The real-life ‘Narcos’ agents on the hunt for drug lord Pablo Escobar, the Netflix series and Chicago’s place in drug trafficking
Retired DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña say Netflix took some liberties. But Peña acknowledges unwittingly working with a death-squad leader to locate Escobar.
They helped Colombian authorities track down cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was killed by the Colombian National Police in 1993.
The hunt for Escobar, who at the time was the world’s biggest and most ruthless drug trafficker, led him to put a $300,000 bounty on their heads.
As a result, Murphy and Peña lived on the national police base in Medellín for the final 18 months before Escobar was found and killed.
Murphy’s wife stayed behind in their home in Bogota — and wasn’t happy that Netflix had her fleeing instead to Miami to escape Escobar’s threats and violence.
Murphy and Peña, both now retired from leadership roles in the DEA, are proud that, decades after they helped the Colombian authorities locate Escobar, his hometown of Medellín no longer is one of the most dangerous places in the world. It’s even become a tourist destination.
But they can’t stand that some people still view Escobar, whose bombings killed thousands of Colombians, as some sort of Robin Hood figure.
They like how they were portrayed in the Netflix series but also make clear that some facts — some of them trivial things, others far more important — were ignored in the effort to create a juicier TV series.
Peña acknowledges he unwittingly worked with a death-squad leader to locate Escobar in 1993. But he knocked down the popular belief that Escobar met future Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera in Colombia.
He and Murphy spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times ahead of an appearance Friday at City Winery in the West Loop for a show, “Capturing Pablo,” about their experiences hunting for Escobar. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Question: In “Narcos,” you were portrayed as hard-drinking, rule-bending cowboys. Was that Hollywood literary license?
Murphy: We broke rules, policies and procedures every day. But we never broke the law.
Q: I won’t ask if the CIA did.
Murphy: [Laughing] I have no knowledge of that, your honor.
And, by the way, we never had bottles of booze on our desks.
Q: One interesting thing in “Narcos” is how the DEA used CIA aircraft to intercept telephone conversations on the ground from Escobar and his associates. How important was that technology in locating Escobar?
Murphy: The Centra Spike program was our mechanism for helping to identify new frequencies. His phones operated off radio frequencies. When he would change his frequencies, Centra Spike was good at helping us to find the new frequency.
However, the last frequency that resulted in his downfall — that frequency was obtained by Javier through an informant.
Q: The Colombian National Police “Search Bloc” has been accused of violating human rights to track down and kill Escobar and his associates. “Narcos” shows you having an uneasy relationship with Search Bloc and the vigilante group Los Pepes. Can you tell me about your work with Search Bloc?
[Note: Peña and Murphy left Colombia in 1993 after Escobar was killed. Peña returned in 1999 as the No. 2 DEA official there. He says he was linked to the Los Pepes death squad in a story in a Miami newspaper in 2000 with what he describes as a misleading headline: “DEA implicated in a deal with terrorists.”]
Peña: Los Pepes was a right-wing vigilante group. It was made up of sicarios [assassins]. Pablo had killed their bosses, two guys in prison, and so they banded together. They had a [leader] by the name of Don Berna.
Pablo was trying to kill everybody, including Don Berna.
So they said, “Hey, you know what, screw Pablo — we’re gonna fight dirty.”
They were able to kill about 30 of Escobar’s top associates. They were going after his wife, his kids, his mother. They were putting placards on them saying “Los Pepes” when they would kill them.
The head guy, Don Berna, you know, in real life, we knew him, but we did not know he was the head of Los Pepes until afterwards.
After Escobar gets killed, there’s a big investigation, and Don Berna becomes one of the biggest traffickers in Colombia. We found out that he was actually the one leading the hit squad.
Former DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña’s are appearing in “Capturing Pablo: Conversation on ‘Narcos’ ” at 8 p.m. Friday at City Winery in the West Loop.
Don Berna was at the base [the Colombian National Police base in Medellín where Murphy and Peña were staying].
Don Berna was an informant for the Colombian National Police. So that’s why we associated with him, not knowing that he was a terrorist.
But he knew me and Steve.
In fact, I tell people: You know what, he sometimes protected us. When we’d go meeting informants and the cops weren’t available, he would send people.
Don Berna walked around the base like he owned the place.
Q: So you were unwittingly associating with Los Pepes and didn’t know it because [Don Berna] was an informant?
Peña: Yes. That’s a great word.
And I had talked to [Search Bloc leader] Col. [Hugo] Martinez and said, “Colonel, I don’t trust him.”
He said, “I don’t trust him, either. But he has been assigned by the Colombia attorney general to help us out.”
For “Narcos,” in the second season, I had to sign a piece of paper that says that I was not going to sue Netflix because my character’s association with Don Berna.
They said, “We’re going to stretch it, Javier. We know you’re not part of it. But [it’s] for the show.”
And I said, “Hey, that’s fine.”
Q: After El Chapo became the world’s biggest lead drug dealer in the 1990s and 2000s, he was overheard referring to Chicago as his quote-unquote “home port.” Why do you think Chicago became an important hub of drug trafficking?
Murphy: Well, actually, his two main transshipment points in the United States were Chicago and Atlanta. Atlanta was just as big as Chicago.
It’s kind of a matter of logistics. Coming up from the southwest border, Chicago’s not that far away from New York. But he was trying to get away from the traditional trafficking routes.
There’s a huge, huge Hispanic population in Atlanta. I was stationed there twice, the first time in ‘98 to 2001. We didn’t realize the Mexican traffickers were a problem at that time. When I went back in 2006, they had exploded. They were in charge of everything in Atlanta.
Chicago and Atlanta have major Hispanic communities. It’s a matter of convenience, quite honestly, for [Mexican cartel operatives] to blend in.
Q: In Rolling Stone magazine, actor Sean Penn said El Chapo told him he had met Pablo Escobar. When you were down there, were you aware of El Chapo and whether he met with Escobar?
[Note: In 2015, Penn traveled to Mexico and met with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the now-imprisoned leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel. In Rolling Stone, Penn recounted having this exchange with Guzman Penn: “Did you know Pablo Escobar? El Chapo: “Yes, I met him once at his house. Big house.”]
Peña: You know what, I’ll disagree with that statement because they were in two different eras.
Pablo was the late ‘70s, low ‘80s, mid ‘80s. Pablo was killed in ’93. Chapo started to come up in the late 1990s.
Pablo never met Chapo.
Pablo’s contacts in Mexico in the ‘80s — we had great evidence, we had fax intercepts — were people like Amado Carrillo Fuentes, [known as] El Señor de Los Cielos.
But Pablo never met with Chapo.
Q: I talk to former and current DEA agents. They kind of see you guys as heroes. It’s interesting to hear those people call you guys the “the real deal” even though they had distinguished careers as well. But I’ve also heard the DEA didn’t really acknowledge your accomplishments after Colombia. So how do you square those two things: Your own colleagues have great things to say about you, but your organization didn’t do much. Is that true?
Murphy: It is true what you said. But you don’t go into this for the glory. If you are, you’re in the wrong occupation.
People ask us, “What do you do after Escobar was killed?”
We moved on to the next case. And it’s it was as simple as that.
I mean, we had a lot of loose ends we had to tie up the next year, in ’94.
I got transferred to North Carolina. Javi got transferred to Puerto Rico. So, you know, you’re starting to work on new things.
But it was a little disconcerting that your own agency and our bosses — you know, our bosses in Bogota, they submitted some paperwork [to give credit], and they submitted it late.
So they said, “Well, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you guys next year.”
And we’re still waiting to be taken care of.
But, you know, if our colleagues are proud of us and what we were able to accomplish, most of them have stories that are unbelievable as well.
So, if you’ve earned the respect and gratitude of your colleagues, that’s enough for me, I’m pretty happy with that.
I’m not being humble. I’m being honest. It’s a nice honor.
Peña: Totally agree with that.