On a sunny Saturday in February, two policemen on a motorcycle stop Jhon Jairo “Popeye” Velásquez as he walks down the driveway of a dilapidated mansion near Medellin, Colombia. The estate belonged to a former associate of late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was killed in 1993, reportedly by Colombian police aided by U.S. Special Forces. Velásquez, who worked for Escobar, is giving a tour of his old mob hangouts and discussing his future in film and politics. The beat cops aren’t here to arrest him. “We’re intrigued by him,” says the more boyish of the patrolmen, who was born the year Escobar was killed. “It’s really cool to hear the story.” If the officer had been born 20 years earlier, he might have been one of over 500 policemen Velásquez and other assassins from Escobar’s Medellín Cartel murdered in a bloody war against the Colombian government. Instead, he gives Velásquez his patrol number in case of emergency and the policemen ride away.
Velásquez is the former head hitman of Escobar’s now-defunct Medellín Cartel. He was released from a Colombian prison in 2014 after serving over two decades for drug trafficking, terrorism and the 1989 murder of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán. He claims to have killed 300 people by his own hand and helped orchestrate the deaths of over 3,000. He was released for good behavior after serving 23 years of his 30-year sentence. (Colombia has neither life sentences nor the death penalty.)
Since his release, Velásquez has become a controversial celebrity in Colombia and there are rumours that he’s still connected to the Medellín underworld. He has a YouTube channel called “Popeye Arrepentido” (Remorseful Popeye) with over 290,000 subscribers. His video blogs consist of politically charged diatribes against Colombian, Venezuelan, Mexican and US heads of state, documentaries about Colombian mafiosos and even his own narcocorrido – a narrative tune about his life. He’s penned two books that have sold a total of over 225,000 copies, and a controversial TV series about his life was released in February.
Now, the former assassin wants to relive his violent past by acting in movies too.
Sitting on the patio of a garden cafe, where middle-aged women perform outdoor yoga a few yards away, Velásquez, dressed in all black, explains how acting quenches his thirst for mob life. “I like to shoot and I like the mafia,” he says. “I like the adrenaline and I like crime. I no longer want to do it in the streets; I don’t want to kill anyone else. So I’ll do it in the movies.”
Currently in production, Velásquez’s new film, X Sicario Profesional (Ex-Professional Assassin), is a fictional story in which Velásquez’s character, Simón, a former mob hitman, is released from prison to find that the city’s new crime boss, Vladimir, wants him dead. To provoke Simón, the new mob boss kidnaps his niece and Simón is forced to rescue her and kill the enemy. Colombian filmmaker Adolfo X, known locally for his mafia flicks with primitive special effects and lots of sex and gore, directed the film.
Velásquez’s isn’t the first case of on-screen talent with possible ties to organised crime – several actors from the Italian film Gomorrah were arrested in 2008 for alleged links to the mafia, and Brooklyn native Tony Sirico, who played Paulie Walnuts on The Sopranos, was a former stick-up kid in Bensonhurst who was arrested 28 times between the 1950s and 1970s. But while others have tried to downplay their criminal ties, Velásquez is perhaps most interested in talking about his. “I went from being an assassin to an assassin in film,” he says. And in Medellín’s dark past, he sees an opportunity for his bright, cinematic future.
“They killed people at stoplights, in streets,” he recalls. “They dismembered people, beheaded people, took out their eyes, cut off their fingers. Medellín transferred that [experience] to film.” Velásquez is unapologetic about his past and according to him, movies and TV series about the Medellín mafia are successful because of the “magic surrounding the mafia life [the city] lived.”
“Everyone says, how are you going to make a movie with a gangster like Popeye?” he says. “I’m a legend. Let it hurt whoever it hurts. This legend is searching for a space in society through film.”
For some Medellín Cartel victims, however, Velásquez’s rising celebrity is a painful reminder of the past.
Gonzalo Rojas is the executive director of Colombia Con Memoria (Colombia Remembers), a foundation dedicated to the memory of victims of the drug wars. In 1989, when he was 10 years old, Rojas’ father was killed aboard Avianca flight 203, which was blown out of the sky near Bogota by the Medellín Cartel, killing all 107 people in the air and three on the ground. The cartel’s alleged target, a presidential candidate who was outspoken against the cartel, was not onboard.
“As victims of the Medellín Cartel, [Velásquez’s new TV series] is extremely tragic because [the creators] change the reality of what was really the life of [crime lords],” says Rojas. He argues that these types of series have a negative effect on society because they inherently glorify the bad guys.
They can also reopen old wounds. Rosalba Albes is a former police officer who lost her hand in a 1990 anti-kidnapping operation, when a young cartel member detonated a fragmentation grenade near her. “Generally I don’t like these types of programs,” she says. “I like to be at peace and it’s hard to remember these very painful times for Medellín and for many of our colleagues that died at that time. Their deaths hurt me profoundly.”
In the late 1980s, Escobar and his most prominent associates, known as “The Extraditables,” declared total war against the Colombian government in response to its efforts to extradite them to the United States. An estimated 4,000 people were slaughtered by Escobar’s assassins including judges, ministers, politicians, journalists and civilians in a terror campaign that was ultimately successful in blocking extradition in Colombia’s 1991 constitution. (It would later be reinstated in 1997).
Since Escobar’s death, there have been power struggles between criminal gangs, but Medellín has experienced relative peace. Homicides have dropped over 1,000 percent since their peak of 6,349 in 1991 and, in 2012, the city was named “The Most Innovative City in the World” by the Urban Land Institute. Colombia is also in the midst of a peace process to end the region’s longest-standing armed conflict.
Velásquez uses his celebrity to voice his distaste for the State’s peace deal with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the big screen and social media may just be his launchpad for far more ambitious goals.
“After film, I will head into politics,” says Velásquez, adding that he wants to become a senator with an anti-graft platform in a country where frequent, high-reaching corruption scandals have exacerbated the populace.
Velásquez is aware that Colombia’s Constitution does not allow for people with criminal convictions to hold public office. He argues that a recently signed peace deal with the FARC, which allows guerrilla leaders with prior criminal convictions (including drug trafficking) the possibility to enter politics, should also guarantee his right to hold office. He claims Escobar’s organization was an actor in Colombia’s internal conflict because it declared war against the state, and therefore he should get the same political concessions as FARC members.
Jairo Enrique Herrera Perez, a lawyer and constitutional expert at the Universidad Libre de Colombia, explains Velásquez “cannot even be considered a [political] candidate” because his crimes were not political in nature. While the Supreme Court ruled that the FARC’s drug trafficking is connected to their rebellion, Herrera says, Popeye and the Medellín Cartel’s acts of terror weren’t part of an armed conflict, but a means to amass fortunes, forward their own objectives and intimidate Colombian society.
Should politics fail, Velásquez threatens to go the way of 1980s drug traffickers and attack the FARC’s political wing. During failed peace negotiations in 1984, the FARC were granted political rights and formed the leftist Patriotic Union (UP) party. During the decade that followed, over 4,000 members of the UP were assassinated by right-wing paramilitaries, members of the army and drug traffickers.
“If the guerrillas take the political power that [current President Juan Manuel Santos] is giving them,” says Velásquez, “I’ll head to the mountains and confront all of them with a rifle and 500 men. It will be an army of the ultra-right.”
But as the day goes on, it becomes clear that there are still hearts and minds to win over in his country. Unlike his friendly encounter with the police earlier, Velásquez is not well received at the garden cafe and the manager asks Adolfo X to tell him to leave.
Velásquez complies, organizes his things and walks past the 40 or so spandex-clad, middle-aged women sprawled out on the cafe’s lawn, now holding their yoga positions awkwardly to get a glimpse of the former hitman as he retreats to the parking lot.
The interview is reconvened a few blocks away at Adolfo X’s apartment.
“They kicked us out like dogs,” shouts Velásquez between sips of lemonade. “[Those people at the cafe] are people of culture … They’re supposedly good people in society, but they’re not giving me an opportunity … Back in the day, if they’d kicked me out of the place, they all would’ve died … Today, we are peaceful, I have a new life.”
Back in his cartel days, Velásquez didn’t take rejection lightly. He claimed in a 2009 jailhouse interview, when he was denied entry into a popular nightclub, he took out a pistol, “killed the bouncer and pumped the place full of lead.”
It’s unclear if Velásquez is still capable of the atrocities he committed when he worked for Escobar, but two analysts close to the Medellín underworld, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, told of whispers that Velásquez is forming alliances with criminal gangs in Medellín.
“That’s false. I’m clean,” snaps Velásquez, refuting the rumors.
Whether or not acting alone will satisfy this former hitman’s appetite for mob life also remains unclear.
“I have my mafia soul; this you don’t ever forget,” says Velásquez proudly. “I’m looking for my second chance in society [through film]. If I don’t find it, the rifle is an option and the mafia is an option.”