Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Caribbean Thaw

Over the past few years significant progress has been made in reforming relations between the United States and their longtime enemy, Cuba. The process began when president Obama approved secret talks with Cuba in both the Vatican and Canada. The proceedings were hosted by the Canadians and facilitated by Pope Francis himself.
Finally in December of 2014 president Obama and president Raúl Castro of Cuba announced the beginning of the normalization process of US Cuban relations. The resulting thaw led to loosening of trade and travel restrictions, the opening of Cuban banks to the United States and even new embassies.
During talks while normalizing relations President Raúl Castro stated that “destroying a bridge can be an easy and quick undertaking, however its solid reconstruction can prove a lengthy and challenging endeavor.” (NYTimes) Both leaders were frank in their assertions that relations would not change overnight. Many issues remain between the two countries, mostly concerning democracy and human rights under the Castro regime.
A major disagreement from the Cuban side remain the existence of the United States Guantanamo Bay naval base and prison. Since Fidel Castro came to power the United States has continued to pay Cuba a check for renting the area where the Guantanamo Bay base is located every year. Under the Castro regime only one of these checks was ever cashed under the Castros.
Both President Obama and Castro have stated that their intent in normalizing relations is to improve the wellbeing of both Cubans and Americans. Unfortunately there is opposition to the normalization in both countries.
The current US president has so far failed to issue any information on the future of Cuban relations under his administration. While president elect trump tweeted that he would not continue President Obama’s work to restore mutually beneficial relations.

Mexico’s Litter Crisis

Huge mounds of trash are heaped on rural highways, clog the city streets, and ravage the scenic beaches of Mexico. Not every Mexican litters, and those who do may not do it regularly, but as the garbage piles up, many Mexicans seem to remain oblivious to the consequences of this cultural habit.

Litter contributes to the severe flooding that occurs in Mexico City every rainy season, as piles of trash clog up storm drains. Littering is also a health hazard, as roadside dumps breed mosquitoes, which fuels the outbreak of diseases like dengue fever in rural villages in the south.

The city government makes pleas regularly to end the littering, but those pleas seem to be uniformly ignored. Even in upscale neighborhoods like Condesa in Mexico City, trash thrown into the streets is a problem on the rise:

Mexico Litter 1

A lack of public concern and responsibility is at the heart of the problem, according to environmental activists. People will put empty bottles into trees, bushes, lampposts – anywhere that is convenient at the moment. Children act by example, imitating their parents and other people by dropping wrappers where they please. City bus drivers tell their passengers to throw trash out the window rather than leave it inside the bus.

“People see it as a problem that doesn’t affect them, but it does,” said Francisco Padron, the director of a Mexico City civic organization whose goal is to educate the public on environmental issues such as this. To many citizens, the littering problem is essentially invisible.

However, it’s not just the people alone; citizens of Mexico share the blame with their government. According to Jorge Trevino, the director of Ecología y Compromiso Empresarial, or ECOCE, an industry-funded group that manages recycling and public awareness campaigns, “There is a lack of political will. There is a lack of infrastructure. In many cities, there is a lack of planning. There is nowhere to put the trash.”

Environmental officials in Mexico say that only a few dozen of over 2,500 Mexican cities, towns and villages actually have a landfill or some other type of municipal garbage dump. One of the largest trash dumps in the world, Bordo Poniente, recently closed, eliminating a place to put waste and exacerbating Mexico’s dilemma.

mexico litter 4

Alongside the issue of where to put the trash, there’s very little social or legal obligation to be clean –  “In the United States, you have an authority that is watching. Here in Mexico, there is nothing like that,” Trevino said. “If you throw trash on the highway here in Mexico, no one says anything.”

In recent years, some Mexican cities have been trying to alleviate the litter crisis by using public shaming as a way to punish people who are caught littering. In Monterrey, a northern Mexican town, a system of public shaming was set in place that plastered the litterer’s mugshot and full name on a giant billboard with the words “Detenido por cochino,” which literally translates to “arrested for being a pig.”

Mexico litter 2

However, this was seen by the human rights commission as going a bit too far, and was ruled unconstitutional in the area. “We have to change the culture of cleanliness in the municipality,” said Mayor Pedro Salgado of San Nicolás de los Garza, a suburb of Monterrey , who defended the decision when asked whether human rights were violated by this kind of punishment. The ruling prompted San Nicolás de los Garza to cover the billboards with the following message, which reads “We disagree, but in compliance with the human rights resolution we are covering up the face of someone who dirties our city.” “Every day, we pick up 25 tons of trash.”

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In another attempt to shame a litterer publicly, a city official broadcasted his encounter with a woman he caught dumping trash illegally in a district of Mexico City live on the internet. The video was viewed on Facebook over eight million times. This official uses Periscope, the live streaming video app, to shame citizens who litter. The woman caught on film has become known as “Lady Basura,” or “Lady Garbage.”

mexico litter 5.0

In many cities and towns in Mexico, littering is common, even acceptable, because the people view it as someone else’s problem – why shouldn’t they throw their trash in the streets if it’s someone’s job to pick it up in the morning? It will undoubtedly take time for the mindsets of many Mexican citizens to change, and the usefulness of the government’s public shaming approach is uncertain.

Europe’s invisible minority

While the media have focused on the unsavory situations of Europe’s Muslims, the plight of the Romani, a devastatingly poor, long-persecuted minority in Europe, has gone unnoticed by many. These migrants are not newcomers from the Arab world, but rather nomads who came a millennium ago from northern India, genetic and cultural evidence suggests. Romani have adopted many of the customs of their homeland, and most practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, or Catholicism, while maintaining some ancient Hindu customs. Concentrated mostly in Eastern and Southern Europe, this ethnic group makes up 1-10% of most European populations, but has lifestyles reminiscent of a different continent and century. A third of Romani are unemployed, 90% live below their home country’s poverty line, and large portions of the population are illiterate.


Data from the Pew research center and show that Romani today face far more discrimination in Europe than other minorities, including Muslims. This racism, called anti-ziganism, is strongest in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox nations and weakest in the Protestant Northwest of Europe.

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Hundreds of thousands of Romani, having been deprived of German citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws, were killed during the Holocaust. Unlike Jews, however, widespread belief in their genetic inferiority persisted. From the 1970’s until the breakup of the USSR, hundreds of thousands of Romani women in Eastern Europe underwent forced sterilization, sometimes without the knowledge of the victim. Like many of the laws requiring desegregation of Romani and whites in some European schools today, patient’s consent existed in name only. In Czechoslovakia alone, over 90,000 women were made infertile from 1971 until 1991. Sterilizations continued illegally in the Czech Republic until 2007, by which time it was a full member of the EU, and isolated incidents have been reported in other parts of Eastern Europe more recently.


Some of the worst conditions Romani face today are in Italy. 82% of Italians have unfavorable views of the group, and 68% believe that all Romani should be “expelled from the country.” Several acts of terrorism by Romani in the past decade have sparked a new wave of resentment on both sides, and Italy’s reactions have been unpleasant. In the most publicized of these incidents, Italian beach-goers looked on as two Romani children drowned, then took pictures of their dying bodies without seeking help. In the same month, a mob of Italians stormed a Romani village, lighting several houses on fire. In a lawsuit related to the organization of this terrorism, the Italian supreme court ruled against the Romani. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s last election campaign promised a severe clampdown on “Roma, clandestine immigrants and criminals.” The association of an ethnic group with crime is not an unusual tactic for politicians, but seems particularly troubling considering the region’s recent history. The most recent attack, the bombing of a Romani home that killed three sisters, is shown below.


According to Persian legend, the Sassanid king Bahrām V Gōr discovered that the poor in his empire could not afford music, and hired ten thousand of the best lute players from India. He gave each of them an ox, a donkey, and some wheat, so that they could sustain themselves while playing music for the poor. Rather than set up farms, the musicians ate their animals immediately and a year later returned demanding more. Angry that they had squandered his gift, the king banished them West, to wander the world. Whatever the truth of this story, it represents a long history of Western oppressors accusing the Romani of laziness and greed, rather than recognizing their own failure to provide a welcoming home for this travel-worn people.


The Earth’s Largest Rainforest Is Being Destroyed

The Amazon rainforest has lost over 750,000 square kilometers of land since 1978, due to deforestation. For the larger part of history, subsistence farmers who clear cut chunks of land to grow crops for locals and their families, have been the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. As time went on, it was no longer subsistence farmers who were primarily responsible, instead it was industrial activities and large-scale agriculture. Eventually cattle-ranching, was responsible for more than three-quarters of forest clearing in the Amazon by the 2000s. As a result of deforestation, land in the Amazon was cleared faster than ever before from the late 1970s up until the mid 2000s.

Currently in the Amazon rain forest, the leading cause of deforestation is cattle-ranching. According to government figures this has been the case since at least the 1970s in Brazil. From 1966-1975 around 38 percent of deforestation in Brazil, was due to large-scale cattle-ranching. This still holds true today, only now it is closer to 70 percent of the deforestation being attributed to cattle ranching. There are people making money from the cattle, and then there are also people that make money from selling the converted land. Forest land itself has little value, but once it is cleared and turned into pastureland, it can then be sold to be used for cattle or for large-scale farming.

The current situation is possibly starting to change, at least in Brazil. Since 2009, after being pushed by environmental campaigners, the Brazilian government along with major cattle buyers, have begun to crack down on the amount of deforestation that is due to cattle production. There have been pledges made by some major slaughterhouses, to enforce stricter controls on their cattle sourcing in order to make sure they are not a driving force in the deforestation.

Another major factor towards deforestation is commercial agriculture. From the 1990s until the mid 2000s the production of soy was a huge contributor to deforestation. The production of the soybean really increased after a new variety of soybean was made by Brazilian scientists which was able flourish in the climate of a rain forest. While there was deforestation due to the actual forest that was converted into soy fields, the crop had more of an impact than just that. It drove up land prices, which caused farmers to move deeper into the rain forest, and also brought new motivation to produce more highways. A high-profile campaign that was run by Greenpeace started to turn things around when they stepped in back in 2006. They made one of Brazil’s largest soy producers commit to avoid clearing land for new production. Soy is not the only form of commercial agriculture that contributes to deforestation, and others include corn, sugar cane, and rice.

Due to all of the efforts made since the mid 2000s, Brazil which contains nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest, has seen the annual forest loss decline almost 80 percent.

A few of the efforts include satellite monitoring, heavy pressure from environmentalists, increased law enforcement, new protected areas, as well as many others. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all Amazon counties, some of which have been actually experiencing a rise in deforestation since 2000.

The Snow Star Festival


The air whips your face, your lungs ache in the thin air, and with little help from the oxygen pack slung across your back, you struggle up the rocky mountain path. Behind you, throngs of pilgrims push forward, forcing you onward and upward. Your destination: the Snow Star Festival which takes place five-miles into the Andes Mountains and 15,000 feet above sea level, in the Sinakara Valley.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, pilgrims wait for the start of a procession to the Sanctuary of the Lord of the Qoyllur Rit’i, as part of the the syncretic festival of the same name, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. Tens of thousands of pilgrims crowd into the Andean valley, with dancers in multi-layered skirts and musicians with drums and flutes performing non-stop for the three-day festival. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The event holds both significance to the local pagan population and the rather recently converted Christians. The native people see it has a celebration of the natural might of the glacier and the mountains themselves, while also believing that the reappearance of the Pailedes star cluster signifies the return of order to the region. For the Catholics, the holiday began in 1780s when a suspicious picture of Jesus appeared on a rocky outcropping in the valley after the death of a young shepherd boy; obviously, God was at work here. The festival was Christianized in the 1780s but it still maintains much of its original character. One can find wooden crosses and other religious memorabilia scattered all across the plain.

In this May 24, 2016 photo, men dressed as mythical half-man, half-bear creatures called "Ukukus", descend the Qullqip'unqu mountain glacier carrying a cross on the last day of the syncretic festival Qoyllur Rit’i, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. The ukukus also used to cut away blocks of ice from the glacier to bring down to share with the community in the belief that the melted held magical healing powers, but no longer noting a decline in the size of the glaciers because of warming trends. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In a world filled with divisions and disunity, the Snow Star Festival of Peru reminds us of the harmony and fellowship of mankind. The entirety of the cultural mosaic of Peru is represented here. The cultural and religious groups are able to coexist happily. It’s amazing that in a particularly tense religious climate, two groups with very different foci can come together and share the same camp for a three-day magnificent celebration.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, pilgrims rest at the base of the Qullqip'unqu mountain, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region, during the Qoyllur Rit’i festival, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star. The gathering is held every year shortly before the Christian feast of Corpus Christi and draws as many as 100,000 people to the Quispicanchis province. It also coincides with the reappearance of the star cluster Pleiades in the Southern Hemisphere, signaling the harvest season. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

The Snow Star Festival is one of the largest of its kind, and attracts tens of thousands of Peruvians yearly. The people are organized into 500 geographic nations, each with its own individual identity and traditions, united by the common festivity. Families journey by foot to the valley, grandparents and children alike, carrying everything they will need on horseback, from cooking materials and food to bedding and tents. For some the walk takes several days, as they are coming from miles away. The valley quickly takes on the appearance of a refugee village with houses, restaurants and other buildings springing up out of colorful tarps and poles. Vendors walk through the camp selling goods from hats to tarps.

