Year 2017 started with some intense political activity in Bogotá Colombia, signalling what appears will become the trend for the new year. On January 2nd, four different political movements registered their intention to initiate a recall referendum process to remove Enrique Peñalosa from its mayoral position. According to opinion polls, Peñalosa is the most unpopular mayor since 1991 when the new constitution introduced the electoral system for mayors in Colombia. The results reveal that 78% of the people of Bogotá disapproves the performance of the mayor during its first year in charge (1).
The situation occurs despite Mr. Peñalosa constantly receiving strong support from the country’s established media and from all the political parties except the left leaning Polo Democrático.
|Source: Bogota Como Vamos|
A fake resume and false claims of doctoral and master degrees in Paris
Among the diverse reasons for Peñalosa’s high public disapproval, the first and a very important one was the public outrage caused when researchers associated with the newspaper El Espectador raised questions about the veracity of Peñalosa’s academic credentials. In fact, Peñalosa was not shy to highlight in his official election campaign video that he held Doctoral and Master degrees in Public Administration and Government from the University Pantheon-Assas of Paris. In April and May 2016 El Espectador published several articles detailing the irregularities found in Mr. Peñalosa’s Curriculum Vitae and demonstrating that the mayor never undertook doctoral or master studies in the prestigious university (2). After the serious revelations, Peñalosa’s response was unapologetic. He said that he was proud of his curriculum vitae, that academic titles were irrelevant and that he had never needed an academic title to get the job he wanted and that all the noise created about his academic titles was just political persecution (3).
A bus that is better than a train and the trams that are like a cancer
However, what have made Peñalosa the most unpopular mayor in the modern history of Bogotá was his decision to cancel an ongoing project for the construction of an underground metro line, a project developed by the previous administration of mayor Gustavo Petro from the leftist party Polo Democratico . The project was in an advanced phase of its design and studies had already cost millions of dollars. The explanation given by Peñalosa for the cancellation was that the underground was a too expensive toy that the city of Bogotá could not afford. This decision caused much public outrage because one of Peñalosa’s election campaign promises was to give continuity to the project. On a televised interview, he improvised a justification aimed to calming the waters, according to which he would be able to build an elevated metro line for the 3rd of the cost of an underground and utilise the remaining money to expand his trademark BRT. Furthermore, he insisted that that the BRT was a more efficient way of public transport than the Metro line and for this reason the elevated metro he proposed should be supplementary to the BRT. He also cancelled several light rail projects with the stroke of a pen while claiming that trams were expensive toys, and that trams were like a cancer (4).
These decisions and the situation created around them came in contradiction to the mayor’s previous opinions about elevated metro lines. He had repeated several times in the previous years that elevated trains were ugly and deteriorated streets and their surroundings, he even highlighted that cities around the world were demolishing elevated lines and mentioned that cities like London and New York invested more money in buses than trains. Many people in Colombia suspected that as the BRT is Peñalosa’s preferred public transport solution, the proposal for an elevated metro, which Peñalosa never wanted to build, was just a strategy to distract the media and the people with a controversy about a metro while he carried out his plans for the expansion of the unpopular BRT.
Twits by Enrique Peñalosa remarking why elevated metro lines should not be built.
There are more ambulances than needed for this city
In May, 2016 the Peñalosa administration decided not to renew a contract to 90 of the 174 ambulances that provided medical emergency services to the city of around 8 million people. Councillor Julio Cesar Acosta warned that situation which was already critical with only 174 ambulances and had become worse because 94 ambulances was a too small number for a city like Bogota. The response from Peñalosa was that the number of ambulances was sufficient, that there were more ambulances than needed and that by not renewing the contract the city would save 50 million COP. It did not take long for the crisis to manifest itself when the reports of people dying while waiting for ambulance started to appear in the traditional media and on the internet. The response from Peñalosa to the criticism was to say “in all the cities of the world people die while waiting for an ambulance”. Minutes earlier the Secretary of Health had asserted that “for sure those things will continue to happen” as an indication that the decision was final and it was not going to be rolled-back (5).
Invading an independent republic of crime to rescue some real estate
By the end of May, 2016 Peñalosa led a raid on one the poorest blocks in the center of Bogotá nicknamed the L street or the Bronx. He has decided to put an end to what he called an independent republic of crime at just few meters from the City Council building. He had a plan for that street, according to his own words he was going to expropriate that piece of real estate taking advantage of its very low price and turn it into a construction project to renew the city centre (6).
However, he had not finished publicly declaring success and mission accomplished in front of the TV cameras and on his twitter account when the consequences of bad planning started to unravel and create problems across the city.
Peñalosa had a view of the L street as a place of organised crime that was a no-go zone for the police. In reality, the so-called Bronx of Bogotá was a sector of abandoned real estate where an undetermined number homeless people lived, many of whom were children [estimates vary with figures between 500 and 3000 people]. During the raid these poor people were forcibly removed from the squats they had been living in for years and given no choice they spread by foot across the city causing fear among the population as well as a strong reaction from human rights activists. The emergency escalated by the hour and got worse the following days. A group of homeless people decided to look for refuge in a rain water canal which later on at night flooded after strong overnight rains killing at least to people by drowning (7). Peñalosa was accused of treating poor people as dispensable things and of putting the priority of construction projects above the protection of vulnerable people. Peñalosa washed his hands by saying that protecting people was not in his jurisdiction (8). Few days later, the mayors of other cities, some as far as 1000 km from Bogotá, started to complain that Bogotá had put their homeless people in buses just to drop them on the streets of other cities. They announced measures such as checkpoints on the roads leading to their cities to prevent more arrivals (9).
The city of the future
Another controversy that has damaged Peñalosa’s image originated after his decision to release the land of a Natural Reserve located in the North of Bogotá for the construction of three major BRT routes. The Van der Hammen natural reserve, as it is called, is an area of 1,395 hectares where Peñalosa has the grandiose dream of building a city for 3 for million people, a city he calls Ciudad de Paz (City of Peace). When confronted about his decision, he shunned the natural reserve as a paddock where there are only cows and grasslands, and disregarded recommendations from the local scientific community and environmentalists about the need to protect that land (10).
Rescuing marine life from an aquarium to let it die
A recent even that exposed the incompetence of Peñalosa and his team was the confiscation of 40 ornamental fish from an aquarium at a shopping centre in Bogotá. Camilo Prieto, an environmental activist had reported the presence in the aquarium of a Bamboo Shark, a fish that was too large for the dimensions of the aquarium. In January 3rd, 2017, one day after four political movements registered the intention of running a recall referendum to remove Peñalosa as a mayor of the city, the mayor had decided to take some action to repair his image that had been damaged due to the promotion of a construction megaproject in the terrains of the Van der Hammen Natural reserve, and gave the order to confiscate the fish from the aquarium. Due to a lack of proper manipulation the fish died the following day, however Peñalosa was not updated about the unfortunate incident with the fish and posted in his twitter account “we have rescued 40 wild and exotic marine animals illegally exhibited in the Atlantis Plaza shopping centre. Began investigation to prosecute.”
It was then leaked to the media that the fish had died. In January 6th, El Espectador wrote in an article titled “What happened to the fish confiscated from Atlantis?” mentioning that a source close to the case had informed that newspaper that the fish died due to lack of a proper place to maintain marine fauna. Despite this, the Secretary of Environment refuse to provide an update on what had happened to the fish “in order not to affect the ongoing investigation”. As the pressure built up the government was forced to provide a press release announcing that “the fish were euthanized to comply a United Nations agreement to which Colombia is also a signatory” and argued that foreign species were a threat to the national fauna (11). The public did not buy this explanation, how 40 ornamental fish in an aquarium in a shopping centre in Bogotá, a city located in a plateau at 2,000 meters above the sea level and more than 400 km away from the ocean, could threaten marine life?.
|Twit posted by Enrique Peñalosa. By the time the twit was posted the fish had already die due to mishandling by his own Secretary of Environment team. Translation: “We rescued 40 exotic wild marine animals illegally exhibited in the Atlantis Plaza. Initiated investigations to prosecute.” Source: https://twitter.com/EnriquePenalosa|
What could be worse?
After one year in charge and nothing to show apart from twits, slogans and the support from his powerful friends, the people of Bogotá got a perception of Peñalosa as a reckless, unethical and unscrupulous politician who has no regard for their opinion and interests and who is willing to say absurdities and lies to stay in power and to benefit himself and his close friends. There is sense frustration among the inhabitants of Bogotá, they feel that the city has lost its chance again, that progress has been held back several more years because the bad decisions and policies dictated by Enrique Peñalosa.
(1) Bogotá Como Vamos (2016), Encuesta de Percepción Ciudadana. Retrieved from https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3232731/Encuesta-De-Percepcio-n-Ciudadana-2016.pdf.
(2) Akerman, Yohir. (2016). Peñalosa y su falsedad ideológica. El Espectador. Retrieved from http://www.elespectador.com/opinion/penalosa-y-su-falsedad-ideologica-0
(3) Radio LaFM. (2016) interview with Peñalosa. Deleted from Original site: http://www.lafm.com.co/bogot%C3%A1-y-cundinamarca/noticias/enrique-pe%C3%B1alosa-dice-que-pic#ixzz4AKjLqwFo?platform=hootsuite https://t.co/WCZfcFU6jI . A copy of the recording still can be found at Denunciando.com. Me siento muy orgulloso de mi hoja de vida: Peñalosa. http://www.denunciando.com/politica-y-sociedad-85/1019519-me-siento-muy-orgulloso-de-mi-hoja-de-vida-penalosa.html#ixzz4WRVETyUo
(4) Caracol Radio (2016). Tren de pasajeros regional es como “un cáncer” alrededor, necesitamos Transmilenio por todos lados: Peñalosa. Retrieved from http://caracol.com.co/emisora/2016/04/11/bogota/1460398631_859931.html
(5) Kienyke. (2016). Con el tema de las ambulancias: A Peñalosa se le ‘chispotió’. Retrieved from http://www.kienyke.com/historias/penalosa-ambulacnias/
(6) El Tiempo. (2016). Peñalosa alista planes para revitalizar el sector del ‘Bronx’. Retrieved from http://www.eltiempo.com/bogota/planes-de-penalosa-para-el-bronx/16498956
(7) Kienyke. (2016). Caño arrastró a exhabitantes del Bronx mientras dormían. Retrieved from http://www.kienyke.com/noticias/cano-bronx-penalosa/
(8) Riaño, Alex. (2016). Para Peñalosa los habitantes de la calle son desechables. Retrieved from http://www.las2orillas.co/para-penalosa-los-habitantes-de-la-calle-son-desechables/
(9) Alsema, Adriaan. (2016). Bogota’s solution to homeless problem: Put them on the bus to other cities. Retrieved from http://colombiareports.com/bogotas-solution-homeless-problem-put-bus-cities/
(10) El Tiempo. (2016). La franja que pone a Peñalosa a defender su primer megaproyecto. Retrieved from http://www.eltiempo.com/bogota/reserva-thomas-van-der-hammen/16496112
(11) Romero, L. D. (2016). ¿Qué pasó con los peces incautados en Atlantis? El Espectador. Retrieved from http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/bogota/paso-los-peces-incautados-atlantis-articulo-673506