North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From Harlem to Ethiopia - a Positive Racial Story

A 26 yr old assistant minister in Harlem, New York is living out a decision of his Abyssinian Baptist Church made over 200 years ago, when it was founded in 1808 by free blacks and Ethiopian merchant seamen who refused to worship where blacks and whites were segregated. The Reverend Nicholas Richards is the president of the recently formed Abyssinian Fund, an international aid and development arm of the church. It will soon be joining forces with a co-op of 700 coffee farmers in the ancient Ethiopian city of Harrar, with a mission to improve the quality of the farmers’ lives by helping them improve the quality of their coffee beans.

Just a year and a half ago, the Abyssinian Fund was a dream that had sprouted from a simple seed planted after the senior pastor, the Reverend Calvin O. Butts III, led a group of congregants to Ethiopia in 2007 to celebrate the church’s 200th anniversary. The fund was inspired by the group’s reaction to the struggle and resilience of the impoverished Ethiopians they had encountered. “Ethiopia touches your heart,” said Dori Brunson, a donor and congregant who made the journey. “The villages were so simple, so lacking in the amenities that we are so used to, and at one point I just had to walk away, and I stood there and cried. “Even though we were born here in America, we are part of that African soil. And because of what Africa has given the world and what they stand for, we must give back.”
Ethiopian woman sorting coffee beans

So far, this congregation in Harlem has raised about $130,000 in funds for their vision. Instead of providing financial aid or food to the farmers, the Abyssinian Fund will hire coffee experts who are specialists in the processing and quality standards of companies like Starbucks that are the chief buyers of Ethiopia’s beans. Substandard processing has vexed the farmers’ efforts to command higher prices. The trainers will also teach planting and harvesting techniques that help farmers grow and select only the choicest coffee beans, and the fund will provide equipment like scissors, shears and mechanized pickers to ensure that the beans are properly harvested. Many of these farmers still harvest their crops with their bare hands, Mr. Richards said.

Aid to Ethiopia is nothing new, nor has much of it been successful. Reta Alemu Nega, a minister counselor with the Ethiopian Consulate in Manhattan, said nongovernmental organizations operating in Ethiopia “are not always what they present themselves to be,” he said. And likewise, corruption among Ethiopian officials has been too often a crucial reason for mixed results. But Mr. Nega said the Ethiopian government supported the work of the Abyssinian Fund. “We know the Abyssinian Church,” he said. “We know who they are.”

“There’s very little concern for us about corruption because we have a direct relationship to the farming community that we are working with,” Mr. Richards said. “We know the farmers. I’ve visited the farmers. I’ve talked to them, and I’ve talked to their leaders. We don’t provide any cash. And that’s a huge way that we mitigate our exposure to corruption, because there is no cash that is being provided.”

So far, most of the money raised has come from Harlem, with donations ranging from $25 a week to one for $10,000. Other money has come from an art sale and gala featuring work by Ethiopian artists. Harlem neighborhood and its citizen's sense of pride

“Most of the people doing development work in Africa are not of African descent,” Mr. Richards said. “To have a group of African-Americans concerned about a particular nation in Africa, and doing something about it, is tremendous. This is black folk helping black folk, and it is tremendous to me.”

Sunday, July 25, 2010

China priorities

This fine looking gentleman is Yu Keping. He is a ranking Communist Party official in charge of the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, an obscure agency dedicated to translating works by Chinese leaders and Marxist tracts from around the world. He also runs a policy research organization, China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics, that provides advice to China’s leadership. He also advocates for democracy and rule of law in China in such a way that has not threatened the ruler's view of themselves. As the New York Times put it, 'Advocating democracy in a single-party, authoritarian state would seem to be a fool’s errand. [For example,] Wei Jingsheng, one of China’s most ardent pro-democracy dissidents, spent over a decade in jail for demanding multiparty elections. Last year, the writer Liu Xiaobo was given an 11-year sentence after he wrote a manifesto calling for an end to the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power.' But Yu has been able to state a case for change, and yet prosper in front of China's rulers.

So what's up with Yu? Even China leadership and dissidents can't decide. Some say he's a shill, a front man for China's government, someone putting a nice face on ideas for a future never to be realized. Others say he represents a deepening segment of China's society that can't be ignored. Again, the NY Times, 'Mr. Yu was a teacher at Peking University during the spring of 1989, and he said he went to Tiananmen Square several times to look after his students, who were part of the throngs protesting corruption and inflation and demanding democratic reforms. “I was so worried about them,” he said, recalling the denouement — a bloody military crackdown in which hundreds died — as “a regrettable tragedy.” But he said those events taught him that China must have legal avenues for its citizens to express their disdain for injustice, or their desire for change. “In any nation, when people are demanding reform, this is a sign of prosperity,” he said. “To ignore these demands is to invite instability.”

