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Old Guard Shaken

Inside the Right-Wing Campaign to Undermine Colombia’s First Leftist Leader

New President Gustavo Petro is no Maduro or Ortega. If the traditional elites try to force him out, what will the Biden administration do?

Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez
Sebastian Barros/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Colombian President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez

During a trip to Colombia in early March, I spoke with two normally tight-lipped former senior security officials who agreed to meet thanks to an introduction brokered by a mutual friend. Initially cautious, the men soon warmed up and were surprisingly direct—almost shockingly so—in regard to new leftist leader President Gustavo Petro, whom they painted in darkly sinister terms.

The president was a “radical Communist,” stated one of the men, whom I’ll call Jorge as he and his colleague spoke on condition that I didn’t disclose their real names and former positions in the military. Since Petro—whom President Joe Biden will host at the White House for a bilateral meeting Thursday—was inaugurated last August, Jorge declared, he had deliberately polarized the political climate and “incited the poor” by making reckless pledges to redistribute income in Colombia, where the richest one percent own 37.3 percent of total wealth and the bottom half 1.6 percent. “We know where things are headed,” he continued gravely as a uniformed waiter at the private club where we met for breakfast refilled the coffee. “Extravagant promises lead to chaos, and chaos leads to terrorism.”

Roberto, the second retired officer, interjected to say he strongly supported democracy but only when elections are clean and the candidate who triumphs wins honestly—which Petro hadn’t, in his view. A team of observers from the Carter Center reported that allegations of fraud were rife, but Petro’s clear 3 percent margin of victory and high turnout of 58 percent led to the results being “accepted by all,” according to the Carter team, including right-wing populist Rodolfo Hernández, the losing candidate. Roberto, though, didn’t buy it. Petro had secured his 2022 victory via fraud, he asserted, so his mandate wasn’t legitimate. “The military is fed up,” Roberto added. “Things are reaching a point that the water could overflow.”

A day earlier, protesters in the rural town of San Vicente del Caguán torched facilities of a Chinese oil company that reneged on an agreement to build local infrastructure and clashed with police, leaving one officer dead and another 79 taken hostage. The demonstrators were outside agitators, Roberto said indignantly—leftist guerillas with hidden ties to Petro’s administration who disguised themselves as local peasants. “The government knew what would happen in advance but didn’t do anything,” he alleged. “The minister of defense blocked the use of helicopters to fly in reinforcements.”

Roberto was referring to Iván Velásquez, a former jurist who led investigations into abuses committed by the armed forces and allied right-wing paramilitaries. Of all of Petro’s appointees, Velásquez is perhaps the one most loathed by his enemies. Animosity toward the defense minister has simmered since the president fired 52 generals during his first week in office after consulting with Velásquez.

Reports of the clash between protesters and the police were part of a steady stream of anti-Petro coverage from the predominantly conservative media. On March 18, the newsmagazine Semana ran a cover story, “Colombia Is Going Badly,” that blamed Petro’s then-seven-month-old government for a weak economy, narcotrafficking, the “breakdown of public order,” and other deeply rooted problems. A week later, Semana published a statement from General Eduardo Zapateiro, who resigned as Army commander before the presidential inauguration to avoid standing next to Petro. Zapateiro, whom Roberto and Jorge cited as an “inspiration,” exhorted citizens to “reclaim our nation’s politics, which have been contaminated by the vices of unscrupulous people.”

Some charges lobbed against Petro turned out to be unproven or false. The protesters in San Vicente del Caguán were not guerillas masquerading as peasants but real peasants, subsequent news accounts confirmed. Nor did any evidence emerge that the government had advance warning of the attack, and Petro immediately dispatched a team that negotiated the release of the hostages.

While the armed forces are “apolitical” and would never independently seek to topple Petro, Jorge said, if things deteriorated further, a group of responsible elders, including military officers, could convene to demand Petro resign. Indeed, there was an existing precedent for precisely such a move. Amid the political upheaval in 1953, leading politicians called on General Rojas Pinilla to replace the elected president. “Rojas led a junta, and it was the best period for Colombia,” Roberto said. “History may repeat itself.”

This version of the Rojas era didn’t entirely jibe with accepted accounts. Rojas was initially popular, but his support plummeted due to his regime’s corruption and repression. In 1957, after he announced his intention to hold power for another five years, a general strike forced Rojas to flee to exile in the United States, and civilian rule soon returned.

If a move to oust Petro does develop, the response from Washington would play a large role in determining whether it succeeds. The Pentagon provides the Colombian military with much of its equipment, and the U.S. is the country’s main trading partner. Biden has a cordial relationship with Petro, at least publicly—as the White House meeting affirms—but Roberto believed he would be “pragmatic” if the traditional elite replaced him. “This is a Colombian problem that Colombians will resolve,” he said.

The president’s supporters suspect the drumbeat of attacks is part of a plan orchestrated by opponents to create a climate of chaos that can be cited as grounds to depose him. “Petro’s enemies want him gone, and they don’t care how that happens,” Representative Karmen Ramírez Boscán of Colombia Humana, Petro’s political party, told me at her office in the National Congress near Bolivar Square.

Petro’s election was a bitter blow to the old elite, particularly as the left in Colombia had never before won power, in contrast to the case in most Latin American countries. This weakness was due in part to decades of repression by security forces and paramilitaries. The Patriotic Union, a party formed in the 1980s by leftist activists and guerillas who had laid down their weapons, was literally exterminated: More than 4,000 of its elected officials, candidates, and members were murdered between its founding and the outlawing of the party’s decimated rump in 2002.

That year marked the election of President Álvaro Uribe, who held office until 2010 and was later elected to the Senate. He resigned his seat in 2020 amid allegations of witness tampering, and as the founder of the conservative Centro Democrático he’s still the country’s most prominent right-wing leader. Uribe has been widely accused of having close ties to paramilitaries; his brother reportedly ran one called Twelve Apostles from a family ranch. During Uribe’s presidency, security forces assassinated thousands of civilians in poor barrios, transported the corpses to war zones, and claimed they were leftist rebels killed in combat. Political violence is still fairly common. Last year, more than 200 social leaders were murdered, mostly by paramilitaries and narcotrafficking groups that continue to control a large swath of territory.

Human rights abuses never disrupted ties between the U.S. and Colombia, Washington’s closest South American ally. The Clinton administration’s Plan Colombia funneled billions of dollars in aid to the country, mostly military assistance provided to fight drug traffickers and leftist insurgents. Today, American soldiers are allowed to operate from seven Colombian military bases. The Biden administration designated the country a “Major Non-NATO Ally” in March 2022, and during a visit to Washington by then Defense Minister Diego Molano, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin declared that the groundwork had been laid “for us to work together even more closely to make our neighborhoods safer.” In Colombia, Molano is best known for dismissing public outrage and calls for his resignation following a 2021 government airstrike against a rebel camp that killed several children, saying the victims had been indoctrinated with leftist ideology, adding, “It’s not like they were studying for their school exams.”

Petro’s election in June was a seismic, unwelcome development for Washington as well as Bogotá. “The U.S. has always had a close relationship with the Colombian elite,” said Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli of the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA. “Petro’s administration is a complete change, it’s no longer the same families who ruled the past 200 years.”

Domestic opponents portray Petro as a doctrinaire Communist bent on violence, but that depiction is overblown. In 1977, when he was 17, Petro joined the M-19 guerilla group. He was mostly an evangelist who helped stockpile weapons but didn’t take part in any military operations that led to casualties of civilians or soldiers. Eight years later, the Army arrested and tortured him, and he was sentenced to prison. Along with other members of the M-19, he was granted amnesty by the government in 1990 when the group agreed to demobilize and formed a political party.

Petro is closer in tone to younger Latin leftist leaders like Gabriel Boric in Chile rather than Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Since Petro took office, civil liberties and political rights have been strengthened. Freedom House, which receives most of its funding from the U.S. government, acknowledged as much in a report last month, lifting Colombia’s status from “partly free” to “free.”

There’s no indication that Petro intends to rule by decree or illegally extend his time in office, and if he attempted to it would hand his opponents a rationale they are eagerly seeking to oust him. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. As mayor of Bogotá in 2013, Petro was removed from office and banned from running again for 15 years on charges—brought by a right-wing prosecutor general—that he had violated rights of free enterprise by privatizing trash collection services. He was returned to power the following year by a judge’s order that nullified his removal.

Conservatives in Colombia confidently told me that Bogotá is “filled with Russian spies” and that Vladimir Putin is covertly financing pro-government rallies. They attacked Petro’s vice president, Francia Márquez, an environmental leader and the first Afro-Colombian woman to hold the position, often in openly racist terms.

Petro inspires intense opposition mostly because his ideology is verboten to the old order, which is dead set against any significant redistribution of wealth and power. Even more ominously, Petro won power by building an unprecedented leftist coalition, the Pacto Histórico, which won support from some quarters of the political establishment. A constitutional amendment limits him to one term in office, but if his presidency succeeds it would firmly establish the Pacto Histórico as a political force.

The Pacto Histórico holds one of the largest blocs of seats in Congress, but with only 16 of 108 Senate seats and 25 of 188 House seats, Petro doesn’t command anywhere close to a majority even with support from a group of left-of-center and centrist allies. To pass his proposals, he needs significant backing from centrist and conservative parties, which he generally hasn’t been able to win.

Unions marched in support of Petro’s labor reform bill, which would reduce the work week from 48 to 42 hours and increase overtime pay, but business leaders have blocked it on the grounds that it would supposedly impose high costs on companies and lead to mass layoffs. The executive class is more favorable to an opposition proposal that—surprise—would reduce corporate taxes and supposedly produce a trickle-down effect that would greatly benefit workers. In late March, Petro withdrew a political reform bill that included public financing of electoral campaigns after congressional opponents stripped out so many key provisions he said there was “nothing progressive left.”

Congresswoman Ramírez heads a commission that is reviewing Colombia’s mining policy, which has long allowed foreign firms to operate as virtual feudal lords, but winning legislative approval for a reform blueprint faces uncertain prospects. So too does Petro’s plan for “Total Peace” with paramilitaries, rebels, and narcos who lay down their arms. The military is dead set against this, in part because it reduces the ability of former officers to profit by cutting deals with business owners in areas where they previously served or selling companies private security services to protect against illegal armed groups and narcos. “Many people in this country have made a good living from war and oppose peace,” Ramírez told me.

Petro’s most unyielding opposition comes from the security forces, whose core training portrayed leftists, violent or not, as the “internal enemy” and subversive—a view that is still widely held among the current and former officer corps. During last year’s election, former military officials filmed a video at the Bogotá headquarters of the Colombian Association of Retired Officers of the Armed Forces, or ACORE, that endorsed Hernández, Petro’s opponent, saying his victory was needed to “Save the Homeland.” Retired General Jaime Ruiz Barrera, an influential former head of ACORE—and 1970 graduate of the Pentagon’s notorious, and now rebranded, School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia—is a Petro enemy on the outer edge of the extreme right. During the 1970s, he led a unit that allegedly tortured and murdered suspected leftists, according to a respected lawyers’ group. Ruiz accuses Petro of being overly eager to negotiate a demobilization agreement with the leftist rebels he despises.

The military is too powerful to be ignored, so Petro has tried to win support from its ranks in hopes of reducing opposition to his policies and anti-government scheming. Last December, he approved buying new Air Force combat planes and constructing Colombia’s first naval frigate.

Such efforts to co-opt hardline opponents haven’t been terribly successful, but at least for the moment, Petro’s enemies don’t seem ready or able to mount a concerted effort to depose him. His popularity has fallen as his base expected faster results and the attacks on the government have taken a toll, but polls show he maintains the support of about half of voters. Meanwhile, the right is deeply split. Uribe, whose backing would be vital to a coup, meets with Petro and has been surprisingly measured in criticizing the government. However, members of his party are among the president’s most virulent critics, and if an opportunity to replace Petro were to arise, Uribe might support it.

Yuly Cepeda, a former noncommissioned Naval officer and director of Veterans for Colombia, the only military organization that supports Petro’s “Total Peace” proposal, believes there’s an incipient right-wing movement afoot that aims to breed political discontent. In her view, General Zapateiro—who has recently been making anti-government pronouncements while touring Europe, including at a conference in Spain when he said Petro’s “perverse and irresponsible lies” were becoming intolerable—is integral to it. “He promotes the idea that the social order is collapsing, which hurts the economy,” Cepeda said. “That’s the first step to incrementally erode the president’s support.”

Sánchez of WOLA also sees signs of an orchestrated opposition campaign that she believes will focus for now on campaigning in nationwide elections for mayors and governors set for October, but also anticipates periodic strategic strikes on the government, including attempts to take out key Petro allies. The hardliners “are going to make life absolute hell” for Defense Minister Velásquez, she predicted.

That proved prescient. About a week after we spoke, the House of Representatives approved debate in late April of a motion to censure Velásquez, which was sponsored by a member of Uribe’s party who said the minister was “trampling on the honor and dignity of our security forces.” If it passes, Velásquez could be forced to resign.

Petro will need to be highly creative in finding a viable path forward. Curtailing his ambitions to placate the elite would result in mass defections by Pacto Histórico supporters. Pressing ahead with major social reforms would mobilize supporters but likely trigger a more aggressive campaign to oust him.

Strong backing from the U.S. would increase Petro’s room for maneuver, but it’s not clear he’ll receive it. Biden doesn’t seem to view Petro as an existential threat, but it seems clear he’d be happier with a more conservative local partner. The U.S. has been particularly concerned by Petro’s friendly relationship with the Venezuelan and Cuban governments and his declaration that the American-designed “war on drugs,” which his predecessors supported, had failed in Colombia. “The administration won’t directly undermine Petro and would probably condemn a coup attempt,” Sánchez believes, “but it won’t do much beyond that. If Petro were overthrown, I don’t see Biden pushing to restore him.”

* This article originally misstated Álvaro Uribe’s current political role. He is no longer a senator.