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In Colombia, A Lesbian Police Officer Who Fought The Law - And Won

After being abducted as a child, Sandra Mora decided to become a police officer. She excelled at her job, but then got kicked off the force after being outed as a lesbian.

Bogota police officers stand guard outside the Colombian Congress, where lawmakers were voting on a proposed bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the country, on April 23, 2013.
Bogota police officers stand guard outside the Colombian Congress, where lawmakers were voting on a proposed bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the country, on April 23, 2013.
Paula Castillo Lenis

BOGOTA â€" Tears don't come easily to Sandra Mora, though God knows she's had plenty of reasons to cry. Her habit, instead, is to take life's blows and move on â€" like she did in 2000, when she lost her job because she's gay.

Trouble managed to find the now 45-year-old police officer early in her life as well. Mora was just eight when a band of thugs kidnapped her in Bogota, the capital, to use her as a tool for their criminal activities. She spent three years between the cities of Cali, Pereira and Armenia, forced by her captors into shoplifting and drug trafficking.

Her family never gave up on finding her, and one day her mother received a phone call about her daughter’s whereabouts. With the help of the Colombian police and secret services, Mora’s parents rescued her from the streets of Armenia, where they found her eating a stolen banana. It was at that moment that Mora found her life’s calling: to become a policewoman, and protect the most vulnerable in society, like she herself had been.

After settling back in with her family and graduating from high school, she immediately enrolled in the General Santander National Police Academy in the capital, where Colombia’s police officer corps are trained. After reaching the first officer rank of deputy lieutenant she was promoted to commander for child protection in her hometown of Villavicencio.

Mora continued to rise in the police ranks, and soon became the first female instructor of bodyguard units in the history of the national police. She was eventually appointed head of security for Alan Jara, the governor of the Meta department, long before he was kidnapped by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas in 2001. Mora then returned to Bogota, where she was promoted to deputy commander of the Tierra Linda police station, where she was responsible for managing security for ministers and ambassadors in the capital.

Cornered by the colonel

Her meteoric rise continued unabated until her return to Meta in 1999. That's when problems began to mount. The first order she received from her new boss, Col. Mario Gutiérrez, was to take command of Vanguardia airport, a major hotspot in the drug trade. “Can you do this, lieutenant?” Gutiérrez asked her in a doubtful tone. “As a woman who loves a challenge, I replied, "Of course I can!" I wasn't afraid,” says Mora.

At the airport she discovered a dark underside of her job she had not yet encountered: corruption and disorder were rampant within the police station. After seven months in her new post she utterly transformed the unit, finally gaining the trust of the colonel â€" or so she thought.

“At the moment I was in a relationship, but we were having problems,” Mora recalls. “At the airport I met a civilian pilot. I broke up with my partner and started dating her instead.”

Not long afterwards, in October 1999, Col. Gutiérrez called her to his office for a reprimand. “Lieutenant, you’re excellent at your job, but we know you’re also in a relationship with a woman here that goes beyond friendship,” he told her. Sandra unequivocally acknowledged her involvement with the pilot.

The police, it turned out, had been following Mora for months and recorded her conversations with her partner. The colonel insisted that if she didn’t end her relationship she would be forced to leave the force, citing alleged links between her girlfriend and drug traffickers and paramilitary groups.

But Mora knew that she could not legally be expelled from her job because of her sexual orientation. She challenged her superiors. “First, I won’t break up with her because we only got together recently,” she remembers saying. “Second, you have to show me proof that she is tied to the drug trade because you don’t know for sure. I’m not corrupt and my private life is separate from my work life.”

Seven months later, Gutiérrez finally had his way. In May of 2000, Sandra returned from her vacation to discover that she had been fired without notice. A lowly private informed her that she was expelled from the police under a decree that gives police chiefs the discretion to dismiss anyone deemed to be involved in corruption or the drug trade.

“Many have abused this decree to ruin the lives of men and women in the force,” Mora explains.

Fighting back

That day marked the beginning of her agony and her long struggle to defend her personal and professional rights. After several setbacks, she finally received legal representation from the police with four lawyers who ultimately failed to advance her cause. The medals she earned from years of hard work defending her country were no help at all, and she was forced to spend more than she could afford on an endless legal process.

Penniless, hungry and forced to live in a motel in the capital, she turned to her friends for support. She went through a litany of menial jobs, waiting tables at a restaurant, selling herbal products door-to-door, and washing dishes to get by and pay for her lawyers.

Despite her adversities, a series of guardian angels came to Mora’s aid to help her in her darkest hours. After becoming security coordinator for a supermarket chain, she established the Mora Morales Young Entrepreneurs foundation, which still exists today. Her newfound experience in business management paid off, and after studying day and night she received an offer to become head of security projects for the Bogota district of Chapinero.

Chapinero is where she fatefully met Blanca Inés Durán, the district’s mayor and one of Colombia’s first openly homosexual politicians. With mayor's help Mora became successful in coordinating security for the area.

Finally, the day she had been waiting for arrived. In January 2011, Mora was shopping at a mall with her wife â€" the pilot who she has now been with for 15 years â€" when she received a phone call from an old high school friend who now works as a journalist. He told her the news she had been dreaming of for years: she had won her case in court.

Thanks to the relentless efforts of her friend and lawyer Miguel Ángel Villalobos, the Superior Tribunal of Meta department ruled in Sandra’s favor and ordered the police to reinstate her in the same position she held prior to her dismissal. The court’s ruling even commanded the police to fully compensate her for the more than 11 years worth of backpay. “It was a slap in the face for them,” says Mora.

A triumph for the system

One of the first to recognize that justice had been served in the court’s decision was Gen. Óscar Naranjo Trujillo, the distinguished national director of the police. “We spoke for more than an hour,” Mora says of their meeting four years ago.

“It was difficult for me to return to the national police directorate, where they had treated me so badly, but I was happy. He congratulated me, emphasized that I had done no wrong against the police and added that he expected me to do great things,” she recalls, visibly moved by the memory.

Gen. Óscar Naranjo Trujillo, in June 2008 â€" Photo: Jpx92681

“When I returned to the police it was a completely different institution. They promoted me to captain, then to major and eventually I was made human rights chief, charged with the protection of people faced with discrimination,” she says with a beaming smile on her face. “I’m the official police liaison with the LGBT community.”

Since then her career has progressed even further, and in June of this year she rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel after passing the requisite exam with flying colors. Mora now has years of laudable work under her belt in advancing social inclusion of sexual diversity in Colombia. “I will always defend the police. I’m a woman who stands up for her work,” says Mora.

Thanks to her own experiences, she successfully reversed the dismissal of five soldiers and one police officer discharged for their sexual orientation. “There are people who think that all lesbians are crazy. I’m sure there are some who are, but the same applies to heterosexuals. I’m a lesbian but this doesn’t mean I’ve lost my femininity,” says Mora.

“I also don’t think that just because a man is gay he should be barred from joining the army, whether he is effeminate or not," she adds. "What’s clear is that putting on this uniform requires great responsibility, because every day we defend our rights knowing that we have a duty do so.”

The first person Sandra turned to after Col. Gutiérrez threatened to dismiss her was Gen. Aldemar Bedoya. Nine years later, she discovered that his efforts were key to her victory in court. “He is one of the few men I’ll ever love in my life. He found the truth amid the darkness and I will always be grateful for that,” says Mora. “He became my angel.”

“When one learns to love oneself, they can then begin to defend themselves,” she says.

Mora's story isn’t just a step forward for the LGBT community. The court’s sentence provides hope and a legal recourse for all those who face discrimination. Her victory represents a triumph for Colombia’s judicial system as a whole, asserting the fundamental rights of all citizens who are too afraid to be their true selves.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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