In the 1990s, Bogotá was struggling. The capital of Colombia had its most violent year on record in 1993, with nearly 81 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. It was considered one of the most dangerous cities in South America. In 1995, however, Bogotá residents elected Antanas Mockus as its mayor, putting the city on a path to betterment that continues to this day. The current homicide rate stands at 16.1 per 100,000 inhabitants.


Antanas Mockus had no political experience when he ran for mayor, but spent the last 20 years up until then working as a professor and researcher at the National University of Colombia, even serving as president from 1991-1993. Bogotá residents perceived the academic as an honest man and elected him as head of their city as a result.




What they got was an eccentric mayor. But they knew that, considering the widespread coverage of an incident that occurred just a handful of months prior to his campaign launch. The incident in question: Mockus mooned a group of unruly students, calling the gesture one that should be viewed "as a part of the resources which an artist can use." Due to the ensuing clamor, Mockus stepped down as president of the university, throwing his hat in the mayoral race ring shortly thereafter.


As mayor, Mockus put into practice some eyebrow-raising techniques, using a pedagogical approach to curbing adverse civic behaviors rather than relying solely on coercion and judicial penalties as a deterrent. Notably, Mockus hired 420 mimes to impersonate and mock individuals committing traffic violations such as jaywalking and reckless driving. Traffic fatalities dropped from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600, serving as evidence that individuals fear social embarrassment more than the law.


Mimes 2


Another unorthodox measure that Mockus took to included wearing a superhero costume and calling himself “Supercitizen.” He also asked residents to voluntarily pay an additional 10% in taxes. And during a Bogotá water shortage, Mockus showered on TV, turning off the water as he soaped up, encouraging others to do the same. What were the results? A whopping 63,000 citizens paid the extra tax, and water consumption fell by 14%.


Mockus also created a “Night for Women” as a way for females to enjoy a night out in a city where they felt unsafe being out after dark. Mockus imposed a voluntary curfew on Bogotá males, asking them to stay home that night and had 1,500 female police officers in charge of law enforcement. Some 700,000 women took advantage of the night dedicated to them.


Mockus’s severed two terms as mayor. He stepped down in 1997 to run an unsuccessful presidential campaign; he was re-elected mayor in 2001 then stepped down yet again in 2003 taking a sabbatical. In 2004, he was invited to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as a visiting fellow and even returned to teach two classes later that year. In 2010, he lost his second bid at the presidency of Colombia.



Though Bogotá is still plagued with crime and political unrest, Antanas Mockus’s results, achieved through unconventional means, are still significant and serve an example of how creative but informal rules can trump formally imposed ones.


Your move, Rob Ford.


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 Photo credit: El Tiempo; Jon Chase/Harvard News Office; The Office of Antanas Mockus; Irmanto Gelūno/ nuotr