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In Colombia, Women Are Cleaning Up The Remnants Of Its Bloody War

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In Colombia, women were directly impacted by the more than half a century-long bloody war between the military and the guerrilla rebel group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo (FARC). Their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were killed. They were often subject to sexual violence, including rape and forced abortions. Today, three years after a peace pact was made between both armies, the women are now cleaning up the conflict’s deadly remnants.

In war zones throughout the South American country there are leftover explosives. Guerrillas planted landmines in towns, by schools and homes, as well as fincas years ago, prepared to ambush their enemies when they needed to. While the land is no longer occupied, many still fear walking through affected areas, knowing the risk they take stepping on a mine and detonating a bomb that could take off their leg.

Humanity & Inclusion (HI), an internationally funded humanitarian aid organization, is working to remove these mines — and it’s largely powered by women. In fact, 40 percent of the group is women and some, like Erika Romero, also lead teams.

“In the armed conflict, the mines were the most effective mechanism to do damage. Mines don’t discriminate,” Romero, HI’s base manager in Caquetá, told Teen Vogue. “Mines aren’t going to just target people in the military. The mines are going to take down civilians, the most vulnerable population. They’ve taken down children, animals, mothers, farmers.”

From 1990 to 2017, more than 11,000 people were killed or injured by mines and explosive, like grenades, mortars or bombs, that remained after the war.

This makes the women’s work essential. Before they started, 31 of 32 of Colombia’s departments were sullied with mines. That’s down by three. It might not seem like a lot, but the work is dangerous, making it meticulous and time-consuming.

Still, it’s labor that excites Marifer Culman Ortiz. The 19-year-old wakes up each morning, puts on her shatter-proof mask and anti-explosive gear, and begins her day in the minefield, moving away scrubs in the jungle and hovering her metal detector over the ground until she hears a long beep.

“It’s a very beautiful kind of work,” Culman Ortiz told the magazine. “That is, you have to go out to these areas and free them from many dangers like mines. Then people can pass through these pathways without fear that they’re going to step on the ground and lose their leg.”

Without women, this crucial work couldn’t get done. In the rural communities largely impacted by the war, there’s still a distrust of outsiders. This complicates the work of deminers, who often count on locals to identify areas where mines might have been planted. Those from the area are more comfortable speaking with familiar faces, who tend to be young women eager to rebuild their communities.

“Families are not going to trust people they practically don’t know and give this information because they could say ‘No, it could put my family at risk,’” Andrea Trujillo Ramirez, one of the women who works with the organization in the community she grew up in, said. “When we [women] go there, they almost always give us the information because they aren’t scared of us.”

Trujillo Ramirez was raised in a farmhouse near an encampment-turned-demining locale. Her childhood was plagued by war. She remembers hiding in bathrooms and under beds to protect herself from bullets as well as her mother pulling her out of school so she wouldn’t be hit during an unexpected, but common, shoot-out. She knows the pain of losing an uncle to a land mine and a brother, a member of FARC, to a clash with the military.

“The importance of this work is that I don’t want my family to have this experience of pain that I have had to live,” Trujillo Ramirez, who has a 7-year-old daughter, said.

While the Colombian government and the rebel group signed a peace pact in 2016, many fear that new conflict may soon arise. The government, which promised reparations for victims, reintegration of former combatants into society and developing the country’s destitute and rural areas, haven’t carried their vows through. Most recently, Colombian President Ivan Duque, who was elected last year, has questioned the accords altogether.

Former FARC rebels, upset by the unfulfilled pledges, have returned to war zone areas, carrying guns and sparking fear into many community members who are familiar with what a war-torn Colombia looks like.

This puts the women’s work at risk. They now face being at the center of violence themselves for attempting to detonate the remnants of yesterday’s brutality — a danger that could potentially put an end to their demining efforts.

“There would not be guarantees that we wouldn’t be forced out,” Romero said. “We could be at risk for the work we do with the communities so we would have to stop.”

For now, the women continue cleaning and hoping for a safer time ahead.

Read: This Queer Colombian Muralist Is Changing The World One Wall At A Time

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Australian Federal Police Busted A Colombian Gang’s Drug Home In An Very Wealthy Part Of Sydney

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Australian Federal Police Busted A Colombian Gang’s Drug Home In An Very Wealthy Part Of Sydney

Australian Federal Police

This is a story of a surprising find in a tranquil Australian suburb. What unfolds is a tale of hidden illegal activity and a surprise discovery. This all happened back in 2017, but legal proceedings are putting the spotlight on this case again. Cases like this bring to mind how many Latin American communities are stigmatized due to the incidence of drug-related crimes in the region, and how global cartels expand internationally. These processes of stigmatization not only affect everyday interactions but also wider policymaking, as the recent discussions around the proposed border wall in the US-Mexico border have highlighted. 

