Colombia counts the cost of war Jul 26th 2001
From The Economist print edition
PABLO ESCOBAR was a car thief and small-time hoodlum in Medellin, Colombia’s second city, when he discovered America’s appetite for cocaine. He quickly became a billionaire. What distinguished him from other drug traffickers was his icy ruthlessness and his vaulting ambition, which led him to seek political office. The result was a war lasting almost a decade between Escobar and his army of hired killers from the Medellin slums on the one hand, and the Colombian state and the American government on the other.
Escobar’s strategy of plomo o plata (lead or silver) was devastatingly effective: ordinary citizens, politicians, journalists, judges and police alike were slaughtered; many others preferred to be corrupted. The government agreed to a deal under which the drug baron entered a luxurious prison which he controlled. When Escobar walked out of the jail, an embarrassed government launched a desperate manhunt that lasted 16 months. It ended on December 2nd 1993, when Escobar was cornered and finally killed.
Mark Bowden, an American investigative journalist, turns the hunt for Escobar into a thriller, long on reconstructed dialogue, cliché and hyperbole. He lacks any deep knowledge or understanding of Colombia; his background chapters are derivative and strewn with elementary errors. But his researching of American sources is impressive.
Mr Bowden shows how in the hunt for Escobar, Colombian and American law enforcers adopted their quarry’s methods and were none too choosy about their allies. These included not just the Cali drug mob, but Carlos Castaño—now notorious as the leader of an 8,000-strong army of right-wing, drug-trafficking vigilantes. Packaged as an airport bestseller, “Killing Pablo” recounts an important chapter in the story of how America’s demand for drugs and its failed crusade against them have helped to plunge Colombia into chaos.