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    Cali and Bogota Rank Among Top Five Places to Buy Real Estate Overseas

    Bogota, Colombia

    TODAY COLOMBIA – In its annual outlook, a Panama-based publication recently ranked the best global locations to buy real estate this year, and two of the largest cities in Colombia — the “irresistible” Cali and gentrifying Bogotá — made the top five.

    Only two markets in Portugal — Algarve in first place and Lisbon coming in second — beat out the Colombian hotspots on the list of the “Best Places to Buy Real Estate Overseas in 2017” compiled by Live and Invest Overseas.

    Cali, Colombia

    Its complete top nine ranking features these cities:

    1. Algarve, Portugal
    2. Lisbon, Portugal
    3. Cali, Colombia
    4. Bogotá, Colombia
    5. Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic
    6. Playa del Carmen, Mexico
    7. Cocle, Panama
    8. Ceara, Brazil
    9. Cape Verde

    When looking at Cali, the editors are experiencing deja vu. They see the Valle del Cauca capital following the same path that another Colombian city has already taken. “Cali is Medellín 10 years ago,” wrote the publication.

    “Property values are an absolute global bargain,” continued Live and Invest Overseas.  “The rental demand is expanding — this is one of the fastest-growing tourist markets in Colombia — as is the city’s middle class. The U.S. dollar is at a record high against the Colombian peso, making this undervalued market irresistible.”

    The capital, Bogota, while always appealing as one of Colombia’s largest and most connected cities, is also on the rise. The currency deflation in recent years has hit at the exact same time that high-quality food, coffee, and cultural attractions are popping up more and more throughout Bogotá.

    “This is a hub for Latin American business, meaning a strong business traveler rental market,” according to the outlet. “At the same time, this is Colombia’s most popular tourism destination and international travel to Bogotá is increasing. All this adds up to a growing tourist rental market. Neighborhoods are being gentrified and the local middle class is expanding quickly, meaning this city offers a capital appreciation play as well.”

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    Colombians are fed up with corruption, and everyone seems to be under investigation

    Colombians marched in Bogota on April 1 against corruption, the FARC peace process and national politics in general. Fredy Builes/Reuters

    TODAY COLOMBIA (The Conversation) Civil unrest seems to be the order of the day – and the coming weeks – in Latin America. The sprawling Odebrecht bribery scandal that started in Brazil is now complicating life in many neighbouring nations. The Conversation

    In Colombia, recent reports reveal that the Brazilian construction company has been bribing the country’s public officials since 2010. With the 2018 presidential campaign heating up, the revelation is spurring dissatisfaction with President Juan Manuel Santos and imperilling the country’s fledgling peace process.

    On April 1, up to 16,000 Colombians took to the streets to decry corruption and express ongoing dissatisfaction with the peace accords signed with the FARC guerrillas. It was, in many ways, a march against the Colombian political establishment.

    Public debate around the marches was largely redirected by mudslides in the city of Mocoa, the capital of the Putumayo province. They killed more than 300 citizens, including dozens of children, on the night of March 31.

    The tragedy gave Santos, who is now entering the last year of his administration, the opportunity to reassert his leadership. And it briefly relieved the pressures that the Odebrecht corruption scandal was exerting on his government.

    Corruption takes centre stage

    Colombia is not a regional outlier. Mass protests in 2016 famously contributed to the impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. And continuing public ire has helped spur the courts there to send numerous high-ranking government officials to jail for corruption. Argentina and Chile are also seeing citizens protest leaders from the political left, right and centre.

    In many cases, public outcry is linked to the massive number of government officials found to be in the pocket of Odebrecht, whose bribery network reaches from Colombia and Peru to Angola and Mozambique.

    But in Colombia, the company is only part of a more complicated story behind recent protests.

    Public malfeasance has long been common in the country. The 1994 presidential campaign of Ernesto Samper, for example, was found to have been funded by the Cali Cartel, then one of Colombia’s most powerful trafficking organisations.

    Even the main instigators of the April 1 march – former president Alvaro Uribe and former inspector general Alejandro Ordoñez – have themselves been found to be enmeshed in various corruption scandals. But that well-reported fact has not stopped them from actively mobilising public opinion against corruption within the current government.

    President Santos faces an unusual and contradictory political reality. Internationally, he is well regarded as a Nobel Peace Prize winner lauded for his efforts to end Colombia’s armed conflict. But, at home, he is highly unpopular, with disapproval ratings of 71%.

    This is due to an ironic twist of fate for the president. In signing the November 2016 peace accords with the FARC guerrillas, Santos took the formerly overwhelming question of armed conflict out of the spotlight and allowed corruption to take centre stage in the public mind.

    Smear campaigns

    Santos is a career politician, who served as minister of defence under his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, and is the grand nephew of a former president.

    His detractors – led by Uribe, who is now among his most strident critics – are now using this experience to discredit him, calling him “immoral” and “corrupt”. As evidence for their claims, they cite a formal investigation by Colombia’s attorney general into whether the Odebrecht bribes played a role in Santos’ 2014 presidential campaign.

    The anti-Santos right-wing coalition includes the scandal-beset Ordoñez, as well as former minister of defence Marta Lucía Ramírez, and former vice president German Vargas Lleras. All of them fiercely opposed and nearly derailed the FARC accords in 2016. And all intend to run for the presidency in 2018.

    This group does not have enough support to wield veto power in Congress. But by uniformly resisting any action undertaken by Santos and using smear campaigns to influence voter opinion, it has been successfully undermining the credibility of the current administration over the past two years.

    The April 1 march is another tactic. In leveraging corruption concerns, the opposition seeks to position itself ahead of Santos’s party in next year’s presidential campaign.

    Among other declared candidates, members of Uribe’s faction will go up against Humberto de la Calle. He is a prominent figure from the Santos camp and was the government’s lead negotiator in the FARC peace process. They will also stand against Bogota’s leftist former mayor, Gustavo Petro, whom Ordoñez removed for administrative malfeasance.

    The favourability rating of most of these would-be presidents has been falling recently, showing a general loss of legitimacy for Colombian political parties and their representatives.

    Institutions put to the test

    In this twisted fashion, Brazil’s Odebrecht corruption scandal, which is clearly no longer just confined to that country, brings to the fore the paradox of Latin America’s burgeoning citizen engagement.

    It is vital for democracy that people voice discontent with corruption, and Latin Americans’ increasing intolerance for the bribery, embezzlement and deal-making that has long characterised institutions on the continent is good.

    In many countries, the Odebrecht backlash has proven dramatic, increasing ire toward governments already under considerable pressure for unpopular measures, such as Brazil’s budget cuts and Argentina’s teacher strikes.

    In Colombia, it is putting institutions to the test and shaping presidential politics. Corruption can no longer be cloaked under the veil of national security interests and blamed on the existence of an armed group like the FARC. The absence of a war rhetoric within Colombia obliges the government to be more accountable to citizens. That too is healthy.

    But when popular outrage is manipulated by political operators who seek to advance their interests, democracy suffers. As in Brazil (where the main driver of Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, Eduardo Cunha, has now been jailed for corruption), politicians in Colombia tainted by other scandals are using Odebrecht as a Trojan horse to position their own political agendas.

    It is a risky tactic in a nation that is still relatively fragile. If Colombia’s institutions fail this challenge, the country could face a dramatic political transition, and a nation attempting to end war may find peace again endangered.

    Fabio Andres Diaz, Researcher on Conflict, Peace and Development, International Institute of Social Studies

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    Hilton Medellín Hotel Planned to Open in Colombia’s Second City in 2019

    TODAY COLOMBIA – Hilton has partnered with Colombian construction company Constructora Colpatria on a franchise license agreement to build the new multi-million hotel Hilton Medellín. According to the U.S.-based hospitality leader, the 25-story, 206-room development is scheduled to open in mid-2019.

    The property will be located on Avenida de las Palmas near the upper-class El Poblado neighborhood in Colombia’s second largest city. The company says Hilton Medellin will be part of a mixed-use development that also includes retail stores, office space, a residential complex, and a parking garage.

    Juan Corvinos, a regional managing director of development for Hilton, highlighted the influx of multinational companies coming to Medellín, now a “sought-after location,” as something that will make the new hotel a draw for social and corporate events. “This is an excellent time to bring the Hilton brand to Medellín as its lodging market continues to experience healthy growth and the city further establishes itself as one of Colombia’s principal business hubs,” said Corvinos.

    Hilton Medellín, which will be a part of the company’s global Hilton Honors loyalty program, will feature more than 2,000 square meters of meeting space, including a 600-square-meter ballroom and five other meeting rooms. It will also have an executive lounge, piano bar, restaurant, fitness center, spa, beauty salon, outdoor pool, and whirlpool.

    The hotel will be owned and developed by Constructora Colpatria, which has offices in Mexico and Peru and has developed commercial, residential, retail, and infrastructure projects throughout Colombia over the past four decades.

    Hilton Medellín is now one of the nine projects that Hilton currently has in the works in Colombia on top of the 14 properties it already maintains in the country. In 2016, the company opened the DoubleTree Bogotá, Hampton Inn by Hilton Medellín, and Hampton by Hilton Bucaramanga.

    “The city of Medellín is an increasingly important an international business hub and we are excited to bring the first Hilton hotel to the market, benefitting the growing number of business travelers,” said Amparo Polania, president of Constructora Colpatria.

    Article originally appeared on Financecolombia.com

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    Amazon Web Services Opens Office in Bogotá

    TODAY COLOMBIA – Amazon Web Services has opened its first office in Bogotá. This makes Colombia home to another Latin American office established by the online retail giant’s cloud services arm, with the first regional location established previously in São Paulo, Brazil.

    The Seattle-based company reportedly plans to build a local team of account executives, solution architects, and support staff, among other positions, to further win business in what it calls a growing market.

    Already, the firm lists Publicar, Bancolombia, and Infovalmer among the customers it currently provides with cloud-related services in Colombia. It also counts the Colombian Institution for the Evaluation of Education (ICFES), an agency within the nation’s Ministry of Education, as a client.

    Amazon ontinues to expand his empire with a second Amazon Web Services office opening in Latin America.

    In a statement, Amazon Web Services highlighted the “growing demand and acceleration of cloud computing services” in the country and said its goal will be “supporting Colombian clients on the path to adoption and transformation.”

    Colombian officials have championed the significance of the arrival. “This is a very important vote of confidence in the country and an invitation to companies to enter the dynamics of innovation,” said Felipe Jaramillo, president of the national business promotion agency ProColombia. He added that “it opens opportunities to generate quality employment for great Colombian talent, specialized in the IT sector.”

    BN Americas has reported that the company may soon open an office in Chile as well.

    Outside of Brazil, Amazon Web Services also maintains availability zones for its infrastructure in five other locations in the Americas: Northern California, Ohio, Oregon, Northern Virginia, and Central Canada.

    Its other geographic regions across the world include Germany, Ireland, China, India, Japan, Australia, Korea, and Singapore.

    Original article appeared on Financecolombia.com

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    Colombia landslide: A mud-covered Mocoa

    TODAY COLOMBIA – Hundreds of people are confirmed to have lost their lives in Saturday’s landslide in Colombia.

    Forty thousand people live in the south-western town of Mocoa that was hit by a torrent of mud and debris.

    The search for survivors continues, but hopes are fading fast for those still waiting on news about loved ones.

    The BBC’s Laura Bicker has been reporting from the region – sharing images of those affected by the tragedy.

    The town was devastated by mudslides as water tore through its centre after a night of extremely heavy rain.

    Neighbourhoods were swept away amongst the rising water levels.

    Our correspondent says in a Twitter post: “Mud lies thick on the streets of Mocoa. They’re still searching for the missing but with little hope.”

    “Five main rivers flow off these mountains – the rain came with mud and debris tearing through.”

    Colombia declares emergency
    ‘The river has got us, help us please’

    She described how during a live report for the BBC News at Ten, a small boy tugged at her trousers pleading for help.

    She explained that while much of the neighbourhood of San Miguel had been wiped out, people still tried to salvage what they could.

    Some were sitting amongst their mud strewn possessions including a sofa, she added.

    In one image, a man is seen sitting alone amongst debris, with roads and pathways now invisible in amongst the mud.

    People were still living in the rubble in Mocoa, our correspondent said.

    She posted one image of a volunteer, who said he had saved hundreds with just a torch for help.

    He is one of many aiding people who were trapped by the mud.

    Colombia’s president has declared a state of emergency, committing 40,000m pesos ($13.9m; £11.1m) towards “addressing humanitarian priorities” in the disaster’s aftermath.

    Laura posted an image of Red Cross workers at the scene, who are still continuing their efforts despite the dwindling chances of rescue.

    She captioned the image: “Over 270 confirmed dead, but they say 374 are still missing.”

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    For Colombian rebels, a risky shift from armed revolt to party politics

    TODAY COLOMBIA, Camille Boutron, Universidad de los Andes – By now, the numerous hindrances to Colombia’s peace process are well documented, from the inadequate FARC centralisation zones and the tight disarmament and reintegration schedule to a much-criticised amnesty law and the frequent assassinations of Colombian human rights activists. The Conversation

    But less attention has been paid to the FARC’s internal challenges as this half-century-old Marxist insurgency decommissions its fighters and transitions into peace. Such dynamics are important. For Colombia’s peace to stick, this violent rebel group must successfully become an officially sanctioned political actor.

    The FARC now finds itself in the midst of a deep transformation that will alter who it is, how it sees itself and what it does. And while its commanders seem to have a clear political vision for its future, the path there is fraught.

    Making friends, gaining influence

    As a political party, these consummate political outsiders will have to establish dialogue with other parties and social movements. At the moment, this is difficult to envision. Negotiations with the the FARC faced stiff opposition, and the organisation still features on the US terrorist watchlist.

    Today, no politician dares to suggest an alliance. But in the long run, such domestic relationship-building seems both necessary and probable. Most likely, the FARC will seek to build ties with Colombia’s leftist national parties and social movements, as it has done in the past.

    In the 1980s, negotiations with the FARC and other rebels resulted in the Patriotic Union, a big-tent leftist political party.

    Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos (left) with the FARC leader known as Timochenko. Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters

    Still, whether the reinvented FARC will be allowed access to the highest spheres of national political power remains questionable. Will Colombia’s political establishment accept these fighters-turned-politicians?

    In the 1980s and 1990s, more than 3,000 Patriotic Union representatives were assassinated, including presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa. That is hardly ancient history.

    Persistent social hierarchies

    Will all FARC militants transform along with the organisation? Its leadership seems to have a clear vision of the group’s political future; it will become a political party, name to be determined.

    But not all members will benefit similarly from this new reality. The FARC is heterogeneous, much more so than most Colombians believe. The relatively high female participation rate (around 40% are women) has attracted the most public attention.

    But the FARC is also diverse in terms of ethnicity, age, education level and social origins. Some members are college graduates from middle-class homes who have been in the group for decades; others are poor teenagers who joined a few years back. Like Colombian society, the FARC’s fighters are Afro-Colombian, indigenous, white and mixed-race.

    Its leadership is less so. Like any social group, the FARC’s internal power relations reproduce the social hierarchy of the outside world. From head negotiator Ivan Marquez to FARC top general, Timochenko, the FARC’s highest-ranking, most publicly visible officials are largely white and male.

    FARC troops are a diverse bunch, but not so much the commanders who led negotiations with the government. Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

    The FARC claims to be a revolutionary movement, in which historical social relations of powers are abolished, or at least reinvented. And it’s true that the group was able to overcome much of the social discrimination that is so deeply institutionalised in Colombian society. But this is only up to a point.

    FARC women enjoy (some) greater sexual freedoms and reproductive rights, and poor kids get a free education.

    The gender subcommittee of the peace negotiations, established in September 2014 after pressure from women’s groups and international organisations, represented an opportunity for learning and leadership for female FARC fighters. Victoria Sandino, the FARC delegation’s subcommittee chairwoman, stepped out of the shadows to become a prominent figure within the guerrilla group. She is now one of the principal spokespersons of what the FARC is calling “insurgent feminism” – a set of collective anti-patriarchal, anti-racist and anti-classist practices built from the lived experience of female FARC fighters.

    The experience of negotiation with political actors from different countries and ideologies shows how exchanges might contribute to mutual learning and help guide the deep transformation underway within the guerrilla group.

    And as a political party, the FARC will likely seek to create new opportunities for political participation of its rank-and-file members belonging to other minority groups as well. Colombia has high rates of social marginalisation based on race, class and gender, and as its solders become civilians, the reintegration process is likely to highlight, and maybe reinforce, inequalities that were less visible when the FARC was a military organisation.

    Now that the group will not be the sole provider of material support to its members, it is foreseeable that high-ranking former combatants with a diploma and family support will be better able to navigate the postwar period than their less privileged peers. How will the group’s foot soldiers fare in terms of job opportunities and political participation after the peace process?

    Experience from other countries’ transitions out of armed conflict shows that decommissioned soldiers who are not well trained for a new career or supported sufficiently during their transition are more likely to rejoin armed militancy. The persistence of of paramilitary groups in Colombia suggests that some former fighters of the Colombian armed conflict may not be ready to lay down arms.

    And, to date, there has been dangerously little attention paid to providing psychological support for ex-FARC fighters (and, more broadly, to the general mental health issues that arise in post-conflict nations).

    The end of one of the longest-standing guerrilla insurgencies in contemporary world history does not mean the end of armed violence in Colombia. And as the FARC prepares to reconstitute itself as a political party, all potential spoilers to the peace process – both outside of FARC’s control and those well within its mandate – must be soundly considered.

    Camille Boutron, Research assistant professor, Universidad de los Andes

    This article was originally published on The Conversation and is republished here with permission. Read the original article.

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    Colombian Landslide: Over 200 Die In Mocoa, Even More Missing

    From El Tiempo

    Landslides have killed at least 206 people in south-west Colombia and left many more injured, aid officials say.

    Hours of heavy rains overnight caused rivers to burst their banks, flooding homes with mud in Putumayo province.

    The Cruz Roja (Red Cross) said that at least 220 were missing, and another 202 were injured.

    President Juan Manuel Santos, who travelled to the area, said troops had been deployed as part of a national emergency response.

    From El Tiempo

    He declared a state of emergency in the region.

    Reuters news agency said more than 1,100 soldiers and police officers had joined the rescue effort. One army officer said the main local hospital was struggling to cope.

    ‘The river has got us, help us please’

    The region’s governor, Sorrel Aroca, told Colombian media that whole neighbourhoods had been buried.

    Rescue services said their efforts had been hampered by continuing bad weather and damaged infrastructure.

    From El Tiempo

    “There are mobility issues on almost 80% of the roads, and from where the road ends, it is three hours to where the landslide took place,” said one police officer.

    Bridges have also been swept away.

    Jose Antonio Castro, mayor of the provincial capital Mocoa, told Caracol radio that the town was “totally isolated”, without electricity and water.

    From El Tiempo

    On arriving at the scene, President Santos told reporters, “My heart and the hearts of all Colombians are with the victims of this tragedy.”

    An alarm had sounded as the river’s levels rose, leading many people to leave their homes for shelter, and avoiding wider loss of life, Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper said.

    The mudslides were caused by the rise of the Mocoa river and three tributaries, a representative of the National Disaster Risk Management Unit told AFP news agency.

    Rescue services said 17 neighbourhoods had been affected and Mr Castro said his own house had also been destroyed.

    “The mud is up to the roof,” he told Caracol radio.

    The region, bordering Ecuador and Peru, is heavily dependent on agriculture and the petroleum industry.

    While landslides and heavy rains are common in the mountainous area, March was Colombia’s rainiest month since 2011, according to the state meteorological agency.

    In neighbouring Peru, more than 90 people have died since the start of the year because of unusually heavy rainfall, which also caused landslides and flash floods.

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    The Regions of Colombia Playing the Biggest Role in the Coca Boom

    A coca farmer in Columbia with his crop. Photo Phil Chan/Flickr

    TODAY COLOMBIA – InSight Crime takes a closer look at shifts in coca cultivation trends in 19 of Colombia’s departments based on the most recent US estimates, shedding light on the different dynamics on the ground as the country’s cocaine production hits a historic high.

    New US government figures obtained by InSight Crime place Colombia’s embattled Pacific department of Nariño as the number one coca crop cultivator in all of Colombia, taking over the top spot from the department of Norte de Santander on the Venezuelan border.

    Nariño, which was the third-largest cultivator in 2015, saw a 52 percent increase in estimated coca hectares in 2016 to a total of 39,500 hectares. This represents 21 percent of the national total, which itself increased by almost a fifth in 2016 to over 188,000 hectares.

    The top cocaine producer in 2016, however, is Cauca, Nariño’s neighbour on the Pacific coast. Together, these two Pacific departments alone produced an estimated 300 metric tons of cocaine, or over 40 percent of the national total.

    This historic peak in Colombia’s cocaine trade has responded to the individual realities of the country’s diverse regions. But this development will pose similar obstacles to building peace on the ground as the nation transitions into a new phase of its decades-long armed conflict.

    The past year has seen Colombia’s top coca-producing department, Nariño, plunge into an all-out battle over its extremely valuable drug real estate. Aside from its abundant coca fields, the region’s intricate network of rivers, hundreds of drug production laboratories and long stretch of Pacific coastline contribute to its role as a launch pad for drugs heading to the United States.

    These factors have made Nariño prize territory for criminal groups looking to expand their influence and earnings. While for years this area and its criminal economies were under the tight control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the withdrawal of the rebels following the signing of a historic peace deal with the Colombian government has left much of this strategic turf up for grabs. Powerful national organizations as well as newer groups, some of which have defected from the FARC, are now taking advantage of the guerrillas’ demobilization to take power.

    One of the factors pushing up coca production in places like Nariño and neighboring Cauca is that criminal actors have been pressuring coca farmers to plant more crops. In the case of the FARC, it has been speculated that the guerrillas encouraged ramping up cultivation in order to accumulate funds in anticipation of their eventual demobilization.

    A steep drop in both aerial and manual eradication nationwide — from a peak of 230,000 hectares in 2008 to less than 18,000 hectares in 2016 — has also reduced the perceived risk by farmers, increasing the incentive to grow.

    Another crucial issue facilitating drug proliferation in places like Nariño and Cauca is the fact that a huge amount of crops are located in protected territories such as indigenous reserves. Here, forced eradication is harder as authorities face a greater number of obstacles to operate.

    One region with many attractive characteristics for drug trafficking that surprisingly has not seen coca production surge as much as in other departments is Valle del Cauca.

    Also on the Pacific, it has similar qualities as Nariño and is home to one of the busiest ports in the country. That Valle has not seen an explosion in coca could be at least partly explained by the fact that the area where most of the drug crop is concentrated — Buenaventura municipality — has not been prioritized for “post-conflict” development projects. These will aim to create new economic opportunities in places historically affected by the conflict, and it has been suggested that armed groups have been encouraging farmers to plant more coca in order to receive such benefits. Yet, in the absence of such promises, this is less likely to be a factor.

