Former president of Colombia Belisario Betancur
BOGOTA, Colombia — Former Colombian President Belisario Betancur, whose bold efforts to reach a peace deal with leftist rebels in the 1980s were undone by drug-fueled bloodletting and an explosion of violence backed by state security forces, died Friday at age 95.
Uniquely in Colombia’s elite-dominated political land-scape, Betancur wasn’t the son of patriarchs but instead rose to the pinnacle of power from a Spartan start as the son of a poor farmer in western Antioquia state. With the aid of scholarships, he earned a law degree, and throughout his political career, he held his own as a journalist, economist and poet.
His arrival to the presidency in 1982 sparked a wave of enthusiasm that he could deliver Colombians from an armed conflict raging since the 1960s and that would go on to claim over 250,000 lives and drive millions from their homes. He moved quickly to negotiate a truce with guerrilla groups, defying members of his own conservative party and with an everyman’s touch, began selling his plan for peace directly to Colombians.
But those efforts quickly unraveled as thousands of members of the Patriotic Union were gunned down by right-wing groups. Later, it was discovered that many of the killings were backed by state security forces.
Another rebel movement, the Cuban-inspired M-19, accused Betancur of “treason” for going back on his peace pledges and, in 1985, took control of the country’s supreme court with the goal of holding a revolutionary trial against the president.
Betancur’s actions during the siege were called into question, including his refusal to take a phone call from the court president pleading for negotiations.
Barely a week later, another disaster would strike: the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, which triggered a cascade of mud that buried the entire town of Armero, leaving more than 25,000 people dead. It was the worst natural disaster in Colombia’s history and, once again, Betancur was questioned for not having ordered an evacuation in time.
The twin tragedies forever tarnished Betancur’s legacy, and when he left office in 1986, he largely kept out of public view. For years, he maintained that he had lost control of the palace siege to his generals. The former president was absolved of wrongdoing by a congressional investigation at the time.
He broke his silence in 2015, showing remorse for his actions.
“If there were mistakes that I made,” he said, “I ask my compatriots for forgiveness.”