The left-wing frontrunner in Colombia’s presidential election race has curtailed campaigning this week after reports emerged of an alleged plot to assassinate him.
Senator Gustavo Petro cancelled events scheduled in the country's coffee region after his security team said it received "first-hand information" that a criminal organisation called La Cordillera planned to murder him.
Mr Petro said the fact "corrupt sectors" would pay for his elimination "shows the political desperation they have reached". The former mayor of the capital Bogotá is attempting to become the first ever left-wing president of a country whose elections are frequently scarred by the targeted assassinations of candidates, especially leftists.
The clear favourite heading into a first round of voting on May 29th, a recent poll gave Mr Petro a 17-point lead over his nearest rival, the conservative former mayor of Medellín Federico Gutierrez. The survey also shows him winning a second round scheduled for June 19th if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of votes in the first round. This is his third run for the presidency.
As Mr Petro has consolidated his frontrunner status, opponents have sought to smear him by comparing him to the authoritarian chavista leaders who have brought economic ruin to neighbouring Venezuela.
Local police have cast doubt on the claim by the Petro campaign of a plot to murder him. But the mayor of Medellín Daniel Quintero said he had separately received information on Monday that a rancher in his region was pushing the idea of murdering Mr Petro.
Based in the mountainous department of Risaralda, the La Cordillera criminal organisation has its roots in Colombia's right-wing paramilitary movement that emerged in the 1980s to combat Marxist guerrilla organisations during the country's civil war. Mr Petro fought in the M-19 guerrilla group which was active in the 1970s and 1980s before demobilising and entering politics in 1990. In 1990, the M-19's top commander Carlos Pizarro was assassinated by paramilitaries as he ran for the presidency at the head of the group's new political party.
Since a demobilisation process in the 2000s and the extradition of several of their leaders to the US on drug-trafficking charges, the paramilitary groups have morphed into criminal groups that, while no longer focused on combating Colombia’s remaining guerrilla groups, nevertheless maintain links with right-wing politicians.
La Cordillera has been denounced for its use of selective assassinations and threats against social activists in the so-called coffee-axis where it exerts considerable political influence. While serving in congress Mr Petro sought to map the links between paramilitary assassins and right-wing politicians.