The Putin Problem

In an interview President Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer.” What does that mean exactly? Does Putin randomly kill people the way, say, the Mexican cartels do south of the U.S. border? Has he killed more people abroad than the U.S. has in its numerous wars since 9/11? Or is Biden speaking in a more metaphorical way about killing hopes amd dreams? In that case the President is rather imprecise, a risky behavior among heads of state with control of nuclear weapons that can end the world.

Putin laughed it off by challenging Biden to a debate. The American media was more serious and seemed to back the President. This contrasts with the media of the Stalinist years which tended to lavish praise on one of the world’s worst mass murderers during the 1930’s and wartime ’40’s. Acclaimed leftwing writer Max Eastman couldn’t get published anywhere because he supported Communist leader Leon Trotsky over Stalin – the cancel culture of the time.

In comparison to Stalin Putin is a minor impediment to U.S. and indeed global interests. Shorn of Stalin’s acquisitions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he seems intent on preserving what’s left in a reinvigorated Russia. That means he is a familiar figure, a nationalist leader both autocratic and skillful. U. S. policy can be tailored to that situation. Unlike Stalin, and some would say the U.S. today, he has not embarked on expansion, just holding his own.

He has some grounds for complaint. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trade with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia would surrender control of East Gernany to a reunited Germany in exchange for a U.S pledge not to extend the NATO alliance eastward toward Russia. That was violated during the Clinton Presidency, and ever since NATO has been expanding and contemplates adding still more small countries on Russia’s border.

At the height of the Cold War the fervently anticommunist Reagan Administration made sure economic sanctions affecting the Soviet Uinion were limited and carefully targeted because of international opposition. In today’s more permissive environment, the U.S. has freely resorted to their routine use. President Trump, in particular, made them a substitute for an outright war he pledged not to start. In fact, by crippling an economy, they are injurious to the people, not to the leadership who rarely change their policies. It’s really a feel-good effort on the part of the sanctioners.

There’s no doubt the other two great nuclear powers – China and Russia – will continue to compete with the U.S. and look for advantages where they can. For this the U.S. must stay geopolitically alert with minds up to the job, but military action should be a last resort and threats issued with care. There has been one helpful change. Today the U.S rivals are rational exercisers of power with their own interests clearly in view, not the feverish unpredictable ideologues that wrecked the world in the last century.

The Media Discovers the Drug Cartels, Sort Of

In the absence of any genuine reporting or analysis of the Mexican drug cartels, Fox News has now filled the void in part. Reporter Lara Logan went to the area in Mexico where nine Mormons were slaughtered by the cartels and interviewed survivors of the attack in a gripping presentation but had little to say about the cartels or how they operate – a media tendency.

If there is any significant area of the world which the Americana media fails to cover, it is right next door, Mexico. Yet it is one of the most dangerous places on earth, where the cartels murder with impunity as they send their poisonous drugs to the U.S with earnings approaching 100 billion dollars a year.

Maria Ronita Miller and four of her children, including 7-month-old twins, killed in cartel attack.

Even so, the media slumbers with far more coverage of lesser violence in such far away places as Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan. Fox news has now broken the pattern with an hour long feature on the killing in November 2019 of nine Mormons – three mothers, six children, including baby twins – that is truly heart-wrenching. Yet as the program fails to make clear, this is an every day affair in Mexico with one of the highest murder rates in the world and still climbing.

Don’t Mexican lives matter? Racism might be a conventional response, but it’s rather a vast, inexplicable indifference to the suffering south of us. Ignored by the media and the government, it doesn’t exist for Americans. Out of sight, out of mind. The Mormons interviewed by Logan tell compelling stories, but it has to be said that they are American citizens living in Mexico. They get attention because of that while Mexicans keep getting murdered in the shadows.

At a break in the Fox program, someone is caught saying the Mexican situation is a U.S. national security issue. Indeed. Along with enormous quantities of drugs, cartel bosses are crossing the U.S. border and even took over an Arizona border town until an aroused citizenry threw them out. Enthusiasts like to compare today’s expansive U.S. with the long lived Roman empire. But it’s as if Rome treated neighboring Gaul – about the same size as Mexico – with similar indifference. Do as you like, we don’t care. Julius Caesar would be dumbfounded and the Roman empire would not have lasted.

