Saturday, April 30, 2005

EU Enlargement=Less Crime

The FAZ reports on regions of Germany along the borders with Poland and the Czech Republic. Apparently, despite predictions of a crime wave, it actually fell by 10%.

Adventures in Globalisation

According to IT Week's pet blogger, it's now possible to go to India as a backpacker and work in a call centre handling calls from the UK. For Indian wages, naturally. I'm not sure whether to be amused at the stupidity of literally paying to be exploited, or revolted by the hypocrisy.

One Year Ago in Iraq

It's been reported this week that the rate of violence in Iraq is now down to what it was in April, 2004, by no less an authority than General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I thought I'd look up the Ranter for that month and check what was going on.

First we had this "The Black Weekend and the New War", dealing with the tactics of the Shia uprising and especially its seizure of the symbols of authority. I pointed out that the rising meant the loss of effective authority in a large area of Iraq, and that much of the effort to raise police and paramilitary forces there would benefit the enemy. I suggested that the British army would be called on to for reinforcement, which eventually happened in October. More detail on the 1st Shia Rising was here.

And, of course, there was the lynching of four security guards and the first battle of Fallujah, in which forty people died when a mosque was bombed. At the same time, the shrine city of Najaf was a battlefield and we drove tanks across the sacred cemeteries of Shiism, while helicopters were shot down in droves and the US Marines had to disarm the police in Kut because they were all rebels.
"Although al-Sadr's militia have apparently permitted Iraqi police in Najaf to return to their police stations, one has to wonder how far that development just represents a legitimisation of Shia street muscle - if the cops are the rebels, it makes sense to put them back in charge"
Well, we certainly did that: the SCIRI now holds the Ministry of the Interior.

For the first time in Iraq, there were hostage-takings. Coalition security control collapsed, with the roads too dangerous to use, bridges were being blown ahead and behind of convoys by men in police uniform,until most troop movement anywhere had to go through Baghdad, and anyone on the roads would be considered anti-coalition forces. Despite PsyOps teams broadcasting taunts into Najaf ("You shoot like a goat herder!"), we still needed to ship in more tanks urgently.

The slick staffers of the Green Zone were reduced to half rations and had to eat compo rations because the MSRs were shut. Ahmed Chalabi was raided by the CIA in an effort to recover the secret police files, and Lord Browne of BP said "Thank" to the prospect of prospecting for oil in Iraq.

To cap the lot, we were caught indulging in torture and rape. And the CPA spokesman Dan Senor told the world we were "listening to the silent majority".

Against this background of brutal, criminal scuzz, it ought to be no surprise that convicted fraudster, triple agent, thief and liar Ahmed Chalabi has just been named "Temporary" Minister of Oil. Famously, there's nothing as permanent as the temporary. It should also amuse that Iraq's new government includes temporary ministers of Defence, Oil, Electricity, Industry and Human Rights. To put it another way, all the ministries that have any meaning remain temporary.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


The US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control has at last added a whole wedge of Viktor Bout's companies to its asset blacklist. Not only that, but the key management including his brother Sergei, Richard Chichakli, Sergei Denissenko and Valery Naydo are on there too. It's not as comprehensive as I might have liked, but the core group is there: Air Cess, Air Bas, Centrafricain, San Air, Santa Cruz, Transavia, Irbis and Moldtransavia are in the list, as are the key holding companies CET Aviation and Southbound Ltd. There are also a few others I wasn't aware of (Air Zory, Business Air) and a couple I was suspicious but uncertain of (Gambia New Millenium).

As a bonus, a nine-pack of companies using Richard's address were zapped, as were a bunch of shellcos I'd never heard of in Gibraltar, Bulgaria and Delaware. Though imperfect, it's action, and would be worth a pint if I hadn't missed out through stumping the streets for Charles Kennedy. In the OFAC press release, there's a nice police-flick organisation chart I'll post here when I find a moment other than now.

Now, can I get away with putting a little Antonov 12 silhouette on the side of my computer for each company?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Terrorism newspack leaked

Via BoingBoing, across the wires the electric message comes that some random geek surfing Usenet has discovered what appears to be a 30 minute news bulletin on a major terrorist assault on the US, with plague, chemicals and crashing jets. All the stuff Mahmoud Abu Rideh would be getting up to, if he wasn't confined to his house during the hours of darkness only.

Reading the description, it seems that the video (which BitTorrent users can obtain here) was prepared as part of the TOPOFF3 (in the US) or ATLANTIC BLUE (in the UK) joint antiterrorist exercise carried out a few weeks ago. The scenario, at any rate, is identical.

This reminded me of the spectacular media fart committed a few years back by Sky News when they falsely reported the death of a Royal (I forget which). As I recall, an Australian working in the Osterley Park spaceship that holds Sky's network centre accidentally encountered a practice run of the prepared broadcast and immediately called home. Either they, or the person they spoke to, then contacted an Aussie radio station, which ran with the story. The thing then went non-linear and spread like wildfire across the world media, until the rebuttals got it.

Strangely, it was difficult to trace the story on the net, until I found a reffo on the Guardian's website. It was the Queen Mother, and it occurred in August, 1993: just before the web, really.


Now, I know I've been seriously remiss here, but I hope this will satisfy both Chickyog and also Yorkshiresoul, who have both seen fit to demand that I answer five questions about books.

You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

Well, I was tempted to say John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, but that is far too pompous and over close to the Ranter's stereotype. Or alternatively something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which would have been purposelessly provocative. I'm going for Shakespeare, and in particular Richard II - a fantastic, subtle lesson about politics, power and integrity, and not a bad thriller as well, even if the edition we had at school footnoted Act V as follows: "The badness of some passages has led certain scholars to suggest this was added by some other author".

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?


The last book you bought is: Hunter Thompson, Kingdom of Fear. His last book and possibly worst, a shaggy and disjointed ramble of a memoir that now reads like a suicide note.

The last book you read: Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles. I enjoyed it less that I thought I might - it felt strangely like something a gifted trickster might write and pass off as Dylan's work. Which itself is slightly Dylanish..

Five books you would take to a desert island.

Ernest Hemingway, The First Forty-Nine Stories. Economic, tense, and humming with wonder at the world. Unlike his novels, in which his bullshit filter failed about 1941, the short stuff always remained as clear as metal.

J.G. Ballard, Complete Short Stories. Shorts again! This bricklike tome races through an unique world of ideas from 1962 to the present. Ballard's novels, again, although they can be brilliant, can also drag - the ever-present danger of the novel of ideas is that there isn't enough plot to propel the thing along. (A bit like the difference between a hobby website and a blog.) I can't imagine taking The Day of Creation to a desert island, for example, and anyway it's too weird to reread. I can't see why I'd want to read Crash on a desert island, or any of the other Ballardian hard stuff - it's entirely part of a crowded world...

But I will also take The Kindness of Women, the other half of his semiautobiography and ten times better than Empire of the Sun, which is very much the Ballard that exam boards like. Presumably the annual school sales keep him in Scotch.

I think I'll want science, so I'm going to cheat and ask for the complete works of Richard Feynman.

And finally, another cheat - Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour Trilogy, about the struggle for integrity, the effort of being a decent person, and also extremely funny. Oh yeah, and Penguins used to publish it as one volume.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

Charlie, because he's a real live writer.

Laura Rozen, out of curiousity.

Georg of Ostracised from Österreich, because this has to break out of the Anglosphere.

Soizick says:

1: Dylan Thomas; Portrait of the Artist as a young Dog
2: No
3: Sigmund Freud; L'homme Moise et la religion monothéiste
4: Sigmund Freud; The joke and its relation to the Ucs
5: J.Stiglitz; The roaring nineties
6: F. Kafka; The Castle
F.Kafka: Diary
M.Proust: A la Recherche du Temps perdu
Sophocles; Tragedies
W.G.Sebald; The rings of Saturn

And When It All Came Crashing Down...

...I became withdrawn. The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keepin' on, like a bird that flew.

Well, that's enough Bob Dylan. The original advice issued by Lord Goldsmith on the legality or otherwise of an invasion of Iraq, the one issued before the infamous "page of A4", the one Blair has struggled with all the mandarinate's considerable resources of evasion and secrecy to suppress, the one whose very existence was denied by the head of the civil service to's been leaked to the Daily Mail. Go and read it, before they lock it in the subscription ghetto.

Now, I bet you never thought you'd see a link to the Daily Hell on this blog. But this is a hella hella scoop, frankly one that puts anything the lionised Trevor Kavanagh has ever done in the shade.

Incredibly, in a matter of days, the prime minister has been caught lying again about Iraq and also has been shown on national television admitting that he did disclose Dr. David Kelly's name to the press. But, apparently, he just intends to keep on stumping like nothing had happened. After all the inquiries and investigations and demonstrations, he's still there. It must be difficult to realise, to internalise a real shock like this; hence the Dylan at the top of the post.

There are others, too. Remember this? And what, indeed, about the head of the civil service? He told a parliamentary select committee that there was no full legal advice issued prior to the one-page summary. He lied. This should be a resigning matter, but don't hold your breath.

IXIS-CIB: Oil going over $300...

Al-Jaz has got hold of a confidential forecast by some French investment bankers that suggests the oil price may reach $380 a barrel by 2015. Now, there seems to be something of a competition among bankers at the moment to see who can do the most terrifying Oil Price Deathwatch, what with the Goldman Sachs boys predicting a "super-spike" above $100. But perhaps it's good news that the cash people are suddenly aware of The Issues. (By the way, that price does include 2.5% inflation annually, so it's not quite as scary as it looks.)

A brief point: you hear a lot of people on the net who say that everything is going to be all right because "the market will adjust". Indeed it will. But all the things flobbering lefties advise (public transport, local production, taxes on aviation fuel, smaller cars) are going to happen too - because they are the market adjustment to $100+ oil prices. If something gets too expensive you use less of it (except for a couple of bizarre lab flowers known as Giffen goods).

Saturday, April 23, 2005

More Greek/Turkish childishness

Why can't they just play nicely? A maritime incident has occurred in the Aegean, where Greek and Turkish coastguard vessels confronted each other after a Greek fishing boat allegedly infringed Turkish territorial waters. At the same time, a Turkish general announced that certain confidence building measures might be suspended after a Turkish flag was defaced. Bizarrely, the flag incident took place at the Greek Military Academy, whilst Greek and Turkish delegations were discussing an agreement on the prevention of aerial incidents. According to the report, the flag was left in a room used by the Turks: so whodunnit?

The aerial incidents hotline doesn't seem to help very much: yesterday, there were 22 airspace violations involving as many as 34 Turkish aircraft. It isn't clear from the source whether this is a count of the aircraft involved or the number of sorties, but 34 sorties in a day on one sector is quite an effort anyway. This has been going on for some time, as well.

Grow up.

Frigates to Taiwan: a development!

Ye may recall my obituary on French crook Alfred Sirven, the former World's Most Wanted Man and kingpin of the Elf-Aquitaine scandals. There's an interesting report (French) in Le Figaro on a new development in one of the scandal's many wings. Renaud van Ruymbeke, the judge who is still investigating the "frigates affair" section of the case, has been questioning the Director General of Thales, the French weapons and electronics conglomerate and successor to the frigates' manufacturer, over the point of who is going to pay back the money.

The original kickback was paid with Elf funds, but it seems that rather in the same way as the hospitality given by BAE to various Saudis was booked to the final contract price, the cost was then recovered by charging it to the Taiwanese taxpayer as part of the bill for the accursed ships. Unsurprisingly, the current Taiwanese government is not happy about this and has demanded a refund from Thales of the $600 million bribe.

(Pause to gasp at the sheer magnitude of the bung.)

Article 18 of the contract between the French and Taiwanese governments, Thomson-CSF and the DCN explicitly states that no intermediaries could be paid without rendering the deal void. Unsurprisingly, when Taiwan invoked an arbitration clause, the Swiss courts gave them best. It seems that ticklish talks have been going on between the parties to the case because the French government is trying not to get stuck with the bill. (The ships were built, after all, in the state shipyards of the Direction des Constructions Navales.) Still less does Thales itself want to face a half-billion cash call surrounded by the worst possible publicity.

Even more interestingly, the go-between in these discussions is exactly the same man, Andrew Wang, who distributed the original sums to Taiwanese and probably also French men of power, and fled Taiwan after the mysterious death of a naval officer involved in the case. Part of the mission given by Thales boss Jean-Paul Perrier to former exec Jean-Claude Desjeux, his contact with Wang, seems to have been to keep him from spilling whatever further beans there may be. This, of course, put him in a strong position: the deal appears to be that 55% of the bill will be paid by the DCN and hence the State, 30% by Thales, and some 15% by Mr. Wang personally. After all, he is reported by Le Monde to have personally received in the region of $500 million, so he really ought to contribute something. That suggests that French taxpayers will be in the hole by $275 million to pay off their servants' bagmen.

Ill-Coordinated Iraq Roundup

Read this, and also this. It's worth it. Then ask yourself why a Bulgarian helicopter full of mercenaries was clattering around with Fijian security guards aboard to guard the security of the security guards travelling in it. Then read this Washington Post story regarding life as a mercenary in Iraq, and enjoy the following stupidity flash:
"Rich and others said they were frequently fired upon by U.S. soldiers and Marines at checkpoints. "I've been shot at numerous times by our troops, and that's in a black Suburban with American flags," Rich said. Still, they say cooperation with the U.S. military on the ground is largely positive and voiced sympathy for the far younger, low-paid U.S. servicemen, who they say regularly approach them asking about jobs at Blackwater."

Other stuff that shot across the week: the continuing phenomenon of mass corpse finds. Whoever the 50+ people fished out of the Tigris were, one thing cannot be disputed - they're dead. Somebody shot fifty or so random civilians and shovelled them into a river. It's possible, of course, that they were the supposed hostages of Madain, or that they were the accumulated dead of several days of violence - or perhaps an unrelated massacre that went unreported. Things are, famously, getting better in Iraq. You can shoot fifty people and nobody notices.

God knows what the story was about the "hostage crisis". Some suggest the government got it up to justify a sweep through Madain. Others say the local Shia sheikh did to justify turning the army loose on his Sunni neighbours. Or perhaps the Sunni wanted the government to bring in their army, or the Americans, to protect them from the Badr Corps? Whatever, the people in the river are still dead. As Robert Fisk put it, dead people don't come back to life, whatever you say about them.

If you follow one of the links above, you'll reach General Keane's report in which he says that the enemy might be saving up for a spectacular attack. He also says that “You can’t go anywhere without finding them, unlike last July and August, and some are operating independently.” Them being the Iraqi army. But what this may amount to is demonstrated in Samawah, where the Dutch army has been replaced with a token British force for the time being. It is planned to deploy an Australian battalion there, but the local police chief doesn't want them. He claims that his own forces can handle the situation. Isn't that what we officially want? Unfortunately, everyone seems to think his police force is effectively a unit of the Badr Corps, the SCIRI paramilitaries. So, handing over to Iraqi security forces in this case means putting the rebels/terrorists/militia/guerrillas/insurgents/whatevers in charge, or at least institutionalising a party army.

This problem, people, is going to come up again and again until whatever end the mad crusade in Iraq finds. Now everyone has a militia - it's the vital fashion accessory for the Iraqi politician in style - everyone is a potential warlord, and the temptation to rebrand them as police or army will be intense. Unfortunately, experience (in Afghanistan post-1992 for one) shows this rarely works. Even in decent, calm, democratic Eire, the Irish army for years had an acrimonious split between the regulars and the citizen force, both being identified with opposite factions of the Irish civil war.

Read this. Please

John Robb says interesting things about Iraq, as does Steve Gilliard.

SAS vs. Bill

Some SAS men have been detected by local cops outside the PM's residence, on a "Routine training exercise". God knows what that was about.

Fake Hospital Inspectors

This of people posing as hospital inspectors is deeply sick and Ballardlike.

Howard's Mind Flips

Michael Howard, it seems, wants to say that his father came not from "refugee stock" but from "immigrant stock". Let us leave the point that the very phrase suggests a genetic superiority of one over the other, and move on. As one says.

Howard initiated the Great Asylum Cry back in the mid-90s when he attempted to legislate that those persons whose applications had been rejected, who could not work anyway, would receive no state benefits and hence no food. The courts shot him down, but the aim was achieved. Murdoch liked it. Howard did, of course, not mention that he had placed a hiring freeze on the Immigration Service. Nor did he mention that, once the most secure border in history was gone and there was a race war in the Balkans, a few more refugees might perhaps not have been the least probable development.

No, a national hate campaign began against the Economic Migrants who were posing as refugees. (A point to anyone who remembers the term Economic Migrant - where did that get to?) They were Spongers. They were, illogically, Bogus Asylum Seekers, not that anyone ever suggested they were not seeking asylum.

More recently, Tony Blair's answer to this was to make a show of Murdoch-mandated toughness whilst quietly issuing a lot of work permits. In a sense, it was a rational workaround. Importantly, you could now be an Economic Migrant honestly - but the BAS hate campaign went on.

Not so long ago, Michael Howard harped on his father's flight from a fascist Romania to the UK. Now, his dad had quite clearly a well-founded fear of persecution: the legal test of refugee status. The Hechts went on to make good. But tonight, Mr. Michael Howard denied them. They were not refugees, he said. They came to do a job!

Or, in other words, they were Bogus Asylum Seekers. What on earth is wrong with the man?

New Iraq's New Airline

Years ago, I asked why the aircraft belonging to the new Iraqi Airways were all registered under 9L-, that is, Sierra Leonean registration. Stranger yet, some of the well-travelled Boeing 737s involved had Sierra Leone registrations sequential with various VB ships. 9L-LEG, serial no. 22885, for example, had seen service at Trans Air Congo with 9L-LEC, an An-12 pictured in Baghdad in 2004 with "Skylink" titles and widely held to be a Boutster. They all officially belonged to some lot called Teebah Airlines.

Now, I finally bothered to check this, and it turns out Teebah belongs to Sheikh Hussain al-Khawam, head of one of Iraq's biggest tribes. Interestingly, the al-Khawams are also on reports of the beneficiaries of Oil/Food scams. Funny that. Yer man's business manager, Hatim al-Khawam, was also appointed by the US/UK appointed Iraq Governing Council as Ambassador to Greece. Small world..

(Note - post edited to add more linky goodness)

Friday, April 22, 2005

Hip Down: A Look on Skylink

An Mi-8 helicopter (NATO name Hip) has been destroyed by Iraqi rebels/insurgents/terrorists. Aboard were eleven men - three Bulgarian aircrew, two Fijian guards, and six US "security contractors". They are all reported dead. One of them apparently survived the crash and was then murdered by the shooters, who filmed his death and published the film on the web.

If you think I'm going to link it, you need to go elsewhere. Snuff movies and jihadi propaganda are not part of my core business.

Depressingly, crashes lend the most information available on the worldwide black aviation market. Regulars will recall TYR reports on the spate of Viktor Bout-related aircraft that went down earlier this year. For a start, recent information leads me to the conclusion that Skylink Air & Logistics, the Canadian firm who run Baghdad Airport, are one of the Bout customers in Iraq. I doubted this originally, after Doug Farah suggested it: there is a dubious Skylink Express in Russia. However, I am now aware that SkyLink were the operators of a regular Antonov 12 service between Dubai-Baghdad, whose details fit those of the continuing flights by British Gulf International on the same route (BGIA has the ICAO code BGK). That doesn't explain all the others: Jetline, Jet Line and their isotope Airline Transport, Air Bas, Irbis, Sky Traffic Facilitators, Click, Georgian National (NOT the official Georgian national airline), or Falcon Express Cargo Airlines, the FedEx subsidiary whose Beech 1900 flyers say the induction course is a showing of Air America but won't say if certain aircraft ever worked for them.

But it's a start. SkyLink have a reputation for flying in bad places, that they claim is for humanitarian reasons. Depressingly, though, they seem to have a history of dealing with people that one might choose not to. Over Kosovo, they were commissioned by something called the International Rescue Committee to drop food to refugees - a laudable mission, no? But that story tells more, though, because the list of Moldovan Antonov 26 operators of the time is a grim document. There are few, and several are firms strongly associated with Viktor Bout. It must have been Tepaviatrans or Renan. In Afghanistan in the late 90s, SkyLink are credited with flying their Antonov 32s when "the Russians wouldn't", apparently after the Taliban's detention of one of Viktor's Il-76s. Not that the load of an An32 is much, but one would love to know what the relation was.

Heli Air, then? A Heli Air Services in Bulgaria owns a number of Russian-built big transports, but they seem respectable. I seem to recall a similar name in a DRC report, so this will have to run a while.

ASBOs: the power of one

A week ago, I asked exactly who had experienced the fear, harassment or distress that led to anti-Menwith Hill campaigner Lindis Percy being slapped with an ASBO. I now know something about this: the body that applied for the ASBO was the Ministry of Defence. Just think - one old lady committed on pain of hell fire to nonviolence could commit fear, harassment and distress to the entire British armed forces and over 100,000 bureaucrats, armed with everything from SA80 rifles (not that they go off) to strategic ballistic missiles as nuclear as hell. And all that by protesting outside an installation where nobody actually works for the MOD. Nuh. They used to be mostly NSA civvie spooks, but my last information said many more uniforms were in evidence. Either way, you'll find more guys ballin' and throwing out pitches than laikin' Rugby League.

Now, I wasn't aware that you could have an ASBO solely on the word of a thing, rather than a human being. Or perhaps the MOD lawyers found someone (perhaps themselves) to fill in the papers.

Whatever, I think it will be well worth knowing who was behind it. Calls and FOIARs will follow on Monday.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

MG Rover: The Filth Keeps Dripping...

The Independent on Sunday:
"Amid mounting anger last night among more than 5,000 workers facing redundancy, it emerged that the so-called "Phoenix Four" directors, led by John Towers, are the biggest creditors to MG Rover. This means that the directors, who have already made about £40m from the company after buying it for £10 each, will have the largest claim to any proceeds raised from the sale of the carmaker's assets, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the administrator, confirmed."

Tim Worstall, via the Torygraph:
"Those figures neatly match interest payments made by MG Rover on "loans from group undertakings" (of £10.9m in 2003 and £10.1m in 2002). Another note reveals that MG Rover had loans from "group undertakings" of £411.5m in 2003 and £391.5m the previous year.

Anyway, these interest payments meant that - while MG Rover was heavily loss-making - Techtronic made a pre-tax profit of £11.6m in 2003 and was proposing to pay dividends of £32.5m. The previous year it made a similar profit and paid dividends of £18m.

Seems pretty clear there, eh? Someone lends you half a billion interest free and you then loan it on with interest. Do that for a few years and you’re pretty wealthy.

The Yorkshire Ranter, November 13th 2004:
"Another interesting fact is that BMW loan. The loan was made, free of interest, to Techtronic. Techtronic disburses it as required to MG Rover. But Techtronic charges MG Rover interest on it, interest that presumably benefits only the Techtronic shareholders."

We don't report the news, we write it...

Anti-Japanese Demos, Perhaps..

It is reported that China is in the grip of mass demonstrations against all things Japanese. I'm sure it's true, but then again...what about this? If this is accurate, here we have a serious rising that chased off the police and the local administration, with no sign of "anti-Japanese". Two things come to mind: one, that a good hate campaign is a time honoured Communist device to divert criticism. As late as 1968 the Polish Party was at it with an anti-Jewish propaganda drive to take minds off next door. The other is that, if you are a Chinese communist official faced with this, wouldn't you be tempted to give out that it was all about Japan?

Another point: this has happened exactly where you might have expected it, neither in the big city nor in the dirt-poor backwoods, but in the zone of transition between the two.

A Petrol Post

What with the go-go oil market, refinery bottlenecks, Nigerian strikes, global tension and stuff, there's been a considerable degree of interest in the US zone of the blogosphere in questions relating to the price of petrol, the future of oil supply etc. Interestingly, this debate has not seemed to touch down in the British blogs yet, so it may be about time to broach the oil drum.

It ought to be worth discussing this in the light of British experience for a couple of reasons - firstly, that the sort of prices being discussed in either hushed or hysterical tones in the US have been routine for years here, and secondly that we have had some experience of where the pain barrier might lie. Now, let us set the parameters of the question. The Shell station nearest to me was offering petrol at 86.9 pence per litre this afternoon. That is, £4.33 a gallon. Now, the figures mentioned as possible lines of concern when Atrios's commenters discussed this recently were not dissimilar, but they were in US dollars, which these days counts for something. They were worried about, on a consensus view, a level of $4/gallon as the tipping point. Now, at current rates, a gallon of petrol in the UK=$8.20, which would make them gasp with horror.

Of course, though, then you have to remember the infantile UK/US nonstandard measurements! A British gallon is 5 litres, but a US one is less. Price per litre, then, would be some $1.65. US gallon=3.785 litres...that would be $6.24, then. And, well, things aren't so bad.

One of the reasons why things aren't so bad is that oil intensity, the amount of oil used to produce a unit of GDP, is dramatically less in Europe (and even more so, oddly, in Japan) than in the US. Setting the OECD average at 100, the EU figure is 87 - i.e. a dollar of wealth earned in Europe costs 23 per cent less oil. Japan is better yet. Developing countries are dramatically worse. Another factor is that it was government policy for quite a long time to squeeze petrol use. Strangely enough, it was the Tories who introduced a policy of increasing the duty paid on road fuels by more than inflation annually. This so-called escalator succeeded, for a while, in reducing road traffic and increasing public-transport passenger numbers.

Unfortunately, the Tories also privatised the railways, with the result that when it all came crashing down after Hatfield the extra rail passengers flooded back onto the roads. But, just before that, another event had effectively jammed the escalator.

This was the September 2000 fuel protest wave. A fairly small number of angry farmers and truckers, some associated with various right-wing groups, picketed major refining and distributing facilities. The police did not shift them, and the oil company tanker drivers would not go out. Very soon, petrol stations across the North began to run dry, a phenomenon that went nationwide with dizzying speed after a tipping point was reached and panic buying drained those that were still getting supplies.

I was in west Yorkshire at the time, about the second place the panic hit, and it was an unnerving week; perfect weather coupled with repressed crisis fever, dark rumours, Orson Welles-like radio reports. There were multiple attempts to resolve the crisis, but the only one that would work was if the tankers actually left the refineries and the pickets tried to stop them. Then there could be no objection to the cops arresting them, and anything else would be academic. At the end of the week, the TGWU drivers at BP Grangemouth, Fife, rolled the wagons, and the crisis fizzled out. But it had been a draining time for the Left generally. There were no shortage of people who alleged complicity with the oil industry or with right-wing policemen, or somebody, or who compared the non-arrest of the pickets with the treatment of secondary pickets (for these were in effect that) in the miners' strike.

I don't doubt that many of the people involved were fully sincere, but there were indeed credible reports of BNP involvement and that some politicians had been forewarned. One of the leaders later popped up as a Conservative politician in Wales. What does make me wonder exactly how spontaneous the protests were is that, although the price of petrol was much less than it is now, they never reappeared. Occasionally they are known to issue threats, which never materialise. Although the automatic jack-up of petrol taxes was ended, it hasn't gone down, and indeed has gone up - so if not now, when? It's fair, I think, to locate the source not so much in petrol taxes as in the generalised climate of loathing that existed on the Right at the time - this was a period of many dilettantes telling newspapers how they planned to poison reservoirs if fox hunting was banned - and a tribal Tory refusal to accept that The Others were in charge.

Not that this helps much. But it's worth thinking about. Points: UK fuel price levels should not be too much of a terror. And secondly, on the other hand, Republican fuel protestors would no doubt bring their guns. Still, Thierry Breton's suggestion that large consumers ought to tax petrol more makes ten times more sense that trying to sue OPEC for not putting up production levels above the engineered limits of the infrastructure. Witch-hunts against "hoarders" belong in Stalin's Ukraine.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

That Tory/FPO nexus again

I've just remembered, in the light of the shameful phoney-photo affair, that the FPO managed to pull that one too: their attack-dog parliamentary floor manager, Peter Westenthaler, produced a photo in parliament which he said showed a Green MP, Karl Öllinger, fighting a policeman. This, of course, showed that the Greens "were the party of violence in our society".

Later, the actual photograph was published (I think after the photographer ratted on Westy), and turned out to show nothing of the sort. Funny.


Keefieboy, the Webmaster of Dubai, reported a few days ago that none other than the Minister of Information and Culture of the UAE had intervened in a police integrity case with "a demand for transparency". Now, the responsible minister is one Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, better known to TYR readers as the half-owner of Santa Cruz Imperial and Flying Dolphin Airlines, companies repeatedly cited by UN Expert Panel reports on arms sales to West African failed states. There's a reason why Viktor Bout gets away with murder in the UAE, and His Nibs is at the very least on the list of plausible suspects. (Jamestown Terrorism Monitor link (pdf)

For him to speak of "transparency" is incredible hypocrisy. Unless he meant it as in "transparent self-justification" or "transparent manoeuvre", I suppose.

At least, though, the police there have their priorities quite right.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Farah Has Some Viktor Bout News

Doug Farah reports on some developments regarding Viktor Bout in the Bosnian War. Now, I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear he was involved - in fact, it would have been very strange if he wasn't. And his ability to deal with all sides in a conflict is shown in Afghanistan and Angola. But I think it's very unlikely that he supplied the Chechens, if only for the very simple reason that the Russians have undisputed air supremacy and full radar coverage there - if he was doing so, he wouldn't be any more, unless there was some reason to let him off. I wonder if this story, attributed to "a European intelligence source", isn't an effort to link him with Russia's enemies? He has always been close to Russian spooks, so this might be one unofficial way to get at him.

By the way, I welcome the chap at who read over 12 pages of the archives. Look, if you'd just Googled you wouldn't be in this trouble. Hope you like the blog.

Today's Way of War: The Market in Abidjan

TYR has covered several stories from the Ivory Coast's conflict, really because it seems to me that it's a kind of war that marks out our times. Remember the Ivorian air force and its drones and complete Israeli-run phonetapping centre? After the Ivorian leadership relaunched their war with an airstrike on inconvenient French peacekeepers (flown by Belarussian and Ukrainian pilots in Soviet aircraft, using recce photos taken from an Israeli-made drone), the French intervened dramatically in the capital. They marched up to the gates of the presidential palace, parking tanks around the door, and destroyed the complete air force except for the president's helicopter. (Does everyone get that subtle signal there?) They took over the best hotel in town, the Hotel Ivoire, where they discovered the Israelis and their gear.

It seems, according to this Le Monde report, that someone among the French staff officers in the Ivoire left either a laptop, or a data storage device of some kind, behind. In the market of Abidjan, you can buy CD-Roms containing what appears to be a French intelligence dossier on everything in the country - highly confidential biographies and profiles of the whole political class, details of the French intelligence services' network in the country, the complete government and rebel order of battle. In short, WANT! WANT! WANT!

If anyone sends me the data, by the way, I'll put it on the net for common usage. Open source spying - you can't say fairer than that.

There are, of course, important questions. The French army was well in control of the city when they quit the Hotel Ivoire. If Chirac had given the word, they were in a position to drag President Gbagbo to a chopper and off to the Hague, or wherever. So surely, they would not have been in such a hurry that they would have given away names of their intelligence network? Wouldn't they have checked? After all, France has had such excellent postcolonial/neocolonial ties there that there must be a lot of spies. The suspicion exists that this dossier was leaked deliberately.

And - CDs of foreign intel data on sale for six euros a go on the streets! Damn, it's interesting.

More Asbo insanity

In a issue I've been meaning to bloggify, a Conservative councillor in Lyneham, Wiltshire, one Allison Bucknall, has been seeking an Anti-Social Behaviour Order against a web site on the grounds that "people looking for information might go there first". Instead of what? I always thought Conservatives believed in free competition.

It seems there is also another site, here. Comparing the two, some differences become apparent-for a start, the second is utterly without personality, and strangely enough it bears a string of rather Tory-sounding voodoo polls on the front. ("Travellers should abide by the same rules as society". There's a leading question if ever I saw one, and terrible style to boot.) Curiously enough, the WHOIS record for shows it as registered to one Adrian Humm of Chippenham. (Lyneham village, eh.) The tech contact is in the US, at a random hosting company.

This seems ridiculous. But it is serious. An ASBO requires only that someone claims to have experienced fear, harassment or distress. As these are subjective experiences, this means the requirement is that somebody says so. Unlike this woolly babble, the conditions in the order can be just as precise and restricting as the judge wants. And if you break them, you go to jail.

We are now seeing the Asbo industry's diversification into the lucrative censorship business. I am not joking. Today, it is reported, Lindis Percy, the veteran Quaker campaigner against the Menwith Hill NSA surveillance centre, has been threatened with an Asbo. Who has she harassed, alarmed or distressed? She is 63 years old and pledged to the absolute rejection of violence. If anyone in the control bureaucracy is frightened, alarmed or distressed, they really ought to consult their files - no doubt they have details of her myriad court cases going back 30 years. Every new police power this government has introduced has soon been recycled to deal with otherwise decent citizens who dislike their policies. The Terrorism Act (2000) has developed a bad reputation already. I recall from working at the CPS in 1999 that most of the Prevention of Harassment Act (1998) cases we had were against people who had been rude to the police. That legislation was the child of that year's annual moral panic (stalkers), but very soon it became just another means of arbitrary power.

So exactly who experienced the fear, harassment and distress from the sight of some woman waving a sign across the galelashed A59 over the moors where I grew up? I feel a Freedom of Information Act Request coming on.

Remember. Today, Mitch Hawkin. Tomorrow, you.

MG Rover - Slight Return

Sorry there's been light blogging again. I've been in Globostan for the last couple of days, a land composed of airliners, airports, taxis, hotels where they show Bloomberg market reports in the bar-is nothing, nothing sacred?-and Scandinavian telecoms executives who look like Sven Goran Eriksson's geeky older brother. Except for the guys from TELE-Greenland, who look like polar bear hunters. ("We think...IMS will be a tool to keep customers." "How many network operators are there in Greenland anyway?" "One." Ibsenesque silence.) Strangely, despite being a little data packet in the physical network for two days, I never got the opportunity to get at a computer.

But now, the Big Conference is over and the Ranter is back. His story is filed. His expenses claim is in the pipeline. Time for much-needed attention to the blog, no?

Since the last post on the MG Rover disaster, which to my utter astonishment was linked by Tim Worstall - did he not read the bit where I said Red Robbo had been proved right by history? - a few more things have come up. For a start, I'd like to correct an error of fact. The worthless shares John Towers and Co. persuaded the workers to accept are indeed in Phoenix Venture Holdings as opposed to MG Rover Group; the problem is that they are non-voting stock. Although, it turns out, Towers owns only 40% of Phoenix's capital he has 100% of the votes. My conclusion, referring to the Tony Hancock sketch about the A shares (that let you put money into the business) and the B shares (that let you take it out), holds.

If I was him, I'd already have left Birmingham for ever.

He and his partners have since the last post offered to put Phoenix's assets at the disposal of the administrators of MG Rover. Now, I saw a press report at the time that Phoenix too was in the hands of Price Waterhouse Coopers accountants - clearly a mistake, as otherwise they would not have been in a position to make that decision. But there are already heavy claims against some of those assets, and anyway many have been sold. That's the point of asset stripping. By the way, anyone who needs total coverage of this ought to read The Guardian's Ian Griffiths, who is clinging to the Rover accounts like an unfortunate infection.

On other fronts, nothing has happened very much. If it wasn't for the election, one suspects Blair would have let them go. The womenfolk of the Longbridge workers - the phrase is not inaccurate - are preparing to bring a mass demonstration to London. It might help, but I doubt it. One thing that might play a role, though, is the increasingly fraught electoral situation in Birmingham - election fraud and industrial shutdown both. The pressure will be on, especially as the Labour core vote will watch closely.

In the end, though, it's not how Rover might be saved - it's how to make it go. Nationalisation could have occurred for ten quid in 2000, but would it have been Europossible? And would it have helped? Jon Moulton of property developers Alchemy, who wanted to sack all but 1,000 workers in 2000, has enjoyed a media Indian summer telling everyone how he was right. I wonder, though, if he and his would ever have paid for the development of further sports cars after the MGF? A normal private-equity business model would expect a sale about 5 years on-that is, now. And the temptation of a property deal would have been very strong. A workers' co-op? Some speak of it now. The problem at bottom remains the same.

How would they have funded and developed a Rover 30 good enough to retrieve their fortunes? Either of the lefty solutions, oddly, could hardly have done worse than the capitalist ones.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Read and Enjoyed in the Corridors of Power (2)

As well as the Elysee Palace, many other interesting folk crop up in my stats log. People who google for "obscure gay wank". People who search for "Dzungarian Gate railway". (I'm result no.9. How cool is that?)

People who work for the Office of the US Secretary of Defence. Yes,, that means you. On that theme, I also get readers from the US Air Force Academy, the USAF 7th Communications Group (whose whois record gives their address as "1600 Pentagon"), Halliburton Corp., the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and the North Derbyshire Chamber of Commerce.

I know this blog will never achieve the hit counts Kos does, or for that matter Nick Barlow, especially now I'm pressed for blog time. But I think it has quality, and I really hope the OSD reader is Donald Rumsfeld.

Gen. Kiszely's view

A few days ago, the Grauniad carried a report from Baghdad quoting a briefing given by the departing UK senior officer in Iraq, Lieutenant-General John Kiszely. Kiszely has the reputation of being a brain, and I was keen to see what he had to say. He argued that the insurgents were on the back foot for the first time and that this was because they had lost their safe havens. Presumably this meant Fallujah. He also admitted that "it appeared to many last October that the insurgents would win". Now, this is at least an unusually realistic statement, as is his remark that "this time the success of the counter-insurgency is backed by political success".

Analysis: Kiszely's remarks are sound enough, but only up to a point. He is right that things are better than they were, but this is partly a reflection of how bad they got. He is also right that if there is success, it is the first time in the war. He is right on the principle that counterinsurgency depends on political success.

But the political success is only up to a point. A sort of Lebanese-oid consociation has been set up, but many of the political problems remain open (Kurdistan, the south, religion). It seems that the emerging political system will be heavily religious and also violent, as everyone involved except the Communists has a militia. The real potential power remains with Sistani and also Muqtada al-Sadr; they retain the capacity to cause the kind of mayhem they did through the middle of 2004. In fact, it should be remembered, the coalition's police presence in many places still hasn't recovered from the spring 2004 Shia uprising.

On the claim that the insurgents have lost safe havens, it's true that their TAZs (temporary autonomous zones) have been reduced. But the months of warning of the Fallujah offensive must have had an impact on its effectiveness. And, in a sense, weak control across all Iraq means that the safe haven is everywhere. Really, in so far as there has been success, it's been in the last two months - January was desperate - and it is interrupted by spectaculars like the massacre of Shia pilgrims, the oddly frequent big firefights, and the Hercules shoot-down. Another point is that the US and allied casualty rate is a factor of our activities as well as the enemy's-the very high casualties last winter were because we staged an offensive. We aren't at the moment, so they are down. So, I give the Kiszely briefing about 6/10 absolutely and maybe 7.5 when you consider that he couldn't say anything too damning.

On a specific, by the way, it's been reported that some Iraqi army recruits were massacred in a bus ambush. They were on their way to their home town to drop off their pay-because the Iraqi army has not thought of a way of paying them at their depot rather than their post of duty, which means that they have to fill the roads with buses of young men of military age (please God not in uniform!), easily identifiable, and carrying large sums of money. The full stupidity of this is beyond belief.

The Strange Death of MG Rover

Well, as if it hadn't been trailed enough, Rover is now an ex-business. 6,000+ jobs are toast, Thatcher's life mission to deindustrialise the UK is complete (you can die now, Maggie, it's done!). I'd like to point up some things about this, some of which I've written about before. Basically, the first thing to remember is that Rover has been run by idiots for years. When the Phoenix team bought it in 2000, they had to hire students to count the cars in stock from satellite photos because BMW either didn't know - didn't know! - how much inventory they had, or weren't telling. Which puts all the talk about "the English patient" at the time in perspective.

Since then, though, we've seen one of the most horrible examples of shameless self-enrichment at others' expense in British history. The restructuring of the Rover complex was conceived to get all the profitable bits of the firm out of the MG-Rover Group, the car factory, and into the hands of the Phoenix chaps. This may not seem that bad, until you remember that a sizeable chunk of the original capital was put up by Rover workers themselves. They got shares in MG Rover Group, not Phoenix: so they have now lost everything. Another point: the famous £427 million interest-free loan from BMW was paid to Phoenix (well, actually to another shell company, Techtronic, but this can be collapsed for clarity), not MG. They then charged MG Rover interest on it. What this means has only just dawned on me-as shareholders, the Phoenix group have only the same minimal claim on the assets as the workers who bought in. But as creditors, they are at the top of the heap behind only the Inland Revenue.

Expect a very big supermarket on the site.

They probably think they did a hell of a deal in this, but it turned out they weren't as smart as all that. The other winners, the big winners, are SAIC, the Chinese group they were trying to sell the plant to. SAIC put up £62 million in loans in the winter of 2004, and as a condition of this demanded and got access to Rover's intellectual property. They have already got the drawings for the K-series high efficiency engines (what they wanted all along), the Rover 75, and the right to build it in China - and they also have a claim to recoup their £62 million. SAIC's decision to walk out of the deal neatly avoided taking on any of Rover's liabilities. And, now the Rover engineers and stylists whose heads hold the institutional memory that goes with the drawings are unemployed, they can hire as few or as many as they want.

It is reported that SAIC were spooked when they saw some of the accounts that were far worse than Towers and Co. let on. I don't know if this is the truth, it could be DTI spin, but if so it's an incredible example of that rare phenomenon, someone who really did outwit themselves. Duped by their own chicanery.

Another point-what doomed Rover was its inability to finance the development of the new medium car, the long-planned Rover 30. It couldn't fund it because it couldn't shift enough units to generate the cash flow to pay for development costs. When the old British Leyland was about to be savagely restructured preparatory to privatisation, the hard-left union men put out their own counter-plan to the official on. The main critique was that size mattered, and that without a critical mass of production Rover would never be able to keep up technologically.

Who can now say they were wrong?

Friday, April 08, 2005

(UN-11)007: Licence to Kill

Remember that Antonov 12 full of "fish" that crashed in al-Riyan, Yemen, flying for an airline that didn't exist? I was pretty sure it was one of Viktor Bout's, but I couldn't be certain. Now, I am. The Aviation Safety Network reports that the aircraft involved was none other than UN-11007, serial no. 9346509 not a stranger to these pages and a veteran of Air Bas, Irbis Air, Air Cess and GST Aerocompany. See this post from May 2004 and also this one from December 2004. It also appears in a photo taken in Sharjah in January 2004 in a lineup between two other exactly identical Antonov 12s all belonging to different and supposedly independent, as well as suspicious, companies.

At the other end of the pipe, AllAfrica gives some background on those "fish" and the flow of arms through Mwanza, Tanzania (where the last Boutjet crashed) to the DRC. As Bob Dylan put it, who will revoke his licence to kill? At this rate, it looks like carelessness is candidate no.1...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Very strange indeed...

Without going too deeply into the City Academies beloved of Tony Blair, what with their darling arrangements where any private interest who puts up 10% of the money gets 51% of the votes, and it has to be a private interest, not a group of parents nor a local council even if they have the money, shall we examine a strange point brought up in a letter deep below the Guardian's fold, down in the education supplement?

One fairly sensible thing this government did was to create a General Teaching Council, analogous to the General Medical Council, that would permit for the better regulation of the teaching profession and the exclusion of incompetents, perverts, crooks and such. One classification, though, of teachers is not required to register with the GTC.

These are teachers at those "City Academies". Now why on earth do these fine institutions need the right to employ teachers who may have been run out of their last school behind a barrage of police teargas as screaming mobs gather? Remember, they are meant to be better and finer than any others, and get more money to that end. So - why would they want to hire incompetent teachers?

I can think of only two explanations within the borders of the reasonable. One is that the academy concept is meant to draw in nonteachers who would by definition not be registered. Local entrepreneurs and faith-based enablers, no doubt, like the ones whose homilies Alan Milburn wanted to fill school breaks with. Another is that this was a condition set by large academy investors, like used-car dealer Sir Peter Vardy, who want the right to hire teachers who agree with their religious beliefs even if they would fail professional exams-that is to say, if they do not believe that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago in seven days by a chap with a beard, and lack the sense not to mention this in a geography exam.

Can anyone offer an alternative explanation?

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Wave of Boutery!

There's been a small upburst of unrelated mystery-jet stories in the last couple of days. For a start, there's the strange case of an Antonov 28, a little light twin with 10 or 12 seats, that turned up in the DR Congo apparently with something called "Butembo Airlines" and fell out with the UN. It ended up being impounded in Kigali for not filing a flight plan and being registered twice: once in Kyrgyzstan and once in the DRC. I can find absolutely no information under EX-28811, the Kyrgyz registration, and only one photo under 9Q-CES, the Congolese one (the photo was taken in Dubai on the 11th of March). But Butembo did have an EX-28810 in 2003, and it was an Antonov 28. I cannot find any more info about that one either, although I have got a serial number for it. The Rwandans demanded of Uganda how they had permitted the plane to pass through Entebbe airport, and the Ugandans denied all knowledge of EX-28811, but admitted clearing 9Q-CES, as if they were two different aircraft. Alex Yearsley of Global Witness asked me whether the plane belongs to VB - I have to say I'm not sure with the information I have, but the profile is convincing. Several suspect operators own An28s, notably Tepaviatrans in Moldova and Goliaf in Sao Tome.

Whatever, it's certainly deeply suspicious. Back in January I ran a post about strange goings-on in Uganda, where an Antonov 12 crashed at the old Entebbe airport, run by the army. This led to the revelation that secret flights to the DRC were leaving the old airport, cleared through army channels with the aid of bribery. I wonder whether this particular flight passed through Old Entebbe rather than Entebbe International?

Moving swiftly on, an Antonov 12 operating for something called "RPS" in Dubai was wrecked in a runway excursion at Riyan Mukalla airport in the Yemen. Report here. I wonder why a fireman would ask for anonymity when saying that the aircraft had been heavily damaged? Now, I covered the fact that well-known Viktor Bout line Irbis Air Co. was sending off three flights a night from Sharjah to Riyan some time ago, here. Whether this aircraft is connected or not is not yet clear as I don't have more details. Suffice it to say that there is no known airline called RPS (there is a division of FedEx in the US, but this seems irrelevant). Royal Airlines, a Pakistani firm that charters out known Boutco British Gulf International's fleet of An12s, has the ICAO code RPK, though. BGIA's aircraft chartered to Royal often turn up in Dubai although they live down the road in Sharjah. The aircraft was supposedly loaded with 17 tons of "fish" - whatever kind of fish they were, it seems they burned well. The accident seems to have started as a rejected take-off (RTO), but the plane ran 400 metres off the runway (a 10,000 foot runway - which ought to have been enough room to stop an An12) and caught fire. This photo taken recently in the capital Sanaa shows an Ilyushin 18 with Renan Air titles - a well known gun running outfit registered in Moldova.

From the same paper, we learn who might want a load of exploding fish in Yemen. Thanks to Soj for the hint.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Brief Update/Revision: TYR Responds to Just Criticism

I've been informed that electronic tags may be a more robust system than I implied in my post on Mahmoud Abu Rideh, the terrorist who's only dangerous at night. Apparently, there are indeed tags that use GSM methods to give constant coverage. I'm sorry if anyone got arrested following my advice.

But, whatever tags are in use elsewhere, the story of the Nottingham murders makes clear that a) the ones in use there are dependent on a landline phone and b) they don't work. The fact the lad had removed the tag was only discovered six days later - not from the tag, but because a pal of his ratted on him to a probation officer. So, trying again - if you're going to be tagged in Nottingham, pull the phone line out.

Amusingly enough, the real things complete with GSM circuitry, it seems, had to be altered before use in some cases: naturally, they needed to paint out the Made in Israel notice before attaching it to the suspected Muslim terrorist...

Minutemen vs. Mara Salvatrucha

This post is going to hark back to one of the very first posts on the Ranter, back in Hutton-rocking June, 2003, so stand by. Back then I briefly noted a report by another blogger that a group calling itself the Minuteman Project was using a drone of sorts to look for suspected illegal immigrants on the US/Mexican border.

Now, the same outfit has driven itself onto the news agenda with the announcement that it was going to start armed patrols on one sector of the border, claiming they didn't intend to shoot anyone, or at least that "the time for this[shooting, TYR] is not yet upon us". It's hard to find anyone who thinks this is a good idea - I for one don't believe that anyone who volunteered for this isn't mad keen to shoot a Mexican. Even if they were (purely hypothetically) decent, just the fact they are "patrolling" and armed means any trouble they get into will be that much worse. Over at Crooked Timber, a commenter asked the question of what would happen if they encountered a load of drugs on its way north - presumably Mexican drug smugglers would be quite prepared to fight for their cargo?

More seriously, the fearsome international criminal gang MS-13 has promised to kill any of them they find. These boys are serious, friends. From Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, US Army Institute of Strategic Studies (linked downblog)
: "More specifically, 3,500 people, including more than 455 women, were murdered in Guatemala in 2004. A majority of those murders took place in public, in broad daylight, and many of the mutilated bodies were left as grisly reminders of the gangs’ prowess."
They originated in the 1980s when the Americans passed a law that said that recent immigrants, or their relatives, who were convicted of gang membership would be sent back to Central America. It sounded simple, but as usual it wasn't. Pouring streetwise thugs without the skills to survive back in Guatemala (often even without the language), but with the skills of modern criminality and a burning sense of resentment, into a variety of weak, poor and corrupt states unsurprisingly turned out to be a Bad Thing. Instead of just vanishing, they continued their careers, eventually exporting their brand across the whole region and muscling in on every racket going. Which, in Latin America, usually meant cocaine in the end.

So - the expelled gang members became the criminal kings of the countries they landed up in. Then, of course, they began to recruit. That, in turn, meant that there were now people heading back to LA as new immigrants to rebuild the lost territories. The brilliantly simple political line - Send Them Back Where They Come From! - had put them in charge of both ends of the drug pipeline. The culture of gangs like MS13, it turned out, behaved exactly like a virus. This is precisely why it isn't a good idea to refuse foreigners treatment for AIDS, as some politicians advocate. Sending them to somewhere with worse public health to spread the disease is foolish and counterproductive in exactly the same way as exporting LA's street crime problem was. They shoved them from where they might at least be kept in bounds to somewhere where there was no constraint on them at all.

By the way, attentive British readers may by now have noticed something: it didn't stop in Latin America, but kept going. How else could there have been a faction in Sierra Leone who called themselves The West Side Boyz and packed enough violence to take a whole section of British soldiers hostage, before having to be wiped out by the SAS? Branding works, and not just for the rich.

Back on topic. If there is anything to either side's boasting (after all, the gradient from front to reality is usually steep), then the good people of Tombstone, Arizona are in for a show. Three-way gunfights between the US Border Patrol, cowboy fantasists and one of the world's nastiest organised crime societies, probably on live TV. Beats rolling 24-hour coverage of the pope's urinary tract.

Where Do They Get Their Inspiration?

I'm sure everyone in Britain has by now seen at least one of the Conservative Party's exciting "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" hoardings. For my part, I only ever seem to see the immigration one, but obviously this is mere chance and not a sign that there are more of them than the others. No. Only a real vicious bastard could think that.

Does anyone wonder, though, where the Tories got the idea?

Perhaps they got it in Vienna. Here, you can see some posters issued by the FPÖ (the Freedom Party of Austria) and the alterations various people have carried out on them. What interests us, however, is the strapline across the bottom of the posters. It reads "Er sagt, was Wien denkt" - He says what Vienna thinks.

Are you thinking what we're thinking?

The sentiments on the posters are pretty ugly. They say "Vienna must not become Istanbul", which would indeed be an odd event, but which is code for being unpleasant to foreigners. The "X must not become Y" meme is a very frequent one in German-speaking rightwing politics (it goes back to Nazi scare-stories in the 1920s that black Americans would bring Al Capone-style mafia violence to Germany). And the FPÖ's real viciousness should not be underestimated. Any Tory reading this who may think they really aren't that bad and it's all got up by the Left should pay close attention: they have a long record of viciously racist statements and actions.

In the last few years, their MPs have variously stated that black people are more aggressive than others (this in a debate about the death of a man in police custody), that babies have an innate response to flee from them and that this is a lesson for society (I am not making this up), that the aim of their cultural policy should be "to reach a state where the foreign in our culture is recognised, not as less, but as un-German", that a Green MP was a terrorist and a Nazi (Peter Pilz - I can assure you he is neither, unlike the next guy) that "a new approach to contemporary history as practised by Horst Mahler [a convicted Red Army Faction terrorist turned neo-Nazi who operates a website calling itself "the thinktank of the German Reich"]" was desirable, and more besides. In the past, they introduced a national petition to parliament against "foreigners" in general and established a party-run pseudo-police in Graz which was mercifully shortlived.

Fortunately, they have progressively lost support since 2000, but have maintained influence over government by their ability to create trouble on command. I do hope Michael Howard is not copying them.

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