In 1994, the most powerful drug traffickers in Colombia gave Sebastian Marroquin, the 17-year-old son of Pablo Escobar, a choice: leave the country forever, or face certain death.
The meeting occurred months after Escobar was gunned down in a standoff with Colombian security forces on a rooftop in Medellin, the city where his international drug trafficking empire was founded. “After my father was killed, I vowed revenge against everybody responsible,” Mr Marroquin, now 38, told The Independent. “I retracted that promise with a gun pointed to my head. Later, my mother, my sister, and I left for Argentina, never to return.”
At just 17, Mr Marroquin, who changed his name from Juan Pablo Escobar, was effectively heir to the largest drug trafficking empire in history. Born in 1977, his childhood coincided with the rise of Escobar as public enemy No 1 in both Colombia and the United States. But there was more to the fateful decision than simply fear of reprisals.
“Drug trafficking destroyed my family,” Mr Marroquin insists. “It gave us the world, and then it took it away.” Softly spoken and articulate, Mr Marroquin does not come across as the son of the world’s most legendary gangster. Speaking to The Independent at a quiet, and smart, restaurant in Mexico City, he arrives to the interview dressed casually and chooses a table as far away as possible from prying ears.
Rather than revelling in his father’s legacy, he fears it. According to Mr Marroquin, his recent autobiography, Pablo Escobar: My Father, a bestseller in Latin America, has once again put him in danger. “My father still has many enemies,” he says. “Rivals from the drug trade, of course, but also ‘decent people’ who helped him get to the top – politicians, police commanders, military officials.
“My father was killed, but many of them are still alive and walking free,” he adds bitterly. “They will never be punished for what they did.”
Now an architect and public speaker, as well as a devoted husband and father, Mr Marroquin has spent the past 20 years trying to escape the Escobar shadow. After years of silence, he participated in a 2009 documentary about his father’s life and decided to write a book giving his side of the story. “It’s a story that needs to be told,” he says, “so that Colombia and other countries don’t repeat the same mistake.”
They include Mexico, which he believes is headed in the same direction as Colombia in the 1980s. “History is repeating itself,” he says. “In my father’s day, the Mexican drug lords were servants to the Colombians. Now, they are the ones that wield the power.”
As a boy, Mr Marroquin lived the dream of sudden and seemingly endless wealth. His father’s luxurious 20-square-kilometre ranch, “Naples”, included swimming pools, vintage cars, house servants, and a zoo filled with millions of dollars’ worth of exotic animals. “I’ve never been to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch,” he jokes. “But I doubt it had anything on Naples.”
The fantasy would soon be shattered. In 1984, Pablo Escobar was expelled from the Colombian congress where he had ambitiously launched a political career. That same year, he assassinated his foremost critic in the government, Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara. “Running for office was my father’s biggest mistake,” he explains. “For years, the country’s elite tolerated him. But after he meddled in politics, they decided to destroy him.”
For the next decade, Escobar waged a bloody war of attrition with the Colombian government that included terrorist attacks, political assassinations and the 1989 downing of Avianca Flight 203. Thousands of Colombians died in the violence. Mr Marroquin insists he does not apologise for his father’s crimes. “I try to separate the man everyone knew from TV and newspapers from the man I knew as a father. They were two very different people.”
The family also found themselves targeted. When Mr Marroquin was 11, a car bomb planted by the rival Cali Cartel tore apart their luxury apartment in Medellin. “My mother and I begged him many times to abandon the violence,” he insists. “But he had reached the point of no return.”
Making peace, both with himself and others, has become a hallmark of Mr Marroquin’s adult life. He now travels the world giving talks on drug policy reform, violence prevention and the importance of reconciliation in conflict resolution.
In 2009, he met the children of the late Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara and former presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, both murdered by his father, to ask for forgiveness. “I was surprised when they agreed to sit down with me,” he admits. “Reconciliation is not usually part of a Colombian’s vocabulary.”
He was particularly moved when they told him: “You were also a victim of Pablo Escobar.” He says: “I don’t know if that’s true. But if so, I’m the last person in Colombia who deserves any sympathy.”
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