GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Our book today reads like a film, an over-the-top, totally implausible action film, except in the case of Jon Roberts, all true. He was born the son of a mobster. At 17, he was committing war crimes in Vietnam. In his 20s, Roberts became one of New York's most important nightclub impresarios, and by his 30s, one of the biggest cocaine smugglers in America.
Jon Roberts tells his story in a new book he co-wrote with journalist Evan Wright. It's called "American Desperado." And when I talked with the two of them, Jon Roberts said he was thrown into the world of violence early on. One morning when he was just 7 years old, his father was supposed to be driving him to school.
JON ROBERTS: And there was this bridge, which one car at a time can fit across, and that's it. And we pulled up to the bridge and there was a guy about maybe a quarter of the way into the bridge, and my father decided that we were late and he wanted to get going, whatever he had on his schedule. And he just pulled onto the bridge and decided to make the other guy back up.
The other guy must have refused. The next thing I saw was a flash, and he had shot the guy in the head. He told the bodyguard to get in the car. They backed the other car off the bridge, and we just drove on and went about our day.
RAZ: You say in the book, seeing that changed you. I think that must be an understatement. I imagine it would have changed anybody. You were just a kid and your father murdered somebody in cold blood.
ROBERTS: When I saw this happen, and it affected me in a way that it really didn't affect me. It happened, and that was it. I didn't have any bad dreams about it. I woke up the next day and I was more anxious to hang out with my father than I was to go to school.
RAZ: You eventually spent several years as a teenager in and out of trouble and you wound up in the army. And a big part of this book early on describes your experiences in Vietnam. You said that for me, Vietnam was extraordinary. You could - there were no rules. You could kill people. I mean, is that the way you thought of it?
ROBERTS: That's the way I thought of it, and that's the way it was presented to me. Nobody really controlled us. And eventually after you do this for a while, you decide pretty much you're your own boss. And to me, it was an education in how to do things, and it made it a lot easier. I saw all the things in life, which made my further life easier for me.
RAZ: Jon, you have described yourself as a sociopath, but clearly, you understand - understood that the things that you did over there were wrong. I mean, you were killing women and children.
ROBERTS: Well, maybe to you, they're wrong, but I don't know if you were there or not and I don't know what you saw.
RAZ: Well, I'm saying...
ROBERTS: Maybe to you, in your opinion, you think what I did was wrong, but when you see your best friend get stuck in the back with a knife from some lady that's like, you know, 30 years old and you see a little boy like 10 years old shoot your friend, your values change a little bit.
RAZ: Mm-hmm. I'm not questioning whether it was right or wrong in the context at the time. But you say in the book, the sickest part of it was we enjoyed it. In other words, you're implying that you shouldn't have enjoyed it.
ROBERTS: Well, you get pretty sick over there. I mean, imagine to live in, you know, in a jungle all that time, not coming in contact with normal people, not speaking the language that these people speak. And in a way, you know, I don't want to sound sick now, but as, you know, it just became enjoyment.
RAZ: Do you - did you ever have nightmares about what happened there? Did it ever come back with you? Or were you able to, as you were when you were 7, go to sleep at night and move on?
ROBERTS: No. I had nightmares. My wife - we have an extra bedroom in the house. There were many nights I would sweat profusely, turn, toss, and she couldn't even bear to sleep in the bed with me.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Evan Wright and Jon Roberts. They co-wrote the book "American Desperado: My Life-from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset." Jon Roberts, you ended up in Miami in the mid-1970s and you soon got involved in drug smuggling with the Colombian cartel, the Medellin cartel. How did that happen? How did you get involved with them?
ROBERTS: Well, what happened when I first came to Miami, I wasn't smuggling. I was just like, you know, all the other dealers in the street just trying to make a living. And it got to a point where I had so much business that these people couldn't supply me, and I started importing it rather than selling it because there was a much better profit in it and it was a much cleaner business than having to go out in the street and worry about your money and everything else.
RAZ: In the book, you say that by the end of 1976, you were moving 50 kilos of coke or more a month. That's worth about - worth then about half a million dollars. You were clearing up to 30 percent of that in profit. You were living like a king in Miami at the time. I mean, you had, what, six servants, a Porsche, several houses, race horses. And you eventually hook up with the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. What was your role? What were you in charge of in Miami?
ROBERTS: I would make the arrangements to bring the drugs. In other words, I would say we had a truck over here. I'm using a truck; it was a plane. And that plane would know where to go to pick up 1,000 kilos and bring them back to the United States. And it was organized. It wasn't a slap affair like you saw on the TV with bombs going off. The less violence there was around you, the better your business could be because it brought less heat to you.
RAZ: In the book, Jon, you describe how you and one of your partners, a man named Mickey Munday, right?
ROBERTS: Yes, that's correct.
RAZ: How you went to these extraordinary lengths to smuggle drugs into Florida, and he was almost like a MacGyver kind of figure.
ROBERTS: Yes, he was. He was a MacGyver figure. He could, you know, take a plane and he could describe to you from the first screw you would put into the plane to the last screw to build the plane. You know, he would do all the mechanical work. He was just amazing.
RAZ: I mean, you bought helicopters and found sites to land airplanes carrying cocaine on federal land.
ROBERTS: Yeah. We did that in the beginning, but that was just until we ended up getting up by Tampa a 450-acre farm, and we put two runways in there and we put hangars in for the planes to go in, and we stopped landing on the federal preserve and we were landing there. But Mickey's operation here, you have to understand, was like only 500 kilos. I was working with a man by the name of Barry Seal. And Barry was bringing 1,000 to 1,200 kilos at a time back for me.
RAZ: Evan Wright, when you think about your role as a journalist, I wonder whether you have concerns. I mean, the subject of your book, Jon Roberts, is somebody with a very checkered past. He's served time in prison. He's been charged with battery and grand theft. And, of course, there's murder in his background. Did you ever worry - or do you ever worry that you might be glorifying some of that?
EVAN WRIGHT: I, you know, as a journalist, I don't worry so much about glory. I worry more about the facts. And what I did in this book, which is kind of unusual, is I extensively footnoted it with my own research, which at times even challenges Jon's account. As far as the glory, you know, we live in a culture where the top entertainment is "The Sopranos" and, before that, movies like "Goodfellas." So I thought Jon had an important story to tell. And near the end, I explored Jon's relationship with his son and his attempts to be a good father.
Jon, what do you want your son - he's now 11 or 12 years old?
RAZ: Eleven. What do you want him to take away from this book when he eventually reads it?
ROBERTS: I want him to realize that I went about doing things in the wrong way. That's not to say to you that if I had my life to live over again that I would have changed it, but that what I did was wrong, which he already knows. I've talked to him. I don't know if you know it or not, but I'm dying. I have four stage terminal cancer. So I've talked to my son.
And, you know, I don't know if I'm going to live a month, a week, or what I'm going to live, but I wanted him to take away from this that he's got to go a different path than I went in life.
RAZ: That's Jon Roberts. He is the subject of a book he co-wrote with journalist Evan Wright. It's called "American Desperado: My Life-from Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset."
Jon Roberts, Evan Wright, thank you so much.
WRIGHT: Thank you.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Guy.
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