I finished this book on Tuesday at work, and I’ve been putting off actually reviewing it because I’ve gotten incredibly side-tracked with Skyrim (again). I want to spend the rest of my evening reviewing music from 2011 because I have a big interview in NYC on Tuesday with music journalism website called baeblemusic.com about an editorial internship for the spring, but I really need to get this review out of the way (as well as my review for this week’s Glee which I’ll start on as soon as I finish this). Hopefully, after these two reviews, I’ll have time for one more album, and then I’ll be able to go to bed with a clear conscience. Back to my review. When I first started out college, I was originally a double major in political science as well as criminology & investigations. A fan of The Wire in high school (and not yet aware [because I was a moron or something] that the basic message of the show was that the war on drugs was a waste of time), I wanted to work in the FBI’s anti-drug division or to get a job with the DEA. I’m a big fan of true crime novels, and they generally serve as interesting history lessons/parables. Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter remains the definitive work on Charles Manson. I bought Mark Bowden’s (Black Hawk Down) Killing Pablo many years ago, and I never got around to reading it until last week when I finally started it for the first time. While it was certainly an interesting tale, I was often put off by Bowden’s comfort level with some of the atrocities that were committed in the eventual murder of Pablo Escobar as well as his inability to immerse the reader in the culture the book was centered on or to help the reader come away with any insights into one of the most intriguing manhunts in human history.
Killing Pablo is the story of the circumstances surrounding the eventual manhunt and murder of notorious Columbian cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. At the height of his wealth, Pablo Escobar was one of (if not the) richest men in the world with an income rumored to be in the billions (all estimates by outsiders are considered extremely conservative). Having amassed several lifetimes of fortune through the booming cocaine industry, Pablo Escobar was an international icon for the cocaine industry. Using a system known as plomo o plato (silver or lead), Pablo either bribed all of the politicians, cops, and judges to ignore his legal trespasses or he killed the one’s who wouldn’t take his money. Pablo’s ambitions got the better of him (as they do almost all criminals), and his political aspirations finally brought the unavoidable attention of Columbia’s legal system. Pablo waged a systematic war against the state of Columbia killing thousands of individuals, injuring countless more, and doing millions upon millions of dollars in property damage. With the help of U.S. special forces, the Columbian government conducted one of the most expensive and thorough hunts in the history of man while facing untold public corruption, the constant threat of assassination by Escobar’s hitmen, the introduction (though likely helped by the Columbian police) of brutal vigilante groups that were murdering Pablo’s family and associates in the streets, and constant last-second failures and escapes.
Bowden assuredly writes with evocative detail, and after reading the book, you may feel as if you know the countryside of Columbia and the slums of Bogota and Medellin as well as Delta Force, but the book raises far too many moral questions that Mark Bowden only passingly deals with by the book’s end. While I’m a firm believer in the decriminalization of drugs (after I finally got what The Wire was actually about and for other more libertarian reasons), Pablo Escobar wasn’t a businessman. He was a terrorist and one of the most accomplished mass murderers in history that wasn’t involved in racial cleansings or world wars. Yet, the Columbian government often acted in ways so brutal and merciless that they came across nearly as bad as Pablo. Whenever the Search Bloc (which was the Colombian police unit in charge of the hunt for Escobar) found one of Pablo’s men, they would summarily execute him even if he surrendered rather than offering him a trial (because by their logic, their legal system was so corrupt that he would just walk). The Search Bloc fed information to Los Pepes (the vigilante group that was committing gruesome murders of innocent family members of Escobar) so that they knew Pablo was constantly on edge to make him more likely to make mistakes. The U.S. government, especially the D.E.A., knew all of this was happening and yet we still supplied the Columbian government with tech support and occasional manpower (even though assassinating foreign figures that we aren’t at war with is illegal by our own laws). Bowden often exhibited the same type of “ends justify the means” mentality as many of the people in the book, and it’s upsetting that there wasn’t more moral outrage about the loss of the moral high ground in the hunt for this criminal.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled too much by Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but this book was just too cut and dry for me. It was almost like a text-book, and this situation is so interesting and there are so many ethical quandaries that arise that you really just expect Mark Bowden to have put more work into delving deeper beyond the surface of what happened and beyond the facts and instead get to the soul of the issue. Yes, I now know much, much more about Pablo’s rise to power and the way he muscled himself into the cocaine business. I know about his sexual appetites and the way that he thought of himself as a man of the people (or at least projected that image to get their support) and that it was this same desire to be visible and respected that cost him everything. I was able to form my own opinions about the many lines that the Columbian and U.S. governments crossed in the hunt for Pablo, but none of that came across in the tone of the book. Those realizations came because of my natural political leanings and my belief in an honest and true legal system, not the sham that Columbia had which became criminal in order to catch a criminal and in the process simply traded Pablo Escobar’s regime for that of the Cali cartel which was allowed to exist because it wasn’t engaging in full-blown warfare against the state. When I finished The Electric Kool-Aid Test, I felt like I had ridden the bus and Tom Wolfe had crafted a magical mystery tour that captured the essence of the 60’s. Mark Bowden doesn’t achieve anything similar for the era when coke was king.
Maybe, I’m crazy, but the picture above this paragraph really says it all. If you’re the kind of person that can take a visceral pleasure in a “by any means necessary” tale of revenge, then you’ll love this book. Mark Bowden will give you that machismo, action fix that you need. For the rest of us who believe that in order to have any moral imperative to decide when someone has crossed the line and become a criminal you have to follow your own rule of law, then you may be incredibly disturbed by what you read. Pablo Escobar was a terrible person and something had to be done to stop his rampant acts of terrorism. However, President Obama proved with the capture of Osama Bin Laden that you don’t have to sell your soul to stop the bad guys, and I wish that Mark Bowden simply had more to say on that subject. The book is upsettingly incomplete without that kind of commentary.
Final Score: B