In the acclaimed series Narcos, DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) narrates how he and his partner, Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) waged a years-long campaign against drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), with all the attendant grimy glamour, gunfights, danger and excitement you could want. Except, of course, it wasn’t quite like that.
“There’s a lot of Hollywood in there,” the real Steve Murphy says down the line from his home in the United States. Now in his early 60s and retired from the DEA, he runs a law enforcement consulting business and, along with Peña, is a regular fixture on the speaking circuit, where they regale eager audiences with their personal reminiscences on the war against the world’s biggest drug dealer.
And now they’ve co-authored a book together: Manhunters: How We Took Down Pablo Escobar, which offers a more sober account of the Escobar case. And while it might lack the frenetic, freewheeling energy of Narcos, its plainspoken authenticity lends it a certain weight; stripped of the need package the truth into hour-long chunks of propulsive narrative, these, ma’am, are the facts.
What’s funny to the two retired lawmen is that anyone would want to hear their account at all. To them, Escobar was just another case. “When they first called us about doing Narcos we turned it down,” Murphy says. “We thought it was gonna be a big flop – which tells you what we know about Hollywood.”
And even now, following on from the success of the series, it was hearing people’s wrongheaded assumptions while lecturing that drove Murphy and Peña to the word processor. “It’s amazing how many people believe that what they saw in the Narcos series is a hundred percent true. It’s nowhere near a hundred percent.”
Peña, the more soft-spoken of the two, agrees. “The biggest misconception is that, when it comes to Pablo Escobar, people think he was kind of a Robin Hood figure, but he wasn’t. He’s the inventor of narcoterrorism - he killed thousands of innocent people.”
“There’s a lot of shows out there that glorify people like Pablo Escobar,” Murphy continues. “That lifestyle, they think he’s a tough guy, he gets to kill people, take their money. There’s nothing about him that people should look up to; he’s responsible for the murders of tens of thousands of innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that doesn’t include police officers or his rival drug dealers.”
To help avoid that, the Narcos production team, led by creators Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro, not only paid for the pair for their story, they brought them on board as consultants, flying them out to Los Angeles for two weeks to grill them on the nitty gritty of cartel investigation. “They wanted to know our daily routines and occurrences, how we dressed as cops, what sidearms we carried.” Peña recalls. “How we lived and out day to day work as DEA agents. Sometimes we’d get a call while they were filming.”
“And this is how little we knew about Hollywood,” Murphy adds. “We thought, heck, we’d be on set while they were filming, and they’d ask us for advice. We thought we were gonna be down in Colombia during the whole filming process. Turns out, like Javier said, we went out to Hollywood, and then everything else was done by telephone and email.”
“I’ll tell you one thing I did like was that the whole show was filmed in Colombia.” Peña muses.
The pair also got to spend some time with their on-screen counterparts, putting Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal through their paces at a DEA training facility. As Peña explains, “We spent about a week with them and they learned DEA practices, undercover work, surveillance, so they had a first-hand knowledge of how to portray the role of a DEA agent. Which is not the same as being a regular cop – in our role, we are special agents who investigate narcotics organisations, so they were able to appreciate and learn the role of a DEA agent. And you know, at the Academy they push ‘em hard, they get ‘em up early, they run ‘em through exercises, and they never gave up – they never said, ‘Hey, we’re just actors.’”\
For Murphy’s part, he was impressed with the dedication of British actor Joanna Christie, who plays his wife Connie on the show. “She even took the time to come to our house and spend a few days with my wife so she could learn her accent and learn her mannerisms. I think it was kind of shocking to us the lengths that these professional actors will go to, to try and make it as accurate as they possibly can.”
These days, Pena and Murphy keep themselves busy with their public speaking engagements, as documented on their official website, and are also acting as lead investigators on a documentary project, The Hunt for the Lost Clipper, which seeks to solve what many believe to be the world’s first air hijacking. Still it seems safe to say that the Escobar case is what they’ll be remembered for, which is something they never even considered at the time.
“When we were working the case, no one ever thought it would be publicised.” Peña reflects.
Season one of Narcos recently aired on SBS VICELAND and SBS On Demand, which still has episodes 6-10.
Also on SBS On Demand is the movie Loving Pablo, about the volatile love affair between Pablo Escobar and journalist Virginia Vallejo - portrayed rather differently in Narcos.