Mayor on the move to third millennium

But Colombia's the third world, not Disneyland, say critics of Enrique

Two blocks west of the presidential palace, a grizzled man named Alvaro is touting crack on a street corner. "You can buy anything here - crack, marijuana, cocaine, anything," he says. About 12,000 people live in the Cartucho, a lawless district at the heart of Colombia's capital.

Once home to Bogot's richest families, the neighborhood fell into decline half a century ago. Now its elegant town houses have become crack dens and flophouses. For many Bogotnos, the Cartucho is a symbol of all that is wrong with their city - a place forgotten by its government.

Mayor Enrique Pealosa intends to change all that. When he took office in January 1998, he pledged to breathe new life into the city, with plans for more roads, less traffic, a subway, and an ambitious project to overhaul the town center. If the plan goes ahead, in five years Alvaro's street corner will be a shopping mall.

The mayor says that he wants to make Bogot a city of the third millennium, but his critics say he has forgotten the reality of living in the third world.

"He doesn't understand Colombia. He thinks he's in Disneyland," says local independent Congressman Germn Navas, who is leading a campaign to force Mr. Pealosa out of office. The mayor's efforts have won him a rainbow alliance of enemies, from evicted street traders to car owners angry at a plan to fight illegal parking.

More than 100,000 have signed Mr. Navas's petition calling for Pealosa to resign. "It's impossible to please everyone - but Pealosa has irritated everyone," Navas says.

Nobody would expect the job to be easy. A description of Bogot's main problems is a catalog of infrastructure chaos: pollution, unemployment, lack of housing, traffic congestion, insecurity, and violence.

"In some areas the city is quite modern, but in others it is almost medieval. This generates conflict," says sociologist Hernando Gmez of the National University in Bogot.

"Most cities in Latin America are still growing up. Like any adolescents, they copy elements from other places, trying to construct an identity, but that is not easy to achieve."

A constitutional ban on reelection encourages high-profile but short-term solutions, says Bogot newspaper columnist Mara Jimena Duzn. "The problem is that all the mayors of Bogot want to be president - they couldn't care less about the city."

Current President Andrs Pastrana was mayor of Bogot from 1988 to 1992. His administration is remembered for improvements in the water system - and for billions of pesos allegedly lost in corruption scandals.

PEALOSA'S predecessor, Antanas Mockus, grabbed headlines with his attempts to promote civil behavior (he recruited mimes to hand out to dangerous drivers red cards like the penalty cards given to soccer players) - but disappointed many Bogotnos when he resigned to run for president.

The answer lies in a longer view, says Elsa Patricia Bohorquez, head of the city's urban renovation program. "We can't pretend that this will become Switzerland overnight, but if we want to change the direction of the city, we have to invest in large-scale projects," she says.

With Pealosa a year into his term of office, the benefits of his plans have been slow to materialize. While central government debates funding, the subway and other large construction plans remain on hold.

The mayor's critics say that, as time slips away, his policies have become more high-handed and less constructive. In February he ordered riot police to clear booksellers from a downtown street market earmarked for redevelopment.

"We were given two days notice, and no alternatives. How are we supposed to support our families now?" says book trader William Gonzlez.

"When time is limited, you make mistakes: You start to act arbitrarily to see your plans are realized," says Mr. Gmez, the sociologist, adding that in Peru and Ecuador, similar action against the informal economy led to rioting and near-rebellion. "With policies like these you run the risk of building a beautiful city with nobody living there," he says.

Pealosa claims he is not interested in becoming president - he spent 10 years preparing for his present job.

"The mayor has some very good ideas, which could help Bogota," says Ms. Duzn. "The problem is the way he's implementing these ideas."

Carlos Caon agrees. Although he voted for Pealosa in 1997 elections, he changed his mind when his bookstall was bulldozed in the February clearance. Now, along with many others, he is looking for work. Urban unemployment currently runs at 19 percent.

"They say they're going to build a park where the market was," he says, "But what good is a fun-park if there are no jobs?"

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