DATE May 2, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Mark Bowden discusses his new book "Killing
Pablo" about drug kingpin Pablo Escobar
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As the head of Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel, in the 1980s, Pablo
was one of the richest men in the world and one of its most infamous
criminals. My guest Mark Bowden's new book "Killing Pablo" is the story of
Escobar's rise from local gangster to cocaine kingpin and how the US
and intelligence agencies helped find and kill him in 1993. Mark Bowden's
previous book was the best-seller "Black Hawk Down" about one firefight
the American mission in Somalia in 1993 in which 18 American soldiers and
Somalis were killed. It's currently being made into a movie directed by
Ridley Scott. Mark Bowden has reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer for
20 years. Pablo Escobar terrorized his opposition with the help of an army
gunmen. I asked Bowden how this street thug became a drug lord.
Mr. MARK BOWDEN ("Killing Pablo"): The cocaine business in Colombia in the
early 1980s and actually probably the mid-1970s when it started switching
from marijuana to cocaine was primarily the illicit business of well-to-do
young Colombians, not career criminal types but just, you know, young men
had the means and the connections in Miami to bring the drug up and pedal
When they started making a lot of money, Pablo Escobar moved in. Now Pablo
was a legitimate street thug. I mean, he'd be like somebody from south
Philadelphia who had family ties or something to the mob. And he was not
known for his finesse. He was a violent man, and he would have people
And I think they knew that he would have them killed. And that made people
respect him and fear him.
GROSS: What was the Medellin Cartel's violence like at its peak?
Mr. BOWDEN: At its peak, the cartel was killing people wholesale. I mean,
I've never, you know, tried to figure out what it was per day, but they used
violence as their main means of negotiation on a business level, and they
killing anyone in the country who spoke out against them, journalists who
initiated prosecution against them--that would be judges or prosecutors--who
pursued or arrested someone, who made trouble for the cartel. They would
the policemen. There were so many policemen being killed by the cartel,
gunmen, around 1988, 1989, that the government of Colombia built a special
funeral chapel in Bogota to handle all of the funerals. There were so many.
GROSS: Now you say that Pablo Escobar was a gangster, not a businessman.
did the cartel create any new business approaches to distributing cocaine?
Mr. BOWDEN: Oh, they definitely did. You know, Pablo Escobar, in part
because he was so feared, intimidated anybody who was making money in the
business to come basically under his umbrella. He wasn't involved in
the cocaine himself or processing it. What his genius was was coordinating
all of the manufacturing efforts and the distribution efforts and putting
all basically on the same track. He was primarily a smuggler. You know, I
think he made most of his money because he could get such vast amounts of
cocaine out of Colombia and into the United States. He had everything from
little submarines to aircraft to boats to people who would carry it, you
across the borders. And anyone who was making money on their own eventually
would have to either join up with Pablo Escobar or he would take over from
them. He would force them out of the business.
GROSS: Was he liberal at bribing people?
Mr. BOWDEN: Yeah. Pablo was always ready to offer a bribe. And, you know,
with the bribe came a threat. He had such a reputation that the expression
was, `You could accept Pablo's lead or his silver.' And he would give you
that option. And, you know, that went for people who were in the drug
business as well as politicians and legislators and judges, even
GROSS: How did Pablo Escobar make his reputation as a criminal and gangster
before he became involved in selling cocaine?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, he dropped out of school when he was about 16 or 17 and
formed with some of his friends a gang that initially just hustled money
people on the streets, conned people out of money, but eventually got into
business of stealing car parts. And they got to be so successful at that,
eventually they were stealing whole cars. And eventually they were just
basically stealing the cars directly from the manufacturers. And then Pablo
got into the business of basically insuring cars from theft, which is a
way of controlling both sides of it. So you could pay Pablo not to steal
car or you could have your car stolen.
GROSS: Why did he get into the cocaine business?
