Thursday, February 05, 2004

Viva Los Pepes

The confidence with which President Bush has described the noose closing in around terrorists recalls not so much the hunt for Saddam Hussein, but for an earlier foe, Pablo Escobar, the most powerful drug lord in world history. Escobar's story, for those who have forgotten, is rivetingly told in Mark Bowden's Killing Pablo. Escobar dominated the Medellin cartel in Colombia in the mid-1980s. Flush with billions of dollars from an industry he largely created, Escobar ruthlessly killed all in his path. Thousands of policemen, hundreds of judges -- anyone who dared oppose him -- were murdered and often tortured. When the first Bush administration requested his extradition, he countered by waging a war of terror on the Colombian state, killing presidential candidates and with the help of the Marxist guerilla front M-19, kidnapping the entire Colombian Supreme Court, nearly all of whom were killed. He exploded car bombs in shopping malls, assassinated Generals, blew up commercial airliners, kidnapped the children, wives and relatives of any government officials who crossed him, in addition to 'ordinary' drug-related killings which ran into the thousands. The Colombian government capitulated and passed a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting extradition to the United States. In return, Escobar set up an office in a palace he styled as a prison and ran his narcotics business, as well as the entire country of Colombia, from his new headquarters.

Escobar was in a very real sense, the first supranational terrorist the United States had fought. He had a fortune estimated at $5 billion -- larger than Osama Bin Laden's. His thugs were trained by British and Israeli mercenaries. He possessed a large number of aircraft, including passenger jets, as well as a cadre of trained pilots. He actually developed mini-submarines for use in smuggling cocaine into the United States. Like Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Escobar was officially the "guest" of a failed state, but actually its ruler. The ways in which the United States defeated Escobar would be reprised in the hunt for Saddam Hussein and -- one suspects -- in the capture or confirmation of the death of Osama Bin Laden, which, judging from the tone of President Bush, is not far off. "One by one, we are finding and dealing with the terrorists, drawing tight what Winston Churchill called a 'closing net of doom'."

When it became clear that the Colombian authorities would not let US Special Forces attack Escobar directly, the US mistakenly attempted to use Colombians as substitute Americans. Time after time, the communications intelligence pinpointing Escobar's whereabouts was wasted as Colombians either warned the narco-terrorist or botched the job. Finally Colombian collaborators learned that the Americans were using elint devices to track Escobar's cellular phone calls and he stopped using them altogether so that the source of information dried up entirely. It seemed that Escobar had won. Then the American's had a flash of inspiration. Since they could not get to Escobar because he stood atop a "mountain" of corrupt retainers, including many in the Colombian military, they would "tear down the mountain".

They retasked intelligence to build up a map of Escobar's empire: the lawyers he used, the identities of his key lieutenants, the location of his family, the names of his key enforcers. Armed with this information it is suggested, but it was never proved, that the US facilitated the formation of a paramilitary group called "Los Pepes" (Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar) which embarked on a program of tearing down the mountain. Escobar's retainers were killed at the clip of a half a dozen a day. His palatial villas were torched. His lawyers were liquidated until in desperation, some not only publicly resigned but took to living the life of beachcombers in isolated areas, the better to stay out of the line of fire. Burned out of every home, Escobar's family eventually sought quarters under Colombian government protection. Their phones were tapped. They attempted to flee to Germany, only to be turned back due to US diplomatic pressure, upon landing, and returned to their wired guesthouse in Colombia, spending nearly three days in an airplane. Eventually, Escobar, who once lived in villas with artificial lakes, serviced by harems of prostitutes and surrounded by hundreds of bodyguards, was reduced to camping out in mountain cabins with a village laundress for company. He was shuttled around, towards the end by a loyal bodyguard in a taxicab (presaging Saddam's fate), cornered at last in a small townhouse and summarily executed on its roof.

In broad outline, this resembles the strategy used to pen up and finally capture Saddam Hussein. Unable to capture him directly, the US authorities in Iraq began to work their way up the Ba'athist chain,  tearing down the mountain by another name. His hometown of Tikrit was cordoned off with razor wire. Saddam's relatives were interrogated and turned. His principal lieutenants were captured and killed until the day came when there was nothing but a spider-hole and beat-up taxicab left to Ruler of Babylon. One suspects that, if he still lives, the narrowing circles of Osama Bin Laden are being beset (Hat tip: reader BL) by the same inexorable forces. His infrastructure is being torn down, his confidantes vanishing in the night, his bankers visibly slouching towards the day when he is finally enmeshed in the "closing net of doom".

But weaving the net itself exacts a price. The informers recruited, the murderers pardoned, the crooked bankers allowed to keep their blood money in exchange for snitching, the militias formed to hunt down the jihadis --  this will be the unexploded ordnance left over from the Global War on Terror -- the mournful legacy of the battlefield. Yet there is nothing for it but to persist, bearing such as guilt as we must and accepting such hurts as we cannot avoid. Wellington well knew the truth when he observed that "nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won".


Reader IS writes to say that only the village of Uja/Awja, not the whole of Tikrit, was cordoned off with razor wire and provides this link. Thanks, IS! Also, this article has corrected the misspelling of Colombia.