BOGOTÁ September 2001

All the City's a Stage

An eccentric mayor with a flair for the dramatic is bringing hope to a notoriously troubled capital

One Friday night last March in Bogotá, I walked past a Fernando Botero statue of a gargantuan woman on horseback at the entrance to the Parque Renacimiento—a tiny island of calm, containing a number of reflecting pools, in a grimy working-class district in the southern part of the city. I flashed an official card certifying me as a male with good intentions at a National Policewoman stationed at the gate, and crossed into one of the city zones that had been declared temporarily all-female.

It was March 9, dubbed La Noche de las Mujeres—an occasion on which a city famous for its machismo was turned over to its female inhabitants. Men without a city-issued pass like the one I carried—essentially a signed pact indicating the holder's willingness to learn something from the experience—were asked to stay at home. If they ventured out nonetheless, they were blocked from many of the city's plazas and thoroughfares. A female lieutenant colonel in the National Police was made commander of the city for the night, assisted by a mostly female force of police officers and citizen monitors.

According to pollsters, nearly a quarter of the city's 3.3 million women were out that night—an enormous showing that cut across class lines. In the southern barrios grandmothers and their granddaughters trooped into the Parque Renacimiento to hear a storyteller. In the city's affluent north sophisticated young women, for whom going out with their girlfriends was hardly a revolutionary act, listened to a female band at a tidy little park and coyly threw handfuls of flour at the few males seated self-consciously at an adjacent outdoor café.

La Noche de las Mujeres was the creation of Bogotá's mayor, Antanas Mockus, who has a penchant for freewheeling social experiments to combat the violence and alienation that have corroded Bogotá's social fabric. La Noche was prompted, he told me, by Bogotá's unique combination of social conditions. Men are not only far more likely than women to commit violence but also forty times as likely to be its victims. At the same time, women have improved their status in Colombia—which has one of the highest levels of political participation by women in all of Latin America—through a wholly nonviolent struggle. La Noche would provide an opportunity to see what might be learned from women's forms of social organization and would also serve as an experiment in protecting men from themselves. As it turned out, violence on La Noche was 40 percent lower than on ordinary Friday nights.

The day before La Noche, I visited Mockus in his office at city hall. Seated under a huge portrait of Simón Bolívar signing Colombia's declaration of independence from Spain, he hunched over a scrap of paper and sketched three boxes. The first he labeled "legal power"—something one would expect of a big-city mayor. What marked him as an unusual politician was the other two boxes: "moral power" and "cultural power," which he defines as power derived from one's own standards and power derived from the shared values of the citizenry.

"At first," Mockus told me, "I had the illusion that if I wrote new laws, those words would become reality. But it soon became clear that if you want to change society's habits, law is only one of the means. Most people prefer internal mechanisms for determining for themselves what is right and what is wrong, but perceive other people as needing to be regulated by laws. The question I asked was how to reduce the difference between the laws and cultural and moral means of self-regulation." A governing style that could fairly be summed up as theater-as-politics was the result.

Indeed, Bogotá has been transformed in the past six years by Mockus's combination of street-level politics—he has expanded the city's public parks, launched a modern bus system, and built schools in the city's poorest districts—and symbolic acts. In part because of his imposition of a 1:00 A.M. closing for bars (proclaimed Carrot Hour, from the Colombian slang for someone who is uncool) and his unconventional but effective gun-exchange program (those who turned in weapons received small gifts of appreciation, such as flowers or food, and a certificate commending their act), Bogotá's murder rate has plummeted. Some 4,200 murders were committed in the city in 1993; the figure for last year is 2,200.

Bicyclists pedal along newly designated bike lanes; strangers relate to one another with small acts of civility. In 1996 the city government distributed tens of thousands of plastic cards depicting thumbs. When someone engaged in uncivil behavior, the thumb was to be pointed down; for a genial act it was to be pointed up. The thumb cards have disappeared for the most part, but the habit took hold, and it is not unusual for the real thing to flash upward after the observation of an unexpected act of courtesy or kindness.

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Mark Schapiro is a senior correspondent with the Center for Investigative Reporting and a long-time investigative journalist.

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