In this May 23, 2016 photo, a Quechua woman waits for a religious procession to file past so she can cross the road, during the second day of the syncretic festival Qoyllur Rit’i, translated from the Quechua language as Snow Star, in the Sinakara Valley, in Peru's Cusco region. The festival coincides with the reappearance of the star cluster Pleiades in the Southern Hemisphere, signaling the harvest season. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

A central church anchors the sprawling village, and the church remains mobbed throughout the festival as people enter it to pay homage. A line of worshippers snakes throughout the encampment as people wait hours to enter the church. For the entirety of the three-day festival, music can be heard echoing throughout the valley from the central square. The hundreds of nations take turns dancing to the music, and with no schedule, they police themselves peacefully, handing over  the space to a new group with their own costumes, dance moves and customs.main_900-3

After thousands of years, the “Ukukus” remain a central part of the event. Although the event has taken on numerous Catholic aspects, this pagan tradition would not budge. Hundreds of men dressed as mythical half-bear-half-men ascend to the top of a surrounding mountain on both nights of the festival. They stand on the glacier all night to converse with the gods; in the past, they have brought back sacred blocks of ice from the glacier to the people in the camp below. Today, however, the fast shrinking of the glacier has scared the festival goers and forced them to refrain from this tradition.


The derivation and the definition of the festival are greatly debated and two ideas have triumphed: the Christian tradition and the indigenous tradition. Both have remained today. As Paula Sadock put it in a particularly interesting New York Times article, “Andean people worshiped the earth and the mountains in this spot long before they were converted by their Christian conquerors. So the festival offers a uniquely Andean trinity, combining worship of the Apus (mountain gods), Pachamama (the earth mother) and Jesus with no apparent sense of contradiction.”


The power of the valley can unite people from all walks of life, religious background and cultural upbringing. There is something special about the land itself. The festival is not only divided into religious factions, but also into regional cultural groups called nations. As many as 500 nations send delegations to the event. The great diversity of the festival has the potential to create a tense environment, but impressively this is not the case.

All the pictures were taken from an Atlantic Article 

The title picture was taken from a New York Times Article 

The Cartel Will Provide

There is no doubt that the drug trade is a strong and deep rooted problem in the United States and Mexico. Cartels and gangs were not always as powerful and far-reaching as they are today; to get to this point, the two countries first had to experience a perfect storm of circumstances. While President Reagan was waging a harsh War on Drugs, Mexico’s economy was taking a turn for the worse. Oil prices rose in the late seventies, benefiting Mexico, but the recession of the early 1980s caused a drop in oil exports and prices. In addition, President Echeverría (1970-76) had just attempted a fiscal expansion that resulted in an increase of public debts and the budget deficit as well as inflation. In 1982, Mexico defaulted on its debts, causing concern in the larger global market. The US, Mexico’s largest creditor, agreed to help Mexico (and any other country) only if the government fought its nation’s drug problem to a level the US deemed satisfactory. In order to prevent an international financial disaster, the International Monetary Fund loaned the Mexican government $3.8bn.  This loan, as well as other support from the global community, came with conditions; Mexico was to undergo a mandatory “structural adjustment” that was intended to rebuild the Mexican economy. It did not. Services were privatized, foreign investment was widely encouraged, and the agricultural sector was forced to concentrate on exports. This was a financial dream for aspiring tycoons, but for the rest of the country it was a nightmare. Work conditions plummeted when public jobs were privatized, subsidies for basic necessities were removed, and wages dropped. The plan to fix Mexico’s economy failed spectacularly.

When a government fails to help the people it is designed to support, it is only a matter of time before someone else takes control. In the case of Mexico, it was the drug cartels that stepped in to provide support and stability. When Mexico’s economy failed and farmers were losing their jobs, the Guadalajara Cartel, run by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, offered work and protection. In 1987, Félix Gallardo split his cartel kingdom into five territories which would operate independently from each other but answer to him. This system functioned relatively well until Félix Gallardo was arrested in 1989; though he tried to maintain control from prison, each faction of his empire vied for control with disastrous civilian consequences. The group in control of the Sonora region was completely destroyed, while three of the other factions were severely crippled. The remaining group, however, came out of the aftermath of Félix Gallardo’s arrest stronger than it went in, and has only gained power since; it is known as the Sinaloa Cartel.


The shades of orange in the map above, accurate for FY15, indicate areas where the Sinaloa Cartel has predominant influence, with darker orange showing more significant control. You may notice that most of the map is orange, including Hawaii and Alaska, and about half of it is dark orange. It is important to note that the small pie charts on the map represent the percent of cases each DEA office oversees that is attributed to each cartel.

So how did the Sinaloa Cartel come to have such far reaching power? As anyone who works in sales will tell you, networking is key. The modern drug trade finds its roots in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, where a small group of families started dealing and trafficking opioids. The state saw an influx of Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s who took advantage of the region’s climate and started cultivating poppies for opium. The business remained relatively small until World War II when Japan seized control of the Asian opium supply; the US needed morphine, and Sinaloa was happy to provide it. The main families involved in drug production and trade continued their practices even after the US stopped condoning them. In the early 1980s, the Sinaloan families had a large enough network that they shifted their base of operations to Guadalajara, where they were led by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. Around 1987, Félix Gallardo decided it was in his best interest to split his vast empire into five regional groups, Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Sonora, Tamaulipas, and Pacific Coast. Operations ran smoothly, with each region operating independently of the others, until Félix Gallardo was arrested in 1989. Félix Gallardo tried to run the Guadalajara Cartel from inside prison, but as war broke out between regions he quickly realized it was a lost cause. Today, the cartels operating in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez are relatively minor players, Tamaulipas is the base for the Gulf Cartel, and the Sonora region has been engulfed by the Sinaloa Cartel, which always controlled the Pacific Coast.

Since 1989, the Sinaloa Cartel has arguably been the fiercest cartel operating in Mexico. The Cartel uses every resource to its advantage- its historic network, the poor farmers looking for work, the underpaid military, the corrupt politicians- to ensure its dominance and stability. The Cartel also uses tactics that would make Machiavelli proud; they help the general population in a quasi-governmental manner, but are not afraid to use extreme force to stay in power. The people that live in the state of Sinaloa have an intense respect and reverence for the Cartel, something not seen in other areas of the country. The Cartel provides services that the government does not; it is understood that the Cartel is a dangerous force people should not oppose, but the general population sees no reason to oppose it.

The Sinaloa Cartel is a transnational, institutionalized gang that could not have gained the power it has without the help of the War on Drugs. The War had good intentions, but executed plans with a narrow focus on minor problems rather than understanding the effects they would have on the drug trade as a whole. The drug problem of these two nations is worse than ever, and if there is any hope of improvement we must learn from the past.


For decades, Afghanistan has been plagued by a myriad of problems. Although things have been looking up in recent years, most of the underlying troubles remain. The Taliban has regained ground and corruption runs rampant. Although in the past Afghanistan has been controlled by various extremist, terrorist, and insurgent groups, the country is now finally on the brink of having a democratic government. They held an election in 2014, and the voter turnout was nearly 100%. Unfortunately, this was not the end of their problems. Although most news sources focused on the record turnout in the 2014 election, they often left out the fact that much of the election was rigged, and voting regulations were broken all over the country.

The previous president, Hamid Karzai was extremely unpopular, and the record voter turnout was primarily the result of people wanting to prevent him from throwing the election to his prefered successor Abdullah. Although they were successful, and the the election went to Ghani, the extreme level of corruption led to US intervention to broker a deal between the two. This deal makes Ghani the official president, but gives Abdullah a Prime-Minister-like position. This means that the country is now led by two opposing parties, trying to work together. While the people now have the president they voted for, they are still dissatisfied with the outcome of the election. Despite the number of people who voted to prevent Abdullah from taking office, he still gained a powerful position, and many feel that their votes are meaningless, as the election was only determined by US intervention. Many people believe that this cobbled together government may in fact be worse that the Karzai regime, as it will plunge the country into political gridlock.

The same corruption that has plagued the elections can be seen elsewhere as well. In fact, bribery is a force that influences nearly every aspect of life in Afghanistan, from police, to judges, tax officials, customs officers, and legislators. According to a UN study in 2012, 50% of Afghans reported paying a bribe in that year. Despite the dramatic changes in the government in 2014, the increasing trend of corruption has seen no noticeable change. This corruption is so ingrained in Afghanistan’s system, that it cannot even be considered a threat to the government, but rather an unstable foundation that the government was built upon.

After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1987, the country was broken into “fiefdoms” controlled by various warlords. These warlords and their followers operated like gangs, working primarily for themselves, but also bringing local peace. Unfortunately, these warlords have not gone away with the formation of a centralized government, but have instead become guerrilla factions who still hold significant power among both the people and the government. Although the Afghan government itself is not gang-like, much of the government is controlled by these warlords. The Afghan military has taken steps to try to eliminate this corruption, however the military is not free from influence of these warlords either, making them almost impossible to remove. In some ways the country is still shattered, with local rulers controlling their own territory. In some areas, the government has even given these warlords permission to act as local government, although some of them are deemed too violent to be unopposed. Even with aid from the US, Afghanistan’s government is still extremely weak, allowing gangs and guerrilla groups to establish their own territories and take control of them.

Although it has gone through several different governments, Afghanistan has remained a fractured state since the fall of the USSR. The warlords who once controlled the country as local rulers still hold power through fear and government corruption. While they are not the only source of corruption, they use it quite effectively to their advantage. Afghanistan is ranked in the top three most corrupt countries in the world, and despite the new government, this seems unlikely to change. While the new government is neither gang-like or in support of corruption, they are divided, and unable to effectively control the various criminal elements in Afghanistan.

18th Street Gang – Government Or Not?

Around the 1960s, due to an influx of immigrants to L.A., especially from South America, the 18th Street Gang was formed. It started near the 18th Street (hence the name) and Union Avenue in the Rampart District of L.A., and was originally part of a gang called Clanton 14. However, because the group that would become the 18th Street Gang wanted to start a new division called Clanton 18 that would allow immigrants to join, and Clanton 14 rejected this proposal, the group broke away and formed the 18th Street Gang. Since that time, Clanton 14 and 18th Street Gang have been enemies, though not nearly on the same scale as 18th Street Gang and MS13.

The 18th Street Gang (also known as Barrio 18) allowed other nationalities and races to join, making it one of the first multi-racial and multi-ethnic gangs in L.A. At first, the gang was mostly comprised of second-generation Hispanic immigrants, but as they began to fight other gangs, they started recruiting non-Hispanic members. The tactic of recruiting from many different ethnicities/nationalities helped the gang as it moved into other nations.

In the 1990s, the U.S. made a change to its immigration policy, which led to the deportation of many foreign-born residents. This was especially prevalent in California for the 18th Street Gang, many of whose members were not citizens of the U.S. Thus, many 18th Street Gang members were deported back to Central America, where they started more divisions of the gang. Currently, the 18th Street Gang, although mostly operating in Southern California, also has cliques/divisions in about 37 other states and the District of Columbia as well. Internationally, there are divisions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Philippines, Lebanon, Spain, Germany, England, Canada, France, Italy, and Australia.

The 18th Street Gang acts like a government in the way that they can locally control transportation systems or demand protection fees, but does not act like a government in the way that it does not enact rules for the local citizens to follow, or even behave in exactly the same manner from place to place. The 18th Street Gang has no centralized government for itself or one overall leader, or even much interaction between different branches. Each branch tends to remain localized and focused on its own territory.

While the 18th Street Gang mainly focuses on distributing drugs (such as marijuana and cocaine) on the streets as a way to make money, members and divisions have branched out into: “murders, murder-for-hire, assaults, arson, copyright infringement, drug trafficking, extortion, human trafficking, illegal immigration, kidnapping, vandalism, drug smuggling, people smuggling, prostitution, robbery, and weapons trafficking” – and that’s just the shortened list.

The most recent incident in the news directly concerning the 18th Street Gang exemplifies the local nature of the 18th Street Gang, and was a deliberate attempt by U.S. federal authorities to catch members of the 18th Street Gang in the middle of trafficking drugs. It was part of a larger investigation into the gang itself, which was in of itself a larger investigation into trafficking of drugs/firearms in Northern Virginia. Undercover agents pretending to be Miami drug traffickers set up the trap, in which they flew a plane full of fake cocaine to the unsuspecting members of the 18th Street Gang, and then arrested six members when they showed up to pick up the goods.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are the areas where the 18th Street Gang is on the attack, and not on the defense like it is in places like the U.S. In researching the Guatemalan operations against the 18th Street Gang and their rivals MS-13, which led to a decrease in the homicide rate when combined with other methods, and in Honduras, an attempted truce like the one in El Salvador (as explained in the next paragraph) failing, leading to no decrease in the rate of violence, there was no mention of interaction between any of the branches in those countries, leading to the conclusion that the tendency of the gang is to remain local.

One example of how powerful the 18th Street Gang is in certain places, and how much it affects things like the homicide rates and such, is El Salvador. In March 2012, the 18th Street Gang division (Barrio 18) in El Salvador and MS-13 took part in a truce, “mediated by local NGOs and the Catholic Church and facilitated by the government;” because of this truce, the homicide rate decreased. Before the truce, there were about 14 murders every day on average, whereas after the truce, this rate fell to about five a day. The truce was broken off in 2014, leading to increased homicide rates; but in April 2016 “a non-aggression pact” between the two gangs in El Salvador was announced. At the time of the “non-aggression pact,” the government had started a security crackdown, which the government later attributed to a drop in violence, rather than the pact between the two gangs. In 2017, the murder rate was about ten people a day until the 13th of January, where El Salvador had its first twenty-four hours without any murders in two years.

Some factions of the gang, the FBI says, “have developed a high level of sophistication and organization,” and seem almost governmental in their conduct, while others remain more unstructured and less organized. For most factions, while hierarchy exists, a central leadership is not as powerful since the gang’s organizational structure is more of a decentralized system. However, members are bound by a strict code. For instance, if a gang leader is not obeyed or if another member is not respected, the punishment may be a beating or even death for worse offenses. They even have specific ways to identify themselves, from colors (blue and black – blue represents the oldest California barrios, and black represents the gang’s original color) to numerical symbols (XV3 or XVIII, 666, 99, (9+9=18)) to patterns (3-dots) to, of course, the number 18. Often these signs and colors will appear in the gang’s outfits, tattoos, and graffiti. Interestingly enough, members will also identify themselves with sports clothing from teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, the Oakland Raiders, or the Los Angeles Dodgers, although it is unclear whether this is just the American based members or international members as well.

The 18th Street Gang’s power varies from place to place; while it does have certain codes and distinguishing items/marks that most, if not all, gang members use, it tends to vary in how its crimes are committed – from drug trafficking to faking papers to human trafficking and more. Overall, while some factions are stricter and more governmental than others, the 18th Street Gang is too decentralized, with no major central power, for the whole gang to be called a government. In conclusion, it seems more like a gang with governmental traits than a true government.

Venezuela: a Crisis of Incompetence

How corrupt does a government have to be before it ceases to govern at all? Venezuela, once a strong economy with promising oil reserves and renewable energy programs, has now declined to the point where even such basic goods as food and toiletries have become commodities. Though Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s increasingly unpopular president, is quick to blame these shortages on American sabotage, almost all of the economic drag is caused by his own government’s rampant corruption. In this Socialist nation where almost all of the economy is state-controlled, mismanagement by government officials has been devastating. Some policies drop prices and taxes to the extent of destroying independent businesses, while the government throws away money on such pointless gestures as Formula-1 racecars and tailor-made Hollywood movies (the government spends an average of $45 million/year on its mediocre racecar driver, and sent another $18 million to Danny Glover in 2009 for a movie that still has not been made). The Venezuelan government is not coherent enough to be called a gang, but its corruption and inefficiency are undoubtably criminal.
Often the line between corruption and incompetence is blurred; while some government officials have grown rich by finding a way to exploit Venezuelan citizens, certain actions have no discernable purpose, even for the government’s interests. For example, in 2015, President Maduro announced a “crackdown” on crime which would hope to lower the outrageous 98% criminal impunity rate. However, that year, the marked increase in police brutality showed no signs of lessening the problem. The only real change was 245 civilian fatalities at the hands of police officers in which at least 20 cases were not provoked by the “criminal”, and 14,000 arrests of which only 100 led to criminal charges. One case even claims that a 16-year-old boy was killed in his bed by the police. Furthermore, these abuses were not even targeted at Maduro’s political opponents: most of the raids were concentrated in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas, where Maduro’s socialist policies still retain some support. Perhaps this police overreach was a sincere attempt to reduce crime, which simply failed. Perhaps OLP officers were simply settling old scores. At this point, it is difficult to know.
If this show of force was intended to boost Maduro’s popularity, it has clearly failed in that regard as well. Under Maduro’s presidency, starting in 2013, Venezuela’s poverty rate has risen from around 50% to over 70%. His Chavista programs are designed to reduce inequality in Venezuela: instead, it has brought catastrophe to almost everyone besides a few lucky government officials. All over the country, citizens are forced to wait in lines for hours at supermarkets, where food runs out before most people are fed. Countless people with treatable illnesses have died, simply because the medicines they need are almost impossible to find within the country. As mentioned above, even toilet paper is a commodity. When one business finally managed to acquire supplies for its employee bathrooms, they were quickly stolen, likely to be sold on the black market. The once-efficient hydroelectric power system, which is the biggest source in Venezuela, has been rendered almost useless by droughts and disrepair. Venezuela is commonly hit by country-wide blackouts. Not even the cities have reliable power. Again, this is not likely a deliberate sabotage by government officials, but is rather the aggregate result of deep-seated and pervasive corruption at most levels of control. Money often simply vanishes from the system, but it does not go to the President or his cronies. Rather, it goes to all levels of government employees who, like other Venezuelans
Deservingly or not, Maduro is the popular scapegoat. By October 2016, the first of three steps to impeach the president collected enough votes to succeed. Since then, the National Electoral Congress, likely in Maduro’s pocket, has slowed the proceedings. The Economist’s “World in Numbers” Report considers it likely that the impeachment process will either succeed before 2018 or be replaced by violent uprising. Maduro is not likely to go down easily. He has been known to use force against peaceful protesters: in 2014, 43 protesters were killed, while the protest organizer was sentenced to 14 years of prison.
There are a few areas where government corruption is both obvious and devastating. For example, the military has assumed control of the public food market at the bequest of President Maduro. It is now common to find soldiers guarding black market food vendors, or even selling the food themselves. According to one person, food is now “a better business than drugs” in Venezuela. Because it can take an entire day to get food at a normal supermarket, Venezuelans are often forced to go to the black market to buy the same food at a huge markup. The soldiers who have carved this niche for themselves have profited immensely. Some bypass the sales altogether, and simply keep the food to feed their own families. Overall this move has done nothing to help the Venezuelan people, and has profited a small group at the expense of others. This shows typical attributes of a gang-like group.
In a situation as dire and complex as that of present-day Venezuela, it is often difficult to assess motives or place blame on certain individuals above others. Certainly there is a failure of leadership, and corruption on many levels, but it seems an oversimplification to label the government as either gang-like or state-like. While many officials clearly act in self-interest, some programs indicate at least a flawed attempt to restore order and prosperity to the country. No matter how we judge the government, it is certain that this situation cannot remain as it is for long.

