Thousands gather in Bogota to defend deposed mayor

Thousands of people gathered in front of City Hall late Monday in support of Mayor Gustavo Petro, after the attorney general ordered that he step down for breaking the law in his attempts to reform waste collection last year that briefly left tons of garbage on the streets.

Monday’s attorney general ruling also prohibits Petro – the country’s second-most powerful elected official and a former presidential candidate – from participating in politics for 15 years.

As throngs of people gathered downtown in this city of 7.3 million, Petro called for nation-wide protests and blamed long-time rival and former President Alvaro Uribe for orchestrating his ouster.

The move could have national implications. Petro, a former senator and M-19 guerrilla, is seen as a model for other rebel leaders who might want to lay down arms and participate in politics.

In interviews, Petro has said he’s being attacked for his leftist policies and suggested that if he were deposed it could disrupt peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that are taking place in Havana.

Those talks contemplate the FARC’s political participation.

Petro’s problems began last year when he ordered the city to take over waste-management contracts, saying they could be done cheaper and more efficiently.

The transition was chaotic. In Monday’s ruling, the attorney general said between 6,000 and 9,000 tons of garbage was left on the street from Dec. 18 through 20 when the new scheme began. The attorney general also said the changes violated the constitution by not respecting free enterprise and competition, and fell afoul of the law by initially using dump trucks – rather than garbage trucks.

Petro’s lawyer, Julio César Ortiz, said the attorney general’s decision was unconstitutional and an abuse of power. He also said Petro had until the end of the month to appeal the decision.

Petro asked President Juan Manuel Santos, who is seeking reelection next year, to weigh in.

“Now we’ll know if the president is for peace or simply for his reelection,” he said.

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