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    Wednesday, April 15, 2009

    CNN - Obama heads to Mexico amid escalating drug violence

    Sent from bombastic4000@yahoo.com's mobile device from http://www.cnn.com.

    Obama heads to Mexico amid escalating drug violence


    President Obama travels to Mexico on Thursday as the United States' neighbor to the south continues to wrestle with increasingly deadly drug wars.

    Obama recently announced a crackdown on border violence and on the smuggling of cash and weapons into Mexico -- a step that could mark an end to a blame game over where responsibility for the violence lies.

    On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president recently designated three Mexican organizations, which he says are involved in drug trafficking, to face hefty financial sanctions under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. The law, signed by President Bill Clinton in December 1999, authoritizes the president to impose penalties against foreign drug kingpins -- and organizations that do business with them, according to the Treasury Department.

    "Today's action underscores the U.S. government's support for [Mexican] President [Felipe] Calderon's courageous attack on the cartels and our attempt to attack the financial underpinnings of Mexico's cartels believed to generate billions of dollars annually," Gibbs said. "With today's actions the Department of the Treasury will be permitted over the months and years ahead to block or seize any assets, accounts or securities under U.S. jurisdiction of those belonging to these cartels or who act on their behalf."

    The president's action comes ahead of his trip to Mexico -- along with attending the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago later this week -- where drug violence will undoubtedly be debated.

    It's traditional for the new U.S. president to go north and south early on. Obama traveled to Canada in February.

    Authorities on both sides of the border blame powerful drug cartels for escalating bloodshed. Analysts have said the bulk of the violence takes place along the U.S. border, particularly in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and Tijuana -- as well as on Mexico's western coast.

    The Pentagon and the director of national intelligence have both warned recently of the national security threat that an unstable Mexico poses to the U.S. Congress also has addressed the violence, holding eight hearings since coming back into session two months ago.

    Former Mexican President Vicente Fox on Wednesday downplayed analysts' warnings, saying the worst-case scenario is "far, far, away."

    As for who is to blame for the surge in drug cartel violence, Fox refused to point fingers, saying both sides share responsibility -- Mexico, for its role as a producer and trans-shipment point for illegal drugs, the United States for its insatiable appetite.

    "We don't have to blame each other," said Fox this morning, "what we have to do is work together. Meet the challenge and solve the problem."

    During his administration, from 2000 to 2006, Fox launched a crackdown on the drug lords -- what he dubbed "the Mother of All Battles." The program put thousands of people in jail, but he was criticized for leaving a power vacuum among the cartels, which erupted into the violent turf wars that rage to this day.

    Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that some of the sources of the violence are on the U.S. side of the border.

    "You need 'two to tango'. And as Mexico seeks to shut down the flow of drugs coming into the United States from Mexico, from South America, we need the support of the United States to shut down the flow of weapons and bulk cash," he said.

    Sarukhan called the Obama administration's willingness to accept co-responsibility "a very encouraging sign."

    "I think that the fact that the Obama administration is seized with the importance of this issue is a clear indication that they understand that, to defang the drug syndicates in Mexico, we have to eliminate two of their most powerful sources -- bulk cash from the United States into Mexico and illicit weapons."

    It's a point that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agrees with.

    "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," she said on March 26."Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians. So, yes, I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility."

    During her trip to Mexico, Clinton emphasized that the United States has already appropriated $700 million in aid to Mexico, and Congress wants to see how the administration is applying it before sending more.

    Sarukhan said Clinton's visit to Mexico in March -- along with other top administration officials -- has "started to push the ball in the right direction."

    But Sarukhan warns that the key issue right now is how the U.S. can help crack down on guns and cash flowing to the Mexican drug cartels.

    "We have seen a dramatic rise of assault weapons being seized in Mexico. There's a direct correlation between the expiration of the assault weapons ban and our seizures of assault weapons."

    Despite the violence, Mexican officials say the country is safe and that tourist areas -- such as Cancun and Acapulco -- have a large security presence.

    In a speech in mid-March, Calderon said 93 percent of the 6,500 deaths attributed to organized crime in 2008 occurred among the criminals. Most of the rest were law enforcement authorities, officials have said. Few civilians are killed, the president said.

    In that same speech, Calderon ridiculed those who say Mexico is unsafe.

    "It is absolutely false, absurd, that anyone indicate that Mexico does not have control over one single part of its national territory," he said. "I challenge anyone who says that to tell me what part of the country they want to go to and I will take that person there."

    Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who serves on the board of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a recent CNN.com commentary that the U.S. needs to examine gun control in order to tackle the violence in Mexico.

