The true story of José Guillermo “El Ñeñe” Hernández would have to be set to accordion music. Not some overproduced pop crossover, either. This would-be classic vallenato, live composition, an all-out parranda, three maybe four days straight, on one of the coastal estates the cops raided, or perhaps one they still don’t know about. There would be prize women and prize cattle and enough contraband whiskey to capsize the Almirante Padilla. Important men in woven hats and fine linen shirts would trade favors and bawdy jokes and shout the slurred lyrics to stanzas too dangerous to ever be recited in public.
Colombia got some sense for Ñeñe’s exploits from a different kind of soundtrack last year. A prominent rancher and would-be Caribbean socialite, Ñeñe had been murdered—supposedly for his Rolex—in 2019, not long before authorities declared him a major cocaine money launderer. Then this past March, La Nueva Prensa’s Gonzalo Guillén and Julián Martínez started reporting on a trove of police-ordered wiretaps of his cellphone. Together with curated photo evidence from the late narco’s Instagram, the audios spoke to Ñeñe’s many and intimate dealings with the Colombian power elite, from Army generals and Anti-Narcotics police, to cultural icons and business leaders. The most damning of these involved a concerted, apparently successful “under the table” scheme to buy votes on behalf of the 2018 presidential campaign of then-Senator Iván Duque.
But Ñeñepolítica, as the scandal became known, goes beyond electoral thieving and the sordid paramilitary alliances that continue to constitute the Colombian right. Ñeñe Hernández was a front man, not just for Caribbean cocaine interests and the Duque coalition’s underworld base, but the deeper geopolitical forces that have defined much of Colombia’s recent history.
Released two weeks after the initial Ñeñe recording, Lina Britto’s Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall