A man firing a machine pistol aboard a domestic airliner in flight Thursday assassinated presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro Leongomez, a former rebel commander who led Colombia’s notorious M-19 guerrillas from the battlefield to the political arena.
Pizarro was the third presidential candidate slain in the current campaign, which has taken place in a welter of violence and terrorism waged by political terrorists and drug traffickers.
After Pizarro was fatally wounded, one of his police escorts immediately shot and killed the assassin. Pizarro, 38, died about 45 minutes later in a Bogota hospital.
He had been the top leader of the M-19, or April 19 Movement, a leftist guerrilla army that captured world attention with the takeover of a foreign embassy in Bogota during a diplomatic party in 1980 and with the invasion of the government Palace of Justice in 1985.
After prolonged peace negotiations with the government, the M-19 gave up its arms in March and announced the formation of a political party, the Democratic Alliance M-19. Pizarro ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Bogota in March, then began campaigning for the presidency.
Shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday, Pizarro boarded a commercial flight of Avianca, the national airline. The Boeing 727 was scheduled to travel from Bogota to Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast, where the candidate had planned to hold a series of political rallies.
He was escorted by several plainclothes police guards. They all sat together in the rear of the plane.
An Avianca employee told a reporter that the plane carried 91 passengers, but Bogota radio stations put the number at 120. A few minutes after the plane took off, a man in a dark jacket left his seat near the front of the plane and walked to the restroom in the rear, witnesses and authorities said.
The man emerged from the restroom firing at Pizarro, seated a few feet away.
At least two shots hit Pizarro in the head and one in the neck, authorities said. No one else was wounded, and the aircraft was not seriously damaged, although several bullets hit a window and window frame near Pizarro.
Fabio Munevar, the pilot, told reporters that a police guard killed the assassin with a single shot to the temple.
Like all passengers, the assassin had been searched by police before boarding, but pilot Munevar said they failed to detect the machine pistol strapped to his groin and thigh under his clothing.
Munevar said that it was a “mini-Uzi,” a machine pistol made in Israel. He said that body searches are often less than thorough in the airport and that metal detectors are inadequate.
“The authorities do not have the implements needed to detect arms,” he said. “We have some equipment that we could call obsolete.”
After the shooting, some passengers began to shout and scream. An unidentified passenger told a Bogota radio station: “The people were upset, alarmed, but then the escorts (guards) very efficiently said for everyone to stay in their places, not to panic.”
Calm was restored as the plane returned to Bogota.
Pizarro died in the emergency surgery room of the national social security hospital.
Police are investigating the background of the assassin, who was said to be about 25 years old. Young hired killers are widely used in Colombia by both political terrorists and cocaine traffickers.
An anonymous caller claiming to represent “the Extraditables,” a name used by Medellin drug traffickers, told Radio Caracol that they had ordered the assassination. The caller said that the Extraditables drew lots to decide which candidate to kill as part of their war “against the government and the ruling class” and that Pizarro’s name came up.
But another caller, also claiming to be a spokesman for the Extraditables, told Radio Caracol’s Medellin station that the group had nothing to do with the killing.
The Extraditables have been fighting President Virgilio Barco Vargas’ policy of extraditing Colombians to the United States for trial on drug charges. They have been blamed for numerous bombings and killings, including a November explosion on an Avianca plane that killed all 107 people aboard.
Officials have said the traffickers were responsible for the assassination last August of Luis Carlos Galan, then a leading presidential hopeful in Barco’s centrist Liberal Party, and the murder March 22 of Bernardo Jaramillo, the presidential candidate of the leftist Patriotic Union. Jaramillo was gunned down in the Bogota airport’s air shuttle terminal.
Hundreds of other politicians and political activists in the Patriotic Union, which includes former members of another guerrilla group, have been killed in campaign by right-wing terrorists over the past five years.
The Patriotic Union, denouncing “the lack of guarantees for political activity in the country,” called Thursday for the postponement of the presidential elections, scheduled for May 27.
Pizarro had said this week in an interview with free-lance journalist Stephen Gutkin that if he were to be assassinated, “it would practically close the chapter of finding a political solution” to Colombia’s violence.
But the M-19 called Thursday for peaceful protest and for continuation of the electoral process.
“It is time to save the country,” said Rosenberg Pabon, a senior M-19 leader. “The people should go to the streets, but the people together, not to throw rocks, not to break windows.”
Protesters marched in Bogota, Barranquilla and other cities, and minor disturbances were reported in Barranquilla. Bogota authorities prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages in an effort to prevent disorder.
President Barco called Pizarro’s assassination “a monstrous crime.”
“The obligation we have ahead of us is to keep open the pathways of peace that the assassins of Carlos Pizarro want to destroy,” Barco said. “I invite all of the people of Colombia, who are weary of so much violence, to turn out at the polls in the coming elections to vote for peace and pluralism. . . . The hour has come to demonstrate with pride the firmness of our commitment to democracy.”
Other authorities, political and public figures condemned the assassination in a flood of public statements that have become part of the ritual of Colombia’s violence.
“It has been a blow to democracy itself,” said former President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala of the opposition Social Conservative Party. “Deplorably, the terrorist wave that has taken over the country made him a new victim of this situation that so deeply affects our institutional life, our democratic life, the electoral process itself.”
Pizarro, a college dropout and the son of a Colombian admiral, helped found the April 19 Movement in the late 1970s. He became its top leader in 1985.
The group had Cuban links but said it was not Marxist. It was named for the date of 1974’s presidential elections, which the followers of populist former dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla asserted he had lost because of official fraud.
The M-19 became known internationally for its spectacular operations. In 1980, the M-19 took over the embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogota and held 15 ambassadors, including Washington’s, as hostages for two months.
That operation ended peacefully, but the invasion of the Palace of Justice in 1985 resulted in nearly 100 deaths, including those of 11 Supreme Court justices and about 40 guerrillas.
The guerrillas wanted to use the Palace of Justice as a platform for explaining their withdrawal that year from peace negotiations. But the army counterattacked, and the downtown judicial center was destroyed.
M-19 continued to battle authorities in rural Colombia until early last year, when a new peace process was begun. In early March, the guerrillas laid down their arms and joined the country’s political competition.
Colombia’s four other guerrilla organizations continue to fight the government. The pro-Communist Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces had reached a peace agreement with the government and helped form the Patriotic Union in 1985, but the group never gave up its arms.
Although Pizarro was not a leading candidate, his rating had risen in recent opinion polls. One published Thursday indicated that 5.8% of the voters support him, making him the fourth most popular candidate after two members of the Social Conservative Party and Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, the ruling Liberal Party’s candidate.
Gaviria led the field with 61.4% of the voters expressing a preference for him. President Barco is constitutionally barred from a second term.
The legacy of Colombia’s only military dictator in this century continues to reverberate in Colombian politics. After Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla’s tough rule was toppled in the 1957, the ousted general formed a populist, nationalist political party that eventually attracted a substantial following. When Rojas, seeking to become the country’s elected president in 1974, was defeated by a candidate of Colombia’s traditional political establishment, his top followers cried fraud, and many later went underground as guerrillas. They formed the April 19 Movement (M-19), named for the date of the election Rojas lost. Carlos Pizarro Leongomez was one of the founders and later the leader of M-19. M-19 formally made peace with the government earlier this year, laying down its arms in return for amnesty. Colombia’s drug lords demand a similar deal.
--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---
Three dates were incorrectly stated in this article. The following is how the paragraphs containing the errors should have read:
1) In the 9th paragraph UP from the BOTTOM:
Pizarro, a college dropout and the son of a Colombian admiral, helped found the April 19 Movement in the mid 1970’s. He became its top leader in 1985.
2) In the paragraph following:
The group had Cuban links but said it was not Marxist. It was named for the date of the 1970’s presidential elections, . . .
3) In the Background information box following the story:
. . . When Rojas, seeking to become the country’s elected president in 1970, was defeated by a candidate . . .
--- END NOTE ---