(CNN Spanish) — The left-wing leader and presidential candidate of Colombia Gustavo Petro, who has held public office since he was very young, carries with him a history that for many is a stigma and his detractors do not forgive him: having been a member of the M-19, a demobilized guerrilla group 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 conservative candidate Misael Pastrana won in 1970.
The beginnings of Petro in the M-19
Petro has tried to be president three times in 2010, 2018 and 2022. He says his political awakening came 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 says in his book, Petro one life, 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 representative, 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 an M-19 militant 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 system.
“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 legally convicted.
“I was not prosecuted by a judge or by the courts. We could simply call him ‘arrested’ and by decision of an Army colonel, arrested for 18 months [por la] military justice,” assured 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 April 19 Movement (where its acronym comes from) occurred in 1970 “because of the electoral fraud against Anapo”, Peter 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. For this alleged fraud, the M-19 was created.
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). Among his actions are 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, he recalls Petro—, with the theft of Bolívar’s sword.
Whose sword was it? Petro recalled. “The sword was neither more nor less than the people’s. And she was really kidnapped,” she said in an interview with the journalist Carolina Sanín, on the television program Capital Table. On the day of the signing of the peace agreement with the M-19, in 1990, the guerrilla group returned Bolívar’s sword.
The taking of the Palace of Justice in 1985
The M-19 has on its back one of the most painful tragedies in the recent history of Colombia. 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 in flames.
After the military operation to retake control of the building, 98 people died and 11 more were declared missing.
The political opponents de Petro blame him for having been part of what happened there, considered one of the most tragic violent episodes in the history of Colombia. 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.
Petro has said that, with the seizure of the Palace of Justice, the M-19 was seeking “denounce Belisario for breaking the peace agreement that he had signed with that group. And he wanted to relaunch the peace process and the 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 leaders “in other movements and political parties,” according to the Memory Center Historical.
After demobilization, today’s presidential candidate studied at a private university thanks to a scholarship, and held various public positions.
He was an advisor 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 Government of Samper, in 1994, and had an unsuccessful 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 Alternative Democratic Pole 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