In September 2009, authorities at an airport in Mangalore arrested two passengers arriving from Dubai with 18 kilograms of contraband hidden in their suitcases. This wouldn't be shocking if they were smuggling drugs, but they weren't. Instead, the passengers were carrying nearly 90,000 dollars worth of saffron. This wasn't an isolated incident either; authorities confiscated 10 kilograms of the stuff at the same airport in July 2009.
Why is saffron (which is the most expensive spice in the world) suddenly being smuggled into India?
Well, it turns out that production in Kashmir, the primary growing area for high-quality Indian saffron, has fallen 85 percent in the last 10 years. Experts are blaming climate change, poor irrigation, and pollution in the region. In response, prices in India have doubled in the past three years. Meanwhile, with Iran and Spain supplying most of the saffron to the world market, global prices have held steady.
Now, the subsequent price gap between India and other countries has led to an opportunity for smugglers to profit; the spice sells for double in India than what it in other markets -- up to $5,000 per kilogram. So, learning from their experience with drugs, gangs operating in India, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are using saffron "mules" to carry shipments in their luggage on international flights. Easier for them to carry than other contraband goods (such as drugs), saffron is not easily detectable -- or probably even screened for -- by customs officials.
Smugglers are also trying to avoid paying hefty export and import taxes, which have only increased potential profit margins. While the Iranian government recently imposed a five percent export tax on bulk shipments of saffron, the Indian government has imposed both an export ban and import taxes to protect the interests of saffron growers in Jammu, Kashmir, and Punjab.
With less risk and such high profit who wouldn't be mad about saffron? Drugs are just so passé.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
Mexican President Felipe Calderon's drug war has been going on now for more than three years, and led directly or indirecty to the deaths of more than 18,600 people -- well over the number of U.S. troops killed on 9/11, and in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. And yet it never seems to gain traction as a major subject of discussion here in the United States.
Will the killing of three people with ties to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez change that? The White House has already commented on the deaths, saying that President Obama is "deeply saddened and outraged by the news." The State Department is allowing its consular staff to leave cities along the border. Another 13 people were killed Saturday in the fabled resort town of Acapulco -- four of them beheaded. Mexican journalists are being terrified into silence. It certainly feels like we are entering a new phase of conflict.
And that's just Mexico, a relatively strong state. Countries in Central America are being overwhelmed by the traficantes. Guatemala just arrested its drug czar and national police chief for stealing some 1,500 pounds of cocaine from the drug dealers, and it's not clear whether the government there is strong enough to win this fight.
So what is Obama going to do about it? His administration has asked for $450 million from Congress to bolster Mexico's security and counternarcotics forces with new equipment, including helicopters and surveillance aircraft, as an extension of George W. Bush's Merida Initiative. That's on top of the $700 million Congress allocated for 2008 and 2009. Central America has gotten another couple hundred million. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Venezuela outlined a number of other related initiatives during his recent congressional testimony.
If you ask me, it all seems like doubling down on a failed strategy -- a typical example of trying to solve a social and political problem through military and technical means.
To her credit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the United States' own culpability during her recent Latin America trip. "The demand in the large market in the United States drives the drug trade," she said. "We know that we are part of the problem and that is an admission that we have been willing make this past year."
But she offered zero new ideas for addressing the demand side of the equation, and the administration's new drug budget looks a heckuva lot like Bush's drug budget, with its focus on interdicting supplies over treating drug addicts and reducing the secondary effects of drug use ("harm reduction"). Obama's drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, recently said that legalizing marijuana in any way was "a nonstarter," even as more states move ahead with their own decriminalization initiatives.
So are the Obamans smart enough to know better, but trapped by politics and afraid to try a bold new approach? Or do they really believe in the drug war?
In December 2009, just one year after his death, the corpse of former Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos, was dug up from under a slab of marble and stolen from its grave. For three months now, authorities have been searching in vain and coming up with politically-charged theories of "whodunit" -- to no avail.
Then, earlier this week, an anonymous informer tipped-off the police as to the location of the body and laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of none other than Antonis Kitas, a.k.a. "Al Capone" -- an imprisoned criminal mastermind currently serving two life sentences for multiple murders. His motive? Authorities believe he wanted to use the corpse as collateral to ensure his release from prison.
If all this turns out to be true, I'm curious as to why "Al Capone" thought this was a good idea and, moreover, how he thought he could get away with it. Then again, he does seem pretty used to getting his way:
According to former inmates, Kitas enjoys a lifestyle of comparative luxury behind bars, financed by his criminal empire, which he continues to control.
Kitas escaped from custody, briefly, two years ago, giving his guards the slip while being treated for a minor illness at a private Nicosia clinic.
During his six-month stay in the clinic, despite the presence of prison guards, Kitas was frequently joined for the night by his Chinese wife, and had access to a laptop computer and several mobile phones.
A prison guard said Kitas was never handcuffed during his stay in the clinic, and warders were told not to complain about the lax security. "As ever," a retired prison official said: "Al Capone was a law unto himself."
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
Though Iranian-Italian relations don't often make the headlines, trade between the two countries is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $9 billion. That makes Italy Iran's largest trading partner in the EU.
But perhaps the $9 billion figure should be revised upwards in light of some of the most recent news to come out of Rome: on Tuesday, March 2, Italian police arrested seven people -- five Italians and two Iranians -- on suspicion of engaging in illegal arms trafficking to the Islamic Republic. After making the arrests, police seized a variety of equipment, including rifle scopes, military scuba-diving jackets, flak jackets, mobile phones, and life vests.
While few details have been made publicly available, what has been released makes "Operation Sniper," the code name for the police investigation that ultimately led to the seven arrests, sound like something out of one of the Bourne movies.
According to Italian police, the dealers began their smuggling operation in 2007. After buying arms in Europe, the dealers would then launder the arms by transporting them to the U.K., Romania, and Switzerland before selling them to clients in Iran. Although Italian authorities haven't released any information regarding the identity of these clients, some have speculated that based on the nature of the equipment that was seized, the intended recipients were probably members of the Iranian secret service.
Though the smuggling operation was initially a success, it hit a snag in Romania when a customs official seized 200 gun sights that were illegally headed from Italy to Iran. Details remain sketchy, but this seizure appears to have tipped off police in other countries, as related arrests and seizures were soon made in Switzerland and Brtain. Thanks to the information gathered from these maneuvers, Italian police were able to successfully identify the smugglers in Italy and arrange a sting operation against them.
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says "there is more than just spotty evidence" indicating a link between drug traffickers and terror groups.
"And before this becomes a very serious problem, it has to be dealt with and nipped in the bud," Costa said in an interview with The Associated Press, on the sidelines of a seven-nation drug summit in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.
Cocaine from South America has been moving through the West African coast for several years, and experts believe drugs are then parceled out to smugglers who move the cocaine north by boats and by road. One suspected smuggling route crosses portions of the Sahara desert controlled by insurgents. The cocaine-for-arms trade is especially worrying given the recent expansion of an al-Quaida-linked terror group, which was once based exclusively in Algeria but now has tentacles in Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
"There is plenty of evidence of a double flow. (Of) drugs moving, arriving into West Africa from across the Atlantic ... and the trading — exchange — of cocaine for arms," Costa said.
Costa did not say how extensive the cocaine-for-arms exchange was thought to be, or which countries were involved.
There seems to be an awful lot of hand-waving happening here. What we know is that drug smugglers are moving cocaine through West Africa, including regions where Al Qaeda linked militants also operate. This, in itself, may be cause for concern. But many, including prominent politicans, seem to be assuming that an established link exists when the only reported case of a suspected al Qaeda affiliate making a coke deal --again trotted out as evidence in this article -- was with someone who turned out to be a DEA agent. Until there's some more evidence, a little more cautious reporting might be in order.
In any event, if al Qaeda is getting into the cocaine business, it would seem to suggest that the organization is moving outside its core competency in order to raise money, and perhaps setting up more opportunities for authorities to infiltrate their networks.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
The lawyer for the 10 American missionaries charged with taking 33 children out of Haiti without permission was fired earlier this week by the group's legal advisor, Jorge Puello, after being accused of trying to offer bribes to get the group out of jail.
If you think that's weird, the situation took a bizarre turn yesterday when it was revealed by the New York Times that Mr. Puello was also being investigated for allegedly leading a trafficking ring involved with Central American and Caribbean women and girls.
No wonder Mr. Puello said in an interview that he was "representing the Americans free of charge because he was a religious man who commiserated with their situation." Color me crazy but employing the services of a wanted international trafficker typically isn't the best way to convince a judge that you weren't trying to smuggle children. I can't help but think that these guys are now way up the proverbial creek.
For those of you who don't subscribe to the bimonthly print edition of Foreign Policy, you're missing a great feature: the FP Quiz. It has eight intriguing questions about how the world works.
(Meanwhile, prepare for the Olympics' opening ceremony by taking Slate's national-anthem quiz.)
The question I'd like to highlight this week is:
By how much did opium poppy cultivation change in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009?
a) up 22 percent b) remained stable c) down 22 percent
Answer after the jump …
JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP/Getty Images
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a great story on the "My Way" murders in the karaoke-obsessed Philippines. The Times story noted that over the past decade, at least half a dozen people have died just after (or while!) performing the Sinatra tune, ginning up a local legend and landing the story on the NYT's most-read box, a rarity for an international affairs piece.
I looked back at some English-language Filipino news sources, where stories about the "My Way" murders and Filipino karaoke culture abound. A 2002 Philippine Daily Inquirer piece entitled "Rage Against the Machine," for instance, reads: "'My Way' still holds the record for sending the most number of local singers on their way to their Maker. I just read from our Metro pages last week that another fellow got knifed to death that way....Maybe the suspect objected violently to the way his [duet] partner carried his part? Maybe he felt being drunk was not an excuse?...Extreme aesthetics."
Here at FP, we wondered how karaoke became so popular in the Philippines in the first place. The sing-along machine is apparently a fixture in bars, clubs, and private homes, and popular even at funerals. It turns out, that is in part because Filipinos consider karaoke to be a local invention -- though its provenance is a long-standing international dispute.
It all comes down to Daisuke Inoue of Japan and Roberto "Bert" del Rosario of the Philippines. Inoue argues that he built the first karaoke machine and rented it to various bars and clubs in Kobe, Japan, starting around 1971. He coined the phrase "karaoke," which means "empty orchestra" in Japanese -- and never filed for a patent for the invention.
Del Rosario says he never heard of or saw Inoue's invention. The music-school head says that he created his "Sing Along System" around 1972 and patented the first prototype, under the name "The One Man Combo," in 1975. He alleges that a group of Japanese businesspeople visited his offices, saw his machine, and replicated it in Japan.
"I can rightly claim to be the inventor of the SAS or karaoke because of the international patent ruling that the first person to patent his product is the inventor," del Rosario told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2002, after years of disputing the karaoke machine's origins. "The main reason why I developed the SAS is the fact that Filipinos love to sing."
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
The frequent stories of grusome beheadings and seemingly rand mass-murders coming out of Mexico's drug war can make the country sound like its on the brink of anarchy. But as Alexandra Olson points out, by regional and historical standards, the country's violence is not unusually high:
Mexico's homicide rate has fallen steadily from a high in 1997 of 17 per 100,000 people to 14 per 100,000 in 2009, a year marked by an unprecedented spate of drug slayings concentrated in a few states and cities, Public Safety Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna said. The national rate hit a low of 10 per 100,000 people in 2007, according to government figures compiled by the independent Citizens' Institute for Crime Studies.
By comparison, Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates of between 40 and 60 per 100,000 people, according to recent government statistics. Colombia was close behind with a rate of 33 in 2008. Brazil's was 24 in 2006, the last year when national figures were available.
Mexico City's rate was about 9 per 100,000 in 2008, while Washington, D.C. was more than 30 that year.
Of course, all of that is cold comfort to residents of Ciudad Juarez, which had a mind-boggling homicide rate of "173 per 100,000 in the city of 1.3 million, or more than 2,500 murders last year."
Mexico's relative national stability combined with what can only be described as out of control carnage in the drug war zone, supports Jorge Castaneda's argument that Mexico should be looked at not as a state under seige, but as a country increasingly embroiled in a military quagmire inside its own borders.
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Italy's "biggest company" is doing just fine in the recession:
Italy's mafia crime syndicates bucked the recession in 2009 to raise 'profits' by almost 8 percent with the financial crisis making companies and even the stock market even more vulnerable to cash-flush mobsters.
"Mafia Inc. is reinforcing its position as the number one Italian company," said a report published on Wednesday by a body whose members bear the brunt of mafia extortion and crimes, the small business and shopkeepers' association Confesercenti.
It estimated that the impact on business equalled about 7 percent of Italy's economic output, enjoying healthy growth in a year when the Italian economy shrank by almost 5 percent.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger went a little off-script yesterday and floated a novel solution for his state's overcrowded prison system:
"We pay them to build the prisons down in Mexico and then we have those undocumented immigrants be down there in a prison. ... And all this, it would be half the cost to build the prisons and half the cost to run the prisons," Schwarzenegger said, predicting it would save the state $1 billion that could be spent on higher education.
About 19,000 of the state's 171,000 prisoners are illegal immigrants, according to the most recent statistics available online. The state spends more than $8 billion a year on the prison system.
Aaron McLear, spokesman for the governor, said later that Schwarzenegger's comments did not represent a concrete proposal, but "a concept somebody mentioned to him" and he could not say where the governor came up with the $1 billion figure.
Aside from the troubling fact that Schwarnegger seems to have just made up the $1 billion figure and not consulted anyone before bringing up this idea, his timing is a bit unfortunate given that just five days ago 23 Mexican inmates were killed in a prison riot in Durango. Two other riots last year killed at least 20 inmates each. Here's how the Los Angeles Times described the country's penal system:
Mexican prisons have grown more crowded and dangerous as the government carries out a war against cartels, with more than 67,000 drug arrests in three years. The increased incarcerations have often created an incendiary mix by jamming members of rival gangs inside the same walls.
The penal facilities also have seen dramatic breakout attempts as drug gangs seek to rescue captured members, sometimes with success. In May, a convoy of men dressed in what appeared to be police uniforms cruised into a prison in the northern state of Zacatecas and calmly led 53 inmates to freedom as surveillance cameras rolled. Authorities said it was an inside job.
Yes, definitely sounds like a place that could use another 19,000 prisoners.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Not sure if Florida Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack's proposal to add Venezuela to the list of countries whose travelers will require extra scrutiny to enter the United States will go anywhere, but I was interested to see the FARC-al Qaeda alliance meme (I've been recently informed that the proper term is "El Qaeda") being used in Congress:
For her part, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen cited DEA reports that demonstrate a Venezuelan connection in a new alliance formed between the FARC and al Qaeda, in which the oil producing nation plays the part of a ``massive airport for the use of the traffickers.''
``It is no surprise that Hugo Chávez allows Venezuela to serve as a massive airport for the use of traffickers. In fact the DEA has said that all the planes captured in West Africa left from Venezuela,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.
She explained that the recent arrest of three African agents of al Qaeda after a drug smuggling operation showed a new panorama of cooperation between Islamic extremist groups and those of South American narco-guerrillas.
``Groups like the FARC are finding new ways to sell drugs in Europe by means of al Qaeda in Africa. And al Qaeda is more than willing to use the drug trade to help finance its extremist agenda,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.
As I wrote earlier this week, the arrest of the three Africans, whose relationship to al Qaeda is still somewhat unclear, did not show a "new panorama" of anything. The men were arrested for making a deal with a DEA agent who was posing as a representative of FARC. Unless there's some unreported evidence, it's far from clear the al Qaeda and FARC are actually in cahoots.
Again, I'm not saying that the potential for such a partnership isn't there, but I wish that lawmakers would stop viewing this arrest as proof of a grand trans-Atlantic axis of evil.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Since the Pants Bomber thankfully failed to blow up Nortwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, the United States has taken a long, hard look at the security failures that allowed him onto the plane -- particularly given that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's own father, a prominent Nigerian banker, had alerted U.S. authorities to his 23-year-old son's radicalization. Increasingly within Washington, there are calls for heads to roll. So, a straw poll: Who's it going to be?
If anything good has come from the Flight 253 terror attack -- in which a 23-year-old Nigerian man attempted to detonate an explosive on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day -- it has been the tale of the Flying Dutchman.
Jasper Schuringa, a 32-year-old Dutch filmmaker, heard a popping sound and saw smoke emanating from the would-be terrorist's pants. He leaped to the rescue, jumping over other passengers to wrestle Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and put out the fire on his pants, burning his bare hands in the process. (Abdulmutallab had hidden a plastic explosive in his underwear.) Schuringa then restrained Abdulmutallab in a headlock and helped the stewards handcuff him in first class. Needless to say, the tabloids are in love.
And the story underscores the point that, in the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, "Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers."
Photo from Facebook
For the first time, alleged al Qaeda members are being charged by U.S. prosecutors on narcoterrorism charges. Oumar Issa, Harouna Toure and Idriss Abelrahman were arrested in Ghana last week in a sting operation coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Ghanaian authorities and were hoping to move hundreds of kilograms of cocaine through West Africa to finance al Qaeda and its North African offshoot, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
U.S. attorney Preet Bharara says the arrests "reflect the emergence of a worrisome alliance between al Qaeda and transnational narcotics traffickers," but if these guys represent the vanguard of a new generation of narcoterror, we probably don't have too much to worry about:
The operation took shape in August, when a paid DEA informant posing as a Lebanese radical encountered Issa, an alleged fixer for a criminal organization that operated in Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, according to a sworn statement from veteran DEA agent Daria Lupacchino.
The two met in September in Ghana. The informant said he represented members of FARC, which has targeted U.S. citizens with bombings, kidnappings and other violence in recent years. Issa told the informant, in a conversation recorded by authorities, that his associates had circumvented customs agents and could ensure "safe passage" through the African desert, the affidavit said.
The informant later met with Toure, identified by Issa as "the main guy," and verified Toure's identity using a passport he mistakenly left at a hotel that served as the meeting site, the DEA agent wrote.
"Toure stated that he has worked with al Qaeda to transport and deliver between one and two tons of hashish to Tunisia and that his organization and al Qaeda have collaborated in the human smuggling of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian subjects into Spain," the Lupacchino affidavit said.
Toure also allegedly described efforts to kidnap European citizens and to obtain foreign visas, the court papers said.
Granted we don't many details, but I doubt that most serious high-volume traffic drug smugglers -- even if they got taken in by the agent's Lebanaese radical/FARC story -- would brag about all of the other nefarious criminal enterprises they're involved with or be sloppy enough to leave their passport behind when meeting with a cocaine supplier.
If you can’t beat ‘em, regulate ‘em -- that’s the Indian Supreme Court’s take on the country’s illegal sex trade.
The court’s advice came in response to an NGO’s public litigation regarding child trafficking in the country. As of 2007, UNICEF estimates 2.4 million Indians were HIV-positive (with the high estimate ranging up to 3.2 million). The sex trade is at the center of the epidemic: reportedly, a young prostitute can charge a customer just over $2, while an older woman will only receive about 65 cents – and that figure usually drops if the prostitute demands the use of a condom. And the youngest girls in the trade, forced into prostitution before 15, are at the greatest risk of contracting the virus – they work longer hours, serve more clients, and are more likely to work in multiple brothels.
A UNAIDS report issued a couple of weeks ago reports that efforts to control the spread of HIV has been effective, with HIV prevalence among female sex workers declining by more than half, from 10.3 percent to 4.9 percent, between 2003 and 2006. Still, as the court points out, there are an estimated 2 million female sex workers, and legalization would allow monitoring of the trade and further provision of medical aid.
As the judges asked, "When you say it is the world's oldest profession and you are not able to curb it by laws, why don't you legalise it?"
Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images
New reports of 11,000 people killed by Brazilian police over the past six years are perhaps one indication that violence in the super-star Amazon country has gotten a wee bit out of hand.
Never fear, there is a long term solution already under consideration: prohibit "offensive" video games, with the option to punish their distribution with jailtime. In all honesty, Brazilian Senator Valdir Raupp probably did not have human rights violations in mind when he proposed the bill, which was recently approved by Senate's Education Committee. It follows on the ban last year on violent computer role-playing games "Counter-Strike" and "EverQuest," and Venezuela and China's bans on warlike and mobster-glorifying games respectively.
CNET's Dave Rosenberg has lambasted Brazil's move, suggesting they deal with "larger social issues, including lack of parental oversight," instead. They praise the US system of industry self-regulation, which relies on ratings to isolate children from violent games.
The Brazilian law is probably overkill, but lets not get all starry eyed about the glories of free-market entertainment violence. Did nobody notice a few years back when U.S. generals begged Hollywood producers to stop showing torture in a favorable light, since troops were getting inspiration on prisoner treatment from 24?
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Thieves in Brazil made off with nearly $6 million in a heist that demonstrated the unbelievable distracting power of soccer in the country.
The looters rented a house near a cash delivery firm, put up Christmas decorations to make the operation look legitimate, and then started digging a 110-yard-long tunnel under the building. Then they waited. Last Sunday, during the 39th Brazilian soccer championship, they blew the floor out of the building and plundered the riches.
The security guard on duty didn't suspect a thing. He thought the thuds and bangs he heard were people celebrating Flamengo's victory with fireworks. As of now, the thieves have gotten away with a perfect heist.
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
With more than 2,000 killings this year in Ciudad Juarez, pictures of gunshot victims strewn about the streets and bulletproof-vested shopkeepers attending terrified customers, potential paramilitiary group formation, calls for UN peacekeeping troops and dire predictions of the violence spreading north the United States-Mexico border is increasingly looking like an all out war zone.
Perhaps it is because of this that I was surprised this morning to attend a conference calling for recognition that the transborder region is increasingly more a region than a border. Speakers at "Rethinking the U.S.-Mexico Border," came from both sides of the border, but it's more accurate to see their flawless bilingualism as an expression that they truly do view the area as a region that must work as one in order to harness the potential of what is already a $300 billion economy.
Among the recommendations presented by one group, the "Binational Task Force on the United States-Mexico Border," was the need to target demand for illicit drugs on both sides of the border (20 percent of drugs produced in Mexico are consumed there, most of the rest goes to the US), as well as the creation of parallel border agencies (such as the synergy between Canada and the US) facilitating coordination between the two countries. Importantly, they called for a reinstating of the American ban on assault weapons, and more work on preventing arms and cash smuggling south. They also advocate immigration reform in the US and more focus on development in Mexico to stem flows north. On the flip side, Mexico also needs to start taking illegal immigration seriously.
Given that NAFTA is now 15 years old, none of this should sound very surprising. But remembering that a lot of the talk about the border in recent years has involved walls (electrified or otherwise), vigilantes, and how to make everybody just stay put on their own side, this all sounded pretty good. As most of the speakers emphasized, it's not about philosophically agreeing with unilateral solutions or not, they simply don't seem to work.
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
"Some people get the giggles after using cannabis -- you may laugh at the most random things" cautions "FRANK," the UK's anti-drug website. Despite declining drug use in the country, in January the British government changed marijuana's classification from a "Class C" to a "Class B" drug; possession now carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, while dealing can get you 14 years in jail.
Professor David Nutt, formerly a member of the UK's independent Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, was fired for publicly disputing the decision; five other members of the 31-person Council have since resigned in protest of the politically-motivated firing. In a lecture (later published), Nutt argued that the use of illicit drugs like marijuana and ecstasy poses less severe health risks than the use of alcohol or tobacco. Nutt has also equated the dangers of ecstasy use and the risks of horseback riding.
Nutt's firing and the subsequent resignations have caused quite a political row, with politicians and scientists making pointed attacks on home secretary Alan Johnson, who gave Nutt the axe. "Your leader on drugs policy is long on righteous indignation but short on logic" wrote Johnson in a defensive letter published in The Guardian.
Nutt fired back in a column published in The Telegraph, writing, "Some politicians find it easier to ignore the evidence, and pander to public prejudice instead."
Photo: SCOTT BARBOUR/Getty Images
While being sworn in for a second term as mayor of San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico, Mauricio Fernandez jumped the gun a bit in announcing the death of a notorious narcotrafficker:
"Black Saldana, who apparently is the one who was asking for my head, was found dead today in Mexico City," he told his cheering supporters Saturday in San Pedro Garza Garcia, near Monterrey.
The problem was that the barefoot, blindfolded corpse of "Black Saldana" - whose real first name is Hector - wasn't found for another 3 1/2 hours, according to Mexico City prosecutors. And he wouldn't be identified for two days.
When asked about his remarkable foresight, the mayor first responded, "Sometimes there are coincidences in life; it's better to look at it this way."
Yesterday, Italian police arrested Pasquale Russo, the boss of the powerful Camorra mafia syndicate. Russo was arrested alongside his brother, Carmine, and on Saturday the police arrested a third member of the family, Salvatore Russo.
The Camorra's main business is in drug sales, primarily heroin and cocaine, and including everything from ecstasy to hashish. Local police say the business is worth half a million Euros a day; investigators say it's Europe's largest drug market. The Camorra is one of the four largest Italian mafias involved in protection rackets, which draw in about another 250 million Euros a day. Camorra associates have also been connected with crimes ranging from billion-dollar cigarette smuggling operations to illegal sewage dumping. And all of the Camorra's operations have been accompanied by violence; the mafia is allegedly responsible for more than 3600 murders, including an outdoor execution caught on closed-circuit cameras -- Italian prosecutors went so far as to publicly release the video to draw attention to the case.
Angelino Alfano, Italy's justice minister, has described the recent round of arrests as an "extremely hard blow" to the Camorra. But there's reason not to write the syndicate off just yet -- as the Camorra men have been arrested, equally-violent Godmothers have taken their places.
Photo: GIULIO PISCITELLI/AFP/Getty Images
The U.S. Department of Justice announced new drug prosecution guidelines today, instructing prosecutors not to arrest medical marijuana users or distributors in states where medical marijuana is legal. Glenn Greenwald puts the announcement in the context of an international developments -- particularly Mexico's recent decision to decriminalize pot for personal use:
[A]lmost every country in the region is now actively re-considering its criminalization approach to drug policy. Even a modest willingness on the part of the U.S. government to pursue or even tolerate alternative approaches could play a major role in accelerating that process, as countries in virtually every region of the world have long been coerced by Washington to maintain strict criminalization approaches and to embrace the destructive Drug War model.
In a column last May, FP Editor in Chief Moisés Naím called the United States "both the world’s largest importer of illicit drugs and the world’s largest exporter of bad drug policy," despite the fact that most Americans acknowledge that the current approach isn't working:
First, 76 percent of Americans think the war on drugs launched in 1971 by President Richard Nixon has failed. Yet only 19 percent believe the central focus of antidrug efforts should be shifted from interdiction and incarceration to treatment and education. A full 73 percent of Americans are against legalizing any kind of drugs, and 60 percent oppose legalizing marijuana.
This “it doesn’t work, but don’t change it” incongruity is not just a quirk of the U.S. public. It is a manifestation of how the prohibition on drugs has led to a prohibition on rational thought. “Most of my colleagues know that the war on drugs is bankrupt,” a U.S. senator told me, “but for many of us, supporting any form of decriminalization of drugs has long been politically suicidal.”
In other words, don't expect to see Obama signing federal drug law reform legislation any time soon. At this point, Obama advocating any form of decriminalization at a federal level would be about as politically prudent as pushing shariah law or collective farming. But that doesn't mean the administration can't subtly change the tone of the debate.
In contrast to the Bush adminsitration's explicit condemnations, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske said the U.S. would take a "wait and see" attitude toward Mexico's decriminalization. As far as I've seen, the administration has also been quiet on Gov. David Patterson's recent revision of New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Today's announcement, as the Atlantic's Chris Good noted, was actually a traditionally federalist measure, rooted in the right of states to set their own drug laws.
Officially, Kerlikowske maintains that "legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it's not in mine," but the adminsitration also seems to be signaling that while they shouldn't be expected to take the lead on this issue, they're perfectly content to sit back and let the zeitgeist shift on its own.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Say goodbye to your Wii, say hello to Internet Eyes, the novel new game which will allow you to spot crime in real life, and win up to 1,000 pounds in prize money. Vigilantism has never been easier.
It's run by a private company, which will stream live footage from the CCTV camaras of shops and business (who actually pay to be included in this scheme) straight to the computers of players -- yes, it's marketed as a game.
Some are celebrating the novel use of footage which, as they point out, is already recorded anyway. Britain has one camara for every 14 people, a total of 4.2 million -- however, only one in a thousand of these is actually watched by law enforcement officials at any given time. Some online sites are even celebrating the democratic nature of the game saying it puts Big Brother in the hands of the people.
Unsurprisingly privacy groups are far less thrilled by the creation of a "snoopers paradise" and worry about a society in which people are encouraged to "spy and snitch on each other." The Guardian points out that even supporters of the controversial CCTV camaras, aren't totally convinced by these plan.
Although, in order to safeguard "privacy" the camaras are assigned to players randomly, without any identifying geographic information, shopgoers might want to be careful -- don't get caught buying buying inappropriate magazines by your wife, much less your mother-in-law.
Even Michael Laurie, head of Crimestoppers, foresees a 'wide range of opportunities for abuse and error' in what is, for him, 'essentially no more than a commercial venture exploiting some people's baser characteristics.'"
Italy's highest court may be able to strip Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Teflon coating.
In July 2008, Italian lawmakers "freed" Berlusconi with an immunity law that freezes criminal cases against the prime minister, president and heads of both chambers of parliament while they are in office. (See last week's edition of The List for more.) Now prosecutors are saying this law is unconstitutional, as it goes against the provision that all citizens are equal before the law.
The Constitutional Court could rule by the end of the week; however the Italian media says the decision could be delayed because the 15-judge court is unable to reach a consensus.
Berlusconi would most likely have three cases re-opened against him. The most devastating of these cases accuses Berlusconi of paying British lawyer David Mills $600,000 in 1997 to give false testimony in Berlusconi's corruption trials. Mills was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for taking the bribe in February, however he will likely never see jail because of Italy's appeals system.
Other cases that will likely be re-opened include a tax fraud and false accounting case and a case in which he allegedly tried to corrupt senators.
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images
The city council of Nairobi passed a series of by-laws yesterday outlining new illegal activities for the streets of Kenya's capital. Newly outlawed activities include blowing one's nose in public without using a hankercheif and spitting into trash cans. Another of the laws criminalizes loud noise.
This particular ordinance may have the biggest impact on the economy of Nairobi, in which street hawkers, cab drivers and store owners rely on verbally cajoling customers into their services. One resident argued the city is just trying to make money, either from imposed fines or bribes, and directly ignoring the needs of its citizens:
"We get our daily bread here,We are not making noise. The council must know that we are self-employed."
The city maintains that the purpose of the news laws is to make the city more habitable and reduce general nuisance.
"It's war!" cries Brazilian newspaper O Globo, lamenting an article in the latest New Yorker on gang violence in Rio de Janeiro, which comes out mere days before the International Olympic Committee decides the location of the 2016 summer games.
The article, by journalist Jon Lee Anderson, describes the fighting between gangs in Rio's favelas, which he says are spread everywhere in the city: "there is no way to completely escape Rio's misery." O Globo, which has a section online dedicated specifically to the city's Olympic bid, notes that Anderson said the timing of the article is a coincidence, and that he believes Rio is fully capable of hosting the games.
The paper couldn't help but notice the "sad coincidence" that this same week, Chicago -- Rio's main competitor -- faced its own shocking gang violence moment, with widespread circulation of a cell-phone video footage showing the fatal beating of 16-year-old Derrion Albert.
As Chicago booster Michelle Obama said herself, "the gloves are off".
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
The increasingly friendly relationship between Iran and Venezuela is hardly a secret. Just yesterday, Venezuela announced that it will begin exporting 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day to the Islamic Republic. This followed a meeting on Saturday between Presidents Ahmadinejad and Chavez during which the two leaders promised to stand together to defeat imperialist foes.
Legendary New York District Attorney Robert Morganthau explained his concerns about the link in a talk at the Brookings Institution today, sponsored by the the American Interest magazine and Global Financial Integrity. According to Morganthau, some of the most dangerous aspects of the relationship take place far from the cameras, in the shadowy world of illicit finance:
The ostensible reason the the Iranian owned Banco International de Desarrollo (BID) was opened in Caracas was to expand economic ties with Venezuela. Our sources and experiences lead me to suspet an ulterior motive. A foothold into the Venezuelan banking system is a perfect "sanctions-busting" method -- the main motivator for Iran in its banking relationship with Venezuela. Despite being designated by OFAC we believe that BID has several correspondent banking relationships with both Venezuelan banks and banks in Panama, anation with a long-standing reputation as a money laundering safe-haven.
This scheme is known as "nesting." Nested accounts occur when a foreign financial institution gains access to the U.S. financial system by operating through a U.S. correspondent account belonging to another foreign financial institution. For example, BID who is prohibited from establishing a relationship with a U.S. bank could instead establish a relationship with a Venezuelan or Panamanian bank that has a relationship with a U.S. bank. If the U.S. bank is unaware that its foreign correspondent financial institution customer is providing such access to a sanctioned third-party foreign financial institution, this third-party financial institution can effectively gain anonymous access to the U.S. financial system. [...]
There is little reason to doubt Venezuela's support for Ahmadinejad's most important agenda, the development of a nuclear program and long-range missiles, and the destabilization of the region. For Iran, the lifeblood of their nuclear and weapons programs is the ability to use the international banking system and to make payments for banned missile and nuclear materials. The opening of Venezuela's banks to the Iranians guarantees the continued development of nuclear technology and long-range missiles.
Morganthau's office recently prosecuted British bank Lloyds for helping Iran move money through the U.S. financial system by stripping identifying information from wire transfers. He believes the cozy Chavez-Ahmadinejad relationship will only make such operations easier for the Iranians.
Morganthau stopped short of announcing specific prosecutions, but from the sound of it, some new revelations may be forthcoming.
Photo by David Shankbone. Used under Creative Commons license.
Yesterday I mentioned the "hijacked" cargo ship Arctic Sea had been carrying weapons from Russia to the Middle East. Now, the BBC reports that the editor of a Russian maritime journal who proposed the theory has been forced to flee:
Mr Voitenko - who was among the first to cast doubt on official explanations about the ship's disappearance - told the BBC it was nonsense to suggest pirates had been involved.
Instead he suggested the ship may have been carrying a secret shipment of weapons as part of a private business deal by state officials.
Speaking to the BBC from Turkey, Mr Voitenko said he had received a threatening phone call from "serious people" whom he suggested may have been members of Russia's intelligence agency, the FSB.
The caller told Mr Voitenko that those involved in the mysterious case of the Arctic Sea were very angry with him because he had spoken publicly, and were planning on taking action against him, he said.
"As long as I am out of Russia I feel safe," Mr Voitenko told the BBC. "At least they won't be able to get me back to Russia and convict [me]."
Guess he hit a nerve.
While I would take any new reports about the hijacking of the Arctic Sea with a heaping barrelful of salt, some of the latest theories are at least interesting. In an interview with Time this week, the European Union's rapporteur on piracy said Israeli intelligence likely intercepted the ship, which was carrying a secret shipment weapons to the Middle East:
[H]e says only a shipment of missiles could account for Russia's bizarre behavior throughout the monthlong saga. "There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can't explain this situation in any other way," he says. "As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic."
Kouts says an Israeli interception of the cargo is the most likely explanation. But this theory, which some Russian analysts put forward in the days after the Arctic Sea was rescued and which Kouts agreed with in his interview with TIME, has been vehemently denied by Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, who says Kouts should stop "running his mouth."
The theory is supported by the fact that Israeli President Shimon Peres made a surpsie visit to Moscow the day after the ship was rescued.
Not so fast say repoters from Israel's YNet, who find the admiral's theory implausable. According to their anonymous sources, the Arctic Sea made a stop in Kaliningrad -- a Russian military outpost popular with arms dealers -- before picking up its stated cargo of timber in Finland:
Sources say the Arctic Sea docked in Kaliningrad in June to undergo various repairs. The same sources say a deal was previously struck between Russian and Middle Eastern businessmen, agreeing on the sale of some of the S-300 missiles located at the port.
Some sources claim the Russian military's weapons industry was implicated in the deal and transferred a number of new missiles, including the X-500, to the port to be included in the sale. However the Kremlin was uninvolved, and apparently the deal was carried out in secret between businessmen from the private sector.
After the deal was executed, an intelligence agency whose identity so far remains unexposed learned of the ship's departure with the weapons in tow towards Algeria, a country located on a regularly used route for the transfer of weapons to Iran and Syria. The intelligence agency then transferred an anonymous tip to the Russian authorities, according to the investigation.
According to Russian sources the "hijackers", who in actuality were Russian intelligence officers, remained on the ship and reported to their superiors that they had found the missiles on board. On August 12 Russia announced it had sent naval officers to rescue the vessel and its crew.
The sources say the period of time between the hijacking and the Russian rescue mission was due to the Kremlin's desire to capture the ship away from the eyes of the media, in order to avoid an embarrassing incident that may have harmed its relations with Iran and Algeria.
Again, I'm not endorsing any of these theories, but the story just gets more fascinating.
Ricky LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.