Like the offspring of other crime godfathers, the son of the late Colombian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was expected to follow his father into the family business. Instead, he has come clean.
The son, the former Juan Pablo Escobar, has changed his name to Sebastián Marroquín. In response to the many homes and offices his father destroyed with car bombs, he studied architecture so he could put up buildings. And he spends much of his time barnstorming across Latin America as a motivational speaker, denouncing the illegal drug trade and his father’s ultra-violent ways.
“I feel I have a moral responsibility to go before society, recognize my father’s crimes and to apologize to the victims of these crimes,” Marroquín tells NPR.
During the 1980s and early 90s, Pablo Escobar, the founder of the Medellín cocaine cartel, exploded car bombs, killed policemen and blew up an airliner. He was responsible for the deaths of some 3,000 Colombians. In the course of shipping tons of Colombian cocaine to the United States, he became a billionaire.
“We had many cars, houses, helicopters and airplanes,” Marroquín tells a crowd packed into a bullring in the Mexican city of Aguascalientes. “We had every type of luxury you could imagine.”
Speaking in a flat monotone behind the podium, Marroquín, 39, lacks a dynamic stage presence. But his surreal stories, along with a slideshow of family photos, hold the audience for the full 90 minutes.
As a teenager, Marroquín owned a fleet of motorcycles and had his own bachelor pad. He asked his father for an F-15 fighter jet on his 14th birthday but instead received a Ferrari Testarossa.
However, his high-priced toys were impossible to enjoy because the Escobars were constantly on the run. Marroquín recalls going hungry, even though one of their hideouts was overflowing with $3 million in cash.
“I asked myself: What’s the point of having so much money if you can’t even go out to the corner grocery to buy bread?” he says.
In 1993, Pablo Escobar was gunned down on a Medellín rooftop by Colombian police.
Marroquin, who was only 16, decided to forge his own path. Not only was he traumatized by his father’s violent death, but the rival Cali cartel had vowed to kill surviving Escobar family members. After receiving new identities from the Colombian government, Marroquin, along with his girlfriend, mother and sister, moved to Argentina.
It was a difficult transition. Accustomed to bodyguards and servants, Marroquín was suddenly on his own.
“I was afraid to go into McDonald’s and order a burger. I had always been isolated. I lived in a bubble,” he says.
In Buenos Aires, Marroquin studied industrial design and architecture. But when clients learned his true identity, work dried up. In addition, he and his mother were briefly imprisoned on money-laundering charges, but were cleared by Argentina’s Supreme Court in 2006.
After that, rather than hiding from his past, Marroquín began giving conferences on what he’s learned from his family’s violent legacy. He also sought out the victims.
One is Jorge Lara, the son of Rodrigo Lara, a Colombian justice minister who was one of Escobar’s fiercest critics. Escobar’s hit men killed Rodrigo Lara in 1984 and Jorge, who was only 6, watched as bodyguards pulled his father’s corpse from his bullet-riddled car.
After Marroquín apologized to Lara, the two became friends.
“People tell me sometimes: ‘How can you talk to that guy?'” Lara says. “But he’s traveling around, talking about it. He’s not hiding. So, he’s a very brave guy. But he’s got a very difficult life.”
Another victim is a former Colombian vice president, Francisco Santos, who in 1990 was kidnapped on Escobar’s orders and chained to a bed for eight months, after which he was released. Still, he admires the son.
“When Pablo Escobar was killed, [Marroquín] was a 16-year-old kid with a huge burden to carry for the rest of his life — a burden that he is not responsible for,” Santos says. “He wants to move on. You don’t see very many examples of that. On the contrary, you see [relatives of criminals] justifying those crimes and why things were done. He’s not.”
Marroquín tells his story in his autobiography, Pablo Escobar: My Father, a best-seller in Latin America which has just been published in the U.S. After his performances, fans line up to get their copies signed. In the book and in his talks, Marroquín tells young people to avoid the lure of drug gangs. To remove their power, he urges public officials to legalize cocaine.
And he asks forgiveness for the sins of his father.
Marroquín’s contrition comes as Colombia braces for a process of national reconciliation. On Sept. 26, the government and Marxist rebels will sign a historic peace treaty to end a half-century of guerrilla war. That conflict has killed more than 200,000 people.
But not all Colombians are in a forgiving mood. Marroquín is still viewed by many in his homeland as a thug. That’s because in the moments after his father was gunned down, he vowed revenge, telling a Colombian radio station: “I am going to kill all those SOBs.”
During the question-and-answer period at his talk, Ines Sarmiento, a Colombian woman, says her father was kidnapped during the height of Colombia’s drug war. She adds that due to Escobar’s violence, Colombians abroad are often viewed as criminals.
As Marroquín listens intently, Sarmiento declares: “I suffered from the things that your father did.”