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The Colombian anti-corruption candidate with a checkered past

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Bucaramanga (Colombia) (AFP) – In October 2015, volunteers flooded a poor neighborhood in Bucaramanga, Colombia’s northeast, with thousands of pamphlets promising free houses if Rodolfo Hernandez, a millionaire engineer, was elected mayor.

He won the elections, but the free houses never came. Now, Hernandez is running for his country’s top job.

“Rodolfo came here with pure lies. And now he wants to be president? said Paulina Figueroa, a housewife from the targeted neighborhood, El Pablon, shaking her head.

She is still keen on Hernandez’s pamphlet, but explains to AFP that instead of having a house, she had to take out a loan, which she repays with half of her meager monthly income, to build a cabin. wood and zinc.

“Just another broken promise from a cheap politician,” added Jaime Nunez, a 57-year-old community leader, who received the same flyer and voted for Hernandez but continues to pay rent for squalid, overcrowded housing.

Although he failed to deliver on his ambitious promise, Hernandez remains popular with many in Bucaramanga, admired for his boldness and for building sports stadiums in impoverished areas during his 2016-19 tenure.

He donated his mayoral salary to social causes and lived off his self-proclaimed fortune of $100 million.

Hernandez was suspended as mayor for intervening in local elections and resigned shortly before the end of his term.

In the rest of the country, he is known for another act as mayor: slapping an opposition city councilor during a disagreement on camera.

“People love it”

Photos of a smiling Hernandez adorn many walls, cars and even restaurants in Bucaramanga.

“Rodolfo faced a corrupt political class that had practically enslaved the city and defeated it. That’s why people love him,” said Felix Jaimes, a fellow engineer who was Hernandez’s city councilman.

When Hernandez won the mayoralty, he overthrew a political class that had ruled for decades with its anti-elite stance and promises of social upliftment.

He now aims to do the same with the Colombian presidency.

Hernandez, who goes by the nickname “The Engineer,” made a surprise second place finish in a May 29 first-round ballot.

He will face leftist Gustavo Petro in a runoff on June 19.

Opinion polls show a tie between the two men, although Petro was the clear favorite going into the first round and Hernandez a distant third.

Jaimes claimed that the city council of Bucaramanga, where Hernandez did not have a political majority, had blocked his plan to deliver 20,000 free housing units.

Paulina Figueroa said she was promised a free house but had to take out a loan to build one instead Raúl ARBOLEDA AFP

But not everyone is convinced of The Engineer’s good intentions.

In a filing, retired Army Sergeant Saul Ortiz brings evidence of what he calls a “scam” against hundreds of military families who bought a housing project run by a Hernandez company, before he was mayor.

Ortiz told AFP that in 1995 he started paying off a house in Bucaramanga, but said that over time the company charged him around 30% more than the original price.

“The majority of homeowners lost their homes because they couldn’t afford this surcharge,” he said.

Ortiz said he was one of the few to seek redress from the courts and recover overpayments. He showed AFP documents supporting his claims.

But his house was flooded in 2005 as the project was built too close to the river bed, he said – another allegation for which he has documented evidence.

“The neighborhood was completely flooded, there was tons of mud, cars were damaged; people lost everything…they didn’t compensate us,” he said.

Containment walls are currently being built at public expense.

Hernandez “is not who he claims to be…he’s just another corrupt politician, one of those who drove Colombia into poverty,” Ortiz said.

“The King of TikTok”

Hernandez has largely focused his campaign on fighting poverty, which affects some 39% of Colombia’s 50 million people.

He pledged not to raise taxes, to reduce VAT from 19 to 10% and to increase social spending by reducing bureaucracy.

Hernandez blames government corruption for much of Colombia’s deep economic inequality, but is himself under investigation for “undue benefits” given to third parties when he was mayor.

Rodolfo Hernandez, 77, has 600,000 followers on TikTok
Rodolfo Hernandez, 77, has 600,000 followers on TikTok Juan BarretoAFP

Despite his checkered past, Hernandez appears to have a real shot at the presidency, with the mainstream parties putting their weight behind him to defeat Petro in a country deeply suspicious of the political left.

Unlike Petro, Hernandez hasn’t made any campaign tours or made any public speeches.

Instead, the self-proclaimed “King of TikTok” speaks directly to his electorate via the social media platform – where he has nearly 600,000 followers – and Facebook broadcasts.