Touring the prison set for Netflix show about famed Colombian assassin
Jhon Jairo Velásquez admits he has killed about 300 people and helped murder at least 3,000 more. When you’re a hit man for Pablo Escobar and the infamous Medellín drug cartel, that’s your job.
Now free after 23 years in prison, Velásquez has a new job: sharing his blood-soaked story in books, on television and in movies. And next year, Netflix is scheduled to begin broadcasting a 60-part Spanish-language series based on his life.
Since his release two years ago, Velásquez, who is better known by his gangland alias “Popeye,” has been busy. His YouTube Channel “Popeye Arrepentido” or, “Remorseful Popeye,” has racked up more than 15 million views. He has two best-selling books and says he is pitching three projects to Hollywood.
But his success is raising difficult questions about rewarding a man with so much blood on his hands, particularly in a country trying to escape its violent past.
Speaking from his home in Medellín, Velásquez, 54, said he doesn’t understand the dilemma.
“Do you prefer a Popeye who is living off his story, working from 6 a.m. to midnight?” he asked. “Or do you want a Popeye with a gun, trafficking cocaine, kidnapping the rich, setting off car bombs and fighting the police?”
He isn’t surprised by his newfound fame. “People aren’t supporting me because I’m an assassin. They’re supporting me because I’ve been rehabilitated.”
Even so, he recognizes that he is a controversial character. Colombia’s Caracol Televisión is making the series based on his book “Surviving Pablo Escobar — Popeye the Assassin,” which will be broadcast on Netflix. The company refused to deal directly with him, he said, but instead worked through his publisher.
“They didn’t want to contaminate themselves,” said Velásquez, who wouldn’t discuss the finances of the deal. “They didn’t want to have to say that they bought the book from an assassin.”
This won’t be the first time that Velásquez has seen himself on the small screen. In 2012, Caracol produced the blockbuster series “El Patron del Mal” or “Boss of Evil” about the life of Pablo Escobar. In that show, a character named Marino was loosely based on Velásquez. And portions of his life are scattered throughout Netflix’s current series, Narcos.
But this is the first time he will be the centerpiece of a show, and under his own name. And that’s troubling to some in a country that for years was known for its violent drug trade.
We can kill, kidnap and traffic drugs, because that’s what warriors know how to do. Or you can give us a YouTube channel or put us in a movie, and it’s very positive for society.
Jhon Jairo Velásquez, former hit man
On Nov. 27, 1989, the Medellín Cartel put a bomb on an Avianca passenger plane flying from Bogotá to Cali hoping to kill presidential candidate César Gaviria. He wasn’t on the flight but 107 other people were.
Gonzalo Rojas was just 10 when his father and all the other passengers died on that flight, and he resents the surge in narconovelas.
“The only thing these series have done is re-victimize the people who lived through violence,” he says. Most series tweak history for dramatic effect and whitewash the villains, he complained.
“They’ve turned Pablo Escobar into a historical figure,” he said. “Everyone is left with the impression of how powerful and rich he was, of all the women that he had. These shows distort people’s recollections.”
Colombia’s tragedy has become other people’s weekend entertainment, he said.
Asier Aguilar is the producer of the Caracol series about Velásquez. On a recent weekday, he was pacing the show’s 23,000-square-foot set built inside an abandoned flour mill to look like a prison. The series will tell the story of how Velásquez survived 23 years in jail at a time when the cartels, guerrillas and paramilitaries were killing each other inside the walls.
Caracol is expecting the story to be an international hit and is spending accordingly. Each of the 60 episodes costs about $150,000, or almost twice the rate of the standard telenovela, and it’s being filmed in cinema-quality 4K resolution.
If there was debate inside the company about bringing Velásquez’s controversial story to the screen, “I think that ended when Netflix became interested,” Aguilar said.
If it is a hit, Velásquez might become a pioneer of sorts, opening the doors for other underworld figures.
That’s particularly relevant now that the nation’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has hammered out a new peace deal with the government. Will FARC commanders like Timoleón “Timochenko” Jiménez or Iván Márquez — currently considered terrorists in the United States and Colombia — sell the rights to their stories?
Aguilar believes the guerrillas are still too toxic.
“I think [FARC] leaders are still not really accepted in general,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re going to see much interest yet.”
Though Velásquez is vocal about his hatred for the FARC, he suggested that a movie deal or other media platform could play a positive role in reintegrating the guerrillas.
FARC leaders “have incredible stories to tell because they’re violent people who have been at war,” he said. “And there are people in the First World who love to watch those stories.”
“Us warriors only have two possibilities,” he added. “We can kill, kidnap and traffic drugs because that’s what warriors know how to do. Or you can give us a YouTube channel or put us in a movie and it’s very positive for society. It lets us move forward in a world that has us trapped on all sides.”
While some U.S. states have “Son of Sam” laws to keep criminals from profiting on publicity for their crime, that’s not the case in Colombia.
Outlet and income
For Velásquez, social media has been an outlet and a saving grace.
White haired and fast-talking, the former hit man describes himself as “ultra right-wing” and uses his YouTube channel to savage the guerrillas, Venezuela’s socialists and anything else that has a whiff of the left. (Even so, he said he supported Hillary Clinton because Donald Trump “is a pig who denigrates Latinos and will lead the world to war.”)
But he’s also come to depend on social media as a tool to promote his projects and generate income. Since he emerged from prison, he says most doors are shut. He can’t get health insurance or even open a bank account. He tried working with a Medellín human rights commission and providing tours of the city’s seedier side but was shut down by the mayor’s office, he said.
Even so, he is hoping his foes in the FARC might inadvertently open doors for him. In their peace negotiations, they’re pressing to be allowed to participate in politics despite their crimes. Velásquez said that if they can run for office, he should be allowed to as well. (The initial peace deal was shot down by voters Oct. 2 in part because of the fear of guerrillas in government.)
If Velásquez has become a local media sensation, he is also taking risks by being such a public figure in a country that’s crawling with former victims and potential enemies. He complains that he is not allowed to own a gun or have an armored car.
“The reason I feel safe is because I’m not scared of dying,” he said. “To be above ground or below ground, it’s all the same. I’m with God, the Holy Spirit, the virgin, my guardian angel and Jesus.”’