First things first: Australia is hard to reach for drug cartels.

Credit: image. Digital image. Business Insider

Oceania is the last bastion for international drug cartels. Australia, in particular, is heavily guarded but also has miles and miles of coast that is practically impossible to fully surveil. Cartels, however, have found ways to enter this market. In recent years, journalistic accounts of the role that international criminal networks have in the distribution of drugs in Australia has sparked public concern and debate. According to recent research published in The Age, “Australians consumed illegal drugs worth $9.3 billion in 2018”.  The presence of organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel in Australian cities and its role in the ice epidemic has sparked concerns among journalists and policymakers. The Australian media is up in arms every time the cartels are identified in the country. As reported by Daily Telegraph on January 28, 2019: “The Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, described as the most ruthless and deadly in the world, has joined forces with the increasingly dangerous Nigerian crime network in Sydney to carry out large-scale drug importation.” This story, for example, plays with fears of foreigners in a society that sometimes tends to be insular and afraid of immigration. Are reports like this generating stereotypes?

This is where this story begins:

Sylvania is like any upscale suburb in the ultra-expensive beachside city of Sydney, Australia.

Credit: Screenshot taken from RealEstate.com.au

Houses in Sylvania often reach the $1 million AUD mark. It is a pretty relaxed place with a mostly white population, but with pockets of Asian and Greek migrants. It is the synonym of a relaxed Aussie beach suburb. Nothing much happens and everything is usually closed by 7 p.m. 

There is some old money around, and plenty of new money.

Credit: Screenshot taken from RealEstate.com.au

When we said homes can easily reach a million, we were talking about the lower end of the spectrum. A four-bedroom apartment goes for more than two million Australian dollars. But look at those views!

From the outside, a suburban home in Sylvania was just another ordinary, sleepy household.

Credit: Image by Australian Federal Police

Nothing to suspect. Just a comfy couch and a bookshelf lined with Lonely Planet travel guidebooks. 

The cops suspected something was going on so they searched the property.

Credit: Image by Australian Federal Police

The Australian Federal Police was investigating a Sydney-based Colombian gang that was involved in the distribution of border-controlled drugs. The police were also following the trails of a money-laundering operation believed to be operated by Colombians. This all happened in 2017, but the details of the case are just being released as part of a court proceeding. As Australian Government News reported on July 12, 2019: “On 10 July 2019, the Supreme Court of NSW made orders which restrained a residential property in Sylvania, NSW, under section 19 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 (Cth) based on the allegation the property was used in, or in connection with, various drug offences under the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).”

This is what they found behind the now-famous bookshelf: and now the police is trying to seize the property.

Credit: Image by Australian Federal Police

The authorities believed that the house was actually a custom made to fit in the illegal drug operation. For this reason, the authorities are looking to confiscate the house. In addition, the authorities charged a 45-year-old man (the police hasn’t disclosed his name for legal reasons) with multiple drug-related offenses: supplying cocaine, being in the possession of cannabis and, as reported by The Sun UK, ” dealing in proceeds of crime with a value that reached around $100,000.” This man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years and six months in federal prison. 

Drugs, high tech transmitters, they really had everything they needed to run a drug business.

Credit: Image by Australian Federal Police

According to The Sun UK, police found that the property “was full of cash, replica weapons, tasers, and wireless transmitters, police confirmed”. This was a big hit on organized crime in Australia, a country that is hard to penetrate for drug cartels due to its tight borders and geographical isolation. There are also very few cases of police corruption. Officer Penelope Kelton, Coordinator of Criminal Assets Litigation, said (as per The Sun UK): “The ability to confiscate items used in the commission of crimes sends a clear message to the criminal underworld – if you commit the crime, we are prepared to target your assets. Drug-related crime puts a great strain on the community through increased health care costs, associated property crime and other forms of violence. It is only reasonable that police can fight back on behalf of the community by targeting those who seek to profit from inflicting this misery.”

Drug trafficking is a significant issue in Australia for multiple reasons.

Credit: mexico_drugs. Digital image. Australian Institute of International Affairs.

The illegal distribution and consumption of narcotics through global networks of criminal complicity is a significant social problem worldwide and public health concern in most Western countries, including Australia. Alongside the distribution of drugs, negative stereotypes about Global South populations run rampant. In particular, Latin American citizens from countries like Colombia and Mexico are stigmatized due to the negative image their home countries have in relation to the drug wars. 

Representation matters: not all Latinos are drug dealers!

Credit: Narcos / Netflix

Alongside extremism and terrorism, since the 1990s international criminal networks have been framed as one of the main challenges to Western democracies, a place formerly held by the Soviet Union and left-leaning countries. This understanding of recent world history has the potential to generate stereotypes that could influence national and international discussions regarding border security, as seen in the recent debate in the United States concerning the construction of a Southern border wall.

How stories like these are told in the media influences the way in which Latinos living in English-speaking and Global North countries are perceived. Australian newspapers emphasized the fact that those arrested were Colombian, which further adds to the bad rep that the country has in the Southern Hemisphere. To this, we have to add that most references that Australians and non-Latino Americans have of the region are through TV shows and movies. As a recent editorial by Hector Tobar published in The New York Times pointed out: “By the next network upfronts, or summer movie blockbuster season, Latino drug operatives may outpace their chief rivals — jihadist terrorists and Russians mobsters — and become the country’s leading screen bad guys”. 

A Researcher Created A Map To Track All Of The Women That Are Murdered In Mexico And It Is Shocking

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A Researcher Created A Map To Track All Of The Women That Are Murdered In Mexico And It Is Shocking

The violence against women in Mexico continues to rise to alarming rates. They are dying at the hands of domestic assailants as well as organized crime culprits. In 2018, 3,580 women and girls were killed in Mexico, the Associated Press reports. 

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is aiming to curtail this epidemic under his new administration by conducting thorough murder investigations, having a stronger judicial system to prosecute offenders and, among other initiatives, to search for women who are missing as soon as it’s reported.

“All of them have a common factor: the lack of timely and diligent intervention by the Mexican state to preserve their integrity and to ensure their lives,” Interior Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero said, according to the AP.

Until the new government gets their act together, one woman is making sure the death of every woman in Mexico doesn’t go unnoticed. 

María Salguero, a geophysics scholar, and researcher, has created a mapping system to keep track of each woman that is murdered in Mexico. 

According to news reports, Salguero said that worldwide attention (or at least in the U.S. and in Mexico) surrounded the deaths of women that occurred only in Ciudad de Juarez. She said she wanted to not only track the deaths of women all over Mexico but also to have their names in a recorded document because it’s crucial to name them. 

She began tracking the femicide in her country in 2016 and initially began by getting Google alerts of violence against women. 

Since she first started the project, Salguero has obtained the records of “more than 6,000 cases of femicide dating back to 2011. In 27 cases, authorities were unable to establish the woman’s identity. In 70 cases, the victim was a trans woman,” Open Democracy states. 

Her tracking system is detailed and includes the victim’s name, where their body was found, and of course the city and state. 

This work is a labor of love for Salguero who works full-time at the National Search Commission of Mexico. She said she works on the mapping system on her off time and it takes up to five hours a day, depending on the workload. 

According to Salguero’s tracking system, the overwhelming majority of femicide is occurring in the state of Mexico.

Her report, which is also verified by state records, show that in 2018 400 women died in Mexico state, followed by Guanajuato, Baja California, Guerrero, and Jalisco. The state with the least murders is Yucatan. 

She also notes that the numbers provided by country officials may not be accurate and could be a lot higher than they are reporting. 

“Only a part of the problem is documented by the press and not all. There is a 15 percent national bias in the official data. There are women who arrive injured in health systems and die because of the seriousness of the injuries and are not reported by the press, women who are murdered or in their homes or communities far away and there was not a means to cover them,” she said. “The bodies which are found but the sex is undetermined, are cases that can not be documented.”

Women in Mexico don’t just live in fear of death, but they also endure day-to-day harassment.

According to a United Nations report, a survey showed that almost 90 percent of women experience sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in public spaces in Mexico City alone. These public places include subways, buses, and streets. 

Yeliz Osman, Safe Cities, and Safe Public Spaces Programme Coordinator at UN Women in Mexico said that the same harassment that women face in Mexico is the same in other parts of the world. “The overwhelming majority of women who participated in focus groups said that they experience some form of sexual harassment in their daily journeys. She adds, “These behaviors have been so normalized and naturalized within societies that women themselves don’t often consider it important enough to report and men don’t even realize in many cases that this is actually a form of violence and the impact that it has on women and girls.”

Click here to visit Salguero’s tracking system of femicides in Mexico.

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