OUT FROM THE SHADOWS

Any cause is bound to attract a strange assortment of adherents, and the “drug war summit” held in Mérida last week to expose the failed process of drug prohibition and interdiction — and explore the ways to move toward ending it — was no exception.

Academics from Europe, the U.S., and the rest of our hemisphere; government representatives; non-governmental educators and program administrators; spokespersons for victimized indigenous peoples; writers and reporters specializing in this and various allied issues; a few drug taking enthusiasts; around fifty students and “teachers” from the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism: a heady mix indeed.

Don Mario Menendez, a charismatic and courageous journalist who spent ten years in Havana, exiled for his ties to guerrillas. An activist during the student movement that became transformed after the slaughter of hundreds of students protesting the expropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars of social services money to create the Olympics complex in 1968, Mario emerged from exile to pursue a career in journalism in his native Yucatan state. His newspaper, Por Esto (because of this),which has about 70% of the local daily market, reflects his populist beliefs. He was a co-organizer of the Shadows conference, and a keynote speaker, railing against the hypocracy of current U.S. drug policy. How is it, he asks, that 90% of the money from drug sales – some 100 billion dollars a year – manages to get laundered in the U.S., while the government denies any complicity in the trade?

For two days, more or less, attendees were exposed to a variety of presentations. There was the prosecutor who jailed Pablo Escobar – arguably the richest, most murderous narcotraficante in Colombian history – along with 14,000 lesser lights. He believes the most compelling answer to Colombia’s social problems is to repudiate the U.S. led “drug war” and legalize all drugs.

There were two indigenous advocates, one from Peru and one from Bolivia. Both told us how coca eradication programs not only do not work — there is more being produced this year than ever before — but also destroy the livelihood, social structure, and religious practices of their communities They want the U.S. to leave their country alone, but understand that — short of revolutionary change in their countries — the key lies in the U.S., not at home.

Prominent current and past politicians from Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador took the podium to denounce the damage that the U.S. prohibition model is inflicting on their countries, both directly and indirectly.

Renan Castro is the editor in chief of the Cancún edition of Por Esto, where this picture was taken. He headed a team of reporters and photographers who infiltrated the area around a private beach owned by Banamex board member Roberto Hernandez, a man who in the space of a few short years went from being in debt to being a billionaire, with no credible means of so doing. At great personal risk, his team documented and photographed cocaine shipments being offloaded on Hernandez’ property. When the story was published in Por Esto, put on the internet by Narco News, and later repeated in a forum in New York, the newspaper (in Mexico) and Al Giordano and Narco News (in New York) were sued for defamation and libel. The Mexican suit was dismissed on the grounds that it was credible and likely true, and the U.S. case ended in a landmark decision declaring that internet journalism has the same first amendment protections as print media.

I asked him if he feared for his life as a result of this – and subsequent – revelations about the drug trade by Por Esto. He told me that in this part of Mexico, there was very little violent reprisal on the part of the drug dealers, who prefer to affect a businessman image, as opposed to the cowboy image preferred in the northern states. On the other hand, he is careful about not going into known dealer hangouts…

Many of the speakers came to Mérida to present, and / or defend, a particular piece of turf, such as whether to follow the “reduced harm” or “free market” model of reform. There was little if any cross-pollination that I could observe. Most were preceded by their academic or political position statements, and their arguments were well known to each other. There is, I think, a certain sort of dance that conferees always do to and for each other; a kind of “look at me, look at me” sort of feather-fluffing. They have been doing this for a while now, and so are less attentive to the dance. For most of us at the “J-School”, however, it was all a new experience and endlessly fascinating, in spite of the rather poor-quality translators and other technical difficulties.

The “third day” of the Conference was a field trip to the Mayan town of Tixkokob, about a half hour out of Mérida, where Por Esto was holding one of its monthly “town meetings”. There, we heard speaker after speaker denouncing the state government for with-holding relief funds allocated to repair necessary infrastructure and people’s homes, after Hurrican Isadora last year. Many testifiers spoke in a Mayan dialect, and were then translated into Spanish (and, for us special guests, English).

The woman pictured here is Nancy Obregón Peralta, mother of five and secretary for a coca growers co-operative in Peru, who has spent time in prison for “interfering” with the U.S. sponsored and directed eradication program in her country. She wants to know why growers of coca for traditional, domestic use are being targeted, while thousands of acres being grown by narco syndicates for transformation to powdered cocaine are untouched.

MICHELE GIBBS OPENS ANOTHER SHOW

The photo at the top was taken on Feb 1, at a local coffee shop / gallery. Michele shared wall space with Elsabeth Lien. The show was a great success. We liked the composition of this photo.

AUTHENTIC JOURNALISM RE-INVENTS ITSELF

Our attendance at the conference was at the sufferance and generosity of Al Giordano, and the gang at Narco News. Al is not a guy who goes half way about anything, and like real life, the experience had its ups and downs. The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, in which we were nominally “faculty”, was Al’s brainchild. A combination of illnesses (ours), differences in style, shifting priorities, and too-loose-from-my-point-of-view leadership kept us from participating much in the day-to-day doings (Diana’s pictures didn’t get used, and I never got a chance to do any editing), but left us free to observe and analyze.

Gary Webb, seen here addressing the “J-School” on the subject of what happens when you tell too much truth, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who exposed a CIA conspiracy with street gang members to import cocaine into south-central Los Angeles, where it was turned into crack and sold on the streets. Faced with a firestorm of undeserved criticism from the government and the corporate press (the story was faultlessly researched), the San Jose Mercury News, which first published the stories (a three-part series) retracted them. Gary had a hard time getting published after that.

Fortunately, his courage and tenacity caught the eye of a California state legislator who hired him on as an investigator for his committee, whose job it was to investigate possible corruption in government. It was Gary’s investigation that fueled hearings on a sweetheart deal between some appointees of governor Gray Davis and Oracle Computers, a firm whose CEO was a big contributor to, and friend of, the governor. This contract cost the state a lot more than it would have if it had been awarded through open bidding.

The legislator, a Hispanic who is likely to be a candidate for governor some day, just got elected to the state Senate from a district which includes Diana’s “other home town” of Three Rivers. Gary made the change with him.

After careful observation, our general conclusion is: hurray for everyone. The mostly young “students” (most of whom had more journalistic experience than I) were hard-working, dedicated folks with their eye clearly focused on leaving this world a better place to live in. They came from all over our hemisphere, with large concentrations from Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, and the U.S.; and from Europe. Many of the faculty were well-known and well-published working journalists and investigators. Some have been “blacklisted” for the stories they have published, and a few have served time for offending the government of my country, or those of its allies.

“Authentic Journalism” is a hard term to define exactly. There was much discussion in large and small groups about what it means to be “authentic”. In spite of his persuasive — not to say charismatic — personality, Al was unable to lead the group to consensus, although he certainly kept the discussion on a high and energetic level. Certain elements were generally agreed upon, for example that an autentico discloses any payoff: where the money, favor, or access comes from, if any; that truth comes first and persuasion second; that the purpose of authentic journalism is to inform the people. What was fun for me was watching these folks digesting Al’s sometimes hyperbolic pronunciamentos (“If you aren’t ready to die, you can’t be an authentic journalist”) and then making up their own minds: no “do what the teacher tells you” here.

“J-School” “student”Blanca Eekhout is a co-ordinator for Katia-TV, one of several independent community media reporting the truth to the Venezuelan people, in opposition to the established mass media owned by and absolutely responsible to the ruling class, which have consistently lied about the events in that country in order to overthrow the elected government of president Hugo Chavez Frias.

Blanca was reporting from the streets while friends and colleagues were being rounded up and beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed by forces loyal to president-for-a-day Pedro Carmona in April, when certain elements of the armed forces held the president incommunicado for 48 hours. While the New York Times, the Associated Press, and others were saying that Chavez had resigned, Blanca was announcing that this was a lie, and inviting the people to come out into the streets and see for themselves. As a result of her work, and that of others like her, Chavez was restored to office.

One of the understated goals of this gathering was to form an international group of friends and acquaintances, all dedicated to changing the world through honest journalism, and to get them talking — and acting together — across borders and continents, in a way that focuses attention on the relationship between the Prohibition model of dealing with freedom of choice and human rights, and the needs and methods of a U.S. ruling class determined to dominate the world through a combination of military and economic coercion, and misinformation orchestrated by corporate mass media. By the time we left (a day early), this process was well underway. A new website for discussion of issues relating to press freedom, human rights, and authentic journalism was being formed, the Narco News site had added Portuguese to its languages of Spanish and English, a brilliant young media maven from Brazil had been added to the staff, and Al Giordano had stepped down as chief editor in favor of Gary Webb.

The money for this effort came in large part from the Tides Foundation, itself a child of the Drug Policy Alliance, whose chairman, Ethan Nadelmann, spoke at the conference, and at a special J-School session.

Listening intently to Renan Castro are, among others, Al Giordano, Andrea Daugirdas, and your truly.

RODRIGO VILLEGAS’ POETRY ON THE WEB SITE:

Local poet and man-about-town Rod Las Vegas’ work is now posted. To read it, click here.

ETHAN NADELMANN IS WORTH LISTENING TO

For me, the highlight of the whole ten days was a talk that Ethan Nadelmann, head of the highly respected Drug Policy Alliance, gave to the “J-School” on the night before the conference. Starting late (10:00 p.m.) because of scheduling conflicts, Ethan gave us a clear and concise review of current U.S. drug policy and why we should oppose it. The following is my understanding of some of what he said:

The current U.S. anti-drug policy stems from a deeply religious strain in our society. It is the same strain that fueled the fight for prohibition of alcohol in the last century. It posits that where the right to free choice is in conflict with the state’s right to enforce moral conformity, the state has the duty to step in and coerce the individual to conform; there is a “higher good” than individual freedom.