Mr. Yu said he was impressed by the United States, where he was a visiting scholar at Duke University. He relishes memories of the intellectual give-and-take in the classroom and the unencumbered vigor of the news media. “I really loved the American can-do spirit, the values of equality and justice, and the way people cared about the environment...”

Yu's statements represent the ferment inside China as it continues its economic growth and rising living standards (at least for some of its population). A harsher aspect of Chinese internal politics is its continued intentional migration of ethnic Han Chinese into Tibet, with confrontation and repression of ethnic Tibetans being synonymous with its presence there.

Ethnic Tibetans protest in the face of firm Chinese resolve

As to China's foreign policy, tensions are always near when it comes to US. Hillary Clinton angered China recently when she offered our country's expertise when it came to sorting out claims by Vietnam, the Philippines and other SouthEast Asian countries over an island chain called the Spratleys.

Claimed unilaterally by China, many of the islands are just rocks or spits of sand, but they are rich in oil and natural gas deposits, and China views them as important outposts that extend its territorial waters far into the busy shipping lanes in the sea. In contrast, “The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea,” Mrs. Clinton said. The announcement was a significant victory for the Vietnamese, who have had deadly clashes in past decades with China over some of the islands, as well as over another group of island called the Paracels.

Vietnam’s strategy has been to try to “internationalize” the disputes by bringing in other players for multilateral negotiations. At this conference with 27 nations, 12 supported an international challenge to the Chinese claim of sovereignty. The US administration’s decision to get involved appeared to catch China flat-footed and angered its foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, at a time when the country is already on edge over naval exercises the United States and South Korea will hold starting this weekend off the Korean Peninsula.

China's relationship with the US is clearly complicated - we're one of its largest consumers of domestic goods - critical for its growing domestic economy. At the same time, China has assisted the US in buying up large amounts of our debt (our deficit spending each year). Similar to China's approach to Tibet - as a troublesome province, not an independent nation - it insists that Taiwan is also a province that eventually must be reunited, while the West says remains vague (in both cases). North Korea as an ally is more of an albatross round China's neck due to its belligerency with much of the world, and the South Korean/US alliance looks mighty prosperous in comparison.

Yet the world is clearly engaging the new China, economically and culturally, if with concerns politically. Last year's summer Olympics in China were well run and a reminder of the diversity (and showmanship) of the country. It is not surprising that both promise and difficulties characterize this nation's place in world affairs.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Northern Tier Countries of South America

Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela make up this trio of troubled countries at the northern end of South America. Each has its unique history, geography, and changeable relations between them. As one newspaper article aptly puts it, 'When newly elected Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos takes office Aug. 7, there will be no welcome wagon from his neighbors. To the west is Ecuador, where Santos is facing murder charges for ordering a 2008 cross-border raid on a clandestine guerrilla camp of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC. To the east is Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has shut down trade, called Santos a regional threat and accused him of turning the country into a base-camp for the U.S. military.'

Colombia has the fourth largest economy in South America, but since the 1960s, government forces, left-wing insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries have been engaged in the continent's longest-running armed conflict. Fueled by the cocaine trade, this escalated dramatically in the 1980s. However, in the most recent decade (2000s) violence has decreased significantly. Many paramilitary groups have demobilized as part of a controversial peace process with the government, and the guerrillas have lost control in many areas where they once dominated.

As the former minister of defense, Santos, 56, rose to prominence masterminding some of the most lethal and demoralizing blows against the nation's 50-year-old guerrilla army, FARC. From 1991 to 1994, Santos was also the country's first minister of commerce, spending much of his time hammering out trade deals with his Andean neighbors. In a recent interview with the Miami Herald, Santos said, `I was the architect of the integration process with Venezuela and Ecuador, which generated hundreds of thousands of jobs,so I will do everything within my reach to improve relations.'

The Miami Herald article continued, noting, 'Tensions have rarely been higher. In June of 2009, Venezuela virtually froze trade with Colombia -- it's No. 2 source of imports -- as it protested the FARC attack on Ecuadorean soil and the government's decision to allow U.S. forces to operate on seven Colombian bases. As a result, commerce during the first quarter of this year plummeted 70 percent versus 2009...'

