Joakin Mayorga

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2001
Proyecto Soberania Popular
This description of Joakin Mayorga's work was prepared when Joakin Mayorga was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001 .


Joakín Mayorga shows Colombia's small towns how to develop local "sovereignty" as a way of dispelling corruption and violence and laying foundations for development.

The New Idea

In Mogotes, a town of 13,500 people dominated by corruption and whipsawed by guerrilla and paramilitary forces, Father Joakín Mayorga has been instrumental in developing "sovereignty" so that residents can stand up to these challenges and determine their community's future. "Sovereignty" means the freedom and capacity for towns to govern themselves peacefully, inclusively, transparently, autonomously, actively without the interference of armed groups or corrupt politicians. To transform Colombia's towns into "sovereign" communities, Joakín builds on towns' assets–strong local pride and profound historical and cultural roots–as well as the principle of local decision making enshrined in Article Three of Colombia's Constitution of 1991. Other attempts to strengthen local autonomy have not had such dramatic success, nor have they utilized the same set of strategic principles. Joakín created in Mogotes an eight-step process that culminates in the achievement of local sovereignty. Part of Joakín's strategy is to create a Popular Municipal Assembly that can analyze local needs and address them. The Assembly, an institution for ongoing local decision making, is a contribution to the peace process and to development generally. Leaders in the Mogotes transformation are becoming replicators in other municipalities. Additionally, Joakín is partnering with a broad-based peace campaign as a means to promote the model nationally.

The Problem

Mogotes, the location of Joakín's pilot program, is beset by three converging problems that plague much of Colombia: poverty, corruption, and violence. The town reached a crisis point on December 11, 1997 when the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN, the "National Liberation Army"), one of the two principal guerrilla groups in Colombia, forcefully took over the town, leaving two civilians and three police officers dead, the newly-installed mayor kidnapped, one person injured, and the 13,500 townspeople prisoners of fear and uncertainty. People in communities such as Mogotes face great obstacles to taking action on their own behalf. They move between violence and passivity, the two ways they know to deal with conflict. When communities are invaded and taken over by armed groups, for example, people either run away (becoming "displaced persons"), join the invading armed group, look for another armed group to fight off the invaders, or do nothing, paralyzed by fear. The process of taking action is also complicated by deep distrust of political parties and corrupt leaders. In Mogotes, for example, two families held all political power–including exclusive control of the mayor's office–for twenty-five years. Corruption was high. Meanwhile, 60 percent of the population remained in poverty. It was for these reasons that the ELN targeted Mogotes and kidnapped the mayor. The group saw itself as "liberating" Mogotes from oligarchy and corruption.Peace is Colombia's most acute challenge, but peace is tied to the broader problem of development. Most of that development will have to take place in the context of towns: Almost four-fifths of Colombia's municipalities have populations of fewer than 50,000 people. There is a constitutional foundation for bottom-up development based on the authority of towns. However, although Article Three of Colombia's 1991 Constitution provides for local decision making (representative through elected officials, or direct), most towns have not actualized it.

