Tremendous Story of Ordinary Men Thrust in Extraordinary Circumstances
Pablo Escobar was no Robin Hood — although the English outlaw’s last name is apt. While Escobar did build civic projects, clinics, and sports fields for his hometown of Medellin, he also murdered thousands of its citizens, including more than 500 police officers. Escobar’s hitmen, called “sicarios,” conducted a murderous campaign across the country. They assassinated a presidential candidate, journalists, and judges. They bombed a civilian airliner and supported an attack on the Palace of Justice that led to the kidnapping and ultimate killing of the Supreme Court Justices.
During his heyday, Escobar and the Medellin cartel were pushing an estimated 70-80 tons of cocaine into the U.S. every month.
Before we get to the book review, we encourage all our readers to check out our upcoming podcast with the authors of the book Steve Murphy and Javier Pena who lived through its events. The duo were DEA agents who were stationed in Colombia and were assigned to take down Escobar and the Medellin cartel.
Many Americans had no idea who Murphy and Pena were until the Netflix series “Narcos” was released. And although the series, like all Hollywood films, took some liberties with the true story, it finally brought Murphy and Pena to the forefront.
Having lived in Colombia during that violent, tumultuous time, it didn’t take any time at all to convince me to read the book, write the review, and get both of the authors on our SOFREP Radio podcast. I had never met either of the gentlemen but their true story was one that reads like the script of a Hollywood film.
Both come from vastly different backgrounds. The first half of the book describes their lives prior to arriving in Bogota and being thrust together in the events that would shake the world. Pena was working for the DEA in Texas and was assigned to the dangerous Mexican border area. Murphy was working in Miami, taking down drug traffickers and murderers. Neither had realized how dangerous their lives would soon become.
Pena was sent to Colombia soon after Escobar had the Attorney General of Colombia, Carlos Mauro Hoyos, murdered for the audacity to cooperate with the United States and agree with the U.S. extradition plans for Colombia drug lords. If there was anything that Escobar and those like him did not want was being extradited to the U.S.
The book is a fascinating first-hand look at what it was like to work on the front lines of America’s drug war in Colombia. The DEA had brought several new agents into the country under the direction of the clever and driven leader Joe Toft.
Each chapter is written by either Murphy or Pena, describing their own experiences during the long, journey to track Escobar down and finally see him dispatched. While that sounds disjointed, the book actually reads smoothly and easily.
It also gives a fascinating perspective on what each man was thinking and how each handled the stresses and danger of the job at hand. Rather than trying to paint themselves as the heroes who did all the work, both Pena and Murphy write about the tireless, dedicated work of the Colombian National Police (CNP). This is probably a reflection of why both were held in such high esteem by their host nation counterparts. Both Murphy and Pena lived with, shared the food of, and earned the trust of their counterparts. It was the very essence of the “by, with, and through” of the Special Operations mantra.
One of the big misconceptions many Americans had about Colombia was that every cop was crooked, all judges and politicians were on the take, and the entire country was corrupt. While there were indeed some military, police, and political officials that were corrupt, the vast majority were not. It wasn’t for nothing that Escobar’s ultimatum for all of Colombia was “Plata o plomo” (silver or lead). Thousands of honest, hardworking CNP officers turned down the “Plata” and suffered the latter.
The DEA agents worked in Medellin out of the police force base and were part of the Search Bloc (Bloque de Búsqueda), the CNP’s Special Operations unit in charge of the search for Escobar. The task force also included members of Delta Force, Navy SEALs, NSA, and CIA. It was the CIA that both Murphy and Pena remember as being as much at odds with the DEA as it was with the cartel. The jealously and competitiveness ended up in much pettiness from the American side.
Both describe the anger they felt when Escobar surrendered to the government on the grounds that he would not be extradited. He then built his own prison — which was more of a resort — by the city of Medellin. He continued running his drug operation from prison but after he murdered two of his associates inside the prison, the government was forced to act. Escobar escaped and a 16-month manhunt ensued.
In the end, Escobar was tracked by police radio detection finders when his cellphone signal was picked up. Despite rumors that he was all over the world, Escobar had never left the safety net of Medellin. One by one his associates, sicarios, and business partners were killed off by either the police or from “Los Pepes” (“Persecuted by Pablo Escobar”) a collection of vigilantes who were enemies of Escobar.
Contrary to what is shown in the Netflix series, the DEA agents didn’t work with Los Pepes.
Finally, Escobar was killed along with his last sicario, as he tried to flee across the roof of a three-story apartment building. Murphy, who was in Medellin at the time, admitted that his exuberance upon hearing of the death of Colombia’s most wanted killer led him to pose with Escobar’s bloated, dead body. He apologized since out of context the now-famous picture is easily interpreted as it was the DEA who killed him.
“Manhunters” is a fascinating and fast-paced read. If you want to know the real story of who killed Pablo Escobar and how it all went down, read their book. It is well worth the time and effort.