The Myths Fueling Today’s Armed Right How the NRA seeded the storylines animating the violent groups that will be patrolling this year’s election

Please see the original article here including photos by Mark Peterson/Redux.

The 13 men charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer called themselves the Wolverine Watchmen, a possible reference to the white supremacist vigilante militia in the HBO series Watchmen. The suspects began planning their kidnapping this summer, with live fire exercises and explosives, according to the charges. Not long before, gangs of armed men, many of them carrying AR-15s, and defiantly not wearing facemasks, protested inside the state capitol in Lansing against strict health measures imposed by Whitmer. Similar armed right-wing groups across the nation are planning to privately police polling sites on November 3, as President Donald Trump called for in the presidential debate in late September.

At first blush, it may seem hard to connect the various themes that crop up in recent stories about the armed right. There is, of course, the adamant assertion of their right to bear arms, but also a penchant for white supremacy (evidenced by their baleful presence at Black Lives Matter protests, and the online contempt they routinely hurl at the movement), a resistance to common sense public health measures meant to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic, and the specter of voter intimidation. But at a deeper level, what connects this powerful, and dangerous, set of attitudes and reflexes is a collection of myths that have spread like coronavirus mutations through social media, allowing the different groups of the armed right to perceive themselves as good guys fighting various historic evils.

Many of these myths can be traced back to the National Rifle Association, the once-powerful and now-waning guns rights organization that is in the midst of tearing itself apart. The NRA is in decline and in debt, laying off staff and losing members. The New York Attorney General’s office is seeking “to dissolve” the NRA over credible charges of massive embezzlement first raised by the NRA whistleblower Oliver North, the Reagan-era White House official at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal. North, identified as “Dissident No. 1” in court documents, was backed by other NRA board directors, including the rock star Ted Nugent.

But even as the NRA teeters, its mythical spirit lives on, entering a welter of new right-wing groups, some of which are neo-fascist—such as The Proud Boys, whom the president notoriously told to “stand back and stand by” at the first debate—or openly white supremacist, and some of which are not. They are united in their paranoia, and in their anti-government agenda, by one of the NRA’s grand theories: the “slippery slope.” The idea is that even a little gun control, like background checks, can start a dangerous slide in disarmament leading all the way to white genocide. Trump himself fuels the myth. “They call it the slippery slope, and all of sudden everything gets taken away,” he told reporters last summer, explaining his own reversal on background checks.

Even as the NRA teeters, its mythical spirit lives on, entering a welter of new right-wing groups.

For these armed groups, the slippery slope’s primary example is the Holocaust. In 2016 Nugent posted a graphic on his Facebook page featuring photos of prominent Jewish American leaders, each one next to an Israeli flag, calling them “punks” who “hate freedom” over their support for gun control. Within hours the Anti-Defamation League denounced Nugent, saying that “anti-Semitism has no place in the gun control debate.” Nugent then posted in response, “What sort of racist prejudiced POS [piece of shit] could possibly not know that Jews for gun control are Nazis in disguise?” Nugent was referring to the belief amongst gun activists and other conservatives across the country that the Nazis used gun control to disarm Europe’s Jews before they killed them.

Another example marshalled to bolster the slippery slope argument comes from the Reconstruction era. “I’m a Black American and I know that the NRA was started as a civil rights organization training Black Americans to arm themselves and defend themselves against the KKK,” said Candace Owens in 2018 on Fox News, announcing her membership in the NRA.

These gun myths about Reconstruction and the Holocaust are both the work of the NRA. The first is a fabrication wholly invented by its modern leadership, while the second is an old trope that the NRA has endorsed and amplified. The NRA’s messages have spread through social media to animate gun activists nationwide. The work of one NRA-funded scholar, David B. Kopel, has appeared in newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, arguing that gun laws don’t work, usually without disclaimers reflecting the millions of dollars in NRA funding Kopel’s think tank, the Independence Institute, has received. The NRA’s rewriting of history continues to feed viral memes that appropriate the epic struggles of two historically persecuted minorities. These fantasies have saturated the Republican electorate to the point that the “slippery slope” is now embraced as gospel truth on the American right.


The NRA wasn’t always like this. For over a century, it was dedicated to riflery and the shooting sports. It was founded in New York City in 1871, during the peak of Reconstruction. Union Army veterans, most of whom were New York National Guard officers, formed the group to improve riflery among soldiers and able-bodied men in anticipation of future wars. They modeled their organization upon the National Rifle Association of the United Kingdom, inaugurated 12 years before by Queen Victoria, and borrowed its namesake and target designs for their shooting range. In 1876, during the American centennial, the NRA added “of America” to its name to prevent “any international confusion.”

In 1977, in an internal uprising that today’s NRA leaders pretend never happened, the NRA literally shifted overnight into America’s largest gun lobby in what is still quietly known within its lore as the “Cincinnati Revolt.” This internecine mutiny was over the NRA’s prior support for the Gun Control Act of 1968, which outlawed, among other things, mail-order rifles like the one tied to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, bought through an ad in the NRA’s own flagship magazine American Rifleman. “The NRA does not advocate an ‘ostrich’ attitude toward firearms legislation,” explained the NRA’s old guard before it was overthrown. The modern NRA has since embraced an “unyielding” and “absolutist” take on gun rights, and over the past 43 years it has helped expand access to guns across most of the nation.

The NRA’s Royal British roots hardly make for a good story for the modern NRA to tell. It has come up with a new origin story more than once, most recently as 2013, after the re-election of a Black president, Barack Obama. “We are the largest civil rights organization in the world, and we have been part of the fabric of America ever since 1871,” wrote LaPierre in February 2013 in an article that appeared in the American Rifleman. The idea of the NRA being the world’s largest civil rights organization planted a new notion that soon morphed into another. “As members of the oldest civil rights organization in the nation, NRA members know tyranny when we see it,” wrote LaPierre six months later on the conservative news website The Daily Caller.

Wayne LaPierre and NRA chief spokesman Andrew Arulanandam each declined to comment for this story.

Since then, the NRA has made this specious claim—that the NRA is the nation’s oldest (or longest-standing) civil rights organization—its new mantra, repeated by leaders, lawyers and the group’s website. Just last year the NRA laid down the keystone of its new genesis story by falsely claiming that the early NRA “stood with freed slaves” during Reconstruction. This is a canard that tries to turn the history of gun ownership in America from one dominated by white men armed to help maintain an unequal social order into a mythical one where white gun owners and the NRA itself were on the frontlines of America’s earliest struggles for racial equality. “Those Who Call The NRA Racist Don’t Know Our History,” wrote LaPierre in 2017. “In our [149-year] history, open doors for minorities, and defense of our common rights, has been at the center of the NRA’s existence.”

By then the NRA had already helped boost a novel theory about the Holocaust: that German gun control laws were “essential elements” leading to the genocide of six million Jews, the idea being that Jews could have defended themselves from Nazi fascism if the Gestapo had not first seized their guns. Needless to say, this claim has no basis in any prior scholarship. “For whatever reason, historians have paid no attention to Nazi laws and policies restricting firearms ownership as essential elements in creating tyranny,” as one NRA-funded scholar himself lamented. This theory turns the worst atrocity of the modern era from one with many documented factors leading to the Nazis’ consolidation of power, into a myth where the Holocaust itself is the cautionary tale of gun control.


The NRA’s attempts to identify itself with the Black struggle for equal rights can be seen in the case of Roy Innis and the award named after him.

In 1968, around the time of the start of the gun rights rebellion within the NRA, Innis emerged as the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, running on an independent “Black Nationalist” agenda. His predecessors had helped establish the “Freedom Rides” and led them through the deep South in the early 1960s. By the early 1990s, after Innis had seen first one and then another of his sons “murdered,” in his words, “by young, Black thugs,” he joined the NRA’s board of directors, among the first African Americans to do so.

In 2017, after Roy Innis died, the NRA established a memorial award in his name. The first recipient was honored posthumously in 2019. Otis McDonald was an Army veteran and retired maintenance engineer from the South Side of Chicago. It was McDonald who brought the pivotal Supreme Court case McDonald v. Chicago, decided in 2010, that extended the right to keep arms in one’s home throughout the nation.

This ceremony last spring was the high point of the NRA’s convention in Indianapolis—a weekend marred by breaking news of the embezzlement scandal. The commemoration was led by NRA board director Allen West, a former Army lieutenant colonel whose mock execution of an Iraqi policeman had led to him receiving a fine but keeping his rank. He also served in Congress as the first African American representative from Florida since Reconstruction. He rose in the Tea Party Caucus until, after redistricting, he lost his seat. West is now the chairman of the Texas Republican Party. He made the QAnon phrase, “We are the storm,” the new slogan of the Texas GOP, putting it on fundraising emails, social media, T-shirts, and hats.

The NRA had helped boost a novel theory about the Holocaust: that German gun control laws were “essential elements” leading to the genocide of six million Jews.

West joined fellow board members Oliver North and Ted Nugent in making accusations of financial improprieties against LaPierre, and it was West who called for him to resign. Yet West and LaPierre still managed to maintain a united front when it came to the ceremony for McDonald, which led to the NRA announcing that its founding fathers had armed freed slaves.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to Otis W. McDonald for his courage, his commitment and his sacrifice to take a stand and be steadfast in his belief in the United States Constitution,” West said from the stage, with LaPierre and his staff sharing the dais. Close to 1,000 NRA members, many wearing NRA gear or MAGA hats, were in the hall. West went on to fold McDonald’s action into the myth of the early NRA’s role during Reconstruction. “Know the history. The NRA, this organization, stood with freed slaves to make sure they had their Second Amendment rights,” he said. Everyone in the room rose and applauded, in the longest standing ovation of the meeting.

“As an American black man, the history of the National Rifle Association has a special meaning for me, and I often reflect on it,” West wrote in a 2018 column for the Conservative News Service. “At a time when recently freed slaves were transitioning to being American citizens, they came under assault during the Reconstruction Era. When faced with the threats, coercion, intimidation, and yes, violence of an organization called the Ku Klux Klan, it was the NRA that stood with and defended the rights of blacks to the Second Amendment.”

Is there any actual historical link between the NRA and the Black struggle? In the six years after it was founded in 1871, the NRA kept busy. It took the organization two years, after lobbying for funding from Albany, to finally open its first range, known as Creedmoor, in what is now Queens in 1873. Over the next four years, NRA shooters honed their skills, defeating first the Irish and then the “Imperial Team” of their Royal role models, both times at Creedmoor, to become the undisputed rifle champions of the (English-speaking) world in 1877. It was an American triumph in the Victorian Era, and the early NRA’s greatest accomplishment. Yet, like most of the NRA’s actual history, this is something that the modern NRA would prefer to forget.

It is also true that co-founder William Conant Church and other early NRA leaders, all based in New York, supported President Ulysses S. Grant’s efforts during Reconstruction to crush the Ku Klux Klan, in order to put an end to ongoing Southern resistance. The filmmaker Michael Moore’s insinuation in his 2002 film Bowling for Columbine that the NRA and the KKK were somehow linked, because they were founded five years apart, is another canard, one flying in the other direction.

The use of Black Codes to outlaw gun ownership by freed slaves in the South was painfully real. But even this important issue was not raised by the early NRA or the men who founded it. Church, an unabashed Grant admirer, wrote one of the first books about the Civil War and its aftermath, titled Ulysses S. Grant and the Period of National Preservation and Reconstruction. In it, Church dealt explicitly with the challenges faced by freed slaves, including violence by Southern groups and authorities:

The negroes had ceased to be slaves, but they had not yet become free men, and there was no guaranty that they might not be subjected to some new form of oppression …[O]ne Southern State after another passed laws designed to perpetuate the scheme of enforced labour by establishing a system of apprenticeship, more heartless and cruel than slavery had ever been, and lacking the ameliorating features of the ‘patriarchal institution.’ . . . Negroes were killed in large numbers throughout the South without even an attempt to hold any one responsible for their murder.

Church made no mention whatsoever of any group, whether private or governmental, coming to the aid of freed slaves by helping to arm them. (Although he did mention the Union Army’s decision during the war to start “arming the negro” to add “a powerful ally” and “make good soldiers.”) Nor did he mention any need to arm freed slaves, or even any discussion about the matter. As a matter of fact, Church did not mention the National Rifle Association at all.

Eighty years after Reconstruction, however, at the start of the Civil Rights era, there was a case that involved the NRA and the KKK. A Black man named Robert Williams, who had served as a Marine in a segregated unit during World War II, became the president of the local NAACP chapter in Monroe, North Carolina. He helped integrate the town library, but trouble started when he and other activists tried to desegregate the town’s swimming pool after several Black children drowned in nearby swimming holes. The local KKK mobilized in response. “So we started arming ourselves,” said Williams. “I wrote to the National Rifle Association in Washington which encourages veterans to keep in shape to defend their native land, and asked for a charter, which we got. In a year we had 60 members.” They called themselves Monroe’s Black Armed Guard.

In 1957 a group of hooded Klansmen fired shots at the home of a Black doctor who was another local NAACP leader. They were surprised when “Williams and the black men of Monroe fired back from behind sandbags and covered positions,” wrote Nicholas Johnson, a Fordham University law professor and the nation’s leading African American scholar on gun rights. The firefight was covered by newspapers as far away as Norfolk, Virginia, with the headlines “Citizens Fire Back at Klan” and “Shots Exchanged Near Residence of NAACP Head.” But the American Rifleman said nary a word, and the NRA did nothing subsequently to support its Black Monroe chapter, either.

The NRA did support at least one African American group in the South during the Civil Rights era. A half century ago it sold surplus government ammunition to the Deacons for Defense and Justice in Jonesboro, Louisiana. The group “provided their own guns.” Yet today’s NRA falsely claims that “the NRA was their arsenal of democracy.”


The NRA’s use of the Holocaust myth began, as so many things do in the world of conservative politics, with a think tank.

Stephen P. Halbrook, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute in Oakland, California, has been described by the UCLA law professor Adam Winkler as “the nation’s leading expert on the right to keep and bear arms.” Halbrook filed an amicus brief in Heller vs. District of Columbia, the watershed Supreme Court case that established that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep arms, on behalf of 250 members of the House of Representatives, 55 senators, and president of the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney—all without making any mention of having received nearly $300,000 in NRA funding. Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller cited Halbrook’s brief twice. Halbrook was later one of the attorneys representing the NRA in the McDonald v. Chicago, which extended the Heller ruling throughout the nation.

In 2013, The Independent Institute published Halbrook’s book Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and ‘Enemies of the States.’ “Based on newly discovered secret documents from German archives, diaries and newspapers of the time,” the book “presents the definitive, yet hidden history of how the Nazi regime made use of gun control to disarm and repress its enemies and consolidate power,” read the review of the book in the NRA’s American Rifleman. “While voluminous scholarship has documented the Third Reich and the Holocaust, this is the first thorough examination of the laws restricting firearm ownership that rendered Hitler’s political opponents, as well as the Jews, defenseless.”

The Washington Times, the conservative daily controlled by the Unification Movement (associated with the late Sung Myung Moon), also reviewed it, but notably hedged the book’s extravagant claim that gun suppression was pivotal in setting the Holocaust in motion.  “There is no way to prove it,” Robert VerBruggen wrote of the book’s thesis. But he did note that the book provides an “extensive history” of the matter.

Halbrook’s book glosses over evidence that prior scholars like Raul Hilberg have established that would seem to counter, if not disprove, his thesis. “Preventive attack, armed resistance, and revenge are almost completely absent in two thousand years of Jewish ghetto history. Instances of violent opposition, which may be found in one or another history book, are atypical and episodic,” Hilberg wrote in his 1961 book The Destruction of The European Jews. “The critical period of the 1930s and 1940s is marked by that same absence of physical opposition.”

The biggest hole in Halbrook’s research is one he admits himself, albeit in the pages near the back of his book. Halbrook notes that, “Police were required to list all weapons taken from Jews and to send the weapons seized and listing to the Gestapo.” Yet he has failed to locate any significant records of seizures of weapons from Jews, and no large caches of any weapons at all. As Halbrook writes:

Police reports listing weapons seized from Jews have been difficult to locate. Many such records may have been destroyed during the war, either by the Nazis themselves or due to Allied bombings. Routine police reports mention arms and seizures along with other incidents. For example, a report to the commander of the municipal police in Leipzig dated November 29, 1938, noted: “Based on the decree regarding the surrender of weapons in possession of Jews, three Jews surrendered their slashing and thrusting weapons and one Jew surrendered his hunting rifles. Two bayonets and a 85 mm grenade were reported found and surrendered.”

If this all seems rather cracked, which it is, consider that this issue came up in the last election cycle when Ben Carson, now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, suggested on CNN that gun control led to the Holocaust. His claim prompted a response from Alan E. Steinweis, a professor of history and Holocaust studies at the University of Vermont, that this argument “is strangely ahistorical, a classic instance of injecting an issue that is important in our place and time into a historical situation where it was not seen as important. I can think of no serious work of scholarship on the Nazi dictatorship or on the causes of the Holocaust in which Nazi gun control measures feature as a significant factor.”


The “slippery slope” and its theoretical underpinnings are fueling today’s armed right. They disagree over matters from hate speech to the rules of engagement for use of force, with some openly advocating opening fire on BLM marchers. But what unites them is the shared notion that they are on the right side of history. The NRA-boosted myths about Reconstruction and the Holocaust reinforce their claim that it is not them, but gun control itself that is racist. “Thank God that the NRA was able to come to the black community’s defense” during Reconstruction, posted Old North State Patriots on Facebook in 2019. “There’s a reason that Hitler did it,” said former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka on Fox News the same year, referring to the Fuhrer’s alleged gun control to disarm the Jews. “This isn’t a theory–It’s history.”

The Oath Keepers/Patriot Movement in 2008 adopted the “Hitler took guns away” argument to Hillary Clinton’s campaign: “Imagine that Herr Hitlery is sworn in as president in 2009. After a conveniently timed ‘domestic terrorism’ incident (just a coincidence, of course) … she promptly crams a United Nations mandated total ban on the private possession of firearms.” The idea has become a fixture on Fox News, with host Andrew Napolitano extending the example to include Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones took up a similar line, telling Piers Morgan in 2013, “Hitler took the guns, Stalin took the guns, Mao took the guns, Fidel Castro took the guns, Hugo Chavez took the guns, and I’m here to tell you, 1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!”

Many of today’s paramilitary groups keep a low profile. Instead of their own banner, many fly the Gadsden flag, a yellow militia banner of the Revolutionary War with a coiled green snake over the words “DONT TREAD ON ME.” Cadres greet each other online and in person through shared phrases, insignias, and other signs, creating a rich environment for racist extremists to operate. What else unites the armed right is their ongoing support for President Trump. He has called forth a movement bigger than himself, one that seems likely to outlast him.

America’s pro-Trump armed right would not be the first to invent a new ideology to justify  in advance their violence against others. Genocidaires developed propaganda ahead of the mass violence in late-1930s Germany and early-1990s Rwanda. The modern NRA’s whitewash of history today helps armed right-wing gangs from neo-Nazis to Three Percenters rationalize their intimidation and violence against others, including fellow Americans exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech. Many of the same pro-Trump paramilitaries, who will be self-policing voters on election day, may grow more aggressive after the votes are tallied, especially if the top of their ticket comes up short.

It no longer matters to many of them, either, that the same NRA that helped inspire them is now nearing the previously unthinkable possibility of default. Unlike the NRA, which worked largely within the system, these armed gangs—with or without Trump—say they are ready to overthrow it.

Research for this article was supported by a Logan Nonfiction fellowship.

Frank Smyth is the author of The NRA: The Unauthorized History.

Battle Horn: So Much for Africa’s “New Leaders.”

When President Clinton took his historic twelve-day tour of Africa last year, he singled out tiny Eritrea and its larger neighbor Ethiopia as beacons of hope for the beleaguered continent. In Clinton’s mind — and in the minds of others in the West like Oxfam International and the World Bank — Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afwerki, and Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, represented a new breed of African statesmen. Intolerant of corruption and committed to free-market reforms, Isaias and Meles were considered to be among the likely leaders of an African renaissance. But now, President Clinton, the two men — heralded less than a year after this renaissance and their impoverished countries — are at war.

The war on Africa’s Horn may be the most dramatic and bloodiest chapter in the rapid disintegration of an alliance among a group of African leaders — commonly referred to as the “new leaders” — that once held much promise. In 1996, Isaias and Meles, along with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (who, like Isaias and Meles, are former Marxist guerrillas), formed a bloc that was engaged in joint military campaigns from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda — with the help of $20 million in nonlethal aid from the United States — were all backing rebels in Sudan against that country’s radical Islamist government. Further south, Rwanda, Uganda, and Eritrea — and, later, Angola –joined forces in Zaire to help Laurent Kabila overthrow the corrupt postcolonial despot Mobutu Sese Seko.

But, not long after Kabila seized power in May 1997, renaming Zaire the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the bloc of “new leaders” began to splinter. Rwanda and Uganda fell out with Kabila as he became more independent of his former patrons. By July 1998, the same countries that had helped bring down Mobutu began fighting again in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They and other states are still waging war in Central Africa — only now Uganda and Rwanda are battling Angola, among other states.

It is the Horn War, though, that most concerns Western observers. Ever since May and June 1998, when Eritrea and Ethiopia launched artillery attacks and air strikes against each other in a dispute over their 620-mile-long border, the United States has been working feverishly to head off a full-fledged conflict between the two countries. At first, the United States had some success, brokering a cease-fire. But attempts to secure a more lasting peace bogged down, and, on February 6, after months of escalating tensions, a full-scale war broke out. While Ethiopia’s economy is eight times greater than Eritrea’s, and its population is 17 times the size, the smaller country’s stronger nationalist identity should make this fight a protracted one — one of potentially epic proportions. “It could become the biggest war ever in sub-Saharan Africa,” frets one senior Defense Department official, “or at least since the [South African] Boer War” at the turn of the century.

Eritrea and Ethiopia are among Africa’s poorest nations, and the irony of their war is that, ostensibly at least, both sides are fighting over nothing. The main flashpoint is a border region of hardscrabble terrain called Badame, which translates in the local language as “empty.” After Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993, their common border was never clearly delineated. In recent years, many former Ethiopian guerrillas have moved into the Badame region to farm small plots of land, displacing Eritrean farmers who were already working the same plots. Finally, in July 1997, after a few heated but still bloodless incidents between the ex-guerrillas and the peasants, Isaias and Meles agreed to form a joint commission to draw the boundary.

But, before an agreement could be reached, local Ethiopian authorities took matters into their own hands. Last May, Ethiopian militia in the Badame region began a new wave of expulsions of Eritrean peasants. When an Eritrean Army unit sought out the local militia to negotiate on behalf of the newly displaced Eritrean peasants, the Ethiopian militia opened fire, leaving three Eritrean officers and one soldier dead. Eritrea responded to the incident by deploying troops in the Badame region and then, on May 12, by seizing even more territory there and at two other areas along the border to the east. Eritrean officials privately admit that, for tactical reasons, some of the ground they then occupied went beyond the country’s admittedly fuzzy borders and actually included Ethiopian terrain.

The Ethiopians retaliated by bombing Eritrea’s airport. But, more than 20 minutes after that attack, one Eritrean plane bombed an Ethiopian school, killing 44 people and wounding 135 others, most of them children. Even after Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to a cease-fire last June, both countries scrambled to buy artillery, armored vehicles, jet fighters, and other arms (Today, Eritrea still has fewer jets than Ethiopia and no helicopter gunships). Ethiopia also escalated tensions by deporting more than 52,000 people of Eritrean descent.

Of course, this is not literally a war over nothing. The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia has also been fueled by clashing economic interests. In November 1997, Eritrea issued its own currency, the nakfa, after having used the Ethiopian birr for four years. While Eritrean officials wanted Ethiopia to accept the nakfa in a one-to-one exchange rate with the birr, Ethiopian officials instead demanded that Eritrea pay for all its goods in hard currency, which both sides lacked. Soon, trucks loaded with goods backed up on both sides of the border, while ships waited to unload their cargo at Assab, one of two Eritrean ports on the Red Sea.

The Assab port is another source of contention between the two countries. Although Assab has long been administratively part of Eritrea, dating back to when Eritrea was an Italian colony, the port is linked by paved road to Addis Ababa and has traditionally served as Ethiopia’s only port (Eritrea’s other port is Massawa, which is connected by paved road with its capital, Asmara). In 1993, as part of Eritrea’s peaceful secession from Ethiopia, Meles made Ethiopia a landlocked nation when he relinquished Assab to his Eritrean comrades as part of his promise to restore to Eritrea the territories it enjoyed when it was an Italian colony. And, while Ethiopian diplomats today say they make no claims on Assab, Eritrean officials contend that the entire border war may merely be a ploy by Ethiopia to retake the port — which, until Ethiopia began boycotting it last May, generated 18 percent of Eritrea’s total revenues from the fees and duties leveled on Ethiopian goods.

The final irony of the war is that, if these two countries cannot coexist peacefully under the leadership of Isaias and Meles, it’s doubtful that they ever will. Both Isaias and Meles are members of the Tigrinya ethnic group and speak the Tigrinya language — the only language common to both countries. The two men, and the respective guerrilla movements that now run each state, struggled together to depose the Soviet-backed regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Two years later, in 1993, Meles and Isaias agreed to Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia. Until blood was first drawn last May, Meles and Isaias long addressed each other, in letters and face-to-face meetings, as “comrade.”

Indeed, Meles had been far more sympathetic to Eritrea than most other Ethiopians. While Isaias is genuinely popular across Eritrea, Meles is not well-liked in Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians, particularly members of the Amhara and Oromo ethnic groups, despise Meles, whose Tigrinyan ethnic group is a distinct minority in Ethiopia. Warns one Ethiopian diplomat: Eritrea will “never find an Ethiopian government as friendly to them as the present government.” If Meles falls, things could actually get worse between the two countries.

But it’s hard to imagine anything much worse than the trench warfare that now rages on Africa’s Horn. While many are tempted to compare the hostilities to other African conflicts, the Horn War is more reminiscent of the Iran-Iraq War or World War I. The likelihood of carnage and exhaustion of resources serves only to sap the hope that both Isaias and Meles once brought to the Horn. Not long ago, Africa’s new leaders promised new beginnings. But all they do now is wage wars. Their beacons faded surprisingly fast.

Frank Smyth is coauthor of “Africa’s New Bloc,” published in the March/April 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Silent Struggle

Original article can be found here.

Last week’s missile attack against Sudan also struck Americans like a bolt from the blue. Who knew where Sudan was on the map, let alone that it was a bitter enemy of the U.S.? Actually, the strikes were the culmination of a long struggle within the Clinton administration about how to deal with that nation’s radical regime.

Part of the problem is that the National Islamic Front (NIF), which took over Sudan in a 1989 coup, is insecure about its hold on power. To bolster its position, the NIF has tried to expand Islam regionally, backing radical Islamist (and even fundamentalist Christian) groups against most of its neighbors. At the same time, the NIF has collaborated with Osama Bin Ladin to provide sanctuary as well as training to radical Islamist groups operating worldwide.

In 1993, the Clinton administration put Sudan on the list of nations that sponsor terrorism. Since then, though, officials have quarreled over how much more they should do. Career State Department officials, led by Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, have argued that dialogue and diplomacy are the best way to change the NIF. But political appointees, led by Assistant Secretary of State Susan E. Rice (formerly with the National Security Council), have countered that the NIF will only respond to force.

Even before the East Africa bombings, the administration was moving toward Rice’s line. After Sudan had expelled Bin Ladin in May 1996, in response to Saudi and American pressure, Pickering argued that it was time to re-open the American Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan (The embassy had been closed since February 1996 because of terrorism fears). But NSC officials, including Rice, thought it should stay shut. In September 1997, while Rice was on maternity leave, Pickering tried what one diplomat calls a “squeeze play.” Without White House authorization, Pickering told his subordinates to leak to the press that the administration would soon reopen the embassy. But a week later, after the news had been reported in both The Washington Post and The New York Times, Rice’s allies at the NSC got the announcement over-ruled. “Albright called Pickering and told him to call the reporters back,” recounts another seventh-floor official.

So the U.S. mission to Sudan remained in Nairobi — bin Laden’s eventual target. And it soon became the site of the largest CIA station in East Africa — a station that coordinates a sophisticated eavesdropping network aimed at Sudan with the cooperation of bordering countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda, which form a coalition of frontline states against the NIF.

The United States’ goal has not merely been to gather information. For at least two years, the Clinton administration has been trying to undermine, if not overthrow, the NIF regime. ‘We want to compel change in how Sudan is governed,” one White House adviser told me in May. Toward that end, the adviser added, last year, the administration promised the anti-NIF states $20 million in nonlethal aid. According to a high level participant, the administration recently sent an interagency team to Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to explore “humanitarian, development, political, diplomatic, military, and intelligence options.”

The United States’ interest in undermining the NIF is due to more than the regime’s support of Bin Ladin. One of the NIF’s closest foreign allies has been Iraq. According to a former Sudanese army captain who defected to rebel forces, up to 60 Iraqi military specialists rotate through Sudan every six months.

Why is this significant? The ex-captain said some of the Iraqis were involved in some kind of munitions development at the Military Industries Corporation in Khartoum. And Sudanese opposition leaders have long claimed Iraq was helping Sudan develop chemical weapons at installations in Khartoum. They further charge that Sudan has stored chemical weapons for Iraq at a military complex south of Khartoum.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials say soil samples collected outside the pharmaceutical factory targeted in the strike contained traces of a chemical that is an ingredient of VX nerve agent and lacks any known industrial application. Furthermore, The New York Times reported that Iraq bought medicines from the factory and that, according to U.S. officials, one of the leaders of Iraq’s chemical weapons program had close ties to senior Sudanese officials there. Finally, non-American officials told the Times that Iraqi technicians frequently visited another, more heavily guarded factory in Khartoum also suspected of producing chemical weapons.

Of course, these are still allegations. Some of the Sudanese opposition’s other claims — like the story that Iraqis who hijacked a plane to London in 1996 were involved in the chemical weapons program — are clearly preposterous; the hijackers were draft-dodgers. Nor is the evidence cited by U.S. officials necessarily irrefutable. For instance, a British engineer who, until 1996, worked as a manager at the factory targeted in the strike recently told the London Observer that the factory “just does not lend itself to the manufacture of chemical weapons.”

Still, Iraq and Sudan are clearly up to something. Just consider the Sudanese foreign minister’s first reaction to the U.S. strikes: he flew to Baghdad. ”

The Holy Warrior: Is This the Man Behind the Bombings?

Original article can be found here.

Osama Bin Ladin is not an easy man to find, and he plans on keeping it that way. A multi-millionaire from Saudi Arabia, he is considered by the U.S. government to be “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremist activities in the world.” Law enforcement officials from a half-dozen nations would like to question him about his possible role in at least nine terrorist conspiracies. More recently, bin Ladin’s name has surfaced in connection with last week’s bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He is “high on the list” of suspects, says one White House official. So maybe it’s not surprising that, since 1996, bin Ladin has taken refuge in one of the most inaccessible regions in the world: southern Afghanistan.

If you wish to meet with him, as one of us did for an interview that aired on CNN back in May of 1997, you must first get hold of an intermediary–like Khaled al-Fauwaz, a spokesman for a Saudi opposition group, called the Advice and Reformation Committee. Al-Fauwaz lives far from the tumult of the Middle East, in the quiet North London suburb of Neasden. Serving flavored coffee and a plate of dates in his modest 1940s Tudor-style home, he is at pains to make clear that he does not work for Bin Ladin. Nor does he necessarily condone all of Bin Ladin’s views. But, if you can assure him that you are not an agent of the CIA, well, then he may find a way to put you in touch with the shadowy Saudi.

And so the journey begins. Al-Fauwaz directs you to Peshawar, Pakistan, where you are to await further notice. Several days after your arrival, one of Bin Ladin’s followers makes contact and instructs you to make your way across the winding Khyber Pass into neighboring Afghanistan. You arrive in the border town of Jalalabad and settle into a rundown hotel. And then you wait.

A week passes. Finally, late one afternoon, a curtained van arrives. You are bundled inside and the van sets off toward the mountains, along the Kabul road. Suddenly the van stops, and you are given blindfold-like dark glasses to wear as you change to a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the drive up rough mountain tracks. Several times during the journey, heavily armed men emerge from the darkness shouting for your convoy to stop. At one point you are told that, if you are carrying any type of tracking device, now is the time to say so. Later discovery of such a device, it is suggested, will not be pleasant for you. At the final checkpoint the guards run a beeping scanner over you and your bags to make sure you’ve been telling the truth.

At long last, your vehicle pulls into a rock-strewn valley about 5,000 feet above sea level — just below the snow line. It is near midnight. The air has a cold bite to it, and the ground crunches underfoot as you are led to a small mud hut lined with blankets. At one o’clock in the morning, Bin Ladin enters the room. You are told you have an hour to speak with him before he moves on. He does not like to remain in the same place for very long.

At first glance, Bin Ladin does not look like a master terrorist with a core of several thousand committed followers at his command and up to $250 million in his bank account. He is dressed simply — wearing a white turban and robe under a camouflage jacket and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle across his shoulder. But he is a tall man with an aquiline nose and an aristocratic demeanor. His followers treat him with the utmost deference, which he seems to take as his due. And, though he speaks in a near whisper, his talk is of bitter injustice and merciless revenge. The United States, he said in that CNN interview, “has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal” by supporting Israel and imposing sanctions on Iraq. But it is the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the land of Mecca and Medina, “the holiest place of the Muslims,” that most outrages Bin Ladin — this, he says, is why he has declared a jihad on the United States.

Is this the man behind the carnage in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam? So far, no evidence links Bin Ladin to the bombings. And there are plenty of other possible suspects to consider — including a Somali and a handful of Sudanese and Iraqis recently rounded up for questioning in Tanzania. However, the coordination with which the two attacks were carried out suggests a well-financed and experienced group — the kind often connected to the Middle East.

And, among those with such connections, Bin Ladin is certainly a credible suspect. Last February, as the United States seemed primed to launch strikes against Iraq, Bin Ladin joined with several other leading Islamist radicals, speaking on behalf of the World Islamic Front, in calling on Muslims “to kill the Americans and their allies–civilian and military.” Significantly, the CIA Counterterrorist Center issued a statement saying: “These fatwas are the first from these groups that explicitly justify attacks on American civilians anywhere in the world … this is the first religious ruling sanctifying such attacks.”

Then, on May 26, Bin Ladin held a press conference that, in the words of a State Department advisory, implied “that some type of terrorist action could be mounted within the next several weeks.” And on June 21, according to Abdul-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, members of the groups that signed the fatwa met in Peshawar, Pakistan, to set upon an undisclosed plan of action. In a June advisory on the fatwa, the State Department affirmed that “we take these threats seriously, and the U.S. is increasing security at many U.S. government facilities in the Middle East and South Asia.” Africa was not mentioned.

That Bin Ladin’s call to holy war is greeted with such gravity is a measure of his unique status in the world of terrorism. His was a privileged youth — the kind you would expect for the seventeenth of 52 children born to the founder of the Bin Ladin’s Group, a Saudi Arabian construction company worth an estimated $5 billion. Though by the tender age of 16, Bin Ladin had already become involved with Islamist political groups in his native Saudi Arabia, it was the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that radicalized him. Only days after it began, Bin Ladin, then in his early twenties, flew to Afghanistan to help organize the first Islamist guerrilla fighters — young idealists like himself who flocked to the war from all over the Muslim world.

Bin Ladin eventually became a key leader of these “Afghan Arabs,” whose numbers reached about 20,000. He financed housing for them in Peshawar, Pakistan. He bankrolled the Ma’sadat Al-Ansar military camp in Afghanistan, which trained both local and international volunteers. And Bin Ladin himself fought in many battles, including the 1989 siege of Jalalabad — a key contest with the Soviets. The USSR’s subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan made a profound impression: as Bin Ladin said in the CNN interview, “In this jihad the biggest benefit was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed.”

Bin Ladin returned to Saudi Arabia a hero. But he quickly became disillusioned with the ruling House of Saud, which he characterizes as spendthrift, corrupt, insufficiently Islamic, and — most objectionable of all — subordinate to the United States. Soon he was at odds with the authorities, and in 1991 he and his immediate family — that is, his four wives and an unknown number of children — left for Sudan.

Sudan’s ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) gave Bin Ladin a warm welcome, but it never quite trusted him, assigning military intelligence agents to keep tabs on their Saudi guest. Ironically, after working closely with Bin Ladin for four years, one of these agents — who has since left his post — became an admirer. According to the ex-agent, for a time Bin Ladin and the NIF “had a convergence of interest.” The NIF has tried to expand the reach of political Islam into black Africa, and it has backed Islamist and even Christian extremist groups against the neighboring states of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda.

Bin Ladin, however, may have even bigger aspirations. According to the ex-Sudanese agent, “his strategy is to form an international organization to head toward what he calls the Khalifa.” An important concept in Islam, the Khalifa refers to a leader chosen by the most knowledgeable Muslims to lead the umma, or worldwide Muslim community. A Bin Ladin associate suggests it’s unlikely that Bin Ladin aspires to be the Khalifa himself. Instead, he hopes to create the conditions for the Khalifa to emerge by uniting the most radical Islamist forces.

Toward this end, beginning in 1990, even before his own arrival, Bin Ladin brought hundreds of veterans from the Afghan war to Sudan. These holy warriors first came to help the NIF fight non-Muslim rebels in southern Sudan. Later they made up Bin Ladin’s personal security force. According to the State Department, they also helped run at least three military training camps that Bin Ladin created and financed.

Bin Ladin’s Sudanese camps soon became important centers for international terrorists. According to the ex-Sudanese agent, groups came to train there from Algeria, Tunisia, Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Somalia. In his CNN interview, Bin Ladin said that he has also dispatched his own followers to equally far-flung places — Bosnia, Chechnya, Tajikistan, and Somalia — while financing extremist groups in Algeria and Egypt.

The first successful attack on Americans that Bin Ladin is believed to have been involved in came in Somalia in 1993 — where a total of 30 U.S. soldiers were killed in several incidents. In his interview with CNN, Bin Ladin said that some of the men involved in at least one of those operations were “Arab holy warriors who were in Afghanistan” — men who looked to him as a leader. The ex-Sudanese intelligence agent confirms this account, adding that the men had been trained at Bin Ladin’s Sudanese camps and that “they set up a base in Somalia and smuggled weapons to it from Ethiopia.” Does the United States believe bin Ladin was responsible? Philip Wilcox, the State Department’s then-chief counter-terrorism official, has said, “We take him at his word.” And Wilcox has added that there is solid evidence that bin Ladin forces also attempted to bomb U.S. servicemen in Yemen while they were on their way to the Somalia operation. A State Department report even claims bin Ladin admitted to the bombing, which killed two people but no U.S. soldiers.

U.S. officials also have circumstantial evidence tying bin Ladin to another famous act of anti-American terrorism: the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center. After that attack, its mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he lived in a house for Islamic radicals that bin Ladin funded. In 1996, Yousef was convicted of a separate plot to blow up several U.S. passenger planes. U.S. officials say Yousef’s convicted conspirator in that plot, Wali Khan Amin Shah, served under Bin Ladin in Afghanistan.

In his CNN interview, Bin Ladin said he had “no connection” to the World Trade Center bombing but did say that Sheik Rahman is a widely respected Muslim cleric against whom the United States “fabricated” what he called “a baseless case.” Bin Ladin also insisted he had nothing to do with the bombing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia at Riyadh in 1995 and Dhahran in 1996 — though, again, he expressed admiration for those who carried out the attacks. All the same, U.S. officials would like to talk to Bin Ladin about both of these incidents as well.

Of course, at the moment it is the African bombings that are uppermost in the minds of U.S. officials. And one key reason to take a close look at Bin Ladin is that his followers are no strangers to either Kenya or Tanzania. According to a source within the Saudi opposition movement, for the past three years Bin Ladin has had a “significant presence” in both nations. What’s more, this source says, two years ago one of Bin Ladin’s key lieutenants drowned in Lake Victoria — which lies within the borders of both Kenya and Tanzania. That account is confirmed by a U.S. official who says that Bin Ladin’s “head military guy” died there in a ferry accident in May 1996. The U.S. official says that the man, a former Egyptian army officer who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Abaida al Panjshiri, gained combat experience in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets.

To be sure, it’s highly possible that, even if Bin Ladin is the behind the embassy bombings, he may do no more than express his “admiration” for the operation — not out of modesty but out of necessity. In 1996, the Sudanese government, under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United States, finally expelled Bin Ladin. Afghanistan, which is largely ruled by the Taliban, a movement of religious-students-turned-warriors who share Bin Ladin’s extreme interpretations of Islam, may be his last refuge. And the Taliban, who are hoping for international recognition for their regime, know that enthusiastic support for Bin Ladin will only hurt their cause. So they have cut a deal with Bin Ladin: he can stay, but only so long as he promises not to participate in “political” activities in other countries.

But, although Bin Ladin has so far remained silent on the African bombings, his name has already emerged in connection with other, less circumspect groups. One organization that has come forward to claim responsibility for the bombing, the Liberation Army for the Islamic Sanctuaries, has cited the same objective that motivates Bin Ladin: namely, the desire to drive the United States from all Muslim lands, especially in the Arabian peninsula. The group explicitly told the Cairo Arabic daily al-Hayat that it was partly inspired by Bin Ladin. (Of course, all claims of responsibility in such cases should be greeted with a grain of salt.)

Bin Ladin is also associated with the one group that gave warning of attacks before the bombings. A week prior to the blasts, Egypt’s Islamic Jihad told an Arabic newspaper in London that it would strike back at the United States in retaliation for compelling Albania to extradite three Egyptian Islamic volunteers back to Egypt. The Islamic Jihad organization is one of the groups that Bin Ladin helped train in Sudan. And it joined with his organization in both the fatwa calling for retaliation against the United States last May and the meeting to discuss a more concrete plan of action last June.

Ultimately, it may turn out that Bin Ladin served not as a direct organizer of the African embassy bombings but as the inspiration for them. Bin Ladin’s message and example are reverberating throughout the Arab world. As Al-Quds Al Arabi editor Abdul-Bari Atwan explained it in a CNN interview, “Younger generations, especially those Islamic fundamentalists, are looking for a hero, and Mr. Bin Ladin fits the bill.”

My Enemy’s Friends: In Guatemala, the DEA fights the CIA

Original article can be found here.

Why did the Guatemalan military kill American innkeeper Michael DeVine? In April of this year, acting CIA Director William 0. Studeman and other U.S. officials implicated Colonel Julio Roberto Alpírez, who was on the CIA payroll at the time of the crime, in the June 1990 killing. But Studeman offered no explanation for the murder, and Alpírez ‘s motive for ordering it has remained a mystery. The New York Times reported that DeVine may have been killed because he knew about the Guatemalan military’s illegal logging of mahogany trees near his ranch in the country’s northern Peten jungle. DeVine’s widow says it may have been because in his restaurant he served a civilian before serving a military officer. Assistant Secretary of State Alexander F. Watson told Congress DeVine might have been killed in a dispute over missing army rifles.

There is, however, a more probable motive for DeVine’s murder. For the crucial backdrop to this story is not only the involvement of the CIA with the Guatemalan military, but the involvement of the Guatemalan military in drug trafficking. From the beginning, U.S. intelligence sources say, officials have had information to suggest that drugs were behind DeVine’s murder. “DeVine could have found out that there were Guatemalans dealing with drugs up there because there were,” says Thomas F. Stroock, who was the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala at the time of the DeVine killing. Now a former Drug Enforcement Administration special agent says that DeVine was killed because he knew Alpírez was involved in drug trafficking.

The ex-DEA agent, Celerino Castillo III, says he worked with both G-2 (the former name for the Guatemalan military intelligence) and the CIA from 1985 to 1990. Castillo says that CIA agent Randy Capister (whose identity Stroock confirmed) served as the agency’s covert liaison with G2. Capister, Castillo alleges, learned that DeVine had found out that Alpírez was involved in cocaine trafficking and marijuana cultivation near DeVine’s ranch. (DeVine, though not a DEA informant, knew U.S. officials and others associated with the U.S. Embassy.) Once Capister learned of DeVine’s discovery, he in turn informed Colonel Francisco “Paco” Ortega Menaldo, then head of G-2. Colonel Alpírez was under Ortega’s command within the G2, while CL4 agent Capister reported not to then-Ambassador Stroock, but to Alfonso Sapia-Bosch, then the CIA station chief. Sapia-Bosch, reached for comment, declined to make one. Says Stroock of these agents: “I had no way of knowing what they did or did not know.”

What the DEA knew or knows is also in doubt. Back in 1993 the DEA stated of DeVine’s murder: “There is, no indication that drugs were involved in this case.” But since Alpirez’s role in the murder was revealed, the DEA’s chief spokesman, James McGivney, has declined to answer any queries on Guatemala. Studeman, for his part, has denied that the CIA played any role in DeVine’s killing. When the CIA obtained specific information about Alpírez’s alleged role in the crime in October 1991, the agency turned it over to the Justice Department but withheld it from Congress.

Castillo’s new charge has now led Representative Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, to reexamine what the CIA told the Justice Department. In March, Torricelli publicly revealed Alpírez ‘s role in both DeVine’s murder and that of a Guatemalan guerrilla leader, Efraín Bámaca Velasquez, who was married to American lawyer Jennifer Harbury.

In a letter to the CIA Inspector General dated May 4, Torricelli wrote that if DeVine was slain to protect a drug operation, the crime would have been politically motivated and therefore potentially subject to prosecution here under U.S. anti-terrorism laws. “If CIA officials were fully aware of the circumstances surrounding Mr. DeVine’s murder when they requested a Department of Justice ruling,” wrote Torricelli, “they clearly did not provide that information to the Justice Department. If that is the case, then the CIA officials involved are guilty of obstruction of justice.”

Whatever the motives for DeVine’s murder, it’s clear that the CIA and the DEA have often been working at cross-purposes in Guatemala. The same military that the CIA has trained and supported in its war on leftist insurgents has also provided cover for some of the major drug traffickers pursued by the DEA. Since 1989, the DEA has formally accused at least eleven Guatemalan military officers of drug trafficking, including six Army captains, two Army lieutenant colonels, two Air Force majors and even one Air Force general; the general, Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio, was even denied an entry visa into this country because the DEA “knows, or has reason to believe” that he is involved “in the illicit trafficking of narcotics,” according to the US. Information Service.

Yet, as a 1994 State Department report explains, “Guatemalan military officers strongly suspected of trafficking in narcotics rarely face criminal prosecution.” In most cases, the Guatemalan military has merely discharged from active service those officers named by the DEA. Say the State Department report, “In most cases, the officers continue on with their suspicious activities.”

Take the case of Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, “a/k/a Charlie,” the first officer against whom the DEA initiated prosecution. Today he stands accused in Florida of collaborating with Colombia’s Cali cartel to ship multi-ton level units of cocaine to the United States. In 1990, DEA agents infiltrated Ochoa’s organization, which allegedly operated from a private farm in Escuintla, near Guatemala’s Pacific Coast. In October, DEA agents allegedly watched as Ochoa and others loaded cargo onto a small plane; the agents then tracked the cargo to Tampa, where they later seized a half metric ton of cocaine, with a street value of over $40 million. Ochoa was indicted in Florida’s US. Middle District Court and the State Department requested his extradition.

In response, the Guatemalan military discharged Ochoa as well as two Army captains also implicated in the case. But that didn’t stop a Guatemalan military tribunal from later reclaiming jurisdiction and ruling to dismiss all charges for “lack of evidence.” The State Department then appealed the case all the way to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, whose presiding judge, Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, had a reputation for integrity. In March 1994 Gonzalez lived up to his reputation with an unprecedented ruling: he signed a decision declaring Ochoa’s extradition to be constitutional.

It turned out, however, that there were forces more powerful than the high court. On April 1 in Guatemala City, Gonzalez was assassinated by four unidentified gunmen. Then, on April 12, the surviving judges reversed Gonzalez’s decision. Ochoa, in Guatemala, is now free. The DEA’s sting against Ochoa was the United States’s best chance to prosecute a Guatemalan military officer. Instead, the case established a precedent: even officers under indictment are above the law.

In the increasingly isolationist post-cold-war world, it might be tempting to overlook cases such as this one. Yet there are U.S. interests at stake. Taking the war on drugs seriously means taking on Guatemala. Although in the early 1980s most U.S.-bound cocaine flowed through the Caribbean, in the 1990s the Mexican and Central American land isthmus has become the cocaine superhighway. Mexico forwards the bulk of the drug to the United States. And Guatemala serves as a warehouse for Mexico. “With hundreds of unmonitored airfields and a good network of roads leading to Mexico,” reads the State Department’s latest drug control report. “Guatemala became the Colombian cartels’ choice in Central America for cocaine transshipment.”

Now Studeman claims that the CIA must maintain contacts with Guatemalan military intelligence officers–such as Alpírez–to collect information about drug trafficking. The Clinton administration agrees; after cutting other CIA programs to Guatemala, it has allowed the CIA’s anti-drug operations there to continue. The trouble is that the CIA has been relying for information about drug trafficking on the very institution that has been producing drug trafficking suspects wanted by the DEA. At the very least, this casts doubt on the reliability of Guatemalan military intelligence. It also casts doubt on the CIA: whatever information the CIA has provided so far has yet to lead to the prosecution of a single officer.

FRANK SMYTH is a freelance journalist who has written about drug trafficking in Guatemala for The Washington Post, The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal.

The Horror: Rwanda, a history lesson

Original article can be found here.

For most of the world, Rwanda’s dark spasm of violence seemed to come out of nowhere. It didn’t. Though the bloodiness of the killing fields is unprecedented, the country, at least in its post-colonial existence, has been subject to a number of massacres: some took place more than thirty years ago; others occurred just last year.

In any analysis of Rwanda’s tortured modern history, all roads lead to Belgium, which governed the East-Central African country as a protectorate after Germany’s defeat in World War I. Until the late 1950s Belgium allied itself with the minority Tutsi, who had ruled over the rival Hutu for centuries. Since Rwanda’s independence in 1962, Belgian officials claim to have pursued a policy of neutrality; Rwanda’s Hutu leadership disagrees. They accuse Belgium of playing a role in the April death of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, which sparked the current fighting. Hutu-controlled Radio des Milles Collines in Kigali has gone so far as to claim that Belgian troops shot down the president’s plane. According to The Washington Post, Belgian peacekeepers were in such danger of attack that they stripped their uniforms of Belgium’s flag-patch and “traveled in undershirts so they could be mistaken for French.”

For Belgium, Rwanda has never been much of a prize. “In the darkest days of World War I,” Time magazine reported in 1959, “about the only consolation that fell to the Belgians was the capture in Africa of two small and scenically beautiful German territories”: Rwanda and Burundi. Belgium ruled “Rwanda and Burundi through a master tribe of willowy African giants named the Watutsis. The Watutsis had been for four centuries the lords of the Land of the Mountains of the Moon, and there seemed little reason why they should not continue to be so.”

Nomadic pastoralists, the Tutsi did not come in a sudden invasion to the area southwest of Lake Victoria, but slowly in search of land to graze cattle on. The Hutu were already there farming the same land. By the sixteenth century the Tutsi monarchy was established. The Mwami king was said to be the eye of God: his children were born in the heavens but, by accident, had fallen to earth. The king’s symbol of divine power was the kalinga, or sacred drum, upon which the genitals of vanquished enemies were hung. The Tutsi dynasty lasted eighteen generations. “They are proud, sophisticated and not particularly energetic. Several times we saw Watutsi lords sitting on bicycles and being pushed by their Vassals,” wrote historian John Gunther in 1953. “‘They value women highly, almost as highly as cattle and live on milk and peas.”

Although Tutsi and Hutu have distinct origins as people, with time they came to speak the same language, Kinyarwanda. They also evolved into different classes of the same society. According to historian Alison Des Forges, the Hutu and Tutsi were not so much “tribes or even ethnic groups [but] … amorphous categories based on occupation: Hutu were cultivators and Tutsi, pastoralists.” The distinction had much to do with status: a rich Hutu who owned cattle could become a recognized Tutsi, while a Tutsi who lost cattle could wind up being labeled Hutu. But it also had to do with physical appearance: unlike Hutu, Tutsi tend to be tall, with high cheekbones and sharp facial features. “They are not Negroes even though they may be jet black,” wrote Gunther. “In any case, tallness is the symbol of racial exclusiveness and pure blood.”

In governing the Rwanda protectorate, Belgium’s policy was explicitly racist. Early in its mandate, Belgium declared: “The government should endeavor to maintain and consolidate traditional cadres composed of the Tutsi ruling class, because of its important qualities, its undeniable intellectual superiority and its ruling potential.” Belgium instituted apartheid-like identity cards, which marked the bearer as Tutsi, Hutu, or twa (pygmy). And Belgium educated only male Tutsi.

Schooling for Hutus was generally undertaken by private Catholic missions. Eventually, “the Hutus began to counter Tutsi notions of superiority with a Christian-based liberation movement. This trend was given further impetus by the growing African demand for independence from Europe. By 1957 the Hutu began to organize politically. Fearful. Rwanda’s Tutsi rulers wanted Belgium to give them autonomy quickly, before they lost control.

The Tutsi were too late. In 1959 the Hutu rose up in rebellion. Time reported: “Though the Muhutus left the Watutsi women and children alone, they showed no mercy to the males: those they did not kill they maimed by chopping off their feet. They put banana plantations to the torch, set dozens of villages afire, left some helpless old people to burn to death in their own huts.”

From then until 1964, it only got worse. The philosopher Bertrand Russell described the Hutu rebellion as “the most horrible and systematic massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.” According to Des Forges, as many as 20,006 Tutsis perished. An estimated 150,000 Tutsi exiles — known as Banyarwanda — fled to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire. Most went to Uganda, where they suffered under the tyranny of Milton Obote and Idi Amin.

This repression eventually drove some Banyarwanda to join a guerrilla movement started in 1981 by Yoweri Museveni, a former defense minister under Obote. At least 2,000 Banyarwanda, including a tall Rwandan by the name of Paul Kagame, fought with him. After five years of fighting, Museveni and his men took power. Over time at least 2,000 more Banyarwanda joined Uganda’s army. In October 1990 these Banyarwanda, with Museveni’s silent blessing, declared themselves members of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and, with Ugandan weapons, invaded Rwanda. (Uganda insists the weapons were stolen.) At the time of the invasion Kagame was Uganda’s military intelligence chief, he now commands the RPF.

Until the RPF invaded in 1990, Belgium had been Rwanda’s main provider of military assistance and training. But Belgium is unique among former colonial states in that its laws now prohibit it from providing lethal aid to a country at war. After Rwanda’s war started Belgium continued to provide boots, uniforms and training, but no arms. Consequently, President Habyarimana turned to France, which had signed military cooperation pacts with most of Africa’s twenty-one Francophone regimes. (Because Rwanda is an ex-Belgian protectorate, French is an official language along with Kinyarwanda.) Spurred on by the fact that the RPF was English-speaking and backed by English-speaking Uganda, France rushed in weapons, munitions, paratroopers and advisers to keep Rwanda’s government from falling.

While France helped the predominately Hutu Rwandan army repel the 1990 invasion. Rwanda’s hard-line Hutu leaders responded by overseeing the killing of Tutsi civilians. Although fighting was limited to northern Rwanda, soldiers staged a battle in Kigali and used it as a pretext to arrest up to 8,000 people, mostly Tutsi. There were beatings, rapes and murders. Rwandan intelligence distributed Kalashnikovs to municipal authorities in selected villages. They gathered with ruling party militants, most of whom carried staves, clubs or machetes. Sometimes holding cardboard placards of Habyarimana’s portrait above their heads, they went field-to-field in search of Tutsi, killing thousands.

Of course, the RPF wasn’t innocent. An international human rights commission report found them responsible for abuses, including executions of up to several hundred Hutu civilians and military prisoners. In response, supposedly pro-Tutsi Belgium withdrew its Ambassador, Johan Swinnen for two weeks in March 1993. “When I returned we put pressure on [all sides] to react to the report,” he said last June in Kigali, “because the future of the country … depends on it.”

At the same time, however, France continued to defend the Hutu regime. “Civilians were killed as in any war,” said Col. Bernard Cussac. France’s ranking military commander in Kigali. Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud was more diplomatic. “There are violations by the Rwandan army,” he said. “[But] more because of a lack of control by, the government rather than the will of the government.” But Belgian officials said that the French were undermining collective diplomatic efforts to influence the regime. “If they would only use their military presence as a lever.” said one. “I would like to see them take a more outspoken policy on democracy and human rights.” France never did

Nevertheless, two months later, in August 1993, President Habyarimana and RPF Commander Kagame signed an agreement to end the war. Habyarimana had already begun to share power with Hutu leaders outside his party. Until then he had run the country with a small group of men, most of whom were related to either him or his wife. Known as the Akazu or “Little House” (as in: the house that surrounded the president), these men controlled the elite Presidential Guard and Radio des Milles Collines. When Habyarimana let opposition members into his Cabinet in 1992, the Little House countered by forming militias called Interahamwe, or “Those Who Attack Together” and Impuzamugambi, or “Those Who Have the Same Goal.”

Soon after, several Hutu opposition leaders were assassinated and terrorist attacks became common. Bombs exploded in public markets, land mines were placed on roads away from fighting. Though no group ever claimed responsibility, all non-French Western diplomats in Kigali suspected the Little House. “We told them it is in your interest to respect human rights,” said one Belgian diplomat, “and if you don’t, we will not be silent.”

France and Radio des Milles Collines, however, blamed the RPF. Col. Cussac said his staff had traced the serial numbers of land mines used in attacks to Belgium, which had sold them to Libya, which in turn had sold them to the RPF. Cussac said Belgium could verify these facts. Belgian officials in Kigali declined comment, referring the query to the Belgian Foreign Ministry in Brussels. There, its spokesman, Ghislain D’Hoop, said that Belgium had sold no land mines to Libya in decades.

In Rwanda now, Belgium and France are even more at odds. Belgium’s foreign minister, William Claes, says Habyarimana was killed by Hutu extremists upset at his liberalizations. The rocket that struck his plane came from the Kanombe army base just east of the Kigali airport; further east are the Presidential Guard headquarters. In April, Paris received two of the “extremists,” Brussels denied them visas.

After the president’s plane went down, one of the first things Hutu Presidential Guard soldiers did was come looking for Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, also a Hutu. Hours later, Uwilingiyimana and three of the peacekeepers were found three blocks away, shot dead. A few hours later, at the Kanombe army base, a Canadian general found the remaining seven peacekeepers. They had been hacked to death by machete.

Belgians are upset at their loss of men in Rwanda, and many blame France. They have a point. In arming the Hutu government, France pursued its own linguistic vision while ignoring Rwanda’s history; along with Tutsi and Hutu victims, Belgium paid the price. “Is there tension now;” repeated Brig. Gen. Andre Desmet by telephone from the Belgian Embassy in Washington. “I will be very cautious in the answer.” He paused. ‘There are maybe different approaches.”

Frank Smyth is the author of Arming Rwanda, a Human Rights Watch/Arms Project report.

Box of Pain

What does the Grateful Dead, America’s most popular live musical act, a band whose devoted following helped it sell 1.8 million concert tickets and gross $47 million last year, have to do with mandatory minimums? Quite a bit.

Five years ago, no more than 100 Deadheads were believed to have been in jail. But today, up to 2,000 fans are in state or federal prisons, serving prison sentences as long as half, equal to or even double their age. Why? They are victims of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which routinely give small-time drug offenders — with no history of violence — longer prison terms than felons convicted of the most heinous crimes.

Take Deadhead Fred Anderson, who is serving eight years and nine months without parole. If Anderson had tried to kill a man, raped a woman, kidnapped a child, held up a liquor store or stolen $80 million or more, he would be spending less time in jail. Anderson’s crime? In 1989, as a 32-year-old college student, he sold his brother-in-law Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). Anderson’s incarceration comes at a minimum total cost of $150,000 to taxpayers. Worse, it comes at the expense of prison space that could go to violent criminals: nonviolent inmates like Anderson now comprise 21.5 percent of all federal prisoners. Unlike Anderson, however, more than two-thirds of incarcerated Deadheads are in their late teens or 20s.

Dead fans and their families have joined in the fight against mandatory minimums. Magazines that cater to Deadheads, such as Relix, with a circulation of 50,000, and Dupree’s Diamond News, its smaller rival, routinely publish letters from prisoners. Deadhead inmates produce newsletters such as U.S. Blues and Midnight Special. The Dead community, it seems, is doing all it can. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the band.

If the Grateful Dead were apolitical, its lack of involvement would come as no surprise. But it isn’t. Band members have held benefit concerts, donated album proceeds, collectively presided over single-issue press conferences and routinely granted interviews to talk about other (less controversial) political concerns, such as the environment and rain forest preservation. A few years ago, for example, co-lead guitarist Bob Weir wrote an article for The New York Times op-ed page about preserving Montana’s wilderness.

Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally declined to explain this apparent inconsistency. But it looks like the band is trying to deny its own association with drugs. The Grateful Dead were pioneers with LSD in the 60s. Band members talked (and sang) about their own drug use with “reckless frankness,” says McNally. Their hallucinogenic antics were chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In addition to being America’s longest-running and most successful band, the Dead is the most influential progenitor of psychedelic rock.

But you wouldn’t know that from what band members say now. The Grateful Dead publicly discourage illegal drug use at its concerts. Even the band’s philanthropic donations appear to be driven by the same concern. In 1992 and 1993 the Grateful Dead, through its Rex Foundation, gave $10,000 each year to the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. While that sum is not insignificant for FAMM, it is pocket change for the Rex Foundation, which last year gave away nearly $1 million. Rex gives standard grants of $10,000 to dozens of ecological and social causes. Although the band finally made a statement about mandatory minimums at its inauguration to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January, it has nonetheless decided not to make a more significant contribution to this cause — the only one that directly affects its followers.

What the Grateful Dead and others who inhaled have lost sight of is that the debate now has less to do with appearing to condone drug use than with fairness. Last fall, an American Bar Association poll found that 90 percent of federal judges are against mandatory sentencing laws. In February, The New York Times editorial page lambasted “the nation’s foolish sentencing policies,” adding that we should “expect more courage” from the attorney general and the administration. Many Deadheads expect more courage from the band. (Others have gone through wild intellectual contortions to explain the Dead’s noninvolvement. Dupree’s has received letters claiming that band members “are being forced, with the threat of their own incarceration, to keep touring, so the Feds can keep filling their bust quotas.”)

Having contributed to the popularity of psychedelics, the Grateful Dead has the money to make a difference. It also has the influence. No band has a more devoted following among Washington’s elite: John Kerry and Al Gore, among others, go to Dead shows; president-elect Bill Clinton invited the group to perform at his inauguration. How long will it be before the Grateful Dead puts its money where its music is?