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KILLING PABLO is the story of the rise, hunt, fall and death of Pablo Escobar, the chief of the Medellin Cocaine Cartel. Mark Bowden (BLACK HAWK DOWN) is gifted in bringing essentially unknown tales into the public eye, and here he does it again, dramatically. His ability to take the hidden and twisted threads of covert operations and weave a complete story from them is impressive.
Pablo, as Bowden refers to him throughout, was a small-time hood who rose to true if notorious greatness on a ladder stained with blood. At the peak of his influence he had a net worth of billions of dollars.
Pablo cultivated a jolly demeanor and, in truth, lacked couth, though he could be personally disarming. In dress, he preferred white velcro-strap Nike sneakers and blue jeans. He was short and plump. He was hardly the image of the "Don Pablo" he wanted to be. He was easy to underestimate, as the world discovered.
At his zenith, he had all but convinced the ruling oligarchy of Colombia that coca cultivation and processing was a growth industry, even if frowned upon by staid norteamericanos with no taste for trend.
In 1983 Pablo was elected a Congressional alternate from his state of Antioquia, ruled Medellin with an iron fist, and was a serious contender for the Presidency of his nation. Ten years later he was dead.
Pablo Escobar was a study in contradictions. He was 'the most Wanted man in the world' who spent most of his criminal life in the open. A sociopathic megalomaniac, he saw nothing bizarre in blowing up planes and buildings and killing hundreds in the course of targeting one man. He was a devoted husband and father with a penchant for seducing teenage girls.
Unlike some other crimelords who habitually restrained themselves from killing 'noncombatants,' Pablo gloried in taking the lives of his enemies' friends and relatives no matter how uninvolved they were in the drug trade. As a result, no one in Colombia was beyond his reach, and even the U.S. Ambassador had to live in a special security vault while Pablo was at large.
A man who victimized others constantly, he saw himself as a victim of the State. A man on the outside he always wished to be on the inside and bought, bribed and murdered his way into positions of authority. A compleat robber baron, he spoke the rhetoric of Che Guevara, and spent hundreds of millions to rebuild Medellin into a major metropolis and made its citizens into some of the most fortunate of Colombianos. To this day, Pablo is lauded in certain quarters of Colombia as a Robin Hood-type character, but Bowden makes clear that Pablo's hero image was carefully constructed and disseminated through his vast public relations apparatus to insure his own protection.
Pablo was a man incapable of restraint who ultimately overreached himself. Although he had most of Colombia's government in his pocket, he failed to appreciate the need for subtlety in his game of control. For Pablo, the government, the police, and ultimately the United States were just rival cartels to be bossed and intimidated. Never realizing how badly he had outmatched himself, he became the instrument of his own destruction.
His fall came when he simply walked out of the prison he himself had built and staffed after reaching a ridiculously one-sided plea bargain with the Colombian government to stop intra-Cartel violence. Once Pablo escaped, the government of Colombia was virtually forced into a "hunter-killer" mode of operations against him, based on his own untrustworthiness.
Aided by the United States, Colombia hunted Pablo, at first with a notable lack of zeal. Too many ranking Colombians were beholden to him. But as Pablo retaliated by attacking innocent civilians throughout the country, his public support waned and his Cartel associates faded away. Pablo soon found himself hunted by Colombian and American Special Ops troops, and a terrifying vigilante group "Los Pepes," made up of people who had been victimized by him, Cali Cartel competitors, and other shadowy individuals. As Bowden cynically says, we need to "surmise" who they were.
Pablo's fall changed nothing. Cali became the new cocaine epicenter and the government's ties to the drug kingpins were, if anything, even stronger. But Pablo was a clear target. Moreover, he was a man who simply couldn't stop himself from killing. It was decided at the highest levels that, like a mad dog, Pablo needed to be destroyed.
Pablo died ignominiously, shot by a government-backed Death Squad, with his overhanging belly on prominent display in the cover photograph of the book. His hunters shaved his moustache into a Hitlerian brush for fun. Their smiles are both bitter and mocking. That one photograph, hanging in many government offices, Colombian and American, is Pablo's legacy.
Bowden obviously has no love for Pablo Escobar, but he is also clearly equivocal about the methods and results of killing Pablo. The vast energy put into finding and eliminating this one man certainly never blunted the drug culture, but it did rid the world of one of the most powerful and amoral figures in modern history.
There's a lesson here for the post-9/11 world.