He was the most powerful criminal in modern history—a Forbes’ list billionaire drug dealer who ordered the assassinations of frontrunner presidential candidates and Supreme Court judges.
The lead investigators trying to take him down? A former railroad cop from Virginian Appalachia, and a watermelon farmer from Texas who’d joined the DEA after leaving his bride at the altar an hour before their wedding.
In their new book Manhunters: How We Took Down Pablo Escobar, special agents Javier Peña and Steve Murphy detail the rise of their careers and their eventual partnership with agents in Colombia, where they helped bring down Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.
A&E True Crime caught up with the co-authors about the work they did on the front lines of America’s war on drugs.
One of the things that jumps out at me about this book is how different your backgrounds are. Steve, before you went to Colombia you were stationed in Miami, where you would get annoyed when menus would only appear in Spanish. Javier, you’re of Mexican descent and were doing undercover work at brothels and drug dens throughout Texas. Given those different backgrounds, what was the first impression you had of each other, as colleagues in Colombia?
Javier Peña: When Steve arrived I was already in Medellin. When you first meet someone it’s a little weird—we don’t know each other, and basically the way it started really was—boom!— in Medellin. Right onto the frying pan. But my first impression was that he’s a worker. And we’re very different, so we complimented each other. He’s very organized, meticulous—and I’m not. He would see my desk at the end of a day, and it’d be just full of papers. He’d make running jokes about it.
Steve Murphy: Well, we were opposites. I’m very organized, but Javier has a brain like an encyclopedia.
Steve, how was your Spanish? In the book you mention that you had to take an intensive course before deployment to Colombia. Did being a non-native speaker hinder your work?
Steve Murphy: I can speak Spanish. But it did affect my work, because I was taught to speak proper Spanish. I don’t even speak proper English.
They tend to talk real fast, and I was the only gringo [working] with Colombian National Police. But something I came to really love about Colombia: Colombians are some of the nicest people in the world. They’re very accepting, and that carried over into the police. As long as you’re trying, they’d bend over backwards to help you. It was very pleasant surprise.
There was a lot of bribery going on at the time, and a lot of cops on the take. Were you worried that some of your fellow agents at the DEA might be compromised?
Javier Peña: Not with the DEA. We’re all professional—I never had any worry about it. The [Colombian] cops: yes, of course. The politicians. But on the DEA side, I never came across anybody… I heard a lot of rumors of those guys being corrupt back in the States. But not in Colombia.
In Colombia, Pablo Escobar had fans as well as detractors. What kind of reception did you get from Colombian civilians, doing the work you were doing?
Steve Murphy: I come from an English-Irish background. I’m very white, and I don’t blend in very well, so I pretty much stuck out like a sore thumb. But we were always with the police, and those guys really went out of their way to protect us. When we went to a barrio or a community, you were treated the same as the Colombian National Police were treated. So if the attitude was animosity towards the police, people looked at you like they could kill you. But if they liked the police being there, you’d be viewed favorably.
Back in Bogota, nobody knew who we were… my neighbors, they knew I worked for the embassy because they’d see the diplomatic tags on my personal car… there’d be small talk, they’d ask me “What is it you do there?” And I told them I was in charge of janitorial services, and they never bothered me again.
You don’t want to be rude to people, but at the same token, you can’t tell people what you’re really doing down there. You don’t know who your friends are and who your enemies are.
Did you ever have a moment where the pressure felt like too much? When you wanted to give up, go back to the United States, and work a job with a little less danger and intensity?
Javier Peña: I wanted to give up. Every day was something new, and I started to get so tired. There were the car bombs. That to me was always my biggest fear: the car bombs, being at the wrong time at the wrong place. I remember one going off at a restaurant, and I was 6-7 blocks away. There were a couple that I saw and heard.
Steve Murphy: You hate to admit it, but there were times you’d want to quit. But you’d see your Colombian police friends getting killed, and it would renew your resolve. The Colombian National Police had their own funeral home. Multiple rooms where they could have caskets with bodies for their wakes, and one funeral one night there were eight Colombian police officers that we’d worked with in coffins there, all killed in a single operation… and that would renew your resolve to get back to work and quit feeling sorry for yourself.
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