Pablo Escobar, a British spy, their shared son, and the missing millions
Here’s a pitch: the son of a teenage Pablo Escobar is adopted by the real-life James Bond. Except it really happened. Max Williams speaks to Roberto Sendoya Escobar about a life like no other
PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Published: Thursday 1st October 2020
This story starts with a raid. Two helicopters silhouetted against the rising Colombian sun. A sleepy village on a remote rural hillside. Soldiers. Gunshots. Bloodshed and screams. A backroom, a dying girl, a cot. A British agent stands over the child inside it. Using the last of her dwindling strength, the girl gestures to a drawer. Within it, the agent finds a birth certificate: Roberto Sendoya Escobar. The girl dies. The agent takes the child and departs.
Later, when he examines the birth certificate more closely, he will see the father is named as ‘Pablo Escobar’ – a name that means nothing to him or the wider world.
The year is 1965. The era of the drug cartels is about to begin.
Some context to the above scene. The helicopters belonged to a company called De La Rue, a banknote printer and security firm tasked with the management of Colombia’s currency in the 1960s.
The village was the hideout of a gang that had been reckless enough to ambush one of De La Rue’s armoured cars, killing two security guards and escaping with several hundred thousand dollars.
The dawn raid was as much about payback as recovering the money: a power play to show the various Colombian gangs that you couldn’t steal from De La Rue with impunity.
The agent was a man named Patrick Witcomb. In a narrative of extraordinary characters, he may be the most extraordinary of all.
You see, De La Rue was not only in Colombia to print pesos; the firm was also on a mission to infiltrate the country’s nascent yet rapidly growing cocaine trade. How was this infiltration facilitated? Simple: De La Rue offered to transport the gangs’ money for them, providing the same service as it did for the national government. Intelligence gathered via this arrangement was passed onto the CIA, already deeply embedded within the region.
As De La Rue’s man on the ground, Witcomb oversaw both sides of the operation, dealing with government and ganglords alike. One of his contacts was a Panamanian military officer named Manuel Noriega, whose eventual rise to dictator would be facilitated in no small part by his friends in the United States. And across the line, an ambitious young cartel member, quickly gaining a reputation for his audacity and ruthlessness: Pablo Escobar, the biological father of Witcomb’s adopted son.
Copy of the birth certificate
Yes, Witcomb adopted the child he found in the bloodstained safehouse. Adopted him and raised him in the closeted opulence of high-society Colombia. Young Phillip Witcomb enjoyed a privileged upbringing, waited on by servants, protected by bodyguards, ensconced in a household whose visitors included the President of Colombia himself. Yet Phillip was also the target of several thwarted kidnap attempts. Sometimes he would dream of gunshots, and a young woman screaming.
Today, Phillip Witcomb AKA Roberto Sendoya Escobar is a successful artist in his fifties, speaking to me over Zoom from his home in Mallorca. His accent is British, his enthusiasm infectious. “I had no idea what was going to happen with this book,” he says. “I just started writing this story about my life years ago. Last two or three years, I’ve been well enough to deal with it properly because I’ve had a lot of health problems with this life of mine. And the reaction is just shocking!”
The book is Son Of Escobar: First Born, an autobiography written in the style of a thriller, telling the story of Phillip’s two fathers, Patrick and Pablo, very different men whose lives became inextricably intertwined. Phillip only discovered his biological father’s true identity in 1989, when an ailing Patrick began to share secrets that had long stayed buried.
That was one; another was a letter containing lines of code that Phillip believes will lead to Escobar’s hidden millions – money that Patrick helped the drug lord secrete in bank vaults around the world. The code is scattered throughout the book itself. Phillip wants you to try and crack it.
On the hottest afternoon of the year, Phillip and I spoke for nearly an hour and a half about his remarkable childhood in Colombia, his struggles with Escobar’s legacy, the incomparable Patrick Witcomb – and yes, the missing millions.
The gangster and the spy
Pablo Escobar is the selling point, but the real hero of the book is your adopted father, Pat...
Dad was this triple-edged sword. He was this really kind, loving family man, half Irish, half English, from Hull. Hull was bombed to bits so he was evacuated to this farm in Devon. Then he joined the RAF as ground crew – anything just to not go back home, I think! After that he joined the police force, then he joined De La Rue, and from De La Rue he was working this double life.
Triple life, really. He had to be a company man: in Colombia he was heading up the security and printing operation. He was a family man. But he also had this other stuff that he did for Sir Arthur Norman [managing director of De La Rue], who was the real life version of M.
These people are very special. They’re not ordinary people. They have this weird ability to compartmentalise their lives: put brick walls in their brain and separate out what they do. It’s a very special trait that I don’t think you train for. The British are very good at this spying malarkey.
The whole De La Rue setup is very James Bond...
The Bond stuff, it came out of Ian Fleming’s head but he got it from somewhere. If you look into the history of Sir Arthur Norman, he was an ace fighter pilot during the war – and he and Ian Fleming knew each other. That’s as far as I’m prepared to go, really.
They did know each other and they did stuff together. Fleming had his moments in that sphere of the operation, but I think he wishes he was the exciting character he’s written about rather than the rather mundane issues of becoming a spy – which was effectively gathering information and you hand it onto someone else.
The real life Bond is a man with a proper company job, very senior of course, and this is his operational cover. He’s a family man, he’s not this young guy sleeping with beautiful women.He fits into the upper echelons of society in the community into which he’s sent to operate. And his operation gives him the opportunity to gather the information he needs. Unfortunately for Dad in this case it was quite a dangerous thing to do.
Patrick Witcomb with Hernando Bermudes, his counterpart in the Colombian intelligence services.
And Clem Chalk, the De La Rue quartermaster, is basically the real life Q...
Old Clem Chalkie was the gadget man. He’d come round for dinner, I’d be in his pockets, ‘what have you got tonight?’ This is 1969, 1970. I pull out this machine and it could do sums! That was one of the world’s first pocket calculators. And he had a little camera that he could put in your hand, and it took pictures!
Of course, now we laugh at all this, but those were the secret agent’s stuff. He was Q Branch. He brought all these gadgets down to Colombia for Dad to use.
I remember Dad sitting in his office with a big tape recorder, with the reels. He had a speaker, and he had this tiny little machine, and he’d play the voices back into that speaker, and it was being recorded back onto a big tape.
There’s this intersection between post-war British espionage and the cocaine cartels of the 1980s – two very different worlds...
That old-fashioned James Bond world is the world that Dad was in, until things got a bit more modern. It all died out in the end because spying became a different situation.
You still have people on the ground in places but it’s all military stuff now, because they’ve got the technology to spy on people reading a newspaper on the toilet without even having to go into the country. So it is a different ballgame.
But they still couldn’t have infiltrated the drugs cartel without the man on the ground and a business saying, ‘we’ll carry some of your money; you leave this to us.’
Patrick Witcomb (left) with Clem Chalk (“Chalkie”) the quartermaster (centre).
Pat leads this raid on a safe house, a raid in which your mother is killed and you’re left an orphaned child. Why does he then adopt you?
He is a nice guy. He’s not like my real father; he’s a genuinely nice guy. Almost anyone would rescue that boy if they were there, because the state of Colombia in the 1960s, you’d be lucky if you made it to your teens, if you were born in the country.
The life I lived in Colombia, we were all like the millionaires; the rest of the country were all poverty stricken and dying young. It’s a poor country, apart from the wealthy. You go to any of these Third World countries now, there’s a wealthy elite and everyone else is starving. That’s how it was in Colombia. The Dons ruled and everybody else starved to death.
Your childhood is extraordinary. The President of Colombia comes to pay social calls...
Yeah, quite extraordinary. I’ve still got that golden raft that the President gave me. It’s sitting on a shelf! Imagine if you were born into the Bezos family: work is not something that you do for money. Work is something that you do to occupy your free time in-between mucking about with your billionaire mates.
Your ethos in life is not to get an education so you can get a decent job, cos you don’t need any of that. All you need is a phone, Google, and ‘what are we doing today?’
My father’s struggling to tell me I need an education; I’m surrounded by powerful men who are all Uncles and stuff. Uncle Carlos, who was the lawyer at my adoption, he’s friends with the President of the United States. These guys are ruling the world and I’m running around like a little child. I’m on the golf course teeing off with dad and Manuel Noriega. Crazy stuff!
And during the 1960s, your biological father is just another gang member...
He’s just a thug. He’s a teenage thug like we have today in the inner cities. Go to the capital city of almost any country in the world and they’ve got a gang problem. That’s the same in Colombia back then. These kids are 15, 16, school dropouts, and they learn that if they gather together in groups and bully their way around they can get money out of people. That’s what he was doing.
Due to the Narcos thing, you all think, ‘oh wow, there was this great drug lord! Hallelujah!’ – but there wasn’t. There was a gang of blokes and this young kid joined that gang. He didn’t form the Medellin cartel and all that nonsense. That all came later.
This is the prequel to Narcos, if you like. This tells you what really happened: these meddling agents, who go around the world meddling in Third World affairs like they still do today, creating kings out of anybody. And when these tyrants get too lairy, they send the Yanks in with all the helicopters and tanks to deal with it.
I’ve oversimplified it but that’s what goes on! They do it to get the contracts. If you want to get the contracts to print the money for a whole country you’ve got to do all the other stuff. It’s empire building.
The real Pablo
Patrick Witcomb and Pablo Escobar first met in 1969. It was a business meeting, set up by Noriega, arranged to introduce Witcomb to the young leader of a particularly violent gang operating out of the city of Medellin.
Perhaps Witcomb could offer De La Rue’s services to the gang? Complicating matters was the fact that Escobar knew that Witcomb had adopted his firstborn son. He demanded another meeting – with the boy himself. Witcomb reluctantly agreed.
And so during the celebration of New Year’s Eve, in the crowded ballroom of one of Medellin’s finest hotels, Phillip was briefly introduced to Pablo Escobar. Then still a child, Phillip remembers little of the encounter, although Pablo’s parting words stand out: “Always remember little man – you are an Escobar.”
There would be several such meetings down the years, with Phillip never aware the man they called “Don Pablo” was his father.
Your growth is mirrored by Escobar’s rise...
Now, this is an uneducated person, who only knows how to bully and steal. If he’d been the most successful one of these people, he might have made five, 10, 15, 20 million dollars. This guy was helped! He was turned into the billionaire that he became [by external forces]. That’s clear.
If not Escobar, then somebody else?
Oh yeah. They picked on him because he was convenient, because he was the bully boy growing up and he looked like the guy who would have the strength to do it. But then it obviously got out of hand. It really got bad.
I imagine Dad had intended to die with the secret [of the adoption]. But knowing the danger I was now in, because Don Pablo was completely out of control. And then he lost control of his empire: you have this umbrella of protection because everyone’s scared of you and then suddenly he’s lost control of his empire.
Dad’s been helping him steal money to gain his trust, from his own family in the cartel. So they would have killed him if they found out! There was this private amount of money that Dad was tucking away for him to keep him from robbing his business and kidnapping his son.
What did your dad think of Escobar?
Dangerous. Very dangerous man. I didn’t know who he was. We didn’t have the internet; it’s 1989, I’m living on the Costa Del Sol designing golf courses. I had a brick telephone that hardly worked. We didn’t have the information that you had today. So when Dad said, ‘your father is Pablo Escobar’, I didn’t even know who he was anyway!
Dad tells me everything. Then I find there are bodyguards at the house, so I realise this is quite serious. It takes time. It’s not until the early 1990s that I begin to realise the danger of this man.
How old are you when you first meet Escobar?
I’m very young. I couldn’t give you the exact age; I must have been four or five, something like that.
How many times did you meet him?
Must be six, seven times.
What were your impressions of him as a man?
I was intimidated by him, I didn’t know him. He was implying there was this relationship with him, but there wasn’t. It was intimidating to be thrust in front of someone you don’t know, and they’re all gun-toting nutters, drinking and stuff, and I’m a well brought-up little boy from a posh household. I’ve got my own guards and maids, and now I’ve got to sit with this bunch of nutters. I’m thinking, ‘Crikey!’
He isn’t depicted as particularly magnetic...
Because that magnetism is a creation of Hollywood. This magnetism that we all hear about, this is Narcos created. Drug dealers of the world who make it into the big time, they’re not magnetic, Hollywood Mafia men that you see on the screen. They are brutal killers. They are literally brutal killers.
Pablo Escobar's 1977 mugshot
PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
How do you feel about Escobar becoming this semi-mythologised figure?
That’s all Hollywood. He bought votes; hundreds and thousands of votes by acting as the godfather of Medellin and giving poor people money. And they fell for it. Today there are thousands of people who say, ‘Oh, Don Pablo was lovely.’
And yes of course he donated money to football teams and poor children and all the rest of it – but while he was doing that they didn’t know he had a training camp for murderers. He gave money to go and shoot politicians. The guy was a thoroughly bad person. Everyone’s got some good in them. Even Hitler loved his dog.
Have you watched Narcos?
How do you feel when you watch it?
I enjoy it. I just watch it. I’m looking at actors in an interesting programme. I know it’s not real. There are real parts of it, of course, but the real stuff was much more basic and cannibalistic.
But you don’t think, ‘look, there’s Dad...’
No! Nothing like that.
Is there any depiction you think is accurate?
Well. He was a drug dealer.
On one of your childhood meetings, Escobar tells you to get a good education...
Yeah. Because he’s obviously appreciated the fact that he didn’t. I’m looking back now as an adult... it’s very difficult to tell. I remember that.
At the time, these things don’t mean anything to you when you’re five, six years old. But when you look back on it, I don’t know if you remember going to visit some old relative, and them telling you, ‘Make sure you do well at school!’ You don’t really know what he’s on about. But if you’re writing a book later and it’s a significant person, suddenly it means something.
It’s funny to think Pablo Escobar dispenses the same advice as the average grandparent...
Yeah, it’s weird. And I suspect he didn’t mean a bloody word of it! I think he’s showing off in front of his hoodlum gang mates.
Why did Escobar never try to kill your dad?
I don’t know that he didn’t. That’s a good question. You can look up at the old El Tiempo newspaper of Colombia and you’ll see that there was a raid on the Thomas De La Rue offices. It’s possible that there was quite a serious attempt.
I do remember him coming home bloodied once so there may have been something. But he would never have disclosed that to his family. He was able to keep his life separate. But whenever I went to the office the whole place was full of guns.
He had his own army; De La Rue had their own army. Wherever they went, they chose for the offices and their depot, always opposite an army barracks. Cos they were dealing with dodgy countries; wherever you went, your offices would always be opposite the army barracks or the police headquarters so you had a bit of back-up.
Patrick Witcomb and a four-man security team on the road to Hirardor, Colombia.
During his childhood in Colombia, Phillip was the victim of several attempted kidnappings. The first occurred when a man tried to grab him in a shopping centre.
On two separate occasions, armed men broke into the Witcomb home in Botega. Both were thwarted thanks to Phillip’s personal bodyguard, Barandiga. The would-be kidnappers were gunned down in the house.
For his own protection, Phillip had been sent to an English boarding school, but after the second attempt, the Witcomb family moved out of Colombia for good.
You describe the kidnap attempts very vividly in the book...
I do because I remember them. And the thing is, as a child, you remember the weird things. I sort of was more scared of our guard dog than I was of the guy with his hand around my head. It’s weird how you remember things as a child. I look back at that child and it’s almost like an out-of-body experience. Like it’s a different person. It’s weird. I think that’s how I deal with it: by detaching myself and saying that’s somebody else.
It’s never proved that Escobar was behind these kidnap attempts...
Yeah, but did any of my other mates get kidnapped? Why am I the one running round in an armoured car, going to school? It’s obvious that I’m in a lot of danger.
Your bodyguard Barandiga sounds like an impressive man...
