State water mandate hits home

My latest article in the Brentwood Press on the looming water restrictions in California:

A new executive order signed by Governor Jerry Brown, calling for a 25 percent statewide reduction in water consumption, is writing another chapter in the story of California’s historic drought.

“Today, we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow,” Brown said during an April 1 snowpack survey, which found snow levels at five percent of average. “Therefore, I am issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state. As Californians, we must pull together and save water in every way possible.”

Adding some complexity to the matter is an earlier set of measures passed by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) in March – something that officials across East County were in the process of implementing before the latest order. Those measures tightened conservation efforts by requiring restaurants to serve water only upon request and for hotels to give guests the option of not having their linens changed daily.

“We’re going to put together a local approach that can meet all of the mandates of the state,” said Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) spokeswoman Jennifer Allen. “The state board had just released a set of regulations on March 17, and so this latest announcement will definitely build on that.”

Allen did not provide details of ways residents will be impacted; stating only that a proposal will be drawn up and submitted to the CCWD’s own board on April 15. Officials from Antioch, Brentwood, and Oakley – three communities, which rely on CCWD as their partner and water supply wholesaler – all confirmed they will wait and see what the board does before taking additional action.

Currently, the three cities have adopted drought regulations, which prohibit washing a vehicle without a shutoff nozzle, causing excessive flooding or runoff and operating a noncirculating decorative fountain.

Read more here.

Record marijuana haul taken down at San Diego-Tijuana border crossing

Having just returned from Tijuana last week (and many times before that), I will say it’s always thought-provoking to see the traffic congestion slowly moving past the border checkpoints, wondering what illicit cargo some of the travelers might be carrying and what tactic they’ve used to conceal it. This guy and his associates, however, seem as though they didn’t take the planning stage too seriously. Then again, this is Mexico, and often things are not what they appear to be.

The shipment detailed below was discovered by US officials at the eastern Otay Mesa crossing, which primarily handles commercial inspections and is a 30-minute drive away from San Ysidro, one of the busiest ports of entry in the world.

Downtown Tijuana from the city's Altamira neighborhood.

Downtown Tijuana from the city’s Altamira neighborhood.

From UT San Diego:

— In what was described as a “very risky” drug-smuggling attempt, more than 15 tons of marijuana stacked in bundles was seized from a tractor-trailer at the Otay Mesa border crossing. Federal officials said Friday it was the largest seizure ever at the port and the second-largest at any crossing in the country.

The driver, a 46-year-old Mexican citizen, was alone in the cab when he drove into the commercial port about 6 p.m. Thursday, according to a federal charging complaint. His shipment was labeled as mattresses and cushions.

The smuggling attempt is suspected of being tied to a drug cartel in Mexico, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego. More commonly, drug smugglers would try other means, such as border tunnels, to try to move such a large shipment, Mack said.

Attempting to smuggle tons of marijuana in a truck through the busy Otay commercial port is “definitely very risky,” Mack said.

In the ongoing “cat-and-mouse” game that smugglers play to try to outsmart law enforcement, they are always trying new tactics, she said. In this case, “obviously they felt confident they were going to succeed,” she said. During an X-ray examination, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials identified an undisclosed “anomaly” in the trailer and the truck was sent to a dock, according to a statement sent by Customs and Border Patrol spokeswoman Jackie Wasiluk.

Agents asked the driver, identified as Martin Martinez-Penaflor, to cut the seal of the trailer and open the doors. Asked what he was carrying, according to the complaint, he replied, “mattresses.”

As the doors opened, officers saw stacks of plastic-wrapped packages.

The full story can be read here.

A death in Buenos Aires will not rewrite the past

Somewhere between tales of deflated footballs, movie fury and the United States facing one foreign policy headache after another is the fate that befell Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman on January 18.

Far flung from the power vacuum gripping the Middle East but tirelessly working on a piece of the puzzle behind it, Nisman was in the process of shining some light on a horrific bombing at a Jewish cultural center that rocked his capital city, Buenos Aires, in 1994 — an atrocity that he alleged to be covered in Iranian fingerprints that were dusted away by Argentina’s leaders to secure some lucrative oil deals.

Mere hours before he was set to present his findings to Argentina’s legislature, the prosecutor was found lying on the floor of his bathroom with a bullet in his head, the gun several feet away.

Alberto Nisman

Prosecutor Alberto Nisman (AFP photo)

Predictably, Nisman’s death was first presented as a suicide — Argentine president Cristina Kirchner offered her condolences before giving a monologue about the tragedy of suicide and how she could not understand why someone would take their own life. Then, as tensions failed to abate and protesters hit the streets, she re-calibrated, theorizing instead that Nisman was murdered to “discredit her” and make her appear responsible. Had he succeeded in giving his testimony, it’s widely suspected that it would have further damaged the President’s standing amid an economic crisis, rising crime, and corruption scandals.

There were other repercussions set to come to a head as well. For one thing, as Iran and its regional Shiite allies like Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad tout themselves as legitimate partners in the fight against Sunni Islamic State/ISIS militants and Western politicians move to embrace them, Nisman’s revelations threatened to blow a massive hole through the budding narrative. Despite all their lecturing and finger pointing, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a ghastly record when it comes to employing terrorism and violent extremist hatred throughout the world, including a 1992 bombing in Buenos Aires that targeted the Israeli Embassy. Other examples of this are quite lengthy and are worthy of an academic study. Prior to Nisman stepping forward to remind everyone in a very public manner, many of these incidents had been swept under the rug or forgotten over the years.

George Orwell famously stated that “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Was Nisman one of those revolutionaries? The prosecutor’s work certainly went upstream against a torrent of propaganda being churned out from the highest levels of power, which, putting aside his cause of death for the moment, is on its own worthy of recognition. And it wasn’t just in Argentina, or Latin America, for that matter. The whitewashing of Iranian-exported terrorism is now emanating shamelessly from the White House, with President Obama huffing and puffing his veto power to defend Iran from further sanctions being drafted by Congress. As if that’s not bad enough, he remains remarkably unconcerned by the disintegration of an allied Sunni-Arab government in Yemen as pro-Iranian Shiite rebels frothing in antisemitic, anti-American sentiment take hold of that nation’s capital. Obama is not alone either; Senators and media analysts are warming up to the theocratic regime too. Reality be damned, a lot is riding on a new beginning with Iran and its Shiite proxies — no matter how many times they match ISIS in brutality or act like cartoon villains when they come up with ways to oppress their citizenry. Nisman, a persistent civil servant in a South American country still eager for justice, was one of the few government officials left to stand in the way of this new axis, or dare I say it, a “new world order”.

With all this in mind, Nisman’s supporters and opponents of both Kirchner and the Iranian regime have plenty of reason to reject any official story put together in Buenos Aires. Argentina is a country famous for making political dissidents disappear, and the Iranian terror axis that Nisman refused to back down from condemning is known for assassinating or attempting to assassinate people who displease the Ayatollah. That’s established. But let’s be clear though — whether it’s the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the murder of Shaima Al-Awadi, the Boston Marathon Bombing, or the massacre committed by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway, among others — incoming facts can always turn out to be difficult and stubborn things for anyone looking to push an agenda ahead of legitimate reporting. Nobody yet knows (and perhaps no one else aside from the perpetrators will *ever* know) the circumstances in which Nisman died. What is known, however, is that they unfolded just in time to stop his testimony and silence one of the few remaining voices brave enough to remind the world what Iran and Hezbollah stand for. Regardless of how he died, the torch he was carrying must not be allowed to fade out and a full, transparent investigation must be conducted.

It will be a perilous job, unfortunately. Nisman’s death has already generated enough fear to convince the journalist who first broke the story to flee the country for refuge in Israel, providing a possible glimpse of where Argentina could be heading — and that some very dangerous characters may still be out for blood.

*Update* 1/27/15: With her suicide claims fully abandoned, Kirchner is doubling down on her assertions that she is being set up by her enemies. She is accusing Argentina’s spy agency of having a hand in assassinating Nisman, insisting now that she will draft a bill to have the organization disbanded. It’s unclear if Argentinians will actually buy this — or if the intelligence agents will push back. A power struggle looks to be shaping up here, perhaps with the truth eventually kicking its way to the surface.

**Update** 1/29/15: Nisman has been laid to rest at a Jewish cemetery alongside the 1994 bombing victims he sought justice for. His funeral was accompanied by hundreds of anti-government protesters who angrily rejected Kirchner’s latest statements and insisted that she and her supporters are the ones responsible for Nisman’s death.

***Update*** 2/3/15: Very important — investigators have revealed that Nisman was preparing an arrest warrant for Kirchner over her role in the alleged cover-up. This story is definitely intensifying and I plan to conduct a follow-up analysis as more details trickle in.

Mapping out who controls what in the disintegrating Middle East

Below are some (mostly) reliable interactive maps drafted by a Wikipedia network that show the current situations in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – four countries once caught up in the “Arab Spring” revolutions that are now wracked by factional warfare with no end in sight anytime soon. I’ve included a brief description and a bit of analysis alongside the links to the maps of the lesser known wars (Libya and Yemen).

1) Syria: map displays territory held by mainstream anti-government rebels (the Free Syrian Army and their moderate Islamist allies (the Islamic Front), Kurdish separatists (YPG), the Islamic State (IS aka ISIS), Al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Al-Nusra, and the government forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian Civil War detailed map

2) Iraq: map displays territory held by the Islamic State, Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and the central US and Iranian-backed Iraqi Government. It’s important to point out that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iraq and the Kurdish YPG forces in Syria have serious political differences in their plans for an independent Kurdish state (Kurdistan) — although the threat posed by IS has forced them to fight side by side in some cases. This is in contrast to the IS forces operating in both countries who are united in their vision to expand their self-declared “Caliphate”.

Iraqi insurgency detailed map

3) Libya: the conflict in Libya is more difficult to map and explain for a variety of reasons – the least of which is the lack of awareness most Americans and Westerners seem to have of it outside the occasional mention of the 2012 attack in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The timeline of Libya’s descent into civil war predates that though, starting with an uprising against the country’s dictator, Moammar Gaddafi, in February 2011, followed by his overthrow in August of that year and his eventual killing by anti-government rebels some two months later. Libya is now split up into roughly four factions. The two largest competitors are the Council of Deputies (the internationally recognized parliament brought to power through elections last Summer) and their opponents, the New General National Congress (essentially the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – the GNC controls the capital, Tripoli, seizing it on the basis that the most recent elections and voting structure change that cast them out of power in favor of the Council of Deputies were illegitimate). Both rival governments have their own militias that act as their enforcement arms. The two other factions vying for their own influence are Ansar Al-Sharia (an Al-Qaeda ally that has tried to align with the GNC’s militias) and the IS (the same group in Syria and Iraq).

Libyan Civil War detailed map

4) Yemen: this is another little known but rapidly deteriorating and complex conflict. Like Libya, Yemen was one of the Arab Spring countries that successfully toppled it’s long-time dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh (Saleh fared better than Gaddafi, however, as he managed to flee the country instead of facing the wrath of vindictive countrymen). Today, the elected but nevertheless corrupt government that replaced Saleh is in a 4-way battle with Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), powerful Shiite militiamen in the north known as the Houthis*, and a nationalist movement** in the south seeking to split away and revive a defunct state. At the moment, the Houthis have the momentum — having seized the capital, Sana’a, back in September. AQAP is also thriving, with the group boldly claiming responsibility for the recent executions and mass murder in Paris.

Yemen Insurgency Detailed map

*It’s widely suspected that the Houthis have received outside support from both Iran and former president Saleh (who belongs to the same Shiite sect) in their blitz to take Yemen’s largest cities and key ports. If both of these connections are proven to be accurate it could be chalked up as yet another example of Iranian hypocrisy in the Middle East — since they were one of the “US-backed” Saleh’s biggest critics when he was fighting off protests (Iran already has quite a record with hypocrisy, as I have detailed in the past).

**Post updated 1/28/15 to include the rise and subsequent advances of the southern nationalists as they insert themselves deeper into the conflict.

Keep in mind these maps are constantly changing to adjust to the gains and losses on the battlefield.

Iraqi Kurds fight to preserve American sacrifices

My latest article in the Brentwood Press — this one is about the situation in Kirkuk, Iraq. It’s important for me to note that my experience in this diverse, rough, and intriguing city was made possible by the kindness of a local Kurdish family who took me in and hosted me during my stay. Walking the streets of Iraq had been something I dreamed of since I was in high school and they brought it to life for me.

Sitting comfortably on the floor of his relatives’ living room after a long journey home, a young soldier named Hemin embraced an opportunity to relax and sip hot tea in the city of Kirkuk, Iraq.

It was his first chance to have a real break in several months, after serving as an artilleryman on the frontlines in a string of villages to the south, alongside fellow Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, trying to fill a void left by what some of his commanders say was a premature American withdrawal, and a disappointing retreat by Iraq’s national army over the summer.

“When they carry out an attack, they will fight until the death,” he said of the Islamic State (IS) militants, who wish to overrun Kurdish positions and expand their self-declared Sunni Muslim caliphate. “I can see them, when they are shooting. They have heavy weapons and are very good with snipers.”

Hemin decided to open up to an American audience with the hope that it would draw attention to an urgent message – that Kurdish fighters are facing a shortage of weapons and are outgunned by the IS as they try to salvage remnants of the Iraq that nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers died to stabilize.

Since June, IS has used its vast arsenal to assume control of numerous cities to the north and west of Baghdad, consolidating them into a loose state that stretches into eastern Syria. The captured spoils include Mosul and Fallujah – two household names seared into the minds of American combat veterans who fought tirelessly to secure them.

Hemin’s home city, Kirkuk, appeared to be heading for the same fate when the Iraqi Army fled and the IS shifted its bloody rampage toward the northeast. That’s when the Peshmerga was forced to intervene…

Continue reading here.

Unbreakable spirit

Say hello to the brave refugee children of Syria’s Kobani! I had the honor of interacting with them last month as they waited for more structural living accommodations with their relatives at a processing center in Turkey. Despite so much chaos and bloodshed, their attitudes and personalities inspired me. They were in such high spirits.

Some of these photos were recently featured on social media platforms Rojava Breaking News and Kurdistan Flag.

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These girls especially were very vocal. As they get older, I could see them being anything from students in a Western university to future YPG/YPJ fighters or leaders in an independent Kurdistan.

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The same goes for these guys, who first sought my attention when I was on the other side of the complex with my camera.

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It’s been a long journey for this little girl…

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Turkey’s Red Crescent prepares lunch for the children and their relatives.

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There’s a lot of words to describe these young refugees — cute and courageous come to mind — but the most important aspect of their struggle that I took away was that Syrian Kurdistan, if it should succeed in securing its freedom from the Islamic State and a vindictive Assad regime, will have no shortage of patriotism when the next generation assumes a leadership role.

Those days are still a long way off though. Because of its strategic importance, the battle for Kobani is unlikely to end anytime soon. Kurdish fighters remain surrounded and, although they have suffered some defeats in battle, the Islamic State is not giving up. For all the atrocities they commit and the condemnation that follows, the group is extremely patient — an effective and necessary tactic that they undeniably employ well.

Their resurgence in neighboring Iraq after a devastating post-2007 defeat at the hands of General David Petraeus and his soldiers is probably the best example of this.

Mosque carnage in Nigeria

Situation in Africa’s most populous nation continues to deteriorate as Islamists expand attacks.

Via BBC:

The president of Nigeria has vowed “to leave no stone unturned” in tracking down the perpetrators of a mosque attack that killed at least 81 people.

Goodluck Jonathan urged the nation “to confront the common enemy” after the gun and bomb attack during Friday’s prayers in the northern city of Kano.

Hundreds of people were injured in an attack which officials say bears the hallmarks of Boko Haram militant group.

No-one has so far said that they carried out Friday’s assault.

Kano’s Central Mosque, where the attack took place, is where the influential Muslim leader, the emir of Kano, usually leads prayers.

He recently called for people to arm themselves against Boko Haram, so it is possible that this attack was in response to that call, says the BBC’s Will Ross in Abuja…

…President Jonathan ordered the country’s security services “to launch a full-scale investigation and to leave no stone unturned until all agents of terror undermining the right of every citizen to life and dignity are tracked down and brought to justice”.

He said Nigerians should “remain united to confront the common enemy”.

The government, he said, would “continue to take every step to put an end to the reprehensible acts of all groups and persons involved in acts of terrorism”.

Reuters news agency counted 81 bodies in two separate mortuaries following the attack on the Central Mosque.

An AFP reporter at counted 92 bodies at the Murtala Mohammed Specialist Hospital mortuary alone. Most victims were men or boys with blast injuries and severe burns.

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