Popeye’s most distinctive trait is his arms: skinny biceps, huge forearms, and even bigger fists. If it was not for them, he would seem harmless, a pushover, a rather forgettable figure who Bluto would see no point in teasing.
Anywhere in the world the name “Popeye” brings to mind this fictional sailor with over-sized arms. Well, anywhere apart from Colombia, where a different, real-life Popeye is even more beloved. And just like the animated hero, he would come off as rather regular if it weren’t for his arms: his right is decorated in tattoos of skulls, the left with religious images. For him they symbolize death and life, the choice that everyone has between the two. For most of his life John Jairo Velasquez, or Popeye, has chosen the former.
“23 years earlier this regular-looking man was sentenced for killing 250 people and organizing the deaths of up to 3500 more.”
Velasquez is the subject of recent documentary Escobar’s Hitman. Apart from his hands, there is nothing distinguishable about him as he walks the streets of Medellin. And yet wherever he goes he is immediately surrounded by people asking him for pictures. He gladly poses for them, is cordial, patient and polite. 23 years earlier this regular-looking man was sentenced for killing 250 people and organizing the deaths of up to 3500 more. Now free, he is a local celebrity. He has authored two books, the second of which was turned into a yet-to-air series co-produced by Netflix. He has his own YouTube channel, which he uses to discourage crime and criticize politicians.
From the 1980s up until 1992 he did more than criticize them. Popeye was a member of the organization run by Pablo Escobar. To crush the drug lord’s empire, the Colombian government signed a treaty that allowed extradition of local hustlers to the US. In response Escobar’s people killed and kidnapped politicians and judges, so that they would change the law. This sort of control over the state is built into the premise of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which pits the player against a drug cartel called Santa Blanca in Bolivia, 2 years from now, which the cartel has turned into a narco-state. When Santa Blanca kills a DEA agent, the government sends in four ‘Ghosts’ to take down the whole organization. There’s not much point dwelling on the idiocy of the premise, as its sole purpose is to give the gamer a reason to kill a lot of bad guys and blow stuff up.
Clearly inspired by the story of Escobar’s organization, the game doesn’t address the more controversial aspects of its reign in Colombia – killing thousands of people while simultaneously exposing government corruption or helping the poor by giving them resources, jobs and, most of all, a purpose – and it clumsily handles even potentially emotional moments, like a teenager committing suicide because he failed his grandfather. It’s actually more fun to root for the villains that the player is supposed to take down, because they are simply interesting, as opposed to the bland Ghosts. Then again, this has long been a problem in games – the antagonists are just more fun, with Trevor Philips (GTA V) or Marcus Holloway (Watch Dogs 2) serving as notable exceptions.
“By commemorating the killer instead of the victims we are preserving his acts for another deranged mind to find inspiration in.”
In Escobar’s Hitman Popeye claims that people respond so warmly to him because he turned his life around, not because he killed for Escobar. The problem with this reasoning is that no one would be interested in him if he did not commit the acts in the first place. German sociologist Klaus Theweleit argues that by retelling a story about a murder we are actually not only keeping the name of the killer alive in questionable triumph, but in a way committing the same act as the killer. By commemorating the killer instead of the victims we are preserving his acts for another deranged mind to find inspiration in.
By simply creating a story based on the actions of Escobar and Velasquez, Ghost Recon: Wildlands fails as the opinion-influencing tool that it should be. Instead of interpretation or dialogue, it inspires nothing, which is just what the culture of violence craves. That’s not to say that games directly inspire real-world violence, or that the next Popeye is out there playing Wildlands right now, but repeating the same stories time and time again, while making the villains interesting and compelling, poses a risk that a real-life reenactment will eventually occur. In the case of violence, ignorance is approval. In the case of the killer it is quite the opposite.