Exclusive interview: Former CIA operatives Doug Laux and Ben Smith on Finding Escobar’s Millions

Doug Laux and Ben Smith
Former CIA operations officers Doug Laux and Ben Smith on Finding Escobar’s Millions

Discovery’s new series Finding Escobar’s Millions features the focused exploits of two former CIA operations officers, Doug Laux and Ben Smith (an alias), who use their expertise in espionage, research and innate street smarts to hunt for what remains of Pablo Escobar’s likely multi-billion-dollar fortune — buried in Colombian dirt or hidden inside drywall.

Escobar, we learn in our exclusive interview with the duo, was earning so much money on a daily basis that he physically had to hide it…along with bodies and other things drug lords don’t want to be found.

The catch with Escobar was that he understood human psychology very well and how to artfully grease the wheels all around him, from the poorest of the poor to the right politician. People tend to turn a blind eye when their interests are directly affected.

Even in death, Escobar is revered, and that poses a problem for the two men who have to extract by cunning and cleverness the whereabouts of potential scores, while not winding up dead and dismembered.

But this is no Cooper’s Treasure, where they get to score a big payday. If they find anything of value they have to fork over 95 per cent of the haul back to the Colombian government.

The series is a pleasure to watch thanks to savvy world citizen Laux and earnest “researcher” Smith, who connect with locals by hook or crook (pun intended) as they peel back the soil and try to uncover something of note from the late drug kingpin.

We spoke to Doug and Ben and tried to get them to crack. To their credit, they did not. But the good news is that they assured us that fans of the show will get a “payoff” in the end…

Monsters and Critics: Doug, I’m going to get right into it. You were like the enfant terrible of the CIA. I am familiar with your book and your background and it’s like Fight Club. How did you guys decide to just leave Fight Club?

Doug Laux: (Laughs) Well, the first rule of Fight Club is I shouldn’t talk about it, so can I answer that question?  Yeah, I mean, I mention in my book the reasons why I left. Not to get too far deep into it, but it was war zone after war zone after war zone. And I just kind of really started to burn myself out. I brought that upon myself. Not so much the agency but I just had it turned up too high, too long and decided it was best for me to hang up my cleats before I really went up in smoke. So I talk about that in the book and that was my biggest decision for leaving.

M&C: What about you Ben?

Ben Smith: Kind of two reasons really. I actually met an amazing woman, so I thought it was time.

Doug: Great reason though.

Ben: Rather than keep pushing the limits and stressing out, a very healthy and happy relationship is time to make some changes. But I also always wanted to dabble in writing science fiction, so it’s a good time to try that as well. So I got married, and I want to work on my own writing.

M&C: Doug, most Americans don’t speak Arabic or any of its dialects. Your language skills made you quite successful in doing what you did to help save lives. With the new series, are you immersing yourself so that you can kind of get the nuances of Colombian Spanish and what is said on the street?

Doug: Yeah, actually, this whole past year when I was living in New York and not in Colombia, I actually hired a tutor out in Jackson Heights, which is the Colombian enclave of New York City, and told him, ‘Quite frankly, I’m not trying to learn Spanish. I don’t give a damn about learning Spanish. I’m trying to learn Colombian Spanish. So if you use a different word for car, I want to know what that is. I don’t want to say ‘coche.’ Like I want to know what you use.’

And it really paid dividends in Colombia because you don’t say ‘amigo’ and my Colombian tutor would say, “Well that’s what a Mexican would say. We don’t say that, we would say ‘parce’.” If you’re going be in Medellin it’s pronounced ‘mehdehjEEn.’ And we say ‘llave’ [which] means key. But that’s their slang term. Hey what’s up, key? I know that sounds kind of dumb when you translate it into English, but you hear me say it a lot throughout the show, you know, “what’s up? Que paso llave?,” Which means, “what’s up, key?”

But when you can do that, you’ll get a different look from somebody because they’re going to be like, “Whoa, what’s up? You Colombian? Or your dad? Your mom Colombian? Like how do you know that slang?” So it’s immediately ingratiating and back with my old job it really helped too. So I tried bringing that into the realm of this show.

M&C: Speaking of the show, how did you go from Middle East conflict to pitching Discovery or getting a production company to pitch Discovery your idea to find Escobar’s squirreled away loot?

Doug: Well, I think it was a mutual conversation of me saying, “Hey look guys, I’ve got a skill set. I know how to find people, I know how to find items. I know how to find things quite frankly that people don’t want you to find.”

And we started this dialogue — the myths, the rumors, everything with Pablo Escobar and his hidden money came to the forefront. And we both agreed this would be something that Ben and I would like to partake in.

It’s an adventure, hands down. And for me it’s something that I either want to dispel or I want to prove true. And if it is true I want to be the one who finds it. I guess they had some faith in me, so here we are. I worked with Ben at the agency so it was a perfect fit for the two of us to join up and amplify our capabilities here.

M&C: Right. You had to kiss the Colombian government ring I guess and they want 95 per cent of whatever the take is, right?

Doug: That is correct.

M&C: Did they have like a monitor or a government chaperone with you at all times during the production?

Ben: Yeah, we do have their permission and we get our permission to shoot film as well. And with that, we do have some Colombian help. And we expect if we find anything, especially with our cameras, that it’ll be pretty public pretty fast. So, they weren’t too concerned.

They weren’t following us around and they were actually quite helpful when they could be in helping us sort of figure out…and opening up avenues for us. It could’ve otherwise been a problem for production, from a production sense. There was never any minders or any interference from the government. We weren’t trying to be too sneaky. We weren’t trying to abscond with any money because we didn’t think it could happen.

