Left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro has been fighting Colombia’s far-right paramilitaries for decades. The revelation of a recent plot to murder Petro is unsurprising, but his campaign still appears strong ahead of Sunday’s election.
On May 6, the campaign of presidential candidate Gustavo Petro announced that it had uncovered a credible threat to the life of the left-wing politician. The attempted assassination would have taken place during his visit to Colombia’s coffee-growing region on May 3 and 4. The Petro team presented a detailed security briefing to the attorney general’s office that documented a plan by La Cordillera paramilitary organization to target the progressive candidate, who leads in all the polls for the presidential election due to be held on May 29.
La Cordillera is well known for its paramilitary activities in Colombia, which include drug trafficking and hired assassinations. There is also evidence linking La Cordillera to politicians, members of the police, the Colombian army, and the Judicial Investigation Police (SIJIN), as well as local businessmen close to former president and far-right political caudillo Álvaro Uribe Vélez.
The Paramilitary Nexus
Links between criminal organizations and public officials are unfortunately all too common in Colombia. The close relationship between the state, paramilitaries, and drug trafficking dates back to the 1980s, when the US-backed “war on drugs” began to intensify and the country saw escalating political violence.
With the arrival of Uribe to power in 2002, paramilitary organizations penetrated even deeper into various state agencies. There have been multiple convictions of Uribe-allied ministers, congressmen, governors and mayors, military officials, and police officers for collusion with paramilitaries. Uribe himself has more than two hundred pending legal investigations against him in national courts as well as several in international tribunals.
It is little surprise that these Mafia-like interests are willing to take any measure necessary to prevent Petro’s victory. Gustavo Petro has dedicated a large part of his political career to investigating and denouncing this network of corruption, drug trafficking, and far-right political conspiracy that is largely responsible for the violence and terror for which Colombia has, unfortunately, come to be known.
Should he win, Petro’s Historical Pact government would have the mission of transforming the country into a true democratic republic. This would mean undoing the power of the existing oligarchy defended by Uribe, the paramilitaries, and the small group of powerful families that have enriched themselves by laundering drug money and embezzling from the national treasury.
Nor is it any surprise that Petro and his family have been targeted in the past with harassment and threats. In several cases, such incidents have forced Petro’s close relatives into exile. Francia Márquez, his running mate, has also received several serious threats: in 2019, she survived an attempt on her life. Sadly, even high-profile politicians are not immune to the violent reality of Colombia, the number one country in the world for assassinations of trade unionists, environmentalists, and human rights defenders.
In the first quarter of 2022 alone, at least forty-eight social leaders were murdered, and twenty-seven massacres took place in the country’s rural interior. The social uprising of 2021 left another grisly balance sheet: eighty-four young people were murdered, dozens survived with mutilated eyes, and at least thirty-five were victims of sexual assault. This is without even counting the unconfirmed number of demonstrators forcibly disappeared — presumably by police or paramilitaries — during the demonstrations.
A History of Political Murder
Colombia has a painful history of assassinations, including several presidential candidates of a left-wing or independent liberal stripe. In 1914, the liberal, socialist-leaning Rafael Uribe Uribe (distantly related to the more nefarious Uribe) was assassinated during a presidential election. In 1948, the assassination of liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán triggered a decade-long cycle of brutal violence between liberals and conservatives that gave way to a new phase of armed conflict that Colombia has suffered since 1964.
Starting in the 1980s, against the backdrop of a tenuous peace agreement between the government and left-wing guerrilla groups, a number of popular presidential candidates were assassinated. The first was Jaime Pardo Leal, a candidate for the Patriotic Union party (formed from an alliance of the FARC and the Communist Party), who was brutally murdered in 1987.
Between 1989 and 1990, three candidates were assassinated in quick succession: Luis Carlos Galán, a liberal politician who stood up to the drug cartels; Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, who had inherited the leadership of the Patriotic Union from Pardo Leal a year earlier, and Carlos Pizarro, a former commander of the M-19 guerrilla group (which had just signed a peace agreement). Later, in 1995, the conservative leader and former presidential candidate Alvaro Gómez Hurtado was assassinated in plain daylight.
Needless to say, national leaders were not the only targets of such assassination campaigns. Between 1987 and 1992, right-wing paramilitaries and cartels annihilated the Patriotic Union, taking the lives of nearly four thousand party members. Tragically, it was the ceasefire agreement signed between the FARC and the government that led to the massacre, carried out by those who feared the political changes that a peace process might bring to Colombia.
A New Colombia
With that history in mind, the threats against the lives of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez are anything but trivial. The sense of anxiety is compounded by an electoral environment full of rumors of systematic fraud and vote buying, with fake news, entrapment, and media attacks deployed against the campaign of Pero and Marquez. It’s little wonder that the left-wing campaign headquarters is on high alert.
Confronted with the Petro campaign’s well-documented evidence of threats, the incumbent president Iván Duque claimed that the information could not be sufficiently verified. This attitude is worrying, not only because it brings into question the seriousness of the government’s commitment to guarantee the life and security of presidential candidates but also because of its partiality. In contrast, Duque’s administration responded to a recently reported threat against the life of right-wing candidate Federico Gutiérrez by providing him with a security detail.
The mayor of Medellín, Daniel Quintero, has announced that he has information about a future plan against Petro. In view of Petro’s ability to fill public squares with his charisma and his direct appeal to the crowd, the threats may ultimately be part of an effort to derail his campaign.
The Petro-Márquez ticket is more than capable of winning against the corrupt electoral machinery of Uribe’s right-wing bloc. The vehemence of right-wing reactions gives us a sense of the kind of transformations that their victory might bring to Colombia.
The Colombian elite has run all the numbers and is beginning to fear that no amount of vote buying, electoral manipulation, or bribing of electoral juries will be enough this time to silence the voice of the people. When cornered, the Colombian right is at its most dangerous.
Colombian society has radically changed in the last few years. A new generation of Colombians has awoken and taken to the streets, overcoming the fear of repression and violence, and daring to dream of a different, more peaceful society. Four years after Uribe’s right-hand man, Iván Duque, took power after condemning the peace agreement with the FARC, in the wake of a dreadful pandemic and a massive social uprising under Duque’s rule, Colombia finally seems to have gathered enough critical mass to push for major social transformation.