Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Dillema of Memory

Tourists in front of the Edificio Monaco. (Photo: El Tiempo)
If Medellin Mayor Federico Gutiérrez follows thru with plans to demolish drug king Pablo Escobar's old apartment building, he'll have eliminated a symbol of Medellin's times of terror - but also a warning about what should not be repeated.

The Edificio Monaco, an uninteresting white block in Medellin's exclusive El Poblado neighborhood,
U.S. rapper Whalid Kalifa stands in
front of the Edificio Monaco.
came to represent Escobar's power over the city - and to be the target of attacks by Escobar's enemies, who bombed it in 1988 with 80 kilos of dynamite. (Escobar was not at home at the time.) Today, it stands abandoned.

Like Escobar's tomb, his Napoles estate and his old mansion, the Monaco building is now a stop on the city's Escobar tours - an uncomfortable situation for Medellin's leaders, who fear the narcos are being glamorized, and would like to have the city's terrible past forgotten and replaced with a brilliant future.

But the authorities are waging a futile fight against human nature. Sadly, crime, violence and depravity sell big. Few of the people on our tours have heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize for literature by writing beatifully about Colombia. But virtually everybody's heard of Escobar, who unleashed terror on Colombia and beyond. And that won't change.
The Justice Palace in Bogotá, where the
M19 guerrillas, financed by Escobar, attacked in 1985.
All across the world, blood, guts, crime and violence sells. Visit Transylvania, and they'll offer you a vampire tour; In Chicago, they'll tell you about Al Capone; In London, the Tower; In the Caribbean, pirates; And in Berlin, the Nazis.

A tall stone wall surrounds the one-time estate of
'El Mexicano', an associate of Escobar. The north Bogotá
property was just purchased by the Chinese Embassy.
And Colombia simply cannot eliminate the reminders of the narco violence. Not as long as it has a Justice Palace where the Escobar-financed M19 guerrillas attacked in 1985. Or cemeteries, which hold the remains of Escobar and his many victims.

The best that Medellin's leaders can hope for is that Escobar and his ilk are seen as the criminals they were, instead of some sorts of glamorized action figures, or comic book anti-heroes, as has happened to the pirates and Genghis Khan.

In that sense, the mayor's proposal to raze the Monaco building and replace it with a memorial for Escobar's victims makes a lot of sense.

Understandably, Medellin authorities protested several months ago when American rapper Wiz Khalifa placed flowers on Escobar's tomb and posted the photos on the Internet. And they protested again when Medellin city employees posed for photos with 'Popeye', one of Escobar's assassins, who was released from prison about a year ago.

Plaques commemorate the 'Holocaust of the Justice Palace,'
in which more than 100 people were killed.
Colombian authorities also need to remember the saying about those who forget history being condemned to repeat it. And that seems to be happening already. Colombia's coca leaf and cocaine production have boomed in recent years, perhaps to levels surpassing the Escobar years. Thankfully for Colombia, the drug boom has not brought back the violence of the '80s and '90s. But, as long as drugs are illegal, meaning that violent outlaw groups earn millions by trafficking them, the threat of wholesale violence will remain.
A memorial in the spot where politician
Jorge Eliecer Gaitán was assassinated in 1948,
triggering the Bogotazo riots.

The best lesson we can learn from the stories of Pablo Escobar and Al Capone and others who became wealthy and violent by trafficking illegal substances is that as long as drugs are outlawed, violent outlaws will get rich trafficking them.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The IberoAmerican Theatre Festival's Inauguration Parade

The bi-annual (every two years) Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro is about to start, and they inaugurated it this afternoon with a colorful parade down Jimenez Avenue.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Deadly Idea

Calling for death for the corrupt on Carrera Septima.
Death penalty for the 'corrupt,
criminals and rapists.
Among all the good, bad and indifferent ideas being offered in this election season, perhaps the most disconcerting and disappointing one is the Green Party candidate's call for capital punishment - for corruption, rape and just generally being a 'criminal.'

The death penalty does not exist in Colombia, even for crimes such as mass murder. Popeye, one of Pablo Escobar's assassins, who murdered hundreds of people, was released from prison about one year ago.

Colombia's 'Green Party' (formally called the Alianza Verde) isn't really so green. But the party is leftist and anti-violence. Presumably, it's against killing bulls in bullfights. But here's a Green candidate calling for the wholesale slaughter of Colombians for even the most minor criminal  offense. Just the crime of corruption by itself would undoubtedly mean the bloody end for many public functionaries if my experience and the tales I've heard are true.

Would this candidate, if he enters Congress, really want to have many of his colleagues executed?

In a society such as Colombia's, which is yearning for peace, such a harsh, vicious and radical proposal is the wrong thing to say - particularly coming from a leftist party.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Discovering Creative Uses for our Bathroom

Our sidewalk bathroom protest.
For the past six months - and counting - Bogotá Bike Tours's bathroom has not functioned.

A bathroom as store-room.
It all started last September, when the landladies hired workmen to repair the buiding's pipes, because because during heavy rains sewage water backed up and flooded the building.

The workmen finished their work in about two weeks. Then, came the turn of Acueducto to hook our building's pipes to the main running beneath the street.

So, we waited...and waited. 'They´re going to do the work on Friday,' someone predicted. 'No, on Sunday, when there's less traffic.'

But the workers never appeared.

The landlady visited acueducto, who sent her on wild goose chases to the Transito office, to the Urban Development Institute, and on and on, all in vain. The workers never came.

Acueducto even declared our situation an EMERGENCIA. But that didn't help.

Finally, the landlady discovered that she needed permission from the local Patrimonio Historico office to do the work. Easy, right? After all, what possible threat could hooking up our toilet be to the neighborhood's historical patrimony?
Parchita uses the toilet.
However, the Patrimonio's engineer didn't give the necessary approval. He was on vacation. He was busy. He was just being a bureaucrat.

We visited. We begged. They said they were working on it.

Finally, after four months, the engineer gave his approval. Now, we'd get our bathroom, right? Not so fast. We also needed the Patrimonio director's approval. Evidently, our having a bathroom was a real potential threat to the neighborhood's historical patrimony.

(This was the same patrimonio office which has given its blessing to monstrosities all around this neighborhood.)

Finally, the director gave his approval. So, we could now get our bathroom, right?

Not so fast, again. The landlady went back down to Acueducto, which had declared our case an 'EMERGENCIA.' No, they were already all booked up that month, and the next month, and at least half of the following month. Our EMERGENCIA would have to wait at least two months.

We're still waiting.

It's things like this which sap one's confidence in public institutions and erase any enthusiasm for paying taxes.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Sitp's 'Transition' to Nowhere

The Sitp bus system was supposed to improve, if not revolutionize, Bogotá's transit. The old 'battle for the centavo,' in which buses raced each other madly to pick up passengers, was supposed to end. Order would descend on Bogotá's streets as buses stopped for passengers only at designated bus stops instead of screeching to a halt wherever the passenger happened to be waiting. More efficient buses and routes would also reduce Bogotá's traffic jams. And, by replacing the dirty old buses with clean new ones, the city's air would improve.

Unfortunately, very little of that has happened. Rather than replacing the old buses, the city just slapped labels on them, declaring them 'transitional' Sitp buses, as tho those labels would have some magical transformational effect on the vehicles. And, years later, the perpetual 'transition' has no end in sight.
A Sitp bus broke down on Calle 26 -
apparently with a wheel or tire problen.      

Neither do the 'transitional' Sitp drivers, who presumably work under new training and instructions, seem to behave better than did the pre-Sitp drivers.

Meanwhile, even with all of these failings, several of the companies operating the Sitp buses are close to bankruptcy.

But this incident I witnessed the other day on 26th St., across from the Central Cemetery and the Centro Memoria, has come to represent for me the Sitp's failings.

But, lo and behold, another Sitp bus pulls up to take the stranded passengers.

Here we go!

And the new, 'good' bus takes off - with a blast of smoke. 

Yet another of Bogotá's 'rolling chimneys.'

The Sitp 'transition' rolls ahead.
 By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The FARC guerillas: Environmental Protectors or Villians?

FARC guerrillas: Environmental criminals, defenders or both?
The FARC's demobilization was supposed to be a boon for the environment, as coca leaf planting dropped and the guerrillas were transformed from environmental depredators to environmental defenders.

However, deforestation in Colombia has accelerated, and, if we're to believe them, in the FARC Colombia's jungles lost important defenders.

In the areas where the FARC guerrillas were the de-facto government, they claim that they prohibited deforestation, banned polluting into rivers, and controlled hunting.

An oil pipeline bombed allegedly by the FARC
guerrillas in February 2013.
Many of those policies were not only to protect the environment, however: They also protected the FARC forces. Intact forests hid the guerrillas from Colombia's military. And keeping trash out of rivers avoided tell-tale clues of the guerrillas' whereabouts.

On the other hand, the FARC certainly committed wholesale environmental depredations, by protecting drug crops which caused widespread deforestation, and sponsored illegal mines, which devastated countless river valleys. The FARC also bombed petroleum pipelines, poisoning rivers, jungles and cities' drinking water.

But one thing which seems clear is that, whether or not they intended it, the FARC's terrorism, kidnapping and extortion scared potential exploiters out of Colombia's remote regions. With Colombia's internal conflict winding down, businesses and farmers invaded virgin areas, accelerating deforestation. Between 2015 and 2016, deforestation increased by a terrifying 44%, and appears set to continue accelerating.

At the same time, cocaine production, one cause of deforestation, which was supposed to decline with the guerrillas' demobilization, has also accelerated.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Why Coca Erradication is Doomed

Sweaty coca erradicators reduce the supply of the leaf
 - and raise its market value.
How to convince farmers to give up coca leaf for legal, healthy crops?

These days, government officials and newspaper columnists are debating over the best combination of incentives - such as payments and help with new crops - and punishments, such as forced erradication and prison, if farmers don't agree to voluntarily erradicate their drug crops.

At best, the strategy has huge weaknesses: Coca leaf is a good crop economically, because it requires little care, brings reliable income and can be stored and transported easily after harvest. And in many coca-growing regions the government has little presence, whereas the drug cartels, who encourage or even force farmers to plant coca leaf, are very active.

But, give the government the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps this time voluntary erradication WILL work.
Colombia's coca leaf crop
has boomed in recent years.
(Graph from El Tiempo)

The trouble is, it's all futile, anyway.

After all, there are lots of poor people in Colombia, especially poor farmers. Every time a farmer somewhere gives up growing coca leaf, whether voluntarily or not, that reduces the supply and raises the price. In response, you can be sure that some impoverished farmer somewhere else, if not in Colombia, then in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela or Africa or Asia, will chop down a patch of jungle and plant the leaf.

It's not that coca leaf farmers are bad people, who want to do harm. I've met some of them. To them, cocaine's harm is a distant, vague concept. And, they say reasonably enough, it's the fault of the consumers who decide to drug themselves.

Colombia's coca leaf crop increase has coincided
with a reduction in acres erradicated.
Chart from Adam Isacson.
Meanwhile, the farmers' needs to feed and clothe their children, to buy schoolbooks and medicines, are immediate and urgent. How many of us would act differently?

The more succesful strategy would be to reduce demand, by helping addicts and decriminalizing drugs, which would reduce their damage in every sense and deprive criminals of a huge income.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours