Death of a drug lord

In "Killing Pablo," Mark Bowden details the 16-month game of cat and mouse that finally took down Medell

Published May 24, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Mark Bowden's new book, "Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw," tells the story of Medellín cocaine cartel boss Pablo Escobar, who became one of the richest men on earth and virtually controlled Colombia before he was hunted down and killed in 1993 -- after a dramatic 16-month game of cat and mouse conducted jointly by the Colombian and United States governments.

Bowden's also the author of "Black Hawk Down," an account of the 1993 raid on Mogadishu, Somalia, that resulted in the deaths of 18 American servicemen and more than 500 Somalis. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of a 1999 Salon Book Award.

But "Killing Pablo," Bowden says, "is a much more complicated story than 'Black Hawk Down,' and it takes place over a much longer period. It really begins in 1949 and tells in summary fashion the history of Escobar's rise and fall. 'Black Hawk Down' was written in very spare, direct prose, which I thought was the most appropriate way to write about a battle. 'Killing Pablo' has a lot more exposition. It gets into the action scenes when you get down to the final 16 months. It was a much different challenge than 'Black Hawk Down.'"

A 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bowden first published much of what became "Killing Pablo" as a series of articles in the Inquirer, and it was also made into a CNN documentary that aired last November. In addition there's an elaborate Web site devoted to the book.

The attention is justified: Bowden combines page-turner prose with exhaustive investigative reporting, to tell a story about amazing characters -- the reserved but ruthless and occasionally charming Escobar; the courageous Colombian colonel, Hugo Martinez, who brought him down; the men of Los Pepes, the notorious anti-Escobar vigilante death squad that Bowden believes was created by the CIA and the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force. Bowden shows how U.S. laws prohibiting the assassination of foreign citizens were skirted, thanks to a cleverly reasoned exception to the law approved by former President Bush.

I spoke with Bowden last Friday, shortly after he'd arrived home following a week of appearances and lectures promoting his new book. As it happened, it was also the day after a car bomb killed seven people and injured 138 in Medellín, Colombia, in what Associated Press reports said "may be related to a spiraling feud between paramilitary militias and a Medellín-based organized crime gang [that] brought back chilling memories of the terror campaigns waged here during the 1980s and early 1990s by the Medellín cocaine cartel and its notorious leader, Pablo Escobar ... Among the top suspects in Thursday's bombing is La Terraza, a feared gang of toughs originally at Escobar's service."

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What was Pablo Escobar like personally?

If you met him, you'd find him very serious and low-key. Maybe a little withdrawn. He was reserved around most people. But if you got to know him, he could be charming; he would warm up. Also, when you first met him, he was very formal and polite -- almost to a fault, the politeness might seem a bit extreme.

Why did he act like that?

For most of his life he was feared, and no one likes to be feared in their social dealings, though you may want certain people to fear you [in other circumstances]. To offset the way people were frightened by him, my impression of him is that he was someone who would have enjoyed putting you at your ease, knowing that you were probably intimidated. He was also self-conscious about his lack of education. That goes with that excessive formality and politeness. He was the sort of person who would use a word incorrectly in an attempt to impress you that he had a higher level of learning than he actually had. And when he warmed up, he liked to tell stories, liked to brag about himself and the things that he had done.

What kind of things, criminal activities?

I'm basing this on the conversations I had with people who actually knew Escobar. He was stoned a lot [on marijuana], and when he was stoned and relaxed he would tell stories. For instance, Roberto Uribe, who was one of his lawyers, said that at one point Escobar told him how, as a young man, he'd go into banks all by himself and rob them, but be very polite, like he was enjoying himself. It was his way of demonstrating how cool he was, how in control he was, how he could handle fear.

He wasn't much of a cocaine user, but he did smoke a lot of grass.

I believe that's true, yes.

It seems odd to me. Here's this guy -- a gangster kingpin, a drug lord -- who's got to stay on top of things, but then he's a stoner, which is usually associated with being laid-back. Doesn't that impress you as being out of character?

Maybe, but it was part of his mentality; I think he believed he functioned better when he was stoned. It was a way of being hip, cool, a way of separating himself from standard establishment figures. He saw himself as a countercultural figure, his criminality was all part and parcel of that.

Was Escobar an extremely intelligent man, or just gifted with an abundance of good luck and low cunning?

I don't think he was all that intelligent. He was smart and ruthless, and he was in the right place at the right time. One of the guys I interviewed, who was a member of [the vigilante death squad] Los Pepes, and who had known Escobar from the very beginning, made a point of stressing to me that Pablo Escobar didn't create the cocaine business. He had no entrepreneurial or management skills to speak of. It was just that everybody was afraid of him. If anybody discovered a trade route or a new way of doing things, Pablo would come knocking and say, "OK, you work for me now." You couldn't say no to him.

What about the people who surrounded Escobar -- were they just thugs or was there someone who was the equivalent, say, of Meyer Lansky in the American mob: the brains of the operation, but not at the top?

I've heard, though I can't know this for sure, that both Escobar's brother, Roberto, and his cousin, who was later killed, were very shrewd and bright; and also his brother-in-law, who was college educated and kind of intellectual. He was the one who supplied the political rationale that Pablo liked to employ -- that he was sucking the gringo dollars out of the corrupt North Americans and bringing the money to Colombia, which needed it more.

How were you able to meet people who knew Escobar? Was it hard to make those contacts, to gain their trust?

Yes, it was really hard to make those contacts. People are still not comfortable talking about him. Geraldo Reyes was a big help to me, he's a Miami Herald/El Herald reporter from Colombia. And when I was down there with him, he knew certain people who knew other people who knew Escobar. They would meet us in hotel lobbies or at airport restaurants, places like that. There was always a furtive nature to those interviews.

People are sometimes a little put off or confused by a reporter like myself. In the case of Escobar's acquaintances, they expected to be interviewed about certain things, which I did talk to them about, but I also wanted to know what Escobar was like ("What was it like the first time you ever met him? What did he say to you? Did he ever make you laugh?") and when you ask questions like that, people wonder, "Why is he asking me this?" They're doubly suspicious when you're talking about someone as charged as Pablo Escobar.

In 1989, Forbes magazine listed Escobar as the seventh richest man in the world. He was fabulously wealthy. Even Idi Amin managed to retire. Why wasn't Escobar able to buy some kind of refuge? Why didn't he get out of Colombia?

Because he was essentially an extremely provincial person. He wouldn't have been happy anywhere else. He said he'd rather have a tomb in Colombia than a jail cell in America. He wasn't just defying extradition, he was in effect saying, "This is where I come from, this is who I am." It was also arrogance. He just didn't believe that he could be defeated, and he felt strongest in his own country.

And it was true for a long time -- he couldn't be defeated.

Oh yes. He was an outlaw in Colombia from 1984 to the day he died [Dec. 2, 1993]. It was only when the United States [became involved] in 1989 that he started having to really run. For a number of years he was very comfortably ensconced. He was technically an outlaw, but Colombia couldn't arrest him because he was just too powerful; he had his own army of gunmen.

What's become of the Escobar fortune?

My guess is that it's still there. The family probably still has money in Swiss bank accounts, and they may have money buried in places. But I suspect they have trouble getting at it. [Escobar's wife and son] have been arrested in Argentina, trying to launder money. My hunch is that the Escobar family has a lot of money, but there are international police agencies and other organizations that watch them very closely, that want to know where the money is so they can seize it. Although, I'm not certain of that because Colombia is an extremely legalistic country. It may be that, due to the amount of money Escobar had and the quality of the legal talent representing him, the family has been able to hold onto a sizable portion of his fortune. But I think also that a lot of the money was tied up in the business, it wasn't liquid.

Escobar had Robin Hood pretensions and political aspirations. He built community soccer fields and so forth. Was there any sincerity to his altruistic streak or was it just a public relations effort?

I think there was some sincerity there. There was a mix of both -- people are complex. I have no doubt that he took a certain amount of satisfaction from being held in warm regard by people, and he did things to sustain that. So, in that sense maybe it wasn't purely selfless, but he enjoyed being philanthropic to an extent. Whether that was a selfish enjoyment or a selfless one is anyone's guess. He really wanted to be Don Pablo, the patrsn. And I suspect, had he lived and worked things out more intelligently, he'd still be living pretty much the kind of life he wanted to live -- in Colombia.

One of the points you make in "Killing Pablo" is that Escobar's move into politics -- he became an alternate member of Colombia's congress -- contributed to his downfall by increasing his visibility.

He overreached. And it wasn't just that he was an alternate member of congress. In the year that he got elected, his money helped to fund the entire liberal party slate all over Colombia. My reading of what happened is that the leaders of the young Turks in the liberal party realized that Escobar's ambition to hold office himself was a threat to them politically. I think when they spoke out against him it wasn't just because they were outraged that a narco-trafficker had gotten elected, it was because they were concerned about him rivaling them for control of the liberal party down the road.

Colombia, like many other countries, has a tradition of seeing its more colorful criminals as sort of noble scalawags. Escobar consciously played on that image to gain sympathy from his countrymen, to be seen as locked in a battle against a corrupt power elite. But finally that image came crashing down.

Yes, it did. In the end the only people who were devoted to him and who respected him were the hardcore in Medellín, who either worked for him or were living in homes that he built; those who had a direct debt of loyalty to him. The rest of the country was outraged by him at a certain point. By the late 1980s or early '90s, the vast number of Colombians were fed up with Pablo Escobar.

