Sunday, November 05, 2017

In Memoriam: James Breon

While I was away reporting in Puerto Rico, I lost someone who was very dear to me, my maternal grandfather, James Breon.

At 92 years old, he was my last surviving grandparent and, in many ways, the one I was closest to. Despite my gypsy life, we talked on the phone almost every week. He was born the son of a Pennsylvania drugstore owner, joined the armed forces when still in his teens to fight in World War II and after stations in St. Augustine, Florida, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and Long Beach, California, he served with the Coast Guard aboard the USS Arthur Middleton in the South Pacific. He married my grandmother, Leah, during the war and then returned to the States to serve 15 years as a fireman before taking a job with the American Dairy Association and then opening a painting business that thrived for nearly three decades here in Lancaster County.

An early riser, he had an unparalleled work ethic, loved breakfasting at various diners and made yearly trips to the Thousand Islands region of Canada to fish, which he loved. He took me to New Orleans for the first time, where we strolled the French Quarter (me as a 16 year-old in a Damned t-shirt) and saw Pete Fountain live at the Riverside Hilton. Despite personal tragedies and health setbacks that he endured, he always adopted am optimistic attitude towards life and his mind remind lucid and his sense of humour intact right up until the end.

This is a picture of him on his wedding day with my grandmother, a young man from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, ready to take on the world.

I know he was ready to go and it was his time, but I sure am going to miss him.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

A Direct Line: How a glut of cheap, powerful heroin grown in Mexico is delivered more than 2,000 miles to Lancaster County

6 September 2017

How a glut of cheap, powerful heroin grown in Mexico is delivered more than 2,000 miles to Lancaster County

By Michael Deibert


(Read the originals story here)

They stare out silently from the photographs as they were in life, but they have crossed over to a plain from which there is no return. 

Megan Anna Hummer, of Landisville, smiling and playing with her dog, died of a heroin overdose at age 31. She was living in a recovery home at the time.

“Iron Mike” Stauffer, tattooed and homeless on the streets of Lancaster city, began using heroin as a 16-yearold in Ephrata and died at 36 this summer.

Elizabeth Loranzo, a Lancaster School of Cosmetology graduate, had gotten clean, relapsed and died of an overdose at 25, leaving behind a 9-month-old son and a fiance.

The rolling farmlands of Lancaster County might seem a world away from the rugged hills of northern Mexico, but the ravenous appetite for drugs here has made southeastern Pennsylvania a lucrative market for a product that’s sale continues to fuel violence in America’s southern neighbor and despair on Pennsylvanian streets.

The surge in demand for heroin has coincided with shifts in the distribution network that allow for cheaper, more powerful forms of the drug to be delivered more quickly via brokers working for cartels to small-town neighborhoods from coast to coast.

In the most noteworthy change in recent decades, Mexican drug cartels sneaking heroin through legal points of entry have disrupted and overtaken the traditional supply chain, which once originated in the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

“Our heroin used to come from Afghanistan, and it was expensive to get it here,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said. “Now it comes from Mexico, and it’s a lot cheaper. The heroin we have is predominantly coming from Mexican cartels.”

Mexico’s Golden Triangle, an imposing, mountainous region where the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua meet, produces both high-grade poppies, from which heroin is derived, and marijuana.

The influence of the organizations that benefit from the trade — and two cartels in particular — can be felt even here, nearly 2,000 miles from the Mexican border.

Meet the suppliers

Responsible for delivering most of the heroin and other drugs flowing into Pennsylvania are two Mexican drug cartels: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG.

“It’s safe to say the majority of drugs coming in today are chiefly from the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG,” said Gary Tuggle, the special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Philadelphia field division, under whose jurisdiction Lancaster County falls.

The Sinaloa Cartel was founded by the now imprisoned Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and Héctor Luis “El Güero” Palma Salazar after the collapse of the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1980s.

The cartel operated a cocaine distribution hub in Lancaster County until the arrest of its county-based drug runners in 2007. The runners flew drugs into the Smoketown Airport, lived in homes in Manheim Township and operated a local carpet cleaning business as a front as they ran drugs up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When the runners were arrested, authorities found $1.8 million in cash and $160,000 in drugs in their Manheim Township homes, as well as $2 million worth of drugs in a car that was stopped on the turnpike just north of Lancaster County.

The CJNG is Mexico’s fastest-growing drug trafficking organization, holding sway over a multistate empire that runs nearly unbroken from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast.
The CJNG was largely formed by the foot soldiers of Sinaloa Cartel boss Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal after he was killed in a July 2010 drug battle with the Mexican army.

The cartel began as something of a spinoff of Sinaloa and has since emerged as a force all its own. In its September 2011 coming out, the CJNG dumped 35 corpses, believed to be members of the rival Los Zetas Cartel, into rush-hour traffic in a suburb of the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz.

In 2015, the CJNG ambushed and killed 15 police officers. Last year, it shot down a military helicopter with rocketpropelled grenades, killing five soldiers.

Though many of the group’s chieftains have been captured in recent years, the CJNG’s cofounder, a former police officer named Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, remains at large.

The CJNG is the dominant criminal faction in Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Morelos and Veracruz and is believed to have its eyes on an expansion.

A report earlier this month in the Mexican newspaper Periódico Noroeste quoted anonymous sources from an investigative body affiliated with Mexico’s Ministry of Interior who claimed the CJNG would launch an offensive in coming months to take over vast swaths of the Sinaloa Cartel’s territory.

Cheaper and faster delivery

The traditionally dominant drug trafficking organizations from Mexico have begun to fracture as drug lords are slain or captured by the government or one another, and the highly linear system of drug distribution in Pennsylvania and elsewhere has had to adapt.

The characteristic control that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations had exercised over everything from the production of marijuana and poppies to the processing, manufacturing, transportation and distribution of the product down to the retail level has shifted.

Drug trafficking today is no longer the centralized process it once was, and now involves brokers who go into particular areas and identify the retail distribution networks, which are interested in the highest purity level at the lowest cost.

“We believe the Sinaloa Cartel is still involved in providing cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and other drugs to this area, but it’s being shipped directly rather than going to a distribution hub like Chicago,” said Tuggle, of the Drug Enforcement Agency. “We strongly believe that pattern is going to increase.”

Law enforcement officials say cartel brokers will now enter a zone and offer their services to indigenous drug-trafficking groups.

Those groups themselves, in turn, have become so atomized and businesslike that some will “rent” territory to other organizations in which they can sell their product while the local criminal organizations collect a cut of the profits.

This has proven to be the case in North Philadelphia, for example, in areas where traditionally Latino gangs have subleased territory to African-American drug organizations.
These shifting dynamics have produced a marked change in both the users and the dealers, police say.

“Back in the day, the stereotypical heroin addict was older,” said Lancaster city police Chief Keith Sadler, who worked with law enforcement in Philadelphia for 27 years before taking the reins to head Lancaster’s police force in 2008.

“But it’s no longer just an old junkie drug. And that heroin was, like, 5 to 10 percent (pure) back then. Now it’s almost pure. And half of these dealers now are addicts themselves. Further up the food chain. Now you see a lot of these guys are using their own product.”
And despite the takedown of many major cartel figures in Mexico, the purity of the drug gets better as the prices go down.

“You don’t have the corner trafficking and as many shootouts over the corner,” Stedman said. “But what we’re seeing now are drug rip-offs and people using violence because they feel people owe them money for drugs, home invasions and things like that.”

Losing the war?

The decapitations and capture of so many cartel leaders has had little impact on the flow of drugs into the United States. And they have failed to tamp down the violence associated with the drug trade in Mexico itself.

In June, 2,234 people were slain in Mexico in what was the deadliest month in 20 years.
“The kingpin strategy does not work in anti-narcotics operations if the aim is to stop drug trafficking and related activities,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Correa-Cabrera has studied cartel activity in Mexico for more than a decade.

“When a kingpin is removed, he’s replaced by someone else, violence increases, and there has not been really any visible impact in the drug trade,” Correa- Cabrera said.

Once powerful regional cartels such as Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel fracture, but others rise to take their place.

And the drugs keep flowing.

In March, authorities dismantled an Allentown-Reading drug trafficking ring that was smuggling large quantities of heroin, cocaine and meth into the area from Mexico.
Police seized $2.2 million worth of heroin and meth when they stopped and searched a tractor-trailer with California plates in Reading, leading to the arrest of six people, five of whom are U.S. residents.