M&C: We all saw Scarface. It didn’t end well for Angel Fernández with the Colombians. Okay?

Ben: Yeah, yeah.

M&C: Escobar was fascinating in that he was like an Italian Mafia Don from the 1940s. Everyone in the neighborhood loved him, but people feared him too. But the people closest to him, they felt like he was their patron? Can you analyze or get into that with your discerning CIA skills? Did you find out what it was that Escobar did or said or how he operated that made even the government basically bend over backward to accommodate him?

Doug: Well I think that’s a two-part question in that the people that worked for him, the people that loved him, it’s really no different when you think Frank White from Harlem back in the ’70s. Denzel Washington played him in the movie American Gangster. Beloved in Harlem, hated by the police.

He’s a gangster, he’s selling cocaine on the street, probably at the bars selling cocaine as well. But he’s giving out turkeys on Thanksgiving. He’s giving out Christmas presents to everybody in Harlem on Christmas Day. He’s paying people’s rent, he’s keeping people’s heat on. Pablo Escobar’s turning a trash dump into affordable housing. And often times not charging them anything.

So in a lot of ways the poorest of the poor looked at him as a savior. And [they] were willing to turn a blind eye to all the rest that he was doing because, quite frankly, without him, they’d be living in a trash heap still. So a lot of that was turning a blind eye. In the same vein, the government’s turning a blind eye because this guy almost brought down their government.

And to be honest, you look [and] you see this a lot in some of the countries which I won’t name around the world. But when there’s a real threat of terrorism against them for speaking out against the terrorists, it’s a lot easier for them to just keep their mouths shut and not address the issue and not be that politician who takes up the war against say ISIS or something because they know they’re gonna be their number one target.

So it’s better to hold your convictions to yourself and do nothing than be ‘enemy number one’ to a terrorist organization. So that’s what I believe the Colombian government and a lot of their officials felt, was fear.

M&C: Interesting. Do you feel that drug trades…not just from Colombia, but because of your rarefied experience, both of you in the CIA, I want your expert opinion. Do you feel that drug trade funds terrorism primarily or is it just an adjunct funnel of cash?

Doug: Well I’ll be very careful there because I don’t want to speak for every terrorist organization at large. I mean, personally, I think all of them are nuanced and they’re quite different. And that ranges from whether you talk Al-Qaeda to ISIS. I think they’re extraordinarily different and there are very few similarities at all between those two organizations.

Then you have someone like the Taliban, which would consider itself a legitimate government and not a terrorist organization at all. You know they were recognized by Pakistan as a legitimate country and an Emirate when they were in power and through the 90s. So did the drug trade, did opium, fund them entirely? 100 per cent.

Does it help to fund the Taliban now? Very much so. Is Afghanistan one of the leading opium producers in the world still to this day? Absolutely. So with an organization like the Taliban, which I know intimately, I can definitely tell you it helps to fund their activities. Other organizations I can’t be so sure.

You know ISIS relies a lot on oil that they quite frankly steal or hijack from trucks throughout Syria or Iraq. So it’s an option, but I think ultimately it’s very nuanced and it can kind of change within each organization.

But make no mistake, Pablo Escobar was a terrorist. People often forget that he bombed a TWA flight and killed a lot of people, women, and children. His organization, the Medellin Cartel, I would classify as a terrorist organization. And so, look, 100 per cent of their proceeds came from drugs so it definitely is an avenue if you’re willing to take it.

M&C: Do you think that America’s War on Drugs is money well spent or misdirected?

Ben: Trying to get me on record with some bombastic statements?

Doug: Thanks, Ben.

M&C: We know that’s not your real name, ‘Ben’.

Ben: Yeah right, so it can’t be attributed to me right? Well, I think we’re still dealing with the effects of the War on Drugs. Certainly, it helped in Colombia right? Colombia would not be a functioning state. It’s a beautiful country, it’s very safe, and the people are really trying hard to make their country whole again.

And without an all-out war against the cartels in Colombia, the country would not be where it is. Pablo and all the various cartels would still be…I mean, at one point Pablo was a parliamentarian, right? He was a congressman and he came to the United States on a diplomatic passport. He was a functioning member of the government. And if they hadn’t declared war and fought a pitched battle in the street, their country would still be torn apart.

But they’ve made progress. From a U.S. government perspective, well, I think we can see the benefit in Colombia. I think in the United States, well that gets into a whole host of political issues that I don’t want to discuss. But, it’s an ongoing struggle and we’re still seeing the effects of it.

M&C: Will fans of the show get some goodies at the end? Or is this gonna be the neverending Curse of Oak Island?

Ben: Yeah, well I think the fans are gonna be thrilled throughout the entire series. Obviously, I’m not gonna give the ending away. We’ll want them to tune in and they will find a payoff. That’s all I’m going to say.

M&C: That’s good. What about you Doug?

Doug: Yeah, similarly, I know [Discovery PR] would probably come knock on my house door if I told you the ending and what we find.

M&C: I don’t want to know the ending but will there be some satisfaction?

Doug: I think there will be and I also think the real satisfaction, or at least from what people have been telling me, is this really is the first time you see two former undercover operatives showcasing their skill set on national television.

The only other guy out there is Bob Baer and I know he did Hunting Hitler but also consider his career took place before the War on Terror ever took place. He resigned pre-9/11. So it’s a whole new world, it’s a whole new style of trade craft, a whole new way of going about things. And this is really the first time that an audience gets to see something like that.

So I hope they enjoy it and also let me just say, you had some really great questions. So thanks for putting in some time with us, that’s very impressive.

Finding Escobar’s Millions airs Fridays at 10/9c on Discovery Channel.

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