The killing 18 years ago of Pablo Escobar, the feared leader of the Medellin Cocaine Cartel, and the tracking and Osama bin Laden bear strong similarities — so much so, Steve Coll notes, that CIA operatives studied the Escobar case in the methodical, eventually successful discovery of bin Laden’s hideout.
“As they reset their work, the analysts studied other long-term international fugitive hunts that had ended successfully, such as the operations that led to the death of the Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar, in 1993. The analysts asked, Where did the breakthroughs in these other hunts come from? What were the clues that made the difference and how were the clues discovered? They tried to identify “signatures” of Osama bin Laden’s life style that might lead to such a clue: prescription medications that he might purchase, hobbies or other habits of shopping or movement that might give him away.”
Covering the pursuit of Escobar in the early 1990s, it became evident that Colombia’s security forces were sometimes in conflict with elements of the military, and sometimes it appeared that Escobar was slip-sliding through the dragnet with official complicity. Escobar was fabulously wealthy, as was bin Laden, and neither hesitated at using bribery or violence to buy safety and time. Escobar ultimately was tracked down by making a mistake and using a telephone. Officials used electronic tracking equipment to pinpoint his location. He died in a firefight with security forces. We don’t know how or whether bin Laden tripped up after all these years.
At first the official version in Escobar’s case was that Colombian authorities maintained operational security and conducted the raid. But the chief of Colombian security forces, Gen. Miguel Maza, squirmed when I asked him whether U.S. officials accompanied Colombians when Escobar was gunned down in a roof-top firefight. It became clear that a phantom U.S. helicopter was airbrushed out of the official government account in that case.
Similarly, Pakistani officials were uneasy about describing their knowledge and role in the final pursuit of bin Laden. In both cases, U.S. officials were rather pragmatic on two accounts — they got the job done, no matter the details or whether either foreign government needed to save face. And in both cases, they overlooked the circumstantial evidence: either for corruption or looking the other way, it seemed incredible that either Escobar or bin Laden would not have been detected — both living in plain sight in the middle of a well-patrolled city.
There was another striking parallel between the cases of Escobar and bin Laden — both had become symbols of the violence they engendered, but neither was able to operate his respective terror network by the time they were tracked down.
By that time, smaller, lesser known cells were doing the dirty work, and devising means of pursuing their criminal enterprises. In Escobar’s case, no drug dealer became as well-known nor as powerful after him, but narcotics dealing became almost institutionalized at a low level. U.S. officials never won their War on Drugs, but were able to turn down the volume after Escobar’s death.
It remains to be seen whether bin Laden will have as mighty and newsworthy a successor, but U.S. officials have said many times that pursuing terrorism is a long term effort. Nevertheless, both of these central actors, bin Laden, and Escobar a generation earlier, have gone to early graves.