TIME Japan

This Week’s Foreign Policy Must-Reads

From yakuza battles to Russian food policy

A roundup of the most intelligent takes on global affairs this week

The Coming Yakuza War—The Daily Beast

Japan’s organized crime groups, known collectively as the “yakuza,” … are different from the mafias we know about in the West. They are treated as if they were some sort of controlled substance, dangerous but accepted within certain parameters… The Yamaguchi-gumi isn’t only Japan’s largest organized crime group; it’s also a well-known Japanese corporation… They are Goldman Sachs with guns.

Only in Japan: The “gangster company man.”

Pablo Escobar Will Never Die – GQ

Alive, Pablo was a murderer and a philanthropist, a kidnapper and a congressman, a populist antihero who corrupted the institutions that tried to contain him and slaughtered thousands of compatriots who got in his way. Safely in the grave, he has spawned an entertainment-industrial complex—movies, books, soap operas, souvenirs—his legacy as impossible to repress as the frisky hippos he left behindThe commodification of Pablo is an awkward development for many Colombians, having struggled for a generation to overcome the collective trauma he visited on them.

Some say you don’t really die until the last time someone says your name. If so, Pablo Escobar will be with us for a long time to come.

The Lessons of Anwar al-Awlaki – New York Times Magazine

Some government agencies have tried to boil the process of radicalization down to a few clear-cut and inevitable stages, but in reality, the journey to extremism is a messy, human affair that defies such predictability. This was true of Awlaki’s acolytes; it was also true of the great radicalizer himself. Before Awlaki could talk anyone else into violent jihad, he had to talk himself into it. One giant step came as the unintended result of surveillance by the United States government.

Here’s a question: Does law enforcement tend to overestimate its ability to use surveillance to understand a person, his motivation, his capabilities, and his intent?

The Other France – New Yorker

France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants… [After the Charlie Hebdo massacre,] there was a widespread feeling, in France and elsewhere, that the killings were somehow related to the banlieues. But an exact connection is not easy to establish. Although these alienated communities are increasingly prone to anti-Semitism, the profiles of French jihadists don’t track closely with class; many have come from bourgeois families. The sense of exclusion in the banlieues is an acute problem that the republic has neglected for decades, but more jobs and better housing won’t put an end to French jihadism.

There is nothing more dangerous for the internal stability of France (and many other European countries) than the isolation of its minority enclaves, the violence that isolation can inspire, and the rise of political parties who win votes by exploiting the resulting fear and anger.

Why Russia is So Afraid of French Cheese—The Atlantic

Russia’s Federal Customs Service has drafted legislation classifying banned foreign foods as ‘strategically important.’ Until now, that label only applied to weapons, explosives, poisons, and radioactive materials. If it becomes law, the new classification will mean those caught importing banned fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry can face up to seven years in prison. French cheese is apparently now just as dangerous to the security of the state as polonium, uranium, assault weapons, and dirty bombs.

Maybe NATO should load brie into warheads and rain “fromage fury” on Moscow.

TIME Colombia

Venezuela and Colombia Vow to Cooperate in Border Dispute

Venezuelan soldiers blocked the river crossing on Wednesday morning

(CARTAGENA, Colombia) — The foreign ministers of Colombia and Venezuela promised to increase cooperation Wednesday following talks to ease heightened tensions caused by the closure of a major border crossing and a weeklong crackdown on Colombian migrants and smugglers.

Diplomats left the meeting in this Caribbean coastal resort without announcing a decision to re-open the border crossing or end the deportations from Venezuela, only saying that defense officials from the two countries would talk in the coming days to form a joint plan for border security.

Meanwhile, in the Colombian city of Cucuta, residents complained of long gas lines as Venezuela’s security offensive cuts off trade, legal and otherwise, between the two nations.

Across the border, scores of Colombians packed their belongings into suitcases and prepared for an army escort out of Venezuela, joining the estimated 1,000 of their compatriots who have already been deported.

Donamaris Ramirez, the mayor of Cucuta, says he plans to order gas stations to remain open 24 hours to attend to demand normally met by curbside smugglers who purchase gasoline in Venezuela at less than a penny a gallon and resell it for huge profits in Colombia.

With two main border crossings closed, the underground economy has come to a halt, satisfying Venezuelan officials who have long blamed transnational mafias for widespread shortages but also jeopardizing the livelihood of tens of thousands of poor Colombians who depend on the black market.

On Tuesday, a group of 100 Colombians fled the border town of San Antonio del Tachira by wading across a knee-deep river with their possession, everything from TVs to doors, slung across their backs.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos offered to help returning Colombians find work during a visit Wednesday to an emergency shelter in Cucuta overrun with deportees, and promised deported citizens a subsidy of about $80 to help them land on their feet.

Earlier, in a speech in Bogota, he ran through a series of economic and crime statistics, everything from projections Venezuela’s economy will shrink 7 percent this year to widespread shortages comparable to those found in war zones like Syria, in a sharp retort to the aggressive rhetoric coming from Caracas in recent days

“Venezuela’s problems are made in Venezuela, they’re not made in Colombia or other parts of the world,” Santos told a forum of former presidents from around the world.

While some 5 million Colombians live in Venezuela, the security offensive has focused on a few towns near the border where Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro blames migrant gangs for rampant crime and smuggling that has caused widespread shortages.

The crisis was triggered a week ago when gunmen Maduro claimed were paramilitaries linked to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe shot and wounded three army officers on an anti-smuggling patrol.

The socialist leader has vowed to keep two normally busy international bridges closed, and possibly extend restrictions to other transit crossings until Colombian authorities help bring order to the porous, 1,400-mile (2,200 kilometer) border. A state of emergency allowing the government to restrict peoples’ movement for up to 60 days has been declared in six cities.

Venezuelan soldiers blocked the river crossing on Wednesday morning, but were helping Colombian residents of a slum that is slated for demolition leave Venezuela via a legal bridge crossing.

A group of about 300 Colombians staged a protest Wednesday in front of Venezuela’s consulate in Bogota.

Maduro has angrily denied the denunciations of mistreatment, saying that Venezuelans are unfairly paying the price for Colombia’s disregard of its poor.

“Santos has the gall today to seek respect for Colombians. Who is treating Colombians with disrespect? Those that expel them from their country, deny them work and housing and don’t provide education?” Maduro said on state TV late Tuesday.

The Colombians who abandoned their cinder block homes Tuesday in a riverside shantytown community known as La Invasion — “the Invasion” — said they were given 72 hours to pack up and leave by Venezuela’s army. Officials say the slum has become a haven for paramilitaries and contraband traffickers.

In recent decades, many Colombians have moved to Venezuela, either fleeing from conflict or seeking better opportunities in an oil rich country that was long the wealthier of the two.

Critics have accused Maduro of trying to distract Venezuelans from soaring inflation and empty supermarket shelves.

Under the state of emergency, constitutional guarantees such as the right to protest, carry weapons or move freely will be restricted for 60 days.

“I’m sorry if this is creating a humanitarian crisis in Cucuta, but we are only responsible for protecting people who are Venezuelan,” National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello said. “Colombia needs to take care of its own problems.”


AP writers Fabiola Sanchez contributed from Caracas, Yhoger Contreras from San Antonio del Tachira and Cesar Garcia and Libardo Cardona from Bogota, Colombia

TIME Innovation

These Are the 3 Most Important Trends of the Next Decade

The cable cars in use in the city slums in Medellin, Colombia on January 5, 2013.
Kaveh Kazemi—Getty Images The cable cars in use in the city slums in Medellin, Colombia on January 5, 2013.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

We can’t continue to delude ourselves that things will get back to “normal” someday

Ten years ago, who would have predicted the rise of the sharing economy, the omnipresence of social media, or that selfies would take the world by storm? And given the rapid pace of change our world continues to experience, it is almost impossible to predict what our world will look like in 2024.

But that was our mission of sorts at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, which was celebrating its 10 years of thought-provoking, and world-changing, discussions.

