The agents tasked with capturing Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar tell The National how they helped track and capture their target
Real life story behind Narcos comes to Dubai
The Netflix drama Narcos, which tells the story of the investigation into the notorious Colombian crime lord Pablo Escobar and the breakaway Cali Cartel, has been a smash hit all around the world. Now fans who want to find out how true to life the show is will have the opportunity, courtesy of former DEA agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy, who will be speaking at Dubai College Auditorium on Thursday and Friday, with their touring show Capturing Pablo.
Pena and Murphy may not be familiar faces, but they are the real-life versions of the onscreen characters of the same name, played by Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook in the show. The pair spent years – Pena from 1988 and Murphy from 1991, until Escobar’s death in 1993 – working on the Escobar case alongside the Colombian authorities, and more recently worked as consultants on Netflix’s dramatisation of their stories. They are now travelling the world with Capturing Pablo, allowing audiences to fill in the gaps and get to the real story behind the hit show.
Pena says that initially, the pair worked on the case largely in a consultative role in Bogotá, liaising and sharing information with the Colombian authorities. However, following Escobar’s escape from La Catedral prison in 1992, they were embedded full-time with the police on Escobar’s home turf, the crime-ridden, virtually private Escobar fiefdom of Colombia’s Medellin province.
Murphy admits there were some scary moments: “The biggest threat we faced were the indiscriminate car bombs that Escobar set off,” he says. “In the jungle, there may be armed criminals out there, but at least you can fight back. If a car bomb goes off, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
For all of Escobar’s illicit traits, he does, in common with other mass criminals of popular folklore like the Kray twins and Al Capone, command a fan-following in his native Medellin. The kingpin cultivated an image of something of a Robin Hood figure among the local population through apparent acts of philanthropy. But Pena is in no doubt as to his true nature.
“Escobar was no Robin Hood. He did give money to the poor, build houses for the poor, gave to the church, but he always wanted something in return,” he says. “If he needed someone to commit some violent act that was their allegiance there, because he’d helped them out. He was no Robin Hood.”
The pair continued to work for the United States DEA for many years after the Escobar case, until Murphy retired in 2013 and Pena the following year, but both men agree they have never since worked on a case the scale of Escobar’s.
Pena says: “It was unique because we’d never seen a cartel of this magnitude. That only started to become clear the further we got into the investigation. The US and whole world was going after people associated with Escobar; we were trying to bring the whole organisation down, not just Escobar himself. We wanted the money launderers, the distributors, the people who had the labs, everybody, all over the world.”
Their eventual retirement turned out to be well-timed. The pair had barely put their feet up when they were approached by Netflix to work on the show, announced in April 2014. Murphy admits it was a surprise: “It’s not something I ever expected to happen in my life,” he says. “People have often said to me that I ought to write a book or make a movie, but we were just a couple of cops working a big case and you’re not out for the attention and the glory. When this came along it was just perfect timing. We were both getting ready for retirement from the DEA, we’d made it to the highest rank you could without a presidential appointment, so we’d gone as far as we could. The transition made for a great retirement job for us.”
Murphy and Pena enjoy the show, although both men reveal there’s a degree of artistic licence for the sake of good TV. “We told them the truth, then they took that and made a good story,” Pena laughs.
Audiences now have the chance to find out the real story for themselves thanks to Pena and Murphy’s stage show. “We come out and tell the whole story,” says Murphy. “Who Escobar was, where he came from, how he became so wealthy, what he did with his money. We talk about the deal he struck with the Colombian government to surrender, the building of his private prison, the Cathedral. We really take people inside these places, we don’t just talk about it. Then at the end we hold a question and answer [session] where the audience can ask us about Escobar, our personal lives, the making of Narcos, whatever they want to talk about.”
There’s always a danger in opening a show up to questions from the public, so ask if the pair have ever had any truly bizarre questions from audience members.
“Oh, we get some crazy stuff for sure,” Murphy admits. “But we get the audience to write them down, then we go through them, so we can filter out the really weird stuff.”
There is one question you should avoid asking, however.
“Every time we do this, every time, you can guarantee someone will ask if we got to keep all the money and drugs we seized,” says Pena. “Maybe it was funny the first time.”
Capturing Pablo, Thursday and Friday, 8pm, Dubai College Auditorium, Dubai, tickets from Dh275, at www.117live.com