After months of speculation -- and days after police confirmed the existence of a long-rumored incriminating video -- Toronto Mayor Rob Ford finally admitted at a press conference Tuesday to having smoked crack cocaine, "probably a year ago," he thinks, "probably in a drunken stupor."
Internet, do your thing:
Exclusive photo of Rob Ford press conference pic.twitter.com/wXaEwaeGSI— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 5, 2013
C'est vrai. RT @SrWHOfficial: Ford isn't in trouble so much for smoking crack, but failing to refer to it as "smoking crack/fume le craque".— Katie Drummond (@katiedrumm) November 5, 2013
Heck, I didn't think they even allowed crack in Canada. Messes up the healthcare costs.— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) November 5, 2013
Probably in a drunken stupor when he made it. MT @robyndoolittle: The mayor's admission took his own staff by complete surprise.— Hayes Brown (@HayesBrown) November 5, 2013
But can Rob Ford lead?— Tim Murphy (@timothypmurphy) November 5, 2013
Last week I came home in a drunken stupor and bought a video game online. So Rob Ford's explanation makes sense to me.— Tom Ley (@ToLey88) November 5, 2013
Who among us hasn't gotten drunk and smoked crack while running a major city? Judge not lest etc.— Jon Lovett (@jonlovett) November 5, 2013
Rob Ford should pivot to Asia.— Jeffrey Goldberg (@JeffreyGoldberg) November 5, 2013
Not sure I even get that last one -- but I like it. Funny ones that we missed? Leave them in the comments or tweet at @ForeignPolicy.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
It was the Amazon.com of the illegal drug trade. An online black market in which cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and LSD were bought and sold by anonymous customers and dealers, using untraceable digital currency. U.S. authorities called it "the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet..." And today, they announced they've taken it down.
In a criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday, the Justice Department announced that the online market Silk Road has been wiped off the Internet and its profits seized. Since its inception in 2011, Silk Road has been the bane of federal drug enforcement agents, who knew full well what the illicit marketplace was selling but were largely powerless to do anything about it. As of last month, there were more than 13,000 listings for illegal drugs of all varieties on Silk Road, the government said in its complaint.
Silk Road, which operates through an extensive network of routers that lets users remain anonymous, enabled several thousand dealers to distribute hundreds of kilograms of illicit substances, as well as other illegal goods and services, to more than a 100,000 buyers, federal prosecutors allege.
The site, which also sold hacker services and even advertised murder for hire, obscured transactions by requiring they be conducted in Bitcoin, an electronic currency "designed to be as anonymous as cash," prosecutors charge.
The marketplace was a well-known, if not widely visited, corner of the so-called Deep Web, a part of the World Wide Web that is not indexed by search engines. Visitors to the Deep Web have to know what they're looking for and cannot find their way to its sites through traditional means, such as Google searches.
Silk Road "has sought to make conducting illegal transactions on the Internet as easy and frictionless as shopping online at mainstream e-commerce websites," prosecutors allege.
Silk Road was designed to let its customers remain anonymous in two ways. The first was by using the Tor router network, which makes it practically impossible to locate computers that are hosting or accessing websites on the network.
The second form of anonymity came from Bitcoins. The electronic currency has been a favored means for procuring illegal goods and services online, because Bitcoins can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to trace to their owners. There is no central bank that generates Bitcoins or regulates their use. People can buy and sell Bitcoins through exchanges set up by independent parties.
Skeptics of Bitcoin say its value fluctuates too wildly to be a useful currency and that its greatest value is to criminals and black market buyers. But proponents say Bitcoins have the potential to revolutionize commerce by making it easier for customers to make purchases and vendors to get paid. A small but growing number of individual vendors, nonprofit organizations, and companies accept Bitcoin.
The government has seized 26,000 Bitcoins from Silk Road, which it estimates are worth approximately $3.6 million. This would constitute the largest-ever seizure of Bitcoins, prosecutors say.
Silk Road has allegedly generated sales totaling more than 9.5 million Bitcoins and has collected commissions totaling more than 600,000 Bitcoins. The value of the currency has varied during Silk Road's operations, but the government believes those transactions equate to approximately $1.2 billion in sales and $80 million in commissions for Silk Road.
The FBI arrested Ross William Ulbricht, aka "Dread Pirate Roberts," in San Francisco yesterday and accused him of overseeing Silk Road's operations since their inception. Ulbricht "has controlled the massive profits generated from the operations of the business," prosecutors allege, adding that he "has always been aware of the illegal nature of his enterprise."
Ulbricht is charged with narcotics trafficking, computer hacking and money laundering. He was expected to appear in court Tuesday morning.
Ulbricht is accused of engaging in a "massive money laundering operation, through which hundreds of millions of dollars derived from unlawful transactions have been laundered," according to the government's complaint.
In arresting Ulbricht, the feds have nabbed the poster boy of online black markets. But if history is any guide, some ambitious entrepreneur will try to take Ulbricht's place, and buyers will beat another silk road to his door.
Late Wednesday evening, the lower house of Uruguay's legislature passed a bill providing for the establishment of a fully legal, regulated marijuana market. If the bill is approved by the Senate -- a likely outcome, given the ruling Broad Front's sizeable majority in the chamber -- the tiny Latin American country will become the first to fully legalize the growth, sale, and distribution of the world's most popular illegal drug.
The passage of the bill has been controversial inside and outside the country. Polls consistently show that the majority of Uruguayans are opposed to legalization, and Wednesday's vote only succeeded by a narrow majority of 50 votes to 44. Less than 24 hours after its passage, the legislation drew criticism from the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board, which warned of "serious consequences for the health and welfare of the population" should the bill become law. But the move has also drawn support from some drug policy activists, who praise its creation of a legal market as an important step toward a more sensible law enforcement paradigm.
