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Alex Char does not dress like the mayor of a city of more than a million people.
When we meet on Barranquilla’s rejuvenated waterfront, he is wearing a loose white shirt, baggy jeans and his trademark baseball cap. The only outward sign of his allegiance to the city is a tatty canvas bracelet bearing the crest and colours of Junior, Barranquilla’s football club, which his family owns.
We settle into his silver, armour-plated 4x4 and he gives me a tour of the city he has run for eight of the past 12 years. “In 70 years, the central government opened just two of these colleges in Barranquilla,” he says as he stops to sample a tortilla at a technical college. Here young Barranquilleros are learning to be chefs, linguists and nurses. “In contrast, we’ve set up 11 in the past two years.”
If there is one man who can be credited with leading Barranquilla’s renaissance, it is Mr Char, the grandson of Syrian immigrants and the son of Fuad Char, a businessman and politician who made the family fortune in retail. In a political landscape dominated by family clans, the Chars are the coast’s royalty. Fuad has served as a minister, Colombian ambassador, senator and regional governor, while Alex’s brother Arturo Char is a senator and his cousin David Char is a former senator.
When Mr Char first became Barranquilla’s mayor in 2008, the city was in dire straits and heavily in debt. Some 43 per cent of its inhabitants lived below the poverty line and storms — a common occurrence on Colombia’s tropical northern coast — would often turn the city’s roads to rivers, washing away houses, cars and people.
Twelve years on, the poverty rate has halved and Barranquilla’s economy is the fastest-growing in Colombia, helped by the 2016 peace deal between the central government and Farc guerrillas, and improved tax collection. Since 2010, average wages have grown 74 per cent compared with 39 per cent in the capital Bogotá. Public investment has grown 11 per cent a year for a decade and the city’s tax take has risen fivefold.
The mayor’s office has installed drainage under 66km of streets, solving the flooding problem. This has all been achieved while also improving the city’s finances — its debts of 1.3tn pesos ($374m) are 35 per cent of its income, a sharp drop from the 150 per cent level that the mayor inherited 12 years ago.
Mr Char likes to run things “from the street”, declaring “this is my office” as he sits back in his car and reaches into an icebox to pull out a bottle of soda. “You don’t need to be in an office to run a city. It’s common sense, and it’s my way of doing things.”
Everywhere we go, Mr Char is greeted as a hero — so much so that I begin to suspect our entire tour has been stage managed. But the mayor’s approval ratings suggest the adoration is genuine. One recent Gallup poll put him at a staggering 92 per cent — this, just months before he is due to leave office.
His success has prompted speculation he might bid for the Colombian presidency, an idea he rejects. “No way. I have no interest,” he says. Instead, he wants to set up a management school “to tell the story of good governance in Barranquilla”.
Other cities on the Caribbean coast should perhaps take note. The region has for years been plagued by poor management and corruption. Cartagena is the worst culprit. It has had nine mayors in seven years; one is in jail and three have been suspended for corruption. The national government has often had to take control of the city.
In Santa Marta, things are little better. The current mayor has been charged with graft and the authorities in Bogotá have intervened, naming a temporary replacement.
While corruption is widespread in Colombia, it is particularly acute on the coast. An examination of corruption reports in the national press undertaken by Transparency for Colombia, the local chapter of anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International, found 327 cases over 30 months. Some 7 per cent originated in Barranquilla — the same number as in the capital Bogotá, which has eight times the population. In all, 34 per cent of cases were on the coast.
Some of the cases are staggering in their audacity. The latest involves Aída Merlano, a Barranquilla congresswoman who was jailed for 15 years for vote-buying. Earlier this month she abseiled to freedom during a routine dental appointment, clambered on to the back of a waiting motorcycle, and has not been seen since.
In the run-up to local elections on October 27, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a Bogotá think-tank, published a report on what it described as “questionable” candidates — those with proven or suspected links to corruption, organised crime and rightwing paramilitaries — many of whom were from the coast.
For foreigners investing for the first time, the coast’s family allegiances can be bewildering. In Barranquilla, the Chars and Gerlains hold sway; in Magdalena, the Cotes family; in César, the Gneccos; in La Guajira, it is the Pintos and Gómez Baccis; in Córdoba, the Elías and Besaile families; and in Cartagena, the Blel clan.
The Char family is not without blemish. In recent weeks, David Char has admitted in court that he enlisted rightwing paramilitaries to aid his election campaigns a decade ago and was involved in vote-buying.
Even admirers say the Chars operate “a beneficial monopoly”. As well as the city’s football team, they own retail outlets, a radio station and much more.
At the end of this year, Mr Char will leave the mayor’s office, but his achievements and popularity have all but ensured that control of the city and surrounding province will continue in the hands of family allies, even if they are not direct relatives.
“The Char family has done something that’s quite rare in Latin America, where leaders tend to cling to power indefinitely,” says Mauricio Vargas, a Barranquilla journalist and columnist at El Tiempo newspaper. “It’s named successors. It’s ensured that the legacy will continue.”
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