Narco Nabobs

Malcolm Deas on Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar, the world’s most famous drug smuggler, was finally found and killed by the Colombian police on 2 December 1993. Among journalists everywhere he was popular to the end. Most of the reports of his death invoked Robin Hood, and spoke of the mourning of the Medellín poor; and many local people did indeed turn out for his funeral. It was reported and photographed – cries of ‘Pablo, Pablo’, vengeance in the air, grieving sister dressed in black with elbows on coffin – so as to make Medellín appear as much as possible like some people’s idea of Sicily. Most of the expressions of admiration for Escobar, however, should be attributed to a willingness to live up to the questioner’s expectations, or to the Colombian habit of mamando gallo, or keeping one’s end up by saying and doing disrespectful things. The funeral was obviously an occasion not to be missed. A good turnout was not necessarily evidence of grief, but of a readiness to keep in their place authorities who might otherwise think that they had achieved something for which they should be congratulated. Congratulating governments has not figured much in the local political culture, and the national government has not been particularly popular in Medellin in recent years.

In any case, Escobar ended up much more like the Sheriff of Nottingham than Robin Hood – with much more murder to his credit and much less largesse. His victims can be split into a number of groups: rivals, intransigent officials and politicians, over four hundred members of the Medellín police, guerrillas, revolutionaries and peasants who got in the way and were massacred by mercenary paramilitaries, and several hundred innocent bystanders. The largest group, however, is of those killed less directly by the drug trade and the increasing violence that accompanies it. There are no precise figures for drug-related homicide in Colombia, but there is a clear correlation, both chronological and geographical, between the development of the trade and the statistics of violent death. To take a recent example, the spread of amapola, a poppy grown for heroin, has turned a number of previously somnolent small highland towns into miniature Medellíns. Most of the victims are unimportant people, many of them unnamed. In Medellín there are thousands of such casualties. These people had families and friends, who are probably not now mourning Escobar.

For a time Escobar seemed to have a political project in mind. He figured on a local Liberal Party list in the not very glorious position of substitute member of the Chamber of Representatives. The Medellín cartel’s leading figure in the central Department of Cundinamarca, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, known as ‘the Mexican’ because of his liking for that country, actually had himself elected to the municipal council of Pacho, the centre of his operations. Perhaps it is a heartening feature of the Republic’s politics that even such grandees of the drug-trade felt that they had to start near the bottom. Apart from their tendency to gratify every caprice, it is not clear why they bothered: these positions gave them no additional power and precious little respectability.

Escobar declared on one occasion that his fortune ‘had a social function’, a phrase taken from a famous Liberal amendment in the Thirties to the Constitution of 1886. He predictably cast himself as a nationalist and, in later letters which he sent to the Government, as a defender of his Department. The Medellín police, mostly drawn from elsewhere in the country, were foreigners, he declared, from whom the young of the region must be protected. Escobar’s mind worked well enough in providing him with rationalisations for his activities. When he was fighting his wars, he felt the need to portray his opponents as ignoble, corrupt, basely motivated and treasonable – no ‘social function’ for them.

This was hardly a political project, however. What was more apparent in Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha was a limitless appetite for domination. Rodríguez Gacha was a compulsive land-buyer: his offers could not be refused and sellers were lucky to be paid more than the first instalment. Some explain his purchases as forming strategic corridors related to the logistics of his business, of the various flows of drugs and chemicals and arms; but it is more likely that he wished to be lord of all he surveyed, and as he surveyed from a helicopter the boundaries were set wider and wider. He even toyed with the idea of assassinating President Bush, when he made a brief and heavily protected visit to Cartagena. It would have pleased Rodríguez Gacha to know that a mariachi band performed at his wake (following his death at the hands of the police in December 1989), and sang one chorus which goes something like ‘Si logró hacerse un personaje nacional’ – ‘Yes, he did make himself a national figure.’ Both men, incidentally, adhered to family values. On his final run from the police Rodríguez Gacha feared that they had tracked him by following his favourite son, while the telephone calls that gave Escobar away were made to his wife.

In retrospect, the geographical extent of their power in the country was not so great. The accounts of the last days of ‘the Mexican’ on the coast show that he was, once outside his accustomed inland territory, a rather pathetic figure. One of the reasons Escobar lasted so long was that he stuck to his own patch.

It is usually taken for granted that the effects of such large sums of money coming into such ruthless hands must be overwhelming, and that narcotraficantes can buy most politicians and institutions – just as it was once feared that the nabobs, not entirely uninvolved in the drug business themselves, would monopolise Old Corruption and buy up the rotten boroughs of unreformed Britain. Most politicians are not heroes, in Colombia or elsewhere, and many have temporised and will go on temporising with the drug business, as they do with guerrillas. If you want to survive and go on getting votes, you have to adapt.

Yet the broader political effects of drugs in Columbia are perhaps fewer than is commonly assumed. There is a limit to what most narcos want from the political system. They don’t want to be extradited to the United States – a demand that was satisfied by the 1991 Constituent Assembly. (Influence had been brought to bear on the vote by individual threat and blandishment, and by bombs and assassinations, but one should also remember that all countries, including some of our close partners in the European Union, are reluctant to extradite, and even to the dispassionate Colombian US justice does not look all that impartial when it comes to sentencing Colombians.) They want to carry on the business, or perhaps get out of it at minimum cost. Few, contemplating the failed careers of Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha, now want fame or public office or public power.

It is also clear that a politician with national ambitions cannot afford to be seen to be involved with the drug trade. Even a cynic ought to recognise that this sets limits on any clandestine involvement: there are few secrets in Colombia. Many politicians still have national ambitions; large numbers aspire to the thankless task of governing the country. It may be painful being president, it is said locally, but it is nice being an ex-president.

The major damage drugs have inflicted on the Colombian political system is not the direct corruption of less important politicians, but the difficulties and distractions that the trade and its consequences place in the way of governing the nation.

Drugs have made it a much more dangerous country, because of violence directly and indirectly related to the trade, and because drugs have given a shot in the arm, so to speak, to guerrilla movements that were previously declining. (One of President Reagan’s ambassadors to Colombia. Lewis Tambs, was the first to draw attention to this connection around 1984, and was roundly denounced as a reactionary saboteur of the local peace process. Nobody now denies the importance of the connection, not even the guerrillas.) Drugs also distract. No government has infinite resources of talent, will, concentration or analytical power, and the more of these resources it has to spend on the continual and acute problems posed by people like Escobar the less well equipped it is to face other problems. And then there is the fact that the whole business of government is made more complicated and more uncertain by the massive generation of suspicion and mistrust.

There is also the problem of Escobar’s money, of how much he had and what he did with it. We can forget Forbes Magazine and its ranking of various narcos among the world’s richest 500. (Does it have any real means of assessing them? Obviously not. And why doesn’t it chance its arm with some more familiar figures in Las Vegas, or Reno or New Jersey? Prudence or modesty?) One recent Colombian study quotes a piece of folk-wisdom: ‘poco creo en salud de viejo y riqueza de mafioso’ – ‘I don’t much believe in the health of the old or the riches of mafiosi.’ Their incomes and fortunes are easily exaggerated. Their expenses are forgotten: private armies (the old baronial offence of maintenance) are expensive, even small ones. So are lawyers, friends in moderately high – and low – places, relations and many other narco necessities and tastes. In some cases these included the occasional munificent gesture, though most narcos simply despise anyone less rich than themselves.

Nor do they show much entrepreneurial flair in the investments they choose, which are frequently unproductive, or managed unproductively. With their predilection for urban property, land, paso fino (Creole dressage) horses and decorative cattle, one sometimes feels that they are in danger of laying themselves open to charges of assisting in the ‘decline of the industrial spirit’ similar to those levelled against our own upper classes and universities in progressive seminars and Conservative centres for policy study. The study I quoted above characterises the typical narcoempresario as avoiding both the dangers of conventional speculation and the bother of industrial enterprise, as being ‘bold in making money but profoundly conservative in investing it and making a capitalist return’. At the same time the narcos are easily attracted to ostentatiously up-to-date technology, as can be seen in the garages of Cali, a favourite local narco-investment: immaculate and futuristic ‘diagnostic centres’ which little of the local road traffic can possibly live up to.

The opinions of local economists differ as to how much the local economy has benefitted, just as they differ about the size of the Colombian end of the trade. Few of them, understandably enough, manage to sound altogether neutral. There would be broad agreement among the majority that the Colombian economy is much more diversified and less dependent on drugs than that of Bolivia or Peru, and that the country’s avoidance of excessive foreign indebtedness, and continued modest economic growth in the Eighties, are not to be explained by cocaine income. There is an increasing awareness of that income’s negative side effects: it discourages foreign investment and encourages the flight of local capital; it sustains the peso at too high a rate; drug money flows in when the economy doesn’t need it and out when it does, and makes the management of the economy that much harder; drug-based investment produces unfair competition that destroys legitimate businesses; drug money brings patterns of consumption that, taste apart, are economically undesirable. So leaving aside all the deaths, a good case can he made that drugs have done the local economy no good, that without them it would have done better.

One occasionally hears the argument that Colombia, and particularly Medellín, somehow deserved Escobar, that his career was some sort of protest against a ‘closed society’. In Bello, a satellite of Medellín, there is a carefully preserved choza, or hovel, which is the birthplace of Marco Fidel Suárez, the illegitimate son of a washerwoman who was president of the country seventy-five years ago. Some naive Colombians used to think Suárez’s career was evidence of social mobility, though one was more frequently told that it wasn’t, because his contemporaries despised him for his origins, because he was a nit-picking old pedant, because he was an old toady who favoured following the lead of the United States. In the face of this sort of criticism Colombian society obviously can’t win. One is reminded of Suárez when one hears the curious complaint that Escobar was not welcomed into polite circles.

President Gaviria, who once appeared in a caricature on the cover of the LRB that not so subtly blended his features with Escobar’s, pointed out a few days before Escobar’s death that vague academic talk about the world legalisation of cocaine was of little immediate relevance, that his task was to defend democracy, not to legalise crime.

Let me raise the tone. I recently came across a passage in Mill’s Representative Government (1861), which contains some typical reflections on the incapacities of the ‘selfish and sordid factions’ which ‘in Spanish America, keep the country in a state of chronic revolution and civil war’, where ‘the name and forms of representation ... have no effect but to prevent despotism from attaining the stability and security by which alone its evils can he mitigated, or its few advantages realised.’ Mill compares the Spanish Americans unfavourably to the Greeks, who had the advantage of ‘an hereditary king’, and thus, despite the defects of their Parliament, a better chance of enjoying ‘the publicity and discussion which, though not an invariable, are a natural accompaniment of any, even nominal, representation’.

The comparison with those lucky Greeks may seem quaint, and the distant condescension is still familiar, but Mill was right about the fundamental importance of preserving ‘publicity and discussion’. Escobar was no friend of that.