BOGOTA, Colombia (AFP) — Pablo Escobar’s most notorious hitman, known by the nickname Popeye, died on Thursday at age 57 after a life of crime he celebrated on YouTube, Colombia’s prison authorities said.
Jhon Jairo Velasquez had boasted of killing hundreds of people for his “boss” Escobar, the infamous drug lord killed by Colombian police in 1993 while on the run to avoid extradition to the United States.
Velasquez spent 23 years in prison after surrendering to law enforcement authorities in 1992, but was arrested again in May 2018 on accusations of “conspiracy to commit crime and extortion,” prison authorities said.
He died at the National Cancer Institute in Bogota, where he’d been receiving treatment for stomach cancer since December 31, officials said.
Velasquez had been a close associate of Escobar as he ran a drug empire from Medellin that exported thousands of tons of cocaine to the United States, making him one of the richest men alive during the 1980s and 90s.
Escobar responded to efforts to extradite him with car bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations targeting political leaders, journalists and judges.
Escobar was shot dead by Colombian police on December 2, 1993, in Medellin, his home city.
In an interview with AFP in 2015, Velasquez claimed to have killed “at least 250, maybe 300” people at Escobar’s behest.
He also claimed to have ordered 3,000 hits, but authorities have questioned that figure.
Velasquez, who claims he got his Popeye nickname due to bulging forearms and a protruding chin that he’s since had surgery on, made a name for himself in prison for his eloquence and the tales he told of his life of crime.
Once out of prison, he launched his own YouTube channel called “Arrepentido” (“Repentant”), which had more than one million subscribers.
Many, though, including authorities, victims and mobsters have cast doubt over his importance within Escobar’s organization.
Former vice-president Oscar Naranjo recently told AFP that Velasquez’s true role was more as a “publicist for the criminal actions of the Medellin cartel.”
He was re-arrested in 2018 on the extortion charges, taken into custody at a party hosted by Colombia’s head of drug-trafficking investigations.
Army general Eduardo Zapateiro, a veteran of the fight against drug-trafficking, sparked uproar by paying tribute to Velasquez in a press conference.
“We present our sincerest condolences to Popeye’s family, today a Colombian died, what happened in his life happened,” said Zapateiro.
He later rolled back on those comments on Twitter: “Given his criminal activity and the pain he caused the Colombian people, whose scars have not healed, my only consideration and that of the institution is for the victims.”
Juan Manuel Galan, whose politician father Luis Carlos Galan was assassinated on Escobar’s orders in 1989, offered his condolences to “the thousands of families that this criminal destroyed.”
© Agence France-Presse