Cartel Corner History: The Man Who Tried To Run Forever

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Twenty-four years ago today, Pablo Escobar walked out of prison, setting off a massive 18-month manhunt. In season two of Narcos, the hunt is on. Watch the new trailer, and don’t miss new episodes of Narcos, streaming on Netflix September 2.

It was humiliating. He practically walked out of jail and disappeared into thin air. Colombia’s most wanted criminal was nowhere to be found. So on a Friday in the summer of 1992 — 24 years ago today — then president César Gaviria had no choice but to lower his head to the microphone and admit that the country’s most wanted criminal had slipped right through the fingers of a special forces raid. According to one theory, the escape artist dressed up in a stolen military uniform, pulled a gas mask over his head and melted into the crowd of soldiers as they lit up La Catedral, his prison-mansion compound on the outskirts of Medellín.

Netflix viewers will find it hard to forget the original narco, the ultraviolent, extravagant bad guy who set the standard — Pablo Escobar, played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura inNarcos. Before he was gunned down atop the Spanish-tiled rooftops of a Medellín neighborhood in 1993, Escobar had tightened his ruthless grip on drug trafficking across the Americas. At the same time, he cultivated a reputation as a Robin Hood who tossed goodies to the poor even as he built a grandiose palace for himself on 5,500 acres, complete with a private zoo and an orchard. Al Pacino’s character in the 1983 coke-and-violence-fueled Scarface was reportedly based in part on Escobar’s bloody tale.

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Cold War Files: The Cold War’s Deadliest Battleground

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When young Americans are taught about the Cold War, we learn that it was exactly that — a decades-long standoff based on the threat of war, one without mass casualties, tanks and guns. Sure, there were spies, assassinations and intrigue, but even history teachers who cover proxy wars tend to leave out one whopping chapter: Angola’s role as surrogate battleground.

During the Cold War, Angola saw the second-largest American deployment of covert aid.

Only Afghanistan’s mujahideen got more aid from the U.S. And the conflict in Angola was very bloody: By the time the Americans and Soviets backed away, in 1991, hundreds of thousands of people had perished. Angola’s ensuing civil war, which ended in 2002, killed 1.5 million, according to some estimates. Turns out the Cold War wasn’t so cold.

It all started with a coup in Portugal — the colonial rulers of Angola — that ushered in a wave of Portuguese decolonization of its African territories. The transition was abrupt, and its sudden power vacuum prompted a violent three-way bid for rule. The U.S. threw its support behind Angola’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA, and the Soviets backed UNITA’s enemies, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola, MPLA.

The Soviet Union and the U.S. weren’t alone in their meddling. Cuba — led by an ideological imperative to help install a Marxist regime in power — partnered up with the Soviets and poured some 50,000 troops into Angola. The U.S., meanwhile, sidled up to apartheid South Africa to send its troops into Angola. Despite all the spending, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger denied involvement in the southwest African country to Congress for years. With the American public reeling from Richard Nixon’s resignation and the conclusion of the disastrous Vietnam War, the CIA did what it does best: It kept its involvement in Angola secret.

Why Angola? Many scholars argue it was far more than a battle for hearts and minds — the ideological alignment of the powers and their proxies was shaky at best. Instead, the superpowers saw a chance to deplete the other side of weapons and munitions and to maintain physical control of a country valued for its diamonds and oil. The U.S. saw Soviet dominance-by-proxy of Angola as catastrophic, says Keith Somerville, a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies. It would give them power over parts of the Cape shipping route around the tip of Africa as well as the export of a whole range of minerals — uranium, copper, platinum, coltan and diamonds — from its next-door neighbors, he says.

In the end, the Cold War subsided and the superpowers pressured the warring parties into signing peace accords in 1991. The MPLA won the mandated elections (its leader, José Eduardo Dos Santos, is still in power today). The U.S. abandoned UNITA and established formal diplomatic relations with Angola. UNITA, in retaliation for its loss, reignited a war that raged on until 2002. No doubt foreign meddling prolonged and deepened the conflict — including by leaving Angola with the highest number of land mines in the world — but for many, the persistence of war long after Soviet-American withdrawal shows that the “core issues were there” and foreign powers “exacerbated the situation with arms and ammunition,” says Alex Vines, Africa researcher at Chatham House.

