Over Skype, Sebastián Marroquín doesn't say exactly where he is, only that he is in Colombia. It's not the first time he's returned, but he keeps a low profile. . His surname still carries a lot of weight in the country that was devastated by violence perpetrated by Pablo Escobar in the 1980s and 90s. The world's most famous drug trafficker was also his father.
Marroquín, now 39, has been trying to escape from his past since Dec. 2, 1993, the day his father was tracked down and shot to death by Colombian police after they picked up a telephone call between father and son. He fled his home country, took refuge in Argentina and changed his identity. Juan Pablo Escobar became Sebastián Marroquín.
“The people in Colombia understand that I could have turned into Pablo 2.0 by the time I turned 23,” Marroquín says. Instead, he decided to be “a man of peace.”
“I don't want to leave my son the same legacy of violence that my father left me,” he says.
An exemplary father?
Marroquín’s book, “Pablo Escobar: My Father,” was published in English last month in the United States. To the surprise of many, it's not a string of attacks on his father.
“I didn't agree with the violence he used, but I had so much love for him that if I had to give my life I would,” he says. “I never doubted that. And I don't doubt it today.”
Speaking slowly and calmly, he says that Escobar was a paradox; “a man of extremes” who had the “ability to love and the ability to hate in equal measures.”
Juan Pablo says he rejects and condemns the assassinations, bombings and attacks ordered by his father, but adds that “it's also true he did a lot of good for many others, including me, because he raised me with love and responsibility and values, even though he didn't have them.”
Proof of those “good works” can be found in the Pablo Escobar Project, he says, where his father built thousands of homes for poor families that lived in a municipal garbage dump in the city of Medellín. In his hometown, Escobar became known as something of a Robin Hood, hugely popular among the poor. That helped him get elected to Colombia's Congress in 1982.
The problem was the source of his wealth: the illegal drug business that turned him into one of the richest men in the world. The mountains of money that Escobar earned allowed him to live a ridiculously ostentatious life on his Hacienda Napoles farm, where he kept a zoo with exotic animals.
“My childhood was surrounded by luxury, eccentricity, by excess,” Marroquín recalls. But that changed in 1984, when his father ordered the assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla.
“We were on the run after that. We always lived in fear," Marroquín says. "We never stayed in one place. We lived like criminals, running away again and again.”
That year, a seven-year-old Marroquín first started to understand he didn't have a normal family.
“In 1984 my father told me his profession had become that of an outlaw after he ordered the minister's death. After that, he had no problem admitting that he was a professional criminal,” he says.
Escobar’s criminal career grew more evident. In 1989 he ordered the bombing of an Avianca plane, killing all 110 passengers aboard.
According to Marroquín, Escobar had two clear sides. He was a father “with an infinite capacity to love” and a killer “who had no problem saying 'I did that bombing'” to make it clear that he was a powerful man in Colombia.
Marroquínsays he was a pacifist from an early age, and didn't approve of his father's violence, even criticizing him. But the day his father was gunned down, Marroquín declared that he would avenge his father's death. It was a visceral reaction.
“I vowed to avenge my father's death after I learned that he had been killed. And 10 minutes later, after reflecting on my threats, I realized that [if I did that] I would turn into exactly the kind of person that I had criticized.”
He decided he didn't want the kind of life his bloodthirsty father had led, and didn't want that “for my country, my family, my sister nor myself.”
Marroquín became an architect in Argentina. And he also appears at speaking engagements where he talks about peace. He is the only family member who has spoken publicly about Escobar's crimes. His mother, Maria Victoria Henao, and his only sister, Manuela Escobar, both live in Argentina and stay out of the public eye.
Manuela, who was born in 1984, was a little girl during her father's criminal career. But Henao was well aware of her husband's crimes and abuses.
“She never applauded my father's violence. Never. She was never happy with a single one of my father's acts of violence. She always cried when he did something violent,” Marroquín says. “The only thing she did was to be loyal to her marriage throughout her life,” he added, because she had married “the son of the neighborhood watchman.”
Is “El Chapo” the new Escobar?
Pablo Escobar was a nobody who rose to control 80 percent of the international cocaine market and smuggled up to 15 tons of the drug into the United States every day.
Although he doesn't excuse his father's past, Marroquín argues that his father was not the only one responsible for the drug trade. “I believe that both consumers and traffickers are responsible,” he says. “When Colombians take the drug to the United States, they don't force anyone to buy it. It flies out of their hands,” he says.
He says the United States is to blame for violence in the countries where the drugs are produced or transported, like Colombia. “That money fuels parties [in the United States] and massacres and violence in Colombia,” he says.
As long as there are consumers, there will always be traffickers, he says, but legalizing drugs will end the vicious cycle.
“It's time to reconsider our archaic view of drugs and learn to live with that reality,” he says. Legalization “will not increase consumption.” Instead, it will allow the government to play a "regulatory role," he says.
"Prohibition is an irresponsible act. When a government prohibits [drugs], it leaves the quality control and international distribution of narcotics in the hands of drug traffickers.”
He points to the current situation in Mexico.
“What Mexico is living through is not the exclusive responsibility of Mexicans … It is a shared global responsibility because there are consumer countries, producing countries and countries where the drug passes through,” he says. “All those places and people have some responsibility.”
But Marroquín refuses to compare his father to Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, who many see as Escobar's successor. Guzmán has clearly evolved the business, he adds, but “when El Chapo is gone, another will take his place.”
A fight with Netflix
Pablo Escobar's life has long inspired soap operas, books, movies and documentaries. Most recently, the successful Netflix series Narcos just announced it will run for another two seasons.
Marroquín has harshly criticized the show, writing on Facebook a list of 28 problems he identified with the show. Netflix “cannot have the audacity to sell millions of subscribers a true story when it is not. That, in my judgment … may even be a crime,” he says.
He has many complaints, starting with the shows producers' failure to contact the Escobar family. “If you want to tell a true story, at least call the widow or their children,” he says.
The show also invented or distorted parts of the story, Marroquín says. “There are a series of historical facts, dates and people that don't coincide at all with the [show's] time or location because they were dead or jailed when the scriptwriters got the idea to introduce them into their fantasy view of what Pablo Escobar meant to the world.”
Netflix used family photos and videos without authorization, he says. And the series portrayed an uncle, Carlos Henao, as a drug trafficker even though he sold bibles and was never convicted of any crimes. Marroquín says that is defamation.