'It was a work of art': Pablo Escobar's hitman brags about bomb that killed 107 passengers in plane explosion
Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez aka 'Popeye,' who was Escobar's most trusted lieutenant, has no regrets about bombing Avianca Flight 203 in 1989 that killed 107 people
December 2 marked the 25th anniversary of the Colombian National Police successfully tracking down and killing Pablo Escobar, dubbed the 'King of Cocaine' and believed to have been one of the wealthiest and most influential persons on the planet because of his thriving drug trade at the time.
But Escobar's success was built on the loyalty and ruthlessness of his trusted sicarios who were often tasked with carrying out some of his most heinous schemes. Chief amongst those sicarios was Jhon Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, aka 'Popeye,' who was Escobar's most trusted lieutenant.
Rumored to have personally carried out hundreds of murders and ordered thousands more, Popeye served 23 years in prison for his work at Escobar's Medellín Cartel and was released in 2014 before being jailed again in 2018 over new charges.
While the list of atrocities carried out by the cartel is seemingly endless, one particular attack stands out more than the rest: the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 on November 27, 1989. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Popeye seems to have no regrets, even suggesting that the bomb "was a work of art."
The bombing was a culmination of Escobar's ongoing tussle with presidential candidate César Gaviria Trujillo, who was in support of a controversial mooted law that would allow for the extradition of Colombian cartel members to the US to face prosecution.
Believing Trujillo to be on the flight, Escobar tricked a young man into carrying the briefcase with the bomb on the plane, detonating it mid-flight as it took off from the Colombian capital Bogotá en route to Cali. The resulting explosion killed all 107 people on-board and was the deadliest single criminal attack in decades of violence in Colombia.
While Gaviria was supposed to be on the flight, he decided not to travel at the last moment over concerns raised by his chief of security.
The attack angered the Columbian public, who at the time was in support of Escobar, and turned them against him. They wanted a head to roll and police eventually arrested low-ranking sicario Dandenys Munoz Mosquera, who received multiple life sentences for the bombing.
Popeye's testimony eventually exonerated Mosquera and details of the bombing began coming to light, and in the recent interview, he explained further how they planned the attack. Now 56, the sicario said they tricked the young man by telling him he would only be recording a DEA agent's conversation.
He couldn't stop gushing about the briefcase — which was designed by cartel members Carlos Urquijo, also known as 'El Arete,' and Carlos Castano Gil — used to carry the bomb. "That briefcase was a work of art," he said. "Castano deceived a young man and told him that he should open his briefcase in the air when the plane took off and began to climb."
"He told him that the briefcase held a tape recorder and that, when he opened it, the device would be activated to grab the conversations of certain passengers," he continued. "That there were some Americans aboard, and the mafia needed to know about an extradition case they were carrying out. The dupe had already held a briefcase with a complex recorder in his hands and saw how it worked. Castano had already given him several examples, to deceive him more easily. When the briefcase opened in the air, the bomb was activated."
Popeye also explained how the cartel had used bomb-making experts from Britain, Israel, and Spain, as well as paramilitaries to instruct their hitmen, and how they took several factors into consideration while designing and constructing the explosive device.
"Cuco, an electronics engineer, had learned that trick from an explosives designer of the [Basque separatists] ETA." he revealed. "Carlos knew I’d bought the ticket for the duped young man and got him just the right seat. We were all aware that, if the bomb exploded in the wrong place, it wouldn’t ignite the plane’s fuel tanks, and the captain could save the plane."
He went on, "So we created a domino effect with the fuel stored in the wings of the plane, the dynamite in the briefcase and the pressurization of the aircraft — a lethal composition. The plane was totally destroyed, but the candidate lived. Maybe his guardian angel saved him that night."