In a conversation with the Washington Post’s Phillip Kennicott, I made the case for why building resilience is among the most important priorities of our lifetime, provoked by the three trends I believe will most shape the world for the next decade:

The first is the rapid, astonishing pace of urbanization. With a global population headed towards 9 billion by mid-century, people will be mostly located in cities, in increasingly fragile ecosystems.

The second is climate change, which, over the past decade, has emerged as an undeniable threat to cities, institutions, and businesses. For example, hot weather kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined, and experts predict that summer heat waves will only worsen, leading to even more illnesses and deaths.

The third trend is globalization. Vulnerability in one place leads to vulnerability in another. Economic shocks and infectious diseases travel quickly, without mind for man-made borders. This will only continue to intensify.

These three factors form a crucial social-ecological-economic nexus, one that has huge—and, frankly, frightening—implications, especially for cities. The shocks and disruptions we experience today, like floods, wildfires, acts of terror, and pandemics, will only get more frequent, more intense, and more dangerous for more people. At the same time, cities also must confront chronic stresses, like crime, which develop more slowly than shocks but are equally devastating over time.

We can’t continue to delude ourselves that things will get back to “normal” someday. They won’t. It’s a losing game to continue to devote our resources to recovering from disasters that, by now, we should know to expect.

And it’s not just about keeping bad things out. Resilience ensures that a city —or other entity—can continue to operate at its highest function on its best and its worst days. It’s a lever for unlocking greater economic development and business investment, as well as improved social services and more broadly shared prosperity.

This is what I call “the resilience dividend.” It has two components:

  • First, it’s the difference between how disruptive a shock or stress might be to a city that has made resilience investments, compared to the degree of disruption the same city would face if it hadn’t invested in building its resilience.
  • Second, it’s the package of co-benefits that investing in resilience can yield to a city—job creation, economic opportunity, social cohesion, and equity, to name a few.

Let me offer an example from my book, The Resilience Dividend, to be released this November.

You may know that Medellin, Colombia was once the most dangerous city in Latin America. For decades it was trapped in a downward spiral of violence and poverty, amid daily tragedies of murder, corruption, drugs, absence of services, and economic disparity.

In the 1990s, the city began to test new ideas and investments to create more resilient communities. One such focus was on mobility and transportation, ensuring that its most vulnerable and impacted communities were better integrated into the fabric of this city, with real access to work and to a variety of services including community centers, public art, health care facilities, and schools. To do this, they developed the first urban “cable car,” or gondola lift, which connects to the city’s subway system. They also built an escalator system climbing the hill to isolated communities, cutting the walk time from the hillside to the economic center of the city from about thirty minutes to about six.

These systems also serve a crucial function as an evacuation route in times of disaster, such as a mudslide or an earthquake, but are also integrated the poorest and most isolated communities into the city center, which has helped to cut down on crime.

Medellin is just one of many cities around the world working to build resilience.

Indeed, last year, The Rockefeller Foundation launched our largest resilience effort yet—100 Resilient Cities, a $100 million initiative to help 100 cities around the world increase their resilience to shocks and stresses, leveraging public finance and the resources of the private sector.

Thirty-two cities have been named so far, with the next group to come later this year: The competition for the second round opens to cities on July 23rd. The cities receive four types of support:

First, support to hire and empower a city Chief Resilience Officer, or CRO, a central point of contact within each city to coordinate, oversee and prioritize resilience activities.

Second, cities receive support to develop a resilience strategy that analyzes and mitigates their vulnerabilities and build on their unique strengths.

Third, cities in this network have access to a platform of services leveraging resources significantly beyond our own to support solutions that integrate big data analytics, technology, resilience land use planning, infrastructure design, and new financing and insurance products.

And fourth, cities become members of the 100 Resilient Cities Network, a peer-to-peer network that shares new knowledge and resilience best practices and fosters new connections and partnerships.

We believe that by creating a market for resilience products and services in 100 cities, more civil society and governments, and more private sector companies, will be incentivized to push the limits of technology and innovation, which will benefit all cities.

For example, exciting resilience innovations have come out of the 3-D printing revolution. In New York Harbor, we are rebuilding after Sandy with a new system to create pilings to replace the aging and cracking ones that support the city’s docks and piers. They’re produced by a massive 3-D printer using “digital concrete,” a new material that is more resilient because it is more flexible, adaptive and strong—and far more cost-effective to build.

That’s just one example of the kind of resilience service helping cities get an economic leg up while better preparing for what’s next. A community that takes advantage of these innovations can deliver incredible benefits for all its citizens, including its poorest and most vulnerable members—not only in times of distress, but each and every day.

Whether the next shock hits today or in 2024, the resilience dividend can help cities to survive, and even thrive, despite the shocks that come their way. The next ten years will see more of what were thought to be only 100-year occurrences.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Colombia

This Mother and Baby Survived a Plane Crash and Five Days Lost in the Colombian Jungle

“It’s a miracle”

A mother and her baby have miraculously been found alive five days after their plane crashed in thick jungle in northwestern Colombia.

Nelly Murillo, 18, and her 1-year-old son were discovered Wednesday not far from where the twin-engine Cessna plane had crashed near Quibdo in Choco province, reports the BBC. The cause of the crash is not yet known.

“It’s a miracle,” Colonel Héctor Carrascal of the Colombian air force told Agence France-Presse. “It is a very wild area and it was a catastrophic accident.”

According to the Colombian air force, Murillo suffered only minor injuries and burns and the baby was unharmed. The two were airlifted to a hospital in Quibdo.

“His mother’s spirit must have given him strength to survive,” said Carrascal of the infant.

Rescuers discovered the plane Monday with the body of the pilot, Captain Carlos Mario Ceballos, inside the cockpit.


TIME Colombia

A Baby Survived the Colombia Landslide That Killed 12 Members of His Family

A soldier shovels mud from a house damaged by a mudslide in Salgar, in Colombia's northwestern state of Antioquia, May 19, 2015.
Luis Benavides—Associated Press A soldier shovels mud from a house damaged by a mudslide in Salgar, in Colombia's northwestern state of Antioquia, May 19, 2015.

He was found alive in the mud more than a mile from his home

An 11-month-old baby has survived a huge mudslide in Colombia that killed at least 78 people.

The child’s mother and at least 11 other relatives perished when a flash flood swept through the town of Salgar in northwest Antioquia province Monday, destroying dozens of homes, reports the Associated Press.

Rescuers found Jhosep Diaz lying facedown in the mud more than a mile from his home. Doctors say the infant was cold and hypothermic but believe he survived because he was sleeping in a padded crib when he was swept away.

“He was unconscious and didn’t open his little eyes but was breathing,” Dr. Jesus Antonio Guisao told AP on Wednesday.

The mudslide was the country’s worst natural disaster since the earthquake of 1999 that killed about 1,000 people.

According to the Red Cross, between 50 and 80 people are believed missing, but authorities say there is no chance of finding any more survivors.

The boy’s grandfather Alvaro Hernandez is expected to gain custody. “My grandson’s survival is a miracle,” he said.


TIME Colombia

Colombia Defies U.S. and Halts Spraying of Cocaine Crops

A police plane sprays herbicides over coca fields in El Tarra, in the Catatumbo river area of Colombia on June 4, 2008.
Luis Robayo—AP A police plane sprays herbicides over coca fields in El Tarra, in the Catatumbo river area of Colombia on June 4, 2008.

President Juan Manuel Santos said the country would find other ways to destroy coca plants

Colombia’s government ordered a halt Thursday to the use of a herbicide that has formed a major part of U.S.-backed efforts to wipe out cocaine crops in the country, the Times reports.

The country’s Health Ministry had cited concerns after the World Health Organization reclassified the weed-killer glyphosate as a carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance) in March. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2012 report disagreed, saying there was a lack of convincing evidence that the herbicide causes cancer in humans.

Over the past two decades over 4 million acres of land in Colombia have been sprayed with the herbicide, which kills coca plants (whose leaves are used to make cocaine).

The change in strategy may put a strain on Colombia’s relationship with the U.S. for the first time, as the two countries are usually close allies when it comes to a hard-line approach in the war on drugs. But earlier this month, a White House survey found that the amount of land in Colombia used to grow coca increased by 39% last year

Peru and Bolivia are the two other main cocaine-producing countries, but both avoid chemical herbicides, opting for a more labor-intensive manual eradication instead. This is riskier in Colombia, where the rebel guerrilla fighters have long protected coca crops.

Read More: Experts Fear Surge in Cocaine Supply to U.S. as Colombia Mulls Ending Coca Eradication

TIME Colombia

Experts Fear Surge in Cocaine Supply to U.S. as Colombia Mulls Ending Coca Eradication

A soldier provides security to peasants eradicating coca plantations in the mountains northeast of Medellin, Colombia in 2014. Uprooting coca plants is an alternative to aerial eradication.
Raul Arboleda—AFP/Getty Images A soldier provides security to peasants eradicating coca plantations in the mountains northeast of Medellin, Colombia in 2014. Uprooting coca plants is an alternative to aerial eradication.

American officials are trying to persuade Colombia to continue spraying coca crops with herbicide despite fears that it damages human health

To destroy the raw material for cocaine, Colombian police crop dusters have sprayed herbicide on more than 4 million acres of the country’s coca fields over the last two decades. But the controversial U.S.-backed program could soon be grounded in the wake of a new World Health Organization finding that glyphosate, the active ingredient in that herbicide, may cause cancer.

Citing the WHO report, President Juan Manuel Santos on Saturday urged the country’s National Narcotics Council, which is made up of government ministers, to phase out aerial spraying within a few months, a decision that the council could make as soon as Thursday. “The risk does exist,” Santos said. “We need a system that is more efficient and less damaging.”

But amid signs that cocaine production is once again surging in Colombia, a top U.S. counterdrug official staunchly defended aerial eradication. He also dismissed the WHO report on glyphosate — the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide used by agro-industry around the world — as bad science.

“Glyphosate is today perhaps the world’s most commonly used herbicide,” William R. Brownfield, who heads the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told TIME. “There is not one single verified case… of cancer being caused by glyphosate.”

However, a March report by the cancer-research arm of the WHO noted that glyphosate has been linked to tumors in mice and rats and that there is some — though limited — evidence that people working with glyphosate face a greater risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate “is probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Unlike the controlled agricultural use of glyphosate, the Colombian aerial eradication program uses a higher concentration of the herbicide which is sprayed over populated zones and sometimes lands on people, says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. The result has been a flood of health complaints. A nationwide study of hospital visits that was conducted by the Drug and Security Research Center at the University of the Andes in Bogota found a higher incidence of skin rashes, respiratory problems and miscarriages in coca-growing regions sprayed with glyphosate between 2003 and 2007.

“This is very solid evidence,” says Daniel Mejia, who directs the center and is also president of the Colombian government’s drug policy advisory commission.

In the coca fields of southern Colombia, peasant farmers these days tend to blame all their ailments on glyphosate. Leaning on his machete, Nittson Cuacialpud says he developed a permanent case of face acne a few years ago after crop-dusters swooped over his one-hectare coca field near the town of La Hormiga.

His neighbor, Sandra Trejo, remembers getting hit by a rain of herbicide which made her hair sticky. But she says it was hard to tell whether glyphosate was dangerous. La Hormiga and surrounding communities lack clean drinking water, overall health conditions are poor, and farmers handle a wide variety of powerful weed killers and precursor chemicals when growing coca and processing the leaves into cocaine.

“People get sick, but we don’t know why,” Trejo says.

Despite the growing controversy over glyphosate, it’s an awkward time for Colombia to be holstering a key drug war weapon. Last week, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released data showing the coca crop in Colombia had expanded 39% between 2013 and 2014 — the country’s first big jump in drug cultivation since 2007. That translates into an increase in potential cocaine production from 185 tons to 245 tons.

Although the 2014 White House numbers are not yet in for Peru and Bolivia, the world’s two other big cocaine producers, the sudden spike in Colombia is troubling. “A 39% jump in coca cultivation will likely increase cocaine supplies, thus lowering street prices,” Isacson said.

Brownfield pointed out that many areas of Colombia, such as the southern border with Ecuador, national parks and Indigenous reserves, have recently been placed off limits to aerial eradication and that coca growers have taken advantage. During its peak years in the mid-2000s, Brownfield said the spray program helped reduce Colombia’s coca crop by 60%,

Yet critics slam aerial eradication as costly and counterproductive. In fact, Colombia is the only country that allows it. In Peru and Bolivia, coca plants are uprooted by anti-drug agents with shovels and machetes. In Colombia, similar efforts have left 62 people dead and hundreds injured because left-wing FARC guerrillas, who are deeply involved in drug trafficking, often protect the fields with land mines and snipers. That’s why Colombia opted for air raids.

But in a 2011 study, Mejia estimated that keeping 1 kilogram of cocaine out of the United States costs $163,000 in coca eradication efforts. By contrast, that cost dropped to $3,600 per kilo by attacking smugglers getting the drugs into the U.S.

There has also been diplomatic and legal fallout. In 2013, Colombia paid a $15 million settlement after Ecuador filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice claiming that the herbicide drifted across the border, causing environmental damage, livestock deaths and health problems in humans.

In calling for an end to aerial eradication, President Santos insisted that other counter-narcotics efforts would continue. However, his overriding strategy is to disarm the FARC guerrillas. The two sides are negotiating in Cuba to end the 51-year-old war and if a final peace treaty is signed, the government has agreed to halt aerial eradication while FARC has promised to get out of the illegal drug trade.

So in spite of his strong support for the air raids, Brownfield, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who was once doused in glyphosate while observing a spray operation (and remains cancer free), acknowledges they may end soon. “Change is not necessarily a bad thing,” he says.

TIME Crime

More Than Two Environmental Activists Were Killed Each Week in 2014

Jewel Samad—AFP/Getty Images Diana Rios Rengifo, the daughter of one of the four indigenous Ashéninka leaders murdered in the Peruvian Amazon in early September, speaks during a ceremony in New York on Nov. 17, 2014

A majority of deaths were tied to disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business

The killing of environmental activists jumped by 20% in 2014, with at least 116 deaths around the world tied to disputes involving land and natural resources, the London-based advocacy organization Global Witness claimed this week.

“[That’s] almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period,” its report said. “Disputes over the ownership, control and use of land was an underlying factor in killings of environmental and land defenders in nearly all documented cases.”

According to How Many More?, the majority of deaths took place in Central and South America; Brazil topped the list with 29 cases followed by Colombia with 25.

Global Witness dubbed Honduras as “the most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental activist,” where during the past five years 101 individuals have been killed in relation to their advocacy work.

The organization urged governments across the globe to take bolder measures to tackle the issue ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference that will be held in Paris later this year.

“Environmental and land defenders are often on the frontlines of efforts to address the climate crisis and are critical to success,” said the report. “Unless governments do more to protect these activists, any words agreed in Paris will ultimately ring hollow.”

TIME Colombia

Colombians Accuse U.S Soldiers and Officials of Sexual Assault and Rape

U.S. military trainers seen in Cucuta, Colombia in 2007.
Carlos Duran—Reuters U.S. military trainers seen in Cucuta, Colombia in 2007.

The allegations emerge after investigations found DEA agents in Colombia consorted with prostitutes and members of drug cartels

Although United States military personnel have helped Colombia gain the upper hand in its war against drug-trafficking guerrillas, Olga Castillo maintains that their off-duty actions can be far less noble. Castillo claims a U.S. Army sergeant and a military contractor drugged her 12-year-old daughter, took her to a Colombian military base near the town of Melgar, and raped her.

A U.S. Army investigation determined that Castillo’s accusations were unfounded and no one has been charged in the case. But Castillo calls the Army investigation a whitewash. And now, a controversial official history of the war alleges that between 2003 and 2007 U.S. troops and foreign military contractors working for U.S. companies sexually abused 53 children in and around Melgar — including Castillo’s daughter.

“Since then, she’s never been the same,” Castillo tells TIME about the incident which happened in 2007. “She’s tried to commit suicide three times.”

There’s no dispute that thousands of Colombians were sexually abused during the country’s 51-year-old conflict. The perpetrators were usually Colombian soldiers, paramilitaries or guerrillas. But a Colombian truth commission report claims that U.S. troops and foreign military contractors were part of the problem.

The report denounces what it calls “sexual imperialism” and states that “there exists abundant information about sexual violence with absolute impunity thanks to bilateral agreements (that provide) diplomatic immunity to U.S. officials.”

Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, said his office is launching an investigation into these allegations. “We take this issue very seriously and will aggressively pursue all credible allegations,” Grey said in an e-mail.

The truth commission report was authorized at ongoing peace talks in Cuba between the Colombian government and the guerillas of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Twelve Colombian academics, half chosen by the government and half by the guerrillas, authored the report. Renan Vega, a left-wing university professor who wrote the chapter accusing the Americans of sex abuse, is a FARC appointee. Like the FARC, Vega is fiercely critical of U.S. troops and foreign contractors in Colombia whom he calls “mercenaries.”

What’s more, Vega’s allegations make up just one paragraph of the 800-page report. He does not cite criminal complaints or other sources to back up his claim of 53 sexual assaults. Vega could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Colombian Attorney General’s office said there is no record of widespread sexual abuse by U.S. troops or foreign contractors in the Melgar area in the mid-2000s.

“I would say there’s no truth to anything involving 50-plus people,” said Keith Sparks, who during the mid-2000s was country manager for DynCorp, one of the largest U.S. military contractors in Colombia. “We had at one point up to 1,000 employees. And there were never, on my watch, any accusations of rape.”

Still, some experts call the truth commission allegations troubling, especially in the wake of other instances of bad behavior by U.S. government employees in Colombia.

In April 2005, for example, five U.S. soldiers who had been working at an anti-narcotics base in eastern Colombia were detained upon arrival in the United States for smuggling 18 kilograms of cocaine. A month later, two more American troops were arrested in a scheme to sell thousands of rounds of assault rifle ammunition to paramilitary groups.

A higher-profile embarrassment came in the run-up 2012 Summit of the Americas in the Colombian city of Cartagena. Members of President Obama’s Secret Service advance team spent a night of heavy partying with local prostitutes, one of whom demanded an $800 fee. That led to a loud argument that spilled into the hallway of their hotel and the resulting “Prosti-Gate” scandal became the enduring memory of the Summit.

And recent investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration found that dating back to 2001 DEA agents had attended numerous sex parties with Colombian prostitutes that were paid for by drug dealers hoping to curry favor with the DEA agents. Adding to the security risk, the prostitutes were constantly around the agents’ laptop computers, BlackBerry devices and other sensitive equipment.

Other egregious behavior included a DEA agent accepting a gift of an AK-47 assault rifle from a paramilitary gunman and another agent badly wounding a prostitute after getting into a fight and throwing a drinks glass at her face. Yet the harshest punishment meted out to these offending agents was a 14-day suspension.

“We now have a handful of examples that are quite troubling,” said Adam Isacson, a security policy analyst for the independent Washington Office on Latin America. “But there hasn’t been a lot of scrutiny or follow up or evidence that U.S. authorities were taking it very seriously.”

Maria Victoria Llorente, director of the Bogotá think tank Ideas for Peace, points out that the long-running war on drugs and guerrillas has produced myriad corruption, human rights and sexual abuse scandals involving Colombian police and soliders. So it’s not exactly shocking, she says, that some of their U.S. counterparts may have also gone over to the dark side.

TIME Colombia

Inside the Struggle to Clear Colombia of Mines

Raul Arboleda—AFP/Getty Images A Colombian soldier victim of landmines gets ready to swim, as part of his rehabilitation therapy session in Medellin, Antioquia department, Colombia on March 25, 2015.

A historic deal offers Colombians hope that their country will finally be cleared of the landmines responsible for 11,000 casualties in the past 25 years

For decades, Colombian pilgrims have trekked to a sanctuary high into the Andes Mountains of central Antioquia state known as Christ the King. But now parts of the site are cordoned off with red, skull-and-crossbones signs. It turns out Marxist rebels buried land mines just behind the white statue of Jesus and in 2006 one of these booby traps killed a Colombian soldier.

Amid the 51-year-old guerrilla war, vast tracts of Colombian territory have been sown with land mines. They lie beneath school yards, roads, bean fields and cow pastures. Since 1990, these explosive devices have killed or wounded more than 11,000 Colombians, 40% of whom are civilians. These days, only Afghanistan racks up more annual land mine casualties.

That’s why Colombians cheered the March 7 announcement that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest Marxist guerrilla group known as the FARC, will cooperate with the Army to clear its minefields. (The Army has already removed its land mines).

“The proposal for demining is a first step, but a giant step towards making peace,” said Humberto de la Calle, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator at peace talks with the FARC that began in 2012 in Havana, Cuba.

The demining accord is the latest sign that the conflict may at last be winding down. In December, the FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire and later declared that it would no longer recruit children under 17 who account for a large part of its troop strength. In response, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a temporary halt to highly effective military bombing raids on FARC targets. Many analysts view these moves as a prelude to a government ceasefire and a final peace treaty.

“I do not see the FARC leadership returning back to the Colombian jungles and mountains” to carry on fighting, says Alfonso Cuellar, a columnist for the Bogotá newsweekly Semana. “I am optimistic that we have now crossed the threshold.”

Liliana López is also optimistic. She runs a hotel in Sonsón, a farm town near Christ the King sanctuary. During the worst years of the war, rebels kidnapped López’s mother and killed two of her cousins. Now things have calmed down and her rooms are often full. Still, López says leftover mines are hurting efforts to promote business and tourism. “It’s unsafe for people, for children, for animals,” she says.

Most of the mines were planted by the FARC in the mid-2000s. At the time, the Colombian military was engaged in a massive offensive that cut the size of the rebel army in half to about 7,000 guerrillas. Desperate rebel commanders viewed land mines as a cheap, effective way to bog down advancing soldiers.

But farmers, like Donaldo Gómez, are often the victims. A few years ago Gómez was chopping down weeds in his backyard when his machete struck a land mine. It turned out to be a dud. But his 79-year-old father wasn’t so lucky. In 2003, he died after stepping on a mine that shredded his legs.

“My father was 79,” Gómez says. “He wasn’t sick a day in his life. And then he gets killed by a mine!”

The ongoing conflict has prevented most formal demining operations so frustrated peasants improvise. Some throw rocks into their fields or cast lines to try to hook the detonators, as if they were fishing. Others sprinkle salt in the dirt, believing that the mines will rust and fall apart.

“They can’t wait for demining to happen so they try to reclaim their lands using unsafe methods,” says Jason Villamil, a supervisor for The Halo Trust, a British organization that has cleared mine fields in many war-ravaged nations.

Two years ago, Halo began a small demining operation near Sonsón. However, the rugged terrain and rainy weather slows things down. Wearing blue Kevlar vests and helmets with shatterproof visors, the deminers inch along, clipping away vegetation and combing the soil with metal detectors. But the FARC’s rustic mines are often made with PVC tubing or glass jars, and contain almost no metal – making them much harder to locate.

So far, Halo has cleared about 125 mines in this region. But there are thousands more out there. That’s why the plan for the Army and the FARC to cooperate in destroying land mines is so important. The rebels know where many of the mines are buried, says a former FARC guerrilla who now works as an advisor for The HALO Trust.

After nine years fighting with the FARC, he says: “It now feels good to do be doing this for a living because I’m helping to get these mines out of the ground.”

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