Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fantasy Laws Won't Fight Tobacco

Lighting up an outlawed loosie in La Candelaria.
Today was Tobacco-Free Day - a real misnomer if you observed the puffing on Bogotá's streets. According to the Ministry of Health, some 20,000 Colombians are either killed or sickened by tobacco every year. That's far more than die from the country's armed conflict, which still dominates the news - and budgets.

A vendor sells a loose cigarette on La Plaza del Chorro. 
The health ministry is proposing increasing the cost of cigarettes by raising taxes, which are some of the lowest in the region. Raising the cost of cigarettes is one of the most effective strategies for discouraging people, especially young people, from smoking. But such a strategy will be pointless if the tobacco companies evade taxes by facilitating the smuggling of cigarettes, as they have notoriously done in the past. Colombia's provinces even sued international tobacco companies for collaborating with criminals to smuggle cigarettes into Colombia to avoid taxes - thus getting more people hooked on cheap smokes and even enriching the nation's terrorist organizations, since those incoming smokes were often traded for exported cocaine.

I watched this street vendor, across the street of
a high school, selling loose cigarettes to passer-by. 
Any new ideas need to distinguish between theory and Colombian reality. Take the law against the sale of loose cigarettes, which went into effect in Bogotá in July. Ending loosie sales is key to preventing kids from starting a life-long smoking habit. That's because young people often don't have the guts or the disposable income to buy a whole pack, but do have the few hundred pesos to buy a loose 'stick.'

The problem has been the total lack of enforcement. I took the photos on this page of street vendors in La Candelaria - a neighborhood full of high schools and universities - selling loose cigarettes.

Vendors, who don't earn much, will keep selling cigarettes by the stick as long as they can because they earn a lot more this way than they do selling a sealed pack. And, as I've often witnessed, many vendors lack compunction about selling to kids.

Why are these cigarette boxes, for sale on the street downhill from a high school, already opened?
How could they enforce the anti-loosie law? The best way would be sting operations. Have kids try to buy loosies. If a vendor sells cigarettes 'by the stick' then confisticate his or her cigarettes. If they get caught again, then seize their cart for a few days. It sounds harsh, but it would save lives.

On the other hand, passing laws which aren't enforced will help nobody but the legal printers.

An anti-smoking art exhibition the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango (BLAA) in La Candelaria.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pablo Escobar's Bloody Trail in Bogotá

The tomb of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in Bogotá's Central Cemetery. One of Escobar's assassins shot him while campaigning in south Bogotá in 1989.
Escobar, lord of evil.
Cocaine king Pablo Escobar is back in the news, thanks to a TV miniseries about his life called 'Pablo Escobar, Lord of Evil.'

Escobar was born and lived in Medellin, where he built a narco empire and wrought havoc - altho he also made himself a folk hero by distributing jobs and money to the city's poor.

Here in Bogotá, Escobar, who had no qualms about committing mass-murder, also left a trail of tragedy and terror.

1985: The Justice Palace on Plaza Bolivar in flames. 
In 1985, the M-19 guerrillas invaded the Justice Palace on Plaza Bolivar and took the magistrates hostage. The attack and ensuing military counter-attack ended with more than 100 people dead, including 11 of the 12 justices, and the building in flames. According to lots of evidence, Escobar helped finance the attack because he shared the M-19's opposition to the practice of extraditing Colombian drug traffickers to the U.S. for trial, and in order to destroy the documentary evidence inside the Justice Palace building.

The Congress building on Plaza Bolivar,
where Escobar briefly held a seat.
Ironically, just three years before, Escobar, who had been elected an alternative congressman, had taken a seat in the Congress building on the plaza's south side. Reportedly, people rushed to get out of his way in the passageways.

In 1986, Escobar's assassins shot and killed Guillermo Cano, publisher of the El Espectador newspaper, which had bravely editorialized against the drug lords. But that wasn't enough for Escobar. Three years later, he bombed the newspaper's printing plant. El Espectador has never since recovered completely . For two decades after, it published only as a weekly.

Aftermath of the DAS bombing. 
That same year, Escobar car bombed the DAS, or secret police, headquarters in Bogotá, destroying the building and killing 60 people and injuring 600.

Just a sample of the Lord of Evil's doings in Bogotá.

Escobar finally gets his own medicine:
Dead on a Medellin rooftop.
For the record, Canal Capital is doing its own series, about Escobar's victims.

Residencias Tequendema, in Bogotá's Centro Internacional, was used by the government to hold Escobar's wife and children during the final phase of the hunt for the cartel leader in 1993. Escobar's son was here during the cellphone conversation which enabled the hit squad to locate Escobar in Medellin and shoot him down on a rooftop.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

John and Ariana: A Homeless Love Affair

You might have walked past them passed out on a sidewalk in central Bogotá, near the Plaza las Nieves. You very well may have veered away from them, because they reeked of the paste they consume and the garbage they dig thru for food.

But you probably didn't suspect that John and Ariana have something very special: a passionate love. The couple have been together for 13 years, living on the street and addicted to various drugs - as well as each other.

That means they've been together for more than half of their lives - which is much more than many other, more sane and unaddicted couples, who live indoors, buy their food in stores and suffer no mental illnesses, can say.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Scenes from Today's Protest March

Marching schoolteachers fill Seventh Ave. 

I'd heard that today's protest was to be by teachers. But, as always seems to happen, lots of other groups leapt in. The most colorful, in appearance at least, were the bicitaxistas. These guys carry people for short distances in their pedicabs and so provide an excellent, inexpensive service that doesn't pollute and reduces traffic congestion. 
Colorful pedicabs on Plaza Bolivar.
But, bicitaxis are actually illegal - a situation supported by the drivers of regular, carbon-powered taxis, which do pollute and do cause lots of congestion, but see the pedicabs as competition. Today, the bicitaxistas protested against police harrasment and even confistication of their vehicles. It's a classic case of powerful vested interests blocking a better solution.

Protesters carry a Colombian flag.

Pedicabs in front of the Justice Palace.
A local government office, still decorated by paint balls from last year's protests.

Red students. 

No to the justice reform.

Riot police wait. The protest was mostly peaceful, and they didn't have much to do. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Who Bagged Carlos Martínez Silva?

Bagged, man! Suffering Carlos Martinez Silva in Parque de la Independencia.
Recently during bike tours, several people have asked why this man, great enough to be immortalized in stone in the Parque de la Independencia, was wearing a black plastic bag over his head.

We pass by these stone heads every day. Undoubtedly famous back in their time, they're now been practically mummified in marble. This question pulled this particular stone man out of anonymity  for me - but didn't provide any solid answer.

Carlos Martinez Silva back in
the days when nobody would
have dared put a bag over his head.
It turns out that Carlos Martínez Silva (1847-1903) was quite an accomplished fellow: A writer, military leader, journalist and diplomat (he led a group which tried to negotiate a deal to dig the Panama Canal back in the 1880s, when Panama was still Colombia's. If the deal had succeeded, Panama would likely still be Colombian today, and Colombia would possess lots more global geopolitical and economic importance.

Martinez Silva was also a hard-line Conservative, which could be a clue to his bagging. The Conservative-Liberal political divide was the fault line which cut thru Colombian during most of its history, generating several civil wars, as well as heated elections. Martinez Silva so represented the Conservative side, that the Liberals imprisoned him for several months during the Thousand-Day War.

Martinez Silva served as dean of the very Catholic Rosario University, in La Candelaria. There, he earned the nickname 'Torquemada,' after a notoriously conservative Spanish inquisitor who burned thousands of heretics, Jews and Moslems at the stake.

This isn't the first time that a memorial to Martinez Silva has suffered such an indignity. In 1996, a stone bust in his birthplace of San Gil was decapitated by a teenager. 

Could century-old resentments have motivated somebody today to bag Martinez Silva's stone head? Or, was his bust in Independence park just a convenient symbol of authority?

Only the bagger knows.

A few other noteworthy monuments in Bogotá:

Francisco de Trujillo, in the National Park. A Spanish explorer and conquistador, he's remembered for having 'discovered' the Amazon River - even tho many people already lived along it. 

Vladimir Lenin, in the 'Lenin Plaza' on the National University's campus. Lenin looks self-important, but none-too-happy, perhaps because his ideas have lost favor nearly everywhere except this little corner of La Nacho in Bogotá.

Ricardo Palma, on Avenida Jimenez, in front of the Las Aguas Church. Palma was an accomplished Peruvian writer. But I'd like to know what he's doing in the center of Bogotá.

Gabriel Betancur Silva, beside the Las Aguas TransMilenio station. This is one of Bogotá's newest statues. This genial-looking man brought student loans to Colombia. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Trust Chavez? Syria Says No!

If Chavez supports this, in Syria, why wouldn't he support the FARC?
Relatives of kidnapping victims protest
against the guerrillas today on Plaza Bolivar.
Colombians and others have long had doubts about the Venezuelan government's sincerity in the battle against Colombia's guerrillas and narcotraffickers.

Yet, the Colombian government keeps hoping...and hoping that the Venezuelans will really combat guerrillas on their territory. Venezuela once again promised to do so after last week's massacre of 12 Colombian soldiers by FARC, who then fled across the Venezuelan border.

