Before devoting himself to politics, Petro was part of a city guerrilla

Long before Gustavo Petro emerged as a left-wing candidate for the Colombian presidency, he was part of the M-19, a city guerrilla group trying to seize power in the name of social justice.

For some Colombian voters, his past is a source of concern after decades of armed conflict in the country. For others, it is a sign of hope in one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.

M-19 was born in 1970 in response to an alleged fraud in the presidential election that year. It was much smaller than the country’s most important guerrilla force, Colombia’s revolutionary armed forces, the FARC, which was Marxist and sought refuge in the jungles and rural areas of Colombia.

The M-19 was an urban military group made up of university students, activists and artists who tried to overthrow a system of government that they believed had failed to bridge a chronic gap between rich and poor.

“The M-19 was born in arms to build a democracy,” Petro told The New York Times in an interview.

Originally, the movement sought to promote a Robin Hood-like image: they stole milk from supermarket trucks to distribute in poor neighborhoods and stole in a symbolic revolt from a museum a sword that Simón Bolívar used in the War of Independence. Colombia.

Petro, 62, joined the group as a 17-year-old economics student who was appalled by the poverty he saw in the town where he lived, just outside Bogotá.

Although M-19 was less cruel than other rebel groups, it carried out an act considered to be one of the bloodiest in the country’s recent history: the siege of the Palace of Justice in 1985, which led to a confrontation with police and the army and left 94 people dead.

The group also stole 5,000 weapons from the Colombian army and resorted to kidnapping as a way to obtain concessions from the government.

Petro, who spent 10 years in the M-19, mostly kept weapons stolen by the group, said Sandra Borda, professor of political science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.

“The most important thing is that he was not part of the M-19’s main decision-making circle. I was very young at the time,” he said. “And he did not take part in the main operations of the M-19, the military operations.”

At the time of the conquest of the Palace of Justice, Petro was in prison for his participation in the group; He has said he was beaten and electrocuted by authorities.

Eventually, the group ended up demobilizing in 1990 in one of the peace processes considered to be among the most successful in the country’s long conflict history. It became a political party that helped rewrite the country’s constitution to make it more focused on equality and human rights.

Petro ran for the Senate as a member of the party, thus setting in motion his political career.

Sofia Villamil y Julie Turkewitz cooperation with reporting from Bogotá.

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