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 a bunch of brutal Brazilians 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.
See also: J.J. Rendon is Latin America's Karl Rove
Rendón is the western hemisphere's most infamous political strategist. From his home here 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, with his black clothes and broad forehead, Rendón is viewed as the Dark Lord of Latin American politics. And yet, this past election pushed him to the limit.
"This was the toughest campaign ever," he told New Times. "It was tough, and in the middle of that fight, tough measures were taken."
Rendón spends much of his time in Miami digging up dirt on Venezuela's socialist government, which has declared him persona non grata and accused him of a laundry list of so-far-unproven crimes.
But this spring, as Venezuelan student protests sputtered, he shifted his attention to neighboring Colombia, where president Juan Manuel Santos was running for reelection.
Four years earlier, Rendón had helped Santos -- a porcine man handpicked by then president Álvaro Uribe as his successor -- crush Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus. Now Santos wanted his help once again.
This time, however, Rendón would have to overcome more than run-of-the-mill electoral season shenanigans.
During his first term, Santos had distanced himself from Uribe. Instead of Uribe's all-out war against FARC, Santos agreed to peace talks with the guerrillas in Havana. In February, a Colombian magazine reported that a secret unit inside the Colombian military had spied on the peace summit, probably for Uribe.
The former president denied it, but he nonetheless betrayed Santos 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 on stage.
The embarrassing incident went viral, threatening to turn the Colombian president into the laughing stock of Latin America.
"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? You cannot imagine the counterattacks."
So Rendón did what he does best: he spun the situation around on Santos's attackers by revealing that the president was recovering from a prostate cancer operation. He was hopped up on pain killers, bravely campaigning just days after surgery, the campaign argued.
"They were laughing at him for a week, and then we spun it back to show we were victimized," Rendón says. "People said 'it's not fair, move forward.'"
But just as Rendón was salvaging Santos's campaign, he suddenly became its biggest liability. Uribe, who once employed Rendón, now attacked his former strategist.
"It was crazy," Rendón says. "He said crazy things like: 'Someone told me that during 2010 J.J. Rendon gave $2 million from money that isn't clean, that was from the drug cartels, to the Santos campaign.'"
When media pressed the ex-prez for details, he claimed he couldn't reveal his sources, even to prosecutors. But with Zuluaga at his side, Uribe lambasted Santos as soft on cartels and too close to socialists in Venezuela. And when an imprisoned drug don claimed he had paid Rendón $12 million to help negotiate his surrender, Uribe pounced.
Rendón denied accepting drug money, admitting only to passing a letter from cartel lawyers to prosecutors. But the accusations disrupted Santos's campaign, and Rendón flew back to Miami.
Contrary to media reports, Rendón insists he didn't resign. But he admits that "the first round [of voting] was totally disrupted by the scandals."
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 six percent.
"In the end, the involvement of Uribe was very damaging for his candidate," Rendón says. "Uribe was a victim of his own huge interest in winning the election. He was so concerned with doing whatever it took to win, that he took false information and used it against me after we had been friends for years!"
On the one hand, Rendón, a man who makes his living off of political brawls, doesn't really begrudge Uribe for "a little friendly fire" during the campaign. 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."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.