Friday, December 19, 2014

Books in 2014: A Personal Selection

These are a few of the books that, for good or ill, made an impression upon me this year. MD

Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Séverine Autesserre

An important book that minutely deconstructs both the structural and day-to-day weaknesses of the current model of international peacebuilding, and with recommendations should be seriously considered by peace builders who do not wish to replicate the mistakes of the past.

Nan Domi: An Initiate's Journey into Haitian Vodou by Mimerose Beaubrun,

A welcome addition to the canon of vodou scholarship and a deeply felt inside account of a faith of often daunting complexity by one of the leaders of the Haitian vodou-rock band Boukman Eksperyans.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

Amid some beautiful descriptions of the natural world of the Western plains rests finely observed character sketches that are distinctly, recognizably American, and which present two competing - even warring - visions of American identity. One is of “unpractical... dreamers, great-hearted adventurers” and one of “men...who had never dared anything, never risked anything” seeking to destroy a magnificent land and to “cut [it] up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest.”  The nasty, gossipy spitefulness of small-town America is also displayed in what is, finally,  an elegy for the end of the era of the pioneer.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

A little gem of a book telling the story of a young American woman in the France of the 1950s, this tale is, despite being very funny, a story of unexpected depth, suffused through with the excitement, energy and wistfulness of youth.

China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa by Howard French

The veteran journalist French paints a picture of China venturing forth into Africa that is not a pretty one. Despite banal slogans of a “win-win” relationship, the Chinese he meets seem surprisingly unaware of how often the ground they have entered has been trod before, and many appear casually racist about the inhabitants of their new home in a way that one might have thought had largely disappeared from public discourse (if not private thought). But by the end of the book, though, it is hard to argue with French’s conclusion that “here [are] the beginnings of an empire, a haphazard empire, perhaps, but an empire nonetheless."

For Whom the Bells Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

One of the American author’s very best books, this remains, in many ways, the fictional counterpoint to George Orwell’s brilliant Homage to Catalonia, detailing the bravery of those fighting on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War (and the humanity of some of those on the other side), the squalid politicking of those directing it (on both sides) and containing some of Hemingway’s finest writing, such as the wrenching account of the last stand of a Spanish guerilla fighter, made all the more so because it is utterly drained of sentimentality.

The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies Under the Antonescu Regime, 1940-1944 by Radu Ioanid

An important work that documents what, far from being a sideshow to the campaign of extermination against Jews elsewhere in Europe, represented perhaps the most frenzied episode of all in violence during fascism’s ascendance. By documenting in grim detail the atrocities committed by Romanian military forces, paramilitary elements and ordinary civilians (often working in tandem with elements of the German military) Ioanid brings the reader vividly back to the madness of such incidents as the 1941 pogrom at Iasi, and reminds the reader that the fever that took over Europe was by no means a German-only affair.

George Groz: Art and Politics in the Weimar Republic by Beth Irwin Lewis

A fascinating biography of a truly politically-engaged artist , a singularly powerful and committed creative soul living through a chaotic national crisis and responding to it the best way he knew how, by creative defiance.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailer

A glimpse of a pivotal moment in U.S. history, the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions (in Miami and Chicago, respectively) penned by the sometimes intriguing, sometimes thuddingly dull literary lion, this book is in many way about the author confronting his own fear; fear of where America was heading, fear of the meagre talents of the politicians tasked with shepherding it to a new day and, perhaps, fear of what he saw when he looked within himself.  Also a glimpse of two American cities that, for all purposes, have ceased to exist in the form that Mailer describes them decades ago.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book by Haruki Murakami

A deeply strange novel that suffused with disappearing spouses, precocious schoolgirls, echoes of World War II and wayward cats, this was the first book I had read by the man who is perhaps Japan’s foremost modern author. A longtime fan of Japanese writers such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Osamu Dazai, I found this book a fascinating if sometimes perplexing evocation of that country, particularly Tokyo, one that made me interested to delve into the author’s works further.

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid

A memoir by a truly great journalist - who died while covering the war in Syria at the tragically young age of 43 - this book is by turns moving, very funny and eerily prescient as Shadid recounts his effort to reconstruct his long-abandoned ancestral home in the Lebanese village of Marjayoun. Written by the author of Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War, the greatest on-the-ground account of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this book points to the great things that Shadid might have accomplished had he lived longer, a fact that adds a great and at times deeply sad poignancy to the book’s account of a veteran rover who seems to have finally found home. and observing that  “part of me was so wary of that old life of guns and misery.”

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

This book, penned by the well-known Colombian author, came with many glittering endorsements, but I’m afraid I found it contrived (fake might be a better word), curiously unengaging and with devices to move the plot along that one could see coming a mile away. The rather whiny, narcissistic characters never felt real to me, and the setting - tangentially amid Colombia’s drug war - to me felt like a fictional conceit rather than something being written about with any level of authority. It does pick up towards the end, though. 

Florida in the Great Depression: Desperation and Defiance by Nick Wynne and Joseph Knetsch

A diffuse but interesting account of a time when the peninsula once looked upon as a promised land for its residents became something of a Canaan, the book educates the reader about such details as the devastating hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, how ticks and screw worms nearly wiped out the state’s population of cattle and how by 1920 nearly 50% of Miami’s black population was Bahamian. Reading it, ones is struck by how the casino-like fixation on land/real estate speculation as a lynchpin of the state's economy never in fact left.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A wish for Haiti

I leave Haiti today after traveling from Port Salut to Au Cap and many points in between, taking the measure of where the country sees itself at this moment. This visit has given me the opportunity to talk with tap-tap drivers, peasant farmers, fishermen, market women, hotel owners and many in between. I have concluded more than ever before that the Martelly-Lamothe government have done a great deal for this country over the last 3 years and, despite the violent naysayers in the political opposition here and those abroad who uncritically buy into their zero option game, a tiny light of hope now flickers in Haiti more than I have seen in the past. I truly hope that in the new year, and under whatever government replaces the recently-departed Lamothe's, that this light is able to burn even brighter in the new year. The people of Haiti deserve, more than anything else, peace. The peace of being able to walk through the streets of their cities without the worry that violent, paid-for demonstrations will terrorize their children and loot their shops; the peace of knowing that they will get a fair price for their rice after they toil away in the fields; the peace of knowing that after they get an education there will be some place for them here, in their home, and they will not be forced to migrate abroad to find work. So, Haiti, as I depart from your shores yet again, I wish you peace.

 Photo © Michael Deibert

Monday, November 03, 2014

Congo in Harlem 6: Special Panel Discussion on DRC's 2016 Elections .

Kambale Musavuli, Alain Seckler, Jason Stearns and I discussing the Democratic Republic of Congo's looming 2016 elections.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Mexico’s Endless War

Mexico's Endless War

By Michael Deibert

When 43 students disappeared last month amid a wave of shootouts and assassinations in the Mexican state of Guerrero, it demonstrated in vivid fashion the insecurity still plaguing the country nearly two years into the mandate of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

One of Mexico's most violence-wracked states, where the beach resort of Acalpulco once played host to the rich and famous, Guerrero has in recent weeks seen mass fatality gunbattles in the capital of Chilpancingo, the decapitation of the brother of a federal deputy and the gunning down of the state chief of an opposition party as he sat in an Acalpulco restaurant. Last month, at least 21 people were killed by Mexican soldiers in Tlatlaya, just across the border in Mexico State, in what witnesses charge was an execution of disarmed criminal suspects who had already surrendered.

Some of the missing students - only 14 have reportedly been located at the time of writing - were apparently driven away in custody of the state police after attending a protest in the city of Iguala, while others were fired upon as they attempted to talk to reporters. At least six people died in the initial attacks, which for many Mexicans bring back memories of such state-sponsored violence as the July 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City's Plaza de las Tres Culturas and the June 1971 El Halconazo killings, also in the capital.

After the discovery of mass graves in the state, two hitmen, connected to the Guerreros Unidos criminal group, have allegedly confessed to killing at least 17 of the students with police complicity.

But today's violence is not confined to Guerrero. In the border state of Tamaulipas, birthplace of the Gulf Cartel - the country's oldest criminal organization - gunbattles and roadblocks flare up with terrifying regularity, and only last week gunmen attacked a police station in Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. In the coastal state of Veracruz, at least four mass graves have been found so far this year. In the western state of Michoacán, violence is rife and hardly a week goes by without another video or photograph surfacing of Servando  "La Tuta" Gómez Martínez, leader of the state's Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug gang, meeting in apparent amity with a local official or journalist.

Though much was made of the supposed different approach Peña Nieto, from Mexico's long-ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI), would take to the drug war from the militarized battle that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN),  had waged, the results have not been encouraging.

More people were murdered during Peña Nieto's first 20 months in office than during same period under Calderón, with Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (Inegi) also measuring an increase in kidnapping, robberies and extortions. One of Peña Nieto's first moves - to dissolve a law enforcement unit that Calderón leaned heavily on and seek to replace it with a gendarmerie reporting directly to the Interior Ministry - appears to have had little positive affect.  Though some well-known drug traffickers, such as Los Zetas' Miguel Treviño and the Sinaloa Cartel's Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán have been arrested, others, such as former Guadalajara Cartel grandee Rafael Caro Quintero and Los Zetas' co-founder Rogelio "El Kelín" González Pizaña, have walked out of jail, with the government claiming ignorance about the circumstances of their release.

The United States, its ravenous appetite for illegal drug undimmed, has, for its part, also played and continues to play an integral role in abetting the criminal violence for which Mexico's citizens pay the price.

Much of the money Mexico's narcos make is laundered through the US banking system, with financial institutions such as Bank of America, HSBC and Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) found by US investigators to have laundered billions of dollars of drug profits for groups like the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas. Border states with liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona have long served as a one-stop shop for Mexican drug cartels, with many weapons purchased in the US later found at the scenes of lethal confrontations south of the border. The US also continues with the fallacy of federal prohibition of drugs, despite the evidence of countries such as Portugal that have decriminalized personal possession of narcotics with no marked increase in addiction. Fortunately, states such as Washington and Colorado are beginning to chip away at this deeply cynical policy with their own more progressive drug laws.

Despite the cheerleading, backslapping and nativist incitement that goes on when it comes to the violence that has been wrenching Mexico for a decade, the last 21 months of the Peña Nieto administration have proven that the bloodshed comes from a broken system on both sides of the border, one that is beyond the ability of facile good guy vs bad guy scenarios to fix. Despite flickerings of popular rejection of the power of the cartels and corrupt officials in states such as Michoacán (often quickly and definitively co-opted by the federal government), the Mexican people remain largely at the mercy of powerful, organized bands of ruthless criminals and government players who often appear organically linked with the criminal groups they are ostensibly trying to fight.

While some U.S. publications have myopically lauded Peña Nieto as "saving Mexico," the reality on the ground suggests something far different. Both Mexico and the United States have a role to play in ending impunity, increasing transparency and reforming frankly deadly laws when it comes to the financial sector, drug policy and firearms, lest Mexico's next president also inherit a country in dire need of "saving."

Michael Deibert is the author of In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press)

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Bienvenido October!

Photo © Michael Deibert

Monday, August 25, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Miami Herald's Gaza Problem

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 20, I attended a rally on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard in support of besieged citizens in Gaza, where, in the course of the last several weeks, the government of Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu has slaughtered over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, including hundreds of children. The pretext was for this attack was the appalling kidnap and murder of 3 Israeli teens in the West Bank, but the result was an ethnic slaughter of which Slobodan Milošević would have been proud. As a U.S.voter and taxpayer, when my country provides billions of dollars of aid a year to enable such as policy, I feel it is my duty to speak up.

The rally itself was relatively uneventful as these things go, but what transpired since was illustrative to me about the rather sorry state of the media here in the United States at this time, and here in Miami in particular.

The protest was scheduled for around 3pm and I stood in front of the Israeli consulate. Two others arrived, one Palestinian, one Jewish, and then finally another man, a somewhat jittery fellow with a keffiyeh around his neck and a small camcorder also showed up. After standing in front of the consulate for a few minutes, we collectively realized the rally was in fact to be held at the Torch of Friendship and not at the consulate, so we ambled across Biscayne Boulevard to join the others assembled.

Shortly after we arrived, indicating the man in the kaffiyah, someone announced "This man is a Zionist [they did not say "Jew"] and he is here filming us to put it up on his Zionist website."

At this, a handful, I would say perhaps 4 to 5 people in a crowd that would eventually number about 200, started yelling at the man, who started yelling back at them. The man with the camcorder behaved in a fairly aggressive way, getting to within inches of the faces of the demonstrators and, it looked to my eyes, as if he might be trying to provoke some sort of physical confrontation in order to film it. However, having been around unstable types before in my work as a journalist in conflict zones, something about the man's demeanour alarmed me. At one point I advised the crowd "If you react, he wins" and "Don't take the bait."  Some however did, and engaged in prolonged back and forths with the man which involved some shoving. At this point, I wandered off to another part of the demonstration.

A few minutes later the police showed up, took the man to the side and extracted off his person and put on the hood of their squad car for all the world to see a very large handgun. When the footage the man shot was later put online, it was revealed that he was a member of a Lake Worth, Florida-based group called United West, an organization designated as an "Anti-Muslim hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights group. Some demonstrators later told me that they had recognized that he was armed.

Whether or not the man was trying to provoke a fight with the the protesters I cannot say. The man eventually went away, and I stayed at the protest for about two hours, joined, at one point, by a Moroccan and a Czech friend. They demonstrators chanted "Let's go Gaza" some slogans in Arabic I didn't understand and some chanted "Let's Go Hamas," which, in the context of the rally, seemed to me a statement of support for resistance to Israel's savaging of Gaza's population. For the record, as an avowed secularist, I do not support religiously-based parties, but, then again, it is not my place to tell people in other countries who they are and aren't allowed to vote for, no matter how ill-advised I may think their choice may be.

There were lots of young people at the protest, quite a few old people and quite a few toddlers as well. There were Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Latinos, basically a cross-section of different groups one finds in South Florida. A group of pro-Israel protesters - about half a dozen - also showed up, waving an Israeli flag and hurling what sounded like invective in Hebrew that I, at least, couldn't understand. Police kept the two groups well apart. I saw no physical altercations or actual violent acts on the part of either side for the two hours I was there.

I posted photos of some of the protest on my blog here.

A few days later, I was made aware of a blog post on the Miami Herald's website by a journalist named Marc Caputo, whom I had never heard of before but who is apparently the Herald's chief political reporter [Florida's ossified, corrupt political scene holds little interest for me, I generally turn to the Herald for its alas dwindling foreign coverage]. The Herald had published extensive coverage of a pro-Israel rally in Miami Beach that same week. To the best of my knowledge, Caputo's blog post was the only mention of the Gaza rally that appeared in the paper or on its website.

In the post, which didn't generally fall dramatically to either a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine slant, the author alluded to how the video I saw being shot that day was picked up by the extreme right-wing news source, which described the video with the words that a "Jewish reporter had been working undercover and was identified, then attacked by the demonstrators," which, as noted, is completely false. Caputo then quoted me by name from a comment I had made on the event's Facebook page about being proud to stand with  the people of Gaza and my query who the armed provocateur was, before concluding "as with any dispute rooted in the Middle East, it’s tough to tell who did what exactly, who started it, who’s more at fault and what the ultimate truth is. The video posted by The United West is edited. We don’t know the whole story. But we probably never will."

Caputo never made any attempt to contact me or, as far as I can tell, anyone else connected to the event, anyone who could have told him the cameraman from United West and the gunmen were one and the same. As neither Caputo nor any other journalist for the Herald had attended the rally, they missed making the connection that the man shooting the video and the man who had gun taken off him and registration checked by the police were the same person. To me, this seemed like a detail worth clarifying.

I wrote first to a Herald editor whom I had met and corresponded with before, explaining the situation and he thoughtfully put me in touch with the journalist in question.

Initially, Caputo was not receptive to this new information, and instead responded in a highly pompous, defensive and verbose tone that rather surprised me, but agreeing to contact the police to confirm my story that the cameraman was armed and that police had removed a firearm from him during the demonstration (I never said the man was arrested). I also found an additional attendee who confirmed my version of the story. The man apparently had a concealed weapons permit but, to me and others at the demonstration, at least, that doesn't make his behavior any less threatening. 

At the conclusion of our exchange, Caputo wrote that  "I think I'll do both: update and issue a separate post. The armed man is unreported and for search purposes on the Internet deserves a separate headline."

Had he done so, that would have been that. But up to this date (22 August 2014),  however, Caputo has done neither, hence what I viewed as the necessity of this posting. This is a detail that should be known. The Miami Herald, likewise, has, as far as I can tell, made no public acknowledgement of this glaring omission. They have had this information for a month and have chosen, for whatever reason, not to share it with the public. What has resulted is another instance in which the U.S. media can blithely paint. perhaps not even intentionally, those defending the human rights of Palestinian civilians as sympathetic or tangentially connected to violence and terrorism.

Though the Miami Herald is significantly diminished from the days when it was one of the world's great newspapers - with the gaping, destroyed facade of the publication's former home in downtown Miami providing some unflattering symbolism - there are still some fine reporters there, and it's a paper I have been happy to contribute articles to, both from abroad and here in Miami, from time to time over the years. But if friends of mine such as the great Irish photographer Andrew McConnell, who I reported with from the Democratic Republic of Congo, can cobble together their own often meagre resources to get into Gaza itself and cover the violence there, is it too much to expect a Miami Herald reporter to get into their air conditioned car and drive a couple of miles to town to cover a demonstration that they will later write about? Now that the Herald has moved from its downtown offices in the heart of Miami to the antiseptic and distant suburb of Doral, it is in ever more danger of being cut off from the people of the city it claims to cover authoritatively.

The temptation to sit behind a desk in an office with minimal effort, tweeting and blogging away, is great but, even in this digital age, reporters must go out among the people and, well, report.  If journalists want to wade into international reporting on fraught geopolitical issues such as this one, simply sighing those issues are "complex" does not cut it.

The Miami Herald failed the people of Miami and the people of Gaza in this instance.

These are matters of life and death.

Either do it right, or don't do it at all.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Michael Deibert interviewed about Mexico on KPFK

My interview with KPFK in Los Angeles about my new book on the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas and the price of America's drug war in Mexico can be heard here.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Frontera List interviews author Michael Deibert

1 August 2014

Frontera List interviews author Michael Deibert

Interview by Virginia Isaad

(Read the original article here)

Frontera List focuses on the number of deaths in Juarez which is higher than what’s often published. After writing this book, how do you feel about how the war and the casualties are portrayed in mainstream media?

I feel that the generally accepted figures of those who have died in the war in Mexico since 2006, which, if one takes into account the 2012 Propuesta Cívica report of around 21,000 people who have had disappeared in addition to more than 70,000 killed, are actually quite conservative. As I mention in the book, after the Tamaulipas massacres in 2010/2011, one Zetas lieutenant said they he thought up to that point the Zetas had buried up to 600 bodies around Tamaulipas alone. I think the full number of those killed in Mexico may be many, many more.  And people also like to forget, because of the drug trade and US drug policies, there are also bodies dropping in places like Miami, Chicago and New Orleans in the United States every single day.

You put yourself in some precarious situations while researching this book. What is one incident that stands out and why?

In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, in late 2013, while finishing up some interviews with people who had been deported from the United States, a contact and I were driving though a cartel-dominated part of the city to another interview across town. As we began to leave the first neighborhood we ran headlong into a Gulf Cartel roadblock of half a dozen guys with automatic rifles stopping cars and deciding who could pass and who couldn’t. They let some go, and stopped some others. To me it looked as if they were scanning the cars for someone in particular, though my contact said that he thought they were actually coming out as a show of force to recruit young people in the neighborhood, something they do from time to time.

