Real-Life ‘Narcos’: DEA Agent Chris Feistl Talks Taking On the Cali Cartel

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The story of how cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was chased and eventually gunned down on a Medellin rooftop is a tough one to follow. The creators of Narcos knew this when they were searching for the next chapter of their runaway Netflix hit, but director Andrés Baiz reveals that the choice became clear while they were wrapping Escobar’s tale up.

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“I think we all knew the Cali Cartel story had to be next,” says the Colombian-born Baiz, who himself was raised in the city of Cali while the cartel was in power. “Even though they didn’t have the theatrics that Escobar did, their genesis is just as interesting if not more. I used to go to school with their kids, and they would be there to pick them up, smiles on their faces. They were running this massive drug enterprise, but you would never know it.”

Despite their public persona, the DEA has recognized the Cali Cartel as “the most powerful crime syndicate in history.” Bringing to the screen a saga as complex as theirs, with the gritty realism that Narcos has become known for, required experts who had boots on the ground during the cartel’s rule. Through author William Rempel, whose novel At the Devil’s Table was used as source material, they were connected with DEA agent Chris Feistl, played in the series by Michael Stahl-David.

Feistl, who spent 12 years and three tours in Colombia, shared what it was like seeing his life portrayed in the show and taking on the massively connected drug empire.

How was the Cali Cartel different than Escobar’s operation?

There were a lot of public threats and violence connected to Pablo Escobar. Cali was very low key compared to that, and while they did perpetrate violence, they would always do it very quietly, disposing of bodies in the river and burying them effectively. They always referred to themselves as “The Gentlemen of Cali” and were adamant in maintaining their reputation as legitimate businessmen. They owned drug stores. They employed around 4,000 people, and even had an interest in the banks.

Their drug operation was even more impressive though, right?

They were controlling distribution of narcotics in many major American cities like New York, Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and more. They were to blame for about 85 percent of the cocaine coming into the U.S., and 90 percent of the marijuana. By the mid to late ‘80s they were sending huge amounts of cocaine through Mexico. They were buying 727s, jet aircraft, taking out every seat and comfort, and packing them full with cocaine to land in the deserts of Mexico.

How did that make your job difficult?

These guys were rapidly investing the money back into the Cali, and because of that about 40 percent of the economics in Cali were coming from them. They had informants everywhere. They even paid for police stations, so that can give you an idea on the police corruption that was going on.

So how did you make headway?

I was doing a lot more unilateral work, because every single person in Cali was compromised. The only way we were going to take these guys down was through sources, so in order for us to do that we had to overtly work with the Colombians during the day, but the real work was done at night when we were on our own. Every night we were going all over the city chasing sources, talking to different people. But it was important to keep up the appearance that we were working with the Colombian military and police, before we went out to do our covert work.

It had to be unnerving knowing how protected they were in the community.

The unofficial rule from the Cali Cartel was not to mess with us. Not to hurt the DEA, because they were worried about what happened in Panama. Even still, we were being followed all of the time, by even the police, the military, and taxi drivers. There were no Americans being tourists in Cali at the time, so if you were white, they assumed you were DEA. The fact was you were always looking over your shoulder. Always.

The day that you met Jorge Salcedo, the Cali Cartel security chief turned informant, seemed like a turning point in the investigation.

That was a particularly intense day, and I would say one of the times I was the most afraid. Salcedo was a counter-intelligence officer and guerilla fighter. Of course that is going to be a scary. The guy is an expert in everything, and we have agreed to meet him an hour outside of the city in the middle of nowhere. No backup. He is asking me to come alone and meet him in a cane field. I remember driving out there and thinking, “This is crazy.” We made sure to get out there several hours earlier than the official meeting time, so we could look for surveillance. Found some places that we could hide and return fire if it came down to that.

Did that scene play out in real life like it did in the show?

I was actually on set with them in Cali while they were filming that scene. They had it written just a little different. But they were open to a few changes. I saw that they were having Salcedo jump into the backseat, which I corrected them on. You would never have a threat like that sit behind you; he was sitting in the passenger seat with David in the backseat. The fact that they were open to correcting elements like that gave me a lot of confidence in the producers.

How has the city changed since you were stationed down there?

It has changed so much, but there are certain parts of the city that you can drive through that look exactly the same. There were other areas that are completely unrecognizable. I’ll be honest, I didn’t do too much sightseeing while I was down there. The only person that I hung out with down in Cali was my partner David Mitchell, and we only stayed in safe houses. There was no going out and drinking. The odds of running into a problem while out at night were too high to risk it.

For Javier Pena, who you worked with, the day Escobar was taken down was a career highlight. Do you have a moment that is your landmark day?

The day that Miguel [Rodríguez Orejuela, a former leader of the Cali Cartel] got arrested was a huge moment for us. I remember hitting the door. There were only six of us, two Americans, and we didn’t know exactly what we were walking into. There was supposed to be a bigger support crew, but it was difficult to get down to where he was. We had to repel down. Fortunately it went all right, and that was a big day.

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