The Strategy

Joakín says that the crucial moment in the transformation of any town is the moment when people recognize their own passivity. The crisis in Mogotes allowed people to see their passivity and the ruling family's corruption with such clarity that they were able to make radical moves in a short time. After a series of unsuccessful negotiations with the mayor and the ELN, Joakín turned to the people of Mogotes and held a direct popular referendum on whether or not the mayor should remain in office. The results were 96 percent in favor of his stepping down. Although he objected at first, the mayor eventually conceded to the will of the people and resigned. This series of events laid the groundwork to organize a "sovereign" town, where neither the corruption of the local politicians nor the violence of the guerrillas would be tolerated.Working with Mogotes during its transformation, Joakín guided the town through what he has identified as the eight steps all towns must take to claim–or reclaim–their sovereignty. The Mogotes engagement is not finished yet, but it is already a model for how towns can utilize Joakín's eight-stage process to reinvent themselves. The first stage Joakín articulates is mobilization, gathering the whole town together so that they become aware of the problem. This stage can involve songs and mottos that inspire people by reminding them of their history or some other element of their identity that can motivate them. For example, in the case of Mogotes, the revolution against the Spanish colonial power began in the town, so history was used to remind residents that they are revolutionary people who could rise up and overcome violent guerrillas and corrupt politicians. The second stage is communication, using the press or speech to reinforce people's rights. The third is an analysis of the town and its problems. In Mogotes, the people were able to articulate that corruption in their leadership and violence were their worst problems. Fourth is the creation of an initiative to address the problems of poverty, corruption, and violence. The fifth stage is that of organizational strategy, which crucially involves the establishment of a Popular Municipal Assembly. Once established, the Assembly will become the local authority run by the people, taking its legitimacy from Article Three of the Constitution. Mogotes created such an Assembly. One of its decisions was to eliminate the position of mayor because of the risk of corruption from placing so much power in one pair of hands. Instead, Mogotes' citizens now elect three "city managers." The sixth stage is the execution of sovereign activities. Examples of this in Mogotes were rescuing the mayor from the guerrillas, making the mayor resign for corruption, and creating a development plan. The seventh stage is a follow-up program to cement the whole process irreversibly in people's way of thinking. This includes searching for leaders, conversing with armed groups and political parties so that they respect the governance process, identifying funding for development from local, state, and international sources, and continuing to nurture the governance apparatus of the Popular Municipal Assembly. The eighth and final stage is the search for allies within the town, regionally, nationally, and internationally. The process in Mogotes has brought the town several allies already, including the governor of Santander state, the Bishop and other priests in Mogotes, the Attorney General of the nation, the Jesuit Peace Program, and the Colombian peace organization Redepaz, among others. Joakín still spends most of his time in Mogotes, helping complete the transformation to a "sovereign" town. One major task still left to complete is the writing of a municipal constitution. Much work also remains in the area of developing the Assembly's integrative capacities. For example, there needs to be a strengthening of local committees formed on professional lines. Health workers, businesses, priests–these groups send delegates to the Popular Municipal Assembly through committees. These committees need to be nurtured and expanded. In particular, Joakín wants to continue to focus on youth committees. The youth committees are already the most developed, but since Joakín believes deeply that the new norms of sovereignty will not be solidly in place until children understand them, he wants to continue investing special effort in educating and integrating youth in participatory governance. Of the current Popular Municipal Assembly, one hundred out of the two hundred fifty members are young people. Joakín intends eventually to create a Children's Municipal Assembly. Strategies for continuing outreach to children include a special community radio program for and by young people, school visits, and special gatherings for children who are not in school. The Popular Municipal Assembly also performs outreach to families, using a periodic bulletin as one tool.With his team–comprised of a teacher, two social promoters, a nun, and a law student– Joakín has begun to implement the sovereignty-building model in nine other towns so far. They employ the same principles and processes as in Mogotes, but make local adaptations. In the town of Ato, for example, the people identify more with the beauty of their village than its history, so the symbols and slogans reflect that point of local pride. The citizens of Ato are not able yet to acknowledge the corruption in their town as an issue with which they can deal. They chose to focus on peace building as their initiative and are somewhere between stages three and four. They have not impeached their mayor, as Mogotes did, nor created a new governing structure yet. Joakín says they will eventually come to it.After winning the National Peace Prize (awarded by Redepaz, Fescol, and the publications El Tiempo, El Espectador, and La Semana), Joakín's approach was selected as a model for the national "One Hundred Municipalities of Peace" campaign initiated by Redepaz. (Redepaz was founded by Ashoka Fellow Ana Teresa Bernal Montanés). Representatives of other towns come to Mogotes, and Mogotes sends representatives to them. Joakín expects this process to strengthen in both directions and anticipates playing a role of advisor along with the leaders of the towns where he has been working. He also sees the church as a natural pathway for the spread of his ideas, since every town has a priest charged with fostering peace, development, and civic participation. He is also working with universities, such as the National University and Santo Tomás University, to spread his idea. As a tool for spread, Joakín and his team are working with a researcher to compile a Sovereignty Manual. In addition, several aspects of his methodology are included in the One Hundred Municipalities of Peace Manual.

The Person

As a child, Joakín was recognized for being irreverent in his way of thinking and was always affected by human suffering caused by injustice and oppression. After initially reacting bitterly to such suffering, Joakín began to see these problems as a challenge that he needed to confront. In school, seminary, and his priests' union, he always put himself in the position of those who were unprotected, and he was often singled out and threatened for his rebellious behavior. While in seminary, he founded a Leadership School and a Commission for Justice and Peace. Each had its own bulletin, with circulation often clandestine because of controversial content. As a missionary in Afro-Colombian communities on the Pacific coast, Joakín succeeded in organizing committees and mobilizing leaders in defense of black culture and interests. He also lay groundwork for what became Article Fifty-Five of the 1991 Constitution, which put forth legislation with regard to the rights of Afro-Colombian communities.Serving as a priest in the town of La Granja, Joakín initiated a project called "Searching for Roads of Peace," through which he formed various pastoral, development, and peace organizations; trained leaders; and promoted education, a savings and credit cooperative, and the repair of roads, among other efforts. One terrible day in La Granja, an army shooting spree killed a boy. Joakín held a fast that he lifted only when the army assumed responsibility and publicly asked for forgiveness from the town. Years later, in Mogotes, Joakín again used a fast to foster peace and reconciliation. It was in October of 2000, after the ELN assassinated the former mayor of Mogotes for his and his family's continued efforts to thwart the reform process in the town. The mayor's family threatened to kill Joakín and four other local leaders. In order to prevent the collapse of two years of work at peace and sovereignty, Joakín once again held a fast, which he broke when both the ELN and the mayor's family agreed to respect the sovereignty-building process and refrain from violence.