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 best-seller 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 Medellín, 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 Sebastian Marroquin, 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. 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 Galan, who probably would have been elected president had he not been gunned down in 1989. Avianca Flight 203, from Bogotá 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, Medellín became one of the most violent cities on Earth.
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.” Or: “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 Medellín 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.
Konstantin Kakaes reviewed this book for The Washington Post.