You quote an interviewee who says “a new culture and belief are taking hold.” How would you characterize the war now versus five years ago?
Unfortunately, I think now, certainly among border communities in Tamaulipas but also in other parts of Mexico, there is a kind of collective PTSD among many people who live there, and a fatalism verging on despair. You send your kids out for school in the morning and don’t know whether they wil be trapped there by a gunattle later in the day. You open up a business and someone shows up claiming they work for this or that criminal group and that you must pay la mordida or else there will be consequences. You get on the highway to drive from Reynosa to Matamoros and God only knows if you will get there alive or not.

America plays a large role not only as drug consumers but also gun suppliers. What needs to change in America in order to bring about changes in Mexico?

I think there needs to be a general decriminalization and regulation of narcotics in the United States similar to what what we saw with alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition.  Since Richard Nixon’s famous speech in 1971, which many view as the beginning of what came to be known as the war on drugs, the United States has spent more than $1 trillion fighting it, and yet we have seen violence related to the drug trade cut a bloody swathe through Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere. All these year later, I could still step out the door of my apartment in Miami and cop any drug I wanted in about 20 minutes. Over half of sentenced prisoners under federal jurisdiction in the United States are serving time for drug offenses, for which African-Americans are sent to prison at 10 times the rate of caucasians. Does that sound like a successful, equitable system of justice to you? It doesn’t to me.

In terms of the gun industry, I have a story in the book about a guy from Houston who helped facilitate the purchase of more than 100 military-style firearms, many of which ended up in the hands of Mexico’s cartels, including at such locales as a February 2007 assault on the Guerrero  state attorney general’s office in Acapulco that left seven people dead. It is not an unrepresentative case and, as I’m sure you, know, for many years, at gun shows in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, unlicensed dealers were not even obligated to record the buyer’s name, and in Arizona, no licensing or permit requirements whatsoever were imposed for purchasing  firearms, including limiting the firearms a person could purchase by quantity or time period. The US is a great one-stop shop for the cartels.

My hope is, building on the example we’ve seen shown by states like Colorado and Washington, US drug policy will go the way of Portugal, which in November 2000 decriminalized “personal” drug possession and use up to amounts generally thought of to be able to be consumed by one person over a 10-day period, including for drugs  such as cocaine and heroin. With an emphasis on dissuasion and prevention of drug addiction as well as treatment, in the 14 years since the law was passed, Portugal didn’t see a significant increases in drug use among the population and rather drug consumption among 15 to 19 years olds, a particularly at-risk group, actually went down. Portuguese police are making fewer arrests but are seizing larger quantities of drugs because now, rather than low level drug use and dealing, they are free to combat organized crime.

A lot of media coverage focuses on  capturing drug kingpins like El Chapo however you say it does very little to truly impact the drug trade. What needs to happen in order to cause the foundations of these cartels to unravel?

As I said, I think there needs to be a general decriminalization of narcotics, and we need to realize that it’s not productive to put people – the users – in jail, for basically beings sick. As Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, one of the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel says at one point in the book, even if authorities might feel a momentary elation at the killing or capture of this or that drug lord, their replacements are already out there.

If there’s one thing you wish readers would take from this book, what would it be?

The the policies of the United States with regard to the drug trade – from the prohibition of narcotics to the free flow of firearms to the private prison industry that jails so much of our population to the US banks that launder billions of dollars of drug money – have corrupted not only drug producing and distributing counties like Colombia and Mexico, but the United States itself. And it is time that these policies change.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Miami Demonstration in Support of Palestine and Against Israel's Massacres in Gaza


All photos © Michael Deibert

Thanks to all those who came out to support the people of Gaza and greater Palestine in Miami yesterday. Even the pro-Israel fanatic who showed up with a gun and had to be disarmed by the police didn't deter a huge crowd. I have often said that Miami has the social conscience of a flea but yesterday, at least, I was happy to be proved wrong.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Reading at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon

Reading from In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico at the famous Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

Photo © James Rexroad

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Imperialism 2.0? Review of Howard French’s ‘China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa’

Imperialism 2.0? Review of Howard French’s ‘China’s Second Continent: How A Million Migrants Are Building A New Empire in Africa’ 

By Michael Deibert  

Posted on July 9, 2014 by AfricanArgumentsEditor

(Read the original article here)

When, midway through the American journalist Howard French’s new book, a Zambian politician tells him dejectedly that “we are not a poor people but we have crowned ourselves with poverty,” the phrase resonates with the experience of many countries is modern-day Africa. Resource rich but often misgoverned by autocrats who refuse to leave office – and whose depredations have been bankrolled by Western governments – Africa, despite some bright spots, remains a continent of unrealised hopes and unfulfilled potential. It is that potential, French demonstrates in his new book, that the Chinese have arrived to tap.

Between 2003 and 2013, China’s investment in Africa grew from $77 million to $2.9 billion, and the ostensible “million migrants” from China (a figure that, after reading the book, seems wildly conservative) arrived in Africa with their government’s blessing to continue their country’s transformation, in French’s words “from being a vessel” of globalization “to becoming an increasingly transformative actor in its own right.”
French, a former New York Times bureau chief in both West Africa and China, brings a nuanced and familiar understanding of both regions to this tale. The book is scrupulously even-handed to its subjects and steers well-clear of anything smacking of jingoism.
The author meets many people, including a foul-mouthed farmer from Henan dreaming of building an empire in Mozambique, a factory owner from the ancient city of Chengdu in Senegal, and a Francophile construction company official in Mali. Almost all appear casually racist about the inhabitants of their new homes in a way that one might have thought had largely disappeared from public discourse (if not private thought).
With a middle class larger than that of India, the African continent is not simply a repository for much-needed natural resources to fuel Chinese economic expansion, but also as a market for the country’s exports. Africa’s population is expected to double over the next 40 years, taking us to just about the time that newly-discovered mineral reserves are expected to run out.
As French writes, “the continent’s rapidly rising population means lots of new mouths to feed, lots more people to be clothed, devices and appliances and goods of all kinds to be sold.”
The Chinese were aided in their quest to expand in Africa by a US government which, during the critical juncture in the early-mid first decade of the millennium, was led by George W. Bush, a man completely uncurious about the world except in the most broad terms, and whose diplomats seemed equally taken by surprise by the rapid expansion that many on the ground had seen coming for some time.
In truth, for nearly a decade before Bush – at least since the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia during which 18 US servicemen were killed by Somali militias – America had put Africa on the back burner. This has changed somewhat during the presidency of Barack Obama, but not dramatically so.
The picture that French paints of China venturing forth into Africa is not a pretty one, and despite banal slogans of a “win-win” relationship, the Chinese he meets seem surprisingly unaware of how often the ground they have entered has been trod before.
The reader is treated to a vivid account of a short-sighted policy of non-transparent deal-making in Guinea, the rebuffing or insulting of civil society in various countries (generating no small reservoir of ill will) and engagement in the payment of starvation (and often illegally low) wages and non-existent workplace safety.
For the government of China, Africa is just one backdrop among many where new opportunities lie and where much money can be made. But by the end of the book it is hard to argue with French’s conclusion that “here [are] the beginnings of an empire, a haphazard empire, perhaps, but an empire nonetheless”
There are a few unexplored strands of this story that one wishes French had also included. The Chinese presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s most iconic and tragic countries (and one that French knows well, having devoted a large part of his 2005 book to it) goes unexamined. But perhaps this was a conscious decision on the author’s part to highlight some of the rather less-known corners of the continent, such as the aforementioned Zambia, Mozambique and Namibia.
Towards the end of his book, French quotes the historian Peter Duus’ history of Japan’s colonial project in Korea: “[imperialism] requires an available victim – a weaker, less organized or advanced society or state unable to defend itself against outside intrusion.”
Africa, bedeviled as it may be by misrule, today has a more vibrant civil society than at any time in its history. One that robustly confronts the excesses of local governments and also the intrigues of outsiders of many nationalities and political persuasions – all linked by their desire to profit from the continent’s wealth.
Who will prevail in this David versus Goliath battle is unclear, as is whether the democratic gains made in countries like Ghana and Senegal will create the space needed for this side of the debate to succeed. As French clearly recognises, this remains one of the more pressing questions in Africa today.
Michael Deibert is the author of In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America’s Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press), The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books) and Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).

Friday, July 04, 2014

The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico on Portland's KBOO

In advance of my appearance at Powell's next week, I spoke with Portland's KBOO yesterday on the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas and the price of America's drug war in Mexico. You can listen to the full interview here.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Interview with This is Hell! on Chicago's WNUR

I was interviewed about the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas and America's drug war in Mexico by Chuck Mertz on This is Hell! on Chicago's WNUR. During the interview, I suggest that if Americans want to know what a narco-state looks like, they step out the front door and have a look around. The segment can be heard here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Tamaulipas, Cradle of Mexico's Drug War, Erupts

Posted: 06/26/2014 12:59 pm

Tamaulipas, Cradle of Mexico's Drug War, Erupts 
By Michael Deibert

The Huffington Post

(Read the original article here)

The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, birthplace of the country's oldest criminal organization, the Gulf Cartel, is again awash in blood. Just across the Rio Grande from Texas and abutting the Gulf of Mexico, neither a change of presidents, seemingly endless battles within the cartel and with their former allies turned deadly enemies Los Zetas, years of high-profile killings and arrests of cartel leaders, or the United States' own seemingly endless war on drugs have made a dent in the violence.

While some U.S. publications have myopically lauded the government of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto as "saving Mexico" since he took over from his predecessor Felipe Calderón's militarized battle with the country's narcos, the reality on the ground tells a different story.

In the space of a few days in May, gun battles in the city of Reynosa killed at least 23 people, 16 bullet-riddled corpses were found in abandoned vehicles around the state, and the chief bodyguard for Tamaulipas governor Egidio Torre Cantú was arrested for involvement in the murder of state intelligence chief Salvador Haro Muñoz. Just south of Tamaulipas in the tropical port city of Veracruz, nine presumed cartel gunmen were slain in a shootout with Mexican armed forces, and earlier this month more than 30 bodies were found in a mass grave there, a grave it took the state's governor days to secure.

As I detail in my new book, In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico, (Lyons Press), the Gulf Cartel was a regional anomaly among Mexico's drug trafficking organizations, most of whose lineage harkens back to the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa. The organization traces its roots back to the failed U.S. policy of prohibition of alcohol, a time when millions of Americans were turned into criminals because of a substance they chose to put into their own bodies, and during when the power and reach of organized crime in the United States grew exponentially, much as it has in Mexico in recent decades.

The criminal band that would grow into the Gulf Cartel was founded by a Tamaulipas farm boy named Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, born in 1915, and who for years ran the organization from behind the doors of the Piedras Negras Restaurant in the city of Matamoros, its walls adorned with pictures of horses from his 500-acre ranch, El Tlahuachal.

In his dotage, by the mid 1980s Guerra had turned over the running of the organization to his nephew, Juan García Ábrego, who ran it until his arrest in January 1996. García Ábrego was eventually succeeded by Osiel Cárdenas, who, in a highly significant move for drug trafficking and for Mexico, around 1997 succeeding in getting a clique of Mexican special forces soldiers to defect and form a group of enforces, Los Zetas (the Z's). Eventually, many more Mexican (and Guatemalan) special forces soldiers, and ambitious common criminals, would follow.

The expansion of the Gulf Cartel, its allies and its rivals was helped invaluably by economic pressures north of the border.

According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with a population of 310 million, the United States consumes around $37 billion of cocaine a year, while Europe as a whole, with a population of 830 million, consumed $34 billion. Much of that money is laundered through the U.S. banking system, with financial institutions such as Bank of America, HSBC and Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) found by U.S. investigators to have laundered billions of dollars of drug profits for groups like the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.

Despite the United States having the highest rate of incarceration in the world (between 1989 and 2009, the private prison industry in the United States grew by an astonishing 1,600 percent), and despite more than half of America's federal inmates being in prison for drug-related offenses, no one ever went to jail for the banks' role in facilitating the cartels' bloody business. Meanwhile, border states with liberal gun laws such as Texas and Arizona have long served as a one-stop shop for Mexican drug cartels.

Osiel Cárdenas was arrested in Mexico in March 2003, yet more or less continued running the organization for behind bars until his extradition to the United States in January 2007. Both García Ábrego and Cárdenas are now held at the super maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado, along with such inmates as the "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski and the Al-Qaeda terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

Eventually, the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas would violently rupture, with ever more micronized versions fighting battles with heavy-weapons such as grenade launchers over specific towns and even individual streets. This past December, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the author of this article ran headlong into a heavily-armed Gulf Cartel roadblock set up in the border city of Reynosa, only a few minutes from the U.S. border.

Tamaulipas remains a bastion of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI), the party that ruled Mexico for decades until 2000, and to which current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who recaptured the presidency after it rested for 12 years in the hands of the opposition Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party or PAN), belongs.

Historically, residents of Tamaulipas, long a PRI bastion, would be unwise to look to officialdom for protection. In addition to Torre (who ran for governor only after his own brother, Rodolfo Torre Cantú, was murdered while campaigning in June 2010 in what many believe was a cartel-sanctioned hit), the previous governors of Tamaulipas have an interesting history.

Torre's immediate predecessor, Eugenio Hernández Flores, saw fit to entrust his personal security to a well-known Gulf Cartel hitman during his 2005-2011 tenure, and fled to Europe at the end of his mandate. Hernández's own predecessor, Tomás Yarrington, was publicly praised by Texas governor Rick Perry during his time in office, but his 1999 to 2005 reign saw an extraordinary expansion of drug trafficking in the state. Yarrington eventually disappeared entirely shortly before being indicted both in Mexico and the United States for aiding the Gulf Cartel. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

During Mexico's 2012 election - the one that brought the PRI back to the presidency - some residents of Tamaulipas claimed to receive anonymous calls claiming to be from the Gulf Cartel ordering them to cast their ballots for the PRI under penalty of death for failing to do so. This strategy did not work in Matamoros itself, where voters elected the PAN candidate for mayor, breaking the PRI's long domination of the city.

As a result both of Mexico's own institutional failings but, also, those of the United States -- where drug money is laundered in U.S. banks, the private prison industry spends millions of dollars lobbying for mandatory minimum sentencing statutes for drug offenses, and firearms manufacturers gleefully supply cartels with weapons -- Tamaulipas has been almost completely lawless for years, although it has received scant attention compared with Ciudad Juarez, over 800 miles to the west.
Until the United States is willing to face up to its own role in Mexico's drug war, both as the world's largest consumer of narcotics and a bonanza for cartels seeking firepower, it is unlikely that the long-suffering citizens of Tamaulipas can expect anything like peace.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

An Inside Look at Mexico's Drug War

An Inside Look at Mexico's Drug War

The Takeaway 

(Please listen to the full interview with The Takeaway's John Hockenberry here)

As a country, we've become accustomed to the gruesome headlines out of Mexico. Things like "26,121 Missing During Mexico's Drug War" or "Mass Beheading Rocks Mexico City" regularly flash across screens and are printed across newspapers in bold fonts. We're in close proximity to a raging drug war, yet most of us couldn't be more removed from the realities occurring just over the border.

In his new book, "In The Shadow of Saint Death," author Michael Deibert chronicles the history and evolution of the warring cartels. Their influence, fueled by America's own drug policies and addictions, now permeates nearly every part of society, from the government to business owners to the military.

"What had been somewhat isolated now is violence that's affecting everywhere in Mexico practically, including places like Acapulco and places like Cuernavaca, which is very close to the capital," says Deibert. "So there has been, I'd say, a general disintegration of law and order in the country as a whole."

Beheadings are a preferred form of cruelty used by drug cartels. They are frequently video taped and are designed as a symbol used to instill terror in the hearts of Mexican citizens.

"They learned that basically by watching insurgent videos from Iraq," says Deibert. "The mass graves are a great testimony to the complete absence of the state in huge parts of Mexico."

Deibert says that is important to be very skeptical of about the number of people dead and wounded in the drug war.

"The number of people that we have dead now, which including the missing is somewhere around 70,000 to 75,000, but I think it could be much, much more than that," Deibert continues. "And that makes the drug war in Mexico since 2006 the most deadly conflict in Latin America aside from Guatemala's civil war, which was 30 years long and killed 200,000 people. But in the modern era, that's the most deadly."

Since the violence began there has also been a cultural shift in Mexico, says Deibert, spurring a controversial folk-music genre called narcocorridos, which romanticize drugs, guns, and violence.
The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto are unable to get the situation under control, though they often project a contradictory image.

"They have a great PR machine and they're trying to project this image that the country is turning the corner, when in fact in Tamaulipas last year the murder rate went up 90 percent," he says. "If you talk to your average Mexican, they don't feel any safer now than they did four years ago."

Deibert says that Americans must accept responsibility for some of the conflict in Mexico. In 2012, an estimated 23.9 million Americans aged 12 or older—or 9.2 percent of the population—had used an illicit drug or abused a psychotherapeutic medication (such as a pain reliever, stimulant, or tranquilizer) in the past month.

"Felipe Calderón, who was Peña Nieto's predecessor, had something interesting to say once: 'It's not easy living next door to the world's biggest and richest drug addict,' which is the United States," says Deibert. "I think that's accurate, and something for us to ponder for us as Americans."

But it's not just America's demand for drugs that is fueling the Mexican drug war. Guns flow in the opposite direction from the United States and south of the border.

"So many of these guns come from the United States, and that's something that people have to understand," says Deibert. "There was one guy that I write about in the book who, over the period of a couple months, bought over 100 assault rifles in Houston, many of which were found in different crime scenes around Mexico, including an attack on the state prosecutor's office in Acapulco that killed seven people."

While most of the drug cartel violence is contained to Mexico, the U.S. is not impervious.

"There's piles of dead bodies in Chicago, in New Orleans, in Baltimore, and in Miami," says Deibert.
"The death and destruction that has been caused by the criminalization of narcotics in the United States, and the perfect market environment that's been created for criminals by that criminalization, is really what has to end, along with a more restrictive gun policy."

Deibert suggests that the United States adopt a model that is similar to that of Portugal. In the year 2000, he says that Portugal decriminalized small amounts of drugs. He says that in 14 years there hasn't been an increase in drug use or abuse—in fact, among usage among those age 13 to 19 actually decreased.

"I don't think Americans can eternally watch Mexico go up in flames and claim they don't have a responsibility for it," he says.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Journalist paints an ugly picture of Mexican cartel violence in 'In the Shadow of Saint Death'

Posted on Fri, Jun. 06, 2014

Journalist paints an ugly picture of Mexican cartel violence in 'In the Shadow of Saint Death'

By Connie Ogle

(Read the original article here)

Journalist Michael Deibert doesn't believe America's war on drugs is a battle that can be won.

"I think if most Americans saw the cost that the prohibition of narcotics exacts in places like Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia," he says, "the idea of decriminalizing drugs might not seem so far

That's why Deibert has written In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons, $24.95), about which he'll talk Tuesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. In the book, he examines the history and legacy of the drug war, which he
traces back to President Richard Nixon, through the prism of the Gulf Cartel, a ruthless trafficking organization operating across the border from East Texas. In terms of the drug wars, Ciudad Juárez gets all the notoriety, but Deibert writes that this area has seen just as much violence as its sister city to the west.

Embroiled in a brutal battle with its former allies Los Zetas -- made up of "military special forces who became the enforcement wing and changed the dynamic of drug trafficking in Mexico," Deibert says -- the cartel has been around so long its founding members got started during Prohibition.

"Another great success that immediately made people stop drinking and undercut the criminal element," Deibert says wryly. "The U.S. had this 13-year experiment that was a total disaster. So I thought I'd look at the strategy that has been a more deadly disaster in my view."

Deibert is no stranger to dangerous territory. For his book The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, he traveled through the killing fields of central Africa. He's also the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, an account of the events leading up to the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But talking to ordinary people trying to
conduct their lives amid the cartel violence was eye-opening.

"People are living under a siege and have been for many years," he says. "It's amazing what the human spirit can adjust to."

Q: What parts of U.S. policy are most problematic in your view?

A: The kingpin strategy, taking out the leaders, makes no difference in terms of movement of narcotics to the United States. There are 100 people in line to take their places. ... The idea that somehow we have this secure fence act, that we're going to have a 12-foot wall at the
border, and the cartels are going to say, "We're going to stop trafficking drugs," is just ridiculous. The idea that corruption stops at the border in Mexico is false. ... I really, truly believe that decriminalization is the only way the violence will end.

Q: What prevents the United States from making policy changes?

A: Our economic system is intrinsically dependent on the drug war. Look at the billions of dollars that have been traced to drug profits laundered by banks like Bank of America and Wachovia. That's all part of the public record. Look at the growth of the private prison industry in the last 15 years, with multimillion-dollar companies dependent on having strict enforcement of drug laws and harsh
mandatory minimums.

We're in a unique situation in America. There's supply and demand, and we're demand. We consume more cocaine than western Europe. ... There's a narrative in the U.S. that we're being invaded by Mexican drug cartels, but I would say our need for drugs, our addiction, is being fought in Mexico along with places like Miami Gardens and Chicago and New Orleans.

Q: Do you think the recent decriminalization of marijuana in a handful of states could lead to significant policy changes?

A: I think change will come from the states themselves. There's even talk of medical marijuana being approved in Florida. I hope that happens. I don't know how long it will take, but there will be a
critical mass of states saying enough is enough. On the federal level, politicians are too cowardly. Look at Portugal and the Netherlands that have more permissive drug laws. When Portugal decriminalized small amounts of cocaine and heroin, people didn't run out and start sticking needles into their arms.

Q: Journalists covering this story haven't fared well in Mexico. Did you fear for your life while researching this story?

A: I never felt safe for a moment. ... I was stopped at a Gulf Cartel roadblock where people were getting pulled out of their cars. It was a Saturday afternoon, sunny, and they're able to set up a heavily armed roadblock in the middle of a city. ... I've done reporting over the years in Haiti or the Congo or Brazil, and I've had a lot of experiences where people have pointed guns at me. When you're younger you have this idea you're indestructible. But I've seen people killed in front of me, and that brings home the idea you're not. The older you get, that weighs on you a bit. I'll be 41 this summer...I'm
thinking this may be the last hurrah for the kind of reporting that I do. Very strange that on my last day of research I get stopped outside Reynosa at that roadblock. It just brought home again the idea that despite all this rhetoric in Washington that these guys have no fear.

Q: What's it like for the people who live amid all this violence?

A: I interviewed people who had to deal with this every day -- businessmen, school kids, prosecutors, journalists -- to see what it's like to live in this reality. ... I think there's a kind of collective PTSD people have. They're living under circumstances no one should have to live under. Imagine sending your kids to school not knowing if there will be a gun battle or not. In Tamaulipas, there's a general
breakdown in law and order, increases in extortion and kidnapping. People say they're from the Gulf Cartel to extort money even if they're not, because people are so scared they'll pay. I was talking
to someone in Ciudad Juárez in 2010, which was one of the worst years for the city, and he said, "Can you believe it -- it used to be no one would go into Mexico City because they said it was too dangerous."

What's sad is you feel Mexican society has been shredded over the past 10 years because of this. There's a great restaurant in Matamoros, Garcia's, across the bridge from Brownsville, Texas. Everybody from Brownsville would go over there, there was great food and a great atmosphere, Mexican music. You go there now, and it's empty. The last time I was there, we were one of two tables in the restaurant.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald's book editor.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Inside Mexico’s Drug War on on KERA Dallas

You can listen to my hour-long discussion on the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas and Mexico's (and America's) drug war on KERA Dallas here.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

L'heure d'été

Seeing this picture for the first time brightened my afternoon. Albert Camus and his publisher, Michel Gallimard, Greece, 1958. It is important sometimes to remember that there are moments like this in life, too.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014


Photo © Michael Deibert

In July 2006, I picked this shell casing up from the ground in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant , during one of the worst bouts of gang warfare Haiti's capital had ever seen. I was there working on an article trying to explain what was going on, why the violence was happening. Two of the people I interviewed during those visits were killed shortly thereafter, and it was there that I finally learned the fate of an old friend who had disappeared the year before. I don't know why I keep it, but I do, right here next to my collection of books on Haiti.

Thoughts on the passing of Gabriel García Márquez (and Heberto Padilla)

Great writers are not necessarily great human beings. Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a rabid anti-semite and Nazi collaborator. Ernest Hemingway after about the age of 40 curdled into a nasty bully. William S. Burroughs spent much of his life as basically a sex tourist with "boys" whose ages can only be speculated at. Gabriel García Márquez was a great writer, but he was also a dictator's tool who, when the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla was imprisoned for his political beliefs (his words alone), sided with Fidel Castro, Mr. Padilla's jailer. Heberto Padilla paid the price for his convictions with jail, a forced grotesque "public confession" straight out of Stalin-era Soviet Union, a lonely exile and finally dying largely unremembered in Alabama. I wonder how many of those floridly praising García Márquez now - not just the man's magnificent writing but also his public image as some sort of pan-Latin American secular prophet - ever imagined what it would have been like to be in Heberto Padilla's position, rotting in prison and having a fellow author, who one would have thought would have been a natural ally, instead supporting your imprisonment as the price to be paid for a tyrant to create his kingdom?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Literatura sin fronteras

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity this past weekend to discuss writing and literature with the Cuban poet Amaury Pacheco, who came to Miami as part of the O Miami Poetry Festival. Talking with Amaury and his fellow artists reminded me once again that art truly transcends borders, and that there is so much more to the histories of countries than just politics.

Photo © Michael Deibert 

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Haiti: In the Kingdom of Impunity

Haiti: In the Kingdom of Impunity 

By Michael Deibert

There are many striking sights to be seen in Haiti today. In the north of the country, where over 200 years ago a revolt of slaves began that would eventually topple French rule, a 45-minute journey on a smooth road traverses the distance between the border with the Dominican Republic and Haiti's second largest city, Cap-Haïtien, replacing what used to be a multi-hour ordeal. From Cap-Haïtien itself, a city buzzing with economic activity, travel to Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, could previously be a 10-hour odyssey, but is now accomplished in around 5 hours via a comfortable air-conditioned bus. Once the traveler arrives in Port-au-Prince itself - a city which, along with its environs, was largely devastated by a January 2010 earthquake - one finds, startlingly, functioning traffic lights, street lights powered by solar panels and armies of apron-clad workers diligently sweeping the sidewalks and gutters of what has historically been the filthy fiefdom of Haiti's myriad of warring political factions. To the south, in the colonial city of Jacmel, which sheltered the South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar at a critical time during his struggle to break South America free from the yoke of Spain, one of the most pleasant malecóns in the Caribbean has been built, facing the tumbling sea and mountains sloping dramatically in the distance.

