Category Archives: drug dealing

Back to the US of A

In Getsemani, we took photos of the brightly-painted houses.

And fantastic murals.

“It’s almost too perfect,” I remarked to Lynn.  Everywhere I turned was a beautifully-composed photo.  If you can’t take great photos in Cartagena, you can’t take them anywhere.

Even a corner store offered a photo opp of “Still Life with Egg Cartons.”

It was Saturday night and the streets were thronged with people out for a good time.  Who knew who was a tourist and who lived here?

“Air BnB is ruining Cartagena,” Nora had said.  “Rich people are buying places to rent to tourists and Cartagenans cannot afford to live in the center anymore.”  I’ve heard similar laments from Amsterdam to Venice.

We passed through a bustling square with restaurants and bars.  “Want to eat here?” Lynn asked.

It was almost completely dark and there were few streetlights, but naturally I said, “Nah … let’s walk around a bit before it’s pitch dark.  Maybe we can find more photo opps.”

Lynn agreed so we stepped off into a side street.  “Let’s use the trick we used yesterday,” Lynn suggested.  “Where we just keep taking right turns so we can’t get lost.”

“Good thinking.”

But of course the streets in Getsemani weren’t straight, or thoroughfares, and within 10 minutes we were lost.  There were streetlights, but half of them were broken.  People were hanging out drinking and playing cards on the sidewalks.  Murals had been replaced by ugly graffiti.  There was trash, broken and boarded up windows, and mangy dogs wandered past menacingly.  The smell of pot was everywhere.  There was no doubt that this was not a tourist area.

“If we were in Africa,” Lynn said under her breath, “This is when we would hear the drums getting nearer and nearer.”

I laughed.  We smiled at the people we passed, who were staring at us as if to say, “You’ve taken over the rest of our city.  This is our patch.  Just let us enjoy our Saturday night socializing in peace.”

We spent 15 minutes walking through a completely dark, deserted warehouse district.  “If we were in Mississippi,” I said, “This is when we would hear the hound dogs baying, closer and closer.”

After much drama in our heads, we emerged onto the square where we’d started.

“See?!” proclaimed Lynn, “Going in a circle worked, eventually.”

We ate at a nondescript Italian restaurant that had a nice outdoor patio.  I needed to use the bathroom but judging from the exterior it appeared to be a latrine.  Finally I plucked up my courage and entered.  It was a regular indoor bathroom, which I actually found a bit disappointing, but it did have this mysterious sign:

Do Not Point to the Toilet?  Do Not Shoot a Gun Down the Toilet? Do Not Throw a Brick in the Toilet?

And as always, too soon, it was time to go home.  A driver picked me up at 10:30 the next morning; Lynn would begin her arduous return via Amsterdam later in the day.  The airport was only five minutes from the center.

This sign left no room for interpretation.

“Drug trafficking is punishable by pain of death or life imprisonment in China, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Indonesia, Malaysia, and 28 other countries.”

In Miami, I went through immigration and customs and then walk-ran to get from the last gate on D concourse to Gate E16, as indicated on the American website.

I followed the signs for E 2-33.  When I reached E11, the next gate was E20.

“E16?” I asked two American Airlines agents.

“There is no Gate E16,” they replied dismissively.  I showed them the screen shot and they doubled down, acting as though I had made it up somehow. American—the airline that dragged that poor man off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his seat for no reason.

The video system went down midflight so, since the same had happened on my arrival flight, I never saw the end of The Color of Water.   They offered free drinks, so I had a beer and chatted with my seatmate.

“Isn’t Colombia a third world country?!” she asked.  “I’m not a racist—I have mi-norities in my family.”

Horrid Little Men

We returned to the coffee shop we’d been to the previous day and people watched.

Lynn commented, not for the first time, that the Botero statue of the fat man with a little dick dressed as a gladiator reminded her of a certain president.  “Such a horrid little man,” she said.

This was the second time this day she had used the phrase “horrid little man.”  Over lunch we’d had a long conversation about the Me Too movement and our different experiences.

Lynn’s mum had made it clear to her three daughters that they should put up with no nonsense from anyone.  “Remember, you’re a Rutter!” her mother would admonish them.  Rutter is Lynn’s last name, no relation to the famous composer.

“We didn’t even know what that meant,” Lynn said, “But it had its effect.  When Jan and I were traveling around Europe …” (Jan is her older sister) “… when I was 17, we slept on a hillside in Italy with a bunch of other broke young people who were sleeping rough.

“I woke up in the middle of the night to find a bloke unzipping my sleeping bag.”

“Did you know him?  What did you do?” I asked.

