Pablo Escobar’s top assassin, ‘Popeye,’ is out of jail and under police protection


John Jairo Velasquez, also known as "Popeye," at the Combita prison in Boyaca, Colombia, in 2009. (Javier Nieto/El Tiempo/AFP/Getty Images)

John Jairo Velasquez has been tied to the murders of at least 3,000 people. He has admitted to killing at least 250 as the head of drug lord Pablo Escobar's terror squad. Among the people he had a hand in killing: His girlfriend, a presidential candidate and all of the passengers and crew on a commercial jetliner.

Now, the notorious Medellin cartel killer is essentially free — out on parole and under police protection.

"Popeye," as Velasquez is widely known, walked out of a high-security prison in Colombia on Tuesday after serving 22 years of his 30-year sentence for his role in the 1989 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.

It was the only killing for which Velasquez was ever convicted.

"It's really sad that an assassin who committed so many homicides was sentenced for a single murder," Gen. Carlos Mena, the head of Colombia’s highway police, told the Associated Press.

As a young officer, Mena helped American officials hunt down Escobar, who was killed by police in 1993.

In the 1980s, "Popeye" helped execute — quite literally — the notorious kingpin's "war" against the Colombian government, with murders, kidnappings and bombings. In 1989, he was involved in the bombing of Avianca Airlines Flight 203, which killed all 107 people on board.

For "El Patron" (the boss), Velasquez even ordered the killing his own girlfriend, who was also Escobar's former lover, according to Reuters.

But that, he argues, was a past life.

“I want to teach the youth of Colombia that they don’t have to sell their lives for a Mercedes-Benz or the pants of a beauty queen, like I did. Perhaps they will give me that opportunity,” Velasquez said before his release, according to Colombia Reports.

Of late, Velasquez could be found in the high-security wing of a Colombian prison reading a copy of Homer's "Iliad." His good behavior and cooperation with the prosecution of other cartel members contributed to his early release. (He's on probation for the next four years.)

In 2006, Velasquez testified against Alberto Santofimio, a justice minister accused in the plot to assassinate Galan. Velasquez took the stand wearing a bullet-proof vest and holding his memoir, the Independent reported.

In this June 27, 2006, file photo, JohnJairoVelasquez, a former hit man for Pablo Escobar, gives his testimony while holding a book titled "The True Pablo, Blood, Treason, and Death," during the trial against Alberto Santofimio Botero in Bogota, Colombia. Velasquez, better known by his nickname “Popeye,” was released Tuesday Aug. 26, 2014, under heavy police surveillance from a maximum security prison northeast of Bogota after 23 years behind bars for plotting the murder of a former presidential candidate. (AP Photo/ William Fernando Martinez, File)
John Jairo Velasquez testifies with a copy of "The True Pablo, Blood, Treason, and Death" in hand during the trial against Alberto Santofimio Botero. (William Fernando Martinez/Associated Press file)

Santofimio was the "intellectual author behind the assassination of Galan," Velasquez proclaimed.

He testified that Santofimio's counsel to Escobar was: "Kill him, Pablo." Santofimio was convicted.

Velasquez has said he fears for his safety after dutifully playing the role of informant to government prosecutors. According to the Associated Press, Velasquez recently told reporters that he had about an 80 percent chance of being killed upon his release.

He departed the prison under heavy police escort, according to the BBC.

According to the AP:

With the threat of a revenge killing lurking, he said he was considering relocating abroad. He said he also wants to sell to Hollywood the rights to an autobiography he wrote about his life alongside Escobar.

Some, however, think he may have already paid his debt to society, the Telegraph reported.

"My family and I are direct victims of Popeye," said Andres Villamizar, a nephew of Galan's, the presidential candidate who was killed by Escobar's cartel. "But if anyone in Colombia has paid for their crimes, it's him."

Abby Phillip is a general assignment national reporter for the Washington Post. She can be reached at abby.phillip@washpost.com. On Twitter: @abbydphillip
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