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.
“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.”
Español On Tuesday, a group of activists from the National Organization of Young Venezuelans lent their support to the father of detained student activist Gerardo Carrero, in his effort to take on the director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), Carlos Calderón. They are taking their case to the Attorney General and Office of the Ombudsman and say the director is personally responsible for the torture of the young student activist. "My son, Gerardo Carrero, was severely beaten for over 12 hours last Thursday, August 21, by the director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, Carlos Calderon," Carrero's father said on Monday. His son, imprisoned since May, began a hunger strike on August 21 to protest President Nicolás Maduro's policies of "tyranny and arrogance." According to a statement on the Young Venezuelans website, the group claims that after Calderón finished with Carrero, he went to the cells where other students are being held and asked, "Who else is on a hunger strike?" In an interview with the PanAm Post, student activist Juan Requesens said that after the formal complaint had been filed "the prosecution asked the court to conduct a forensic exam, and to take [Carrero's] deposition in the presence of his attorney." Carrero's father says he filed the complaint because his son's physical integrity was being violated. He added that his son's lawyers have been banned from SEBIN. http://panampost.com/wp-content/uploads/Juan-Requesens.mp3 The group of students requested a mixed committee of doctors, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Attorney General verify the status of detainees. During the interview with the PanAm Post, Requesens said his friend was "hit with a stick and hung from a grate for 12 hours." According to the young activist, the beatings were intended to force Carrero to end his peaceful protest. "They wanted to end the hunger strike at all costs." Ángel Sucre, spokesman for Young Venezuelans, corroborated the reports: "They were hit with clubs; the treatment was brutal and degrading. Although they are experts at not leaving bruises, he had several bruises." According to Requesens, the alleged torture-victim identified the head of SEBIN, Carlos Calderón, as the man responsible for his treatment. "Now it's our turn to seek the full force of the law against this official," the Young Venezuelans leader said on Thursday. https://twitter.com/JovenesVzlanos/status/504307040198852608 Spokesman @angelscrcv says "our partner was not afraid, and neither are we." There are 23 students in total being held along with Carrero at the SEBIN headquarters. Requesens explained they were not able to verify the current state of Carrero's physical health, and that he can only be visited by close friends and family. He says the detained students "are awaiting hearings to be put on trial, [even though] the administration of justice in this country is at the service of the ruling party." The Current Situation "The situation in Venezuela is one of absolute restriction in terms of freedom of expression, " said Requesens, "prosecution and imprisonment for those who think differently, continuous persecution by the intelligence services, and physical and psychological abuse for students who are arrested." The young activist says he believes Venezuelans have historically stood in solidarity with people of other countries that have found themselves under the worst dictatorial rule. "The case of Chile, Peru, Dominican Republic, or Argentina — the minimum we expect is the same solidarity in return. We need the support of the international community," he stated. https://twitter.com/titomolinos/status/504299628339421184 "@GaboBoscanA: The struggle is for everyone! Students, youth, political parties, civil society. We are with @GerardoCarrero7 #Trujillo". Human Rights? Alfredo Romero, member of the Venezuelan Criminal Forum (FPV), a non-profit organization that promotes and defends human rights in Venezuela, reaffirmed Carrero's treatment in prison in an interview with the PanAm Post. He says the student activist was not only beaten after launching his hunger strike, he was tied to a tube and hung from the ceiling for over 12 hours. Carrero's lawyer, María Fernanda Torres, also an FPV member, was with the detained student's family when the complaint was filed on Tuesday. She managed to have Carrero transferred from the SEBIN branch to a jail in a more centrally located area in Plaza Venezuela, where other "high profile" student activists are being held. According to Romero, Torres was able to verify Carrero's injuries. "As it has been noted, he was hit on the ribs. When they hung him from that tube in the ceiling with handcuffs, newspapers were placed on his wrists to avoid bruising." "This is not the first time that torture has been denounced," said Torres. "For the FPV, this is the 152nd case in the last few months. This is just one of many cases that we have been compiling. Since February 4, 3,273 arrests have been made as a result of the protests. There are 75 people still imprisoned." Romero added that protesters are typically charged with a crime related to public incitement: "The other detainees have been charged with crimes, with no evidence, such as carrying fireworks or weapons. Since 2005, anyone who blocks a street in Venezuela is sent to jail. There is no freedom to protest." Translated by Adam Dubove.