IN COLD BLOOD
The Sicario’s Tale, Part 2: Inside Pablo Escobar’s Cocaine Air Force
A quarter-century after the death of cocaine king Pablo Escobar, his right-hand man reveals his secrets in an exclusive new series for The Daily Beast.
CALI, Colombia—This is the second in a series of interviews with Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, also known as “Popeye” because he was once a sailor in the Colombian navy. More importantly, for several years he served as the ranking sicario, or hitman, of the Medellín Cartel under Pablo Escobar, who was killed 25 years ago this month.
Popeye says he personally murdered hundreds of people and ordered the deaths of thousands more. Indeed, since his release from prison in 2014, after serving a 23-year sentence, he has been using YouTube and other social media to build a cult of personality around himself and his associates. These efforts to grow his legend have already yielded a fictional Netflix series about his exploits and an upcoming feature film.
In 2018 he was again arrested pending a new investigation, although he maintains he is innocent of the fresh charges against him. Despite his checkered past—or because of it—Popeye remains a role model to many in the cartel underworld.
Part One of this series chronicled Escobar’s attempt to kill a presidential candidate with a bomb on a plane that murdered more than 100 people, but missed the target. Here, in the second installment, Popeye talks about Escobar’s own private air force, and how he used it to smuggle more than a dozen tons of cocaine a day across the U.S. border.
During the Medellín Cartel’s heyday in the mid-’80s—at the height of the crack epidemic in the United States—Escobar supplied about 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, including up to 15 tons a day destined for the U.S. market, much of it by air.
THE DAILY BEAST: I understand Escobar took great pride in his so-called “air force,” which included planes for both smuggling and personal use. Also that there were some pretty wild times and airborne fiestas. Can you tell us more about how Pablo used his planes?
POPEYE: Pablo Escobar managed a fleet of almost 140 planes that he used for almost all his drug trafficking operations. But his only pleasure plane was a Lear Jet. Back in the ’80s there were only two Lear Jets in all of Colombia. One owned by Pablo Escobar, and the other by businessman Julio Mario Santodomingo. Escobar’s Lear was the “Avión Superior,” a super-plane where Pablo Escobar had fun. Once he took $2 million in cash and flew off to the carnival at Rio de Janeiro—and spent everything he’d brought with him, right down to the last dollar. He flew to the U.S., too, and had a good time.
TDB: What other kinds of “good times” did he have aboard the Lear? And what were the logistics involved in flying that thing around in Colombia?
POPEYE: This high-speed plane couldn’t land at the airstrip of the Hacienda Nápoles [Escobar’s compound]. Its force and size only allowed it to operate out of Olaya Herrera, the Medellín city airport. Once several beautiful Brazilian women flew to Medellín in the Lear Jet and from there in a King 300 to the Nápoles ranch. The beauties made love to each other for the delight of the mighty capo at 30,000 feet.
Roberto Striedinger was the pilot. It wasn’t easy to find someone qualified to fly this powerful machine. And the Avión Superior was never used for cocaine trafficking—but only for the pleasure of El Patrón.
TDB: So aviation was a key factor in the Medellin Cartel’s ability to process cocaine on an industrial scale, which in turn allowed Escobar to become the world’s top supplier. Can you talk a little about the size and scope of the production process, and how planes were employed in shipping the raw materials to the lab?
POPEYE: At that time the cocaine paste, the base, was brought from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador in small planes to the Colombian wilderness, passing from one jungle airstrip to another.A powerful trafficker received planes like the Navajo Caneca and the [Cessna] Centurion in Leticia, in the Colombian Amazon. From there other small planes took the cocaine paste to a super-laboratory of the Medellín cartel. Evaristo Porras, a cocaine addict, had total control in Leticia. From there he coordinated shipments off to Tranquilandia, the super-laboratory owned by Pablo Escobar, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, and Jorgé Luis Ochoa Vásquez.
TDB: I’ve seen pictures of the ruins at Tranquilandia, and it does look to have been huge. What was the lab’s capacity? And what role did the Escobarian “air force” play in all of this?
POPEYE: On the plains of Yarí, 30,000 kilos [about 66,000 pounds] of cocaine were processed in the Colombian jungle every month.
These small-plane operations were conducted on a grand scale. Some of the planes were used to haul cocaine paste, others acetone and ether, to process the paste and turn it into pure cocaine. Other aircraft moved personnel, food, and fuel for the large power plant that illuminated the huge laboratory.
The chain of processing stations was built in the heart of the jungle. The laboratory waste would not be a problem, a river would swallow the runoff near the laboratory and the smells would not be a mess either, the jungle would absorb them. The soul of the laboratory was the complex of paved runways.
TDB: I wonder just how Escobar used these aircraft for exporting contraband from Tranquilandia. For example, I’ve heard steps were taken to increase cargo capacity, and change each plane’s papers and identification markers. How did that work, please? And what did the smuggling routes look like?
POPEYE: When the processed cocaine was ready it was flown from the lab to all over the world in airplanes with great cargo capacity and good autopilot capabilities. The ideal plane was the King 300. The interior would be dismantled, the chairs removed, anything superfluous or heavy thrown out and replaced with containers. Additional fuel could be carried on the wings. Depending on the destination, it could carry [up to] 700-900 kilos [1,540 – 1,980 lbs] of cocaine.
The load would be just cocaine and fuel, and the pilot would bring his mechanic. The routes were to the USA, Mexico, the Bahamas, Cuba, Panama, Haiti, and Nicaragua. Aircraft went with cocaine and returned with money and weapons.
Aircraft purchases were often made in the U.S. with front companies. The planes’ registrations were altered as were the national flags, depending on the destination. The flotilla also included turbo command aircraft, and each plane was carefully chosen for its mission.
Next up: From the Jungle to the Junky — How Escobar outfoxed law enforcement to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.