When John Jairo Velásquez worked as one of Pablo Escobar’s most feared enforcers, he’s went by the name Popeye. Decades later, he’s switched up both his nickname and his mission. He’s now Popeye Arrepentido, or Remorseful Popeye, and rather than gunning down rival gang members for the world’s most brutal drug lord, he’s making YouTube videos meant to discourage violence.
It’s a remarkable turn for a man who was considered Escobar’s chief hit man during the height of the Medellin cartel’s reign. Velásquez estimates that he personally killed “at least 250 people, maybe 300,” and ordered thousands more murders. “At that level, you don’t count anymore,” he told AFP in December.
Velásquez was Escobar’s lead sicario for seven years, from 1985 to 1992. Then he hit 30, fell in love, and walked away from the cartel. He was soon arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison, where he began meeting with a therapist in an effort to change his ways. It must have worked. He was released in 2014, seven years before his sentence was set to end.
What does a bloodthirsty killer do for an encore? Become a YouTube star, of course. Velásquez set up a channel that has grown to 100,000 subscribers in nine months, enough to provide him with a steady income, if a modest one by the standards of the global drug trade. His videos are fairly long dissertations on contemporary Venezuelan politics, tales from his former life of crime, and, of course, reminiscences about the man he still calls “boss.”
“Pablo Escobar Gaviria was a murderer, a terrorist, a drug trafficker, a kidnapper and an extortionist. But he was my friend,” he said last year.
Velásquez’s newfound celebrity is not sitting well some of the people affected by his brutal stint as Colombia’s most violent man. “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,” the father of a man killed in the 1989 bombing of Avianca Flight 203 told The Guardian.
But Velásquez seems less interested in atoning for his sins than in making a living. His YouTube income, he told The Guardian, is “clean money from honest work.” Certainly, there are worse alternatives.