Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas

On October 7, Brazil will hold perhaps the most tumultuous election since its re-democratization three decades ago. The early leader in the polls, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was thrown in jail on controversial corruption charges in April; the current leader, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt last month; and the deep polarization that has permeated daily life has also produced interesting new political alliances. The country of 207 million must elect (through mandatory, universal voting) not only a new president, but 513 federal deputies, 54 senators, 27 governors, and more than 1,000 state representatives.

While much national attention has been given to understanding Bolsonaro voters, last month we sought out an influential, often ignored segment of the voting public: gang members. As we walked through the alleys of a favela — the poor and working-class communities that approximately 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents call home — a drug trafficker from the Pure Third Command gang asked us a striking question: “Do you believe in the government?”

The sentiments expressed by the residents of the favelas are reminiscent of a verse from the song “Candidate Liar, Liar” (“Candidato caô caô) by the original bad boy of samba, Bezerra da Silva, released shortly after Brazil’s re-democratization in 1988. Known for telling it straight, he sang:

He went up the hill without a tie

Saying he was one of us.

Went to the street stall

Drank cachaça

And even smoked a joint.

He ate at my house

And there he used

A jelly tin as a plate.

Quickly I realized

He was just another candidate

In the next election.

Bezerra died in 2005, but his words remain as relevant as ever: Across Brazil, the kingmakers in fine suits and too-white smiles make their pilgrimages to the forgotten urban peripheries every four years asking for votes. And then they disappear. We had to ask permission to record in the favelas, but the decision-makers were not those sitting in City Hall or the governor’s mansion; it was the drug traffickers who oversee the day-to-day functioning of those areas. Drug traffickers dominate entire swaths of Rio and Brazil, making them important political actors who must be heard during this tense national moment, when poverty, unemployment, and security are on the tips of the tongues of every candidate. These themes are most visceral outside the wealthy, urban cores, in the “rest” of the country, where tourists and the privileged rarely step foot. Yet while major newspapers and TV news broadcasters regularly produce flashy headlines about violence and crime, most refuse to even utter the names of these powerful gangs, arguing that that would legitimate the power they already possess.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the entire public security apparatus was literally handed over to the military in February — an unprecedented response to the rising sense of insecurity. But the results have been trifling. Disputes between traffickers, militias, and police dictate the pace of much of the city, closing schools, stopping highways, and killing as never before. Despite the extraordinary cost of military intervention, residents of the capital’s greater metropolitan area endure an average of 27 episodes of gunfire every day, a significant increase from the 2017 average of 16.

So what is the electoral process from the point of view of the two largest factions in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, and how do they participate? As José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book “From Barons to Extermination: The History of Violence” in the Baixada Fluminense, notes, gangs are “not a parallel power” as is commonly claimed — they are a functional “part of the legally constituted power” structures.

Click on the video at the top of this post to watch members of this powerful bloc explain for themselves.

The post Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas appeared first on The Intercept.

Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas

On October 7, Brazil will hold perhaps the most tumultuous election since its re-democratization three decades ago. The early leader in the polls, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was thrown in jail on controversial corruption charges in April; the current leader, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt last month; and the deep polarization that has permeated daily life has also produced interesting new political alliances. The country of 207 million must elect (through mandatory, universal voting) not only a new president, but 513 federal deputies, 54 senators, 27 governors, and more than 1,000 state representatives.

While much national attention has been given to understanding Bolsonaro voters, last month we sought out an influential, often ignored segment of the voting public: gang members. As we walked through the alleys of a favela — the poor and working-class communities that approximately 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents call home — a drug trafficker from the Pure Third Command gang asked us a striking question: “Do you believe in the government?”

The sentiments expressed by the residents of the favelas are reminiscent of a verse from the song “Candidate Liar, Liar” (“Candidato caô caô) by the original bad boy of samba, Bezerra da Silva, released shortly after Brazil’s re-democratization in 1988. Known for telling it straight, he sang:

He went up the hill without a tie

Saying he was one of us.

Went to the street stall

Drank cachaça

And even smoked a joint.

He ate at my house

And there he used

A jelly tin as a plate.

Quickly I realized

He was just another candidate

In the next election.

Bezerra died in 2005, but his words remain as relevant as ever: Across Brazil, the kingmakers in fine suits and too-white smiles make their pilgrimages to the forgotten urban peripheries every four years asking for votes. And then they disappear. We had to ask permission to record in the favelas, but the decision-makers were not those sitting in City Hall or the governor’s mansion; it was the drug traffickers who oversee the day-to-day functioning of those areas. Drug traffickers dominate entire swaths of Rio and Brazil, making them important political actors who must be heard during this tense national moment, when poverty, unemployment, and security are on the tips of the tongues of every candidate. These themes are most visceral outside the wealthy, urban cores, in the “rest” of the country, where tourists and the privileged rarely step foot. Yet while major newspapers and TV news broadcasters regularly produce flashy headlines about violence and crime, most refuse to even utter the names of these powerful gangs, arguing that that would legitimate the power they already possess.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the entire public security apparatus was literally handed over to the military in February — an unprecedented response to the rising sense of insecurity. But the results have been trifling. Disputes between traffickers, militias, and police dictate the pace of much of the city, closing schools, stopping highways, and killing as never before. Despite the extraordinary cost of military intervention, residents of the capital’s greater metropolitan area endure an average of 27 episodes of gunfire every day, a significant increase from the 2017 average of 16.

So what is the electoral process from the point of view of the two largest factions in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, and how do they participate? As José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book “From Barons to Extermination: The History of Violence” in the Baixada Fluminense, notes, gangs are “not a parallel power” as is commonly claimed — they are a functional “part of the legally constituted power” structures.

Click on the video at the top of this post to watch members of this powerful bloc explain for themselves.

The post Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas appeared first on The Intercept.

Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas

On October 7, Brazil will hold perhaps the most tumultuous election since its re-democratization three decades ago. The early leader in the polls, ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was thrown in jail on controversial corruption charges in April; the current leader, far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro, was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt last month; and the deep polarization that has permeated daily life has also produced interesting new political alliances. The country of 207 million must elect (through mandatory, universal voting) not only a new president, but 513 federal deputies, 54 senators, 27 governors, and more than 1,000 state representatives.

While much national attention has been given to understanding Bolsonaro voters, last month we sought out an influential, often ignored segment of the voting public: gang members. As we walked through the alleys of a favela — the poor and working-class communities that approximately 22 percent of Rio de Janeiro residents call home — a drug trafficker from the Pure Third Command gang asked us a striking question: “Do you believe in the government?”

The sentiments expressed by the residents of the favelas are reminiscent of a verse from the song “Candidate Liar, Liar” (“Candidato caô caô) by the original bad boy of samba, Bezerra da Silva, released shortly after Brazil’s re-democratization in 1988. Known for telling it straight, he sang:

He went up the hill without a tie

Saying he was one of us.

Went to the street stall

Drank cachaça

And even smoked a joint.

He ate at my house

And there he used

A jelly tin as a plate.

Quickly I realized

He was just another candidate

In the next election.

Bezerra died in 2005, but his words remain as relevant as ever: Across Brazil, the kingmakers in fine suits and too-white smiles make their pilgrimages to the forgotten urban peripheries every four years asking for votes. And then they disappear. We had to ask permission to record in the favelas, but the decision-makers were not those sitting in City Hall or the governor’s mansion; it was the drug traffickers who oversee the day-to-day functioning of those areas. Drug traffickers dominate entire swaths of Rio and Brazil, making them important political actors who must be heard during this tense national moment, when poverty, unemployment, and security are on the tips of the tongues of every candidate. These themes are most visceral outside the wealthy, urban cores, in the “rest” of the country, where tourists and the privileged rarely step foot. Yet while major newspapers and TV news broadcasters regularly produce flashy headlines about violence and crime, most refuse to even utter the names of these powerful gangs, arguing that that would legitimate the power they already possess.

In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the entire public security apparatus was literally handed over to the military in February — an unprecedented response to the rising sense of insecurity. But the results have been trifling. Disputes between traffickers, militias, and police dictate the pace of much of the city, closing schools, stopping highways, and killing as never before. Despite the extraordinary cost of military intervention, residents of the capital’s greater metropolitan area endure an average of 27 episodes of gunfire every day, a significant increase from the 2017 average of 16.

So what is the electoral process from the point of view of the two largest factions in Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, and how do they participate? As José Cláudio Souza Alves, author of the book “From Barons to Extermination: The History of Violence” in the Baixada Fluminense, notes, gangs are “not a parallel power” as is commonly claimed — they are a functional “part of the legally constituted power” structures.

Click on the video at the top of this post to watch members of this powerful bloc explain for themselves.

The post Video: Drug Traffickers in Rio Explain How Brazil’s Elections Work in the Favelas appeared first on The Intercept.

El Salvador is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing Failed “Iron Fist” Policing.

Oswaldo joined the Salvadoran gang Barrio 18 when he was 14 years old. By the time he was in his early 20s, he wanted out — and luckily, gang leaders gave him permission to leave. But they warned him: “No one will offer you a hand out there like the gang has.”

For a long while, that was true. For Oswaldo, his gang clique was his adopted family. They had his back, and they found food and shelter for him and his family. Without the clique, vulnerable and alone, he barely scraped by while selling toothbrushes at a market. Oswaldo had finished high school, and he hoped to find a steady job. But when he was invited in for an interview, he remembers, “the first question was, ‘Are you a gang member?’” Then, it was: Are you tattooed? Do you have family in a gang? Friends? Are you from a gang-controlled neighborhood? Oswaldo denied his past throughout the grilling, but couldn’t lie when the man doing the interviewing said he needed him to lift his shirt. Oswaldo’s torso is covered in Barrio 18 ink. So he was rejected from yet another job, and soon after, his wife left with their toddler son, calling Oswaldo a failure.

He told a trusted pastor that he was struggling. Privately, he was so desperate that he was considering rejoining the gang. The pastor told him he knew a business that wanted to hire ex-gang members. Oswaldo couldn’t believe it.

“This is a country where people don’t believe that gang members can change,” he told The Intercept last fall, sitting in a conference room, employed at the company the pastor told him about on that day three years earlier. The company is League Central America, a textile factory that makes collegiate wear for U.S. universities such as Arizona State and Yale. League’s president, Rodrigo Bolaños, has long been a rare and vocal advocate in the Salvadoran business community for hiring former gang members. Bolaños argues that the problem of gangs in El Salvador isn’t so complicated. There have been gangs across the world, from England to Chicago, at every time in history, he says.

“The same way gangs generate, you can also get them out of gangs, if you do positive forces like second chances, education,” he said. The company tests those who belonged to El Salvador’s three main rival gangs — MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 — with techniques like icebreaker games that require physical closeness. If a new hire couldn’t stand it, Bolaños said, “that person wasn’t ready.” The company subsidizes employees’ secondary and college education if they haven’t finished it, and offers classes on-site.

League’s initiative has been widely celebrated, even by two leaders of MS-13, who once summoned Bolaños to a meeting at the prison where they were held, to say that they hoped all of their members could go through a program like his. Targeting people who have recently left a gang, or would like to leave, and offering them rehabilitation and employment is essential, a growing body of research on gang desistance has found. “League is a model for how to reinsert former gang members into society,” concluded a major academic survey of gang membership in El Salvador in 2017.

Rodrigo Bolanos (center), a salvadoran businessman who studied in an american University during the 1980s, now ows League Company. Looking to employ salvadorans gang members and then pass for rehab to leave behind crime. The picture was taken inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador and Bolanos is accompanied by two inmates. Rodrigo Bolanos, center, owner of League Company, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Rodrigo Bolaños, center, president of League Central America, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

The U.S. government took a bit longer to come around. One day a few years ago, two representatives from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, came to visit. Bolaños says they were skeptical; it seemed to him that they “didn’t believe in this.” But after spending two hours talking to Bolaños and touring the factory, they seemed pleased — and INL later put funds toward a program that would specifically funnel ex-gang members who had just finished prison sentences into working at League.

