Now Petro, a former senator, says he just might change this traffic-choked city of 8 million, which he says could be a model of good governance for the rest of the country.
Bogota, to be sure, has a history of electing creative, even quirky mayors. One two-time mayor, Antanas Mockus, dressed in a spandex suit, calling himself Super Citizen to teach people about civics. Another mayor, Luis Eduardo Garzon, a union boss and son of a live-in maid to the Bogota elite, focused resources on the city’s run-down public schools.
The arrival of Petro, though, is particularly startling in a country whose electorate tends to be center-right. The main credential everyone seems to recall about Petro — his days as a clandestine operative of a once-potent guerrilla group — are not exactly a plus in a country tired of a long, if simmering, rebel conflict.
Former president Alvaro Uribe, for instance, calls Petro “a terrorist in civilian clothing.”
And U.S. officials for a long time distrusted him.
In secret diplomatic cables from 2006 made public by WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota scoffed at Petro’s “grandstanding” in Congress and reported that he “cultivates public linkages” to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s stridently anti-American president.
Petro had, indeed, at one time been supportive of Chavez.
But he later condemned the populist leader, as well as the country’s ultra-violent rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He also broke with Colombia’s deeply divided and troubled leftist party, the Polo, while making a name for himself criticizing Uribe.
“Petro has been a party ‘free agent,’ condemning the FARC, anachronistic Polo security policies and Uribe with equal fervor,” a 2008 American cable that was more positive about Petro said.
Political analysts note that the election of a leftist, one who is generally critical of the business community, is a blow to the FARC, which contends that the only path to power is armed insurrection.
Growing up in a small working-class city, Petro at 17 joined the M-19, a group influenced by youthful urban intellectuals. It was initially known for audacious acts, such as stealing the sword of Colombia’s independence hero, Simon Bolivar. The group collapsed after its disastrously bloody 1985 takeover of the Supreme Court.
But Petro is recalled as more of an ideologue than a fighter.
“In the passion of the ’80s and being young, we were always thinking about military action,” said Francisco Cardona, a former M-19 guerrilla. “And even then, Gustavo was a thinker, thinking about ideology, constructing political ideas. It was curious, to have someone so young, who was small, in a guerrilla group and we would say, ‘He should be a lawyer.’ ”
That is not to say he is not forceful, even relentless. In Congress, he held hearing after hearing to reveal links between his colleagues, most of them allies of the popular Uribe, and right-wing death squads. Dozens of those lawmakers are now in jail.
The question some in Bogota are asking themselves now is how Petro will apply that background to patching up potholes and improving public schools.
Petro’s retort is that he is a corruption fighter, which has struck a chord with Bogota voters, because the previous mayor, Samuel Moreno, is now in jail.
“No program will work if there’s corruption,” Petro said. “The Bogota administration was taken over by the underworld figures who took over public contracting. We need to end that. Public ethics and social justice go hand in hand.”