A Walk on the Dark Side

Crime fascinates us. If you don’t believe me, look at all the cop shows right now, such as CSI and all the variations of it. Then there are cop movies and crime novels in all their variations. In fact, CSI has pervaded society so much that most people think that’s how crimes are solved. That’s showing up in crime fiction.

We make it glamorous, too. Think of older shows like Miami Vice, where the cops wore Armani suits and drove hot cars. The rumor for years was that the show was started by then head of NBC Brandon Tartakoff (not sure if I spelled that one right) when he scribbled “MTV Cops” on a piece of paper. The truth, while maybe not so dramatic, is still telling: show creator Anthony Yerkovich got the idea from an article about all the illicit money in Dade County from the coke trade. He combined that with the way stories were being told in videos on MTV and, for spice, threw in the federal law that allows the seizure of property used in the commission of a crime. It was this last that allowed Crockett and Tubbs to wear the suits and drive the cars, despite what detractors say. In fact, there are several times throughout the series where Crockett gripes that he doesn’t own the clothes he wears or the cars he drives.

But if you look close, you’ll see the grit, too. Yerkovich wanted Miami as a setting for another reason: its seediness. There are several episodes that concern things like pornographic movies and the sex trade in general. There’s even an episode that wasn’t shown during the regular run that centers around child molestation. NBC decided it was too graphic for prime time TV, and that episode wasn’t shown until later, during syndication.

Then, of course, there was the whole Cocaine Cowboys thing, where the Colombians were murdering one another in drug wars much like what we see happening in Mexico today. Our modern wars were started by Joaquin Guzmán, while the wars from the 80s were started by Griselda Blanco, the Godmother. In both cases, there was peace until the guilty party decided they wanted a bigger piece of the pie.

In Guzmán’s case, he had Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, the man in charge of the Ciudad Juárez border crossing points, murdered along with his wife as they visited a Culicán shopping mall. This was, somewhat ironically, in September 11, 2004.

As for Griselda Blanco, she had two Cubans killed on July 11, 1979 at the Dadeland Mall in Miami. As a woman, she had to be more vicious than the other Colombians, and the list of murders attributed to her numbers somewhere around 250.

Griselda was associated with the Medellín Cartel, though even they kept her somewhat at arm’s length. She was just too violent, and they eventually turned on her because she had Marta Ochoa killed so she wouldn’t have to pay back the Ochoas for some money she owed.

The other famous member of the Medellín Cartel, of course, was Pablo Escobar. I just finished a book about him, called  Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden, the same man who wrote Black Hawk Down. In Killing Pablo, Bowden doesn’t concern himself so much with the Cocaine Wars as he does the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar.

Escobar is commonly seen as the leader of the Medellín Cartel, though, in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, both John Roberts and Mickey Munday, who imported something like $2 billion worth of coke for the cartel, say it was really Fabio Ochoa who ran it. Whichever is true, Pablo is the most famous and, according to Bowden’s account, was something of a linchpin for the organization. When he was killed in December of 1993, the Medellín Cartel effectively ceased to exist, supplanted by their rival, the Cali Cartel.

Bowden spends the first part of the book giving something of a capsule biography of Escobar, how he started as a street thug, mainly stealing cars. When the cocaine trade came along, he jumped at the chance. He had a thing for teenage girls, even though he was devoted to his wife and family. He was particular about his bathrooms. Every one of them in every house he lived in—after he acquired his money—was the same. He was chubby and fancied himself a man of the people.

But he became so powerful that he was, in effect, the dictatorial leader of Colombia. Toward the end, when the government, with the help of the United States, started closing in on him, he employed the use of car bombs and even blew up an airliner. This wasn’t long after the Lockerbie bombing, too, so this kind of thing was fresh on people’s minds. He subjected Colombia, and Medellín in particular, to a terrorist campaign, and many aspects of what he did reminded me of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.

While I read this book, it occurred to me that this aspect of crime is often overlooked in fiction. Sure, we can see the horror on the nightly news, but in our crime fiction, we overlook the underside of crime itself. Consider one of Griselda Blanco’s hitmen named Cumbamba. His trademark was that he would drain his victims of all their blood and break their bones so he could fold their bodies up and put them in boxes for disposal. These were violent people, and Griselda was responsible for the majority of the murders that took place in Miami between the years 1979 and 1982 or so. When she left, the murder rate dropped considerably. And when you consider Miami was the murder capitol of the world with a Time magazine article called “Paradise Lost” written about it, that’s saying a lot. There were 641 homicides there in 1982, and 25% of them involved death by machine gun fire.

There was lots of money involved, though. The Medellín Cartel imported 80% of the cocaine used in this country in those days. Mickey Munday transported over 38 tons of coke from Colombia to the US, and became a partner with Jon Roberts. These two were major movers in those days, and Mickey in particular seems to wonder why the Colombians wanted to ruin things by going to war with one another.

It’s the same thing the Mexican cartels are doing now. It’s all about control. He who dies with the most toys, wins. Joaquin Guzmán spent an estimated $2.5 million to escape from a maximum security Mexican prison in 2001 and, like his Medellín predecessors, is regularly listed in Forbes as one of the richest men in the world. He has lost at least one of his children, his son Edgar, to the drug wars.

I would say that most of these cartel leaders, whether Mexican or Colombian, are aware they probably won’t die of old age. But, if you look at the lives of most criminals, that’s how it is. They would rather live fast and hard and die young than do what the rest of us do and plod through life a step at a time. The late David Mac, author of the book When Money Grew on Trees, believed that certain people were just born to be criminals, and perhaps that’s true. Criminals fascinate me, and they’re why I’ve chosen to write crime novels from their point of view: it’s an effort to understand something I would never do. Stephen King wouldn’t do some of the gruesome things in his books, and I certainly have no desire to be some kind of kingpin.

But I think we need to step back occasionally and remember the dark underside of all this. As a society, we’ve chosen to make certain things illegal. And while we can argue about some of them, others are pretty much universally accepted as wrong, such as murder. Say what you want about the drugs, but when people get killed over the proceeds, folks sit up and take notice.

In Miami during the cocaine wars, bodies were showing up everywhere. Assassinations were taking place on city streets in broad daylight. If you watch Cocaine Cowboys, you’ll hear the people interviewed talking about how the Colombians would kill everybody in sight to get one person that they really wanted. One of the quotes goes something like, “If there were kids there, they’d kill them. If you owned a bird, they’d kill the bird. If you had a goldfish, they’d kill the goldfish.”

A friend of mine once said that even crime novels are fantasies. I disagreed at the time, mostly because I was talking about fantasy as a genre and my inability to write a fantasy story that satisfies me. But I’ve given it thought since then, and he’s right: as crime novelists, we find ways for our heroes—or antiheroes—to kill people and get away with it. I make a statement in Pipeline that Crockett and Tubbs were serial killers with badges, and it’s true. But we have to bend the punishment of these killings, either because our character needs to get away with it or he’s one of the “good guys” and is part of an ongoing series, such as Elvis Cole. He’s killed several people, though I do have to be fair and say Robert Crais keeps those killings to a minimum.

Sometimes, though, it can’t be helped. We want to evoke a reaction in our readers, and there’s no better way to do it than by having somebody die. And if that somebody is important to the main character and the reader, all the better.

It’s a walk on the dark side, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Later,

Gil

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