Archive for March, 2010


The Jerusalem “Compromise”

Obama still doesn’t have the stomach to confront Israel

by Jonathan Cook

Taken from CounterPunch. Click here for link.

Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in the United States this week armed with a mandate from the Israeli parliament. A large majority of legislators from all of Israel’s main parties had supported a petition urging him to stand firm on the building of Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem — the very issue that got him into hot water days earlier with the White House.

Given the Israeli consensus on Jerusalem, there was no way Mr Netanyahu could have avoided rubbing that wound again in his speech on Monday to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby group.

He told the thousands of delegates: “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”

Citing his own policy as inseparable from all previous Israeli governments, he added: “Everyone knows that these neighbourhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.”

Mr Netanyahu’s speech appeared consistent with the new approach agreed by both sides to end this particular debacle. According to the US media, a policy of “Don’t ask and don’t tell” has been adopted to avoid making East Jerusalem an insurmountable obstacle to negotiations.

It will be telling how the US administration responds to the latest approval by Israeli planning authorities of a housing project at the Shepherd’s Hotel in East Jerusalem – this time in the even more controversial area of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian community slowly being taken over by Jewish settlers backed by the Israeli courts.

The White House has eased its stance chiefly because Mr Netanyahu has climbed down on two issues of even greater importance to the administration.

First, he has agreed to make a “significant gesture” to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, probably in the form of a prisoner release. That is the carrot needed to bring Mr Abbas to the peace talks overseen by George Mitchell, the US special peace envoy.

And second, Mr Netanyahu has conceded that Israel will discuss the “core issues” of the conflict – borders, Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees – ensuring that the negotiations are substantive rather than formal, as he had intended.

Those concessions – if Mr Netanyahu delivers on them – should be enough to break up his far-right coalition, a prospect the White House craves. The US administration wants Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist opposition, to join Mr Netanyahu in a new, “peacemaking coalition”.

If Mr Netanyahu could wriggle out of this bind, he would do so. But his ace in the hole – harnessing the might of AIPAC and its legions in Congress to back him against the White House – looks to have been disarmed.

Comments last week by Gen David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command, linked Israel’s intransigence towards the Palestinians to the spread of a hatred that endangers US troops in the Middle East. That left the AIPAC hordes with little option but to swallow their and Mr Netanyahu’s pride, lest they be accused of dual loyalties.

In the words of Uri Avnery, a former Israeli legislator: “This is only a shot across the bow, a warning shot fired by a warship in order to induce another vessel to follow its instructions. The warning is clear.”

And the warning is that Mr Netanyahu must come to the negotiating table to help to establish a Palestinian state whatever the consequences for his coalition.

But it would be unwise to assume that the crisis over settlement building in East Jerusalem indicates that the Obama administration plans to get any tougher with Israel on the form of such statehood than its predecessors.

Ms Livni, unlike Mr Netanyahu, may wish to find a solution to the conflict – or impose one – but her terms would be far from generous. The White House knows that she, too, is an ardent advocate of settlements in East Jerusalem. When she broke her silence on the crisis last week, it was to emphasise that, by “acting stupidly” in stoking a row with the US, Mr Netanyahu had risked “weakening” Israel’s hold on Jerusalem

Instead, the signs are that Barack Obama could be just as ready to accommodate the Israeli consensus on East Jerusalem as the previous Bush administration was in backing Israel’s position on keeping the overwhelming majority of West Bank settlers in their homes on occupied Palestinian land.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli president who is much favoured in Washington, has outlined a “compromise” to placate the Americans. It would involve a peace deal in which Israel keeps the large swaths of East Jerusalem already settled by Jews, while the Palestinians would be entitled to the ghettos left behind after four decades of illegal Israeli building.

In her own AIPAC speech, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, hinted that such a solution might yet be acceptable to the administration. The recent US condemnation of settlement building, she said, was not “a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it — and staying there until the job is finally done.”

Having lost patience with Mr Netanyahu’s lip service to Palestinian statehood, the White House appears finally to have decided its credibility in the Middle East depends on dragging Israel — kicking and screaming, if needs be — to the negotiating table.

Mr Obama may hope that the outcome of such a process will make US troops safer in Iraq and strengthen his hand in the stand-off with Iran. But it remains doubtful that the US actually has the stomach to extract from Israel the concessions needed to create that elusive entity referred to as a viable Palestinian state.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is

A version of this article originally appeared in The National (, published in Abu Dhabi.


Hondurans’ Great Awakening

by Dana Frank

This article was taken from The Nation. Click here for the link.

Two powerful forces have swept through Honduras since the June 28, 2009, coup that deposed President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya: one magnificent, the other truly horrible. The first is the resistance movement that rose up to contest the coup, surprising everyone in its breadth, nonviolence and resilience. The second is the new regime’s brutal repression in response. “It’s been terribly painful, and a great awakening,” reflects Ayax Irías, a sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

While the conflict continues to escalate, the Obama administration is vigorously supporting the coup regime under Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa. “We believe that President Lobo and his administration have taken the steps necessary to restore democracy,” declared Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 4. But the resistance movement itself, with its demand for a reconstitution of Honduran society from below, is a vivid testament to the country’s need for real democracy. As the resistance faces off against the US-backed oligarchs and military, there’s no question that this is the most important moment in Honduran history, even more important than the immense general strike of 1954, from which all modern Honduran history flows.

I returned to Honduras in February for the first time since the coup to find a country transformed. People involved in the resistance were bursting with political energy, with an utterly new faith in their power. But they were also well aware of how dangerous the situation is–as am I, so I am changing some of the identifying details of those with whom I spoke.

Most obviously new was the graffiti, which was everywhere I went–from Tegucigalpa, the capital; to San Pedro Sula, the big industrial city in the north; to the smaller cities of El Progreso and La Lima in the banana zone; to, most daringly, the walls along the US Air Force base at Palmerola. “¡Golpista!,” the all-important epithet that means a perpetrator or supporter of the coup, orgolpe de estado, was splayed on storefronts, television stations and houses. Most messages were straightforward: “Militares Asesinos” or “¡Elecciones No!,” protesting the November 29 elections, boycotted by almost all pro-resistance candidates, who objected that no free and fair elections could take place under military occupation. Others were more pointedly personal: “Micheletti Pinochetti,” equating the coup-regime president, Roberto Micheletti, with the dictator of Chile after its 1973 coup, Augusto Pinochet. “Erase me, golpista!” taunted one wall.

Even more remarkable was the change in young people. Teenagers and twentysomethings I had known for a decade–largely the children of trade unionists–who before hadn’t been politically engaged at all, were suddenly sitting up in their chairs differently, eager to tell me stories of marches they’d joined, tear gas they’d tasted. One 15-year-old girl arrived in a red T-shirt reading, “I ♥ Honduras WithoutGolpistas.” Cellphones kept going off with newly popular songs of the resistance as ring tones–“Traidores” or “Nos Tienen Miedo Porque No Tenemos Miedo” (They’re afraid of us because we’re not afraid), the song by Argentine Liliana Felipe and Mexican Jesusa Rodríguez, which has become the informal anthem of the resistance.

Older folks in the resistance, by contrast, had a sober look in their eyes. Unlike their children, those in their 50s and 60s know how much more terrible things can get; they lived through the 1970s and ’80s in Central America. But as veterans of those struggles, they also had a clear sense that this was the main chance they’d been waiting for their whole lives; people were finally coming together and rising up. “All these years I’ve been involved in the struggle, but I’ve never felt that change was so close,” Efraín Aguilar, a lifelong union activist, told me in low, firm tones.

In Tegucigalpa, I mentioned to a cabdriver the name of a Honduran Congressman I had just met in the airport the day before. “Golpista!” he spat out. He rattled off the man’s connections to Micheletti and the most elite of Honduran oligarchs and kept talking with me about the resistance. Finally I asked him, Aren’t you afraid to speak so openly with an unknown passenger? “After what we’ve been through, it doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.

When the military packed President Zelaya onto a plane to Costa Rica on June 28 in his now-famous pajamas, and the majority of Congress installed Micheletti as president with the collusion of the Supreme Court, enormous semi-spontaneous demonstrations and protests followed, beginning that same afternoon. Hundreds of thousands of people streamed into Tegucigalpa from small villages and cities throughout the country. An ad hoc national coalition calling itself the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular formed within days, uniting the campesino movement; indigenous, African-descent and women’s organizations; human rights groups; trade unions; and, most astonishingly welcome, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement, in what they together refer to as un movimiento amplio, a broad movement. Trade unions make up the backbone of the movement, especially the teachers, public-sector workers, banana workers and bottling-plant workers, whose meeting halls are essential to the resistance. But part of what makes the resistance so strong is its diversified base, with each social group organized within its own constituency, each with a representative in the top-level coordinating committee–and each with its own stake in reconstituting Honduras.

