In the shame of the father
The son of Pablo Escobar tries to atone for the drug kingpin's sins and help Colombia heal

By Juan Forero
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The past is all there, in a small closet, inside old, musty boxes: photo albums, one stacked upon the other, filled with pictures of the father, a man Forbes magazine once christened the world's seventh richest, with a personal fortune of at least $3 billion.

In several now-grainy shots, he poses next to his Renault race car in his native Colombia or is seen enjoying another hobby, flying light planes in Florida. Then there is the picture of the two of them -- a precocious boy and his father, trying to keep him still -- outside the White House during a vacation in the early 1980s. In family pictures, the father looks attentive, even affectionate with a boy still too young to know the whole horrendous truth.

That son is now a man confronting, quite publicly in a new 94-minute documentary, the violence and hate his father wrought on Colombia. It is no small thing. The father was Pablo Escobar, kingpin of the Medellin cocaine cartel, the man who helped make an industry of trafficking cocaine to the United States, then, in an all-out war with the state, nearly brought Colombia's government to its knees.

His father was a man of epic evil in an era of epic evil: He was the world's deadliest criminal, responsible for thousands of deaths. He put a bounty on the heads of police and got hundreds killed. He blew up an airliner, Colombia's intelligence headquarters and a Bogota newspaper. He ordered the assassinations of a presidential candidate and other prominent politicians. The entire fleet of taxi drivers in Medellin was his informant force at one point. Only fictional villains compare.

And his son, once Juan Pablo Escobar, is today Sebastian Marroquin, a name he randomly selected out of the Bogota phone book when he was on the run from his father's rivals. He is 32, married to a woman he has known since childhood and lives in a small apartment in a Buenos Aires high-rise, a bucolic view of the Rio de la Plata in the distance. He is a budding architect, already entrusted with carrying out designs for ambitious projects in the Argentine capital's most coveted districts.

He could have continued in the near-anonymity that has characterized his lifestyle since 1994, a year after Colombian police gunned down his father on a Medellin rooftop and Marroquin, then 17, fled Colombia with his mother and sister. But Marroquin, whose corpulence and coiled hair make him look astonishingly like his father, says he is a haunted man.

In three lengthy interviews in Argentina, Marroquin explained that he wanted to atone for his father's legacy, to do his part to bring peace to his still-conflicted homeland.

"I think you have to believe in something bigger than your own life, in something more noble," Marroquin said. "I do this convinced that I am doing it to contribute to a better future for my country, so new generations will know that it is a mistake to take the path of violence."

And when Argentine director Nicolas Entel approached him to go public with his story for the first time, to reach out to the families of his father's victims, he agreed.

Marroquin began by writing letters to the sons of two of Colombia's most prominent politicians, slain by Escobar's henchmen. Those assassinations -- Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla in 1984 and presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in 1989, two crusading reformers -- had made Escobar such a threat to Colombia's stability that the United States authorized the use of Delta Force and the CIA to hunt him down.

"I've never been so scared to write a letter," Marroquin wrote to the sons last year. "How do I write to a family that was so hurt by my father . . . how can I ask for forgiveness, without offending?"

Those letters led to a dramatic meeting of the three sons and a documentary that has Colombia transfixed.

"Sins of My Father" made its international debut last week at the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival. It opens in 20 theaters in Colombia's three biggest cities Dec. 10 and is expected to make its U.S. premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

The film's thread is the story of how a young man coped with growing up in the shadow of a villainous father. But Entel employs the young man's efforts to exorcise the ghosts of his past to examine what has eluded Colombians in their half-century-old internal conflict: reconciliation.

'Circles of violence'

The outside world sees Colombia as a simple black-and-white struggle between good and bad: drug cartels vs. beleaguered, U.S.-supported governments. But the heart of the conflict -- a cauldron involving Marxist rebels, paramilitary death squads and shadowy regional power brokers -- is all about the thirst for power at any price. And while cocaine provides the fuel for violence, it is hatred and revenge, channeled through innumerable vendettas, that have been the insurmountable obstacles to peace.

"Colombia is a country in which circles of violence tend to run for generations," said Entel, 34, who lives in New York.

His vision was to get Marroquin together with the slain politicians' sons in hopes of breaking a circle. It proved a challenge.

Marroquin feared returning to a country he fled at 17 under threat of death. And Galan's sons have been vigorously pushing judicial authorities to continue investigating their father's murder; their priority is to not jeopardize that investigation. They and Lara Bonilla's son also go to great pains to protect the memories of their fathers.

Galan, a mesmerizing orator seemingly destined to be president, and Lara Bonilla, the first man to challenge Escobar, are remembered as leaders of an upstart political movement, New Liberalism, which had promised to reform a corruption-riddled state. Galan's murder, though ordered by Escobar, is believed to have been sanctioned by politicians fearful of New Liberalism's proposed reforms -- politicians who remain free.

"Trying to get them together was really what moved me to make the film," Entel said. "No one thought that was possible. First of all Sebastian, from the very beginning, said, 'There is no way I am going back to Colombia.' And second, can you imagine a young Colombian senator saying, 'Yes, I will go and meet with my father's assassin's son'?"

In interviews in Bogota, Rodrigo Lara Restrepo and Juan Manuel Galan said Marroquin's letter won them over.

"His letter was an act of humanity," said Lara Restrepo, 34, now a senator. "And we thought that we had to respond with another act of humanity."

Juan Manuel Galan, 37, also a senator, said he and his brothers determined that the letter demonstrated that Marroquin had not inherited Escobar's criminal mind. "His son was able to rebuild his life in a legal way," Galan said. "For us, it was something worth recognizing."

Lara Restrepo was first to respond, flying to Argentina to meet with Marroquin. Then Marroquin flew to Bogota in September 2008. The meeting, filmed in a hotel, appears tense.

"Juan Manuel, everyone, I am deeply sorry for what your family has suffered, the same as Rodrigo's," said Marroquin, speaking slowly, softly. "So much violence. So much pain. I am here to ask for forgiveness and to look into your eyes, each of you, because I think that is the way it should be."

The young men thank Marroquin for the gesture and tell him he has no reason to ask for forgiveness. "We were all victims of narco-trafficking," Carlos Galan, 32, a Bogota city councilman, told Marroquin. "You, too, were a victim."

War rages on

Colombia today remains locked in a guerrilla war between two Marxist-inspired groups and a U.S.-supported military.

But the recent disarmament of thousands of cocaine-trafficking paramilitary groups, founded by Escobar's associates, has given Colombians hope that the country may have turned a corner. The process has been flawed, with many fighters rearming. A once-ambitious investigation of paramilitary crimes has also failed to uncover who were the power brokers behind the death squads.

Still, the process has helped investigators determine that paramilitaries killed more than 24,000 people, and shined a light on the links dozens of congressmen and military officers had with paramilitary commanders. Lara Restrepo and the Galans are critical of the flaws, yet they say Colombians need to embrace reconciliation, without giving up on justice.

"That is our main purpose, to send a message to Colombians to find a path for reconciliation," Lara Restrepo said. "We actually want to send another message, which is that reconciliation is not a denial of justice, a denial of truth. We need truth, we need justice."

Marroquin, too, said he wanted the meeting with Lara Restrepo and the Galans to serve as a model, though his philosophy is different. "Peace to me comes ahead of justice," Marroquin said. "If you do not have peace, you cannot build anything."

He seemed to work hard to convince a visitor of his sincerity. On a sunny afternoon, he sat in a cafe, a biography of Gandhi lying on the table.

"We have to learn to hate the sins and not the sinner, as this great man said," Marroquin said, putting his hand on the book. "My father hated all his life, and that was his downfall."

Marroquin said he could not erase that awful past. He does not even try. The bookcase in his apartment is filled with works about his father, written by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and one of Escobar's lovers, Virginia Vallejo. And then there are the photographs.

"I cannot, nor will I, renounce the right to love my father," he said. The monster the world knew, Marroquin said, was a loving, doting father, both with him and his sister, Manuela, now 24 and a student in Buenos Aires.

What he remembered clearly was that his father loved to spoil him. There were sun-drenched days at his father's vast estate, Hacienda Napoles, a playland filled with African game, giant concrete dinosaurs, motorboats and three-wheel motorbikes. He recalled how his father would spend hours with him, reading books, singing songs.

Marroquin also said his father separated family and business. "It is not as though at breakfast he would say, 'Pass me the cereal, this afternoon we are going to set off three bombs and kill this many people.' "

He did not try to justify the measures his father took, but mentioned Escobar's "good actions at the start, when he had the chance to help the poorest." He was speaking about the housing and soccer pitches Escobar built in Medellin, which made him a folk hero to some.

"I lament that those efforts veered in another direction," Marroquin said matter-of-factly. "I have to live with that. I do not have any options."

Though he seemed slightly uncomfortable discussing his own family's suffering in that era, it is well known in Colombia that a group of enemy traffickers, Los Pepes, tried to wipe out all vestiges of the kingpin's empire, including those closest to him. In 1988, 1,500 pounds of dynamite exploded outside the apartment building where Escobar's family lived. They barely escaped.

Legacy lives on

On Dec. 2, 1993, when Escobar was finally gunned down, Marroquin lashed out with words he is still trying to live down. When a reporter broke the news to him, Marroquin sounded much like his father in his blurted response: "We do not want to talk right now, but I am going to kill, personally kill, the sons-of-bitches who did it." Marroquin phoned back moments later to take back his words. But the damage was done.

The men who inherited his father's business, traffickers who helped authorities track down Escobar, told Marroquin's mother, Maria Victoria Henao, that she and her daughter could leave Colombia, but her son had to die. If not, she was told, he would kill the traffickers when he reached manhood. Only a mother's pleas for mercy saved his life.

In the months that followed, the government seized the family's properties and bank accounts. Escobar's enemies siphoned off much of the rest. The family took on new identities and, with the help of Colombia's attorney general's office, left the country on a journey that first took them to Mozambique and, finally, Argentina.

Their past caught up in 1999, when Argentine authorities opened a money-laundering investigation against them. The Supreme Court eventually cleared them, but Marroquin spent 45 days in jail and his mother spent a year and a half.

Even now, their relationship with Escobar continues to raise doubts. Last month, Colombia's police director, Oscar Naranjo, told the Associated Press that Marroquin had taken over his father's cartel in the months before the kingpin's death, when he was barely 16. But the attorney general's office said there's no investigation open.

Marroquin said that as a child he had learned of his father's life of crime from newspapers and classmates. It was a life he never wanted, he said.

"If I had made the decision to follow my father's footsteps, I would have repeated history, and I already lived that, up close and personal," Marroquin said. "And I know how that story begins and ends."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company