Saturday, June 30, 2012

Making La Candelaria a Community

Dancers in old-time costumes. 
Residents of Calle 10, perhaps La Candelaria's most handsome and historic street, turned out today with music, dance and even a circus, to celebrate the neighborhood. The goal of the event, which is to be held on the fourth Saturday of each month, a neighbor told me, is to build community and also improve the image, which has been scarred for years by a reputation for crime.

La Candelaria, Bogotá's historic center, still has its troubles, but has a tremendous amount to offer in history, culture and friendliness!

Circus jugglers. 

Youngsters kick up their heels.

A couple kisses while walking down Tenth St. 

A bookstore/cafe brouht its literature out onto the street. 

A guitarist in the doorway of the Casa Real cafe. 

The doorway of a historic restaurant. 

An impromptu singer. 

Nick nacks for sale. 

A woman in historic dress.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

TM on 26th St: Too Expensive, Too Late and Too Little - But Finally Rolling!

A TransMilenio bus rolls west on 26th St. - But it won't get to the airport. 
Some two years behind schedule, after years of scandal and mismanagement, red TM buses finally started rolling along Calle 26 toward (but not to) the El Dorado Airport.

The Calle 26 TransMilenio line was originally supposed to go into operation in 2010. But then-Mayor Samuel Moreno clearly mismanaged the project and allegedly pocketed kickbacks from the contractors (and is now doing jail time for that).

Many of the vacant stations have
been graffitied and vandalized. 
Today, the line finally started rolling - but only very partially. Because the stations sat empty and unused for so long, many were vandalized. As a result, the TM buses are only stopping at two of them. Also, the Seventh Ave. bridge over 26th has yet to be completed (altho it is close), and so the buses can't reach the street's eastern end, in La Candelaria. Finally, conflicts between different levels of government have blocked the construction of the two westernmost TM stations, which will connect the system to the airport. Those are supposed to be completed early next year.

A TransMilenio station being inauurated yesterday. 
Over recent months Calle 26th's unused TransMilenio lanes have been used as de-facto bike lanes. That's no more.

Workers put finishing touches on Carrera 10's TM line. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, June 29, 2012

November 1985

November, 1985 was a cataclysmic month for Colombia: First came the M-19 guerrillas' attack on the Palace of Justice, which ended with the building in flames and more than 100 people dead. Then, a few weeks later, the eruption of the Nevado del Ruis volcano, which triggered disastrous flooding of Armero and other towns, killing some 23,000 people.  

Santa Marta-born artist Josefina Jacquin has portrayed that month in Andy Warhol-style works now on display in the Jorge Eliecer Gaitan house/museum in Teusaquillo, which commemorates the populist presidential candidate, who was assasinated in 1948. The events are also personal for Jacquin, who now lives in northern California: her brother Alfonso Jacquin was one of the M-19's leaders, and died during the palace attack and military counter-attack. His body has never been recovered. 

The artist's brother, Alfonso Jacquin, an M-19 guerrilla leader disappeared during the group's 1985 attack on the Palace of Justice. 

Colombia's then-Pres. Betancur. The guerrillas demanded that he come over to the Justice Palace to undergo a guerrilla trial, he refused and the military attacked.

A visitor takes a picture of a portrait of Pablo Escobar. The drug lord apparently helped finance the M-19's attack in order to destroy the documents in the Justice Palace.

Omayra Sanchez, a 13-year-old girl trapped by mudflows caused by the volcanic eruption. She agonized for 60 hours before dying, and her death came bo symbolize the government's failure to warn residents and its slow response.  
Part of the Gaitan house/museum. The complex has never been completed, in part due to a fight between Gaitan's daughter and the National University for control of the site. It may be used as a law school.
Jorge Eliecer Gaitan's home, now a museum. 
Gaitan's grave. He was buried standing up, in order to 'plant' his ideas. 
Admission to the museum is free.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Klein is in the Clear

Yair Klein, free to visit Colombia. 
Yair Klein, the Israeli mercenary who trained Colombian paramilitaries during the1980s, is now in the clear, thanks to Colombia's statute of limitations.

Klein was convicted in Manizales in 2001 for collaborating with paramilitary groups, which have committed some of the worst atrocities against civilians in Colombia's long conflict.

The killings committed by paramilitary groups trained by Klein include the 1989 Massacre of La Rochela and the 1997 Massacre of El Aro, in which 15 people were killed. In 2002, a Colombian court convicted Klein in absentia to ten years and eight months of prison.

Klein was arrested in Russia, pending a Colombian extradition request. However, a European human rights court ruled, ironically, that Klein's rights would be in danger if brought to trial in Colombia.

But the Klein case is about far more than one man's impunity. Klein claims that Colombian government officials invited him to come train paramilitaries, and that is believable.  Colombian police and military collaborated in many paramilitary massacres, and even ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe has been accused of collaborating in the El Aro massacre back when he was governor of Antioquia Province.

Most of Colombia's paramilitary organizations demobilized in the mid-2000s and some of their leaders are now in United States prisons. However, many of those involved in paramilitary atrocities have never been punished.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Misaimed Drug War?

A coca leaf farmer in Bolivia's chapare region about a decade ago. His plot had just been chopped down and burnt by U.S.-backed erradicators. (All photos taken by Mike Ceaser in Bolivia about 12 years ago.)

If you've ever tried to open a simple Colombian bank account, only to be required to first document your salary, and also bring Chamber of Commerce certificates proving your employer's legitimacy, and God-only-knows what other papers, then you might enjoy this book by two Los Andes University professors: Anti-Drug Policies In Colombia: Successes, Failures And Mistakes, by Alejandro Gaviria and Daniel Mejía

Chapare coca leaves, to be made into cocaine. 
According to this commentary in The Guardian newspaper, the book argues that rich nations' anti-drug warriors have directed their efforts at the easiest targets: farmers, banks, chemical sellers and others in the producer and transit countries, while the banks and drug retailers in the United States and Europe who earn the great majority of the profits, generally get off easy.

Things are of course much more complex than this, but there's also truth here. After all, the generally impoverished coca leaf or heroin poppy farmer, like the 'boys in the hood' dealing grams on streetcorners in Los Angeles, California, or London are obvious targets without lobbyists in the U.S. Congress. The banking executive, who never actually touches illegal drugs, (except perhaps in his expensive private club) and can argue that he doesn't know the origin of the money he manages, is a difficult target.

A family living in the San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia.
Most likely, the man was there for a minor
drug-related crime. 
Women examine coca leaves in a legal market in Bolivia.
These leaves are supposed to be used for making tea,
chewing or other traditional uses.
The Andes University professors' book also points out that only a few percentage points of cocaine's profits actually stay in Colombia (or Peru or Bolivia), while some 97% of the profit is made in the wealthy consuming countries. This is a predictable situation, and not so different in some ways from legal commodities such as cotton and sugar. After all, in those wealthy countries the costs of labor and other services are much higher. With any product, the cost escalates the closer to the final consumer. But with an illegal drug the effect is much more dramatic because the cost of the alkaloid which produces the high is trifling, while the cost of the danger and trouble of transporting the drug halfway across the globe are immense. Just ask Thomas McFadden, the protagonist of the book Marching Powder, who was locked up in La Paz, Bolivia's hyper-corrupt San Pedro Prison. In San Pedro, McFadden found cheap, plentiful, high quality cocaine. His problem was shipping it to Europe. Standing in the way were transport and bribery costs, the dangers of confistication and arrest and potential violence, all of which raised the final products cost far above what a Colombian campesino could imagine. Of course, the wealthy countries' economies aren't getting rich off of the drug trade, (altho some people and businesses certainly are), since the money also comes from the rich countries' own economies.

A woman sorts coca leaves in legal market in Bolivia. 
The authors' thesis that producer countries pay a disproportionate cost for the War on Drugs is reasonable, but also debatable. After all, developed nations' prisons are packed with drug criminals - creating huge social and economic costs. But unquestionably it is the producer and transit nations such as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica and Colombia which have suffered most of the violence and corruption for a failed effort, while seeing only a small slice of the revenue.

Some people would certainly argue that this situation is behind Washington and other power centers' prohibitionist policies in the War on Drugs. I personally doubt it, since this money is simply being recycled thru the rich nations' economies, rather than pumped into them. And, if drugs were legal, then you can be certain that both banks and other big companies (Philip Morris? RJ Reynolds?) would be marketing them. On an economics forum, Daniel Mejia, one of the new book's authors, offers the hypothesis that wealthy nations back prohibitionism because it transfers the negative impacts from their nations to the producer and transit countries. After all, If drugs were legalized, prices would drop and consumption would rise, along with its associated health problems. Meanwhile, prohibitionism's impacts are mostly in those other, poorer nations.

But legalizing drugs would also reduce crime and prison overcrowding and generate lots of taxes in wealthy nations, giving them a net benefit.

I suspect that the motives behind prohibition are much simpler: The effort against illegal drugs has been labeled a 'war' and no politician likes to lose a war. Meanwhile, the benefits of ending prohibition are longer term and more difficult to see.

If only, 40 years ago, US Pres. Richard Nixon had picked a less simplistic phrase than 'War on Drugs', then it might be easier to make policy shifts today. Nixon left a lot of bad legacies, but this might be one of his worst.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Nailing the Reform's Coffin

'Justice Yes, Reform No,' says this banner hanging on the Justice Palace on Plaza Bolivar. 
A small crowd of demonstrators turned out on Plaza Bolivar this afternoon in protest against a a justice system reform law passed by Congress last week. The law was already controversial, and was approved in a rapid and strange congressional manuever. Several officials claimed that changes had been incorporated behind their backs.

Critics say the new law would permit impunity for some human rights violators. The law generated an impressive protest mobilization - I've seen people collecting signatures on streets and in neighborhood stores. Now, even President Santos has vowed to trash the new law. 

'Alvaro Uribe...killed my son,' says this sign on Plaza Bolivar, 'and with the reform he'd have impunity.' 

Collecting signatures to reverse the legal reform on Seventh Ave. in front of the Justice Palace.

Speaking against the reform. I'm not sure what the bananas represent.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cocaine Production's Comeback

Erradicating coca leaf bushes. But they don't stay gone. 
The numbers are in, and once again it looks like the billions of dollars the world pours annually into the War on Drugs have accomplished little. 

Global cocaine prices haven shifted little in recent years.
(United Nations graph)   
Yesterday's El Tiempo reported that Colombia's coca leaf acreage increased by 3% last year. While that's not much, and the defense ministry called the numbers "stable," it does mean that cultivation has ceased declining, despite erradication efforts. 

The defense ministry explained that cultivation has increased in certain areas because they are near borders and have indigenous territories, where erradication efforts are restricted. But the defense ministry did not observe that Colombia will always have border regions and indigenous territories, meaning that this upward trend may very well continue.

Legal and illegal drugs have followed similar consumption
patterns. (United Nations graph)
Beyond Colombia's borders, the trend is also negative. Coca leaf cultivation has increased in both Bolivia and Peru, which has surpassed Colombia to become the world's biggest cocaine producer, according to the United Nations. The Wall Street Journal reports that Peruvian coca leaf growers have managed to cultivate the crop in wetlands, something once thot impossible. That means both more production and environmental impacts. The Journal points out that growers could easily cross the border and plant coca in Brazil - and why not Africa and Asia? (In the early 20th century coca leaf was grown industrially in Java and Taiwan.) Today, much of South America's cocaine is shipped to Europe via Africa. Wouldn't planting the stuff in Africa be much cheaper and easier for the traffickers?

The United Nations annual world drug report offers a mixed review of the main plant-based drugs: cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Global coca bush cultivation has dropped by a third since the year 2000, according to the U.N. (altho productivity per acre has apparently risen). But those gains have been counterbalanced "by rising levels of synthetic drug production." And some of those drugs, such as amphithetamines, may be much more harmful than heroin and cocaine.
Thru 2010, coca leaf cultivation inched upwards in Peru and
Bolivia, but dropped in Colombia. That's since changed. 

The reports, once again, constitute a powerful case for legalizing and regulating these now-illegal substances. Such a policy change, which is happening slowly and contradictorily for marijuana - would enable states to tax and regulate these substances, require quality standards and enforce environmental protections.

And, the world would save a whole lot of money it now spends on drug law enforcement and encarceration.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Bullfighting Stadium's Radical Makeover

Stop! Animals Free of Torture!
'Petro: We Support Your Decision' to end bullfighting,
says this sign in the center of the bullfighting plaza. 
Just a little while ago, when the bullfighting stadium's security guards thought a potential visitor looked like an anti-bullfighting protester, they told them to go away.

But as of about ten days ago the stadium passed from the administration of the Corporacion Taurina to the municipal Institute of Recreation and Sports (IDRD), transforming the plaza into a place of animal rights activism determined to end bullfighting.

A bike tour participant gives an interview denouncing bullfighting. 

