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Incoming Colombia president faces long list of challenges

August 07, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The young protégé of a powerful former president is being sworn in as Colombia’s new leader Tuesday, tasked with guiding the implementation of a peace accord with leftist rebels that remains on shaky ground.

Forty-two-year-old Ivan Duque will be the youngest Colombian chief of state ever elected in a popular vote when he is sworn into office at Bogota’s Plaza Bolivar. The prematurely graying father of three describes himself as a centrist who will unite the nation at a time when many are still fiercely divided over the peace agreement that ended more than five decades of bloody conflict.

His detractors fear he will be little more than a puppet for Alvaro Uribe, the conservative ex-president who led a referendum defeat of the initial version of peace accord in 2016. Uribe is still backed by millions of Colombians, though he is perhaps equally detested by legions who decry human rights abuses during his administration.

Duque is taking Colombia’s presidency at a critical juncture: Coca production is soaring to record levels, holdout illegal armed groups are battling for territory where the state has little or no presence and a spate of killings of social activists has underlined that peace remains a relative term.

“If Duque is not able to solve this problem and find a way to bring the state into the countryside, we’re going to keep having the same problems we’ve had for decades,” said Jorge Gallego, a professor at Colombia’s Rosario University.

Duque is the son of a former governor and energy minister and friends say he has harbored presidential aspirations since early childhood. But his rise from unknown technocrat to a popular senator and now president has been extraordinarily rapid, propelled in large part by the support of his mentor, Uribe.

Just four years ago, Duque was a Washington suburbanite with a cushy job at an international development bank. It was there that he developed close ties to Uribe, assisting the former president when he taught a course at Georgetown University. Later Duque helped Uribe lead a United Nations probe into Israel’s deadly attack on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla and helped him write his memoir.

Then in 2014, Uribe propelled Duque into the political limelight when he encouraged him to return to Colombia to run for a Senate seat and placed him on a list of newcomer candidates that he urged his multitude of supporters to elect.

Within Uribe’s conservative Democratic Center party, Duque’s reputation as a more moderate voice can at times put him at odds with the solidly right-wing faction. Uribe’s support is thus considered crucial for Duque to rule with the full backing of his party. But he will need to build a broader alliance to pass laws in Congress.

Duque’s dependence on Uribe has sparked concern from critics, though analysts believe the former leader’s mounting legal troubles could provide the incoming president a new degree of independence. Uribe briefly stepped down from the Senate in July after the Supreme Court asked him to testify on allegations of bribery and witness tampering in a case related to claimed ties to paramilitaries, which he vehemently denies. Uribe later reversed course and withdrew his resignation letter.

In the weeks since Duque’s resounding victory over leftist ex-guerrilla Gustavo Petro, the president-elect has signaled both his loyalty to Uribe and a conviction to chart his own path. While many of his Cabinet picks have ties to Uribe, there are also a number of incoming ministers with no links to a traditional political party.

“So far I think he has shown more independence than some sectors believed,” Gallego said. “Treating Duque as a puppet of Uribe is a very simplistic way of analyzing things.” At the top of Duque’s agenda are likely to be Colombia’s economy and the peace agreement as well as reversing coca production that last year reached levels unseen in more than two decades of record keeping and $10 billion in U.S. counter-narcotics work. The soaring coca levels have tested traditionally close ties with the United States.

Throughout his campaign, Duque promised to push changes in the peace agreement, including creating tougher penalties for former leaders of the now defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia responsible for crimes against humanity. Under the accord, most rebels who fully confess their crimes will be spared any jail time, a sore point for many Colombians who still vividly remember the atrocities of war.

Colombia’s conflict between leftist rebels, the state and paramilitary groups left at least 260,000 dead, some 60,000 missing and millions displaced. While some fear Duque’s anti-accord rhetoric and proposed changes could further destabilize what has already been a slow and tumultuous implementation, others hope that in the long-term the agreement could enjoy broader support from a divided Colombian society if led by someone with a critical approach.

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, noted that Duque’s rhetoric on the peace accord has softened somewhat since his election.

“There was a sense that because Uribe had campaigned so strenuously against the peace agreement that Duque was going to come into office and just rip the thing apart,” she said. “I don’t think that that’s likely.”

