Friday, March 27, 2009

Book Searches

I’ve been wanting for a while now to buy a good hardback set of a series of really bad books by Edgar Rice Burroughs—the Pellucidar series. Burroughs most famously created Tarzan but you may also have heard of The Land that Time Forgot.

The first book I can recall reading for pleasure was Jack London’s Call of the Wild though it is less a book than a short story.

The seven books in this series were pure joy for an eleven year old boy. I was falling asleep in a construction contract this afternoon so I took a break and tried looking for the books online. I came across . It links with all kinds of vendors…kinda like an Orbitz or Travelocity for books.

More on Drug Trafficking from STRATFOR

STRATFOR on the Central American Role:

By Stephen Meiners

As part of STRATFOR’s coverage of the security situation in Mexico, we have observed some significant developments in the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere over the past year. While the United States remains the top destination for South American-produced cocaine, and Mexico continues to serve as the primary transshipment route, the path between Mexico and South America is clearly changing.

These changes have been most pronounced in Central America, where Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have begun to rely increasingly on land-based smuggling routes as several countries in the region have stepped up monitoring and interdiction of airborne and maritime shipments transiting from South America to Mexico.

The results of these changes have been extraordinary. According to a December 2008 report from the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center, less than 1 percent of the estimated 600 to 700 tons of cocaine that departed South America for the United States in 2007 transited Central America. The rest, for the most part, passed through the Caribbean Sea or Pacific Ocean en route to Mexico. Since then, land-based shipment of cocaine through Central America appears to have ballooned. Earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland estimated in an interview with a Guatemalan newspaper that cocaine now passes through that country at a rate of approximately 300 to 400 tons per year.

Notwithstanding the difficulty associated with estimating drug flows, it is clear that Central America has evolved into a significant transshipment route for drugs, and that the changes have taken place rapidly. These developments warrant a closer look at the mechanics of the drug trade in the region, the actors involved, and the implications for Central American governments — for whom drug-trafficking organizations represent a much more daunting threat than they do for Mexico.

Some Background

While the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere is multifaceted, it fundamentally revolves around the trafficking of South American-produced cocaine to the United States, the world’s largest market for the drug. Drug shipment routes between Peru and Colombia — where the vast majority of cocaine is cultivated and produced — and the United States historically have been flexible, evolving in response to interdiction efforts or changing markets. For example, Colombian drug traffickers used to control the bulk of the cocaine trade by managing shipping routes along the Caribbean smuggling corridor directly to the United States. By the 1990s, however, as the United States and other countries began to focus surveillance and interdiction efforts along this corridor, the flow of U.S.-bound drugs was forced into Mexico, which remains the main transshipment route for the overwhelming majority of cocaine entering the United States.

A similar situation has been occurring over the last two years in Central America. From the 1990s until as recently as 2007, traffickers in Mexico received multiton shipments of cocaine from South America. There was ample evidence of this, including occasional discoveries of bulk cocaine on everything from small propeller aircraft and Gulfstream jets to self-propelled semisubmersible vessels, fishing trawlers and cargo ships. These smuggling platforms had sufficient range and capacity to bypass Central America and ship bulk drugs directly to Mexico.

By early 2008, however, a series of developments in several Central American countries suggested that drug-trafficking organizations — Mexican cartels in particular — were increasingly trying to establish new land-based smuggling routes through Central America for cocaine shipments from South America to Mexico and eventual delivery to the United States. While small quantities of drugs had certainly transited the region in the past, the routes used presented an assortment of risks. A combination of poorly maintained highways, frequent border crossings, volatile security conditions and unpredictable local criminal organizations apparently presented such great logistical challenges that traffickers opted to send the majority of their shipments through well-established maritime and airborne platforms.