“No, I didn’t know him! I yelled at him—‘Get away from me, you horrid little man!’  It just came out of my mouth.  I don’t think any bloke wants to be called ‘little.’”

“What did he do?”

“He scurried away.  I went back to sleep.  No one bothered me again.”

“And no one ever hit on you at work, ever?”

“I don’t think so,” Lynn replied thoughtfully.  “If they did, I didn’t realize it.”

“Well if you had had any of the experiences I’ve had, there would be no doubt about what was going on,” I replied drily.

I wrote a post last November detailing some of the incidents where men have stalked, groped, exposed themselves, or otherwise sexually harassed me, including at work.

I think, due to my early childhood experiences, I had a big V for “vulnerable” or “victim” stamped on my forehead until just a few years ago.  My mother never told me, “Don’t forget—you’re a Maertz!”  But then, she had been an abused woman herself.

As I write this, a month after this trip, Colombia is in the news because its peace process is in danger of falling apart.  The US is trying to extradite one of the FARC leaders to face cocaine trafficking charges.  The 2016 peace deal promised immunity to FARC leaders, all of whom were wanted in the US, if they quit the drug trade.  The US says that Seuxis Hernandez-Solarte (great name!) has continued in the coke biz. FARC claims the US and Colombia are in cahoots to frame him.

Sigh.  More fat men playing at gladiators. And why was the drug trade so lucrative?  What was the economic incentive?  It was the US demand for drugs. And rather than get people into drug treatment which would have dried up demand, we tried to arrest and incarcerate our way out of the problem.  My son is Exhibit A.  What a waste of lives, money, and time, in both countries.

We had a last supper with Roxana and Ricardo and Gaby at the same restaurant we’d enjoyed the previous night.

The next day we would fly to Santa Marta, on the northern coast.  We would have to make a connection in Bogota.  Someone would pick us up in Santa Marta and drive us to Tayrona National Park.  It became unclear from that point out, but somehow we would then spend an hour traveling on foot or by horse into this park.  It was going to be a long day.

The driver didn’t arrive at the agreed time, 7:30am.  He hadn’t showed by 7:45, so I What’s App’d Responsible Travel.  It was an hour-long drive to the Medellin airport, there was only one route, and we had seen miles of backed up traffic going in the other direction on our way in.  If we didn’t get to the airport it would set off a cascade of missed connections and we didn’t want to know where that would land us tonight.

Some Cold Truths

When I mention I’ve been to Colombia, I get two reactions.

One: “Cool!  That’s the hot new destination!”

Two: “Isn’t there a drug war there?”

Number one is true, while number two used to be true.  As usual, I had intended to brush up on my destination’s history but never did it justice.  I read an article here and there about the peace process and upcoming elections.  A former coworker had just moved to Bogota, where her husband is teaching at one of the universities on a Fulbright Fellowship.  She was sending me photos and updates, including that her husband had been tear gassed twice.

Tear gassed. Her take on it was that Colombians, despite no longer living under a state of war for the first time in decades, still have plenty to protest.  Below is a cut and paste directly from Wikipedia.

“The Colombian conflict began in the mid-1960s and is a low-intensity asymmetric war between Colombian governments, paramilitary groups, crime syndicates, and far-left guerrillas such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN), fighting each other to increase their influence in Colombian territory. Two of the most important international actors that have contributed to the Colombian conflict are multinational companies and the United States.

“It is historically rooted in the conflict known as La Violencia, which was triggered by the 1948 assassination of populist political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and in the aftermath of United States-backed strong anti-communist repression in rural Colombia in the 1960s that led liberal and communist militants to re-organize into FARC.

“The reasons for fighting vary from group to group. The FARC and other guerrilla movements claim to be fighting for the rights of the poor in Colombia to protect them from government violence and to provide social justice through communism. The Colombian government claims to be fighting for order and stability, and seeking to protect the rights and interests of its citizens. The paramilitary groups claim to be reacting to perceived threats by guerrilla movements. Both guerrilla and paramilitary groups have been accused of engaging in drug trafficking and terrorism. All of the parties engaged in the conflict have been criticized for numerous human rights violations.

According to a study by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, 220,000 people have died in the conflict between 1958 and 2013, most of them civilians (177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters) and more than five million civilians were forced from their homes between, generating the world’s second largest population of internally displaced persons. Seventeen percent of the population has been a direct victim of the war. 2.3 million children have been displaced from their homes, and 45,000 children killed, according to national figures cited by Unicef.”

The drug “lords” have been portrayed in recent Netflix series like Drug Lords and Narcos.  I intend to watch to see if they are glorified, and what mention is made of the US demand for cocaine which drove their business.

Michael recounted how his grandmother, as a child, had hidden in a trunk while her parents were murdered by some faction or other in the war.  He teared up.  He described in detail an incident in which he clearly felt his life, and the lives of his fellow activists, were in danger.  Again, he got emotional and wiped away tears.

 

“You’re traumatized,” I exclaimed, and gave him a gentle hug.  “You’ve got to get help and take care of yourself.  Traumatized people do risky things.”

 

“You’re different from most tourists,” he said.  “You’ve heard about the war and you know about the disappearances.”

I told him I work for a torture rehabilitation center and gave him my card.  Lynn mentioned she works for Oxfam, but he had never heard of it, despite it being one of the largest NGOs in the world.

This was when Lynn and I decided to friend him on Facebook.  He is surely being monitored by adversaries, and if they see he’s got XX “friends” in other countries it could be protective.  I don’t know.  I felt powerless.

Next was a memorial to Jorge Gaitán, believed to have been assassinated by the CIA in broad daylight on a crowded street.

Comings and Goings

Back to Belize.  This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

My group had exited Belize.  Now, we had to get the van out.  As we waited, two pre-teen boys approached us.

“We will help you cross the border,” one exclaimed enthusiastically in English. That was all the English he knew.  It was unclear how they proposed to help us, aside from loitering around and smiling a lot at us.  Maybe they were counting on us gringos falling in love with their adorableness and giving them big tips.

I chatted with them in Spanish and learned that Juan was Mexican but his family had fled to Guatemala to escape gang violence.  He didn’t say where his father was; it was just his mother and nine siblings.

“Why aren’t you in school?” I asked.

“We don’t have money for uniforms,” he answered.

Miguel was Guatemalan and he had a similar story about his family not being able to afford uniforms.  Was it true?  Who knows.  It is a common problem around the world.

After an hour our van was released and we lined up at Guatemalan border control.  As is usual for border controls, one line was for foreigners and one was for nationals.  Our line included a bunch of old hippies in flowing skirts and Birkenstocks, some Mennonite women in flowing skirts and veils that made them look like nuns, and us—by now disheveled from standing in the scorching sun.

The other line was composed of local women in flowing skirts and sandals, nuns, and bedraggled small business people carrying Hefty bags full of bagged crisps they had bought on one side and would sell on the other.

Our line was tall, their line was short. Our line was pale and sunburned, theirs was brown and sunburned. Our line was anxious and loud and full of questions; theirs was quiet and patient.

Juan and Miguel hovered nearby, “helping” us.  After 45 minutes I approached the counter and the border control agent flipped through my passport.  “Oh my, you have traveled a lot,” he commented, smiling.  He lingered over the colorful visa stamps for Kenya and Jordan. He was the first and only border control agent I’ve encountered who was friendly.

Stamp.  I was in. While we waited for everyone in the group to get through, we approached the money changers with fistfuls of currency to trade our Belizean dollars for Guatemalan Quetzals. Here is a Belizean Dollar; I love that Queen Elizabeth is sharing space with a jaguar.

And here is a Quetzal:

I don’t know who the guy is but he sure is handsome, if you can overlook the mustache.

There was a black truck nearby, probably seized from narcos, that was wrapped in so much Crime Scene tape it looked like a Christmas present.  Without thinking, I whipped out my phone and snapped a photo of it.

Mike stepped forward, “No photos!”

Yikes, he was right, I dropped my phone in my pocket and thankfully wasn’t hauled in for questioning.  I won’t compound my recklessness by posting it on my blog.

It was time to leave our fixers, Juan and Miguel.  I gave them a couple bucks each and I think others in my group did as well.  Not bad for a couple of hours work, and I hope they really did use the money for school costs.

Off we were to the town of El Remate, our perch for Tikal the next day.  As we drove I jotted down Spanish words I didn’t know to check later.  There was a sign I didn’t know the meaning of: “Poblado.”  I later learned it meant populated area.  It was posted every mile or so, which would seem to dilute its warning to watch out for kids running across the road.

We pulled up at La Casa de Don David, our hotel. I ran down to the viewing platform overlooking Lake Itza to catch the sunset. There was a system by which you could order drinks on a phone, and the lodge delivered them via zip line, accompanied by disco lights and music.

But who needed alcohol, really, with views like this?

What We Don’t Know

One more post about prison stuff, then back to the European travelogue.

