Bogota: An Island in a Land at War
Two Mayors, Armed With Civic Pride, Transform Colombian Capital
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
BOGOTA, Colombia -- More than a thousand people lined up outside the
austere National Museum on a cool evening here last week for a chance to
hundreds of Rembrandt engravings on the opening night of a traveling exhibit. They stood only a few miles from where Marxist guerrillas had attacked the
presidential palace with rockets three weeks earlier, killing 19 people on the day President Alvaro Uribe was inaugurated.
The violence that marred Uribe's swearing in made headlines around the
world. But the museum crowd offered a view closer to the daily reality
of Bogota. This city
of 7 million people has become a pleasant anomaly, not only in a country where 3,500 people died in war last year, but also across an unsteady continent whose
capitals often are urban horror stories.
Thanks to two mayors who have constructed a tentative civic spirit to
help mend the traditionally fractured city, Bogota has grown significantly
safer, smarter, more
polished and less congested in the last decade despite the worsening realities of war unfolding just off this plateau 8,000 feet up in the Andes.
The growth in the number of cafe-lined parks, 120 miles of bike lanes,
a murder rate lower than Washington's and an increasingly cosmopolitan
cultural life make the
country's mostly rural conflict all the more remote. Now the lessons of Bogota's success, financed largely by taxes on the wealthy, are being followed by a new
president as he seeks to instill a national spirit similar to the tentative one that has taken hold here.
But increasingly, the war is testing the Bogota miracle. Deepening recession
and rural violence have increased the number of jugglers and beggars at
stoplights. The homicide rate crept up slightly in the first half of this year. And as the guerrillas' rocket attack demonstrated, puncturing Bogota's protective shell has
become a priority for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main guerrilla group, armed with a strategy of national demoralization.
Kidnapping also remains a looming menace and a chronic housing shortage
keeps many of the 150,000 immigrants who arrive here each year from shelter.
Colombia's 160,000 private bodyguards and building watchmen -- a contingent larger than the army -- work for Bogota's rich.
"We are in a crystal bubble," said Enrique Cardenas, a bushy-bearded
antiques dealer, sipping promotional Johnnie Walker Black Label at the
"But Bogotanos still like to go about their business, and not much care about anything else. The real test of our successes will come when the war arrives, not
By the standards of a country where homicide is the leading cause of
death, Bogota has emerged from a period of almost daily bomb attacks during
the early 1990s
as an island of relative peace. Fernando Zambrano, a history professor at University of the Andes here, said that thanks to intensive social spending, "Bogota has
become a parenthesis in this country, but one that could very easily be closed if we're not careful."
"There is still no real identity, but finally now it is under construction," Zambrano said.
Bogota has been a bureaucratic hub since its founding by the Spanish
in the early 16th century. Set on a high, verdant plain that once took
days to reach from even
the closest provincial capital or port, Bogota was simply a collection point for taxes levied by the Spanish on the indigenous population.
Like many capitals, it has also been a magnet for migration, often for
provincials seeking an education in the city's universities. Those early
immigrants had money --
they were sons of rich ranchers and farmers -- and their arrival with fat bankrolls stirred resentment that would shape life here for centuries. So Bogotanos decided
their city would be the most cultured on the continent -- the cradle of arts, protector of the language -- to make up for their paltry bank accounts.
"Of course, no one else in South America agreed to anything of the sort," Zambrano said.
The country's violence, particularly over the last century, accelerated
the urban migration and undermined the city's already tenuous civic identity.
Bogota became a
stew of regional rivalries.
Then demographics and politics began to remake the city, which by the
mid-1980s had become a reflection of a country at war -- violent, corrupt,
4,500 people were being murdered each year; displaced children could not find room in classrooms and unending traffic plagued rich and poor alike.
In 1985, the national census showed that for the first time a majority
of Bogota's population was born in the city, marking the start of a shift
in civic attitude. By the
time another decade passed, an eccentric son of Lithuanian immigrants with an Abe Lincoln beard was elected mayor.
Then rector of the National University, Antanas Mockus won the city's middle- and upper-class vote after vividly demonstrating his own fatigue with the status quo.
Mockus installed his own, mostly young technocratic staff and assumed
the role of the city's lecturer-in-chief, beginning a mix of money-saving
measures and new
taxes that fell hardest on the wealthy, to pay for benefits primarily directed at the poor and middle class. But it was not a hard sell. By then, the rich had become
prisoners in a city they once fled every weekend for nearby farms. But those farms had been rendered off-limits by an increasing guerrilla presence on the roads.
Mockus imposed a 1 a.m. curfew on a people who love to party, usually
with lots of liquor, and the rate of car accidents and murders began dropping.
rush-hour restrictions on private cars, cutting congestion in half. He told police to disarm the city.
"We were telling people to obey the law for the social benefit it will
bring, obey the law for the particular benefit it will bring you," said
Mockus, now in his second
term as mayor, though not consecutively. "There was a program at the time called 'Flirty Bogota' because we realized that if the city couldn't be beautiful, then at
least we could make it attractive with our behavior. The curious thing is that our appeal passed from the software to appeal in the hardware."
That "hardware" was built by the next mayor, Enrique Peñalosa,
an urban planning student and son of a former Bogota councilman who turned
into tangible amenities. Vast public parks sprang up and 100,000 trees were planted. New libraries opened and classroom space skyrocketed with new investment.
Peñalosa was restless for results, and when the city government balked at building a subway system, he opted for a bus service that for many Bogotanos has become
a symbol of progress.
"What is important to understand clearly is that what occurred, in addition
to more investment and efficiency, was a radical change in paradigm," said
on a fellowship at New York University, in an e-mail exchange.
Since the urban effort was launched, Bogota's murder rate has been halved,
and in the last four years, classroom space has increased by almost 200,000
city that accounts for 17 percent of the national population suffers only 3 percent of its kidnappings. The bus system, which runs in its own traffic lanes, has attracted
225 million riders since it began operations 18 months ago. Last month, the public library system won an international award for its creativity.
On the city's western fringe, El Tintal Library sits on the dividing
line between working-class apartments and the Patio Bonito neighborhood,
one of the city's most
violent. There are no neighborhood movie theaters, no shopping malls. The library, transformed from an abandoned trash-compacting plant at Peñalosa's instruction
at a cost of $4.5 million, has filled that void since it opened just over a year ago.
The bright, airy hallways give onto a glass-enclosed room where, on
one recent morning, children from the Jose Joaquin Castro Martinez public
English lessons at a bank of computers, courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. More than 2,000 people use the library on weekdays, 3,500 on
"At first, the people were afraid to use the terminals to look up books,
then to take them out," said Imelda Rodriguez, the rigorously efficient
library director. "That is
changing, and now this is a social development center for the whole neighborhood."
In a gray pinstripe suit and gold tie, Francisco Javier Higuera is a
typical middle-class beneficiary of the progress. An architect born 32
years ago in Bogota, Higuera
remembers vacations by car to Colombia's north coast that he could never take today with his baby daughter and wife because of the war and fear of kidnapping.
So the improvements to his city over the past few years have made the
claustrophobia easier to manage. On workdays, he rides the TransMilenio,
bus line along Caracas Avenue that 75,000 people catch each rush hour on subway-like platforms.
"It's done tremendous things for this street that five years ago was
a stretch of drugs and prostitutes," Higuera said. "Now it is resurgent.
If there is one thing to say
about this city, it's that we're moving ahead."