Pablo Escobar: Robin Hood or Dastard and Crook?

After the Western Hemisphere’s most wanted man, a Drug Lord named ‘Shorty’ Guzman, got nabbed by Mexican Marines this week, different perspectives whirred through the media.

The question is whether or not his capture signals progress in the War on Drugs, or chaos for Mexicans as his drug empire – the Sinaloa Cartel – splinters in the wake of his absence.

A little further south, in Colombia, the question was over Pablo Escobar, the country’s Drug Baron of the 1980s. Was a country post-Pablo Escobar really a better one? Violence continued after his death. And vigilante groups – the same ones that are cropping up across Mexico – were usually the perpetrators.

Pablo Escobar remains a controversial figure in Colombia. Many remember him as a dastard and a crook. But others view him as a Robin Hood or a Savior for the poor more than a criminal.

The AFP reports on how the citizens of Medellín, Escobar’s home city, remember him…

How now (if he doesn’t escape from prison by some tricky scheme like last time) will Mexico – and the world – remember ‘Shorty’?

Ahead of Election, Colombia’s Santos Signals Tough Stance on Mining

World Politics Review

When he took office in 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos trumpeted mining as a “locomotive” that would drive the economy forward.

Recently though, the Santos administration dealt a series of harsh blows to the country’s No. 2 coal exporter, Alabama-based Drummond Co., in response to a series of legal blunders committed in 2013. Coming down this hard on a company like Drummond is an unprecedented move for Colombia’s government, signaling that from here on out, multinationals that come to mine the country’s natural resources could face a new, hard-line stance when they don’t play by the rules. Continue reading on WPR…

Venezuela expats are tweeting the way for embattled protesters

Global Post

BOGOTA, Colombia — As anti-government protesters descended on Caracas’ main plaza this week, marcher Eiker Ramirez called a Venezuelan living in neighboring Colombia and asked her what was happening.

His friend here, 24-year-old university student Yoselie Gonzalez, checked her Twitter feed. Continue reading at Global Post…

How China’s Appetite is Changing Latin America

Ozy Magazine

Protesters fed up with rising prices and cheapening currencies march by the tens of thousands in Caracas and Buenos Aires.

Others tired of woeful public services fill Brazilian cities, decrying the billions of dollars being spent to host the World Cup this summer. A year of discontent is rolling out across Latin America, with a new middle class demanding more from their leaders and hitting the streets to make their voices heard.

Yet behind all the instability sits an unexpected force on the other side of the globe: China’s domestic appetite. Continue reading at Ozy…

Chrysanthemums for Colombia?


In a story published last week, the AP made sure President of Uruguay José ‘Pepe’ Mujica’s tirade got the color it deserved when it went to press.

From the AP’s story

War! Imperialism! Tyranny! The Business suit!

In a full throttle attack on ties and suits, Uruguay’s President went off on an angry tirade at the Economic Congress for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) held last week. Sitting before Latin America’s leaders, his rhetoric, though a bit grumpy, was at least very honest.

After the business suit, President Mujica is honest about other things he likes and doesn’t like: he doesn’t like the wasteful consumption patterns found in modern cities. He refuses to live in the Presidential Palace in Montevideo, resorting instead to a small farm outside of the city, where he farms Chrysanthemum flowers. Why? It’s what he likes. He drives an old sky blue Volkswagen Beetle on weekends, and gives away about 90% of his salary to charity.

After peeling back his eccentric lifestyle and poetic rhetoric though, Uruguay’s President is promoting concrete progressive social reform at home – like legalizing cannabis consumption – and abroad, like his offer to participate in a peace process between the Colombian government and its second largest guerrilla faction: the ELN.

From an interview with Al Jazeera

“Colombia has one of the strongest militaries in Latin America, with notorious backing from the United States, which means interference in the region. From afar it seems like a war without a solution, and like a long sacrifice for the country. So when a President appears who supports a path to peace, I think that deserves support. Because there’s a lot of pain, and if they try to settle the scores, war will never end.”

So far, it’s unclear to what extent Colombia is interested in having President Mujica’s voice at the negotiating table. But for the leader of one of Latin America’s least corrupt, least violent societies, and with a personal history as an urban guerrilla, having been shot, jailed and sentenced by military tribunal to more than a decade of prison with solitary confinement sprinkled in, his experience – and maybe even his views – might be worth hearing about.

photo source: NA

Señor Bello


The Economist started a new column this week on Latin America. The column sets out to provide deeper coverage on Latin America. After much deliberation, it earned the name Bello, after Andrés Bello.

Bello was a “Venezuelan-born polymath, educator, writer and diplomat.” Not surprisingly, Bello seems to fit the mold of The Economist’s liberal (in the classical sense of liberal) set of attitudes. Bello believed in strong state institutions, free trade, and public education for all.

That being said, he was against the top-down attitude that the 19th-century Latin American fighter-for-independence Simon Bolívar pushed on the region. Instead of believing that new republics coming fresh out of the gates from colonial rule needed strong, top-down authority, Bello wanted to see the development of citizens sow the seeds for civilization in Latin America.

From The Economist…

The causes espoused by Bello—the rule of law, education and openness—are enduring ones. They loom especially large in Latin America today, as the great commodity boom wanes. Populists peddling an inward-looking nationalism, who have ruled by state diktat and political favour rather than by law, are being found out at last, as this month’s devaluations in Argentina and Venezuela show.

What would he say in response to Latin America today? That is a secret no one will ever find out. The Economist is honest with its feelings though: “In 21st-century Latin America the teachings of the region’s greatest 19th-century public intellectual are more relevant than ever.” No secrets here.

photo Universidad de Chile

Neo-Pentecostal in Colombia

Wesley Tomaselli 2013

“The devil is afraid of me,” said the woman who has recently found herself in the limelight of Colombian media drama. The drama came after video footage revealing that she condemns disabled persons’ participation in her church hit the screen.

Her name is Maria Luisa Piraquive, a Colombian Neo-Pentecostal leader.

Who Maria Luisa Piraquive really is, is a question with more than one answer though. She is Maria, the brave heir to a church started by her and her husband after he succumbed to a heart attack in 1996. She is also Sister Maria Luisa, the charismatic leader of more than 750 congregations where believers of the evangelical Christian faith she preaches have cropped up across Colombia, Spain, and the US. But she is also Big Mama Piraquive, the head of a family that has ascended from modest beginnings to a wealthy, upper class status, with houses sprinkled around Colombia and Miami. And she is a singer, too.

In response to the release of the footage, which Piraquive’s followers say is private and was never allowed to slip into the hands of Colombian journalists and news agencies, members of Piraquive’s church are protesting what they say is unfair play by the country’s media machines.

They protesters are a minority voice, but theirs is a voice that’s growing louder and louder in Colombia. Neo-Pentecostal Christianity, like other forms of evangelical Protestantism, take scripture seriously, almost literally at times, and preach a direct relationship between worshiper and Holy Spirit through baptism.

As her members defend her, citing constitutional rights to freedom of religious expression in Colombia, Piraquive’s harsh critics in the media keep up the attack, equating her metaphorically (in one instance) to a disease. At this rate, it doesn’t seem like the noisy theater swelling around Ms. Maria Luisa Piraquive is due to die down any time soon.

photo: LatAm FM

What is the GAULA?

Wesley Tomaselli 2013

When Basque photojournalist Borja Lázaro Herrero went missing in Colombia’s Guajira province in early January, it was Colombia’s GAULA who investigated.

GAULA (Grupos de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal) is Colombia’s elite anti-kidnapping unit, a special division of Colombia’s military born in 1996 in response to a rising wave of kidnapping and extortion events throughout the 1980s, 90s and into the 2000s.

According to Dialogo Americas, GAULA has started training other countries in Latin America against kidnapping and extortion, especially in Central America and Mexico.

From Dialogo Americas…

GAULA officers have spent more than five years training Honduran security forces in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. GAULA officers are helping Honduras develop a professional anti-kidnapping unit and an anti-extortion team, according to Guatibonza. The Colombian military has plans to engage in anti-extortion training programs in 2014 with Guatemala and Mexico.

In early September 2013, Colombian Marines trained members of the Honduray Navy in maritime interdiction of drug traffickers. The training took place on board the ARC Caldas, a Colombian missile frigate, in Puerto Cortes on the Northwest coast of Honduras.

In addition to those training efforts, the Colombian Air Force and the Honduran Air Force have an agreement to exchange intelligence and participate in joint training programs, said Gen. René Osorio Canales, the leader of the Honduran Armed Forces. The Colombian Air Force has agreements with Mexico, Brazil Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Peru to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking.

“We welcome the recent visit of Colombian Defense Minister Pinzón as part of his Central American tour,” Osorio said. “”The idea is that Honduras can join its friends in the region against the common enemy and we appreciate Colombia´s help in this.”

Colombia’s interest in exporting GAULA’s expertise outside of Colombia reflects the fact that the ugliness connected to illicit drug-trafficking has quieted down some in Colombia. But it’s not gone from the region.

photo credit: Vanguardia

What is a ‘Taita’?

“Out of all the medicinal plants, it’s the father of all of them,” Martín Ágreda tells Colombian news magazine Semana.

Mr. Ágreda is a Taita – a kind of traditional doctor who prepares and administers ayahuasca, a super potent psychedelic tea made from brewing Amazonian vines. It’s an infusion. And you drink it.

But guys like Ágreda are also viewed as shamans – spiritual leaders of indigenous communities who guide people through the experience of ayahuasca.

From Colombian magazine Semana (español):

“Es uno de los remedios de la medicina indígena amazónica que más se ha popularizado en el país. Los Taitas (médicos tradicionales) son los encargados de preparar un jarabe con el bejuco para luego ofrecerlo en un ritual que permite a quienes lo ingieren limpiar su cuerpo y su espíritu. Actualmente, el yagé corre varios riesgos. En la selva es afectado por los químicos rociados para la fumigación de cultivos ilícitos, la construcción de megaproyectos y los hostigamientos provocados por los grupos armados…”

“It’s one of the remedies of Amazonian indigenous medicine most popularized in the country. The ‘Taitas’ (traditional doctors) are in charge of preparing a syrup from the vine of the plant in order to later offer an experience that lets those who take it clean their body and soul. In reality, drinking ayahuasca runs various risks. In the jungle, it’s affected by chemicals for the fumigation of illicit crops, the construction of infrastructure projects and harassment from armed groups…”

Check out these other resources about Ayahuasca

First-hand account of drinking ayahuasca – Benjamin Hansen-Bundy @ Wine & Bowties

Open your mind to the new psychedelic science – WIRED Magazine

New Information on Old Resources: Coverage of Mining in Colombia

Screen Shot 2014-01-23 at 11.09.50 AM

I once asked a Colombian business leader why her business publication was set to cover topics like Electric Power, Oil & Gas, and Infrastructure… but not mining.

“It’s very difficult to get accurate data on that sector,” she said. She also added that there is a mix of legal and illegal actors in the mining sector, making it very difficult to profile.

La Silla Vacia, a Colombian digital magazine, is doing something about that difficulty. They’ve just launched a special page (español) that will cover Colombia’s complex mining industry.

From the site…

Aunque la locomotora minera que prometió el presidente Juan Manuel Santos apenas prendió motores y todavía no ha comenzado ningún proyecto nuevo en su gobierno, la minería ya se convirtió en uno de los temas de debate más polarizadores en el país.

Even though the mining engine that President Juan Manuel Santos promised is hardly turning, and none of the new projects of his government have begun, mining has already turned into one of the most polarizing matters of debate in Colombia.

La Silla Vacía covers the mining sector, but also provides a database of the companies, players and interest groups that make it go.

More on Colombia’s mining sector here (español)