It is easy to see where the state is justified in interfering in cases of incest, child abuse, bank robbery, etc., where there is a clear victim whose freedom is being violated against their will or (in the case of children) because they are in no position to make informed choices. It is less clear that there is any need for such interference when the “victim” is of majority age, can be presumed to know his or her rights, and makes the choice of their own free will. Interference by the state in such cases is simply denial of civil rights, and creates a class of criminals whose “crimes” are not coercive.

While there are a few classes of citizen who benefit in one way or another from criminalization, such as prison guards, the private prison industry, and DEA agents, there is no clear call from the business community to continue prohibition. It is in fact the opinion of most business people that the cost – in lowered funds for education, job placement, and drug awareness education, to name a few programs – far outweighs the social good if any achieved by prohibition. It was the business community, he points out, that led the way to repeal of alcohol prohibition.

Why then do so few people speak out? In Reason magazine, he talked about

“..this deep-seated fear of drugs that’s very much analogous to the fear of communism. The roles that communism and drugs have played in American politics are quite similar. In the case of communism, there was an external threat, but the communists were not knocking on our doors. Drugs do come from abroad, but it’s not as if we’re being overwhelmed by these things. And yes, there were communist spies in this country, but there wasn’t a commie under every bed. Yes, there is a drug problem in this country, but there isn’t a drug addict in every corner….

“This deep-seated fear of drugs is totally inconsistent with the scientific evidence, and it’s inconsistent to a large extent with people’s personal experience. There’s an analogy here with homosexuals. Thirty years ago, almost everyone in the country knew someone who was gay. They just didn’t know they knew somebody who was gay. Now they do. Well, 60 to 70 million Americans have violated the drug laws; everybody knows somebody who has used illegal drugs. But not everyone knows that they know them.

“Of the huge part of our generation who have used drugs, how many have told their parents, to this day, even though they are now successful professionals and parents and what have you? There’s a need to come out of the closet and talk openly about drug use. As things stand, the only kind of use that is visible is either the dysfunctional drug use or the media portraits of it. So there’s this incredibly skewed view of what drugs are about.”

Speaking on a forum with William Buckley, he said: “When women talk about having control over their own bodies vis-à-vis abortion, they should realize that’s one and the same as talking about control over one’s own consciousness vis-à-vis drugs. If people want the power to sell their bodies–the same thing. When gays and others talk about sexual privacy, once again it’s the same thing. And all these freedoms are not fundamentally different from the freedoms of speech, press, and religion that most Americans now take for granted–but that were once as contentious as the right to control one’s body and one’s consciousness is now. Drugs are an integral dimension of that.

“The most important objective now– rhetorically, intellectually, and conceptually–is getting people to focus on prohibition as the problem, in the way that people saw alcohol prohibition as the problem. …[I]t’s a prohibition system, but most Americans don’t think of it that way, because we’ve all grown up under it. We don’t envision the alternative. The most important thing is to get people, when they hear about shootings in the street, to say, “Damn that prohibition.” not “Damn those drugs.” Or when they hear about the courts being overflooded and the prisons being overflooded and violent prisoners being let out, they should say, not “Damn drugs,” but “Damn prohibition.” Or when they hear about a rash of overdose deaths on the street, or the drug-AIDS connection, same thing. It s getting people to talk about it and think about it in those terms, to understand the analogy to alcohol prohibition.”

TO BUS, OR NOT TO BUS

This trip, we changed our attitude about how we travel. We went to Cancun (our pre-conference J-School faculty sessions were on Isla Mujeres) by overnite bus to México, shuttle from the TAPO to the airport, and a plane from there. The cost was roughly $23 for the bus (with our Sr. Citizen INSEN discount), $3.50 for the shuttle, and $112 for the plane, for a total of under $140. We had to schlep our luggage from the bus to the shuttle to the plane. The whole thing took about 12 hours: 6 for the bus, 4 at the airport, and 2 for the plane trip.

Coming back, we decided to fly direct. There is only one plane a day that flies from Cancun to Oaxaca. It stops three times on the way: Mérida, Villa Hermosa, and Tuxtla Gutiérrez. It takes six hours. You don’t have to transfer your luggage, even though you have to change planes in Tuxtla. The cost was about $250. We’ll never do it the other way again. The extra money was worth it, especially as we were not feeling so hot. I guess we’re getting too old to rough it the way we used to.

I was surprised to find out that the extra takeoffs and landings didn’t bother me a bit. In fact, I rather enjoyed the short in-flight times. One can also fly Cancun – Oaxaca through México, but you have to schlep your luggage from one flight to the other, and check in again in México, and there is a wait between planes. The price is about the same.

Some of our sessions were held in a classroom building at the University of the Yucatán. In the back is a basketball court.