CALI, Colombia—From the early 1980s to the early 1990s, a crack cocaine epidemic swept the United States, sending crime rates—and especially homicide rates—soaring. In 1990 in New York City alone there were 2,245 murders, as compared to fewer than 700 a year in the 1960s, and fewer than 300 in 2017. The blood on the streets tied to blow from Colombia was stunning, and at the center of the traffic was Pablo Escobar.
Now, 25 years after Escobar was tracked down and killed, his right-hand man and chief assassin has been talking to The Daily Beast in an exclusive series about his operations.
Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez (a.k.a. “Popeye”) claims to have been the top sicario, or hitman, of the Medellín Cartel under Escobar. In that role Popeye says he personally executed more than 250 people and ordered the deaths of some 3,000 more.
In part one of the series, he talked about bombing a Colombian airliner in 1989, murdering 110 people while trying unsuccessfully to kill one of the country’s presidential candidates. In part two, he described Escobar’s intense reliance on aviation for cocaine production and also as part of the operation smuggling tons of the drug every day into the United States at the height of the crack epidemic. Here, in the third installment, Popeye explains in more detail exactly how Escobar used planes and ships ferrying narcotics to breach U.S. security.
As noted previously, Popeye was released from prison in 2014 after serving a 23-year sentence. Since then he’s used YouTube and other media platforms to grow his own legend and that of his associates, including a fictional Netflix series about his exploits, and an upcoming film. After being re-arrested in 2018, Popeye pleaded innocent to charges of extortion and renewed cartel activity, but two and a half decades after Escobar’s death, this former top lieutenant remains a revered figure among aspiring “narcos” throughout the hemisphere.
THE DAILY BEAST: A large percentage of the Medellín Cartel’s cocaine shipments made a stopover at a hidden base in the Caribbean on their way from Colombia to the U.S. The ruins of the island base—including a downed twin-engine smuggling plane that crash-landed in shallow water just off shore—are now popular with tourists. But back in the ‘80s it was a major way station that saw tons of contraband passing through each day, and from there the narcotics passed directly into the States. Here Popeye explains exactly how the dope runners evaded US coastal security:
POPEYE: Carlos Lehder Rivas, [a German-Colombian associate of Escobar’s], built an airstrip on an island in the Bahamas; he bought the island and paid the authorities to allow the operation.
From Norman Caye the drugs were taken on sailboats and small yachts into Miami. Many Americans sailed in on the weekends to party in the Bahamas. Our boats then merged with the return traffic and arrived safely in Miami. They docked in the private docks and in the night the cocaine was removed.
TDB: But those maritime routes were only part of the story. Escobar also ran cocaine into the US by air and in mass quantities. Popeye explains how this worked and what the tactics were for defeating military and DEA-run radar installations:
POPEYE: The route that was delivered to the U.S. by plane was piloted by Barry Seal, a North American pilot with great experience in evading radar tracking systems. He had served in the Vietnam War and knew how to circumvent the radars from Colombia or Nicaragua and he cleared a track into Louisiana.
He made more than 300 flights from 1981 to 1984, before he was detected by the Americans and arrested. He was making a flight from the Managua Nicaragua airport, but [the authorities] followed him into Louisiana. He agreed to cooperate with the DEA and later photographed Pablo Escobar and his associates loading his plane with the cocaine.
This led to the U.S. opening a case against the Medellín cartel.
Barry Seal knew that he had betrayed the capo of capos and the Medellín cartel. In February 1986, Pablo Escobar's enforcer arm arrived and Seal was executed by his gunmen in Baton Rouge. After that the Americans closed the border with super-radars and it was almost impossible for a mafia plane to enter the U.S.
TDB: Seal was shot to death at his court-appointed workplace, and the Colombian assassins responsible were eventually caught in the US. The price on Seal’s head was $500,000 dead, or one million dollars if returned alive to Colombia for “punishment” there. His murder marked the end of the DEA’s case against Escobar at that time, as they’d lost their star witness.
With air access to the US now restricted, Escobar turned to the Mexican cartels for assistance in reaching the coveted North America market. Ironically, 25 years after his death,Mexico’s mafiosos are actually expanding their reach into Colombia, taking over much of Escobar’s former empire. Popeye breaks down how the Medellin Cartel first entered into an alliance with their counterparts to the north.
POPEYE: So Pablo Escobar sent me to Mexico to make contact with Amado Carrillo Fuentes to receive the Medellín cartel's planes. Amado Carrillo accepts the offer, taking 30 percent of each shipment, and delivers 70 percent in Miami. There he becomes known as “El Señor de Los Cielos” [The Lord of the Skies], because of the great operations of his aircraft.
The operation in Mexico was on a very large scale. Amado Carrillo received all the planes of the Colombian mafia at his airstrips: the Medellín Cartel, the Cali Cartel, the Caquetá Cartel, and the Coast Cartel.
TDB: In addition to shipments going north to Mexico, planes were also vital to the supply side of the cocaine equation within Colombia. All of the ether, coca paste, and the other chemical ingredients had to be brought to remote locations for production purposes. Here’s Popeye on just how that worked:
POPEYE: Aircraft—small planes and helicopters—that’s how the mafia moved.
On the completely paved tarmac of the Nápoles Hacienda and in the hangar there were always 10 to 12 helicopters. Pablo Escobar also used many planes for his operations. They took off from the Olaya Herrera airport in the city of Medellín, from the runway of the Nápoles ranch, from airstrips in the Guajira region, and elsewhere.
TDB: The biggest hub was at the Tranquilandia lab facility, where some 33 tons of cocaine were produced each month out in the jungle. Popeye on how the lab was constructed, and what made it so unique:
POPEYE: For the shorter flights of small planes, Tranquilandia had more than 30 runways on the property. The little planes came and went easily on packed earth or grass airstrips. More complicated was landing the bigger planes that used turbines or multiple propellers. When taking off they needed a long and clean runway.
At the end of 1983, when the DEA and the Colombian police stumbled onto Tranquilandia, they were astonished to see the capacity of the laboratory.
They found the largest laboratory in the world for the processing of cocaine and saw the power of the Medellín cartel. For the ’80s this [facility] was on a monumental scale.
TDB: But the authorities found and seized Tranquilandia in 1984. That move prompted Escobar to exact revenge, just as he’d done with Barry Seal. Popeye elaborates on the raid and the aftermath:
POPEYE: The strength of the laboratory was the networks of tarmacs, but that’s also what gave it away. During a flyby the DEA saw the airstrips and the big laboratory. As punishment, Pablo Escobar ordered the assassination in 1984 of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, and of Colonel Jaime Ramírez in 1986.
It was Ramírez who had launched the attack on the laboratory by order of the ministry and in the company of the DEA.
TDB: Minister Lara was gunned down in Bogotá by a pair of specially trained motorcycle-riding sicarios, just seven weeks after the raid on Escobar’s production camp. That move would have unintended consequences for the kingpin and his cronies, however, as it prompted the Colombian government to ratify an extradition treaty with the U.S. and seek international assistance in the fight against the cartels.
Colonel Ramírez was shot to death in front of his wife and children about two years later, after the family’s car was run off the road by Escobar’s men. As with Lara, Ramirez’s assassination would ultimately backfire. In the wake of his murder, Bogotá would strengthen its ties to the DEA in order to accelerate the hunt for top members of the narco hierarchy.
After the loss of Tranquilandia Escobar had to change tactics again, just as when the Caribbean corridor and direct smuggling flights were shut down. Popeye lays out how his former boss learned to disguise his operations in order to keep the cocaine air force flying:
POPEYE: Pablo Escobar and his partners learned their lesson to atomize the laboratories; to switch to small laboratories without clues nearby. The supplies and the cocaine paste entered the jungle on mules and horses and on the backs of these same animals the pure cocaine came out.
Aircraft were used more cleverly now. Most of the laboratories were more than two hours from the landing sites. The tracks of the planes were camouflaged in paddocks to pasture cattle. The pastures were crossed with barbed wire, so the sticks that held the wire had to be quickly removable. When it is safe and the plane comes, the cowboys drive the cattle away and other men take out the poles with the barbed wire and the plane enters. They unload the cocaine paste and the pilot leaves right away. The men on the ground quickly install the barbed wire again and the cowboys return the cattle.
TDB: One theme that keeps coming up in Popeye’s anecdotes is the degree to which Escobar relied on air transport to become the reigning “Coke King” of Colombia.
POPEYE: During the ’70s and ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s in Colombia, coca growing was not widespread, so long-range transportation was necessary. After the death of Pablo Escobar, much of the countryside was planted with coca plants. But that came later. Without aviation for shipping, Pablo Escobar would never have landed at the top.
Next up: How a forbidden love affair led to war between Escobar and the Cali Cartel.