— The rules of business in Bogota in the 1990s reached far beyond balance sheets and profit margins.
If you could afford an armored car, you bought one. If you had the means to move your family to Miami, you did. On weekend trips, you either returned to the city before dark to minimize the risk of kidnapping or you simply never left the city.
Bogota back then was a capital besieged by kidnappings, occasional bomb blasts, warring drug lords and insurgency-fueled violence that had steadily made its way from Colombia's lush jungles to its biggest cities. From 1996 to 2000, about 800,000 Colombians fled the country, roughly 2 percent of the population. Joblessness neared 20 percent. Foreign investment plunged.
The pall over Bogota was the reason Enrique Gomez-Pinzon, a lawyer with a U.S. firm that helps foreign investors set up shop in new countries, fled with his family in 1998. "You always lived in fear," said Gomez-Pinzon. "There were very few families in Colombia that didn't have a relative or a friend who at some point had been kidnapped or killed."
Then in 2012, Gomez-Pinzon came back. In a little more than a decade, Bogota had evolved from one of the world's most dangerous cities to one of Latin America's most vibrant, alluring economies.
Few cities have gone from bust to boom the way Bogota has. A city that was once an investment wasteland is now one of the Western Hemisphere's hottest investment markets. So is Toronto, regarded as one of the most competitive cities in the global economy. PricewaterhouseCoopers, which annually ranks the top globally competitive cities, put Toronto third in 2012, behind New York and London — six places above Chicago.
In different ways, both cities provide for Chicago a template for luring foreign investment and ramping up its global profile.
Bogota represents a model for rebranding a city. Its leaders pitched to the world the idea that the Colombian capital had transformed from a city under siege into an untapped gold mine for investors.
In Toronto, municipalities work together to pitch the region to prospective investors, and they don't grouse if a neighboring town lands a new plant and a bevy of new jobs; they know it's healthy for the region as a whole. They strip away the red tape that can confound incoming businesses. And they're aggressive about jetting to China, Brazil, India and other far-flung countries in search of new investment.
Chicago has its own blueprint for luring foreign investment, but it has been slow to turn that blueprint into action. The city has yet to find a way to work with the rest of the metropolitan region to coordinate foreign investment efforts. Municipalities still vie against each other for prospective investors rather than teaming up. It also struggles to shed misperceptions that persist about Chicago, which to much of the rest of the world is seen as a crime-wracked city defined not by its global profile but by its history of gangsters and stockyards.
"Cities of the scale of Toronto and Chicago have the opportunity to think and act globally," said David Miller, Toronto's mayor from 2003 to 2010 and a driving force behind his city's transformation. "But you can be passed by, and once you're passed by, it's very difficult for a city to recover economically. Some cities will just want to be nice places to live. But if you have the potential to be global scale and you don't think the way I'm talking about, I think you're taking a serious risk."
A key indicator of a city's global competitiveness is its ability to attract foreign investment. Growing levels of foreign investment suggest that a city has integrated with the global economy by tapping into an array of investment sources that reach far beyond national borders.
Bogota and Toronto have in recent years far outpaced Chicago. Last year, foreign investment in Bogota reached $2.76 billion, a 68 percent jump from the city's 2012 mark of $1.64 billion, according to Invest in Bogota, a public-private partnership that aggressively pursues prospective foreign investors. Since Invest in Bogota began operations in 2006, the number of foreign-owned businesses has risen to 1,361 from 679.
Toronto's foreign investment reached $1.93 billion in 2012, nearly double what it averaged annually from 2003 to 2011. From 2003 to 2012, the number of foreign investment projects in the city rose 60 percent, according to the Greater Toronto Marketing Alliance.
Chicago's foreign investment mark for 2013 reached $1.4 billion. Experts say the city could get more foreign investors if it worked harder to show the rest of the world what Chicago has to offer and if it untangled the bureaucracy that burdens prospective investors.
Regardless of Chicago's image, it couldn't have been more battered than Bogota's. And the tale of how Bogota turned it around is a window into how a city can make the outside investment community take notice, no matter how marred its past.
Francisco Santos keenly remembers the city's struggles in the 1980s and '90s. Back then, he was managing editor of El Tiempo, a leading newspaper in a city where journalists joined executives and government leaders as top targets for drug cartel and insurgent hostage-takings.
On a September evening in 1990, he was in his chauffeured, armored car on the way to a stop-smoking clinic when two cars swooped in, blocking his car in front and behind. The kidnappers fatally shot Santos' driver and whisked Santos to a safe house in the city, where he remained chained to a bed for eight months. His kidnappers told him he was being held by Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord later killed in a firefight with Colombian police.
"I woke up every day thinking that was my last day, and I went to sleep every night thinking that was my last night," Santos said during an interview in his office in a swanky Bogota neighborhood. "I had no expectations about surviving."
Santos did survive, released by his captors after they persuaded the Colombian government to ban the extradition of its citizens — a ban that effectively prevented authorities from extraditing Escobar and other drug lords to the U.S., though a few were later extradited.