REPORTING FROM BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Gustavo Petro, a former leftist guerrilla and muckraking Colombian senator, on Sunday won the mayoral race in Bogota, a job second only to president as the most important elected position in the country.
With 96% of votes counted, Petro had 32.1% of votes cast, an insurmountable margin over Enrique Penalosa, a former Bogota mayor and the nearest of 10 competitors, who had 24.9%. There is only one round of voting for the top city hall job in Bogota, Latin America’s fifth-largest city, with a population of 8 million.
After Penalosa conceded defeat, Petro said he would fulfill his campaign promise to root out the corruption that has racked Bogota. Samuel Moreno, who was elected mayor four years ago, is in jail awaiting trial on charges he embezzled millions of dollars connected to public works projects.
“I want to thank all voters who showed their desire for change in Bogota,” Petro said, noting that followers in his center-left Progressive Movement party also were leading in races for a majority of city council seats. “What this result means is that Bogota will not fall into the trap of the politics of hate and eternal war. ”
Petro joined the M-19 urban guerrilla group at age 17, radicalized by the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende. He suffered torture during 18 months in jail from 1985 to 1987, before the group demobilized in a government-brokered peace deal in 1989. The nation’s largest militant group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, remains at war with the government.
As a senator, Petro, 51, helped uncover links connecting right-wing paramilitary groups to several sitting members of Congress, most of them staunch supporters of right-wing former President Alvaro Uribe. Dozens were sent to jail. During his term in the senate, he was the harshest congressional critic of Uribe, who backed Penalosa in the mayor’s race.
After voting near Bogota’s National University Sunday morning, Laureano Sandoval, a 62-year-old retired government official , said he voted for Petro because of his record and clean reputation. He said he was unconcerned about Petro's rebel past.
“It’s an advantage and a message to the FARC that they can reach power the democratic way without murdering and kidnapping,” Sandoval said.
Political analyst Cesar Caballero said Petro’s victory was a blow to the political prestige of Uribe, whose favored gubernatorial candidate in his home state of Antioquia also lost. The victory also sends a message that Colombians want an “equilibrium” of political power shared by center-right President Juan Manuel Santos, Caballero said.
Colombians also elected governors of all 32 provinces and mayors of 1,102 municipalities. Voting was conducted under heavy security and the government deployed 100,000 army troops and police to safeguard the balloting. Forty-one candidates were reported murdered during an especially violent campaign season.
Much of the violence was blamed on efforts by leftist rebels and armed criminal groups to eliminate candidates who didn’t suit their purposes. Local political power is especially important because under terms of a recently passed victims law, mayors will play a crucial role in redistributing land and reparations.
-- Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez
Photo: Gustavo Petro celebrates after winning the mayor's race in Bogota, Colombia, on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. Credit: Mauricio Duenas/EPA