In recent days, the number of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia has started to fall. French troops arrested eight pirates on January 1st, turning them over to the Somali government. The EU mission also saved a Greek tanker from kidnapping on January 2nd. A Danish warship sunk yet another pirate vessel after warning flares set that ship on fire (the pirates were rescued from the wreck, and remain onboard the Danish vessel). And a Chinese cargo ship flat out-maneuvered the pirates on January 2nd.
A round of applause might be in order. After a slew of hijackings last fall, the world's navies finally seemed to get serious about fighting the pirates. Previously, many countries feared that arresting pirates could lead to awkward legal proceedings and even amnesty suits by suspects claiming they could be put to death at home if extradited. All good points. But then, so are the tens of thousands of ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden each year. From the looks of it, squeamish fighters once reluctant to pick up pirates are increasingly keen to do just that. Whatever they're doing, it seems to be working.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
It isn't every day that Somalia beats China in a battle of military technology... and still loses.
On Tuesday, it was the well-armed, satellite-phone-wielding Somali pirates who held up a Chinese cargo ship. The crew members' defense? Petrol bombs! The makeshift Molotov cocktails worked well enough to hold off the pirates until an international patrol helicopter intervened.
No wonder China is dispatching ships to join the international contingent of navies patrolling against piracy in the gulf of Aden. 1,265 Chinese ships have passed through that same corridor this year and 20 percent of those came under attack. Not good odds.
Alas, should we just start shipping our Suez-bound goods over land? I'll let you see a lay of the land and decide for yourself: the president has fired the prime minister. Parliament is impeaching the president. The U.S. wants to send peacekeepers, but U.N. diplomats fear that's suicide. The entire country is food insecure, and about half is a humanitarian emergency.No wonder the pirates prefer the seas.
According to Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, the recent surge of U.N.-inspired naval patrols sent to thwart out of control piracy aren't having much of an effect on the Somali pirates.
More than a dozen warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States have joined the hunt.
And yet, in the past two months alone, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot Saudi oil tanker.The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea."
Outgunned and outnumbered, the pirates "seem to be getting only wilier."
While some ships have taken to alternative, and largely unsuccessful tactics -- the crew of a Filipino boat hurled tomatoes at assailants -- merchant vessels are now hiring private security guards, who offer more hands-on suggestions: "We should make 'em walk the plank," says one.
That's how bad it's gotten in Mexico. A U.S. security consultant who claims to have helped resolve over 100 kidnapping cases was himself kidnapped in northern Mexico last week.
Coahuila state law enforcement officials who were not authorized to be quoted by name said Batista had been giving talks to local police officials and businessmen on how to prevent or avoid kidnappings.
They said he apparently was snatched from a street outside a restaurant.
The Web profile of Batista _ later removed from ASI's site _ described him as "the primary case officer for all cases throughout the Latin American region."
If an anti-kidnapping expert isn't safe, who is?
Reading the latest headlines from the Rod Blagojevich scandal, David Carr sees the danger a downsized Chicago Tribune poses to American politics:
In a city and state where corruption is knit into the political fabric, a solvent daily paper would seem to be a civic necessity. But if another governor goes bad in Illinois — a likely circumstance given the current investigation and the fact that the last governor, George Ryan, is serving six and a half years on corruption charges — what if the local paper were too diminished to do the job?
Good question. Here's another one: What if thousands were being killed in an armed conflict that directly impacted U.S. security, and no U.S. reporters were there to cover it?
While much of the U.S. media and political establishment has been ignoring the ongoing drug violence in Mexico that has claimed almost 7,000 lives, severely weakend the Mexican state, and involved 50,000 troops, reporters from the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times have largely been driving the story.
The turmoil in Mexico is already not getting the coverage it deserves. Without steady paychecks for Times reporters like Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood, the full-scale war being waged just across the border might not be noticed at all.
Photo: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
As a world conference on curtailing Somali piracy gets underway in Nairobi, the Bush administration announced today that it will push for international action -- a last-ditch attempt to stabilize the East African nation.
Good luck matey, you'll need it. As Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper tells FP in this week's Seven Questions, it will take weeks -- maybe months -- even to get coastal surveillance under control.
And then there is the problem of instability on land that drives the trade in ransom. The administration tried and failed in 2006 to bring a government of "good guys" to power. Halting piracy (a symptom of the same disease) won't be any easier. Back then, the United States funneled money to the right people to set things in motion. Too late this time -- ransom payments already keep the pirates rolling in the millions.
In short, this is no easy problem, and there are no modern fixes for the most medieval of scourges. Despite the 1,400 German soldiers pledged for the $1.4 million proposed project of anti-piracy, you just can't buy time.
Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper has the goods.
Photo: KHALED FAZAA/AFP/Getty Images
What happened to the good old days when kids just used to sniff glue to get high? The BBC reports that South African teens have turned the trend of substituting prescriptions drugs for recereational drugs -- like snorting Ritalin -- into an unexpected venture: smoking anti-retroviral HIV/AIDS drugs to get lit.
Aside from the obvious reasons why this recently discovered habit -- grinding up the pills into powder and then mixing it with pain killers or smoking it with marijuana -- is so distressing, teenage users are getting their "stash" from HIV/AIDS patients and health care workers responsible for distributing the medication.
This raises serious questions about the infrastructure for a crucial medical service already stunted by reluctant leaders and lack of funding. It also means that people who need these drugs to stay healthy aren't taking them as prescribed, while others, barely able to get these drugs as it is, have a new obstacle to contend with -- users who are willing to pay and the health care workers willing to sell what precious drugs they have to the highest bidder.
I hate to think that Barbara Hogan, South Africa's newly appointed health minister, upon whom many hopes have been pinned, will be wasting any energy or valuable dollars on keeping drugs away from a foolish few, when so many are in real need.
GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images
What would possess you to get on a cruise ship headed for the pirate-laden Gulf of Aden is beyond me. But apparently, that's what 650 or so passengers did, only to have my fears fulfilled and be attacked by... pirates. Their Rome to Singapore voyage on a U.S. vessel was impolitely interrupted by gunfire on Tuesday.
Luckily, the good ship avoided capture. As CNN dramatically put it: "The ship took evasive maneuvers and accelerated to its full speed of 23 knots or 27 mph." That's some speedy driving.
But as we all know by now, others have not been so lucky. A Ukranian weapons ship and a Saudi oil tanker are still being held for ransom.
Back on land, the chaos ensues. The Ethiopian troops who have occupied the country since December, 2006, are pulling out next month, and the government is nervous it won't be able to stay in power (no wonder, since it was installed by Ethiopia to begin with). Peacekeepers are nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, the former Islamic government is gaining lost territory.
Hell of a cruise.
Photo: ERIC CABANIS/AFP/Getty Images
Ronald Reagan was almost right. The actual scariest words in the English language are, "I'm from the government and I know where you can score some weed."
The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy was trying to prove a point on its blog about the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries in California by noting that there are now more of them than there are Starbucks locations in downtown San Francisco. To bolster their point, the agency's bloggers included this handy Google Maps mashup:
As Wired's Threat Level blog noted, the narcs' map also serves as an excellent guide for anyone who might be looking for one of these establishments, or... you know... really in the mood for some Starbucks.
So good work, ONDCP! I hope all those latté-sipping, pot-smoking San Franciscans appreciate your efforts.
Impressive. Somali pirates have now succesfully hijacked a Saudi oil tanker -- their biggest, though apparently not their first, such vessel. A crew of 25 is on board. This is just one of several pirate incidents this week.
Even more impressive? All this goes on under the watch of U.S., Russian, NATO, Indian, and now South Korean and EU ships.
The world's largest shipping line, Odfjell SE, owns the ransomed tanker and now says that its shipping route will change -- steering around Africa's cape rather than across the perilous Gulf of Aden. Since 4 percent of the world's oil supply passes through the pirate-infested route, a change of direction would be no small shift. Two million barrels of oil were lost to pirates today, and now shipping costs -- and probably oil prices, to some extent -- will go up.
Under normal circumstances, the world would be pressuring the Somali government to reign in the renegade ship-lifters. But that government is no shape to do so. It's falling apart as Islamic insurgent groups gain terrority.
I can think of a few pirates who are smiling right now.
As Japan's population ages, the country is facing the new and unexpected problem of senior crime:
The number of people aged 65 or older arrested for crimes other than traffic violations totaled 48,605 last year, up from 24,247 in 2002, the Justice Ministry said in an annual crime report. Elderly crimes rose 4.2 percent in 2007 from a year earlier, though the total number of people arrested fell 4.8 percent to 366,002.
Thefts, such as shoplifting and pick-pocketing, were the most common crimes committed by older people, the report said, citing low income, declining health and a sense of isolation as the main causes of the trend. Serious crimes such as murder and robbery were less prevalent among seniors than younger people.
The report said elderly crime is growing at a much faster pace than the population of senior citizens.
The rise in elderly crime has also forced many prisons to renovate their facilities and provide nursing care.
I shudder to think what this will mean for the next generation of yakuza movies.
Remember the old Carmen Sandiego computer games, where each case began with Carmen and her
gang carrying out an absurd heist of, for example, Niagara Falls or the Great Pyramids? I was reminded of these games upon reading that thieves in
Hundreds of tons of white sand were removed from a planned
People have complained for a long time, of course, that sand has a way of getting into the strangest places. This is, I suppose, just one more.
Those pesky Somali pirates -- yet to get their payday as I incorrectly predicted last week -- have run out of patience. Pay us by Tuesday, the pirates are now saying, or we'll blow up the weapons-laden Ukranian tanker (shown at left) they've held hostage for several weeks.
The pirates' chutzpah is rather surprising, surrounded as they are by U.S. and Russian ships, watching to ensure the arms are not offloaded. Then again, there are hostages involved, and Somali pirates are heartier than you might expect. Thanks to them, shipping routes through the Suez canal have become some of the most dangerous in the world.
I'll make my prediction again: When the pirates ask for ransom, the world will pay up.
Thought that pirates belonged to the realm of children's books and a thick-eyelinered Johnny Depp? Well, there's nothing storybook at all about this story: Small-scale pirates off the coast of Somalia have attacked 62 ships this year, 25 of them hijackings.
On Sept. 25, the increasingly bold pirates caught their biggest ship yet, a Ukrainian boat carrying an estimated $30 million in weapons and ammunition. The pirates are asking for $20 million in ransom.
So, whence do such medieval-sounding avengers hail?
As someone who tried to write her undergraduate thesis on Somali pirates, I'm kind of perversely thrilled that they've become such a hot topic. Some quick background: For the last two decades, Somalia's politics have been one big power vacuum, with any number of unsavory characters (both Somali and foreign) vying to fill the gap. (I will refrain from expounding further, but a good update can be found here.)
About 10 or 15 years ago, fishermen, too, noticed that the power vacuum wasn't just a land-lubber phenomenon. As the pirates themselves describe in a fascinating interview with the New York Times, they call their merry band "the Central Region Coast Guard," and characterize it as a sort of ersatz navy that merely protects fishing vessels from outsiders eager to steal their catch. Of course, they have held humanitarian aid, yachts, and now weapons shipments hostage. And as for the ransom thing, who wouldn't ask for a bite, when there is nothing else to eat?
This time, the Somali pirates are likely to get their cut of at least a few million dollars. Ransoms paid to various captors this year alone have cost $30 million. But five U.S. warships and another Russian vessel on the way will ensure that no funny business takes place. Many had feared that the pirates would sell the weapons to terrorists on a dangerously well-connected Somali black market.
I'm sure they would love to do that, but since they attacked from wooden fishing boats, it's not likely they could even begin to offload the weapons. Tanks -- unlike pirates -- don't do so well on the high seas.
Correction: This original blog stated that Dickinson wrote her thesis on Somali pirates. Alas, she attempted to, but ended up focusing more broadly on Somali maritime security and U.S.-Somali relations, instead. We regret the error.
