Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Institutions Don't Work

Are they real, or just virtual?
Case One: For months, our building's sewage system regular crisis. During hard rains, the
wastewater would back up and come flowing up out of the bathroom drain, obliging all of us to grab mops and buckets and clean the mess up.

The landladies, who live upstairs, didn't care - until it happened to them. Then, they hired laborers to clean and rebuild the house's pipes. Then, the only step left was for the city's Acueducto, or Water, department, to hook the house's pipes up to the city sewer line.

That was months ago, and we're still waiting.

One of the landladies, who has physical and psychological problems, has visited Acueducto at least a half dozen times, and come back with promises that they would do the work 'in a few days', 'in a week', 'in a month', etc. They even wrote 'Emergencia!' in big letters on one of the work orders. They've broken all their promises.

To compound the situation's absurdity, the last time the landlady visited Acueducto, they told her she needed to first go get permits from the city's Transit and Public Space departments. And then come back to acueducto.

Shouldn't the water department, rather than the homeowner, have the responsibility of coordinating with the transit department about planned street work? And if they do want the homeowner to do the city employees' job, shouldn't they have told her this the first time she visited, months ago?

Or is all this delay and run-around their way of saying 'You need to grease my palm to get anything done'?
'God and Fatherland.'
And where does the
public service come in?

Case Two: More than two months ago, a foreigner who has lived in Colombia for years was walking down a Candelaria street when a youth stabbed him several times in the back.

The foreigner almost died of blood loss, spent more than a month in the hospital, underwent a half dozen surgeries, lost a piece of one kidney, and is now at home recuperating.

Meanwhile, what have the police done about this attempted murder? The police 'investigador' only interviewed the victim more than two weeks after the attack - and only after we complained to his superiors - and more than two months after the crime he has not talked to the witness. The street has many video cameras which might have captured the attack, but the investigador hasn't looked at the videos. Instead, he gave the victim's teenage son a letter authorizing him to obtain the videos.

"He wants me to do his job," the son says.

A Colombian acquaintance who works in a La Candelaria hotel had a similar experience after being stabbed in an attempted mugging. He went down to the police station and placed the denuncia, but hasn't heard from the cops since.

How many people have these criminals robbed, attacked or even murdered since? But identifying and catching them seems to carry a much lower priority with the cops than, say, shaking down kids for smoking pot or stopping tour guides for working without the benefit of a Sena certification.

And if the public institutions are this apathetic and abusive here, in central Bogotá, in one of the city's more important neighborhoods, the heart of its tourism industry, then what happens when someone needs help in Usme, Kennedy, Ciudad Bolivar or some other barrio popular?

Yet, the really remarkable thing is that Colombian institutions actually work WELL compared to those in many neighboring countries, such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have sought refuge in Colombia because of the astronomical levels of corruption and criminal violence there (as well as the collapsing economy and hyuperinflation).

In Bolivia, where I lived some 15 years ago, the public institutions seemed designed primarily to squeeze money out of the people they were supposed to serve. There, my landlady's telephone would get cut off periodically, and she'd have to go down to the phone company and pay someone a bribe to get it turned back on. And the police seemed to make a practice of arresting people in order to force them to pay a bribe to be released - a form of institutionalized state kidnapping for ransom.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The War We Have Not Seen

Massacre victims.
A paramilitary commander kidnaps a woman on suspicion of guerrilla sympathies, holds and rapes her, and then murders her to keep her quiet.

A teenage FARC guerrilla, eight months pregnant, wants to have her baby. But the guerrilla leaders
Massacring civilians.
force a doctor to abort her pregnancy. When the doctor and the baby's father both object, the guerrilla leaders order them murdered, too.

A child soldier flees a paramilitary unit, but is recaptured. The paramilitary commander gathers together the students from the local school to watch the execution, as a warning.

A guerrilla unit commander, ordered to blow up a military vehicle, becomes bored with waiting, and decides to bomb a car carrying a civilian family instead.

FARC guerrillas, suspicous that a local schoolteacher is reporting on them when she leaves town, capture and hang her.

A funeral.
Such horrors became almost routine during Colombia's long and senseless conflict. And such accounts, told by ex-combatants, many of them only children when they joined up, are on display now in Bogotá's Museum of Modern Art, illustrated by childlike paintings.

The project is called 'The War We Have Not Seen', by the Points of Encounter Foundation, and captures a few of the conflict's innumerable horrors, horrors which would have made headlines in any normal country, but, if not for this project, would have gone unnoticed here.

The museum has, incidentally, done a good job of becoming bilingual.
A hanging.

A river of death.

Killing a woman.

Kidnap victims.

A massacre.

A paramilitary officer. In the background, a woman he raped and then murdered.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Boards of Memory

When Juan Manuel Echavarría traveled thru the Montes de Maria region in 2010, in a community depopulated by Colombia's conflict, he came upon a schoolhouse abandoned by the fleeing residents. Inside, he entered a classroom - and found the teacher's final lesson still on the blackboard.

That haunting experience started Echavarría  and a friend on an oddysey across the remote region, where they visited more than 100 abandoned schoolhouses, photographing more than 200 classrooms as memorials to disappeared schoolchildren, families and whole communities.

According to Verdad Abierta, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, nearly 50 massacres took place in this bucolic hill country just a few hours outside of Cartagena, mostly committed by right-wing paramilitary groups against landless campesinos.

