Outsized risks face Peru’s expendable cocaine couriers

Cocaine backpacker arrest video

By FRANK BAJAK and FRANKLIN BRICENO

HUANTA, Peru (AP) — He slides two T-shirts, shorts, canned tuna, toasted corn and boiled potatoes into the rucksack atop 11 pounds of semi-refined cocaine. In a side pocket, a .38-caliber Chinese pistol.

Mardonio Borda is a 19-year-old native Quechua with broken Spanish and a sixth-grade education. But he has at least $125,000 worth of drugs on his back that he will carry out of Peru’s main coca-growing valley. He is among untold hundreds of cocaine backpackers who make the difficult and dangerous trek up Andean mountain paths first carved by their pre-Incan ancestors.

In this country that overtook Colombia in 2012 as the world’s No. 1 cocaine-producing nation, Borda regularly hikes within a few hours of the Machu Picchu tourist mecca, bound for Cuzco with drugs. Sixty percent of Peru’s cocaine comes from the remote Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, and the backpackers trek for three to five days to deliver cocaine to traffickers who move the drugs on for export. But it is not the lung-searing ascents to high altitudes that worry the young men. It is the armed gangs, crooked police, and rival backpacker groups who regularly rob cocaine’s beasts of burden on journeys that can extend 100 miles (160 kilometers) or more.

“It’s win or lose,” said Borda, “like casino gambling.”

Hauling cocaine out of the valley is about the only way to earn decent cash in this economically depressed region where a farmhand earns less than $10 a day. Beyond extinguishing young lives, the practice has packed Peru’s highland prisons with backpackers while their bosses evade incarceration.

It is a big business. Roughly one third of the 305 metric tons of cocaine that the U.S. government estimates Peru produces each year travels by foot.

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Top Peruvian Foe of Illegal Logging Slain

By FRANK BAJAK

EdwinChotaLIMA, Peru (AP) _ An outspoken Peruvian opponent of illegal logging and three other native Ashaninka community leaders were shot and killed in the remote region bordering Brazil where they live, villagers and authorities said Monday.

The activist, Edwin Chota, had received frequent death threats from illegal loggers, who he had tried for years to expel from the lands for which his community was seeking title.

Illegal loggers were suspected in the killings, said Ashaninka regional leader Reyder Sebastian. Pervasive corruption lets the loggers operate with impunity, stripping the Amazon region’s river basins of prized hardwoods, especially mahogany and tropical cedar.

“He threatened to upset the status quo,” said David Salisbury, a professor at the University of Richmond who was advising Chota on the title quest and had known him for a decade. “The illegal loggers are on record for wanting Edwin dead.”

Chota and the others were apparently killed on Sept. 1, the day they left Saweto, the village he led on the Upper Tamaya river, to hike to a sister Brazilian Ashaninka community, said the village schoolteacher, Maria Elena Paredes.

When the men did not show at the Brazilian village, worried comrades who had traveled ahead of them returned and found the bodies — apparently killed by shotgun blasts — near some shacks on the Putaya river, Paredes said.

She said by phone that vultures had begun to feed on the bodies, which were found a six-hour walk from the 45-inhabitant village.

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Top South America hackers rattle Peru’s Cabinet

By FRANK BAJAK
By FRANK BAJAK

By FRANK BAJAK

LIMA, Peru (AP) — The Peruvian hackers have broken into military, police, and other sensitive government networks in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, defacing websites and extracting sensitive data to strut their programming prowess and make political points.LulzSecPeru

Now the team calling itself LulzSecPeru has created a national political uproar.

Emails the hackers stole from the Peruvian Council of Ministers’ network and dumped online last month fueled accusations that top Cabinet ministers have acted more like industry lobbyists than public servants. That helped precipitate a no-confidence vote last week that the Cabinet barely survived.

The hackers, who describe themselves as two young men, are a homegrown version of the U.S. and U.K-based LulzSec “black hat” hacker collective that has attacked the Church of Scientology and agitated on behalf of the WikiLeaks online secret-spillers and Occupy Wall Street.

A lot of “hacktivism” out of the United States and western Europe has waned or been driven underground by police pressure and arrests, said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, who has studied the phenomenon.

“The hackers in Latin America, however, never really stopped,” Coleman said.

LulzSecPeru is widely considered the region’s most accomplished hacktivist team, said Camilo Galdos, a Peruvian digital security expert. Until now, their signature exploit was hijacking the Twitter accounts of Venezuela’s president and ruling socialist party during elections last year.

Nothing they’d done, however, had the impact of the online dump of an estimated 3,500 emails from the account of then-Prime Minister Rene Cornejo, dating from February to July. “Happy Hunting!” the hackers wrote when they linked to the upload destination.

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Peru state a violent ‘mini-dictatorship’

By FRANK BAJAK

CHIMBOTE, Peru (AP) — One by one, the senior officials from the capital took the microphone and apologized to an auditorium packed with angry people who had long been living in fear. The officials admitted they had failed to prevent a political murder foretold by its victim. Their integrity was in doubt.

Peru’s chief prosecutor, comptroller and the head of Congress’ investigations committee, which was now holding a public hearing, had all ignored evidence that Ezequiel Nolasco, now murdered, had thrust in their faces for months.

In this Nov. 26, 2013 photo, Ancash Gov. Cesar Alvarez talks on his cell phone. Alvarez ran a “mini-dictatorship” in a state plagued by political murder where the courts and prosecutor’s office were "taken over by criminals," Peru’s anti-corruption prosecutor alleges. A judge has barred him from leaving the country while more than 100 shelved corruption cases are revived. (AP Photo/Edwin Julca)

In this Nov. 26, 2013 photo, Ancash Gov. Cesar Alvarez talks on his cell phone. Alvarez ran a “mini-dictatorship” in a state plagued by political murder where the courts and prosecutor’s office were “taken over by criminals,” Peru’s anti-corruption prosecutor alleges. A judge has barred him from leaving the country while more than 100 shelved corruption cases are revived. (AP Photo/Edwin Julca)

Having survived a 2010 assassination attempt after he denounced government corruption, Nolasco had repeatedly warned that his home state, Ancash, was run by a criminal syndicate that plundered the treasury, killed people it couldn’t buy or intimidate, wiretapped foes and used police as spies and journalists as character assassins.

A gunman finished the job on March 14, pumping five bullets into the former construction union leader when he stopped for a beer heading home from Lima to this coastal city that is home to nearly half of Ancash’s 1.1 million people.

Ancash was living under the ironclad rule of a governor locals compared to U.S. mob legend Al Capone, his political machine allegedly greased by tens of millions in annual mining revenues that had made Ancash Peru’s richest state.

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Peru’s carte blanche for big mining leaves highlanders behind, battling contamination

By FRANK BAJAK

SAN ANTONIO DE JUPROG, Peru  (AP) epifania zorilla juprog– The Marzano-Velasquez clan lived a simple, pastoral life on a mountain that turned out to hold the world’s largest known copper-and-zinc deposit.

They didn’t expect riches when they and dozens of other Quechua-speaking families sold out to an international mining consortium. But they did believe the open-pit Antamina mine would lift their long-neglected highlands district from poverty, provide steady jobs, decent health care and schools.

Maria Magdalena Velasquez, who could not read or write, signed away her family’s land with a thumbprint in 1999. She and her kin looked on as hired hands dismantled their homes on windswept moorlands before trucking the families down to the adjacent valley — their sheep herds, fields of potatoes, oats and alfalfa abandoned.

“It was a disaster to see,” said Luis Marzano, her eldest son, who was 27 years old at the time. “They burned the roofs and knocked down the walls.”

Twenty years ago, this rugged, mineral-rich Andean nation bent over backward to attract multinational mining companies, and became Latin America’s undisputed economic growth leader.

But the boom has been more of a curse for thousands of peasant families like the Marzanos, who saw the $49,000 they got for their land evaporate as they struggled to adjust to an uprooted life

While colossal copper, gold, lead, tin and silver pits helped Peru’s economy more than double in size, the people in the rural highlands that they dominate have been largely left behind, battling one environmental disaster after another as expanding mines contaminated their water, air and livestock. Promises of steady work and modern benefits remain mostly unfulfilled.

Instead, across Peru’s mine-pocked highlands, lax government regulation and frustration has led to a growing fury of protests. In 2012, security forces shot and killed eight people protesting against two of the country’s biggest mining projects. In April, Peru counted 81 active environmental disputes between mines and neighbouring communities, according to the national ombudsman’s office.

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Venezuela’s crumbling health care system: A killer

By FRANK BAJAK

MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) — Evelina Gonzalez was supposed to undergo cancer surgery in July following chemotherapy but wound up shuttling from hospital to hospital in search of an available operating table. On the crest of her left breast, a mocha-colored tumor doubled in size and now bulges through her white spandex tank top.

Gonzalez is on a list of 31 breast cancer patients waiting to have tumors removed at one of Venezuela’s biggest medical facilities, Maracay’s Central Hospital. But like legions of the sick across the country, she’s been neglected by a health care system doctors say is collapsing after years of deterioration.

APTOPIX Venezuela Sick Health Care

Doctors at the hospital sent home 300 cancer patients last month when supply shortages and overtaxed equipment made it impossible for them to perform non-emergency surgeries.

Driving the crisis in health care are the same forces that have left Venezuelans scrambling to find toilet paper, milk and automobile parts. Economists blame government mismanagement and currency controls set by the late President Hugo Chavez for inflation pushing 50 percent annually. The government controls the dollars needed to buy medical supplies and has simply not made enough available.

 

Impunity feared in Colombia military justice law

By FRANK BAJAK and LIBARDO CARDONA

BOGOTA, Colombia — The crimes were shocking, even for a country hardened by the atrocities of decades of internal conflict.

Colombian troops had killed hundreds of innocent civilians for no apparent reason other than to boost rebel body counts, U.N. investigators found. Typically, the victims were down-on-their-luck men lured to their deaths with job promises then dressed in military fatigues and registered as guerrillas slain in combat.

Five years after the scandal broke, roughly one-sixth of the soldiers accused have gone to trial or pleaded guilty, only a handful of the convicted holding the rank of major or higher. In all, authorities registered some 3,900 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings involving security force members.

Human rights activists say they are afraid a new law pushed through Congress by President Juan Manuel Santos in June will make it even harder to pursue those responsible, particularly senior officers. The law, which is under review by the Constitutional Court, would broaden the military justice system’s jurisdiction and narrow the definition of extrajudicial killings.

Santos says the reform is needed to assure armed forces members they have nothing to fear from making peace with the country’s main leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

But activists fear the reforms could hinder prosecutions of past and future war crimes by security force members and thus hurt prospects for peace talks launched in Cuba last year.

Colombia Extrajudicial Killings

Brazil Looks to Break from U.S.-Centric Internet

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil plans to divorce itself from the U.S.-centric Internet over Washington’s widespread online spying, a move that many experts fear will be a potentially dangerous first step toward fracturing a global network built with minimal interference by governments.

President Dilma Rousseff ordered a series of measures aimed at greater Brazilian online independence and security following revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency intercepted her communications, hacked into the state-owned Petrobras oil company’s network and spied on Brazilians who entrusted their personal data to U.S. tech companies such as Facebook and Google.

The leader is so angered by the espionage that on Tuesday she postponed next month’s scheduled trip to Washington, where she was to be honored with a state dinner.

Internet security and policy experts say the Brazilian government’s reaction to information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is understandable, but warn it could set the Internet on a course of Balkanization.

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Outside Caracas, Chavismo’s unfulfilled promises

VALENCIA, Venezuela (AP) — It’s just after nightfall and the power is out again in untold hundreds of thousands — probably millions — of Venezuelan homes. If the government knows how many, it’s not saying. It hasn’t issued reports on problems in the public power grid since 2010.

In Venezuela’s third-largest city, Pedro Martinez dons a shirt for visitors drawn by the flicker of candles inside his one-story, cement-block house in a middle-class district. The Caribbean heat is sticky thick inside. A mesh hammock hangs by the front door.

Venezuela Election Hinterlands

“This happens nearly every day,” Martinez says of the blackout, holding a candle close so a reporter can take notes. It’s the day’s second outage. The first struck just after noon.

It’s been like this for five years, pretty much everywhere but Caracas, the capital. Worsening power outages, crumbling infrastructure and other unfulfilled promises witnessed this week in a trip through the country’s industrial heartland could be an important factor in Sunday’s election to replace socialist President Hugo Chavez, who died last month after a long battle with cancer.

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Peru seeks to protect little fish with big impact

By FRANKLIN BRICENO and FRANK BAJAK

CALLAO, Peru (AP) _ The ocean off Peru boasts the world’s richest fishing grounds, but Taurino Querevalu is returning to port empty again after a hunt for Peruvian anchovy, cursing his empty nets and an increasingly stingy sea.

A little more than a decade ago, Querevalu’s 8-ton wooden boat rarely returned with an empty hold as it does on this day motoring back to Lima’s port of Callao, the low-slung clouds above as gray as the sea mirroring them.

“There used to be fish for everybody,” the 48-year-old trawler captain laments, leaning on the rail as a stiff breeze buffets his leathery brow. “You’d run into immense schools.”

Peru Overfishing

Querevalu’s frustrated search for the silvery, stiletto-sized fish reflects a voracious, growing global demand for the protein-rich fish meal, and oil, into which nearly Peru’s entire anchovy catch is converted. It also reflects unremitting cheating by commercial fleets on quotas and other regulations designed to protect the species.

Not only has overfishing of the Peruvian anchovy, or anchoveta, battered the industry that makes Peru far and away the world’s No. 1 fish meal exporter, it has also raised alarm about food security in a nation that had long been accustomed to cheap, abundant seafood.

The drop in the anchoveta population has over the years affected the food chain, as stocks of hundreds of bigger wild fish and marine animals that eat it have also thinned.

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