Ex-Colombian president releases video of chat with former kidnapper

“You are a very lucky man,” Pablo Escobar’s jailed hitman tells Andrés Pastrana

Photo taken from 2012 video of Andrés Pastrana (left) giving his hands to "Popeye."
Photo taken from 2012 video of Andrés Pastrana (left) giving his hands to "Popeye."

When former President Andrés Pastrana arrived at the jail in Cómbita, Boyacá department, Jhon Jairo “Popeye” Velásquez Vásquez immediately greeted him. “Twenty-five years ago I kidnapped you and now I am the one who is being held; how life changes,” he said.

With this anecdote, Pastrana, who governed from 1998 to 2002, released a video on Monday that showed him meeting with his former captor, who held him for nearly a week in 1988.

Pablo Escobar, the notorious head of the Medellín cartel, ordered the kidnapping of Pastrana, who was a journalist at the time, to pressure the Colombian government into halting the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States.

The meeting between Pastrana and his kidnapper took place on June 28, 2012, but it wasn’t until Monday that the video was released as part of the inauguration of an interactive website that will serve as his presidential library.

The boss had had you in his sights since 1983”

“The boss had had you in his sights since 1983,” Popeye tells Pastrana in the video. “The kidnapping was well planned […]. For a criminal, to have someone like you in captivity is something out of this world because you represented many things; it was like having Colombia and the government wrapped around his finger. You were the republic’s most important heir apparent.”

At the time, the former Colombian leader was Escobar’s most important victim, to be used as a bargaining chip to pressure the government. Not only was he a news anchor for a nationally known show and a candidate in the Bogota mayoral race, but he is also the son of a past president, Misael Pastrana Borrero, who served from 1970 to 1974.

At the time of the kidnapping, Pastrana’s father was still one of the country's leading conservative figures. His party had a majority in Congress and whatever decision they made concerning extradition would weigh heavily on them.

The newsweekly Semana published an interview with Popeye, in which he revealed details of the kidnapping that had until now remained unknown.

“When I was tailing Pastrana, I hardly knew the streets of Bogota,” said Escobar’s former hitman. “But I drove to the north part of the city and went inside a restaurant. I was surprised when I saw Mauricio Gómez, the son of Álvaro Gómez [the conservative party’s candidate for president]. He didn’t have any bodyguards with him but Andrés Pastrana had quite a few.

“I then called the boss to ask him if we should instead use him as the victim. He said to me, ‘Don’t be stupid, Pope. The only one that is worth something to me is the one that everyone wants to see become president’.”

When I told him that he was being kidnapped on Pablo Escobar’s orders, he fell apart”

On the night of January 18, 1988, a group of 10 men barged into Pastrana’s campaign headquarters, detained him at gunpoint and threw him inside the trunk of a Mazda 626. They told him that they were members of the M-19 guerrilla group and only wanted to send a message to the government.

“To be honest, he remained very calm when we told him that we were members of the M-19. I threw him inside the trunk of the car and later we put him on board a helicopter – he remained calm throughout.

“But then came the moment that he became aware that we were deceiving him. I am very ignorant and he is very intelligent. He then confronted me and demanded to know who we were. When I told him that he was being kidnapped on Pablo Escobar’s orders, he fell apart. His world came crashing down,” Popeye told the news magazine.

Pastrana was eventually rescued by a tragic coincidence. Police had surrounded the location in Medellín where he was being kept. Nearby, Popeye and his gang were also holding Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos, who had been wounded. As Popeye went to look for a doctor, he received a phone call from Escobar.

“They are going to snatch Pastrana from us because their police operation is amazing. Our only opportunity to keep him is to go and kill the attorney general and alert them so that they can call off the operation,” Escobar told Popeye, who recalled the conversation in Pastrana’s video.

Minutes after Mauro Hoyos was killed, Popeye called a radio station and announced the assassination. When the police arrived at the hideout where Pastrana was being held, the kidnappers put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. One officer volunteered to take Pastrana’s place and he was then freed.

“You are a very lucky man, sir,” Popeye tells the former president in the recording.

Pastrana is the first former Colombian leader to publicly release an abundance of material from his presidency.

Among the documents included on his website is evidence of how drug traffickers penetrated the campaign of former President Ernesto Samper, who defeated Pastrana in the 1994 elections, and another video of his meeting with Tirofijo, the head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1998.

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