Uruguay's marijuana bill differs from liberal drug laws in other countries like the Netherlands and Portugal in that it provides not only for decriminalization of personal possession and use, but also for the legalization and regulation of every aspect of the production and distribution process. The law establishes three categories of cannabis production: home cultivation for personal use, "membership clubs" where small numbers of individuals can establish growing and sharing cooperatives, and licensed private enterprises that will be allowed to grow marijuana commercially. All sales are to be conducted through state-run pharmacies, and a new government agency, the Institute of Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA), will be established to monitor and regulate consumption, production, and distribution. And -- sorry stoners the world over -- legal purchase is limited to Uruguayan citizens.
The downside (or upside) of creating a market for marijuana, however, is that in order to attract consumers, officially sanctioned marijuana will have to compete with the old illegal stuff in both price and quality. Which means -- you guessed it -- for this bill to work, the Uruguayan government is going to have to start distributing some quality weed on the cheap.
PABLO PORCIUNCULA/AFP/Getty Images
In the macabre world of Mexican gangland violence, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the Zetas chief who was captured on Monday, stands out in his taste for violence. Dismemberment, acid baths, and decapitation were standard tactics for the man who helped build the Zetas into Mexico's most-feared cartel.
He built that reputation on enormous personal cruelty.
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
On Wednesday, the Indian Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling banning politicians who have been convicted of serious crimes from sitting in parliament, supplementing an earlier law banning convicts from running for office. But what really caught our eye was a statistic in the Financial Times' write-up of the news. An astounding 162 out of 543 members of the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, have criminal cases against the, according to data collected after India's last general election in 2009 by National Election Watch and the Association for Democracy Reforms. For those keeping score, that's 30 percent of lawmakers.
In its coverage of the Supreme Court decision, the Press Trust of India, citing the findings of the same two organizations, adds that 1,258 out of 4,032 sitting lawmakers in state legislatures are facing criminal cases -- also roughly 30 percent.
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images
With the economic crisis in Spain (and Europe as a whole) showing few signs of abating, it shouldn't come as a surprise that robberies are on the rise in the country. This is especially true in Spain's agricultural eastern regions, where the large-scale theft of fruit, garlic, and farm equipment is growing more frequent.
In Valencia, whose orange industry has helped Spain become Europe's biggest producer of the fruit, rural thefts rose 20 percent in the first quarter compared to the previous year, according to AVA, the local agricultural association.
AVA forecasts that the robberies could cost the region's farmers, many of whom barely cover their costs from selling oranges, 20 million euros this year, up from 15 million euros in 2012 and 2011, because of lost produce and damage.
To counter the problem, Spain's police have sent in the cavalry, dispatching two squadrons of mounted Civil Guards to the region to help run down thieves.
Though they arrived in late May, as the orange picking season ended, police say the horseback patrols have at least led to a hiatus in crimes, and are effective in startling robbers unable to hear them coming through the fruit trees....
Valencia's Civil Guard - responsible for smaller towns outside the remit of national police - said they had already made 50 arrests related to orange thefts in April, when they began a crackdown. Those charged so far are all Spaniards.
Incidents like these have been common for a few years -- 2011 saw 5,000 more agriculture-related thefts than 2010 -- with criminals operating independently or in gangs to steal produce and equipment for their resale value. More recently, the phenomenon has turned violent, with the death in April of a watchman who was shot while attempting to stop a group of suspected thieves.
The reasons for the thefts range from the obvious to the arcane. It seems hardly worth pointing out that a country with 26.8 percent unemployment will experience a rash of property crime, especially if that unemployment is coupled with cuts to social services on which unemployed people would normally depend. In addition, agriculture is a sector in which defense against theft is difficult, owing to the vast amounts of land that must be policed at all hours -- a problem just as present in California as in Spain -- leaving farmers to fend for themselves with community patrols or hired hands.
On a more local level, Spanish law provides for little more than a slap on the wrist for those convicted of petty theft, which means that robbery could remain lucrative even if you're caught in the act.
The economic crisis and the difficulty of policing vast tracts of land are problems that won't disappear any time soon, and Spain's budget troubles make additional investment in policing or surveillance technologies unlikely. Strengthening the laws for theft could offer the country some relief. But, in the meantime, orange you glad you're not a Spanish farmer?
NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images
When it comes to the death penalty, European governments are ardently abolitionist. Yet the European taxpayer may in fact be unwittingly fueling executions for drug-related offenses in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In a recent post on Iran's war on drugs, Marya Hannun mentions the "steep price" of the country's drug war -- namely the execution of hundreds of individuals annually for the possession, use, and trafficking of narcotics.
While Hannun referenced the praise that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has bestowed on Iran's anti-narcotics program despite the high execution rate for drug-related offenses, what is not discussed is the funding provided by European nations for these efforts. Countries such as France and Germany provide funds to the UNODC's integrated program of technical cooperation on drugs and crime in Iran, which ultimately results in gross human rights violations perpetrated by Iranian authorities.
According to the UNODC website, the integrated program was launched in March 2011 thanks to a "generous financial contribution" from the government of Norway. The program "aims to support national efforts on drugs and crime" and consists of three sub-programs: 1) illicit trafficking and border management; 2) drug demand reduction and HIV control; and 3) crime, justice and corruption.
There are counter-narratives to UNODC's high regard for Iran's anti-narcotics efforts, including allegations that law enforcement personnel in Iran are in fact partaking in and facilitating the sale of illicit drugs for profit on the black market. Regardless of government complicity, the fact remains that thousands of individuals are arrested each year with the technical and material support provided by sub-program 1, including body scanners, drug-detection kits, sniffer dogs, vehicles, and night-vision devices.
Of those arrested, hundreds will subsequently be sentenced to death by Iran's judiciary on drug allegations. Iran is a global leader in executions, with only China exceeding it in number of people put to death annually. According to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based group that documents executions in Iran, at least 580 people were executed in the country in 2012. In these documented cases, at least 76 percent of executions were due to drug-related charges.
Since news of the frequency with which Iran puts individuals to death for drug-related offenses has come to light, UNODC and donor countries have come under fire for their support of the program, and human rights groups have encouraged donors to request greater transparency from the Iranian government about how their money is spent in this joint initiative.
While the Norwegian government provided the initial cash infusion to the integrated program, it has since ceased funding sub-program 1 and requested that its support only be applied to sub-programs 2 and 3. The Danish government, meanwhile, announced last month that it would no longer provide financial support to the program following revelations that its donations were indirectly sponsoring the death penalty in Iran. At the time of the decision, the Danish government had provided about 5 million Danish kroner (or $875,000) annually in the previous two years to the program and was expected to provide about 7 million Danish kroner ($1.2 million) over the next two years.
While Denmark's decision to cut the funding has been welcomed by human rights groups, there's more work to be done. Questions remain over the transparency of the program -- specifically UNODC's ability to ensure that donor countries who have restricted their support to only sub-programs 2 and 3 will indeed have that money applied to the intended targets.
To this end, the France-based anti-death penalty group Together Against the Death Penalty (Ensemble contre le peine de mort, or ECPM) has started a petition calling on other European Union member states to follow the Danish example. Short of governments cutting off funding altogether, ECPM and its organizational co-signers are requesting that funding from donor countries be conditioned on an immediate moratorium on death sentences for drug-related offenses in Iran and that contribution amounts be made public and solely allocated to prevention programs.
Given that abolition of the death penalty is a pre-condition for entry of any nation into the European Union, it is time the EU call on its member states to apply more scrutiny of its support for such activities abroad as well. The case of Iran is a fine place to start.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
As Barack Obama heads to Mexico, U.S. involvement in Mexico's battle against drug cartels is getting a lot of press. But it's worth noting that Mexico's notorious narcotics trade isn't just Mexico's problem anymore. And Obama should be well aware of that, considering that this past February Chicago declared Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán its first "Public Enemy No. 1" since Al Capone. "While Chicago is 1,500 miles from Mexico, the Sinaloa drug cartel is so deeply embedded in the city that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are on the border," Jack Riley, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Chicago office, told CNN.
The infiltration of the Windy City shows the extent to which Mexican drug syndicates have made inroads in the United States -- the Associated Press and others have reported that cartel cells are operating in Atlanta, Ga., Louisville, Ky., Columbus, Ohio, and rural North Carolina. In fact, according to an excellent National Post infographic based on data from a U.S. Justice Department report and other sources, it's much easier to list states that don't have a drug trade tied to Mexican gangs. There are only twelve that haven't reported the presence of one of four Mexican cartels since 2008: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The Mexican drug trade is everywhere else.
Detected cartel operations range from traditional drug-running to using a horse ranch as a front for laundering drug money, as one group did in Oklahoma. The Sinaloa cartel, which has emerged as Mexico's dominant syndicate, has carved out new territory in the United States by controlling 80 percent of its meth trade (Mexican cartels have come to dominate the U.S. market by aggressively bumping up the purity of their meth while dropping the price per gram).
All told, Mexican cartels reside in 1,200 American communities as of 2011, up from 230 in 2008, according to the Associated Press. Below is a map that shows just how many states have been penetrated, according to the National Post's special report on the topic.
View Cartel Penetration in the US in a larger map
Fraying cooperation in the drug war will surely be top of mind as President Obama meets with his counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico this week. And perhaps nothing encapsulates Mexico's growing impatience with America's heavy-handed approach to combating drug trafficking than this nugget from a New York Times report on Tuesday. Apparently, the United States has been subjecting Mexican security officials to regular polygraph tests in an effort to identify rotten apples. But that could soon change:
Shortly after Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, took office in December, American agents got a clear message that the dynamics, with Washington holding the clear upper hand, were about to change.
"So do we get to polygraph you?" one incoming Mexican official asked his American counterparts, alarming United States security officials who consider the vetting of the Mexicans central to tracking down drug kingpins. The Mexican government briefly stopped its vetted officials from cooperating in sensitive investigations. The Americans are waiting to see if Mexico allows polygraphs when assigning new members to units, a senior Obama administration official said.
While the practice is not widely publicized, it has been an element of the two countries' security relationship for some time. In a 1997 article on U.S.-Mexican plans to join hands in the drug war, the Associated Press noted that Mexican counternarcotics agents would undergo the "kind of extensive background, financial, and polygraph tests required of U.S. drug agents." The plans came after the arrest of Mexico's drug czar, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, for taking bribes from drug traffickers.
What's more, the United States hasn't just applied this policy to Mexico. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times reported that Washington has given elite Colombian counternarcotics agents polygraph tests as well.
The bad blood over polygraph tests isn't the only sign that U.S.-Mexican cooperation on the drug war is deteriorating. In an interview with the Spanish news agency EFE on his new book, the Mexican journalist Jesús Esquivel claimed that the Mexican military recently waved off a U.S. offer to capture famed drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Gúzman. The United States had the Sinaloa cartel chief's location and said the operation would take only 15 minutes. So why the hang-up? Mexican military officials reportedly didn't want the American military to lead the operation.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
We hear plenty about drugs and conflict diamonds; but the international black market for timber -- a global trade that has been plaguing the forests of South America, Central America, and Asia for years, and one that is estimated to be worth anywhere from 30 to 100 billion dollars a year -- gets a lot less attention.
Illegal wood had a rare moment in the spotlight on Feb. 19, when Interpol reported the results of its first international operation to target timber trafficking. "Operation Lead," which brought together law enforcement agencies from twelve Latin American countries, was carried out over a month late last year and resulted in the seizure of the equivalent of 2,000 truckloads of timber (worth millions of dollars) and the arrests of more than 200 people.
While individual countries in the region, such as Columbia and Brazil, have cracked down on the illegal trade in the past, the transnational nature of the crime makes it difficult for domestic law enforcement agencies, which are limited in their jurisdiction, to be very effective. An international approach has the potential to be more successful. According to the head of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program, Operation Lead has laid the foundations for future efforts to combat the global trade.
So why timber? It is not as lucrative as the drug trade, but it still brings in a fair amount of cash. According to a recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report, in Laos, rare rosewood logs can fetch $18,000 per cubic meter. The EIA also notes that traffickers can earn $1,700 for a high-quality mahogany tree on the Peruvian black market, and about $1,000 for a cedar tree. In 2006, illegal logging in Peru was bringing up to $72 million in profits per year. Some estimates put the yearly profits in Columbia as high as $200 million.
In Latin America, the drug and timber trades aren't mutually exclusive. Though the extent of the connection is not yet clear, timber trafficking overlaps with organized crime and the drug trade in interesting ways in countries like Colombia and Peru.
For one, it has been suggested that timber offers drug traffickers an opportunity to invest in a new illegal market -- to "diversify their portfolios" -- as some governments become more successful (however slightly) in cracking down on the drug trade.
In Peru, where an estimated 80 percent of total timber exports are illegal, the wood trafficking network has become so sophisticated that drug traffickers are now piggybacking on the timber trade -- literally. In 2006, a U.S. State Department cable (later released by WikiLeaks) reported that drug traffickers in the Andes moving coca paste and opium "appear to be getting involved in transport of illegal timber, for both its profitability and its utility as concealment." In 2010, Peruvian police seized nearly 400 kilos of cocaine and coca base hidden in a single shipment of Sinaloa cedar.
Logging may also be viewed as a profitable way to open land for the farming of coca. According to a 2011 UN report, since 1981, more than 3,000 square miles of Columbia's forests have been cut down illegally to make way for coca crops. In 2008, then Columbian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon announced, "If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4 square meters of rainforest."
All considered, it isn't surprising that the illegal logging trade has taken a violent turn in some countries. Last year in Cambodia, an anti-logging activist and a reporter covering the illegal trade were both murdered. Three Brazilian activists were killed in 2011 -- just three out of dozens that have been murdered over the past several years.
It should be noted that illegal logging is not entirely run by timber kingpins and "wood mafias." Local communities also cut down wood illegally (to use, not to sell), and have probably been doing so for generations.
The countries affected are going to have to take strong action if they want to save their forests, because the problem is not going to fix itself. The world's appetite for high-value wood is high and is only getting higher. In its report entitled "Appetite for Destruction: China's Trade in Illegal Timber," the EIA states that between 2000 and 2011, the quantity of global log imports tripled, with a value that increased fivefold. China -- with wood product exports that have increased almost sevenfold in the past decade, with new construction projects beginning every day, and with a new bourgeoisie that covets fancy rosewood lounge sets (which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), cars with wood-embellished interiors, and yachts -- comprises a large part of that demand. According to the EIA, China is the world's top importer of illegal timber. "More than half of China's current supplies of raw timber material are sourced from countries with a high risk of illegal logging and poor forest governance," including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Madagascar, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea.
Nicaragua in particular has seen enormous growth in its illegal timber market thanks to Chinese demand. In 2008, Nicaraguan exports of granadillo totalled about $127,000. In 2011, after other Central American countries enacted stricter wood export regulations, that number grew fifty fold, to $6 million.
China Photos/Getty Images
This shocking video of what appears to be a failed assassination attempt on Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) party in Bulgaria, went viral last Saturday. But since then, some have raised suspicions about the incident.
It turns out the gun used by the attacker, 25 year old Oktai Enimehmedov, was a gas pistol filled with pepper spray, raising suspicions that it was all an elaborate hoax staged to gain sympathy points for the ethnic Turkish party, which has faced increasing criticism for corruption:
"It seems like [the gun pointing was] a pretty artificial attempt to present their party as a victim, to rally their voters, to strengthen their line," said Ivan Dikov, editor of Sofia News Agency, Bulgaria's main English-language news resource. "They have a lot to recover from."
But if it was a stunt, what did Enimehmedov get out of it? Immediately after the incident, he is surrounded by an angry mob and brutally beaten while lying on the floor. He now faces up to six years in jail. In a court hearing today, Enimehmedov seemed to disabuse the conspiracy claims, saying his intention was to scare Dogan, adding "I regret only that my gun misfired."
And if you thought the story couldn't get any weirder, it turns out this isn't the first time an Enimehmedov has achieved national notoriety. In 2007, Enimehmedov's brother won the Bulgarian reality show ‘Dance with me'.
Researchers from Oslo's Norwegian Institute for Water Research and Milan's Mario Negri Institute revealed results from their collaborative study on European sewage today.
Partnering with eleven other institutions across Europe, they traced illicit drug use across 19 European cities measuring biomarkers of cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis in each city's sewer system. In what was essentially a "city-wide urine test," scientists found cocaine usage was highest in Antwerp while Nordics preferred methamphetamines; Amsterdam had the highest use of cannabis (surprise, surprise).
While questionnaire-based studies, police reports, and medical data have been the predominant methods to map drug use in cities, studying sewage might yield the most "accurate and dependable results," according to Kevin Thomas -- one of the project's coordinators. He added that "with the right financing we have the potential for the first time to better understand the hard facts about illicit drug use worldwide."
Gert-Jan Geraeds, the Executive Publisher Environmental Science & Ecology at Elsevier, said:
"The importance of solid academic foundations to develop effective drug policies cannot be underestimated. It all comes together in this study: science and policy, on a local scale with global significance."
Way to kill Europe's buzz, man.
On Tuesday, indigenous residents of El Berlin, a small rural town in southwestern Colombia, forced the Colombian military off its mountaintop base. Members of the Nasa indigenous community surrounded several soldiers, picked them up, and dragged them away from their posts. The military eventually retook the facility using tear gas to disperse the protesters.
Tuesdays' confrontation started after government forces ignored an ultimatum from indigenous authorities demanding an end to what they saw as government occupation of tribal lands, according to La Semana. Over 1000 members of the indigenous community had been staging a sit-in at the base for nearly a week in preparation for the showdown with the government forces. The soldiers were at the outpost protecting an antenna but the community claims that the military outpost was built on a sacred mountain.
The clashes have caused at least 30 injuries and one death, and confusion remains about how events are unfolding. The scene is further complicated by the suspected presence of FARC soldiers on the outskirts of the town who fired shots in the air amidst the clashes.
President Juan Manuel Santos has demanded an end to the violence, asserting "we will not tolerate attacks against those who defend us." Last week, Santos had promised, "we will not cede a single centimeter of land of El Cauca or of the nation's territory."
The ongoing crisis has seized national attention and touched off a flurry of debate in Colombia about indigenous rights, the military's human rights record and the stability of the state. Some discussion boards are suggesting that the images from this debacle could cost Santos his reelection. Others are lauding the soldiers' restraint in not firing on the crowd during the kerfuffle, and images of a soldier crying after being carried down the mountain by protestors has elicited sympathy for the military.
Government supporters have revived the standard charge that the indigenous groups must be tied to the FARC. Santos himself claimed that there were "links" between the indigenous tribe and guerrilla groups. Other critics claim the indigenous tribes are seeking to return to highly profitable coca cultivation that the military is trying to eradicate.
El Berlin is located in southwest Colombia in El Cauca department (state), which was once host to the late FARC commander, Alfonso Cano, who was killed by government forces in 2011. Indigenous communities in Colombia have suffered the most during the protracted armed conflict of the past six decades. Their national representation has strengthened in recent years and has increased their appeals for various levels of autonomy from the government.
Indigenous leaders have called for both the military and the illegal armed groups to quit the area and let the local communities live in peace after six decades of suffering FARC, paramilitary and military clashes that left hundreds dead and thousands displaced.
Santos says that they will negotiate with the Nasa community only if they end the attacks on the soldiers. Several national leaders, including former president Ernesto Samper, suggested solutions to the crisis ranging from the creation of a humanitarian zone to international intervention.
Tension remains high after protestors captured 30 military guards, since released, and four FARC combatants. As of Thursday morning, the military retained control of the mountaintop base. The local civilian police force is charged with responding to protestors.
There's some rare promising news out of El Salvador, which with 7 killings per 10,000 inhabitants per year, has one of the world's highest death rates due to armed violence. Ever since Msgr. Fabio Colindres, a Catholic bishop in the capital city of San Salvador, negotiated peace between the city's most violent gangs -- the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) and Barrio 18 -- last March, crime has been more than cut in half, dropping from 15 deaths per day in March to only 6 deaths per day in June. According to government reports, an estimated 800 lives have been saved as a result of the peace and communities feel significantly safer.
Insisting that the drop in violence was "el proceso de paz" (the process of peace) and not simply a "tregua" (truce), Colindres met with Organization of American States Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza at La Esperanza Prison yesterday. Meeting with gang leaders who had been transferred there from maximum security prisons just before the peace agreement, Insulza commended the inmates:
Thanks to your courage in opening yourselves to understanding and to conversations, and for understanding that the good that comes of this will be a lesson that could be applied in other countries that suffer from criminal violence."
Gang members in the neighborhoods don't really want to be doing the things that they're doing, but there really - there is no resources, no outlet for these kids to address the issues that they're involved in. So, once there is a space - once something is created for them to kind of think about the things that they're doing and there is some activity around the issue as an alternative, they break down."
Over 150 days since the brokered ceasefire, Colindres reminded the community that (my translation), "one can only achieve peace believing that it is possible... It's a process that involves-and should involve-the entire nation."
If you think running for office in the United States is rigorous, then you haven't met Hungary's far-right Jobbik party. After the April 2010 legislative elections that handed the extremist group 47 seats in the national assembly -- and before local elections that fall -- an unnamed Jobbik MP made a special effort to gain the upper hand by undergoing genetic testing "to ensure he did not have a Roma or Jewish ethnic background." The lab results were published by a Hungarian far-right website in May. According to the report from medical diagnostic company Nagy Gen, the MP, whose name was blacked out, has "No genetic trace of Jewish or Roma ancestors."
The company, which faces a criminal investigation for violating the country's Law on Genetics, "examined 18 positions in the MP's genome" for supposedly Jewish and Roma variants, but Joerg Schmidtke, president of the European Society of Human Genetics, criticized the company:
"This is a gross distortion of the values of genetic testing.... In addition, the test proves nothing; it is impossible to deduce someone's origins from testing so few places of the genome."
Jobbik is the third-largest party in Hungary's parliament, and is known for its anti-Semitic and anti-Roma platform. European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor found the racial purity test a cause for immediate concern:
"This test demonstrates a very troubling escalation by the Jobbik party ... into a genetic and racial ideology that appears to be a short step below a fully-fledged Nazi worldview."
The icing on the cake, though, is the fact that three-time Olympic water polo champion Tibor Benedek, a member of a prominent Jewish family, held a minority financial stake in the Nagy Gen, but he pulled out immediately after the report was published.
It's good to know that racial purity is making a comeback, but if the testing was truly unprofessional, it's entirely possible we may have another Vladimir Zhinirovsky on our hands.
FERENC ISZA/AFP/Getty Images
It's often said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Leave it to Silvio Berlusconi, the scandal-ridden former premier of Italy, to make the platitude uncomfortably literal.
Thanks to an ongoing trial centering around whether or not Berlusconi paid for sex in 2010 with then-underage prostitute Karima El Mahroug, a Moroccan woman who attended Berlusconi's infamous "bunga-bunga" parties, new details are still emerging about the Bacchanalian festivals at the ex-leader's vacation home in Arcore, an Italian town outside of Milan. The latest salacious detail? That one of Berlusconi's attendees, a beautiful Dominican woman named Marysthell Polanco, dressed up as U.S. President Barack Obama to entertain guests at what Berlusconi has described as "elegant dinners," Reuters is reporting.
"I dressed up as Boccassini [a female prosecutor in the trial against Berlusconi] with a toga to make him laugh, and also as Obama," Polanco told the Italian court on Friday.
For his part, Berlusconi, who was recently spotted at Vladimir Putin's inauguration, denies all wrong-doing. We can only assume that he is longing for the days when his biggest gaffe with Obama was repeatedly describing him as "suntanned."
Berlusconi was forced to resign in November 2011 amid the scandal and Italy's economic woes, ending 17 years in Italian political life (incidentally, making his political career the same age as El Mahroug's was when Berlusconi allegedly paid her for intercourse).
Since then, Italy's technocratic new leader Mario Monti has steered the country through tough austerity cuts, maneuvered through a delicate European political situation as Greece's economy has unraveled, and discussed the importance of European growth with Obama at Camp David without even once making a racially charged remark. He is also, it should be noted, not part of an ongoing investigation over whether or not he paid for sex with a teenage girl.
While the United States has only recently made tentative efforts to engage with Myanmar, India has, controversially, had decent relations with the country's government for quite some time. Human rights activists criticized Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's meeting with Than Shwe in 2012, calling it "unbecoming" for a democracy to welcome the Burmese military ruler.
At a time when relations are being renewed between Myanmar and the West, there's been a flurry of recent activity along India's 1,019-mile northeastern border with the country. The seven states of northeastern India are currently at their lowest period of insurgent violence in decades, and the shift in relations with their neighbor across the border could have enormous socio-economic implications for India, China and Southeast Asia.
On Feb. 22, India's foreign minister met with Myanmar's construction minister in New Delhi to speak about expanding both aviation and highway transportation between the two countries. The bridge in question would pass through the Naga region, inhabited by the tribal Naga people in the hilly district of Tamenglong in Manipur. For months, the United Naga Council -- an organization based in northeastern India -- had resisted such developments.
According to Samrat of the New York Times, several old routes cross the border between northeastern India and Myanmar. Some, like the World War II Stilwell Road, built under the U.S. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, had become "ghost roads," used mainly by Naga and Kachin insurgents to transport weapons and drugs, chiefly poppies to make and smuggle heroin across the border. But these roads have gradually returned to relatively law-abiding uses. Nonetheless, Indian officials claim Burmese authorities do not actively work to curb the flow of drugs and weapons into India.
In 1991, India's central government implemented a ‘‘Look East Policy'' to forge closer ties with the country's eastern neighbors. Critics say that Indian officials have made little attempt to put the policy into practice, but now the government is clearly looking to pick up the pace. During its many years of self-imposed isolation, Myanmar's only major economic partner was China, giving Beijing a strategic advantage in a nation that borders five countries.
Last week we listed some items that are growing in popularity among China's increasingly wealthy middle class, along with some of the impacts of these recent obsessions, including jade. One major consequence not included in the list is the fact that China's passion for jade has been criticized by both human rights groups and the U.S. government for financing Burma's military dictatorship.
Brian Leber, a Chicago-based jeweler involved in efforts for an industry-wide boycott of jewels from Burma, wrote in to remind us that the Southeast Asian country is not only home to one of the world's most repressive regimes, it also has millions of kilograms of jadeite -- the most expensive and most sought after jade in China.
U.S. trade sanctions on Myanmar that specifically targeted the military junta's trade of jadeite have apparently done little to quell the Chinese appetite for the fine gem: According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, jadeite from Myanmar has, unlike other gems, continued to be "primarily purchased, processed, and consumed by China."
Marisol Valles, a 20-year-old criminology student, has just been named police chief for the town of Praxedis Guadalupe Guerrero, near the U.S. border. Reportedly, there wasn't a whole lot of competition for the job -- others members of the force have been abducted and killed by narcotraffickers in recent years:
The new police chief heads a force of just 13 agents, nine of them women, with one working patrol car, three automatic rifles and a pistol. Gunmen killed a local official and his son last weekend as Valles prepared to start her job.
"We are doing this for a new generation of people who don't want to be afraid anymore. Everyone is frightened - it is very natural," she told Mexican media. "My motive for being here is that one can do a lot for the town ... we are going to make changes and get rid of a little of the fear in every person."
Her force would focus on a non-violent role of promoting values and principles and preventing crime, she added.
Asked about her force's lack of firepower, Valles says, "The weapons we have are principles and values, which are the best weapons for prevention."
Valles fully deserves the media coverage that has described her as the "bravest woman in Mexico" for taking the job. But of course, the cynical take on this story is that the town seems to have basically given up on combating traffickers. A small force devoted to promoting public welfare rather than making arrests seems a lot like like de facto legalization. It will be interesting to see if the model spreads.
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowke is hailing the release of a new Rand report which finds that if Californians vote to legalize marijuana on Nov. 2, it won't put much of a dent in the profits of Mexican drug cartels:
"This report shows that despite the millions spent on marketing the idea, legalized marijuana won’t reduce the revenue or violence generated by Mexican drug-trafficking organizations," Kerlikowske said.
The report finds that legalized pot in California would cut drug export profits by about 2 to 4 percent. There's a big however though:
However, the impact of legalization on Mexican drug trafficking organizations' bottom line could be magnified if marijuana cultivated in California is smuggled into other states, according to the study. After legalization, if low-cost, high-quality marijuana produced in California dominates the U.S. marijuana market, then the Mexican drug trafficking organizations' revenue from exporting marijuana could decline by more than 65 percent and probably closer to 85 percent. In this scenario, results from the RAND study suggest the drug trafficking organizations would lose roughly 20 percent of their total drug export revenues.
With this caveat, couldn't the report be viewed less as a case against legalization in California than an argument for extending it nationwide?
To be fair to Kerlikoswske, I'm not sure that framing this issue in terms of it's effect on Mexican drug cartels is the most effective argument. Things shouldn't be legalized just because criminals are making money off them. The more important question is whether the social ill from marijuana justifies the cost of keeping it illegal.
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In yet another scandal for the Catholic Church, Italian authorities are investigating the Vatican Bank on suspicion of money laundering:
The Bank of Italy investigation was prompted by two wire transfers which the Vatican Bank asked Credito Artigiano to carry out, the Bank of Italy said.
The Vatican Bank did not provide enough information about the transfers -- one for 20 million euros (about $26 million), and one for 3 million euros (about $4 million) -- to comply with the law, prompting the Bank of Italy to suspend them automatically, it said.
The Vatican Bank is subject to particularly stringent anti-money laundering regulations because Italian law does not consider it to operate within the European Union.
