Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 6, 2019

Crimes of the Criminal Justice System

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,crime,Film,prison — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 6, 2019

Your first reaction to the concurrence of three online films about the racist abuses of the American criminal justice system might be to attribute this to pure happenstance. However, given the objective reality of the increasing legal, moral and political rot of the police, the courts and the prison system, it was inevitable that filmmakers of conscience would feel impelled to respond to the crisis. In other words, we should not speak of happenstance but ineluctability.

Made for Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a docudrama about the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teens who spent up to twelve years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Running on HBO, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is a documentary about a Jamaican soccer coach accused of the murder of the 12-year old son of his ex-girlfriend in Potsdam, New York. Like the cops in DuVernay’s film, their investigation is filled with irregularities intended to help convict a Black man. Finally, there is “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime, another documentary, this time about a successful rapper from Philadelphia who is hounded by an African-American female judge determined to keep him on probation for the rest of his life for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 19-years old. Like the Central Park Five, his main crime in the eyes of the cops was being Black. As is so often the case with such victims, having Black cops, judges or prison guards does not make much difference to people of color being cast down into the system of hell they maintain.

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August 12, 2019

Facebook: con games, incorporated

Filed under: crime,facebook — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

Recently I heard about three different stories of people being victimized on Facebook by con artists. In the first case, you might see the con artist taking advantage of social media’s innate ability for deception. In the other two cases, it is obvious that FB was in cahoots with the con artist.

On July 28th, the NY Times reported on how a 56-year old woman named Renee Holland was swindled by someone pretending to be a GI in Iraq whose duty was to disarm bombs. On Facebook, there are numerous groups that were set up for just such a support network but they soon became hotbeds of Nigerian con men who had polished their skills over the years pretending to be a Prime Minister’s son seeking a partner in retrieving money in a trust fund, etc.

After she sent the con artist $5000 for various expenses, including a plane ticket home, she went out to the airport to greet him. So ashamed of being taken advantage of, she drove to a drug store, bought some sleeping pills, and washed them down with vodka.

When Holland woke up in a hospital bed, her husband was sitting next to her. Incredibly, she got suckered again by the scam artist who assured her that he was for real and just awaiting an insurance payment that would allow him to return home. All he need was plane fare and he’d reimburse her as soon as he arrived. By the end of his con, she and her husband had lost $26,000 to $30,000. In the aftermath, her husband was arrested twice for domestic abuse. Finally, her husband shot and killed Renee Holland and her father, then turned the gun on himself.

FB has terminated billions of such fake accounts but there are about 120 million still active. No wonder gullible people continue to be taken in. For this particular con to succeed, it requires the photo of a real GI. Renee Holland was deceived by the photo of Sgt. Daniel Anonsen, a Marine, one that was popular with other con artists. When he began receiving unsolicited messages from female strangers, he contacted FB, which acted only on some of the accounts. Others, they claimed, did not violate their rules. Attempts to contact FB and get the matter resolved resulted in automated responses.

The F.B.I. says it received nearly 18,500 complaints from victims of romance or similar internet scams last year, with reported losses exceeding $362 million, up 71 percent from 2017. One Nigerian con man the NY Times contacted told reporters that “Definitely there is always conscience but poverty will not make you feel the pain.” The poverty that motivates a Pakistani or Afghan grow opium poppies is also capable of convincing a Nigerian to cause pain to others out of a burning need for survival. The Times reports:

Three Nigerian men, age 25, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they conned people on Facebook to pay for their education at Lagos State University.

They said they previously made $28 to $42 a month in administrative jobs or pressing shirts. With love hoaxes, the money was inconsistent but more plentiful. One estimated he made about $14,000 in two years; another took in $28,000 in three years.

The Times reporting is first-rate in terms of explaining the mechanics of the operation but woefully lacking on why a petroleum-exporting nation drives its young into becoming predatory sharks. (I suppose that this is an insult to a decent creature who only kills in order to feed itself.) Under president Goodluck Jonathan who was voted out of office in the last election and who was always seen in a cowboy hat, some $26 billion was pilfered out of national oil proceeds. American oil companies have continued to support people like Jonathan against attempts to do for Nigeria what Hugo Chavez did for Venezuela. If Nigeria had a living wage, all those fake accounts might finally begin to disappear. I suppose as long as FB is a private corporation enjoying huge profits just like the oil companies doing business in Nigeria, that’s just one of those tasks best left to a socialist revolution best described as a “clean break” from the system.