In May, five members of the so-called Aryan Strikeforce, a white-supremacist organization based in Pennsylvania, were indicted by a Harrisburg grand jury for conspiring to transport methamphetamines, firearms and machine gun parts.

In June 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania handed down a 108-count indictment charging 37 people allegedly associated with the Cartel de los Laredo, a kind of mini-cartel based in the city of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos, with money laundering and drug charges stemming from the importation of heroin to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and elsewhere.

One often overlooked aspect of the drug trade is the role that legitimate financial institutions in the United States and elsewhere have played in facilitating it.

Entities such as Bank of America, Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) and HSBC were found by U.S. investigators to have been used to launder billions of dollars of drug profits. The latter was ordered to pay a record $1.92 billion for laundering Mexican drug money in 2012.

And for every kilo of heroin seized, many more are making it through the legal points of entry between the two countries and into communities across Pennsylvania.

Building a wall along the Mexico border, such as the one proposed by President Donald Trump, likely would have little impact on the trade in Lancaster County or anywhere else in the United States, officials said.

Despite the U.S. Customs and Border Protection requesting $1.6 billion earlier this year for 32 miles of a new wall system and 28 miles of levee walls, according the CBP’s own figures, from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2016, 81 percent of the drugs intercepted at the U.S.Mexico border were stopped at legal ports of entry, not by border patrol agents patrolling more remote locations.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Michael Deibert interview with M24

While in London, I was interviewed about Haiti by M24, the radio station of Monocle magazine. My part begins around the 11 minute mark and can be heard here.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

London Book Launch for Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History

Zed Books, Waterstones Tottenham Court Road, the historian Carrie Gibson and a wonderful, well-informed audience all helped to give my new book, Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History, a lovely UK launch in London earlier this month. All photos are © Michael Deibert.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

On the Ground: Michael Deibert interview with Sam Schindler on What We Will Abide

26 August 2017

Journalist Michael Deibert has called several countries –if not continents– home, and has written several books, including In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico, and most recently Haiti Will Not Perish: A Recent History, which came out earlier this year.

He’s had articles published in The Guardian, Truthdig, The Huffington Post and Slate among others.

He currently resides in Lancaster, but as his résumé clearly shows, staying put isn’t exactly his game. We sat together on a relatively cool summer morning in the cemetery adjacent to St. James’ Church in the heart of Lancaster City, where he was born and the city he calls home – for now.

Listen to the full interview here

Thursday, August 24, 2017

One Rural County’s Battle to Stop a Pipeline From Slicing Through Pennsylvania

August 15, 2017

One Rural County’s Battle to Stop a Pipeline From Slicing Through Pennsylvania  

Lancaster County, Penn. is rising up against the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline.

BY Michael Deibert

In These Times

(Original article appears here)

LANCASTER COUNTY, Penn.—Under the banner of a piercing blue sky at the edge of a cornfield, hundreds gathered on July 9 to pray and raise their voices in song.

Drawn from a diverse group of multi-faith actors, local activists and concerned residents, the assemblage had arrived at this spot to consecrate a prayer chapel they hope will stand in the way of the $3 billion Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, slated to be built through 37 miles of this county in southeastern Pennsylvania by the Oklahoma-based Williams Partners.

In this largely rural county of nearly 600,000, encompassing rolling farmland and the hardscrabble city of the same name, Williams and its subsidiary—the Transcontinental Pipeline (Transco)—have already gained permission from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to seize private property via eminent domain along the route. Coming on the heels of the 2016 to 2017 protests against the construction of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, some believe this may be the new front in the battle between the fossil fuel industry and its enemies.

The sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ are the Catholic religious order that owns the land on which the prayer chapel—little more than a pulpit and several rough wooden benches—stands in the pipeline’s path. They don’t intend to go without a fight.

“We have a land ethic: We consider all creation to be interconnected, and the land is holy,” says Sister Janet McCann, who is on the leadership council of the Adorers at their mission center based in St. Louis, Mo. “To have something come through that could endanger the lives of human beings and the ecosystem, that’s something we need to stand up against. We don’t want to be part of that.”
Her fellow sisters echo this call.

“We are women of faith, and we see this as part of the gospel,” says Sister Sara Dwyer, the social justice coordinator for the nuns. “We are here to be responsible stewards of the earth, and to preserve it for generations to come.”

The chapel is the latest chapter in a years-long battle that has placed hundreds of local residents against the power of the natural gas industry and its enablers in both local and federal government. With echoes of the face-off at Standing Rock and other movements around the country, the battle in Lancaster is one that has politicized many residents who never thought of themselves as activists before.

For Malinda Clatterbuck, her involvement began with a knock on the door of her home in the heavily-rural southern part of the county one afternoon in March 2014.

There, she found a surveyor contracted by Williams standing on her front porch asking for her and her husband, Mark, to sign a form permitting their property—acres of woods she had grown up on—to be surveyed for the pipeline. The surveyor said the Clatterbucks should have already received the paperwork, and that the new project was to be built using already existing pipelines (of which there were none). Clatterbuck told the surveyor she would have to do more research before she signed anything.

When she looked into it, she found that the pipeline was slated to traverse her property (the route has since been moved). Furthermore, it was to cut through other farmland and run directly under the Conestoga River, an umber-hued tributary of the larger Susquehanna River which snakes along for about 65 miles, spanned by covered bridge and abutting local Amish and Mennonite farms.
The experience, and what they viewed as the prevarication on the part of Williams and its ancillaries, led the Clatterbucks to form Lancaster Against Pipelines (LAP), a local advocacy organization committed to opposing the Williams project through non-violent civil disobedience. Among other actions, LAP built an outfitted treehouse on the property of local landowners sympathetic to their cause at the point where Williams was to drill under the Conestoga. They dubbed the structure The Lancaster Stand.

“We’re an agricultural community in many ways, and we depend on the earth for our livelihood,” says Malinda Clatterbuck. “In a way, I think Lancastrians have a better understanding of humanity depending on earth for life than some other places. But this is also the rights of communities to protect their own health and safety, rights that have been taken away from us. This incident has given us an unwanted education about our government not being about people having power, but about industry dictating what happens to everybody else.”

For its part, Williams has been quick to point out what it says are the financial benefits of the project.

“The existing Transco pipeline currently delivers about 40 percent of the natural gas consumed in Pennsylvania, operating more than 1,000 miles of pipe and serving major local distribution companies such as Philadelphia Gas Works, PECO Energy, Columbia Gas and UGI in Lancaster County,” Christopher Stockton, a spokesman for Williams, wrote in an email.  “Any one of those existing Transco pipeline customers will be able to take advantage of new gas supply access made possible by the Atlantic Sunrise project.”

Stockton also pointed to a commitment by Williams to invest $2.5 million in environmental stewardship in the project areas and the “economic relief” that the firm says will come to local communities from natural gas impact fees in Lancaster County.

The response from local and national officialdom to the locals’ concerns has largely not been supportive.  A new bill, H.R. 2910, the “Promoting Interagency Coordination for Review of Natural Gas Pipelines Act,” passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July. It seeks to streamline the permissions needed to commence work on fossil fuel infrastructure.

“I’ve always wanted to see Pennsylvania grow its energy infrastructure,” says Scott Martin, the state senator for Pennsylvania’s 13th District, of which Lancaster is a part. Martin, a Republican, has been a strong proponent of the pipeline. “We’ve tried to bridge the gap between the company and the landowners, but, in the end, if we don’t have these things, how do we expect to have energy for the future?”

In a move that made national news, this past summer, Martin co-sponsored legislation in Pennsylvania’s senate to make any protesters convicted of “rioting” or “public nuisance” liable for the costs related to any protest or demonstration. Those leading the initiative explicitly referenced the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. State Senator Scott Martin noted that, while the local protesters had been peaceful, “if the situation deteriorates … protesters should not be able to walk away from the damage they cause without consequence and expect first responders and taxpayers to deal with the fallout.”

Pipeline advocates frequently accuse protesters of having been infiltrated or in thrall to outside forces and even of being ‘homegrown terrorists.’ The local protesters bristle at the suggestion that they are motivated by anything other than the desire to protect the county where many have made their homes for generations.

