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.