The other two cons benefited FB directly. Unlike the Nigerians driven by  poverty, the thieves in this instance were American companies that made game apps that could be run from FB. Not only did they not have to worry about being arrested, they were treated by Zuckerberg and company as key to their cash flow.

Both of these stories can be found on The Center for Investigative Reporting’s website and were originally aired on Reveal, the very best program on NPR and maybe all of radio. The shows are archived here, including the one on FB titled “Harpooned by Facebook”. The “whale” is a reference to people who come to Las Vegas intending to spend a fortune on roulette, blackjack, etc. On FB, the games people played in this instance were never intended to pay a penny.

In 2011, the 12-year old son of Glynnis Bohannon asked her to pay $20 so he could play Ninja Saga on FB. Like many middle-class mothers, she didn’t give it that much thought since what can go wrong on FB? It turned out that after she entered her credit card info, she expected this to be a permanent one-time fee. However, she soon learned from her next monthly statement that her son had run up more than a thousand dollars as he was prompted to explore various features of the game that did not come bundled with the $20 version. In a class-action suit over this deceptive practice, she learned that this was called “friendly fraud” by FB executives. In a 2013 discussion between two of the company’s employees, a 15-year-old Facebook user who had spent about $6,500 playing games was described as a “whale”.

The other whale referred to in the Reveal show was named Suzie Kelly who was almost as sad as Renee Holland. Kelly was not killed by her husband but their marriage was put to the test when she became addicted to Big Fish Casino, a suite of Las Vegas type games that—believe it or not—were never intended to pay cash to winners. Instead, playing blackjack, etc. was supposed to be “fun”. You paid into the game with real money but never got anything back except credits to play again, just like the pinball games I used to play for five cents back in the fifties. When you ran out of credits, you had to pony up some more cash. In her case, this came to $400,000 over the years.

In a letter to the Washington State Gambling Commission, Kelly wrote:

After spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, I surpassed the supposedly-top-tier VIP 15 rank to the “mystery” VIP 16 rank, achieving Big Fish Casino’s “you are royalty to us” status. Big Fish Casino assigned me a personal VIP host, Byron Scott. Byron personally called me; sent me his direct email address; responded to all of my emails (in the beginning) within minutes; took the time to get to know me personally; knew more about me than most of my friends did; even had flowers sent to my home when my mother passed away in 2016. He sent me free chips regularly, although sometimes he and other VIP hosts told me that I hadn’t spent enough money recently for them to be allowed to send me any. All in all, I have hundreds of emails and messages from Byron.

I had literally lost sense of reality. My reality became the app. My reality became withdrawing funds from my husband’s 401(k), and taking two home equity loans on our residence to pay off the credit card charges for the chip purchases. More importantly, I almost lost my husband due to this addiction. I finally told him about everything last month, and I am unbelievably lucky that my addiction to Big Fish Casino didn’t cost me my marriage. But financially, we’ve lost everything and don’t know how we’re ever going to recover.

FB got 30 percent of the cut “whales” like Suzie Kelly paid into these con games. Reveal provides chilling accounts of how FB management clearly knew what they were doing and justified it as providing “entertainment”, in their words they are providing a “social casino”.

In an article posted to Reveal’s website titled “Facebook’s fraud policies raised red flags. It still hasn’t changed them”, we learn about Zuckerberg’s resistance to measures that would prevent children from playing games like Ninja Saga that could cost their parents thousands. Their bottom line is more important to FB then the welfare of people it supposedly cares about. When someone complains about a bogus credit card charge, demanding a refund, it is called a chargeback. Most corporations fall within a two percent rate. Anything above that indicates shady practices. FB’s chargeback rate is 5 percent.

In 1857, Herman Melville, whose 200th birthday we celebrated on August 1, wrote a novel titled “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade” that depicted an America where conning was pervasive. Melville, the sharpest critic of capitalism in literature, described a world that has many similarities to the one we live in now. This was what I wrote about it in 2002:


Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man”

If you really want to understand the heart of darkness that defines American society, it is necessary to read Herman Melville. While Melville has the reputation of being a combination yarn-spinner and serious novelist, he is above all a profound social critic who sympathized with the downtrodden in American society. In his final novel, “The Confidence Man,” there are several chapters that deal with the “Metaphysic of Indian-Hating” that, as far as I know, are the first in American literature that attack the prevailing exterminationist policy.

