When Pablo Escobar’s reign came to a bloody end, his family barely escaped the carnage. As the hit TV series Narcos returns, the drug baron’s real life son tells Frederick Bernas his story
Juan Pablo Escobar found out his father was a gangster aged just seven years old. “That was what he did,” he says. “He never had any problem with me knowing about it. During his last year of life, when I was hiding out with him and my mother, we passed pretty much all the time chatting because there was nothing else to do. I had the chance to really get to know my father – his way of thinking and doing things.”
Being the child of any violent criminal is difficult. But being the only son of perhaps the world’s most famous drug baron is an experience unique to Juan Pablo, who now goes by the name Sebastian Marroquin, describes himself as a pacifist and has written a book about his father and their life together, which is published in English this week.
For much of the 1980s, Juan Pablo’s father, Pablo Escobar, was one of the most famous men in the world. The Colombian drug kingpin from Medellin became the archetypal modern gangster, the Al Capone of his day. The Escobar myth was driven by lurid tales of mass executions, extraordinary corruption, decadence and his Robin Hood proclivities, distributing some of his ill-gotten gains to the poor of Colombia.
When Escobar finally agreed to go to prison in 1991, he built the La Catedral jail himself, equipping it with a football field, disco, bar and waterfall. Oil paintings hung on the walls and Miss Colombia contestants attended champagne-fuelled parties.
Crucially, there was also a radio transmitter and fax machine, so that he could continue his business selling cocaine. At one point his Medellin cartel was estimated to have control of 80% of the cocaine entering America. It spent an estimated $2,500 per month just on rubber bands to hold together piles of cash.
Eventually it ended, almost inevitably, in a shootout with police on a Medellin rooftop in 1993. The myth, though, has continued to grow – most recently in the form of Narcos, the hit show about Escobar’s life that returns to Netflix this week.
That was the end for Escobar, but just the beginning for Juan Pablo. He was born into unimaginable privilege; the chocolates for his first communion were brought by private jet from Switzerland, and he owned nearly 30 motorbikes by the time he was 11. But fear replaced luxury as his father’s life became dominated by political struggles and cartel feuds, and the family spent much of their time on the run.
Escobar left his son an extraordinarily complex legacy, which plays out in the book. On the one hand, he does not shy away from the vicious killer who raised him, acknowledging that “many of the terrible things that have been said about him sadly seem to be quite accurate”. But he also paints a picture of a man who was fiercely devoted to his family, who loved and was loved in return by his young son.
At home, Escobar the executioner transformed into a model father who doted on his wife and children. “He was extremely affectionate and respectful – he didn’t even say curse words. He was calm, respectful of my mother and women in general,” says Juan Pablo, speaking from Colombia, where he is researching his second book. Somewhat ironically, his father educated him about the effects and dangers of drugs from a young age, imbuing him with the mantra: “The brave one is he who doesn’t try.”
“I think the book shows my father in all possible extremes,” says Juan Pablo. “The extreme love for his family, and the extreme violence he used to defend his family or personal interests.”
I wonder why he has decided to write the book now, after so much time has passed. “We had to wait for everybody to stop talking about Pablo Escobar,” he says. “Once that happened, it was my turn.”
Juan Pablo believes it is his duty to give his father’s many victims the unvarnished truth. “I felt it was important to send an unequivocal message to young people,” he says, “that this story should not be repeated or imitated in any of its stages.” In the speeches he gives to young people he tells them that his father was “really only able to enjoy 10% of his life,” spending the rest caught up in violence or escaping from enemies.
Indeed he believes his book is an important counterbalance to shows like Narcos and the numerous other films and series about his father that often glamorise his life. “Those programmes make young people think being a narco trafficker is the coolest thing they could do,” he explains, mentioning that he contacted Netflix to offer information but was rebuffed. “They show a Pablo Escobar who was happy, calm and triumphant all the time – but that’s not what we lived. That’s not the Pablo Escobar I knew.”
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For a while, Juan Pablo’s childhood was certainly gilded. In one chapter of the book he carefully notes the remarkable excesses of life at Napoles – the vast, sprawling hacienda that was capital of Escobar’s drug kingdom.
“I’ve never been to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch… but I think Napoles must have been just as impressive,” writes Juan Pablo. Napoles had 27 artificial lakes, 100,000 fruit trees, a Jurassic Park of model dinosaurs, heliports, airstrips and an exotic zoo with animals purchased for $2m, open to the public for free. At one point there were 1,700 employees.
Aged 13, Juan Pablo was given his own apartment, with mirrors on the ceiling, a futuristic bar and a zebra skin in the living room. Dinners were accompanied by violinists and tablecloths commissioned from Venetian artisans, taking three or four years to make. Flowers for the main apartment were picked up twice a week by Escobar’s private plane in the Colombian capital, Bogota. “Darling, if Onassis sent for warm bread from Paris for Jacqueline, then I can send a plane to bring you flowers from Bogota,” Escobar told his wife, Maria Victoria Henao.
Escobar’s most prized possession was the zoo. One of his most impressive achievements was finding a pilot skilled enough to land a DC-3 plane with two rhinoceroses in the hold on the Napoles runway. Escobar was furious when the government interfered: When his 12 zebras were confiscated, he instructed his men to bring the government guards 12 donkeys painted black and white and a large bribe to ensure the return of the zebras, which they duly did.
Escobar could be generous and promoted a vision of himself as a champion of the poor. Alongside the executions, Juan Pablo describes his father’s penchant for charitable deeds, recalling a trip when the two distributed Christmas gifts in remote impoverished villages, dozens of community sports facilities and homes that his father built in poor neighbourhoods of Medellín, and when he sent helicopters to help victims of a large volcano eruption.
But violence and conflict always loomed. His father had to keep outmaneuvering his enemies, trying to gain more power and buy more influence, to ensure that his vast trafficking business wasn’t taken away from him. And despite the luxury, Juan Pablo says that he “wasn’t really the owner of anything” as their prosperous domesticity turned into nightmarish exile.
“That life made us realise that money does not buy or guarantee happiness, and it doesn’t even guarantee freedom or the possibility to buy food,” explains Juan Pablo, referring to a passage from his book in which the family is living on the run, trapped in a safe house as a messy coalition of authorities, vigilantes and other cartels slowly weave a net of surveillance around Escobar. “We almost starved of hunger while we were surrounded by millions of dollars.”
The beginning of Escobar’s downfall came when he got himself elected to the Colombian congress in 1982. Terrified of extradition to America, he was no longer content to sit on his dirty money and exert influence behind the scenes. “Better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the United States” became his battle cry.
In 1983, a newspaper exposed Escobar’s smuggling operations and he was stripped of parliamentary immunity. Another tipping point came in April 1984, when Escobar sent his men to assassinate the justice minister, Rodrigo Lara, who had been prosecuting traffickers and lobbying for extradition. All-out war with the government followed, and Escobar was prepared to strike by any means necessary.
In 1985, he funded a paramilitary group that occupied the Palace of Justice in Bogota, killing 11 judges and burning reams of vital evidence. He made numerous failed attempts to kill or capture President Belisario Betancur, but many other politicians, judges and journalists did not escape – and nor did Betancur’s likely successor, Luis Carlos Galan, who was shot dead by Escobar hitmen in 1989.
Despite Escobar’s determination to keep family and business firmly separate, the bloodshed became impossible to ignore. “I felt powerless in the face of my father’s brutal methods,” writes Juan Pablo, who says he repeatedly asked his father to put down his weapons. “He no longer listened to anyone’s advice or pleas. There was no way to persuade him to stop.”
In 1991, Escobar entered his custom-made prison, but a showdown with the army led him to flee and the family became fugitives. Juan Pablo spent his 16th birthday wearing his father’s clothes in a secret lair. His breathless descriptions convey a frantic chase: They switch safehouses under the cover of night and rain, tuning into radio updates to hear of once loyal henchmen turning themselves in. The empire was crumbling.
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Immediately after Escobar’s death, Juan Pablo issued a vow of revenge on live radio. “I’ll kill the f****ers who killed him myself,” he said. “I’ll kill them myself, the bastards.” He soon calmed down, but his enemies in the Cali Cartel had decided he was a marked man. They could let Escobar’s wife live, but the son was too much of a threat.
During months of arduous negotiations, Escobar’s assets were carved up between his victorious foes. Juan Pablo says he and his mother struggled for money despite the billions his father had made, because so much of it was either seized or stolen. But he did escape with his life, eventually winning “permission to live” from the cartels with a passionate plea for forgiveness.
The family made it to Argentina after changing their names and failing to settle in Mozambique and Brazil, but Juan Pablo and his mother both spent time in a Buenos Aires prison, accused of money-laundering as their true identities were revealed by news media. They were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing and still live in the city.
“It was difficult for us not to be surrounded by servants,” he says of their arrival in Argentina. “We used to have people doing stuff all the time but we were totally alone when we arrived – we didn’t know anyone, there was nobody to help, so it wasn’t easy to start again. But we managed to make progress because Argentina has great possibilities – we took courses, I studied industrial design, graduated, started working at the university.”
Today, Juan Pablo – who goes by the nickname Sebas – works as an architect and industrial designer and has his own family, including a young son. He speaks at events across Latin America and is currently researching a second book about his father, which he hopes will “end the Pablo Escobar chapter in our life”.
He is different from his father in many ways, but the two share a way with words. “He was a great seducer, not just of women,” says Juan Pablo. He says Escobar also taught him the power of perseverance and a “spirit of struggle” – qualities which have pulled him through countless ugly moments in the aftermath of his father’s demise.
“If you’d asked me about my future when I was 16, I had no future – I was dead,” he says. “It’s a miracle that we’re alive, still breathing and taking advantage of positive opportunities. Everything that’s happened since then is nothing but a miracle.”