Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Militant Ambush

Excerpt from PIRATES (Cutting Edge Press, London) by Greg Cummings

'Terrorism has no religion'

Khadija’s mind was not on her driving. The coastal route to Bosaso was less a road than a series of tracks over a broad swathe of semi-desert plain, where she rarely encountered another vehicle. The sun was low in a cloudless azure sky that stretched from the sea to the Karkaar mountains, their shadows tumbling into each other like colossal dominoes. That’s where al-Shabaab militants had their base. The authorities knew where they were, and regularly sent soldiers to raid their hideout in Galaga. Yet somehow they kept their foothold in Puntland. “They will not take my son,” she cried, gripping the steering wheel of her Land Cruiser. 

Was anybody listening to the voices of Somali women? Like Khadija, most of them had endured intolerable tragedy in the name of jihad, orphans and widows who’d lost parents, siblings, husbands and children. The restrictions on women, derived from archaic tradition, demanded that they somehow endure it all in silence. Any Somali woman who stood up to her man was seen as wild and deviant.

But things were changing now. She was surprised to find a consensus among her “old girls” from Eastleigh Academy when she caught up with them on Twitter and Facebook. None was afraid to speak out any more. 

“Somali women have been disturbingly silent for too long,” posted one. “It's time to stop the unbridled atrocities being perpetrated by our brothers in the name of Islam.”

“If you are brave, and love Somalia,” another tweeted, “form a united front against al-Shabaab, which is bent on destroying our culture and faith.” 

“I don’t know of a single Somali woman undeserving of praise, nor one who doesn’t think she had a strong mother.” 

“Somali women must be strong, in order to stay sane when our faraxs have gone insane.”

Khadija truly believed the common-sense attitude she found among Somali women could somehow be channelled towards genuine change in her country. Solidarity through social networks was a proven force in the world today, as ordinary people had clearly demonstrated during the Arab Spring. But Somalia lacked a recognisable government to demonstrate against, let alone a square in which to gather in protest. Change would have to come despite of that. 

She checked her iPhone to see if there were any new messages, then her Twitter account – @QueenArawello – which had so far attracted a thousand followers. She slowed down. A familiar obstruction lay ahead, a lagoon about eighty metres wide, which flowed across the road. It appeared shallow enough, but during the rainy season it was impassable, and motorists were forced to take a bumpy detour that added a half hour to the journey. She could ill afford any delays now, so she accelerated and drove straight through it, sending a plume of saline water upward like giant green butterfly wings. 

With the flat, empty landscape before her stretching from horizon to horizon, she put her pedal to the metal, and accelerated to a hundred and twenty kilometres per hour. Her rear-view mirror was vibrating so dramatically, it obscured her view and at first she didn’t notice the beat-up white pickup truck approaching from behind. She didn’t expect to find anyone else on the road. Soon it was tailgating her, swerving erratically from side to side, and blasting its horn. She tried to make out the driver but there was too much dust and grime on her trail. This had all the hallmarks of a terrorist kidnapping. She veered to the right to allow him to overtake, but he followed her, so she signalled for him to pass, but he remained on her tail. She could not shake him. 

Suddenly the pickup truck accelerated and swerved around her, and Khadija saw half a dozen armed men seated in the back, wearing military fatigues with red checkered keffiyeh wrapped around their heads. She immediately screeched to a halt, tossing a plume of sand into the air that completely enveloped her Land Cruiser. Bosaso was at least five kilometres away. With no one else in sight, she had no means of escape.

When the dust had settled she saw her car was surrounded by armed men with their faces hidden by their keffiyeh. “Get out of the vehicle!” commanded one militant, rapping on her window with the butt of his AK-47. Khadija popped the handle of her door and, using both hands, slowly eased it open, forcing the men to back away. Then she stepped out and stood beside her car, next to the “No Weapons” sticker on her door. “Where are you going?” barked the militant.

“I have urgent business in Bosaso to attend to,” said Khadija, trying to remain calm.

“Why aren’t you wearing your burka?” he shouted. 

“There is no fatwa in Puntland that requires it,” said Khadija. 

“Women should wear the burka at all times when in public!”

“Wearing the burka is not a religious practice, and, as far as I’m concerned, it is the face of jihad. I am not a soldier in your holy war.”

“You conduct yourself like a Kafir! Since when does a woman drive a car? Sharmouta!” The militant spat on the ground and then stepped closer to Khadija. “Islam forbids a woman to drive a car.”

“No, it does not,” she said, easing back. “I have been driving a car for twenty years.”

“You should stay in your house, wear the hijab and abstain from showing off your adornments to non-mahrams, with fear of Allah.”

“I don’t need you to teach me my faith.”

“Where is your husband?” he barked.

“Where is your wife?” she snapped. The militant raised his weapon and aimed it at her chest. Then a voice from the pickup truck ordered him to cease. The men retreated and climbed back into their vehicle. Khadija slumped against her car and clutched her forehead. The fear she had dared not display now ran across her like a clutch of spiders.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The truth is about to be uncovered...