“The Confidence Man” is set on a riverboat called the “Fidèle,” that is sailing down the Mississippi. As the title implies, the boat is loaded with con men who are either selling stock in failing companies, selling herbal “medicine” that can cure everything from cancer to the common cold, raising money for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society or simply convincing people to give them money outright as a sign that they have “confidence” in their fellow man. The word “confidence” appears in every chapter, as some sort of leitmotif to remind the reader what Melville is preoccupied with: the meanness and exploitation of his contemporary America. Because for all of the references to the need for people to have confidence in one another, the only type of confidence on the riverboat is that associated with scams.

For Melville, the act of scamming represents everything that is wrong in American society in the decade preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. It is a time when the power of capital is transforming the American landscape, turning everything into a commodity. In Chapter 9, titled “Two business  men transact a little business,” shares in something called the Black Rapids Coal Company are proffered. The man who is being enticed to buy the shares is a bit worried because there was a “downward tendency” in the price of the stock recently, just as there has been in vast numbers of securities on the global exchanges in 1998.

The stock seller tries to reassure his customer:  “Yes, there was a depression. But how came it? who devised it? The bears,’ sir. The depression of our stock was solely owing to the growling, the hypocritical growling, of the bears.”

When the potential buyer asks him “How, hypocritical?,” the stock seller answers:

“Why, the most monstrous of all hypocrites are these bears: hypocrites by inversion; hypocrites in the simulation of things dark instead of bright; souls that thrive, less upon depression, than the fiction of depression; professors of the wicked art of manufacturing depressions; spurious Jeremiahs; sham Heraclituses, who, the lugubrious day done, return, like sham Lazaruses among the beggars, to make merry over the gains got by their pretended sore heads — scoundrelly bears!”

Scoundrelly bears? I suppose that’s as good an explanation for recent woes on Wall Street as any.

When the stock market was becoming the big craze in the 1850s, much of the speculation was fueled by prospects of American business penetrating into the heartlands west of the Mississippi. In order to facilitate this penetration, it was necessary to remove the indigenous peoples who had inconveniently come to dwell on these lands over the past ten thousand years. The founding fathers of the United States endorsed their removal wholeheartedly. As David Stannard has written in “American Holocaust,” the slave-owning “democrat” Thomas Jefferson wanted to show the Indian no mercy:

“…in 1812, Jefferson again concluded that white Americans were ‘obliged’ to drive the ‘backward’ Indians ‘with the beasts of the forests into the Stony Mountains’; and one year later still, he added that the American government had no other choice before it than ‘to pursue [the Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach.’ Indeed, Jefferson’s writings on Indians are filled with the straightforward assertion that the natives are to be given a simple choice–to be ‘extirpate[d] from the earth’ or to remove themselves out of the Americans’ way.”

Agreement with Jefferson’s sentiments were practically universal in American society. I would hazard a guess that moral objection to slavery ran stronger than defense of indigenous rights. Given the overall support for what amounts to a policy of genocide against the Indian, Melville’s thoughts on the subject appear strikingly at odds with the mainstream.

The subject appears in the course of a discussion between two men on the deck of the riverboat about the infamous “Indian-hater” John Moredock. Moredock was the son of a woman who was killed by a small band of Indians, who, according to the narrative, “proved to belong to a band of twenty renegades from various tribes, outlaws even among Indians, and who had formed themselves into a maurauding crew.” Moredock eventually tracked down this band and killed them all. But he became consumed with hatred for all Indians in the course of his vendetta. This is what Melville calls the “metaphysics of Indian-hating.” It took over Moredock’s life. He proved so adept at Indian killing that he eventually joined the army, where he rose rapidly in the ranks on the basis of his exterminationist skills. However, after he became a colonel, his Indian hating became an obstacle to further career growth in government, because other skills besides blind aggression are necessary. Melville writes:

“At one time the colonel was a member of the territorial council of Illinois, ends at the formation of the state government, was pressed to become candidate for governor, but begged to be excused. And, though he declined to give his reasons for declining, yet by those who best knew him the cause was not wholly unsurmised. In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingency arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days’ shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistracy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices. These were incompatibles. In short, he was not unaware that to be a consistent Indian-hater involves the renunciation of ambition, with its objects — the pomps and glories of the world; and since religion, pronouncing  such things vanities, accounts it merit to renounce them, therefore, so far as this goes, Indian-hating, whatever may be thought of it in other respects, may be regarded as not wholly without the efficacy of a devout sentiment.'”

Now does this portrait of a man totally consumed in hatred remind you of any other in literature? It should because John Moredock is almost identical in motivation to Captain Ahab who wants to murder whales instead of Indians. While Moredock is ready to abandon election to higher office, Ahab is willing to destroy a ship and her crew, including himself, in order to kill Moby Dick. This monomaniacal drive to exterminate Indians and whales is very much symbolic of mid-19th century America.

In a powerfully ironic fashion, hatred of Indians and obsessions with whales is still very much part of our national psyche as the Makah get ready to go out and hunt for a gray whale. All of the Indian haters in the United States have decided to put the Makah in their gunsights as the Makah themselves get ready to put one gray whale in their own. What would Melville have made of this drama?

I will attempt to answer this question in an extended essay on Melville, whales and indigenous peoples that will be a chapter in the book on I am working on, titled “Marxism and the American Indian.” I will go on record at this point to state that Melville would have been a supporter of the Makah and an enemy of industrial whaling. My arguments are in part based on my interpretation of “The Confidence Man” and “Moby Dick.” They are also based on other writings, where Melville makes his solidarity with the American Indian explicit.

In a review of Francis Parkman’s “The California and Oregon Trail,” written in 1846, Melville takes note of Parkman’s hatred of the Indian:

“…when in the body of the book we are informed that is difficult for any white man, after a domestication among the Indians, to hold them much better than brutes; we are told too, that to such a person, the slaughter of an Indian is indifferent as the slaughter of a buffalo; with all deference, we beg leave to dissent.”

And what is the dissent based on?

It is based on our belonging to one race, the human race. Melville says, “We are all of us–Anglo-Saxons, Dyaks and Indians–sprung from one head and made in one image. And if we reject this brotherhood now, we shall be forced to join hands hereafter.”

(The “Confidence Man” is online at http://www.melville.org/)

 

August 2, 2019

Piranhas; Gomorrah

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,mafia — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 2, 2019

Opening today at the Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center, “Piranhas” is a coming-of-age film about 15-year-old wannabe gangsters living on the mean streets of Naples. It is based on a fact-based novel by Robert Saviano titled “La Paranza dei Bambini” that means “The Children’s Gang”, a much better title for a very good film.

Saviano also wrote another fact-based novel titled “Gomorrah”, which the 2008 film of the same name was based on. If Alexander Stile’s “Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic” is the key text for understanding the Sicilian mafia, Saviano’s novels play the same role for the Camorra, the Naples-based mafia that is arguably more embedded in the Italian corporate state than its rivals and more destructive. Unlike the Sicilians, the Neapolitans do not have a hierarchical structure in which a top don controls the clans beneath him. More horizontal than vertical, the gangs in the Campania region of southern Italy are notorious for the bloody feuds that drive the narratives of films based on Saviano’s novels. This review will take up the two aforementioned films as well as “Gomorrah”, the two-season Italian TV series on Netflix that is based on Saviano’s novel with alternating directors, including Claudio Giovannesi who directed “Pirhanas”.

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February 22, 2019

Netflix series on the Sinaloa drug cartels

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,drugs,Mexico,television — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 22, 2019

Not only was Ernest Mandel the leading Marxist economist of his time, he was also a big fan of crime stories. In his 1984 Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story, he made an essential point about organized crime from a Marxist perspective as well as showing a remarkable grasp of popular culture:

Organized crime, rather than being peripheral to bourgeois society, springs increasingly from the same socio-economic motive forces that govern capital accumulation general: private property, competition and generalized commodity production (generalized money economy). The Swedish pop group Abba summed up the situation eloquently in their song: ‘Money, money, money — It’s a rich man’s world.’ (Their own fate is a vivid illustration of this law: with the huge income generated by their records they promptly created an investment trust and contributed on a large scale to the election funds of the bourgeois party coalition.) But a rich man’s world is also a rich gangster’s world particularly since the top gangsters have grown richer and richer in relative terms, and are certainly qualitatively richer than even richest police, or the overwhelming mass of politicians. (Nixon himself was conscious of the disparity.)

A couple of months ago my wife reminded me that season four of Narcos and season three of El Chapo were up and running on Netflix. Although I hadn’t written anything about the El Chapo series, it seemed like a good opportunity to cover both since they dealt with the drug cartels in Mexico that were very timely given El Chapo’s trial. In addition, they are about the best entertainment available on Netflix. The two series are closely related since they deal with the Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo ruled over. In season four of Narcos, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is only a bit player. Primary attention is on Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), the founder of the cartel for which El Chapo served as a sicario (hitman). Another important character is Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), the DEA agent who was tortured and killed by Gallardo’s henchmen in 1985. His death became a cause célèbre that led to the first in a series of escalations of the drug war.

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February 19, 2019

Los Caballeros Templarios

Filed under: crime,drugs,Mexico — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

I’m doing some research on Mexican drug cartels for a CounterPunch article on “Narcos” and “El Chapo”, two really great crime dramas on Netflix. I had written about an earlier “Narcos” season for CounterPunch when it was focused on Pablo Escobar. My interest in writing about mafia and mafia-like crime stories is to connect them to social and political contradictions as I have also done in a couple of articles about the Sicilian mafia for CounterPunch that I will be continuing before long. It turns out that the very best study of Mexican drug gangs was co-authored by Mike Wallace (the CUNY Marxist historian) and Carmen Boullosa, a Mexican poet and journalist. Wallace is the co-author of “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898” and the newly published and acclaimed follow-up “Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919”. Every page of Wallace and Boullosa’s A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War” is compelling but I could not resist scanning and posting this excerpt.


After the apparent death of its strategic and spiritual leader, La Familia retreated into its mountain fastness, where the leadership split in two, prompting triumphalist government assertions that Michoacan would soon be back under control. But while one of the factions began to fade away, the other mutated into an even more repellant descendant, Los Caballeros Templarios—”The Knights Templar”—named after the medieval Catholic crusaders. Claiming Moreno’s mantle, the Knights were led by two Moreno lieutenants, Servando “La Tuta” (“The Teacher”) Gómez Martinez, and Enrique “El Kike” Plancarte. [I have no idea whether this is the anti-Semitic slur or some bit of Mexican slang.] They donned white cloaks blazoned with red crosses, erected statues of the departed drug lord decked out in medieval armor, and, decorating them with gold and diamonds, venerated El Mas Loco as a saint. As had La Familia, the Knights Templar professed a devotion to social justice and even to revolutionary politics. They also affected respect for the Roman Catholic Church, and when Pope Benedict XVI visited Mexico, they hung banners on bridges in seven cities proclaiming: “The Knights Templar Cartel will not partake in any warlike acts, we are not killers, welcome Pope.” They too promised to protect Michoacan from outside evildoers. Soon after appearing on the scene they hung more than forty banners across the state proclaiming: “Our commitment is to safeguard order, avoid robberies, kidnapping, and extortion, and to shield the state from rival organizations.” By which they meant the Zetas, against whom they invited other cartels to join in a countrywide anti-Zeta alliance.

It took the Knights far less time to turn super-malevolent than it had La Familia.

In addition to dominating the drug trade, the Templarios began terrorizing the local populace, committing all the crimes they had promised to “avoid.” They extorted tribute from farmers by forcing growers of avocados and limes to pay a quota for every kilo, terrorized corn growers into selling their crops cheap, then resold them to tortilla makers at double the price. They raped women at will, kidnapped with abandon, and tortured and beheaded resisters in public. They also took control of much of Michoacan’s political order, installing local politicians in office, controlling municipal budgets, and employing local police as assistants.

The Knights menaced not only local campesinos, but also corporate and multinational enterprises. Starting in 2010, they boldly began robbing iron mining companies of their ore, or seizing the mines outright. Then they sold the product to processors, distributors, and Chinese industrial firms—voracious consumers of iron ore—having established all but total control of the port of Lazaro Cardenas, now the country’s second largest. In 2010 they moved over a million tons of illegally extracted ore, a blow to the country’s economy and international standing. The Templarios, now an eight-hundred-pound leech, had opened up a whole new field of endeavor for Mexico’s organized crime.

 

October 26, 2018

The Octopus

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,television — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 26, 2018

Recently I had the opportunity to watch season one and two of “The Octopus” (La Piovra, another term for the mafia, just like Cosa Nostra), an Italian TV series that ran from 1984 to 2001. All ten seasons of this outstanding drama about one cop’s determination to take on and destroy the Sicilian mafia can be seen on MHz Choice, a VOD website devoted to European film and television and mostly focused on what the French call policiers and well worth the $7.99 monthly subscription fee. If after having seen my CounterPunch article about Swedish, Marxist-oriented detective series on Netflix, and moreover have appreciated such fare, you’ll be motivated to subscribe to MHz Choice since it has a sizable offering of Scandinavian crime fiction. For my money, literally speaking, this is the only genre on Netflix that is worth my while in recent years and if your tastes are similar to mine, MHz Choice is well worth the price of a subscription.

