BOGOTA, Colombia -- As one of Latin America’s most sought-after and colorful political strategists, Miami-based Juan José Rendón has made a career out of keeping his candidates in the headlines and eviscerating opponents. But in Colombia’s increasingly heated political race, it’s Rendón who’s been bleeding in the press.
Rendón — better known as J.J. — stepped-down as the chief strategist for the reelection of President Juan Manuel Santos last week amid allegations that he had received $12 million from Colombian drug traffickers hoping to cut a deal with his employer. A few days later, former President Alvaro Uribe accused Rendón, a native of Venezuela, of funneling $2 million into Santos’ first election campaign in 2010.
On the phone from his high-rise apartment on Brickell Bay, Rendon, 50, called both the accusations “ridiculous” and blamed his arch-enemy Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro for being behind a smear campaign. According to Rendón, the Venezuelan government is trying to jeopardize his bid for political asylum in the United States.
Rendón and the Venezuelan government have been feuding for years and when he’s not working on political campaigns, he’s one of the administration’s most strident critics. A Buddhist whose promotional material describes him as a “warrior of thought and political marketing,” Rendón only wears black in public — mourning attire he says he won’t change until Venezuela reclaims democracy.
Venezuela’s administration has responded by accusing him of plotting terrorist acts, assassination attempts and calling him the “revolution’s number one enemy.” He has been accused of everything from being a CIA agent to starting a rumor about hair thieves on the streets of Maracaibo. Last year, Venezuela petitioned to put Rendón on Interpol’s wanted list on rape allegations. Upon reviewing the case, Interpol canceled the “Red Notice” two months later, according to documents submitted by J.J. Rendón & Associates.
By Rendón’s count, the government has made at least 198 accusations against him.
“Of course, they can never prove anything,” he said. “What they’re trying to do is scare off my clients.”
Rendón has made equally inflammatory claims against the Maduro administration. He told the Miami Herald that he’d recently received a report from a “U.S. security agency” that Venezuelan agents planned to kidnap him from Miami and smuggle him through the Bahamas and Cuba before putting him on trial in Venezuela.
He also says that Venezuelan agents tried to buy his silence with $110 million. When they asked him why he was smiling, he said it made him happy to turn down a bribe of that magnitude.
“This will be the go f--- yourself of the $110 million value,” he recalls telling them. “You keep doing your job of trying to destroy the country and I will keep doing mine of trying to save it.”
If the latest scandal seems to have nothing to do with Venezuela, Rendón insists it has to be seen within the broader context of Venezuela’s desire to silence him.
Less than 48 hours after the news broke in Colombia, Venezuela’s National Assembly, controlled by the ruling PSUV party, renewed calls for his extradition and asked authorities to open new investigations for treason, money laundering and terrorist financing.
“This has all the markings of a campaign to discredit me,” he said.
The latest blow came May 4, when Colombia’s Semana magazine reported that Javier Antonio Calle Serna, a drug trafficker who turned himself into U.S. authorities in 2012, claimed that he and three other drug dons gave Rendón $12 million to try to cut a deal with Santos prior to their detention. Rendón says he did meet with the traffickers’ lawyers and passed along their proposal to Santos but that he never accepted money.
A few days after the allegations, former President Alvaro Uribe — a one-time Santos ally-turned-foe who is backing presidential candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga — said that Rendón had put $2 million in dubious money into Santos’ 2010 campaign.
On Tuesday, Uribe was required to provide sworn testimony about the case before the attorney general. In a statement afterward, he did not provide any additional details about the case but accused Santos and his campaign of trying to intimidate him “just like in Venezuela, where the government uses the justice system to jail dissidents.”
Both Santos and Rendón deny Uribe’s claims and say his allegations are part of campaign-cycle dirty tricks.
“I think Uribe is being a useful fool,” Rendón said. “I think he’s making these accusations because of the hatred he has for Santos and his desire to boost the candidacy of Oscar Iván Zuluaga.”
A poll released Monday by the Centro Nacional de Consultoría is predicting a statistical dead heat in the May 25 race with Zuluaga garnering 24 percent of the vote to Santos’ 22 percent. Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa has 13 percent. The two top vote-getters will face each other in a June 15 run-off.
Zuluaga has been rising in the polls despite facing his own scandal. Last week, authorities detained a member of Zuluaga’s staff on espionage allegations, including hacking the emails of FARC guerrillas who are negotiating a peace deal in Cuba. Zuluaga is opposing those talks, which are the backbone of Santos’ reelection bid.
Rendón said he’s confident that Santos can win without him. And he’s also confident that his asylum case in the United States will prevail.
“I have a career that I’ve consolidated for years. For them to say that I’m accepting dirty money is ridiculous,” he said. “I’ve never even had a parking ticket.”