Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro was voted into office on October 30, 2011, 30 years after the start of his political career in which he has tread the path from guerrilla leader to presidential candidate and now mayor of Colombia’s capital city. Petro has become widely recognized as the unofficial voice of the Colombian democratic left.
Petro joined the urban guerrilla movement Movimiento 19 de Abril, better known as M-19, as a teenager in the 70s. He quickly moved through the ranks and became the youngest member of the five man Central Region Leadership. According to La Silla Vacia, Petro never saw combat and is remembered by his fellow ex-guerrillas more as a thinker and political strategist than an armed revolutionary.
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Petro was still active in the M-19 when he held his first elected posts, first as Ombudsman of Zipaquira in 1981, then as councilor for the city in 1984. However, in 1985 his political status was not enough to protect him when the national army came looking. He initially managed to escape by dressing as a woman, complete with dress and high heels. But shortly after, soldiers captured him and, according to Petro and his friends, planted a pistol and a grenade on him before torturing him to extract a confession.
He was to spend 18 months behind bars for possession of weapons, during which time he was transferred several times by officials concerned about his attempts to organize prisoners to demand their rights. He also became renowned for his efforts to curb drug abuse and encourage education among inmates.
When Petro emerged from prison, the M-19 was in crisis. Their disastrous assault on the Palace of Justice in Bogota had been the latest in a string of strategic catastrophes that had eroded public sympathy and created powerful enemies. With many M-19 leaders dead, Petro became a driving force in the push towards demobilization and a peace process.
Petro was instrumental in the formation of the political party Alianza Democratica M-19 (AD M-19), which replaced the guerrilla movement and participated in the 1991 assembly to rewrite Colombia’s constitution. In 1991 he also became one of the first candidates from the new party to hold office when he was elected to the House of Representatives.
After Petro lost his seat in 1994, he left Colombia after receiving death threats over his denunciations of corruption. For two years he worked in the Colombian Embassy in Belgium as a diplomatic attaché for human rights.
Petro returned to the House of Representatives in 2002 when he was elected as a member of the leftist movement Via Alterna. In 2005 he played a role in unifying leftist parties and politicians, including the AD M-19, to create the Democratic Pole (Polo Democratico Alternativo – PDA). Standing for the PDA, he was elected senator in 2006.
During Petro’s time in congress he became known as an ardent critic of the government and frequently engaged in verbal warfare with then President Alvaro Uribe. He was also known as a relentless campaigner against corruption and the infiltration of armed groups into politics, playing a role in uncovering and pursuing both the parapolitics and FARC-politics scandals.
Critics of Petro, including Uribe, have frequently suggested he is linked to the guerrilla insurgency, alluding to his leftist politics and guerrilla past. He has always gone to great lengths to deny any relationship with the FARC, denouncing them as “criminals” and scoffing at their leftist credentials.
Petro’s antagonistic relationship with government worsened when it became evident he was a victim of a wiretapping and surveillance campaign orchestrated by Colombia’s secret service, the DAS, who were allegedly reporting back to the presidential palace.
Colombia’s leaders on the left
In 2010, the PDA selected Petro to run as its presidential candidate. He finished a distant fourth behind winner Juan Manuel Santos, Antanas Mockus and German Vargas with 1.3 million votes.
Throughout the campaign, cracks began to show in the relationship between Petro and the PDA leadership, who he viewed as ideologically rigid, hierarchical and clientalist. Soon after he broke away from the party and formed his own “Progressive Movement” to stand as Bogota mayor.
Petro bet to capitalize on the downfall of his old allies the Democratic Pole in the race to be mayor. The PDA has won the previous two mayoral elections in Bogota but has been discredited by the public works corruption scandal that took down currently suspended mayor Samuel Moreno.
The tactics proved effective, with Petro winning the elections with 32% of the votes against 25% for the centrist former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa.
Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez dismissed Petro halfway his term in a controversial decision over the handling of Bogota’s trash collection during the first year of the mayoral term. According to the IG’s ruling, Petro had consciously allowed irregularities to occur in reforming trash collection in the capital. The dismissal was signed off on by President Juan Manuel Santos, but days later revoked after rulings by the Inter-American Commission for human rights and lower Colombian courts.
Petro could still be suspended through a pending referendum and a possible ruling by the State Council reinstating the validity of the Inspector General’s initial impeachment.