President Elect Santos engineered a large successful hostage rescue during national elections this past June, 2010.

Venezuela vaulted out of general economic malaise in the 1910s, when the discovery of massive oil deposits during World War I prompted an economic boom that lasted into the 1980s. Today, the petroleum sector dominates Venezuela's mixed economy, accounting for roughly a third of GDP, around 80% of exports and more than half of government revenues. Venezuela contains some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world. It consistently ranks among the top ten crude oil producers in the world.

According to a brief history in Wikipedia, in 1992 Hugo Chávez, an army paratrooper, staged a coup d'état attempt seeking to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez failed and was placed in jail. In November 1992, another unsuccessful coup attempt occurred, organized by groups loyal to Chávez remaining in the armed forces. Chávez was pardoned in March 1994 by president Rafael Caldera, with a clean slate and his political rights intact. In 1998, Chávez was elected president. His reform program, which he later called the "Bolivarian Revolution", was aimed at redistributing the benefits of Venezuela's oil wealth to the lower socio-economic groups by using it to fund programs such as health care and education.

The results are mixed, corruption is high, and Chavez, though calling for Latin American economic integration, has become notorious for provoking trouble with neighboring countries and most Western nations, while flirting with Iran and other regimes burdened with autocratic leaders.

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez cultivating relationship with Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Ecuador is the quieter nation of the three, it too has sizable oil deposits and an export industry which underpins the government and broad economy though creating disparities between social classes. However, with the election of its president Rafael Correa in 2005, and to a second term in 2009, there has a been a similar political orientation away from the US and Europe as well as free market financing entities such as the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund (IMF). In lieu of those relations and engagements, Ecuador has paid more attention to Iran and Venezuela in particular, and belongs to ALBA - Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (Spanish: Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América).

ALBA is an international cooperation organization based on the idea of social, political, and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is associated with socialist and social democratic governments and is an attempt at regional economic integration based on a vision of social welfare, bartering and mutual economic aid, rather than trade liberalization as with free trade agreements. Venezuela and Cuba were the two founding members in 2004 and since then, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and several small Caribbean countries have joined. (Though in another example of Chavez at cross-purposes with his ego, Honduras joined ALBA in 2008 but later withdrew its membership because of Venezuela's 'lack of respect' for its participation.)

Quito, Equador, at 9,350 ft, is the second highest national capitol in elevation in the world

Interestingly, all three countries gained independence from Spain in 1819, and for a decade were part of a broad "Gran Colombia" nation. By 1830, this structure collapsed with the secession of Venezuela and Ecuador. The rising tensions between Venezuela and Colombia dominate developments at the moment, with Chavez's provocative leadership style earning both a cold scrutiny and calculated support among the world's governments. We can only hope that wise governance between the leaders will prevail in the months ahead.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Ugandan bomb attack and racism

Victims being treated at Ugandan hospital

While this 6 day old event is quickly fading from world thought, the bombings in Uganda by al-Qaeda 'partners' from Somalia was a horrific reminder of the virulence of this terror movement. Two explosions tore through an Ethiopian restaurant and a rugby club in the Ugandan capital Kampala during last Sunday's World Cup final killing at least 64 people and wounding 71 others. al Qaeda-inspired al Shabaab militants in Somalia had threatened to attack Uganda for sending peacekeeping troops to the anarchic country to prop up the Western-backed government.

The event was an all too familiar one, al-Qaeda and various strains of Islamic terror entities slaughtering innocents. Yet two items make this otherwise too familiar scene worth noting. Most attacks are against wealthy Western symbols - this one emphasizes that being poor and not-western are not defenses (though many Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan could have told us that the past 5 years). The most unexpected characterization came from an administration official who was 'enriching' comments made by US President Obama. In an interview ( between the President and the South African Broadcasting Corporation regarding the bombing, Obama stated, "What you've seen in some of the statements that have been made by these terrorist organizations is that they do not regard African life as valuable in and of itself. They see it as a potential place where you can carry out ideological battles that kill innocents without regard to long-term consequences for their short-term tactical gains."

An administration official then went on to fill in Obama's reasoning this way, "Additionally, U.S. intelligence has indicated that al Qaeda leadership specifically targets and recruits black Africans to become suicide bombers because they believe that poor economic and social conditions make them more susceptible to recruitment than Arabs," the official said. "al Qaeda recruits have said that al Qaeda is racist against black members from West Africa because they are only used in lower level operations." "In short," the official said, "al Qaeda is a racist organization that treats black Africans like cannon fodder and does not value human life."

