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Group therapy, maximum-security style

March 12

It takes an extraordinary story to make us stop and take notice of how bizarre America’s culture of crime and punishment has become. This is one.

Luis Felipe, a leader of the East Coast’s infamous Latin Kings street gang, has been held in 24-hour solitary confinement for the past five years in a state prison, and now at the ADX Federal Penitentiary in Florence, Colo.

His lawyer asked a court to consider the fact Felipe is apparently losing the ability to think and speak clearly as a result of prolonged sensory deprivation. As a result, According to an ASSOCIATED PRESS report, U.S. District Court Judge John Martin Jr. granted permission for Felipe to interact with his fellow prisoners for an hour each day.

The court action permits Felipe to speak with two of his fellow inmates during a group exercise break. And who will be helping him sharpen his social and intellectual faculties after the maddening years of silence? Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Felipe is not allowed to interact with his other blockmate, Ramzi Yousef, who was the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing. Prison officials said they fear the two might use each other to convey messages to their criminal networks beyond the prison walls. Felipe has a reputation for doing just that: He ordered six gang killings from his previous state prison cell.

According to a recent SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE report on the Florence facility (which is commonly described as “supermaximum security”) it is the only prison in the U.S. designed to keep every inmate in total or near-total solitary confinement. It currently holds 388 prisoners.
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Should Guatemala have a genocide tribunal?

March 11

[In response to Clinton’s visit this week to Central America, and his apology for U.S. complicity in what a United Nation’s report has termed “acts of genocide” by the Guatemalan government, Andrew Reding of the World Policy Institute wrote the following essay for PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE]

President Clinton’s apology for U.S. support of Guatemalan governments that engaged in mass slaughter of civilians is both welcome and appropriate. It should be followed up with a call for a genocide tribunal similar to those already in place for Rwanda and Bosnia.

Last month, the Commission for Historical Clarification, created under the 1996 peace accords, exposed the ugly truth about Guatemala’s civil conflict. It said that in the early 1980s, the Guatemalan military, acting on orders from the country’s highest authorities, carried out genocide against the country’s majority Mayan population.

That they did so using officers trained in counterinsurgency by the United States, and at a time when the White House was signaling the abandonment of human rights standards in foreign policy, makes the United States share in the responsibility.

Guatemala was an American Rwanda. The army and its paramilitary allies carried out at least 626 massacres, many of entire villages. Security forces slaughtered civilians without regard for age or sex. They impaled and shot children. They raped women, and slashed open the wombs of pregnant women. They skinned, amputated, and burned victims alive. They forced townsfolk to watch as they disemboweled still-living relatives and neighbors. At gunpoint, they forced Mayans to kill fellow-villagers or even their own kin.

All told, the government and its allies killed about 200,000 men, women and children, more than four-fifths of them Mayan. One fourth of the victims were women. Depopulated villages were completely destroyed, their buildings torn or burned down, their wells poisoned. In the larger cities, death squads killed teachers, university professors, trade union leaders, politicians, and anyone else who questioned the killings or military rule. Most of the slayings, including the bulk of the massacres, occurred between 1981 and 1983.

That timing points to the role of the Reagan White House. Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, and signaled a reversal of President Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights in foreign policy. Carter had cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala in response to increasing human rights abuses. Reagan disapproved, arguing that such actions hurt our allies in the struggle against communism. U.N. envoy Jeanne Kirkpatrick articulated the Reagan doctrine that “authoritarian governments were more palatable than totalitarian governments,” and should not be destabilized by scruples over human rights. Latin American militaries had no trouble grasping the implications.

In Guatemala, General Romeo Lucas Garcia intensified the repression. Then, in March 1982, General Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup, and presided over the massacres in Mayan villages. In December 1982, amid the carnage, President Reagan embraced Gen. Rios Montt in Guatemala City, describing him as “a man of great personal integrity” who was “getting a bum rap on human rights,” even though declassified CIA documents show that U.S. officials were aware of the massacres.

This embarrassing American connection is one reason the butchers of Guatemala remain untouchable while U.N.-supervised genocide trials are underway for similar atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia. None of the officials who made the policies and gave the orders has yet been tried and convicted for the genocide in Guatemala.

On the contrary, it is their accusers who remain at risk. A year ago, assassins murdered Bishop Juan Gerardi two days after he presented a church report blaming the army for the mass killings of the 1980s. Ignoring evidence tying the bishop’s murder to the military, prosecutors first arrested a homeless man, then a priest. The priest was held for over half a year, even though forensic experts concluded he could not have been the murderer.

President Alvaro Arzu has done nothing to pursue evidence that the killing was carried out on orders of military officers angered by the church report. It is unclear whether Arzu simply fears the military, or wants to maintain the official story that military abuses are a thing of the past. Either way, the effect is to perpetuate a climate of fear.

In this troubling context, President Clinton’s comments are an encouraging first step. But they don’t go far enough in atoning for past U.S. misdeeds. Declassified CIA documents reveal that the intelligence office that prepared lists of names for Guatemalan death squads was set up with assistance from the State Department in the 1960s, and that the CIA was collaborating with the Guatemalan military at the time of the massacres in the early 1980s.

“We are determined to remember the past, but never repeat it,” President Clinton said in Guatemala City. The surest way to achieve that is through a U.N.-sponsored genocide tribunal.

