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?

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Relax – there’s new evidence that mindfulness actually works

The relaxation therapy could prevent relapses in sufferers of depression, according to a new study.

If there’s one thing that can be said of buzzwords, it’s that they almost always fall by the wayside in the end. Yet in the field of mental health, one buzzword has survived the best efforts of critics and naysayers – “mindfulness”.

First coined by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the term mindfulness was initially characterised as a state of mind that would enable someone to pay “attention on purpose” to the present moment. Modern secular society seems to have embraced it as a form of meditation. Everything from exercise to breathing now has an associated mindfulness manual attached.

However, not everyone is convinced. For example, the recent phenomenon of adult colouring books – devised to promote mindfulness and serve as a form of therapeutic escapism – has been criticised by therapists as over-hyped and not necessarily helpful.

Meanwhile, sceptics have pointed out an alleged bias in the publishing of positive findings from trials using mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. Researchers at McGill University in Canada “found that scientists reported positive findings 60 per cent more often than is statistically likely” after analysing 124 different published trials involving mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. In some cases, the practice has even had a reverse effect, inducing anxiety, pain or panic.

However, a new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry seems to demonstrate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be a potent treatment in preventing and managing relapse into major depression. Led by the University of Oxford, the study’s researchers conducted the largest meta-analysis (an analysis of various different studies) to date on the therapy’s impact on recurrent depression.

The particular form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that was used aimed to equip patients with the skills required to successfully recognise and repel the thoughts and feelings they most commonly associated with the state of depression, in order to prevent any future relapse.

According to the study, “the MBCT course consists of guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioural exercises. Participants receiving MBCT typically attended eight 2-2.5 hour group sessions alongside daily home practice.”

Using anonymous patient data from nine randomised trials involving 1,258 participants, researchers found that 38 per cent of those who received mindfulness-based therapy experienced a depressive relapse, in comparison to 49 per cent of patients who didn’t receive treatment. The patient data covered age, sex and level of education – key inclusions, as the meta-analysis was able to show no significant influence by these factors on the therapy’s performance.

The most prominent form of remedy currently available for mental health patients is anti-depressant medication. Four of the nine randomised trials comparatively assessed the impact of therapy alongside medication, to deduce if a combination of therapy with varying doses of medication was more beneficial than medication alone. The patients from the study who received mindfulness therapy along with continued, reduced or discontinued medication were less likely to fall back into depression than patients on maintenance anti-depressants alone. This helps legitimise mindfulness as an option in combating depression’s debilitating effects and reinforces its efficacy, whether it is taken up with or without anti-depressants.

Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and lead author of the study, called the results “very heartening”. “While MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term.

“It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and maintenance antidepressants. We need to do more research, however, to get recovery rates closer to 100 per cent and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life. These are programmes of work we are pursuing at the University of Oxford and with our collaborators around the world."

Though the findings will certainly reinvigorate confidence in mindfulness, Richard Byng from the University of Plymouth and one of the co-authors said, “clinicians need to be cautiously optimistic when tapering off antidepressant medication, and treat each patient as an individual who may or may not benefit from both MBCT and other effective treatments."