Former guerrilla, young conservative vie to lead Colombia

June 17, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombians will choose between a leftist former guerrilla and a young conservative lawmaker Sunday in a presidential election to decide who will lead the nation as it implements a still-fragile peace accord.

One-time militant and former Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro and frontrunner Ivan Duque harbor contrasting views on the historic accord ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict and could significantly shape how Colombia proceeds with putting key aspects of it into motion.

Petro is vowing to uphold the 310-page accord while Duque wants to make changes like requiring ex-combatants to serve time before entering politics if they are guilty of crimes against humanity. Under the final agreement, rebels who fully confess and offer reparations to victims are unlikely to be sent behind bars.

“Undoubtedly, for the peace process, this is an important test,” said Patricia Munoz, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Xavierian University in Bogota. The first presidential vote since the signing of the 2016 accord has polarized voters, pitting even close family members against one another. Duque won a first-round vote held in June, topping Petro by 14 percentage points but falling short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff. Recent polls indicate Duque still holds a decisive advantage but suggest the distance between the candidates is narrowing.

Duque is the protege of powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, one of the most admired and abhorred leaders in Colombia’s recent history. On the cusp of turning 42, Duque would become the youngest president in Colombia in more than a century. Critics are wary that the father-of-three’s limited experience in politics could leave him dependent on Uribe, who is the leader of his party’s bloc in the Senate.

Though millions of Colombians praise Uribe, some giving him an even cult-like status, others contend his advances as president came at the price of grave human rights abuses. While he succeeded in boosting Colombia’s economy and weakening illegal armed groups, he presided over the government at a time when military officers killed thousands of civilians who were then dressed up as rebels to inflate body counts in exchange for vacations and bonus pay.

In a sign of how tense relations between both camps of voters remain, even acts of nature have turned into fodder for political jousting. A week before the vote, a swarm of killer bees attacked supporters who showed up to see Uribe speak at a Duque rally in a small town in northern Colombia. Supporters of Duque accused Petro backers of launching the bees in an act of “biological terrorism.”

“Now African bees as Petristas,” Petro groaned later on Twitter, using the play on his last name used to describe his supporters. “Is it because they are worker bees?” Officials later said Uribe’s helicopter had likely stirred the bees into a frenzy.

Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group that signed a peace accord with the government in 1990, is promising to overhaul Colombia’s economic model. He wants to free Colombia from dependency on fossil fuel exports and raise agricultural production by increasing taxes on unused lands and giving them to peasants if the owners sell them to the state. His early fondness for the late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez and a now-ditched campaign pledge to create a constitutional assembly have sparked fears among some that he’ll make Colombia “another Venezuela.”

Analysts say Petro’s candidacy is an important development in a country where more than five decades of conflict against rebels created a stigma around any candidate who appeared to sympathize with leftist causes. If he were to win, he’d likely face an uphill battle in implementing any of his campaign proposals. His allies represent a minority in congress and would struggle to pass any laws.

Duque’s own proposed changes to the peace accord may also encounter considerable resistance. Though he could implement reforms by decree, he would more likely choose to go through congress. Even though his allies represent a majority, some could push back against any changes that would put the accord on shaky ground. Observers suspect Duque himself might modify his positions if elected.

In the final weeks before the vote Duque has repeatedly said that he does not want to “shred the accord to pieces” and has tweaked several of his positions. “The entire panorama today indicates the peace process is not reversible,” Munoz said. “We have a society that does not want the FARC to return to armed conflict.”

Ex-rebel looks to defy odds in Colombia presidential race

June 17, 2018

ZIPAQUIRA, Colombia (AP) — Gustavo Petro began his long ascent to the cusp of Colombia’s presidency in this self-built barrio named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar. In 1983, equipped with little more than a shovel and a surplus of revolutionary ideals, the then-clandestine militant led some 400 squatter families in a months-long battle with local authorities to secure a plot of land to build their ramshackle homes here in Zipaquira, a city north of Bogota. Their rallying cry was: “A roof and a dignified life.”

Thirty five years later, the founders of the “Bolivar 83” barrio still living in the slum celebrate Petro’s rise as their own. The leftist candidate will face off against conservative Ivan Duque on Sunday in Colombia’s presidential runoff election.

“He taught us to call each other comrades, not neighbors,” remembers Ana Miriam Chitiva, pointing to photos hung on her home’s wall of the barrio’s early days, when the bespectacled, introverted Petro would help her lug concrete pipes and carve out dirt roads from the rocky, forested hillside.

The same crusading spirit has accompanied Petro throughout his four-decade political ascent. He’s gone from fearless lawmaker who tormented Colombia’s political class, to the renegade mayor of Bogota who took on powerful private interests and now a surprise, surging finalist in the country’s first presidential election since the signing of a historic peace accord.

The two-man race between Petro and Duque has tightened in the final stretch, with one poll indicating Petro had climbed to within 6 points of his conservative rival. In the first round of voting three weeks ago, Duque topped Petro by more than 14 points.

Whoever is elected will lead Colombia at a crucial juncture. The country is in the early stages of implementing an accord with leftist rebels to end Latin America’s longest running conflict. But cocaine production has soared in areas vacated by the rebels, threatening to undo security gains and testing traditionally close relations with the U.S.

Petro has vowed to fulfill the 310-page accord’s lofty aspirations to tackle poverty and unequal land distribution. Duque meanwhile wants to roll back some of the accord’s benefits for top commanders until they confess their war crimes and compensate victims.

For Petro to even be within striking distance of Duque is a major feat — never before in Colombia’s history has a leftist been so close to the apex of power. To get this far he’s had to soften his sometimes radical rhetoric, even going so far as to hold up mock stone tablets inscribed with 12 “commandments” committing him to stay clear of expropriating private property and earlier calls to rewrite the constitution.

He’s also had to overcome comparisons with the late socialist revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez that the Colombian right-wing has labelled “Castro-Chavismo,” a smear bandied about so much during the campaign that Petro’s 7-year-old daughter has come up with a left-stepping dance to parody the accusations.

Business elites have thrown their support squarely behind Duque, the hand-picked candidate of powerful former President Alvaro Uribe, fearful that Petro’s efforts to present himself as a moderate are a ruse.

Even some fellow leftists worry about a messianic streak. Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former peace negotiator for Petro’s 19th of April Movement, or M-19, said his former comrade always stood out for his sharp intellect and shrewd political instincts — as well as a self-defeating tendency to shun others’ opinions. But with his fledgling political movement occupying just four of 107 seats in the senate and an even smaller number in the lower house, he’ll need to build bridges if elected president.

“The truth is he’s always been a little selfish,” said Wolff, who is among a group of high-profile leftists that belatedly endorsed Petro in the runoff after backing another, less polarizing candidate in the first round. He said the support was not a blank check, however. “If you want to get things done as president you can’t act alone.”

Petro, 58, was born on the same day — April 19 — that would give rise to the guerrilla movement that he joined as a muckraking teenage journalist in Zipaquira. His nom de guerre was Aureliano, for a protagonist from “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the beloved work by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But in “Bolivar 83,” most of whose residents didn’t know of his double life at first, he was called “Flaco” — Spanish for skinny — or “Little Gustavo.”

After the housing fight was won, Petro was hunted down. While on the run, he’d jump between the homes of Chitiva and a sisterhood of single moms in “Bolivar 83” who now proudly call themselves “Petro’s girlfriends.” Once they even disguised him in high heels, lipstick and tight-fitting dress so he could slip past an army barricade.

Eventually his luck ran out and in a 1985 raid by the army he was discovered hiding in a hole dug next to one of the homes he helped build. He was taken to an army base in Bogota and beaten, and eventually spent two years in jail on weapons charges.

“Those who seek to brand Gustavo a guerrilla and a killer don’t realize he didn’t carry a weapon in his hands,” said Gonzalo Suarez, a fellow M-19 militant. “His biggest and most powerful weapon was, and still is, his deft mind, which is always focused on helping the poorest and worst off people in Colombia,” said Suarez.

Petro rose to national prominence in 2006 leading a crusade to expose the alliance between conservative allies of then-President Uribe and right-wing paramilitary groups. In hours-long televised speeches from the senate floor that mesmerized much of Colombia, he revealed evidence accusing Uribe of providing political cover for the formation of the militias as a governor in the 1990s and the personal involvement of his brother in murder and forced disappearances. Being so outspoken in a country where landholding elites have traditionally governed with impunity engendered numerous death threats.

But his allegations spurred the arrest and watershed conviction of dozens of politicians and members of congress for criminal ties to the paramilitaries. A decade later Santiago Uribe is now on trial for leading a death squad known as the 12 Apostles.

During his rise, U.S. officials viewed Petro as a radical “populist” in the mold of Chavez, according to a 2006 secret U.S. Embassy cable written by then deputy chief of mission Milton Drucker and published by pro-transparency group Wikileaks. But two years later, Ambassador William Brownfield in another cable described him as “pragmatic.”

But some fellow leftists blame him for unilaterally cutting deals with President Juan Manuel Santos following his election in 2010. The same go-it-alone streak was on display as mayor of Bogota, where he earned numerous enemies by banning bull fights, cutting bus fares and transferring control of private garbage collection to a city agency. For the latter he was ousted in 2014 by the Inspector General and banned from holding public office for 15 years. But the punishment was overturned and he was reinstated a month later by a judge acting in accordance with findings by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“There’s no doubt he’s got a strong character,” said Maria Mercedes Maldonado, the candidate’s top policy adviser. “But that’s what you need if you want to risk making meaningful transformations.”

Conservative, leftist head to contentious runoff in Colombia

May 28, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The conservative protege of a powerful former president and a leftist former guerrilla who has galvanized voters with an anti-establishment message are headed for what promises to be a polarizing presidential runoff after gaining the most votes in Sunday’s election.

With almost all quick-count results in, former senator Ivan Duque was leading with 39 percent of the ballots cast, short of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a June runoff. One-time rebel and ex-Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro trailed in second place with 25 percent, edging out former Medellin Mayor Sergio Fajardo, who garnered nearly 24 percent.

Duque and Petro represent opposite ends of Colombia’s political spectrum and have presented dramatically different visions for the future of the Andean nation as it moves forward with a historic peace process with leftist rebels.

Duque is the handpicked candidate of Alvaro Uribe, the ex-president and chief critic of the nation’s 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. He is promising to amend important aspects of the accord like ensuring that drug trafficking is not an amnestied crime and blocking guerrilla leaders from political office.

Petro supports the accord and has galvanized youth voters angered by deeply entrenched corruption and income inequality. He is vowing to end Colombia’s dependence on oil exports and raise taxes on vast swaths of unproductive land in hopes of boosting agricultural production. Critics have warned his rise could push Colombia dangerously toward the left and rattle markets.

“The result was a sharp blow to traditional politics,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “With a Duque/Petro runoff, Colombians will face a starker choice than in many years.”

The election has sparked fears on both the left and right, with Duque’s critics cautioning that his presidency would be tantamount to a constitutionally barred third term for Uribe. Though hugely popular among Colombians for improving security and weakening illegal armed groups, Uribe also presided over grave human rights violations by the military.

Meanwhile, Petro and his populist “Humane Colombia” platform have drawn comparisons from critics to the late Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who Petro once admired. He brought Chavez to Colombia in 1994 shortly after the Venezuelan paratrooper was released from jail, where he was sent for staging a military coup.

Petro describes himself as a “strong adversary” of the neighboring country’s current president, Nicolas Maduro, but his early ties to Chavez have dogged him throughout the campaign. His campaign likened the comparisons to fear-mongering tactics by a traditional political class no longer able to court votes based on their hardline stance against leftist rebels.

In a speech before hundreds of supporters Sunday night, Petro said fears that he would turn Colombia into an authoritarian state where wealth is redistributed are unfounded. He said his proposals instead amount to a “democratization” of opportunities so that more Colombians can benefit from education and join the middle class.

“The nearly 5 million votes we received today are the votes of the youth, of excluded sectors far and wide across Colombia who have decided to burst in and say, ‘We are present,'” he said. Supporters waved flags emblazoned with the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle and the logo of the disbanded M-19 rebel group that Petro belonged to in his youth.

Edilia Pinzon, 55, was among those cheering on Petro. “We are making history,” said Pinzon, a street merchant. “The others who have reached power haven’t fulfilled their promises, especially to those of us with few means.”

More than 19 million voters cast ballots in the election, the highest turnout in two decades. The results were especially harsh for Fajardo, who fell less than 2 points behind Petro and failed to advance to the next round. During weeks of negotiations he tried unsuccessfully to form an alliance with like-minded centrist Humberto de la Calle, whose 2 percent vote haul would’ve been enough to push Fajardo past Petro.

Fajardo conceded defeat but showed no sign of who he’ll support in a runoff where his 4.5 million supporters are likely to be decisive. Petro and Duque differ on almost every critical issue facing Colombia: Duque favors forcibly eradicating coca crops that have skyrocketed to record levels, whereas Petro favors substitution. Historically tight relations between the U.S. and Colombia would likely remain unchanged under a Duque presidency, whereas Petro has called U.S. assistance to Colombia “help that has served for nothing.”

In regards to the peace deal, Duque has said he’ll introduce a constitutional reform mandating that drug trafficking cannot be an amnestied crime. Under the accord, guerrillas involved in drug trafficking and violent crimes during the conflict who fully confess can avoid jail time. Many Colombians consider those terms far too generous.

The FARC long funded itself by leveling a “war tax” on cocaine moving through territory it dominated, and 50 members of its leadership structure were indicted in 2006 in the U.S. on charges of running the world’s largest drug cartel.

In April, Colombian authorities arrested a former top rebel peace negotiator on a U.S. drug warrant on charges that he conspired with three others to smuggle several tons of cocaine into the U.S. with a wholesale value of $15 million.

In a victory speech to supporters little changed from his regular campaign stump, Duque stressed law and order issues that are red meat to his conservative base. He said he didn’t want to “tear up” Colombia’s peace agreement but rather make modifications that would ensure victims of the conflict achieve “peace with justice.”

“I want to be the president who unites our country and not govern with a rearview mirror,” he said. Analysts said that mostly urban voters turned off by Colombia’s polarizing politics will play kingmaker in the second round.

Political analyst Ivan Valencia, himself a former rebel, said Duque will face a steeper challenge winning over supporters of Fajardo and other centrist candidates because he’s more hostile to the peace process, while Petro from the campaign’s outset has tried to portray himself — so far with mixes success — as a moderate.

“Whichever candidate is able to move more to the center is the one who will win the election,” said Valencia. De la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator with the FARC, without specifically endorsing Petro, made an impassioned plea not to backtrack on implementation of the peace accord when a future free of armed conflict is within reach.

“The war brought us together during eight years,” he said. “And now peace is dividing us.”

Associated Press writer Cesar Garcia contributed to this report from Bogota.

Ex-guerrilla launches historic presidential bid in Colombia

January 28, 2018

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Former guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londono was once one of Colombia’s most-wanted men. Now he is a presidential contender. The graying, spectacled man best known by his alias Timochenko launched his bid Saturday to lead the government he once battled from the jungle with a celebratory campaign kickoff featuring giant posters, colorful confetti and even a catchy jingle.

“I promise to lead a government that propels the birth of a new Colombia,” he said. “A government that at last represents the interests of the poor.” Breaking with the traditional campaign launch from a five-star Bogota hotel, Timochenko initiated his presidential bid from one of the city’s poorest, most crime ridden neighborhoods in a clear nod to the underprivileged class whose votes the ex-combatants are hoping to win. Hundreds gathered in the parking lot of a community center decorated with banners featuring a smiling Timochenko sporting a neatly trimmed beard, angular, thick-rimmed glasses, and a crisp blue shirt.

“Timo president,” a new campaign song played from loudspeakers. “For the people.” The campaign is another historic step in transforming the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia into a political party following the signing of a 2016 peace accord ending more than a half-century of conflict. The nation’s once-largest rebel group is now known as the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, keeping its Spanish FARC acronym, and presenting a slate of former guerrillas as candidates.

Yet even as the ex-combatants ditch rebel green fatigues for simple white T-shirts emblazoned with the party’s red rose emblem there have been fresh reminders that the road to peace is filled with hazard.

Two ex-combatants were recently shot to death while campaigning for a FARC congressional candidate in northwestern Colombia. In total, 45 former FARC members or their relatives have been reported killed, according to a recent government report. Many fear a repeat of events in the 1980s, when scores of leftist politicians affiliated with the Patriotic Union party were gunned down.

On the same day as the FARC campaign’s inauguration at least four police officers were killed and another 42 injured when a homemade bomb exploded outside a police station in the city of Barranquilla, underscoring security challenges that remain even after the peace signing.

“From here on is going to be a huge test of whether the FARC’s gamble is correct: That they can practice politics without fear of being killed,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Like Timochenko, the candidates include ex-guerrillas who have been convicted in Colombian courts for their part in massacres and kidnappings and whose new role as politicians has irked many Colombians. The U.S. State Department has offered a $5 million reward for anyone who helps secure Timochenko’s capture and accused him of directing the FARC’s cocaine trafficking and “the murders of hundreds of people.”

The budding politicians will still have to go before a special peace tribunal, but so long as they fully confess their crimes they are unlikely to serve any jail time. Formed in the 1960s and inspired by Marxist principles, the ex-combatants are vowing to tackle Colombia’s entrenched inequalities, though their initial proposals haven’t been as radical as many of the country’s conservatives have warned. In community meetings and ads leading up to the launch, candidates have talked about creating a subway in Bogota and a basic monthly income, an idea currently being debated throughout Europe.

“They are not proposals of a socialist, Soviet or Chavista model,” said Ivan Cepeda, a trusted conduit of both the FARC and the government, referring to the Venezuelan socialist model promoted by the late Hugo Chavez.

FARC leader and candidate Griselda Lobo, alias Sandra Ramirez, characterized the party’s ideology as being based on “principles of unity, solidarity and honesty” rather than attaching themselves to a particular political philosophy.

“That is what has characterized us as guerrillas and that is what we will bring society,” she said. The ex-combatants are guaranteed 10 seats in congress as a condition of the peace agreement, but could capture more depending on how many votes they receive. Though Timochenko’s presidential bid is widely considered a long shot, the former guerrillas are entering politics at a time when polls show Colombians are frustrated with corruption and give the more established political parties dismal approval ratings.

“That group of thieves needs to get out,” one man told a contingent of FARC supporters recently canvassing a poor Bogota neighborhood. The FARC’s entry into politics thus far has been emblematic of the challenges Colombia still faces in implementing the peace accord. One of the biggest concerns has been security, as an estimated 10,000 fighters return to life as civilians. Some are going home to families and communities who despise the FARC. Many Colombians are reluctant to quickly turn a page on a conflict that left at least 250,000 dead, another 60,000 missing and more than 7 million displaced.

Lawmaker Edward Rodriguez said the political party founded by former president and peace accord critic Alvaro Uribe would file a complaint with the International Criminal Court to try and halt Timochenko’s candidacy.

“It’s an affront to Colombians,” he told reporters at a small protest in Bogota’s historic district where demonstrators held up signs reminding passersby of crimes committed by the FARC. The FARC campaign kickoff drew retirees, housewives and construction workers who live in Ciudad Bolivar and said that despite the FARC’s legacy as a violent guerrilla group they were nonetheless curious to hear their proposals.

“They are human beings and like all human beings make mistakes,” said Marco Tulio, 65, a former railroad worker. “Today they are reflecting and I think it’s magnificent that people listen to them.”

Colombia: Bombing at mall kills 3, including French woman

June 18, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A bomb rocked one of the busiest shopping centers in Colombia’s capital Saturday, killing three people, including a 23-year-old French woman, and injuring nine others. Witnesses told of being evacuated from movie theaters and stores after the blast in a second-floor women’s restroom at the upscale Centro Andino in the heart of Bogota’s tourist district. Ambulances and firetrucks rushed to the scene and the injured were taken to a hospital, where two later died.

Police said a bomb from an undetermined explosive had caused the destruction. Mayor Enrique Penalosa called it a “cowardly terrorist bombing,” and attention immediately focused on the National Liberation Army, which is the last rebel movement still active in Colombia. The group, known as the ELN, carried out a spate of recent attacks in Bogota, but leaders denied involvement in the latest bombing.

Penalosa said the French victim, identified as Julie Huynh, had been in Colombia the past six months volunteering at a school in a poor neighborhood. He said she was preparing to return to France in the coming days in the company of her mother, who was with her in Bogota.

The ELN, which is engaged in long-running peace talks with the government, rejected accusations it was behind the attack. “We ask for seriousness from people making unfounded and reckless accusations,” ELN negotiators at peace talks taking place in neighboring Ecuador said on Twitter. “This is the way people are trying to tear up the peace process.”

The ELN in February claimed responsibility for a bombing near Bogota’s bullring that killed one police officer and injured 20 other people. But the group said it doesn’t target civilians. Penalosa urged residents of Bogota’s wealthier districts to be on high alert but cautioned that there was no hint of other attacks being planned. Police said they were still trying to determine what the device that exploded was made of.

The government last year reached a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which was much bigger than the ELN. Some analysts attribute an uptick in violence in Colombian cities to the ELN’s desire to wrest concessions from the government at the negotiating table.

Bogota has seen dramatic improvement in security over the past decade as the country’s long-running conflict has wound down. But the capital remains vulnerable to attacks as residents have let down their guard

Still, the Andino shopping center would seem a difficult target. All vehicles entering the parking garage are screened by bomb-sniffing dogs and security guards are present throughout the mall. President Juan Manuel Santos was expected to visit the mall to personally oversee the investigation and in a message posted on Twitter he expressed his solidarity with the victims.

Colombia: 193 dead after rivers overflow, toppling homes

April 02, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — An avalanche of water from three overflowing rivers tore through a small city in Colombia while people slept, destroying homes, sweeping away cars and killing at least 193 unsuspecting residents.

The incident triggered by a sudden, heavy rainstorm happened around midnight Friday and into early Saturday in Mocoa, a provincial capital of about 40,000 tucked between mountains near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador.

Muddy water quickly surged through the city’s streets, toppling homes, ripping trees from their roots and carrying a torrent of rocks and debris downstream. Many residents did not have enough time to flee.

According to the Red Cross, 202 people were injured and 220 believed missing. President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency and said the death toll will likely rise but warned against speculating about how many are dead. Late Saturday, he said the toll had reached 193.

“We don’t know how many there are going to be,” he said of the fatalities when he arrived at the disaster zone to oversee rescue efforts. “We’re still looking.” Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and 7-month-old baby when he was awoken by the sound of neighbors banging on his door. He quickly grabbed his family and fled up a small mountain amid the cries of people in panic.

“There was no time for anything,” he said. Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as rocks, trees and wooden planks ripped through their neighborhood below. They waited there until daylight, when members of the military helped them down.

When he reached the site of his home Saturday, nothing his family left behind remained. “Thank God we have our lives,” he said. As rescuers assessed the full scope of the damage, many residents in Mocoa continued a desperate search for friends and relatives.

Oscar Londono tried in vain throughout the night to reach his wife’s parents, whose home is right along one of the flooded rivers. He decided it was too dangerous to try to reach them in the dark. So he called over and over by phone but got no answer.

Once the sun began to rise he started walking toward their house but found all the streets he usually takes missing. As he tried to orient himself he came across the body of a young woman dressed in a mini-skirt and black blouse.

He checked her pulse but could not find one. “There were bodies all over,” he said. When he finally reached the neighborhood where his in-laws live he found “just mud and rocks.” Rescue workers with the military oriented him toward the mountain, where he found his relatives camped with other survivors.

“To know they were alive,” he said, “it was a reunion of tears.” Santos said at least 22 people were seriously injured and being airlifted to nearby cities, as the small regional hospital in Mocoa struggled to cope with the magnitude of the crisis. Herman Granados, an anesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims, cleaning wounds. He said the hospital doesn’t have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients and was quickly running out of its supply.

Some of the hospital workers came to help even while there are own relatives remained missing. “Under the mud,” Granados said, “I am sure there are many more.” The Red Cross planned to set up a special unit in Mocoa Saturday afternoon to help relatives search for their loved ones.

“In this moment, it’s chaos,” said Oscar Forero, a spokesman with the Colombian Red Cross. “There are many people missing.” Rescuers suspended the search late Saturday night due to darkness but vowed to continue at first light Sunday.

Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March. With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, he said local and national authorities need to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy.

The crisis is likely to be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in recent Colombian history, though the Andean nation has experienced even more destructive catastrophes. Nearly 25,000 people were killed in 1985 after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and triggered a deluge of mud and debris that buried the town of Armero.

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