Thursday 18 June 2015

Pablo Escobar's son: Choose Peace

'To forgive is an act of liberation, it is a healing act.'
I interviewed Sebastian Marroquin in one of the most remarkable encounters I've had as a journalist. He spoke about his father's motivation, crimes and loving such a man. There are many insights in the interview.

Even with a $1 million contract on his head from drug lords, Sebastian Marroquin is not afraid to stand up for peace and reconciliation.

When did you notice that your life was different to other people’s?

In 1984, when the Minister of Justice died, on the order of my father, my life changed overnight. I was living a normal life and the next day I woke up in Panama, exiled for my father’s crimes.

Did you have friends? What was it like growing up in your family?

I never lacked love from my parents, but I had few opportunities to make friends. I never had the chance to establish myself, not even in a school and many of my friends ended up dead. I can count them with one hand and have fingers to spare.

I was raised around the most dangerous bandits in the world. That made me aware that violence only generates more violence.

This is a man who you love, but went from being a young student to a trafficker, what changes did you notice in him?

I think he started in the drug dealing business after two attempts to enter university in Columbia, but the education system was not designed to receive everybody. I wonder what his life would have been like if he had received an education, and how he could have used his intelligence for good causes.

I think drug dealing, thanks to prohibition, is a way to a path of violence. My father, although he had good intentions to help those who were needy. He build 4,000 houses for people who literally lived in rubbish dumps, he built schools and hospitals and sport centres. But, finally, the violence that was generated by drug dealing really trapped him.

He went mad with violence, especially when a car bomb exploded in front of our house. When he saw the photo of the damage, one single bomb against his family was enough for him to order over 200 bomb attacks, that’s why the violence started growing.

There was one other thing that escalated the violence. The Columbian state also used violence to combat him so he felt that the state’s action delegitimised human rights and my sister and I were in prison. I was 7 and my sister was 2 years old. We were imprisoned because of my father’s crimes. So, increasingly ,he found excuses to be violent.

You said he was trapped.

You die young. They are aware of that and they don’t care. Each drug dealer believes that he will be the only one that will survive. But reason and history say that after my father’s death, the person who was responsible for 80% of the cocaine market, the Cali cartel took over. Six months later they were destroyed. New cartels started. No matter how many you jail or execute, the business will never stop. There will always be demand.

Prohibition makes it a profitable business, The only result it has produced is more widows and orphans. I’m sure that the policies we apply now are the same as applied 30 years ago. You can announce that you have won battles, but the war is lost.

I was born in the centre of the drug dealing, surrounded by drugs, but I was never tempted to try them, thanks to the education from my father. That’s why I think education is the most powerful tool.

What did your father say to you about drugs?

When I was 8 or 9 years old, when he called me and said, “let’s talk about drugs.” He explained to me about each one, what they did and the differences. He showed me how to identify each one of them. He confessed that he had tried them all, apart from heroin, because he felt that had a point of no return.

He said that he only used marijuana and all other drugs were poison and if I was ever curious about trying any of them, not to do it with my friends but to call him and we would try them together. I don’t know what effect it had on me, but my curiosity disappeared.

With information campaigns to youngsters, you can have an effect, because no drug dealer puts a gun to your head, it’s a personal choice to take drugs.

Is this why you weren’t tempted to continue the family business?

Exactly. Because I know how the story started and how it ended. It would have been the simplest way, for me to continue my father’s business, but I always disagreed with the violence that he generated. I realised that to continue would be to go against my own principles and those things I asked him not to do.

Your father gave a lot to the poor, was this out of conviction or to buy support?

My father was once as poor as they were and he knew about their needs and suffering. He never forgot where he came from. It’s cheaper to buy votes than to give houses as presents.

There is a story that illustrates that money from drugs is useless. When we were in hiding we had $2 million in cash but we were literally starving because we couldn’t go across the street to the supermarket. That’s when I understood that drug money had no sense.

When your father first offered to go into prison he said he was acting in the interest of his wife and “my pacifist son”.

I used to tell him that there was no valid excuse for the violence he was making. Sometimes he had many answers and made me shut up. We had many arguments.

For example, I told him I didn’t agree with the bombs, that they were indiscriminate. He said that I should remember that the first one was against me and my sister, that he didn’t start that madness.

But still I think there is no valid excuse for violence. It requires more courage to be a pacifist than to be a bad guy, to destroy is easy, to build more difficult.

Your father was also trying to take over the state

There are many ways to control. There is corruption. You have unlimited supplies of money and bribes can be hard to refuse, because he said “You either take this money or I’ll kill you”. My father was the first civilian to declare a war against the state. I remember that he said  “I will make the Medellin police disappear.” Within a month, more than 500 died.

You don’t hide from your father’s crimes and say that he was a loving father, but after his life of crime, what did he leave you with?

I received a lot of love from him, despite of his attitude to life that negatively affected his family. When he called me last, he broke his golden rule and stayed on the phone.

He was trying to save us because we would have been next. After he died, we asked for help to the Vatican, the Red Cross and UN. We just wanted somewhere to live, not money or protection. We were part of the trap for our father. The President admitted that.

Now you are living openly, how does that feel?

We were detained in Argentina in 1999 which let people discover our new identity, so it seemed to be right to share our story to the world. I’m searching, trying to do what is correct. You can choose violence or peace. I choose peace. My country needs peace. I hope my experience is useful for the young, to remain away from the drug dealing.

But your story raises uncomfortable issues for the country, about their past. There were many that were involved at one level or another

I feel sadness that this peace message has been buried by the establishment. They are not interested in talking about Pablo Escobar, because to talk about him is to talk about themselves. About how a civilian could get so far, thanks to corruption from the state, business leaders and others. Many were accomplices.

My father could not be manipulated, he was the big manipulator.

The society was co-responsible. We don’t want to accuse anyone, we don’t name anyone.

Do you have the names?

Many. But one has to rebuild the country to make sure the past is not repeated. I believe in divine justice because you can evade Earth’s justice.

You are threatening to expose people?

Absolutely not. I’ve received a number of offers to abuse the position I have, to destroy democracy and I never abused that to damage anyone.

I’m here to build not to destroy. I would shut up all my life, if they leave me in peace.

I have met many more victims of my father. They are ready for reconciliation, to forgive. To forgive is an act of liberation, it is a healing act.

This is what my country needs to get out of the cycle of violence. The Columbian establishment should not be afraid of peace and reconciliation.

Postscript: Here are my thoughts after the interview

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