Friday, October 12, 2007

The Memory of Pablo Escobar by James Mollison

Since I just wrote briefly about Danny Lyon’s foray into written history, I need to mention a new book that I just purchased yesterday that makes for a nice follow up. The Memory of Pablo Escobar by James Mollison published by Chris Boot is a must read. I just finished it…after a five hour reading marathon in which I could not put down this 350 page book.

Mollison, a photographer who worked for Colors magazine, originally was on assignment photographing prisons in Valledupar, Colombia when he was asked if he wanted to meet one of the facilities most famous inmates, ‘Popeye’, a man who served as Pablo Escobar’s head of security. After meeting him and then becoming fascinated by the Escobar myth, he returned to Colombia to start a project about ‘Narcotecture.’ That is, the evidence of the influence of drug money on architecture.

This initial interest was sidetracked when the ‘narcotecture’ he found wound up being visually disappointing. But like the fortuitous event of meeting ‘Popeye’, Mollison would have more luck come his way disguised as an annoyance. While trying to photograph one of Pablo Escobar‘s former homes, he was briefly detained by some security guards who led him and his camera to the officer in charge. Turns out he was in breach of security rules as the house was now a government building. Upon hearing his intentions and curiosity about Escobar, the officer in charge, whose office happened to previously be Escobar’s bedroom, said, ‘I have a bag of Pablo Escobar photographs- would you like to see them?’

From that moment on, Escobar, who was Colombia’s most infamous drug kingpins, became an obsession for Mollison to explore and separate the truth from the myth.

For those who are unfamiliar with Escobar, he was the head of Colombia’s Medellin Cartel which in the 1980s controlled 80 percent of the cocaine trafficking in the world. He was initially adored by the poor as he used his vast wealth to build housing for the homeless and helped repair and improve poor neighborhoods. By the mid 1980s and early 1990s, his fight against Colombia’s threats to allow his extradition to the United States on drug charges fuelled a deadly war that cost the lives of thousands of innocents along with the guilty.

Escobar’s fight caused Colombia to fast become the world’s murder capital where there were 7,081 murders in 1991 alone. This increased murder rate was fuelled by Escobar giving money to poor youths as a reward for killing police officers. These murders caused the police to retaliate against the youth with death squads that would seek out an assassinate anyone who fit the profile, innocent or guilty.

Escobar had so much power over the events that were unfolding in his country and could evade capture so well that the government, in an act of desperation to end the violence, agreed to Escobar’s terms for his surrender and imprisonment. This made for one of the more odd episodes in the story. Escobar was allowed to remain in Colombia without facing extradition and reside in a prison of his creation, with his own ‘guards’ that oversaw the inside of the prison while normal federal guards oversaw the outside to make sure he didn’t simply walk away. As his head of security ‘Popeye’ is quoted as saying, ‘They put a 10,000-watt electric fence around the prison with the switch in Pablo’s room.’

Even as he was in ‘prison’ the Medellin Cartel was moving cocaine and making money, keeping in competition with other cartels that were trying to take over the routes to the US. At one point in 1992, the excesses of the ‘La Catedral’ prison were revealed and plans to transfer Escobar to a real prison were discussed. But as they were being implemented, Escobar escaped and remained on the run from authorities for almost two years. He was eventually killed in a raid on one of his safe houses on December 2, 1993, one day after his 44th birthday.

Besides the compelling story, what makes this book fascinating and difficult to put down is the way that the story is complemented with images and documents. Through exhaustive research in tracking down original photographs, police files and the massive trail of unseen ephemera that is associated with Escobar’s life, this book is fully illustrated and presents the material right alongside the text.

Millison was able to come across archives of photographs that are presented as collections instead of breaking up the material in ad hoc fashion. The result is a fascinating series of short chapters that propel the story along while addressing the various facets and key players of the events. One section of photographs is from Escobar’s personal photographer who was hired to document family events such as birthdays and parties. While another is a series of rather grisly evidence photographs from a bombing that took down an Avianca airliner in one of Escobar’s attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate who would have pushed for his extradition. Luckily for us, those are reproduced at a size that renders them just a bit too small for us to be haunted by them. They reminded me of extreme human versions of Peter Beard’s dead elephant aerial photographs from The End of the Game.

One interesting book highlighted in the story is one that Escobar self-published while in ‘prison.’ (If only I had known before I could have included it in my self-publishing post.) Pablo Escobar Gaviria en Caricaturas, 1983-1991 is a leather bound book of hundreds of cartoons and photographs of Escobar that had been published in various newspapers since 1983. 500 copies were printed and given to friends and family. A small pile of these books was found by his bed after he escaped from ‘La Catedral.’ One is up for sale for around $60,000 US dollars but the family of Escobar is contesting the sale on the grounds that it is stolen property.

The design of The Memory of Pablo Escobar is another fine accomplishment by Stuart Smith of Smith Design who I have mentioned glowingly before. Here he has created an extraordinary book that both looks and feels good. It is thick and hefty and at no point over the 350 pages does it allow for a lapse of attention. The choice of paper for the pages is a thick stock which accounts for how dense the book feels. The reproductions are well done and the documents are presented as objects on pages allotted solely for the images.

James Mollison worked on the text with Rainbow Nelson who is a freelance journalist who has worked in Colombia since 1992. It is very well written and the short chapter form allows for the reading to be done in small snippets or to be devoured in one sitting.

This book makes me wonder why other titles that discuss history do not include more visual material among the text. Most images in books of historical nonfiction get clumped together in sections of glossy pages where the original reference in the text has to be sought out for clarity. Here, it is a natural flow of information with reference images that makes it all more memorable.

As stated on the back of the jacket, The Memory of Pablo Escobar is a landmark in visual journalism.

Book Available Here (Memory of Pablo Escobar)