Colombia’s military bristles at the rise of a left-leaning presidential hopeful
Bogotá (AFP) – Historically aligned with a succession of right-wing governments, Colombia’s highest military echelon broke a long-standing rule of political neutrality to go after a perceived leftist threat.
As former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro stands a good chance of becoming Colombia’s next president, the army chief and defense minister have taken to social media to call him a ‘liar’ and corrupt.
Petro, a former enemy of the state security apparatus as a guerrilla in the 1970s and 1980s, is leading opinion polls ahead of the first round of presidential elections on May 29.
If he wins, he will become Colombia’s first left-wing leader and the first former guerrilla to oversee the armed forces of a country still grappling with the violent aftermath of six decades of civil war.
Petro’s rise so enraged the military establishment that they risked breaking the law to publicly criticize him.
A constitutional provision prohibits people in uniform from voting or expressing political opinions.
“There are those within the military who perceive that the war (against the guerrillas) has been won on the battlefield but is being lost politically,” analyst Carlos Alfonso Velasquez told AFP. soldier and ex-colonel.
“They consider that the political class with which the army has aligned itself – which is the one that has always governed – is losing,” he added.
In 2018, Petro lost in a presidential runoff to right-wing lawyer Ivan Duque.
This time, the economist and former mayor of Bogota is in the lead, although still below the 50% required for a victory in the first round.
“Mistrust and Fear”
Petro, now 62, fought the state in the ranks of M-19, a nationalist rebel group that disarmed in 1990.
He spent time in exile in Europe in the 1990s, entering politics upon his return home.
For many Colombians even today, the political left that Petro represents is tainted by its association with the guerrilla groups that fought the state, far-right paramilitaries and crime syndicates for control of a conflict. complex that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Petro criticized the security forces, which number some 228,000 troops and 172,000 police who may soon fall under his executive command.
It is the second largest army in South America, after that of Brazil, and the United States has invested millions to equip and train it in the war against drug trafficking of the largest cocaine producer in the world. world.
Petro is viewed with “a certain mistrust and fear” by some in uniform, retired Colonel José Marulanda told AFP.
“We feel he has a very clear resentment towards the military and the police who are the ones who took out his M-19 comrades in combat,” Marulanda said.
Petro has proposed cutting the military budget, implementing a promotion policy based on merit rather than nepotism, and removing the police from the Ministry of Defense.
Last month he accused generals of colluding with narcos while lower ranks are losing their lives in the drug battle.
Angered, army chief Eduardo Zapateiro tweeted a response accusing Petro of “politicizing” soldiers’ deaths. He also accused him of being corrupt.
The entity that oversees civil servants in Colombia has opened an investigation into whether the general’s outburst broke rules and amounted to political interference in the presidential campaign.
President Duque came to Zapateiro’s defense and Defense Minister Diego Molano tweeted with the hashtag: #PetroLiar.
The military was not only a protagonist in the decades-long conflict, but also a signatory to the 2016 peace accord that led to the disarmament of the FARC guerrilla group.
Still, some later criticized the pact for perceived concessions to the rebels.
“A dangerous idea has been popularized that the armed forces are on the right and the left is their enemy,” Petro wrote in a recent op-ed.
The “shaken” prestige
While Colombia’s military has long enjoyed broad popular support for its perceived rout of armed groups, scandals have undermined its reputation in recent years.
These included revelations of links to paramilitary groups and the execution of some 6,400 civilians between 2002 and 2008 whom troops presented as guerrillas in a bid to inflate their results.
“The prestige of the army, cultivated in the conflict, has been shaken,” Velasquez said. “And the army sees Petro as the person who is racking up the criticism against him.”
Still, experts for and against Petro say a military coup is an unlikely outcome.
More likely, “we would see some sort of discontent in the ranks that would manifest itself in resignations,” Marulanda said.
But there are also soldiers who align themselves with Petro, added Alfonso Manzur, head of the organization Veterans for Colombia.
“There is discontent in the upper echelons…because they feel the promotion system has been corrupted by internal mafias,” he explained.
© 2022 AFP