BOGOTÁ — Some days ago without expecting or wanting to, I saw Popeye. I'm not referring to the cartoon character but the chief henchman of the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Popeye, born Jhon Jairo Velásquez, was jailed between 1992 and 2014 for multiple murders. Now he has a second career as a YouTuber with almost 300,000 followers.
I was in a four-star hotel close to the Parque Lleras in El Poblado, one of Medellín's posh districts. I was with colleagues from Columbia University and a group of young artists when one of them pointed out that Popeye was sitting at a nearby table with two men.
Like your run-of-the-mill bandit or buccaneer, "Escobar's butcher" was dining with his small coterie. I could overhear the "mafia general" proclaim loudly how "in those days, we used to kill them off like rats around here." Observing the easy access one of Colombia's most ruthless murderers had to a hotel restaurant, I thought of the Sicilian mafioso Michele Greco who said, "I am not some 'mafia type,' I am a peasant."
Pablo Escobar shrine in Medellin — Photo: El Tiempo/GDA/ZUMA
Apparently, Greco had said it with such a natural air that one might assume he actually meant it. Steeped as he was in the mafia culture, he did not see anything criminal in extortion, kidnappings and killings nor in their contradiction to human values. The mafia boss saw his criminal activities as entirely normal. Indeed, the mafia was not so much a criminal organization as it was a set of shared ethics and culture feeding a particular society, with crime being just one of its more visible aspects.
Until the culture of mafia is stigmatized, this criminal phenomenon cannot be fought efficiently.
I was not so surprised, then, by the ease with which Popeye was holding court in that hotel — unlike some other guests. On a table nearby, some seemingly "respectable" people were moved when they recognized him and they sought his attention. He rose from his table and politely went to greet them, shaking hands with each person at the table and saying, "thank you, you're so kind."
Upon witnessing this scene, I thought about the attention we give to criminal icons like Pablo Escobar or Popeye, either criticizing them or perpetuating their legends through television and film. Indeed, the more we focus on these personalities, the more we help protect their surroundings or their system of values and practices, which in turn allow mafias to exist (whether here or in Sicily).
We see the mafia in business and in public institutions, inside and outside the law. Until the culture of mafia is stigmatized, this criminal phenomenon cannot be fought efficiently. Any changes would only be ephemeral.