Tuesday 20 March 2018

The real Narcos: What it was like hunting the world's biggest drug dealer

The true story of the DEA agents who hunted Pablo Escobar until his death in 1993 is coming to Dublin in a two-man show. Ian O'Doherty spoke to Javier Pena and Steve Murphy about what it was really like to be hot on the heels of the world's most notorious drug dealer

Real life: DEA agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy, whose take down of Pablo Escobar is documented in Netflix series ‘Narcos’
Real life: DEA agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy, whose take down of Pablo Escobar is documented in Netflix series ‘Narcos’
Partners: DEA agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy
Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal in 'Narcos'

Along with the zeitgeist-grabbing 'Making A Murderer', and 'Orange Is The New Black', 'Narcos' has been the show which made Netflix. Before these programmes captured the minds of viewers, Netflix had been largely a vast and brilliant repository of previously aired comedies, dramas, movies and documentaries.

The move into self-produced content was a risk, but one which certainly proved worth taking - now the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime have the same heft and cache as the more traditional TV networks.

'Narcos', though, stands alone.

Brutal, violent and beautiful - the tale of the hunt for Pablo Escobar is one which would have worked brilliantly even were it simply another piece of fiction, a la 'Scarface'.

A blackmarketeer in rural Medellin who turned the tricks of his trade towards smuggling cocaine rather than household goods, Escobar would go on to become the first globally recognisable dealer - a multibillonaire feared and, apparently, loved, in equal measure by his people.

The Netflix show focuses on the hunt for the infamous figure led by two DEA agents, Steve Murphy and Javier Pena (played by Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal), as they try to negotiate the treacherous waters of Colombian corruption, criminality and coke.

At times, 'Narcos' is almost unbearably tense, and the dangers faced by the agents as they get closer to the drug lord's empire are brilliantly rendered.

Now the two men are appearing in Vicar Street for three nights next week as part of the wildly successful two-man show, 'Hunting Pablo'.

This is after-dinner speaking, if the dinner was a high-octane fear frenzy and, speaking on the phone from the States, Murphy accepts that fear played a large factor in their daily lives. "You'd have to be a psychopath not to feel fear," he says. "These were guys who were unspeakably cruel and merciless. The violence that's depicted (in the show) is all true.

"Escobar and his people were some of the most violent people to ever walk the earth. Let's not forget, we're talking about an organisation which blew up a packed passenger liner just to kill one target. They didn't think twice about doing something like that. Killing anyone who they even thought had crossed their path was what they did."

One of the unintended consequences of the war on the Colombian cocaine industry is that production and distribution largely moved to Mexico, and the newer cartels such as the Sinaloa and Los Zetas have developed methods of cruelty which would make ISIS blush, but as Murphy says: "It doesn't really matter when the distribution hub is, the fact remains that Americans are the largest consumers of coke in the world. As long as there is a buyer, there will always be a seller."

Interestingly, Murphy argues that: "You can't arrest your way out of a drugs crisis. It just doesn't work like that."

That's an argument that his own Government would do well to listen to - after all, there are literally millions of Americans, predominantly young, black and poor, who are incarcerated over non-violent dug offences.

But while Murphy says that simply arresting every drug user you find isn't the answer, he also admits: "Personally, I wouldn't be in favour of legalisation. Having said that, there is a huge difference between drugs like marijuana and, say, the new strains of heroin which are causing chaos in states like Vermont."

One of the oldest cliches in fiction is the bond that develops between the hunter and the hunted, a form of grudging respect that a cop often feels for the criminal he is chasing.

There is none of that with either Pena or Murphy.

Indeed, Murphy's contempt for the man also contains a huge degree of bafflement: "Here was a guy who was portrayed as a sort of Robin Hood figure. You know, kind to his people and a big family man. But that's all rubbish, part of the myth that grew around him.

"Here was a man who was unimaginably wealthy (at one point 'Forbes' had his estimated worth running to billions) and he was offered this unbelievable deal, where he got to build his own jail, just for himself, and it looked like the most luxurious country club.

"He could do what he wanted and all he had to do was stay there for five years. After that, he could have spent his billions with his family. It was an incredible deal and he still blew it. The greed and the power were just too much for him. I just can't understand this myth that he was a family man. He had his chance and he just blew it."

Such was the duo's contempt for their target, that they refused several earlier opportunities to collaborate on programmes about him.

Following Escobar's bloody last stand in Medellin in 1993, the pair were approached by numerous sources about telling their remarkable story, but as Pena admits: "We'd met some people about doing a project but none of them ever seemed right. They wanted to glamourise him or turn the whole thing into some sort of Hollywood thing and we didn't want that. We just decided to forget it.

"But then we met Eric (Newman, showrunner of 'Narcos') for dinner and we said we didn't want to participate in anything that would glamourise this guy and he was with us on that.

"We just felt like he was someone we could work with and I have to say, the results have been brilliant. What you see on the screen is how it went down. There are touches of artistic licence, obviously. But the timeline is right and the events are accurate."

There are moments of almost surreal arrogance from Escobar (played superbly by Wagner Mouro), such as when he brazenly walked past dozens of Colombian soldiers, who were so frozen with fear at seeing their target that they simply watched him make his escape through the jungle.

As Murphy says: "That's the level of power he had and fear he inspired."

Viewers should be glad that the two agents waited until the right project came along, because in the wrong hands, this could have been a mess. As it is, however, 'Narcos' makes for remarkable viewing and is a worthy tribute to two truly remarkable men.

'Capturing Pablo' is on in Vicar Street Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. 'Narcos' is available now on Netflix

Irish Independent

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