The U. S. deserves a better fate. The Fox program is a step in the right direction. Much more is needed.

Femicide in Mexico

Ordinarily, it was just another murder among the many thousands that have occurred so far this year on the way to establishing a homicidal record for Mexico. But this one struck a nerve – Bianca Lorenzana, a 21 year old resident of Cancun whose dismembered body was found in plastic bags. Local women decided they had had enough. Ten women are murdered every day in Mexico.

Hundreds gathered peacefully at first, but then with a rage that perhaps emulated current U.S. protests began spraying graffiti and destroying property. As they tried to break into city hall, the police arrived and started shooting live ammunition. Four people were wounded, including two journalists, always a special target. Three have been murdered within the last month in Mexico, maintaining the country’s standing as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

The protesters were quickly dispersed and eight were arrested. The very limited U.S. coverage suggested the police were operating on their own without official approval, which is nonsense. They are an arm of the drug cartels which basically run Mexico. As such, they behave in cartel fashion. While U.S. police are routinely injured in dealing with protests, Mexican police are only hurt by one another in typical cartel rivalry. Anyone who dares to confront a cop, much less throw a stone at him, is lucky to die without being tortured first

Tourists can visit seaside Cancun because the cartels allow it. They don’t mind picking up some loose change on top of their mammoth drug earnings. The day they decide to shut the place down, that will be the end of it. The women victims, alas, are only part of the story. The cartels don’t discriminate but kill anybody regardless of race, gender or religion. Understandably distressed, Abelardo Vera, hotel association president in Cancun, told reporters: “We’re living in the worst horror movie – robberies, extortion and people being murdered and mutilated every day. It’s unacceptable.”

The cure for this lies no longer in Mexico but in U.S. hands with proposals ranging from the legalization of marijuana that undercuts the cartel market to outright attack on the cartels as they assemble for their murderous business. That means taking some responsibility for the country that is being ruined by the drug traffic financed by the U.S.

Our Mexican Colony

Arturo Alba Medina became the seventh journalist to be killed in Mexico this year, approaching the record of twelve murdered last year, surpassing even the killings of news people in war-torn Syria. Alba Medina, a TV anchor, died significantly in the border town of Juarez, known from time to time as the “murder capital of the world.” There’s a lot of competition in Mexico for that title.

The various Mexican governments promised to catch the killers, but they hardly ever do since the killers are in control; namely, the drug cartels who run what is considered a “narco state.” Not just offending journalists, to be sure, are victims of their wrath. Mexican murders this year are about to overtake last year’s record of more than 35,000.

Mexican marines escorting five alleged drug traffickers – Yuri Cortez – AFP/Getty Images

By any standards this is a major story, especially happening next door to the U.S., but try finding it in the U.S. media. More likely there will be reports of these kinds of deaths in distant Somalia or Libya. Media compassion is very selective. Slavery and the Holocaust are voluminously covered for good reason, but why so little on the current slaughter of Yemenis by Saudi Arabia with some U.S. assistance or the massacres in Mexico?

Ignoring Mexico can be attributed to that well-worn accusation “racism.” Mexicans don’t matter except in the U.S. where they vote. But the reason for this is probably more complex and indeed sinister. Americans profit from the Mexican violence, both those who take the drugs and those who take the drug money. Aside from some modest efforts to stop the trafficking, including a new border wall, illicit drugs continue to pour into the U.S., poisoning a vast number of people especially distraught by the coronavirus and the accompanying restrictions.

Bodies of women killed in Mexico by drug cartels- Francisco Robles – AFP/Getty Images

The American media has noticed this development and cited China as responsible. China is the manufacturer of deadly fentanyl which is delivered, however, by the Mexican cartels who control everything and every person that crosses the U.S. border. Once again the cartels evade blame. To whose benefit? Americans can get all the drugs they want that are killing them at a cost of some 100 billion dollars a year. Half of that is laundered or smuggled back to Mexico. The remainder stays in the U.S. to keep the cartels in business.

The bribes start at the border – maybe $5,000 or is it now $10,000? – to let a truck load of drugs through the border. Then right up the social scale to all kinds of respectable groups that need or desire the money. Those who resist or object can pay a serious price, as two FBI investigators (names omitted) learned when they tried to find where the money goes beyond the border. On discovering that it reaches bankers, judges and law enforcement, both lost their jobs and one had his life threatened by a knife. ”Big names,” they said, did them in.

Mexico is in essence a colony of the U.S. But it differs from previous colonial powers in that it takes no responsibility for the land that provides for it. Mexico can go about its business unmolested, a business that amounts to a humanitarian crisis for Mexicans. The U.S. is rebuked for its imperialism that led to the conquest and annexation of half of Mexico in 1848. Today’s imperialism is hidden but just as deadly.

Art of the Plague

Can disease lead to great art? It did during the plague of 1400 in ever active Florence where peoples’ fear and anxiety were relieved by a sculpture embodying their Christian faith that has been admired down the ages – far outlasting the disaster that gave rise to it.

The Black Death, or bubonic plague, of the mid 1300s devastated Florence, as it did the rest of Europe, killing half its population. Then in 1400, the plague struck again. Lacking today’s medical help, Florentines turned in desperation to their Christian faith. City fathers commissioned a vast sculpture to adorn the door of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, an esteemed structure where all the children of Florence were baptized.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Porta del Paradiso, 1425-52

The ambitious project distracted attention from the disease as Florentines rallied behind it. Among them was a young goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had fled the city to avoid illness. Hearing of the competition for creating the sculpture, he rushed back and won over better known adversaries. Not that he had any doubts, as he explained: “By universal consent and without a single exception the glory was conceded to me.”

People came to the studio to watch the work in progress as Ghiberti and his helpers went through several painstaking steps of bronze casting. Bronze was preferable to marble but much more expensive and much harder to deal with. It was a matter of civic pride. Florence would thrive on the beauty it creates. Completed after twenty years, the door was considered one of the finest works of the budding Renaissance – 28 panels depicting the New Testament with figures that seem to emerge gravely and sedately from the Bible. The epidemic had not turned out as badly as had been thought, the sculpture much better.

Art continued when disease had disappeared. In view of his success Ghiberti was asked to sculpt another door of the Baptistery, and this he did untiringly for thirty more years. This time he depicted the Old Testament in ten bronze panels that were infused with the growing humanism of the Renaissance – graceful, flowing figures that seemed to invite observers into the religious gatherings. Another artist on the rise in Florence, Michelangelo called it the “gates of Paradise.”

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Porta del Paradiso, Adam and Eve panel, 1425-52

Sublime art does not accompany Covid 19. Satire prevails. Mona Lisa has a mask. A protesting woman says, “Stand back six feet and tell me you love me.” But Renaissance Florence shows that in a time of great turmoil and fear people can be lifted out of personal concern with a vision greater than themselves. Art conquers disease.

The Embattled Town of Douglas, Az

At first glance the dusty town of Douglas, Arizona, appears to be just another sleepy stop along the U.S.-Mexican border. Not exactly. It has been the center of a battle between the forces of the drug cartels and an aroused citizenry determined to reclaim their town. It looks as if the citizens have won.

In Douglas a young vibrant man Robert Uribe, decided to run for mayor, a post more prestigious than profitable since it pays only $300 a month. But it turned out that pay was not a problem since his father-in-law is a Mexican drug cartel leader. Once elected, he blossomed out in fancy clothes, a Rolex watch and numerous trips unrelated to his office. More importantly, he began to imitate the cartels’ way of doing business, shouting orders in dictatorial style, firing subordinates who objected and rearranging the town in his own interest.

It looked as if the Mexican cartels had gained a foothold in the U.S, always an ambition of theirs. But they hadn’t counted on the people of Douglas. Tanya Duarte led a recall drive that was thrown out on a technicality, but then she and others found a suitable candidate to run against Uribe in a recent election. A Mormon with ten children, Donald Huish campaigned against corruption in Douglas. “What you see is what you get,” says Tanya. A straight forward and incorruptible candidate handily won.

Stained glass mural, Gadsen Hotel, Douglas, Az

Now is the time for healing, says the mayor. A tarnished image will not be easy to repair. As a rule, the cartels don’t like to lose. When Tanya and her husband, a policeman, were shopping in Walmart, a stranger approached and asked “Do you know who you are up against?” Are you concerned? her husband asked. No, she replied and that suited him. Tanya says the best thing to do with the cartels is not to succumb to them. Otherwise, you are trapped.

“Artcar,” Douglas, Az

Where does Douglas go from here? How to bring people to a town now famous for strife? Some possibilities according to residents: start with the Gadsden Hotel, the most sumptuous on the U.S. border with a sweeping staircase of white Italian marble and a mesmerizing stained glass mural above. Below ground, there’s a cartel tunnel stretching from a home across the border in Agua Prieta to a warehouse in Douglas. With a little agility visitors could even descend into it and trace the steps of the smugglers. They could also view a sampling of so-called artcars that are festooned with thousands of novel objects in a display that might have confounded Michelangelo. Take that, cartels.

Here Comes the Wall

A haze moving from California wild fires reduces visibility along the border at the town of Douglas, Arizona. So drug runners try their luck at scaling the so-called Obama fence and escape into the U.S. with their valuable cargo. A border patrol agent tells me it’s standard practice for traffickers to operate in a group of three or four using ropes to maneuver over the 20 foot high barrier in a matter of minutes.

As if to confirm what he said, our conversation was interrupted by a call summoning him to stop a climb-over in the middle of the day. He sped off, helping to snag the intruders, though one escaped to the cluster of homes to the north, surviving no doubt to enjoy future riches in one of the world’s most profitable enterprises.

The Border Patrol guard the nine mile long, twenty foot high fence that was constructed in the Obama years. Its iron bars are entwined with concertina wire that is rather easily brushed aside by the climbers, though they are sometimes nicked by it and may end up in the hospital. Beyond the Obama fence, the 30 foot high Trump fence is under construction to mixed opinion.

The Border Patrol says it’s too early to tell how it will work, though one agent thinks cameras and sensors would do the job just as well. The wall must also be manned since the cartels are ingenious in finding ways over, under and around any barrier. Warner Glenn, an iconic cattle rancher from an esteemed local family, says one day traffickers came through his ranch disguised as workers on the fence. He doubts that anything will stem the drug invasion – too much money in too many hands. Most of the drugs come through routine ports of entry often manned by guards susceptible to lavish bribes that are a mere pittance for the cartels.

Rancher Warner Glenn

In his book “The Life and Times of Warner Glenn,” fellow rancher Ed Ashurst describes adventurous life on the ranch, including a conflict with that rare specimen in the area, a jaguar. Glenn was taking its picture as part of his concern for wildlife when the jaguar suddenly leaped at him only to be thwarted by his dogs leaping to save him. There are dangers beyond cartels in the area.

To the west of Douglas, rancher John Ladd no longer has to watch teams of black clad groups with automatic weapons cross his 20 thousand acre ranch. The Trump fence he says, has deterred them and given him some peace. He doesn’t have to worry about a repetition of the incident when a cartel gun was pointed at him. But he notes cartel scouts are still positioned on mountain tops where they can report the movements of the Border Patrol to the planners across the border. To remove them will require more substantial U.S. forces.

Rancher John Ladd

Along with drugs, cartel chiefs are arriving in the U.S. the better to direct their product and also to prepare for the day when they can exercise political power. Ladd says the nearby town of Naco, which is divided by the border, has more cartel members on the U.S. side than on the Mexican. In fact he recognizes some former classmates among them.

Longtime rancher Jim Chilton has never been in greater danger. The Trump fence on his fourteen miles along the border has only been partially built. Fearing they will soon be cut off, the cartels are pushing more drugs than ever across his ranch. He has some Border Patrol protection, but there have been confrontations that will likely continue, given that ranchers like Chilton are a first line of defense against what can only be called an invasion of the U.S. He wants Trump to be reelected so that he can complete the fence which will take another seven months.

Border Wall between USA and Mexico under construction in Arizona.

Mexican ranchers are especially vulnerable. Chilton says those across the border cannot stay on their ranches where they are caught in a crossfire of cartels fighting for the drug routes once controlled by el Chapo Guzman now in prison. There’s a mistaken belief that eliminating a top drug lord somehow stalls the business. On the contrary, his disappearance leads to a fierce struggle among competitors to succeed him and a spike in Mexico’s prodigiously high homicide rate. If anything, there’s an increase in drug smuggling. Whatever perils Americans face cannot compare to the travail of Mexicans in this narco state neighboring the U.S.