CALI, Colombia — Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez served for years as the ranking sicario, or hitman, of the Medellín Cartel under Pablo Escobar, who was killed 25 years ago this month. Known by the sobriquet “Popeye” because he had served as an officer in the Colombian navy, he says he personally murdered hundreds of people and ordered the deaths of thousands more.
Popeye was released from prison in 2014 after serving a 23-year sentence. In 2018, he was again arrested as part of a new investigation, although he maintains he is innocent of the new charges. A hero to many next-gen sicarios in Colombia, Central America, and Mexico, Popeye remains unrepentant and defiant.
For this exclusive Daily Beast series, Popeye agreed to speak from prison about his time as chief assassin within Escobar’s drug-fueled empire. Told in his own voice, and with only minor edits for continuity, these anecdotes provide a personal and penetrating account of what it was like to serve as second-in-command to one of the most infamous drug lords of all time.
THE DAILY BEAST: What can you tell us, please, about your involvement in the bombing of Flight 203?
POPEYE: So in November of 1989, an Avianca airlines plane explodes in mid-flight, killing 107 people in the air [including two U.S. citizens] and three more on the ground. This happens in the middle of our war with the government…
Pablo Escobar ordered the bombing to kill presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo. We had killed Dr. Luis Carlos Galán in August 1989. Dr. César Gaviria was the heir to the throne of Dr. Galán, and their signature plan was the extradition of Colombians to the US.
Editor’s Note: Extradition to the U.S. was a primary concern for Escobar and his cohorts, and it remains a great fear for cartel leaders today. That’s because powerful drug lords are able to pull strings for easy treatment or even escape incarceration within the penal systems of their own countries, but they’re relatively helpless once on U.S. soil.
POPEYE: The person in charge of dynamiting the plane was Carlos Urquijo, aka “El Arete” [The Earring]. He worked together with Carlos Castaño Gil, who would later be our great enemy and a powerful paramilitary in his own right. The bomb was set by the Medellín cartel explosives expert Cuco Zabala…
Cuco arms a bomb case and hands it off to El Arete and he passes it to Carlos Castaño Gil. That briefcase was a work of art. Castaño deceived a young man and told him that he should open his briefcase in the air when the plane took off and began to climb. He told him that the briefcase held a tape recorder and that when he opened it the device would be activated to grab the conversations of certain passengers. That there were some Americans aboard, and the mafia needed to know about an extradition case they were carrying out.
Well, the dupe had already held a briefcase with a complex recorder in his hands and saw how it worked. Castaño had already given him several examples, to deceive him more easily. When the briefcase opened in the air, the bomb was activated. Cuco, an electronics engineer, had learned that trick from an explosives designer of the ETA [Basque separatists].
The bomb case was very complex and only a professional like Cuco could put it together.
Editor’s Note: Escobar made a habit of importing foreign terrorists and military experts to teach tactics to his sicarios. In addition to working with the ETA, Escobar also employed mercenaries from Great Britain and Israel for training purposes.
POPEYE: Pablo Escobar moved [the bomb] to Bogotá with great care when the information came that presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo would be flying in a commercial aircraft. It was time to hoist the bomb and change 110 lives…
Gaviria was scheduled to board a flight from Bogotá to Cali. Meanwhile the DAS [Administrative Department of Security]—a special task force that escorts important persons of the Colombian state—was responsible for protecting all of the country’s runways. They controlled the El Dorado airport in the Colombian capital, and were commanded by a general of the police, the all-powerful Miguel Alfredo Maza Márquez.
But, using the bribe money given him by Pablo Escobar, Carlos Castaño was really the one in control.
Carlos knew I’d bought the ticket for the duped young man and got him just the right seat. We were all aware that if the bomb exploded in the wrong place it wouldn’t ignite the plane’s fuel tanks, and the captain could save the plane. So we created a domino effect with the fuel stored in the wings of the plane, the dynamite in the briefcase and the pressurization of the aircraft—a lethal composition…
On Nov. 27, 1989, the fate of 110 people was sealed.
Editor’s Note: For decades after the bombing of Flight 203, U.S. and Colombian prosecutors would blame a man who may well have been innocent. A lower-ranking sicario named Dandenys Muñoz Mosquera, alias “La Quica,” (The Fat Girl) received multiple life sentences for the bombing, until Popeye’s testimony to the Colombian DA resulted in La Quica being exonerated.
POPEYE: An accomplice in the DAS force who patrolled El Dorado delivered the briefcase bomb to the plane. Since the DAS ran the airport, they were able to easily slip the bomb to the young man we’d tricked after he was in his seat.
However, based on a hunch by Gaviria’s security chief, the candidate never boards the plane. A mile and a half from the airport and Dr. César Gaviria’s car turns around. Then the plane takes off, and after a few minutes it explodes, killing all 107 passengers and crew. And debris lands on three more people and kills them, too. The plane was totally destroyed—but the candidate lived. Maybe his guardian angel saved him that night…
Editor’s Note: The destruction of Flight 203 proved to be a bridge too far even for Escobar. Formerly considered untouchable, even a kind of national folk here, the terroristic nature of the bombing would provoke an unforeseen backlash. The George H.W. Bush administration would soon deploy the resources of the U.S. intelligence community in Colombia, sparking a massive manhunt for the Coke King and eventually leading to his downfall and controversial death in 1993.
Up Next: Escobar’s Own Private Air Force