Friday, October 31, 2014

How Colombian History Changed in Connecticut

George Jung, cheery smuggler.
Forty years ago this year, a California hippy and a Colombian-American from Armenia found themselves sharing a prison cell in Danbury, Connecticut, USA. Their chance meeting in 1974 would change Colombian history and make Pablo Escobar possible.

They made an odd couple - one was a hippie, the other an admirer of Adolf Hitler and megalomaniac. But what they had in common overcame their differences: a taste for illegal drugs, a German heritage, a disrespect for the law, and, most of all, an ambition to make a whole lot of money very fast.

George Jung, born in 1942 in Boston, had built himself a
Carlos Lehder arrested in Florida.
business flying planeloads of Mexican marijuana into California, when a customer ratted on him to the police. Carlos Lehder, born in Armenia, Colombia in 1949, was doing a four-year prison term after getting caught in Miami with 200 pounds of marijuana.

In their shared prison cell, Jung described to Lehder his system for flying planeloads of Mexican pot
across the border into California, from where the weed was distributed nation-wide. Lehder told Jung how inexpensive cocaine was back in Colombia.

The men's eyes lit up with the potential profits, and they turned the Danbury Correctional Center into a school for drug smuggling studies. Lehder proceeded to interview other inmates for information about narcotrafficking. He even interviewed an imprisoned banker about money laundering methods.

After their release, the two teamed up to fly planeloads of Colombian cocaine into the U.S. Until then, coke had been smuggled north ounces at a time in toothpaste tubes, in false bottoms of suitcases, and in people' stomachs. Jung and Lehder inaugurated an era in which planes carrying hundreds of kilograms of drugs landed on secret airstrips in Florida and Lousiiana or tossed their bundles into the Caribbean to be scooped up by speedboats and run into Florida inlets.

Worse for wear: George Jung
more recently.
For several years, Lehder even owned a small island in the Bahamas, where he partied and stockpiled
cocaine shipments. With his millions, Lehder not only created a right-wing political party in Colombia, but also built a giant nude statue of another one of his idols - assassinated Beatle John Lennon. Meanwhile, however, Lehder antagonized other drug kingpins with his instability and own chronic drug abuse.

For his part, Jung also worked with other drug cartel leaders, including Pablo Escobar. Once, while they were talking at Escobar's hacienda, a plane landed and two of Escobar's goons pulled out a struggling man. Escobar excused himself, walked over and shot the man, and returned and resumed the conversation. Jung's life hit the big screen in the movie 'Blow' starring Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp, left, plays Jung in the movie 'Blow.'
He's counting money with Carlos Lehder. (Foto: Flickr)
One of Jung's unrepentant web pages paints a cheery portrait of him, and recalls that during his career he sometimes earned $15 million per plane flight. On another website, he markets a line of clothing named Smuggler Ware.

The avalanche of cocaine produced lots of thrills, kept bankers working and partying all night and ruined countless lives, especially in poor neighborhoods in cities like New York and Los Angeles.

The Jung-Lehder innovation created Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, the Cali and Medellin cartels and a whole generation of violence, which still marks Colombia today.

It also produced characters like Barry Seal, as well as conspiracy theories - containing an element of truth - about U.S. government involvement in cocaine smuggling.

Jung and Lehder later separated. Both were arrested and ended up in U.S. prisons. Jung was released this year and at last report was living in a California halfway house. Lehder is still in prison in Florida, hoping to spend his final years in Colombia or Germany.

If these two men had not found themselves in the same prison cell in 1974, would Colombian - and world - history have been different? Not by much, I think. Perhaps the cocaine avalanche would have come a few years later, in less volume. But someone else would have realized that drugs were much more efficiently smuggled by the planeload than the stomach load and Colombian-American huistory would have followed the same lines.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Transit Initiative Which Works

A bicyclist shares the bus lane (legally) on Carrera Septima.
I had deep doubts whether Petro's latest transit initiative, a bus lane on Carrera Septima, would actually work. The idea is good in principle - an inexpensive way to speed public transit by getting private cars - the least efficient form of transport - out of the way.
Solid buses. On this stretch, cars stayed out.

But would Bogotá drivers - not known for discipline and respecting laws - actually stay out of the bus lane? On a previous visit to Carrera Septima I didn't see much evidence of the bus lane in practice. But yesterday, between about 70th and 90th streets, it actually appeared to be operating.

Of course, it's also possible that these lanes are nearly bus-only all the time. Or, that drivers will start invading the lane once their fear of the hefty fine, implemented this week, wears off.

But this taxi shouldn't be here.
Still, city officials said that the policy has sped up traffic in the lane by 3 kms per hour. That migh not sound like a lot, but it could get you home for dinner or that TV show 20 minutes earlier. The city now plans to create bus-only lanes on other major avenues.

The contrast of this budget transit scheme with the city's multi-billion subway construction plan - which may never even actually happen - couldn't be greater.

When it comes to buses, green isn't always clean.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What Happened to Authors Bookstore?

'For rent'. The sad scene in the Zona G. 
While pedaling thru the Zona G this afternoon, I passed by Authors bookstore and received a shock. The place is closed and has For Rent signs in the windows.

Authors was a landmark for Bogotá's anglophone and anglophile communities: it sponsored readings, hosted a writers' workshop (which published a book of short stories) and sold lots of books, both new ones and classic. I hope Authors is in the process of relocating, but I couldn't find any sign of it, either at their address or on the Internet. The store's Twitter and Facebook pages cut off back in March, and their website is dark.

And, if they were relocating, why didn't they take the awning with them?

Operating a bookstore is a real challenge nowadays, when fewer people read, and those who do often do so on electronic devices instead of dead trees pulped up and rolled out into pages. (I still prefer the paper books.) I've learned about the difficulty of the books trade at Bogotá Bike Tours, which has a selection of hundreds of used paperbacks in English, German, French and other languages, but few customers for them. Authors' selection was great, but the books were expensive. In Bogotá Bike Tours you can pick up a used paperback for a few thousand pesos; in the book district around Calle 15 and Carrera 9 you can pick up used paperbacks in English for 10,000 pesos and up.

I don't know of any English-only bookstores left in Bogotá, but stores like Lerner and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Center, both in La Candelaria, do have English-language sections.

Authors bookstore back in its heyday. (Foto:
A feast of books is gone. (Foto;
The writers group at Authors has hopefully found a new home.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Bandoleros; History thru Rose-Colored Glasses

Fun-filled bandoleros in the Parque Nacional.
In a time not so long ago, in a place not far away, there were people called bandoleros: Some say they were rag-tag bandits running about the countryside robbing and pillaging; others that they were good-hearted Robin Hoods who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.

The truth about these criminal groups from the 1940s, '50s and '60s will probably never be clear, and will always depend on the viewer's political perspective: For the wealthy and conservative they were a threat; for the poor, they were a kind of freedom fighters. But, for a theatre troupe performing in the Parque Nacional the other day, the bandoleros were comical, harmless fellows who did nobody any wrong.

I guess such an evolution is inevitable. After all, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and Redbeard the Pirate - all terrors in their own days - are now comic book characters and the laugh-lines on TV sitcoms. Will that happen one day to Colombia's guerrillas and paramilitaries? Perhaps, just as Pablo Escobar, who some say killed as many as 50,000 people, has become a decoration for t-shirts and a TV miniseries character.

Interestingly, the bandoleros have been back in the news recently - even if they haven't been mentioned. In the continuing debate in the Havana peace talks about who is a victim of Colombia's conflict and who isn't, the FARC guerrillas have proposed counting victims all the way to 1930 - decades before the FARC existed and Colombia's current conflict started.

Why do the FARC want to discuss victims who died so long ago? Perhaps to make their own violence appear to be just one more chapter in Colombia's long, violent history; Or, to involve - and blame - the Liberal and Conservative political parties, which carried out the fratricidal La Violencia of the 1940s and '50s. After all, FARC founder Manuel Marulanda was a bandolero before he founded the 'Republic of Marquetalia' which in 1964 gave birth to the FARC guerrillas. Most likely, it satisfies the communist vision that actions (read crimes) are nobody's fault, but inevitable results of historical injustices.

For an organization whose leaders are facing potential prison terms, that's a convenient interpretation.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Just Don't Call it 'Environmental'

Mayor Petro has used the 'Environmental Pico y Placa' as his legal tool to apply the Pico y Placa rule to private buses. (That decision triggered the short bus strike last week.) The Pico y Placa Ambiental was created by a previous mayor as a way to pressure bus companies to repair their buses and equip them with environmental controls, by restricting the use of buses belonging to companies which didn't meet certain standards. Very few bus fleets met the standards. But, instead of doubling down on these poisonous machines, the city government dropped the idea.

Now, Petro has resurrected the 'Environmental Pico y Placa - but ignoring the environmental criteria, and simply banning buses from the streets three days each week depending on the last digit of their license plates. The law is probably a good thing, particularly because Bogotá has a big oversupply of buses. But if Petro would actually enforce the law's environmental standards, then we'd all be breathing a lot easier. Here are a few pictures of belching buses I've seen the last few days.

Incidentally, even if Petro's Pico y Placa has done little to clean the air, the bus companies' three-day strike did do something, according to government measurements. RCN reports that during the strike carbon dioxide levels dropped 45%. That number seems way too large, but the air was cleaner.

Green is not always clean.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Mirror Play in the Park

In what seems to be becoming a weekly tradition, visitors to the Parque Nacional got some free street theatre once again this afternoon. I'm not sure what it was about, if anything, but the play with dance and mirrors made for some dramatic scenes.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Nicolas Maduro Turns Green

Pumping nearly-free Venezuelan gasoline. (Photo: Flickr)
Believe it or not: The leader of major oil exporter, who spends billions of dollars every year to pay people to burn gasoline, is denouncing oil production for destroying the planet.
Barbarous, savage and anti-human?
Preparing for a fracking job. (Photo; Wikipedia)

But Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro doesn't mean all kinds of oil production, of course. Maduro has denounced hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking', which he calls "barbarous, savage and anti-human."

Fracking does have its special dangers, including causing small earthquakes, consuming lots of water and maybe polluting groundwater. But its greatest danger is that, like all hydrocarbon production, it pumps carbon into the atmosphere, driving global warming. According to data from The Guardian, in 2010 Venezuela produced 5.8 tons of carbon per person per year, compared to 1.6 for Colombians and 2.3 for Brazilians.

“What stands out is the squandering of petrol at the cheapest price in the world – two cents of a dollar per liter – which does not even cover production costs,” Juan Carlos Sánchez, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told IPS News in 2012.

Since then, the price of gasoline in Venezuelan has plummeted as inflation there has soared, making the country even more wasteful.

Big, new, gas guzzlers in Venezuela. (Photo: Flickr)
Add to that galloping deforestation, and Venezuela manages to rival even some rich, developed nations, such as Switzerland, in its pollution.

But all this irresponsibility and selfishness hasn't stopped Venezuelan leaders from denouncing other nations behavior.

"We have no doubt that (failure of anti-climate change agreements) is due to the irresponsible attitude and lack of political will of the most powerful nations," late Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez said at a climate conference in 2010. (Nor has their hypocrisy stopped leftists from non-judgmentally quoting Venezuela's leaders as they spout off.)

Chavez was right about other nations' irresponsibility, of course, but that doesn't change his own hypocrisy.

Maduro's real complaint is not the fracking is destroying the planet, but that it is destroying Venezuela's economy. Fracking has enabled the United States to become a huge petroleum producer, pushing world oil prices below the level at which Venezuela can meet its expenses - including the cost of giving away gasoline.

All of which reminds me of a time while I was living in Caracas when, as a journalist, I was covering some sort of chavista revolutionary conference held in a central Bogotá high-rise. As I was looking over the event's program, which included speeches denouncing genetically modified foods - which haven't harmed anybody, as far as I know - I looked out a window at hillside slums, where towers of black smoke showed where garbage was burning - pumping carcinogenic toxics into the air. But nobody cared.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours