The Real DEA Agent of 'Narcos' Breaks Down What Season 3 Got Right

9:21 AM 9/8/2017

by Jackie Strause

Chris Feistl takes THR inside some of the Netflix drug cartel saga's biggest moments and sheds insight on what lies ahead for season four.

Chris Feistl_Michael Stahl-David_Narcos Screening - Publicity - H 2017
Marion Curtis/StarPix for Netflix

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire third season of Netflix's Narcos.]

Narcos viewers know Chris Feistl as the hungry DEA agent who helped dismantle the season-three villains, the Cali cartel.

On the Netflix drug cartel series, the agent (played by Michael Stahl-David) pushes his boss Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) to let him leave Bogota, Colombia so he and his partner (Matt Whelan) can hunt the four Cali godfathers on the ground. Chris ultimately becomes the DEA contact for informant Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), the head of security for the Cali cartel who risks his life to help the agents capture and fry their biggest fish, Miguel Rodriguez (Francisco Denis).

In order to get the third season story right, Narcos enlisted the real Chris Feistl to serve as a consultant. Narcos previously had the real Javier Pena and partner Steve Muprhy (portrayed by Boyd Holbook) consulting on the two-season story of Pablo Escobar and when the show shifted its focus to Cali, Pena and Murphy recommended the showrunners reach out to Feistl.

"There were a number of ways that they came to me," Feistl tells The Hollywood Reporter in a lengthy and informative chat about his real-life experience and how it was portrayed on the show. "Both those guys said I would be a good resource to speak to, and also because of William Rempel’s book At the Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down Cali." The book tells the story of Salcedo, who is now in U.S. witness protection, and Feistl also served as a source. The trio — Salcedo, Feistl and Rempel — also appeared on a 2012 This American Life podcast on NPR, which caught the attention of Narcos showrunner Eric Newman. Feistl adds, "All of those things contributed to them then contacting me to give them a little bit of background on Cali."

As a result, Feistl, who is now retired, returned to Cali to meet up with the Narcos team for several days to show them the ropes. In addition to phone calls, where he says he mainly fielded questions to help solidify the timeline and accuracy of events, Stahl-David visited him at his home for several days.

Below, Feistl answers some of THR's most burning questions about the stranger-than-fiction, real-life events that played out on the season.

  • Chris Feistl’s Real Cali Timeline

    Though Narcos is a fictionalized version of events, showrunner Eric Newman has always said the chronology is on point. He described this season as being "50 to 60 percent accurate," but for serialized drama's sake, the timing had to be condensed.

    Feistl arrived in Cali mid-1994, about six months after Pablo Escobar was gunned down and Cali had taken over. "Ultimately, our investigation into all the Cali godfathers never really stopped until many, many years later, but I guess the point there would be Pacho Herrera’s surrender in September of ‘96," says Feistl of the godfather who was portrayed by Alberto Ammann. "So that would have put us on the ground in Cali going after these guys for two years and three or four months."

    What the third season zeroed in on, however, was the DEA's dealings with Salcedo and in fact, the Cali insider was only playing for both teams for a short amount of time. "We first got hooked up on July 12, 1995," says Feistl. "Miguel Rodriguez ended up getting arrested in August of 1995 just six weeks later, so we were only talking and working with Jorge for the two months."

    As for his portrayal, Feistl called Stahl-David a perfectionist. "He wanted to ensure he could do the best job possible based on the information that he had," says the agent about the inquisitive actor, who got a crash-course from Feistl during the home visit before shooting. "Michael would also call me while he was down there and we would talk over certain parts of the script. One of the questions I remember him asking was when we went into Guillermo Pallomari’s office, [the accountant for the Cali cartel] and what I looked for in a raid. How would I go into the building and what kind of papers would be of interest? I explained that anything with addresses, phone numbers, bank accounts, any links to different countries or in the United States were all useful."

  • His Link to Jorge Salcedo

    How Feistl and his partner (whose name was changed for the show since he is still an active DEA agent) met up with Salcedo on the show was accurate.

    "[My partner] and I were looking for a way into the cartel and Jorge was looking for a way out of the cartel. When we got together, it made the perfect storm," he says. Feistl explains that they were looking for one of the few insiders who had precise intelligence about the Cali godfathers and their whereabouts, and Salcedo saw the writing on the wall and was looking to get his family to safety. "We were always firm believers that the way you catch these kingpins is through human assets and sources. Obviously, that list is very, very short."

