KILLING PABLO: Q&A With Retired DEA Special Agent Steve Murphy, Who Brought Notorious Colombian Drug Lord Pablo Escobar To Justice
BY JAMES M. DAVIS Retired DEA Special Agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena were central players in the takedown of Pablo Escobar, the notorious King Of Cocaine, one of the most ruthless and murderous drug lords of all time. Their white-knuckle on-the-job adventures are the inspiration for Narcos, Netflix’s hugely popular crimes series detailing the rise and fall and ultra-violent demise of Escobar. Murphy [pictured below, in red with the corpse of Pablo Escobar] joined the DEA in 1987 and cut his teeth Miami, where the cocaine trade was metastasizing into a billion dollar industry, leaving a trail of murder and mayhem in its wake. In 1991, Murphy was transferred to Bogota, Colombia, the front line of America’s declared war on drugs. It was there that Murphy and his partner, Special Agent Javier Pena, spent their days tracking the whereabouts of Escobar who was shot to death fleeing across the rooftops of a Medellin barrio in 1993. With its leadership decapitated, the Medellin Cartel, which at the height of its powers was raking in $70 million a day, was dismantled soon thereafter. In advance of the eagerly awaited third season of Narcos, expected later this year, Murphy and Pena are in the midst of a speaking tour that brings them to the Keswick Theater on Saturday. Yesterday, we got Murphy on the phone to talk about taking out Escobar, Miami Vice, legalization, Trump’s wall and what it feels like to kill a man.
PHAWKER: A lot of people from organized crime circles have successfully monetized their life stories, but they are often criticized for being disloyal to the dead and disrespectful of the truth. How much of a concern was this for you?
STEVE MURPHY: Well, I mean we really didn’t make that much money. We were hired by Netflix as consultants for the first two seasons. Basically we just told them our story. But we turned two producers down. One guy wanted to make political thing out of it, and I’m not sure what the other guy wanted. But we basically gave up until Eric called us. I mean initially we blew him off as well. But eventually we met up with a bunch of the writers, and at the end of evening we got along really well and I said I would talk to Javier and recommend we move forward. He said, “Can I just ask you, what’s your biggest concern here? Why are you so hesitant?” And I said, “The last thing we want is for Pablo Escobar to be glorified in any way, because he’s nothing more than a mass murderer. He was the world’s first domestic terrorist He introduced terroristic activity into the narcotics trade. So that was new. But Eric right off the bat said, “I promise you, we will not glorify the man.” Now some people say that watching the show they almost felt sorry for him. But I attribute that to the actor, Wagner Moura, he is that good of an actor. So our loyalties have always been to law enforcement, but also to all the families of innocent people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when a car bomb went off.
PHAWKER: Yeah, it was an amazing performance. But I think the show makes it clear that all of his Robin Hood type activities weren’t simply for the good of the people, but rather increasing his power over them.
STEVE MURPHY: I’m glad you said that, we do a lot of Q&As and interviews, about 70 last year and it looks like even more this year – so that question comes up a lot: “Ya know, he’s got this Robin Hood persona, didn’t he actually do good things for people?” Well, you know what, yes he did. He went into a homeless area in Medellin where people were literally living on the edge of a trash dump. That’s where they got their food, their clothes, building materials for shelter to love in, were all gotten out of that pile. And he went in and he built housing for free, clinics, soccer fields, money to the church and homeless, passed out food. But you’re absolutely right, he wanted something in return. So when he needed new assassins, he would just go in and say “I need a hundred people to work for me and do whatever I tell you.” There might be three or four hundred people that step up. These are teenagers, people in their early twenties. So what we refer to Pablo as is, he’s not a Robin Hood, he’s a master manipulator. Because he manipulated those people into doing his evil deeds and giving up their lives for him.
PHAWKER: Watching the show it seems a large part of your job was that of an intelligence operative. Cultivating informants and conducting surveillance, is that accurate?
STEVE MURPHY: It was a combined effort between intelligence gathering, analysis, and then conducting tactical operations. So we wore several different hats then. One thing we did, “we” meaning us in conjunction with Colombian National Police force, was we initiated an 800 number where people could call in with tips. And when they called in they didn’t want to talk to Colombians, they wanted to talk to Gringos. Plus we were offering a cash reward for information that would help us catch Pablo. So everybody wanted that, it wound up being like five million dollars. That right there had a lot to do with the intelligence gathering. But when the tips came in we would have to follow up, in person with these people to see if it was usable. It wasn’t safe for us to go out by ourselves so the Colombian police would come out with us, all of us in plain clothes. They were our protection. We had weapons, but we wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for the Colombian National Police.
STEVE MURPHY: Well, there’s a couple things. What Javier says is the thing he feared most was the car bombs. Because if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had no recourse, it was gonna kill you. So that was his big thing. But I mean, we were all going out on helicopters on operations, going out to raid places. But honestly that was more exciting than it was scary. You had rounds come up to the helicopter that could get you a little concerned. This is gonna sound silly but one of the things that made me most nervous was, OK you flew into the airport at Medellin, outside of the city. Now Medellin is built into a bowl between two mountains, and the airport is built into one of the mountains. So normally they would bring a gunship over to fly you into the city to the police base. But if all the Helos are out on operations they would send plainclothes guys in three cars, and you had to drive with them on this curvy mountainous road. And I mean riding with these Colombian police officers on that road, they drove like a bat out of hell. They passed on curves they passed going over the tops of hills. Reason being it was so dangerous at that time. But we were in those cars, you would take your weapon out and carry it over your chest to be ready to engage targets if they tried to intercept you. The favorite method of assassination was two guys on a motorcycle. Guy on the front would drive, guy on the back would have a machine gun or a pistol. And they’d shoot you as they drove by. So that was probably the scariest part of being down there. The rest was really exciting, it was a great adrenaline rush.
PHAWKER: Well, that leads us to the next question which is: in the show there’s a part where you’re in Miami and it’s the first time you shoot someone, and there’s sort of a moment of reflection…
STEVE MURPHY: That was Hollywood. I mean, I don’t mean to sound cold or anything. And I’m not an overly brave person, I think I’m just a normal person that might have had a bit of an adrenaline jones at one point when I was much younger, but things like that have never bothered me. I mean, you feel bad for people when they die but you know, if they were bad guys I had no remorse for them whatsoever. They got what they deserved.
PHAWKER: Miami Vice was the biggest show on TV around the time you joined the DEA. Is that just a coincidence?
STEVE MURPHY: I was a cop for 12 years before I joined the DEA. And I watched Miami Vice on TV — my favorite shows were that and Hill Street Blues. I mean, you know how Miami Vice is, it was exciting and I’d always been interested in drug work, I’d done a couple just very small cases when I was a city cop and it just always seemed intriguing because you were given opportunities to try to outsmart these guys. You knew what they were doing, and guys who had been doing it for so long got comfortable doing it. And guys like that, the ego thing kicks in and greed kicks in, and all of a sudden they think they’re invincible. So if you’re able to infiltrate that organization working undercover or you’re able to build a case on them when they don’t even know you’re looking at them- I just loved it when you just surprised them and and you’re just there to arrest them whether it’s peacefully or forcefully. I mean, I’m not bragging but my conviction rate was about maybe 96%. I mean, if I was coming for you, I got you. And all the people that ever got off was on plea deals. We were working a case in Miami one time where we seized 500 kilos of cocaine from this Haitian organization, and they were storing cocaine they had offloaded from a coastal freighter into a house. When they brought it out of the house for distribution is when we started arresting people. When we finally went into the house, they had put the 500 kilos of cocaine in a baby’s room. And so one of the traffickers wives who was living in that house, we arrested her because it was obvious she had knowledge of what was going on, and part of the plea bargain for her husband was that charges against her were dismissed. I know she was a very small player, and that’s why I didn’t fight it. But that’s the only individuals that I lost to prosecution, so I don’t feel too bad about that.
STEVE MURPHY: That’s another question we’ve gotten a lot, both in the states and overseas. But my response is always the same. The reason we talk about this, going all over the world to talk about it and so on is to give a lesson in history. What happens whens someone is allowed to illegally amass that much wealth and then gain so much power and control over a country. The man declared war on his own country twice. So we present this as a lesson in history. Why do we study history? Well, we try to learn from our mistakes. Sad truth is, we don’t learn from our mistakes. So, let’s look at legalization. It has been tried in the United States, you know, with the opium dens back in the Wild Wild West, creating the trans-something or other railroad. Trans whatever it was. You look at other countries it’s been tried, everything from weed to heroin and it has never worked. So why is it we think we’re gonna do it better? I mean the other thing nobody wants to talk about is, there are reports that say marijuana changes, over a period of time, effects on the brain. It turns you into a stoner, like we see in the movies that are funny, but can’t function, can’t do anything. The other thing is, you’re inhaling smoke into your lungs. That can cause respiratory problems. So, you take all of that and say, ‘Are we gonna end up with a group of citizens who can’t function properly, can’t take care of themselves, can’t hold a job, so you and me the hardworking taxpayers, should we be held responsible for these people who smoke marijuana and can no longer take care of themselves?’
PHAWKER: Health effects aside, what about the fact that if cocaine had been legal, there would have been no Pablo Escobar?
STEVE MURPHY: Well, I mean aren’t there still moonshiners? I mean, there’s a TV show about moonshiners now that shows them doing it. I mean people still smuggle cigarettes. So even though it’s legal people still want to stop the government from getting their share. I mean, even if you made things legal, people would still do things illegally, because there’s money to be made there. And I mean other than that I think it’s just lowering our morals and our standards to an unacceptable level.
PHAWKER: OK one last one. Trump’s wall. Any thoughts?
STEVE MURPHY: [laughs for a good thirty seconds] I mean, I’m just laughing because when I heard it, I mean it’s just so ridiculous. I mean whatever thoughts you have on our president, I mean he is the president, he is the commander in chief. But, yeah, I’ve been down there. I mean they have a fence between Juarez and El Paso that I’ve seen. But they have to have officers down by the fence anyway, because anywhere it’s not guarded they tunnel underneath, they have special ladders to go over top, they built machines that will throw bundles of drugs over the fence. I mean in some places I’ve even seen, like, they cut holes in the steel links and put in their own doors they can open up whenever they want. I mean it’s just insanity. So no, I don’t not think the idea of a wall is very effective.