TIME Colombia

Colombian Rebels Invite Miss Universe to Peace Talks

The 63rd Annual Miss Universe Pageant - Show
Troy Rizzo—FilmMagic/Getty Images Paulina Vega prior to being crowned Miss Universe at the 63rd Annual Miss Universe Pageant in Miami on Jan. 25, 2015

Newly crowned Paulina Vega has yet to reply to the invitation

Colombian rebels have invited Miss Universe Paulina Vega to attend the group’s ongoing peace talks with the country’s government, according to a statement on its website.

“Be assured that we are willing to address your concerns and consider your views a valuable contribution to peace,” said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC). “We are waiting for your confirmation and your contribution.”

Newly crowned Vega, 22 — a former Miss Colombia — has yet to reply to the invitation, though she had previously expressed interest in seeing a resolution to the conflict between the government and the rebels.

Members of FARC, a leftist group, have been fighting an armed guerrilla battle against Colombian authorities for more than 50 years in a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people. In 2012, leaders of the group began negotiations to resolve the conflict in a still ongoing summit in Havana.

TIME

Morning Must Reads: January 26

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Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

‘Historic’ Storm Headed for Northeast U.S.

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Miss Colombia Paulina Vega Named Miss Universe

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TIME Colombia

Watch a Fireworks Factory Explode in Colombia

One person was reported slightly injured

A cameraman who was blown off his feet was able to capture some pretty dramatic images of an explosion in a fireworks factory near Granada, Colombia.

Five warehouses used to store gunpowder were destroyed in the explosion and the resulting fire, according to Colombian authorities. A person was slightly injured and roads were closed, causing major delays along the routes southeast from the country’s capital, Bogota.

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Colombia

Colombian General’s Capture Puts FARC Rebels on the Defensive

Members of the Colombian Army patrol the sites of Las Mercedes towship, Choco Department, west of Colombia, on Nov. 18, 2014.
Luis Eduardo Noriega—EPA Members of the Colombian Army patrol the sites of Las Mercedes towship, Choco Department, west of Colombia, on Nov. 18, 2014.

President Juan Manuel Santos's decision to suspended negotiations with the Marxist rebels after they detained a senior military officer has forced the FARC to backtrack, with the group promising to release its high-profile captive

It seemed like the tactical error of a raw recruit, not a Colombian army general who is a former top commander of the military’s anti-kidnapping unit. As he met with villagers in rebel-infested territory on Nov. 16, Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate was dressed in Bermuda shorts, unarmed and without bodyguards. Marxist guerrillas pounced and hauled the general into the jungle.

The consequences of Alzate’s Gomer Pyle-like blunder were immediate. Accusing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, of kidnapping the general as well as two of his aides, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a halt to peace talks with the rebels to end Colombia’s 50-year-old war. “The negotiations are suspended,” an angry Santos declared after learning of Alzate’s capture.

The timing was terrible. The peace talks, which began in Havana, Cuba, two years ago have resulted in far more progress than three previous efforts to disarm the FARC. The two sides have reached agreements on land reform, political participation for disarmed rebels, and on ending drug trafficking. The momentum led to predictions that a final accord could be signed next year.

General Ruben Dario Alzate, who heads the Titan task force in the western department of Choco, in an undated handout photo released Nov. 17, 2014.
ReutersGeneral Ruben Dario Alzate.

But Alzate’s capture brought the process to a halt. Part of the blame lies with the President, who rejected rebel calls for a bilateral ceasefire. He opposed a temporary truce because in the past the FARC has used such time-outs to recruit and train rebel foot soldiers. As a result, even as the two sides met in Cuba, the war in Colombia continued unabated. Since the peace talks began, more than 1,000 army troops and guerrillas have been killed and thousands more have been injured, according to Colombia’s Defense Ministry.

Santos’s excuse for suspending the talks also rang hollow. He cried foul because, at his government’s insistence, the FARC in 2012 promised to stop kidnappings as a pre-condition for launching the negotiations. In fact, the FARC pledged to stop abducting civilians for ransom—but the rebel group considers army personnel fair game and calls Alzate a prisoner of war.

“It makes no sense for the government to declare a war without quarter and then insist that [the FARC] must not lay a hand on its soldiers and officers,” FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez told reporters in Havana after Alzate’s capture.

But the real loser from the whole episode seems to be the FARC. While Alzate was an unexpected war trophy—the rebels had never before captured such a high-ranking military officer—the operation proved to be a grave political mistake. Most Colombians despise the FARC, which has long funded its war through drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion and has been blacklisted by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group. Grabbing the general, who at the time was discussing community development projects for jungle villages, seemed to many like another slap in the face to the cause of peace.