In response to this relatively unchecked international smuggling, several countries in the region began taking steps to increase the monitoring and interdiction of such shipments. The Colombian government, for one, stepped up monitoring of aircraft operating in its airspace. The Mexican government installed updated radar systems and reduced the number of airports authorized to receive flights originating in Central and South America. The Colombian government estimates that the aerial trafficking of cocaine from Colombia has decreased by as much as 90 percent since 2003.

Maritime trafficking also appears to have suffered over the past few years, most likely due to greater cooperation and information-sharing between Mexico and the United States. The United States has an immense capability to collect maritime technical intelligence, and an increasing degree of awareness regarding drug trafficking at sea. Two examples of this progress include the Mexican navy’s July 2008 capture — acting on intelligence provided by the United States — of a self-propelled semisubmersible vessel loaded with more than five tons of cocaine, and the U.S. Coast Guard’s February 2009 interdiction of a Mexico-flagged fishing boat loaded with some seven tons of cocaine about 700 miles off Mexico’s Pacific coast. Presumably as a result of successes such as these, the Mexican navy reported in 2008 that maritime trafficking had decreased by an estimated 60 percent over the last two years.

While it is impossible to independently corroborate the Mexican and Colombian governments’ estimates on the degree to which air- and seaborne drug trafficking has decreased over the last few years, developments in Central America over the past year certainly support their assessments. In particular, STRATFOR has observed that in order to make up for losses in maritime and aerial trafficking, land-based smuggling routes are increasingly being used — not by Colombian cocaine producers or even Central American drug gangs, but by the now much more powerful Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

Mechanics of Central American Drug Trafficking

It is important to clarify that what we are defining as land-based trafficking is not limited to overland smuggling. The methods associated with land-based trafficking can be divided into three categories: overland smuggling, littoral maritime trafficking and short-range aerial trafficking.

Click to view map

[It is a pretty cool interactive map.]

The most straightforward of these is simple overland smuggling. As a series of investigations in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua demonstrated last year, overland smuggling operations use a wide variety of approaches. In one case, authorities pieced together a portion of a route being used by Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel in which small quantities of drugs entered Costa Rica from Panama via the international point of entry on the Pan-American Highway. The cocaine was often held for several days in a storage facility before being loaded onto another vehicle to be driven across the country on major highways. Upon approaching the Nicaraguan border, however, the traffickers opted to avoid the official port of entry and instead transferred the shipments into Nicaragua on foot or on horseback along a remote part of the border. Once across, the shipments were taken to the shores of the large inland Lake Nicaragua, where they were transferred onto boats to be taken north, at which point they would be loaded onto vehicles to be driven toward the Honduran border. In one case in Nicaragua, authorities uncovered another Sinaloa-linked route that passed through Managua and is believed to have followed the Pan-American Highway through Honduras and into El Salvador.

The second method associated with land-based trafficking involves littoral maritime operations. Whereas long-range maritime trafficking involves large cargo ships and self-propelled semisubmersible vessels capable of delivering multiton shipments of drugs from South America to Mexico without having to refuel, littoral trafficking tends to involve so-called “go-fast boats” that are used to carry smaller quantities of drugs at higher speeds over shorter distances. This method is useful to traffickers who might want to avoid, for whatever reason, a certain stretch of highway or perhaps even an entire country. According to Nicaraguan military officials, several go-fast boats are suspected of operating off the country’s coasts and of sailing outside Nicaraguan territorial waters in order to avoid authorities. While it is possible to make the entire trip from South America to Mexico using only this method — and making frequent refueling stops — it is believed that littoral trafficking is often combined with an overland network.

The third method associated with land-based drug smuggling involves short-range aerial operations. In these cases, clandestine planes make stops in Central America before either transferring their cargo to a land vehicle or making another short flight toward Mexico. Over the past year, several small planes loaded with drugs or cash have crashed or been seized in Honduras, Mexico and other countries in the region. In addition, authorities in Guatemala have uncovered several clandestine airstrips allegedly managed by the Mexican drug-trafficking organization Los Zetas. These examples suggest that even as overall aerial trafficking appears to have decreased dramatically, the practice continues in Central America. Indeed, there is little reason to expect that it would not continue, considering that many countries in the region lack the resources to adequately monitor their airspace.

