J.J. Rendon Overcame an Ex-President and an Incontinent Candidate to Engineer a Win in Colombia
It's been a chaotic summer for Colombians. First, they watched their national soccer team win four straight games at the World Cup. Then los cafeteros were cruelly denied a trip to the semifinals by Brazil and a bogus referee.
While Colombia was uniting around its team, however, it was also being pulled apart by cutthroat politics. The June 15 presidential election was so dirty it deserved a red card. There were defections, accusations of bribery, and a candidate who publicly pissed himself. The only thing that wasn't surprising was the man at the center of it all: J.J. Rendón.
Rendón is the Western Hemisphere's most infamous political strategist. From his home in Miami, he has engineered electoral landslides for conservative candidates from Mexico down to his native Venezuela. Critics routinely accuse him of orchestrating smear campaigns. He says he plays fair. Either way, "this was the toughest campaign ever," he tells New Times.
Rendón spends much of his time in Miami digging up dirt on Venezuela's socialist government, which has declared him persona non grata. But this spring he shifted his attention to Colombia, where President Juan Manuel Santos was running for re-election. Four years earlier, Rendón had helped Santos — handpicked by then-President Álvaro Uribe as his successor — crush Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus. Now Santos wanted his help again.
During his first term, Santos had distanced himself from Uribe. Instead of Uribe's all-out war on FARC, Santos agreed to peace talks with the guerrillas. Santos, in turn, betrayed Uribe by backing his opponent, Oscar Zuluaga.
It was a setback for Santos, but nothing like the stain left a month later when, during a speech, the president pissed himself onstage. The incident went viral online. "It was a crisis," Rendón admits. "People are going to think he's dying or weak. How can we have a president pee himself against the FARC?"
So Rendón did what he does best: He spun the situation by revealing the president was recovering from a prostate cancer operation, bravely campaigning just days after surgery. "They were laughing at him for a week, and then we spun it back to show we were victimized,'" he says.
Just as Rendón was salvaging Santos' campaign, he suddenly became its biggest liability. Uribe, who once employed Rendón, now claimed J.J. had given $2 million in drug money to Santos' 2010 campaign. "It was crazy," Rendón says. Uribe also pounced when an imprisoned drug don claimed he had paid Rendón $12 million to help negotiate his surrender.
Rendón denied accepting drug money but flew back to Miami early to avoid media attention. "The first round [of voting] was totally disrupted by the scandals," Rendón says. On May 26, Zuluaga narrowly defeated Santos, but not by enough votes to avoid a runoff. For two weeks, Rendón worked from Miami to paint Uribe as a radical hellbent on undermining the peace process.
It worked, and on June 15, Santos beat Zuluaga by 6 percent. On one hand, Rendón, a man who makes his living off political brawls, doesn't really begrudge Uribe for "a little friendly fire." But he worries that Uribe's attacks only bolstered their common enemy: Venezuela. "Uribe attacked me to attack Santos," Rendón says. "But he was also doing the dirty work of the Chavistas without knowing it. If he had known, he would have never done that."
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