Third Place Writing – Features

Cat Cardenas

Third Place
University of Texas at Austin
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Chasing Escobar

Javier Peña, as a character, was popularized through the Netflix series ’Narcos.’ But the story of the real Peña—who lives in San Antonio—and his quest to end the reign of Pablo Escobar is bigger than a screen.

By Cat Cardenas

Inside a church in Medellín, Colombia, Drug Enforcement Agency agent Javier Peña listened as the fourteen-year-old boy in front of him admitted to murdering ten policemen. The boy was one of Pablo Escobar’s sicarios—the hitmen, often teenage boys, hired to kill anyone in Escobar’s way. The teenager didn’t feel any remorse. If he was given an order, he would kill again in a second. He would do anything for Escobar.

It’s been decades since that day: Peña’s charcoal black mustache is now a crisp white, and the brown gradient aviators he often sported have been replaced by a small pair of rectangular glasses. But from the couch of his San Antonio home, the retired agent can still remember when he began to comprehend the commitment of the sicarios. In the church, the young Colombian boy told him how certain he was he’d never live past 23. To him, it was a fact—one he told Peña just as confidently as the number of policemen he’d killed. Another fact: he’d never make it out of his neighborhood. But Pablo Escobar was offering him money, and that meant a roof over his mother’s head and food on the table. “I will kill for him, I will die for him,” he told Peña.

Peña could’ve easily been in the young boy’s crosshairs. Like the country’s policemen, he was living his life as a target. After leaving Austin in 1988, he arrived in Medellín with a $300,000 price tag on his head. Peña’s life, or death, was particularly valuable to Escobar—fear of the U.S. government made DEA agents a tough mark for hitmen. Local policemen, on the other hand, carried a bounty of just $100. “Can you imagine, $100 for a human life?” Peña asked.

For sicarios, it was easy money. For Escobar, it was an efficient way to eliminate his enemies. For Peña, a DEA agent fresh from Texas, it was a mission to take down one of the most notorious drug lords in history.

Originally from Hebronville, Texas, Peña’s DEA career began in Austin in 1984. He worked on undercover operations and surveillance, buying heroin in East Austin and infiltrating groups who sold LSD near the University of Texas campus. After four years, Peña was ready for change—he’d seen the street side of the drug trade, but now he wanted to get to the source. He applied for a job in Mexico, but was mistakenly assigned to Colombia. There were only rumblings of Pablo Escobar in the U.S. at the time, but across the Caribbean, he had already made a name for himself.

By 1988, Pablo Escobar was a poison coursing through Colombia, corrupting the country and its people from the inside. He was executing policemen, setting off car bombs in the streets, and blackmailing any judge who had a case against him, all to ensure the daily export of 2,500 kilos of cocaine. Back in Texas, Peña remembered, seizing just a single kilo of coke was cause for celebration.

“It was a bloody, bloody era,” Peña said. “These traffickers were doing whatever they wanted. They had police paid off, government officials paid off, judges . . . and if anybody went up against them, they would kill you. He would send sicarios out, and if a judge had a case against Pablo Escobar, the sicarios would go see the judge and have a picture of his wife and say, ‘Is this your wife? Is this where she works? Are these your kids?’”

The judges faced a simple choice: a bribe or a bullet, or, as Escobar infamously put it, plata o plomo—silver or lead. Sicarios would offer the judges briefcases full of money.According to Peña, the first judge who refused was killed along with his family the next day. “From then on, people started accepting the money,” he said. “And you know what, I don’t blame them.”

Peña became consumed by Escobar when he arrived in Medellín. His chase after the drug lord has been popularized by the Netflix series Narcos, which follows Peña and his partner Steve Murphy as they try to capture the Medellín cartel leader. The show, which returned for a third season on September 1, begins with Murphy’s arrival in Colombia in 1991. But before Murphy came along, Peña had been studying the drug lord relentlessly, trying to understand the power he had over the country. He learned the names of Escobar’s operatives and family members, listening in on the calls law enforcement could intercept. Once, he heard Escobar telling his wife how much he missed her over the muffled screams of someone being tortured in the background.

Escobar was a family man, but also a ruthless killer, too consumed by the drug trade to quit. That’s what made him dangerous: He was willing to do anything to evade capture, and with prominent presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán campaigning for Escobar’s extradition to the U.S., Escobar was desperate to ensure his own safety.

By 1989, Pablo Escobar had the country in a chokehold. On August 18, Peña was out eating dinner when a waitress told him Galán had been assassinated. Martial law had been declared. Around the restaurant, sirens began to ring out as military and police swarmed the streets.
It was chaos. Escobar had just declared war.

“We call Pablo Escobar the inventor of narcoterrorism,” Peña said. “There were ten to fifteen car bombs on a daily basis. You would hear that muffled sound of a bomb and then you would see that black smoke rising. You would see the broken glass, you would see the body parts.”

According to Peña, survival boiled down to praying you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violence was out of control, but it all came to a head on November 27, 1989. In an attempt to kill César Gaviria, presidential candidate and Galán’s former debate chief, Escobar had a bomb placed on Avianca flight 203. Gaviria didn’t end up boarding the plane, but just minutes into the flight, it exploded at 13,000 feet, killing all 107 people on board.

Colombia was exhausted and scared. Escobar knew that in his first year in office, President Gaviria would be willing to do anything to stop the violence that wreaked havoc across the country. So he began negotiating his surrender.

After working with the DEA in Miami, Peña’s partner, agent Murphy, arrived in Colombia in June 1991, just three days before Escobar reached an agreement with Gaviria. For the drug lord, it was the deal of a lifetime. Escobar agreed to serve five years in a prison built to his own specifications if the Colombian government did not extradite him.

“Put yourself in the president’s place,” Murphy said. “You’re in a country that has extreme violence . . . You’ve got this drug dealer who has declared war on his own country and all he’s wanting is for Colombia not to extradite him back to the United States. [Escobar] knew that if he was [extradited], he would go to a real prison, not a country club. Just imagine: You’re getting all these phone calls from all the citizens who don’t feel safe going out with their families. Think about the pressure that he was getting from opposition parties. God bless the man, I don’t agree with the decision that he made, but if you were in that position, what stance would you take to stop the violence?”

Peña vividly recalls standing next to Murphy, both watching helplessly as a helicopter carried the drug lord, his sicarios, and a prominent Catholic priest to Escobar’s newly built prison, La Catedral.

“We knew we lost, Pablo Escobar won,” Peña said. “What about all the people that he had killed? It was all for nothing. All the bloodshed he had caused? All for nothing. We went back and we lost. We lost the war on Pablo Escobar.”

Murphy, still new to this world, couldn’t understand why the local law enforcement seemed so distraught about Escobar’s imprisonment. Soon, the reason became clear: Escobar’s so-called prison included a soccer field, a jacuzzi and a waterfall, all off-limits to Colombian National Police. It was a joke, an insult to the loved ones of the people he’d killed.

“I saw all this disappointment inside the embassy,” Murphy said. “The agents were upset, the bosses were upset, and I thought, ‘What do you have to be upset about? The world’s biggest cocaine trafficker’s in prison.’ Of course, the longer I stayed, the more I learned and realized it was nothing but a custom-built prison. It embarrassed the crap out of the Colombian government.”

But just over a year later, Escobar gave his pursuers a second chance. After President Gaviria ordered the drug kingpin to be moved to a higher security prison, he escaped. The National Police and the DEA were ready. Escobar’s reign was coming to an end, Peña could feel it. Calls with new information began trickling in, and the people who had once risked their lives to protect Escobar were now risking them again, but this time to put the cartel leader behind bars.

At the same time, Peña and Murphy were hitting their stride as partners. Although they had completely different styles, they worked well together. In Narcos, the duo is often represented as at odds with each other, but 25 years after their partnership began, neither Peña or Murphy can remember ever getting in a fight. “We just hit it off,” Murphy said. “Our personalities are kind of different, but it’s what made our partnership work.”

By late 1992, the duo was getting closer and closer to Escobar. Several times, they arrived on the scene within an hour of his escape, once finding his hot meal still sitting on the table. People continued to tip Escobar off, and with Colombia’s difficult terrain, a head start made all the difference. But alongside the Colombian National Police, Peña and Murphy were relentless. This time, things had changed. Their search was aggressive, determined, and increasingly fueled by revenge. Peña went to several funerals during his time in Colombia, and recalled one where the church was packed with eight coffins—policemen who had drowned in pursuit of Escobar.

“Our motivation was seeing our friends get killed, seeing innocent people get killed,” Peña said. “There were times when I just wanted to go home. I just wanted to say, ‘You know what, let him surrender, that way there’s no more bloodshed.’ But when you saw the police officers who were giving their lives, getting killed by Pablo Escobar to try to save their country—that’s what motivated you to keep going.”

By November 1993, law enforcement was honing in on Escobar, intercepting more and more conversations between him and his son, Juan Pablo. Just as the chase was heating up, Peña was called away—one of his informants told the embassy that Escobar was in Haiti. Peña knew this wasn’t true, but the embassy ordered him to fly to Miami to meet with the informant anyway. The week he left, Colonel Hugo Martinez, commander of the National Police’s Search Bloc, and his son, Hugo Martinez Jr., who worked with the surveillance team, were zeroing in on Escobar. On December 2, 1993, Martinez Jr. triangulated in on a phone call between Escobar and his son. They’d found him.

The Search Bloc assault team arrived outside of the place Escobar was hiding, in his hometown of Medellín. In ten minutes, a fatal gunshot to the ear would end Escobar’s reign of terror.

Back at the CNP headquarters, a major came by to alert agent Murphy of the news. “Viva Colombia, Pablo is dead!”

All around him, people headed out to the scene. Murphy was given orders to confirm Escobar’s death. He and Colonel Martinez hopped in a Jeep and headed to the middle-class neighborhood where Escobar had been located. As the two walked out onto the rooftop of the building, finding Escobar’s dead body, the drug lord’s mother and sister arrived. As they wailed and cried, Murphy took that as his confirmation.

Among the law enforcement officers on the roof, the energy was electric. They knew the country was safer without him. Murphy was elated, but his mind kept going back to his partner. “The one thing I regretted about that whole day is that Javier wasn’t there,” Murphy said. “If anybody deserved to be there, it was him.”

But Peña admits that if he’d been there in Murphy’s place, there’d be fewer official historical records of the event. Like his character in Narcos, Murphy was never without his camera. Along the walls of Peña’s San Antonio home, several of Murphy’s photos now stand as a testament to their chase.

Today—24 years after his death—the battle against Escobar’s influence still isn’t over. In the years since, he amassed a rabid cult following, one that Peña and Murphy have continually argued against.

“You’re gonna hear some people call him Robin Hood,” Peña said. “Yes, he gave money to the poor, to the Catholic church, but he even had them fooled. It was the money that he was paying all these people [that blinded them to his actions]. Did Robin Hood put a bomb on a commercial airline? Did Robin Hood kill a presidential candidate? Did Robin Hood kill between ten to fifteen thousand? No, of course not.”

Peña and Murphy received offers over the years to portray their story, but they always walked away, fearing that Escobar would only be glorified. Before retiring from the DEA in 2013, they had been traveling a few times a month, giving presentations—mostly to others in law enforcement—telling their side of the story on Escobar. In March 2013, Eric Newman reached out about possibly turning their experience into a Netflix series. At first, Murphy intended to blow him off, but Newman made it clear he intended to portray the drug lord and his atrocities accurately, and even turned down an offer to meet with Escobar’s son. After consulting with Peña, the duo agreed to move forward and act as consultants for the first two seasons.

Since then, the show and subsequent speaking engagements for the partners have taken off. Peña and Murphy now travel the world, touring colleges and conventions speaking about their experience tracking down one of the richest and deadliest drug traffickers in history. The two agree the response has been overwhelming. Events that once brought a few hundred people now bring thousands, as listeners flock to hear from the real men behind their favorite show.

Murphy, who once was convinced no one would be interested in the series, hasn’t been immune to the intense popularity that surrounds Narcos, even though he lived through it. He and his wife have binge-watched the first two seasons, and were looking forward to the third.

This season, with Murphy’s character gone, Peña’s character continues his journey chasing after the Cali Cartel, who hopes to capitalize on Escobar’s absence to monopolize the cocaine industry. In actuality, Peña left the country just after the drug lord’s death. But like his character, Peña just can’t seem to shake his time in Colombia. He’s slowly making his way through the second season—it’s still too close to home.

But Peña isn’t trying to forget. He keeps reminders all around him. There are signs from Colombia above his mantel, and his study is packed with certificates and Murphy’s photos documenting their chase—one shows the two of them inside La Catedral just hours after Escobar’s escape. Then there’s his bar. Nestled into a corner of his living room, across from packed rows of bottles, rests Escobar’s infamous mugshot.

The memories for Peña, however, extend beyond artifacts. Once, at a speaking engagement in Germany, he and Murphy were approached by a girl whose uncle died on the Avianca flight. Another time, the daughter of a Search Bloc major tracked down Peña on Facebook. Following in his footsteps, she became a police officer. But she wanted to know more about her father—she was just a child when Escobar killed him. “There’s always a personal story,” Peña said.

For the partners, the people they lost and the frustration of the chase are just as close in their minds today as they were two decades ago. “It just brings back memories,” Peña said. “It was mentally challenging. There were times when you were tired, you wanted to get out. There were nights I couldn’t sleep. It takes a toll on you mentally, physically, but you just kept on going.”

Often, the two talk about the drug wars that are still playing out, and note that—though much has changed since they became agents—the U.S. is leading the world in consumption of marijuana and cocaine. So as Peña and Murphy travel the world, they implore their audiences to come up with solutions. Neither of them are in favor of legalization, but without change, there’s nothing stopping another Escobar from rising to power again.

“As long as there’s demand, there’s gonna be people willing to corrupt,” Peña said.