From Colorful Mayor to Presidente? ; Antanas Mockus, Who Showered on TV to Show Colombians How to Conserve Water, May Run for President

Article excerpt

At a time when a half-dozen people were killed on average every day in the Colombian capital, former mayor and presidential candidate Antanas Mockus tossed a glass of water in the face of a political opponent to show that conflict doesn't always need to be settled with blows or bloodshed.

This so-called "symbolic violence," an outburst watched by millions during the 1998 presidential debate, surprised few residents of Bogota. After all, it was Mr. Mockus who had hired mimes to shame drivers into obeying traffic rules and showered on TV, showing his fellow Colombians how to conserve water by turning off the faucet while he soaped.

But he's not just a showman; Mockus also proved himself an effective public servant. Bogota's murder rate dropped 52 percent from the time he first took office 10 years ago - to 1,588 in 2004 from 3,340 in 1995. It is now one of the lowest among big cities in Latin America.

Even the United States and United Nations are taking notice. The UN Development Program (UNDP) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) are using his cultura ciudadana, or culture of citizenship, as a model to fight crime in a few countries around the region. Now Mockus wants to take that success - and flamboyance - right into the presidential palace next year.

"I'm not a madman or a genius. I'm innovative," Mockus said in a phone interview from Oxford University's Nuffield College, where he is a visiting academic. "I trust knowledge. I trust people. I believe in collective processes. I take risks, and I'm not afraid if they threaten my reputation."

Second run for president

If Mockus runs in the 2006 election, it will be his second bid for Colombia's highest office. He lost to the better-known Andres Pastrana in 1998. This time, Mockus will have to beat incumbent Alvaro Uribe, who enjoys a 72 percent approval rate, according to a recent poll.

Mockus first took office in 1995 on the tail end of Bogota's deadliest years, a result of the bloody drug war led by Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cartel. Back then, bombs went off so often that few people dared congregate in restaurants and bars. The fear of kidnapping caused the wealthy to hire armed guards and install bullet-proof windows inside their homes. Streets were dirty and congested and gangs ruled some city corners.

"If you went out, chances were you would be robbed or you would see someone being robbed," says Irma Ramirez, a divorced mother of two. "Bogota was a lawless city."

The Constitution of 1991 put mayors in charge of public safety within Colombia's municipalities, a role previously held by the federal government. Once in charge (he served from 1995-97 and again from 2000-03), Mockus extended the responsibility to every city agency. He distributed thumbs-up and thumbs-down cards to citizens, asking them to flash the cards whenever they saw an example of good or bad behavior on the streets. He organized peaceful rallies against terrorism and crime, trained 5,500 community leaders in conflict resolution, and held seminars on domestic violence. …

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