Where Seeing Red Means 'Cool It'

Mayor uses shame to soothe murder capital of the world

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE crowd howls, police officers whistle, and then one policeman flashes a red card at a jaywalking pedestrian. Flushed with shame, the Bogotano hurries back to the sidewalk. The red cards, the latest fad initiated by Bogota's eccentric Mayor Antanas Mockus Sivickas, are an unusual way of controlling traffic and pedestrians here. They are a welcome sight to many. In the last 50 years, Bogota's population has increased 20-fold to 7 million. But the city's street system has failed to keep up. Rush hour is a bedlam of crawling cars, battered 1950's buses, and blaring horns. It is not unknown for a furious driver to shoot another for a traffic violation. But these days, drivers express their anger by waving four-by-seven-inch red cards at each other. In the country with the highest per capita murder rate in the world, Mayor Mockus is trying to encourage Bogotanos - and the police - to be less aggressive. Mayor Mockus, formerly a professor of mathematical logic and philosophy, hopes his new approach will spawn a ''citizen's culture'' out of a disintegrated society. ''The crucial point of [a] citizen's culture is how to learn to correct others without mistreating them, or generating aggression in people,'' Mockus says in an interview in his office, where the red cards are given free to the public. ''The cards are more gentle than a gesture or a word.'' Another of Mockus's offbeat programs for pedestrian control - mimes - can be seen in the congested center of town. A pedestrian running across the road will be shadowed by a mime mocking every move. ''It's a pacifist counterweight,'' Mockus says. With neither words nor weapons, ''The mimes are doubly unarmed.'' Bogotanos have taken to the mimes, and to Mockus. ''He's an honest man who respects us and is trying to educate the people,'' says Elizabeth Lopez Jimenez, laughing as her husband is pursued by a mime. The strategy is called ''social censorship.'' ''It's not about individual morality, or the principal laws, or the police; it's the fear of losing the respect of others... feeling shame in front of other people,'' Mockus explains. Conventional crime prevention has failed to brake Colombia's soaring rate of murders, muggings, and robberies. Because of the drug culture and poverty, nearly 30,000 people are murdered every year, and 97 percent of crimes go unpunished. THE son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mockus was elected mayor because, in the eyes of the people, he was not a traditional corrupt party politician. Regular publicity is a no-no. He spent less than $20,000 on his political campaign, compared with his rival's $200,000. He doesn't show up on television with a political smile or make false promises. But his politics aren't the only unorthodox thing about Mockus. In a country where men are clean-shaven and image-conscious, the mayor sports an Abraham Lincoln-like beard and casual clothes. He prefers to be upfront and honest with the people. Perhaps his most famous symbolic act was during a meeting with students two years ago. Getting up to speak, Mockus was incessantly booed and jeered by the students. So he turned his back on the students - and promptly dropped his pants. ''It was a sign in a war of signs,'' he explains. ''Maybe if I'd had a whistle, I would have whistled.''

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