Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

 To have been loved once by someone--surely 
There is a permanent good in that 
- John Ashbery

She saw among the stones lining the gutter the wisps of grass green as the most tender human hope.
 - Clarice Lispector, A hora da Estrela

 There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it.
- Carlos Fuentes

Late one evening after a recent snow, I was walking my dog through the streets of my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I unexpectedly found myself back again this past June after 25 years away, much of it abroad.

As we arrived in the center of the town, at a place called Penn Square (so-named for William Penn, the British-born founder of the state of Pennsylvania), a memorial dedicated to U.S. soldiers who had died fighting the forces of racism, fascism and totalitarianism greeted us, its taciturn combatants cast in stone and garlanded in white by the new snow.

Into the stone are etched words like Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Antietam, names of the  locations of some of the tremendous battles fought during the U.S. Civil War (the first of which still stands as the largest battle ever fought in North America). It was a war that saw Americans slaughtering one another on American soil, the assassination of a president and, at its end, the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished the infernal institution of slavery.   

It is a historic place, Lancaster. A few blocks away from the square, a plaque marks the spot where, on 27 December 1763, a group of Scotch-Irish frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys broke into the old city jail and killed, scalped and dismembered the 16 remaining members of the Susquehannock tribe (known as Conestoga among English-speakers) who sheltered there, one of countless examples of the inhumanity of the nascent and extant nation to the land's original inhabitants. A few blocks beyond that, the grave of the great abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who represented the region in the U.S. Congress from 1849 to 1868, lies under the snow in a quiet corner of the Shreiner-Concord Cemetery.

More than 150 years on from the Civil War's end, elements of the United States stand with swords drawn within its borders yet again, usually metaphorically but sometimes - as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia and Portland, Oregon - literally.

In many ways, 2017 was a year of loss. In my own country, Americans watched as their nation's standing in the world eroded, and its institutions came under unprecedented threat from within. In Haiti, there was the sudden death of former president René Préval and, for many, a final loss of faith in the political process and a realization that corruption and impunity have possessed the body politic so totally and across such a wide swathe of political actors that divisions between parties and stated ideologies have been rendered nearly irrelevant. In Puerto Rico, residents there lost their homes, their access to electricity and potable water and - in the hundreds - their lives as Hurricane Maria roared ashore. In the process, they also lost any illusions about how they were viewed by many in the larger United States. In Spain, lost was any delusion that the nation’s Francoist past was totally removed from its present day.  In Syria and Yemen, there was a loss of belief that anyone, anywhere cared about what was happening to the defenseless inhabitants of those places.

And for me, personally, there was some loss, too. My grandfather, James Breon, an admirable man in so many ways and the last surviving grandparent, finally succumbed to old age at 92. My beloved cat, Winston, the gentlest creature I've known, passed away at 20. A couple of close friendships frayed in ways that I don't think will ever be repaired. But I was able to see places that mean a lot to me again - Haiti, Paris, Puerto Rico, Havana, Barcelona, - and was even able to make some new friends along the way. 1 was able to publish one book and began work on another.

If 2017 represented the efforts of certain elements of modern-day America to get an illiberal and totalitarian project up and running, 2018 will almost certainly mark an escalation in the assault on the separation of powers, the rule of law and the integrity of our electoral process, all hallmarks of our democracy we must stand ready to defend. But there also seems to have, amid all the loss, been something of an awakening, a realization that, in the purest sense, democracy is not a spectator sport and those who want a voice in it must start that process by showing up in the voting booth, on the ballot and in the streets.

But amid all these struggles - some of which are chronicled in the articles below - I have been reminded that we must make time for - and room for - beauty, tenderness and love. I hope, as this difficult year draws to a close, that all of you find some of all three to greet you in 2018, and that, no matter how bleak things may look, you never give up or give into despair or apathy. 

And I wish you days, as  J.P. Donleavy wrote in The Ginger Man, "on which all things are born, like uncovered stars."

Puerto Rico tries to beat storms natural and man-made for fDi Magazine (19 December 2017)


Michael Deibert interviewed about Haiti by M24, the radio station of Monocle magazine (18 September 2017)
On the Ground: Michael Deibert interview with Sam Schindler for What We Will Abide (26 August 2017)

A Venezuelan retreat for fDi Magazine (17 August 2017)

Was the ‘Guatemalan Spring’ an illusion? for fDi Magazine (11 July 2017)

Before night falls: An American’s letter to France for Michael Deibert's Blog (3 May 2017)

Cuba looks towards renewables for fDi Magazine (7 March 2017)

After momentous year, Cuba faces uncertain 2017 for fDi Magazine (10 January 2017)

'Everything kind of fell apart': Demographics surrounding poverty in Lancaster County shatter myths

26 December 2017

'Everything kind of fell apart': Demographics surrounding poverty in Lancaster County shatter myths

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

The modest home that John Torbett used to share with his mother in Ronks in East Lampeter Township overlooks rolling hills and sloping fields, undulating bleached brown in the wan autumnal light.

“Things were running pretty much smooth until my mom died last year," says Torbett, a 54-year-old computer repairmen and desktop support specialist who became disabled in 2010 due to a combination irritable bowel syndrome and vision problems.

“We were alternating the expenses month by month," Torbett says. “But when she died last year, I inherited all the taxes, the oil bill, the electric bill, and I was already in debt."

Soon Torbett, a Delaware County native who had moved to Lancaster to take advantage of the lower cost of living, found himself tripping over the narrow precipice that separates the lower-middle class from the truly needy.

His is a story that has played out time and again throughout the region.

Nearly 60,000 of the county's 536,624 people are living below the poverty line. Their average age is 30.

Outside of Lancaster city, where the rate is 29.2 percent, the highest rates of poverty are in the boroughs of Mountville (21.4 percent), Millersville (21.2 percent) and Columbia (20.4 percent), and the townships of Upper Leacock (15.6 percent), Lancaster (14.4 percent), Conoy (13.8 percent) and Fulton (13.0 percent).

“The truth is, 66 percent of the poverty (in Lancaster County) is outside the city," says Sue Suter, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Lancaster County. “And the face of poverty here is really a single white woman with children." 

Complex situation

Poverty in Lancaster County is a complex condition that does not lend itself to easy caricatures, its endurance prolonged by a variety of ancillary factors.

Though many seem to continue to visualize poverty as an urban — and, to be stark, non-white — problem in the region, the potential for rural residents to slide from paycheck to paycheck into desperation is one that knows no ethnic or geographic boundaries.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the poverty rate in Pennsylvania was 13.3 percent in 2016, down slightly from 13.5 percent in 2015. It was 10.8 percent in Lancaster County in 2016, up slightly from 10.7 percent in 2015.

About 27 percent of the state's population — or roughly 3.4 million people — live in its 48 rural counties.

The federal government defines poverty as income below $12,060 for a single person, $16,240 for a family of two, $20,420 for a family of three, and $24,600 for a family of four.

When things fall apart
One of the women the United Way's Suter referred to is Brenda Gabriel. When she greeted a journalist recently, Gabriel was residing in a transitional living facility — a wooden cabin whose location, off a main road and nestled among trees overlooking a hollow where deer often bed down for the night, could fairly be described as bucolic.

Gabriel is, like John Torbett, an example of how easily one can slide into poverty from a middle-class life.

“Everything kind of fell apart," Gabriel says of her eviction from her home in September, at the end of a marriage in which she became the sole breadwinner after her husband, a salesman at an industrial cleaning products company, become disabled and attempted to collect disability.

A 50-year-old-bus driver with an 11-year-old daughter, Gabriel initially stayed in a motel for two weeks before moving in briefly with her sister and then finding her temporary housing.

At the transitional living site, residents pay electric, but not rent, through the Factory Ministries and Timberline Church. Factory Ministries is a Paradise-based program that acts as a hub for connecting people in need to various resources and services that also assisted John Torbett . 

Seeking support

“This is not something I ever wanted to have to deal with, but I have to take care of my daughter," Gabriel says of the lugubrious process of forms and meetings that getting into the system of government financial aid entails.

The Pennsylvania State Department of Public Welfare has thus far granted her help for child care and medical coverage (through Medicaid), but no cash assistance. She is waiting for a decision on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also commonly referred to as food stamps.

Finding regular accommodation has also not been easy in a county where landlords often requires that tenants earn three times the monthly rent.

“It's been a very difficult time because my daughter is embarrassed," Gabriel says, wiping a tear away as she sits at the kitchen table of her small cabin, a cup of coffee evaporating its warmth in curls of steam in front of her.

“To see her go through this is hard, but it's going to get better and I'm out of the situation I was in,” she adds. “Getting out of that was the best thing I ever did. The Lord has been good to me through all of this." 

Profile of poverty

The demographic outline of poverty in Lancaster County shatters many myths. According to numbers provided by the the Center for Rural Pennsylvania — a bipartisan legislative agency that serves as a resource for rural policy within the Pennsylvania General Assembly — 74 percent of those living in poverty in Lancaster County are white, while 58 percent are female.

Some 35 percent have at least a high school diploma and 17 percent have an associate’s degree or higher.

Far from being shirkers, 30 percent of those in poverty have full-time employment, while 23 percent work part time. The makeup of poor housheolds is also an amalgam, with 42 percent in single-person households and 38 percent in households with children.

According to the Census Bureau, 37 percent of rural households had incomes below $35,000. Among Pennsylvania counties, Lancaster hovers in the middle in its portion of residents eligible for medical assistance through Medicaid. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, 17.3 percent of the local population qualifies for Medicaid. And that number has been rising steadily over the last decade.

Many of those on Medicaid also participate in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps. 

Lack of resources

“Poverty is about more than not having money, it's about lack of resources," says Chuck Holt, the president and CEO of The Factory Ministries. The organization is one of several here that attempt to centralize access to various services that the poor may need. Other entities include Pathways out of Poverty and the Elizabethtown Area Hub.

“In rural poverty, homelessness looks different than in the city," says Holt. “We don't have people sleeping in the street, or shelters, we have doubling, tripling up, three families living in one place. Many are single moms with multiple kids. There's a growing Hispanic population. Some single dads, too."

One of those single dads, Josh Roten, a 35-year-old groundskeeper who lives in Peach Bottom and struggles to support himself and his 9-year-old son, points to another factor present in this strata: A strong sense of alienation from politicians and the political process itself.
“Have you ever tried to call a politician?" asks Roten, who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, as he smokes a cigarette outside on his porch while his son arrives home from school in the gathering dusk. “They don't return calls, their voicemails are full … . They ignore us. Politicians never listen to us, they don't care what we think until their position depends on us." 

Battling isolation

One chronic and continuing issue of rural poverty, both in Lancaster County and elsewhere, is the lack of connectedness with the larger world.

“If you look at Elizabethtown, eastern Lancaster County and the Quarryville area, those are three areas where you have a concentration of rural poverty, and one of the dynamics shared was transportation is a huge barrier," says Andrea L. Heberlein, the lead director of Collective Impact for the United Way of Lancaster Country.

“Residents had a hard time accessing services because they are located in (Lancaster) city," she says.

Holt echoes Heberlein’s comments.

“If you're down here, there's no public transportation. The bus runs routes 30 and 340, and not all day long," Holt says. “In Pequea Valley, there was only one laundromat, and that burned down three months ago."

In addition, the Factory Ministries in Paradise runs the only food pantry for 80 square miles. 

Impact of opioids

As with so many others facets of Pennsylvania life, the opioid epidemic has also hit the most vulnerable like a freight train. At least 155 people died of drug overdoses here in 2017, up from 117 the year before.
“Our cases continue to increase in their complications," says Jessica L. Laspino, executive director of CASA of Lancaster County. The seven-year-old organization trains and supervises court-appointed volunteer advocates who work with children in the foster care system, of which there are around 500 on any given day.

“In a lot of the (families) we've been working with, the layers seem to have increased,” Laspino says. “It's not just one or two factors working against the family, it's multiple factors.

“The opioid epidemic has a great impact on the youth we work with," Laspino continues. “You have more young people who are drug addicted and more coming into care because addiction has ravaged the family. So has the lack of adorable housing.

“Parents that did the work and addressed issues still cannot provide safe and stable housing for their kids to return home to, so you have parents who have done the work but kids still languishing in foster care," Laspino says. 

Low-paying jobs

Though jobs are being created in the state's rural pockets, their pay remains punishingly low. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita personal income in rural Pennsylvania counties was $40,938 in 2015, or $12,030 less than in urban counties.

During the same year, more than 1,000 more people fell into poverty in Lancaster County than during the year before, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

“Regardless of what the subject is, when you're talking about rural PA you always have to address the issues of lack of population density and geographic isolation," says Barry L. Denk, the director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“If you don't have the numbers to aggregate, the return on investment, both from public and private, becomes questionable."


And yet, through a patchwork of public and private services and their own pluck, those on the downside of economic advantage in Lancaster County continue to persevere.

John Torbett is looking for part-time work in his field of computer repair and recently adopted a small cat, Paulette, who prowls around his house and keeps watch.

Brenda Gabriel, after months of searching, recently found an apartment she could afford and moved into it with her daughter to great the new year.

Despite her struggles, Gabriel, who now has a financial coach and regularly attends counseling and church at The Factory, is envisioning a happier future story.

“I would like to have a little house for my daughter and I, to have my job — I love my job — and to support her in the things she wants to do."

Friday, December 29, 2017

Books in 2017: A Personal Selection

 Mohammad Mohiedine Anis, 70, smokes his pipe as he sits in his destroyed bedroom listening to music on his vinyl player in Aleppo's formerly rebel-held al-Shaar neighbourhood.(AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos
One of the most important - but in many ways least remembered - Spanish-language poets of the 20th century, whose words translate seamlessly into English in this bilingual collection, Julia de Burgos was the often-anguished and sometimes dizzyingly sensual voice of Puerto Rico who died at 39 in New York City in 1953. In her poetry, recurring images - the sea, the stars - lighten to a degree what can often be the bleak inner life of her writing, and, as a committed political militant and passionate anti-fascist, one of her greatest poems, a tribute to the Rio Grande de Loíza remains, years later, a defiant call to an island and a people battered by catastrophes both natural and man-made:

¡Río Grande de Loíza!... Río grande. Llanto grande.
El más grande de todos nuestros llantos isleños,
si no fuera más grande el que de mi se sale
por los ojos del alma para mi esclavo pueblo.

Rio Grande de Loiza! . . . Great river. Great flood of tears.
The greatest of all our island's tears
save those greater that come from the eyes
up of my soul for my enslaved people.

Holy Legionary Youth: Fascist Activism in Interwar Romania Book by Roland Clark
This all-too-relevant book looks at the foundations and growth of Romania’s indigenous fascist movements, especially Corneliu Zelea Codreanu’s Iron Guard, also known as the Legion of the Archangel Michael or, simply, as the Legionnaire movement. Facing a crumbling state whose moral equivocations finally eroded its authority, the Romanian fascists blended a wild, faux-mystical antisemitic violence with religious and folk-historical symbolism, including appearing in isolated rural villages dressed as haiduc, outlaws who had fought local oppressors in the 19th century. It is no coincidence that Codreanu’s image appeared on t-shirts worn by some of the far-right protesters who ran amok in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer. In addition to assassinations and street violence, the Legionnaires also defined themselves through art – they sold handmade crosses with the words “by sacrificing our lives we will escape from thieves” inscribed beneath them - and by long marches in between Romanian towns that “alerted onlookers that there was something distinctive about the Legion, showing that legionnaires valued hierarchy, order, discipline and physical fitness.” Though not a time in European history that attracts a great deal of attention today, this interwar period in Romania certainly holds a cautionary tale for our present moment.

Los Zetas Inc: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexico by Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera
Though there have been a surfeit of books detailing the garish violence of Mexico’s drug cartels – organizations whose lifeblood depends on both the ravenous appetite for narcotics and current policies of the United States – no book has delved in such nuts-and-bolts detail into the financial hierarchies and dynamics that inform the running of one of these organizations as does Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera’s tome on Los Zetas. Highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the inner working of organized crime and how it integrates itself into the legitimate economy.
Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad
The majesty of one of Iran’s greatest poets – who combines a world and once modern and antique and who writes as frankly and elegantly about female desire as anyone ever has – calls out from the page and evokes a forgotten glory of a national literary tradition that, while perhaps dormant at the moment, waits to be born again.
Family Portrait With Fidel: A Memoir by Carlos Franqui
A memoir of disillusionment and disenchantment with a revolution he once risked his life to support, this memoir by Carlos Franqui, an anti-Batista author and rebel who became editor of the important newspaper Revolución after the dictator’s fall, Franqui’s book shows the betrayal of the Cuban people by the Castro brothers and their allies and the subsuming of hard-fought victories and dreams of progress to totalitarianism. “We carried out all kinds of executions,” Franqui writes at one point. “Real, moral and symbolic.”

Everybody Leaves by Wendy Guerra
A moving elegy to the vanished youth of a Cuban girl’s conflicted and adventurous early life growing up in Cienfuegos and Havana.

Ghost Stories by M. R. James

Classic English ghost stories from one of the masters of the genre, including such gems as “Casting the Runes” and “After Dark in the Playing Fields.” A most enjoyable diversion.
Paradiso by  José Lezama Lima
A complicated, allusive novel of Cuba in the early part of the 20th century, Lezama’s key work remains one of the greatest achievements of Latin American fiction of his era, and his erotic, poetic prose (“They looked each other over with long pauses of insatiation and a carnality of symphonic progression”) couldn’t be further away from the square, macho military culture of today’s “official” Cuba. A sleeping giant, waiting be discovered.
The End of Eddy: A Novel by Édouard Louis
A beautifully rendered and occasionally brutal and disturbing memoir of growing up poor and gay in  northern France, this book captures the simultaneous ache and occasional truces in difficult, dysfunctional families with great clarity and speaks to anyone who ever felt like a misfit who had to break away into the great unknown.

Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea by Shiraz Maher
A vitally important work in decoding the ideology (cosmology might be a better term) of salafi-Jihadism, this book by a noted British academic (and former radical himself) lays out in minute detail the current jihadi interpretation of such concepts as tatarrus (roughly a theological construct relating to human shields but also expanding into targeting civilians) and their roots in various schismatic schools of Islamic thought.

Mephisto by Klaus Manm
The story of an actor’s seduction by the rewards offered by proximity to power in Nazi Germany, the great German author’s 1936 novel has unnerving parables to the situation here in the contemporary United States, and one wonders how many in the orbit of the current U.S. president and his minions have - or will - mentally echo the performer Höfgen thoughts when, as Mephisto, he meets Herman Goering: ”Now I have contaminated myself…Now there is a stain on my hand that I can never wash off…Now I have sold myself…Now I am marked for life.”

Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction by Elaine Frantz Parsons
The garishly theatrical nature of the early Ku Klux Klan, where elements of minstrelsy combined with brutal violence, is here chronicled in a book that is often revelatory. Formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in May or June 1866 (and not, as is often claimed, by former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who only attached to himself to the Klan later), the Klan were defined from the beginning by a relentless repetition of “the portrayal of black people as failed citizens and of white attackers as the people” and sought to destroy black associations and kill their white allies, and to actively and deliberately to destroy familial bonds among freepeople. A vital and important part of U.S. history to be understood.

