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Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden

August 4, 2015


Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, recounts the rise and fall of the notorious Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Brutal and savvy, Escobar grew from a petty street thug to head the Medellín cocaine cartel, an organization that held Colombia in its vice grip in the 1980s. Considered the wealthiest criminal in history, Escobar amassed over $30 billion (US) at the height of his reign. He was the grandfather of the modern Mexican drug cartels and prototypical boogieman in the War on Drugs.

Escobar was untouchable in his own country. With money, intimidation or usually a combination of both—a little carrot, a little stick—he controlled everything and everyone around him. While many poor Colombians benefitted from his projects—public buildings and parks in his name were a testament to his self-proclaimed Robin Hood status—most feared that opposing him would end in their swift execution. There was plenty of reason to believe so. Escobar and his people executed thousands, including judges and a presidential candidate. (One of his top hit men, Popeye Vásquez, is recently out of prison and talking about working for Escobar).

In the 1980s, cocaine was the drug du jour in the US, the perfect stimulant for the booming economy and hedonistic culture. And Escobar was more than happy to feed Americans’ apparently insatiable appetite. At its height, the Medellín cartel is estimated to have smuggled fifteen tons of cocaine into the U.S. every day. So as the War on Drugs gained more attention in the U.S. (as early as 1982, George H.W. Bush had pushed for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in the fight), Escobar became public enemy #1.

Working with the Colombian government, the U.S. tried different tactics for taking out Escobar. In 1991, the Colombian government successfully negotiated Escobar’s surrender. He was “imprisoned” in what was basically a luxury resort of his own design—named La Catedral, it’s construction along with protection against extradition to the U.S. were two main conditions for Escobar’s surrender. When it became embarrassingly obvious that not only was Escobar living in luxury, he was also still running his drug operations out of La Catedral, the Colombians tried to move him. When they did so, in a prelude to the recent escape of drug lord Chapo Guzman, he escaped (by reportedly walking out the back door).

The U.S got more involved in the ensuing manhunt for Escobar, lending the support of the SEALS, Delta Force and Centra Spike (intelligence) to the Colombian authorities. Other, less savory groups joined in the effort, including rival drug cartels and a vigilante group called Los Pepes (“People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”). Bowden strongly implies cooperation between U.S. forces and Los Pepes, a controversial association as Los Pepes conducted a brutal campaign, killing over 300 of Escobar’s associates and family. But it was this tactic that was the most effective, as it stripped Escobar’s support network and left him exposed. He was eventually discovered and gunned down in a middle-class Medillín neighborhood.

Mark Bowden’s writing is top-notch testosterone journalism. Along with Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, he is among the best at writing well-researched, exciting stories about war and its many cousins. This book, although not as movie-ready as Black Hawk Down, is an interesting read for anyone interested in the beginning of the War on Drugs and the rise of the modern drug cartels.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    August 6, 2015 5:04 pm

    Ive been looking for a book to read all week. I forgot about this one! I read a review in the NYTimes a while ago.
    Peace, Jim.

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