    In Chocó, the control of armed actors in rural communities has perhaps had a more inhibitory effect on the coca industry, and cultivation estimates decreased slightly in 2016 despite a 44 percent rise the year before. Parts of this department are currently in the grip of a heavy dispute between illegal groups looking to expand. This has possibly destabilized the drug trade enough to halt a growth in crop farming, the seeds for which are often provided by the local armed actors themselves.

    As InSight Crime has noted, Colombia’s Pacific coast may be gaining importance in the international drug trade, a trend that will likely be fuelled by the overall growth in coca production.

    A somewhat different trend can be seen in Antioquia, where coca dynamics have been closely linked to the gold industry. The region saw many coca farmers turn to mining as international gold prices soared after 2008, while the state focused more on battling the illegal drug trade. Now, the process has been reversed, with the region seeing an increasingly steep rise in coca since the gold market plummeted in value and the state began an intense crack down on informal mining.

    Another area to keep an eye on is the Eastern Plains, which include the Meta, Arauca, Casanare and Vichada departments, all of which saw big increases in estimated coca production, according to the United States. In contrast, 2015 data from the United Nations — which is used by the Colombian government — shows that this region has experienced a significant downward trend in cultivations over the past several years. The Urabeños organization appears to be making a greater push into this coveted drug trafficking hub, which is home to several criminal networks.

    It should be noted that the US estimates appear to contain some discrepancies. Cauca, for example, produces more cocaine than other departments with more coca crops, while Putumayo saw estimated cocaine production increase despite a drop in coca cultivations in the same year, according to the US data.

    One possible reason for this is the differing levels of crop maturity in each region. Plants produce more cocaine when they have more time to grow. Thus it is possible that the US figures were adjusted to account for this. The United States may be also taking into account techniques implemented by drug producers to boost the cocaine yield of coca leaves.

    Indeed, Colombian criminals have become so adept at optimizing productivity that they may even be sharing such strategies with other Andean countries.

    Article originally appeared on Insightcrime.org and is repubished here with permission.

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    Colombia, Central America and the needle trade

    Colombia textiles

    TODAY COLOMBIA – Two Colombian textile and apparel sector companies are expanding in Central America, with the expectation of creating some new 1,700 jobs, mostly in Nicaragua, the result of a US$8 million investment by Cali-based Supertex.

    A subcontractor for sportswear brands, which include Adidas, Nike y Under Armour, Supertex expects to hire 1,500 garment workers within three years of operation.

    The company, established in 1983, has two facilities in Colombia, with a total of 2,000 employees, and a monthly capacity of 900.000 units, and two in El Salvador with 2.400 workers and a capacity of 1.1 million.

    Bogota-based Proquinal for its part will hire 160 employees, as part of a US$24-million expansion of its plant in Alajuela, Costa Rica, which since 2004 has been producing vinyl-coated fabrics for the automotive and marine industries.

    Proquinal is part of United States-based Spradling Group, with sales in 70 countries.

    As of last year, Colombian investment abroad was valued at some US$50 billion, of which nearly a quarter went to Central America.

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    Why Coca Leaf, Not Coffee, May Always be Colombia’s Favourite Cash Crop

    A peasant walks among coca crops in Cauca, Colombia. Picture taken January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga – RTSXUBA

    TODAY COLOMBIA – Colombia’s current peace process is facing numerous challenges. In a country that has suffered the worst impacts of the international drug war, one main dilemma is this: what to do with rural regions which have specialised in producing coca leaf, the main ingredient in one of the world’s most lucrative products? The Conversation

    For 35 years, the international cocaine trade has made drug cartels rich and helped fund and expand the activities of the FARC guerrillas throughout Colombia’s most remote areas. Even as the three-year peace negotiations were underway, coca cultivation in Colombia increased by 39%, from 69,000 hectares in 2014 to 96,000 in 2016.

    Colombian coca growers have not benefited from the cocaine trade in the same way, of course. They remain, for the most part, poor farmers. But coca leaf, or hoja de coca, has provided a livelihood for thousands of families for generations. How can Colombia’s government move them out of this market while demobilising the guerrillas that once controlled coca-producing areas?

    One of the least controversial proposals in the FARC peace accords is the idea of crop substitution and alternative development in these regions. With support from the government and the UN, some 100,000 families in the Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, Guaviare, Catatumbo, Antioquía and Bolívar provinces would begin to grow cacao, coffee or honey instead of coca.

    This sounds good in theory. But in practice it’s an extremely complicated proposal because of the uncomfortable truth about international agricultural markets: only in illicit ones are poor local producers able to sell their product for a price that actually covers the cost of inputs: land, labour and capital.

    In a globalised world, illegal crops such as coca, cannabis and poppies are poor farmers’ rational response to the ruinously low prices of imported subsidised farm products.

    Farm subsidies distort the agricultural market

    Governments pay agricultural subsidies to farmers and agribusinesses to supplement income, manage the supply of agricultural commodities, and influence the cost and supply of commodities.

    Though many countries use this economic policy, subsidies are most significant primarily in the rich world. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 1986 such financial assistance amounted to US$41 billion in 2014.

    The corn market, for example, is highly subsidised. From 1979 to 1992, OECD nations’ subsidies for maize producers increased from 28% to 38%. In the US, the market price for corn stayed steady at about US$2.50 a bushel during this 13-year period.

    Neither Colombia nor other Andean countries could afford such subsidies, meaning local producers couldn’t compete with low-cost imports. In Colombia, the market cost of corn dropped about 20% from 1979 to 1992; coffee, cacao and sugar prices plummeted even further.

    The relationship is not linear, but it’s real: in 2002 the FAO acknowledged that rich-country farm subsidies hurt producers in the developing world. They allow farmers and agrobusiness to distort the market by offering cheap commodities that sell for less than the cost of production, eliminating competition from producers in poorer countries.

    It’s no coincidence that major Andean coca cultivation also began when rich-country farming subsidies increased. From 1980 to 1988 in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru the area dedicated to coca growing rose from 85,000 hectares (99,000 metric tonnes produced) to 210,000 hectares (227,000 metric tonnes produced). Production has since stabilised at around 157,000 hectares, producing some 170,000 metric tonnes of coca leaf.

    Coca cultivation, in short, is just one part of a revolution in the global agricultural trade in which traditional roles of producing countries and consuming countries have been inverted. In 1977, developing countries were running a trade surplus of US$17.5 billion with developed countries; by 1996, that surplus had become a deficit of US$6 billion with the rich world, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

    The rationality of coca

    In such a system, illicit crops became one of the only ways for many farmers areas to make a decent living.

    The international experts who promote alternative development as the solution for Colombian coca seem to be forgetting or avoiding this fact. For markets to be effective – whether legal or illegal – they must provide proper remuneration of input costs. If the price of goods is below the local production costs, that business model will necessarily fail.

    Peasants cannot renounce the higher coca-farming income that supports them and their families, any more than they can change where they live, or the water, weather or soil conditions of the Andean region. Coca is also an ancestral Andean plant with centuries of use by local populations – a non-negligible factor in its enduring appeal.

    These questions are part of what has driven the “fight for the land”, the rural bloodshed, the paramilitaries and guerrilla violence that has plagued Colombia for the past 52 years.

    This is not to discount alternative development entirely. Comprehensive rural development projects that help local populations gain access to basic needs (potable water, housing, communications and urban infrastructure) and social services (health, education and recreation) are necessary for local communities, whether they grow legal or illegal crops.

    But the central strategic problem of crop substitution remains the slim profit margins for legal products such as coffee, honey and chocolate. Until the international agricultural market solves its subsidies problem, coca leaf will always be Colombia’s best cash crop. It raises the question: what if coca were legal, too?

    Iban de Rementeria, Professor and Researcher, Drug Policy Program, Social Sciences Faculty, Universidad Central de Chile

    This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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    Monuments Made of FARC Guerrillas’ Weapons to Be Erected at UN Headquarters

    Photo: Oleg Yasinsky

    TODAY COLOMBI – Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been handing their weapons over to the United Nations as part of the peace agreement they signed with the Colombian government on November 24, 2016, to end Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict.

    In an interview with Sputnik Mundo, Camilo González Posso, the Director of the Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation in Bogota, said the process symbolizes the end of the political transition in Colombia.

    By May 30 FARC will cease to exist as a military organization and will become a political movement,” Camilo González Posso said.

    “This is a cardinal change. We can already feel the end of this war, which has been going on for over 50 years now. The road to peace will not be easy though as those accustomed to war could try to reconsider the peace accords after the 2018 elections. We must make every effort to cement the peace process,” he emphasized.

    FARC Rebels Surrender Weapons. AP Photo/ Fernando Vergara

    The surrendered arms will be handed over to the Colombian government and will then be melted into three monuments of peace to be erected at the UN headquarters in New York, and also in Colombia and in Cuba, where the four years of peace talks between the guerrillas and the Colombian government were held.

    Dr. Posso said that this would be “a highly symbolic gesture,” “a message of peace” and a reminder that “politics are not made with arms or business deals.”

    On November 24, 2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement to end the armed standoff that raged for over fifty years and claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people.

    In keeping with the peace deal FARC has until the end of summer to disarm and become a political party.

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    Bogota Hit by Xenophobic Attacks on Chinese Merchants

    Downtown Bogota’s San Victorino has seen a spate of recent attacks on Chinese merchants (Wikimedia).

    TODAY COLOMBIA – In the heart of downtown Bogotá is the sector known as San Victorino. There the inhabitants of the Colombian capital can find all kinds of imported products at prices much lower than in any other part of the city. Recently, however, the arrival of Chinese merchants has caused consternation and in some cases even violence.

    Colombian merchants say that the Chinese have come to work without a visa and that they are bringing smuggled goods into the country. The merchants allege the low prices charged by the Chinese merchants are putting them out of business. Semana magazine published a video interview featuring one such Colombian merchant who felt threatened by the competition.

    San Victorino is a microcosm of free markets and commerce where an estimated 12 billion Colombian pesos per day (USD $ 4.09 million) is sold per day, the vast majority of it in cash, which reduces transaction costs between buyers and sellers.

    Beginning on Wednesday, March 1, protests by Colombians against their Chinese competition turned violent, as the protesters began to attack Chinese owned storefronts. The merchants in question had to close their premises in order to avoid having all their merchandise destroyed.

    In addition, one of the Colombian merchants told a representative of the Chinese community, Kenny Tsui, that they would not allow the Chinese to do business in Colombia and that they were responsible for ruining Colombian businesses, especially with regard to textiles. Tsui allegedly replied that he would speak with his colleagues to see what he could do, but he added that “competition always brings challenges” and that the world is governed through the free market.

    Finally, in the video published by Semana, the Colombian merchant said that if the Chinese want to do business in Bogota, they will have to walk over dead bodies.

    Source: Revista Semana

    Article originally appeared on Panampost.com

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    Colombia Prepares National Congress of Peace

    Photo for illustrative purposes. Reuters

    TODAY COLOMBIA (Prensa Latina) Defenders of procedures to end the Colombian conflict, will celebrate in April the Congress of Peace in which ideas to boost implementation of the documents signed with the FARC-EP, confirmed its organizers.

    Social and political sectors agreeing with the peace process define the details of the national venue conceived with the objective of creating alliances and outlining actions that support the execution of everything agreed between government and the guerrilla.

    They also pursue the dialogues with the equally insurgent Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), less numerous than the FARC-EP but also active for half a century, explained the organizing committee of the Congress.

    This need to meet is born from the dangers surrounding the present phase of implementation, expressed the same source through a communique released through social networks.

    Last November 24, the president Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of the FARC-EP, Timoleon Jimenez, signed the definitive agreement with which they are committed to finish confrontation and hostilities.

    Such pact includes measures such as the bilateral ceasefire and the laying-down of weapons of the guerrilla in 19 zones and seven transit points; the latter started on March 1 with the supervisión of a three-way party made up by spokespersions of the government, of the rebel group and the United Nations.

    One of the challenges of the present stage is to conclude the temporary camps in the mentioned points and zones where the guerrilla will stay for several months until their reincorporation to civil lifei, given the delays in construction of the infrastructure.

    To expedite the procedure at Congress of the so-called peace laws is another sticking points in order to guarantee the success of the post-conflict or post-agreement period, alerted politicians and analysts.

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    Execution of Colombian Shows China’s Commitment to Harsh Drug Policies

    TODAY COLOMBIA (Insightcrime.org) The Chinese government has executed a Colombian citizen for drug trafficking, amid indications that Colombia’s role in the internal drug trade of the world’s most populous country may be growing.

    A counter-narcotics police officer organizes seized packages of cocaine during a presentation to the press, Necocli, Colombia

    Ismael Arciniegas, a 74-year-old native of Cali, Colombia, was killed by lethal injection on February 27 on orders from the Chinese government. He had been detained in a prison in China since 2010, when he was arrested for trying to enter the Asian country with approximately four kilograms of cocaine, El Tiempo reported.

    According to the Associated Press, Arciniegas is “the first Colombian, and possibly the first Latin American, to be executed in China for drug offenses.”

    Colombian officials vehemently protested the Chinese government’s decision to execute the septuagenarian, who appears to have been a low-level player in the drug trade.

    Unlike in China, the death penalty for criminal convictions is constitutionally outlawed in Colombia. However, an online poll carried out by Colombian media outlet Blu Radio showed that a slight majority of the more than 7,700 respondents agreed with the Chinese government’s application of the death penalty in this case.

    In February 28 comments reported by the Associated Press, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry responded to a question about Arciniegas’ case by saying, “Chinese judicial authorities have been cracking down in accordance with law … China always attaches importance to the protection of human rights and the right of life. The legitimate right and interest of the individual involved in the case has been guaranteed.”

    In a public statement, Colombia’s foreign ministry said that 15 Colombians have been condemned to death in China for drug trafficking, and that another 15 have received life sentences.

    Officials from both countries have previously attempted to reach agreements that would help repatriate Colombian citizens convicted of crimes in China. And according to the Associated Press, China has repatriated two Colombians convicted of drug trafficking since November 2016 for humanitarian reasons. However, no formal agreements governing the handling of such situations currently exist between the two nations.

    According to Colombian foreign ministry officials, the number of Colombians imprisoned in China has risen from just four in 2006 to more than 160 today, with some 90 percent of the total detained on drug charges.

    InSight Crime Analysis

    China has long been known for its harsh anti-drug policies. In 2010, Human Rights Watch released a report describing compulsory “rehabilitation” centers for people convicted of drug crimes “that deny them access to treatment for drug dependency and put them at risk of physical abuse and unpaid forced labor.” In subsequent years, the Chinese government has made some reforms to its penal system, but reports suggest inhumane conditions persist in many facilities.

    Accurate and up-to-date statistics on drug use in China are difficult to obtain, but the Chinese government is clearly worried that demand for illicit substances could be increasing as the country’s middle class grows. The Asian nation currently has the world’s second-largest consumer market after the United States, meaning there is huge potential profit to be made from the drug trade.

    As China’s political and economic ties to Latin America have strengthened in recent years, indications have surfaced of growing links between criminal organizations on both sides of the Pacific. Chemical manufacturers in China have reportedly supplied precursor drug materials to Latin American crime groups; Latin American criminals have allegedly laundered money through China; and Chinese “mafias” are known to operate in Latin American countries like Argentina.

    China’s main drugs of choice — namely, opiates like heroin and synthetic drugs like methamphetamine — are produced either within China or near its borders. This means that it would likely be difficult for crime groups from Latin America to break into the Chinese market with drugs like cocaine, which is produced almost entirely in South America’s Andean region. Nonetheless, the exponential rise in detained Colombians in China suggests the drug may be starting to see an uptick in popularity.

    Article originally appeared on Insightcrime.org and is republished here with permission.

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    Colombia Braces for Impact of Returning Drug Traffickers and Paramilitaries

    TODAY COLOMBIA (Insightcrime.org) The release of Colombian underworld boss “Perra loca” from a US prison is adding to fears that a flood of recently freed drug lords and paramilitaries could have a violent impact on the country’s already volatile criminal landscape.

    US authorities have deported Hector Restrepo Santamaría, alias “Perra loca,” back to Colombia after he completed a five-year sentence in a Pennsylvania prison on charges of money laundering, reported Blu Radio.

    Restrepo was a renowned drug trafficker who demobilized as a member of the paramilitary counter-insurgency the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). While some reports list him as a paramilitary leader who received direct orders from top AUC leaders, others dismiss this, claiming he was a “pure blood” drug trafficker who passed himself off as a paramilitary to claim demobilization benefits.

    Hector Restrepo Santamaría, alias “Perra loca,”

    Although Restrepo is wanted by the Colombian authorities to answer allegations of drug trafficking and other charges, authorities are worried his return could trigger violence in his home territory in the department of Antioquia, reported Semana. Investigators fear that Restrepo will attempt to recover the properties and assets that his old enemies and allies stripped from him while he was in prison, with potentially violent consequences.

    Restrepo joins a growing list of powerful underworld actors that have been released from prison over the last two years. Among them are not only drug traffickers but also notorious paramilitary warlords such as Freddy Rendón Herrera, alias “El Alemán,” and Rodrigo Pérez Alzate, alias “Julián Bolívar,” who were released after completing their shortened prison sentences granted as part of the demobilization agreement struck with the AUC.

