Although they haven’t been official partners since 1994, it’s not hard to gauge the rapport between former DEA Agents Javier Peña and Steve Murphy — Mr. Peña is quiet, more thoughtful, Mr. Murphy an energetic West Virginia native with the accent to match. When I met up with them in their room at the San Carlos Hotel on the Upper East Side, the two men could not have seemed any more unassuming. If you saw them on the street, you couldn’t picture streaming-giant Netflix basing a sprawling ten-episode series on their lives.
But then you start to hear their stories. Both Mr. Murphy and Mr. Peña were part of the Search Bloc, an informal task force in Colombia created in 1992 solely to hunt drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. At the time the world didn’t even know what to make of Escobar, who in his time would be seen as both a Robin Hood-esque savior and mass-murderer, all while making the Forbes International Billionaire list. Bottom line, Escobar and his Medellin Cartel ushered in the idea of high-production cocaine trafficking, which eventually made its way to our Miami shores. In the years leading to Escobar’s “imprisonment” in La Catedral, and the violent 18-months that proceeded his escape, Murphy and Peña played their parts to hunt down and stop the most powerful drug lord in the world.
In 2013, executive-producer Eric Newman called Mr. Murphy to discuss an idea he had, a TV show about the hunt for Escobar that would focus specifically on Murphy and Peña. Two years later, Netflix is set to release all ten episodes of Narcos next Friday, with Boyd Holbrook playing Steve Murphy and Game of Thrones‘ Pedro Pascal as Javier Peña. What started as a chat with Mr. Murphy and Mr. Pena about the show turned into a first-hand account of one of the most violent times in human history, and what we’re doing wrong to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Observer: You guys are “technical consultants” on Narcos. What does that entail?
Steve: A paycheck [laughs] No, they call us with questions. Once we went through the whole story, the whole manhunt. As they would start writing and start filming as well, they would call and say ‘okay, what type of weapons did you have available back then? What did the good guys carry? What did the bad guys carry? How do you do a surveillance? How do you handle informants?’
The first time Pedro [Pascal] is introduced in Narcos as Javier, [Boyd Holbrook’s] narration says ‘this is the asshole.’
Javier: [laughs] I mean, we told them the story. We told them the facts of what happened. There are some people, which is true, that I didn’t get along with at the embassy. Especially the CIA people, I never got a long with them. So they’re using some of that.
Steve, when you were working in Miami, was cocaine already taking over? What were the first signs?
Steve: The scene was already wide open. It was not unusual to find multiple bodies in the trunks of cars almost on a daily basis. First case I got to work on — I had been a police office for 11 and a half years before I went to DEA, so the most cocaine I had ever seen at one time was two ounces. Very first case I got to work on as DEA, I got to go to the Turks and Caicos Islands.Long story short the bad guys flew in 4 kilos of cocaine from Cuba. To go from 2 ounces to 4 kilos, I was like ‘holy cow’ and that was just the beginning. The biggest case I ended up working on, we seized 500 kilos.
When you transferred to Colombia and you guys first became partners, what were your first initial opinions of each other?
Steve: Any office you go to and get a new partner, you kind of give each other the benefit of the doubt. But you also kind of keep each other at arms length for a little bit just to see ‘okay, is this guy going to be a worker or a slug? Did this guy come out here to make cases, or is he just out here for the danger pay and an early promotion?’
I was only in Colombia about three days when Escobar surrendered to his custom built prison. For me, I knew who Escobar was, but it was interesting to watch these guys because they had been working their butts off and all of a sudden I’m seeing this disappointment, almost a depression. And I didn’t understand it at the time, but I soon learned these guys had dedicated their lives to chasing this guy. And then the governor of Colombia lets him surrender to this custom built prison.
Javier, what was that disappointment like?
Javier: I got to Colombia in ’88, at the height of the Escobar search. And it was during the time where there was a lot of killings, the assassinations of cops, the car bombs. When he surrendered it was just deflating…because of all the cops he had killed. You have to understand, the search for Escobar was purely revenge. It wasn’t going after dope, it wasn’t going after money. It was just revenge because of all the cops he had killed, along with all those innocent people. When he surrendered, it was like we lost him. A lot of good cops died. A lot of innocent people. The kidnappings were a common things. Two guys on a motorcycle, that’s the way they killed a lot of people.
Steve: And the cops couldn’t get within two miles of the prison.
Javier: Escobar had the audacity to hand pamphlets out along the country side by the prison that said ‘if you see anything suspicious, call this number.’
How did you deal with that ever-present sense of danger? Did it just sort of go unspoken between everyone there?
Javier: What I would tell people was ‘wrong time, wrong place.’ There were ten to fifteen car bombs on a daily basis. The Search Bloc was made up of the uniform guys who did the operations and the intelligence people in plain clothes. But everybody knew who you were. We would go out and you would hear the choppers come, and there was always car bombs. There was poison at the mess hall. Escobar had dirty cops who would tell him what we were doing.
Steve: It was a lovely time. Not to mention there was a $300,000 price tag on any DEA agent.
Were you aware of that price tag the entire time?
Steve: Oh, yeah. My wife threatened to cash in on it several times.
Javier: It was basically just how many cops could you kill a day.
Steve: The sad thing is, for a regular uniform cop the price on their head was $100. That’s how cheap life was down there. And not that we’re overly macho, it’s not like we weren’t afraid. But your senses are heightened, and you’re more aware of what’s going on around you. There’s times when we’d come flying in on those gunships — and I’ve got my 9 millimeter pistol and these guys got their long guns and everything, and I’ve got on blue jeans and tennis shoes. And the commander is looking at you and he says ‘Steve, you and me, front door.’ And it’s like, ‘okay.’ You’re very aware of what’s going on around you. We never let fear control our actions.
