Monday, September 28, 2015

Maximum Garbage?

One tire on its way to the dump.
Take a look at the drama going on on Calle 24, behind the Central Cemetery, to get a feel for the absurdity - or nonexistence - of Bogotá's solid waste policy.

One by one, city workers are dropping old tires from windows or rolling them out of doors, then loading them into trucks to drive them an our outside the city...where they'll be dumped into a 'tire cemetery.' And they'll be at it for a good deal longer, judging from the piles of tires remaining inside the buildings.

The fate of used tires has been an ongoing crisis in Bogotá, especially since about a year ago, when an illegal tire dump caught fire, spewing toxic smoke which turned the city's air grey for days. City leaders vowed to take action...and held a series of meetings with tire industry representatives, which have come to nothing.

And another tire.
Of course the meetings came to nothing. The tire industry doesn't want to bother itself with the cost and trouble of the disposal of its products. And god forbid that the city would force them to. After all, that might create a precedent and make the producers of styrofoam containers, plastic bottles, cigarrettes, plastic bags and the innumerable other products which litter our streets, clog rivers and fill landfills fear that they too might have to take responsibility for the impacts of their products.

No need to observe that other cities have confronted these problems with deposit systems. But Mayor Petro persists with his fantasy that a p.r. campaign accomplish the same here. (Perhaps Petro doesn't want to offend the industrial interests which he hopes will support his campaign for president. God forbid.)

In fact, the tires were dumped into these vacant buildings by the city's UAESP, which is supposed to handle recycling, and whose slogan is 'Basura Cero' but should be 'Basura Maxima.' Now, these tires will sit in a dump where they might catch fire. And the tire avalanche continues, with no solution.

A few more left inside.
The best guarded tires in town.
Workers are walling up the buildings. Displaced people occupied one of them last week, exposing the illegal tire dump.
Sure thing.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Latest Bullfighting Round

Posters announce the 'Anti-bullfighting referendum.'
A performer dressed as a bull at an
anti-bullfighting demonstration.
Mayor Petro's anti-bullfighting crusade may have received a fatal stabbing from the Concejo de Estado, which ruled today that Petro's planned referendum on the issue was illegal, because the city doesn't have the authority to decide on such a traditional practice.

Petro hasn't allowed bullfighting in the historic Plaza Santamaria since Feb. 2012, and with or without a referendum fights aren't likely to return soon, since Petro has scheduled renovation work there.

Young bullfighters practice in the Santamaria Stadium.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Inevitableness of Impunity

Pres. Santos and FARC leader Timochenko make a historic handshake in Havana, Cuba, with a little help from friend Raul Castro.
'Nobody will sign a peace deal if it means they're going to jail,' Pres. Santos told the nation a few months ago.

He was right, and now he's put his words into action with the signing of a landmark, and perhaps feckless, peace deal with the FARC in Havana.

After the signing, Santos promised the nation that 'the worst crimes' would not be left without punishment. However, by my admittedly superficial understanding of the agreement, it leaves huge openings for only symbolic punishments, such as education and restoration work, as well as near impunity for politically motivated crimes and for those wrongdoers who confess all of their crimes. Following the agreement, media analysts agreed that the great majority of FARC fighters will receive symbolic punishment or none at all.

Who will pay? The FARC destroyed the Iglesia de Bojaá in
2002, massacring as many as 120 civilians hiding inside. 
The agreement stipulates the vague 'restriction of liberty' under 'special conditions' for some guilty of even crimes against humanity. That might mean probation within the limits of the Department of Cundinamarca.

This agreement is probably necessary and perhaps the least-bad deal attainable, at least during Santos's presidency - which is what matters to him. However, it will undoubtedly leave the guerrillas' countless victims feeling raw and violated.

"The dea won't please everybody," Santos said this week.

The agreement's advocates will point out that it doesn't include impunity for war crimes such as rape, massacres forced disappearance and forced displacement. However, the FARC are a main reason why Colombia has one of the world's largest number of internally displaced, commonly estimated at between 4 and 6 million people. Inevitably, the great majority of FARC fighters are responsible for such crimes against humanity, particularly the FARC leaders who set policies and tolerated such atrocities.

But if these men confess their crimes, no matter how terrible, they will be subject only to the vague and malleable 'restrictions of liberty under special circumstances.'

"Impunity sends a very bad message," said Senator Paloma Susana Valencia, a supporter of ex-Pres. Uribe. She asked what effect this would have on other criminals.

"So that there's no repetion, there must be real sanctions," said ex-minister of defense Marta Lucia Ramirez, who also served under Uribe.

The agreement still must pass several hurdles, including being found constitutional, as well as approval in a national referendum. Uribe and his supporters will ferociously and unceasingly denounce the accord, but they don't control the government. However, further guerrilla atrocities or a steep drop in Pres. Santos' popularity could still sink the accord.

And nobody should believe that this agreement will end drug-fueled violence. As long as there's a market for drugs, somebody will provide them, whether they call themselves guerrillas or just plain narcos.

The guerrillas now intend to convert themselves into a political party. How will Colombians respond to the spectacle of guerrillas, fresh from committing war crimes, legislating in Congress? Might this agreement undermine the government's own legitimacy?

Nevertheless, this flawed agreement creates Colombia's best chance in more than a half century to end its conflict, if not to find justice.

The agreement does little for the peace of mind of Colombia's millions of victims. But it will mean fewer future victims, which is most fundamental.

"What's important is that we escape from a violence of more than a half century," said Senator Armando Benedetti, "and that these outrages are not repeated."

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, September 21, 2015

Our Home for Used Tires

Displaced people wait on a Median Strip.
You'd be angry, too, if you were out on the street and your potential home was occupied by...discarded tires.

Displaced people tossed tires onto the sidewalk.
(Photo; El Tiempo)
That was why a group of people who said they'd been displaced by Colombia's violence occupied a vacant building behind the Central Cemetery today and tossed the used tires stored inside out into the street.

Workers move tires out of the building.
Where will they take them? To an illegal dump?
The situation captures the intersection of two Colombian disfunctions: the lack of solutions for people displaced by the internal armed conflict - some say that Colombia has up to six million displaced people, perhaps the second-largest number in the world. And Bogotá's inability to find a solution to the problem of used tires, which are tossed onto sidewalks, median strips and parks. In this case, this vacant building had been filled with old tires, which waited there for some homeless person to crawl inside, light a fire and start a viciously polluting conflagration. Other cities have found ways to reuse, or at least responsibly dispose of, used tires. But that costs money, and Bogotá officials don't want to offend the tire companies by forcing them to charge deposits.

As for the displaced people, they charge that the government has failed them on promises to provide new homes, and are demanding a solution.
Much of the building is still packed with tires, which generate huge pollution when burned.
A displaced man from El Chocó tells how he was driven from his home by paramilitaries.

Used tires wait on a sidwalk along 26th Street, near the National University.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Immobilizing for Climate Change

The banner behind the traffic jam says 'Great mobilization against climate change on Sept. 22nd.'
A single cyclist amidst a sea of cars.
You heard it hear first: On the 22nd of this month, Bogotá will 'mobilize against climate change,' and most private motor vehicles will be prohibited that day. Sadly, however, all the rest of the days the city seems to be mobilizing in favor of climate change and global warming.

Mayor Petro has made climate change one of the headline issues of his administration. However, he has overseen an historic boom in car ownership and accompanying boom in traffic jams. Petro entered office promising to create a congestion charge, but never pushed the issue, instead fiddling with the failed 'Pico y Placa' car restriction policy.

Bogotanos mobilizing - or immobilizing - for climate change.
Colombian officials recently promised to reduce the nation's global warming gas production by 20% by 2030. The goal looks admirable, but very impossible, in a nation where the number of cars is skyrocketing and which depends on agriculture, coal and oil exports and transportation. Colombian officials must know the goal is impossible, unless they expect the economy and population to start shrinking very soon.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

And They Should Know!

'To the streets to fight, to the ballot boxes to protest. Vote empty.'
They're telling you so themselves: Leave your ballot blank! And they are the Socialist Party, who should know very well what happens when people don't vote, or the vote is made irrelevent: Stalin, Mao, Castro and, maybe soon, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Bogotá is in the full swing of mayoral campaigning, and, as always, the options could be better: There's Clara Lopez, seen as a continuation of the current, unpopular Petro administration; Enrique Peñalosa, an ex-mayor with a personality problem, but who's remembered as a good administrator; and Rafael Pardo, a career politician with an erratic political history. And then there are others with no chance.

Do the Socialists have a better option? Probably not. But they do have a plan: Revolution! And while that may feel good, we know where it's taken us.

'Enough already! Vote blank.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Happened to Jaime?

The huge mural paying tribute to Jaime Garzon, the comedian who was assassinated nearby in 1999, has seen more than its share of sufferings. About six months ago, the homeowner behind the mural filed a complaint with the city over it, prompting a city worker to come out and paint a blue rectangle over the mural along her property line.

Then, a few days ago, vandals threw black paint over the comedian's face.

The latest attack comes as investigators say that Garzon was killed by a conspiracy involving right-wing paramilitaries, the regular military and the DAS, Colombia's FBI.

Also recently, across the street, workers cut a ventilation window into this union-sponsored mural.

Couldn't they have located their ventilation space just a meter or two higher up?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Rule of Law Wins - For Once

guatemala otto perez molina
Guatemalan Pres. Otto Pérez in court.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, an ex-military officer allegedly linked to atrocities during the country's vicious civil war, tolerated protests against him after evidence appeared tieing him to a corruption scandal. And, when the public and political pressure against him became overwhelming, Pérez Molina resigned and went to jail, where he will be tried like a common criminal.

Guatemala's remarkable turn of events is a victory for civil society and its power to hold leaders accountable. And so is the investigation into a huge kickback scheme in Brazil's Petrobras state oil company, which now has that nation's president on the ropes.

Nevertheless, across Latin America, consolidation of power by many presidents is endangering systems of checks and balances, making leaders invulnerable to accusations of corruption and giving them authoritarian powers.

The most glaring example is Venezuela, whose pseudosocialist government just carried out a show
Imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
trial which sentenced opposition leader Leopold Lopez to almost 14 years in prison, even tho human rights defenders say prosecutors offered no real evidence.

'The sentence of 13 years and 9 months in prison against a Venezuelan opposition leader with no credible evidence against him shows the complete lack of judicial independence and impartiality in Venezuela,' wrote Amnesty International.

Reeling from a shrinking economy, the world's highest inflation rate and soaring crime, while facing parliamentary elections in December, Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro is trying to muzzle the press and imprison opponents.

Maduro has also tried to scapegoat Colombian immigrants as the cause of his nation's profound problems, deporting hundreds of Colombians in brutal conditions.

Meanwhile, other, more competent Latin leaders have used their success to consolidate power. Ecuadorian Pres. Rafael Correa has used economic pressure, lawsuits and anti-free speech laws to intimidate and close critical media.

In Bolivia, Pres. Evo Morales controls more than two-thirds of Congress and plans to use this power to pass a bill enabling him to run for a fourth-consecutive term.

And in Nicaragua the Supreme Court ruled that Pres. Daniel Ortega, a one-time leftist guerrilla leader, could run for a third consecutive term even tho the Constitution clearly states that neither the sitting president nor someone who has held that office for two terms can run again.

Sadly, it's inconceivable that in any of these nations, the president would be prosecuted for corruption, no matter how shameless. And, most likely, the media would not even report such corruption.
Ernesto Samper survided
a huge scandal.

