Monday, October 23, 2017

Blaming Colombia

A Colombian coca leaf farmer. Guilty for cocaine
consumption boom? 
This not-so-recent Washington Post article about the boom in Colombian coca leaf/cocaine production places the blame on Colombia for the reported big increase in U.S. cocaine consumption.

'U.S. officials say the flood of cheap Colombian product is so large that it has quietly created its own demand,' says the Post.

At first glance, that seems to make sense: More supply generally means lower prices and higher sales.

But many cocaine consumers are addicts, making the market somewhat inelastic. More importantly, according to Tom Wainwright, a former correspondent in Mexico for The Economist who wrote a recent book about narcotics economics called 'Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel', around 2016 a ton of coca leaves that sold for $500 in Colombia retailed for $150,000 on a U.S. street.
Causing U.S. consumption? A Colombian coca field. 

That's a 30,000% mark-up - which is pretty good.

So, virtually all of cocaine's final price comes from the trouble, expense and danger of shipping the stuff across oceans, dodging bullets, hiding it in secret compartments, bribing officials, and paying people to risk prison. The farming cost is such an insignificant proportion that even if Colombian cocalers gave their leaves away for free, it wouldn't make a noticeable difference to buyers in New York or Los Angeles.

Colombian production hasn't caused U.S. consumption to rise. Internal U.S. factors, such as a strong economy, social stresses, unemployment and others are to blame for that.

And that is why all the billions of dollars and innumerable lives expended in the war on drugs have been for almost nothing.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

'Deforested Bones'

A skeletal bird made from wood represents deforestation's impacts.
Colombia's immense biodiversity is going fast, in great part because many creatures' forest habitats are disappearing.

A deforested danta.
And the National University's Natural History Museum's current exhibition dramatically exhibits that with sculptures of wild animals made from sticks, pieces of bark and charred wood gathered in deforested areas.

Peace with Colombia's various outlaw organizations was supposed to strengthen protection of the environment. Instead, deforestation has accelerated the last several years, to an incredible 20,000 hectares per hour, or 178,000 hectares per year - about double the entire land area of the Dutch Antilles. According to the museum, half of Colombia's high-altitude wetlands and its foothhill forests are gone, as are 90% of its tropical forests.

With the forests, go all the species living in them.

Deforestation is driven primarily by the expansion of agriculture, both legal and illegal, including cattle ranching. Every time a new road or pipeline is cut thru forest, observers watch the deforestation radiate out from the initial line.
A deforested jaguar.

The museum's exhibition, called Deforested Bones, includes messages warning against consumerism. However, our unbridled consumption of natural resources is only one cause of a complex phenomenon. Other parts are poverty that makes farmers desperate to feed their families, wealth which enables landowners to corrupt government officials, and twisted government policies which routinely give natural resource extraction priority over environmental conservation.

A deforested sloth.

A deforested spider monkey.
The natural history museum also has permanent exhibitions about anthropology, evolution, archaeology and Colombian wildlife.

A museum visitor sticks his hand into a crocodile's mouth.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

A Gilded Cage for Bacrims

Members of the Usuga clan wanted by police.
The sweet deal and near impunity given to FARC guerrillas was a big reasons why voters rejected the peace deal in last year's referendum.

Yet, now, criminal bands, called bacrims, might receive similar treatment.

Under rules being prepared by the government, such criminal bands, which get rich thru narcotrafficking, extortion and illegal mining, would be able to keep 5% of the dirty money they turn in. And considering the profitability of their illegal operations, that 5% could still be a mountain of money. And we'll never know how much more money those groups have buried underground or hidden in offshore bank accounts.

Not only that, but some of the bacrims' other ill-gotten gains will be spent on...the bacrims themselves, in job training and business development.

Wonder how the victims feel about that.

Unlike the deal with the guerrillas, the bacrims' members are supposed to go to real prisons. We'll see how long they spend there. Even so, they also get a 40% reduction in their sentences.

The proposed rules offer the deal to criminal organizations which have a 'unified command structure,' 'control territory' and 'utilize violence against state forces or the civilian popuation.

The groups must also must carry out cross-border crimes such as trafficking people and weapons.

In other words, the worse you are, the more benefits you get.