Fifteen years ago Johnny Oceans disappeared off the coast of East Africa. His body was never recovered. Accident or conspiracy? Why did it take so long for the courts to declare him dead? A champion sport fisherman, keen diver, smuggler, and casino impresario, he had many friends and a few enemies. Investigating Ocean’s hidden story, Hew van Grit spent a year on two continents following the enigmatic trail of a man who led more than a double life. 

"Gawd this is awesome - what a story, and great writing!" - Jane Metcalfe, co-founder of WiReD

"It's very good! I really enjoy your writing.." - Mickey Munday, the last of the Cocaine Cowboys

"Brilliant!" - Martin Hay, owner Cutting Edge Press

"So so good." - Saffeya Shebli, publicist Cutting Edge Press

"The Johnny Oceans story is so odd, with its sudden ending.  Great mystery, but no answer.  Reads like half of a great screenplay." - Michael Backes, screenwriter, Rising Sun

"The world needs a new hero..." - Johnny Oceans

Prepare for some real shock n' awe....
We're live! 
Read the full story here.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Drug Smugglers Use High-Speed Boats to Run Cocaine, Marijuana Into Florida

From the Toledo Blade - Jul 12 1986

Special to The Blade

MIAMI - The shoreline is ablaze with hotels but three miles out in the choppy sea a Metro Dade police launch bobs darkly in the waves. The 600-horsepower engines are turned off so the crew can listen for the scram and slap of the drug boats.

Suddenly an 800-horsepower "Midnight Express" storms into view, heading for the shore. "He refused to stop - we were going 50 miles per hour side by side - pretty fast for outside" on the open sea, said Sgt. John Sander, of the Metro-Dade police.

"Finally at gunpoint he stopped - there was almost a ton of marijuana under the decks." The rough sea had kept the more powerful smuggler boat from winning the race that day. It's not always true.

"I've been out here when a boat with five outboard engines made twin circles around me, gave me the finger and went back to the Bahamas with his load," said Gregory Rogers, a US Customs patrol officer.

"That's what gets me - when I'm going flat out and you can see you're not going to catch the guy into Haulover Cut," one of the few entrances from the Atlantic into the bays where drugs are delivered to waiting vans.

Sergeant Sand and Officer Rogers are on the front line of the USA's war against drugs. South Florida is just an hour by speedboat from the Bahamas, or even closer to an air drop in international waters.

This is the main importing centre for the estimated $90 billion to $110 billion-a-year cocaine trade, according to Denis Fagan, of customs.

The waters off Miami have become a battle zone in a war that drug smugglers are clearly winning: About 150 tons of cocaine are expected to enter the United States in 1986, up from 85 tons in 1984, according to a February report by the U.S. House Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control.

Gregory Jansen, in charge of US Customs in Fort Lauderdale, said 80-90 per cent of the cocaine used to come in by plane, but now half the cocaine and 90 per cent of the marijuana comes in by boat.

Customs Agents are not sure if better offshore radar or bigger loads led smugglers to revert to the water route. But, from the mangrove thickets of the Keys to the posh canals of the Gold Coast, drug runners attack the coastline with alarming success.

"Every night at 9 p.m., if you're out at Bimini you can see the boats take off for Miami - it's like a chariot race - six powerful boats at full throttle and only one or two have the drugs," said a sailboat captain at the Miami Boat Show last month. "The others are decoys. Please don't use my name. We've all been offered $200,000 for a night's work driving those boats."

Drug smugglers have vast amounts of cash at stake - a 2,000-pound shipment of cocaine is worth $40 million wholesale. They can spend $200,000 for the top of the line - an 1150 horsepower Fountain powerboat with $20,000 in radar and night vision binoculars - and beat the boat to death on just one run. If it succeeds, they can buy 10 more boats and still show vast profits.

Wellcraft Scarab

The police and customs men who fight the smugglers know they're outgunned. But they keep on trying to staunch the flow of drugs.

Shoving the throttle forward on his 32-foot Wellcraft Scarab, the twin 235 horsepower engines lifted the bow and Gregory Rogers raced through the Cut on a recent patrol.

In jeans and a sweatshirt, with his machine gun and blue light hidden, he cruised past marinas where drug boats had been seized.

"Once I chased a guy in a 900-horsepower boat through the Cut and he jumped off," he recalled. "He left the boat going full throttle up the inland waterway. We had to pull alongside and board it."

As Officer Rogers cruised down the 135th street canal he pointed out where a drug boat had jumped a sea wall at high speed, landing 30 feet up on someone's lawn with 900 pounds of cocaine - worth $16.2 million wholesale in Miami.

Just ahead, up on the cement dock of a marina, he pointed out the three famous aqua and blue Wellcraft Scarabs used in the "Miami Vice" television show. "In reality you wouldn't want to have a boat painted like that - how long do you think it'd be before they recognise that?"

Mr. Rogers' boat has no name or customs identification. But when he spots a suspicious boat, he mounts a U.S. Customs sign and a blinking blue light, dons his customs jacket, and whips out a pistol and a machine gun in about 10 seconds.

"You want a low-key boat," he said. But, he admitted "the 'Miami Vice' boats are pretty good. Metro [Dade County] boats are not so good. And you should see the crap the real Miami Vice has."

At a recent Miami boat show, sister boats to the Miami Vice Scarabs were being sold at $115,000 apiece by salesman Patrick Lee. "We do a lot of cash deals," he admitted. "I gets lots of small bills - 10s and 20s that smell funny. It's not my job to question where the money comes from or what they want to do with the boats."

To get around the federal requirement that all cash transactions over $10,000 be reported, buyers pay in $9,900 instalments, according to Mr. Lee. "Come on - this is Miami," he said.

Elsewhere at the show customers checked out the electronics that have turned smuggling into a high-tech adventure in the 1980s.
Drug smuggling routes in 1978

Back in the 1800s the Federal Government sent the navy to Key West to control the "Wreckers" - islanders who moved warning lights to lure ships into reefs for the salvage. Later Ernest Hemingway would write of the captains who smuggled rum and illegal immigrants from Cuba into the United States.

But these days anyone with $8,000 goes to Mitch Shulman at N & G Electronics and buys infra-red projectors, starlight telescopes for night vision, fuzz busters to detect police radar, and 72-mile maine radar to tell if they are being chased.

"There's no doubt that the customers of these sport boats and electronics are often using them for drugs," he said. "It's an old story: profits. Whatever the coast guard does, someone does better."

Customs, on Feb. 11, unveiled a new high-tech radar command centre in Miami - a sort of war room for the drug fight.

Using radar images from U.S. Air Force radar balloons tethered high above the smuggling corridors, and 40 high-speed boats being delivered this month, customs hopes to outfox the smugglers.

Already a suspicious blip that had a rendezvous with another blip and then blitzed toward the coast was stopped with cocaine.

Officer Rogers insists that plain police work and common sense is at least as important as the high technology/performance boats and electronics.

Whipping past a boat gassing up near Government Cut in the shadow of the elephantine, white cruise ships, he says "there's a boat that can go international - let's see what it looks like."

When he sees fishing lines and rough clothing as well as a valid number on the bow, he is satisfied.

"We get them coming in all the time with five huge engines off the back, no fishing gear, and the pilot is a Mariel [Cuba] refugee who doesn't speak English but is wearing Gucci shoes and gold chains," Mr. Rogers says. "The boats smell of [bleach] because they've just unloaded down at the Keys and have cleaned them out."

Florida laws allow lawyers who defend drug suspects to see the files of arresting officers, complained Officer Sander. This led the smugglers to understand that the smell of drugs was justification for a thorough search. So they began using smelly cleaning fluids to cover the smell.

In addition, many smugglers are using hidden compartments, so customs must chop the boats open with axes to search. Officer Rogers has completed a special course on the detection of those compartments and teaches other officials what to look for.

It's still a cat-and-mouse game out on the sea.

Smugglers use smaller spotter boats to lie at the entrance to the harbours and radio when the coast is clear.

Officer Rogers says he can radio for a helicopter if he can't catch a smuggler, but ultimately it takes another boat to make the arrest.

"It's always better to let the smuggler go than sacrifice a man's life" trying to keep up in rough seas at high speed, he said.

Ben Barber is a journalist in Miami.

Midnight Express Interceptor

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cocaine Cash Cow

American Desperado: My Life--From Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government AssetAmerican Desperado: My Life--From Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset by Jon Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Couldn't put it down. Carried the book around like a weapon for a week. It awoke something in me, as only a handful of other books have done.

Jon Roberts lays all his cards on the table, tells the brutal truth about a lifetime of violent crime, an unrepentant "wise wiseguy" who always learned from his mistakes and lived by two rules: crime does in fact pay and evil is more powerful than good. Still Even Wright, who co-authored the book, manages to show us a more vulnerable person than the one Roberts portrays. It wasn't just to avoid the heat after he murdered his business partner that he abandoned organised crime in New York City and moved to Miami in the mid-70s. He had aspirations beyond the Mob, and he wanted to have fun in the sun. His arrival in South Florida coincided with a rising tsunami of Columbian cocaine that was about to engulf the US. Roberts made sure he rode the crest of the wave, earning hundreds of millions of dollars as a smuggler until his arrest.

Wright skilfully organises Robert's vivid recollections into a gripping narrative, giving full flow to his rapid wit and fast-flowing streams of consciousness. Robert's memory is like a newsreal, countless detailed observations of crime scenes in which he was usually the perpetrator. Wright seeks to corroborate stories he hears from Roberts, especially his more audacious and savage claims. Chillingly, he finds evidence to back most of them up.

American Desperado is a well-researched and touching profile of one of the most successful criminals who ever lived, a fascinating insight into the mind and the heart of a man you will not disagree is totally beyond redemption.

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