Colombia’s democracy targeted as pro-Petro mob attacks Supreme Court

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A violent mob attacks Bogotá's riot-police outside the Supreme Court. Photo: "X"

On Thursday, Colombia witnessed a demonstration promoted by President Gustavo Petro as the “March for Decency” and that escalated into a tense standoff, leaving the Supreme Court at risk and raising questions about the vulnerability of the country’s democracy.

The event in Bogotá’s historic Plaza de Bolívar has also cast doubt over the accountability of Colombia’s first leftist President given that the ensuing chaos when approximately 400 pro-government supporters, backed by the indigenous guard, social media instigators, and radical left activists, besieged the main entrances to Colombia’s high courts. The siege resulted in magistrates, staff, and visitors to the Palace of Justice in Bogotá being confined within the building for over five hours.

The demonstration, initially organized as a peaceful assembly by the education union (Fecode) and Central Workers Union (CUT), both staunch supporters of President Petro’s Historic Pact political coalition, took a tumultuous turn when it evolved into a riotous mob confronting police guarding the entrances. The chaotic scene unfolded around 1 p.m. when the high court announced that the vote count for the next Attorney General failed to reach consensus.

President Petro had orchestrated the protest with the aim of exerting pressure on the Supreme Court to swiftly elect a new Attorney General, seeking to replace Francisco Barbosa, one of his fiercest critics. The court’s traditionally lengthy process  prompted a faction of the demonstration to label the high justices as “corrupt,” and as the mob attempted to breach the iron gates of the court, President Petro was hosting representatives of the UN Security Council.

The President of the Supreme Court, Gerson Chaverra, strongly condemned the stand-off at the Palace of Justice, characterizing it as a “violent and illegal blockade.” Chaverra emphasized that such actions “seriously endanger the lives and physical integrity of magistrates, employees, journalists, and other occupants of the country’s main judicial headquarters.”

In a press statement, Chaverra emphasized the court’s commitment to defending the legitimate right to peaceful protest while condemning the violence that was unfolding outside the building. The Chief Justice warned that “democracy is at stake when any sector or actor seeks to politically, physically, or morally pressure judicial decisions”.

The Constitutional Court echoed similar sentiments, urging “reason and calm” and emphasizing that institutions of justice should not be “blocked,” “pressured,” or “intimidated.” Prosecutor General Margarita Cabello supported the magistrates and called for solidarity, emphasizing that citizens’ right to protest should not interfere with the due process of judicial proceedings.

President Petro refrained from outright condemnation of Thursday’s events, asserting that protesters had the constitutional right to mobilize but should not impede movement of the justices. His benign stance drew intense criticism from political and judicial representatives across the country.

Former President César Gaviria issued one of the harshest statements, referring to Petro’s actions as “criminal” and questioning the President’s “mental capacity to govern Colombia.” The leader of the Liberal Party denounced Petro in a video statement characterizing his behavior as “dictatorial” and insisting that the President should be judged for actions that endanger the country’s democratic institutions.

Former Presidential candidate for the Oxygen Green Party, Ingrid Betancourt, and ex-FARC hostage, agreed with the Liberal leader, stating: “The events sponsored by President Petro are unconstitutional and extremely serious. I share concern for the mental health of President Gustavo Petro.”

The legitimate process to elect a new Attorney General amid the hostile atmosphere prompted widespread support for the Supreme Court from businessmen, recently elected governors and Mayor of Bogotá Carlos Fernando Galán who called the siege “unacceptable”, while highlighting that “Bogotá is a city that respects the right to peaceful protest, but these demonstrations cannot, for any reason, lead to violence.”

As the aftermath of Thursday’s chaotic events continues to unfold, President Petro is facing intense criticism for his role in promoting a demonstration that escalated into a riot, jeopardizing the safety and integrity of Colombia’s justice system. Colombia’s Chief Peace Negotiator under the Juan Manuel Santos administration, Humberto de La Calle, recalled the 1985 storming of the Palace of Justice by the M-19 guerrilla, armed insurgency in which Petro was a combatant. “An ominous phase of violence in Colombia has been revived” he said. “The use of riots and aggression as a mechanism of pressure on the Supreme Court is something that Colombians had believed disappeared. Now they reappear with new and more worrying characteristics.”

As the focus on why a President would attempt to undermine the independence of a high court deepens, the event of February 8 will be scrutinized by Congressional lawmakers, and could result in serious consequences for those held responsible for stoking mass mobilizations under false pretexts, including the person who leads Colombia’s security forces, President Petro.

Opposition Senator María Fernanda Cabal of the right-wing Centro Democrático party  made the following statement on social media as anti-riot police cleared the streets surrounding the Palace of Justice. “As Nero played the lyre during the burning of Rome, Petro “plays” Twitter while carrying out the coup, and kidnapping of the Magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice”.