Sunday, July 10, 2016

Pablo's Hippos


A mug shot of Pablo Escobar from 1981. Already with power and money that dwarfed the agency that arrested him, Escobar smiles confidently for the camera. Public domain.
In October 1987 Forbes magazine began publishing their list of the world's one hundred richest people. At the time, that list included the leader of the infamous Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar. Forbes reports:
The cartel cleared at least $7 billion in profit (tax free!) from 1981 to 1986 alone. Escobar’s stake in the drug cartel stood at 40%. In its 1987 billionaires list, FORBES estimated Escobar’s own cash flow to be at least $3 billion and his net worth at over $2 billion (Forbes).
Escobar had united the competing cocaine producers of Antioquia, the departamento (state or province) of which Medellín is the capital, so that they could profit together rather than hang apart. Economically, Medellín is the center for production of cotton cloth and clothing and coffee, and the mountainous growing regions where coffee thrives also produce good coca plants. Escobar's commercial activities as exporter of Colombia's most lucrative product stimulated Medellín's economy. Indeed, such was Escobar and the Cartel's hubris that they offered to pay off the Colombian national debt in exchange for amnesty. Envigado, the suburb from which Escobar hailed, enjoyed gentrification in Escobar's day because of the huge cash flow into the area, and today it remains Medellín's toniest suburb. Poblado was also poshly rebuilt with the cocaine money flowing into the city. Parts of these suburbs resemble Beverly Hills or Palm Springs.

Medellín, a city of 2.5 million people with another million scattered through the surrounding Andean foothills, sprawls on the floor of a valley called Aburrá, The topography is a bit like living in the flat bottom of a bowl, relieved by two large hills, and all around the Andes soar high into the sky. Mountain highways coming into the city afford occasional views of the valley floors for many miles before one takes that final descent into the city itself. Those highways are worth driving just for the estaderos (or stands) that sell snacks like sausages wrapped in arepas and almojábanas, an incredibly delicious kind of cheese biscuit the likes of which I've never tasted anywhere else—I love cheese breads and pastries, but almojábanas go a step beyond.

In all there are seven hills that serve as viewpoints and recreational areas for citizens of Medellín, but most of them are on the periphery of the city, fading into the rim of the bowl. Two provide the only relief to the flat-bottommed valley. Cerro Nutibara, which serves as a city park, and Cerro El Volador, which is generally closed to the public because it is a guarded archaeological site. But the greater part of the city is flat, and sound carries across it rapidly and echoes off the surrounding mountains.

The combination of tropics and altitude bless the Valley of Aburrá with an average annual temperature in Medellín of 22 °C (72 °F), and temperatures range from 15 to 30° C (59 to 86° F). Because of the pleasant year-round springlike climate, Medellín is known as "La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera" or "City of the Eternal Spring" (Wikipedia). Temperatures are cooler in the outlying towns up in the foothills, where a light jacket is a good idea in the evenings.  The architecture of Medellín avails itself of the moderate climate to include spaces inside houses that are open to the sky, and these patios create a bright and airy space within the security of one's own house. This openness to air also means an openness to sound. When there is an important football game, the whole city takes on the ambiance of a stadium, and I can hear the neighbors cheering when the local team makes a goal. In the wakes of such games, fans form long trains with their cars and parade all around the city while honking their horns and cheering. I was woke more than once at three in the morning by such a passing train. I didn't mind that so much because the celebratory spirit of the people in the cars is contagious.

In the early days, back when a shipment of cocaine was still a tentative proposition, someone would shoot off a single fireworks rocket that signaled successful delivery and closure of the deal, and the sound resonated through the city and into their houses and provided many with cause for celebration.

But there are other things that go boom in the night. Most of the big-time guerrilla organizations of the countryside have urban branches. Urban guerrillas do not wear uniforms but street clothes as they blend in with city people and take care of business that can't be done up in the mountains. A lot of that business involves kidnapping, extortion, theft, and the fencing of stolen goods. The guerrillas' needs for four-wheel drive vehicles and cell phones trickled down to the common street thieves who have their territories in the city. But the urban guerrilla business also includes bombing.

The landscape of war and politics is changing rapidly in Colombia, but when I was there (2000-2002) there were paras urbanos—the urban paramilitaries, the right wing group that ostensibly served as a right-wing vigilante response to the left-wing guerrillas but that covertly operated as a special forces for government troops—and the urban versions of groups like the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the biggest and richest group) and the ELN (Army of the National Liberation, the second biggest). Typically, if I own a business, someone will visit me monthly to collect a tax since they already consider themselves to be the legitimate government of Colombia. Yet these representatives from the urban FARC do not carry official identification. In reality it's the age-old extortion game of protection money: pay me and I'll guarantee that nothing bad will happen to your business. Of course I don't mention that I myself am the source of greatest danger. The Colombians call this extortion la vacuna, the vaccine against future illness. Of course in theory it's possible for a person completely uninvolved in guerilla activity to go to a business, claim he is from the FARC, and ask for la vacuna, but I suspect that over time businessmen figure out who comes from the real FARC and who are impostors.

The real urban guerrillas occasionally have to make good on their threats. So one night a series of bombs went off—I had just enough time to get back to sleep before another exploded and woke me again. The explosions came from the urban FARC going to each branch of Apuestas Betancourt, a chain of betting parlors, because the owner had refused to pay la vacuna. One of the bombs went off at my neighborhood branch of the betting parlors, and it sounded unnervingly strong and close. Finally the bombing stopped, and it wasn't that they ran out of targets: at the last office they reached, the bomb went off prematurely as a woman carried it from the car to the storefront. She was eviscerated on the spot, and that put an end to the operation. Even the terrorists fuck up from time to time.

I went to my neighborhood Apuestas Betancourt that morning to see just how the results of such bombings look. The metal roll-down shutter that covered the glass storefront at night was dented a little, as if someone had taken a crow bar or sledgehammer to it. A few of the neighboring windows were broken. But that was it. Much ado about nothing. Disappointed isn't the right word. I wouldn't wish for more damage, especially from the FARC who, in their urban operations at least, repeatedly proved themselves to be the Three Stooges of Terrorism. But at the same time, given the repeated disturbances of an entire city's sleepers, I somehow expected a crater or partially demolished building, a slice of Berlin 1945, to make it worthwhile. But it was something a three-man crew with a new rolling shutter, a broom, a box, and maybe a few new windows could clean up in a morning.

Yet if the FARC were the Three Stooges, the government armed forces pursued them with the effectiveness of the Keystone Cops. The Colombians have long been masters of the story with the sadly ironic dark twist at the end—fifty years of guerrilla violence with the FARC may have sharpened their irony to a lethal point, or perhaps it was the period a couple of decades before, known as La Violencia, that made them that way, but the writings of Gabriel García Márquez suggest that they have been raconteurs with the dark, Twilight Zone-like twist since Creation:
Witness, if you will, the kidnap victim who, now free, his ransom paid by his family, spots his kidnapper working as a cashier at a local Exito (the Colombian equivalent of Walmart)...
or
Consider the family who come home from a long vacation overseas, enter through the front door, one of several in a wall flush with the sidewalk, and find that their entire house, not only its contents, but its walls, floors, and roof have been stolen so that all that's left is the dirt and rocks of a vacant lot. Though they don't know it yet, this family has just come home from vacation and stepped into The Twilight Zone...
There was a story floating around in 2000 that takeovers of small isolated towns were choreographed for the benefit of all parties: by agreement the FARC would come in and occupy la Alcaldía, the town hall, by 10 pm, and leave by 11:45. Then the Paramilitarios or AUC (the right-wing guerrillas) would come in at midnight, and leave by 1:45 a.m. Then the Colombian Army would take the town "back" at 2 a.m. Maybe so, but this is most likely an urban legend.

Around the same time a more credible story appeared in the press. The FARC came in to a pueblito at 10 p.m., and the small Army unit defending it—mostly 18-year-old kids doing their two years of national service—held them off from the Alcaldía, which serves as the king in this lethal game of real-life chess. They radioed in that they were under attack. The radio said that the area was too hot right now to send in reinforcements. The fighting went on. The FARC played their hand with evil genius: they came only close enough to draw fire without putting themselves at big risk, and they stayed distant enough that they could effect a quick getaway if reinforcements came. But they didn't. A couple of hours before dawn, the soldiers in the Alcaldía reported that they were running low on ammunition. The reply was the same: the area was too hot to send in reinforcements or even more ammunition. At dawn they ran out of ammunition and were systematically slaughtered by the FARC, who, having achieved their mission, abandoned the town.

This Alamo was seven years after Pablo Escobar's death, and by the time I reached Colombia in 2000 the game had changed considerably. Escobar had from time to time used left-wing guerrilla groups as mercenaries to protect his operations. By 2000 the guerrillas had left the idealism of ideology far behind with their college years—they had started out in the 1960s as college kids with Che Guevara posters on their walls and a craw full of Marxist rhetoric, but now they were grown men, pragmatists, entrepreneurs who dealt in extortion and kidnapping, and they had realized that taking over the drug business would be far more lucrative than protecting it. The Marxist rhetoric on their Web site served only as a justification for their crimes. So by 2000 the FARC were better dressed, better equipped, and better funded than the armies of many small countries.

The US's orchestrated assassination of Pablo Escobar and the accompanying dismantling of the Medellín Cartel was not the simple matter of drug interdiction that the DEA and the CIA let you believe it was. When I watch these all-but-DEA-produced programs like Narcos on Netflix, like so many episodes of that fascistically condescending Law & Order, I see DEA heroes, blond white guys pure as los Santos attempting to put the bridle of American civilization on the primitive people on Colombia as if they were a bunch of savage Indians in blue jeans and T-shirts. This is an outrageous lie that begs prosecution. The armed American forces in Colombia—the DEA, the CIA, the US Army—are not about interdcition. They are about taking over the drug business: they want the coke and the money. Face it: if you kill a man and leave his Rolex lying on the sidewalk, somebody is going to pick it up. In this case, when they killed the Medellín Cartel, the Cali Cartel, their long-time rival, picked up the watch. Anybody who knew the lay of the land as well as those Americans who oversaw the hunt for Escobar, had to know that when they took the Medellín Cartel down, the Cali Cartel would rise, yet they did not bother the Cali Cartel. Why? Because the Medellín Cartel was aligned with the left-wing channels importing cocaine into the United States, but the Cali Cartel was aligned with the right-wing Americans. The FARC traffic in cocaine not only to fund their own operations, but to send money back home to their spiritual father, the Castro regime in Cuba, who is desperately poor now that the spiritual grandfather, the Soviet Union, is dead. But the Cali Cartel was ready and eager to work with the Americans. Meanwhile, the CIA had been hooked on coke since funding the Contra war against the democratically elected administration of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, so they needed an American-friendly source with which to do business, and in those days, the Cali Cartel was the place.

By now, the Cali Cartel has also been dismantled, and the FARC and a CIA-driven consortium of forces compose the two remaining drug cartels in Colombia. The CIA hires mercenary pilots who regularly visit field laboratories and pick up the freebase that is the first stage of production. Of course the condition of employment works like this: "For every successful mission, we will pay you well. If you fail, if you get arrested, if you crash and burn, we don't know you." The freebase is transformed into the white powder, cocaine, in a laboratory before it is sent to the United States. In the 1980s the world was lucky enough to have Gary Webb, who used the same journalistic methodology of Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame—two independent sources to confirm every asserted fact—but unlike Woodward and Bernstein, Webb's career was completely derailed and he eventually committed suicide. With two bullets. To the head. Webb's journalism documented that, in those days, the CIA invented crack so that the Crips and the Bloods of Los Angeles could sell the product to their working class market. These days, well, the operation has been sewn back up well enough to avert security leaks. Even so, confirmation that the acquisition and dealing is still going on is readily available to anyone who is willing to go watch and listen in Colombia for a while. American interests are still actively soaking up product on the supply side in Colombia, so they must be distributing it somehow into the demand side inside the United States.

