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CNN SUNDAY MORNING

The Legacy of Paul Escobar

Aired June 17, 2001 - 08:33   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BRIAN NELSON, CNN ANCHOR: The 1980s drug war in Colombia was headed by one single man, Pablo Escobar. He was one of the richest men in the world and he led a luxurious, flamboyant lifestyle. Well, tonight "CNN PRESENTS," "Killing Pablo," how a U.S. aided manhunt led to Escobar's fatal capture.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He started with petty crimes such as stealing gravestones and cars but soon graduated to the booming drug trade. By the time he reached his '30s, the poor kid from Medellin had become the richest and most powerful cocaine trafficker in the world.

LT. COL. ANDRES ESTPUINAN, COLOMBIAN NATIONAL POLICE: Eighty percent of the criminality in Medellin around that time was mobilized by Pablo Escobar or his organization. They were people who subjected to no law, no order. They only responded to their master and the money he could give them.

BOETTCHER: Escobar enjoyed a life of luxury and extravagance. This is one of his estates, where giant fiberglass dinosaurs shared the land with exotic animals and exotic cars, like the one reputedly driven by Bonnie and Clyde and the cars Pablo gave away to nude women competing in foot races. But Pablo wanted something money couldn't buy, respect. In the early 1980s, he ran for congress and got elected as an alternate.

CESAR GAVIRIA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF COLOMBIA: The judicial system and the political system were the areas in which Mafia people got into because they thought it was going to be useful, it will protect them. It brought the kind of immunity that was important.

BOETTCHER: But when Escobar tried to take his seat in congress, he was denounced on the floor of the house. He retaliated by declaring war on anyone who opposed him or his cartel. When the justice minister called Pablo a narcotics trafficker, Pablo had him killed. When a judge indicted Pablo for the crime, the judge was shot and killed as well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NELSON: Our coverage of the Pablo Escobar story goes further than this, though. PHILLIPS: And we're going to talk to an author of a new book for insight into the man the army couldn't stop. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: "CNN PRESENTS," "Killing Pablo" about Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. It was inspired by the reporting of a "Philadelphia Inquirer" reporter.

Mark Bowden joins us this morning with more insight into Escobar and the Colombian drug war. And we must also mention that he's released his book, "Killing Pablo." It just came out a few weeks ago and it has been climbing the best seller list ever since. Mark is in Toronto this morning.

Great to see you, Mark.

MARK BOWDEN, AUTHOR, "KILLING PABLO": Good morning, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Well, why don't you go ahead and put Escobar in perspective for us. I mean this is a man that brought 80 percent of the cocaine into the U.S. when it was such a fad, right?

BOWDEN: Right. He really cashed in on the explosion in the use of cocaine in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s and basically because he was such a violent criminal and Colombia was able to considerable all of the cocaine trafficking so that at one point he was responsible for almost 80 percent of all of the cocaine leaving Colombia. It was enough to make him the seventh richest man in the world.

PHILLIPS: That just amazes me. Let's talk about -- and your book reveals this, and so does the "CNN PRESENTS" report -- how powerful he was. This was a man that bribed so many people and had so much control and even ran for Congress and became an alternate. That just blows my mind.

BOWDEN: Yeah.

PHILLIPS: And people knew what he was doing.

BOWDEN: Right. He was notorious in Colombia for policy that they called plomo o plata, which meant you could either accept Pablo's silver or his lead. He would always make people a generous bribe, and if they turned it down, he would have them killed. That sort of policy enabled him to both intimidate and corrupt the Colombian government to the extent that he was able to get them, for instance, to outlaw or ban extradition so he couldn't be taken from Colombia and prosecuted anywhere else. He would kill judges, police, whoever stood in his way. And yet, as you say, he had a measure of popularity that enabled him to get elected to Congress.

PHILLIPS: You mentioned the word generous. I was also amazed, this was a man that gave quite a lot back to his community. Folks revered him, called him a saint, hung pictures of him in his hometown. Tell me what he did do for people. He built homes and gave money, is that right?

BOWDEN: Yeah, I really think that this, Pablo's generosity or his charity may, in part, have been genuine. But it was also calculated. And it was during the period when he had decided he wanted to enter public life and try to get some measure of respectable or legitimate political power. So he built housing for the poor in Medellin, people who before he gave them a place to live lived in garbage heaps.

He built soccer fields and put up lights so that workers could play soccer when they got off work in the evening. And so those gestures, which were considerably more than the Colombian government had ever done for the people in Medellin, as you say, endeared him permanently to especially the poor residents there.

PHILLIPS: I guess the evil side, you can say, became just so huge that the U.S. finally said we have to step in and I was reading, I was amazed that every branch of the government, every type of highly trained soldier was brought in to bring this man down. Will you tell us about the mission and the U.S. involvement here?

BOWDEN: Well, after Pablo Escobar killed three of the five candidates for president in Colombia in 1989, the country really was fed up and they asked the United States for help. Escobar's gunmen also bombed a commercial airliner in that year, killing all 110 people on board. So Pablo had become more than just a cocaine kingpin. He was also at the top of the list of terrorist threats around the world.

So the United States got involved in a big way. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in what really became almost a competition between the various military and espionage units who in the years before had been utilized to sort of contain communism around the world. They all flooded into Colombia in an effort to demonstrate that they were up to this new kind of military mission, which was targeting an individual and finding him.

PHILLIPS: Amazing. Mark Bowden. The book is "Killing Pablo." It's also very interesting how it talks about Colombia really isn't that much better off, even though cocaine use is down in the U.S. You do detail the after effects, too, and the book is terrific. Thanks for being with us this morning.

BOWDEN: Thank you, Kyra. My pleasure.

PHILLIPS: All right, Mark.

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