It might seem unremarkable that the U.S. government would direct funds to a program that sounds so wholesome. But for El Salvador and neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala, it represents a delicate, tenuous shift in U.S. foreign policy. It marks a step away from years of a U.S.-supported approach that has favored the mano dura, or “iron fist,” response to gangs, and has mostly shunned work that directly engaged current and former gang members who wished to leave crime and violence behind. Past U.S. policy has erred toward an almost exclusively military, police, and mass incarceration response; and when violence prevention work was funded, the government stipulated that the organizations that implemented U.S.-funded projects on the ground must ensure the participants had no ties to a gang. In fact, until recently, it was prohibited under U.S. Treasury Department restrictions to use government aid money for any program that directly engaged members of MS-13.

This policy change could be imperiled by the attitudes and actions, currently in vogue at the White House, that are meant to demonize gang members. From his presidential campaign to the recent policy of separating families at the border, President Donald Trump has used MS-13 to justify his calls for harsher immigration laws. He has insisted that its members — who he has repeatedly called “animals” — should be treated as an existential threat to the United States.

But while Trump and many in his administration act as though Salvadoran gangs exist due to a lack of toughness, parts of the U.S. federal government in Central America — which for years enabled the implementation of exactly the kind of policy Trump calls for now — have recognized that mano dura has failed. “It’s a policy that did not have positive results,” said Enrique Roig, former coordinator of the Central America Regional Security Initiative for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a major vehicle for U.S. funds to the region. “The whole intention to focus more on the prevention side, on respectful law enforcement,” was to correct the mistakes of the past, like “the use of incarceration as the main method of dealing with the problem.” It is also meant to build “relationships of trust between communities and police, so people in communities actually report crime, and police know what’s happening by responding in a way that’s respectful of human rights.”

Exporting a Failed Approach

In the 1980s and 1990s, police forces in major U.S. cities went all-in on a tough-on-crime approach known as “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” policing, using surveillance and high arrest rates in response to all manner of minor crimes in order to stem major ones. Decades later, the United States is still wrestling with the failed legacy of broken windows, including mass incarceration and police brutality that sparked movements like Black Lives Matter and a wave of criminal justice reform. But countries across Central America are still implementing anti-gang zero tolerance policies, pushed and supported by the U.S. government. This is the case despite the fact that the approach has generally failed to lower crime rates across the region; in fact, it has often empowered police and military forces implicated in crimes themselves.

El Salvador, like most countries, has long had disaffected kids in poor communities who create gangs – Salvadoran anthropologist Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson dates the earliest gangs to the 1950s, when state modernization prompted a disorganized mass internal migration to urban centers. What appeared were neighborhood or schoolyard crews defending their honor and territory with fistfights and knives. Throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the homegrown crews meshed with the violent legacy of a recently ended civil war — and with U.S. street gang culture, which arrived among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans deported from the United States during that time. According to the FBI, many of those deportees were members of two gangs formed in the U.S. and composed mostly of embattled Salvadoran war refugees: the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18.

As the gangs grew in size and power, successive Salvadoran governments reacted with mano dura, doing so with the full backing of the United States. First officially implemented in 2003, the policy has consistently been sold to the Salvadoran public as the antidote to an explosion of gang violence that has sent thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring countries north to seek asylum in the United States. But because of mano dura, young people in marginalized neighborhoods face skyrocketing police abuse, including torture and extrajudicial murder. Since the policy’s 2003 adoption, El Salvador’s jails have become notorious: A 2017 United Nations visit found one prison operating at over 900 percent capacity, and others between 200 and 600 percent. Inmates regularly die of preventable diseases. Meanwhile, the policy failed at its one objective; paradoxically, when it was implemented, the country had seen nearly a decade of declining murder rates, but ever since, violence has surged, spiking in the past three years so that El Salvador has held its spot among the murder capitals of the world.

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR - MAY 20: MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 'gang cages' in the Quezaltepeque police station May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador. These overcrowded, 12x15 cages were designed to be 72-hour holding cells for common criminals and the two rival gangs, but many of the individuals have been imprisoned for over a year. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.)

MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 12’x15′ “gang cages” in the Quezaltepeque police station on May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

As mano dura has escalated into a low-intensity conflict between the gangs and the government, over the years, civil society organizations in El Salvador have been trying an alternative approach: working directly with gangs to help members leave or renounce violence, or in some cases, stepping in to mediate and interrupt vengeance killings, for example. These initiatives are often modeled on programs in U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles (the city where El Salvador’s largest gangs originated).

Such work is known in aid industry parlance as “tertiary violence prevention,” and it entails working with people who are not “at risk,” but rather already in conflict with the law. It is a type of restorative, not punitive, justice. No matter the form it takes, tertiary violence prevention faces intense skepticism and involves significant risks. In addition to requiring a closeness to the violence practiced by some gang members and state security officials, the groups that work with gangs are often themselves criminalized, cast by law enforcement or the general public as sympathizing with criminals.

It didn’t help that the U.S. government focused on empowering the Salvadoran police, and did little to address the root causes of gang violence. This was due to a pervasive “nervousness and concern” about tertiary work, said Roig.

The impact of the reticence in El Salvador was that in any project receiving U.S. federal funds, “it was strictly prohibited to work with youth in conflict with the law,” said Rick Jones of Catholic Relief Services. A major international nongovernmental organization and one of the pioneers of tertiary prevention in El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services had, since the early 2000s, been doing street work with current and former gang members to intercede in cycles of violence and to help guide them to licit employment so that they could leave gangs. The U.S. government was squeamish about such innovative work.

That policy was backed by law in October 2012, when the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization,” adding the gang to a list alongside terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Many experts dispute the extent and reach of the gangs’ transnational activities, including cross-border drug trafficking, arguing that most cliques are made up of kids from the country’s poorest neighborhoods who barely manage to feed themselves. Still, the designation set into motion a chain of possibilities for the U.S. government. For one thing, it enabled INL to open a field office in the country, which would be impossible without the presence of an officially designated transnational criminal group. In 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement built an entire cross-border strategy around the designation, “deploying special agents to El Salvador” who would work with the Salvadoran National Civil Police to chase the gang’s assets and act on a “free flow of actionable intelligence between ICE and our host country law enforcement partners.”

The direct impact of the Treasury Department’s designation is that it became illegal for U.S. citizens and corporations to engage in financial transactions with members of MS-13. The indirect impact was that it also became illegal for U.S. federal agencies to financially support any program that engaged with members of the gang, even if the program’s aim was to get those members out.

In conflict zones worldwide, these designations have had a chilling effect on tertiary work in which government or civil society actors attempt to engage with armed groups in order to end violence. Designations have interrupted peace talks and led to the disbanding of negotiation in places as diverse as the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India.

The designation in El Salvador came on the heels of a secret gang truce, which the U.S. opposed. In March 2012, the Salvadoran government brought MS-13 and Barrio 18 to a negotiating table, and international cooperation agencies from the European Union and elsewhere pledged money to build initiatives meant to help former gang members disarm and re-enter society. Seven months later, the U.S. added MS-13 to a list populated by terrorist groups and high-level money laundering organizations.

The leader of the Mara 18 (18th Street Gang), Carlos Mojica Lechuga, a.k.a. "El Viejo Lin" (R), gestures during a press conference at the Female Jail in San Salvador, El Salvador on September 24, 2012. The leaders of the Mara 18 and Salvatrucha offered a press conference during the celebration of the 200 days of truce between them to reduce murder. AFP PHOTO/Jose CABEZAS (Photo credit should read Jose CABEZAS/AFP/GettyImages)

A leader of Barrio 18, Carlos Mojica Lechuga, right, gestures during a press conference at a women’s prison in San Salvador, El Salvador on Sept. 24, 2012. The leaders of the Barrio 18 and MS-13 offered a press conference to celebrate 200 days of truce between the rival gangs.

Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

“It was a mistaken belief in the U.S. Embassy that Salvadoran gangs were some kind of sophisticated criminal enterprise,” said Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who, as then-representative to El Salvador for the Organization of American States, was involved in truce negotiations. “I kept saying to them, ‘If that’s true, if they’re operating at the level of cartels, show me the money.’ And no one ever could.”

The truce was designed on international standards for post-conflict demobilization processes, like those used in Ireland and Colombia — and also on U.S. experiences with gang violence reduction, Blackwell said. “We were trying to convince the [U.S.] Embassy, ‘We’re just trying to do what you guys have done successfully in LA.’” It was to no avail. In El Salvador, where the U.S. has been, for generations, the single most important foreign influence, the message resounded like a gavel: The only acceptable way to define and address the issue of gangs is through punitive measures.

A New Chance for Second Chances

Although little noted at the time, U.S. federal agencies were not unified behind the Treasury Department’s designation and hard-line approach. In a 2014 interview, Roig was tight-lipped, saying only that USAID did not work with people trying to leave gangs, and that the 2012 designation “certainly places limitations on what USAID can do with MS.”

But in a recent interview with The Intercept, Roig, now a director at the Washington-based aid contractor Creative Associates International, said that behind the scenes, he and others were working to educate their peers about tertiary violence prevention. In 2012, USAID brought municipal leaders from Los Angeles to the region to share best practices from the city’s gang violence reduction program, which included tertiary work. Then came the Treasury Department designation, which made it more difficult to put the lessons from LA into practice, Roig said.

The fault lines of resistance didn’t occur by agency, Roig said, but by individual. In interagency meetings that included USAID, the FBI, ICE, and others, “some people would say, ‘You can never work with these kids, they’re criminals.’ Others would say, ‘Oh yeah, these great prevention programs, we should do more to support those.’ My experience was it depended a lot on the people.”

For years after the Treasury Department’s designation, USAID helped organize a series of high-level conferences and events on violence prevention, including tertiary work, in the U.S. and Central America. “We started writing it into all the strategy documents. When we did briefings on the Hill, we talked about it,” he said.  This “helped sensitize policymakers within State and AID,” and introduced into “the bureaucratic consciousness that this was the direction we wanted to move in.”

That analysis remained sidelined until 2015, when thousands of Central American children fleeing violence showed up at the southern U.S. border. Faced with the children, the Obama administration investigated the causes of emigration. In all three countries, it found systemic corruption. In Guatemala, there were conflicts over natural resources that were sometimes drug-fueled and often disproportionately affected native people; in Honduras and El Salvador, what stuck out was violence from narcos and gangs. The administration’s investigation led to a new openness toward tertiary prevention — a shocking move on the ground in El Salvador. Jones from Catholic Relief Services remembered thinking at the time that State Department visitors “are very open right now. … They are seriously exploring what can we fund that will work.”

In 2016, INL funded Florida International University political scientist José Miguel Cruz to conduct a study of how and why members choose to leave gangs or stay in them. His study found that 68.6 percent of current members of El Salvador’s gangs had intentions to leave. And while 16.7 percent said they’d never leave, the vast majority — 81.5 percent — said they knew someone who had “calmed down,” or become inactive in their gang. “Calming down,” more common than leaving entirely, is a way for members to preserve their gang identity while no longer contributing to violence and crime.

Those who are able to leave their gang face endless struggles, Cruz found, including running into former enemies, struggling to find work, family abandonment and police harassment. Employers which, like League Central America, know and accept employees’ pasts and are willing to support them through lingering struggles tied to their old lives are vital to keeping former gang members from joining again, the study reported to INL. That same year, a meta-study of violence prevention strategies around the world,  commissioned by USAID, recommended focused intervention with violent offenders and found that “aggressive ‘zero tolerance’ strategies … can create community tension and undermine collective efficacy.”

In February 2017, the Treasury Department awarded a waiver, called an OFAC license, to the State Department and USAID; the license allows agencies to do certain work with former or nonactive MS-13 members. The waivers expire at the end of this year, and federal agencies are preparing to seek renewal.

The license also covers the third-party organizations, like League and Catholic Relief Services, that carry out the projects funded in part by U.S. federal agencies. Although NGOs are free to apply directly for a license, Jones said Catholic Relief Services applied, was denied, and received no explanation of why. A spokesperson for the Treasury Department said the agency does not comment on individual licenses. (USAID and INL referred all requests for comment for this story to Treasury.)

One significant concern is that under some projects covered by the OFAC license, local organizations are required to hand over the identities of the people who participate in the violence prevention programs to a U.S. Embassy working group – composed of people from the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, and others — for vetting. Participants worry that the requirement will lead to increased surveillance and abuse by authorities, whether U.S. immigration officials or Salvadoran law enforcement. Several NGOs have formally submitted their resistance to the stipulation, which appears in an upcoming USAID project in Honduras, and are awaiting the government’s response.