Hugo Martinez was the Colombian colonel who headed up the hunt for Escobar. It seems that he became almost obsessed.

I see him as someone who got trapped into the role. He didn't want the job, but once he got stuck with it, he knew that he had to kill Escobar or Escobar was going to kill him and his family.

I respect Martinez a great deal because I think he is a man of genuine courage and integrity. It's hard to imagine what Colombia was like in the mid-1980s. It was a place where anyone who spoke out against Escobar or came after him was killed. Escobar was assassinating politicians, judges, police, lawyers and journalists. And the person who took the greatest risk was Hugo Martinez, though, again, I think it was thrust upon him. But he rose to the challenge. He had no idea if he was going to be successful, and yet when Escobar offered him a way out, a $6 million bribe, he wouldn't take it -- in part because his heart rebelled against it, and in part because he was smart enough to see that Escobar would then own him.

I really think Martinez is one of the heroes of modern times. What he did took an extraordinary amount of bravery. He's very, very smart and has a dry sense of humor; he's an intellectual. He's also been wounded by all this, because he's been accused of having accepted money from the Cali cartel. He denies that vehemently. He also denies -- I think fatuously -- that he was involved with Los Pepes. I believe he was involved with Los Pepes, and I've told him this. He's angry with me for believing it, but I do believe it. I don't think there's any way that Los Pepes could have operated the way they did unless they were working closely with Martinez's group. I think whether it was tacit or whether it was aggressive and conscious, he was involved with this vigilante death squad.

What is Delta Force?

Delta Force is a United States Army super soldiers unit. It was created after the failed mission to rescue the U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran during Jimmy Carter's administration. Once that failed, they realized that they needed to develop a stealthy force that could operate covertly. Originally, it was going to be used for hostage rescue, or if a plane had been hijacked -- to undertake the type of mission that was done at Entebbe.

Delta Force went into Colombia by invitation of the Colombian government?


There's an executive order, issued by President Ford in 1974, that forbids employees of the U.S. government to target foreign citizens for assassination. How was this legally circumvented in the Escobar case?

This came as an interesting surprise to me. In 1988, when George Bush became president, he had a legal memorandum prepared, interpreting the prohibition to mean that the president could, at his discretion, order the assassination of foreign citizens if he felt that they were a threat to national security or to American citizens. In Escobar's case, Reagan had declared narco-trafficking to be a threat to national security. And Escobar had also shot down a commercial airliner, killing two American citizens, so he qualified on both counts [for exclusion from the prohibition].

All along the way, as I was reporting this, I'd ask people -- including some of the guys from Delta Force -- "Isn't it against the law for you to have been involved in this?" And they would say, "Is it a law?" And I'd say, "What do you mean?" To which they'd respond, "Look into it. Is it really illegal? Maybe it's not as illegal as you think it is." I ultimately tracked down the executive order and they were right, it wasn't against the law, nor was it even a violation of the prohibition, according to the Bush legal memorandum that has been the guiding principle for the previous 12 to 13 years.

While it's officially denied that Delta Force had any connection with the vigilantes, Los Pepes, you believe there was a connection, correct?

Without a doubt. It's just my surmise, and I don't go further in the book than the evidence takes me, but in my opinion, which is not that front and center in the book, not just Delta Force, but the CIA created Los Pepes to do exactly what they did. The reason I believe that's true is, first of all, because of the kind of winks and nods I got from the people I interviewed and, second, because Los Pepes were just too perfect. The hunt had gone on for six months, Delta Force had trained Martinez's group of men, known as the Search Bloc, to be extremely fast and efficient, and they still could not get Escobar. Even when they got real fast, going in with helicopters flown by American pilots, they still would miss him, because he had spies within the Search Bloc and he would always be tipped off.

I think there was a point where they realized that it just wasn't going to work the way they were doing it. They had to stop targeting Escobar, they had to start going after the structure, the support mechanisms around him.

At that point Los Pepes started closing in on the circle of people who were close to Escobar, killing as many as six of his associates a day.

Yes. And the interesting thing is that this mission in Colombia and the one I wrote about in my earlier book, "Black Hawk Down," which were done basically by the same people at the same time, were, in a sense, identical missions. In Somalia, they started out trying to get [Somalian war lord Mohamed Farah] Adid himself and realized they couldn't get him because he was just too well protected, so they then started identifying all the people around him. Delta Force was going out and rounding up these people and arresting them. The difference is that in Somalia, Delta Force was doing these raids directly, themselves, and they really were arresting people, but in Colombia the raids were being conducted by Colombians, and they were very often just killing people. That's what they do in Colombia.

The question that the Escobar story raises in my mind is, when the United States conducts an operation like this in a country like Colombia, do we stoop to the level of the Colombians, who have very little respect for human rights, the rule of law or due process? Or do we insist upon operating by our own standards -- respect for the law, respect for human rights and due process?

There is a real difference of opinion within the American military about this issue. You find people who believe that if you want to operate successfully in a Third World environment, you have to stoop to their level; the only way to get Pablo Escobar was to fight him with his own tactics. Then there are those in the military who are appalled by that view, who will say, "We are bound as Americans to operate within our own values and laws, and we have no right to do otherwise." That's why, toward the end of "Killing Pablo" you have this battle shaping up -- literally -- between the White House and the Pentagon. One faction, led by Jack Sheehan of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to pull [all U.S. personnel working on the Escobar case] out of Colombia, because he was so outraged by what was going on down there.

What was the overall effect of wiping out Escobar and his gang? To what degree did it damage the Medellín cartel and the Colombian cocaine business?

The death of Pablo Escobar was the death of the Medellín cartel. But killing off the Medellín cartel was a long process, and through that process the Cali cartel grew more and more powerful. In fact, according to Joe Toft, DEA chief in Colombia during the Escobar period, by the time Escobar was killed, they had turned the Cali cartel into a more insidious force than the Medellín cartel had ever been -- because the Cali cartel had shrewdly allied itself with the Colombian government, and with the Americans, to get Escobar. They had purchased goodwill, and they had made inroads with bribes and had friendships and cooperation with the Colombian government. That's why, when Toft quit in 1994, he revealed that then President Samper of Colombia had taken bribes from the Cali cartel. His point was that what we'd done was successfully corrupted the entire Colombian government.

Then the Cali cartel was destroyed. And the destruction of the Cali cartel created the present situation, which is that the narco-trafficking is now protected and controlled by the leftist guerrillas, FARC and the ELN. Those two guerrilla organizations, who have been in the hills and jungles for more than 50 years, and have never attracted more than 3 or 4 percent popular support in Colombia, have become a force far outweighing their significance because they're rich. The cocaine money has given them the funds to train, outfit and arm soldiers, and to buy the most sophisticated weaponry in the world. They are a formidable force because they are funded with hundreds of millions of dollars that Americans spend buying illegal cocaine.

You describe the FARC and the ELN as leftist guerrillas, but do they really have an ideology at this point?

Not anymore, no. They still mouth the platitudes, but Fidel Castro doesn't even support them. They grew out of the 1950s and '60s tradition of revolutionary socialism in South America -- the Che Guevara, Castro mold. But that was many, many years ago. I don't see how their principles can align with narco-trafficking.

One time somebody asked Andres Pastrana, the current president of Colombia, what the guerrillas want, and he got up out of his chair, turned around and said, "This chair." Beyond that, no one knows what they want. They just want power. And if they get power, then Colombia will be in the same boat as it would have been if Pablo Escobar had ever been elected president: It will be a narcocracy.

After being immersed in the Escobar story and the larger subject of the war on drugs, this huge international effort, where do you think it's headed and what is its continuing effect on places like Colombia?

Well, this is a cheap way to answer that, but I've become a lot more aware of how complex the whole thing is. There are so many Americans who want to say, "We should legalize drugs." And I think just about everybody would agree that we are never going to stop the flow of cocaine into this country by military effort. That's not going to happen.

They just seized 13 tons of cocaine about a week ago, suppposedly that's the largest quantity ever intercepted.

And that's not even going to make a dent, because as long as Americans are willing to pay exorbitant prices for the stuff, there will be people who will risk their lives in order to produce it and deliver it. Even if they were able to shut down Colombia altogether, it would be grown somewhere else. It might make a dent for a few months, but it wouldn't stop it.

But, does that mean that we shouldn't be making any efforts down there? If you say that, look at what some of the consequences would be. Colombia, it seems to me, is a government that has its flaws. It's a troubled place with a really lousy history of human rights violations. There's a lot of corruption in that government; it's definitely an oligarchy in that it's controlled by a wealthy elite. But it is a democracy and it does, as a result, have the potential to become a much better place for everybody. And the truth is that most Colombian people support their government.

So, what would have happened to Colombia if we hadn't gone after Pablo Escobar, or if we don't go after the guerrillas? Do we let the FARC overthrow the government of Colombia? What do you have then? I think, for instance, this "Plan Colombia," which is being sold as an anti-narcotics effort, is really an effort to preserve the government of Colombia, to help Pastrana force these guerrillas to negotiate, put down their arms. If it has that effect, I think it will be worthwhile. I've spent enough time in Colombia; I respect the people I've met who are trying to do the right thing and I think they deserve to be supported.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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