The government's urgency to make deals with violent criminal gangs such as the Usuga clan is understandable. After all, defeating them is extremely difficult - and whenever one is destroyed, another pops up.

But how far should the government go in allowing impunity for such groups, a policy which almost amounts to a de-facto legalization of their crimes? And in a nation in which ex-paramilitaries and ex-guerrillas are walking free after little or no punishment, how much impunity can public morality tolerate?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Look Back at Rogelio Salmona

The Torres del Parque, in the La Macarena neighborhood, above the Plaza de Toros Santamaria.
If you've lived in or even just visited Bogotá, you've seen the work of architect Rogelio Salmona - or at least his influence.

A stilt walker in the Gabriel Garcia Marquéz Cultural Center
in La Candelaria, designed by Salmona and financed by
the Mexican government.
Born in France in 1939 to a Jewish family, Salmona's family emigrated to Colombia in 1931. In 1948, in the wake of the Bogotazo riots, Rogelio moved to Paris and spent a decade working with famed architect Lecorbusier. He returned to Colombia in 1958.

Salmona died on Oct. 3, 2007, a decade ago this month.

Salmona, Colombia's most famous architect, loved to work with brick and incorporated lots of curves into his buildings. In a socially striated nation where many are paranoid about crime, Salmona integrated his apartment
Rogelio Salmona
complexes into their surroundings, rather than walling them off. Salmona also designed the Virgilio Barco Library in north Bogotá, the graduate studies humanities building on the Universidad Nacional campush, and the Nueva Santa Fe apartments and the neighboring Archivo General de la Nación, both just south of La Candelaria, as well as many others.

Walking thru many of Salmona's works, with their curving lines and stepped pools of water, gives one a sensation of a visit to an Arab desert oasis. And in fact, Salmona spent time in northern Africa.
An interior hallway of the Gabriel Garcia Marquéz
Cultural Center.

Unicyclists pedal on Jimenez Ave. in central Bogota. 
The Nueva Santa Fe apartments, just south of La Candelaria.

Entrance to the National Archive, also just south of La Candelaria.
The National Archive.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Trump and Tumaco

A bus burns in Tumaco, where police have clashed with
campesinos resisting coca leaf erradication. (Photo: El Pais)
It's not difficult to draw a line from Donald Trump's more aggressive anti-drug policies to the recent violence in Tumaco, on Colombia's Pacific coast.

Colombia's coca leaf and cocaine production have boomed in recent years, to the dismay of anti-drug officials both here and in Washington. But the boom has not brought the violence of the 1980s drug boom. Some say that's because the cartel wars have shifted to Central America and Mexico; others, that it's because the narcos moved their headquarters from the cities to rural areas, where violence is less noticed. Or, is it due to some tacit understanding between authorities and drug producers to live and let live?

But any such truce was shattered in Tumaco Oct. 5, when six campesinos were killed in clashes with police, under confusing circumstances.

It's not clear who started the confrontations. But tensions were escalated by increased pressure from Washington to erradicate coca fields, the crop which puts food on the table for innumerable rural families but also supplies narcotraffickers.

Cocaine produces untold environmental and human damage here and overseas. But decades of drug fighting, billions of dollars and innumerable deaths haven't eliminated it, and aren't likely to.

The Trump administration's mounting pressure on Colombia to reign in drug production won't eliminate cocaine, but will mean more confrontations like Tumaco's. Non-governmental organizations point to ten more municipalities in the region with the same combustible ingredients: booming drug acreage and violent outlaw organizations which profit from and defend the drug trade.

Meanwhile, the crisis is intensified by the U.S.'s refusal to deal with the FARC, even tho they have demobilized, turned in their weapons and transformed themselves from guerrillas to a political party - yet remain on the U.S.'s list of terrorist organizations.

One of the key selling points of the FARC-government peace agreement was that the FARC would help fight narcotrafficking. But that's difficult as long as Washington refuses to talk to them.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Memory, and a Warning

Tables and photos on Plaza Bolivar today memorialize murdered members of the Union Patriotica political party.
Supporters of the Union Patriotica political party held a memorial on Plaza Bolivar today honoring the 3,000 to 5,000 members of the party who were assassinated in the late 1980s and early '90s in what is remembered as the 'genocide of the Union Patriotica.'

The U.P., founded in 1985, was linked to the FARC, and many saw it as the guerrillas' tentative effort to integrate into Colombia's political system. The killings, carried out by right-wing paramilitaries support by the regular Colombian military, ended that initiative. 

The U.P. killings carry a special resonance today as the FARC guerrillas demobilize and integrate into society. Although the paramilitary groups formally demobilized in the mid-2000s, many people claim they continue operating in remote parts of Colombia. 

Ironically, the FARC carried out their own political 'genocide' in the early 1990s against demobilized members of another leftist guerrilla group, the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion, EPL, who had formed a political party. In the best Stalinist fashion, the FARC called them traitors to the guerrilla movement and proceeded to murder about 200 ex-EPL members.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, October 16, 2017

Was It Fraud?

Venezuela's official election results: Overwhelmingly red.
Can a government whose popularity is in the mid-20 percentiles, whose incompetence has given its people a shrinking economy, the world's highest inflation rate and a terrifying crime rate, and driven untold thousands of its citizens to flee to Colombia, really win in almost three-quarters of its provinces?

It strains credulity, particularly since the electoral authorities also announced a high turnout of 61% of voters for a regional election.

And fraud wouldn't be unprecedented. After July elections for members of a Constitutional Assembly, which was boycotted by the opposition, the company which supplied the voting machines called the government's turn-out numbers inflated. The assembly was widely denounced as illegitimate. Venezuela is notoriously corrupt.

Caracas Chronicles, a pro-opposition website, speculated that opposition voters lost enthusiasm and did not turn out. But does it make sense that pro-government voters would turn out in big numbers when store shelves are bare of toilet paper, medicines and basic food stufs?

Perhaps information will leak out and reveal what really happened. Until then, Venezuela's crisis is only likely to worsen.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Buying a Wayuu Bride - Sort Of

A column decorated with goat hides represents the dowries paid by young Wayuu men to their brides' families.
Before he can get married, a young man of the Wayuu indigenous people must give his bride's family a big dowry: Often 50 goats, necklaces, cattle, money and jewels.

In this matrilineal society, the valuables are supposed to go primarily to the family of the bride's mother, according to Bogotá's Museum of Regional Dress, which has a small exhibition on now about the practice.
The Museo de Trajes Regionales, located on Calle 10 
just above Plaza Bolivar, is one of 
La Candelaria's lesser-known museums.

The exhibition consists primarily of a column covered with goatskins representing the animals given by the groom. The young man generally must collect gifts from relatives and friends to amass a sufficient dowry. It's a controversial practice which persists mostly in rural areas of La Guajira.

Despite appearances, the museum's website denies that this represents a bride price, calling the payment rather the groom's 'appreciation of the prestige of the bride and her family.

"In no case is this a sale or trade of a human being," says the website.

Wayuu traditional dress.
Nevertheless, when I visited La Guajira years ago, Wayuu women told me they felt humiliated by the dowry, as tho they were being traded for livestock.

But the dowry is perpetuated across generations, since fathers insist that they be paid, to compensate them for the dowry they themselves paid their own wives' families.

The Wayuus' traditional territory was divided in two by the Colombian-Venezuelan border. While this certainly separated families, it also created a privilege for the Wayuu people, who usually can cross the border freely. Many Wayuu, particularly women, have become wealthy traders - and contrabanders.

The Guajira peninsula has a history of lawlessness, from contraband and pirates. Henri Charrière, the protagonist and author of Papillon, cohabited with Wayuu women while hiding out after escaping from Devil's Island.

The Wayuu divide themselves into clans, based on maternal descent, and these clans have historically
carried out murderous feuds. When paramilitary groups wrested control of the region from guerrillas in the mid-2000s, they sided with some clans against others, committing massacres and forcing people to flee to Venezuela.

The last few years, the Wayuu's always-dry territory has suffered a severe drought, killing many children. The situation has likely been worsened by coal mines, which have diverted streams and consume huge amounts of the region's scarce water.

And altho the Wayuu exhibition is small, the dress museum is worth visiting to see the regional and historical clothing worn by different groups of afro, indigenous and white Colombians.

Campesinos from Huila Department.

Guambiano Indigenous people from Huila Department.
A mask from an Amazonian indigenous tribe.

A view from the museum's interior.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Venezuelans are Coming, and Coming

Two young men from Venezuela sell arepas on Plaza San Victorino recently.
The two employees in a stir fry place here in La Candelaria came recently from Venezuela, where one was an attorney and the other had some small businesses. A street musician whom I knew more than a dozen years ago in Caracas just showed up in La Candelaria. The other night, I was accosted by two young Venezuelan women selling arepas venezolanas. Apparently desperate, one of them placed her hand fondly on my shoulder just a few minutes after we'd met.

A Venezuelan man and boy ask for money - supposedly for
other Venezuelans - near Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar.
Colombia, which for decades sent millions of its people overseas, is now being inundated by immigrants from oil-rich Venezuela - which until not long ago was the economic envy of the rest of the continent.

The reasons are obvious: Venezuela's incompetent, increasingly authoritarian government, has caused the economy to contract nearly 20% and inflation of almost 800%, numbers usually seen only in wartime.

The Caracas Chronicles website calculates that more than 70,000 Venezuelans have come to Colombia - but nobody knows for sure, since many undoubtedly cross the border illegaly.

Venezuelans are a godsend for this year's bumper coffee crop, which is short of pickers. And I suspect that they're also helping collect Colombia's record crop of coca leaves.

According to this graph from the Caracas Chronicles blog,
the number of Venezuelans fleeing their nation far exceeds the
number of refugees crossing the Meditarrean to Europe.
The wave of foreigners has inevitably generated tensions. The two young arepa sellers talked about minor confrontations on the bus, and said that street merchants insulted and harrassed them. Undoubtedly, low income Colombians feel threatened by the wave of cheap labor. Even Colombian prostitutes have complained that Venezuelans are invading their industry, offering services at cut-rated prices.

What will happen? Venezuelan Pres. Nicolas Maduro seems determined to continue his disastrous economic policies, and shows no sign of sharing power with the oppisition. So, Venezuela will likely continue its economic tailspin, and possibly end up in some sort of civil war.

Expect the Venezuelans to keep coming.

Many thousands of Venezuelans pack Bogotá's Plaza Bolivar
during a recent vote arranged by that country's
opposition parties.
Update: A young Venezuelan woman waiting tables in a restaurant around the corner described to me a series of crimes in her country, including one when assailants threatened to shoot her dog unless she handed over valuables. She has two college degrees and back in Caracas worked in media production. Economically, she was getting by, but the crime epidemic terrified her. Via Whatsapp, she just learned that some 20 people in her community had been kidnapped in recent weeks. Those are 'express kidnappings,' in which the victim is taken to some poor neighborhood and held there until relatives deliver the ransom in euros, dollars or gold.

"The kidnappers won't accept bolivars," the fast-devaluing local currency, she added.

"The social decomposition has been terrible and really fast," she says, adding that "everybody's just out for money."
According to one poll published by the Caracas Chronicles
website, the great majority of Venezuelans
want to leave their country.

Yet, she actually seems to sympathise with the criminals. "When your salary is only enough to buy some bread and milk, how can you blame them," for being so desperate? she asks.

She's also sure that the government committed fraud to win majorities in most states in recent regional voting. After all, "who would vote for a government that's keeping you hungry?"

In fact, the Caracas Chronicles blog has published documents they say demonstrate pro-government fraud in the vote.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, October 6, 2017

Paint it Before It's Gone

This non-descript three-story home on Calle 26B and Carrera 4 in La Macarena is due to be demolished in a few months. But until then it's living its most colorful chapter as the canvas for a multitude of Bogotá street artists, who have painted it inside and out. 
Called 'Galería Fenix', after the mythological bird which was reborn from its own ashes, the paintings are supposed to represent life, death and rebirth. This is third such project since 2015 by the LAVAMOÁ TUMBA arts collective, always in such doomed buildings. The group's name means, informally, 'We're going to knock it down.'
The organizers expect the paintings to remain there for about two months, or until the building gets demolished. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours