Lines, damn lines, and statistics. Will Self reads a life of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious dope dealer of modern times, and recalls his own adventures in the land of addiction

Killing Pablo: the hunt for the richest, most powerful criminal in history

Mark Bowden <em>Atlanti

"I've got cocaine running around my brain!" So chanted Dillinger, the reggae toaster, in a mid-1970s paean to the white stuff that was an instant hit with those of us adolescent delinquents intent on an instant hit. Dillinger wasn't the first or the last reggae star to take his moniker from a famous outlaw, but his cheerful little ditty was a curtain-raiser on a quarter-century during which the only criminal act in the global village worth talking about has been the production, export and sale of drugs.

At the tail-end of Mark Bowden's impressively single-minded account of the hunt and execution of Pablo Escobar, the most notorious dope dealer of our era, one consumption statistic is belatedly supplied. In the year of Escobar's death, 1993, the best estimate is that between 243 and 340 tonnes of cocaine were sold in the United States alone, and it is further estimated that Americans paid $30.8bn for the white powder.

But we all know this already: the cocaine trade is full of lines, more damned lines, and statistics. When I began doing cocaine regularly in the late Seventies, a gramme cost between £70 and £80. The quality was variable, a lot was pharmaceutical (obtained by break-ins on chemists), but much of it was still smuggled into Britain by individual freebooters, often rough bits of posh. I knew at least a couple of old Etonians who regularly jetted off to Bogota, picked up a key, and brought it back through customs tucked in the capacious crotches of their Turnbull & Asser green corduroy trousers. This is the kind of penny-ante trafficking glorified by Robert Sabbag in his autobiographical Snowblind. In those days, sniffing a line was, erroneously, perceived as the preserve of Studio 54 jet-setters and ageing roues, hangovers from some unhappy valley of interwar Arcadia.

In fact, cocaine had always been part of drug addiction, and remained so. In my early days, I encountered older addicts who could recall being prescribed injectable cocaine in "jacks" (small, soluble, pure cubes of the drug) under the medical maintenance model of treatment that used to prevail in Britain. These addicts were part of the criminalised core of drug users who, when cocaine increased in availability, became the early adopters, first of freebasing (precipitating a smokeable salt of cocaine by mixing it with ether or acetone) and then of crack (doing the same thing with bicarbonate of soda).

Those of us who had used cocaine intravenously were not at all surprised by the intense effects of the drug when inhaled. The big distinction between sniffing coke and smoking or fixing it is the speed with which it is absorbed into the brain; with sniffing, it takes three or four minutes; with smoking or fixing, it takes around six seconds. This produces a huge rush, which is followed almost immediately by a profound comedown. The only way to get back up is to take another hit, but because your tolerance has already been hugely increased, you require more to produce the same effect, and more and more ad infinitum. Except that nobody can afford an infinite amount of cocaine, even though I estimate, with my own, back-of-the-envelope methods, that the street price of the drug is now less than 30 per cent of what it was a quarter-century ago.

It isn't solely that crack cocaine is in and of itself highly addictive that makes it such a devastating drug in our society; it's more that it acts as a turbo-charger on people who have addictive personalities. In circles of recovering drug addicts, I often hear my peers say they are "grateful" to crack, because it so accelerated their own addictive disease that they had no choice but to stop - or else die. However, even on this bobsleigh run of toxicity, there is still plenty of lying, stealing, violence and psychosis. Crack has winnowed out whole urban communities, both in the US and now here, like some bizarre plague of ephemeral pleasure; a grotesque synecdoche of rapacious, global capitalism, which, in its reduction of all of a human's life to the business of meaningless consumption, exactly enshrines William Burroughs's adage that addictive drugs are a perfect commodity, because instead of selling them to people, you sell people to them.

But you won't find much about the effects of cocaine - either sociological or existential - in Killing Pablo. If you want to understand the former, I urge you to read Land of Opportunity: one family's quest for the American dream in the age of crack by William Adler (which was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in the US, but is now sadly out of print). This is a coruscating account of the family that dominated the Detroit crack business during the epidemic years of the early 1980s, and how they did it using good old American business know-how. If you want to understand the existential effects, I modestly offer my own account of a crack cocaine rush in my short story "The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz".

No, what Bowden excels at in this tome is a long, painstaking investigation into the tough tough boys and their tough tough toys, who fought in the Eighties and early Nineties to control the Colombian cocaine trade. This book is ostensibly a blow-by-blow account of the political shenanigans, corruption, compromise and murder, that led to Escobar's execution (which was in all probability delivered in cold blood by a bullet to the brain, possibly even fired by an American Special Services operative). But the real pay-off for the entire exercise comes with Bowden's remarks about the head of the American Drug Enforcement Agency station in Colombia in the wake of the killing: "Toft worried that they had created a monster. They had opened a bridge between the Colombian government, its top politicians and generals, and the Cali cartel that would be difficult, if not impossible, to close down."

And so, indeed, it has proved to be. In the hunt to kill Escobar, the North American narco-warriors suborned still further the civil law and democracy of Colombia, a nation already devastated by years of political violence and extremism. By encouraging the Colombians to use the sicarios (hired killers) of the country's other powerful drug cartel to pick off and murder Escobar's Medellin people, the CIA, the FBI, Delta Force, Centra Spike and all the other shadowy American agencies who pitched in on the War Against Drugs acted as midwives to that monster.

Bowden's account of the rise to power of the man known in his native city as "El Doctor" is thoroughly researched. His uncovering of the inter-agency feuding that surrounded the hunt for him is exemplary. His detailing of technological toys employed to hunt Escobar down is exhaustive. With Escobar on the run (and heavily protected by a populace to whom he was a folk hero), the only way he could be located was by using sophisticated listening devices capable of picking up the signals from the mobile phones and radios he used to communicate with his organisation. At one time, three American agencies had their spy planes aloft over Medellin. Bowden provides a convincing and systematic account of why Colombian political culture proved so tragically vulnerable to the corruption the cocaine trade brought with it.

But what is most bizarre about Killing Pablo is the consuming, ravening narrative hole in the text. Reading it is like watching Jaws without the shark. Apart from a couple of offhand remarks about wealthy Yanks wasting their money on marching powder, there is absolutely no cocaine in the book at all. If you came to this book without any background knowledge, I think you'd be genuinely flummoxed as to what all the fuss was about. You certainly don't discover from its pages the extent of the cocaine problem in Colombia itself (catastrophic, unsurprisingly).

And this matters. Just as the futility of US policy should, by rights, adumbrate the whole sorry story - yet is revealed only at the denouement - so the psychic and cultural reality of the drug itself is crucial. Ploughing my way through Killing Pablo, I was reminded of Howard Marks's autobiography, Mr Nice, which, while ostensibly about hashish smuggling, was so freighted with tedious detail about dates, numbers and quantities that it could just as easily have been the life story of an accountant. I have every expectation that Killing Pablo will do just as well commercially as Marks's book did: they both fulfill a vital need among the reading public for drug-free books about drugs.

Will Self's latest novel is How the Dead Live (Penguin, £6.99)

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures