Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Word from Colombia -- Politics and Butt Demons
A friend of ours is doing some major good-karma work in Colombia and files regular dispatches to all her friends that are pretty incredible, both on the humanitarian struggles (heartwrenching) and the cultural peculiarities (hilarious). Here's the latest: it's long and it's worth it.
November 10, 2007
Hi all, or, I should say, ¿Que 'ubo? which means literally, "what
was there?" but it's used as a greeting and is more adequately
translated "what's up?". Either way it's better than the other
interrogating salutation which they often use here: "¿Que has hecho?"
which means "what have you done?" to which I immediately feel guilty.
People say it so nicely in a sing-song voice accompanied by a kiss on
the cheek: "what have you done?" but of course I can't help but think
they are saying it because they think I've done something bad which of
course I haven't. Never. The other good greetings here include ¿Como
te vas?/how do you go? and ¿Que mas?/what else? Silly languages.
Sorry it's been a little while since I last wrote you all. I just got
done with several months of a really intense work schedule which has
left my intestines in a bit of a wreck as well as my ability to make
sentences in both Spanish and English. So much has happen since I
last wrote that I'm not exactly sure where to start…but one issue that
that has been rolling around in my brain over the past few months is
how and why people are displaced.
So let's talk a bit about internal displacement. Internal displacement
in not some special academic or psychological term for when you lose
your keys inside your house (or in my case, inside your pocket), but
instead refers to when people are forcibly displaced within their
country. The Sudan was number one for quite a few years in terms of
the number of internally displaced people, but this year it was passed
up by Colombia who now has nearly 4 million internally displaced
persons. Yeah--Colombia wins yet again!
One exemplary case of why Colombia wins the gold for displacement
these days is in La Guajira, a Colombian department (state or
providence) that is on the Caribbean coast, bordering Venezuela. La
Guajira is often seen as the Wild West of Colombia, due to it's desert
climate, lots of people with guns, and it's general history of
lawlessness. Oh, and there's lots of contraband there, but I digress.
La Guajira has Colombia's largest indigenous group, the Wayuu. And
if that didn't make La Guajira lucky enough, it is also super rich in
mining resources and has the world's largest open pit coal mine, the
As often happens when there's money to be made and poor people
standing in the way of those profits, in August of 2001 Colombian
authorities and the Cerrejon mine officials forcibly displaced the
community of Tabaco. The mine wanted the land, so they pushed the
people off, what's the big deal? Well, the Tabaco families repeatedly
refused to sell their land to the mine (at that time partially owned
by the U.S. corporation Exxon), as they are entitled to do. So the
mine got fed up and came in with tear gas, batons, and the Colombian
armed forces and bulldozed the houses, beat up people (resulting in
several deaths), and left the whole place looking like a hurricane had
The people of this village continued to say NO, and maintained that it
was their land and that the mine couldn't have it; yet when someone
comes in and kills your family members and demolishes your house it is
kind of hard to continue to stay there. Thus displacement. The land
where Tabaco was is now completely underground, mined due to the
insatiable demand for coal. The people of Tabaco continue to demand
justice and relocation while suffering from hunger due to living
somewhere where they don't have land to farm and there's little or no
work. Other communities are in danger of being displaced due to mine
expansion, most likely not with bulldozers but instead by slowly
isolating these agricultural communities by cutting off
transportation, clean water supplies, and access to markets. It's the
"smoke them out of their hole" method. Apparently when you bulldoze
peoples' houses you get bad press.
That's one example.
Example two: Urabá is a region of Colombia up near the Panamanian
border. It's a super-biodiverse, resource-rich region which is
primarily inhabited by Afro-Colombians. Well, at least it was until
there was massive displacement of the people there in the late 90's.
A paramilitary and government joint plan, called Operation Genesis,
was carried out to displace the people (again, primarily
Afro-Colombians but also indigenous and campesino/small-scale farmers
as well). These legal and illegal forces pulled together to rape and
pillage communities, spreading terror, leaving massacres in their
path. Everyone fled, first to the nearest small town, then to the
nearest city. In one case, there was such massive displacement that
they had to cram hundreds of people in to the Turbo Coliseum (a
massive covered stadium similar to the Superdome stadium in New
Orleans) where people lived for three years.
And why bother massively killing Afro-Colombians people in no man's
land Colombia? I mean jeez, there aren't even roads in this water rich
jungle for heaven's sake. Why did the armed forces and paramilitaries
think it was worth massacring villages and cutting people up with
chain saws? It's simple really: corporate interests. Corporations
were and are interested in having the land to cultivate oil palm, also
know as African palm, but it's such a nasty nasty product that has
caused so much death and destruction that African descendents have
rightfully rejected calling it something that correlates it to Africa.
Oil palm is a major export for things such as soaps, cosmetics,
and…drum roll please…. Biofuels! Once they had displaced the people
they waited a few years (as not to be TOO obvious) and then planted
the lands with oil palm. The land rights continue to be in dispute
and some of the most amazing people I've ever met continue to fight
for their right to their land and to return to their land despite the
fact that they are being targeted (as in threatened, killed, and
terrorized) for doing so. As one of them said to me while out there
recently, "We are campesinos. If we don't have land, we have nothing."
You're saying, "yes, I know it's sad, poor people
struggling for their rights, displacement, poverty, yadda yadda, I
have to go to work/school/band practice/watch the OC and this email is
way too long". But I promise I'll tie it all together (and give you a
funny Colombian story at the end, but no fast forwarding). There's a
reason we should look at the past, sigh, cry, burn a candle, talk to a
crystal, and then look at what's happening now and (surprise
surprise), it is closely linked to U.S. policy (eh ehm, U.S. citizens
take note – a.k.a. action).
Buenaventura is an industrial port city with about 300,000 people,
again, mostly Afro-Colombians on the Pacific coast. Buenaventura has
been plagued with very high homicide rates, nearly reaching Baghdad
levels at points (over 400 reported so far this year). The violence
has been painted as being due to conflict over territory between
narcotrafficking gangs, urban militias, guerrilla groups, and
paramilitaries. Government officials and the media have wanted to
explain the horribly violent situation as a bunch of crazy young
Afro-descendent criminals that are killing each other and that there's
nothing to be done, as if it was an isolated, unexplainable incident.
And in a way we could say the situation facing Buenaventura is similar
to other places as well – the southside Chicago, New Orleans, etc.,
places where there are high levels of violence, Black people, very
little state investment, and poor development plans leading to no real
economic advancement of these communities.
Other than that we live in racist societies, why would there be no
investment in these primarily Afro communities? In the case of
Buenaventura it appears that the government is intentionally
neglecting the community in order to clear the land for port
expansion. If the living conditions and/or the violence is
unbearable, people will leave, which equals cheap sea-front property.
As one woman told me, "To get water, people have to walk to the other
side of the neighborhood with buckets. And even then the water is only
available every once and a while. All the roads, bridges, and houses
were built by the community. There's no investment here." Another
woman who was displaced from her original community noted, "the
programs for displaced people do not work here. I've filed all the
paperwork, but they won't give me anything. There's no work, how am I
supposed to feed my children?"
Almost everyone we talked to in one neighborhood had a family member
killed by one of the armed groups. According to the police, the
homicide rate has nearly decreased by half. According to human rights
organizations working in the various neighborhoods the murders
continue at the same rate, however now when they kill people they cut
them up, put them in garbage bags, throw them in the ocean and then
threaten the family, saying that if they speak out about it and/or try
to recover the body of their dead family member, they will be the next
victim. The first person to try and recuperate one of the bodies was
then killed. So the tactic worked. Now the families don't report the
killings out of fear.
The only real visible state investment in Buenaventura appears to be
the massive military and police investment, however, the violence has
continued unabated and in many cases communities complain of
harassment and violence by the police. The lack of development
combined with the inability of the public forces to stop the violence
all seem a bit fishy to me. One way to look at it is that the land
where these impoverished communities live is wanted to expand the port
and it's cheaper to do that if you don't have people there. So let
those gangs just kill each other off and we won't have this person
problem on the land that is wanted for port expansion.
The expansion of the port is very closely linked to U.S. policy
interests in the region. Although the Colombia–U.S. free trade
agreement is not likely to be voted on in the near future, there are
still preparations being made to construct the port after the free
trade agreement is signed (let's not kid ourselves, folks, no matter
what Hillary says, the democrats will sign pretty much every free
trade agreement sooner or later). The U.S. wants to have more
U.S.-based corporate investment in Colombia. So does the Colombian
government. But at what cost? At the cost of the communities that live
on the edge of this port who are now seeing their young people
assassinated daily and their bodies cut up and thrown into the ocean?
Is that the kind of economic development we want to promote?
Port expansion does not have to be a bad thing. It's how it's done
where lies the issue. If there was actual community consultation
about the process and attendance to the needs of the people of
Buenaventura – completely superfluous things such as drinkable water,
employment, roads, sewage systems, etc.- the expansion of the port
could be somewhat of a good thing if that's what the community wants.
The U.S. is promoting a model of economic development that encourages
and supports displacing people through the use of violence, terror,
and lack of adequate infrastructure development. U.S. corporations,
which essentially run the U.S. Congress, are the ones that will be
benefiting from this economic model that is based on the use of
violence for profit. I'm not advocating that we close our borders and
turn our backs on globalization but instead that we have economic
trade policies that are based on people – not corporate profit.
Policies that actually have peoples' input and not just a bunch of
war-mongering greedy corporations. Seriously, it's possible, so if
you run into any U.S. lawmakers tell them to get a grip and stop these
dangerous free trade agreements. And to throw in some more aid for
displaced people in Colombia while they are at it.
Okay, the rant is over.
And so I don't only leave you with just sad stories about how
corporate capitalistic interests are ruining the world, here's a funny
Colombian custom. And by funny I mean really weird. Colombians have a
lot of strange rules about warm and cold. For example, you don't want
to eat a cold fruit in the morning and they aren't talking about
temperature but about fruit "energy". Any drastic switch in
temperature should be avoided at all costs and the idea of being in a
sauna and then immediately going in to cold water is sufficient to
nearly kill you according to the Colombian hot/cold gods. But my
favorite is how this is dealt with on public buses. Pretty much all
public transportation here is super duper crowded and public bus
drivers drive like maniacs, but that's besides the point. When
someone gets up from a seat, the next person to sit in that seat
CANNOT immediately sit down. Of course not, the seat is still warm,
right? Apparently if you trap someone else's butt heat in the seat and
in your pants it'll upset your inner temperature, so people rush to
the seat, often pushing old men and pregnant women out of the way to
take the seat, and then proceed to hover above the seat for 30 seconds
to let the previous ass demons out.
Hope you're all well and let me know what you're all up to (as in,
¿Que has hecho/What Have You Done?!?!?!)
Lots o love,
[Redacted for our buddy's safety]
Friday, August 31, 2007
Friday, July 20, 2007
Thursday, June 21, 2007
At the KCPD gun range....
Follow a two-lane road just off I-70 and Manchester Trafficway for a few miles and you’ll pass the regular Missouri roadside sights: an old, rickety railroad trellis, treadless tires and trash ditched on the side of the road, butterflies and wasps buzzing in the grasses – and a bunch of Kansas City, Missouri police officers blowing some paper targets into oblivion.
Yesterday afternoon, Sergeant Ward Smith, the Firearms Training Section Supervisor, instructed 20 KCPD officers as they fired shots from their new AR-15 semiautomatic rifles at targets 50 yards away. While I was there, the cops practiced firing from a prone position, laying in the grass like snipers. I asked one how it was going. He replied, “It’s hot.”
The cops – twenty out of 120 that will be trained in the new gun by the end of the summer – had to spend their own $1000 to buy the rifle if they wanted one. But I got to try one out for free.
I’m not gonna lie. My heart was pounding when Smith handed over the AR-15 and told me to aim the crosshairs at a target 25 yards away. Rather than a paper X, my target was a metal bust of a man’s head and shoulders that looked tiny compared to the heavy, black gunmetal in my hands. My first shot made a puff in the dirt at the same time as the smell of gunpowder hit my nose. My second shot made that little metal bust sway back and forth with the impact. Even with ear protection on, it sounded as though a cherry bomb went off next to my head.
I couldn’t have been more excited if I had knocked an armed insurgent off a galloping goat at 300 yards. Which is exactly what members of our armed forces are doing with guns very similar to the cops’ new AR-15s. In fact, some officers had to wait while their guns were on backorder as manufacturers sent parts overseas (the upper and lower receivers, for those who know what the hell that means). The bullets are also military-grade and were backordered until recently from Shore Galleries Inc. in Lincolnwood, Illinois.
Smith was quick to correct the misconception that the department approved the AR-15 for its officers in order to match the firepower of the average 16-year-old drug dealer on the street.
“I don’t want it characterized as an arms race with the criminal element,” Smith told me. “Truth be told, you can get an AK or SKS on the street for $100. With these guns we are addressing that in a secondary way.”
The AR-15s will be useful for a situation when an officer doesn’t want to get as close to an armed suspect as he or she would have to be to use a handgun, but requires more precision than the department-issue shotgun could provide. The shotgun is primarily brought out for its psychological impact, Smith says, but the trigger is rarely pulled. “People understand that everything in front of it is going to disintegrate and disappear.”
Officers are limited to 20- to 30-round clips. While bigger ones are available, Smith says, “Over 30 doesn’t sent the right message.” The gun will be stored in a locked case in the truck of an officer’s car unless it’s in use. “You’re not there to look cool with it,” Smith says. “It’s equipment. It’s like getting issued a new Crown Vic. You don’t go driving around town doing 120 (miles per hour) just because you can.”
Hopefully the KCPD’s officers will use their new toys responsibly. Because if I could hit a target with one, anyone can.