Mr. BOWDEN: I think he got into the cocaine business because it was so
incredibly lucrative. He saw how much money was being made. I mean, the
amounts of money being made from the marijuana period which was during the
late '60s and the '70s, which was substantial in Colombia, probably
a hundred-fold almost overnight when the big demand for cocaine started in
United States. So Pablo was just in a position to muscle into that business
and organize it and basically have everybody working for him and control
trade routes. That was the thing that he really, I think, brought to the
equation. And he would essentially buy the product from whoever was making
and transport it. And he would keep the lion's share of the money for
himself. But everybody was getting rich off of it, not just Pablo.
GROSS: Now you say that Pablo Escobar had always been a big marijuana
Did he ever become a cocaine user?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, from everything I've heard, Pablo was not a big cocaine
user nor was he a big drinker. He was a doper all of his life. He used to
start smoking late in the afternoon and basically stay high. And that was
just his way of dealing. And he slept from, you know, 3 or 4:00 in the
morning until mid-afternoon and he would get up and light up.
GROSS: OK. I guess that didn't affect his taste for violence.
Mr. BOWDEN: No.
GROSS: Or if anything, it just increased it.
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, you know, maybe some people think that marijuana makes
more mellow and peace loving, but Pablo was raised in a culture of violence
that has deep roots in Colombia. And all though the period of his early
years, you know, there was this terrible wrenching experience that they
to in Colombia simply as lava lencia(ph). And this was a time of intense
of chaotic civil war where right-wingers were fighting against left-wingers,
and left-wingers were intimidating the peasants and bandits were roaming the
countryside stealing from everybody, and the government didn't really have
control. And I think that the climate that Escobar came up in was one of if
you had anything of value, you needed to protect it. And if you wanted to
feared, you had to be more violent than the next person. So to him I
think--he wrote something once about how did people expect that the
was going to protect them from thieves. And this government in Colombia
doesn't protect anybody from anything. So you have to learn to learn to
protect yourself especially since he got into, you know, illegal business, I
think it was incumbent on him to be, you know, ruthless and violent or he
never would have been successful.
GROSS: What was the public image of Pablo Escobar when the Medellin cocaine
cartel was at its peak, the public image in Colombia?
Mr. BOWDEN: Pablo Escobar was a very, very popular figure, particularly in
Medellin but throughout the country of Colombia for a while. He was elected
to congress as an alternate and was really regarded as a threat by the
political powers in Bogota because they saw that he had this enormous
support. He was seen as a Robin Hood on an international scale. He was
someone who funneled American dollars into Colombia and got a lot of
Colombians rich including, you know, some of the most established,
families in Bogota who would invest in Pablo's cocaine shipments disguised
some sort of legitimate inoffensive thing, but everybody knew what it was.
was just sort of an open secret in Colombia so they could invest their money
in some deal that was given some legitimate pretense and, you know, their
money would be increased 10-fold if that particular shipment went through.
So he had deep and wide popularity in Colombia. He was popular both to
left-wing people and to right-wing people because he was a capitalist. He
someone who had succeeded brilliantly, you know, in a sort of raw
scale. And he was popular with the leftists because he spent some of his
fortune on building housing in the slums in Medellin which were just
places, giving people really for the first time in their lives a place to
live, built schools, built hospitals, built soccer fields and the lights on
the soccer fields so that workers could play at night. There are still
in Medellin who have his picture in frames on their walls and who burn
to him. They regard him as an almost saintly figure.
GROSS: Did you come to see him as an ambiguous figure?
Mr. BOWDEN: I did. My personal opinion is that I think that Escobar had a
bit of a social conscious but it was a calculated kind of social conscious.
think he wanted to be loved because being loved made him more powerful. And
think down deep, you know, he really wanted to be the president of Colombia.
He wanted to be a great man. And he was never able to pull that off
you know, the respected families in Colombia, basically the power elite in
Bogota, were embarrassed by him and, you know, realized that they could not
allow this most notorious cocaine trafficker in the world to become the
president of Colombia, become a significant political power. So they had to
slap him down.
GROSS: Just as he used charity and good social causes for self-serving
reasons, did he also use political rhetoric for self-serving reasons?
Mr. BOWDEN: Oh, that even more so. Pablo, at the same time that he was the
primary financial backer for the right-wing paramilitary squads who would go
out and assassinate whole villages of people who were suspected of being
allied with the FARC or the ELN, at the same time he was doing that...
GROSS: FARC and ELN were guerrilla groups.
Mr. BOWDEN: Those are really the long-standing left-wing guerrilla
in Colombia. At the same time he was basically funding their opposition, he
would employ, you know, populist rhetoric, you know, to gain support from
people in Medellin positioning himself as the enemy of the establishment and
of someone who, you know, wanted to change Colombian society to benefit
everyone. So he played both sides of the line with very little conscience,
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Mark Bowden. He's
the author of the best-seller "Black Hawk Down" about the US mission in
Somalia. His new book "Killing Pablo" is about Colombia cocaine cartel
kingpin Pablo Escobar. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk
more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Journalist Mark Bowden is my guest. His new book "Killing Pablo" is
about Colombian cocaine cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.
How did the US decide to go after Pablo Escobar?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, the United States had an interest in going after Escobar
that dated back to 1986 or 1987 just as part of the effort to crack down on
cocaine being shipped to the United States. When George Bush was elected
president, the emphasis in the drug war which had really escalated during
Reagan years shifted to what they called the kingpin strategy. They had had
so little success interdicting drugs that were being shipped into the
the idea was to go after the people who were really running these
organizations. So it was really during the period of the late 1980s during
the Bush administration, '88, '89, '90, '91, that the United States became
militarily involved in tracking down or helping the Colombians to track down
these kingpins. And one of the things that they did was lean on the
government to get them to extradite these leaders like Carlos Lehder, for
instance, to the United States to stand trial where are some of them are
in prison today.
The hunt for Escobar really heated up in 1989 when he bombed a commercial
airliner, shot down an airliner. He didn't shoot it down; he had a bomb
planted on it that killed 110 people including two Americans. And this
happened about several weeks after the Lockerbie disaster where the Pan Am
flight--I believe it was a Pan Am flight that was shot down. And so this
of terrorists attacking commercial airliners was one that alerted the whole
international community against Pablo Escobar. He became at that point not
just a drug problem; he was then a terrorist problem. And that's when the
gears really shifted and he became someone who was considered to be a threat
to national security and to the lives of American citizens. And he became
then a very--I think moved really to the top of the list of the people who
United States government would like to either arrest or kill.
GROSS: One of Pablo Escobar's greatest fears was that he would be
to the United States and have to stand on trial here and then be imprisoned
here. Why was he so worried about being extradited?
Mr. BOWDEN: He had the government of Colombia under control. He knew that
long as he stayed in Colombia he could continue to shape his future in the
that he wanted it to be. He knew that if he got extradited to the United
States he would lose that power. And his fear was that he would end up in a
position where he could be put in prison and he wouldn't be able to see his
family and that would destroy all of his dreams.
His dream, as I understand it, was to be a well-respected, beloved figure in
Colombia, you know, a don, you know, the patriarch of his family, you know,
wealthy beyond measure. I mean, this was the dream that Pablo Escobar had.
Being removed from Colombia destroyed all that. He was no one anymore. I
mean, he was a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Medellin and he never
had cosmopolitan ambitions. You know, his desire was to be the favorite son
of Colombia. So for him, at one point, he said he would rather entomb in
Colombia than a jail cell in the United States, and I think he really meant
GROSS: There was even a movement of people called The Extraditables in
Colombia during this period. What were some of the things that they did to
try to influence government leaders in Colombia to try to overturn the
agreement with America that they would extradite...
Mr. BOWDEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...cocaine criminals.
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, The Extraditables was basically Pablo Escobar. And there
were other targets the United States targets there, like Gacha and Lehder
others who sympathized, I think, with what Escobar was trying to do. But
Extraditables did everything from kill people who were active in the effort
track them down and extradite them. Any judge or journalist who spoke out
favor of extradition would be killed.
And they also mounted a very skillful public relations campaign because when
you think about it, extradition is kind of an insult to a country. It's
saying, `You lack the resources, you lack the will, you lack the power to
control crime or to arrest this person or bring this person to justice. And
so you have to rely on the United States to make those things happen.' And
was kind of an insult to national pride. And it was also because Pablo knew
that he was a popular figure in Colombia. The idea that the United States
could come down and lean on the Colombian government and get them to arrest
him and then ship him north to be put in an American prison cell was
that just didn't sit well with the Colombian people.
