Colombia’s military eyes new president Gustavo Petro with ‘deep unease’

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Former leftwing guerrilla navigates tense relations with country’s armed forces as he prepares to take office

Gideon Long in Bogotá

This weekend, a ceremony will take place in Bogotá that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago: outside the presidential palace, the top brass of Colombia’s armed forces will stand before former leftwing guerrilla Gustavo Petro and acknowledge him as their new commander-in-chief.

The significance of the moment is unlikely to be lost on Colombians. Petro, who will be sworn in as president the same day, spent more than a decade in the M-19, an urban rebel movement. As a young revolutionary in the 1980s, he says he was twice arrested by soldiers and tortured. He describes parts of the current military leadership as corrupt.

Once Sunday’s events are over, Petro will take the reins of a country in which the armed forces are at the heart of national identity. After a civil conflict that has dragged on for more than half a century, heavily armed soldiers and police officers are still a common sight in many Colombian towns. The country spends more of its gross domestic product on the military than any other nation in Latin America.