BUCARAMANGA, Colombia — As mayor, he called himself “the king,” punched a councilman who offended him and told a city employee pushing him to follow the rules that he’d wipe his own buttocks with the law.
Rodolfo Hernández, a 77-year-old businessman and former mayor, has emerged as Colombia’s most disruptive presidential candidate in decades, electrifying voters with a single-issue “drain the swamp” message amplified by a team of social media wizards who have made him a TikTok star, allowing him to circumvent the trappings of conventional campaigns.
He’s one of two remaining candidates in Sunday’s election for president of the third largest nation in Latin America, with the winner taking control at a pivotal moment in the country’s history.
“What the Colombian people really want is to rescue the entire public administration from the clutches of politicians,” he told The New York Times. “I embody that.”
The Trump-like figure was dismissive of his tendency to offend, including calling Venezuelan women a “factory for making poor children” and declaring himself a follower of the “great German thinker” Adolf Hitler.
“I say what I feel,” Mr. Hernández said. “I’m not interested in the aftereffect.”
Still, he has clarified that he meant to say Albert Einstein.
As a candidate, Mr. Hernández has promoted himself as a paragon of democracy, a successful businessman who makes good on promises and cares for the poor. But a trip to Bucaramanga, a mountain-fringed city where he built his empire and once served as mayor, reveals a different picture.
Mr. Hernández is an anti-corruption candidate who has been indicted on corruption charges, an austerity proponent whose slash-and-burn policies led to a hunger strike by city employees and a construction magnate who once pledged to build 20,000 homes for the poor that never materialized.
In May, he achieved a surprising second place finish in the first round of voting, beating out Federico Gutiérrez, a former big city mayor backed by the conservative elite.
Mr. Hernández faces Gustavo Petro, a former rebel and longtime senator who is hoping to become Colombia’s first leftist president.
Their victories reflect an anti-establishment fervor that has swept through Latin America, propelled by longstanding poverty and inequality that have intensified during the pandemic.
The two are tied in the polls, and whoever wins is likely to set the country on a starkly new path. Mr. Petro has vowed to overhaul the economic system by greatly expanding social programs and taxing the rich. Mr. Hernández has proposed “total austerity” and says he will declare a state of emergency to tackle corruption, prompting fears that he could shut down Congress or suspend local officials.
“We will do everything by reason and law,” Mr. Hernández promised. “Nothing by force.”
‘What awaits this country is a dictatorship.’
Bucaramanga, the city at the center of one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, sits 250 miles north of Bogotá, the capital. It is a place where residents say that being direct and “unbuttoned” forms part of the culture.
No one in Bucaramanga, it seems, is ambivalent about Mr. Hernández, and a mention of him typically elicits hyperbolic acclaim or a stream of unprintable insults.
Mr. Hernández’s supporters describe him as a savior who erased the city’s deficit, renegotiated contracts to benefit taxpayers and broke a cycle of political favors that had turned Bucaramanga into a capital of corruption.
His critics call him a danger to democracy, an evangelist of a brutal capitalism that will ruin the nation and a man with few firm policy ideas who will do whatever it takes to get his way.
“What awaits this country is a dictatorship,” said César Fontecha, a former legal adviser to the city’s trash company who said that Mr. Hernández once called him in a fit of rage, demanding he help approve a contract riddled with legal problems.
Today, Mr. Hernández faces corruption charges in that case, accused of pushing subordinates to ensure a specific company won a deal with the city. According to the inspector general’s office, that contract could have earned his son significant money.
Mr. Hernández’s trial begins July 21. He has said he is innocent.
“I didn’t steal anything,” he said. “That’s why I’m calm, with a clear conscience.’’
‘Obsessed with accomplishing goals’
Growing up in Piedecuesta, a colonial-era town outside Bucaramanga, Mr. Hernández was the oldest of four boys, and his parents owned a cigar factory, a tailor shop and a sugar cane farm, making them among the most successful families in the community.
Mario Carvajal, a longtime friend of the candidate, recalled Mr. Hernández’s mother as “extremely demanding” and “impulsive.” If a young Rodolfo didn’t do his work, he said, “she beat him with whatever she could find.”
Mr. Hernández studied engineering, later started a construction company that built low-cost housing and then moved into finance, acting as seller and lender and offering interest rates far below local banks.
“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the house,” said Flor Bayona, 57.
Eventually, his family drew attention from rebel groups that kidnapped people for ransom. First, they took his father, forcing the family to pay for his return. Then, according to Mr. Hernández, they took his only daughter, Juliana.
This time, Mr. Hernández refused to pay, saying it would only encourage more kidnapping. Juliana never returned.
Asked by a local radio station if he regretted his decision, he said: “On the one hand, yes, and with a lot of pain. And on the other hand, no, because if we’d paid they would have come for Socorro, my wife.”
Félix Jaimes, a longtime friend and adviser, called Mr. Hernández extremely concerned for the less fortunate and “obsessed with accomplishing goals.”
Mr. Hernández ran for mayor of Bucaramanga in 2015, sweeping into office on an anti-corruption and austerity platform that led him to even remove the chairs from the city hall cafeteria.
He cut job contracts and slashed salaries, including that of José del Carmen, 59, a union leader.
In response, workers built a protest camp that lasted for months, and then started a hunger strike that lasted six days.
“He was the workers’ executioner,” said Mr. del Carmen.
Mr. Hernández now faces charges of violating union rights during his time as mayor. The next phase of this trial begins July 26. He has denied the charges.
Who supports Rodolfo Hernández?
In a Bucaramanga office of white tables and minimalist art featuring black-and-white scenes of poverty, the Hernández campaign is run by an army of volunteers: self-described “Rodolfistas.”
Mr. Hernández’s campaign slogan — “don’t rob, don’t lie, don’t cheat” — is painted on one wall, and a cutout of the candidate stands at the entrance.
During the campaign, Mr. Hernández has avoided most debates and has held few public events, favoring interviews with friendly media and live streams run by his allies. Yet he has energized broad swaths of the electorate, with his advisers saying that he has understood the moment.
For a generation, the country has been run by a hard-right movement founded by former President Álvaro Uribe. His political allies, known as Uribistas, were once lionized, but they have lost popularity amid allegations of human rights abuses, corruption scandals and growing poverty.
For Colombians fed up with Uribismo but turned off by Mr. Petro’s leftist proposals, Mr. Hernández is the perfect candidate: self-financed and seemingly independent, a forward-looking man with the same ambitions for Colombia as he has for his personal empire.
“He’s going to come through for us,” said Héctor Bonilla, 58. “I see it in his face, his sincerity when he speaks.”
Alfonso Morales, 64, a watchman who lives in a small shack near the top of a steep hill in Bucaramanga, has a different take.
As a candidate for mayor, Mr. Hernández distributed letters to the city’s poorest residents announcing a program called “20,000 Happy Homes” that he promised would be a reality if elected.
The homes were never built. “He lied to us,” said Mr. Morales. “I beg the Colombian people not to vote for this man.”
Mr. Hernández has continued to make such pledges. Inside Piedecuesta’s main park, he’s built a sleek model home labeled the “fortune house,” meant to serve as a campaign advertisement, and he has hired a real estate agent to market it.
Inside the house one day, the agent told visitors that a home like this would be available to them at a low cost and low interest rates — as long as Mr. Hernández won.
Carlos Buitrago contributed reporting from Bucaramanga and Piedecuesta, and Genevieve Glatsky from Bogotá.