–Andrew Reding

Health industry moves to screw granny

March 10

Gasp! The pharmaceutical and managed care industries have bought a representative on the Congressional Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, according to a report from PUBLIC CITIZEN. Not suprisingly, the ASSOCIATED PRESS also reported today that deep ideological schisms between the commission’s members, have delayed its recommendations indefinitely. The commission had been scheduled to release that pondered possible ways to limit the cost of Medicare — including a plan to pay less money for perscription drugs.

“We are not in agreement yet and it remains quite doubtful that we will be,” said commission member Stuart Altman, a health policy professor at –Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

The PUBLIC CITIZEN report reveals that commissioner Deborah Steelman is, in fact, also a healthcare industry lobbyist who received nearly $3 million from managed care and pharmaceutical companies over 18 months in 1997 and 1998.

The companies were hoping to defeat a commission proposal to move Medicare recipients over to traditional HMOs that would receive a federal subsidy. The industry fears that such a plan would lead to Medicare coverage of outpatient prescription drugs, and probably at federally negotiated prices which are always lower than the prices paid by private HMOs. Currently, Medicare does not cover outpatient medications. Drug companies stand to lose big chunks of profit margin if the proposal passes. HMOs also stand to lose those elderly customers who now choose subscribe to private HMOs rather than (or in addition to) Medicare, just for the prescription coverage.

Sure, sure, the government has always been in big-business’ pocket. But commissions like this one are intended counteract the influence of corporate money on legislation. The federal government frequently appoints non-partisan public-advocacy commissions to help agencies such as the FDA make the best possible choice for consumers. Apparently, it’s not working in this case.


Junior’s paper route gets ugly

March 9

What do the liberal media, angels, and Sasquatch have in common? You’re more likely to hear about them than you are to actually see any evidence of them. Case in point: the Newspaper Association of America‘s (NAA) treatment of some of its employees as expendables. According to an article in FOCUS ON THE CORPORATION, the NAA has worked pretty hard to ensure that some of its employees, newspaper carriers specifically, are excluded from workers’ compensation, minimum wage, workers’ safety and Social Security laws.

So what? you say. Why should some 10-year-old kid on a Schwinn who regularly tosses your paper in the holly bushes be entitled to the basic rights afforded to all other working Americans? The reason is that between 1992 and 1997, 99 news vendors were killed on the job, 11 of whom were children. For obvious reasons, you won’t read about this in your local paper.

In fact, the story has already been killed several times. It first emerged when University of Iowa professor Marc Linder published an article on NAA practices in the LOYOLA POVERTY LAW REVIEW in August of 1998. According to FOCUS, Linder shopped the story around with no success, until an Associated Press reporter picked up, and wrote the story. But her bosses at AP killed it as if it were, say, a paperboy caught in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck.


When “dolphin-safe” isn’t

March 8

It sounds fishy, but soon it may become more difficult to ensure that your tuna is really Flipper-free. Sometime this spring, U.S. Secretary of Commerce William Daley must decide whether to keep strict standards for “dolphin-safe” tuna, or to weaken the standard to avoid international trade penalties, according to the EARTH ISLAND JOURNAL.

The current standards were developed in 1990 by Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project, and prohibit the use of tuna nets on schools of dolphins. (For some reason, the tuna enjoy hanging out under schools of dolphin; nets meant to ensnare tuna can kill, maim, or traumatize dolphins.) Before the three major US tuna companies adopted the standard, roughly 100,000 dolphins per year were killed by the nets. Dolphin deaths have declined significantly over the past five years, although some environmentalists are still concerned that dolphin populations do not appear to be growing as a result, and may in fact be decreasing despite protections.

The proposed new standard (known to some environmentalists as the “Dolphin Death Act“), would allow net fishing to resume on a massive scale as long as an onboard observer reports that no dolphins died “outright” or were “seriously injured” as a result. (Apparently no one is worried about the near-impossibility of enforcing such a practice.) The label on your tuna can would still say “dolphin-safe.”

There’s more to this story than meets the eye, however. Trade plays an interesting role in what many think should be solely an environmental issue. Congress — by clearing H.R.408 sponsored by Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) and Don Young (R-AK) and S.39 by Senators Ted Stevens (R-AK) and John Breaux (D-LA) — allowed the Commerce Department to consider the weaker standard following high-paid lobbying from Mexico and other countries eager to access more of the tuna-producing market. Furthermore, a 7-year US embargo on Latin America tuna, which had become a thorny NAFTA issue, was lifted in 1997 by a unanimous Senate vote. Chapter 11 of NAFTA allows foreign investors who believe they have been discriminated against (for example, by being denied access to the lucrative US tuna market) to demand compensation from the “discriminatory” country. Mexico had threatened trade sanctions to protest being shut out of US markets. (Both GATT and NAFTA permit the regulation of imports from participating countries, but not the means by which they are produced.)

Remarkably, Greenpeace, the Center for Marine Conservation, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Environmental Defense Fund have endorsed the new, lower standards. Opponents of the new standards include the Earth Island Institute, the American Humane Association, Friends of Animals, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the Humane Society of the United States.

Fortunately for the dolphins, the three major US tuna companies — StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea — have agreed to abide by the stricter standards regardless of Secretary Daley’s decision.



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