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 someones 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. Im 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 dont 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 dont 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 Im 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 didnt 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. Ive got to make a living so
Ive 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
seem very long for a true story like that.
But Ive been working
as a reporter for a long time, so Im fairly well
organized. I kind of know what Im doing now.
If Escobar hadnt
existed, would there have been someone else to take his
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 hadnt 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
arent 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 hes 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
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, its 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 dont want it to get
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 didnt
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. Weve 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
isnt dead yet?
Im not so sure he
isnt. I rather suspect that he is. Despite the reports
weve 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 isnt dead, he is really pinned down somewhere
where he is so isolated he cant get a videotape
out, which is fairly easy to do. So the fact that it hasnt
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. Its 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 dont really
become available until years later. Everything that is
going on right now with Afghanistan is classified. Its
extremely difficult to find anything. No one will talk
because its 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 culturea pursuit that
also involved the American military but also the Colombian
military and civilian law enforcement like the DEA [Drug
Enforcement Agency]. There wasnt 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
thats 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
What lasting military
effects did the Mogadishu have?
I think they learned a
lot of lessons from that battle. Everything from the minor
stufflike 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 wont 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?
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
Who will be directing
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 Ive ever seen. Believe me, if
I didnt 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 dont
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 didnt
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 Im 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
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. Thats 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 Ryans books [author of A Bridge
Too Far and The Longest Day]. As far as the
film, I didnt 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.
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 cant 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
Have there been
any negative repercussions after the publication of these
Not that I can see. I get
too many requests to do interviews.
then. Which way do your politics lean?
Im not a strict ideologist.
Ive 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.