Born in the rural north Colombian town of Ciénaga de Oro, Petro spent his youth in the ranks of a leftist guerrilla movement, the 19th of April Movement (M19) — founded to protest against allegations of fraud in the 1970 elections.
The group was part of a so-called second wave of guerrilla movements in the country that swept the region in the 1970s under the influence of the Cuban Revolution.
M19 was associated with illegal activity — including alleged kidnappings for ransom — but Petro says he carried out legal activities that aimed to mobilize people to stand up to what he called a “false democracy,” even serving as a councilman in the city of Zipaquirá.
Petro was detained by the police in 1985 for concealing weapons. Shortly after, M19 launched an attack to take over Bogota’s Supreme Court building that left at least 98 people killed, including 12 magistrates (11 are still missing). Petro denies he was involved in the assault, which took place while he was behind bars.
By the time Petro was released in 1987, after 18 months in military jail, his ideological perspective had changed. He said that time helped him realize that an armed revolution was not the best strategy to win popular support.
Two years later, M19 entered peace negotiations with the Colombian state, with Petro ready to fight the system from the inside.
Third time’s a charm?
Since entering civilian life, Petro has worked across several public institutions. He’s served as an alderman, a diplomat in Colombia’s embassy in Brussels, a Congressman, as the Mayor of Bogota and a Senator — twice. His time as mayor was marred by clashes with the national government and, in 2013, he was removed from office by the Prosecutor’s Office amid a controversial reform in garbage collection. He was banned from seeking public office for 15 years. However, he was able to complete his term as a court ordered then President Juan Manuel Santos to reinstate him. He was ultimately vindicated in 2020, when the Inter American Human Rights Court ruled that several of his rights had been violated, among them the guarantee of impartiality, the principles of jurisdiction and presumed innocence, and the right to defense.
Petro launched two presidential bids, in 2010 and 2018, but ultimately failed to gain the support of the country’s majority who still saw him a radical left-wing outsider — no small feat for a politician looking to win the hearts of an electorate in one of South America’s most conservative countries.
On his third attempt, Petro is not alone on his promises to change the status quo, as his runoff rival, Hernández, also claims the label of outsider and disruptor.
Both candidates have sought to take advantage of how many Colombians are fed up with right-wing President Iván Duque — a leader whose tenure has been defined by his administration’s handling of police conduct, inequality, and clashes between organized criminal groups.
Petro’s party and allies are already the largest bloc in the Senate — albeit they do not control a majority of seats.
A record 8.5 million voters propelled him to victory in the first round on May 29, with Petro winning more than 40% of the vote.
The support Petro has garnered can be partially attributed to Colombia’s worsening socioeconomic situation, including deteriorating living conditions, made worse by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine.
Petro has historically campaigned in favor of higher corporate taxes and public subsidies for the working class and the poor, a tactic that might help him draw more people from that demographic to his camp.
A steady campaign
Since losing the 2018 election, Petro has consistently tried to play down fears that his economic plan — which also proposes a halt to fossil fuel explorations and renegotiation of international trade agreements — is “too radical” for Colombia. He has since surrounded himself with more traditional politicians who could build bridges with the establishment.
Now, he’s presenting himself as a new type of progressive.
In April, he signed a pledge not to expropriate any private land if elected. He’s also tipped a moderate to be his economic minister, and has sought to make international ties with new progressives, such as the United States’ Congressional Progressive Caucus, rather than traditional left-wing leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
His critics have said he is too intellectual and detached — if not outright pedantic, with even his own campaign team referring to him as “the Petroxplainer,” given his tendency to lecture.
To counter this, he’s been campaigning in some of the country’s most impoverished areas, where he’s been chatting with locals in conversations streamed on Instagram.
Petro is betting on Colombians to believe in him as an evolved politician, telling CNN that he’s managed to successfully combine his revolutionary zeal with practice public management.
Now, the former guerrilla fighter — whose nom-de-guerre Aureliano Buendia is taken from writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude — hopes to trigger a scientific revolution in Colombia, asking economists to run through his proposals.
“Magical realism comes from the heart while my scientific proposals are from the brain. To rule you need them both,” he said.