Every time Colombian left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, who leads the opinion polls, makes a public outing, the scene is striking: He is surrounded by a wall of terrified bodyguards brandishing bulletproof shields.
The ghost of murder haunts an election campaign in which the Left has a real chance to take power for the first time, a political career that has a history of ending in a hail of gunfire.
In the 20th century, five presidential candidates were assassinated by opponents, drug smugglers or paramilitary forces working in collusion with the state.
Three were from the left or far left, and the other two were liberals.
The country was in the grip of more than five decades of conflict between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which ended with a 2016 peace deal.
And while violence levels have dropped since then, Colombia has been ravaged by a multi-faceted conflict involving drug traffickers and mobs of armed groups.
‘Too high’ risk
“The ghost of death is with us,” Petro told AFP in February. “It doesn’t stop me looking like a flash, when I’m in a crowd, when I’m on a stage and there’s a perfect square, someone can shoot from anywhere.”
Earlier this month, the 62-year-old senator, a former left-wing guerrilla, had to call off a public appearance after his team received “first information” about an assassination plot by two paramilitary forces.
Two days later he appeared in the northern city of Kukuta behind a bulletproof shield.
His 60-strong bodyguard has since been increased, while local security forces have provided additional officers for his many visits to provincial areas, which have contributed to his successful campaign.
According to Felipe Botero, professor of political science at the University of the Andes, the risk of murder is “very high”.
“Not only will they try to kill candidate Petro, but it is also very likely that they will try to assassinate him if he wins the presidency,” Botero told AFP.
His running mate, Francia Marquez, a black environmentalist, has also received threats.
Conservative candidate Federico Gutierrez has voiced his concern not only for Petro but also for himself, which he claims is threatened by the Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN), the last remaining recognized rebel group in the country.
“Take care of Federico Gutierrez, who survived a FARC assassination attempt in 2002 using explosives,” said former president lvaro Uribe.
fear of the left
One of the most striking dates in modern Colombian history is April 9, 1948, when liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliser Gatton was shot dead on a street in Bogota.
His assassination shook the city and sparked a bloody internal conflict that, more than half a century later, has still not been extinguished.
Four decades later, communist Jaime Pardo Leal (1987), liberal Luis Carlos Galán (1989), and leftists Bernardo Jaramillo and Carlos Pizarro (1990), all presidential candidates, were assassinated.
Professor Alexander Gamba of St. Thomas University says there are three reasons for the “probable” attack on Petro.
First, Colombia has “violence professionals” like the nearly two dozen mercenaries who took part in the assassination of Haiti’s president last year.
Secondly, Petro’s opponents have claimed that his victory would be “a great national catastrophe”, which contributed to an environment in which his assassination would be presented as an almost “patriotic act”.
In the end, the country “never had any political change” involving the Left, which conservatives continue to associate with armed rebellion.
One of the candidate’s advisers, Alfonso Prada, said: “In a country like Colombia, marked by political violence and with a record of killing social leaders, we clearly take all threats against Mr. Petro seriously.”
“If we hope to run the country, we must be able to look after our own security,” he said.
For its part, the outgoing government of President Ivan Duque has said that Petro is “one of the best-preserved people in the country”.
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