Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, Manhunters: How We Took Down Pablo Escobar, published by Macmillan
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God.” — Matthew 5:9
For Connie, for her never-ending love and support. —Steve Murphy
The blue Renault cut in front of us, forcing us off the road, ushering Connie and me into our worst nightmare.
I was driving one of the older-model embassy-issued g-cars. It was a large SUV with huge, West Coast–style mirrors sticking out from the sides. If we were in California, it might look like we were surfers on our way to a deserted beach. But this was Colombia, and the SUV was outfitted like a tank for a reason. I joked to Connie that it could survive a shoot-out and even the apocalypse. Still, its ballast made me feel safe. There were steel plates in all the doors, under the vehicle, and built into the roof. All the windows were bulletproof with extremely thick glass that made them impossible to open. The front and rear were equipped with chrome-plated steel bars known as cattle guards. With all these security devices built in, it weighed about twice as much as a normal vehicle.
Connie and I were headed home from the embassy and had decided to take some of the back roads, next to a military base, to avoid the snarling traffic and to stop by our favorite restaurant for some take-out roast chicken for dinner. We had both put in a long day and were looking forward to unwinding in front of the TV with spicy chicken, roasted potatoes, and a glass of merlot. With me in Medellín most weeks, we rarely had a night to ourselves, and we were really looking forward to being together in our apartment in the northern part of the city.
When the Renault suddenly cut in front of me, I pumped the brake and pushed in the clutch, trying to stop before I hit the tiny car. With all the weight of the SUV, it wasn’t very difficult to lose control, and I knew if I hit the Renault, there would be serious injury to the passengers.
Maybe even death. I managed to slide the vehicle to a stop just a few inches from the smaller car.
After checking to see if Connie was okay, I was furious and prepared to get out of the car and give them a piece of my mind. Except when I looked up, I saw that the three occupants of the car were walking menacingly toward us. They were dressed in light jackets and jeans, and as they drew closer, I could see that each of them had a pistol tucked into the waistband of his pants.
After arriving in Colombia to work on the Pablo Escobar case more than a year earlier, I had a lot of enemies. The world’s most wanted criminal knew my name and the name of my partner, Javier Peña. We knew this because Colombian intelligence had intercepted the drug lord speaking on the phone to one of his thugs and talking about the “two gringos” at the Carlos Holguín base in Medellín. During one conversation, he even referred to “Peña and Murphy.”
So when the three men approached the driver’s-side door of our vehicle and began yelling in Spanish for us to get out of the car, I worried this was no ordinary case of road rage. This was a trap, and we were outnumbered. Besides that, I had the person I loved most in the world sitting right next to me. I needed to protect Connie no matter what happened to me.
At first, I refused to open the door, and I flashed them my Colombian police identification badge, hoping it would scare them off. But they refused to budge, which is when I frantically tried to radio for backup from the embassy. Each embassy car was equipped with portable emergency radios so that we could call the Marines if we got into any trouble. I was hoping the Marines would simply dispatch a roving patrol and scare off the jokers who were holding us hostage inside the car.
But I called once. I called twice. I called three times. No one answered.
By this time, the three men were kicking at the tires and trying to open the doors. I looked over at Connie, who was trying to remain calm, but I could tell she was really scared. The truth is, so was I.
Shortly after trying to contact the embassy, the wife of a DEA agent called us from her portable radio to make sure we were all right. I told her where we were and asked her to radio for help immediately. A few minutes later, our DEA supervisor was on the radio. I told him to hurry and to bring the “margarita” with him—our code name for the mini Uzi that we kept in the office for just such occasions.
While we waited, helpless as the men continued to taunt us and kick in the doors of the car, my darling wife surprised me as she always did when we faced what seemed like impossible odds.
“They’re not that big,” she said, pointing to the men. “I can take that one out if you handle the other two.”
I might have said yes except that they were all armed, and if I opened the door of the car, I would be exposing Connie to being shot or worse.
Once the DEA supervisor was in place with the margarita behind us, I prepared to walk out of the car and confront the three men. We were both good marksmen, and if they tried anything funny, I knew we could easily kill them. But none of us wanted to kill anyone. We just wanted to get home and have our chicken!
Just as I was opening my door, a Colombian National Police motorcycle patrol approached. I saw they were looking at us but showed no indication of stopping. I began blowing my horn to get their attention, which caused the patrol to turn around to investigate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our supervisor, holding tight to the margarita.
Clutching my pistol and then tucking it into my waistband, I walked over to the police and showed them my badge and told them who I was: I was DEA and working on capturing Colombia’s most wanted criminal. I told them we had been cut off by the three men in the Renault, and I was worried that they could be sicarios working for Escobar. After all, it was only a few years before that fellow DEA special agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar was kidnapped by corrupt police officers in Mexico and tortured and killed on the orders of drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. All DEA agents working in Latin America after Kiki’s death worried that the same thing could happen to them.
I told the cops the men in the blue Renault were all armed.
At the mention of handguns, the police surrounded the men and pointed their weapons at them.
It took a while to sink in, but when the cops realized who I was and that I had contacts at the highest levels of the Colombian police, they began to apologize to Connie and me. As for the three men who had nearly caused an ugly accident, they were low-ranking members of the Colombian military on a joyride. It turned out to be nothing more than a case of road rage and the three young men wanting to intimidate us. They still don’t know how close they came to death that night.
I cursed them out in my best street Spanish and threatened to call their commanding officer. They all became very apologetic and begged me not to call anyone. I believe they knew they would end up in the stockade for their actions, and all they wanted was to get away from us as quickly as possible.
After thanking the police, Connie and I drove home, rattled by the whole experience. As we sat in our living room with our Styrofoam boxes of chicken and potatoes, and Connie poured us each a glass of wine, I worried about the next close call.
And this time, I knew that an armored embassy vehicle wouldn’t be able to protect me. Not against the apocalypse, and certainly not against Pablo Escobar.