Many know Bogotá as a model of urban development in Latin America. In 1993, the city was in crisis, with a recorded homicide rate of 81 per 100,000 inhabitants. To put this figure in perspective, in 2014 there were 328 murders in New York City, or about 4 per 100,000 inhabitants. Over the next few years, however, a series of progressive mayors implemented innovative policies to fight crime and violence. For example, Antanas Mockus sent mimes into the city to use comedy to cajole residents into coexisting peacefully, while Enrique Peñalosa constructed miles of bicycle lanes to influence positive and healthy social behaviors. By 2014, Bogotá enjoyed one of Latin America’s lowest murder rates and citizens took pride in their beautiful and safe city.
While this transformation was certainly dramatic, many would argue that it simply served to contain crime and violence in the city’s most marginalized barrios. These geographically-isolated and precarious communities cling to high mountain peaks on the city’s northern and southern outskirts. Their inhabitants are generally rural refugees fleeing the country’s bloody civil war who constructed makeshift shelters wherever they could find room. As a result, just a few neighborhoods account for an outsized percentage of Bogotá’s poverty and crime. For example, just six of the city’s 109 neighborhoods accounted for 55% of the city’s homicides in 2014.
Despite this dire situation, Narciso Torres, a longstanding community organizer and program manager for Partners Colombia (PC), knows how resilient marginalized communities can be. Nacho, as he is known to his friends, stated, “Inside each community member, there is something truly special: a desire to help their barrios.” Bogotá’s municipal government recognizes this resiliency and has implemented a targeted approach to reducing crime and violence in Bogotá by tapping into the latent capacity of communities to come together and address their own challenges. The government prioritizes making community members co-creators and co-implementers of locally-based initiatives, with the idea that the best solutions come from those directly experiencing problems.
Partners Colombia is committed to this same approach to working with communities and partnered with the municipal government in 2014 to carry out the Strengthening Community Justice initiative. PC staff worked hand-in-hand with local leaders to increase local capacity to peacefully resolve disputes in the six violent bogotano neighborhoods. Staff first worked to increase awareness of the importance of peaceful coexistence through public forums, print advertisements, and radio and TV spots. Next, the team targeted key local leaders in both the civil society and government sectors with training in conflict resolution, negotiation, communications, coexistence, and community and equitable justice. Finally, the cornerstone of the program involved the establishment of Community Care Points (PAC’s), centers that would provide mediation and conflict transformation services in each of the six target neighborhoods. The Partners Colombia team implemented a 150-hour accreditation course on community conflict resolution to prepare a staff of 100 facilitators—all of whom were residents of the communities they would serve. During a field test of the PAC’s, these facilitators successfully mediated 800 disputes in a 5-day period.
The process of implementing this comprehensive intervention in the six target communities was not easy. Nacho and the PC team first undertook a detailed mapping process to identify and understand the various actors in these complex localities. Next, and most importantly, they had to gain community members’ trust. To do so, they enlisted the help of what they called lazarillos comunitarios, derived from the Spanish word for someone who guides a blind man. Team members became a part of the community through daily, friendly interactions, like sharing a meal at a local restaurant. In the end, community members became protective of the Partners Colombia team, helping to facilitate their work.
Despite these serious challenges, community members’ accomplishments have inspired Partners Colombia staff like Jaidivi Nuñez, the organization’s Director of Research and Development. She fondly told me the story of Luis, a man confined to a wheelchair in the neighborhood of Tesoro. Even though Luis suffered from chronic and debilitating pain, he completed all 150 hours of coursework to become a community facilitator. When he graduated, he told Jaidivi that this would be his first graduation, as he was unable to finish primary school. Today, Luis works out of his home, helping his neighbors create solutions to the conflicts and disputes they face on the margins of Bogotá, where helpful government institutions rarely reach. More importantly, as Nacho explained, Luis now demonstrates more self-esteem, confidence and a burning desire to work towards a vision of peaceful coexistence in his neighborhood.
Given both the geographic and social isolation that these barrios experience, it is easy to ignore or dismiss them as “bad neighborhoods,” where one shouldn’t venture after nightfall. Although, there are complex socio-economic factors that are contributing to the cycle of violence in these areas that need public policy solutions, Luis’ story demonstrates a deep well of social capital to draw upon. Nacho, Jaidivi, and the entire Partners Colombia team will keep working at both the policy and community levels to bring about the needed change in these barrios.