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Bogotá's Mayor: Organized Crime 'Is Not Something You Can Change With Just Social Work'

Enrique Peñalosa defends his crackdown on the “Bronx,” one of his city’s most crime and drug-infested neighborhoods.

Enrique Peñalosa speaking at a panel at CityLab 2016. (C2 Photography)

The first year of Enrique Peñalosa’s second term as mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, has been riddled with controversy almost from the moment it began. The unpopularity of his plans to urbanize a natural reserve, his privatization of the public energy company ETB, and his changes to the city’s plans to build an elevated metro system have earned him lower approval ratings than his (rather unpopular) predecessor Gustavo Petro.

But the mayor on Monday defended one of his most important (and oft-criticized) measures at the CityLab 2016 conference in Miami: his crackdown on organized crime in the city, which is responsible for much of Bogotá’s violent street crime. Earlier this year, Peñalosa ordered a heavily armed raid and later the demolition of the “Bronx,” one of the city’s most crime-and-drug-infested neighborhoods. More than 1,000 people were removed, most of them homeless and addicted to drugs. Many of these people ended up in other neighborhoods, where citizens complained about their presence and about Peñalosa’s strategy. A rival political faction has also brought a lawsuit against the mayor because of the raids, accusing him of human rights abuses.

But Peñalosa maintains that his methods have created a safer city. The nature of Colombia’s organized crime, he says, necessitates this punitive approach to controlling criminal activity. “[The Bronx] was not a community. This was an area where police did not enter. It was totally controlled by organized crime,” he said.

The mayor spoke alongside Angela Brown Burke, the mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, who has taken a decidedly different approach to crime in her city. Her focus has been to get at what she calls the “root causes” of crime, such as a lack of economic opportunity. Her work has focused on job creation and interventions for troubled students in schools.

Peñalosa said that he does not disagree with that approach. But there is a difference, he insists, between individual young people committing petty crimes because of a lack of opportunity, and organized crime syndicates taking over whole parts of the city.

“These are professional [crime] networks. This is not something you can change with just social work. This is something you have to do with police and...jail,” he said. “Maybe in the U.S., there may be too many people who go to jail for drugs and things like this, which is a waste of money and a waste of time. But in Colombia, we have serious organized crime.”

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