Originally published: 2001
272 pages
Chapter 42

KILLING PABLO

Mark Bowden
 

Most of the time life gets better, or worse, incrementally. The move from one stasis to another is generally small, seemingly reasonable, mostly logical, and frequently unnoticed. The accretion eventually is not. As conditions gradually change, we often cannot see how a slow and ostensibly benign shift reflects not an idiosyncrasy or an aberration, but a new paradigm. In the end, when the totality is apparent, we all of a sudden wonder how we got there.
     Colombia, a relatively small country from its beginning, was made smaller when President Theodore Roosevelt (in furtherance of his dream of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) engineered the independence of Panama, Colombia's far northern province. This occurred shortly after the turn of the twentieth century.
     The remaining national entity got over Roosevelt's amputation and was mostly stable and corrupt (in a rational way) and undistinguished among South American states for the next half century. In 1948, however, with the murder of Colombia's president, there began a period so devoid of anything rational that the times became known simply as La Violencia, The Violence. At that juncture, Colombians and their institutions entered an incremental but downward spiral, which is chronicled in this volume about the life and death of Pablo Escobar, an infamous cocaine lord.
     Without reading this necessarily somewhat superficial recounting of the Colombian tragedy, one cannot grasp how fast life can travel back to the Dark Ages, which, with due respect to history, may not have been as black as Colombia during the reign of Pablo. The sheer

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madness continues today with corruption, bombings, murder, assassination, kidnapping and other crimes both grand and insidious. Even in its skimming of the surface of the chaos, Mark Bowden's recitation of the drug wars, and then the drug war against Escobar himself, is usefully comprehensive and quite pointed. The almost unimaginably grisly and widespread violence, the full horrors of which one must read between Bowden's lines to fully discern, is astounding.
     Corruption, the cardinal human failing, underlies the world. It is the ever-present flawed fraction of the human condition. It also seems to be the most prominent characteristic that best defines Latin American governance and much of its society. Corruption has always been humankind's greatest difficulty, but in Colombia it was and is not just endemic, but a social cancer for which no surgery or medicine is effective. It is a disease of the somnolent and fearful, and only the awakening of everyone, at one moment, could possibly mitigate it or hope to cure its worst effects.
     In Colombia the king of this scourge was Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, born a year and half into La Violencia. He grew up middle-class, by Colombian standards, his mother being a schoolteacher who evinced middle-class insight and fervent Catholicism, while his father was a cattle farmer. His family was not corrupt and had no need to be, but the society that surrounded them was, and the corruption led only to violence of the gravest kind. This Pablo learned.
     By 1983 Escobar was both a murderously prominent figure in the Colombian cocaine trade and a rising political aspirant-unfortunately, a not-incongruous duality. While controlling much of the massive exportation of cocaine to the United States, he had been elected to the national government as a shadow congressman; that is, an alternate who sits whenever the primary congressman is absent. But respectability proved elusive and his lawlessness finally overshadowed his striving for political power as an avenue to acceptance. The more he was denied respect, the more violent he waxed, and each step, each revolution of the downward spiral, seems inevitable in Bowden's story.
     Some statistics demonstrate the gravity of Colombia's chaos at the time: between August 1989 and February 1991 (the period known as the First War) 457 police officers were murdered in the city of Medellin alone. After the national police committed two hundred men to the hunt for Escobar, thirty of them were assassinated within fifteen days. Escobar had offered a "reward" of five million pesos, about $2,500, for

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the execution of any police officer. The colonel in charge of the hunt for Escobar was offered, directly, a bribe of six million U.S. dollars to fail. This was corruption on simply the boldest scale of all.
     Escobar was personally noteworthy for his calm and deliberation. Not a great intellect, he was nevertheless a master at understanding the human psyche both in isolated individuals and in groups. He became expert at publicly defending himself and his "business" by starting at square two, always a step beyond his own lawlessness. His tactic was to accuse the government of violating his rights, as he was officially pursued, thus deflecting attention from his crimes. The often crassly or fearfully sympathetic media tried to leave him alone, thus giving credence, however obliquely, to Escobar's claims. He was both generous and conniving; his attempts at bolstering his image through bribes, charity, or intimidation were regularly successful. These efforts brought not just acceptance, but acclaim and even adoration, especially in his hometown of Medellin. His admirers did not allow rationality to intrude upon their feelings, and without question, they accepted the cash.
     Neither handsome nor imposing, Escobar was deadly. As Bowden observes, he was lethal in a sense and manner that has only rarely occurred in modern human society, especially infrequently outside of the political arena where a dictator controls an entire country through a compliant military, a corrupted national police, and command of the machinery of government (particularly the judiciary), thus making him immune to challenge.
     Escobar styled himself a revolutionary, but Bowden portrays him as he was in reality-only a gangster. His personal exploits, the atmosphere he helped to create throughout Colombia, and the fact that he was just one of many drug thugs, makes readers wonder what the people of Colombia were thinking, or if they thought at all. Such explorations, except at the highest level of government, are a missing link in Bowden's book. Although the populace can understandably be seen as somewhat unnecessary to the tale (because this is a book about Escobar, the drug trade and its vast financial success, and the efforts to stop him), critical readers will be remiss in their responsibility to themselves if they do not read into Bowden's account a warning about the vulnerability to corruption of civilized life and economic, thus social stability if fealty to principle is lost.
     As Bowden narrates the story, he explains how the Colombian and U.S. governments routinely acted ineffectually when they addressed the

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problem posed by Escobar. Potential missteps regularly became actual ones. The Colombian government's incompetence, the fear of officials for their very lives, and the pervasiveness of bribery and intimidation and kidnapping and murder were grievous flaws that first crippled and then almost wholly compromised law enforcement. Neither the will of Colombia nor the sometimes-clandestine intervention of the U.S. government could touch Escobar. Ultimately, "official" Colombia and the United States (the presence of which was, in theory, advisory only) were both brought to their knees.
     Something bizarre, but logical, happened at the point of total failure. Los Pepes, a vigilante assemblage, arose like a phoenix. In retrospect, this development, which was only one of many lawless enterprises that occurred in Colombia's recent history, seems almost inevitable. Los Pepes engaged in Escobar's game by Escobar's rules; there were no options left, for the people and the government could not stand up to be counted. Escobar's relatives, associates and even his lawyer began to die in execution-style murders.
     The ante continued to rise and Escobar ultimately was killed (note-not arrested, indicted, tried, convicted or punished-he was simply killed) as the title of Bowden's book reports, but the carnage and its aftermath were frightening. After reading this account, one looks around and feels assured that nothing comparable could happen here in our country. It probably cannot-at least not without enormous and almost incomprehensible change-but it can and does happen elsewhere, in Central and Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The ripple effect in the U.S. can be palpable in these circumstances, as it was on September 11, 2001.4
     If the distance between Osama bin Laden and Pablo Escobar seems too great to draw the analogy, consider the underlying philosophy and actions of both before reaching that conclusion. Readers finishing Bowden's account should infer that incremental societal destruction,

4 Lawlessness and terrorism, founded in the $25 billion Mexican drug trade, are directly affecting the U.S. as gangs quartered in Mexico bring their murder and mayhem across the Texas border to both protect their traffic lanes and ply their products.  The captains of these gangs are as ruthless and conscienceless and deadly as Pablo Escobar and threaten law enforcement personnel and citizens in equal measure.  See “The Killers Next Door,” TIME, 18 April 2005; “The War Next Door,” TIME, 20 August 2007; “Cocaine Capital,” Time 25 August 2008; “Bloodshed on the Border,” Newsweek, 8 December 2008; “A Tale of Two Cities,” Newsweek, 14 September 2009; “Mexico’s Drug War Hits Home,” Investor’s Business Daily, 15 March 2010; “Mexican Drug War Arrives” (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) The Week, 13 August 2010; “Wikileaks Reveals a Desperate Mexico,” The Week, 7 January 2011; ad nauseum. . 

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no matter how seemingly far away and no matter its underlying genesis, does affect us. Violent Muslim terrorism began to affect the U.S. directly when the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran was seized in 1979 by Muslim ideologues, and the carnage has not stopped at any point since then.
     That Islamic jihadists are attempting to force their views on the world as Escobar sought to do in Colombia through violence and intimidation is patent. How the civilized world will react is the issue. While the bombings and murder practiced by the Islamists are widespread, they are still, from a global perspective, small. Dealing with these terrorists by means of civilized law enforcement in Europe and the U.S. seems to be working for the most part but not on all occasions as was seen in London in 2005 and Madrid in 2004-but if our security efforts fail, as has been the case in Israel as it fights the terror of the Palestinians, what mayhem and vigilantism may ensue remains a very open question. Although it is unlikely the West will turn tail and run as Spain did in response to the Madrid bombings, the responses of any nation are complicated by many factors. There is a large Muslim population in virtually every country in Europe. The option for reprisal and vigilante action to future terrorist attacks in both Europe and the U.S. is real. The social cost of such a reaction would be enormous.
     The world has become a very small place. Bowden's warning of what can transpire when terrorism occurs is muted by the fact that the story of Escobar's killing occurs within a single country with a homogenous population. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Escobar was dead and by
that point no one much cared who was responsible. But that we must always be aware of what is transpiring beyond our borders that will eventually affect us is now obvious; that we need to act purposefully, when we can, where we can, to influence change in our favor is necessary. Those determinations are difficult and dangerous. But, if we cannot make those choices, we shall find ourselves validating George Santayana's famous admonition: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As well, we need to consider Walter McDougall's observation in Promised Land, Crusader State (Chapter 20), that we need to act when we cannot afford not to, and most assuredly when it is in our national interest to do so. That last dilemma sits atop the discussion pyramid as the currant conflagration in the Middle East falls dangerously into civil war, religious jihad, and a sink-hole of ethnic and fundamentalist hatred, with virtually no resolution in sight. The question of our response to non-state sponsored

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terrorism is one that will not be single-tiered or monodimensional. Under such circumstances the chances for misstep, bad judgment and worse execution are ripe.
     More than just an account of a horrible circumstance, the question arises from Bowden's recitation, is Killing Pablo a cautionary tale with broad implications or simply a corrupt nation's anomaly? The Machiavellian destruction of the political process, it seems, can devolve to corruption of market processes, from which the next step is corruption of the social fabric. It has happened in Iraq by means of the fractured world of Islamic fanatics. In Colombia, Escobar did not steal money, not a dime-he stole lives. The terrorists of 9/11 did the same thing, and the Islamists of the twenty-first century seem to be repeating the process.
     The response to terrorists, whether narco-, eco-, political, religious, or otherwise, according to modern thinking and planning, is to jail them or kill them. But how and under whose auspices is this to be done? The Colombian nation failed to protect itself and citizens felt they had to go outside the standards of civilized actions, or at least change the measure of what a civilized society can be allowed to do. If enough suicide bombers are recruited, if enough terror is rained upon a free nation on any continent, particularly in Europe where there are large, sympathetic indigenous Muslim populations, the reaction could be both dramatic and wide-spread as was seen in France in 2006 when Muslim youths went on wild sprees of vandalism in response to policies with which they disagreed. More importantly it could involve both individuals and government itself as frustration is magnified by a failure of containment.
     The Israelis, who enjoy a modern constitutional democracy and a reputation for institutional integrity, provided their own answer to such circumstances. After the invasion by Black September (Palestinian) terrorists of the 1972 Olympic Village in Munich, Germany and the murder of eleven Israeli athletes in a botched rescue attempt, Israel's government ordered the systematic assassinations of the ten leaders of Black September who were thought responsible for the initial attack. These murders, which had the appearance of sanctioned vigilante actions, occurred in various Western nations, complicating the response even more. They began in Italy and included the execution in Norway of an innocent Moroccan waiter incorrectly thought to be a Black September leader. The government of Israel obviously felt pressured to go outside both the law and norms of international

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agreements, because they could not see solving their problems within those parameters. Years later it was claimed that these assassinations were not of the leadership of the terrorist organization, but others associated and within it, because the leaders had melted back into Islamic countries where Israel had little access-thus a message was sent by proxy murder. Israel's
actions thus can be seen as at least one step removed from potentially quasi-justified retaliation, and are an equal distance away from civilized society. The question of how much free governments will tolerate one nation protecting itself with actions carried on inside another is an open and dangerous issue. The Israeli's seem to do so inside Lebanon with impunity; where else will this be tolerated, much less approved?
     In all cases, the thin line between an acceptable response to terrorists and thugs, and organized mayhem being used to theoretically finish an argument is easy to cross. Although the vigilante reactions of an organization such as Los Pepes are an ugly phenomenon, sometimes a civilized society (particularly those in Europe), even our own, may take similarly ugly measures to protect itself and to effect change. The end of Islamism is far from visible, thus our nation will be asked to answer many questions on the limits of our patience and our fidelity to being a nation of laws.
     We do not always have the luxury of playing this "game" by our rules, and that is the core of Bowden's story. When abiding by those rules creates a certainty that we will incrementally continue to lose (as it did in Colombia), then the last resort is to play by the rules of our adversaries. Where will such measures take us, and more importantly, will we be able to stop employing them? The United States is a constitutional democracy that is threatened with mass murder, if not outright regional annihilation, by Muslim jihadists who may ultimately possess nuclear weapons or chemical and biological agents capable of widespread deployment against Western populations. These religious fanatics are Pablo Escobar's emotional and intellectual cousins. How shall we fight back, under Escobar's and the terrorists' rules or our own? Being forced to make these decisions is a hard pill to swallow-but the obverse, playing by our rules of civilized justice and losing too many battles, as we did on 9/11, is even harder to contemplate.
     In today's interconnected global village, Killing Pablo is a most thought-provoking social commentary. The link between Pablo Escobar and Osama bin Laden, or anyone else like either of them, may be shorter and more direct than everyone imagines.

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About the Author
Mark Bowden is a journalist and writer whose credits include newspaper articles, magazine features and books about human beings in action. Bowden contributes to the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, writes a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he was a staff writer for more than two decades, and is an adjunct professor at Loyola College of Maryland, where he teaches creative writing and journalism. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1951, and grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Port Washington, New York, and Timonium, Maryland. He graduated from Loyola College of Maryland in 1973 with a degree in English Literature. Bowden lives in southeastern Pennsylvania, is married, and has five children.

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