How Bogota’s trash trouble became a national crisis

Thousands of people are expected to gather around City Hall on Friday in one last push to keep Mayor Gustavo Petro from being sacked and banned from politics for 15 years.

What began Monday as a sanction by the inspector general over how Petro handled garbage collection last year has evolved into something larger. Petro says he’s the victim of a right-wing “coup” orchestrated by Colombia’s ruling elite, who are threatened by his leftist politics. His critics claim Petro mismanaged this chaotic city of 7.3 million and needs to go.

But analysts say the mayor’s trash troubles could spread — rattling the country’s peace talks with guerrillas, sparking constitutional reforms, and, perhaps, altering next year’s presidential race.

Guerrilla Politics

In a country that’s trying to hammer out a peace deal with the nation’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Petro is a powerful symbol.

The 53-year-old economist was in his 20s when he joined the now defunct M-19 guerrilla movement. He claims he worked for the rebels as a community organizer and never hurt anyone. Even so, he was tortured and jailed for two years in the 1980s.

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 crusading legislator who uncovered some of the nation’s biggest scandals. In 2011, he became mayor, and he’s thought of as a presidential contender.

Monday’s ruling changed that.

“For years, the establishment has been insisting, hypocritically, that the success of people like Petro was a demonstration that it’s possible to engage in leftist politics in Colombia without weapons,” the FARC said in a statement from Havana, where it’s negotiating the peace deal. “With a single pen stroke, [the attorney general] has given us, those who have taken up arms, a lesson about what democracy in Colombia means to the oligarchy.”

The peace negotiations are far enough along that they’re unlikely to break down — and Petro has asked the FARC not to fall into what he calls the inspector general’s “trap” to derail the talks.

But it’s still troubling, said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. 

“The whole point of a peace process is to move the conflict from the military arena to the political arena,” she said. But a legal system where “trumped up charges can remove someone arbitrarily from a position” undermines that thesis.

During his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to be the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker echoed that point, saying Petro’s removal might leave the peace process “somewhat eroded.”

Attorney Power

Petro’s troubles began last year when he ordered the city to take over waste-management contracts, arguing that they were inflated. He also wanted to include informal recyclers into the city’s garbage-collection program.

But the city wasn’t ready for the transition. In the initial days, tons of garbage were left on the street and the city resorted to using dump trucks — they were dangerous and messy — because it didn’t have enough garbage trucks.

In Monday’s ruling, Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez said those changes violated the constitution by not respecting free enterprise and competition, and that the dump trucks fell afoul of the law and environmental regulations.

Almost everyone agrees that Petro mishandled the transition, but the severity of the Ordóñez-imposed punishment — it included the 15-year ban from office — seemed excessive. When Ordóñez sacked Bogotá’s previous mayor, Samuel Moreno, on corruption charges, he was only sidelined for a year.

The ruling underscores the strength and autonomy of the inspector general — a position that’s appointed by the legislature, said Arlene Tickner, a professor of international relations at Los Andes University in Bogotá.

“The power of whoever is in charge of that institution is frightening,” she said.

Ordóñez, a conservative Catholic, has been a vocal critic of various items, including same-sex marriage, abortion, and the peace process. He has used his power to depose former Sen. Piedad Cordoba for her alleged links with the FARC, and more than 50 mayors, according to El Tiempo newspaper. He has also opened an investigation into Rep. Iván Cepeda, a human-rights advocate who is exploring alleged ties between former President Álvaro Uribe and right-wing paramilitary groups.

“No one envisioned that whoever would head up [the office] would be so power-hungry and, in my opinion, authoritarian,” Tickner said. “It’s tremendously disconcerting that the sanction [against Petro] is much more severe than a lot of other acts of corruption.”

Petro is appealing his removal, but few think that Ordóñez will budge.

Even so, the inspector general may have overreached this time. His ruling has sparked an inquiry by the attorney general and calls for Ordóñez to step down. The situation has also opened a debate about the need to reform the constitution to rein in the office’s reach.

Henry Viveros, 40, was camping in front of City Hall and drinking out of a communal soup bucket, as he mulled how one man could have so much power.

“How can one person bring down a mayor that hundreds of thousands of people voted for?” he asked. “How can they call that democracy?”

Presidential Politics

The crisis comes during a busy political season. Voters will pick legislators in March and the president in May. But now that Bogotá City Hall — Colombia’s second-most powerful office — is in play, the political landscape is shifting.

Former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was planning to run for president, suggested he would be interested in his old job. And other legislative hopefuls are talking about throwing their hats in the mayoral ring.

But the biggest player may be Petro himself. Although the ruling bans him from elected office, it has turned him into a political martyr, said Alvaro Duque, an analyst and journalism professor at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá.

Just last week, Petro was viewed as a respected former senator who had botched his presidential chances by bungling the mayor’s post, Duque said.

According to the CNC polling firm, Petro’s approval rating has only broken the 50-percent mark once in the last 13 months. In November, 53 percent said they disapproved of his administration.

“But this ruling has revived him politically,” Duque said. “He could become the rallying point for all the other forces of the left.”

Indeed, as thousands have gathered around City Hall at night to hear Petro, he has invited leftist presidential candidates to share the stage. The Petro-effect adds a dose of uncertainty in a race in which President Juan Manuel Santos is leading but about 30 percent of the population is still undecided, Duque said.

Petro seems to be making the most of the crisis. As he speaks to the crowds each night, he appears to be addressing a broader audience.

Earlier this week, he likened the gathering to the “indignant protests” that started in Spain in 2011 and swept across Europe.

“Bogotá has become the starting point of the indignant of Colombia,” he said. “Bogotá is the vanguard for those who say enough of the tricks, enough of the killing.”

Andres Ortiz Botero, 43, was in the central square Wednesday waiting for another rally to begin. He said Colombia’s right-wing lawmakers are threatened by Petro and his ideas.

“What politician can fill a square like this every night?” he asked. “That’s why they’re scared of him.”