By Robert Works
On October 30, 2011, Bogotá elected Gustavo Petro as its next mayor. After earning a plurality of 32 percent of the vote in a highly contested election, Petro—a former member of the leftist M19 guerilla movement—made history as the first ex-guerilla to have won this post. During that same week, the Colombian government arguably achieved its greatest victory against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by killing its top leader Guillermo León Sáenz, otherwise known as ‘Alfonso Cano’. These two significant events could mark a pivotal point forColombia’s future and for that of its major insurgency group, which recently chose a new commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry. Most importantly, Petro’s election toColombia’s second-most significant political post presents both a symbolic and concrete path forward for the two adversaries to create a new political framework for negotiations.
Petro, an unapologetic former member of the M19, has enjoyed a remarkable political career. He has been a former presidential candidate, a senator, and will now be the mayor of Bogotá. His political counterpart and comrade-in-arms, Antonio Navarro Wolff, who at one time served as the second-in-command of the M19, is currently the governor of the Department of Nariño and was one of three presidents of the Constituent Assembly of Colombia tasked with writing the country’s constitution in 1991. Petro’s recent election and the continued electoral successes of former leaders and members of the M19 demonstrate that political reconciliation between former internal armed actors and Bogotá officials could provide one of the prudent paths forward in a move toward a more stable, democratic, and secureColombia.
With the news of Alfonso Cano’s death, President Juan Manuel Santos saw an opportunity to call on the FARC to demobilize. His recent political dialogue has indicated a style that features a strong departure from that of the previous Álvaro Uribe administration, with the virtual disappearance of the word ‘terrorist’ from the official state mantra with which it described all internal armed actors. This significant change on the part of President Santos, the recent killing of Alfonso Cano, and Petro’s political success now offer a narrow, if unique environment for the possibility of a fruitful negotiation with the next leader of the FARC.
Petro and other former leaders of the M19 have successfully proven that the political process can achieve results. Although the M19 and the FARC differ substantially in composition and legitimacy, both groups have achieved levels of support amongst the Colombian population and, most importantly, amongst those members of the populace largely marginalized from the democratic process. The M19 has found significant support in the leftist urban intellectual classes while the FARC continues to emerge as a stalwart among the rural poor.
Echeverry has a pivotal decision to make: to continue a war without end against the state that will only continue to harm the interests of its supporters, or to reconcile and move on a trajectory that just might yield legitimacy to a vilified ‘advocate’. If the next leader of the FARC should take the path that the M19 leadership took and attempt, albeit with slight success, to integrate with Colombian society, this could provide for an exit strategy. Thus, the next leader of the FARC could try shocking the Colombian political establishment by reaching out to President Santos and offering the chance for political dialogue and reconciliation.
President Santos has possibly achieved a major victory against the FARC, but he knows that a lasting triumph can only be achieved by a peaceful, stable, and more democratic Colombia, which currently remains captive by an internal war. Colombia, indeed, is at a crossroads, but it is time that the FARC leadership and President Santos both seize the present opportunity to make history and achieve a long-lasting peace that features equity, genuine security, the application of justice for victims and their families, and the institutionalization of genuine democratic principles. Gustavo Petro is the symbol for that possibility to take hold.
Robert Works is a COHA Research Fellow and Fulbright Scholar.