Colombians wary as former Escobar hitman gets ready to walk free from prison

“Popeye” has served 23 years after killing hundreds under reign of Medellín cartel chief

Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, better known as “Popeye,” in 2013.
Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, better known as “Popeye,” in 2013.Carlos Ortega (AFP)

Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, the sole survivor of a group of hitmen who fought the Colombian state alongside drug lord Pablo Escobar, is about to walk free after 23 years in prison.

Popeye, as he is better known in the underworld, was 29 when he was sent to jail. Now 52, he is spending his last hours at Cómbita penitentiary, two hours away from Bogotá, where he has served the last 12 years of his conviction. The gang member benefited from term reductions through work and study schemes, and is reported to have paid $4,500 for access to parole.

His release, scheduled for Tuesday afternoon local time, comes amid heavy security measures. Popeye has confessed to scores of murders during Escobar’s reign of violence. While behind bars, he cooperated with authorities to help clear up some of the most painful events of the 1980s and 1990s.

Colombians are not indifferent to the release of a man who once headed the group of hired killers at the service of the world’s most powerful drug kingpin. Popeye has coldly admitted that he ordered 3,000 people killed when his boss, the head of the Medellín cartel, was fighting the government to avoid extradition.

Popeye will be under surveillance for good conduct for four years

That particular war cost the lives of hundreds of police officers, journalists, judges, lawyers and politicians. Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán.

Velásquez Vásquez confessed that he ordered hundreds of car bomb attacks in all the country’s main cities, causing a wave of terror that Colombians are not likely to forget soon. Despite the pain he has caused, Popeye has shown a complete lack of contrition. In early 2013, he told the newspaper El Tiempo that ““if Pablo Escobar were born again, I would join him without a second thought.”

Yet a year earlier, he had stated that “what we did was very bad. We defended an idea held by Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, which we made our own, and at the time I thought it was very viable. Today I realize that we made a terrible mistake.”

Velásquez joined the Medellín cartel at age 18, when “the boss” began asking him to commit murders. He soon climbed the rungs of the underworld ladder and featured prominently in the kidnapping of former president Andrés Pastrana when he was running for mayor of Bogotá. He also helped abduct former vice-president Francisco Santos when he was the editor of El Tiempo and was instrumental in the attack that blew up an Avianca airplane in mid-flight, killing 107 passengers.

Popeye has described drug kingpin Pablo Escobar as a genius

In 1991, Popeye was one of the men who turned himself in to authorities, along with Escobar. They were sent to La Catedral, a penitentiary built by Escobar himself. A year later, the group escaped. But Popeye turned himself in again just a few months later, and has been a collaborative prisoner since then.

But Popeye has shocked the nation because of the cold way in which he described his own crimes. “That claim about not being able to sleep thinking of the people you have killed ... it does not apply to me. The acts I have committed did not make me lose any sleep,” he once said.

He has described Escobar as a genius. Asked whether he was also a murderer, Popeye said: “He was above all a leader, an organizer of bandits, and a great kidnapper.”

His impending release has triggered several reactions from victims. One of the children of murdered presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán told the local media that even though no prison sentence will ever be enough for someone like Popeye, he did help clear up his father’s murder. “If Colombian laws say that after serving part of the sentence and studying he has the right to this [a release], then we cannot oppose it,” he said.

But Federico Arellano, who lost his father in the Avianca attack, described Popeye’s release as “a slap in the face of all victims.”

Once out on the street, Popeye will be under surveillance for good conduct for four years. It remains to be seen, as El Tiempo noted in its Monday editorial, how willing Colombians are to turn the page, and how ready the killers are to mend their ways and walk down the path of righteousness.

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