I Like Good Stories
Author Mark Bowden talks about Black Hawk Down, Pablo Escobar and the hunt for Osama bin Laden
By Dan Epstein

Dan Epstein: What first attracted you to the Pablo Escobar story?

Mark Bowden: When I was working on Black Hawk Down, I met a military man who had a photograph on his wall of a dead, bloody, fat man on a rooftop surrounded by a bunch of smiling men holding up rifles, as if they had just had a successful big game hunt. It was a pretty horrible picture, and it appeared to be part of someone’s permanent collection. I asked about it, and I was told with pride, "That, my friend, is Pablo Escobar."

I knew that Escobar was one of the most powerful, richest criminals in the world. And I had a vague notion that he had been killed, but I had no idea how. Because of the place where I saw this picture I figured that there was far more substantial U.S. involvement in his death than most people had been aware. That struck me as a pretty interesting story.

You had to talk to some pretty dangerous people researching both books. Do you like danger?

No, not particularly; I like good stories. I’m inclined to go where the story takes me, and I think what you do makes you proceed down a path that you know could lead you to a dangerous spot. You must prepare to back away if it becomes too threatening. But you also don’t want to abandon the trail out of timidity or cowardice. With those two projects, I found myself going a little further than I was completely comfortable with. But I don’t think I took a huge risk; certainly, there are reporters right now in Afghanistan and other places who routinely run greater risks than I have in my reporting. But there was some danger.

Did the soldiers make you do anything in order to gain their trust?

I always found that just being straight with people is the best policy. I have enough of a reputation at this point because more and more people are aware of my work. And the success of Black Hawk Down helped, so people take me seriously. There is a reputation within the United States military and other government agencies that I am someone who has no agenda and I’m really just interested in finding the truth and if I make a deal with someone, I keep it.

The movie Blow starring Johnny Depp [and directed by Ted Demme] portrayed the life of George Jung, the man who established the American cocaine market in the 1980s by making a deal with Escobar. Was that accurately portrayed, or did you not know too much about Jung?

No I didn’t find too much information about him. I wrote a book [called Doctor Dealer] in the 1980s about a regional cocaine dealer named Larry Lavin whose experience was not much different than George Jung. I thought that the movie [Blow] exaggerated the significance of Jung; I think there were George Jungs in just about every city in the United States.

How long did the research and the interviews take for Killing Pablo?

Well, since I had written two books prior to Black Hawk Down, I thought Black Hawk Down would come out and maybe ten or twenty thousand people would buy it. I’ve got to make a living so I’ve always gotten quickly to work on the next project. I started working on it before Black Hawk Down was ever published. Black Hawk Down was originally published in 1999. Then, of course, the success of Black Hawk Down kind of put me off stride for a little while, but I finished it and the hardcover for Killing Pablo got published in 2001. So it was about a three-year project altogether.

That doesn’t seem very long for a true story like that.

But I’ve been working as a reporter for a long time, so I’m fairly well organized. I kind of know what I’m doing now.

If Escobar hadn’t existed, would there have been someone else to take his role?

I think what made him remarkable was his violence. He was an extraordinarily vicious person who nevertheless had a measure of personal charm and charisma. So I do think he was remarkable in that way. But definitely, if he hadn’t been there, someone else would have gotten really rich running a cocaine cartel. But I doubt that whoever that would be would become as flamboyant and powerful as Escobar was. I think that was a function of his personality.

Why did the people of Colombia allow Escobar so much power and control?

Well, there was a great ambivalence in Colombia about the necessity of controlling drug trafficking. Drugs have corrupted a lot of the country of Colombia. This means the people, the government, the military and the police were happy to be paid off, to let that kind of thing go. By the same token, for a period in Colombia Pablo Escobar was kind of a hero, if only because he was the seventh-richest man in the world. There aren’t too many seventh-richest men who come from places like Colombia. There was a feeling that he may have been a criminal and a thug, but he’s our criminal and thug. By the time the country had begun to sour on Escobar, his power and ability to project violence even to the highest levels of Colombian society made it extremely difficult to deal with him. He killed three of the five candidates for president of Colombia in 1989. He was someone who rivaled the state and was a threat to the rule of law.

What was the final straw for the US getting involved with Escobar?