The US, technically speaking, cannot legally kill a foreign national in his own country. For that reason, when they wanted to take out Pablo Escobar, the Americans set up a special room in the US Embassy in Bogotá. Here they coordinated a systematic hunting down of the Medellín Cartel, but the people doing the hunting and shooting in the field belonged to a special unit of the Colombian National Police. The American project trained, equipped, and funded the special unit.

The American operation parked over Colombia a geosynchronous satellite that monitored the entire country's cell phone communication, and they programmed it to monitor specific numbers. So they knew whenever Escobar was on the phone. Escobar, despite his numerous moral failings, including infidelity to his wife, was a devoted family man, and he called them frequently. Separately, the special police unit was equipped with a cell phone triangulating device, so whenever the project room in Bogotá received a signal from the satellite that Escobar was on the phone, they alerted the police unit, who went driving around Medellín while trying to lock in on Escobar's phone signal and pinpoint it.

The search for Pablo Escobar was complicated because Escobar was shrewd enough to move around. Whenever he moved into a new house, he would have the bathroom remodeled into something luxurious—this was one way they knew that, if they hadn't caught up with him, they were at least on the right trail. The seeming futility in the search for Escobar was painted by one anecdote (from a reliable source) in which a witness could see the caravan of cars going up a mountain road on the Medellín horizon to arrest Escobar. But there had been a tip-off, and on the other side of the mountain Escobar's entourage descended.

Escobar made one last appearance on Forbes's list in July 1993. They ominously noted:
We suspect that, as have his fellow drug lords the Ochoa brothers (now languishing in jail), Escobar will soon leave this list. Perhaps, this earth (Forbes).
Eventually the special unit of the Colombian National Police pinpointed Escobar in the middle of a cell phone call and closed in on him. This time there was no tip-off and no escape route. Escobar attempted to flee by going out a window onto a patch of roof below, but there he was fatally shot.

In his heyday, Escobar built a sprawling house in the countryside a few hours outside Medellín. It was called Hacienda Napoles, and he had mounted over the gate the little Cessna that he himself had flown low into the United States with an early coke shipment. Here he entertained, took care of business, and lived with his family. They had a swimming pool, a kitchen and staff capable of entertaining large parties, and a landing strip. He accumulated art and animals in a way reminiscent of William Randolph Hearst at Hearst Castle—or Citizen Kane in his castle, forever searching for Rosebud. Most of Escobar's menagerie was rounded up and sent to zoos. However, hippopotami tend to weigh tons, and the age-old question of, "How do you manage a two-ton hippo?" is answered with, "You don't." For their part, the hippos like the Colombian climate and are actively reproducing. What started as one male and three females is now a large herd. Wildlife specialists have managed to sedate and neuter only four males, but that project is stultified by the unreliability of even the best sedatives on a four-thousand-pound animal, which tends to wake up and run drunkenly off from its castration surgery—who can blame him?—and into the river at the risk of drowning.

Probably the strangest part of Escobar's legacy, the hippopotami are listed as "vulnerable" in Africa, meaning their numbers are decreasing. Maybe Pablo has posthumously saved the hippopotamus. The South American Hippopotamus amphibius haciendae Nápoles.


Members of Colonel Martinez's Search Bloc celebrate over Pablo Escobar's body on December 2, 1993. Pablo's death ended a fifteen-month effort that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Whatever good might come out of killing a man like Pablo Escobar is completely nullified by his killers standing around his body as if it were a trophy deer. This image is a work of a US Drug Enforcement Administration employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.

A quick postscript: about two weeks ago the FARC and the Colombian government announced a ceasefire, though a few days ago a splinter group of FARC of about 200 troops has announced that it will not honor the truce. Nevertheless, this is a hopeful moment for Colombia, which has lost so many sons and daughters to the fifty-year conflict, which has also served as a foot on the brake of the economy. Usually, this sort of ceasefire is a euphemism for defeat, so even if the peace doesn't hold this time, it soon will. The other part of this translation means that the US has all but won the drug war in Colombia by monopolizing the supply.