Two supposedly well-meaning criminals wreaking havoc in the name of the do-gooding hero made headlines this week.
The first, Benedict Hancock was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months of jail time today. Without authorization, the 39-year-old banker had transferred millions of pounds from the accounts of rich clients to those of poor ones because, as his lawyer put it, he "wanted them to do well." Oddly enough, he hails from Nottinghamshire, England, just like the folklore hero.
The second, a Spaniard who refers to himself as "Robin Bank," is still at large. Enric Duran duped 39 banks into loaning him almost half a million euros (710,000 dollars), which he used to finance his an anti-globalization publication, Crisi (Crisis). Yesterday, Duran freely distributed 200,000 copies of the magazine, in which he detailed his scheme.
"What could be better than robbing the ones who rob us and distributing
the money among the groups which are denouncing this situation and
building alternatives?," he asked in the issue. You can also check out his
Spanish Catalan-language video here:
He also said that he'd given away all the money to social activists and vowed never to return the sum. In a final hat tip to Robin Hood, Duran dared the banks to have Spanish authorities jail him.
Suffice it to say there were a lot of cranky bankers out there this week.
European governments frequently accuse Russia of playing pipeline politics with its energy supplies, but a group of enterprising smugglers found a way to keep a different kind of liquid fuel flowing into Eastern Europe.
Estonian authorities recently discovered a two-kilometer underwater pipeline that was set up to pump cheap Russian vodka under a reservoir into Estonia where it could be sold at a markup without export tarrifs. The smugglers managed to pump 6,200 liters of the stuff under the border before they were shut down.
With this supply cut off, Western diplomats will, no doubt, soon be dispatched to strong-arm Caucasian states into an amibitious trans-Caspian project to pump Uzbek vodka into southern Europe.
With the forceful gallantry of a modern-day Errol Flynn, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent in a unit of French troops to rescue two French natives who were captured by pirates while vacationing on their yacht earlier this month. This is the second such rescue operation France has initiated in the last five months.
Even more rousing than Sarkozy's heroic flair was his loud call for a crackdown on global piracy. Sarkozy's announcement of the sailors' safe return came with a stern warning and a little dig:
This operation is a warning to all those who indulge in this criminal activity. France will not allow crime to pay. I call on other countries to take their responsibilities as France has done twice."
Illegal activity is on the rise and increasingly impeding humanitarian efforts to bring food and supplies to Somalia. The waters off the region's coast are said to be the most dangerous in the world and the number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden --54 this year alone -- have recently increased. Somali pirates are still holding some 150 hostages and 15 ships in Eyl.
The EU announced yesterday that it will be establishing a maritime unit whose task will be "supporting the surveillance and protection activities carried out by some member states off the Somali coast."
Once again Sarkozy has managed to nab the foreign policy spotlight, last week as Middle East mediator, this time as sheriff of the high seas. Where will his savvy policy-making take him next?
There's a fascinating article in today's New York Times about India's controversial practice of using electronic brain scans for lie-detection in interrogation. Two Indian states have been using electroencephalograms (EEGs) to interrogate criminal suspects since 2006, but this summer was the first time a judge handed down a conviction based on the data. Here's how the procedure works:
This latest Indian attempt at getting past criminals’ defenses begins with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, in which electrodes are placed on the head to measure electrical waves. The suspect sits in silence, eyes shut. An investigator reads aloud details of the crime — as prosecutors see it — and the resulting brain images are processed using software built in Bangalore.
The software tries to detect whether, when the crime’s details are recited, the brain lights up in specific regions — the areas that, according to the technology’s inventors, show measurable changes when experiences are relived, their smells and sounds summoned back to consciousness. The inventors of the technology claim the system can distinguish between people’s memories of events they witnessed and between deeds they committed.
Based on this scan, a woman who claims to be innocent was convicted in June of poisoning her fiancé.
Neuroscientists have widely condemned this application of EEGs, which has not been sufficiently peer-reviewed to have gained wide acceptance. It's not too far-fetched, though, to see it as the future of criminal investigation. Officials from Singapore and Israel have expressed interest in the Indian program and similar procedures have been developed in the United States.
Before we condemn India for using such an unproven technology in murder trials, it's worth pointing out that U.S. law enforcement agencies still regularly administer polygraph tests even though the Supreme Court ruled them unreliable a decade ago. And of course, there's bullet lead analysis, which the FBI used for four decades before it was discredited.
Let's just be sure these new technologies really work this time around before we start putting them in front of juries.
It may not be the preferred measure by economists and policy makers, but the Canadian government has noticed an interesting trend among organized crime groups -- they, too, are ditching the dollar:
The weakened US dollar has fallen out of favor with organized crime groups to pay for drug shipments or to settle scores, a Canadian government report said Friday. And if the greenback continues its slide in 2008, as expected, more and more criminals are likely to exchange euros for illicit goods, said Criminal Intelligence Service Canada in its annual report.
The report also cites increasing incidence of "environmental crime" -- groups developing "underground markets for electronic waste and scarce natural resources." If nothing else, Canadian organized crime seems to be ahead of the curve. Money laundering and racketeering sound so 20th century.
The drug wars in Mexico have sunk to a new low.
Yesterday, a gang of hooded gunmen shot eight patients to death and wounded six others at a rehab center in Ciudad Juárez in what looks like part of a drug-gang feud in the cartel-ridden city. The gunmen reportedly stormed the center (during a Wednesday night prayer service, no less), then picked out their victims and took them to the back patio to be shot. The gunmen then opened fire inside the rehab center, leaving behind 60 shell casings.
These shootings bring the city's total of drug-related killings to a whopping 40 -- for just this week. A major drug transit point, the border city has always run rampant with cartels and crime. But the recent outbreak of murders and kidnappings is something new. So far this year, Ciudad Juárez's murder toll sits just below 800, most of them drug-related.
Things don't look too good for Felipe Calderon, who vowed to crack down on Mexico's drug traffickers at the beginning of his term. This year's wave of violence might just be a reaction to his stepped-up efforts to combat crime, but the Mexican president has some house-cleaning to do. Just today, six members of the government's top organized crime unit were arrested for supposedly leaking information to drug traffickers.
With Mexico still awaiting some $400 million in U.S. drug-war aid, Calderon better step up his efforts to kick out the bad guys soon.
Today's map is a source of a bit of controversy in the UK. Recent news reports have described plans to provide folks with interactive maps that display incidents of crime in any neighborhood. The maps would detail, on a street-by-street basis, where different crimes took place. It would also allow users to select different types of crime -- "serious violence," "other violence," and "youth nuisance" among others -- and highlight only those infractions in each neighborhood.
The map below shows "anti-social behaviour" in Leeds, West Yorkshire:
In case you're wondering what constitutes "anti-social behaviour," here's a quick sampling:
Street drinking, presence of drug dealers or users, soliciting, abandoned cars, illegal parking, off-road motorcycling, skateboarding, noisy neighbours, persistent alarms, shouting & swearing, fireworks, climbing on buildings, false emergency calls, uncontrolled animals, groups or individuals causing nuisance, graffiti, damage to bus-stops or buildings, dropping litter and fly-tipping."
Not everyone is happy about the map. Aside from privacy concerns, there are fears that publishing that sort of information in a rough housing market could devalue properties overnight.
It would sure make life easier for a British Bruce Wayne, though.
As if we needed more bad news from Afghanistan. Afghanistan's drug lords are now recruiting foreign chemists to help refine raw opium into heroin, the U.N. warns:
Most of the chemists come from Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, the UN says, and are going to some of Afghanistan’s most troubled areas to oversee the mixing of poppy resin with smuggled industrial chemicals to produce heroin of the highest quality.
Christina Orguz, Afghanistan country director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said Afghanistan’s drug lords were behaving like businessmen and recruiting the best talent available. Afghanistan now supplies more than 90 per cent of the world’s heroin.
The refining process requires large amounts of otherwise-legal chemicals, smuggled across the border into Afghanistan. Earlier this year, a shipment was seized in -- you guessed it -- Pakistan.
A few weeks back, I blogged a Times of India story about how China's construction boom was driving up iron prices, resulting in widespread theft of manhole covers in Mumbai.
Now, the New York Times is reporting that the epidemic of manhole theft is spreading throughout the United States as well. In Philadelphia alone, 2,500 covers have been stolen in the last year, costing the city at least $300,000. Widespread manhole-cover theft has also been reported in Long Beach, Cleveland, Memphis, Miami, and Milwaukee. Some cities are now switching to plastic covers or welding down the metal ones.
Police are trying to crack down on junkyards, but as one North Philadelphia scrap metal collector reports, the demand curve is not in their favor:
These guys here," Mr. Sergeant said, pointing at one scrap yard, "They’d buy a police cruiser and melt it down if we brought it in. The prices for metal are just that good these days."
The BBC has a pair of interesting stories today about an awful practice in Nigeria and other African countries where conmen pose as sports agents and dupe young, would-be soccer players out of thousands of dollars. These fraudsters tell youths -- many of whom live in the slums of Lagos, Accra and other cities and see soccer as a way to escape poverty -- that they can guarantee them a trial with a club in the English Premiership, the most competitve soccer league in the world.
Trafficking in African youths has become a growing concern for soccer's governing body, Fifa, as middlemen can bypass work permit restrictions and bring teenage Africans into European countries, where they are then sold to clubs for large sums of money, or simply discarded on the streets of major European cities.
In an accompanying video, an undercover reporter from the BBC -- posing as the parent of a talented teenaged soccer player -- can be seen negotiating with one of the swindlers in a Lagos hotel. After promising the undercover reporter that his son will be given a trial with Manchester United, the man is confronted with a television crew before being carted off by Nigerian police.
Nigeria is not the only country affected. Just over a year ago, 34 young boys from Ivory Coast were promised trials in Europe, borrowed the money to pay their bogus agents, and were then robbed and held against their will in neighboring Mali.
Sepp Blatter, the President of Fifa, has accused Europe's wealthy soccer clubs, who often turn a blind eye to this despicable practice, as commiting "social and economic rape" of Africa.
He's right. European clubs are often the subjects of the wildest dreams of young African soccer players. They have a responsibility to see that these dreams are not abused by criminals.
To get high, some South African drug addicts have reached a new low.
Durban's provincial health department recently reported an alarming level of thefts of Stocrin, an antiretroviral drug treatment used to treat AIDS. Drug users reportedly crush the Stocrin with marijuana to get an extra-potent yet extra-dangerous high. The mixture breaks down the body's immune system "and eventually leads to death," according to Anwar Jeera, the head of a South African rehabilitation centre. But the ones most hurt by the thefts are of course South Africa's AIDS patients, many of whom have been ambushed by drug thieves on their way home from the hospital. In a country where five and a half million people suffer from AIDS, a crime-induced shortage of the life-saving antiretroviral treatments -- which 478,000 South Africans are registered to use -- is very bad news indeed.
Today, apparently, is International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is launching a new three-year campaign called "Do drugs control your life?"
But instead of releasing statements from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or posting video clips in Serbian on YouTube, maybe the office should spend more time lobbying the Security Council and the IAEA.
The ongoing standoff with Tehran over its nuclear aims is threatening a rare cooperative venture between Iran and the West: Tehran's campaign to stem opium and other drug trafficking from Afghanistan through Iran to Europe. In a little-noticed provision in the incentives package offered to Tehran on June 14, Western countries threatened to cut off further aid to the anti-drug efforts unless Iran agrees to halt its uranium enrichment.
Such measures would harm anti-drug efforts in the Middle East and Europe, U.N. officials say. Iran caught approximately 900 tons of Afghan drugs in 2007, and UNDOC Director Antonio Maria Costa warned that a "heroin tsunami" could hit Europe if aid were cut. And it could be devastating for Iran as well. Despite devoting 30,000 troops (like the fellow in the photo above) to drug patrols in border areas, the Islamic Republic already contains the highest proportion of heroin and opium addicts in the world, experts believe.
It's a tough world for journalists these days. Reporters attempting to shed light on tragedy, corruption, and death often encounter all three. The recent political violence in Zimbabwe may be the perfect example, and Sri Lanka is not far behind. Reporters in war zones face the obvious perils of combat-related injury or death, not to mention kidnappings at the hands of guerrilla groups. Iraq continues to rank as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.
The following interactive map from MSN and the International News Safety Institute allows us to see where journalists have been killed in 2008:
Not surprisingly, death statistics tend to follow the political and social conditions in a given country. A reporter investigating gangs in Panama was stabbed to death. The same is true of India, where Mohammad Muslimuddin was killed in April after he exposed a drug-trafficking ring.
Here's a question for all you expert readers out there. What happens when you burn 260 tons of hashish?
Afghan counternarcotics officials said Wednesday that they uncovered 260 tons of hashish hidden in 6-foot-deep trenches in southern Afghanistan in what one DEA official said appears to be the world's biggest drug bust.
The hashish, found in the southern province of Kandahar on Monday, was worth more than $400 million and would have netted the Taliban about $14 million in profits, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said.
The hashish weighed as much as 30 double-decker London buses, ISAF said. The drugs were burned on site. Hashish is a concentrated form of marijuana.
FP contributor Doug Farah, who wrote the book on Viktor Bout, the world's most notorious arms dealer, has sources telling him that the Russians are offering the Thais (who are holding Bout pending extradition to the United States) just about anything to prevent Bout from being shipped off to trial in America:
After several diplomatic efforts to get Bout out of prison and back to Russia, the Russian government, or at least its military establishment, has decided to let some money and hardware do the talking.
My sources tell me the Russian ambassador in Thailand has met several times with the Thai prime minister, and has offered sweet heart deals on weapons systems, including fighter jets, in exchange for Bout.
In addition, the Russians are offering sweet heart gas and oil deals to sweeten the pot...The question is, why would Bout be so valuable to the Russians, and what is it that they fear he could or would say in a court?
The most obvious answer is that he is deeply in bed and protected by the Russian military establishment and its intelligence services.
What's curious about this situation is the fact that it seemed likely at the time of Bout's arrest in March that there was no way the Thais (and by extension, the Americans) could have gotten their hands on such a prized prisoner unless the Russians had given the go-ahead. Bout allegedly lived openly in Moscow, and if his connections to the Russian intelligence agencies are as strong as many believe, there's reason to believe that someone might have sacrificed him for other (higher) purposes. That said, this could be a case of luck and old-fashioned investigative work coming together and resulting in a major nab, in which case the Russians want him back, not least because of the fear he'll talk. As with all things Bout, this situation is as murky as they come.
The Balkans, once Europe's "powder keg," has just been crowned "one of the safest [regions] in Europe" by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in its report Crime and Its Impact on the Balkans.
According to the report (full pdf), the region has relatively little problem with conventional crime. In fact:
Croatia has a lower murder rate than the United Kingdom. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia had less homicide per capita than Portugal or Sweden. Romania was safer than Finland or Switzerland."
But that doesn't mean Croatia is all kittens and roses. Rather than taking the form of street crime, the report explains, the region's ugly transition from communism and years of war has lingered on in the form of organized crime networks and illicit trade. The region's two biggest problems today are trafficking of drugs and humans (predominantly sex trafficking).
About 100 tons of heroin enters the region each year, of which 85 tons are sold on to the West for a gross annual flow worth $25 to 30 billion -- more than the annual GDPs of Albania, Macedonia, and Moldova put together.
On the human trafficking front, the UNODC calls the Balkans an "epicenter" of trafficking in Europe. While the report repeats an outside estimate that 120,000 women and children are moved through the region each year, it quickly points out the utter lack of information on the real magnitude of the problem. (For insight into the world of sex trafficking and those trying to fight it, check out this story and this recent essay in FP).
Take-away message: The Balkans may be Europe's new Mayberry, but only if you're not vulnerable, young, and female.
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