And how about Colombia? The history isn't encouraging.

President Ernesto Samper's (1994-8), was the last presidency threatened by scandal. Despite
overwhelming evidence of drug cartel money in his campaign, he pleaded ignorance and survived a political trial in Congress and finished out his term. (The U.S. appeared to consider him guilty and took away his visa.)  Samper now heads the leftist Unasur organization of Latin American nations.

Scandal couldn't touch Alvaro Uribe.
The 2002-8 terms of right-wing Pres. Alvaro Uribe were marked by military success against Colombia's guerrillas, but also horrendous human rights violations, including massacres of peasants by paramilitaries and the False Positives killings. Uribe's government also employed the DAS, Colombia's FBI, to spy on opponents, including journalists and even Supreme Court justices. Some called the scandal worse than Watergate. Uribe has been repeatedly accused of links to paramilitary death squads, but evidence has never stuck, and he is now in Congress, where he leads the opposition to Pres. Santos. (On the other hand, several high-ranking members of his administration are on trial or in prison for corruption and other crimes.)

Colombia will be better off it never has to test whether its legal system is strong enough to take down a president.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Maduro and Trump: Separated at Birth?

Nicolas Maduro.
Whenever the opportunity comes up, expect Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro to denounce U.S. billionare presidential candidate Donald Trump as a right-wing, xenophobic would-be dictator.

And, if he ever gets the chance, expect Trump to denounce Maduro as a xenophobic, left-wing, bannana republic tyrant.

Both should be careful about what they say, since they seem to be blood brothers, despite supposedly being ideological opposites.

Trump boasts that if elected president of the United States he'll expel all illegal immigrants, whom he blames for the U.S.'s crime troubles, and build a wall along the Mexican border - at Mexico's expense. Those claims are absurd, of course. However, to see an example, he can just look south to the Venezuelan-Colombian border.

Donald Trump.
As Trump does the Mexicans, Maduro blames Colombians for his country's criminal and ecnomic troubles. And, as Trump would do, Maduro has expelled Colombian immigrants and tried to shut down the border.

The result? A humanitarian crisis, accusations of rights violations - and Venezuela's economy continues suffering and its crime epidemic continues.

Trump calls himself a conservative, Maduro calls himself a leftist. But, when it comes to futile, abusive national policies, ideological opposites seem to intersect.

Trump's wet dream? Deported Colombians carry their belongings across a river from Venezuela into Colombia. (Photo: Telemundo)
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Carlos Lehder in his Labyrinth

Carlos Lehder in happier times.
If Pablo Escobar became Colombia's iconic narco, Carlos Lehder may be its most pathetic and outlandish one.

And perhaps one of its least fortunate.

Lehder, 66, who's back in the news these days thanks to his pleas for release from a U.S. prison, was born in 1949 in rural Armenia, the son of a German immigrant father and a Colombian mother. His parents separated, and as a teenager Lehder and his mother moved to New York, where he became something of a hippie - but a hippie obsessed with both John Lennon and Adolf Hitler.

Lehder started out as a small-time car thief and cocaine smuggler. During a prison stint in
Lehder showing off 'product,' and Norman's Cay,
Bahamas: a landing strip with an island attached.
Connecticut, he found himself sharing a cell with a hippie pot smuggler named George Jung, later the subject of the movie 'Blow.' Jung had flown planes packed with pot from Mexico to the U.S. The two men shared their smuggling experiences, Jung would later recall, and the ambitious Lehder used prison as a school, interviewing other inmates on the details of drug smuggling. He left with a plan to fly planeloads of cocaine from his native Colombia to the States.

Previously, cocaine had been smuggled north in travelers' intestines and in luggage with false bottoms. Lehder's scheme quickly became so successful that he purchased an island in the Bahamas, drove out its residents and used it to party and as a waystation for drug shipments to the U.S. He also built a resort in Armenia and across the street put up a 10-foot-tall bronze statue of John Lennon, which eventually was stolen (and likely sold for scrap metal).

Lehder's resort and billions of dollars helped him to create his own neo-fascist political party, perhaps modeled after the Nazis, called the Latino Civic Movement.

Lehder and his Lennon statue.
Drug trafficking made Lehder multi-billionare and a founding member of the Medellin Cartel, but he developed a drug problem of his own. Pablo Escobar famously smoked marijuana, but Lehder's crack and cocaine habit and unpredictable behavior made him a problem for the other traffickers. In 1987, with anti-drug agents hot on his trail, Escobar supposedly betrayed Lehder to U.S. authorities. (According to another version, neighbors complained about a loud rowdy party. Police arrived and to their surprise discovered Lehder.)

Extradited to the U.S., Lehder received a sentence of life plus 135 additional years.

But the imprisoned Lehder had something to bargain with. He had trafficked drugs thru Panama, and so when U.S. authorities arrested Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Lehder was ready to trade his knowledge for a reduction in his own sentence. Lehder's testimony reduced his sentence to 55 years.

However, Lehder claims, with some evidence, that U.S. authorities promised he would receive a sentence of no more than 30 years, and less than whatever Noriega got. Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in U.S. prison, served 16 and then was extradited to France and later to Panama, to face more charges. U.S. officials claim they made no such deal with Lehder.

So, today, Lehder, 66, is living out his life in a Florida prison, while other narcos such as two of the Ochoa brothers, fellow leaders of the Medellin cartel, are back home in Colombia after having served only about 5 years in prison. Pablo Escobar's brother Roberto now smiles for tourists in Medellin. And, some leaders of paramilitary groups, who were responsible for thousands of killings as well as narcotrafficking, are going free after 8-year prison terms.

In a letter last month to Pres. Santos, Lehder asked for the president's intervention with U.S. officials to enable Lehder to come home "to die in Colombia."

Timothy Tyler: doing life
for 13 sheets of LSD.
But the ever egoistic Lehder may have hurt his own case by boasting that he was "part of a group of visionary Medelling smugglers," who accomplished what alquemists always failed at: "turning a kilo of refined leaves into a kilo of gold."

Santos, an ex-minister of defense, may not have appreciated that boast. He has not intervened in the case.

Lehder's sentence may seem harsh. However, it is not when compared to the fates of some U.S. Timothy Tyler, a native of Florida and Connecticut already on probation, was sentenced to life in prison for mailing 13 sheets of LSD to a friend.
citizens convicted of multiple minor crimes, including drug dealing, because of insane three-strikes laws. Lehder sent tons of cocaine north ot the U.S. and undoubtedly caused many killings. But in 1992 24-year-old

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Turning the Historical Tables

Five hundred years ago, foreigners occupied the lands of Colombia's indigenous people, taking the land away to use for agriculture and mining.

Today, dozens of indigenous Colombians and campesinos occupied the Ministry of Agriculture on Jimenez Ave. in central Bogotá today, making demands which however weren't very clear to the public.

In the morning, an indigenous man whom I asked about their demands refused to tell me - which struck me as not the best way to obtain those demands.

According to El Tiempo, the protesters are demanding that the government fulfill certain agreements, basically involving money. That seemed to be the view also of the police standing by the protest.

"It's all about money," a police officer told me.

A crazy man gestures at the protesters.
But a woman protester told me that their demands also included land redistribution and an end to killings of indigenous people. Then, one of her companions called her away, apparently to stop her talking to an outsider. Then, another protester asked me to stop taking pictures "for the safety of the people," even tho I'd seen people taking their pictures all day long, and their photos are on El Tiempo's and other websites.

 This evening, the occupiers were still there - perhaps justifiably, since only a few centuries ago this was all indigenous territory.

The sign says 'We are not terrorists.'

Riot police wait across the street.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours