Napoleon of Medellín

Edward Luttwak

  • Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Richest, Most Powerful Criminal in History by Mark Bowden
    Atlantic, 387 pp, £16.99, June 2001, ISBN 1 903809 00 2

Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (1949-93), the most talented and richest of Colombian drug bosses, lived his contradictions. A gold-framed portrait of the Virgin Mary hung over the bed in which he slept with teenage prostitutes, but he was devoted to his wife and family in the properly unconditional Latino manner. ‘Whether his concern for his parents or his children would overcome his stringent security consciousness is not clear,’ reads an excessively cautious CIA profile quoted by Mark Bowden: by then, Escobar was a hunted man, pursued by what might have been called a ‘binational, multi-agency task force’ had the Colombian and US drug police, signals-intelligence, national police and military units been better co-ordinated. With the many millions of dollars at his disposal, Escobar could easily have left Medellín and Colombia altogether: in South America there are still many places where one can live without papers and not too badly either, there are first-class plastic surgeons who will produce a better new face, and officials who will sell genuine identity cards and passports to fit it. But Escobar would not abandon his wife and children, whose lives were being threatened by a special Colombian police unit that was after him, acting by way of a convenient gang of supposedly volunteer vigilante terrorists. Escobar remained nearby so that he’d be able to protect them with his remaining network of gunslingers, lawyers, publicists and money-men. It took the most elaborate and costly manhunt ever mounted against a mere criminal 15 months to find him. He was immediately killed: his American and Colombian pursuers would trust no court to convict him, no prison to hold him, or indeed any politicians to administer the process. In 1991 he had surrendered voluntarily after successfully negotiating the passage of an anti-extradition law and his right to be held in a new prison built to his own design with all mod cons and a bit more, whose guards immediately became his servants, procurers, runners and agents.

Medellín, in the departemento of Antioquía in western Colombia, also lives its contradictions. Imagined by some as a landscape of slums and shacks in which pistoleros shoot it out over bags of cocaine – it does have a world-record murder rate – Medellín is one of the most attractive cities in Latin America, or anywhere, with its wonderful tropical-mountain climate (22 degrees year round), and its profusion of flowers, flowering bushes and flowering trees that embellish slums and new quarters alike. Even the commercial centre, of skyscrapers and office towers, has its imaginative architectural elements. As Colombia’s second largest city, with two million inhabitants, and commercial centre of the region’s industry, mining, ranching and agriculture, Medellín has rather more than its share of banks and even a local stock exchange, as well as an abundance of restaurants, nightclubs and hotels. There are some thirty non-stop and direct flights a day to Miami alone, a good indicator of the high level of economic activity even at a time of acute depression, and even now that Medellín is no longer the capital of the world’s drug trade, as it was in the 1980s, when Escobar was the boss of the eponymous ‘Cartel’.

Money alone is enough to provide office blocks, hotels and air traffic, whether it is flower money or drug money; but there is much more to Medellín than its money. The international poetry festival organised every year by the local literary magazine Prometeo ranges all the way from the upper reaches of folklore to experiments in Post-Modernism. Medellín’s thirty or so museums are not all well kept but neither are they inert: along with the several universities, and all sorts of other institutions, including the chamber of commerce, they serve as venues for a great many cultural associations large and small. Many cities of two million people elsewhere in the world can envy Medellín’s cultural dynamism. The people of Medellín and Antioquía are far removed from the siesta-Latino stereotype, being equally dynamic in work, crime and culture.

Mark Bowden’s own contradiction is central to this book, a sufficiently substantial work which need not have been further fattened by its inordinately large type. While inviting us to read about ‘the richest, most powerful criminal in history’, Bowden keeps harping on Escobar’s mediocrity, dismissing him as ‘just a thug’. That reflects his sources: not Colombian documents, but interviews with gringo DEA operatives, soldiers and other expressions of US officialdom, whose views he uncritically relays – he is a journalist who has tremendous respect for the salaried servants of the US Government sent to grapple with sinister foreigners in strange places. That is Bowden’s method, which ensured vast sales for Black Hawk Down, his highly readable account of the October 1993 Mogadishu raid by US Rangers and Delta commandos, which was meant to capture or kill the Somali warlord Mohammad Farah Aidid, but which ended with 18 dead soldiers, many more wounded, and hundreds of dead Somalis, without getting near to Aidid. By focusing on the sentiments of the protagonists, mostly young men in their first trial of combat excited to be in action with the veteran Deltas, and by vividly relaying their collated thoughts, statements and deeds as reported to him in interviews, Bowden converted the record of a foolish operation, badly planned, badly led and poorly executed, into a dramatic tale of heroism, evidently unaware of how a competent commando force might have acted, indeed under the illusion that he was writing about just such a force, as opposed to US Special Operations troops as they actually are, endowed with the fanciest equipment, very expensively trained, certainly brave, but deprived of vital operational experience by their superiors’ obsessive fear of casualties, and deprived of suitable officers by the West Point tradition of management first, leadership second, tactics last.

Bowden did not denigrate the Somalis as savages or anything of the kind – he even went to dangerous Mogadishu to find protagonists on the other side to give them their say – and if the Somalis are mostly presented as inexplicably reckless warriors, the products of an incomprehensibly combative culture, that is how they are seen by mostly everyone, including fellow Somalis in a reflective mood. The Colombians come off much worse in this book: Bowden sees them as being usually incompetent or corrupt, or both.

At one level, this is merely accurate reporting. The Colombian Armed Forces are indeed incompetent, in a country full of highly competent people. That is easily done: the generals use up their budgets to buy Mach 2 fighters and other baubles on which they get commissions, instead of spending it on the training and exercises that yield real combat power. As for corruption, Colombian politicians are more often venal than not, distinctly more so than in other Latino countries, if only because the oligopolistic drug trade can afford much higher bribery overheads than more legitimate businesses.

But in focusing on Latino vices in all that concerns the res publica, as gringos often do, Bowden misses the Latino res privata virtues, ranging from the family lives suffused with love which raise the income/ happiness ratio quite a bit, to a macho courage that also emboldens the imagination. He therefore entirely misses the point about Escobar, reporting a great many facts in detail but always from the viewpoint of the gringo operatives he interviewed – salaried and pensioned mediocrities who prudishly disapproved of Escobar’s sexual appetites while envying his ability to satisfy them at will, who ridiculed him as a fatso, and failed to comprehend the Napoleonic scope of a man who prevailed over all contenders to become the big boss in his twenties, who took time off from running the Cartel to run in a national Parliamentary election (he won), who wrote powerful indictments of Colombia’s non-justice system, and whose own version of the inevitable narco-traficante villa transcended the usual white marble columns and such with its multiple artificial lakes, a petting zoo with lions, elephants and hippos, and the equally imaginative entertainments for his many guests – for example, bona fide beauty queens racing naked for a prize Ferrari.

Escobar was of course more self-indulgent than the average DEA agent, and certainly had more fun than any one hundred of them, but he spent very much more than a Ferrari’s worth building public housing for Medellín’s poor, and was even more Napoleonic in his business affairs. It was Escobar who replaced precarious hops in light aircraft with direct flights to the US by large, multi-engine transports: the Cartel could afford to lose three for each one that got through – and hardly lost any. It was Escobar who pushed for more imaginative measures, such as the use of remote-controlled submarines for boat pick-ups at the other end, for new Mexican Pacific coast routes and who, more grandly, negotiated with both the Sandinistas (successfully) and General Noriega (unsuccessfully) to obtain forward bases of operation, in an attempt to leapfrog the ever-tighter US surveillance perimeter around Colombia. Escobar’s response to the threat of large-scale herbicide attacks on Colombia’s coca-leaf patches was just as Napoleonic: he sent his men into Peru to provide seeds, tools, horticultural instruction and interim living allowances to landless peasants and Lima slum-dwellers willing to try coca farming. The Pablo Escobar agricultural-extension scheme was an enormous success, unlike the World Bank’s disastrous projects: thousands went north to farm coca, and Peru soon outproduced Colombia itself.

It seems that Bowden’s informants had not even asked themselves how Escobar had risen to command the Medellín Cartel – their notion, which Bowden keeps repeating, that he did it all by being very violent, is absurd. There were a great many young punks in Medellín willing and able to kill when Escobar entered the cocaine business as a very young man; and not all of them were stupid, even though hardly any could have matched his wits. Escobar killed many, but not in order to fight his way to the top of the Cartel, because there was no such thing until he created it, contributing not an extra edge of violence to the coca protection racket (impossible), but the very opposite: a reliable insurance system. If you shipped on your own without paying the Cartel fee, Escobar had you killed. If you paid your fee, shipped with the Cartel and the merchandise was intercepted, the Cartel refunded all your costs, allowing you to try again. Anybody could have a go at extorting money from the visibly very rich coca traffickers who enlivened Medellín’s nightlife, but only Escobar could credibly insure their business, while Cartel membership alone provided incidental protection from the many unaffiliated punks and gunslingers. That is very different from normal protection rackets, whose membership is wholly enforced because it offers no rewards.

It was the same combination of threats and incentives that kept Escobar safe from the Colombian courts and police until the Americans got into the act: plomo o plata, ‘lead or silver’. Bribery was hardly Escobar’s invention, nor was the intimidation and murder of judges or policemen, then as now a common occurrence in Colombia. But Escobar offered both, leaving the choice to his victims and always keeping his word either way. Almost all preferred to live with a bit of extra change in their pockets. It was simple, but it was new; and it worked.

There was another Napoleonic venture which the US Government now has excellent reasons to recollect wistfully. Under pressure from the Farc guerrillas, who were moving into the Cartel’s coca-growing areas to tax them for themselves, Escobar hired world-class combat instructors to train his own armed units, which defeated the flyblown guerrillas in one clash after another, until they retreated into the jungle once again. Denied coca revenues, the Farc remained a marginal threat, less important in those days than the ELN in the north-east, which attacked oil pipelines to extract payoffs, as it still does. Once again, Escobar showed that unlike most people who have a lot of money, he knew how to spend it well. In need of military strength, he did not waste his money buying fancy equipment, helicopters and such (the US is now acquiring these things for the Colombians), but went for the real thing: serious, British-style infantry training, the very thing the Colombian Army still lacks. Having now moved into the coca-growing areas to tax both crops and shipments, the same Farc that Escobar repelled with ease has become Colombia’s most intractable threat, and is even now entangling the United States in one more counter-insurgency campaign. ‘The Colombian Labyrinth’ is the title of the inevitable Rand study. (No doubt they wanted to avoid calling it a ‘quagmire’.) It documents the explosive growth of the Farc from just 3600 men in 1986, when Escobar was at the height of his power and they had no coca money, to nearly twenty thousand now. Naturally, they have all the weapons they can use, and also the money to buy influence in the capital.

That is how the US Government is living its contradictions. Having killed Escobar with the notable assistance of the volunteer vigilante terrorists, Los Pepes, it destroyed the Medellín Cartel only to find that the business had merely been shifted to the Cali Cartel, which not coincidentally was behind Los Pepes. So the futile war started once again, this time against the Cali Cartel, which was duly dismantled after years of vast effort, only to give way to many much less visible networks of small operators, who ship as much cocaine as before. But there is one difference: under Escobar the Medellín Cartel was willing and able to keep the Farc guerrillas in remote jungle hideouts, while the post-Escobar networks of independents pay their dues to the Farc, leaving the job of fighting them to the ill-prepared Colombian Army today, and perhaps US Forces tomorrow.

The greater contradiction, however, is the notion that it’s even worth trying to prevent the inflow of exotic drugs extracted from plants. In 1999, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the drug cops of state, county and municipal police forces discovered 2700 methamphetamine laboratories in California, another six hundred in the State of Washington, four hundred in Arizona and so on down the list of all 50 states including Alaska. On 15 August 2001, the DEA announced the triumphant conclusion of Operation Silent Thunder, in which a hundred or so Federal agents and local detectives found ‘more than a dozen large methamphetamine laboratories’ in and around Los Angeles. But the expected total for the year – in California alone – is again expected to exceed two thousand laboratories, most of them presumably not ‘large’, for otherwise the production of methamphetamine would outrank every other manufacturing industry in California.

Methamphetamine may be especially in demand of late – one can never know such things with any certainty – but it is only one of many compounds that have been declared illegal over the years: ‘huge’ seizures recently announced featured Ecstasy tablets imported from Amsterdam; more novel novelties have long since surfaced, and even venerable LSD still has its fans. Such molecules were born illegal but others become so. In slack times, local drug cops can always keep themselves busy by investigating the nearest hospital, to uncover the inevitable diversions of prescription medicines of the mind-bending variety to paying customers or just friends. All this merely proves that there is no need of traditional drugs extracted from exotic plants to keep hopheads happy and the DEA and Co. in business.

But the top priority of the DEA and other drug hunters is still very much the traditional drugs, not least because they are trafficked by swarthy Latinos, wily Levantines or sinister Orientals, at least in the popular imagination that reflects media depictions – the DEA and Co. have no reason to challenge this perception because it adds greatly to public support for enforcement. Seizures of marijuana, cocaine and heroin shipments, the arrest of dealers large and small, continue to be announced on a daily basis, along with the discovery of marijuana plantations in cropped fields, national forests, southland hothouses and illuminated basements all over the United States. Many Americans (there are no exact statistics) are in prison for simple possession, unalloyed with any other crime, but possession arrests are rarely the subject of press releases. Unless local police are having fun by suborning student-agents to stage yet another ‘campus-wide crackdown’, or more fun still by frequenting discos and nightclubs in zero-risk undercover operations to catch drug use in the act (by spying on strip-teasers’ changing-rooms in one recent case) in a ‘vice-city clean-up’, possession arrests are mere routine – a matter of stopping and searching cars driven too fast, or too slowly, by younger drivers at party time, especially if they are black.

The sheer monotony of it all should long ago have extinguished media interest even in the DEA’s more elaborate operations, but its well-staffed press offices – they are, after all, the DEA’s budget-enhancing profit centres – still succeed in attracting media coverage by reusing the same standard trick to inflate success claims (seized wholesale drugs are invariably valued at far higher street prices) and by supplying well-produced action photographs and video clips of agents storming in, kicking down doors, and striking assault poses with shotguns and sub-machine guns. The drug cops learn new tricks from the TV cop series they obsessively watch, just as TV cop-series scriptwriters hang out with drug cops to hear their stories.

Drug-war entertainment may be bad, indifferent or even good, but the reportage is a continuing scandal of misrepresentation. Simply by conceding column inches and scarce TV-news minutes to these stories, media editors implicitly affirm their significance and validate the enforcement effort, even though, like most Americans, they know perfectly well that enforcement is not merely ineffective, inefficient, insufficient and incomplete but 100 per cent futile. The thoroughly documented long-term decline in the price of all illegal drugs – even cocaine, once the luxury white powder of the rich and fashionable, can now be consumed by the poorest of the poor in crack form – evidently reflects a continuing expansion in their supply from sources both foreign and domestic.

For now, it is only marijuana that is being grown increasingly within the United States, reducing the interception of imported marijuana to mere protectionism. With no need of any swarthy Latinos, wily Levantines or sinister Orientals, all manner of ordinary Americans grow the stuff as best they can – it has, for example, become one more part-time hillbilly trade along with distilling and hunting venison out of season. Others do much more than just water their plants: some deserve PhDs in Marijuana Studies for their amazing feats of scientific horticulture and hydroponics. Easily circumventing all supposed climatic and soil requirements, these fine American growers produce resins which beat the best stuff that ever came out of Mexico or Morocco. They could certainly produce coca leaf and opium poppies as well, but it is the failure of interception in spite of all claims of success that precludes domestic production – it couldn’t possibly compete with ever cheaper imports.

While domestic enforcement is a fraud perpetrated against the taxpayers who subsidise unmerited salaries and fringe benefits, all sorts of fancy equipment and fancier operations (DEA and FBI agents routinely travel about in executive jets), interception at the borders by the US Customs Service and Coast Guard is not merely useless: it strongly favours the bigger outfits that can afford the loss of any one aircraft or ship. That was the rationale of Escobar’s Cartel, of its Cali imitators, and of the Mexican cartels that started off as Escobar’s subsidiaries, as of big drug bosses in general. What makes them different from the little guy with a bit of merchandise is that they can and do corrupt policemen, judges and politicians.

Until 11 September, every arm of the security bureaucracy – the CIA, the FBI, the Armed Forces and the Coast Guard – were involved to a greater or lesser extent, under the hapless overall control of the DEA, in the war on drugs, which mostly took a higher priority than the prevention of terrorism. But things are changing dramatically and the sudden redeployment of resources is consistent with the growing view that decriminalising drugs and abandoning a war on that front are the most sensible way forward.

Bowden, however, likes his DEA, CIA and US Military sources and therefore validates their futile striving in the service of policies that cannot succeed in stopping the flow of drugs, but which inflict enormous collateral damage, by way of mass imprisonment within the United States, and criminalisation abroad, starting right across the Mexican border in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. It is a general principle of strategy that even effective tactical conduct will turn out to be counter-productive if the ultimate goal is mistaken. The Pearl Harbor air strike was a brilliant feat but turned out to be a disaster for Japan because it had no strategy for winning the war: Japan would have been much better off had the operation been a total fiasco of missed bombs and errant torpedoes, prompting American ridicule rather than a furious mobilisation. It was the same for the tactics that killed Escobar. Because it was not step one of a winning strategy, there being no such strategy, the United States and Colombia would now be far better off if Bowden’s heroes had been lazy, incompetent and corrupt, and the coca that still comes in unimpeded was paying for Escobar’s divertissements rather than for the guerrillas and counter-guerrillas who are destroying lives and hopes in Colombia.