“At one point there was a four-million-dollar price on my head,” said Sebastián Marroquín, the son of infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
“But I don’t want anyone in the audience to get too excited, there’s no one left to pay you,” he added, prompting laughter throughout the packed auditorium.
Having survived numerous attempts on his life throughout his teenage years, Marroquín was in Guadalajara’s Teatro Diana to share his thoughts on how Mexico can learn from his father’s story.
He was born Juan Pablo Escobar, the heir to the largest drug trafficking empire in history. He assumed a new identity in 1994, when at age 17, he grew tired of running and decided to face the very men who had put a price on his head.
At the meeting with Colombia’s top gangsters, his uncles and grandmother sat with his enemies, loudly clamoring for the property and possessions he had inherited from his father.
Yet the Colombian drug barons showed a rare moment of mercy. He was given a choice: eternal exile or violent death.
The bounty was withdrawn when he left for Argentina. Eventually he became an architect, a writer, a husband and a father.
Addressing the audience at the Teatro Diana, he projected pictures of the four kingpins who had called him to the meeting. Of the four, two are dead, while two are imprisoned for life in the United States.
Marroquín’s mission in life is to encourage young Latin Americans to make the same choice he did.
“I came to consider drug trafficking a curse … all I can remember it bringing is persecution and death,” he said.
Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval was keen to capitalize on Marroquín’s visit and he arranged a live broadcast of their morning meeting on the social media platform Periscope. The pair discussed the security situation in the state and the impact of negative role models on violence.
At the Teatro Diana, Marroquín explicitly referred to the popular Netflix series “Narcos,” which he believes glamorises his father’s rise to power.
“I met a very different a Pablo Escobar to the one in this series,” Marroquín said. “I saw an intense suffering that is not reflected at all. Most of these televisions programs send young people the message that drug trafficking is cool.”
Marroquín conceded that his father possessed countless properties, cars, planes and helicopters. Yet he was so restricted by his outlaw status that he and his family could never enjoy the wealth.
“We had lots of houses but we couldn’t live in any of them. We couldn’t drive any of our vehicles. They were kept in warehouses,” he said. “The drug trade promises many things but it takes them all away, along with freedom and the lives of loved ones.”
Marroquín illustrated his point by showing a photo of a gold encrusted dinner set valued at more than $400,000. Georg Jensen, the Danish house who produced the 24-piece-set told Escobar that they had not received an order of that size since the fall of Europe’s great dynastic families. Yet the Escobars only used the dinnerware on one or two occasions, and thieves made off with the complete set in 1993.
Marroquín credits education for opening the doors that led him away from his father’s violent world.
“Education has allowed me to generate my own opportunities and avoid temptations … I was forced to learn that a criminal life does not last long.”
According to Marroquín, his father applied to university twice. He wanted to train as a journalist and then a lawyer, but was rejected on both occasions.
“I ask myself how different would the story of Colombia would have been if the country had been prepared to provide an education for my father? What would our history be if this man had been given the right to educate himself and if that right really was a right and not a privilege?” Marroquín asked.
Certainly, Escobar displayed an extraordinary intelligence and adaptability that would have transferred into other fields. In one anecdote, Marroquín explained how his father invented an ingenious new trafficking method. Smugglers soaked denim jeans in liquid cocaine and exported them to the United States. The buyers would carefully wash the jeans, extract and dry the drug. The method worked for many years, until a tip off alerted authorities. Escobar heard news customs had seized a shipment and he realized this was the end of the jeans method, yet he kept sending boxes.
Escobar laughed when his men asked him why the route was still active. He explained that inspectors had spent hours washing through the jeans, without finding a trace of cocaine. Tired, they finally gave up and threw them back into the boxes before sending them on their way. But Escobar had the last laugh – he had simply switched to soaking the boxes in cocaine instead.
Marroquín recounted this story with a son’s unmistakable pride. Indeed, throughout his talk he was keen to draw attention to his father’s generosity and refute suggestions his philanthropy was a cynical public relations ploy. “I think it is important to remember not just the negative part of my father’s story but the complete story,” he said.
In 1983, a garbage dump fire exposed the grinding poverty of 5,000 families who eked an existence from the discarded scraps of nearby Medellin. “The state indifference allowed my father to fill the vacuum,” Marroquín said, as he showed photos of the complex
Escobar built to house the displaced families. The Pablo Escobar Neighborhood remains to this day.
During this time, Escobar was a congressman in Colombia’s legislature. Yet his rivalry with the state escalated in 1984, when his murky background came to light, forcing him to resign his post after just two years in office.
He had entered politics to prevent the signing of an extradition treaty with the United States. Yet the drug baron was left exposed and without diplomatic immunity.
By 1987, Escobar had launched an all-out-war against the state. His terror campaign claimed the lives of thousands, including three presidential candidates, scores of police, judges and journalists.
The war ended in 1993, when Escobar was killed in a firefight with security forces. On live radio, the distraught 17-year-old Marroquín vowed to kill everybody responsible.
“I reacted very violently,” he reflected in the Teatro Diana. “Today, in Colombia, I am remembered more for these ten seconds of threats than for 23 years of peace … but it doesn’t matter, I know I am walking the right path.”