The political scandal that forced Colombia's foreign minister to quit and put other close allies of President Alvaro Uribe in jail is being driven in large part by a rebel-turned-senator who has defied death threats to become the opposition's most fearless provocateur.
Senator Gustavo Petro has relentlessly accused the law-and-order president of letting a poisonous alliance prosper between the political class and illegal right-wing militias, which are responsible for brutal massacres and the theft of millions of acres from poor peasants.
Colombians who fear taking explosive information to police or prosecutors often turn to Petro instead, and the scrappy senator regularly goes public with their allegations, tempting fate in a country where political assassination has a long tradition.
A former leftist rebel, Petro has nine bodyguards, wears custom-tailored bulletproof sport jackets and has a crew of loyalists looking out for him. Twice, he has foiled paramilitary plots to kill him, and he has periodically fled into exile for safety. In an interview, he casually mentioned that it would be nice to die of old age.
Petro, 46, is nevertheless turning up the heat on Uribe, claiming that the president's brother, Santiago Uribe, was personally involved in murders and forced disappearances while helping to form paramilitary groups in the 1990s.
The president was governor of Antioquia state at the time, and Petro alleges that he may have helped cover up his brother's crimes. He is calling for a debate on the matter in Congress next month.
"This case which was in the prosecutor's office of Antioquia, which Alvaro Uribe was governing, was shelved," Petro said. "And that's the president's defense today. But nobody is asking, was the case shelved at Uribe's behest?"
Incensed at these allegations -- for which Petro has yet to offer evidence -- the president took to the airwaves to deny the accusations and lash back.
Uribe said Petro and other former members of the M-19 guerrilla movement now in politics have gone from being "terrorists in camouflage to terrorists in business suits."
In Colombia, such language can spur death squads into action, and indeed the very day Uribe insulted the M-19 crowd in radio interviews, Petro's brother was threatened with death if the senator goes ahead with the debate.
"We're going to break you into pieces," the caller said.
Authorities immediately assigned a bodyguard each to Petro's brother and sister, who run a school for underprivileged children of flower workers just north of Bogota, and the president was widely criticized by the media for reckless, unpresidential behavior.
Santiago Uribe, after all, was never declared innocent. The case was simply shelved without explanation by a former chief prosecutor who dropped a number of cases of high-level politico-paramilitary corruption that are now being resurrected, in part, because of Petro's determination to revive them.
M-19 rebels disarmed in a 1989 amnesty and many were elected to the assembly that helped rewrite Colombia's Constitution two years later. Many, including Petro, are now active in Polo Democratico Alternativo, a party that has gained a reputation for integrity in a country badly tainted by corruption.
Since Petro first aired his allegations on the Senate floor, eight members of Congress have been jailed on charges ranging from creating illegal armed groups to homicide. The latest include a brother of foreign minister Maria Consuelo Araujo on kidnapping and other charges, prompting her resignation on Monday as Uribe sought to contain the damage to Colombia's international image.
Several dozen other politicians are under investigation.
The "para-politico" scandal might never have broken had not a key witness, who fled into exile during Uribe's first administration, contacted Petro.
"The only person I wrote to let my accusations known was Gustavo Petro," the witness, Jairo Castillo, said in a telephone interview.
His revolutionary past notwithstanding, Petro is wed firmly to the democratic left. He says the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is totalitarian and just as tainted by drug-trafficking as the paramilitary bands originally formed to counter it.
M-19's "project was democratic. Never was it even socialist," Petro says.
He joined at age 17 as a clandestine community organizer in Zipaquira, a town north of the capital where he founded a muckraking newspaper as a high schooler, backed squatters in land takeovers and became a councilman.
M-19 has been hounded by accusations that its tragic blunder -- the November 1985 taking of the Palace of Justice -- was funded by drug traffickers, a charge Uribe consistently echoes though no solid evidence has been produced.
More than 100 people were killed in the raid, including 11 Supreme Court justices. A new book Petro coauthored blames nearly all the deaths on military raiders who retook the building. Forensics showed that none of the magistrates were killed by guerrillas, he says.
Petro himself was not involved. Captured before the raid, he still has scars from the army base where he was shocked and beaten, denied food and repeatedly "submarined" until almost drowned.
"When I wasn't hooded the soldiers were hooded," said Petro, who was then jailed for a year-and-a-half on rebellion charges.
His sister, Adriana, is amused by people who try to paint her bookish, economist brother as a former rifle-toting Rambo.
"He was a small, fragile, skinny person with myopia," she said.
The weapons Petro has instead wielded well are words, and his refusal to mince them has many worried he is inviting a premature and violent death.
M-19 cofounder Rosemberg Pabon, who now heads Colombia's agency in charge of cooperatives, has pleaded with both Uribe and Petro to tone down their language.
"He [Petro] fights with the whole world," Pabon said.
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