The former head of the Medellin Cartel's hitman network has been released from prison, raising questions as to whether a man who is one of the most feared and blood-stained figures in the history of organized crime in Colombia can or should be reintegrated into society.
On August 26, Jhon Jairo Velasquez Vasquez, alias "Popeye," who has admitted to personally carrying out around 300 murders and participating in around 3,000, was released from prison after spending 22 years behind bars, reported El Colombiano.
The former hitman was sentenced to 50 years in 1992 for more than ten counts of terrorism, drug trafficking, homicide, and conspiracy to commit crimes, but was released after completing three-fifths of his sentence after receiving reductions for studying and working in prison. Velasquez has been ordered to complete 52 months of probation, during which time he will not be allowed to leave the country, reported BBC Mundo.
Given his extensive criminal history and cooperation with authorities in prominent cases -- including that of Alberto Santofimio Botero, the former minister accused of participating in the assassination of political leader and presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan -- Velasquez has said he fears for his safety, and asked for police protection during his release from prison, reported El Tiempo.
Velasquez has stated he would like to work with at risk youth in his new life. In an interview with Semana magazine last year, he said he wants to "teach young people in Colombia that there is no point in selling their lives for a Mercedes-Benz or for the panties of a beauty queen, like I did."
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Velasquez was an integral part of Pablo Escobar's reign of terror, and played a key role in the drug lord's bloody war against the state to avoid extradition, which included the 1989 bombing of a commercial airline flight that killed over 100 people. In addition to his involvement in thousands of murders, he also had a hand in the kidnappings of several prominent public figures and orcehstrated a bombing campaign.
His release raises questions about sentencing in Colombia and will likely not be well received by the thousands of victims of his actions, nor by those who remember the atmosphere of violence, fear, and lawlessness Escobar and his henchmen brought to much of Colombia. The timing could not be much worse, coming the week after Colombia marked the 25th anniversary of the death of one of Velasquez's most famous victims -- Luis Carlos Galan, the campaigning politician that refused to be cowed by the drug lord, and paid with his life.
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While some members of the Medellin Cartel were extradited to the United States and are currently serving lengthy prison sentences, Velasquez is not the only prominent figure to now be enjoying his freedom. Two of the Ochoa brothers -- who were some of Escobar's closest allies -- are free, while Escobar's alleged money launderer, Jean Figali, has built a business empire in Panama and has been accused of issuing death threats against the former Director of Colombia's National Directorate of Taxes and Customs (DIAN).