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Narcos: The real Jorge Salcedo talks about what the show gets right

The Cali Cartel informant is currently in the witness protection program

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Juan Pablo Gutierrez/NETFLIX

On season 3 of Netflix’s Narcos, it doesn’t take long to realize that one man is at the center of the all the action: Jorge Salcedo.

As the head of security for the Cali Cartel and an eventual informant whose work nearly singlehandedly brought down the whole cartel, Salcedo (played by Matias Varela) and his story are central to the show. If you’ve finished the season, you probably know that he’s currently under witness protection in the United States. Still, he served as a consultant for the new season and spoke extensively with Narcos showrunner Eric Newman to ensure the series’ accuracy.

Luckily for us, the good people at Netflix were able to connect us to Salcedo for an exclusive interview. Calling on a secure phone line from an undisclosed location, Salcedo, now in his late 60s, spoke at length about his time with the cartel, his life since then in the federal witness protection program, and all the things the show gets right — including some of the most harrowing scenes.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How much of Narcos have you seen, especially of the new season? And what do you think?
JORGE SALCEDO: From what I have seen of Narcos — and I haven’t seen the whole thing — it’s a very good, dynamic production.

How did you get involved with this project? And what stories did you tell Eric?
I was invited to L.A. I’ve never seen so many important people in terms of the movies and TV sector. And I went there just to resolve questions. And they had all read the book, but I was interested that they knew me personally. I wanted to be questioned. So they had a lot of questions. It was kind of a double-checking of everything: How was that? Where were you? How did you do that? Who contacted you? What did you say? It was a cross-examination of everything.

How accurate is what you’ve seen so far?
The story in general remains the same [as the truth]. However, they present some happenings so that it was me that did them when that was not really the case. There are one or two incidents that I may have known about or was around when it happened, but it wasn’t always me who was executing all those things. But I know all that is always permissible in filmmaking, for the dynamics of the story, and to keep everyone’s attention and on the edge.

Do you have an example of something that might have been embellished?
I saw one episode, the first or something, where they pull apart one bad guy with two motorcycles. I will say, though it’s horrendous, it’s not far from the [actual] happenings. They did that the same. Not with Harleys, they used two Land Cruisers. I wasn’t there, but I had people who were actually in the execution of these things.

So there’s one very tense scene in the show where you’re taken to a farmhouse for what you thought would be a meeting. Instead, it ends up being an execution.
Oh yes, that was a very tense moment. I was taken there. I was never told the truth, I was lured to the place as a standard procedure. I was told we were going to meet Miguel [Rodriguez, one of the four Kings of Cali]  at a farm whose code was “The Desert.” He told me, “You get there first just to make sure the road is clear is safe for me.” I get there, and the cars arrive there, and all of a sudden these people were just taken by force by people who work at Pacho Herrera’s farm — well, it was a luxury ranch, not a farm.

So all of a sudden the scene became violent. I started hearing screaming. I did not go near it. My role was to be on the outside, make sure the road was clear. But I’ve thought many times, why did they make me do that, to be there? I didn’t have to be there. Was this a “welcome to the club” situation? Or was it a test, to see how brave you are or how you’re going to deal with this? Will you tell everyone what was done here? But whatever it was, I got the picture. They could do this to anybody. To me, to anybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a wife or anyone. They could to do it to me.

There’s a scene where the Americans are coming to arrest Miguel in his home.
That was attempt number one [to arrest Miguel].

Right, they fail, but at the same time Miguel has figured you out and is trying to kill you with a plastic bag over your head. Was that how it really happened?
Something very close happened to that. Because at that point, they were suspecting about me. They were having a meeting, and they were excluding me of everything. I got to know I was excluded when I got a call saying I had to get there. I got a call from Miguel, and he said, “You have to be get me out of this building,” because all of a sudden it was surrounded by police, so I had a request by Miguel. So I got into the meeting, and I was able to tell him what was happening [with the police], so I was able to earn his trust. That’s where the scene of suffocation comes from — it could have happened if I didn’t have that news. If that call didn’t happen, I most likely wouldn’t be alive.

At the end of the season, where they finally capture Palomari, they have you waiting outside in a car, where you kill the hitman Navegante in self-defense.
No. In reality, I never killed him. It was one of those things, I think the DEA guys did that. My logic is fantastic: How could you think that I would be going to the streets? I was hiding in my apartment with my family, protected like a bunker, loaded with guns and grenades to be able to reject any surprise taking of the apartment.

But they have some information that somebody killed him, I don’t know how. For a long time I was thinking that it was the DEA who killed him. I was hiding for a long time. That day … I didn’t do that. It didn’t happen that way.

All I did that night was go to my most secure location to secure my most beloved possession on earth, which is my family. It doesn’t make sense that I’m going to go kill a killer. I’ve never killed anybody!

The show presents a very tense relationship between you and Miguel’s son, David. Was that true to life?
Yes, well, William Rodriguez was his oldest son and his successor. He sometimes complained to me. I always got to appointments first, to check the security around and make sure there wasn’t an ambush or anything. But because I was always at the meeting, I was a witness to everything that was spoken there.

And William would be there, and he was given jobs too. One day, I came first, and he came second. I asked as a courtesy, “How are you doing? You look tired.” He said, “Yes, frankly, my father is putting me to so many things.” He was openly complaining. And at that point, he gave me the chance to speak to him, and I said, “William, the  the advice I can give you is: Don’t inherit that throne. Let it pass.”

But a few months after then, everything was falling. Everyone was going to jail and Miguel said the best thing was to put William in charge of everything. He became a new king, and my position was: He’s the worst enemy I have. He is a new king who has to prove to his dad and everybody else that he’s capable. And there was nothing I could do.

In the show, they also depict you as someone who had a plan to leave the cartel to start your own security firm. Is that right? How did you get involved in the first place?
That part is true. Not much has been said about what sort of person was I. My father was a general. He had very good connections, and when he retired he started working for some oil and chemical companies. And I did engineering studies, and I was doing very specialized services for oil refineries and things like that.

So I thought, why don’t I use my knowledge for more. So I established connections with very high-level companies in Great Britain. I started using very high-level equipment for communications and location detection. And the [Colombian] army was very impressed as well, so I received training and helped the military as well.

In December ’88, my friend retired from the army abruptly. He was very well known, so eventually he was called by some friends who were connected to the cartel. They said, “We need somebody like you to protect us.” Because Pablo Escobar at that time had already made an attempt to kill Miguel Rodriguez with a bomb explosion maybe less than a half-mile from where he lived. They were in total despair.

So they told [my friend] Mario, “We need you.” He said, “Well, I know someone who’s good. And this man is a businessman, and he’s got night vision, heat detectors, and GPS.” Back then, GPS was in the hands of the military only, and I had them.

So I got locked in a room by the cartel. That scene where they have me and Miguel locked in a room [where Miguel asks Jorge to stay on as security head] is identical. I had no option. Nobody asked me, “Would you have a problem with this?” or “Would you consider it?” They just said, “This is the plan.” I had no option of saying no.

So your first assignment was to nail Pablo Escobar?
The thing is, you have to remember … everyone gets emotional now about these killings that ISIS is doing here, there, everywhere. But those guys look like Boy Scouts compared to Pablo. He had put a bomb in the building that destroyed the equivalent of the FBI in Colombia. I don’t even remember how many people he killed just that day. So I had sympathy [for the Cali Cartel’s goals] at that time. [Escobar] was bad, killing soldiers and civilians. 

And then after Pablo was dead, you tried to leave the cartel?
After Pablo was dead, I said, “I’m going. I came here to protect you and your family, but I left my business my behind, so I’m done.” They said, “No way, you have to stay.” They just changed my functions. They wanted to take care of all the politics and people around, because there was now a change in the importance of the Rodiguez brothers [now that Escobar had been eliminated]. So they needed to capture all the politicians onto their side. So my role became other than just Pablo and became to focus on intelligence. It was a mess. They never got into their brains that the best thing they should have done is to give up and say “Hey, Pablo is gone, we’re done.” So I had to start scanning every possibility that might have led to the Rodriguez brothers being taken down, and prevent that.

Did those dangers include the North Valley cartel depicted in Season 3?
That was the other thing. Now that Pablo was dead, not everybody wanted to make peace with Cali. They had already developed another enemy, the Norte Valley. And I told them [Cali], with these guys, you better give up. We don’t have one chance with these killers. These guys are too bad. My strategy was to avoid confrontation. Just hide, have many places, change routes and change communications, and create a kind of a wrong idea of where you are.

Obviously they didn’t listen.
No. My role kept changing. I realized later that I was like in the book 1,001 Nights, where the prince has to keep changing the story to keep people interested. And at that time, there were other things going on — they were reorganizing narco-trafficking and all that. I never wanted to be a part of that, I wanted to be outside. But I knew too much already. So the family said, “No, no, no, you stay here.”

So how old are you now?
Today I am in the late 60s. I have been in witness protection for 22 years. I had to lose my old name, and I’ve been working as an engineer under my new name.

How has your life under witness protection been?
Well, it’s been a very different life from what people usually do at this time [in their life]. Because when I arrived here, I was already in my late 40s. So even though I am an engineer and I have a degree and all that, it was in my name — my old name. So I realized I couldn’t use any of those to get a job with any experience that I could show — in order to eliminate all sources of being found. So I had to give up.

Fortunately I had the means to start a company. But the first five years, I was dedicated to helping my family, to help them accommodate to the lifestyle of the United States. We found a house, and my children were small, so I was taking care of school and friends and everything. And my wife, in my country she was a lawyer, but she lost all her credentials as such. So first thing was her learning English properly. So she was forced into being a full-time student.

And the other thing is that when you get into this program, you don’t go to cities that are highly populated. So there’s not much to do. [Laughs] So we had to accommodate to the lifestyle.

Now that your story is so central to a very popular TV show internationally, do you worry that it might revive interest in you? That people might start wondering, Where is he now?
No, no. In the whole truth, I’m not proud of what I did in general, but I’m proud of what I did in capturing Miguel and bringing down the cartel. And not just the cartel, but the entire corrupt government and the system. But that’s the thing in intelligence, sometimes when you do something good, don’t tell anybody.

MORE NARCOS COVERAGE
Narcos actor Matias Varela on his huge role as Jorge Salcedo
Narcos: Pedro Pascal is still unsure if he’ll be in season 4
Narcos: Pedro Pascal on working without Boyd Holbrook