China commits $15 billion in development funds for Latin America

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Santiago, Chile
SANTIAGO, Chile -- In a bid to strengthen ties with an important regional trade partner, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told a U.N. economic conference in Chile on Tuesday that his country was ready to invest and lend $15 billion for Latin American infrastructure, manufacturing and sustainable technology projects.

Wen wound up his state visit to Latin America with a stop in Santiago, the Chilean capital, where in talks with President Sebastian Pinera he promised to double bilateral trade, now worth $30 billion a year, by 2015. China is a major customer for Chile’s copper, fruit and wine exports.

Wen said $10 billion of the development funds would come in loans from the Chinese Development Bank for roads, ports and railways, and $5 billion would be placed in a "cooperation fund" that would finance new technologies. He also said his country would increase the scholarships available to Latin American students to study in China.

The aim is to help the region develop more value-added exports than just natural resources, he said.

"China has become the biggest market for several Latin American countries," said Wen, who was making his third state visit to the region. He also praised the region for having so far withstood the ripple effects of the U.S. and European financial crises of recent years, saying it has demonstrated "cohesion, action and influence."

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Controversial dam project in Chile's Patagonia region on hold

Chliean President Sebastian Pinera

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Plans to build a $3.2-billion complex of dams that would have flooded thousands of acres in the bio-diverse Patagonia region in southern Chile have been put on indefinite hold in the face of ongoing protests against the project.

The five dams of the so-called HidroAysen project would increase Chile’s electricity capacity by 15% upon  completion in 2020. But it also would have flooded 12,500 acres of pristine territory that is increasingly popular as an eco-tourism destination.

Project partner Colbun, a utility company, announced Thursday that it was suspending work on an environmental impact study that is a prerequisite to starting the project, saying the government lacked a clear energy policy. The power utility that is majority partner, Enel-Endesa, also made it known that it wants to call a board of directors meeting to reconsider the project, roughly 1,000 miles south of the capital, Santiago.

The five dams would add 2,750 megawatts of power to the national power grid. 

Protests have been frequent in the year since the dam was given preliminary approval. Thousands of marchers poured into the streets of Santiago in April to protest a Supreme Court decision greenlighting the project.

Critics claimed that the rationale for the project was mainly to provide cheap energy to mining companies, not to consumers. Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has called the plan a “political and financial folly,” were among the groups opposed to the project.

Also opposing it is the Roman Catholic bishop of the Aysen region, Luis Infanti de la Mora, who in a pastoral letter last year said it would provide little local benefit.

But President Sebastian Pinera remains solidly behind the project, making the case that dams are necessary to reduce Chile's  96% dependence on imported oil. But his backing of HidroAysen has been a factor in his plummeting support in polls.

The government responded Friday by rejecting the notion of a suspension and insisting that it has a “clear energy policy.” Opposition group Aysen Future Foundation said in a statement that the suspension highlights the fact that the project is questionable and that support for it has diminished.

-- Fabiola Gutierrez in Santiago and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia

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Photo: Chilean President Sebastian Pinera  Credit:  Luis Manuel de la Maza / Chilean  Presidential Press Office 

 


Colombian rebels release French journalist

Langois
BOGOTA, Colombia  -- French journalist Romeo Langlois was released by his leftist rebel captors Wednesday, more than a month after he was taken prisoner during a bloody confrontation with an army unit that the video reporter was accompanying.

Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, former Sen. Piedad Cordoba and a representative of the French government, Jean-Baptiste Chauvin,  were present to take Langlois away from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The release took place in Montanita township in southeast Caqueta province, according to the Press Freedom Foundation.

 Langlois, a 35-year-old freelance reporter for Le Figaro newspaper and France 24 cable channel, was released by the 15th Front of the FARC not far from where he was taken prisoner April 28 after suffering a bullet  wound in an arm. He had accompanied an army unit deployed to destroy illicit coca crops, the base material for cocaine.

TV images of Langlois after his release showed him thin and with his left arm bandaged, but in apparently good condition.

Four soldiers were killed and four wounded in the seven-hour battle that led to Langlois' capture. Three rebels were killed, according to a rebel commander speaking on a video released after Langlois’ capture. The commander described the reporter as a “prisoner of war.”

The FARC in April released its last 10 military hostages, some of whom had been held as long as 14 years. The group said previously that it was giving up political kidnappings, although it has not promised to not take civilians hostage.

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-- Chris Kraul

Photo: French Journalist Romeo Langlois looks out from a Red Cross vehicle after being  handed over by Colombian rebels on May 30.   Credit: Fernando Vergara / Associated Press

 


Peru declares state of emergency after violence at mine protests

Peru President Ollanta Humala
LIMA, Peru -- The Peruvian government on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in a southeastern province after eight days of protests over a proposed expansion of a huge copper mine left at least two residents dead and 70 police injured.

The government's emergency declaration covers the province of Espinar and suspends constitutional liberties of speech and assembly for 30 days. The government also ordered the arrest of a protest leader, Herbert Huaman, who heads the Front for the Defense of Espinar Interests.

Violence in Espinar broke out over the weekend after President Ollanta Humala described  demonstrators protesting a $1.5-billion expansion of the Tintaya mine as leftist radicals. Widespread property damage was reported, as was the brief kidnapping of a judge.

Humala used a similar state of emergency decree in December to squelch protests in northern Cajamarca over the proposed Conga mine, a project Humala was counting on to finance his ambitious social agenda.  The government is now reviewing the $4.8-billion Conga copper and gold mine project, but Humala's strong defense of mining has distanced him from part of his impoverished support base.

The protests involve mainly peasant communities and resemble demonstrations held last year in Cajamarca, where residents waged a long-running and still unresolved campaign against the Conga project proposed by Colorado–based Newmont Mining.

Residents in Espinar complain that mining firm Swiss-based Xstrata doesn’t hire enough local workers, violates environmental laws and transfers too low a percentage of mining royalties to the local municipalities.

In a statement Tuesday, Xstrata said it lamented the violence and was ready to discuss residents’ complaints, but it insisted, as it has in the past, that it is fulfilling its social and economic obligations. The company said it would be willing to initiate new environmental monitoring procedures to assure compliance.

Social conflict expert Javier Torres of the Lima-based SER civil society group said the violence could have been avoided, and he blamed the government’s slow response to simmering tensions.

“The reluctance of the government to intervene before the conflict reached a level of violence, and of the [protest] leaders to dialogue, added to the silence of the Tintaya mine’s management, have been causes of these tragic events,” Torres said in an interview.

The global commodities boom has made mining Peru’s biggest industry, fueling the nation’s economic growth to an expected 6% this year. Mining attracted $21 billion in foreign investment from 1996 through 2010. Over the last half of 2011, Xstrata was the largest single mining investor in Peru, with $450 million plowed into its projects.

Analysts such as Torres say the perception of Peru as a mining mecca could be hurt unless community relations improve.

“As long as the government considers that [social] inclusion means the distribution of resources  according to a certain formula, and that those who protest are sheep being led by a handful of radical extremists, there will be no solution to these conflicts,” Torres said.

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-- Adriana Leon in Lima and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia

Photo: Peruvian President Ollanta Humala. Credit: Jeon Heon-Kyun / European Pressphoto Agency


Energy deals boost Colombia-Venezuela ties despite border violence

Colombia venezuela
BOGOTA, Colombia, and CARACAS, Venezuela -- Notwithstanding a border attack this week by leftist rebels hiding in Venezuela that left 12 Colombian soldiers dead, relations between the neighboring nations have improved steadily in recent months, as evidenced by energy deals including a proposed $8-billion pipeline as well as a crackdown on gasoline smuggling.

Fighters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, apparently fled back to Venezuela after the bloody ambush  Monday, prompting a promise from President Hugo Chavez to send three army battalions to the Perija Mountains area to drive the rebels from their sparsely populated refuge.

“We are active on the border ... and we will patrol by air and land,” Chavez said during a televised meeting of ministers, his first public appearance since returning from medical treatment in Cuba two weeks ago. “We are not going to permit this and as we’ve said a million times, all we want is peace for Colombia.”

Chavez’s declaration came as Colombian Mining and Energy Minister Mauricio Cardenas said that Venezuela had agreed to expand exports of discount gasoline to several Colombian border states. The aim is to frustrate a cross-border gas smuggling racket controlled by mafias and terrorist groups, Cardenas said.

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Argentina bomb defused where Colombia's ex-president was to speak

Bomb found at Gran Rex Theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

BUENOS AIRES -- Argentine officials on Tuesday found a bomb in a Buenos Aires auditorium where former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is scheduled to speak.

Federal police said the crude explosive was discovered by employees at the Gran Rex Theater in central Buenos Aires, where Uribe is to participate in a business leadership conference Wednesday. No group immediately claimed responsibility and there were no arrests.

Authorities said the bomb consisted of a cardboard box filled with black powder explosive and a cellphone connected to a detonator.

On May 15, Colombia’s former interior minister, Fernando Londoño, was the target of a bombing that killed his driver and bodyguard. Some officials suspect the rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were responsible, although no suspects have been named officially.

The cellphone was programmed to detonate Wednesday afternoon, when the highest concentration of people was expected at a post-conference cocktail hour. 

Investigating Judge Norberto Oyarbide said the bomb constituted a “very serious” plot and could have had “unpredictable consequences.”

"It’s a simple apparatus but sufficient to cause the death of people who were nearby,” Oyarbide said at a news conference in front of the theater. Also scheduled to speak at the Wednesday conference are Guy Caron, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, and an official with the Barcelona pro soccer team.

Late Tuesday afternoon, organizers said the conference would go on as scheduled.

Leftist organizations and Colombian residents critical of the presence of Uribe had planned a midday demonstration Wednesday to protest his appearance.

There was no comment from the Argentine government as of late Tuesday. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon issued a statement saying his government “rejected any form of terrorism.” 

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-- Andres D’Alessandro in Buenos Aires and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia

Photo: Police stand guard outside the Gran Rex Theater in Buenos Aires on Tuesday. Credit: Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press 

 


Colombian army officials say 12 soldiers killed by rebels

Juan Manuel Santos
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombian army officials said Monday that 12 soldiers were killed in an ambush by leftist rebels who, according to one commander, “presumably” fled into Venezuelan territory afterward.

The soldiers were attacked Monday near Maicao, a border city in northern Guajira state, by 80 to 90 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The soldiers were there to protect a group of civilian workers repairing an electric power line tower that the rebels had previously destroyed.

According to the army, fighting occurred less than a quarter-mile from the Colombia-Venezuela border. In addition to those killed, four soldiers were wounded. No rebels were reported killed.

“It was a fierce fight. A numerous group [of rebels] came presumably from Venezuela and presumably fled back into Venezuela” after the firefight, Army Gen. Sergio Mantilla told reporters.

The attack prompted a telephone call from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to extend condolences for those killed, which included an  officer and a sergeant. Although he said the entry of foreign armed forces into Venezuela is prohibited, he acknowledged that the rebels may have entered the country.

“Some units of the guerrilla group may have crossed Venezuelan territory. We are reinforcing patrols and reconnaissance in the zone,” Chavez told a TV audience. “We don’t want to get involved in a conflict that isn’t ours.”

In an address to the nation Monday night, Santos said Chavez had promised to send some of his forces to the area to look for the rebels.

"This is a setback. It's not the first and it won't be the last," Santos said, referring to the four-decades-long fight with the rebel group.

Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have improved since March 2008, when a Colombian commando group briefly invaded northern Ecuador to kill a top FARC commander, prompting Chavez to briefly call up troops and tanks to Venezuela's border zone with Colombia.

But Colombian government officials have expressed their impatience for Chavez to follow through on promises to better patrol the frontier so the FARC rebels cannot seek haven in Venezuela.

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-- Chris Kraul and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez

Photo: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at a news conference in Bogota in April. Credit: Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images  


President Rafael Correa defends Ecuador's air defenses

Diego Garcia Sayan (left) and Rafael Correa
QUITO, Ecuador –- Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Monday defended his country’s air defenses after a small plane linked to Mexican drug traffickers this month crashed undetected on the country’s northwestern coast, raising fears among foreign officials that cartels are trying to establish a new “air bridge.”

In a Twitter message, Correa rejected the notion that Ecuador’s “air defense is defenseless,” saying the country has a full complement of supersonic and propeller-driven aircraft to secure airspace, in addition to “powerful radar systems still being tested but which before didn’t exist.”

On May 13, a single-engine Cessna 210 crashed in coastal Manabi province, killing two Mexican pilots, one of whom had a previous arms-related conviction that linked him to the Sinaloa cartel. Found in the wreckage was a suitcase filled with $1.3 million in cash. Traces of cocaine were also in the plane, which apparently ran out of fuel, law enforcement officials told The Times.

That the plane managed to penetrate Ecuadorean airspace without being detected by local authorities has provoked criticism among Correa opponents for his refusal in 2009 to renew the U.S. lease of the Manta air base. The base, located in Manabi province, was used by reconnaissance aircraft to monitor smuggling operations in the eastern Pacific.

Two AWACS radar planes and one P-3 reconnaissance aircraft were based in Manta until September 2009, when the surveillance operation was transferred to bases in north-central Colombia. Ecuadorean fishermen complained at the time that U.S.-led counternarcotics operations based in Manta led to human rights abuses and financial losses.

The crash has prompted questions among Correa critics about the status of a $60-million Chinese radar system the country ordered after Colombian bombers and commandos briefly invaded northern Ecuador in March 2008 to kill top ranking rebel commander Raul Reyes of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Air Force officials on Monday did not respond to a request for a status update on its installation.

Foreign counternarcotics officials fear that Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers may turn to Ecuador as an air hub from which to fly drugs north toward North America, as well as to return cash to Andean cocaine producers. Ecuador already has seen sharp increases in maritime smuggling via fishing boats and submarine-like vessels leaving its shores.

The May incident is the first known example of an airplane flying illicit routes in a bid to land in Ecuador with suspected drug profits or take off with a cargo of drugs, officials told The Times. Residents in the crash area told reporters they heard the plane flying low and without its lights on just before the crash.

One official commenting on condition that he not be named said that police in Venezuela, where more than 90% of such illicit flights have originated in the past, recently have cracked down. On May 16, authorities in Ecuador raided a drug processing lab near the crash site, seizing half a ton of cocaine.

El Comercio newspaper of Quito on Saturday said it found three crude airstrips in Manabi whose use are barely monitored by civil aviation authorities. Residents told the newspaper they saw an aircraft resembling the crashed plane on one of the strips in Jama three months before the crash.

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-- Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia, and Cristina Munoz in Quito, Ecuador

Photo: A photo released by the Ecuadorean presidency shows President Rafael Correa, right, meeting with Diego Garcia Sayan, president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, at Carondelet Palace in Quito in April. Credit: AFP/Getty Images


Colombia bomb injures ex-minister, kills 2 as new trade era dawns

Colombia-bombing

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A former Cabinet member and close associate of ex-President Alvaro Uribe apparently was the target of bomb attempt Tuesday that wounded him, killed two people and wounded 24 others in a shopping district of Bogota.

President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed the bomb attack in brief televised comments, saying it was directed at former Interior Minister Fernando Londono. The bomb was hidden in a vehicle and, police suspect, detonated from a remote location. Another theory had it that two men on a motorcycle threw a bomb at Londono's armored vehicle.

Before Londono was identified as a victim, some police officials speculated that the bomb might have been exploded as a terrorist response to the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which takes effect in stages beginning Tuesday. Hours before the blast, which was heard across northern Bogota, police had deactivated a car bomb placed in front of police headquarters.

Londono’s driver and police escort were among those killed, Santos said. Television reports showed photos of the former minister bloodied but on his feet and apparently not seriously hurt. He was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

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Peru ministers resign over antidrug sweep

Minister
LIMA, Peru -- Peru’s  defense and interior ministers resigned Thursday shortly after the Congress opened a debate to consider censuring them for their handling of an antiterror and antinarcotics operation in a valley known for coca cultivation and the presence of the leftist rebel group Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path.

Defense Minister Luis Alberto Otarola and Interior Minister Daniel Lozada resigned after legislators blamed them for the deaths of 10 soldiers and police officers conducting drugs sweeps over the last month in a region known as VRAE, or the Valley of the Apurimac and Ene rivers. Rebels are suspected in the killings.

The toll is higher than that suffered by the armed forces during all of 2011, when nine police officers and soldiers were killed in similar sweeps. Critics charged that the recent operations were poorly planned.

President Ollanta Humala is on a state visit to South Korea and Japan, but his office confirmed the resignations. Had the censure come to a vote in Congress, it could have provoked a political crisis for his administration.

The VRAE has become an increasingly important center of coca farming and cocaine processing because stronger law enforcement in Colombia is pushing traffickers southward to neighboring Peru and Bolivia. Peru may overtake Colombia this year as the world’s largest coca farming nation and cocaine producer in the annual survey that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is scheduled to release next month.

The recent sweep, which involved 1,500 police and soldiers, has been called off. The operation was prompted partly by the kidnapping of 36 natural gas workers near Cuzco last month. The Shining Path group, which released the workers shortly thereafter, claimed responsibility.

The rebels are active players in the upsurge of Peruvian cocaine production, counternarcotics officials here have said. The rebel group has reemerged from near extinction in the 1990s, when it steered clear of drug trafficking as a violation of revolutionary ethics. Now authorities believe the rebels traffic in drugs to finance their insurgency.

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-- Adriana Leon in Lima and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia

Photo: Peru's defense minister, Luis Alberto Otarola, seen in a file photo, was one of two Cabinet members to resign over antidrug raids that saw 10 soldiers and police officers killed. Credit: Eraldo Peres / Associated Press


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