The Real Story Behind the King of Cocaine

By Steve Murphy

Stephen Murphy worked his up way from a police officer in West Virginia to the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the DEA. During his 37 years in law enforcement, Murphy was stationed all around the world, most notably as one of the two DEA agents who brought down Pablo Escobar. After retirement Murphy, along with his partner Javier Pena, created the company DEA Narcos, under which they lecture on drug trafficking trends and security-related challenges around the world.

“Narcos” is the Netflix fictionalized series that traces the rise and fall of one of the world’s most notorious narcotic traffickers, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. (Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t finished the series, you may want to save this article for later!)

As the head of the Medellin Cartel, Escobar supplied up to 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. It made him one of the richest criminals in history – Forbes listed him as one of the richest men in the world, on multiple occasions. At his height, he was estimated to be worth up to 30 billion dollars.

Two U.S. drug enforcement agents – Steve Murphy and Javier Peña – depicted in the Netflix series were instrumental in bringing down Escobar. They successfully dismantled the Medellin Cartel, and Escobar was killed on December 2, 1993.

On the anniversary of Escobar’s death, The Cipher’s Brief’s Leone Lakhani met with the real life Steve Murphy to ask him about Escobar himself, how much of the series was accurate, and what really happened the day the “King of Cocaine” was killed

The Cipher Brief: Steve, you and Javier were consultants on the Netflix series – how much of it was accurate?

Steve Murphy: We were consultants for the first two seasons; we analyzed it and we figure that of Season 1, about a third of it is true, another third of is true but is not portrayed exactly the way it happened, and then the remaining third of it is “Hollywood.”

In season 2, the part that’s not quite true increases quite a bit.

When we first negotiated with Eric Newman, the show’s Executive Producer, our concern was that they might try and glorify Pablo Escobar, and we made it clear at the very beginning we didn’t want that to happen. He promised us he would not do that. And in our opinion, he’s lived up to his word 100 percent.

TCB: How accurate was the depiction of you and Peña in the series?

SM: Well at least they got a couple good looking guys to play us (laughs). We told 100 percent truth. We probably told Netflix stories that nobody’s ever been told before.

TCB: You told me that you don’t swear as much.

SM: Right. [When we speak to audiences now] the first thing I do is apologize for the language in the show. I’m no saint. Words slip out here and there, but I’ve never cussed like that. Neither Javier nor I smoke cigarettes. In the show, the first thing we do is light a cigarette and throw out the f-bomb.

TCB: You’re a tall white American man walking into Colombia. You don’t exactly blend in. How dangerous was it for you and your family?  Escobar’s people must’ve known who you were.

SM: They absolutely did. We had intercepted phone calls where reference was made to “Peña and Murphy” so we knew that they knew we were in Medellin working against Pablo.

But the Colombian National Police went out of their way to protect us. I’m a Christian, and I believe that the good Lord has a plan for me, and when my time’s up, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I could be out on an operation going after the world’s largest drug trafficker or sitting here doing an interview with you. When my time’s up, my time’s up.

TCB: In the show, you can’t speak Spanish. Could you really not speak Spanish?

SM: I went to language school for six months in Washington to learn Spanish. The problem was when I got to Colombia, I couldn’t understand colloquial Colombian Spanish. They could understand me, but I couldn’t understand their replies. But 18 months there, and I picked it up.

TCB: Describe Pablo Escobar because you see many different aspects of him in the series. On the one hand, he is a brutal drug runner, but on the other hand, a family man. He’s got this Robin Hood persona, taking care of the poor. Who was Pablo Escobar?

SM: You know Pablo – and I hate to give him credit for anything – but the truth is he had a charismatic personality. He’s nothing more than a country boy who grew up in the city and was not well-educated, regardless of whatever you might read.

But he was not averse to violence. He did not have a conscience. Violence and killing people did not bother him in the least. He backed that charismatic personality up with a violent streak. So, he would try to win you over by talking to you, but if you didn’t agree, he’d just kill you. And there was was no remorse on his part whatsoever. That’s just doing business.

When we hear people talk about the Robin Hood persona, that really bothers me. That’s one of my hot buttons. Because I don’t agree with it.

If you’re living in a trash dump – literally living in a trash dump, that’s where your clothing comes from, your food comes from, and you have no housing—you’re literally living in trash dump. Then, somebody comes in and builds low-cost apartments and says, “you can live here for free.” All of a sudden you got a roof over your head, you’ve got a door that locks. You’ve got electricity and running water. You’ve got a man who came in and built clinics and soccer fields, so the kids would have something to do to keep them out of trouble. A man who literally would come and pass out cash.

If you’re in that position, what do you think of that person? He’s your Messiah.

TCB: So it was a Robin Hood persona in a sense.

SM: Well, that’s what he wants you to believe, but the truth is he was a master manipulator. He didn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart. He had an ulterior motive – this was his primary recruiting ground when he needed new sicarios or assassins.

TCB: That “deal of a lifetime” that Pablo took, in which he self–surrendered: it is hard to believe that was real. Why did the government allow it?

SM: Put yourself in the place of Colombian President Cesar Gavaria, because this is the the man who had to make the decision.

You’ve got all these indiscriminate car bombs going off, you’ve got drive-by shootings, including the murder of the Attorney General of Colombia. They killed the Minister of Justice. They killed the leading presidential candidate. [They] put a bomb on a commercial airliner and killed 110 innocent people because [Pablo] thought Cesar Gavaria was going to be on that flight.

TCB: So accepting the self-surrender of Pablo Escobar was the only way Gavaria could think of stopping the violence.

SM: The man was at his wit’s end. I can’t imagine being in his position and having to make that decision. But you know what, as soon as Escobar surrendered, the violence did stop. So everybody thought, that’s great!

But what we saw over the next year was Pablo go to his underlings that were members of the Medellin Cartel and say, “I’m the one that’s taken all the public attention…. I’m the one that surrendered. You will continue to do your drug business, and you’re going to pay me a war tax, which will equate to 50 percent of your loads.” And that’s how he got his money.

He rebuilt his powerbase and his economic base while he was in prison.

TCB: One of the really striking moments in the series, in Season 2, was when he just walks out of that prison. Did he really just walk out of prison?

SM: He did. It was little bit more involved than that. Pablo had killed [other members of the Medellin Cartel] the Moncada and Galeano brothers in prison. We found out about it through an informant. We still haven’t found the bodies, and the way it’s portrayed in the show is pretty accurate. [With] Quico Moncada, they shipped some of his body parts back to his wife Judy Moncado, who was also a real person.

That’s when the United States government put so much pressure on President Gavaria, primarily through our ambassador and through DEA. It was, “You have got to take action. This is an international embarrassment. If you don’t, this information will be released to the press.”

So Cesar Gavaria sent his Deputy Justice Minister up with a Colombian military colonel: “go up there and get Escobar out of prison. We’re going to put him in a real prison.”

TCB: They took him hostage.

SM: They did. The Colombian military brought in their elite military unit. They launch a raid. There’s a big firefight. Believe it or not, they did rescue the Deputy Justice Minister. He was unhurt.

Now you’ve got a prison surrounded by several hundred military personnel. How does anybody walk out of that?

Did they depict it correctly in the show, where Pablo walks out of the woods and encounters a military unit? I don’t know. I’m sure there was a large fear factor there, but I’m also pretty sure there was a payment involved to let him go.

TCB: There’s a scene in the series where you and Javier are going through the documents and pictures in this custom-built prison.  What surprised you most when you walked in?

SM: What really shocked everybody was the opulence of the prison. I mean it was just a joke. Pablo’s prison cell was a two-room suite. You walk in the front door; you walk into this living room with a kitchen. In the second room is a combination bedroom-office with a Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom—in a prison.

His closet was a huge walk-in closet, with a safe hidden behind the cabinets, and a hidden button. And if you pushed that button, the back wall popped open, and back there was a hiding spot for him.

He was scared to death that the United States was going to come to get him. He was so paranoid about this that he actually had anti-aircraft guns on the grounds of the prison to shoot down helicopters.

After his escape from prison in 1992, Escobar evaded authorities until his death in 1993. On December 2nd, 1993, Lieutenant Hugo Martinez of the Colombian National Police, using handheld directional technology, located Pablo Escobar in his hideout in Medellin and called for backup. 

TCB: In Narcos, Lieutenant Martinez actually sees Pablo through an apartment window, speaking on the phone, which confirms what his handheld antenna was telling him.  Was that scene actually real?

SM: It was 100 percent confirmation. He said Pablo literally looked out the window at him, as he’s driving down the street, which is portrayed in the show. And you think, well why did Pablo stay?

Lieutenant Martinez is holding a small hand-held antenna outside of his car. That’s not a normal sight, but Pablo didn’t pick up on that because he was issuing instructions to his son. How do we know that? Because we were listening to the conversation.

TCB: What exactly happened the day Pablo was killed?

SM: This is the true story. The operation that took place that day was strictly a Colombian National Police operation – regardless of what you’ve heard anybody say.

I was back at the police base with Colonel Martinez and the entire Bloque de Búsqueda – I see a lot of activity near the Colonel’s office. They’re on the phone, on the radios. And the next thing I hear is “Viva Colombia, Pablo’s dead” come across the radio.

I rode back out to the scene where Pablo was killed with Colonel Martinez. Narcos depicted that I was there during the firefight, I actually was not. The only people there were the Colombian national police.

TCB: He was killed by Colombian police.

SM: Absolutely. And no American was there.

There have been many versions about the events that day. Escobar’s son Juan Pablo wrote a book in which he claims his father committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Murphy disputes that, saying he examined Pablo’s head wound. The wound showed no gun residue, which would have been present in the case of suicide or a shooting at close range. Questions still arise over how Escobar was shot so accurately in the head from afar. But Murphy believes Escobar was killed during the fire fight.

Next week, we’ll bring you the second part of The Cipher Brief’s interview with Steve Murphy where he discusses the technology used to track down Pablo Escobar and the challenges of interagency cooperation. If you can’t wait until then, you can listen here to Part 1 and Part 2 of the 15 Minutes podcast with Steve Murphy.


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