The verdict was swift and sudden. Colombia’s Inspector General, Alejandro Ordoñez ousted Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro from office and barred him for 15 years from holding any government post.
The news shook Bogotá out of its holiday complacency, and only after two years since another Mayor Samuel Moreno Rojas, was ousted over corruption charges with contract “carrousels” involving the expansion of the city’s public bus system TransMilenio.
Leftist Mayor Gustavo Petro, 53, will not be able to hold any government post until age 68, essentially having a political career stumped short by Ordoñez’s heavy-handed decision.
Petro quickly referred to this ouster as a “coup” and has called on citizens to rally around him. “We’re facing a coup d’état against the progressive government of the city of Bogotá,” Petro announced on his Twitter. “Here they’re sending a message to all of the country’s mayors: that recovering public power is a crime, an offense, or an irregularity.”
Tensions are running high in this capital of 8 million following the ruling Monday and the possibility of Bogotá not having an elected mayor for the holiday season.
Petro’s troubles are rooted in his attempt to implement 11 months after taking office a garbage collection scheme which the Inspector General criticized as “improvised.” The word “improvised” appears 24 times in Ordoñez’s charges.
The drastic measures of changing a fully functional trash collection system threw into question Petro’s handling of Colombia’s largest city as well as, his abrupt style when dealing with key issues such as transportation, health and security.
The change in the garbage system was sudden, belligerent and obliged the appointed water company EAAB to hire collectors, purchase old trucks and bins. The transition was anything but smooth.
Some 400 garbage trucks were imported, many of them in dire need of repair. Opposition hardliners saw Petro as manipulating the garbage transition to stump contractual rights guaranteed by the Constitution to impose a radicalized, socialist doctrine for Bogotá.
Petro’s haphazard approach to governance was reflected this summer in record low popularity ratings. Many suspected that the national government would eventually take measures to stop the mayor’s growing petulance.
Ordóñez announced his decision to terminate Petro’s mandate citing the mayor’s disastrous garbage collection scheme as the main reason. “The evident crisis the city of Bogotá suffered on the 18, 19, and 20th of December last year because of the absolute incompetence of the district in providing sanitation services resulted in more than one hundred complaints against Gustavo Petro,” explained Ordóñez in a statement on his website.
Many who opposed Petro management of the city agree with the Inspector General’s verdict that “improvising” could be considered a criminal offense comparable to corruption. Ironically, when Petro launched Bogotá’s slogan as “Bogotá Humana” it seemed anything but. Garbage, only a year ago, was overflowing on city streets.
The Inspector General’s Office claimed Monday that the poor planning and rapid implementation of the new sanitation system resulted in serious health and environmental problems including between 6,000 and 9,000 tons of garbage left on the streets.
Ordóñez’s decision has been met with vocal opposition by many in the nation’s capital, including several prominent politicians. Supporters question the Inspector General’s legal grounds for dismissing a democratically elected official. “I think it’s an offense against democracy,” said one city council member in a televised statement. “Whether or not you like [Petro], he was elected by the people of Bogotá.”
Minster of Justice Alfonso Gómez Méndez expressed the national government’s mood of regret over the decision and told a stunned public that he plans to review the constitutional norm that enabled Ordóñez to end the mandate of Petro.
The Mayor’s dismissal also comes at a delicate time when the country’s largest guerrilla force – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – are talking in Havana, Cuba, with the government on how to end a half century old conflict and guarantee their future participation in politics. House Representative Ivan Cepeda of the leftist POLO party remarked that the move set a precedent that “there are no guarantees for those who hand in their weapons.” Former political aide of Gustavo Petro, and three time presidential candidate Antonio Navarro Wolff stated that the impeachment measure “was very severe.”
The ideological differences between Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, and Ordóñez, a right-wing conservative who has publicly opposed controversial issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, have fueled speculation that Petro’s ousting may have been politically motivated.
Petro’s supporters also question the fairness of the mayor’s 15-year-ban from politics, citing the fact that Samuel Moreno Rojas, was only suspended for six months after being accused of illegally accepting payoffs in commissions and bribes from private companies.
On Monday afternoon thousands of Petro supporters gathered in the emblematic Plaza de Bolívar to protest the decision. Petro welcomed their support, but urged protestors to refrain from violence in the name of “peace” and “democracy.” He spoke on the official television network Canal Capital referring to his predicament as “an historic moment.” The embattled politician also confirmed that he would appeal the Inspector General’s decision on December 30th.
With an incendiary speech from the balcony of the Mayoralty Petro defied the order of Ordoñez stating “I am the Mayor of Bogotá.”
Other city residents have taken to social media to call for Ordóñez’s resignation. It appears today’s announcement is only the beginning of what is bound to be a long and difficult political battle.