Mark Bowden was interviewing a retired U.S. military officer for his book Black Hawk Down when a framed photograph caught his eye. In it, a group of jubilant solthers posed around the corpse of a bloody, fat man. Curious, Bowden asked about the picture. “That, my friend, is Pablo Escobar,” the officer said to Bowden. “I keep that on my wall to remind me that no matter how rich you get in this life, you can still be too big for your britches.”

Bowden realized he had just stumbled onto something big. Here was a picture of the just-slain Pablo Escobar in the possession of a retired U.S. military officer. Obviously, the United States had been a lot more active in hunting down the Colombian drug lord than most people knew. Bowden spent the next few years unearthing the story. His book, Killing Pablo, is an exciting and informative piece of investigative journalism that raises troubling questions about America’s use of covert forces throughout the world.

Colombia’s cocaine-trafficking pioneers were not like Pablo Escobar; rather, according to Bowden, they were “playboys, relatively well educated Colombians who considered themselves fashionable and smart.” But as the popularity of cocaine soared in the United States, the playboys began to make a lot of money. “Whenever that much money is being made illegally,” writes Bowden, “it attracts sharks.” When Escobar elbowed into the cocaine business, he was already well known in Medellin as a vicious street thug. After the local cocaine chief in Medellin turned up murdered, the playboy traffickers were amazed to find that they now worked for Pablo Escobar.

In short order, Escobar and his Medellin cartel were running Colombia’s cocaine business. Escobar

oversaw their delivery routes, exacting a tax on every kilo shipped. It was pure muscle, an old-fashioned syndicate, but the result was to create for the first time a unified and streamlined cocaine industry.

Solidifying the business also meant spreading seeds of corruption. Judges, politicians, and the police could either accept Escobar’s bribes, or they could die with their principles.

If Escobar’s rise sounds like an echo from America’s Prohibition past, it should. With the use of a profitable but illegal substance as his ladder, Escobar murdered and bribed his way to the top. Escobar, however, outdistanced his Prohibition-era ancestors—with the possible exception of the Kennedy family—by miles and miles. By the 1980’s, Escobar was not only rich, he was Bill Gates rich, his status affirmed by Forbes, which ranked him among the ten wealthiest men in the world. And, in 1982, Escobar won a seat in Colombia’s congress as a substitute delegate. He was, as they say, The Man.

Bowden does not spend much time retracing Escobar’s ascendancy, which works fine. It only takes a few dozen pages to persuade readers that Escobar was a revolting human being, a pervert with a Caligulan sexual appetite, and a beast who relied on murder the way a pitcher relies on his fast ball. For those of us ignorant of Colombian history, Bowden includes a brief section on Colombia’s tradition of nurturing violence and outlaws, and Escobar’s place within that tradition.

Had it not been for America’s hardening stance toward drugs in the 1980’s, Escobar might still be alive: McDonald’s-obese, ordering teenage prostitutes the way we order pizza for delivery. Cocaine was fashionable in the United States, but we were officially at war against drugs and just saving “no.” Remorseful yuppies took to the airwaves in anti-drug commercials, sharing stories of how they lost their families, homes, and BMW’s to the evil white powder. It was all so terrible, and men like Pablo Escobar were to blame. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the United States began strong-arming Colombia to stop the drug lords from corrupting our people.

Colombia, or at least those parts of the country not on Escobar’s payroll, reluctantly went to war against the Medellin cartel. It soon became obvious that Escobar’s money had corrupted the nation’s institutions. The poor revered him as a hero fighting to overthrow Colombia’s class system, and, Bowden reports, Escobar even enjoyed the support of many in the Catholic Church. Those who turned down Escobar’s money faced assassination. Thousands (including judges, politicians, journalists, and police officers) were murdered while the manhunt for Escobar dragged on. Three of five presidential candidates in the 1989 election were assassinated, and a fourth escaped after the jetliner he was supposed to be riding in was blown out of the sky. More than a hundred innocent people died in that attack.

Clearly, Colombia could not subdue the monster without help. Had the United States been asked, enlightened thinkers here probably would have suggested that we parachute the 82nd Airborne division into Colombia to root out the drug lords. But Colombia was a land buzzing with anti-American sentiment, and President Bush was limited, at first, to sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and, later, to dispatching a gaggle of covert forces.

Bowden’s sketch of the U.S. armada used to track Escobar is one of the more humorous sections of Killing Pablo. As the Cold War was winding down, every U.S. agency that had relied on the communist menace for funding was now scrambling to find new enemies and more money. Drug lords, it seems, suited their needs.

Every direction-finding, surveillance, and imagery team in the arsenal descended on Medellin. The air force sent RC-135s, C-130s adapted for sophisticated imagery, U-2s and SR-71s. The navy sent P-3 spy planes. The CIA, which already had its own two-prop De Havilland over Colombia, now sent Schweizer, a remarkable machine that looked like a big glider and could stay silently aloft over a target for hours on end. . . . There were so many American spy planes over Medellin, at one point seventeen in the air together, that the air force had to assign an AWACs, an airborne warning-and-control center, to keep track of them.

Escobar met his end on December 2, 1995, gunned down as he fled one of his Medellin hideouts. A DEA agent took a photograph of the kill, the same photograph that piqued Bowden’s interest. Officially, Colombian police killed Escobar. But there will always be questions about who was or wasn’t there on that final day. According to Bowden, some on hand say U.S. Delta Force operatives were at the scene; others say it was simply a Colombian operation. U.S. Special Forces had spent months training Colombia’s police in the techniques of manhunting. For them, Escobar’s demise meant success. But in terms of U.S. policy goals, it meant nothing. Escobar’s death killed the Medellin cartel, but the Cali cartel stepped into the breach, and the drugs continued to flow north.

As an investigative journalist, Bowden had a responsibility to dig up the facts and tell a good story. By those standards, Killing Pablo is indisputably a journalistic success. There remain, however, plenty of questions for readers to ponder.

America’s ravenous appetite for cocaine, combined with its prohibition of the substance, created monsters like Pablo Escobar. Had circumstances been different, Escobar might never have been known outside of Medellin. As it was, he became a threat to democracy and justice. The Americans who hunted Escobar, Bowden writes, knew that bringing him down would have no impact on the amount of drugs going north. Thus, our frontline troops in the drug war realized they were losing, even as they beat Escobar. In fact, the campaign against Escobar probably exacerbated the drug problem. While the hunt was on, members of the Cali cartel gladly assisted in bringing down Escobar’s Medellin cartel, whose destruction helped Cali burrow deeper into Colombia’s institutions.

The men who hunted Escobar justified their mission as an effort to weed out a disgusting human, a man who had grown too big for his britches. But targeting objectionable individuals, whether they be drug lords or terrorists, is purely symbolic. Humanity is cursed with a vast supply of men like Escobar—too many to kill one at a time. From one angle, Killing Pablo is the exciting story of the hunt for a human pig. From another, it’s the story of one more U.S. foreign-policy blunder.


[Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw, by Mark Bowden (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press) 296 pp., $25.00]