Friday, August 25, 2006

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden

Pablo Escobar was one of the richest people in the world during 80s and 90s. His enormous wealth did not come from legal means. It did not even come from arms business which is many times semi-legal at best.. Escobar's all wealth came from pure and clean drug trade. He was the king of cocaine.

At one point he had so much clout that he was indeed the one who called shots in Columbia. His drug trade had made him a billionaire and more. His lifestyle was comparable to any king. He was capable of getting rid of anyone who dared to cross his path. It may sound unbelievable today but he got many important persons such as a presidential candidate,  judge investigating cases against him, many cops, his rivals among others. He knew what gangsters learn very fast that it is the fear of death and destruction that created more panic than anything else. So, he made every killing a sensational one.

He had several jets for drug trafficking purposes. He had several private airfields in Columbia and many other neighboring countries. His main destination was US. With a well oiled organization he flooded the US with cocaine. Occasionally, he had his own shipments seized just to divert attention from bigger shipments and what not.

This book focuses on the manhunt for Escobar which ultimately resulted him being shot dead. Escobar was able to manipulate national and international community using his enormous wealth and political patronage which was for sale. But, extraordinary violence he used to deal with his problem became impossible to bear even for people who would have allowed him to carry his activities if he were do them quietly. With several bombings and other acts of meaningless violence he had become such a big pain that a surgery was needed to get rid of him.

During the course of time he also fell out with the US for whatever reasons. US which had Manuel Noriega of Panama hauled to Miami to stand trial wanted to do the same with Escobar too. Escobar somehow managed to negotiate surrender with the Colombian government in lieu of extradition to the US. The constitution was amended to make it impossible for anyone to be extradited from Columbia.

At that time US had a change of policy related to covert operations. After having retreated from a disaster in Somalia, the new Clinton administration was hesitant to get involved directly  to deal with Escobar on foreign soil. Otherwise a clandestine operation mounted by elite commandos would have gotten rid of him in no time. US decided to make all training and infrastructure available to the Columbian forces to track and kill  Escobar. But, they were not able to make good use of it. Of course, Escobar had informers everywhere.

Although the US policy prevented covert operations on the foreign soil, US retained the right to hit back against anyone anywhere if the person  caused harm to the US interests. Escobar provided ample opportunities for that.

Even within  Columbia opposition was mounting from government and competition. Even people who were generally okay with Escobar's narcotics business were feeling that he was maniac and created unnecessary violence. They created many rivals and vigilante groups to go after Escobar and his interests. Vigilantes killed many of his top aides one by one. There was a tit for tat for every Escobar attack. They showed him that he too had soft spots  and when hit there, he too withered. They targeted his lawyers, his relatives  and his business partners.

All this  drove Escobar to desperation. His empire had crumbled. He was trying to hide in a slum. He stopped using cell phone after realizing that Columbian police had started tracking his movements  and started using radiophones with complex array of transmitters, re-trainsmitters. Also, he spoke on the phone while traveling in a car. So, even if his coordinates were detected, he was gone from there when the search team arrived at the location.

Finally the technical people with advanced gadgetry supplied US defense forces conned Escobar to be on the phone for long enough time for them to locate him for the operation. Escobar who was taking maximum precaution to avoid tracing somehow got carried away and stayed on the phone for long enough for elite commandos storm the place and gun him down with his accomplices. Thus came the end of one of the most notorious criminals in the history of humanity.

Mark Bowden who wrote best seller 'Black Hawk Down' which dealt with US operation that went sour in Somalia wrote this book also. Very well written and balanced. In order to avoid coming across as repetition of all the info available about Escobar, Bowden does a good job of tracing his growth as how Escobar became what he became, his lavish lifestyle, his operational excellence in transporting drugs in old Boeing passenger planes with their seats removed etc. makes a very interesting read.

As far as I could recall there has been no one like Escobar who held his country to ransom and looked all too powerful only to be chased and hunted like an animal. You know, many people have drawn parallels between Escobar and Indian mob boss Dawood Ibrahim. If you just compare their lavish lifestyles, of course, you can put a whole bunch of mob guys in the same club. But, that's where the comparison ends. Escobar did not have to live as a virtual prisoner as Dawood has to live in Pakistan or wherever his masters choose to put him. The comparison of their expensive tastes be it wine or cigar or food or women, I think they shared common interests. Both men appealed to some of the best pimps in the world, had their harems filled with all variety and sowed their wild oats anywhere and everywhere. Dawood continues to live and probably will for good years to come. Despite US, UN etc. designating him as global terrorist nothing much has changed for him. Plane loads of goodies (including moles) continue to be ferried for his pleasure from Bombay even today right under the nose of authorities.

Nice book. Audio version read by the author is also nice.


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