Long before Gustavo Petro emerged as the clear winner of the left-wing presidential candidate, he was part of the M-19, an urban guerrilla group trying to seize power by force in the name of promoting social justice.
For some Colombian voters, his past has been a source of concern after decades of armed conflict. For others, it was a sign of hope for one of the most unjust countries in Latin America.
The M-19 was born in 1970 in response to alleged fraud in the presidential election that year. It was much smaller than the main guerrilla force in the country, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, which was Marxist and sought refuge in the jungles and rural areas of Colombia.
M-19 was an urban military group made up of students, activists and artists who wanted to overthrow a system of government that they believed failed to bridge the chronic divide between rich and poor.
“The M-19 was born with a weapon to build democracy,” he said. This was said by Peter in an interview with The New York Times.
He initially tried to promote the image of Robin Hood by robbing milk from supermarket trucks for distribution in slums, and in a symbolic act of rebellion stole a sword from a museum that Simon Bolivar used in the Colombian War of Independence.
Mr. Petro, 62, joined the group when he was 17 and an economics student, frightened by the poverty he witnessed in the city where he lives, outside the capital of Bogota.
Although the M-19 was less brutal than other rebel groups, it organized 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 battle with police and military, 94 people died.
The group also stole 5,000 weapons from the Colombian military and used kidnapping as a tactic to try to extort concessions from the government.
Mr. Peter, who spent 10 years in the M-19, largely stored stolen weapons, said Sandra Borda, a professor of political science at the University of the Andes in Bogota.
“The key is that he was not part of the main decision-making circle in the M-19. He was very young at the time, “she said. “He did not take part in the most important M-19 operations, the military operations.”
During the takeover of the building of justice, Mr. Peter was in prison for his part in the group and was described as being beaten and electrocuted by authorities.
The group eventually demobilized in 1990, considered one of the country’s most successful peace processes, a long history of conflict. It has become a political party that has 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, marking the beginning of his political career.
Sofia Vilamil and Julie Turkiewicz contributed to a report from Bogotá.