Colombia’s inspector general has dismissed leftist Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro and banned him from office for 15 years due to allegations that he abused his authority during a dispute with garbage collectors last year. Petro and his supporters have denounced the move as an undemocratic coup, sparking a national debate over the inspector general’s constitutionally-mandated authority to remove elected officials.
Yesterday afternoon, Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez announced his decision on the grounds that Petro’s attempt to replace private garbage contractors with an inexperienced municipal service during a dispute last December “violated constitutional principles of commercial competition and freedom.”
The announcement was immediately met with criticism. Petro described it as a “coup against the progressive government of Bogota” and called on supporters to protest his removal peacefully in Bogota's central Bolivar Square. El Tiempo reports that Petro told the thousands who gathered there that he was refusing to leave office, calling Ordoñez’s decision a political power play orchestrated by the extreme right to send “a message of war” to rebel peace negotiators in Havana.
The Miami Herald notes that Petro’s removal could have national implications, as the former M-19 guerrilla is “seen as a model for other rebel leaders who might want to lay down arms and participate in politics.”
Petro was not alone in criticizing the move. Immediately after Ordoñez’s announcement, Justice Minister Alfonso Gomez Mendez condemned the decision and said he supported limiting the inspector general’s ability to remove elected officials.
Semana reports that the decision was technically constitutional, but that it highlights an alarming concentration of power in the inspector general’s office. According to the magazine, in Ordoñez’s first term he dismissed 828 mayors, 622 city councilors and 49 governors. That’s an average of four mayors a week. He also engineered the controversial impeachment of Senator Piedad Cordoba, due to allegations that she had links with FARC rebels.
La Silla Vacia has an analysis of the public figures deposed by Ordoñez, pointing out that even in cases involving deeply entrenched corruption, the officials concerned were stripped of their position due to relatively minor infractions. The news site also calls attention to an apparent lack of proportion in Ordoñez’s pronouncements. Bogota city councilman Hipolito Moreno, for instance, was banned from office for only 11 years despite admitting to receiving some $30 million in bribes. Meanwhile, Ciro Ramirez and Luis Humberto Gomez Gallo, two congressmen convicted of paramilitary ties by the Supreme Court, were cleared of administrative wrongdoing by Ordoñez in May.
Petro has said he will appeal the decision, but it is unlikely that the inspector general will change his mind. Ordoñez reportedly has between 30 and 40 days to consider the appeal. After that, the mayor’s political future is unclear. He has called for continued rallies in Bolivar Square, but it is doubtful that popular outrage alone will keep him in office. The Bogota mayor’s only hope may be an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). EFE reports that Petro has said he will ask the IACHR to request precautionary measures to protect his rights to political participation, which he claims have been violated without just cause.
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