Focal Points Blog

Waterboarding Next for Bradley Manning?

In response to reports that Bradley Manning was deprived of his clothes and forced to sit naked in his cell for seven hours on Wednesday, the New York Times reports:

First Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, said. . . . that the step was “not punitive” and that it was in accordance with brig rules, but he said that he was not allowed to say more.

Then he added

“It would be inappropriate for me to explain it. . . . I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

I’m sorry, but what the heck did the army just do if it wasn’t a violation of Manning’s privacy?

We’re Being Out-Democracied

On March 1, Doug Saunders of Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported from Zarzis, Tunisia:

The entire student population, plus one teacher, have defied their principal’s orders and skipped school to pack the streets in a jubilant and defiant mood. They are demanding a quick move to democracy — not just in the capital of Tunis, but also here in Zarzis, where it is the youth who have forced out the regime-appointed mayor and set up a committee that now controls the town.

Walid Fellah, 27, one of the organizers of the local-government committee. . . . set up Zarzis TV, a Facebook page upon which he posted videos of local protests and government reprisals. It became an instant hit and fanned the local revolution. . . . The comment threads on Zarzis TV became a rallying point for students, who would spend hours debating the best structure for municipal government and the pathway to elections.

“These students were never taught anything about democracy . . . but they’re learning it all by experience,” said Mourad Dani, 32, the lone high-school teacher willing to join the school’s “revolution.” (He risks suspension from his job, and the students risk losing their diplomas, for being involved.)

In one respect, though, they resemble American students. Mr. Dani added:

“Before, government was the most boring subject, nobody thought about it.”

With one important difference.

“Now it’s all they can talk about.”

No matter to what extent the civic foundation of the United States disintegrated, it’s difficult to imagine American teenagers debating the structure of municipal government. Meanwhile, the Obama administration was a couple of beats slow in voicing its support for the opposition in Tunisia and Egypt. As for American adult citizens, one can’t help suspect that were the Constitution drawn up and submitted for ratification today, it would be considered much too radical for passage in the House and Senate.

Recent events in Wisconsin and elsewhere caution one against caving in to complete cynicism. Still, it’s entirely likely that most Americans are more comfortable with a surveillance (if not all-out police) state than one in which civil liberties rang throughout the land. If America is China’s future, China may be America’s future.

We’d better be careful: we’re about to be out-democracied by newly engaged citizens around in the world.

The Arab Awakening: The Name Changes, But Will the Song Remain the Same?

If you can’t beat ’em, try smothering ’em with a bear hug.

While no doubt the United States is quite nervous about where all the Middle East protests are headed – the unknown factor rattles the stock market and oil prices – the Obama Administration, not without internal divisions, has, grudgingly, accepted the need for some change – democratization and shifts in economic policy – in the region.

It is tactically clever (and realistic) to ride the wave – rather than oppose it outright. Those discredited dictators – the Mubaraks, Ben Alis – around whom the United States has built and cultivated its post World War II Middle East policy have moved from ‘category asset’ to ‘downright-liability’. For the moment, let’s bypass the question of whether this new moral epiphany results from ‘a position of principle’ or rather, simply a response to the flow of events that the Obama Administration neither expected nor for which it was prepared.

It is precisely the element of the unknown which scares U.S. policy makers, plus the fact that the administration has tried to play down: most of the corrupt regimes which are ‘facing their maker’ have had strong political and military support from Washington (and the European Union) for decades.

It is easier to praise the democratic upsurge, criticize repressive crackdowns with arms and tear gas that usually has ‘made in USA’ on it and to avoid the U.S. military interventionalist impulse, when, as with Tunisia, strategic interests are less at play. It becomes more difficult as the protest wave comes closer to the oil producing and transporting region as with Egypt, and almost irresistible when oil production itself is involved as it is with Libya.

Watching the pressure grow for a U.S. and/or NATO military intervention in Libya to oust Gaddafi and end the growing bloodshed there, one has to wonder if anyone has learned anything from history? The answer seems to be ‘apparently not much’. We’ve been ‘kind of’ here before.

A U.S. military intervention in Libya is – let me say it frankly – an extremely bad idea. It will strengthen Gaddafi’s hand; he’s long been able to rally support against the big outsider bully (who did in fact try to assassinate him by cruise missile in April, 1986). It would undoubtedly inflame anti-American sentiment throughout the region, pull the United States into yet another military quagmire adding to the current list (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia). To their credit, it appears that both Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (in a recent speech) want none of it…for the moment.

How long ago was it that popular support was mobilized for military intervention to unseat a ruling tyrant from an oil producing country and ‘liberate’ its people? The end result to that ‘crusade’ is a country destroyed, maybe a million people dead, 3½ million or so made refugees, an oil industry privatized and ‘enduring’ U.S. military bases, some as large as medium sized American cities, in Iraq.

The Tunisian people resolved the debate within a paralyzed Obama Administration over whether or not to support Zine Ben Ali in his political death rattle by massive, largely peaceful demonstrations that forced the president and his influential wife to flee.

But not every social movement can place roses in tank gun turrets and not get blown to bits for it. Let us hope that Libya does not descend much further into civil war, that its people in not-so-peaceful revolt – methods forced upon them by objective conditions – can end the debate in Washington, London, Paris, etc. – overthrowing Gaddafi and defeating private armies and mercenaries. It’s a tall order.

Supporting ‘pliant’ third world nationalism

With China making inroads into Africa, (imagine, they offer loans to poor African countries without structural adjustment criteria!) the U.S. will be well served to embrace Middle Eastern democracy for obvious reasons. But as long as the United States – and many of the core countries of the world economy – are addicted to oil at a time of tight oil markets, dramatic shifts in U.S. Middle East policy in support of dramatic democratization are unlikely.

The Obama Administration hopes the changes will be ‘manageable’, that new political figures (or older ones forced to make concessions) won’t diverge too much from U.S. global economic and security policies. Like other U.S. administrations since Truman, it has long supported a certain kind of pliant Third World nationalism.

The nationalism of Ben Ali, Mubarak – or better, Pinochet – has suited it far more than that of Nasser and Lumumba.

Of course, the Obama Administration has no choice but to accept the changes unfolding and with which they can hardly keep up. Then again, we have seen that Washington has plans for the Middle East, though the peoples of the Middle East have their own, largely yet to be defined, agendas.

Nor is Washington’s policy of ‘celebrating democracy’ while quietly working to dampen its impact particularly new. In the 1980s, at the same time Ronald Reagan was trying to smother Nicaraguan democracy, he was making different moves in the Philippines.

Will it be Cuba 1959 or the Philippines 1986?

In early 1986, a great Filipino democratic wave broke the back of the Marcos dictatorship. The issues were more or less the same as in the Middle East today: growing income inequality, crushing poverty and debt, massive corruption and repression. As the demonstrations swelled to ‘Tahrir Square proportions’ then U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent Senator Paul Laxalt to offer Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos a deal he couldn’t refuse.

If his autobiography is to be believed, Laxalt successfully negotiated Marcos’ departure from power. The deal included the promise of safe haven in Hawaii plus U.S. protection of Marcos’ billion dollar assets. Sound familiar?

Marcos, whose family wealth today by some estimates might top $50 billion, was removed with much fanfare. The Filipino people celebrated and for good reason. However, while the tyrant and his wife with her famous 2,000 plus pairs of shoes (a novice by the way compared to Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi) were forced to flee to Honolulu, ‘the system’ remained largely unchanged. It was a bit more open politically, but…

  • The new government honored the enormous debt burden the country had incurred during the Marcos years. The economic policies that were at the root cause of the crisis were hardly altered.
  • The Filipino strategic relations with the United States remained unaltered.
  • The crushing poverty has remained largely intact; the decay of health, educational infrastructure hardly improved.

The leadership’s face changed, but ‘the system’ remained essentially the same. A quarter of a century later, the Philippines remains a country mired in debt, its government still addressing appalling poverty, its democratic moment a distant memory of things past. The Marcos children are making a political comeback in the Philippines, running for public office. Could this happen to the Ben Ali, Trabelsi, Mubarak and Khadaffi offspring?

Are these the kind of changes that the Obama Administration is working for in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond?

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Dirty Bombs, Despite Their Name, Not Sexy Enough

RDDYou may never heard of a radiological dispersal device (RDD). That’s because it’s more often referred to as a dirty bomb. Come to think of it, many don’t even know it by that name, however provocative. (Think of it recited by the English woman in the Orbit gum commercial: Duh-ty Bomb.)

A dirty bomb, though, bears no resemblance whatsoever to a sex bomb. “Dirty” means it’s contaminated with radiation. Which is why you may not be familiar with it. Because it’s not a true nuclear weapon, the RDD is not accorded the level of attention it deserves as a threat comparable to terrorists detonating a nuclear bombs in a U.S. city. But, as long as it’s obscured by the threat of a nuclear explosion, its construction and transport, already much less challenging than with a nuclear weapon, can be expedited.

The fatalities caused by detonation of an RDD likely wouldn’t exceed those caused by a moderate-sized conventional bomb. But clean-up would cost billions and, as for psychological terror sowed by the incident, the “value-added” for the protagonists would be off the charts.

The reason an RDD is easier to create, of course, is because it doesn’t require highly enriched uranium like a nuclear weapon, which has become next to impossible to procure since the nuclear black market was crippled in the wake of Pakistan’s nuclear godfather, A.Q. Khan’s, bust for selling nuclear knowhow and technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Materials that are simply radioactive, on the other hand, can be obtained from radioactive sources used for industrial, medical or research purposes.

Another reason that the RDD threat isn’t taken seriously may be because the creation of one has never been verified. The closest any group has come was in 1995 when Chechen rebels deposited a container of cesium-137 in a Moscow park. They chose not to open it and disperse the radioactive material, content instead to simply demonstrate what they were capable of.

In a recent Nonproliferation Review (subscription only) article titled “Preventing Dirty Bombs: Addressing the Threat at the ‘Source’,” Charles Streeper, an international coordinator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, addresses the RDD threat.

Despite the high consequences of an RDD attack, scant attention has been paid to the dangers posed by the large number of poorly regulated sources that can now be found in nearly every country. The problem has stagnated for decades; news media have reported only selectively on the topic, focusing mainly on serious contamination incidents, and the subject has been excluded from most articles on global security and nonproliferation policy.

