COLUMBIA - One of Colombia’s most feared drug cartel assassins walked free on Tuesday after serving 22 years in jail for scores of murders ordered by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar during the cocaine trafficking heyday of the 1980s.
Jhon Jairo Velasquez, known as “Popeye,” was released early from the high-security Combita prison in central Boyaca after completing about three-fifths of his sentence and receiving a reduction for studying and good behaviour. He left the prison protected by state-provided body guards.
Velasquez, 52, was Escobar’s chief hitman during the bloodiest days of the infamous Medellin Cartel, which shipped billions of dollars-worth of cocaine to the United States and Europe.
The prolific assassin, who has admitted to killing hundreds of Escobar’s enemies, was on the frontlines of gangland battles for territory and trafficking routes. He was also indirectly behind thousands of the deaths by killers on Escobar’s payroll.
One of Escobar’s inner circle, Velasquez was involved in some of the most famous cartel-related crimes – including the 1989 assassination of the presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan and the bombing of an Avianca commercial flight later that same year which killed all 107 on board.
Velasquez liked to boast that he had killed 300 people with his own hands, including his own girlfriend, and helped plan another 3,000 hits.
But the only murder for which he was convicted was Galan’s. “It’s really sad that an assassin who committed so many homicides was sentenced for a single murder,” said General Carlos Mena, the head of Colombia’s highway police who as a young officer helped the US authorities hunt down Escobar, who was killed by police in 1993.
As Escobar stepped up his battle against the government to avoid extradition to the US if captured, the cartel waged a bombing campaign across Bogota, Medellin and Cali. Many of the explosive devices were planted by Velasquez.
He kidnapped both Andres Pastrana, when the future president was mayor of Bogota, and Francisco Santos, who would later become vice-president and is a cousin of President Juan Manuel Santos.
Perhaps the most shocking of Velasquez’s crimes was the murder of his own girlfriend, who was also a former lover of Escobar. The woman, seeking revenge after Escobar forced her to have an unwanted abortion, secretly contacted US drug authorities in an effort to become an informant, Velasquez told Semana magazine in an interview last year.
The drug baron ordered Velasquez to kill her, in what the hitman characterised as one of the most painful episodes of his life.
In a string of interviews anticipating his early release, Velasquez said he believed he had about an 80 per cent chance of being killed by former rivals after being freed, and was considering relocating abroad. He also said he wants Hollywood to buy the rights to the autobiography he wrote about his life with Escobar.
Families of some of the Avianca flight victims have complained that Velasquez has not shared all he knows about the crime, and believe his release could mean vital facts never come to light. During his imprisonment, Velasquez provided evidence that helped jail other criminals – including a former senator convicted of involvement in Galan’s murder. Ironically, Velasquez’s work as a government informant may put him at risk for the same kind of revenge hits that he once carried out on Escobar’s behalf. It is not clear whether the state will continue to provide him with protection.
Like Escobar, who was gunned down by Colombian agents in 1993, Velasquez is a native of Antioquia province, once the epicentre of the narcotics trade.
The Independent/August 27, 2014
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