Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Two Truths of Miguel Ángel Beltrán

'No more persecution.' A demonstration this week on the
Universidad Nacional's campus in favor of
Beltrán and other 'political prisoners.'
Miguel Ángel Beltrán was a sociology professor at the Universidad Nacional's Bogotá campus. And, unsurprisingly, he was very leftist. But was he also a secret guerrilla agent? Or just a persecuted professor?

When the Colombian military bombed Ecuadorean territory in 2008 and killed FARC 'foreign minister' Raul Reyes, it reported finding documents showing that Beltrán was a FARC agent named Jaime Cienfuegos.

Beltrán was arrested and deported while traveling in Mexico and spent two years in a Colombian prison, accused of writing guerrilla documents and recruiting students for the guerrillas on the university campus. However, in 2011 a judge absolved Beltrán, concluding that the computer documents could have been manipulated and therefore could not be used as evidence in court.

That didn't end suspicions about Beltrán's FARC connections, particularly because when he was
Miguel Angel Beltrán arrested.
arrested in Mexico, authorities reported that he was carrying a flash drive with FARC documents. Those alleged documents included messages between 'Jaime Cienfuegos' and FARC leader Raul Reyes which indicated that Cienfuegos' international travels coincided precisely with Beltrán's own travels.

And the law wasn't thru with Beltrán. Last year, Colombia's Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez ordered Beltrán stripped of his professorship and banned from holding public office. But Ordoñez, an extreme conservative, could hardly be expected to consider Beltrán's case objectively. And this August, while traveling in Panama, authorities detained Beltrán and deported him back to Colombia. Beltrán was quickly freed this time.

Graffiti over a Universidad Nacional entrance says
'We are all Miguel Angel Beltrán.'
Beltrán clearly shares some ideas with the FARC. In contrast with the governments of Colombia, the United States and the European Union, Beltrán refuses to call the FARC terrorists, but rather "political actors" and "a response to state violence."

Such opinions are not, of course, illegal - altho they may cause some right-wing politicians such as Orodñez and ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe to leap to certain conclusions about Beltrán's allegiances.

Whatever Beltrán's true actions and identity, he's well on his way into the pantheon of heroes and martyrs for the country's left. And another example of how unclear the dividing line can be between combatants and sympathizers in Colombia's long conflict.

Pro-FARC graffiti on the Universidad Nacional's Bogotá campus.

A poster celebrating Beltrán's 'absolution.'

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Animal Rights: A One-Bull Show?

'End of the animalist bench in the Bogotá City Council.' (Image:
Bogotá's animal rights activists have lost two battles recently: A court ruled that the Mayor Petro lacked the authority to prohibit bullfighting, and then the City Council voted down a proposal to remove the term 'bullfighting' from the Santamaria Plaza's official list of uses.

Now, the City Council's 'Animalista' benchers feel impotent and frustrated, as well as divided internally. (Several animalista councilmembers actually voted against the proposed plaza name change. They explained that the court ruling obliged them to do so.)

The animalistas seem to be a small interest group. But they are loud and likely the council's most altruistic members. They chalked up one major victory a year ago when the city finally retired the cart-pulling horses from the streets. Mayor Petro also won their gratitude by not allowing bullfighting for the past two years in the historic Santamaria Plaza. However, this year, while a group of young bullfighters staged a hunger strike in front of the plaza, a court gave the mayor six months to allow bullfighting again.

Petro, who had vowed to resign before allowing bullfighting again, agreed to obey the judge's order.

Those losses seem to have taken the winds out of the animalistas' sails and left them fighting amongst themselves - which makes no sense to me. Other groups mobilize themselves in the face of challenges. And, there are many other - and much more important - animal welfare issues to fight for.
Cruel entertainment. Two roosters in a death struggle.
What about cockfighting, which is legal and goes on in Bogotá? I've been to cockfights, and they're
horrific, lacking any of even the 'art' of bullfighting. A bunch of drunk, yelling guys crowd around a ring in which two roosters slash each other to death with razors their trainers have attached to the birds' ankles. As the evening winds up, a pile of dead birds accumulates beside the ring.

Pigs crowded into a cage on a
factory farm.
And how about factory farming? The countless animals which live and die in factory farms and slaughterhouses make the few dozen bulls killed during a bullfighting season almost insignificant. And, in contrast to the crowded, dirty conditions in a factory farm, fighting bulls live well, and for much longer than animals raised for milk or meat, before they're brought to the bullfighting plaza.

I've seen virtually no attention paid to the conditions of life and death for animals raised for milk and meat in Colombia.

And the illegal trade in wild animals? This gets some attention, but not much.

And there are undoubtedly lots more animal welfare issues of much more importance than bullfighting for the animalists to worry about.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Coca Leaf Escapes North

A soldier chops down coca bushes in Colombia? Peru? Bolivia?
Actually, it's southern Mexico. (Revista Punto de Vista)
Soldiers used machetes to chop down the coca plants last Thursday, then piled them up and burnt them. Another 1,639 coca plants had been destroyed.

However, this didn't take place in Bolivia, Peru or Colombia, the three countries which have monopolized the production of coca leaf - the base ingredient for cocaine - for the last several decades. Rather, it was in southern Mexico. And these were the first coca plants discovered outside the Andean region of South America during recent decades.
How does your garden grow? Coca plant in Sri Lanka,
possibly mistaken for sandalwood.

It was probably inevitable that coca plantations, which South American nations have tried to eradicate with mixed success for decades, would shift to other regions. And, it's not so novel as it sounds.

Coca plants are native to Andean regions above 1,000 meters. However, the hardy plant can flourish in many regions. Back before coca leaf and cocaine were prohibited, plantations of the bushes were cultivated in Java, India, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, British Guyana and Malaysia. Around the turn of the 20th century Java, a Dutch colony, was the world's main supplier, and Japan later had industrial-scale coca leaf plantations on its then-colony Taiwan.

Today, coca leaf grows as an ornamental plant in Sri Lanka, where it has been mistaken for sandalwood, and I've seen reports of it being planted in Africa.
Coca cultivation areas in the Andes
in 2007 colored in red and yellow.
(Map from

"However, coca is a relatively easy plant to grow," according to the Transnational Institute. "Coca could easily escape the Andes for other tropical regions if enough pressure to eradicate the plant is applied."

Critics of the War on Drugs have long argued that there is a 'balloon effect.' As eradication and interdiction increase in one region, criminal groups shift to other regions.

The economic incentives for planting coca leaf outside of South America and closer to cocaine markets in the United States, Europe, China and Australia are tremendous. After all, virtually all of the final street price of cocaine comes from the costs and risks of transport and the bribes necessary to carry the stuff across borders. The best proof of that is the perpetual poverty of the campesinos who grow coca leaf.

The Mexican coca leaf plantation, in Chiapas State near the Guatemalan border, measured only 15 by 75 meters, and was hidden under banana plants. The coca plants had grown more than 4 meters high, indicating they'd been there for a long time. A week before, Mexican authorities had discovered 180 kilograms of coca leaves and several plants in a house in the city of Tapachula, also in Chiapas.

Will this be the last coca leaf plantation discovered in Mexico or Central America? Don't bet on it.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

The Sufferings of Prison Inmates

La Nacho has this exhibition on today on the National University's Plaza del Che of portraits of inmates and commentaries about the conditions in Colombian prisons: overcrowding, poor health care and bad, scarce food. In prison, the inmates receive little job training, and after release, they suffer job discrimination.

Prison overcrowding.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Such Ungrateful Victims!

Not victims? FARC hostages in a jungle camp.
Let's get a few things straight:

Ingrid Betancourt and Clara Rojas  are responsible for getting themselves kidnapped for seven years by the FARC guerrillas.

Ingrid Betancourt while in FARC captivity,
enjoying the luxuries of the jungle.
And, Rojas and Betancourt should be grateful to the guerrillas for the wonderful treatment they received while being held for years in cages in the jungle.

And General Luis Mendieta, whom the FARC held in jungle captivity for twelve years far from his friends and family, should be ashamed for "crying like a woman" rather than 'behaving like a man' in captivity.

That, at least, appears to be the view of the FARC guerrillas towards their victims.

Betancourt and Rojas were the Green Party's presidential and vice presidential candidates when, in 2002, they ventured into guerrilla-dominated territory in southern Colombia. A foolish act, perhaps, but they had every right to be there, and the guerrillas had no right to kidnap them.

Clara Rojas with Emmanuel, who was born
while she was in captivity.
The sufferings of Betancourt and Rojas - who attempted to escape and were recaptured and punished, struggled with depression and, in Rojas's case, gave birth to a baby fathered by a guerrilla (which was taken away from her and ended up in a Bogotá orphanage) - became a national drama. The guerrillas released Rojas in 2007 and Betancourt was rescued, along with other hostages, by the military in 2008.

But the FARC were not done with Rojas and Betancourt. Last week, the guerrillas published a text on one of their websites

From the very beginning of the women's captivity, the FARC text makes clear, the women had no reason to complain. After all, "they were never tied up," which gave them the opportunity to make two escape attempts. How unreasonable of them, when they were treated so nicely. But, after their recapture, the women were "placed in prison."

In any case, the guerrillas provided their captives with dental service, hair care, an occasional movie and a library containing literature and guerrilla documents. Why, this was a veritable AirBNB in the jungle. The kidnappees had nothing to complain about!

The FARC kept many of their kidnappees
chained by the neck.
The guerrilla text makes clear that the heroes of the story were the guerrillas, who selflessly kept their prisoners alive and marching "in the rain, in the mud, under implacable sun and in the dark of night," not to mention the military's bombs and machine guns. And if the kidnappees complained, well, that was because they were elitists, accostumed to "certain comforts much greater than the majority of the people."

Despite all of these challenges, the heroic guerrillas still managed to feed their prisoners with yucca, carbohydrates, milk, oil and other stuff. Yet, despite all of these luxuries, the pampered Betancourt very unreasonably organized a hunger strike amongst the other prisoners.

Meanwhile, of course, the kidnappees were exposed to tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and leishmaniasis, as well as diseases like diabetes, heart conditions and gastrointestinal ailments. But suffering from diseases while imprisoned in the jungle and exposed to military attacks was no reason to complain, either, because the guerrillas tried hard to supply their victims with "the necessary medicines."

During Rojas' pregnancy and childbirth, the guerrillas didn't know how to perform a Caesarean section, nor did they have adequate instruments. And, when Rojas - so unreasonably - became depressed and suicidal, it was only thanks to the guerrillas that mother and baby were saved. When Rojas had recovered somewhat, mother and baby were sent back to 'the prison.'

FARC kidnappees penned behind barbed wire in the jungle.
Soon after that, military attacks forced the guerrillas and their prisoners to march thru the jungle, carrying their supplies on their backs. The prisoners - unreasonable as always - went on strike again and refused to march. Betancourt pointed out that she had been living quite comfortably until the guerrillas kidnapped her and held her against her will. General Mendieta "cried like a woman."

Still, the forced marches continued, chopping their way thru the jungle and once even wading all day long thru chest-deep water, where leeches attacked them. Nevertheless, the ungrateful prisoners did not appreciate the courage of the guerrillas who were saving them.

Despite all of this guerrilla kindness, concludes Diana, the guerrilla who wrote the text, Rojas now argues that she was a victim of the FARC - whereas all they wanted to do was to help her.

Rojas "presents herself as our victim. With my hand on my heart, I can tell her that she doesn't have that right."

And the guerrillas' care for their hostages was not exactly altruistic or humanistic. For the guerrillas, the hostages are booty, bargaining chips, tools for extortion, sources or ransom and human shields. They protected them not out of concern for the kidnappees' lives, but to exploit them. The best proof of that is the guerrillas' policy of killing hostages when they feared they'd be rescued - a policy which they murderously put into practice several times.

A few days after 'Is Clara Rojas a Victim of the FARC?' appeared, the FARC leaders seemed to disclaim it - but left it on their FARC-Peace website - in both Spanish and English.

The FARC and the Colombian government are now holding peace negotiations in Havana, Cuba and compensation for victims of the 50-year conflict is one of the outstanding issues.

The FARC's twisted, cynical attitude toward their kidnap victims (whom they label 'prisoners of war') is a clue to their likely attitude towards all their millions of victims when the time comes to make compensation. The victims - the guerrillas will most likely claim - are responsible for their own sufferings, and any complaints they make are only proof of their own weaknesses. The guerrillas, for their own part, were their victims' heroic protectors, according to the guerrilla worldview. This week, victims of the armed conflict are in Havana, Cuba talking with the FARC. I'd like to hear the guerrillas' explanations of how displaced people are at fault for building their houses in the guerrillas' path, and child soldiers are responsible for being recruited for being too young and healthy.

With that concept of good and evil, the millions of people who have been raped, kidnapped, driven off of their land, massacred and forcibly recruited by the FARC stand little chance of compensation, or even an apology, from the guerrillas.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, September 8, 2014

Don't Like the Law? Then Leave!

Ex-Controlora Sandra Morelli, now in Italy, is the most
recent Colombian high official to flee to escape
legal charges.
As the controlora, her job was to investigate and evaluate the performance of other government entities, including whether they were obeying the law.

As minister of agriculture, his job included implementing a law providing subsidies to small landowners.

As director of the DAS, Colombia's FBI, her job was to investigate and expose lawbreakers.

As peace commissioner, his job included negotiating the demobilization of outlaw guerrilla fighters and bringing them within the law.

However, when each of these high officials faced legal charges themselves, they decided that Colombian law shouldn't apply to them, and fled the country.

Ex-agriculture minister Andres Felipe Arias is
seeking asylum in the U.S.
Controlora Sandra Morelli won respect for exposing corrupt contracts while in office. However, soon after finishing her term, she faced accusations herself, including alleged fraud involving the purchase of a government building. But Morelli alleged that Colombia's Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre was biased against her, and declared that she would not receive a fair trial here, and fled to Italy, where she also has citizenship.

María del Pilar Hurtado, director of the Administrative Security Department (DAS) under Pres.
Alvaro Uribe, allegedly helped Uribe spy on his political opponents, including Supreme Court magistrates and reporters. After the scandal, which many compared to Watergate, the DAS was liquidated and replaced. Hurtado fled to Panama, where she is fighting extradition. And Uribe was recently elected to Congress.

Ex-peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo fled to
Canada, where he recently obtained asylum.
Andrés Felipe Arias, minister of agriculture under Pres. Uribe, was popularly seen as Uribe's heir and a potential presidential candidate. But Arias allegedly used a government subsidy program called Agro Ingreso Seguro (Secure Agricultural Income) to reward wealthy political supporters. Arias apparently did not enrich himself personally using the program, but nevertheless was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Arias fled with his family to the United States, where he is seeking political asylum. Arias claims that his 17-year sentence was disproportionate to any wrongdoing.

Ex-DAS director Maria del Pilar Hurtado fled to Panama,
where she is fighting extradition.
A respected author and conservative political leader, Luis Carlos Restrepo was the Uribe administration's peace commissioner. In 2006, he oversaw the demobilization of 62 supposed guerrillas members of the Cacica la Gaitana Front. However, it later became known that most of the supposed guerrillas were homeless and unemployed men who had been paid 500,000 pesos each to pose as guerrilla fighters and 'demobilize' for the media. Even tho at least one ex-guerrilla testified that he had tricked Restrepo into believing that the men were guerrillas, courts ordered Restrepo arrested for the false demobilization. In January 2012, Restrepo fled to the U.S. and then to Canada, where he recently received asylum.

All four officials claim that Colombia's justice system is unfair or biased. That may be true - but
which nation's system is not to some degree. And, by living in a nation, and particularly by serving in government, a person implicitly agrees to play by their nation's rules. Picking and choosing when to respect the legal system is fundamentally unfair, since this option is not open to poor people.

You can't - or shouldn't be able - to pick and choose your laws.

The pattern of Colombian high officials fleeing the country to escape prosecution is also extremely damaging to Colombian society, since it creates a privileged class above the law and then everybody else, who have to submit themselves to an inefficient, often corrupt legal system. It thus degrades respect for the law and makes a mockery of the legal system which these once high officials once were supposed to uphold.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Can Cruelty be Culture?

Photo of the day: A bullfighter works with his cape defiantly in the face of hundreds of anti-bullfighting protesters. (I like this scene a lot. Boy do I wish I'd signed up for the Fotomaratón!)
In the wake of a court ruling requiring Mayor Petro to permit bullfighting in the Plaza Santamaria, animal welfare organizations marched today against the Fiesta Brava. Meanwhile, young bullfighters continue their month-long hunger strike in front of the plaza. They've vowed to continue until a bullfight is actually held in the plaza. The mayor hasn't allowed bullfighting for the past two years, and now argues that the plaza has structural defects which would make holding events there dangerous. The bullfighters suspect that Petro invented that 'danger' as an excuse for not allowing bullfighting.
'Saying that a bullfighter is an artist is like saying that a rapist is a romantic.'

'If bullfighting is art, then stabbing is culture.'

'It's not art or recreation, but cruelty.'
'Bogotá without massacres.'
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours