Hunt for Pablo Escobar Reveals Drug War’s Brutal Reality


EspañolFrom the late 1980s until 1993, Colombia and the United States chased the biggest drug trafficker that had ever existed: Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, AKA the “Doctor.” After his death, drug-trafficking cartels in Colombia were restructured, shifting the balance of power in the drug trade.

The following books are but three in a vast library published on the life, rise, and fall of the Colombian drug lord, as well as the culture that shaped this emblematic figure.

Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden provides an analytical perspective on the life and death of Pablo Escobar.
Mark Bowden provides an analytical perspective on the life and death of Pablo Escobar. (Amazon)

Mark Bowden writes one of the most comprehensive analyses of the phenomenon that Pablo Escobar represented. Bowden divides the book into six chapters, narrating the various phases of the war against Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. The story spans several years, from the time the Doctor blew up an Avianca plane in midair, through the era of “Los Pepes” — a paramilitary group formed by other drug lords that also sought to kill Escobar — until the day he died.

The book begins with an introduction to Colombian society and its way of life in 1948. With a brief but direct summary of events, Bowden explains how the assassination of charismatic politician and former presidential candidate Jorge Eléicer Gaitán changed Colombia.

The murder of Eléicer Gaitán led to a series of violent protests that became known as the “Bogotazo.” These events sparked one of the bloodiest periods in Colombian history called “La Violencia,” a time of national instability and a 10-year civil war between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. It was this period in history, which left between 200,000 and 300,000 dead, that shaped the personality of Pablo Escobar.

Through the pages of Killing Pablo, Bowden gradually pieces together Escobar’s complex personality. He explains Escobar’s cold indifference when committing murder, his strategic mind, and above all, his need to be a “benefactor” to his people. Bowden tells the tale of a man who desired to be recognized, respected, admired, and feared all at the same time, set to the background of counter-narcotics policies in the United States and Colombia during the 1980s.

The United States plays an important role in this book. It was the military and economic engine behind the hunt for Escobar. One of the main characters in the book is Steve Jacoby, a US citizen and leader of the group Centra Spike, a spy unit specializing in electronic surveillance. Jacoby, alongside Colonel Hugo Martínez, head of the Colombian group Search Bloc, led the chase for Escobar.

Killing Pablo is a recommended read for political and economic analysis of the chase for the Colombian drug lord, as well as insight into the minds of those who chased after him.

News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez's story is a literary gem that conveys the humanity of the victims of organized crime.
Gabriel García Márquez’s story is a literary gem that conveys the humanity of the victims of organized crime. (Amazon)

Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez could not help but write about the most important person in Colombia’s modern history. Published in 1996, this book is as good as Killing Pablo, but the complete opposite in terms of narrative style.

With the keen ability to make the reader feel what the characters in his stories are suffering through, García Márquez takes us through the events of November 1990 to June 1991. This was the time period in which Escobar’s group “The Extraditables” negotiated their surrender with the Colombian central government. Ironically, the group was known for its motto, “We prefer a grave in Colombia to a jail cell in the United States.”

As a way of negotiating, The Extraditables committed a series of kidnappings of Colombian high society figures. They targeted politician’s wives, the president’s daughters, owners of major print media — all done as a way to leverage a more favorable agreement for themselves.

García Márquez wrote the book with alternating chapters, taking the reader back and forth between the negotiations led by Alberto Villamizar, a Colombian politician whose wife had been kidnapped by the group, and the experiences of the hostages in the months they were held captive.

This book does not shine for its political analysis, but unlike Bowden’s Killing Pablo, which methodically analyzes each of the personalities in the story, News of a Kidnapping is a literary gem that allows the reader to feel the humanity of each person involved in the kidnappings. The book focuses on the personal drama lived by each person, with words that may at times make the reader laugh, and others that relay the suffering of each of those involved.

At the Devil’s Table by William Rampel

William Rempel offers an engaging book about the end of the Cali Cartel, according to a former soldier hired to kill Escobar.
William Rempel offers an engaging book about the end of the Cali Cartel, according to a former soldier hired to kill Escobar. (Amazon)

After the death of Pablo Escobar, the drug trade in Colombia underwent a serious transformation. William Rempel’s At the Devil’s Table focuses on this period based on the inside story of the former Cali Cartel member and Colombian Army official who confided in him, Jorge Salcedo.

The book begins with the last few years of Escobar’s reign, and in particular the era of Los Pepes, in order to provide readers with the necessary context to understand what Salcedo lived through. Salcedo, who now lives in the United States under a new name in the witness protection program, worked for the Medellín rival Cali Cartel as a security advisor. The Cali Cartel then hired him to organize an operation to kill Escobar.

Salcedo says he believed it was a noble task, considering the evil that Escobar had caused his country, but promised himself he would never kill anyone or allow himself to be stained by the blood and corruption that ran all around him.

Salcedo became increasingly involved in the operations of the Cali Cartel and soon the gained the confidence of the group’s leaders, the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers. Before long, Salcedo says he realized it would be impossible to leave the cartel alive. In a desperate attempt to protect himself and his family, he decided to do something even more risky: contact the CIA and attempt to destroy the cartel from within.

At the Devil’s Table is a book full of intrigue told from Salcedo’s perspective. Even knowing he will survive in the end, it is a story that is impossible to put down from the moment it begins.

These three books are just a sample of the history of the war on drugs in one small part of the world. Two governments conspired to kill Pablo Escobar, the hostages were returned, and the Cali Cartel was brought down. The drug trade, however, did not die with the Doctor, or even in Colombia.

In today’s world, the playing field for the drug trade has shifted from South America to Mexico and Central America. The production and trade of narcotics simply moved to other countries. Millions of dollars wasted and thousands of lives lost, and the drug trade is more vibrant and lucrative than ever.

The story of Pablo Escobar and the hunt to take him down exemplify the bloodiest and most dangerous aspects of this absurd war. Prohibition creates fertile ground for black markets and megalomaniacs seeking power, leaving a trail of death and corruption all the way through Latin America.

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