He often describes himself as the “living memory” of the Medellín Cartel, but the truth is that Jhon Jairo Velásquez was an assassin for Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord. A murderer who has managed to trivialize his sins, he has become an internet sensation and, curiously, an activist for Colombia’s political right.
On April 1, Velásquez, alias “Popeye” or “J.J.,” participated in a march against corruption, along with other politicians. His involvement in the march was the culmination of an increasing closeness between him and the Democratic Center party of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the former president turned senator and main leader of the opposition to the current administration.
But not everything went quite as planned for the ex-hitman. Popeye summoned his followers to attend the march through a video in which he accused the current government of corruption. On the day of the demonstration, a video circulated on social networks showing how several protesters tried to expel Popeye from the march. The ex-hitman denied rumors he’d left the protest, saying that it was “black propaganda.”
Popeye, who spent 23 years in jail for terrorism, drug trafficking and homicide, has been a pioneer in using new information technologies to raise his profile to match that of other narco culture stars and to push for a rightist agenda — even despite his history as one of the main hitmen of the former leader of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar. He has confessed to murdering about 300 people, in addition to ordering the death of another 3,000.
Nowadays he aims to explain his grisly past by using the name “Popeye Repentant” on the internet, and he has thousands of followers across the continent and in Europe. He relies on a younger, international audience for followers, who may not have lived through the most violent times of the Medellín Cartel.
Popeye says that through the internet he wants to keep young people from crime and show them that drug trafficking only creates false expectations. But his content reads more like an apology for his past than a promotion of an alternative lifestyle.
Popeye’s rehabilitation has been helped by the mainstream media. Along with the Colombian television station Caracol TV, Netflix has launched a new series called “Alias J.J.,” based on the book Popeye wrote while serving his sentence, “Surviving Pablo Escobar.”
Netflix is the latest digital medium that has allowed Popeye to share his story on a mass scale. The ex-hitman talks about the series with pride and describes it as one of his “weapons” in his battle to reintegrate into society.
Before its release in Colombia, “Alias J.J.” had already caused controversy. On social media and in some other media outlets, a campaign circulated that asked the Caracol series be boycotted out of respect for the victims of the former hitman. Popeye has referred to attacks on the program as “black propaganda,” and in spite of the controversy, the series premiere achieved a relatively high rating.
“Alias J.J.” joins the list of narco series enjoying success because they provide the public with access to important parts of organized crime’s history. However, they have also served to ‘soften’ criminals.
The intention of “Alias J.J.” is to show corruption in the prisons of Colombia, as well as reflect the conflict and the criminal dynamics within them. But far from being a tale of repentance by the ex-hitman, the plot focuses on how Popeye manages to overcome every obstacle during his time in prison, which bestows him a kind of heroism.
When “J.J.” enters a jail in Bogota, he is vulnerable arriving at a place where most of the prisoners are his enemies. However, he is portrayed as someone with great ingenuity and combat skills who slowly manages to make alliances, escape death and challenge his enemies and the authorities.
For Omar Rincón, a Colombian television critic, the problem with the series is not that it tells the story of Popeye, but that it is done from a perspective that admires the criminal.
“If the script justifies everything this character did, there is a problem, because it would be showing that everything happened for a reason,” Rincón told Semana magazine. “Popeye should have no recourse for justification.”
Some relatives of victims of the Medellín Cartel agree and have expressed their opposition to the series, considering it a “tribute” to the former assassin.
Popeye and His ‘Warriors’
Before turning to television, Popeye was already famous on YouTube. The ex-hitman publishes videos on his channel almost daily and has more than 260,000 subscribers on the platform. The video dispatches always start with a dramatic animation of a bullet flying over fire, which Popeye claims helps him to attract young people. In his videos, which average 127,000 views each, Popeye talks about some of the history and myths of the Medellín Cartel, complains about corrupt politicians, gives his opinion about current drug trafficking situations and answers questions from the audience.
Like other successful YouTubers, Popeye has created a sense of community among his followers, whom he calls “warriors,” the same word he uses to describe Pablo Escobar.
Despite claims that he regrets his crimes and wants to use his channel to promote an alternative lifestyle to drug trafficking, his content says otherwise.
One of the things he does to show his regret is to repeat that the crimes committed by the Medellín Cartel “are not an example for the new generations.” But at the same time, he admits to continuing to admire Pablo Escobar, and conveys that admiration to his followers by sharing some of the lessons he received from the drug lord.
Gonzálo Rojas, a relative of a victim of the Medellín Cartel, believes that Popeye has not shown real remorse for the crimes he committed. In fact, only one video on his channel is dedicated entirely to the relative of a victim of the Medellín Cartel’s violence, and instead of showing regret, the ex-hitman brags that he has already been forgiven by the victim.
“This is the example that Colombia needs, for victims and perpetrators to forgive us,” says Popeye in the video, after ironically giving the young man a poster with pictures of members of the Medellín Cartel which reads “Wanted.”
Popeye has positioned himself politically via YouTube, and considers himself a “political activist.” Through his videos, he tries to win the sympathy of his audience by talking about corruption and trying to convince his followers that “the real criminals” are within the government.
When asked in an interview with journalist Salud Hernández if it seemed normal to him to have become a celebrity despite having killed so many people, Popeye explained that “being a famous assassin is an honor among the political class we have in Colombia.”
Popeye criticizes politicians from all over the region and manages to expose the discontent of his audience with Colombian rulers, which he uses to minimize his guilt and feed his image.
In the case of Colombia, the former assassin has strongly promoted the campaign of the Democratic Center party against the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which Popeye uses to oppose the current administration.
He has also said that he will take advantage of the transitional justice process to become a senator and attack corruption.
“If Timochenko [leader of the FARC] is going to have a seat, I also have the right,” he told the El Espectador.
Days before the protest on April 1, a photo circulated online of Popeye with ex-president Andrés Pastrana, who also supported the demonstration. The photo was taken in 2012 while Pastrana visited Popeye in prison to talk about his kidnapping in 1988. But when the photo when viral in late March on social media, it was interpreted as a sign of a increasing closeness between the ex-hitman and the right-wing party in Colombia.
As seen in the comments of his videos, this anti-corruption communication strategy has allowed Popeye to be seen by his followers as someone “brave” and who “says things as they are.”
“I express my full support … I love to know that there are honest people in the world who speak head-on without fear and with truth,” says one comment.
What the former hitman actually seems to be doing is forcing his audience to choose between the government or him — two sides he considers “criminals” — but he does not offer an alternative perspective.
In addition to YouTube, Popeye uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to generate a more personal form of communication with his audience. This allows him to promote his products, interact frequently with his followers and expand the scope of his message.
In his social networks he also describes himself as a “defender of human rights” and uses the moniker “legend” more than “repentant.”
His most popular account is “PopeyeLeyenda” on Instagram with 168,000 followers, where in addition to posting personal photos, the ex-hitman shares his complaints against corrupt politicians and occasional photos commemorating Pablo Escobar.
Popeye also uses Facebook frequently, especially to promote the episodes of his series. His cover photo says, “The legend that survived the streets of Medellin. Popeye Legend.” This is ironic considering thousands of people did not survive the ex-hitman’s acts — acts he claims to regret.
In his profile picture on social media, Popeye proudly shows off his forearm tattoo that says “General of the Mafia,” with which he continues to glorify his persona. This is the pose that the ex-hitman uses when taking pictures with his “fans.”