INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF URBAN AND REGIONAL RESEARCH
© 2020 Urban research PUblications limited
For help in conducting the research in Bogotá on which this article is based, I’d like to thank Christopher
Chambers-Ju, Veronica Herrera, Alisha Holland, Eduardo Moncada, Eleonora Pasotti, Juan Federico Pino, Juan
Diego Prieto, and the members of the comparative politics seminar at the Universidad de los Andes, especially
Laura Wills-Otero for the invitation to present my research. For constructive feedback on earlier versions of this
article, I’m grateful to Dan Brinks, José del Tronco, Tomas Dosek, Tulia Falleti, Jonathan Fox, Lucas González,
Juan Pablo Luna, Lindsay Mayka, Gerardo Munck, María Paula Saffon, Richard Snyder, and the participants in the
Comparative/IR workshop at UC Santa Cruz.
— BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN: Counter-
Neoliberalization in Colombia
For the political left, decentralization has increased both the appeal and the
importance of governing the city, and yet sharp constraints limit the left’s transformative
potential when it controls that level of government alone. Bogotá is an important case in
point under the recent mayoral administration of Gustavo Petro (2012–15), a demobilized
guerrilla leader who sought to implement a series of urban policy reforms that together
represent one of the most substantively radical and intellectually coherent attempts
to challenge neoliberalism in all of Latin America. Focusing on the four policy arenas
through which Petro hoped to transform the city (environment, housing, transport, and
trash collection), the article documents the veto power of the firms whose privileges
he threatened, as well as the tools through which they derailed reform. In contrast to
the failure of his political economy agenda, Petro was indeed able to enact a number of
progressive social policy reforms precisely because they did not threaten the proﬁtability
of the city’s entrenched growth machine.
‘The bourgeois intelligentsia elevates municipal socialism to a special “trend”
precisely because it dreams of social peace, of class conciliation, and seeks to
divert public attention away from the fundamental questions of the economic
system as a whole … to minor questions of local government.’
Vladimir Lenin, The Agrarian Program of Social Democracy in the First Russian
Revolution: 1905–1907 ( 1972: 358).
Despite Lenin’s skepticism about the possibilities of transformation at the
municipal level, progressive forces on the left have recently placed a great deal of
hope on the city as a critical space in the struggle against neoliberalism. Consider the
case of Latin America, where dense grassroots networks and higher levels of union
membership in the region’s cities created signiﬁcant urban opportunities for the left
after the withdrawal of military regimes, especially as military-era electoral rules have
continued to over-represent more conservative rural areas in national legislatures. In
the 1980s and 1990s, a period in which national governments tacked to the right through
the pursuit of neoliberal reforms, leftist municipal governments across the region
often reacted by trying to defend public authority vis-à-vis the market (Baoicchi, 2003;
Avritzer, 2006). As popular frustration with neoliberalism grew, these local experiments
anticipated and then facilitated the so-called pink tide that would sweep Latin America
after 2000 in the form of national-level electoral victories for the left (Chavez and
Goldfrank, 2004; Goldfrank and Schrank, 2009; Geddes, 2014). Once leftist parties began
to win national oce, many scholars (especially in political science) followed suit by
shifting their focus toward the national arenas in which the ﬁght over neoliberalism
would unfold. Beginning in 2015, however, Latin America’s left turn has gradually come
to an end through the reassertion of right-wing control over national executive and
legislative branches. With the right’s recent return to national power, the importance
of the urban sphere has once again come into sharp relief, along with the question of
whether and how the left can use it to pursue what Lenin would call ‘fundamental
questions of the economic system’.
Having lost potential allies in the form of sympathetic national governments,
progressive mayors across the region who want to use their mayoralties to counter
neoliberalism by reasserting public authority over the market are suddenly ﬁnding
themselves in a much more challenging landscape. If Latin America (along perhaps
with other regions in the world) is now entering a period of more direct confrontation
between leftist municipal administrations and rightist national governments, what are
the prospects for meaningful urban transformations away from neoliberalism? As the
political urgency of this question comes into greater focus, this article oers a partial
answer by examining in depth the case of Bogotá, Colombia under Gustavo Petro, a
mayor who led one of the most substantively radical and intellectually coherent attempts
to challenge neoliberalism at the urban level in all of Latin America. This setting is also
important because, in addition to being the only major country in the region that did not
participate in the national left turn that took place at the start of the twenty-ﬁrst century,
Colombia is the only such country where the left has never governed nationally. Bogotá’s
urban left turn thus took place in the kind of hostile national environment that has now
become much more familiar in Latin America––as well as in other regions where the left
controls the city but not the center.
As a former leader of the M-19 urban guerrilla group who demobilized
in the late 1980s, Petro as mayor (2012–15) proposed and sought to implement a
series of far-reaching and interconnected changes in the city’s political economy
(Rincón and Hoyos, 2013; Vega, 2014). As described in greater detail below, Petro
tried to fundamentally displace the neoliberal economic system that he inherited
by championing public authority vis-à-vis the market in four critical policy arenas:
environment, housing, transport and trash. Petro’s reform agenda represented a
comprehensive challenge to neoliberalism and its defenders, including Juan Manuel
Santos (2010–18), the right-of-center occupant of the presidential palace just down
the street from city hall. Brieﬂy suspended from oce when he attempted to undo
the privatization of trash collection, Petro was allowed to ﬁnish his term in 2015,
but ultimately failed in his attempt to check neoliberalism (Uribe, 2016). Nor did he
succeed in his bid to become Colombia’s ﬁrst ever leftist president in the 2018 election,
which was once again won by the right. In that election, Petro argued that opponents
of his local reform project had used their leverage vis-à-vis the national government
to sabotage his proposals and that successful reform therefore required a presidential
victory, whereas his opponents argued that his local policy failures rendered him unﬁt
for higher oce.1
To illuminate the nature of Petro’s proposed transformation along with its
eventual failure, this article draws on urban studies scholarship in a number of ways,
starting with the concept of ‘counter-neoliberalization’ (Brenner et al., 2010). As
mayor, Petro directly repudiated the ‘neoliberalization of urban space’ that began
in the 1990s in Bogotá, and that took many of the forms identified by Brenner and
Theodore (2002), including the ‘erosion of traditional managerial functions’ within the
subnational state, the ‘establishment of public–private partnerships’ in lieu of direct
public service provision, and the ‘transfer of erstwhile forms of public employment
to the private sector through the privatization’ of municipally owned enterprises like
1 Petro y los 8 millones de votos: una hazaña que hizo asustar al establecimiento [Petro and the 8 million votes: a
discovery that frightened the establishment] and Petro: el candidato de izquierda que más cerca estuvo de llegar
a la presidencia [Petro: the leftist candidate who came closest to winning the presidency]. Semana, 17 June 2018.
BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN 3
energy and trash collection. Whereas the two nominally leftist mayors who preceded
him upheld these neoliberal modalities (Lucho Garzón, 2004–7 and Samuel Moreno,
2008–11), Petro offered a full-throated and unapologetic defense of the prerogatives
of the local state, arguing for the return of formerly privatized companies to the
public sector, the creation of brand new municipally owned enterprises, and the
more aggressive regulation of private businesses to level the playing field between
small firms and the larger companies that had disproportionately benefited from
the proliferation of public–private partnerships. The single minded pursuit of this
public-minded vision lent a great deal of consistency to Petro’s administration in a
leadership style that fully illustrates the ‘contestatory configuration’ identified by
Geddes and Sullivan (2011) in their survey of how local leaders have interacted with
Three insights distilled from the urban studies literature help explain why
and how Petro failed to fundamentally ‘rollback’ the neoliberalization of urban space
(Brenner and Theodore, 2002), despite key advantages that included a large and
independent tax base sucient to ﬁnance a more robust and interventionist public
administration. First is what Brenner and colleagues would call the ‘disarticulated’
nature of his attempted counter-neoliberalization, which lacked connections ‘across
places, territories, and scales’ and conﬂicted directly with the policy preferences of the
national government (Brenner et al., 2010: 185). Although Colombia had experienced
one of the most meaningful and concerted processes of decentralization anywhere in
Latin America, and although a special autonomy statute for Bogotá formally protected it
from national interference, governmental authorities at the national level nevertheless
retained discrete powers that they could and, as I demonstrate below, did use to thwart
Petro. As Geddes (2014: 3158) argues in a survey of radical local developments in Latin
America that is otherwise generally more sanguine about the prospects for radical
change than my own analysis of Bogotá, ‘national context matters for local outcomes’
and hostile governments ‘can undermine radical local initiatives’. Decentralization
directly facilitated the mayoralty of Petro—who never would have occupied this position
in the period before decentralization when mayors were appointed—but it also gave
the ﬁrms that opposed him recourse to the municipal council as a veto mechanism. In
other words, decentralization simultaneously emboldened the critics and defenders of
Second, harkening back to an older literature on the urban growth machine
(Molotch 1976; Logan and Molotch 1987), Petro’s land use reforms, especially in
the areas of environmental protection and public housing, put him squarely at odds
with the most politically entrenched and well organized business interests in the
city. Political scientists have tended to neglect land use issues in their research on
urban politics (Post, 2018), but Petro’s concerted attempts to reassert public authority
over land markets did more than anything to provoke the enmity of his opponents.
In Bogotá, as in other large Latin American capitals, the neoliberalization of urban
space had taken the form of public subsidies for vast private sector construction
projects on the outskirts of the city, contributing to urban sprawl onto environmentally
sensitive zones in the surrounding montane savanna (Sabana de Bogotá). When Petro
openly questioned the sustainability of this lucrative growth machine, his opponents
responded by seeking to block his reforms within the city, especially through the
municipal council, and whenever that mechanism proved insucient they leveraged
the influence they wield at the national level to check the mayor ‘from the top
down’. Thus, although it was articulated with a very dierent time and place in mind,
Molotch’s (1976: 318) warning can be directly applied to Bogotá under Petro: ‘Any
political change which succeeded in replacing the land business as the key determinant
of the local political dynamic would simultaneously weaken the power of one of the
more reactionary political forces in the society’.
Third, while Petro sought to displace ‘the land business’ from its traditional
position of influence in Bogotá, he largely failed to counter their negative reaction
through the construction of alliances with the more diffuse interests who would
beneﬁt from his attempt to valorize publically owned enterprises, level the playing ﬁeld
between large and small ﬁrms, and lower the cost of public utilities. Petro was slow to
engage in the kinds of outreach that could have transformed his electoral coalition into
an eective governing coalition, which was particularly problematic given the radical
nature of the reforms he was trying to implement in the transition to post-liberalism
(Stone, 1989; 1993). Widely renowned for the oratorical skills he had honed in his time
as a Senator, Petro was less adept at the kinds of consultation and negotiation necessary
to stitch together support coalitions for speciﬁc policies. Ironically given Petro’s past
as an urban guerrilla leader, street-level movements and grassroots organizations on
the left did not enjoy much leverage or inﬂuence in the city’s ﬁrst radical government.
Eschewing patronage criteria in the appointment of his cabinet, Petro selected a team of
technically competent secretaries who were drawn largely from the National University
and who enjoyed limited connections to civil society. Despite the mass mobilizations
that took place to protest his suspension from oce at the end of 2013, sustained and
broad-based participation in the design of Petro’s attempted left turn was missing. If,
as Yates and Bakker (2014: 64) argue, post-liberalism ‘revolves around the dual aim of
(1) redirecting a market economy towards social concerns; and (2) reviving citizenship
via a new politics of participation and alliances across sociocultural sectors’, Petro and
his administration can be criticized for privileging the former and neglecting the latter.2
Here, Petro’s experience can be usefully contrasted with other leftist governments in
Latin America (at both the local and national levels) that were much better able to
harness the power of social movements in their struggles with ideological opponents on
the right. As is well documented in the literature, social movements by subaltern actors
formed the pillar of support for the powerful new parties on the left that emerged in the
guise of the Workers’ Party in Brazil (Keck, 1995; Baiocchi, 2003; Avritzer, 2006) and
the Movement Toward Socialism in Bolivia (Van Cott, 1998; Postero, 2010; Anria, 2018).
With their very origins in social movements, leftist governing projects in Bolivia and
Brazil enjoyed crucial reserves of support, leverage and legitimacy that could be relied
upon to advance policy change.
This article proceeds as follows. For readers unfamiliar with Colombia, the next
section provides contextual information to better appreciate the national signiﬁcance of
the local challenge from the left that Petro posed. The subsequent sections then analyze
the four major policy ﬁelds through which the mayor sought to counter neoliberalization,
either in the form of eorts to regulate private enterprise (environment and housing)
or eorts to create entirely new municipally owned enterprises (transport and trash
collection). In the attempt to construct these four policy narratives as systematically
as possible, I conducted a similar set of analytical tasks for each, including (1) a brief
description of the policy status quo pre-Petro; (2) a discussion of the content of the
policy changes he sought to make along with the opposition these proposed changes
generated; (3) an analysis of the mechanisms each side used in the ensuing policy
conﬂicts; and (4) an assessment of the outcome of each conﬂict. In addition to (largely
favorable) government documents issued by the municipality under Petro and (largely
critical) newspaper reporting by mainstream news outlets, these narratives are based on
24 interviews conducted in Bogotá in September 2017 with a broad range of individuals.
Given my focus on policy disputes, and the need to uncover both the source and the
extent of disagreements over specific and at times technically complicated policy
reform proposals, I privileged interviews with high-level administrators in relevant
municipal departments––both those who worked for Petro and those who worked for
2 On the more general failure of participatory institutions in Colombia, see Mayka (2019).
BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN 5
previous mayors.3 While these ocials diered sharply in their ideological support
for or opposition to the content of Petro’s proposals, supporters and detractors largely
agreed on the nature of the obstacles that blocked the mayor, including opposition by
national actors, the reaction of powerful ﬁrms, and the absence of coalitions to support
the new policies.
Setting the stage for conﬂict: civil war, decentralization and the left
Like many phenomena in Colombia, Bogotá’s left turn cannot be disentangled
from the country’s lengthy civil war, even if the war at times has seemed very far from
the borders of the city. The persistence of a powerful insurgency in the form of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia
or FARC) helps explain the dominance of the security cleavage as the country’s main
axis of political conﬂict––along with the relative obscurity of the left–right cleavage
over economic issues (Wills-Otero, 2014). This security cleavage, which consistently
pitted actors who favored a negotiated settlement with the guerrillas against actors who
preferred a militarized solution, is what has generally decided elections, rather than
left–right distinctions about how to address the country’s profound levels of income
inequality. The war complicated the prospects of the political left in other dimensions
as well. When social movement leaders, community activists and demobilized FARC
guerrillas built a party on the left (Patriotic Union) in the 1980s, its candidates were
systematically murdered by army ocials, state intelligence services, and politicians
working in concert with paramilitary groups unwilling to accept that demobilized
guerrillas might transform themselves into electoral challengers (Cepeda, 2006).
Since the extermination of the Patriotic Union, the most important party-
building effort on the left in Colombia has come from the Democratic Pole, which
elected Lucho Garzón as mayor of Bogotá in 2003 and, after merging with Democratic
Alternative, elected Samuel Moreno to the mayoralty in 2007. Despite his past as head
of a union that had incorporated informal workers, Garzón decided as mayor to focus
on non-controversial food and nutritional programs in the poorest parts of the city
(Bogotá sin Hambre or Bogotá without Hunger), and carefully avoided antagonizing
the business interests who had strongly supported the policies to reclaim public space
prioritized by his predecessors (Donovan, 2008; Kanai and Ortega-Alcázar, 2009;
Galvis, 2014). Garzón as mayor refrained from using police against informal vendors to
reclaim sidewalks (Holland, 2017), but otherwise upheld the Mockus-Peñalosa reforms
(Moncada, 2016).4 As a further indicator of his moderate orientation, Garzón later
publically rebuked Petro’s more radical approach, proudly defending his own decision
to ‘co-implement’ programs with business, and criticizing Petro for using the language
of class conﬂict rather than building on inherited reforms, as he had done (Pizano, 2015:
120–5).5 Samuel Moreno, son and grandson of Colombia’s most important populist
politicians (military dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla and his daughter María Eugenia
Rojas) adopted a more aggressive tone upon his election as Garzón’s successor, but in
3 My first step in the process of identifying prospective interviewees was to peruse journalistic accounts in the
Colombian press, which generated a clear sense of the relevant municipal departments and officials who could
best characterize the intended reforms, along with information about the most vocal opponents of these reforms.
While thus following a largely purposive strategy by focusing on those key informants and stakeholders who
would have the deepest knowledge about this article’s outcomes of interest, I supplemented this approach with a
snowballing technique, asking each interviewee to suggest additional names for possible interviews (often with
lower-level staff who had even more detailed knowledge of relevant policy details). Each interview began with
policy-specific questions I had developed in advance, but then turned toward a more open-ended format. To
ensure a frank exchange on politically sensitive matters, all interviewees were granted confidentiality.
4 For a critique of those reforms from an anthropological perspective, see Pérez Fernández (2010).
5 Another mark of Garzón’s attempt to assuage fears about his leftist origins was the appointment as his secretary of
government of the conservative politician Juan Manuel Ospina Restrepo, grandson and great-grandson of
Conservative presidents. http://lasillavacia.com/quienesquien/perfilquien/juan-manuel-ospina-restrepo (accessed
1 October 2019).
practice failed to introduce actual reforms in an administration that was plagued by
corruption. In response to Moreno’s suspension from oce over corruption, Petro left
the Pole and ran successfully for mayor in 2011 as the candidate of a new Progressive
In addition to his status as the only leftist mayor who has actually oered a
leftist economic project, Petro deserves special attention because of the special threat
he posed as a demobilized guerrilla leader. Here it is important to emphasize that
Petro’s ﬁrst year as mayor (2012) coincided with the initiation of peace negotiations in
Havana that four years later resulted in the signing of an historic peace accord and the
demobilization of the FARC. One of the most controversial elements of this accord is
the FARC’s transformation into a political party with guaranteed representation in the
political system, a concession that galvanized opposition to the accord on the part of
conservatives outraged at the prospects of former guerrillas holding elected oce. In
this hyper-charged and polarized context, the importance of undermining the mayoral
administration of Gustavo Petro, whose guerrilla organization had demobilized in an
earlier round of peace negotiations, and whose success as an elected politician could
inspire a generation of newly demobilized FARC leaders, gained special importance.
Furthermore, because Petro had already campaigned for the presidency in 2010, his
presidential ambitions were clear and his opponents on the right hoped to ensure
that he could not use a successful mayoral administration as the springboard for a
Colombia’s internal armed conﬂict also shaped Bogotá’s left turn because it was
this conﬂict that led the country to decentralize in the 1980s and 1990s (Eaton, 2006;
Restrepo, 2015). As presidential administrations vacillated between militarization
and negotiation in response to the insurgency, the swing of the pendulum toward
negotiation in the mid-1980s resulted in the pursuit of a bold ‘paciﬁcation through
decentralization’ strategy. According to this strategy, which implicitly endorsed the
view that the National Front experience with power sharing in the 1960s and 1970s had
closed the political system to all but established elites, insurgents would be encouraged
to lay down their arms and run for subnational oce instead (Castro, 1998). Before the
introduction of elections for mayors (1986) and governors (1991), these oces were
divvied up by Colombia’s two traditional elite-dominated parties in an arrangement
that locked out the left. In addition to opening up the political system to new entrants
through political decentralization, the national government also devolved control over
important responsibilities like education and health care, and introduced a generous
new revenue-sharing system that would automatically transfer fiscal resources to
municipalities. Compared with other countries in the region, Colombia’s approach
to decentralization favored municipalities over departments (Falleti, 2010; Gutiérrez,
2010; Pino, 2017), a design decision that would embolden mayors with transformative
ambitions like Petro.
Three other factors served to further bolster Petro’s reform prospects upon his
election as mayor, adding to fears by the architects of Colombia’s neoliberal reforms
that the new mayor would be able to counter neoliberalization from below. First, while
the ﬁscal recentralization that Colombia experienced in 2001 and 2006 curtailed the
independence of mayors who thereafter become more reliant on discretionary transfers,
these ﬁscal reforms were far less eective as a tool to rein in Bogotá considering the
signiﬁcance of the local tax base from which its mayor can draw, which renders it less
dependent on transfers and more politically insulated (Bromberg, 2004; Restrepo and
6 In the words of one of Petro’s closest advisors, ‘our plan for a more humane Bogotá (Bogotá humana) showed that
we aspired to be a government of rupture rather than of continuity, and that we rejected the kinds of pacts with
business and the media that characterized the Garzón administration’. Confidential interview, 21 September 2017,
Bogotá. See also ‘Progresistas se transformará en un movimiento nacional’: Gustavo Petro [‘Progressives to
transform themselves into a national movement’: Gustavo Petro]. Semana, 30 October 2011.
BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN 7
Peña, 2016).7 Second, Petro was ostensibly empowered by the special autonomy statute
for the city that was passed by the national congress in 1993. Designed by Jaime Castro,
the leading architect of decentralization in Colombia and former mayor of Bogotá,
decree law 1421 gave Bogotá more autonomy than any other city. It also signiﬁcantly
strengthened the powers of the mayor by ending the practice of ‘co-administration’
with the municipal council, according to which councilors had previously provided
support for the mayor’s initiatives in exchange for patronage appointments in the
municipal bureaucracy (Pasotti, 2010; Mayorga, 2011). Mayoral powers were further
enhanced by investing mayors with the authority to decree the city’s development
plan (Plan de desarrollo) in the event that it is not approved by the municipal council
(Bromberg, 2004). Third, unlike other large Latin American cities like Lima and
Santiago, the entirety of Bogotá is governed by a single metropolitan mayor (alcalde
mayor) who, instead of having to share authority with 20 separately elected district-level
mayors, gets to appoint (and remove) these ocials. Altogether, the weakening of the
municipal council, the strengthening of mayoral powers, and the absence of political
decentralization within Bogota should all be seen as factors that would theoretically
facilitate counter-neoliberalization under Petro.
Environment: regulating the land business to densify the city
Gustavo Petro was the ﬁrst mayor in Bogotá ever to prioritize environmental
issues in his campaign, which helped broaden his appeal beyond the left’s traditional
constituencies and yet put him on a direct collision course with the city’s entrenched
‘land business’ (Molotch, 1976). As a candidate, Petro frequently addressed the multiple
environmental hazards facing the jurisdiction of Bogotá, 70% of which were actually
rural. In all directions, decades of unchecked urban sprawl have threatened the
extensive páramos (moors) to the south of the city and humedales (wetlands) to the
north, in addition to vulnerable sections of the mountains that border the city to the
east and along the heavily polluted Bogotá River to the west. Petro warned that the
unregulated expansion of the city had worsened problems with ﬂooding and landslides,
and negatively impacted the supply of water to the city (controlled by the municipally
owned water company Aguas de Bogotá). The mayor’s team emphasized the importance
of preserving the Thomas Van der Hammen Nature Reserve in the north of the city, an
11 km strip of land that represented the city’s last open connection to the savanna in
which Bogotá is located.
To address Bogotá’s environmental challenges, Petro’s main instrument was an
urban planning tool referred to as the Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT). This
tool was created by a 1997 law (388) that gave municipalities broad powers over land
use decisions, along with 50% of revenues from capital gains taxes to support planning
eorts (Barberena, 2010: 75). According to the law, municipalities could modify their
POTs every 12 years; since Bogotá’s first POT was written in 2000 during the first
Peñalosa administration, Petro clearly had the legal authority to modify the POT.8 In
a direct challenge to the city’s traditional ‘growth machine’, Petro’s POT sought to
promote the densiﬁcation of the city as the chief way to protect its fragile margins.
Specifically, it increased zones categorized as high risk due to flooding, extended
protected status to an additional 30,000 hectares, and reduced height restrictions on
new and existing buildings (Bogotá se concentra, 2013). In one of the most controversial
moves, the POT also denied permission to construct a major new thoroughfare (the
so-called ‘ALO’ or Avenida Longitudinal de Occidente) that would bisect the Van der
7 According to one of Petro’s cabinet members, ‘we faced many constraints, but an insufficient resource base was not
one of them’. Confidential interview, 21 September 2017, Bogotá.
8 Petro’s opponents claimed that slight modifications introduced to the POT in 2003 meant that Petro should not
have been able to modify it only nine years later, in 2012. Interview with the chief of staff to a former mayor, 18
September 2017, Bogotá.
Hammen Reserve and that had been okayed by previous mayors, including Moreno, as a
means to develop the north of the city. The proposed POT also included a ban on mining,
which represented Petro’s attempt to resist the national extractivist model endorsed
by the national government and embodied in the new mining code of 2001. Thus Petro
hoped to block the mining of materials used to make cement near the course of the
Bogotá River, which had worsened the risk of ﬂooding in two of the city’s poorest and
most densely-populated regions (Ciudad Bolívar and Tunjuelo).9
Petro’s POT directly challenged Bogotá’s entrenched land interest, which set
out to undermine popular support for the new regulations through negative media
coverage, and then to block their passage in the municipal council.10 The attempt to
densify Bogotá especially threatened those who had purchased lands in the north in
the speculative expectation that sprawl would continue. The most important such land
owner with a vested interest in the development of the Van der Hammen Reserve is
Luis Carlos Sarmiento, one of the wealthiest Colombians who also owns the country’s
most widely read newspaper El Tiempo along with banking and construction ﬁrms.11
Petro’s government tried to challenge the negative media blitz against his POT by
starting a new, free newspaper (Humanidad) and by reinvigorating the city-owned TV
station Canal Capital, but the media war proved lopsided. In addition to individual land
owners, Colombia’s main construction chamber (Cámara Colombiana de la Construcción
or CAMACOL) came out strongly against the POT, reflecting its capture by large
construction companies that wanted to continue to develop the outskirts of Bogotá.
CAMACOL warned that plans to limit growth on the outskirts of Bogotá would increase
the price of housing throughout the city.12 Smaller ﬁrms within CAMACOL, who stood
to gain from the shift in policy toward smaller projects within the existing footprint
of the city (e.g. adding ﬂoors to existing structures), failed to voice support for Petro’s
proposal.13 The severity of the opposition to the POT allegedly led Petro’s ﬁrst Chief of
Sta (former guerrilla leader and Senator Antonio Navarro Wol) to argue within the
mayoral cabinet that they should strategically let the ALO go forward in order to buy
some breathing room; Petro’s refusal led to Navarro Wolf’s resignation.14
Petro’s POT met a complicated legal fate, but what’s clear is that he was unable
to implement the plan and that he failed to counter-mobilize the diuse interests who
would beneﬁt from the POT, including middle-class voters who wanted to protect the
environment but who were, according to the mayor’s own team, alienated by Petro’s
strident rhetoric.15 According to the 1997 law that created the POT process, if municipal
councils do not approve the mayor’s POT within 90 days the mayor has the right to
decree it into existence. As expected, given the fact that only 13 of Bogotá’s 45 municipal
councilors represented left parties and that CAMACOL heavily lobbied the council
against the POT, the council rejected the POT on 7 June 2013.16 Petro then made changes
and returned the POT to the council for further consideration, but it never acted on
9 La ciudad invisible [The invisible city]. Semana, 2 December 2006.
10 See Los ‘peros’ de los concejales al Plan de Desarrollo de Petro [The ‘objections’ of councilors to Petro’s
Development Plan]. El Tiempo, 22 May 2012; and Peñalosa y Petro reviven disputa por urbanización [Peñalosa and
Petro revive debate over urbanization]. El Tiempo, 3 November 2014.
11 See Natalia Arenas, Los Súper poderosos de Bogotá––2016 [The super powerful of Bogotá––2016]. La Silla Vacilla,
1 July 2016.
12 Precio de la vivienda en Bogotá podría aumentar más por el POT de Petro: CAMACOL [The price of housing in
Bogotá could increase due to Petro’s POT]. Caracol Radio, 29 August 2013.
13 Interview with official in Petro’s environmental secretariat, 14 September 2017, Bogotá.
14 Interview with one of Petro’s cabinet members, 21 September 2017, Bogotá. After returning as mayor in 2016,
Peñalosa decided to proceed with the ALO, and with a POT that pleased the construction industry. See Carlos
Hernández, Con el POT, Peñalosa reafirma su vision (y los constructores celebran) [With the POT, Peñalosa reaffirms
his vision (and the construction industry celebrates)]. La Silla Vacilla, 9 December 2018.
15 Interview with official in Petro’s environmental secretariat, 14 September 2017, Bogotá.
16 Concejo de Bogotá hundió el POT [Bogotá’s municipal council sinks the POT]. Dinero, 7 June 2013. Although
CAMACOL applauded opposition councilors for their serious research on the topic, according to Petro’s secretariat
of housing, CAMACOL itself supplied this research to the council, which has very limited research capabilities.
Interview with official in Petro’s secretary of planning, 18 September 2017, Bogotá.
BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN 9
those revisions.17 Petro waited a further 90 days and then decreed the POT on 26 August
2013, after which the council asked an administrative judge to suspend the decree,
arguing that the mayor can decree it only if the council fails to act on the POT and
not if it is actually rejected.18 Subsequently, Colombia’s powerful national Council of
State (Consejo de Estado) suspended the POT in December 2014 and then ratiﬁed its
decision in June 2015 after an appeal by the Petro administration.19 What can be clearly
seen here is the growth machine at work: Petro was denied use of the main tool at his
disposal to enact environmental reforms by the owners of lands he wanted to protect
from development and by the ﬁrms who wanted to build on those lands, which were
grouped into a business association that blocked the POT through the municipal council,
and which were then backstopped by one of Colombia’s most powerful national bodies.
Housing: challenging large-scale developers in the urban periphery
In the years before Petro’s election as mayor, the construction of large-scale
housing projects on the urban periphery represented a central cog in Bogota’s growth
machine, promoted by both the national government and the mayoral administrations
that preceded Petro (including Garzón and Moreno). The neoliberalization of housing
policy had begun in the 1980s and 1990s, when Colombia adopted the demand-side
approach to public housing that Pinochet had pioneered in Chile, which limited policy
to the provision of partial vouchers (typically 40% of the cost of a house). When these
vouchers proved insucient over time, and when the housing crisis worsened because
of populations displaced by armed conﬂict to the cities, the Constitutional Court in 2010
stepped in and required a more robust approach (Maldonado, 2011). Just as Petro was
taking oce as mayor in 2012, the national government under Santos responded with
a new housing law (1537) that increased the vouchers to 100% of the cost of housing
in its Free Houses (Casas Gratis) program.20 To quickly bring new housing online, and
notwithstanding municipal land use policies (POTs), the national government made it
easier to re-categorize rural lands for urban development, and favored massive housing
projects (macro-proyectos or mega-projects) to take advantage of economies of scale
and to thereby entice investment. The scale of the projects and associated ﬁnancing
challenges meant that only large-scale developers could participate in the program,
which also left municipalities on the hook for service provision in these extensive new
developments in the urban periphery. In addition to the rapid construction of over
100,000 new houses, the mega-projects redounded directly to the political benefit
of German Vargas Lleras, who was able to preside over the Free Houses program as
national Housing Minister in 2012 and 2013.
Petro sought to reverse the neoliberalization of housing policy by shifting from
a demand-side approach that had partnered with large construction firms toward
supply-side solutions in partnership with smaller firms. Just as radically, he tried to
directly intervene in land markets and to reverse residential segregation within Bogotá
by locating public housing in the wealthier center (Centro Ampliado) rather than in the
poorer, southern outskirts of the city.21 Petro argued that when public housing is situated in
peripheral parts of the city, recipients are triply disadvantaged because they receive fewer
services, experience longer commutes, and face greater environmental risks, especially
to ﬂooding (El plan urbano, 2014).22 In response, Petro’s vision involved building smaller-
17 Petro expidió el POT por decreto [Petro issued the POT by decree]. El Tiempo, 27 August 2013.
18 Consejo de Estado mantiene suspensión provisional del POT en Bogotá [Council of State maintains the provisional
suspension of the POT in Bogotá]. El Espectador, 9 December 2014.
19 Consejo de Estado ratificó suspension del POT de Petro [Council of State ratified suspension of Petro’s POT].
ElTiempo, 23 June 2015.
20 Interview with a high-level official in the secretariat of housing (Habitat), 15 September 2017, Bogotá.
21 Interview with a former Director of FEDEVIVIENDA, 19 September 2017, Bogotá. See also Revitalización urbana
22 Low-income people (level 6) spend 37 more minutes in traffic than rich people (estrato 1), and 73% of families in
the lowest two income levels (5 and 6) live in the periphery (Bogotá se concentra, 2013: 12).
scale housing projects and dispersing these project sites throughout the city, including
in the center, which his housing secretariat redeﬁned as sparsely populated areas with
unused and deteriorated buildings that are no more than 20 minutes away from job
centers via public transportation (El plan urbano, 2014: 16). According to the secretariat:
Without denying the role that construction plays in the city’s economic
dynamism, our objectives are to diversify the scale of housing projects and
thereby the size of construction ﬁrms, under the understanding that diversity in
the size of ﬁrms is healthy for the city. Furthermore, socially-oriented housing
policy requires directly intervening in the land market, including the forced
sale of lands in a public auction, as contemplated in the 1991 Constitution’s
recognition of the ‘social function of property’ (Política Vivienda, 2015: 8).
Most controversially, with respect to a national law requiring that new housing
projects reserve 20% for low-income families, Petro sought to apply this percentage
to each individual housing project, and to bar ﬁrms from meeting the target only with
construction in the periphery.23 To act on this new vision, he also tried to use public
funds to build ‘demonstration projects’ in middle class neighborhoods (including the
457-unit project at Plaza de la Hoja).24
Petro’s more holistic vision of housing as more than just vouchers for consumers
clashed directly with the Housing Ministry-CAMACOL juggernaut. Dominated by the
country’s three largest construction groups (Bolívar, Banco Colonia and Masurero),
which enjoy great sway over the appointment of Colombia’s Housing Minister,
CAMACOL was deeply threatened by Petro’s reforms. It was also generally accustomed
to dominating housing policy; CAMACOL grievances, for example, had earlier forced
Garzón to ﬁre his planning secretary, Carmenza Saldías, over her attempt to charge
capital gains taxes on airport construction.25 In response to lobbying by CAMACOL, and
by the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce that is run by his brother, Vargas Lleras issued
a decree in 2013 that overturned the municipal measure through which construction
ﬁrms were obliged to reserve 20% of the units they build in the city center for public
housing.26 In addition to trying to prevent Petro from regulating the private sector,
opponents also sought to prevent the mayor from using public funds to buy properties
in the city center for the relocation of poor and displaced populations. A municipal
councilor, for example, was able to halt Petro’s ‘demonstration projects’ through a
judicial maneuver that alleged property losses in the market value of surrounding
buildings.27 More generally, CAMACOL’s veto power vis-à-vis housing policy clearly
played out in Bogotá’s municipal council, where 8 (of 45) councilors belonged to Cambio
Radical, the pro-Uribe party that Housing Minister Vargas Lleras joined in 2003.
Petro was prevented from defending a more public-minded approach to public
housing, and not just because the city does not own much land. Petro and his housing
secretary, María Mercedes Maldonado, lacked allies in their ﬁght with CAMACOL and the
national housing ministry, which was especially important after an initial agreement broke
down between Maldonado and CAMACOL not to air their disagreements in the media.28
23 Acuerdo 489 in 2012. Peñalosa’s 2000 POT treated parts of the city differently in terms of public housing
requirements; whereas 30% of housing must be public housing (vivienda de interes prioritaria [priority interest
housing]) in the south and west, the figure for the north is only 15%. See also Los cuatro hechos que enfrentan a
Petro y Minvivienda [The four facts disputed by Petro and the Housing Ministry]. El Tiempo, 12 November 2014.
24 Petro also wanted construction firms to pay a part of the cost of infrastructure necessary to support large-scale
housing developments (rather than shifting these costs onto the city).
25 Interview with a former interim mayor of Bogotá, 12 September 2017, Bogotá.
26 Los cuatro hechos que enfrentan a Petro y Minvivienda [The four facts disputed by Petro and the Housing Ministry].
El Tiempo, 12 November 2014.
27 Juez ordenó frenar viviendas VIP de Petro en estrato alto [Judge ordered stop to Petro’s VIP housing in higher
income neighborhoods]. El Tiempo, 19 October 2015.
28 Interview with a high-level official in the secretariat of housing whose outreach efforts to smaller firms failed once
CAMACOL took a public stance against Petro’s reforms, 15 September 2017, Bogotá.
BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN 11
Small and medium sized ﬁrms within CAMACOL have remained ideologically loyal to
the chamber’s preference for large-scale development, even though they lose materially
from such an approach because they can rarely bid on those projects.29 Although the
Constitutional Court often functioned as an ally for Petro, including in the trash dispute
discussed below, in this case the Court’s ruling vis-à-vis housing set in motion the exact type
of development Petro opposed (large-scale, voucher-driven mega-projects in the urban
periphery). All that Petro could do was to block the national government’s mega-projects
within the city, which he justiﬁed by denying the transfer of land in the ﬂood-prone Campo
Verde neighborhood until further environmental studies could be conducted. But trying to
block these 8,000 houses (Bogotá’s share of the 100,000 free houses) generated negative
press coverage for the mayor, as did his threats to cut o the supply of water to mega-
projects in neighboring municipalities by the municipally owned Aguas de Bogotá.30 This
too made for poor optics; as one of Petro’s closest advisors commented, ‘you just can’t deny
water to people in houses that have already been built’. Threatening to do so antagonized
the very groups (e.g. residents of public housing and their advocates) that Petro needed on
his side in the war he was waging against the growth machine.31
Transport: reasserting the local state’s public authority vis-à-vis the market
If the environmental and housing reforms discussed above represent Petro’s
attempt to reassert the regulatory power of the state vis-à-vis the private sector,
transport and trash collection showcase his parallel attempt to reassert the state’s
‘traditional managerial functions’ (Brenner and Peck, 2002). The conﬂicts triggered by
Petro’s transport proposals were especially salient politically because public transit had
played such a central role in the transformations that took place in Bogotá under mayors
Antanas Mockus (1995–97 and 2001–3) and Enrique Peñalosa (1998–2000). Transport
issues loomed large in the 2011 mayoral election, when Petro defeated Peñalosa, and in
the subsequent election (2015) when Peñalosa moved to the right with the clear support
of the private sector––including bus and construction companies––and defeated the left’s
candidate. For Peñalosa, Bogotá’s transport solutions are to be found in the expansion
of the Transmilenio, a rapid transit bus system that is managed by the municipality but
operated by private bus companies. While these 2,000 buses, which now transport
2.3 million passengers every day, have signiﬁcantly reduced travel times, they are also
relatively expensive, increasingly overcrowded, and more polluting than electrical
buses.32 Petro, in contrast, emphasized the urgency of building an underground metro
in Bogotá as the heart of an integrated transit system that would be owned and operated
by a public enterprise (either the Empresa de Energia de Bogotá or a new city-owned
company). As Petro had argued in an earlier run for the mayoralty, ‘Bogotá’s transit
problems are caused by too much free market’.33 In this highly charged ideological
environment, as one interviewee joked, ‘here in Bogotá the left prefers the metro, and if
you favor buses then that means you’re on the right’.34
As in the policy conflicts discussed above, Petro wanted both to enhance the
state’s role as a protagonist in the transport sector and to help smaller firms counter
the domination of larger ﬁrms. Leading this ﬁght was the municipal Institute for Urban
Development (Instituto de Desarrollo Urbano or IDU), which the mayor hoped could
recover the leadership of the public sector by no longer always deferring to the private
29 Interview with a former director of FEDEVIVIENDA, 19 September 2017, Bogotá.
30 Aguas de Bogotá supplies water to 9 million consumers, 2 million of which live outside the city.
31 Interview with a former advisor to Petro as mayor, 13 September 2017, Bogotá.
32 Número de viajes en el SITP y TM bajaron, dice la Supertransporte [Number of trips on SITP and TM decreased,
says the Superintendent of Transport]. El Tiempo, 15 August 2018.
33 Quoted in Una Bogotá transparente y democrática [Transparent and Democratic Bogotá]. In Programas de
gobierno de los candidatos a la Alcaldía Mayor de Bogotá 1998–2000 [Platforms of the candidates for mayor of
Bogotá 1998–2000]. Unidad de Atención al Distrito Capital, Bogotá, 1997.
34 Interview with a Petro critic and former interim mayor, 21 September 2017, Bogotá.
sector and by not automatically preferring public–private partnerships.35 For example,
whereas Peñalosa had used private consultants to design his transport reforms, Petro
wanted to do these designs ‘in house’. Petro expanded the staff of the IDU to a team
of 91 employees, who had the same training and skills and who came from the same
universities as the private contractors used by earlier mayors, though Peñalosa would later
question their credentials.36 In addition to facing predictable opposition by the Chamber
of Colombian Infrastructure, the director of the IDU also needed to overcome his own
employees’ fears that by directly designing projects they would run afoul of a national
infrastructure law (80) that protects the prerogatives of the private sector.37 In addition to
defending the public sector’s right to design and operate transport, Petro also tried to favor
small companies, including the seven smaller ﬁrms that operate the ‘feeder’ buses of the
Transmilenio system (to counter the hegemony of the two larger operators).38 Here, however,
Petro’s twin goals of reasserting public control and helping out smaller ﬁrms worked at
cross purposes: the smaller bus operators that would have beneﬁted from his reforms
aligned with their larger competitors in opposition to the mayor’s attempt to standardize
operations (by insisting on common uniforms and similar color buses, for example).39
Petro’s greatest transit ambition was to begin work on a publicly owned and
operated subterranean metro. In the ﬁrst half of his administration, the mayor’s team
conducted the requisite technical studies with international experts and made routing
decisions to maximize synergies with Transmilenio. To counter speculation and in a
direct hit to what Molotch would call the ‘land business’, Petro decreed a freeze in land
prices in the areas surrounding possible metro stations.40 Taxing capital gains generated
by the metro would recoup its costs in the long term, but in the meantime building its
ﬁrst line would require 15 billion pesos from the national and municipal governments
(in a 70% to 30% ratio).41 Petro was thus in the position of having to secure the approval
of both the municipal council and the Santos administration. For nearly two years the
bond measure languished in the council, in part because of a lack of enthusiasm for
publicly owned enterprises on the part of councilors who no longer (since the Castro
reforms of the 1990s) sit on their boards of directors. But as public support for the metro
grew along with social pressure to approve the bond, the council eventually approved
the measure in September 2013.42 In contrast, the national government continued to
delay its approval; Petro requested the ﬁnancing in October 2014, with 14 months left
in office, but it never materialized. The national government did release the funds,
however, shortly after the return to power of Peñalosa in 2016, who discarded Petro’s
studies and ﬂoated the proposal for an above ground metro in certain neighborhoods.43
Blocked on the metro project by the delaying tactics of the national government,
Petro pursued his vision for public transit in other ways. For example, he promoted
a transition to electrical buses to mitigate pollution, but here he encountered stiff
opposition from Volvo and Mercedes, who supply the Transmilenio buses and whose
35 Interview with a former director of the IDU, 20 September 2017, Bogotá.
36 Es infortunado que Peñalosa descalifique el trabajo tecnico del IDU [It’s unfortunate that Peñalosa discredits the
technical work of IDU]. El Tiempo, 14 December 2015.
37 Among other anti-statist biases, the law also encourages municipalities to rent rather than own the equipment
used to repair potholes (maquinaria tapahuecos), when the latter would be far more cost effective. Interview with
a former director of the IDU, 20 September 2017, Bogotá.
38 Interview with a former interim mayor of Bogotá, 12 September 2017, Bogotá.
39 Interview with a former director of the IDU, 20 September 2017, Bogotá.
40 ‘Hubiera preferido el metro por la Caracas’: William Camargo [‘I would have preferred the metro run along Caracas
Avenue’: William Camargo]. El Tiempo, 21 December 2013.
41 Obras del metro de Bogotá pueden comenzar en 2016, dice el IDU [Work on the metro of Bogotá can begin in
2016, says the IDU]. El Tiempo, 8 October 2014.
42 Interview with the chief of staff to a Bogotá municipal councilor, 22 September 2017.
43 Petro then accused Peñalosa of wanting to build the metro cheaply (i.e. above ground) in the (poorer) south in
order to be able to build it underground (i.e. at greater expense) in the (richer) north. Es infortunado que Peñalosa
descalifique el trabajo tecnico del IDU [It’s unfortunate that Peñalosa discredits the technical work of IDU].
ElTiempo, 14 December 2015.
BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN 13
electrical models are less competitive than rival companies.44 More controversially, Petro
borrowed from the language of liberation theology to argue for a ‘preferential option for
the poor’ in the pricing of bus fares. Speciﬁcally, he implemented a policy of dierential
fares that lowered and froze bus fares for lower-income uses, a subsidy that would be
ﬁnanced through general funds. According to one Petro advisor, this challenged the
neoliberal idea that the transit system should be self-paying, ‘which has been treated as
gospel in Colombia since the 1990s, but which is rarely true in the world’.45 In response
to his decision to lower bus fares, Bogotá’s Comptroller, Juan Carlos Granados, imposed
a fine of 218,000 pesos on the mayor (to make up for financial damages to the bus
operators) and embargoed his assets for breaking a law that prohibits the introduction of
general subsidies. Granados, a close political ally of Vargas Lleras whose Cambio Radical
allies on the municipal council had nominated him as comptroller, also embargoed the
assets of planning secretary Gerardo Ardila for his role in the lowering of bus fares.46
Trash collection: replacing oligopoly with direct municipal service provision
The same goals that animated Petro’s attempted reforms in the environment,
housing and transport sectors discussed above were also at play vis-a-vis trash collection,
though this policy ﬁeld has special importance because it is the one that triggered his
suspension from oce. One of the most lucrative businesses in Bogotá, trash collection
was characterized by what the mayor saw as the same oligopolistic practices that he
tried to eradicate elsewhere, and that he held responsible for the low quality/high cost of
the service. In Bogotá, trash collection was dominated by one ﬁrm, Aseo Capital, owned
by Alberto Ríos, whose brothers Javier, Carlos and Rubén control one of the largest
operators of Transmilenio buses (as well as of Transantiago buses in the mass transit
system of Santiago, Chile).47 At ﬁrst, Petro tried to lower trash collection fees, similar to
what he had unsuccessfully attempted with bus fares and more successfully with the
pricing of water by the municipally owned water company. More controversially, Petro
then sought to un-do the privatization of trash collection altogether and to concentrate
responsibility for the service in a new state-owned enterprise (Aseo de Bogotá). According
to several of his top advisors, rather than more eective regulation of the private sector,
Petro’s consistent goal as mayor was to displace the private sector through the creation
and/or strengthening of municipally owned companies. This included proposals for the
establishment of a new city-owned bank and an attempt to recuperate the city’s shares in
its energy company (EEB) that previous administrations had sold to private investors.48
Petro’s deeply statist orientation eventually led to a rupture with one of his closest
advisors, Jorge Iván González, who tried to convince the mayor that it would be much
more politically expedient––given the constellation of powerful opponents they faced––to
prioritize better regulation of the private sector rather than direct ownership by the city.49
The fateful conﬂict began almost immediately after the announcement of Petro’s
Zero Trash policy. Rather than renew the contract to current service providers, the mayor
proposed to transfer trash collection to the municipally owned Aqueducto de Bogotá until
such time as a separate new municipal company could be established (Aseo de Bogotá).
Petro also included a role for informal trash recyclers in his plan, and anchored this proposal
in the Constitutional Court’s rebuke of his predecessor for seeking to renew private trash
44 Interview with official in Petro’s environmental secretariat, 14 September 2017, Bogotá. See also Petro invita a
demander a Volvo por vender buses ‘desechados’ [Petro invites action against Volvo for selling ‘discarded’ buses].
El Tiempo, November 6, 2018.
45 Interview with an economic advisor to Petro, 13 September 2017, Bogotá.
46 In 2016, Peñalosa eliminated Petro’s differential fare system and reversed Petro’s decision to increase subsidized
rates for passengers with disabilities from 25 to 50 rides a month. Haga cuentas: por qué suben las tarifas de
Transmilenio y SITP? [Do the math: why are fares increasing on Transmilenio and SITP?]. Semana, 15 March 2017.
47 http://lasillavacia.com/quienesquien/perfilquien/alberto-rios-velilla (accessed 1 October 2019).
48 Gustavo Petro se defiende por la recompra de acciones de TGI [Gustavo Petro defends himself on the repurchase
of shares in TGI]. El Tiempo, 20 June 2017.
49 Interview with an economist in the secretary of planning, 18 September 2017, Bogotá.
collecting contracts without considering the interests of these recyclers.50 Breaking a law
that requires trash companies to return trucks when their contract is not renewed, these
companies responded to Petro’s proposals by withdrawing some of their dump trucks to
then blockade the city, by damaging some of the trucks, and by hiding still others.51 As the
conﬂict worsened and as trash piled up in the streets of Bogotá, Petro sent his chief of sta
on a mission to purchase dump trucks in the USA, which then led the national government
to block the import of the trucks through the ports of Buenaventura and Cartagena.52 In
the meantime, trash piled up in Bogotá as the city used whatever trucks it could requisition,
and whatever city employees were available, to try and pick up as much trash as possible––
which was a challenge because the city produces 6,000 tons of trash every day.53
On 9 December 2013 approximately half way into his term as mayor and in the
midst of the trash crisis, Petro was suspended from oce by Inspector General and
conservative jurist Alejandro Ordoñez, who furthermore stipulated that the mayor
would be unable to run for any other oce for a period of 15 years. Ordoñez justiﬁed
the suspension on the grounds that Petro had broken laws requiring competition in
public service provision, in addition to using unauthorized trucks to collect trash,
which allegedly caused environmental damage and which generated a separate ﬁne of
40 billion pesos. That night, as thousands of Bogotanos mobilized on Petro’s behalf, the
mayor took to a make-shift podium in the Plaza de Bolívar for the ﬁrst of ﬁve lengthy
night-time speeches (9, 10, 13 December, 10 and 13 January) in which he called for the
beginning of a democratic and peaceful revolution in Colombia, while simultaneously
defending his attempt to ‘recover the 500 billion pesos that four trash contractors are
stealing from Bogotanos’.54 Citing polls that 76% of residents opposed his suspension,
Petro sought to sustain mobilization over the Christmas holiday, but ultimately this
proved dicult as the conﬂict quickly became the subject of legal wrangling.55
Speciﬁcally, Petro appealed to the Organization of American State’s Inter-American
Court of Human Rights (CIDH), asking for an injunction to prevent his suspension, which
the CIDH quickly granted. President Santos, however, refused to reinstate Petro after the
CIDH ruling, ordered his departure from the mayoralty, and appointed a close ally (Rafael
Pardo) to ﬁnish out Petro’s term. In the meantime, one tribunal (Tribunal Administrative de
Cundinamarca) sought to block Petro’s removal, only to be reversed by the more powerful
Council of State (Consejo de Estado), which upheld the suspension. Ultimately, Santos
agreed to reinstate Petro only four months later, in April 2014, days after Petro announced
that he would support Santos’s reelection bid in order to prevent the victory of anti-peace
candidate Óscar Zuluaga in the second round of the 2014 presidential election. In other
words, Bogotá’s ﬁrst truly leftist mayor was able to complete his own electoral mandate
only once he endorsed the reelection of the country’s right-of-center president.
