Episode 8



Hayley Atwell tells the story of the capture of Pablo Escobar, with the DEA agents who helped bring him down and inspired the TV show Narcos. Steve Murphy and Javier Peña found themselves in Colombia on the trail of the notorious drug lord - two gringos with a price on their heads.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 8: True Narcos

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

JAVIER PEÑA: This is vengeance. I mean, it's human nature. It's that revenge.

STEVE MURPHY: I can't tell you how many of our friends we saw killed and the operations that went on out there.

JAVIER PEÑA: This was personal. 

NARRATOR: This is True Spies Episode 8: True Narcos.

JAVIER PEÑA: My name is Javier Peña and I've worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration for 30 years.

STEVE MURPHY: Hi, my name is Steve Murphy. I'm a retired DEA special agent. I worked for the DEA from 1987 and retired in 2013. Prior to that, was a police officer for about 12 years.

NARRATOR: Keen True Spies listeners will have immediately noticed a couple of things that are different about this week’s guides. Number one, yes, there’s two of them, partners. And number two, they’re not spies, strictly speaking. But these two agents used classic spy skills in tracking down their legendary prey.

JAVIER PEÑA: My partner and I, Steve, worked on the search for the infamous narco trafficker, Pablo Escobar.

STEVE MURPHY: We use the terminology: "You want to cut the head off the snake." Well, in this particular case, not only did we cut the head off, we chopped up the snake.

NARRATOR: Here’s the debrief. It’s the late 1980s and Colombia - a beautiful country bridging Central and South America - is in the grip of narco-terrorism. At the height of its operations, the Medellín cartel, run by Pablo Escobar, is smuggling tons of cocaine into countries all over the world - Bringing in $60m US dollars a day in profits. In retaliation for the Colombian government’s attempt to extradite the drug traffickers to the US, the cartel has declared war on the government and the police. The picturesque city of Medellín has become a battle zone. There are, on average, 20 homicides a day. There are so many people shot that the city runs out of ambulances. Taxis and private vehicles often come to a screeching halt outside the public hospital’s emergency entrance, the wounded lying on the back seats, which are often soaked in blood. As the resolve to bring Escobar to justice stiffens, the cartel mounts a campaign of car bombings, and hundreds of innocent people are murdered. This is the scene, young, ambitious DEA agent Javier Peña walks into in 1988 having drawn the short straw.

JAVIER PEÑA: I didn't want to go to Colombia. I wanted to go to Mexico. I had to go look on the map to see where Colombia was and I'm there for about a month where they said: "Hey, Pena, you're going to be working on the Pablo Escobar case?" I said: "Who is Pablo Escobar?" I knew the name but didn't really know much about him. But then after a while... Wow. I knew who Pablo Escobar was.

NARRATOR: Escobar is responsible at this time for 80 percent of the world’s cocaine supply. And the world's biggest consumer of cocaine? You guessed it, the United States of America. Colombian cops want Escobar for the violence he’s brought to the streets of Medellín, and the DEA wants him for the violence he’s exported to Miami where the US government is fighting its own war with the cartel.

STEVE MURPHY: With the DEA, we go after the biggest traffickers. You're not looking for low-level dealers. You're looking for what we call ‘climbing the ladder’. So if you do arrest somebody, you're looking to maybe flip them into becoming an informant, gleaning all the information that they have available. And then you want to keep going up that ladder so that when you take out an organization, you're not just taking out the people at the lowest level. You want to take out the entire organization.

NARRATOR: You want to chop the head off the snake. And Pablo Escobar was one deadly viper. Still, there are perks to hunting notorious drug dealers, as Javier quickly found out 

JAVIER PEÑA: It was 25 percent for danger pay and 25 percent for hazardous pay. So it was basically 50 percent above your salary. The danger pay is because of the car bombs, the assassinations that Pablo Escobar had paid for.

NARRATOR: And the bounty on their heads, of course, as agent Steve Murphy realized when he arrived.

STEVE MURPHY: There was a price tag on DEA agents’ heads, placed there by Pablo Escobar. It was $300,000 back in - I got there in 1991, so I don't know what that equates to in today's money.

NARRATOR: For two agents about $1m, give or take.

JAVIER PEÑA: Whereas hazardous pay, you're working in a different environment. It's not a safe environment. It was a no ‘kid post’.

NARRATOR: This was made abundantly clear the first time Javier visited the snake’s nest, Medellín. A team of Colombian police officers, dedicated solely to catching Escobar, were based there 24/7. Javier was met at the airport by a convoy of three armored vehicles.

JAVIER PEÑA: I said: "Hey, I'm Javier." "Hey, come on in." So I got into the back seat. I'm beginning to know these guys. One of the guys says: "Javier, you got a gun?" I said: "Yeah." He said: "Pull it out." Sort of, like, yelling at me: "Pull it out, man. This is the way we drive around Medellín, where you put your gun on your chest." He says: "Look at all those motorcycles, a lot of them are Pablo Escobar sicarios and once they find out who you are they're going to try to kill you. I'd never had done that, drive around with your gun on your chest... I mean, it was just an eerie feeling. 

NARRATOR: Sicarios. Hired killers. Thugs. But also often young men living in the city’s shantytowns who were promised an escape from extreme poverty in return for a life expectancy of just 22 years. Riding around two to a motorbike looking for cops to slaughter. Colombia was an interesting overseas posting for a husband and wife to pick.

STEVE MURPHY: Life in Miami had been very, very exciting being a DEA agent. And you know, quite honestly, I was looking for more excitement. Boy, I didn't realize what I was getting into in Colombia, though. It was somewhat of an eye-opener, but my wife being there, she's a tough girl. She's much tougher than I've ever been in my life. It was actually her idea too. What's the next most exciting thing we can do after Miami? 

NARRATOR: Go to the source, I suppose.

STEVE MURPHY: If you're going to take out an organization, you need to go to the origins where the cocaine is coming from.

NARRATOR: But taking out the organization looked remarkably like a fait accompli when Steve arrived in Colombia three years after Javier.

STEVE MURPHY: I arrived in Bogota in June 1991 and, three days later, Pablo Escobar surrendered to his custom-built prison.

NARRATOR: Pablo Escobar, DEA case number TKO 558 ZE-88-0008 is, in June 1991, on the run and in hiding. And the first major manhunt mounted by the National Police of Colombia to capture him is about to end in victory... for Escobar. Drug dealer one. Police zero. Escobar’s campaign of terror and bribery backed Colombia’s president into an impossible corner. Having either bribed or executed the government officials trying to extradite him and his henchmen, the Colombian Congress has voted to ban extradition entirely and, surprisingly, Escobar volunteered to come in from the cold and surrender. But he negotiates his own deal. And the deal is he gets to live in a prison of his choosing. And what a prison. This was a ranch-like complex nicknamed ‘The Cathedral’. It includes a pool, jacuzzi, and a football field. Escobar has a five-star cell with his own private bathroom and the whole place is fitted with hi-tech security designed not only to keep Escobar from escaping, but also to keep him safe from his enemies. He even turns up for his incarceration with his own security detail for protection. It was, you might say, a joke. And the feeling in the law enforcement community is that the president has caved in to terrorism.

STEVE MURPHY: There was nothing punitive about his prison whatsoever. And then you learn all about all the details, and what a joke that plea agreement was. And then very quickly, you understand why these guys were upset that Pablo Escobar surrendered. They'd seen hundreds of their fellow police officers, Colombian National Police officers, that were killed there, innocent citizens being killed by Pablo and his henchmen.

NARRATOR: It’s Steve and Javier’s job to find out what Pablo is up to inside his luxury jail. 

STEVE MURPHY: That was our sole responsibility.

NARRATOR: And it’s hardly life on the chain gang.

STEVE MURPHY: That first year, while Pablo was in prison, he rebuilt his power base. He rebuilt his finances from the drug trafficking business. He got his organization back in order. So the car bombings stopped for a while for that year, but Pablo's violence did not stop. He still imposed his violent will on anybody that he felt crossed him.

NARRATOR: Everything had changed. Nothing had changed. Cocaine was still flowing out of the country. Pablo Escobar had taken on the Colombian government and won. And then, barely even a year into his self-orchestrated sentence, power, and greed got the better of him and he murdered two of his business associates inside his private prison. Feeling they couldn’t let this slide, the government sent in officials to investigate, who were then taken hostage. Hundreds of Colombian troops swarmed the premises to rescue them and Pablo Escobar escaped with a handful of other inmates through a conveniently placed tunnel.

STEVE MURPHY: Well, the very next day is when Javier and I moved from Bogota to Medellín.

NARRATOR: That’s where the next scene starts. But let’s zoom out of Colombia and Medellín for a bit and focus on our DEA agents, Javier and Steve. How did they end up here? 

JAVIER PEÑA: I was a deputy sheriff in Laredo, Texas. I was there for about seven years. And I started working in 1977, and I was - toward the end - getting my college degree. I was working the night shift. And I just saw a posting that says that the DEA was hiring.

NARRATOR: Unlike some of our CIA or FBI spies, Steve and Javier are not middle-class Americans. They haven’t followed family footsteps made by previous generations of prestigious military service. It’s not pre-ordained that they will serve their country. They’re just normal Americans. Javier’s father is a cowboy. Steve’s family are strict Baptists. Both start out as small-town cops searching for excitement beyond their state borders.

JAVIER PEÑA: The thing that was attractive with the DEA was the pay. I was making about $10,000 a year, and I had just gotten my degree, so I was looking to better myself. And the DEA was paying $17,000 a year, which is quite a huge bonus. And someone told me: "If you join the DEA, you're going to see the world." And that's what I wanted to do.

STEVE MURPHY: While I was a railroad cop, one of the other detectives had been a former Virginia state trooper that had worked with the DEA on the task force. And I just thought that was really exciting. And this is what really sealed it for me, when I went to the DEA, the most powder cocaine I had ever seen at one time was two ounces. The first undercover case I worked on at DEA we went to the Turks and Caicos islands from Miami and picked up 400 kilograms. So I went from two ounces to 880 pounds of cocaine. To be quite honest with you, I'd never even heard of the Turks and Caicos islands at that time. I didn't know where they were. I had an addiction, but it was the opposite of being addicted to cocaine. I was addicted to being a DEA agent.

NARRATOR: Steve’s first posting as a DEA agent was Miami, the entry point for the majority of cocaine coming into the country from Colombia.

STEVE MURPHY: This sounds silly, but I'd been watching the show Miami Vice and you tend to think some of the things that you see on TV might be true.

NARRATOR: Steve had dreams of being the new Sonny Crockett, driving around in a Ferrari Daytona Spyder, catching ‘bad guys’.

STEVE MURPHY: Nothing was further from the truth, but it was extremely exciting. 

NARRATOR: DEA agents work the streets. They’re used to getting their hands dirty, used to having guns to their heads. It comes with the territory.

STEVE MURPHY: It's not just a job. It's actually a lifestyle. It impacts every area of your life if you're out making successful cases - and that means you're placing yourself in danger, whether you're working undercover, doing surveillance, whatever it might be - but also making sacrifices on your family because it's very time-intensive. It's absolutely not a 40-hour a week, 9 am - 5 pm type job. You have to be available when the drug traffickers are out there. Typically, drug dealers like to party at night time. So there are lots of times when you might be out all night.

NARRATOR: Better work on that coffee habit, then. Your job as a DEA agent is to develop informants who will help you climb that ladder to the top of the trafficking organization. Informants who are, let’s remember, first and foremost criminals.

JAVIER PEÑA: Some of the informants will try to lie to you. They'll try to use you.

STEVE MURPHY: And you have to determine what their motive is for doing that. Are they really drug traffickers? Do they really have the information? Are they trying to take out the competition? Are they just trying to lie to us to throw us off of somebody else's trail? There's a lot of different motives why someone would want to be an informant. But once you find someone like that they can make introductions for you. We're actors, you play the part.

NARRATOR: Your informant made the introduction. It’s now up to you to convince the next guy on the rung that you mean business. 

STEVE MURPHY: What we put out on the street through our informant, is that we had access to planes and boats, and we were willing to transport anything, anytime, anywhere for a fee. Well, once the word gets out through the criminal community, you start getting phone calls: “Hey, I've got 400 kilos of cocaine I need to transport from the Guajira Peninsula of Colombia to South Florida.” Or: “Do you have a plane? Do you have a boat available? I've got a load in Haiti that I need to bring into the Florida Keys.”

NARRATOR: And sometimes that means playing it as close to straight as possible.

STEVE MURPHY: Well, I was actually Steve Mitchell. That was my undercover name. I'm a white guy. I have an English-Irish background. I'm very light-skinned. I have light-colored eyes. I didn't have the dark-reddy skin like somebody from South Florida would have. And another key, I mean, I always use my first name because that way, if somebody calls you by your first name, you're going to turn - whether you're undercover or not - it's something you have to be aware of.

NARRATOR: It’s important to be aware of your vulnerabilities, and it’s equally important to know your edge.

JAVIER PEÑA: Street awareness in any law enforcement job is critical. It's something that they try to train you on, however, when you go out on the streets, a lot of it comes out at that level... Street smart you can't teach it. They try to, but it's something that's innate in all of us. It's that common-sense factor.

NARRATOR: Back when Javier was a cop in Laredo, Texas he used to hop across the Rio Grande to hang out in the seedy bars and strip joints on the Mexican side of the border. It was a habit he continued when he became a DEA agent in the state capital, Austin. He had a sense that’s where he’d pick up the best intel. 

JAVIER PEÑA: Some of my best cases were made hanging out at bars, which I shouldn't have been doing in the official capacity.

NARRATOR: Then again, hanging out in seedy bars might just have saved his life.

JAVIER PEÑA: I remember walking into a hotel room undercover, which we shouldn't have been doing. Nowadays that's not safe to do. It's Friday afternoon. Everyone wants to go home. Let's get this deal done right away. It's a simple buy-bust. You go in, a guy's got the heroin, and we're going to arrest him. So, make sure you do it quickly because we all want to get out of here. It's Friday afternoon. No problem. I walk in. The first thing that the crook does is put a gun to my head and says: "If you're a cop, you're the first one I'm going to get killed.”

NARRATOR: Freeze frame. You’ve broken the rules. You've rushed a deal. And you’ve forgotten the first rule of undercover work: don’t be complacent. And now there’s a twitchy drug dealer with a gun to your head. This scenario didn’t come up in training. What are you going to do? Rewind the last three minutes at double speed. There, that’s it. You’ve got it.

JAVIER PEÑA: I noticed he was a Mexican from Mexico. So he's mentioned something about Nuevo Laredo, which is right across Laredo and my street mode goes into effect. Now I start naming off some of the seedy bars, which I'm not proud of, that I used to hang out in Nuevo Laredo and, wow, he recognized the names. And, all of a sudden, I could see that gleam in his eye. He puts the gun down. He tells the other crook: "Hey, he's not a cop man. He hangs out at all these bars I hang out at." He started hugging me and obviously, later on, once he relaxed, I got the jump on him and I arrested him.

NARRATOR: Well done. A close call. It sounds exciting, right? Pretending to be the bad guys, negotiating drug deals, turning suspects into informants. But could you keep your wits about you with a gun to your head? What about when it’s pointed at your partner?

STEVE MURPHY: We have the ability to focus on a mission and to stay focused on that mission. Even when you become discouraged and you're seeing friends being killed, you still have to maintain your focus and do what's right. You have to have unquestionable integrity because if you're caught lying, you've just given up your integrity and you can no longer testify in court. You have to be forward-thinking. You can't just look at what's in front of you and think: “Okay, if I take this guy down, he's out of the way.” Well, you have to think: “All right, how's that going to impact? What's to be gained by arresting this person? If we arrest him now or if we leave him out for a little while longer, does he pose a danger to the community?” So, you have to use a lot of common sense, but at the same time, you have to be strongly aware of what your responsibilities are. Not only to your agency and brother and sister agents but also to the public. Because as a DEA agent, you're nothing more than a public service servant.

NARRATOR: And in Colombia, not only are you public servants, but you’re there as guests of the Colombian National Police. They hold the keys to your success. Where were we? Ah, yes. Cut to July 22, 1992. Steve and Javier are now partners, and Pablo Escobar has just escaped from his luxury prison.

STEVE MURPHY: Well, the very next day is when Javier and I moved from Bogota to Medellín.

NARRATOR: To the Holguin police headquarters to be exact, the compound in Medellín where The Search Bloc is based. They’re a group of Colombian police who exist solely to get Pablo.

