Jose “Chepe” Santacruz Londono was one of the most colorful Cali Cartel godfathers, the murderous group of Colombian drug lords that also included Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela.
Known as “Chepe,” Santacruz Londono was the drug cartel’s “man in New York.” He was played in Narcos Season 3 by Pêpê Rapazote, a Portugal-born actor who once worked as an architect, and who spoke with Heavy about the well-received role, the culmination of which was a dramatic and memorable shootout in a beauty salon.
Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.
How similar was the real Don Chepe, a trained engineer, to the character seen in Narcos? The Narcos 3 creators have been open about the fact that the show largely depicts real life, but it deviates to fiction at times for specific scenes. If anything, the real Chepe led an even more dramatic life than you see in Narcos 3, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Cali Cartel after the fall of Pablo Escobar, the protagonist in seasons 1 and 2.
“What is fiction?…There is a lot of reality the show was based on,” Rapazote told Heavy. “…There is a lot of reality in this.” If anything, he said, the series toned down the real-life exploits of the Cali godfathers. “These guys were crazy,” with real-life stories so spectacular they read as if the best script writers in Hollywood came up with them, Rapazote said.
Chepe, a chemical engineer, was such a dramatic real-life character that he was tailor-made for Netflix. “I don’t think he was thinking about cutting cocaine at the age of 20, but he was an amazing guy,” said Rapazote of the character. “He was very much in love with the science, with the whole process… he was always wearing overalls, not very clean….He was some sort of intellectual, chemically speaking…He said, ‘I will go to New York,’ and he opened over 20 labs in Manhattan in Brooklyn and Queens, right under New Yorkers’ noses.” Another unique aspect to Chepe’s personality? His “sense of humor,” which stood in contrast to that of the more dour Rodriguez Orejuela brothers.
Of that beauty salon scene, Rapazote said, “It was amazing to be able to do the scene always with the upper hand, always a royal straight flush on my hands, underneath the gown, I’m in charge, and they don’t even know it or dream it.” It was one of the most memorable scenes in the season.
William Rempel wrote a book on the Cali Cartel. It’s called At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel, and it focuses on the story of Jorge Salcedo, the security chief for the cartel. He writes on his website of the real Chepe, “He often dressed in the work clothes of a simple farmer and sometimes seemed a bit of a bumbler when it came to business matters. His adolescent pranks could test everyone’s patience. But he was the wrong man to underestimate …or to threaten. When a Spanish-language journalist in New York wrote bad things about him, Chepe sent killers to gun down the man at a restaurant in Queens. When a Cali country club refused him a membership, Chepe ordered an exact replica of its clubhouse built on his own property.”
Rempel’s book says, “He seemed jovial and self-deprecating, even a bit mischievous. But he sometimes took his penchant for teasing too far… Chepe was proudly unsophisticated. He also was a street fighter. And in brawls, as in practical jokes, overkill was his trademark.”
According to Rapazote, the show filmed more scenes about the New York story line, but some of it didn’t make the series due to length. “The labs were built in Brooklyn and the Bronx. They were amazing, beautiful sets; really there was a full story. It is what it is,” he said, adding that he initially auditioned for the character of Jorge Salcedo before he was given the role of Chepe.
A 1995 New York Times article on Chepe said, “A fugitive whom officials describe as one of Colombia’s most powerful drug lords has been charged with importing tons of cocaine into New York and sending millions of dollars back home through an intricate money-laundering operation.” The article reported that Chepe also used the nickname “Victor Crespo.”
“In 1981, narcotics agents looking for Victor Crespo stopped Mr. Santacruz at a parking lot in Kennedy Airport. They looked at his passport, which gave the name Jose Santacruz Londono. Unaware that Mr. Santacruz was Crespo, they let him go,” The Times recounted. The real Chepe was eventually shot to death by police along a highway outside Medellin.
Rapazote has also appeared in “Shameless” and “Blood Ties.”
“Growing up he was always curious, diving into various art fields and almost studied physics and engineering before he pursued architecture, a happy medium to practice multiple art forms,” a press release from his agency says.
“Soon he discovered a passion for acting, nominated for a Golden Globe award in Portugal for his role in JURA, a Golden Nymph award for the Monte-Carlo TV Festival for his role in ‘Pai à Força’ all before making his way to LA in 2010 where he continued to book high brow jobs including JimmySteve’s father-in-law in Showtime’s ‘Shameless.'” He spends his spare time biking, with family in Portugal, and making unique coffee paintings, the release said.
Rapazote told Heavy that he also lived in Venezuela for years and was “born to the arts,” playing musical instruments and being immersed in classical music. He was working as an architect when a friend enticed him to take a theater class, and he eventually chose acting as a career. He said that he is “in love with the American continent” and desires “to work and get to know people and cultures,” describing himself in that vein as wanting “to be an immigrant for the rest of my life.”
He speaks five languages and noted that he appreciates the diversity in modern Hollywood, where there are more roles for Latino actors and others. As for Narcos season 4, he thinks the show will “go back in time” now and “focus on the early days of Mexican cartels, Juarez.”
He said if he could have chosen to play any character in Narcos, it would have still been Chepe. “He was having fun every step of the way… he was the brightest” of the Cali godfathers, he said, adding, “I was very, very happy and…[there’s] a lot more to tell about Chepe.”
Maybe Netflix should consider a New York story line spinoff.