Gustavo Petro, Bogota’s new mayor, started his four-year term in office this week amid high expectations that he can clean up dirty politics in the capital and deliver on his promises to reduce poverty and crime.
Many of Bogota’s 7-and-a-half million residents see Petro, a former rebel, as an anti-graft crusader who they hope can curb rampant corruption and the misuse of government funds in local government.
Last year, Petro helped expose a major corruption scandal in Bogota that landed the city’s last mayor, Samuel Moreno, in jail. Moreno, who is awaiting trial, is accused of fraudulently granting multi-million-dollar public works contracts to companies and local businessmen in exchange for payment.
The corruption scandal meant road works across the capital, including an avenue that connects the city centre with Bogota’s international airport, were not completed during the previous administration. Residents of Bogota are now looking to Petro to ensure road works are finished and on budget.
Petro, 51, has been a key figure in Colombian politics over the decades. He belonged to the M-19 rebel group, which made peace with the government in 1990. He was then elected senator in 2006, a position he used as a platform to expose corruption, and to accuse politicians of having links with right-wing paramilitary groups.
His denunciations of political corruption prompted an ongoing investigation that has so far seen dozens of lawmakers sent to prison for crimes ranging from election fraud to murder to criminal conspiracy.
Petro plans to tackle corruption in the public sector by reducing the number of subcontractors employed by the mayor’s office, while offering more permanent contracts, as one way of ensuring tighter control over state resources and funds.
Petro is popular, especially among Bogota’s 4 million poor, who are hoping he will come good on his promises to provide cheaper public transport, cheaper and more accessible water, and to build more low-income housing.
The new mayor, who heads what is considered Colombia's second-most important elected office after the presidency, also has the backing of Colombia’s leading daily, El Tiempo.
“We wish the new mayor and his team success,” said a recent editorial in El Tiempo. “The city deserves it, and needs it, after some years of depression, corruption, frustration and abuse. He can count on our support and our honest criticism.”
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has declared combating corruption, particularly in local government, a major priority in the country.
Six of Colombia’s 32 state governors are under investigation by the attorney general’s office and by other government bodies over corruption charges, including the embezzlement of state funds and fraud.
According to government figures, over the last eight years 1,328 local mayors have been condemned on corruption charges, of which 472 have been forced to step down from their mayoral posts.