On a hot July afternoon, Steve Murphy was sweating inside a yellow, one-story house in West Little River. It was 1989, toward the end of the Cocaine Cowboys era, and Murphy and his partner, Kevin Stephens, were Drug Enforcement Administration agents working a sting deal on 17 kilos of coke.
An informant waited at the front door for two men to arrive to sell him two of those kilos for some $20,000. For Murphy, who’d become accustomed to massive cocaine deals, the stakeout was just another normal day on the job.
“We were just gonna knock it off in the afternoon,” Murphy says. “It was just two bad guys — really no big deal.”
Except this operation would turn into one of the bloodiest of his whole time in Miami, a Wild West shootout that would leave the informant dead and Stephens wounded.
The gunfight is just one of the crazier-than-fiction tales Murphy experienced during a formative, drug-fueled era in the Magic City. His real-life story is the basis of the hit Netflix series Narcos, which chronicles the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin at the heart of Miami’s ’80s cocaine explosion. Murphy recently spoke with New Times about his untold exploits in South Florida.
Murphy, a West Virginia native, was fresh out of the DEA academy when he was assigned to Miami in 1987, as his first post. He’d been a police officer for 12 years before joining the DEA, but he had no inkling of the drug chaos he was stepping into in South Florida. His very first case took him undercover on a trafficking mission from Turks and Caicos through Cuba to Miami.
“The most cocaine I’d seen before that was two ounces, and these guys were doing 400 kilos,” he says. “It was massive and unbelievable — it was hard to believe there was that much cocaine in the world.”
And he was shocked by the violence that came along with it. In the years before Murphy came to town, cocaine-trade bloodbaths had become regular in Miami.
A 1979 shooting at Dadeland Mall put the cocaine trade in Miami on the map: Two gunmen exited a truck, entered a liquor store, and shot Colombian drug lord Jimenez Panesso in the face, along with his 22-year-old bodyguard. Throughout the early ’80s, daytime gunfights between Colombian and Cuban drug cartels were routine. In 1980, the city averaged about 20 murders a month. In those years, the morgue in Miami became so crowded that Dade County had to lease a refrigerated trailer from Burger King to handle all the bodies.
The violence slowed a bit by ’87 when Murphy showed up, but it was still endemic.
“It was almost daily,” he says. “You would find bodies in a trunk, in the river, all attributed to cocaine trafficking.”
None of Murphy’s missions went sideways as quickly as that sting operation in West Little River, though.
It was just before 4:30 p.m. when the situation soured. As Murphy and his partner waited to bust the dealers, one of them pulled a gun. He planned to rob the DEA informant. Murphy and Stephens burst out from their hiding place and opened fire. The two drug dealers shot back, and one bullet tore through the informant’s throat. He died at the hospital. Stephens, 36, took a shot to the upper right arm from a .45-caliber pistol. The drug dealers fled; one was tackled and arrested, and the other got away. Stephens was rushed to Hialeah Hospital and survived.
After four years in Miami, Murphy was sent south to Colombia to be part of the Search Bloc, an informal task force created in 1992 to hunt down notorious drug trafficker Pablo Escobar.
That task force is now the focus of Narcos. A few years ago, Murphy and fellow DEA agent Javier Peña, who was also part of Search Bloc, were hired as technical consultants for the script. Murphy’s character is played by Boyd Holbrook, who also narrates the show.
For the 58-year-old retired DEA agent, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and works in a consulting business, the success of Narcos has been stunning.
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“We never dreamt that anything like this would take place after retirement,” he says. “The attention you get is embarrassing. It’s pretty cool.”
And, by and large, the show is pretty historically accurate, Murphy says. There have been a few changes, of course. Murphy remembers his partner Stephens, a former Marine, as buff and in great shape. But in the show, he’s portrayed as slow and stocky.
“The real Kevin was always in great shape,” Murphy says. “When he was off recuperating [from being shot in the arm], he could do more one-armed pushups than I could do with two arms.”