Leftist Petro looks to make Colombian history with more pragmatic approach

By Irene Escudero

Bogota, Jun 13 (EFE).- Colombian Sen. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, is just days away from potentially making history as the Andean nation’s first-ever leftist president and gaining the power to steer the country along a different path.

The 62-year-old Petro is making his third run at the presidency – and second straight appearance in a runoff – with a more pragmatic approach that has seen him make alliances with more traditional politicians like Roy Barreras and Armando Benedetti who have previously supported his most bitter rivals.

But although he garnered the most ballots in the first round by a wide margin, the candidate of the leftist, so-called Historic Pact for Colombia coalition finds himself in a neck-and-neck race with populist entrepreneur and anti-corruption crusader Rodolfo Hernandez ahead of Sunday’s runoff.

Born in 1960 in Cienaga de Oro, a town in the northern department of Cordoba, Petro grew up in a middle-class family and studied in Zipaquira, a highland town near Bogota.

Shy and quiet in his personal life, Petro is at ease before large crowds of people and a captivating, eloquent orator.

In “Una vida, muchas vidas,” the autobiography that Petro published a few months before launching his latest run at the presidency, the former mayor of Bogota recalls that he has always felt out of place, solitary and sidelined but also describes the borderline arrogant way in which he has overcome different situations in his life.

While a student at the La Salle school in Zipaquira, where the late Nobel literature laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez also studied, Petro treated the priests in a haughty and disrespectful manner, read works of Marxist intellectuals and started along the path of political militancy.

He joined the 19th of April Movement (M-19) in 1978 at the age of 18, working in underground urban activities – rather than joining rural armed columns in jungle areas – and taking on the alias “Aureliano.”

He spent two of his 12 years in the guerrilla ranks in prison, having been arrested for illegal weapons possession in 1985 in Bolivar 83, a working-class district of Zipaquira that he helped found. Like many other guerrillas of that era, he was tortured in custody.

“I didn’t feel the pain of torture until I ended up in prison. During the dark days of the beatings, I never felt crushed physically, although psychologically it was difficult because I felt that in a certain sense my life had changed,” Petro wrote in his autobiography.

He was in prison at the time of M-19’s most notorious attack – the Nov. 6, 1985, Palace of Justice siege in Bogota in which the guerrillas held the Supreme Court hostage.

He therefore could have known little about an event that ended a day later with a military raid that left nearly 100 people dead, including almost half of the 25 high-court justices.

The M-19 later demobilized in March 1990 and became a political party.

While Petro never felt comfortable with a weapon in his hands, he has shined in his role as an opposition leader, serving as a member of the lower house of Congress from 1998 to 2006 and then two terms as senator – from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2018 to the present.

He became nationally known in the early 2000s for denouncing links between conservative politicians and far-right paramilitary groups and also became a thorn in the side of the hard-line conservative Alvaro Uribe, who was in office from 2002 to 2010.

Petro also served from 2011 to 2015 as mayor of Bogota, a turbulent period in which he was accused by aides of governing in a high-handed manner and ignoring the advice of those around him.

He was removed from office in March 2014 and banned from political activity for 15 years in a controversial decision by Colombia’s inspector general, who fired the leftist politician over his alleged mismanagement of the capital’s waste collection service.

The mayor was later reinstated by order of a Bogota judge, however, and finished out his term.

Petro now is dealing with fresh controversy ahead of Sunday’s runoff, following the leaking to the media of videos showing private conversations in which the candidate and his advisers can be heard discussing plans to smear rivals such as right-wing former Medellin Mayor Federico Gutierrez, who finished third in the first round after Hernandez, and centrist candidates Alejandro Gaviria and Sergio Fajardo.

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