Members of Colombia’s Congress can now bring their pets to work, in a world first, and for one senator, wild horses couldn’t have dragged him away from marking the first day of the new rule.
Alirio Barrera showed up to work astride his white horse.
He first rode through the capital Bogota before steering his steed into the halls of Congress, to make a statement about the importance of horses for the Colombian countryside.
“It is a tribute to the farmers, to the men and women, to the herdsmen who live with horses. To all those people who work in the fields,” he told AFP, holding his horse — named Pasaporte — by the bridle.
Senate president Roy Barreras announced the new policy last week, with his dog lounging in his lap. This makes the Colombian Congress “the first in the world to be pet-friendly,” he said.
For Barrera, “my pet is my horse.”
“If the law is for one, let it be for all.”
But his ride to work rubbed some colleagues the wrong way. Senator Andrea Padilla criticized what she called “an immature attitude with which he wanted to ridicule a good decision.”
“It is not the same thing to take a dog to the office as a horse,” she said. “A horse suffers on the asphalt, on the sidewalk, it suffers on these waxed floors.”
From anthropomorphic figurines to 1,500-year-old Indigenous necklaces, Colombia has recently repatriated 274 ancient objects from the United States.
Colombia’s embassy in Washington has been collecting the artifacts from around the United States since 2018 thanks to “seizures” and voluntary “returns by collectors,” Alhena Caicedo, director of Colombia’s ICANH anthropology and history institute, told AFP.
The pottery, stone, and seashell objects, made by Indigenous communities between 500 BC and 500 AD, were brought back last week by Colombian President Gustavo Petro as he returned from the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Now residing at the offices of the foreign affairs ministry in Bogota, AFP was able to view a handful of the ancient artifacts that have been put on display.
Wearing latex gloves, ICANH officials carefully handled the priceless objects.
Most of those who returned to Colombia were handed over voluntarily by an American woman who inherited them from her late husband. He had acquired them in the southwestern Colombian city of Cali in the 1970s.
Others had been confiscated by the FBI as part of an agreement between the two countries to return cultural objects that have been sold on the black market.
These artifacts “left this country illegally, we don’t know exactly when,” said Caicedo.
They come from various regions of Colombia where peoples such as the Tumaco, Narino, Quimbaya, Tayrona, and Sinu lived before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1492.
Colombia says it has another 730 artifacts in its diplomatic missions around the world that need repatriating.
Last year, then-vice president Marta Lucia Ramirez asked the prestigious German auction house, Gerhard Hirsh, to cancel the sale of 25 pieces of pre-Columbian artworks.
Other Latin American countries have made similar requests following complaints from Indigenous people that their assets have been looted.
According to UNESCO, the illegal sale of pillaged cultural artifacts is worth close to $10 billion.
Empty streets and hurriedly abandoned homes pocked with bullet holes: a war for control of the lucrative drug trade is laying waste to rural communities along Colombia’s Pacific-bound cocaine export route.
Tens of thousands have fled as fighting between guerrillas and narcos vying for control of farmland and smuggling routes has shifted from the mountains to right in the midst of rural communities.
Some of the fighters set up operations bases in the newly abandoned homes.
“What we have had to go through, see and hear is unspeakable,” a bitter-ender who declined to give his name, told AFP in the village of La Colonia, near the port city of Buenaventura, where armed groups recently moved in.
The civilians who stay behind “are confined, threatened, frightened,” added Diego Portocarrero, who himself had escaped La Colonia for Buenaventura in February.
At highest risk are villages on the banks of the Calima and San Juan rivers — key arteries for cocaine smuggling via the Pacific to the United States.
Homes in these communities pay testament to the battle: riddled with bullet holes, boarded up and locked with rudimentary chains.
Buildings sport the competing graffiti tags of the main protagonists in the fighting: the ELN guerrilla group and the Gulf Clan drug cartel (AGC).
As control changes hands, the tag of the victor is simply spray-painted over that of their rival.
– Recent phenomenon – Nancy Hurtado, 52, is one of those who fled to Buenaventura in April after an attack on her village of San Isidro.
“They came in shooting, taking people out of houses, children too,” she told AFP.
Life in exile is hard — sharing space with hundreds of others in a sports stadium with improvised kitchens, laundry rooms and sleeping on the floor.
But the alternative is infinitely worse.
“That they catch you, chop you up, throw the pieces in a bucket… who wants to die like that?” asked Hurtado, who fashioned a make-shift bedroom with blankets and towels thrown over a netted football goal.
Dozens of members of the Wounaan Nonam ethnic group have taken refuge at the offices of an indigenous radio station in the city, where they have access to water for five hours a day, every other day.
They fled from fighting in the nearby village of Bajo San Juan in February.
“All that stayed behind was our homes, the dogs, the chickens,” said Edgar Garcia, 45.
Juan Manuel Torres, a researcher at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares), said armed groups settling among communities, “even camouflaged and armed,” was a relatively recent and ever-more common phenomenon.
“They take over houses in the middle of the community, they don’t have camps like before, and this is a… factor that makes some (inhabitants) move,” he said.
This is happening in spite of the 2016 peace agreement that disarmed the FARC guerrilla group and was meant to end the violence after nearly six decades of internal conflict.
Many of the areas abandoned by the FARC have since become battle grounds for the ELN, drug cartels and FARC dissidents who rejected the 2016 pact.
– Always ‘the losers’- Nestled between the ocean, the jungle and mangrove forests, the city of Buenaventura has seen some 300,000 people displaced by violence in the past six years.
Many live in shelters; nine in ten are AfroColombian.
On top of a poverty rate of 41 percent and unemployment at almost 20 percent, the displaced also have to contend with the violence and extortion meted out by gangs that operate from the port.
The number of homicides in Buenaventura rose from 73 in 2017 to 195 last year, official data shows.
Often, dismembered bodies are thrown into the sea, according to witness accounts and rights groups.
The displaced express little hope of better days emerging from presidential elections this week, in which they cannot participate anyway as they are exiled from the areas where they are registered to vote.
“We will always be the losers” in an ongoing tug-of-war for territory and influence, said Portocarrero.
At least six people were killed and four injured in armed clashes between alleged gang members at an indoor football match in Guatemala, police said Sunday, while another died after fighting at a game in Colombia.
In the latest mass violence at Latin American sporting events, five people died on the scene and a sixth in hospital after violence erupted at a match in the Guatemalan town of Villa Canales.
Witnesses said at least four armed attackers had arrived at the indoor stadium by car.
Investigators believed the armed attack could have be the result of gang rivalry, said a police report, pointing to the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha groups that have a strong presence in Guatemala and other Central American countries, Mexico and the United States.
Violence in Guatemala claims some 3,500 lives every year — one of the highest rates in Latin America — mainly due to drug trafficking and gang activity, according to authorities.
Also Saturday, one person died from injuries sustained in a fight at a Colombian football stadium that forced the suspension of a club game.
Police said fighting broke out between fans of the Union Magdalena and Junior de Barranquilla teams in the 73rd minute of an on-field clash at the Sierra Nevada stadium in Santa Marta.
Video on social media showed supporters pelting others with objects as an announcer urges people not to rip the stadium chairs out of their frames.
Two people were injured in the violence, of whom one later died, Santa Marta police official Jesus de los Reyes said, and an investigation is under way to find those responsible.
Fernando Jaramillo, president of the Dimayor club league hosting Saturday’s match, said there would be “strong” sanctions.
Violence has broken out repeatedly this year at Latin American football venues.
On March 5 there were savage clashes between fans outside a stadium in Colombia.
On the same night, a mass brawl at a game in Mexico left 26 people seriously injured, while the next day a man was shot dead in a confrontation between football fans in Brazil.
At least six soldiers died in an explosives attack perpetrated by suspected drug traffickers in northeastern Colombia, the army said on Wednesday.
Another five soldiers were injured and one remains missing after the attack blamed on the Clan del Golfo cartel, the most powerful in the country but whose leader Dario Antonio Usuga was captured in October.
“Unfortunately the murder of six of our soldiers is confirmed,” said the army in a statement.
The five injured soldiers from the Fourth Brigade “were evacuated by airplane” to a hospital.
“Troops on the ground are continuing to look for one of our soldiers,” added the army.
The attack took place around midnight Tuesday in the Antioquia department.
General Juvenal Diaz told Blu Radio that the Clan del Golfo was responsible for detonating “an improvised explosive device” as a military vehicle was passing.
Antioquia is a key corridor for the transport of cocaine to Colombia’s Pacific coast and on to Panama.
Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine, much of which is smuggled into the United States and Europe.
The Clan del Golfo has increased its attacks on the armed forces since the detention of Usuga, who is known by the alias Otoniel.
Colombia’s government has approved the extradition of Usuga to the United States to face charges of drug trafficking.
Before his capture, the Clan del Golfo used to export 300 of the 1,010 tons of cocaine that leaves Colombia every year, according to authorities.
Colombia’s government announced Sunday it is working towards extraditing the country’s most-wanted drug trafficker “Otoniel” to the United States, a day after he was captured in a major operation in the jungle.
“There is an extradition order against Otoniel, and this extradition order… remains in progress,” Defense Minister Diego Molano told the daily El Tiempo newspaper in an interview.
“This is the path for all those who commit transnational crimes,” Molano told reporters later, adding that nearly 30 percent of the many tons of cocaine exported from Colombia went through the so-called Gulf Clan, the country’s largest drug trafficking gang, led by Otoniel.
The 50-year-old drug lord, whose real name is Dairo Antonio Usuga, was arrested Saturday in northwest Colombia’s dense jungle in an operation involving some 700 uniformed agents backed by 18 helicopters, according to the army.
The United States had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Otoniel, one of the most feared men in Colombia.
“This is the hardest strike to drug trafficking in our country this century,” President Ivan Duque said Saturday, adding that the arrest was “only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar,” the notorious Colombian narco-trafficking kingpin.
“We are going for more, we are going for victory against all high-value targets,” Duque vowed from a military base in the country’s northwest.
The government accuses other armed groups such as the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and rebels who walked away from the peace pact signed with the FARC guerillas in 2016, of financing themselves with drug trafficking revenue.
Born to a poor family, Otoniel joined the EPL, a Marxist guerrilla group that demobilized in 1991. A paramilitary fighter, he ultimately headed the Gulf Clan, with a force of some 1,600 men and a presence in almost 300 municipalities nationwide, according to the independent think tank Indepaz.
In Colombia Otoniel had 128 outstanding arrest warrants for drug trafficking and recruitment of minors, among other crimes.
“He murdered more than 200 members of the security forces… Many soldiers have suffered because of this murderer and his friends,” Duque said.
Otoniel also preyed on minors, “intimidating families and extorting them in order to take their daughters’ virginity,” the president added.
In five decades of a US-backed drug war, Colombia has killed or captured several drug lords, including kingpin Escobar, who was shot by security forces in 1993.
But the country remains the world’s leading cocaine producer, with the United States its biggest buyer.
Colombia’s most-wanted drug trafficker “Otoniel” has been captured, officials said Saturday, a major victory for the government of the world’s top cocaine exporter.
Dairo Antonio Usuga, who headed the country’s largest narco-trafficking gang known as the Gulf Clan, was captured near one of his main outposts in Necocli, near the border with Panama.
Images released by the government showed the 50-year-old Otoniel in handcuffs and surrounded by soldiers.
“This is the hardest strike to drug trafficking in our country this century,” President Ivan Duque said in a message, adding that the arrest was “only comparable to the fall of Pablo Escobar,” the notorious Colombian narco-trafficking kingpin.
Some 500 soldiers backed by 22 helicopters were deployed in the Necocli municipality to carry out the operation, which left one police officer dead.
It was “the biggest penetration of the jungle ever seen in the military history of our country”, Duque said.
A live broadcast by the police later showed a handcuffed Otoniel landing in Bogota before being taken into custody under heavy security.
Colombia’s police chief Jorge Vargas said during a press conference that authorities carried out “an important satellite operation with agencies of the United States and the United Kingdom.”
According to police, Otoniel was hiding in the jungle in the Uraba region, where he is from, and did not use a telephone, relying on couriers to communicate.
Fearful of authorities, he “slept there in the rain, never approaching inhabited areas,” Vargas said.
The United States had offered a $5 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Otoniel, one of the most feared men in Colombia.
He was indicted in the United States in 2009, and faces extradition proceedings to the country, where he would appear in the Southern District of New York federal court.
The Colombian government blames the group — financed mainly through drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion — for being one of the main drivers of the worst bout of nationwide violence since the signing of a peace pact with FARC guerillas in 2016.
The Gulf Clan is present in almost 300 municipalities in the country, according to the independent think tank Indepaz. However, recent government efforts have seen the organization decimated.
Life of violence
Although Otoniel announced in 2017 he intended to reach an agreement to participate with the Colombian justice system, the government responded by deploying at least 1,000 soldiers to hunt him down.
He took over the leadership of the Gulf Clan — previously known as the Usuga Clan — from his brother Juan de Dios, who was killed by police in 2012.
Born to a poor family, Otoniel joined the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a Marxist guerrilla group that demobilized in 1991.
After laying down his arms, he later returned to fighting, joining far-right paramilitary groups.
Many of these were demobilized in 2006 at the initiative of former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe’s administration, but Otoniel decided to remain in the fight.
Colombia is the world’s top producer of cocaine, with the United States as its principal market, despite half a century of efforts to clamp down on the drug trade.
In remote areas where there is little government presence, criminal groups like the Gulf Clan, dissident FARC guerrillas and leftist ELN rebels fight bloody turf battles to control drug trafficking corridors and illegal mining operations.
Twice in 10 years, Efrain Soto’s life was shattered in landmine explosions in violence-wracked Colombia. The first one robbed him of his eye, the second one killed his brother.
The number of landmine victims is rising in Colombia, as guerrilla violence continues despite a 2016 peace accord meant to end decades of armed conflict.
In the Catatumbo region in northern Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, the sight of people dying or suffering terrible wounds from mines is all too familiar.
Since the explosions, Soto has had a nervous breakdown and seizures.
For the past eight years, he has been taking medication to help with the psychological trauma, but he is still so distressed that even walking to a nearby village terrifies him.
“I want to cry, I want to run, I’m afraid,” said Soto.
While the government has signed a historic peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end a long-running civil war, it did not rid the country of guerrillas and violence.
Territories rife with illegal coca plantations, where the FARC once held sway, are now infested with leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and armed drug traffickers laying landmines indiscriminately.
The number of people killed or wounded by mines is increasing, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In 2020, there were 389 blast victims, compared to 57 in 2017.
During the first six months of this year alone, 263 people, including 21 children, were killed or maimed.
– Lost hope – In 2011, Soto was talking to his wife on his mobile phone just yards (meters) from his house when he was shaken by an explosion.
Blood started pouring from his eye.
Relatives made a makeshift stretcher and hammock to take Soto, who is over 6 feet 3 inches (1.94 meters) tall, on a five-hour trek along countryside trails to bring him to a hospital in the regional center of Cucuta, where he spent four months in treatment.
In April of last year, Soto’s 41-year-old brother Carlos accidentally set off another landmine, and the ordeal was repeated.
“Running away, looking for the hammock, rushing to the village again, and he was bleeding,” Soto recalled.
When Carlos arrived at the village of Tibu, still some ways away from Cucuta, “his lips were purple” and he died, Soto said.
Since the peace deal, Colombia has de-mined 448 out of its 1,122 municipalities, but there are 137 that “do not have the necessary conditions” to be rendered safe, said the office of Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace.
Catatumbo is in that group, with violence an ongoing scourge in the area.
No sooner had Soto overcome his grief from his brother’s death, he was randomly shot in the stomach and spent another month in hospital in Cucuta.
Soto says he has lost hope of seeing peace in Colombia.
– ‘Phantom limb’ – In April, Ivan Rodriguez was cutting down a tree when he heard a blast and was engulfed by “smoke and earth.”
The 24-year-old managed to stay “conscious” and “calm” during the near three hours it took him to reach a hospital.
Rodriguez lost his right foot and came close to having his injured arm amputated.
With little medical supervision, he is now recovering at home with help from his wife and five-year-old son.
Rodriguez is suffering from a phantom limb, a condition in which a person vividly perceives and feels pain from a lost limb.
He hopes to get a “prosthesis to be able to walk” and play football again.
His 23-year-old wife, Paola Acuna, marvels at his bravery.
“Rather than us giving him strength, he gives a lot to us,” she said.
“You’re not the same anymore,” explained Rodriguez. “But I try to keep going because why make yourself feel even worse when you know the foot won’t grow back.”
With over 2,200 dead and more than 8,000 wounded between 1999 and 2017, according to watchdog Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, Colombia is one of the countries worst affected by landmines after Syria and Afghanistan.
Luis Diaz scored a sensational winner with virtually the last kick of the match as Colombia beat Peru 3-2 in Brasilia on Friday to finish third in the Copa America.
The goal was the 24-year-old Porto forward’s second of the match and came just 10 minutes after Gianluca Lapadula looked to have sent the game into a penalty shoot-out.
It was a thrilling encounter that ebbed and flowed, with Yoshimar Yotun giving Peru a first half lead before Colombia captain Juan Cuadrado equalized early in the second period.
“We’re happy, it was important to finish by winning,” said Cuadrado, whose side lost their semi-final on penalties to Lionel Messi’s Argentina, who play Neymar’s Brazil in Saturday’s final.
“I’m happy with how we reacted (to going behind) and how we went after the result.”
Colombia had the better start and piled on early pressure but Peru held firm despite the ball often pinging around in their box.
And Peru even had the first clear chance on 28 minutes when Christian Cueva’s clever pass found Lapadula, but under pressure from a defender he fired narrowly wide from just inside the box.
Diaz had a chance for Colombia but fired straight at goalkeeper Pedro Gallese.
On 40 minutes Sergio Pena left Colombia’s centre back Oscar Murillo on the floor with a clever turn, rounded goalkeeper Camilo Vargas but blazed well over the bar from a tight angle.
Peru got the lead they deserved just before the break as Cueva’s precise pass and Lapadula’s clever run took out four defenders to set up Yotun for an emphatic finish.
Colombia were back level just four minutes after the break as Cuadrado fired a free-kick through a disintegrating wall and past Gallese at his near post.
Alexander Callens had given away the free-kick on the edge of the box with a clumsy challenge and compounded his error by jumping away from his fellow members of the wall to create the gap that Cuadrado exploited.
Colombia’s tails were up and Cuadrado’s cross picked out man-of-the-match Diaz whose acrobatic overhead kick was parried over by Gallese.
The game opened up and the dangerous Lapadula cut inside a defender on the right before firing in a left-foot shot that clipped the bar as it went over.
It was end-to-end stuff with the goalkeepers playing a role in launching long-range attacks.
Gallese picked out Cueva to run at goal only for a Wilmar Barrios bodycheck to stop him in his tracks.
But then Vargas launched a long ball up field for Diaz to scamper away and beat Gallese with a rasping finish on 66 minutes.
Lapadula looked to have sent the match to penalties eight minutes from time when he rose almost unopposed to head home a Raziel Garcia corner from six yards out.
But Diaz had the last word with a stunning strike from 25 yards that Gallese could only get his fingertips to as it rifled into the top corner.