One of Netflix’s major hits in recent years was the gripping crime drama, Narcos, about the hunt for Pablo Escobar, led by two American Drug Enforcement Agency operatives, Steve Murphy and Javier Peña.
On Wednesday May 15, Murphy and Peña will visit Galway in person to give a talk at the Town Hall Theatre about their pursuit of the world’s most notorious narco-terrorist. Ahead of that visit, Murphy spoke with me about his career in the DEA, his time in Colombia, and the making of the Netflix series.
“I was always interested in narcotics investigation,” he begins. “When I was a young man Serpico was on TV and within my first year as a police officer I got my first undercover case. It was only for one pound of marijuana but in our small town that was a big deal. I liked the intrigue of the investigation; that you are investigating someone who has no idea that you are looking at them then all of a sudden you jump out and you’ve got them.”
After several years as a DEA agent in Miami, Murphy was sent to Colombia in 1991. “That was one of the most exciting times of my life,” he declares. “I had been in Miami for four years and the amount of cocaine that was flooding south Florida at that time was unbelievable. Before I joined the DEA the most powdered cocaine I had seen at one time was just two ounces; on my first case in Colombia we brought in 400 kilos. I just knew I had picked the right job right then. I was already very familiar with Pablo Escobar because he practically owned south Florida but we had never been able to indict him in court in the US.
"When I got to Colombia I teamed up with Javier Peña, who had already been there for three years, and that is when I found out I was going to be working the Escobar case. I gotta tell you it was like being a kid in a candy store; I knew it would probably be the biggest investigation I’d ever work on which proved to be true.”
Escobar’s [pictured above] immense wealth and power enabled him to have informants within the security forces. How did Murphy and Pena know which Colombian colleagues they could trust? “The Colombian police get a bad rap that they are all corrupt and that is not true,” Murphy asserts. “There is corruption there, I will admit that, but I came into a great situation because Javier already knew who we could trust and who we couldn’t.
"We worked with a very elite group of police officers. When we moved up to Medellin after Pablo escaped from prison those were the guys that we worked with every day; we went to the same restaurants, we ate the same crappy food to be honest with you, rice and potatoes three times a day. These were the guys that we faced a lot of the dangers with but the truth is we did not face nearly as many dangers as they did on a daily basis.”
In the TV series Murphy’s wife leaves Colombia to return to the safety of the US but in reality she stayed with him throughout his time there. “My wife is just a tough girl,” Murphy says with pride. “I used to ride motorcycles as a young man and when we first met I found out she owned her own motorcycle and how can you not love a woman who owns her own motorcycle?!”
'We can’t put enough people in jail to stop the drug problem so let’s look at something different. We still need enforcement element but let’s do a better job of educating people on how dangerous these drugs are'
Murphy and Peña turned down two Hollywood offers for their story before they approved the Netflix series. “The Hollywood producers had their own personal agendas and that’s not what we are about, we just wanted to tell the truth,” Murphy explains. “When Eric Newman, creator of Narcos, called us expressing interest at first we said ‘Thanks, but no thanks’. What we didn’t know then is he had already been working on the idea for three years and had writers lined up and was very conversant in the whole Escobar investigation.
"He said, ‘If I come to Washington DC,' which is where I live, 'would you just have dinner with me and two writers and give us a chance to talk and tell you our ideas. Then if you say no that’ll be no.’ So I said OK, but before the meeting I talked with Javier and we did our research and saw that these guys were already successful in the TV and movie world, then when I met them our personalities just clicked. They were nice guys and you could tell they already had plans for how they wanted to handle the series.
"At the end of the meal I said I’d talk with Javier but I felt we’d move forward with them. As we were leaving Eric asked why we had been so hesitant to do anything with the story so far and I said that the last thing we ever want to happen is that anyone would glorify Pablo Escobar; he was a mass murderer responsible for thousands of deaths of innocent people. Right then Eric promised they would not glorify him and he lived up to his word 100 per cent. We worked with the writers for over a year telling every true story we could, though not everything you see in Narcos is quite true. They came up with an exciting series.”
'We do not subscribe to legalisation as a cure. That's the government trying to profit off people’s misery'
I ask Murphy if he feels frustrated that, despite the efforts of the DEA, the tide of drugs entering the US seems as big as ever. “You do feel personal frustration but you can’t turn your back on this problem,” he replies. “In the US we have the dubious reputation of being the world’s biggest consumer country of illegal narcotics which is nothing to be proud of. We’re on a campaign here in the US because we don’t only do the talks; we’ve been before congressional sub-committees twice in Washington and are due to go again for a third time later this year.
"It gives us an opportunity to speak to people about how the present approach is not working; we can’t put enough people in jail to stop the drug problem so let’s look at something different. We still need an enforcement element but let’s do a better job of educating people and getting the word out on just how dangerous these drugs are. And if we tell it to schoolchildren that might be something they will take with them through their whole lives. We’ve just got to do something better.”
One remedy Murphy is strongly opposed to is the idea of legalising narcotics. “I am not in favour of legalisation and I’ll tell you why; we’ve always referred to marijuana as a gateway drug. I think you naturally progress to things that are stronger; you smoke weed and you think ‘This isn’t so bad’ then next thing you try is coke or heroin or methamphetamine, so we do not subscribe to legalisation as a cure. Here in the US I see that as the states and the government trying to make a profit off people’s misery and I really hate that idea. We don’t talk about the issue of legalisation onstage because it is a long topic and we don’t have enough time.”
Both Murphy and Peña are now retired from the DEA and they relish their speaking tours. “This is the last thing I ever expected to happen in our lives. When you work undercover you want to maintain your anonymity. You don’t want people to know who you are. When I lived in Florida none of my neighbours knew I was a DEA agent, none of them in Colombia knew I was a DEA agent. You have to protect your identity.
"Now that we are going around the world standing up onstage telling people what we did, it is completely contrary to everything we ever did as regards protecting ourselves. But we are having a blast. This will be our third trip to Ireland and we haven’t met any nicer audiences anywhere in the world than there, we always have fun and this is our second trip to Galway and we’re real excited about coming back.”