Pablo Escobar is known as one of the most prolific drug lords to have ever existed. Through the 1970s all the way to his death in 1993, his power and death toll continued to rise, destroying the lives of many Colombians in the process. We spoke with the DEA agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy who were assigned lead roles in the US efforts to target and eliminate Escobar and his organization, their story finding fame through the Netflix series ‘Narcos’.
How did Narcos come about? You’ve rejected other offers of a TV production of your experience in Colombia?
That’s true, we did reject other offers because those producers wanted to use our experiences for their own personal agendas. And in truth, Javier and I decided to forget about trying to do anything with this story because it was very disappointing for us when potential plans fell through. But in March 2013, we received a call from an old friend from our Colombian days who advised that a Hollywood producer wanted to talk with us. At first, we said no, but our friend prevailed and we called Eric Newman, the Executive Producer for Narcos. We tried to say no to Eric because we didn’t think anyone was really interested in this story. But Eric asked if I (Steve) would meet him and two of the writers for dinner in Washington, DC. I (Steve) agreed, but I also did some research on Eric and the writers, Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, before they arrived in DC, and I learned that all were well-educated and very successful in the film industry. The meeting went very well, and we agreed to work on the show. At the end of the dinner, Eric asked why we were so hesitant to agree. We explained that the last thing we wanted was for someone to glorify Pablo Escobar and his life. Eric promised he would never do that, and as far as we’re concerned, he’s lived up to his word. After that, we retired from DEA and signed contracts with Netflix as consultants for Narcos.
What has encouraged you to do these talks?
We present this as a lesson in history, with one of the goals being that we, as a world, learn from our mistakes. We think it’s important to reinforce to the world how evil drugs are, how much of a devastating effect they continue to have on society, and it gives us the opportunity to continue speaking against illegal narcotics. Retiring from our law enforcement careers doesn’t preclude us from continuing to do our small part to try and help people. Also, we want everyone to know the true story of what actually took place with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, and who the true heroes are from that time. At every presentation, we recognize the Colombian National Police (CNP) as the real heroes of this investigation, along with the thousands of innocent people who were senselessly killed because of one man’s overwhelming greed and ego. And lastly, we were completely surprised about the popularity of the show, and we’ve learned that people all around the world want to know more about what really took place in Colombia with this case. Last week, we spoke to four audiences in Ireland, three in Dublin and one is Belfast, and all shows sold out. And the same seems to be happening in other parts of the world.
When you were first allocated to the case of Pablo Escobar did you realise fully how big the case was going to be?
It’s important to note that Javier arrived in Bogota in 1988, while I (Steve) didn’t arrive there until 1991. When Javier was assigned to the case, he didn’t know who Escobar was. But he quickly learned and took on the challenge. Prior to Colombia, I (Steve) was stationed in Miami, FL, and was fully aware of the world’s largest cocaine dealer, but I never thought I’d have the opportunity to work with Javier and, together, lead US efforts in Colombia to target and eliminate Escobar and his organization. We both realized this would be the largest case we’d ever work, but we accepted the challenge with enthusiasm and professionalism, which is the trademark of all DEA agents, and law enforcement officers around the world. It’s important to note that we and DEA were in Colombia at the request of the Colombian Government. They were our hosts and we were their guests. But we earned their respect and trust, and worked alongside the CNP.
How did you feel when watching Narcos back?
The truth is, I (Steve) have only watched each season once, and Javier hasn’t completed either season yet. Because Javier knew so many of the CNP officers who were killed during the manhunt for Escobar, he still has strong feelings about his friends, and doesn’t want to bring back bad memories. The episodes he’s watched did evoke some memories, and Javier will eventually watch the show, but only when he’s ready. We both think that Executive Producer Eric Newman, Showrunner Chris Brancato, Director Andi Baez, and all of the other producers, directors, writers, actresses, actors, everyone did a great job in creating the show and portraying the parts. Particularly, we enjoyed watching Wagner Moura play Escobar, Pedro Pascal as Javier, Boyd Holbrook as Steve, Joanna Christie as Connie (Steve’s wife), Maurice Compte as Colonel Carrillo, and Juan Pablo Raba as Gustavo Gaviria. But while watching Narcos, neither of us thought we were watching ourselves. We both agree that Narcos is a great action series that tells an important story and depicts an extremely violent time in Colombia’s history.
When Pablo was captured and killed in 1993 what was the first feeling that came to your head 1993?
At first, we were a little hesitant because we wanted confirmation that this truly was Escobar. But once I (Steve) arrived at the site of the firefight with Colonel Martinez, all doubt was erased. Once we realized Escobar was dead, it was a feeling of elation, as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of our shoulders. We were happy because we had finally succeeded, and we knew every person in Colombia was safer because Escobar was no longer a threat to the world.
After his death what happened?
Following Escobar’s death on December 2, 1993, I (Steve) returned to the CNP police base in Medellin with the other members of the Bloque de Busqueda (Search Block). The entire base went into lockdown and prepared for possible retaliatory attacks that night. In reality, it was one of the quietest nights they’d ever spent in Medellin. The following day, Javier flew to Medellin, and we both returned to Bogota.
As the Escobar investigation came to a close, we both moved on to our next case. For us, Escobar was one investigation. We knew it was a big case, probably the biggest we’d ever work in our careers, but the investigation of Escobar and his organization was just another case.
You’ve said before you didn’t want Narcos to come across as glorifying Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel but the programme allows for a certain amount of empathy for Pablo Escobar… was there an element of that in your relationship with him after searching for him for so long?
Neither of us had any empathy for Escobar because we had seen the death and destruction caused by one man’s lust for control and power, and his inability to control his greed. Escobar had received the “deal of a lifetime” when he was allowed to surrender to his own custom-built prison, handpick his fellow “inmates,” select his own prison guard force, and demand that Colombian and US governmental forces were not allowed to come within a couple of miles of the perimeter of the prison. For all the crimes he was responsible for, Escobar was allowed to plead guilty to a single criminal charge, and then he was absolved of every other crime he’d ever committed, to include the thousands and thousands of deaths he was responsible for, either directly or indirectly. His prison sentence was only five years, and then he would have been a free man who still retained ownership and control of his assets. Remember, Forbes magazine ranked Escobar as the 7th richest man in the world with an estimated wealth of between $8 and $30 billion dollars. But as everyone knows, Escobar couldn’t just become another Colombian citizen. He enjoyed being the center of attention, he thought he knew more about what was best for Colombia than anyone else, and he couldn’t accept that. The sad truth is that if Escboar had gone into a legal business or industry, he most likely would have been very successful.
Do you think anyone will ever rival Pablo Escobar as a drug king pin?
We sincerely hope not, but the truth is, there are more evil people who will do anything to make money and gain personal power. Unfortunately, whenever a drug dealer is removed from the streets by either arrest or death, there are numerous others waiting to take his place. These people don’t have any regard for others, only themselves. They relish having power and being charge, making others fear them. They’ll brutalize, kidnap, torture, kill, whatever it takes to get their own way. They don’t have a conscious and feel no remorse when others die. We’d like to say there will never be anyone who could rival Escobar, but that’s simply not true.
How do you feel about the success of Narcos? It’s turned you into superstars?
We love the fact that Narcos has been so successful, and the show and the actors/actresses are the superstars, but no one was more surprised than us that people would be so interested in this event. We’re not superstars, and we’re not heroes. The true heroes of that entire event are the CNP for the sacrifices they made and the diligence they displayed in fighting an evil threat. Many members of the CNP paid the ultimate sacrifice while working as public servants. During the 18-month period from when Escobar escaped from his custom-built prison, to the day he was killed in December 1993, 143 CNP officers were murdered as a direct result of that one single investigation. The other heroes are the thousands and thousands of innocent people who were killed by Escobar and his henchmen simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mothers with their children out shopping for school supplies when a car bomb was detonated, newspaper and media personalities because they spoke out against narco-terrorism and violence and favored extradition of Colombian criminals to the US, government officials who were assassinated because they demonstrated integrity and honesty, the list goes on and on.
How accurate is the series?
We worked closely with the Narcos producers, directors, writers, and even some of the actors to tell the true story of Escobar. In fact, we worked with DEA’s Headquarters, Eric Newman, and Netflix to bring Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook to Washington to learn more about DEA. The actors spent a day at DEA Headquarters where they received briefings about the Medellin Cartel from those who’d participated in the case, and then they spent four days embedded with an actual DEA training class at the DEA Academy in Quantico, VA. Boyd and Pedro received classroom instruction, went to the firearms range, participated in shoot/don’t shoot situations, learned how to do surveillance, how to conduct a high-risk car stop, how to work undercover posing as a drug dealer, and much more. They even went through physical training with the DEA trainees. Afterwards, Pedro and Boyd admitted they’d never prepared for a role like that, and they learned that DEA was very different from uniformed police officers.
We were paid consultants for the first two seasons of Narcos. But our contracts also included clauses allowing the production team to employ artistic license as they determined necessary. That’s why each episode begins with a note that Narcos is based on true events, but some parts and characters are fiction. We agree that the chronological order of the show is correct, and many of the scenes and occurrences are true. And many of the other parts of the show are true but maybe didn’t happen exactly the way they’re portrayed in Narcos. But there are sections that were created by Hollywood to make the show more exciting and appealing to the audience. And both Javier and Steve agree that Narcos is a very exciting series!!!
What’s the one memory of Pablo Escobar that’ll last with you forever?
The story of Escobar is an example of just how evil people will become when they have no respect for others and for human life, when they put themselves ahead of and above others. When he didn’t get what he wanted, Escobar acted like a spoiled child and retaliated, except that his retaliation resulted in thousands and thousands of deaths and injuries to innocent people, mostly his own countrymen. That’s the legacy of Escobar for Agents Pena and Murphy.
Catch the trailer for ‘Narcos’ below: