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This is Josh Levine, host of Season four of Slow Burn. I'm here to introduce you to another show you might like. It's called I Spy, and it's a production of foreign policy. Each week on ice by a former intelligence operative from somewhere around the world tells the story of a single mission. The featured guest from the CIA, Mossad, MI5, the KGB and more. The host is a three time Emmy winner, Margo Martindale, who played Claudia, the KGB handler, on his hit show, The Americans.
In the episode you're about to hear, DEA Special Agent Steve Murphy describes his role in the hunt for narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar in Colombia in the early 1990s. This is part one of a two part episode kicks off their third season to hear part to make sure to look for Espie wherever you get your podcasts. This is I spy show from foreign policy where spies tell their story.
Here I am, this white gringo down there, I can't I don't blend in and I find out where the lead case agents on the investigation of the Medy cartel, primarily Pablo Escobar. The guys told me right off the bat, just say, you know, there's a price tag on your head, 300000 dollars. Pablo Escobar has put a bounty on us just simply because we're DEA agents.
Now, that will also cause you to stop and think, hey, I just got here, give me a chance before you kill me.
You know, from foreign policy, welcome to this new season of I Spy, where former intelligence operatives tell their most dramatic stories. I'm Margo Martindale. We have eight new episodes for you this season, beginning with Steve Murphy, who served as a federal agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for almost three decades. Murphy was sent to Bogota, Colombia, in 1991 to take part in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, the man known as the king of cocaine.
Escobar headed the brutal Medellin cartel, which in its heyday was smuggling up to 80 tons of cocaine to the United States each month. Profits from the narcotics business made Escobar one of the richest people in the world. Murphy and his partner, Javier Pena, lived with Colombian police officers in Medellin off and on while hunting for Escobar.
This is part one of Murphy's story. I became a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1987 and following graduates from the academy, my first post was Miami, Florida, arriving there in November 1987. Now, during this time, it was still like the old wild, wild west down there. There are still a lot of violence, a lot of murders, a lot of everything was drug related.
All the money in South Florida was tainted with cocaine residue. So much so that a drug canine detection dog, if he alerted on money that was no longer probable cause for a seizure of the funds, you had to have additional evidence to go along with that.
I had been a police officer for almost 12 years when I joined DEA. The most cocaine I had ever seen during that 12 years was two ounces, which is, you know, it's not a whole lot.
So my first undercover, I went with a couple of agents on an undercover Hattar sport fisherman, a 53 foot fishing boat.
I had no idea what that was. I knew what a job it was because that's what I used to fish. We went to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Believe it or not, I never heard of that either. Took us five days to get there on the boat. Long story short, an airplane flew in from Cuba and delivered 400 kilograms of cocaine. So I went from two ounces to eight hundred and eighty pounds of cocaine. I knew I'd found the right job at this point.
All the cocaine that was coming into South Florida was owned by the Medellin cartel, primarily controlled by Pablo Escobar. I knew Pablo was because I had read books about drug traffickers and, you know, throughout my law enforcement career was always interested in the undercover work and drug investigations and so forth. So his name was not a surprise to me, but learning that he was responsible for 80 percent of the cocaine in the world. I mean, it doesn't matter what industry here.
You'd love to have 80 percent of the customers, and that's what Pablo had. He controlled South Florida. Almost every investigation I worked on was Medellin cartel cocaine.
But I was, you know, very, very familiar with who he was. Pablo Escobar started out. He comes from a very poor family. His father was a farmer or small farmer, and his mother was a schoolteacher.
He never wanted to grow up to be poor.
His goal was to become wealthy. He threw his contacts through his early criminal dealings of stealing hubcaps from stealing gravestones and cemeteries and sanding them down and reselling them. He was just a petty criminal. He was just a street punk. But he displayed a willingness to inflict injury and death on others and suffered no remorse, no guilt feelings from that.
So he was he decided to work for a guy named Restrepo and Medellin, moving 17 kilos of cocaine. What Pablo realized how much money he can make off that 70 kilos. He killed Restrepo and took his place and he continually moved up. And that willingness to commit violence against your fellow man like that and have no remorse or guilt feelings didn't bother him at all. People, it created this fear where people were afraid of him. He could tell people to do things one time, and if they did do it, he just kill them.