    "While the Mexican drug war has the media and Washington abuzz, there has been little mention of our role in supplying the terrorists: We need to realize that the Mexican drug cartels are arming themselves here because our gun laws have loopholes so large that criminals and gun traffickers can easily drive gun-laden trucks through them," wrote Townsend, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and daughter of late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. "This crisis is not happening because our border is loose," she wrote. "It is happening because our gun laws allow guns to be sold by unlicensed sellers without background checks required by the Brady Bill, military-style assault weapons to be freely sold and corrupt gun dealers to thrive." Read more of Townsend's analysis

    But in an opposing commentary on CNN.com, National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre argued that a crackdown on guns in the United States won't -- and should not -- be the answer.

    "Of course, everyone's rooting for Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government to crush the drug cartels' stranglehold. But our rights are not what's wrong," he wrote. "Nobody can substantiate claims that U.S. guns cross the border 'by the thousands' or 'account for 95% of weapons used by Mexican drug gangs.' Because it's not true." Read more of LaPierre's views

    Instead, LaPierre argues, the U.S. should simply "seal the border. Punish the guilty. And use existing gun and drug laws against violent drug syndicates here and in Mexico."

    "But leave American freedoms alone," he added.

    Reuters - Islamic firms seek bargains in the West

    This article was sent to you from bombastic4000@yahoo.com, who uses Reuters Mobile Site to get news and information on the go. To access Reuters on your mobile phone, go to:
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    Islamic firms seek bargains in the West

    Wednesday, Apr 15, 2009 4:21PM UTC

    By Lin Noueihed and John Irish

    DUBAI (Reuters) - Sharia-compliant firms in the Gulf Arab region are eyeing bargains in Western markets hit by the global crisis but Islamic merger principles still need development, a partner at an international law firm said.

    Having covered Islamic finance for 15 years, Neil Miller, head of Islamic Finance at Norton Rose, relocated from London to Dubai a few weeks ago to work on developing sharia-compliant mergers and acquisitions, project finance and other deals.

    "A significant proportion of (regional business leaders) said they were looking to do an M&A deal sometime in 2009... There is quite a potential pipeline of work, how quickly that will actually materialize remains to be seen," Miller told a Reuters Islamic Banking and Finance Summit in Dubai.

    "I'm not going to call the bottom (of the market). I don't think anybody is going to call it... But one thing about clients in this part of the world is they know how to find a bargain."

    Miller said potential Islamic investors were likely to be seeking out bargains into the second or even the third quarter, ready to make purchases once global markets have settled.

    Gulf Arab sovereign wealth funds and other state-linked investment vehicles have said since the financial crisis worsened last year, that they saw potential investment opportunities emerging from the turmoil.

    Abu Dhabi's state-run International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) has made several purchases in recent months including a 32.5 percent stake in Spanish oil company Cepsa <CEP.MC> and a 9.1 percent holding in German carmaker Daimler <DAIGn.DE>.

    Asset-heavy sectors such as manufacturing naturally appeal to Islamic firms whose transactions must be linked to physical assets but Miller said clients from the region were interested in a number of sectors.

    "In London, the sectors clients are talking about there are renewables, not greenfield but established, pharmaceuticals, healthcare," he said.

    "They are interested in looking for businesses that are established in a niche, perhaps technology based, that they can acquire in the West. They'll also bring part of those businesses back to the region."

    Islam bans interest, investing in prohibited sectors such as gambling, pornography and alcohol and stipulates that risk and reward be shared among all those in the business venture.

    Demand from the world's 1.3 billion Muslims for investments that comply with their beliefs has soared, and assets compliant with Islamic law are estimated at $700 billion to $1 trillion.

    But the Islamic finance sector is still in its infancy. International industry standards are still in the process of being established and a legal framework for more sophisticated Islamic products and transactions is still emerging.

    "In sharia-compliant M&A it is extremely difficult to introduce the leverage, and if the market is honest with itself, there have been very few, if any, transactions that have managed to do the leverage in a satisfactory sharia-compliant way," he said.

    "My aim is to explore with the scholars and practitioners whether there are more acceptable ways of doing these things ... There hasn't been any diligent research into alternative methods.. It is going to be an interesting and challenging task to find more ways of doing this."

    (For summit blog: http://summitnotebook.reuters.com/)

    CNN - Hitmen's bloody reign all about logic, trafficker says

    Sent from bombastic4000@yahoo.com's mobile device from http://www.cnn.com.

    Hitmen's bloody reign all about logic, trafficker says


    There are no welcome signs on the approach to Camargo.

    It's a hardscrabble Mexican border town and home turf for "Los Zetas," a gang of hitmen and corrupt former special forces cops on the bankroll of the Gulf Cartel.

    Local journalists explained if we went there we'd be getting "tangled up in the hooves of the horse." They said Zeta gunmen recently smashed one reporter's fingers with a hammer as a warning to the media to stay away.

    The plaza was deserted -- for a few minutes at least. Then the throb of engines broke the Sunday morning peace. Scores of pickup trucks with heavily tinted windows began circling. Occasionally a window would crack open. We were clearly being watched.

    A black SUV pulled up alongside the soda stand. One of the occupants stepped out. First I saw the ostrich skin cowboy boots, then the highly polished 9 mm pistol strapped to his side. It was loaded with a longer-than-usual ammunition clip, custom-made to pack extra bullets. It was a brazen flaunting of Mexican law to carry a gun that way.

    No words. Not even a stare. But his message seemed unequivocal. Our visit to Camargo lasted just 20 minutes. Taking the strong hint, we immediately left town.

    Much as we wanted to explore the underbelly of the drug war raging in Mexico, it was clear the capos, or bosses, and their hired guns were in no mood to talk. Their business thrives best in the shadows. Our best chance of getting some insight was to track down a cast of peripheral characters who live in the gray areas, somewhere between the extremes of right and wrong.

    The hospitality was little better in nearby Miguel Aleman. Customers, even an argumentative drunk, fell silent as we ordered a beer in a dingy cantina. A couple of tired-looking prostitutes retreated to a far corner. They may have been down on their luck but they knew talking to outsiders wasn't worth the cost. Here the Zetas are well-known for enforcing their law of silence at gunpoint.

    Along this stretch of the border Los Zetas are kings. From here their bloody reach stretches far across Mexico and deep into Central America. They run immigrant smuggling, drug trafficking, prostitution rackets, video piracy and local politics.

    In the glitzy industrial city of Monterrey, we met a marijuana dealer smoking his own merchandise in the bathroom of a dance club.

    The man, whom we can't name for his safety, explained how he had been recruited at gunpoint two years earlier by the Zetas to be what they call a "landowner" (terrateniente in Spanish) -- in charge of cocaine distribution in a handful of neighborhoods.

    He said Zeta gunmen bundled him into a truck and with assault rifles aimed at his head they gave him three options -- pay them $100,000, begin working for them or die.

    Over the next few days, he says the same gunmen scared off or killed rival drug dealers, leaving him in charge of what he said was a $4,000-a-day business.

    It all ended, he said, when Mexican soldiers kicked down his door. He was never detained but his cover was blown. Local Zeta commanders thanked him for not ratting on them by giving him permission to retire from the business.

    But recently he's gone into business for himself selling $2 bags of pot. He realizes working independently of the Zetas may be fatal.

    "Maybe I'm stupid or something, but I don't know how to do anything else. If they catch me it's simple, they'll kill me. It's just not allowed to work freelance," he said.

    An old friend of mine in Monterrey knew the marijuana peddler well and vouched for his story. He never made good on his promise to give us a recorded account. He went on a 24-hour drug binge. When we caught up with again him he was smoking crack, sweating profusely and paranoid his former paymasters would exact revenge.

    Mexico's tit-for-tat vendettas look like uncontrolled chaos.

    Mob assassins are no longer content with efficient execution-style killings. Sinaloa cartel hitmen regularly place pig masks on the faces of their Juarez cartel victims. And in a grim seasonal touch, killers in Juarez decapitated a cop and placed a Father Christmas hat on his severed head.

    But in a sidewalk cafe in Guadalajara, "Jose" explains there is a clearly defined set of narco-rules that must be followed. A small-time Latin American cocaine trafficker I've known for years introduced me to Jose.

    Jose is old school. He tells me he's been in the cocaine trade since the early 1980s almost since it began, has worked internationally and done a stretch in prison

    "From the outside it might look like the cartels are just going around killing people. But on the inside there's a code of conduct, rules. You might not want to kill somebody but you have to because it's all about respect," he said. "This cannot work if there's no respect. Above all, the capos use logic to solve the problems."

    Jose added that he believed groups of corrupt officials and law enforcement officers were using the militarization of the border region not as a means to crush the drug cartels but as a way of forcing them to pay a bigger slice of the drug profits as bribes.

    "The authorities and the cartels use the rule of 10. By that I mean for every 10 kilos of cocaine we move, we have to give three to the authorities and keep seven for ourselves," he explained. "When times are bad the authorities may arrest somebody or grab an entire consignment and that's a way for forcing up their percentage take."