So he had both the intimidation factor going and a legitimate popular
disaffection with the idea of extradition. And he worked both of those
very skillfully. In fact, eventually was able to get the government of
Colombia to outlaw extradition, to write it into the constitution that
extradition, you know, would not happen in Colombia.
GROSS: As you said, when he was in Colombia, he had it made no matter what
they were doing to him. He was in prison for a while. What was the prison
like that Pablo Escobar was in?
Mr. BOWDEN: Pablo's imprisonment was probably his most clever escape. And
refer to it in the book as the end, really, of the first war. The first war
being when the Bush administration sent this surveillance unit called Centra
spike, which was the most sophisticated radio location unit in the American
military. And what that means is that they could listen to a telephone
or a radio call, and tell exactly where it came from, I mean, down to within
few hundred yards. So they were able to, with great accuracy and
to steer these Colombian police forces to the targets of their
So by 1991, Pablo Escobar was on the run. I mean, a man who had, you know,
different palatial residences in Colombia alone was sleeping on straw
mattresses in the forest, running from location to location because he had
stay one step ahead of the people who were after him. So what he did was he
made a deal. He agreed with the Colombian government that he would
stop blowing things and people up because at the same time he was running,
was setting off car bombs in Bogota and killing scores of people and
political figures. And he basically had the country terrified. So he came
Cesar Gaviria, the president of Colombia, and basically made a deal. This
the deal that, for those who have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's wonderful
book, "News of the Kidnapping"--he details that particular period.
One of the things that Pablo did was he went out and kidnapped the sons and
daughters of 10 very prominent families in Bogota, and only, I think, seven
the 10 were ultimately released. Three of them were killed. But this was a
very shrewd stab right into the heart of the sort of social-political
establishment in Bogota. And so he held this sort of wrenching fear over
heads of politicians like Cesar Gaviria, who had been the target of that
on the airliner but had escaped--because he hadn't gotten on that plane, had
He agreed that if, for an end to the violence, they would let Pablo build
own prison, and the only other inmates in the prison would be his
And so the guards in the prison, effectively, were his employees. And the
wonderful part about this deal, which I love the most, is that his nemesis,
the Colombian National Police, were not allowed within 20 kilometers of the
prison. So, effectively, he set himself up in what was really a resort on a
mountaintop overlooking beautiful view, overlooking his home city, where he
was safe from any kind of legal persecution, he was dug in and protected in
the event that any of his enemies tried to come in after him, and where he
could reconsolidate his cocaine business and run it undisturbed.
GROSS: Mark Bowden is the author of "Killing Pablo." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with Mark Bowden, author of the new book, "Killing Pablo," the story of
Pablo Escobar, who was the head of Colombia's Medellin cocaine cartel.
When we left off, Bowden was describing how Escobar surrendered to Colombian
authorities in 1991 after Colombia outlawed extradition and he no longer had
to worry about being tried and imprisoned in the US. But his surrender was
the condition that Colombia build a special prison for him that was more
a resort. I asked Bowden if the violence stopped while Escobar was in his
Mr. BOWDEN: The political violence stopped when he surrendered. He was
to his word. You know, he was targeting the political leadership in
trying to force the country into outlawing extradition and surrendering to
basically. And so when they made this deal, all that violence stopped. Did
Pablo Escobar become a peace-loving man at that point? No way, because
violence was part and parcel of his cocaine business. But he always saw the
violence that he exacted as a criminal leader, as a cartel leader, to be of
interest to society at large. I mean, that was just a cost of doing
in the world he was in, and he was surprised when the government of Colombia
reacted angrily to discover that he'd been executing people within his own
prison. These were only his business enemies, or people who he felt had
GROSS: When Colombia agreed with Pablo Escobar and made extradition to the
United States illegal, did the US then decide to try assassination, since
extradition was no longer an option?
Mr. BOWDEN: In effect, the United States eventually decided to go the
assassination route, I think, although certainly no one ever spelled it out
writing. When Escobar surrendered, the United States was outraged, and they
pressured the Colombian government not to allow this to happen. The United
States was still listening to Pablo Escobar--they knew what was going on
inside that prison--and so there was a constant pressure on Cesar Gaviria,
president of the country, to put Pablo Escobar in a real jail, or, you
know--but they couldn't do anything other than that. They couldn't
him at that point.
The biggest favor Pablo did for the United States was walk out of prison,
because Cesar Gaviria was embarrassed after it was discovered that he'd
been--Escobar had been executing people inside the prison and made the
decision to at least move him to a real jail. At that point, Escobar said,
`Well, then, the deal is off,' you know, `and I'm out of here.' Well, the
minute he walked out of jail, that gave the United States the opportunity it
was looking for, and in fact, President Gaviria asked the United States for
any help it could give to finding Escobar. And at that point, I think
everyone spoke in euphemisms from that day forward, because they would talk
about finding Escobar, you know, arresting Escobar, but nobody wanted to
arrest Escobar any more, because they knew that trying to put him in jail
would not work. But really, he had painted himself into a corner where the
only thing that the civilized world could do with him was kill him.
GROSS: So what were the intelligence agencies in the United States doing to
try to locate Pablo Escobar, and which agencies were most involved?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it was a whole alphabet soup. One of the things that
happened at this same time in 1991 was the collapse of the Soviet Union.
this whole, you know, military and espionage establishment, which for half a
century existed to spy on the Eastern bloc and contain communism, was
jobless, for the most part. So here was an opportunity to show that they
could be useful in attacking this new kind of problem, which was a
a person who considered to be a real danger to the United States, but had to
be found in his home country, you know, moving from place to place knowing
was being watched.
So the FBI was involved; the NSA; the CIA; the secret units of the Army,
special operation units from the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps; you know,
the State Department's counterterrorism people; Alcohol, Tobacco and
At one point, there were so many American units and agencies involved
that--they were in Colombia at the same time--they were literally tripping
over one another. There was very nearly a collision of two planes over
Medellin one night where there were so many spy planes in the air.
So Ambassador Morris Busby, who was then the US ambassador to Colombia,
effectively ordered everybody out of the country except for the CIA, the DEA
and this Army unit called Centra Spike and Delta Force, the special
unit from the United States Army.
GROSS: Now the assassination of a foreign citizen, or even participation or
assistance in the assassination of a foreign citizen, is illegal in the
States. It's against the law. So what did the United States intelligence
agencies do while going about trying to find and help in the execution of
Pablo Escobar? How did they do it while, at the same time, trying to
circumvent this law that made that illegal?
Mr. BOWDEN: It turns out that it isn't against the law for agents of the
United States government to kill foreign citizens. It's not a law that
prohibits it. It's a presidential order. It's Presidential Order 12333,
it says very explicitly, `No American agency shall assassinate a foreign
citizen, or shall be involved with anyone assassinating foreign citizens.'
And this was an order that was issued back during the Ford administration at
time when there was a tremendous amount of concern over the abuses of the
agencies--the FBI and the CIA--during the Kennedy and Nixon eras. And so I
believe--I think most people believe that that's really the guiding
in American foreign policy.
But, in fact, what I discovered in working on "Killing Pablo" was that when
George Bush Sr. took office in 1988, he had a man named Hays Parks, who was
the chief legal counsel for the Pentagon, write a memorandum of law
interpreting that prohibition to mean not that foreign citizens couldn't be
assassinated, but they could be assassinated if the target was deemed to be
clear and present danger to national security or a threat to American
And here's where the bombing of the airliner comes in. When Pablo Escobar
responsible for downing a commercial airliner, there were two American
citizens on board. It showed that he had the capability and the will, you
know, to kill American citizens. And that gave the United States the
justification it needed to go down there and, basically, track him down and
kill him. They didn't do that, at least so far as I was able to tell,
directly. They did it by proxy, by helping the Colombians to create a unit
that had the capability to move quickly, you know, to find targets, to move
them and kill them. But you know, the United States had radio location
down there helping them find these people. They had Delta Force operators
were training--and in some cases leading--the Colombian units.
So it was done kind of in a collaborative effort with the Colombians. And
was never announced that it was their intention to kill either Escobar or
of the other people around him who kept turning up dead. It was always
explained as, `This person was killed in a gun battle with the Colombian
GROSS: So how was Escobar finally killed?
Mr. BOWDEN: Escobar was increasingly isolated as the months went by. When
they learned that it was going to be virtually impossible for them to catch
to him personally--because he had such a network of supporters and family
friends in Medellin. He was like a man who was standing on top of a
And ideally, you know, when you fantasize, you know, you would be able to
go pluck him off the top of that mountain. But what the search groups
realized was that they couldn't do that. He was too well-protected. So the
only way to get him was to tear down the mountain.
And so they began in early 1993 tracking down and killing anyone who was
associated with Escobar: his lawyers, his bankers, you know, people who
business partners, family members, extended family members. Anybody who
Escobar relied upon, you know, to sort of stay at large and to continue to
function was now running for their lives. And so you had all of his--you
know, members of his extended family fleeing Colombia desperately trying to
find safe haven.
Well, what this boiled down to ultimately was the fear that Escobar had for
his wife and his two children, who were basically held prisoner in an
apartment complex in Medellin, that itself was bombed several times. People
would shoot rocket grenades at it, as little reminders to him that his
And so it ended up in late 1993, Escobar was isolated and on the run and
much afraid for the safety of his family. So he kept calling them. He had
keep in touch with his son, Juan Pablo. And they would talk, you know,
whenever it was possible and they felt it was safe. They would speak just
about every day in the afternoon, because Pablo was plotting with them
to help get them out of the country. And this ultimately is what enabled
search forces to find him. Because he kept popping up on the airwaves, and
every time he came up on the airwaves, they had the capability of
where he was.
GROSS: So who were the guys who actually pulled the trigger?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I believe the people who actually killed Escobar were
members of the Colombian Bloque de Buscera(ph), which means `search block,'
which was this elite unit that had been created under the leadership of
Colonel Hugo Martinez, and who had spent very nearly two years tracking down
Escobar and sort of systematically taking apart his organization.
You know, Escobar--the standard account is that Escobar was killed when he
came running out on a rooftop in Medellin and exchanged gunfire with the
forces who had found him and who there waiting for him. In fact, you know,
found when I looked into it that Escobar was killed with a gunshot wound to
his right ear, which was a hell of a good piece of shooting for, you know,
people who were shooting at him from 100--you know, 200 feet away.
I think what more likely happen is that Escobar tried to escape---as he
had--by climbing out a back window and running across this rooftop where,
know, there were these men waiting for him. He was shot down. He was hit
once in the leg, once in the back. Not wounds that would have killed him,
enough to knock him down. And then I think someone, you know, from that
probably, walked up and just summarily executed him.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Bowden, author of "Killing Pablo," the story of
Escobar. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Mark Bowden, and his new book "Killing Pablo" is about
Pablo Escobar, who was the head of the Medellin cocaine cartel.
So Pablo Escobar was killed. His cartel was decimated. Did it decrease the
flow of cocaine from Colombia?
Mr. BOWDEN: No. Pablo Escobar's death had no impact at all on the flow of
cocaine to the United States. Because what happened during this whole
that the Medellin cartel was being disassembled is that the Cali cartel,
was always the Medellin cartel's rival, picked up the slack. And not only
they pick up the slack, they contributed to the hunt for Pablo Escobar. You
know, they contributed money. There are--even to this day, there are
allegations that very high-ranking police and politicians in Colombia
huge amounts of money as rewards for their efforts to track down and kill
Once the Medellin cartel was all gone and Pablo was dead, the efforts of the
United States and the Colombian government then turned to the Cali cartel,
which itself was crushed over the next four or five years. But then
the Cali cartel succeeded only in pushing the--you know, the processing,
distribution and trafficking of drugs into the hands of the guerrillas, the
FARC and the ELN, where it resides today.
