One year ago, Gustavo Petro, a former senator and presidential candidate, called a press conference along with his friend Carlos Vicente de Roux (a member of Bogotá’s city Council) and Senator Luis Carlos Avellaneda. At this conference, Petro and his friends presented the results of an inquiry, conducted by themselves, on what by that time was already known as the “Cartel of Contracts,” a multi-million dollar racket involving the infamous Nule Group, a network of corporations that had been awarded important contracts in Bogotá. Gustavo Petro and his friends, all of them members of Polo Democrático, Colombia’s biggest left-leaning party, demanded the prosecution of two prominent members of their own party: Samuel Moreno, the mayor of Bogotá, and his brother Iván, a senator.
From the beginning, this request faced a hostile reaction from the ruling group in their party. Partly due to ideological paranoia, Senator Jorge Robledo, for example, labeled the accusations as a far-right conspiracy.
Petro left Polo Democrático. So did most of his friends, marking the beginning of a journey that took them to victory on October 30, 2011. With 32 percent of the votes, Petro won the election to become Bogotá’s next mayor. His newly-formed political movement, Progresistas, also obtained the most number of votes for the city council.
Born in 1960, Petro joined the guerilla movement M19 at the age of 16. The M19 was a numerically small and militarily weak group, which achieved great prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to spectacular actions and the charisma of their leaders. The M19 was not a radical group, perhaps not even a Marxist one. In 1989, the group signed peace accords with the government in what remains the most successful peace process in the history of Colombia. Some of their leaders went on to become candidates and political figures. Their first presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, was killed during the narco-terrorist offensive of 1990.
Petro spent two years in jail before the peace accords were signed. After that, he started a political career that took him to Congress, where he served two terms in the Chamber of Deputies and one in the Senate, with the recently-founded Polo Democrático. In the Senate, he denounced the ties between narco-paramilitary mafias and elected officials. A series of investigations that followed, known as Parapolítica, have taken more than 40 members of Congress to jail so far.
Petro’s campaign was surprising in many ways. Starting from scratch, he built a political organization (Progresistas), which not only supported his bid, but also won eight seats in the city council. Petro defeated former Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who, one year ago, was widely regarded as the favorite due to his experience and the good legacy of his term. Aurelio Suárez, the candidate of the Polo Democrático, Petro’s former party, obtained a disastrous seventh place.
On an optimistic note, it can be claimed that Petro’s victory is a statement of the citizens against corruption. More than any other factor, his campaign against the “Cartel of Contracts” gave him popular favor in Bogota; it’s not an exaggeration to regard this as the key to his victory.
Some analysts, however, fear that Petro’s program is not realistic and is not based on sound economics and public finance. Some even see hint at populism in it. It would be a mistake, however, to label Petro as a populist in the same brand as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez or Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. A few far-right observers point to Petro’s past in the guerrilla and to his alleged friendship with Chávez.
While it’s true that Petro was a member of a guerilla group (M19), it’s also true that the M19 was radically different from the FARC. The M19 was not involved in the drug business and was not systematically involved in crimes against humanity. There is only one exception: the assault of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá in 1986, where 11 court justices were killed. The blame for that incident, however, is shared between the M19 and the clumsy and disproportionate reaction of the military. By that time, Petro was in prison. This fact, along with his low rank in the organization, has freed him from public condemnation regarding this crime.
Regarding his ties to Hugo Chávez, it’s true that they were friends, but it’s also true that, for some years now, there have been no signs of such friendship, and it seems not to have survived the crisis in the Colombia-Venezuela relationship. Bogotá is ready to move on from the Moreno days, and Petro’s victory is an important step in that process.
*Andrés Mejía Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a political consultant based in Bogotá and is the author of El destino tragic de Venezuela.