Catching Pablo Escobar: DEA’s Steve Murphy Addresses Crime Commission

Catching Pablo Escobar: DEA’s Steve Murphy Addresses Crime Commission

Netflix’s successful original series Narcos has once again brought Loudoun County resident Steve Murphy’s story into the spotlight. Murphy, one of the two agents who spearheaded the investigation of Pablo Escobar and the famed Medellín drug cartel, spoke to the Loudoun Crime Commission Nov. 11, sharing his experience on the ingenuity and violence surrounding Escobar.

“His ego would not fit in this room,” Murphy said. “He wanted everyone bound to his will. If he told you to do something and you said no, he didn’t get upset, he would just have you killed. That took care of the problem.”

Though the show did take some artistic license — like when you see Murphy chasing a drug dealer in Miami in 1979 in the show, in reality Murphy was a uniformed police officer in Bluefield, West Virginia in 1979 — the violence was very real, Murphy said.

Murphy arrived in Colombia in June 1991. His partner, agent Javier Peña, had been there since 1989 and was earning the respect of local law enforcement.

At the time, Escobar’s cartel had been active around 19 years. Escobar had been named one of the ten most powerful people in the world by Forbes magazine every year from 1987 to 1991, and was also among the world’s richest people with a net worth of $30 billion.

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DEA Agent Steve Murphy at the scene after narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar was gunned down.

The Medellín cartel had built an empire in part because of it’s pragmatic, and relentless, smuggling methods. Murphy said among the many ways the operation would smuggle drugs out of Colombia was in soda cans, inside heavy machinery, produce or people.

Sometimes smugglers would fly planes into shallow water in the Caribbean Sea where members of the cartel would be waiting with a boat. Then the pilots would get in the boats with the cocaine and leave the plane in the sea. It was not unusual for the cartel to use planes or submarines once and then abandon them at sea, Murphy said. Though they could cost upwards of $1 million, that was nothing compared to the millions brought in by the cocaine.

When people got in Escobar’s way, he’d resort to violence, Murphy said. In 1989, Escobar arranged the assassination of popular Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, who had campaigned on a pro-extradition platform of sending narcos to the United States. Escobar subsequently arranged for the bombing of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), Columbia’s equivalent of the FBI, to destroy evidence against himself, Murphy said.

Murphy shared a picture of a DEA informant Escobar caught. Escobar had the informant tortured, parts of his body cut off, and then burned him alive, Murphy said.

Shootings and bombings were rampant while Escobar was at the height of his power. Escobar was responsible for 15,000 to 20,000 murders, Murphy said. Escobar also had assassins, known as sicarios, working for him. Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, a sicario better known as “Popeye”, confessed to murdering 300 people and helping to arrange the murder of 3,000 more, Murphy said.

By 1991, Colombia was experiencing constant bombings directed by Escobar. Under the direction of attorney general Gustavo de Greiff, the nation’s government did away with extradition and made a deal where a criminal could confess to one felony and would automatically be absolved of all other crimes, Murphy said. The government did this in hopes that Escobar would surrender. He did — but not before naming some conditions.

Escobar surrendered on the condition that he would build his own prison, pay and pick the guards, pick his fellow prisoners, and as long as he was in prison, Colombian government officials were not allowed to come within two miles of the prison. The Colombian government agreed and Escobar got what was known as the “deal of a lifetime.”

The prison was known as “La Catedral” or “the cathedral.” It sported an anti-aircraft gun, cells that were two room suites, bathrooms with jacuzzis and walk-in closets, Murphy said. Escobar was in jail for a year before escaping.

lcc-lunchean-nov-2016-smWhile Escobar was in prison serving his five year sentence, the DEA and Colombian forces turned its attention to other high ranking members of the Medellín cartel. Although wiretaps were illegal in Colombia, the DEA got around that by calling them “intel wires,” he said. The DEA was able to arrest Dandeny Muñoz Mosquera, a sicario known as “La Quica” by using wiretaps.

“We tapped his mom’s phone because everyone calls their mother,” Murphy said.

La Quica surprised everyone by being in the United States. He was apprehended and is serving a life sentence in a California prison on a conspiracy charge surrounding the bombing of Avianca Flight 203. To this day, no one in U.S. law enforcement knows for sure why La Quica was in the United States.

Other high ranking members like Gustavo Gaviria, Escobar’s cousin, and José Gonzalo Gacha, were killed when officials tried to apprehend them, Murphy said. Gacha was killed from a helicopter, just like in the show, Murphy said. The only difference is that in real life, Gacha was throwing grenades too.

While Escobar was in prison, he was still running the cartel. He imposed a war tax on his partners and claimed half of all profits while incarcerated since he was taking the heat for the criminal enterprise. Two people were killed inside the prison for making a mistake that cost Escobar millions of dollars. The United States went to the president of Colombia to do something and the president agreed to move Escobar to a real prison, Murphy said. But everything did not go as planned.

When the deputy minister of justice arrived at the prison to move Escobar, he was taken hostage. The Colombian equivalent of the Special Forces went to rescue him and Escobar escaped. The DEA, Delta Team and Seal Team Six helped the Colombian forces search for and locate Escobar. Sometimes Colombian citizens didn’t want to talk to Colombian police because they were afraid of corruption, so they would ask for Murphy or his partner.

A vigilante group that fought against Escobar’s cartel called Los Pepes, also rose up and killed many cartel associates, Murphy said. Murphy and Peña even worked with some members and leaders of Los Pepes without knowing it at the time. Some information they got from informants also helped in the fight against the Cali cartel, which was rising in the wake of the Medellín cartel.

It was ultimately the Colombian police who found and killed Escobar on Dec. 2, 1993 when he fought back when Colombian forces tried to apprehend him. Unlike how it was depicted in Narcos, there were no Americans on site when Escobar died, Murphy said, adamantly, but he did go to the site in the aftermath.

Murphy took a picture with Colombian officers and Escobar’s body. He’s gotten criticisms for smiling, but he said everybody in the photo was smiling because they knew that effective immediately, everyone in Colombia was safe.

“That night when we got back to the base, we expected retaliation. We tripled the guards, everyone had their gun on them (but) it was the quietest night we ever spent in Medellín,” Murphy said.

The murder rate in Medellín, which had become the murder capital in 1992, plummeted 80 percent a couple months after Escobar died.

As the story of Pablo Escobar gets retold, Murphy said one thing that bothers him is the “Robin Hood” and dedicated family man persona the press gave Escobar. There were weekends Murphy would return to Medellín to find out there had been 300 murders sanctioned by Escobar. Escobar killed for whoever he felt like killing and was not concerned with collateral damage in the form of innocent people, Murphy said.

Murphy was also adamant that he is not the hero in this story. Though he is honored that people consider him one, he said that he and Peña both felt like they were just doing their jobs.

“The true heroes of this whole thing were the Colombian National Police because those guys, the operations they did, I knew that at the end of my tour, I’d get to go back to the United States … Colombian National Police didn’t have that option,” Murphy said. “That’s home. They were still facing the dangers, their families were still facing the danger.”