Who is Gustavo Petro and what is the change he proposes for Colombia? 8:16 (CNN Spanish) — The leftist leader and Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, who has held public office from a very young age, carries a story that for many is a stigma and his detractors do not forgive him: having been a member of the M-19, a guerrilla group demobilized in 1990, but which gave many opinion blows and led to one of the most tragic violent episodes in the country’s history. The leader of the left has a controversial public life marked by his revolutionary past, but also by his role as senator and mayor of Bogotá. In his third attempt to occupy the highest position in the country, the leader of the left continues to be criticized by his main political opponents due to his time in the guerrillas. The history of Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego (Ciénaga de Oro, Córdoba, 1960) as a guerrilla goes back, like his political life, to a turbulent time in Colombian politics. Petro, born on the Colombian Caribbean coast, arrived very young in Zipaquirá, a municipality about 45 kilometers north of Bogotá, and there he began his work in the public sphere as a personero and municipal councilor, at the age of 21. At that age he also began his time with the urban guerrilla group M-19, which was founded in protest against the alleged theft of the elections in which former dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla lost and the conservative candidate Misael Pastrana won in 1970. The beginnings de Petro in the M-19 Petro has tried to be president three times in 2010, 2018 and 2022. He says that his political awakening was in the late 1960s when he saw his father cry over the death of Argentine revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che Guevara. He too, he said, was moved by the death of Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, he recounted in an interview with Reuters. Petro joined the April 19 Movement at the age of 18. Known as M-19, the group was part of the so-called second wave of guerrilla movements in the country that grew throughout the region in the 1970s, influenced by the Cuban Revolution. In 1978 he was living in Zipaquirá, a town on the outskirts of Bogotá, when he read the documents summarizing the M-19 Conference, according to what he himself recounted in his book, Petro una vida, many lives. “From a rational point of view, his thesis was very logical and popular: we had to vindicate the country’s history, the popular soul. It was easy for us to understand the need for that vindication, since we lived in the midst of that popular world,” writes Petro about group arguments. He was barely 21 years old and was already involved in Zipaquirá politics, first as a personero, then as a councilman. “I was a clandestine member of the M-19, but I carried out legal activity in the city of Zipaquirá, even as a councilman,” he told journalist Guylaine Roujol on his YouTube channel, Bándalos, in 2021. In that interview, he spoke about the events that led him to join the urban guerrilla. “In Zipaquirá he wrote communiqués and we put them under the doors on some cold nights, at 11 at night,” Petro said about some of his first actions as a clandestine militant of Eme, as the M-19 was called. At that time, he says, one of the reasons that led many young people to “rise up in arms” was the continuous state of siege in which Colombia had lived for years, whose style of government was similar to “the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone “, said. “Without freedoms, without constitutional rights, with the ability of the presidents that they were all popularly elected, but in a somewhat false democracy, they governed not by laws, but by decrees. Always aimed at containing the popular movement,” he said. In Colombia, this figure of “state of siege” was used constantly between November 1949 and 1978, including a military dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957), according to the book Fifteen years of state of siege in Colombia: 1958-1978, by the writer Gustavo Gallón Giraldo. By 1984, President Belisario Betancourt again decreed a state of siege due to the violence that continued unabated in the country, since there was an active presence of several guerrillas that put the Colombian government in check. That year, the M-19 made the first outline of a peace process proposed to the Government of Belisario Betancourt (1982-1986). The guerrillas asked, among other conditions, to lift the state of siege, “which was the form of government in Colombia, which has continued for 25 years,” Petro said. And while he led his double life, Petro, in 1984, agreed to be a militant of the M-19 after signing the peace accords with the Betancourt government, and spent a year and a half in prison by order of the military criminal justice . “I was trying to stay in Zipaquirá clandestinely, which was very difficult. In the end I was captured under a state of siege decree. I was