Special agents Steve Murphy & Javier Pena are the real DEA Narcos who together with the Columbian National Police (CNP), and the support of tier-one special operators from the U.S. NavySEALs and Delta Force, ended the reign of the world’s most notorious narco-terrorist, Pablo Escobar, and dismantled the infamous Medellin Cartel, one of the largest and most violent narcotics trafficking organizations in history, which at the height of its power generated $26 billion annually by smuggling 15 tons of cocaine per day into the United States.
Murphy and Pena’s pursuit of Pablo Escobar was recently the subject of the hit Netflix series Narcos, the first 3 seasons of which, are based on their efforts to bring the cartels in Colombia to justice. Murphy and Pena are also authors of the book “Manhunters – How We Took Down Pablo Escobar.”
After cutting their teeth on the traffickers running in along the Texas-Mexico border and Miami, agents Pena and Murphy would be sent to the front lines of the war on drugs in Columbia, the source for 80% of the world’s cocaine, to advise and help guide the country’s fight to defeat the cartels and end the out-of-control violence that their reign of terror had ignited. Priority number one was taking down Pablo Escobar, the populist, charismatic head of the Medellin Cartel who also led the terrorist group known as “Los Extraditables,” an alliance of the country’s drug lords whose goal was to pressure the Columbian government into ending its extradition treaty with the United States, their motto being “We prefer a grave in Colombia to a prison in the United States.”
Escobar’s campaign of terror made him public enemy number one, forcing him to manage his drug empire while on the run and turning the streets of Medellin and Bogota into a warzone. Escobar formed an army of poor, teenage sicarios from the ghettos of Medellin and ordered the execution of hundreds of police, paying a $100 bounty for the murder of any member of the CNP. The devastation was total, beyond the wanton execution of cops, Escobar had green-lighted thousands of car bombings, the assassinations of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento, and Columbia’s attorney general, Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jiménez, along with the downing of a jet airliner, Avianca flight 203, placing a bomb on-board that killed all 103 passengers.
Javier Pena first arrived in Bogota during the height of Los Extraditables’ war on Columbia in 1988 as part of a group of six new DEA agents tasked with infusing the Bogotá office with ambitious go-getters, as the previous crop of agents were making little headway in their efforts to put a dent in the business of the narco-trafficantes that ruled Columbia. He was joined 3 years later by Murphy who had seen the result of Escobar’s handiwork first hand as cocaine found it’s way into Miami, the central distribution point for American cocaine, and wanted nothing more than to personally put a bullet in Escobar’s head. When Murphy’s chance finally came to partner up with Pena and personally take the fight to the Medellin cartel, the politicians that ran Columbian government signed off on a deal that saw the drug kingpin keep his billions and surrender to a prison specially built by Escobar himself, a thinly veiled palace nicknamed “La Catedral,” where he, his lieutenants and sicarios were to spend a mere 5 years in the most luxurious jail ever constructed.
Although the CNP, DEA, and DIJN were devastated by the deal, feeling their efforts to stem the bloodshed and bring down Escobar had been wasted, and the murder of so many left unavenged, they would eventually get a second opportunity to destroy the Medillian cartel and decapitate the head of the snake when Escobar and his people made a daring break from his gilded cage after the Columbian National Army raided the prison in an attempt to transfer Escobar to a maximum security facility after embarrassing the ruling politicians by continuing to run his narcotics empire in brutal fashion, including ordering the deaths of his rivals and personally murdering his own people, from the confines of La Catedral … and the manhunt was back on.
Javier Pena – “When I got to Austin and I was single (and) I had I rented a little apartment, Austin was a great place and (I) always remember it was cheap, I didn’t have much money and it was right next to an X-rated theatre … and the hookers would hang out there, after a while they started calling me Mr. Policeman, you know, thank you. I was a cop somewhere … So I’m fluent in Spanish, and I was getting to do a lot of undercover work, and then I teamed up with a partner who was Austin PD, Joe Regalado, so he was also single … and we’d like to chase women, and … I was a little reckless. Because I wasn’t used to this type of work. And then all of a sudden man, hey, this is great work, this is something I think I can do for a living … and when you’re first on the job, you’re learning. I was volunteering for every assignment because I wanted to learn the job. I was eager. I was doing surveillance working weekends, then all of a sudden, there was a narcotics unit at APD Austin police … and they were working weekends so who would they call, they called me because I was single, I could go out at two in the morning, three in the morning and we could travel because of my federal jurisdiction It was a two-way street so we were all over the place and you know what, I enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and yes I mentioned (in the book) I think I should have been fired, but I had good bosses and they knew that I was just trying to make make a case, I wasn’t out there doing dope or anything dirty … we have rules and I never broke (them), (or) went over that line, but I came close to it as far as doing everything against the book. For example, I mentioned in the book where one of the best cases turned out to be me and Joe at a bar, and this guy is sitting next to us (and I say), “hey man you got any dope?” and he says “Yeah I do” I bought him grab a coke. I’ll never forget, it was $100, my partner Joe was with me, and the guy says “yeah, shit, I can get kilos,” but he would never do that, that’s movie stuff, that’s TV stuff, then on Monday I told my boss, I got a little chewing out, but even my boss says, Javier, you’re, you’re working, you’re good, but you just got to be under control. So anyway, we opened up a case I say I lost 100 bucks and I’m not worried about it my boss has got my back, but then after a couple of months this guy’s calling me, I even gave him my home number … and he says he had all sorts of dope coming in. And that case led us, long story short, we arrested an active Texas State parole officer who was moving the dope, (he) brought it in from Houston, (and) it turned out we arrested a whole bunch of people, the guy was still on the job, so that was a big, big arrest. And, the other case I’ve mentioned was when I almost got killed, walking into a hotel room buying heroin, (it was a) Friday afternoon, no precautions, so I took a lot of chances, but I was liking the job, I wanted to learn the job and I was doing surveillance undercover, I was the only guy who spoke Spanish, there was a lot of Mexican traffickers, the east side of Austin back then, was known for a lot of heroin trafficking. Now, it’s a beautiful area, you can touch a house in Austin right now, but I learned a lot, and I did a lot, and I liked the job, I wanted to make cases, I wanted to prove that I could do the job, and I think I was the highest case producer in the office at that time.
Lawrence Rosenberg: I’m going to quote you here from the book. You say that “I worked my first narcotics job on the international border I had come to know so well as a cop. But entering the murky undercover world of drug traffickers and cooperating informants –, it was hard to know just who were the bad guys and who was on your side. For instance, there was Guillermo González Calderoni, the head of the Mexican Federal Judicial Police—probably the most powerful cop in Mexico. But part of his success in capturing some of the biggest Mexican drug cartel members lay in his profound relationships with the bad guys. – while he was going after some of the biggest dealers and working as an informant for the DEA, he was also protecting others, going so far as to collect millions for setting up hits on rival drug lords.” – What kind of wake up call was this for you as to the reality of the drug war you were entering and how did you learn to navigate what you referred to as – “a dark journey – There w/ no map to guide me and no way to tell just whose side anyone was on?
Javier Pena: “It was, and it’s something that I had to learn on the job. I remember Commander Calderoni and he was, wow, he was famous. He was well known. We knew, now we could never prove it, but this is Mexico, and we knew he was working with other traffickers, taking out other traffickers, he was giving us information, and I never trusted him, but you got the information, and you had to work right, you have to do something. But it was a wake-up call for me in that Mexico was very different at that time because of all the violence that these guys were utilizing, (and) t was a murky, murky type of a world with the Mexican traffickers. So you took whatever they gave you and remember, they’re in Mexico … it’s a difficult world Mexico, later on I worked it and there’s a lot of cops that are on the take, I mean, we all know it. I mean, I’m not offending anyone, but they’ve been on the take for a long time. It’s a system that has been generated and is still going on and you just got to learn who to work with. I mean, you need that information, but you don’t get in bed with them, and if they’re dirty, if we get proof, and we can prove it in the United States, then that’s what it’s all about … they will get indicted.”
Lawrence Rosenberg: You first get assigned to Bogota, Colombia in 1988, right after the country’s Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jiménez was kidnapped and killed by Pablo Escobar, and you were sent there, as part of a group of six new agents hired from all over the United States to infuse the Bogota office with I’m quoting you “vigorous go-getter talent,” can you describe what it was like in Colombia at that time? Because to quote you, it was “hard to convey how eerie it was to arrive in a city at war.”
Javier Pena: “Yeah, I get there in 1988. And it was a new group of guys, the office had slagged downof slag down, so they were changing bosses, they were bringing in new guys and the boss who got selected was my boss in Texas, Joe Toft, who was a very tough boss. Anyway, so I get there and Toft assigns me the Pablo Escobar case … and I did not know who Pablo Escobar was. I had to learn, and I dug into it and it was like wow, this guy is out of control, and the thing that I tell people that we weren’t used to was the terrorism, the violence, like you said, the killing, the Attorney General, he killed also one of our Colnels, Colonel Franklin Quintero and then all of a sudden, the sicarios, the assassins, what are they doing? Like they said, their lives are dedicated to Pablo Escobar, where they do not care if they die so they were killing people. In my vivid memory of Pablo Escobar, was the placement of his car bombs, we used to see 10 a day, they were being placed in Bogota, in Meddilian, it was so bad that the first time I was there. We had an informal task force where I would go for two-three days at a time, and they would not let me stay there, It was that bad. When I would drive with the cops, the first time they said “Javier, you got a gun?” and I said “yeah,” “well pull it out!” We would have to drive with our guns by our chest because of the sicarios, and their favorite way of killing people was two guys on a motorcycle. And then he was placing car bombs right outside our base when we would leave, a lot of our guys got killed because of the infamous placing of the car bombs, and bounties on police officers. He wanted as many police officers killed as he could and he was paying $100, can you imagine, $100 for a human life, and I caught that information first hand, and we broke rules and policies, we never broke the law.”
Lawrence Rosenberg: In describing the mindset of the young sicarios that pledged their lives to Escobar, Javier recounted a story where he had arrested a teenaged informant who was an assassin for the Medillian cartel:
Javier Pena: “When we debriefed him, he says, Yeah, I’ll talk to you, 15 years old, and he said that he had already killed 10 police officers, and one of the things I’ll never forget. He says, I love Pablo Escobar, I will die and I will kill for Pablo Escobar. He gave me money. My mom has a house she’s got food, we were poor, we didn’t have any of that, we lived in the comunas of Medillian, the ghettos of Medillian. So my allegiance, I will die and I will kill for Pablo Escobar. And he said that all of the sicarios have that same attitude. So how do you deal with a young thug, and that’s all they are, thugs who don’t care about killing, they don’t know who the DEA is, they don’t know the ramifications of killing an agent, they’ll just kill whoever the boss wants them to kill. So it was an eye-opener for me in that we never saw that. And then, like I said, he (Escobar) was just out of control, he put a bomb on a commercial airline, he killed the next guy running for president, who we really liked, Carlos Golan, because Golan was going to bring back extradition and also, I don’t know if you know, but Pablo Escobar’s fight was because of extradition, Pablo did not want to get extradited to the United States and that’s why he created That that war campaign not to be extradited. So Luiz Carlos Golan running for president was going to win, and his motto was, if I’m elected I am bringing back extradition. Escobar hated him. Pablo has him killed, the next President of Columbia, while campaigning on a stage in 1989. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was a lot of other straws, but that one really stuck out, but then the commercial airline, Avianca, I think was 103 people were killed, the DOS building bombing, I mean, I can go on and on about the atrocities, the violence, and that was the awakening that we had in that, we had never gone up against a trafficker of this magnitude, and the violence, and the terrorism that Pablo Escobar created.
Lawrence Rosenberg: Has narco-terrorism been used as a method by the courts. are in any other country since?
Javier Pena: “Absolutely, absolutely. Look at Mexico today, that place is wide open. You’ve got I don’t even know what you call people that come in with a bag of severed heads and throw roll those out on a dance floor in a nightclub. I mean, that is just beyond sick in my mind. who hangs bodies off a bridge, who dismembers people’s arms and legs and heads and then puts it on display for everybody to see. The Carnage in Mexico is in my opinion is every bit as bad as it was in Colombia. It’s just out of control. Now, you know, that’s a whole different topic talking about comparing Mexico to Colombia. But we want to give credit to the Colombians because Colombia was dedicated to putting a stop to that. I’m not so sure that’s the case in Mexico today.”
Lawrence: Steve, after you graduated DEA training, you were assigned to Miami that was your first post and in the book, you talk about imagining yourself becoming like Sonny Crockett and you know the Don Johnson character in Miami Vice. I’m going to quote him here though. You said although I lacked a Ferrari, I was still living the dream of a narcotics agent at the epicenter of the cocaine wars. And I was proud to be attached to group 10. One of the DEA is most elite squads. Can you tell us what was Miami? Like, at that time in the 1980s? I think you got there in 1987. What was it like they’re in the midst of, of, you know, the, the flood of cocaine, the, you know, the lifestyle, the crime, the action? What was this like, your first assignment?
Steve Murphy: “Well, to say I was a fish out of water just really doesn’t do it justice … My wife and I went into a whole new world … I’m small town country boy and she’s a small town country girl from West Virginia. And here we ended up in Miami, and in the 80s it was the Wild West down there. I mean, we knew from the media how dangerous it was down there. And of course, when you’re in the DEA Academy, they prepare you for things like that. But I won’t say that it’s not what I expected. It was what I expected. And that’s why I wanted to go to Miami … that was the central point where the Medellin cartel’s cocaine was coming in from Colombia. This is when Pablo was in his heyday, this is a guy that not only was the world’s first narco-terrorist, but he developed a business plan that made him responsible for as much as 80% of the cocaine market, first in the United States, but then in the whole world. I mean, think about whatever your business is, wouldn’t you like to have 80% of the market? I mean, holy cow, you’d be in command. So here’s a story that kind of puts it all in perspective, I get to Miami. I’ve been a cop for almost 12 years. The most powder cocaine I’ve ever seen prior to DEA was two ounces in a baggie. In the first case I got to work on undercover in the DEA, we went to the Turks and Caicos Islands. So I got there (DEA) in November of 87. In February of 88, we went to the Turks and Caicos Islands. I never even heard of the place, I knew where the Bahamas were and that was about it. We took a 53 foot Hatteras sportfishing boat, I didn’t know what that was, it’s one of those fancy fishing boats that has the fishing chair in the center in the back, that had been seized from a drug trafficker, and it was wired with hidden audio and hidden video inside. That’s where we did a lot of undercover meetings. It took us five days to get to the Turks and Caicos Islands. I was sick for three of those five days. We get down there, and deals never go on time, It takes a while, (but) when the bad guys finally flew in on the airplane, they drove up 400 kilos of cocaine. So I went from two ounces to 880 pounds. Now talk about being addicted to cocaine, I was, in a different sense. I was addicted to the law enforcement side of it. Because I thought that was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. I just couldn’t wait for the next adventure, that’s the way I portray everything because life’s an adventure.”
Lawrence Rosenberg: Now you arrived in Bogota A few years after, I think in 1991, so you were looking for the next adventure, like you said, hopping out of the frying pan into the fire. So what was your impression of going from fighting drug trafficking in Miami, which, you know, fair enough, it was the cocaine capital of America, to fighting on the front lines of the war against drugs in Colombia? Were it really was an all-out war?
Steve Murphy: “Well, it’s kind of funny that the way things worked out because I got there on a Monday, reported to the embassy, (and) 3 days later Pablo Escobar surrendered to his prison. Going into Colombia, I didn’t know I was going to be working on the Escobar case, you don’t know until you get there. And then they gave me an opportunity to get to know the other agents and see where you just kind of click in with people. But, here was my first impression that week. So I find out Pablo surrenders, and, you know, Javier and Gary were kind of like legends in the office, you know, they were the top tier guys, and, and we’re newbies in the office, and I thought, well, this is fantastic, Pablo Escobar is now in prison. But I look around the office and Javier and Gary, they’re disappointed, they’re really dejected and so is Mr. Toft, and the people that have been there for a while, even other members of the embassy in other departments, were all really disappointed. I thought, what the heck is wrong with this picture, but then you get to know these guys, and you see, and you hear about what they’ve been through, and everybody felt like they had lost because everybody wanted to bring Pablo Escobar to justice, real justice, whether that’s a bullet in the head, or going into a real prison.”
“We all agreed it was a joke the deal that was reached to allow Escobar to surrender, the circumstances surrounding it. The prison itself, him paying his own bodyguards, him hand-selecting his fellow prisoners. You know, the good guys, the Colombian National Police and the gringos not allowed within two miles of the perimeter of this prison. He’s only got serve five years and he gets to keep all his assets. So we all knew this was a joke and it was an embarrassment for the Colombian National Police.”
“We call this the deal of a lifetime, that Pablo is allowed to surrender to this custom-built prison, because the plea bargain was just unheard of. It had never been done anywhere in the world that we’re aware of. But put yourself in the shoes of the president of Colombia. You’ve run on a ticket of pro extradition that you’re going to fight the Narcos, you’re going to fight the terrorists, and you’re going to stop the indiscriminate killing. It’s not happening. Pablo is still setting off his car bombs. He doesn’t care if you’re a police officer, or if you’re a baby, he will kill you. He wants to put that pressure on the government. He didn’t care if you’re a member the press if you’re a member of Congress, he didn’t care who you are. So he’s kidnapping people to try to raise funds, but also to send a message to very influential people in Colombia. Now you’re the president of Colombia. You’ve run on this platform, how do you stop the violence? Because things have been tried and nothing has worked in the past. So they came up with this idea to allow him to self-surrender. And the truth is when Pablo surrendered in June 1991, the bombing stopped. That’s the absolute truth for that one year that he was in prison, even though it was a country club, not a real prison, the bombings did stop, the killings didn’t stop, but the bombings (and) the terroristic activities did stop.”
Lawrence Rosenberg: So, why the hell does he escape? Why does he leave? I mean, you couldn’t have had a more perfect setup. What the hell happened?
Javier Pena: “Greed. That’s all it was his greed, and it was over a bag of money that had deteriorated. The money was, you know, the weather conditions, and he got so upset that he actually killed he himself killed one of his guys, one of his longtime childhood friends, one of his main partners who was doing all the distribution, the sicarios kill the other guy. And that’s what did it in for Pablo Escobar, that greed of killing his two best friends his two main lieutenants over money that he thought these lieutenants were hiding that money from him, which was not true. Just plain old greed. He’s got four years to go, he’s gonna have the assets of the world, no one’s gonna be chasing him.”
Steve Murphy: … “I was talking to Mr. Toft and going to the ambassador, there was pressure put on the government of Colombia by the United States that he really needed to be moved to a real prison, not the country Colombia he was in. And I don’t know that this was specifically mentioned by the ambassador, but you know, I’m pretty sure the implication was there that if nothing happened, then the press would be brought in and the circumstances would be made known publicly. So that that the politicians, you know how they are, that gets their attention. – But then we didn’t know about the prison. We didn’t have confirmation about the prison until we actually went in there a year later after he escaped, but we suspected, you know, it’s probably not a real jail cell and occasionally you get informant information, you never know if it’s correct or not. But what it did for me is, in that first year I hit it off with Javier and Gary. Gary and I actually had some mutual acquaintances in the United States. So we kind of got to be friends through that. And, so these guys kind of invited me into the click there to start doing some stuff against the Medellin cartel. And so that first year gave me an opportunity to really learn what had been going on learn about the organizational structure, who the connections were. to find out about how Javier and Gary had built this phenomenal relationship with the Colombian National Police. It was fantastic. That relationship that Javier initially established three years before I ever got there is what led to the successful conclusion of the death of Pablo Escobar and the dismantlement of the Medellin cartel.”
Steve Murphy & Javier Pena: https://www.deanarcos.com/
Pablo Escobar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Escobar