Saturday, February 19, 2011

Carlos Pizarro, Colombian Guerrilla and Martyr

If one man's whose life story could represent Colombia's historical tension between politics and violence, he might be Carlos Pizarro, an armed guerrilla leader, presidential candidate and, finally, leftist martyr. The National Museum (official site) has an exhibition about Pizarro through March 27.

Pizarro, born in 1951, studied at the Javeriana and National universities in Bogotá, where he became a committed communist and joined the Communist Youth Party. In 1958 he entered the FARC guerrillas, but left in 1963, convinced that their violent tactics were not the route for changing Colombia. In abandoning the FARC, Pizarro left a note saying 'Ya vuelvo' or 'I'll be back soon,' which has become probably his best known quote.

Pizarro and others then founded the M-19, or April 19 Movement, guerrilla group, named after the April 1970 presidential election, which populist military general and one-time dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla narrowly lost amid allegations of fraud.

The M-19 began as an unarmed organization with knack for dramatic gestures, such as stealing revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar's sword. But it turned into a violent, armed guerrilla movement.

Justice Palace in flames
Jose Raquel Mercado, killed
by the M-19
In 1976, the M-19 kidnapped and then killed union leader José Raquel Mercado. In 1980, the group took over the Dominican Republic's embassy during a party, eventually negotiating the release of the dignitaries and being allowed to travel to Cuba. Thousands of people cheered the M-19 members as they paraded through Bogotá to the airport. But in 1985 the M-19's attack on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá went disastrously wrong. The government refused to negotiate, counterattacked the palace and about 100 people were killed, including 11 of the 12 justices and many civilians.

M-19 leaders during 1985 peace negotiations
Three years later the M-19 turned in their weapons and became a purely political movement. Pizarro ran for president as the group's candidate in the 1990 election. However, he was assassinated by an assassin hired by right-wing parliamentaries. Pizarro was one of three candidates assassinated during the 1990 campaign.

Pizarro's martyrdom, however, created a legacy. The M-19's replacement candidate did well in the elections and the group played an important role in the 1991 rewriting of Colombia's Constitution. That progressive Constitution has permitted court decisions in favor of gay rights, abortion rights and the right to possess a personal dose of drugs, which was reversed by the legislature in 1999.

The exhibit looks like the work of a Pizarro admirer, with lots of emphasis on the man's ideals and his lofty statements about democracy, but less about the M-19's violence and killings. One military official has been convicted for killings committed during the Justice Palace episode, and others are scheduled to be tried.

But the M-19, who started it all, have gotten off scott-free. The M-19 very likely sincerely desired to use the attack to bring social justice to Colombia and open the country's political system to more participants. However, there's lots of evidence that in the attack the M-19 collaborated with and accepted money from cocaine king Pablo Escobar, who certainly was no idealist and whose motives were not altruistic.

Nor do I remember even a mention in the exhibit of the kidnapping and murder of union leader Mercado, whom the M-19 killed on April 19, as a grisly celebration of the anniversary of their founding.

Several ex-M-19 leaders are still active in politics, now in the leftist Democratic Pole Party. The best known is Gustavo Petro, who has run for president.
Pizarro's tomb in Bogotá's Central Cemetery

A plaque by Pizarro's tombe: 'They will not kill our happiness.
We are still smiling'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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