Bogota protests poised to reach new level

Ousted mayor calls on demonstrators to permanently occupy Plaza Bolivar once his removal order is confirmed.


    As they did for days in December, tens of thousands of Colombians marched on Friday in support of the ousted mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro. There were far fewer than the 150,000 protest organisers promised would show up, but it was still a good showing - especially in a city half-empty at the end of the year's most important holiday season.

    "They said we would not be able to fill this plaza again," Petro told the assembled. "Today, we show the immense force and conviction of this popular movement."

    The movement was sparked after Alejandro Ordo?ez, Colombia's ultra-conservative inspector general, announced last month that he was kicking the leftist mayor out of the country's second-most powerful political post, and banning him from running for office for 15 years. At the core of the dispute was the alleged mishandling of the city's garbage collection system, which the mayor had been trying to reform, but many Colombians viewed the ouster as a politically motivated power play. 

    Petro, a former rebel fighter, is an icon of the left and was seen as a presidential contender. He is also the poster child of a previous successful peace process, at a time when Colombia is in the midst of complex peace negotiations with the biggest rebel group in the country, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

    In Plaza Bolivar on Friday, the mood was festive and peaceful, with people chanting and listening to live music. But hanging heavy was the knowledge that this would be the last rally before the inspector general formalises Petro's removal early next week. That could bring the protest movement to a new level: In his speech, the mayor asked supporters to permanently occupy the plaza in his defense if and when the order is confirmed.

    Legal battle ahead

    Petro needs to show he has backing on the streets, but the real battle is now the legal one. While the mayor's defense team has filed for an appeal, they know it will not be successful. Under Colombian law, Petro can only bring the challenge to the inspector general himself, and the decision is unlikely to change.

    Meanwhile, the mayor has been seeking help internationally, including from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which could intervene on his behalf through a so-called precautionary measure. "If [Petro] obtained the precautionary measure, either the president would take into consideration this measure and not apply the final decision by the inspector general, or if the president doesn't, Petro can use a writ of protection in order to make effective in the domestic Colombian legal system this international decision," said constitutional law professor Rodrigo Uprimny.

    Even if the mayor somehow manages to overcome the removal order, he could face a public recall vote on March 2. But this is something the mayor says he welcomes: to let the people of Bogota decide whether he should continue to hold power.



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