Does MS-13 Act Like a Government?

In El Salvador, there are many rich and poor neighborhoods with whole different atmospheres when you walk down the street. You are taught when you are little to not wander through areas where you are not familiar, especially areas where a lot of crimes occur. However, there is a link between poor neighborhoods and crime because gangs are more likely to develop in these types of areas. Emerging in a poverty-stricken town in Los Angeles, MS-13 is currently the most dangerous and notorious gang in the entire Western Hemisphere. MS-13 might give the impression as a well organized gang, but in reality each clique operates independently. The group has no overall leader, no way of escaping being a member of MS-13 after joining, and they are extremely violent.

In countries where democratic governments are in authority, there is an overall administration in charge of most activities that happen in the country. However, MS-13 differs from this because they have cliques in each area they control with hierarchies and leaders of their own. These cliques act as shadow governments themselves and MS-13 is a predatory gang where they kill and gain money for their own benefit. MS-13 works in the United States, the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), Mexico and Canada with over 280,000 members. With so many people, it would be extremely difficult to have one leader keeping track of everything that happens with each person within the gang. This factor keeps the gang disorganized and separate it from governments.

Normally, when you enter politics or join any other organization, you can quit easily most of the time. On the other hand withdrawing  from MS-13 is almost impossible. If a member decides to leave, it would lead to death. Once a new member joins, they are totally committed to the cause with no escape, and to signify their membership and loyalty they have elaborate body art. On top of this, each new affiliate must kill someone to join MS-13. Clearly, this is not like an average government, and MS-13 is much more serious when affiliates join them.

MS-13 breaks the boundaries of an ordinary democratic government because they are extremely violent and have “no regard for human life.” Violence is a key aspect to MS-13’s culture and one way they use it is to gain money, to be feared, and sometimes for no particular reason. For example, they used a 19-year-old woman to lure another teenager into the woods and then members of MS-13 killed him by stabbing him multiple times. MS-13 is brutal with a lot of teenagers even though they have no affiliation with MS-13. Also, MS-13 uses violence to intimidate and coerce the governments in Central America. In an average government, the people are not centralized around violence to function, but MS-13’s main purpose of using it is to be feared and gain money.

Even though MS-13 is not organized with an official leader, they still give the impression of being organized. They carry out their tasks in their own cliques with individual leadership in each area around the Western Hemisphere. The leadership in the groups establish that members must be killed if they want to leave, making the affiliate’s commitment more serious. Once people join the gang, they are expected to be violent and sympathize with no one else. MS-13 achieves their goals using all these qualities and characteristics while a government accomplishes its duties in more peaceful, organized ways. Governments and gangs can be similar, but in this case MS-13 is not similar to a government structure. MS-13 is the most dangerous gang in the Western Hemisphere, so it is essential to keep this lesson in mind when you remember what you learned when you were little: Never walk down a street you aren’t familiar with.