WASHINGTON — The hit Netflix crime drama series “Narcos” (2015-2017) chronicled the Drug Enforcement Administration’s determined hunt for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who at one point controlled over 80 percent of the cocaine shipped into the United States.
This Saturday, the two men who inspired the show, DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, share what really happened in their stage conversation “Capturing Pablo” at Lincoln Theatre.
“This is our first opportunity [to] come to Washington D.C. to speak,” Murphy told WTOP. “What we’re going to do is tell you the true story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. … We show photographs that nobody else has access to, we have a few videos, we’ll have a lot of anecdotal stories, then at the end of every show we have a question-and-answer session. As the audience comes in, they write out questions to us. … It ends up being a lot of fun.”
What types of questions do audiences ask?
“Somebody will always ask, ‘Did you snort that much cocaine?’ Well, you know, nobody can snort that much cocaine,” Murphy joked. “The most popular is: Did they really kill my cat as portrayed in Season One? To find out the answer, you have to come to the show. The other really, really popular question is: Did Javier Pena really have all those girlfriends?”
Like most Hollywood adaptations, the show took some creative license.
“It’s not what you saw on ‘Narcos,’ I promise,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of Hollywood added. … The violence, as violent as it is, in real life was much more violent. … Before either one of our characters speaks, the first thing they do is light a cigarette; Javier and I don’t smoke!”
Still, Murphy and Pena worked closely with actors Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal.
“We worked with Netflix and set it up with executive producer Eric Newman,” Murphy said. “I live in the DMV area and Javier lives in Texas. Boyd was in New York and Pedro was in L.A. at the time. Netflix brought us all in here at DEA. They got a day in the headquarters building, they got to tour the building, meet people, got briefings from intelligence analysts. … These guys were so gracious, they walked the building, let people take pictures, signed autographs.”
After that, they drove down to Quantico to embed themselves with the DEA training class.
“They did everything: [firing] at the range, learning how to work undercover, learning how to do surveillance, doing physical defense tactics,” Murphy said. “These guys had the best attitude about the whole thing. At the end of the week we asked, ‘Was this beneficial to your acting career?’ They said, ‘Absolutely.’ … I don’t think they could have picked better actors.”
Despite their behind-the-scenes work, Murphy and Pena refused to see advanced footage.
“We’d go out to Hollywood to work with the writers [and] go over to Eric Newman’s studios,” Murphy said. “He has a viewing room and he’d always offer, ‘Hey, do you want to watch the latest episode?’ We didn’t watch any out there because we wanted to be surprised when it came out like everyone else. … We watched the series. I thought they did a phenomenal job.”
What’s his favorite episode?
“When they show how I met my wife,” Murphy said. “They show we met in a bowling alley; that’s not true. [We met] through a mutual friend. I used to be a uniformed police officer in West Virginia and I had to pull her friend over and give her a speeding ticket one time. She got me back and introduced me to my wife! … [Also], the scenes where we adopt the little girl. … It wasn’t the way it was portrayed in the show, but that’s always near and dear to our hearts.”
Amid family life, Murphy admits being constantly consumed by the hunt for Escobar.
“Being a DEA agent is not a career, it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Murphy said. “Especially when you’re still working undercover on the street, your neighbors don’t even know who you are. You’re lying to your neighbors about your job because you have to maintain that anonymity.”
In 1991, he and Pena relocated to Medellín, Colombia, where he was stationed for 18 months working the case alongside the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and U.S. Navy’s Seal Team Six.
“As hard as you work, you run into so many frustrating points,” Murphy said. “There were times we’d hit houses on raids and the coffee would still be hot in the coffee cup. He either got tipped or saw us coming. There were so many times we got close. … Time and after time, Javier would say, ‘I wish this guy would surrender or die or whatever, just so we can go home.’ Then you see your Colombian National Police officer friends that you’ve been living with, working with and eating with get killed. That just renews your resolve to get back out there.”
What were the scariest moments where he feared for his life?
“For me personally, it was flying in on helicopters on raids when you’re taking rounds,” Murphy said. “For Javier, he’ll say this in the show, his biggest fear was the roadside car bombs. You can just be driving down the roads and you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when that bomb goes off and you can’t fight back. We faced a lot of dangers down there, but we didn’t face nearly as many dangers as the Colombian National Police.”
Finally, their breakthrough came with the raid on Escobar’s compound on Dec. 2, 1993.
“In the show ‘Narcos’ it shows that I was on the roof when Pablo was killed,” Murphy said. “That’s absolutely not true, I was back on the base. That day, the Colombian National Police were the heroes. They went out, they encountered the target they’d been looking for, they engaged that person in a gunfight and when he died, they took their country back that day.”
Bringing him down was a historic occasion.
“Pablo is the world’s first narco terrorist,” Murphy said. “He was also the world’s most wanted criminal. Back in the day, we remember the show ‘America’s Most Wanted.’ They actually came to Medellín, Colombia with us and filmed one episode only of the ‘World’s Most Wanted.’ … The most visited tourist attraction in Colombia [is] Pablo Escobar’s grave site.”
All these years later, what’s his take on Escobar the man?
“This guy had the biggest ego,” Murphy said. “He is responsible for tens of thousands of murders. Straight up business, whether it was competitors or law enforcement or maybe you parked in the wrong parking space. He was that vicious. The man had no conscience, no remorse whatsoever, no compunctions about killing somebody. He would ask you to do something one time, and if you didn’t do it, either he or one of his sicarios would kill you.”
Murphy remains frustrated by various myths that have grown after Escobar’s death.
“One is that he’s a devoted family man — this really gets under my skin,” Murphy said. “Here’s a guy responsible for tens of thousands of murders, who’s able to negotiate a surrender deal with his own government into a custom-built prison that he paid for. What a joke! … If you’re a devoted family man and you’ve only gotta do five years in this luxury resort … you can stand on your head for five years if you get to spend time with your family. … That’s not what he chose to do; he killed a couple associates and that’s what led to his escape, so we debunk it.”
He says the second myth is that Escobar was some sort of Robin Hood figure.
“Pablo went in and built housing,” Murphy said. “He built clinics, he built soccer fields, he gave away money, he gave away food. These are all magnanimous things, but what nobody wants to talk about is the payback. What Pablo did is he manipulated these people so they loved him, they adored him, and when Pablo needed new sicarios because all of his were being killed, where do you think he went back to? … So, we refer to Pablo as a master manipulator.”
He says the final myth is being spread by his son.
“He’s trying to say that his father committed suicide on the roof,” Murphy said. “He always said, ‘This pistol carries 13 rounds; 12 for the police, one for me.’ But if you’ve seen all the pictures of Escobar’s body on the roof, I took those pictures. … If he had committed suicide, it would have left powder burns on the side of his face. The shot that killed him went in his ear. You can look at the pictures on the internet if you want, don’t take my word for it, see if you see any powder burns, because I’m here to tell you there weren’t. That’s a straight up lie.”
In the end, he gives the credit to local forces on the ground.
“We don’t pretend to be a hero,” Murphy said. “We’re professional law enforcement officers here in the United States who got to work a really big case, the case of a lifetime. The true heroes in this whole thing are the Colombian National Police, because they took their country back, and the innocent people in Colombia who died. … Almost every show we do anywhere in the world, there are Colombian citizens. … You know what their message is? ‘Thank you.'”
Find more details on the Lincoln Theatre website. Hear our full chat with Steve Murphy below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Steve Murphy (Full Interview)