taken to prison. That means I was not convicted in legal terms. “I was not prosecuted by a judge or justice. We could simply call him ‘arrested’ and by decision of an Army colonel, arrested for 18 months [por la] military justice”, affirmed today’s candidate for the presidency. The beginnings of the M-19 The M-19 guerrilla was an urban guerrilla of a socialist nature, very different from the communist conception of other guerrillas such as the FARC. The creation of the 19 Movement de Abril (where its acronym comes from) occurred in 1970 “because of the electoral fraud against Anapo,” Petro has said. The Anapo, the National Popular Alliance, was the party founded by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who was dictator of Colombia between 1953 and 1957. But in the 1970 elections, when Rojas Pinilla was emerging as the favorite and possible winner, his opponent, the conservative Misael Pastrana Borrero, won the morning after the elections. M-19 The armed struggle of this guerrilla group took over Colombia after the 1970s and was characterized by “acts of symbolic impact,” according to the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH). the seizure of the embassy of the Dominican Republic in 1980, the theft of weapons from the North Canton, a military fortress, through a tunnel, in the north of Bogota, and —in a “symbolic” act, Petro recalls—, with the theft of Bolivar’s sword. Whose sword was it? Petro recalled. “The sword was neither more nor less than the people’s. And it was really kidnapped,” he said in an interview with the journalist Carolina Sanín, on the television program Mesa Capital. On the day of the signing of the peace agreement with the M-19, in 1990, the guerrilla group returned Bolívar’s sword. The seizure of the Palace of Justice in 1985 30 years after the seizure of the Palace of Justice in Colombia The M-19 has one of the most painful tragedies in Colombia’s recent history on its back. This guerrilla took the Palace of Justice on November 6, 1985, in the center of Bogotá. For two days, the insurgents held 350 hostages, including magistrates, judicial employees and visitors, while the building burned down. After the military operation to retake control of the building, 98 people died and 11 more were declared missing. Petro’s political opponents blame him for having been part of what happened there, considered one of the most tragic violent episodes in Colombian history. But Petro maintains that he did not participate in this take. “When the events of the violent takeover of the Palace of Justice happened and the even greater, much more violent retaking of the State of the Palace of Justice, I was being tortured in an Army cavalry in the city of Bogotá. I was a boy at that time and I went to jail after the torture,” Petro told CNN in 2013. File photo. Soldiers of the Colombian Army protect a group of judges leaving the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, occupied on November 6, 1985 by a guerrilla commando of the M-19 movement. Government troops attacked and killed more than 100 people, including 11 judges. Following this event, paramilitary death squads were formed to execute government opponents. (Credit: AFP via Getty Images) Petro has said that, with the seizure of the Palace of Justice, the M-19 sought to “denounce Belisario for breaking the peace agreement he had signed with that group. And he wanted to relaunch the process of peace and national dialogue with the pressure of arms”. The demobilization of the M-19 With the signing of the peace agreement and the demobilization of the M-19 in its entirety, Petro entered a new political chapter. The M-19 joined a peace process with the government of Virgilio Barco, since it declared “that war was not the solution and decided to lay down its arms,” says the CNMH. The agreement was signed on March 9, 1990. The history of this guerrilla group marked “political milestones such as the subsequent processes of political participation” both of the party that was born after the signing of the agreements” and the birth of many leaderships “in other movements and political parties,” according to the Center for Historical Memory. After demobilization, today’s presidential candidate studied at a private university thanks to a scholarship, held various public positions. He was an adviser to the Government of Cundinamarca and a representative to the Chamber in the 1990s. For security reasons, he had to go into exile and was appointed a diplomat by the Samper government in 1994, and had a failed attempt to be mayor of Bogotá in 1997. Later, he managed to be elected representative to the Chamber, in 2002. In 2006, he was a senator for the Polo Democrático Alternativo party. He was mayor of Bogotá in 2012. He has been a presidential candidate three times. In 2018, he was the second most voted candidate against Iván Duque, in a highly polarized campaign. With information from Fernando Ramos
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