Thursday, January 11, 2018

Who Rules, the Institution or the People?

Daniel Cano

   I recently finished reading Tolstoy's biography. As I said in a past Bloga post, I found the book tossed out by a neighbor, so I picked it up and gave it a home.

    Like many mythic figures--consider Joan of Arc, Maria Talavera ( rebel-mate of Flore-Magon), Gandhi, Juarez, Hidalgo, and Zapata--Tolstoy became famous for his rebellion against the injustices perpetrated against working and poor people by the Russian State and Church--as institutions. His fame as a world renowned writer, and voice of the Russian people, allowed his words to resonate in the face of tyranny, without physical retribution. As a member of the aristocracy, Tolstoy knew he'd be considered a traitor for exposing the powerful institutions' abuses. He did so anyway, even up until the last seconds before death.

     On the other hand, there was Padre Pio, the Italian saint revered for his life's piousness but also for the stigmata he carried throughout his adult life. There reached a point where Pio became so popular, among celebrities, rulers, people of all religions, and even the non-religious, who came to him for advice and filled the pews in his church, to the envy of the more powerful clergy around him.

     Some in the church hierarchy punished Pio, ordering him to stop saying masses (for the safety of the congregants crunched into his church), and attempted to isolate him from his beloved followers. He was dubbed an hysteric and psychologically unstable. The good padre knew harassment when he saw it, yet he unyieldingly obeyed his superiors' decisions, since, to him, these men, right or wrong, represented God's will, and who was he to question the will of God? The institution was God. After all, Jesus never rebelled. "Render under Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's."

    The lives of these transcendental figures make me wonder about our obligations to the institutions that govern us, for example: "My country right or wrong," "Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings," or "Theirs is not to reason why; theirs is but to do and die." And what of our responsibilities as writers and artists; is it to expose injustice or to trust in the institutions as omniscient and omnipotent? The whole flap over the kneeling of our flag reminded me of Napoleon's statement, "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon."

     I've been working on a story about an ex-patriot American living in Chiapas, a Vietnam veteran, ex-Green Beret, retired from the CIA, who knows more about U.S. involvement in Latin America than he wants to tell our narrator, a professor of history, who stumbles upon him while working on a book about Chicano ex-patriots living in Mexico.

    Perhaps my research into this little story has gotten me looking into a reality I should have left alone. But, I can't un-know what I've already learned. This leaves me to an age-old question regarding role of the artist in society: "Art for art's sake" or the voice of the artist to raise awareness of the injustices that surround us?

    The entire premise of the story goes back the 1985 torture and murder in Guadalajara of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. His death affected me deeply back then and still does today, maybe because he was born poor on a dirt floor in Mexicali then raised a small-town Mexican-American kid in Calexico, California, maybe because he was five days older than I was, or maybe, like many Chicanos, he felt a need to prove his American-ness by joining the military, except Camarena became an institution's man, first a cop then a DEA agent, and, in his arrogance, or naivete, trusted the institution to protect him. Back in '85 when I followed the stories about his torture and murder, I always knew, instinctively, the institution wasn't coming clean.
    What becomes painful for any artist delving into humanity's dark side is that, even in fiction, we must contemplate the facts, and the facts as revealed around Camarena's death, were sinister and grizzly. Writer Charles Bowden, who spent years writing about border atrocities, died in his sleep, some say from spending too much time on the dark side. In online interview Bowden had said that a writer "should go as close to the edge as you can go."

     Because of Gary Webb's book Dark Alliance, other investigative journalists, and the Congressional hearings on Iran-Contra, we know Ronald Reagan's government--even as his wife Nancy told kids to just say "No!" to drugs--wove a complex web of lies and deceit which led to the covert trading of drugs for weapons and money, with the involvement of Israel and Iran, to support anti-Sandinista movements in Latin America. This policy contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Latin Americans, including many Mayans, suffering from the injustice of their governments. As a consequence, drugs, including "crack" flooded America's streets. I often maintain that without Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Oliver North, there would have been no NWA.

     But was Reagan's covert war in Central America an example of an institution gone awry or the work of a few men taking the law into their own hands using loyalty to the institution as their excuse?

    The tragedy here is that while agents like Kiki Camarena, Michael Levine, Phil Jordan, Hector Berrellez, and hundreds of other law enforcement officers were putting their lives on the line to stop drugs from entering the U.S., the "institution" gave major drug dealers open access to our borders. And it wasn't a Republican vs. Democrat scandal. While Reagan was president, Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, where drug dealers openly flew their wares into a small airport in Mena, Arkansas.  Of course, Reagan and Clinton both deny any knowledge of these operations.

     In her book Los Senores del Narco, Anabel Hernandez, a noted Mexican journalist, gave up the names of the highest ranking Mexican officials, if not directly involved in the drug trade, then benefitting from it. She names presidents, vice-presidents, federal, state, and local government and police officials, including governors, mayors, and chiefs of police. For her work, Hernandez was forced to flee Mexico and settle in the U.S. Yet, Mexicans argue, and rightly so, if the U.S. would curb its citizens' demands to "get high", there would be no need for illicit drugs--plata o plomo.

     In his final piece on Camarena, Blood on the Corn, Charles Bowden posits the CIA and U.S. institutional participation in Camarena's torture and death. Had Camarena uncovered our government's involvement in Nicaragua and its dealing with drug leaders? Had Camarena become aware the same informants he was using for information were informing the government about his activities? Had Camarena, as others had come to suspect, realized our government was sabotaging DEA operations? What we do know today is that our government wasn't sure what Camarena knew, and it wanted to know.

    Hector Berrellez, a highly decorated DEA agent, was asked by his superiors, back in the 1990s, to investigate Camarena's murder. Even the federal drug agency wasn't satisfied with the institution's explanation. After an exhaustive investigation where Berrellez interrogated both Mexican law enforcement officers as well as drug dealers present at Camarena's torture, they all swore an American CIA operative was present. He spoke Spanish with a Cuban accent. In addition, there were five tapes recording the torture. One of them, the one with the Cuban operative's voice, is unaccounted for.

    As reported in an L.A. Weekly interview with Berrellez, in Bowden's articles, and in other newspapers, the men who abducted Camarena were only supposed to rough him up and get whatever information they could. Camarena's answers didn't satisfy them, and the torture began. They hired a doctor to inject him with speed to keep him conscious. One of the abductors, a notorious drug lord, furious because Camarena had cost him millions of dollars when Camarena devised a plan to get banks to freeze the assets of all suspected drug dealers (which leads one to question, what role did, and do, our financial institutions play in the drug trade?). Once the beating started, no one could stop the drug kingpin from stopping it.

    U.S. intelligence agencies deny any involvement. Even the DEA backed away from Berrellez' findings. The institution, using the media as hired guns, circled the wagons, so to speak. They vilified Gary Webb, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter. Fiery with envy, rather than rage against the machine and support Webb, his brethren journalists from coast-to-coast set out to discredit him, ultimately destroying his reputation. The institution also vilified Hector Berrellez. Fellow agents and supervisors questioned his integrity, his mental stability, and his loyalty to the institution-- echoes of Padre Pio? Gary Webb was found dead, a reported suicide, with two bullets to the face, not one, but two. Berrellez shrank back into a private investigative practice some place in Riverside, CA.

    To complicate matters, in her heavily documented book, Drug War Capitalism, journalist Dawn Paley suggests that the drug war in Mexico is finished. We now know the last major cartel leader is in a New York prison, and his fate is surely to follow that of Panamanian strong man Manuel Noriega. No one will ever find out what he knows. The institutions won.

    Paley argues that today the drug war is a deception designed to allow global corporations, with the blessing of many world  institutions, access to lands owned by poor, indigenous Mexicans. The government reported a fierce battle against a notorious drug cartel in an ejido in Guerrero state. Among the so-called cartel members murdered were the bodies of pregnant women, children, and old men who had earlier refused to leave their land. It looked as if someone had tossed weapons around the area to make it appear as if they were armed. What institutions fear most is an educated citizenry. Maybe this is the real reason for the U.S. failing education system, as well as for the missing 43 Mexican college students, also from Guerrero, to remind the populace that too much knowledge is dangerous.

    We now know our government lied to get American troops into Vietnam and Middle East (no Gulf of Tonkin Incident and no WMD's). What else has it lied about and why? Does the institution know more than the people; therefore, we must trust its actions without question?

    In the recently released, award-winning movie the Post, we find that Daniel Ellsberg's release of what became known as the Pentagon Papers proved that most high-level politicians, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, knew by the late 1960s and into the '70s, the Vietnam War was unwinnable, yet they continued sending Americans, including an extremely high percentage of minority, working class, and poor kids into the slaughter.

     As I attempt to unravel all that I have collected regarding our institutions to try to cull a story from the heap of information, I must ask if Franklin and Lincoln were right. Is the "institution" truly "of the people, by the people, and for the people?" Or is the institution simply an instrument of the most influential people using the rest of us as pawns on a chessboard, much like the little people in Mark Twain's story, "The Mysterious Stranger?"

     Was Camarena's demise an example of "the end justifying the means?" Are we all collateral damage? Is the institution infallible and to be protected at all costs?

    In Bob Woodard's book, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, Woodard quotes Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who upon suspecting the CIA's was getting too deep in Nicaragua, stated, "You guys are setting yourselves up for a fall. No one is going to blame the White House...or the State Department or the Pentagon for this. When this all fails, the CIA will be blamed. It's their war, not Reagans's war, or even Casey's (CIA director) war, but the CIA's war. Reagan [and] Casey...will be out of office someday, but the agency will remain."

     So, is it the institution or the people, or, in the long run, is it all the same thing? How does one choose between giants like Tolstoy and Padre Pio?



Unknown said...

This is my favorite take on the role of the artist in society: James Baldwin's 1962 essay, "The Creative Process."
Daniel Acosta

Daniel Cano said...

Daniel, I will definitely check it out, thanks.