Philip Witcomb with his adopted father Pat in Spain.

03-09-2018

Philip Charles Robert Witcomb is a classically trained artist, graphic and golf course designer. However, had certain people in his country of origin, Colombia, had their way, his life could have turned out very differently.

Philip was born in Bogota in 1965 and baptised Roberto Sendoya Escobar. He was the first born child of Pablo Escobar who went on to become "The King of Cocaine" and the wealthiest criminal in history. But he was soon to be taken away from his birth mother and taken to Bogota where, by arrangement of some extremely important and influential people in the capital, he was adopted by British businessman Pat Witcomb.

He was the managing director of a leading British blue chip company and had been dispatched to Colombia in the '50s to help the government and the banks by setting up the first national security printing works for the formalisation and printing of the national currency, the peso. Pat had also set up the first security messenger service so he was perfect for the job of overseeing the printing and secure transportation of the national currency - he established South America’s first armoured car service in Colombia. Pat served a number of purposes. His company was able to help instal some security into the country’s financial system while he was also reporting back information regarding the goings-on in Colombia to the British secret service, which in turn was passed on to the Americans.

"The British had the intelligence, the Americans the hardware," Philip says. "Pat was an extraordinary man. Extremely British and in a country where most people were farmers and stood five foot tall, he was well over six feet and strode around in his Savile Row suits, accompanied by bod guards, a real James Bond," Philip recalls in the first ever face-to-face interview he has ever given a newspaper.

But apart from keeping track of the country’s currency, there were growing concerns amongst the Dons in Bogota about the activities of a young farmer down in the south of the country - in Medellín and Cartagena, the sea port.

"The Escobar family was a big one. All of a sudden news was reaching the Dons in Bogota - who pretty much controlled everything, all the natural resources etc. - of small armies being formed in the south and new smuggling gangs operating and making sizable amounts of money. It was new competition."

While all this was going on and tension between the north and south drug cartels was brewing, Philip was attending the Anglo-Colombian school in Bogota, living in a lavish house with his adoptive parents and adopted sister, Monique.

"I loved growing up in Colombia. I was oblivious to what was really going on, what Pat was up to. For me it was all bodyguards, guns, private armies, being driven to school in armoured vehicles and playing at the embassy with the children of some of the most important people in Colombia, it was great. Not even my adoptive mother Joan knew anything about what Pat was doing, she just spent her time at the embassy or with the other wives playing bridge and enjoying the privileged life.

"All the top politicians and even the president would come round to the house. Princess Anne came once. There were very close connections between Colombia and the UK - people would often talk about ‘The Firm’ - I just thought that was another company. And it was great because after all the dignitaries with their own security had shaken my hand and bowed, a servant or driver would then present me with a new toy or sweets."

While life appeared grand in Bogota, animosity was rising in the narcotics industry and Pablo Escobar had his sights set on politics in the capital. The heat was on the whole family.

Suddenly, a little farmer from down south was moving billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the United States while at the same time having the money laundered and exchanged in to pesos. This is where Philip’s adopted father and Pablo came into contact. There were some things that Pablo and his cartel couldn’t handle alone, there must have been a huge infrastructure and some key people overseeing operations.

Philip remembers travelling in Pat’s private Piper plane or helicopter and seeing bundles of cash. Pat would just wave his hand "oh, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it" and Philip didn’t. He thought it all part of daily life in Colombia, he didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. Eventually, the environment got dangerous. Pablo had become a wanted man and Pat had been assigned a CIA operative, a chap called Manuel Noriega. His task was to pass information from Pat back to the Americans. However, he slowly began siphoning off some of the money which was being transported under their control - so much so he was able to become Panama’s de facto ruler in 1983, only to eventually be invaded and arrested by his former employee, the United States, who wanted its money back. So, in the late '70s Philip was packed off to England, first at St. Hugh’s prep school in Oxford, then Lucton School in Hereford.

He still had no idea about his past but would receive regular visits from Colombian dignitaries visiting the UK. " ‘Witcomb, get your suit on,' the teachers would shout, and limousines flying the Colombian flag would arrive and I would be taken out for lunch and the likes, it just seemed all so normal to me."

Philip left school and went on to become a golf course designer in southern Spain.

Back in Colombia, Pablo Escobar, who little did he know was providing the British and the Americans via Pat with plenty of vitally important information about the activities of the cartels, in particular his, was getting too big for his boots. He was controlling 80 per cent of the cocaine market in the United States and, at one point, was hailed as the richest person in the world. He did not take fools or enemies lightly. And with the heat very much on, Pat was concerned about the safety of Philip. In 1989, Pat sat Philip down and told him all about his past and who his birth father was.

Pat also advised Philip to hire private security and warned him that his life could be in danger. Pablo was in serious trouble with the authorities in Colombia and anyone related to him was a potential target for his enemies.

As one would expect, Philip was completely taken aback when he learnt about his past and his birth family. It had a profound effect on him. In order to protect Philip, Pat had had any document linking Philip to Pablo destroyed, bar two - his birth and adoption certificate - proof to Philip who he really was and where he came from.

And now, after years of having bottled his story up, Philip has decided that it is time for him to tell his story and has embarked on writing Don Felipe. This is what the former president of Colombia, Misael Pastrana, used to call him as he sat on his knee. It is also how he became an English artist instead of a Colombian drug lord and about how they tried to get him on board and back. Philip’s security thwarted a number of kidnap attempts.