Gustavo Petro is the candidate leading the polls for Colombia’s presidential elections. With a populist discourse that promises to end corruption in Colombian politics, clean out mafias, nationalize the pension and health systems, redistribute land from the class he calls landowners, and end oil exports, the far-left leader has managed to attract 40% of voters in Colombia.
In Colombia, to become president one must obtain 50% of the votes plus one, so the two most voted candidates have to go to a second-round if they do not reach half plus one in the first round. Although the poll numbers guarantee Petro an entrance to the second round, the leftist leader has not been able to increase his voting bloc for two months.
This scenario leads Petro to a close second round with the former mayor of Medellin, Federico Gutierrez, who has received the support of former presidents Alvaro Uribe and Cesar Gaviria, and who, according to polls, is the second person with the highest vote intention for the presidency.
Despite the close race ahead, Petro has managed to unify almost the entire Colombian left in a single political movement, which he calls Pacto Histórico [Historic Pact], where political parties ranging from indigenous political parties to unions of state workers are united.
Historically in Colombia, the left has arrived divided for congressional and presidential elections, and with the exception of guerrilla leader Carlos Pizarro, none of its leaders has had a realistic aspiration to reach the presidency of Colombia, until the arrival of Petro.
From Guerrilla Member and Jail to Political Opportunism and Clientelism
Gustavo Petro’s political career began in 1984 when he was elected councilman of the City of Zipaquira, north of Bogota, in an alliance with conservative leader Carlos Gutierrez, also known as the potato czar, because of his large plantations of this vegetable.
Petro did not last long as a councilman, as he joined the M-19 guerrilla movement, which led him to operate clandestinely. During his militancy in the M-19, the terrorist group organized the seizure of the Palace of Justice, where more than 101 people died in the crossfire between the army and the guerrillas, among them several magistrates of Colombia’s Supreme Court.
Several testimonies indicate that the M-19 received money from the Medellín Cartel to finance the taking of the Palace of Justice, a version that Petro denies, even though he did not participate directly in the assault.
After spending some time in prison, Petro was released due to peace negotiations with the M-19 in 1990. A year later he was elected congressman for Alianza Democrática M-19, the party that emerged from the dissolved guerrilla group with the same name. That same year Colombia approved a new constitution, a fact that Petro has used to falsely claim that he was a member of the constituent assembly that drafted the country’s current Magna Carta.
Petro’s political life over the next 10 years would oscillate between an unremarkable career in the House of Representatives and being a mid-level public official. It was not until Alvaro Uribe was elected president that the almost unknown representative’s career took off.
Petro began to gain notoriety by echoing in Congress the investigations that the authorities and the Colombian press were carrying out against several congressmen and mayors, who in order to get themselves elected had the support of the so-called paramilitaries, a series of anti-communist militias linked to drug cartels, and some state officials, responsible for several massacres throughout the country.
The process that would later become known as Parapolitics in Colombia, where 51 congressmen were linked to paramilitaries, served as a catapult for Petro’s political career, who rose to prominence as an opposition figure. His newfound popularity allowed him to run for the Senate in 2006.
In 2008, Petro announced his intention to run for the presidency of Colombia, with the support of his party: Polo Democrático. However, Petro only achieved 9% of the votes in the 2010 elections.
After the elections, Petro began to distance himself from his former party and would run as an independent candidate for the Bogotá mayoral elections. Petro won by a slim majority, obtaining 32% of the vote.
Tenure as Mayor of Bogota: Controversies and Removal from Office
His administration in Bogota was surrounded by scandals and problems with the control agencies, which denounced that up to 90% of the contracting worked without any bidding and favored third parties. One of the worst mistakes was the purchase of a fleet of electric motorcycles for the police that soon left officers stranded.
During Petro’s term as mayor, there was also a particular favoring of one of his campaign financiers, Carlos Gutierrez Robayo, son of Petro’s political godfather, who illicitly participated in the design of contracts for Transmilenio, the company in charge of public transportation in Bogota.
The tip of the iceberg came to light when Mayor Petro, in a fight with the garbage collection companies, tried to create a parallel collection scheme, marked by the purchase of unserviceable vehicles that would leave the streets of Bogota full of uncollected garbage for weeks.
Some citizens of Bogotá, faced with the improvisation of Petro’s mayoralty, led a movement to have him recalled from office. However, the recall would not happen, as Petro would be dismissed by Alejandro Ordoñez, the Attorney General of the Nation, because of his negligence with the garbage scheme in Bogotá.
Reinstatement and Sinking Approval Ratings
After his removal, Petro’s legal team went to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), where it was argued that he could not be removed from office, as this represented a violation of his political rights, an argument that was accepted by the international body.
After the IACHR ruling, Petro was reinstated as mayor of Bogota and took advantage of the fact to victimize himself and claim the status of a politically persecuted person. Petro left the Bogotá mayor’s office with a mere 30% approval rating.
Despite his poor performance as mayor of Bogotá, Petro managed to remain among leftist groups and gain enough influence to run in the 2018 presidential elections, where he made it to the second round and contested the presidency with Iván Duque.
During the 2018 contest, Petro’s discourse generated panic even among Colombian centrism. After the defeat in the first round of their candidate, Sergio Fajardo, the centrist parties organized a symbolic act with Petro where they made him promise “not to expropriate” on cardboard tablets that simulated to be made of stone (emulating the tablets of the Ten Commandments), in order to guarantee their support for the second round.
The panic generated by his proposals cost him the election in 2018 and Iván Duque was proclaimed the winner. Petro disowned the election results and made a call for “civil disobedience” that he would repeat constantly for the next four years.
Petro’s Four-Year Campaign for the Presidency
In Colombia, since 2018 there is a law that automatically grants Senator status to the second most voted person in elections, so Petro again returned to Congress and took advantage of his seat to campaign politically for the next elections.
During the four years of Duque’s government, Petro organized continuous marches against the president, led by leftist groups called Primera Línea, which would block the main highways of the country.
Taking refuge in the feelings of the desperation of the poorest Colombians, the victims of the armed conflict and capitalizing on his reputation as a “denouncer of Parapolitics,” Petro created a discourse where he blames the country’s problems on an elite that is sustained in power by the “mafia,” something that only he can change.
Weaponizing the COVID-19 Pandemic as a Political Tool
The pandemic served as a megaphone for Petro, the closures caused by quarantines led millions of people to unemployment and poverty, and although the government implemented an aid program, these were not enough to replace the closure of the country’s productive sector.
Petro took advantage of the desperation to blame the pandemic on the health system, described the aid as a mere bribe and affirmed that his government would establish a basic income of at least one minimum wage for all Colombians.
Each protest called by Petro’s political groups escalated into violence and confrontations with the police, reaching its peak on September 9, 2020, when a group of demonstrators called by the senator set fire to 15 police stations in protest of the death of a lawyer who was suffocated to death by the police hours before. The demonstrations left 13 people dead and several police officers injured.
Controversial Right-wing Tax Reform Bill and Mass Protests
Then in 2021, taking advantage of the unpopularity of a tax reform promoted by the Duque government, leftist groups organized the so-called Paro Nacional (National Strike), which soon degraded into more than 2,000 blockades along the country’s roads, causing a strong inflation rise in the main cities of the country in April and May.
Despite being the creator of the Pacto Histórico movement, Petro decided to organize party consultations to define who would be the group’s presidential candidate. Afro leader Francia Marquez, former governor of Nariño, Camilo Romero, indigenous leader Arelis Uriana and religious leader Alfredo Saade participated in the consultations.
Naturally, Gustavo Petro emerged as the winner in the consultations (also known as recalls), with Márquez, who was offered the position as the vice-presidential candidate of the Pacto Histórico, coming in second place. Colombian law stipulates that parties must be given money for each vote above a certain threshold, so the Pacto Histórico obtained almost $9 million from taxpayers for holding a consultation in which it was known that Petro was going to win.
Petro has grown the Colombian people’s distrust of the political class as a banner of his campaign. Accusations of corruption against the traditional political class abound in his crowded speeches.
Ties with Corruption
Despite his denunciations of corruption, figures such as Senator Roy Barreras have been crucial to the formation of his political movement. Barreras is known in Colombia as a “lizard,” which is a way of calling politicians who change sides according to the convenience of the polls. During the 2014 congressional elections, Barreras tried to join the political party of former President Uribe, Petro’s fierce opponent.
The so-called Pacto Histórico also includes people such as former senator Piedad Córdoba, linked to Alex Saab for laundering assets of Nicolás Maduro’s regime; or former senator Armando Benedetti, who had to resign his seat this year to avoid being investigated by the Supreme Court of Justice in a process for illicit enrichment.
Among the Colombian press, suspicions are circulating that Petro would be looking for votes, even with the support of some sectors of the mafia, since his brother Nicolás was seen entering a maximum security prison in Bogotá, together with a lawyer of the Pacto Histórico campaign, where he met with several corrupt politicians and drug traffickers.
After the fact came to light, Petro reduced the scandal by stating that it was a strategy of “social forgiveness,” where the paramilitaries would be part.
Another lawyer of the Pacto Histórico, Miguel Angel del Río Malo, stated in an interview that there were infiltrators in the campaign of his rival Federico Gutiérrez, a comment he later retracted.
Faced with suspicions of possible infiltration, the Gutiérrez campaign hired a security team to search its offices. In one of his offices in Medellín, a microphone was found hidden inside one of the building’s lamps, a case that is under investigation by the police. Petro has called the Gutiérrez campaign’s claims false.
Despite the allegations of infiltration and negotiations with the mafia, Gustavo Petro continues to be the most popular candidate among the Colombian electorate, and will surely fight Federico Gutierrez for the presidency in a second round.