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NPR Arts & Life

'The Money Was The Soft Spot': 'The Infiltrator' On Taking Down Pablo Escobar

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In the 1980s, U.S. federal agent Robert Mazur went undercover as a high-level money launderer to infiltrate Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel. Mazur assumed the name Robert Musella. Bryan Cranston plays him in the new movie "The Infiltrator," which is based on his time undercover.

Mazur didn't set out to be a covert agent. As a student, he took a part-time job at the intelligence division of the IRS, and there he witnessed a surveillance operation aimed at cracking open an international drug ring.

ROBERT MAZUR: And I realized the money side was the soft spot, the Achilles heel of the underworld. And that really grabbed me.

SIEGEL: So Mazur volunteered to join the elite unit after making it through the rigorous screening process.

MAZUR: I don't know if that meant that I was adequately crazy enough to do this work or if I was within the realm of reasonable to do this work. I think what they look for is whether or not you're a person who has a mental definition of things that is rather black and white, yes and no, not a lot of gray area of rationalization. And so having gotten to that point and then gone through training, I luckily had my eyes opened to what it would be like to have normal reactions to a very abnormal environment of living a double life.

SIEGEL: Are you saying that to have a strong black and white sense is good - that qualifies you for this kind of work?

MAZUR: I believe it is. At least, that's how it's been explained to me because as you get into this and you spend less and less time with your colleagues and more and more time with the target group, you wind up in a position where some officers unfortunately have suffered Stockholm Syndrome, a gravitation toward thinking that the target group is more of your friend than your real friends are. And so it is important to not have a lot of rationalization about what right and wrong is and to stay grounded.

SIEGEL: In the movie, you and your fellow agent, who's playing the role of your fiance, become very close to the trafficker played by Benjamin Bratt. And in the movie, the drama is that you develop real affection for these people, and you're ambivalent about ultimately trapping them. As you told me, what qualified you was the ability to maintain a black and white sense of good and wrong here. Did you actually feel that when you were doing it? Did you develop an affection and a fondness that went beyond what you were faking?

MAZUR: You know, I don't know if you could describe it as an affection, but I can tell you this. In order for me to be able to get you to tell me your deepest secrets, I have to give you a piece of me. I have to give you the opportunity to feel as though that I have a trust and faith in you. And I do that artificially, obviously, because Musella's a fake person. And in return, you start sharing things with me that you might not share with other people. And now I get the opportunity to deal with you not just as the trafficker, but I see you function as the father. I see you function as a husband. And as bad as it is that the things that you do as a trafficker, there is good that you do.

So, you know, when I try to share that some time with some of my colleagues in law enforcement, some people might perceive that to be a weakness. I perceive that to be a responsibility. I don't want a heartless government. I think it's important for people to have compassion. I'm quite comfortable with saying, yes, there was a part of me that said, you know, this is a tough job, but I've got to do it. And I did it.

SIEGEL: There's a scene in the movie, which I'm going to play a clip from, when you're trying to persuade the government to give you an enormous sum of money to keep up your cover. And it's in this scene that your colleagues in the government finally seem to understand how high the risks are that you're facing every day. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE INFILTRATOR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No, wait a second. Hold on. Did he threaten you?

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Robert Mazur) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Did he put your neck in the noose?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, and he squeezed it.

CRANSTON: (As Robert Mazur) No, he didn't. Roberto didn't say that. He wouldn't say that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) It's Escobar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Wait a second, Bob. Are you in danger from Pablo Escobar if his money doesn't come through?

SIEGEL: How much danger were you in at that point?

MAZUR: Well, pretty much the equal danger of a lot of the other people who were doing undercover. And yes, at the heighth of the operation, there were times when I was perceived to be in fairly serious danger. For example, we were receiving literally millions of dollars at a time on the streets of the United States in various cities. And one of the investigative techniques involves trying to follow the people who dropped that money off.

Unfortunately, the cartels recognize that that's a technique, and so they have counter surveillance out there. And in one instance, they identified a large number of the surveillance people that were out there. And the first thing that happened after that is my partner Emir Abreu, who's the best undercover agent that's ever done this job, wound up getting a phone call. And in the background, you could hear Gerardo Moncada, who was the principal manager of Pablo Escobar's routes at that time, screaming of the fact that I had to be an undercover agent because the surveillances - why are the surveillances out there?

And eventually, I convinced my colleagues that the best thing for me to do was to meet alone one evening in Miami in a not-so-nice area with someone who was a representative Moncada. I didn't want any surveillance out there because if it got burned again, then the only thing surveillance would do would be able to find my body more readily than it would if it wasn't there.

So I had a meeting. It went well. The only thing that didn't go well is that when I opened up my briefcase, the hidden compartment collapsed into the briefcase and showed the recorder and the wires that led to it. He didn't see it. He only saw the back of my briefcase, and I was trying to act as nonchalant as possible and putting it back together again. And I think I got it together about a half second before his head went around the side of the briefcase. That could have been a really bad experience.

SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah. That could have been as - very serious - the final experience. Is there not some part of you that thrives on risk and adrenaline to have done undercover assignments?

MAZUR: No doubt, and it took me the process of writing the book to ultimately figure it out. I think what I figured out was that as I got into this, I perceived myself to have climbed through a portal of reality into the underworld at a level that I convinced myself no other undercover agent would ever get to again. And what became my heroin, what really drove me was the ability to get information that no one else could possibly get that would really accomplish something for the mission.

And just like taking any drug, too much of it can cause you to do things that you might not otherwise do if you weren't under that influence. And in the last several months of the operation, I recognized that there were times when - now I recognize times - and I'm not saying this is a good thing for your long-term undercover, but it's a reality of what happens. I probably took more chances than I should have taken on some of the contact that I had. But it was because I was obsessed with the concept of getting that information.

SIEGEL: That's former federal agent Robert Mazur talking about his life undercover, which is featured in the new film "The Infiltrator." It's out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.