EL ALTO, Bolivia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Soledad Chapeton, the mayor of Bolivia’s second city of El Alto, counts herself as lucky for not being in her office in city hall last year when an arson attack killed six people.
Chapeton found herself in the firing line after becoming El Alto’s first woman mayor in 2015, defeating a rival from the ruling party and shattering support for leftist President Evo Morales in a city long regarded as the bastion of his power.
She also ruffled feathers with a campaign to root out cronyism and the widespread use of kickbacks in one of the world’s highest cities, with a population of one million people.
“It (the fire) was an attack that in our judgment was, and is, plagued with much political interest ... it was a nightmare,” Chapeton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation under the watchful eye of her female police bodyguard.
“But I haven’t become mayor to be a wallflower,” she said, adding four people are in prison in connection with the fire.
For Chapeton, 36, refuses to let threats deter her or sideline the fight against corruption that she had made the centerpiece of her five-year term.
Across the treeless, windswept city where Chapeton was born and raised, several white elephant projects are on display, including a concrete tower once built to be a viewing point that stands incomplete and abandoned.
But attacking graft has proved to be an uphill battle in Bolivia’s macho culture, earning Chapeton enemies - something she experienced when she addressed the city’s 500 male business leaders in a hall on her second day on the job.
“But if a man couldn’t do it, can she do it? ... comments like that .. totally machista obviously,” Chapeton said.
“And then they started to say, ‘This woman, she doesn’t respect us.’ Many would bang their fists on the table and say, ‘We’re much older than you,’” she said, sitting at her desk in a convention center-turned-mayor’s office in a non-descript part of the sprawling city.
Chapeton said the city’s elite were used to trading political favors and handing out jobs, including the post of deputy mayor, in exchange for power and kickbacks.
Her predecessor, Edgar Patana from the ruling Movement to Socialism party, is serving a four-year prison term for graft.
Chapeton said her biggest fight came when she decided to elect the city’s 14 deputy mayors herself as she is entitled to.
Graffiti appeared on street walls demanding her resignation, some people refused to meet with her, and there were calls for a general strike, she said.
But Chapeton, a former congresswoman and daughter of a policeman, said she was not intimidated.
“I’m not afraid of them. People elected me because I do things differently than how things were done in the past and this gives me strength,” Chapeton said.
Yet local politics is still too often the preserve of close- knit male community leaders, who huddle together over a few drinks and tell “dirty jokes”, Chapeton said.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “What I have to do is talk to them, and what I do is speak to them with the truth and I speak to them from my heart.”
For Chapeton, taking on the old boys’ network is part of her wider aim to attract investment and promote development, including building infrastructure from neighborhood football pitches to roads in Bolivia’s fastest growing city.
Chapeton has also spearheaded a crackdown on unlicensed bars which she believes are a focal point of crime.
At 4,200 meters (13,700 feet), El Alto is one of the world’s highest cities, built several decades ago from mass rural-urban migration, sitting above the capital La Paz connected by cable cars that ferry residents up and down the mountain.
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Chapeton’s key challenge is skyrocketing growth, which has seen the city struggle to keep up with rising demands for housing, jobs, and drinking water with supplies dwindling as glaciers disappear on the surrounding snowcapped mountains.
It’s these kinds of issues that Chapeton prefers to discuss rather than shattering the glass ceiling for women.
Chapeton, who won office on her second attempt for the centrist opposition National Unity party, said she decided not to use the “cliche” of being a woman in either of her campaigns.
“Because I believe men and women have the same capacity, I didn’t address the (gender) issue,” Chapeton said.
While she may play down the significance of being the city’s first female mayor, she is a rarity in Bolivia.
Bolivia boasts the world’s second highest number of women in parliament after Rwanda, with women making up 53 percent of lawmakers in the lower house due to a 2009 quota.
But the country has made far fewer inroads at the local government level where less than 10 percent of mayors are women.
Chapeton said women find it hard to get financial backing to run campaigns and often face personal attacks on social media.
Of El Alto’s 14 deputy mayors, three are women. Chapeton said her goal was to achieve gender parity only to find that some women deputy mayors left because of intimidation.
“Several of the women declined to participate afterwards because it’s much easier to attack a woman,” Chapeton said.
“It’s not easy for a woman to enter political life.”
Chapeton, from the indigenous Aymara group, resonates with other indigenous women who aspire to enter politics.
While she speaks Spanish rather than Aymara in public and wears black stilettos and trousers instead of the traditional bowler hats and colorful, layered skirts, many indigenous women identify with her, calling her “brave”.
“I’m grateful that people see me as an inspiration and as someone to follow,” Chapeton said.