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October 31, 2011 – Former leftist rebel and anti-corruption crusader Gustavo Petro has been elected the new mayor of Bogota, the first time an ex-guerrilla has won Colombia’s second most important elected office.
Petro, 51, has been a key player in Colombia’s recent history and ran a “zero corruption” campaign in the nation’s capital. The previous elected mayor of Bogota is in jail for his part in a corruption and bid-rigging scandal.
Five years ago, Petro’s denunciations in the senate, of close ties between national and regional politicians with right-wing death squads spurred investigation into the Colombian “parapolitics” scandal that has landed dozens of lawmakers in prison.
Short, slim and bespectacled, Petro is deliberate in speech and favours tweed and Nehru jackets.
Like many prominent Colombians unafraid to speak their minds, Petro has been periodically targeted by death threats and has long been assigned a phalanx of bodyguards.
He said in 2007 that he had learned of two organised attempts by the extreme right to kill him, one of which forced him into temporary exile to Belgium.
Petro, who finished fourth in last year’s presidential election, won the Bogata mayor’s race with 32 per cent of the vote, with 25 per cent for his nearest challenger Enrique Penalosa declared after nearly all ballots had been counted in the city of eight million people.
Penalosa defeated Petro in 1997 for the same job, which has often been a springboard to Colombia’s presidency.
Urban planners widely admire Penalosa for making Bogota more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly during his term, and for launching a bus rapid transit system that has been a model in Latin America and beyond – but analysts say Penalosa, 57, was hurt by his endorsement from the conservative, former President Alvaro Uribe, in a city more friendly to the left.
“Bogota continues to be a fortress of electoral freedom,” says analyst Alfredo Molano. “Gustavo Petro is a step forward in defeating machine politics.”
Bogota is Colombia’s biggest city, its urban area Latin America’s sixth most populous. Its gritty southern districts teem with tens of thousands of refugees from the country’s long-running conflicts.
The voting in the capital was part of a nationwide program of regional and municipal elections, with 32 governorships and more than 1,100 mayoral and municipal council posts being contested.
Electoral watchdog groups reported some vote-buying in rural areas but relatively few voting irregularities.
Less than two weeks before the vote, 20 soldiers were killed in two separate attacks blamed on FARC rebels, which have commonly made election-day attacks.
But there were no reports of rebel violence Sunday, and President Juan Manuel Santos declared it among Colombia’s most peaceful election days.
Regional and municipal elections tend to be a better barometer than presidential votes in Colombia of the relative health of the country’s democracy.
This year, illegal armed groups including the FARC and right-wing bands, both fortified by drug trafficking profits, intimidated candidates throughout rural Colombia.
Violence has been on the uptick since Santos was elected in mid-2010, and at least 42 candidates in local races were killed in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s vote.
Petro, who begins his four-year term as mayor Jan. 1, has been harshly critical of the FARC, saying it is tainted by its involvement in drug trafficking and ransom kidnappng.
It is nothing, he says, like the M-19 movement that he joined at age 17 while a civic organizer. Six years later, he would graduate from Bogota’s prestigious Externado University with an economics degree.
Petro and his former comrades and relatives say he was never involved in violence, working instead to clandestinely recruit and organize for M-19.
“He was a small, fragile, skinny person with myopia,” his sister, Adriana, said in 2007.
M-19 was named for April 19, the date of the 1970 presidential election that many Colombians believe was stolen in favour of the Conservative Party candidate, Misael Pastrana.
Friends say the outrage expressed by Petro’s mother over that outcome led him into leftist politics.
While the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is a mostly peasant guerrilla force formed in 1964, M-19 was a more classic Latin American rebel group formed largely by urban, middle-class intellectuals.
It became renowned for publicity-seeking actions including the theft of the sword of Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar and the 1980 two-month takeover of the embassy of the Dominican Republic.
Petro was not personally involved in M-19’s greatest fiasco: the 1985 takeover of the Palace of Justice in which more than 100 people, including 11 Supreme Court justices, were killed.
M-19’s detractors contend the late drug lord Pablo Escobar financed the takeover. Petro vehemently denies this, and blames an unprovoked storming by the military for the deaths.
Captured 20 days before the raid, Petro still has scars from a week of torture in which he says he was shocked and beaten, denied food and almost drowned. He was jailed for a year and a half for rebellion.
He made the mistake the previous year of publicly announcing his M-19 affiliation after the government and rebels forged a truce that would later fall apart. It forced him to go underground.
After M-19 signed a peace pact with the government in 1990, Petro helped to rewrite Colombia’s constitution the following year. Petro was then elected to Congress.
Gustavo Petro spent most of the last two decades in Congress and, after being elected senator in 2006 began revealing details of the Colombian “parapolitics” scandal: close collaboration between lawmakers and far-right militias known as “paramilitaries”. The investigations wound up sending more than 60 politicians to prison from crimes ranging from criminal conspiracy to murder.
Last year, Petro helped uncover a bid-rigging scandal in Bogota that landed Samuel Moreno, the city’s previous elected mayor, into jail facing corruption charges.
The state found that some $1.2 billion in government funds had been diverted during the process of awarding government contracts, including the contract for constructing the avenue that links Bogota’s center with its international airport.