Shortly after noon on December 4, 2009, Diomedez Ortega, a brawny brown-skinned man with dark eyes and the sharp ears that go along with a military crew cut, rappelled from a helicopter to the outskirts of a guerilla camp in the Paramillo Massif, an isolated mountainous region in western Colombia. Ortega, a 29-year-old Colombian Special Forces veteran, ran a dozen meters through the tall grass, glaring at the field ahead while his nine comrades struggled through the uneven terrain. He stopped a few yards short of the camp and established a line of fire. Standing still, he signaled the rest of the soldiers to cover the unit’s flanks. Ortega clutched his rifle, took a step forward and felt a searing pain tearing through his legs.
“It was like a movie,” he said one recent morning. “I didn’t see anything. I felt the landmine explode beneath my feet, but I remained conscious. I realized I was the one who had been hit. I was knocked down.” He paused and then added, “You feel powerless, useless, a hundred percent vulnerable. And you have to accept it, for what else can you do? You are a soldier.”
Mines are a seemingly endless scourge in Colombia. The country had the largest number of mine casualties in 2006, and the third largest number of mine-related deaths in the past two decades, according to Landmine Monitor, an independent global program that researches the humanitarian and developmental consequences of landmines. Since 1990, there have been mine-related incidents in 31 of the nation’s 32 states, according to the Presidential Program for Comprehensive Mine Action (PAICMA for its Spanish acronym). As the “Lend Your Leg” campaign noted in its promotion of April 4th, International Mine Awareness Day, more than 10,000 Colombians have been affected by landmines. That figure includes 1,003 children and almost 6,400 members of the armed forces.
In many former war-zones across the world, mines are an ever-present hazard. Generally they are buried during war, and then they can be completely forgotten for years until suddenly they become the cause of a severe injury or death. In 2011, at least 66 countries reported the presence of mined areas, and 4,286 people died as a result of them — nearly 12 each day. Seventy-five percent of those who died were civilians.
Colombia accounted for nearly 13 percent of the entire world’s landmine casualties that year. Nearly three people were killed or injured by a mine every two days, the third highest casualty rate in the world. More worrying is that, contrary to global trends, the number of mine casualties in Colombia actually increased this year, according to Álvaro Jiménez, the director of the Colombian Campaign against Mines.
“There have been reports of mine-related accidents in 622 municipalities, more than half of the national territory,” Jiménez told Univision News. “The government cites a small number of victims, but we’ve always insisted that the actual figure is closer to 800,000 when you take into account the killed, the maimed, the injured and the families and communities that depend on them.”
One downcast night in northern Bogotá, Colombia, Mercedes Ruiz, a short 58-year-old woman with terse brown skin and graying dark hair, rummaged through stacks of trash bags.
Ruiz has worked as a binner for nearly 42 years. Every day, alongside two young nephews, she scours the private dumpsters of a rich neighborhood called Usaquén in search of recyclable materials that she can later sell at specialized centers. And from 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. she transports her goods in a “zorra,” a wooden dilapidated vehicle hauled by a horse.
“He is 5-years-old, he is called Caravalí,” Ruiz said of her horse as one of her nephews gathered some grass for it. “I check his horse shoes before I leave home and after lunch. [I also] carry some nails and extra horse shoes in case they fall on the way.”
For nearly a century, horse-drawn carts and carriages have been the norm in Bogotá, breaking the fleeting silence of the night with a clacking noise that is familiar to most of the city’s inhabitants. Today, animal-drawn vehicles are in the process of disappearing. The government has restricted their use, and now nearly 3,000 horse cart owners like Ruiz are supposed to turn in their animals in exchange for cars as part of a controversial animal rights bill which could radically transform the city’s culture.
Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla leader who is now the mayor of Bogotá, is pushing a series of reforms designed to protect domestic and exotic animals in the city, honoring campaign compromises made to animal rights groups in 2011. Through a program called “Bogotá humana con la fauna” (Bogotá humane towards fauna), Petro has banned bull fighting, angering well-to-do Bogotanos who have attended the fiesta brava in the city for almost 82 years. The mayor also plans to fund a center to treat abused domestic pets and often speaks out against animal circuses and cock fighting, and has ordered the substitution of animal-drawn vehicles.
“It’s an important form of political thought, a progressive and green approach towards policy,” Andrea Padilla, a spokesperson in Colombia for Anima Naturalis, a Latin American animal rights group, told ABC-Univision. “People all around the continent are watching what is taking place in the city — the animal protection reforms — they are waiting to see what will happen in Bogotá.”
On a warm March night in 1973, David Roth, a lanky twenty-one-year-old Brooklyn native with dark eyes, light-brown hair and a prominent forehead, stepped for the first time onto the stage of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California. Roth was the youngest magician ever to work the venue, magic’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall. Shaking slightly, he sat down behind a felt-covered table and scanned the audience. His eyes landed on an old man in the front row, and his face flushed with recognition.
Dai Vernon, an elegantly clad eighty-year-old Canadian with soft, white hair, a trimmed mustache, and faded blue eyes sat there staring at him from a table supposedly reserved for non-magicians that night. Defying a tradition meant to soothe the nerves of greenhorn performers, the most influential sleight-of-hand artist of the twentieth century had decided to closely observe Roth’s presentation.
Roth opened up a leather pouch and laid several glistening half dollars over the table. Summoning confidence, he grabbed a small brass box and opened it while addressing the audience.
“This is a real magic box with four coins inside,” Roth said, his voice a deep baritone. He threw the four coins across the table and invited a spectator onto the stage to check for smoke and mirrors. “This is the top of the box. This is the bottom. This is the top of the bottom, and this is the bottom of the bottom. And these are the four half dollars that go inside. One…two…three and four… Now watch.”
Roth closed the container. He pointed to his open left hand and clenched it into a fist. With his right hand, he plucked an imaginary half dollar from inside the box, and threw the ethereal coin across the air towards his closed fist.
“The idea is simple,” Roth told the audience, unfurling his fingers, one at a time. “To take one coin out of the box and put it into my hand.”
He opened his fist and a half dollar now rested in the center of his previously empty palm. The audience was transfixed. Roth went on to materialize the rest of his coins from the box to his hand and back again to the box. It was magic.
After a rousing ovation, the audience stood up and began to leave. Vernon, known amongst magicians as “The Professor,” rose to his feet and commanded attention. “Wait!” he shouted, his voice raspy and hoarse, the decades-old product of smoke and drink. “Wait. There’s something I have to say.”
Vernon hailed the New York born magician, calling him the best coin manipulator he had ever seen. In a speech to no one in particular, Vernon cemented Roth’s reputation, comparing him and lifting him beyond other experts he had known throughout his lifetime.
The event marked the beginning of a relationship that would last until Vernon’s death eighteen years later—with Vernon as the teacher, someone who could expand Roth’s knowledge of magic and transform the way he performed it, and Roth as the prodigy, a pupil to whom Vernon could transfer his skills through centuries-old tradition. Together, they may have proved one of the last great examples of what a magician’s mentorship can accomplish.
On Tuesday, Mexican authorities at Toluca International airport arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, the controversial president of Mexico’s influential national teachers’ union.
Gordillo, one of Mexico’s most powerful and polarizing women, is accused by the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) of allegedly embezzling nearly $200 million in funds from her union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE).
“The resources of unions belong to their members, not to their leaders,” Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto said in a televised statement about the arrest the following day. “They must be used to benefit the workers.”
According to the PGR, Gordillo, known in Mexico as “The Teacher” (“La Maestra”), misappropriated millions of dollars in union fees to pay for an extravagant lifestyle that included private jet flights to mansions in California, numerous plastic surgeries, and at least $3 million in luxury items from Neiman Marcus, a department store that is now notorious in Mexico thanks to the scandal.
The 68-year-old woman with a surgically puffed face and perfectly arched eyebrows supposedly received the money through three people, who, according to Jesús Murillo Karam, Mexico’s Attorney General, redirected the funds to settle credit card debts and to savings accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. (Gordillo, the granddaughter of a rich liquor producer from Chiapas, has said that her money is the product of a well-invested family fortune.)
“It’s worth mentioning that Elba Esther Gordillo Morales declared earnings from 2009 to 2012 for 1,100,000 pesos ($88,000),” Karam said in a statement on Wednesday. “A number that is much lower than those operations and deposits cited for those same years.”
Gordillo’s excesses and alleged crimes have been detailed over the years by the Mexican press. She has furnished journalists, politicians, members of her constituency and union leaders with gifts that range from computers to Hummers. She’s also been accused of ordering the death a dissident teacher. Yet, what surprises most political observers is that the government went after her at all.
As rescue teams searched for bodies in a Pemex office building in Mexico City, where an explosion killed at least 32 people on Thursday, Mexico’s national oil company is fighting another type of disaster.
According to an investigation filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2008, Pemex officials awarded contracts to German industrial conglomerate Siemens in exchange for hefty bribes from the European company that added up to $2.6 million.
Now, the new Pemex administration, sworn in by Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, is determined to revisit the case, arguing in a New York federal court that the bribed officials approved outrageous cost overruns by Siemens that included $17,000 golf clubs and massages.
Pemex was required to pay the Siemens-led consortium an unclear sum that ranges from $280 million to $400 million for those cost overruns. But a Siemens’ spokesperson told the Mexican newspaper Milenio that Pemex’s efforts to revive the bribery scandal are a way to sidestep the conclusions reached by Mexico’s own justice system, which cleared the German company of bribery charges in 2009.
“Pemex has to defend itself,” countered Ignacio Durán, a spokesperson for the state-owned Mexican company. He claimed that the new Pemex administration, which began its duties in December of last year, has a “zero tolerance” policy against private and public corruption.
One of the key witnesses in this investigation could be the influential Mexican businessman Jaime Camil Garza, father of the well-known actor Jaime Camil.
Late one Saturday morning last November, Martin Amis strode across the stage of a half-filled auditorium at the Miami Book Fair. Squinting as the light struck his face, Amis took a seat at a lonely table with a copy of his most recent work, Lionel Asbo: State of England.
Stern-faced, he commended the audience after a brief greeting. “You avoided electing a president who looks like a religious porn star, one much respected in the industry,” he said. “You avoided the presidency of a man who a few months ago sat in Jerusalem next to Sheldon Adelson,” he continued. “You’d have to rack your brains to find someone, anyone as disreputable as that. Perhaps if he’d had Larry Flint sitting on the other side of him…” The official schedule described the event as a reading, but Amis, often referred to as the Mick Jagger of literature by the British press (“Why isn’t Mick Jagger known as the Martin Amis of the rock world?” he’s joked), chose to start with a short speech on American politics and religion. “[Romney] is a hick,” he said alluding to Romney’s Mormonism, a religion, which, in his opinion, didn’t deserve discussion, given its short and somewhat ridiculous inception.
“I was just amazed that the election was so close,” he continued. “The Democratic Party represents the American brain, and the Republicans represent not the American heart, or soul, but the American gut. The argument between brain and bowel, everywhere else in the Free World, has been decided long ago in favor of brain. But Americans still—it still divides the nation, this question, here in America.”
Amis is well versed in provocation, but he hasn’t always shown a significant interest in politics. Early in his career he was largely seen as a literary playboy, avoiding the political scuffles that his late friend and colleague Christopher Hitchens ardently pursued. In recent years, however, Amis has taken on a wide range of culturally sensitive subjects, including communism, the press, and Islam. Throughout numerous interviews, he has managed to anger both the Left and the Right with caustic statements that altogether dispense with political correctness. His 2011 move to Brooklyn seems only to have heightened his effervescent rancor.
With Obama’s second term underway, and Amis’s mind focused on the new novel he’s been working on about the Holocaust, our conversation revolved around his recent travels and research—never veering far from the contrarian repartee for which he is known.
On December 25, 2003, Mohammed Jawad, an Afghani teenager held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, repeatedly banged his head against the metal structures of his cell in an effort to kill himself. The dull echoes of the blows attracted the prison’s guards. As they reached the cell, Jawad struck the solid surface once again. Even though suicide is prohibited in Islam, Jawad, a devout Muslim, thought that perhaps he could be forgiven in this case. The situation had slipped beyond his control, he told his attorney Eric Montalvo years later.
A month earlier, Jawad had been placed in isolation following the recommendations of a psychologist from a Behavioral Science Consultation Team in Guantanamo. A few weeks later, he had been moved to a cell block where no one spoke Pashto — the only language Jawad knew when he arrived to the island — in order to further enhance his feeling of loneliness. “He appears to be rather frightened, and it looks as if he could break easily if he were isolated from his support network and made to rely solely on the interrogator,” the Army psychologist wrote in a leaked report intended for Guantanamo interrogators. “Make him as uncomfortable as possible. Work him as hard as possible,” she continued.
Three days before Christmas 2003, Jawad’s “comfort items” — his mat, a copy of the Quran, among others — were removed from his cell as a form of punishment for trying to talk to other detainees in the camp, according to court documents. On December 25, reaching a breaking point, he repeatedly slammed his head against the metal objects of his enclosure.
The incident was recorded in the official camp log of that day under the description “attempted self-harm.” In March 2004, he tried to communicate with the inmates from his block, and he was punished once again with the loss of his comfort items. The prison, he would later tell his lead attorney, David Frakt, was “like a tomb, like a graveyard.”
Full article in TheAtlantic.com.