To combat a high level of violence, Santiago de Cali created local mesas, or councils, comprised of residents in 15 districts. The mesas launched a variety of community initiatives to build trust between neighbors, such as the rehabilitation of public parks and staging arts events, that helped lower conflict within the community.
In postwar Colombia, victims and former combatants have migrated to urban centers like Santiago de Cali, straining existing community relations and driving an increase in violence and conflict. In Cali, the homicide rate rose to more than 60 per 100,000 people, one of the highest in the world. Much of this conflict was due to small-scale drug trafficking and disputes between community members. Moreover, 60 percent of citizens expressed distrust in other people and 70 percent expressed a disinterest in civic participation. Many did not consider government institutions valid mediators for their conflicts.
When Mayor Maurice Armitage was elected, his first priority was to reduce violence. He created La Secretaría de Paz y Cultura Ciudadana (Office of Peace and Civic Culture) and charged its staff with designing and implementing policies and programs for violence prevention, conflict resolution, and assuring human rights. Because trust in government was low, the office decided to empower citizens to help solve the problem of violence. The office developed local Mesas de Cultura Ciudadana para la Paz (Tables of Civic Culture and Peace), councils made up of citizens who designed and implemented programs to build trust and reduce violence in their communities. The city supports the mesas with tools and supplies, such as grass cutters or trash bags, helps members request funding or supplies from city departments, and assists with planning and problem solving.
The mesas have begun to reclaim their neighborhoods from violence and drug activity. In less than two years, mesas have launched more than 200 community initiatives in 15 districts, and the impact of these efforts includes both immediate outputs like cleaner public spaces, as well as a stronger sense of unity in the neighborhoods and community pride.
The mesas have rehabilitated a number of areas that were previously used for drug activity and created campaigns to reduce illegal dumping. Mesas have organized soccer tournaments involving local youth, including former gang members. All participants sign a declaration of peace. Other mesas have started dance classes for at-risk youth, photography exhibits, and environmental education programs. These projects have engaged more than 450 citizens and benefited over 15,000 residents to date.
There is evidence that this strategy is helping to create a safer, more cohesive society. Between 2016 and 2017, the homicide rate dropped by 4.9 percent, resulting in the lowest number of homicides in 25 years. The number of people involved in the mesas continues to grow, as does the sense of a shared vision for the city and its future among the residents of Cali.
“For us this program is vital because it’s the only way we are able to survive. To the extent that we have citizen culture, the city will…have a pleased, happier, and above all, safer population.”
– Maurice Armitage, Mayor of Santiago de Cali