Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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

December 9, 2016

Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Latin America,television — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness

Notwithstanding my advice to CounterPunch readers to junk Netflix, it is still worth the membership fee for many of the European television shows they reprise such as Wallander and for their own productions such as Narcos that I have been watching for the past several weeks. As you may know, this series now in Season Two is about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín cartel that shipped billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the USA in the 1980s, and who is played brilliantly by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura.

Narcos has very few deep insights about the social and economic context for the rise of the drug industry so why would a Marxist film critic recommend it? The answer is that it is vastly entertaining and has enough background about the Colombian political context of the 1980s to motivate reading about the “war on drugs”. Like the “war on terror” and the Cold War that preceded it, it was one in a series of conflicts that were designed to mobilize Americans against a dreaded enemy after the fashion of the permanent warfare in Orwell’s 1984. When a population grows restive over declining economic prospects, what better way to suppress resistance than to redirect anger against an external threat? Indeed, you will find striking affinities between the hunt for Pablo Escobar and the one for Osama bin-Laden.

Read full article

October 14, 2016

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: drugs,Fascism,Film,Jewish question,prison — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

If there is any justification at this point for continuing a Netflix membership, it is the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s new documentary about volcanoes on October 28th, which will be opening the same day at the IFC Center in New York. Titled “Inside the Inferno” and produced by Netflix itself, it is echt Herzog and qualified on that basis alone for putting it on your must-see list.

The film is co-directed by Clive Oppenheimer who is one of the world’s leading volcanologists and a constant presence throughout the film as he visits villages near major active volcanoes around the world, including Vanuatu, a group of islands about 1000 miles east of northern Australia. Oppenheimer alternates with Herzog in interviewing village elders who maintain prescientific notions about spirits dwelling within the volcanoes. The co-directors have an uncanny ability to accept those beliefs in a respectful manner.

Speaking in terms of auteur theory, this documentary is obviously connected with Herzog’s major preoccupation—living at the edges of society and often in the face of some peril. If his “Grizzly Man” was an object lesson in getting too close to bears in the Alaskan wilderness, his latest is a reminder that scientists like Oppenheimer take as big a chance with their lives in their own pursuit.

In one of the more gripping scenes, we see the final moments of husband-and-wife volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as an avalanche of lava comes pouring off Mount Unzen in Japan toward them on June 3, 1991. Herzog took considerable risks in making the film himself, at one point filming on the precipice of an active volcano that erupted as the cameras rolled, thankfully beneath life-threatening levels. As you would expect, the cinematography is breathtaking. If there is anything that evokes Inferno, it is the roiling crimson flames in the bowels of an active volcano.

The good Werner Herzog relates to volcanologists in more or less the same manner as he did to the computer scientists in “Lo and Behold” that pioneered the Internet. His interest is less in how volcanoes came to be in scientific terms but how they feel about what they are doing. With his raspy voice and quizzical tone, he is perfectly suited to playing the role of an interlocutor seeking deeper wisdom about the human condition.

As a perfect complement to its dazzling cinematography, “Into the Inferno” features a perfectly matched soundtrack consisting mostly of liturgical chorale music, including from the Russian Orthodoxy. When you hear “Dies Irae” as lava pours down the side of a mountain, the hair on your arms will stand up.

In a perfect Herzogian moment, the crew goes to North Korea where they film military cadets marching and singing on their way to Mount Paektu, an object of veneration by the family dynasty as a base for the revolution. When Herzog asks a North Korean volcanologist in his pricelessly raspy voice about the significance of the volcano, he replies in what can only be described as a quasi-religious tribute to the rulers of this sad but intriguing nation. You can’t escape feeling that there is not much difference between him and the chieftains in Vanuatu.

In the press notes, there’s an exchange with the 74-year old director who shows no sign of slowing down. It is about as revealing a look into his artistic psyche that can be imagined.

You recently said of yourself, “I’m a curious person. That’s the key to everything.” Given that you could have made a film about anything at this point in your career, why volcanoes?

There’s a long prehistory. In 1976, I made a film on La Soufrière, the volcano in the Caribbean that was about to explode. At that time I was not so interested in the volcano itself but in the attitude of one single poor farmer who had refused to be evacuated. Seventy-five thousand people were evacuated but he stayed behind. He was somehow defiant and had a different attitude toward death. And then the second part of the prehistory is the film I made ten years ago, Encounters at the End of the World. I was in Antarctica and up on Mount Erebus and that’s where I ran into Clive Oppenheimer, and we became friends and kept talking that we should do a film about volcanoes. And also what pushed it a little bit was his book Eruptions That Shook the World. So it was step by step into this film.

What was the most interesting thing about volcanoes that you learned as you were making Into the Inferno?

Scientifically, that the atmosphere that we are breathing was created by volcanoes. As far as I understand, the earth’s atmosphere was methane and it changed into what we are breathing today because of volcanic activity.

The most surprising thing about volcanoes?

That they’re more unpredictable than I would admit. We were in some danger in a volcano in Indonesia, which exploded only a few days after we were filming there, and seven farmers were killed pretty much where we had had our camera.

How did you feel when you heard that that had happened just a week after you’d been there?

What can I say? I just knew we were lucky. When you are working with the camera you believe you are safe, as if the camera is a perfect shield against all sorts of mishaps.

When I got the press release for “Trezoros”, the Ladino word for treasures, I hesitated about getting a screener since I tend to avoid holocaust type films:

Imagine a vibrant community of people getting along for centuries – Christians, Jews, others, – until the onset of WW II. Even under the Italians, the Greek Jews of Kastoria enjoyed a simple life. However, once the Italians left and the Nazi’s took over, Kastoria’s Jews became victim to the same fate as many of their fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. Of the 1000 Jews who were rounded up by the Nazi’s, only 26 returned and it marked the end of this community. Director Larry Russo’s family was impacted by this and his is one of many stories in this film.

Thank goodness I overcame my doubts that were largely influenced by the Spielbergian idiom that such films, either narrative or documentary, usually adopt because of their manipulative predictability.

What makes “Trezoros” so exceptional is its ability to tell the story of how Jews and Christians lived in complete harmony in Kastoria, Greece in the years before fascism. Kastoria was a small city near the border with Albania that incorporated the ethos of the Ottoman Empire that left its stamp on Greece from the period of its rule from the mid-15th century to the formation of the modern Greek state in 1832. Despite its imperial grip on subject peoples, the Ottoman rulers were much less interested in imposing religious and cultural orthodoxy as was the case with the British or lesser European colonial powers. In practice this meant that Christians, Jews and Muslims could live together in harmony as Mark Mazower pointed out in his “Salonica, City of Ghosts”.

Kastoria was virtually a pint-sized version of Salonica. Christians and Jews got along famously as the elderly Greek Orthodox citizens and Jewish survivors attested to director Larry Russo, who is descended from a Jewish family in Kastoria. The Jews of Kastoria were mostly shopkeepers or in the fur business, in other words the same kind of occupations they held in most of Europe with one difference, however. The Kastorian Jews came as a result of the Spanish expulsion during the Inquisition when they streamed eastward toward nations that were far more tolerant, especially those ruled by the Ottomans. These so-called Sephardic Jews did not speak Yiddish. Their native tongue was Ladino, a language close to Spanish that was written in Hebrew letters.

In a stunning display of vintage photographs and home movies that Russo dug up, we are brought back to Kastoria in its halcyon days. It brings Greece of the early 20th century alive in a way that I could not have dreamed possible. For example, we not only learn that Kastoria relied on a town crier, who happened to be a long-bearded Jew, but see him on his daily rounds. Amazing.

The harmony of Kastoria was broken by the rise of fascism but ironically not under Italian rule. Interviewees give the Italian fascist troops credit for not victimizing Jews. However, after Mussolini was overthrown, the Nazis took control of Greece including Kastoria. As this was the period following the Wannsee Conference with its “Final Solution”, it did not take long for the thousand Jews of Kastoria to be rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Among the survivors, we hear from brother and sister Beni Elias and his sister Lena Russo who is the director’s aunt. They speak with great dignity and emotion, not once forgetting how much they loved Kastoria.

“Trezoros” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York and I recommend it highly.

Finally, there is “Incarcerating US”, a documentary about how the “war on drugs” has resulted in a massive expansion of the prison population. It is available from Bullfrog Films, a distributor of leading edge documentaries and narrative films that makes them available at reduced rates to activist and grassroots groups. It can also be seen on VOD for $9.99 from the film’s website.

“Incarcerating US” would have the same audience as Ava Duvernay’s highly regarded “The Thirteenth” that premiered recently on Netflix. While her film is focused on the racism and economic exploitation inherent in the prison-industrial system, this one takes aim at the mandatory minimum sentences that were the legacy of a vain attempt to make America “drug-free”. As Richard Van Wickler, the astonishingly enlightened Superintendent of the Cheshire County (NH) Department of Corrections, points out, the net effect of the crackdown is only to encourage more crime as was the case during Prohibition. Without a ban on alcohol, there would be no Al Capone. Without a ban on drugs, there would be no Mexican drug cartels nor heroin overdoses that have become an epidemic in the USA. And most of all, there would be no victims of 5-year and upwards mandatory minimum sentences such as Tracy Syphax, an African-American man whose story about imprisonment and eventual redemption speaks volumes about the insanity of our drug laws.

Directed by Regan Hines, whose extremely powerful film is his first, it benefits from a very astute cast of interviewees consisting of critics of the drug laws and their victims. Among the critics is Eric Sterling, who as a young lawyer helped to draft the mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s. So shocked was he by how they victimized casual users, he resolved to overturn the laws, one of the primary goals of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation that he founded in 1989. We also hear from Julie Stewart who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991.

On the FAMM website, Stewart describes how she decided to become an activist. In 1990, she was public affairs director at the Cato Institute (a libertarian outfit that unlike most on the right is an opponent of the draconian drug laws) when her brother was arrested for growing marijuana in Washington State. The website states: “He pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — was sentenced by a judge to five years in federal prison without parole. The judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, but said he had no choice because his hands were tied by the mandatory minimum sentencing laws Congress had passed.”

This essentially is what happened to my cousin Joel Proyect who spent close to five years in prison even though he never had been arrested ever before and even though he was the president of the Sullivan County Bar Association in August 1991, when the cops stormed the home he had built with his own hands in Parksville, NY. After he was sent to prison, I visited him on several occasions and used to keep up a steady correspondence. Here’s how the NY Times reported on his case nearly a year later:

NY Times, July 12, 1992
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story
By MICHAEL WINERIP

SOUTH FALLSBURG, N.Y.— By all accounts, Joel Proyect is an enormously talented, humane man, a small-town lawyer who gave a great deal. He’s a recent vice president of the bar association, a legal guardian for children in family court.

He took court-assigned clients who could not afford lawyers. “One would think he is being paid thousands of dollars the way he represents indigent people,” said Tim Havas, a legal aid lawyer. When his neighbors, the Friedlanders, had a baby, Mr. Proyect plowed their driveway without being asked, so they could get home safely. He shoveled his pond so nearby kids could skate, though he doesn’t.

After he was divorced, Mr. Proyect, 50 years old, raised his two daughters until they went off to college. He banned TV and made the girls speak half an hour of French to him each day (he also speaks Spanish and Russian). He taught law at a local prison and community college.

It took nine years, but he built his magnificent wood and stone house himself, hammering every nail. He heats it with wood from his 30 acres, makes jam with blueberries from his bushes. He grew his own pot.

He’d smoked marijuana for 20 years. It was well known. “Everyone in the court system knew, judges, people at the bar association — they’d tease me,” he said. “I grew for myself and my girlfriend. If you came to my house I’d offer you beer or a joint, depending on your tastes.”

Last August, after scouting with helicopters, Federal agents raided Mr. Proyect. He thinks that the raid was initiated by a local police officer he’d had a run-in with in court.

You didn’t have to be Elliot Ness to catch Joel Proyect with pot. “They found some plants and I showed them where the rest were,” said Mr. Proyect. “I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was that serious.” Growing pot is a misdemeanor under state law. There’s no evidence he ever sold any of it. But he was charged under Federal law. His house and 30 acres were forfeited to the government. On May 29 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

No one, not even the prosecutor, will say this is fair. Judge Vincent Broderick of Federal District Court said his hands were tied by a 1988 mandatory sentencing law. He says he hopes he is reversed on appeal.

Law-enforcement agents don’t have the resources to catch most of the truly venal drug offenders. So what the Government has done is to invoke strict mandatory sentences to serve as a deterrent. The law says anyone growing more than 100 pot plants serves a minimum of five years. Agents, with Mr. Proyect’s aid, found 110.

No reporters attended the sentencing, but the judge’s anger is plain from the transcript: “I’m very unhappy about imposing this sentence. I frankly would not impose it if I saw any way that, consistent with my oath, I could impose a different sentence.”

“I’ve had people before me constantly during the last three years charged with distributing dangerous drugs on the streets,” he said, “that I’ve been able to sentence to far less than I’m sentencing Mr. Proyect to.” The judge, a former New York City Police Commissioner, called mandatory sentencing “a vice” and allowed Mr. Proyect to remain free, pending appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second District. “I would be delighted,” the judge said, “to have my brothers on the 17th floor of the Manhattan courthouse find I was in error.”

Ronald DePetris, Mr. Proyect’s lawyer, said that in 25 years, “this is the most unjust sentence I’ve seen.” Kerry Lawrence, the prosecutor, said the law required it. But did the sentence fit the crime? “No comment,” he said.

Mr. Proyect is using his freedom to make money. His legal fees are $115,000. The other day he came out of a bail hearing for a client charged with armed bank robbery. “The prosecutor’s offering him a plea of four years,” said Mr. Proyect. “He’ll serve less time than I will.”

He drove home. The Government is scheduled to evict him in two weeks. He has the option to buy his house back from the United States for $170,000 and says if he got a short sentence and is allowed to practice when he comes out, he could raise the money.

He says he used to smoke five joints a day. Now he has that many drinks. Like many of his generation who inhaled, Mr. Proyect believes pot is a safer drug than alcohol and misses it. He is angry that in a conservative era, when government is supposed to stay out of people’s personal lives, his has been invaded, though he harmed no one. “If I knew I was coming back to this,” he said, standing on his deck, “it wouldn’t be so bad. Everything you see is mine. I own that hill. I own that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? I say it without conceit. I didn’t build it, God did that.”

This fall, the brothers on the 17th floor will decide if Joel Proyect deserves this.

 

January 11, 2016

Cartel Land

Filed under: crime,drugs,Film,Mexico — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

Although I had plans to eventually write about the 2015 documentary “Cartel Land” at some point, I’ve decided to put it on the front burner now that the recapture of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán and Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with the drug baron has become the lead story in the NY Times.

“Cartel Land” is now the fourth documentary I have seen about the Mexican drug wars. The first was the 2013 “Narco Cultura”, a film that was focused on the Narcocorrido—the songs that blend the traditional Norteño style with lyrics that toast the drug lords after the fashion of American gansta rap. I found much of it compelling but regretted that there was “not much in the way of analysis.”

Only two months ago, I reviewed “Kingdom of Shadows”, a personality-driven documentary that profiled a Texas rancher who smuggled marijuana when he wasa young and a Mexican cop who was noteworthy for being an exception to the virtually universal rule of corruption. It too was far more interested in “story-telling” than analysis.

Sandwiched between the two films chronologically was the 2014 “Drug Lord: the Legend of Shorty” that described the futile search by a young and obscure director for an interview with the elusive drug lord (chapo means shorty). Apparently he lacked the clout of Sean Penn. Once again I found the film sorely lacking in analysis:

Although I can recommend “Drug Lord”, I am still looking for a documentary on the Mexican drug trade that focuses on the political and economic aspects (what else would you expect from me?) It would be important to hear what Mexican radicals, especially those trained in sociology and history, have to say about the viral growth of drug syndicates over the past couple of decades.

Following suit, “Cartel Land” once again could not be bothered with anything so dry and dusty as a sociologist explaining why Mexico’s major industry is now the production and sale of illegal drugs. Even more than the three films mentioned above, it is intent on drama and action after the fashion of narrative films such as “Traffic” or “Sicario”.

Its saving grace was having access to the autodefensas in Michoacán, the state on the west coast of Mexico that was as ravaged by drug gangs as Guzman’s Sinaloa. The autodefensas were anti-drug paramilitaries initiated in late 2013 by a physician named José Valverde who allowed the film crew to accompany him on raids against members of the Knights Templar cartel that dominated the region. Your initial impression is that the vigilantes were popular with the community and effective. When the Mexican military began to crack down on them, there were protests that successfully defended their right to bear arms and to use them against the gangs.

Like “Kingdom of Shadows”, “Cartel Land” includes a personality from Texas, this time a 56-year old man named Tim “Nailer” Foley who is obviously seen as a complement to Valverde since he too is the leader of a vigilante group known as the Arizona Border Recon whose members, including Foley, patrol the border with Mexico assault rifles in hand. They claim they are trying to prevent drugs from flowing into the USA but mostly they serve as an auxiliary to the border patrols that are trying to keep desperate jobseekers from crossing over. Indeed, you see Foley and his henchman training their guns on some hapless Mexicans whose only hope is to get a job in construction or gardening. The film makes no effort to interrogate the role of Foley’s goons given the obvious evidence that drug cartels use submarines, planes, trucks, and tunnels to get drugs into the USA, not in the backpacks of poor people swimming across the Rio Grande.

The final third or so of the film chronicles the downfall of the autodefensas as its raids begin to target the innocent just as many DEA raids in the USA have done over the years. There are also allegations that the Knights Templar have penetrated the autodefensas to turn them to their own advantage. Eventually Valverde is arrested and sentenced to a long prison sentence cheek by jowl with those who he was supposedly trying to eliminate.

The obvious lesson is that you should not take the law into your own hands although the American vigilantes have a much easier time of it as the armed occupation in Oregon might indicate.

Mostly the film exploits the visceral experience of being embedded with Mexican vigilantes who are taking the fight to the bad guys. We are treated to a front row seat of men firing assault rifles into Knights Templar hideouts as Valverde or his deputies cry out “Surrender, motherfuckers.”

Perhaps the intent of director Matthew Heineman can best be gleaned from the inclusion of Kathryn Bigelow as Executive Producer. Bigelow was the director of “Zero Dark Thirty”, the atrocious reenactment of the raid on Osama bin-Laden’s hideout that provided vicarious thrills to many film reviewers—except me. Shortly after Bigelow came on board, she told Entertainment Weekly that the film would be “potent, raw and visceral”, the same adjectives that could apply to “Sicario”, a narrative film I found cliché-ridden and obvious.

The appeal of the drug wars for people like Kathryn Bigelow should be obvious. They allow her and those attuned to her aesthetic like Matthew Heineman to make a lurid entertainment with social questions getting short shrift. After all it is not the job of a filmmaker to make judgments unless of course you are some obscure Marxist whose work will be screened at the Film Forum for a week or so and then disappear into oblivion.

This leads us to the Sean Penn/”Chapo” Guzman saga. You can read Penn’s article on the Rolling Stone website. Most of Penn’s article is about himself, written in the vein that this commercially “edgy” magazine has made famous. For example, after he gets off a plane flown by one of Chapo’s henchmen, he takes care of some personal business:

I throw my satchel into the open back of one of the SUVs, and lumber over to the tree line to take a piss. Dick in hand, I do consider it among my body parts vulnerable to the knives of irrational narco types, and take a fond last look, before tucking it back into my pants.

Obviously we are in Hunter Thomson territory. Not that I mind gonzo journalism so much, but I keep looking for some discussion of why Sinaloa is so poor or some other matters that could help put the drug wars into perspective.

After thousands of words of prelude that has the aura of an Oliver Stone movie, Penn finally sits down to interview the world’s leading drug dealer. As might be expected, Guzman is given ample opportunity to express by what now seems self-evident, namely that as long as there is a demand for drugs, Mexico will supply them. He got involved in the drug business in Sinaloa when he was 15 years old because there were no other jobs available and hopes to continue for as long as he can in his chosen trade.

Showing that he has absorbed the best techniques of an Oprah Winfrey, Penn asks the gangster about his relationship to his mom. His reply: “My relationship? Perfect. Very well.”

The interview, which probably took all of 15 minutes, is noteworthy for its deference to its subject.

Years ago I tried to come to terms with the Colombian drug trade since there was a time when the public was fascinated with Pablo Escobar, another Robin Hood figure who rose from poverty. My research convinced me that rather than turning Colombia into a jungle, there was evidence that it was a stabilizing factor:

It is important to understand that the cocaine industry also has the effect of fueling the transformation of the peasantry into a proletariat and petty proprietors at the very same time it is displacing it from subsistence farming. In the early 1980s, according to Johns Hopkins Political Science professor Bruce Begley, over 500 thousand Colombians had jobs in the drug trade. In addition, Begley argues that the drugs have actually served to stabilize the Colombian political system and specifically compares their role in the economy to the introduction of the coffee industry in the mid-1800s:

Due to marijuana and cocaine a new nouveau riche has developed in Colombia much as in the late and early twentieth centuries a coffee oligarchy developed in the country. Parts of the civil wars which were fought in the latter part of the nineteenth century, particularly the War of 1000 Days in Colombia, had something to do with the introduction of coffee and the socioeconomic changes that followed. Today, fairly conservative, often right-wing individuals link themselves frequently with MAS, with the military and with other organizations moving to legitimize themselves within the Colombian system, moving to gain status within that society, buying political power, Into the system if you like, but not to disrupt that system in any fundamental way. Nonetheless, there is this sense that the old families in Colombia which have controlled the politics since the late nineteenth century introduction of coffee are now gradually incorporating and absorbing the nouveau riche, the Carlos Lehders that rise, not necessarily in the first generation but rather in the second and third generations. The children of the drug dealers now join the major social clubs and marry into some of the more prestigious families. Many of these old families are precisely those families who were declining economically, and hence politically. With the introduction of coffee in the nineteenth century the new coffee barons also gradually married into more traditional, land-owning families, joining money and commercial agricultural exports with status within the society.

If you look at American history, you will see the same tendencies. The Robber Barons used illegal means to create the vast wealth that is now enshrined in the names of universities like Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. Who knows? Maybe years from now there will be a Chapo University.

Even more to the point, just as the prohibition of cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana lead to huge but illicit profits in Mexico, alcohol played the same role in American society. And perhaps nobody had more of a meteoric rise to respectability based on racketeering than Joseph Kennedy, the father of the JFK. Some years back I wrote about our country’s Chapo—of course he was a lot taller than Guzman but by no means no more benign:

In keeping with Balzac’s epigraph to “Pere Goriot” that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” the Kennedy dynasty owed its place in history to the ongoing criminal activities of Joseph Kennedy.

In “The Outfit,” Gus Russo’s definitive study of the Chicago mob, we learn that Joseph Kennedy made his millions through a combination of white-collar crime and bootlegging. Using the same kinds of illegal insider trading that people like Michael Milken made infamous, Kennedy sold short just before the 1929 crash and walked away richer than ever. As a banker-investor, Kennedy plundered the stock of Pathé Films in the 1920s, giving insiders like himself stock worth $80 per share, while leaving common stockholders $1.50 per share. When Kennedy attempted a hostile takeover of the California-based Pantages Theater chain in 1929, he paid a 17 year old girl $10,000 to falsely claim that she had been raped by the chain’s owner, who then served part of a fifty-year prison sentence that was ultimately reversed. Kennedy got control of Pantages at a bargain basement price.

With respect to bootlegging, Russo reports:

Kennedy was up to his eyes in illegal alcohol. Leading underworld bootleggers from Frank Costello to Doc Stacher to Owney Madden to Joe Bonanno to Meyer Lansky to Lucky Luciano have all recalled for their biographers or for news journalists how they had bought booze that had been shipped into the country by Joseph Kennedy. On the receiving side of the booze business, everyone from Joe’s Hyannis Port chums to the eastern Long Island townsfolk who survived the Depression by uncrating booze off the bootleggers’ boats tells tales of Joe Kennedy’s involvement in the illegal trade.

Connections made in this period would prove useful during JFK’s 1960 Presidential bid. Murray “Curley” Humphreys, the brains behind Al Capone, and his chief executioner Sam Giancana (nicknamed “Moony” because of his psychopathic reputation) had inherited control of the Chicago mob after Capone’s death and built up powerful alliances in the trade union bureaucracy all around the country that helped to tip the balance in Kennedy’s favor in the 1960 primaries race.

Using mob lawyer and ex-state attorney general Robert J. McDonnell as a liaison, the Kennedys met with Giancana in Chicago in 1960. According to Russo, a quid pro quo was worked out at this meeting. In exchange for the mob’s help, a Kennedy Justice Department would go easy on them. According to Humphreys’ widow, the mobster was leery of making a deal: “Murray was against it. He remembered Joe Kennedy from the bootlegging days–called him an untrustworthy ‘four flusher’ and a ‘potato eater.’ Something to do with a booze delivery that Joe had stolen. He said that Joe Kennedy could be trusted as far as he, Murray, could throw a piano.”

Blog at WordPress.com.