Friday, April 29, 2011

How Far (and Fast) They Fall!

The Nule cousins - not standing so tall anymore. (Photo:
A year ago, the Nules headed an important corporation which was carrying out part of Bogotá's most important infrastructure project: building a Transmilenio express bus line to the airport.

Ivan Moreno on his way to jail.  (Photo: El Pais)
Today, the three Nule cousins who ran the business are in prison, the result of an expanding scandal over alleged kickbacks paid to politicians. One of those who allegedly received kickbacks was Senator Ivan Moreno, one-time Vice-Minister of health and later Minister of Labor, and who also happens to be the little brother of Bogotá Mayor Samuel Moreno. Yesterday, Ivan Moreno was arrested, too, and is now residing in his own jail cell.

El Dorado Ave: the canyon which swallowed the Nules and Morenos.

Counterattack on the Palace.
In 1985  General Jesús Armando Arias Cabrales became a national hero for commanding the retaking of the Justice Palace from the M-19 guerrillas. Today, Armando Arias was sentenced to 35 years in prison for the forced disappearance of a cafeteria employee and a guerrilla who disappeared during the military's counterattack. He is the second military official convicted for human rights violations committed during the retaking of the palace. Others are slated for trial.

Escaping from the Justice Palace. Some of those who came out alive were later found dead.

Sidewalk plaque in memorium to those 'disappeared' in the Justice Palace episode.
Of course, there is a huge irony in the palace episode: a few years after the attack, the M-19 guerrillas demobilized and turned into a political party and today some of the M-19's ex-leaders are in Congress, directly across Plaza Bolívar from the Justice Plaza.

And, in Colombia's highly inbred politics, these two very different episodes have surprising connections. For one, the ex-M-19 guerrillas belong to Morenos' political party, the Polo Democratico Alternativo. And the M-19 was born out of alleged fraud against Colombian-dictator-turned-presidential-candidate Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who happens to be the Moreno brothers' grandfather.  

These stories are far from finished. One matter is the issue of prison conditions: there've been scandals recently about the pampered conditions in at least one military prison. And the Nules' prison accomodations also caused a stir: the three of them have their own private in-prison house, each with his own bedroom and bath, as well as common areas. That's not only far better than the way ordinary prisoners live, but luxurious compared to the housing of many Colombians outside prison.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Crime in La Candelaria

A watchful cop along Jimenez Ave.
There's been lots of talk on the 'net and in local media about recent crime in La Candelaria. Scary things have happened here, including invasion robberies of some hostels and hotels, one of which included a sexual assault, as well as street muggings.

A bicycle tourist with friendly La Candelaria locals.
Of course, the great majority of tourists (and students and residents) of La Candelaria enjoy their time in Bogotá's historical and cultural center. And, crime can happen anywhere (one person told me he'd had no troubles in South America, but had his camera stolen back home in Germany), particularly in a developing nation where close to half of the people live in poverty. But it's a fact of life that La Candelaria is particularly troubled because it's bordered on the south and east by poor neighborhoods, whose young toughs know they can find people in La Candelaria carrying cameras and Iphones.

One alternative is to stay in the upscale Zona Rosa and commute thru the traffic jams to La Candelaria. But, up there, near the Hard Rock Cafe and Bogotá Beer Company, you'll not only pay U.S. prices, but also run a different risk - forgetting that you traveled to Latin America at all.

The good news is that, judging from recent meetings, the neighborhood's hoteliers, police and other officials are confronting the problem and taking concrete steps to resolve it. After all, La Candelaria is unique and irreplaceable: it houses Colombia's capital, most of Bogotá's historical sites and many of its cultural attractions.

The mayor makes her case.
At a meeting today in La Candelaria's neighborhood City Hall, police officials promised to put more officers on the street and to install cameras and add mobile mini police stations called CAIs. The mayor said she is working on improving street lighting - altho altering infrastructure here is complicated by historical preservation laws - and will check on the hotels and hostels to see which ones have good security. Many hostels and hotels have recently added security measures, such as closed circuit video cameras and security gates, albeit sometimes tardily.

Hostel owners: we've got a problem.
The mayor and police officials said that numbers for the most serious crimes, such as homicide, have declined in recent years - and that those generally occur between gang members in areas outside of La CandelariaRobberies have increased in recent years - but then so have the number of tourists here. A police official said the cops recently arrested nine members of a criminal band which had operated in the area.

"That's got to make a difference in the crime numbers," he said.

