“At a certain point, I had so much money that I lost count,” Pablo Escobar once told his son of his cocaine riches.
Born in Medellín in 1976, Juan Pablo Escobar lived one of the most extraordinary childhoods imaginable. (You can see some photos from his upbringing here.) Constantly under the protection of what he describes as his father’s “delinquent army,” he was on first-name terms with many of Colombia’s most notorious criminals. His father, the ultimate drug lord and head of the all-powerful Medellín Cartel, always kept his family close, even when it meant housing them in one of his luxurious hideouts.
Of course, the family was dripping with money—Escobar Sr. reportedly had a known net wealth of $30 billion by the early ‘90s. By the time Juan Pablo was 11 years old, he owned a collection of 30 high-speed motorcycles.
Pablo Escobar was tracked down by cops and killed on December 2, 1993. According to some reports, it was a phone call he made to his son that finally gave him away. Juan Pablo, then aged 17, reportedly told one Colombian radio station that he would take revenge.
In the aftermath, as the Medellín Cartel collapsed, Juan Pablo fled with his mother and sister to Mozambique, then settled in Argentina. He still lives in Buenos Aires today, where he adopted the name Sebastián Marroquín and became an architect.
Initially reluctant to be publicly associated with his father, Juan Pablo has in recent years showed more willingness to grapple with his family’s past. The 2009 documentary Sins of My Father followed him as he traveled to a dozen countries and apologized to the sons of some of his father’s victims.
Then in 2014, he published a book. Pablo Escobar My Father is an international bestseller in Spanish—the English version is being released in the United States on August 30, to coincide with the new season of Narcos on Netflix.
Juan Pablo Escobar says he wants to put the record straight after years of listening to other people telling his father’s story. He certainly has a unique perspective from which to do so.
Seth Ferranti: To the world, Pablo Escobar is one thing; to you, he’s clearly something very different. Can you explain the conflict you must feel?
Juan Pablo Escobar: Pablo Escobar is my father, I feel a non-negotiable love for him. But that love never prevented me from recognizing the magnitude of his crimes. I’m not proud of his violence. He was a man who transgressed all the limits and rules of society.
But no one has really talked about him as a person. It’s all about the corruption that he facilitated with his organization. Everything else about him is ignored. My father was a man of extremes. I loved and hated him in equal proportions. He was loyal, intelligent, fun, simple, noble and affectionate with his family, but ruthless with his enemies. He was happy to help the poor and I grew up with human values. He was surely a man who showed mankind the paths not to travel.
I am not his judge. My role in life was to be part of his family. I am his son, not his executioner. In life, I reproached him for his crimes and asked him to end the violence numerous times. I asked, but in the end he was making his own law.
What was it like when you were a kid and everything was going on? Did you even realize the scale of what was happening?
None of us ever imagined all the destruction that would follow. The luxuries and power had us blind.
At that time, the drug business was not as demonized as it is today. Much of Colombian society was fascinated by making money in droves and associated with the illegal business of my father. Congressmen, judges, police, soldiers and even generals of the Republic—as well as groups of the extreme Left and Right—were related to the ideology of money provided to them by my dad.
These people were in my father’s office waiting to get in to talk to him about the next shipments of coca. There was so much corruption that my father could afford to mount the first insurance venture in the world of drug trafficking, as he guaranteed his personal fortune and 100 percent of his drug operations of the time.
But the corruption is never spoken of because the Colombian state and many other countries are very comfortable telling the version in which Pablo is the only bad guy.
What do you think of Narcos and all the other portrayals of your father? Accurate, or far from the truth?
These series are far from the truth. The worst is that they make the youth believe that the best thing that could happen in their lives is to become drug dealers. It’s a shame that these kind of stories are broadcasted.
I find it very strange that Netflix has refused to receive my help and advice for the story. They don’t want the real truth.
Clearly there is a strong commercial interest in Pablo Escobar as a product, but there is no serious and honest desire to tell the story without the interference of the many interests of the establishment. In that series, even events that marked the history of my country are not respected, and so the only thing it does is insult a country and insult the victims of the violence.
Why do you think your father has been so revered in popular culture?
My father helped thousands of poor families in Colombia and it earned him the respect of vast segments of our society. My father wanted justice in many sectors of Colombia neglected by the state, and those sectors could have been a majority.
Wealth in this country is in the hands of a few families and my father was in solidarity with the lower classes. He built them all that the state should have built and never did—schools, hospitals, courts, sports, cultural centers and thousands of homes.
Since his time that hasn’t been done. He employed thousands in Colombia, both legally and illegally. Politicians didn’t like when someone was really helping the people. They began to chase him and go after him so that he couldn’t reach his goal of becoming president of Colombia.
Your book was first published in Spanish and is now coming out in English: What does it mean to you to have your story published in America?
For the first time Americans have in their hands the true story of Pablo Escobar. It’s important that the dramas that were experienced from this side of life are known, because so far this story has always been told from official angles that are very convenient for those sectors. The book is a bestseller and has been translated into eight languages. It’s the most downloaded book in all of Latin America. You can’t deceive the readers, and part of the book’s success is based on the respect and balance of the publisher and myself to reveal very cruel stories, but 100 percent real.
The work of “celebrating the legend” has been done much better and on a large scale by Netflix and Caracol TV. I tell the story with a much greater sense of responsibility and caring, being very careful with the message I want to convey.
If someone reads this book and it inspires them to become Pablo Escobar, that means I did my job badly. It’s most definitely a cautionary tale.
What are your views on the current state of the cocaine trade and the War on Drugs?
Nothing has improved in Colombia or in the world on the issue of drug trafficking. On the contrary, it’s gotten progressively worse. You have to change the way the problem is being addressed. Today there’s more cocaine than ever and it’s still on the rise. They capture, kill or arrest drug lords frequently but there will always be those who replace them. The authorities proudly announced the dismantling of the Medellin cartel, the Cali cartel, the North Valley cartel and many others, but the cocaine business is still intact and the drug has never [been absent from] the streets.
[This is] thanks in large part to the huge business of prohibition which sponsors all the international corruption, facilitating drug trafficking and violence in all latitudes.
The war [on drugs] was lost decades ago. It ’s time to declare peace on drugs. We must understand that education and love are far more effective and economical than firearms and less painful.
Cocaine will never go away and let’s face it, no one is truly committed to making it disappear. It’s too lucrative a business to close. In fact, in the United States the authorities are the ones who benefit financially from the prohibition. The biggest business profits never leave US territory … and that flood of money comes unmolested to the US financial system. I don’t think that the United States has an obsession with cocaine, but they do with the huge money it produces. Money that is bathed in blood throughout Latin America.
Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington—however you want to deny this reality, there isn’t one city in the United States or the world that can be declared drug-free. Another paradox is that legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes kill more people per year than cocaine.
Your father was adamant about not being deported and fought hard to avoid it; why do you think he felt that way?
My father, like many Colombians, believed that if the Americans couldn’t treat their own countrymen or judge them fairly, then how could they treat a Colombian fairly?
The conditions of inequality in the US are vast. My father escaped US justice because he knew that once there he wouldn’t get a fair or impartial trial. The proof is in Carlos Ledher and the other narcos that were extradited to the US and still rot in jails.
I’m better and calmer knowing that my father chose a tomb in Colombia rather than a prison in the United States.