BOOK REVIEW: ‘Manhunters: How We Took Down Pablo Escobar‘

By Paul Davis – – Tuesday, December 3, 2019


By Steve Murphy and Javier F. Pena

St. Martins, $28.99, 352 pages

The general public first became aware of () Special Agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena when they were portrayed by actors in the Netflix series, “Narcos.”

The first two seasons of the outstanding drama series was about the takedown of the world’s most wanted criminal in the 1990s, .

In the 1980s and early 1990s, was the world’s most wealthy and powerful criminal. He was the head of the Medellin Cartel, the leading drug cartel in . He was a vicious, brutal, mass murderer. He made millions by flooding America and the world with cocaine, and he oversaw a reign of terror in .

He had his men plant a bomb aboard an airliner that killed every passenger on board. He backed the M-19 guerrillas that attacked the Palace of Justice in Bogota, in which judges, soldiers and innocents were killed. He had his men plant car bombs around the country that killed and injured many innocent people. He had his hit men, called “sicarios,” assassinate thousands of criminal rivals, police officers, soldiers, journalists and politicians.

In “Manhunters,” retired agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena tell of their role in the hunt, capture and death of . In the first part of the book, the two agents write of their careers and adventures prior to being assigned to . Mr. Murphy was assigned to Miami, a hotbed of drug traffickers and murders, and Mr. Pena was assigned to Texas on the dangerous Mexican border.

In 1988, had Carlos Mauro Hoyos, ’s attorney general, kidnapped and murdered. had him murdered due to his support of the extradition of ’s drug lords. and his fellow narcos feared being extradited to the United States.

In “Manhunters,” Mr. Pena, who described himself as a frontline soldier in America’s war on drugs, writes that he arrived in right after the murder of the attorney general. He was a part of a group of six new agents hired from all over the United States to bolster the ’s Bogota office under the agent in charge, Joe Toft. He tells of the murder of a presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galan Sarmiento.

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“More than anything, it was Galan’s assassination that led to the downfall of and the Medellin Cartel,” Mr. Pena writes. “I knew the killing had been directed by , and I think all of knew it too. In any event, he was the most wanted drug trafficker in the United States — first on the extradition list charged with drug trafficking and ordering the murder of an American, his former pilot Barry Seal in Louisiana in 1986.”

Telling their stories in alternative sections, Mr. Murphy writes of being assigned later to Bogota and becoming Mr. Pena’s partner. Mr. Murphy was accompanied by his wife, Connie, on his assignment in .

“Yes, would be a big adventure for both of us, but I was sure it would also be the most important mission of my law enforcement career, drawing on everything I had learned and testing my mettle as a narc,” Mr. Murphy writes. “I was determined to get . Months of research had convinced me that he was an evil monster. I knew I would have absolutely no problem putting a bullet in his head.”

The two former agents recount how had turned himself in to the Colombia police after he had negotiated a deal in which he would not be extradited to the United States and he would be housed in a “prison” that he had himself built outside of Medellin. The prison was lavish, and the guards were bribed. But after murdered two of his criminal associates in the prison, the Colombian government attempted to intervene, and escaped. He became the most wanted fugitive in and the world.

Steve Murphy and Javier Pena teamed up with the Colombian National Police in the pursuit of . The CIA, NSA and members of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and the U.S. Navy’s SEALs were also part of the effort to take down .

The two agents faced hardships and danger in . placed a $300,000 bounty on their heads. They also took risks by going along on raids with the Colombian National Police, although accompanying the local police was against U.S. policy. While Javier Pena was out of the country, Steve Murphy was on the scene of the final raid on ’s hideout.

“Manhunters” is an interesting and compelling story. The agents’ personal account is a fitting companion to Mark Bowden’s excellent account of ’s takedown, “Killing .”

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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