On high in Colombia: folk tales and park life at Cali’s Loma de la Cruz

According to Caleños, as Cali locals are called, there is an eerie legend about their cross on the hill. Here, in the mid-1500s, two African slaves are said to have defied their masters by getting married in secret. The couple were betrayed, and killed, and were never given a proper burial, so it is said their souls were left wandering the hillside until the placement of a cross laid them to rest. Franciscan friars put the current brick one there in 1909 to replace a wooden cross that gave the spot its name: Loma de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross).

This haunting story lingers on the hill, which remains a space for reflecting on Colombia’s history of slavery and civil war.

“They can silence my song, but they can’t hold back my soul,” reads a massive mural honouring the disappeared.

The hill is also home to the Parque Artesanal, popular for its views, craft stalls and outdoor cultural events. A private company opened the market and exhibition space there in 1990, to display craftsmanship from across the Americas. Soon after, it was expanded into a public park by the local authority.

Read the rest of this short travel feature at The Guardian as part of the “A Great Little Place I Know” series.


Foreign Policy Interrupted’s Interruptor Series interview with Angelika Albaladejo

Colombia seems to be a hotspot for constant conflict, yet the recent peace deal between the government and the FARC has been cause for hope.

Below, our student fellow Connie E spoke with Angelika Albaladejo about her on-the-ground observations as a freelance multimedia journalist based in Medellín, Colombia. Angelika’s work focuses on human rights, security, women’s rights, gender-based violence and social protest in Latin America, with an eye on U.S. policy and assistance to the region.

Between April 2015 and August 2016, Angelika worked as a Program Associate with the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) where she engaged in research, writing, advocacy and communications work for the organization’s campaigns on Colombia, Cuba, and the “northern triangle” countries of Central America: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Previous to working at LAWG, Angelika was the Latin America Rights and Security Fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP) in the fall of 2014 and the co-host and co-producer of Periphery, an independent podcast on security and rights in the Americas from 2014 to 2015.

Fun fact: “I ran a small business called ‘Vans-Gogh: Hand-Painted Shoes’ through college, painting shoes and other clothing items for clients around the world.”

FPI: Why have you chosen to report on Latin America and the issues around human rights, gender and security?

My interest in Latin America was sparked by my family’s background. My mother is from Cuba, her family was exiled after the revolution there and my father’s family is from Puerto Rico. Growing up in South Florida around a very large Hispanic population, I was very interested in Latino politics. When I went to study at George Mason, I thought I would focus on the United States, but my research on the conflict in Colombia set me forward on this path of working on security in Latin America. I started researching issues of human trafficking and girl child combatants in the Colombian conflict and that’s really where my interest was peaked in how security situations throughout the Americas are impacting various groups but particularly women and marginalized communities.

My career started off more on the think tank and advocacy side of things in D.C. I was working mostly on U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America and the impact that U.S. policies were having in the region.

After working in D.C. for about two years, I decided to pick up, move to the region and spend time doing more fieldwork. I’d had an experience doing fieldwork in El Salvador with the Latin America Working Group. It sparked my interest in doing more on-the-ground reporting and that’s why I decided to move to Colombia.

Read the rest of this interview from the Interruptor Series on Foreign Policy Interrupted.

A “Witch Hunt Against Poor Women”: Across the Americas, Abortion Laws Are Harming Health And Security


In 2011, Maria Teresa Rivera woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. Earlier that day, suffering stomach cramps, she had gone to the latrine in her backyard and collapsed. Her mother-in-law had found her, lying in a pool of blood, and rushed her to the hospital.

The 27-year-old Salvadoran garment worker and single mother had miscarried without ever knowing she was pregnant. But when she regained consciousness, she learned that hospital staff had suspected her of inducing an abortion and reported her to the police. The next day, still nauseated and feverish, she was moved to a jail cell. A few months later, a judge sentenced her to the maximum punishment for murder: 40 years in prison.

Maria Teresa is not alone. Across the Americas, restrictive reproductive rights laws are harming women’s health and security, offering a picture of what the United States could look like if Donald Trump’s administration has its way. Strict statutes paired with inequality and gen- eralized violence strip women of control over their bodies and impede access to health care, especially for those in the poorest communities. “The women who are already in vulnerable situations are always going to suffer the most,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, an attorney and programs specialist for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global advocacy group based in New York City. “The discrepancies in the level of access are really just outrageous, and it becomes even more worrisome when it comes to access to reproductive health services.”

Read the rest of this article in the Winter 2016/2017 issue of the World Policy Journal written and edited entirely by female foreign policy experts in collaboration with Foreign Policy Interrupted. This article is currently locked behind a paywall by the publisher, Duke University Press, and is only accessible with a subscription.

How a hip-hop collective in the mountains of Colombia is mixing urban beats with farm eats

Rapping in the Casa Morada patio.jpg

MEDELLÍN —A boombox blasts a beat as a few young rappers pass around the mic, taking turns freestyling verses in the community center’s patio.

Behind them, a giant mural depicts a single surviving artist in a sea of dead bodies.

“They can’t shut me up. I’m a rapper. I represent the people. I’m a reporter of what happens in the neighborhood, of what happens in the streets,” one teenager spits before passing the mic to the little boy next to him.


Warm afternoon sunshine fills the outdoor space where the young rappers are gathered at “The Purple House,” an activist meeting space in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Medellín.

Carved into the side of one of the mountains surrounding Colombia’s second largest city, Comuna 13 is well known as a site of government neglect and urban violence linked to the country’s five-decade internal conflict.

But Comuna 13 is also the birthplace of a unique blend of activism that combines rap music, social protest and environmental projects.

“We call it ‘agrarian hip hop’ because we’ve synchronized hip hop with agriculture,” explained Luis Fernando Álvarez.

For the past 10 years, Álvarez, who goes by the rapper name “A.K.A.,” has promoted this approach to community engagement as the leader of AgroArte.

Read the rest of this article and see more photographs on Fusion.

‘A Sea of Tears and Impunity’: Victims Still Searching for Justice 14 Years After Infamous Colombia Military Operation


“Orion never again” reads a mural commemorating 14 years since Operation Orion laid siege to the neighborhood of Comuna 13 in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city. The eyes of human rights activist Luz Elena Galeano Laverde look on as peace grows and origami doves flutter. Photograph by Angelika Albaladejo.

The second time armed men came to her house, Blanca Nidia Perez Botero wasn’t home.

She was at work. But her sons were home caring for her sick father when some men dressed as soldiers showed up at their door and threatened them. They said that they would take the boys away if they found a gun in the house.

There was no gun. The boys were safe. For now.

The first time the armed men had come was the night before. Perez thought she heard someone trying to open the door to their home. Her husband told her it was nothing. But when he heard it too, he told her to step back and peered out the window.

Outside, masked men in military uniforms were climbing out of a truck. The men came to their door and asked to search Perez’s home for leftist guerrillas who controlled her neighborhood.

Perez’s husband said there was nothing to hide and invited the soldiers inside. But even after they finally left, Perez knew it wasn’t over.

The security operation, dubbed “Orion” by the Colombian government, continued for an entire week. Military helicopters hovered overhead, firing into the Medellin community where Perez still lives. Tanks and police vehicles rolled through and security forces busted down doors and detained residents. Hundreds of civilians were injured, killed or disappeared.

Exactly 14 years later, victims are still seeking justice and searching for answers about what happened to loved ones who disappeared that week and in the years following.

Read the rest of this article and see more photographs on The WorldPost.

El Salvador considers partial pivot on world’s worst anti-abortion law

El Salvador’s ruling party is finally challenging the country’s long-standing abortion ban which has imprisoned dozens of women for suffering miscarriages.

Congressional leaders of the leftist Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) introduced a bill on Tuesday that would allow women to access therapeutic abortions in cases where the fetus is not viable, where the mother was a victim of rape or human-trafficking, or where continuing the pregnancy would endanger the mother’s life or health.

For more than 20 years, El Salvador has enforced one of the world’s most severe anti-abortion laws, which have been used to prosecute at least 129 women for abortion-related crimes. At least 25 Salvadoran women are currently behind bars for having a miscarriage or stillbirth.

Read the rest of this article on Fusion.

Thousands of Colombians Protest for Peace After Unexpected Rejection of Historic Accord

Medellin Peace March - candle girl.jpg

Protestors march for peace on October 7 in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city and a stronghold of the movement against the peace deal between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group.

MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Thousands of Colombian citizens took to the streets Friday evening to voice their support for a peace agreement between the government and the country’s largest rebel group, which was narrowly rejected by voters in an October 2 plebiscite.

After 52 years of armed conflict, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a historic peace deal on September 26. The agreement was almost universally expected to gain public approval during the October 2 plebiscite vote, but a fierce campaign against the accord and low voter turnout resulted in a slim rejection of the deal.

The unexpected victory of the “No” campaign has generated a political crisis in Colombia. In recent days, President Juan Manuel Santos has convened talks with leaders of the “No” movement in order to hear their suggestions for how to revise the rejected accord, which they claim was too lenient on the FARC.

The outcome of these talks remains uncertain, but some experts say that a failure to renegotiate the agreement could result in a collapse of the four-year-old peace process and a return of the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere.

In the midst of this polarized political atmosphere, students and victims’ organizations across the country have organized massive marches in support of President Santos’ efforts to hammer out a new agreement.

Read the rest of this article and see more photographs on The World Post.

Berta Caceres’ case file was stolen. Is Honduras bungling this murder investigation on purpose?

The case file on the murder of one of Honduras’ most prominent human-rights figures was stolen last week, marking the latest setback in an investigation that has been so constantly bungled that many suspect it’s intentional.

On Sept. 29, two unidentified individuals assaulted Honduran Supreme Court of Justice Magistrate María Luisa Ramos as she was traveling with documents related to the killing of award-winning human rights activist Berta Cáceres. The suspects forced Ramos from her car and made off with the vehicle, with the case file inside.

Read the rest of this article on Fusion.

El Salvador’s Violence: Still No Easy Way Out

by Sarah Kinosian, Angelika Albaladejo and Lisa Haugaard on September 15, 2016

The Center for International Policy (CIP) and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) traveled to El Salvador in late 2015 to report on the state of security and human rights in what has become the most violent country in the world outside of a war zone.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-4-36-11-pmWe documented our findings and published them in a series, El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out in February 2016. The aim was to offer a nuanced explanation of the factors driving Salvadorans to flee their country by the thousands, and offer insights into how U.S. policy could help.

What we found was a bleak and very bloody situation. Gangs, government forces, and other actors were locked in a violent conflict. Although the Salvadoran government developed a plan, El Salvador Seguro, to address the violence in a balanced manner, only the hardline “mano dura” measures were rolled out, and some government forces were carrying out extrajudicial executions and abuse with impunity. Politics were extremely polarized.

Seven months later, much of this is still true…

See the rest of this post on the Latin America Working Group‘s Just Americas blog.

Download the full report El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out: English | Spanish

El Salvador’s Security Strategy in 2016: Change or More Mano Dura?

by Sarah Kinosian and Angelika Albaladejo on February 29, 2016

As noted in our second post, El Salvador’s mounting security crisis has been met by a heavy-handed government response, which centers on sending the military and police into the streets to outgun the gangs and filling the country’s jails with even the lowest-ranking of alleged gang members. Beyond escalating violence and presenting extremely serious human rights concerns, this plan is simply not working. But, as 2016 unfolds, the government has a chance to set a new course and roll out an existing strategy to curb the violence.

PNC officers meet President Sanchez Ceren at ceremony presenting the police with arms and vehicles

Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén meets with officers during a ceremony turning over weapons and vehicles to the National Civil Police (PNC). Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

Instead of addressing the drivers behind astronomical murder rates, current strategy aims to shoot and arrest the problem away –a well-worn security policy in Latin America known as “mano dura,” or “iron fist.” Throughout Latin America it has been well documented that this hardline approach is not only bad for human rights, but does not work in the long run. In neighboring Honduras, the Latin America Working Group and the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor documented in 2015 that as the list of abuses committed by militarized police forces continues to grow, “the central problem with this tactic becomes clearer: these soldiers are educated for war, not peace, and putting them on the streets turns each citizen into a potential enemy.” Studies in Mexico and Guatemala have also confirmed that relying on soldiers for citizen security for an extended period of time has not sustainably lowered rates of crime and violence. In the case of Guatemala, the United Nations has declared that greater use of the military in public security “has not resulted in visible improvements.”

In El Salvador, previous bouts of mano dura policies, including mass arrests, not only failed to bring down murder rates, but made matters worse. After being incarcerated in the early 2000s, gang members from local criminal groups were able to consolidate due to connections made while imprisoned. They then expanded their operations nationally, giving rise to the country’s current security landscape, in which two main gangs wield exceptional power over territory and murder rates have risen across the country. (See here for more on El Salvador’s gangs.)

Today’s policies might bring about similar adverse effects. As a former colonel in the military warned, “More repression of the gangs by the state only makes them more sophisticated. Applying the most severe penalties only emboldens the gangs because they are the product of social exclusion and inequality.” A commander in the Salvadoran police force warned of several other problems with the current security strategy:

You can’t kill a mosquito with an M-16. The gangs are a moving, growing target. Furthermore, by police being abusive, you’ve handed part of the community to the gang. You need intelligence to build cases, a strong judicial system and a working prison system. You also need to investigate financial crimes, but only the (now-former) Attorney General’s Office can do that, and right now, it won’t.

However, in the early months of 2016, the Salvadoran government appears to be continuing its hardline stance with the claim that the mano dura approach will work if given enough time. Vice President Óscar Ortiz recently said, “We’ve never had this level of prosecution and strategy deployed to strike and dismantle crime, like we do now. But it’s going to take some time.”


An officer of the National Civil Police (PNC) stands in front of a poster depicting actors within El Salvador’s security strategy. Photo credit: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr

In conjunction with continued deployments of police and soldiers, lawmakers are proposing hardline legal means to bring down the gangs. There is currently a gang registry law under debate in Congress, introduced by the right-wing ARENA party, which would create a list of alleged gang members and their collaborators. Lawmakers say this registry would make it easier for judges to apply harsher sentences to gang members under a law that has newly defined gang members as terrorists since August 2015. As noted in an earlier post, aside from the potential to escalate violent gang tactics and perpetuate an overall rhetoric of war, police do not often differentiate between gang members, collaborators and those who simply live in gang-controlled neighborhoods, leaving the door open for wrongful imprisonment and creeping mass incarceration rates.

See the rest of this post on the Latin America Working Group‘s Just Americas blog. This article is the fifth in the Latin America Working Group and Security Assistance Monitor series ” El Salvador’s Violence: No Easy Way Out.”