Medellin, the second biggest city in Colombia, former headquarters of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel, voted against the peace deal between the government and the FARC-EP by 63 percent—about 12 points more than the national average.
The “No” campaign was led nationally by former president Alvaro Uribe, whose close links with paramilitary groups have been well-documented in recent years, and in the case of Medellin, by former convicted drug-trafficker Jhon Jairo Velasquez alias “Popeye.”
Velasquez was Escobar’s chief assassin, who acknowledges having killed over 300 people, ordered the killing of over 3,000 people, including journalists, judges and activists.
Released two years ago after a 22-year prison sentence, the mobster recently got involved in national electoral politics, evoking at the end of June his wish to become a senator, representing what he called the “far-right.”
He said in an interview he identified himself with Uribe’s conservative party, but that he would likely not be accepted because of his criminal past. “I would join Senator Uribe if he asked me to,” he told W Radio.
With over 130,000 followers on his YouTube channel, and over 10 million visitors, Velasquez started a virulent campaign over the summer against the peace negotiations between the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which were closer than ever to reaching an agreement to put an end to over half a century of armed conflict.
But his hatred for the FARC-EP actually dates back to his career as Escobar’s chief assassin, when he participated in the systematic extermination of the Patriotic Union members—many former FARC-EP fighters— who had demobilized after a peace process to run in elections.
However, between 1985 and 2002, two UP presidential candidates were killed, eight senators, 13 lawmakers, 11 mayors, 70 councilmen and at least 5,000 party members at the hands of paramilitary groups, Colombia’s security forces and drug-traffickers, including Pablo Escobar’s cartel.
In the 1980s, Escobar contributed to the rise of Colombia’s main paramilitary group, the infamous United Self-Defense of Colombia, as they fought for him against the FARC-EP rebels. Before Fidel Castaño co-founded the AUC with his brother, he was a close friend of Escobar and started his career as a drug dealer in the Medellin cartel.
With this year’s peace deal and planned demobilization, the FARC-EP was taking a similar risk as the UP members in the 1980s had taken, as paramilitary groups declared decommissioned FARC-EP members military targets and evidence showed a strong surge in paramilitary violence in the country, targeting rural leaders and human rights activists with almost total impunity.
When voices from the past like Velasquez’s make themselves heard against the FARC-EP, followed by 62 percent of voters, it casts a gloomy shadow on the future of peace in Colombia.