It is not often that you get to meet a man who has personally taken more than 250 lives and was involved in the torture and murder of thousands more. It is even rarer to see such a man in broad daylight, in a city centre enjoying public adulation. John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, a.k.a. Popeye, is a local celebrity in Medellin, Colombia. In the 80s, the city was home to Pablo Escobar’s infamous, and extremely powerful, drug cartel. Popeye was the kingpin’s ‘hitman’.
The Medellin Cartel, which operated from the mid-1970s to early 1990s, reached its peak under Pablo Escobar when it became even more powerful than Colombia’s Government. It made tens of billions of dollars trafficking cocaine and committed tens of thousands of murders, many through terrorist attacks in Colombia. Pablo Escobar was named the richest and most powerful drug lord in the world.
Throughout his criminal career and on Escobar’s orders, Popeye kidnapped, tortured, killed and maimed. He planted bombs and terrorised thousands, from law enforcement officials to criminal competitors. Many innocent civilians became victims of the drug war as ‘collateral damage’. There are still people suffering long term consequences after the atrocities he and his accomplices committed; some were disabled, others bereaved. Popeye, however, is unrepentant, adamant that he has paid his debt to society. After spending 23 years behind bars, he is now a free man. His criminal expertise lands him roles in popular television shows and films. Some, who were not personally affected by his crimes, treat him as a film star, others see him very differently.
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