Last Tuesday, President Elect Gustavo Petro announced that he has named Chocó, Colombia native Luis Gilberto Murillo Urrutia as his administration’s ambassador to The United States. A naturalized US Citizen, Murillo will have to renounce his US citizenship in order to accept the position. In addition to spending considerable time in the US, Murillo studied mining engineering in Moscow, Russia where he met his Uzbek wife, Barno Khadjibaeva. They couple has three children, who are also US citizens.
Murillo initially opposed left-wing President Elect Petro, running as the vice-presidential candidate under former Medellín Mayor Sergio Fajardo, a moderate-left centrist.
According to Colombia’s foreign relations ministry, Murillo is a mining engineer by education, with a MS in Engineering Science. Murillo is credited with creating Colombia’s public policy framework for climate change mitigation and was instrumental in implementing the country’s carbon tax and carbon markets. Murillo also had a hand in Colombia’s tax on disposable plastic shopping bags.
55 years old, Murillo was born in the small rainforest town of Andagoya, Chocó. Due to his high scores on Colombia’s ICFES high school exams (somewhat similar to the SAT or ACT in the US), he was invited to apply for, and received a scholarship to study mining engineering at Moscow State University in Russia.
Murillo returned to Colombia in 1991 and worked in environmental governance of the mining sector in Chocó. He then accepted a role with the Antanus Mockus mayoral administration in Bogotá with the predecessor agency to the city’s Secretary of The Environment.
In 1997, Murillo was elected as governor of Chocó on a platform of environmental protection, rural rights, and clean government. During an era when much of Colombia was still extremely dangerous, this earned him powerful enemies, who conspired to remove him from office. Soon thereafter, he was kidnapped.
Murillo sought, and received political asylum in 2000, where he worked to raise awareness of the plight of socially excluded Afrocolombians like himself. Many people who have not traveled to Colombia remain to this day unaware of Colombia’s large black population, or its racially mixed majority.
In the United States, like many immigrants he had a humble start, counting on the generosity of friends and working the jobs available while he polished English skills and forged connections.
Soon however, he found himself back in his policy element, busy in leadership roles across the spectrum of policy and advocacy organizations. Murillo served in Washington as senior international policy advisor for the Lutheran World Relief International Cooperation Agency, Vice President of Operations for the Phelps Stokes foundation. He consulted for USAID, the United Nations Development Program, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. During this period, he organized over 150 bilateral delegations between the US and Colombia, and was called on to testify in the US Congressional Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the Committee on International Affairs.
Murillo was elected governor of Chocó for a second time, but the area remained dangerous and he was unable to complete his term.
In 2014, President Juan Manuel Santos appointed Murillo as director of the “Todos Somos Pazcifico” program, playing on the words Peace (Paz) and Pacific, as Chocó’s geography runs along Colombia’s Pacific coast. In this role, he managed the solicitation and approval process for a $400 million USD World Bank and InterAmerican Development Bank loan dedicated to potable water, sewer, sanitation and renewable energy for Chocó.
Santos promoted Murillo in 2016 to Minister of The Environment and Sustainable Development, where he represented Colombia in negotiations on The Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Minamata Convention for control of mercury poisoning.
According to Colombia’s foreign ministry, Murillo was a professor at Colombia’s Externado University, Santo Tomas University and the Technological University of Chocó. Since 2019 he has been a researcher at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS), at American University, in Washington, DC.
From 2020 until this appointment, he was a Martin Luther King Scholar at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) attached to the Environmental Solutions Initiative where he focused his work on natural climate solutions and their impact on environmental protection, the fight against poverty, and social inclusion of Afrocolombian communities in the Western Hemisphere. He is the first Colombian and one of the few Latin Americans who has been part of MIT’s Martin Luther King Program.