    So when Salcedo's friend was arrested in Operation Cornerstone (mentioned on the show), Feistl says they had a mutual friend to link them up. "I was able to get a phone number for Jorge and I called him one day and I basically said, 'Hey, I understand you might want to do the right thing and cooperate with us.' He said, 'Yes, that’s a possibility,'" he says. "We went back and forth for a couple of minutes and I said we were here on the ground in Cali and would like to meet as soon as possible. He agreed and that’s how that first meeting transpired. There is much more to that phone conversation as to where and how we meet. But that’s the genesis and how that story came to be."

    How Feistl hooked up with Salcedo was a focal point in his conversations with the Narcos team, along with what they did when they got to Colombia, details of their first trip to Cali to interact with the Colombian national police and military, and how operations and surveillance unfolded. "When I went to Colombia, it was great to interact with Michael and Matt [Whelan] in Cali," he says. "I gave them a tour of the city, showed them where actual houses and events took place, where the bloque of the Colombian national police actually was and where we did surveillances from. I think it was really beneficial to them to see that lay of land and see what we were working then."

  • The Real Jorge Salcedo

    Jorge Salcedo, who now lives under a different name and in an unknown location with his family, has only emerged sporadically from the U.S. witness protection program. Feistl met him twice in the U.S., once for the NPR podcast and a second time during a meeting with the Narcos team ahead of the season. 

    On the show, Feistl's inner torture of catching Miguel but also keeping Salcedo's "rat" identity a secret is something that is well-captured. The agent says he and his partner knew Salcedo was legitimate when they witnessed first-hand how members of the Colombian national police would tip Salcedo off that the Rodriguez hideouts were about to be raided. "Jorge was getting real-time information from the police or military while this raid is technically in progress," he says. "That really opened our eyes to the corruption that we were dealing with there."

    That trust eventually went both ways. "I told him on more than one occasion that catching Miguel was a distant second and that his safety and the safety of his family was my number one priority," says Feistl. After the first failed raid on Miguel, Feistl, as shown on Narcos, told Salcedo it was time to get out and that they would capture the godfather without him. "He said, 'I’m not going anywhere. I still have a job to do.'" he recalls. After they did catch Miguel, Salcedo, once again to Feistl's surprise, said he wasn't leaving until he helped them approach Pallomari, the accountant and future key witness in dismantling Cali corruption. 

    "Salcedo got into something that wasn’t quite what he thought and that was more than he bargained for when he was recruited to help in Cali in killing Escobar," says Feistl. "Once that was over, I think he looked for a way out and realized: once you get in, you can’t get out. I thanked him numerous times for what he did, but I also told him that I don’t know that I could have done what he did in that capacity. He deserves a lot of credit for that. I’ve heard him say before that getting his story out is his way of telling people that if you’re confronted with a potentially bad situation, just say 'no.' Don’t get involved and stay away from this kind of life. That’s one of the messages he tries to portray."

  • Capturing the Rodriguez Brothers

    The accurate depiction of the capturing of the Rodriguez brothers — Gilberto (Damian Alcazar) and Miguel (Francisco Denis), who are currently serving life prison sentences after being extradited to the United States — was also something Feistl recounted in specific detail for the Narcos team. During Gilberto's capture, the godfather was actually hiding in a caleta in a bookcase in the wall, not under the bathtub as shown in Narcos. But both of Miguel's raids were wholly accurate. 

    During the failed attempt, when Miguel was breathing through an oxygen tank behind one of the bathroom walls and got nicked with a driller, Fesitl says they were thisclose to capturing the boss. "As long as it would have taken us to get a sledgehammer and knock the wall down, so two or three minutes, that’s how far away we were on the initial raid to arresting Miguel," he says. "We found the caleta in the bathroom and drilled several holes in the wall. The problem is the wall was so thick that we broke two or three drill bits and we ran out of drill bits. That’s when we went to look for the hammers because once we were able to hit the air space, we knew there was unaccounted for space behind that wall."

