Former DEA agents give talk on the hunt for Pablo Escobar

Michael Hankins

Eager students crowded into Hogg Auditorium Thursday night to hear a talk given by former Drug Enforcement Agency agents who led the hunt for infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy gave their accounts of the events leading to Escobar’s downfall at the event, hosted by UT Campus Events + Entertainment. Escobar recently became a household name because of the increasing popularity of the Netflix original show Narcos, which follows Escobar’s early and criminal life. 

According to the agents, Escobar worked his way up through the Columbian criminal underground before he founded the Medellin drug cartel. Pena said Escobar committed petty crimes throughout his youth before finally venturing into small-time drug trafficking in the late 1970s.

“Pablo Escobar grew up poor,” Pena said. “He grew up in Medellin, Colombia, with his first cousin, Gustavo Gaviria. They started stealing hubcaps, cars and all of a sudden they started moving one, two, three keys of coke.”

After Escobar’s first foray into drug smuggling, he expanded his operation rapidly, Pena said. His operation soon encompassed every facet of the cocaine supply chain, from production to distribution. 

In the early years of his reign, Escobar was left largely unchecked by government officials, many of whom were afraid to prosecute him for fear of their lives, Pena said. 

To further cement his status, Escobar cultivated a Robin Hood-like image that captivated the poor masses of Colombia, Pena said. To many Colombians, Escobar was a self-made man who gave generously to many poor communities, especially in his hometown of Medellin, but Escobar’s notoriety and his reputation for ruthlessness began to grow.

“Escobar killed anyone who opposed him,” Murphy said. “The killings culminated in the assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, who wanted to extradite Pablo to the United States.”

The assassination of a presidential candidate precipitated Escobar’s fall from grace with the Colombian populace. As Escobar’s popularity and influence waned, it became easier for agents such as Pena and Murphy to infiltrate the drug lord’s organization, Murphy said. This eventually culminated in an intense shootout in 1993 that left the former kingpin dead. 

Brendan Miller, a math and computer science junior who attended the talk, said he was surprised by the details of the agents’ accounts.

“I didn’t know what (the talk) was going to be when I walked in,” Miller said. “I had heard of (Escobar), and I knew some vague details, but I didn’t know the extent of his crimes.”