El Chapo tells judge he won’t testify at US trial
By TOM HAYS
Tuesday, January 29
NEW YORK (AP) — Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman told a judge Monday that he won’t take the witness stand in his own defense at his U.S. drug-trafficking trial, ending speculation that he might go for broke and build on a notorious reputation already cemented by the sprawling government case against him.
“Your honor, me and my attorneys have spoken about this, and I won’t testify,” Guzman said through a Spanish interpreter in a rare instance of him standing up and speaking in court.
The decision, along with the defense’s plan to call only two brief witnesses, could bring the trial to a sooner-than-expected conclusion. Closing arguments were set to begin Wednesday with deliberations starting as soon as Friday afternoon.
Guzman’s lawyers say he’s being framed by a cadre of cooperators who were far more culpable in the Sinaloa cartel’s wildly lucrative cocaine-smuggling enterprise.
As the government was finally concluding a case that began in mid-November, an actor who played Guzman on a popular Netflix series caused a minor stir Monday by showing up in the courtroom as a spectator. The defendant cracked a smile and waved when “Narcos: Mexico” cast member Alejandro Edda was pointed out to him, Edda told reporters.
“It was a very surreal moment, I have to be honest,” the actor said.
Surreal was an apt description for many aspects of the government’s case, including testimony from several cooperators that made Guzman’s delight at seeing Edda seem understandable. Some of the more than 50 government witnesses said Guzman had spoken often of his dream of being portrayed on film or being the subject of an autobiography about his rise to power as the Sinaloa cartel boss.
The highlights of the government case offered plenty of potential material, starting early in the trial with testimony by a former Sinaloa cartel lieutenant describing how a car carrying Guzman into Mexico City shortly after he escaped prison in 2001 got a police escort by highway officers. A suspected informant claimed he had survived several attempts on his life ordered by Guzman, including a knife attack at a jail right after he heard a brass band ominously playing a favorite “corrido” folk song of Guzman’s — “Un Puno De Tierra” — over and over.
A former Colombian kingpin who once supplied the cartel with tons of cocaine, Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, made an impact solely by the way he looked while testifying — with his face distorted by an extreme makeover meant to hide his identity. Ramirez explained that he had undergone at least three plastic surgeries that altered “my jawbone, my cheekbones, my eyes, my mouth, my ears, my nose.”
Much of the testimony was devoted to how corrupt Mexican authorities had a voracious appetite for drug money. One cooperator said Guzman had paid former President Enrique Pena Nieto $100,000, a claim Pena Nieto denied.
Three of the latest witnesses kept the drama alive: A former cartel computer tech who testified how, after being flipped by the FBI, he showed them how to intercept the syndicate’s phone calls and texts that Guzman had monitored with spyware; a member of the cartel security team who alleged Guzman shot a kidnapped victim before having the man buried alive; and an ex-girlfriend who described how they evaded a manhunt — one of his specialties — using a trapdoor underneath a safehouse bathroom that let to a drainage tunnel that he used to run away, naked, in 2014.
Guzman was captured in 2015 and escaped jail through a tunnel dug into his prison cell before he was sent in 2017 to the U.S. He’s been in solitary confinement ever since and would face life in prison if convicted.
Mexico is bleeding. Can its new president stop the violence?
January 29, 2019
Author: Angélica Durán-Martínez, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Lowell
Disclosure statement: Angélica Durán-Martínez has received funding from the United States Institute of Peace and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). In 2011, she was an SSRC Drugs, Security and Democracy fellow, a program funded by Open Society Foundations.
Partners: University of Massachusetts provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
Nearly 34,000 people were murdered in Mexico last year, according to new government statistics — the deadliest year since modern record-keeping began.
Of all the challenges facing Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, curbing violence may be the biggest.
Mexico has seen ever-growing bloodshed since 2006, when President Felipe Calderon deployed the Mexican armed forces to fight drug cartels.
Rather than reduce violence, the government’s crackdown actually increased conflicts between and among cartels, according to my research on criminal violence and numerous other studies. It also led to widespread military abuses of power against civilians.
More than 250,000 people have been murdered and 35,000 have disappeared since the beginning of Mexico’s drug war.
López Obrador said on the campaign trail that Mexico must “consider multiple alternatives to achieve the pacification of the country.”
He pitched several possibilities to reduce crime without using law enforcement, including granting amnesty to low-level criminals, negotiating with crime bosses to dismantle their syndicates and confronting the human rights violations committed by soldiers, police and public officials.
Finding the truth
Some of those ideas – particularly the controversial notion of negotiating with organized crime – have faded away since López Obrador took office on Dec. 1.
So far, his administration has put more emphasis on traditional law-and-order policies.
In December, he ordered the creation of a Mexican national guard to fight organized crime. Though human rights advocates and security experts fear this approach will repeat past fatal mistakes of militarizing Mexican law enforcement, the lower house of Congress recently approved the measure. It will likely be approved in the Senate.
López Obrador has followed through on one of his campaign proposals for “pacifying” Mexico, though.
Days after being sworn in, the president established a truth commission to investigate the unsolved disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in the southern Mexican town of Iguala in 2014.
Five years after their disappearance, the truth of this infamous case remains elusive.
According to the government of former president Enrique Peña Nieto, the crime was a local affair. Students en route to a protest march in Mexico City were detained by the Iguala police, and, at the mayor’s order, handed over to a local gang, which killed them and burned their bodies.
Investigators from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights could not corroborate this story. In the burn pit identified in 2016, they found no physical evidence of the missing students.
In a scathing final report, investigators said that authorities had ignored crucial evidence that the army and federal police were involved in the students’ disappearance.
A truth commission will help Mexicans “understand the truth and do justice to the young people of Ayotzinapa,” López Obrador said on Twitter in announcing its creation.
The Ayotzinapa truth commission will put extraordinary resources and personnel on the case and give the victims’ families and perpetrators a voice in the process – neither of which police investigations in Mexico typically do.
Truth commissions aim to create a collective, participatory narrative of human rights atrocities that not only exposes the perpetrators but also identifies the conditions that facilitated violence. They are a central component of transitional justice, an approach to helping countries recover after civil war or dictatorship.
Countries like Argentina, Guatemala, Brazil and Peru all used truth commissions to reckon with the toll of their bloody dictatorships and wars and give reparations to victims. South Africa famously used a truth commission to document the horrific human rights violations committed under apartheid.
Mexico’s situation is different: It has a criminal violence problem, not a civil war.
But my research indicates this pacification strategy may have some promise.
Recent studies suggest that truth commissions can actually help prevent future violence. Because they identify perpetrators, who then face punishment for their crimes, truth commissions can both take criminals off the street and deter others from committing crime.
Holding public officials responsible for their corruption would be a major achievement in Mexico.
As the U.S. federal trial of drug trafficker Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán illustrates, corruption penetrates the highest levels of Mexican government.
Since the beginning of its drug war, in 2006, Mexican citizens have filed 10,000 complaints of abuse against soldiers, including accusations of extrajudicial killings and torture. The government has done little to look into those allegations. Nor has it actively investigated most of the murders of 97 Mexican journalists since then.
If an Ayotzinapa truth commission enjoys the full support of federal authorities – which is not a guarantee, given the corruption it will almost certainly uncover – it could restore some faith in Mexico’s justice system. Currently, 97 percent of all crimes go unpunished.
Focusing on truth may also help the country better understand – and therefore address – the root causes of violence in Mexico.
Truth commissions, however, will not immediately solve an incredibly complex security crisis.
As Amnesty International has said, the Mexican government cannot create a truth commission to investigate every mass atrocity of the drug war. Mexico also needs a functioning justice system.
Pardoning low level crimes
Another transitional justice tool the López Obrador government has proposed is amnesty to non-violent, low-level drug offenders.
The president’s chief-of-staff, Olga Sánchez Cordero, says that pardoning people convicted and jailed for growing, processing, transporting or using drugs – particularly women and offenders from marginalized populations – would stop the cycle of violence in Mexico and encourage petty criminals to disarm.
Mexico’s amnesty proposal is not unlike the First Step Act recently passed in the United States, which will result in the early release of about 2,600 prisoners, many of them drug offenders.
Mexico’s prison population has been steadily rising for years.
Between 2000 and 2016, it increased 40 percent, from 154,765 inmates to 217,868 inmates, according to the Institute of Criminal Policy Research. The number of people jailed in Mexico for drug offenders has also increased markedly.
As in the United States, most prisoners in Mexico come from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, according to the Collective for the Study of Drugs and Law, a nonprofit research group.
What lies ahead
Should López Obrador’s amnesty idea become policy, it would surely be controversial.
Victims of violence in Ciudad Juárez were outraged when, in August 2018, President-elect López Obrador said residents must be “willing to forgive.”
Many caught in the crossfire of Mexico’s drug war say justice and punishment should come before forgiveness.
But violence in Mexico is so pervasive that, in my opinion, the country must consider every option that might stanch the bleeding.
Truth commissions and amnesties to low level crimes will not pacify the country immediately – but they may bring some of the truth and justice Mexicans so desperately need.
What are Muslim prayer rugs?
January 29, 2019
Author: Rose S. Aslan, Assistant Professor of Religion, California Lutheran University
Disclosure statement: Rose S. Aslan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Muslims can pray anywhere in the world using the prayer carpet.
In a recent tweet, President Trump stated that ranchers have been finding prayer rugs scattered along the U.S.-Mexico border. Late last year, he tweeted that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” were mixed in with the caravan heading to the U.S.
My research indicates that Islamophobia often targets visible signs of Muslimness, such as modest clothing like headscarves, as well as prayer rituals and mosques. This time it is the prayer rug.
These fearmongering tweets bear an uncanny resemblance to a 2018 action film, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado.” Its trailer shows a scene of a Muslim man praying and a row of prayer rugs at the border. In the movie, U.S. officials who find the rugs use them as “evidence” that Muslims are entering the U.S. illegally in order to expand the jurisdiction of the war on terror.
Other than these recent mentions, carpets found fame through Disney’s “Aladdin,” where they were imagined to have the power to fly. However, prayer carpets actually have a much more mundane daily use among Muslims.
Much more than a plain carpet
Ritual purity is extremely important for Muslim prayers practices. As Islamic studies scholar Marion Katz explains, prayer carpets provide a protective layer between the worshiper and the ground, protecting the clothing from anything on ground that is polluting.
Muslim carpets have been traditionally produced for centuries in Muslim majority regions, sometimes known as “the rug belt,” spanning from Morocco to Central Asia and northern India. There is a wide variety of designs and materials. Islamic art historian Walter B. Denny, in “How to Read Islamic Carpets,” explains the different materials and symbolism in weaves used in these carpets.
For example, it is common to find symbols such as the prayer niche, a recess in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca; also a lamp, which is a reference to God; as well as flowers and trees that symbolize the abundance of nature in God’s paradise.
Prayer carpets that are used in homes are generally sized for one individual. Those used in mosques are much bigger, often with a motif showing a row of arches to indicate where each worshiper should stand in prayer.
Islamic carpets have been popular for centuries in Europe and beyond, often picking up symbolism, social meaning and ways of being used. Islamic carpets were popular among the wealthy of Europe, displayed proudly on the floor of their living rooms and on the walls.
Carpets designs have come down through generations. Some depict simple geometric patterns in rough wool, while other are produced by professional artisans for the elite and show hunting scenes and elaborate scenes of paradise.
Different costs and forms of practice
Practices vary according to personal and sectarian preference among Muslims.
For everyday use, Muslims purchase simple prayer carpets, mass-produced in Turkey, throughout the Middle East and even China. For use outside, they often carry a thinner travel rug. There are also high-priced versions. An antique carpet was auctioned for US$4.3 million in 2009 and an Ottoman-era prayer rug sold for $30,000 in 2015.
Not all sects of Muslims use the prayer carpet. Shiite Muslims usually pray on a clay disk called a “turba” in Arabic and “mohr” in Persian. This disk is often made from soil from Karbala, the place of martyrdom of Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson in today’s Iraq, or another sacred site.
Shiite Muslims use a clay disk.
They often place the disk on top of a prayer carpet. When Shiites prostrate their foreheads on the floor during prayer, they want their forehead to be in contact with an organic material rather than the synthetic fibers of a carpet. So, depending on circumstance, they might also place any natural material such as a small straw mat where they pray.
It is highly unlikely for Muslims to leave behind their prayer rugs or to even carry one on a perilous journey through the harsh desert.
Trump confidant Roger Stone to face federal judge in DC
By ERIC TUCKER and CHAD DAY
Tuesday, January 29
WASHINGTON (AP) — After a publicity-filled weekend spent asserting his innocence and slamming investigators, Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone will appear before a federal judge who may look to muzzle him as the case moves forward.
Stone faces a Tuesday morning arraignment in Washington and is expected to plead not guilty to charges that he lied to lawmakers, engaged in witness tampering and obstructed a congressional investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Though most defendants facing charges tend to stay quiet for fear of inflaming prosecutors or a judge, Stone has opted for a different tack since his pre-dawn arrest Friday in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Stone staged an impromptu news conference outside a Florida courthouse, made the rounds on weekend television and repeatedly mocked the probe on an Instagram account, including with a cartoonish-image of Mueller as a bowtie-wearing butler holding a tray with a hamburger roll — but no meat in between.
A self-described dirty trickster and longtime confidant of the president, Stone is the sixth Trump aide charged in Mueller’s investigation. The indictment does not accuse Stone of coordinating with Russia or with WikiLeaks on the release of hacked Democratic emails. But it does allege that he misled lawmakers about his pursuit of those communications and interest in them. The anti-secrecy website published emails in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election that the U.S. says were stolen from Democrats by Russian operatives.
Stone, who has alleged without evidence that the FBI used “Gestapo tactics” in arresting him, said he did nothing more than exercise his First Amendment rights to drum up interest with voters about the WikiLeaks disclosures. He said he never discussed the issue with Trump.
“That’s what I engaged in. It’s called politics and they haven’t criminalized it, at least not yet,” Stone said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“All I did was take publicly available information and try to hype it to get it as much attention as possible, because I had a tip, the information was politically significant and that it would come in October,” he added.
Tuesday’s arraignment could inspire the same circus-like atmosphere that surrounded his Friday court appearance in Florida, where Stone emerged from the building in a blue polo shirt, flashed a Richard Nixon victory sign, predicted his vindication and vowed that he would not “bear false witness against the president, nor will I make up lies to ease the pressure on myself.”
All the while, jeering spectators shouted “Lock Him Up!” while others in the crowd cheered him on.
It’s unclear whether Mueller’s prosecutors will look to have Stone locked up pending trial or whether they will simply recommend conditions that would allow him to remain free on bond. It’s also possible that U.S. Magistrate Deborah Robinson might impose a gag order to prevent Stone from discussing the case.
Brazil issues 5 arrest warrants in deadly mine dam collapse
By Associated Press
Tuesday, January 29
BRUMADINHO, Brazil (AP) — Brazilian authorities issued arrest warrants Tuesday for five people in connection with a dam collapse that killed at least 65 people as it plastered part of a city with reddish-brown mud and iron ore mining waste.
The orders were issued in Sao Paulo and in the state of Minas Gerais, where the collapse happened. They came as rescue crews began a fifth day searching for survivors or bodies, and some families began burying their dead.
Local media reported the warrants included three employees of Vale, the mining company that owned and operated the waste dam that collapsed.
In a statement, Vale said it was collaborating with authorities in the investigation.
However, a spokeswoman couldn’t immediately confirm that those being sought worked for the company.
In ordering the arrests, Minas Gerais judge Perla Saliba Brito wrote that the disaster could have been avoided.
It’s not believable that “dams of such magnitude, run by one of the largest mining companies in the world, would break suddenly without any indication of vulnerability,” the judge wrote in the decision, according to news portal UOL.
The dam was part of an iron ore production complex. Vale is the world’s largest producer of the ore, which is the raw ingredient for steel.