The Looting of Bogotá
Friday, May 10, 2013
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Colombia is not a country known for good governance or institutions. Long the drug and murder capital of the world, it has been struggling back towards some sort of stability since the government of President Álvaro Uribe between 2002 and 2010 brought large improvements in security.

Yet even in the worst of days in the 1990s, the capital city Bogotá provided some small grounds for optimism. Starting with the election of Jaime Castro as mayor in 1992 and accelerating with the election of Antanas Mockus in 1995, Enrique Peñalosa in 1998 and the second Mockus administration between 2001 and 2003 big changes happened in Bogotá.

There were huge improvements in security and a large expansion in the supply of public goods. Bogotanos began to think about their city differently. They began to walk about on their streets again. In 1985 only 25% of Bogotá citizens believed the city to be a good place to live but 15 years later, 67% thought the same way. Mockus, a philosophy Professor at the National University of Colombia used many unorthodox but apparently highly effective tactics to change people’s behavior. For instance, to get people to inform the government about the anti-social behavior of others he went around with a toy frog pinned to his jacket – in Colombia someone who tells tales is called “un sapo,” a frog. He also hired mime artists to shame people into obeying the rules.

Here is one waving the banner “incorrecto” incorrect!

That Castro, Mockus and Peñalosa won was quite a surprise. To do so they had to defeat the machine politics of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. Research by Rafael Santos at the University of the Andes showed how this was caused by reforms to the structure of the voting procedure. In particular the 1991 Constitution introduced the tarjeton, a new more secret method of voting where voters were given a single unified ballot, instead of having separate party ballots. Santos showed that the introduction of the tarjeton coincided with a breakdown in the spatial relationship within Bogotá between votes for traditional political parties and where public sector workers lived. The tarjeton broke down the traditional mechanisms of patronage allowing people to vote on new issues, those raised by Mockus et al.

Yet in 2004 the sequence of reformist mayors came to a grinding halt. The new mayor was Luis Eduardo Garzón from the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole political party. To many it seemed that while the reformist independent mayors had been successful at defeating traditional clientelism, they were vulnerable to left wing clientelism.

Moreno came from an interesting family. His grandfather, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was Colombia’s only real military dictator of the 20th century between 1953 and 1958. Yet this was a mild dictatorship and Rojas Pinilla had wide support when he overthrew the Conservative government of Laureano Gómez in 1953 in the midst of an inter-party civil war known simply in Colombia as The Violence (La Violencia). Rojas Pinilla had actually developed an infrastructure, such as building the national airport, El Dorado, and the broad avenue that leads out to it known as “the twenty six” (la veinte seis). He gave women the vote. In 1970 he’d made a political comeback with Samuel’s mother, María Eugenia as his running mate and only lost the presidential election because the incumbent Liberal party committed fraud. In 1974 María Eugenia ran for president.

Thus Moreno was the heir to an interesting alternative political tradition in Colombia. Many had high hopes that his control of the capital city would be the launching pad for a new type of politics.

Things turned out quite different. Moreno, it turns out, had spent all these years climbing the ladders of power to get the chance to loot. He did this along with his brother and former national senator, Ivan Moreno. Moreno was stripped of his position in May 2011 before his term was up and by September was in prison. The whole story is only just coming out (see this article in Spanish in the Colombian Newsweek Semana.

Here is Semana’s map of the Carousel.

After taking power Moreno set up a “shadow government” for the city, headed by his brother Ivan. This ran the “contract carousel” which basically handed out all the valuable contracts for the city in exchange for kickbacks and bribes. In particular the Morenos took a percentage for themselves from each contract.

The brothers hired Emilio Tapia to run the shadow government that had a “board” and was based in a luxurious suite of offices in the north of Bogotá. It also had a private plane and used to meet regularly in Miami. The brothers developed a cute slang, if they had an interest in a contract they called it “un mordida” a bite. The jewel in the crown of bites was the contract to run the integrated public transport system in Bogotá. This carries about 7 million people per day. The Morenos cut was 8 pesos per passenger, implying 56 million pesos per day. This works out at around US$30,000 per day, for 16 years. Part of the irony here was the contracts for the extension of the “Transmilenio” bus system along the “26” out to the airport, the road to the airport built by his grandfather.

The brothers did not stop there. They looted everything. Existing hospitals were very lucrative, but building new ones created even better opportunities for stealing. They took between 25 and 30% for themselves. They handed out the ambulance contract, but of this only half went to the firm that ran the ambulances, the rest was for the brothers and their cronies. Companies which refused to offer “the bite” lost out being told they were “too cheap”. Roads and bridges were also lucrative and some were 100% lucrative. 45 million pesos (US $25,000) were allocated to start on a bridge linking Carrera 9 to Calle 94 to alleviate traffic jams. It was never started. The story goes on and on.

Where is all the money? The Colombian government is trying to find out. Much was invested in real estate in the US, stashed away in the Virgin Islands, Switzerland, and all the usual suspects. Nobody really knows how much was stolen in three years; one estimate is US$500 million!

What is so depressing about this story is that Mockus and Peñalosa failed to institutionalize the gains that they had made for a decade.

All of the rules and procedures that they had established were quickly subverted and Moreno apparently faced no checks and balances or mechanisms that stopped the orgy of looting. That this also happened in Bogotá, supposedly the most functional part of Colombia, is a salutary lesson. Other Colombian reformers will need to carefully study what lessons can be learned.

In Medellín, for example, a city with much worse initial conditions than Bogotá, a series of reformist mayors initiated by Sergio Fajardo in 2003 made even more progress than the mayors of Bogotá did. Fajardo, now governor of the Department of Antioquia, and in the midst of a radical plan to transform the education system of the department, must be asking himself what will happen when he is term limited. How does he institutionalize all of the improvements he managed to implement?

Perhaps Bogotanos should have known what was coming. Before the election in a line TV debate Moreno was asked by Antanas Mockus if he would buy 50 votes if that prevented someone who had already bought 50,000 votes from winning, thus “saving Bogotá”.

His response was “Yes, without doubt!”.

It was a premonition of what was to come. You can even watch it on YouTube.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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