Remorse is not on this balance sheet
If you speak a little Spanish and recently have spent a bit of time anywhere near the border, you’ve probably heard a narcocorrido, a ballad sung to danceable Norteno-style music with lyrics that romanticize the drug trade.
It’s a hugely popular genre, and embattled officials in the violence-ravaged Mexican state of Baja California have gone so far as to keep the songs off the airwaves there. “The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellin Cartel” is the literary equivalent of a narcocorrido -- without the redeeming virtue of a catchy, polka-inflected beat. The book’s cover bears two additional subtitles: one informing us that this is “the true story of Pablo Escobar”; the other that the author, Roberto Escobar, is his brother.
Pablo, for those who decline to retain the biographies of dead thugs among the brain’s finite store of memories, was the most successful of the Colombian criminals who accumulated vast wealth and huge body counts supplying the developed world’s -- particularly the United States’ -- discovery of cocaine as a recreational drug in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1989, at the apogee of his criminal enterprise, Pablo Escobar was listed by Forbes magazine as the world’s seventh richest man with an estimated personal fortune of $25 billion derived from his gang’s control of perhaps 80% of the world’s cocaine trafficking.
According to Pablo’s brother Roberto -- a onetime bicycle racer, who became the operation’s chief accountant with a staff of 10 -- their biggest problem was what to do with all the cash. The cartel, which took its name from the lovely colonial city in the Colombian highlands where the brothers began their criminal careers, quickly exhausted most of the world’s capacity for secure, numbered bank accounts through which to launder their profits. They ended up having to store the proceeds in warehouses, ranch buildings, buried chambers and secret compartments in the walls of gang members’ homes. They spent, according to Roberto, an estimated $2,500 a month on rubber bands to hold stacks of bills together. Ultimately, rodents and mold took such a toll on their holdings that they simply wrote off 10% per year as spoilage -- sort of like the stock market.
Their smuggling operations were so extensive that they purchased jets from bankrupt airlines and built their own miniature submarines.
Now, there’s always a cost to doing business -- especially on this scale -- and the reckoning of the Medellin cartel’s overhead more closely resembled a butcher’s bill than a spreadsheet: A judicial “Truth Commission” convened by the Colombian government ultimately decided Pablo ordered the murder of 30 judges, 457 policemen and as many as 20 ordinary people a day, because they crossed him in some way. He organized the assassination of a presidential candidate and helped a left-wing guerrilla group execute an assault on Colombia’s Supreme Court that left half the justices dead.
Meanwhile, the author of this book was counting the profits, but if you’re looking for remorse, second thoughts or even interesting reflections on a life essentially lived on the pain and suffering of others, you’ve come to the wrong place. This oddly flat and, frankly, repellent book is certainly not confessional and is, in fact, less a memoir than it is an apologia for the brother Roberto quite obviously admires still. Pablo’s drift into criminality is, in his brother’s mind, at least, the inevitable consequence of growing up poor and ambitious in a violent, underdeveloped society. The fact that hundreds of thousands of other young men growing up in similar circumstances didn’t elect to better themselves by profiteering on misery and death is airily passed over; Pablo, after all, was “a born leader.” Roberto also dismisses all the stories about his personal violence; it was all defensive. Moreover, they had a heck of a good time living high on all that money, building fantastic houses, acquiring high-tech toys, eating in the best restaurants and drinking great champagne -- the names of which neither Roberto nor his coauthor seem quite able to spell. They traveled the world, visited Disney World and the FBI museum -- Pablo liked the guns -- and even had dinner with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas. Just a bunch of wild and crazy guys . . . in this account, at least.
Roberto even has an explanation for the celebrated story about Pablo’s first boyish crime scheme: stealing tombstones from a local cemetery and selling them for reuse. As it turns out, a relative had a marble polishing shop nearby, and Pablo looted the stones only from ill-tended, seldom-visited graves. When he made his pile on cocaine, he spread it around his home turf like a regular Robin Hood. To Roberto, it was all of a piece with the good-hearted concern for the poor that once made his brother yearn for law school and a career in politics. That it also turned most of Medellin into collaborators against the authorities is incidental.
Roberto was arrested before U.S. and Colombian authorities -- as well as his Cali-based rivals -- closed in on Pablo and forced him into the 1993 shootout that left him dead at the age of 44. Roberto served 14 years in prison and was disfigured (and nearly blinded) by a letter bomb he received while in custody. He now lives quietly on a ranch in Colombia, forbidden to leave the country as a condition of release. A series of corneal transplants restored a portion of his physical sight -- though moral insight, or even rudimentary philosophical reflection, appear to be aspects of vision he never had a chance to recover because he never possessed them. For example, he takes no responsibility -- indeed, never mentions -- the corrosive effect on Colombia’s civil society of Pablo’s infamous policy of giving officials in his native land a choice between “plata o plomo” (silver or lead), which is to say, accept my bribe or take a bullet.
In the end, Roberto regards his brother and their entire criminal enterprise as reasonable responses to the violence and economic injustice of Colombian society. Their real enemies, in his mind, were his country’s privileged classes and the U.S. administrations that compromised Colombian sovereignty by forcing extradition treaties as the price of aid. The sad part is that neither Escobar brother ever saw himself for what he really was: an agent of an uncontrolled American appetite for drugs that essentially has recolonized one Latin American society after another. Narcocorrido romanticism aside, Pablo and Roberto Escobar were simply agents of imperial consumerism.