Category: Literary Journalism

Killing Pablo

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 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

I’m already regretting my decision to preface my review of the video game, El Shaddai: Ascent of the Metatron, with a series of quotes that I associate with the 1960’s psychedelic movement. I don’t regret that decision because I’ve decided that El Shaddai wasn’t “trippy” enough to warrant that introduction but because I’ve come across a book that is so inherently psychedelic and acid-soaked in nature that only the product of that time could ever really introduce the book’s contents. I recently finished Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it has instantly become my new favorite nonfiction book that I’ve ever read, it is simply in competition for one of my favorite books period. Channeling the manic energy and hallucinatory nature of the era, Tom Wolfe has fashioned the ultimate account of the hippie generation with language and details that immerse you so deeply in their world, you may leave the book with a contact high.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is a chronicle of one very specific subset of the hippie movement of the 1960’s. Actually, you could say that this story follows the progenitors of the entire San Francisco hippie scene. Beginning with the release of noted author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) from prison for a marijuana charge and at the height of his reputation as the Godfather of the West coast psychedelic movement, the book is mostly spent in flashbacks to Kesey’s founding of a group known as the Merry Pranksters. After being exposed to LSD as part of a government experiment in the 1950’s, Kesey became an immediate disciple of the powers of “mind-expansion” and began to introduce it to his circle of literary friends and eventually to a whole generation of “heads”. Recruiting a group of fellow “believers”, Kesey embarked on a cross-country bus ride in a multi-colored Day Glo bus named “Furthur” on a trip to experience America and spread the word. Known for their elaborate costumes and aggressive promotion of acid, the Pranksters gained a reputation across the entire country that put them in touch with the law, Hells’ Angels, and was responsible for the success of the Grateful Dead.

The book is absolutely chock full of memorable characters and incidents. Ken Kesey will instantly draw you in with his sheer charisma and eccentricity, contrasted with his general down-to-Earthness (relatively speaking) as conveyed through Wolfe’s engaging writing style. For fans of beat generation classic, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, one of the principal protagonists of the book has his real life inspiration in Neal Cassady, the bus driver and hyper-active perpetual motion machine. There’s the arrogant acid manufacturer Owlsley, who ends up having a bad trip on his own acid. You get Mountain Girl, the youngest (at first) of Kesey’s devotees who isn’t afraid to go toe to toe with the Hells’ Angels and earn the respect of the most bad ass group of bikers in the country. You’ll meet Sandy Lehman-Haupt, the young sound engineer who will forever revolutionize all of the noises and sound effects you associate with the “acid rock” era while simultaneously battling his own inner demons under the influence of a not inconsiderable amount of acid. And this list is only really beginning to scratch the surface of all of the crazy and colorful characters who inhabit Wolfe’s pages.

Wolfe’s biggest strength, besides the simply fascinating nature of his true story, is the way, much like Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that he places you in the mindset of his characters through beautifully descriptive language. This isn’t a cut and dry account of a bunch of hippies going on a road trip across the country. Through extensive interviews with the participants of the trip as well as substantial access to their large vaults of recordings of the trip, Wolfe uses his language as a way to let you know what this trip was like for those on the trip. You read it, and you almost get an idea of what it’s like to be these characters and be zonked out of your mind on LSD. He describes both the visual effects of their drug use but also the spiritual and emotional effects in such vivid terms, that you can’t help but feel as if you were there. By the end of this book, you feel as if you’ve ingested everything the characters ingested and that you’ve been on this massive spiritual and physical journey across America. Honestly, if you can read this and not feel a little bit curious about what was inspiring all of this madness, then you might be about as square as they get.

For any one who was part of the 1960’s social upheaval or any kids my age who just always felt they were born in the wrong era, this is a must read. Tom Wolfe writes in a simple and unpretentious prose so you don’t feel a need to constantly reach for a dictionary; yet that doesn’t stop his diction and vocabulary from being exquisitely beautiful and/or evocative. For those with more right-leaning political beliefs, this book will probably offend you and just re-confirm every negative suspicion you had about the hippies, but for those of you who are a little more open-minded and curious, you could find your long-held beliefs and presuppositions about the era challenged and bettered through Wolfe’s hard-hitting journalism. It’s one of those great books that isn’t too difficult to get through, as compared to Gravity’s Rainbow, but it still leaves you with so much to think about and analyze when you’re done. It’s a classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A+