For Bogota Mayor, Funny Business Isn't Just Clowning Around

Article excerpt

Outside an ambulance in downtown Bogota, thousands of young Colombians line up to receive their "vaccination against violence." Inside, Alvaro, a teenager, paints the face of an enemy on a balloon and bursts it, pins a wish on a "tree of desires," and receives his symbolic inoculation - a drop of water. About 40,000 Bogotanos have received similar "treatment" in the past two months.

Meanwhile, Superman parades the city center, encouraging shoppers and vagrants to become super-citizens.

Behind the superhero disguise is Antanas Mockus - mayor of Bogota, and these are two of his policies intended to change the face of the Colombian capital. Mr. Mockus, a mathematician-philosopher originally from Lithuania and former dean of Bogota's National University, was elected in 1994 with no political experience. He didn't even bother to campaign. But 6 million Bogotanos, disillusioned by corrupt politicians, decided his flair for the outrageous was worthy of a wider audience. Shortly after his landslide election, Mockus decided to crack down on Christmas. A time of heavy drinking and impromptu fireworks displays, the season has traditionally placed a heavy burden on Bogota's hospitals and morgues. Mockus ordered bars to close at 1 a.m. and banned fireworks altogether. Such heavy-handed tactics had been disastrous for his predecessors, but for Mockus, it worked. Hospitals reported almost no burn cases, and the number of violent deaths during the Christmas season was halved - to 57. Again, the key to his success was humor, this time in the form of a vegetable. The Spanish word for "carrot" - zanahoria - has the idiomatic meaning of a nerd in Colombia, and Bogotanos were urged to have a "carrot Christmas." Mockus's mode of dress also flies in the face of convention. Colombia's Congress is a sea of designer suits, slick hair, and expensive aftershave. …