A former hit man for late drug lord Pablo Escobar who confessed to killing hundreds of people during one of Colombia’s most violent periods died Thursday after a short battle with cancer, prison authorities said.
Jhon Jairo Velásquez, known by his nickname Popeye, died at the National Cancer Institute in Bogota, where he had been hospitalized since late December, according to the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute.
Velásquez admitted to carrying out at least 300 murders himself and said he helped coordinate the deaths of some 3,000 other individuals on behalf of Escobar’s Medellin cartel during the 1980s and 90s. He spent 23 years behind bars for plotting the murder of an ex-presidential candidate and was released in 2014 on parole.
After being released, he went on to gain notoriety as an author and YouTube celebrity who delivered angry diatribes against leftist rebels and corrupt politicians and at one point expressed a desire to run for a seat in the senate.
In 2017, authorities announced they were seeking his arrest for violating parole after he was caught partying with a major drug trafficker wanted by the US. He was eventually captured in 2018 on charges of extortion.
Velásquez spoke of the murders he committed on Escobar’s behalf in a cold, matter-of-faction fashion, describing in one television interview how he preferred using a revolver and “worked from the eyebrows up.”
In a meeting with the daughter of Diana Turbay, a Colombian journalist kidnapped by the Medellin cartel who died from a gunshot wound after a botched rescue attempt, Velásquez said he took responsibility for the crime.
“I want to ask you for forgiveness,” he said.
He admitted to participating in some of Colombia’s most notorious crimes, including the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, who was poised to win the presidency when he was shot to death in 1989 after speaking out against powerful drug cartels, and the 1989 bombing of an Avianca flight that left 107 dead.
Escobar died during a firefight with security forces in Medellin in 1993.
Even while asking for forgiveness, Velásquez continued to express admiration for his former boss, describing him once as “a good friend and a good enemy.”
“If Pablo Escobar were to be reborn, I’d go with him without thinking,” he told El Tiempo newspaper in 2013.