Category Archives: Journalism

Discovering Bogotá: The Barrio 20 de Julio

Perhaps I have been slack of late as my forays into as yet unknown sectors of Bogotá have dropped off a little, but I am happy to say that we took full advantage of the long-weekend here to explore a little of the Barrio 20 de Julio. Named after Colombia’s cry for independence, the Barrio 20 de Julio is something of an emblematic district for Bogotanos, principally due to the market and indeed the Divino Niño Jesús found in the huge church at one end of the main plaza.

20 de Julio

Buy your fruit and veg in the street in the 20 de Julio, Bogotá

Waze was applied and being a Sunday, so many of the city’s roads were closed for the ciclovía, we enjoyed the App’s scenic route through the Candelaria from Chapinero, crossing Las Cruces and the Calle de los Comuneros before winding our way over some foothills and into the Barrio 20 de Julio.

Cubios and other traditional vegetables in the 20 de Julio

The ubiquitous spectacle of stray dogs idling alongside poker-drinking locals and cracked sidewalks of hastily installed cement quickly gave way to a greater urgency, something which you can completely associate with the bustle of a market day in any city or town. The throngs moved in every direction, circling as they viewed the wares on sale outside of the 20 de Julio marketplace, the items on sale in the street leading away towards the plaza and in the direction of the Avenida 1 de Mayo. You can get your hands on anything here from wonderfully ripe fruit to discarded rubber gloves and bottles of water to have blessed in the parish.

Get your second hand rubber gloves in the 20 de Julio!

Rounding the corner into the plaza from the market reveals the real reason to visit. Here you can see the faithful from all social strata in Bogotá coming to pay their respects to the Divino Niño Jesús and ask favours of this tiny statue. In the Plaza before the church there’s a mass underway, and simultaneously, there’s a mass taking place in the packed central church and in a huge glass ceilinged auditorium alongside the church there’s another mass in process. Towards the back of the church is the chapel where the Divino Niño Jesús is located and this space is sought after by people paying their respects.

It’s standing room only at the mass in Church of the Divino Nino, 20 de Julio

So, I have read a little about the importance of this Divino Niño in the 20 de Julio and while he represents something truly iconic to Colombians, Catholics and a great number of other countries – including the original location in Prague – and I am overwhelmed. This does not happen often. With my son in my arms, I sit and watch a steady flow of the pious entering, looking for a space at a pew, a space on the benches around the walls, or appropriate standing space and either reciting a well-known prayer known by heart or reading from a printed one procured outside. What are they asking for? Riches, health, help with a business? I cannot be sure.

Buy your bottles of water here to have them blessed by the Divino Nino in the 20 de Julio

Forgive me for suggesting it, but there is a certain fetishism to this effigy and I don’t mean this pejoratively. What I mean is that the people in attendance and the hundreds more who will descend on this side chapel today, really truly and in an unrepentant fashion are focusing their desires on something that is present here. One can feel it in the ambiance of the place. It’s definitely something more than the a simple sunday mass. There’s a weight of history, a weight of belief and a weight of expectation. I’m told that around 50,000 people come on a Sunday, that’s a huge amount.

Your eyes are not deceiving you, that’s a car full of meat

So what is the 20 de Julio really like? To respond directly to this question would be to do disservice to various barrios of Lima, Quito and La Paz by overlooking their particular attributes and attractions. But, with the stripped brick constructions, plastic tables out front of most locales, the marketplace peddling everything, smells of chicken broaster and juicer repair shops, on the surface this could be any of the aforementioned cities. But of course it’s not Lima and neither is it Quito, but it represents an unseen Bogotá to those of us confined to the Candelaria and further north. Here, you don’t see other gringos and precious few monos. Here, I was taller than usual. Here, the lady at the herbal store couldn’t care less if she answered my questions or not and it was refreshing. I was less than an oddity, it was not as if I was unwelcome, it was more like being a novelty individual who was blocking a potential sale to her regular clientele. This is a barrio, it’s business as usual and a gringo observing life in the 20 de Julio is an interference.

here was the overflow church enjoying a separate but simultaneous mass. I am particularly happy to have caught the attendee in a halter neck ghostbusters top.

If you enjoyed this rumination and want to learn more about Colombia, tune in to the Colombia Calling podcast available on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud

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Ten Years in Colombia

It’s more or less ten years to the day from when I stepped off the plane having decided to move my life to Colombia. It had been a rollercoaster ride up until this point, near death experiences, the life of a freelance vagabond and journeyman journalist and plenty of tall tales to share over a drink or two. I was prepared for Colombia, or so I thought, after seven years on the highways and byways of the Americas. Certainly, Colombia was not foreign to me with a work trip to the Pacific for WWF in the late 1990s under my belt and various other visits prior to my move in 2007.

La Paz

Ten years ago I would never have taken this photo. Ten years in Colombia

So, as I sit here at my desk in my Bogotá apartment, I move from one opinion to another about my life in Colombia, perhaps displaying all of the loyalty of a brood parasite. I am not Colombian, I will never be a Colombian and I will continue to be infuriatingly punctual to almost any appointment. Some things you just cannot shed. But, I live here, have a Colombian family, own a business, pay taxes and therefore, have the right to share an educated opinion on the goings on in my adopted homeland.

I realize that this narrative stream of consciousness reeks of creeping narcissism. It’s our need these days to convert from “being”, to always filling time with “doing”. It’s as if our society is on course for a precipitated catastrophe due to our all-out hedonistic quest for self-exploitation and relevance.

Which brings me neatly to the subject matter of my doomsday entry reflecting on how life has changed after ten years in Colombia. Not only life has changed, but I have changed too, of course. Everything is a spectacle today. We are all armchair activists, although this was momentarily lifted when we marched the streets to push for Colombia’s Peace 2.0 after the plebiscite referendum was rejected back in 2016. The peaceful demonstrations long now resigned to our collective imagination we are back to believing the illusion of a digital reaction making a difference. To quote President Trump: “Wrong!” Virtual hordes are one thing, but the actual physical presence of thousands of people united for a just cause and flooding the streets and present, demonstrates a much stronger social cohesion.

Ten years in Colombia

“Wrong!” Ten years in Colombia

Studying Colombia, the politics and the country’s culture transports me through periods of naïve optimism, paralyzing pessimism and punctuating my days with academic prophecies of potential outcomes. That it has now been reported that the contracts for the construction of the Zones of Concentration organized to receive the FARC guerrillas across the country were fed out as political favours to companies with no business in this field has left me disillusioned. What of this now? And so, we mobilize on Facebook, Twitter and all of the other platforms in what is then declared as an unstoppable social movement proving that this “democratization of the debate” will herald a new way of thinking and will enforce a new degree of transparency on those insistent on manipulating further an already corrupt system for personal gain.

Ten years ago, I would never have spoken out so vehemently against unjust behaviour. Back then it was simply a reflection of the “Colombian condition” and normal conduct here. And yet, our moral outrage is designed to bring about change but without a physical presence it is presented with a feeble social cohesion. And before I continue, remember that these outbursts of indignation are spread on platforms which are all owned by someone. These owners all have an agenda too. There is no democratization of the debate.

Let me clarify this. I use twitter almost religiously and this allows me to replicate what I want to read. That’s why I am led to believe that my side will win the Brexit vote, the Yes vote in the Plebiscite and bury Trump in the elections.

“As is so often the case in a foreign country, even in one that starts to feel like home, the compiled differences in language and life experience isolate you, making you hyper aware to minute details.” wrote Nolan Peterson in Newsweek.

So, ten years in and with no plans on going anywhere else, unless of course the dream job pops up and permits us to transfer en famille to Rio de Janeiro, part of the package is to grapple with the local politics in all of its complex morass of intrigue. And once you come to terms with this, remember then that the act of governing itself is an act of marketing. Political opinion polls are equivalent to market research and…we are no longer active agents but passive consumers. Just like what is today known as” Public Relations” would have been referred to as “Propaganda” in the past.

1984 Graffiti in Bogotá. Ten years in Colombia

An older generation of gents in suits found conversing in downtown Bogotá speaks of an “impoverished” culture. But they are mistaken as this is to bow to an extremely bourgeois definition of the concept itself. If there’s a message to be delivered or a lesson to be learnt from a reflection on ten years, it’s that you must be adaptable to different forms of eclosion which are today’s cultural expressions and demonstrations.

Peaks and troughs, ups and downs but they have been rewarding, these past ten years in Colombia.

 

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The Power Vacuum in a Post Farc Colombia

On Saturday, the local and international press reported that the final group of FARC guerrillas, numbering around 300 combatants, from Frentes 3, 14 and 15 arrived at Agua Bonita, Caquetá, bringing to an end the massive mobilization of men and women from their clandestine camps deep in the Colombia jungles and voluntarily arriving at the 26 UN zones of concentration around the country.

FARC

FARC guerrillas arrive in their zone of concentration. Image provided by El Espectador newspaper

This effort took over three weeks and 36 different operations as 6,900 members of the FARC moved to their new homes to disarm, demobilize and slowly…reintegrate into society. The process of creating and registering IDs for these people has begun.

And while the images of this “revolutionary migration” have generated spine-tingling moments and hope for many Colombians. There is a sinister and altogether avoidable issue which is most troubling. Who is now in control?

With the departure of the FARC, formerly the de facto authority in these outlying, overlooked and it’s reasonable to say, areas abandoned by the Colombian state, there is now a startling power vacuum.

On February 10, some 96 families were displaced from their homes in the towns of Tibú and Teorama in the department of Norte de Santander.

153 members of the Wounaan Nonam people in Santa Rosa de Guayacán displaced from their homes on February 11 to the pacific port city of Buenaventura.

In 2016 more than 70 human rights defenders and community activists were assassinated. In 2017, this chilling figure could well increase.

And while Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had promised thorough military presence in each of the problem areas where the FARC would leave a significant power struggle for control of strategic transshipment routes and coca producing regions, it appears that on the ground, far from Bogotá, the reality is strikingly different.

Where are the increased patrols, increased military presence in the regions and confrontations to keep the paramilitary, Bacrim, post-paramilitary and armed gangs at bay?

Now, the Colombian state and the powers that be can never have been accused of paying too much attention to outlying Colombia, unless of course it is for some financial gain. In fact, historically the State’s activities have hardly been profligate in outer Colombia.

Which begs the question, is the Colombian Government completely blind to the regions or is it ignoring the countryside on purpose to protect financial interests in the regions through a new and increased reign of fear? Is there a tacit approval by the State for the post-paramilitary and their presence in areas of high value?

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Colombia’s Carousel of Corruption

I wanted to call this Colombia’s merry-go-round of corruption, but I found it to be too well-meaning and therefore taking away from the seriousness of the issue. Colombia is currently in the grips of startling revelations of illegal pay-outs, under the table payments, obscure campaign contributions and all linking to some of the most “respectable” and “connected” families in the country. So, where to begin in explaining this carousel of corruption?

corruption

Colombia’s Carousel of Corruption. No doubt I will have overlooked people and entities, but this gives you an idea of the complications to be faced here.

Odebrecht

Bringing down a government in Brazil, implicating premiers, presidents (they’re coming for you Alejandro Toledo!) and all sorts of executives across the Americas and beyond, the scandals now surrounding Odebrecht have reached epic proportions. In Colombia alone pay-outs thus far revealed have taken down the former Minister of Transport Daniel Garcia Moreno (allegedly having received US$6.5 million) and politician Otto Bula (hailing from Cordoba Bula took over Mario Uribe’s seat, the latter being jailed for parapolitica. Bula is also signalled as being the “Ejecutivo de Cobros” by US authorities for the Oficina de Envigado. Bula’s empire extends through Cordoba, Sucre and into the Montes de María).

Only this last week accusations were flung at both President Juan Manuel Santos and his opponent in the 2014 elections Oscar Ivan Zuluaga of having received funds from Odebrecht towards their campaigns.  President Santos has ordered a speedy investigation and Zuluaga’s floundering political career seems to be in a serious free fall. Abandoned seemingly by his mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe, Zuluaga is reaching out for support everywhere.

But Odebrecht’s tentacles reach even further in Colombia. Their sister company, Navalena, opened up to oversee the project to make the Magdalena River navigable once again, has been up to no good as well. Having received a loan from Colombia’s Banco Agrario to the sum of COP 120,000 million (in 2015 when it was known that Odebrecht was in serious trouble) there are links in this carousel of corruption which should effectively rock the Colombian establishment to the core. This being Colombia, and you’ll excuse my cynicism, the issue will probably just mysteriously go away. But, it’s worth noting that the Minister for Agriculture Aurelio Iragorri and the Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas are on the board of directors.

 

President Santos

President Santos in Mompos

Having been accused of allegedly receiving up to as much as one million dollars in his presidential campaign kitty from Odebrecht, President Santos is moving fast to quell all rumours. Whether he knew of the income remains to be seen, but, we must all never overlook the fact that the Ruta del Sol, the expansion of the Reficar Refinery in Cartagena (it has been said that Colombians are paying for this refinery 4 times over given the swindling which occurred), the dredging of the Magdalena River and more have all taken place under his watch. These are his politicians/ cabinet who are involved. As time rolls on it will become increasingly difficult for President Santos to remain untainted from this corruption fallout.

 

Alvaro Uribe Velez

That Uribe’s Centro Democratico party is calling for a law regarding corruption does seem laughable and set the twitter-sphere alight. One wonders how the former president and now Senator can divert attentions away from the business ventures belonging to his sons (Tomas and Geronimo, both named in the Panama Papers, both directors of off-shore panama-based companies, joint owners of a “free zone” outside of Bogotá – granted this status by the then Minister for finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and on a piece of land where current Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is suggesting be linked to his expansion of Bogotá….you see where this is going right?).

Daniel Samper Ospina on twitter

There is so much to say about the carousel of corruption when Uribe’s name is mentioned that it almost becomes difficult to define how everything is connected. It was Uribe’s Minister of Transport who took the bribes, it was his Director of INVIAS (the Colombian infrastructure agency) Daniel Garcia Arizabaleta who oversaw the Odebrecht bid on the Ruta del Sol contract and of course his protégé who received monies, allegedly, in his campaign fund. Not to mention the “hacker-gate” scandals to name another issue.

 

Otto Bula

Otto Bula, taken from semana.com

This jewel of a man is connected to everything it seems. Bula was ushered in to Mario Uribe’s political seat in Cordoba (Mario Uribe is cousin to Alvaro Uribe) when the latter was jailed for seven years for parapolitica. Supposedly Bula received US$4.6 million from Odebrecht to pay off people and entities so as to win the Brazilian firm the contract for the Gamarra to Ocaña stretch of the Ruta del Sol. But, as if the aforementioned scandals weren’t already enough. Bula is implicated in the land grabs and forced displacement of entire communities in Cordoba, Sucre and the Montes de Maria. He has also been accused by the US Attorney General’s office as being the “Ejecutivo de Cobros” for the much feared Oficina de Envigado overseen by the equally terrifying Don Berna and Jose Bayron Piedrahita. Now, monies from Odebrecht supposedly passed through Bula and on to Zuluaga through an address owned by the Oficina de Envigado. I am certain that there is more to be revealed surrounding Bula in the future.

Tune in to my podcast on “Corruption in Colombia

All of this and we haven’t even touched on the Nulle family!

I think that most Bogotanos sighed deep relief once the three Nulle’s were sentenced to jail on corruption charges. We all remember the tragedy for the city that was the Calle 26. The Nulle’s were in the running for a great deal of contracts and we can just thank our lucky stars that these did not come about. Now, we know that the Nulles also had a meeting in 2008 with the Tomas and Geronimo Uribe in Panama…and who else was in attendance? André Rabello the director of Odebrecht in Panama. The Nulle family has close Barranquillero links to the Char family as well. And on the links grow.

If I were relating all of this verbally to you I would now be short of breath. But, what you can see is that the same names keep on popping up. This is without mentioning the Ardila Lulle empire which includes RCN television, NTC television, RCN Radio, Postobón drinks, Atlético Nacional football team in Medellin and Skinco Colombit S.A to name but a small percentage. Postobon is named as having made payments to the AUC paramilitaries and supposedly these links do not end here.

 

This was my first effort at the carousel of corruption flow chart!

We have not yet addressed the farce of the “Deprimido de la 94” and why this single work of construction initiated in 2009 has not been completed. We have been unable to address the issue of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa’s links with Transmilenio buses and his brother’s influence on Bogotá’s bollards. And then there’s the issue of the Universidad de Cesar which seems to be enjoying a permanent teacher’s strike…and yet the educators here are allegedly cashing cheques for 12 to 14 million pesos a month, or at least this is a rumour I have heard.

 

Oh Colombia! El pais del sagrado corazon, where the carousel of corruption keeps on spinning.

 

For more information about Colombia, be sure to tune in to the Colombia Calling weekly podcast available to download and stream online at iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud

 

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