Since 1997, very few if any world leaders have characterized the Taliban or al-Qaeda as primarily racist, rather ideologically and religiously motivated. But now its racist according to the logic of one of the President's explainers.

The racist label was also applied this week by the 100 year old NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to the emerging political phenomenon called the "Tea Party." A resolution was unanimously passed that calls on Tea Party members to repudiate what NAACP leaders say are "ultra-nationalist and racist factions within the organization," noting that Tea Party members have used "racial epithets," have verbally abused black members of Congress and threatened them, and protestors have engaged in "explicitly racist behavior" and "displayed signs and posters intended to degrade people of color generally and President Barack Obama specifically." A spokesperson specifically pointed to signs at rallies portraying President Obama as a witch doctor, and to claims made by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., that Tea Party protestors opposing health care reform hurled racial slurs at them. "They need to be unequivocal and they need to be responsible and get the bigots out of their organization. It's that simple,"

Tea Party supporters have denied allegations of racism and argue that there is no proof to support the NAACP's claims. Conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart even offered $100,000 to anyone who could produce an audio recording or video footage of the "N-word" being hurled at Rep. Lewis and other members of Congress. The St. Louis Tea Party coalition on Monday evening passed a resolution of its own condemning the NAACP for "hypocritically engaging in the very conduct it purports to oppose." The resolution calls on the NAACP to withdraw its resolution. It even urges the IRS to reconsider its tax-exempt status of the NAACP because of what the Tea Party coalition dubbed the organization's "habitual partisan political behavior."

So in this post racial atmosphere which was predicted after the US population elected its first black president, suddenly, racism is alive and well. There are racist-related charges leveled at the Washington Post for not covering a Black Panther case of voter intimidation; similarly a charge towards the US Department of Justice Department's bias against investigating racial cases if the alleged victims are not black; the Tea party charge of course; and even apparently, now infecting the world's most vicious terror network.

And if the pure aggressive form of Islam, previously characterized as ideologically and religiously driven is actually a form of racism, what do we now call another incident? The French lower house of parliament this week also voted nearly unanimously (335 to 1), to ban the wearing of the burka - the total Islamic covering for women. It has somewhat of a racist flavor, as nearly all wearers of the burka are women of color.

This set of stories is likely to bubble along through the rest of the summer of 2010, and perhaps out of it all can come a better common understanding of just what racism is, and what it is not.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


A pile of more than 16,000 shoes, each pair representing a victim of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre are placed with a UN sign in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Sunday July 11, 2010. The shoes were collected to make 'The Pillar of Shame', German activist's Phillip Ruch's monument to Srebrenica.

Just 15 years ago, as the Bosnian War was waged in Bosnia and Herzegovina the United Nations tried to claim safe haven for thousands of refugees. Declaring Srebrenica a “safe area” impervious from armed conflict in the UN Security Council’s Resolution 819, masses of Bosnian Muslims gathered there. A few hundred U.N peacekeepers, mainly Dutch soldiers, were stationed in Srebrenica to safeguard the refugees. However, the peacekeepers’ weapons and food supply were inadequate to keep up a long-term operation. At the top of the command chain, the U.N officials were overwhelmed by the number of refugees and misjudged in taking action.

Consequently, Bosnian Serb troops seized control of Srebrenica and took around 18,000 Bosnian Muslim men, teenage boys, and children. The U.N peacekeepers did not attempt to wrestle with the Bosnian Serbs over the refugees but merely watched as they were led away. The executions of the Bosnian Muslims began almost immediately after they were taken away with “no intention of harming them” according to the peacekeepers. As more than 11,000 Bosnian Muslims attempted to escape, they were “hunted down like animals” recalls one survivor.

In 1999, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report that the UN failed at Srebrenica because of errors, misjudgment, and "an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us." The Dutch troops were cleared of blame by an independent study by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, which concluded the troops were outnumbered and undersupplied and had orders to shoot only in self-defense. After the publication of these two important reports in Holland Prime Minister Wim Kok, Minister of Defense Frank de Grave, and the rest of the Dutch cabinet resigned. It was a surprising -- even astonishing -- move. Many of those who resigned had not even been in power during the siege and fall of Srebrenica. Yet they declared that the “moral thing to do” was to take responsibility for the previous government’s actions. Soon afterwards, the Dutch Army chief of staff also resigned. In the intervening years, the Dutch government has since allocated tens of millions of dollars to Bosnia.

Elsewhere, remembrances are very much a part of two nations. In Israel, there have been mass demonstrations for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, kidnapped and held by Hamas for four years since July 2006.

And in Colombia, a rebel group FARC still holds 20 military and police officers, in spite of a recent rash of operations that have successfully freed other hostages, some of whom have been held for 12 years in the jungle.

Even the recent spy swap of 11 Russians who plead guilty for spying against the US, for 4 individuals accused of spying and held in Russia, contained the characterization of remembrance. One US official said the swap proved that the West does not forget those being held - efforts are constantly being made to "get them back."

So complicated, so much of what shapes nations and peoples' world views - remembrances. But when is remembering the good thing - the loyal, the right, the principled thing to do - and just as importantly, what causes remembering past injustices to turn negative, to become a bitterness that's unreasonable, preventing new beginnings, and inflaming the probability of revenge. Are there parts of remembering that always remain healthy, and other aspects need to be dealt with and relegated to the past.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Back to the Future - Northern European transportation, energy, and cooperation

What with Netherlands in the World Cup final, the Tour de France starting in Belgium this year, and ending stage 5 in Reims, France, and after the last two posts being depressing ones on spying, children caught in the middle, assassinations and drug wars, let's talk about a piece of news that seems to have some positives going for it. In Northern Europe, plans have been announced to build a large canal connecting other working waterways in Belgium, Netherlands, and France.

This proposed canal segment (see yellow in the picture above linking existing blue waterways) will be part of the larger Seine-Nord Europe Canal and would allow shipping of goods from several Northern European ports clear into or out of Paris using, as the project developers emphasize, renewable hydropower energy rather than trucks, planes, or trains, further increasing Europe's commitment to green power. It also highlights further cooperation between neighboring countries, something we've noted as essential when it comes to water use agreements around the world.

It also is a nice "return" to the quickly passed era in America when there was a broad network of canals moving a lot of goods in New York and Pennsylvania - ie. the Erie Canal. Here's a picture of an existing segment of the Seine-Nord canal being used by people and for goods ...

Some details you probably don't need to know about this proposed canal:
106 km long from Compiègne to Aubencheul-au-Bac
8 reaches connected by 7 locks with water-saving basins
2 water storage reservoirs
3 aqueducts
4 multimodal platforms and 7 loading/unloading quays
5 boat harbours plus moorings for passenger vessels
maximum watertightness of the canal and recycling of lockages.

Not much more to say, sounds like a fine, quiet addition to Northern Europe, such a contrast to conflicts, posturing, oppression, and saber rattling that are much more easily turned into News these days. And of course to which we'll return.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Families that spy together, stay together

A strange story of Russian spies - 11 in all, 8 of them living as four couples - who have been arrested by the FBI in the Northeastern US. Their charge - develop contacts of interest regarding economic and technological intelligence and then turn those over to a higher level of Russian intelligence agents for serious cultivation. As Time magazine described one arraignment, "Donald Heathfield was a man on the go. Neighbors rarely saw him, except for sometimes when he was returning from his travels, rolling a small suitcase up to the door of his Cambridge, Mass., home. But on July 1, Heathfield was handcuffed, his legs shackled, as he was escorted into a courtroom in the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston. He sat restless, ... frequently leaning forward as prosecutors outlined the case against him and his partner, a woman known as Tracey Lee Ann Foley. He barely spoke, mostly nodding when questioned by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jennifer Boal. Foley, who for years claimed to be Heathfield's wife, sat still, occasionally resting her chin on her hand as she listened intently to her lawyer Robert Sheketoff's advice....

Heathfield and Foley are two of eleven people arrested in recent days ... accused of being Russian spies. The U.S. arrests took place on June 27 after a seven-year, federal investigation of a suspected espionage ring seeking information on U.S. government policy. ... The FBI believes the accused were "placed together and cohabit in the country to which they are assigned" and were told to "often have children together," as this "deepens an illegal's legend," according to the affidavit. Heathfield and Foley's "legends" — Tim Foley, 20, and Alex Foley, 16 — sat in the back of the courtroom Thursday. "My client and his wife right now are worried about their kids,"

So the obvious questions emerging are, "what information exactly did they gather, or who if anyone are the individuals who showed promise and were passed on to higher Russian intelligence agents" "how did they live normal lives and do spying?" And what's going to happen with their children - Tim Foley 20, Alex Foley 16, Katie Murphy 11, Lisa Murphy 7, Waldo Mariscal 38, Juan Lazaro Jr 17, and the two youngest, aged 1 and 3. Tim (left) and Alex Foley ...

The less obvious, perhaps more intriguing questions are: the FBI had been tracking these individuals for 7 years, gaining more on Russia's spying network and organization than the spies did gaining information, so why now were they "outed"? And even more odd, why, if this is so serious, did the Russian Prime Minister Putin, US White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, and other high ranking officials in both nations all state that the spying fiasco would probably not affect US-Russia relations.

In fact, former President Clinton was in Moscow when the news broke, and he and Prime Minister Clinton conversed this way, "You came to Moscow at a right time. Your police got out of control and grabbed some people," Putin said, eliciting a laugh from Clinton. "But this is just their job. I really expect that the positive that has been accumulated in the recent time in our international relations will not suffer, and I also hope that those people who value the Russian-American relations understand this in today's situation as well."

Is it serious or not, is it theater, just a diversion then? Let's just say that there is far more to the story that may or may not ever come out.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mexico's Drug War Claims High Profile Victim

Typically, drug cartels in Central and South America deal differently with high levels of governance than their deadly approach with common folk. Bribes, payoffs, accommodation are the preferred interactions in order to keep these cartels' dazzlingly lucrative enterprises intact. So it was unusual that a candidate, Rodolfo Torre Cantu, 46, for the governorship of one of Mexico's 31 states, Tamaulipas, was assassinated this week. In the state's capitol, Ciudad Victoria, at a modern convention center where the funeral was held yesterday, thousands of people rose to their feet and applauded for almost five minutes as the bodies of Torre and his bodyguards were carried to the podium. Torre was killed as he was wrapping up his campaign. Gunmen blocked his campaign convoy with a tractor-trailer and then opened fire. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

Torre was apparently on the verge of becoming the governor of Tamaulipas, and the highest-ranking candidate to be killed since presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down in Tijuana in 1994. The speculation for this murder centers on two gangs - the Gulf cartel, and the Zetas - who have been battling each other for control of drug-smuggling routes [to the US] through Northeastern Mexico. One newspaper editorial implied Torre was executed by the Zetas because he favored the Gulf cartel. Torre's supporters say he didn't have ties to any organized criminals.

Two points of many gleaned from various newspaper articles follow:
* More than 23,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in December 2006. Beatriz Paredes, the head of Mexico's largest political party, the PRI, said there was a battle going on in Mexico right now between good and evil. "We believe that in Mexico," she said, "there are more people who want truth, goodness and democracy than people who want hate and, for no reason, chaos."

* President Calderon called a special meeting of his security ministers in response to the assassination, saying "These actions represent an attack not just against one citizen. It's an attack against our democratic institutions. And thus it's an act that requires a strong and unified response on the part of everyone who cares about democracy."

There is much more to our southern neighbor and its 111 million citizens than a violent drug war inside its borders and sporadic spillovers into US border towns. There is Mexico's wide variety of indigenous cultures, with geography ranging from sparse high mountain deserts to tropical jungles, and one of the world's largest metropolitan areas - Mexico City. Yet Mexico's positive vibrancy as well as its dark drug war are overshadowed by what Americans hear much more about, the flow of illegal immigrants into the US. And all are intertwined. The dynamics of violence, insecurity, and lack of opportunity increasingly impact and degrade much of normal life in Mexico.

Though the two countries have worked closely on the issues of drugs, immigration and economic development, apparently they deserve an even stronger response, one that ventures into more uncertain political territory. For example, Calderon recently requested the US ban assault weapons claiming that 80% of guns seized in Mexico come from America. That assertion was immediately and hotly contested by US entities, who challenge the statistic itself, while also quickly linking it to our constitutional right to bear arms (the 2nd Amendment). On the US side, Arizona has heated up the border problem with a stronger law on illegal immigration highlight a reluctance by the federal government to energetically secure its border. Indeed, the US Attorney General stated he'll sue Arizona for establishing what he finds is an unconstitutional law. President Obama calls the Arizona law "misguided" but is reluctant to seal the border or address Arizona's concerns without creating a comprehensive framework for dealing with illegal immigrants already in the US. The lack of economic opportunity continues as a fundamental Mexican problem, in spite of the fact that the US and Mexico have pushed through a number of economic agreements seeking to strengthen trade and growth.

Sadly, until a "surge" of new interest, cooperation, and resolve between the two countries emerges, this festering violent ugliness is on track to continue.