Police pat down in La Plaza del Chorro: Security or harrasment?
If you visit or stay in La Candelaria, you're unlikely to have any problem with crime - especially if you take some sensible safety measures. Be aware of who's around you. Don't wear conspicuous jewelry or other valuables. Keep your camera in your pocket or under your coat when you're not using it,and keep the strap around your wrist or neck while taking pictures. Do go out at night, but it's better to be in a group.
A mobile police station
on Plaza del Periodista
When choosing a hostel or hotel ask them about their security measures: do they have a guard? A security gate? Cameras on the street to see who's there?

At the meeting, the mayor also read complaints from La Candelaria residents about some hostels, including loud partying at night, drunken backpackers yelling in the street, foreigners smoking pot in their doorways and other antics. La Candelaria has a growing number of upscale hotels, but most of the lodgings here cater to backpackers. That's great, but visitors (and hostel owners) should be sensitive to the fact that La Candelaria is also a neighborhood - one of the things which gives it its charm. La Candelaria has many universities - and thousands of students, who presumably need to study at night. The neighborhood also has thousands of residents, many of them older, who've lived here for decades and who find this new phenomenon of tourism invading their neighborhood strange and even scary.

"The backpackers come for partying, sex and drugs," a group of neighbors wrote in a letter.

Sadly, they're right about many tourists - which has never made sense to me. Colombia is a wonderful country, with its share of problems, but also an interesting history, tremendous culture, spectacular natural areas, wonderful people, a language to be learned, and on and on. Spending your time here drunk or drugged means doing an injustice both to Colombia - the cocaine industry funds violent groups which have done untold harm to this nation - and to yourself. If you're into hedonism, why not just stay home, where it's surely available, and you save yourself the airfare and visa hassles?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

So Much for Water Parks!

I'm a water fountain!
Today it rained torrentially in Bogotá - altho it only lasted about an hour. While streets flooded, cars floated and people took shelter, these three kids took advantage. The whitewater rushing down 10th Street in La Candelaria became their impromptu fountain and water slide.

Here I go!
Who needs a multi-million-dollar theme park when we've got gutters and steep streets?

Mom ain't gonna be pleased...
The view up Tenth Street towards the Egipto neighborhood.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Poverty, Colombia's Failing

Doña Rosa has sold vegetables in the Egipto neighborhood's fruit market for about 45 years - long enough to see its location changed twice. The market is rarely busy, and Rosa's stall is hidden in back, where she offers her potatoes, tomatoes, radishes and garlic. On many days, she says, she takes in 10,000 pesos, of which 3,000 go to pay the stall rental. Near mid-day today when I visited, Rosa said she hadn't yet made a sale.

The Egipto market - quiet, like most days.
Like many poorer Colombians struggling to get by, Rosa's family hasn't found much opportunity for advancement. She lives with her husband and three children in Lourdes, a poor, sometimes violent neighborhood above downtown. Her children drive taxis, just as her husband does, so the family's situation appears stagnant.

Colombia is progressing towards fulfilling the World Bank's Millenium Development Goals in areas such as school enrollment, gender equity and health.

But Colombia has lagged in reducing poverty. Poverty levels have dropped, but nearly half of Colombians still live under the poverty line, and more than 16% of Colombians survive on less than $1.25 per day (a little more than 2,000 pesos). Those of us from wealthy nations would find it inconceivable to earn $1.25 per hour - much less per day.

Surviving all day for less than the price of a Sunday newspaper is only possible in the countryside, where living costs are much lower and some things, such as food, can be produced for free. But even for city dwellers who earn much more than that, life is still a struggle. In this city, scrambling to survive is called el rebusque: 'the search for a way'.

I talked to some poor Bogotanos about how much they earn, and how they survive:

Selling flowers by the Central Cemetery
The women selling flowers in front of the Central Cemetery said that some days they sell 10,000 pesos worth of flowers, other days they don't sell a thing. I believe them. I see them selling so little that I often wonder why they bother to show up at all. And, from that income, they have to pay for the flowers and a monthly rent of about 35,000 pesos to store their buckets near the cemetery.

Say thanks to those Policia Bachilleres - they stand out in the rain all day for about 11,000 pesos - from which they have to pay their bus fares and other expenses. (They're fulfilling their obligatory military duty.)

Selling grain for pigeons on San Victorino Plaza
This woman, selling corn and rice grains for feeding pigeons on San Victorino Plaza, said she can earn about 30,000 pesos per day - but undoubtedly that income plummets when it rains.

What's it say about Colombians' love for animals which other people call 'flying rats' that a legion of people can support themselves by feeding the birds?

Hector, shoeshine man.
Hector, a 61-year-old man whom I met on Las Nieves Plaza, said he earns about 25,000 per day shining shoes at 2,000 pesos per pair and selling cigarettes by the stick. But, of that, a full 8,000 pesos goes to pay for what must be a miserable room in a residencia in the Santa Fe neighborhood. He pays by the day, but some days, especially when it rains, he make the rent.
"Then I tell the owner, 'I'll pay what I can,' and give him 4,000 pesos, 5,000 pesos," Hector said. "I've lived there a long time, and he understands."

Hector spent a dozen years in prison, for crimes he didn't describe. Five years ago he got an early release thanks to good behavior and his work shoeshining behind bars. But he shows me his bad knee and crippled right wrist from prison, where he explains that "there was lots of regionalism" - and evidently violence. A small, mild-mannered man, Hector clearly got the worse part of it.

A few months ago he was diagnosed with kidney stones, but a Catholic church helped pay for his surgery, thanks to his certification of indigencia. He displays his indigencia card. He also has a pair of eyeglasses which evangelicals gave him while in prison. And a university student who interviewed Hector for a school project gave him a box which he uses to sell his cigarettes.
"I'm lucky," Hector tells me. "I believe in God."
Hector with the cigarete box which helps him pay the rent.
Every morning, he takes his things and shines shoes by the Colsubsidio store west of Santa Fe. Then he loads everything onto his wheeled shoeshine cart and pushes it to Las Nieves Plaza to catch the afternoon business. Along the way, he has to stop several times to rest.

It's evening now and getting dark, and the plaza's other shoeshiners, who have larger more impressive stands, are starting to pack up their things.

"Now that they're leaving I'll get a few more shoeshines," Hector predicts hopefully.

Henrique pushing a load of trash in Las Nieves market.
Henrique,60, who pushes loads around in the nearby Las Nieves fruit market, was the person who reported the lowest daily income: 6,000 pesos per day. He earns by the load pushed, so his income varies. I'm not sure how he can get by, since he told me that he also pays 5,000 pesos per night for his room. But I suspect that the market's restaurants give him free food - and alcohol, as well.

Eriberto and his bike.
I met Eriberto, 29, years ago, when he worked as a repairman in a bike shop. Since then, he's also worked as a laborer on a road project and done casual work such as distributing advertising. This is how he supports his wife and two young children, who live in the poor Los Laches neighborhood high on the hillside above Bogotá. The family occupies two rooms in a home shared with Eriberto's parents, for which the couple pays 120,000 pesos per month. Eriberto shows me photos of two cute children and his pretty wife in his cellphone.
Eriberto's head scar.
This is a relatively stable life for Eriberto. When he was six, his mother sent him and some of his siblings - they were nine children altogether - to an orphanage. He escaped and lived the next dozen years on the street, addicted to alcohol, glue and bazuco, a cheap form of cocaine, and suffering lots of violence. He displays a scar on his head and another on his back, which damaged his spinal column.

Eriberto has since put his life on track, but hasn't been able to land a steady, formal job, in part because he never did military service. When he was younger, the military didn't want him due to his drug troubles. Later on, when he was cleaned up and tried to join, they said he was too old. Buying the libreta is legal and done routinely by wealthy Colombians. However, the several-hundred-thousand peso cost is a lot for Eriberto.

We're eating in a low-life Chinese restaurant in downtown Bogotá. When I pay, the owner, a young Chinese man, has trouble pronouncing the numbers in Spanish. I ask Eriberto why it is that immigrants who don't even speak Spanish well make it into the middle class, while many Colombian-born people stay mired in poverty.

"The Chinese know how to make these dishes," Eriberto says, pointing to the photos of Chinese food on the walls. "Colombians don't."
Henry, right, selling minutes.
Henry, who looks to be in his 50s, sells cellphone minutes mornings in the Centro Internacional and in the afternoons comes to La Candelaria, where he occupies one of the futuristic-looking stainless steel kiosks provided by the city for vendors. There he also rents cellphones and sells candies and cigarettes. In the Centro Internacional he might gross 25,000 pesos and here in La Candelaria another 15,000.

He prefers the cellphone business: there, half of his revenue is profit, whereas only 40% of his candy and cigarette sales are.

With this work, Henry has supported his wife and three children, who live near the La Perseverancia neighborhood. Nowadays, his two older children both study and work, helping to support the family. Both are studying accounting.

If Henry's family's story can be generalized, then education's the way out of poverty.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

A Down Payment on Makled

Joaquin Perez Becerra on his way home to Colombia
Venezuela just handed Joaquin Perez, who allegedly handled the FARC guerrillas' relations with Europe, over to Colombian officials. (Perez's defenders say he was just a journalist and critic of Colombian policies. But Colombian officials say they have proof that Perez visited FARC camps and worked closely with the guerrilla group.)

This undoubtedly would not have happened without Pres. Santos' promise to extradite accused Venezuelan drug trafficker and murderer Walid Makled to Venezuela rather than the United States, which wants him too.

