Indigenous and Black communities in Colombia's Chocó department filed a lawsuit this week, claiming 37 of their children died after drinking water contaminated with mercury by nearby mining operations over the past three years. The suit was brought before Colombia's Constitutional Court, which has ordered a thorough test of the water quality in the Riosucio and Andagueda rivers, which merge to form the Río Atrato. The affected Embera Katío and Afro-Colombian communities depend on these rivers for fishing and agriculture as well as direct consumption of water. The plaintiffs, represented by the Greater Community Council of the Popular Campesino Organization of the Upper Atrato (COCOMOPOCA), charge that unchecked gold mining in the zone has caused an "environmental crisis, which has had a devastating effect and cost the lives of the indigenous and Afro-descendant children." The Constitutional Court, in addition to asking the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for assistance in the water quality tests, also called on the University of Cartagena to prepare a report on the health impacts of mercury and cyanide contamination. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 4; El Tiempo, El Espectador, El Colombiano, Feb. 3)
Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah is laundering money for the "Oficina de Envigado," said to be the successor organization to Colombia's legendary Medellín Cartel, according to the DEA. In a Feb. 1 press release, the agency said that members of Hezbollah's External Security Organization Business Affairs Component (BAC) is part of a transnational drug-trafficking scheme that involves "South American drug cartels, such as La Oficina de Envigado." According to the statement, the BAC uses the "black peso money laundering system" established by the Medellín Cartel to launder profits from European cocaine sales through money exchange offices in Colombia and overseas. "These drug trafficking and money laundering schemes utilized by the Business Affairs Component provide a revenue and weapons stream for an international terrorist organization responsible for devastating terror attacks around the world," said DEA acting deputy administrator Jack Riley.
Colombia's ELN guerillas responded Jan. 31 to the call made two days earlier by Humberto de la Calle, the government's chief negotiator with the FARC guerilla army, to include them in the peace talks. An ELN communique acknowledged that a delegation has been in touch with the government for the past two years to establish terms for opening a formal or "public" peace dialogue, and had expressed its willingness to take this step in November. The statement said the guerillas were still awaiting a response from the government. (El Espectador, Jan. 31)
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos is to meet at the White House with Barack Obama Feb. 4 to mark 15 years since the initiation of the Plan Colombia aid package, amid signs of hope that the South American country's 50-year armed conflict is winding down. The two are expected to discuss what the Colombian press is calling a new "Plan Colombia" for the post-conflict era, with aid focused on rebuilding, removing landmines and implementing the peace accords—drawing parallels with the post-war Marshall Plan in Europe. "I think there's a real prospect for success and signing of a peace accord this year, hopefully within the first half of this year," said Bernard Aronson, the US envoy to the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerillas. But Colombia's Defense Ministry also issued a statement calling for new military aid—this time to combat the outlaw right-wing paramilitary groups, known in official parlance as "Bacrim" for "criminal bands." (Reuters, Feb. 3; El Tiempo, El Espectador, Jan. 31; El Tiempo, El Espectador, Jan. 30)
Authorities in Bolivia announced the arrest Feb. 1 of Felipe Froilán Molina Bustamente AKA "El Killer"—long wanted in the "disappearance" and probable assassination of socialist leader Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz during the period of military rule. Some 80 police agents were involved in the raid of a private house in the upscale Cota Cota suburb of La Paz, where Molina was found hiding behind a false wall. He had been convicted in absentia in 2007 of organizing a semi-official paramilitary death squad that carried out the disappearance of Quiroga and other leftist dissidents, and sentenced to 30 years. Quiroga, leader of Bolivia's Socialist Party One (PS-1), was abducted July 17, 1980 at the offices of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), where he was overseeing a meeting of the National Council for Defense of Democracy, a civil society group dedicated to resisting the military regime of Gen. Luis García Meza Tejada, who had just seized power in a coup d'etat. There whereabouts of his remains are still unknown, and President Evo Morales expressed hope that Molina will cooperate in recovering them. (ABI, Opinión, Cochabamba, Los Tiempos, Cochabamba, Feb. 1)
Colombia is suffering especially grave effects from this year's off-the-scale El Niño phenomenon. The national disaster response agency UNGRD is struggling to respond to a devastating drought, dispatching tanker-trucks of water to communities across the country where taps have gone dry. Juan Manuel Santos said this month that this is the second worst El Niño in the history of the country, and the worst impacts "are still to come." A few days of rain at the start of the year gave some residents hope, but Santos warned it would have "minimal effect, practically none," given the gravity of the situation. (El Espectador, Jan. 10; El Tiempo, Jan. 6; El Espectador, Jan. 4) The country's principal river, the Magdalena, is now so low that it is no longer navigable at several points, virtually shutting down Puertos Wilches and other cities that rely on the riverine trade. (El Espectador, Jan. 3) Most hard-hit is the north of the country, entire harvests could be lost. But the south is affected too, with huge forest fires threatening the city of Cali. Wildfires have engulfed more than 100,000 hectares of land nationwide. This is usually the rainy season in Colombia, but rains are 65% lower than usual, and temperatures 2.3 degrees Centrigrade higher. (El Tiempo, Jan. 21; El Tiempo, El Tiempo, Jan. 17; Xinhua, Dec. 30)
Col. Óscar Alberto Acuña Arroyo, a former commander of Colombia's elite GAULA army unit, was sentenced to 28 years in prison Jan. 21 for covering up the slaying of two young migrant laborers at Sincelejo, Sucre department, in 2006. The youths were apparently lured from their home in Caucasia, Antioquia, with a promise of work, trasnported in a GAULA truck—but were instead put to death upon their arrival Sincelejo. The deaths were reported as guerillas killed in combat—an army practice known as "false positives." (El Tiempo, Jan. 21) Two days earlier, Col. Robinson González del Río, former commander of the army's Counter-guerilla Battalion 57 "Héroes de Puerres," was sentced to 30 years for his role in over 30 extrajudicial executions in Antioquia between 2006 and 2009, similarly reported as "false positives." (El Tiempo, El Espectador, Jan. 19)
A "peace summit" was held in Colombia's Caribbean port of Cartagena last week, as last year at this time, bringing together international experts and civil society representatives to discuss the ongoing process to end the country's multi-generational civil war. The conference came as the UN Security Council is preparing a resolution in support of Colombia's peace process, empowering a "special political mission" to the country to oversee implementation of pending accords with the FARC guerillas. (El Espectador, Jan. 20; El Espectador, Jan. 7) According to Colombia's Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), political violence registered over the past six months is at its lowest level since the FARC first took up arms in 1964. CERAC cited the FARC's unilateral ceasefire that came into force in July, and the government's suspension of air-strikes. The report found that both the FARC ceasefire and government air-strike halt had been broken, but registered only 16 clashes between guerillas and government troops over the past six months, resulting in the deaths of 17 guerilla fighters and three members of the security forces. (Colombia Reports, Jan. 22)