Pastrana, the son of Misael Pastrana Borrero, president of Colombia from 1970 to 1974, earned a graduate degree in public law from San Carlos College in Bogotá and later studied at the Center of International Affairs at Harvard University. During the 1980s he worked as a television journalist and a city councilman. From 1988 to 1990 Pastrana served as Bogotá’s first popularly elected mayor, and in 1991 he won a seat in the Senate.
Backed by the Colombian Conservative Party (Partido Conservador Colombiano; PC), Pastrana first ran for president in 1994 but lost to Ernesto Samper Pizano, of the Colombian Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano; PL), by a slim margin. Shortly afterward Pastrana publicly released audio recordings of Samper campaign officials soliciting donations from the Cali drug cartel. Although Samper was eventually exonerated, the allegation of corruption tarnished his administration and led to further civil unrest. The situation also produced a backlash against Pastrana for having brought the charge to light, forcing him to spend much time outside Colombia as a consultant to the United Nations.