 Impossible Revolution by Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Perhaps the pinnacle of Syrian dissident literature from a man who spent 16 years in the prisons of the tyrant Hafez al-Assad only to be released and watch the dictator’s son, Bashar al-Assad, take over and level the country, Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s book is a cri de cœur that leaves few unscathed.
Writing that, by early 2012 it was “increasingly clear that the unimaginable situation we had discussed privately - the regime would be willing to destroy the country for the sake of staying in power - was its only political agenda, and that it was already being implemented,” Saleh chronicles massacres in Damascus, Homs and elsewhere and illuminates such critical moments as the July 2012 killing of various Syrian security officers (and the subsequent escalation of the use of barrel bombs) as the moment Iran began taking control of the regime’s defenses.
Saleh scathingly critiques “a neo-bourgeois during the years of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, a class that owes everything to the regime and has a lot to lose were the revolution to emerge victorious” who in turn serve a government who views its people “with contempt and disdain, in a manner no different from a colonizing power’s view of the colonized; this justifies the use of violence against the “backward” masses and cheapens the value of the lives, so much so that killing them is a matter of no great concern.” Saleh sees his hometown of Raqqa slide under control of the jihadists, noting bitterly that he was “unable to walk around the city where I had spent years of my adolescence, where most of my brothers lived, and where my parents had lived until their deaths, while some religiously-obsessed, enraged Tunisians, Saudis, Egyptians and Europeans roamed freely, unable to engage in anything other than murder.” Detailing the depredations of the regime’s muscle-bound, murderous shock troops, known as shabiha (many with roots in the seaside city of Latakia), Saleh quotes the Syrian-British writer Rana Kabbani describing pro-regime Western writers - especially Robert Fisk - as "shabiha of the pen." Nor does former U.S. President Barack Obama – whose inaction in the wake of Assad’s August 2013 Ghouta must be seen as a turning point of the war escape critique, cited for his “treacherous and dastardly” deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Syria shortly thereafter.
“Those who had appointed themselves the guardians of international law were reassuring a murderer that they might be compelled to punish him for violating international law,” Saleh writes of the toothless response to the attack. “But without affecting his ability to kill people and with no reference to his other crimes…The international community decided mass slaughter of Syrians by regime wasn’t a crime, but the weapon used was.”
The government in Syria, Saleh writes, only ever offered “a cosmetic modernity…without any emancipatory privileges,” whose “real identity” consisted of “ the combination of an obsolete, inhumane political apparatus with a glamorous material façade.”
Today, seven years after Syria’s war began, the international community’s abandonment of the people of Syria has never seemed more complete.

Foreign Correspondent by Robert St. Johh

An extraordinary first hand account of Europe’s slide into fascism, this memoir contains, among other details, chilling eyewitness accounts of the rise (and fall) of Romania’s fascist Iron Guard and of the destruction of Belgrade by the Nazis. A searing and timely reminder of how quickly a society that thought of itself as civilized can descend into madness.

Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada by Zoé Valdés

A novel of a rebel voice living through the hundred daily humiliations of life in an ossifying tyranny, this book sets out to chronicle “the island that in wanting to build a paradise has created a hell,” and in doing so skewers many hoary myths of Cuba.

“There are those who maintain that people throw themselves into the sea over insignificant economic deprivations - can’t get any blue jeans, can’t find any chewing gum - but anyone who says that simply doesn’t know Cuba,” Valdés writes. “Doesn’t know the terror and hunger the Cuban people have known; people who say that are those whose knowledge of the country is limited to the luxury hotels and the government."

Families who came to Lancaster from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria adjust to new way of life

16 December 2017

Families who came to Lancaster from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria adjust to new way of life

By Michael Deibert


(Read original article here)

When Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico in September, its winds and lashing rain moved like a murderous scythe across the lush island, toppling power lines, hurling cables across roadways and depositing vehicles upside down in fields. 

Madelyn Velez Santiago's hometown of Mayagüez was spared the worst of the storm's direct impact. However, the collapse of the island's electrical grid wiped out her livelihood. 

"I worked as a dental assistant, but there was no work with no electricity, and we didn't know when it would come back," the 36-year-old mother of two says.

Almost three months after the storm devastated the island, Velez Santiago, who used to travel to Lancaster to visit family as a child, now shares a modest apartment with her children and a childhood friend on the city's west side. 

"The transition from Puerto Rico to here is an intense one, but we've decided to do it because there is nothing in Puerto Rico now," she says. "It's tough, but it's what I have to do." 

Velez Santiago and her children — Luis, 15, and Fabiola, 7 — are among nearly four dozen families who are now adjusting to life in Lancaster, some 1,600 miles way from their former home. 

Blown off their tropical island by the tempest's destructive force, many are here to stay, despite the daunting tasks of finding steady jobs, affordable housing and education for their children. 

"The transition from Puerto Rico to here is an intense one, but we've decided to do it because there is nothing in Puerto Rico now. It's tough, but it's what I have to do."  The challenges of families relocating from Puerto Rico will be an issue city officials will have to face. 

"Thus far, individual families, communities of faith and the school district have been really stepping up in big ways to support families that have been displaced from Puerto Rico," says Lancaster's incoming mayor, Danene Sorace. "But one of the things I'm trying to get a handle on is where families can go whether their needs are housing or counseling services, as for many this has been a traumatic experience. 

"I'd like to have some coordination and to establish a welcome page on our website with some basic information to get families connected depending on what their needs might be," Sorace says. "I do feel we can help people get acclimated and communicate that individuals and families who have been displaced by Maria have a home here."

'Families are struggling' 

As the bare trees of early winter line the street up to Velez Santiago's apartment complex, the mood within is warmed by a glowing Christmas tree and the energy of her children. Sometimes called "the Spanish Rose" — a play on its traditional designation as "The Red Rose City" — Lancaster boasts a large Latino population that makes up roughly 40 percent of the city's nearly 60,000 residents, the vast majority of whom are of Puerto Rican extraction. 

"I like history a lot," says Luis, who attends J.P. McCaskey High School. "But it's a little difficult here because I don't speak much English yet."  "I don't have friends here yet like I did in Puerto Rico, where I had a lot," says Fabiola. 

"I don't have friends here yet like I did in Puerto Rico, where I had a lot." 

While hundreds of thousands of people have fled the island since Maria tore it asunder, tens of thousands had already been leaving amid a grinding economic crisis even before the storm. 

Since Maria, the School District of Lancaster has welcomed 72 students from 47 families, ranging in ages from elementary school to high school. Educating the youngsters, however, is only one of the hurdles that new arrivals face. 

"These families are struggling to find decent housing and jobs," says Damaris Rau, SDL's superintendent. "And I think for many of the adults, they may have been doing great in the middle class in Puerto Rico, but they come here and they can't speak English and they are unable to get the level of employment they should." 

"When we put out a call to the community for backpacks, uniforms, people came forth and gave us tons of things, (but) the county says they have jobs and can't fill them and I think the community needs to stand up and find employment for these people," she says. 

Some already have.

Trying to help 

Tyson Foods has a specifically designed slate of jobs "for people who were affected by Hurricane Maria and had to relocate from Puerto Rico," according to its website. 

Both the Lancaster-Lebanon IU 13 and the Literacy Council of Lancaster-Lebanon are offering free English classes to new arrivals. 

"We created a new arrival class for any newcomers in Lancaster County who need to learn English, and we've been able to accommodate the arrivals with that class," says Cheryl Hiester, the council's executive director. "Nearly all the Puerto Ricans taking the class are professionals," Hiester says. "And we are also trying to match them with mentors to try and help them connect with their related careers in Lancaster." 

When the families displaced by the hurricane can return to the island remains an open question. Though the official death toll from the storm is 62, mortality data from the island suggests the true total might be well over 1,000.

After a federal response widely criticized as lethargic and unfocused —which saw many towns fending for themselves for weeks after the hurricane — only around 65 percent of the island's 3.4 million people have regular access to power, according to the Puerto Rican government, and material damage to buildings and roads remains widespread. 

U.S. Reps. Lloyd Smucker and Charlie Dent wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi late last month calling for additional federal disaster funding for schools in Pennsylvania's 15th and 16th congressional districts, both of which have seen an influx of school-aged children from Puerto Rico after the storm. The money would come from $1.2 billion in proposed aid that would go towards an educational recovery fund. 

Amid such emigration, however, many of Puerto Rico's business leaders have criticized the recently passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — which both Smucker and Dent supported — with the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association warning that new levies on Puerto Rico's businesses contained among its proposals would be "catastrophic" for the island's already-battered economy and lead to more citizens fleeing to the mainland. 

Neither congressman was available to comment on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

'My kids ... need stability' 

Evanisse Maria Rivera, 33, welcomed her two children to her East King Street apartment in Lancaster last month. Danievy and Luis had been living with their father on the island. 

The sandy shores of Salinas, the town on Puerto Rico's southern coast where her family hails from, have been replaced by brown leaves swirling on the sidewalk in a winter wind outside her door. 

"It was very scary," Danievy, a fifth-grader at Wickersham Elementary School, says of the hurricane. "A lot of tress fell down, the noise was very loud. At first the light was there, but it started flickering and the next day it just left completely."

Living in a two-bedroom walk-up with her two other children, Rivera has been told that her two new arrivals may jeopardize her eligibility for rental housing assistance for affordable housing. 

"It's scary sometimes when I go to bed, I have to think about that," says Rivera, a certified peer specialist working at a local Dollar Tree since being laid off from a previous job in her field earlier this year. 

"I'm a single mom, there's no more income than what I get, and my kids coming from Puerto Rico need stability," Rivera says. "(But) we're very resilient people, and there's more opportunity here." 

Her son, soon to be a sixth-grader at Lincoln Middle School, likes being here, but some things take time to get used to. 

"I feel great being in Lancaster," Luis says. "But the temperature is horrible."

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

There's no telling who you might meet in Miami

In the heart of Afro-Puerto Rican culture, a halting recovery 1 month after Hurricane Maria

3 November 2017

In the heart of Afro-Puerto Rican culture, a halting recovery 1 month after Hurricane Maria 

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

LOIZA, Puerto Rico — Spread out over several barrios extended like a sleeping bather's hand along Puerto Rico's northeastern coast, this city of 30,000 has long played host to the most vibrant Afro-Puerto Rican culture on the island.

The modern Puerto Rico is a mélange of indigenous, European and African cultures (with a heavy dose of American influence due to its long relationship as a U.S. territory), but it is here that the country's African heart beat the strongest.

An hour outside of the capital, San Juan, and across the swollen Río Grande de Loíza, memorialized in a famous poem by Julia de Burgos, the streets of Loíza often echo with the rhythms of bomba, a traditional, percussion-heavy musical style based on the interplay of drums.

Every year in July, the town hosts a festival during which it explodes with color, complete with music, distinctive cuisine and people donning costumes featuring máscaras de vejigante, colorful masks based on characters from Puerto Rican folklore.

No amount of ebullience, however, prepared the town for Hurricane Maria when it descended at the end of September. With hundreds of houses totally or partially destroyed and the city's electricity grid leveled, Loíza, whose cultural vibrancy has often been matched by its economic poverty, finds itself fighting for survival.

'Things are slowly getting better'

"This is the only town on the island where a majority of residents are of African descent," says Raul Ayala, whose family are widely regarded as the caretakers of some of the town's traditions. He is sitting in the courtyard of the half-destroyed house of his sister, its roof gone and water still pooling on its floors from a recent rain.

"Things are slowly getting better, and we're getting up little by little," Ayala says. "But we still have problems. … It's imperative to re-establish electricity so things can function. Lots of companies remain closed, and people who don't work don't have salaries, so it's a domino effect."
That things have not yet returned to normal is clear from the hundreds of people lined up to receive food in the town's central plaza, where half a dozen Puerto Rican businesses and organizations have organized a distribution of vital items.

"We're giving food, water, baby food, diapers and all the necessities that people need here," says José Martorell, who works with La Estrella, a chain of restaurants that delivers comida criolla, low-cost Puerto Rican and Cuban food. "In San Juan, we're the fortunate ones that have generators and water, and we needed to give back to the community."

A little further down the line, another volunteer agrees.

"We Puerto Ricans are very strong people, but no one was prepared for a hurricane like this," says Frankie Colón of the Fundación Caritas Alegres, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to children and families with limited resources to meet their health, education and housing needs.

"There is so much to done, it's not going to be a one week effort," he said. "It's going to be years to come of people working together."

'We can help each other'

Across town at the Escuela Celso González Vaillant, around 25 people remain camped out in classrooms that have yet to reopen for the school year, sheltered there after their own homes were destroyed in the storm.

"Were waiting for a lot of things [that have been] promised us and haven't given us," says 67 year-old Esther Santiago Jiménez, who has been living in the school since the storm and grew up in New York and Boston. "It's not easy, we don't have much help from the government, but we can help each other."

Like other parts of Puerto Rico — 70 percent of the island by last count — the hurricane has left Loíza in the dark, with no power since the end of September, and with only sporadic gurgles of water coming out of its taps.

Back in the courtyard of his family's home, its walls still radiating a vivid Caribbean orange and green despite its damage, Raul Ayala tells a visitor that in two years the town will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his family's cultural group, the Ballet Folklórico Hermanos Ayala, founded by his father and a mainstay of Puerto Rican television variety shows over the years. He believes the town must rebuild.

