Bogot__ backslides

BOGOT_, Colombia _ This city emerged as a mecca for urban planners over the past decade. Freethinking mayors brought ...

BOGOT_, Colombia _ This city emerged as a mecca for urban planners over the past decade. Freethinking mayors brought about a remarkable renaissance by trying everything from creating an innovative low-emission rapid transit system to sending hundreds of mimes to intersections to mock and humiliate traffic violators.

But the hard-won accomplishments that earned Bogot__ plaudits around the world are now being eclipsed by outrage. So many ambitious construction projects have been put in motion simultaneously that the city has endured months of traffic chaos. And a long simmering corruption scandal has resulted this week in the suspension of Bogot___s mayor, Samuel Moreno.

Making matters worse, fears of violent crime are spreading yet again. While Bogot__ is still safer than it was before its once heralded comeback, when it was plagued by car bombs and high kidnapping rates, news reports of grisly murders and robberies, including assaults on foreign tourists in hotels, are gripping residents again.

Much of the ire here is focused on the deterioration of this capital city_s once cutting-edge public transportation system, a bus network called TransMilenio designed to have the feel of an above-ground subway. The system was so admired that it helped inspire similar projects in other developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

To some degree, TransMilenio has become a victim of its own popularity: it is now hobbled by long waiting lines, overcrowded buses and delays in building new routes. But it has also been transformed into a setting for armed robberies and violent protests. _scar Naranjo, the director of Colombia_s national police, announced in February that a force of 350 police officers would patrol TransMilenio in efforts to combat crime on the system.

_Because of all the problems with the TransMilenio expansion, the city feels like it_s in a state of collapse,_ said Clara Castillo, 53, a resident whose car has been trapped in its parking space at her home since last year, after a work crew sealed off access to the street in a construction project.

_Imagine coming home one day to find the entrance to your home blocked off without warning,_ Ms. Castillo said. _It_s insulting the way this whole thing was planned, while discovering that a select few are profiting from this mess._

Revelations of a complex kickback scheme involving contracts for Bogot__ construction projects have ensnared Iv__n Moreno, a senator arrested on graft charges. He is the brother of Samuel Moreno, the city_s suspended mayor, whose disapproval rating reached a staggering 85 percent this year. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Beyond upending the Moreno brothers _ both members of the leftist Polo Democr__tico party and grandsons of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the military dictator who ruled Colombia from 1953 to 1957 _ the scandal has accentuated tension among leftist political leaders.

Colombia_s attorney general suspended Samuel Moreno for three months in connection with negligence claims in overseeing public contracts, a decision praised by Antanas Mockus, a former Bogot__ mayor and a Green Party candidate for president in last year_s elections.

_The resignation by Moreno would be a noble reaction,_ Mr. Mockus said.

President Juan Manuel Santos has named the nation_s education minister, Mar__a Fernanda Campo, to replace Samuel Moreno while the corruption investigation into him and his associates unfolds, though no criminal charges against the suspended mayor have been filed so far. Voters will get the chance to elect a new mayor in October.

Whoever wins will inherit a raft of challenges, some of them linked not to corruption, but to Colombia_s buoyant economy and the expansion of consumer credit. Car sales here are soaring, worsening Bogot___s traffic jams. Vehicle sales in the city surged to 25,527 in February, a 51 percent jump from the same month a year earlier.

Bogot___s transportation woes do not approach the problems faced by residents of other cities in the region, like crime-plagued Caracas in neighboring Venezuela. Bogot__ still has quiet districts of faux Tudor houses, amenities like bike paths and an array of well-kept parks. Even Samuel Moreno_s critics acknowledge that he made improvements in administrative areas like tax collection.

But with major thoroughfares here gutted by drawn-out construction projects set in motion by the suspended mayor and many residents facing more dangerous and much longer commutes than they had a few years ago, a sense of pessimism about the problems afflicting the city has set in here.

_There_s the effect of hearing so much more negative news than in years past,_ said Ana Rodr__guez, 30, a psychologist. _I now move around with much more care because one hears how the crime gangs have infiltrated the buses._

This week, La Silla Vac__a, a prominent blog on politics here, questioned how Bogot__ had fallen to _its lowest level in two decades._ Out of the chaos of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when cocaine traffickers unleashed terrorist attacks in retaliation for a government crackdown, a series of mayors introduced their bold experiments to improve the city_s quality of life.

But illustrating how easily achievements in security and transportation can deteriorate, urban planners here say the policies of the suspended mayor were directly responsible for some of the problems now afflicting the city of 7.4 million.

According to a survey by the city_s Chamber of Commerce, 72 percent of Bogotanos, as residents are called, said that insecurity had increased. Rates of certain crimes, like murder, remain relatively low, but other dangers, like street muggings and thefts on public transportation, have surged since 2007.

The survey, conducted face to face in November and December of last year, found that 49 percent of respondents said they or people in their homes had been the victims of crime in 2010, the highest level in more than a decade.

_In recent years, the police have become more lax with minor infractions like parking violations, which in turn has created a sense of disarray,_ said Ricardo Montezuma, an urban planner who directs the Humane City Foundation.

_This administration has been not just corrupt, but also inept,_ Mr. Montezuma said. _The mayor tried to distance himself from models viewed as somewhat more authoritarian in terms of citizen behavior, but while people may have been unsatisfied with so much control, they_re now far more unsatisfied with a total lack of control._

In the municipal election scheduled for October, polls suggest that voters are leaning toward Enrique Pe__alosa, mayor from 1998 to 2001. He lost to Samuel Moreno in 2007 but is still admired for making changes to the city, like building public libraries and planting more than 100,000 trees, making it a more livable place.

Many Bogotanos acknowledge that turning the city around again is an unenviable task. _Rush hour on our roads is now hellish,_ said Edwin G__mez, 35, a university professor who navigates his motorcycle through Bogot___s tumultuous grid. _At times, the city looks like an ant hill crawling with quiet automobiles._

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