Archive for the ‘Crime and Punishment’ Category

Your vote may not count in full

June 16, 2016

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An outfit called Black Box Voting, which has been monitoring U.S. election tampering since 2003, reports that a quarter of U.S. votes are counted by an electronic system that is designed to be tampered with.

The GEMS election management system … … counts approximately 25 percent of all votes in the United States. … … A fractional vote feature is embedded in each GEMS application which can be used to invisibly, yet radically, alter election outcomes by pre-setting desired vote percentages to redistribute votes.  This tampering is not visible to election observers, even if they are standing in the room and watching the computer.  Use of the decimalized vote feature is unlikely to be detected by auditing or canvass procedures, and can be applied across large jurisdictions in less than 60 seconds.

Source: Fraction Magic | BlackBoxVoting.org.

In other words, the vote counting system can be set so that every vote for candidate Jones counts as a full vote and every vote for candidate Smith counts as three-quarters of a vote or half a vote.

This is damn disturbing.   What legitimate purpose could there be for such a feature?

Global Election Management Systems are a product of the Diebold company, whose voting machines have previously been shown vulnerable to undetectable hacking.

Investigative reporter Greg Palast claims that results of all national elections starting in 2004 have been falsified.  I wish I could say I believe this is impossible.

LINK

Fraction Magic: Votes are being counted as fractions instead of as whole numbers by Bev Harris for Black Box Voting.

How Trump used Judge Curiel as a red herring

June 13, 2016

Donald Trump’s Trump University scam was despicable.  He scammed 7,611 people who trusted in his same into giving him thousands of dollars for something he knew was worthless.

He’s being sued on behalf of students, and his attack on the impartiality of Judge Gonzalo Curiel, one of the judges in the case, based on Curiel’s Mexican ancestry, has created an uproar among both liberals and conservatives.

Actually the knee-jerk reaction to Trump’s attack on Curiel serves Trump’s purpose, because it shifts attention away from the major issue, which is the Trump University scam.

Donald Trump in 2005

Donald Trump in 2005

Trump University, which operated from 2005 to 2010, recruited students by offering free 90-minute real estate seminars in 700 cities from 2005 to 2010.  The purpose of the seminars was to sell them on signing up for $1,495 three-day seminars.  From there the next step was to sign up students for a $9,995 “silver” or $34,995 “gold” program.

Even after that, students were asked to spend more for books, additional courses and other materials.

Donald Trump said students who enrolled at Trump University would learn the secrets of getting rich in real estate from hand-picked instructors.

None of these things were true.  The instructors had no qualifications or expertise in real estate.  Trump himself barely knew them.  They were chosen for their ability to sell students on signing up for more expensive courses.

Their employee manual, which has been leaked to The Atlantic and other publications, gave extensive instructions on how to do that.  Students were encouraged to dip into retirement funds, and told how to apply for increases in the limits on their credit cards.

At least one was a high school student.  Many were veterans, retired police officers and teachers.  In return, they got little more than motivational speeches.

Trump claimed that Trump University received more than 10,000 testimonials from students—which means a lot of them must either be fake or be signed by attendees at the free seminars.

What he doesn’t have is a testimonial from anyone who attended Trump University, succeeded in real estate and attributed it to Trump U’s instruction.

Steven Brill reported that legal records show that Trump University took in more than $40 million, of which Trump himself received $5 million.

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Mass shootings in U.S. are an almost daily event

December 3, 2015

mass-shootings

Mass shootings are getting to be virtually an everyday occurrence in the United States.   While American gun violence and murder rates are declining overall, this one particular form of senseless violence holds steady, for reasons that aren’t clear to me.

About 64 percent of the shooters were white men, according to a survey by Mother Jones, about the same as the white percentage of the total population.  Black people were 16 percent of the total shooters, Asians were 9 percent and Latinos, native Americans and people of unknown ethnicity made up the rest.

I honestly don’t know what can be done, realistically, to eliminate mass shootings.  Obviously mass shootings could not take place if the shooters could not obtain firearms.  But gun prohibition has been ruled un-Constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, and I don’t think it would work even if it could be tried.

The typical mass shooter is a young man obsessed with weapons and images of violence, frustrated with work, school or relationships, with a history of minor acts of violence.  Mark Follman wrote a good article in the current issue of Mother Jones about efforts to identify potential mass shooters, and turn them away from violence.  Possibly a lot of violent incidents have been headed off this way.

But, as he wrote, there are “legions” of angry young men who own guns and like violent movies and video games, and yet never commit crimes.   I don’t see how it is feasible to monitor them all.

The baffling question is why this particular type of crime should be on the increase.   Follman talked to experts who said part of the reason is social media, which gives mass shooters a perverse kind of fame.   Mass shooters are typically people leading lives that are meaningless to themselves who want to make an impact—any kind of impact.