The Honduras project provides a window into shifts in the federal government’s thinking on tertiary work. In February, USAID invited organizations to apply for funding to carry out a program to reduce recidivism among violent youth. The $8 million project, to be implemented in the five most violent municipalities across Honduras, is called “Improving Tertiary Violence Prevention.” With the project, USAID says it is complementing the work of Honduran state prison agencies that are “seeking to transform the juvenile justice system” to “a modern, rehabilitative, and restorative justice model,” and notes that the agency is now investing in multiple tertiary prevention projects in Honduras.

Roxana Anaya is a social worker that coordinates program Second Chance inside prisons of El Salvador. The program was created by Catholic Relief Sevices.

Rosa Anaya, of Catholic Relief Services, coordinates the program “Second Chances” inside prisons in El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

In El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services and League are using U.S. funds for a program called “Segundas Oportunidades,” or “Second Chances,” which seeks to create a pipeline from prison to employment, including job training for inmates, cognitive behavioral therapy, and workshops focused on topics like “masculinities,” the study of distorted ideas of manhood, childhood trauma, and violence — or, as Jones put it, “where it all came from in the first place.” The idea is to send a message: “You have a choice. This is not normal. You can change,” he said. The 2016 USAID study singled out cognitive behavioral therapy, particularly programs focused on “becoming a man,” as the single most effective violence-prevention strategy.

Catholic Relief Services and League also recruited other NGOs and the Salvadoran national justice and prison systems to join Second Chances. The wide buy-in is important, because the root of gang violence isn’t individual failure, but systemic injustices that must be rectified across society, said Rosa Anaya, the Catholic Relief Services chief of party for Second Chances. “No judge, government institution, company, family, or individual will be able to overcome alone the great disaster in which we’ve found ourselves.”

And not a moment too soon: “Over the next five years, 12,000 people will have fulfilled their sentences. What will they do?” asked Jones. “These programs are critical to reducing recidivism.”

Last October, we entered a prison outside San Salvador called Apanteos, along with a major delegation of NGOs, local businesspeople, and two representatives from INL. Painted a fresh yellow, with the words “Yo Cambio,” or “I Can Change,” across the gate and many of the walls inside, Apanteos was decked out for a graduation celebration for Second Chances. We were led on a tour of the prison’s kitchens, where inmates train as cooks; the hen cages, where a teenage prisoner showed off rows of eggs to the visitors; and tanks where they farmed tilapia. It was a visit day, and the common yard was full of families.

A small chicken farm is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison, in Santa Ana, El Salvador. American organizations visited the prison looking to help salvadorans who were gang members.

Media, representatives from the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, and local business leaders take a tour of a small chicken farm, which is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

Over the last year, Second Chances has trained 811 people, including current and former inmates and employees of the justice system and private sector. Among other factors, Catholic Relief Services measured inmate participants’ positive changes in attitude. “To have evidence of a trustworthy change and a credible support network behind them helps businesses feel like they can employ these people,” said Anaya. Among the 21 Second Chances participants who have completed the program and been released, 18 have been able to find jobs.

The Treasury Department ban on using U.S. money to engage with MS-13 is still in effect. But none of the organizations that make up Second Chances are violating it, because they’re covered by the OFAC waiver. Without the dispensation, this work would be a violation of U.S. federal law.

Mixed Messages

INL now publicly celebrates the tertiary work it funds. In an April 2017 speech at League Central America about Second Chances, Glenn Tosten, then-director of the INL section at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, said that to watch the first people pass through Second Chances “changed the way I saw security challenges in El Salvador.” He continued, “I should admit that at first I felt skeptical. I thought there was no other option … that the young people who joined gangs in El Salvador were lost forever.” But the program “convinced me that, in fact, there is another way. There is a process and a support system that truly can transform people’s lives.”

That message is still a minority voice in the U.S. government. Mostly, the focus is on aiding and training the Salvadoran police — despite a well-documented record of shakedowns, abuses, and extrajudicial killings.

When his shift ended at League, Oswaldo still had to return to the streets of a society that believes gang members leave “only through the grave.” He was terrified of the police. One of his greatest fears, he said, is that officers will stop him on payday, see the cash in his pocket from his salary, “and say it’s [money from] extortion. And then kill me.” His wife still hadn’t returned with their son. She said she feared drawing police attention through her association with him.

The Salvadoran press has repeatedly uncovered cases of torture and extrajudicial murder of suspected gang members by police and soldiers. Young people from poor communities face constant harassment from authorities; are often taken into custody without reason; and frequently have drugs or “extortion money” planted on them. Sometimes, the police are working for a rival gang, but often, they’re just corrupt. Abuse of authority is so bad that the minister of security recently admitted that state violence contributes to the country’s refugee crisis.

U.S. federal agencies continue supporting the Salvadoran police in an attempt to professionalize them, they say — but the aid flows even to units implicated in severe and systematic human rights abuses. The Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security reported a wide range of donations and training for the Salvadoran National Civil Police in 2015 and 2016, according to data released to Congress and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request. The donations and training spanned combating cybercrime and narco-trafficking, administering polygraphs, “arrest techniques and self defense,” and “K9 nursery care.” Trainings also covered intelligence gathering and special ops commando courses. Donations include items like pickup trucks, computers, cameras, bunk beds, and bulletproof vests.

The State Department also reported that it donated body cameras and provided other assistance to the internal department of the national police that investigates allegations of police abuse. But a recent study from the Government Accountability Office found that overall, State and other departments are not systematically implementing human rights into their trainings in El Salvador and other Central American countries. Roig, the former USAID official, says the fact that aid reaches units implicated in systemic abuses “is not positive at all,” and is an obstacle to effective violence prevention. “It’s harder to do prevention work and community policing when you’ve got a general distrust of the police and human rights abuses,” he said.

Another place the U.S. has loudly supported a system rife with rights abuses is in El Salvador’s prison system. A regime of special laws known as “extraordinary measures” restrict alleged gang members’ access to basic needs like food, water, and communications with the outside world. With “extraordinary measures,” inmate deaths doubled, largely because of outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, according to a June 2018 U.N. report.

The U.N. and Red Cross have called “extraordinary measures” a violation of human rights and urged the Salvadoran government to repeal them. The current administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has said that such outcry is based on falsehoods, and successfully enshrined the policy, originally temporary, into law — which the U.S. Embassy supports. In April 2018, when the measures came up for renewal, U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes encouraged Salvadoran congressmen to vote affirmatively, saying in a televised interview, “We talk about extraordinary measures, but these are normal measures.” Then she joked, “If the gang leaders don’t like it, then I do like it.”

By pushing policies like these, the U.S. is fueling violence on one hand, while trying to solve it with the other through tertiary prevention.

Commissioner Hugo Ramirez, subdirector for public security in El Salvador’s National Civil Police, wishes that would change. “It turns out that the more muscle we developed, the more undesirable effects we saw,” he told The Intercept. Ramirez has traveled around the United States to study community policing and tertiary violence prevention initiatives. His is not a common view among Salvadoran police, but he now argues that, “definitively, if we don’t take this on from a focus of tertiary prevention, it won’t be possible. It’s a debt we owe to this country.”

“If the U.S. would support this,” he added, “it’s fundamental.”

Currier and Mackey reported this story as Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Mackey’s reporting was also made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and a fellowship with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, with support from the Ford Foundation.

Top photo: A group of inmates inside San Vicente prison celebrate their completion of the “Second Chances” program.

The post El Salvador is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing Failed “Iron Fist” Policing. appeared first on The Intercept.

El Salvador is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing Failed “Iron Fist” Policing.

Oswaldo joined the Salvadoran gang Barrio 18 when he was 14 years old. By the time he was in his early 20s, he wanted out — and luckily, gang leaders gave him permission to leave. But they warned him: “No one will offer you a hand out there like the gang has.”

For a long while, that was true. For Oswaldo, his gang clique was his adopted family. They had his back, and they found food and shelter for him and his family. Without the clique, vulnerable and alone, he barely scraped by while selling toothbrushes at a market. Oswaldo had finished high school, and he hoped to find a steady job. But when he was invited in for an interview, he remembers, “the first question was, ‘Are you a gang member?’” Then, it was: Are you tattooed? Do you have family in a gang? Friends? Are you from a gang-controlled neighborhood? Oswaldo denied his past throughout the grilling, but couldn’t lie when the man doing the interviewing said he needed him to lift his shirt. Oswaldo’s torso is covered in Barrio 18 ink. So he was rejected from yet another job, and soon after, his wife left with their toddler son, calling Oswaldo a failure.

He told a trusted pastor that he was struggling. Privately, he was so desperate that he was considering rejoining the gang. The pastor told him he knew a business that wanted to hire ex-gang members. Oswaldo couldn’t believe it.

“This is a country where people don’t believe that gang members can change,” he told The Intercept last fall, sitting in a conference room, employed at the company the pastor told him about on that day three years earlier. The company is League Central America, a textile factory that makes collegiate wear for U.S. universities such as Arizona State and Yale. League’s president, Rodrigo Bolaños, has long been a rare and vocal advocate in the Salvadoran business community for hiring former gang members. Bolaños argues that the problem of gangs in El Salvador isn’t so complicated. There have been gangs across the world, from England to Chicago, at every time in history, he says.

“The same way gangs generate, you can also get them out of gangs, if you do positive forces like second chances, education,” he said. The company tests those who belonged to El Salvador’s three main rival gangs — MS-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 — with techniques like icebreaker games that require physical closeness. If a new hire couldn’t stand it, Bolaños said, “that person wasn’t ready.” The company subsidizes employees’ secondary and college education if they haven’t finished it, and offers classes on-site.

League’s initiative has been widely celebrated, even by two leaders of MS-13, who once summoned Bolaños to a meeting at the prison where they were held, to say that they hoped all of their members could go through a program like his. Targeting people who have recently left a gang, or would like to leave, and offering them rehabilitation and employment is essential, a growing body of research on gang desistance has found. “League is a model for how to reinsert former gang members into society,” concluded a major academic survey of gang membership in El Salvador in 2017.

Rodrigo Bolanos (center), a salvadoran businessman who studied in an american University during the 1980s, now ows League Company. Looking to employ salvadorans gang members and then pass for rehab to leave behind crime. The picture was taken inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador and Bolanos is accompanied by two inmates. Rodrigo Bolanos, center, owner of League Company, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Rodrigo Bolaños, center, president of League Central America, photographed with two unidentified inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

The U.S. government took a bit longer to come around. One day a few years ago, two representatives from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL, came to visit. Bolaños says they were skeptical; it seemed to him that they “didn’t believe in this.” But after spending two hours talking to Bolaños and touring the factory, they seemed pleased — and INL later put funds toward a program that would specifically funnel ex-gang members who had just finished prison sentences into working at League.

It might seem unremarkable that the U.S. government would direct funds to a program that sounds so wholesome. But for El Salvador and neighboring countries like Honduras and Guatemala, it represents a delicate, tenuous shift in U.S. foreign policy. It marks a step away from years of a U.S.-supported approach that has favored the mano dura, or “iron fist,” response to gangs, and has mostly shunned work that directly engaged current and former gang members who wished to leave crime and violence behind. Past U.S. policy has erred toward an almost exclusively military, police, and mass incarceration response; and when violence prevention work was funded, the government stipulated that the organizations that implemented U.S.-funded projects on the ground must ensure the participants had no ties to a gang. In fact, until recently, it was prohibited under U.S. Treasury Department restrictions to use government aid money for any program that directly engaged members of MS-13.

This policy change could be imperiled by the attitudes and actions, currently in vogue at the White House, that are meant to demonize gang members. From his presidential campaign to the recent policy of separating families at the border, President Donald Trump has used MS-13 to justify his calls for harsher immigration laws. He has insisted that its members — who he has repeatedly called “animals” — should be treated as an existential threat to the United States.

But while Trump and many in his administration act as though Salvadoran gangs exist due to a lack of toughness, parts of the U.S. federal government in Central America — which for years enabled the implementation of exactly the kind of policy Trump calls for now — have recognized that mano dura has failed. “It’s a policy that did not have positive results,” said Enrique Roig, former coordinator of the Central America Regional Security Initiative for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a major vehicle for U.S. funds to the region. “The whole intention to focus more on the prevention side, on respectful law enforcement,” was to correct the mistakes of the past, like “the use of incarceration as the main method of dealing with the problem.” It is also meant to build “relationships of trust between communities and police, so people in communities actually report crime, and police know what’s happening by responding in a way that’s respectful of human rights.”

Exporting a Failed Approach

In the 1980s and 1990s, police forces in major U.S. cities went all-in on a tough-on-crime approach known as “broken windows” or “zero tolerance” policing, using surveillance and high arrest rates in response to all manner of minor crimes in order to stem major ones. Decades later, the United States is still wrestling with the failed legacy of broken windows, including mass incarceration and police brutality that sparked movements like Black Lives Matter and a wave of criminal justice reform. But countries across Central America are still implementing anti-gang zero tolerance policies, pushed and supported by the U.S. government. This is the case despite the fact that the approach has generally failed to lower crime rates across the region; in fact, it has often empowered police and military forces implicated in crimes themselves.

El Salvador, like most countries, has long had disaffected kids in poor communities who create gangs – Salvadoran anthropologist Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson dates the earliest gangs to the 1950s, when state modernization prompted a disorganized mass internal migration to urban centers. What appeared were neighborhood or schoolyard crews defending their honor and territory with fistfights and knives. Throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the homegrown crews meshed with the violent legacy of a recently ended civil war — and with U.S. street gang culture, which arrived among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans deported from the United States during that time. According to the FBI, many of those deportees were members of two gangs formed in the U.S. and composed mostly of embattled Salvadoran war refugees: the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18.

As the gangs grew in size and power, successive Salvadoran governments reacted with mano dura, doing so with the full backing of the United States. First officially implemented in 2003, the policy has consistently been sold to the Salvadoran public as the antidote to an explosion of gang violence that has sent thousands of people from El Salvador and neighboring countries north to seek asylum in the United States. But because of mano dura, young people in marginalized neighborhoods face skyrocketing police abuse, including torture and extrajudicial murder. Since the policy’s 2003 adoption, El Salvador’s jails have become notorious: A 2017 United Nations visit found one prison operating at over 900 percent capacity, and others between 200 and 600 percent. Inmates regularly die of preventable diseases. Meanwhile, the policy failed at its one objective; paradoxically, when it was implemented, the country had seen nearly a decade of declining murder rates, but ever since, violence has surged, spiking in the past three years so that El Salvador has held its spot among the murder capitals of the world.

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR - MAY 20: MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 'gang cages' in the Quezaltepeque police station May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador. These overcrowded, 12x15 cages were designed to be 72-hour holding cells for common criminals and the two rival gangs, but many of the individuals have been imprisoned for over a year. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images.)

MS-13 gang members languish in one of the three 12’x15′ “gang cages” in the Quezaltepeque police station on May 20, 2013 in San Salvador, El Salvador.

Photo: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

As mano dura has escalated into a low-intensity conflict between the gangs and the government, over the years, civil society organizations in El Salvador have been trying an alternative approach: working directly with gangs to help members leave or renounce violence, or in some cases, stepping in to mediate and interrupt vengeance killings, for example. These initiatives are often modeled on programs in U.S. cities like Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles (the city where El Salvador’s largest gangs originated).

Such work is known in aid industry parlance as “tertiary violence prevention,” and it entails working with people who are not “at risk,” but rather already in conflict with the law. It is a type of restorative, not punitive, justice. No matter the form it takes, tertiary violence prevention faces intense skepticism and involves significant risks. In addition to requiring a closeness to the violence practiced by some gang members and state security officials, the groups that work with gangs are often themselves criminalized, cast by law enforcement or the general public as sympathizing with criminals.

It didn’t help that the U.S. government focused on empowering the Salvadoran police, and did little to address the root causes of gang violence. This was due to a pervasive “nervousness and concern” about tertiary work, said Roig.

The impact of the reticence in El Salvador was that in any project receiving U.S. federal funds, “it was strictly prohibited to work with youth in conflict with the law,” said Rick Jones of Catholic Relief Services. A major international nongovernmental organization and one of the pioneers of tertiary prevention in El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services had, since the early 2000s, been doing street work with current and former gang members to intercede in cycles of violence and to help guide them to licit employment so that they could leave gangs. The U.S. government was squeamish about such innovative work.

That policy was backed by law in October 2012, when the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization,” adding the gang to a list alongside terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Many experts dispute the extent and reach of the gangs’ transnational activities, including cross-border drug trafficking, arguing that most cliques are made up of kids from the country’s poorest neighborhoods who barely manage to feed themselves. Still, the designation set into motion a chain of possibilities for the U.S. government. For one thing, it enabled INL to open a field office in the country, which would be impossible without the presence of an officially designated transnational criminal group. In 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement built an entire cross-border strategy around the designation, “deploying special agents to El Salvador” who would work with the Salvadoran National Civil Police to chase the gang’s assets and act on a “free flow of actionable intelligence between ICE and our host country law enforcement partners.”

The direct impact of the Treasury Department’s designation is that it became illegal for U.S. citizens and corporations to engage in financial transactions with members of MS-13. The indirect impact was that it also became illegal for U.S. federal agencies to financially support any program that engaged with members of the gang, even if the program’s aim was to get those members out.

In conflict zones worldwide, these designations have had a chilling effect on tertiary work in which government or civil society actors attempt to engage with armed groups in order to end violence. Designations have interrupted peace talks and led to the disbanding of negotiation in places as diverse as the Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India.

The designation in El Salvador came on the heels of a secret gang truce, which the U.S. opposed. In March 2012, the Salvadoran government brought MS-13 and Barrio 18 to a negotiating table, and international cooperation agencies from the European Union and elsewhere pledged money to build initiatives meant to help former gang members disarm and re-enter society. Seven months later, the U.S. added MS-13 to a list populated by terrorist groups and high-level money laundering organizations.

The leader of the Mara 18 (18th Street Gang), Carlos Mojica Lechuga, a.k.a. "El Viejo Lin" (R), gestures during a press conference at the Female Jail in San Salvador, El Salvador on September 24, 2012. The leaders of the Mara 18 and Salvatrucha offered a press conference during the celebration of the 200 days of truce between them to reduce murder. AFP PHOTO/Jose CABEZAS (Photo credit should read Jose CABEZAS/AFP/GettyImages)

A leader of Barrio 18, Carlos Mojica Lechuga, right, gestures during a press conference at a women’s prison in San Salvador, El Salvador on Sept. 24, 2012. The leaders of the Barrio 18 and MS-13 offered a press conference to celebrate 200 days of truce between the rival gangs.

Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

“It was a mistaken belief in the U.S. Embassy that Salvadoran gangs were some kind of sophisticated criminal enterprise,” said Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who, as then-representative to El Salvador for the Organization of American States, was involved in truce negotiations. “I kept saying to them, ‘If that’s true, if they’re operating at the level of cartels, show me the money.’ And no one ever could.”

The truce was designed on international standards for post-conflict demobilization processes, like those used in Ireland and Colombia — and also on U.S. experiences with gang violence reduction, Blackwell said. “We were trying to convince the [U.S.] Embassy, ‘We’re just trying to do what you guys have done successfully in LA.’” It was to no avail. In El Salvador, where the U.S. has been, for generations, the single most important foreign influence, the message resounded like a gavel: The only acceptable way to define and address the issue of gangs is through punitive measures.

A New Chance for Second Chances

Although little noted at the time, U.S. federal agencies were not unified behind the Treasury Department’s designation and hard-line approach. In a 2014 interview, Roig was tight-lipped, saying only that USAID did not work with people trying to leave gangs, and that the 2012 designation “certainly places limitations on what USAID can do with MS.”

But in a recent interview with The Intercept, Roig, now a director at the Washington-based aid contractor Creative Associates International, said that behind the scenes, he and others were working to educate their peers about tertiary violence prevention. In 2012, USAID brought municipal leaders from Los Angeles to the region to share best practices from the city’s gang violence reduction program, which included tertiary work. Then came the Treasury Department designation, which made it more difficult to put the lessons from LA into practice, Roig said.

The fault lines of resistance didn’t occur by agency, Roig said, but by individual. In interagency meetings that included USAID, the FBI, ICE, and others, “some people would say, ‘You can never work with these kids, they’re criminals.’ Others would say, ‘Oh yeah, these great prevention programs, we should do more to support those.’ My experience was it depended a lot on the people.”

For years after the Treasury Department’s designation, USAID helped organize a series of high-level conferences and events on violence prevention, including tertiary work, in the U.S. and Central America. “We started writing it into all the strategy documents. When we did briefings on the Hill, we talked about it,” he said.  This “helped sensitize policymakers within State and AID,” and introduced into “the bureaucratic consciousness that this was the direction we wanted to move in.”

That analysis remained sidelined until 2015, when thousands of Central American children fleeing violence showed up at the southern U.S. border. Faced with the children, the Obama administration investigated the causes of emigration. In all three countries, it found systemic corruption. In Guatemala, there were conflicts over natural resources that were sometimes drug-fueled and often disproportionately affected native people; in Honduras and El Salvador, what stuck out was violence from narcos and gangs. The administration’s investigation led to a new openness toward tertiary prevention — a shocking move on the ground in El Salvador. Jones from Catholic Relief Services remembered thinking at the time that State Department visitors “are very open right now. … They are seriously exploring what can we fund that will work.”

In 2016, INL funded Florida International University political scientist José Miguel Cruz to conduct a study of how and why members choose to leave gangs or stay in them. His study found that 68.6 percent of current members of El Salvador’s gangs had intentions to leave. And while 16.7 percent said they’d never leave, the vast majority — 81.5 percent — said they knew someone who had “calmed down,” or become inactive in their gang. “Calming down,” more common than leaving entirely, is a way for members to preserve their gang identity while no longer contributing to violence and crime.

Those who are able to leave their gang face endless struggles, Cruz found, including running into former enemies, struggling to find work, family abandonment and police harassment. Employers which, like League Central America, know and accept employees’ pasts and are willing to support them through lingering struggles tied to their old lives are vital to keeping former gang members from joining again, the study reported to INL. That same year, a meta-study of violence prevention strategies around the world,  commissioned by USAID, recommended focused intervention with violent offenders and found that “aggressive ‘zero tolerance’ strategies … can create community tension and undermine collective efficacy.”

In February 2017, the Treasury Department awarded a waiver, called an OFAC license, to the State Department and USAID; the license allows agencies to do certain work with former or nonactive MS-13 members. The waivers expire at the end of this year, and federal agencies are preparing to seek renewal.

The license also covers the third-party organizations, like League and Catholic Relief Services, that carry out the projects funded in part by U.S. federal agencies. Although NGOs are free to apply directly for a license, Jones said Catholic Relief Services applied, was denied, and received no explanation of why. A spokesperson for the Treasury Department said the agency does not comment on individual licenses. (USAID and INL referred all requests for comment for this story to Treasury.)

One significant concern is that under some projects covered by the OFAC license, local organizations are required to hand over the identities of the people who participate in the violence prevention programs to a U.S. Embassy working group – composed of people from the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Defense Department, and others — for vetting. Participants worry that the requirement will lead to increased surveillance and abuse by authorities, whether U.S. immigration officials or Salvadoran law enforcement. Several NGOs have formally submitted their resistance to the stipulation, which appears in an upcoming USAID project in Honduras, and are awaiting the government’s response.

The Honduras project provides a window into shifts in the federal government’s thinking on tertiary work. In February, USAID invited organizations to apply for funding to carry out a program to reduce recidivism among violent youth. The $8 million project, to be implemented in the five most violent municipalities across Honduras, is called “Improving Tertiary Violence Prevention.” With the project, USAID says it is complementing the work of Honduran state prison agencies that are “seeking to transform the juvenile justice system” to “a modern, rehabilitative, and restorative justice model,” and notes that the agency is now investing in multiple tertiary prevention projects in Honduras.

Roxana Anaya is a social worker that coordinates program Second Chance inside prisons of El Salvador. The program was created by Catholic Relief Sevices.

Rosa Anaya, of Catholic Relief Services, coordinates the program “Second Chances” inside prisons in El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

In El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services and League are using U.S. funds for a program called “Segundas Oportunidades,” or “Second Chances,” which seeks to create a pipeline from prison to employment, including job training for inmates, cognitive behavioral therapy, and workshops focused on topics like “masculinities,” the study of distorted ideas of manhood, childhood trauma, and violence — or, as Jones put it, “where it all came from in the first place.” The idea is to send a message: “You have a choice. This is not normal. You can change,” he said. The 2016 USAID study singled out cognitive behavioral therapy, particularly programs focused on “becoming a man,” as the single most effective violence-prevention strategy.

Catholic Relief Services and League also recruited other NGOs and the Salvadoran national justice and prison systems to join Second Chances. The wide buy-in is important, because the root of gang violence isn’t individual failure, but systemic injustices that must be rectified across society, said Rosa Anaya, the Catholic Relief Services chief of party for Second Chances. “No judge, government institution, company, family, or individual will be able to overcome alone the great disaster in which we’ve found ourselves.”

And not a moment too soon: “Over the next five years, 12,000 people will have fulfilled their sentences. What will they do?” asked Jones. “These programs are critical to reducing recidivism.”

Last October, we entered a prison outside San Salvador called Apanteos, along with a major delegation of NGOs, local businesspeople, and two representatives from INL. Painted a fresh yellow, with the words “Yo Cambio,” or “I Can Change,” across the gate and many of the walls inside, Apanteos was decked out for a graduation celebration for Second Chances. We were led on a tour of the prison’s kitchens, where inmates train as cooks; the hen cages, where a teenage prisoner showed off rows of eggs to the visitors; and tanks where they farmed tilapia. It was a visit day, and the common yard was full of families.

A small chicken farm is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison, in Santa Ana, El Salvador. American organizations visited the prison looking to help salvadorans who were gang members.

Media, representatives from the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, and local business leaders take a tour of a small chicken farm, which is run by the inmates inside the Apanteos prison in Santa Ana, El Salvador.

Photo: Salvador Meléndez

Over the last year, Second Chances has trained 811 people, including current and former inmates and employees of the justice system and private sector. Among other factors, Catholic Relief Services measured inmate participants’ positive changes in attitude. “To have evidence of a trustworthy change and a credible support network behind them helps businesses feel like they can employ these people,” said Anaya. Among the 21 Second Chances participants who have completed the program and been released, 18 have been able to find jobs.

The Treasury Department ban on using U.S. money to engage with MS-13 is still in effect. But none of the organizations that make up Second Chances are violating it, because they’re covered by the OFAC waiver. Without the dispensation, this work would be a violation of U.S. federal law.

Mixed Messages

INL now publicly celebrates the tertiary work it funds. In an April 2017 speech at League Central America about Second Chances, Glenn Tosten, then-director of the INL section at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, said that to watch the first people pass through Second Chances “changed the way I saw security challenges in El Salvador.” He continued, “I should admit that at first I felt skeptical. I thought there was no other option … that the young people who joined gangs in El Salvador were lost forever.” But the program “convinced me that, in fact, there is another way. There is a process and a support system that truly can transform people’s lives.”

That message is still a minority voice in the U.S. government. Mostly, the focus is on aiding and training the Salvadoran police — despite a well-documented record of shakedowns, abuses, and extrajudicial killings.

When his shift ended at League, Oswaldo still had to return to the streets of a society that believes gang members leave “only through the grave.” He was terrified of the police. One of his greatest fears, he said, is that officers will stop him on payday, see the cash in his pocket from his salary, “and say it’s [money from] extortion. And then kill me.” His wife still hadn’t returned with their son. She said she feared drawing police attention through her association with him.

The Salvadoran press has repeatedly uncovered cases of torture and extrajudicial murder of suspected gang members by police and soldiers. Young people from poor communities face constant harassment from authorities; are often taken into custody without reason; and frequently have drugs or “extortion money” planted on them. Sometimes, the police are working for a rival gang, but often, they’re just corrupt. Abuse of authority is so bad that the minister of security recently admitted that state violence contributes to the country’s refugee crisis.

U.S. federal agencies continue supporting the Salvadoran police in an attempt to professionalize them, they say — but the aid flows even to units implicated in severe and systematic human rights abuses. The Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security reported a wide range of donations and training for the Salvadoran National Civil Police in 2015 and 2016, according to data released to Congress and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request. The donations and training spanned combating cybercrime and narco-trafficking, administering polygraphs, “arrest techniques and self defense,” and “K9 nursery care.” Trainings also covered intelligence gathering and special ops commando courses. Donations include items like pickup trucks, computers, cameras, bunk beds, and bulletproof vests.

The State Department also reported that it donated body cameras and provided other assistance to the internal department of the national police that investigates allegations of police abuse. But a recent study from the Government Accountability Office found that overall, State and other departments are not systematically implementing human rights into their trainings in El Salvador and other Central American countries. Roig, the former USAID official, says the fact that aid reaches units implicated in systemic abuses “is not positive at all,” and is an obstacle to effective violence prevention. “It’s harder to do prevention work and community policing when you’ve got a general distrust of the police and human rights abuses,” he said.

Another place the U.S. has loudly supported a system rife with rights abuses is in El Salvador’s prison system. A regime of special laws known as “extraordinary measures” restrict alleged gang members’ access to basic needs like food, water, and communications with the outside world. With “extraordinary measures,” inmate deaths doubled, largely because of outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis, according to a June 2018 U.N. report.

The U.N. and Red Cross have called “extraordinary measures” a violation of human rights and urged the Salvadoran government to repeal them. The current administration of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has said that such outcry is based on falsehoods, and successfully enshrined the policy, originally temporary, into law — which the U.S. Embassy supports. In April 2018, when the measures came up for renewal, U.S. Ambassador Jean Manes encouraged Salvadoran congressmen to vote affirmatively, saying in a televised interview, “We talk about extraordinary measures, but these are normal measures.” Then she joked, “If the gang leaders don’t like it, then I do like it.”

By pushing policies like these, the U.S. is fueling violence on one hand, while trying to solve it with the other through tertiary prevention.

Commissioner Hugo Ramirez, subdirector for public security in El Salvador’s National Civil Police, wishes that would change. “It turns out that the more muscle we developed, the more undesirable effects we saw,” he told The Intercept. Ramirez has traveled around the United States to study community policing and tertiary violence prevention initiatives. His is not a common view among Salvadoran police, but he now argues that, “definitively, if we don’t take this on from a focus of tertiary prevention, it won’t be possible. It’s a debt we owe to this country.”

“If the U.S. would support this,” he added, “it’s fundamental.”

Currier and Mackey reported this story as Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation. Mackey’s reporting was also made possible by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and a fellowship with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, with support from the Ford Foundation.

Top photo: A group of inmates inside San Vicente prison celebrate their completion of the “Second Chances” program.

The post El Salvador is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing Failed “Iron Fist” Policing. appeared first on The Intercept.

I Just Visited Lula, the World’s Most Prominent Political Prisoner. A “Soft Coup” in Brazil’s Election Will Have Global Consequences.

Prisons are reminiscent of Tolstoy’s famous observation about unhappy families: Each “is unhappy in its own way,” though there are some common features — for prisons, the grim and stifling recognition that someone else has total authority over your life.

My wife Valeria and I have just visited a prison to see arguably the most prominent political prisoner of today, a person of unusual significance in contemporary global politics.

By the standards of U.S. prisons I’ve seen, the Federal Prison in Curitiba, Brazil, is not formidable or oppressive — though that is a rather low bar.  It is nothing like the few I’ve visited abroad — not remotely like Israel’s Khiyam torture chamber in southern Lebanon, later bombed to dust to efface the crime, and a very long way from the unspeakable horrors of Pinochet’s Villa Grimaldi, where the few who survived the exquisitely designed series of tortures were tossed into a tower to rot — one of the means to ensure that the first neoliberal experiment, under the supervision of leading Chicago economists, could proceed without disruptive voices.

Nonetheless, it is a prison.

The prisoner we visited, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – “Lula,” as he is universally known — has been sentenced to virtual life imprisonment, in solitary confinement, with no access to press or journals and with limited visits one day a week.

The day after our visit, one judge, citing press freedoms, granted the request of the nation’s largest newspaper, Folha of São Paulo, to interview Lula, but another judge quickly intervened and reversed that decision, notwithstanding the fact that the country’s most violent criminals — its militia leaders and drug traffickers — are routinely interviewed in prison.

To Brazil’s power structure, imprisoning Lula is not enough: They want to ensure that the population, as it prepares to vote, cannot hear from him at all, and are apparently willing to use any means to accomplish that goal.

The judge who reversed the permission wasn’t breaking any new ground. One predecessor was the prosecutor at the 1926 sentencing of Antonio Gramsci by Mussolini’s Fascist government, who declared, “We must stop his brain from working for 20 years.”

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” as Mark Twain observed.

US linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky (R), speaks to PT militants after visiting former President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, arrested for corruption in the Federal Police Superintendence in Curitiba, Brazil on September 20, 2018. (Photo by Heuler Andrey / AFP) (Photo credit should read HEULER ANDREY/AFP/Getty Images)

American linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, far left, speaks to Workers’ Party militants after visiting former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil on Sept. 20, 2018.

Photo: Heuler Andrey/AFP/Getty Images

We were encouraged, but not surprised, to find that despite the onerous conditions and shocking miscarriage of justice, Lula remains his energetic self, optimistic about the future and full of ideas about how to turn Brazil from its current disastrous course.

There are always pretexts for imprisonment — maybe valid, maybe not — but often it makes sense to seek what may be the actual reasons. That is so in this case. The primary charge against Lula, based on plea bargains by businessmen sentenced for corruption, is that he was offered an apartment in which he never lived. Hardly overwhelming.

The alleged crime is almost undetectable by Brazilian standards — and there is more to say about that concept, to which I’ll return. That aside, the sentence is so totally disproportionate to the alleged crime that it is quite appropriate to seek reasons. Candidates are not hard to unearth. Brazil is facing an election that is of critical importance for its future. Lula is by far the most popular candidate and would easily win a fair election, not the outcome preferred by the plutocracy.

Although his policies while in office were designed to accommodate the concerns of domestic and international finance, he is despised by elites, in part no doubt because of his policies of social inclusion and benefits for the dispossessed, though other factors seem to intervene: primarily simple class hatred. How can a poor worker with no higher education who doesn’t even speak proper Portuguese be allowed to lead our country?

From left to right, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, shakes hands before signing an agreement to ship most of Iran's enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal, in Tehran, Iran, Monday, May 17, 2010. Iran agreed Monday to ship most of its enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal that could ease the international standoff over the country's disputed nuclear program, just as pressure mounts for tougher sanctions. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

From left to right, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, shake hands in Tehran, Iran, on May 17, 2010, before signing an agreement to ship most of Iran’s enriched uranium to Turkey in a nuclear fuel swap deal.

Photo: Vahid Salemi/AP

In office, Lula was tolerated by Western power, but with reservations. There was little enthusiasm for his success, with his Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, in propelling Brazil to the center of the world stage, beginning to fulfill the predictions of a century ago that Brazil would become “the colossus of the South.” Some of their initiatives were sharply condemned, notably their steps toward resolving the conflict over Iran’s nuclear programs in coordination with Turkey in 2010, undercutting U.S. insistence on running the show. More generally, Brazil’s leading role in promoting forces independent of Western power, in Latin America and beyond, was hardly welcome to those accustomed to dominating the world.

With Lula barred from running, there is a good chance that the right-wing favorite, Jair Bolsonaro, can gain the presidency and seriously escalate the harshly regressive policies of President Michel Temer, who replaced Dilma Rousseff after she was impeached in ludicrous proceedings in an earlier stage of the “soft coup” now underway in Latin America’s most important country.

Bolsonaro presents himself as a harsh and brutal authoritarian and an admirer of the military dictatorship, who will restore “order.” Part of his appeal is his pose as an outsider who will dismantle the corrupt political establishment, which many Brazilians despise for good reasons, the local analogue to the bitter reaction in much of the world to the effects of the neoliberal assault of the past generation. Bolsonaro affirms that he knows nothing about economics, leaving that domain to economist Paulo Guedes, an ultraliberal Chicago product.

Guedes is clear and explicit about his solution to Brazil’s problems: “privatize everything,” the whole national infrastructure (Veja, August 22), in order to pay off the debt to the predators who are robbing the country blind. Literally everything, ensuring that the country will decline to insignificance as a plaything of the very rich and the dominant financial institutions. Guedes worked for a time in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, so it may be useful to recall the results of the first experiment in Chicago neoliberalism.

The experiment, initiated after 1973 military coup had prepared the ground by terror and torture, was conducted under near optimal conditions. There could be no dissent — the array of Villa Grimaldis and the like took care of that. It was supervised by the superstars of Chicago economics. It had enormous support from the U.S., the corporate world, and the international financial institutions. The economic planners were also wise enough not to interfere with the highly efficient nationalized copper mining company Codelco, the world’s largest, which provided a solid base for the economy.

FILE - In this Sept. 5, 1973 file, women wave white handkerchiefs demanding the resignation of President Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile. Chile marks the 45th anniversary of the coup led by Pinochet overthrowing Allende, on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (AP Photo, File)

Women wave white handkerchiefs as they demand the resignation of President Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, on Sept. 5, 1973.

Photo: AP

For a few years, the experiment was highly praised, and then silence reigned. Despite the almost-perfect conditions, by 1982, the “Chicago boys” had succeeded in crashing the economy. The state had to take over more of the economy than under the Allende years. Wags called it “the Chicago road to socialism.” The economy was largely handed back to the traditional managers and struggled back, though not without lingering residues of the disaster in educational and social welfare systems and elsewhere.

Returning to the Bolsonaro-Guedes prescriptions for undermining Brazil, it is important to bear in mind the overwhelming power of finance in the Brazilian political economy. Brazilian economist Ladislau Dowbor reports that as the Brazilian economy sank into recession in 2014, major banks increased profits by 25 to 30 percent, “a dynamic in which the more banks profit, the more the economy is stalled” since the “financial intermediaries do not finance production, but drain it” (“The Era of Unproductive Capital”).

Furthermore, Dowbor continues, “After 2014, GDP dropped sharply while interest and profits of financial intermediaries increased between 20% and 30% a year,” a systematic feature of a financial system that “does not serve the economy, but is served by it. It is negative net productivity. The financial machine is living at the expense of the real economy.”

The phenomenon is worldwide. Joseph Stiglitz summarizes the situation simply: “Where before finance was a mechanism for getting money into firms, now it functions to get money out of them.” That is one of the sharp reversals of socio-economic policy brought to the world by the neoliberal assault, along with the sharp concentration of wealth in few hands while the majority stagnates, social benefits decline, and functioning democracy is undermined by obvious means as economic power concentrates, increasingly in the hands of predatory financial institutions. The consequences are the prime source of the resentment, anger, and contempt for governing institutions that are sweeping over much of the world, commonly mislabeled “populism.”

This is the future planned by the plutocracy and its favored candidates. It would be undercut by renewal of Lula’s presidency, which did cater to the financial institutions and the business world generally, but not sufficiently so in the current era of savage capitalism.

Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro (Social Liberal Party) speaks during the first presidential debate ahead of the October 7 general election, at Bandeirantes television network in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on August 9, 2018. Photo: NILTON FUKUDA/ESTADAO CONTEUDO (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro at the first presidential debate ahead of the October 7 general election, at Bandeirantes television network in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Aug. 9, 2018.

Photo: Nilton Fukuda/Estadao Conteudo/Agencia Estado via AP

We might tarry for a moment on what took place in Brazil during the Lula years — “the golden decade,” in the words of the World Bank from May 2016. During these years, the bank’s study reports:

Brazil’s socioeconomic progress has been remarkable and internationally noted. From 2003 [the onset of Lula’s terms in office], the country has become recognized for its success in reducing poverty and inequality and its ability to create jobs. Innovative and effective policies to reduce poverty and ensure the inclusion of previously excluded groups have lifted millions of people out of poverty.

Furthermore:

Brazil has also been assuming global responsibilities. It has been successful in pursuing economic prosperity while protecting its unique natural patrimony. Brazil has become one of the most important emerging new donors, with extensive engagements particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, and a leading player in international climate negotiations. Brazil’s development path over the past decade has shown that growth with shared prosperity, but balanced with respect for the environment, is possible. Brazilians are rightly proud of these internationally recognized achievements.

Some Brazilians at least, but not those who hold economic power.

The World Bank report rejects the common view that the substantial progress was “an illusion, created by the commodity boom, but unsustainable in today’s less forgiving international environment.” It responds to this claim with “a qualified ‘no.’ There is no reason why the recent socioeconomic gains should be reversed; indeed, they might well be extended with the right policies.”

Protesters linked to trade unions held a protest on Paulista Avenue, west of Sao Paulo, southeastern Brazil, against unemployment and higher interest rates on June 2, 2015. According to the press office of the Military Police, 400 people participate in the demonstration. Photo: J. DURAN MACHFEE/ESTADAO CONTEUDO (Agencia Estado via AP Images)

Protesters linked to trade unions held a protest on Paulista Avenue, west of São Paulo, against unemployment and higher interest rates on June 2, 2015.

Photo: J. Duran Machfee/Estadao Conteudo/Agencia Estado via AP

The right policies should include radical changes in the general structural framework that was left in place during the Lula-Dilma years, when the demands of the financial community were accommodated, maintaining policies of the preceding Cardoso years, including the low taxation of the rich (often avoided entirely by massive capital flight to tax havens) and absurdly high interest rates that led to huge fortunes for a few, while attracting capital to finance, instead of productive investment. The plutocracy and the media monopoly charge that social policies drained the economy, but in fact economic studies show that the multiplier effect of financial aid to the poor improved the economy, while it was the financial rent from usurious interest rates and other gifts to finance that were the real cause of the crisis of 2013 – a crisis that could have been overcome by “the right policies.”

The prominent Brazilian economist Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, former finance minister, captures the crucial factor in the ongoing crisis succinctly: For blocking public expenses while keeping the interest rate high, “there is no economic explanation; the fundamental cause of high interest rates in Brazil is the power of money lenders and financiers” with its drastic consequences, aided by the legislature (elected with corporate funding) and the media monopoly that is largely the voice of private power.

Dowbor points out that throughout modern Brazilian history, challenges to the regressive structural framework have led to coups, “beginning with the dismissal and suicide of Vargas [in 1954], and the 1964 military coup” (strongly backed by Washington). There is a good case that much the same has been taking place during the “soft coup” that has been underway since 2013. This campaign of traditional elites, now concentrated in the financial sector and served by the highly concentrated media, went into high gear in 2013 when Rousseff sought to reduce the outlandish interest rates to some civilized level, threatening to diminish the flood of easy money to the small sector able to indulge in financial markets.

The current campaign to preserve the structural framework and reverse the achievements of “the glorious decade” is exploiting the corruption in which Lula’s governing Workers’ Party, known as PT, participated. The corruption is very real, and serious, though singling out the PT for demonization is pure cynicism, considering the escapades of the accusers. And as already mentioned, the charges against Lula, even if one were to credit them, cannot possibly be taken seriously as a basis for the punishment administered to remove him from the political system. All of which does qualify him as one of the most significant political prisoners of the current period.

The regular elite reaction to threats to the structural framework of the Brazilian sociopolitical economy is mirrored by the international response to challenges by the Global South to the neocolonial system left in place after centuries of Western imperial devastation. In the 1950s, in the early days of decolonization, the nonaligned movement sought to enter global affairs. It was quickly put in its place by Western power. One dramatic symbol was the assassination of the highly promising Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba by the traditional Belgian rulers (beating the CIA to the draw). The crime and its brutal aftermath ended the hopes of what should be one of the world’s richest country, but remains “the horror! The horror!” with ample participation by the traditional torturers of Africa.

Nonetheless, as decolonization proceeded on its agonizing course, the annoying voice of the traditional victims kept breaking through. In the ’60s and ’70s, with substantial input of Brazilian economists, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development put forth plans for a New International Economic Order, in which concerns of the “developing societies,” the great majority of the world’s population, would be addressed. That initiative was quickly crushed by the neoliberal regression.

A few years later, within UNESCO, the Global South called for a New International Information Order that would open up the global media-communication system to participation outside of the Western virtual monopoly. That led to a hysterical assault, across the political spectrum, with astonishing lies and ludicrous charges, and U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal from UNESCO on fabricated pretexts. All of this was exposed in a devastating (hence unread) study by media scholars William Preston, Edward S. Herman, and Herbert Schiller (“Hope and Folly”).

Also effectively silenced was the 1993 study of the South Centre showing that the capital hemorrhage from the poor to the rich countries had been joined by capital export to the IMF and World Bank, which are now “net recipients of resources from the developing countries.” The same was true of the declaration of the first meeting of the South Summit of 133 states in 2000, responding to the enthusiastic self-adulation of the West over its new doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” In the eyes of the Global South, “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention” is a new guise for imperialism, “which has no legal basis in the United Nations Charter or in the general principles of international law.”

Not surprisingly, power does not appreciate challenges and has many means to beat them back or simply to silence them.

More should be said about the endemic political corruption of Latin America, often piously condemned in the West. True, it is a plague, which should not be tolerated. But the plague is hardly confined to the “developing world.” It is not a mere aberration when the huge banks are fined tens of billions of dollars (JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup), typically in “settlements,” so no one is legally culpable for the criminal activities that destroy millions of lives. Noting that “corporate America is finding it increasingly difficult to stay on the right side of the law,” the London Economist on August 30, 2014, reported that 2,163 corporate convictions from 2000 to 2014 — and “corporate America” has plenty of company in the city of London and on the continent.

Corruption ranges from the massive scale just illustrated to the most petty cruelty. A particularly vulgar and instructive example is wage theft, an epidemic in the U.S. It is estimated that two-thirds of low-wage workers have their pay stolen from their wages every week, while three-fourths have part or all of their overtime pay stolen. The sums stolen from employees’ paychecks every year are greater than the combined total of bank, gas station, and convenience store robberies. There is virtually no enforcement. To maintain this impunity is critically important to the business world, so much so that it is a high priority for the leading business lobby, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has broad corporate participation.

ALEC’s primary task is to develop legislation for states, an easy target because of the reliance of legislators on corporate funding and limited media attention. Systematic and intense ALEC programs are therefore able to change the contours of policy for the whole country with little notice, a stealth attack on democracy with quite substantial effect. One of their legislative initiatives is to ensure that wage theft will not be subject to inspection or enforcement of law.

But corruption that is technically criminal, massive or small, is just the tip of the iceberg. The major corruption is legal. For example, the resort to tax havens that drain an estimated one-fourth or more of the $80 trillion global economy, creating an independent economic system free from surveillance and regulation, a haven for all sorts of criminal activities, as well as taxes. Nor is it technically illegal for Amazon, which just became the second trillion-dollar corporation, to have benefitted enormously by exemption from sales taxes. Or for the corporation to use about 2 percent of U.S. electricity at sharply reduced rates, following “a long U.S. tradition of shifting costs from businesses to poor residents, who already pay about three times more of their income on utility bills than do wealthy households,” the business press reports.

There are countless other examples.

One important example is buying elections, a topic that has been studied in depth, particularly by political scientist Thomas Ferguson. His research, along with colleagues, has shown that electability for Congress and the executive is predictable with remarkable precision from the single variable of campaign spending, a very strong tendency that goes far back in American political history and extends to the 2016 election (Ferguson, Golden Rule; Ferguson et al., “Industrial Structure and Party Competition in an Age of Hunger Games: Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential Election,” Working Paper No. 66, Jan. 2018, Institute for New Economic Thinking). Converting formal democracy into an instrument in the hands of private wealth is perfectly legal, not corruption, unlike the Latin American plague.

ALEXANDRIA, VA - NOVEMBER 08: Voters wait in-line for casting their ballots outside a polling place on Election Day November 8, 2016 in Alexandria, Virginia. Americans across the nation are picking their choice for the next president of the United States. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

American voters wait to cast their ballots at a polling place in Alexandria, Va., on Nov. 8, 2016.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

It is not, of course, that interference with elections is off the agenda. On the contrary, alleged Russian interference with the 2016 election is one of the leading issues of the day, a topic of intense inquiry and much frenzied commentary. In contrast, the overwhelming role of corporate power and private wealth in corrupting the 2016 election, following a tradition that goes back over a century, is scarcely noted. After all, it is perfectly legal, even endorsed and enhanced by decisions of the most reactionary Supreme Court in recent memory.

Buying elections is the least of the corporate interventions into the pristine American democracy that is being sullied by Russian hackers (with results that were undetectable). Campaign spending goes through the roof, but it is dwarfed by lobbying, estimated at about 10 times its scale – a plague that escalated rapidly from the early days of the neoliberal regression. The effects on legislation are enormous, extending even as far as literal writing of legislation by lobbyists, while the congressional representative who signs the bill is off somewhere seeking funds for the next election.

Corruption is indeed a plague in Brazil and Latin America generally, but these are small players in the competition.

All of this brings us back to the prison, in which one of the most significant political prisoners of the current period is kept in isolation so that the “soft coup” in Brazil can proceed on course, with likely consequences that will be severe for Brazilian society, and for much of the world, given Brazil’s potential role.

Can proceed on course, that is, if what is happening is tolerated.

Top photo: Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva gestures to supporters at the headquarters of the Metalworkers’ Union where a Catholic mass was held in memory of his late wife Marisa Letícia on April 7, 2018 in São Paulo, Brazil.

The post I Just Visited Lula, the World’s Most Prominent Political Prisoner. A “Soft Coup” in Brazil’s Election Will Have Global Consequences. appeared first on The Intercept.

Vulture Funds Stand to Make Millions in Wake of Hurricane Maria

Vulture funds scooped up hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Puerto Rican debt after Hurricane Maria hit — underwritten by Wall Street and purchased at a massive discount, according to new numbers compiled by the nonprofit LittleSis and provided to The Intercept.

Now it’s time for the payoff. A deal agreed to last week between creditors, the Puerto Rican government and the Washington-appointed fiscal control board overseeing the island’s finances could now funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to those same bondholders in the coming decades. There’s also ample reason to suspect at least some of those funds will be siphoned from federal recovery dollars, intended to help rebuild after the storm.

According to court filings made public as a result of ongoing debt negotiations, several hedge funds have bought up massive amounts of Puerto Rican bonds in the year following Hurricane Maria, after which prices dropped. GoldenTree Asset Management, a bondholder for the Urgent Interest Fund Corporation — known by its Spanish-language acronym COFINA — owned $587 million worth of Puerto Rican government bonds before the storm, as noted in a filing dated August 18, 2017. As of another filing almost exactly a year later, the company owned $1.5 billion.

Tilden Park Capital Management, another COFINA creditor, increased the value of its holdings by $370 million over the same period. General obligation bondholders Aurelius Capital Management and Monarch Alternative Capital have increased their holdings from $39 million before the storm to $488 million as of the last filing. (Aurelius and Monarch both also hold some COFINA bonds.)

Due to complexities in the ways some bonds are valued, some hedge funds are reporting increases in bond holdings without actually purchasing more debt. Those bonds, called capital appreciation bonds, have been referred to as Puerto Rico’s payday loans due to their predatory structure, in which interest is added back to principal, which increases exponentially over time. In the cases of GoldenTree, Tilden Park, Monarch, and Aurelius, the increases in reported holdings are so massive that they appear to be due to new purchases of debt.

As In These Times noted in its analysis of these court filings last year, Tilden Park Chief Investment Officer Joshua Birnbaum is no stranger to profiting off crises. He made $3.7 billion for Goldman Sachs in 2007 by shorting the subprime mortgage market. Birnbaum got a $10 million bonus for the feat, but — unsatisfied — left the following year to start Tilden Park. “If you’re a steelworker, you probably think I got paid pretty well,” he told the Financial Times of his Goldman departure. “If you’re a hedge fund manager, you probably don’t.”

By virtually any metric, Birnbaum stands to make a killing on Puerto Rico.

The fiscal control board, COFINA bondholders, and the island’s government had already agreed to a restructuring package for COFINA debt — comprising around a quarter of the island’s total debt obligation — that led bond prices to rally early in the summer after another boost in early spring. Under the agreement, senior creditors will see a 93 percent payout on the face-value of the bonds and junior creditors will see a 56 percent payout. Last Friday — after fierce legal battles — general obligation creditors agreed to a slightly amended version of the deal. The final decision will now be up to Judge Laura Taylor Swain, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, who presides over the ongoing bankruptcy-like negotiations between Puerto Rico and its creditors. Today, it was announced that Swain will hear the case by October 15.

Should the deal pass muster there, it would see the island return $33 billion to creditors on a principal of just $17.5 billion. Based on a review of bond prices and increases in reported holdings, Kevin Connor of LittleSis estimates that GoldenTree and Tilden Park could make a 100 to 150 percent profit on COFINA subordinate debt purchased after prices slumped in the wake of the hurricane — or around $200 million to $300 million in pure profit on a $200 million investment. Including debt purchased before the hurricane, their combined profits are likely well above $500 million.

While news of the deal has been heartening to investors, economist Martin Guzman says it’s out of touch with realities on the island. “The key driver of the [general obligation] and COFINA bonds price escalation has been the expectation of a much larger recovery than what market prices reflected by then, founded in the Board’s, US Congress’, and Puerto Rico’s government positions and actions–that are overall not aligned with what Puerto Rico’s recovery requires,” he told The Intercept via email. “The COFINA deal will jeopardize the recovery of Puerto Rico’s debt sustainability,” which he, Joseph Stiglitz, and Pablo Gluzzman conducted a detailed analysis on this winter. “If COFINA bondholders get what this deal entails, the entire stock of remaining debts should be written-off in order to achieve the necessary relief for restoring debt sustainability.”

Not counting pension obligations, Puerto Rico is estimated to be saddled with about $74 billion total in municipal debt. While it’s proven a gold mine for vulture funds, Wall Street banks and consultants, significant payments on the debt will ultimately come at the expense of rebuilding Puerto Rico’s economy — both from the storm and from the over a decade long depression on the island.

COFINA bonds were designed principally by big banks to skirt Puerto Rico’s borrowing limit, allowing the island to sell off more bonds and for the banks to scrape millions off the top in underwriting fees. Repayment on COFINA bonds is pegged to sales tax, meaning the 11.5 percent sales tax Puerto Ricans pay — higher than any on the U.S. mainland — is legally claimed by bondholders.

“It’s a direct transfer of wealth out of a situation where there’s a deep crisis,” Connor told me by phone. “Instead of that being addressed, money is being used to line pockets of vulture funds. The payouts promised in this deal are insanely high and basically portend more social and economic crisis.” He adds that the bullishness in the bond market triggered by the deal’s announcement is “inflating a bubble of expectation around this crisis that will not be sustainable. They inflate the market for this debt, vultures sell out of their positions before they crash and then the cycle begins again.”

It’s hard to understand much of anything happening in Puerto Rico — officially a commonwealth of the United States — without some context in its recent and even colonial history, as the story of the island’s massive debt is deeply interwoven with its lack of sovereignty. To abridge that considerably: Puerto Rico’s economy had been growing fairly steadily through the time when a series of generous federal tax breaks for corporations operating on the island expired in 2006. Combined with free trade deals like NAFTA, that made it a less desirable locale for U.S.-based corporations to invest since they could now more easily relocate to places with lower labor and environmental standards.

The economy began to decline shortly thereafter and got hit again with the onset of the global financial crisis. Starting in 2009 the local government enacted a series of austerity measures that dwindled the tax base further and deepened the crisis. Because Puerto Rico isn’t a sovereign country, it can’t rely on either monetary policy or adjustments to its exchange rate to bring in more cash, so turned to bond markets. By that point, Puerto Rican debt wasn’t a particularly attractive investment given the island’s prolonged economic crisis and dim prospects for recovery, so the island tried to sweeten the deal by making them “triple tax exempt” — free from local, state, and federal taxes.  

That’s when vulture funds — and the Wall Street banks eager to underwrite their bond sales — stepped in.

Vulture funds are hedge funds, or any other private commercial entities, that buy up public debt made cheap by some crisis or another — a hurricane, an economic crash, etc. — and then litigates aggressively with those governments to extract as much as possible in repayment. The most famous example of how they work in practice has played out over the last decade and a half in Argentina. A small handful of funds scooped up sovereign debt for pennies on the dollar following a major economic crisis in the country, continued to aggressively litigate with the government there — even after the majority of bondholders had reached a settlement — and then extracted huge returns as they successfully demanded that the country repay them the face value of the bond plus sky-high interest payments. One firm, NML Capital, saw a 1,200 percent, or $2 billion, return on investment.

Unlike Argentina, Puerto Rico isn’t sovereign. And after well over a decade of steep economic decline, the island has basically no capacity to “service,” pay back, its debt. Congress passed a law in 2016, known as the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, to restructure that debt and place economic life under the control of a Washington-appointed fiscal oversight board, known locally as “La Junta.” It’s also Title III of PROMESA which outlines the bankruptcy-like court process now playing out in New York.

Whether this debt is even legal remains a subject of some controversy. There have been frequent, largely unheeded pushes from social movements in Puerto Rico to conduct a full and independent audit of the debt to determine just how much of it is legitimate. Shortly after current Gov. Ricardo Rosselló took office in January 2017, he disbanded the government agency charged with auditing the debt, declaring at the time that, “declaring a debt illegal does not mean it doesn’t have to be paid.”

While the board has lauded the COFINA deal as a major step forward in the restructuring process, it’s still not clear where the money to make good on it will come from. The most recently approved fiscal plan for the island projects that by 2058, Puerto Rico will have a surplus of just around $4 billion, leaving a $28 billion gulf between the board’s own forecasting and the payout it has promised to COFINA bondholders.

The deal is based on at least one massive accounting error, using economic projections drawn up for a previous fiscal plan that shows a larger surplus forecast, which has since been revised down. With the help of handsomely paid consultants, the board has drawn up six different versions of fiscal plans for the outlining how they’ll restructure everything from schools to electricity to labor markets. Initial economic projections were bleak, with a January plan showing a $3.4 billion deficit in the next couple decades. With news of an influx of federal aid, though, the board’s estimates grew rosier, in one version predicting a 7.6 percent growth in the island’s gross national product next year, with no debt service until at least 2048 — a projection panned by economists as unrealistic. Subsequent versions have tampered growth expectations and grafted debt service back in, premised in large part on the $86 billion in federal aid money opening up more fiscal space for repayment.

“According to current estimates, Hurricane Maria has created over $80 billion in damages,” the board wrote in its most recent fiscal plan. “On the other hand, over $86 billion in Federal dollars is estimated to be invested in helping Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria. The Fiscal Plan is thus prepared assuming this support from the Federal Government. … This aid is projected to create temporary fiscal surpluses over the next several years.” The best time to restructure the debt, they continue, “is while Puerto Rico has the temporary benefits of Federal disaster relief funding and a stay on debt service.”

In other words, the board sees the federal recovery money being injected into Puerto Rico for hurricane relief as a tool to help hand over more money to bondholders in the future. “The more relief money goes in the more they keep trying to negotiate deals and pay bondholders,” Lara Merling, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told me.

Conflicts of interest in working out such deals are basically ubiquitous. Manny Ortiz, for instance, is currently registered as a lobbyist for both the Puerto Rican government and Citibank, a leading underwriter of Puerto Rican debt that also helped author the board’s COFINA settlement. He previously also lobbied for Ambac, a bond insurer that purchased COFINA bonds in the months after Maria. As the group Hedge Clippers has noted, board members José Ramon Gonzalez and Carlos Garcia each worked at the Spanish bank Santander, which was instrumental in engineering large parts of Puerto Rico’s debt, and underwrote $61.2 billion of it, according to the group’s findings. During his post-Santander tenure as the head of Puerto Rico’s Government Development Bank, which started in 2009, Garcia himself issued many of the bonds that he’s now tasked with restructuring and that Santander profited from. In 2011, he returned to a top post at the bank before taking his place on the board.

It’s not hard to grasp, then, why the board’s prescription for the island emphasizes austerity measures over accountability, casting most of the blame for Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis on wasteful governance. Yet as the last decade in Europe and Puerto Rico’s own history has shown, the kind of structural reforms they recommend are a losing strategy for turning around struggling economies. By putting people out of work, cuts to public sector jobs and services slash consumer demand and create a tougher climate for businesses that in turn need to lay off workers, who are themselves forced to turn to a tighter job market and shrinking social safety net.

As Merling points out, the board is basing its projections and approach to restructuring the debt in large part on the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, which trumpets structural reforms as the key to getting debt-ridden economies on track. “All of their projections have been wrong,” she said. Indeed, growth in the European countries that underwent structural reforms during the European debt crisis dramatically underperformed what the IMF had predicted. Bondholders laying claim to tax money that could otherwise be invested in job creation and public services only stands to make matters worse.

The kind of sociopathic investing practiced by vulture funds used to be harder, thanks in part to something called Doctrines of Champerty — an obscure legal theory with its roots in English common law from the Middle Ages, when wealthy landowners would buy up land for the purpose of collecting on court claims made against poor tenants who they knew couldn’t afford the rent. As the Ohio Supreme Court recently put it, in heavy legalese, this body of law was developed “to prevent officious inter-meddlers from stirring up strife and contention by vexatious and speculative litigation which would disturb the peace of society.” Different states have adopted different definitions of what constitutes champerty, and modern invocations of Champerty have, among other things, kept funds from buying up cheap debt with the intention recovering massive returns in court.

Champerty laws had taken a beating in courts and statehouses around the country in the last couple of decades, but the final blow — at least so far as sovereign debt was concerned — came in 2004, through bill introduced by Staten Island state Sen. John Marchi. The legislation was pushed at the urging of vulture fund pioneer Paul Singer, whose Elliot Management was among the most aggressive in pulling profits out of Argentina. The measure forbade invoking the “Champerty defense” when the amounts of money involved were greater than $500,000. Because so much of the financial sector is based in New York, that bill’s passage has opened the floodgates for vulture funds to deploy their lawyers in raiding public coffers. A 2016 U.N. report found that “the proportion of lawsuits in which creditors have attempted to seize sovereign assets has increased from around 20% in the 1990s to more than 50% in the past decades.”

With a wave of progressive, young New York state senators coming into office next year — and Albany coming back under Democratic control — it’s possible they could introduce new legislation reinstituting the Champerty defense.

Nationally, several politicians — including Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — have called to cancel Puerto Rico’s debt entirely, and invest $146 billion in rebuilding its economy. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, likely to represent New York City in the House come January, has gone the farthest, supporting Warren and Sanders’s plan while also calling to abolish La Junta entirely.

Top photo: The Puerto Rican flag flies in front of Puerto Rico’s Capitol in San Juan on July 29, 2015.

The post Vulture Funds Stand to Make Millions in Wake of Hurricane Maria appeared first on The Intercept.

Pentagon Stands by Cameroon — Despite Forensic Analysis Showing Its Soldiers Executed Women and Children

The women were slapped and shoved down a dusty road. They were blindfolded and forced to the ground. Then they, and two young children, were gunned down — 22 shots from assault rifles fired at close range — by men in military uniforms.

In July, The Intercept was the first media outlet to publish the complete, unedited footage of this murder of four civilians by members of the Cameroonian armed forces — a key U.S. military ally in the region — drawing on extensive investigative work by experts at Amnesty International. The government of Cameroon quickly dismissed reports that its soldiers were involved in the atrocity, calling it “fake news.”

A newly released digital forensic investigation by Amnesty and the BBC offers overwhelming evidence that pinpoints the location of the killings, the make and model of one of the weapons used, and even the identity of the perpetrators, not only demonstrating that they are members of the Cameroonian military, but even providing names of some of the alleged killers. The massacre took place between March 20 and April 5, 2015, not far from the town of Zelevet, in the Far North region of Cameroon, according to the findings.

A “vital” U.S. counterterrorism partner in the Lake Chad Basin, according to the Pentagon, Cameroon has been authorized to receive roughly $200 million in American security aid since 2015. For years, the United States has also provided intelligence and training in counterterrorism skills, such as urban assault operations, to Cameroon’s armed forces. The U.S. military utilizes an outpost in the north of the country, known as Contingency Location Garoua, to fly drone missions. Members of the Army’s Task Force Darby, a military unit that includes soldiers and airmen, also serve at the base to support Cameroonian forces fighting the terrorist group Boko Haram.

“We are aware of the video. At this time, we cannot confirm the authenticity of the video, nor can we confirm any possible military affiliation of those shown in this troubling video,” Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept after the massacre footage surfaced online in July.

The Pentagon appeared to be unswayed by the new BBC/Amnesty investigation. “I don’t have much more to provide you beyond what I have previously, nothing has changed recently,” Klinkel told The Intercept when asked about the new analysis.

“This is not an isolated incident,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s Lake Chad researcher, said of the atrocity footage. “This is part of an inherently abusive system put in place by the Cameroonian security forces to address security threats. Cameroonian security forces have a long track record of abusive conduct both in the Far North region, where they fight Boko Haram, and in the Anglophone regions, where they are deployed to confront the armed separatists.”

Last month, The Intercept published another video showing the massacre of civilians by Cameroonian soldiers. That mass killing likely took place in the village of Achigachiya, also in the Far North region, in January 2015.

In 2017, Amnesty, the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture, and The Intercept exposed illegal imprisonment, torture, and killings by Cameroonian troops at a remote military base known as Salak, which is also used by U.S. personnel and private contractors for training missions and drone surveillance. U.S. Africa Command launched an investigation, but never publicly announced details about its aims and has not released the results. AFRICOM has not responded to repeated requests from The Intercept seeking comment about the parameters, scope, and findings of its probe, which was headed by Brig. Gen. Timothy McAteer and concluded in November 2017.

“We urge the U.S. to make the findings of the AFRICOM investigation public to ascertain whether there was any knowledge of incommunicado detention, torture, and death in custody at the military outpost where U.S. military personnel were based — Salak — and to show that they take human rights issues seriously when it comes to their military cooperation,” Amnesty’s Allegrozzi told The Intercept.

The BBC identified the three men shown shooting women and children in the spring 2015 video as Cyriaque Bityala, Barnabas Donossou, and Lance Corporal Tsanga. All three appear on a list of troops arrested by the Cameroonian government in connection with the massacre. “Seven soldiers were arrested,” Issa Tchiroma Bakary, a Cameroonian government spokesperson, told the BBC. “They are under investigation right now.”

“The Cameroonian government is taking some steps to address allegations of human rights abuses. This includes the arrest of seven individuals linked to the first video, and President [Paul] Biya ordering official investigations into all videos purportedly depicting Cameroonian security forces engaging in extrajudicial killings,” Nick Sadoski, deputy spokesperson of the State Department’s Africa Bureau, told The Intercept. “The Cameroonian government has made some efforts toward transparency and reached out to the international community for assistance. This includes the Ministry of Defense undertaking a U.S. government-funded program to train and establish 40 military legal advisers to advance human rights principles and promote security force accountability in the field commands around Cameroon.”

Cameroon’s embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Nor has Cameroon’s government released any further information in regard to its investigation of the massacre of the women and children, according to the U.S. State Department.

“The next step is for the Cameroonian government to reveal more information about those arrested, where they are being held, whether they have a lawyer, the charges against them, and when or if a trial will start,” said Amnesty’s Allegrozzi. “They also need to provide information on who was in command of those soldiers. We are calling for an independent and impartial investigation into these heinous crimes.”

Top photo: A screenshot from the video in Cameroon.

The post Pentagon Stands by Cameroon — Despite Forensic Analysis Showing Its Soldiers Executed Women and Children appeared first on The Intercept.

House Resolution Directs Trump to End U.S. Support for Yemen War

In Congress, frustration with the U.S. role in Yemen is nearing a breaking point. Sen. Bob Menendez — the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — is holding up a $2 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over concerns that the two countries routinely bomb civilian targets. Meanwhile, in the House, U.S. assistance to the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition is about to face another major hurdle.

On Wednesday, California Democrat Ro Khanna introduced a resolution invoking the 1973 War Powers Act, declaring that Congress never authorized U.S. support for the coalition in Yemen and directing President Donald Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from “hostilities” against the Houthis, the Iranian-backed rebel group at war with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The resolution would not affect U.S. forces who are on the ground in Yemen fighting Al Qaeda.

The legislation closely resembles a similar measure Khanna introduced last year, but now has 23 other co-sponsors, including Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the minority whip, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the House Armed Services committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. As a “privileged” resolution under House rules, the bill can bypass a committee vote and is overwhelmingly likely to receive a vote on the floor.

“This time around, our coalition to end the war has expanded and the call for withdrawing U.S. involvement is louder,” Khanna said in a statement.

The resolution’s support base represents a major shift in congressional opposition to the war. In the past, attempts to restrict support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE were considered fringe proposals within the Democratic caucus, and were resisted by top Democrats. But Wednesday’s resolution has the support of key Democrats, setting up a major legislative confrontation in the coming months.

The measure is likely to face fierce opposition from the Trump administration, which has argued that U.S. training reduces the number of civilian deaths in Yemen. When a similar resolution was introduced earlier this year by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote a letter of opposition alleging that the measure “could increase civilian casualties” and “further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis.” The resolution narrowly failed in the Senate by a vote of 55-44.

But critics argue that American support is not helping to reduce deaths and is instead implicating the U.S. in possible war crimes.

“The actions of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen are fast-approaching the level of crimes against humanity,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, in a statement supporting Wednesday’s resolution. “The United States must send a clear and unambiguous message to Saudi Arabia — their actions are unacceptable to the international community and will not be tolerated by the United States.”

Mattis has argued that U.S. refueling of coalition aircraft actually improves targeting because it gives coalition pilots time to avoid making on-the-fly decisions about where to drop bombs. “When you’re a pilot in the air and you’ve got bombs on your wing and you got somebody calling on you to drop and you’re watching your fuel gauge go down, you say, ‘No, you don’t. We’re going to refuel you. There’s no need for a rash or hasty decision there,’” he told reporters in March.

But dissenters within the administration say that ongoing U.S. support means there is little incentive for the coalition to reduce civilian harm in Yemen, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. A classified memo obtained by Journal says that the U.S. Agency for International Development “does not believe that continued refueling support will improve [Saudi Arabia or the UAE’s] approach to civilian casualties or human protections.”

Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched their intervention in Yemen in March 2015, after the Houthis overran Yemen’s capital city and deposed the country’s internationally backed president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In the three years since, the U.S. has offered indirect backing for the intervention, including mid-air refueling support, targeting intelligence, and tens of billions of dollars in weapons.

Human rights groups have long been critical of the coalition’s apparent targeting of civilians, but two recent airstrikes in particular have galvanized opposition to the U.S. role in the conflict. In April, coalition warplanes bombed a wedding in north Yemen, killing more than 20 people; just last month, they bombed a school bus, killing more than 40 children. Fragments of U.S.-made bombs were found at both sites.

Top photo: A man stands on rubble of a building destroyed in airstrikes carried out by warplanes of the Saudi-led coalition on June 6, 2018 in Sana’a, Yemen.

The post House Resolution Directs Trump to End U.S. Support for Yemen War appeared first on The Intercept.

American Dissident: Noam Chomsky on the State of the Empire

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The world laughed at U.S. President Donald Trump at the United Nations, but the imperial declarations he issued are no laughing matter. Trump may come off as a buffoon, but his global agenda is consistent with the bipartisan empire machine that runs the United States. This week on Intercepted: Famed dissident Noam Chomsky breaks down the Trump presidency; the defeat of the U.S. in Afghanistan; what he believes is a just position on Syria’s civil war; and the agenda of Vladimir Putin and Russia. He also discusses the impact of big social media companies and explains why a life of resisting and fighting is worth it. Jeremy Scahill analyzes Trump’s U.N. speech and gives context to the seldom-discussed bipartisan support for much of Trump’s global agenda. Dallas Hip Hop artist Bobby Sessions talks about police killings and this political moment. We also hear music from his new EP, “RLVTN (Chapter 1): The Divided States of AmeriKKKa.”

Transcript coming soon.

The post American Dissident: Noam Chomsky on the State of the Empire appeared first on The Intercept.