Pablo Escobar: Leben und plötzlicher Tod des Kokainkönigs
(Pablo Escobar: Life and sudden death of the king of cocaine; original title: Pablo, The World Godfather of Cocaine)
Cañon, Luis
Berlin, Germany: Aufbau-Verlag, 1994
395 p.

Subject, Methods, Database:
A journalistic biography of Pablo Escobar, infamous drug trafficker and one of the key figures of the so-called Medellin cartel.

Pablo Escobar was born in 1949 as the son of a teacher and a peasant. Still in school he began his criminal career with the theft of tombstones that he sold to smugglers from Panama. In the early 1970s he entered the cocaine trade. Under his leadership large amounts of coca paste were purchased in Bolivia and Peru, processed and brought to the United States. Escobar collaborated with five or six other illegal entrepreneurs from the Medellin area on a partnership basis. In addition he profited from the business of other dealers and smugglers who used the infrastructure set up by Escobar and his partners. In his last years, Escobar seems to have removed himself from direct involvement in drug trafficking. Instead he siphoned off profits from cocaine dealers through a kind of taxation system he also imposed on other criminals operating within his area of influence. The tax he considered a compensation for his contribution to the development of the Colombian cocaine industry and his efforts to have the American-Colombian extradition treaty of 1979 nullified.
The author attributes Escobar's prominent position among Colombian drug traffickers to personal characteristics, influential ties and a wise use of financial resources. To a large extent, Escobar's power rested on the purchased support of criminal groups that gave him a substantial capacity for the use of violence.
Escobar invested his ill gotten gains primarily in real estate, but he also acted as sponsor of charity projects and soccer clubs which earned him a certain degree of popularity and political standing, including a seat in parliament.
The tables had turned when the origin of his wealth became an issue of public debate and the U.S. increased pressure on Colombia to extradite him. By means of terror Escobar tried to influence politics towards writing a no-extradition clause into the constitution and to grant amnesty to drug barons in exchange for giving up the drug trade.
The terror campaign initiated by Escobar claimed the lives of politicians, civil servants, journalists and ordinary citizens. It turned public opinion against him and caused a break-up of the alliance of drug traffickers. Eventually, Escobar and the shrinking number of his supporters were faced with a relentless campaign staged by government as well as by criminals. After one year in prison, where Escobar had sought refuge from assassins, followed by several more months on the run, he was shot to death by members of a special police unit in 1993.

Unlike many other journalistic accounts of organized crime, this book is free from any sensationalist rhetoric. The author attempts to put himself in Escobar's position to understand his actions without going to the other extreme of turning him into a mythological hero. Somewhat annoying is an occasional reference to astrology and the lacking differentiation between well established facts and mere speculation, which obviously is the sole basis when it comes to the description of Escobar's unspoken inner feelings.
The book is particularly valuable for its Colombian perspective. The drug trade is placed in context with the general conditions in Colombia. Apart from social and economic factors two aspects are especially intriguing: the web of direct and indirect links connecting drug traffickers, diverse political groups, leftist guerillas and right wing militia, and the contradictory role played by the United States. Seen in this light, Escobar's campaign of terror is the expression of his egocentric, domineering and megalomanic personality just as it is only another facet of a society that is marked by violence.
More details could have been given relating to the internal structure of Escobar's network, especially with regard to the distinction between contractual relations, partnerships and hierarchies.

Overall Evaluation:
An informative and exciting book, but one which leaves the reader in the dark about where hard facts end and speculation begins.

Further Reading:
Lee, Reusselaer W., Colombia's cocaine syndicates, in: Crime, Law and Social Change 16(1),1991 , 3-39.
Zabludoff, Sidney Jay, Colombian Narcotics Organizations as Business Enterprises, in: Transnational Organized Crime 3(2), 1997, 20-49.

© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.