STEVE MURPHY: And the truth is, it was well known that the Colombian National Police were not there to seize money. They were not there to seize drugs. They were there to find, capture, kill, if necessary, Pablo Escobar. That was our mission.

JAVIER PEÑA: Our boss, Colonel Hugo Martinez, who's a real hero in Colombia, Pablo Escobar hated Colonel Martinez. I would see the letters that Escobar would write to Martinez. I mean, it got to the point where the Colonel had to hide his family. It was just a very bloody personal war between Pablo Escobar and The Search Bloc. It was very risky to be at The Search Bloc. Escobar knew who Steve and I were. He mentioned our names in some intercepts and we were the only two DEA guys at The Search Bloc. So everybody knew who Steve and I were, the neighborhood people, all the cops.

NARRATOR: The first rule of a manhunt is to know your target inside out. Get inside their head.

JAVIER PEÑA: When you're going after someone, you have to learn everything about that person, his family, their family, their friends, associates, anything that's going to help you broaden that investigation.

STEVE MURPHY: Javier won't tell you this, but he has a mind like an encyclopedia. I've never met anybody like him that has the recall at a moment's notice of organizations, the membership, who's responsible for what, what's the relationship, who the family members are, the locations they're associated with.

NARRATOR: And the second? Make friends and influence people. You’re the only gringos around, so if you’re going to get anywhere you need the Colombian cops on your side.

JAVIER PEÑA: I mean, as a matter of fact, he hasn't said it, but his nickname was ‘Stick’ because they couldn't pronounce Steve in Medellín. So he was known as a Stick, but he got along with people, and part of our job in Medellín was getting along with our cops, them trusting us, we trusted them. Then all of a sudden we were a team. We considered the Colombian national police our true partners. They were the ones who had the information. They were the ones that were getting their guys killed by Pablo Escobar. They were the ones that were working day and night, on weekends, to go after Pablo Escobar. So you develop that trust.

NARRATOR: Within The Search Bloc there was trust. But outside, where they had prices on their heads? Anything was possible.

STEVE MURPHY: My wife and I were on our way home from the embassy one night, and I had a suit on. She had her dress and heels on. And we took some back streets to get home. In Bogota, it was just terrible all the time. And as we're on the backside of this military base, this small car starts to run a red light and pulls out in front of us.

NARRATOR: You beep your horn. You’re American and you’re a former cop. You expect a certain traffic etiquette, even in Bogota. But, a couple of miles down the road, you spot the same small car and it’s blocked you in.

STEVE MURPHY: And these three guys get out. Now, this is when Javier and I were living in Medellín. I'd come home for a couple of days. We knew that Pablo had sicarios out looking for us. We felt like we were wanted men. And here come three guys, and they're coming over to the driver's door, and they're trying to get me to open the door and get out.

NARRATOR: You’re driving a vehicle more akin to a tank than a car and you’re an experienced agent who’s had more than a few guns pointed in his direction, but still…

STEVE MURPHY: Well, they can't get to me because of all the steel plating and the bulletproof glass. But when they would raise their arms, giving me gestures and so forth, you could see their pistols in their waist belts, inside their waistband there.

NARRATOR: You’re trapped. It’s nighttime in... where is it, then? One of the most dangerous places on the earth. And you're wanted by no less than Pablo Escobar. What’s running through your head?

STEVE MURPHY: You're thinking when you get out of the car that you need to remember to lock the door and slam it behind you because if you lose, now they can't get access to your wife. She did not have a weapon with her. But you're also looking at angles and you're assessing these guys by their mannerisms. Who's going to react the quickest? Which one are you going to go after first? It sounds like something you'd see on a TV show, but these thoughts actually do go through your mind because you want to survive.

NARRATOR: What are you going to do? Confront them? Drive through them? That’s right, stay calm, play it cool, and call for backup.

STEVE MURPHY: So I got on the radio and tried to call the embassy. They never answered. One of the agents at home - this guy's wife heard us on the walkie-talkie - because in each of our apartments, we had radios in there that we could talk to each other. She came up on the radio and she's like: "Hey, is everything okay? You want me to call your boss?" And I said: "Sure, call him." He said: "Well listen. Do you want me to bring Margarita with me?" 

NARRATOR: If you’re thinking, now is really not the time for a social with the wife, that’s not quite what he meant.

STEVE MURPHY: That was our code word for a mini-Uzi machine gun. I said: "Yeah, these guys are armed. So bring her." So when my boss got there, I had him move into a position where he flanked them. They had no idea who he was and the goal was that we were just going to get out and confront them. If they pulled their weapons, we'd have them in the crossfire, and unfortunately, somebody was going to get killed. That's not what we wanted to happen at all.

NARRATOR: Finally the Colombian police arrived and settled the dispute. It turned out it was a simple matter of road rage. The three young men - members of the Colombian Army - enraged because a gringo had blown his horn at them.

STEVE MURPHY: But I didn't know they were military. I don't know who they were. In my mind, I'm thinking: “I'm working with The Search Bloc in Medellín, these are probably three sicarios. 

NARRATOR: And in a fight between an Uzi and three guys with pistols, I’d put my money on Margarita, wouldn’t you? But it’s getting on, and you want to know about Pablo, don’t you? Well, it turns out that nobody has a clue where he is.

JAVIER PEÑA: We knew something was wrong. We just could not figure out the frequency. We could not figure it out and we had the best technology systems out there.

NARRATOR: The signal has gone cold. The drug deals continue. The killing hardly abates. They know he’s on the run. He knows it’s only a matter of time before they track him down, so he tries through his son Juan Pablo, to negotiate another surrender. This time through Colombia’s Attorney General.

JAVIER PEÑA: And I became friends with the assistant working in Medellín, Columbia. He was dealing with Juan Pablo. So, one day, he's out with Juan Pablo and he notices a radio. He notices that the kid is talking to his father. So he goes up and he memorizes that frequency. Wow. He passes it. All of a sudden, I get that frequency and we pass it to all the intel agencies. CIA, we pass it to them. And then all of a sudden we're intercepting Pablo Escobar. We knew Pablo Escobar's voice. We didn't have to get any analysis.

NARRATOR: After six months of silence, they’re listening in to the notorious murderer, a man who has killed their friends and colleagues. A man who has terrorized Colombia for over a decade. A man in hiding who is grooming his son to take over the family business.

JAVIER PEÑA: And it was always about 5 pm that Pablo and his son would talk every day.

NARRATOR: The narcs are now eavesdropping but it comes at a heavy cost.

JAVIER PEÑA: That attorney’s assistant who received it, who copied it, later on was killed in Medellín because he's the one who gave us that frequency.

NARRATOR: And that’s why it's personal. The hunt for him intensifies. All available resources are going into catching him. They’ve got wire rooms in both the Search Bloc in Medellín and the embassy at Bogota, and the intercepts are generating leads that Javier and Steve are following up. Fifty phone lines used by the biggest traffickers in the country are being tapped to facilitate raids, to seize funds, to turn allies into informants. 

STEVE MURPHY: There was a recessed bookcase built into the wall. You would reach up inside the inside lip of the bookcase, and there was a hidden switch. When you turned it, it would release the mechanisms holding the bookcase in place. And it swung out into the room, like a door, and then you'd step through the wall there. That's where these wire rooms were located. Of course, there were other exits out of the wire rooms in case there was an emergency and so forth but I just... When I first saw that, I'm thinking: "Wow, this is really like ‘I Spy’ kind of stuff." I'd never seen anything like that.

NARRATOR: In the eight months since Escobar’s escape, 136 police officers have been killed in the line of duty by Escobar’s hitmen. The death tolls throughout the country have also increased. Colombia sees its deadliest year, with nearly 29,000 homicides, compared to 25,000 for the previous year. In Medellín and Bogotá, 112 civilians have died from random car bomb attacks, 427 injured. But Escobar’s world is shrinking. In a classified report prepared by Javier and Steve in March 1993, they note that: ‘Escobar is worried and under extreme pressure due to the police’s constant everyday operations aimed at arresting him.’ They are targeting his accountants, lawyers, and financiers as well as his sicarios. Authorities seize more than $14m of the drug dealer’s assets. A total of 25 of Escobar’s loyal hitmen are wiped out, 95 others are arrested, and 22 voluntarily surrender. Colombians are tired of the violence, tired of living in fear, and so the tips are flooding into the 1-800 line our agents have established.

JAVIER PEÑA: Working with the US State Department, we were able to offer a $5m reward - $5m US cash, not Colombian pesos - which resulted in tons of people calling in with tips or potential leads. And the thing was, they wanted to talk to the gringos. They didn't want to talk to the Colombian National Police because they felt there might've been a certain level of potential corruption there.

NARRATOR: Which is how Javier wound up dancing with the girl in the red dress, taking out a dangerous sicario.

JAVIER PEÑA: It was a Saturday night. It was my informant and she would not talk to any police officers. She would only give me the information of one of Escobar's sicarios who she had located, who was at this bar dancing. I remember the police said: "Javier, man, we hate to do this to you, but you've got to go, man. You've got to go with us because we are looking for that guy. We need to go get him." So the discotheque, I walk in and it's tons of people. She told me what dress she was wearing. I recognized her. She recognized me. Went up, talked to me. She pointed to me, and the dance floor was crowded.

NARRATOR: The music is loud and pulsating. It’s packed with sweaty bodies. She leads him to the dance floor, gets up close to the target, and indicates with her eyes a skinny teenager locked in an embrace with his dancing partner. 

JAVIER PEÑA: I was able to take my gun out, put it to his head, and all of a sudden he started fighting. So by this time, a couple of guys came in. Police officers helped me. We subdued him.

NARRATOR: Got him. A scene straight out of a movie, or a TV series.

JAVIER PEÑA: And obviously the girl in the red dress got some money out of that.

NARRATOR: And a dance with an undercover DEA agent.

JAVIER PEÑA: And I got to dance with her. Beautiful lady, too.

STEVE MURPHY: Toward late November, early December, Javier and I felt: "You know what? We're really getting close." I mean, there's a lot of good information coming in. We had been through a period of, we weren't getting many leads, we were becoming discouraged. Javier and I would talk about it, just like: "You know what? We'd just rather the guy go ahead and give up. Just let him go back to his custom-built prison. At least the car bombs will stop.” And things like that because we're just not making any headway. But then, we would see our friends who had been out on operations, and several of them were being killed. You'd see their families at the funerals, and it just renewed our resolve to get our focus back on mission, and get back to work, and quit feeling sorry for ourselves.

NARRATOR: But their efforts are beginning to pay off. They have the frequency and they have the technology to pinpoint his location

STEVE MURPHY: I don't know that this is widely known. We don't make a secret of it, but the government of France donated several vans to the government of Colombia. And in these vans, they contained the state-of-the-art equipment that we call radio-directional finding equipment.

NARRATOR: That means triangulation. A frequency comes in and if Escobar stays still long enough, they have his location. But here’s the catch.

STEVE MURPHY: If you're talking about a compressed area within a city environment, it could be several city blocks, large. If they're apartment buildings and so forth, I mean, there's just thousands of locations where he could be located.

NARRATOR: The proverbial drug dealer in a haystack. He’s got the whole sprawling city to hide in. They’ve got a huge margin of error.

STEVE MURPHY: So to refine that margin of error, they had handheld antennas with monitors attached to them. The way you use these antennas is, you would ride down the street holding that antenna out the window as you're driving along. And that's what happened on December 2nd, 1993.

NARRATOR: Escobar is making a call. A signal has come in. The radio-tracking equipment has given a location; The Olivos neighborhood, west of Medellín. Carrera 79. A Colombian police officer, who just happens to be the boss’s son, has taught himself how to use the equipment and is now driving down Carrera 79 holding the antenna out of the window.

STEVE MURPHY: As he's driving down the street, his equipment is indicating for him to look over. And he looks up, and he can see Pablo Escobar looking out a window, talking on his radiotelephone. And all of a sudden he says: "Oh, there's something strange. There's somebody holding an antenna out their window." There was no indication that Pablo recognized or realized what was going on on the street. So the only explanation we have ever been able to come up with is that Pablo was so engrossed in his conversation with his son, he didn't realize what was going on right in front of his eyes on the street below.

NARRATOR: Perhaps he’d got sloppy. Having evaded capture for 18 months, perhaps he thought he was cleverer than they were. Either way, he messed up and this time he’s not getting away. Steve is at The Search Bloc with his boss Colonel Martinez when the call comes through.

STEVE MURPHY: So Colonel Martinez is talking to his son, Lieutenant Martinez. He's telling him: "Hey, we think we found Pablo with zero margin of error here." So the Colonel was saying: "Listen, secure the location. We'll mount the troops up. We're going to head out that way, but whatever you do, don't let him get away."

NARRATOR: Six hundred armed police officers make their way to a Medellín apartment block and surround the building where the great, powerful Escobar is holed up with just one guard for protection, a sign of how weak his organization has become. He tries to make a dash off the roof. The police order him to stop. He shoots at them. They shoot at him and he is caught in the crossfire.

STEVE MURPHY: We go up to the third floor, and I can see on the roof out there the unit, the police officers, that are our best friends. They see me. They all start yelling ‘Stick’, and they're holding their rifles up in the air, and they're confirming that it's Pablo Escobar. While I was standing on the roof, Pablo's mother and sister showed up. And so I'm watching them from the roof and watching their reactions. Eventually, they allow Pablo's sister to see him. When I saw her reaction I knew for sure, without a doubt in my mind, that Pablo Escobar had been killed that day.

JAVIER PEÑA: This is vengeance. I mean, it's human nature. It's that revenge, that overall concept of: “Pablo Escobar is finally dead.” It meant a lot to me.

NARRATOR: Shouts of ‘Viva Colombia!’ echo across the country. They’ve cut the head off the snake. They’ve chopped the snake into pieces. The Medellín cartel is annihilated, an unprecedented total takedown of a crime organization.

STEVE MURPHY: Believe it or not, that was the first in international law enforcement.

NARRATOR: But did it really make a difference when all’s said and done? 

JAVIER PEÑA: The death of Pablo Escobar made a lot of difference because of all the innocent people he killed. Did drug trafficking stop? Of course not. It probably stopped for about two weeks, then drug trafficking again was taking off, and now the Cali cartel had taken over. But the killing of Pablo Escobar, it's symbolic. It's legendary. Again, I just stress, why all the innocent people that he killed? Why did you put a bomb on a commercial airline? I'll never forget that one. Why did you kill your next president of Colombia? What about all these innocent kids, the family members? That, to me, just stays with me. But then, you know what cemented all of this was one of his sicarios Popeye got out of prison about five years ago and, publicly, he has stated the number was closer to 50,000 people killed under the orders of Pablo Escobar.

NARRATOR: Steve Murphy and Javier Peña received the Distinguished Service Cross from the Colombian National Police for their role in capturing Pablo Escobar, although they received nothing from the DEA. Javier stayed in Colombia a few more years before accepting a promotion in Puerto Rico. Steve and his wife, Connie, left in 1994 to a new posting in North Carolina, taking home with them two adopted baby girls, Monica from Bogota and Mandy from Medellín.

STEVE MURPHY: The unique thing about Mandy's adoption is that the Agency where we picked her up was in a valley. And up on the hillside was a building known as the Monaco building. And that's the building where Pablo Escobar's family lived.

NARRATOR: Javier didn’t take any children back home with him but he did take some amazing memories. After all, how many agents can say they spent the night in their murderous adversary’s - Pablo Escobar’s - bed and lived to tell the tale? 

JAVIER PEÑA: We're in Pablo Escobar's apartment there at the prison, and the colonel who's running the search said: "Javier, we bet you that you will not sleep on Pablo Escobar's bed tonight." Oh, it's a bet. So it was a personal bet. They were egging me on. Everybody was having fun with it. I said: "Colonel, I will sleep in his bed." I changed the sheets, of course, but it was a gigantic bed that had been custom-built for him. And you know what always stayed in my mind? I could not sleep, thinking: "You know what? I'm in the bed of this guy who killed a lot of my friends." And then looking at the ceiling, and that's one of my visions I will never forget, it's a ceramic painting of the Virgin Mary. So Pablo Escobar, every night, went to sleep, would look at the Virgin Mary. Wow.

NARRATOR: Join us next week for another operation with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Javier F Peña is a retired US DEA agent who investigated Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel in Colombia. He is one of the main characters in the Netflix TV series Narcos, portrayed by Pedro Pascal. Steve Murphy is also a former US DEA agent and lead investigator in the Escobar manhunt. Murphy heads a law-enforcement private consulting firm.

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