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<i> Michael Massing, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, is completing a book about the drug problem in the United States</i>

Over the last 20 years, Latin America has been hit by scourges of many kinds, from leftist insurgencies and right-wing death squads to currency collapses and cholera epidemics. None, however, has been quite as insidious or corrosive as drug trafficking. El narcotrafio has filled morgues, bloated economies, spread addiction, turned schoolchildren into assassins and made judges into martyrs. So macabre and malevolent have been its effects that only a writer of unsurpassed descriptive powers could hope to do justice to them. And at long last, Latin America’s most acclaimed writer has accepted the challenge. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose “One Hundred Years of Solitude” probably ranks as the most evocative account of life in Latin America ever written, has, in “News of a Kidnapping,” attempted to capture the essence of narcotics trafficking and the calamitous impact it has had on his native Colombia.

In writing “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Garcia Marquez, seeking to convey the surreal quality of life in rural Colombia, felt called upon to create a whole new genre of fiction, known as magical realism. The real-life happenings in the drug world, however, far outstrip anything even his vibrant imagination could concoct, and so he has chosen nonfiction as his medium. As Garcia Marquez grimly observes at the start of “News of a Kidnapping,” Colombia has been consumed by a “biblical holocaust” over the last 20 years. The book concentrates on a particularly grim period in late 1990, when the Colombian security forces (with substantial help from the United States) were mounting a nationwide manhunt for Pablo Escobar, the famously ruthless and elusive head of the Medellin cartel. Feeling cornered, Escobar was contemplating surrender and, in an effort to gain more favorable terms from the government, had engineered the abduction of 10 people, most of whom were journalists. For months, Colombia was transfixed as Escobar and the government sought to intimidate and outsmart one another with the lives of the hostages at stake throughout. The task of describing all this, Garcia Marquez notes, was “the saddest and most difficult of my life.”

Making that task particularly complicated was the highly ambiguous status Escobar had in Colombia. A man of both calculating brilliance and superhuman cruelty, this capo di tutti i capi was a subject of ghoulish fascination for his fellow countrymen. On a trip to Colombia in the late 1980s, I was struck by how Escobar, who had carried out so many car bombings, massacres and abductions, was broadly admired for his acts of charity. Traveling around Medellin, I was proudly shown the houses he had built for the poor, the public soccer field he had had constructed, the shiny trappings of wealth his unsavory business had brought to the city. In writing about Escobar, then, Garcia Marquez faced the same challenge Francis Ford Coppola did in making “The Godfather”: providing a rounded portrait of a Mafia don without romanticizing or glorifying him.

Before becoming a novelist, Garcia Marquez worked as a journalist, and in “News of a Kidnapping” he affects the spare, functional style of a newspaper reporter. Readers accustomed to the playful imagery of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” or the lush descriptions of “Love in the Time of Cholera” may be surprised at the stripped-down prose in this work. The writing is often flaccid and uninspired. One woman is said to have “an astonishing capacity for analysis”; another has “a strong character and mature intelligence.”

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In another case, Garcia Marquez writes: “The stories the guards told each other about their rapes of strangers, their erotic perversions, their sadistic pleasures, rarefied the atmosphere further.” The potential power of the sentence is sabotaged by its flaccid ending. Cliches abound. “Power--like love--is a double-edged sword,” Garcia Marquez observes at one point. One character is “pursued by his own demons”; another has “her heart in her mouth.” A third stands “pale as death.” “News of a Kidnapping” even has occasional grammatical lapses, raising the possibility that the translator might be partially at fault. I was particularly surprised to find references to people smoking crack, a product generally associated with America’s inner cities; more likely, they were smoking basuco, a processed form of cocaine that is a common street drug in Colombia.

These lapses aside, Garcia Marquez has a good story to tell, and he applies his impressive narrative skills with verve. The book opens with a scene of almost cinematic intensity. One evening in November 1990, Maruja Pachon, an award-winning journalist who at the time was director of the state-run film institute, and Beatriz Villamizar, her sister-in-law and personal assistant, were returning home from work when their Renault 21 was suddenly cut off by a yellow cab in front and blocked by a dark-blue Mercedes in back. Two men opened Pachon’s door, while two others opened Villamizar’s; the fifth shot the driver in the head through the glass, the silencer making it sound “no louder than a sigh.” The women were driven to a small, rundown house and led into a squalid, dimly lighted room in which two men wearing hoods were sitting on a mattress on the floor, watching television.

“Everything was dismal and oppressive,” Garcia Marquez writes. “In the corner, to the left of the door, on a narrow bed with iron posts sat a spectral woman with limp white hair, dazed eyes and skin that adhered to her bones. She gave no sign of having heard them come in: not a glance, not a breath, nothing. A corpse could not have seemed so dead. Maruja had to control her shock. ‘Marina!’ she whispered.” It was Marina Montoya, the sister of a powerful politician, who had been kidnapped three months earlier and was presumed dead.

With equal vividness, Garcia Marquez re-creates the two other main kidnappings. One centered on Diana Turbay, the director of a television news program and the daughter of a former Colombian president. Together with four members of her news team and a German journalist working in Colombia, Turbay was seized after being tricked into thinking she was being led to an interview with a guerrilla commander. The six were divided into two groups and held in a series of constantly changing houses near Medellin. Also abducted was Francisco “Pacho” Santos, the editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper. Captured in an operation that went so smoothly that no one on the busy street even noticed it, Santos was deposited in a small icy-cold bedroom with boarded-up windows and a single bulb in the ceiling. On his arrival, he realized that his abductors had been rushing to get back so as not to miss an important soccer match on TV.

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In the book, Garcia Marquez constantly intercuts among the three groups, describing their wretched living conditions (including strictly rationed trips to the bathroom), execrable food (endless servings of bland lentils), states of mind (absolute boredom being the most common) and, most telling, their tense relations with their guards. Garcia Marquez is at his best portraying these pathetic souls, who seem as much hostages as their captives.

The four assigned to Pachon and Villamizar were uneducated ruffians who knew they were going to die young, accepted it and cared only about living for the moment. “They venerated the same Holy Infant and Lady of Mercy worshiped by their captives and prayed to them every day with perverse devotion, for they implored their protection and forgiveness and made vows and sacrifices so that their crimes would be successful,” Garcia Marquez writes. “Second to the Saints, they worshiped Rohypnol, a tranquilizer that allowed them to commit movie exploits in real life.” Though the guards remained hooded at all times, the hostages were able to distinguish them by their mannerisms, and they handed out nicknames accordingly--"Gorilla” for one who had dark skin covered with thick, curly hair; “Monk” for one who was tall, silent and solemn; and “Top” for one who was very fat and had a maniacal love of dancing. “Once, after breakfast,” Garcia Marquez writes, “he put a salsa tape in the cassette player and danced without a break, and with frenetic energy, until the end of his shift.”

In addition to relating the hostages’ efforts at survival, Garcia Marquez reconstructs the campaign undertaken to free them. Most active in this regard was Pachon’s husband, Alberto Villamizar. A domineering but cordial politician who had “never used the intimate tu with anyone in his life,” Villamizar embarks on a relentless, single-minded and, at times, reckless campaign to secure his beloved’s release. A friend of President Cesar Gaviria, he attempts to use his access to push the government into negotiating with Escobar only to find the president impassive and unsympathetic, a man of “bone-chilling calm,” as Garcia Marquez calls him. Growing frustrated with his unwillingness to act, Villamizar nervily decides to travel to Medellin and seek out “the lion in his den” (oh, those cliches).

Though offstage for most of “News of a Kidnapping,” Escobar is by far the strongest presence in the book. Garcia Marquez does his best to capture the mystique surrounding this charismatic but savage man. “At the height of his splendor,” he writes, “people put up altars with his picture and lit candles to him in the slums of Medellin. It was believed he could perform miracles. No Colombian in history ever possessed or exercised a talent like his for shaping public opinion. And none had a greater power to corrupt. The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil.”

The more he goes on about Escobar, however, the more Garcia Marquez himself seems to succumb to the mystique, writing about this master criminal with the type of breathlessness normally reserved for a head of state. Escobar’s letters, Garcia Marquez notes, had a “concise, direct, unequivocal style.” He wrote them himself, “rethinking and revising drafts until he said what he wanted to say without equivocations or contradictions.” Escobar, Garcia Marquez goes on, “was his own military commander, his own head of security, intelligence and counterintelligence, an unpredictable strategist and an unparalleled purveyor of disinformation. In extreme circumstances he changed his eight-man team of personal bodyguards every day.” At one point, Garcia Marquez refers to Escobar’s “proverbial love of family"--a tired phrase that seems lifted from Mario Puzo. Escobar is even cast as a human rights advocate, demanding in one episode that the press run an Americas Watch report on abuses by Colombian security forces.

Finally, at the end of the book, Escobar appears in the flesh. Alberto Villamizar, landing in a government helicopter on a soccer field in Medellin, spots him amid 15 bodyguards as he prepares to surrender to the authorities. “He had hair down to his shoulders, a very thick, rough-looking black beard that reached to his chest, and skin browned and weathered by a desert sun,” Garcia Marquez writes. “He was thick-set, wore tennis shoes and a light-blue cotton jacket, had an easy walk and a chilling calm. Villamizar knew who he was at first sight only because he was different from all the other men he had ever seen in his life.” Taking Villamizar aside, Escobar thanks him for his efforts at negotiating the terms of his surrender and expresses regret for the suffering he has caused him and his family. “You met your obligations to me, and I thank you and will do the same for you,” Escobar tells him. “You have my word of honor.”

To hear a terrorist like Escobar talk of honor seems highly ironic, and one would expect a writer of Garcia Marquez’s stature to make something of it. He doesn’t. And so it goes throughout the book. If Colombia has indeed suffered a holocaust, then Escobar is its Hitler. And, although Garcia Marquez does not gloss over his terrorist acts, he seems clearly taken with the man. Escobar is such good material that Garcia Marquez himself has become hostage to it. The many details he provides about Escobar, rather than puncture the myth surrounding him, serve only to enhance it. As a result, “News of a Kidnapping” lacks a moral center, a failing that keeps this good book from being a great one.


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