DAKAR, Senegal – Liberia's Charles Taylor (search) has stood at the center of West Africa's arms and diamond trafficking, wars and refugee crises for 14 years, drawing U.N. sanctions and a U.N.-backed war crimes indictment.
Educated in the business schools of Boston and trained in the guerrilla camps of Libya (search), Taylor launched his warlord career out of a Boston jailhouse window in 1985.
Ripping through the bars with a hacksaw, he shinnied down a knotted sheet -- escaping extradition and trial on charges of embezzling $1 million in his Liberian homeland.
The escape set the tone for what was to come -- Taylor got where he wanted, by force.
Over the next two decades, Taylor fought his way to Liberia's presidency. In his drive to corner West Africa's diamonds and arms trade, he backed militias that tore at the stability of the region.
Taylor, now 54, only once acknowledged that he had ruined Liberia in the process.
"I agree that I spoiled it," Taylor said in 1997, when he was seeking power in elections after failing to win it by fighting. "And I need to be given the chance to fix it."
Taylor was born of mixed heritage, his father of local Liberian stock and his mother a descendant of the freed American slaves who founded Liberia, Africa's oldest republic, in the 19th century.
Although only 5 percent of the population, the Liberian-Americans ruled Liberia until 1979, when their bloody overthrow gave Liberia's indigenous population control for the first time in the country's history.
Trying to distance himself from the unpopular Liberian-American elite, Taylor eventually added Ghankay as a middle name.
He spent the 1970s studying and working in Boston, as a gas station attendant and as a mechanic at a plastics factory, and earned an economics degree from Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
Taylor returned to Liberia after the 1979 regime change. He won a top job in the new government, but evidently wanted more -- allegedly embezzling $1 million as head of Liberia's General Services Administration.
Taylor escaped to the United States, then broke out of the Boston jail.
He found his way to Libya, a mini-battlefield of the Cold War.
Libya's Moammar Gadhafi (search) trained, armed and funded Taylor and other budding West African revolutionaries, including Sierra Leone's Foday Sankoh.
Taylor returned to West Africa in 1989 at the head of a small force, invading to overthrow the U.S.-allied government of Samuel Doe.
The 7-year civil war that followed saw Doe and more than 150,000 other Liberians killed. Liberia, once sub-Saharan Africa's most prosperous country, was virtually destroyed.
Taylor, acknowledged and even respected in Liberia as the country's strongest warlord, won presidential elections the next year. "You killed my ma, you killed my pa, I'll vote for you," one mordant campaign cry ran.
Meanwhile, Taylor backed Sankoh in a 10-year terror campaign for the diamond fields of Sierra Leone. Neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast likewise accused Taylor of undermining their stability.
The U.N. Security Council placed Taylor and his regime under sanctions for alleged gun- and diamond-running. And on June 4, a U.N.-backed war-crimes court announced his indictment over the rebel campaign in Sierra Leone.