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News from Latin America and the Caribbean

Category: Colombia

COLOMBIA: Deaths of 3 teens feed fear over Facebook threats

Lists posted on Facebook threatening death to 90 people in a southern department of Colombia are causing panic after three young people named were confirmed killed (link in Spanish), reports in Colombia said.

The lists are concentrated in the Puerto Asis municipality of Putumayo, where parents have said they are sending their children away places after the killings of Diego Jaramillo, 16, and Eibart Ruiz, 17. They were shot while riding a motorcycle. Reports differed on whether the incident occurred Aug. 15 or 16.

In the days that followed, the first of the lists appeared and the names of Diego and Eibart were included on it (link in Spanish), reported Agence France-Presse. On Aug. 20, another teen whose name was on one of the lists, Norbey Alexander Vargas, 19, was killed.

Authorities first suspected that the lists were a prank. But investigators from Bogota, the capital, have gone to Puerto Asis and launched a special inquiry (link in Spanish) with the help of Internet experts. Other news sources said such Facebook death threats have been reported in four other departments in Colombia.

A total of 90 people on three lists have been warned to either leave Puerto Asis or face death. But some are only nicknames known only among the youths' peers, said a Putumayo official. The rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is known to operate in the area as well as a gang called Los Rastrojos.

Lists of people threatened with death have appeared before in Colombia, but not online, said a correspondent for Spain's ABC newspaper. Right-wing paramilitaries have signed and publicly posted in other regions death threats against "drug addicts and prostitutes," with names listed.

— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Colombia court rules against U.S. military agreement

Juan manuel santos hugo chavez

A high court in Colombia has voided an accord with the United States that would allow an increased U.S. presence on seven Colombian military bases. The ruling on Tuesday by the Constitutional Court declared the agreement signed by outgoing President Alvaro Uribe unconstitutional because it bypassed approval of the Congress.

The agreement was signed in October and faced intense criticism from Colombia's more left-leaning neighbors, including Venezuela and Bolivia. President Juan Manuel Santos (pictured above right), who was inaugurated on Aug. 7, enjoys a wide political majority in Colombia's Congress and told reporters Wednesday that the ruling would have no effect on cooperation between the U.S. and its closest ally in Latin America.

It remains unclear whether Santos will seek ratification of the pact by lawmakers, says the website Colombia Reports.

"What's important is the cooperation is going to continue. The fight against drug runners, the fight against terrorism does not let up," Santos said, according to Reuters. "And this decision by the court is not going to affect what we've been receiving from the United States."

Colombia has received more than $7.3 billion in U.S. aid since former President Clinton signed the Plan Colombia pact in 2000. The funds have helped Colombia disrupt the FARC rebel group and narco-trafficking operations, primarily cocaine production. But there have also been increasing human rights claims against Colombia's military and 21,000 combat-related deaths since Uribe took office in 2002, according to a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America.

The entire report is here. It cites human rights groups' estimates of an additional 14,000 deaths of non-combatants and a rise in so-called "parapolitics," or the elections of leaders with known or alleged ties to paramilitaries or drug traffickers.

Santos, a former defense minister, was elected in a vote for continuity after eight years of Uribe's get-tough approach against the FARC and other rebel groups. The new president is seeking to restore deeply strained ties with Venezuela while also maintaining Uribe's strategy for the country's security challenges, Times special correspondent Chris Kraul reports from Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Uribe's government frequently accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of harboring FARC rebels in his country's territory, a charge Venezuela's government has denied. Colombia remains the world's biggest supplier of cocaine, but Peru may soon overtake the distinction as coca leaf production rises in the neighboring Andean nation.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez meets Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos days after Santos assumed office. Credit: Reuters via The Christian Science Monitor.

Colombian journalist denied visa for Harvard fellowship

A prominent and controversial Colombian journalist has been denied a visa to enter the U.S. to participate in a prestigious fellowship at Harvard University. The U.S. Embassy ruled journalist Hollman Morris ineligible to enter the United States under the "Terrorist Activities" section of the USA Patriot Act, reports the Associated Press.

Morris is known for his reports on human rights abuses by right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia, at the independent news outlet Contravia, but has been accused of allegiance to the FARC guerrilla group by Colombia's president. Morris had been awarded the Nieman Fellowship, a mid-career program at Harvard for experienced reporters from around the world, for his work investigating little-known abuses at the hands of far-right armed groups who fight the FARC in Colombia's isolated rural regions.

Reports in Colombia have tied paramilitaries to relatives of outgoing President Alvaro Uribe, coining a new term for such relationships, "parapolitics." Far-right paramilitary groups in Colombia are believed to be responsible for as many as 20,000 deaths or disappearances, according to some reports.

Uribe, a strong U.S. ally, has singled out Morris for criticism, the AP says: "On Feb. 3, 2009, Uribe called Morris 'an accomplice of terrorism' posing as a journalist after Morris showed up with FARC rebels to cover the insurgents' liberation of four Colombian security force members."

In the video embedded above, via the Center for Investigative Reporting, Morris and his brother Juan Pablo Morris explain their efforts.

"We believe the country needs to know this story," Hollman Morris says in the video. "These documents, these archives, these programs will be the story that nourishes the next generation of Colombians. My children must know this. My children's children. If we want and believe that we shouldn't repeat that tragic history in our country."

The Nieman Fellowship is hoping that the U.S. State Department reverses its decision on Morris' visa. From the Nieman Lab blog:

Obviously, we’re hoping this can be resolved. For decades, the Nieman Fellowships have brought journalists from around the world to Harvard to study and learn from one another in an atmosphere of open exchange. My boss, curator Bob Giles, has written to the State Department asking it to change its decision, and other forces are rallying in his support. I don’t know that we have many readers in Foggy Bottom, but if we do, we sincerely hope this won’t be the first time an American political decision has prevented a foreign journalist from studying with us.

The news site Colombia Reports has more on documents that discuss government surveillance on Morris.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Video: Center for Investigative Reporting

Drug-smuggling sub seized by Ecuador reportedly able to dive 65 feet

Submarine ecuador drugs

Authorities in Ecuador have seized a 100-foot-long submarine intended to smuggle drugs north to Mexico and the U.S., the latest in a string of captured drug-smuggling craft. The vessel found Friday in an "industrial complex" in swampland near Ecuador's border with Colombia is significant in that it was reportedly capable of diving as deep as 65 feet, unlike smuggling vessels known as semi-submersibles, which glide just beneath the surface.

The sub was fitted with "a conning tower, a periscope, air conditioning and 'scrubbers' to purify the air, and bunks for a maximum crew of six," Chris Kraul writes in The Times, reporting from Bogota.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency participated in the operation that netted the sub. It was not clear who built it. Jay Bergman, the DEA's Andean director, told Kraul in an interview that the cost of the vessel, with twin diesel engines, was estimated at $4 million. Bergman said the periscope appeared to be "military-issue."

It was the second drug-smuggling sub seized in Ecuador this year, reports El Comercio (link in Spanish). Kraul reported previously on this phenomenon in The Times, noting in 2007 that a likely source for some vessels is the FARC, the Colombian guerrilla group and drug-trafficking organization.

Colombian suppliers have sought to use submersibles to smuggle cocaine toward the U.S. since at least 2000. In July 2008, Mexican forces caught a drug-smuggling sub with a four-man crew off the southern coast of Oaxaca.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Ecuadorean forces watch over the seized drug-smuggling submarine. Credit: El Comercio

Santos wins: A vote for continuity in Colombia

Juan manuel santos colombia The presidency of Colombia for the next four years is in the hands of Juan Manuel Santos. The former defense minister defeated Antanas Mockus by a margin of more than 40% in Colombia's presidential runoff on Sunday, Chris Kraul reports in The Times.

Santos' landslide win is a vote for continuity. The former military chief under current two-term incumbent President Alvaro Uribe promised in his campaign to extend Uribe's get-tough approach to guerrilla groups and to cocaine production. Analysts said the rescue of three hostages in rebel captivity announced a week before the voting also boosted the candidate's margin of victory.

Santos, who has never held elected office, assumes the presidency on Aug. 7. More from Kraul:

Santos is expected to continue Uribe's good relations with the United States, which regards Colombia's current leader as its chief Latin American ally and which over the last decade has delivered more than $6 billion in military and development aid to help the country fight drugs and terrorism.

His win also maintains the current ideological polarity in Latin America, between the United States-aligned right led by Colombia and the left led by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Uribe frequently clashed with Chavez, and as Uribe's defense minister, Santos led a 2008 incursion into Ecuador's territory against FARC rebels that heightened regional tensions.

But Santos received congratulations on Monday from both the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador, suggesting better relations with Colombia are possible under a Santos presidency. Santos told an interviewer that he would like to invite Chavez to his inauguration. Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, is ready to attend if invited (link is in Spanish).

The runoff was marked by less violence than previous Colombian elections but was not entirely peaceful. Rebel forces seeking to disrupt the vote killed seven police officers and three soldiers on Sunday, reports said.

A United Nations report released Tuesday notes that coca leaf production in Colombia dropped between 2008 and 2009, and that the world's leader of coca growth is now Peru.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's president-elect. Credit: Semana.com

Colombian ex-model faces drug-smuggling charges in Argentina

Model colombia argentina efe

A former model and beauty queen from Colombia is claiming her innocence of charges in Argentina that she led a ring of young female models who worked as "mules" smuggling cocaine on flights to Mexico and Europe. Authorities arrested Angela Sanclemente, 31, last week at a youth hostel in Buenos Aires' Palermo district, where she was staying under an assumed name and told other foreign guests she was from Mexico, where she previously lived, CNN reports.

"They are using my daughter," her mother, Jeannette Valencia, said outside the hostel. "My daughter is innocent."

The case involving the former "Queen of Coffee" titleholder is riveting her native country and Argentina. Sanclemente has been wanted by police since December, when her boyfriend, also a model, was arrested in Buenos Aires. Authorities believe the two led the smuggling ring together but it began to unravel after one of their models was caught at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza international airport attempting to board a flight with 55 kilos of cocaine.

Sanclemente went before a judge Tuesday in Buenos Aires and pleaded to be released. She denied being "Diamond," her alleged pseudonym in the smuggling ring. "For a few moments she cried," reports La Nacion.

She remains in custody.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Angela Sanclemente is led away from a courtroom in Argentina. Credit: EFE.

Former defense minister Santos dominates in Colombia election

Santos colombia viote

Colombian voters belied polls leading up to voting on Sunday and cast ballots overwhelmingly for Juan Manuel Santos to be their next president. Santos, a former defense minister and heir apparent to current President Alvaro Uribe, a strong U.S. ally, captured 46.6% of votes, reports said. Antanas Mockus, the surging Green Party candidate, came in second with 21.5% of votes, while other minor candidates made up the rest of the turnout.

Santos fell just short of achieving a simple majority; a runoff is set for June 20. But with the margin between the two top vote-getters so wide, analysts are predicting an eventual win for Santos. The question now is: Why were the polls so off?

Pollsters told El Tiempo that voters appeared to make their choice in the "final hour" of the campaign, referring to the last week of the race when polls were not conducted (link in Spanish). In this video for the newspaper Semana, journalist Rodrigo Pardo attributed Santos' comfortable margin to the wide support he received from the Colombian establishment in media, government and business.

Plus, Pardo said, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez played a factor. Chavez has been sharply critical of Uribe and Santos, which sparks nationalist sentiment among Colombian voters. Santos was seen as a symbol of continuity for the aggressive efforts that Uribe undertook against the FARC rebel forces.

Among Semana's "winners and losers" in the election, the paper names in general terms "the polls" for being so off the mark heading into the Sunday's voting.

El Tiempo has figures on an interactive map showing how the voting went among Colombian expatriates. Mockus won in voting in Canada, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, England, Germany, France, India and South Africa. Santos did well among Colombians living in Central American and Middle Eastern countries. In the United States, home to the largest concentration of Colombian voters abroad, Santos beat Mockus by a wide margin of nearly 50%.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Juan Manuel Santos celebrating his electoral win. Credit: El Tiempo

From pants-dropping professor ... to president of Colombia?

Mockus colombia

When voters in Colombia go to the polls to pick a new president on May 30, it is highly likely that the candidate who collects the most ballots will be Antanas Mockus, a former math professor and former mayor of the capital, Bogota. In the race to succeed President Alvaro Uribe, the conservative's heir apparent, Juan Manuel Santos, was once considered a shoo-in. Now the former defense minister is trailing in polls.

How did that happen? Call it a winning combination of voters' desire for something fresh and a Web-savvy campaign. (Now doesn't that sound familiar?)

Mockus is a bona fide maverick, a cerebral intellectual who co-founded the Green Party and is building a political base largely on the themes of decency, ethics and good citizenship -- and by harnessing the power of Facebook and Twitter. He's also known for quite a few quirky antics. As rector of the National University, Mockus once dropped his trousers and mooned an auditorium of unruly students. As mayor of Bogota, he'd don a Spandex suit to become "Super Citizen," urging residents to avoid littering, running red lights or indulging "the rude person inside of us."

In a recent Q&A with L.A. Times special correspondent Chris Kraul, Mockus attributed his rise to a knack for "cooperation." The candidate's running mate is the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, who also lined up with Colombia's Greens, as Mockus recounts:

"The alliance with Sergio Fajardo produced an avalanche of public confidence, multiplied by the social networks. Before that, four other candidates and I agreed to abide by a popular vote to represent the Green Party. We understood that alone we weren't relevant. ... Our show of unity communicated itself to Colombians, and something interesting happened. We went from failures as individuals to success within a party."

The outgoing Uribe is leaving office with an approval rating higher than 70%, attributed to his aggressive efforts against the FARC rebel group. Yet analysts say Colombians have also grown weary of scandals and alleged human rights abuses under Uribe, thus giving an opening for a political phenomenon in the form of Mockus, a son of Lithuanian immigrants with an Amish-style beard.

Asked whether he'd continue Uribe's strategy against the FARC, Mockus told Kraul he'd "use television dramas to show the conflict of conscience of the criminal," adding that "art captures injustice in its universality and is a way to teach."

On Thursday, a new poll conducted by the University of Medellin showed Mockus edging out Santos in the final stretch of the race, and winning handily in a runoff with his top competitor.

But don't count Santos out just yet. The blog Lat/Am Daily notes that Uribe's preferred candidate has brought in a "dirty war" campaign strategist to help his flagging numbers, which is certain to make the next few days quite interesting in the race for Colombia's presidency.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Antanas Mockus campaigning for the presidency of Colombia. Credit: Facebook.com

Colombia considers container port in humpback whale habitat

Malaga bay colombia

Colombia is proposing a port development that environmentalists say could severely affect a coastal mating habitat for humpback whales from Antarctica, Chris Kraul reports in The Times. Malaga Bay, near the major city of Cali, was just a few steps away from being named a national park last year, thus preserving it permanently, before President Alvaro Uribe ceded to pressure from the country's major business group to conduct a feasibility study for the container port proposal.

"Now environmentalists are fearful that the port project could take on a momentum of its own," Kraul writes.

Malaga Bay welcomes as many as 1,000 migrating whales between June and August, fueling a small but growing eco-tourism industry in the area. But ANDI, as the national business group is known, says the bay's natural depth makes it ideal for large container ship traffic that could create a hub in Colombia for trade with Asia. Jobs generated, ANDI argues, would give young Cali residents an alternative to entering the drug trade.

Meanwhile, oil production in Colombia is gushing, which could "probably lead to increased Colombian exports to the U.S.," Kraul reports. Additionally, Colombia and the United States continue to march closer to ratifying a free trade agreement.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A humpback whale in Malaga Bay, Colombia. Credit: Lilian Florez of Fundacion Yubarta, via El Espectador

Latin America Digest: Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico

Today’s One-Line News Briefs:

Buenos Aires— Argentina's last dictator, 82-year-old Reynaldo Bignone, was convicted and sentenced Tuesday to 25 years in prison for torture and illegal detentions committed during the nation's 1976-1983 military regime.

Bogota, Colombia — Colombian Gen. Fernando Joya, two colonels and three other servicemen were killed when a military helicopter and a civilian helicopter crashed into each another at a base in the southwest province of Tolima.

The Hague, Netherlands — A United Nations court rejected Argentina's claims that a Uruguayan pulp mill is pumping dangerous pollution into the river on their mutual border, angering Argentine protesters who have waged a three-year campaign against the mill.

Mexico City — The lower house of Mexico’s Congress joined the Senate by approving the creation of a space agency that will seek to bolster research and raise Mexico's scientific profile, a proposal that now goes to President Felipe Calderon.

-- Times wire reports

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