Bogotá, the capital and largest city of Colombia is the country’s most populous conurbation. Since 1998 it has been run by leftist mayors. The latest of them, Gustavo Petro, not standing in the upcoming presidential election, may be the left’s choice in 2018. But he says undemocratic forces wield the real power in his country, and want him out.
Euronews spoke to him in an exclusive interview.
Alberto de Filippis, euronews: “Could you explain to me what you were accused of and what happened?”
Gustavo Petro: “I am a former guerilla fighter. Twenty five years ago I took part in a peace process and gave up weapons. Institutions changed and they gave us civil rights, the country was democratised and 25 years later we have won, through democratic elections, the most important city hall in Colombia. We have had a relative political and economic autonomy and we have been deprived of that authority, through an administrative civil servant.
“It means we have not been deprived by a court, a ruling like ‘the mayor has committed a crime and he has to leave’, no. It was solely the decision of a public official who took away the right to vote from Bogotan electors and who barred me from standing for elected office for 15 years.”
euronews: “What were the accusations ?”
Gustavo Petro: “We tried to take a political, but also administrative decision, which was ordered by the Constitutional Court: to change the city’s cleaning services. It was a completely privatised model. We transformed this into a mixed system. We created a public enterprise which competes in the market and we included, on the order of the Constitutional court, around 14,000 working-class collectors, men and women.
“These people go out every day to collect recyclable garbage which they can sell on the market. The Constitutional Court ordered us to include these people in this new model so they could earn money to give them some dignity. After doing that, big private enterprises saw their profits fall, so they started to sabotage the service, trying to claw back their privileges. They didn’t collect garbage for three days and left it lying in the streets and then they started to make official complaints. One of these was picked up by the public prosecutor who used it to deprive the city of its vote by sacking its mayor.”
euronews: “Why did the high court of Bogotà change its mind ?”
Gustavo Petro: “It didn’t change its mind. The Interamerican Commission of Human Rights decided to protect me with special measures. It means that I’ll be mayor from the beginning to the end of my mandate. It was a unanimous decision by the Commission.
“But President Santos didn’t respect this decision. For the first time in the history of Colombia. This has caused my suspension for one month. The Bogotà high court told the president, through a safeguard measure, that the decision of the commission must be respected. So he was ordered to put me back in place. That’s the reason why, you and me, Alberto, are having this conversation in Bogotà City Hall.”
euronews: “Violence in many regions produces displaced people who go to cities and end up in poor areas like those in Bogotà. These areas become havens for drug lords and paramilitary forces. How is it possible to escape from this hell?”
Gustavo Petro: “I believe that to get peace we have to change the political model, integrating all of the country’s population, by the democratisation of Colombia.
“But this means also having the courage to search for a way out of the problem of drug trafficking. Both things go together, because it all started with social exclusion and violence, and led to drug trafficking, which uses violence for its own ends.
“If we don’t solve the first problem, which provoked violence, we won’t solve the rest. Drug lords have used violence to control the state and the territory in Colombia. It makes the drugs trade almost indestructible. Drug lords in Colombia have state powers.”
euronews: “What do you think about the war on drugs in Colombia? Do you believe that legalisation could be an option?”
Gustavo Petro: “Internal legalisation of drug consumption allows us to rescue the consumer, often young and poor, rom the control of local gangs. We started it in Bogotà and they punished me for that. We started a public health programme for drug addicts.
“But regarding the global drugs trade, its international connections, money laundering and so on, an eventual global legalisation – all that doesn’t depend on a single mayor. Not even on a president. It depends on a global discussion which is already going on. although very slowly.
“Even if more and more people start to understand that the so-called ‘war against drugs’ has only made ‘drug-cartels’ stronger, it has made the mafia stronger in its ability to occupy the state and increase levels of social illness.”
euronews: “You have a second chance now. What are you going to do?”
Gustavo Petro: “We still suffer from instability. Above myself there is an anti-democratic Damocles sword. Until now I was protected by the justice system, but I am still at risk because the attorney general is very strong and can influence many judges by offering jobs to their sons, their brothers, and building ‘unholy’ corrupt links.
“So he was able to neutralise the safeguards and instruments we have in Colombian legislation. That’s why the safeguard measures decided by the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights are so important. That’s why Santos is in a poor position. Because he first refused to implement them and then accepted them but instead raised some incertitudes, and has created instability in Bogotà. That is why I consider International solidarity so important.”