The final straw was when Escobar in 1989 arranged to have an Avianca airliner blown up. When that happened, it killed all 110 people on board. That happened shortly after the Lockerbie incident, where the Pan Am flight was blown up. The whole civilized world had become extremely sensitive to the threat of terrorists attacking airplanes. As we saw with September 11th the international air network is very vulnerable and is vital to the way of life for the Western world. So someone who is willing and capable of taking down aircraft is considered to be a very serious threat to the whole world. So the United States had a longtime interest in getting Escobar, on the basis of shipping drugs north. But what made Escobar special was this heightened concern of his ability to project violence into the airwaves. That put him on the map.

I believe you said Killing Pablo is a much more complicated story than Black Hawk Down. How come?

Black Hawk Down is primarily a story about a battle. Within the events of that day, it’s an extremely complicated story, but it all takes place within 18 to 20 hours. Obviously, the book digresses to tell you the history and the political context, but the action is focused on that one place and time. The story of Pablo Escobar really begins back in the early 1950s; the heart of the story takes place maybe over a four-or five-year period when the U.S. and Colombian government decided to collaborate and go after Escobar. Just the sweep of the story is much broader than Black Hawk Down and involves a lot more people and information. It was a far more challenging subject matter. The nature of the hunt for Escobar involves the creation of death squads, which operate clearly outside the law. Americans involved with the death squads had extreme moral quandaries. Some of them could be in danger of finding themselves up on charges. There is a presidential order banning the assassination of foreign citizens. To my knowledge, the president of the United States had not authorized the assassination of Pablo Escobar or anyone else in Colombia. But yet there was a clear link between the United States Embassy, the CIA, Delta Force and the death squads that were killing a lot of people. You had on the one hand the effective tactic of assassination and on the other hand something that was theoretically against the law and could send people to jail.

You would think that these people would be hailed as heroes for killing Escobar. Why do you think they don’t want it to get out?

Well, it's against the law because ever since the Church Hearings in the 1970s [the Church committee found in 1975 that plots against five foreign leaders under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon had been organized in terms "so ambiguous that it is difficult to be certain at what levels assassination activity was known and authorized"], the United States government has put major restrictions on the things that the military and espionage agencies are allowed to do overseas. One of the bans was assassination. The loophole is that the president can authorize an assassination, but he has to do so in order to make it legal, which didn’t happen with Escobar. A lot of the people in the military who were involved with this feel strongly that in order for the United States to accomplish its goals and defend its interests, it's necessary to play as dirty as our opponents do. But at least, prior to September 11th, there was a culture in Washington opposed to breaking these rules. We’ve seen since September 11th that timidity has been destroyed. In fact, a lot of criticism of all the presidential administrations dating back to Gerald Ford has been their reluctance to utilize the capability of the United States espionage and projecting covert military power in the defense of American interests.

You know how good the Special Forces are. Why do you think Osama bin Laden isn’t dead yet?

I’m not so sure he isn’t. I rather suspect that he is. Despite the reports we’ve been seeing lately, my suspicion is that if he is alive, he would have certainly taken advantage of the propaganda opportunity of thumbing his nose at the greatest manhunt in history with one of his videotapes. So if he isn’t dead, he is really pinned down somewhere where he is so isolated he can’t get a videotape out, which is fairly easy to do. So the fact that it hasn’t been done suggests to me that he is dead. I could, of course, be wrong. No one knows for sure. I think it's also worth noting that the United States decided to go after Escobar, and it took 15 months before they found him and killed him. It’s very difficult to find an individual, particularly when he's moving in his own home turf surrounded by people who are protecting and supporting him. In that sense, the story of Pablo Escobar is a very useful primer in the techniques and methods in what will be used against al-Qaeda and not just bin Laden but the other heads of those groups. I think that some of the same people that hunted for Escobar are involved in the bin Laden hunt as well.

Have you thought about writing a book about bin Laden?

My next book is going to be about the Iran Hostage crisis that took place in 1979-80. The nature of these stories is that they don’t really become available until years later. Everything that is going on right now with Afghanistan is classified. It’s extremely difficult to find anything. No one will talk because it’s an ongoing operation. Like I said, Escobar was published in 2001, and he was killed in 1993. Black Hawk Down came out in 1999, and that battle happened in 1993. If I decide that a bin Laden book is something I want to do, it may take that long.

Did you find any similarities in researching and writing Black Hawk Down and doing the same for Killing Pablo?

Well, in one sense, every project has its own challenges. This dealt with Colombia and an entirely different culture—a pursuit that also involved the American military but also the Colombian military and civilian law enforcement like the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency]. There wasn’t a ready group of characters involved with the story to interview, as there was with Black Hawk Down. So it was more difficult to locate the people involved and get them to talk to me. It that sense, it was really different. But in another way, projects like this are somewhat the same in that you do a lot of initial research by trying to find everything that’s been written publicly and privately on the subject so you can bring yourself up to speed; then identifying the individuals that are most closely involved with the story and trying to talk them into cooperating with you. With cases involving the government and government agencies, there is often a treasure trove of classified documentation that is often classified or off-limits, but sometimes people keep that stuff. So getting at that was key in both Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo. Also, with both books I had to learn about a foreign culture and history, traveling overseas and hiring a translator.

How long did it take to put Black Hawk Down together?

It took about three and a half years.

Did the people you interviewed for Black Hawk Down get emotional?

Oh yeah, most of them. It was a traumatic episode. A lot of their friends were killed or maimed. Many broke down while I was talking to them.

What lasting military effects did the Mogadishu have?

I think they learned a lot of lessons from that battle. Everything from the minor stuff—like make sure you wear Kevlar helmets, bring plenty of water and your night vision glasses, even on short missions during the day. I think they are far less inclined to send one of these special ops units in without a substantial reserve force to respond in the event things go wrong. I think they are far more likely to conduct a mission in nighttime. I think they won’t be using Black Hawk helicopters to fly air support over a city anymore. I think they will go with the AC-130 gunship, which flies too high to get hit by rocket-propelled grenades, and I also think they are much more sensitive to the importance of enlisting the local population to support the military operations which we are seeing now in Afghanistan. When we went after the Taliban, the genius of that operation was using special forces to convince Afghan warlords and people that they could overthrow the Taliban and we could help. There was already a great deal of hatred and anger that was exploited by American forces.

Did you get to write a draft of the screenplay?

I did.

Did any of it make it in there?

A bit. As a matter of fact, I kid my friend, Ken Nolan, who deservedly got screenwriting credit, whenever one of my scenes or lines popped up.

Not that any of my writing came up, though. It was all thoroughly overhauled by the time the shooting script was ready. It was my first experience with screenwriting and a great one. I learned a great deal. As of right now, I am writing the screenplay for Killing Pablo.

Who will be directing Killing Pablo?

Right now, it is director Gregory Nava [film director of Selena and Why Do Fools Fall In Love?].

So did you like the movie Black Hawk Down?

I did. I think it's one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Believe me, if I didn’t think so, I would tell you. A movie was made out of some earlier stories I wrote called Money for Nothing starring John Cusack, and I don’t think that was a good film. But I think Black Hawk Down is really daring and amazingly photographed and edited. I think 100 years from now, it will be one of the benchmarks for war movies.

Is there anything you would have liked to have seen in the movie that didn’t make it?

Yeah, there were some scenes from the book. The first thing that me, Mike Stenson and Chad Oman [producers of Black Hawk Down] did when we first started on the project was sit down with a copy of the book with a yellow legal pad. We started writing up lists of the scenes in the book that had to be in the movie. Over several hours, we had filled our legal pads with so much stuff that we realized that there was no way all these scenes were going to get in the movie. We had no vision of how to shape the film, but we wanted these scenes in it. But I’m amazed by how much of the story is there in the film. Just about every major event is in there. I think Ridley Scott did an incredible job.

The structure of both the book and the movie is the one incident in Somalia. What books did you look at to create the structure of Black Hawk Down?

I read a lot of books about war. That’s not something I really read much about. When I was a teenager, I was fascinated about World War II fighter pilots, so I read about that. But for Black Hawk Down, I went out and read probably about a dozen books that were about battles. I was particularly impressed with Cornelius Ryan’s books [author of A Bridge Too Far and The Longest Day]. As far as the film, I didn’t look at any other screenplays or films. I basically sat down with my knowledge of the battle with the list we came up with and tried to create a screenplay that would narrow the focus of the book. Even though there ended up being 37 speaking roles in the movie, there were only about five or six main characters.

Were you worried that the events of Sept 11th might have stopped Black Hawk Down from coming out?

No, I never really worried about it. The movie was essentially done by September. It was completely out of my hands; I try not to fret too much about things I can’t control. I was pretty confident that the movie was going to come out. The truth is they ended up speeding it up and bringing it out at the end of 2001.

Have there been any negative repercussions after the publication of these two books?

Not that I can see. I get too many requests to do interviews.

Last question then. Which way do your politics lean?

I’m not a strict ideologist. I’ve never belonged to a political party. I tend to be pragmatic in my outlook. I react to events as they unfold. With foreign policy, I probably fall more into a conservative category. And with domestic and social policies, I fall into a more liberal category. I feel we have extraordinary freedoms in this country that are essential, and they need to be protected.