But, as a kind of starter weapon of mass destruction, isn’t it beneath, say, al Qaeda? Not necessarily, writes Streeper.

. . . a terrorist group would prefer a nuclear weapon, but an eventual inability by a group to steal or create and use a nuclear weapon might make radiological sources an attractive alternative. . . . there are references to Al Qaeda seeking a radiological weapon. In fact, the group has already resorted to and shown a preference for smaller-scale weaponry and attacks.

It’s hard enough making sure enriched uranium is locked down and accounted for, especially in the former Soviet Union states. But, to give you an idea of the magnitude of the task of tracking radioactive material, Steeper reports that within the United States alone two million licensed sources of radioactive material exist. Further complications arise because

. . . the beneficial applications of sources in the medical, industrial, and agricultural fields should not be impeded. Measures simply have to be put in place to ensure that those beneficial uses are fairly balanced by proper management of dangerous sources throughout their entire life cycle.

That’s easier said than done. Streeper explains.

The international community can depend neither on commercial mechanisms nor the inconsistent implementation of individual states’ regulatory systems to control the life cycles of sources worldwide.

Though the industry doesn’t sufficiently regulate itself (bet you’ve heard that one before), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formulated a code and, Streeper writes, “its guidelines are positive steps toward a framework for cradle-to-grave management for the life cycle. [But] the drawback is that the Code lacks the legal weight of the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty].” The solution? “A new, legally binding treaty negotiated at an international convention, modeled using key aspect of the [aforementioned IAEA] Code.”

Another treaty? Especially at a time when New START barely squeaked through the Senate ratification process, despite how watered down it was and compromised by giveaways to the nuclear-weapons industry? And when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty seem to be going nowhere fast?

But since it doesn’t address nuclear weapons themselves, tied up as they are with a state’s notion of national security — and with some states, their very identities — a treaty might find easier going. Besides, the NPT, despite being violated and ignored at times, has, arguably, been as integral as deterrence to the prevention of states from attacking each other with nuclear weapons. A treaty on radioactive sources might create just enough of an obstacle to keep non-state actors or criminals from securing them.

WikiLeaks: Cable Revives Horror of Colombia’s “False Positives” Carnage

Gen. Mario Montoya(Pictured: Major General Mario Montoya.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-fifth in the series.

When Major General Mario Montoya Uribe was appointed commander of the Colombian army in March of 2006, the US embassy in Bogota was largely unaware of his background and bona fides. The American ambassador to Colombia at the time, William Wood, reported in a cable WikiLeaked on Friday, that relatively little was known about Montoya aside from his many decorations as a career military man, his close personal relationship with then-president Alvaro Uribe, and persistent but as yet unsubstantiated rumors that the commander was corrupt and tied to conservative paramilitary forces throughout the country.

Little was Wood aware that Montoya’s corruption and paramilitary ties would prove to be the least of his offenses. By the time he was relieved of his command eighteen months later, Montoya was widely perceived to be a driving force behind the breathtakingly horrific deal­ings of mil­i­tary per­son­nel in the fight against drug- and guerilla-related inter­nal disturbances.

As I reported in 2009 when UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution Philip Alston arrived in Bogota to investigate the so-called “false positives” case, over one thou­sand mem­bers of the Colom­bian armed forces were ultimately impli­cated in the mur­ders of count­less inno­cent civil­ians. The details are appalling. In many cases, vic­tims were recruited from poor neigh­bor­hoods and vil­lages through­out the coun­try, promised work oppor­tu­ni­ties else­where, then drugged and sold to mil­i­tary agents who arranged for their exe­cu­tions. The bod­ies were then dressed up in army fatigues, planted with weapons pur­chased on the black market, and claimed as suc­cess­fully elim­i­nated guer­rilla com­bat­ants by mil­i­tary personnel.

The evi­dence of false pos­i­tive extra­ju­di­cial killings sug­gests their sys­temic nature, a con­clu­sion cor­rob­o­rated by the Coun­cil on Hemi­spheric Affairs, which noted that

What is appar­ently new about the recent cases is that they have been moti­vated pri­mar­ily by inter­nal mil­i­tary incen­tive struc­tures, rather than polit­i­cal motives…They were killed so that army units and their com­man­ders could demon­strate “results” to their supe­ri­ors, and thereby win both finan­cial rewards and pro­mo­tions. In this war, progress has long been mea­sured by the num­ber of “enemy com­bat­ants” immo­bi­lized, prefer­ably killed, and career prospects often depend on demon­strat­ing such “results”…Investigations have revealed an exten­sive web of recruiter net­works pen­e­trat­ing poor neigh­bor­hoods across the coun­try, oper­at­ing in a shad­owy under­world in col­lu­sion with army con­tract agents. …For dis­patch­ing these appar­ent “positives”…the assas­sins could count on receiv­ing ben­e­fits such as paid hol­i­days, spe­cial courses abroad, pro­mo­tions and pay raises.

While the leaked cable suggests that the embassy was unaware of Montoya’s connection to these abuses, the phe­nom­e­non of false pos­i­tives was hardly unknown to Amer­i­can intel­li­gence offi­cers and Colom­bian offi­cials, which had been tracking these developments for at least fif­teen years—this accord­ing to recently released documents obtained by the National Secu­rity Archive. And though the inci­dence of extra­ju­di­cial killings increased dur­ing Uribe’s term in office, few accuse Uribe him­self of any first­hand knowl­edge con­cern­ing these cases.

Which makes the second cable from Bogota that came to light the same day so interesting. In November 2008, right after Montoya resigned his post amidst a story of accusations and investigations, recently arrived Ambassador William Brownfield banged out a report noting that

Montoya stepped down less than a week after President Uribe’s dismissal of 27 military officers–including two division and three brigade commanders–for their roles in the disappearance and subsequent murders of young men from Soacha and Antioquia. Montoya had been the subject of multiple human rights complaints during his tenure, including alleged abuses committed in Medellin’s poorer neighborhoods during Operation Orion, collusion with paramilitaries, and demanding “body count” as a measure of operational success.

Colombian press reported statements by Senator Patrick Leahy calling Montoya’s departure a “long overdue and positive step.” Leahy said Montoya “shares responsibility for widespread and systematic abuses by the Colombian military.” Montoya’s recent military successes include the rescue of hostages in Operation Jaque. Some believed he would be a likely successor to Armed Forces Commander General Freddy Padilla de Leon.

According to the cable, instead of sending a message that Montoya’s human rights abuses would not be tolerated by his administration, Uribe appointed the commander’s protégé—himself no darling of the human rights community—to the post.

Later on November 4, President Uribe announced at a press conference with General Freddy Padilla and Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos that Major General Oscar Enrique Gonzalez Pena, current commander of the Caribbean Joint Command, would replace Montoya as Commanding General of the Colombian Army. Uribe said Gonzalez’ appointment leaves the Army in “good hands,” highlighting his significant operational successes. Gonzalez Pena followed Montoya as commander of the 4th Brigade from December 2003 to July 2005, and then became commander of the 7th Division in 2005.

The cable notes that

Gonzalez was responsible for the operation that led to the death of “Martin Caballero,” the former head of the FARC’s 37th Front, in September of last year. Human rights groups publicly criticized Gonzalez’ appointment for his close association with Montoya, and voiced concerns regarding 45 alleged extrajudicial killings committed by the 4th Brigade during his command.

Chillingly, it reports that “Montoya selected Gonzalez as ‘best commander in the country’ during his tenure as 4th Brigade commander because his unit reported the most combat kills—857.”

The cable closes with the juicy detail that then-defense minister and current president Juan Manuel Santos told embassy officials

that Montoya—who has a close relationship with Uribe—persuaded the President to appoint Gonzalez as his replacement. Santos pushed back, but Uribe decided to proceed with the appointment.

So the question remains: given the 2007 CIA report linking Montoya to the false positives scandal, and revelations of the commander’s ongoing closeness with and influence over Uribe, how long will the former Colombian president be able to continue denying any connection with the legacy of human rights abuses that pockmark his presidency?

Left Bares Its Claws in Irish Vote

Irish general election(Pictured: General election vote count.)

While the media focused on the massacre of the conservative Fianna Fail Party in the recent Irish elections, the real story may be the earthquake on the Left, particularly the success of the new kids on the block, the United Left Alliance (ULA).

In terms of total seats, the big winners in the Feb. 26 vote were the conservative Fine Gael Party that went from 51 to 76 seats, and the Labor party that jumped from 20 to 37 seats. But Sinn Fein more than doubled its seats in the Irish parliament, or Dial, from 6 to 15, and the ULA picked up five seats. For the first time in Irish history, the Left—Labor, Sinn Fein and the ULA—hold a majority of the seats in the country’s largest city, Dublin.

The backdrop for the election was the catastrophic collapse of the Irish housing market, and the subsequent cratering of the economy. Ireland went from “Celtic Tiger” to a European basket case and a jobless rate of 13 percent. Fianna Fail’s policies of privatization, dismantling economic checks and balances, and encouraging on-the-margins speculation were largely responsible for the economic implosion, and the voters punished them for it. The party that had dominated Irish politics for more than 80 years went from 77 to 19 seats, the worst defeat in its history.

Most observers expect Fine Gael and Labor to form a coalition that would give them a working majority in the 166-seat Dial, although it may not be a comfortable alliance. Fine Gael’s politics are not all that different than Fianna Fail, although Fine Gael’s leader and presumably new Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, has pledged to try and renegotiate the terms of the $117 billion International Monetary Fund/European Bank (IMF/EB) bailout. The bailouts requires Ireland to cut more than $20 billion from its budget over the next four years, raise taxes on working people, cut social services, and accept a usurious interest rate of 5.8 percent.

The Labor Party has made noises about forcing some of bank bondholders who profited from the speculation binge to pay some of the costs, although European banks are deeply opposed to that. Much will depend on what Kenny can get German Chancellor Andre Merkel to agree to, which most likely means a cut in the interest rate. Even the conservative Irish Business and Employers Confederation are pressing to cut the interest rate.

But pushing the interest rates down is hardly a challenge to the premise behind the bailout: that Ireland’s working people should pay for the speculation binge, an orgy of profit making that they did not partake in.

However, a solid block on the Left could push the debate in the direction of reevaluating that premise, and maybe move Labor in a more left direction. There are some 15 other “independent” voters that might also be lured into a coalition to challenge the bailout, although the ideological range among those independents leans more toward the center-right.

Sinn Fein says it opposes the current bailout, and cuts in social services, but hedges its bets when it talks about who its potential allies might be. The party is socialist in orientation and is closely associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It can take a good deal of credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and those laurels certainly helped it in the Feb. 25 election. But the Irish Republican News of Feb. 26 reports, “Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has left open the possibility of supporting a minority Fine Gael government.”

If Labor goes into a government with Fine Gael, the resulting coalition would have over 100 votes in the Dial, which is hardly a “minority” government. The remark, then, suggests that Adams is launching a trial balloon: a Fine Gael/Sinn Fein coalition that would hold a narrow majority in the Dial.

Such an alliance would not sit well with the ULA, whose program explicitly rules out “any coalition with right wing parties…particularly Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.” Indeed, the ULA says, “We aim to provide a real alternative to the establishment parties as well as Labor and Sinn Fein.” The three parties in the ULA coalition that put deputies in the Dial are the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Party, and the Workers & Unemployed Action Group.

Newly elected UAL Dial member Joe Higgins, a member of the Socialist Party, said that the coalition’s block “will work as a coherent, principled opposition,” adding, “there is a need for a new party on the left for working people.” The UAL is not a party yet, but according to Higgins the coalition is discussing how to make that come about.

The ULA has a six-point program that includes:

  • Dumping the IMF/EB deal and ending “the bailout of the banks and developers.”
  • A progressive tax system that “taxes the greedy not the needy.”
  • A social development program to build up the country’s infrastructure and create “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
  • Reversing the cuts to social services and the privatization of health care.
  • Ending discrimination bases on gender, race, nationality, age, disability or sexual orientation. The coalition supports gay marriage.
  • Protecting the environment.

The ULA also says it wants to form a network of similarly minded parties across Europe, “to fight the attacks on workers, the unemployed and the poor and to fight for a new vision of society.”

Ireland faces rough sledding in the months ahead, though it will hardly be alone. Portugal’s economy is almost as bad, and the IMF and the European Bank is starting to draw up a similar set of draconian bailout policies for Lisbon. If the Irish can come up with a strategy to resist shifting the financial crisis onto the backs of those least able to pay for it, that might be a blueprint for other countries ravaged by debt and economic malaise.

The elections made it clear that the Irish want a change, and the Left has an opportunity to develop “a new vision of society.” Now that would get Irish eyes to smile.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

WikiLeaks: “Laundered” U.S. Helicopters Wind up in the Hands of Colombian Paramilitaries

Hughes 500(Pictured: Hughes 500.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-fourth in the series.

To get a sense of just how interconnected the formal and illicit dimensions of international political economy are, take a peek at this brief cable from the US embassy in Bogota published by WikiLeaks Sunday.

The cable details then-Ambassador William Woods’ hunt for two missing helicopters that had originally been sold to the Israeli military by the United States government, but had somehow ended up in the hands of multimillionaire Enilse Lopez, a businesswoman that was suspected of close ties to Colombian paramilitaries.

The curious history of the helicopters is in itself instructive. The two Hughes 500 military grade choppers were sold to the Israeli government in the early 1980s, but grounded about fifteen years later when they were converted for civilian use. The helicopters were then sold in 2002 to the Canadian multinational media firm CANWEST, which strangely never had the aircraft moved outside Israeli territory. The next year, the corporation sold the helicopters to a Mexican aeronautical company, that shipped the pair to Miami under phony export and airworthiness documentation supposedly issued by the Israeli government.

As soon as the helicopters arrived in Miami, they were quickly sold to Trade Leasing and Consulting, a Panama-based corporation run by Colombian businessman Francisco Alberto Restrepo Flores. From there, the two choppers were flown to Cartegena, the gorgeous colonial city along Colombia’s northern coast. The import processing was carried out by Aviones Ejecutivos (AVIEL), which was issued a 90-day temporary certificate of airworthiness on condition that AVIEL obtain a safety certificate from the US government. The requested flight operation was never issued by Washington because the paperwork about the helicopters provided by AVIEL in no way matched the actual helicopters under consideration.

No matter. In the ninety days allowed by the Colombian government, the two choppers saw heavy use by AVIEL, which used them to transport cash and other valuables up and down the northern coast of the country on behalf of Banco Agrario, which specializes in offering micro loans to small farmers.

After the ninety day window closed with the expiration of the temporary certificate of airworthiness, the helicopters were grounded and quickly disappeared. They turned up nearly a year later, when the Colombian government discovered they were being stored in a warehouse owned by Enilse Lopez’s Uniapuestsa. They were seized, and moved to a secure facility in Barranquilla, Colombia, where American officials hoped to “verify the tail numbers of said helicopters,” and “obtain answers to critical questions.” Among the questions for which US diplomats sought answers, the critical concern was just what activities the helicopters were used for before their seizure by Colombian authorities.

That the helicopters came into the possession of Enilse Lopez, known popularly as “La Gata,” is noteworthy, due to the businesswoman’s connections to conservative paramilitary forces in Colombia, the long-held suspicion that she was a central node in the country’s massive money-laundering network, and her powerful hold over the Magangué district in Colombia’s northeast, where she is widely believed to be responsible for the extortion and violence plaguing the municipality. As of now, published WikiLeaks cables do not indicate if Wood received answers to any of his questions concerning the helicopters.

“The cat,” however, was found guilty by a Colombian court on February 1 of conspiracy for her proven links to paramilitary death squads between 2000 and 2003, though was acquitted of charges that she was directly complicit in murder. At the time of decision, Lopez was said to be in a Barranquilla hospital suffering from rapidly deteriorating health. Trouble is, she wasn’t actually there. On February 15, Lopez and her entourage were apprehended by Colombian police in her hometown Magangué, where she had arrived from Cartagena for her daughter’s birthday party. According to reports, The Cat claimed she was had not received word of the ruling, and therefore was unaware that she had been forbidden to travel. The decision was appealed by Lopez’s lawyers, and the case currently awaits resolution by the high court in Bogotá.

WikiLeaks: Local Mexican Governments Corrupted by Drug Money Leave Citizens Nowhere to Turn

Monterrey drug violenceWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-third in the series.

Once Latin America’s safest city, Monterrey—in the north of Mexico—has become a central battlefield in the country’s war against drugs. Each day, scores of people, many in law enforcement, are gunned down on Monterrey’s streets as increasingly powerful narcotraffickers contest the Mexican government’s sovereign control over its richest city.

As a US embassy cable published Saturday by WikiLeaks shows, however, the fight between Mexican authorities and the country’s drug gangs is hardly a clear-cut case of good guys taking on the bad.

Written at the start of 2009, the cable examines civil society efforts to combat the rising influence, and attendant violence, of drug traffickers in Monterrey and its immediate surroundings. Diplomats at the local consulate note that

As the wave of kidnappings, extortion, and narco-violence continues in the Monterrey region, the public—across all socioeconomic levels and classes—remains fearful. Attention shifts from one incident to another, whether it be the January 6 grenade attack on the Monterrey Televisa broadcast offices, the January 18 murder of a wealthy adolescent departing a nightclub, or the January 25 dumping of a tortured corpse outside the state government’s anonymous tipster office. Many local experts do not expect the situation to improve anytime soon.

One of those experts, Governor Socrates Rizzo of Nuevo Leon, the state in which Monterrey is located, told American diplomats that a large part of the trouble came from a compromised local government which was ineffectual at best, thoroughly corrupted by drug money at worst. “If citizens are afraid to turn to the authorities when faced with threats,” the cable concludes, “then truly crime victims are on their own.”

Making matters worse, Rizzo openly worried that the national elections slated for July—which dealt a decisive blow to President Felipe Calderon’s ruling PAN party—would draw drug traffickers and organized politics even closer.

While the two principal parties—PRI and PAN—had both taken steps to guard against the infiltration of narco-money in the campaigns, in practice it would be virtually impossible to prevent organized crime from bankrolling candidates. One way the cartels could impact the race would be to just bribe television anchorpersons and commentators, thereby ensuring that their particular candidate would receive favorable coverage. Alternatively…organized crime could provide a candidate’s staff with walking around money to distribute to voters.

Not only that, “applicable campaign finance regulations only cover the candidate, so that it would be easy to simply funnel the narco-money to a family member.”

The prospect of elections also brought to light the scarier prospect that rival politicians might use their connections to organize crime to violently contest for political control. The January 6 attacks on the Televisa headquarters, it turns out, were likely not

a response to any reporting done by that broadcast outlet on the cartels. Instead, [media representatives] saw it as an attempt by organized crime to inflict political damage on the current Nuevo Leon State Secretary for Governance—who happens to be the current governor’s preferred candidate to win the PRI nomination in the gubernatorial race. Under this line of argument, political mafias contracted organized crime gunmen to carry out the attack—if true, an even more chilling scenario [than] the alternative theory that the cartels themselves were behind the assault.

While the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) cleaned up at the polls, violence in Monterrey and across the country has only increased in frequency and magnitude. Local politicians and law enforcement have been particularly under attack. Just this Thursday, an elite squad of police in Garcia—a Monterrey suburb town—was attacked by a team of former police officers working for organized crime. The next day, Jaime Rodriguez—mayor of Garcia—barely survived an assassination attempt as he traveled to Monterrey.

Three mayors nationwide have already been murdered since the start of 2011, and a fourth is currently missing. Nearly 1,200 Mexicans have lost their lives to drug-related violence since January.

New Arab Democratic Governments May Neither Demonize Nor Embrace Iran

Suez Canal Iran warship(Pictured: Iranian warship passing through the Suez Canal.)

While popular fodder for Fox News’ commentators, the notion that the Arab world of 2011 in any way resembles an Iran of 1979 has gained relatively limited traction in our mainstream papers of record. But if Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are stuck in 1979, some journalists have yet to dislodge themselves from the Cold War.

“Iran has already benefited from the ouster or undermining of Arab leaders,” reports the New York Times, an assessment attributed to unnamed “analysts.”

But while the subsequent spike in oil prices has probably meant an extra infusion of cash into an Iranian regime saddled by sanctions, other concrete indications of this supposed Iranian influence have yet to manifest themselves.

The Times points to two Iranian warships that Egypt’s new leaders allowed to pass through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, the first such passage permitted since 1979. But however much hand-wringing this precipitated in the region’s capitals, it’s hard to imagine that it evinced more than a shrug from an ordinary Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, or Bahraini. The Times further laments that, with respect to Israel, the “pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is now in tatters.”

If all this sounds like a reach, it probably is.

“By allowing the Iranian ships to transit the Canal,” explains Time’s Tony Karon, “Egypt’s military rulers are signaling they want to normalize ties with Iran. That doesn’t make them proxies of Tehran any more than Iraq, Turkey or, for that matter, Brazil are. They’re simply opting out of a U.S. regional strategy of confronting Iran.” Nor should the apparent refusal of ordinary Egyptians to facilitate the strangulation of Gaza render them partners in Iran’s support for Hamas.

Indeed, ordinary Arabs have been by and large relatively unconcerned about Iran. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, they tend to perceive far greater threats to regional stability from the United States and Israel, an orientation that a cursory review of the region’s recent history might well justify. And given the Western backing for most of the regimes presently under siege, the near complete absence of anti-American or anti-Israeli sloganeering from the uprisings is frankly remarkable. If anything, it should indicate that the authors of the extraordinary revolutions sweeping the region are firmly committed to the democratic futures of their own countries — not to the regional ambitions of outsiders.

Additionally, both the Times and the Washington Post have stoked concerns about restive Shiite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, areas that the Post has called “a focus of Iranian influence.” But to graft an Iranian power play onto the democratic aspirations of these aggrieved populations is to take a page from the sectarian playbook of the ruling Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It also harkens back to a more general American paranoia about the Shiite sect, which has been difficult to erase since the Iranian hostage crisis and has left American policy makers almost to this day wondering whether Osama bin Laden is a Sunni or Shiite.

Any notion that the democratic aspirations of Shiites (or anyone else) could be abetted by Iranian meddling is quickly dispelled by the behavior of the Iranians themselves. Just days after disingenuously praising Egypt’s and Tunisia’s “Islamic liberation movements,” the Iranian regime cracked down hard on its own pro-democracy protestors. Should they come into being, nascent democratic governments in the Arab world may carry on relatively normalized relations with Iran. But few democrats in the region will overlook the bankruptcy displayed by Iran’s leaders.

In the end, the popular rejection of U.S.-backed autocrats certainly amounts to a diminished American influence in the region. But it is a relic of Cold War analysis to suppose that the influence lost by one regional hegemon must automatically accrue to another. There is simply little evidence that Iran has gained where the U.S. has lost.

The real fundamental change has been the audience for such influence – where it was once a coterie of aging autocrats, it is now the people themselves. If the U.S. is concerned about Iran, the Obama administration must prove itself a greater friend of democracy than Iran’s clerics. Let’s not make that more difficult than it sounds.

Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project and the Global Day of Action on Military Spending.

Raymond Davis Incident Shows How Tangled U.S.-Pakistan Web Is

Raymond DavisWas American CIA agent Raymond Davis secretly working with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for a U.S. seizure of that country’s nuclear weapons? Was he photographing sensitive military installations and marking them with a global positioning device? Did he gun down two men in cold blood to prevent them from revealing what he was up to? These are just a few of the rumors ricocheting around Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar in the aftermath of Davis’s arrest Jan. 27, and sorting through them is a little like stepping through Alice’s looking glass.

But one thing is certain: the U.S. has hundreds of intelligence agents working in Pakistan, most of them private contractors, and many of them so deep in the shadows that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), doesn’t know who they are or what they are up to. “How many more Raymond Davises are out there?” one ISI official asked Associated Press.

Lots, it would appear. Five months ago, the Pakistani government directed its embassies in the U.S. to issue visas without letting the ISI or Pakistan’s Interior Ministry vet them. According to the Associated Press, this opened a “floodgate” that saw 3,555 visas for diplomats, military officials and employees issued in 2010.

Many of those visas were for non-governmental organizations and the staff for the huge, $1 billion fortress embassy Washington is building in Islamabad, but thousands of others covered consular agents and workers in Lahore (where Davis was arrested), Karachi and other cities. Some of those with visas work for Xe Services (formerly Blackwater), others for low-profile agencies like Blackbird Technologies, Glevum Associates, and K2 Solutions. Many of the “employees” of these groups are former U.S. military personnel—Davis was in the Special Forces for 10 years—and former CIA agents. And the fact that these are private companies allows them to fly under the radar of congressional oversight, as frail a reed as that may be.

How one views the incident that touched off the current diplomatic crisis is an example of how deep the differences between Pakistan and the U.S. have become.

The Americans claim Davis was carrying out surveillance on radical insurgent groups, and was simply defending himself from two armed robbers. But Davis’s story has problems. It does appear that the two men on the motorbike were armed, but neither fired their weapon and, according to the police report, one did not even have a shell in his pistol’s firing chamber. Davis apparently fired through the window of his armored SUV, then stepped out of the car and shot the two men in the back, one while attempting to flee. He then calmly took photos, called for backup, climbed into his car, and drove off. He was arrested shortly afterwards at an intersection.

The Pakistanis have a different view of the incident. According to Pakistani press reports, the two men were working for the ISI and were trailing Davis because the intelligence agency suspected that the CIA agent was in contact with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistani group based in North Waziristan that is currently warring with Islamabad. As an illustration of how bizarre things are these days in Pakistan, one widespread rumor is that the U.S. is behind the Tehtik-e-Taliban bombings as part of a strategy to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for an American seizure of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The ISI maintains close ties with the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, as well as its allies, the Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Group. All three groups are careful to keep a distance from Pakistan’s Taliban.

Yet another rumor claims that Davis was spying on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with close ties to the ISI that is accused of organizing the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India. The Americans claim the organization is working with al-Qaeda, a charge the Pakistanis reject.

When Davis’s car was searched, police turned up not only the Glock semi-automatic he used to shoot the men, but four loaded clips, a GPS device, and a camera. The latter, according to the police report, had photos of “sensitive” border sites. “This is not the work of a diplomat,” Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told the Guardian (UK), “he was doing espionage and surveillance activities.”

The shooting also had the feel of an execution. One of the men was shot twice in the back and his body was more than 30 feet from the motorbike, an indication he was attempting to flee. “It went way beyond what we define as self-defense, “ a senior police official told the Guardian (UK). “It was not commensurate with the threat.” The Lahore Chief of Police called it a “cold-blooded murder.”

The U.S. claims that Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity, but the matter might not be as open and shut as the U.S. is making it. According to the Pakistani Express Tribune, Davis’s name was not on a list of diplomats submitted to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 25. The day after the shooting the embassy submitted a revised list that listed Davis as a diplomat.

Washington clearly considered Davis to be important. When he asked for backup on the day of the shooting, another SUV was dispatched to support him, apparently manned by agents living at the same safe house as Davis. The rescue mission went wrong when it ran over a motorcyclist while going the wrong direction down a one-way street. When the Pakistani authorities wanted to question the agents, they found that both had been whisked out of the country.

Almost immediately the Obama administration sent Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Islamabad to apologize and pressure Pakistan to release Davis. But the incident has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Pakistan, where the CIA’s drone war has deeply alienated most Pakistanis. Opposition parties are demanding that the CIA agent be tried for murder. A hearing on the issue of whether Davis has diplomatic immunity is scheduled for Mar. 14.

In the meantime, Davis is being held under rather extraordinary security because of rumors that the Americans will try to spring him, or even poison him. Davis is being shielded from any direct contact with U.S. officials, and a box of chocolates sent to Davis by the Embassy was confiscated.

The backdrop for the crisis is a growing estrangement between the two countries over their respective strategies in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has stepped up its attacks on the Afghan insurgents, launched a drone war in Pakistan, and is demanding that Islamabad take a much more aggressive stance toward the Taliban’s allies based in the Afghan border region. While Washington still talks about a “diplomatic resolution” to the Afghan war, it is busy blowing up the very people it will eventually need to negotiate with.

This approach makes no sense to Pakistan. From Islamabad’s point of view, increasing attacks on the Taliban and their allies will only further destabilize Pakistan, and substitutes military victory for a diplomatic settlement. Since virtually every single independent observer think the former is impossible, the current U.S. strategy is, as terror expert Anatol Lieven puts it, “lunatic reasoning.”

Pakistan wants to insure that any Afghan government that emerges from the war is not a close ally of India, a country with which it has already fought three wars. A pro-Indian government in Kabul would essentially surround Pakistan with hostile forces. Yet the Americans have pointedly refused to address the issue of Indian-Pakistan tension over Kashmir, in large part because Washington very much wants an alliance with India.

In short, the U.S. and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on Afghanistan, and Islamabad is suspicious that Americans like Davis are undermining Pakistan’s interests in what Islamabad views as an area central to its national security. “They [the U.S.] needs to come clean and tell us who they [agents] are, what they are doing,” one ISI official told the Guardian (UK). “They need to stop doing things behind our back.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the matter. Was the ISI onto Davis, and was he really in contact with groups the Pakistani army didn’t want him talking to? What did Washington know about Davis’ mission, and when did it know it? Did Davis think he was being held up, or was it a cold-blooded execution of two troublesome tails?

Rumor has it that the CIA and the ISI are in direct negotiations to find an acceptable solution, but there are constraints on all sides. The Pakistani public is enraged with the U.S. and resents that it has been pulled into the Afghan quagmire. On the other hand, there are many in Washington—particularly in Congress—who are openly talking about cutting off the $1.5 billion of yearly U.S. aid to Pakistan.

What the incident has served to illuminate is the fact that U.S. intelligence operations are increasingly being contracted out to private companies with little apparent oversight from Congress. At last count, the U.S. Defense Department had almost 225,000 private contractors working for them.

The privatization of intelligence adds yet another layer of opacity to an endeavor that is already well hidden by a blanket of “national security,” and funded by black budgets most Americans never see. The result of all this is a major diplomatic crisis in what is unarguably the most dangerous piece of ground on the planet.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

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