Having seen at least a half-dozen Italian films about the Sicilian mafia over the years, both narrative and documentary, the main takeaway is that the Italians would never dream of making the sort of films that established the reputations of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese tends to portray his characters as morally deficient but even with the worst of them, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy De Vito in “Goodfellas”, you are likely to find them demonstrating a raffish charm. As for “The Godfather”, it depicts the Corleone family as the good guys sustaining the “honor” of a virtual benevolent society against the bad gangsters, no matter that no such family ever existed. The “Sopranos” on HBO was obviously made in the same spirit and helped to convey the impression that with their malapropisms, Tony’s gang was just a modern version of Shakespeare’s clowns but with a violent streak.

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October 9, 2018

Shahed Hussain, the FBI sting artist whose unsafe limousine cost the lives of 20 people

Filed under: crime,disaster,entrapment — louisproyect @ 2:11 pm

In today’s NY Times, there is a report on a limousine company that was responsible for the death of 20 people in upstate NY–the driver, 17 passengers and two pedestrians. The first paragraph: “A driver with an improper license. A limousine company with a trail of failed inspections and ties to a scheme to illegally obtain driver’s licenses. And a limousine that had also been deemed unsafe.”

We learn that owner of the limousine company was an FBI informant named Shahed Hussain who participated in stings and who was known to his victims as “Malik”.

Mr. Hussain, the man whose name seems to be associated with the limousine company, posed as a wealthy Muslim radical and was the central prosecution witness in a 2004 federal sting focusing on a pizzeria owner and an imam at an Albany mosque. Six years later, Mr. Hussain, who posed as a terrorist, played a key role in the government’s case in a plot to blow up two synagogues in the Bronx.

He became an F.B.I. informant after being charged in 2002 with a scheme that involved taking money to illegally help people in the Albany area get driver’s licenses.

Shahed Hussain first came to my attention in 2009 when I was compiling a dossier on FBI entrapment.

His first sting occurred in 2004 as mentioned above. I referred to a NY Times article from 2006 that identified Shahed Hussain’s role in Albany:

The New York Times, October 11, 2006
2 Albany Men Are Convicted In Missile Sting
By MICHAEL WILSON; Dennis Gaffney contributed reporting.

A federal jury on Tuesday convicted two Muslim immigrants of participating in a plot with a man who said he was helping plan a missile attack on a Pakistani diplomat in New York City in 2004.

The man to whom the immigrants were linked was actually an informant working with the F.B.I. in a sting operation against the two defendants, Yassin M. Aref, 36, an Iraqi refugee and the imam at an Albany mosque, and Mohammed M. Hossain, 51, a Bangladeshi immigrant and the owner of a pizzeria here. The gestation of the case, with the government’s informant ingratiating himself with the men and initiating all the conversations about a shoulder-fired rocket launcher, led to claims of entrapment from Mr. Hossain’s lawyers during the three-week trial in Federal District Court.

The case began when the undercover informant, Shahed Hussain, who used the name ”Malik,” introduced himself to Mr. Hossain at the Little Italy Pizzeria on Central Avenue in July 2003, bringing gifts for the restaurateur’s children, according to testimony. The two became friends, and the informant offered to lend Mr. Hossain $50,000 for improvements to the pizzeria. At later meetings, Mr. Hussain testified that he told Mr. Hossain that the money he was going to lend to him came from the sale of a missile launcher that would be used to kill a Pakistani diplomat in New York.

In reality, there never was a plot. In one meeting, captured on a video that was played at the trial, the informant showed Mr. Hossain a launcher. The restaurateur said he had only seen such a weapon on television, and he asked if it was legal, and the informant replied, ”What is legal in this world?”

This was not the last of Hussain’s dirty tricks. Three years later he conned four very marginal men into staging attacks on Jews that would help bolster the “war on terror” hysteria of those days. The NY Times reported on May 23, 2009:

The members of the mosque now believe that Maqsood was the government informant at the center of the case involving four men from Newburgh arrested and charged this week with having plotted to explode bombs at Jewish centers in New York City. The government has said that the four men, several of whom visited the mosque in Newburgh and all of whom spent time in prison, were eager to kill Jews, and prosecutors charged that they had actually gone so far as to plant what they believed to be bombs on the streets of New York, an act the F.B.I. captured on videotape.

It turns out that Maqsood was none other than the owner of the limousine company that now has the blood of 20 people on his hands:

The informant was not identified in court papers unsealed on Wednesday in Manhattan. But according to a person briefed on the case, the informant is Shahed Hussain, the central prosecution witness in a 2004 federal sting focusing on a pizzeria owner and an imam at an Albany mosque.

Lawyers for those men argued that Mr. Hussain, who had posed as a wealthy Muslim radical, had entrapped their clients in an ultimately fictional plot to kill a Pakistani diplomat with a missile. But a federal jury convicted the two men, and they were sentenced to 15 years in prison.

HBO made a very good documentary about the second sting that I reviewed in 2014. I stated:

Five years ago I posted a Dossier on FBI entrapment in “war on terror” prompted by what had happened to four men in Newburgh who were arrested by the FBI for their alleged role in a plot to attack Riverdale synagogues and fire a missile at airplanes on the Stewart Air Force base tarmac. The NY Times displayed some skepticism about the arrest. An FBI agent provocateur had no luck recruiting men from a local mosque who regarded him as suspicious. Instead he approached someone who had only a fleeting connection to the mosque and who was more interested in a quick buck than in jihad. In claiming that the four men were Islamic terrorists, the District Attorney did not let the facts get in the way:

Law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but their religious backgrounds remained uncertain Thursday. Mr. Payen reported himself to be Catholic during his 15-month prison sentence that ended in 2005, according to a state corrections official. Mr. Cromitie and Onta Williams both identified themselves as Baptists in prison records, although Mr. Cromitie changed his listed religion to Muslim upon his last two incarcerations; David Williams reported no religious affiliation.

Now, five years after their arrest and five years into their 25-year sentences, HBO has begun airing a documentary titled “The Newburgh Sting” that is both a stunning exposé of the entrapment but a timely warning to all people involved in social struggles to maintain a watchful eye against those who urge “more revolutionary” actions such as planting bombs. From the looks of things, they are likely to be FBI operatives.

Much of the film consists of footage that was recorded by hidden FBI cameras to make its case. There is something both pathetic and comic about the discussions that take place between the “brains” behind the conspiracy and his unwitting dupes. Sadly, the four men, who are not very bright, show little appetite for killing anybody and are far more interested in talking about what they are going to do with the money they make. As happens universally in such cases, there was less than a zero possibility that any of them would have gotten involved in such a plot if the FBI had not set the gears in motion, particularly a Haitian youth who was barely capable of taking care of himself even if he had a bankroll. The NY Times reported:

Payen, described as a nervous, quiet sort who took medication for schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder, was unemployed and living in squalor in Newburgh. His last arrest, in 2002, was for assault, after he drove around the Rockland County village of Monsey, firing a BB gun out of the window — striking two teens — and snatching two purses. A friend who visited Mr. Payen’s apartment on Thursday said it contained bottles of urine, and raw chicken on the stovetop.

For those of you who are HBO subscribers, you are probably aware that it has supplanted PBS as a primary source of cutting edge documentaries. It broke the story on the West Memphis Satanic Cult miscarriage of justice and is continuing in that vein with “The Newburgh Sting”.

Fortunately, you can now see the HBO documentary on YouTube:

I hope some radical filmmaker can make a new film that connects the dots between this scumbag’s entrapment operations and his homicidal limousine business. It will illustrate how FBI stings and wanton disregard for safety regulations are driven by the same deadly logic that puts the national security state and the sorry state of consumer protection on the same footing.

August 27, 2018

Winning the war against robocalls

Filed under: crime — louisproyect @ 4:25 pm

I can’t think of any 19th century American novel that anticipates our current state of affairs better than Herman Melville’s “The Confidence Man”, which I wrote about long ago:

If you really want to understand the heart of darkness that defines American society, it is necessary to read Herman Melville. While Melville has the reputation of being a combination yarn-spinner and serious novelist, he is above all a profound social critic who sympathized with the downtrodden in American society. In his final novel, “The Confidence Man,” there are several chapters that deal with the “Metaphysic of Indian-Hating” that, as far as I know, are the first in American literature that attack the prevailing exterminationist policy.

“The Confidence Man” is set on a riverboat called the “Fidèle,” that is sailing down the Mississippi. As the title implies, the boat is loaded with con men who are either selling stock in failing companies, selling herbal “medicine” that can cure everything from cancer to the common cold, raising money for a fraudulent Seminole Widows and Orphans Society or simply convincing people to give them money outright as a sign that they have “confidence” in their fellow man. The word “confidence” appears in every chapter, as some sort of leitmotif to remind the reader what Melville is preoccupied with: the meanness and exploitation of his contemporary America. Because for all of the references to the need for people to have confidence in one another, the only type of confidence on the riverboat is that associated with scams.

Five years ago, I returned to Melville’s novel in a post that covered predatory journals and other scams, including those robocalls that were driving me nuts: “Recently I installed a device called a Digitone Call Blocker that can be used as the name indicates to block calls from scammers trying to sell me a senior alert system, or credit card relief—just two of the more frequent bids to separate you from your money. The Digitone cost me $90 but it is well worth it not to have the phone ringing three times a day from such assholes.”

After four years, the Digitone stopped working. To be more exact, the LED gave out. I spoke to the guy who invented the device and he told me that he was only able to use the LED’s that were commonly available and they all had a limited shelf life.

The next step was to replace my perfectly working Sony phone with a Panasonic that included a blocking function, another $100 or so to keep me from going nuts. Eventually I discovered that the robocalls were always coming from new phony numbers so that blocking them was not very effective.

In 2012, relief finally became available through the auspices of NoMoRobo, an application that blocks robocalls through a central registry. All you need to do is add the phone number for NoMoRobo as a “simultaneous call” on your provider’s website (we use Verizon) and it will intercept the call and throw it away.

Every so often, a call will sneak through but not at the maddening rate without NoMoRobo. At least, that is how it began after I signed up. Over the past year or so, we started getting bombarded with calls originating from 212-427-xxxx. Since that is how our number starts, there must be some sort of glitch that prevents phony 212-427 numbers from being added to the NoMoRobo database. When you are getting five phone calls a day soliciting crooked deals on medical alerts, credit card debt relief, and home improvement—nearly all from India—you become open to any solution other than getting rid of your phone. Since I rarely use my phone to begin with, that almost seemed feasible.

A new service called YouMail seems to be more robust than NoMoRobo but at a cost of $5 to $10 per month based on whether you are using it for a business or not. The only drawback, it seems, is that it only works for cell phones, and smart phones at that.

The real question is how we are subjected to such open criminality. In 2017, a record 30.5 billion robocalls were made, a nuisance not only to someone like me but to businesses trying to field legitimate calls. It appears that the FTC and the FCC are not that committed to destroying the robocall industry once and for all since many big corporations and nonprofits use it “legitimately”. On top of that, how can such agencies control what is happening in India, where lawlessness is even more widespread than here?

In trying to find a way to block 212-427-xxxx calls, I finally discovered that Digitone, the blocker I used once before, allows you to block on a wildcard basis, either by area code or area code + exchange number. I ponied up $80, ordered it from Amazon, and will use it until the LED stops working. It will be worth every penny to me since I no longer get robocalls—PERIOD.

 

October 13, 2017

Bringing Down the Cali Cartel: “Narcos” Season 3

Filed under: Colombia,Counterpunch,crime,drugs — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, OCTOBER 13, 2017

Last December, I recommended Netflix’s “Narcos” to CounterPunch readers with the qualification that it had political problems. After having just finished watching Season Three, which deals with the Cali cartel (seasons 1 and 2 were about the hunt for Pablo Escobar), I can only repeat my endorsement for a thoroughly entertaining and frequently accurate portrayal of the attempts to bring down Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, the brothers who ran the Cali cartel.

The series is based to a large extent on William Rempel’s “At the Devil’s Table”, a 2011 book whose subtitle “The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel” refers to Jorge Salcedo who was chief of security for the Rodríguez brothers. Rempel’s book is a redemption tale as its protagonist decides to become an informer for the Colombian security forces and the DEA after seeing sicarios(hitmen) kill one of the cartel’s enemies. He was happy to keep his bosses safe from the law’s grasp through sophisticated counter-surveillance strategies, especially when the pay was very good, but drew the line at torture and murder.

Given the risks of going undercover against the cartel, much of the drama in Season Three revolves around Salcedo’s high-stakes game. His motivation was not to get a handsome reward for his efforts but to simply return to a normal life. Resignation from the cartel was not an option, especially when they relied on you for security. However, if he was ever found out, the consolation prize would be suffocation by a plastic bag wrapped tightly around his head, the preferred execution method in such circles.

Continue reading

October 13, 2016

Really popular leaders

Filed under: crime,disasters,Fascism — louisproyect @ 12:45 am

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Hat tip to John Oliver on this.

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