ELAINE SHANNON, veteran correspondent for Time and Newsweek, is the author of Hunting LeRoux (Michael Mann Books, an imprint of Morrow/Harper Collins), with foreword by acclaimed filmmaker Michael Mann. Other works: New York Times bestseller Desperados: Latin Drug Lords U.S. Lawmen and the War America Can’t Win, which served the basis for Michael Mann’s Emmy–winning NBC miniseries Drug Wars: the Camarena Story, and its Emmy-nominated sequel, Drug Wars: The Cocaine Cartel. Also: No Heroes: Inside the FBI’s Secret Counter-Terror Force, with Danny O. Coulson, and The Spy Next Door: The Extraordinary Secret Life of Robert Philip Hanssen, with Ann Blackman. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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Dave Watson: First, congratulations on the book. How did it come about?
Elaine Shannon: In 2010, I made my way to Afghanistan and spent three years in and out of the place, writing about how a quiet surge of 100 DEA agents, pilots and other personnel went there to dam up the gusher of heroin money flowing to the Afghan insurgents. I was the only journalist allowed inside an unnamed base where American DEA agents were working with elite units of the Afghan police and elements of U.S. and NATO special operations units. I uncovered a world of what the military calls “malign actors” -- bomb-makers, suicide bombers, weapons dealers, corrupt officials, embezzlers of U.S. aid and other double-dealers. It wasn’t just the Taliban profiting from opium and heroin but also American allies. The Afghan secret police were doing unspeakable things. U.S. publishers, I was told, thought the war was petering out and there was no market. I was disappointed but not discouraged. I was more convinced than ever that Americans had a right to know what I had found. I broadened my research to investigate the flow of narcotics money to militant and terrorist groups around the world. All of them posed a danger to American national security and American forces. And the stories! They were absolutely gripping -- and appalling. We hadn’t learned all the lessons of the Vietnam War or the Iraq war. Once again, our military and intelligence services were in bed with the wrong people, and everybody knew it but the American people.
I focused on the DEA Special Operations Division, whose mission is “narcoterrorism,” meaning, pursuing major traffickers who finance terrorism and militancy. While doing interviews there, I heard about a strange, singular, extraordinarily malevolent and highly skilled man who was selling drugs and arms, dealing with Iran, North Korea, the Sinaloa cartel, the Somali pirates, the Serb mafia and other underworld powers. Naturally, I wanted to know more. As it turned out, some of the boldest, most talented agents I had met in Afghanistan were hunting him.
DW: Was the structure of this book challenging? It struck me as simultaneously unconventional and conventional, starting with the significance of Paul LeRoux in the context of the transnational criminal world.
ES: The lead was easy because it recounts the very first thing I heard about Paul LeRoux, from “Taj,” an agent I knew well. I was riveted by his description of sitting knee to knee with another man, also a war veteran, who had been sent to kill him. That mental picture of two good-looking, skilled, promising young men who might have been friends but now were deadly adversaries drove me.
Then came the rest of the book. Structuring it was incredibly difficult because I had so much fabulous material. It was truly a trip around the world, several times. I was fortunate to have a brilliant writer and dramatist reading over my shoulder -- Michael Mann. He read chapters and told me when they flagged, or when they became overly complicated or detailed. I had to cut some material I loved, but he was right. I was giving readers enough. Overloading the reader is a big mistake, and easy to make, because once we’re in a rabbit hole, we want to keep digging. I have to discipline myself to stop. I still haven’t stopped.
DW: You also start with a multifaceted effort to take down LeRoux. Did you originally have this in the early parts of the book?
ES: Yes, because it was simply astonishing. Best story of this kind I’d ever run across. If you’ve covered one takedown, and I’ve followed thousands, you know how hard it is for law enforcement officers to bring down a dangerous, intelligent individual. Bringing down 10 of them -- several of whom were military-trained snipers -- in the space of nine hours, on three separate continents -- that was impossible. But they did it. They did the impossible. How? I had to know and I knew others would want to know too.
DW: What draws you to the criminal underworld? Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime told me that crime is the second-most read genre, probably worldwide.
ES: I minored in philosophy at Vanderbilt. My professor used to say, there are only three questions. What is there? What can I know? What shall I do?
Looking at the criminal underworld is a way of thinking about all those questions. Criminals (and insane people) exhibit the most extreme forms of human behavior.
As John Huston put it in The Asphalt Jungle, criminal behavior is a “left-handed form of human behavior.” It’s an alternate universe, very close to our own world, but there’s a boundary. I wanted to explore another world. There it was, very close at hand. Geoffrey O'Brien wrote about it here.
Another world yet is the realm of law enforcement.
People who have followed their vocation, and I use that word deliberately, to law enforcement are extreme in other ways. Their minds capture all the subtleties of the world, but when they decide what to do about them, they process them into black and white. They are not into situational ethics or situational truth.
I am fascinated by both worlds.
DW: You also appear to approach LeRoux’s psychology. We circle him and get closer and closer to seeing how he operates, while well aware of what makes him tick psychologically. Were there any surprises along this path?
ES: I wrote this book in real time. I started researching LeRoux as soon as I found out about him in 2013. I was deep in research while he was under wraps, talking about his organization and his associates. I tried to bring the reader with me as I dug into him and discovered more about him. I recently heard from his best friend during childhood. I didn’t know about this friend when I was writing. I wish I’d found him, but when we finally talked, he didn’t have any surprises for me. He said I captured his friend with eerie accuracy. He wrote me and said, “Elaine, every time you spoke about a grin, a slur, any facial expression, shrugging his shoulders, etc, in your book, I could see him so clearly that it was as if he was sitting next to me. He has done that since he was three. He always knew he was clever, even when we didn’t. His mind never stopped ticking.” This tells me that LeRoux did not have some sudden cataclysmic event that bent him. He was born bent.
DW: How did you first hear of Paul LeRoux?
ES: As I said, I found out about him while investigating the left-handed world.
DW: A theme of crime films is that law officers and criminals need each other. Do you think that applies here?
ES: “Need” is not the world I would use. They know each other. They can see inside each other. They share qualities and ways of thinking. They are obsessed, they are haunted and they love what they do. They love the game -- the hunt, the play -- much more than anyone and anything.
I have spent most of my life writing about obsession. I figure, if somebody isn’t obsessed by something, he or she is too boring and shallow to bother with.
DW: Your book explores a sphere of global society seldom heard of prior to this book and yet explosive and impactful on many people. It appears mainstream news outlets avoid this and related topics. Is that a reflection of LeRoux and accomplices’s power?
ES: A lot of people, including people in the media, seem trapped in cliche and fables. Talk about organized crime and they default to beloved fiction such as The Godfather, which portrayed mob bosses as sexy, sympathetic bad boys. Mention a cop and they bring up The Onion Field, which portrayed cops as sad and suicidal.
I don’t look for people who fit my fantasies and assumptions. I’m an explorer. I look for new kinds of people who think quite differently from me. What is exciting about LeRoux is that he is completely fresh and new. For me, he’s irresistible.
DW: You also discuss the takedown of Viktor Bout, and he appeared to thrive for years. Are sustained, coordinated efforts of global law enforcement authorities necessary to keep players like him in check for years before taking him down?
ES: But he wasn’t in check. And there wasn’t a sustained global coordinated effort to take him down. DEA Agents Lou Milione and Wim Brown took him down, because they could.
DW: What’s next for you?
ES: More exploring. If it’s not surprising, interesting and important, why do it? Right now, I’m researching how the Mexican cartels use advanced technology. Their command of SIGINT is simply superb. Everybody thinks they’re a bunch of coked-up thugs, and some are, but the real power is in the hands of people who know exactly what they’re doing. I’ll explain how they are absolutely kicking the ass of American law enforcement and American intelligence. The answer is not at all what you’d expect.
DW: Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment? One that inspires you to this day?
ES: The opening scene of Blue Velvet. Blue sky, white picket fence, red roses, yellow tulips. Idyllic small-town America scene. As the camera closes in, we see death, mayhem, tiny monsters, all lurking under a bubble-thin facade of normality. That’s the way the drug world looks. Starts with a party, laughter, beautiful people putting white powder up their noses or sharing a joint, like communion. But move in and you see the worst things humans do to each other laid bare.
Clip: Blue Velvet
There are others: the opening shot of Apocalypse Now. Jungle, palm trees, paradise, the edge of a helicopter -- napalm firestorm. That’s the whole story of the Vietnam war.
Clip: Apocalypse Now
The opening shot of Eat Drink Man Woman, Ang Lee’s brilliant family drama. Obsession, passion, love, conflict, love, artistry, love. Every time I watch this film, and I’ve watched it many times, I see something new and wonderful. The baroque detail of the opening cooking scene is splendid. Not a word is said, or needed.
Clip: Eat Drink Man Woman
DW: And sometimes that’s cinema, and it’s true a picture says a thousand words, if not more.