In Colombia, chaotic capital gets lesson in 'coexistence'

AP News
Posted: Mar 15, 2017 12:09 AM
In Colombia, chaotic capital gets lesson in 'coexistence'

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians are getting a lesson in manners in the form of a strict 120-page civil code, and nowhere is it causing more angst than in the country's frenetic capital where jugglers and soda vendors snake through traffic, party buses throb into the night and street chaos reigns.

Playing loud music late at night is now punishable with a $125 fine. Not picking up dog poop: $30. Turnstile jumpers on public buses are being sent to a "coexistence course."

"The code is a confirmation of the failure of family and school in the correct education of Colombians," writer Alonso Sanchez opined in Semana, the country's most prominent newsweekly.

The new rules, which are being applied across Colombia, are stringent enough that the mayor of Barranquilla recently filed a decree seeking temporary relief after realizing the coastal city's annual carnival would be violating several codes prohibiting noisy parties.

But the first revision to Colombia's civil code in more than four decades has perhaps generated the most debate in Bogota, a city of 8 million people that authorities say has received a high percentage of the citations registered for all of the country.

Some Bogotanos are quietly welcoming the code as a needed intervention, but others are decrying it as a vast overreach of police power that will do the most hurt to those least able to pay fines. While the lowest-level offenses such as not offering a pregnant woman use of a bathroom first are punishable with $30 fines, the most severe carry a $262 penalty — about equal to the monthly minimum wage.

Pirated copies of the civil code book are being hawked for about $1 each on the street, where it has been a steady seller to people anxious to know what is now prohibited, and prominent Bogota socialites have already found themselves in gossip columns for violating rules.

"There are a lot of things written in there that people don't think should be," said Carlos Alvaro, a street vendor who has sold about 100 copies since late January.

The updated civil code was enacted last July in recognition that Colombia is a more urban society today and afflicted by far different daily problems than in decades past, when the country was still steeped in a violent conflict with illegal armed groups. As serious offenses like kidnappings have plummeted, the code's chief architects contend it is time Colombians begin fixing their eyes on minor infractions like drinking in public and driving in bike lanes that harm a peaceful society.

"Colombians forgot about these day-to-day issues," said Capt. Juan David Palacio, a lawyer with the national police and one of the authors of the new rules.

The revised code also comes as Colombia is in the early stages of implementing a peace accord reached with the country's largest rebel group last year. That timing was not lost on the rulebook's creators. Palacio said they took into account the still divisive process of reconciliation that has polarized the nation.

"This code becomes a tool for the stability of peace," Palacio said.

Still, since the days of independence, Colombia has been known as a nation of sophisticated laws and slipshod enforcement. Not for nothing the peace agreement is a 310-page tome of elaborate legal arguments that would make any constitutional magistrate proud but has already suffered numerous delays in implementation of its lofty goals.

Bogota is full of creative attempts at giving a sense of order. Former Mayor Antanas Mockus hired hundreds of mimes in the 1990s to publicly shame traffic violators and jaywalkers. In 2015, the city enlisted actors to try to teach manners through street performances.

Today the city tucked between green mountains is a study in contrasts: Generous, tree-lined bike lanes and parks are next to streets crammed with buses emitting plumes of black exhaust. World-class museums overlook streets filled with litter and vendors offering llama rides. Quiet Saturday mornings are broken by the sound of trucks with megaphones offering used books and dragon fruit.

"Colombians always say: 'People don't know how to behave. They need to be educated,'" said Hugo Acero, a security expert in Bogota.

Some 30,000 infractions were registered across the country in the first month, compared to 45,000 for all of 2015 under the old code, Palacio said.

The new reality has many on guard, including soccer fans wary of fines for petty offenses like sitting in the wrong seat at a stadium or excitedly entering the playing field.

Another group affected is pit bull owners, who need to take out an insurance policy for any harm the dog might cause.

Daniel Bernal is the proud owner of a red-nosed American pit bull, one of 12 breeds considered dangerous under the new civil code. On a recent afternoon, he kept the dog muzzled as he sold bright-colored handmade leashes under a Bogota overpass.

He said he now takes his pit bull "Killa" out for long walks and exercise only late at night for fear of getting into trouble with authorities.

One benefit, perhaps: Sales of the muzzles he makes are going up.


Christine Armario on Twitter: