The man known as J.J. to his friends and Jhon Underpants to his rivals was a no-show at his campaign closing rally this week.
Instead, Jhon Jairo Torres, the 38-year-old owner of a chain of lingerie stores who is in a heated race to become mayor of this town in Colombia’s heartland, was sitting in a Bogotá jail on charges that he built his own city — illegally.
Colombians will vote Sunday for thousands of governors, mayors and city council members in an election that’s largely being driven by local issues. As peace talks with the nation’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, inch forward in Cuba, election observers say campaign violence has plummeted. This year, only six candidates have been killed and one is missing, compared to the 41 who were murdered in 2011.
But the lull in violence has only made ongoing fraud and corruption that much more visible.
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The Electoral Observation Mission, or MOE, a civil society group, found almost half the candidates running have either lied about or obscured their finances, and some 1,020 had their eligibility revoked after they launched their campaigns. In addition, election authorities annulled more than 1.6 million voter IDs citing irregularities.
And while the eyes of the nation are focused on big races like the mayor of Bogotá and Medellin, this rural department, Casanare, is one of the many centers of the electoral storm.
“This year the lid came off,” Héctor Gómez, a researcher with the MOE in Yopal, said. “The thirst for power is on the streets.”
One indication of that thirst is the price for a ballot. During legislative elections in 2014, a person might charge 50,000 pesos to vote for a candidate, he said. Now the starting price is 80,000 pesos, or about $28.
In truth, the department has never had a stellar reputation. The convergence of ranchland, oil-wealth, guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary organizations, have weighed heavy on politics. Since 2010, the department has burned through nine governors amid waves of corruption scandals and revelations of ties to paramilitary leaders.
Into this turmoil came Jhon Jairo Torres, a flamboyant entrepreneur seemingly rife with contradictions. He ran a subsidized restaurant for the poor and has plans to build the world’s largest Bible near town. But he also has a life-size statue of Pegasus in the lobby of his hotel and has been known to drive a restored U.S. Army Jeep with a fake, but hyper-realistic, M-60 machine gun mounted on the hood.
Beneath the antics, even his rivals concede Torres is a tenacious businessman. And about 30 minutes outside of Yopal is his most ambitious plan: a low-income housing project called La Bendición, or The Blessing, that organizers say will be home to almost 5,000 families.
Residents brag that La Bendición has more amenities than the department’s capital. There are orderly rows of street lights and broad avenues — albeit unpaved. Trash is collected three times a week. But La Bendición’s biggest draw is a massive treatment plant that provides potable tap water. In Yopal, a city of 140,000, when water is available it often has to be boiled to make it safe, and cases of hepatitis and other water-borne diseases are rampant.
But authorities say there’s one major problem with the new city: the whole thing is illegal. It’s built on land embargoed by the government and local media have reported that it’s under investigation for having passed through the hands of front-men for paramilitary leaders and a developer with ties to a narco-trafficker. Authorities say Torres doesn’t hold the title to the property and hasn’t been granted permits to sell lots or dig wells.
On Oct. 14, just 11 days before the election, he was detained and charged with “illegal urbanization.”
Carlos Cárdenas, a former senator and Torres’ political adviser, says this is just the latest attempt to sideline Torres. Initially, the registrar’s office denied that his Movimiento Social La Bendición party had collected enough signatures to be eligible for the race. After a long fight, the ruling was overturned. But just 10 days later, Torres was arrested on the real-estate charges.
Cárdenas says Torres’ only crimes are taking on corrupt politicians and “helping tens of thousands of families.” Despite being in jail, Torres is still on the ballot because no firm conviction has been handed down. In that sense, Cardenas predicted the jailing would only help Torres’ chances.
“The more my father might tell me not to be with a woman I love, the more I will be with her,” he explained. “And the people have fallen in love with Jhon Jairo.”
Few of Torres’ critics are willing to talk on the record, saying they’ve been threatened in the past for digging too deep. But they say the traditional political class is wary that La Bendición is a powerful get-out-the-vote machine. Before his arrest, Torres made clear that once he became mayor he would legalize the development.
In essence, Torres is holding at least 10,000 votes hostage with the promise of legal titles, said one local businessman who wished to remain anonymous.
“[Corruption] is more dangerous than the guerrillas,” he added, “because it can steal elections, which are the most democratic act of a people.”
Cesar Martinez, 27, bought a lot in La Bendición one year ago with a deposit of $137. He will make monthly payments of $68 for the next decade to pay it off — less than he was paying for rent. He said he plans to vote for Torres despite the legal problems, because the man had made good on his word of draining swamps, building a sewage system and providing water to the community.
“I hear if he wins, he’s going to pave the road,” he said.
Journalists often rely on the cliché of the political Wild West. But here, surrounded by cowboy culture, it seems appropriate.
Josue Alirio Barrera, a leading gubernatorial candidate backed by popular former president Alvaro Uribe, has boasted he’s going to jump straight “from the saddle to the governor’s seat” and use his horse-breaking skills to break corrupt politicians.
Uribe, now a senator, has been storming the nation raising support for his candidates. In the past, security was the dominant issue in Casanare and Uribe’s tough talk against the guerrillas was enough to mobilize voters. During the 2014 presidential race, which was considered a referendum on peace talks, Uribe’s candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga won an overwhelming 78 percent of the vote here, despite losing nationally.
While hawk talk is still part of Uribe’s stump speech, anti-corruption has taken center stage. But even his Centro Democrático candidates seem wary of taking on Torres.
Arcenio Sandoval, Torres’ rival for the mayoral seat, said he supported the people of La Bendición, “whose only aspiration is to have a roof over their heads.”
“Rest assured that this was a political maneuver by the political machinery that we are all facing,” he said of Torres’ jailing. “And now they’re going to be aiming their cannons at me.”
If Torres’ detention was a political maneuver, it may have backfired. On Sunday, at his closing rally, thousands of people took to the streets demanding his release.
Carlos Hernández, 51, said “J.J.” had built houses for the poor and taken them water without ever holding public office. “Imagine what he could do as mayor?” he asked.
“I don’t give a s*** if he never serves a day as mayor,” he said of a potential court ruling. “I’m still voting for him.”