Election Section

Commentary: Bogotá Mayor Rules with Theatric Enforcement By AARON TUKEY

Tuesday May 03, 2005

To a packed audience that over flowed into the corridors of an embarrassingly small venue, Antanas Mockus, the innovative two-term mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, spoke April 15 at the conference on “Violence and the Americas,” hosted by the Center for Latin American Studies. His talk on “Law Enforcement and Citizenship Building” focused largely on enlisting collective social disapproval and participatory stake holding—instead of legal penalties—to help shape civic behavior. While obviously proud of the reduction in violence experienced in the unruly capital city during his tenure, the ever humble and self-mocking former mayor gave only a hint of how his creative strategies have empowered Bogotá’s 7 million inhabitants—and how these ideas might be applied to beleaguered urban areas here in the US. 

When I first arrived in Bogotá in December of 1995, the city was a metropolitan nightmare plagued by eternal traffic jams, truly hair-raising crime, choking pollution, ugly gray concrete devoid of greenery, thousands of street children, and more than anything else, a sense of despair and alienation that seemed to permeate everything. As corruption drained city coffers, cynicism, rampant tax evasion, and a general shirking of civic responsibility had become the norm. Few people spoke or even made eye contact on the streets, and people watched with resigned indifference as their fellow citizens fell prey to marauding gangs in broad daylight. It was a hardscrabble, dog-eat-dog kind of environment that to many residents seemed beyond hope. 

On my very first experience with Bogotá’s legendary traffic jams, a friend pointed to a group of youths milling about on the sidewalk, and calmly told me “those guys are about to rob someone.” Sure enough, in front of several hundred of us stuck in traffic, the three youths walked up to a choice vehicle, thrust a gun in the window, and casually walked—not ran—away with wallets and jewelry. Twenty minutes later, we were all still there stuck in the same spot, and the same group of guys were back to leisurely choose their next victims—all of this in front of a traffic cop who nervously looked the other way while the kids brazenly taunted him, weapons drawn. I can’t tell you how much paralysis that kind of daily violence induces in civic society.  

Fed up with the corrupt, status quo politicians from the ruling duopoly, and desperately seeking a way out of the chaos, the citizens of Bogotá turned the keys of city hall over to a diminutive professor of mathematics and philosophy with a reputation for honesty and eccentric antics. The then rector of the National University had been married in a circus tent, and had once gained the attention of an auditorium of unruly students by bending over and “mooning” them. For the jaded inhabitants of Bogotá, Mockus was the perfect anti-politician.  

I first became acquainted with Mr. Mockus when he appeared on my TV one morning, making an impassioned appeal to Bogotanos to give up their handguns. I watched with fascination as this nerdy, Amish looking fellow debated the single issue of gun control for nearly two hours, taking heated calls from citizens, respectfully acknowledging their fears and concerns while persuading them to his point of view. I was impressed that Colombian media would give an elected representative the space to dialogue with the citizenry like that, and was amazed as well that a politician would sit and answer uncensored questions at such length on just one issue. Compare that to the 30-second sound bites we typically get here in the U.S. on issues of great complexity, or to President Bush’s carefully orchestrated “town halls” on Social Security featuring obviously scripted questions from a handpicked crowd of party loyalists.  

In the coming months we were treated to some delightful street theater from Mr. Mockus. To raise awareness of civic responsibility, he dashed from one end of Bogotá to the other sporting a caped superhero outfit emblazoned with a large red “C” for “El Hombre Cívico”. Lots of people laughed, and more than a few were convinced he was absolutely crazy. But such antics made people think, and the laughter had the intended effect of slowly melting away the layers of cynicism that were corroding civic participation. Even the most skeptical and jaded Bogotanos thought to themselves that if the mayor was willing to make a public fool of himself, then at least they could do their small part to help make Bogotá a better place to live!  

Mayor Mockus went on to deploy hundreds of unarmed mimes to “enforce” traffic laws, showered on national TV to teach about water conservation, closed all city streets on some Sundays to bicyclists only, and gave the entire city over some designated nights to only women. Intuitively, he sees the mission of political leaders as collaborating with citizens to change entrenched and maladapted habits, to instill a sense of civic solidarity, to capture people’s imagination and sympathy through art and humor, and basically to always appeal to our better selves. “Enforcement” of the new terms of civic conduct was left not to men with guns, but largely to collective moral peer pressure.  

When I returned to Bogotá in summer of 2001, I thought I was in a different city. The traffic situation had improved dramatically, and parks had sprung up everywhere, even in the traditionally neglected, impoverished southern suburbs. There were hundreds of miles of bike paths and an innovative public transit corridor had just been inaugurated. But most of all, the pall of fear had dissipated; people had hope again, and were proud to be Bogotanos! On the street, they seemed so much more friendly and respectful towards one another, and much more relaxed. 

Most importantly, the homicide rate in Bogotá has plummeted by an astounding 70 percent. 

Towards the end of his presentation, Mockus underscored that the diminished violence was accomplished without the death penalty, and without expanding the prison population. With a touch of ironic humor, he pointed out that to follow the sophisticated American model, Colombia must build five times more prisons. The diplomatically subtle inference to the furious rate of prison construction going on here in California was not lost on the audience. At a time when we hold ourselves up as a model to be exported to the entire world, it might be that we are the ones who could learn from the experiences of our southern neighbors. We might also learn that nothing is hopeless, and that no one is irredeemable. 


Aaron Tukey is a former Columbia resident with a background in Latin American studies.