Bowden: "Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw"

"Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw;"
By Mark Bowden; Atlantic Monthly Press; 296 pp.


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  6/10/2001

Pablo Escobar was a bloodthirsty killer who amassed an unseemly fortune by building an illicit empire growing, refining, distributing, and selling cocaine. For nearly a decade before Colombian police forces gunned him down in 1993 in his hometown of Medellin, the paunchy drug lord wreaked havoc on his country not by helping make cocaine its most profitable export, but by ordering the murder of a succession of presidential candidates, government ministers, judges, policemen, journalists, rivals, or anyone who crossed him.

Escobar was undoubtedly evil, but it seems a stretch for Mark Bowden to hype him as "the world's most feared terrorist" in the veteran reporter's latest journalistic thriller, "Killing Pablo." Although his drug empire was global and his merchandise menaced the United States, Escobar, unlike other terrorists or Mafia bosses, for the most part kept the bombings, assassinations, and systematic bribery inside his own country.

Bowden is part of a long line of observers, admirers, and foes who have helped gild his legend, a legend Escobar himself worked to enhance. By building churches for the poor, courting journalists, and avoiding thousands of police traps, he created the persona of a poor boy who gained wealth on his own, shared it with the disadvantaged, and ultimately became too powerful to be caught. What doesn't emerge until the end of Bowden's well-reported and lively narrative is this important point: Escobar was just one cog, albeit an important one, in the drug trade.

There was and still is no lack of competitors itching for a piece of the cocaine business in Colombia. By the time police finally caught up with Escobar, others had taken up much of his business. The supply to the United States had been so great that the price of cocaine in American cities at that time was at its lowest.

The incidental role Escobar played in the drug trade is even clearer today: Some 80 percent of the world's white powder continues to be produced in Colombia, and last month, the Coast Guard seized more than 13 tons of Colombian-grown cocaine from a fishing boat off California, the largest cocaine seizure in US maritime history.

The futility of fighting the drug war by devoting so many resources to one man dawns on top drug agents only at the end of the book. "Killing Pablo had not ended the cocaine industry; it had merely handed it off to new leaders, who had presumably learned from Pablo's mistakes," Bowden writes, on the next-to-last page, of a key US official involved in the hunt for Escobar.

Of course, this is a thriller about the killing of Colombia's most notorious drug lord, not a treatise on the drug war. And its most revealing section, as the United States prepares to dole out some $1.3 billion in military aid to fight drugs in Colombia, is the detailed disclosure of the US role in helping find Escobar, and perhaps murder him as he ran from an apartment in Medellin.

Bowden draws a detailed account of how the CIA, National Security Agency, special operations forces from the Army and the Navy, Drug Enforcement Administration agents, and State Department officials, among others, competed with differing technologies and relationships in the Colombian government to locate and hunt down Escobar.

But by relying almost exclusively on these official sources, Bowden has drawn a flawed portrait of the drug lord. Without significant insight from his wife, mother, children, lawyers, or fellow thugs, it is a picture that feels at best incomplete and at worst distorted.

Still, Bowden effectively delivers an unsparing if hazy moral to his story: No one's hands were completely clean in the bloody business of fighting the drug trade in Colombia. Yet he leaves unanswered the most important question raised by one US officials: Was killing Pablo worth skirting and at times trampling on the most basic US and Colombian laws?

"I don't know what the lesson of the story is," said one US agent involved. "I hope it's not that the end justifies the means."

David Abel can be reached at

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