Acclaimed by hundreds, the leftist Gustavo Petro climbs onto a platform surrounded by a dozen escorts and protected by two shields after noticing a supposed plan to attempt on his life. From the adjoining building, a Colombian special commando policeman watches with a long gun.

The threats pursue him in the final stretch of a hectic presidential campaign in the Andean country, where decades ago popular leaders such as Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and Luis Carlos Galán were assassinated when they had a real chance of coming to power.

The current campaign, he has said, is his last attempt to conquer the presidency that has eluded him twice. The polls show him as the favorite, although as the weeks go by, the right-wing candidate Federico Gutiérrez has reduced the difference. The elections will be on May 29.

Petro, who was a guerrilla in his youth, tries to dispel the criticism of his opponents from the stage by promising that he would not extend his presidential term beyond the four years allowed by law, since re-election is prohibited. “Let us sow the pillars of that transition, the pillars of that change,” he told some 700 people who waited three hours for his arrival under an inclement sun in Fusagasugá, a town 59 kilometers from Bogotá.

“We have to support change, we cannot continue with continuity,” student Juan Sebastián Hernández told The Associated Press while holding a Colombian flag. “We young people have already reacted, we are tired of being killed,” added the 22-year-old Colombian.

If Petro came to power, he would become the first left-wing president in Colombia, a possibility that has generated resistance and fear in some sectors due to possible economic and social changes: he would not give new licenses to exploit oil, he would carry out an agrarian reform, he would raise taxes. to the large landowners who have unproductive land and would “democratize” the resources, a proposal that generates such misgivings that Petro swore in a notary’s office that he would not expropriate assets.

“It’s not war, it’s education; It is not oil and cocaine, it is the work on the furrow under the sun and the transformation of the products in the industry; it is not a minority oligarchy governing Colombia, it is a multicolored democracy,” Petro, a candidate for the Historic Pact, explained to the crowd.

In the front row, María Cárdenas, 76, supported him because she believes he will govern for the poor. “I can’t work because I’m sick, I don’t have a house, I don’t have anything. He says that he is going to help us, that is why I am here,” the woman said.

At 62 years old, Petro seeks a “change” for Colombia that involves the “people” and is dispatched against the current government of the conservative Iván Duque, sponsored by former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), his staunchest opponent.

His speech has matured over the years, but he began to project himself from his youth. In 1978, when he was just an economics student, Petro chose to join the urban guerrilla Movement April 19 or M-19, named in commemoration of the date of the 1970 presidential elections in which an alleged fraud was reported that prevented that General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla came to power.

Nationalist and anti-imperialist, the M-19 sought power through arms and is remembered for symbolic blows such as the theft of Simón Bolívar’s sword in Bogotá and other more frightening ones, such as the taking of the Dominican Republic embassy with hostages and that of the Palace of Justice, where the high courts functioned, which ended in tragedy after the army tried to take control by force and dozens of magistrates died, guerrillas and others were disappeared.

Petro did not become commander of the guerrilla, in which he was more of a militiaman, and he does not carry any greater responsibility for the tragedy at the Palace of Justice in 1985 because he was in jail. There, according to what he has denounced, he was beaten and subjected to “Chinese torture”, which consists of making a drop of water fall on the immobilized victim continuously for hours.

Everth Bustamante, former commander of the M-19 and later a senator, remembers that he met a young 18-year-old Petro in Zipaquirá -a town near Bogotá where he lived in his youth- when he joined an urban support group for the guerrillas. “Petro did not have a prominent role (in the M-19) until when we signed the peace accords” in 1990, Bustamante said. His time in jail was not due to a “military political activity” of the guerrillas, he added, but for helping a community to illegally take over a piece of land to build a neighborhood.

“Since its origins, it has been in favor of one more line of uprising and insurrection of the popular sectors… it has some delusions of being the one called to solve all problems and lead the country to paradise, it is a demagogic, populist discourse”, assured AP Bustamante, who was first his ally and is now one of his opponents.

The weapons of the M-19 were melted down and converted into steel ingots after the signing of the peace agreement with the government in 1990. Petro, along with some 900 other guerrillas, abandoned the insurgency and founded a political party. Some were assassinated and others became mayors, governors or senators.

In legality, Petro has been an opposition senator for several periods and is remembered for denouncing in Congress links between paramilitaries and politicians, several of them now convicted.

As mayor of Bogotá between 2012 and 2015, he generated mixed opinions about his administration. On the one hand, they acknowledge him for championing ambitious social projects, but they criticize his execution capacity and some improvised decisions. His mandate ended in controversy after the Attorney General’s Office dismissed him and disqualified him from holding public office for 15 years for “very serious” faults in the implementation of a new cleanliness model in Bogotá.

Despite the appeals filed by Petro, the Attorney General’s Office ratified its decision and the lawsuit went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in 2020 declared Colombia responsible for violations of Petro’s political rights.

“The resistance generated by the figure of Gusto Petro today has less to do with his past as a guerrilla fighter than with this somewhat messianic, personal and aggressive style that characterizes him,” Yann Basset, a political analyst and professor of science, told the AP. Rosario University.

His opponents fear that Petro will become “a new Hugo Chavez” if he comes to power and Colombia will end up in a political and social crisis like the one Venezuela is experiencing.

Petro and Chávez met in Bogotá in 1994. “Chavez was my friend and I respected his process, but the fact that in the final phase he tried to imitate the Cuban model raised many doubts in me,” Petro said in his autobiographical book “Una vida many lives”.

“You cannot simply describe him as authoritarian, he defends the constitution. He is more of a question mark,” Basset said. When comparing him with left-wing Latin American leaders, the expert did not find so much closeness with the figure of Chávez or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but with that of the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. “Petro has tried to resurrect the Colombian popular liberalism of Gaitán, just as López Obrador has tried to revive a bit of the classic revolutionary nationalism of Mexico.”

If he reaches the presidency, Petro would seek dialogue and submission to justice of the armed groups that still remain in Colombia, such as the guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Clan del Golfo cartel. He has also promised to comply with the peace agreement signed in 2016 between the State and the extinct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which became the oldest guerrilla in Latin America.

A Peace Court is about to issue its first sanctions on the events that occurred in five decades of internal armed conflict that caused the death of more than 262,000 people, the disappearance of some 80,000 and the displacement of eight million, according to state records.

Petro, his friends say, is a shy man who is not easily upset and who learned to deal with tense moments in hiding and later in the opposition. “He lives in a different mental aspect than the rest. That happens with statesmen. He sometimes approaches one more emotionally, but in his own way, he is not extroverted, ”said María José Pizarro, current representative to the Chamber for the Petro movement and daughter of the former maximum commander. of the M-19, Carlos Pizarro Leongomez.

Pizarro asks that “life not be killed in the spring”, that is, that Petro does not repeat the history of his father, assassinated in the spring of 1990 when he was leading the polls as a presidential candidate.


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