The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Behind bulletproof shields, Colombian candidates fear for their lives

Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, standing with his running mate Francia Márquez, addresses supporters in Cali on May 19. (Carolina Navas for The Washington Post)

CALI, Colombia — The stage was ready, surrounded by a small army of police officers, Indigenous guards and martial artists. A crowd of thousands, soaking wet from the rain, waved flags under the dark sky as they awaited the candidate vying to become Colombia’s first leftist president.

Also helping provide security to Gustavo Petro, the front-runner in the first round of the presidential election Sunday, was an unusual group of volunteers: Members of Cali’s front line, protesters at the epicenter of a massive nationwide uprising last year. Now, a year after they clashed with police, they stood beside hundreds of officers with a new mission: Protecting the candidate they saw as their only hope.

When Petro walked up, the crowd could hardly see him. He hid behind four men carrying large bulletproof shields. And as he spoke, the armor remained on either side of him, reminding those in the plaza of what it means to run for office in this South American country.

“So many people, time and time again, have tried to change history in Colombia,” Petro told the crowd last week in this city near the Pacific coast. He mentioned the names of leaders who have been assassinated, including Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a presidential hopeful whose death in 1948 set off decades of violence in the country. “Failure after failure, for two centuries, and now we’re on the cusp.”

Two days later, at a campaign event in Bogotá, someone pointed a laser at Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez. Bodyguards encircled her and she quickly finished her speech, audibly distressed, while standing behind their shields.

As Colombians head to the polls, the atmosphere here is more tense, uncertain and unstable than any election in at least a decade. An uptick in death threats against Petro have led the campaign to tighten security. The country’s rural north is still on edge after the Clan del Golfo cartel paralyzed more than 100 municipalities in retaliation for the extradition of their leader to the United States. Accusations of electoral irregularities and a decline in confidence in government are prompting concern that candidates on any side will claim election fraud.

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Colombia, a key U.S. ally in the hemisphere, has long been recognized for the strength of its democratic institutions, even amid a half century of armed conflict. But it has never come so close to a swing to the left — or such a drastic rebuke of the status quo.

“It’s a test of democracy,” said Camilo González Posso, president of the Colombia-based Institute for Development and Peace Studies.

If any candidate — especially a candidate as popular as Petro — loses by a thin margin and contests the results, Colombians worry, major cities could erupt in civil unrest.

On Saturday, Petro accused the government of plotting to suspend the May 29 elections in what he called “a coup against the popular vote.” Colombia’s interior minister quickly refuted the allegations and called on all candidates not to spread false information.

That’s taking a page from former president Donald Trump, a phenomenon seen in other countries in the region. “They’re conspiracy theories to take away the legitimacy of an election result,” said Armando Novoa Garcia, a former member of Colombia’s electoral council.

Concerns about the electoral system heightened after Colombia’s legislative elections in March, in which the country’s Election Observation Mission found “unusually large” discrepancies between the pre-count and the actual results recorded on ballots. But Javi López, the Spaniard who leads the European Union’s election observation mission in Colombia, said the problems that emerged have since been resolved.

López expressed the importance of generating confidence in the country’s electoral system. But he also said his team was monitoring, with concern, the inspector general’s recent suspension of the mayor of Medellín for his public support of Petro in the elections. “In terms of international standards, administrative organs don’t suspend elected officials,” López said.

If none of the candidates wins a majority in Sunday’s vote, the top two will go to a second round in late June. Polls show Petro, a 62-year-old senator and former guerrilla member, in the lead.

In recent weeks, it seemed almost certain that Petro would head to a second round with Federico Gutiérrez, the center-right former mayor of Medellín who sought to capture the votes of the political establishment. But recent polling shows a late surge for an outsider candidate who has drawn comparisons to Trump, the 77-year-old civil engineer and businessman Rodolfo Hernández whose social media presence has earned him the nickname “the old guy on TikTok.”

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If he manages to beat Gutiérrez, the country could see a close second-round race between two populist, anti-establishment candidates.

In the meantime, Petro faces more immediate risks — one’s to his life. He’s campaigning in a country where criminal groups have alliances in powerful places, where killings of social leaders are soaring, and where four presidential candidates, three of them on the left, have been assassinated in the past 35 years. One of them, Carlos Pizarro, was much like Petro: a former member of the guerrilla group called the 19th of April Movement, an organization that emerged to decry what it saw as fraudulent presidential elections in 1970.

In cities like Cali, Petro’s campaign is turning to extraordinary measures to help keep the candidate safe. More than 1,000 police officers, in addition to Petro’s government-funded bodyguards, were deployed to help secure the area. And about three days before the rally in Cali, front line members said, campaign leaders reached out to them for help.

The protesters faced off against police one year ago in historic nationwide protests initially in response to a controversial tax reform. Police responded with brutal force, killing at least 25 people, according to Human Rights Watch.

The hundreds of front line demonstrators in Cali were a particularly polarizing group. To some, they were fearless community leaders who were gassed, beaten and shot at by police. To others, they were violent instigators who blocked roads, destroyed buildings and looted businesses.

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Juan Carlos Ruíz Vásquez, a professor at the Universidad del Rosario and former adviser to Colombia’s defense ministry, said their participation in Petro’s security “seems extremely serious.” Petro’s critics already question his relationship with them.

National police Lt. Col. Carlos Alberto Feria Buitrago, head of security for Petro, said volunteers such as the front line are simply providing logistical support to help manage the crowd. The candidate’s official security team coordinates only with government authorities, he said.

But some front line members standing near the stage wore black shirts with the word “security.” They coordinated with police officers and helped set up barricades. Talking through radios, they watched the crowds for unusual behavior, at one point flagging suspicious movement on a rooftop, using skills they gained through months of navigating violent protests. They laid out exit strategies, discussing the option of rushing Petro into the church behind the stage in the event of a threat. Some carried the same painted metal shields they used during last year’s protests.

One near the stage was Heidel Arboleda, 35, a member of the front line at Puerto Resistencia, one of the most important points of protest in the city.

“The right doesn’t want to let go of power, and that worries us,” Arboleda said. “They want to scare us.”

But another front line member, Hernando Muñoz, said they’re no longer afraid.

“We lost that fear in the streets,” Muñoz said. “We have nothing left to lose.”

Diana Durán contributed to this report.

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