Monday, March 02, 2009

Here, They Kill By The Handful

NOTE: I wrote this piece last Friday evening, after watching the Current documentary for the first time. In the few days that have passed since then, both the New York Times and 60 Minutes have shed light on the growing Mexican crisis, as well as being mentioned in David Gregory's wide-ranging interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Meet The Press, and in several other mainstream news outlets. Thus, while it may now be a story people are finally reporting, I'm only too glad to add my voice to the chorus, and ask you all to take a closer look at the world on our Southern Border.

In November 2008, fresh off my triumph as a staffer with the Indiana campaign for now-President Obama, I made my way back across the country, seeing the USA in my...well, Toyota Corolla (sorry, GM) and making some interesting pitstops along the way. One night, it was a Monday as I recall, I laid my weary head to rest in El Paso, Texas, along the Rio Grande and the US border with Mexico. It wasn't much of a town, I arrived after dark, having driven from Dallas that day - all day - and didn't get to see much, other than getting turned around off the freeway and nearly making for Juarez, the Mexican city just over the river.

That night, after a fast food dinner in my moderately priced airport hotel room, I threw on the local news. They began with the local news in El Paso, which was inconsequential at best, I seem to remember some kind of bond issue, and maybe some controversy at UTEP, the local college.

Then, the newscasters began the news stories from Juarez, three miles away from my hotel. The fourth and fifth stories that night are ones I'll never forget. First, they had B-roll footage of what looked like a staged scene from a drug movie, like Traffic or something of that ilk. They proceeded to discuss the seven "executions" - they don't go through the pretense of calling them murders, sensing premeditation, or killings, intimating there had been some sense of targeting - that had happened that afternoon, in full view of police, on one of the main streets in the city. I looked up from the newspaper or magazine or whatever it was I was reading with the TV blaring in the background, jaw agape, to learn the details. A police officer had been killed in cold blood, and then, just for good measure, bystanders were shot with assault rifles. They joined the more than six thousand executions in 2008 alone, becoming almost faceless, nameless victims to the internecine battle that is gripping Mexico. The next story detailed a warning for young women of the Borderland, as three women had been kidnapped, again, in broad daylight. They were now among the hundreds who had been taken in the last year, most of whom end up raped, or worse, or sold into slavery or - if they were truly lucky - ransomed to fund the Mexican drug cartels and their all out assault on the world drug market.

These stories were treated as de rigeur by the media. Ho hum, another spate of killings, some more young women kidnapped, just another day in Juarez. And it wasn't that the anchors were trivializing the stories either, it's that they had become all to familiar. This was an ordinary day.

Laura Ling and Current TV recently traveled to Juarez, and other cities throughout Mexico to shine a light on this story. It is a battle of epic proportions, one that threatens to turn America's neighbor to South and one of our largest trading partners into a failed state within the next year. And it is a battle that the American press refuses - either wilfully or, more likely, blindly - to cover. Their full hour documentary is below, and I encourage you all to watch it. It is a gripping hour which should open all of our eyes to the crisis just miles away from our Southern border.

One scene in particular struck me. Laura and her crew travel to Culiacan in Sinaloa state, one of the centers of the drug cartels in Central Mexico, where they grow and distribute marijuana and cocaine. They follow a police brigade to the scene of a fresh killing, one man was dead at the hands of the cartel. And with the sun shining down, and the blood still wet on the ground beneath their feet, the officer Laura interviews says, "At least it's only one person, that's lucky. Here, they kill by the handful."

The cartels kill at will, without fear of retribution. How long until this war spills over the border? How long until these drug lords see fit to kill and rape in the streets of San Antonio? Phoenix? Atlanta? New York? Chicago?

The time has come to shine a light on people who murder at will. The time has come to reevaluate how we fight a "war on drugs" and start targeting murderers and rapists and torturers and work at the source instead of targeting users.

If nothing else, Lara Ling and her team show us that until people in power target these cartels, they will continue to operate at will. President Calderon of Mexico has done well and taken key steps to begin stemming the violence, but it may be time to bring international pressure to bear against the cartels. If nothing else, people must begin to expose this issue and bring it into the light of day, so that "executions" and kidnappings are treated like the crimes they are, not footnotes in the daily news.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Give Me A Lever: John Kitzhaber for HHS Secretary

I got a text message yesterday morning from a friend of mine who is as much a political junkie as I am. It said, simply, "We lost Daschle."

My heart sank. The red-bespectacled wonder had won redemption, something that comes along far too few times in American politics, only to piss it away over a car, a driver and one, admittedly galactically stupid, tax error. Daschle is one of the nation's thought leaders on health care and how to fix our broken system. In fact, he may be THE thought leader on the subject. He basically singlehandedly wrote the new President's health care policy during the campaign. If you ask people high up in the administration, they will tell you when the time came to select a health czar, the President had his man in Daschle.

Of course, he was so busy figuring out how to fix health care, he kinda sorta forgot to pay his taxes. A lot of them.


The truth is, Daschle could have weathered the storm, but - and I actually believe this when I say it - Daschle so intimately knew the fight he and the President were going to have to wage on fixing our health care system that any distraction - a la the HillaryCare debacle in 1993 - would give the entrenched interests an opportunity to distract, delay and defuse the forces of Good and defeat any bill that would move us to a progressive health system.

We need real movement on this issue and we need it today. No distractions, no sideshows, no BS. People die every day because of lack of access to health care in this country, which is a fact that drives straight through cruelty before arriving at being a sin, a stain on all of us.

So, with this early setback, where do we go from here? Why not try the Pacific Northwest?

Allow me to introduce you to Governor John Kitzhaber. I am lucky enough to have a friend and political mentor in Joe Trippi, my former boss on the Dean campaign. To Joe's credit, he has been out in front on Twitter since the Daschle retraction went down yesterday, introducing his legions of followers to the work Kitzhaber's Archimedes Project has been doing. And as I've read more about Kitzhaber, himself a medical doctor, and his project, I have been thoroughly impressed with his chops.

The Archimedes Project has been working since 2006 under three key notions on how to reshape the health care debate in this country. Instead of working to fix medicare or other barely functional existing institutions, we must ask ourselves a simple question: What would the optimal system look like that could improve population health, reduce per capita cost and improve the patient's experience regardless of their category, how care is financed, a person's age, income, race or gender? It is a more holistic look back at where we've been with health care, where we've succeeded, more notably where we have failed, and, most importantly a look forward to what American inginuity on this idea can bring us.

Kitzhaber understands, as well, that change like this does not come swiftly, but rather with the steady drumbeat of leadership and forward thinking coupled with legislative initiatives to back it up. And, more importantly, the Project understands that being a thought leader on such an important topic is great, but without the support of the grassroots, the people who will benefit directly from these ideas, the Project won't go anywhere.

John Kitzhaber is a perfect intermediary to work between the President and the Congress and the People on this issue. He and the Archimedes Project leaders understand the need to work collectively on an issue that will mean greater prosperity for us all. And, though I haven't checked his tax returns as yet, Kitzhaber showed leadership as a two-term Governor in Oregon, expanding access to health care and building economic prosperity throughout the state. I encourage you to read more about and get involved with Kitzhaber's current work with the Archimedes Project at, and join in the growing chorus of support, reminding President Obama that real change comes from the people, and that leadership on this issue means working across all boundaries to get the job done for the American people.

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