The Daily Dude: September 2021

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Living with Terror of Mexico's Cartel-Fueled Violence

 The violence in the town of Fresnillo, Mexico has been rampant for at least five years-- at that time, grenades exploded outside a church in broad daylight. Then children in town were being kidnapped, disappearing without a trace.  After that, the bodies of the executed were dumped in city streets.

 In July, armed men burst into Guadalupe's home, dragged her 15-year-old son and two of his friends outside and shot them to death, leaving her too terrified to leave the house.  Guadalupe doesn't want her full name to be published out of fear of reprisals from gangs. “I do not want the night to come,” she said, through tears. “Living with fear is no life at all.”

For most of the population of Fresnillo, a mining city in central Mexico, a fearful existence is the only one they know.  96% of residents say they feel unsafe, the highest percentage of any city in Mexico, according to a recent survey from Mexico’s national statistics agency.  The economy can boom and bust, presidents and parties and their promises can come and go, but for the city’s 140,000 people, as for many in Mexico, there is a growing sense that no matter what changes, the violence endures.

Ever since Mexico’s government began its war on the drug cartels nearly 15 years ago, murder statistics have climbed inexorably. In 2018, during his run for president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador offered a grand vision to remake Mexico — and a radically new way of tackling the violence. He would break with the failed tactics of his predecessors, he said. Instead of arresting and killing traffickers as previous leaders had done, he would focus on the causes of violence: “hugs not bullets,” he called it. He was swept to victory.

But three years after his landslide win, and with his Morena party in control of Congress, the drumbeat of death continues, suggesting that López Obrador’s approach has failed, fueling a paralyzing helplessness.  “We’re living in hell,” said Victor Piña, who ran for mayor of Fresnillo in the June elections and watched an aide gunned down beside him during a pre-campaign event.

Zacatecas, the state Fresnillo is in, has the country’s highest murder rate, with 122 deaths in the most recent month.  It has become a national horror show, with cadavers found dangling from bridges, stuffed into plastic bags or even tied to a cross.  “‘Hugs not bullets’ doesn’t work,” said Javier Torres Rodríguez, whose brother was shot and killed in 2018. “We’re losing the ability to be shocked.”

In addition to funding social programs to improve education and employment for young people, Obrador has also gone after the financing behind organized crime.  The government has said is has  frozen nearly 1, 500 bank accounts linked to 14 criminal groups, including powerful drug cartels.  Obrador has also doubled down on his support for the armed forces, embracing the militarization that also marked previous administrations.

One central pillar of his approach to fighting crime has been the creation of the National Guard, a 100,000-strong federal security force deployed across some 180 regional barracks nationwide. But security experts say the guard, which the president plans to incorporate into the armed forces, has proved ineffective. Without a clear mandate, it has focused more on tackling low-level crime than cartel violence. And as a security force made up of members of the federal police, the military and other security professionals, it has not found cohesion.

In Fresnillo, the National Guard hasn’t done enough, according to the city’s mayor, Saúl Monreal, a member of the president’s Morena party. "They’re here, they’re present, they do patrols, but what we really need right now is to be fighting organized crime,” Monreal said.  Monreal was reelected this summer during one of Mexico’s most violent elections on record, with at least 102 people killed during the campaign, yet another sign of the country’s unraveling security.

His family is politically powerful. His brother, David, is governor-elect of Zacatecas. Another brother, Ricardo, leads the Morena party in the Senate and has said he intends to run for president in 2024. But not even the family’s political prominence has managed to rescue the city or the state.

Bordering eight other states, Zacatecas has long been central to the drug trade, a crossroads between the Pacific, where narcotics and drug-making products are shipped in, and northern states along the United States border. Fresnillo, which sits in the center of important roads and highways, is strategically vital.

But for much of its recent history, residents say they were largely left alone. That began changing around 2007 and 2008 as the government’s assault on the cartels led them to splinter, evolve and spread.  In the past few years, the region has become embroiled in a battle between two of the country’s most powerful organized crime groups: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.  Caught in the middle of the fighting are residents like Guadalupe. She can remember sitting on the stoop with neighbors until midnight as a young girl. Now, the city lies desolate after dark.

Guadalupe does not let her children play outside unsupervised, but even that couldn’t stop the violence from tearing her family apart. On the night her son was killed, four armed men stormed into her home, dragging out her son, Henry, and two friends who were sleeping over. There was a burst of gunfire, and then the assailants were gone.  It was Guadalupe who found the teenagers’ bodies.

Now she and her family live in terror. Too scared to stay in the same house, they moved in with Guadalupe’s parents in a different part of town. But the fear remained. Her 10-year-old daughter can barely sleep, she said, and Guadalupe keeps dreaming of her son’s killing. The motive, and the identity of the killers, remain unknown.

Guadalupe has thought about leaving town or even taking her own life. But for now, she sits in her parents’ small, cinder-block house, the curtains drawn, the shadows broken by the candles of a little altar to Henry and his fallen friends.  “There’s nothing here,” she said. “The fear has overwhelmed us.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Ignorance Never Stops

A children’s book with an illustration of hugging sea horses is too hot to handle for kids and should be banned from elementary schools in Williamson County, Tennessee, a chapter of the conservative group Moms for Liberty insists.

“Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea” includes such steamy passages as: “They twist their tails together and twirl gently around, changing color until they match. ... The two of them dance until sunset and then she puts her eggs into his pouch.”

Moms for Liberty also wants public schools in the county, just outside of Nashville, to ditch a tale about Johnny Appleseed because it’s “dark,” and is opposed to a book about hurricanes because “first grade is too young to hear about possible devastating effects of hurricanes.” A book about Martin Luther King Jr. is too divisive, the moms complained in an 11-page letter earlier this year to the state’s Board of Education, Reuters reported. The head of the local chapter has no children in public schools.


 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Racist Cop Suspected of Over 400 False Arrests

More than 400 convictions in Virginia could be overturned after prosecutors found evidence the arresting cop was racist.  25-year-old Jonathan Freitag is accused of making up reasons to pull people over and planting drugs in their vehicles in Fairfax County, the Washington Post reported.

Freitag has not been criminally charged, though he is being investigated, according to the Post. The allegations were revealed Friday as attorneys worked to free an ex-firefighter sentenced to three years in prison based on a Freitag traffic stop.

Elon Wilson, a former Washington, D.C., firefighter, is the only person still locked up based on Freitag’s suspected misconduct, the Associated Press reported. Wilson’s defense attorneys and county prosecutors both argued for his release Friday.  Freitag stopped Wilson, a 23-year-old Black man, on April 3, 2018, and said he swerved over the center yellow line, according to the Post. Freitag then searched Wilson’s car and allegedly found drugs and a gun.  Facing a maximum of 10 years in prison, Wilson took a plea deal in 2019, in which he maintained his innocence but admitted he’d probably be convicted given the evidence, local radio station WTOP reported. The deal sent Wilson to prison for three years, and he lost his job.

Surveillance video of the arrest showed Wilson did nothing illegal.  After multiple, unrelated complaints, internal investigators at the Fairfax County Police Department began reviewing Freitag’s traffic stops.  During that investigation, Freitag admitted that the stops were a “pretext” for searching cars for guns and drugs, according to the Post. Prosecuting attorney Steve Descano said Freitag’s stops showed “potentially racially biased motive and racially biased impact.”

“They looked at 1,400 stops. When you’re looking at the stops, a very clear pattern emerged,” read a court filing from Descano, the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney.  “The officer involved has a long history of improper and unjust stops with a racially disparate impact,” Descano told WTOP.

Descano said Freitag admitted to a third party that he was targeting Black people in the stops, the Post reported. Freitag has denied the allegations of racism.  Prosecutors said Freitag was involved in 932 cases during his three years as a Fairfax cop, according to the Post. Most were low level cases, but seven were felonies. In addition to the estimated 400 convictions, 21 pending cases were tossed.

Freitag resigned from the Fairfax County Police Department in May 2020. He was hired in August 2020 by the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, but canned two weeks ago, according to the Post. The two law enforcement agencies have sparred over who was to blame for his hiring in Florida given his record in the D.C. suburbs.

 

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Harsh Reality of Adopting Puppies in the COVID Era

 Danielle, a 23-year-old paralegal stumbled upon a dog adoption event in a North Brooklyn beer garden, where a beagle mix being paraded out of the back of a rescue van reminded her of the dog she grew up with, Snickers. It all felt like fate, so she filled out an application on the spot. She and her best friend/rommmate Alexa soon found themselves sitting across from a serious-looking young woman with a ponytail. Danielle and Alexa were confident they would be leaving with Millie that day-- they had a 1,000-square-foot apartment a few blocks from a dog park and were employed full-time with the ability to work from home for the foreseeable future. But the volunteer kept posing questions that they hadn’t prepared for. What if they stopped living together? What if Danielle’s girlfriend’s collie mix didn’t get along with her new family member? What would be the solution if the dog needed expensive training for behavioral issues? Which vet were they planning to use?

All of which, upon reflection, were reasonable questions. But when it came to the dog's diet, they were caught off guard.  Danielle's childhood dog Snickers had lived to 16 1/2 on a diet of Blue Buffalo Wilderness, the most expensive stuff that was available at her parents’ Bay Area pet store. “Would you want to live on the best version of Lean Cuisine for the rest of your life?” sniffed the volunteer with a frown. She recommended (seemingly insisted upon) a small-batch, raw-food brand that cost up to $240 a bag. “If you were approved, you’d need to get the necessary supplies and take time off from work starting now,” the dog gatekeeper said. “And the first 120 days would be considered a trial period, meaning we would reserve the right to take your dog back at any time.” Danielle and Alexas nodded solemnly.

The friends rose from the bench and thanked the volunteer for her time. Believing the roommates were out of earshot, the volunteer summed up the interview to a colleague: “You just walked by, and you’re fixated on this one dog, and it’s because you had a beagle growing up, but you want to make your roommate the legal adopter?”

Back in the day, one could show up at a shelter, pick out an un-housed dog that just wanted to have someone to love, and take it home that same day. Today, much of the process has moved online to Petfinder,  and various animal-shelter Instagram accounts that send cute puppy pics with heartrending stories into your feed and compel you to fill out an adoption application.  Posts describing the dogs drip with euphemisms: A dog that might freak out and tear your house up if left alone is a “Velcro dog”; one that might knock down your children is “overly exuberant”; a skittish, neglected dog with trust issues is just a “shy party girl.” Certain shelters have become influencers in their own right, like the L.A.-based Labelle Foundation, which has almost 250,000 Instagram followers and counts Dua Lipa among its A-list clients. Rescue agencies abound, many with missions so specific that you could theoretically find one that deals in any niche breed you desire.

This deluge of rescue-puppy content has arrived, not coincidentally, during a time of growing awareness of puppy mills as morally indefensible-- so much so that even Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was attacked for seemingly buying a purebred French bulldog in early 2020. Then came the pandemic puppy boom, a lonely, claustrophobic year in which thousands of people simultaneously decided that they were finally ready to adopt a dog. The corresponding spike in demand in certain markets has simply overwhelmed the agencies-- New York shelters that were used to receiving 20 applications a week were now receiving hundreds, with as many as 50 people vying for a single pup.

Applying to adopt rescue dogs is now akin to seeking admission to an Ivy League school--  but even Harvard isn’t forced to be as picky as, say, Korean K9 Rescue, whose average monthly applications tripled during the pandemic.  And yet someone has to pick the winners — often an unpaid millennial Miss Hannigan doling out a precious number of wet-nosed Orphan Annies to wannabe Daddy Warbuckses who feel empowered to judge the intentions and poop-scooping abilities of otherwise accomplished urban professionals, some of whom actually did go to Harvard.  Unsurprisingly, this has led to hard feelings. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Lax Florida Regulations Drive Staggering Manatee Die-offs

Manatee deaths reported in Florida during the past 50 years included nearly 5,000 from boat strikes, water structures and red tides. But across that span of mortalities, there has never been a die-off as gruesome as the one that occurred in Florida in the first half of 2021, when 677 carcasses were counted along Florida's east coast.  Half of those were in Brevard County's portion of the Indian River, a coastal lagoon in biological collapse due to pollution.

Partly because of the pandemic, necropsies were not done on much of the dead manatees in Brevard. But early on, authorities knew that winter cold was not the culprit. They could tell from the lack of seagrass in the lagoon and the manatees' contorted bodies that they were dying of malnutrition.

Widely beloved as irresistibly cuddly, manatees are among Florida's strongest, hardiest creatures, able to heal from the most vicious of propeller wounds.  But death by starvation is as inhumane as any of the assaults Florida has inflicted on manatees. Caretakers said suffering lasted months-- with many losing nearly half of their weight. While still alive, bones pierced thinning skin and shocking to veterinarians, heart, liver and other organs were liquifying.

To survive, the animals' bodies began consuming fat and muscle. They lost buoyancy and, becoming too exhausted to swim, could no longer raise their heads for air.  An untold number survived, but became strikingly emaciated. Experts fear their poor health will slow the species' reproduction for years.

Rescue efforts for 80 manatees were launched, a task requiring 10 personnel for each animal.  Unfortunately, many were too far gone-- seven died during rescue and eight died in intensive care. So far, 37 have been revived and put back in the wild.  According to Martine de Wit, a veterinarian with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the root cause is "an ecosystem in trouble."

Lauren Hall is one of Florida's top researchers of seagrasses. She is from the St. Johns River Water Management District and oversees monitoring and mapping of seagrass in the Indian River.  In 2015, the Indian River was suffering the beginning of seagrass losse-- but the river offered a carpet of green for grazing manatees. But six years later, Hall found a lagoon floor that resembled a sandy desert.  On a tour of the river for an Orland Sentinel reporter, she pointed out only the occasional clump of seagrass-- a modest rebound of seaweed called Caulerpa, which can anchor the lagoon's sandy bottom as a precursor for the return of seagrass.  In the past decade, nearly 58% of seagrass beds—or 46,000 acres—has vanished from the Indian River Lagoon.  Remaining beds contain about 10% of the original amount of seagrass.

For decades, the lagoon has been afflicted by the usual Florida maladies: urban storm water, agricultural runoff, lawn and farm fertilizers, too many septic tanks and leaky sewer systems.  To make matters worse, Brevard's share of the lagoon gets no ocean tidal flushing-- any pollution draining to the Indian River stays there.

Scientists began observing the exacting toll of this environmental abuse just a few decades ago.  Pollution spawned massive, intermittent and unpredictable outbreaks of microscopic algae, which darkened the water and cast lethal shade on seagrass and seaweed.

Larry Williams,the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's ecological director in Florida, described the phenomenon in stark terms. "The prior ecology was a clear-water system where sunlight could get down through the water and get to the seagrass.  In other parts of the world, they've seen systems like that shift to a new, steady state of murky water dominated by algae." he said. "Some of the scientists say that what we are seeing right now is the flickering transition to that new, steady state."

Florida environmentalists have an axiom: "east to break and difficult to repair."  While millions of Florida state funding is starting to underwrite lagoon restoration,  such efforts are very time-consuming to plan and execute.  Duane De Freese, executive director of the Indian River Lagoon National Estuary Program said that the effort will actually require an estimated $5 billion and 20 years or more.  "We need to focus hard on the plumbing," De Freese said. "Septic, storm water, both urban storm water and the larger, stormwater regional projects." 

One culprit is the warm-water discharges from the Florida Power & Light Co. generating station just south of Titusville along the lagoon.  During winter, manatees are drawn to warm waters of power plants or springs. The FPL plant is the only such source along Brevard's share of the lagoon.  According to Gil McRae, director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute,  that area had thus become a magnet for large numbers of manatees and as a result experienced a significant seagrass decline.

Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatee Club, believes that the wildlife service should push the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose more stringent pollution rules for the Indian River-- and help ensure that a $5 billion seagrass restoration effort succeeds.  "It's an investment we can't afford not to make."


Thursday, September 23, 2021

State-sponsored Homophobia Unleashed in China

Chinese President Xi Jimping is no longer obsessed with merely banning an comparisons between himself and Winnie the Pooh.   The Chinese government  has now unexpectedlybanned effeminate men on TV and told broadcasters Thursday to promote “revolutionary culture,” broadening a campaign to tighten control over business and society and enforce official morality.

President Xi Jinping has called for a “national rejuvenation,” with tighter Communist Party control of business, education, culture and religion. Companies and the public are under increasing pressure to align with its vision for a more powerful China and healthier society.   Weirdly enough, part of the overall effort is to try and discourage what it sees as unhealthy attention to celebrities.

Broadcasters must “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics,” the National Radio and TV Administration said, using an insulting slang term for effeminate men — “niang pao,” or literally, “girlie guns.”  This seems like a strangely homophobic obsession that Chinese pop stars, influenced by the sleek, fashionable look of some South Korean and Japanese singers and actors, are failing to encourage China’s young men to be masculine enough.

The party also is also tightening control over celebrities, advising broadcasters that they should avoid promoting “vulgar internet celebrities” and admiration of wealth and celebrity, the regulator said. Instead, programs should “vigorously promote excellent Chinese traditional culture, revolutionary culture and advanced socialist culture.”  The new guidance also specifically bans programs about the children of celebrities.

Microblog platform Weibo Corp. suspended thousands of accounts for fan clubs and entertainment news.  The government went so far as to wipe the name of a hugely popular Chinese actress, Zhao Wei, from streaming platforms without explanation.  Her name has also been removed from the credits of movies and TV programs.

 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Aid Donated to Haiti is Likely to End Up in the Hands of Gangs, Who Now Run the Country

The misery of Haiti, struggling to recover from an earthquake and a tropical storm, and still reeling from the political fallout of the assassination of its president, has been amply documented. But to grasp the challenge, look in the once-teeming neighborhood of Martissant, now hollowed-out, abandoned and covered in gray dust.  It's a choke point in the hands of rival gangs who've driven thousands from their homes, closed a major hospital, shut down fuel distribution routes and barred farmers from the markets.

Nothing moves without the gangs’ consent. “In Haiti, more than a failing state we have a non-existent state,” said Joseph Harold Pierre, an economist.  Elections are being planned and humanitarian aid is being rushed to those in need. But it’s clear there will be no solution in Haiti until the government can tame the gangs.  As Mathias Pierre, former elections minister put it, the armed groups are essentially terrorist organizations that have taken over entire neighborhoods and are using the local populations as human shields.

Julien Bartoletti, the head of Doctors without Borders in Haiti, now views Haiti as a war zone. His organization was forced to shutter its 15-year-old hospital in Martissant this summer after it came under gang gunfire.  At least three staff members have been kidnapped, one murdered and dozens are among the 20,000 Haitians who’ve fled due to gang threat. “You have front lines, with gangs against gangs,” he said. “In Martissant, you have an area with no people and destroyed houses. It’s empty.”

Between 2016 and 2020 gang violence likely cost the country $4.2 billion per year, or 30% of its gross domestic product, as it scared off foreign investors and caused fuel shortages that paralyzed parts of the country and sent inflation soaring.

According to the National Human Rights Defense Network, there are more than 90 gangs in the country, likely with thousands of members and far more powerful than the police.  Rape and kidnapping are common. Pierre Esperance, the group’s executive director, said gangs, a fixture since the 1990s, grew powerful and emboldened under successive administrations that undermined state controls. “Haiti has regressed in terms of the rule of law, because all key state institutions were destroyed under the Jovenel Moise administration,” he said. “The police, the judicial system, all of them. We have no functioning institutions.”

Since 2018 the courts have operated about four months out of the year, he said, and impunity is rampant. He also said international partners provide aid but do little to fight corruption. The government knows its limitations.   While the United Nations and the U.S. have been organizing air and sea shipments to southern Haiti, the bulk of the cargo needs to be moved overland. Bruno Lemarquis, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti, said his work depended on the willingness of the gangs to allow it.

“We really need this truce to hold,” he said. “In order to get relief to the south, we need these roads to be open.”  Food For the Poor has been working in Haiti for 35 years through natural disasters and political turmoil. The recent gang violence has been unprecedented, said President Ed Raine. For almost four months, all land routes to the south were virtually choked off, halting food delivery to more than 400 distribution centers and exacerbating an already critical hunger crisis.

“We have multiple examples of drivers being shot at and trucks being stopped,” Raine said. “On a normal day this is a hard job -- but then you throw gangs into the equation.”  Even after the mid-August truce, the organization had five of its trucks looted. Now it’s only traveling under police escort.
Haiti’s gangs aren’t new but rarely have they been so strong.  Pierre, the former elections minister, says that, for years, sectors of the government, elements of the opposition and members of the private sector have been financing and “working in complicity” with the gangs.  “That’s what keeps the gangs alive,” he said. “And that’s why it’s so hard to control them. You have to follow the money.”  The groups will undoubtedly play a role in upcoming elections, as about 60% of the electorate is currently living in gang-controlled areas.

One of the most notorious gang leaders, Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, runs the G9 gang alliance in Delmas neighborhood. A former policeman, he still has close ties to law enforcement. It was Cherizier who announced the ceasefire in Martissant.  A few weeks ago Cherizier said his organization -- an army of well armed thugs -- was going to donate food and school supplies (likely seized from international donations) to the hard-hit south.

Wilhelm Lemke, the president of the Haitian Association of Industries, said the gang problem is one of the roots of Haiti’s crisis. “Our geographical position, our food, our art, our hard work ethic, our resilience -- we have so much going for us,” he said. “But we are missing the boat to such a high level that it’s tragic. And at the end of the day you have 12 million people in dire misery who are losing hope.”

Even before the earthquake destroyed her home in southern Haiti, Dyeumen Lacombe, a 23-year-old farmer, said she and her village were suffering. Unable to get their crops of sweet potatoes and corn to the markets in the capital due to the Martissant blockade, they were forced to sell it at steep discounts along the side of the road.  Lacombe said the poverty, the earthquake, the pandemic, the storms, the murder of her president and the gang violence all seemed surreal.  “All we can do is smile,” she said stone faced. “This is Haiti now.”


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Suspected Killer of Gabby Petito Goes into Hiding

Under pressure from the community and the press, suspected killer Brian Laundrie has now gone into hiding from the police.  Up til his disappearance, Laundrie had refused to cooperate with the FBI and local police to help locate his missing girlfriend.

Protesters had been gathering outside the Laundrie house since Thursday this week, hoping to pressure Brian or his parents into cooperating with authorities.  Gabby Petito’s family called on the Laundrie family to help them find their daughter. The Petitos asked the Laundries “as parents, how can you put us through this pain” and begged them to at least tell them where Ms Petito was left, or if they are even looking in the right area.

Social media users are now speculating that Laundrie may have fled to Puerto Rico.  According to Twitter users, Gabby’s account on the hiking app AllTrails recently showed a geotagged location in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.   Social media users have put together the following timeline of Gabby's disappearance:

August 12:  Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie argued and hit each other, according to a police report from Utah.  

August 25: Gabby face-times her mom, says she’s in Grand Tenton National Park.

August 25, 5pm: Verified sighting of van by couple at Jenny Lake parking lot in Grand Teton. https://ksltv.com/472747/tipster-talks-about-spotting-gabby-petitos-van-in-grand-teton-national-park/?

August 27: Gabby texts Mom and Snapchat-texts friend that she is heading to Yellowstone

August 29: Gabby’s friend said they planned to talk on the phone on the 29th about meeting up in Yellowstone shortly after. Gabby never answered.

August 29, 5:30pm: Brian, alone, asks a couple in Colter Bay Village in Grand Teton for a ride to Jackson. He offers $200. Brian says his fiancé is in their van working on their social media and he had just spent a multiple days camping the Snake River, an unregulated camping ground out in the middle of nowhere. Woman says for someone who was camping for multiple days, Brian didn’t look or smell dirty. 5 minutes into drive, once Brian realizes they are headed South, he freaks out and quickly exits the car at Jackson Lake Dam. Brian hurries out of car and then he goes “Ok you know what, I’m just going to find someone else to hitchhike.” Woman in car believes he wanted to head north and didn't realize they were driving south. (North is direction back towards Yellowstone, through Grand Teton.) Drops him off at 6:09 PM. Woman says Brian had a long sleeve, pants, hiking boots. Woman recalled how unprepared Laundrie looked for someone who had been hiking and camping outside for days. “Looking at his backpack. It wasn't full," Baker said. "He said all he had was a tarp to sleep on. Which, you think if you're going camping for days on end you'd want food and a tent and he had none of that. https://www.fox13now.com/news/local-news/gabby-petito-disappearance-tiktok-user-claims-she-picked-up-bian-laundrie-hiking-in-grand-teton-national-park

Tiktok woman says she's been in contact with "tons" of people including authorities after she recognized Brian on a Tiktok video

August 29 11 pm: According to a YouTube commentator under Gabby’s channel, a witness saw Brian alone in the van pulled in at the gas station in Jackson. He was in a bad mood, cursing at himself while throwing garbage away and then driving away. https://imgur.com/a/VUXIxds

August 30: “Gabby” texts mom one last time saying “No service in Yosemite” (Gabby’s mom and friend don’t believe that text message came from her)

August 31:  According to the FBI, a Benton Illinois gas station was the last place where Gabby’s credit card was used. Apparently it was used at 2 different branches of the same gas station in the same town https://youtu.be/NZJYlo5NAPo   This was later confirmed by an employee who said that the FBI were there asking for video evidence on the case.

September 1: Brian arrives home to Florida in her van without Gabby. This is also the same day he downloads and listens to one last song about a decomposing corpse, “The Badger’s Wake” according to their Spotify account.

September 10: Gabby’s mom says the boyfriend and his family ignored her desperate texts/calls searching for her daughter

September 11: Gabby’s mom files a missing persons report.  Gabrielle’s vehicle is recovered in North Port at a home she shared with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie and his parents.   

September 14: FBI finishes processing Gabby's vehicle for evidence. 

September 17: Brian’s parents file a missing persons report, claiming that he went "missing" on Tuesday (September 14).

September 18: 50 officers from the North Port Police Department, the FBI and agency partners begin a search for Brian Laundrie in the Carlton Reserve.  Vehicles, air units, drones and K9's have been deployed. His family says they believe he entered the area earlier this week.

It is widely speculate that Brian stole Gabby's phone and impersonated her by texting her mom that she had no cell service in Yosemite on August 30 while on the road.  He slipped up when he misspelled Yellowstone for Yosemite.


Saturday, September 18, 2021

Texas Not Proving to Be a Magnet for Businesses

Earlier this month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took to bragging that (contrary to popular belief)vthe state's fringe right-wing politics were actually super popular with the business community.  “People vote with their feet, and this is not slowing down businesses coming to the state of Texas at all," Abbott told CNBC.

Abbott made his assertion the day after the Supreme Court OK'd the Texas abortion ban, in which Republicans promoted vigilante justice as an enforcement mechanism to evade judicial review of the law. About a week later, Abbott would also sign into law one of the nation's most draconian voter suppression bills, targeting the state's largest metro areas and voters of color, in particular.

Tech companies that have already relocated to Texas are now fretting over the possibility that the state's extreme politics will hamstring their ability to recruit top talent. As the Washington Post writes, "In August, Texas had 33,843 tech job openings — the second highest in the United States after California. That’s up 56 percent from a year earlier.

Vivek Bhaskaran, chief executive of QuestionPro, an Austin-based software company that produces online surveys, said the company was already finding it "extremely challenging" to attract tech workers to the state.

In fact, just two days after the abortion ban went into effect, Bhaskaran was forced to convene a virtual town hall for female employees of the company and offer up company-paid trips out of the state should any of them require abortion services.  The company's director of marketing, Crystal Wiese, said the town hall was comforting on one level but disconcerting on another.  “There was a reassuring feeling, but it’s not the kind of conversation you expect to have with your CEO," she said. 

Similar to Bhaskaran, the chief executive of the Dallas-based dating app Match is also having to cover employee costs for anyone traveling out of state for abortion services.  Chief executive Shar Dubey, who immigrated to America from India a quarter-century ago, circulated a company memo blasting the abortion ban.  "I am shocked that I now live in a state where women’s reproductive laws are more regressive than most of the world, including India,” Dubey wrote. “Surely everyone should see the danger of this highly punitive and unfair law.”

The Texas abortion ban also prompted Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff to send a Slack message to employees nationwide saying the company would help employees and their immediate families move to another state if they felt reproductive healthcare wasn't accessible enough where they lived.  Benioff later explicitly invoked Texas in a tweet offering to help staff "exit TX."  

Wapo also talked to workers who have either moved to Texas or considered it.  To say that GOP governance of the state isn’t exactly a draw would be an understatement.

Valerie Veteto, a freelance copywriter specializing in tech writing, relocated to Austin from San Francisco just last fall. Guess what? The hip vibe and lower cost of living aren't worth the tradeoff for the state's right-wing bent and governmental incompetence. Between the great power grid freeze earlier this year and fringe GOP politics, Veteto and her boyfriend are hightailing it to New York City.  

San Diego-based David Panarelli, a user experience designer, had also considered making the move with his wife. But they balked at the Texas GOP's handling of the pandemic, immigration, and other issues. The abortion ban was the final nail in the coffin.  “If I’m in a situation where I have to make an extremely irreversible decision, I don’t want anyone making that decision for me,” Panarelli said. “It’s not about women. It’s about human rights.”

Seems like banning abortions, targeting voters of color, freezing your constituents to death, and ensuring the pandemic would flourish in your state isn't the hot seller Abbott says it is.

 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Now It's Time to Remember What Led Up to 9/11

Now that the anniversary of 9/11 is behind us and we have remembered and honored the lost souls and heroes of that day, it's now time to memorialize the president that failed to protect us.  

George W. Bush and his foreign policy principals were first warned in January 2001 by CIA Director George Tenet and counter-terrorism czar Richard A. Clarke that they needed to take immediate action to counter terrorist groups such as Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.  Both Tenet and Clarke, holdovers from the Bill Clinton administration, felt that their warnings were not being taken seriously. Clarke sent national security adviser Condoleezza Rice a memo on January 25 requesting an urgent National Security Council meeting on tackling the al Qaeda threat with an outline of a plan to do so.  But when such a meeting finally happened in April 2001, the nature of the threat was dismissed by Bush’s national security team.  Instead, they suggested the focus should be on “Iraqi terrorism,” according to Clarke’s 2004 book, “Against All Enemies.”

In May, the CIA began to warn of an al Qaeda group inside the United States plotting attacks.  On May 1, the CIA Daily Brief warned of a potential attack from “a group presently in the United States.” Another warning of an “imminent” attack came on June 22.  Senior administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, dismissed these as a possible disinformation trick by al Qaeda, a Muslim militant group.  The CIA continued to send warnings, including a June 29 memo and then another in the Daily Brief on June 30 titled “UBL [Usama Bin Laden] Threats Are Real.” Bush replied to this briefing with the infamous line, “All right. You’ve covered your ass.”

An August 6 President’s Daily Brief titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” outlined historic intelligence on al Qaeda’s activities, including the thwarted millennium bomb plot and bin Laden’s alleged consideration of crashing hijacked planes into buildings before stating:

"FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York."

This was the 36th time the CIA had warned Bush about imminent threats from bin Laden and al Qaeda, according to journalist Barton Gellman’s “Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.”

Near the end of August, Tenet received a report titled “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.”  Around this time, Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen later alleged to be the 20th 9/11 hijacker, was arrested for overstaying his visa in Minnesota after his flight instructor became suspicious of his desire to learn to pilot large commuter jets before gaining any other flying skills.  One week later, the CIA warned embassies in Paris and London of “subjects involved in suspicious 747 flight training,” referring to Moussaoui as a potential “suicide bomber.”  Aside from Moussaoui, another potential hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi citizen, was denied entry to the U.S. on August 3.

Throughout that summer, many more warnings came from the CIA, the FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies about an an imminent attack or other suspicious activity indicating the potential of a terrorist plot.  By the beginning of September, the Bush administration eventually came around to discussing and elevating some of Clarke’s and Tenet’s concerns. But if they’d taken them seriously sooner, could the attacks have been prevented?

Even if it’s impossible to say the attack could have been prevented, history suggests something more could’ve been done.  Journalist Peter Beinart examined whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented in 2016, after Trump blamed George W. Bush for failing to protect the United States on 9/11. 

Beinart documented how Clarke’s warnings to the Clinton administration of imminent al Qaeda attacks in December 1999 led to daily meetings between the Attorney General, the CIA, FBI and ultimately to the Clinton administration's success in foiling the January 1, 2000, millennium plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport and other international targets. 

But Bush failed to maintain this vigilance when he came into office or act on specific intelligence when it was staring him in the face. To make matters worse, Bush's response to 9/11 proved to be even more disastrous.  Bush's Justice Department began crafting legal justifications to create an illegal torture regime and an illegal surveillance state.   The invasion of Afghanistan seemed to be a swift success, but the Bush administration’s decision to use a light force and rely on local militias to go after bin Laden at Tora Bora allowed the mastermind to escape

The Bush administration then infamously use lies about weapons of mass destruction to fuel their push for a new war in Iraq.  The U.S. would take on the “Axis of Evil” of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, none of which had anything to do with 9/11, and remake the world. New York Times columnist and Iraq War evangelist Thomas Friedman told PBS’s Charlie Rose that the purpose of the Iraq war was to tell the Muslim world to: “Suck. On. This. . . . We could have hit Saudi Arabia.  We could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.”


Monday, September 13, 2021

Let's Not Forget What Followed 9/11

In the weeks following 9/11 America was also the victim of one of the deadliest bio-terrorism attacks in U.S. history.  The long-running series of events in the months following 9/11 were a constant source of dread for all Americans:

10/2/01: American Media Inc. employee Robert Stevens, is diagnosed with inhalation anthrax and hospitalized in Florida.

10/5/01: Robert Stevens dies.

10/12/01:  NBC anchor Tom Brokaw’s assistant revealed to have contracted skin form of anthrax after opening tainted mail.

10/15/01: Reports surface that a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had anthrax on it.

10/17/01: Anthrax spores are found in a Senate mailroom located in an office building near the Capitol. At least thirty Senate staffers test positive for traces of anthrax.

10/20/01: Two postal employees in Washington die from inhalation anthrax.  Anthrax is confirmed at the Ford building on Capitol Hill.  The FBI locates the mailbox in New Jersey where anthrax letters were dropped.

10/21/01:  It is announced that two postal workers at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C. are confirmed with anthrax and are hospitalized.  Tests begin on hundreds of Washington postal workers.

10/22/01: A third postal worker in Washington tested positive for inhalation anthrax.

10/23/01: Anthrax is found in off-site White House mail center.

10/24/01: Postmaster General John Potter tells Americans, “There are no guarantees that mail is safe.” Six Washington, D.C. postal workers, from the Brentwood sorting office, hospitalized for suspected anthrax.

10/25/01: Anthrax is found in another part of the Hart Senate Office Building.

10/26/01: A small amount of anthrax spores is found in a CIA mail room, due to mail that went through the Brentwood mail facility.  A U.S. State Department mail handler is hospitalized with inhalation anthrax, and anthrax is found at a New York postal facility.  Anthrax is also confirmed in an off-site U.S. Supreme Court mail facility.

10/29/01:  Traces of anthrax are found in the mailrooms of the Supreme Court, the State Department, and the DC Health Department. Two new cases of anthrax are reported in New Jersey, bringing the number of confirmed cases to 15.

11/5/01: Anthrax is found in a Pentagon post office.

11/16/01: Investigators find an anthrax-tainted letter addressed to U.S. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy. The handwriting on the letter is similar to the letter sent to Tom Daschle.

12/7/01:  The U.S. Federal Reserve cancels a board meeting after anthrax is discovered in sacks of mail sent to the central bank.

12/19/01:  After 99 days, the World Trade Center fires are extinguished, becoming the longest burning commercial fire in U.S. history.

12/20/01: The last remaining building at the World Trade Center site is taken down.

 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Lebanon Has Fallen Into Oblivion

 I recently blogged about the state of affairs in Lebanon, but nothing paints as devastating a picture as a recent editorial from writer Lina Mounzer in the New York Times:

I never thought I would live to see the end of the world.  But that is exactly what we are living today in Lebanon. The end of an entire way of life. I read the headlines about us, and they are a list of facts and numbers. The currency has lost over 90 percent of its value since 2019; 78 percent of the population is estimated to be living in poverty; there are severe shortages of fuel and diesel; society is on the verge of total implosion.

But what does all this mean? It means days entirely occupied with the scramble for basic necessities. A life reduced to the logistics of survival and a population that is physically, mentally and emotionally depleted.  I long for the simplest pleasures: gathering with family on Sundays for elaborate meals that are unaffordable now; driving down the coast to see a friend, instead of saving my gas for emergencies; going out for a drink in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael strip without counting how many of my old haunts have shut down. I never used to think twice about these things, but now it’s impossible to imagine indulging in any of these luxuries.

I begin my days in Beirut already exhausted. It doesn’t help that there’s a gas station around the corner from my house. Cars start lining up for fuel the night before, blocking traffic, and by 7 a.m. the sound of blaring horns and frustrated shouting from the street is fraying my nerves.  It is nearly impossible to sit down to work. My laptop battery lasts only so long anyway. In my neighborhood, government-provided power comes on for just an hour a day. The UPS battery that keeps the internet router working runs out of juice by noon. I’m behind on every deadline; I’ve written countless shamefaced emails of apology. What am I even supposed to say? “My country is falling apart and there’s not a single moment of my day that isn’t beholden to its collapse”? Nights are sleepless in the choking summer heat. Building generators operate for only four hours before going off around midnight to save diesel — if they are turned on at all.

Every few days there’s a new low to get used to. One recent morning I needed to exchange some dollars to buy groceries, chiefly bread. At the exchange shop there was a long line of people because the dollar rate was slightly down. There had been rumors that the new prime minister was close to forming a government. At this point such news is like a joke — we’ve been without a government since the cataclysmic port blast on Aug. 4, 2020, and the three prime ministers delegated by Parliament to form a government since then have failed to do so because of infighting between political parties, the same ones who’ve brought this country to ruin. Still, all markets are susceptible to rumor, and whenever the dollar rate goes down, people flock to convert their useless Lebanese lira into dollars.

Once I had my money, I headed to the supermarket, and on my way I encountered a tiny old woman sitting on the pavement. I wanted to give her some money and a bottle of cold water. I went to four shops before I found one. This was how I first learned that we are now also facing a shortage of bottled water. The week before, I’d discovered that there was a shortage of cooking gas after our canister ran out and I had to make a dozen calls — and pay five times what it once cost — to replace it. While cooking gas is vital, the shortage of bottled water is an even bigger disaster in a country where most Lebanese believe the tap water isn’t even safe enough to cook with. (Tap water, too, is at risk of being shut down.) I read about it later: There isn’t enough fuel to power the machines forming the plastic bottles or the pumps that fill them. No fuel for the trucks making deliveries.

Likewise, there is little bread to be found. There was none at the big supermarket I went to that day, which was entirely dark, lit only by weak emergency lights. The meat, cheese and freezer sections are all empty because there’s no fuel for refrigeration. I asked for bread at every shop I passed, and in the end realized I had to go to the bakery.  I avoid that street as much as possible because the bakery is right next to the gas station, and gas stations are our new front lines. Scuffles break out because there are always too many people fighting for too little fuel. Again, the scorching heat doesn’t help. Sometimes, gunfights break out. People are killed. In Akkar, one of the poorest areas of the country, a fuel tanker exploded in August as people scrambled to fill their vehicles. The death toll is at least 33 so far. 

Quickly, I wound my way through the shouting, shoving crowd, which included a good number of armed soldiers trying to manage the situation, and made it to the bakery. I bought the last bag of bread. The people who work there told me they live in fear of a gunfight or explosion at the gas station, so they have barricaded the window closest to it with metal shutters.  The walk home was harrowing. There are no more traffic lights and hence no more traffic rules; scooters race in all directions and on the sidewalks. I arrived home three hours after I left and climbed up 12 flights of stairs — the elevator stopped working months ago — utterly exhausted.

There is no respite or safe place anywhere. Hospitals are depleted and on the brink of shutting down. Cancer treatments are no longer guaranteed because the central bank cannot finance the subsidies that allowed hospitals to import them. There’s barely enough fuel to power ventilators.

Friends with children live in terror of their kids getting even mildly sick. My friend’s son developed a fever recently, and there was no fever medication in the pharmacy, no ice for a cold compress. Social media is filled with pleas for medication. Someone’s mother has heart disease and desperately needs blood pressure meds. Someone’s father is diabetic and needs a replacement insulin pump. Does anyone have any stashed away? Is anyone coming in soon from abroad and able to bring some? Psychiatric medications, too, are impossible to find: Many of the pleas for medicines I encounter are from people already going through withdrawal symptoms. Not long ago, Embrace, the national suicide hotline, announced it was closing down temporarily because of extended power outages.

People are dying from treatable ailments such as scorpion stings and fever, and severe cases of food poisoning are increasing. With so little refrigeration, nearly anything you buy risks being contaminated. It’s hard to figure out what to eat. I plan our meals around three or four items, mostly non-perishables. Bread is one of the few safe things.

At every turn I must remind you: I am one of the lucky few. For every hardship I’m living through, there are those who have it worse. I have four hours of generator power a day; many have none. I am able-bodied enough to climb up and down the stairs every time I need to leave my apartment; the elderly and disabled are imprisoned indoors. I work from home; I don’t have to forgo work altogether to spend entire days lining up for fuel. The monthly minimum wage is now worth less than $50, while the price of food alone has risen by more than 500 percent over the past year.

This listing of privileges is not merely a conscience-clearing exercise. It’s how we all try to remind ourselves that things could always be more unbearable, so complaining is futile. The standards by which “normal” or “acceptable” living conditions are measured have long been discarded. People with the means to do so are leaving. Every week I say goodbye to a dear friend.

Beirut as we once knew it is now gone. Even during the 1975-90 civil war, the city enjoyed a certain cachet. There was shelling but there was also glamour, a zest for life like an electric current. But now the strips of nightlife are mostly shuttered and dark. During the war there were cease-fires that permitted some rest, however fleeting. But in a world run on fossil fuels, what life is possible when they are no longer available? What life without electricity, cars, cooking gas, the internet, drinking water? There’s no break from this kind of economic warfare.  Because that’s exactly what this is. Fuel and medicine, though scarce, are not entirely unavailable. They are unattainable, hoarded by politically connected individuals and organizations, likely to be exported or sold on the black market.

In a world where the maximalist pursuit of profit is supreme, such behavior is simply the way the system was built to work. Lebanon is not an exception. It is a preview of what happens when people run out of resources they believe are infinite. This is how fast a society can collapse. This is what it looks like when the world as we know it ends.