October 31, 2011 / 9:43 PM / 8 years ago

Colombia elects ex-guerrilla in sign peace possible

* Next mayor of Bogota a “son of the peace process”

* Political analysts see hope, but FARC may not agree

By Helen Murphy

BOGOTA, Oct 31 (Reuters) - The election of former guerrilla Gustavo Petro as Bogota mayor has raised hopes among conflict-weary Colombians that leaders of the biggest rebel group might also seek a political way out of 50 years of war.

Petro, 51, who spent the last two decades shaking off the stigma of being a fighter in the defunct leftist M-19 rebel movement, will assume Colombia’s second most powerful post in January, running a city of 8 million people on an annual budget of about $7 billion. [ID:nN1E79T0A1]

There was no immediate reaction from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s oldest and deadliest insurgency — but many across the Andean country were quick to seize on the significance.

“The message is clear: as long as you use your political capital in a legal way, there’s room to take the political route,” said Juan Carlos Palou of the local think tank Fundacion Ideas Para la Paz. “Some middle-ranking, more educated FARC commanders could see this as an opportunity.”

Still, the far left may also seek to “devalue his triumph” and say that Petro has simply moved away from his ideological roots to the right, Palou added.

The FARC has hinted it wants talks with President Juan Manuel Santos’ government, but he has rejected that unless the rebels lay down their arms and stop kidnappings.

While it may be wishful thinking for now, Colombians are hopeful the FARC’s days in the jungle are numbered and that a negotiated peace is possible.

PRECEDENTS

“Petro is a good example of reintegration and I think the FARC leadership will see him as an example,” said Camilo Piedrahita, 43, who works for an IT company in Bogota.

“I don’t know if it will spur a new peace process, but it’s possible. I hope so.”

Analysts said it was unlikely the FARC would publicly embrace Petro’s victory as a sign of progress, but privately they would be watching the case closely.

An economist and former congressman, Petro served two years in jail for his guerrilla activities. Coming from lower middle class origins, he first joined M-19 as a university student.

The M-19 was suspected of being paid by drug lord Pablo Escobar to attack the Supreme Court in 1985 and destroy evidence that may have led to his extradition. As many as 95 people were killed in that attack, including 11 justices.

While the M-19 disarmed at the end of the 1980s, the drug-funded FARC remain active throughout the country, killing tens of thousands in the last decade and kidnapping hundreds for ransom and political gain.

Petro said his win showed reconciliation was possible.

“Bogota has chosen as its mayor a son of the peace process,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Bogota is saying yes to reconciliation, yes to peace.”

Other M-19 fighters have been elected to office.

Antonio Navarro, the governor of southern Narino province, was its second in command before being given amnesty. He has also served as a government minister and senator.

“There is space for the left politically, as long as it’s imaginative, creative, with ideas and with leadership,” said Leon Valencia, head of the pro-peace Nuevo Arco Iris (New Rainbow) non-governmental organization.

“Colombia is taking the same path as Brazil and Uruguay, which both elected former guerrillas as their presidents.”

Petro sought the presidency against Santos last year and lost, showing he has higher ambitions if he succeeds as mayor. (Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta and Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Trotta)

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