Saturday, May 31, 2008

Remembering the Ancash Earthquake of 1970

On the afternoon of Sunday, May 31, 1970, a 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Central Peru. Within minutes, tens of thousands were killed and several million left homeless.

The Ancash earthquake killed more than 66,000 people and left more than 150,000 injured. Half-a-million people were left homeless and at least 4 million Peruvians were affected by the devastation.

The area near the Central highland town of Huaraz was hardest hit. Today this city of 100,000 is the center for the booming tourist trade in Central Peru – a crossroads for hikers and a camper exploring the country’s famed Cordella Blanca.

But the disaster that struck here almost three decades ago is still vividly remembered. In 2000, Peru designated May 31 as Natural Disaster Education and Reflection Day, in memory of the deadliest seismic disaster in the history of Latin America.

The quake struck at 3:23 p.m. and in the following 45 seconds shook an area larger than Belgium and the Netherlands combined. The impact of the temblor was massive across the country but nowhere was its devastation felt more than in the Andean valley known as the Callejón de Huaylas.

The earthquake caused a massive avalanche on the northern slope of Mount Huascarán. A huge mass of glacial ice and rock about 3,000 feet wide and one mile long slid down the valley at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Within five minutes the towns of towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca were simply covered in more than 80 million cubic meters of material.

In Yungay, more than 25,000 people perished. Only about 100 people survived simply because they happened to be at various spots outside of the landslide’s reach. After the disaster the Peruvian government forbade any excavation in the area, declaring it a national cemetery.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The ghosts of Peru's violent past return

This month, officials announced the discovery of a mass grave containing the victims of a massacre carried out by the military in the early 1980s - one of the early atrocities carried out during Peru’s violent two-decade struggle against a Maoist insurgency.

And authorities are concerned with reports of increased activity on the part of the remaining rebels who live in the high jungle and who are being funded by the illicit drug trade.

According to the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the conflict claimed almost 70,000 lives between 1980 and 2000. More than half of the deaths were attributed to the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso (or Shining Path) and a handful of smaller groups that emulated them.

But the remainder of the deaths and human rights abuses were attributable to the Peruvian authorities – most notably the military charged with cracking down on the violence.

Earlier this month, forensic scientists recovered the bodies of at least 60 people - including 15 children – near the village of Putis in the Southern highlands. At least 120 people are believed to have been slaughtered on December 13, 1984 by the Peruvian military who suspected them of collaborating with the insurgents. At least four other grave sites in the village have yet to be excavated.

According to the truth commission there are more than 4,000 mass graves hidden in different parts of the country. Over the past decade 505 bodies have been retrieved from mass graves in Peru, of which 269 have been identified, according to figures from the prosecutor's office.

The news comes as officials say attacks by the remnants of the insurgent force are increasing. Although only several hundred Sendero Luminoso loyalists remain out of the estimated 10,000 who belonged to the group at its peak, they have been well funded by the illicit drug trade and well protected in the remote Andean jungles.

Officials now say the group carries out an attack each week in the regions they control – usually against local authorities. Since 2005, at least 40 police officers have died in the ambushes. Last November a group of five dozen insurgents destroyed a police station and killed its commander in the mountain town of Ocobamba.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Problem of Historical Inaccuracies

Perhaps the last place one would search for historical accuracy is in a summer Hollywood blockbuster but the sheer popularity of the Indiana Jones franchise means that what fables are contained in its plot are bound to have a huge impact on peoples perception of the world.

That’s a key concern for many Peruvians who fear misrepresentations of their culture and history in the newest film in the franchise, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of Crystal Skull.

Peru has long had a special place in the archeologist's fictional world since a pair of Peruvian porters led the hero to the temple in the prelude of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, many say Indiana Jones was subtly inspired by real-life explorer Gene Savoy who spent much of his life searching for the many “lost cities” of the Incas.

Yet, the Indiana Jones franchise has often played fast and loose with the reality of Peruvian history, culture and tradition and the latest film is no exception. While many may dismiss the liberties as ‘it’s only a movie’ many Peruvians are concerned about the effect of the film given broad misconceptions about their country that already exist due to widespread inaccuracies.

"Even if it is fiction there are many incorrect facts," said Historian Manuel Burga, the former head of the University of San Marcos in Lima. "This is going to be damaging to many people who do not know our country, because it shows a Peruvian landscape that is not real.”

