BUCARAMANGA, Colombia — The foul-mouthed former mayor was known for insulting his employees, calling them fat, lazy and stupid. He was once suspended for slapping a city councilman in the face, was charged with giving out improper contracts and was recorded saying he was a follower of “a great German thinker — Adolf Hitler.”
Now Rodolfo Hernández is poised to be Colombia’s next president.
As the slight 77-year-old walked through a convention center he built here as mayor, the crowd swarmed. Men elbowed their way up to take selfies; women pulled him in for kisses on the cheek.
Less than a week earlier, Hernández, a political outsider with little national name recognition, stunned Colombia with a second-place finish in the first round of the country’s presidential election. Running a self-funded campaign from this midsize city nine hours from the capital, he packed no plazas and participated in few public debates. And yet last week he beat out the conservative candidate backed by the political establishment that has governed the country for generations.
Now he’s running neck-and-neck in the second round with Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who is trying to become the country’s first leftist president.
The two anti-establishment candidates have captured a discontent that’s roaring across a region crushed by the pandemic as voters punish incumbent presidents and demand someone — anyone — different. Hernández has campaigned on a single message: Kick out the corrupt politicians.
“Almost all of them are robbers, thieves, scoundrels, delinquents,” he told the audience.
As a wealthy builder with an ever-present comb-over, a penchant for populist diatribes and no filter, Hernández has drawn comparisons to former president Donald Trump. But Hernández is a distinct phenomenon. With the help of a team of social media wizards in their 20s, he has made himself the self-proclaimed “King of TikTok.” He has charmed young people with his quirky videos, posing in sunglasses, doing sit-ups or dancing to reggaeton remixes. He comes off as your straight-talking grandpa with a sailor’s mouth who can say just about anything — and get away with it. (He insists that when he praised Adolf Hitler he really meant to say Albert Einstein.)
“We’re at a point where it doesn’t matter what Rodolfo does or says, the people applaud him,” said Danovis Lozano, a member of Bucaramanga’s city council. “Each scandal catapults him even more.”
He rarely talks policies or plans. He admits he doesn’t know the country well, but he doesn’t think it matters. Neither, it seems, do his supporters. Asked during the campaign to send a message to Vichada, an eastern department, he replied that he didn’t know where or what it was. Yet in the first round last week, he won the most votes in Vichada.
Lozano, 28, once admired the mayor for rooting out corruption in Bucaramanga and making it easier for young people like him, with no political machinery behind him, to serve on the city council. But last week he became one of the first council members to publicly support Petro. “My biggest fear with Rodolfo,” he said, “is we don’t know what he’s going to do.”
His voters seem willing to take the gamble.
An internet technician working in Hernández’s luxury apartment in Bogotá asked to take a photo with the candidate. Hernández asked the man why he was voting for him. “I’m tired of all the crap,” he said. “I don’t like politics, but I see that with this man, things can really change.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Hernández described his effect on supporters as “messianic.” He then went on to compare them to the “brainwashed” hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001.
Was comparing his supporters to terrorists a bit problematic?
“No, no, I’m not comparing them,” he told The Post. “What I’m comparing is that after you get into that state, you don’t change your position. You don’t change it.”
A powerful matriarch
Drive into Piedecuesta, Hernández’s hometown in northeastern Colombia, and you’re greeted immediately by a roadside billboard of the smiling candidate, pointing at you.
“Piedecuestans vote Piedecuestan,” the advertisement advises. The town, tucked in a valley between lush green mountains, saw some of the bloodiest battles of the Thousand Days War in the early 1900s. Its people still boast a tough, combative way of speaking. “We always sound like we’re fighting,” one Hernández family friend said.
Hernández’s grandmother, who became a widow at a young age, built her wealth from a cigar factory and a sideline in contraband, smuggling radios and other electronics across the border from Venezuela and bribing officials to stay quiet. Her daughter, Cecilia, inherited the factory and helped run a sugar cane mill on her property. She could be seen driving a large tractor around town.
Cecilia’s husband called her the “iron lady.” Once, after a fight, she says, she grabbed her revolver and fired two shots at him. The housekeeper screamed, asking if she had killed him. “Well, if he’s dead, we’ll bury him,” she said. (She had missed.)
She was a fiercely strict mother, encouraging her four sons to go to college, work hard and save money. When Hernández was around 12 and causing trouble at a school ceremony, she says, she slapped his mouth so hard it bled all over his uniform.
As a developer, Hernández would amass a fortune reported at $100 million, constructing at least a third of the houses in Piedecuesta. Many were small homes for lower-income families in densely packed neighborhoods with only pedestrian paths, a design that some say led to a lack of privacy and safety.
“He got rich off of the poor,” said Edson Velandia, a well-known musician from Piedecuesta who grew up in a small home built by Hernández’s firm.
As his wealth grew, his family became a target of armed rebels in Colombia’s long conflict. His father was kidnapped and held for months until Hernández paid a ransom. When his daughter was abducted, Hernández decided not to pay the kidnappers, fearing it would put the rest of the family at greater risk. She was never found.
A mayor with a temper
In 2013, an idea was born: While drinking coffee with his brother and a group of friends, Hernández railed against the political elites running the city. The brother, Gabriel, asked: Why don’t you run for mayor?
Gabriel became the architect behind Hernández’s surprise win in 2015. His platform focused on a core message: logic, ethics and aesthetic. “When you don’t steal, there’s more money to go around,” said Rodrigo Fernández, an adviser to Hernández when he was mayor.
Hernández managed to trim a budget deficit in Bucaramanga, at times through extreme cost-cutting. He limited toilet paper in city offices and once removed the chairs from the cafeteria so his staff would take fewer breaks, former employees said.
Hernández was charged by Colombia’s attorney general’s office with improperly giving out contracts for waste management to benefit his son. (He denies the accusations; a trial is scheduled for July.)
As mayor, he became known for his temper, vulgar language and insults to staff. He used a derogatory word to describe an employee who used a wheelchair, and he referred to city councilwomen as “whores,” according to people who were in those conversations. One former contractor with the mayor’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, said she worked for three months without pay. One day, she and a group of other female employees met with him to ask for a contract. “I’ll give you pay for only three months to see if you can go a little hungry and shrink those cheeks a bit,” Hernández allegedly said to one of them.
Hernández was so popular that his handpicked successor won in a landslide. But some supporters felt betrayed by his leadership.
During Hernández’s time as mayor, Gabriel stopped talking to his brother, infuriated by some of his appointments, relatives and family friends said.
One of Hernández’s key mayoral campaign promises was to provide “20,000 Happy Homes” to lower-income residents of the city. He gave out individual letters to his supporters pledging to give them each one. But he never followed through.
“He took advantage of us, the poor,” said Luz Dary Rivera, a campaign volunteer who now sells cookies on city buses to make money. She eventually ripped Hernández’s letter into pieces. “He tricked us.”