"Killing Pablo"

"Since nobody expected the Search Bloc to be looking for Zapata and, indeed, no one in the police department cared a great deal about catching him just then, Hugo and his two-man team spent days cruising alone in their white Mercedes van, far more exposed than they would have normally dared to be. [...] At one point, Hugo stayed for too long in one spot listening to one of Zapata's calls. A child on skates rolled up to the car and handed him a piece of paper. 'We know what you're doing,' it read. 'We know you are looking for Pablo. Either you leave or we're going to kill you.'" (Bowden 227)

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Last night I finished "Killing Pablo," an account of the pursuit of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar written by Mark Bowden of "Black Hawk Down" fame. It is a gripping story: people are pushed to the limits of human endurance and a government is brought to its knees by corrupting terror. For Pablo's great talent was combining corruption with terror: first he would offer a bribe to those whose help he requested. If they accepted, he owned them forever. If they refused, he would retaliate with violence, kidnapping and torturing family members, planting bombs outside public buildings, sending assassins all over the world to track those who had fled, until they were dead or acquiesced.

I will never, I think, get used to the convention of popular history that allows the author to jump inside the consciousness of his historical subjects, narrating events through them. On the one hand, this device calls out "fiction" to me, and surely shouldn't be necessary to invoke a sense of immediacy or tension in a story as gripping as this. Do we all have to be video game first person shooters in a narrative to feel sympathy for those we are reading about?

On the other hand, the convention blurs the line between the sort of factuality, the sort of incontrovertible truth, that we associate with video or film proof, "what we see with our own eyes." When Bowden recounts the narratives of his protagonists (told to him in interviews) through their own eyes, it obscures the possibility that his interlocutors might be lying to him or blurring the truth. Bowden gives us a good idea of how murky and unstable Colombia was in this period, when both the American government and idealists throughout Colombia were willing to join forces with sub-legal death squads and rival cartels to find and kill Pablo Escobar. But sometimes he is too willing to trust those who were kind enough to give him interviews and look over the manuscript. Suddenly those whom he talked to emerge as beacons of virtue in a sea of corruption. And the book as a whole leaves us devastatingly certain (with a horror based on self-examination) that humanity is rarely that strong.

"Killing Pablo" (2001)
Mark Bowden