Clearly, for Colombia, it's crucial to have a cooperative Venezuela arresting Colombian outlaws and sending them home for trial. So, Santos' bargain with the devil turned 'best friend' makes sense.

But Perez's arrest might make less sense in case the Colombian government actually wants to negotiate with the FARC, whose backs are already against the wall. In that case, whom will the Colombian government talk to, if all of the FARC's 'ambassadors' are either in prison or under ground?
By Mike Ceaser of Bogotá Bike Tours


Improvised seating to see the game in La Candelaria.
This afternoon, much of male Bogotá stopped moving while two teams of men in Spain kicked a ball back and forth. The teams were named Barcelona and Real Madrid, and allegiance to them reaches almost religious levels here in Colombia - and, I suspect, much of the rest of Latin America.

Soccer god Messi races for the ball.
Sidewalks became impassible as people crowded around restaurant and bar windows to watch the televisions inside. Each time a goal was scored, the cheering carried for blocks.

Presidential elections? Natural disasters? Invasion from Mars? A match between Colombian football teams? None stops time here the way that 22 millionares kicking a ball back and forth across a field thousands of miles away in Colombia's one-time colonial master do. Could this be psychological recolonization?

In the end, analysts said it was a lousy game. But Barcelona won - Thank God!!! That's what makes life worth living!

Even this cop took his eye off of the bad guys.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, April 25, 2011

Abortion Ban in Colombia?

The Santa Ana Church, amidst abortion clinics.
Colombia became one of the more progressive nations in Latin America for abortion rights thanks to a 2006 high court decision legalizing the practice in certain cases. But now, a Conservative Party senator wants to set the clock back - and condemn more girls and women to suffering and even death - by banning abortion in all cases.

The legislation appears unlikely to pass, since most Colombians appear to support the current exceptions, which depenalize abortion when a pregnancy results from rape or incenst, threatens a woman's life or the fetus is severely deformed. The government is even considering including the day-after pill in public health programs, altho its supporters don't consider it abortive.

The high court depenalized abortion in certain cases because dangerous pregnancies and illegal abortions were killing many women and girls - as they still do. According to a 2005 study, before abortion was legalized, 23% of Colombian women reported having had an abortion and illicit abortions caused 16% of maternal deaths.

A clinic offers ultrasounds, and perhaps other services.

Even since the court decision, only a few hundred women have taken advantage of each of the legal exceptions, in a nation of 45 million people. That's probably due to lack of education, the social stigma against abortion in a highly Catholic nation and resistance by doctors and hospitals to performing abortions, even when a woman has a legal right to the procedure. The low numbers also suggest that the procedure is not being abused, but rather that many women are being denied their right to the procedure and either carrying  dangerous pregnancies to term or undergoing illicit abortions.

There is even an area of Bogotá's Teusaquillo neighborhood that's known for illegal abortions. Ironically, these clinics, which advertise services for pregnant women, surround a venerable Catholic church.

Before the 2006 court decision, I visited several of these clinics with a friend who told the doctors that she needed an abortion. Each clinic offered her an abortion, for different costs. When my friend expressed concern about dangers to her health, one (apparent) doctor reassured her that 'Lots of women come here and have one abortion after another, with no problems.' In fact, my friend had had an abortion in one of those clinics, with no complications. But that's not always true. In one case, a woman having an abortion in a clinic near the church started hemorraging. The clinic's staff were afraid they'd get themselves in trouble if they took her to a hospital, and so they just called her family to come pick her up. But by the time her relatives arrived, the woman had died.

That's what happened and continues happening in Colombia, where law and reality often do not coincide.

'Center for Orientation for Women,' across
the street from the Santa Ana Church.
In a nation in which children start having sex in their early teens and where machismo and alcohol mean lots of unintended pregnancies, abortions will continue happening whether they're permitted or not. Right to life arguments are principled and deserve respect, altho I disagree with them. But abortion bans prevent few abortions, while pushing many girls and women into dangerous illegal clinics. Lgalized abortion can hopefully be regulated and made safe. But when abortion (or prostituion or drug dealing) is prohibited it goes on anyway, just clandestine and unregulated.

The same piece of legislation would also outlaw euthanasia, which is now permitted in Colombia by dint of not being banned. In my way of seeing it, euthanasia should also be permitted, to save victims of fatal diseases months or years of pointless suffering, and their loved ones months or years of misery, anguish and huge expenses.

Here's an entry about abortion protesters.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Easter Procession in La Candelaria

A few snapshots of an Easter Sunday procession in La Candelaria. They came from various churches, met in La Plaza del Chorro, and then walked up to the Church of Egipto. I only saw a small part, however.
Preparing the float.

Preparing the costumes.

Kids (and mom, possibly) are ready to go!

Gladiator and daughter
Gladiators at work

No age limits here!

 By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours