'Narcos' Producer On The Drug War, Colombia And Escobar's Son's Grievances Before making Narcos, Eric Newman spent years researching Pablo Escobar's story. He says, "For us ... it was very important to show the most balanced look at the [drug] war we possibly could."
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'Narcos' Producer On The Drug War, Colombia And Escobar's Son's Grievances

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'Narcos' Producer On The Drug War, Colombia And Escobar's Son's Grievances

'Narcos' Producer On The Drug War, Colombia And Escobar's Son's Grievances

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's in Washington today. If there were a hall of fame for criminals, it would have to include a notorious Colombian drug kingpin.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As narrator) Pablo Escobar has said, sometimes I'm God. If I say man dies, he dies the same day.

DAVIES: That's from the Netflix series "Narcos." Its first two seasons, now available for streaming, tell the story of Pablo Escobar. He made billions making and selling cocaine, which he spent on a sprawling estate with elephants and zebras, but also on houses, schools and hospitals for the poor and a successful campaign for congress.

He was also a ruthless killer who once bombed an airliner and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of police, government officials and innocent civilians. "Narcos," which is anchored by the widely-praised performance of Wagner Moura as Escobar, tells the stories of Escobar and the police and public officials who hunted him, including two American DEA agents.

Our guest is Eric Newman, the series' executive producer. He spent years researching the story and putting the series together. Among the films he's produced are "Dawn Of The Dead" and "Children Of Men."

Well, Eric Newman welcome to FRESH AIR. For those who don't know or don't remember, who was Pablo Escobar?

ERIC NEWMAN: Pablo Escobar was the nominal head of something called the Medellin Cartel, which was a confederation of cocaine dealers centered in the city of Medellin, Colombia, and became active in the late '70s, got into cocaine in the early '80s and became the largest supplier of cocaine to America - largely through Miami - until his death in 1993, when he was finally tracked down and killed by Colombian police.

But he was a mythic figure in Colombia, larger than life. He fancied himself as a man of the people, very charitable when he needed to be, and that afforded him a certain level of protection. He was an outlaw, to many a - sort of an outlaw hero. And to America, he was very much the face of the cocaine epidemic.

DAVIES: And inflicted a lot of violence.

NEWMAN: Tremendous violence. His entire career - assassinations, bombings, murders, you name it. Violence came very easy to him and always with a - he felt an excuse for - he was just fighting back. But in reality, he was very likely a sociopath and certainly a terrorist when need be.

DAVIES: Now, this happens in Colombia. But...

NEWMAN: Yes...

DAVIES: ...Two of the key characters are American Drug Enforcement Administration agents, two DEA agent, Steve Mercy (ph)...


DAVIES: ...And Javier Pena. You found...

NEWMAN: Steve Murphy, yes.

DAVIES: ...Real guys. You found them. And...

NEWMAN: Yes, I did. I began a process of tracking them down. At the time, they were both serving federal agents and as such were not able to cooperate and certainly not lend their advisory skills and sell us their life rights.

I met with Steve, I would say, about six or seven years ago now. And we met in Washington, and he told me that he was thinking about retiring. And I told him what I wanted to do, what our plan was and he said sounds great. You know, he's a fantastic guy, as is Javier Pena, who continued with the DEA I think for another year after that.

And they offered this perspective that, you know, I felt very privileged to get. You know, they were there. They - and they have a - their own point of view, obviously. Long-serving DEA agents tend to have a - probably for the sake of the job a fairly uncomplicated view of the drug war in that we need to wage it to stop these men and bring them down. And I think that that certainty lent itself well as an aspect of our project because for us, it was very important to show the most balanced look at the war we possibly could because, you know, there are just as many people who will believe that we're waging the war on drugs in error. I think in the case of Steve and Javier, they're very pleased with the outcome bringing down Escobar and then subsequently bringing down Cali and so on and so forth. And it was great to have their insight and advice.

DAVIES: This is a big question, but can you think of something that these agents told you that you didn't know that really opened your eyes?

NEWMAN: Wow. There's really no shortage of things that I - that we didn't know going in. I think that the level of corruption was staggering. And the - and obviously the affinity that people had for Escobar - you know, what made him so difficult to catch was there were a number of people in Colombia, particularly in Medellin, who believe that he was a hero and - which played directly against the sort of American - bad-guy-in-Latin-America image that we've cultivated over the years. You know, our interference in Latin American affairs for the past 60 years - or actually, you know, you can go back to, you know, the Spanish-American War - it's really for over a hundred years, but more pronounced in the - you know, the era of the Cold War. It wasn't hard to make us the bad guys and to make Escobar the good guys, particularly for many Colombians, and that surprised me.

And it wasn't - knowing it now, I do realize it makes perfect sense. Colombia doesn't really see itself as having a cocaine problem. Colombia has a capitalism problem. America has a cocaine problem.

And what Escobar was doing and what the drug dealers have done since is continue to feed the - that demand for cocaine. And for many Colombians, the fact that they were bringing billions and billions of dollars back into Colombia out of circulation in the United States, that was really the problem. And I didn't know just how ingrained that philosophy was among the Colombian people.

DAVIES: Right. It's interesting because I think most Americans' view of Escobar - I mean, it's been a long time since he died, but...


DAVIES: ...The typical view is he was fantastically wealthy, had exotic animals on his estate. And that's kind of most of what a lot of us know. We're going to talk about...


DAVIES: ...Some other darker sides here. But the other thing is he had this Robin Hood image...

NEWMAN: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: ...For building stuff in slums, particularly in Medellin/ I mean, how much did he do for poor people there?

NEWMAN: A fair amount. You know, he was - he killed a lot of poor people, too. You know, so I think it probably all comes out in the wash. He knew that the best way to protect himself was to ingratiate himself with the Colombian people, for sure. So there was a strategy to that, but there was also a megalomania to it.

You know, he wanted to be loved. He wanted to - he did have dreams of becoming president. He did, you know, run for congress and win as an alternate. He was definitely driven by a need for acceptance. You know, there was clearly some narcissistic personality disorder there that drove him. And I think he had a general fondness for - if not the people themselves, the idea of the people.

You know, Colombia is a very class-oriented society, you know, where there is a small percentage that owns everything and there is a much larger working class that has struggled for a long time. And so the need for the kind of proletariat hero was there. He took advantage of it. And he - you know, he was to many the man that America and the ruling families of Colombia

NEWMAN: Colombia didn't want to succeed. And that made him heroic to them.

DAVIES: I want to talk a little more about these two DEA agents that you got long after the fact, Steve Murphy and...


DAVIES: ...Javier Pena, who worked on this. Did they have photos? Did they have documents? Did they introduce you to Colombians?

NEWMAN: Oh, yeah. I met many of the men involved in the manhunt for Escobar. I met the man who killed Rodriguez Gacha, who was really an awful member of the Medellin cartel. In some ways, more brutal than Escobar because whereas Escobar did care slightly what people thought of him, Gacha didn't care at all. He was a, you know, he was a big pioneer in the paramilitary movement. And he was just a butcher.

I met a lot of people involved in the hunt for Escobar. I met former President Gaviria, which was a real thrill. No, they had pretty incredible access to the people and to the documentation. You know, they both have kept - they were meticulous record keepers as federal agents. But they've sort of continued on, pulling data together. And they really - they gave us a lot of sort of inside info, including some amazing pictures, some of which we use in the story.

In fact, the only pictures of Escobar's death scene were taken by Steve Murphy. So any pictures you'll see from that rooftop, they were all taken by him. And he tells the story that, you know, he's there and they've killed Escobar. And he's on the roof. And he realizes no one's taking pictures. There's no, you know, police photographer. Or there's no - they're just sort of about to put him on a gurney and take him out of there. And so he documented it for posterity. He felt like it was not just something that he, you know, he wanted to do because it had been a big part of his life, but also it was something that he felt people needed to see had happened in order for people to believe it. Because there, you know, the threat of, you know, Escobar as a ghost in the countryside, you know, roaming, you know, and waging his war against the Americans was a terrifying idea. And I think they wanted to make sure that everyone knew that he was dead.

DAVIES: Wow. Eric Newman is executive producer of the series "Narcos," which is available for streaming on Netflix. We'll continue our conversation after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.



And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Eric Newman. He is the executive producer of the series "Narcos." Its second season is now available for streaming on Netflix.

One of the storytelling techniques in this series is the use of the DEA agent Steve Murphy's voice as a voiceover...


DAVIES: ...Describing the action, kind of moving the story forward. Reminds me a lot of Henry Hill in "Goodfellas."


DAVIES: Was that an inspiration at all?

NEWMAN: For - absolutely. It was something that, you know, Jose Padilha - who directed the first two episodes and who was my partner on the show - it was something that he felt very strongly about. What it gave us, beyond the fact that in the beginning we were slightly concerned for American audiences - A, by the amount of Spanish that was going to be spoken... And that seemed like a natural way to continue to interject some English into the show. But that sort of faded very quickly. We felt like we were in good shape with people accepting the, you know, subtitles and going with it.

But it allowed us an opportunity to present an American point of view. And not just any American point of view, a uniquely naive American point of view, which is where the character sort of begins. You know, the first season and aspects of the second season are about the education of this character who comes down to Colombia like John Wayne to solve the cocaine problem. And I think that's really the deepest flaw in the American war on drugs. This idea that we can ride in to a foreign country, set up shop, take out the bad guys and somehow that's going to stem the flow of cocaine into America. And the reality is you're never going to win a war on drugs, or any war for that matter, by operating on the supply. You have to approach the demand. And as a character, Steve Murphy is a guy that's not thinking about the demand, certainly not in the beginning. He's only thinking about this, you know, mustached villain who keeps sending us cocaine that we don't really want. And we know that's not true.

DAVIES: Right. Escobar headed the Medellin cartel. There was a rival cartel in Cali. Just - what was their place in the drug trade then and later?

NEWMAN: Cali was the number two cocaine cartel during the reign of Escobar. And they were very comfortable to be number two. They weren't flashy. They weren't interested in being president. They were more interested in owning the president.

And they had a variety of legitimate interests. In fact, they own one of the largest chains of drug stores in South America. They own the America de Cali soccer team. They had ingratiated themselves in every corner of Colombian politics. And if Escobar was a single-cell organism, you know, fairly uncomplicated in terms of his desires and his - certainly what he was willing to do to achieve them. These guys were much smarter, much savvier and much more complicated.

There were four of them. The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, Pacho Herrera and Jose Santacruz Londono. And they were just as venal and awful in their own way. But they were much quieter about it.

DAVIES: I want to hear a clip. This is from the second season of "Narcos" when Pablo Escobar, the - you know, this fantastically wealthy, violent drug kingpin in Colombia, is on the ropes a bit. And he has a lot of enemies besides the police and the DEA. There's a right-wing death squad known as Los Pepes that has been savagely murdering Escobar's men essentially with the acquiescence of the government in Bogota. And then the rival Cali drug cartel has been cooperating with them as well. The Calis also own a chain of drug stores. And this is a scene where we hear Agent Murphy, who's played by Boyd Holbrook in the series, narrating what happens as Pablo Escobar tries to strike back at those who are undermining his empire. Let's listen.


BOYD HOLBROOK: (As Agent Steve Murphy) Unable to lash out directly at his enemies in Cali, he went after their prized legitimate business, one they couldn't hide, their beloved chain of drug stores. And he blew them to [expletive] along with anyone unlucky enough to be standing nearby. We're talking dozens of bombs. He put the city of Bogota on edge, the Colombian government on notice. Continue to ignore Los Pepes, refused to acknowledge their crimes and you're next.

DAVIES: And that's Boyd Holbrook as Agent Steve Murphy in the series "Narcos." The executive producer, Eric Newman, is our guest today. In what way did our role contribute to the level of violence here? I mean, Escobar was the one bombing the drug stores. He bombed an airliner trying to get a presidential candidate once, killed hundreds of people, maybe thousands.

NEWMAN: Hundreds of people, yep, thousands. I think that our willingness to accept help from an organization that was no better than Pablo Escobar...

DAVIES: The death squads...

NEWMAN: I think that - yeah, I think that, you know, once you employ - and we've done it historically, you know, throughout Latin America. And our reasoning, perhaps it's sound. I think you could make a compelling argument - or at least you could've at one time - that the threat of communism is, you know, the greatest threat we face. I've never believed that personally, but I see how some might.

And a lot of the things that we did in service of defeating communism were really ugly. And, you know, the American footprint in Latin America and South America is not a - it's - our role has not been a flattering one. I think our ability to side with people strictly because they are the enemy of our enemies has put us into business with some pretty awful people. And I think that we did it with Cali and the paramilitaries and - you know, in Los Pepes.

DAVIES: You know, vice cops everywhere get in morally ambiguous situations. And you spoke to Agent Pena. Did he do this? Did he collaborate with these dead squads? Did he get in trouble for it?

NEWMAN: He was suspected of it, certainly. The relationship between the Colombian National Police, the DEA and the - and Los Pepes was incredibly complicated, in fact more complicated in some ways than we depicted on the show. And there were times certainly where Javier was accused. It was a very, very gray area.

You know, the president of the country, Cesar Gaviria, who I think is an honorable guy and was, I think, a very good president during a very difficult time, definitely looked the other way at this group. They were doing God's work as far as anyone was concerned. And people didn't feel good about it, but Escobar had been beating them at every turn. And I think for a country that had suffered that much and for an administration that had suffered that much, seeing Escobar get a little bit of his own medicine probably felt pretty good.

DAVIES: Well, Agent Pena, who in this series collaborates with the death squads, went back and had a long career in government service afterwards...


DAVIES: ...So I assume he was not formally charged.


DAVIES: And I assume you had some conversations about this, I don't know.

NEWMAN: Yes. We - you know, I told him what we were going to do and how we were going to depict it. And he understood it. I mean, obviously, we've been careful about who and how we - who we vilify and how we vilify them. You know, my personal opinion of Pena is that - of Javier Pena is that he's a great guy, and he, you know, probably did some things that crossed lines and felt like he needed to. And I think it was with the full cooperation of our government and the Colombian government.

DAVIES: Eric Newman is executive producer of the Netflix series "Narcos." After a break, we'll talk about what the series star, Wagner Moura, had to do to look and sound like Pablo Escobar and about the reaction of Escobar's son to "Narcos." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's in Washington today. We're speaking with Eric Newman, executive producer of the Netflix series "Narcos." Its first two seasons now available for streaming tell the story of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

This series, the first two seasons focus on Pablo Escobar. And it doesn't work unless you have a terrific actor to play Escobar, and you do.

NEWMAN: We do.

DAVIES: Wagner Moura, a Brazilian...


DAVIES: ...Who didn't even speak Spanish. I mean, tell us about casting him and how he prepared.

NEWMAN: Well, we - Jose Padilha and I had discussed this show for a number of years and had always from the beginning thought, well, we have to get Wagner to play Escobar. Now, yes, he's a native Portuguese speaker. He's a Brazilian. And he had a little bit of Spanish, but he was willing to move almost immediately. The moment we began prepping the show, let's say we were maybe a three or four months out, he moved to Medellin, and he enrolled at the college of Antioquia to learn Spanish and Spanish in the dialect that Escobar spoke. And I think that he did an amazing job. His performance is staggering. I mean, he is really one of the great actors in the world. And...

DAVIES: He was also a thin guy, Pablo Escobar...


DAVIES: ...Carried some weight.

NEWMAN: Yeah, he put on 40 pounds in the first season. I think it was hard. You know, it sounds like a - for me, that sounds kind of fun. You know, I'd love to have a job that necessitated me putting on weight. But for him it was not easy. And I think, you know, it sort of added to the general - you know, he had such a great gait that he had found. You know, this walk, it's almost like - it's a waddle that he does. And when he had the - you know, put the weight on, it made it even better. You know, he's just - his physicality, you know, he really inhabited the role of Escobar.

And, you know, fortunately, Escobar was a megalomaniac. And he had a lot of - you know, he loved being filmed. And so there's a lot of footage of him just in sort of - you know, that move of him hitching up his belts and this kind of, you know, slightly awkward gait that he has. And, you know, he - and Wagner really got into that. It was - it was actually a great - it was a real privilege to watch him become Escobar, and equally - an equal privilege to watch him become himself again, which I'm happy to report he's back to his fighting weight.

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK. Well, I wanted to get a sense of his performance. So I thought we'd play a clip here. Now, he speaks Spanish in the film.


DAVIES: This is a moment in - when Escobar's fortunes are declining, and he has sent his wife and children out of Colombia for their own safety on a Lufthansa Airlines - Lufthansa Airlines flight to Germany. But the government there denies them entry because they're carrying a big bag of currency. And his wife has called him back in Colombia, and he is furious.

And what we'll hear here is his reaction. We'll hear the narration of Boyd Holbrook as Agent Murphy describing what's happening. And we'll hear some of the reaction played by the - Wagner Moura playing Pablo Escobar. Let's listen.


HOLBROOK: (As Agent Murphy) While the authorities were using all the political pressure they could to keep Escobar's family in play, Pablo was practicing his own special form of diplomacy. First, he called the German embassy in Bogota.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Spanish).

WAGNER MOURA: (As Pablo Escobar, speaking Spanish).

HOLBROOK: (As Agent Steven Murphy) Then he threatened to bomb a couple of Lufthansa planes.

MOURA: (As Pablo Escobar, speaking Spanish).

HOLBROOK: (As Agent Steven Murphy) Then he dialed up President Gaviria, who couldn't take the call because he was already on the phone with the German ambassador. And then Pablo did something he'd never done before in his life. He called a cop, and he asked for help - not just any cop, but the top cop in the country, Attorney General de Greiff.

MOURA: (As Pablo Escobar, speaking Spanish).

DAVIES: And that's Wagner Moura playing Pablo Escobar in the Netflix series "Narcos." Our guest is Eric Newman, the executive producer. Pretty scary guy.

NEWMAN: Yeah, yeah. I'm really happy you chose that clip, actually, because I've always loved that sequence. And we - and it kind of turned - became exactly as we had designed it. You know, this is the impotent rage of a guy who is truly on the ropes. His family is imperiled, is stuck in Germany and about to be sent back.

And he has no - a guy who has had complete control over his surroundings for so long now has no control. And here he is yelling at people who don't even know who he is probably. You know, the guy at the embassy and the woman at the Lufthansa counter. And all the while, he's wearing this - the same Benetton, you know, long sleeve rugby shirt that I had when I was - (laughter) when I was 15.

And there's just something about it, you know, that the - it's a great moment to point to when people criticize us. And they have on a fairly limited basis. But, you know, they've wondered if we're glorifying Escobar. And I just don't think - I don't think even remotely so. I mean, this guy is - season two of this show is a complete physical and emotional collapse for this character.

DAVIES: He threatens to kill every German in Colombia to the...

NEWMAN: Every German in Colombia. Yeah, and he's just kind of like, hello, you know, who is this? You know, at this point, he ceases to be taken seriously, which is a very dangerous thing because what does he do next? But - he plants, you know, one of the biggest bombs he's ever planted. You know, he is a - equal parts sad and dangerous.

DAVIES: Eric Newman is executive producer of the series "Narcos," which is available for streaming on Netflix. We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Eric Newman. He is the executive producer of the series "Narcos." Its second season is now available for streaming on Netflix. But - now, you do take some liberties...


DAVIES: ...In telling the story.


DAVIES: And I'm sure you know that Escobar's son, Sebastian Marroquin...


DAVIES: ...Living in Argentina has pointed out a bunch of things that he says were inaccurately portrayed. Any of those trouble you?

NEWMAN: No. You know, we have had - our relationship - or, for lack of a better word, we really have no relationship with Juan Pablo Escobar - was one that was a decision that we made early on to - not to - you know, he had reached out to us through a filmmaker who had made a pretty amazing documentary called "The Sins Of My Father."

DAVIES: Wait, so he reached - Escobar's son reached out to you, right?

NEWMAN: Yeah, well...

DAVIES: Right, go ahead.

NEWMAN: ...To be fair to him, the filmmaker who had a, you know, very close relationship with him asked us if we would like to meet him and speak with him. Now, whether that was him saying, hey, I want to talk to those guys or not I can't say for sure. But it was definitely - an offer of an arrange - of an introduction was made. I spoke to the DEA about it, and they unequivocally told me that if we were going to be working with him they weren't interested in being involved.

You know, they - he was 16 at the time of his father's death. Their take on him was he was a bad kid. You know, that he was present for a lot of - you know, in the room for murders and tortures and, you know, had threatened to kill a bunch of people after the death of his father. Now, I don't judge him at all. I think that what happened to him is an incredible tragedy to have - you know, to - I don't - I'm not going to judge somebody for being born to a man that, you know, is - was a monster.

You know, I don't know that I would've done any different. You know, taking a stand as a teenager against, you know, what your father was doing when half the country believed - or at least a sizable percentage of the country believed that he was - you know, had some heroic qualities, it would be very hard to do. We - you know, I've looked a little bit at his - you know, his sort of list of grievances, and many of them were - are small. We kept him a child throughout...

DAVIES: Right.

NEWMAN: ...The show, which was a decision that we made because we didn't judge him. To have a kid, a 16-year-old kid who's, you know, working the phones on behalf of his father, who is, you know, making threats as he did, it just didn't seem like it would - it was fair to him. And it didn't, in our opinion, serve the story.

DAVIES: And, you know, you also use a lot of archival footage and real photos, which, you know, when you're telling a story and you're kind of taking your audience on this journey which is, you know, based on fact but it's its own story and it's shot in - you know, in your own cinematography and then we see grainy shots of Pablo or the carnage of the wars - I have to say it works. But I'm wondering kind of how you made those decisions.

NEWMAN: You know, it's - we definitely took a gamble. And we worried that at times it would bring people out of the show, particularly when you saw a character, you know, whom one of our actors is portraying. But we found that it had a very - it had the reverse effect, which was it really added to the authenticity. It was helpful to remind people as often as we could that this happened, that this was real, that you can go on Wikipedia, you know, while you're watching the show and you can see that Pablo Escobar did in fact blow up an airplane, that Los Pepes was a - you know, this sort of unholy alliance of these - you know, these different anti-Escobar elements.

You can find the bookstore bombing in Bogota. You can find that Escobar killed, you know, Luis Carlos Galan. You know, there are - we wanted to continually remind people that this is real. This all happened. And - because otherwise it's so absurd you almost wouldn't believe it. You know, if we were inventing this, if there was this much incident, this many unconscionable things that Escobar did, you'd just think no one man could be responsible for this much. And I think that archival reminds the viewer that, yes, in fact, he did do these things.

DAVIES: You shot the film on location in Colombia and...


DAVIES: ...You know, and some of the actors in the series are Colombian. Others are from other parts of Latin America. And I'm sure a lot of the crew, not to mention just people on the street, of course, were Colombian people who experienced some of these events and were affected by them. Did that, I don't know, give an additional kind of emotional freight to it all?

NEWMAN: Absolutely. You know, and to our detriment, maybe, in the early days of season one because we were shooting in these neighborhoods, you know, in Medellin and people would come by and ask what we were doing. And when we told them what we were doing - and they were very polite, but they were very dismissive. And, you know, they wondered, why would you do that? You know, we've heard that story a million times. You know, why are you guys here shooting a - you know, we are more than just Pablo Escobar.

And seeing the shift between season one and season two now that people had - in Columbia, where the show is very, very well-regarded, they treat us differently now. Now they - you know, the stories come out and the people talk about the things that we got right. And obviously there are some things that - you're never going to get everything wrong, particularly when you're telling - you're never going to get everything right, particularly when you're telling a true story. And there are - but there are - it's nice to be able to speak to people who lived through it and to be told that, you know, we got it right.

DAVIES: Eric Newman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NEWMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Eric Newman is executive producer of the Netflix series "Narcos." It's been renewed for two more seasons. Coming up, we remember Curtis Hanson, who directed the film "LA Confidential." This is FRESH AIR.

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