This is not the first time the bank, formally known as the Institute for Works of Religion, has been under suspicion. The bank has been accused in the past of laundering money for the Sicilian mafia and the Gambino crime family as well as helping Croatia's pro-Nazi wartime government steal the assets of Holocaust victims.
The current investigation could add more fuel to the current debate over Vatican sovereignty, which was prompted by the pope's recent visit to Britain. Anti-pope campaigners like the British LGBT activist Peter Tatchell argue that the Holy See's officially recognized sovereignty and observer status at the United Nations give it unwarranted authority in international debates over subjects like birth control, abortion and homosexuality while protecting priests and Vatican officials from prosecution.
As I wrote in a recent explainer piece, the Holy See has worked hard to cement its sovereign status since it was first recognized under a treaty with Benito Mussolini's Italy in 1929. It currently enjoys diplomatic relations with 176 countries in spite of the fact that has no fixed population and controls virtually no territory, usually prerequisites for statehood.
But in light of the fact that Vatican sovereignty can be used as a tool to protect both accused pedophiles and money launderers, it might be time to consider whether the Catholic Church deserves a special recognition under international law not granted to any other religion.
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Gunmen shot a journalist dead last week, and wounded another, to express their displeasure with media coverage of their group. The murder added to the tens of journalists who have been killed in the country over the last four years.
In response to this latest attack, the paper's editors wrote a front-page editorial with the headline: "What do you want from us?" Though they claimed it wasn't a surrender, it seemed clear that the media outlet had offered to limit its coverage, writing in the editorial that "no story is worth the life of anyone anymore."
But this isn't the Kabul Times. No, the newspaper highlighted above is El Diario de Juarez, of the not-an-insurgency Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
The Italian mafia doesn't exactly have the best environmental record. This is an organization, after all, whose idea of "waste management" involves dumping hundreds of barrels of toxic waste into the Mediterranean. But now, it seems, even the wise guys are going green.
In the largest Mafia seizure of all time, Italian authorities have confiscated $1.9 billion dollars in assets and revealed that they plan to launder assets through alternative energy projects like wind and solar:
At the center of the investigation was Sicilian businessman Vito Nicastri, 54, a man known as the "Lord of the Wind" because of his vast holdings in alternative energy concerns, mostly wind farms.
General Antonio Girone, head of the national anti-Mafia agency DIA, said Nicastri was linked to Matteo Messina Denaro, believed to be Mafia's current "boss of bosses." Investigators said Nicastri's companies ran numerous wind farms as well as factories that produced solar energy panels.
"It's no surprise that the Sicilian Mafia was infiltrating profitable areas like wind and solar energy," Palermo magistrate Francesco Messineo told a news conference.
Officials said the operation was based on a 2,400-page investigative report and followed the arrest of Nicastri last year. Senator Costantino Garraffa, a member of the parliamentary anti-Mafia committee, said the Mafia was trying to break into the "new economy," of alternative energy as it sought out virgin ventures to launder money from drugs and other rackets.
Lord of the Wind?
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
The New York office director of UNAIDS, Bertil Lindblad, is worried about the one region of the world where HIV infections are increasing, even as rates in the rest of the world level off. It's not in Africa or Asia, or even Latin America. It's Eastern Europe -- countries like Russia and Ukraine -- where a recent UNICEF report notes that increases in infection rates of as high as 700 percent have been seen since 2006.
"There is an urgent need for the whole Eastern European and Central Asian region to act quickly," Lindblad said this morning. "This is really quite scary given the fact that there is denial, and so much stigma and homophobia [in that region.] This could really create huge problems if HIV continues to spread from smaller groups in the population to wider."
It's HIV/AIDS's silent crisis, one that has been underway for the last decade. The region is home to a quarter of all injection drug users in the world (3.7 million), and this is where the epidemic is believed to have begun. These users are young -- most of them teenagers. But from there, HIV spread to sex workers (the majority of whom are also under 30), and now has fully moved into the everday lives of men and women in the region, married and unmarried. A mark of the epidemics progression -- from specific populations into the majority -- is the new incidence of HIV among women, who account for 40 percent of all new infections (that's up from only 24 percent at the turn of the century.)
The stigma attached to the disease -- and more importantly, to the groups of people percieved to be the majority infected with it -- is the biggest obstacle to doing anything about the disease. "Those living with HIV have been silenced and excluded, and risky behaviours borne of futility and hopelessness have been sanctioned or repressed," the UNICEF report notes. Government officials are said to be resistant to admitting the scale of the problem, and today that country remains a difficult places for AIDS advocacy, says Lindblad, who formerly worked in the UNAIDS office in Moscow.
But where there is challenge such as this, there is also often opportunity. Russia, I would think, should have a very serious interest in addressing this crisis. For starters, because AIDS threatens to exacerbate its larger demographic problem -- that of a fast-shrinking population. But the other point might be even more convincing: The injection drug users are using heroin. And that heroin comes from Afghan poppies. For Russia, tackling the illegal drug market in Afghanistan -- one which fuels the insurgency -- is a serious national security issue.
Of course, good old fashioned peer pressure might help edge them along as well. And when the U.N. General Assembly meets later this month, one of the side conversations, according to Lindblad, will be a discussion on HIV/AIDS "co-hosted by the government of China, the government of Nigeria, and UNAIDS," specifically, the Chinese premier and the Nigerian president (South Africa's President Jacob Zuma was also supposed to come, but had to cancel.) "That could influence other big countries such as Russia, for example, to turn around."
DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Law enforcement agencies are buzzing over the news of the largest food smuggling case in U.S. history:
US authorities have indicted 11 German and Chinese executives for conspiring to illegally import $40m (£52m) worth of honey from China.
The executives were accused of being part of an operation which mislabelled honey and tainted it with antibiotics in an attempt to avoid import duties.
The smugglers were attempting to avoid U.S. anti-dumping laws by mixing it with Indian honey, which begs the question: how can you tell where honey is originated from?
The prosecutor for the case, federal attorney Patrick Fitzgerald -- yes, that one -- explained the situation:
The charges allege that these defendants aggressively sought and obtained an illegal competitive advantage in the US honey market by avoiding payment of more than $78 million (60.9 million euros) in anti-dumping duties, and while doing so deliberately violated US laws designed to protect the integrity of our food supply.
For the record I am not the first offender of making bad puns related to this story. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), in a statement, wrote that he was happy authorities were taking this "honey laundering" seriously, and also hoped for the creation of a national honey standard so that this "crackdown on Chinese imports sticks."
I'm just personally worried that this may be a part of a Dr. Who plot come to life.
Miguel Villagran/Getty Images
Score another one for new media: an anonymous, twenty-something blogger has become Mexico's go-to for information on the country's deadly drug war. Blog del Narco, launched in March, includes postings from both drug traffickers (such as warnings and even a beheading) and law enforcement (crime scenes accessible only to the police and military). In one case, Blog del Narco helped lead to a major arrest, when a video posted detailed a prison warden's system of setting inmates free at night to carry out drug cartel murders.
The AP tracked down this mysterious blogger, who revealed that he is a student in northern Mexico majoring in computer security. When he launched the blog, he intended it to be a hobby, but has grown faster than his wildest expectations, now receiving 3 million hits weekly. The blogger also uses Facebook and Twitter.
Since late 2006, over 28,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico. The country has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists: at least 30 have been killed or have disappeared since 2006 and many news organizations have been attacked with bombs and gunfire. Many journalists engage in self-censorship to avoid crossing the increasingly brazen cartels that attempt to control the press. On August 7, hundreds of journalists marched in Mexico City to protest escalating violence against their peers.
This helps explain why Blog del Narco, now an essential resource for Mexicans concerned about which streets to avoid during shootouts, engages in intense anonymity.
The AP listed some examples of recent posts:
- A video of a man being decapitated. While media only reported police finding a beheaded body, the video shows the man confessing to working for drug lord Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez Villareal, who is locked in a fight with both the Beltran Leyva and Sinaloa cartels;
- The prison warden affair, which unfolded in a video of masked members of the Zetas drug gang interrogating a police officer, who reveals that inmates allied with the Sinaloa cartel are given guns and cars and sent off to commit murders. At the end of the video the officer is shot to death;
- Links to Facebook pages of alleged traffickers and their children, weapons, cars and lavish parties;
- Photos of Mexican pop music stars at a birthday party for an alleged drug dealer's teenage daughter in the border state of Coahuila, across from Texas.
Rio de Janeiro is undertaking a significant rebuilding and reconstruction effort before the 2016 Summer Olympics. The city will raze over 100 of the most "at risk" favelas and rebuild hundreds of others. According to the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, about 13,000 families will be forced from their homes - and it's unclear where the people will be relocated and if they will be compensated.
For the local population, the Olympics are rarely about fun and games. In the last twenty years, the Olympics have displaced over 20 million people, despite the fact that international law stipulates protection from forcible eviction. People are either removed from their homes by the government or priced out: 720,000 at the Seoul Olympics; hundreds of families in Barcelona; 30,000 Atlantans; hundreds of Roma settlers in Athens; and 1.5 million people in Beijing.
Time to "think again"?
VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images
The Chinese government has instituted a new anti-crime measure dubbed "sealed management." In less euphemistic terms, it's a handy new policy of effectively putting migrants on nighttime lockdown in their already decrepit villages. Though the targets of the policy are themselves Chinese, it's enforcement is reminiscent of some of the world's harshest immigration laws.
How has it worked in practice? Beijing officials have installed gates around migrant communities and forcibly locked the residents in from 11pm to 6am, all with the goal of reducing the city's hike in crime rates -- which the officials conveniently attribute to low-income civilians. Lest the padlocks and security cameras provide insufficient protection from the artificial enemy, the government has taken an additional cue from Jan Brewer: police patrol the gated neighborhoods at all hours to check the migrants' identification papers. Now there's xenophobia at its finest.
Only sixteen neighborhoods have been enclosed and locked down so far, but local officials are campaigning ardently to expand the system throughout the city. The ruling Communist Party has disseminated propaganda to portray the neighborhood compounds as a mutually beneficial social program (rather than, say, a thinly veiled quarantine of the poor):
"Closing up the village benefits everyone," read one banner which was put up when the first, permanent gated village was introduced in April.
"Eighty percent of the permanent residents applauded the practice," said Guo Ruifeng, deputy director of Laosanyu's village committee. He didn't say how many migrants approved, though they outnumber the locals by 7,000 to 700.
"Anyway, they should understand that it is all for their safety," he said. Guards only check papers if they see anything suspicious, he said.
"If they see anything suspicious?" But the assumption underlying the creation of the gated communities is that the migrants themselves are inherently suspicious -- and the police aren't likely to deviate from that deeply flawed rationale when choosing who to hassle. We've watched the descent down this slippery slope before, and it isn't pretty.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Maybe it was all the excitement with the Russian spies last week, but somehow we missed one of the more intriguing things to grace the Wall Street Journal's letters page in a while: A full-throated defense of Hamid Karzai's brother, Mahmood Karzai, written by Gerald Posner. Posner, you may recall, was an investigative reporter for the Daily Beast until February, when he resigned after being caught plagiarizing from the Miami Herald and other news sources. In the letter -- which concerns an unflattering recent story about Karzai ferrying cash out of Afghanistan -- Posner identifies himself as "Gerald Posner, Attorney at Law," and refers to Karzai as "my client." Huh?
FP spoke this afternoon with Posner (above left), who says he isn't just representing Mahmood Karzai (above right), but also the other two Afghan presidential siblings, Hamid's younger half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and older brother Qayum Karzai. It's an odd twist on the disgraced plagiarist-fabulist rehabilitation story, which often involves a legal career but not usually in the service of a beleaguered Central Asian ruling family. "They are really proud of the reputations that they have earned," Posner says of the Karzais, "and sort of in shock that they are viewed with such disdain in a country that is their ally in this process."
Christopher Bierlein (L), Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images (R)
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