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EL ESPECTADOR

Uncovering A Colombian Diaper Cartel

Dirty business
Dirty business

BOGOTA How dirty can business get? In Colombia, it can get as dirty as a diaper. An investigation by the country's Superintendence of Industry and Commerce (SIC) has uncovered a series of illegal, coordinated price hikes in the highly lucrative diaper industry.

Trade and industry inspectors started investigating price-fixing practices in late 2013, with the aim of ridding Colombia's economy of illegal business activity. They looked into product industries as diverse as rice, sugar and cement.

Thanks to the Benefits Program for Collaboration, a project that follows the U.S. practice of protecting whistleblowers, investigators found a "diaper cartel." This group of domestic and international companies is suspected to have "artificially" raised prices from 2000 to 2013.

Colombia's Trade Ministry has announced that it would file charges against a total of five companies and 44 individuals — including directors and employees — for the unfair practices. Evidence began emerging in November 2013, when two accomplices gave inspectors ample proof of the formation of the cartel.

Diapers are big business in Colombia. With two million babies using disposable diapers there, consumers buy a billion of them every year.

The discovery is the government's first major blow to illegal price-fixing practices since the investigation started nine months ago.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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