On Dec. 9, I was giving a talk at City Hall on the need to fight corruption when, suddenly, my cellphone alerted me to this message: Colombia’s inspector general had decided to remove me from my job as mayor of the nation’s capital and to bar me from holding office for 15 years.
My alleged sin: bungling a project to bring trash collection — run by an oligopoly of private contractors — under direct city management.
Startled, I told the audience what I had just learned. They were irate; the country’s minister of justice and a United Nations representative in Colombia, seated at the head table with me, both hugged me in a show of solidarity. Tens of thousands of Colombians have rallied in the Plaza de Bolívar, in the heart of the capital, in my support. More protests are planned.
For now, I am the mayor. I am challenging the inspector general’s decision, which I consider arbitrary and politically motivated. (In an interview on Sunday, the nation’s chief prosecutor urged President Juan Manuel Santos to postpone the decision.)
I was elected mayor of this city of eight million in 2011, after two terms in the Chamber of Representatives and one in the Senate. My administration has focused on helping the poor, readying the city for the effects of climate change and strengthening the public sphere.
My political career is not one I could have predicted. In the 1970s, I joined a leftist guerrilla organization, the April 19th Movement, or M-19, and was imprisoned and tortured from 1985 to 1987 for my participation. But by 1990, our movement had laid down its arms and made peace with the government — even though our party’s presidential candidate was assassinated that year. Indeed, in 1991, we helped revise the Constitution to make it more democratic.
The M-19 was never part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, with whom the Colombian government is engaged in peace talks, in Cuba, to end nearly a half-century of armed conflict. But the effort to remove me has become inextricably tied up with the issue of whether and how to end the longstanding struggle with the FARC.
Those who support the talks with the FARC have said that removing me would demonstrate that former guerrillas could not safely lay down their arms and be assured a role in a fair and democratic government — a concern shared by Kevin Whitaker, President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Colombia.
At a Senate confirmation hearing on Dec. 11, Mr. Whitaker said of the decision to remove me, “There’s a fundamental question that’s raised by this, it seems to me, and that is one of political pluralism,” which he described as the challenge of “how to integrate into the legal, unarmed, democratic process individuals of the left.” He added, “If individuals in Colombia were to conclude, based on this action or any other action, that that space doesn’t exist, then the basic conditions for peace are going to be, in some ways, eroded.”
As a Colombian senator, I supported the appointment of the inspector general, Alejandro Ordóñez, because of my belief in the importance of political pluralism, even though he is a close ally of the right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe (who has criticized his successor, Mr. Santos, for talking with the FARC).
While the inspector general has power, under the Constitution, to remove certain officials, in my case Mr. Ordóñez has overstepped and abused this authority. In attempting to disqualify me from participation in politics on the flimsiest of pretexts, Mr. Ordóñez is trying to end my political career and weaken the political left. He is also trying to deal a blow to the peace process with the FARC.
It is precisely because of this overreach that many in Colombia are calling for a reform of the inspector general’s powers, so as to require judicial review before an elected official can be removed. This would bring our Constitution into line with the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that Colombia has ratified. It provides that elected officials may be removed only after being convicted by a competent judge in criminal proceedings.
The grounds for my removal are preposterous. Last December, I tried to break the oligopoly of private companies that held the contracts for garbage removal. My administration estimated that these companies had overcharged the city some $300 million in the decade before I took office. Those companies, previously concession holders, are now contractors with the city.
I acknowledge that my government made mistakes that are not uncommon when changing the model for provision of a public service as complex as trash collection in a city with millions of residents. But Mr. Ordóñez has accused me of no crime. He says, among other things, that my administration mishandled our effort to bring trash collection under public control, and in so doing attacked the system of “free enterprise.” He also says that the accumulation of several thousand tons of garbage on Dec. 18-20, 2012, threatened public health. He does not demonstrate how this justified the removal of the democratically elected mayor of the nation’s capital.
Mr. Ordóñez’s background shows a pattern of intolerance. As a student in the northern city of Bucaramanga more than 30 years ago, he participated in the mass burning of books considered “impious” from a public library. These included Protestant translations of the Bible (Mr. Ordóñez is an ultraconservative Catholic) and works by Gabriel García Márquez. As inspector general, Mr. Ordóñez interfered with the construction of a women’s clinic in Medellín, on the theory that abortions might be performed there. He also threatened to remove judges and notaries who performed same-sex marriages, even though the country’s Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that same-sex couples could join in “solemn union.”
President Santos now faces a choice: He can back Mr. Ordóñez, which I believe would violate democratic principles and international law and defy the will of the voters of Bogotá, while also setting back the peace process, or he can pursue a democratic resolution to this situation, one that respects our nation’s longing for peace, democracy and human rights.
Respect for the popular vote must be the basis of democracy.
Gustavo Petro Urrego is the mayor of Bogotá. This article was translated by Charles H. Roberts from the Spanish.