Santos wins landslide victory in Colombian election

But will the former defence minister take responsibility for the murder of 2,000-plus civilians?

Juan Manuel Santos made a clean sweep of the second round of the Colombian elections, winning the highest vote ever received by a president. He seduced the electorate on Sunday with a message of national unity.

But Santos's victory is controversial. During his term as minister of defence, it emerged that the army had murdered more than 2,000 civilians over several years, passing them off as rebels.

Under President Àlvaro Uribe's "democratic security" policy, soldiers are rewarded according to the number of rebels they kill, a practice called "positivos".

The scandal known as "falsos positivos" erupted late in 2008 when 19 young men were reported missing in the municipality of Soacha, only to reappear as rebels killed in action a day later, on the other side of the country.

"Those young people were contacted by guys that were related to the army and they were delivered to them," says Maria Victoria Llorentes, executive director of the think tank Ideas para la Paz, which monitors the Colombian armed conflict.

But the army is also under tremendous pressure to defeat the rebels. Uribe and now Santos have made this the cornerstone of their mandate.

"Uribe has been pushing the military forces a lot for results. Previous presidents were not pressing as hard; he is really obsessed with these figures," says Llorentes

Juan Manuel Santos reacted quickly when the scandal emerged. He fired leading members of the military staff and forced the commander of the armed forces, General Mario Montoya, to "resign". Santos also created a new human rights doctrine for the armed forces in late 2008.

But doubts remain over how much he knew.

"Santos only took action once the killings went public," says Hollman Morris, a journalist and strong critic of Uribe's presidency. "Why only in 2008? What happened to the internal control mechanisms of the armed forces? You could think they hushed it up."

Close your eyes

On the contrary, Roy Barreras, a senator and member of Santos's political party, defends him. "The minister of defence of this government was the one who denounced the falsos positivos, which had been happening for a long time. He warned about the phenomenon and stopped it."

The murders outraged Colombia's educated classes, who denounced them in the media, but they left the rest of the country indifferent.

"It was like, yes, it's horrible and everything, but that is it. Life goes on," says Maria Victoria Llorentes. "The feeling against the Farc [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] is so strong. In fact, that is why Santos is winning. The rest of the people couldn't care less."

"The feeling of greater security and safety that Uribe and Santos were able to transmit weighs more than the scandal," says Angelika Rettberg, a political analyst at Los Andes University.

"There is also something classist about it: these kids are mainly poor kids, so it makes it easier for people to close their eyes."

Yet many people feel not enough was done.

"In Israel, for the murder of nine activists on the flotillas, they are asking for the prime minister to resign. And here in Colombia where thousands died, we elect Santos as president," says William Salamanca, 43, a taxi driver.

It is the question of political responsibility that remains most troubling. No one knows who should take the blame for the falsos positivos.

But a recent verdict condemning General Plazas Vega for murders committed by the army during the siege of the Palace of Justice in Bogotà in 1985 is setting a new precedent.

Will President Juan Manuel Santos be held accountable in the future for the falsos positivos?

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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