Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cartels: Then and Now

That was then: In 1993 Colombian hit men pose with the corpse of Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin Cartel.
Not long ago, there were the Cali and Medellin cartels, which brought a drug-fueled scourge of murder and bombings to Colombia. Then came the Norte de Valle and Oficina de Envigado cartels.
Face of the new criminal cartel?
Toilet paper for sale.

And now, the diaper and toilet paper cartels?

According to government regulatory agencies, companies in these industries have conspired to manipulate and raise prices, cheating consumers.

A few companies dominate
Colombia's toilet paper industry.
Investigators say they've found e-mails and other evidence to back their accusations. Allegedly, the companies met secretly overseas to set prices and quality. But, whatever the truth, just the fact that Colombia now has the time and resources to worry about the behavior of the diaper and toilet paper industries is a sign of how far the company has come from the time that it was near being a failed state.

A generation ago, Colombians worried that the Medellin Cartel would overthrow the government. Today, they worry that the diaper and toilet paper cartels will strain household budgets.

Capitalist greed is bad. But it's a relief compared to what Colombia's been thru.

Stealing from babies? Diapers may be the face of a dark conspiracy.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bogotá's Dangerous Campaign Against Gender Violence

A banner hung on the Plaza del Che in the Universidad Nacional publicizes 'The week of no violence against women.' 
 Don't hit a woman...tomorrow.

That's the message Bogotá seems to be sending out these days. Violence against women - or any sort of violence - is a terrible thing. But the instruction not to commit violence today, this week or this month seems to send an implicit message that committing violence tomorrow, next week, or next month IS alright.

It's the same message I get from those useless warnings stenciled on Bogotá streetcorners and alleys:

'Urinating prohibited on this street.'

So on the next street it's okay?

While it's a good thing to designate a week to draw attention to gender violence - a huge problem in Colombia - they'd better serve their goal by simply drawing attention to the problem, rather than calling on men to stop hitting women 'this week.'
ADN newspaper reports that Nov. 25 is the 'day without violence against women.'
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

How to Not Recycle the Bogotá Way

Don't worry. They'll soon be in an empty lot or public park near you.
Want to condemn a recycling program to failure? Try this:

Take a group of people known for limited education and zero environmental awareness but a great capacity for drinking beer and ogling women, and put them in charge of carrying out an environmental program.

The result is predictably a disaster - which is the situation Bogotá is in.

Will they catch fire?
Thank such good planning for the piles of tires on our sidewalk, and carcinogenic tire smoke in our lungs. Did you enjoy the other week's used tire fire, which turned our air gray? Count on Bogotá's environmental policy bureaucrats ensuring it happens again!

The city has no rational disposal system for the tens of thousands of used tires produced each year, which litter public parks and sidewalks. A few weeks ago, a dump containing more than 100,000 used tires caught fire, poisoning the air for days. According to Elaw.com, tire smoke is some 13,000 times more cancer-causing than pollution from a coal plant equipped with emissions controls.

You probably haven't heard of Bogotá's EcoPuntos program, and there are good reasons why: the city hasn't publicized it and it barely functions.

Could those tires on the sidewalk around the
corner have come from here?
Bogotá's EcoPuntos program, supposedly involves 92 spots across the city where people can drop off used tires for proper disposal or recycling. Of course, it seems that those tires just get tossed into unregulated dumps, where they breed mosquitoes and eventually catch fire. But, no matter.

And, Bogotá City Councilman Diego García, a member of the Green Alliance party, visited a dozen of those designated drop-off points and found that half didn't know about the program and others didn't have anyplace to store old tires. Only one of the dozen sites actually accepted tires. But, no matter.

The real flaw in this system is its lack of incentives.

EcoPuntos everywhere, but nobody's seen them.
How many environmental idealists do you think Bogotá has willing to lug a heavy tire across town to dispose of it correctly -  for free? And how many of those people work in tire shops?

As is evident on many Bogotá sidewalks, tire shops find it easier to toss their waste tires around the corner, where they become the public's problem.

The only solution here are economic incentives.

Consider two scenarios.

Scenario No. 1, Bogotá's existing disfunctional system: A bunch of guys are sitting around a tire shop one afternoon scratching their balls. The boss asks:
Deposit your can here, and feel good
about producing garbage.

'Hey guys, who wants to load those old tires out back into the truck and drive them across town for ecologically proper disposal?'

Tire shop employees look around awkwardly, scratch their balls and ponder the pin-up girls on the walls. They suddenly recall urgent commitments they have for that afternoon.

'Alright', says the boss, impatiently; 'We've gotta get rid of those tires. Someone load them up and get them out of my sight! Remember that dumping them in the park or on the sidewalk is against the law - but I won't ask any questions.'

Tire shop workers grumble, load up the tires and return 15 minutes later, the problem solved.

Scenario No. 2, with economic incentives: In this case, the tire industry pays a small deposit for each tire imported or manufactured in Colombia. That deposit goes into a public fund. Upon delivering the used tire for proper disposal, part of the deposit is returned.

Back in the tire shop, with used tires piling up in the corner.

350,000 bottles is a tiny proportion of the
millions used by Bogotanos each week.
Better not to have used
them at all. 
'Who wants to take these tires off to be disposed of?' the boss asks.

The shop employees stop scratching their balls and look up with interest.

'The desposit's all yours,' the boss adds.

The shop employees envision beer money, a date with their girlfriend, perhaps even buying the kids' schoolbooks. Hands shoot up all over the room.

'Hey boss! I'll take those tires away!'

The shop guys compete to load up the tires and drive them to a collection point, where an employee eagerly receives them, knowing that he'll also get a deposit for delivering them to a disposal point.

The rest of the deposit goes to subsidize some use for the old tires, such as shredding them to be used as road material or burning in a cement plant.

That same mechanic who's been using the neighborhood park as his dumping ground, has now become an environmentalist - not because he loves the planet, but because it fills his pockets.

The EcoPuntos program has another part, only slightly less perverse.

Those are reverse vending machines located in some Bogotá malls, into which people drop used beverage containers to receive 'EcoPuntos', which are supposed to be good for something. The percentage of bottles thus returned is infinitesimal. Still, hopefully, those bottles do get reused instead of ending up in the dump.

Unfortunately, however, the consumer walks away from the EcoPuntos machine with a positive feeling that he or she has done something good for the planet, when all he's done is delay the bottle's trip to the dump. Much better would have been not to use that can or bottle at all, especially since it probably contained something either useless, such as bottled water (the tap water here is perfectly potable), or a sugary soft drink which only did its drinker harm.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Anglolandia for the FARC

The people's army? Or the army against the people?
This pro-FARC graffiti appeared this week on the Universidad Nacional's Bogotá campus, and, strangely, it's in English.

A mural in the Teusaquillo neighborhood
portrays a landmine victim. The FARC
plant landmines to protect themselves
against soldiers, but many civilians are
injured and killed by those mines.
But isn't English the language of the United States, the 'empire'? And isn't Spanish the language of romantic revolutionaries, not to mention of the students and professors of the Nacho?

Was this written by a native English speaker? Maybe, but perhaps maybe not. A native, it seems to me, would have written that 'Simon Trinidad and Sonia are examples of...'

Grammar aside, the statement made me think about the foreigners who support Colombia's largest guerrilla group. Mostly, these seem to be young idealists in comfortable places like Sweden and Denmark, who read the FARC's websites and swallow unquestioningly their language about revolution and social justice. These true believers don't bother with the reality, easily available on human rights organizations' websites, about the guerrillas' innumerable atrocities, including recruiting children, massacring civilians with mortars and car bombs, planting land mines, displacing peasants, murdering indigenous people, and on and on.

Those sorts of outrages would never be tolerated in the comfortable, law-abiding wealthy nations where these fellow travelers live and enjoy good lives. However, by supporting the FARC, they implicitly condone such crimes when they are committed against the poor of Colombia.

A FARC motorcycle bomb killed and injured civilians
in the town of Tumaco in July, 2012.
But there's a saying here: 'If you're under age 30 and not a communist, you don't have a heart; if you're over 30 and still a communist, you don't have a brain.'

Simon Trinidad and Sonia, by the way, are FARC leaders imprisoned in the United States.

The people's army? In 2002, a FARC mortar landed on the roof of a church in the town of Bojayá, Chocó, killing some 120 townspeople who had taken refuge in the church from fighting between guerrillas and paramilitaries.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, November 21, 2014

Fifty Years of FARC

A mural on a wall of the Universidad Nacional campus in Bogotá commemorates 50 years of the FARC bringing 'hope for a free and sovereign nation.'
The idealistic 1960s came and went. So did financial backing from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Even support from Venezuela's revolution dried up. And the dream of a communist paradise was left in the dustbin of history.

But the FARC guerrillas, the world's oldest guerrilla group, who have been marking their 50th birthday these days, fight on.

Why have the FARC survived - albeit weakened and disheartened - in the face of history and economics, and long after any hope of military victory has evaporated?

Of course, Colombia is a large, mountainous country with lots of impoverished, remote regions where the government exercises little control. It also has lots of corruption, injustice and inequality. But, sadly, you can say the same about many countries.

Those are some of the reasons (in addition to support from Cuba and the Soviet Union) that guerrilla movements appeared in Colombia, as they also did in Peru, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela. However, only in Colombia (and to a small degree in Peru) have guerrillas survived.

'Until victory.' A mural in the Universidad Nacional
in Bogotá predicts a FARC victory.
The key difference seems evident: Colombia has a large illegal drug trade, while most of those other countries do not. Money from that black-market drug trade has provided most of the guerrillas' financing during the the last decades, altho recently they have diversified into things like illegal mining.

The guerrillas are not likely to celebrate a second 50 year anniversary. Weakened and dispirited, and degenerated from a peasant army to a criminal band with socialist rhetoric, they are in peace talks with the Colombian government.

Which raises the question of what would happen to all that dark money if the FARC sign a peace treaty with the government and really abandon the drug trade. The market for illegal drugs won't disappear, so someone else will make money off of them, funneling more money to narcotrafficking gangs or even other guerrilla groups.

In perhaps an unintended overlap, this footballer appears to be kicking the FARC out of Colombia. 
The FARC slogans, strangely, expressed in English, the language of the 'empire.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Auto Show's Dirty Secret

New cars shown in the auto show in Corferias...
(Photo: Corferias)
...will soon be trapped in Bogotá's traffic jams.
Bogotá's annual big auto show is going on now in the Corferias convention center. What they won't show you, tho, is the congested, chaotic reality out on Bogotá's streets. And each additional car sold here will worsen that situation.

By 2020, the number of private cars in Bogotá is predicted to double. The city doesn't have room.

The unaffordable subway which Mayor Petro and Pres. Santos seem determined to build won't unravel the traffic jams. Neither will building and expanding avenues, which only encourages more driving. What Bogotá needs, in addition to more expensive gasoline, is a congestion charge, which would pay for transit and discourage unnecessary private car use.
A shiny car waits for a buy in Corferias....
(Photo: Caracol.com.co)

In today's El Tiempo, Jaime Lerner, ex-mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, calls private cars "the cigarette of the future." If people have cars at all, he says, they should be used only for recreation, not for city driving.
...will soon be waiting in a traffic jam like this one.
A new car in Corferias...
(Photo: Caracol.com.co)
...will make the same old traffic jams even worse. 
Waiting in the showroom...
(Photo: Caracol.com.co)
...to wait on the street.
Looks nice, huh?
(Photo: Corferias)
Stewing in traffic. Not so nice.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Best Frenemies?

'There's already a path to resolve the crisis and renew the peace process,' announces today's El Tiempo.
A victory for the peace process?

'The people have the key to peace,' says a sign at a
demonstration today against the suspension of the peace talks.
Judging from today's press headlines, that's what this Sunday's kidnapping of a general by the FARC amounted to.

El Tiempo, Colombia's leading newspaper, headlined 'Advances in moves to achieve general's liberation.'

Remember that the FARC, who had promised to stop kidnapping, grabbed a general and his assistants while he traveled in civilian clothes without bodyguards no apparent hostile intent.

The FARC want find a fast
solution to the crisis they
caused themselves, they say.
But Colombia's  El Tiempo, historically owned by the family of Pres. Santos and an active backer of the peace talks, is not denouncing the guerrillas for breaking their promise or violating human rights abuses, but rather interprets the FARC's actions as an advance, as its subheadline today announced: 'The solution to the crisis could allow a deescalation of the conflict.' Perhaps the guerrillas should kidnap more military officials to advance the peace talks even further?

The contrast with the episode a few weeks ago when the guerrillas murdered several NASA indigenous guards for removing a banner which the guerrillas had hung on indigenous territory could hardly be greater.

That time, government officials denounced the killings, but continued talking peace with the FARC. This time, the government suspended negotiations, but seems to be trying to put a positive spin on the guerrillas' crime. Prosecutor General Eduardo Montealegre termed the kidnapping an 'improper retention' - using what is traditionally the guerrillas' own euphemism for kidnapping.

Pres. Santos won reelection primarily thanks to support for the peace talks, and he's determined not to let anything, even murder or kidnapping, derail them.

For their part, FARC leaders in Havana said they wanted to resolve the situation as quickly as possible and find "a fast, tranquil and just solution to this problem." Strange comments coming from the organization which caused the crisis in the first place and presumably could end it at any moment by freeing the general and other kidnappees.

Students on the National University campus in Bogotá
walk past a mural celebrating the FARC guerrillas.
But the contradiction between the guerrillas' actions and statements also suggests that the FARC leadership cannot control some of its 'fronts'. That's a worrisome reality for any post-peace treaty situation, in which some guerrilla units might defy their leaders and turn into straight-out narcotrafficking groups, as some ex-paramilitary groups have done.

This evening, the FARC promised to free the general, his two assistants and two other soldiers held by the guerrillas.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours