Fear, Greed, and Crisis Management:
A Neuroscientific Perspective
BY Andrew W. Lo  /  January 9, 2009

The alleged fraud perpetrated by Bernard Madoff is a timely and powerful microcosm of the current economic crisis, and it underscores the origin of all financial bubbles and busts: fear and greed. Using techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists have documented the fact that monetary gain stimulates the same reward circuitry as cocaine — in both cases, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens. Similarly, the threat of financial loss activates the same fight-or-flight circuitry as physical attacks, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which results in elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness.

These reactions are hardwired into human physiology, and while some of us are able to overcome our biology through education, experience, or genetic good luck, the vast majority of the human population is driven by these “animal spirits” that John Maynard Keynes identified over 70 years ago.

From this neuroscientific perspective, it is not surprising that there have been 17 banking-related national crises around the globe since 1974, the majority of which were preceded by periods of rising real-estate and stock prices, large capital inflows, and financial liberalization. Extended periods of prosperity act as an anesthetic in the human brain, lulling investors, business leaders, and policymakers into a state of complacency, a drug-induced stupor that causes us to take risks that we know we should avoid.

In the case of Madoff, seasoned investors were apparently sucked into the alleged fraud despite their better judgment because they found his returns too tempting to pass up. In the case of subprime mortgages, homeowners who knew they could not afford certain homes proceeded nonetheless, because the prospects of living large and benefiting from home-price appreciation were too tempting to pass up. And investors in mortgage-backed securities, who knew that the AAA ratings were too optimistic given the riskiness of the underlying collateral, purchased these securities anyway because they found the promised yields and past returns too tempting to pass up.

If we add to these temptations a period of financial gain that anesthetizes the general population — including C.E.O.’s, chief risk officers, investors, and regulators — it is easy to see how tulip bulbs, internet stocks, gold, real estate, and fraudulent hedge funds could develop into bubbles. Such gains are unsustainable, and once the losses start mounting, our fear circuitry kicks in and panic ensues, a flight-to-safety leading to a market crash. This is where we are today.

Like hurricanes, financial crises are a force of nature that cannot be legislated away, but we can greatly reduce the damage they do with proper preparation.

Because the most potent form of fear is fear of the unknown, the most effective way to combat the current crisis is with transparency and education. In the short run, one way to achieve transparency is for our president-elect to convene a “crisis summit” once in office, in which all the major stakeholders involved in this crisis, and their most knowledgeable subordinates, are invited to an undisclosed location for an intensive week-long conference.

During this meeting, detailed information about exposures to “toxic assets,” concentrations of risky counterparty relationships, and other systemic weaknesses will be provided on a confidential basis to regulators and policymakers, and various courses of action can be proposed and debated in real time. Afterward, a redacted summary of this meeting should be provided to the public by the president, along with a specific plan for addressing the major issues identified during the conference. This process would go a long way toward calming the public’s fears and restoring the trust and confidence that are essential to normal economic activity.

In the long run, more transparency into the “shadow banking” system; more education for investors, policymakers, and business leaders; and more behaviorally oriented regulation will allow us to weather any type of financial crisis. Regulation enables us to restrain our behavior during periods when we know we will misbehave; it is most useful during periods of collective fear or greed and should be designed accordingly. Corporate governance should also be revisited from this perspective; if we truly value naysayers during periods of corporate excess, then we should institute management changes to protect and reward their independence.

If “crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” as some have argued, then we have a short window of opportunity — before economic recovery begins to weaken our resolve — to reform our regulatory infrastructure for the better. The fact that time heals all wounds may be good for our mental health, but it may not help maintain our economic wealth.

Andrew Lo
email : alo [at] mit [dot] edu

Brian Knutson
email : knutson [at] psych.stanford [dot] edu

Sex, drugs, money: The pleasure principle
Theory of ‘neurofinance’ draws doubts on Wall St.
BY Adam Levy  /  February 2, 2006

Palo Alto, California: Late at night, in a basement laboratory at Stanford University, Brian Knutson was sending his students through a high-power imaging machine called an fMRI. Deep inside each volunteer’s head, electrical currents danced through a bundle of neurons about the size and shape of a peanut. Blood was rushing to the brain’s pleasure center as the students executed mock stock and bond trades. On Knutson’s screen, this region of the brain, the core of human desire, flashed canary yellow.

The pleasure of orgasm, the high from cocaine, the rush of buying Google at $450 a share – the same neural network governs all three, Knutson, a professor of neuroscience and psychology, concluded. What’s more, our primal pleasure circuits can, and often do, override our seat of reason, the brain’s frontal cortex, the professor said. In other words, stocks, like sex, sometimes drive us crazy.

That is something those in the world of finance need to know, according to Andrew Lo, a professor of finance and investment at the Sloan School of Management, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who thinks conventional financial analysis fails to take into account human behavior. “Finance and economic research has hit a wall,” said Lo, who runs AlphaSimplex Group, a hedge fund firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We can’t answer any more questions by running another regression analysis. Now, we need to get inside the brain to understand why people make decisions.”

Still, Knutson said he knew how heretical his findings were. Wall Street is dedicated to the principle that when it comes to money, logic prevails, that intellect matters in investing. The idea is enshrined in the economic theory of rational expectations, for which Robert Lucas was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1995. Lucas, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, maintains that people make economic choices based on all the information available to them and learn from their mistakes. As a result, their expectations about the future – from the price of Citigroup stock next week to the earnings of General Motors next quarter – are, on average, accurate.

Or so the theory goes. In practice, of course, investors do foolish things all the time. Some gamble away fortunes on money-losing investments, doubling down when logic tells them to fold, or letting winnings ride when the rational person would cash out.

Others seem to have an uncanny knack for knowing when to buy and sell. In the 1970s, Richard Dennis parlayed an initial stake of several thousand dollars into a $200 million fortune trading commodities in the Chicago futures pits. In the 1980s, the hedge fund icon Paul Tudor Jones made $80 million by betting against U.S. stocks just before the market crashed. In the 1990s, the billionaire investor George Soros, the man who beat the Bank of England, made $1 billion in an afternoon by shorting the British pound.

The question that keeps nagging Knutson is this: Why do some traders get rich while others walk away losers? The answer, he said, may lie somewhere in the 96,000 kilometers, or 60,000 miles, of neural wiring inside our brains. The results of the Stanford study, conducted in 2004 and published in September’s issue of Neuron magazine, have caused a stir among the small group of neuroscientists and psychologists who are mapping the human brain in hopes of understanding investor behavior.

This controversial field, called neurofinance, may represent the next great frontier on Wall Street, said Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 Nobel laureate in Economic Science for his pioneering work in behavioral finance, which fuses classical economic theory and studies of human psychology. “The brain scientists are the wave of the future in the financial world,” Kahneman said. “If you seek to maximize understanding, whether you’re in academia or in the investment community, you’d better pay very serious attention to them.”

To proponents like Kahneman, the potential of neurofinance seems virtually limitless. One day, brain science may help money managers spot shifts in investor sentiment, said David Darst, chief investment strategist for the individual investor group at Morgan Stanley. Armed with brain scans, psychotherapists may be able to hone traders’ natural impulses of fear and greed.

Neuroscientists may even develop psychoactive drugs, or neuroceuticals, that make people better, more-profitable traders, Knutson and other psychologists say. Look at Prozac. In the space of a few years, Prozac and other drugs have not only revolutionized the treatment of depression but also profoundly changed the way we view the mind.

People recognize that chemistry drives their brains, moods and behavior – and that chemistry can change them. Similar drugs, ones that improve a trader’s decision making by 20 percent to 30 percent, may be just a few years away, said Zack Lynch, managing director of NeuroInsights, a consulting firm based in San Francisco that tracks the $100 billion neurotechnology industry. If these neuroceuticals work, they could rock Wall Street. “The whole investment community will be scrambling to get these things,” Lynch said.

So far, the hopes and claims of neurofinance have far outpaced its science. Few investment professionals have even heard of the field. Many who have dismiss it as hokum. “It’s the latest malarkey,” said Richard Michaud, president of New Frontier Advisors, based in Boston. Michaud, who has a doctorate in mathematics from Boston University, said neurofinance and its forerunner, behavioral finance, have no place on Wall Street.

“I find these so-called disciplines to be more of a marketing tool, a way of taking an ages-old market valuation problem and calling it something space-age,” Michaud said. “I doubt it will be fruitful.” Knutson’s response: Just wait. “Investors want to beat the market and become better traders,” he said. “The first step is to know how the machinery works. The applications to exploit the machinery will soon follow.”

For Wall Street, brain science eventually could mean big money, said Darst of Morgan Stanley. Securities firms spend millions of dollars annually researching companies and crunching numbers in an attempt to predict the financial future. “Meanwhile, we spend peanuts on human psychology,” said Darst, author of “The Complete Bond Book: A Guide to All Types of Fixed-Income Securities.” “We have to take account of the deep atavistic and visceral traits and instincts that are triggering the buying and selling of securities.”

Knutson’s Stanford study caused a buzz in September at the third annual conference of the Society for Neuroeconomics, held at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina. The three-day event drew 115 people, mostly from academia. The sole Wall Streeter was Arnold Wood from Martingale Asset Management in Boston, who said he was confident neurofinance would catch on.

Food Dance Gets New Life When Bees Get Cocaine
BY Pam Belluck  /  January 6, 2009

Buzz has a whole new meaning now that scientists are giving bees cocaine. To learn more about the biochemistry of addiction, scientists in Australia dropped liquefied freebase cocaine on bees’ backs, so it entered the circulatory system and brain. The scientists found that bees react much like humans do: cocaine alters their judgment, stimulates their behavior and makes them exaggeratedly enthusiastic about things that might not otherwise excite them.

What’s more, bees exhibit withdrawal symptoms. When a coked-up bee has to stop cold turkey, its score on a standard test of bee performance (learning to associate an odor with sugary syrup) plummets. “What we have in the bee is a wonderfully simple system to see how brains react to a drug of abuse,” said Andrew B. Barron, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Australia and a co-leader in the bees-on-cocaine studies. “It may be that when we know that, we’ll be able to stop a brain reacting to a drug of abuse, and then we may be able to discover new ways to prevent abuse in humans.”

The research, published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, advances the knowledge of reward systems in insects, and aims to “use the honeybee as a model to study the molecular basis of addiction,” said Gene E. Robinson, director of the neuroscience program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author with Dr. Barron, and Ryszard Maleszka and Paul G. Helliwell at Australian National University.

The researchers looked at honeybees whose job is finding food — flying to flowers, discovering nectar, and if their discovery is important enough, doing a waggle dance on a special “dance floor” to help hive mates learn the location. “Many times they don’t dance,” Professor Robinson said. “They only dance if the food is of sufficient quality and if they assess the colony needs the food.”

On cocaine the bees “danced more frequently and more vigorously for the same quality food,” Dr. Barron said. “They were about twice as likely to dance” as undrugged bees, and they circled “about 25 percent faster.” The bees did not dance at the wrong time or place. Cocaine only made them more excited about the food they found. That’s like “when a human takes cocaine at a low dose,” Dr. Barron said. “They find many stimuli, but particularly, rewarding stimuli, to be more rewarding than they actually are.”

Now, scientists are studying whether bees begin to crave cocaine and need more for the same effect, like humans. The testing occurred in Australia, and, Dr. Barron said, “my dean got extremely twitchy about holding cocaine on campus. It’s in a safe bolted to a concrete floor within a locked cupboard in a locked room in a locked building with a combination code not known even to me. A technician from the ethics department has to walk across campus to supervise the release of the cocaine.”

That, Dr. Barron said, for a bee-size supply of “one gram, which has lasted me two years. One gram, a human would go through in one night. I’m not like the local drug lord.”

Dancing Honeybee Using Vector Calculus to Communicate


BY Kathryn Knight  /  December 26, 2008

Since its discovery in the 18th century, cocaine has been a scourge of western society. Strongly stimulating human reward centres in low doses, cocaine is extremely addictive and can be fatal in high doses. But this potent compound did not evolve to ensnare humans in addiction. Andrew Barron from Macquarie University, Australia, explains that cocaine is a powerful insect neurotoxin, protecting coca bushes from munching insects without rewarding them. Knowing that foraging honey bees are strongly motivated by rewards (they dance in response to the discovery of a rewarding nectar or pollen supply) and that this behaviour is controlled by similar mechanisms to the ones that leave humans vulnerable to cocaine addiction, Barron and Gene Robinson from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wondered whether bees may be vulnerable to cocaine’s allure at the right dose. Teaming up with Ryszard Maleszka at the Australian National University, Barron set about testing how honey bees respond to cocaine (p. 163).

Setting up his hives on a farm just outside Canberra, Barron trained the insects to visit a feeder stocked with a sugar solution. Then he gently applied a tiny drop of cocaine solution to the insect’s back, and waited to see how enthusiastically the foraging insects danced when returning to the hive. Amazingly, low doses of the drug stimulated the insects to dance extremely vigorously. They behaved as if the sucrose solution was of a much higher quality than it really was. The cocaine seemed to be hitting the insects’ reward centres, but were they really responding to the drug like humans or was the drug stimulating some other aspect of the insects’ behaviour to look as if they were becoming addicted?

Working with a team of undergraduate students, Barron tested whether cocaine stimulated the insects’ locomotion centres by monitoring their movements after a dose of the drug. The insects behaved normally, so the drug probably doesn’t affect their movements. However, when Paul Helliwell tested the bees’ sensitivity to sugar solutions, the drugged bees responded more strongly than the undrugged insects, so cocaine was increasing their sugar sensitivity. But was it only increasing their sensitivity to sugar, or increasing their response to all rewards? Barron offered the drugged insects pollen to see if cocaine increased their sensitivity to other floral rewards and found that the foragers were equally overenthusiastic, dancing as if the pollen quality was much better than it really was.

Finally Barron and Helliwell wondered whether bees that had been on cocaine for a few days had become dependent and went into withdrawal when the drug was withheld. Testing the insects’ ability to learn to distinguish between lemon and vanilla scents, they found that the bees were fine so long as their cocaine supply was maintained. But as soon as the drug was withdrawn the bees had difficulty learning the task, just like humans going into withdrawal.

Barron is confident that honey bees are as susceptible to cocaine’s allure as humans, and is keen to find out more about the drug’s effects. He hopes to identify the neural pathways that it targets to find out more about the mechanisms involved in human addiction and to find out whether the drug has as devastating an effect on honey bee society as it does on human society.

Andrew Barron
email : andrew.barron [at] [dot] au

Gene Robinson
email : generobi [at] uiuc [dot] edu

Effects of cocaine on honey bee dance behaviour
BY Andrew B. Barron, Ryszard Maleszka, Paul G. Helliwell, and Gene E.
Robinson  /  22 November 2008
“The role of cocaine as an addictive drug of abuse in human society is hard to reconcile with its ecological role as a natural insecticide and plant-protective compound, preventing herbivory of coca plants (Erythroxylum spp.). This paradox is often explained by proposing a fundamental difference in mammalian and invertebrate responses to cocaine, but here we show effects of cocaine on honey bees (Apis mellifera L.) that parallel human responses. Forager honey bees perform symbolic dances to advertise the location and value of floral resources to their nest mates. Treatment with a low dose of cocaine increased the likelihood and rate of bees dancing after foraging but did not otherwise increase locomotor activity. This is consistent with cocaine causing forager bees to overestimate the value of the floral resources they collected. Further, cessation of chronic cocaine treatment caused a withdrawal-like response. These similarities likely occur because in both insects and mammals the biogenic amine neuromodulator systems disrupted by cocaine perform similar roles as modulators of reward and motor systems. Given these analogous responses to cocaine in insects and mammals, we propose an alternative solution to the paradox of cocaine reinforcement. Ecologically, cocaine is an effective plant defence compound via disruption of herbivore motor control but, because the neurochemical systems targeted by cocaine also modulate reward processing, the reinforcing properties of cocaine occur as a `side effect’.”


Town where cocaine is the only currency
Guerima, a remote Colombian settlement, wants its Marxist rebels back.
With the national army deployed in a stranglehold around the town,
there is nobody to traffic the town’s only commodity – drugs.
BY Jeremy McDermott  /  15 Jun 2008

More than 1,000 people live in Guerima, carved out of the Amazonian rainforest. Its clearings are filled with coca bushes, the basis for cocaine. This was once the heartland of the 16th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the Marxist guerrilla movement that has fought in Colombia’s jungles for the past 44 years. But now the troops of the 58th Counter-Guerrilla Battalion patrol the dirt streets.

Their presence has stirred deep resentment, revealing the complexities of Colombia’s war against Left-wing rebels and drug lords. Countless ordinary people depend on the coca trade. “We are sitting on a mountain of coca and a series of Farc ‘IOUs’ “, said one local. “We need the rebels back to pay the debts and buy the coca, otherwise the town will die.”

No money has reached Guerima for months and transactions are conducted in coca, with one gram enough to buy a soft drink.

Major Edgar Gomez, who commands the troops, knows the community feels under siege. He also knows that most locals have friends or family among the rebels. But the major is also aware that his presence in Guerima is hitting the guerrillas’ finances. The rebels here once earned £10 million a month from cocaine. Now they will be lucky to get £1 million.

But the local people would prefer a return to the days when their fate was in the hands of the Farc. Tomas Medina, the local guerrilla commander, was seen as a Robin Hood-style hero, maintaining the drug economy and imposing law and order. “Before the army came there was no crime,” said one man. “Now the soldiers steal from us. Two girls have been raped. “This would not have happened before and if it did the criminals would have been punished, perhaps shot.”

There was no confirmation of the man’s claims and Major Gomez said that winning over the locals was more important than driving out the rebels. “I know these people live on coca,” he said. “The government has to offer them a viable alternative and we are just the first presence of the state. “Healthcare, education and economic investment must follow.”


Cocaine users are destroying the rainforest – at 4 square metres  gram
BY Sandra Laville  /  19 November 2008

Four square metres of rainforest are destroyed for every gram of cocaine snorted in the UK, a conference of senior police officers as told yesterday.

Francisco Santos Calderón, the vice-president of Colombia, appealed to British users of the class A drug to consider the impact on the environment. He said that while the green agenda would not persuade addicts to give up, the middle-class social user who drove a hybrid car and was concerned about the environment might not take the drug if they knew its impact. Santos said 300,000 hectares of rainforest were destroyed each year in Colombia to clear land for coca plant cultivation, predominantly controlled by illegal groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as Farc. Officers were told cocaine and heroin use cost the British economy around £15bn a year in health and crime bills.

Santos outlined to the Association of Chief Police Officers how lives were lost in the illegal cocaine trade in Colombia. He said landmines that were used to protect crops and processing labs killed almost 900 civilians this year. Farc and other groups funded by narcotics production were also involved in kidnapping. The Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt was held for more than six years before her release earlier this year, and Santos himself was kidnapped and held by a cocaine gang for 18 months in the 1990s. He told the Belfast conference: “If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying four square metres of rainforest and that rainforest is not just Colombian – it belongs to all of us who live on this planet, so we should all be worried about it. Not only that, the money that you use to buy the cocaine goes into the hands of Farc, of illegal groups that plant mines, that kidnap, that kill, that use terrorism to protect their business.”

Santos said many middle-class Britons who used cocaine were unaware of its environmental impact. “For somebody who drives a hybrid, who recycles, who is worried about global warming – to tell him that that night of partying will destroy 4m square of rainforest might lead him to make another decision.” Santos said Europe was experiencing a boom in cocaine use among more affluent people that was comparable with that seen in the USA 25 years ago. Everyone, he said, had a duty to change their behaviour to halt a rise in demand that was destroying his country. “We call it shared responsibility, We can’t do it on our own. We need everybody’s action; police here, police in Colombia, the authorities in both countries and the consumers too. If there is no consumption, there will be no production.

“There is a sense of frustration, because here drug use is seen as a personal choice and to some extent cocaine is seen as the champagne of drugs which causes no effect and is a victimless crime. It is not victimless.” Bill Hughes, the director general of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, told the conference that the UK was a very attractive market for drug traffickers. “There is still a lot of disposable income; the risk compared to the US if you are caught is felt to be much less,” he said.

The £15bn cost to the economy reduced the amount of money available for schools, teachers and police officers. He said traffickers moved their drugs from South America to west Africa, and then to the EU and Britain, often operating through insecure countries with poor law enforcement. Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands were major staging posts on the trafficking routes and much of the synthetic drug market was supplied from the Netherlands. Hughes said the proceeds of crime were undermining or corrupting governments globally, with the trade worth £4bn-£6.6bn in the UK.

The World; Where a Little Coca Is as Good as Gold
BY Juan Forero  /  July 8, 2001

The Drug Center, the only pharmacy in the stiflingly hot jungle town of Camelias, deep in southern Colombia, looks ordinary, with wide glass counters and shelves stacked high with medicines. Then the customer pays the bill. The customer produces one of the clear plastic bags in which people here carry around coca paste. The pharmacist, Socrates Solis, scoops out a bit of the paste, weighs it on a digital scale and gives back change — the excess he had ladled out.

Welcome to the Caguan River valley, a swath of jungle towns and coca fields in far-flung Caqueta province, a part of Colombia with no government presence, only guerrillas. The economy is built on coca production, and coca paste has become a main currency. In the pharmacy, for example, everything is priced in grams. Expensive antibiotics retail for 45 grams, worth roughly $36; a bottle of aspirin costs a little more than a gram, or $1; medical exams are given to prostitutes for 12 grams, or $10.

”I was speechless when people would drop by the pharmacy and pay for the doctor’s bills or their medicines with coca instead of money,” Mr. Solis, 35, told the photographer Carlos Villalon when he visited the town. ”The first three months I worked here we collected six and a half kilos of base.”

In this part of Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia run things, patrolling roads, punishing law breakers, even building bridges over creek beds. Perhaps most controversially, the rebels regulate and tax a thriving trade in coca leaves and coca paste. Traffickers buy the paste, process it into cocaine and ship it by the ton to quench the United States’ insatiable appetite for the drug. It is a business that President Andrés Pastrana’s government says fortifies the rebel army and helps fuel Colombia’s brutal civil conflict.

But in a dozen towns in the region, coca paste is seen in much less nefarious terms. Paper money is in short supply, since conventional businesses are few. Instead, everything revolves around coca, as evidenced by thousands of acres of coca fields and the coca-processing laboratories in the jungles.

It is not unusual for people to be paid for their work in coca. They, in turn, pay for necessities with the paste, which is soft and powdery like flour. Need a pair of shoes for the little one? El Combate general store in Sante Fe takes coca paste. Groceries at Los Helechos in the village of Peñas Coloradas? Just drop the powder on the scale, the merchant says with a smile.

It feels quite normal for Wilber Rozas, 34, of Peãs Coloradas to spend 1.08 grams (worth 90 cents), for a large glass of juice at the Peñas Juicery. Or for villagers at the annual festival in Santa Fe to lug bags of coca paste to buy clothing from traveling salesmen or to bet in the cock fights. ”I would like to always take cash, but if I do not receive coca base I might as well shut down my restaurant,” said Selmira Vasquez, who owns the Buenos Aires restaurant in Peñas Coloradas.

As a currency, the coca paste is as good as gold. When traffickers arrive every few weeks to buy coca paste, they pay with a wad of bills — and soon money is flowing again. The merchants have cash. So do workers. The value of the paste, however, is unpredictable. ”The price of paste can go up or down, like having money in the bank,” explained Ms. Vasquez. ”When the dealers show up, the prices could be lower or higher than when I bought, so it is like gambling.”

The region’s bartering system does not mean the inhabitants themselves are cocaine addicts or gang members. The rebels keep the peace by prohibiting drug consumption. Those who violate the ban end up on road-paving or bridge-building duty.

The guerrillas also forbid those most susceptible to drug use — the young, single men who have come from across Colombia to pick coca leaves — to be paid in coca paste. They receive coupons they can cash once the traffickers arrive with money. ”That is the way it works in the Caguan river region,” explained Jose Sosias, 28, a villager. ”We are a coca culture. Our money, some times during the year, is coca base but we just use it as currency. No one here consumes the drug.”



Little Blue Pills Among the Ways CIA Wins Friends in Afghanistan
by Joby Warrick  /  December 26, 2008

The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, saw an opportunity, and reached into his bag for a small gift. Four blue pills. Viagra. “Take one of these. You’ll love it,” the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam. The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes — followed by a request for more pills. For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.

In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency’s operatives have used a variety of personal services. These include pocketknives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas, and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said. “Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people — whether it’s building a school or handing out Viagra,” said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Like other field officers interviewed for this article, he spoke on the condition of anonymity when describing tactics and operations that are largely classified.

Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, a country where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their cooperation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don’t offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and even Iranian agents in the region. The usual bribes of choice — cash and weapons — aren’t always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say. Guns too often fall into the wrong hands, they say, and showy gifts such as money, jewelry and cars tend to draw unwanted attention.  “If you give an asset $1,000, he’ll go out and buy the shiniest junk he can find, and it will be apparent that he has suddenly come into a lot of money from someone,” said Jamie Smith, a veteran of CIA covert operations in Afghanistan and now chief executive of SCG International, a private security and intelligence company. “Even if he doesn’t get killed, he becomes ineffective as an informant because everyone knows where he got it.” The key, Smith said, is to find a way to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.

“You’re trying to bridge a gap between people living in the 18th century and people coming in from the 21st century,” Smith said, “so you look for those common things in the form of material aid that motivate people everywhere.” Among the world’s intelligence agencies, there’s a long tradition of using sex as a motivator. Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer and author of several books on intelligence, noted that the Soviet spy service was notorious for using attractive women as bait when seeking to turn foreign diplomats into informants. “The KGB has always used ‘honey traps,’ and it works,” Baer said. For American officers, a more common practice was to offer medical care for potential informants and their loved ones, he said. “I remember one guy we offered an option on a heart bypass,” Baer said.

For some U.S. operatives in Afghanistan, Western drugs such as Viagra were just part of a long list of enticements available for use in special cases. Two veteran officers familiar with such practices said Viagra was offered rarely, and only to older tribal officials for whom the drug would hold special appeal. While such sexual performance drugs are generally unavailable in the remote areas where the agency’s teams operated, they have been sold in some Kabul street markets since at least 2003 and were known by reputation elsewhere. “You didn’t hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones,” said one retired operative familiar with the drug’s use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives — the maximum number allowed by the Koran — and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could “put them back in an authoritative position,” the official said. Both officials who described the use of Viagra declined to discuss details such as dates and locations, citing both safety and classification concerns. The CIA declined to comment on methods used in clandestine operations. One senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the agency’s work in Afghanistan said the clandestine teams were trained to be “resourceful and agile” and to use tactics “consistent with the laws of our country.”

“They learn the landscape, get to know the players, and adjust to the operating environment, no matter where it is,” the official said. “They think out of the box, take risks, and do what’s necessary to get the job done.” Not everyone in Afghanistan’s hinterlands had heard of the drug, leading to some awkward encounters when Americans delicately attempted to explain its effects, taking care not to offend their hosts’ religious sensitivities. Such was the case with the 60-year-old chieftain who received the four pills from a U.S. operative. According to the retired operative who was there, the man was a clan leader in southern Afghanistan who had been wary of Americans — neither supportive nor actively opposed. The man had extensive knowledge of the region and his village controlled key passages through the area. U.S. forces needed his cooperation and worked hard to win it, the retired operative said. After a long conversation through an interpreter, the retired operator began to probe for ways to win the man’s loyalty. A discussion of the man’s family and many wives provided inspiration. Once it was established that the man was in good health, the pills were offered and accepted. Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled. “He came up to us beaming,” the official said. “He said, ‘You are a great man.’ And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area.”


V Is For Victory
by Mike Huckman  26 Dec 2008
Sectors: Pharmaceuticals / Companies: Pfizer Inc

On what has to be one of the slowest news days of the year, especially for business, today’s “Washington Post” has a great watercooler item. It’s not anything material or stock-moving for Pfizer, the world’s biggest drug company, but it will get people (think late-night comics) talking once again about the little blue pill. Reporter Joby Warrick put together a piece about how CIA agents are occasionally using PFE’s impotence-fighter Viagra to “make friends and influence people” in the renewed fight against the Taliban. The anecdotes in the article are pretty interesting and entertaining. A Pfizer spokeswoman told me the company has no comment on the Washington Post story except to say that PFE was “certainly not” aware this was going on until the Post dug it up.

Bob Windrem, a senior investigative producer at NBC News, chased down the story with the CIA. He reports that agency officials have no comment. But a senior intelligence official says, “If it was done, it was done in a handful of cases.” The official adds that no one’s gonna get in trouble for it. He tells Windrem the agency encourages officers “to think outside the box” and that whatever works within the U.S. law is fair game. Pfizer [PFE 17.10  0.09 (+0.53%)] has talked a lot lately about expanding into emerging markets and how important that is to the company’s growth. I’m certain this is not what they’ve been referring to.

Iraq’s ‘Viagra’ Black Market

Yasir Mazen is only 20 years old, but already he is a successful entrepreneur, dealing goods from his stall in a busy Baghdad market. There’s just one problem: Most of his products are counterfeit drugs and medicinal products that earn him big money, but that face the wrath of the law, starting Monday. That’s when the Ministry of Health has vowed to begin enforcing drug regulatory laws that have been ignored since 2003, when Saddam Hussein’s fall opened Iraq’s borders to all manner of imports. Many of those imports have included drugs and products that claim to have miraculous medicinal effects and that may or may not contain the ingredients needed to be effective.

Some have expired months or years earlier. Some are knockoffs of the real thing, like the little blue pills made to look like Viagra but manufactured in factories in China, India or elsewhere and lacking whatever the real thing contains. Then there are the nonpharmaceutical products that claim to have medicinal value, and which Masin says are his biggest sellers: penile enhancement pumps, sprays, gels. “The … pumps are very popular nowadays,” said Mazin, who acknowledges his products go through no government testing. The boxes in which they are sold usually feature pictures of half-naked men and women and bear little resemblance to legitimate health products. That doesn’t matter to his customers, who are willing to fork over as much as $75 for some items. Part of the appeal is that such products were never sold in public under Hussein, even if they could be smuggled into the country. Now, they are easily available, and everyone wants to give them a try, said Mazin.

That’s what riles Adel Muhsin, the Health Ministry’s inspector general, who says Iraqis are getting robbed. “Let’s be realistic. They’re scams,” said Muhsin. He says his goal is to shut down so-called “phantom pharmacies” that sell untested drugs, and the warehouses that supply these pharmacies. He also wants every medicine sold in Iraq to undergo testing at a state laboratory to ensure it is effective. The ministry already has begun stepping up enforcement. Last week, plainclothes police arrived at a market in central Baghdad and inquired how they could buy medicine. They purchased some pills from one of the vendors and left. Minutes later, uniformed police swooped down on the market, detaining vendors and confiscating their goods. One vendor who witnessed the raid but did not want to be identified said sellers usually know in advance of such raids because they pay off corrupt police to alert them. This time, he said, the police suddenly changed the location of the raid, leaving vendors unprepared.


Side Effects of Viagra
Very few drugs work perfectly, and Viagra® is no exception. Just about every drug has side effects that arise because the drug is flowing throughout the body and may affect parts of the body unintentionally. For example, aspirin is a drug that relieves pain, but this same drug can also erode the stomach lining and thin the blood. Those are side effects of aspirin.

Viagra® has several side effects of which patients need to be aware. The first problem comes because Viagra® happens to have a spillover effect. It blocks PDE5, but it also has an effect on PDE6. It turns out that PDE6 is used in the cone cells in the retina, so Viagra® can have an effect on color vision. Many people who take Viagra® notice a change in the way they perceive green and blue colors, or they see the world with a bluish tinge for several hours. For this reason, pilots cannot take Viagra® within 12 hours of a flight.

The second problem comes for people who are taking drugs like nitroglycerin for angina. Nitroglycerin works by increasing nitric oxide, and it helps with angina by opening up the arteries that supply the heart with oxygen. If you take nitroglycerin and Viagra® together, the increased nitric oxide plus the blocking of PDE5 can lead to problems.

Other problems with Viagra® can include little things like headaches (the drug, as a side effect in some men, opens up arteries in the brain’s lining and causes excess pressure) and big things like heart attacks. The possibility of heart attacks is one reason why Viagra® is a prescription drug rather than an over-the-counter drug like aspirin. A doctor needs to understand your medical history and make sure that Viagra® won’t cause a heart attack. Occasional patients who take Viagra® get painful, long-lasting erections and have to see a doctor to solve the problem. Finally, there is some concern that some men, especially younger men who take Viagra® recreationally and who don’t really need it for physical reasons, may end up with a dependency on the drug. That is, they may become unable to maintain an erection without taking Viagra®.

What about Cialis® and Levitra®?
Viagra® is a hugely successful drug, and other drug companies wanted a piece of the action. They developed different chemicals to block the PDE5 enzyme and created two new drugs: Cialis® (tadalafil) and Levitra® (vardenafil). Because Cialis® and Levitra® block the PDE5 enzyme, they work exactly the same way as Viagra®. They help men who have trouble maintaining an erection because of blood flow problems, and they only work when the man is sexually aroused.

Because they block PDE5 with different chemicals, however, there are some important differences between the three drugs. For example:
* Only Viagra® causes color-vision problems.
* Cialis® causes muscle aches in about 5 percent of patients.
* Viagra® and Levitra® last about four hours in the bloodstream. Cialis® stays in the bloodstream much longer (it has a 17.5-hour half life) and can therefore be effective for more than a day.



How Opium Can Save Afghanistan
by Reza Aslan  /  December 19, 2008

America’s drug war in Afghanistan has been a miserable failure. So why not legalize opium production and let Afghanistan become the Saudi Arabia of morphine? Afghanistan may be one the poorest countries in the world, but by legalizing and licensing opium production it could conceivably become the Saudi Arabia of morphine. It is a measure of just how great a failure the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan has been that, after six consecutive years of record growth in poppy production, including a staggering 20 percent increase last year alone, American and U.N. officials are actually patting themselves on the back over a 6 percent decline in 2008. “We are finally seeing the results of years of effort,” said Antonio Maria Costa, who heads the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime.

Only the Taliban has ever managed to significantly reduce opium production in the country a feat managed by executing anyone caught growing poppies. Yet this meager decline has almost nothing to do with international eradication efforts and everything to do with the law of supply and demand. As The New York Times reported in November, the Taliban have begun forcibly curbing poppy production and stockpiling opium in order to boost prices, which had fallen sharply due to a glut in the market. Indeed, Afghanistan has produced so much opium—between 90 to 95 percent of the world’s supply—that prices have dropped nearly 20 percent.

The truth is that the poppy eradication effort in Afghanistan, which consists mostly of hacking away at poppy fields with sticks and sickles, or spraying them from above with deadly herbicides, has been nothing short of a disaster. All this policy has managed to achieve (excluding that vaunted 6 percent decrease) is to alienate the Afghan people, fuel support for the Taliban, and further weaken the government of president Hamid Karzai, whose own brother has been linked to the illegal opium trade. Meanwhile, poppy cultivation is now such an entrenched part of Afghanistan’s economy that in some parts of the country, opium is considered legal tender, replacing cash in day-to-day transactions.

In spite of all this, the U.S. State Department is planning to expand its crop eradication campaign. Last year, President Bush tapped the former ambassador to Columbia, William Wood, to become U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. Wood, whose nickname in Columbia was “Chemical Bill,” because of his enthusiasm for aerial fumigation, has been charged with implementing in Afghanistan the same crop eradication program that—despite five billion dollars and hundreds of tons of chemicals—has had little effect on Colombia’s coca production.

It is time to admit that the struggle to end poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is a losing battle. The fact is that opium has long been Afghanistan’s sole successful export. Poppy seeds cost little to buy, can grow pretty much anywhere, and offer a huge return on a farmer’s investment. Only the Taliban has ever managed to significantly reduce opium production in the country (as it did during its late-1990s rule)— a feat managed by executing anyone caught growing poppies. It is no exaggeration to say that we have a better chance of defeating the Taliban than putting a dent in Afghanistan’s opium trade. So then, as the saying goes: if you can’t beat them, join them.

The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), a policy think-tank with offices in London and Kabul, has proposed abandoning the futile eradication efforts in Afghanistan and instead licensing farmers to legally grow poppies for the production of medical morphine. This so-called “Poppy for Medicine” program is not as crazy as it may sound. Similar programs have already proven successful in Turkey and India, both of which were able to bring the illegal production of opium in their countries under control by licensing, regulating, and taxing poppy cultivation. And there is every reason to believe that the program could work even in a fractured country like Afghanistan. This is because the entire production process—from poppies to pills—would occur inside the village under strict control of village authorities, which, in Afghanistan, often trump the authority of the federal government. Licensed farmers would legally plant and cultivate poppy seeds. Factories built in the villages would transform the poppies into morphine tablets. The tablets would then be shipped off to Kabul, where they would be exported to the rest of the world. These rural village communities would experience significant economic development, and tax revenues would stream into Kabul. (The Taliban, which taxes poppy cultivation under their control at 10 percent, made $300 million dollars last year.)

The global demand for poppy-based medicine is as great as it is for oil. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, 80 percent of the world’s population currently faces a shortage of morphine; morphine prices have skyrocketed as a result. The ICOS estimates that Afghanistan could supply this market with all the morphine it needs, and at a price at least 55 percent lower than the current market average. Thus far, the Bush Administration has balked at this idea, despite a warm reception from the Afghan government and some NATO allies. There is a fear in Washington that such a proposal would contradict America’s avowed “war on drugs.” But the opium crisis in Afghanistan is not a drug enforcement problem, it is a national security issue: Licensing and regulating poppy cultivation would not only create stability and economic development, it could sap support for the Taliban and help win the war in Afghanistan. So which will it be? The War on Drugs? Or the War on Terror? When it comes to Afghanistan, we can only choose one.

{Reza Aslan is a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, Middle East analyst for CBS News, and a featured blogger for Anderson Cooper 360. He wrote the New York Times bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Aslan is co-founder and creative director of BoomGen Studios as well as the editorial executive of}


Afghanistan swaps heroin for wheat
by Con Coughlin  /  Apr 8, 2008

“I’ve just come from a meeting with the newly appointed Afghan governor Gulab Mangal where it emerged that for the first time since British forces deployed to the region two years ago local farmers are not concentrating all their energies on producing heroin. Poppy eradication was flagged up as one of the main British priorities when former defence secretary John Reid first announced Britain’s deployment two years ago. This part of the mission has not exactly been a glorious success. Last year poppy production actually increased. But now it seems the message is finally getting through. In parts of Helmand Afghan farmers are this year sowing wheat instead of poppy – not because they have suddenly been converted to the argument that producing heroin is not in the national interest. Market forces have been the deciding factor – with wheat prices doubling in the past year, and the street price of heroin falling, it is now more cost effective to grow wheat. At last there are signs of progress being made amidst Afghanistan’s battle-scarred landscape.

Afghanistan’s wheat problem
by Blake Hounshell   /  03/11/2008

Eminent Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin is sounding the alarm about rising wheat prices in South Asia. Seeking to tamp down food inflation, Pakistan has reduced its exports of wheat to Afghanistan. That could lead to dangerous riots and civil unrest north of the Durand Line and provide a potent political issue for the Taliban to exploit. The flip side, Rubin notes, is that the rising prices of farm products ought to make crop-substitution programs more viable: “Nonetheless, the rise in price in wheat and other commodities (what is happening to horticultural commodities, flowers, essential oils, and so on?) presents an opportunity for investing in other cash crops and their marketing in Afghanistan. For all the rhetoric about how the drug economy is supporting insurgency and terrorism, where is the program to seize this market opportunity? And for all the talk of the importance of Afghanistan to global security, where is the program to assure Afghans of an affordable supply of basic food?”

Indeed, the lack of creativity on this front has been astonishing. A few weeks back, I attended a Cato Institute luncheon with Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States. Noting that opium traffickers often loan farmers the money to plant and fertilize the opium harvest for the coming year, I asked the ambassador what programs are in place to provide loan support for farmers who want to grow alternative crops. According to him, there are essentially none. So if you’re an Afghan farmer who wants to grow wheat or strawberries instead of opium poppies, you’re largely on your own. And we wonder why Afghanistan now supplies 93 percent of the world’s opiates.

by Barnett R. Rubin  /  February 27, 2008

“I returned from a trip to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1998. A few months later, during a discussion at the International Peace Academy, I summarized my findings as, “Outside of Afghanistan, all people think about about is Islam and extremism, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is money.” I often [think of] this, most recently when a reporter who was gearing up for his first trip to the region by reading books on theology and political ideology asked me how it was possible for Hanafi Muslims like the Taliban to ally with Wahhabis like al-Qaida — was it because the Deobandi school was closer to Wahhabism? I replied (with a pinch of exaggeration) that this had nothing to do with anything, and to understand the Taliban he would be better off looking into the price of bread.

Outside of Afghanistan people want to know if Deobandis are a type of Hanafis that are closer to Wahhabis, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is the price of bread. As I was leaving Kabul in January, the fixer who helps me get through lines and avoid bribes at the airport started complaining about the price of bread (as for bribes — when one of the border police at the numerous airport checkpoints asked him for some money for tea, he pointed to me and said “mahman-i rais-i jamhur ast wa-farsi mifahmad” — he’s a guest of the President and understands Persian — both clauses of which were exaggerated but effective). He complained that people in Afghanistan were concerned with only one thing: getting enough bread to eat, and so many were not able to do so. The prices of everything were so high! Under the Taliban the price of everything was much lower. I pointed out to him that we were driving to the airport (much improved, difficult though it is to believe for those seeing it for the first time) along a newly paved wide highway that could accommodate the increased traffic. He acknowledged all that, but said that many people were better off under the Taliban.

I paused a little bit to let that sink in, and then I asked him, So do people want the Taliban to come back? His eyes bugged out as if I had completely lost my mind, and he started waving his hands in the air and shouting, “No! No!” Of course this man had a secure job with the government, was about to leave for English-language training course in India, and had been able to go on hajj last year. I don’t think that foreign soldiers had broken into and searched his house or killed, arrested, or abused any of his relatives (at least he never mentioned it, which others did). He was a hajji, but a clean shaven hajji. And by the looks of him, he was getting his daily bread, and then some.

But I had heard quite a bit about this bread. Someone told me that food prices had gone up 70 percent. After General Musharraf declared a state of Emergency during my visit in November, notes from Pakistani friends often spoke of a growing shortage of “atta” (whole wheat flour). On my flight to Delhi from Kabul I sat with a senior official of the Indian Customs Service who was advising the Afghan Customs Department. He told me that Afghanistan was importing only ten percent the amount of wheat that it had last year. U.S. Ambassador William Wood was trying to convince Afghan villagers that food shortages (like the insurgency) were due to poppy cultivation. (I always heard that food shortages led Afghans to cultivate poppy so they could buy wheat plus have some cash for other needs — but that would require assuming that farmers earn money for their crop and can buy food on a market.)

What is going on? The Wall Street Journal (behind subscription firewall) answers the question this morning (hint — it’s not the scourge of narcotics or, to be fair, General Musharraf either):

“The little known Minneapolis Grain Exchange is suddenly one of the hottest spots in the global financial markets…. Yesterday wheat closed at $22.40 a bushel on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, up from about $5 a year ago….Minneapolis has become ground zero for the global wheat shortage, which has been caused by drought in Australia and poor weather in other grain-producing countries. Global stocks are projected to reach 30-year lows this year, while U.S. stocks will reach 60-year lows. The rise in agricultural prices, combined with high oil prices .. have contributed to higher food inflation in the U.S. and around the world…. Another byproduct of the rally by wheat and other grains is that food is becoming more politicized as countries dependent on food imports fear they will be left at the mercy of volatile markets and shrinking supplies. Such a development could exacerbate hunger while generating food riots or political problems at home. To cope with high prices, countries have been rationing supplies by leveling tariffs or taxes on grain exports. [Kazakhstan and Syria have taxed or canceled exports, while Jordan and Egypt are short of food.] Pakistan recently stopped exporting some of its wheat flour to Afghanistan.”

In addition, countries accounting for a third of global exports (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Argentina, and China) have taken some wheat off the market to address domestic shortages. “Food riots or political problems….” Of course there were those riots in Kabul in May 2006 in which a few hundred angry young men paralyzed the capital for much of a day…. At several meetings I have heard former Minister of Finance of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani say that the most common definition of a “Talib” in southern Afghanistan is “an unemployed youth.” Some Kandahari fruit traders I interviewed said that nearly all the fighting in Afghanistan was due to unemployment. Statistically, youth employment is one of the most robust correlates of civil violence. Another thought — this bad weather, drought, and so on leading to shortages not seen in decades…. Could it be related to climate change? I don’t know. But I suspect that neither missile strikes, nor more NATO troops, nor a deeper study of Islamist political ideology will enable us to solve these problems.”

Failing Wheat Crop Causes Afghan Food Crisis
by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson  /  September 11, 2008 ·

In Afghanistan, a lingering drought has led to the smallest wheat harvest in the country in years. Officials say the shortfall is nearly 1.7 million tons. Compounding the dilemma is a global spike in food prices. Millions of Afghans are now in danger of going hungry, and the international community is responding to the crisis. The U.S. recently donated 50,000 tons of wheat, but experts warn this kind of crisis will happen again unless the Afghan government and international donors start paying more attention to the country’s farmers.

Frustration Growing
The only thing growing in a village in northern Kunduz province is frustration. Farmers complain the drought has left them without enough wheat to eat, let alone sell, this winter. This is the worst drought any one can remember, and looking at the brown fields it is easy to see why farmers are distressed. One field was a wheat field, but there was not enough rain and water in the canal, so farmers tried planting okra and melons. Those crops didn’t take either, so now the field is just mounds of dirt that stretch for acres. Mohammad Yusuf heads an informal farmers’ cooperative called “Beggars’ Gathering.” He takes his anger out on dried okra stems sticking out of the dirt by snapping them in half. Yusuf says rain touched their fields maybe twice this year, and he says other than providing some seed, his government has done nothing to help. Abdul Aziz Nikzad, the agricultural director in Kunduz province, says he empathizes with Yusuf. Nikzad says his province used to be called the wheat warehouse of Afghanistan, but not anymore.

Mistrust In The Ministries
Nikzad blames the drought and the government in Kabul for not acting more quickly to help farmers. He says the various ministries don’t trust one another: When his superiors at the Agriculture Ministry told him to rent tankers five months ago to help get water to dying livestock, he is still waiting for the Finance Ministry to give him the money. “The ministries with money act like warlords guarding their personal coffers,” Nikzad says. “There’s so much red tape and micromanaging that there’s little I can do to help the farmers.” Nikzad is still waiting to hear whether they will give him money to dig the three wells he needs to keep his 250-acre government farm alive. He says he has to dig those wells by next month or he’ll miss the deadline for planting next season’s wheat. For now, the only water at the farm is pumped through a four-inch fire hose donated by the French. The water comes from the farm’s lone well. A farm worker uses the water to plant a small field of almond, apricot and other saplings. It’s the only field in sight where anything is growing.

‘A Blessing In Disguise’
Tekeste Ghebray Tekie, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization representative based in Kabul, says of the billions of foreign dollars spent on rebuilding Afghanistan, only a few hundred million have gone to improving agriculture. But, Tekie says, the drought and soaring wheat prices served as a wake up call about the dangers of ignoring agriculture in a country where 80 percent of the population is dependent on farming. “I call it a blessing in disguise,” Tekie says. “For one thing, it brought attention to agriculture. For another, farmers may switch from poppy to growing crops or wheat. So maybe there’s an opportunity there from the crisis.” Many say that wheat at this stage is becoming more lucrative than opium poppy, and the key is to help poppy farmers make the switch. Still, there are a lot of questions about what Afghan agriculture should look like.

U.S. officials are interested in seeing farmers focus more on cash crops like fruit and nuts that grow better and will boost the economy. “You grow a little wheat, and you eat it; and then you grow tree fruits and other kinds of things, and you sell those for cash; and that’s kind of the relationship,” says Loren Stoddard, the director of alternative development and agriculture at the U.S. Agency for International Development in Kabul. “So wheat’s important to people, but it’s really not anything that’s going to generate revenues and jobs really — economic progress.” Still, USAID officials are working to ease the wheat shortage in Afghanistan. They say they will roll out an up to $60 million voucher program later this month. Farmers can use the vouchers to buy seed and fertilizer at a hefty discount.

Seed shortage hits Afghan wheat farmers
by Jonathon Burch  /  06 Dec 2008

Thousands of tonnes of wheat seed are being distributed across Afghanistan, but this will meet only a quarter of demand so Afghans will rely heavily on imports next year, a development expert said on Saturday. Afghanistan has been hit hard by drought and rising global food prices, making it heavily reliant on handouts and imports. An estimated 30 percent of Afghans are considered chronically food insecure, according to the U.S. development agency (USAID). Much of the best arable land is also used to grow opium, the raw material for heroin, adding to the food shortage. Always a wheat importer, the country should focus on high-value cash crops like pomegranates in future, the development expert said. The Afghan government and several donor countries have launched a $60 million agricultural stimulus programme for the 2008/2009 crop season.

Around 12,000 tonnes of U.N. certified wheat seed are being distributed to farmers, but this falls short of the 50,000 tonnes the government says is needed. “We know it’s not enough for every farmer in every province. We know it’s not enough for all of their lands,” said Loren Stoddard, director of alternative development and agriculture for USAID in Afghanistan. “But we’re promoting the use of certified seed which means we’re only promoting about 12,000 tonnes, which is all there is available in the country,” he said, while visiting a distribution site in Samangan, northern Afghanistan. There are more seeds available for commercial sale in the country, Stoddard said, but they have not been certified and are of much poorer quality.

Big Seed Subsidies
The certified seeds are being distributed to those farmers considered most vulnerable at a considerably subsidised rate. Farmers will pay around 15 percent of the market value. “I am happy. I can’t get it at this price from the city,” Mohammad Sadiq, a farmer waiting in line at a distribution site in Samangan, told Reuters. “I’m happy with this amount but if they distributed more it would be better,” said another farmer, Mohammad Murad. The Agriculture Ministry does not want seed to be imported as this would change the genetic characteristics of the local seed which is well adapted for Afghanistan, said Stoddard. Drought and rising global food prices have pushed up the price of certified wheat seed, said Stoddard.

“We’re anticipating this will create incentive for seed companies to grow more so we can develop this,” he said. Stoddard believes that within two to three years, Afghanistan could grow enough certified seed to meet demand. But while USAID and other donors are trying to stimulate wheat production, Stoddard said Afghanistan had always been a net importer of wheat and its long-term future lay in producing high-value cash crops. “Long term we have to focus on things like planting more pomegranate, fruit and nut trees, vineyards … that’s really where the future is,” said Stoddard. “Wheat is really kind of a supplement to those other cash crops. We just want to make it as efficient as possible,” he said.

Canada buys wheat seeds to give Afghan farmers alternative to poppies
by Ethan Baron  /  November 08, 2008

Canada is providing $1.2 million to buy wheat seeds and fertilizer for thousands of Afghan farmers, but the Taliban warn they may attack any foreigners who attempt to distribute the seeds. The money will pay for 293 tonnes of wheat seed, to supply more than 5,000 farmers with 50 kilograms each, and plant a total of 2,000 hectares of land. “We look forward to working with the governor of Kandahar to sow these seeds of peace,” said Elissa Golberg, Representative of Canada in Kandahar, head of Canadian development operations in Kandahar province. The project is intended to raise farm yields, and give growers an alternative to the lucrative poppy trade, said Kandahar Gov. Rahmatullah Raoufi. “We are going to avoid and prevent farmers from the poppy cultivation,” Raoufi said.

Farmers have good reasons to switch from growing poppies to growing wheat, said Abdul Hai Niamati, Director of Agriculture for Kandahar province. Pressure from other nations concerned about opium production, and from the Afghan government, provides a disincentive, Niamati said. “The government says that if anyone grows poppy they will be punished, and their poppy will be killed,” Niamati said. “If they grow poppy, the government will make trouble for them.” Also, wheat prices are increasing, and “that is why people are wanting to grow wheat,” Niamati said.

Poppy cultivation also takes more time, labour, and water than growing wheat, Niamati said. The Taliban won’t target farmers who switch from poppies to wheat, but may take violent action if it’s done by the wrong people, said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. “We are not against wheat growing. There will be no threat or concern for farmers who are sowing wheat in their lands,” Mujahid said. “However if the government authority or foreigners come down to the districts for the purpose of distributing wheat seeds, we might attack them. “If the seeds are being distributed by local community people or tribal elders or through ordinary people, it doesn’t matter, there will be no problem.”

Raoufi said the provincial government will set up a provincial-level commission, and district-level commissions, which will determine how the seeds are distributed, and monitor the distribution. Seeds will go to farmers in five districts – Daman, Arghandab, Panjwaii, Maywand, and Zhari – who meet the minimum farm-size requirement, have the ability to irrigate, and are in need. Much of the region is a hotbed of Taliban activity, with Canadian troops having daily skirmishes with insurgents in some areas. Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based aid group, will oversee the program, Raoufi said. Farmers will pay 25 per cent of the value of the seeds they receive, and that revenue will go into development work to be determined by Mercy Corps, Niamati said. Niamati said the provincial government would like to see that money go to develop a wheat-seed farm at Tarnak Farm outside Kandahar, former home of Osama bin Laden.

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the three American military contractors
freed from the Colombian jungle, speaking out against their former
captors, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC—Marc
Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, among the fifteen
hostages, including the French Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt,
who was rescued in an elaborate military operation last week. The
Colombian government says it managed to infiltrate FARC command and
fool the rebels into thinking they were transferring the hostages to
another location.

On Monday, the three Americans spoke publicly for the first time since
their release. Marc Gonsalves called his former FARC captors
“terrorists” and urged them to release hundreds of remaining hostages.

The freed Americans are employees of the military firm Northrop
Grumman. They have been captured—they were captured in 2003 after
their surveillance plane crashed in the Colombian jungle.

The rescue operation was widely seen as a major blow to the FARC. The
fifteen freed prisoners were the most high-profile of hundreds the
FARC had held in hopes of securing the release of captured rebels and
achieving other political demands. The group has already been depleted
by the deaths of three senior leaders this year and a series of

Criticism of FARC has come from all sides. Indigenous, peasant and
human rights groups have denounced FARC’s kidnappings and armed
operations and said they also deflect attention from government

I’m joined now by three guests. Here in the firehouse, Mario Murillo,
professor of communications at Hofstra University, a producer at
Pacifica radio station WBAI here in New York, author of the book
Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization,
currently finishing another book on the indigenous movement in
Colombia and its popular use of the media in community organizing.
Also, in Washington, D.C., I’m joined by Michael Evans, director of
the Colombia Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.
And on the line from New Brunswick, Canada, Manuel Rozental. He’s a
Colombian physician, human rights activist and member of the
Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca in Colombia. He
fled to Canada in 2005 following several threats on his life.

Mario, you have been writing about what happened, and now there’s
serious questions, Swiss reports of whether in fact this was staged,
whether $20 million wasn’t paid in ransom for these prisoners by the
Colombian government.

MARIO MURILLO: Right. There’s a lot of questions, actually, because
there’s three different versions. Unfortunately, the official version
is the one that’s getting the most play, and obviously Alvaro Uribe is
getting a lot of political mileage out of it. And that’s, of course,
this dramatic rescue operation that you described in the introduction.

There’s two other reports. The one that you just alluded to from the
French—Swiss radio—public radio service, that—based on high sources
that the reporters had, saying that one of the wives of one of the
guards, one of the FARC rebels who was involved in securing and
maintaining security around the hostages, was in constant contact and
made this arrangement for a $20 million ransom pay. And that’s from
one report.

Another report, which probably is a lot more feasible if this—you
know, I haven’t gotten deeper in that one, but the other report is
that the Colombian government actually took advantage of a diplomatic
effort that was already underway for a long time by the former French
consul in Bogota, as well as a leading Swiss diplomat who was in
Colombia, and they were making arrangements, and they even got the
green light from the Colombian government. It was in the Spanish
daily, El Pais, when the president, Colombian president, actually
announced that, yeah, this interchange, this dialogue, was actually
proceeding. And it turns out, apparently, according to this report,
that the Colombian government intercepted the helicopters that were on
their way, so it wasn’t really a high infiltration operation that was
in the highest levels of the FARC commanders. The FARC were actually
turning the folks over to specifically this delegation led by these
two diplomats, and apparently the Colombian government kind of took,
you know, a right turn and got a lot of political mileage as a result.

A lot of questions are still around what happened, but unfortunately,
as I said, the official story is the one that’s getting out the most.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to the freed American military
contractors. On Monday, they spoke out for the first time since their
rescue. Marc Gonsalves was the most vocal of the three in criticizing
FARC. This is some of what he had to say.

MARC GONSALVES: There was a time that when I slept, I would
dream that I was free. That time was only a few days ago. It feels so
good to be free here now with all of you.

I want to tell you about the FARC, a guerrilla group who claim
to be revolutionaries fighting for the poor people of Colombia. They
say that they want equality. They say that they just want to make
Colombia a better place. But that’s all a lie. It’s a cover story, and
they hide behind it, and they use it to justify their criminal

The FARC are not a revolutionary group. They are not a
revolutionary group. They are terrorists. Terrorists with a capital T.
Bad people. Their interests lie in drug trafficking, extortion,
kidnapping. They refuse to acknowledge all human rights. And they
reject democracy.

I’ve seen them hold a newborn baby in captivity, a baby that
needed medical help, that was sick. They kept him there in the jungle.

I, myself, and my friends, Tom and Keith, we’ve also been victim
of their hate, of their abuse and other torture. And I have seen how
even their own guerrillas commit suicide in a desperate attempt to
escape the slavery that the FARC have condemned them to.

The majority of the FARC’s forces are children and young adults.
They come from extreme poverty and have very little or no education.
Many of them, they can’t even read. So they’re easily tricked into
joining the FARC, and they’re brainwashed into believing that their
cause is a just cause. But once they join, they can never leave,
because if they try, they will be killed.

There are people who right now in this very moment, they’re
still there in the jungle being held hostage. In this exact moment,
right now, they’re being punished, because we got rescued
successfully. I want you guys to imagine that. Right now, right now,
they’re wearing chains around their necks. They’re going to get up
early tomorrow morning, and they’re going to put a heavy backpack on
their backs, and they’re going to be forced to march with that chain
on their neck, while a guerrilla with an automatic weapon is holding
the other end of his chain like a dog.

Those are innocent people. Those are people that were fighting
or working for the country. And all they want is what we wanted and
what God had the grace to give us: our freedom.

I want to send a message to the FARC. FARC, you guys are
terrorists. You deny that you are. You say with words that you’re not
terrorists, but your words don’t have any value. Don’t tell us that
you’re not terrorists; show us that you’re not terrorists. Let those
other hostages come home. Agree to President Uribe’s proposal of an
encounter zone. Anywhere and any time you want, he proposed an
encounter zone. Then make the humanitarian agreement and let the
others come home. Then after that, a peace process, because otherwise
this downward spiral that the FARC are on now will continue, and the
Colombian military is going to dismantle the entire organization.


AMY GOODMAN: That is the quote of the man, the American contractor,
who was captured, Gonsalves, speaking yesterday—Marc Gonsalves—in San
Antonio. Let’s begin with you, Mario. Your thoughts?

MARIO MURILLO: Well, first of all, he said a lot of things, so we can
comment on a lot of things, obviously. One of the things being the
fact of the terrible conditions in which these hostages are held is
something that obviously nobody could really argue about. It’s unjust,
and everybody from Fidel Castro to Hugo Chavez to many other people
around the world have been demanding the FARC turn these folks over.

But he also says a lot of things that kind of whitewash the situation.
First of all, I think it’s very important, one of the tragedies of
this whole thing is that we will never get to the bottom of what
Gonsalves and his so-called contractors were doing in Colombia. We
have to recall that he was—first of all, the fact that his plane went
down—the official record says it was an accident and they went down in
the jungles, although the FARC had claimed initially that they shot it

We also have to point out that to use the term “hostages” in their case
—not to justify that they were held for five years, by no stretch of
the imagination—but to use the term “hostages” is very problematic in
the context in which they were operating in southern Colombia. They
were there in 2003, two years—a year and a half after President Bush
already authorized US servicemen and contractors to conduct
counterinsurgency, not counter-drug operations. That was in the heart
of where the FARC were operating, in Caqueta and in the southern part
of the country. So we will never get to the bottom of what exactly
these folks were doing down there—again, not to justify, but I think
that’s one of the many questions that are left unsaid.

And then, finally, his last comments there about what Uribe’s
proposals are really are optimistic, if not completely naive. He
doesn’t seem to understand that Uribe’s strategy is not to dialogue
with the FARC. His intention is to totally dismantle them. He does not
recognize them as a belligerent force. And the argument that they’re
terrorists, which Gonsalves here is arguing, is something that Uribe
has embraced to the detriment of any possibility of dialogue for long-
lasting peace in Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to Manuel Rozental. Your response right now,
as a man who has fled Colombia, a physician, a human rights activist,
now living in Canada, hearing the description of the FARC and also
talking about the Uribe government? It’s interesting that Ingrid
Betancourt, perhaps the most well-known hostage, who has now returned
to France—said she may run for president again, in fact ran against
Uribe—said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe should soften his tone
when dealing with FARC guerrillas. She urged Uribe to break with the
language of hatred. Manuel?

MANUEL ROZENTAL: Yes. Hi, Amy. Indeed, it’s very interesting. I, first
of all, have to say, like I think almost every Colombian, that we were
absolutely elated by the liberation of Ingrid and that her condition
is good, and one cannot downplay that. Regardless of how it was
achieved, it was fantastic that she was released unharmed and that all
the other ones were, as well.

Also, what Mario was saying, they were really fourteen prisoners of
war and one hostage released. The fourteen prisoners of war,
mistreated, abused, and I’m also glad, as everybody, that they’re

And in fact, I would say, knowing Ingrid before she was kidnapped, and
precisely two or three days before she was kidnapped by FARC, she
actually met with FARC commanders, including Raul Reyes, and said
directly that she demanded a gesture of goodwill from FARC in order
for peace to be achieved in Colombia. And her almost exact words were
“Your gesture of goodwill has to be no more kidnapping in Colombia,
and then, otherwise, if you don’t do that gesture, if you don’t carry
it out, then Colombia will explode into a spiral of disaster, and you
will lose all credibility.” So I think that background is essential,
because just a couple of days after she says that, she’s kidnapped by
the very people she demands that gesture from.

But I think it’s very important to put the whole thing into context.
First, the Uribe government has peaked in popularity but also has
reached a bottom in terms of illegitimacy. It was condemned just a few
days before this operation of liberation was carried out because of
buying out votes from congress to achieve re-election in a fraudulent
way. Uribe’s administration is also linked to death squads, and so are
the members of a coalition that led him to win the elections twice and
high officials in government, including the secret police. So we’re
talking about the regime with the worst human rights record in the
continent and the army with the worst human rights record in the
continent with the greatest US support, including the contractors or
mercenaries that Mario was talking about. So the fact that this regime
was involved in this liberation does not and should not and cannot
cover up the fact that it is a horrendous regime.

So, the main point I’d like to make here beyond the discussion as to
whether FARC or the government, which one is worse or which one is
legitimate, the main point here is an SOS for the popular movements
and organizations and the people of Colombia who right now, with the
validation of Uribe’s regime, are at the greatest risk of continuing
to be or even worsening the human rights records and abuses.

And to put this into perspective, there is a major plan in progress
within Colombia and from Colombia with US support and for corporate
interests to take over resources and wealth in territories in Colombia
and, from there, to launch a war or a major conflict in the Andean
region. That agenda is going to advance even further, after—if Uribe
gets away with the legitimization of his regime after the liberation
of Ingrid.

So, to go back to where I started, if Ingrid was the same Ingrid that
was kidnapped by FARC, the one that denounced corruption of the
government and launched a presidential campaign, she would be saying
what I’m saying now. You cannot legitimate a corrupt regime for profit
because you have liberated somebody. In fact, the person they’ve
liberated fought against that corruption, and we hope she’ll do it

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Michael Evans into this discussion,
director of the Colombia Documentation Project at the National
Security Archive. Inter Press Service wrote an interesting piece
called “Colombia: The General Ingrid Hugged,” and they’re talking
about General Mario Montoya—General Mario Montoya Uribe and Ingrid
Betancourt. For our radio listeners, we’re showing the image. You can
go to our website at Tell us about this general.

MICHAEL EVANS: Sure. Thanks for having me on the show. General Mario
Montoya is the commander of the Colombian army, and he has a sort of
spotted history with respect to human rights.

And it’s important to—for the listeners of this show to realize that
there’s another side to the coin with the FARC. Few people have
illusions that the FARC are well-intentioned liberals, but the other
side of it are the right-wing paramilitary groups that have operated
virtually unhindered in Colombia for decades.

Mario Montoya, the general that Ingrid hugged—and I haven’t seen the
Inter Press story, but I can imagine where it goes—just last year was
the subject of a CIA report leaked to the Los Angeles Times that
implicated him in a joint operation with paramilitary forces in the
city of Medellin just a few years ago, when he was a commander of an
army brigade there. And Montoya, throughout his career, has been
dogged by these kinds of allegations. A unit that he was a member of
in the late 1970s, when he was a young intelligence officer, had
actually formed a supposedly independent spontaneous paramilitary
group known as the Triple A, the American Anticommunist Alliance, that
was responsible for bombings and other kinds of threats and
intimidation, sort of black ops type operations in Colombia. The unit
that he was associated with created it as a completely clandestine
project. So General Montoya has a lot to answer for, as does President
Uribe. You know, many of his political allies have been implicated in
the parapolitical scandal, a scandal touched off by the discovery of a
paramilitary laptop a couple of years ago.

So there’s another side to this that I think is lost in this and is in
danger of sort of being consumed or buried under this sort of all this
wave of adoration for, you know, what is, I think, rightly considered
a very successful military operation. Of course, everybody is happy
that the hostages have been released, and it’s a huge victory for them
and their families, but you have to also see this as a huge victory
for Uribe and for—really as something that’s going to help him to get
through and sort of avoid addressing some of these larger problems
that he faces.

AMY GOODMAN: The Triple A, what is it, Michael Evans?

MICHAEL EVANS: Yeah, the Triple A was a group, again, that in the late
1970s and early 1980s operated as a clandestine unit of a Colombian
military intelligence unit. Essentially, they were formed completely
covertly, behind the scenes, without any attribution to the Colombian
army. They were responsible for bombing the Communist Party
headquarters and some other acts of intimidation around that time.
It’s really the first documented evidence that I’ve seen, at least in
US government documents, declassified documents, where a Colombian
army unit is directly tied to a clandestine paramilitary group or

AMY GOODMAN: And its relation to the United States?

MICHAEL EVANS: Well, its relation to the United States, as far as I
know, ends where—in a cable reported from the US ambassador, Diego
Asencio, in 1979, where he knows of this project and says—kind of
downplays it and says, well, it’s not a big deal; you know, these are
kind of dirty tricks being carried out by a desperate military facing
this—excuse me, this guerrilla threat from the—what then was the M-19
guerrillas. But the US certainly knew about that project, and if they
had done a little digging, would have known that Mario Montoya was a
part of it, the man, of course, who is now the senior Colombian army
official that is considered a great ally of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Manuel Rozental, can you return to Colombia today?

MANUEL ROZENTAL: Yeah, actually, I have been returning to Colombia,
and my situation is not unusual, in that many of the people under
threat actually go back to Colombia and have to be very careful and
keep looking for mechanisms to work with social movements. In fact, my
working with the Association of Indigenous Councils is at a moment
when more indigenous peoples, through this regime of Alvaro Uribe,
have been threatened, killed, disappeared or attacked than in any
other previous regimes, which has a lot to say about what’s going on.

But, Amy, I wanted to point out something. Maybe you saw this, or the
people listening to us. There was a 60 Minutes special on the Chiquita
Brands scandal. The Chiquita is, of course, a banana company. And the
documentary actually interviewed the CEO of Chiquita that had pleaded
guilty of funding the paramilitary forces. But the argument he
presented was that he was forced to fund the paramilitaries in order
to survive, because he was threatened by them.

The main point here is that the person doing the interview managed to
get through to Mancuso, the paramilitary commander and a close friend
of Uribe’s, and Mancuso stated clearly in the program that many people
saw in the US that there was never a threat, and it was out of
consideration that there would be any tense relationship or threat
between three companies—Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte—in Colombia,
because they were actually allies. He actually said clearly, “They
funded us. They armed us. They trained us,” which is very important.

In fact, just a few days after this came out to the US public, Mancuso
and another fourteen paramilitaries were taken, extradited into the
US, so that they would be charged for drug trade and all the crimes
against humanity and all the names he said he was going to name—
Mancuso said he was going to denounce the direct links between the
multinational US corporations, the US government, the Colombian
government and the paramilitaries to the State Department and
Department of Justice. And just after he says that, he is thrown into
jail into darkness in the US, so that all these criminal activities
and the architecture of power in Colombia could not be exposed. All
this stuff is covered up.

And then, the links between corporate interest, paramilitary death
squads, the Uribe and the Bush administration have been hidden,
covered up completely. And then, the real problem in Colombia, which
is an experiment from transnational corporations through the Uribe
administration with the support of the Bush and the US government, can
be hidden, and further hidden with what just happened.

As was being explained before, the whole paramilitary and death squad
machinery in Colombia has been in existence for a long time with clear
US support, with direct involvement of military and paramilitary
forces in Colombia, and the Uribe regime is directly linked to all

AMY GOODMAN: It seems that the FARC has served the president of
Colombia very well—Uribe. The US has given billions of dollars to
Colombia. Mario Murillo, let’s end there.

MARIO MURILLO: Yeah. Well, I would make the argument that the FARC
continue to be a kind of crutch for Uribe, and it’s all couched in the
war against narcotrafficking and the war against terror. The United
States is looking at this as the prime éxito or success story, and
they’re pumping tens of millions of—billions of dollars into Colombia.
And McCain was down there just last week, touting it—

AMY GOODMAN: Was there the day of the release.

MARIO MURILLO: Was there the day of the rescue, and he’s touting it as
a success story, without pointing out what already has been said, as
well as the—it’s not only a thing of the past, it’s a thing of the
present. Amnesty International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation
came out with a scathing report in May—late April, early May this
year, documenting how the regiments, the army units that the Colombian
army is receiving the most money of Colombian—of US support are
directly involved in extrajudicial executions, a story that has been
reported in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post but that,
unfortunately, as you know, doesn’t get the drumbeat that this
dramatic rescue would get.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Mario Murillo
is a WBAI producer, professor at Hofstra University, author of the
book Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and
Destabilization. Michael Evans in D.C., director of the Colombia
Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. We’ll link to
that. And Manuel Rozental, physician, human rights activist, member of
the Hemispheric Social Alliance and Association of Indigenous Councils
of Northern Cauca in Colombia. I wish we could be speaking to him in
Colombia, but he fled to Canada in 2005 following several threats
against his life.

Michael Evans
email : mevans [at] gwu [dot] edu

“Michael L. Evans is director of the Colombia Documentation Project
and serves concurrently as the Archive’s Webmaster. He is the author
of several Archive Electronic Briefing Books on U.S.-Colombia
relations, international counternarcotics policy, the 1975 invasion of
East Timor by Indonesian forces and U.S.-China relations. He also
writes a monthly column for, the online publication of
Colombia’s leading news magazine. His work has been recognized by The
New York Times, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and
other publications. He has appeared on television and radio broadcasts
in the U.S. and Colombia, including the BBC World Service, Fairness
and Accuracy in Reporting’s “Counterspin,” Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy
Now!” and RCN Television in Colombia. He joined the Archive in 1996
and worked as a Research Associate on several Archive publications,
including Death Squads, Guerrilla War, Covert Operations, and
Genocide: Guatemala and the United States, 1954-1999, Presidential
Directives on National Security, Part 2: From Harry Truman to George
W. Bush, China and the United States: From Hostility to Engagement;
and U.S. Espionage and Intelligence: Organization, Operations, and
Management, 1947-1996. He is a graduate of Miami University and did
his graduate work in international affairs at The George Washington


Colombia rejects intelligence report  /  March 26, 2007

Colombia on Sunday rejected a Los Angeles Times report that the CIA
had intelligence alleging that the country’s army chief collaborated
with right-wing militias accused of atrocities, drug trafficking and
massacres. The report, published Sunday, cited a CIA document about
Colombia’s army commander, Gen. Mario Montoya, and a paramilitary
group jointly planning and conducting an operation in 2002 to wipe out
Marxist guerrillas from poor areas around Medellin.

The report came as the White House is asking Congress to approve
extending approximately $700 million a year in mostly military aid to
help Colombia’s government fight rebels and the illicit drug trade.
Montoya has a close association with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
and would be the highest-ranking Colombian officer implicated in a
scandal over links between the outlawed militias and some of Uribe’s
political allies.

In a brief statement, Colombia’s government called for any charges
with proof to be presented before judicial authorities. “Colombia’s
government rejects accusations made by foreign intelligence agencies
against army commander Gen. Mario Montoya, that have been filtered
through the press, without evidence being presented to Colombian
justice and the government,” it said.

Most of Colombia’s paramilitaries have demobilized under a deal with
Uribe, but revelations are surfacing about ties to the political
elite. Rights groups have long charged that some military officers
have cooperated with the militias in a brutal counterinsurgency
campaign. Eight pro-Uribe lawmakers and a state governor have been
arrested on criminal charges involving alleged collusion with
paramilitary commands, which were set up in the 1980s to help fight
Marxist rebels. U.S. officials brand the militias as drug-trafficking


/  May 11, 2008

“For American corporations, the rewards of doing business abroad are
enormous, but so are the risks. And over the past 25 years no place
has been more perilous than Colombia, a country that is just beginning
to emerge from the throes of civil war and narco-terrorism. Chiquita
Brands International of Cincinnati, Ohio, found out the hard way. It
made millions growing bananas there, only to emerge with its
reputation splattered in blood after acknowledging it had paid nearly
$2 million in protection money to a murderous paramilitary group that
has killed or massacred thousands of people.

As correspondent Steve Kroft reports, the Colombian government is now
talking about extraditing Chiquita executives to Colombia, and
investigators in Bogota and on Capitol Hill are looking at other U.S.
companies that may have done the same thing. From the air, the plains
of the Uraba region are carpeted with lush foliage of banana
plantations, which have long provided a livelihood for the people of
northern Colombia. And for the better part of century, its best known
product has been the Chiquita banana.

But since the 1980’s, the business of bananas there has been
punctuated with gunfire. First, the area was taken over by Marxist
guerillas called the “FARC,” whose ruthlessness at killing and
kidnapping was exceeded only by the private paramilitary army that
rose up to fight them. Chiquita found itself trying to grow bananas in
the middle of a war, in which the Colombian government and its army
were of no help. “These lands were lands where there was no law. It
was impossible for the government to protect employees,” says Fernando
Aguirre, who became Chiquita’s CEO long after all this happened.

Aguirre says the company was forced to pay taxes to the guerillas when
they controlled the territory in the late 1980s and early 90s. When
the paramilitaries, known as the “AUC,” moved in in 1997 they demanded
the same thing. “Did the paramilitaries state, specifically to you,
that if you didn’t make the payments, your people would be killed?”
Kroft asks. “There was a very, very strong signal that if the company
would not make payments, that things would happen. And since they had
already killed at least 50 people, employees of the company, it was
clear to everyone there that these guys meant business,” Aguirre says.

Chiquita only had a couple of options and none of them were
particularly good. It could refuse to pay the paramilitaries and run
the risk that its employees could be killed or kidnapped, it could
pack up and leave the country all together and abandon its most
profitable enterprise, or it could stay and pay protection, and in the
process, help finance the atrocities that were being committed all
across the countryside. “These were extortion payments,” Aguirre says.
“Either you pay or your people get killed.”

“And you decided to pay,” Kroft remarks. “And the company decided to
pay, absolutely,” Aguirre says. There was no doubt in the company’s
mind that the paramilitaries were very bad people, Aguirre says.

Just how bad was already becoming evident. The paramilitaries, who
were funded initially by large landowners, and later by the cocaine
trade, not only drove the Marxist guerillas from the area, they tried
to eliminate anyone who might have leftist sympathies, from labor
leaders to school teachers. Sometimes entire villages were wiped out
in the most grisly fashion. Gloria Cuartes was the mayor of Apartado,
and witnessed much of it with her own eyes. “I was a mayor whose job
was just to gather the dead,” Cuartes says.

In 1996 she went to a school to talk to the children about the
violence that surrounded them. While she was there, the paramilitaries
arrived and murdered a 12-year-old boy, whose only crime had been to
announce their presence. “They cut off his head, and they threw the
head at us,” Cuartes remembers. “I went into a state of panic. They
were there for four hours, with their weapons, firing shots toward the
ceiling. One hundred girls and boys were with me. The children did not
scream. They were in shock.”

Asked if they said anything to her, Cuartes says, “No. Their language
was death. Their message was that if they could do this to children,
they could do it to me.” As the atrocities piled up all across the
country, Chiquita continued to make the payments to the
paramilitaries, viewing itself as a victim of the violence, not a

But all of that changed in 2001, when the U.S. government designated
the paramilitaries a terrorist organization, making any kind of
financial assistance to the group, coerced or otherwise, a felony. Yet
Chiquita continued to make the payments for another two years,
claiming it missed the government’s announcement. “It was in the
newspapers. It was in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which is where your
company headquarters is. It was in the New York Times,” Kroft points
out. “I mean, this is a big part of your business, doing business in
Colombia. I mean, how did you miss it?”

“Well, again, I don’t know what happened during that time frame,
frankly. What I know is, all the data shows that the company, the
moment it learned that these payments were illegal in the United
States, that’s when they decided to self-disclose to the Department of
Justice,” Aguirre says.

By “self-disclose,” he means Chiquita, on the advice of its attorneys,
turned itself in to the Justice Department. One of the first things
Aguirre did when he became CEO was to stop the payments and sell the
company’s Colombian subsidiary. Last year the company pled guilty to a
felony and agreed to pay a $25 million fine, but that wasn’t the end
of its legal problems. “This company has blood on its hands,” says
attorney Terry Collingsworth, who has filed one of four separate
lawsuits against Chiquita, seeking money for the families of
Colombians killed by the paramilitaries.

Collingsworth says the money Chiquita paid for seven years may have
kept its employees safe, but it also helped buy weapons and ammunition
that were killing other people. “Are you saying that Chiquita was
complicit in these massacres that took place down there?” Kroft asks.
“Absolutely. If you provide knowing substantial assistance to someone
who then goes out and kills someone, or terrorizes, or tortures
someone, you’re also guilty,” Collingsworth says.

Asked if he believes that Chiquita knew this money was being used to
go into the villages and massacre people, Collingsworth says, “If they
didn’t, they would be the only ones in the whole country of Colombia
who didn’t think that.” “You’re not saying that Chiquita wanted these
people to be killed?” Kroft asks. “No, they were indifferent to it,”
Collingsworth says. “…they were willing to accept that those people
would be dead, in order to keep their banana operation running
profitably, and making all the money that they did in Colombia.”

Collingsworth says he thinks the company should have just picked up
and left. “It’s easy for a lawyer to give that type of advice, after
the fact,” Aguirre argues. “When you have more than 3,500 workers,
their lives depend on you. When you’ve been making payments to save
their lives, you just can’t pick up and go.”

“What did the company think this money was gonna be used for?” Kroft
asks. “Well, clearly to save lives,” Aguirre says. “The lives of your
employees?” Kroft asks. “Absolutely,” Aguirre says.

“It was also being used to kill other people,” Kroft says. “Well,
these groups were funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. They
had the guns,” Aguirre says. “They had the bullets. So I don’t know
who in their right mind would say, ‘Well, if Chiquita would have
stopped, these killers would have stopped.’ I just don’t see that

“Do you feel that the company has any responsibility to compensate the
victims of the paramilitaries in Colombia?” Kroft asks. “The
responsibility of any murders are the responsibility of the people
that made the killings, of the people who pulled the trigger,” Aguirre

The Justice Department decided not to prosecute any corporate officers
at Chiquita, which included prominent businessmen such as former CEO
Cyrus Freidheim Jr., now head of Sun-Times Media Group, and board
member Roderick Hills, a former chairman of the Securities and
Exchange Commission. The decision created a furor in Colombia. The
country’s prosecutor general said he would begin his own
investigation, and has threatened to extradite some of Chiquita’s
executives to stand trial in Colombia.

There’s also a Congressional investigation, led by Representative
William Delahunt of Massachusetts, who chairs a House Foreign Affairs
subcommittee. Rep. Delahunt has been quoted as saying that Chiquita is
the tip of the iceberg. Asked what he means by that, Delahunt tells
Kroft, “Well, I think that there are other American companies that
have conducted themselves the same way that Chiquita has, except they
haven’t been caught.” How many companies? “Well, there are several,”
Delahunt says. Delahunt says he doesn’t want to share more information
“because I want to give those companies an opportunity to come before
the committee.”

60 Minutes did find one person who was willing to name names inside a
maximum security prison outside Medellin: Salvatore Mancuso was once
the leader of the paramilitaries. “Chiquita says the reason they paid
the money was because your people would kill them if they didn’t. Is
that true?” Kroft asks. “No it is not true,” Mancuso says. “They paid
taxes because we were like a state in the area, and because we were
providing them with protection which enabled them to continue making
investments and a financial profit.”

“What would have happened to Chiquita and its employees if they had
not paid you?” Kroft asks. “The truth is, we never thought about what
would happen because they did so willingly,” Mancuso says. Asked if
the company had a choice, Mancuso says, “Yes, they had a choice. They
could go to the local police or army for protection from the
guerillas, but the army and police at that time were barely able to
protect themselves.”

Mancuso helped negotiate a deal with the Colombian government that
allowed more than 30,000 paramilitaries to give up their arms and
demobilize in return for reduced prison sentences. As part of the
deal, the paramilitaries must truthfully confess to all crimes, or
face much harsher penalties.

Update: Mancuso, along with 13 other paramilitary warlords, was
extradited on May 13, 2008 to the United States for failing to comply
with the peace pact.  “Was Chiquita the only American company that
paid you?” Kroft asks Mancuso. “All companies in the banana region
paid. For instance, there was Dole and Del Monte, which I believe are
U.S. companies,” Mancuso claims.

Both Dole Food Company and Fresh Del Monte Produce, which is not
affiliated with Del Monte Foods, have issued statements strongly
denying that they made payments to the paramilitaries. Fresh Del Monte
Produce said its Colombian operation is “limited to a sales office
which purchases bananas from independent growers.”

“Dole and Del Monte say they never paid you any money,” Kroft tells
Mancuso. “Chiquita has been honest by acknowledging the reality of the
conflict and the payments that it made; the others also made payments,
not only international companies, but also the national companies in
the region,” Mancuso says. “So you’re saying Dole and Del Monte are
lying?” Kroft asks. “I’m saying they all paid,” Mancuso says.

Mancuso has been indicted in the U.S. for smuggling 17 tons of cocaine
into the country. He says he’s more than willing to tell U.S
prosecutors anything they want to know.

“Has anyone come down here from the United States to talk to you about
Dole, or to talk to you about Del Monte or any other companies?” Kroft

“No one has come from the Department of Justice of the United States
to talk to us,” Mancuso says. “I am taking the opportunity to invite
the Department of State and the Department of Justice, so that they
can come and so I can tell them all that they want to know from us.”
“And you would name names?” Kroft asks. “Certainly, I would do so,”
Mancuso says.

So far, the only company that’s been charged with paying money to
terrorists in Colombia is the one that turned itself in. “Do you think
if you hadn’t gone to the Justice Department and disclosed the
situation, that anything would’ve happened to you?” Kroft asks. “Well,
Mr. Kroft, if we hadn’t gone to the Justice Department, we probably
would not be here talking about this whole issue. No one would know
about this,” Aguirre says.

The General Ingrid Hugged  /  July 6 2008

General Mario Montoya Uribe, the national commander of the Colombian
army, whom Ingrid Betancourt thanked on Wednesday for rescuing her
from captivity, has a controversial service record. Montoya, whom
Betancourt embraced soon after her rescue from over six years as a
hostage of the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC), was born on Apr. 29, 1949 in the western department (province)
of Valle del Cauca.

Throughout his army career he has received more than 20 decorations,
including a U.S. Army medal. He has been in command positions in many
regions of his country, and holds a postgraduate degree in higher
management from the University of the Andes, according to his résumé
posted on the army Internet site. He followed courses of study at the
National War College, an advanced course on armoured vehicles at Fort
Knox, Kentucky, and was a military attaché at the Colombian embassy in

A cable despatched in 1979 by the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, declassified
at the request of the non-governmental National Security Archive
(NSA), a U.S. research institute, “reveals that a Colombian army
intelligence battalion linked to Montoya secretly created and staffed
a clandestine terror unit in 1978-1979,” researcher Michael Evans said
in an article published in July 2007 in the Colombian weekly Semana.

“Under the guise of the American Anti-communist Alliance (AAA or
Triple-A), the group was responsible for a number of bombings,
kidnappings and assassinations against leftist targets during that
period,” he wrote.

Evans, the head of NSA’s Colombia Documentation Project, also referred
to a mass grave discovered in the department of Putumayo in March 2007
containing the remains of more than 100 victims “killed over the same
two-year period that Montoya led the Joint Task Force South, the U.S.-
funded unit charged with coordinating counternarcotics and
counterguerrilla operations in that region from 1999-2001.”

“Declassified documents also detail State Department concern that one
of the units under Montoya’s command at the Task Force, the 24th
Brigade, had ties with paramilitaries based in (the town of) La
Hormiga, the location of the gravesite,” he said. Montoya was the
commander of the Fourth Brigade of the army, with jurisdiction over
the municipality of Bojayá in the western department of Chocó, when
119 civilians were massacred in the urban centre of Bellavista on May
2, 2002. In spite of three warnings delivered days in advance about
the imminent danger to the civilian population, the army did not enter
the area or take action to protect residents.

On Apr. 21, 2002, at least seven motorboats brought some 250
paramilitaries belonging to the ultra-rightwing United Self-Defence
Forces of Colombia (AUC) to Bellavista and the nearby town of Vigía
del Fuerte, through three separate checkpoints manned by the navy, the
police, and the army, the latter in Riosucio, 157 kilometres north of
Bellavista. The paramilitaries took up positions in both towns,
observed from the surrounding rural areas by the FARC.

On Apr. 23, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for
Human Rights expressed its “concern” about the paramilitary incursion
to the Colombian government and urged it to take action to protect
civilians. On Apr. 24 and 26, the Attorney General’s Office and the
Ombudsman added their voices to the warning. On May 1 the battle
between the FARC and the AUC started. More than 300 people sought
sanctuary in the Bellavista church and the AUC took cover behind and
around it. The following day the guerrillas launched gas cylinder
bombs at the paramilitary positions, one of which fell through the
church roof and exploded, killing 119 people including 44 children,
and leaving over 100 injured or mutilated.

The army showed up five days later. Survivors of the tragedy told IPS
last year about General Montoya’s arrival on the scene, and how he
wept for the dead children in front of television cameras, holding up
a little shoe of an expensive brand that local children had never seen
before. In May this year, an administrative tribunal issued two
verdicts, blaming the state for not having protected the population,
and ordering it to pay an indemnity of 1.5 billion pesos (870,000
dollars) to the victims’ families. Fourteen other civil lawsuits are
still pending.

The military justice system and the Attorney General’s Office
investigated army officers implicated in the events for dereliction of
duty. But Montoya’s career was not interrupted and he was promoted,
although soon afterwards, in October 2002, he was involved in another
controversial situation. An intelligence report produced by the U.S.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was leaked to the Los Angeles Times,
which published it in March 2007. It indicated that Montoya and a
paramilitary group known as Bloque Cacique Nutibara “jointly planned
and conducted a military operation in 2002 to eliminate Marxist
guerrillas from poor areas around Medellin, a city in northwestern
Colombia that has been a centre of the drug trade.”

What is known as Operation Orion began at 2:00 a.m. on Oct. 15, 2002
in Medellín’s 13th district. At least 14 people were killed, and
residents and human rights organisations testified that about 50 more
“disappeared” in the following weeks. On Oct. 21 that year the
presidential web site featured a statement by Montoya saying that “we
will continue, and what we are doing in the 13th district is a message
to the violent, telling them: desist, we will go everywhere in the
country because urban guerrilla warfare has no place in Colombia.”
Bloque Cacique Nutibara’s actions in the 13th district went on for two
months and, according to demobilised paramilitaries, were coordinated
with the authorities.

The CIA intelligence report included information from other Western
intelligence services and indicated that U.S. officials have received
similar information from a “proven” source, according to journalists
Greg Miller and Paul Richter, the authors of the Los Angeles Times
article. The report was leaked to the newspaper by a source who would
only identify himself as a U.S. government employee. The CIA would
neither deny nor confirm the information, but asked the newspaper not
to publish certain details.

In addition to his close collaboration with U.S. officials on Plan
Colombia, a strategy financed by Washinton to combat drug trafficking
and insurgency, Montoya was an instructor at the former School of the
Americas, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
Cooperation in 2001.

On Wednesday night, when the government showed on television how the
operation to rescue Betancourt and the other 14 hostages was planned
and executed, President Álvaro Uribe announced that Montoya had
commanded the successful rescue mission, and praised the 2002
Operation Orion in Medellín, without further comment. Uribe mentioned
that the same day he had received messages from members of the
military, complaining that they were “unjustly” imprisoned and asking
him to “intercede” for them.

In Colombia there is freedom of opinion, Uribe said, and he asked
human rights organisations to “believe in Colombia, in this
government; the respect shown for human rights in this operation is no
accident.” The president “respectfully” asked judges to review the
cases of the imprisoned members of the army and “if an error appears,
to correct it”.



Improbable Database Of A Farc Commander
BY Maurice Lemoine  /  July 07, 2008
Source: Le Monde diplomatique

Media attention following Ingrid Betancourt’s dramatic release from
captivity should not obscure a surprising revelation: laptop computers
implausibly retrieved from an obliterating air raid on a Farc base in
Colombia are being used to sour the country’s relations with Ecuador
and smear the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, in western and Latin-
American media.

The first of 10 smart bombs guided by GPS hit its target at 00.25 on 1
March 2008, less than two kilometres from the Ecuador-Colombia border,
along the Putomayo river. Four Blackhawk OH-60 helicopters appeared
out of the darkness with 44 special commandos from Colombia’s rapid
deployment force on board. But there was no fighting: the temporary
camp of the Farc (the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia) had been destroyed by the explosions and 23 people killed in
their sleep (1). Among them was Raúl Reyes, the Farc’s second-in-
command and the group’s “foreign minister”. His remains were taken
back to Colombia by ground troops as a trophy.

Early that morning the Colombian president Alvaro Uribe contacted his
Ecuadorian counterpart, Rafael Correa, to brief him on the raid: the
Colombian airborne unit had been attacked from within Ecuador and had
pursued the rebels in legitimate self-defence. But, he assured Correa,
their return of fire came from Colombian territory and didn’t violate
Ecuador’s airspace. Colombia’s defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos,
gave the same assurance later.

Initially Correa took Uribe at his word. Until this incident they had
been on good terms and spoke on the phone every day. Two weeks before,
Correa had said in private to one of the close advisers of the
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez: “Tell Chávez that I get on very well
with Uribe and that if he wants I can help smooth things out between
them.” Correa felt betrayed, a feeling compounded when Ecuadorian
military personnel arrived at the bombed camp: not only had the
Colombians violated Ecuadorian territory, they had also, as Correa put
it in a press conference on 2 March, conducted “a massacre”.

Reyes’ death sparked a crisis. Ecuador severed diplomatic relations
with Colombia and deployed 11,000 men along its border. Venezuela also
sent 10 battalions to its border. “We don’t want war,” Chávez warned,
“but we won’t allow the [North American] empire, nor its little dog
[Colombia], to weaken us.” Nor were they willing to allow it to act
with impunity on its neighbours’ territory.

Unanimously rejected

The word “condemnation” was avoided, but South American governments
unanimously “rejected” Colombia’s incursion. The United States
supported Bogotá in the name of the “war on terror”. Craig Kelly,
principal deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Western
Hemisphere Affairs, explained: “What we have said is firstly that a
state must defend itself against the threat of terrorism and that when
you talk about a border, you have to consider the general context,
which [in this case] is a continual violation of the borders by the
Farc.” An interviewer asked: “Does that mean that, for example, if
Mexico pursued drug traffickers _into the US, the US wouldn’t have any
objection to Mexican forces entering its territory?” Kelly replied:
“I’m not going to get into a theoretical discussion” (2).

There has been speculation about the planes used on 1 March. Five
Brazilian-made Supertucanos EMB314s and three US-manufactured A-37
attack aircraft have been mentioned, but the bombs couldn’t have been
released from either of those planes. One thing is certain: weapons of
the same sophisticated kind did a lot of damage during the US invasion
of Iraq.

The long arm of Washington was also discernible when Correa made other
discoveries, notably that his military command had lied to him.
Tension peaked when General Jorge Gabela, the Ecuadorian air force
commander, revealed that the radar nearest to Santa Rosa, the zone
where the Farc camp was located, had been down for maintenance for
several days. Correa sacked the head of the army’s intelligence
services, Colonel Mario Pazmiño, and announced in a broadcast to the
nation that “the CIA has totally infiltrated some of Ecuador’s
military intelligence bodies”. He also replaced defence minister
Wellington Sandoval with loyalist Javier Ponce. Correa’s reassertion
of his authority also led to the resignations of the joint chief of
staff and the heads of the army, navy and air force.

Correa soon began to see the consequences of his actions. He had
announced in his election campaign that he would close the US base at
Manta. The lease on this “foreign operating location” granted to the
US in 1999 expires in 2009. On 28 February the assembly set up to
“refound the country” adopted an article which asserts that “Ecuador
is a land of peace; foreign military bases or foreign installations
with military purpose will not be allowed.” With its state-of-the-art
technology, Manta plays a key role in US military support for
Colombia. During the operation on 1 March it would have controlled the
air space the mystery planes overflew.

Opening salvo

The Colombian government announced that during the raid its army had
seized a laptop (later increased to three laptops) belonging to Reyes,
which revealed that both Chávez and Correa have close links to the

In the absence of hard evidence, questions arise. Reyes’ main camp is
known to be in Colombia near the border. In that region the Farc have
many hiding places, secret shelters and secondary camps. Yet the
guerrilla leader had apparently gone to Ecuador with three laptops,
two hard drives and three USB drives – everything but the kitchen
sink. According to the Ecuadorian army, the 10 missiles made craters
2.4m wide and 1.8m deep and destroyed the vegetation all around, yet
the computers emerged without a scratch.

What a tale those laptops told. The Spanish daily El País, which is
the spearhead of a campaign against the progressive governments of
Latin America, didn’t stop to question the authenticity of the
revelations. On 12 March its readers learned in an article, “Farc
finds refuge in Ecuador”, that “guerrillas drive around the north of
Ecuador in vans, as a member of the OEA (Organisation of American
States) attested. He privately expressed astonishment at encountering
fully equipped guerrillas in restaurants in border country.”

What readers didn’t see was a letter sent to the editor of El País on
15 March by the OEA’s secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, in which
he expressed his “astonishment and indignation”: “I can assure you
that this claim is absolutely false. The OEA does not have special
missions, nor does it have representatives at any level deployed on
Ecuador’s northern border, therefore it is impossible that any member
of the organisation could have made such a statement” (3).

Reyes and his guerrillas were in Ecuador. Reyes had for months been
the key contact for the representatives from France, Spain, Venezuela
and Ecuador negotiating hostage releases, including that of the French-
Colombian Ingrid Betancourt. The Farc have long been intransigent over
their demand for direct dialogue with the Colombian government. They
insisted on “humanitarian exchange” – hostages for guerrillas – or
nothing. Their aim is political: to achieve the status of legitimate
combatants by gaining recognition from the Colombian government. The
Farc have been on the list of terrorist organisations since 2002 but
have never accepted that they are terrorists. Uribe wanted to avoid
giving them recognition at all costs.

Chávez mediates

The mediation which Chávez set in motion on 31 August 2007 broke a
stalemate that had lasted since 2002. The guerrillas freed seven
hostages unconditionally, leading Caracas to say: “The Farc are using
a more political logic, which is a positive sign for how things could
develop.” But hostages warmly thanking members of the Venezuelan
government dressed in red must have been a great source of irritation
to the Colombian president.

Open dialogue had been ongoing in Caracas through the intermediary of
Farc leaders Iván Marquez and Rodrigo Granda, and sometimes even with
Reyes at the camp in Ecuador. The French and Ecuador governments knew
this. A troubling detail is that a week before the 1 March raid,
French representatives met Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace,
Luis Carlos Restrepo, in Panama. Restrepo told them they should stay
in contact with Reyes. “He’s the one who can help you. He’s your man.
He can help you get Ingrid freed.” This explains Correa’s fury: “Look
how low Alvaro Uribe has sunk! He knew that in March 12 hostages were
going to be freed, including Ingrid Betancourt. He knew that, and
still he used his contacts to spring this trap.” Kill the negotiator
and you kill the negotiation.

But the hostage aspect of this crisis took second place to the
revelations at a news conference on 3 March by the director general of
the Colombian police, General Oscar Naranjo. He revealed that, based
on computer equipment found near Reyes’ body, there was an “armed
alliance” between the Farc and the Venezuelan government, as well as
political and economic links between Correa and the guerrillas from
the time of his election campaign.

Media revelation

The media went to town with these “explosive documents” from the
seized computers, which the Colombian intelligence services had
helpfully filtered. Prominent were the Spanish El País (4) and the
Colombian daily El Tiempo, which is owned by the Santos family, to
which both the vice-president and the defence minister belong. On 4
March El País ran with “Bogotá unmasks the Farc’s support”. On 10 May,
in the first of a series of articles by Maite Rico, “The Farc papers
point the finger at Chávez”, readers learnt that “without raising an
eyebrow Chávez approved a request for $300m” from the guerrillas. On
12 May the article condemned by the secretary general of OEA appeared.
The day before Rico had written of “groups linked to Chávism which
regularly train in Farc camps in Venezuela”. There were even claims of
waiting lists to take part in their courses.

When The Economist wrote about Chávez’s generosity in providing $300m
to the Farc on 24 May, it mentioned as its source a message from Raúl
Reyes reproduced in El País and the Colombian weekly Semana. It also
quoted from a document obtained by the Wall Street Journal: “The
Venezuelan interior minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, asked the Farc
to train Venezuelan soldiers in guerrilla tactics.” It’s unclear
whether the Wall Street Journal copied the Miami Herald, which printed
the same claim.

The improbable was followed by the bizarre: between 2000 and 2002, the
Farc and ETA allegedly planned an attack in Madrid on prominent
Colombian figures – the current vice-president Francisco Santos
Calderón, the former head of state, Andrés Pastrana, and the former
ambassador in Spain Noemi Sanín (El Tiempo, 2 June). BBC Mundo
reported on 5 March that the Farc had tried to get hold of uranium to
make a dirty bomb.

According to the Reyes documents, Chávez’s friendship with the
Colombian rebels dated back at least as far as 1992. When he was
imprisoned for a failed coup attempt in February that year, he
received $150,000 from the Farc (Le Figaro, 5 March and Wall Street
Journal, 11 March). He must have spent it all in the prison canteen,
because when he was released in 1994, he had no money and had to stay
in a small apartment in central Caracas belonging to his future
minister of the interior, Luis Miquilena, who also lent him a car.

Though it was more cautious, Le Monde ran a piece on 12 March about a
Farc deserter: “According to the deserter, the Farc leader Iván
Marquez and its commander-in-chief Manuel Marulanda are staying in
Venezuela”. That will stick in the reader’s mind, as will the Figaro
heading “Dangerous liaisons between the Farc and Chávez” (15 May).

In Venezuela, the dailies El Nacional and El Universal, along with the
private channels Radio Caracas Télévisión (RCTV) and Globovisión, are
having a field day. They are only too happy to broadcast the views of
the governor of Zulia state or the former presidential candidate
Manuel Rosales, accusing president Chávez of betraying the country.

One of the many editorials in the Washington Post about Venezuela sums
up this media firestorm: “If managed correctly, the laptop scandal
will surely deepen the domestic political hole into which the would-be
`Bolivarian’ revolutionary is sinking.”

Verified by Interpol

Throughout, Bogotá and the media have relied on a seemingly
unimpeachable line of defence: the validity of seized documents has
been verified by Interpol. And yet, closer examination yields
interesting results.

General Naranjo requested Interpol’s independent opinion of the eight
key “exhibits” (the computer equipment) on 4 March. Interpol’s report
was presented in Bogotá on 15 May by its secretary general, the
American Ronald Noble. He paid extensive tribute at his press
conference to General Naranjo, who was seated beside him, and to the
Department of State Security (DAS), the political police (5). Naranjo,
the former head of the Colombian anti-drug police, had to stand down
after his brother, Juan David, was arrested in Germany in March 2007
for drug trafficking. He was implicated by the Venezuelan interior
minister for his links with the “narco” Wilmer Varela (assassinated on
29 February). As for the DAS, its former director, Jorge Noguera, was
arrested on 22 February 2007 for allowing paramilitaries to use its

According to Noble’s report (6) and statements, Interpol’s role was
limited to “(a) determining the actual data contained in the eight
seized Farc computer exhibits, (b) verifying whether the user files
had been modified in any way on or after 1 March 2008, and (c)
determining whether Colombian law enforcement authorities had handled
and examined the eight seized Farc computer exhibits in conformity
with internationally recognised principles for handling electronic
evidence by law enforcement.” But “the remit of the IRT and Interpol’s
subsequent assistance to Colombia’s investigation did not include the
analysis of the content of documents, folders or other material on the
eight seized Farc computer exhibits. The accuracy and source of the
user files contained in the eight seized Farc computer exhibits are
and always have been outside the scope of Interpol’s computer forensic

Interpol’s team of experts, who came from Singapore and Australia and
didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t examine the contents of the files.
Perhaps this is understandable: in the 609.6 gigabytes in the eight
“exhibits” there were 37,873 text documents, 452 spreadsheets, 210,888
images, 22,481 web pages, 7,989 email addresses (no reference to
emails, though they were widely quoted in the media), and 983
encrypted files. “In non-technical terms, such a volume of data would
correspond to 39.5 million full pages in Microsoft Word format
and . . . would take more than a thousand years to go through it all
at a rate of a hundred pages per day.”

That’s a lot of data for one man to produce. Especially Raúl Reyes,
constantly on the move in the jungle, living the dangerous life of a
guerrilla. But it wasn’t too much data for the Colombian government,
which within a few hours had begun releasing a continuous stream of
revelations from the files. Nor was it too much for journalists who
wove the documents (authenticated by Interpol) into their own stories.

A troubling lack of rigour

The Interpol report shows a troubling lack of rigour. It says Reyes
and Guillermo Enrique Torres, alias Julián Conrado, a Farc commander,
were killed in the operation (page 10). But Bogotá, which had
announced the death of Conrado on _1 March, had to retract that after
a DNA examination of the only body (apart from Reyes) brought back by
their forces. Similarly, the statement “Farc has been designated a
terrorist organisation by Colombia, other governments and
Interpol” (page 10) requires qualification. The designation has only
been adopted by the US, Colombia, Peru, the EU, and Israel (31
countries in all), or 17% of the 186 countries that are Interpol

More significantly, the statement: “the eight seized Farc computer
exhibits belonged to Raúl Reyes” or: “the eight seized Farc computer
exhibits” (both page 10) should more properly have been: “the eight
exhibits given to Interpol by the Colombian authorities”. Interpol has
accepted the Colombian version of events, though there was no witness
present to verify that the equipment was actually found near the body
of the Farc leader. This provoked Correa to say on 13 May when he
visited Paris: “Who can show that the computers were indeed found in
the Farc camp?”

In the first fax Naranjo sent on 4 March to request Interpol help, he
mentioned “three computers and three USB devices” (Appendix 2 of the
report). In his reply of 5 March, Noble agrees on behalf of his
organisation to examine “three computers and three USB keys” (Appendix
3). But on 6 March, in a letter to Interpol from the director of DAS,
Maria del Pilar Hurtado, the equipment has become “three laptop
computers, the three USB keys and [for the first time] two hard-disc
drives” (Appendix 4). Where did these hard drives come from? Had no
one noticed them before?

The overall conclusion of the report is that “no data were created,
added, modified or deleted on any of the these exhibits between 3
March 2008 at 11.45 am [the date and time when they were entrusted to
the computer forensic specialists of the Colombian Judicial Police]
and 10 March 2008 when the exhibits were handed over to Interpol’s
experts to make their image discs” (page 29). It also states that
“access to the data . . . [during the same period] conformed to
internationally recognised principles for handling electronic evidence
by law enforcement” (page 28).

But what happened between 1 March and 3 March? An officer of
Colombia’s anti-terrorist unit “directly accessed the eight seized
Farc computer exhibits under exigent and time-sensitive
circumstances” (page 30) and they were all connected to a computer
“without prior imaging of their contents and without the use of write-
blocking hardware” (page 31). As a result of this, during those three
days, “access to data . . . did not conform to internationally
recognised principles for handling electronic evidence by law
enforcement” (page 8). This is not insignificant, as Interpol
discovered that a total of 48,055 files “had either been created,
accessed, modified or deleted as a result of the direct access to the
eight seized exhibits by Colombian authorities between the time of
their seizure on 1 March 2008 and 3 March 2008 at 11.45am” (page 33).

No court of law anywhere could rely on the results of such a report to
pass judgment on anyone. But that doesn’t stop the rumours or the
headlines. The rumour mills are now turning in Ecuador and Venezuela.
Even if today the conditions are not yet right for Venezuela to be
classed as a terrorist or rogue state, this campaign is creating the
right conditions in public opinion. According to Maximilien Arvelaiz,
an adviser to President Chávez: “George Bush wants to leave behind a
time bomb so that, whatever the outcome of the election in November,
it will be very difficult to soften US policy on Venezuela.”

But an unforeseen turn of events can never be ruled out — as has been
shown by the spectacular, surprise release by Colombian troops of the
French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages,
held for years by Farc guerrillas in jungle captivity.

(1) Among the dead were an Ecuadorian, four Mexican students and a
Colombian soldier killed, not in combat, as Bogotá claimed when it
accorded him a state funeral, but by a falling tree.
(2) BBC Mundo, London, 7 March 2008.
(4) The centre-left El País belongs to the multinational Prisa group,
which controls more than 1,000 radio stations in Spain, the US,
Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia, Argentina and Chile with a total
audience of 30 million listeners.
(6) The full public report in English can be downloaded here:
Translated by George Miller

By Greg Palast  /  6 March

“Do you believe this? In early March Colombia invaded Ecuador, killed
a guerrilla chief in the jungle, opened his laptop – and what did the
Colombians find? A message to Hugo Chavez that he sent the FARC
guerrillas $300 million – which they’re using to obtain uranium to
make a dirty bomb! That’s what George Bush tells us. And he got that
from his buddy, the strange right-wing President of Colombia, Alvaro

So: After the fact, Colombia justifies its attempt to provoke a border
war as a way to stop the threat of WMDs! Uh, where have we heard that
before? The US press snorted up this line about Chavez’ $300 million
to “terrorists” quicker than the young Bush inhaling Colombia’s
powdered export. What the US press did not do is look at the evidence,
the email in the magic laptop. (Presumably, the FARC leader’s last
words were, “Listen, my password is ….”)

I read them. (You can read them too.) While you can read it all in
español, here is, in translation, the one and only mention of the
alleged $300 million from Chavez: “… With relation to the 300, which
from now on we will call “dossier,” efforts are now going forward at
the instructions of the boss to the cojo [slang term for ‘cripple’],
which I will explain in a separate note. Let’s call the boss Ángel,
and the cripple Ernesto.”

Got that? Where is Hugo? Where’s 300 million? And 300 what? Indeed, in
context, the note is all about the hostage exchange with the FARC that
Chavez was working on at the time (December 23, 2007) at the request
of the Colombian government. Indeed, the entire remainder of the email
is all about the mechanism of the hostage exchange.

Here’s the next line: “To receive the three freed ones, Chavez
proposes three options: Plan A. Do it to via of a ‘humanitarian
caravan’; one that will involve Venezuela, France, the Vatican[?],
Switzerland, European Union, democrats [civil society], Argentina, Red
Cross, etc.” As to the 300, I must note that the FARC’s previous
prisoner exchange involved 300 prisoners. Is that what the ‘300’
refers to? ¿Quien sabe? Unlike Uribe, Bush and the US press, I won’t
guess or make up a phastasmogoric story about Chavez mailing checks to
the jungle.

To bolster their case, the Colombians claim, with no evidence
whatsoever, that the mysterious “Angel” is the code name for Chavez.
But in the memo, Chavez goes by the code name … Chavez. Well, so what?
This is what . . . .

Colombia’s invasion into Ecuador is a rank violation of international
law, condemned by every single Latin member of the Organization of
American States. But George Bush just loved it. He called Uribe to
back Colombia, against, “the continuing assault by narco-terrorists as
well as the provocative maneuvers by the regime in Venezuela.”

Well, our President may have gotten the facts ass-backward, but Bush
knows what he’s doing: shoring up his last, faltering ally in South
America, Uribe, a desperate man in deep political trouble. Uribe
claims he is going to bring charges against Chavez before the
International Criminal Court. If Uribe goes there in person, I suggest
he take a toothbrush: it was just discovered that right-wing death
squads held murder-planning sessions at Uribe’s ranch. Uribe’s
associates have been called before the nation’s Supreme Court and may
face prison.

In other words, it’s a good time for a desperate Uribe to use that old
politico’s wheeze, the threat of war, to drown out accusations of his
own criminality. Furthermore, Uribe’s attack literally killed
negotiations with FARC by killing FARC’s negotiator, Raul Reyes. Reyes
was in talks with both Ecuador and Chavez about another prisoner
exchange. Uribe authorized the negotiations. However, Uribe knew,
should those talks have succeeded in obtaining the release of those
kidnapped by the FARC, credit would have been heaped on Ecuador and
Chavez, and discredit heaped on Uribe.”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]






“Working first with the D.E.A. and then with the State Department,
Wankel helped create the Afghan Eradication Force, with troops of the
Afghan National Police drawn from the Ministry of the Interior. Last
year, an estimated four hundred thousand acres of opium poppies were
planted in Afghanistan, a fifty-nine-per-cent increase over the
previous year. Afghanistan now supplies more than ninety-two per cent
of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin. More than half the
country’s annual G.D.P., some $3.1 billion, is believed to come from
the drug trade, and narcotics officials believe that part of the money
is funding the Taliban insurgency.”


New research chal­lenges tradi­tional accounts of why we wallow in
chemical gratification / March 21, 2008

Why do peo­ple abuse drugs? It’s not only a ques­tion wor­ried par­
ents ask their way­ward, sub­stance-dab­bling teenagers. It’s al­so a
deeper ques­tion asked by bi­ol­o­gists. In gen­er­al, na­ture has de­
signed all crea­tures as ex­quis­ite machines for their own pro­tec­
tion and propaga­t­ion. Yet we’re easily and of­ten drawn in­to self-
destruction by noth­ing more than life­less chem­i­cal lures. This
weak­ness seems such a jar­ring ex­cep­tion, such a dis­mal Achilles’
heel, that it calls out for ex­plana­t­ion.

Sci­en­tists typ­ic­ally of­fer the fol­low­ing one. Drugs are chem­i­
cals that in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ly trig­ger ac­ti­vity in brain cir­cuits
de­signed for very dif­fer­ent pur­poses: to pro­vide a sense of re­
ward for hav­ing sat­is­fied or­di­nary needs, health­fully.  The
brain has few de­fenses against this chem­i­cal de­cep­tion, the stand­
ard ac­count goes, be­cause drugs were un­known in the nat­u­ral en­vi­
ron­ment that shaped hu­man ev­o­lu­tion.

This tra­di­tion­al view, though, is com­ing un­der at­tack. A new
study pro­poses the brain evolved to ac­count for and even ex­ploit
drugs. Al­though their abuse is still un­healthy, the au­thors sug­
gest it’s wrong to think they cheat the brain in the sense tra­di­tion­
ally theo­r­ized.

“Ev­i­dence strongly in­di­cates that hu­mans and oth­er an­i­mals
have been ex­posed to drugs through­out their ev­o­lu­tion,” wrote the
sci­en­tists in the stu­dy. The re­search, by an­thro­po­lo­g­ist Rog­
er Sul­li­van of Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­s­ity and two col­
leagues, ap­peared March 19 on­line in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of
the Roy­al So­ci­e­ty B: Bi­o­log­i­cal Sci­ences.

The most pop­u­lar drugs of abuse are plant tox­ins that evolved to
pro­tect plants from preda­tors, as ev­o­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists
have “con­vinc­ingly ar­gued,” Sul­li­van and col­leagues wrote. For
ex­am­ple, nic­o­tine, the key ad­dic­tive in­gre­di­ent of
cigarettes, helps ward off an ar­ray of in­sects, mam­mals and other
creat­ures from munch­ing on to­bacco plants. Fur­ther ev­i­dence of
the fun­da­men­tally poi­son­ous na­ture of drugs of abuse, the three
sci­en­tists ar­gued, is that first-time users of­ten re­port un­pleas­
ant re­ac­tions.

Since plants long pre­date hu­mans, the pres­ence of these sub­stances
in plants would seem to in­di­cate we and our an­ces­tors have long
dealt with them, the re­search­ers con­tin­ued. But fur­ther ev­i­
dence of this, they added, is in our own make­up. All an­i­mals pro­
duce mo­le­cules known as cy­to­chromes, whose func­tions in­clude de­
tox­i­fy­ing in­gested plant poi­sons. Cy­to­chromes that spe­cif­ic­
ally neu­tral­ize brain-affecting plant tox­ins have re­mained a con­
sist­ent fea­ture of hu­man ev­o­lu­tion, Sul­li­van and col­leagues

All this shows “our an­ces­tors were reg­u­larly ex­posed to plant
neurotox­ins,” they added, so the view of our brains as un­sus­pect­
ing vic­tims of the new chem­i­cal threat is un­ten­able. It remains
unclear what might be the true ev­o­lu­tion­ary ex­plana­t­ion of drug
abuse, they wrote: the “para­dox” stays of why sub­stances de­signed
as poi­sons, are pleas­ur­a­ble to so many.

One pos­si­bil­ity, the sci­en­tists sug­gested, is that an­i­mals co-
opted some plant tox­ins and used them for their own de­fenses against
para­sites. If this is true, then ev­o­lu­tion, the pro­cess by which
spe­cies adapt and change to meet en­vi­ron­men­tal de­mands, might
have de­signed our brains to en­cour­age some drug use. This could in­
volve shap­ing our brains to as­so­ci­ate drug in­take with feel­ings
of re­ward. “But there are, of course, oth­er pos­si­bil­i­ties,” the
re­searchers wrote.

Researchers stumped by drug addiction paradox
BY Lisa Zyga  /  April 16, 2008

Throughout history, plants have created their toxins by mimicking
their own molecules that regulate metabolism, growth and reproduction.
When ingested by herbivores, some of these molecules can interfere
with nearly every step in the animal’s neural signaling process.

In current evolutionary interpretations of drug addiction, these toxic
substances trigger the brain’s reward center by rewiring the brain’s
natural reward circuits, and falsely indicating a fitness benefit and
blocking painful feelings. But, as Sullivan, Hagen, and Hammerstein
show, this explanation makes several assumptions that contradict
evidence from previous studies. Most significantly, it assumes that
humans evolved in environments without exposure to drugs, and that the
brain never evolved to protect itself from plant toxins.

However, the researchers point to several other studies which show
that the detoxification enzymes developed by animals (and which
originally evolved in bacteria about 3.5 billion years ago) expanded
in animals about 400 million years ago – about the same time that
plants were evolving their own toxins. In other words, animals and
plants seemed to have coevolved competitive genes in response to each
other, which contradicts the evolutionary interpretation.

As the researchers investigated further, they compiled other studies
showing evidence that humans inherited these detox genes from their
mammalian ancestors. Interestingly, although many modern animal
species can tolerate plant toxins, different species possess different
detox function levels. Even among humans from different geographic
locations, these functions differ. Often, human populations with
greater numbers of toxin-metabolizing genes originate from parts of
the world that contain an abundance of those plants. For example,
human populations in and near Turkey have a very high frequency of
enzymes that can metabolize opiates, and the opiate poppy is native to
the Turkish region.

To conclude their argument against the evolutionary interpretation,
the researchers explain that (pre-human) animals and plants did appear
to have evolved the relevant genes simultaneously. If that’s the case,
then the brain shouldn’t treat drugs as if they contained a fitness
benefit, giving strong support to the paradox.

“We have been surprised by how robust the paradox is – that is, in
presenting the arguments at scientific meetings for several years now,
no one has been able to refute the basic argument that plant
ecological models and neurobiological models of drug use are in direct
conflict,” Sullivan said.

Many more questions also remain unanswered, but they may contain clues
to an explanation. For example, there is contradictory evidence for
whether commonly used drugs have become more or less potent as they’ve
been domesticated. Also, as the researchers point out, current models
explaining drug reward mechanisms don’t differentiate between
different drugs – even though the pathways taken by opiates, cannabis,
or any other drug are vastly different. Models of multiple-drug
pathways might better explain drug appeal, the scientists suggest.

Based on evidence from previous studies, Sullivan, Hagen, and
Hammerstein note that plant toxins may actually have some kind of
benefit for animals. For instance, because plant toxins are more
harmful to some species than to others, the less affected species
might actually consume levels of toxin that are tolerable to
themselves but much worse for the parasites or pathogens that feed on
them in order to protect themselves. For example, earlier humans that
consumed nicotine (in much smaller amounts than today) could have
received the benefit of fewer parasitic infections. Of course, the
benefits also come with trade-offs.

“The main implications for future research are that neurobiological
theorists must consider facts emerging from plant ecology,” Sullivan
said. “We are also planning field studies looking for relationships
between human drug use and protection from helminth parasites.”

“Neurobiological models of drug abuse propose that drug use is
initiated and maintained by rewarding feedback mechanisms. However,
the most commonly used drugs are plant neurotoxins that evolved to
punish, not reward, consumption by animal herbivores. Reward models
therefore implicitly assume an evolutionary mismatch between recent
drug-profligate environments and a relatively drug-free past in which
a reward centre, incidentally vulnerable to neurotoxins, could evolve.
By contrast, emerging insights from plant evolutionary ecology and the
genetics of hepatic enzymes, particularly cytochrome P450, indicate
that animal and hominid taxa have been exposed to plant toxins
throughout their evolution. Specifically, evidence of conserved
function, stabilizing selection, and population-specific selection of
human cytochrome P450 genes indicate recent evolutionary exposure to
plant toxins, including those that affect animal nervous systems.
Thus, the human propensity to seek out and consume plant neurotoxins
is a paradox with far-reaching implications for current drug-reward
theory. We sketch some potential resolutions of the paradox, including
the possibility that humans may have evolved to counter-exploit plant
neurotoxins. Resolving the paradox of drug reward will require a
synthesis of ecological and neurobiological perspectives of drug
seeking and use.”

Roger Sullivan
e-mail : sullivar [at] csus [dot] edu

Edward Hagen
email : hagen [at] vancouver [dot] wsu [dot] edu

Peter Hammerstein
email : p [dot] hammerstein [at] biologie [dot]







YES, #1 IS NEW YORK,1518,450078,00.html,1518,384456,00.html
Quiet Spanish city is Europe’s coke capital
Miranda de Ebro second only to New York says UN
Study of waste water is mistaken, say residents
BY Dale Fuchs  /  June 29 2007

Miranda de Ebro, a small industrial city in northern Spain, was once
known for small blood sausages, a three-day fiesta after Holy Week and
its strategic location as highway stopover – on the way to somewhere
else. But now the city has a new distinction: cocaine capital of

The United Nations World Drug Report this year ranks Miranda de Ebro
as the city with the highest incidence of cocaine use in Europe and
second in the world after New York, with a rate nearly five times as
high as in St Moritz, London, Zurich and Madrid. The city’s 40,000
residents, mostly factory workers and small shopkeepers, are
astonished by the findings. They can not understand how the UN study
of waste water could have found a consumption rate of 97 lines a day
for every 1,000 people, in a city whose big event is the traditional
Sunday evening stroll. “It’s absolutely absurd,” the mayor, Fernando
Campo, told the Guardian. “This is a tranquil, working-class city.
What the people like to do is have a little glass of wine with their
tapas, not white lines.”

With no large discos and few other clubs to attract a party crowd,
Miranda de Ebro had little in common with the wild atmosphere of
Ibiza, Mr Campo insisted. He suggested the findings were an error
possibly caused by a nearby chemical plant. City waste is purified
before reaching the river, he said. Miranda de Ebro may be in denial,
but nobody in Spain disputes the rest of the UN report, which ranks
Spaniards as the most avid cocaine users in the world. Of the
population aged 15 to 64, 3% inhales the white powder, compared with
2.4% in England and 2.8% in the US. The percentage of youths aged 14
to 18 using the drug has roughly quadrupled in the past decade.

The UN report blames Spain’s avid use of cocaine partly on cultural
and linguistic ties to cocaine-producing countries of Latin America,
and its expansive coastline, especially the dangerous and hard-to-
patrol coves of northern Galicia, which invite smugglers. The UN
report dubs Spain a drug-trafficker’s “gateway to Europe”. The number
of police seizures of the drug far surpasses any other Mediterranean
country. Sociologists also point to the liberal, feel-good youth
culture that blossomed since the end of the Franco dictatorship – now
coupled with historically high purchasing power that keeps suburban
mega-discos and chic city bars doing a lucrative business until dawn.

Parents who came of age under the repressive Franco years are also
generally wary of imposing too many restrictions on their teenagers
and young adults who live at home, sociologists say, allowing generous
budgets for once unthinkable luxuries, such as a breast implants or
trips to Ibiza. The health ministry, alarmed by the trends, announced
this week a €7m (£5m) campaign to take the glamour out of cocaine so
young people no longer associated sniffing with success. The ministry
is also trying to persuade hotel owners to fight against drug use in
their establishments.

Miranda de Ebro, meanwhile, is battling to clear its name. The mayor
has sent a letter to the UN asking for an explanation of the findings.
Police are investigating to see if the river, at a transport
crossroads, could be used by smugglers passing through. Many
residents, though, have taken the report as a joke. “I laughed when I
heard about,” said a youth hostel worker. “There is no nightlife here.
You can run through the town in 10 minutes. Everyone is joking, ‘Who’s
the person sniffing the 97 lines each day’.”










Gary Slutkin
e-mail : gslutkin [at] uic [dot] edu

Blocking the Transmission of Violence
BY Alex Kotlowitz  /  May 4, 2008

Last summer, Martin Torres was working as a cook in Austin, Tex.,
when, on the morning of Aug. 23, he received a call from a relative.
His 17-year-old nephew, Emilio, had been murdered. According to the
police, Emilio was walking down a street on Chicago’s South Side when
someone shot him in the chest, possibly the culmination of an ongoing
dispute. Like many killings, Emilio’s received just a few sentences in
the local newspapers. Torres, who was especially close to his nephew,
got on the first Greyhound bus to Chicago. He was grieving and
plotting retribution. “I thought, Man, I’m going to take care of
business,” he told me recently. “That’s how I live. I was going
hunting. This is my own blood, my nephew.”

Torres, who is 38, grew up in a dicey section of Chicago, and even by
the standards of his neighborhood he was a rough character. His
nickname was Packman, because he was known to always pack a gun. He
was first shot when he was 12, in the legs with buckshot by members of
a rival gang. He was shot five more times, including once through the
jaw, another time in his right shoulder and the last time — seven
years ago — in his right thigh, with a .38-caliber bullet that is
still lodged there. On his chest, he has tattooed a tombstone with the
name “Buff” at its center, a tribute to a friend who was killed on his
18th birthday. Torres was the head of a small Hispanic gang, and
though he is no longer active, he still wears two silver studs in his
left ear, a sign of his affiliation.

When he arrived in Chicago, he began to ask around, and within a day
believed he had figured out who killed his nephew. He also began
drinking a lot — mostly Hennessey cognac. He borrowed two guns, a .38
and a .380, from guys he knew. He would, he thought, wait until after
the funeral to track down his nephew’s assailants.

Zale Hoddenbach looks like an ex-military man. He wears his hair
cropped and has a trimmed goatee that highlights his angular jaw. He
often wears T-shirts that fit tightly around his muscled arms, though
he also carries a slight paunch. When he was younger, Hoddenbach, who
is also 38, belonged to a gang that was under the same umbrella as
Torres’s, and so when the two men first met 17 years ago at Pontiac
Correctional Center, an Illinois maximum-security prison, they became
friendly. Hoddenbach was serving time for armed violence; Torres for
possession of a stolen car and a gun (he was, he says, on his way to
make a hit). “Zale was always in segregation, in the hole for fights,”
Torres told me. “He was aggressive.” In one scuffle, Hoddenbach lost
the sight in his right eye after an inmate pierced it with a shank.
Torres and Hoddenbach were at Pontiac together for about a year but
quickly lost touch after they were both released.

Shortly after Torres arrived in Chicago last summer, Hoddenbach
received a phone call from Torres’s brother, the father of the young
man who was murdered. He was worried that Torres was preparing to seek
revenge and hoped that Hoddenbach would speak with him. When
Hoddenbach called, Torres was thrilled. He immediately thought that
his old prison buddy was going to join him in his search for the
killer. But instead Hoddenbach tried to talk him down, telling him
retribution wasn’t what his brother wanted. “I didn’t understand what
the hell he was talking about,” Torres told me when I talked to him
six months later. “This didn’t seem like the person I knew.” The next
day Hoddenbach appeared at the wake, which was held at New Life
Community Church, housed in a low-slung former factory. He spent the
day by Torres’s side, sitting with him, talking to him, urging him to
respect his brother’s wishes. When Torres went to the parking lot for
a smoke, his hands shaking from agitation, Hoddenbach would follow.
“Because of our relationship, I thought there was a chance,”
Hoddenbach told me. “We were both cut from the same cloth.” Hoddenbach
knew from experience that the longer he could delay Torres from
heading out, the more chance he’d have of keeping him from shooting
someone. So he let him vent for a few hours. Then Hoddenbach started
laying into him with every argument he could think of: Look around, do
you see any old guys here? I never seen so many young kids at a
funeral. Look at these kids, what does the future hold for them? Where
do we fit in? Who are you to step on your brother’s wishes?

THE STUBBORN CORE of violence in American cities is troubling and
perplexing. Even as homicide rates have declined across the country —
in some places, like New York, by a remarkable amount — gunplay
continues to plague economically struggling minority communities. For
25 years, murder has been the leading cause of death among African-
American men between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, which has analyzed data up to
2005. And the past few years have seen an uptick in homicides in many
cities. Since 2004, for instance, they are up 19 percent in
Philadelphia and Milwaukee, 29 percent in Houston and 54 percent in
Oakland. Just two weekends ago in Chicago, with the first warm
weather, 36 people were shot, 7 of them fatally. The Chicago Sun-Times
called it the “weekend of rage.” Many killings are attributed to gang
conflicts and are confined to particular neighborhoods. In Chicago,
where on average five people were shot each day last year, 83 percent
of the assaults were concentrated in half the police districts. So for
people living outside those neighborhoods, the frequent outbursts of
unrestrained anger have been easy to ignore. But each shooting, each
murder, leaves a devastating legacy, and a growing school of thought
suggests that there’s little we can do about the entrenched urban
poverty if the relentless pattern of street violence isn’t somehow

The traditional response has been more focused policing and longer
prison sentences, but law enforcement does little to disrupt a street
code that allows, if not encourages, the settling of squabbles with
deadly force. Zale Hoddenbach, who works for an organization called
CeaseFire, is part of an unusual effort to apply the principles of
public health to the brutality of the streets. CeaseFire tries to deal
with these quarrels on the front end. Hoddenbach’s job is to suss out
smoldering disputes and to intervene before matters get out of hand.
His job title is violence interrupter, a term that while not artful
seems bluntly self-explanatory. Newspaper accounts usually refer to
the organization as a gang-intervention program, and Hoddenbach and
most of his colleagues are indeed former gang leaders. But CeaseFire
doesn’t necessarily aim to get people out of gangs — nor interrupt the
drug trade. It’s almost blindly focused on one thing: preventing

CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist and a
physician who for 10 years battled infectious diseases in Africa. He
says that violence directly mimics infections like tuberculosis and
AIDS, and so, he suggests, the treatment ought to mimic the regimen
applied to these diseases: go after the most infected, and stop the
infection at its source. “For violence, we’re trying to interrupt the
next event, the next transmission, the next violent activity,” Slutkin
told me recently. “And the violent activity predicts the next violent
activity like H.I.V. predicts the next H.I.V. and TB predicts the next
TB.” Slutkin wants to shift how we think about violence from a moral
issue (good and bad people) to a public health one (healthful and
unhealthful behavior).

EVERY WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, in a Spartan room on the 10th floor of the
University of Illinois at Chicago’s public-health building, 15 to 25
men — and two women — all violence interrupters, sit around tables
arranged in a circle and ruminate on the rage percolating in the city.
Most are in their 40s and 50s, though some, like Hoddenbach, are a bit
younger. All of them are black or Hispanic and in one manner or
another have themselves been privy to, if not participants in, the
brutality of the streets.

On a Wednesday near the end of March, Slutkin made a rare appearance;
he ordinarily leaves the day-to-day operations to a staff member. Fit
at 57, Slutkin has a somewhat disheveled appearance — tie askew, hair
uncombed, seemingly forgetful. Some see his presentation as a
calculated effort to disarm. “Slutkin does his thing in his
Slutkinesque way,” notes Carl Bell, a psychiatrist who has long worked
with children exposed to neighborhood violence and who admires
CeaseFire’s work. “He seems kind of disorganized, but he’s not.”
Hoddenbach told me: “You can’t make too much of that guy. In the
beginning, he gives you that look like he doesn’t know what you’re
talking about.”

Slutkin had come to talk with the group about a recent high-profile
incident outside Crane Tech High School on the city’s West Side. An 18-
year-old boy was shot and died on the school’s steps, while nearby
another boy was savagely beaten with a golf club. Since the beginning
of the school year, 18 Chicago public-school students had been killed.
(Another six would be murdered in the coming weeks.) The interrupters
told Slutkin that there was a large police presence at the school, at
least temporarily muffling any hostilities there, and that the police
were even escorting some kids to and from school. They then told him
what was happening off the radar in their neighborhoods. There was the
continuing discord at another high school involving a group of girls
(“They’d argue with a stop sign,” one of the interrupters noted); a 14-
year-old boy with a gang tattoo on his forehead was shot by an older
gang member just out of prison; a 15-year-old was shot in the stomach
by a rival gang member as he came out of his house; and a former
CeaseFire colleague was struggling to keep himself from losing control
after his own sons were beaten. There was also a high-school
basketball player shot four times; a 12-year-old boy shot at a party;
gang members arming themselves to counter an egging of their freshly
painted cars; and a high-ranking gang member who was on life support
after being shot, and whose sister was overheard talking on her
cellphone in the hospital, urging someone to “get those straps
together. Get loaded.”

These incidents all occurred over the previous seven days. In each of
them, the interrupters had stepped in to try to keep one act of enmity
from spiraling into another. Some had more success than others. Janell
Sails prodded the guys with the egged cars to go to a car wash and
then persuaded them it wasn’t worth risking their lives over a stupid
prank. At Crane Tech High School, three of the interrupters fanned
out, trying to convince the five gangs involved in the conflict to lie
low, but they conceded that they were unable reach some of the main
players. Many of the interrupters seem bewildered by what they see as
a wilder group of youngsters now running the streets and by a gang
structure that is no longer top-down but is instead made up of many
small groups — which they refer to as cliques — whose members are
answerable to a handful of peers.

For an hour, Slutkin leaned on the table, playing with a piece of
Scotch tape, keenly listening. In some situations, Slutkin can appear
detached and didactic. He can wear people down with his long
discourses, and some of the interrupters say they sometimes tune him
out. (On one occasion, he tried to explain to me the relationship
between emotional intelligence and quantum physics.) But having seen a
lot of out-of-control behavior, Slutkin is a big believer in
controlling emotions. So he has taught himself not to break into
discussions and to digest before presenting his view. The interrupters
say he has their unqualified loyalty. Hoddenbach told me that he now
considers Slutkin a friend.

It became clear as they delivered their reports that many of the
interrupters were worn down. One of them, Calvin Buchanan, whose
street name is Monster and who just recently joined CeaseFire, showed
the others six stitches over his left eye; someone had cracked a beer
bottle on his head while he was mediating an argument between two men.
The other interrupters applauded when Buchanan told them that, though
tempted, he restrained himself from getting even.

When Slutkin finally spoke, he first praised the interrupters for
their work. “Everybody’s overreacting, and you’re trying to cool them
down,” he told them. He then asked if any of them had been
experiencing jitteriness or fear. He spent the next half-hour teaching
stress-reduction exercises. If they could calm themselves, he seemed
to be saying, they could also calm others. I recalled what one of the
interrupters told me a few weeks earlier: “We helped create the
madness, and now we’re trying to debug it.”

IN THE PUBLIC-HEALTH field, there have long been two schools of
thought on derailing violence. One focuses on environmental factors,
specifically trying to limit gun purchases and making guns safer. The
other tries to influence behavior by introducing school-based
curricula like antidrug and safe-sex campaigns.

Slutkin is going after it in a third way — as if he were trying to
contain an infectious disease. The fact that there’s no vaccine or
medical cure for violence doesn’t dissuade him. He points out that in
the early days of AIDS, there was no treatment either. In the short
run, he’s just trying to halt the spread of violence. In the long run,
though, he says he hopes to alter behavior and what’s considered
socially acceptable.

Slutkin’s perspective grew out of his own experience as an infectious-
disease doctor. In 1981, six years out of the University of Chicago
Pritzker School of Medicine, Slutkin was asked to lead the TB program
in San Francisco. With an influx of new refugees from Cambodia, Laos
and Vietnam, the number of cases in the city had nearly doubled.
Slutkin chose to concentrate on those who had the most active TB; on
average, they were infecting 6 to 10 others a year. Slutkin hired
Southeast Asian outreach workers who could not only locate the
infected individuals but who could also stick with them for nine
months, making sure they took the necessary medication. These outreach
workers knew the communities and spoke the languages, and they were
able to persuade family members of infected people to be tested.
Slutkin also went after the toughest cases — 26 people with drug-
resistant TB. The chance of curing those people was slim, but Slutkin
reckoned that if they went untreated, the disease would continue to
spread. “Gary wasn’t constrained by the textbook,” says Eric Goosby,
who worked in the clinic and is now the chief executive of the Pangaea
Global AIDS Foundation. Within two years, the number of TB cases, at
least among these new immigrants, declined sharply.

Slutkin then spent 10 years in Africa, first in refugee camps in
Somalia and then working, in Uganda and other countries, for the World
Health Organization to curtail the spread of AIDS. During his first
posting, in Somalia, a cholera epidemic spread from camp to camp.
Slutkin had never dealt with an outbreak of this sort, and he was
overwhelmed. The diarrhea from cholera is so severe that patients can
die within hours from dehydration. According to Sandy Gove, who was
then married to Slutkin and was also a doctor in the camps, infection
rates were approaching 10 percent; in one camp there were 1,000
severely ill refugees. “It was desperate,” she told me. Slutkin drove
a Land Cruiser two and a half days to an American military base along
the coast to the closest phone. He called doctors in Europe and the
United States, trying to get information. He also asked the soldiers
at the base for blue food coloring, which he then poured into the
water sources of the bacteria, a warning to refugees not to drink.
“What Gary is really good about is laying out a broad strategic plan
and keeping ahead of something,” Gove told me. There were only six
doctors for the 40 refugee camps, so Slutkin and Gove trained birth
attendants to spot infected people and to give them rehydration
therapies in their homes. Because the birth attendants were refugees,
they were trusted and could persuade those with the most severe
symptoms to receive aid at the medical tent.

After leaving Africa, Slutkin returned to Chicago, where he was raised
and where he could attend to his aging parents. (He later remarried
there.) It was 1995, and there had been a series of horrific murders
involving children in the city. He was convinced that longer sentences
and more police officers had made little difference. “Punishment
doesn’t drive behavior,” he told me. “Copying and modeling and the
social expectations of your peers is what drives your behavior.”

Borrowing some ideas (and the name) from a successful Boston program,
Slutkin initially established an approach that exists in one form or
another in many cities: outreach workers tried to get youth and young
adults into school or to help them find jobs. These outreach workers
were also doing dispute mediation. But Slutkin was feeling his way,
much as he had in Somalia during the cholera epidemic. One of
Slutkin’s colleagues, Tio Hardiman, brought up an uncomfortable truth:
the program wasn’t reaching the most bellicose, those most likely to
pull a trigger. So in 2004, Hardiman suggested that, in addition to
outreach workers, they also hire men and women who had been deep into
street life, and he began recruiting people even while they were still
in prison. Hardiman told me he was looking for those “right there on
the edge.” (The interrupters are paid roughly $15 an hour, and those
working full time receive benefits from the University of Illinois at
Chicago, where CeaseFire is housed.) The new recruits, with strong
connections to the toughest communities, would focus solely on
sniffing out clashes that had the potential to escalate. They would
intervene in potential acts of retribution — as well as try to defuse
seemingly minor spats that might erupt into something bigger, like
disputes over women or insulting remarks.

As CeaseFire evolved, Slutkin says he started to realize how much it
was drawing on his experiences fighting TB and AIDS. “Early
intervention in TB is actually treatment of the most infectious
people,” Slutkin told me recently. “They’re the ones who are infecting
others. So treatment of the most infectious spreaders is the most
effective strategy known and now accepted in the world.” And, he
continued, you want to go after them with individuals who themselves
were once either infectious spreaders or at high risk for the illness.
In the case of violence, you use those who were once hard-core, once
the most belligerent, once the most uncontrollable, once the angriest.
They are the most convincing messengers. It’s why, for instance,
Slutkin and his colleagues asked sex workers in Uganda and other
nations to spread the word to other sex workers about safer sexual
behavior. Then, Slutkin said, you train them, as you would
paraprofessionals, as he and Gove did when they trained birth
attendants to spot cholera in Somalia.

The first step to containing the spread of an infectious disease is
minimizing transmission. The parallel in Slutkin’s Chicago work is
thwarting retaliations, which is precisely what Hoddenbach was trying
to do in the aftermath of Emilio Torres’s murder. But Slutkin is also
looking for the equivalent of a cure. The way public-health doctors
think of curing disease when there are no drug treatments is by
changing behavior. Smoking is the most obvious example. Cigarettes are
still around. And there’s no easy remedy for lung cancer or emphysema.
So the best way to deal with the diseases associated with smoking is
to get people to stop smoking. In Uganda, Slutkin and his colleagues
tried to change behavior by encouraging people to have fewer sexual
partners and to use condoms. CeaseFire has a visible public-
communications campaign, which includes billboards and bumper stickers
(which read, “Stop. Killing. People.”). It also holds rallies — or
what it calls “responses” — at the sites of killings. But much
research suggests that peer or social pressure is the most effective
way to change behavior. “It was a real turning point for me,” Slutkin
said, “when I was working on the AIDS epidemic and saw research
findings that showed that the principal determinant of whether someone
uses a condom or not is whether they think their friends use them.”
Daniel Webster, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins
University who has looked closely at CeaseFire, told me, “The guys out
there doing the interruption have some prestige and reputation, and I
think the hope is that they start to change a culture so that you can
retain your status, retain your manliness and be able to walk away
from events where all expectations were that you were supposed to
respond with lethal force.”

As a result, the interrupters operate in a netherworld between
upholding the law and upholding the logic of the streets. They’re not
meant to be a substitute for the police, and indeed, sometimes the
interrupters negotiate disputes involving illicit goings-on. They
often walk a fine line between mediating and seeming to condone
criminal activity. At one Wednesday meeting this past December, the
interrupters argued over whether they could dissuade stickup artists
from shooting their victims; persuading them to stop robbing people
didn’t come up in the discussion.

LAST DECEMBER, at the first Wednesday meeting I attended, James
Highsmith came up to introduce himself. At 58, Highsmith is one of the
older interrupters. He wears striped, collared shirts, black
rectangular glasses and often a black Borsalino, an Italian-made
fedora. He reminded me that I had mentioned him in my book, “There Are
No Children Here,” about life in a Chicago public-housing project in
the late 1980s. I wrote about a picnic that some Chicago drug kingpins
gave in a South Side park. There was a car show, a wet T-shirt contest
and softball games for the children. About 2,000 people attended,
dancing to a live band while the drug lords showed off their Mercedes
Benzes, Rolls-Royces and Jaguars. Highsmith was the key sponsor of the
event. He controlled the drug trade on the city’s South Side. He owned
a towing business, an auto-mechanic’s shop and a nightclub, as well as
a 38-foot boat. In January 1994, he was sentenced to 14 years in
federal prison on drug-conspiracy charges; he was released in 2004.
Highsmith was just the kind of recruit CeaseFire looks for: an older
man getting out of the penitentiary who once had standing on the
streets and who, through word of mouth, appears ready, eager even, to
discard his former persona. “I’m a work in progress,” Highsmith told

One evening we were sitting in Highsmith’s basement apartment when the
phone rang. It was Alphonso Prater, another interrupter. The two had a
reunion of sorts when they joined CeaseFire; they shared a cell in the
county jail 34 years ago. Prater’s voice is so raspy it sounds as if
he has gravel in his throat. He told me that he became permanently
hoarse after a long stint in segregation in prison; he had to shout to
talk with others. When Prater called the night I was there, all
Highsmith could make out was: “There’s some high-tech stuff going on.
I need you to talk to some folks.” Highsmith didn’t ask any questions.

We drove to a poorly lighted side street on the city’s West Side.
Empty beer bottles littered the side of the road. Prater, who is short
and wiry and has trouble keeping still, was bouncing on the sidewalk,
standing next to a lanky middle-aged man who had receded into his
oversize hooded sweatshirt. Highsmith, Prater and another interrupter
joined the man in a parked car, where they talked for half an hour.
When they were done, the car peeled away, two other sedans escorting
it, one in front, the other in the rear. “Protection,” Highsmith
commented. Apparently, the man in the hooded sweatshirt, whom I would
meet later, had been an intermediary in a drug deal. He had taken an
out-of-town buyer holding $30,000 in cash to a house on the South Side
to buy drugs. But when they got there, they were met by six men in the
backyard, each armed with a pistol or an automatic weapon, and robbed.
The out-of-town buyer believed he’d been set up by the intermediary,
who, in turn, was trying to hunt down the stickup artists. In the car,
Prater, who knew the intermediary, had worked to cool him down, while
Highsmith promised to see if he could find someone who might know the
stickup guys and could negotiate with them. The intermediary told
Prater and Highsmith, a bit ominously, “Something got to give.”

After the intermediary drove off, Prater joked that there was no way
he was getting back in a car with him, that he was too overheated and
too likely to be the target or the shooter. “I’m not sure we can do
anything about this one,” Highsmith told Prater.

RELYING ON HARDENED TYPES — the ones who, as Webster of Johns Hopkins
says, have some prestige on the streets — is risky. They have prestige
for a reason. Hoddenbach, who once beat someone so badly he punctured
his lungs, is reluctant to talk about his past. “I don’t want to be
seen as a monster,” he told me. Hoddenbach’s ethnicity is hard to
pinpoint. His father was Dutch and his mother Puerto Rican, and he’s
so light-skinned his street name was Casper. He has a discerning gaze
and mischievous smile, and can be hardheaded and impatient. (At the
Wednesday meetings, he often sits near the door and whispers
entreaties to the others to speed things up.) Hoddenbach’s father had
an explosive temper, and to steal from Slutkin’s lingo, he seems to
have infected others. Two of Hoddenbach’s older brothers are serving
time for murder. His third brother has carved out a legitimate life as
a manager at a manufacturing firm. Hoddenbach always worked. He did
maintenance on train equipment and towed airplanes at a private
airport. But he was also active in a Hispanic street gang and was
known for his unmitigated aggression. He served a total of eight years
in the state penitentiary, the last stay for charges that included
aggravated battery. He was released in 2002.

In January, I was with Slutkin in Baltimore, where he spoke about
CeaseFire to a small gathering of local civic leaders at a private
home. During the two-hour meeting, Slutkin never mentioned that the
interrupters were ex-felons. When I later asked him about that
omission, he conceded that talking about their personal histories “is
a dilemma. I haven’t solved it.” I spent many hours with Hoddenbach
and the others, trying to understand how they chose to make the
transition from gangster to peacemaker, how they put thuggery behind
them. It is, of course, their street savvy and reputations that make
them effective for CeaseFire. (One supporter of the program admiringly
called it “a terrifying strategy” because of the inherent risks.) Some
CeaseFire workers have, indeed, reverted to their old ways. One
outreach worker was fired after he was arrested for possession of an
AK-47 and a handgun. Another outreach worker and an interrupter were
let go after they were arrested for dealing drugs. Word-of-mouth
allegations often circulate, and privately, some in the police
department worry about CeaseFire’s workers returning to their old

Not all the interrupters I talked to could articulate how they had
made the transition. Some, like Hoddenbach, find religion — in his
case, Christianity. He also has four children he feels responsible
for, and has found ways to decompress, like going for long runs. (His
brother Mark speculated that “maybe he just wants to give back what he
took out.”) I once asked Hoddenbach if he has ever apologized to
anyone he hurt. We were with one of his old friends from the street,
who started guffawing, as if I had asked Hoddenbach if he ever wore
dresses. “I done it twice,” Hoddenbach told us — quickly silencing his
friend and saving me from further embarrassment. (One apology was to
the brother of the man whose lungs he’d punctured; the other was to a
rival gang member he shot.) Alphonso Prater told me that the last time
he was released from prison, in 2001, an older woman hired him to gut
some homes she was renovating. She trusted him with the keys to the
homes, and something about that small gesture lifted him. “She seen
something in me that I didn’t see,” he told me.

Though the interrupters may not put it this way, the Wednesday
meetings are a kind of therapy. One staff member laughingly compared
it to a 12-step program. It was clear to me that they leaned on one
another — a lot. Prater once got an urgent call from his daughter, who
said her boyfriend was beating her. Prater got in his car and began to
race to her house; as he was about to run a stop sign, he glimpsed a
police car on the corner. He skidded to a halt. It gave him a moment
to think, and he called his CeaseFire supervisor, Tio Hardiman, who
got another interrupter to visit Prater’s daughter. Not long ago,
three old-timers fresh out of prison ruthlessly ridiculed Hoddenbach
for his work with CeaseFire. They were relentless, and Hoddenbach
asked to sit down with them. But when it came time to meet, he
realized he was too riled, and so he asked another interrupter, Tim
White, to go in his place. “I was worried I was going to whip their
asses, and wherever it went from there it went,” Hoddenbach told me.
“They were old feelings, feelings I don’t want to revisit.”

Recently I went out to lunch with Hoddenbach and Torres. It had been
four months since Torres buried his nephew. Torres, who looked worn
and agitated (he would get up periodically to smoke a cigarette
outside), seemed paradoxically both grateful to and annoyed at
Hoddenbach. In the end, Hoddenbach had persuaded him not to avenge his
nephew’s murder. Torres had returned the guns and quickly left town.
This was his first visit back to Chicago. “I felt like a punk,” he
told me, before transferring to the present tense. “I feel shameful.”
He said he had sought revenge for people who weren’t related to him —
“people who weren’t even no blood to me.” But he held back in the case
of his nephew. “I still struggle with it,” he said. On the ride over
to the restaurant, Torres had been playing a CD of his nephew’s
favorite rap songs. It got him hyped up, and he blurted out to
Hoddenbach, “I feel like doing something.” Hoddenbach chided him and
shut off the music. “Stop being an idiot,” he told Torres. “Something
made me do what Zale asked me to do,” Torres said later, looking more
puzzled than comforted. “Which is respect my brother’s wishes.”

When Slutkin heard of Hoddenbach’s intervention, he told me: “The
interrupters have to deal with how to get someone to save face. In
other words, how do you not do a shooting if someone has insulted you,
if all of your friends are expecting you to do that? . . . In fact,
what our interrupters do is put social pressure in the other

He continued: “This is cognitive dissonance. Before Zale walked up to
him, this guy was holding only one thought. So you want to put another
thought in his head. It turns out talking about family is what really
makes a difference.” Slutkin didn’t take this notion to the
interrupters; he learned it from them.

ONE JANUARY NIGHT at 11 p.m., Charles Mack received a phone call that
a shooting victim was being rushed to Advocate Christ Medical Center.
Mack drove the 10 miles from his home to the hospital, which houses
one of four trauma centers in Chicago. Two interrupters, Mack and
LeVon Stone, are assigned there. They respond to every shooting and
stabbing victim taken to the hospital. Mack, who is 57 and has a
slight lisp, is less imposing than his colleagues. He seems always to
be coming from or going to church, often dressed in tie and cardigan.
He sheepishly told me that his prison term, two years, was for bank
fraud. “The other guys laugh at me,” he said. LeVon Stone is 23 years
younger and a fast talker. He’s in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the
waist down as a result of being shot when he was 18.

Advocate Christ has come to see the presence of interrupters in the
trauma unit as essential and is, in fact, looking to expand their
numbers. “It has just given me so much hope,” Cathy Arsenault, one of
the chaplains there, told me. “The families would come in, huddle in
the corner and I could see them assigning people to take care of
business.” Mack and Stone try to cool off family members and friends,
and if the victim survives, try to keep them from seeking vengeance.

The victim that night was a tall 16-year-old boy named Frederick. He
was lying on a gurney just off the emergency room’s main hallway. He
was connected to two IVs, and blood was seeping through the gauze
wrapped around his left hand. Mack stood to one side; Stone pulled up
on the other. “You know, the most important thing is —” Mack ventured.
“You’re alive,” Stone chimed in. Stone then asked Frederick if he had
heard of CeaseFire. The boy nodded and told them that he had even
participated in a CeaseFire rally after a killing in his neighborhood.
“We try to stop violence on the front end,” Stone told Frederick.
“Unfortunately, this is the back end. We just want to make sure you
don’t go out and try to retaliate.”

The boy had been shot — one bullet shattered his thigh bone and
another ripped the tendons in two fingers. Nonetheless, he seemed
lucid and chatty. “My intention is to get in the house, call my
school, get my books and finish my work,” he told Mack and Stone. He
mentioned the school he attends, which Mack instantly recognized as a
place for kids on juvenile-court probation. Frederick told his story.
He was at a party, and a rival clique arrived. Frederick and his
friends sensed there would be trouble, so they left, and while
standing outside, one of the rival group pulled a gun on them.
Frederick’s friend told him earlier he had a gun. It turned out to be
braggadocio, and so when his friend took off running, so did
Frederick, a step behind. As he dashed through a narrow passageway
between buildings, he heard the shots.

“Can I ask why you’re in the wheelchair?” Frederick asked Stone. “I
got shot 15 years ago,” Stone told him. Stone didn’t say anything more
about it, and later when I asked for more detail, he was elusive. He
said simply that he had gotten shot at a barbecue when he tried to
intervene in a fistfight. “You doing good,” Stone assured him. “You
got shot. You’re here. And you’re alive. What you do when you get out
of here?”

“You got to stop hanging with the wrong person, thinking you’re a
Wyatt Earp,” Frederick said, speaking in the third person as if he
were reciting a lesson. At that point, Frederick’s sister arrived. She
explained that she was bringing up her brother. She was 18. “He just
wants to go to parties, parties, parties,” she complained. “But it’s
too dangerous.” She started to cry. “Don’t start that, please,”
Frederick pleaded. Mack left a CeaseFire brochure on Frederick’s chest
and promised to visit him again in the coming weeks.

LAST MAY, after a 16-year-old boy was killed trying to protect a girl
from a gunman on a city bus, Slutkin appeared on a local public-
television news program. He suggested CeaseFire was responsible for
sharp dips in homicide around the city. Slutkin, some say, gives
CeaseFire too much credit. Carl Bell, the psychiatrist, was on the
program with Slutkin that night. “I didn’t say anything,” he told me.
“I support Slutkin. I’m like, Slutkin, what are you doing? You can’t
do that. Maybe politically it’s a good thing, but scientifically it’s
so much more complex than that. Come on, Gary.”

Last year, CeaseFire lost its $6 million in annual state financing —
which meant a reduction from 45 interrupters to 17 — as part of
statewide budget cuts. One state senator, who had ordered an audit of
CeaseFire (released after the cuts, it found some administrative
inefficiencies), maintained there was no evidence that CeaseFire’s
work had made a difference. (The cuts caused considerable uproar: The
Chicago Tribune ran an editorial urging the restoration of financing,
and the State House overwhelmingly voted to double CeaseFire’s
financing; the State Senate, though, has yet to address it.)

It can be hard to measure the success — or the failure — of public-
health programs, especially violence-prevention efforts. And given
Slutkin’s propensity to cite scientific studies, it is surprising that
he hasn’t yet published anything about CeaseFire in a peer-reviewed
journal. Nonetheless, in a report due out later this month,
independent researchers hired by the Justice Department (from which
CeaseFire gets some money) conclude that CeaseFire has had an impact.
Shootings have declined around the city in recent years. But the study
found that in six of the seven neighborhoods examined, CeaseFire’s
efforts reduced the number of shootings or attempted shootings by 16
percent to 27 percent more than it had declined in comparable
neighborhoods. The report also noted — with approbation — that
CeaseFire, unlike most programs, manages by outcomes, which means that
it doesn’t measure its success by gauging the amount of activity (like
the number of interrupters on the street or the number of
interruptions — 1,200 over four years) but rather by whether shootings
are going up or down. One wall in Slutkin’s office is taken up by maps
and charts his staff has generated on the location and changes in the
frequency of shootings throughout the city; the data determine how
they assign the interrupters. Wes Skogan, a professor of political
science at Northwestern (disclosure: I teach there) and the author of
the report, said, “I found the statistical results to be as strong as
you could hope for.”

BALTIMORE, NEWARK and Kansas City, Mo., have each replicated
components of the CeaseFire model and have received training from the
Chicago staff. In Baltimore, the program, which is run by the city,
combines the work of interrupters and outreach workers and has been
concentrated in one East Baltimore neighborhood. (The program recently
expanded to a second community.) Early research out of the Johns
Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that in the East
Baltimore neighborhood there were on average two shootings a month
just before the program started. During the first four months that
interrupters worked the streets, there had not been a single incident.

“My eyes rolled immediately when I heard what the model was,” says
Webster of Johns Hopkins, who is studying the Baltimore project.
Webster knew the forces the interrupters were up against and
considered it wishful thinking that they could effectively mediate
disputes. “But when I looked closer at the data,” Webster continues,
“and got to know more about who these people were and what they were
doing, I became far less skeptical and more hopeful. We’re going to
learn from it. And it will evolve.” George Kelling, a Rutgers
professor of criminal justice who is helping to establish an effort in
Newark to reduce homicide, helped develop the “broken window” theory
of fighting crime: addressing small issues quickly. He says a public-
health model will be fully effective only if coupled with other
efforts, including more creative policing and efforts to get gang
members back to school or to work. But he sees promise in the
CeaseFire model. “I had to overcome resistance,” Kelling told me,
referring to the introduction of a similar program in Newark. “But I
think Slutkin’s on to something.”

Most of the police officials I spoke with, in both Chicago and
Baltimore, were grateful for the interrupters. James B. Jackson, now
the first deputy superintendent in Chicago, was once the commander of
the 11th district, which has one of the highest rates of violent crime
in the city. Jackson told me that after his officers investigated an
incident, he would ask the police to pull back so the interrupters
could mediate. He understood that if the interrupters were associated
with the police, it would jeopardize their standing among gang
members. “If you look at how segments of the population view the
police department, it makes some of our efforts problematic,”
Baltimore’s police commissioner, Frederick H. Bealefeld III, told me.
“It takes someone who knows these guys to go in and say, ‘Hey, lay
off.’ We can’t do that.”

Like many new programs that taste some success, CeaseFire has
ambitions that threaten to outgrow its capacity. Slutkin has put much
of his effort on taking the project to other cities (there’s interest
from Los Angeles, Oakland and Wilmington, Del., among others), and he
has consulted with the State Department about assisting in Iraq and in
Kenya. (CeaseFire training material has been made available to the
provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq.) Meanwhile, their Chicago
project is underfinanced, and the interrupters seem stressed from the
amount of work they’ve taken on.

THE INTERRUPTERS have certain understandings. At the Wednesday
meetings, no one is ever to mention anyone involved in a dispute by
name or, for that matter, mention the name of the gang. Instead they
refer to “Group A” or “Group B.” They are not investigators for the
police. In fact, they go out of their way to avoid knowing too much
about a crime. When Highsmith and Prater left me the night of the
failed drug deal, they began working their contacts. Highsmith found
someone who knew one of the stickup men and who, at Highsmith’s
request, negotiated with them. Highsmith’s contact persuaded the
robbers to return enough of the money to appease the drug-buyer’s
anger. When I met with the intermediary a few weeks after things were
resolved, he was still stirred up about the robbery. “I was mad enough
to do anything,” he told me, making it clear that he and his friends
had been hunting for the stickup guys. “This could’ve been a hell of a
lot worse than it was.” To this day, neither Highsmith nor Prater know
the identities of anyone except the intermediary — and they want to
leave it that way.

The interrupters often operate by instinct. CeaseFire once received a
call from the mother of a 15-year-old boy who wanted out of a gang he
joined a few weeks earlier. The mother told Hoddenbach and another
interrupter, Max Cerda, that the gang members chased her son home
every day from school threatening to beat him. They had shot at him
twice. Hoddenbach found the clique leaders and tried to talk sense to
them. If the boy didn’t want to be in the gang, he told them, he’d be
the first one to snitch. The gang members saw the logic behind that
but insisted on giving him a beating before releasing him. Hoddenbach
then tried another tack: he negotiated to let him leave the gang for
$300 — and no thrashing. The family, though, was only able to come up
with $50, so Hoddenbach, Cerda and another interrupter came up with
the rest. At their next Wednesday meeting, some interrupters were
critical of Hoddenbach for paying what they considered extortion
money. “It was kind of a messed-up way, but it was a messed-up way
that works,” Hoddenbach said.

It was nearly three months before Charles Mack could find time to
visit Frederick, the young shooting victim. Frederick had since moved
in with his great-grandmother in a different part of town. In his old
neighborhood, he told Mack, “there always somebody who knows you. And
I had a reputation.” He complained to Mack that he had never been
interviewed by the police but then declared he would never identify
the person who shot him anyway. “I’m going to leave it alone,” he
said. As is so often the case, Frederick couldn’t remember the genesis
of the disagreement between his clique and the other. Mack promised to
stay in touch, and as we dropped him off, Mack turned to me and said,
“I think he’s going to be all right.” It sounded like both a
proclamation as well as hopeful aside.

Not long ago, I stopped by to visit with Hoddenbach at the Boys and
Girls Club, where he holds down a second job. It was a Friday evening,
and he was waiting for an old associate to come by to give him an
introduction to a group of Hispanic kids on the far North Side.
Apparently, earlier in the week, they bashed in the face of an African-
American teenager with a brick. From what Hoddenbach could make out,
it was the result of a long-simmering dispute — the equivalent of a
dormant virus — and the victim’s uncle was now worried that it would
set off more fighting. As we sat and talked, Hoddenbach seemed
unusually agitated. His left foot twitched as if it had an electric
current running through it. “If these idiots continue,” he told me,
“somebody’s going to step up and make a statement.”

Hoddenbach also worried about Torres, who had recently gone back to
Texas and found a job working construction. Hoddenbach says he
originally hoped Torres would stay in Chicago and establish some
roots, but then decided he’d be better off in another town. “I kept
him out of one situation, but I can’t keep him out of all of them,”
Hoddenbach said. This may well speak to CeaseFire’s limitations.
Leaving town is not an option for most. And for those who have walked
away from a shooting, like Torres, if there are no jobs, or lousy
schools, or decrepit housing, what’s to keep them from drifting back
into their former lives? It’s like cholera: you may cure everyone, you
may contain the epidemic, but if you don’t clean up the water supply,
people will soon get sick again.

Slutkin says that it makes sense to purify the water supply if — and
only if — you acknowledge and treat the epidemic at hand. In other
words, antipoverty measures will work only if you treat violence. It
would seem intuitive that violence is a result of economic
deprivation, but the relationship between the two is not static.
People who have little expectation for the future live recklessly. On
the other side of the coin, a community in which arguments are settled
by gunshots is unlikely to experience economic growth and opportunity.
In his book “The Bottom Billion,” Paul Collier argues that one of the
characteristics of many developing countries that suffer from
entrenched poverty is what he calls the conflict trap, the inability
to escape a cycle of violence, usually in the guise of civil wars.
Could the same be true in our inner cities, where the ubiquity of guns
and gunplay pushes businesses and residents out and leaves behind
those who can’t leave, the most impoverished?

In this, Slutkin sees a direct parallel to the early history of
seemingly incurable infectious diseases. “Chinatown, San Francisco in
the 1880s,” Slutkin says. “Three ghosts: malaria, smallpox and
leprosy. No one wanted to go there. Everybody blamed the people.
Dirty. Bad habits. Something about their race. Not only is everybody
afraid to go there, but the people there themselves are afraid at all
times because people are dying a lot and nobody really knows what to
do about it. And people come up with all kinds of other ideas that are
not scientifically grounded — like putting people away, closing the
place down, pushing the people out of town. Sound familiar?”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]




“The Hashshashin (also Hashishin, Hashashiyyin or Assassins) were an
offshoot of the Ismā’īlī sect of Shia Muslims. After a quarrel about
the succession of leadership in the ruling Fatimide dynasty in Cairo
around the year 1090, the losing Nizāriyya faction were driven from
Egypt. They established a number of fortified settlements in present
day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon under the charismatic leader Hasan i
Sabbah. Persecuted as infidels by the dominant sunni sect in the
Muslim world, they sent dedicated people to eliminate prominent Sunni
leaders whom they considered “impious usurpers.”[1] The sect was
decimated by the invading Mongols, their last stronghold being
flattened by Hülegü Khan in the year 1272.

Some scholars believe the term Hashshashin, a name given to them by
their enemies, was derived from the Arabic “haššāšīn” (حشّاشين,
“hashish user”), which they are alleged to have ingested prior to
their attacks, but this etymology is disputed. The sect referred to
themselves as al-da’wa al-jadīda (Arabic:الدعوة الجديدة), which means
the new doctrine, and were known within the organization as Fedayeen.

Most Muslim contemporaries were obviously suspicious of these “Holy
Killers”; in fact they were described using the term Batini. The term
was sometimes used pejoratively to refer to those, especially Ismaili,
who discerned an inner, esoteric level of meaning (batin) in the
Qur’an. This constant religious estrangement would eventually see them
go so far as allying with the Occidental Christians against Muslims on
a number of occasions.

The original place they started their elite group was in Iran (Persia)
and later traveled to other countries. Legends abound as to the
tactics used to induct members into what became both a religious and a
political organization. One such legend is that future assassins were
subjected to rites similar to those of other mystery cults, in which
the subject was made to believe that he was in imminent danger of
death. The twist was that they were drugged to simulate “dying”, to
later awaken in a garden flowing with wine and served a sumptuous
feast by virgins. The supplicant was then convinced he was in Heaven
and that the cult’s leader, Hassan-i-Sabah, was a representative of
the divinity and all his orders should be followed, even unto death.
This legend derives from Marco Polo, who visited Alamut after it fell
to the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

Other parts of the cult’s indoctrination claim that the future
assassins were brought to Alamut at a young age and, while they
matured, inhabited the aforementioned paradisaic gardens and were kept
drugged with hashish; as in the previous version, Hassan-i-Sabah
occupied this garden as a divine emissary. At a certain point (when
their initiation could be said to have begun), the drug was withdrawn
from them and they were removed from the gardens and flung into a
dungeon. There they were informed that if they wished to return to the
paradise they had so recently enjoyed, it would be at Sabbah’s
discretion. Therefore, they must follow his directions exactly up to
and including murder and self-sacrifice.

The group transformed the act of murder into a system directed largely
against Seljuk Muslim rulers who had been persecuting their sects.
They were meticulous in killing the targeted individual, seeking to do
so without any additional casualties and innocent loss of life,
although they were careful to cultivate their terrifying reputation by
slaying their victims in public, often in mosques. Typically, they
approached using a disguise. Their weapon of choice being a dagger or
a small blade, they rejected poison, bows and other weapons that
allowed the attacker to escape. For unarmed combat, the Hashshashin
practiced a fighting style called Janna which incorporates striking
techniques, grappling and low kicks. However, under no circumstances
did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by the master

There are also, possibly apocryphal, stories that they used their well-
known deadliness for political goals without necessarily killing. For
example, a victim, usually high-placed, might one morning find a
Hashshashin dagger lying on their pillow upon awakening. This was a
plain hint to the targeted individual that he was safe nowhere, that
maybe even his inner group of servants had been infiltrated by the
cult, and that whatever course of action had brought him into conflict
with them would have to be stopped if he wanted to live.

Etymology of the word “assassin”
The name “assassin” is commonly believed to be a mutation of the
Arabic “haššāšīn” (حشّاشين); however, there are those who dispute this
etymology, arguing that it originates from Marco Polo’s account of his
visit to Alamut in 1273[2] It is suggested by some writers that
assassin simply means ‘followers of Al-Hassan’ (or Hassan-i-Sabbah,
the Sheikh of Alamut (see below)).

The word Hashish (of probable Arabic origin) refers to resin collected
from cannabis flowers. Important to remember, however, is that
narcotics such as cannabis are “Haram,” are strictly prohibited, by
most schools of Islam. Therefore, it is possible that the label or
attribution of Hashshashin to drug use was to portray them negatively.

Many scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the
attribution of the epithet ‘hashish eaters’ or ‘hashish takers’ is a
misnomer derived from enemies of the Isma’ilis and was never used by
Muslim chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative
sense of ‘enemies’ or ‘disreputable people’. This sense of the term
survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term
Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply ‘noisy or riotous’. It is
unlikely that the austere Hasan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug
taking. …There is no mention of that drug [hashish] in connection
with the Persian Assassins – especially in the library of Alamut (“the
secret archives”).
– Edward Burman, The
Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam

Although apparently known as early as the 8th century, the federation
of the Assassins is usually marked as 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah
established his stronghold in the Daylam mountains south of the
Caspian Sea at Alamut. Hasan set the aim of the Assassins to destroy
the power of the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful
members. Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins
roots from Marco Polo’s supposed visit to Alamut in 1273, which is
widely considered fictional (especially as the stronghold had
reportedly been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256).

Benjamin of Tudela who traveled one hundred years before Marco Polo
mentions the Al-Hashshashin and their leader as “the Old Man.” He
notes their principal city to be Qadmous. The group inspired peace
into proportion to their many numbers and territory. The members were
organized into rigid classes, based upon their initiation into the
secrets of the order. The devotees constituted a class that sought
martyrdom and followed orders with unquestioned devotion, orders which
included assassination. Because of the secretive nature of the order,
it has often been invoked in chaos theories.

Notable victims include, Nizam al-Mulk (1092; although some historical
sources contradict this claim), the Fatimad vizier al-Afdal (1122),
ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo (1124), il-Bursuqi of Mosul (1126), Raymond
II of Tripoli (1152), Conrad of Montferrat (1192), and Prince Edward,
later Edward I of England was wounded by a poisoned assassin dagger in
1271. It is believed that Saladin, incensed by several almost
successful Hashshashin attempts on his life, besieged their chief
Syrian stronghold of Masyaf during his reconquest of Outremer in 1176
but quickly lifted the siege after parley, and thereafter attempted to
maintain good relations with the sect. The sect’s own extant accounts
tell of Rashid ad-Din Sinan, stealing into Saladin’s tent in the heart
of his camp, and leaving a poisoned cake and a note saying “You are in
our power” on Saladin’s chest as he slept. Another account tells of a
letter sent to Saladin’s maternal uncle, vowing death to the entire
royal line, perhaps no idle threat; whatever the truth of these
accounts (and likely it will remain a mystery) he clearly heeded their
warning, and desisted.

The Hashshashin were often motivated by outsiders. The murder of the
Patriarch of Jerusalem, for example, was instigated by the
Hospitallers. It is rumoured the assassination of Conrad of Montferrat
may have even been hired by Richard the Lionheart. In most cases they
were aimed at retaining the balance of the Hashshashin’s enemies.

The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord
Hulagu Khan, but several Ismaili sects share something of a common
lineage. During the Mongol assault of Alamut on 1256 December 15, the
library of the sect was destroyed, along with much of their power
base, and thus much of the sect’s own records were lost; most accounts
of them stem from the highly reputable Arab historians of the period.
The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was destroyed in 1273 by the
Mamluk Sultan Baybars. The Hashshashin, in 1275, captured and held
Alamut for a few months but their political power was lost and they
were eventually absorbed into other Isma’ilite groups. They continued
being used under the Mamluks, Ibn Battuta recording in the 14th
century their fixed rate of pay per murder.”

FROM The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp  /  BY Philip K. Hitti

The Assassin movement, called the “new propaganda” by its members, was
inaugurated by al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (died in 1124), probably a
Persian from Tus, who claimed descent from the Himyarite kings of
South Arabia. The motives were evidently personal ambition and desire
for vengeance on the part of the heresiarch. As a young man in al-
Rayy, al-Hassan received instruction in the Batinite system, and after
spending a year and a half in Egypt returned to his native land as a
Fatimid missionary. Here in 1090 he gained possession of the strong
mountain fortress Alamut, north-west of Qazwin. Strategically situated
on an extension of the Alburz chain, 10200 feet above sea level, and
on the difficult by shortest road between the shores of the Caspian
and the Persian highlands, this “eagle’s nest,” as the name probably
means, gave ibn-al-Sabbah and his successors a central stronghold of
primary importance. Its possession was the first historical fact in
the life of the new order.

From Alamut the grand master with his disciples made surprise raids in
various directions which netted other fortresses. In pursuit of their
ends they made free and treacherous use of th dagger, reducing
assassination to an art. Their secret organization, based on Ismailite
antecedents, developed an agnosticism which aimed to emancipate the
initiate from the trammels of doctrine, enlightened him as to the
superfluity of prophets and encouraged him to believe nothing and dare
all. Below the grand master stood the grand priors, each in charge of
a particular district. After these came the ordinary propagandists.
The lowest degree of the order comprised the “fida’is”, who stood
ready to execute whatever orders the grand master issued. A graphic,
though late and secondhad, description of the method by which the
master of Alamut is said to have hypnotized his “self-sacrificing
ones” with the use of hashish has come down to us from Marco Polo, who
passed in that neighborhood in 1271 or 1272. After describing in
glowing terms the magnificent garden surrounding the elegant pavilions
and palaces built by the grand master at Alamut, Polo proceeds:

“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he
intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a fortress at the entrance to
the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no
other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of
the country, from twelve to twenty years of age, such as had a taste
for soldiering… Then he would introduce them into his Garden, some
four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain
potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be
lifted and carried in. So when they awoke they found themselves in the

“When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so
charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the
ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content…

“So when the Old Man would have any prince slain, he would say to such
a youth: ‘Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my
Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless
even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.'”
(from ‘The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian’, translated by Henry
Yule, London, 1875.)

The Assassination in 1092 of the illustrious vizir of the Saljug
sultanate, Nizam-al-Mulk, by a fida’i disguised as a Sufi, was the
first of a series of mysterious murders which plunged the Muslim world
into terror. When in the same year the Saljug Sultan Malikshah
bestirred himself and sent a disciplinary force against the fortress,
its garrison made a night sortie and repelled the besieging army.
Other attempts by caliphs and sultans proved equally futile until
finally the Mongolian Hulagu, who destroyed the caliphate, seized the
fortress in 1256 together with its subsidary castles in Persia. Since
the Assassin books andrecords were destroyed, our information about
this strange and spectacular order is derived mainly from hostile

As early as the last years of the eleventh century the Assassins had
succeeded in setting firm foot in Syria and winning as convert the
Saljug prince of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn-Tutush (died in 1113). By 1140
they had captured the hill fortress of Masyad and many others in
northern Syria, including al-Kahf, al-Qadmus and al-‘Ullayqah. Even
Shayzar (modern Sayjar) on the Orontes was temporarily occupied by the
Assassins, whom Usamah calls Isma’ilites. One of their most famous
masters in Syria was Rachid-al-Din Sinan (died in 1192), who resided
at Masyad and bore the title shakkh al-jabal’, translated by the
Crusades’ chroniclers as “the old man of the mountain”. It was
Rashid’s henchmen who struck awe and terror into the hearts of the
Crusaders. After the capture of Masyad in 1260 by the Mongols, the
Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1272 dealt the Syrian Assassins the final
blow. Since then the Assassins have been sparsely scattered through
northern Syria, Persia, ‘Uman, Zanzibar, and especially India, where
they number about 150000 and go by the name of Thojas or Mowlas. They
all acknowledge as titular head the Aga Khan of Bombay, who claims
descent through the last grand master of Alamut from Isma’il, the
seventh imam, receives over a tenth of the revenues of his followers,
even in Syria, and spends most of his time as a sportsman between
Paris and London.

Secrets of the Assassins  /  BY Peter Lamborn Wilson

After the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the new Islamic community was
ruled in succession by four of his close Companions, chosen by the
people and called the Rightfully-guided Caliphs. The last of these was
Ali ibn Abu Talib; the Prophet’s son-in-law.

Ali had his own ardent followers among the faithful, who came to be
called Shi’a or “adherents”. They believed that Ali should have
succeeded Mohammad by right, and that after him his sons (the
Prophet’s grandsons) Hasan and Husayn should have ruled; and after
them, their sons, and so on in quasi-monarchial succession.

In fact except for Ali none of them ever ruled all Islamdom. Instead
they became a line of pretenders, and in effect heads of a branch of
Islam called Shiism. In opposition to the orthodox (Sunni) Caliphs in
Baghdad these descendants of the Prophet came to be known as the

To the Shiites an Imam is far more, far higher in rank than a Caliph.
Ali ruled by right because of his spiritual greatness, which the
Prophet recognized by appointing him his successor (in fact Ali is
also revered by the sufis as “founder” and prototype of the Moslem
saint). Shiites differ from orthodox or Sunni Moslems in believing
that this spiritual pre-eminence was transferred to Ali’s descendants
through Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.

The sixth Shiite Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, had two sons. The elder,
Ismail, was chosen as successor. But he died before his father. Jafar
then declared his own younger son Musa the new successor instead.

But Ismail had already given birth to a son – Mohammad ibn Ismail –
and proclaimed him the next Imam. Ismail’s followers split with Jafar
over this question and followed Ismail’s son instead of Musa. Thus
they came to be known as Ismailis.

Musa’s descendants ruled “orthodox” Shiism. A few generations later,
the Twelfth Imam of this line vanished without trace from the material
world. He still lives on the spiritual plane, whence he will return at
the end of this cycle of time. He is the “Hidden Imam”, the Mahdi
foretold by the Prophet. “Twelver” Shiism is the religion of Iran

The Ismaili Imams languished in concealment, heads of an underground
movement which attracted the extreme mystics and revolutionaries of
Shiism. Eventually they emerged as a powerful force at the head of an
army, conquered Egypt and established the Fatimid dynasty, the so-
called anti-Caliphate of Cairo.

The early Fatimids ruled in an enlightened manner, and Cairo became
the most cultured and open city of Islam. They never succeeded in
converting the rest of the Islamic world however; in fact, even most
Egyptians failed to embrace Ismailism. The highly evolved mysticism of
the sect was at once its special attraction and its major limitation.

In 1074 a brilliant young Persian convert arrived in Cairo to be
inducted into the higher initiatic (and political) ranks of Ismailism.
But Hasan-i Sabbah soon found himself embroiled in a struggle for
power. The Caliph Mustansir had appointed his eldest son Nizar as
successor. But a younger son, al-Mustali, was intriguing to supplant
him. When Mustansir died, Nizar – the rightful heir – was imprisoned
and murdered.

Hasan-i Sabbah had intrigued for Nizar, and now was forced to flee
Egypt. He eventually turned up in Persia again, head of a
revolutionary Nizari movement. By some clever ruse he acquired command
of the impregnable mountain fortress of Alamut (“Eagle’s Nest”) near
Qazvin in Northwest Iran.

Hasan-i Sabbah’s daring vision, ruthless and romantic, has become a
legend in the Islamic world. With his followers he set out to recreate
in miniature the glories of Cairo in this barren multichrome forsaken
rock landscape.

In order to protect Alamut and its tiny but intense civilization Hasan-
i Sabbah relied on assassination. Any ruler or politician or religious
leader who threatened the Nizaris went in danger of a fanatic’s
dagger. In fact Hasan’s first major publicity coup was the murder of
the Prime Minister of Persia, perhaps the most powerful man of the era
(and according to legend, a childhood friend of Sabbah’s).

Once their fearful reputation was secure, the mere threat of being on
the eso-terrorist hit-list was enough to deter most people from acting
against the hated heretics. One theologian was first threatened with a
knife (left by his pillow as he slept), then bribed with gold. When
his disciples asked him why he had ceased to fulminate against Alamut
from his pulpit he answered that Ismaili arguments were “both pointed
and weighty”.

Since the great library of Alamut was eventually burned, little is
known of Hasan-i Sabbah’s actual teachings. Apparently he formed an
initiatic hierarchy of seven circles based on that in Cairo, with
assassins at the bottom and learned mystics at the top.

Ismaili mysticism is based on the concept of ta’wil, or “spiritual
hermeneutics”. Ta’wil actually means “to take something back to its
source or deepest significance”. The Shiites had always practised this
exegesis on the Koran itself, reading certain verses as veiled or
symbolic allusions to Ali and the Imams. The Ismailis extended ta’wil
much more radically. The whole structure of Islam appeared to them as
a shell; to get at its kernel of meaning the shell must be penetrated
by ta’wil, and in fact broken open completely.

The structure of Islam, even more than most religions, is based on a
dichotomy between exoteric and esoteric. On the one hand there is
Divine Law (shariah), on the other hand the Spiritual Path (tariqah).
Usually the Path is seen as the esoteric kernel and the Law as the
exoteric shell. But to Ismailism the two together present a totality
which in its turn becomes a symbol to be penetrated by ta’wil. Behind
Law and Path is ultimate Reality (haqiqah), God Himself in theological
terms – Absolute Being in metaphysical terms.

This Reality is not something outside human scope; in fact if it
exists at all then it must manifest itself completely on the level of
consciousness. Thus it must appear as a man, the Perfect Man – the
Imam. Knowledge of the Imam is direct perception of Reality itself.
For Shiites the Family of Ali is the same as perfected consciousness.

Once the Imam is realized, the levels of Law and Path fall away
naturally like split husks. Knowledge of inner meaning frees one from
adherence to outer form: the ultimate victory of the esoteric over the

The “abrogation of the Law” however was considered open heresy in
Islam. For their own protection Shiites had always been allowed to
practise taqqiya, “permissable dissimulation” or Concealment, and
pretend to be orthodox to escape death or punishment. Ismailis could
pretend to be Shiite or Sunni, whichever was most advantageous.

For the Nizaris, to practise Concealment was to practise the Law; in
other words, pretending to be orthodox meant obeying the Islamic Law.
Hasan-i Sabbah imposed Concealment on all but the highest ranks at
Alamut, because in the absence of the Imam the veil of illusion must
naturally conceal the esoteric truth of perfect freedom.

In fact, who was the Imam? As far as history was concerned, Nizar and
his son died imprisoned and intestate. Hasan-i Sabbah was therefore a
legitimist supp-orting a non-existent pret-ender! He never claimed to
be the Imam himself, nor did his successor as “old Man of the
Mountain,” nor did his successor. And yet they all preached “in the
name of Nizar”. Presumably the answer to this mystery was revealed in
the seventh circle of initiation.

Now the third Old Man of the Mountain had a son named Hasan, a youth
who was learned, generous, eloquent and loveable. Moreover he was a
mystic, an enthusiast for the deepest teachings of Ismailism and
sufism. Even during his father’s lifetime some Alamutis began to
whisper that young Hasan was the true Imam; the father heard of these
rumors and denied them. I am not the Imam, he said, so how could my
son be the Imam?

In 1162 the father died and Hasan (call him Hasan II to distinguish
him from Hasan-i Sabbah) became ruler of Alamut. Two years later, on
the seventeenth of Ramazan (August 8) in 1164, he proclaimed the
Qiyamat, or Great Resurrection. In the middle of the month of Fasting,
Alamut broke its fast forever and proclaimed perpetual holiday.

The resurrection of the dead in their bodies at the “end of time” is
one of the most difficult doctrines of Islam (and Christianity as
well). Taken literally it is absurd. Taken symbolically however it
encapsulates the experience of the mystic. He “dies before death” when
he comes to realize the separative and alienated aspects of the self,
the ego-as-programmed-illusion. He is “reborn” in consciousness but he
is reborn in the body, as an individual, the “soul-at-peace”.

When Hasan II proclaimed the Great Resurrection which marks the end of
Time, he lifted the veil of concealment and abrogated the religious
Law. He offered communal as well as individual participation in the
mystic’s great adventure, perfect freedom.

He acted on behalf of the Imam, and did not claim to be the Imam
himself. (In fact he took the title of Caliph or “representative”.)
But if the family of Ali is the same as perfect consciousness, then
perfect consciousness is the same as the family of Ali. The realized
mystic “becomes” a descendant of Ali (like the Persian Salman whom Ali
adopted by covering him with his cloak, and who is much revered by
sufis, Shiites and Ismailis alike).

In Reality, in haqiqah, Hasan II was the Imam because in the Ismaili
phrase, he had realised the “Imam-of-his-own-being.” The Qiyamat was
thus an invitation to each of his followers to do the same, or at
least to participate in the pleasures of paradise on earth.

The legend of the paradisal garden at Alamut where the houris,
cupbearers, wine and hashish of paradise were enjoyed by the Assassins
in the flesh, may stem from a folk memory of the Qiyamat. Or it may
even be literally true. For the realized consciousness this world is
no other than paradise, and its bliss and pleasures are all permitted.
The Koran describes paradise as a garden. How logical then for wealthy
Alamut to become outwardly the reflection of the spiritual state of
the Qiyamat.

In 1166 Hasan II was murdered after only four years of rule. His
enemies were perhaps in league with conservative elements at Alamut
who resented the Qiyamat, the dissolving of the old secret hierarchy
(and thus their own power as hierarchs) and who feared to live thus
openly as heretics. Hasan II’s son however succeeded him and
established the Qiyamat firmly as Nizari doctrine.

If the Qiyamat were accepted in its full implications however it would
probably have brought about the dissolution and end of Nizari
Ismailism as a separate sect. Hasan II as Qa’im or “Lord of the
Resurrection” had released the Alamutis from all struggle and all
sense of legitimist urgency. Pure esotericism, after all, cannot be
bound by any form.

Hasan II’s son, therefore, compromised. Apparently he decided to
“reveal” that his father was in fact and in blood a direct descendant
of Nizar. The story runs that after Hasan-i Sabbah had established
Alamut, a mysterious emissary delivered to him the infant grandson of
Imam Nizar. The child was raised secretly at Alamut. He grew up, had a
son, died. The son had a son. This baby was born on the same day as
the son of the Old Man of the Mountain, the outward ruler. The infants
were surreptitiously exchanged in their cradles. Not even the Old Man
knew of the ruse. Another version has the hidden Imam committing
adultery with the Old Man’s wife, and producing as love-child the
infant Hasan II.

The Ismailis accepted these claims. Even after the fall of Alamut to
the Mongol hordes the line survived and the present leader of the
sect, the Aga Khan, is known as the forty-ninth in descent from Ali
(and pretender to the throne of Egypt!). The emphasis on Alid
legitimacy has preserved the sect as a sect. Whether it is literally
true or not, however, matters little to an understanding of the

With the proclamation of the Resurrection, the teachings of Ismailism
were forever expanded beyond the borders imposed on them by any
historical event. The Qiyamat remains as a state of consciousness
which anyone can adhere to or enter, a garden without walls, a sect
without a church, a lost moment of Islamic history that refuses to be
forgotten, standing outside time, a reproach or challenge to all
legalism and moralism, to all the cruelty of the exoteric. An
invitation to paradise.

[Reprinted with from Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Scandal: Essays in Islamic
Heresy, published by Autonomedia, PO Box 568, Williamsburg Station,
Brooklyn, NY, USA.]

(2) Old Man of the Mountains

“Hasan-i Sabbah was a revolutionary of genius who devised and put into
practice the ‘new’ preaching or da’wa of the Nizari Isma’ilis, which
was to replace the ‘old’ da’wa of the Fatimid Isma’ilis at Cairo… It
is likely that he was born around 1060 in Qom, one-hundred-and-fifty
kilometers south of modern Tehran.”

“He had a fine mind, an excellent knowledge of theology, and evidently
possessed the phenomenal strength of will necessary to pursue his
ideal for so many years… We can imagine him converting the people of
Daylam just as he had himself been converted, by patiently digging
away at a potential proselyte’s religious doubts until they were
strong enough to admit the possibility of an alternative.”

“Hasan-i Sabbah had managed through careful theological argument and
relentless logic applied to the Shi’a doctrines, to create a powerful
sectarian sense of community based on the traditional secrecy and
conspiratorial nature of Isma’ilism.”

“The Alborz Mountains, which rise to a maximum height of over six-
thousand meters in the volcanic Mount Damavand, constitute a natural
barrier between the Caspian and the vast gently tilting plateau which
constitutes Central Iran. Although not distant as the crow field from
Tehran, this mountainous area has always been and still is remote. It
was presumably for this reason that many shi-ite sects and fleeing
Isma’ilis and other Moslem heretics had… for many centuries taken
refuge in the mountain kingdom of ancient Daylam.”

Within a high mountain valley stands “the castle of Alamut, the
fortress retreat of Hasan-i Sabbah, which became almost legendary
after the supposed 1273 visit of Marco Polo and his description of the
‘Old Man of the mountains’ and the ‘Ashishin’…”
– Edward
Burman, The Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam

“The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed
to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them
into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish
to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping
into the garden where he had them awakened.”

“When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with
all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in
paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great
entertainments; they; received everything they asked for, so that they
would never have left that garden of their own will.”

“And when the Old Man wished to kill someone, he would take him and
say: ‘Go and do this thing. I do this because I want to make you
return to paradise’. And the assassins go and perform the deed

– Marco Polo – on his visit to Alamut in 1273

“That Hasan-i Sabbah and other early Assassin Masters had gardens
seems likely since the garden is such an important part of Persian
noble life and of mysticism. The water channels and meticulous care to
ensure regular water supplies at Assassin castles echo the care which
Persian and Arab villages and country houses today give to the
presence of running water. So the legend of the garden in which
Assassins were taken probably has its origins in fact.”

“Many scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the
attribution of the epithet ‘hashish eaters’ or ‘hashish takers’ is a
misnomer derived from enemies the Isma’ilis and was never used by
Moslem chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative
sense of ‘enemies’ or ‘disreputable people’. This sense of the term
survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term
Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply ‘noisy or riotous’. It is
unlikely that the austere Hasan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug

“There is no mention of that drug [hashish] in connection with the
Persian Assassins – especially in the library of Alamut (’the secret

“Once established in a secure and permanent base, Hasan sent da’is
[missionaries] out from Alamut in all directions, At the same time he
pursued a policy of territorial expansion, taking castles either by
means of propaganda or by force, and building others… Life at Alamut,
and we may suppose in the other fortresses at this time, was
characterized by extreme asceticism and severity.”

“Political assassination was not unknown in Islam before Hasan-i
Sabbah. Earlier sects had used murder as a political technique, and
there is evidence that Mohammed himself disposed of his enemies by
suggesting that they did not deserve to live – and hoping that
faithful followers would take the hint. There had even been an
extremist Shi’ite group known as the ’stranglers’ after their
preferred method of assassination.”

The word assassin “definitely entered the literary vocabulary when it
was used by Dante.” In The Divine Comedy: Hell, Book XIX, “Dante
describes himself as ‘like a friar who is confessing the wicked
assassin’: ‘Io stava come il frate che confessa; Lo perfido assassin…’
“Here the strongest possible noun is required since the criminal being
confessed is being buried alive head down, thus denoting a sin of
particular horror. The connection of assassin with wickedness
reinforces the clarity and precision with which Dante used the word,
and it was in this sense that ‘assassin’ then passed into other
European languages.”
– Edward Burman,
The Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam


AKDN’s Ethical Framework

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) brings together a number of
agencies, institutions, and programmes that have been built up over
the past forty years by the Aga Khan, and in some instances by his
predecessor, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III.

Their combined mandate is to improve living conditions and
opportunities, and to help relieve society of the burdens of
ignorance, disease, and deprivation. AKDN agencies conduct their
programmes without regard to the faith, origin or gender of the people
they serve. Their primary focus of activity includes some of the
poorest peoples of Asia and Africa. The impulses that underpin the
Network are the Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in
society and the duty, guided by the ethics of the Islam, to contribute
to improving the quality of all human life. The pivotal notion in the
ethical ideal of Islam is human dignity, and thus, the duty to respect
and support God’s greatest creation, Man himself.

At the heart of Islam’s social vision is the ethic of care of the weak
and restraint in their sway by the rich and powerful. The pious are
the socially conscious who recognise in their wealth, whether personal
talent or material resources, an element of trust for the indigent and
deprived. But while those at the margin of existence have a moral
right to society’s compassion, the Muslim ethic discourages a culture
of dependency since it undermines a person’s dignity, the preservation
of which is emphatically urged in the Quran. From the time of the
Prophet, therefore, the emphasis in the charitable impulse has been to
help the needy to help themselves.

The key to the dignified life that Islam espouses is an enlightened
mind symbolised in the Quran’s metaphor of creation, including one’s
self, as an object of rational quest. “My Lord! Increase me in
knowledge,” is a cherished prayer that the Quran urges upon all
believers, men and women alike. Like education, good health is also a
precious asset for a life of dignity since the body is the repository
of the divine spark. This spark of divinity, which bestows
individuality and true nobility on the human soul, also bonds
individuals in a common humanity. Humankind, says the Quran, has been
created from a single soul, as male and female, communities and
nations, so that people may know one another. It invites people of all
faiths, men and women, to strive for goodness.

History of the Ismaili Community in the 20th Century

Under the leadership of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, the
first half of the twentieth century was a period of significant
development for the Ismaili community. Numerous institutions for
social and economic development were established on the Indian sub-
continent and in East Africa. Ismailis have marked the Jubilees of
their Imams with public celebrations, which are symbolic affirmations
of the ties that link the Ismaili Imam and his followers. Although the
Jubilees have no real religious significance, they serve to reaffirm
the Imamat’s world-wide commitment to the improvement of the quality
of human life, especially in the developing countries.

The Jubilees of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, are well
remembered. During his 72 years of Imamat (1885-1957), the community
celebrated his Golden (1937), Diamond (1946) and Platinum (1954)
Jubilees. To show their appreciation and affection, the Ismailis
weighed their Imam in gold, diamonds and, symbolically, in platinum,
respectively, the proceeds of which were used to further develop major
social welfare and development institutions in Asia and Africa.

On the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, social development
institutions were established, in the words of the late Aga Khan, “for
the relief of humanity”. They included institutions such as the
Diamond Jubilee Trust and the Platinum Jubilee Investments Limited
which in turn assisted the growth of various types of cooperative
societies. Diamond Jubilee Schools for girls were established
throughout the remote Northern Areas of what is now Pakistan. In
addition, scholarship programmes, established at the time of the
Golden Jubilee to give assistance to needy students, were
progressively expanded. In East Africa, major social welfare and
economic development institutions were established. Those involved in
social welfare included the accelerated development of schools and
community centres, and a modern, fully-equipped hospital in Nairobi.
Among the economic development institutions established in East Africa
were companies such as the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust (now
Diamond Trust of Kenya) and the Jubilee Insurance Company, which are
quoted on the Nairobi Stock Exchange and have become major players in
national development.

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah also introduced organisational forms that gave
Ismaili communities the means to structure and regulate their own
affairs. These were built on the Muslim tradition of a communitarian
ethic on the one hand, and responsible individual conscience with
freedom to negotiate one’s own moral commitment and destiny on the
other. In 1905 he ordained the first Ismaili Constitution for the
social governance of the community in East Africa. The new
administration for the Community’s affairs was organised into a
hierarchy of councils at the local, national, and regional levels. The
constitution also set out rules in such matters as marriage, divorce
and inheritance, guidelines for mutual cooperation and support among
Ismailis, and their interface with other communities. Similar
constitutions were promulgated in the Indian subcontinent, and all
were periodically revised to address emerging needs and circumstances
in diverse settings.

Following the Second World War, far-reaching social, economic and
political changes profoundly affected a number of areas where Ismailis
resided. In 1947, British rule in the Indian subcontinent was replaced
by the two sovereign, independent nations, of India and Pakistan,
resulting in the migration of at least a million people and
significant loss of life and property. In the Middle East, the Suez
crisis of 1956 as well as the preceding crisis in Iran, demonstrated
the sharp upsurge of nationalism, which was as assertive of the
region’s social and economic aspirations as of its political
independence. Africa was also set on its course to decolonisation,
swept by what Mr. Harold MacMillan, the then British Prime Minister,
aptly termed the “wind of change”. By the early 1960s, most of East
and Central Africa, where the majority of the Ismaili population on
the continent resided (including Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, Malagasy,
Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire), had attained their political independence.

This was the world in which the present Aga Khan acceded to the Imamat
in 1957. The period following his accession can be characterised as
one of rapid political and economic change. Planning of programmes and
institutions became increasingly difficult due to the rapid changes in
newly-emerging nations. Upon becoming Imam, the present Aga Khan’s
immediate concern was the preparation of his followers, wherever they
lived, for the changes that lay ahead. This rapidly evolving situation
called for bold initiatives and new programmes to reflect developing
national aspirations.

In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a major objective of the
Community’s social welfare and economic programmes, until the mid-
fifties, had been to create a broad base of businessmen,
agriculturists, and professionals. The educational facilities of the
Community tended to emphasise secondary-level education. With the
coming of independence, each nation’s economic aspirations took on new
dimensions, focusing on industrialisation and modernisation of
agriculture. The Community’s educational priorities had to be
reassessed in the context of new national goals, and new institutions
had to be created to respond to the growing complexity of the
development process.

In 1972, under the regime of the then President Idi Amin, Ismailis and
other Asians were expelled, despite being citizens of the country and
having lived there for generations. The Aga Khan had to take urgent
steps to facilitate the resettlement of Ismailis displaced from
Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and also from Burma. Owing to his personal
efforts most found homes, not only in Asia, but also in Europe and
North America. Most of the basic resettlement problems were overcome
remarkably rapidly. This was due to the adaptability of the Ismailis
themselves and in particular to their educational background and their
linguistic abilities, as well as the efforts of the host countries and
the moral and material support from Ismaili community programmes.

Spiritual allegiance to the Imam and adherence to the Shia Imami
Ismaili tariqah (persuasion) of Islam according to the guidance of the
Imam of the time, have engendered in the Ismaili community an ethos of
self-reliance, unity, and a common identity. The present Aga Khan
continued the practice of his predecessor and extended constitutions
to Ismaili communities in the US, Canada, several European countries,
the Gulf, Syria and Iran following a process of consultation within
each constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a Constitution that, for
the first time, brought the social governance of the world-wide
Ismaili community into a single structure with built-in flexibility to
account for diverse circumstances of different regions. Served by
volunteers appointed by and accountable to the Imam, the Constitution
functions as an enabler to harness the best in individual creativity
in an ethos of group responsibility to promote the common well-being.

Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on each
Ismaili’s spiritual allegiance to the Imam of the time, which is
separate from the secular allegiance that all Ismailis owe as citizens
to their national entities. The guidance of the present Imam and his
predecessor emphasised the Ismaili’s allegiance to his or her country
as a fundamental obligation. These obligations discharged not by
passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active
commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful

In view of the importance that Islam places on maintaining a balance
between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of
his life, the Imam’s guidance deals with both aspects of the life of
his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismaili Muslims, settled in
the industrialised world, to contribute towards the progress of
communities in the developing world through various development
programmes. In recent years, Ismaili Muslims, who have come to the US,
Canada and Europe, mostly as refugees from Asia and Africa, have
readily settled into the social, educational and economic fabric of
urban and rural centres across the two continents. As in the
developing world, the Ismaili Muslim Community’s settlement in the
industrial world has involved the establishment of community
institutions characterised by an ethos of self-reliance, an emphasis
on education, and a pervasive spirit of philanthropy.

From July 1982 to July 1983, to celebrate the present Aga Khan’s
Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the
Imamat, many new social and economic development projects were
launched, although there were no weighing ceremonies. These range from
the establishment of the US$ 300 million international Aga Khan
University with its Faculty of Health Sciences and teaching hospital
based in Karachi, the expansion of schools for girls and medical
centres in the Hunza region, one of the remote parts of Northern
Pakistan bordering on China and Afghanistan, to the establishment of
the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Gujarat, India, and the
extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centres
in Tanzania and Kenya.

These initiatives form part of an international network of
institutions involved in fields that range from education, health and
rural development, to architecture and the promotion of private sector
enterprise and together make up the Aga Khan Development Network.

It is this commitment to man’s dignity and relief of humanity that
inspires the Ismaili Imamat’s philanthropic institutions. Giving of
one’s competence, sharing one’s time, material or intellectual
wherewithal with those among whom one lives, for the relief of
hardship, pain or ignorance is a deeply ingrained tradition which
shapes the social conscience of the Ismaili Muslim community.

[From the Preface of Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their history and
doctrines (Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp.xv-xvi. See also A
Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community,
(Edinburgh University Press, 1998) by the same author.]

“The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history. In mediaeval
times, they twice established states of their own and played important
parts for relatively long periods on the historical stage of the
Muslim world. During the second century of their history, the Ismailis
founded the first Shia caliphate under the Fatimid caliph-imams. They
also made important contributions to Islamic thought and culture
during the Fatimid period. Later, after a schism that split Ismailism
into two major Nizari and Mustalian branches, the Nizari leaders
succeeded in founding a cohesive state, with numerous mountain
strongholds and scattered territories stretching from eastern Persia
to Syria. The Nizari state collapsed only under the onslaught of all-
conquering Mongols. Thereafter, the Ismailis never regained any
political prominence and survived in many lands as a minor Shia Muslim
sect. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the
spiritual leaders or imams of the Nizari majority came out of their
obscurity and actively participated in certain political events in
Persia and, then, in British India; later they acquired international
prominence under their hereditary title of Agha Khan (Aga Khan).”

Because of political developments in Iran in the late 1830s and early
1840s the 46th Imam, Aga Hasan Ali Shah, emigrated to the Indian
subcontinent. He was the first Imam to bear the title of Aga Khan,
which had been previously bestowed on him by the Persian Emperor, Fath
Ali Shah. He settled in Bombay in 1848 where he established his
headquarters, a development that had an uplifting effect on the
community in India and on the religious and communal life of the whole
Ismaili world. It helped the community in India gain a greater sense
of confidence and identity as Shia Ismaili Muslims, and laid the
foundations for its social progress. It also marked the beginning of
an era of more regular contacts between the Imam and his widely
dispersed followers. Deputations came to Bombay to receive the Imam’s
guidance from as far afield as Kashgar in China, Bokhara in Central
Asia, all parts of Iran, and the Middle East. In the second half of
the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ismailis from the Indian sub-
continent migrated to East Africa in significant numbers.

From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]




Catch of the day: Cocaine
BY Jonathan Franklin  /  February 09, 2008

At first glance, Bluefields in Nicaragua looks like any other rum-
soaked, Rastafarian-packed, hammock-infested Caribbean paradise. But
Bluefields has a secret.

People here don’t have to work. Every week, sometimes every day, 35kg
sacks of cocaine drift in from the sea. The economy of this entire
town of 50,000 tranquil souls is addicted to cocaine.

Bluefields is a creation of the gods of geography. Located halfway
between the cocaine labs of Colombia and the 300 million noses of the
United States, Bluefields is ground zero for cocaine transportation.
Nicaraguan waters are near Colombian territorial limits, making the
area extremely popular with cocaine smugglers using very small, very
fast fishing boats.

The US military calls them “go fast boats”, which is a bureaucratic
way of describing these mini-water-rockets. Typically these 12m boats
have 800 horsepower of outboard motors bolted to the stern. A Porsche
911 Turbo, by comparison, has 485 horsepower.

While they are very fast, they are also very visible to the array of
radars set up by roaming US spy planes, Coastguard cutters and
helicopters which regularly monitor the speeding cocaine traffickers.

“With night vision equipment, I have seen a lit cigarette from two
miles,” a US Navy pilot said. “Or the back light from their GPS
screen? It looks like a billboard.”

When the Americans get close, the traffickers toss the cocaine
overboard, both to eliminate evidence and lighten their load in an
escape attempt.

“They throw most of it off,” says a Lt Commander in the US Coastguard.
“I have been on four interdictions and we have confiscated about 6000
pounds [2720kg] of cocaine, and I’d say equal that much was dumped
into the ocean.”

Those bales of cocaine float, and the currents bring them west right
into the chain of islands, beaches and cays which make up the huge
lagoons that surround Bluefields on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast.

“There are no jobs here, unemployment is 85 per cent,” says Moises
Arana, who was mayor of Bluefields from 2001 to 2005.

“It is sad to say, but the drugs have made contributions. Look at the
beautiful houses, those mansions come from drugs. We had a women come
into the local electronics store with a milk bucket stuffed full of
cash. She was this little Miskito [native] woman and she had $80,000.”

Hujo Sugo, a historian of Bluefields, says the floating coke has
created a new local hobby.

“People here now go beachcombing for miles, they walk until the find
packets. Even the lobster fisherman now go out with the pretence of
fishing but really they are looking for la langosta blanca – the white

Given the remote setting and lack of infrastructure, there are few
roads, few cars and the biggest shop in Bluefields sells nothing more
sophisticated than a washing machine or TV set.

So what do the locals do with all this cocaine? They sell it to
travelling buyers who cruise the coast, disguised as used clothes

“We know there are small shop owners who do this,” says Yorlene
Orozco, the local judge. “We are talking about people without a
profession, no home, no job. One day later they have a new car, go to
the casino and are building a home that costs I don’t know how many
thousands of dollars.”

Law enforcement in Bluefields is practically invisible “I just had a
Swiss tourist tell me that when she went to the supermarket they tried
to sell her cocaine,” says Orozco.

The police and Navy have few resources and less trust from the local
public. Bluefields is effectively an anarchist nation – no Government,
no organised institutions and the rules are made by community groups.

Given the massive amount of cocaine in town, violence is surprisingly
rare. Gunfights are nearly unheard of and most of the town seems to
lounge around or play baseball all day and then erupt into a frenzy of
energy by late afternoon, fuelled by Flor de Cana, a Nicaraguan rum,
fresh fish, an endless supply of native oysters, and “the white

“Down by Monkey Point, a family found an entire boat … they stashed
it and bought up houses all over town. It was 57 sacks [about
1995kg],” says Jah Boon, a local Rasta man. “Those people have money
and still have coke buried in them hills. It is another way of having
money in the bank.”

At a local price of $3500 per kg, the typical 35kg sack nets a cash
sale price of $122,500, which by all accounts is spent immediately.

“Last time bags and bags washed up, everyone [felt like] a
millionaire, but that money does not last.” explains Helen, who runs a
university research institute in Bluefields. Asked how the locals
unload their cash, she said: “Beer, beer, beer. You should see the
amount they drink here. Go to the pier and see how much alcohol goes
out to the islands.”

“When the drugs come in, everyone is happy, the banks, the stores,
everyone has cash.”

Arana, the former mayor, recalled one month when the village bought
28,000 cases of beer.

With literally tonnes of cocaine buried in the hills, stashed in yards
and piled up around town, why doesn’t the Colombian mafia storm into
these remote communities and repossess their coke bales by coercion or
brute force?

“Hell no,” says Peter, a local businessman. “The Miskito [local
Indians] are guerrillas. They have been through war. They have AK-47s
and up.”

The US Drug Enforcement Agency, in a report to Congress, noted: “A
unique historical situation and civil conflicts have left Nicaragua
with a tradition of armed rural groups and institutionalised violence
that greatly complicates counter-drug enforcement.”

For hundreds of years, the local Miskito Indians have fished this
stretch of the Caribbean. They are master sailors, capable and brave.
They endured hurricanes and storms back when GPS still meant “God
Please Save me”.

Many of their 4000 small fishing boats are still wooden canoes with
sails made of coloured plastic, hand-sewn and fragile. But the pros
have gone Japanese and switched to the 200-horsepower Yamaha outboard
motor, a six-cylinder beast that is the region’s connection to the

Because the Miskito often live in isolated communities, they maintain
their own rules, independence and traditions, including the belief
that whatever treasures arrive in a river or from the sea are gifts,
blessed by God and to be enjoyed and shared. That includes the
Caribbean lobster and the white Colombian variety.

The cocaine business is reshaping the face of these Indian
communities. Tasbapauni Beach is now nicknamed “Little Miami”, because
so much cocaine washes up on its long shoreline that it has fuelled a
construction boom. Luxurious oceanfront condos protected by security
guards now sit side by side with wooden fishing shacks.

“If shit washes up on your shore it belongs to that family. Every
family owns their turf,” said a Miskito fisherman.

But when a fisherman finds white lobster the entire village shares the
treasure, with a percentage going to the community, a smaller
percentage to the church and the majority split among the crew of the
small boat that found the loot.

“It is like a municipal tax,” says Sergio Leon, a local reporter who
has been writing about the drug situation in Bluefields for many
years. “The schools and churches are not built by the Government, that
money comes from the fishermen and their finds.”

Drug money has been used to build a school and replace the church
roof. “The pastors here get mad when they don’t get their cut from the
find,” says Francisco a court official. “If a member of the
congregation has found 15kg, the church calculates 15 times $3500,
that’s $52,500, and at 10 per cent they are saying: where’s the

At night, Bluefields wakes up. The locals wander down to Midnight
Dream, a reggae bar that locals have nicknamed Baghdad Ranch because
of the surreal nature of its party scene. Young black men wear
baseball hats, NBA sleeveless shirts and Nike Air sneakers. They are
bedecked in gold chains.

My new drinking buddy says: “I got protection,” and lifts his Houston
Rockets NBA shirt to show off the butt of a pistol. “You won’t get
thieved here.”

Tribal music echoes from across the bay while darkened skiffs navigate
the shallow waters. Half-sunken boats dot the horizon. Blown in by
Hurricane Joan in 1988, these rusty wrecks are now used as guide buoys
for captains entering the pier and as mini-apartments by locals.

The waiter offers carne de tortuga – a grilled slice of endangered
Hawksbill Sea Turtle. While locals insist they only slaughter the
older specimens, that did little to ease my sensation that here in
Bluefields pleasure trumps morality.

When the lyrics scream out “I feel so high, I can touch the sky”,
practically on cue the three girls at the next table pile coke on the
back of their ebony hands and snort openly, laughing. Then they start
the maypole dance the traditional fertility festival for this month,
May, which has evolved into a wickedly sexy dirty-dancing routine. A
stunning line of 1.8m black women swirl on the dance floor. A Rasta
man stumbles by, his nose white, clumps of coke stuck in his beard.

This party is all paid for by the white lobster, which sells for $5 a
gram. “Those guys over at that table, they are Miskito, they found
seven bags,” explains the waiter with the hint of jealousy usually
reserved for lottery winners. “He will buy a couple of ranches, two
boats and have someone else fish for him.”

As the night progresses, the winners slowly disappear behind a wall of
Tona beer bottles. No one ever seems to get tired.

{For the well-being of individuals, some names and locations have
been changed in this report.}

Humble town living in the slow lane

Bluefields is a humble town. Electricity is sporadic: the main
generator has been under repair for nine months.

Residents remain so isolated from Central America they speak English
and feel closer to Kingston than the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. To
get here the traveller must fly a 25-year-old plane that looks like a
fat pigeon and doesn’t fly much faster. The outside of the fuselage is
tagged with instructions on how to rescue victims after a crash “Cut
Here for Easy Entry”.

Even today, the Nicaraguan central government classifies Bluefields as
an “Autonomous Area”, meaning the government pretty much ignores the

At the local casino the payoffs are far less if the bet is placed in
Nicaraguan currency, the cordoba. A roulette win, for example, pays
30-1 if the bet is in cordoba and 36-1 if the original bet was made in

“We don’t even use the Nicaraguan currency here, to the South we use
the colon (from Costa Rica), in the North we use the lempira
(Honduran) and everywhere else it is the dollar,” said Eugenio, a
local fisherman.

“We only see politicians when there is an election – or a hurricane.”

The daily schedule rarely changes in Bluefields. The light comes up at
5am though there aren’t a whole lot of people who notice the town is
in slow motion. Streams of children in pressed blue and white uniforms
amble off to the Moravian school, their mothers and grandmothers
spreading the scent of fresh coconut bread through the village.

The shops sell rum, bananas, sneakers and baseball hats. A man sits by
his store, cuts the calluses off his feet with a small knife, then
immediately slices into a fresh coconut. The loudest noise is the
shriek of a magpie or the yap of a dog.

Snagging shrimp and trapping lobster are the principal – maybe the
only form – of legitimate work in Bluefields. But by all reasonable
observations, work itself is barely considered legitimate.

Why not just enjoy nature’s bounty? With so much fresh fish, coconut,
bananas and mangoes, the idea of sweating or long-term planning seems
foreign. Especially when the daily heat shoots into the upper 90s, and
a two-block walk leaves you drenched in sweat. About the only work
tool needed in Bluefields is a Yamaha outboard motor. Everyone who
wants to search for white lobster has a V6 Yamaha 200 horsepower
engine. Often these machines are racked up side by side on the back of
a 25-foot fishing canoe so the lightweight wooden or fibreglass craft
can practically fly.

By noon, the streets are filled with men playing cards, laying their
bets on a card table, and sitting on stools made out of used Yamaha or
Johnson outboard motors. On the streets, one man walks around with a
bag of white powder the size of a golf ball, dipping his fingers in
like he was snacking on popcorn or chips. Casual to an extreme, he
strolls up to his friends who dip in for a snack.

Outside the Bluefields prison, two maximum security prisoners have
been brought out to the street – no handcuffs – and told to cut the
grass with huge machetes. These prisoners are each serving a 30-year
term for murder, but they hardly work and instead idly chat with
pedestrians, occasionally whack the grass but usually just watch the
girls and life go by.

Most of the guards are inside a classroom studying Nicaraguan history
with their classmates, the inmates. For the more hands-on prisoners, a
workshop churns out jewellery, crafted chairs and green and yellow
Rasta-style beanies.


Bluefields is a pirate town on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.
Children play their games in the streets, shooting craps alongside the
unemployed, who sing to staccato beats hammered out on buckets and
doorposts, drinking rum in the sun. The town and its frequently robbed
banks are no stranger to life on the outlands.

In 1610, the city’s namesake, Dutch pirate Henry Bluefeldt found
refuge in the area, repairing his fleet with the aid of the native
Kukras. For the next century Bluefields would become a haven for Dutch
and British pirates. By the 18th century, the British had cultivated
steady trading through Bluefields, of bananas and Jamaican slaves.

When the area was taken over by the Spanish, the darker-skinned
natives of Bluefields were neglected by and left out of the
government. Though it had no real stakes in the revolution during the
1980’s, much fighting between the Sandanistas and the American-funded
Contras happened on Bluefields soil. Both sides would force M-16’s on
the native youth, giving them no choice but fight or die.

In 1988, Bluefields was devastated by Hurricane Joan, which left left
the region in ruins. These days Bluefields has an unemployment rate of
90%, and its ports are a major throughway of the Columbian drug trade.
The pirate roots of the city run deep, as does its reggae roots.
Despite its poor conditions and poverty, Bluefields’ culture remains
tall and proud. The long era of Jamaican slave trading through the
area fostered a deep connection to island music, making this frontier
town the reggae mecca of Central America.


Reverend Horton Heat – Bales of Cocaine

Well, I was workin’ on my farm ’bout 1982,
Pullin’ up some corn and a little carrot, too
When two low-flying aeroplanes, ’bout a hundred feet high
Dropped a bunch o’ bales o’ somethin’, some hit me in the eye…

So I cut a bale open, an’ man was I surprised
Bunch o’ large sized baggies, with big white rocks inside
So I took a little sample to my crazy brother Joe
He sniffed it up and kicked his heels, said, “Horton, that’s some

Bales of cocaine, fallin’ from low-flyin’ plane
I don’t know who done dropped ’em, but I thank ’em just the same
Bales of cocaine, fallin’ like a foriegn rain
My life changed completely by the low-flyin’ planes

So I loaded up them bales in my pick-em-up truck,
Headed west for Dallas, where I would try my luck
I didn’t have a notion if I could sell ’em there,
But, thirty minutes later, I was a millionaire…

Bales of cocaine, fallin’ from low-flyin’ plane
I don’t know who done dropped ’em, but I thank ’em just the same
Bales of cocaine, fallin’ like a foriegn rain
My life changed completely by the low-flyin’ planes

And now I am a rich man, but I’m still a farmer, too
But I sold my farm in Texas, bought a farm down in Peru
And when get so homesick, I think I’m goin’ insane,
I travel back to Texas in a low-flyin’ plane…

Bales of cocaine, fallin’ from low-flyin’ plane
I don’t know who done dropped ’em, but I thank ’em just the same
Bales of cocaine, fallin’ like a foriegn rain
My life changed completely by the low-flyin’ planes


Cocaine galore! Villagers live it up on profits from ‘white lobster’
BY Rory Carroll  /  October 09 2007

Washed-up bales of drugs bring millions of dollars to poor fishing

Centuries of troubles have bobbed on the waves off the Mosquito Coast:
Christopher Columbus, the Spanish conquest, pirates, slave ships. For
the fishing villages scattered across these remote central American
shores there was seldom reason to welcome visits from the outside

But that was before the “white lobster”, and before everything
changed. Now the villagers rise at first light to scan the horizon in
hope of seeing a very different type of intruder.

What they are looking for, and what they have coyly euphemised, are
big, bulging bags of Colombian cocaine. A combination of law
enforcement, geography and ocean currents has washed tonnes of the
drug, and millions of dollars, into what was one of the Caribbean’s
most desolate and isolated regions. Villages that once eked an
existence on shrimp and red-tinged lobster have been transformed. In
place of thatched wooden huts there are brick houses, mansions and
satellite dishes.

“They consider it a blessing from God. You see people all day just
walking up and down the beaches keeping a lookout to sea,” said Louis
Perez, the police chief in Bluefields, the main port on Nicaragua’s
Caribbean coast.

Colombian speedboats hug the coastline so closely that this narco-
route to the US is known as the “country road”. With 800-horsepower
outboard motors, the so-called “go fasts” can usually outrun US and
Nicaraguan patrols. But on occasion they are intercepted, not least
when US snipers hit their engines. “Then they throw the coke overboard
to get rid of the evidence,” said a European drug enforcement official
based in the region. “Other times it’s because they run out of fuel or
have an accident.”

Currents carry the bales towards the shore. A decade ago many of the
indigenous Miskito people had not even heard of cocaine. Some 15
people in the village of Karpwala are said to have died after
mistaking the contents of a bale for baking powder.

That innocence is long gone. Colombian traffickers and Nicaraguan
middlemen trawl villages offering finders $4,000 (£1,960) a kilo, said
Major Perez – seven times less than the US street value but a fortune
to a fisherman.

Tasbapauni, a sleepy hamlet a three-hour motorboat ride from
Bluefields, is a cocaine version of Whisky Galore!, the 1940s tale of
a Hebridean island which salvages a shipwrecked cargo of booze and
plays cat-and-mouse with the authorities to keep it.

Posh hotels

Some locals who used to be in rags live it up at posh hotels in
Bluefields and Managua, others stock up on wide-screen TVs and
expensive beer. With its creole English and African slave descendants,
the community feels more Jamaican than Nicaraguan. Its high-rolling
reputation has earned Tasbapauni the nickname Little Miami. That’s an
exaggeration. There is still plenty of poverty and barefoot children
and there are no roads or vehicles and little to break the silence
except lapping surf, clucking chickens and the occasional thud of a
falling coconut. But things are different. “Today the toiling is
easier. Life is plenty better than before,” said Percival Hebbert, 84,
a Moravian Church pastor and village leader. “The community is like
this: you find drugs, this one find drugs, the next one find drugs –
that money is stirring right here in the community, going round and

The white lobster was a blessing, he said, as long as the bonanza was
spent wisely. “Almost all you see with a good home, a good cement
home, those are the ones who find them things.”

The church had just installed a shiny white floor thanks to a donation
from a fisherman, Ted Hayman, who reputedly hauled in 220kg (485lb).
Mr Hayman chose the colours and tiles himself. “He’s a kind man,” said
Mr Hebbert.

He was grateful but lamented the church’s cut was not greater. “God
says that 10% of whatever you earn is his. But no one do that here.”
Villages further north oblige finders to give a tenth of the proceeds
to the church and at least another tenth to neighbours.

Mr Hayman, 37, Tasbapauni’s most “blessed” fisherman, has converted
his shack into a three-storey mansion with iron gates, a satellite
dish and architecture best described as narc-deco. A sign identifies
the residence as Hayman Hi.


Mr Hayman’s sister, Maria, 40, said cocaine was the source of the
wealth – and philanthropy. “Him always try to help the people. Him
help the sick, the widows, the church, anybody.”

A short stroll from Hayman Hi is a 30-strong army garrison tasked with
combating drug trafficking. It is as laid back as the rest of
Tasbapauni. You could not prosecute someone for becoming rich, said
the commander, Edwin Salmeron. “If we don’t capture them with the
drugs there’s nothing we can do.”

Given the poverty and decades of government neglect it was
“understandable but not justified” that the cocaine was sold on, said
Moises Arana, a former Bluefields mayor. “There is no shame. It’s
almost an innocence – they don’t understand the consequences.”

Increasingly, however, a dark side is emerging. Not all the cocaine is
shipped north. Some is turned into crack and sold locally, producing
the skinny, ragged youths who haunt Bluefields’ slums. The town jail
is crammed with alleged addicts and pushers awaiting trial.

“With crack you lose your pride, you lose your money, everything,”
said Randolph Carter, 50, a former addict. In 2004 traffickers shot
off his arm while looking for another addict who had reneged on a
promise to fuel their boat. “Cocaine is not a blessing. It can destroy
you,” said Mr Carter.

Corruption allows traffickers to buy their way out of trouble. In 2004
a gang took over Bluefields’ police station and cut the throats of
four officers. No one has been charged for what is assumed to be a
drug-related atrocity.

To many, however, cocaine promises deliverance from poverty. Marvin
Hoxton, 37, a lobster diver, once discovered a 72kg bale. Thieves
forced him to hand over 70kg at gunpoint but he sold the remainder for
$5,000. It lasted two months. “Drinking, dancing, women, the dollars
fly,” he rued.

Now broke and back living with his mother, Mr Hoxton had a plan: to
fill his wooden skiff with supplies and camp out on a remote beach for
six months. He will string a hammock between two coconut trees, listen
to his transistor radio and keep his eyes on the ocean.

“You can’t know when you might get it,” he said, staring at his beer,
as if mini-bales were floating inside the bottle. “You have to wait.
Wait for it to come.”

From the archive, originally posted by: [ mmm ]

disclaimer: I’m 99% sure that no one in the known universe calls cocaine
‘Charlie.’ ~m

Cocaine Vaccine seeking approval from US FDA

A growing number of people worldwide are getting increasingly addicted to
Cocaine, a drug which supposedly provides a mind-numbingly, feel-good
feeling. Now, this news may come as a ray of light to those who are badly
addicted to the drug. Two researchers have come up with injections which
contain modified cocaine, and hope that this could provide the first-ever
medication for people hooked on to the drug, commonly referred to as Coke
and by some as Charlie.

Two Baylor College of Medicine scientists have successfully developed a
cocaine vaccine that stimulates the immune system to attack the real thing.
As a result, cocaine will no longer provide the kick that has millions
hooked on to it.

Currently in clinical trials, the approval of the cocaine vaccine would
serve as a breakthrough in the treatment of cocaine addiction, which as of
now mostly comprises psychiatric counseling and 12-step programs.

“For people who have a desire to stop using, the vaccine should be very
useful, “said Tom Kosten, a psychiatry professor who was assisted in the
research by his wife, Therese Kosten, a psychologist and neuroscientist.

“At some point, most users will give in to temptation and relapse, but those
for whom the vaccine is effective won’t get high and will lose interest,” he

Kosten asked the FDA in December 2007 to give the green signal to a
multi-institutional trial for this vaccine slated to begin in the spring.
Now, this trial will be the final hurdle to pass before the vaccine might
actually be approved for treatment.

Interestingly, the cocaine vaccine could raise ethical questions about who
should receive this treatment and what happens of confidential information
about those receiving it becomes known. The question include whether parents
would be allowed to have their children vaccinated to wane them off cocaine;
whether employers might fall upon such information and use it against
employees indiscriminately; and whether it can be used on women who are
pregnant and addicted to cocaine.

Meanwhile, Tom Kosten is also working on vaccines for treatment of
methamphetamine, heroin and nicotine addicts.

(…too bad most coke ain’t coke!)