But perhaps no scene in the new Haiti - governed since May 2011 by President Michel Martelly, now assisted by Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, a former telecommunications mogul - was as striking as that which occurred in the northern city of Gonaives on January 1st of this year. There, at annual ceremony marking Haiti's independence, President Martelly, who in a previous incarnation was known as Sweet Micky and was perhaps the best-known purveyor of Haiti's sinuous konpa music, greeted on the official dais none other than Jean-Claude Duavlier, who ruled Haiti as a dictator from 1971 until 1986, and fled the country amid pillaging of the state and gross human rights abuses.

"Despite everything that has happened in the last 30 years, it is as if they want us to return to the situation that existed before February 7, 1986," says Laënnec Hurbon, Haiti's most well-known sociologist, referring to the date of Duvalier's departure.

Duvalier had taken over from his dictator-father, François Duvalier, a psychopath who lorded over a terrifying police state since 1957, and had created the infamous Tontons Macoutes, denim-clad paramilitary henchmen.

The younger Duvalier was only 19 when he ascended to office, but he grew into the role soon enough. In a speech in October 1977 - the 20th anniversary of his father's assumption of the presidency - the 24 year-old Jean-Claude Duvalier gave a speech in which he heralded the advent of "Jean-Claudism," supposedly a liberalizing trend in Duvalierism that would foster economic development. The near-fatal beating of a prominent government critic, Pastor Luc Nerée, only weeks later gave a flavour for how limited that liberalization would be. Fort Dimanche, a Port-au-Prince prison, during the Duvaliers' reign became known as the Dungeon of Death for the thousands of government opponents and other unfortunate souls who perished there.

In a landmark decision last month, a Haitian court ruled that Duvalier could be tried for crimes against humanity and for abuses committed by security forces during his rule, but deferred a decision as to whether he could be tried on various corruption charges.

"The Duvalier decision is a little victory against impunity and corruption," says Pierre Espérance, director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), Haiti's most well-known human rights organization. "But we still have a lot of work to do."

Along with several other organizations, RNDDH is a member of the Collectif contre l'impunité, a coalition of groups advocating for legal action against Duvalier.

Duvalier is far from the only Haitian politician with a trial potentially in his future. The former boy dictator, now grown gray and sallow in old age, returned to Haiti in January 2011 in the midst of the contentious vote that saw Martelly elected. He was followed by another former president, and arch-rival, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

During his 2001 to 2004 second turn in office and immediately preceding it, Aristide was accused of, among other misdeeds, arming and organizing paramilitary youth groups known as chimeres, presiding over brutal collective reprisals by his security forces against the rebellious city of Gonaives, and a ghastly massacre in the town of Saint-Marc in February 2004, the latter killings by a combination of police, security personnel from Aristide's National Palace and allied street gangs having claimed at least 27 lives. In recent testimony presented in a Haitian court, Aristide was also accused of orchestrating the April 2000 murder of Jean Dominique, the country's most well-known journalist. Two separate bodies - the Unite Centrale de Renseignements Financiers (UCREF) and the Commission d'Enquete Administrative - that examined financial irregularities from Aristide's time as Haiti's president found that "Aristide's government illegally pumped at least $21 million of his country's meager public funds into private firms that existed only on paper and into his charities."

Nor can those tasked with checking the power of the executive branch be viewed with great confidence, with Haiti's legislative branch of government often resembling a prison more than a parliament.

Two members of Haiti's lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, Rodriguez Séjour and  N'Zounaya Bellange Jean-Baptiste (who as parliamentarians enjoy immunity from prosecution), have been credibly accused of involvement of the April 2012 murder of Haitian police officer Walky Calixte, but both men remain free with apparent little fear of trial or even arrest. In the slain policeman's Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Carrefour, mournful graffiti still reads Adieu, Walky. Another deputy, fierce Martelly critic Arnel Belizaire, is alleged by the government to have managed to get himself elected despite the fact that he was a fugitive who had broken out of jail a few years before [What is beyond debate is that Belizaire is prone to bouts of physical violence in the parliament itself].

One of President Martelly's chief advisors, Calixte Valentin, was identified as being responsible for the killing of a merchant named Octanol Dérissaint in the town of Fonds-Parisien, near the border with the Dominican Republic, in April 2012. Valentin was never tried for the crime and remains a free man to this day.

It is amid such a discordant background - foreign investment flooding into the country as never before in terms of tourist initiatives and industrial parks even as Haiti's politic milieu remains deeply dysfunctional - that long-delayed legislative elections for two-thirds of the country's senate, the entire chamber of deputies, and local and municipal officials such as mayors are scheduled to take place in October. Several political parties have not as-yet signed on to the electoral plan.

"There are a few parties who chose not to participate, but it was an open process," says Carl Alexandre, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH. "It is our hope that those who didn't participate initially will want to join as the process unfolds, because the alternative is unthinkable. If the elections are not held this year, in January there will not be a functioning parliament. There will be no one there."

[The UN mission in Haiti has had its own issues with impunity. A cholera epidemic, all-but-certainly introduced by Nepalese peacekeepers, has killed over 8,000 people in the country, but the UN has claimed immunity from any damages.]

Around the country, the Martelly-Lamothe government seems to remain broadly popular, with one moto taxi driver plying Port-au-Prince's dusty Route de Freres telling me "they are working well for Haiti," a sentiment I heard often in my travels around the country. This despite the fact that  - from the crowds in Gonaives chanting "Martelly for 50 years!" to the huge billboards around the country bearing Martelly's image (in violation of Article 7 of Haiti's constitution, which bans "effigies and names of living personages" from "currency, stamps, seals, public buildings, streets or works of art") -  the government seems to have by no means entirely abandoned the realpolitik of Haiti's past. As they once did for Aristide, graffiti slogans around Port-au-Prince laud the bèl ekip (beautiful team) of Martelly-Lamothe.

Haiti's economy is indeed moving - even roaring - forward, but the old need for a mechanism for crime and punishment of the country's powerful keeps knocking on Haiti's door, unbidden, perhaps unwanted, but there nonetheless. In a marriage of impunity and economy, perhaps the echoes of Jean-Claudism do not appear so distant after all.

"We are talking about the situation of impunity that has been the rule since François Duvalier came to power in 1957, and something has to be done to stop that," says Sylvie Bajeux, director of the Centre Œcuménique des droits humains (CEDH), who also served as one of the officials who investigated Aristide's alleged financial misdeeds. Like RNDDH, the CEDH is a member of the Collectif contre l'impunité. "If we don't, we are going nowhere, we cannot talk about reconstruction."

"Jean-Claude Duvalier's case has become the symbol for the need to put an end to impunity," Bajeux  says. "He's being charged with monstrous deeds. So what is going to happen? What happens with Duvalier's case is something that will affect the whole future of this country, one way or another."

Michael Deibert is the author of In the Shadow of Saint Death: The Gulf Cartel and the Price of America's Drug War in Mexico (Lyons Press, 2014), The Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books, 2013) and Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005).