“We have been accused of being outside, paid agitators, but most of us here are from community churches—Unitarian, Lutheran, Mennonite—and some of us here are from some of the oldest families in Lancaster County,” says Joanne Musselman, whose family helped found the nearby town of New Holland in the early 1700s. “It’s a sacred covenant between the farmers and the land to be passed onto our grandchildren. And now the big oil and gas boys from Texas and Oklahoma are here to ruin our farmland and sacred places. It’s criminal, and it’s criminal that our elected representatives don’t represent us on this issue.”

Such activism in Lancaster is hardly new. Before, during and after the Civil War, the county served as the political base for the fierce abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, whose grave in Shreiner-Concord Cemetery in the city of Lancaster remains a place of pilgrimage.

Since the electoral college victory of Donald Trump, direct action groups such as Lancaster Stands Up have also emerged in the county, staging demonstrations and advocating for progressive political goals.

The battle, however, remains an uphill one. In late July, pipeline opponents were informed that the landowner on whose land the Lancaster Stand had been built had finally caved and sold the property to Williams for $2.8 million. In recognition of this, the local protesters dismantled the Lancaster Stand rather than allow it to fall into the hands of Williams.

“The industry has a hell of a lot of power in institutions that should be protecting the rights of people,” says Malinda Clatterbuck, with LAP and its allies vowing to fight on. “This is a systemic problem in our country right now. We’ve come to understand that this problem is larger than just protecting Lancaster and what’s beautiful in Lancaster. No one stands alone. We live in community. We have to depend on one another and we have to protect one another.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Was the ‘Guatemalan Spring’ an illusion?

Michael Deibert | 11/07/2017 5:21 pm

fDi Magazine

(Read the original article here)

A year into president Jimmy Morales’s mandate, Guatemala’s economic woes persist. Michael Deibert reports.

In the autumn of 2015, it appeared that Guatemala, Central America’s most populous nation and largest economy, might be turning a corner. Two decades after a peace accord ended Latin America’s bloodiest civil war, the nation, mired in corruption and impunity, succeeded in striking some important blows against both.

Following weeks of massive street protests, both the then-sitting president, Otto Pérez Molina, and recently-departed vice-president, Roxana Baldetti, were divested of their duties and imprisoned on corruption charges, accused of running a criminal network known as La línea (The Line) while in office. The arrests were spearhead by the work of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations-mandated body that has operated since 2007, which works closely  with Guatemala’s Ministerio Público and is charged with investigating criminal organisations and exposing their relation to the state.

At the time, many heralded the developments as a kind of “Guatemalan Spring”, one that would hopefully sweep much of  the corrupt old order away and give the country a chance to capitalise on its vast natural resources and unique geographic position on the Central American isthmus.

A political outsider, former comedian Jimmy Morales, won the presidency that autumn, though the fact that he ran as the candidate of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), a party founded by former military officers leaning to the extreme right of the country’s military spectrum, gave many pause.

A little over a year into his mandate – despite the fact that, last year, Guatemala attracted $1.18bn in foreign investment, with agriculture, electricity manufacturing and mining leading the way, according to figures from Santander – the suspicions some had about Mr Morales have done anything but dissipate.

This past March, thousands marched through the streets of the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, demanding his resignation after both his brother, Samuel Morales, and son, José Manuel Morales Marroquín, were arrested on charges they participated in a tax fraud scheme. The pair are currently awaiting trial.

At around the same time, in an event that seemed to highlight government indifference to Guatemala’s social ills, 41 teenage girls were burned to death at the Virgen de la Asunción shelter, which had been recommended closed due to repeated allegations of abuse of its charges. The case led to the indictment of three government officials and two police officers and prosecutors have openly talked about having Mr Morales’ immunity lifted in it, as well.

Two towns in the department of San Marcos, Ixchiguán and Tajumulco, entered a state of siege due to conflict between local and national authorities and bands of rival drug traffickers.

One small bright spot has been the renewal by the United Nations of the mandate of CICIG head Iván Velásquez this past June. Mr Velásquez, a Colombian jurist, has led the body since 2013, and has earned the enmity of many of Guatemala’s corrupt actors, even as CICIG has maintained a large degree of support among the population. 

If Guatemala is to continue to move forward and solidify the modest gains against impunity it has made, the work of CICIG and the Guatemalan institutions it partners with – and the power of its newly-motivated citizenry – will be key.