Echavarría's work, named Rios y Silencio, preserving a history Colombia hopes not to repeat, is on now  thru Jan. 7 at Bogotá's Museum of Modern Art.

The museum has, incidentally, done a good job of becoming bilingual.

A mule outside of a school, apparently waiting for a child who long ago went away.
An abandoned chalkboard in a deserted school conserves its final lesson.

Photos of abandoned schools in the Museum of Modern Art.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Mysterious Lady of Lourdes Plaza

For weeks - or perhaps months - this young woman stood very quietly on Lourdes Plaza in Bogotá's Chapinero neighborhood, transmitting some mysterious message.

From whence she came - or who put her there - she offered no clue. And she left her message - if she carried one - open to interpretation: With her uplifted skirt, was she making a statement about men's tendency to objectivy women? Something about women's endurance despite adverse conditions? Was she carrying out sort of stationary, inanimate performance art? A permanent temptation for men to misbehave, in the era of Harvey Weinstein and ex-U.S. President George Bush? Or, was she doing nothing at all?

And now, she's gone. Stolen, perhaps, or removed by her creator. And we'll never know why she came and went.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Crack Down on Guns!

'Popeye,' one of Pablo Escobar's killers, shows off a tool of his trade.
Years ago, working on a construction site in Texas, I met a tall Texan in his 50s who had just gotten out after ten years in prison. He was a good-natured man who I doubt would have stolen a wallet if he'd found it on a park bench. Rather, he'd gone to prison for killing a stranger.

Homicides in Colombia by guns
(light blue) and knives (dark blue).
Altho knives are much more common,
guns kill many more people.
(Source: El Tiempo
He told me that he and his father had pulled into a gas station somewhere in Texas and started filling their tank. Unbeknowest to them, the rule was 'pay before you pump,' and another man was in the office paying for the gasoline that my acquaintance and his father were pumping.

The other man, believing that these two were stealing his few dollars worth of fuel, did what Texans do: He pulled out his gun and ran toward them. My acquaintance, seeing the stranger coming at him with pistol pointed, pulled out his own gun and shot the other man dead.

One man died and another did ten years in prison - at huge cost to society - because of a misunderstanding over a few gallons of gasoline. If they had not been armed, they would have argued briefly and resolved the situation with a handshake.

Those sorts of routine, deadly confrontations - even more than mass shootings like the recent ones in Texas and Las Vegas - are why Colombia is right to tighten its gun control laws.

The correlation is clear: Number of guns and number of
gun massacres, the U.S. is in a class by itself.
(Source: New York Times)
According to a recent study by the Fiscalia, reported by El Tiempo, 7 out of 10 homicides in Colombia are committed by firearms.

"Firearms have a preponderant role in lethal violence in Colombia," the report said.

Bogotá can add one more fatality with the death this week of Daniela, a university student shot in the head by a mugger on her way home in April. She lingered in a coma for seven months while her family and friends agonized. The killer has not been caught.

Firearms are smuggled illegaly into Colombia from the United States, Central America and Europe. But others are purchased here legally, only to be used criminally. Of the almost 86,000 firearms seized by authorities between 2014 and '16, almost 20% had been purchased legally in Colombia but made their way to criminals.

What's more, the proportion of firearms confiscated from members of criminal organizations captured or killed has plummeted in recent years, from 94 guns for every 100 members of such organizations in 2010, to only 19 per hundred in 2015. That might mean that the organizations are getting better at hiding their guns, switching to other weapons, such as knives, or that corrupt police are confiscating but not reporting weapons in order to sell them on the black market - and back to criminals.

And that happens frequently. I once covered the crime beat for a small town newspaper in Mississippi. One of the most frequent items stolen in home burglaries were guns - perhaps legally purchased, but now in criminal hands.

As in the U.S., the large number of firearms in private hands in Colombia turns minor confrontations deadly. In the city of Cali, 42% of homicides result from such confrontations rather than contract killings. In Bogotá, the proportion is 21%, in Medellin, 14%, according to El Tiempo.

To tighten up access to firearms, the Fiscalia offers the example of Japan, which has only a tiny number of gun homicides. There, in order to obtain a permit to own a gun, a person must pass a written test, a gun handling test and a psychological examination.

In Colombia, a person must, among other things, show the results of a psycho-physical evaluation and explain why he or she needs the weapon for protection from threats.


The Axis of Killing

A Gun Sale Gone Wrong

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Digging for an Emerald in Downtown

Those men you see every weekday along Calle Jimenez near Carrera 7 are emerald traders.

They show off, price and trade emeralds every day, right out in public. 
And, surprisingly, things rarely go wrong.

But, today, a disaster! A trader dropped a valuable emerald - and it went straight down into the sewer!

The emerald is down there, somewhere.
But where is it?

A homeless man, undoubtedly hired for a pittance, goes to work digging up the mud and carrying it away.

The odor from the fetid mud and sewage wasn't very nice.

Where is that little stone?
Passers-by are not amused.

Sifting thru the mud and trash, bit by bit.
Astonishingly, the trader found his stone, which someone told me was worth 30 million pesos - about U.S. $10,000. Wonder how many pesos the homeless man took home?

Neighboring businesspeople will not forget this.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours