Monday, July 27, 2015

Searching for bodies in a Medellín landfill (July 27, 2015)

Today, a team of forensic experts will begin removing 31,000 cubic yards of rubble from La Escombrera, a debris landfill on Medellín's outskirts where the remains of as many as 300 people are believed to have been dumped about a decade ago, reports the Associated Press.

Human rights activists say it could be the biggest mass grave ever in Colombia and the dig represents a glimmer of hope that justice will be realized. But the search will be complicated. Despite the long-standing demands by victims' families that the landfill be closed and excavated, construction waste has been dumped there daily.

The process will take about five months, and will required digging up to eight meters down in the landfill that is located in Comuna 13, a slum neighborhood that has hosted all of the factions of the lengthy conflict Colombia has been through: guerrillas, paramilitaries and security forces, reportsAFP.

The case dates back to 2002, when then President Alvaro Uribe launched Operation Orion to repel leftist rebels from a densely populated hillside slum in the poor and violent Comuna 13 district. The void was filled by far-right militia fighters in ski masks and wielding heavy weapons, explains the AP piece. Allegations of killings of civilians and disappearances multiplied. Many of the paramilitary crimes were carried out in an alliance with U.S.-trained security forces. Former militia fighters, including Diego Fernando Murillo, the jailed warlord known by the alias Don Berna who once terrorized much of Medellin, have testified they dumped their victims in La Escombrera.

A municipal authority told AFP that as many as 90 people might be buried in the landfill, though they are uncertain as to exact numbers.

Investigators say it is unclear how many, if any, bodies can be recovered. But they say their biggest obstacle is providing for the safety of the forensic experts carrying out the painstaking work, as the five-month excavation is taking place in an area where criminal gangs still lurk, many of whose members are implicated in the very crimes being investigated. Mistrust of the police, who are providing around-the-clock protection, still runs high.

About 15,000 people are estimated to have disappeared in Colombia due to the armed conflict, which has left about 220,000 dead over the past fifty years and more than six million displaced persons.

News Briefs
  • Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suspended bombing attacks agains the FARC guerrilla rebels this weekend, a positive step in the ongoing peace negotiations between the two, after several months of stepped up conflict, reports AFP
  • The search for 43 missing college students in the southern state of Guerrero has turned up at least 60 clandestine graves and 129 bodies over the last 10 months, Mexico's attorney general's office says, according to the Associated Press. None of the remains has been connected to the youths who disappeared after a clash with police in the city of Iguala on Sept. 26, and authorities do not believe any will be. The number of bodies and graves found from October to May could possibly be higher than in its report, the attorney general's office said, because its response to a freedom of information request from The Associated Press covers only those instances in which its mass grave specialists got involved. (See Friday's post for criticisms on the investigation.)
  • The Mexican maximum security prison drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán broke out of earlier this month is a virtual replica of the facility he broke out of in 2001, reports the New York Times. The authorities believe that for his first escape Guzmán had the help of a top prison security official who went on to become a trusted member of his Sinaloa cartel. Investigators think that he may have taken a copy of the blueprints for the other prison when he left his job around the time of El Chapo's earlier escape. And since the layout of the two prisons is virtually identical, those blueprints could have come in handy when planning this latest breakout. On Friday, Mexican prosecutors said three prison employees would face charges in connection with the escape.
  • Alejandro Hope at El Daily Post writes about the uncertain destination of El Chapo's drug money. He says it's likely most of the drug money was actually reinvested in the illegal economy. He concludes that "if the majority of the profits of crime are reinvested in crime, no amount of financial intelligence can help: the only way to seize the money is by physically finding it ..."
  • Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles said he will travel to Washington to ask the Organization of American States (OAS) to designate electoral observers for December's parliamentary elections, reports EFE.
  • Honduran journalist David Romero, who exposed a major government corruption case, took refuge last week in the national human rights office after filing an official complaint about plans to murder him, reports the AFP. Rioting broke out Thursday outside a courthouse in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, during sentencing in a case in which the Globo TV reporter was charged with crimes including defamation and dangerous slander against Sonia Galvez, the wife of Attorney General Rigoberto Cuellar. His supporters stormed the courtroom and were able to temporarily suspend the sentencing, as charges against him were raised from 16 to 41, which could result in a prison term, explains Telesur. The journalist said he will not return to the courtroom "until they change a dishonorable and contaminated tribunal," which he accused of following instructions from President Juan Orlando Hernández to send him to jail to be killed, according to AFP.
  • An October sentencing in Miami, for a man who pled guilty to heroin trafficking, may be related to a U.S.-Colombia initiative against the Úsuga Clan, reportedly one of Colombia's biggest criminal bands, reports the Miami Herald
  • Peruvian lawmakers elected an opposition legislator as head of Congress on Sunday in a new defeat for the ruling party and increasingly unpopular President Ollanta Humala who is in his last year in office, reports Reuters. Luis Iberico of the small Alliance for Progress party won with backing from lawmakers loyal to opposition presidential aspirant Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of a jailed former president and whose party makes up the largest voting bloc in Congress. This will further complicate Humala's efforts to pass new laws in his final year in office, as the president of Congress sets the agenda for congressional votes.
  • Brazilian authorities will likely raise the country's benchmark Selic interest rate next week for the 16th time in just over two years in a bid to fight escalating inflation, reports the Wall Street Journal. Nonetheless, Brazil's annual inflation rate recently hit 9.25 percent. That is more than double the official 4.5 percent target and up substantially from 6.5 percent in April 2013, when the bank started raising rates.
  • And The Intercept has picked up on a piece in Proceso that says the agents who arrested Guzmán last year weren't Mexican at all — they were Americans, members of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service, dressed as Mexican marines, working alongside one or more unidentified U.S. intelligence agencies. Government officials from Mexico and the U.S. have yet to dispute the accuracy of the story, published in the magazine’s July 18 issue, eight days after the world’s most powerful drug trafficker escaped from Mexico’s top maximum security prison, though former officials from both sides of the border expressed their doubts to The Intercept.
  • Federal authorities in Mexico say they arrested 22 Colombians and three Mexicans using greenhouses to grow genetically modified and cloned marijuana, reports the Associated Press. A Sunday statement issued by the federal police says the operation in the northern state of Jalisco consisted of three greenhouses each of 2,000 square meters (20,000 square feet). Officers found a total of 7,000 "mother plants" of marijuana that had been genetically modified and cloned.
  • Last week, amendments were passed in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee that would lift the travel ban and ease agricultural exports and shipping to Cuba. The panel’s votes reflect growing sentiment, even among some GOP conservatives, to ease the five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island, which have failed to move the Castro regime toward democracy, reports The Guardian
  • Santiago Ortíz Crespo argues that a presidential initiative to raise inheritance taxes in Ecuador -- which sparked widespread protests and calls for President Rafael Correa's resignation -- was inspired in a papal encyclical against capitalism. But Ecuador's middle class believed their property to be endangered by the new measure, though it would only affect 2 percent of the population, and opposed it, he explains in a Nueva Sociedad piece.
  • The Miami Herald has a piece on a new initiative where Haitian American's can send solar light kits to relatives in Haiti, providing a reliable source of energy in a country where more than 70 percent of the population doesn't have access to electricity on a daily basis.

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