February 05, 2014

Colombia nabs Colombia spying on Colombia

There's something very  Philip K. Dickian about this latest spying scandal in Colombia. 

BOGOTA, Colombia -- In an escalating scandal that could lay bare the deep divisions in this Andean nation, President Juan Manuel Santos on Tuesday ordered a thorough investigation into allegations that factions within the army might be spying on the government’s own peace negotiators in Havana.

Santos ordered his staff to find the “dark forces” that may be trying to “sabotage” the peace talks, which aim to end the 50-year civil conflict with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

The announcement came after Semana.com, one of the country’s most respected media outlets, reported late Monday that the army was working with civilian hackers to break into the email and text-message accounts of government peace negotiators, including chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle.

“Who could be interested in investigating, in recording, in intercepting our peace negotiators?” Santos asked during a meeting with the national police. “What dark forces are behind this?”

The secret spying office, called “’Andromeda,” operated out of a commercial district in Bogotá and was disguised as a restaurant and a computer lab. The office was set up in 2012 and operated for more than a year before being shut down by judicial authorities in late January, Semana.com reported.

The article was the result of a 15-month investigation and relied heavily on anonymous sources, but no high government official has suggested that it’s false.

Fernando Hernández, the director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which studies the Colombian conflict, called the allegations “extremely serious.”

January 21, 2014

TV Violence: Venezuela wants to end it, Colombia exports it to Afghanistan

PabloescobarAs Venezuela tries to crack down on violence by cracking down on violent TV, Colombia continues making a mint with its televised tales of crime and blood.

Still reeling from the murder of beauty queen Monica Spear early this month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with broadcasters to get them to tone down the violence. It’s still not clear if the government will force them to do it, but in Venezuela’s restrictive media environment it wouldn’t be surprising.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s Caracol TV just announced that its hit series about the life of drug don Pablo Escobar will start airing in Afghanistan this month.

This from Caracol’s release: “Afghan audiences will witness the terrifying moments that changed not only the history of Colombia, but of the entire world and know the details that turned a common man into the lord of the drug trafficking business and one of the richest and most cruel criminals in the entire world.”

Read more about the PE series here.


October 28, 2013

Peace, Politics clash in Colombia as presidential race heats up

Ever since President Juan Manuel Santos announced last year his intention to pursue peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, he’s been under attack from his predecessor and former boss Alvaro Uribe. Over the weekend, Uribe unveiled his latest weapon in the war: a candidate to face Santos in the April 25 presidential race.

Óscar Iván Zuluaga, 54, a former mayor, senator and minister of finance, beat out two rivals to clench the nomination for Uribe’s Democratic Center party. He called himself Uribe’s most loyal pupil and made it clear where he stands on the peace talks taking place in Cuba with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

“Peace is not in Havana,” he said in his nomination speech. “The national agenda isn’t up for negotiation with the FARC.”

“I have never believed in this [peace] process because it’s based on a mistaken premise,” he told El Tiempo newspaper. “A legitimate state cannot sit down on equal terms with an organization that commits terrorist acts and finances itself through narco-traffic.”

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/10/28/3717257/peace-and-politics-clash-as-colombia.html#storylink=cpy

October 27, 2013

Four month ordeal of US veteran held by Colombia's FARC comes to an end

A few weeks ago, we wrote this post about Kevin Scott Sutay, the former US soldier who has been in FARC custody since June 20. Today, Cuba and Norway announced that Sutay had been released in good condition. 

This was a win for President Juan Manuel Santos who was trying to keep Sutay's release from becoming a high-wattage media circus, despite the FARC's insistence that they would only free the young man to former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba or US Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Ultimately, just as the government had been calling for, Sutay was handed over to the International Red Cross with little fanfare. He's now in US custody. It will be interesting to see if he speaks to the press.

Finally, I have to wonder if the timing of his release has anything to do with Alvaro Uribe's new party, Uribe Centro Democratico, picking its horse yesterday to face Santos in next year's election.

Oscar Ivan Zuloaga -- Uribe's former minister of finance -- got the nod and has vowed to stay true to his former boss and oppose ongoing peace talks. That cranks up the pressure on the FARC and the government to prove their getting results in Havana. 

October 11, 2013

Colombia tie guarantees nation World Cup slot; Ecuador moves one step closer

Colombia tied Chile 3-3 tonight and Ecuador beat Uruguay 1-0. The outcome guarantees Colombia a slot in Brazil, ending its 16-year World Cup drought. Barring an upset, Ecuador is almost certain to have a slot, also.

Here are the South America standings as of Friday night:

Argentina 14 8 5 1 30 11 29
Colombia 15 8 3 4 25 12 27
Ecuador 15 7 4 4 19 14 25
Chile 15 8 1 6 27 24 25
Uruguay 15 6 4 5 22 23 22
Venezuela 16 5 5 6 14 20 20
Peru 14 4 2 8 15 22 14
Paraguay 15 3 3 9 16 29 12
Bolivia 15 2 5 8 16 29 11

Breaking Bad comes to Latin America but will the chemistry work?


Do you recognize this man in his underwear? 

Walter White of Breaking Bad is dead and gone in the United States, but Latin America is getting ready for a major dose of the chemistry teacher turned meth don.

Sony and Teleset are remaking the entire series in Colombia. It sounds like it will be more of a re-shoot than an adaptation. The producers say they went to great lengths to match the series in terms of storyline, relationships, dialogue, look  and feel. Walter White is Walter Blanco, his wife Skyler will be Cielo.

At any rate, here's a story I wrote about it a few weeks back. It seemed like good weekend fodder. 

BOGOTA -- As the camera pulled back during Sunday’s final episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White — the chemistry teacher turned meth king — was sprawled in a pool of blood. But in Latin America, Walter Blanco is just being born.

Sony Pictures Television and Colombia’s Teleset are remaking the Emmy award-winning show in and around this bustling capital. Here it will be called Metastasis, but that’s virtually the only change the producers are making.

The new show is “very, very close” to the original, said Angelica Guerra, senior vice president and managing director of production for Latin America and the Hispanic market in the United States for Sony Pictures Television.

“You won’t see a new character, you won’t see different relationships, you won’t see huge dialogue differences,” she said. “In essence, it’s exactly the same.”

As many U.S. television viewers know, Breaking Bad follows the story of White, a New Mexico chemistry teacher who reacts to a cancer diagnosis by cooking up the Southwest’s purest methamphetamine to pay his medical bills and leave his family a nest egg. Over the course of five seasons, the audience watched White devolve from mild-mannered, sweater-vest-wearing schoolteacher into a sociopath with a knack for making blue crank and rubbing out his rivals.

“It’s a story that could happen anywhere in the world and especially in [Latin America],” Guerra said.

Read the full story here

October 09, 2013

US veteran kidnapped by Colombia's FARC "speaks" from captivity


US Army vet Kevin Scott Sutay was kidnapped by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas in July as he wandered outside the city of San Jose de Guaviare – against local advice and, some would argue, common sense

The rebel group is in the process of hammering out a slow-motion peace agreement in Havana and kidnapping tourists – even if they are former soldiers – is bad PR.

 The FARC have repeatedly offered to set him free as long as the government sends the right emissary – first, former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba and now former US presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson. President Santos, not surprisingly, has rejected both ideas, saying the guerrillas should skip the fanfare and release Sutay to the Red Cross.

 Now, the guerrillas have put out a lengthy “interview” with Sutay.

 In the FARC’s telling, the young man sounds like he’s on a fabulous eco-adventure.

“Before I go I have to see a tiger,” they quote him as saying. “ I'm enjoying my time here in the jungle, it's a pity you tell me that I will not be able to stay here any longer, you are really good people, I would like to stay longer, but if you say that the best thing for me is to go, I believe you. Will you visit me?"

Before you read the full conversation, keep in mind that this is one-sided, unverifiable account put out by a group that has executed hostages in the recent past and held others for more than a decade. Also, the FARC are considered a terrorist organization by the US and Colombia, so clicking below is likely to  get you flagged.

See the full transcript on the FARC’s website here

October 08, 2013

US and Venezuela: Anatomy of a diplomatic breakdown

When Venezuelan diplomat Calixto Ortega arrived in Washington this summer, he was on a difficult mission: to repair a bilateral relationship strained by decades of mistrust and heated rhetoric.

He appeared to make some headway. In June, his government tapped him to head talks to exchange ambassadors with the United States for the first time since 2010. There was reason to hope that the nations, with deep trade and cultural ties, might overcome some of their differences.

But last week, Ortega was headed to the airport — one of six U.S. and Venezuelan officials expelled in the latest round of diplomatic bloodletting that put hopes of a rapprochement on ice.

What happened during the months since Ortega’s arrival depends on what capital you’re in.

For the beleaguered administration of President Nicolás Maduro, the United States delivered a series of diplomatic insults and provocations at a time when both were tiptoeing into the relationship.

From shutdown-showdown Washington, Maduro’s decision to throw in the towel at the first tap on the jaw and then eject three diplomats on flimsy “sabotage” charges is a sign that he’s looking for scapegoats — not solutions — as his country spirals into an economic crisis.

Read the full story here

August 05, 2013

An experiment in Amazon conservation faces economic reality


I recently returned for Ecuador where I was working on this story about one of the most innovative and ambitious conservation plans ever attempted.

The Yasuní-ITT Initiative was designed to leave more than 846 million barrels of crude oil untouched, in perpetuity, beneath Yasuní National Park — rioting with unknown species and tribes living in voluntary isolation.

In exchange, the government asked the world to cover just half of the crude’s $7.2 billion market price.

Environmental groups praised the plan as a novel way to slash greenhouse gases. In 2010, the United Nations threw its support behind the project, setting up a trust fund to receive and manage donations. There were hopes that crowd-sourcing conservation might be a model for other developing nations.

But six years after its launch, those goals are proving elusive. The plan has raised less than 10 percent of the $3.6 billion it’s seeking. Ecuador’s government says it has received $116.7 million and has pledges for an additional $220 million — some of it in non-cash cooperation. The United Nations trust fund has just $9.8 million in the bank.

The shortfall is driving speculation that Ecuador might be forced to drill for crude in the ITT oil block (short for Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini), which it says holds 20 percent of the nation’s reserves.

“We want to keep 400 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere,” President Rafael Correa told a crowd in April. “But if the international community doesn’t help share the responsibility, we have to make the best decision for the Ecuadorean people.”

Correa and his cabinet held a meeting about the fate of the project in June and are expecting to meet again in coming weeks. Officials say drilling the ITT is on the table.

In the balance is one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. The ITT block is among the most isolated areas of Yasuní National Park, a 2.4 million-acre U.N. biosphere reserve, which holds about one-third of all of the Amazon’s amphibian species, even though it represents just a small fraction of the total area. In any given two-and-a-half acre plot of the Yasuní — roughly the size of a soccer pitch — there are more species of trees than in the United States and Canada combined.

An entomologist from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History told me that 85% of all the insects he collects in Yasuni are unknown to researchers. 

PHOTO: Santiago Serrano

See the full story here. 

Interested in supporting the cause? You can donate as little as $2 though the UNDP website. 

July 24, 2013

Report: Colombia’s conflict has claimed 220,000 lives since 1958

BOGOTA, Colombia -- At least 220,000 people have been killed, more than 5,000 have disappeared and 4.7 million have been forced off their land during Colombia’s 54-year civil conflict. The chilling numbers, presented Wednesday by a government commission, are the most thorough accounting ever made of this nation’s ongoing struggles.

The report, which took six years to compile, comes as the country is in the midst of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest guerrilla group, even as it engages the rebels in pitched battles.

Among the study’s findings: Civilians accounted for 82 percent of all conflict-related deaths, and one out of every three violent deaths can be blamed on the conflict. Of the 1,982 massacres — defined as the killing of four or more people — from 1980 to 2012, right-wing paramilitary groups were responsible for 59 percent of them. Of the 27,023 kidnappings from 1970 to 2010, guerrillas were to blame 91 percent of the time.

While the nation’s armed combatants took the bulk of the blame, the armed forces were also put in the spotlight. The military and police were responsible for 8 percent of all massacres, 42 percent of all forced disappearances and 6.5 percent of all selective killings, according to the report.

“The numbers force us to revise the true cost of the armed conflict,” the report states. While many believed the conflict caused one out of every 10 violent deaths, the true figure is triple that amount.

“Likewise, it’s possible to refute claims that there’s symmetry between the number of civilian and combatant casualties,” the report said. “On the contrary, civilians are more affected. For every combatant killed, four civilians died.”

Check out the full story here. 

Or you can download the 434-page report here.


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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