An all-out war on the earth's richest drug lord

May 06, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

"Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw," by Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly Press. 296 pages. $25.

"Plata o plomo." Translated into English, the words mean "money or lead." But in Colombia, the words carried a pernicious message: Take a bribe or take a bullet. That was cocaine czar Pablo Escobar's strategy for running his billion-dollar-a-year trafficking empire for more than a decade. Under his "plata o plomo" doctrine, bribes abounded and bodies piled high.

In the wake of movies such as the Oscar-winning "Traffic" that present troubling but fascinating vignettes about the war on drugs, comes Mark Bowden's new non-fiction narrative: "Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw." In it, Bowden chronicles Escobar's rise from young car thief to seventh richest man in the world while holding an entire country hostage. The book describes in exacting detail Escobar's imprisonment in a custom-built jail, his eventual escape and the 15-month manhunt by elite American and Colombian units that were required to finally stop him in 1993.

It is a story about how an over-weight, marijuana-smoking, sleep-till-noon guy vexed even the most advanced spy-technology and how a handful of people dedicated to tracking him down finally triumphed. It gives the reader insight into the war on drugs as it reveals how deeply the Colombia government was crippled by bribes and fear. It also paints a personality portrait of Escobar - a former Colombian congressman.

Bowden, author of the acclaimed "Black Hawk Down," and a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for the past 21 years, presents incredible detail in this book, drawing on extensive interviews with Colombian and American field agents and top-secret records. Extensive end notes provide documentation. Information in the book first appeared as a series in his newspaper last fall.

Bowden documents American military involvement in the hunt for Escobar - and suggests that agents and officials, including U.S Ambassador Morris Busby, condoned or turned a blind eye to abuses. Americans dispatched an elite team made up of CIA and NSA officials and an army unit to work hand-in-glove with the Colombian police to track Escobar down after his escape in 1992.

But an indictment of secret military operations this is not. Bowden appears to argue that American firepower was what was needed.

In one telling example, Bowden recounts how Escobar concocted a deal that allowed him to be technically imprisoned while living in a custom-built party pad. When public clamor arose, then vice-minister of justice Eduardo Mendoza was sent to the prison with an army brigade to formally transfer Escobar to another jail.

Escobar refused to leave and his men pointed their guns at Mendoza. The vice-minister looked to his armed guards for aid - and saw that all their guns were pointed at him too.

Bowden recounts: "Doctor," (Escobar) said, speaking softly, leaning in close to Mendoza. "You still don't understand. These people all work for me." Thus, he escaped.

At times, the book becomes tedious. So many characters are introduced that it is difficult to keep track of who's who. A chart in the beginning would help enormously.

Still, it is a great read for anyone wanting to understand more about the cruel truths of the war on drugs or for anyone who likes a story about how the good guys beat the bad guy - and what it took.

Caitlin Francke covers Baltimore courts for The Sun. Before coming here in 1996, she spent two years on the Texas/Mexico border covering federal courts where drug trafficking cases abounded. She started her journalism career in Central America, writing free-lance stories about the war-torn counties of Guatemala and El Salvador.

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