So the ultimate consequence of killing Escobar and of taking apart the Cali
cartel was to hand the drug business over to the left-wing guerrillas, who
have now used it to build, you know, huge fortunes and arsenals and build
enough of a rebellion in that country so that the government is in real
GROSS: So the left-wing insurgents have used money from cocaine sales to
Mr. BOWDEN: Exactly. You know, the FARC and the...
GROSS: It seems really--well, counterintuitive in a way and against their
Mr. BOWDEN: Yeah. Well, we've--you know, I think that the idealistic view
of a left-wing guerrilla movement is that it has the interests of the people
at heart and social justice. And the rhetoric of the FARC and the ELN
certainly would lead you to believe that.
But these are movements that have been off in the hills for 40 and 50 years
Colombia, and, you know, they've evolved with the times. And they've been
corrupted, in my opinion, by the availability of all this money. They had
never been able to make big inroads and gain a tremendous amount of popular
support, certainly not in the cities. And in Colombia, the government
basically is city-states. I mean, the countryside is still mountains or
jungles, and the government, or civilization, exists primary in the urban
centers. And the guerrillas have never been able, in Colombia, to penetrate
those urban centers because they don't have a lot of popular support.
In the mountains and in the jungles, they've always managed to survive, in
part because Colombia is such a great place to hide, you know. It's just an
untamed--one of the few really untrammeled places left in the world. So
the cocaine money meant was that these sort of anemic guerrilla movements
suddenly had huge resources to go out and buy weapons, to recruit people, to
train soldiers, to pay their, you know, guerrilla soldiers and that was a
shot in the arm. And so they're now--I believe, you know, they subsist
primarily because they have access to all this drug money. And they
protect--they claim they're just protecting the drug trade, but, in fact, I
believe that they effectively run the drug business.
GROSS: Your new book is about Pablo Escobar. Your previous book was called
"Black Hawk Down." It was a best seller about the American mission in
Somalia. Pablo Escobar's murder and the American mission in Somalia were
same year, 1993. Are there any other links in those two stories besides the
Mr. BOWDEN: The connection between the two books is that some of the same
units and people were involved, at least on the American side. When I began
working on the story of "Black Hawk Down," I was just interested in this
battle that had happened in Mogadishu, but the research put me in touch with
men who are part of the special operations community in the American
And these were men who lead very quiet, kind of clandestine lives, because
their missions are generally classified and we very often don't ever hear
about them. And it was in the course of reporting "Black Hawk Down" that I
was in the office of a military officer who had been one of the commanders
Mogadishu, Somalia, and he had this picture on his wall of a bloody, dead,
man with a bunch of men with rifles posing around him. And I asked him, you
know, `General, I'm sorry. You have to tell me what that is.' I mean, it
a perfectly horrible image. And he said, `That, my friend, is Pablo
I keep that on my wall to remind me that no matter how rich you get in this
life, you can still be too big for your britches.' And I just remember
writing down in my notepad--remember, this is when I was still working on
"Black Hawk Down"--I wrote `Pablo Escobar' on my notepad and underlined it
about five times.
And then when I finished the story of the Battle of Mogadishu, I immediately
started working on this story in Colombia. And it was somewhat easier for
to get a handle on it because I had already met--some of the people who were
in the Battle of Mogadishu where also Delta Force operatives who had worked
Colombia on this hunt for Pablo Escobar. And interestingly, you know,
Spike, this unit which finds people--it's the Army's radio location unit,
they can listen to a radio signal or a telephone signal and find its
very, very accurately--they were at work both in Mogadishu and in Colombia.
But in Mogadishu, it was American forces who were going out, so they would
target the lieutenants or the people around Mohammad Farah Adid, who was the
target in Somalia. But they would arrest them. They would launch these
missions, these raids, and they would arrest them and take them out to this
little island off the coast of Kismayu and keep them there. In Colombia,
they found people, they killed them; not necessarily the American soldiers,
but, you know, the Colombian search bloc that went after them killed them.
So, in many ways, you know, what they were doing in Somalia was exactly the
same thing they were doing in Colombia, only it had much, you know, murkier,
darker consequences in Colombia, in part because of the nature of that
and in part because of the nature of the--of our involvement with them and
GROSS: Well, Mark Bowden, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BOWDEN: You're welcome. It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Mark Bowden is the author of "Killing Pablo," about Pablo Escobar.
