In 1983, equipped with little more than a shovel and a surplus of revolutionary ideals, the then-clandestine militant led some 400 squatter families in a months-long, pitched battle with local authorities to secure a plot of land to build their ramshackle homes here in Zipaquira, a city north of Bogota. Their rallying cry was simple: “A roof and a dignified life.”
Thirty five years later, the founders of the “Bolivar 83” barrio still living in the slum celebrate Petro’s rise as their own. The leftist candidate will face off against conservative Ivan Duque on Sunday in Colombia’s presidential runoff election.
“He taught us to call each other comrades, not neighbors,” remembers Ana Miriam Chitiva, proudly pointing to photos hung on her modest home’s wall of the barrio’s early days, when the bespectacled, introverted Petro would help her lug concrete pipes and carve out dirt roads from the rocky, forested hillside.
The same crusading spirit has accompanied Petro throughout his four-decade political ascent. He’s gone from fearless lawmaker who tormented Colombia’s political class, to the renegade mayor of Bogota who took on powerful private interests and now a surprise, surging finalist in the country’s first presidential election since the signing of a historic peace accord.
The two-man race between Petro and Duque has tightened in the final stretch, with one poll indicating Petro having climbed to within 6 points of his conservative rival. In the first round of voting three weeks ago, Duque topped Petro by more than 14 points.
Whoever is elected will lead Colombia at a crucial juncture. The country is in the early stages of implementing an accord with leftist rebels to end Latin America’s longest running conflict. But cocaine production has soared in areas vacated by the rebels, threatening to undo security gains and testing traditionally close relations with the U.S.
Petro has vowed to fulfill the 310-page accord’s lofty aspirations to tackle poverty and unequal land distribution. Duque meanwhile wants to roll back some of the accord’s benefits for top commanders until they confess their war crimes and compensate victims.
For Petro to even be within striking distance of Duque is a major feat — never before in Colombia’s history has a leftist been so close to the apex of power.
To get this far he’s had to soften his sometimes radical rhetoric, even going so far as to hold up mock stone tablets inscribed with 12 “commandments” committing him to stay clear of expropriating private property and earlier calls to rewrite the constitution.
He’s also had to overcome comparisons with the late socialist revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez that the Colombian right-wing has labelled “Castro-Chavismo,” a smear bandied about so much during the campaign that Petro’s 7-year-old daughter has come up with a left-stepping dance to parody the accusations.
Business elites have thrown their support squarely behind Duque, the hand-picked candidate of powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, fearful that Petro’s efforts to present himself as a moderate are a ruse.
Even some fellow leftists worry about a messianic streak.
Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former peace negotiator for Petro’s 19th of April Movement, or M-19, said his former comrade always stood out for his sharp intellect and shrewd political instincts — as well as a self-defeating tendency to shun others’ opinions. But with his fledgling political movement occupying just four of 107 seats in the senate and an even smaller number in the lower house, he’ll need to build bridges if elected president.
“The truth is he’s always been a little selfish,” said Wolff, who is among a group of high-profile leftists that belatedly endorsed Petro in the runoff after backing another, less polarizing candidate in the first round. He said the support was not a blank check, however. “If you want to get things done as president you can’t act alone.”
Petro, 58, was born on the same day — April 19 — that would give rise to the guerrilla movement that he joined as a muckraking teenage journalist in Zipaquira. His nom de guerre was Aureliano, for a protagonist from “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the beloved work by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But in “Bolivar 83,” most of whose residents didn’t know of his double life at first, he was called “Flaco” — Spanish for skinny — or “Little Gustavo.”
After the housing fight was won, Petro was hunted down. While on the run, he’d jump between the homes of Chitiva and a sisterhood of single moms in “Bolivar 83” who now proudly call themselves “Petro’s girlfriends.” Once they even disguised him in high heels, lipstick and tight-fitting dress so he could slip past an army barricade.
Eventually his luck ran out and in a 1985 raid by the army he was discovered hiding in a hole dug next to one of the homes he helped build. He was taken to an army base in Bogota and beaten, and eventually spent two years in jail on weapons charges.
“Those who seek to brand Gustavo a guerrilla and a killer don’t realize he didn’t carry a weapon in his hands,” said Gonzalo Suarez, a fellow M-19 militant.
“His biggest and most powerful weapon was, and still is, his deft mind, which is always focused on helping the poorest and worst off people in Colombia,” said Suarez.
Petro rose to national prominence in 2006 leading a crusade to expose the alliance between conservative allies of then-President Uribe and right-wing paramilitary groups.
In hours-long televised speeches from the senate floor that mesmerized much of Colombia, he revealed evidence accusing Uribe of providing political cover for the formation of the militias as a governor in the 1990s and the personal involvement of his brother in murder and forced disappearances. Being so outspoken in a country where landholding elites have traditionally governed with impunity engendered numerous death threats.
But his allegations spurred the arrest and watershed conviction of dozens of politicians and members of congress for criminal ties to the paramilitaries. A decade later Santiago Uribe is now on trial for leading a death squad known as the 12 Apostles.
During his rise, U.S. officials viewed Petro as a radical “populist” in the mold of Chavez, according to a 2006 secret U.S. Embassy cable written by then deputy chief of mission Milton Drucker and published by pro-transparency group Wikileaks. But two years later, Ambassador William Brownfield in another cable described him as “pragmatic.”
But some fellow leftists blame him for unilaterally cutting deals with President Juan Manuel Santos following his election in 2010.
The same go-it-alone streak was on display as mayor of Bogota, where he earned numerous enemies by banning bull fights, cutting bus fares and transferring control of private garbage collection to a city agency. For the latter he was ousted in 2014 by the Inspector General and banned from holding public office for 15 years. But the punishment was overturned and he was reinstated a month later by a judge acting in accordance with findings by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
“There’s no doubt he’s got a strong character,” said Maria Mercedes Maldonado, the candidate’s top policy adviser. “But that’s what you need if you want to risk making meaningful transformations.”