Saturday 12 June 2010

"War on drugs" - more victims

Another 40 deaths in Mexico’s “war on drugs”. (see my blog of June 9) More than 30 gunmen arrived in the northern city of Chihuahua in six trucks. They attacked a drug rehabilitation centre, shooting staff and patients, then fled.

Nineteen people died and four were wounded. It’s not the first time a rehabilitation centre has been targeted. Drugs traffickers complain that the clinics harbour people from rival gangs.

Further south, another 20 people were killed in Ciudad Madero on the Gulf of Mexico in a series of gun battles. An alleged leader of one of the region’s main gangs had been arrested in Monterrey. In retaliation, gunmen hijacked cars, set up roadblocks and even attacked police stations.

President Calderon said the attacks only reinforced his determination to prosecute the “war”.

Friday 11 June 2010

Held to account for Srebrenica

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has just handed out its toughest ever sentences. Two security chiefs in the Bosnian Serb army, Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara, have both been convicted for committing genocide in the Srebrenica massacre, and sent to prison for life. Five other defendants were gaoled for between five and 35 years.

In April 1993, the UN declared Srebrenica a safe haven, but it was protected only by a small unit of troops. In July 1995, the Bosnian Serb army took the town. They bussed out all the women, and the men aged under 16 or over 65. The remaining men – nearly 8,400 of them - they massacred.

The Srebrenica massacre was the worst in Europe since World War Two. The court said that Popovic and Beara were acting under orders from General Ratko Mladic, who is wanted for trial but still at large.

The judgement also declared the massacre was part of "a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population" begun on the orders of Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, who is now on trial before the tribunal at The Hague. See also my blogs of 16 October, 2009 and May 11, 2010.

Thursday 10 June 2010

"War on drugs" - Mexico

A staggering 23,000 people have been killed in the last three and a half years in Mexico’s “war on drugs.” Poor Mexico is right next door to the biggest drugs market in the world, the United States.

The “war” was declared by President Felipe Calderon when he came to power. He has bussed troops and police into cities such as Juarez, which stands on the main smuggling route, in an attempt to halt the traffic into the US. In spite of all those security forces, more than 1,000 people have been killed in the city in drugs-related violence this year, and the mayor has to drive around in a heavily armoured vehicle.

Most of those killed are aged between 14 and 24, but while Mexico sees its future bleeding away, the drugs cartels just find other paths for their product. Unemployment is high, and the gangs have no difficulty in recruiting killers for £30 a week.

As I wrote in my blog of May 28, perhaps the most depressing thing about the “war on drugs” is how little evidence there is of an intelligent debate about whether the policy makes sense.

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Disaster convictions - Bhopal etc

The eight Indians convicted for their part in the Bhopal disaster have all been sentenced to two years in prison, though one will not serve his time as he died during the 25 years the victims waited for justice. Campaigners such as Amnesty International and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal have condemned the sentences as completely inadequate.

This feeling is not unusual. A fire in a supermarket in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion in 2004 killed 432 people, wiping out many whole families. It was alleged that fire exits had been locked, and the two owners and a security guard were put on trial.

In 2006, they were all sentenced to five years in prison, but families of the victims were enraged, and rioted. Two years later, the Supreme Court declared the sentences for the owners too lenient and increased them to ten and twelve years, but hundreds still protested.

After the Egyptian ferry, the al-Salam Boccaccio 98 , sank following a fire on board with the loss of more than 1,000 lives in 2006, an official inquiry concluded that she did not have enough lifeboats and that fire-fighting equipment had been inadequate. The owner and two other people were convicted, but all of them had left the country before the trial. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday 7 June 2010

Bhopal convictions

More than 25 years after the Bhopal disaster, eight people have been convicted for causing “death by negligence”. They include former senior officials of the Union Carbide company which owned the plant, including Keshub Mahindra, who was chairman of its Indian arm. The crime carries a maximum prison sentence of two years.

Campaigners have complained that the verdict is too little, too late, and have said it means the disaster has been treated “like a traffic accident.” Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s chairman at the time of the accident, still notionally faces charges, and is officially regarded by the Indian courts as an “absconder.”

Forty tons of highly poisonous gas escaped from the plant. Union Carbide admitted that about 3,800 people died in the immediate aftermath. Campaigners claim that up to 20,000 more have perished since from the effects of the gas, with another 120,000 still suffering ill effects.

This would make it the deadliest industrial accident in history, though some environmentalists claim that Chernobyl may eventually outstrip it with deaths from cancer caused by its radiation eventually reaching 200,000. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World. (See also my blogs of 1st Aug 2009 and 17th March 2010)

Saturday 5 June 2010

Bangladesh's worst fire

The fire that swept through a densely populated area of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, is the worst to have hit the country since it became independent in 1971. At least 120 people have been killed in the ancient buildings and narrow alleys of the Kayettuli district.

It is believed that an electrical transformer exploded after heavy rain, and that the fire was then fuelled by chemicals stored in illicit improvised factories in the area. Flames were said to have leapt six storeys high.

The authorities say that many buildings did not have proper fire escapes, that fire engines could not get down the narrow streets and that there were no hydrants for firemen to get water to fight the flames. Some victims were taken to hospital in rickshaws by local people.

Only on Tuesday, a five storey building collapsed in Dhaka, killing at least 25 people as it crashed down on slums below. The structure had been built on swampy ground, and police say it had then been modified without approval from the authorities.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Britain - lone gun killers

On August 20, 1987, I was in Venezuela. I picked up a copy of USA Today and was greeted by a headline that stunned me:“Gunman kills 16 in quiet English town.” I'd never heard of anything like this in Britain. Michael Ryan, a 27 year old unemployed labourer, had run amuck in Hungerford, Berkshire armed with three guns, shooting dead his mother and 15 other people before killing himself.

Then, nine years later, another loner - unemployed former shopkeeper, Thomas Hamilton, aged 43, marched into a school in Dunblane, Scotland, and shot dead 16 children and a teacher before turning one of his two revolvers on himself. The tennis star Andy Murray was a pupil in the school at the time.

Yesterday, it was the turn of the Lake District. A 52 year old taxi driver, Derrick Bird, left his home in the village of Rowrah, and began by shooting dead his twin brother and the family’s solicitor. There are reports of a dispute over a will.

Then Bird travelled seven miles to Whitehaven and killed a fellow taxi driver. His other nine victims appear to have been chosen at random. After murdering them, he shot himself. People are usually most afraid of crime in our great cities. Well, Hungerford has a population of fewer than 6,000; Dunblane just less than 8,000, and Rowrah a few hundred (Whitehaven is about 25,000). (See also my blogs of March 12 and April 4, 2009)

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Guatemala storms

At least 150 people have been killed – most of them in Guatemala - because of heavy rain brought by Tropical Storm Agatha. More than 3 feet fell on parts of the country causing rivers to burst their banks, and unleashing landslides. In the capital, Guatemala City, a giant sinkhole opened up and swallowed buildings.

The rescue effort has been hampered by the destruction of roads and bridges, and further rain is forecast. The disaster comes just days after more than 1,500 Guatemalans had to flee their homes because of the eruption of Mount Pacaya.

In 2005, Hurricane Stan killed more than 1,500 people in the country. Again, it was not the winds, but the floods and mudslides brought by torrential rain that did the damage.

Hurricane Mitch, the deadliest on the Atlantic in two centuries, caused more than 380 deaths in Guatemala in 1998, though the storm did its deadliest work in Honduras, where perhaps 14,000 were killed, and Nicaragua where the death toll was approaching 4,000.