Notes on a message tree, mostly denouncing bullfighting. 
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, June 25, 2012

Korea and Colombia Intersect Again

The Colombian and Korean leaders meet to talk trade.

More than a half century ago, 4,300 Colombianos traveled halfway around the globe to fight communism. Today, they are forgotten combatants in a nearly-forgotten war. But they helped accomplish something for which South Korea should be perpetually grateful: today, South Korea is a dynamic democracy, while its northern neighbor is just about the globe's last totalitarian regime, with millions of its citizens in slave labor camps. South Korea's per capita GDP is $30,000, while the North's is one 12th of that. South Korea is home to some of the globe's biggest corporate names, incouding Kia, Mitsubishi and Samsung. North Korea has the distinction of being the world's only industrialized state to have experienced a famine.

So, those 4,000 Colombians who fought in the Korean War and in particular the 686 killed, injured, captured or disappeared there, made their sacrifices for something. During a visit to Bogotá this weekend, South Korean Pres. Lee Myung-bak told a group of aged veterans that his people "would never forget your sacrifice...and were forever indebted."

Colombia was the only Latin American nation to send troops to Korea. Whether the Koreans have or will repay that debt is a question for historians and the veterans.

But Colombia could find something extremely valuable in Korea's incredible story. A Japanese colony for most of the first half of the 20th-century, exploited and trampled by imperialist Japan during World War II, after the war the Korean peninsula was occupied by U.S. and Soviet forces. Since then, Korea has been divided in half, the southern part today prosperous and democractic, the northern part ruled by a lunatic family dynasty which makes itself feel relevant by building atomic weapons and bombing South Korean ships while its people starve.

In today's El Tiempo, Colombian Korean War veteran Isaac Vargas Córdoba recalls the Colombian Batallion's send-off in 1953: "(The Koreans) were displaced, naked, widows and orphans, left with a nation under rubble, its economy destroyed.

"Korea didn't sit around crying over its devastation," Córdoba adds, observing that today South Korea is democratic and highly industrialized.

If South Korea has overcome all of that, what does it say about blaming history for today's problems?

Colombia, with almost the same population as South Korea, but more than 11 times its geographic size and many more natural resources, has a per capita GDP only one third of South Korea's.

How has South Korea done it? Its leaders credit education, which is undoubtedly a factor. Another must be a strong cultural work ethic, perhaps intensified by the Korean people's many years of hardship and deprivation.

Today, South Korea and Colombia have just signed a free trade agreement. But it's hard for me to imagine how Colombia is in any condition to compete with a sophisticated, efficient economy like Korea's. More than likely, Colombia will just ship Korea raw materials, and buy back manufactured goodsfrom them.

How did Korea do it? There's a valuable lesson for Colombia.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Philly-Anolaima Photo Project

Father Angel and some of the children's photos. 

The students use both old and modern
equipment for their photos. 
Thousands of miles and huge cultural differences separate the big, rough city of Philadelphia, USA from the tropical town of Anolaima, in Cundinamarca northwest of Bogotá. But a Colombian-American and a Spanish priest have bridged that distance, with the help of children from both nations.

Philadelphian Tony Rocco, whose father was born in Cali, and Padre Angel, a Spaniard who has worked in Colombia for 11years. Children from both countries have done photography work, sharing their images over the Internet. But this week the Americans are visiting, allowing the two groups to share experiences, culture and photography work in person.

'Dad Working.' By John Stiven Lopez Torres,
in La Florida, Cundinamarca. 
The Anolaima region has declined economically in recent years, in part because of abandonment of the railroad line thru the region, Padre Angel said. Still, the region is famed for its fruit harvests.

"By rediscovering our culture, we rediscover our identity," says Father Angel, who wants to revitalize the countryside. "If we recover the countryside, we recover peace in Colombia."

The group did a bike tour with Bogota Bike Tours. See their work at: Grupo Flor Morado
Rashawn, of Philadelphia, describes how he took the photo on the right with a pinhole camera. By accident, he created a double exposure, overlapping his own profile and a church's cross.

'El Cartero', 'The Postman', in La Florida, Cundinamarca, by Jhon Stiven Lopez Torres

Tony Rocco, on right, and photos. 

The abandonment of the rail road line contributed to the town of La Florida's decline. 

'Santa and Crying Baby.'

'You saw me,' by Franchesca Robles. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours