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Javier Pena
Photo: Brett Coomer / via Houston Chronicle

Javier Pena

Javier Peña is a former DEA agent who, along with Steve Murphy, was a lead investigator in the manhunt for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
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Javier Peña is a former DEA agent who, along with Steve Murphy, was a lead investigator in the manhunt for Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Who Is Javier Peña?

Javier Peña is a former DEA agent whose story formed part of the framework for the Netflix series Narcos. Peña began working for the DEA in 1984 and started working in Bogota, Colombia, four years later. There, he participated in the successful manhunt for narcotics kingpin Pablo Escobar. 

Early Life and Education

Javier Peña grew up in the south Texas city of Kingsville. He remained close to home for college and enrolled at Texas A&I University (now A&M-Kingsville), where he graduated with a B.A. in Sociology/Psychology.

Career in the DEA

Peña’s law enforcement career began in 1977 when he was hired as a Deputy Sheriff by the Webb County Sheriff’s office in Laredo, Texas. Seven years later, the DEA hired Peña as a Special Agent for the office in Austin, Texas, where he worked for four years.

Pablo Escobar & The Medellin Cartel

In 1988, the international cocaine trade had begun to explode, and Peña volunteered for a new post in Bogota, Colombia. Along with his fellow DEA agent Steve Murphy, Peña was charged with investigating the Medellin Cartel, the world’s largest cocaine dealer, and its leader, Pablo Escobar.

Rich and brazen, Escobar held an iron grip on the drug trade and Colombia. His personal wealth was estimated to be close to $30 billion, much of it coming from the 15 tons of cocaine he exported to the United States every week. At one point Escobar was making so much money it was said that he had to spend some $2,000 a month on rubber bands to hold it in bundles.

Together Peña and Murphy cultivated informants and secured leads for the Colombian National Police (CNP). Finally, after years of terror and enemy assassinations, including high-profile Colombian leaders, Escobar surrendered to the government. But it came with a caveat: his prison was one he built and included a number of luxury accommodations.

Javier Pena

Javier Pena

In June 1992, Escobar escaped, setting off one of the world’s largest manhunts. More than 600 CNP, as well as Navy SEALs, scoured the country for him. Peña and Murphy were a part of the search. The hunt came to conclusion on December 2, 1993, when the CNP shot Escobar dead in a middle-class neighborhood in Medellin, where he had tried to escape across rooftops.

Later Years

Over the next two decades, Peña continued to work for the DEA. His stints included stops in Puerto Rico, Texas and Colombia again. In 2011, he took on the role of Special Agent in Charge of the Houston Division. He worked there until his retirement in January 2014. 

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'Narcos' TV Show

Seasons 1 & 2: Pablo Escobar

In 2015, Peña’s story about his hunt for Escobar served as part of the backbone of the TV series series Narcos, which tells the story of the cartel leader’s rise and fall. Both Peña and his partner, Steve Murphy, worked as consultants on the show.

“It was personal for me,” Peña has said of the hunt for Escobar. “He had killed a lot of people I knew. The search for Escobar was purely about revenge. It wasn’t going after dope, it wasn’t after money. It was just revenge because of all the cops he had killed along with all those innocent people."

In 2016, the show was nominated for a number of awards, including one Golden Globe and three Emmys.

The show’s second season, which was released in September 2016, continues with the chase and eventual capture and killing of Escobar by agents Peña and Murphy.

Not everyone was pleased with Peña and Murphy’s recollection. In a letter from July 2016, Escobar’s brother, Roberto De Jesus Escobar Gaviria, formally asked Netflix to work as a consultant for the show’s second season before the episodes were released.

“In the first season of Narcos, there were mistakes, lies, and discrepancies from the real story, the story that I not only was part of making, but that I survived from,” Roberto wrote. “To this date, I am one of few surviving members of the Medellin Cartel. And I was Pablo’s closest ally, managing his accounting and he is my brother for life.”

Roberto, who served 10 years in a maximum-security prison for his involvement in the Medellin cartel, had at times claimed that the cartel was bringing in $60 million per day; that Escobar “fell into the drug business” when other goods were too dangerous to sell; and that Escobar killed himself. Netflix declined his offer. 

Season 3: The Cali Cartel

Season three of Narcos was released in September 2017 and covers the take-down of the Cali cartel, the group that took over the Colombian drug trade after the DEA dismantled the Medellin cartel. Although the Netflix show depicts him leading the charge, in real life Peña was not involved with the DEA’s pursuit of the Cali cartel. Peña left Colombia after Escobar was killed and returned later. “We’ve sort of put Pena as our one continuous character and made him representative of the DEA and the management in Colombia at the time,” Narcos executive producer Eric Newman told The Hollywood Reporter.

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