"In the cultural life of Puerto Rico," Ayala says. "Loíza is the town that really represents the African traditions."

Desperation, defiance remain in Puerto Rico's central mountains

2 November 2017

Desperation, defiance remain in Puerto Rico's central mountains 1 month after Hurricane Maria 

By Michael Deibert


(Read original article here)

BARRANQUITAS, Puerto Rico — When he surveys this devastated mountain town where he has been mayor for the last two decades, Francisco López sees a community laid low but refusing to give up.

"Basically, all of the work of five decades has been destroyed," López told LNP as he arrived on foot, walkie-talkie in hand, at a food distribution center housed in a sports complex. “All the roads have been damaged, six bridge have collapsed, around 1,200 homes were destroyed. Communication has basically been cut off. This is a critical situation. We are working day and night to get back on out feet."

Perhaps more than any other region of this island, Puerto Rico's central mountains, outposts overlooking stunning vistas connected to the rest of the territory by snaking alpine roads, suffered from both the immediate physical destruction of Hurricane Maria and the subsequent isolation that came in its aftermath.

What once seemed a charming remoteness, perfect for day-tripping families from the capital San Juan to come and enjoy a taste of the island's jíbaro (as its mountain residents are called) culture, was suddenly transformed to a stark sense of being cut off from the rest of the world.

The birthplace of turn-of-the-century Puerto Rican political icon Luis Muñoz Rivera — whose son, Luis Muñoz Marín, brokered the island's commonwealth status with the United States — Barranquitas today, a month after the storm, remains an obstacle course of downed power lines, strewn wires, no electricity and sporadic water.

One sees the remnants of bridges resting in heaps at the bottom of ravines — the municipality has since created temporary paths to allow residents to access to the rest of the city — amid a backdrop of a fevered attempt by local officials to bring aid to those who need it.

"Barranquitas was very affected and without water because the roads were very impacted, but little by little things are getting better," says Sgt. José Oliveras of Puerto Rico's National Guard and who is helping to organize food distribution in the town.

'We are trying to help'

Troops and volunteers are delivering food and water to 33,000 people a day, a process hampered, some said, by a lack of large vehicles, leading the shipments to be transported in relays in 4x4s and private cars. At one intersection, people gather with buckets and jerry cans around a truck dispensing potable water. According to the mayor's office, at least two people have died due to conditions since the storm, and one person in the town has taken their own life out of despair.

At a makeshift medical clinic set up in a Methodist church, volunteers and doctors see waves of people seeking medical attention.

"There are a lot of neighborhoods here without access to medical care, to lights, to water, to medicines," says Oscar Ruiz of the Sociedad Puertorriqueña de Endocrinología y Diabetología (SPED), whose group is traveling around the island conducting health clinics. "We are trying to help, but there is a great need."

Locals concur.

"The services for people with medical complications, with cancer, diabetes, lupus" were very affected by the storm, says Eileen Rivera Diaz, the wife of the pastor of the church where the clinic is held.
At a disaster recovery center staffed by employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — one of only five extant on an island the size of Connecticut — around 100 people from the region wait to be seen.

FEMA sees residents "on an individual case-by-case basis," center manager Felix Santos told LNP. "Because not everyone has the same problems, the same damages or the same income."

Asked about the difficulty of residents applying for aid, given the fact that virtually all phone communication and electricity had been cut off, Santos said "we're doing what we always do, we're urging people, if they can't get to us, to apply online or over the phone."

'I've never seen anything like this'

The road beyond Barranquitas — between the towns of Comerío and Naranjito, in the direction towards the capital, San Juan, from which aid would likely come — appeared on the verge of collapse in various places, with one lane of the two-lane pass having collapsed down the mountainside. House along the road were filled floor to ceiling with a thick red clay that had burst through their windows in an apparent landslide.

"I'm 80 years old, I've lived in this house for 50 years and I've never seen anything like this," said Aida Jiménez , standing in the shell of her home that stands overlooking a green valley as a tiny kitten darted around her feet. "Look at my house, it's gone, many of the other houses, too."

Further south, though, a sense of hope, however slim, is palpable.

In the town of Aibonito, which boasts an historical presence of the Mennonite community, Harry Nussbaum and Linda Nussbaum-Ulrich, who run the Casa Ulrich guesthouse, await the arrival of the Lititz-based Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), who landed this week.

"They're bringing construction workers, people that can rebuild and put roofs back," says Linda Nussbaum Ulrich.

Against all odds, on an island where some 70 percent remain without electricity, the center of Aibonito succeeded in restoring its power grid.

On a recent Friday night, the town center was filled with locals and nearby communities, seeking respite from their darkened homes by enjoying some street food and having a beer at one of the local bars. At a restaurant in a converted colonial building, a crowd sang along passionately with the lyrics of "Preciosa," a song made famous by the singer Marc Anthony, that recounts the island's many charms, from its beaches to its fragrant flowers before ending with the emotional refrain Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico (I love you, Puerto Rico).

Next door, on the balcony of a shuttered dance studio, someone had hung a defiant banner:

Y si el cielo cae, bailo bajo la tormenta (And if the sky falls, dance under the storm).

One month after Hurrican Maria, Puerto Rico's coast struggles to rebuild

1 November 2017

One month after Hurrican Maria, Puerto Rico's Coast Struggles to Rebuild

By Michael Deibert


(Read the original article here)

GUAYAMA, Puerto Rico — As Hurricane Maria screamed ashore along Puerto Rico's southern coast, packing winds of 155 mph and deluging the island with rain, Lucy Alvarado felt that an apocalypse might be upon her.

"I experienced Hugo, Hortense, and George," the 75-year-old said as she stood in the backyard of her half-destroyed home in the Palmas Bajas neighborhood of this coastal town, clouds of mosquitoes buzzing infernally as she named previous powerful hurricanes that battered the island.

"But there was never anything to compare to Maria."

With an outbuilding of her main home destroyed by wind and rain, other parts of the house were battered as the storm tore a nearby basketball court from pillar to post, sending debris flying through the air like missiles.

When the winds abated, Alvarado — whose sister, Nydia Alvarado, lives in Lancaster — and her husband, 70-year-old Luis "Pucho" Gonzales, found the district had been sealed off by fallen debris and swollen rivers.

Gonzales gathered their neighbors together to clear a path using machetes, shovels and their bare hands.

"When the hurricane passed, everything was blocked and eight or nine of us worked here to clear the road," Gonzales said.

A few neighborhoods away, in Barrio Olimpo, Veronica Tirado, whose sister also lives in Lancaster, sat in a house filled with memorabilia of that most American pastime, baseball, and offered her own account of the disaster.

"It has been a horrible experience, both during and after," Tirado said. "I thought the winds were going to explode the door." 

Scenes of destruction

The word "hurricane" barely does justice to the destruction Maria wrought on this Caribbean island of 3.5 million people — all U.S. citizens — in late September. It already had been afflicted with population flight because of an economic crisis and grinding austerity that has left public services ill-quipped to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Along the coast, telephone poles lay on their sides, some having crashed down through the middle of houses, and cables lay strewn like confetti along roadsides and in trees. Roughly 70 percent of the island remains without power.

In one field, an old school bus that the storm picked up and flung some 500 feet rested upside down like a child's toy. Old stone homes, some that had stood for over a century, have been reduced to mere piles of rocks.

Farther up the coast, in the seaside town of Maunabo, where the prowess of the fishermen is so legendary people paint murals honoring them, any response of the U.S. federal government seems confused, at best, though residents say it has improved somewhat in recent days.

Walking into a local gymnasium where a group of volunteers were working with the National Guard to distribute food, one reporter was asked if he was from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government body whose slow response to the crisis has been widely criticized.

"I am a fisherman [and] the president of the Fisherman Village, at least what is left of it," said 45-year-old Victor Lam as he surveyed Maunabo's almost totally destroyed dock, which had recently been modernized and refurbished.

"Truly, I had never seen a hurricane as strong as this one among the ones that had hit Puerto Rico. The waves came up to there” — he pointed to a region easily above the head of a person — “and left a lot of debris." 

No communication, no food

Even the hillside barrios of Maunabo, such as the impoverished neighborhood of Calzada, weren't spared.

"It felt like an earthquake. Every time there was a gust of wind you could feel your house shaking," said Marcia Montes, 33, who moved back to the island from California 17 years ago and owns a bar here.
“There's not one house in this barrio where the windows didn't explode,” she said. “I know a lot of people who lost everything.”
Montes said small towns like this one haven’t seen that much aid. Many don’t know when food is distributed.

“There's no communication. … People have to figure out where they'll find water. They go to rivers."

The need is attested to by the hundreds of people waiting in line to receive food at a public school in Calzada, nervously eyeing late afternoon clouds descending low over the surrounding hills, appearing to threaten more rain.

"There are many situations going on through Puerto Rico's municipalities, but Maunabo has been hurt deeply," said Edwin Pagan Bonilla, whose organization, Generacion 51, has partnered with the Chefs for Puerto Rico initiative of the Spanish-American chef José Andrés to deliver food to those in need. The chef's kitchen network has delivered about 2.2 million meals to the citizens of Puerto Rico, more than any other body including FEMA and the Red Cross.

"This is an effort that has risen from the community," said Pagan Bonilla. “But we need all the help we can receive."

Andrés told LNP that he saw the problem of the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as one of will, not resources.

"If we had asked permission from above, we would still all be still waiting," he said. "The private sector here functioned very well, the bakeries were producing, the main food distribution companies had food. The problem was they had to feed the island and no one was making the calls. People even in the worst of situations, all they want is a humble plate of hot food."

Even in these dire moments, however, there are signs of life. In the abandoned shell of a devastated home in Maunabo, an elegant white horse grazes defiantly, as if oblivious to the destruction surrounding him.

Back in Guayama, days after the storm hit, a stray kitten wandered in to the battered home of Lucy Alvarado. She decided to let the stray stay.

She named her Maria.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

In Memoriam: James Breon

While I was away reporting in Puerto Rico, I lost someone who was very dear to me, my maternal grandfather, James Breon.

At 92 years old, he was my last surviving grandparent and, in many ways, the one I was closest to. Despite my gypsy life, we talked on the phone almost every week. He was born the son of a Pennsylvania drugstore owner, joined the armed forces when still in his teens to fight in World War II and after stations in St. Augustine, Florida, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and Long Beach, California, he served with the Coast Guard aboard the USS Arthur Middleton in the South Pacific. He married my grandmother, Leah, during the war and then returned to the States to serve 15 years as a fireman before taking a job with the American Dairy Association and then opening a painting business that thrived for nearly three decades here in Lancaster County.

An early riser, he had an unparalleled work ethic, loved breakfasting at various diners and made yearly trips to the Thousand Islands region of Canada to fish, which he loved. He took me to New Orleans for the first time, where we strolled the French Quarter (me as a 16 year-old in a Damned t-shirt) and saw Pete Fountain live at the Riverside Hilton. Despite personal tragedies and health setbacks that he endured, he always adopted am optimistic attitude towards life and his mind remind lucid and his sense of humour intact right up until the end.

This is a picture of him on his wedding day with my grandmother, a young man from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, ready to take on the world.

I know he was ready to go and it was his time, but I sure am going to miss him.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

A Direct Line: How a glut of cheap, powerful heroin grown in Mexico is delivered more than 2,000 miles to Lancaster County

6 September 2017

How a glut of cheap, powerful heroin grown in Mexico is delivered more than 2,000 miles to Lancaster County

By Michael Deibert


(Read the originals story here)

They stare out silently from the photographs as they were in life, but they have crossed over to a plain from which there is no return. 

Megan Anna Hummer, of Landisville, smiling and playing with her dog, died of a heroin overdose at age 31. She was living in a recovery home at the time.

“Iron Mike” Stauffer, tattooed and homeless on the streets of Lancaster city, began using heroin as a 16-yearold in Ephrata and died at 36 this summer.

Elizabeth Loranzo, a Lancaster School of Cosmetology graduate, had gotten clean, relapsed and died of an overdose at 25, leaving behind a 9-month-old son and a fiance.

The rolling farmlands of Lancaster County might seem a world away from the rugged hills of northern Mexico, but the ravenous appetite for drugs here has made southeastern Pennsylvania a lucrative market for a product that’s sale continues to fuel violence in America’s southern neighbor and despair on Pennsylvanian streets.

The surge in demand for heroin has coincided with shifts in the distribution network that allow for cheaper, more powerful forms of the drug to be delivered more quickly via brokers working for cartels to small-town neighborhoods from coast to coast.

In the most noteworthy change in recent decades, Mexican drug cartels sneaking heroin through legal points of entry have disrupted and overtaken the traditional supply chain, which once originated in the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

“Our heroin used to come from Afghanistan, and it was expensive to get it here,” Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said. “Now it comes from Mexico, and it’s a lot cheaper. The heroin we have is predominantly coming from Mexican cartels.”

Mexico’s Golden Triangle, an imposing, mountainous region where the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua meet, produces both high-grade poppies, from which heroin is derived, and marijuana.

The influence of the organizations that benefit from the trade — and two cartels in particular — can be felt even here, nearly 2,000 miles from the Mexican border.

Meet the suppliers

Responsible for delivering most of the heroin and other drugs flowing into Pennsylvania are two Mexican drug cartels: the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG.

“It’s safe to say the majority of drugs coming in today are chiefly from the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG,” said Gary Tuggle, the special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Philadelphia field division, under whose jurisdiction Lancaster County falls.

The Sinaloa Cartel was founded by the now imprisoned Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and Héctor Luis “El Güero” Palma Salazar after the collapse of the Guadalajara Cartel in the late 1980s.

The cartel operated a cocaine distribution hub in Lancaster County until the arrest of its county-based drug runners in 2007. The runners flew drugs into the Smoketown Airport, lived in homes in Manheim Township and operated a local carpet cleaning business as a front as they ran drugs up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When the runners were arrested, authorities found $1.8 million in cash and $160,000 in drugs in their Manheim Township homes, as well as $2 million worth of drugs in a car that was stopped on the turnpike just north of Lancaster County.

The CJNG is Mexico’s fastest-growing drug trafficking organization, holding sway over a multistate empire that runs nearly unbroken from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast.
The CJNG was largely formed by the foot soldiers of Sinaloa Cartel boss Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal after he was killed in a July 2010 drug battle with the Mexican army.

The cartel began as something of a spinoff of Sinaloa and has since emerged as a force all its own. In its September 2011 coming out, the CJNG dumped 35 corpses, believed to be members of the rival Los Zetas Cartel, into rush-hour traffic in a suburb of the Gulf Coast city of Veracruz.

In 2015, the CJNG ambushed and killed 15 police officers. Last year, it shot down a military helicopter with rocketpropelled grenades, killing five soldiers.

Though many of the group’s chieftains have been captured in recent years, the CJNG’s cofounder, a former police officer named Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, remains at large.

The CJNG is the dominant criminal faction in Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Morelos and Veracruz and is believed to have its eyes on an expansion.

A report earlier this month in the Mexican newspaper Periódico Noroeste quoted anonymous sources from an investigative body affiliated with Mexico’s Ministry of Interior who claimed the CJNG would launch an offensive in coming months to take over vast swaths of the Sinaloa Cartel’s territory.

Cheaper and faster delivery

The traditionally dominant drug trafficking organizations from Mexico have begun to fracture as drug lords are slain or captured by the government or one another, and the highly linear system of drug distribution in Pennsylvania and elsewhere has had to adapt.

The characteristic control that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations had exercised over everything from the production of marijuana and poppies to the processing, manufacturing, transportation and distribution of the product down to the retail level has shifted.

Drug trafficking today is no longer the centralized process it once was, and now involves brokers who go into particular areas and identify the retail distribution networks, which are interested in the highest purity level at the lowest cost.

“We believe the Sinaloa Cartel is still involved in providing cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, fentanyl and other drugs to this area, but it’s being shipped directly rather than going to a distribution hub like Chicago,” said Tuggle, of the Drug Enforcement Agency. “We strongly believe that pattern is going to increase.”

Law enforcement officials say cartel brokers will now enter a zone and offer their services to indigenous drug-trafficking groups.

Those groups themselves, in turn, have become so atomized and businesslike that some will “rent” territory to other organizations in which they can sell their product while the local criminal organizations collect a cut of the profits.

This has proven to be the case in North Philadelphia, for example, in areas where traditionally Latino gangs have subleased territory to African-American drug organizations.
These shifting dynamics have produced a marked change in both the users and the dealers, police say.

“Back in the day, the stereotypical heroin addict was older,” said Lancaster city police Chief Keith Sadler, who worked with law enforcement in Philadelphia for 27 years before taking the reins to head Lancaster’s police force in 2008.

“But it’s no longer just an old junkie drug. And that heroin was, like, 5 to 10 percent (pure) back then. Now it’s almost pure. And half of these dealers now are addicts themselves. Further up the food chain. Now you see a lot of these guys are using their own product.”
And despite the takedown of many major cartel figures in Mexico, the purity of the drug gets better as the prices go down.

“You don’t have the corner trafficking and as many shootouts over the corner,” Stedman said. “But what we’re seeing now are drug rip-offs and people using violence because they feel people owe them money for drugs, home invasions and things like that.”

Losing the war?

The decapitations and capture of so many cartel leaders has had little impact on the flow of drugs into the United States. And they have failed to tamp down the violence associated with the drug trade in Mexico itself.

In June, 2,234 people were slain in Mexico in what was the deadliest month in 20 years.
“The kingpin strategy does not work in anti-narcotics operations if the aim is to stop drug trafficking and related activities,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Correa-Cabrera has studied cartel activity in Mexico for more than a decade.

“When a kingpin is removed, he’s replaced by someone else, violence increases, and there has not been really any visible impact in the drug trade,” Correa- Cabrera said.

Once powerful regional cartels such as Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel fracture, but others rise to take their place.

And the drugs keep flowing.

In March, authorities dismantled an Allentown-Reading drug trafficking ring that was smuggling large quantities of heroin, cocaine and meth into the area from Mexico.
Police seized $2.2 million worth of heroin and meth when they stopped and searched a tractor-trailer with California plates in Reading, leading to the arrest of six people, five of whom are U.S. residents.

In May, five members of the so-called Aryan Strikeforce, a white-supremacist organization based in Pennsylvania, were indicted by a Harrisburg grand jury for conspiring to transport methamphetamines, firearms and machine gun parts.

In June 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania handed down a 108-count indictment charging 37 people allegedly associated with the Cartel de los Laredo, a kind of mini-cartel based in the city of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos, with money laundering and drug charges stemming from the importation of heroin to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and elsewhere.

One often overlooked aspect of the drug trade is the role that legitimate financial institutions in the United States and elsewhere have played in facilitating it.

Entities such as Bank of America, Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo) and HSBC were found by U.S. investigators to have been used to launder billions of dollars of drug profits. The latter was ordered to pay a record $1.92 billion for laundering Mexican drug money in 2012.

And for every kilo of heroin seized, many more are making it through the legal points of entry between the two countries and into communities across Pennsylvania.

Building a wall along the Mexico border, such as the one proposed by President Donald Trump, likely would have little impact on the trade in Lancaster County or anywhere else in the United States, officials said.

Despite the U.S. Customs and Border Protection requesting $1.6 billion earlier this year for 32 miles of a new wall system and 28 miles of levee walls, according the CBP’s own figures, from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2016, 81 percent of the drugs intercepted at the U.S.Mexico border were stopped at legal ports of entry, not by border patrol agents patrolling more remote locations.