Young political candidates seem to have a flair to them. They resonate with the young. They represent change and bring a fresh twist to a rather dull, bureaucratic, and traditional institution like government. One place where this breed of politicians has proven its effectiveness is Latin America. Daniel Quintero, today’s mayor of Medellín, Colombia’s second-biggest city, is one of those candidates that has profited off this wave of youth appeal. He employed novel tactics to win voters over and combined traditional populist strategies with the internet to gain great success and admiration. Yet, after his tumultuous rise, it might be necessary to dissect how Quintero achieved such sensation.
First, it might be helpful to understand a bit of Medellín’s history. This mountainous city was once cursed with the title of the most dangerous city in the world. Torn by drug cartels, organized crime organizations, paramilitaries, and guerillas, the city seemed to be condemned to death and tragedy for the rest of its days. Then, through sheer strength, iron will, and good political leadership, Medellín raised to the challenge, and it has not only become a touristic hub, but it is now a fundamental economic engine of Colombia. In 2017, Antioquía, Medellín department made up 14.4% of the country’s GDP. Now, the city has groomed a very traditional and respected culture around the mayor’s office and its institutions. Yet, still, the poverty that plagues the city has elicited frustration in the lower socioeconomic classes. There also seems to be fatigue in the young due to the deep-rooted conservatism of the city’s political culture. These unrests called for someone to tap into them.
Daniel Quintero advertised himself as the independent candidate in Medellín’s 2019 local elections. To run, he created a party called “Independientes” (independents). He sought distance from his opponents who seemed catered to the traditional political parties of Antioquia, Medellín’s department. His campaign involved heavy use of social media, recalling Quintero’s stunts against conventional politics. One of them involved bringing a block of cheese to a meeting in the Medellin Council to feed all the “rats” in the council. Additionally, he successfully maneuvered through the debates, outwitting two rather dull candidates that failed to gain traction beyond their parties’ political machinery. Despite it, his boldest claim seemed always to be his independence. Yet, the amount of public exposure that garnered running for one of the most important public offices in the country started to dispel his assertions.
Quintero seems to know the block when it comes to political parties. He first ran for Medellin’s council in 2007 for the very traditional “Partido Conservador” yet failed to get a seat. After failing, he abruptly joined the “Partido Verde,” a relatively progressive and liberal party to support his brother’s run for the council. After his brother’s successful candidacy and seemingly disenchanted by traditional politics, Quintero made his first claim to independence after founding the “Partido del Tómate.” His first attempt to run as an antonym of the conventional parties used many alternative tactics to garner attention. Despite this, he didn’t get a single seat in the council. Frustrated with Medellín, Quintero moved to Bogotá and joined the “Partido Liberal” to run for the council there. He again failed. But his last political moves did pay off when he joined the executive government as vice-minister for Juan Manuel Santos. As the elections got close and his government was ending, Quintero quit the government to support Humberto de la Calle, who didn’t receive much attention from the Colombian electorate. After de la Calle failed to go onto the second round, Quintero joined the campaign of the leftwing candidate, Gustavo Petro.
Quintero’s political story before his surprise run in Medellín would seem to belie his main running point. Additionally, his campaign focused on making him a hard-working, self-made individual who rose in society. This, despite his dad being a member of the most expensive country club in the city. Quintero continuously and successfully twisted his story to angle it in a populist, appealing manner for voters. He, in the end, beat the two biggest political parties while successfully maintaining his story of independence, away from traditional politics and of humble origins. He has been mayor of Medellín since the start of 2020, but the story is far from over.
It wouldn’t seem surprising to find that Quintero’s mayorship hasn’t been immune to scandals. First, as his past came to light, many voters felt tricked by the newly inaugurated mayor. It seemed that his promise of independence had no real substance. Additionally, his “independent” government-appointed many secretaries that were either close to traditional political parties or were from Quintero’s family. Take Quintero’s secretary of infrastructure and director of public mobility. They are a couple that is very close to one of the most prominent political voices in Envigado who endorsed one of Medellín’s communes. Moreover, he has brought into turmoil Medellín’s most important public company, EPM. He has run through 4 different company directors in 15 months and had his entire board resign in the name of how he has managed the company. To respond to all these critics, he has employed similar tactics as Donald Trump, relying on Twitter and simply answering inquiries and criticisms from journalists with the word “fake.”
Quintero now faces a divided city. Some applaud his audacity to stand up to the status quo. They argue that he has delivered his promise to be a different, independent mayor. They even start calling for him to reach the upper echelons of power and apply his techniques in the executive branch. Others believe Quintero is undoing four decades of progress on a city that has already been plagued by catastrophe. They become outraged at his carelessness with the established institutions that have raised Medellín away from what it was in the bloody 80s and 90s. Critics get filled with impotence when their carefully crafted claims reach a deaf ear that prefers to dismiss any type of wake-up call. And neither side will probably get what they want.
Moving into his last year in office, Quintero will have to conjure a political climate that will allow him to carry through his political career and pursuit for power. Yet, what might be the most pivotal decision for his next four years is who he decides to support for the presidential elections of 2022. If allied with the winning candidate and having, despite everything, a head-line robbing mayorship, Colombia might now have to face even more power in the hands of this young politician.
Daniel Quintero profited off a movement that grew because it was tired and frustrated of traditional politics. Yet, he failed to deliver the promise by being a traditional politician, incapable of keeping promises, shutting down criticisms, and using political machinery to achieve their goals. He enamored many of Medellín’s frustrated and poor citizens while enraging the elites that have guided the city away from its turbulent past. Now, Quintero will have to face the consequences of deciding to run with a stormy run through his first major public office, and so will Colombia.