From politicians to police to his own lover, as Pablo Escobar's top hitman, no one was safe from John Jairo Velasquez.
John Jairo Velasquez killed over 250 people and masterminded the deaths of 3,000 more while serving as the top hitman for drug kingpin Pablo Escobar during the 1980s.
“I’m a professional killer, I kill for money. I also killed out of love and respect for Pablo Escobar,” he said in the Russia Today documentary Escobar’s Hitman.
Velasquez, better known as “Popeye,” has become a controversial figure in Colombia since his release from prison in 2014 after serving 22 years for his crimes.
Far from being an outcast, he is seen by some as a hero. On the street, people shake his hand in the street and rush to have photographs taken with him.
He has certainly profited from his newfound celebrity status by writing two books, starring in an action film, and being involved in the production of Alias J.J., a Netflix show based on his life in prison. He’s also become an unlikely political activist with his hit YouTube channel where he routinely criticizes the Colombian government and preaches anti-corruption.
Though he admits he did wrong, he believes he’s done his time, even stating he paid for Escobar’s crimes too. He says he is now a reformed man who gets more thrills from writing books than killing.
Surprisingly, some of his victims agree he has paid his dues. Others, however, believe he shows no real remorse and should be back in prison.
How John Jairo Velasquez Got Into The Medellin Cartel
John Jairo Velasquez was born 70 miles north of Medellin in the Colombian town of Yarumai. At age 12, his family moved to Itagui, a suburb of Medellin, where he almost immediately started in a life of banditry.
His fascination with firearms led him to become a local policeman and to take a course at the officer candidate school for Marines.
“I had a wide jaw and was quite strong,” he said. “One day, I was back in my neighborhood, wearing my uniform, when a neighbor said, ‘It’s Popeye!’”
The nickname stuck, but life in the Marines didn’t, and soon he joined the Mafia full-time. At first, he worked for a childhood friend. Before long, he was operating under Pablo Escobar directly.
He was 18 when he killed his first person, a bus dispatcher in Medellin:
“When he was the driver, the mother of a friend of Pablo Escobar’s got off the bus and had a fall, and he didn’t help her. He left her there and she died. So, when this guy got some money, he asked Pablo Escobar to help him get revenge on this driver. I made some inquiries, found the guy and killed him.”
Velasquez said he felt nothing at all after killing him. “It was then that I realized I had a stomach for crime.”
In the early 1980s, Escobar helped form Los Extraditables to wage war against the Colombian state to prevent the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. By then, Velasquez had become Escobar’s most loyal hitman and was heading operations that included contract killings, car bombings, and kidnappings.
According to Velasquez, Escobar “armed all the comunas in Medellin. The sicarios [or hitmen]. They were his base people. “
Velasquez and his hitmen would each “kill 5, 6, even 12 people a day…” which included policemen, judges, presidential candidates, rivals, and civilians.
“We started planting bombs to kill government ministers, journalists, and judges. We’d kidnap politicians, so they’d amend the constitution and stop the Colombians being extradited.”
He organized the kidnapping of Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos and Mayor Andres Pastrana Arango, who would later became the Colombian president in 1998.
Despite the terror, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan proved unwavering in his support of extradition, and in 1989 he was assassinated. “I felt satisfaction [after killing Galan],” Velasquez told Mexican reporter Adela Micha in an exclusive two-hour interview in 2015. “Today I realize it was a horrible mistake.”
The Bombing Of Avianca 203
Cesar Gaviria became Galan’s successor and immediately became a target of Escobar’s hitmen. On November 27, 1989, a bomb was planted onto Avianca flight 203, which Gaviria was meant to be on. But he wasn’t, and 107 passengers died when the plane exploded in mid-air.
Some believe John Jairo Velasquez organized the attack but he denies it. Instead, he blames Carlos Mario Urquijo, another of Escobar’s ruthless hitmen, and the DAS (the now-defunct Colombian Secret Police).
Velasquez followed Escobar’s orders without question, even killing Escobar’s ex-girlfriend Wendy Chavarriaga Gil for becoming an informant. At the time, she was also Velasquez’s girlfriend, whom he calls the “love of my life.”
“…[O]ne day the boss calls me in and plays a tape for me. It was senorita Wendy, chatting with a police captain.”
Velasquez could not bring himself to kill her personally, so he arranged to meet her at a restaurant and sent in his crew. He recalls phoning the restaurant to talk to his girlfriend and ordering his men to shoot her as soon as she answered, which they did. When he heard the two shots he felt a “rush of love and anger” inside him.
No one was off-limits. However, John Jairo Velasquez said there was one exception. Escobar never condoned killing someone in front of their child. Despite this, Escobar saw the death of children from car bombs as collateral damage.
Police bore the brunt of the Medellin cartel’s brutality. Escobar ordered his hitmen to kill police indiscriminately. According to Velasquez, they killed 540 police and wounded 800 more. “No other criminal organization in the world has ever confronted the police that way,” he said. In turn, police issued a 2,700,000,000 peso bounty for Escobar and 100,000,000 pesos for each of his four key hitmen, which included Velasquez.
In 1991, a truce of sorts was called when Escobar agreed to go to prison for five years in return for the abolishment of a planned extradition treaty with the United States. Velasquez joined him along with some of Escobar’s other lieutenants.
Life In Prison And Life After Escobar
From the beginning, Escobar had control. The prison, called La Catedral, was built to his specifications by his engineers. From inside it was business as usual. He carried on trafficking but, then, after he had men killed within La Catedral, the Colombian government decided it was time he was incarcerated inside a real prison.
But what the authorities did not realize is that Escobar had the breaker switch to turn off the 10,000-volt perimeter fence hidden in the wall of his cell.
After only thirteen months in La Catedral, Escobar and some of his men escaped. Valesquez recalls how they left after 11 p.m., walking past the Army on the hills below.
“…[W]e were listening at the Army’s radio transmissions…And we walked right by them. We had our own rifles. And they didn’t hear us. And the guard-tower spotlights were moving back and forth. But we got away.”
In October of 1992, after just two months on the run, John Jairo Velasquez handed himself into police. He never saw Escobar again. And while it was assumed Velasquez would be safer in prison than on the run with Escobar, there were a few close calls for Velasquez.
“They tried to kill me seven times with poison, bullets and knives, poisoned knives. In jail, they have special tricks, smuggling pipes in their rectums, plastic pipes, with daggers in them. Before stabbing someone they’d wipe the knife in feces. And then they stab! The victims die of terrible infection.”
Velasquez got wise and by the time he arrived at his third prison in Combita, 100 miles north of Bogota, he had learned how to make the right friends to stay alive.
In prison, Velasquez heard that Escobar had been shot dead.
“I was frozen. My soul cried…[but ] I didn’t cry,” he recalled. “The war hardens you, and so does prison life. So you don’t really cry…For me it’s just been war and prison.”
Since being released in 2014, Velasquez has been open about his time as Escobar’s top hitman. He has met with some victims and apologized for the impact he had on their lives. But is he really sincere? Is he really a reformed man?
There are some troubling signs. When Gonzalo Rojas, whose father died on Avianca flight 203, was not so forgiving, John Jairo Velasquez turned on him. He said he paid for what he did and even said he had helped in the case, calling Rojas a “bad man with an evil heart.”
Velasquez seems to demand forgiveness from victims, and the relatives of people he has killed. But if something similar happened to his family it is a different matter.
“If anyone, out of revenge, kills my son, I won’t forgive the murderer. I’ll find him and kill him.”
In fact, John Jairo Velasquez is yet to leave his previous life behind. Currently, he is busy cashing in on his past as Escobar’s top hitman. But if public interest and support wane will he revert completely back to his old life? It’s certainly a possibility.
Enjoy this look at John Jairo Velasquez? Next read about Los Pepes, the vigilantes who waged war on Pablo Escobar. Then go inside Pablo Escobar’s death and the shootout that took him down.