    Jose's assertion might seem like feverish conspiracy theory if it weren't for the growing list of Mexican officials, ranging from local cops and foot soldiers to generals and men at the highest levels of law enforcement, who've been busted for allegedly profiting from the drug trade.

    In November, Mexico's former drug czar was detained on suspicion that he may have accepted $450,000 a month in bribes from drug traffickers. He had been in charge of the attorney general's office that specializes in combatting organized crime.

    Tomorrow, Penhaul looks at the gang's dead triggermen and the lives they left behind.

    CNNMoney.com - Is Facebook losing its glow?

    Sent from bombastic4000@yahoo.com's mobile device from http://money.cnn.com.

    Is Facebook losing its glow?


    It's been a busy couple of months for social networking site Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on the cover of FORTUNE (dressed in a tie, no less) and shared with us his plans to turn Facebook into the next digital communications platform. Soon thereafter he landed on Oprah Winfrey's couch to offer a tutorial on the site he'd initially built four years ago. In March the company launched a redesign that a vocal group of users roundly criticized. A few weeks after that chief financial officer Gideon Yu resigned unexpectedly, prompting bloggers to speculate that the company must be readying itself for a public offering.

    Meanwhile the site has kept adding users at a rapid clip (the redesign has not kept newcomers away), and analysts are starting to raise questions about just how much Facebook is spending on infrastructure to maintain the large site.

    It is hard to know much about Facebook's financial situation, because the company is privately held, and its management team has long been reluctant to address the issue of profits. Until now, executives and investors alike have said they place a priority on adding users and getting them to spend more time on the site. In my February interview with operating chief Sheryl Sandberg, she made it clear that the company was very focused on making money specifically so that it could continue to fund its user growth. And early board member Jim Breyer, who put in $1 million of his own money and $12.7 million from an Accel Partners fund, told me he wasn't demanding or even expecting immediate economic returns, saying profitability is "a key focus but there has never been a very specific time table."

    Indeed, the company has a deep well of capital to fund its business. It has raised more than $400 million in financing so far. Its largest investor is Microsoft, which paid $240 million in 2007 for a 1.6% stake in the company, giving Facebook a valuation of about $15 billion. Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-Shing also invested $120 million at the same valuation. (The company's internal valuation as of last June was $3.7 billion.)

    But analysts posit that the business itself is becoming increasingly expensive to run. Facebook reports users are uploading more than 850 million photos each day and more than eight million videos. That's a lot of server space.

    (And Facebook may not be able to make a return on all those new users. Some 70% of the site's members come from overseas, and many of them hail from countries where there is no real potential for drumming up advertising dollars.)

    Will Facebook's 2009 revenues be enough to fund this growth? In 2008, the company brought in an estimated $280 milion. Most of that came directly from banner ads, and a substantial chunk was still coming from a deal with Microsoft in which the Internet behemoth sold traditional banner ads, which cost as little as $0.15 cents per one thousand ads shown to users.

    But the company has said that it is on track to beat revenue projections and make 70% more than it did in 2008. In the past year, Facebook has doubled its sales team to more than 130. And a quick scan of the source code for the site's ads would confirm Facebook's assertion that the Microsoft deal accounts for an ever smaller number of the ads the site serves up.

    Facebook is in fact seeing positive results with a new ad format it launched last fall, the engagement ad. A good case study comes from Vancouver, Wash.-based pizza restaurant Papa Murphy's, which ran an ad offering a free pizza to anyone who "became a fan" of the restaurant on the Facebook page it created. Users received notifications in their newsfeed and then were directed to the Papa Murphy's Web site to get their pie.

    More than 131,000 users became a fan of the national pizza franchise saw traffic to its site jump 253%. And within two weeks, 1,200 people had posted to the site's wall. As Facebook's user base grows, advertisers continue to experiment with these types of ads even as they're pulling back in other areas.

    Facebook's popularity seems not to have diminished: the company says more than half of its 200 million active users log on every day. And users spent 178 minutes on the site last month on average, according to Comscore, up 5 % from the previous month.

    With so much momentum, will Zuckerberg look to go publlic soon? When Yu left the company, the Wall Street Journal quoted Zuckerberg in an internal memo saying the company would look for a new chief financial officer "with public company experience who can help take us to the next stage in our growth." Indeed, Zuckerberg has always alluded to an IPO, turning down early acquisition offers from large Internet companies. But Zuckerberg isn't revealing his plan. Any speculation as to whether Yu's departure suggests Facebook is hastening its plans is just that: speculation.

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