WAG: What first
attracted you to the Pablo Escobar story?
As I explain in the epilogue, I was intrigued by
a photograph I saw on the office wall of a retired
military officer. There is a copy of it in the book.
It shows a bloody, dead, fat man surrounded by a
group of gleeful men with rifles, as though posing
after a big game hunt. I asked about the picture,
and was told that the dead man was Pablo Escobar.
Given where I saw the picture, I assumed it meant
there was a far greater U.S. involvement in the
hunt for Escobar than was previously known—and
this turned out to be true. And I figured any manhunt
that ended with killing the seventh richest man
in the world would make an interesting tale.
The research for Killing Pablo and
your previous book, Black Hawk Down, required
you to travel into potentially dangerous areas and
ask questions many people might not want to answer.
Does that ever give you pause—or does it,
in fact, increase the subject's appeal?
I actually prefer not to go to dangerous places
or put myself in jeopardy, and in this project I
don't think I did to any significant extent. My
last two stories have concerned American military
action overseas. At some point in the reporting,
I realized, somewhat reluctantly, that to do the
reporting well I would have to accept certain risks.
There are many, many journalists who do more dangerous
work every day than I have ever done.
Killing Pablo has a considerable amount
of Colombian history in it. How much time did you
devote to researching Colombia's history, as opposed
to documenting the Escobar story itself?
I read as many books and articles as
I could find about Colombia, and interviewed Colombians
like Cesar Gaviria, Eduardo Mendoza, and others
about their knowledge and understanding of the country's
modern history. It was part of the ongoing process
for me, so I don't know exactly how long that specific
aspect took. Throughout the three years I worked
on the story, I tried to absorb as much information
as I could.
In the interview we did with you last year
for Black Hawk Down, you told us that you
couldn't have written that book without your twenty
years of experience as a journalist. How difficult
was writing Killing Pablo, by comparison?
I found Killing Pablo to be even
more of a challenge. It takes place over many years,
where Black Hawk Down was mostly an account
of a single day's battle. It was harder to find
sources willing to talk on the record for Killing
Pablo. Each book presented its own distinct
challenges. Overall, the story of the manhunt for
Pablo Escobar was one that participants were somewhat
less eager to tell.
Killing Pablo and Black Hawk Down
share a common element—the American military
and, in particular, Delta Force. But do they share
a deeper thematic element as well?
I think both books are about the difficulty
of being American in the modern world. Given the
United States' great wealth and military power,
what is our appropriate role in the world? What
sort of strategic, tactical and moral questions
do we face? In both books, the well-intentioned
efforts of the U.S. lead to unexpected, problematic
results. Each, in its own way, ought to be humbling.
They serve as reminders that there are more things
in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
What impact do you think Escobar's death
had on the U.S. war on drugs?
Escobar's death had no impact on the
flow of drugs from Colombia. In some ways, as former
Bogota DEA chief Joe Toft believes, the huge effort
actually worsened the drug problem, by inadvertently
strengthening the Cali drug cartel and deepening
its ties with the Colombian government.
What do you think would have happened with
Escobar and the other druglords if the U.S. hadn't
stepped up its effort to fight them?
There is a good chance that Escobar would
still be alive, rich and trafficking in Medellin,
if the U.S. hadn't been so determined to get him.
Given what bad shape the country of Colombia is
in today, it would be hard to imagine it being worse,
but I do think things would have been worse. Escobar
was a very rich and powerful man, who lived completely
outside the law and wielded tremendous power in
Colombia. He was capable of projecting violent terror
throughout the world, and willing. Killing Escobar
and Gacha and arresting Lehder had the effect of
making the drug traffickers themselves somewhat
less brazen and violent—out of self preservation.
With such wide-ranging topics as Somalian
warlords and Colombian druglords under your belt,
it's hard to guess your next project will be. Have
you started on anything of book-length yet?
I have not yet started on another book. I am working
on the screenplay for Killing Pablo, and
I have completed the text for a book called Our
Finest Day, which is an illustrated book about
the invasion of Normandy, done in conjunction with
the D-Day Museum in New Orleans. It is due out next
Note: Click here
to read Mark Bowden's May 2000 interview with WAG;
to read a review of Killing Pablo; and click
here to read a
review of Black Hawk Down.