It seems probable that, as a security agent at an airport, you’re used to seeing all kinds of outfits, including some that you see regularly – businessmen, troops deploying, religious figures, to the point where you could spot a fake outfit from a real one. Which is probably why this news is not terribly surprising:
Three women dressed like nuns have been arrested at a Colombian airport allegedly smuggling drugs.
Police said the women, aged 20, 32 and 37 had two kilos (4.4lb) of cocaine each strapped to their bodies.
Officers said they became suspicious because the women “didn’t look like nuns” and their habits “didn’t look right”.
Though the story comes off as a rather light tale for something revolving around drug trade (and the very serious impact on the women arrested), it masks the tragic realities behind the drug trade. All three women said they’d turned to smuggling due to “financial hardship,” and now face probable prison sentences. Of course, the fact that they were traveling to a popular island resort is a reminder that the demand among the wealthy for drugs contributes to the drug trade even while it ensnares those who face financial hardship. And though these three women were caught, it probably has barely put a dint in the availability of drugs on the island itself, so that the tourists will be able to turn to recreational drug use while these women go to jail. Behind the seemingly-mildly amusing story is yet another tragic reminder on the ways in which the drug trade both reflects and reinforces broader socioeconomic inequalities in Latin America.
Just the Facts has an excellent breakdown on security in Latin America in a variety of areas. Among the numbers:
- Only one in every 300 guns circulating in Mexico is legal and documented.
- Bolivia is spending $35-40 million US dollars on anti-drug programs this year, providing a reminder that coca legalization and anti-drug measurements are separate matters.
- Landmines killed 13 children in Colombia last year.
- Cuba has 90 political prisoners, up from 45 just 9 months ago.
- 168 explosive devices have detonated since 2005.
As they say, read the whole thing here.
Historians often are uncomfortable predicting future events; just because a familiarity with the past helps understand possible outcomes going forward does not mean we’re comfortable picking just one of those (usually many) possibilities. That said, I feel confident in suggesting that São Paulo city’s new efforts to force crack addicts into mandatory treatment is going to immediately run into problems. Why can I be so certain?
Because a city of 11+ million people facing a crack “epidemic” has only 700 spaces available for treatment in a country with an estimated 1.2 million crack users nationwide, with many of them in cities like São Paulo, where the use is so widespread that part of the city has become known as “Cracolandia” (“Crackland”). If the problem is widespread enough to prompt the government to conduct sweeps to gather up crack users (sweeps that left a 10-year-old dead two weeks ago), I suspect the 700 spaces for treatment will fill up long before addicts are off the streets (to say nothing of the limits of state power in these types of actions).
Well, this is something:
Traditional uses of the coca leaf in Bolivia will no longer be considered illegal under a United Nations antidrug convention, the organization said Friday. Coca is the plant used to make cocaine, but many people in Bolivia, which has a majority indigenous population, chew it as a mild stimulant, a use that has continued since pre-Colombian times. Bolivians also use the plant as a tea, in medicines and in religious or social rituals.
Of course, the move was not without opposition:
The country’s condition for rejoining the convention met resistance from 15 countries, including the United States and the rest of the G8 group of industrial nations, according to UN spokeswoman Arancha Hinojal. But the objections received by the United Nations ahead of Thursday’s midnight deadline fell far short. In order to block Bolivia’s return to the convention a full third of its signatories – or 63 – needed to object.
This isn’t surprising, but is yet one more reminder of the myriad ways that the US’s (and other so-called “developed” countries’) attitudes towards the drug trade are absurdly simplistic and flawed, putting all the blame on the growth of a plant without considering the industrial processes needed to create a drug, the issues of demand in the US, the ties of drug lords to governments and presidents that received the US’s support, or the importance of treating addiction within its own borders, to say nothing of allowing large western banks make so much money laundering illegal drug money and face only small penalties for clearly aiding the drug trade just because they are allegedly “too big to jail.”
Quite simply, blaming the coca leaf for all the ills of the drug trade is counterproductive, and the UN’s decision to revoke its illegal status within the borders of Bolivia is an important, if small, step in dealing with the issue of coca and drugs in a more nuanced fashion. In its natural state, the coca leaf is about as dangerous as the coffee bean, and has very real historical, cultural, and religious significance to many people in the Andean highlands in Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. It’s really hard to see how legalizing it in Bolivia is going to lead to some explosion in cocaine production – after all, Bolivia is far behind either Peru or Colombia in terms of cocaine production, and the coca leaf is illegal in those countries still. This is not to say legalizing the leaf (and the subsequent market in the leaf) in Bolivia will lead to a reduction in cocaine use in the world – there is the whole demand side of the equation in the US and Europe, after all – but given that declaring it is illegal in one country has done nothing to stop the cocaine trade or cocaine use even while it has impinged upon indigenous cultural and ceremonial practices in South America, it’s hard to see the UN’s move as some disaster.
While the notion of “the disappeared” in Latin America has existed since at least the 1960s and 1970s, when military regimes kidnapped, murdered, and hid or destroyed the bodies of alleged “subversives,” victims of authoritarian regimes are not the only “disappeared” in the region, and the problem is not limited to the past (to say nothing of the long-term social effects that are still felt in places like Argentina, Chile, and Brazil today). Indeed, the problem continues to appear in the second decade in the 21st century, albeit in a new guise: that of missing migrants.
Even before the tour bus comes to a stop, the women rise from their seats and wait in the aisle to exit. In their arms rest rolled-up flags of the Central American countries they come from. Large laminated photographs of missing loved ones hang by lanyards from their necks.
They descend the stairs to a gaggle of waiting press photographers. This is their moment of hope, stirring once again the possibility of putting to rest years of uncertainty and desperation.
Maybe someone has seen a missing son or father making his way to the United States in search of work. Maybe someone knows a daughter is OK.
“The goal is to come to look for them,” said Virginia Olcot, 42, of Chimaltenango, Guatemala, who last heard from her husband in September 2009 when he arrived at the U.S. border in Sonora. “This is our intention: to not get tired, to persevere and get the government to help us.”
The group sponsoring the trip estimates that some 70,000 Central American migrants have disappeared in the past six years based on reports from nonprofit groups. Some of them have been found in the most brutal of circumstances: Hundreds of would-be migrants were discovered murdered in the community of San Fernando in the border state of Tamaulipas: first 72, most of them Central Americans, massacred on a farm in 2010, and nearly 200 people, some Mexicans, discovered in clandestine graves about six months later.
The US understanding of immigration and its regional and global processes is certainly limited (and not aided by the fact that, in a presidential debate ostensibly on foreign policy, neither the issue of immigration nor the region of continental Latin America ever came up). Based on US media metanarratives, migration all too often is an issue that begins once people have entered the US. Even the discussion of drug-related violence in Mexico rarely touches on the ways in which said violence affects the lives of migrants. And while there are certainly some differences between the “disappeared” of military regimes in the latter part of the 20th century, in many ways the impacts are all too familiar: uncertainty, the suffering of loved ones, the unknown fate of the victims. And in another familiar theme, it is the mothers who are at the forefront of the struggle to find these new “disappeared,” giving up their past livelihoods and devote themselves to finding their loved ones:
“We know your pain. We speak the same language,” said Irma Leticia Hidalgo, a mother from a Monterrey suburb whose son was kidnapped last year. “Your missing are our missing.”
Hidalgo said her 18-year-old son was taken from their home in the middle of the night by about 10 men, half of them wearing police vests from a nearby town, who went on to steal everything of value in the house. Although she paid a ransom and was told she’d have her son back in a few hours, he never returned.
She ultimately retired from her teaching job to look for him.
Again, the context of the 2010s and migration might superficially be different from that of the 1960s-1980s and military regimes, but the human suffering is painfully familiar and similar. It’s a powerful reminder that the issue of “the Disappeared” never goes away and takes a number of forms even today.
-In the wake of his re-election this past Sunday, Hugo Chávez has named Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro his new vice president. I originally suggested that, in the wake of the election, one of the big questions would be whether Chávez made any attempts to institutionalize his policies and programs in the event he has to leave his office; the selection of Maduro suggests that Chávez himself, whose health is regularly a matter of speculation, may be moving towards institutionalizing his reforms and considering a time where he is no longer able to hold office.
-Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri is under fire after alerting a pro-life group to a rape victim who was seeking an abortion at a hospital. Macri made the move in what is a clear infringement on the woman’s rights in an attempt to pressure her to avoid abortion. Earlier this year, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that rape victims could not be prosecuted for ending a pregnancy that was the result of a rape, though that has not stopped Macri from consistently rejecting women’s reproductive freedoms by vetoing municipal bills that would allow abortion in the cases of rape or when the health of the mother is at risk.
-Citing tongue cancer and other medical issues, Alberto Fujimori’s family has formally requested a pardon for the imprisoned ex-president and convicted violator of human rights.
-Colombian paramilitary leader Hector German Buitrago (AKA “Martin Llanos”) confessed to the murder of villagers in 1997′s Mapiripan massacre as part of the right-wing paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia; AUC).
-This past weekend, Mexico’s military killed Heriberto Lazcano, one of the key figureheads in the Zetas cartel, one of the more powerful and violent cartels in the country, in what the Mexican government is now saying was an “accident.”
-The US Supreme Court has rejected Chevron’s appeal of an Ecuadoran decision that ruled the country owes $18.2 billion in damages for the systematic discharge of toxic waste that led to the destruction of the environment and an increase in diseases, including cancer, related to the pollution in the Ecuadoran Amazonian basin.
-Indigenous peoples and environmental activists in Brazil have again blocked access to a construction site at the controversial Belo Monte dam, protesting against the environmental impact and the destruction of indigenous lands that the dam will cause. At the end of August, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled construction on the dam could proceed, but opposition from indigenous groups and activists, as well as environmentalists, continues.
-Calls for Guatemala to investigate the military have mounted after armed forces shot into a crowd of protesting indigenous peoples, killing eight natives, and the opposition party has begun investigating the possibility of filing charges against officials in President Otto Pérez Molina’s administration. While such charges seem unlikely right now, the murder is not insignificant; military violence in Guatemala is still a highly-sensitive and charged issue since the end of the 36-year civil war that ended in 1990, during which the Guatemalan armed forces regularly targeted indigenous communities in a genocidal campaign.
-In a historic moment for Brazilian politics, Supreme Court Justice Joaquim Barbosa was chosen as the first ever black president of the court.
-Finally, in a logic that can at best be described as dubious, Trinidad’s Minister Jack Warner has announced the country will no longer release crime statistics to the public because such data (Warner alleges) encourages people to commit more crimes.
After unconfirmed reports started emerging this past weekend, yesterday Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that the Colombian government will hold peace talks with representatives from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a guerrilla group that has been one of the main engines of a civil war in Colombia that has now lasted nearly 50 years.
While peace talks are certainly no guarantor of success, the move is significant in that it’s the first time since the 1990s that the government has opted to engage in negotiations for peace with the rebels (the administration of Álvaro Uribe took a considerably harder line against the FARC during his presidency from 2002 to 2010). Why now is not totally clear, but certainly, the FARC’s recent string of losses in leadership and general discontent with and weariness from more than four decades of civil conflict among the Colombian population more generally could be another, as recent actions of the Nasa indigenous people against rebels and the government forces alike demonstrate.
Boz has some observations on the potential for the talks, how this round is already different from previous rounds, and what the focus should be (he mentions child-soldiers in particular, a very real humanitarian problem in the decades-long struggle).
One thing I would add that’s not being brought up much is the issue of paramilitary groups. Will they be a part of the negotiations, not necessarily as actors but certainly as a topic that needs to be considered? Will the FARC push for their disbanding, and will the government, which has often had close ties to paramilitaries, listen? Will paramilitary group leaders be given a place at the table in the talks?
It’s certainly too early to answer these questions – as Santos himself said, the government will announce details in the coming week(s), and Boz is right to say the process will likely be slow – but it is a very real issue and concern. But for all of the violence that the FARC and official Colombian military forces have caused, one cannot overlook the role of right-wing paramilitary groups in human rights violations historically as well as in present threats, to say nothing of their connections to drug trafficking. Quite frankly, even if in the best of circumstances the peace talks lead to a truce between the government and FARC but do not include the paramilitary groups, it is hard to see just how solid this peace could be. Put simply, if the peace talks do not at least broach the subject of paramilitary groups, it’s hard to see how much success they can have. I hope it is an issue of discussion, but only the coming months will the path of talks become apparent.
Yesterday, Colombian ex-general Mauricio Santoro, one of former president Álvaro Uribe’s security chiefs, pled guilty to ties with right-wing paramilitary terrorist groups while avoiding facing charges of drug trafficking (in which paramilitary groups are also involved). Given how many top-ranking officials from the Uribe government (and even Uribe himself before he became president) have now been connected to right-wing paramilitary groups, one cannot help but wonder how many more connections are needed before if it’s only a matter of time before an explicit connection between these groups and Uribe’s presidency emerges.
-In a rare bit of good news, it appears the deforestation rate in the Amazon had once again dropped (though 2,049 square kilometers of deforestation is still a significant loss).
-In Chile, a crackdown on Mapuche activists left at least five children injured after state forces again used harsh measures against Chile’s largest (and regularly-repressed) indigenous group.
-In a step backwards for women’s rights, deadlock in Uruguay’s Congress has postponed the legalization of abortion up to the twelfth week. Meanwhile, in Chile, a study finds that women continue to have a difficult time speaking out against unfair wage practices that reward men more than women for the same work.
-Mexican singer Chavela Vargas, who pushed gender stereotypes and irked the Catholic Church, passed away at 93.
-In a major, if temporary, victory for indigenous rights, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered the military forces to leave indigenous lands in the Southeastern part of the country, a ruling the government plans to appeal.
-In a novel solution that other countries could learn from, Honduras has banned guns in the Carribean region of Colón.
-In Argentina, popular outrage erupted after a video of police tortured two prisoners became public. Argentines say the video is more evidence that torture within state forces continues nearly thirty years after the brutal dictatorship that used widespread torture fell from power.
-Meanwhile, in a step forward for prisoners’ rights in Brazil, the government is shutting down illegal, police-constructed makeshift prisons where due process and rule of law were often absent.
-Brazil is set to spend $9.6 billion reais (roughly $4.75 billion US dollars) to project hydroelectric dams, including the controversial Belo Monte dam, from invasions and strikes. The move comes just a few weeks after indigenous peoples whose lands will be flooded had occupied the dam’s construction site in protest.
-It’s not just major dams that cause problems for peasants in Latin America; in Mexico, communities have intensified their struggles against state-sponsored “small dams.”
-Brazil and Uruguay recently signed a new round of agreements that will intensify the economic ties between the two countries.
-Finally, in a tragic if unsurprising conclusion, the increased violence in Mexico in the past several years has led to a rise in PTSD among Mexico’s population.