Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Deadly Idea

Calling for death for the corrupt on Carrera Septima.
Death penalty for the 'corrupt,
criminals and rapists.
Among all the good, bad and indifferent ideas being offered in this election season, perhaps the most disconcerting and disappointing one is the Green Party candidate's call for capital punishment - for corruption, rape and just generally being a 'criminal.'

The death penalty does not exist in Colombia, even for crimes such as mass murder. Popeye, one of Pablo Escobar's assassins, who murdered hundreds of people, was released from prison about one year ago.

Colombia's 'Green Party' (formally called the Alianza Verde) isn't really so green. But the party is leftist and anti-violence. Presumably, it's against killing bulls in bullfights. But here's a Green candidate calling for the wholesale slaughter of Colombians for even the most minor criminal  offense. Just the crime of corruption by itself would undoubtedly mean the bloody end for many public functionaries if my experience and the tales I've heard are true.

Would this candidate, if he enters Congress, really want to have many of his colleagues executed?

In a society such as Colombia's, which is yearning for peace, such a harsh, vicious and radical proposal is the wrong thing to say - particularly coming from a leftist party.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Discovering Creative Uses for our Bathroom

Our sidewalk bathroom protest.
For the past six months - and counting - Bogotá Bike Tours's bathroom has not functioned.

A bathroom as store-room.
It all started last September, when the landladies hired workmen to repair the buiding's pipes, because because during heavy rains sewage water backed up and flooded the building.

The workmen finished their work in about two weeks. Then, came the turn of Acueducto to hook our building's pipes to the main running beneath the street.

So, we waited...and waited. 'They´re going to do the work on Friday,' someone predicted. 'No, on Sunday, when there's less traffic.'

But the workers never appeared.

The landlady visited acueducto, who sent her on wild goose chases to the Transito office, to the Urban Development Institute, and on and on, all in vain. The workers never came.

Acueducto even declared our situation an EMERGENCIA. But that didn't help.

Finally, the landlady discovered that she needed permission from the local Patrimonio Historico office to do the work. Easy, right? After all, what possible threat could hooking up our toilet be to the neighborhood's historical patrimony?
Parchita uses the toilet.
However, the Patrimonio's engineer didn't give the necessary approval. He was on vacation. He was busy. He was just being a bureaucrat.

We visited. We begged. They said they were working on it.

Finally, after four months, the engineer gave his approval. Now, we'd get our bathroom, right? Not so fast. We also needed the Patrimonio director's approval. Evidently, our having a bathroom was a real potential threat to the neighborhood's historical patrimony.

(This was the same patrimonio office which has given its blessing to monstrosities all around this neighborhood.)

Finally, the director gave his approval. So, we could now get our bathroom, right?

Not so fast, again. The landlady went back down to Acueducto, which had declared our case an 'EMERGENCIA.' No, they were already all booked up that month, and the next month, and at least half of the following month. Our EMERGENCIA would have to wait at least two months.

We're still waiting.

It's things like this which sap one's confidence in public institutions and erase any enthusiasm for paying taxes.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Sitp's 'Transition' to Nowhere

The Sitp bus system was supposed to improve, if not revolutionize, Bogotá's transit. The old 'battle for the centavo,' in which buses raced each other madly to pick up passengers, was supposed to end. Order would descend on Bogotá's streets as buses stopped for passengers only at designated bus stops instead of screeching to a halt wherever the passenger happened to be waiting. More efficient buses and routes would also reduce Bogotá's traffic jams. And, by replacing the dirty old buses with clean new ones, the city's air would improve.

Unfortunately, very little of that has happened. Rather than replacing the old buses, the city just slapped labels on them, declaring them 'transitional' Sitp buses, as tho those labels would have some magical transformational effect on the vehicles. And, years later, the perpetual 'transition' has no end in sight.
A Sitp bus broke down on Calle 26 -
apparently with a wheel or tire problen.      

Neither do the 'transitional' Sitp drivers, who presumably work under new training and instructions, seem to behave better than did the pre-Sitp drivers.

Meanwhile, even with all of these failings, several of the companies operating the Sitp buses are close to bankruptcy.

But this incident I witnessed the other day on 26th St., across from the Central Cemetery and the Centro Memoria, has come to represent for me the Sitp's failings.

But, lo and behold, another Sitp bus pulls up to take the stranded passengers.

Here we go!

And the new, 'good' bus takes off - with a blast of smoke. 

Yet another of Bogotá's 'rolling chimneys.'

The Sitp 'transition' rolls ahead.
 By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The FARC guerillas: Environmental Protectors or Villians?

FARC guerrillas: Environmental criminals, defenders or both?
The FARC's demobilization was supposed to be a boon for the environment, as coca leaf planting dropped and the guerrillas were transformed from environmental depredators to environmental defenders.

However, deforestation in Colombia has accelerated, and, if we're to believe them, in the FARC Colombia's jungles lost important defenders.

In the areas where the FARC guerrillas were the de-facto government, they claim that they prohibited deforestation, banned polluting into rivers, and controlled hunting.

An oil pipeline bombed allegedly by the FARC
guerrillas in February 2013.
Many of those policies were not only to protect the environment, however: They also protected the FARC forces. Intact forests hid the guerrillas from Colombia's military. And keeping trash out of rivers avoided tell-tale clues of the guerrillas' whereabouts.

On the other hand, the FARC certainly committed wholesale environmental depredations, by protecting drug crops which caused widespread deforestation, and sponsored illegal mines, which devastated countless river valleys. The FARC also bombed petroleum pipelines, poisoning rivers, jungles and cities' drinking water.

But one thing which seems clear is that, whether or not they intended it, the FARC's terrorism, kidnapping and extortion scared potential exploiters out of Colombia's remote regions. With Colombia's internal conflict winding down, businesses and farmers invaded virgin areas, accelerating deforestation. Between 2015 and 2016, deforestation increased by a terrifying 44%, and appears set to continue accelerating.

At the same time, cocaine production, one cause of deforestation, which was supposed to decline with the guerrillas' demobilization, has also accelerated.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Why Coca Erradication is Doomed

Sweaty coca erradicators reduce the supply of the leaf
 - and raise its market value.
How to convince farmers to give up coca leaf for legal, healthy crops?

These days, government officials and newspaper columnists are debating over the best combination of incentives - such as payments and help with new crops - and punishments, such as forced erradication and prison, if farmers don't agree to voluntarily erradicate their drug crops.

At best, the strategy has huge weaknesses: Coca leaf is a good crop economically, because it requires little care, brings reliable income and can be stored and transported easily after harvest. And in many coca-growing regions the government has little presence, whereas the drug cartels, who encourage or even force farmers to plant coca leaf, are very active.

But, give the government the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps this time voluntary erradication WILL work.
Colombia's coca leaf crop
has boomed in recent years.
(Graph from El Tiempo)

The trouble is, it's all futile, anyway.

After all, there are lots of poor people in Colombia, especially poor farmers. Every time a farmer somewhere gives up growing coca leaf, whether voluntarily or not, that reduces the supply and raises the price. In response, you can be sure that some impoverished farmer somewhere else, if not in Colombia, then in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela or Africa or Asia, will chop down a patch of jungle and plant the leaf.

It's not that coca leaf farmers are bad people, who want to do harm. I've met some of them. To them, cocaine's harm is a distant, vague concept. And, they say reasonably enough, it's the fault of the consumers who decide to drug themselves.

Colombia's coca leaf crop increase has coincided
with a reduction in acres erradicated.
Chart from Adam Isacson.
Meanwhile, the farmers' needs to feed and clothe their children, to buy schoolbooks and medicines, are immediate and urgent. How many of us would act differently?

The more succesful strategy would be to reduce demand, by helping addicts and decriminalizing drugs, which would reduce their damage in every sense and deprive criminals of a huge income.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

How to Wash Money Clean

How to bring them home.
Imagine that you're a successful drug trafficker. Your cocaine cargo arrived safely in some rich nation, where it sold for thousands of times what it cost to buy the coca leaves and chemicals back in Colombia.

But now you have two challenges: You need to bring that money back into Colombia, and you need to disguise it as legal money.

You might take the first stept by having people swallow pills stuffed with hundred dollar bills or tape wads of bills to their bodies. But that's dangerous and means trusting the couriers.

Or, you might try to transfer the money back into Colombia thru the banking system. But the banks are supposed to have ways of flagging large transfers and investigating their origin.

Or, you could use the dirty money to buy stuff like washing machines, running shoes, or bicycles, import them into Colombia and then sell them to recover your profits. Even if you sell the products at a loss, it's still worth it, since the drug profits were so huge.

In the third case, you've not only brought your dirty money into Colombia, but also disguised it as clean money. That's called money laundering.

Think of the FARC guerrillas, and you think of bombings, drug trafficking, child soldiers and other crimes - but probably not supermarkets.

Yet, according to Colombian authorities, a supermarket chain played a fundamental in the guerrillas'
A Supercundi supermarket, allegedly linked
to the FARC guerrillas.
operations by laundering their ill-gotten gains. The Supercundi market chain had grown quickly after being founded in 2006, and, according to authorities, sold some products 90% cheaper than in a normal store. This week, the government shut down the markets, alleging they belonged to a friend of the FARC, who laundered the FARC's illegal income from drugs and illegal mining and then invested the new, clean money in land, luxury cars and new businesses.

The supermarkets also served a second function for the guerrillas - supplying their fighters with food.

Money laundering comes in many forms.

Years ago, a friend's girfriend told us about her job in a language institute which, strangely, taught almost no classes, and those it did have had almost no students. Whenever someone called asking to enroll, the instruction was to tell them that the class was full.

That sounded like a money laundering operation. Someone with an illicit income had set up the 'school' to be able to justify that income, confident that authorities wouldn't look too closely.

Another time, a tourist told me he'd tried to book in a Bogotá hostel, only to be told that it was
completely full. That sounded strange, as it wasn't busy season. Since the hostel had a nice website, I decided to visit it to drop off publicity. The place had no sign, and the woman who answered the door seemed to have no knowledge of a hostel there. Someone had come by once and talked about perhaps opening a hostel there, she said.

That sounded like a small-time money laundering operation.

During the narcos era, many drug traffickers bought sports teams to obtain social status and launder money, since authorities couldn't easily monitor their incomes. The athletes' international travels provided nice opportunities to smuggle drugs.

The Cali drug cartel, ironically, purchased the Rebaja drugstore chain to launder their money. And the San Andresitos stores, known for selling imported clothing and electronics, are also notorious for laundering money.

Money laundering, which affects - and often even benefits - all of us, is yet another economic distortion caused by prohibitionism. Legalize drugs, and this phenomenon, like many others, would simpy disappear.

A La Rebaja pharmacy on Plaza San Victorino, in Bogotá. The chain used to be owned by the Cali Cartel.
By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Of Trash and Traffic Jams

Homeless men pick thru garbage outside the
Las Nieves fruit market.
Bogotá has two severe and worsening problems:

Too much trash, and too much traffic. We've all seen the huge piles of garbage on corners, which may have decreased, by haven't disappeared now that the city has supposedly got a new company collecting its waste.

And, just a few days ago, Bogotá's traffic congestion was ranked the second worst in all of South America.

A huge -and routine - traffic jam on Calle 26
in central Bogotá. Wluld a congestion charge help?
Bogotá has attempted futiley to address both crisis with a simple formula: Provide more space. It has expanded the Doña Juana landfill, and even talked about establishing a second one. And, it has spent many billions of pesos expanding urban avenues and intersections, only to have thousands of additional cars crowd those new spaces.

Unfortunately, increasing supply of something only generates more production, leaving the problem as bad or worse.

In the case of Bogotá's garbage, residents who toss trash onto corners and sidewalks have no limit to what they dispose of and no incentive to reduce the waste they produce.

The city's perpetual entreaties to recycle have accomplished little. And recycling is a poor solution compared to not producing the garbage in the first place.

Carrying plastic bottles - which will be used once and discarded - to a store.
Would a deposit keep them out of the landfill?
Would it discourage their use in the first place?
Bags of organic waste. How about paying flower growers to buy them and turn them into compost? That would save space in the landfill while also reducing greenhouse gas pollution.
Tires discarded behind the Central Cemetery. In many places, a deposit paid when a tire is purchased pays for its later reprocessing into something else.

And, in the case of traffic, studies have repeatedly shown that increasing road space only lures more drivers onto the roads.

A garbage truck painted with a slogan urging people
to place recyclables into white bags.
In both cases, the city shoulds employ economic incentives to motivate residents to change their behavior.

An obvious one is a deposit on tires, bottles and other disposable items, which would be used to pay
consumers to return those objects to be reused or recycled, and finance their reprocessing into something useful. The beauty of a deposit is that it also shifts the costs to the products' users instead of society in general.

Recycling sounds idealistic, but is much less environmentally sound than simply not generating waste in the first place. And, most of Bogotá's recycling programs are disfunctional, anyway. Take a peek into most recycling bins, and you'll see regular trash in all of them. And the trash collectors have only one place to dump the contents, anyway. The city urges residents separate recyclables from regular trash and place them in white bags. Nobody does this - and for good reason, since the trash collectors have no separate place to carry recyclables, anyway. And even if people did separate out their recyclables, dogs and homeless people would come by and rip open the bags and scatter the trash, anyway.

And the best way to reduce traffic congestion is to raise driving's cost, by hiking the cost of gasoline or introducing a London-style congestion charge for driving into the center of the city. Bogotá's Pico y Placa law, which prohibits cars from driving three days per week depending on their license plate numbers, has obviously failed to reduce traffic jams, and may even be making them worse.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours