Ex-Pablo Escobar enforcer who killed 300 seeks new career as YouTube star

John Jairo Velásquez, who ordered the deaths of thousands in Colombia, has upset victims’ relatives, though he says his channel aims to discourage crime

During his time as Pablo Escobar’s most feared enforcer, the man known as Popeye killed around 300 people, ordered the murder of thousands more, and masterminded some 200 car bombs during the Medellín cartel’s war against its rivals and the Colombian state.

Now, after more than two decades in prison, John Jairo Velásquez is attempting to recast himself as a YouTube star.

Through his channel Popeye Arrepentido (Remorseful Popeye), Velásquez says he is trying to warn young people away from a life of crime – but his newfound celebrity has caused distress and offence to some relatives of his victims.

Paroled in 2014 after 22 years in prison, Velásquez started his YouTube channel earlier this year at the suggestion of a friend. “From one moment to the next I had 1,000 followers, then 2,000,” he says, in a telephone interview from Medellín.

Nine months later, his channel has more than 100,000 subscribers: some way behind the site’s biggest stars, who count their followers by the million, but enough, he says, to earn a modest income.

His video posts open with a with slow motion shot of a flying bullet. “It may seem like an glorifying crime but it’s to attract young people,” says the man whose confessed crimes include ordering the bombing of a commercial airliner in which 110 people died.

Pablo Escobar with John Jairo Velasquez, known as Popeye
Pablo Escobar with John Jairo Velásquez, known as Popeye. Photograph: Facebook

“There is a certain degree of morbid curiosity about the killings, especially from young people,” he admits.

Although Velásquez was only convicted over one murder – the 1989 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán – he has claimed responsibility for thousands of deaths, including some those of about 500 policemen who were shot in return for a cartel bounty.

In one posting, the brother of a murdered police officer asks Velásquez when he will meet the families of his victims. “That’s a painful question for me,” Velásquez answers. “It’s important that we could meet so I can ask for your forgiveness face to face and accept my responsibility.”

Velásquez claims he dedicates 14 hours a day answering questions sent to him, recording new posts and fielding questions from researchers into the underworld.

He still refers to Escobar as “my boss”, although at the start of one post in which he recounts the capo’s life, he offers a disclaimer: “Before I start I want to say that everything Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria did was bad. It’s important that new generations don’t get fixated on the figure of Pablo Escobar and even less on mine. We should not be a model for anyone. We are bandits.”

Velásquez’s most widely seen post is a rant against Diosdado Cabello, a former speaker of the Venezuela legislature, entitled From Bandit to Bandit, which has more than 751,000 views. In it he unleashes sharp criticism against Cabello and the Venezuelan government.

Some of those who suffered Popeye’s crimes are troubled by his newfound celebrity.

Screengrab of youtube channel of John Jairo Velasquez, known as Popeye
A screen shot from John Jairo Velásquez’s YouTube channel. Photograph: Youtube

Gonzálo Rojas, whose father was on board Avianca flight 203 when it was destroyed by a cartel bomb, sees the former hit man’s YouTube channel as an affront to all his victims.

“It’s a slap in the face for us for him to present himself now as an expert, a consultant, when he hasn’t shown any remorse for what he did to us,” says Rojas, who adds that when he tried to approach Popeye to seek some answers, he was told to talk to his “manager”.

“He’s become a celebrity because of his crimes,” Rojas says,

Velásquez, who at the height of his power was paid as much as $1m for a high-profile murder, says he squandered much of his fortune on protection payments while in prison. What’s left he has had to deposit into an account through a front man because no bank will open an account for him.

With the YouTube channel, he hopes to make a living. “It would be clean money from honest work,” he says.


Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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