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November 23, 2014
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New blow for Santos as election heats up

Colombia''s President and presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos greets supporters during a campaign rally in Sabanalarga, northern Colombia Sunday.
Colombian president’s campaign strategist resigns after allegations of links to drug-cartels

BOGOTÁ — Just three weeks before Colombia’s presidential election begins, President Juan Manuel Santos’ re-election campaign has been hit by yet another blow. His chief campaign strategist J.J. Rendón resigned on Monday night amid controversial allegations that he took US$12 million from some of Colombia’s top drug lords in exchange for helping to negotiate their surrender with positive terms.

To add to the bad news, his main rival for the presidency, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, gained support in the latest polls.

Rendon, a Venezuelan national opposed to the Socialist regime there, is one of Latin America’s most prominent campaign consultants and is credited with leading a series of underground attacks on rivals that helped Santos come from behind in a 2010 run-off to defeat Antanas Mockus.

The Colombian President called Rendón’s resignation a “gallant” gesture yesterday. Santos said he didn’t know whether Rendon received payments for his supposed mediation efforts but said he believed in his former aide’s good word.

Federico Hoyos, a congressional representative of former president Álvaro Uribe’s new Centro Democrático party for whom Zuluaga is the presidential candidate, told the Herald yesterday that he believed the pressure to resign had originated from inside Santos’ own camp. Hoyos argued that Rendon didn’t fit in, due to Santos’ public support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

When asked directly if the Centro Democrático party might have been involved in the leak, Hoyos responded: “Not everything that happens to the government is the fault of the Uribistas.”

“This is an unfortunate incident,” he continued. “A non-member of the government, meeting with drug lords. We thought we were past the times in which drug-trafficking was present in politics. It’s a serious incident. Where are the US$12 million?”

“If Rendón didn’t do anything, Santos should not have accepted his resignation,” Hoyos said.

Criticizing the president, Hoyos branded Santos’ response “insufficient,” and said a more “detailed and clear explanation” should have been offered.

Drug lords

The allegations against Rendón, which were not new, were published over the weekend by the Colombian newspaper El Espectador and the news magazine Semana. The reports cited testimony from Javier Antonio Calle given in a US jail, who was formerly one of the country’s most-wanted drug-traffickers until he surrended to the authorities in 2012.

Rendón acknowledged on Monday that he was approached by intermediaries of Calle and other drug bosses after Santos’ 2010 election, but he denied taking any money. The cartels allegedly wanted him to relay an offer to the president whereby narcotics gangs would disarm, in exchange for concessions such as protection from extradition to the US. Police and prosecutors also acknowledged discussing the initiative with Rendón but said they rejected it out of hand. Calle ended up turning himself in to the US drug agents on the Caribbean island of Aruba a year later.

The office of Colombia’s chief federal prosecutor said it was looking into the matter yesterday and would send prosecutors to New York to interview Calle before deciding whether to open a probe into Rendón and another Santos aide implicated in the reports, former political adviser German Chica.

Before his surrender, Calle and his brother, who also is in US custody, ran a criminal gang known as “Los Rastrojos,” or “The Leftovers,” a violent paramilitary force that dominated the cocaine trade along Colombia’s border with Venezuela and other parts of the country.

Rendon’s denials

Posting on his Twitter account, Rendón denied the allegations. He said that he received a “request from Francisco Galán (National Liberation Army leader) to communicate to the government a proposal from illegal groups for submission to justice.”

“I then transmitted this message to the president in presence of public prosecutor Viviane Morales,” he added.

The political strategist, who was also in charge of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto successful election campaign, said that documents at the public prosecutor’s office could clear his name.

Rendon’s resignation comes as Santos struggles to maintain his lead over rivals in the May 25 election. Two weeks ago, the president was forced, via a court order, to reinstate leftist Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro just weeks after he had been removed from office. Santos himself acknowledged in an interview with Caracol Radio last month that Petro’s ouster had negatively affected his approval ratings.

But despite the recent negativity, the president still looks on track to win another term in office.

A poll published late Monday, taken prior to Rendón’s resignation, showed Santos would win 27 percent of the vote. up four points from March. Zuluaga however continued to gain, jumping to 19 percent, from a previous score of eight percent.

Pollster Cifras y Conceptos also found that the incumbent would beat his right-wing candidate 34 percent to 31 percent in a run-off.

The fight for the presidency took another sharp turn yesterday however, when it emerged that Colombian authorities had uncovered spying allegedly aimed at disrupting the controversial peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Officials said that a rogue intelligence unit had hacked the emails of both negotiators from the guerilla group and the president himself. The allegations, published by Semana, were linked to an office used by Zuluaga’s social media team in an upmarket area of northern Bogota.

Zuluaga was forced to admit yesterday that a man identified as responsible by local media, Andres Sepulveda, had worked for his team, although he denied any direct link to the crime.

Herald with AP, Reuters, online media

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