Piedad Cordoba, an outspoken leftist who straddled Colombia's ideological divide, dies at age 68

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Piedad Córdoba, an outspoken Colombian lawmaker who for decades championed the rights of her fellow Afro-Colombians while undertaking huge risks as a go-between to leftist rebel groups, has died. She was 68.

The senator's death was confirmed Saturday by President Gustavo Petro, who praised Córdoba as a true liberal who “fought all her mature life for a more democratic society.”

No cause of death was given but Colombian media reported she was found dead Saturday by her bodyguards at her home in Medellin from an apparent heart attack.

Known throughout Colombia for her colorful turbans evoking her African heritage, Córdoba stood out as a leftist stalwart in one of Latin America's most conservative countries and paid dearly for her vociferous defense of some of the country's most dispossessed.

Whether kidnapped by right-wing paramilitary groups, or expelled from Congress for promoting the country's last remaining rebel army, Córdoba never shied away from conflict and frequently bounced back from adversity in remarkable ways. A trusted ally of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Córdoba played a key behind-the-scenes role in bringing leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to the negotiating table that resulted in a historic 2016 peace deal ending a half century of guerrilla conflict.

However, her final political battle was an almost impossible fight — one that complicated her comeback on the coattails of former rebel Petro's historic election as Colombia's first leftist president.

In 2022, her brother, Alvaro Córdoba, was arrested in Medellin and extradited to the U.S. by her ally Petro to face drug trafficking charges in New York. Although Córdoba herself was not charged, her brother's lawyers claimed she was the intended target of a sting orchestrated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Informants posing as Mexican drug buyers sought contact with dissident guerrillas who could help smuggle huge quantities of cocaine to the U.S. Earlier this month, Alvaro Córdoba pleaded guilty.

Córdoba was the oldest of 12 children raised in Medellin by two teachers. Her father was Black and her mother white.

Colombia has the second largest population of people of African descent in Latin America, making up around 10% of the population. But traditionally they have been among the most marginalized politically and economically, lagging far behind in almost every socio-economic indicator.

“Even as a little girl she was a leader,” said Armanda Arboleda, a childhood friend. “She was the one who talked the most, always fighting and never giving up entirely.”

After earning a law degree, she initiated her political career in the hillside slums of Medellin as a member of the Liberal Party, once the country's largest political grouping. By the 1990s, she made her way to Congress and in one of Colombia's darkest periods — with rebels and paramilitaries, both armed to the teeth by the country's drug cartels, fighting each other for territorial control — she dared to speak up for minorities who were among the bloody conflict's biggest victims.

For her open defiance of Colombia's treacherous ideological divide, she was kidnapped in 1999 for two weeks on the orders of Carlos Castaño, then the top right-wing warlord. Upon her release, she and her family briefly went into exile in Canada.

But Cordoba never remained silent for long. During the 2002-2010 government of President Alvaro Uribe she helped spearhead a campaign uncovering ties between the president's conservative allies in Congress and the bloodthirsty paramilitaries. In 2007, she called on leftist governments in the region to break diplomatic relations with Colombia over what she claimed were Uribe's ties to Colombia's extensive criminal underworld.

Despite their ideological differences and bitter feuds, Uribe relied on Córdoba and Chávez to secure the release of several politicians and soldiers held captive for the years by the FARC. For her humanitarian efforts in the deeply polarized country, she was lionized by the left but scorned by conservatives, who would frequently heckle her in public as a “traitor” and guerrilla sympathizer.

In 2010, she was expelled from Congress and banned from holding office for 18 years for allegedly promoting the FARC. But the decision was later overturned and Córdoba regained her Senate seat last year on the coattails of Petro's historic victory.