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Governing Violent Cities: Mayors' Perspectives

May 10, 2011

Two past mayors' accounts of the challenges and prospects of governing some of Latin America’s most violent cities culminated the recent conference at Brown on Violent Cities: Challenges of Democracy, Development, and Governance in the Urban Global South. Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, former mayor of Medellín, Colombia, emphasized social solutions, while José Reyes Ferriz , past mayor of Juárez, Mexico, underscored enforcement issues.

Sergio Fajardo Valderrama served as the mayor of Medellín in Antioquia, Colombia, from 2003 to 2007. His creative policies led to the erection of public buildings in the city’s poorest areas, creating venues for small-scale entrepreneurship. Fajardo ran for vice president in the 2010 Colombian national elections, and is currently a contender for the position of governor of the Department of Antioquia.

During his term as mayor, Fajardo set about changing the landscape of Medellín through the “Medellín, the most educated” program. The program’s key tenets include incorporating transparency in politics, encouraging participation from citizens and communities, expanding a social urbanism program, working with vulnerable youth, and building opportunities by increasing funding for education and innovation.

According to Fajardo, inequality opens to door to the narcotrafficking world. “We are opening other doors,” Fajardo said. The social urbanism program in particular has garnered media interest, boosting tourism and promoting entrepreneurship. “We built the most beautiful buildings that we have ever built in the poorest part of town,” Fajardo said.

The construction of these public spaces has served to eliminate the fear connected with poor areas, “connect pieces of the city,” and help people “build their talent,” Fajardo said. The buildings include public libraries and open spaces for small-scale entrepreneurs to sell their goods. “Most of these [tenants] are women that have been trapped in those [low-income] places,” Fajardo said.

As a result of Fajardo’s efforts, Medellín has soared to the top of the transparency list of Colombian cities. “We learned from our experiences and we found our path… [but] we are not finished at all,” Fajardo said, “There are plenty of problems ahead.” According to Fajardo, the main challenges still facing Medellín are those of inequality, violence, and corruption. Violence and inequality are inextricably intermeshed, Fajardo said, and can only be eradicated by eliminating the underlying corruption through morally just politics.
“Our biggest problem [in Latin America] has been our inability to work together,” Fajardo said. “We have to act together and talk to the world.”

José Reyes Ferriz served as the mayor of Juárez in Chihuahua, Mexico, from 2007 to 2010. During his term, escalating violence between drug cartels left close to seven thousand citizens dead, many of them city employees. Ferriz’s no-tolerance policies on police corruption constituted the largest police department clean-up in Mexican history.
The scarcity of police officers in Mexico has put the country at a disadvantage in fighting drug-related violence, Ferriz said. With only 4,000 federal police officers in a country of 110 million, a large part of law enforcement had fallen to the national army by 2003 despite contrary constitutional provisions, according to Ferriz.

A dearth of state police officers and prosecutors in Juárez lead to the prosecution of only 5 percent of arrests during his term, according to Ferriz. Mayors of large cities need the help of state government in dealing with crime, he said, in part because the budget and size of a city is a major constraining factor on the scope of its law enforcement. “Governing violent cities means that governing violent states [should be] a priority… governors need to do their job and prosecute crime.”

Charging local police officers with fighting organized crime, as opposed to state or federal police officers, puts them and their families at a greater risk. “You’re fighting an enemy that’s hidden, an enemy that’s anonymous, and you’re [wearing] a uniform [and are] in a red car,” Ferriz said. According to Ferriz, a consolidated police force would fulfill the need for a division of power in the Mexican police system and achieve optimal results.

Drug-related violence will be put to an end when “federal governments finally take their place and solve the problems that they need to solve,” Ferriz said.

The conference, hosted by Brown's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, was co-sponsored by the Watson Institute, Office of the Vice President for International Affairs, Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, and Starr Lectureship Fund.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Anna Andreeva ‘12