Protesters occupy Bogotá over municipal ‘coup’

For a second consecutive day Dec. 10, thousands of protesters continued to occupy Plaza Bolívar, the central square in Bogotá, to oppose the removal of the Colombian capital’s populist mayor, Gustavo Petro. A left-wing populist and former guerilla fighter, Petro was ordered to step down by Colombia’s Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordoñez—officially over irregularities in a reform of the city’s garbage collection system. Under the decision, Petro is barred from holding public office for 15 years. But Petro told his supporters in the plaza, “I am still mayor,” and assailed Ordoñez’s decision as a “coup against democracy.” Protesters pledge to remain in the plaza until the decision is overturned, with banners reading “Respect my vote,” and accusing the conservative Ordoñez of being a “golpista” (coup-plotter.)

Petro was elected by a wide margin in 2011 on the ticket of a progressive Bogotá Humana coalition, and the move against him is seen by his supporters as a blow by Colombia’s “oligarchy.” Imprisoned for his rebel activities in the 1980s after joining M-19 guerilla movement, as a national legislator from 1998 to 2006 Petro was among the most vocal in denouncing corruption and congressional ties to right-wing paramilitaries. The banner of the now-disbanded M-19 guerillas is among those being flown at the occupied Plaza Bolívar. 

Ordoñez charged that Petro had violated principles of free competition by giving sanitation contracts to publically owned companies. President Juan Manuel Santos issued a press release calling on citizens to remain “calm” and respect the dismissal, while expressing “regret [for] the inconveniences this situation may cause for the citizens.”

The FARC guerillas issued their own statement saying the removal Petro could impact the ongoing peace talks with the Colombian government in Cuba. “The decision by the ultra-conservative inspector general is another serious blow to the peace process in Havana, that affects confidence and credibility,” the statement said. (Reuters, Dec. 11; TeleSur, Alai, RCN, Dec. 10; Colombia Reports, Dec. 9)