Before running for president, Gustavo Petro was a guerrilla fighter

Long before Gustavo Petro emerged as the seemingly victorious left-wing presidential candidate, he was part of the M-19, a city guerrilla group trying to seize power through violence in the name of promoting social justice.

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

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

The M-19 was an urban military group formed by university students, activists and artists who wanted to overthrow a system of government that they believed had failed to bridge a chronic divide between the rich and the poor.

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

It originally tried to promote a Robin Hood image, stole milk from supermarket trucks to distribute in poor neighborhoods, and in a symbolic act of rebellion stole a sword from a museum used by Simón Bolívar during Colombia’s war of independence.

Sir. Petro, 62, joined the group when he was 17 and economics student, appalled by the poverty he experienced in the city where he lived, outside the capital Bogotá.

While the M-19 was less brutal than other rebel groups, it orchestrated what is considered one of the bloodiest acts in the country’s recent history: the siege of Colombia’s national courthouse in 1985, which led to a fight with the police and military, leaving 94 people dead.

The group also stole 5,000 weapons from the Colombian military and used kidnapping as a tactic to try to wrest government concessions.

Mr. Petro, who spent 10 years in the M-19, stockpiled largely stolen weapons, said Sandra Borda, a professor of political science at the Andean University in Bogotá.

“The most important thing is that he was not part of the main circle that made the decisions in M-19. He was very young at that moment,” she said. “He did not participate in the main operations of M-19, the military operations. . “

At the time of the takeover of the courthouse, Mr Petro was in prison for his involvement in the group, and he has described being beaten and electrocuted by the authorities.

The group demobilized in late 1990, which was considered one of the most successful peace processes in the country’s long conflict history. It became a political party that helped rewrite the country’s constitution to focus more on equality and human rights.

Mr. Petro ran for the Senate as a member of the party, launching his political career.

Sofia Villamil and Julie Turkewitz contributed reporting from Bogotá.

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