As part of their Golden Tribe Lecture Series, the Student Government Association and Union Productions brought former DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Peña to Florida State University. Murphy and Peña are most known for their involvement in tracking down and capturing Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Most recently, the two were involved with the creation of Netflix’s Narcos, a television drama and biopic following Escobar and the two DEA agents. Spire Magazine’s Carter Hoey had the opportunity to sit down with them.
During the interview, the former DEA agents elaborate on the many truths and falsehoods the show dramatizes. Yes, Pablo did know their names, and was heard referencing them as “two gringos” on tape. No, Agent Peña did not actually work with the terrorist organization Los Pepes.
Before getting started, let’s talk about your role on the Narcos show. What was your role as consultants? And what were the most noticeable points where you stepped in and made a contribution to the final product that viewers saw?
Murphy: “We were paid consultants for the first two seasons; we told them all the true stories, but what you saw in Narcos certainly wasn’t all true. So that dovetails into why we do these presentations- because tonight, what you’ll hear is the truth, even though we will talk about Narcos as well. As far as our contributions, a neat thing was the last week we were filming season 1, I was in Colombia on set for the scene when Murphy and Peña are talking to a guy named Hegante, who’s driving the supply (hookers, drugs, etc.) truck to Pablo’s prison, where the agents get him in the back of the truck. The way they filmed it originally, the two agents were just standing there when they opened the back of the truck. But you must realize these were Pablo’s people. You’d have to stand there with your gun out, ready to fight. I got them to change that. Also, when they’re talking to the guy, and Murphy takes him to the back and points the gun at his head, that MIGHT have come from me.”
Peña: “I think the biggest contribution we made was telling the real story. The chronology is accurate. You know there’s a lot of literary licenses, which they needed for it to sell, but the actual timeline of the Narcos series is accurate.”
The show has received some criticism for its portrayal of Escobar, namely surrounding its humanizing display of his personal and family life. As agents responsible for stopping Escobar’s reign in Colombia, what is your perception of the show’s sometimes sympathy-inducing portrayal?
Peña: “The actor Wagner Moura did a phenomenal job portraying Pablo Escobar, so you know you’re going to empathize with him, especially with his family. However, we’ve always said we’ll never glamorize Pablo Escobar- he never should be glamorized, he’s the inventor of narcoterrorism- he killed thousands and thousands of innocent people. I think the actor’s portrayal is why you feel sorry for him, but then you look at the other side and you remember he’s killed thousands and thousands of innocent people.”
Murphy: “I would say the same thing about Wagner Moura. The scene where he’s out on his father’s ranch, (which we don’t know whether that’s true or not, because if we knew that we would’ve gone out there and got him, but that’s Hollywood,) my wife and I were watching it, but Wagnor’s such a good actor, I started feeling sorry for Pablo! Then I was like oh woah woah, he’s Pablo! The other thing is, a lot of people look at Pablo as a kind of Robin Hood- he likes to portray this Robin Hood persona because he built free housing, he built free clinics, and soccer fields. He gave money away, he gave food away- and he did that, it’s all true, those are really good things, but he had an ulterior motive. He needed more Sicarios, more assassins, because the ones he had were being killed- where do you think he went to get them? Right back to that neighborhood, and you know what, people thought he was god, because they were living in a dump, with little clothes, little food, and little shelter. So, when he came and said, ‘I need 100 guys to come and work for me’ the sad part is maybe 300-400 would stand up and want to work for Pablo. I even interviewed one of them, they said they’d kill for Pablo, and even die for him. It’s horrible. He manipulated those people.”
The show touches on a lot of US foreign policy that wasn’t so much of an open secret, like the link between narcotics, Noriega, and our own government. Were there any restrictions on how long you had to wait to tell your stories?
Peña: “I mean we both are retired. In the beginning most of the U.S pressures were on extradition- a lot of people don’t realize that a lot of this war was on extradition. We wanted him in the United States, Colombia was on constitutional, and Pablo’s main fight was that he didn’t want to come to the United States. That’s why he started the terrorism.”
Murphy: “The other part of that too is we waited because we didn’t think that anyone wanted to hear the story, because it’s so old. We were still working for the DEA when a friend of ours in Washington introduced us to a couple of Hollywood producers- we met with them and one guy had a personal agenda, a right-wing agenda that he wanted to use our story for- that’s not what we’re about. Our whole lives have been on honesty, integrity and telling the truth- that’s all we wanted. Second guy, I’m still not even sure what he wanted, we just turned him down. But you really get your hopes up that something’s going to happen, and then you just get disappointed, so you say ‘screw this I’m not doing this anymore. We both had made it to the highest ranks of the DEA, and mandatory retirement for law enforcement is 57, we were both 56 when Eric Newman, the creator of Narcos, called. First time we talked to him we turned him down, but then he flew to Washington and we had dinner, talked to him, and we liked him. We checked out his background: he was successful, educated, came from a Hollywood family, and our personalities just clicked. That’s why, when Javier said, ‘we don’t want anyone to glorify Pablo,’ at the end of that meeting when we were leaving that restaurant, he said to us ‘I got one question, why are you guys so hesitant to do anything with this story?’ What we said was we didn’t want ANYONE to glorify this mass murderer. We’re talking about a man that’s responsible for tens of thousands of murders, and deaths of innocent people. Eric promised us right then, that ‘we’ll never glorify Pablo Escobar,’ and in our opinion he’s lived up to his word.”
The show was beautifully made, from Pablo’s fratty look to the excesses of the Cali Cartel. As former DEA agents, did you ever feel like the show was glamorizing the lifestyle of being on the receiving end of the War on Drugs?
Murphy: “You know it is to a degree, because they show you the opulence and the wealth that’s gained from this illegal activity, but if you watch the whole thing, what happens to all the Narcos? What happened to Pablo Escobar in the end? I saw an article on the internet a couple months ago, that rated the fifteen richest criminals of all time. You know who’s still #1? Pablo- his estimated wealth was at 30 billion. His son says it’s a lot more than that. But what’s the difference if it was a trillion dollars? It doesn’t matter. When you’re dead you’re dead.”
Is there something not explored by the show that either of you feel should have been?
Peña: “Yeah, there was more violence, and more killings than the show portrays. Some people don’t even believe it happened- we call this celestial history. The violence was a lot worse in real life.”
Murphy: “It’s kind of personal for me. The show portrays my wife and I adopting a little girl, but we actually adopted two. The second adoption was supposed to be at the end of season two, for whatever reason it got cut out last minute. It didn’t upset me, probably more so my wife, and that particular daughter. But I think they did a great job. We never dreamt it would come out as phenomenal as it did. They did a fantastic job.”
Obviously working at the DEA isn’t only about chase scenes. What did your day-to-day lifestyles abroad include?
Peña: “A lot of alcohol! Also, a lot of training and a lot of exchanging of information. That’s one thing I think we’re really good at, by being there. The exchange of information was done on a timely basis, it didn’t come the day after or the week after- that helped a lot. Also, the strategy that we developed of arresting cartel members in the states, as well as in Colombia- that’s how you dismantle an organization. Part of the success was joint countries working together; altogether this, the timely basis, and the exchange of information, that’s what made it work.”
One of the main conflicts in the show is the problems between various branches of US agencies. How much conflict between departments really exists when you’re working at these kinds of jobs overseas?
Murphy: “That part of the series is actually very true. We did not get along with the C.I.A at all- but please don’t interpret this as an indictment of the C.I.A. It was just the personalities that got involved. So their head guy the chief of station was a jerk just to be blunt about it. He did not want to acknowledge the crossover between the narcotics traffickers’, which is a law enforcement function, and the assurgent activities, which is an intelligence community function. Well when you’ve got FARC gorillas providing security on Escobar’s cocaine labs, I’d call that a clue right? So there’s your crossover, but they refused to recognize that, so we tried ‘you stay in your lane we stay in ours,’ but they threatened to charge this man over here with treason! He’s an American hero, and they were threatening to charge him with treason!”
Peña: “A lot of it was also that we were the experts. We’d been doing it forever, going after the drug cartels. This was their first time in the drug business, so they really didn’t know what was going on.”
Strangely enough, the completely fictional story about the cat being killed by the cartels, and being called a DEA agent because of it, led us to do an interview into animal law and how government-owned animals receive special status and permissions. Had the cat actually been killed in the line of duty, could it have legally been called a DEA agent?
Murphy: “Well, first of all, we did have a cat named Puff- we had a really hard time getting Puff into the country, like it portrays in the beginning. Puff did die in Colombia. But he was old, it was because he had a heart attack. So, the Sicarios did not break into our apartment and hang him on the door; and no, he’d never be recognized as a government agent. That’s Hollywood for you, it’s amazing the type of things they come up with.”
Using your professional expertise, what is the current state of the war on drugs? How has it changed, and has it become more or less dangerous/intense?
Murphy: “I think a just read an article the other day, that cocaine production in Colombia is the highest it’s ever been in history. Can you still go out on a street corner of Tallahassee and buy cocaine? Hell yeah you can. You can do that all over the United States. So that leaves the question, did we have any positive impact on the cocaine market by taking out Escobar and the Medellin cartel? Yeah, but how long did it last? Maybe what, two weeks? Three weeks maybe? Cali cartel stepped right in, and when we took them down, then the North Valley cartel stepped in. And then a guy named Dom Burns stepped in and whoever’s running the operations now. So, what that all boils down to is their providing the supply, and why do you provide a supply? Because there’s a demand. Who has the largest demand in the world? The United States. Boy that’s something we’re real proud of. So, if we could do something about the demand, then maybe we could do something about the supply.”
Peña: “As long as there’s demand, there’s going to be cartel guys that’ll go to jail, and then someone else will take over. There’s too much money to be made.”
Despite having an excellent interview, and delivering an excellent presentation, they still have a lot more to tell. And while Narcos is an excellent action series, it is only the tip of the iceberg of truth. For more real information on the hunt for Escobar, the agents suggest people check out their website, deanarcos.com, and be ready for their book coming next year.