Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mark Bowden on Pablo Escobar




TOWER REVIEW: In your early career as a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, what types of stories did you cover?


MARK BOWDEN: In my work for newspapers, which began in 1973 for The Baltimore News-American, I have covered just about everything imaginable. I have always preferred being a generalist, and have enjoyed moving into new territory. My first writing job was with a special section of the Baltimore paper called Young World. I wrote searching feature stories about acne and loneliness. I went on to cover cops, a suburban county, the state legislature, politics and even baseball. At the Inquirer I have been science writer, transportation reporter, football reporter and have done extensive national and international reporting.


Q: Was it a natural progression for you from newspaper and magazine stories to books?


A: Yes. When I was just getting started, a solid newspaper story was the best thing I could do. Then it was longer Sunday stories, magazine stories (I was staff writer for The Inquirer Sunday Magazine for five years), and then stories that had to run in a series. At this rate by the time I'm 60 I'll be giving Will and Ariel Durant a run for their money.


Q: In BLACK HAWK DOWN you wrote about a tragic incident during the war in Somalia that was harrowing and galvanizing. When did you know this had to be told in a book--was it the famous photo of a dead American Special Forces soldier being dragged along the streets of Mogadishu?


A: I was drawn to the story in Black Hawk Down by its inherent drama. I didn't even realize when I started that the troops involved were Special Forces, or even, frankly, what Special Forces were.


Q: I saw the Frontline piece on drug lord Pablo Escobar's life and death, and what fascinated me was how many people revered him, and continue to do so. Current drug lords in Mexico also purchase poor citizen's allegiance, and buy politicians or threaten them. But none have been as blatant or cruel or rich as Escobar. What is your take on his mythic status? Was he really intelligent, generous, and sociopathic--like a Mafia don--or was he only a self-deluded street thug who attracted allegiance with his fearless audacity and by passing the buck?


A: I think Escobar did have something of a social conscience, although only in a very selective and self-serving way. I suspect his efforts on behalf of the poor helped him rationalize the other things he did. It enabled him to see himself as a good man, even when he was ordering assassinations and setting off bombs in Bogota.


Q: His extravagant lifestyle seems to support the myth that crime pays, although his death explodes that notion. Was he a paranoid man, or did he really think he was innocent and untouchable, like a god? And exactly how far reaching was his control of the drug trade in the U.S.?


A: At his height, Escobar was the most powerful drug dealer and most successful criminal in the world. About 80% of the cocaine that reached the U.S. came from his cartel. He certainly came to believe that he was too powerful and smart to be stopped, and no doubt felt that he was performing an important service. He was not paranoid. It's like the old joke. People were actually trying to get him. His extravagance was the expression of a man who suddenly had more money than he could ever spend. So his imagination ran wild.


Q: Why couldn't the CIA take him out earlier? Why did it take so long to find him after he walked out of his agreed-upon self imposed "incarceration?"


A: The book makes a strong case that American military, drug enforcement and spy agencies were linked to the death squads that left Pablo isolated and vulnerable, but the final killing appears to have been done by the Colombian Search Bloc (with considerable American assistance). Escobar was not killed earlier because he was smart and fast on his feet. He was extremely difficult to find because he had many friends, he was rich, and where he was not beloved in Antioquia, he was feared.


Q: This really is an amazing story, involving competing spy forces, government corruption, revenge, and the ridiculous conceits of the criminal mind. But do you think Escobar would be alive today, were it not for the secret vigilante group "Los Pepes" which targeted his operatives in revenge?


A: I think that without Los Pepes, Pablo would still be at large.


Q: Are many people in Medellin, Colombia drug users? You say that the place is still dangerous today for American tourists. Are they so used to seeing brutal killings as a way of life that they might not help someone being attacked in the street?


A: To my knowledge, Colombia has never had a drug problem anything like ours. Widespread drug abuse afflicts prosperous societies. In poor countries people are too busy trying to eat and find shelter to lay around stoned for long. The people of Colombia are a warm and generous folk, but Medellin in particular has long been plagued with violence, and in recent years guerrilla groups have targeted Americans and affluent Colombians for kidnapping.


Q: Did you enjoy narrating the audiobook version of KILLING PABLO?


A: I very much enjoyed reading the book for Simon & Schuster audio. I've been reading my work out loud to my wife for years, and she's never offered to pay me. We writers fall in love with our words, so what could be better than an excuse to sit down and read the whole thing out loud?

The Accountant's Story

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