    During the second raid, Feistl says the opposite happened — if they had waited another minute, Miguel would likely still be a free man, thanks to their knack for building impossible-to-spot hiding places. Working with the Colombian national police and navy forces, Feistl and the DEA stormed the 10th floor of Miguel's apartment hideout and arrested him just as he was getting into a celeta to hide. 

    "It was so well-constructed and so well hidden, that had he gotten into it, we would still be looking for that caleta," he says of the "phenomenally well-made" closet built into the closet in the master bedroom. "With this one, you had to pull the four or five drawers out from the built-in dresser and that would access the back door so you could swing the door open, get into it, lock it from the outside and then someone on the outside would put the drawers back in. So when you walked back in, it looked just like a dresser. You would look at it for hours and say there was nothing there, unless you took the shelves out and were able to manipulate some things that were there and get access to the door, which only opened from the inside."

  • Bringing Cali's Reign to an End

    The day Miguel was captured was a short-lived celebration. "It was a good day for not only DEA but also for the Colombian government, but it was short-lived because we realized at that point we still had a lot of work to do," he says. "We arrested Miguel, but then it was, 'Ok, now we need to focus our attention on Jorge. We need to make sure we get him out.' We had to focus on trying to locate and approach Giullermo Pallomari, because we needed him as a witness. Pacho Herrera was also still out there."

    On Narcos, Pena continued to "smack into walls" while he tried to bring down the cartel, eventually realizing that Cali had bought the presidency by placing Ernesto Samper in office and that the CIA and the Ambassador, his boss, knew about the high levels of corruption. Since Pena this season was a composite of other real-life characters (the real Pena wasn't involved in the hunt for Cali), Feistl says he experienced such frustrations. 

    "There were people we worked with in Cali that were part of the police that we knew were corrupt and proved it," says Feistl of how they kept information close to the chest. "Often times, we said intel came from a different source  and if we had a human source giving us good information, we would disguise it. We never really knew who we were dealing with and who we could count on and trust. There were many hardworking, honest Colombian national police and military personnel that we worked with, but often times that information has to be briefed up and you never know who is hearing or receiving that information."

    Ultimately, an American DEA agent named Joe Toft went on the record, like Pena does on the show, to expose Cali as a "narco-democracy" in September of 1994. Though Feistl says the reaction in Colombia was mixed, the exposure shifted the tides. "It had a big impact and resonated," he says. When Pacho eventually surrendered in 1997, that's when Feistl left Colombia. "Basically, our work here was done and it was time to go."

  • One Lingering Mystery

    One mystery that still remains is the murder of the sicario Navegante (Juan Sebastian Calero) on Narcos. In real life, his name was Cesar Yusti. On the show, the character is shot by Salcedo as the DEA agents are approaching Pallomari (Javier Camara) to transport him to the U.S. In reality, Salcedo was nowhere near the Pallomari capture.

    "At that point in time, Jorge was barricaded up inside of his house with his wife and family for fear they were going to come looking for him to try to kill them," says Feistl. So he and his partner used Salcedo's intel to approach Pallomari's wife, Patricia, at her workplace and explain that Cali had a hit out on her husband. "It took us quite a bit of time to locate Pallomari and assist him in getting out of the country," he says. Eventually, they did and used him as an asset and Pallomari, too, is now in U.S. witness protection.

    But the DEA had nothing to do with killing Yusti. "That’s a question and always a mystery that’s been asked for a long time, is," he says. "I’ve heard Jorge’s version of what he believes happened. It was ironic and very coincidental that he was killed that day that we went to pick up Pallomari and bring him to Bogota."

  • The People Cali Left Behind

    As the show explains, the Rodriguez brothers are serving out life sentences in North and South Carolina prisons, Pacho Herrera was murdered in his Palmira prison and Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote) was killed shortly after escaping his Bogota cell by paramilitary groups. Though some mystery remains around the deaths of the latter two (Chepe was believed to have been killed in a police shootout until a memoir detailed otherwise) the show shared its interpretations of the truth in its depictions.

    Fesitl was part of the extradition team and was present when Gilberto and Miguel were sent to the U.S. in 2004 and 2005, respectively, and that was his last interaction with the pair. Newman said he did not contact the brothers about the show.

