When Gustavo Petro joined Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla movement in the late 1970s, he assumed the nom de guerre Aureliano in homage to Colonel Aureliano Buendía, a character in Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. The choice was apt. Like the fictional colonel, Petro is a dogged survivor of setbacks, defeats and attempts on his life.
Last Sunday, the 62-year-old economist won Colombia’s presidential election at his third attempt. In August he will be sworn in as the first truly leftwing leader in the country’s history.
“For the first time, a man who doesn’t belong to the elite, who’s not from the traditional parties, who’s not from the same old families, will be president,” says Darío Villamizar, a former M-19 militant who has written extensively about Colombia’s guerrillas and has known Petro for years. “That’s the great importance of this moment.”
Like García Márquez, Petro was born in northern Colombia, close to the Caribbean. His family emigrated from Italy in the 19th century. In his memoirs, One Life, Many Lives, the father of five, who has been married three times, says an early memory was of his own father gifting him a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It led him to read García Márquez “from top to bottom”.
Like the novelist, Petro went to secondary school far from the Caribbean in the mountain town of Zipaquirá, just outside Bogotá. By a twist of fate, the two men went to the same college, although a generation apart.
Petro was drawn to leftwing politics and joined the 19th of April Movement — M-19 for short. The group took its name from the presidential election of 1970, widely regarded as rigged by the Colombian establishment. Fittingly, April 19 is also Petro’s birthday.
As Colombia’s civil conflict intensified in the 1980s, the army moved in to Zipaquirá to flush out guerrillas. Petro hid in a tunnel but soldiers found and detained him. Years later, Petro recalls, a man approached him and said he was the soldier who had arrested him, and that he had defied orders to throw a grenade into the tunnel. “That soldier saved my life,” Petro wrote.
Petro spent the next two years in military detention and jail; he said he was tortured before his trial. He watched the M-19’s most infamous action, the storming of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá in 1985, on a prison television. Around 100 people were killed, including judges and innocent bystanders. It was “a disaster for the country and the M-19”, he wrote.
When the guerrillas disarmed five years later, Petro helped draw up Colombia’s 1991 constitution, the start of his long march to the presidency through conventional, peaceful channels. He served in Congress and the Senate, gaining a reputation as a gifted orator and diligent researcher, exposing links between conservative politicians and rightwing paramilitaries.
“That was when he really made a name for himself,” says Carlos Ramón González, an ex-M-19 militant who served with him in Congress. “He was extraordinarily brave and he produced real results. Because of his denunciations, the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of various members of Congress.”
In 2010 Petro stood for the presidency for the first time, coming fourth, before being elected mayor of Bogotá. Critics say his tenure was chaotic and he ignored his aides. One adviser, Daniel García-Peña, quit within months, saying “a despot from the left, just because he is from the left, does not stop being a despot”. He berated Petro for his lack of punctuality, describing it as “nothing other than a deep disrespect for others”.
The two men have since made their peace. But many observers feel Petro, who is prone to long, rambling speeches and talking about himself in quasi-messianic terms and in the third person, is unlikely to change much as president.
“He picks fights with everyone, even his own allies,” said James Bosworth of Hxagon, a political risk consultancy. “He has a reputation for being difficult to work with. The qualities that made Petro good in opposition don’t make for a particularly unifying political leader.”
Petro defends his time as mayor, saying poverty in the capital declined by two-thirds and the murder rate dropped to its lowest in more than two decades.
“The best manager Colombia had in those four years was called Petro,” he told the Financial Times in an interview, in which he expanded on his political, economic and environmental philosophy developed during years of study in Colombia, Belgium and Spain.
“Keynes was discarded throughout the world, not because Keynes’s approaches were wrong but because we entered a different phase. People called it globalisation and believed it was better, but it has had tremendous consequences. Forty years or so after entering that phase, we face the climate crisis.”
Petro “has a tendency to think that he is the only person capable of ‘speaking for the people’,” says Paca Zuleta of the University of the Andes in Bogotá. “He has a big ego, for sure, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a politician.”
Petro has faced death threats and attacks throughout his career. In the 2018 presidential campaign, his car was attacked in the city of Cúcuta. He escaped unhurt. This year, he wore a bulletproof vest and addressed crowds from behind Kevlar shields held aloft by bodyguards.
Petro’s ascent to the presidency has been strewn with obstacles, disagreements and controversy. As he embarks on the biggest challenge of his career, he will need all his well-honed survival instincts.