Javier: First time I went to Medellin, I got picked up by about five cops. And they were like ‘Javier, where’s your gun?’ And I told them it’s in it’s holster. And they said ‘well take it out!’ I wasn’t used to driving around with your gun in your lap.
Steve: But that split second might save your life.
During the hunt for Pablo, how often were you ‘this close’ to nailing him down?
Javier: Initially we had a weak commander, I must say, and we missed him a lot of times. After he surrendered, basically the [Search Bloc] was disbanded. And after he escaped, it was like ‘we don’t have the right cops to go after him.’ Basically we put the band back together again, we brought in all the original cops that went after him the first time. Once we brought back the original guys, we did a hell of a job. We started arresting, killing all his associates. This concept is not being used in Mexico, currently. We didn’t just go after Escobar at the top, we went after all the guys around him. That was the key. The money launderers, the Sicarios, those guys were trained killers for Escobar. Started working from the bottom, and that left Escobar by himself. I’ve done some Spanish interviews, and I said ‘this is what they need to do with El Chapo in Mexico.’
Steve: There were times when you go in and the coffee would still be warm. That’s how close you’d get to capturing him.
When Escobar finally got taken down, how long did that relief last?
Steve: For 18 months, from the time he escaped from the time he was killed…was the closest I’d ever come to burnout. Not to mention I had a wife living in Bogotá, and we had adopted our first daughter.
So when Escobar was killed…I got to say it was one of the happiest days of my life. You’ve probably seen the [very graphic] photograph, where I’m holding him up by the hair on his head. Not that I’m a sick individual, or maybe I am a sick individual, but that was the amount of elation. Thank God this is over. The only sad part of that day is, a tip came into the embassy. And they made Javier fly out to Miami to talk to an informant. And we knew it was..
Javier: We knew it was bullshit.
Steve: We knew it was wasted time. Sure enough, he’s on his way to the airport when they killed Escobar. Javier had been there three years before me. If anyone deserved to be there when they killed Escobar, it was him.
Javier: I was happy, though. I lost some good friends, that he had killed. It was personal. And then you look at the history of Escobar, he had killed attorney generals. He killed judges. He killed a presidential candidate. We would intercept some letters from Escobar, and he was even after the Search Bloc leader Hugo Martinez and his family. That’s what the emotions were for. Just, ‘We got you.’
Steve: The condos where Martinez and his family lived down there, everyone else in the building put a letter together and asked him to move. They were afraid Escobar was going to blow up the entire building just to get to him. During that 18 month period, there were 143 Colombian National Police Officers killed as a direct result of the manhunt for Escobar.
Javier: In Meddelin, you would have 30-50 people murdered every weekend that were all Escobar related.
Steve: For those 18 months, Medellin became the murder capital of the world.
How important to you think Narcos is in terms of awareness?
Steve: There are a couple of ways to look at this, and I’m going to get on my soap box a little bit. One is: we all should look at history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.Because now we’re looking for Chapo Guzman again, right? So they’re using what we did 20 years ago as a model. Has cocaine trafficking changed any? No. As long as there is supply and demand, simple laws of economics, someone will supply the product. Do we need to do away with the enforcement arm because it hasn’t worked as effectively as we want it to? Absolutely not. You still have to have that enforcement arm to try and make people comply. Maybe we should do a better job of educating. You have “Just Say No,” you have “DARE,” I think they’re outstanding programs. But, it’s not enough. We need to do something more.
Legalization is not the answer. Just go look at history. There are multiple countries in Europe that have tried legalization, and it has not worked in one place yet. Now we’re going with legalizing marijuana here in the United States, for medicinal purposes. Okay, if there is a legitimate medicinal purpose, okay. Let that person smoke pot. But not these thousands and thousands of people. If we’re going to have these marijuana cultivation farms, and distribution centers, let’s impose some standards on the people who run those places. A lot of the time, if you check that person’s rap sheet, they’ve been arrested multiple times. There’s no professionalism other than ‘well, I’ve been smoking dope for 20 years.’ What’s the answer? I don’t know. If I knew, we’d all be rich, and we’d be in a fancy office for this interview and not a hotel room.
Javier, Pedro is obviously so well known from Game of Thrones. Are you ready for at least some of that to transfer over to you?
Javier: I do hope the show is a success. But we’re not the heroes here. It’s the Colombian national police that are the heroes. We had a part in history, but the real heroes are the cops who went after him. As far as us, we told them the facts, and they’re going to portray it. Pedro is a good guy, I like him, I’ve met him. I hope it’s a success but…you know Colombia is not too far from the US, and the killings and gangs, we’re getting hit with that.
Steve: Mexico is right on our border. I don’t have to tell you about what’s going on with all the trafficking down there. One of our friends is the head of the DEA office down in Mexico City, I saw him a couple months ago, at headquarters. Right now, the big thing is ISIS. I have another contract where I’m doing some stuff with the military on ISIS, i’m very familiar what’s going on down there. When you talk to the head of DEA in Mexico City, it’s still more violent, more ruthless in Mexico than it is in the Middle East. But that’s the hot spot in the media. It’s even more dangerous in Mexico. We’re looking at ‘are we going to send troops to the Middle East? What are we going to do?’ What are we going to do about our border? It’s right there.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for length. Narcos premieres Friday, August 28 on Netflix. For more info on Mr. Murphy and Mr. Pena, visit www.NLESB.org)