He was a hard nut, he was. He was a family man, he had two kids, but he was hard. Anyone looked twice at me, he’d just pull out his gun and shoot them. If anyone came near the house he’d pull his gun out and shoot it in the air. He was a real, proper bodyguard. He was my friend, I loved him. He was like a real loving uncle.
He used to tell me stuff about Dad when he was having a bad day. The guards used to call my dad ‘La Leon’ – The Lion. Or ‘The Quiet Bastard’ because he never said much about what he was doing. But they respected him, they really respected him. And they would lay down their life for him. He was loyal to family and he was loyal to his country. He didn’t work for any government; he worked for the Queen.
Phillip revisiting the headquarters of the firm in Colombia during school holidays, 1974. The armoured car that used to take him on the school run not so many years earlier...
It’s such a contrast with your biological father...
It takes people like him to break people like that.
Had one of those kidnappings succeeded, what do you think would have happened to you?
Yeah, that’s interesting, isn’t it? Well, either he wanted me back and he would have just dumped me with a maid or something and got on with his life, which is probably the most likely thing. It’s probably an ego thing; it wasn’t, ‘oh, I love my kid, I want my kid to love me.’ It wasn’t that at all, I’m pretty sure.
Don’t forget, this guy was out and about all the time, he wasn’t a home man with six o’clock news, watch a bit of Pointless and have dinner. He was out all the time. This guy had a new woman every bloody two days!
I think it’s a pride thing; Colombians are a very proud people, very stubborn, and they don’t forgive. He was quite old fashioned and it would have been woman with the children, I go out and do my business. I know his other children might try and get away with saying they were loved, but it wasn’t like that.
Phillip with Joan Witcomb and Patrick Witcomb, Bogota 1968.
Have you met any of his other children?
No, I’ve deliberately stayed away from any half siblings, cousins or anything. I don’t know them, I didn’t grow up with them – why should I want anything to do with them now? I’ve got to look forward not to the past.
Do you still dream about your mum?
Occasionally. Occasionally. But until Dad told me when I was 24, I didn’t know this was my Mum or anything. It was just a weird nightmare. I was waking up in sweats, crying.
Did you find anything about your mum?
She’s dead, isn’t she? What can I do? If you die as a teenager in a Third World country, in a backroom of some bloody dump somewhere, what else is there? There’s not suddenly going to be a load of people writing about you. That’s the end. You’re dead. I’ve never been tempted to look her up because I don’t want to lift up slabs and find lots of worms under there.
But you wrote the book?
No, I had to write the book. The book is part of my therapy. If I hadn’t written the book I might not be around. I got very ill mentally and I was in a bad place. I was only going to get worse. The tablets they give you on the mental health units are worse than the bloody problems! I thought I was the hunchback of Notre Dame at one stage!
Was that you struggling with your dad’s legacy?
Yeah, but there’s no one thing. It was the whole thing. In 1993, my wife dies of cancer, my dad dies. I’ve got no money. And then this bloke gets shot in the head, the whole drama. I just started drinking and that’s the worst thing you can do. But somehow I got through. I don’t know, the old angels looking after me.
Was it just drinking?
I didn’t do drugs. You can’t get me on that one!
What would you say to Escobar if he was still alive today?
Look, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’. If he was still the king of cocaine, and I was where I am today, which I wouldn’t be, I would like to sit him down – and I wouldn’t be very pleased. But you’d have to be careful because he’d probably have me taken out the back and shot!
In the book, you describe your parents telling you that you’re adopted – and then taking you to see Oliver! at the cinema the same day…
That is insane! I thought I was going to be grabbed by the ear and sold to another orphanage! Absolute madness. But it happened to be on in the cinema and it was an English film.
The guy’s going, ‘One boy, boy for sale!’ I thought that was going to be me!
Phillip and his dad outside his grandmother’s house in Swiss Cottage London, 1977.
I also loved the bit when you inadvertently set your hair on fire when proposing to your first wife over a candlelit dinner…
What an idiot! The whole room smelt, because burnt hair really smells. It was like, ‘what, you’re not supposed to laugh... Shit, I’m on fire!’
And then the waiter ran up with a soda fountain and sprayed my head with it, so I was soaking wet!
When did you tell your second wife about your biological father?
Julie and I met online. Then we met in a pub a couple of times, before I went up to her place for the day. We went for a walk in the woods with her dog, and I thought, ‘right, I’m going to tell her the whole story. If she doesn’t want to see me again, so be it!’
And I told her the whole story and she went, ‘right, OK. Let’s go back and have a cup of tea.’ That’s how she’s always been! My wife is a very calming influence.
The missing millions
In the final years of his life, now dwelling in Madrid, the famously private Patrick Witcomb began to open up to his adopted son.
He told Phillip about his biological father, and how he, Patrick, had helped Escobar siphon off a personal stash of drug money that was stored in secret locations around the world.
One day, Patrick took Phillip to the basement garage in Madrid where some of this money had been hidden. In another vault beneath that garage, there were several sacks of dollar bills – the last remnants of a hoard that had already been moved on.
Just before Patrick died, Phillip found a diary in the pocket of his jacket. Out of the jacket fell a letter, on the back of which was scrawled some strange symbols and numbers. “The cash… remember…” whispered Patrick to his son. “Madrid.” He passed away soon after.
Patrick Witcomb died in January 1993. In December that same year, Pablo Escobar was shot dead in Medellin by Colombian special operatives. Much of his vast fortune has never been found – although not for want of trying.
Tell us about the code. You share two lines at the end but more is hidden throughout the book...
The lines of code are what Dad gave me, but the book also points to other stuff: the lifestyle and what Dad was doing. So you have to take the whole thing as one big treasure hunt.
Why did your dad not tell you the location?
He didn’t mean to give it to me, for sure. He meant to give me the diary with it in. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to talk to me about it; he just meant for me to find that later. So the last thing that I got out of him was what it was. And then he died. I’m pretty sure that he would have wanted me to have to work for it. He was that kind of guy.
Now I’ve got a diary that he gave me. In the back of that diary are banks with safe deposit box numbers on. And some of the numbers correlate to some of the code in the book. So I’m thinking, ‘right, this is now in safe deposit boxes, these are the numbers, something in this code is to do with maybe the banking code to get me into the box.’
I don’t know, can’t work it out. There are a lot of clues that I’ve got to finish off but that’s the second book. In the meantime, I thought, ‘hey ho, let’s give it to the world, see if they can find it.’
De La Rue guards offloading black sacks of cash at Bogota airport.
What’s the second book going to be about?
It’s called The Secret of the Missing Millions. It’s a bit like a Tintin story – my favourite stories of all time. My challenge to everybody is, find that money before I publish the second book.
Dad and I belonged to Masonic Lodges: look up the motto of Masonic Level 25. If you just take the lines of code, it’s not enough – you’ve got to understand what the angles are. You’ve got to look at the Masonic levels first, and the mottoes and see what those mottoes mean.
Then you’ve got to look at so much other stuff in the photographs in the book. The old DC-4 airplane that we used to fly on – you’ve got to look at what’s written underneath the DC-4. It’s a proper Da Vinci Code. A treasure hunt.
The money’s not sitting in a wooden box in the sand under two palm trees, X marks the spot. Dad has changed that money into emeralds, bullion, other stuff now.
You cannot carry a billion dollars of cash around. Dad wasn’t stupid. He wouldn’t have kept it in cash, like Escobar and all his twats. They went and buried it in the ground!
So you think the money will be hidden in safe deposit boxes somewhere?
Probably. Study the route of the DC-4, and you can research where that plane used to go.
Study that, and study the various golf courses that I used to play on with my Dad and Noriega, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of where a lot of that money might actually be.
Would you make a film out of this story? I’m sure you’ll get offers...
Yeah, if someone’s got the money for the intellectual property rights to the book. If some billionaire decides it’s a good idea, bring it on!
Son of Escobar: First born By Roberto Sendoya Escobar is out now. £14.99 from Waterstones.
Roberto Sendoya Escobar / Phillip Witcomb