Most damaging is a broad lack of distinction between the Mayan cultures of central Mexico and the Inca cultures of Andean South America. These two empires are separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years but the film constantly portrays them as near equivalents.

This is reinforced by howlers such as the Jones’ impossible claim he learned to speak the Peruvian native tongue of Quechua in Mexico in the 1910s. Interesting feat since the language is isolated to the Andean highlands.

The film also makes gross geographic liberties such as placing the Nazca Lines located on the Peruvian Pacific Coast near the mountain city of Cusco several hundred miles away in reality.

Worst of all, the film subtly reinvigorates the crackpot theories of Erich von Daniken whose bestselling book “Chariots of the Gods” has often been unquestionably cited as a source despite it’s woeful lack of scientific basis.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Human rights in Peru; a murky situation made worse by misinformation

The status of human rights in Peru has become a touchy topic in recent weeks following the issuance of decrees allowing a series of presidential decrees that allow greater leeway to arrest protesters.

President Alan Garcia’s approval rating has shrunk in recent months as inflation has eaten away at Peruvian buying power. Costs for staples such as chicken and bread have surged despite efforts to cut taxes on food imports. It’s a touchy topic for the president given the state he left he country in at the end of his first administration.

The unrest has led to some protesting but there are fears wider disruptions may occur during two major summits being held in Peru this year - one of European and Latin American leaders in May, and the other in November for Pacific Rim countries.

Critics of the president have insisted the decree make it easier for the military to arrest protesters is just a way to clamp down on unrest for the sake of the summits. Yet there are growing concerns in Peru that Venezuela’s leftist leader, Hugo Chavez, is working to bolster the disturbances.

Over the past few months, there have been numerous reports that Chavez is continuing to work behind the scenes in Peru to foment unrest by supporting protests, financing left-wing groups and using Bolivia as a training camp for radical leftists.

Peruvians are still living with the legacy of a two-decade-long Maoist insurgency that caused the death of nearly 70,000 people, and lead to atrocities on the part of both the leftists and the government. The latter including Garcia’s first administration.

It’s a complicated situation that has been muddied further by clumsy coverage on the part of the most vaunted of US newspapers – the Wall Street Journal – whose reporter, Mary Anastasia O’Grady has penned several articles from Lima.

Rick Vecchio, editor of The Peruvian Times and longtime reporter for the AP in Peru, blasted the article as, at the very least, ‘misinformed’ and pointed out it hinged solely on an interview with a congressman who is part of ex-President Alberto Fujimori’s congressional bloc... the ex-president currently on trial for, you guessed it, human rights abuses.

The lawmaker – and the newspaper – essentially accused one of the major human rights NGO’s in Peru of fostering terrorism, a NGO that pushed vehemently for the extradition of Fujimori in recent years.

Much of the US-based media has been overly infatuated with the Venezuelan leader’s doings on the continent and consistently insist that every liberal candidate that wins an election is part of a “pink shift” on the continent.

Which isn’t to say Chavez hasn’t been active in various roles. In 2006, he openly backed the ultra-nationalist candidate in Peru’s presidential election, Ollanta Humalla, and is believed to have offered financial backing to him. Many in Peru cited that as one of the many reasons for Garcia’s eventual election.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Volcanos in Chile and Peru rumble to life

A volcano in South Chile began erupting last week spewing ash miles into the sky and forcing thousands to evacuate.

The Chaiten volcano, about 760 miles south of the capital of Santiago began erupting on Friday sending a plume of ash thousands of feet into the sky and affecting many cities to the east in Argentina.

On Tuesday, new eruptions sent another cloud of ash 12 miles into the air and lava began pouring out of the mountain as well. A crater about 800 meters (2,600 feet) wide was created.

Authorities ordered everyone out of the immediate region. About 8,000 of 12,000 residents have left.

There are more than 100 active volcanoes in Chile of which two dozen are capable of erupting at any time. Geologists believe Chaiten has not erupted in the last 9,000 years.

Since the eruptions began on May 2, more than 4,000 people had fled the towns of towns of Chaiten and Futaleufu in the Palena province. Government authorities, including president Michele Bachelet, were on hand throughout the weekend to oversee the efforts.

Officials said that dozens of small earthquakes have been recorded in the area since the eruptions began.

In Southern Peru, the volcano Ubinas has been erupting for the past several weeks but not in as explosive fashion as Chatien. Over the weekend two new eruptions sent a cloud of ash more than 500 meters into the sky.

The mountain roared to life in March of 2006 but later quieted enough for residents to return. As of this week the more than five thousand residents in the region are waiting to see if they need to evacuate again.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Peruvian source of the Amazon River

The Amazon River has long been recognized as the largest river in the world by volume – accounting for a fill fifth of the world’s total river flow. But a series of expeditions into the highlands of Southern Peru over the past decade have also established it as the longest river in the world.

This week, the Geographical Society of Lima is unveiling the findings of a 1996 expedition to find the source of the famous river led by Jacek Palkiewicz, an explorer of Italian and Polish descent.

That effort identified a small gorge on a slope of Nevado Mismi at 5,170 meters above sea level as the site of the start for the world’s largest and longest river. The waters form a small stream named Carhuasanta which flows into the Apurimac River and thence to the Amazon basin.

The Nevado Mismi point of origin makes the total length of the Amazon 6,800 kilometers(4,250 miles) exceeding the Nile by more than 100 kilometers (60 miles). A Brazilian expedition last year confirmed that result.

The location was confirmed in 2000 by a National Geographic Society expedition led by Andrew Pietowski, using GPS equipment to pinpoint the exact location of the Amazon’s source.

National Geographic had recognized the 18,363-foot-high (5,597-meter) mountain in southern Peru as the source since an expedition in 1971 but the precise location was not clear until Pietowski’s effort.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Peruvian Edgar Prado rides in the Kentucky Derby

Edgar Prado is arguably the most famous jockey who will be riding in the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Three years ago the 40-year-old Peruvian brought the tragic Barbaro to a six-and-a-half-length victory at Churchill downs.

And he was atop the thoroughbred two weeks later at the Preakness Stakes when the horse’s leg shattered dooming it.

That ill-starred ride was the highlight of what has been a phenomenal racing career for Prado. He has won more than 6,000 races, ridden in more than 31,500 and tallied more than $200 million in winnings. In August, the jockey will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

On Saturday, he will be riding Adriano, a 30-1 favorite, in the Run for the Roses.

He grew up in Lima near the Monterrico racetrack where his father worked and he learned about the sport. He won his first race as a rider there in 1983 and then came to the United States three years later.

The 5’ 3”, 114-pound jockey rode his first winner in Peru in 1983 and was a leading rider there before coming to the U.S. in 1986. And although he now lives in Miami, he says he still loves Peruvian ceviche.

He is, perhaps, most famous for his association with Barbaro and his book about the horse, My Guy Barbaro, was released this year.

“He is still a special horse to me,” Prado says. “He brought me the biggest thrill of my life, other than when my kids were born.”

Prado won’t be the only Peruvian rider at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Rafael Bejarano, who boasts 1,640 career wins is set to ride Anak Nakal in the Run for the Roses. Hailing from Arequipa, Bejarano now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, the home of the derby.

In addition to the pair of Peruvians there are three Venezuelans, three Panamanians as well as riders from Brazil, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Peruvian worker safety concerns mount with fatal accident

Four construction workers were killed Wednesday on a jobsite in Miraflores, Peru when they were crushed by a collapsing wall.

The men, employees of J & J Engineers, had a license to work, said Manuel Masías, the mayor of Miraflores, but had been lax in implementing safety standards.

Masías said the municipality has eased safety supervision recently in an effort to facilitate project development in the rapidly growing suburb of Lima.

The accident is disturbingly similar to an incident in December that claimed the lives of eight workers in another Lima suburb, La Victoria. Workers with JAA Construction Company were digging a ditch as part of a building construction when a wall of concrete fell on them.

In that case, the company lacked a license to operate and no safety precautions of any type had been taken, officials said.

Peru’s recent economic health has spurred a boom in construction. In February, the sector saw an increase of 22.49 percent over the same month in 2007. But as jobs have boomed so have concerns about worker safety.

According to the Federation of Civil Construction Workers of Peru, 20 workers died in work-related accidents in 2005 and 38 were killed in 2006. Calls to improve worker safety prompted the Peruvian government to tighten laws overseeing the sector and establish an agency to inspect job sites.

Agents with the National Directorate of Inspection of the Ministry of Labor and Employment Promotion performed more than 183,000 inspections in 2007 – and increase of more than 60,000 from the year prior.