While each of these three methods involves a different approach to drug smuggling, the methods share two important similarities. For one, the vehicles involved — be they speedboats, small aircraft or private vehicles — have limited cargo capacities, which means land-based trafficking generally involves cocaine shipments in quantities no greater than a few hundred pounds. While smaller quantities in more frequent shipments mean more handling, they also mean that less product is lost if a shipment is seized. More importantly, each of these land-based methods requires that a drug-trafficking organization maintain a presence inside Central America.

Actors Involved

There are a variety of drug-trafficking organizations operating inside Central America. In addition to some of the notorious local gangs — such as Calle 18 and MS-13 — there is also a healthy presence of foreign criminal organizations. Colombian drug traffickers, for example, historically have been no strangers to the region. However, as STRATFOR has observed over the past year, it is the more powerful Mexico-based drug-trafficking organizations that appear to be overwhelmingly responsible for the recent upticks in land-based narcotics smuggling in Central America.

Based on reports of arrests and drug seizures in the region over the past year, it is clear that no single Mexican cartel maintains a monopoly on land-based drug trafficking in Central America. Los Zetas, for example, are extremely active in several parts of Guatemala, where they engage in overland and short-range aerial trafficking. The Sinaloa cartel, which STRATFOR believes is the most capable Mexican trafficker of cocaine, has been detected operating a fairly extensive overland smuggling route from Panama to El Salvador. Some intelligence gaps remain regarding, for example, the precise route Sinaloa follows from El Salvador to Mexico or the route Los Zetas use between South America and Guatemala. It is certainly possible that these two Mexican cartels do not rely exclusively on any single route or method in the region. But the logistical challenges associated with establishing even one route across Central America make it likely that existing routes are maintained even after they have been detected — and are defended if necessary.

The operators of the Mexican cartel-managed routes also do not match a single profile. At times, Mexican cartel members themselves have been found to be operating in Central America. More common is the involvement of locals in various phases of smuggling operations. Nicaraguan and Salvadoran nationals, for example, have been arrested in northwestern Nicaragua for operating a Sinaloa-linked overland and littoral route into El Salvador. Authorities in Costa Rica have arrested Costa Rican nationals for their involvement in overland routes through that country. In that case, a related investigation in Panama led to the arrest of several Mexican nationals who reportedly had recently arrived in the area to more closely monitor the operation of their route.
One exception is Guatemala, where Mexican drug traffickers appear to operate much more extensively than in any other Central American country; this may be due, at least in part, to the relationship between Los Zetas and the Guatemalan Kaibiles.

Beyond the apparently more-established Zeta smuggling operations there, several recent drug seizures — including an enormous 1,800-acre poppy plantation attributed to the Sinaloa cartel — make it clear that other Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are currently active inside Guatemala. Sinaloa was first suspected of increasing its presence in Guatemala in early 2008, when rumors surfaced that the cartel was attempting to recruit local criminal organizations to support its own drug-trafficking operations there. The ongoing Zeta-Sinaloa rivalry at that time triggered a series of deadly firefights in Guatemala, prompting fears that the bloody turf battles that had led to record levels of organized crime-related violence inside Mexico would extend into Central America.

Security Implications in Central America

Despite these concerns and the growing presence of Mexican traffickers in the region, there apparently have been no significant spikes in drug-related violence in Central America outside of Guatemala. Several factors may explain this relative lack of violence.

First, most governments in Central America have yet to launch large-scale counternarcotics campaigns. The seizures and arrests that have been reported so far have generally been the result of regular police work, as opposed to broad changes in policies or a significant commitment of resources to address the problem. More significantly, though, the quantities of drugs seized probably amount to just a drop in the bucket compared to the quantity of drugs that moves through the region on a regular basis. Because seizures have remained low, Mexican drug traffickers have yet to launch any significant reprisal attacks against government officials in any country outside Guatemala. In that country, even the president has received death threats and had his office bugged, allegedly by drug traffickers.

The second factor, which is related to the first, is that drug traffickers operating in Central America likely rely more heavily on bribes than on intimidation to secure the transit of drug shipments. This assessment follows from the region’s reputation for official corruption (especially in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama and Guatemala) and the economic disadvantage that many of these countries face compared to the Mexican cartels. For example, the gross domestic product of Honduras is $12 billion, while the estimated share of the drug trade controlled by the Mexican cartels is estimated to be $20 billion.

Finally, Mexican cartels currently have their hands full at home. Although Central America has undeniably become more strategically important for the flow of drugs from South America, the cartels in Mexico have simultaneously been engaged in a two-front war at home against the Mexican government and against rival criminal organizations. As long as this war continues at its present level, Mexican drug traffickers may be reluctant to divert significant resources too far from their home turf, which remains crucial in delivering drug shipments to the United States.

Looking Ahead

That said, there is no guarantee that Central America will continue to escape the wrath of Mexican drug traffickers. On the contrary, there is reason for concern that the region will increasingly become a battleground in the Mexican cartel war.

For one thing, the Merida Initiative, a U.S. anti-drug aid program that will put some $300 million into Mexico and about $100 million into Central America over the next year, could be perceived as a meaningful threat to drug-trafficking operations. If Central American governments choose to step up counternarcotics operations, either at the request of the United States or in order to qualify for more Merida money, they risk disrupting existing smuggling operations to the extent that cartels begin to retaliate.

Also, even though Mexican cartels may be reluctant to divert major resources from the more important war at home, it is important to recognize that a large-scale reassignment of cartel operatives or resources from Mexico to Central America might not be necessary to have a significant impact on the security situation in any given Central American country. Given the rampant corruption and relatively poor protective security programs in place for political leaders in the region, very few cartel operatives or resources would actually be needed if a Mexican drug-trafficking organization chose to, for example, conduct an assassination campaign against high-ranking government officials.

Governments are not the only potential threat to drug traffickers in Central America. The increases in land-based drug trafficking in the region could trigger intensified competition over trafficking routes. Such turf battles could occur either among the Mexican cartels or between the Mexicans and local criminal organizations, which might try to muscle their way into the lucrative smuggling routes or attempt to grab a larger percentage of the profits.

If the example of Mexico is any guide, the drug-related violence that could be unleashed in Central America would easily overwhelm the capabilities of the region’s governments. Last year, STRATFOR considered the possibility of Mexico becoming a failed state. But Mexico is a far stronger and richer country than its fragile southern neighbors, who simply do not have the resources to deal with the cartels on their own.

This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Golden State Economy v. Lone Star State Economy

A blurb from Reason’s blog:

One cannot say the same thing about California, in many ways Texas' polar opposite. You couldn't have two states moving in more opposite directions. One is unabashedly pro-growth and aggressive in courting industry, while the other seems content to spin an ever denser spider web of laws, regulations and red tape that is driving business out of the state. One state accounts for a whopping 70 percent of all jobs created in the United States last year, while the other seems bent on increasing taxes on business and individuals to pay for an unsustainable, out of control government that wants to be everything to everyone despite the fact that it simply cannot.

This doesn't mean that Texas doesn't face very real problems in the current recession: they do, as Brendan Case at the Dallas Morning News blogs here. But even so, the silver lining for Texas is that the recession will nick the Lone Star State while it gouges the Golden State. California's addiction to funding ongoing programs through debt financing, its permanent structural deficits on the horizon, its fondness for taxation, and other governance weak suits will really hamper the economic recovery in the state, ensuring it will occur long after Texas is off to the races.

Robert Kaplan on Saving Afghanistan

A long article from the author of Imperial Grunts and Hog Pilots and Blue Water Grunts, both of which I enjoyed and the latter of which I loved. Somehow I find it simultaneously depressing and hopeful. From the Atlantic:

Certainly, the can-do spirit of the American, British, Canadian, and other soldiers here is infectious, even as the gargantuan size of the operation, with its attendant planes, helicopters, up-armored Humvees, and massively fortified bases is simply stunning. A senior American military official told us that counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism are inseparable, and the idea that one can withdraw from Afghanistan while still conducting selected strikes against al-Qaeda terrorists is “absolutely ridiculous.” Without counterinsurgency, he says, the terrorists simply replace their killed leaders and have the freedom to plan attacks on the West.

The stakes are vast. An Afghanistan that can inch its way back to the modest and fragile stability of the mid-20th century will leverage Pakistan back toward normalcy, in addition to becoming a conduit for energy pipelines that promise to unite oil- and natural gas-rich Central Asia with the Indian Ocean—thus linking India and Pakistan in a peaceful system of commerce. But an Afghanistan that crumbles into granular ethnic and tribal elements will bring down Pakistan, too, in addition to enlarging Iran’s new and unconventional terrorist empire. And this is to say nothing of the moral victory that al-Qaeda and the Taliban will achieve if Afghanistan descends into chaos.

Re: Good Tomatoes

I can’t tell where the bills are but they don’t appear to be too far along. The NAIS deal may be able to go mandatory without congressional action…just a stroke of the USDA pen but the NAIS site certainly makes it look less onerous than Dreher’s cry indicated. Having said that, as a Whole Foods Conservative, this is an issue Dreher usually examines pretty closely.

Good Tomatoes

I want good tomatoes. I want small business to thrive. From the Crunchy Con Rod Dreher:

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 attempts to streamline the unwieldy federal food regulation system, as does the similar Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009. Both, however, are written as a "one size fits all" bill that would ramp up fees and regulation on all producers of food (and, in the case of the latter, drugs and cosmetics). The little guy who sells homegrown tomatoes or homemade soap at the farmers market would be subject to the same regulation as industrial giants, without the resources to implement it.

Small farming has become popular in the past few years, not only because a growing number of consumers want food that tastes better but also because they want food they can believe in. According to the 2007 USDA farm census, more than 300,000 new farms have opened since 2002. Most are small, started by young farmers meeting a rising market demand. Though there has been some unhelpful Internet hysteria surrounding the issue, it's true that this progress is at risk.

From earlier in the column:

"There are legitimate problems that the large commercial producers — the peanut factory that ships around the country — those need to be better regulated," said Judith McGeary, an Austin lawyer and board member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. "What we need is a very explicit, unambiguous, clear and broad exemption for small farmers and small producers — people who are making jams and breads for the local farmers market."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Report today from sis is that it is a minor blockage in an itty-bitty artery. Far too small for stint or surgery. Just to be treated with meds and aspirin. Best possible news short of a diagnosis of indigestion.

Fillet of Financial Crisis

This article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone does a nice job explaining the current financial crisis and its origins. It should be required reading for all citizens. He touches on my favorite theme (the GAMBLING):
He [Liddy, AIG CEO] conveniently forgot to mention that AIG had spent more than a decade systematically scheming to evade U.S. and international regulators, or that one of the causes of its "pneumonia" was making colossal, world-sinking $500 billion bets with money it didn't have, in a toxic and completely unregulated derivatives market.

Nor did anyone mention that when AIG finally got up from its seat at the Wall Street casino, broke and busted in the afterdawn light, it owed money all over town — and that a huge chunk of your taxpayer dollars in this particular bailout scam will be going to pay off the other high rollers at its table. Or that this was a casino unique among all casinos, one where middle-class taxpayers cover the bets of billionaires.

He covers the legislative pieces of the puzzles and ties it together with campaign contributions:
In 1997 and 1998, the years leading up to the passage of Phil Gramm's fateful act that gutted Glass-Steagall, the banking, brokerage and insurance industries spent $350 million on political contributions and lobbying. Gramm alone — then the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee — collected $2.6 million in only five years. The law passed 90-8 in the Senate, with the support of 38 Democrats, including some names that might surprise you: Joe Biden, John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Dick Durbin, even John Edwards.

The act helped create the too-big-to-fail financial behemoths like Citigroup, AIG and Bank of America — and in turn helped those companies slowly crush their smaller competitors, leaving the major Wall Street firms with even more money and power to lobby for further deregulatory measures.

There's lots more, so please do read. (I might recommend double-dosing on any anti-depression meds first, though.)

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

This was a book club pick. It won the 2005 Hugo award. I liked it, but didn't love it. Book club ladies mostly hated it. The story of two magicians who, during the Napoleanic wars, brought magic back into practice in England. It's been described as Harry Potter (the magic part) crossed with Jane Austen (the understated British humor of the narrator). I thought it was a little bit like Wicked (social commentary/observation). Though long and footnoted, it's not a slow or tedious read. Some of the ladies thought it needed a good edit; I liked that it didn't have that standard commercial pacing that gets to an end by page 350.

Krugman on the Treasury Plan: It's the GAMBLING, stupid.

Krugman's criticism today of the Treasury Plan boils down to a realization about the GAMBLING. Banks lost bets:

But the real problem with this plan is that it won’t work. Yes, troubled assets may be somewhat undervalued. But the fact is that financial executives literally bet their banks on the belief that there was no housing bubble, and the related belief that unprecedented levels of household debt were no problem. They lost that bet. And no amount of financial hocus-pocus — for that is what the Geithner plan amounts to — will change that fact.

But I think the problem with any sort of plan is that there just isn't enough money to pay off the lost bets which bore no relation to actual assets or their value. Our economy isn't even big enough to cover the losses without extreme pain, short and long term.

And I still don't have a clear (or even a fuzzy) picture of what would happen if we didn't make these gamblers whole.

So far I haven't heard anything about legislation to reverse the horror that is the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. One would hope banks would have learned their lesson and wouldn't jump back into the gambling that got them here, but until Congress addresses it I have no faith that there's any real problem-diagnosis and problem-solving going on.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bleg for prayers or good thoughts (I'm not picky--I'll take what I can get)

Went home Friday night to celebrate the winter and spring birthdays in the family. Great time had by all, etc.... I returned to Austin Saturday night listening to the 'horns getting beat by Duke (I have no idea why I thought they were to play OU).

Got a call from my sister yesterday that Mom had awakened Saturday night/early Sunday morning complaining of indigestion and an inability to sleep. Fortunately, one of my sisters had stayed the night with Mom.

Long story short: Mom spent last night in the East Texas Medical Center in Tyler, Texas and had a stress test for her heart today. She was so stressed before the test that the test was inconclusive. Tomorrow at 8:00 AM she has some kind of dye test to determine the extent, if any, of any heart blockage. I've been through dye tests when I had a vision scare and they aren't too difficult to endure. Mine was acutuall easy.

I spoke to Mom last night and just got off the phone with her tonight. She seems to be in good spirits now...taking this as some kind of wake up call to get on the stick as far as exercise, eating and sleeping goes. I didn't mention this but of those three only the sleeping can help at 81 years of age. Sure, she needs to eat more than she does but at this age she can't change whatever is going on in her heart by diet and exercise.

Options after tomorrow if there is blockage: drug therapy, stint or open heart surgery. I'm holding out hope that there is no blockage and that her inability to sleep Saturday night was a product of having the kids and grandkids around (and my uncanny ability to make her feel like c--p...we had a bit of a fight about the the Fayetteville Shale). Mom is a chronic worrier--a trait I fear she has passed on to her eldest son. Anybody else sleep only 5-6 hours a night?

So, any prayers or good thoughts are appreciated.