Ex-Rebel Leader Faces Ouster as Bogota Mayor After Longtime Advocacy of Reconciliation

Democracy Now

HAVANA TIMES – Amidst revelations of a secret CIA program responsible for killing at least two dozen rebel leaders in Colombia, former guerrilla leader Gustavo Petro is facing a campaign for his ouster as mayor of Bogotá.

Earlier this month, Colombia’s inspector general announced Petro would have to leave office over the alleged mismanagement of the capital’s rubbish collection service. However supporters say Petro has been the victim of a “right-wing coup,” and tens of thousands have taken to the streets to support him.

Petro and his supporters are now working to prevent his removal from being carried out. We go to Bogotá, where we are joined by Charlie Roberts, a member of the Colombia Human Rights Committee and board chair of the U.S. Office on Colombia.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined, in addition to Mario Murillo, by Charlie Roberts, with the Colombia Human Rights Committee. Charlie, you are in Bogotá, Colombia, right now, and you’re covering what’s happening to the Bogotá mayor. But I was wondering if you could start by responding to this report and, perhaps in a bigger sense, how it relates to what’s happening to the mayor today.

CHARLIE ROBERTS: Sure. I think that—well, I would agree with what Mario has laid out in terms of the double standard, in terms of violations of international law that are involved in the U.S. actions. It’s directly related to what’s happening today with the mayor of Bogotá. There is an official in Colombia known as the inspector general, who is chosen by the Senate. He happens to be a follower of Uribe, and he is an avowed opponent of the peace talks with the FARC. He has taken an action to try to remove Gustavo Petro, who’s the popularly elected mayor of Bogotá, on grounds of—not of criminal conduct, not of corruption, but of mismanaging a garbage—the trash removal situation in Bogotá. He is authorized under the Colombian constitution to remove elected officials and unelected officials on several grounds, and he has thrown out hundreds of mayors.

This situation, however, is different. It’s different, first of all, because Bogotá is the largest city, and it’s also different because Petro is one of the leaders of Colombia’s democratic left. Petro, as indicated in the earlier clip, negotiated peace as part of the M-19 24 years ago with the government. If the government is actually intending to negotiate peace with the FARC, then they have to offer them political guarantees to be able to participate in Colombian politics. And here, with this arbitrary action by the inspector general against Mayor Petro, he’s sending a very strong message to the FARC. The message is: You can lay down your weapons and run for popular office, but if you get elected, we’re going to see what we can do to throw you out of office, because there are sectors of the Colombian elite that are not prepared to allow democratically elected figures who propose real social change here in Colombia, which is one of the most unequal countries in the world. They’re not going to allow them. They’re going to do anything possible to throw them out of office, which is what he’s trying to do right now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happens from here, as you are in Bogotá, and the response of the people in Colombia, Charlie?

CHARLIE ROBERTS: Well, the inspector general announced his decision on December 9, yet it has not yet gone into effect. That day, tens of thousands of people came to the main plaza, Plaza de Bolívar, in the center of Bogotá, and Mayor Petro announced the crowd—addressed the crowd. And in four of the following five days, there were massive demonstrations. Tens of thousands of people came. Members of what is known as the guardia indígena, which are indigenous persons from the south of Colombia, came up to Bogotá. They are armed with sticks—that is all. Petro made two very clear statements in response on the first day. He said, “We must act peacefully.” No violence whatsoever by his supporters. But he said, “We also must express ourselves.”

What is happening is—well, Colombia is a country where there is a certain obsession with doing everything as per the law, but there are always different legal explanations and different legal arguments. In this case, on the one hand, you have this authority of the inspector general to remove officials from office, but at the same time, Colombia has ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, which states that no public elected official can be removed from office other than by a competent court. So there’s now a major debate underway in Colombia. Even people who haven’t supported Petro are upset with this action by the inspector general, because they see that it is arbitrary, that it is aimed at ending the peace talks with the FARC, that it is aimed at beheading the democratic left of Colombia. His decision also excludes Petro—if it goes through, it would exclude Petro from any participation in political activity for 15 years.

And so, Mr. Petro has gone to Washington. He spoke with members of Congress, State Department, and he also went to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is the organ in charge of overseeing implementation of the American Convention on Human Rights, seeking precautionary measures, which is a device where the commission, if they grant these measures—that’s still pending—would be saying that there’s an imminent threat of irreparable harm to Mr. Petro’s human rights and, by the way, the rights of the hundreds of thousands of people who voted for him to have him elected.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both, Charlie Roberts and Mario Murillo, for being with us. Charlie Roberts, member of the Colombia Human Rights Committee, board chair of U.S. Office on Colombia. And Mario Murillo, professor and chair of the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, co-director of the Center for Civic Engagement. He’s covered Colombia extensively for years. One of his books, Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization.