BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Wednesday removed the national police director who had talked about using exorcisms to catch fugitives.
Neither Petro nor the Defense Ministry elaborated on reasons for the dismissal of Gen. Henry Sanabria, a staunch Catholic who was appointed by Petro in August of last year. But Sanabria was under an internal investigation by the ministry over whether he had inappropriately allowed his religious beliefs to infringe on his duties.
Sanabria had unleashed a debate about the impact of his faith on the police after his statements in an interview last month including that police had used exorcisms to catch drug kingpins and guerrilla leaders. He also issued a strong condemnation of abortion, which is legal in Colombia.
Although Colombia is a predominantly Catholic country of conservative and religious traditions, it is a secular state under its constitution. Petro, who was sworn in as the country’s first-ever leftist president last August, said that Sanabria would never be persecuted over his religion, but that there must be separation between religious beliefs and the state.
Interior Minister Alfonso Prada said Wednesday that Sanabria’s departure had nothing to do with his expressions of his religious beliefs, since the government respects freedom of thought. He said only that the dismissal was part of a new start for the national police force.
In a Twitter message, Petro thanked Sanabria for his work without referring to the reason for his removal.
Sanabria will be replaced by a retired general of the police force, William Salamanca, who currently is Colombia’s consul in Miami.
In an interview in Semana Magazine last month, Sanabria said that the police forces carried out exorcisms to catch top leaders of drug trafficking gangs and guerrilla groups.
He also spoke out strongly against abortion, which has been legalized in Colombia by the Constitutional Court since February of last year. Sanabria said that abortion is a “very serious sin” because it implies “killing a little person who is being formed.”