Konstantin Kakaes is a fellow at New America and author of “The Pioneer Detectives: Did a Distant Spacecraft Prove Einstein and Newton Wrong?”
If this book were an isolated undertaking, it would be simple enough to ignore it. But even if it becomes only a marginal cultural artifact in the United States, it was a bestseller across Latin America. It is reflective of a more generalized whitewashing of the celebrity drug lord Pablo Escobar. There is a thriving business in Escobar-tourism in Medellin, the Colombian city that served as his stronghold. “Narcos,” a television series on Netflix that parallels many of the stories in the book, portrays Escobar as a lovable rogue. That show is an insult to the dead; suffering as entertainment only enables brutality.
Now the drug kingpin’s son Juan Pablo Escobar, who also uses the name Sebastián Marroquín, has written this moral train wreck of a memoir of his father’s life and times. Published in Spanish in 2014, “Pablo Escobar: My Father” has been newly translated into English. It is reasonable to ask why. The younger Escobar dwells on the indignities of his own life, and revels in the luxuries of his adolescence (a $10,000 wristwatch he wore when he was 13), although he claims not to want to brag. He glides over the deaths his father orchestrated; if Juan Pablo, the man, feels the tragic weight of his inheritance, Juan Pablo, the writer, lacks the skill to convey it.
Juan Pablo Escobar’s father made the Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest people on the strength of his expertise in cocaine arbitrage. That expertise was realized in the form of an organized campaign of violence against rival drug traffickers, the Colombian state and the Colombian people. The elder Escobar was killed in a shootout with Colombian police in 1993. Nobody, to my knowledge, has tallied up the total death toll that he was personally responsible for. Any reasonable estimate would reach into the tens of thousands.
Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, a Colombian minister of justice, was killed at his orders. So, too was Luis Carlos Galán, who probably would have been elected president had he not been gunned down in 1989. Avianca Flight 203, from Bogota to Cali, was bombed at his orders, killing more than 100 people on board. His men detonated a truck bomb outside of Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security, a sort of analogue to the FBI, killing dozens. More than 100 people, including nearly half of Colombia’s 25 supreme court justices, were killed in a 1985 attack by M-19 guerrillas against the Palace of Justice. During Escobar’s years of peak influence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Medellin became one of the most violent cities on Earth. Not all of this violence can be blamed on Escobar. But by everybody’s account — including his son’s — he was central to it.
Juan Pablo Escobar delineates his view of his father in the opening pages of the book: “From the day I was born till the day he died, my father was my friend, my guide, my teacher, and my trusted advisor.” This does not square with his ostensible intention to honor the memories of his father’s victims, “with all my heart.” There is no honor in this book; sprinkling pro forma clichés of regret into the text at random intervals is a lazy, abortive attempt at absolution.
The younger Escobar was 17 when his father died. Although that couldn’t have been easy, it is not an excuse for the narrative decision he made as a grown man to segue directly from a promise to honor his father’s victims to a blow-by-blow account of a dispute with his father’s siblings about his inheritance. This acute dislocation recurs repeatedly in the book. He complains that after his father orchestrated Lara’s assassination, “we moved to an old, damp, stifling house in the historic section of the city. It was awful. . . . For the first week, the only thing we ate was chicken from KFC.”
It may be true that, after his father kidnapped half a dozen journalists and prominent Colombians, it was annoying that he kept changing the channel on the television, looking for news of his hostages. But it is difficult for the reader to share the younger Escobar’s relief when his father resolves the situation by buying a television with picture-in-picture functionality: “That way, he could watch multiple channels and turn on the sound for whichever program he wanted.”
The scant virtues of the book are limited to a few passages when the Escobar family, on the run, is at its most beleaguered. Mostly, the narration of these times is suffused with cloying self-pity. But now and again, a note of lyricism stumbles through. At one birthday party, in hiding, “the food tasted like uncertainty.” The party took place after the family fled from the authorities: “Our relationship with the rain was different than that of most people. For us, the rain was a protective blanket that allowed us to move through the city. In the rain, we traveled more easily. Often, rain became a signal that it was time to leave.”
Pablo Escobar consciously aimed to portray himself as a sort of Robin Hood-esque figure, erratically dispersing alms around Medellin and surrounding areas. Ought that real, if scattershot, charity atone for some share of his numerous sins? This indolent and immature book sheds little light on this question. A smattering of chintzy truisms about peace, forgiveness and reconciliation fail to obscure the basic truth that this book is an exercise in trading on Pablo Escobar’s celebrity that implicates the author in his father’s crimes, an accessory after the fact.
By Juan Pablo Escobar
Thomas Dunne. 353 pp. $27.99