Uncle Sam, manhunter

Two new books detail America's deadly pursuit of Manuel Noriega and Pablo Escobar.

Published May 24, 2001 7:47PM (EDT)

Nineteen eighty-nine was a banner year for the war on drugs. Seven years after President Reagan had created a Cabinet-level task force to coordinate U.S. efforts to combat drug smuggling and placed his vice president, George H.W. Bush, in charge of it, Bush himself had become president and sent 20,000 American troops to Panama to seize that country's de facto ruler on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. It was an unprecedented act, the only time, as David Harris puts it in his new book "Shooting the Moon," that "the United States ever invaded another country and carried its ruler back to the United States to face trial and imprisonment for violations of American law committed on that ruler's own native foreign turf."

Earlier that year, and in secrecy, an Army spy unit called Centra Spike arrived in Bogotá, Colombia, with the mission to offer training and the fruits of its intelligence-gathering technology to the Colombian police in their battle against the Medellín cocaine cartel. Centra Spike's "primary specialty," writes Mark Bowden in his new book "Killing Pablo," "was finding people."

Both of these books -- nonfiction suspense yarns full of intrigue and dirty doings, near escapes and double-crosses -- are about manhunts. But they're both also ground-level accounts of two cases that unfolded during the time when U.S. drug law enforcement morphed from a largely regional, wholly domestic matter into something that really did look like a war; in other words, the military and national security apparatus got involved. Underneath it all, they're both stories that detail the shift from one bogus crusade, against Latin American communism, to another, against the Latin American drug trade.

Harris describes the convoluted story of how three guys in South Florida -- two from the Drug Enforcement Agency and a U.S. attorney -- managed the improbable feat of getting Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama indicted by a grand jury and how, even more improbably, that indictment led to Noriega's capture by force in Panama City. Bowden relates the brutal life and predictably violent death in 1993 of Medellmn cartel head Pablo Escobar at the hands of Colombian authorities -- a death hastened by the advice, and perhaps a good deal more, of U.S. personnel.

For Harris, the Noriega arrest was the result of a peculiar mixture of chance, opportunism, politics and a dash of idealism. It started with a couple of DEA agents, Steve Grilli and his supervisor, Kenny Kennedy, both stationed in South Florida. The way Harris tells it, the case began like a movie, with a high-speed air chase that ended when the pilot of a two-engine Cessna carrying 400 kilos of cocaine, pursued by a U.S. Customs plane, landed on a closed-off stretch of Interstate 75. Kennedy, who happened to be driving to work on I-75 at the time, gave chase, but the pilot escaped into the nearby swamp "by submerging and breathing through hollow reeds."

No event that follows in "Shooting the Moon" is quite this outlandishly cinematic, but that doesn't lessen Harris' verve in the telling. Grilli and Kennedy are two salt-of-the-earth guys, from Brooklyn, N.Y., and New Jersey respectively, and Kennedy voices their shared philosophy toward law enforcement in saying: "The taxpayers hired me to put fuckin' dope peddlers in jail, and that's what I do. Not sweetheart deals and that kinda bullshit."

They teamed up with U.S. attorney Dick Gregorie, who, in Harris' words, "treated the War on Drugs as a personal jihad." A couple of Gregorie's initiatives in this holy war -- specifically, indictments of Colombian drug lords -- had been thwarted when U.S. military concerns took precedence. In one scene from "Shooting the Moon," a "Department of Justice hack known as the National Security liaison" arrives in Miami to tell Gregorie to cool it because "the Communist guerrillas in the [Colombian] countryside would take advantage of the crisis this indictment might well instigate."

Always on the simmer, Gregorie blows his top at this outrage, yet another example in his mind of "how the War on Drugs was not being fought." It was also an example of something that would become increasingly rare -- an incident in which the anti-Communist agenda trumped the anti-drug agenda.

Because Harris never quite gets over seeing this story in Hollywood movie terms, he casts Kennedy, Grilli and Gregorie -- hardworking, conscientious straight arrows, totally committed to their jobs but with no knack for intradepartmental politics (or any other kind of politics) -- as its heroes. If he has reservations about Gregorie's fanaticism regarding the war on drugs ("The nation was at stake, [Gregorie] was fond of pointing out, and if they didn't turn the tide in Miami, chaos for the whole country wouldn't be far behind"), he keeps them to himself. By contrast, another major champion of the Noriega bust, perhaps the man most responsible for keeping the idea of deposing the general alive in Washington, Elliott Abrams, gets portrayed as an arrogant teacher's pet (he was, we're repeatedly told, a protégé of the secretary of state) who only adopted the cause in order to reburnish his stained image after the Iran-Contra scandal.

As the putative villain, Noriega is right out of central casting: wily, greedy, crooked, lecherous and spectacularly ugly, as well as seemingly invincible, at least until he had the misfortune to lose two of his best Washington protectors. He lost Oliver North to the same scandal that nearly toppled Abrams, and he lost CIA director William Casey to a brain tumor.

But in Harris' kind of movie, of course, the real bad guys are the higher-ups, the brass, with their inept ignorance of how things work on the street, their highhanded interventions and their propensity to sandbag politically awkward investigations and otherwise offer "sweetheart deals and that kinda bullshit." All of this intrigue is highly entertaining -- particularly Harris' meticulous recounting of the exacting hierarchical protocols of the DEA, which makes the court of the Ottoman emperor seem folksy by comparison -- but in the process, an important shift in the orientation of U.S. drug policy and foreign policy gets lost. Harris doesn't really care about this (or, for that matter, the question of the legitimacy of the invasion of Panama itself): It all just amounts to the self-interested machinations of powerbrokers.

North, Casey and certain officials in the State Department had kept the heat off Noriega because Noriega helped the U.S. in its covert campaigns to bring down the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and to squelch Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, espionage junkies and Cold Warriors lost their bad guy -- even Cuba was forced to focus its attention on the struggle to get by without its Soviet patron. For someone like Gregorie, who already talked about the drug trade the same way Joseph McCarthy talked about the threat of international communism, no switch was necessary, but in Washington and overseas, one very big battleship had some turning to do.

By the time Escobar escaped from his palatial "prison" in Envigado, Colombia, in 1992, that turn had been completed. Unlike Harris, who treats the Noriega affair with a certain amount of cynical amusement, Bowden presents Escobar's career in narcoterrorism as the tragedy it was. But even he sees a touch of the ridiculous in the eagerness of various U.S. commands to volunteer once the Colombian president asked for help. "With the threat of worldwide communism evaporating, America's military and espionage community had become a high-priced, highly skilled work force in search of a role." When then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney ordered all top military leaders to define the drug war as "a high-priority national mission," in September 1989, he didn't have to say it twice.

Escobar's surrender and imprisonment had been the result of a 1991 deal he'd cut with a Colombian government that was desperate to end a blood-soaked two-year-long battle against the drug lord. Whatever his skill at public relations -- he tried to cast himself as a champion of "the people," part Robin Hood, part Pancho Villa, with some success -- Escobar, Bowden leaves no doubt, was a very, very bad man. Utterly ruthless in securing his own power and exacting revenge, he was responsible for hundreds of murders and kidnappings, most characterized by gratuitous cruelty and carnage, from the routine torture of the friends and family of his enemies to random executions of members of his own security force when he suspected one among them of informing on him. It was the August 1989 bombing of an Avianca airliner, in which 110 passengers were killed in an attempt to eliminate a single man, that proved to be one of Escobar's biggest mistakes. Two Americans were on that plane and, according to Bowden, "in the eyes of the Bush administration, [the bombing] marked Pablo Escobar ... and other cartel leaders as a direct threat to American citizens ... As such, they were now men who could be legally killed." And in the case of Escobar, American intervention would prove decisive.

Escobar's vast wealth and fearsome reputation meant that he could corrupt any Colombian authority by means of a policy dubbed "plata o plomo" -- silver or lead -- but he feared nothing more than extradition to the U.S. In exchange for the Colombian government's outlawing of extradition, and for a ludicrous reduction of the charges against him and various other concessions, Escobar turned himself in, moving into a prison built especially for him. When some Colombian officials tried to relocate him to a facility that was a little less embarrassingly plush, he panicked, convinced they planned either to kill him or to hand him over to the gringos, and went into hiding. Colombian President César Gaviria was furious -- for Escobar to waltz out of a supposed maximum-security prison made Colombia look like a "narcocracy," he felt -- so furious that he opened the door to the Americans: "Despite constitutional barriers to foreign troops on Colombian soil, Gaviria said he would welcome any and all help the Americans could give."

After that, the deluge. Every spy-boy and special operatives unit, "every direction-finding surveillance and imagery team in the arsenal," descended on Colombia, intent on making a name for itself. "It didn't take a genius to foresee that big budget cuts loomed at the Pentagon, CIA and NSA," Bowden writes. "One way to ensure survival in the era of deficit reduction was to prove how vital you were to this new struggle." People were sleeping on the floor of the embassy conference room and "there were so many American spy planes over Medellmn, at one point 17 at once, that the Air Force had to assign an airborne command and control center to keep track of them."

Bowden, who wrote "Black Hawk Down," a bestselling account of the disastrous 1993 helicopter raid by U.S. Ranger troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, knows this specialized element of the military well, but that doesn't make him immune to the comic dimensions of this rally -- a "sweepstakes" is what he calls it. No sooner did Escobar escape than several players began licking their chops, from the local DEA chief, "who thrilled to the chase," to the U.S. ambassador, Morris Busby, a man with a record of Special Forces service and coordinating covert military actions. It wasn't just the challenge that revved Busby's engines, though; it was also the target. Escobar provided exactly the kind of villain the post-Cold War counterterrorist crowd craved: "Warriors believe in intractable evil. Certain forces cannot be compromised with; they must simply be defeated ... There was something about [Busby] that responded to the moral simplicity of confrontation. He was an American patriot, a true believer, and few circumstances in his career were more clearcut than the challenge posed by this man he considered a monster, Pablo Escobar."

Escobar was, indeed, a monster, but that passage from "Killing Pablo" recalls a conversation in Don DeLillo's novel "Underworld," in which an American surveying the poisoned remains of a Soviet nuclear test site asks his Russian host, "Does anyone remember why we were doing all this?" "Yes," the Russian replies, "for contest. You won, we lost. You have to tell me how it feels. Big winner." In "Libra," his novel of the Kennedy assassination, DeLillo suggested that conspiracies exist not so much to achieve certain ends but to satisfy the appetite of certain men for conspiracy itself. Politics becomes a necessary pretext for what they really want: to play cloak-and-dagger.

One of the striking aspects of "Black Hawk Down" was Bowden's incorporation of the reports of Somali witnesses in his account of the disastrous Mogadishu raid. Likewise, in "Killing Pablo," he presents the Escobar manhunt from the Colombians' perspective as well as the Americans', and the two are strikingly different. The Colombians who stood up to the drug lords showed an almost unimaginable courage and integrity, resisting enormous bribes and threats against not only their own lives, but those of their wives, children, parents and friends. One of them, Hugo Martinez, the police official in charge of Search Bloc, the Colombian team dedicated to capturing Escobar, initially resisted the assignment: "Cocaine was not Colombia's problem, it was the norteamericanos' problem," is how Bowden characterizes his views. Generally, he writes, the Colombians felt that "the gringos were the only ones fixated on the drug trade."

For the Colombians, the hunt for Escobar was not a matter of drug law enforcement, but a battle in a civil war over who would run their nation. And they didn't especially trust their counselors. The first Americans brought in to train the Search Bloc found the Colombians had a prickly blend of pride and incompetence: During one raid, an officer refused an American's suggestion that they crawl toward the target house, retorting, "My guys don't crawl in the dirt and mud." The house's occupants quickly spotted the approaching, upright raiding party and fled well before it arrived. Eventually, though, the Search Bloc incorporated some American practices and learned to appreciate the technology brought in by outfits like Centra Spike, gizmos that enabled them to listen in on and locate the source of cellphone calls and radio transmissions -- communications essential to the drug lords' operations.

But "recapturing" Escobar (it soon became an unspoken assumption that, given his ability to manipulate the Colombian legal system, he should not be taken alive), and striking a blow for the rule of law in Colombia, came at a terrible price. One of the key factors in bringing Escobar down was an anonymous group of vigilantes calling themselves Los Pepes. Los Pepes' activities escalated from the planting of nonlethal bombs to the kidnapping and killing of key members of Escobar's operation, as well as menacing his family on a regular basis. In the end, the group would boast of having killed as many as 300 people, and while Bowden can find no hard evidence of the fact, it seems probable that, at the very least, Search Bloc cooperated with Los Pepes by supplying them with information and that, at the most, Los Pepes included some Search Bloc members in its ranks. That means that American personnel provided training, assistance and information to the death squad without presidential authorization or the notification of Congress, a violation of U.S. law.

Whether other Americans -- specifically the gung-ho Delta Force operators who had been officially confined to their base -- participated in the Escobar hunt even more directly remains unknown, but both Bowden and other observers think it's likely they did. (Certainly one Delta operator managed to get off base long enough to father a child by a Colombian woman.) What is clear is that hundreds of deaths and $30.8 billion later, there was just as much cocaine flowing into America as when Pablo Escobar had been a free man, 70 to 80 percent of it coming from Colombia. "All-in-all, there was more cocaine available for sale in the United States at cheaper prices [in 1993] than ever before in history." The DEA station chief in Bogotá told Bowden that he was "convinced that Cali [the other big drug cartel] was the big winner in all this," and that many of the Colombian policemen and other officials he worked with were "in bed" with both Cali and Los Pepes. Killing Escobar had made no more of a dent in the trade than arresting Noriega had.

What the drug war has done is given zealous U.S. attorneys like Dick Gregorie and seasoned Cold Warriors like Morris Busby the chance to go on believing they live in a world where "intractable evil" must be fought by brave and resolute men like themselves. It's an occasion to build state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and to deploy crackerjack special operative units. It's a kind of employment program for spooks and commandos who'd otherwise be at loose ends. In DeLillo's words, it's a "contest," a most welcome thing to the kind of man whose world doesn't make much sense, and isn't much fun, without one. Whether it's worth the price the rest of us are paying for it is up to us to decide.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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