He's been a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for over 20 years.
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GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book of Depression-era
interviews that's the product of the Federal Writers Project. This is FRESH
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Review: Newly published "Women's Tales from the New Mexico WPA"
TERRY GROSS, host:
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the
Federal Writers Project, which, among other tasks, sent unemployed writers
work compiling material for a series of states guides. That enormous,
federally funded research project is apparently still paying off. Book
Maureen Corrigan has a review of a newly published collection of interviews
called "Women's Tales from the New Mexico WPA."
The Hispanic women, Hu(ph) Lou Sage Batchen and Annette Hesch Thorp,
interviewed during the Great Depression, called them `la diablo a pie.'
That's a bilingual pun which literally, translates as, `the devil on foot,'
but which also refers to the agency that sent the two white women, the WPA.
During the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt's Works Projects Administration hired
hundreds of writers to work on a series of states guides. Their job was to
gather and write up bits of folklore and other anthropological material to
to the local color of the books.
Batchen and Thorp worked on the WPA Guide to New Mexico, setting out,
sometimes with interpreters, by car. The two women traveled separately to
remote villages to collect stories, cuentos, from the elderly Hispanic
who were the caretakers of their communities' pasts. Batchen and Thorp were
older women themselves, so maybe they struck up some kind of transcultural,
sisterly rapport with their subjects. Then, again, that Appalachian, `the
devil on foot,' indicates the WPA workers were viewed with some cynicism.
After all, they were outsiders, harbingers of the end of the isolation that
had long kept these little New Mexican towns culturally intact.
Batchen and Thorp filed hundreds of pages of interviews in the late 1930s
early '40s. Until recently, those pages sat moldering in manilla envelopes
the New Mexico History Library in Santa Fe. Then, a few years ago, another
pair of nosey women, Tey Diana Rebolledo, and Maria Theresa Marquez, both
academics, began sifting through the interviews. The result is a collection
called "Women's Tales from the New Mexico WPA."
These tales aren't elegant in any literary sense. After all, they're
translated transcriptions of oral recollections. But read in their entirety
their effect is profound. The stories provide a soft focus look at a rough
way of life where women's work was unremitting, where even parties and
funerals were the occasions for heavy labor, like making molasses or gutting
pig, and where having a brightly colored tela, or cloth in your home was a
deal because that typical two-room shack, as Lou Sage Batchen reports, would
otherwise have so little in it that was not purely essential. No wonder
eulogies about the vanished frontier have been written by men. The women
were probably too busy as the women interviewed here were, mixing mud and
straw to plaster wall, cooking meals in a fireplace, planting onions and
tobacco, sewing, scrubbing clothes and birthing babies.
Apart from the accounts of domestic life, many of the old wives tales that
Batchen and Thorp gathered seemed to have been designed to keep adolescent
girls in line. Annette Hesch Thorp set down a popular cautionary tale
Satan and the Girl, told to her in 1941 by a woman in her late 70s named
Juliana Martinez. In it, a young girl slips out of her house one night to
walking with her sweetheart. No sooner are they alone then the boy reveals
he's really Satan. Chains begin to rattle and fireballs appear. Here's how
the tale ends. `The girl fainted, and when she revived, found herself on a
great mesa so far from home that it took her four days to walk back. After
that, she was ill for more than a year. She was shunned by all the village
people and no young man would marry her. After her grandmother died, she
lived alone for the rest of her life.'
That tale's message of `don't talk to boys' couldn't be clearer. Editors
Rebolledo and Marquez remark, however, that other fanciful yarns collected
here seem to be slyly resistant. Certainly the many stories about
doctors who were always middle aged or old women, and brujas, or witches,
celebrate female power, sometimes purchased at the cost of a woman's soul.
Reading this volume of "Women's Tales from the New Mexico WPA" I couldn't
but marvel not only at the everyday details of an extinct world, but also at
an extinct political impulse that would subsidize a federal program just to
gather ordinary people's stories, stories that, like those homespun tela,
always been essential to people's lives.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Women's Tales from the New Mexico WPA" published by Arte Publico
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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