La Plaza

News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Colombia

La Plaza comments switching to Facebook

La Plaza today is switching to a new commenting system.

The system requires commenters to sign in through their Facebook accounts. People without Facebook accounts will not be able to leave comments.

Readers will have the option of posting their La Plaza comments on their Facebook walls, but that's not required.

Readers are welcome to express their opinions about the news -- and about how the new Facebook comments system is working.

Jimmy Orr, the Los Angeles Times managing editor in charge of, discussed our online comments and the Facebook system in greater depth in a March entry to the Readers' Representative Journal.

We hope to see your comments on Facebook.

-- The Foreign Staff of the Los Angeles Times

Colombian cellphone company cancels puppy raffle after PETA protests

Colombia cell phone puppies promotion

A Colombian cellphone company belonging to Mexican magnate Carlos Slim's telecom empire has canceled plans to raffle 200 purebred puppies in a customer promotion under pressure by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Comcel, the Colombian division of Slim's America Movil wireless carrier, will raffle debit cards instead for the promotion planned in Bogota, Bloomberg reports. Comcel had been the focus of a PETA campaign aimed at preventing puppies from being handed over to "unprepared guardians."

The promotion had sparked a controversy in Colombia ever since it was announced in late November. Users on Twitter raised protests and demanded that Comcel halt the raffle, although the company said that the puppies were coming from a top-notch shelter, Cachorros de San Luis, and that participants were free to turn down a puppy if they won one (link in Spanish).

"When people give animals as prizes, they usually don't realize that they might be contributing to the animal homelessness crisis by condoning the breeding of pedigree pups," PETA Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch said in a statement.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo credit: Cachorros de San Luis, Colombia

White House: Cocaine market in U.S. under 'stress'

Cocaine dealer arrested sydney herald sun

The cocaine market in the United States is under "significant stress," reports the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Cocaine production has dropped in Colombia due to recent eradication efforts, putting stress on the U.S. market in 2009, the office announced this month. And although a direct connection between data is not sufficiently made clear, use of the drug also dropped last year in the United States, where most Colombian cocaine is destined after being moved by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

"Although a wide array of data now confirm the decline in use and availability of cocaine in the United States, there are still far too many Americans using drugs that drive violence and instability in other nations," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House office. "That is why the Obama administration is working to restore balance to our drug control efforts by emphasizing demand reduction at the same time we are supporting our international allies in their efforts to curb the supply of these drugs."

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Colombia's Alvaro Uribe reached out to rebels, rebels to the U.S., cables show

Alfonso cano abc

Colombia's right-wing former president, Alvaro Uribe, sought contact in the final months of his term with the FARC guerrilla army in an effort to set "road maps" for new peace talks during the government of his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables show.

Uribe secretly reached out to the FARC even as he pursued a hard-line campaign to eliminate the rebels by force, while publicly refusing negotiations as long as the FARC kidnapped and held hostages.

The new batch of cables, published by El Pais and other websites, also reveal that the FARC sought direct contact with the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, the Colombian capital. The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is the oldest active guerrilla force in Latin America and has waged war against the Colombian government for nearly half a century.

The leaked cables offer a window on the intensely complex political gamesmanship involving Colombia's government, several active guerrilla groups and outside players. These include the United States, a strong ally of Uribe through the Plan Colombia aid package, and neighboring Venezuela, seen as supportive of the FARC under the government of President Hugo Chavez.

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World mayors sign climate-change pact in Mexico City

Mexico City mayors climate change summit

Hoping to place cities at the forefront of global climate-change policy efforts, leaders of more than 100 urban centers pledged on Sunday in Mexico City to commit their governments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The so-called Mexico City Pact is a precursor to climate-change talks with world governments opening next week in the Mexican resort city of Cancun. Countries will attempt once more to come up with a binding treaty to rein in global warming after the failure to do so at United Nations talks in Denmark last year.

In Mexico City, mayors and representatives of 138 cities, including Los Angeles, Paris and Johannesburg, signed the voluntary pact that states they will develop and implement local climate-change action plans that are "measurable, reportable and verifiable." The mayors summit was organized by the government of Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, whose efforts to "green" this crowded and polluted megalopolis are considered the most ambitious in Latin America.

Ebrard, who appears a likely presidential candidate in Mexico in 2012, said local governments will be key to reducing the effects of climate change. A majority of the world's population is now living in cities for the first time in history.

"We have to tell the international community that it's in the cities that the battle to slow global warming will be won," the mayor said before the summit.

Other cities in the region joining the pledge in Mexico City included Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina; La Paz, capital of Bolivia; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the largest cities in Brazil; Bogota,  capital of Colombia; Quito, capital of Ecuador; and Montevideo, Uruguay's capital (link in Spanish).

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, center, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, at left, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hold the pact. Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, who also presented his plan on climate change at the mayors summit, is seen in the far rear, third from left (link in Spanish). Credit: World Mayors Summit on Climate Change

Bolivia's army declares itself 'socialist'

Evo morales bolivia military reuters

The commanding general of Bolivia's army has declared the Andean nation's forces "socialist," "anti-capitalist," and "anti-imperialist," positions that were immediately echoed by President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president.

Gen. Antonio Cueto made the statements Sunday at a ceremony marking the army's 200th anniversary. Cueto said Bolivia's 2009 constitution allows the army to "emerge as a socialist, communitarian institution," according to the EFE news agency (links in Spanish).

"We declare ourselves anti-imperialist because in Bolivia there can exist no external power imposing itself," Cueto said. "We also declare ourselves anti-capitalist because this system is destroying Mother Earth."

Morales, who attended the ceremony using crutches because of recent knee surgery, agreed, saying, "History proves that the army was born with an anti-imperialist position because it's been combating the European empire since 1810." (Link in Spanish.)

Cueto also said Bolivia would never allow a foreign military to establish bases within its territory, making an indirect reference to a stalled plan in Colombia to allow the U.S. armed forces to use bases there. Cueto's words drew criticism and rebuke from former military leaders, reported La Razon, a daily in Bolivia (link in Spanish). One former commander and current opposition senator said the general was taking a partisan position, and therefore was in violation of the Constitution.

The chief of Bolivia's national police, meanwhile, said this week that his agency would remain "apolitical," EFE reported.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: President Evo Morales greets military leaders  Nov. 14 in La Paz, Bolivia. Credit: Reuters

Report: The Salvadoran ex-guerrilla advising Mexico's drug-war leaders

Salinas villalobos la jornada

Nearly 30,000 people, the latest figure being used, have died in Mexico's drug war in the nearly four years since President Felipe Calderon dispatched the military to disrupt the country's drug-trafficking organizations.

Calderon's administration has consistently claimed that the high casualty rate is a sign of success. The Mexican president might have a former guerrilla commander to thanks for that approach.

As The Times' Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson reports, the most influential mind behind Calderon's drug-war strategy is a man named Joaquin Villalobos, an ex-rebel leader from El Salvador who has rebranded himself as an Oxford-educated security consultant. In recent speeches, op-eds and interviews, Calderon's rhetoric on the drug war is almost indistinguishable from that of Villalobos, Wilkinson writes. They both claim that rising numbers of dead are a sign that Mexico's cartels are eliminating one another, and that Mexican society must be prepared to absorb more violence in the overall effort against drugs.

Read the whole story here.

The reach of Villalobos' influence in recent security policy in Mexico is apparent in the image above, published in January in the daily La Jornada (link in Spanish). Villalobos, right, is handing over a weapon to Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the controversial president of Mexico between 1988 and 1994. The gun was given personally to Villalobos as a gift by none other than Fidel Castro, the paper says, and the photo was taken inside Los Pinos, Mexico's presidential residence.

Villalobos has worked as a consultant off and on for years in Mexico, as well as for Colombia's right-wing former president Alvaro Uribe. From his guerrilla days with the FMLN and EPR movements in El Salvador, Villalobos remains implicated to this day in the execution of poet Roque Dalton.

Today, Villalobos is a seen as a "guru" among Calderon's advisors in Mexico. The ex-guerrilla, who may be mulling a future run for the presidency of El Salvador, laid out his security advice for Mexico's drug war in an essay published in the magazine Nexos on Jan. 1. Here's the link in Spanish for "Twelve Myths of the Narco War." His "myths" are:

1. "We should not have confronted organized crime."

2. "Mexico is Colombian-izing and is in danger of becoming a failed state."

3. "The intense debate over insecurity is a sign of its worsening."

4. "Deaths and violence is a sign that we are losing the war."

5. "Three years is a long time, the plan has failed."

6. "Attacks by narcos prove they are powerful."

7. "Let's first do away with corruption and poverty."

8. "There are powerful politicians and businessmen behind narco-trafficking."

9. "The only way out is to negotiate with the narco-traffickers."

10. "The strategy should guide itself to the legalization of drugs."

11. "The military's participation is negative and should be drawn back."

12. "The fastest and most effective end to crime is the pursuit of justice by its own account."

Here's an automated translation of the piece into English, alternating between sentences. La Jornada offers a rebuttal of the piece here, in Spanish, and here, in automated translation to English.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, left, receives a weapon as a gift from former Salvadoran guerrilla leader Joaquin Villalobos, in Los Pinos in Mexico on April 7, 1993. Credit: La Jornada

A 'miracle' in Chile, but mining accidents are often tragedies across Latin America

 Esteban rojas chile mine rescue reuters

If the remarkable rescue of 33 miners trapped in Chile for 69 days was a "miracle," as some have dubbed it, other mining accidents in recent years have had less happy endings, claiming dozens of lives in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

Though mining accidents are relatively rare in Chile, a 2007 collapse in the same San Jose mine where "Los 33" were trapped left a miner dead and forced the mine's temporary closure. At another mine in the Copiaco region, a truck collision in 2006 left two miners dead and 70 others trapped for several hours (link in Spanish).

As metal prices rise and companies continue to seek Latin America's rich deposits of minerals and coal, the industry grows faster than some countries can regulate it, says a Forbes report. There are regular conflicts with workers over pay and safety conditions, as well as numerous reports of illegal mining operations -- with hardly any safety oversight or regulations -- in so-called wildcat mines.

Here are some major recent mining accidents in Latin America:

* This month, five miners died in a collapse at a coal mine in northeast Colombia (link in Spanish).

* In August, while the 33 Chile miners were trapped underground, an explosion at a wildcat gold mine in a remote jungle in Venezuela killed six miners. Miners in the area said that the actual toll was 14 or 15.

* In June, an explosion at a coal mine in northwestern Colombia left 70 miners dead, one of the largest death tolls recorded in recent mining accidents worldwide.

* In February, eight miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Peru.

* In 2006, 65 miners died after an explosion at a coal mine in northern Mexico (link in Spanish).

President Sebastian Pinera has vowed to overhaul safety regulations at mines in Chile, the world's top copper producer. Pinera announced the formation of a new commission to examine workplace safety in mines and fired the previous mining minister early in the rescue effort. But safety and regulatory issues remain a major challenge for the industry across the region.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Esteban Rojas kneels and hugs his wife after being the 18th miner rescued from the San Jose mine in Chile. Credit: Reuters

Report: Mexico is not Colombia, here's why

Mayor mexico body reuters

Comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comparing Mexico's drug war to a Colombia-style "insurgency" touched off a flurry of debate over the parallels between the two conflicts. Seeking out the facts, L.A. Times foreign correspondents conclude that the secretary's comments were like comparing "apples and oranges."

Here's the full story from Sunday's paper. At issue is whether the U.S. will seek to model the Merida Initiative aid package to Mexico on Plan Colombia, the deal that has supplied Colombia with more than $7 billion in aid to combat rebels and drug traffickers.

In their reporting, correspondent Ken Ellingwood, Mexico City bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Colombia break down the two conflicts into basic areas. Here's the La Plaza summary:

The nature of the foe: Colombia's decades-long conflict with the FARC rebel group and with powerful drug cartels is motivated, at least on the rebel side, by a Marxist ideology aimed at overthrowing the state. In Mexico, the drug war is motivated by the cartels' basic goal of moving narcotics into the U.S. without government interference, and collecting profits.

Territory: At the peak of its power, the FARC controlled a "Switzerland-size chunk" of Colombia's territory, with identifiable borders, plus other land. In contrast, Mexican drug gangs' sway over certain regions of Mexico remains fluid, and there is "no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants."

Targets and tactics: Terrorist-style attacks have occurred in Mexico's drug war (a remote-controlled car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, a grenade attack on civilians in Michoacan) but they have not occurred with the frequency and scope as such tactics in Colombia. The Mexico drug war is mostly a conflict between feuding cartel groups.

State weakness: This is where the line is fuzziest. Colombia had a weakened army when the FARC began attacking the state, but a relatively strong civil society that eventually rose up and demanded solutions. Mexico sent 50,000 troops head-on to combat its drug gangs, but it has so far fallen short in pursuing desperately needed reforms in the justice system, for example, and in money laundering.

What's the proper prescription for Mexico then? One unnamed U.S. official in Mexico told The Times: "Institution building, institution building, institution building."

The U.S. recently signaled it would drastically boost funds to Mexico but held back a fraction of a previously pledged amount over doubts on progress over human rights allegations. Human rights abuses remain the darkest mark on Colombia's advances over the FARC and traffickers, as reported recently by the left-leaning Washington Office on Latin America, in an extensive analysis on Plan Colombia titled "Colombia: Don't Call it a Model."

On the 10th anniversary of Plan Colombia's start, Kraul reports in The Times that the country is more secure and that the military has made advances over the FARC. Still, coca eradication efforts have not been as successful as hoped, and have pushed some cocaine production over to neighboring Peru. Kraul notes that the Colombian military is believed responsible for 3,000 extrajudicial killings between 2002 and 2009.

On Thursday in New York City, U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos over the confirmed death of a major FARC leader in a military operation on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, a mayor in a town in the Monterrey metropolitan area was assassinated late last week, the fourth mayor killed by suspected drug hitmen in the last six weeks, Wilkinson reports. A mayor-elect in Chihuahua state was also shot on Friday and was in critical condition.

In another troubling and slightly Colombia-esque development here last week, a lawmaker-elect with suspected ties to the La Familia drug organization was sworn into office after evading police. The newly sworn-in federal deputy, Julio Cesar Godoy of Michoacan, now has immunity from prosecution.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: The body of Prisciliano Rodriguez Salinas, mayor of the town of Doctor Gonzalez, northeast of Monterrey, Mexico, lays near his truck after gunmen assassinated him on Sept. 23, 2010. Credit: Reuters

Controversial Georgetown gig for Colombia's Alvaro Uribe

Alvaro uribe georgetown ap

The arrival of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at Georgetown University is sparking campus debate on the two-term leader's legacy in security and human rights. Uribe starts work this semester as a "Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership" at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, where he will conduct seminars and other programs, the university said.

"We are thrilled that [Uribe] has identified Georgetown as a place where he will share his knowledge and interface with Washington, and I know that our students at the School of Foreign Service will benefit greatly from his presence," said the Georgetown school's dean, Carol Lancaster, in a university statement.

But not everyone in the Georgetown community is reacting with such enthusiasm. In comments on the personal site of university professor Anthony Clark Arend, one commenter identified as Charity Ryerson, a Georgetown law student, wrote:

I am a student at the law center and have worked extensively with the Colombian human rights community. While he was Governor of Antioquia, Alvaro Uribe was instrumental in the creation of the Convivirs, private self defense organizations that later morphed into the Colombian United Self Defense Forces, a paramilitary organization that has killed tens of thousands of Colombian civilians with the support of the Colombian state. As recently as 2006, the paramilitaries and the Colombian military ate together at the same military bases and carried out joint operations.

He routinely publicly denounced human rights defenders in his country, falsely claiming that they had ties to the guerrilla organizations in order to undermine their work. His party continues to work with illegal armed groups in the country, a situation which he, at a minimum, tolerated. He spied on opposition leaders and human rights defenders. His own DAS (similar to the FBI) passed hit lists to the paramilitaries containing names of trade unionists and human rights defenders, many of which were later killed.

And now Georgetown has legitimated him and his legacy by making him a “Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership.” This is an offense to the thousands of victims of his administration, to the human rights community in the US and Colombia, and is an embarrassment to Georgetown University. This decision should be reconsidered.

The commenter added a link to a tough-worded letter the group Human Rights Watch sent to U.S. President Barack Obama over Uribe's human rights record during his government's crackdown on the leftist FARC guerrillas.

Nevertheless, Uribe left Colombia's presidency with a high approval rating, and in June, Colombian voters elected Uribe's chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, by a margin of more than 40 percentage points.

"The legacy of Uribe, I think, is huge," said Myles Frechette, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, in The Washington Times. "He restored Colombians' confidence in their own country. He showed them that if the government put its mind to it, it could — with assistance from the United States — beat back the guerrillas."

Colombia is the United States' closest ally in Latin America, receiving more than $7 billion in military aid since the implementation of "Plan Colombia," the equally contested aid agreement that helped Uribe's government in its efforts against drug-trafficking and terrorism.

Santos now takes up pending negotiations to allow the U.S. to use Colombian military bases and for a free-trade agreement between the two countries, which is also being protested on the Georgetown campus.

In addition to his new university job, Uribe will be busy this fall in the U.S. as vice chair of a United Nations panel on Israel's deadly raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in May.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia. Credit: Associated Press


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About the Reporters
Ken Ellingwood
Daniel Hernandez
Efrain Hernandez Jr.
Chris Kraul
Richard Marosi
Tracy Wilkinson