The mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro, a former M19 guerrilla, was released from his post and banned from holding public office for 15 years on December 9th following an accusation of mismanagement of Colombia’s capital city. Petro, who was already facing declining popularity and the possibility of a recall referendum, sparked a public administration scandal when he attempted to replace the private trash collectors in the city with the state-owned water and sewage utility Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarillado de Bogotá. Ideological underpinnings aside, the public takeover of the trash collecting service was an absolute failure, and within three days the plan was scrapped and the private collectors were reinstated to clean up the piles of trash that lined the streets of Bogotá, a city with eight million inhabitants.
Petro was dismissed by Alejandro Ordóñez, the inspector general, under a constitutional provision which enables him to investigate and, if necessary, sanction public officials. Ordóñez, although his description of Petro’s actions as having risked “the environment and human health of the residents of Bogotá” is accurate, has a history of dismissing and banning officials linked to leftist groups like M19 or FARC. In 2010, senator Piedad Córdoba was dismissed and banned from public office for 18 years for an alleged link to FARC. Petro contends that he was dismissed by Ordóñez not for the failed state takeover of refuse collection, but rather for political purposes. Petro believes that he will be replaced by Pacho Santos, who was recently looked over by President Uribe’s party Centro Democrático, and is viewed by many observers of Colombian politics to be the most formidable opponent to Uribe for the next election. From the perspective of the Uribe administration, appointing Pacho Santos to mayor of Bogotá would serve the dual purpose of removing a disgraced leftist mayor and appeasing a potential rival.
Contentious political jockeying between left and right in Colombia is nothing new, and indeed Petro’s dismissal sparked protests throughout Colombia’s capital, but this latest development is significant because it will potentially interrupt ongoing peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and FARC. These talks recently took a positive turn when the Colombian government announced in early November that FARC will be incorporated into the political system in a process similar to the integration of M19, which ironically includes Gustavo Petro as a member. Political participation was the biggest sticking point of the negotiations which also include potential agreements on land reform, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of victims of the 50 year conflict, and implementation of a peace deal.
Although acting within the boundaries of the Colombian constitution, Alejandro Ordóñez risks hindering further development of these peace talks. FARC leaders question whether, after being incorporated into the formal political process, they will be weakened or deposed by leaders on the right in a fashion similar to what Petro is experiencing. This of course decreases FARC’s incentive to negotiate in good faith. By playing the short game, rather than focusing on peace and stability in the long run, Colombia’s establishment is making a miscalculation that may ultimately result in their own loss of legitimacy, rather than that of the opposition.