Colombia: ‘Special zone’ = less security

The Colombian government calls part of the province of Arauca, where 30 trade unionists have been killed so far this year, a “rehabilitation and consolidation zone.” But for the region, the result has been repeated sweeps, mass arrests, prolonged detention without charges, harassment, kidnappings and murder — and a net decrease in security for the civilian population.

The London Guardian points out that a reason for the focus on Arauca is the presence of the Cano Limon oilfield, accounting for 30 percent of Colombia’s oil production. The special security zone was imposed only in the three municipalities crossed by the pipeline, The Guardian said, despite the dominance of the illegal far-right paramilitary forces in the other four. The Bush administration and Occidental Petroleum help fund the government’s controversial 18th Brigade, the main army force in the area, and a new mobile unit.

N. Korea: Washington’s stand endangers talks

The government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea said Aug. 16 that Washington’s refusal to alter its “extremely hostile” stance toward the DPRK was undermining expectations for the next round of six-party talks about nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula, expected next month. Citing the recent adoption by the House of Representatives of a “bill on human rights in North Korea,” and the U.S.’ massive shipments of state-of-the-art military equipment to South Korea, a DPRK government spokesperson said there would be “nothing to expect” from negotiations unless Washington changes its stance.

“The DPRK will make sustained efforts for the peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue between the DPRK and the U.S.,” he said. “And the DPRK is ready to render necessary cooperation to this end.”

China, which has mediated the talks that also involve Russia, Japan and South Korea, urged that the talks continue despite “inevitable difficulties.”

S. Africa: Informal settlements to get services

Residents of informal settlements across Johannesburg, South Africa’s main city, can expect to see a major improvement in access to basic social services by 2007, City Council spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane told the UN’s IRIN news service last week. The Johannesburg City Council also plans to eliminate shantytowns by that time, Modingoane said. Last year Johannesburg’s department of housing estimated there were 418,000 backyard shacks in the city, 4,500 people living on the streets, and 170,000 families living in 89 informal settlements scattered across the metropolitan area.

Each informal settlement will be declared a township, Modingoane said. Families will receive individual land allocations, which they can improve over time with the help of government housing subsidies, he said. The government provides a housing subsidy to the unemployed and those earning less than Rand 3,500 ($530) per month.

The government will also address the need for basic services such as running water, sewage and rubbish removal, Modingoane said.

Mexico: VW workers strike

Workers at the VW plant at Puebla, 65 miles southeast of Mexico City, struck Aug. 18 after rejecting the company’s offer of a 4.45 percent wage increase and 1,000 pesos (about $88) in additional benefits. The union seeks an 8.5 percent wage hike for the plant’s 9,600 workers, whose average wage is 291 pesos ($25) a day. The action came despite the union leadership’s recommendation to accept the company’s offer. Workers were reportedly still angry over last year’s cut in the workweek to four days, which was far from compensated by a 5.25 percent pay hike.

The plant at Puebla is the only producer of the New Beetle, and is one of the biggest employers in the Mexican auto industry. The strike shut down daily production of 1.300 Jettas and New Beetles. A previous strike, in 2001, lasted over two weeks and ended with the workers winning a 10.2 percent increase.

Canada: U.S. moves to militarize border

U.S. officials dedicated the first of five planned bases, at Bellingham, Wash., for regular flights along the U.S.-Canadian border Aug. 20, the Associated Press reported. The five bases, ostensibly to look for drug runners and others crossing the border illegally by air or land, will extend from Washington State to upstate New York.

Though similar bases have operated on the border with Mexico for years, the Bellingham base is the first on the Canadian border. The Bellingham base is to have a staff of nearly 70, two helicopters, an airplane and a high-speed boat by the end of the year. A second station, in Plattsburgh, N.Y., is to open by the end of the year. Bases near Detroit, Mich., Grand Forks, N.D., and Great Falls, Montana will follow it.

International notes are compiled by Marilyn Bechtel (