BOGOTA, Colombia -- Nearly 25 years ago, Gustavo Petro went from being an urban guerrilla to a dogged politician who became a senator, a presidential candidate and, in 2011, the mayor of Colombia’s capital city of 7 million. In the process, he became a powerful symbol for what other guerrillas in the conflict-riddled country might expect if they swapped bullets for ballots.
On Monday, the inspector general’s office tried to put an end to Petro’s rise, ratifying a Dec. 9 ruling that ousts him from city hall and bans him from politics for 15 years.
It’s not clear when the ruling will take effect, and Petro says he won’t leave until President Juan Manuel Santos ratifies it. Petro has promised not to go quietly.
“From Bogotá, we call on all the democratic forces of the country and all the citizens to mobilize against this coup,” Petro wrote on Twitter shortly after the announcement was made.
In Monday’s ruling, Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez maintained that Petro violated the constitution and broke environmental regulations when he ordered the city to take over trash collection in 2012. The transition was messy, leaving tons of garbage on the streets for a few days and forcing the city to use dump trucks due to the lack of garbage haulers.
Petro says the change saved the city money and was needed to comply with a requirement that informal recyclers be integrated into the waste-collection system. He says Ordóñez is on a right-wing vendetta and is using the garbage crisis as an excuse.
Petro has had a rough ride as mayor. His critics have accused him of being authoritarian, and he was never particularly popular. But the inspector general’s decision has brought him a groundswell of support.
“I didn’t vote for him and I never liked him, but he won the elections,” said Enrique Uribe, a 53-year-old architect. “The inspector general is absolutely intolerant and can’t accept the fact that a former guerrilla is the mayor of Bogotá.”
A 53-year-old economist, Petro was in his 20s when he joined the now defunct M-19 guerrilla movement. He was jailed for two years in the 1980s and tortured. Upon his release, he helped broker a peace deal with the government that became a model for other Latin American rebel groups. Since then, he has risen through the political ranks, helping author the 1991 constitution and working as a legislator who uncovered some of the nation’s biggest scandals. Although he lost a 2010 presidential bid, Petro was seen as a future contender.
On Monday night, as in days past, thousands of people were expected to congregate in front of city hall to back the mayor.
Petro had been hoping to buy time. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission is reviewing his case, and he was facing a March 2 recall vote that he was confident he could win.
If the rights commission rules in his favor, it’s likely that he will have his political rights restored, said Sandra Borda, a political analyst at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. The country has a track record of complying with the commission, she said.
However, “if he is banned from politics for 15 years, he’s politically dead in this country,” she said. “This is as far as Petro made it. The inspector general has that kind of power.”
But the office may not have that sway for long. The inspector general is appointed by congress, and the position has become a powerful tool in the hands of Ordóñez. During his first four years in office, he deposed 828 mayors and 49 governors, according to Semana magazine.
That has sparked calls for reform.
“We have to review the constitutional norms that give a government official the power to ban people from politics who have been elected by the popular vote,” said Minister of Justice Alfonso Gómez Méndez.
Petro’s removal means that Latin America’s second-largest capital will be forced into a special election during an already packed political period. Legislative elections will be held in March and presidential elections will be held in May. The sudden vacancy at city hall could shake up both of those races as candidates throw their hat into the ring for the mayor’s job.
It could also rattle ongoing peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Among the issues they’re negotiating in Havana: their role in politics.