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July 25, 2012

Did Spanish fly do in Simon Bolivar?


Update: You can check out the preliminary medical report here.

Latin American independence hero Simón Bolívar would have turned 229 this week, and Venezuela is celebrating. On Tuesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez unveiled a new 3-D portrait of El Libertador, based on cranial scans and other high-tech forensic work. 

You may recall that Chávez had Bolívar exhumed in July of 2010, in part to pursue his pet theory that the El Libertador was murdered by his enemies and didn’t die of tuberculosis, as the history books claim.

 On Tuesday, the medical team that has been analyzing Bolivar’s remains said they did not find proof of tuberculosis. However, they did find traces of arsenic and cantharides, which is an extract produced by the blister beetle. The doctor said that both arsenic and cantharides were commonly used to treat respiratory illnesses, which leaves the tuberculosis theory open.

 On a side note, the blister beetle is sometimes known as Spanish fly – a pre-Viagra aphrodisiac. Here’s what the Encyclopedia Britannica has to say about the blister beetle / Spanish fly. And here’s how I first learned about Spanish fly.

July 16, 2012

In Colombia's troubled Cauca, sticks trump guns (sometimes)


Just got back from a fascinating trip to Toribío, Colombia, where I was writing this story.

In short, we got to see the the town’s Indigenous Guard tear apart an army base and chase away FARC roadblocks without a single drop of blood. That may seem unremarkable, but this is Colombia, where even casual confrontations seem to generate a body count.

Quite frankly, I didn’t know too much about the Indigenous Guard before I arrived in the beleaguered village, but the more I learned the more impressed I am. The guard was formed 11 years ago by the indigenous Nasa as an all-volunteer force that controls and patrols the territory.

They’re easy to recognize because they wear green and red bandanas and carry tasseled sticks. The sticks, they claim, are only used defensively, but they’ve managed to pull off some impressive feats with them.

In 2004, when Toribío Mayor Arquimedes Vitonas was kidnapped, some 400 members of the Indigenous Guard marched two days into the jungle to retrieve him from the FARC. Again, it was a bloodless operation and they had him back within 20 days; this in a country where hostages often spend years in the jungle and government rescue operations often include casualties.

The Indigenous Guard want both the army and the FARC to clear the area so they can exercise control.But it's unclear how this is going to shake out. It would be political suicide for President Santos to concede any ground, and the FARC aren't going to retreat from one of their historic strongholds.

Above: A solider gathers his belongings after villagers from Toribio, led by the Indigenous Guard, marched almost three hours uphill to dismantle the base.

Below: The regional head of the Indigenous Guard Luis Alberto Mensa, with his staff and green and red bandana. 


July 09, 2012

Semana Mag: Three U.S. "cops" at wedding of "dead" Colombian drug dealer


What were U.S. policemen doing at the lavish wedding of a “dead” Colombian narco-trafficker?

Colombia has been eating up details of the week-long wedding of Camilo “Fritanga” Torres, who allegedly ran drugs for the notorious Urabeño gang.

The usually low profile Fritanga brought more than 200 guests to the island of Múcura, off the coast of Cartagena, for a bash that featured models, actors and a line up of famous singers and bands.

 Fritanga (the name of a fried meat dish) had kept a low profile until the wedding, police said. Although he spent a stint in prison, he was released in 2009 before the courts reversed the decision and ordered his detention again. By that point a notary had certified that Fritanga had died Dec. 11, 2010.

Colombian police told Semana Magazine that when they raided the party at 4 AM on July 2, the guests thought the officers were just another part of the show. It wasn’t until they had the musicians on the ground and arrested the shirtless groom that the crowd reacted.

Along with actors, singers and other celebrities at the party, police told the magazine there were seven guests with U.S. passports, and that three of them claimed to be U.S. policemen. Their names have been turned over to the U.S. Embassy for verification, the magazine said.

Fritanga is wanted in the U.S. on drug charges, so it's feasible the men were in fact cops on some sort of under cover mission. 

The raid didn’t seem to dampen Fritanga’s spirits. According to the magazine, as guests applauded and toasted him, his last words as he was led away were: “Conocieron al parcero, al amigo, y seguiré siendo el amigo forever.” (Translation: “You met the buddy, the friend and I’ll keep being your friend forever.”)

July 06, 2012

Colombia 2014: Former Interior Min Londoño for President?

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has officially turned on his one time ally and current President Juan Manuel Santos. At a sold-out event last night, Uribe said he would be forming a new center-right coalition that will ultimately back a new candidate in the 2014 presidential race.

Uribe has been blasting the administration for months, accusing it of being soft on the FARC guerrillas, too accommodating with Venezuela and not providing enough guarantees for the military. 

Thursday night’s event was to honor Uribe’s former Interior Minister and conservative columnist Fernando Londoño who survived a FARC assassination attempt in April. It was also to launch something that translates awkwarldly to “The Front Against Terrorism and Appeasement, and for Solidarity.” But the meeting had all the markings of a political rally.

When Uribe mentioned backing a new candidate the crowd broke out into a chorus of “Londoño for President!" 

However, Londoño is ineligible for office due to the Invercolsa case. Check out his bio and that episode here.

That has to sting Santos, who was Uribe’s minister of defense and handpicked successor in the 2010 race. He hasn't announced whether he will seek reelection, but it's clear that if he does run again it won't be with Uribe's blessing. Since taking office, Santos has steered away from many of Uribe’s hawkish policies and suggested that a negotiated peace with the FARC is a possibility.

On Thursday before the event, Santos said the fight against terrorism shouldn't be dragged into politics or “become an electoral cause.” But it's clear that Uribe, who left office with record-high approval ratings, aims to do just that.

The venue choice was also interesting: It took place at the Nogal social club, which was bombed by the FARC in 2003, killing more than 30 people.

UPDATE: Former Housing Minister Oscar Iván Zuluaga told RCN radio this morning that he hopes to be the presidential candidate with Uribe's support.


July 03, 2012

The Dead Don Speaks: A new book based on interviews with Pablo Escobar casts fresh light on old allegations

I just finished reading Germán Castro Caycedo’s excellent book about drug lord Pablo Escobar called “Operación Pablo Escobar.”

Caycedo, a respected veteran journalist in Colombia, said he interviewed the notorious head of the Medellin Cartel almost a dozens times as he was researching a book about the rise of drug dons. When Escobar was hunted down and killed in 1993, it also killed the book project.

But amid renewed interest in all things Escobar, Castro released the book this month.

I’m not an Escobar scholar - I read Mark Bowden’s impressive “Killing Pablo,” but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten - but I think there are some new things in Castro’s account.

*While it’s well known that Escobar had ties to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, in this book Escobar claims the connection goes back to the Somoza regime in the 1970s. In his telling, the Colombia-Nicaragua-US drug route was established when a plane belonging to drug kingpin Jaime Cardona crashed on a Somoza estate. Escobar said the U.S.-backed dictator made the pilot a deal he couldn’t refuse: freedom in exchange for having a cut of all future drug runs through Nicaragua.

*Escobar also sheds some light on the Barry Seal episode. You may recall that Seal, a drug runner for the cartel and a CIA informant, used a concealed camera to show Escobar and Jorge Ochoa presumably loading kilos of cocaine into a C-123 transport plane in Nicaragua. Seal was reportedly gunned down in 1986 in Baton Rouge by the Medellin cartel, but Escobar said he had nothing to do with the murder.

He also said he never loaded cocaine in Nicaragua, as the pictures suggest, but that he was loading cash. He said the sting and the cocaine story was part of a complicated coverup to hide the fact that U.S. Col. Oliver North was financing Nicaragua’s Contra war with cocaine delivery contracts. (Seal and others were charging the cartel $5,000 per kilo, and the cocaine was landing on CIA-controlled fields in Texas and Louisiana.) 

Many of these allegations may have been made in one way or another, and there's no paticular reason to put much faith in anything Escobar said, but it was interesting to "hear" them from the mouth of the dead don. 

July 02, 2012

Coca as cash In Colombia’s drug-war backwaters


Don Antonio unscrewed a vitamin bottle and dumped a few chunks of coca base – a precursor to cocaine – in his hand. In this part of Colombia, along the Guayabero River that divides Meta and Guaviare, coca base, or mercancia, is as good as cash.  A gram is worth 2,000 pesos and might buy you a Coca-Cola.

I just got back from a trip to the region with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Despite the decades-long war on drugs and routine fumigation flights in the area, locals said about 90 percent of the population depends on the shrub to make a living. Those who have tried to make the switch to legal crops say the costs of trying to get their yucca or corn harvests to the nearest town, where they might find buyers, make it unfeasible.

Coca base, on the other hand, is easy to transport and buyers will often visit the remote villages for pickup. It makes sense financially, but the farmers find themselves hounded by the law and caught between the crossfire of the military and the FARC guerrillas that roam the area.

While I was on the trip, and disconnected from the outside world, there were two interesting developments in regional drug policy. The small nation of Uruguay legalized marijuana and announced that the government would become a grower and seller. (Before you book your ticket, the new law also prohibits the sale to foreigners.)

Also, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld a Supreme Court ruling making it illegal to imprison people for carrying up to 22 grams of marijuana and one gram of cocaine. Civil rights groups said the move would help steer people toward rehab and take pressure off of overcrowded prisons. The Attorney General, however, said he would fight the ruling. 

Along the Guayabero River, Don Antonio will still be buying his Cokes with coca.  


jim wyss

Inside South America is written by Jim Wyss, the South America bureau chief for the Miami Herald and McClatchy Newspapers.

Feel free to send a story suggestion. Read Jim's stories at MiamiHerald.com.

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