Colombia’s Right Is Trying to “Soft Coup” Gustavo Petro

Colombian elites are determined not to let leftist president Gustavo Petro serve out his full term. As top judicial officials target him and his cabinet, drug cartels and their links to the far right remain uninvestigated.

Colombian president Gustavo Petro speaks during a press conference in Bogotá, Colombia, on February 8, 2024. (Sebastian Barros / NurPhoto)

It was expected that Colombia’s elites, who had enjoyed a monopoly over the state for two hundred consecutive years up until twenty months ago, would attempt to obstruct the left-wing President Gustavo Petro’s administration. This effort to undermine the process of change mandated by the majority of Colombians has involved everything from misinformation campaigns to the blocking of policies in Congress — but there have also been more direct and sophisticated strategies to overthrow the progressive project.

After Brazil’s legal apparatus was successfully wielded against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, and Argentina’s against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Colombian elites are attempting to do the same to Petro, with his administration warning about a plot last summer. If successful, it would mean not only the defeat of Colombia’s first left government, but also a major victory for the US and Latin American capitalist classes.

Barbosa’s Revenge

Disregarding the political nonpartisanship expected from his office, Colombia’s most recent attorney general, Francisco Barbosa, has openly declared his contempt for Petro’s government since the president was sworn in nineteen months ago. In a flagrant abuse of power, Barbosa and the general inspector’s office recently intensified efforts to undermine the administration in maneuvers that could only be interpreted as acts of lawfare. This is part of the Right’s explicit goal of cutting short Petro’s term in Colombia’s highest office.

Under the guise of tackling corruption, the attorney general and general inspector have begun targeting Petro’s team and allies more forcefully. First, they raided the offices of the country’s teachers’ union, Federacion Colombiana de Trabajadores de la Educacion (FECODE), citing far-fetched accusations of irregularities in donations to Petro’s presidential campaign, as well as suspending the foreign affairs minister, Álvaro Leyva, with similarly unfounded accusations of corruption. These follow an investigation into Petro’s son, Nicolas, who is alleged to have illegally received money during the presidential campaign — though there is no evidence of the president’s involvement.

Perhaps most prejudicial is the Supreme Court of Justice recently stalling the approval of three candidates proposed by Petro’s administration to succeed Barbosa, whose tenure ended Sunday, at which time he was replaced by his equally problematic deputy in the interim. This latter move is designed to obstruct the appointment of a more qualified and aboveboard official who would be inclined to use their power to go after organized crime and more substantive cases of corruption, rather than engage in political maneuvering or prosecute student protesters. Following the historic countrywide uprising in the spring of 2021, for instance, during far-right president Iván Duque’s administration, the country’s highest judiciary offices focused much of their significant resources (which include US funding) on hounding young working-class protesters, with hundreds baselessly accused of terrorism and given lengthy sentences in dubious trials criticized by the United Nations.

In other words, Colombia’s highest judicial seats are today, as they have been for decades, jealously commandeered by the country’s ruling class — with strategic and material support from the United States — as a political weapon. Although the mainstream media has tended to reduce the president’s ongoing conflict with the Supreme Court and attorney general to personal rivalries between public officials, the conflict can be more accurately characterized as the country’s powerful minorities mobilizing the judicial branch to break the mass movement for change.

Latin American Lawfare

Petro’s administration is far from the only left-wing government to be subjected to legal harassment. Dubious judicial proceedings against progressive leaders have become one of the principal weapons of Latin American elites against the Left since the 1980s. Their use coincides with the period of the United States’ systematic strategy of pressuring the region’s governments to “modernize” their judicial branches and policies.

A study into the use of what has been labeled “lawfare,” published by the Strategic Centre for Latin American Geopolitics (Centro Estratégico Latinoamericano de Geopolítica, CELAG), traces how these modifications to legal apparatuses in Latin America were implemented with the advice and close involvement of US-backed NGOs and “developmental” organizations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Under the guise of tackling political corruption — formulated in this period as the explanation for the region’s ills and backwardness — elites have subjected government officials inclined to utilize the power of the state to serve the public over the private interest to relentless legal persecution. Colombia especially has been on the receiving end of this “assistance” in reforming its judicial system at the behest of US organizations.

Relatively recent examples of these judicial processes, in addition to those mentioned in Brazil and Argentina, have targeted Rafael Correa and Jorge Glas in Ecuador and Bernardo Arévalo in Guatemala, among others. The present attempt to sabotage President Petro in Colombia in what he has called a “soft coup” is a classic case of this tried-and-true method.

In Colombia, historically one of the United States’ closest allies in the region, elites are hardly averse to the use of terror tactics, torture, disappearances, and assassinations to silence political opponents and dissidents. Their current utilization of more subtle methods against Petro and his administration, however, is prudent. They seek to avoid the almost-certain upheaval a more typically violent approach against the leader would unleash. More sanguinary methods are usually reserved (with exceptions, especially considering Colombia’s long history of assassinations of leftist political leaders) for the nameless and faceless masses of ordinary citizens who, in the shell game of “anti-corruption,” today stand to lose the possibility of a better collective future.

Petro’s government, in daring to implement the radical reforms promised by his coalition during its electoral campaign, has inspired the wrath of a small yet influential section of Colombian society that vehemently struggles against any threat to their stranglehold on power. This time, elites seek to use the judicial system to remove the democratically elected government and restore their monopoly on state power, realigning it once more with the particularly violent form of capitalist neoliberalism Colombia is known for.

The Long Fight Against Petro

As the leading representative of the country’s popular left wing, President Petro has long been the target of legal aggressions. These efforts began at least a decade ago, when the Office of the Inspector General led a similar attempt to depose him as mayor of Bogotá, in an effort to disqualify him from politics altogether for fifteen years led by another notorious right-wing extremist, Alejandro Ordóñez. The plot in that period was centered around an accusation of irregularities in waste-collection contracts in the city, later dismissed by the courts.

Ordoñez oversaw the suspension of some of the country’s most progressive senators through a series of baseless legal proceedings, which were all ultimately thrown out. Although his cases against Petro and various senators did not stick, they were nevertheless damaging. Then as now, the accusations alone no doubt helped shape and influence public opinion of leftist politicians — with the country’s corporate-owned media outlets enthusiastically doing their part.

As highlighted by the Colombian analyst Javier Calderón Castillo, a contributor to CELAG’s study on lawfare, these aggressions are not dished out at random but timed to achieve the utmost political impact. Ordoñez’s attempt to remove Petro from his mayorship and disqualify him from holding political office was calculated to frustrate his potential candidacy for president. The present effort, in addition to helping generate a general distrust of the government, is preparing the ground for a stronger offensive that elites and the opposition hope will result in Petro’s early removal from power. In a recent public meeting, Fernanda Cabal — a senator from a family of sugar barons — urged greater acts of destabilization against the government and stated that the opposition’s task was to not let the progressive leader see out his term.

The Real Criminals

Although outgoing attorney general Barbosa is just one player in a wider power struggle between classes, his represents the general position of the Colombian ruling class. His zeal to hamper the government’s efforts to transform the country is not only due to his political loyalty to the far right; it is also rooted in self-preservation. Reports, including one published by a coalition of human rights lawyers, suggest he is preventing investigations into organized crime cartels — known for their deep ties to the country’s far right, which awarded him his office.

Colombia’s mainstream media, rather than seriously reporting on Barbosa’s inaction on numerous investigations that link narcotrafficking cartels to elected officials, focus instead on sensationalized stories  like Barbosa’s luxurious holidays paid for with public money and his promotion of officials willing to dog-sit for him, among others — scandalous, to be sure, but not as relevant as the more serious allegations against him.

The most famous case thrown out by Barbosa is that of the late José Guillermo “Ñeñe” Hernández, a businessman with known links to the drug cartels said to have contributed to former president Iván Duque’s presidential campaign. There is also evidence that the attorney general used his position to protect former president Álvaro Uribe — known for his mix of neoliberalism and paramilitary violence — from being tried for more than two hundred crimes, including several massacres, such as those of El Aro, La Granja, and San Roque. Absurdly, considering the serious and compelling allegations leveled at him and his political allies, Barbosa has likened Petro to Pablo Escobar, the narcotics kingpin responsible for some of the country’s most heinous crimes through the 1980s and ’90s.

As broad “anti-corruption” programs are applied perfidiously using Washington’s handbook, officials like Barbosa — themselves steeped in corruption and criminality — capitalize on that scheme to undermine redistributive political projects.

If successful, the soft coup d’état pursued today in Colombia could potentially have adverse repercussions for generations to come. Right now, a popular, mass politics seems like the best defense against lawfare in Colombia and beyond — but recent history has shown it’s not always enough.