Colombia rightist’s illegal maneuver threatens peace talks

Using illegal methods, Colombia’s rightist Inspector General removed Bogotá’s popularly elected mayor from office, throwing the future of the vital peace talks with the political guerrilla movement, the FARC-EP, and the future of democracy in Colombia into question.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had granted “precautionary measures” to Bogotá’s popularly elected Mayor Gustavo Petro on March 18 and solicited the Colombian government to not remove the elected mayor from office pending further proceedings under the American Convention on Human Rights.

Unlike the United States, Colombia is a signatory to this Convention. The IACHR found that the possibility of the violation of the political rights of Petro, and consequently the political rights of the population of Bogotá, was imminent, and precautionary measures were warranted to protect against violations of the Convention.

The Inspector General of Colombia Alejandro Ordóñez found Petro unfit for office due to the fact that he tried to bring Bogotá’s trash collection services back under public control in order to ensure lower prices and better services for the city’s inhabitants. There were also plans to introduce recycling services. Petro petitioned the IACHR for protection and relief.

A group of capitalists who were profiting from the city’s trash collection complained to Ordóñez about the plans to remunicipalize these services. The Inspector General subsequently opened an investigation of Petro. On Dec. 13, Ordóñez, who has not been elected by anyone, declared the poularly elected Petro unfit for office for, among other crimes, interfering with the right to contract.

Banning Petro from office by the Inspector General is one method that the ruling Colombian oligarchy has used to remove leftist leaders. This procedure was previously used against the popular Afro-Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba. Ordóñez is also reportedly currently investigating progressive Representative Ivan Vargas.

A history of right-wing terror

Another method of removing popular leaders in Colombia has been the use of terror and assassination. In the 1980s the Unión Patriótica presented an electoral challenge to the ruling oligarchy’s hold on power. A genocidal campaign of terror and assassination ensued where between 4,000 and 5,000 of its leaders and followers were assassinated, including two presidential candidates. Thousands more were forced into exile.

More recently 31 leaders of the popular organization, the Patriotic March, have been assassinated since its founding in April 2012. Assassination, death threats and arbitrary arrests continue to plague popular and leftist leaders. Meanwhile, military aid from the United States continues to pour into Colombia to prop up the status quo.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia had previously stated that if ­IACHR were to prohibit the firing of Petro, he would respect that decision. Under Article 93 in the Colombian Constitution, previously ratified international human rights treaties are to be given precedence in the Colombian legal system. Therefore a decision of IACHR should be binding on the Colombian government. Hypocritically, and in alliance with other sectors of the oligarchy, President Santos has refused to veto the removal of Petro, since the precautionary measures were issued, which means Petro is now out of office.

Ivan Márquez, a spokesperson for Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia-People’s Army), stated that the “absurd decision” to remove Petro would have “a very negative impact” on the peace talks. This FARC leader spoke of a loss of confidence in the talks due to the arbitrary and undemocratic dismissal.

The FARC-EP and the Colombian government have been in peace talks since October 2012 in an attempt to end Colombia’s 50-year civil war. At these talks in Havana, the FARC has consistently demanded that there must be social change in the country to remove the conditions that led to armed conflict. The peace talks are supported by an overwhelming majority of the country’s population, with multiple public opinion polls showing well over 60 percent in favor of the talks.

The talks have a multipoint agenda, with one of them political participation. The decision to remove an elected official strikes at the heart of this agenda item as the FARC and many other political sectors are seeking wider political involvement with security guarantees for the left as part of any comprehensive peace agreement.

In the face of this setback, however, the Colombian people continue to mobilize. March 15-17 saw the Agrarian Summit where plans were discussed to organize another agrarian strike to defend peasant farmers against the devastation that will result from the recently imposed free trade agreements. Demands for a constituent assembly to formulate a new, more progressive and inclusive constitution are heard around the country. Despite this undemocratic removal of Bogotá’s mayor, a struggle for a new, more just Colombia continues.

Mark Burton is a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer in Denver.