Sunday, November 15, 2009

Anatomy of an Article: Riding with Pablo Escobar's Son

I was in a car on the Panamericana Highway in Buenos Aires last week with two men I had just met, both of whom I was interviewing for a story I was working on for Newsweek. One of them, Nicolas, asked me where I grew up, and when I told him Baltimore, he veered the conversation (as many often do) to “The Wire.” We both agreed that it was one of the best television series ever made. The other guy, Sebastian, had never seen the show, so I starting breathlessly telling him how the writing, acting and photography were unmatched, and how it portrayed the modern urban American experience so vividly, and how it gave viewers laser-sharp insight into the inner workings of inner-city drug cartels.....

About 45 seconds into my fawning discourse, I recognized the sheer absurdity of the situation: the man I was glorifying the American drug culture to was the son of the world’s most famous drug dealer, Pablo Escobar.

Yes, I was talking drugs with Juan Pablo Escobar, who now goes by the name Sebastian Marroquin. Thankfully, I stopped myself just short of offering to lend him my DVD copies of Season 1-5. Now, that would have been weird. I don’t think Marroquin would find “The Wire” particularly entertaining. At least I hope not, especially since the reason I was in the car with him and director Nicolas Entel was the new documentary film they just released called “Sins of My Father,” essentially a 90-minute apology from Marroquin to the Colombian people for the many gross, violent and bloody acts committed by his father when he was the richest, most powerful and ruthless drug kingpin on the planet.

I was the only journalist in the world invited to watch the film with Marroquin and Entel. It would be the first time either of them had seen the final cut on the big screen. There were literally only seven of us in the theater, all of whom were associated with the production, except for me. Sitting next to Marroquin and stealing glances of him as he watched his life story play out onscreen was emotional, indeed.

At first, I wasn’t anxious to write this story. Several other international media outlets had already interviewed Marroquin by telephone and published stories. But through some hustle and some luck, I managed to get something no one else did: I had met Marroquin personally, shook his hand, watched him as he watched himself. That was my story, and what would set my article apart from the others. When I told my editor in New York this, she was excited, and we agreed that I would take the somewhat unusual (although increasingly common) step of writing myself into the story, using a few, sparing first-person accounts. She also decided to turn this from a one-page article to a two-page spread in the magazine, using several photographs, and including a sidebar Q+A.

I can state unequivocally that Escobar’s offspring is a nice guy. Quiet. Shy. A hulking presence, similar to his father’s, I assume. He also looks just like him. All he is missing is a moustache, as I noted in my Newsweek article here.

Admittedly, describing how ice-cool Avon Barksdale is to Pablo Escobar’s son is sort of stupid. Or surreal. Either way, it reminded me why I do what I do, and why I love it so much.
You can read excerpts from my conversation with Marroquin in Newsweek here. Not all the questions made it into the magazine, so I offer more from our conversation below:

Brian Byrnes: Do you still speak with your relatives in Colombia?

Sebastian Marroquin: Yes, I still keep in touch with my aunts and uncles in Colombia from my mother’s side. Not on my father’s side. They are very happy that we could demonstrate a face of the family that was always hidden. They said to me ‘Nephew, after so many years of a bad image, it is great that you can show our good side now.’ They understand that the message that we are trying to send to the world now is a positive one. They have a lot of hope, and so do I.

You now make a living as an architect in Argentina, correct?

I make money as an architect and I have money that family members left me.

Your father’s money?

No, this comes from my mother’s side. All my father’s money has been confiscated. I have absolutely zero knowledge or any access to any money, properties or cars that belonged to my father. It’s all in the hands of the government. The only thing that the family of Pablo Escobar still has is his surname.

Your younger sister did not participate in the film. Why not?

She was just a child when all this war was going on with my father. At a very young age, she was a prisoner to the situation. Despite the fact that she couldn’t even speak up to declare her innocence, she was imprisoned. And she really values her privacy now. She supported me all the way during this process of reconciliation. I can’t say that this helps lessen her pain, but she prefers to maintain a low profile and continue with her studies.

In the film, before you enter the room to meet the Galan brothers, you paused in front of the door. What was going through your mind at that moment?

I was remembering what I had written in the letter to them, and what it would be like to speak with someone whose pain was so acute. I was thinking ‘When I open this door, how do I begin the conversation? Would it be good to say “good afternoon”? Or would it be better just to say “hello?” What would be the right way to address people in this situation who were the victims?’ It was very difficult to choose the right words. It was almost impossible. Each one of the sons reacted in their own way. And it was really a noble act on their part to meet with me.

Photo courtesy of Sebastian Marroquin/Red Creek Productions.

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