Bogota’s New Mayor: Iron Fist with a Green Thumb?

When it comes to Bogota’s new Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, looks can be deceiving.

An independent candidate with a long history in green politics, Peñalosa won the Oct. 25 elections by capitalizing on his past achievements. During his first stint as mayor in the late 1990s, Peñalosa guided Bogota through a historic transformation. His administration is today remembered for rejuvenating the city’s infrastructure and developing a rich network of parks and libraries. He eased congestion further by developing the city’s public transport system. As a fanatical cyclist, he was also behind they city’s first serious attempt at creating a network of bicycle paths. These past achievements have endeared Peñalosa to the international environmental movement, and is today one of Colombia’s most famous modern-day urban planners.

Outside of metropolitan politics, Penalosa has also spoken out against unbridled mining and called for Colombia to adopt a more sustainable model for economic development. Much of this has endeared him to the environmental movement, yet Peñalosa’s position on security policy is seen by manyparticularly on the left – as his dark side.

Early in his political career, Peñalosa was a supporter of CONVIVIR, a government initiative that began to gain steam in the early 1990s. The program began as a national system of neighborhood watch groups, but quickly descended into a hotbed for right-wing paramilitarism. The program was dogged by allegations of human rights abuses, but was staunchly supported by right-wing firebrand Alvaro Uribe, who was president through much of the first decade of the 21st Century.

Peñalosa not only supported CONVIVIR, but was more broadly a firm advocate for heavy-handed security policies. While his supporters have praised him for being tough on crime, detractors argue Peñalosa has used green politics to whitewash heavy-handed policing.

Peñalosa’s curious combination of green politics and iron fist policing is perhaps best encapsulated by his government’s razing of El Cartucho, one of Bogota’s poorest areas. When Peñalosa first became mayor in 1998, El Cartucho was riddled with crime and poverty, and had become emblematic of the urban decay creeping across Bogota. Peñalosa’s response was to forcibly evict residents, raze the area, and convert it into a park. The decision sparked massive protests, with critics arguing Peñalosa had merely displaced and exacerbated the social problems El Cartucho had symbolized.

Peñalosa’s friends have also raised eyebrows. Although he ran as an independent in the latest mayoral race, Peñalosa has strong ties to Colombia’s far right. Along with his relationship with Uribe, he is also linked to the controversial Venezuelan public relations figure JJ Rendon. Rendon is the go-to political strategist for right-wing politicians across Latin America, and has been accused in the past of using underhanded public relations strategies. In 2011, Peñalosa hired Rendon during an attempt at a political comeback. Although that attempt to return to the limelight failed, Peñalosa is now back.

The only question now is which Peñalosa is mayor of Bogota: the environmentalist, the security state hardliner, or both?

First published by teleSUR English.

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