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The Wag Chats with
Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden, the author of Killing Pablo, discusses the difficulties of writing a book with an extended time line and tells us what his last two books say about America in the contemporary world.

What first attracted you to the Pablo Escobar story?

Bowden: 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.

WAG: 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?

Bowden: 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.

WAG: 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?

Bowden: 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.

WAG: 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?

Bowden: 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.

WAG: 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?

Bowden: 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.

WAG: What impact do you think Escobar's death had on the U.S. war on drugs?

Bowden: 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.

WAG: 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?

Bowden: 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.

WAG: 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?

Bowden: 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 year.

Editor's Note: Click here to read Mark Bowden's May 2000 interview with WAG; click here to read a review of Killing Pablo; and click here to read a review of Black Hawk Down.

—Interview conducted by Woody Arbunkle

Posted September 1, 2001


Photo Credit: Heather Tyler

Mark Bowden is the author of Black Hawk Down, Bringing the Heat, Doctor Dealer and, most recently, Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw. He has been a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer for twenty-one years and has one many national awards for his writing. Bowden has also written for Talk, Men's Journal, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and Playboy, among other magazines.



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