    In addition, yet more underworld players could be released as part of the transitional justice system currently being established as part of the peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). According to Semana, the process could see the release of hundreds if not thousands of guerrilla fighters, as well as over 150 members of the police and military imprisoned for colluding with armed groups and drug trafficking networks.

    InSight Crime Analysis

    Although many of the recently released drug traffickers, warlords and corrupt officials may well opt for retirement and a quiet life, recent history suggests a significant number may not. Those that do choose to return to the world of organized crime may find the currently volatile Colombian underworld full of opportunities.

    Some of the worst drug trafficking-related violence seen in Colombia in recent years has been linked to drug lords released early after cooperating with the authorities, especially those imprisoned in the United States.

    The department of Valle del Cauca and its capital city Cali, in particular, have seen new cycles of mafia wars led by former drug traffickers from the Norte Del Valle Cartel (NDVC) and Cali Cartel. After serving relatively short sentences in the United States, traffickers such as Víctor Patiño, alias “El Químico,” Carlos José Robayo, alias “Guacamayo,” and numerous others allegedly formed new alliances or criminal groups. They proceeded to launch bloody campaigns to reclaim properties and assets taken from them, take back drug trafficking networks and exact revenge on their enemies.

    In contrast, the released former AUC warlords have largely kept a low profile, only making the headlines when they try to present themselves as reformed advocates for peace, or in the case of El Alemán, when he ended up in intensive care after crashing his bicycle.

    However, ongoing investigations suggest a significant part of former AUC leaders’ lands, properties and businesses may remain intact, while allegations of their continuing influence persist in their former areas of operations. Given that a significant percentage of Colombian underworld networks partially consist of rearmed former paramilitaries, they would have both the motivation and the means to re-enter the criminal fray.

    Currently, the Colombian underworld is in flux due to the ongoing demobilization of the FARC, and the shifts in armed power dynamics would present an opportunity for returning criminal actors to stake new claims to criminal interests. The FARC will be leaving behind vast territories of coca crops and control of drug routes in their rural strongholds, and could provide manpower for new or current criminal organizations in the form of guerrillas disillusioned with the peace process.

    In addition, in Colombia’s urban criminal hubs, Medellin and Cali, the underworld power structures are far from stable. Cali and Pacific Coast drug trafficking routes have remained in constant turmoil since the breakup of the Rastrojos, which was the last group to hold a hegemonic power over the city and region. Medellin has been relatively calm since a mafia pact was struck in 2013, but there are signs the new order established in the wake of the agreement is unstable. New alliances and new conflicts are likely brewing under the quiet surface.

    Currently, the only criminal organization with a truly national power is the Urabeños, a paramilitary-mafia hybrid descended from the AUC. However, the network’s organizational structure and modus operandi, which consist of bringing semi-autonomous local cells into their “franchise” and outsourcing to local criminal power structures, leave it vulnerable to challenges on a local level, as has recently happened in numerous regions.

    It is far from guaranteed that “Perra loca” or any other recently released criminal overlords will have the motivation or the capacity to regain their lost criminal empires. But the coincidence of so many returning to the scene at a moment when Colombia’s underworld is undergoing tectonic shifts in power risks aggravating an already unstable situation.

    Article originally appeared on Insightcrime.org and is republished here with permission.

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    Generous Benefits Lead Employees to Oppose Privatizing Bogota Telco

    ETB employees enjoy extremely generous benefits (Comunicaciones ETB).

    TODAY COLOMBIA – Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa has made little secret of his intention to sell the public utility Bogota Telecommunications Company (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Bogota), and has thus received substantial criticism from the Colombian left and from company employees who want to the company to continue in the public sector.

    Why is Penalosa’s plan so controversial?

    According to the newspaper KienyKe the answer is simple: the large number of benefits that ETB employees receive; benefits that are not enjoyed by any other Colombian state employees. These include two annual bonuses received, in the months of December and June, which are, by Colombian law, equal two months of salary, while for the rest of Colombians it is only one.

    In addition they receive a holiday bonus equivalent to 45 days of salary, while the other Colombians who enjoy this benefit receive only a 15 day bonus. In addition, during Easter (which falls in either March or April) they receive the so-called “Fish Premium” which is equivalent to another 15 days of work and another bonus of 32 days to which is added a performance bonus that can reach up to a monthly salary.

    In addition to all the aforementioned benefits, for each five year period worked, they receive additional bonuses that can be between 2.5 and 5 monthly minimum wages depending on the time an employee has spent working for the organization. These bonuses also factor into increased pension payments, which has made ETB one of the highest spending companies on pensions for its employees: they spent $ COP 2.2 trillion (or USD $752.4 million) per year just on pensions.

    Also, employees’ children are entitled to scholarships for high school or college studies, costing the company an estimated COP $12 billion a year (USD $4.1 million).

    These benefits, which were instituted in 1944 when the company was a communications sector monopoly with large annual profits, will cost Colombia taxpayers COP $62 billion (USD $421.2 million), in addition to the 12,000 scholarships.

    In addition to this, ETB owns two schools for the children of employees that entail large operation, payroll, transport, and food costs that are assumed by the company. In addition, they operate a vacation resort whose costs are also covered by the organization.

    Finally, they have an EPS (health plan) to which employees are required to be affiliated and the medical costs of the employees and their families amount to COP $14,000 million a year (USD $4.7 million). Not to mention that the employees’ union receives payments of COP $351 million (USD $120,042) a year for travel, vehicles, cellular plans, courses, and training.

    What is clear is that costs at ETB are out of control. Unsurprisingly, during fiscal year 2015, ETB had losses of COP $37,000 million (USD $12.6 million) that were paid for by public money according to the KienyKe report.

    Source: Panampost.com

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