 “Everything changed” after the Cold War “in terms of the way major powers looked at Africa,” Somerville says. Trade became the name of the game. After all, Angola is the second largest oil producer in Africa, after Nigeria. Even today, though, UNITA feels slighted. During Hillary Clinton’s visit to the country as Secretary of State, UNITA expressed dismay that it did not receive a sit-down with its former Cold War backer. Her likely thoughts: Got oil?
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World War II History: When Hemmingway Stashed Bazookas In A Parisian Hotel Room

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Troops marched in Rambouillet, kicking up dust just outside of Paris as the war correspondent dotted around town on assignment. Ernest Hemingway was there, ostensibly, as a reporter, not a combatant. But he may have been stretching the boundaries of press freedoms while commanding a group of French Resistance fighters and journalists to help liberate the capital in 1944.

The big story of how the Illinois native arrived in Paris as a journalist, faced a military tribunal and nearly got booted out of France is a lesson in the hazy ethics that govern embedded reporters still today. And the truth, like much of Hemingway’s life, remains blurry. “If you model your journalism after Hemingway, you have some sort of complex,” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. And yet, that role was intrinsic to the famed author’s image of himself: “Hemingway saw himself as a journalist” all his life, says James Nagel, a Dartmouth scholar and former president of the Ernest Hemingway Society.

Launching his career when he was a mere teenager, Hemingway wrote without bylines for the Kansas City Star. The recent high school grad was known to “dash around the city compulsively, wanting always to know where the ambulance had [gone],” says Hemingway expert Kelley Dupuis. On one assignment, bystanders refused to touch a man sick with some contagious disease, and when an ambulance didn’t arrive quickly, Hemingway reportedly took action. “Why, I wouldn’t treat a dog like that,” he said, according to an account in Matthew Bruccoli’s Ernest Hemingway, Cub Reporter, before picking the sick man up, ordering a taxi and taking him to the hospital himself — later expensing the cab fare.

The incident foreshadowed a lifetime of throwing himself into the very news he was meant to simply report. After a stint as an ambulance driver in World War I that saw him return home a hero — the first American injured on the Italian front, headlines proclaimed — Hemingway settled down as a writer for the Cooperative Commonwealth magazine in Chicago. Next was a cushy gig in Paris as the European correspondent for the Toronto Star, which he was fired from after he got caught publishing articles concurrently in another publication. By now a commercial success for his fiction, having published both A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway covered the Spanish Civil War for a North American wire service, sparking controversy in 1940 by penning For Whom the Bell Tolls. The story’s protagonist, a guerrilla soldier, invited criticisms that the novelist was writing about himself — playing soldier rather than serving as an objective observer.

At the start of World War II, Hemingway found himself unemployed in Havana and bitter that Martha Gellhorn, his new and third wife, was covering the conflict as a correspondent for Collier’s Weekly. “He was supposed to be the celebrity reporter, not Martha,” Nagel says. Hemingway got the call a year later, also from Collier’s, and landed on the beaches of Normandy … the day after D-Day. “The Private Ryan business had already taken place,” says Nagel, and Gellhorn was actually the first reporter to land in Europe. But her editors scrapped her frontline piece, choosing Hemingway’s day-after take instead for the cover. “She never spoke to him again,” Nagel says.

 

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Reporting from the Western Front, Hemingway reunited with a friend, Maj. Gen. Charles “Buck” Lanham, who gave him a front seat for the American advance on Paris. But as they neared the City of Light, Hemingway didn’t get the word that liberation was to be left to French locals. So he, along with a few dozen reporters and Resistance fighters, “liberated” the Ritz Hotel. In truth, he was welcomed with open arms by owner Charles Ritz, an old drinking buddy from his time there in the 1920s. Luckily for Hemingway, the German lieutenants who had roomed there were long gone. He avoided trouble then, only to find it again a few weeks later when a complaint was filed accusing Hemingway of keepingfirearms, bazookas, grenades and other weapons in his Parisian hotel room. It was a serious charge and suspected violation of the Geneva Convention’s rules insisting that news correspondents avoid compromising their status as noncombatants.

Faced with the embarrassing possibility that he’d be expelled, Hemingway did what he did best: spun a tale. He argued that the hefty arsenal of Resistance weaponry was only in his possession because “storage space was in short supply,” Dupuis says. Although Hemingway was known to carry a rifle, he said he never took part in any fighting. He was cleared of the charges, and in 1949 the rules advising correspondents not to carry arms were clarified.

A true legend, it’s foolish to think Hemingway wouldn’t toe the line between reality and fiction even in death. After his passing, scholars discovered his unpublished short story,Black Ass at the Crossroads. The gist? “A story about a group of journalists who are fired upon by the Germans,” Nagel says. “These guys have weapons. And they fight back.”

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World War II History: These Men Were French Heroes Until They Were’nt

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In a book about the French Revolution he was ghostwriting during the 1920s, Charles de Gaulle opined that some of the country’s generals had been stripped “of prestige, often of life, sometimes of honor.” As described in Julian Jackson’s De Gaulle, Marshal Philippe Pétain — the champion of Verdun — suggested the young captain move the part about life to the end of the sentence. Refusing to bow to the experienced soldier’s advice, an uppity de Gaulle declared, “It is an ascending gradation: prestige, life, honor.”

De Gaulle once held Pétain in high regard — some say his son, Philippe, had been named after the famed maréchal. But this editorial quibble foreshadowed their future, as both men went on to rule France, be sentenced to death and trade labels of “villain” and “hero.” And Pétain would be stripped of his honor, but spared his life, by his former charge.

Colonel Pétain, as he was known in 1914, had never seen any action and was preparing to retire at the age of 58. But retirement wasn’t in the cards thanks to World War I, during which this cautious military man built a reputation as a great field commander who would not attack “until he had an overwhelming superiority,” says Robert Paxton, a Columbia University professor emeritus and specialist in Vichy history. Known for vowing to hold Verdun at all costs — famously saying, “Ils ne passeront pas” (“They will not pass”) — he was awarded the marshal’s baton in 1918. He also developed a taste for leadership and accolades: One of his next roles was mobilizing French troops against the 1925 Rif rebellion in Morocco, a victory that earned him a series of political appointments in the 1930s.

 When German tanks started rolling toward France again, de Gaulle was neither well-known nor well-liked. Compared with the cautious Pétain, de Gaulle had always been Bolshie and, like stereotypical millennials today, the young nationalist told his bosses just what he thought; he was, according to Paxton, “ready to take risks” on the battlefield. The future first president of the French Republic favored mechanized warfare and the use of specialized armored divisions in combat, rather than sticking with French doctrine, which dictated that tanks support infantry maneuvers. His efforts to repel German forces — including the use of tanks at Montcornet in one of France’s few successes at holding off Hitler’s troops — got him promoted to brigadier general and, later, undersecretary of state for defense and war. De Gaulle’s objective was winning at any cost, a position that would once more pit him against his former boss.

“Better to be a Nazi province” was the message from Pétain to French Premier Paul Reynaud, Ian Crofton writes in Traitors & Turncoats, noting that the latter fancied joining efforts with Britain to combat Hitler, despite heavy French losses. Leadership squabbles led to Reynaud being out, Pétain being in and negotiations for peace initiated with Germany, to the chagrin of de Gaulle and Reynaud. Pétain signed an armistice on June 22, 1940, and once again he was hailed a hero for saving the nation from more bloodshed.

Pétain’s government moved to Vichy, where it controlled roughly 40 percent of France, with the rest left to German occupation. De Gaulle, meanwhile, moved to Britain, where he drummed up support for Free French Forces, starting with a Winston Churchill–approved BBC radio address to his countrymen. In response, Vichy sentenced de Gaulle to death for treason — a high-ranking military leader with an equally high ranking atop France’s hit list.

 “Pétain was sure the war was over,” Paxton says, while “de Gaulle was sure it was not over.” One was hailed a hero, the other a traitor, but all of that was about to change. Vichy became a collaborative hellhole known for deporting French Jews, and de Gaulle went on to rally support in Africa, raise troops and help lead the liberation of his country. “[De Gaulle’s] bet was right,” Paxton says.

With France liberated in September 1944, Vichy’s elite were summoned to Germany, but Pétain returned home to face charges of treason at a trial in the summer of 1945. His defense? “If I could no longer be your sword, I wanted to be your shield.” Still beloved by many, Pétain was stripped of his military rank and sentenced to execution by firing squad. De Gaulle commuted the 89-year-old’s sentence, freeing the old man to live out his final days on the Île d’Yeu.

“The marshal is a great man who died in 1925. Trouble is, he didn’t know it,” de Gaulle said of his former mentor’s fall from grace. And indeed, as the younger man prospered from his good fortune and sound bet during World War II, he watched France’s once-great hero be stripped of his prestige and honor, but not quite his life.

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World War II History: One of The Most Devastating Bombing’s of WW2 You Most Likely Never Heard About

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“It was a lovely winter morning with a clear sky overhead. At 11:10 a.m., the earth shuddered violently.” So reads an official’s account of an otherwise unremarkable day in 1944. But what was very remarkable was the source of the shuddering: an explosion so fierce it left a crater 80 feet deep and a quarter mile wide.

The blast of an estimated 3,500 tons of high explosives took out a nearby water reservoir, swallowed a farm and some buildings and killed scores — with seismographs picking up the shock waves as far away as Rome and Casablanca. Just another day of war in Dresden or Cologne? No. To the shock of the Staffordshire countryside, Britain had just endured what the Ministry of Defense tells OZY was the “world’s biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear age,” and one with almost half the force of the following year’s atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

Near the village of Hanbury, in the West Midlands, bombs were stored during wartime at Royal Air Force Fauld, a former gypsum mine where it was hoped they’d be safe from German bombing raids. But thousands of tons of highly explosive material being moved around by men in a confined space carried its own risks, as villagers learned the hard way on Nov. 27, 1944. Seventy people were killed, including those buried at the mine and, according to Karen Evans in The Grim Almanac of Staffordshire, workers at a nearby plaster mill who died when a damaged reservoir caused local flooding. “It was indescribable,” one unnamed survivor told the Telegraph at the time. “It was hell. The man next to me was killed, and then the water came.”

The dead included military personnel, civilians and Italian prisoners of war. Headlines pointed out that death tolls were fuzzy for weeks, since no one knew precisely how many people were in the area at the time. “Civilians in Ruined Area Disappear Without a Trace” read one, and the MOD admits that 18 bodies were never recovered. Every home in the village was damaged, and hundreds of farm animals perished.

A community grieved, but was drowned out by the final throes of war on the European front. The fact that there were no surviving witnesses to the first massive detonation fed speculation of sabotage. Were the Italians on-site looking for revenge? One survivor’s son even posited that an enemy bombing destroyed the site. But most agreed with the MOD that the blast was caused by an accidental ignition of explosives. Based on circumstantial evidence, says Alan Thomas of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch, the most likely cause was “the misuse of a brass chisel to remove the fuse from a live returned weapon.” This could have generated sparks that ignited the bomb filling — with the initial detonation setting off subsequent blasts in a deadly domino effect.

“Personnel at the depot were potentially undertrained, underequipped and undersupervised,” Thomas explains. Safety procedures of some sort would have been in place, of course, but they were “minimal.” This, combined with the likely complacency of handling bomb materials routinely, elevated the risk. On the day of the explosion, Thomas says there were unused weapons that had just been returned to the site — possibly still armed — and left with a unit that wasn’t prepared to disarm them, close to other weapons. Exactly what happened that day will forever remain buried, along with the 18 unrecovered bodies.

Bomb materials were subsequently removed from the accessible parts of the site, but many explosives still lay deep underground in the precarious mine — deemed too expensive to remove by the British government. Ground-level operations continued at the site until 1966, and between 1967 and 1973, the U.S. Army used RAF Fauld for ordnance storage. The local council tried to get MOD permission to fill the crater with household waste and turn the giant hole into a refuse dump, but loved ones of victims whose bodies were never recovered objected, and permission was denied. In the late 1970s, the area was fenced off, and nature was left to take its course.

The blast may have constituted a mere fraction of what was being dropped nightly over the cities of Germany, and it paled in comparison to the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But it permanently scarred the Staffordshire countryside and exposed critical fissures in British munitions policy, storage and training — prompting urgently needed changes that came too late for too many.

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