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Former DEA agents talk Pablo Escobar and the war on drugs

Retired DEA agent Javier Peña recounts his experience in taking down notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

In front of a packed crowd Monday night at the Ohio Union, retired DEA agents Javier Peña and Steve Murphy recounted their experiences taking down one of the deadliest and most elusive cocaine kingpins in history: Pablo Escobar.

Their investigation and eventual assassination of Escobar was the basis for the first two seasons of the critically acclaimed Netflix original series, “Narcos.”

In a pre-show interview with The Lantern, Murphy and Peña explained that the purpose of their lecture series is to share honest testimony with their audiences.

“We present this as a lesson in history,” Murphy said. “Tonight is about telling you the truth. The purpose of sharing this with young people is because they weren’t around when it happened, and it’s a significant part of world history.”

Escobar ran a cocaine network known as the Medellin cartel in Colombia in the 1980s. Once the cartel expanded cocaine trafficking to Miami, the U.S. government became involved in what is commonly known as the “War on Drugs.”

Essentially, Peña and Murphy were sent to Colombia as DEA agents assigned to disassemble the Medellin cartel and take down Escobar, in cooperation with the Colombian National Police.

“Our philosophy was that when you go after an organization, you have to go after everybody in it,” Peña said. “In other words, you have to dismantle the organization, not just one person.”

Murphy also explained that the phrase “war on drugs” is a misnomer, because in an actual war, governments commit serious amounts of personnel and resources to fighting a war.

“We were fighting a ‘war on drugs’ against the biggest cocaine dealer, the world’s first narco-terrorist, the world’s most wanted criminal, and what did they send? They sent the two of us,” Murphy said. “It was more of a joke. Since we’ve retired, we’ve re-examined the situation. We still need the enforcement element, but we cannot arrest our way out of this problem. We cannot put enough people in jail to stop narcotics trafficking. There’s just too great a demand.”

Time Magazine estimated Escobar’s net worth to be $30 billion, making him the seventh-richest man in the world in 1989.

The lecture covered the history of Escobar and his family, the violence perpetrated by the Medellin cartel in Columbia, smuggling tactics used by the cartels, the prison he built for himself and his compatriots, and his eventual downfall.

“We never met him, but he knew us by name,” Murphy said. “He put a $300,000 bounty on our heads.”

Peña said Escobar was directly or indirectly responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths, with a high estimate by one of Escobar’s bodyguards being 50,000.

“This is an important lesson in history,” Peña said. “We need to remember the innocent people who lost their lives for being at the wrong place at the wrong times. This stuff really happened. Some people think it’s make-believe, but the atrocities, the violence really occurred.”

Escobar was killed while trying to escape a raid by the DEA in December 1993. The murder rate in Medellin dropped 80 percent after Escobar’s death.

“Maybe this sounds too humble, but we just never imagined anyone would want to hear this story,” Murphy said.

The third season of “Narcos” was released on Netflix on Aug. 28, and the fourth season is already in the works.

“Here’s a little tidbit for your paper,” Murphy said. “If you go back and watch Season One, Episode 10, as Boyd Holbrook stops in his Ford Bronco to let people walk across the street, those are my real daughters. That’s never been published anywhere, so now you have an exclusive for your Ohio State newspaper.”

More information about Peña, Murphy and their worldwide lecture series can be found on www.deanarcos.com.

One comment

  1. One would think that the author of this story would have learned the correct spelling of ” Colombia ” at some point during research.

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