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Weekend reading: Links & comments 10/23/2015

October 23, 2015

Iceland Just Jailed Dozens of Corrupt Bankers for 74 Years, The Opposite of What America Does by Jay Syrmopoulos of the Free Thought Project (via AlterNet)

Iceland sentences 26 bankers to a combined 74 years in prison by gjohnsit for Daily Kos (Hat tip to my expatriate friend Jack)

Icelandic courts have sentenced 26 bankers to prison terms for two to five years each—a total of 74 years—for financial fraud and manipulation leading up to the financial crash of 2008.

The important precedent here, and the great contrast with the United States, is that Iceland prosecuted individuals, not banks.  An organization structure cannot commit crimes, any more than a bank building can commit crimes.   It is the individuals within the structure who have criminal responsibility.

JADE: A Global Witness Investigation Into Myanmar’s Big “State Secret” (hat tip to Jack)

High-quality jade is the most valuable product of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.  But the government and people of the country get little benefit from it.  Instead the trade is controlled by military elites, corporate cronies and U.S.-sanctioned drug lords.

Nawal El Saadawi: ‘Do you feel you are liberated?  I feel I am not’ by Rachel Cooke for The Guardian (Hat tip to Jack)

An interview with the formidable 83-year-old Egyptian author, freethinker, feminist, medical doctor and campaigner against female genital mutilation.

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How heroin came to middle-class white America

August 13, 2015

DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones is the story of how heroin addiction spread through rural and suburban white America.

Dreamland was the name of a popular swimming pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, a small city on the Ohio river that once was the center of the U.S. shoe manufacturing industry.

The pool closed as the shoe industry declined, but Portsmouth gave birth to a new industry—the mass prescription of  legal but addictive pain medications such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals’ OxyContin.

Regular practitioners were misled into thinking that OxyContin, a biochemical twin of heroin, and related were harmless, but industry really took off with the spread of “pill mills”—medical practices that were limited to the prescription of pills for alleged pain/

DreamlandQuinones51pEBThe business of addictive prescription drugs is one part of the story Quinones told.  The other more startling part is how poor people in the small Mexican town of Xalisco (population about 20,000) created a nationwide distribution franchise system which spread their locally-cooked black tar heroin across the United States.

The Xalisco Boys, as police came to call them, did not carry weapons, did not use drugs themselves, and never sold to black people (whom they thought were violent).   They emphasized product quality, good customer service and competitive prices, with discounts for new customers.

They created an equivalent to a pizza delivery franchise, in which customers could call a certain number and have heroin delivered to a certain spot.   The drivers were inconspicuous, kept out of trouble and drove nondescript vehicles.

They put heroin in balloons, which they kept in their mouths.  When police stopped them, they swallowed the balloons, which they were later able to recover, with the heroin intact.

As they moved out from their original base in the San Fernando Valley, they avoided areas where violent drug gangs operated. Instead they moved into areas where prescription painkillers such as OxyContin were heavily sold, and offered their product as a cheaper and easier-to-obtain substitute.

The Mexican drug cartels and urban criminal gangs are responsible for much of the heroin sold in the United States, Quinones wrote.  They control the heroin trade in Chicago, Atlanta, northern California and many other urban centers, he said; very little heroin comes from Asia any more.   The Xalisco Boys took heroin where the established traffickers never thought to go.

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Behind the test cheating scandal in Atlanta

April 2, 2015

MISC_high-stakes-testingEleven teachers in Atlanta face prison sentences after being convicted of cheating to improve students’ test scores.

I don’t justify cheating.  But they were not alone.  If your future depends on reaching an impossible or near-impossible numerical target, then the pressure to cheat is very great.  That’s not a justification for cheating, but it is an explanation of why cheating was a predictable result of high-stakes testing.

The ninth of the 10 truths of management applies here.

If you are attempting the impossible, you will fail.

As does Goodhart’s law.

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Once more, I am not making an excuse for cheating.  It is wrong, no matter who does it.

But my friend and fellow retiree Bill Elwell passed along an excellent question from his friend, Karen Leshin.

Anyone who knows me, knows that in my professional career as an instructional leader and school administrator, I have been very involved with learning, testing and evaluation. I abhor cheating.  However, when I see school teachers and administrators in Georgia convicted of cheating leaving the  courtroom in handcuffs and facing jail time….I wonder why the bankers on Wall Street involved with crashing our economy and costing our government enormous amounts of money, walked free!  Quite the double standard!

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Mexican drug cartels: the ISIS next door

March 24, 2015

The Mexican drug cartels are just as vicious as the Islamic State and, from the standpoint of Americans, more dangerous.   They behead people, they torture and mutilate people and they have more power than the government over vast territories.  The main difference is that the drug lords worship money.