The election of a former guerilla leader as mayor of Bogotá in 2011 raised the
possibility of counter-neoliberalization in the only major country in Latin America where
the left has never governed. As I have sought to demonstrate in this article, however, the four
most critical policy reforms through which Gustavo Petro sought to ‘rollback’ neoliberalism
met the same fate and for the same reason, namely because they all targeted the proﬁtability
of ﬁrms that had played privileged parts in the ‘rollout’ of neoliberalism itself. In some
50 Corte Constitucional tumbó licitación para recolección de basuras en Bogotá [Constitutional Court cancels bid for
trash collection in Bogotá]. Semana, 19 December 2011.
51 Interview with an official in the secretariat of the environment, 14 September 2017, Bogotá.
52 Interview with a member of Petro’s cabinet, 21 September 2017, Bogotá.
53 El caos sanitario en Bogotá que le pasó factura a Gustavo Petro [The sanitary chaos that sent the bill to Gustavo
Petro]. El País, 9 December 2013.
54 Gustavo Petro, Aquí debe comenzar una revolución democrática y pacífica [Here must be the beginning of a
peaceful and democratic revolution], speech in the Plaza Bolívar, 9 December 2013.
55 Gustavo Petro, Hoy el 76% de la sociedad Bogotana rechaza la destitución anunciada por el Procurado [Today 76%
of Bogotanos reject my dismissal by the Inspector General], speech in the Plaza Bolívar, 13 December 2013.
BOGOTÁ’S LEFT TURN 15
ways, these ﬁrms were a disparate bunch; they included owners of lands Petro wanted to
protect from further development in the environmentally sensitive outskirts of the city, large
construction ﬁrms threatened by the mayor’s attempt to favor smaller businesses, private
bus operators opposed to the idea of a city-run metro, and trash collecting companies who
beneﬁted from predatory pricing in the city’s most proﬁtable business. What these businesses
all had in common was their similar status as ﬁrms that had been able to take advantage of
the key tenets of neoliberalism, including the preference for private service provision over
direct municipal ownership, a disinclination to level the playing ﬁeld for smaller ﬁrms,
and deference to the companies deemed critical for continued urban growth. To block
municipal reform, these ﬁrms were able to activate national and not just municipal checks,
providing extensive illustration of the ‘disarticulated’ nature of this otherwise internally
coherent attempt at counter-neoliberalization. Especially fatal for Petro’s environmental and
housing reforms was the alignment of the construction industry’s main business chamber
(CAMACOL) with the political interests of Housing Minister Germán Vargas Lleras, who
had more supporters on Bogotá’s municipal council than did the mayor himself. Sometimes
opponents used subtle strategies, like the slow-walking of approval forms from national
government ocials who hoped they could thereby delay construction of the metro until
a dierent, more ideologically compatible mayor had taken oce. Sometimes, in contrast,
opponents used more blatant approaches, like holding the mayor personally liable for
revenue lost from the reduction in bus fares, ﬁning him for the purchase of dump trucks,
and trying to suspend him from oce over what was fundamentally a policy disagreement.
Only this latter move galvanized overt manifestations of civil society support for Petro, who
mostly neglected to build the kinds of policy-speciﬁc coalitions with potential beneﬁciaries
that would have given him more of a ﬁghting chance against his opponents.
Many factors certainly contributed to the defeat of Petro’s proposed economic
transformation, including his own combative personality and a populist style of
leadership that alienated many voters in one of the few Latin American countries
without a significant populist tradition (Bejarano, 2013). Furthermore, Petro’s
remarkable oratorical talents were apparently not matched by high levels of managerial
skill. However, while the mayor failed to introduce changes that would counter the
neoliberalization of urban space, it is important to note that he was nonetheless able
to implement progressive reforms so long as these did not threaten the city’s growth
machine. In a number of areas, Petro was able to break with conservative traditions, as
when he banned bullﬁghting and created the ﬁrst secretariat for women, as well as a
subsecretariat for LGBT issues.56 Petro also pioneered the use of mobile units to provide
medical services to drug users, targeted chieﬂy at the homeless population (Centros de
Atención Médica a Drogodependientes or CAMAD).57 Signiﬁcantly, none of Colombia’s
large health care companies were threatened by the CAMADs, which continued in
operation until the end of Petro’s administration.58 A similar dynamic played out with
innovative new day care policies (e.g. nocturnal kindergartens for the children of
mothers who work at night, including sex workers) that some of the mayor’s opponents
considered objectionable, but that could nevertheless be implemented because they
did not clash with powerful private sector economic interests (Bogotá Humana, 2015).59
Finally, Petro faced very little opposition to his education reform proposals, despite
the fact that the education budget doubled relative to prior administrations.60 Only one
56 Interview with a former president of the teachers’ union (FECODE), 14 September 2017, Bogotá.
57 While the CAMAD predictably came under fire from Inspector General Ordoñez for promoting drug use, President
Santos himself voiced some support for Petro’s public health approach to drug addiction. Dos años de los CAMAD
en la capital [Two years of the CAMADs in the capital]. El Espectador, 8 December 2014.
58 De los CAMAD de Petro a las Salas de Consumo de Uribismo [From Petro’s CAMADs to the injection sites of
Uribism]. Semana, 24 August 2017.
59 One factor that may have facilitated success here is that the secretary responsible for day care consciously avoided
engaging the construction industry by renting rather than building spaces for these facilities, and by buying
prefabricated structures. Interview with a member of Petro’s cabinet, 21 September 2017, Bogotá.
60 Interview with an official in Bogota’s education secretariat, 21 September 2017, Bogotá.
reform eort in education experienced the same fate as the political economy reforms
described above, and here the exception proves the rule; when Petro announced a
review of all charter schools in Bogotá, the private owners of these schools mobilized
families and students in their defense, and in the end the mayor could only close two
charter schools, to the fury of the city’s teachers’ union.61 Altogether, the success of
eorts to block the mayor’s political economy reforms stands in sharp contrast to social
policy reforms that unfolded largely as Petro’s team had intended.
The implications of Bogotá’s urban left turn are sobering for progressive forces
in Latin America in the aftermath of decentralization and in the context of the right’s
return to power nationally. On the one hand, Colombia provides a concrete example of
why decentralization, particularly in its political guises, can be so important to the left
(Chavez and Goldfrank, 2004). In countries like Colombia where traditional political
forces and economic elites monopolize national politics, the practice of letting the
center appoint subnational ocials limits the very possibility of left-leaning mayors (and
governors), and curtails ideological pluralism. Only the introduction of mayoral elections
in Colombia in the 1980s enabled, with a 20-year lag, the left to ﬁnally come to power
in Bogotá, in addition to a handful of other cities (Holland, 2016). On the other hand, if
Bogotá demonstrates that political decentralization can generate meaningful points of
access for the left, it also underlines the insuciency of decentralization––even though,
like so many countries in the global South, political decentralization in Colombia was
accompanied by policies that also devolved serious ﬁscal and administrative authority.
Decentralization was real enough to lead some on the left to believe they could actually
pursue meaningful economic transformations at the subnational level, but it also
preserved enough authority and discretion for the national government to prevent
Bogotá from tackling what Lenin called ‘fundamental questions of the economic system’.
Although decentralization and liberalization are often conceptualized as dierent sides
of the same coin (Doner and Hershberg, 1999; Weingast, 2005), the Bogotá case shows
how directly they can work at cross purposes. In Colombia, decentralization brought the
left to power in its most important political jurisdiction, but the national government’s
commitment to continued liberalization heavily circumscribed what it could do with
Kent Eaton, Crown Faculty Services, 1156 High Street, University of California, Santa
Cruz, CA 95064, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org
61 Interview with a former president of the teachers’ union (FECODE), 14 September 2017, Bogotá.
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