The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel by Roberto Escobar (Grand Central Publishing, February 2010)
At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel by William C. Rempel (Random House, June, 2011)
About a year ago, I read The Accountant’s Story, the first-person autobiography of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s brother Roberto. I wasn’t that thrilled with it. As with many autobiographies and single-source biographies of criminal figures, the information in The Accountant’s Story is kinda suspect, and when it’s not suspect it’s out of context enough that it’s really not that helpful given that my background on the Medellín Cartel is minimal (compared to my knowledge of the American Mafia and biker gangs, Italian/Sicilian outfits, and even Russian Mafiyas).
On some level, I know, reading any criminal’s autobiography requires tolerating the self-serving narcissism that successful criminals, particularly high-ranking ones in organized outfits, tend to have.
But there, Roberto was not as narcissistic he could have been, because he seemed very focused on Pablo. He didn’t claim that Pablo didn’t kill people, torture them, maim them, and corrupt the government — not to mention, of course, shipping a lot of cocaine. But those aspects were definitely downplayed. The really interesting information came when Roberto portrays his brother’s hubris, like the events surrounding Pablo’s election to the Colombian Congress!
Roberto’s “viewpoint” is really what I was going for, because what most fascinates me is what it’s like to be a criminal. While Roberto’s perspective was interesting, the factual events of Pablo’s rise and the hunt for him were too sketchy to really fill in the gaps in my knowledge, given how ill-informed I am about the Colombian political system overall.
Even so, The Accountant’s Story is still so self-serving as to be at best an eye-r0lling adventure.
The most interesting aspect was Roberto’s perception (or claimed perception) of the attitude of Medellín’s poor that Pablo was a hometown folk hero, rather than a criminal. To hear Roberto E. tell it, Pablo gave away money and things to the poor local types and they loved him for it. I’m highly dubious not so much over whether Pablo gave away a bunch of money, but over just how significant it was, and how much it was responsible for the poor hating the government and loving Pablo. The split between rich and poor in Colombia is so extreme that I’m not sure Pablo would have had to give away shit to get the local residents enlisted against the grotesquely corrupt leaders, law enforcement, and military of Colombia. What’s more, Pablo was a significant force in helping corrupt those leaders. So what Roberto is bitching about, basically, is that the United States and the Cali cartel were more connected than Pablo, which is why they won. Yeah, that would probably piss me off, too.
Don’t get me wrong, though; what happened was that the U.S., the corrupt Colombian government and the Cali cartel “won” a gang war, not that there was any triumph of justice. This wasn’t honest law-enforcement work, it was a largely pointless vendetta aimed at plugging up one of the zillion holes in a sieve. Once Pablo was gone, the leaders of the Cali cartel could consolidate their power — in the political, law enforcement and economic spheres, as well as the criminal one.
Change the venue to Cali, where a more recent book tells the story of the consolidation of power by the Cali cartel both before Pablo’s assassination and after — though mostly before. That’s because as soon as the Colombian government managed to whack Pablo Escobar, it turned its attention to Cali.
Change the venue to Cali, and we have William C. Rempel’s At The Devil’s Table:The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel by William C. Rempel (Random House, June, 2011). It is not an autobiography, but is basically what I would call a “single-source biography,” in essentially the same confessional form as Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy (which was made into the film Goodfellas). This doesn’t mean there are no other sources used, but the existence of the book owes itself strictly to the account of Jorge Salcedo, the head of security for the Rodríguez-Orejuela brothers, and particularly for Miguel Rodríguez-Orejuela. These brothers founded the Cali cartel with José Santacruz Londoño in the ’70s. They primarily trafficked weed until the 1980s, when they branched out into cocaine and eventually formed a $7-a-year cartel.
Jorge Salcedo didn’t enter the scene until after the cartel was well established and was already heavily in conflict with Escobar’s group. Salcedo was a Colombian reserve military officer, and as someone with experience in the security field he became head of security for the cartel, reporting to Miguel specifically. Incidentally, by Jorge’s account, his reputed cartel connections would eventually cost him his commission in the Army, without his having been convicted of anything.
Being in charge of “security” also meant he was in charge of some offensive operations, though Salcedo downplays this so heavily that I wasn’t sure what to believe. Given that Salcedo eventually cooperated with law enforcement and was relocated, with his family, to the United States, I
Nonetheless, Salcedo laces the early pages his account with accounts of the hunt for Pablo from a different perspective — that of a guy who supposedly hated Pablo Escobar for “patriotic” reasons. Huh?! Yes, yes, that’s what I said. As head of security for the Cali cartel, Salcedo believed that Escobar had corrupted the nation of Colombia through widespread bribery. This is one of the craziest perspectives I’ve ever heard, but then, criminals of every stripe often have weird ultra-conservative views that make no sense to me.
Contrast Salcedo’s view with the perspective related in The Accountant’s Story, where Roberto believed that Pablo was considered a sort of upstart poor person in the views of the Cali cartel and the government. Jorge Salcedo, remember, was the son of a military officer and a reserve officer himself. He was part of the power structure in Colombia. It stands to reason that Salcedo’s “patriotic” hatred of Escobar is not simply the self-serving retroactive attempt to get his biographer Rempel to write a true crime where Salcedo is the hero. It’s also the distaste of the privileged for the underprivileged.
Regardless, I definitely get the sense that given Escobar’s status among the poor, he was seen as distastefully redneck by the Colombian government and social elite — which is a small, intractable, entrenched group that loots the nation of Colombia for its own gain. to the majority of the country. as someone who had stepped outside his station by rising to the head of a cocaine cartel. This perspective is utterly absent in The Devil’s Table. From my experience, that doesn’t surprise me; it’s typical in Latin America, and particularly in South America. Class isn’t talked about, because it’s so ubiquitous.
But Roberto Escobar talks about class. He doesn’t do it extensively or with any real sensitivity, because the advantages of first-person narration are Roberto’s account is completely undermined by his need to portray Pablo as a champion of the poor. It’s not unlike the blathering of a pissed-off trucker for the owner of the trucking company that won’t let him take time off for the holidays. It’s not that there’s no valid concern there — in fact, in my view the corruption of the government by Escobar’s group directly parallels the claims so eloquently phrased by of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 2 — “We’re both part of the same hypocrisy, Senator” — when a distaste for “oily” Sicilians is expressed.
Such attitudes — that criminals=poor and corrupt politicians=rich is not so much a realistic appraisal of class and crime, but a justification that criminals throughout the organized crime world use to feel good about themselves. It’s endemic within organized crime, particularly in the organized crime that comes from poor and immigrant communities…but only because rich people have far more lucrative crimes to commit.
Nonetheless, there is some truth to it, and I believe that Escobar being targeted first, and Cali second, by the Colombian government was as much about Escobar’s class background as his position in the world of global drug smuggling.
One of the most telling incidents in The Accountant’s Story is when Pablo Escobar is — believe it or not — elected to Colombia’s Congress as a representative from Medelin. By Roberto Escobar’s account, he discovers there’s a dress code on the floor of the Congress; he as to wear a tie. But Pablo won’t wear a tie, because that represents everything he despises about the power structure of Colombia — ties are for rich people. He finally agrees to wear a tie through the door — one loaned to him by a sympathetic security guard — but then to take it off as soon as he’s in the building. Whether this vignette is true, I haven’t the foggiest, but Roberto uses it as proof that Pablo was “a man of the people.”
Via Google Maps.
During this period, the Cali cartel was attempting to kill Pablo through any means necessary. These schemes are some of the most interesting parts of At the Devil’s Table, because Salcedo was one of the chief architects of these unbelievably half-assed plans. It was obvious to Salcedo, and is obvious to me, that the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers didn’t know squat about running a military operation, but were so powerful that they thought they could do anything. They had a habit of handing Salcedo the most ill-conceived half-baked plans and then not listening to him when he said, “you’re crazy!”
As a result, much of the book’s first half concerns the truly half-assed hijinks the cartel engaged Salcedo in during the attempt to kill Pablo Escobar. In one particular period covered in both books, Escobar negotiated with the Colombian government to take the U.S. diplomatic and law enforcement heat off the country by pleading guilty in return for becoming the Colombian government’s “prisoner” in a luxurious prison Escobar built himself to share with his brother Roberto, who also pled guilty to relatvely minor charges. The place was outfitted and guarded by elements within the government loyal to Pablo, and though he was technically a “guest of the state,” Pablo reportedly had plenty of guns as well as sex workers brought in. At that point, Salcedo had already been engaged in hiring, equipping and caretaking British mercenaries in their mission to assassinate Pablo, although the mercs seemed to spend most of their time drinking and fornicating in Panama City. They also engaged in an utterly disastrous helicopter search for Pablo that resulted in a copter crash and several casualties. By Salcedo’s account, this all drove him to distraction — in At The Devil’s Table, Rempel consistently tries to present Salcedo as a reasonable man.
Once the Escobars were heavily dug in, armed and guarded within the private prison, however, a direct assault was out of the question. Muguel Rodriquez Orejuela’s answer? Drop a bomb on the prison! He sent Salcedo to Panama to obtain several 500-pound bombs, and to Florida to acquire a small civilian plane that had been fitted with bomb racks big enough to hold them. The Florida plane turned out (probably) to be a law enforcement sting, and Salcedo tried to stall on the bombs themselves, believing the plan to be about the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. But wacky hijinks ensue, most notably when one of the bombs gets lost in a river. LOL!!
At The Devil’s Table bogs down heavily after Pablo’s successful assassination in 1993 (not, incidentally, by the Cali cartel — see Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw for one perspective on that). It gets really slow and tedious until close to the end when Salcedo begins cooperating with law enforcement. Then, the tension gets ratcheted up and things start to move, as the dominos start falling en masse.
The period when the Cali cartel is being targeted — about 1995 — is when things start to get interesting. Unfortunately, there’s very little broad, credible information offered about the political and law enforcement context of the operation. It’s mostly specifics about Salcedo’s experiences, to the point where the account feels myopic. It’s still fairly thrilling — though the book overall is uneven and boring at times — but I have no real sense of the context of the events…certainly not to the extent that I did after reading, for instance, Wiseguy. However, since I was starting out basically not knowing jack about Colombia, it’s not that surprising.
In short, to understand what the rise and fall of the Cali cartel “means,” I’m going to need to read other books — these are both too one-sided and personal to provide that. And, as mentioned, I’m dubious of both confessors’ accounts. I wouldn’t trust either of them as far as I could throw them, and Rempel plays softball with Salcedo, delivering the latter’s account unchallenged.
It’s often said by commentators from outside the country that Pablo Escobar “ruled Colombia,” “owned everyone in Colombia,” “Controlled the government,” etc. etc. That was a talking point provided by the Cali cartel and the U.S. government. If it were true, Escobar would be alive and Cali would have been snuffed. The same thing was said within the law enforcement and government community in the U.S. once Pablo was out of the way (and, by savvy commentators and US Federal cops/prosecutors, before, as they started to realize that Cali was actually far more powerful — party because law enforcement had been focusing on Escobar).
But the claim that “The Cali cartel now rules Colombia” was a talking point, too…this time from US prosecutors and Colombian politicians who consolidated power by opposing corruption and crime.
Were they really opposing corruption and crime?
I’m dubious of that, too…highly dubious.
As for the US prosecutors and cops, I’m sure there are some honest, hard-working people who wanted to see the cocaine off the US streets…in fact, I’m sure that was the primary interest of everyone who worked these cases from the American law enforcement side.
But my take on the morality of the situation specifically dealing with the American role of the downfall of the Cali cartel is this:
The vagaries of a career in Federal drug enforcement means a given prosecutor or agent is first and foremost concerned with his or her career.
I would even go so far as to say that while an individual cop or prosecutor may honestly disapprove of everything that criminals do, the actual reduction of drugs on the street is not his or her job.
That’s a policy matter, and out of the realm of individual operations — or even the targeting of specific cartels. It’s definitely out of the realm of targeting specific criminals, but in the case of Cali it was a whole operation that was targeted.
Why did Escobar get targeted first? He was higher-profile and he was viewed by the power structure in Colombia as being a bigger, more arrogant upstart who had “exceeded his station.” I’m not entirely sure if Cali was more powerful from the get-go, or just had the potential to quickly become more powerful than Escobar ever could have. Either way, Escobar was targeted not because he was “the” genuine threat to American security, but because he, as a perceived threat, was singled out.
Regardless, the result was not — and never could have been — fewer drugs on the street. I may bitch about what self-serving liars the criminals are, but cops are no better when it comes to evaluating things from a policy perspective. I’m just more sympathetic to cops’ need to lie to themselves, because they’re asked to do a job by a system that I (basically) subscribe to and benefit from. But that system makes jack-assed decisions all the time. That system decided in the ’80s that drug use was the chief plague in American society, and combating drug smuggling was the way to cure it. The result was an enormous expenditure.
And fewer drugs on the street? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I knew an awful lot of drug users in about 1995-2005, and quite a few users of hard drugs, not to mention people who worked in the social services sector, and had contact with the users of hard drugs. They never had any problem getting heroin…except, of course, for the usual problem with getting heroin, which is that it costs money. But from about 1998-2002, it didn’t cost a lot of money at all.
In fact, for all that cocaine was still thought of in the press and by politicians as the plague that was infecting America, heroin got real cheap real fast as inexpensive heroin flooded up from Mexico.
Heroin got so cheap, in fact, that at least three people I can think of got back on it after having kicked years before — at least partially for the reason that it was so cheap. People I knew who worked in social services acknowledged that heroin was easier to get in San Francisco than it ever had been before. When the underground press got hold of the crisis, they occasionally described the rise of heroin use in SF in apocalyptic terms. Then there was the flesh-eating bacteria problem…et cetera. Opioid use was on the rise, partially because cocaine got expensive and heroin got cheap.
Could this have been due to the fact that the Colombia operations had been hurt by law enforcement?
I don’t know for sure…but I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t trust cops, criminals, or advocates on either side of the drug policy debate to give me a straight or informed answer. I trust them all to hand me a line of bullshit and lecture me and tell me why I’m wrong. (That’s what blog comments are for, right?) But in order to maintain their conflicting value systems, all these groups have to believe things about drugs, drug trafficking, national security, recovery, addiction, class, race, economics and murder that quite simply aren’t true. “We’re both part of the same hypocrisy, Senator.”
So, that aside, are The Accountant’s Story and At the Devil’s Table particularly good books?
Not really. Criminal figures who portray themselves as honest, upstanding businessmen who never do anything wrong are fairly irritating to me — not out of some moral outrage, but because they’re not that interesting to read about. The two very worst offenders are Bonnano family founder Joseph Bonnano and his son, Bill (Salvatore) Bonnano, who both wrote books so stupendously vapid that they have almost no crime-related content. It’s all boring recollections and vagueness. Compare either Bonnano’s book to Gay Talese’s classic 1971 book Honor Thy Father, about Bill Bonnano and the Banana Wars of the 1960s, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
But even Talese’s book is far too kind to his sources, as far as I’m concerned…books about criminals tend to be pretty kind to them, and that’s just a fact of life.
Roberto Escobar and Jorge Salcedo don’t go nearly as far as the Bonnanos in glossing over their misdeeds. But you won’t be left with the overriding sense that either one of the really did anything wrong. And that hypocrisy leaves a big fat gap in the story.