A couple organizations have been pushing legislation that would improve conditions in solitary confinement in Minnesota prisons.  We Minnesotans think we’re so progressive, and we are in many ways, but we are one of the worst abusers of seg, as testified to by the letter from a prisoner in my last post.  I read the bill and made some suggestions, like that a prisoner’s next of kin be notified when they are put in seg.  I was never notified when Vince was kept there for six days.  I’m sure the prison system would hate that, because they’d have all sorts of mad moms like me calling to demand what happened.  It’s a Republican controlled legislature now, so I’m keeping my expectations low.

If you think US prisons are bad (and they are), Lynn mailed me an article about UK prisons which shocked me—me, and I’ve written a hundred posts about prison.  The link isn’t publicly available, so I’ll recap it for you.

UK prisons are overcrowded and violent.  Assaults against guards and other prisoners are way up, there are riots and strikes, and there were 107 suicides and five homicides in 2016.

I assumed the violence was due to overcrowding, which was due to the same forces as in the US—harsh sentences, corporate interests, institutionalized racism and classism, poverty that causes people to use drugs and alcohol and to deal drugs, and an aging prison infrastructure.

Of course it’s complicated and there are underlying causes.  But the article attributes the violence directly to new “psychoactive substances” which have “dramatic and destabilizing effects.” They’re called names like “Spice” and “Black Mamba” and they can’t be detected in urine tests.

And this is where I laughed out loud: these drugs are being delivered by drones.  Yes, drones!  It’s kind of hilarious, until it’s your son, husband, or brother getting knifed in the kidney by someone who’s high out of his mind.

The US version of The Week ran an excerpt from a Bloomberg Businessweek article which profiled the founder of MyPillow.  Mike Lindell is a recovering addict and I give him lots of credit for that and for building his business.

However, all of his products are stamped with “Made in the USA.”  Lindell is a big Trump supporter and would probably cheer the cutting of government benefits to the poor, which is interesting since MyPillow has contracts for prison labor that must net them millions.

I know this because one of the facilities in which Vince was incarcerated, Moose Lake, had a MyPillow factory line.

And so MyPillow can stamp “Made in the USA” on every box, and it’s true, but that pillow may well have been made by a prisoner who netted $2.00 an hour.

I can’t find anything anywhere to substantiate that MyPillow benefits from prison labor or even that it operates in prisons.  This is the beauty of working inside prisons—it’s a secret!—literally behind locked doors.

I’m not saying MyPillow is doing anything illegal.  However it is hypocritical that Mr. Lindell, a conservative, takes government subsidies.

I wrote to the editor of The Week, Bill Falk, and he wrote right back, which impressed me.   He suggested I write to the author of the original story in Bloomberg Businessweek, Josh Dean.  This should have occurred to me in the first place, but better late than never.  So I wrote to Mr. Dean and he responded right away too.  I didn’t expect BB to amend his article; I just wanted him to have the additional information.  There’s no reason a reporter would ask every businessperson he interviews, “Do you operate inside prisons?”  You might think that a “jobs for inmates” story line might be good PR for MyPillow, but Mr. Lindell didn’t bring it up.

Bill Falk also suggested I contact one of my local newspapers, which might have investigative reporting resources and an interest in pursuing the story, since MyPillow is a Minnesota company.  Mr. Dean also urged me to do this, and I did.  A local editor was interviewing Vince within an hour of me sending the email.  Stay tuned.

Time to Make a Move

Greetings from Oxford, Mississippi! This is a post written by Vince about his move. It will be bittersweet to come home to an empty house.

Time to Make a Move

Just shy of seven months as a free man, I am happy to report that, as a 37-year-old, I am moving out of my mother’s home. Again. Maybe for the fourth time in my life, and hopefully for the last.

I alluded to this in my last post but not before because I didn’t want to get overexcited about it until it was actually approved by my agents. Now it is official, and I can proudly relate this information to you: I AM MOVING!  Just two short days from now.

I have written about this move before, but as a failed attempt at leaving the nest possibly too early.  I’m moving into a house with two sober guys from the program, one of which I was in prison with, and I’ve worked with for some time. He no longer works with me, but we remain friends. I don’t know the other guy, but he’s sober, and that counts for a lot.

I’ve been to see the house once.  It’s small as you can see in the picture, but I’ll have my own room, so it isn’t like a sober house environment. There isn’t a house manager that watches over us, or anybody to give us random shakedowns and breathalyzers. I have my agents for that. This is a step forward.

V's House

It couldn’t come at a better time, in my opinion, as I will be moving on to the next phase of Intensive Supervised Release program soon after. That will open up a lot more time that I can spend doing things I want to do like go to more meetings, and spending more time with my family. I am also finishing the last three hours of my community service this week.

It’s all lining up.  Everything is going well in so many ways.  So I need to be really careful. For somebody like me, good news can be all I need to trick myself into thinking I deserve a reward.  Maybe I can go out and celebrate with just one drink, or just a little crack (“A little” crack doesn’t actually exist. It’s an all or nothing drug. For more information, go here). I mean, at this point I’ve built myself a pretty good network of people that I can reach out to if the urge hits me, but it’s always good to layer on the protection.

This disease of mine can also be described as an allergy. When I drink or do drugs, things just go haywire. My body responds differently to them than normal people.  Also, my allergy in particular is a little more severe than say, a gluten allergy. Oh, also I don’t believe that’s a real allergy, but I’m not a Doctor.  Anyhow, let’s say that somebody with a gluten allergy accidentally ingests some flour. Well, maybe an hour or so later, they fart a little and that causes some slight discomfort or embarrassment. Well, when I ingest a little alcohol, or maybe some meth, my world flips upside down.  I can no longer take care of myself financially, mentally, or physically. And this allergy affects others, too.  For example, if I smoke crack, you may no longer have a television, and some of your smaller valuables may go missing as well.

Simply put, chemicals make me not give a fuck about you or me.  And I’d really like to avoid all of that so that’s why I’ve immersed myself in this program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’m not worried about relapsing because of my new place and my new freedoms, I’m excited to see what I can do with them.  And I’m really happy to be able to share this with you people. For you that are new to this blog, I encourage you to see where it all started almost two years ago with just five pieces of writing paper and a 3” flexible safety pen behind the unforgiving bars at St. Cloud Men’s Reformatory/State Prison.

UN-Doing the War on Drugs

I ended my last post by saying I would write about a road trip I am contemplating, from St. Paul to New Orleans.  I don’t know enough to write about it yet, so for now I will revert to one of this blog’s main topics, addiction—and all the consequences of addiction and trying to stop it.

I’m very excited that the United Nations will hold a review of the whole drug control system in April in New York.  It’s called the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem, or the horrible acronym UNGASS. I’d like to thank the Open Societies Foundation (OSF) for its reporting on this.  OSF promotes research documenting the heavy costs of the war on drugs and shares success stories from countries that have implemented smart policies.  I’ve plagiarized their recent blog posts quite heavily here.

The last time the UN had a special session on drugs, in 1998, the focus was “the total elimination of drugs from the world.”  Ha!  I wonder if there were any actual addicts or former drug dealers involved in coming up with that totally unrealistic goal.

Because it didn’t go well.  The war on drugs has led to public health crises, mass incarceration, corruption, and black market–fueled violence.  Governments—especially those in Latin America that have to deal with the fallout of bad drug policies—have pushed for this UNGASS.

Citizens are fed up too.  A few years ago, a coalition of organizations and individuals in Uruguay pushed until the country voted to become the first country in the world to establish a legal, government-controlled marijuana market.  The main objective of the law was to eliminate narcotrafficking.  But they also have a positive goal, to make the new marijuana production chain beneficial for poor segments of society and a sustainable business for small producers with limited resources.

For the first time, there is significant dissent at the local, national, and international levels.

UNGASS is an opportunity to put an end to the horrors of the drug war and instead prioritize health, human rights, and safety.

I didn’t even know that there was an International Narcotics Control Board, did you?  That sounds creepy.  And it acts like a bully, apparently.

For instance, in the 90s, Switzerland had a major drug problem.  There were open-air drug scenes and one of the highest rates of HIV in Western Europe.  The government pioneered services such as heroin prescriptions, supervised consumption rooms, and community-based treatment.  The Swiss people approved this policy through a series of referenda.

What happened?  The number of new heroin users declined from 850 in 1990 to 150 in 2002; drug-related deaths declined by more than 50 percent; new HIV infections dropped 87 percent, and there was a 90 percent reduction of property crime committed by people who use drugs.

But the UN’s Control Board accused the Swiss of “aiding and abetting the commission of crimes involving illegal drug possession and use.”

On the other hand, when Bulgaria introduced a law that made possession of tiny amounts of drugs punishable with mandatory incarceration for as long as 15 years, the Control Board praised their “political commitment and the will to deal with drug abuse.”  I’ve never been to Bulgaria, but life in a Bulgarian prison sounds horrifying.

OSF is publishing a series of reports in advance of UNGASS, including research into drug courts and their unintended consequences, and an examination of how the drug war affects girls and women uniquely.  You can sign up for their updates here.  Want to get more involved or have a say?  Check out this cool website, Stop the Harm.

So there!  After my recent buzzkill series of posts, I’m happy to share with you some good news and some easy ways to contribute to fixing this world’s drug problem—for real this time.