    Narcos also introduced a handful of other casualties left behind in the wake of the Cali godfathers. Feistl says the depiction of the death of Miguel's son, David Rodriguez (played by Arturo Castro), was accurate in the show. 

    "In real life, David was well-educated and smart, but he was put in a tough position and he tried to takeover and run as best he could," he says. "Because of who his father was, he was able to act or get away with certain things. He was gunned down by a North Valley member. He was shot six or eight times, I believe."

    After the death of money launderer Franklin Jurado (Miguel Angel Silvestre), viewers never see what happens to his widow, Christina (Kerry Bishe). While Pena was her DEA contact on the show, Feistl said he never had dealings with Christina and has "no idea" about what he involvement was after Franklin's death or her status now.

  • The Godfathers' Legacy

    Narcos continues to walk the fine line between presenting its villains as characters who are addictive to watch, but who are not glorified. Though many viewers went into the first two seasons knowing details about Pablo Escobar, Cali was a lesser-known story.

    "A lot of people didn’t know about the Cali cartel. There were even people I worked with in DEA that didn’t know much about Cali because everything was always focused and publicized with Pablo and Medellin," says Feistl. "This was the kind of story that was always in the shadows.”

    In telling Cali's story, Feistl praised the Narcos team and Netflix for how they portrayed the godfathers. Something Feistl helped them with were the small details, such as the mannerisms and personalities of each. "Each one of them brought something to the table, which was pretty distinctive," he says. "Because of those little subtle differences, that really made them mesh and gel and work together very well as a team."

    Though Fesitl balks at their self-described label of being "gentlemen," he does admit that it is rare for a group of cartel bosses to not betray each other. "They got along well as a unit and part of that was because Miguel and Gilberto were brothers and they grew up and went to school with Santacruz, so they had that relationship," he says. "Pacho was very young when they sent him to New York to set up that distribution outlet there. I think he felt that he was involved in something and was a part of and belonged to something."

  • Where the Drug War Shifts Next

    The end of season three sets the show on track to follow the drug war to the next "real" threat of Mexico. But Newman has not confirmed if he's ready to head straight there just yet. Feistl's history in Colombia provides some hints as to what the show would tackle if it stayed in Colombia, namely by turning its eye to the No. 3 power that is now No. 1: the North Valley cartel.

    Fesitl worked in Colombia for a total of 12 years. His focus was Cali during his first tour from 1994 to 1997, leaving shortly after Pacho's surrender. He came back in 1999, where he overlapped with Pena, and until 2002 they were working against the North Valley cartel. During his final tour from 2004 to 2010, he worked on finalizing the dismantling of North Valley, as well as the a right-wing paramilitary group. In between, he worked in Miami against Colombian traffickers and in Washington, D.C., in the Mexico and Central America section targeting Mexican groups between 1997 and 1999. Now retired, he ended his career in Phoenix working on cases impacting Mexico, Arizona and the southwest border that were aligned or affiliated with the Sinaloa cartel.

    As of now, Feistl says he has not yet had any talks about working with Narcos for season four, but that it would "make sense" for them to go to Mexico. The third season introduced Amado Carrillo Fuentes, aka the Lord of the Skies, of the Juarez Cartel and Newman pointed out that if and when the show goes to Mexico, the show will focus on the war moving closer to U.S. shores.

    "One of the main things, going back to Pablo, was that a lot of that cocaine traffic was going up that Caribbean corridor into Florida," explains Feistl. "The Cali cartel had that vision that 'sooner or later, this corridor is going to get hot and we might need to shift focus.' In ’87 to ’89, they really exploited that Mexican corridor and it was because of NAFTA and the Juarez cartel that they were able to push a lot of cocaine into Mexico on those huge 747 flights they’d land in the desert and offload six, eight, 10 tons or more of cocaine and then bring back these huge cash shipments to Cali."

    He continued, "Where Medellin really revolutionized that Caribbean corridor, Cali revolutionized that trafficking through Mexico, which the North Valley cartel jumped on after extradition. That’s how the North Valley tried to defeat, in their minds, extradition. After Dec. 17, 1997, extradition was in play in Colombia for Colombia nationals who committed crimes after that date. So the North Valley cartel thought, 'Hey, I can avoid extradition. We’ll just send everything that we have through Mexico.' Cali opened the door and the North Valley kind of kicked it through."