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DIA welcomes the men who inspired Netflix's hit show 'Narcos'

By Brian Murphy Defense Intelligence Agency

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“The Sopranos.” “Breaking Bad.” “The Wire.” America loves a gritty drama.

While those shows had creative freedom when it came to fictional characters, such as Tony Soprano, Walter White and Detective Jimmy McNulty, the creators of the Netflix original series “Narcos” faced the added challenge of basing their show on real people.

 “Narcos,” which was first released in 2015, was clearly created to take viewers inside the world of drug lord and narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar during the rise of Colombian drug cartels in the late 70s.

Two of the primary characters on “Narcos” are Steve Murphy and Javier Peña (who are portrayed by Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal, respectively) — the Drug Enforcement Administration agents who led investigators during the manhunt of Escobar. Through three seasons, the show has been able to keep those characters grounded, thanks, in large part, to the fact that the real life Murphy and Peña signed on as consultants. 

Murphy and Peña visited DIA as part of the agency’s Masterminds guest speaker series, to share stories from their investigation of the world’s largest and most notorious drug trafficker, their work with Netflix and a host of other topics during a lively discussion in a packed Tighe Auditorium, June 21.

Because DIA plays a role in transnational organized crime threats — to include narcotics and threat finance through the America’s Regional Center — the two retired agents also represented a wealth of knowledge and experience. 

“You know, we actually turned down two producers to do this,” said Murphy. “We both took extensions past mandatory retirement age, and that's when a guy named Merrick Newman called. He's executive producer and the original creator of ‘Narcos.’ When he first called us, we turned him down. He said, ‘Hey, if I come to Washington, would you just have dinner?’ So, we did our research. We found that [the show creators] were well-educated, very successful in Hollywood, and so I met with him and our personalities kind of clicked. It was with him and two writers.”

Murphy continued, “At the end of the night, he asked, ‘Why are you guys so hesitant to do anything with anybody?’ We said, ‘The last thing we want is anybody to glorify this mass murderer.’ He said, ‘I promise you, Pablo Escobar will never be glorified in “Narcos.’ And in our opinion, they haven't. He lived up to his word.”

According to Murphy and Peña, they’ve turned down several other opportunities — including other television show pitches and a request to appear on stage with Sebastián Marroquín, Escobar’s son. Their reason for declining was simple.

“Pablo Escobar killed a lot of innocent people, so it's personal for us,” said Peña. “I've lost a lot of friends who were killed by Escobar and that's why we will not even go on stage with his family or associates. If it's a murderer, we will not do it.”

“We told them, not no, but hell no,” Murphy added.

When the retired DEA agents participate in speaking engagements, one of the most common questions they hear is: How much of what appears on the Netflix show is true to what actually happened in real life?

“One third of the show is true,” Murphy said. “Those events happened and they are depicted correctly. The second third, those events happened, but they're not depicted the way they actually occurred. They dramatize it. They glorified it. They made it more exciting. They added sex to it and all that kind of stuff. And then the last third, well, that's just straight out of Hollywood. It just tells you there's some sick people in Hollywood to come up with some of these ideas.”

Murphy and Peña fully admit they never envisioned a day where they’d have the opportunity to travel around the globe speaking to packed audiences about their combined 75 years of experience in law enforcement.

“This was standing room only,” said Murphy of their visit to DIA. “People sitting on the steps and the whole back area was standing room only up there. That's humbling for us. It's kind of embarrassing, to be honest with you. But, it gives you hope that things are going to turn out okay. You know there's still people out there dedicated to doing the right thing. That's what it does for me.”

Peña added, “And, it's history. People should not forget.”