“It strengthened the government’s hand,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “The repudiation for the kidnapping was so widespread that it put the FARC on the defensive.”

So much so that the FARC is apparently reversing course.

On Wednesday, Rodolfo Benitez, a representative of the government of Cuba, which along with Chile, Norway, and Venezuela, is acting as a facilitator for the peace talks, announced that the FARC had agreed to free Alzate, his two aides, and two other recently captured soldiers. Santos, in turn, has vowed to re-start the negotiations upon their release which is expected to take place within a few days.

For all its drama, the Alzate incident shows that the FARC, which has been severely weakened by a long-running military offensive, is serious about demobilizing, says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO. “They could either keep Alzate or keep the negotiations going – but not both,” Isacson said. “This shows how much the FARC cares about the peace talks.”

TIME Colombia

Colombian Military Hunts for Kidnapped General

COLOMBIA-ARMY-FARC-KIDNNAPING-ALZATE
Colombian Army Press Office/AFP/Getty Images Colombian Army General Rubén Darío Alzate

The kidnapping has led to a suspension in peace talks

The Colombian military has mobilized across the country’s forests in pursuit of a general abducted by kidnappers thought to be leftist rebels.

The kidnapping of General Rubén Darío Alzate, along with two others, has led to a suspension in peace talks between the Colombian government and the Farc rebels that have been fighting the country’s regime for decades, the Guardian reports.

“It is time for them [the Farc] to show their commitment to the process,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “I demand that the Farc show their will for peace through actions and not just through words.”

Alzate was with another military official and a lawyer in a remote city in the country’s northwestern region when the three were taken.

[Guardian]

TIME Coffee

Starbucks Unveils First Location in Colombia

Inside A Starbucks Store And The "Returning Moms" Program Ahead Of International Women's Day
Bloomberg/Getty Images

And will open 50 more within the next 5 years

Starbucks is spreading its corporate empire to a country already known for the strength of its coffee.

After 43 years of roasting and selling Colombian coffee, Starbucks opened its first store in Bogota, fully aware that it will have to compete with a number of domestic chains in a country with one of the world’s most vibrant coffee cultures. The new coffeehouse is bigger and more fancy than your typical Starbucks—the three-floored café has comfortable armchairs and elaborate wall art. The new branch will be the first anywhere to sell exclusively locally-sourced Starbucks coffee, the company said in a statement.

Starbucks “is looking to achieve a leadership position in the [Colombian] market,” said a statement by Nutresa, one of the two Latin American companies Starbucks is partnering with in the new venture.

The U.S. company’s main competitor will be Juan Valdez, a multinational chain that also sells 100% Colombian coffee. Juan Valdez seems to welcome the competition, though; Alejadra Londono, head of international sales, told the New York Daily News that “there’s room in the market for us both.”

Yet with Starbucks planning to open 50 stores in the market within the next five years, it remains to be seen whether Londono’s assured words will stick.

TIME

Feel Good Friday: 11 Fun Photos to Start Your Weekend

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TIME World Cup

World Cup Cheat Sheet: No Tim Howard, But Some Great Games Ahead

Brazil FIFA World Cup 2014-Argentina v Switzerland-Round of 16
Reinaldo Coddou—H./Pixath/SIPA Messi dribbles at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, Brazil on July 1, 2014.

Bummer about the U.S., isn’t it? Tim Howard deserved another game just on his performance alone. But let’s be honest, you can’t suddenly start attacking after you’re down 2-0 and expect to win. Lack of attack is what often happens as underdog teams get deeper into the World Cup. But the quarterfinals promise a lot more attacking, and are well worth watching, even if you’re just a casual fan.

France vs. Germany (Friday, 12 noon ET): No European team ever lacks motivation to play against Germany. The grudge list of history is too long. But for France, it’s more about redeeming the reputation of Les Bleus, which the team trashed in the 2010 World Cup, following a player revolt against Raymond Domenech, the coach from another planet. Relatively speaking, the current French squad is playing blissfully. Coach Didier Deschamps has a lot of buttons to push, from precocious Paul Pogba and the vibrant Mathieu Valbuena in the midfield, Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud up front and the world-class Hugo Lloris in goal. Germany has looked less impressive every game so far, gasping for air against the suffocating Algerian pressure until Andre Schuerrle rescued die Mannschaft in extra time. Germany coach Joachim Loew is probably busy tinkering with the parts of his Bayern Munich-centered team —Thomas Mueller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm— as well as the lethargic Mesut Özil, to get them to produce more power. Right now Loew has a Mercedes sedan and he needs an F-1 model. The Germans, as you know, are very good mechanics. This game is going to be about French style vs. German muscle, and style is looking good.

Brazil vs. Colombia (Friday 4 p.m.): Which team would you rather be coaching? The glamorous home side, the famous Seleção of Brazil, or the guys from the country nearby? Brazil coach Big Phil Scolari’s team was on the verge of collectively wetting its pants against Chile. The pressure to win is so great that Scolari had to bring in a psychologist to consult some emotion-wracked players after the narrow penalty-kick shootout win over the Chileans. But if you are Colombia’s coach José Pekerman, you can just tell your team, “Take it to’em, boys.” Colombia is a team playing without its leading scorer but, more importantly, playing without fear. And it has the wondrous James Rodriguez in the middle—the Monaco man’s price has skyrocketed during this tournament— creating highlight reel goals. Colombia will feel free to go at Brazil’s vulnerable defense, which features wingbacks like Marcelo who just hate hanging around their own end of the field. Brazil will also be missing Luis Gustavo, who has held its midfield together. Brazil’s offense, run by the endlessly inventive Neymar, lacks any cohesive imagination in its attack. There’s no beauty in Brazil’s beautiful game at moment. The Seleção had better find some, or the party could well end this weekend.

Argentina vs. Belgium (Saturday 12 p.m.): Game after game, Argentina has faced opponents trying to frustrate its attack at all costs. The Swiss erected massed ranks of defenders in front of its goal like so many Alps, and waited to counterattack. It’s a strategy that almost worked but for another burst of genius from Lionel Messi to set up Angel di Maria’s winning goal. Belgium, like Switzerland, is a small country, but unlike the Swiss, the Belgians are loaded with talent. They are here to play, not defend. Against the U.S., midfielder Kevin de Bruyne spent 68% of the game in the American end of the field, leading endless attacks. So did Eden Hazard, whose penchant for getting behind defenses should worry Argentina. Then again, if Messi is on your team, you can relax a little bit, knowing that he’s capable of miracles. Not that Argentina should need them. In a wide-open game, with players like di Maria and Sergio Aguero surging forward, this match could restore the high scoring that marked the group stage, and should restore Argentina as a favorite to win it all.

Netherlands vs. Costa Rica (Saturday 4 p.m.): The Ticos are one of the last teams that anyone would figure to reach the quarters, but its qualifying and World Cup run has been impressive. Costa Rica beat Uruguay, Italy and Greece, and drew with England. Led by Bryan Ruiz, who only recently had a hard time getting a game with Fulham, the Ticos have also handled Mexico, a team that gave the Oranje fits in the round of 16. Still, any team featuring Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder is going to be a handful, as Spain learned. Each player has the ability to change a game in an instant, although Robben’s conspicuous diving—it ought to be a red card offense— is hardly recommended viewing. Don’t expect the Ticos to be awed by this much talent; do expect them to be done in by it.

 

TIME Colombia

Colombia’s Election Hinges On How To End War

COLOMBIA-ELECTION-DEBATE-SANTOS-ZULUAGA
Guillermo Legaria—AFP/Getty Images Colombia's President and presidential candidate Juan Manuel Santos (R) and Colombian presidential candidate for the Democratic Center party Oscar Ivan Zuluaga talk during a TV debate in Bogota, on June 9, 2014.

The battle between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and opposition candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga has become a referendum on how to bring an end to fifty years of conflict with Marxist guerillas

In a gripping TV spot, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos looks straight into the camera and bellows: “No more war! No more war! No more war!”

That sums up Santos’s message ahead of Colombia’s June 15 presidential runoff. If he wins another four-year term, Santos has claimed he will sign a peace treaty with Marxist rebels and bring an end to the hemisphere’s oldest guerrilla conflict. So what’s not to like?

Plenty, according to Colombian voters. Opposition candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a conservative former Treasury minister, has been gaining support based on his harsh criticism of ongoing peace talks between the guerrillas and the Santos government. Referring to the negotiations when he launched his presidential bid last year, Zuluaga declared: “We have to end this and end it now.”

Zuluaga topped Santos in the May 25 first round of balloting, though he failed to win more than half the votes required to avoid a runoff. The final pre-election polls released June 6 provided little clarity over what will happen on Sunday: One survey showed Santos up by five points, another showed Zuluaga leading by eight.

Santos had been the early favorite based on Colombia’s strong economic performance and progress at the peace talks. But with his aristocratic pedigree—Santos’s great uncle also served as president—he can be a stiff campaigner. His biggest problem, however, is that he has staked his re-election on making peace with a guerrilla army many voters see as narco-terrorists.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, funds its war through kidnapping, extortion, illegal gold mining and drug trafficking and has committed myriad war atrocities. Now that the army has the upper hand on the battlefield, there is little stomach among Colombians for offering the FARC concessions at the peace table, such as allowing demobilized rebels to serve in Congress or to avoid prison for war crimes.

“Everyone wants peace, but not a humiliating peace. Not a peace that benefits a terrorist group that did not win this war,” said Gen. Jaime Ruiz, who heads an association of retired military officers.

Santos is no peacenik. He previously served as defense minister for President Álvaro Uribe, who launched a military campaign that halved the number of FARC troops to about 8,000 fighters. That turned Uribe into Colombia’s most popular politician and his endorsement helped Santos win the 2010 election. But instead of copying Uribe’s script, Santos surprised the country by opening negotiations with the FARC in Havana, Cuba, in Nov. 2012, rather than pressing his advantage.

It was a logical move given the FARC’s weakened state. In fact, the two sides have made far more progress than in previous talks held in the 1980s and 90s. But because the war is mainly fought in remote rural areas, most voters are disengaged from the conflict and put peace talks low on their list of priorities, behind issues like unemployment and health care.

In speeches, Santos reminds them that ending the war would free up billions of dollars for just such development. And he’s not backing down ahead of the election; on Tuesday, his government announced the opening of exploratory peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the smaller of the country’s two remaining rebel groups. Yet his pivot from war to peace has some Colombians feeling betrayed – and chief among them is his former boss.

Uribe, who served two presidential terms, is banned by the Constitution from running for a third. So instead, he formed a right-wing opposition party that is backing Zuluaga. In March, Uribe won a seat to the Senate and last month his support helped seal Zuluaga’s first-round victory. Indeed, some see the race as a contest between Santos and Uribe.

“Santos is from family of presidents and has his own political stature,” said Maria Victoria Llorente, who heads the Bogota think tank Ideas for Peace. “But Zuluaga doesn’t. He really could turn out to be a puppet for Uribe.”

Zuluaga insists that he’s no figurehead. He now says that if elected he will continue negotiating if the FARC agrees to a series of conditions — such as halting the recruitment of child warriors, the laying of landmines and attacks on civilians.

These demands sound reasonable. But Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, says such conditions could be a deal-breaker. For one thing, they would be extremely difficult to verify. What’s more, the two sides are not negotiating surrender terms. Though the FARC has been battered, it has options. The steady flow of income from its criminal activities could keep the guerrillas fighting for years.

“They are still out there. They can still cause damage and that’s the problem,” Col. Eduardo González, commander of the army’s 2nd Mobile Brigade, told TIME as he sat in a military bunker in a red zone in southern Colombia. “Wars are not brought to an end by soldiers. They are ended by politicians.”

Colombians must now decide which candidate is up to the task.

TIME Colombia

A Day in The Life of An Illegal Miner in Colombia

Nearly half of Colombia's 14,000 mines operate without proper permits, in dire conditions that pose extreme risks to the workers there

In the video above, 21 year-old Anderson Gomez talked with AFP about his daily work routine, which includes carrying more than 175 pounds of rocks and walking bent over in narrow tunnels 650 feet underground, where temperatures can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Gomez is one of hundreds of illegal miners in Segovia, a village in the Antioquia region of Colombia.

“It’s very hard work but it is an adventure. Not everyone has done this,” Gomez said.

The first time Gomez worked in this illegal mine he only made it halfway through the climb, he says. Now he has learned how to pace himself in mines where the air can be filled with toxic gas.

In illegal mines, the work has to be done by hand, said Hernando Jaramillo, who owns the mine where Gomez works. “The illegal worker works harder because he does it all with his shoulders, his back. A mechanised mine has carts and lifts to extract the material,” he said.

Gomez now earns up to 630 dollars a month, nearly twice the minimum wage, according to AFP.

A large percentage of Colombia’s gold output comes from illegal mines, which are often under guerrilla control where precarious conditions lead to frequent deadly accidents.

This year, 30 people died in accidents linked to illegal mining activity in Colombia, according to Reuters.

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