How do you track and take down the most wanted criminal in history? With great difficulty, that’s how.
The hunt for Colombian Pablo Escobar, the richest, most powerful criminal the world has ever seen, who built his multi-billion dollar fortune on illegal trafficking between South America and the USA, took years.
It’s a tale that is now known to a lot more people thanks to Netflix, which popularised the rise and fall of Escobar in the hit TV series Narcos. The show tells the tale from the point of view of two Drug Enforcement Agency agents from the US – Steve Murphy and Javier Pena – who played a major part in the kingpin’s downfall. The pair are coming to the UAE with their interactive show Capturing Pablo on Thursday October 5 and Friday October 6 and spoke to Time Out ahead of their appearance.
While the television series certainly gets the heart pounding, and elaborates on the dramatic events that took place in Colombia during the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is clearly a heavily dramatised version of historical events that affected thousands of people in the South American country.
Now, following the global success of the show, the real-life Agents Murphy and Pena want to tell their story. The real story of how two agents, an entire police force, an army, and a government hunted down the world’s single-most wanted man. They tell it without sensationalism, drama and Hollywood embellishments. In all honesty, it’s a story that doesn’t really need it.
“The whole fight with Escobar was over extradition,” says Pena. “He did not want to go to the US.”
To try and avoid extradition, and therefore avoid being tried on US soil, Escobar teamed up with the heads of other cartel families and struck an agreement that created an organisation known as The Extraditables, whose motto became: “We prefer a grave in Colombia to a prison in the United States”.
With the US actively seeking the extradition of Colombian cartel criminals (as the vast majority of trafficking activity targeted major US cities), the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) became heavily involved in the hunt for its ringleaders, including Escobar, who headed up the Medellín cartel.
US President Ronald Reagan was hugely invested in tackling the problem, and increased pressure was put on Colombia’s government to help capture those involved in the trafficking.
Murphy says Escobar’s power was such in Colombia that its government was unwilling (or unable) to deliver him to the US. Instead, it offered what Murphy refers to as a “sweetheart deal”. He was to accept a minor charge levied against him, spend five years in a custom-built prison – a prison Murphy insists was palatial – and walk out a free man, with his fortune of ill-gotten gains intact.
Escobar accepted the charge but soon broke out of the so-called prison, and declared all-out war with the Colombian government. During a reign of terror lasting years, and in a bid to avoid capture, Escobar was directly responsible for the death of more than 4,000 innocent people, including police officers, the public, government representatives, lawyers, and even the assassination of presidential candidates.
The officers responsible for capturing Escobar were now on the hunt to kill him.
“The Colombian police told us this was not about anything other than killing Pablo Escobar,” Murphy explains.
“We saw hundreds of our friends killed, including national police officers. We went to one funeral where there were eight caskets of Colombian police officers in the funeral home at one time. Things like that affect you, especially when they’re your friends.”
“The search [for Escobar] was based on revenge,” adds Pena.
Murphy and Pena have said multiple times that they think Narcos is an excellent show that largely stays true to the series of events, but there are a number of inaccuracies added for dramatic effect.
One of the most embellished scenes, they say, is the climax of season two, when Escobar is finally captured, and killed.
Narcos portrays an overweight, barefooted Escobar, without entourage and protection, being chased down across a rooftop and shot in the torso by a sniper. In the scene, a monologue voiceover from Murphy is abruptly halted by a solitary gunshot from a Colombian soldier to Escobar, from point blank range.
Murphy says the scene is false, because he wasn’t there to witness it.
“I actually don’t know [what happened],
I was not there,” he reveals. “We were loading up the troops to head out [to the scene of the shootout], and I missed the car leaving the base. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But Colonel Martinez drove back into the base to pick up a video camera and saw me standing there. We got there, I’m going to guess, around ten to 15 minutes after Pablo died.”
Pena, meanwhile, was in the US meeting an informant who had Escobar’s location, so he also missed the end to the years-long chase. But Narcos shows him beng reprimanded by his superiors for liaising with a vigilante group.
“I tried to fight it [being in the meeting] because I knew Escobar was still in Medellín. But I had to go get on a plane and fly to the States,” says Pena. “When I got there it was the informant who told me that Escobar was dead. Steve was there, and I wish I had been, but I wasn’t.”
Murphy did make it in time to be in one of the most famous photographs taken in modern times. The gruesome image shows Murphy and Colombian officers smiling for the camera while holding Escobar’s dead body.
Many may now question the need for such a photograph to exist, but Murphy and Pena explain that it was a defining moment for Colombia, and signified an end to the years of violence that had plagued the country.
“The reason everyone is smiling in this photograph is because we were all happy that Pablo Escobar was finally dead,” says Murphy. “And we were happy knowing that everyone was safer because this man was gone.
“There was an instant increase in safety [in Colombia].”
Murphy and Pena are two impressive, straight-talking veterans who oversaw one of the most dangerous manhunts in history, so don’t expect their Capturing Pablo show to be filled with laughs and funny anecdotes.
So what can you expect when Murphy and Pena come to the Dubai College Auditorium?
In short, the unadulterated, hard-hitting truth of the rise and demise of the world’s most notorious criminal.
“We talk about all this in the show, and put photographs up on the screen, because it’s all about telling the story of what really happened, and we don’t shy away from telling the whole story and talking about the hard stories,” Murphy says.
“We talk about the true heroes in all of this, this whole story, and it’s not him [Pena] or me.”
And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not Escobar either, who portrayed himself as Colombia’s saviour while he was alive and enjoying his power.
From Dhs275. Oct 5-6. Dubai College Auditorium, Knowledge Village, Dubai www.117live.com.