Gustavo Petro has been called a lot of things in his life. To many he was an armed insurgent in a movement born out of populism and revolutionary socialism. He has been called a councillor, senator and Mayor of Bogotá. He is called papá by his three children. He has been called a hard-leftist, a socialist, a former M-19 militant and a rebel.
And some choose to label Gustavo Petro a ‘terrorist’. Does the former member of M-19 deserve the slur?
In his youth Petro was in the M-19, a populist rebel group that sought to overthrow the corruption and injustice that was present at the upper echelons of the government. At their height, the M-19 were the largest rebel-group after the FARC. The group disbanded to form a political party in 1990, winning over a quarter of the seats in Parliament. As part of the deal that was struck between the rebel group and the government, the M-19 renounced their weapons and were granted political pardons.
But the first obvious problem with labelling M-19 as a terrorist organisation, rather than a guerilla movement or rebel insurgency, is that very few in the media use the extreme term. One could in theory refer to Nelson Mandela as a former terrorist for the ANC and Luke Skywalker as a terrorist for the Rebel Alliance. By common convention however, neither Mandela nor Skywalker are referred to as terrorists in either polite discourse or in the media.
The use of the term ‘terrorist’ loosely as a slur isn’t new, nor is it outmoded. In the 2008 Presidential Election, The Weather Underground resurfaced when vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin claimed that Democratic candidate Barack Obama was “pallin’ around with terrorists.” The claim was easily debunked; Bill Ayers had been a member of the The Weather Underground and had for many years worked as a professor at the University of Illinois, much like Obama, and was a neighbour in a quiet suburb of Chicago. Palin’s claim didn’t elucidate what the word ‘terrorist’ means. Rather, it reflected a lack of understanding as to what a ‘terrorist’ is.
If one wants to argue that Petro is indeed a terrorist, they will first have to make the case for a definition we can all agree on. As it turns out, the question of whether it’s correct to call Petro a terrorist or not depends on how intrinsic the concept of ‘terror’ is to the term, or whether the act of striking fear amongst the public is part of the definition. In other words, whether the attacks by the group or individual specifically or indiscriminately targeted civilian populations in an attempt to further their political agenda.
As history would have it, there were many major events that might qualify M-19 under this definition of ‘terrorist’. For one their kidnapping and murder of union leader Jose Raquel Mercado. Then there was the looting of 5,000 arms by tunnelling their way into a Colombian munitions depot. In a highly symbolic move they also stole the sword of Simon Bolivar from Quinta de Bolivar Museum (history has repeated itself as the sword from a statue of Bolivar was recently stolen). Following this, the M-19 besieged a cocktail party at the Embassy of the Dominican Republic, taking hostages, all of whom were released unharmed.
Then, in 1985, the M-19 took over the Palace of Justice whereby a similar hostage takeover took place. This time a firefight ensued and, in the subsequent blaze and destruction, over a hundred people were killed. Their demands were that President Betancur be tried by the Supreme Court (which is housed within the Palace). 12 Magistrates were killed along with 5 of the leaders of M-19 in the firefight. Though it is still unclear how many of the resulting deaths were the fault of M-19, President Betancur accepted responsibility for the events of that night and the Inter-American Court Commission on Human Rights ruled the military’s response to be ‘a massacre’ and ‘a holocaust’.
Many of the actions of the M-19’s past actions are indefensible. Their role in the sieges, their alleged ties to the Medellin cartel or the murder of union boss Mercado. However, the fact that civilian populations were not specifically targeted, nor was it the intent behind their actions to strike terror, may be the main reason that the media are unwilling to call former members of the M-19 ‘terrorists’. In addition to this, the fact that some of its members have gone on to integrate within society as functioning citizens ‘within’ the political system was undoubtedly a reason for a person like Petro to be accepted by so many, despite his membership in the M-19.
Sergio Guzman of Controlrisks–a corporation that follows current events very closely in order to instruct investors–told us that there are reasons why some may be nervous of a Petro presidency in 2018. “Investors, generally, are not fond of Petro, because he provokes a lot of uncertainty and there are fears that are festered about his economic policy,” Guzman said. “He has been compared to Chavez and some of those statements that he has made in the past are remarkably similar to the ones that Chavez made back in the day. Not saying they are similar – or dissimilar–but it is not a chance that investors are willing to take.”
Despite these reservations, Guzman believes that some context might be needed before one uses extreme labels like ‘terrorist’. Some former members of the M-19 have gone on to have long careers in politics. Antonio Navarro, who is a former senator, member of the house of representatives, governor and mayor. Navarro is a representative for Alianza Verde, the Green Party in Colombia. Evereth Bustamante, current senator and former director of the Colombian sports agency for the Democratic Centre under Alvaro Uribe Velez, is another example of a former M-19 member who has had a long career as a politician. Given that members of the M-19 have been accepted by their communities and into healthy political dialogue free of violence, Guzman told us that “it is opportunistic to call Petro a terrorist”.
The passage of time changes many things, even our attitudes and the names we choose to call each other. Nations too can change their minds on who to call a terrorist. By way of a recent example, following the historic peace accord, the European Union chooses no longer to designate the FARC as a terrorist organisation. And though it may seem unlikely that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will ever run for town councillor in Arlington City, perhaps in time our feelings towards those who acted out of a sense of urgency, not to strike terror among people, but to improve their society, may win our forgiveness. For this reason, using the name ‘Gustavo Petro’ and ‘terrorist’ in the same sentence is the political equivalent of Sarah Palin’s uninformed remarks about Barack Obama and Bill Ayers.
We can call Gustavo Petro many names; an insurgent, a professor, a councillor, the former mayor of Bogotá and now candidate in this year’s elections. He is perhaps all of these things. Meanwhile, the only name on Petro’s mind will be the one he may inherit if current polls are to be believed: ‘El Presidente.