Standing still on a dimly lit dirt road in the heat of the Colombian night, the only noises are the close sound of a car, and my heart is pounding.
I have no idea how we had got to this location. It was kept a secret, and for 10 miles, even though it felt like 100, I kept my head down as I was required to do. I have come here to meet arguably with the most dangerous man, Pablo Escobar’s head assassin.
“I used to think nothing of taking a journalist’s life, they were among the easiest,” jokes John Jairo Velásquez as he comes out from behind me out of nowhere.
Creating a gun with his hands, he then ascends his arm to my forehead ahead saying: “Bang. Bang. Two bullets either side of your temple. Your life would leave your body in a heartbeat.”
Now, as the second series of the Netflix show Narcos, dramatizing Escobar’s life, is launched, the guilty killer Velásquez gave the Sunday Mirror a scarce interview near where he currently lives under 24-hour protection. Known merely by his nickname Popeye, he murdered not for fun, but for his loyalty to his boss (El Patron).
He had taken around 300 lives, organizing the deaths of another 3,000, and was compensated £75,000 ($97,367.00) for the ones he personally took out. He was the intellect behind around 200 car bombings throughout Escobar’s Medellin Cartel’s war against its challengers and the Colombian state.
Popeye was as well accountable for high-profile, high-caliber kidnappings, among them that of the Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos in January 1988. Granted the high-status title of “Asesino de confianza de Pablo Escobar”, which translates to “murderer for respected Pablo Escobar”, Popeye subsequently professed it was he who executed Hoyos within captivity.
Just a few days subsequently he kidnapped Bogota civil authority candidate Andres Pastrana, who would endure the ordeal and turn into the 57th President of Colombia from 1998 to 2002.
With no indication of remorse, Popeye executed anyone who was required to be killed. From killing his girlfriend at the time to the bombing a commercial airliner in which 107 people died, no person was off limits. He states he just carried out Escobar’s orders. Softly spoken and a grey-haired man, Popeye does not appear as if he would strike fear into men’s hearts.
He stated as a matter of fact, “You have to understand I was a professional killer. Whenever I took a life, I didn’t feel anything. Not shame, not sadness, not happiness, it was simply like a day at the office carrying out Don Pablo’s orders. Killing was too easy. I was in a war and they were killing my family, my friends, and my colleagues. I found them beheaded and with hands and limbs cut off.”
“We had to fight fire with fire. During the war when the Search Bloc (a expert police squad set up to hunt for Escobar) took control of the morgues here in Medellín, they put my friends alive in the incinerators, they were throwing my friends alive from helicopters from more than 1,000 feet in the rain forest. I found my friends with their knees, teeth, and brain drilled.”
“So we started to do the same, and more, under those war conditions, because one has to have that mentality to survive. It was easy to kill. I had work to do, it was not a problem.”
Popeye encountered Esobar when he was 17 and fresh from dropping out of the Colombian police academy. Having a gun permit, he was employed as a guardian to one of the King of Cocaine’s mistresses. Yet when the relationship concluded, Escobar kept Popeye on, seeing his loyalty.
Popeye recalls, “When I first met Escobar it was like I had seen a God. He had this huge presence, like an aura around him. He had incredible magnetism but was exaggeratedly plain. The day I looked in Pablo Escobar’s eyes I knew there and then I would die for him if need be.”
“Despite how he is portrayed on film he was a very quiet man, a friend and a father-like figure. In all my years, he never threatened me once. I just did as I was told. And although he was not educated he had a supremely intelligent criminal mind.”
“He just knew how people worked. Don Pablo was a very respectful man to those who gave it to him. He would capture people’s minds through the affection he could show them as a friend. He never shouted once, never made snide remarks, nothing, he was a clear man. He spoke slowly, with a lot of respect, he looked everyone in the eye when he spoke to them.”
Popeye’s initial kill was of a driver who pulled away when an old lady was getting off his bus, leaving her to fall and then subsequently dying. Popeye stated as well, “Her son later asked for Don Pablo’s permission because no one could be killed in the city without it.
Don Pablo said ‘Yes, sure, that man deserves to be killed, he is mean.’ I was given that work and carried out his orders. I found the guy and just shot him dead. I felt nothing.”
“It was the same for everyone I carried out. The idea that a person cannot sleep for thinking about killing someone never applied to me. The deeds that I have done never deprived me of sleep.”
His work always brought him rich rewards.
He proceeds, “I remember the Medellin lottery was set to pay out 80 million pesos and when Don Pablo gave me a killing to carry out he phoned to say ‘Popeye, how much does the lottery pay? 80 million pesos (£20,370, $26,000). I can make you richer than any lottery. I give you 100 million (£25,460 $33,053) go now and find that man and kill him’. I simply did what he asked and he paid me the money.”
They were vast numbers; even now the average Colombian wage is only £6,300 ($8,178). Popeye got his nickname from his protruding jaw, since then it has been corrected through surgery.
The cartel boss was granted five years within his own prison, noted as La Catedral, and in a deal with the Colombian government, Popeye went as well. Regardless of his alleged incarceration, Escobar retained his drug empire, obtaining £4 billion ($4,461,320,000) per year while still sanctioning execution after execution.
When word came to him the Galeano, Moncada brothers were siphoning off Medellin cartel incomes, Escobar asked them to La Catedral for a “talk”. For one time only within the hilltop prison, Esobar gave the order for them to be killed and tortured. With no indication of emotion, Popeye states, “I cut off their legs and arms, then burned the bodies. They wronged, we righted it.”
Velásquez relinquished himself to authorities in 1992 just a year before Escobar was found by the police and killed in a shootout. At the moment of his arrest, Popeye stated, “I don’t owe anything to anybody. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
Yet, subsequently, with 22 years behind bars for killing presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in the year of 1989, the sole murder he was charged for, he was discharged two years ago.
He exists in hiding and has faith that there’s an 80 percent chance that one of his several enemies will murder him. That may be because he gave up the names of cartel henchmen in a plea with the authorities, Mirror reported.
Even though now displaying some remorse, Popeye asserts that all of his victims were casualties of the war. He refuses to admit that he was a murderer and has no guilt, alleging he had no choice but to follow Escobar’s orders.
He said, “I’m also a victim of Don Pablo. I was not responsible for the assassinations. I was a professional killer and nowadays I have reconsidered it. I am a repented and reformed man. If possible I am looking for reintegration back into society. I am still capable of killing but unless I am cornered I hope I will never have to do it again.”