120814_mexicographic_1The United States government has waged a “war on drugs” by the same means by which it has waged a “war on terror,” by treating it as a military problem instead of a crime problem, and with the same failed result.

American policy has made the drug problem worse, just as it made terrorism worse.

First drug prohibition created a market for the drug cartels, just as, in an earlier era, alcohol prohibition created a market for organized crime in American cities.

Then the U.S. encouraged the Mexican government to wage a military campaign, plus torture and warrant-less detention, against the drug-lords, which escalated the conflict and the violence but did not win.

What the drug gangs are doing is so horrible that I might be tempted to think this was all right, if it was successful.  But it wasn’t.  It just meant that Mexicans are terrorized by their own government as well as the criminals.

The Drug Enforcement Administration took to working with some of the drug cartels against others.   The “Fast and Furious” fiasco, in which the DEA actually supplied guns to a drug gang and then lost track of them, was part of this.

But unlike with ISIS, we Americans do not have the option of walking away from the problem.  The power of the Mexican drug cartels reaches deep into the United States.

Merely liberalizing U.S. drug laws or winding U.S. operations in Mexico will not solve the problem, any more than ending alcohol prohibition solved the problem of organized crime in the USA, or U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or Iraq will solve the many problems of those countries.

I hope that a smarter person than me can see a way out.

LINK

Can You Say “Blowback” in Spanish? by Rebecca Gordon for TomDispatch.   My post is based largely on this excellent, in depth summary of the situation.

Mexican drug cartels are worse than ISIL by Musa al-Gharbi for Al Jazeera.

Why Mexicans are saying they’ve had enough by Ioan Grillo and Simon Kholsa for the Tucson Sentinel.

 

Who was Boris Nemtsov?

March 3, 2015

Thousands of Russians today attended the funeral of Boris Nemtsov, the brave Russian opposition leader who was gunned down Friday a short distance from the Kremlin.

Boris Nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov

But Mark Ames of PandoDaily, who lived in Moscow during the 1990s, recalled Nemtsov as a part of the Boris Yeltsin regime, which was just as corrupt and just as murderous as what came after.   Nemtsov’s bogus reforms hid and facilitated corruption rather than hindering it, Ames wrote.

Unlike with the Vladimir Putin regime today, few American or European journalists or leaders back then cared about the dissolution of the Russian Duma, war against Chechnya or the murders of Russian journalists.

Yeltsin took the advice of Harvard economists and had good relations with the Clinton administration, and so the crimes and follies of his regime were overlooked—at least until the financial crash of 1998.

Of course Nemtsov’s murder is a serious matter, regardless of his political record.  There are many possible culprits.

Nemtsov’s enemies were legion: aside from Putin and his supporters, there are the more extreme nationalists who think Putin is a sell-out. 

Nemtsov’s open support for the Ukrainian government against his own country generated the kind of hatred antiwar activists had to endure during the Vietnam war: think Jane Fonda upon her return from Hanoi. 

Perhaps a bit more lethal are the oligarchs threatened by Nemtsov’s reform program – a series of “anti-corruption” measures ultimately aborted by his mentor, Boris Yeltsin.

via Justin Raimondo – Antiwar.com.

The one possibility I can’t take seriously is that he was killed as a “provocation” to discredit Putin.

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Why still so many Americans in prison?

February 13, 2015

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Why are there so many Americans in prison?  Why did the incarceration rate continue to rise even though the rate of violent crime went down?

I thought for a long time that the main reasons were that so many young men, especially black men, were imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and that state laws required judges to impose long sentences even when the crimes were relatively trivial.

But John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor, has done an analysis indicating that, even if you fixed these two things, the U.S. prison population would only decline a little bit.

What then is the problem?  Pfaff said the increased prison population is due to zealous prosecutors.  In 1994, someone who was arrested faced a one change in three that a prosecutor would file felony charges.  By 2008, the odds of a felony charge were two in three.  Statistically, he said, this explains most of the increase.

It is not obvious what to do.  Prosecutors don’t a name for themselves, nor increase their chances of higher office, by exercising restraint.

LINK

Mass incarceration: A provocative new theory for why so many Americans are in prison by Leon Neyfakh for Slate.  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist)

The Imprisoner’s Dilemma by Oliver Roeder for FiveThirtyEight.  (Hat tip to kottke.org)  More statistics and analysis.  [Added 2/14/15]

China leads the world in executions

October 21, 2014

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Source: The Independent

Last year China executed more people, by far, than the rest of the world combined.

How insiders rob banks and cause crises

March 18, 2014

William K. Blank is professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a former bank regulator and author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One (which I haven’t read).

In this TED talk, he explains how crooked bankers enrich themselves through what he calls “control fraud”.  The method is as follows:

  • Make a lot of loans to people you know can’t pay you bank.
  • Conceal the bogus nature of the loans through fraudulent appraisals.
  • Collect high interest rates (for a while)
  • Report record profits (for a while)
  • Collect an enormous salary and enormous bonuses (for a while)
  • Escape scot-free with your riches when the crash comes.

There are two other elements that he doesn’t mention in this particular talk.

  • Convert the loans into financial securities and sell them to suckers
  • Go to Congress and the Federal Reserve Board to be bailed out when the crash comes.

Black said all this has been facilitated for the past 20 years by the Clinton, Bush II and Obama administrations, and by the Federal Reserve Board during that period.  Everything is in place for another crash as big as what came before.

It seems obvious to me that we Americans need to (1) break up the “too big to fail” banks (those whose assets exceed a certain set percentage of Gross Domestic Product, (2) refuse to insure deposits that are used for risky investment and (3) prosecute financial fraud, as was done in the Bush I administration following the savings and loan crash.

LINKS

America Has Become a “Cheater-Take-All” Nation by Willliam K. Black for AlterNet.

The Big Lie That Haunts the Post-Crash Economy by Dean Stockman for The New Republic.   The “big lie” is that “everyone” is to blame for the crash of the housing bubble, when in fact the bubble was mainly due to crooked financiers.

New Lawsuit Alleges That Wells Fargo Has a Manual for Mass Fabrication of Foreclosure Documents by Yves Smith.

Why Prosecutors Whiffed on Subprime Crime by Barry Ritholtz for Bloomberg View.

Hat tip for the video to Yves Smith.

Woody Allen cast as a Dostoyevsky villain

February 9, 2014

Woody Allen’s ex-partner, Mia Farrow, and estranged son, Ronan Farrow, have revived accusations that he raped his seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dyan Fallow, some 21 years ago.  After having read Robert B. Weide’s analysis of the case, I think the accusations (not charges, because prosecutors never filed charges) are unproved.

woody.allen.nihilistGrace Olmstead, writing for the American Conservative, thinks he probably is guilty because this is the kind of thing that an atheistic nihilist would be likely to do.  She compared him to Dostoyevsky’s fictional Svidrigailov from Crime and Punishment who raped a mute 15=year-old girl because, as another Dostoyevsky character said, if God does not exist, all is permitted.  Other writers suspend judgment on Allen’s guilt, but say his philosophy is a justification for child abuse.

What do these writers say about the child abuse perpetrated by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, who were then protected by the church?  Were they atheists and nihilists?  I don’t think so.  I don’t think you can tell much about what people would do by the creeds to which they pay lip service.

LINKS

The Woody Allen Allegations: Not So Fast by Robert B. Weide for The Daily Beast.

Defending the Case Against Woody Allen by Grace Olmstead for the American Conservative.

Woody Allen, Nihilist by Damon Linker for This Week.  Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

UN Report Blasts Catholic Church for Systematic Child Abuse Coverup, an interview of Kirsten Sandberg, chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, on the Real News Network.

I know that there are celebrities who’ve gotten away with sexual abuse of children for years.  I also know from personal acquaintance that innocent people can be falsely accused as a byproduct of martial or child custody disputes.  Based on what I’ve read, I think that Allen’s guilt has not been established, and that he is entitled to a presumption of innocence.

Corporations don’t commit crimes

January 31, 2014

No, corporations do not commit crimes.  Corporate executives commit crimes.  There is a difference.

The U.S. Department of Justice charged JP Morgan Chase with various crimes, including fraudulent sale of mortgage-backed securities, covering up losses, rigging electricity prices and aiding and abetting Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.  Last September Attorney General Eric Holder announced a settlement of the case, in which JP Morgan Chase agreed to pay nearly $20 billion in fines.

The company responded by laying off 7,500 employees and freezing the pay of employees below the executive level.  But now the board of directors raised the pay of CEO Jamie Dimon, who had ultimate responsibility for the illegal actions, from $11.5 million a year to $20 million.

As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone pointed out in a recent post on his web log.

Eric Holder and Barack Obama … decided last year to make a big show of punishing JP Morgan Chase as a symbol of bank corruption, then forgot to punish the actual persons who oversaw the bank’s misdeeds.  This is a little like reining in a school bully by halving his school’s budget.  It doesn’t work.  Crimes are committed by people, and justice has to target people, too.  Otherwise the whole thing is a joke.

But from the board of directors’ point of view, the fine is less than the $25 billion in TARP funds that Dimon got from the federal government when the company was on the verge of collapse.

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Click on Jamie Dimon’s Raise Proves U.S. Regulatory Strategy Is a Joke for the whole article by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Click on JP Morgan Chase, Penance and Fines for an account of JP Morgan Chase’s misdeeds by Christopher Brauchli for Huffington Post.

Click on Dimon Does Davos, and His Board Gives Him a Raise for more by Bill Black.

Two good lessons from Finland

December 2, 2013

We Americans could benefit from following the example of Finland’s schools and also its prisons.

How many ombudsmen has the Pope?

November 18, 2013

Autocrats at the top of hierarchical organizations—whether governmental, corporate, religious, military or political—have a lot of power when it comes to crushing dissent or doing battle with outside forces.

But when it comes to internal reform, that autocratic power commonly melts away.   Autocrats who try to reform the institution they supposedly control run into mysterious resistances and obstacles.  An autocrat is only as powerful as the willing obedience of those lower in the hierarchy extends.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

That’s why I admire and sympathize with Pope Francis in his struggle to clean house at the Institute for Religious Works, also known as the Vatican Bank.  Originally set up to finance the church’s charitable activities, the Vatican Bank operates outside Italian law and financial reporting requirements, and is understood to have been infiltrated by the Italian Mafia for the purposes of money laundering.

I don’t think Pope Francis really is targeted for assassination, as some Italian prosecutors have suggested, but I do think the various Italian Mafias are powerful institutions, and not only in Italy, and they did their utmost to frustrate the Pope’s efforts.

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope, I wrote about his ambiguous role in Argentina’s “dirty war” under the dictatorship.  I now think that what I wrote was uncharitable and based on incomplete information.

I admire Pope Francis not just for his highly-publicized modeling of the behavior of Jesus toward the poor, sick and outcast, but his willingness to take action against church officials who abuse their power, such as the Bishop of Limberg, Germany, who was suspended for misuse of church funds for his extravagant lifestyle.  You don’t have to be a Catholic to wish him success.

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Traffickers victimize Burma’s Rohingya refugees

August 13, 2013

This documentary by UK Channel 4 News is about victimization of Burma’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority.  Living in camps along the Burma-Bangladesh border, they are offered passage to Malaysia by Thai smugglers.  Instead of being taken to Malaysia, they are imprisoned in camps along the Thai border with Malaysia and held for ransom.  If the ransom isn’t paid, they are sold as slave laborers to Thai fishermen.

The investigation led to a camp being raided by Thai officials and kidnap victims being freed.  It would be nice to think that this will be part of an ongoing crackdown and not just a one-time action to counteract bad publicity.

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A white culture of lawlessness?

July 31, 2013

white culture of crime

Click on Video of Violent, Rioting Surfers Shows White Culture of Lawlessness for more.

Click on “…the most violent ethnic group in America” for an earlier post of mine.

Just to be clear, the cartoon and my post are intended to be a satirical comment about how certain types of crime and criminals are treated more leniently than others.  I don’t actually believe that white people as a group are criminal.  Some of my best friends are white people.  In fact, I’m a white person myself.

Click on Mat Bors Archive for more of his cartoons.

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The war on drugs and its Mexican quagmire

May 7, 2013

All the reasons that are given for drug prohibition or, for that matter, gun prohibition are reasons for prohibiting the consumption of alcohol.

The Centers for Disease Control say that alcohol abuse is the third-largest cause of preventable death in the United States.  More than 75,000 deaths a year are attributed to alcohol.  It is involved in 39 percent of highway fatalities, one-third of suicides and 37 percent of rapes and sexual assaults.   Each year there are 3 million violent crimes in which the victim says the offender was drunk.

Given these facts, it was understandable that the United States in 1919 would try prohibiting alcohol.   The prohibition laws did not stop people from consuming alcohol, but they did stimulate the growth of organized crime to a much more powerful place in American life.

But when the Noble Experiment was repealed in 1933, things did not return to the way they were in 1919.  Organized crime did not go out of business.  It sought other activities, and is an important part of American life to this day.  All the evils that Prohibition was intended to alleviate continue to this day.  But no reasonable person wants to restore Prohibition.  It is a cure that is worse than the disease, even though the disease is very real.

carteldrugterritoriesroutes1After reading a report in the Washington Post by Dana Priest on the current state of the war on narco-traffickers in Mexico, I think drug prohibition will end in the same way.   She told how the CIA spearheaded the drug war and developed such close ties with CISEN, the Mexican intelligence service, that it became virtually part of the Mexican government.  The George W. Bush administration stepped up arrests of drug kingpins and attempts to shut down drug smuggling routes.  The druglords responded savagely.

CISEN discovered from a captured videotape and a special analytical group it set up that some of the cartels had hired former members of the U.S.-trained Guatemalan special forces, the Kaibiles, to create sociopathic killers who could behead a man, torture a child or immerse a captive in a vat of acid.

Anxious to counterattack, the CIA proposed electronically emptying the bank accounts of drug kingpins, but was turned down by the Treasury Department and the White House, which feared unleashing chaos in the banking system.

As the Mexican death toll mounted, [President Felipe] Calderon pleaded with Bush for armed drones.  He had been impressed by the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, two former U.S. officials said.  The White House considered the request, but quickly rejected it.  It was far too likely to result in collateral damage, they said.

By 2009, President Obama’s first year in office, horrific scenes had become commonplace throughout Mexico: severed heads thrown onto a dance floor, a half-dozen bodies hanged from a bridge, bombs embedded in cadavers.  Ciudad Juarez, a stone’s throw from El Paso, was a virtual killing zone.

US_mx_drug_homicides_300

… … Success against the cartels’ leadership had helped incite more violence than anyone had predicted, more than 60,000 deaths and 25,000 disappearances in the past seven years alone.

Meanwhile, the drug flow into the United States continued unabated.  Mexico remains the U.S. market’s largest supplier of heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine and the transshipment point for 95 percent of its cocaine.

via The Washington Post.

On Dec. 1, a new President, Enrique Pena Nieto, took office.  According to Priest, he is less interested in the U.S.-backed policy of arresting druglords and more in drug abuse prevention and keeping Mexico’s streets safe.  In other words, he cares more about Mexico’s problems and less about helping the United States solve its problems.

She reported that U.S. officials are worried about President Pena Nieto’s priorities.  I think we in the United States would be wise to adopt these priorities for ourselves.  The roots of the U.S. drug addiction problem are in the United States, not in Mexico, Colombia or any other foreign country.

I think the war on drugs is going to end in the same way as Prohibition.  I don’t think that will be a good result, but I think it will be an inevitable result.  In this, as in many other things, I will be pleased if events prove me wrong.

There are two wise sayings that apply here.  One is Stein’s Rule, by Herbert Stein, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Nixon.

If something cannot go on forever, someday it will stop.

The other is one of Rumsfeld’s Rules, by Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush.

If a problem cannot be solved, it may not be a problem, but a fact.

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Behind the genocide trial of Rios Montt

April 19, 2013

It’s rare for a tyrant to go on trial for crimes against his people, unless he is defeated in war and tried by the victors.  But it appeared that an exception would be made in the case of General Efrain Rios Montt, ruler of Guatemala in 1982-83, who, with U.S. government approval, ordered his army to massacre and torture Mayan villagers, including women, children and sick people, in a campaign to stamp out guerrilla resistance.

This would have been an important precedent, leading to—who knows?—rulers of the world’s powerful nations being held legally accountable for crimes against humanity.  But as things stand today, it appears that the trial will not go forward.

View the videos for more about the charges against Rios Montt.

Hat tip to Oidin.

[Update 5/11/13]  Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison after being convicted of genocide.

[Update 5/27/13]  Rios Montt’s conviction was overturned by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

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Back-alley abortions in the 21st century

April 19, 2013
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In my home town in the western Maryland panhandle in the 1960s, a women who wished to terminate a pregnancy had no place where she could legally go.  But it was said (I don’t know if this was true) that if she were to pay a certain lawyer an agreed-on sum of money, he would tell her to be on a certain street corner at a certain time of night.  There she would be met and driven blindfolded to a farmhouse in Pennsylvania, where an abortion would be performed.

Those of us who believed abortion rights hoped, after the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973, that places like that would be closed down, and that, in the words of President Bill Clinton, abortion would become safe, legal and rare.   But what has come to light in the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor now on trial in Philadelphia for first-degree murder, is like the worst nightmare of back-alley abortions.

Dr. Gosnell has not been convicted nor made his defense, so I won’t call him a murderer, but the Grand Jury indictment says that he delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy and killed them by severing their spinal columns with scissors.  He is accused of overdosing his patients with dangerous drugs, spreading venereal disease with infected instruments and causing the deaths of at least two women with incompetent surgery.

He was charged as a result of an FBI raid based on a tip that Dr. Gosnell’s “Women’s Medical Society” was illegally selling prescription drugs.  According to the Grand Jury, here’s what the FBI found: “There was blood on the floor.  A stench of urine filled the air.  A flea-infested cat was wandering through the facility, and there were cat feces on the stairs.  Semi-conscious women scheduled for abortions were moaning in the waiting room or the recovery room, where they sat on dirty recliners covered with blood-stained blankets.  All the women had been sedated by unlicensed staff.”

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Abortion after the 24th month of pregnancy is (rightly) illegal under Pennsylvania law, which is consistent with Roe vs Wade.  Killing an infant capable of living outside the womb is murder by any definition.   The existence of Dr. Gosnell’s clinic represents a failure of enforcement of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, and the reasons for that failure are a legitimate issue.   But I would like to raise a different question.  Why in the era of Roe vs. Wade would poor women pay cash to somebody such as Gosnell?

Part of the answer is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the anti-abortion movement have been doing their best to make it as difficult as possible for women to get abortions from legitimate clinics in an early state of pregnancy.   Medicaid funding for abortions is denied under federal and Pennsylvania law except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother.  The out-of-pocket cost of an abortion is equal to a month’s income for people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

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Some women are afraid to run the gantlet of anti-abortion protestors at Planned Parenthood or other legitimate providers of abortion.  Abortion doctors have been murdered by anti-abortion terrorists, and others face death threats.   There are only 13 clinics in all of Pennsylvania that provide abortion services, down from 22 two years ago.

If you want to prevent more horror stories such as Dr. Gosnell’s, you should be willing to allow abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy by qualified obstetricians, in which abortion is safe procedure and does not take the extinguish the life of a human mind in a recognizable human body.  And if you want to reduce the number of abortions, you should encourage the dissemination of birth control information, encourage adoption and work for an economy in which any man or woman willing to work can get a job with a wage sufficient to support a child.

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Inside the hidden world empire of money

April 18, 2013

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is in the process of publishing reports on how the world’s millionaires and billionaires escape taxation and the law through the use of tax havens.   Many are from countries in financial crisis that are in the process of raising taxes and reducing government services for working people and the middle class.

The Tax Justice Network, an anti-tax haven organization, estimated that as much as a third of the world’s wealth is held in tax havens, and half of the world’s trade flows through them.  I don’t know the basis for that estimate.  The fact is that the amount is huge, and that there is no accurate way of measuring it.

Tax havens also are havens from the criminal law.  They hide the wealth of corrupt politicians, crooked financiers, narcotics traffickers and terrorist networks, and they are used by nations such as North Korea and Iran to evade international economic sanctions.  At least two supposedly respectable British-based banks, HSBC and Standard Chartered, actively sought money laundering business in Mexico and other countries.

Switzerland was once the go-to country for secret, numbered bank accounts, but now the United Kingdom and its overseas territories are the key players in the secret world financial network.  Tax shelters in territories such as the Cayman Island, the Cook Islands and the British Virgin Islands are linked to banks in the City of London, which itself is a separate jurisdiction with its own government separate from the rest of London.

Vanity Fair magazine reported in its current issue—

It comes as a surprise to most people that the most important player in the global offshore system of tax havens is not Switzerland or the Cayman Islands, but Britain, sitting at the center of a web of British-linked tax havens, the last remnants of empire. 

An inner ring consists of the British Crown Dependencies—Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

Farther afield are Britain’s 14 Overseas Territories, half of them tax havens, including such offshore giants as the Caymans, the British Virgin Islands (B.V.I.) and Bermuda. 

Still further out, numerous British Commonwealth countries and former colonies such as Hong Kong, with deep and old links to London, continue to feed vast financial flows—clean, questionable and dirty—into the City. 

The half-in, half-out relationship provides the reassuring British legal bedrock while providing enough distance to let the U.K. say,  “There is nothing we can do” when scandal hits.

***

Britain could close down this tax-haven secrecy overnight if it wanted, but the City of London won’t let it. “We have, to put it provocatively, a second British empire, which is at the very core of global financial markets today,” explains Ronen Palan, professor of international political economy at City University in London. “And Britain is very good at not advertising its position.”

via Vanity Fair

Bill Black, an expert on white collar crime and financial fraud, noted in an interview on the Real News Network that few Americans appear in the ICIJ reports, compared to Russian oligarchs and Central Asian and African dictators.  He said that is because the United States is more aggressive than most of the world’s governments in tracking down and taxing overseas wealth.

American citizens are required to report foreign income to the Internal Revenue Service, and our top income tax rates, especially capital gains, are lower than in most nations, so Americans have more to lose and less to gain than most people by using foreign tax havens.   That is not to say that the United States does not welcome foreign investors who want to escape taxation in their own countries.

American corporations are another matter, Black said.  Divisions of global companies buy and sell to each other, and a smart accountant can easily set things up so that most of the profitable sales are all in low-tax or no-tax jurisdictions, and most of the losses are in high-tax jurisdictions.  But this is outside the scope of the report so far.

I think what’s needed is an international organization similar to the World Trade Organization which would impose economic sanctions on nations whose governments foster money laundering.  However, the direction of international economic agreements, from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, is to impose sanctions on nations that impede the free flow of money, whether dirty or clean.

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Money laundering at the Vatican bank

March 9, 2013

Al Jazeera English recently rebroadcast this 2011 piece about money laundering at the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), otherwise known as the Vatican bank.   The purpose of the IOR is to administer the Roman Catholic Church’s vast wealth, and to disperse it for religious and charitable purposes.  But it operates outside the laws of Italy or any other nation, and investigative reporters in this video show evidence that it has been used to launder money from illicit sources for bribery and other corrupt purposes.

At the time this program was originally broadcast, Pope Benedict XVI had appointed outside auditors and announced new transparency rules for the bank.   It would be interesting to know how successful the Pope’s housecleaning efforts were, and to what degree his successor will continue them.

Justice Scalia on the Second Amendment

February 1, 2013

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a District of Columbia ordinance forbidding the carrying of handguns without a license, and requiring that handguns be kept unloaded.   The court ruled that this violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right, and not limited to members of state militias.

Justice Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia

Here is what Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, stated that the ruling did not say:i

Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.  From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. … For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. …

… … Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. [Precedent says] that the sorts of weapons protected were those ‘in common use at the time’ [the Second Amendment was approved]. … We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.”

via UPI.com.

I’m of two minds on this issue.  I’d like to live in a less heavily-armed society, but I don’t see a way to legislate that goal that wouldn’t be at best useless or at worst the equivalent of the current war on drugs.

My expectation is that Congressional gun legislation will result in (1) more extensive FBI files on American citizens to implement background checks, (2) more stop-and-frisks and no-knock break-ins by police in search of illegal weapons and (3) more armed police and security officers in public schools because federal money is available to pay them.

Hat tip to the New New York 23rd for the Scalia quote.

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When the Mountains Tremble

October 10, 2012

This prize-winning 1984 documentary, When the Mountains Tremble, described the Guatemalan government’s atrocities in 1982 and 1983 against the rebellious poor peasants and native Mayan Indian people.  The documentary and its outtakes are being used as evidence against General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, the military dictator of Guatemala at that time.   Aside from that, the documentary is well worth watching in itself.  It throws a lot of light on what is going on in Guatemala and the rest of Latin America today—for example, why so many Guatemalans and other central Americans have made their way through Mexico and entered the United States illegally to find work.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole documentary, you might just watch one of the two segments below, the first dealing with the military struggle in Guatemala and the second with the religious struggle.

I don’t claim that all the problems of Latin American society are due to the United States, nor that the Latin American left has all the answers.  I do say that the people of Latin America have the right to work out their problems without outside interference, and that they would be much better off if the U.S. government had allowed them to do so.

Click on Granito: How to Nail a Dictator for a report on how the When the Mountains Tremble documentary was used to bring General Rios Montt to justice.

When the Mountains Tremble showcases the testimony of Rigoberta Menchu, a poor Guatemalan Mayan Indian woman who says her story is the story of Guatemala.  Click on Rigoberta Menchu wiki for her Wikipedia biography.

Click on Network in Solidarity With the People of Guatemala for background on Guatemala today.

[Update 5/11/13]  Rios Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison after being convicted of genocide. 

Click on Eighty Years in Prison for Guatemalan Ex-Dictator for details.

Click on Ronald Reagan: Rios Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy” for background.

Prosecuting Wall Street: time is running out

September 14, 2012

Two governmental agencies which investigated the causes of the 2008 financial meltdown—the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and the U.S. Senate Criminal Investigations Subcommittee—made criminal referrals to the U.S. Department of Justice.  These referrals were never acted on.  Soon the six-year statute of limitations on prosecuting financial fraud will run out, and it will be too late to prosecute.

Chris Swecker, former assistant FBI director in charge of its Criminal Investigations Division, issued a public warning back in 2004 about an explosion of mortgage fraud that could lead to calamity.  The warning was not heeded.  He told Al Jazeera English that the Justice Department has not allocated sufficient resources for investigation and prosecution.  He noted that Attorney General Eric Holder and Criminal Division Chief Larry Breur were white-collar defense attorneys and have a “defense mindset.”

Bryan Georgiou, who served on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, said the Justice Department’s inaction shows “a lack of accountability that is really quite unique in American history.”

Part of the reason is the large sums of money the big Wall Street firms spend on campaign contributions and lobbying.  Goldman Sachs was President Obama’s largest corporate donor in 2008; the Justice Department terminated its criminal investigation of Goldman in August, saying there was no basis for indictments.  Another reason is the revolving door between working for government and working on Wall Street.

William Black, an expert on white collar crime and litigation director of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board during the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s, said the impact of the recent financial meltdown is roughly 70 times as great, in terms of its economic impact, as the S&L crash, yet the investigative and prosecution effort is much smaller.  The subprime mortgage crisis was fraud from start to finish, from knowingly signing up borrowers based on false information to repackaging the loans and selling them based on false information.

He said the Justice Department appears not to understand “accounting control fraud,” in which executives who control a company loot it for their own benefit.  “The best way to rob a bank is to own or control one,” he said.   Unless President Obama and Attorney General Holder change course, the robbers will get away with it.  And, no, there is no reason to think that Mitt Romney, with his shady financial history, would be any different.