A former enforcer for the Medellín drug cartel who has boasted of committing hundreds of murders on behalf of his boss, Pablo Escobar, is trying to rebrand himself as a sort of truth-telling evangelist in a series of Spanish-language videos he began posting on YouTube last year.
Imagine if the former Mafia boss John Gotti, who went to prison for murder and cultivated the public’s fascination with his flamboyant New York lifestyle and menacing charm, had a YouTube channel.
Imagine if he used that channel to become a video star by portraying himself as a penitent hit man and regaling viewers with tales of violence while seeking forgiveness for homicides past. For Colombians, the real-life equivalent of such an unlikely YouTube sensation can be found in John Jairo Velásquez.
He is a former enforcer for the Medellín drug cartel who has boasted of committing hundreds of murders on behalf of his boss, Pablo Escobar. Velásquez spent more than 20 years in prison for plotting the killing of a Colombian presidential candidate in 1989 and goes by the nickname Popeye.
Now, Velásquez, 54, is trying to rebrand himself as a sort of truth-telling evangelist in a series of Spanish-language videos he began posting on YouTube last year. The underlying message (there were 81 videos as of Sunday) is one of forgiveness.
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Now, he is known as Popeye Arrepentido, or Remorseful Popeye.
“It’s not about monetizing my life story but about telling the stories, the things that happened,” he said Sunday. “I’ve been famous for 30 years. I only want to have an opinion because I am an activist. I am against the Venezuelan and Colombian government. I am against Donald Trump because of his hatred of Latinos. I just want my opinion heard.”
His audience cannot seem to stop watching. The videos have gained more than 117,000 subscribers and 9.5 million views. The comments are filled with praise and admiration. One person signed off with “Hugs.”
But not all people are enthralled by Velásquez’s budding stardom — least of all the victims touched by the cartel’s acts of mayhem.
The son of one victim — a man who was among 107 people killed by a bomb planted by the cartel on a plane that exploded in 1989 over Bogotá, Colombia — said Velásquez’s popularity overshadowed the harm he had unleashed, The Guardian reported. The son, Gonzálo Rojas, said that the former hit man had shown no real remorse and that he was trafficking in a perverse sort of celebrity.
Vincent Gawronski, a professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., said in an email: “In a twisted way, we celebrate ‘successful’ criminals, even stone-cold killers in Hollywood movies, cable television shows and soap operas: ‘Scarface,’ ‘Blow,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ Netflix’s ‘Narcos.’ ”
Gawronski noted that nearly a dozen “narconovelas” had aired on Spanish-language television and that there were many “narcocorridos,” or ballads, celebrating drug traffickers. “We mythologize those that challenge authority and do whatever they want and get away with it,” he said.
He added: “Of course, Velásquez’s fame is directly tied to his relationship with Pablo Escobar. The stories he can tell will keep him popular, but they might also get him killed.”
In a video posted in October, Velásquez said he would always be an assassin. He boasted about his reputation on the streets and said he would never speak ill of Escobar.
“For me, Escobar was a terrorist, a drug dealer, a kidnapper — but he was also my friend; he treated me with kindness and respect,” he said. “He was the kind of man that would look you in the eyes and do what he says. Everyone knows what he was, but with me he was good.”
“I loved Pablo,” he said. “He never owed me money for any of my hits.”