Hardened by defeats, the former mayor of Bogota is a stubborn left-wing politician who aspires, on his third attempt, to achieve the highest office. He now has a good chance of winning against an independent candidate, Rodolfo Hernandez, in the second round on June 19.
The senator wants nothing less than to change the course of “200 years of history,” as he has repeatedly said throughout his campaign. “Making speeches is now part of my nature,” he wrote in his memoir, “One Life, Many Lives.”
Mr. Petro advocates a break with the elites that have traditionally governed Colombia. His rise also frightens conservatives, businessmen, large landowners and soldiers, who fear a “leap into the void” if the left wins.
His opponents are also happy to attack him on his past within the M-19, a far-left guerrilla of urban origin which signed a peace agreement in 1990.
The candidate for “change” describes himself as a “progressive” rather than a “leftist”, aware of the rejection that the term can cause in a country martyred by six decades of conflict with various guerrillas.
Threatened with death on several occasions and forced into a three-year exile in Europe, he is today one of the politicians most protected by the security forces that he himself fought: he holds a meeting dressed in a bulletproof vest, surrounded by armored shields and about twenty bodyguards.
In February, this trained economist confessed to AFP his fear of being assassinated.
– “Mediocre” fighter –
The rebellion of Gustavo Petro, from a middle-class family and educated by priests, is rooted in his rejection of Chile’s 1973 military coup against President Salvador Allende, as well as alleged “electoral fraud ” in the same period against a Colombian popular party.
A great admirer of the Nobel Prize for Literature Gabriel Garcia Marquez, he had adopted during his clandestinity the name of Aureliano, a character from “A Hundred Years of Solitude”.
But he was always a “mediocre” fighter, said his comrades in arms. Arrested and tortured by the army, he was imprisoned for a year and a half.
In his memoirs, he writes: “Unlike many of my comrades, I never felt a military vocation (…) what I wanted to do was revolution”. Since then he presents himself as a “revolutionary” in several areas, “with a preference for (helping) the poorest”.
The candidate of the “Historical Pact” coalition has promised a vast ecological program and intends to reform the progression of the military within the army, which he considers elitist.
One of the key words of his campaign – “life” – is directly inspired by his Catholicism, influenced by Liberation Theology. He is also the only candidate in this election to have met Pope Francis.
In the event of victory, the soldiers will have to swear loyalty to this former guerrilla and accept the peace negotiations which he wishes to relaunch with the rebellions which are still active, as well as the amnesty which he intends to offer to the drug traffickers.
After his exile in Europe, Gustavo Petro became deputy, senator, then mayor of Bogota from 2012 to 2015.
As a parliamentarian, he denounced the links between far-right politicians and paramilitary groups. But his time as mayor of the capital left the image of an authoritarian man, a bad manager, attracting powerful opponents.
One of his advisers at that time, Daniel Garcia-Peña, thus distanced himself from his mentor because of his “despotism” and his “difficulty working in a team”, while recognizing his intelligence and his knowledge of the country.
“He was fighting several fights at the same time and that generated a lot of frustration in the goals he had set for himself,” he told AFP.
Passionate about geography, Gustavo Petro is married and father of six children.