Narcos: meet the real DEA agents who were on the trail of Pablo Escobar

“A lot of people have called us American heroes, but we’re just
 police officers”

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Anyone involved in a major news event these days is soon invited to be the subject of a Hollywood biopic. But the story of US Drug Enforcement Administration agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena took more than two decades to reach the screen. Narcos,returning to Netflix for a second series this week, dramatises their long, murderous pursuit of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian who became the first “narco-terrorist”, killing thousands, through bombings and assassinations, to protect his billion-dollar cocaine empire.
 

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“Javier and I never planned to do anything with our experiences,” says Murphy. “This was just our responsibility, our job. It was only when [Narcosproducer] Eric Newman approached us that it ever occurred to us to tell this story.” Pena adds: “Our only condition was that they must not glamorise Escobar. And they haven’t.”

Pena, a Texan, and Murphy, from West Virginia, were DEA agents who were seconded to join a Colombian police squad charged with finding Escobar, whom Pena describes as “this psycho of a guy who had declared war on a country”. With Boyd Holbrook playing Murphy and Pedro Pascal as Pena, last year’s first season showed the ten-year trap-and-rat game in which Escobar was eventually jailed (“A custom-built prison, more of a country club,” grumps Pena), before evading the authorities again. The second set of ten episodes, released on 2 September, depicts the resumed manhunt for Escobar.

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Steve Murphy and Javier Pena

Unusually for fact-based fiction, the models for the central characters find Narcos a fair representation. Murphy has one caveat: “Javier and I have never had an argument or cross word, and we’ve known each other since 1991. That’s the only thing that isn’t dead-on, but we understand that drama is based on conflict.”

It’s frequently the case with biopics that friends and families are surprised by the casting: someone they see as a Woody Allen being played by a Johnny Depp. Murphy laughs: “Whaddaya mean? We looked just like that back in the day. Yes, we do get teased about how we’re portrayed, but you have to be able to laugh at yourself.”

Before filming started, Holbrook and Pascal came to Washington to stay with the men they were playing, received briefings at the DEA and went on a training course for new agents. Later, Murphy and Pena were flown out to Colombia to give advice on set. What is hardest for the actors – and viewers – to understand is the level of danger the DEA agents faced. They were used to carrying concealed or holstered weapons in America, but they soon learnt to keep their guns in their hands to minimise their response time.

The insecurity might have been especially acute for Murphy, who was living in Bogota with his wife, and adopted two Colombian girls during his tour of duty. But, although Escobar’s cartel placed a $300,000 bounty on each man’s head, they deflect this detail with a joke – that their loved ones threatened to cash in the jackpot – and the appalled observation that Colombian officers, 143 of whom died during the operation, were priced at only $100 each.

Surely, though, Murphy and Pena must have experienced fear? Pena says: “We lived with the cops, guys who we could trust and they took care of us. It was dangerous and I worried about the stuff you couldn’t control – the car bombs, assassinations. Otherwise we were sensible, we never went out on our own.”

“A lot of people have called us American heroes,” says Murphy, “but we’re just
 police officers. The true heroes are 
the Colombian national police guard and the families there who are husbandless and fatherless. Javier and I always knew that we were coming back to the US.”

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Narcos returns to Netflix today