IN COLD BLOOD
The Sicario’s Tale, Part 4: The Cuckold Who Brought Down the Cartels
A quarter-century after the death of cocaine king Pablo Escobar, his right-hand man reveals his operational secrets in an exclusive new series for The Daily Beast.
CALI, Colombia—Before they had a fatal falling-out, Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel was on relatively good terms with the Cali-based syndicate. In fact, the Cali crime group has been founded by former partners of Escobar, who broke away to form their own independent empire to the south. But the Caleños operated under a markedly different business philosophy, and with none of Escobar’s trademark use of coke money for philanthropy projects. When the groups turned on each other—their war triggered by an adulterous affair—the bloodletting eventually brought them both down.
Such is the story told by Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, also known as “Popeye,” who once served as the head sicario or hitman for Escobar’s cartel. In that role Popeye says he was responsible for personally murdering more than 250 people and ordering the deaths of some 3,000 more.
As noted previously in this exclusive series of interviews, 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 the legend of himself and his associates, including a fictional Netflix series about his exploits, and an upcoming film.
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. In part three we saw how Escobar’s operation fed the frenzied crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s that sent murder rates in U.S. cities soaring.
One of the primary differences between the Cali and Medellín organizations was that Escobar played an almost kingly role in his cartel, overseeing all aspects of its operation. Meanwhile the Cali Cartel operated more like a traditional corporation, with semi-independent branches to control accounting, drug trafficking, and armed confrontations with rival bands and government forces.
Nevertheless, the two groups co-existed peacefully until an illicit love affair soured their alliance
THE DAILY BEAST: What precisely brought on the war between the Medellín and Cali cartets?
POPEYE: The Cali cartel was composed of the powerful brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, and José Santacruz Londoño. Meanwhile the Medellín cartel was composed of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, Jorge Luis Ochoa Vásquez, and José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, a.k.a. the Mexican. The two cartels were partners in the cocaine trade and allies in the fight against the extradition of Colombians to the United States.
The Medellín cartel executed enemies of the Cali cartel whenever they took refuge in Medellín.
The Cali people controlled the cocaine trade in New York and those of Medellín ran the Miami drug rings.
The Cali people bought large quantities of drugs from the Medellín cartel, from the super-laboratory in Tranquilandia, and the helicopters of the Cali cartel often landed at the Nápoles ranch of Pablo Escobar.
TDB: But what is this about a love affair?
POPEYE: In the year 1986, in a prison in New York, there were both cartels. Jorge Pabón, known in the underworld as El Negro, was a great sicario of the Medellín cartel and partner of Pablo Escobar. He started in the underworld with Pablo Escobar back in 1971, stealing cars, robbing banks, killing people, smuggling Marlboros.
In the same New York prison as Negro Pabón was Alejo Piña, of the Cali cartel. Both Pabón and Piña had been arrested for cocaine trafficking in different cases.
There in prison they became great friends. Negro Pabón [of Medellín] defended Piña [of Cali] against his North American rivals. Very soon Piña achieved his freedom and, in gratitude to Pabón, he promised to go to Medellín to visit Pabón’s wife and see how she was—and to help her with whatever she needed.
Pabón doesn’t see any problem with this, and he gives him the wife’s phone number, thanking him for the gesture.
Alejo Piña travels to Medellín and met the spectacular wife whose husband was still behind bars, and the two soon began a romance.
TDB: The ideological differences between the Medellín and Cali outfits ran deeper than just their organizational structures. Escobar despised leftist politics and guerrillas, but he’d grown up in impoverished circumstances himself, and he always maintained a soft spot for the poor. He donated so much to charity, and built so many schools and clinics, that he was often referred to as the Colombian Robin Hood.
By contrast, the Cali capos were all from upper class families and known for their brutal “social cleansing” campaigns, in which they they deliberately exterminated street children, homeless people, prostitutes, and homosexuals, among other “desechables,” or “disposables.”
Business matters like splitting shipments and sharing tarmacs were one thing. And Colombians in the U.S. prison system had a duty to look out for one another. But a love affair between Piña and Señora Pabón was a betrayal of the Medellín Cartel’s macho mores. Cocaine kings don’t like to be seen as cuckolds. Popeye reveals how the affair came to light:
POPEYE: El Negro regains his freedom at last and returns to his spouse, thinking everything is alright. One day he takes out one of his Mercedes sports cars and goes to a soccer game, his second passion after his beloved wife. He drives to the stadium of Atanasio Girardot; he watches the team of his soul, the Medellín Independents. He leaves the stadium happy in the triumph of his favorite team over its eternal rival, the National Athletics.
He gets in his convertible and takes Avenue 70 back through the town. At a traffic light he is attacked by hitmen on a motorcycle and riddled with 12 bullets, but manages to escape. None of the bullets struck a vital organ. A big car and heavy traffic to hide in at the stoplight saved his life. Imagine the powerful Negro Pabón being attacked in the middle of Medellín! He was in the hospital just two days before being discharged.
The whole organization is activated and in 10 days both the driver and the shooter of the motorcycle team are found. The two confess that a burro [intermediary] hired them for the murder in the Aranjuez neighborhood of Medellín. To identify him they had a picture of Pabón in his Mercedes. Quickly the burro is located and kidnapped and confesses the unconfessable: that Alejo Piña contracted him.
The burro gives the location of one of their hiding places and gives more data, that Alejo Piña knew that Negro Pabón had gone to the soccer game that day in his convertible. But the only one who knew Pabón was going to the game and in what car was the slender one, his wife.
TDB: Using sicarios on motorcycles was a tactic pioneered by the Medellín cartel, and it’s since been copied by crime groups in Mexico and Central America. A typical hit team involves three people: a spotter, a driver, and a shooter who rides on the back of the bike, all of them well trained and working in concert via radio. As we discussed in Part 3 of this series, Escobar himself used a similar team to assassinate a prominent Colombian minister of justice who had crossed him. So Piña’s copycatting of this signature move might have been intended to make it appear that the attack on Pabón was an inside job. In any case, Pabón lived to track down his assailants and uncover the plot by a rival gang member who had seduced his wife. Tensions between the two cartels escalated swiftly from there, according to Popeye.
POPEYE: So Pabón shoots the three of them [the burro and the two men on the bike] and goes to his apartment, but the skinny one is not there. He looks for the photo album and in fact discovers that a picture of him in his Mercedes is missing from the album—the same image found in the hands of the would-be assassins.
Pabón takes his personal things—clothes, jewels, etc.—from the apartment and leaves the photo album open on the dining room table for his wife to find. Then he gets in his beautiful Mercedes 500 and goes to one of the apartments of his great friend Pablo Escobar.
Pablo knew that El Negro was not going to shoot his wife—even though they did not have children he loved her madly. The objective instead was to revenge himself upon Alejo Piña.
Pablo Escobar asks Pabón: “And who is Alejo Piña’s boss?”
El Negro responds: “It's Helmer Herrera Buitrago, known in Cali as Pacho Herrera.”
“Easy enough,” says the head of the Medellín Cartel. He explains that he had done a great favor for the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers three days ago, when he [Pablo] murdered a powerful drug trafficker known as “El Ciclista” (The Cyclist). The Rodríguez brothers had been crazy afraid of the El Cicilista.
On the phone with Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, Pablo's request was quick and simple:
“Gilberto help me locate one Pacho Herrera [the boss of the man who tried to have Pabón killed].”
On the other side of the line there is a suspicious silence.
Gilberto reacts and tells Pablo to explain what he wants. The powerful capo says to trust him, since he had just taken Ciclista out of the way. Then he tells the story of the betrayal of Negro Pabón.
Gilberto Rodríguez’s response sounds confused, disrespectful, as if he’s forgotten who he’s talking to. Gilberto eventually agrees to try to locate Pablo Herrera, but when Escobar hangs up the phone he too is suspicious.
TDB: Pablo Escobar, while he might have looked after the downtrodden in some cases, had no qualms about killing government officials and more than a few innocent bystanders, like the 110 people murdered when Popeye’s men blew up an airliner in 1989. The Caleños on the other hand were willing to slaughter “undesirables” in record numbers, while they preferred to threaten, instead of execute, opponents who held public office.
For that reason, it’s been suggested that Bogotá preferred to see the Cali syndicate come out on top in the crime war that followed the attempt on Pabón’s life. And it’s certainly clear that both the DEA and Colombian law enforcement preferred to focus on taking down the mighty Medellín cartel at this time.
The war between the cartels lasted for five years, from 1988 to 1993. It ended with Escobar’s death at the hands of police, 25 years ago this month. With the competition eliminated, Pablo’s former associates in Cali went on to dominate the drug trade, ultimately controlling 90 percent of the world’s supply of cocaine—outdoing even the “Coke King” himself. The DEA would eventually call the Cali Cartel “one of the most dangerous crime syndicates in history” and compare its elaborate network of informants and spies to Russia’s KGB.
Here, Popeye talks about the final power struggle between these two criminal empires, which was sparked by the phone call between Escobar and Cali’s Orejuela. He also hints at why, even in death, Escobar might have had the last laugh on those who sought to bring him to justice.
POPEYE: After that the head of the Cali cartel, Helmer Herrera Buitrago, started a brutal war between the cartels which left thousands dead.
Pacho Herrera, you see, was a great trafficker and warlord. He handled large amounts of money and was not afraid of war. He would just open his great coffers and defy hell itself. He worked too with the DEA, the CIA, the Colombian police and government.
They won the war on December 2, 1993 when Pablo Escobar was killed. Buitrago’s triumph lasted just two years. He submitted to justice and in 1995 was executed by one of his enemies during a soccer game at the Palmira Valle prison.
José Santacruz Londoño [of the Cali Cartel] was captured in 1995, he escaped from prison... and was later killed [by a Medellín hitman] at his home.
The Rodríguez brothers received prison sentences in the U.S.—30 years in prison, so, given their ages, they will never get out alive.
But Pablo Escobar fulfilled his promise. He always said: “I prefer a grave in Colombia to a dungeon in the U.S.”