc's Martinez has denied there was any relationship between his forces and Los Pepes.
In any event, by mid-1993 the hunt had become a free-for-all among the Colombians, Bowden noted in the interview.
" 'Running wild' is probably stating the case too strongly, but stretching the official boundaries of a deployment is apparently fairly standard among those in the military inclined to do so. As in any other very large organization, you have your sticklers for procedures and rules, and you also have those who believe that what the boss doesn't know about can't hurt them," he said.
Escobar was killed on December 2, 1993, shot on the roof of a hideout in Medellin.
A previous Bowden book, "Black Hawk Down," dealt with U.S. military involvement in Somalia; he said the Pentagon quietly approved of the work, though it featured much classified material. The reaction to "Killing Pablo" hasn't been as positive, he said.
"The Pentagon was officially displeased," Bowden said. " 'Killing Pablo' tells a much murkier tale (than 'Black Hawk Down'), what with death squads and Pablo's sordid end. This being the second peek behind the walls at Ft. Bragg, it was received with considerably less good humor."
The Pentagon declined comment. "As a general rule, we don't comment on, or review books written about the Defense Department," a Pentagon spokesperson said in response to this article on Bowden.
Bowden observed that if the idea was to help win the war on drugs, the killing of Pablo Escobar hasn't had much of an effect. Cocaine supplies remain plentiful and prices have declined since the early '90s.
"Nothing has had much of an impact on the flow of cocaine to the U.S.," Bowden said. "It appears to be fully a function of demand."
But, though he had some harsh words for the United States -- both for the country's war on drugs and its covert involvement in the pursuit of Escobar -- he believes that this particular end justified the means.
"I think the effort to kill Pablo was justified, and presented a one-of-a-kind situation, which is in the nature of special op(eration)s," he said. "The genius of special ops, when it works, is in recognizing the peculiar circumstances of a mission and capitalizing on them in creative ways. It might just be that the U.S. has gotten better at it."
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