Colombia: pending presidency 'between two populisms'

Following a first round of presidential elections May 29, "between two populisms" is the catchphrase being used by Colombia's media for an unprecedented moment. A pair of political "outsiders" are to face each other in the June 19 run-off: Gustavo Petro, a former guerilla leader and Colombia's first leftist presidential contender, versus Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate whose pugnacious swagger inevitably invites comparison to Donald Trump. Hernández, an independent candidate and the former mayor of Bucaramanga, rose precipitously in an ostensibly anti-establishment campaign driven by social media, winning him the epithet "King of TikTok." But Colombia's political establishment is now lining up behind him to defeat Petro. The former mayor of Bogotá and a veteran of the demobilized M-19 guerillas, Petro is the candidate of a new progressive coalition, Colombia Humana, emphasizing multiculturalism and ecology as well as more traditional social justice demands.

Early polling had favored former Medellín mayor Federico "Fico" Gutiérrez, running on the ticket of Equipo Por Colombia, a coalition of the country's more traditional political parties, including the once-hegemonic Conservatives and Liberals. But he was overtaken by the upset surge for Hernández. 

Despite railing against official corruption, Hernández himself is under criminal investigation by the Prosecutor General's office for allegedly intervening as Bucaramanga mayor in a garbage collection contract to benefit a company that his son had lobbied for. Hernández, of course, says the accusations were trumped up to derail his presidential bid.

But Hernández has faced other scandals. In 2019, he resigned as mayor after being censured by the Prosecutor General for improper participation in politics while in office. He also got in hot water for slapping a city council member and calling him a "son of a whore." He has openly called himself a "follower of Adolf Hitler," and says he will declare a state of emergency if elected. (Cuetión Pública, Bogotá, June 3; El Heraldo, Barranquilla, June 2; El Colombiano, Medellin, Reuters, Colombia Reports, May 31; NYT, May 30; WOLA, May 25; Council of the Americas, May 20; Bloomberg, April 27)

On the ongoing armed conflict and narco-violence, Hernández says he will take a "zero impunity" approach to crime, and beef up the security forces to retake areas "where armed actors exercise forms of political and territorial control."

Petro, in contrast, would reform the security forces and purge their leadership at the highest levels, do away with military conscription, and revise the "national security doctrine." He says the "war on drugs" has been a failure, and calls for re-focusing enforcement efforts from peasant producers and low-level couriers to the financial and business sectors that facilitate trafficking and launder the proceeds. (El Tiempo, Bogotá, May 31) 

Violence and irregularities
While Colombia's Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) ultimately said the polls passed muster for legitimacy, the MOE reported over 400 possible irregularities. The Defensoría del Pueblo, the official human rights monitor, reported that 521 of Colombia's 1,123 municipalities were vulnerable to violence that could interfere with the vote, especially naming the departments of Cauca , Nariño and Chocó. In Vista Hermosa, Meta department, poll worker Nelly Bedoya Vásquez was killed, apparently by a "dissident" faction of the FARC guerillas. (Contagio Radio, June 1; El Espectador, Bogotá, May 31; El Colombiano, May 29; El Tiempo, May 20)

In the Montes de María region of Bolívar and Sucre departments, community leaders reported that the Clan del Golfo criminal network was threatening campaign workers with the Pacto Histórico, the broader coalition of Colombia Humana and other parties supporting Petro's candidacy. (El Tiempo, May 6)

Immigration authorities also appeared to interfere with the entry of election observers. Three were deported, while two were barred entry to the country at the Bogotá airport, and only allowed to proceed following intervention by the MOE. (Cambio, Bogotá, Contagio Radio, May 26)

Death threats against Petro
After launching his candidacy last year, Gustavo Petro began receiving threats—and these only escalated as the campaign proceeded. In early May, Cuestión Pública reported that a criminal band known as "La Cordillera" had hired three sicarios to assassinate Petro at a campaign stop in Dos Quebradas, Risaralda department. (Contagio Radio, May 3; El Espectador, May 2)

Petro's running mate Francia Márquez, an Afro-Colombian environmental campaigner from Cauca, reported that pamphlets threatening her with death, signed by the Aguilas Negras paramilitary group, were appearing around the country. She called on incumbent President Iván Duque to take measures to assure her protection. (El Espectador, March 28)

In the wee hours of April 11, the Bogotá offices of the Petro-Márquez campaign were breached by unknown intruders, who broke wndows and overturned furniture. (El Espectador, April 16)

Other controversies
One of Petro's most prominent supporters, Piedad Córdoba, a longtime leader of Colombia's left recently elected to a senatorial seat, was detained by authorities in Panama on May 25, accused of attempting to fly out of the country with $68,000 in undeclared cash. Petro has since been distancing himself from his longtime ally. (El Colombiano, May 31; El Colombiano, May 27)

Petro won some unlikely support with his proposal for a "social pardon," a wider amnesty than that allowed under the current special justice system established by the peace process. Salvatore Mancuso, notorious patriarch of Colombia's far-right paramilitary movement, issued a letter expressing his approval of the idea. Mancuso completed a prison term in the United States in 2020, but is still being held by US authorities as he fights a Colombian extradition request. He has testified to Colombia's Peace & Justice Tribunal via video link from his prison cell in Atlanta, Ga. (CNN Español, May 30; Caracol Radio, May 27; InfoBae, May 26; El Espectador, April 27)

Rodolfo Hernández implicates Gustavo Petro in assassination plot

Having fled to Miami, citing a supposed plot to kill him, Rodolfo Hernández has now flipped and says he will return to Colombia. On Twitter, he accused Gustavo Petro of of leading a "criminal gang" that is "willing to do anything to get to power." (Colombia Reports)