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.”

TIME Colombia

Chinese Ship Detained in Colombia on Suspicion of Weapons Trafficking

Joaquin Sarmiento—AFP/Getty Images A Chinese freighter loaded with unregistered weapons is seen anchored at the port of Cartagena, Colombia, on March 3, 2015

Captain Wu Hong may be charged for carrying illicit cargo

The Chinese captain of a freighter stopped by the Colombian authorities is under house arrest in Cartagena for allegedly carrying unregistered weapons and military equipment bound for Cuba.

The Hong Kong-registered Da Dan Xia has been impounded for a week after local authorities claim 100 tonnes of gunpowder, 99 projectile bases and 3,000 artillery cartridge cases were discovered aboard, reports AFP.

While Beijing’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying insists that the Da Dan Xia has not flouted any Chinese or international laws, Colombian prosecutor Luis Gonzalez Leon says Captain Wu Hong will be charged with weapons trafficking.

The cargo ship was stopped before it was due to arrive in the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla en route to Havana.


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.


Morning Must Reads: January 26

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

‘Historic’ Storm Headed for Northeast U.S.

A “potentially historic” storm could dump 2 to 3 ft. of snow from New Jersey to Connecticut on Monday, crippling a region largely spared so far this winter. “This could be a storm the likes of which we have never seen before,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

How Much to Exercise

Exercise recommendations are just set far too high to motivate the people who need them the most, according to a new study

Presidential Race ‘Kicks Off’

Republican candidates-to-be have been dialing for dollars and loyalty in a contest that may prove more consequential than speeches to crowds

See All the Screen Actors Guild Awards Winners

The cream of Hollywood assembled late Sunday to discover who will be honored at the Screen Actors Guild Awards 2015. The ceremony is seen as a vital predictor before the all-important Academy Awards. Here are this year’s winners

Greece’s Anti-Bailout Syriza Party Wins Historic Victory

A radical left-wing party that is demanding an end to Greece’s painful austerity measures won Sunday’s parliamentary elections, threatening renewed turmoil in global markets and throwing the country’s continued membership in the Eurozone into question

Miss Colombia Paulina Vega Named Miss Universe

Miss Colombia Paulina Vega, 21, was crowned Miss Universe in a live show in Miami on Sunday night. Miss USA Nia Sanchez from Las Vegas was named runner-up, along with Miss Ukraine Diana Harkusha

Japan Seeks Jordan’s Help on Gaining Hostage’s Release

Japan sought help from Jordan and other countries on Monday in its race to save a hostage held by the extremist Islamic State group, with no signs of progress on securing his release. The group said in an online video on Jan. 20 that it had two Japanese hostages

Duke Basketball Coach Is First to Get 1,000 Wins

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski became the first NCAA Division I men’s coach to reach 1,000 career wins when the Blue Devils defeated St. John’s 77-68 at Madison Square Garden. “I was just trying to survive this game,” he said

Obama Moves to Protect Alaskan Wildlife

The Obama Administration will ask Congress to protect millions of acres of land in Alaska from a range of human activity including drilling and road construction, officials said. The proposal will undoubtedly meet opposition in Congress

Chris Christie Launches PAC Toward 2016 Run

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie launched a federal political action committee, or PAC, on Monday as he seeks to lay the groundwork for a likely 2016 presidential campaign. Several other Republican candidates have long-standing political groups as well

The NFL Is Finally on YouTube

The NFL and Google have partnered up to allow content and clips to be posted on YouTube. The NFL YouTube channel, which has already launched, offers previews, in-game highlights and recaps. It will not, at this point, include live-streaming

Church of England to Ordain First Female Bishop

Male domination in the leadership of the Church of England is coming to an end, as the 500-year-old institution consecrates its first female bishop. Her appointment comes after the church ended a divisive dispute by voting last year to allow women to serve as bishops

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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

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.


TIME awards

Top Photographers Win $130,000 Worth of Grants

Announced at Visa pour l’Image, a widely-attended yearly photojournalism festival held in Perpignan, France, the grants—first established in 2004—aim to help photographers undertake "projects of personal and journalistic significance."

Getty has awarded a total of $130,000 in grants to photographers and non-profit organizations, with five of the winners picking up $10,000 grants to help them expand their already-existing editorial work. The five editorial winners include William Daniels, who shot powerful images for Central African Republic for TIME and other publications this year and Giulio Di Sturco, whose inside look at Madagascar’s cocoa war featured on LightBox in May.

Photographer William Daniels won a grant for his often disturbing work from Central African Republic, where groups of vigilantes called anti-balaka — comprised of Christians, animists and former troops loyal to the toppled government — have battled with the country’s Muslims. The conflict, Daniels says, is vastly underrepresented in most media and he plans to use the grant to help him probe more deeply into “the background of what’s going on.” He hopes the grant will help him answer questions like “what makes a boy into an anti-balaka?” he adds. “Photography has a key role to play in places where people are suffering on a big scale,” Daniels says.

Giulio Di Sturco‘s look at the the Ganges river earned him his grant. The work, which is oddly beautiful and sometimes unnerving, looks at the evolution of the river along which about 8 percent of the world’s population live. The river faces “new environmental challenges,” Di Sturco tells TIME, with the Ganges basin the river being one of the most polluted in the world. The grant, he says, will allow him to “finish the last chapter of the project” and to put out both a book and an exhibition.

Krisanne Johnson‘s win came on the back of her frenetic, moving project, documenting the lives of what she calls the “post-apartheid generation” in South Africa. “They are grappling with many issues,” she says, “struggling with access to education, gang violence and HIV to name just a few.” In South Africa, more than half of the nation’s 18-25 year olds are unemployed.

Juan Arredondo‘s powerful work looking at the experience of current and former child combatants in Colombia caught judges eyes. Human Right Watch estimates that approximately 11,000 children have been used as combatants in the country, and about 3,500 former child combatants have been reunited with their families by the government. By the time they are thirteen, HRW adds, most child recruits have been trained in the use of automatic weapons, grenades, mortars and explosives. “This story needs visibility,” Arredondo says, “to bring forth a public discussion of a crisis long ignored in Colombia.”

Quiet, striking work documenting of the lives of Mennonite communities in Bolivia saw Jordi Busqué win a grant. Mennonites are Christians who follow a way of life that has not changed since the 16th century. Living in rural isolation, they are fiercely protective of their privacy.

Laura Boushnak wins a grant called the Getty Images and Lean In Editorial Grant, which focuses on those documenting important but under-told stories about women. Her project, I Read I Write, is a broad, continuing project about education and women in the Arab world.

Announced at Visa pour l’Image, a widely-attended yearly photojournalism festival held in Perpignan, France, the grants—first established in 2004—aim to help photographers undertake “projects of personal and journalistic significance.” This year’s judges included The New York Times International Picture Editor David Furst, National Geographic Magazine Director of Photography Sarah Leen and Francois Leroy, Director General of Visa pour l’Image, among others.

Getty also awarded a $10,000 portrait photography grant and three creative grants of $20,000, one of which went to Robin Hammond. The creative awards aim to help non profits work with photographers.

Richard Conway is reporter/producer for TIME LightBox

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