Jhon Jairo Velazquez Vazquez (Yarumal, Colombia, 15-April-1962) Alias "Popeye". He was the right hand of Pablo Escobar, the most important drug trafficker in history which embarked on a direct war against the Colombian state, which he defeated. After twenty-three years and three months in the harshest prisons in Colombia, Popeye finally earned his freedom in 2014 and proposed a reintegration into the Colombian society. Today, fully repented, he is seeking to tell his story of the modern history of Colombia, apologizing to the victims of the conflict, he relates his experiences in his books "The real Paul, Blood, Betrayal and Death" by Astrid Legarda. Due to the vast expanse of the interview we have split the interview into several parts to get to enjoy this unique and exciting story popeye have to offer us.
1- Where does your nickname "Popeye" come from?
In the seventies, at the end of the seventies I entered the School for cabin boys. One day I went to visit my family in Medellin and I was wearing as a sailor, and by then I was very well-built, I had a big beard, I was rude and my lower jaw bone was protruding (later in my life I had a surgery of it in the Memorial Hospital in Miami). A neighbour of us said to me: "Popeye", "Popeye" and from then onwards I became "Popeye".
2- How was your life before entering the mafia world?
I was really young. I came from a functional family, father and mother married by the catholic rite. We were in total six brothers, four boys and two girls. I was a happy boy. I came from a village on the outskirt of Medellin, Yarumal (Antioquía), more or less at two hours distance. When I arrive in the city I am seven years old and went to the neighbourhood of Itaguí. There is where I have my first contact with violence. I was a normal boy, full of adventures, with a very quick mind. And I liked adrenaline and had a normal life. I was very sporty. I was a proffesional cyclist, I was a swimmer and an athlete. Too sporty.
3- From being a young bandit who knows the power of fear to entering the Medellin Cartel, how did you give that qualitative rise in your criminal career?
When I was in the town of Itaguí I started to fight with bladed weapons, I start to see the violence and to transport marihuana from Itaguí to the neighbourhood of Antioquía within the tubes of my bicycle. I already was a little drug dealer, I hid weapons used in murders. I did surveillance for the killings. I was already a little bandit, when I entered in the big leagues I had already taken my first steps in the banditry and my biggest ambition was to enter in the ranks of Pablo Escobar Gaviria. When I enter there I did so with all the scrolls because I went frankly, I was not afraid. I went full of adrenaline and the presence of Pablo Escobar was mesmerizing and his presence and being one of his men was something that protected oneself.
4- When do you become a part of the Medellin Cartel organisation officially?
Officially. Because I initially enter with Jhon Jairo Arias Tascón alias "Pinina". A very important man for the Medellin Cartel, I already did works for him. I enter the Medellin Cartel in the year 1985, I enter as a bodyguard of a Pablo Escobar´s lover. Two or three months later the woman and Pablo Escobar split up ad then I remained there with Pablo and by 1985 I was a very important man in the Medellin Cartel. In 1988 I kidnapped the candidate to Bogota´s mayoralty Dr. Andrés Pastrana Arango and I assassinated the Republic of Colombia´s exercising Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos.
5- How did you get to meet Pablo Escobar? and specially, what impression did the boss make on you?.
When I finished the School of Cabin boys, that by that time it was with a fourth of high school level, I did the fifth, sixth of high school, that is, I did ten and eleven. I finished high schoold and I enter the School of National Police, the General School Santander. There I get discouraged, I could not finish the course and went back to Medellin. There I was sitting in a corner and Destiny appears disguised as a friend. I was offered the job of bodyguard of a mistress of the neighbourhood of Poblado, which is the neighbourhood of the rich people here in Medellin.They ask me if i have weapons and I did. I was very wise and had my gun with a permit by that time, and I was given the job. This mistress was a lover of Pablo Escobar. When I got to a hideaway one day with the mistress and see face to face Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria it was like I had seen a God, a superpowerful energy, an incredible magnetism, a man exaggeratedly plain. He only use a watch with a strap, a normal cartier, he did not wear golden chains or something like that. He was a very kind man and Pinina supported me within the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar already knew I was very respectful to the mistress I bodyguarded. The day I looked at Pablo Escobar´s eyes I inmediately said to myself: "for this man I make myself be killed for".
6- How was Pablo Escobar in his dealings with his men?
He was a very human man, he was a friend, he was a father to us. He was a quiet man, he gave us pieces of advice, he did not threaten to death to us. I remember once I went to a disco and I was not let go inside it, I produced my gun, broke all the glasses in the disco, I injured three people in a disco of a Pablo Escobar´s friend, who were called the Camasuelta. Pablo phoned me and said to me: "Listen Popeye, how you have cooperated with me, the care with which you work, with such a loyalty, and so on, are you going to make me kill you, to order your death? are you going to put me in such situation?". I mean he was a very respectful man and he catch one´s attention with so much affecction. He was not a man who was yelling at one all the time. He never shouted one, never made snide remarks, nothing, he was a clear man. He spoke slowly, with a lot of respect, he look at one´s eyes. He was a man that if one commited a murder for money, he paid for ir correctly, because that it´s the success in mafia and in all in life. He was a man whom I did not find any ambition, he was a total warrior. When he wanted to kill someone in particular he increased the usual price. I remember that by that time the Medellin lottery paid eighty million colombian pesos and when a work was given to one, and one delayed it a little, he phoned one and said: "Popeye, how much does the lottery pay?-eighty million pesos-and you with eighty million what?-I am a rich man, sir-then I give you one hundred million, and now go, find that man and kill him". I respected him because he was not sarcastic, never made snide remarks, never yelled at one, he looked at one´s eyes and spoke unhurriedly, in a paternal way.
7- You were one of Pablo Escobar´s lieutenants and boss of his hitmen. How does one get such position in one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the twentieth century?
That´s a combination of factors. First of all my working capacity. I did not have a girlfriend, I did not go to the cinema. The perfect bandit does not have a wife, does not go to the cinema nor football matches, does not have a sunday, a holiday, a birthday, Christmas, but is a bandit 24 hours a day. I worked 24 hours a day with him (Pablo Escobar). I arrive there because of my discipline and for work, because I was a good hitman, no-one remained alive, I went to kill whoever I was ordered to. Pablo Escobar had his helicopters, his planes, a lot of infrastructure. We took a helicopter and had it painted in the colours of the national police and we operated, we had national police uniforms, military uniforms. We operated at a very high level. I was so good together with Pablo Escobar, that I became the General of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria´s army because of my discipline, loyalty, dedication and compromise.
8- You were a hitman of Pablo Escobar. How many people have you killed by yourself? A as boss of the hitmen, how many assassinations did you arrange for your men to be achieved?
Well, it all has already prescribed, and I am the Medellin Cartel´s historical memory. For the prosecutions and all I have really lived, we did not kill and counted or kept a nail, the cap of the trainers, the stockings or the underweared of the killed. No sir, we were proffessional killers, we killed and kept ahead. I calculate, that by my own hand I´ve killed around 250 people, men and women, ad I have something to do in more than 50.000 deaths, because of the Medellin Cartel, the Justice calculates more than 1000 deaths, but the cartel was exaggeratedly enormous. The Colombian justice is never going to calculate how many victims were. It was a madmen´s thing.
9- Do you remember your first and last murder? How do they were?
The first murder I did was the one of a bus driver, who one day, while he was at work, an old lady was going to get off the bus, and the bus driver did not wait enough time for her to get off. The lady fell off and the man left leaving her die as if she were a dog. Years later, this old lady´s son became a big drug dealer, partner of Pablo Escobar. He asked for permission to Pablo Escobar because by that time no-one could be killed in the city (Medellin) without Pablo Escobar´s permission. Pablo Escobar said "Yes, sure, that man deserves to be killed, he is mean". I was given that work, and they were going to show me that man who was no longer a bus driver, but the bus ticket seller (the one who register the card while the busses were passing) We go by motorbike with a friend and a man in a car in order to show me who that man is, he showes him to me and I tell him "Sir, go away" and then man answers to me "No, it´s so you do the work tomorrow", and I said to him again "go away" I inmediately get off the motorbike and shot the man twice in his head, then I went to where Pablo Escobar were, and he liked a lot the work I did. And my last murder, well, we were in the middle of the war, very angry because we were about to surrender (to go to jail) and I think my last murder was the one of a police officer here in Medellin in 1991, after the murder of Wendi Chavarriaga Gil.
10- Is killing easy? How did you feel when you killed someone?
Killing is too easy. I was in a war, and they were killing my family, my friends, I found my friends beheaded, with a cut hand. The national police, in the war, when the Search Block took the control of the crematories of the morgue here in Medellin, they put my friends alive in the crematories, they were throwing my friends alive from the helicopters at more than one thousand feet high in the rainforest, I found my friends with his knees, teeth and brain drilled. Then we started to the the same, and even more under those war conditions, because one has to have a war mentality. In the war, to kill is very easy, also when one in cold blood, a proffesinal killer, has to do a work there was not any problem, I killed one person, and then I ate meat, went to the Mass and smile, not that I laughed of the victim, but I smiled to life. I was a proffesional killer and nowadays I have reconsidered it. Now I am able to kill in order to save my own life, but I don´t sign contracts to kill someone because I am a repented and reformed man and I am looking for reintegrating in the society. If I am trapped I could shoot, but nothing of the rest.
11- And now, what do you feel when you remember those murders?
I am a really war man, and here in my town they have this saying "In times of war, Mass is not listened to". The war was brutal for me, more than 3.000 friends, my boss and my family were killed, my properties were blown up. I, from prison, have seen all my enemies fall one after another. Carlos Castaño Gil, who was a mate of mine, and later a powerful paramilitar, and Fidel Castaño Gil fell more or less later, by the time of Pablo Escobar´s death, and the brothers Rodriguez Orejuela fell and were extradited, as Elmer Herrera Buitrago alias "Pacho Herrera", boss of the Cali Cartel, dead in a prison of Palmira Valle, and also José Santacruz Londoño.
Now I have paid 23 years and 3 months in the most hard prisons in the Republic of Colombia. In an only imprisonment I was for 14 months in the Vallelupar prison, at a temperature of 44 C degrees, which is crazy, without any fan, all sorts of plagues, it´s a crazy jail, but I was there as a man. In another imprisonment of 12 years in the Cómbita Boyacá jail, but today I really feel repentance, because the war was to repeal the extraditions of Colombians to the United States of America. Once Pablo Escobar was dead, the Colombian mafia were made by silly people whom the Government did not respect. Pablo Escobar died in 1993 and in 1997 the extradition to the United States was re-established. It costed 500 millions of dollars and 50,000 deaths and the Government in two terms re-established the extradition again. I am today really repented, one goes in the street and sees a woman and a father with their children and knows that behind them there´s a dead one, a lot of pain, but in the war one doesn´t think of it. Now, today, I do think of it.
12 Was there any code in the Medellin Cartel or between your hitmen, about people who should not be killed, for example, old men, pregnant women, children or could any people, whoever they were, could be a legitimate aim?
That is confusing, it is a very strong contradiction. The Medellin Cartel was a terrorist criminal organisation. The truth is that if one went to kill someone, we called it " do a work", and that person went with a child one had to cancel it because Pablo Escobar rejected that completely. One had to respect the elderly, and the pregnant woman, althought we had to kill some pregnant women. There was a pregnant woman who was informing against Pablo Escobar because she knew the hideaways and we had to kill her. That was Pablo Escobar´s politic, but whe he ordered someone to put a bomb then old people, pregnant women, children were killed, so this is very complex. Here there is a very strong contradiction that´s why the people reject wars, because in the wars the 99% of the victims are innocent.
13 In the eighties the big receptor of cocaine was the United States. How did you send the drug there?
In the 80s, they never speak of cocaine in Europe, China, Japan. That is something you have it clear, mister journalist. From Colombia planes left from the Point of the Guajira, though also from the Hacienda Napoles too. The flag was painted for the one of a country that was going to go through and the plane left direct Medellin-U.S.A., because the frontiers were not very well watched. I remember that by the 70s, Pablo sent the cocaine in a suitcase, there or four kilogrames, and Pablo Escobar himself sold it in a hotel in Miami. Every kg was worth 50,000 U.S. dollars. The custom did know how to control that, for many times they sent the cocaine camouflaged, that happened because the custom did know what what that was. It was very well camouflaged in food products and nothing happened. All the cocaine that entered in North America in the 80s was by planes and later by the sea, arriving in the Mexican harbours.
14 You declared that you sent the drug to Cuba by planes. Did Raul Castro received the drug in the island?
Yes, the truth is that by that time Pablo Escobar worked in the 80s with Amado Carrillo. He sent also planes to Mexico, it as the same to go to the United States than to Mexico (there was a new route in Mexico). The route that took the cocaine to Cuba was very expensive, because first the planes had to land in Mexico and the Cubans only received the cocaine in shipments of 500 kgs in planes with Mexican flag. They flied from Mexico to Cuba to avoid Northamerican controls. It was a very expensive route because we had to pay a high price to Amado Carrillo there. But that´s what we did. The cocaine arrived in an airport in Cuba and there it was received by Raul Castro, who was the Chief of the Army, there it was stored and in the night they advanced it to Cayo Hueso in Miami by speed boats
15 Who was the middleman between the Cuban Chief and Pablo Escobar?
The middleman was a Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria´s man: Jorge "Tato" Avendaño. He was in the island and there he met Fidel and Raul Castro with the Cuban generals. And we received in Medellin with "Tato" Avendaño the Fidel and Raul´s emissaries we were also thinking in bringing weapons from Cuba, for we were looking for ground-to-air missiles, the very Stinger, but the russian ones and we wanted them in order to attack planes and civil and military targets. The middleman was "Tato"Avendaño and in Cayo Hueso, in Miami, it was me the one who received the cocaine in person.
16 Did you keep on using this route or did you decide to search for a better one?
To be honest, the Cuban route was not very profitable for Pablo Escobar, because it consisted of financing the Cuban Revolution. Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria when he exploits the route by the middle of the eighties there is a problem, because the Northamericans seized a shipment of cocaine in the streets of Miami coming from Cayo Hueso and they found out that it came from Cuba, and the Northamericans are ready to invade Cuba and all the operation is broken. The Cuban do the charade of trying and condemning general Armando Ochoa to death for treason to the Cuban Revolution, respecting his family and goods, concealing in that way Raul and Fidel Castrol. Later, in the year 1989, Pablo Escobar tries to restart the route because Pablo Escobar was seaching for a submarine. Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was a visionary of the drug trafficking and of the evil. By that time, to speak of submarine was a very original idea. Nowadays they make them handmade, but Pablo Escobar was thinking that the Soviets lend a submarine to the Cubans, and there, to carry the drug from Mexico to Cuba, and put in it big amounts of tons of cocaine to the U.S.A.
17- In the 80s the Iran-Contra case was unveiled, by which C.I.A. gave weapons and financed Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras with the money that come from drug smuggling. Did Pablo Escobar the Medellin Cartel cooperated in that C.I.A. operation? Were there any contact between Escobar and Oliver North?
There are differences in the Medellin Cartel. It was composed by three bosses, Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vazquez and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. Pablo Escobar was left-wing, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha was ultra-right-wing and Jorge Luis Ochoa Vazquez was neutral, he was what was better for him at the time. Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria is taken to Panama in 1984 after the assassination of Colombian Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla which was achieved by the M19. The M19 is a Colombian guerrilla group that had kidnapped Marta Nieves Ochoa, sister of Jorge Luis Ochoa Vazquez, in 1981. In that year Pablo Escobar founds "The Extraditables" and the M19 is cornered in Medellín, in an urban area ,the guerrilla throw the towel and they negotiate the release of Marta Nieves Ochoa not for 5 millon dollars that they were first asking, but for 100,000 dollars and from then onwards Pablo Escobar the M19 became friends
In 1984 the M19, that were friends of Manuel Antonio Noriega, takes Pablo Escobar to Panama and there he makes a drug laboratory in the style of the ones of Tranquilandia that was discovered in the plains of Yari in 1984 and Noriega is pressed bt the DEA and hands over the laboratory and he was going to betray and hand over Pablo Escobar and the members of the Medellin Cartel, because Manuel Antonio Noriega was the dog of Central American, this mean man worked with the DEA, with the CIA, with the mafia, with the Medellin Cartel, with the Contras, with Oliver North...This mean dog worked with all of them. Then Pablo Escobar suspects the treachery and flies to Nicaragua and he is taken by Iván Marino Espina, M19´s Militar Chief. There he starts to traffick with drugs and there happens the episode of the pilot Barry Seal, who was caught with cocaine in a private runway in Miami. And the DEA calms him down and ask him to declare against the Medellin Cartel and that he takes pictures. Pablo Escobar uses this route for a long time, financing the Sandinists while Daniel Ortega was, that is still today a president of Nicaragua. Ivan Marino Espina, the M19´s Militar Chief, Pablo Escobar, Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and Jorge Luis Ochoa Vazquez were.
Pablo Escobar did not finance Oliver North, Pablo Escobar did not finance the CIA nor the DEA but he financed the other side because he was a left-wing man,
18 Did Pablo Escobar have contacts of high-level outside Colombia?
As I told you Manuel Antonio Noriega, general of Panama, the Sandinists in Nicaragua, Fidel and Raul Castro, Cuban rules. In México the partner of Pablo Escobar was Amado Carrillo, the lord of the sky, but in Mexico nothing else. In Peru nothing, and not in the least in the United States.