Colombia: Could Bogota mayor's ousting shake FARC peace talks?

Peace talks will likely continue, but the ousting of the former guerrilla Gustavo Petro could have repercussions - and give the FARC added leverage.

Fernando Vergara/AP
Bogota's Mayor Gustavo Petro (second l.) waves to supporters before delivering a speech from a City Hall balcony in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. Colombia's inspector-general Alejandro Ordonez has ordered Bogota's left-leaning mayor removed from office over waste management services.

Bogota's leftist mayor, Gustavo Petro, had big plans for his political future. After running the city of 7.5 million as what is often considered Colombia's second most important elected official, Mr. Petro could have had a shot at the presidency.

But disciplinary sanctions announced this week that ordered his ouster from city hall and banned him from holding public office for 15 years cut short Petro's electoral dreams and could have repercussions for ongoing peace talks with guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

On Dec. 9 the country's ultra-conservative inspector-general, Alejandro Ordóñez, imposed the sanctions against Petro over a Bogota trash collection crisis last year, saying he had violated the principles of the free market by trying have the city take over waste management services from private companies. Mr. Ordóñez said this move negatively affected public health when mountains of garbage were left uncollected for three days.

Petro, who announced he would remain in office until all appeals were heard, has called the ruling against him a "coup d'etat." Even some of his harshest critics have called the sanctions excessive. The Bogota newspaper El Espectador called the sanctions "exaggerated" for an administrative gaffe, particularly when compared to the 12-month suspension of Petro's predecessor, Samuel Moreno, who is on trial for corruption.

Petro, who is a former leftist guerrilla with the now defunct M-19 rebel group, said his sentence was an "attack on democracy" and a "message of war" for negotiators in Havana, where the FARC and government have been holding peace talks for the past year in an attempt to negotiate an end to Colombia's 50-year-old internal conflict.

The move against Petro came just a month after government and FARC negotiators announced they had reached a draft agreement on safeguards for political participation and how the rebels could transition from guerrilla warfare to electoral politics. But in a statement from Havana, FARC commanders said the ruling against the Bogota mayor was a "serious blow" to the peace process.

"With a simple signature, Ordoñez gave those if use who have risen up in arms a lesson in what democracy means to the oligarchy in Colombia," FARC commanders said in a statement.

Since giving up armed struggle in the late 1980s, Petro has made politics his life, holding seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the Bogota mayor's office. He came in third in the 2010 presidential election and was seen as a potential candidate in the 2018 presidential vote.

No bulls, and fights

As mayor, a post to which he was elected with just 32 percent of the vote, Petro alienated many Bogotanos by banning bullfights – a favorite pastime of the elite - supporting same-sex marriage, and restricting the expansion of city limits, at times bypassing the city council and ruling by decree.

Ordoñez, a fervent Catholic and strict conservative, has spoken out against Petro's programs and proposals. The inspector general is also a harsh critic of the peace process with the FARC, which he says could lead to impunity for crimes committed by rebels.

Luis Eduardo Celis, a conflict analyst with the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Bogota think tank, says that while it was unlikely the decision over Petro would derail peace talks, the FARC "are going to use that to bargain hard with the government, they are going to exploit it."

"I can imagine them saying 'if the establishment is going to play like that with someone as light as Petro, imagine what it'll be like for us'," Mr. Celis says, adding that the FARC consider themselves the true representatives of the left in Colombia.

Tens of thousands of supporters and municipal workers demonstrated in favor of the mayor outside city hall Monday and Tuesday nights, where Petro said that despite his ouster, the FARC "should not lower the banner of peace.”

Petro has called on his supporters to continue to rally and said the situation should spark a "peaceful and democratic revolution." He has called for massive demonstrations throughout the city for Friday. 

Even if he is banned from running for president "this will help him enormously to remain on the national political stage for a long time," says Celis.

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