Not only would he kill you, but he would kill your wife, your children, your pets, your your mom and dad. It was ridiculous. It was it's it's unbelievable. He started using car bombs against his enemies, against the government, against the institutions, the banks, so forth. In Colombia, he was the world's first narcoterrorist.
You know, in law enforcement, we didn't see that you don't see that the United States car bombs going off. That's extremely rare. So for us, that was something that we had not encountered before. That was that's something that'll open your eyes and make you take a step back.
A lot of people asked me, how did I end up in Colombia? I come from English Irish heritage. I'm very white, I'm six foot two, have light colored hair, light colored eyes, but spent four years there working in South Florida and I just fell in love with a job.
I'll be the first to tell you. There's an old saying that says if you find a job you like, you'll never work a day in your life.
I found that job. It's the most exciting part of my life I'd ever experienced. At that time. The danger was there. I'm not a tough guy by any means. I don't pretend to be something I'm not. But, you know, the good Lord gave me the capability, the capacity to deal with life threatening situations. But my wife is a has been a registered nurse all her life.
She loves the action, the emergency room, the operating room, the critical care units, all the things that I think are gross, you know, and that's her excitement. So after we've been in Miami for three and a half years, she came to me one day and she said, you know, this has been real exciting living here. What's the next most exciting thing we can do so?
Well, we could move down to Columbia for a few years and see how it is down there. And she looked at me like I had three.
And she's like, are you crazy? You know?
So I knew her personality. Just just let it lie for a while. And eventually she came back to me. She's like, are you serious? Do you still want to do that? And I said, Hey, you asked. I think it would be great.
And she came to me about a week later. She said, hey, we're going to do it. Let's do it while we're young.
So I applied. You know, you can hear my accent.
I'm not from New York City. Right. And I didn't speak Spanish, so I had to go to language school for six months. That's how we ended up Bogota.
When we landed in Bogota, it was a Sunday night, we were very apprehensive, I could speak proper Spanish pretty well so I could speak to Colombians in the airport, but they would answer back quick, you know, faster and local savings. And I had a little bit of a hard time there catching up.
So it was intimidating that night at the boardinghouse were laying in bed and our bed kind of swayed down in the middle so that when I would lay on one side, she lay on the other, we'd roll on top of each other, you know, and I've got my nine millimeter there on the on the nightstand next to the bed.
And this is no kidding. In the middle of the night, we heard we heard handgun gunfire. And so I grabbed my gun in. The next thing we heard was machine gun fire right outside our window. And I go to the window, you know, just peeking out because I don't want to get shot. And I'm looking at this gun in my hand. I'm thinking, what am I to do with this? I'm a pissed somebody off, you know?
But we thought, you know what, things calm down.
Had no police ever came, we never to hear any sirens or anything. And we were in a populated area of Bogota, a very nice area. We're laying there and neither one of us can go to sleep. We kind of look at each other. It's like, what do we get ourselves into this time, Scooty?
When you go to an overseas environment with the government, you don't live in shacks we were really surprised at. Not surprised, but shocked at the apartment we were eventually given.
We lived in the north part of Bogota, which is there's a mall there called Unicenter. So we were a few blocks north of Central and that's the very nicest parts of the city of Bogota.
We lived on the seventh or eighth floor. Each apartment was the only apartment on the floor.
There were three buildings in the complex. There was a wall around the building with with armed guards on the gates.
But then you stepped into this marble for you and it was beautiful, bigger than most bedrooms in houses. Our apartment was four bedrooms. We didn't even have enough furniture for all the rooms we had live in maid's quarters. The views were beautiful. We had the on the east side of the building where the Andes Mountains on the west side of the building, there was a polo club that we could look down and watch the horses. It's the nicest place my wife and I ever lived down, to be quite honest with you.
And our apartment wasn't nicer than anybody else's. That was the standard for Americans living in Colombia. Now, I understand also this time Colombia was considered a danger post so the government would do things to try and help, you know, life be a little bit easier. It was very nice, very nice. We had, you know, we had full time maid. I'll never say that again.
As nice as the living conditions were in Colombia, in Bogota, for us, everything wasn't that nice. You had to be aware of your surroundings not only at work, but if you're out shopping. You know, there were pickpockets out during that time. There were a lot of street kids that you felt sorry for, but they could become violent very quickly. And it wasn't just and we're talking, you know, ten, twelve year old kids. But when it became violent, all of a sudden, twenty might show up.
So you had to be careful of those people. Traffic cops would flag you down and want bribes as you're driving down the street for no infractions whatsoever. You just give them some pesos and and go on your way. But now, Job-related, here I am, this white gringo down there. I can't I don't blend in to the country and I find out I'm going to be assigned to work with Javier Peña and another guy, Gary Sheridan. And we're the lead case agents on the investigation of the Medy cartel, primarily Pablo Escobar.
And again, this might sound a little strange, but you almost take it on as a challenge. I don't say a badge of honor because I think that's being too flippant to say that. The guys told me right off the bat, just say, you know, there's a price tag on your head. Three hundred thousand dollars. Pablo Escobar has put a bounty on us just simply because we're DEA agents.
Now, that will also cause you to stop and think, hey, I just got here, give me a chance before you kill me, you know?
When I got to the embassy and Mundy's my first day, and I think on Thursday, Wednesday or Thursday that week is when Pablo Escobar surrendered to the government of Colombia to move into his Custom-Built prison.
Well, I like to joke around that. Hey, Pablo heard Murphy's in town. He might as well just give it up. You know, his days are numbered.
But that's a joke because I know it's not true.
But Pablo was offered what we call the deal of a lifetime. By the attorney general, so the attorney general at that time was a guy named Gustavo De-brief, he actually wanted to decriminalize narcotics. You know, he wanted to give a lot of leniency to the drug traffickers.
So he came up with this idea called a self-surrender plan. And what that meant is you would come after them with a proper deal and what you offer to plead guilty to one crime of your choosing. In exchange, you would be absolved of every other crime you committed in your life and then you negotiate your prison term, so Pablo began his negotiations. I think he pled guilty to unwittingly participating in the transportation of 300 kilos of cocaine in a in a vehicle, you know.
Oh, I didn't know it was in the car. OK, you got me. So that's what I'm going to plead guilty to. In exchange, he's absolved of every other crime he's ever committed in his life in Colombia from stealing hubcaps and gravestones to murdering thousands and thousands of people. All of that just goes away. So, of course, when he says, OK, Mr. De Grief, I will surrender the government to Colombia's, like, oh, that's great, Mr.
Escobar, thank you so much.
He's like, wait just a minute. I have some stipulations. The first stipulation is because of I have so many enemies in the government and the other drug cartels in the United States, I will build my own prison because I will build it to my specifications.
And by the way, I'll pay for it because I don't want the taxpayers to have to bear that burden. And what the government of Colombia say, OK, he said, well, second stipulation, the guards will have to be hand-picked by me. They have to be vetted through me because I need people I can trust. So I will pay their salaries as well, because, again, I don't want the taxpayers to have to bear that burden. And again, the government of Colombia said, OK.
Then he said, well, because I do have so many enemies, I will need to handpick my fellow inmates, which he was allowed to do.
There were only 14 inmates counting Pablo. You know, he brought in there.
He brought his brother Roberto and twelve of his most trusted sicarios. And when he offered that stipulation, the government of Colombia said, OK.
Then he said, well, that's not all. He said, I don't want the Colombian police, the Colombian military or the gringos, the United States government to be able to come within two miles of the perimeter of my prison because they will try to kidnap me and take me to the United States.
And the government of Colombia said, OK, now he negotiated a five year prison sentence. That's the most he could do.
And by the way, there were no stipulations whatsoever for him to surrender any of his assets.
Forbes magazine rated him as the seventh richest person in the world for six years in a row, with an estimated wealth of between eight and 30 billion dollars, not million billion dollars.
So he gets to keep the 30 billion dollars after five years in a country club setting, which he calls a prison, the worst, worst plea bargain I've ever heard in my life.
What I saw was the despair and disappointment on the faces of agents, on everybody in the embassy, on the Colombian national police officers that I was getting to meet and would eventually work with.
You're listening to I Spy, a production of foreign policy. We'll be right back. Welcome back to I Spy. We return to Steve Murphy, a DEA agent who took part in the hunt for a narco terrorist, Pablo Escobar, in Colombia.
So now you've got Pablo in prison. Well, we really couldn't get a lot of good intelligence coming out of there. We would get bits and pieces. We believe that he was coming and going from the prison, but we didn't know how we believe that he was. Well, we did learn that he imposed a war tax on the other cocaine distributors within his organization because his position was, hey, I've I've taken on the government.
Colombia have garnered this deal. This deal is available for all of you. But I'm being the scapegoat. I'm being the guinea pig on this thing. So since I'm not able to run my clothes out of the prison, you're going to pay me your tax that your taxes either 400000 dollars for every low that you run or half of the load.
It was close to the end of that first year he was in prison when we had an informant that came in to tell us about Pablo killing the Moncada and Galiano brothers.
Now, Kiko Mercado was one of Pablo's childhood friends. That's one of his best friends. They grew up together. He was a major lieutenant within the organization, as was Fernando Gagliano.
And what happened was some of his sicarios, some of Pablo sicarios, found a stash of U.S. cash. I don't know if it's in a cave or some kind of colletta, some kind of hole, some kind of hiding place. Some people say it's 10 million. Some people say it's 23 million.
So this car has brought it in and they didn't like Mongkut and they didn't like Galiano. So they threw the money down, apparently, and they said, hey, boss, look, these guys are taking advantage of you. You're here sacrificing yourself, living in this prison. And while these guys have this money, they don't want to share this with you. They're just letting it right away. It's not even important to them. Now, Pablo called Kind Galiano to the prison to account for this.
Well, the carriers are there in the background again, Pablo.
I'll kill every day to kill them. And so eventually Pablo loses his cool and he kills Keko. Mukada himself beats him with a stick to death. The other sicarios, they grab Fernando Galiano, they beat him to death. The bodies were grotesquely disposed of. Would be the nicest way I could think to put that. But then the information got back to us that what had happened and the U.S. government went to the president of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, and told him what we knew and.
I don't know for a fact that this was done. I've heard that somewhat of an ultimatum was given to President Gaviria. Either you move Pablo into a real prison like Lotfy Cozza, which is a rough, rough prison in Bogota, or this may be made public.
So we know what happened after that is is President Gaviria sent some troops to bring him out of the prison and escort him to lobby Chota to the prison in Bogota. Well, they end up in a firefight, but somehow Pablo Escobar and several of his sicarios were able to get through this 600 man perimeter and escape. I tend to believe there was probably some cash that passed hands for them to turn a blind eye, although I have no proof of that.
That's just my own speculation. But here you go. You've got the world's first narco terrorist who has now become the world's most wanted man. The day after Pablo escaped from his prison, which was June 1990 to the very next day, Javier and I flew to Medellin and we started living with a Colombian national police for the next 18 months. When Pablo Escobar escaped. The mood in the embassy and with our our counterparts at the Colombian National Police was elation.
Everybody felt like, hey, we've got another shot to get this guy. You know, as Javier likes to say, we're putting the band back together. Were going after Pablo that same day. The general in charge of the Colombian National Police told our boss that he wanted Pinyon Murphy as part of the search bloc and many living with them up there and continuing on the investigation for this manhunt.
So the day after Pablo surrendered or and I got on an airplane, flew up to the Rio Negro, and they sent a Huey helicopter gunship out to pick us up and flew into the Carlos Holguin School, which is a Colombian national police base in Medellin.
We weren't there very long until they said, hey, you guys want to go see the president? Well, of course we did. You know, so we hopped on another helo and flew up to the prison.
So when you get to the prison, you come up to the main gate. You saw you did see the perimeter fences. When you get inside, there were two sets of steel bars that created somewhat of a sally port there. And then once you got past that second set of steel bars, it was wide open. It was the bars were there to create the facade that this is a prison. You know, we got steel bars here. You got inside.
It was the game room, had pool tables, had ping pong tables, had pinball machines, almost any board game you could think of.
We got to the prisoners rooms.
We went to Pablo's from his prison cell is a two room suite with a private bath in his kitchen. He had a full sized microwave oven. He had a Side-By-Side refrigerator freezer, custom built cabinetry.
He had a banana bar with bar stools.
He had paintings hanging on the wall.
I mean, we've all heard of the famous artist Salvador Dali. Pablo had a Dolly original hanging inside the prison. Unbelievable. He had color coordinated draperies and upholstery. It was his flowery pattern, you know, and every person I've been to around the around the world, they have color coordinated to it's usually ugly.
Gray is just nasty. You go into the second room. It was a combination of bedroom and offense. He had a custom built bed that was larger than a king size bed, bigger than the bed I've ever seen in my life.
He had an audio visual center with the latest releases of movies and TV shows from all around the world. He had a fireplace behind his desk. He had family pictures. Well, mostly his pictures hanging on the walls in his bedroom.
You go into his private bathroom. He had a Jacuzzi tub in his bathroom. This is supposed to be a prison. You know what we usually see in prisons? We call group showers. Here's Paul has got a private bathtub. That's a Jacuzzi tub. He's got a walk in closet. He's got drawers for, you know, for his clothes.
He's got hanging clothes, soccer. He's got a ton of soccer shoes in there.
You pull the drawers out behind one of the drawers. It's a hidden safe that's built into the wall there.
There's an area of the closet where his clothes hang and and up into the shelf as a button, you push the button and the back wall would pop open. There's a hiding spot back there in you called a collector a place to hide. I guess he thought, well, if the gringos come to get me or the police come to get me and I can't get out of this room, I'll hide back here and they'll never find me. Well, we found that we'd like to think we'd have found him if he'd been in there.
Right. The other prisoners, they all had two room suites. They didn't have Jacuzzi tubs like Pablo, but they had the latest electronics they had back then with one big screen TVs were just becoming popular when the flat screens, but it was the big screens.
They all had big screen TVs in there and they had the latest electronic gear for recorders and reel to reel tape players.
Whatever was out there, they had it up there. We found trophy's where they would hold soccer tournaments in the prison and they would give out trophies afterwards. He had a full sized professional soccer field that was lighted so they could play nighttime soccer.
He had a nightclub inside the prison for the prisoners, an actual bar, a nightclub, smoke, glass windows, the whole ball of wax, a bar, everything that goes in a bar.
We eventually found a lot of other collectors which were hiding spots throughout the prison where we found drugs. We found some money, some paperwork, a lot of photographs we found of some of the things that were going on that they were holding orgies up there on a regular basis.
These guys just came and went from the prison when they pleased if Pablo said you haven't watched the soccer game between these two teams or there's a new restaurant over in El Paso that I'd like to go to her to have great whatever, or I'd like to go spend the night with my wife and children because I haven't seen them in a week. This guy.
They would just load up in a truck and they would go out of the prison and come back when they felt like it. It was literally a revolving door on the hillside behind the prison.
Pablo had already built several, if I remember correctly, seven or eight chalets on the side of the hill there that were as nice as anything you'd see anywhere else.
And what we were told eventually was that Pablo's plan was after five years, he wanted to convert this prison into a resort.
But this was probably the biggest surprise for me, knowing that we could not intercept any of his communications. We found out Pablo was using carrier pigeons to deliver messages.
We found a whole covid pigeons. We found books on how to train these pigeons. You go look at the pigeons on one leg. They would have these little bands that would tell you where they would fly to on the other leg. You would write out a message taped to that leg and let them fly away. You know, I really, really hesitate to give him credit for anything, but that was pretty ingenious.
How to thwart our our intercept capabilities that Steve Murphy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, he tells the rest of his story about the hunt for Escobar in episode two.
Murphy describes his time in Colombia in the book Manhunters How We Took Down Pablo Escobar, co-written by his DEA partner, Javier Pena. I Spy is a production of foreign policy, our executive editor for news and podcast is Dan Ephron. Our I spy team includes Rob Sachs and Amy McKinnon. If you like the show, please subscribe on the Apple podcast, Spotify or your favorite platform and leave us a review. If you have tips or suggestions, please write to us.
I spy at foreign policy. Dotcom ISPA is made possible through the support of foreign policy readers. If you're interested in not just espionage, but smart geopolitical news and analysis from Washington and around the world. Please consider subscribing EASTBY listeners can get a 10 percent discount by going to foreign policy dot com slash subscribe and using the promo code podcast at checkout.
On the next episode of I Spy, Escobar is surrounded with Pablo got up there, of course, the police start yelling at him. One of them orders him to drop his weapons. He's got a double shoulder holster rig that he's wearing that to nine millimeter pistols. Pablo starts shooting at this policeman.
That's coming up on I Spy. I'm Margo Martindale.