EspañolPablo Escobar’s favorite hitman has been released from prison after serving only 22 years of a 30-year sentence. Jhon Jairo Velásquez, known by the alias Popeye, was set free on Tuesday and begins a 52-month conditional parole.
He left jail under a heavy police escort, a sign of the risks he believes he will face once outside the prison walls. As a condition of his parole, the former hired gun will have his movement restricted. He may not leave Colombia and must report in with authorities on a regular basis.
Velásquez, one of the few survivors of the 1990s Colombian war on drugs, was one of Escobar’s most-trusted lieutenants during El Patrón‘s campaign of terror. Popeye joined Escobar’s Medellin cartel before the age of 18. The only murder for which he was convicted was that of former Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.
Popeye confessed to killing 300 people and also claimed he had a hand in the deaths of up to 3,000 people during the 1980s and 90s. He even murdered his own girlfriend at the request of his capo. In an interview last year, Popeye said Escobar’s orders came down after he learned she had tried to become an informant for the US government. He described her murder as one of the most painful episodes in his life.
Despite his crimes, Velásquez was able to gain the government’s favor after providing evidence against former Justice Minister Alberto Santofimio for ordering the killing of his political rival Luis Carlos Galan. Santofimio was a close associate of Escobar, and is now serving a 24-year sentence for his part in the murder.
Galan was a cartel-fighting Colombian politician in 1990s. During his campaign for president, Colombia had reached the apex of a two-decade-long struggle with drug violence, and Galan was a heavy favorite to win the election. In a wild bid to avoid extradition to the United States, Escobar ordered scores of assassinations, including judges, cabinet ministers, and journalists. He even blew up an Avianca commercial jetliner, believing at the time that Galan’s political heir, then President César Gaviria, was on board.
The family members of his many other alleged victims, along with several legal experts throughout Colombia, were stunned when they heard of Velásquez’s early release.
“It’s really sad that an assassin who committed so many homicides was sentenced for a single murder,” said General Carlos Mena, head of Colombia’s highway police. As a young police officer in the early 1990s, Mena helped US authorities hunt Escobar, who police finally tracked down and killed in 1993.
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“I don’t think it’s the right time,” said Francisco Arellano, president of Colombia Remembers, a support group for Escobar’s victims. “[He should remain in prison] not because the victims think that an insufficient amount of time has passed, but because he still has convictions pending. And when you are in that situation, you should not be free.”
On the other hand, Senator Juan Manuel Galan, son of the murdered Luis Carlos Galan, said he did not have an issue with Velásquez’s release. “He was sentenced for my father’s murder. He gave us the truth and asked for forgiveness. In my case, I forgive him.” In a similar vein, Senator Armando Benedetti stated Velásquez was set free on account of good behavior in prison, as any other prisoner would, and that his release was within the law.
“The debate about his release has to center on the fact that, in Colombia, we respect the rule of law. We abide by the constitution, even in those cases where we are in disagreement with the consequences of some decisions,” Benedetti said.
A Futile Drug War
During an interview last year, Popeye said the drug war was unwinnable, because there would always be people like him.
Popeye: “I don’t know what you have to do. Maybe sell cocaine in pharmacies. I’ve been in prison for 20 years, but you will never win this war when there is so much money to be made. Never.”
“People like me can’t be stopped. It’s a war,” he told Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Juan Moreno of Der Spiegel.
“They lose men, and we lose men. They lose their scruples, and we never had any. In the end, you’ll even blow up an aircraft because you believe the Colombian president is on board. I don’t know what you have to do. Maybe sell cocaine in pharmacies. I’ve been in prison for 20 years, but you will never win this war when there is so much money to be made. Never.”
Life in Prison
Velásquez took advantage of his time behind bars, obtained several academic degrees, and sought forgiveness from his victims.
In a series of interviews anticipating his early release, Velásquez confided in reporters that he had about an 80 percent chance of being killed by former rivals after he was out. With the threat of a revenge killing lurking, he said he was considering relocating abroad. He also said he’d like to sell Hollywood the rights to an autobiography he wrote chronicling his life alongside El Patrón.
Even now, while Velásquez expresses regret over his crimes, he continues to admire his former boss. He told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo last year, “If Pablo Escobar were to be reborn, I’d go with him without thinking.”