Having followed the story of Pablo Escobar for several years, it’s safe to say I know a fair bit about the Columbian drug lord and his family.
And as far as I know, the King of Cocaine had two children, his only daughter Manuela Escobar, and his son Juan Pablo Escobar who now goes by Sebastián Marroquín.
So you can only imagine my shock when I find out that Don Pablo actually has a ‘secret son’, his oldest, Roberto Sendoya Escobar. My curiosity gets the best of me. My mission is to track him down.
It so happens that Roberto is promoting his first book First Born: Son of Escobar where he goes into detail about his famous dad and his life. It’s the perfect opportunity for me to chat with the oldest child of the most famous drug lord in the world.
Thankfully Roberto, who is currently based in Spain and works as an artist, is down to earth and humble, and happily agrees. We hop on a video call.
He bares a striking resemblance to his dad. The only difference is, this Escobar has a very strong English accent. After exchanging pleasantries, we get straight into business.
I tell Roberto that I am incredibly shocked that Don Pablo had another child.
To my surprise, he tells me he too was shocked when he discovered that the renowned Columbian drug dealer Don Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was his dad. He only found out who his real dad was when he was 24.
He was rescued as a baby by a British MI6 agent during an armed helicopter raid, led by his adoptive father, Patrick Witcomb. During the raid, his mother Maria Luisa Sendoya, was fatally shot, while Roberto lay in a cot beside her in a tiny house. Many suspects were shot during the raid, however Roberto survived and was taken to safety.
Witcomb took the infant to an orphanage but kept tabs on his progress. It was several months later, after deciding to adopt the child, that Witcomb was told the little boy’s father was in fact Pablo Escobar.
After being adopted, Roberto took the name Phillip Witcomb.
Over the coming years as Patrick built up – on the orders of British intelligence – unholy alliances with Colombia’s criminal network, the young Pablo Escobar was granted access to his eldest son, and Roberto grew up aware of his mysterious Colombian “father"
However, as Escobar’s Medellín Cartel was formed and he became more powerful and out of control, Patrick, sensing the danger his son was in, moved Roberto to England for his safety.
There, he lived in blissful ignorance of his sinister heritage, until the fateful day in 1989 when Patrick, then diagnosed with a fatal condition, told him the sensational truth.
“We didn’t have the internet at that time. We had to wait for the six pm news to come on before you got any information or we had to buy a newspaper.
“At the time, I was living in Costa del Sol designing a golf course with Peter Alliss and everything was hunky dory and life was good.
“My adoptive father who's an MI6 spy was working in Madrid on a mission. We used to talk quite regularly on the phone, but we only used to meet around once or twice a year.
“So it was quite unusual for me to get a phone call from him asking me to come to his office. He asked me to come to Madrid.
“I flew up from Malaga. He had an apartment on Kaye Goya street. I met him there and spent the afternoon with him before we went out for a boys’ night out to watch a movie. It was a good night out. On the way home, as we are passing a certain building, he tells me ‘here is where the money is kept’.
“I told him, you can’t just say that to me without explaining what you mean. That started a conversation.
“We then got into the money and the story about the money. And then later on, during that conversation we started talking about the nightmares I kept having.
“I kept asking my adoptive dad about the nightmares that I was having about these really loud noises and the feeling that all these people were coming to get me. And I kept seeing a woman in a red dress and I couldn't understand what these nightmares were and what they meant. I tried getting him to tell me what all this was about. Was it anything about my childhood, I asked?”
Patrick then decided to come clean.
“He told me about the situation in the house where they found me and what happened, and the woman in the red dress was actually a woman covered in blood, and this is what I had seen as a child in a cot next to her. He explained all this to me which was a really tragic situation, where this little boy sees the death of his mother in front of him, but he doesn't know about it at the time.
“We got back to the apartment and he started to talk about my life, taking me back to my memories in Medellin.
“He kept telling me ‘Do you know the man we used to go and see all the time, the man that kept calling you his son? That man is Pablo Escobar Gaviria and he is your father’.
“He went on to explain that Pablo was a very bad man and he was wanted by authorities for mass murder, drug dealing, and everything else.
“He didn’t go into it much, but he said this guy is your real father, and he said we nearly killed him when he was very young, but he escaped from the house with his cousins, the Gaviria brothers.
“So he said this guy is actually your father and here's your birth certificate and paperwork and s**t like that.”
“You expect me to go wow, but I don't. Because as I explained there's no internet, no Netflix, no Narcos, or any of that s**t. We were living in the dark ages, so it didn’t mean what one would think it should have meant. All I understood is that this guy was not a good guy, he was my father and we went and visited him a number of times when I was younger. It was not the massive impact that you imagine, but it did impact my life for sure.”
As time goes on, young Roberto gets to learn more and more about his father.
“Over time I have mixed feelings. You have two sides. There's a guy out there who’s your father and you want there to be this family thing.
“It’s a person you knew, so there's this resentment because I was taken away from him, but also the sentiment that thank God I was taken away because the guy is a baddie and he's going to get all his family in trouble.
“So you have this conflict which you will never get rid of. It's almost a surreal feeling where you feel you wish you had more love but there wasn't and you are grateful that there wasn't and there’s all this conflict.
“Do I hate the guy? I hate part of the stuff he did but there is a little part of me that wants to get to know him, but it's the past and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“More and more I found out about the way he treated people, having young girls beheaded and dismembered. NInety nine percent of him is not a good person, but I'm sure there was a little good in him. A lot of people said he was so wonderful to the poor and gave money to the poor and all the rest of it.”
Roberto described what it was like meeting his father on as a young boy.
“When you’re younger you are very impressionable and you only see things that you want to see. So I saw a lot of guns. I saw youngsters with pistols and 9mm’s in their pockets. They had power because they didn’t care about whether they killed people or not.
“I had my own personal bodyguards too. When I arrived, I was told to go to a certain table and to sit next to this man and to talk to this guy, and so to me it was a bit weird, because I wanted to be with my family. But you do as you told, so off we went. He was a bit of a show off with me which was a little weird. So these are the memories I had.
“I remember my adoptive mother and her friends smoked cigarettes. I remember that smell. And I remember that my dad (Pablo) and his friends smoked a cigarette that smelt different. I now look back and realise they were all high on hashish (he laughs).”
“I sat next to this guy who put his arm around me and called me ‘mijo’ (my son). I’m thinking that's pretty weird, because I thought Patrick was my dad, so I was always very confused.
“He also smelt of the same cheap cologne, which to this day I can smell. Most of the time that I’d see Pablo, he wasn't dressed up. He wore plain trousers, a belt and an open neck shirt. He wore off cream colour shirts and sometimes faded yellow shirts. I also don’t remember him having a watch. Things like that I remember.”
Looking back, I ask Roberto how he felt about sharing several moments with a person that was loved and also hated around the globe.
“I shared moments with the guy that eventually, not on his own, literally changed the world, not for better but for worse. There are people in history for worse or for better. I used the analogy of Hitler. He was a world baddie, but he changed history.
“So the packaging and franchising and mass marketing of the crack cocaine business was controlled by Pablo and his organisation.
“I would imagine that it's very rare to have a relationship with someone who changed history. I imagine it being a bit like sitting on a chair next to Napoleon just as his troops are readying themselves for a march to Waterloo.”
So how does Roberto’s life change once he finds out his dad is the biggest drug dealer in the world?
“So there's this period where I am all body guarded in Columbia as a youngster. That calms down when I move to the UK and then I move to Spain and everything is looking good. I was making lots of money and had a family and things were great. Then there's a dramatic moment and things change immediately.
“I get home after finding out that Pablo Escobar is my dad and there are already special agents at my house. I thought oh s**t, back to my Columbia days.
“My life from that moment changed. It also changed for my half brother and everyone else. We all needed protection. I was lucky. My half brother and his family had to go into hiding.”
“My adoptive father was like the British government. We had bodyguards and so I was okay.”
But that didn't stop the death threats from pouring in. He says he still gets them till today for having the Escobar surname.
“If you grow up everyday eating ice cream you will eventually think ice cream means nothing to you. If you grow up with guns and violence all your life, you just think well it’s just normal. So what if someone threatens me? What can I do?
“At the end of the day, what can I do about it? Nothing. These are anonymous emails. What am I going to do about it?
“I keep these threats in a file and so if anything happens they are there. To be honest, my half brother is much more of a target than I am. He lives in South America and they can get to him much easier.
“I had a friend telling me that I shouldn't go ahead and write my book because someone will come for me. I said: ‘look, if someone was going to come and kill me they would have done it years ago’.”
So does Roberto keep in touch with any of his half siblings and do they have a good relationship?
He says: “None of us get on with each other. There’s this massive ‘who’s going to inherit Escobar’s money?’ Well there isn't any, so nobody can inherit any money. Also there's arguments about who will own the intellectual property.
“None of us, my uncle Roberto, my half brother and my half sister have a relationship at all.”
“My half brother slags me off and I don't have anything good to say about him either. This is all very childish. I've got my life and I get on with it. When you’re the eldest son, legally speaking you inherit intellectual property right? But I am not interested in it.”
Roberto has certainly lived a more interesting life than most of us. But would he perhaps change anything in his past if he could?
“I’d like to have won the lottery and retired right there and then and settled on a great big yacht on the port of Monaco,” he jokes.
“I can’t change anything so there is no point in dwelling on it. Would I have liked to have changed anything? Well I would have loved to be in a situation where I would have grown up with my Colombian family and they were not drug dealers or anything.”
“It would have been lovely if my real father would have not been the person he was, but I can’t change that.”
Due to him being an Escobar, Roberto is also banned from his native country of Colombia. He can’t step foot in the country at all. Roberto doesn’t mind.
“I am an international citizen of planet earth basically, with a British passport. I don't think for me it’s important where I live. If you're in my home right now you'll see I still maintain my cultural identity.”
Roberto also opened up about the moment he found out that his dad Pablo was killed on December 2, 1993. He was living in London.
“My wife, at the time Susan, was undergoing chemotherapy. She was in bed resting and I was in the lounge watching the news. The Christmas tree was already up. I sat watching the news and I literally said ‘F**k me. Look at that, that’s my dad. He’s dead, what are we going to do?’
“I picked up the phone and rang my adoptive father to ask him if he had seen the news, which he had.
“About a week later, I had a knock on the door. It was two guys with suits. They showed me their IDs. They were from Interpol. For a moment I thought I was in trouble (haha).
“They were actually very nice to me and just wanted to speak to me about what had happened in Colombia and offered me any help I required.
“The next day, a police van turned up and installed a sophisticated alarm system in my place. This alarm system is only given to diplomats. When you push the button, armed police will arrive in no time. They wanted to keep me safe until the dust settled to see if I was in any danger. They felt my life was under threat, but thankfully the British police looked after me very nicely.”
So does Roberto think that inheriting the surname Escobar comes with a huge burden?
He says: “I use my English name especially when I travel. I’ve got my British passport, but I keep my other documentation like my Colombian identity documents in a a wallet in my pocket.”
While the name Pablo Escobar has been famous for decades, the Netlfix series Narcos made the Escobar brand even more famous. What does Roberto think of Narcos, and has he watched it?
“Narcos is a very successful series. It made Netflix what it is today. They produced lots of money, close to a billion dollars. It is very surreal watching a TV show and your father is in front of you. When they made Narcos, I hadn’t yet come out with my story.
“Lots of stuff in Narcos is dramatised and not true.This is normal in any series. However the producers seem to have deliberately left out MI6 and the part they played in taking down my father. Because it is an American show they wanted to say ‘We got Escobar’. But they didn’t do anything, and hardly played a part in his take down.”
He says his new book First Born is sort of a prequel to Narcos.
“It opens the door to history. It explains how things all started. It is more interesting than Narcos, which is basically a dramatised version of a drug dealer and how he’s caught.”
With time running out, I ask Roberto about his plans to visit South Africa one day.
“I think to a point, there are a few similarities between Colombia and South Africa. They both have extreme wealth which is generally speaking linked to commodities, like gold and oil. Both have very rich mineral wealth country. Both countries have lots of wealthy people that live right next to absolute poverty. And both have extreme violence.”
“My wife’s been to South Africa and said it was lovely. If I visit South Africa, I want to do some talks, some public speaking and visit some places that tourists generally don't visit.”
I'm sad to end the call, but Roberto and I have made friends for life, and I have certainly enjoyed one of the best interviews of my journalism career.
First Born: Son of Escobar is available to purchase in South Africa. Contact Michael Pienaar on 079 443 2070.