by Mark Bowden
New York: Penguin, 2002. Pp. 296 .
Illus., sources, index. $14.00. ISBN:0-14-2000095-7
Pablo Escobar was arguably the Osama bin Laden of the 1980s. At the height of his power, the Medellin drug cartel which he led was arguably more powerful than the Colombian government. It had global reach, and could attempt to kill anyone that the cartel decided to remove from the picture. Yet this cartel was destroyed, and Pablo Escobar was killed in a shootout with Colombian police.
Mark Bowden tells the story of how this was possible. It was a cat-and-mouse game that lasted for just over four years. Often it was hard to tell who was the cat and who was the mouse. Those who volunteered to hunt Escobar (both Colombian and American) were placing their lives at risk. Escobar killed those who would not be bribed. It got to the point where he was willing to blow up airliners.
At that point, the George H. W. Bush Administration declared war. The military, specifically elements of Special Operations Command, was on the way to Colombia. This included Centra Spike, a signals-intelligence unit that began to develop the network of the Medellin cartel. As Centra Spike identified targets, the information was passed on to the Colombians. Eventually, the heat reached the point where Pablo Escobar turned himself in. The period of his incarceration shows how much of a mistake it is to make deals with people like Escobar – here Bowden hits home, particularly by pointing out how Escobar turned to homing pigeons as a means of secure communication. This was done from the place where he was supposed to be in prison. In essence, over 15 months (until his escape from prison), he was able to regroup.
This led to a second war (September 1992 to December 1993), and Bowden’s account is a prescription for how one must deal with any terrorist group or criminal organization that has reached the level of the Medellin cartel or al-Qaeda. The war was vicious and hard-fought. On the one side was Pablo Escobar. On the other side was the Colombian police, with support from the U.S. military and Perseguedo por Pablo Escobar (“People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”, or Los Pepes). Two of the leaders of Los Pepes were Fidel and Carlos Castano. Carlos Castano was the founder of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (or AUC). While the two of them got mixed up with the cartel early on, they turned 180 degrees when push came to shove, and the actions of Los Pepes were critical in the effort against Escobar. The members of this group took on Escobar’s thugs on Escobar’s turf and terms – and when the dust settled, the infrastructure of the Medellin drug cartel had been eviscerated efficiently.
Bowden’s book is very good at telling the story, but in the end it is slightly ruined by moralizing about “the ends do not justify the means.” The moralizing would arguably have us forget about what Pablo Escobar was – the leader of an organization that was directly or indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths, including those of American citizens. His demise and the methods that made it possible are nothing for the United States or Colombia to apologize for. The Medellin cartel had to be stopped and taken down. The same is true today of not just al-Qaeda, but the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It should be noted that the AUC was particularly effective against FARC until it was placed on the same list of terrorist groups that al-Qaeda and FARC currently occupy by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. While the reviewer admires Secretary Powell, the only way to accurately describe this decision is as a mistake. Carlos Castano rendered valuable assistance to the United States of America at great risk to himself against the Medellin cartel, and the State Department’s blacklisting of the AUC (which would have been a great asset in fighting FARC) was not warranted, particularly given the fact that the AUC (according to the State Department’s own releases) generally did not target Americans. When Castano’s efforts aga