Who’s running Honduras?

Here is a dispatch I put together from Honduras last year, in the violence-plagued city of San Pedro Sula. A few things have changed since I drafted it – such as the arrest of El Chapo Guzman in Mexico and the election of Juan Orlando Hernandez as president in November – but with the waves human migration flooding over America’s southern border, sharing this story is a must. I’ve had many people tell me that nobody cares about Honduras, that it doesn’t matter, but recent events suggest otherwise.

I have also addressed the situation through radio/podcast. Follow the link to hear my appearance on (un) Common Sense, hosted by Luke Skinner and based out of Perth, Australia.

Solutions elusive in San Pedro Sula

By Corey Hunt

Although it has generally stayed off the radar, the last time Honduras caught the world’s attention was when the military overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, a heated event that sparked global outrage, protests, and a dramatic siege at the Brazilian Embassy in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Zelaya had come to power through the ballot box, but the supreme court ruled his attempts at extending his time in office through another ballot to be unconstitutional, prompting his forced departure. The perils of Honduras, however, go far deeper than the politics on the outside. In fact, if Honduras ever had a chance to overcome its tumultuous history as a Cold War firewall in the American efforts against communism, it was dashed when the streets of Los Angeles unleashed some of the most violent and dangerous criminals upon an already wounded population.

The Catholic Archdiocese in San Pedro Sula, Honduars

The Catholic Archdiocese in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

After playing a critical role in subduing armed insurgencies with ties back to the Soviet Union, Honduras was largely forgotten by the United States, its only appeal being a destination for massive deportations of immigrant gang members. The worst of these gangs members hail from the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and its rival, the M18. Both gangs are named after their respective territory in Los Angeles; their ranks filled with Central American immigrants or Hispanics with family who fled the series of civil wars in the region. According to the Los Angeles Police Department’s gang prevention unit, the gangs eventually spread across the US, and as their numbers and lawless activities grew in the 1980′s and early 90′s, deportation was rapidly employed by federal authorities. Coinciding with the explosion of the cocaine trade – today, findings by the US State Department indicate that some 80 percent of the cocaine grown in South America makes a stopover on Honduran territory – and the drug lord battles to control it, the gangs put down roots in Honduras, along with its neighbors El Salvador and Guatemala, bringing their culture of hatred and violence with them. The result has been mayhem and carnage that have produced homicide rates unseen anywhere else, aside from active war zones.

At the epicenter of the violence is San Pedro Sula, the second largest city in Honduras and its industrial capital responsible for 2/3 of national gross domestic product. Unfortunately, some of the most lucrative business conducted in San Pedro Sula tends to be illegal. The raging violence between the Mara gangs, score settling among drug traffickers, and police impunity have turned it into global society’s foremost urban killing field. A study conducted on a per capita level by the National Autonomous University of Honduras asserts that with over 1,200 murders in 2012, the city of 800,000 people is considered to be the most violent metropolitan area in a country that already has the world’s highest homicide rate. From that standpoint, United Nations figures indicate Honduras as a whole sees about twenty murders a day with its population of eight million, or just over 7,000 annually. By contrast, Iraq, with a population of thirty million, saw about 5,000 violent deaths in 2012

* * *

Honduran soldiers on patrol in a park

Honduran soldiers on patrol in a park.

“Nobody can go against them,” said Ramon. “They have the police in their pocket. I’ve seen guys taken…and then placed in front of a wall and shot. For me, it doesn’t seem like much. It doesn’t surprise me anymore.” The out of work fisherman then lit a cigarette as we sat beside one another on a curb outside of a hotel in San Pedro Sula. He is tired of the violence – the endless killings that rack up space in the newspapers every morning with hardly any mention in the English-language press, the kidnappings, and the corruption.

It was a humid night at the beginning of June, just two days after I had stepped off a plane to see the sweltering city for myself. The Catholic diocese, imposing its grand pillars over central park a few blocks away, had leaders from MS-13 and M18 at the negotiating table, with Bishop Romulo Emiliani working diligently to secure a truce that he hoped would dry up the bloodshed on the streets.

I came to Honduras on limited means, so I was lucky to have Ramon by my side. Unemployed for several months at the time we met, Ramon spent his days working for the Catholic Church, helping them with everything from maintenance to community outreach. Now, after I had visited the church looking for information on the truce efforts, he was on a mission to show me his city so I could share stories of its chaotic and scarred pulse with the world.

