TALAVERA, Peru (AP) — Johnny Vega rarely carried his 9-mm pistol when he wasn’t on duty. He wishes he had that day.
The narcotics cop was chatting with a friend on a park bench, the Andean sun burning the dawn’s chill off this highlands town nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
On that morning of Aug. 20, 2014, Vega had dropped his son Juan at nursery school and then walked to Talavera’s main square. He noticed a tall young man strolling by and wondered if he knew him.
Vega was a rarity in this nation where cops, courts and congress are badly compromised by corruption . An earnest provincial narcotics officer, he had made a career of actually doing what he was trained for: locking up criminals.
Defying death threats from narcos, he led a hand-picked team of trusted officers who consistently scored trafficker arrests and record drug seizures even as Peru became the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer. In a country where police are as likely to take bribes as to make arrests, Vega was a hero. Three times, he had been named police officer of the year.
Vega was deep in conversation when the young man walked by again, stopped and leveled a silencer-equipped Bersa at the cop’s head.
“What are you doing, dammit!” Vega shouted, jumping to his feet. The bullet ripped into him just below his solar plexus. Without hesitating, he dashed for a nearby taxi stand, leaning forward and zig-zagging to make himself a smaller target.
I have a relative who has been terrified of the Internet for years. Two decades ago, he was a heavy CompuServe user. Now, he only goes online at the library. But even he can’t escape. The Internet is everywhere now. It is in cars, on TV. It connects to medical devices, to toys (Barbie). It flies on airplanes, touches the power grid.
The year’s biggest hack was of the U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management. It exposed sensitive personal information from job applications, including of intelligence and military employees with security clearances. In all, 21.5 million people were potentially affected, 5.6 million sets of fingerprints obtained. The authors were Chinese, though Beijing claimed the hack was NOT state-sponsored. They told U.S. officials the culprits were arrested, @nakashimae reported, but provided no further information.
Silicon Valley has resisted the idea, and rightly so. Tim Cook of Apple emerged as its most passionate, articulate voice on how encryption and digital privacy are essential to our First Amendment rights and should not be sacrificed to satisfy the Department of Homeland Security.
“If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too. Criminals are using every technology tool at their disposal to hack into people’s accounts. If they know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it,” Cook said in June. Weakening encryption makes no sense, he said. “The bad guys will still encrypt; it’s easy to do and readily available.”
So all the 2015 security news isn’t bad, after all.
LIMA, Peru (AP) — A shadowy cyber-espionage group that sent malware to the prosecutor whose mysterious death transfixed Argentina early this year has been hitting targets in left-leaning nations across South America, the Internet watchdog group Citizen Lab reported Wednesday.
The breadth and brazenness of the hackers’ activity bear the hallmarks of state sponsorship. So do its targets.
The group has been attacking opposition figures and independent journalists in Ecuador with spyware. It also ran dummy websites. The most elaborate, geared toward Venezuela, is a constantly updated news site featuring dubiously sourced “scoops” on purported corruption among the ruling socialists. In Ecuador, a similarly faux site seemed tailored to attract disgruntled police officers.
The researchers launched the three-month probe after determining that spyware found on the smartphone of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was written to send pilfered data to the same command-and-control structure as malware sent to targets infected in Ecuador. They said the hackers had a “keen and systematic interest in the political opposition and the independent press” in the three nations, all run by allied left-wing governments. That suggests it may have operated on behalf of one or more of those governments, the 60-page report said.
In September, the hackers threatened a Citizen Lab researcher as he poked around in a U.S.-based machine the group had infected.
“We’re going to analyze your brain with a bullet — and your family’s, too,” read a message that popped up on his computer screen. “You like playing the spy and going where you shouldn’t, well you should know that it has a cost — your life!”
That’s rare behavior among professional hackers, perhaps indicating little fear of criminal prosecution, said Morgan Marquis-Boire, one of the researchers.
In November, the group attempted to infect the computer of an Associated Press reporter, who was also investigating it, with a phishing attack aimed at stealing his Google password.
Eight days after we published my investigation on how more than a ton of cocaine was being flown daily out of the world’s No. 1 coca-producing valley right under the Peruvian military’s nose, we have a significant development.
For the first time in more than a decade, an officer of Peru’s armed forces has been arrested for drug trafficking. An army lieutenant, he had worked in the valley for eight years and collected bribes of $10,000 per flight that likely were shared with his superiors, the prosecutor told me. That’s the same sum that an accused narco pilot had told me local military commanders got per plane.
Former Peruvian army Maj. Evaristo Castillo, who blew the whistle on military drug trafficking in the 1990s, says drug corruption is _ as it was then _ systematic in the military, as top to bottom as the command structure.
One arrest is no guarantee of a housecleaning. Just ask Castillo. None of the generals he publicly denounced for drug trafficking was ever convicted of it, he told me. Castillo’s military career was wrecked because he blew the whistle, was disloyal. He spent seven years in exile. And, as one of his four sons (also Evaristo), told me, their hopes of following their father into the service were also extinguished.
MAZAMARI, Peru — Peru’s defense minister has announced an investigation into possible drug-related military corruption following an Associated Press report that Peru’s armed forces were turning a blind eye to daily drug flights to Bolivia.
The official, Jakke Valakivi, said Wednesday evening that the Defense Ministry and the joint armed forces command would jointly conduct the probe.
Peru’s armed forces have failed to effectively impede the ferrying of more than a ton of cocaine a day to Bolivia from the world’s No. 1 coca-producing valley, traffic that has picked up in recent years, according to prosecutors, drug police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents.
In part because of that nearly unhindered air bridge from the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, Peru surpassed Colombia in 2012 as the world’s top cocaine exporter.
MAZAMARI, Peru — It happens about four times a day, right under the nose of Peru’s military: A small single-engine plane drops onto a dirt airstrip in the world’s No. 1 coca-growing valley, delivers a bundle of cash, picks up more than 300 kilos of cocaine and flies to Bolivia.
Roughly half of Peru’s cocaine exports have been ferried eastward on this “air bridge,” police say, since the rugged Andean nation became the world’s leading producer of the drug in 2012.
Peru’s government has barely impeded the airborne drug flow. Prosecutors, narcotics police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents say that while corruption is rife in Peru, the narco-flight plague is the military’s failure because it controls the remote jungle region known as the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley.
Wilson Barrantes, a retired army general who has long complained about military drug corruption, said giving the armed services control over the valley is “like putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.”
An Associated Press investigation found that “narco planes” have been loaded with partially refined cocaine at landing strips just minutes by air from military bases in the remote, nearly road-less valley where about two-thirds of Peru’s cocaine originates.
Of the 55 classmates who graduated from his Plaquemines Parish high school in 2005 with Richie Blink only about a half dozen stuck around. Blink tried moving to Baton Rouge, where he worked at the airport and got his pilot’s license, but the land drew him back. What’s left of the land, that is.
Blink won’t quit on the Mississippi River Delta, which is disappearing at the rate of a football field an hour in what some have called the Western Hemisphere’s biggest environmental disaster after the deforestation of the Amazon.
He’s lobbying and cajoling to broaden coastal restoration projects and save the delta from the seeming death sentence rendered by human activity. (View ProPublica project Losing Ground)
One goal is to rebuild a 50-mile buffer against ocean storm surges that has been erased in a single human lifetime, a buffer that might have eased the hurt to New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.
Blink sets off from the wharf at Buras _ where Katrina made landfall _ in a fisherman’s skiff into a mostly open bay with sparse clumps of marsh grass.
We’re 70 miles southeast of New Orleans on the right bank of the Mississippi. This is the sliver of land, sheltered on both sides by 20-foot-high levees, that those who remain inhabit. Rebuilt homes on the peninsula _ including the high school _ are raised on piles driven deep into sandy soil.
Blink shows us where engineers have built an “oyster break” in the shallow water by the wharf. It’s a concrete honeycomb designed to help rejuvenate the oyster population .
He opens up the throttle and the boat slides through heavily brackish water.
“When I was a kid, this was all little bayous, meandering streams. I spent a lot of time here,” he says.
We pass a working shrimp boat and an old abandoned fishing camp on stilts.
A little more than a decade ago, the place was crawling with alligators and other wildlife, a teeming coastal swamp. Now, the Gulf of Mexico is in charge.
We pull up to a barrier being built by barges that dredge the bottom and hurl muck over the berm. This is land-building. And it’s expensive.
The government has spent $300 million building a barrier a few miles away across more than 30 miles of coastal islands fronting the gulf.
It’s six feet high in some places.
But it’s not holding back the tide. Sea levels are on the rise with global warming. But that’s the least of it.
The reason the Mississippi Delta has been sinking by much as a meter a century is human engineering. It’s part of the reason half of New Orleans is now below sea level.
By stringing levees up and down the length of the Mississippi to protect homes and businesses from flooding, we have robbed the great river of vigor, diminishing the flow of silt that, since the last ice age ended 7,000 years ago, made the delta. Once meandering, the river is now straight-jacketed. Successful river control has degraded coastal wetlands.
The greatest flood danger now comes not from the Mississippi but the ocean, as Katrina proved.
Worsening matters, the energy industry has since the 1930s dug some 20,000 miles of canals in the delta to extract oil and natural gas and service pumping operations.
Add to that as aggravating factor the introduction of an invasive South American rodent, the nutria. It devours root systems _ yet another coastal erosion engine at work.
The toe of the boot that is Louisiana is wasting away. The physical version we know from maps is no longer true. The boot is not solid. It is gossamer.
“This is the dying side of the river,” says Blink. We head back to the marina. Blink runs the skiff up on its trailer.
It’s time to head over to the Mississippi and drop in there. We’ve done the bad news piece of our vanishing coastline tour.
Blink works as Coastal Zone Program Manager for Plaquemines Parish. He ensures coastal restoration projects are built as designed. The job dovetails with his passion of fighting to preserve a peninsula that four in five residents abandoned after Katrina.
They run educational tours of these wetlands in kayaks. And Blink plants cypress trees, well over 10,000 to date, to fight the ravages of sinking soils and salt water seepage.
We cross the Mississippi to its left bank, what Blink calls the bank of hope.
A few locks separate the river here from marshlands and estuaries to the northeast.
But there are also breaches, crevasses they’re called. We drop down one, the boat swirling in a churning whirlpool.
Soon, we are motoring through true tidal marsh. We hear songbirds, see fish jump. Marsh grass, cattails and lotus pods abound. A farmer still grazes cattle on land above one bayou.
Blink navigates into a narrow channel where grass gets caught in the outboard’s propeller.
He is taking us to a cemetery whose graves _ several score _ date back to the 1830s. The most recent is from 1976 and relatives still tend it, cutting the grass and even bringing flowers from time to time.
Blink does his best not to get too heartsick. But he has no illusions.
Stacked up against the coastal reconstruction campaign he champions are an influential lot: oyster and shrimp fishermen, the oil and gas industry.
He realizes that he and others who are bound sentimentally to the disappearing delta and are trying to turn back the rising tide will most likely have to settle, if they want to stick around, for what climate scientists call adaptation.
“Either your house will be on stilts,” he says, “or on an earthen mound.”
We started with a few scripts (computer programlets) written for us by a Twitter programmer who wishes to remain anonymous. They were used to passively identify the bots that instantly retweet hashtags issued by various state- and party-run accounts. Hannah then passed the scripts along to three academic groups, who also used programs of their own.
Most businesses are closed the day before Peru’s Independence Day so it’s a good time to issue a decree that you’d rather people not scrutinize. Except what’s becoming known as “The Stalker Law” is getting plenty of attention.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Katitza Rodriguez wrote that it provides the cops with “detailed footprints of our daily lives.” Most people don’t realize how much data their cellphones collect about them minute by minute. And even if they disable ¨location services¨ on their cellphone, they can´t turn off location tracking. It’s build into the wireless network.
Rodriguez says the surprise decree follows a global pattern of governments encroaching on their citizens’ digital privacy with limited debate.
The government, observed Miguel Morachimo, director of the Peruvian digital rights NGO Hiperderecho, tried to accomplish something similar three years ago in legislation that failed. Now it has achieved what it could not democratically: “To bypass all Peruvians’ right to privacy.” He’s thrown down the gauntlet in this post (Sp.).
Another digital rights legal expert, Erick Iriarte, considered the decree not very well thought out (Sp.). It lets judges retroactively declare inadmissible the geotracking information, which includes who you talked to, where you were, physically, the time and duration of the call. But what happens to the information collected. Can Peru’s police be trusted with it?
President Humala, his Cabinet chief and the ministers of interior and justice signed the decree. No debate in Congress. The same day, a different decree was issued creating the crime of ¨murder-for-hire” in Peru’s legal code.
Humala enters his last year in office as very much the lame duck and with crime worsening. His approval rating in last weekend’s GfK poll was 15 percent.
HUANTA, Peru (AP) — He slides two T-shirts, shorts, canned tuna, toasted corn and boiled potatoes into the rucksack atop 11 pounds of semi-refined cocaine. In a side pocket, a .38-caliber Chinese pistol.
Mardonio Borda is a 19-year-old native Quechua with broken Spanish and a sixth-grade education. But he has at least $125,000 worth of drugs on his back that he will carry out of Peru’s main coca-growing valley. He is among untold hundreds of cocaine backpackers who make the difficult and dangerous trek up Andean mountain paths first carved by their pre-Incan ancestors.
In this country that overtook Colombia in 2012 as the world’s No. 1 cocaine-producing nation, Borda regularly hikes within a few hours of the Machu Picchu tourist mecca, bound for Cuzco with drugs. Sixty percent of Peru’s cocaine comes from the remote Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, and the backpackers trek for three to five days to deliver cocaine to traffickers who move the drugs on for export. But it is not the lung-searing ascents to high altitudes that worry the young men. It is the armed gangs, crooked police, and rival backpacker groups who regularly rob cocaine’s beasts of burden on journeys that can extend 100 miles (160 kilometers) or more.
“It’s win or lose,” said Borda, “like casino gambling.”
Hauling cocaine out of the valley is about the only way to earn decent cash in this economically depressed region where a farmhand earns less than $10 a day. Beyond extinguishing young lives, the practice has packed Peru’s highland prisons with backpackers while their bosses evade incarceration.
It is a big business. Roughly one third of the 305 metric tons of cocaine that the U.S. government estimates Peru produces each year travels by foot.