The women’s movement is just one example. Numerous observers reported that 60 to 70 percent of the demonstrators have been women, who join the resistance not only as individuals but also with long-established groups like the Center for Women’s Rights; they have specific collective demands, linking the coup, the resistance movement and their vision of a new future. “Ni golpe de estado ni golpe a mujeres,” for example, showed up on posters, in chants and in demands that the Frente take on domestic violence.

What unites the resistance is not just opposition to the coup regime but a positive vision of a new Honduras, to be enacted through a national assembly that would, in turn, produce a new Constitution. The slogan I saw everywhere, “Por un constituyente no excluyente” (For a constitutional convention that doesn’t exclude), captures widespread hopes that the new Constitution, modeled after ones recently passed in Bolivia (2009), Ecuador (2008) and Venezuela (1999), could guarantee and expand basic rights of the sectors that make up the resistance, such as land rights for campesinos and indigenous peoples, women’s rights and basic labor rights.

The resistance, broadly defined, has a solid middle-class presence as well, including not just left-wing college students but large numbers of Liberal Party members loyal to Zelaya. During the big marches in the capital, many supporters from the middle class weren’t comfortable joining on foot, so they came in their cars, whole families honking, waving banners and shouting. In one march on August 17, thousands of cars joined at the end, so many that it took them two hours to pass by.

By a sheer act of collective will, the movement has been overwhelmingly nonviolent, a decision made entirely from below, then officially ratified by the resistance coalition after the first week. What supporters call their movimiento pacífico, in classic Gandhian fashion, has served to sharply highlight, within Honduras and all over the world, the brutality of the government.

From day one, the coup government launched a vicious assault on those who dared to challenge it, deploying not just the military but municipal police and newly mobilized paramilitary assassins. Peaceful demonstrations full of old people and children were met with volley after volley of tear gas, the kinds that make you vomit or cry or feel like you can’t breathe, or all three. According to eyewitnesses, media reports and independent Honduran human rights groups that are bravely tracking all this repression, police swept through crowds beating marchers with batons sporting new metal tips, snatching bystanders and protesters alike and throwing them into the back of trucks. Once in custody, many were beaten, tortured and/or raped. According to the Committee of Families of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), more than 3,000 people have been illegally detained since June 28. COFADEH reports that at least forty-one Hondurans associated with the resistance have been killed, including trade unionists and GLBT activists. One of the first was Isis Obed, 19, shot in the head by a government sniper from atop the Tegucigalpa airport at a demonstration on July 5 when President Zelaya tried to return by plane. The great majority of those killed have been rank-and-file activists who were kidnapped or shot in their homes or in the streets by unknown assailants.

While much international attention has focused on the capital, the repression has been nationwide. On the highway in Choloma, outside San Pedro Sula, protesters at twelve demonstrations in July, August and September occupied a strategic bottleneck through which trucks have to pass carrying industrial products to Puerto Cortés. Witnesses reported that the protesters were met with brutal attacks: tear gas and beatings, but also violence directed especially at women, including nightsticks jammed into women’s crotches, rapes in detention and foul insults telling them they deserved it because they weren’t in their proper place in the home. Irma Villanueva, 25, testified on the radio that she was detained and gang-raped by four police officers after a demonstration in Choloma on August 14.

In a snowballing process of collective awakening and self-discovery, though, this ongoing process of protest, repression and even greater subsequent protest has changed ordinary people’s sense of themselves and their power–all the more astonishing because none of this was supposed to happen in Honduras. “Hondurans always had the reputation of being cowards,” reflected Irías, the sociologist. “I never imagined that Hondurans had the ability or disposition to struggle like this.” Before the coup, Honduras was largely known as the political black hole of Central America: during the 1970s and ’80s, it didn’t produce large guerrilla movements on the left as did its neighbors Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Instead, it served as the “USS Honduras,” the base for the Reagan administration’s Contra war against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.

Honduras did, in fact, have a small armed left in the ’80s and government-sponsored death squads led by the notorious Battalion 3-16, which killed more than 100 activists. But the country’s population of 7.8 million, despite a poverty rate above 60 percent, has remained largely in the ideological thrall of a few oligarch families locked into a two-party patronage system, never able to mobilize a third party from the left and not, in general, engaged in meaningful debate.

Now, if nothing else, the country is politicized down to the bone. “What I love is that everyone–men, women, old people, little kids–is talking about politics,” said Zoila Lagos, a veteran of the 1980s struggles who lives in a poor barrio near Choloma. In Tegucigalpa especially, activists discussed the resistance openly with me, in stores, in cabs and on crowded streets downtown. One young man told me it was a deliberate strategy: “We’re normalizing the resistance, normalizing the concepts of struggle, so they’re something familiar.” There’s a new moral line in the sand between the resistance, representing the vast majority of the Honduran people, and the golpistas–the oligarchs, their media and the military.

The alternative media have been essential to this rapid politicization at the grassroots. When the coup was launched, every metropolitan daily newspaper except one, every big-city television station except one and the great majority of the mainstream radio stations overtly supported the new regime, spouting bald lies that even the most neutral could see through: that the protesters were just violent riffraff; that Hugo Chávez was about to invade Honduras. La Prensa, a San Pedro Sula daily, even airbrushed out the blood dripping from the head of Isis Obed in a photograph taken just after he was killed at the airport. The outrageous collusion of the mainstream media, owned by the same oligarchs who have controlled the government for decades and who perpetrated the coup, contributed to the growth of popular consciousness and a higher level of critical thinking about the power structure within Honduras. “It opened the eyes of the people. The media are exactly the same, but the people aren’t,” observed Padre Melo, an esteemed Jesuit priest who directs Radio Progreso, an alternative radio station in El Progreso.

Critiques of the press were everywhere I went, like the big white banner sporting the logo of one of San Pedro Sula’s leading dailies, promising “Get Stupid in Three Days. Read La Prensa.” People kept repeating their favorite chant from the marches: “¡No somos cinco, no somos cien, prensa vendida cuéntanos bien!” (We’re not five, we’re not a hundred, sold-out press, count us well!).

Alternative radio has been particularly important in breaking through what those in the resistance call the “media fence” around the coup. Two powerful stations, Radio Globo in the capital and Radio Progreso in the north, have fully developed studios, transmitters and websites. Others are low-wattage operations run by indigenous groups, or Radio Uno in San Pedro Sula, run by teenagers in their school uniforms out of a journalism school. The programming on these stations is highly participatory–full of call-ins and local news reports–and it fills the streets, as vendors, cabdrivers and store owners play them day and night.

The coup government is well aware of the importance of the resistance media and has repeatedly clamped down on these outlets as well as opponents in the print media, often brutally, accusing them of “media terrorism.” On the day of the coup, for example, the military surrounded Radio Progreso and shut it down for several hours. Since then, “we’ve gotten bomb threats almost daily,” reported Radio Progreso director Padre Melo. Most recently, on January 6 unknown assailants burned down Radio Faluma Bimetu, a station run by Afro-indigenous Garífuna people in Triunfo de la Cruz.

No one really knows how deep all this popular politicization runs. Many Hondurans are keeping their heads low, quietly cheering on the resistance. Others still believe the mainstream media and are grateful that the government is “restoring order.” We do have a few crude quantitative measures. While the government keeps revising its initial figures downward, it appears that the November 29 election, boycotted by the resistance, had only a 35 or 40 percent voter turnout. For another measure, 450,000 to 600,000 Hondurans, a very low estimate, participated in demonstrations on the two biggest days of protest: July 5 and September 15. As a percentage of the population, that’s the equivalent in the United States of more than 20 million people.

On February 17 I was interviewed on Radio Uno by Pedro Brizuela, a wily and witty veteran communist in his 70s, who for many years has been working with the Garífuna along the Atlantic coast. Exactly one week later, assassins gunned down his 36-year-old daughter, Claudia, as she opened her front door in San Pedro Sula. It was a clear message to Pedro and to anyone else in the movement: keep fighting, and we’ll kill your children.

Under the new Lobo administration, the repression isn’t over, and it’s getting more insidious. Lobo has reappointed the same military leaders who perpetrated the coup, with the exception of Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, who was dismissed only to be named head of Hondutel, the state-owned telephone company, which the oligarchs are itching to privatize. Paramilitary-style violence against the resistance has escalated since Lobo’s inauguration on January 27. On February 15, two masked men on a motorcycle gunned down Julio Fúnez Benítez, of the sanitation workers’ union. On March 14, two vehicles shot forty-seven bullets into the car of Nahún Ely Palacios Arteaga, news director of Canal 5 in the Aguán Valley, killing him instantly. Both men had protested the coup government.

The government, military and media want to pretend that this is all common crime, which is, in fact, rampant in Honduras–violence has touched both sides. On March 1 one outspoken pro-coup journalist was shot at, and her driving companion, a TV reporter, was killed. But no one in the movement believes there is anything random about the recent murders of resistance members, including one campesino activist, two trade unionists and a rank-and-file activist, which appear clearly intended to terrorize the grassroots resistance.

What happens next? The Lobo administration faces the task of suppressing a movement that is truly popular, with great determination, organizational capacity and hope. The Frente is still consolidating and expanding its regional base. It has announced that it does not recognize the Lobo government and plans to continue to destabilize what it views as a weak and illegitimate regime. It has denounced the impunity that continues, including the so-called “amnesty” in which the generals who perpetrated the coup–and who, with the exception of Vásquez Velásquez, remain at the top of the armed forces–were swiftly charged, tried and exonerated in January. The Frente’s plan is to continue to challenge the government at the grassroots, forcing in the next year a National Assembly that would, in turn, lead to a constitutional convention and a new Constitution. It is already moving forward with plans for its own National Assembly on June 28, the anniversary of the coup. The Frente has announced it will eventually become a political party, but not for some time, in part because of the risk of co-optation as it tries to hold together its diverse base. “The struggle has only begun,” observed Zoila Lagos, my friend from Choloma.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has swiftly recognized Lobo’s new government and is pretending everything’s just fine in Honduras. US aid, both military and humanitarian, is flowing once again, shoring up an unstable government with little legitimacy. Inside our own media fence, Honduras has largely dropped from the headlines.

Progressives in the United States need to make sure the Obama administration doesn’t get away with shoring up the coup regime of the Honduran oligarchs and military. We need to demand that the United States withdraw its recognition of the Lobo government; halt all aid, as the Frente has explicitly requested; cut ties to the Honduran military, including ongoing training at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas); and close the US base at Palmerola. Obama and Clinton should denounce the ongoing human rights abuses and the outrageous impunity granted the Honduran armed forces, police and paramilitaries–along with the Congress members and Supreme Court justices who backed the coup. If we’re going to achieve any of these goals, though, we need to build our own movimiento amplio in support of the Honduran people. We can begin by building up grassroots pressure on members of Congress, district by district, working through our own unions, faith communities, immigrant organizations, GLBT and women’s groups.

Whatever happens next, the Honduran people are not going back to sleep. As Carlos Humberto Reyes, the grand charismatic figure at the head of the resistance, who ran for president as an independent but pulled out in protest, said to me, “The important thing is that the people have changed.”

Dana Frank is a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author, among other books, of Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America, which focuses on Honduras. She is writing a book on the AFL-CIO’s cold war intervention in the Honduran labor movement.


Allan Nairn on US funding of Indonesian Death Squads

Indonesian Forces Tapped by Obama for Renewed US Aid Implicated in New Assassinations

In a Democracy Now! exclusive, investigative journalist and activist Allan Nairn reveals US-backed Indonesian armed forces carried out a series of assassinations of civilian activists in late 2009. The news comes as the White House moves towards increasing aid to the Indonesian military and lifting a twelve-year ban on the training of the notorious Indonesian military unit known as Kopassus. A US-trained Kopassus general who coordinated the assassinations confirmed to Nairn an Indonesian army role in the killings.

Click here for a transcript.


The War Next Door

by Charles Bowden

Adam Smith’s invisible hand meets magical realism on the border

Originally published in High Country News. Click here for link.

The man on the screen wears a long black veil. His voice is penetrating, his hands are strong with thick fingers. He is telling of his work, killing people for money, a trade he pursued with some success for 20 years. Another man watches the film with rapt attention. He is a fugitive from Mexico who now lives in the United States. The reason he left is simple: He had to pay a $30,000 ransom for his 1-year-old son, this on top of the $3,000 a month he was paying for simple protection.

I don’t ask him whom he was paying because he probably does not know. People with guns, maybe drug people or simple criminals, maybe the police or the army. People with guns inspire belief because he knows of others who failed to pay and then died.

He stares at the screen and says, “I know him. He’s a state policeman.”

He’s right.

The man talking on the screen was recruited by the drug industry in Ciudad Juarez, sent to the state police academy, where he got around $150 a month as a student and around $1,000 a month from the drug industry as their sponsored law enforcement person. He was also trained by the FBI in Tucson, Ariz., (he told me the training was very good) and headed an anti-kidnapping squad in Juarez. And he also kidnapped people, almost all of whom died once their families were drained of money.

I helped make the film the man is watching, and he knows this. He is mesmerized by the man talking. And he is angry at me, because I know such a man, someone like the killers who took his son and sold him back for some money. Fortunately.

If the press reports this sort of thing, it is framed as part of a War on Drugs that must be won. These stories are fables at best. There is no serious War on Drugs. Rather, there is violence, nourished by the money to be made from drugs. And there are U.S. industries whose primary lifeblood comes from fighting a war on drugs. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has 225,000 employees and a budget of $42 billion, part of which is aimed at making America safe from Mexico and Mexicans. Narcotics officers in the U.S. cost at least $40 billion a year. The world’s largest prison industry would collapse without the intake of drug convicts, and, in recent years, of illegal Mexican migrants. And around the republic there are big new federal courthouses rising that would be cobwebbed without the steady flow from drug busts and the Mexican poor coming north.

The border now is a bundle of issues: drugs, terrorists, violence spilling across, illegal aliens, free-trade economists insisting on open borders, humanitarians calling for no more deaths. On the ground, this hardly matters. The giant wall being slowly built across the southern flank of the U.S. hardly matters. In the Altar Valley south of Tucson, the wall was barely in place before gates were cut, the hinges facing the Mexican side.

What is happening is natural. And like some natural things, deadly.

The man who sits on the couch and watches the killer speak on the screen is a casualty of a world being born that may not include him. Or me. Or you. Or the killer.

The projections say 450 million Americans by 2050, a billion or so by 2100. And 9.3 billion people on this planet by the New Year’s Eve of the 22nd century. Tell that to the wolf at your door or the national park in your heart. I am in a weak position here. I have always welcomed the illegal at my door, and beckoned the wolf. I have never reported a drug dealer to the authorities, or an illegal human being. I do not believe the state has the right to regulate what people wish to ingest, and I cannot turn my back on a poor person fleeing doom and seeking a future.

The Mexican border functions as a drum that both the left and the right like to thump. For the left, it means imperialism. They decry the death of migrants, the newly built wall and the tens of thousands of armed agents patrolling the line. The right sees the border as the only thing separating us from the disintegration of our national security. They decry migrants (illegal invaders), violence spilling over the border and, in certain zany moments, see Islamic terrorists crossing the desert and leaving a litter of prayer rugs.

The migration of the Mexican poor is the largest human movement across a border on the planet. It was triggered by the destruction of peasant agriculture at the hands of the North American Free Trade Agreement, by the corruption of the Mexican state, by the growing violence in Mexico, and exacerbated by the millions of Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. who send money home to finance their families’ trips north. It should be seen as a natural shift of a species. We need ecologists on the border; the politicians have become pointless.

The drug industry is the second-largest source of foreign currency in Mexico, just behind oil. It earns somewhere between $30 billion and $50 billion a year — no one really knows, including the people in the industry. It also creates enormous numbers of jobs in the U.S.: We spend billions a year on narcs, maintain the world’s largest prison industry, which is absolutely dependent on the intake of drug felons, and we have about 20,000 agents on the border who feed off drug importation. The rehab industry is also a source of a large number of jobs since many well-heeled defendants pick mandatory treatment over prison. Many county and local police departments now get fat off of RICO suits based on drug offenses.

The official line of the U.S. government, one most recently voiced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is that drug consumers in the United States are responsible for drug murders in Mexico. Only someone who is drugged could believe this claim. The sole source of the enormous amount of money in the drug business and the accompanying violence is the U.S. prohibition of drug use by its citizens. Since President Richard Nixon proclaimed the War on Drugs 40 years ago, there have been two notable accomplishments: Drugs are cheaper than ever, and they are of much higher quality. But then, NAFTA was promoted by presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as something that would buoy up the Mexican economy and reduce or end illegal immigration — two claims that now are clearly refuted by facts.

The left seeks open borders or No More Deaths, the latter a protest of the 500 or so migrant deaths per year — a rather low fatality rate, considering that at least a half-million Mexicans move illegally across the border each year. But the left seldom if ever mentions the slaughter in Mexico during the last three years that has left 17,000 citizens dead, a killing of Mexicans by Mexicans. The right constantly speaks of fortifying the border, as if this could stop a human tide lashed northward by misery. And, of course, the right promotes draconian drug laws even though the failure of such laws is increasingly apparent.

On the border, Adam Smith meets magical realism. Here the market tenets of supply and demand, the basic engine of both the migration and the drug industry, are supposed to be overturned magically by a police state. Consider one simple number: The border is 1,900 miles long. If two people slipped through each mile in a 24-hour period, that would amount to 3,800 people a day. That adds up to 1,387,000 people a year. Or consider this: One bridge from Juarez to El Paso handles 600,000 semi-trucks a year. One semi with a freight load of 24 tons could probably tote enough heroin to satisfy the U.S. market for a year. Add to the mix the inevitable corruption of the police agencies: A few months ago, a Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona was busted for running dope in his official car for 500 bucks a load.

Few discussions about the border come from facts. Most discussions of the border come from fears. We seem to prefer slogans and fantasies: free trade, “just say no,” gigantic walls.

Almost certainly, the drug industry and illegal migration are the two most successful anti-poverty initiatives in the history of the world. The drug industry has poured tens of billions of dollars annually into the hands of ill-educated and largely poor people. Illegal migration has taken people who were lucky to earn $5 a day and instantly given them jobs that pay 10 or 20 times that much. It has also financed the remittances, over $20 billion dollars shipped from immigrants in the U.S. back into the homes of Mexico’s poor each year. No government can match these achievements. And tens of thousands of people in the U.S. agencies are earning far better salaries fighting drugs and the Mexican poor than they could ever make in the private sector. After, say, five years, the average Border Patrol agent is knocking down 75 grand a year, plus generous benefits and serious job security. DEA is infested with agents earning six figures. And these industries are literally failure-proof — the more Mexicans that migrate, and the more drugs that arrive, the more agents that are hired.

The real problem is not these success stories but the fact that the good times are going to end. Obviously, the terrain of the U.S. can only sustain a finite number of people. So eventually migration — both legal and illegal — will be curtailed by draconian national I.D. laws. As for the drug industry, the money depends on two variables: that drugs remain illegal; and that domestic suppliers, meaning the licit pharmaceutical industry, refrain from launching competing products. This second reality is already vanishing. The explosion of over-the-counter mood-altering drugs cuts into the illegal market, and bit by bit will cut into the drug traffickers’ profits. Without the earnings of the drug industry, the Mexican economy would collapse.

But several things will persist. The environment in the United States will continue to be wrecked as more and more people flee the failure of the global economy. Violence will flourish as human numbers increase and incomes sink. And the police state in the United States will metastasize as my fellow citizens seek magical solutions to concrete problems. Already, we have created a nation that would be unimaginable to our ancestors, one where a person often cannot work unless he or she first urinates for a laboratory.

But here is the bottom line: The world is rushing in, and we can hardly alter that fact if we continue to believe fantasies. Open borders: a fantasy. The War on Drugs: a fantasy. Walling out migrants: a fantasy. Being protected by a police state: a fantasy.

The man sitting on the couch watching the Mexican killer speak is beyond such fantasies. He is here illegally (as is the killer for that matter) and he is surviving. His old life has ended and he knows it. But then the killer’s old life has ended, too; there is a contract on his head for $250,000 because he offended his superior in the drug industry.

It is early January as I write. This weekend, over 40 people were murdered in Juarez, a city once hailed as the poster child of free trade, the city with the lowest unemployment rate in Mexico. The killings — three of them women — had little touches. A double amputee was shot in the head and then left on a dirt road wrapped in a blanket. Another man was found with his severed head on his chest — the tongue, eyes and nose had been removed. A narco-message was left on yellow cardboard and weighted down with two severed arms. Such slaughter usually goes unnoticed in the U.S. press. Should it actually come to the attention of our newspapers, it simply will be written off as part of a cartel war. This is a fiction. Almost all the dead are poor people, not drug-enriched grandees. And though we give Mexico half a billion dollars a year to encourage its army to fight drug merchants, this alleged war has a curious feature: Almost no soldiers ever die. For example, in Juarez, over 4,200 citizens have been slain in two years. In the same period, with 7,000 to 10,000 soldiers in town, the military has suffered three dead.

The supply and quality of drugs in the U.S. has not declined, nor has the price gone up. As for the migration of the poor, neither the border wall nor immigration raids of meatpacking plants and other businesses in the U.S. have stanched the flow. Instead, the greatest force temporarily reducing the torrent of people has been the collapse of the U.S. economy. But since the Mexican economy is sinking even faster, the migration will almost certainly resume and grow.

The border should not be an issue in American life, but rather our window on the world. All our foolish beliefs are refuted here. Free trade is creating the largest human migration on earth. Our belief that drugs can be successfully outlawed has created the second-most profitable industry in Mexico and a gulag of new U.S. prisons. Our effort to fortify the border has created a wall and a standing army of agents (now larger than the U.S. army was when we launched our war against Mexico in 1846), and it has failed to stop people or kilos from moving to our towns. Our refusal to even seriously consider the notion of overpopulation (we prefer lethal drones to birth control or legalized abortion) will eventually destroy large portions of the earth’s ecosystems. And we are equally reluctant to face one nagging fact about Mexico: Forty percent of its federal budget comes from oil sales, and the president of Mexico has said publicly that the oil fields will be exhausted in nine years. What then?

Someday a history of our border policies will be written. It will require a Marxist — Groucho, not Karl.

Living on the border can cripple a person’s emotional range. I grow more numb with each passing day. I find myself staring dazed at photographs, like a recent set from Juarez of two men burned alive. But whatever is happening to me is minor compared to what is happening to the Mexican people as their world collapses around them. One night I get a call from a friend in Juarez. He says a man just put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. He wants me to call his wife if he turns up dead and explain what happened. I hang up and go back to reading a book. That is what the numbness feels like.

There is a painting on the wall in the house. In the painting, a nude woman reclines. The artist lives in a small town near the border, a place plagued by murder and unrest. He painted it in one night, as his mother was dying of cancer.

The painting haunts me. At first, I see nothing but brown forms. Then the naked woman. Then I see that the sky above her is filled with faces. So is her nude body. I see, at the same instant, a naked woman and a writhing mass of demons.

That is my border.

The one in plain view that my government says it cannot see.

Charles Bowden lives in the Southwest and works wherever he can. He has a book coming out in March, Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (The Nation Books).


105,000 Tattoos

Iraqi Artist Wafaa Bilal Turns His Own Body into a Canvas to Commemorate Dead Iraqis & Americans

The official death toll from the war is 100,000, but it is widely estimated to be much higher, perhaps even as high as one million. In his latest piece of artwork, Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal tries to grapple with the enormity of these numbers. It’s a twenty-four-hour live tattooing performance called “..and Counting” that began at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts gallery in New York Monday night. By tonight Bilal’s back will be tattooed with the names of Iraqi cities, 5,000 red dots representing dead American soldiers and 100,000 dots in invisible ink representing the official death toll for Iraqis. The dots representing the Iraqi death toll will only be visible under ultraviolet light.

Click here for a transcript of the interview.


The New Jim Crow

How the War on Drugs gave birth to a permanent American undercaste

— By Michelle Alexander

Taken from Mother Jones, click here for link.

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades—they are currently are at historical lows—but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal—complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods—but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth.Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes—sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found?  The answer is yes… in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders. Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80% of the cash, cars, and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s—the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war—nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time—a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers—not to mention president of the United States—causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure—the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness(The New Press, 2010).