A recent FARC bombing in the mostly
AfroColombian town of Tumaco.
We've had plenty of reasons to doubt the sincerity of the Venezuelans in the war against the FARC's terror: there have been repeated Venezuelan officials' statements and intelligence reports sympathizing with the guerrillas and even providing them material support in weapons. There were the Swedish-made rocket launchers which the Colombian military found in a FARC camp in 2009, and which the Swedes had sold to the Venezuelan military. Colombian officials have also found messages in guerrilla leaders' computers showing links between the FARC and Venezuelan government officials all the way up to Minister of Defense Henry Rangel Silva.

I could go on and on...including things people on both sides of the Colombian-Venezuelan border told me when I traveled thru there some years ago.

But the most damning proof that the Venezuelan government has no qualms about embracing vicious entities, just as long as they spout the right anti-U.S. rhetoric, are the recent barbarities in Houla, Syria. The Venezuelan government has insisted on its right to supply gasoline to the Syrian regime - an anti-U.S. ally - thus fueling the machines which massacred the men, women and children of Houla, Syria.

A protest today on Plaza Bolivar against
kidnapping by the FARC and ELN 
In the wake of that horror, while the rest of the world has denounced the Syrian government, Venezuela's leaders have kept silent - and evidently continued fueling the machines which are massacring civilians.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, May 28, 2012

Time to Fold Up That Capote

The staff at the Plaza de Toros Santamaria, Bogotá's bullfighting stadium, tell us that the usual August amateur bullfights definitely won't happen this year. That makes sense, since those fights are sponsored by the city, and Mayor Gustavo Petro has said he opposes bullfighting. Whether or not there'll be a 2013 bullfighting season in January and February, when some of bullfighting's biggest stars come down here, is still up in the air.
The possible end of bullfighting is a victory for animal rights and for opponents of the glorification of violence and killing.

But it is sad for the young men who practice their veronicas in the plaza with dreams of stardom. (In reality, of course, they're much more likely to get badly injured than become millionares.)

I wonder, tho: If bullfighting ends, will the animal rights activists who protest the corridas turn their attention to other, worse cruelties, such as cockfighting and industrial animal raising? 
Somehow, I doubt it. Bullfighting, besides being a high-profile sport, is also seen as elitist, and so receives criticism on class grounds as well. Cockfighting, on the other hand, is a working class activity. And food animals and raised and slaughtered out of sight.

And, the city needs to find a new use for the bullfighting stadium, a handsome building in the middle of town. As it is, it's used for bullfights barely two months per year. But it'd be great for concerts, theatre or other activities. The residents of the Torres del Parque behind the stadium need to become more tolerant. After all, they knew the plaza was there when they moved in.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, May 27, 2012

If This Isn't Kidnapping, Then What Is It?

Romeo Langlois in better times. Where is he now?
Today, French journalist Romeo Langlois completed one month in the hands of the FARC guerrillas - but finally with prospects of being released soon. Today, the guerrillas announced they'll free Langlois on Wednesday. Let's hope they're true to their word.

On April 28, Langlois was embedded with Colombian troops searching for cocaine labs, when hundreds of guerrillas dressed in civilian clothing attacked them, according to the military.

Wounded in one arm, Langlois pulled off his helmet and bulletproof vest and ran toward the guerrillas in an apparent effort to show that he was a civilian.

The FARC argue that holding Langlois didn't violent their recent promise not to kidnap civilians, because he was accompanying the military and his dress could have been mistaken for a military uniform.

That ignores that the FARC, according to the military, were dressed as civilians themselves (in violation of the rules of war and principles of human rights), and that they could have released Langlois as soon as the fighting ended.

Instead, the guerrillas have held the Frenchman incomunicado for a whole month. We don't know where he is, how badly he's injured and the FARC's assurances are the only evidence that he's even alive.

Even if one accepts the guerrillas' very dubious justification for holding Langlois initially, his prolonged captivity has unquestionably turned into a kidnapping.

Why have the guerrillas held Langlois for so long? Perhaps they want to stage a big media show for his release and portray themselves as his saviour. Or, perhaps they saw in him, like French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt whom they held for seven years, as a way to keep themselves relevant and in the news.

Cross your fingers that the FARC stay true to their word and release Langlois in three days. If they do, he'll undoubtedly have many stories to tell - and very likely a book about his month in the guerrillas' hands.

It's also worth observing that the FARC's violations of civilians' rights don't end with Langlois' detention. Recent bombings and bombing attempts appear likely to be the FARC's work. And the horrifying 'recruitment' of 13 schoolchildren from a rural schoolhouse was a kidnapping by another name.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours