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 Bogotá. 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. Bogotá'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."
If Mockus runs in the 2006 election, it will be his second bid for Colombia's highest office. He lost to the better-known Andrés 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 Bogotá's deadliest years, a result of the bloody drug war led by Pablo Escobar and his Medellín 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. "Bogotá 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.
The slender Mockus, the only son of Lithuanian immigrants, temporarily banned the sale of alcohol after 1 a.m. in clubs and bars and instituted a community-police program that has spearheaded the creation of over 9,000 neighborhood-watch groups.
"The thinking was, 'What good does it do if I provide education to children if they can be killed? What good does it do if the people I feed are being murdered? How do you justify any type of investment if the people you represent are being killed?'" says Hugo Acero, Bogotá's undersecretary of public safety under both Mockus and Enrique Penalosa, who was mayor between Mockus's terms, and an adviser to the commander of Colombia's National Police.
By employing these techniques and others, Mockus and Mr. Penalosa cut the number of murders in half, reduced the number of street robberies by 52 percent, bank robberies by 93 percent, and assaults by 9 percent, according to Bogotá's metropolitan police. Penalosa continued many of Mockus's programs, and also renovated 10.76 million square feet of public space, built computerized libraries in low-income neighborhoods, constructed 120 miles of bike paths, and reclaimed city sidewalks that had long been used as parking lots.
The Mockus-Penalosa model has been so successful that the UNDP is helping Quito, Ecuador, adopt a public-safety program that focuses on crime prevention through citizen participation, one of the tenets of Mockus's plan for Bogotá. The agency is also drawing on the Bogotá experience to help the governments of El Salvador and northern Brazil combat criminality.
"Our project for Quito is not as ambitious as the one undertaken in Bogotá, but it is based in the model of civic participation that we believe fueled the change in Bogotá," Luca Renda of UNDP in Ecuador said in a phone interview. "The best thing is that we didn't have to look far for inspiration. We just had to look to a neighboring country to find the model of public-safety program that we want to implement here."
USAID, for its part, is investing $35 million to take a Mockus-inspired model to other parts of Colombia.
While to many, Mockus is Bogota's force of change, some resent him for taking credit for accomplishments that would not have happened without Penalosa, who is also likely to go after Uribe's seat. Some voters say that Mockus is more style than substance and has no concrete plan to deal with Colombia's 40-year internal conflict between the government and militant groups fueled by drug money. That perception may be one of the biggest hurdles he will have to overcome if he wants to win next year's election.
Meanwhile, Mockus says Bogotá's new leadership must be vigilant. In the first quarter of this year, homicides rose 9.5 percent compared with the same period last year. "We should feel proud of the much we have accomplished," he says, "but this feeling must be followed by a great understanding of our fragility."