Ruthless drug lord or loving father? Escobar's son lives with two truths

Story highlights

  • Pablo Escobar's son had to come to terms with the fact that he loved his father but hated what he did
  • Sebastian Marroquin realized he had to do all he could to make sure his father's life was never repeated
  • His book about his father was published this week in the United States

(CNN)The acknowledgments in Sebastian Marroquin's book consist of one sentence: "To my father, who showed me what path not to take."

That is probably the highest compliment Marroquin could pay his father. What can you say about a man who was a monster?
    Perhaps that's why Marroquin stayed silent for two decades after the 1993 death of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord who built a multibillion-dollar empire dealing cocaine. Along the way, he ordered the deaths of thousands of people, among them politicians, judges, journalists and rival traffickers.
    Escobar was ambitious and brutal enough to become one of the world's wealthiest and most violent criminals of all time. The stories of his absurd riches were well known, including one about burning $2 million in cash to keep his daughter warm while they were in hiding. He became the stuff of legend, like Al Capone or Bonnie and Clyde.
    Drug baron Pablo Escobar's son changed his name to Sebastian Marroquin and lived in silence for many years. He finally wrote a book about his notorious father, published this week in English.
    After he died, Escobar's family was forced to flee Colombia for their own safety. Marroquin -- born Juan Pablo Escobar -- lived incognito in Buenos Aires under his new legal name. He began piecing himself back together after spending the first 17 years of his life in his notorious father's shadow.
    Marroquin, now 39, was forced to come to terms with a staggering contradiction: He adored his father but hated what he did.
    Escobar gave as extremely to his family as he took away from his enemies. He showered his wife and children with unconditional love and ostentatious luxury. He also cultivated a Robin Hood image by donating money and housing to Medellin, Colombia's, poor.
    "Not all of my father's history and its acts are full of evil," Marroquin says.
    At the same time, he inflicted terrible suffering on so many people.
    "I have to live with both truths," Marroquin says. "The love I feel for him is not negotiable -- he was an excellent father. It's not easy to admit to the world the great cruelty of my father."
    This week, the English translation of Marroquin's book, "Pablo Escobar, My Father," was published in the United States, days before Netflix releases season two of "Narcos," the popular series about Escobar. Also out is "Infiltrator," a movie starring Bryan Cranston that focuses on a US Customs special agent who helped bust Escobar's money-laundering organization.
    Marroquin's book comes at a good time. Both the series and the movie have helped resurrect Escobar's notoriety, which faded outside Colombia along with the collapse of his Medellin Cartel.
    A few months after his son's birth in 1977, Pablo Escobar began to profit from trafficking drugs and moved his family to a swankier part of Medellin.
    Marroquin describes his book -- first published two years ago in Spanish -- as an intimate investigation into his father's life. Not judgment, not absolute truth, but a son's sincere journey to learn more about his father. And he published it under his given name: Juan Pablo Escobar.
    I spoke recently via Skype with Marroquin, who was visiting Colombia for further research on his father. Marroquin parked his car off the side of the road and strolled with his smartphone among tall trees in the homeland he had to abandon. After all these years, he can finally return to Colombia without fear or shame.
    Sebastian Marroquin calls his book an intimate investigation into his father's life.
    He is a soft-spoken man of gentle demeanor and hardly seems connected by blood to a narco gangster. He has chosen a life of peace and reconciliation to atone for his father's actions.
    "I could easily have turned into Pablo 2.0, but I found out about the violence and the pain," Marroquin says. "We had no freedom. We were always hiding. We had millions but we could not go outside to buy a piece of bread."
    Marroquin grew up with everything a boy could have wanted. The family lived in Hacienda Napoles, a vast and tony ranch with 27 artificial lakes, swimming pools, three zoos full of exotic animals, an airstrip, gas station and 1,700 employees.
    By the time Marroquin was 11, he owned 30 high-speed motorbikes and 30 water scooters as well as ATVs, go-karts and dune buggies. When he was 13, he had his own bachelor pad with two large bedrooms, a zebra skin and a futuristic bar. Escobar took his son to Disney World, and there is even a photo of the two of them standing in front of the White House.
    Marroquin remembers the tender side of the father who sang to him every night at bedtime, promising him the world.
    Escobar took Marroquin to the White House in 1981.
    Not surprisingly, the son idolized his father, but things started getting murky when, at 7, Marroquin began to discover Escobar's dark side. It was 1984 and Escobar had ordered the assassination of Colombia's then-justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, who had launched an aggressive anti-drug campaign.
    "That's when I understood my father was dedicated to other things," Marroquin says.
    That was the same year Escobar was expelled from the Colombian Congress, a move that shattered Escobar's dreams of becoming president one day. For the next few years, he waged a bloody war against the government in a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks, including the 1989 bombing of Avianca Airlines Flight 203 that killed 110 people.
    A lot of people wanted to see Escobar dead, and his family lived in constant fear.
    Marroquin says he and his mother repeatedly confronted Escobar and tried to persuade him to abandon his violent ways. But Escobar relished his life as a bandit.
    "He had no intention of changing his life," Marroquin says, though Escobar never pressured his son to help run his drug empire.
    "He told me if I wanted to be a doctor, he would give me the best hospital," Marroquin says. "He never wanted me to follow in his footsteps."
    The legacy of his father haunted Marroquin for years as he settled into a new life as an architect, industrial designer and writer in Buenos Aires. Then in 2008, he returned to Colombia for the first time, with bodyguards and in an armored car, to meet Lara's son as well as the three sons of Carlos Luis Galan, a popular politician and presidential candidate who was also assassinated under the orders of Escobar.
    "How do you write to a family that your own father hurt so much? How do you open a conversation?"
    That's how Marroquin opened the letter he sent to the sons of Escobar's most prominent victims, asking to meet them.
    Escobar got into politics in 1982 and was elected to Congress.
    "Absolute silence slowly kills us all," Marroquin wrote.
    He wished them to know that he was not his father, and yet he felt compelled to assume moral responsibility for their suffering and ask for forgiveness.
    He was humbled by the meeting he finally had with the sons of Lara and Galan, depicted in the 2009 documentary "Sins of My Father."
    They told him it was not emotionally easy to speak with the son of their fathers' killer. They also told him this: "We are all victims. We have nothing to forgive you because you are not Pablo Escobar."
    Marroquin tells me he doesn't know if he could have been as compassionate if he were in their position. "I don't know if I could have reacted the same way."
    In our Skype conversation, I ask Marroquin why he decided to write his book, to tell all in such a public way.
    He wanted the loved ones of his father's victims to have access to truth about Pablo Escobar, he tells me. He wanted his own son, now 3, to know that truth and not learn about his grandfather from outsiders.
    He often feels gangster lifestyles are glorified on screen and in popular art.
    That's one reason he despised "Narcos," the Netflix series.
    "I am not worried that the image of my father is bad. What worries me is the image of him that says, 'It's cool to be a narco trafficker.'"
    He criticizes the producers for not consulting him or his mother.
    "It's my opinion that 'Narcos' is a way for the United States to implant their version of drugs in the world," he says.
    And in a way, he says, it was Americans and their cocaine habits that fueled Escobar's actions. By the end of the 1980s, Escobar was said to have been supplying 80% of the world's cocaine, smuggling 15 tons of it into the United States every day.
    The last time Marroquin spoke with his father was on December 2, 1993. Normally, Escobar never spoke for long on the phone; he was always in hiding from police and his enemies and did not want his calls to get traced. But that day, it didn't seem to matter. He seemed defeated.
    "Papa, don't call anymore," Marroquin told his father. "They are going to kill you."
    But after a while, Escobar called again, got halfway through the conversation and then said, "I'll call you right back."
    The United Nations hosted Marroquin and screened "Sins of My Father" to mark the 2010 International Day of Peace.
    The next time the phone rang, minutes later, it was the police telling Marroquin that his father had been killed, taken down in a shootout with security forces at a Medellin shopping center.
    Distraught, a weeping Marroquin told the police he would avenge the death of his father. But 10 minutes later, he retracted his statement to a journalist and said he would contribute to building peace in Colombia.
    "Two paths appeared before me: becoming a deadlier version of my father, or setting aside his bad example forever," Marroquin writes about his critical moment of reflection.
    Escobar had told Marroquin that the day he came face-to-face with his enemies, he would fire 14 of the 15 rounds in his Sig Sauer pistol, saving the last one for himself.
    In his book, Marroquin writes that he was not one for stirring controversy but that he studied the forensic report and a photo of his father's body. Escobar's Glock was still in its holster, but his Sig Sauer was lying nearby and clearly had been fired. Marroquin believes his father was badly wounded by Colombian security forces. But he also believes his father was the one who fired the fatal bullet into his right ear, exactly where he had always said he would fire it.
    I ask Marroquin if he thinks his violent father would be proud of him today, of his work to promote reconciliation.
    "Yes," he answers. "I have always been the same person. I have never changed."
    Escobar told Marroquin that he would dedicate his surrender to him. That was evidence enough of his father's regard.
    Marroquin says he had one last reason for writing his book: "I wanted to leave a message for the youth of today that the life my father led should never be repeated."
    The son no longer lives in the darkness cast by his father.