An SPS resident strolls past a graffiti-covered wall in a neighborhood battered by gang violence

An San Pedro Sula resident strolls past a graffiti-covered wall in a neighborhood battered by gang violence.

Ramon puffed on his cigarette and offered one to me as he went on in detail about the things he has seen in his community. Not much of a smoker, I accepted it to wash away the doubts I was having as he assured me a senior figure from the ruling Partido Nacional, or “National Party” would be coming by for drinks at the hotel bar any minute. It was the Nationals who had replaced Zelaya after he was overthrown and deported by his own Liberal Party, Partido Liberal.

“I see this guy all the time,” Ramon said confidently. “He’ll be here.” Still not sure if I could trust anything this man I had known for all of twelve hours was telling me, a Honduran of African descent interrupted and approached us. He was enthusiastically sniffing cocaine while making eye contact with me, expecting that with my appearance as a grungy, unshaven American I must have been in Honduras to buy drugs. It’s a fair conclusion, considering San Pedro Sula is about as far from a tourist destination as it gets. Just a three days earlier the city’s deputy police commissioner, Luis Enrique Garcia, had been assassinated in a hail of gunfire as he stopped at a red light, a few hours before my plane landed in Honduras. Like most of the killings, there were no leads, just a rumor of two attackers riding off on a motorbike and disappearing into traffic.

The black drug peddler sat beside us. He asked me where I was from; when I replied San Francisco he began singing, in broken English, the song “Hotel California” in a drug-induced euphoria. Accepting that a sale was unlikely, he got up and made his way back to a gathering of colleagues – some posing as evening shoe shiners – across the street. Ramon and I were amused, but more commotion ensued as the drug dealers yelled and pointed at another man wandering past them. Two Nissan pickup trucks emerged from around the corner, the headlights flashing over us as they screeched to a halt in front of the scuffle. Well-groomed assailants, some with pistols at their side, jumped from the truck beds and took hold of the man fingered by the drug peddlers. He briefly yelled out and put up resistance before they pressed him up against the side of the vehicle. My first instinct was to remove myself from the escalating situation. Taking hold of my backpack I had left beside the curb, I began to step back toward the hotel entrance when Ramon grabbed my arm.

“Just keep looking at me…there’s nothing happening, you haven’t seen anything,” he said sternly. A large individual, a leader perhaps, glared at the captive he and his crew had taken and raised his hand as if to rip the man’s face off. He hesitated though, just as his victim was tossed into one of the trucks. The crew climbed back into their vehicles and drove off like a Taliban patrol in pre-2001 Afghanistan, a crowd of people milling about at the shoeshine station without the slightest concern. At least a dozen policemen and soldiers were patrolling the park a stone’s throw away, but none of them came. The warning Ramon had given me was already a fact of day to day life for Hondurans, no matter what they saw. It was this attitude that would keep them alive in a country where poking around outside of your own business can easily end with a bullet to the head.

Street view in San Pedro Sula.

Street view in San Pedro Sula.

Ramon exhaled some cigarette smoke and shook his head. “That guy’s going to be in the newspaper tomorrow,” he said to me, explaining that the victim would probably be shot and dumped in a field somewhere. Shocked that I had just witnessed a kidnapping, I leaned against the wall.

“Hey man, this is nothing,” Ramon continues. “I see this all the time…come over to my neighborhood.” Fifteen minutes later, the party member we planned to interview arrived at the hotel, walking just a few feet away from the location of the crime scene that would never be investigated. Eager to drink with his friends, he gave us the number of another official who he insisted would have more to say.

The next morning, after Ramon scrounged up some change for the bus, he conversed with the islander who attempted to sell me cocaine and discovered his predictions were true. The abducted man, it turned out, had stolen a cell phone from a store in the area, an area where the shopkeepers paid “protection money”, or extortion, to MS-13 –why he decided to come back to that neighborhood after such a brazen heist is anybody’s guess. The hopes for Bishop Emiliani’s peace efforts managed to grab a few international headlines, but it was clear outside of that central park hotel that the gangs had no plans to put down their guns.

* * *

Unlike the Honduran National Police, Partido Libre, or “Free Party”, which pulled itself together after Zelaya returned home from exile in 2011, was eager to share its analysis with me on the situation in the country. The opposition group – determined to take back some power in the upcoming elections at the end of November – considers both Zelaya’s former Liberals and the ruling National Party to be one in the same. Their candidate to replace President Porfirio Lobo would be Xiomara Castro, the wife of Manuel Zelaya, against National’s Juan Orlando Hernandez.

National Party's presidential candidate - and now current president of Honduras - Juan Orlando Hernandez (center), shaking hands at a rally in San Pedro Sula.

National Party’s presidential candidate – and now current president of Honduras – Juan Orlando Hernandez (center), shaking hands at a rally in San Pedro Sula.

I walked in through the door at Libre’s Casa del Pueblo Headquarters in downtown San Pedro Sula to a warm and inviting atmosphere. Samuel Sevilla, the regional director, met me with a smile and although he did not personally believe so, spoke in excellent English. He is well educated, having studied political science in Moscow.

“The problem that is happening in Mexico, with the drugs, is coming now to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras…because the principle organization that is involved in drugs in Mexico has connections here,” he said to me, referring to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and its leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a kingpin who took the position of “most wanted man in the world” after Osama Bin Laden met his end. Samuel then pointed his finger at the international community, in particular the United States.

“We in Latin America…we know something,” he said confidently, as if he was revealing to his American guest information I would not find back home. “The government in the United States…it is not the real government. We know that the big corporations have influence…they are active in all of the world.”

Samuel Sevilla, just before my interview with him.

Samuel Sevilla, just before my interview with him.

Samuel continued on, saying that Libre favors dialogue with the Mara gangs and is open to exploring the legalization of drugs to clamp down on the revenue earned by narco-traffickers, whom he considers foreign invaders in need of expulsion. He also insisted that it is the traffickers, as well as police forces, who pose the greatest threat to Honduran security, not the street gangs.

Feeling more comfortable with where our conversation was heading, the party director offered to give me a tour of the headquarters. He brought me upstairs, where I discovered that the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez was a guest at Casa del Pueblo – at least in spirit. The upper story was an open room with a few desks in the corners, but what caught my attention were the walls and the ceiling, where a massive banner of Chavez in military uniform was hanging, complemented by a vast array of posters praising “El Comandante” and his ideology. He was not alone – also featured on the walls were portraits of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Latin American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, and of course, Manuel Zelaya. Samuel told me that the room is where they would hold classes to educate Hondurans on politics, making it a sort of indoctrination center.

Upstairs education quarters at Casa del

Upstairs education quarters at Casa del Pueblo.

Like all the other forces in Honduras, the electoral alternative appeared to have ulterior motives behind their promises.

* * *

“Get up!” Ramon yelled as a whine of sirens filtered through the thicket of tropical plants surrounding Mario Catarina Rivas general hospital, located on the edge of San Pedro Sula. He had brought me here under the auspice that it would give me a better analysis of the city than any politician I could interview. In Ramon’s opinion, talking to Libre had been a waste of time because all the politicians are the same.

Two ambulances emerged, each ferrying victims wounded in shootouts. The men moaned in pain as blood oozed from their wounds, onto the pavement, and into the hallway leading to the operating rooms. From outside, I watched as nurses frantically tried to stop the bleeding just as two more ambulances pulled in, also carrying shooting victims. Ramon chatted with Jaime, a security guard who reluctantly allowed us into the building – a dirty installation that reeked of formaldehyde, with the occasional fly buzzing about under the beam of florescent lights. The guard, now appearing nervous that he might get in trouble, lead us to a room containing more patients, their limbs and torsos wrapped in bandages and stained with blood. He said he would allow us to take a few pictures if we agreed to leave afterward.

Shooting victim

Victim of an M18 shooting in a neighborhood controlled by MS-13.

Ramon, not one to give up, calmed Jaime’s nerves by offering to buy him a cold Coca-Cola after tapping me on the shoulder and casually asking for fifty Honduran Lempiras to make the promise a reality. I obliged, an investment that proved itself successful as the guard took us deeper into the hospital until we came outside on the other end of it, where the morgue was. Lights were flashing, revealing three police officers loading a body belonging to a 17-year old boy into the back of their truck. Jaime inquired with the stone-faced men and discovered the victim had been trying desperately to stay away from the gangs after being rehabilitated. He recently decided learning a trade was the best option for success, but it did not save him from the six bullets fired into his abdomen, chest, and head by his former gang family.

Jaime took us over to his office while happily enjoying the Coke he picked up at a vending machine. He informed us he could provide a list of similar victims brought in over the past 24 hours, but the guard was interrupted as a man strolled up announcing a sale on coffins. It sounds morbid, but the business is all 22-year old Franklin Ramos has ever known. From the time he was a young child, his parents groomed him into the death industry. Now, he wanders the hospitals and morgues of San Pedro Sula looking for customers to sell coffins to. It is a lucrative business, he told me.

Doctors and nurses work to stop the bleeding as two shooting victims are brought in for treatment.

Doctors and nurses work to stop the bleeding as two shooting victims are brought in for treatment.

“When we started 10 years ago, the business was not as popular as it is now,” he explained. “The violent deaths have ticked up in the last few years, it is incredible. Before, we didn’t sell too many coffins, but we do now. My family raised me up with coffins and I am who I am because of this. I never have been disturbed by it. I was born and raised in it.”

The industry seems harsh, but it keeps the bills paid and allows for Franklin to provide for his wife, 3-year old son, and 10-month old daughter. For some, living in the world’s most violent city has its benefits.

It became quiet as the police patrol drove the bull-ridden body of the rehabilitated gang member away to an official state facility, leaving Ramon and I with Jaime and Franklin. The “Morgue” sign above us was partially illuminated by a single street light hanging from a telephone pole, which also reflected off of the metal gurneys lying on the ground, instruments used by the staff to handle the various corpses brought in every night throughout the week.

A security stands outside the morgue at Mario Catarina Rivas, one of San Pedro Sula's most prominent hospitals.

A security stands outside the morgue at Mario Catarina Rivas, one of San Pedro Sula’s most prominent hospitals.

 * * *

Honduras, not unlike Afghanistan in the 1980′s, is a country left behind due to an incomplete US foreign policy. Communism was defeated, but with nothing to stand firmly in its place, the outcome has been anarchy inflamed by a broken US immigration system, an American public unwilling to give up its drug consumption, and a government with a history of failing to see long-term implications of its policies. The alternative American liberty and capitalism was supposed to provide has been flatly unable to deliver in the way that it has in other parts of the world, and it is a shame.

Honduras has beauty in addition to a lot of troubles -- a shot of the Caribbean at Puerto Cortes, just north of San Pedro Sula.

Honduras has beauty in addition to a lot of troubles — a shot of the Caribbean at Puerto Cortes, just north of San Pedro Sula.

All this begs the question of what Americans can do. For one thing, since the gangs and the drug traffickers thrive on instability, securing the southern border and bringing order to our immigration state of affairs is essential. A system that can identify and stop the malignant forces can prevent the need to arrest and deport in the future, and would help to deplete the criminal operations already set up in the US of their revenue. Secondly, those who have tried to step forward and confront the violence, especially ex-gang members who are willing to give up their lifestyles and rejoin society, deserve a larger platform to have their voices heard. I say this not to excuse them for their past decisions, but because they are far more effective when they can work to break the influence of their former peers instead of expanding the coffin industry after being riddled with bullets on the backstreets of a forgotten third world city in the dead of night.

Finally, there is America itself. Historically, the nation has always maintained an image as prosperous and united – it was this attitude that won it allies like Honduras during the Cold War – but a critical mass has arrived where Americans need to decide what kind of country they want. America today continues to backslide into a culture of narcissism, economic calamity, and a growing appetite for drugs – a shadow of what it should be. Recognizing this is an important first step, one that could make initiating an effort to better the western hemisphere remarkably simple.

 

Taxi ride through Guatemala City

Guatemala City, Guatemala…taken a few days after I concluded my research project in Honduras. If you have a stopover in this exciting and cultural capital, with time for just one thing, be sure to visit a convenience store and pick up some “Gallo” beer. Between that and taking a walk through the markets, Guatemala City is almost as magical as Nepal…and believe me, that’s saying something.

 

Hope to go back as soon as possible…even with so many dreams and places I want to visit, potential tickets for a second trip to Guatemala still find there way into my late night searches online.

 

Faction: my mystical journey into Syria

I would like to invite everyone to read Faction, a short story I published through the Voice of Kurdistan about the Syrian Civil War. Prior to putting this together it had been a while since my last effort at fiction, but I felt compelled to act over the Summer when my desire to actually visit Syria in person proved too difficult to materialize. The result is what you will read in the text and link below, something I’ve come to describe as a mystical experience since I wrote it without leaving the San Francisco Bay Area.

Kurdish civilians rally in northern Syria

Kurdish civilians rally for independence in northern Syria

August 21st, 2013

Aleppo, Syria:

22-year old Ruken Qadir Shah woke up to the feeling of a cold cement floor on the side of her face. The rest of her body ached, making her wonder how long she had been lying in this position for. When she got up and opened her eyes, she was jolted by a rush of panic as she realized she was was looking through the metal bars of a small jail cell. Outside, a light bulb hanging from the ceiling flickered over a desk, emitting a slight buzzing sound as it mustered the last of its power. Papers and folders were strewn all over the place, along with the splintered remains of a bookshelf. I guess this is supposed to be a police station

Ruken tried to swallow her fear. As a member of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units – known by its acronym as the YPG militia – she needed to be brave. For the past two and a half years, civil war ravaged her country, Syria, and the YPG had been fighting to secure the rights of the Kurdish people. Long marginalized by the ruling Assad family, the Kurds had many legitimate reasons to protest for more freedoms, and Ruken had been one of them since the first days of a rebellion that began in March of 2011, when massive street demonstrations were erupting in cities and towns all across the country.

Things had taken a turn for the worse though. With peaceful protests crushed by the vast security apparatus employed by President Bashar Al-Assad, those seeking change resorted to armed conflict by joining anti-government militias. The largest and most prominent of these was an umbrella organization that became known as the Free Syrian Army, a group founded and commanded by soldiers who defected from Assad’s regime. Alongside them, and sometimes mixed in, were brigades of Islamic extremists feared by western governments over their perceived links to international terrorist organizations. Then there were the Kurds: inhabitants mainly found in Syria’s north who activated the YPG units when government oppression and civil unrest threatened their homeland and desire for democratic reform. Distinct from Syria’s main Arab population with their own language and culture, many Kurds hoped to eventually form an independent state in the broader Middle East, something that provoked the ire of other rebel groups who preferred to fight for a united Syria.

Ruken had come to the conclusion that she was being held in detention at the hands of the regime when she heard the thud of ametal door open. Sunlight flowed into the dark compound, forcing her to squint. When the door slammed shut again, heavy footsteps came down the corridor and two men brandishing AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles were standing before her, both bearded. One had a fierce look on his face, while the other seemed a little more relaxed and less aggressive. Ruken grabbed hold of one of the bars confining her and met their gaze with her own.

Continue reading the story here on VOK’s website. Now that I am focusing on fiction writing again, feedback is essential, which means I look forward to hearing any thoughts you might have.

Gun control is unlikely to secure the Philippines

A Column I have been working on while aid efforts remain underway in wake of the storm, Haiyan:

Typhoon chaos is only the latest blunt reminder that the government cannot always protect citizens. So why have anti-gun measures gained so much traction?

Not long after President Barack Obama was handed a crushing defeat by his opponents in an effort to institute new gun control laws, the debate that had roiled the United States came to the Philippines and ended in way that must have made him envious. In the final week of May, the country’s own president, Benigno Aquino III, signed into law Republic Act 10591, or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act. His administration and other government figures in Manila describe it as an undertaking to combat crime after some areas of the archipelago witnessed a spate of horrific gang-related killings and mass shootings.

One of these incidents involved an enraged man who went on a rampage in Cavite, slaughtering eight people with bullets, including a pregnant woman and her family, and maiming a dozen others. Another saw a 7-year old girl accidentally shot in the head and killed by celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve in Caloocan City. Appealing to national emotions in light of these deaths, the new law, among other things, focuses on drug and psychological tests, proofs of income and tax payments, police clearance, criminal history checks, and stricter enforcement of firearms confiscation if gun registrations and licenses are not regularly renewed.

On the surface, this generates good headlines that the government is taking action and, understandably, it can be hard to go against the grain of policy initiatives when they are wrapped around the grieving families of innocent victims, but it must be highlighted that such emotional appeals are often deceptive and misleading. For this reason, restraint on the issue of gun control in the Philippines, just as it was in the US, is essential. With the American template, gun control unraveled in part because congressional supporters tried to guilt the people into submission after the Sandy Hook shooting while whitewashing the misdeeds of the state, the entity in charge of drafting and enforcing any new laws. This includes the rapid growth of the federal government in the last 10 years, the militarization of police forces, and massive ammunition purchases by government agencies, all of which reveal a dark hypocrisy that goes far beyond a need for public safety. Add to that efforts by various members of the US Congress to exempt themselves from gun control measures and hopefully the picture here can be realized. Camouflaged in good intentions, the main aspect of “gun control” is usually the latter word.

The American people seem to get this, having booted two local Democrat senators from office in the state of Colorado after they attempted to press on with a gun control agenda despite their party’s failures in Washington DC. With this debacle unfolding in view from the other side of the Pacific, Filipinos would be wise to look around at their own predicament and reconsider if gun control measures that top even what President Obama has laid out (so far, at least) are going to solve anything. Crime, terrorism, and insurgencies are all rampant in the Philippines, but the new laws do little to confront any of these, instead picking on the common citizen with a barrage of threats and hoops to jump through – none of which the most ferocious criminals and terrorists will be hindered by.

In fact, as the Philippine National Police were preparing to implement Republic Act 10591 in September, hundreds of Islamist rebels from the Moro National Liberation Front stormed the southern city of Zamboanga, where they killed security forces and burned down thousands of homes. Terrorized residents fled for their lives and were holed up in refugee camps while repeated pronouncements by the government that the situation was concluding fell flat. When the siege finally did come to an end three weeks later, many Zamboangans had lost everything, a tragic reminder that the police and other public officials cannot always be there to protect the law-abiding citizens. A similar situation has been playing out in the typhoon-ravaged central city of Tacloban these past few weeks, where survivors in the once-bustling metropolis were initially left to fend for themselves amidst food shortages and the breakdown of law and order. Hundreds of police and soldiers have since been airlifted in from around the country to alleviate the chaos, but even President Aquino has criticized the slow response.

It gets worse though. Historically, governments in the Philippines have turned against their own citizens after becoming awash in corruption. The regime of Ferdinand Marcos may be the most ominous illustration of this: a dictatorship memorialized in tyranny, disappearances, and a long rap sheet of human rights abuses that still haunt many Filipinos to this day. Then there is currently-incarcerated former leader Gloria Arroyo, who is on trial for plundering national funds and maintains a legacy that saw the Philippines become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. On a lower level, the police remain susceptible to corruption. Just four days after the Cavite massacre, thirteen people were killed in Quezon City during a shootout involving law enforcement on both sides of the exchange. The victims, shot to death in a convoy of SUVs that sped through a checkpoint, included police and soldiers said to be involved in a gambling racket. For their part, the families of the deceased insist they were innocent, and that the government is covering the incident up. Regardless of who was at fault, it does not raise a high standard of confidence in the authorities as they come down on their own citizens for letting a gun registration lapse or failing to pay a tax.

Still, there are even greater threats to the public on the horizon. Philippine history also contains an unfortunate saga of invasion and occupation by foreign powers, precisely the kind of heritage that exemplifies why free people deserve a right to self-defense. It ranges from centuries of Spanish rule and forced conversions by the Catholic Church to an American colonization that spanned over 40 years, followed by an imperial Japanese conquest that eventually left Manila as one of the most devastated cities in the Pacific theater during World War II. Now, in the 21st Century, a growing, power-hungry China has its sights set on the vast natural resources possessed by the Philippines. Given the Obama Administration’s inability to assert itself on the international scene and its tendency to abandon allies, Filipinos should not hedge everything on the United States coming to their rescue if an island or a portion of their country falls under the tyranny of the Chinese military in the future.

The economic growth the Philippines is experiencing and its increased standing in the world have given President Aquino strong popularity and trust. However, the underlying issues of corruption and abuses of power that remain in the country as a whole almost demand that the public reconsider the troubled background of their government, along with the intentions of their hostile neighbor across the sea and the continuing threat of crime and terror before fully acquiescing to proposals that empower the state and weaken the individual. 

Locals organize against Delta tunnels

My investigative series in the Brentwood Press continues:

Aerial view of the Sacramento Delta via thepress.net file photo

Aerial view of the Sacramento Delta via thepress.net file photo

In August of 2009, Jan McCleery was out on the water with her husband Mike. Anchored at Mildred Island, between Bethel Island and Discovery Bay, they were taking advantage of the sights and pleasures many East County residents enjoy when a bass fisherman approached and handed them fliers about something called the “2 Gates Fish Protection Project.”

The fisherman described it in detail to the McCleerys, alleging that wealthy agribusiness owners in the Central Valley were pushing a program to install dams in the Old River/Connection Slough segments and would be using environmental concerns as a ruse to infringe on Northern California water rights. The concern at hand was for Delta smelt, a small fish native to the salty components of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that has often found itself at the center of the most intense water politics.

“It sounded like a tall tale to me,” said Jan. “The fisherman also had stories that the real end goal was to flood all the islands in the Delta in order to obtain the water rights.”

Little did she know the dam gates project would eventually fold into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), the initiative that aims to construct two massive tunnels underneath the Delta and exchange water transfers down south for a dramatic environmental restoration of the rivers.

At least, that’s what it calls for. So far, its rising costs and uncertain results have attracted criticism, mainly among regional political leaders and biological stewards who have raised red flags. On the other side of the aisle, supporters remain adamant that a concrete, thorough plan is necessary to improve overused and outdated statewide water resources while preserving natural habitats.

“I started calling around and found out that no one knew about these gates,” Jan continued. “Long story short, the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), who were running the project, agreed to hold a meeting in Discovery Bay explaining it. We got the word out and when the USBR showed up…they were met by 400 concerned citizens.”

It was at this meeting where Jan and the other activists met lawyer Michael Brodsky, an environmental law expert who shared their same apprehension. Shortly afterward, the Save the California Delta Alliance (STCDA) was formed.

The group’s reaction to the gates was swift and effective as members collected more than 2,000 comment cards outside local Safeway supermarket protesting the proposal that were driven up to the USBR offices in Sacramento. Ultimately, the 2 Gates Fish Protection Project was withdrawn, but there are concerns that it will reappear under the current BDCP.

Read more: thepress.net – Locals organize against Delta tunnels

The tug of war for the Delta

This is an investigative series I am working on for the Brentwood Press, centered around proposed construction in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Brentwood Delta

A tributary of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via thepress.net and the California Department of Water Resources.

Next month I will follow up with several new articles. For now, if you live in the area or are concerned about the environment, it would be a good idea to get up to speed on what’s happening:

Throughout California’s history, the reservoirs and water resources generated by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been the lifeblood of the state’s economy – the largest in the country and a global leader in innovation. Without the aquatic transfers that move throughout the state, agricultural operations as far south as San Diego would be left to wither under inhospitable conditions. No matter the region or city, the Delta is arguably the common denominator that connects northern and southern California.

Today, as the state continues to grapple with its myriad challenges, a new chapter is being written in the halls of Sacramento and Washington D.C. Under the radar of the public eye these past few years, a proposal known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is gaining steam, and with it comes concern as its potential for environmental destruction and rising costs tumble out into the open.

Supported by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to unclog some of the knots in state water systems, create jobs and restore endangered ecosystems, the BDCP includes two large tunnels – built under the Delta – which would siphon water from the East Bay to parched communities in Southern California. Designed to be more than 35 miles long and nearly 40 feet wide, the funding required to build the twin tunnels and their potential ensuing impact recently prompted several Northern California congress representatives to write a letter to Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Led by Representative John Garamendi of California’s 3rd congressional district, they distanced themselves from Brown’s initiative, sought clarification on how much federal funding would be involved and expressed fears that environmental ramifications are being sidelined.

Read more: thepress.net – The tug of war for the Delta

Western China violence comes to Beijing

I have been following the low-level insurgency in China’s western Xinjiang Province for years, from the chaos that coincided with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 riots to the recent disturbances earlier this year…but this was surprising. It appears to be some semblance of a suicide car bombing, but the details are still murky and unable to fully get through China’s advanced media censorship.

From BBC:

Security appears to have been increased in China’s Xinjiang region, a day after police said they had detained five suspects over the Tiananmen crash.

Security levels are raised and police are visiting “sensitive religious families”, police in Xinjiang say.

A car crashed into a crowd and burst into flames at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Monday, killing all three in the car and two bystanders.

The car occupants appear to have been Uighurs, from China’s Xinjiang region.

Police say that the jeep was driven by a man who was with his wife and mother. They were said to have ignited petrol inside the car.

The five suspects – all from Xinjiang – were arrested 10 hours after the crash and are thought to be connected to the incident, according to the police.

Uighurs living in Xinjiang province have resorted to violence as their culture recedes due to Chinese expansionism.

People’s Square, Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Province. 

 

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