Last month, a major milestone in the repair efforts of the World War II “fast battleship” USS North Carolina (BB-55), which has been undergoing the most significant restoration work in more than five decades.
Last week, the floodgates to the cofferdam were opened, and for the first time since May 2018 the majestic warship is back in the water of the Cape Fear River.
The $11 million project to preserve the ship included the construction of the cofferdam, which began in August 2016 to allow work crews to drain the water from around the hull and address repairs.
Atlantic Coast Industrial Marine Construction, a Wilmington, North Carolina-based company then spent the last three years cutting and replacing the brittle steel on the bow – while the entirety of the hull was repainted to help preserve it.
On July 19, Battleship North Carolina officials held a ceremony as the cofferdam was refilled.
“The Battleship North Carolina will be preserved for decades … so in the next century, when most of the ships from the second World War and the first World War, will have been lost to corrosion and [inability to raise funds for repairs], the Battleship North Carolina will be here representing the state as the state’s memorial to the 10,000 North Carolinians who served and died during World War II,” said Capt. Terry Bragg, the executive director of the battleship, to reporters, WECT TV reported.
Bragg also noted that the USS North Carolina hadn’t actually been out of the water for nearly 70 years and had last been fully repaired back in 1953. The Navy recommends that warships undergo maintenance every 20 years.
“We literally had holes in the hull,” Bragg told WRAL.com. “And we had a number of interior spaces that were flooded to the overhead.”
History of the showboat
Laid down in 1937, the USS North Carolina was completed in April 1941 and at the time of her commissioning, she was considered to be among the world’s greatest sea weapons.
As the lead ship of a new class of battleships, North Carolina was also the first battleship to join the US fleet in 16 years. She was a new design of “fast battleships,” which under the Washington Naval Treaty system limited her displacement and armament, but it resulted in a vessel that could keep up with the faster-moving aircraft carriers.
As part of a clause in the Second London Navy Treaty, her armament was increased from the original nine 14-inch guns to nine 16-inch guns. She also was armed with 20 5-inch/38-caliber guns in 10 twin mounts. USS North Carolina’s wartime complement consisted of 144 commissioned officers and 2,195 enlisted men, including 86 Marines.
The battlewagon took part in the Guadalcanal campaign, screening aircraft carriers engaged in the campaign, and she took part in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons in late August 1942.
While damaged by a Japanese submarine, the warship later returned to take part in the campaigns across the Pacific including the Gilberts and the Marshall Islands, and later took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. After undergoing a refit, she took part in offensive operations in support of the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and later carried home American personnel after the war as part of Operation Magic Carpet.
Since April 1962 the fast battleship has served as a floating museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in November 1982 – in part because the application noted that the ship was in excellent condition and had remained largely in its wartime configuration.
However, retirement hasn’t been kind to the ship. Time and the elements have taken a toll, one that even threatened her future.
In 1998 the museum’s operators even launched Operation Ship Shape, a donation drive to secure funds to make repairs. Yet, the damage had been so great that in 2009, the US Navy gave two directives. The ship would either be scrapped or restored.
Fortunately, the latter was decided upon, and that resulted in a multi-year Generations Campaign to fund work on the aging vessel. To date, more than $23 million in public and private funds have been raised to save the aging battle wagon.
While North Carolina will never actually sail again, the point of the still ongoing repairs is to preserve the warship so that future generations can appreciate the sacrifices made by the “greatest generation,” and to highlight the industrial proficiency of the “Arsenal of Democracy.”
That is a fitting role that the warship, nicknamed “Showboat,” will hopefully fill for decades to come.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” which is available on Amazon.com.
It’s no secret that movies get a lot wrong about firearms and the ways they’re used in a fight.
From every 80’s protagonist refusing to shoulder their rifles when they fire, to the seemingly infinite magazine capacity in every hero’s gun, filmmakers have long prized what looks cool over what’s actually possible in their work, and to be honest, it’s hard to blame them.
After all, diving sideways while firing pistols from each hand does look pretty badass, even if it’s just about the dumbest thing someone could do in a firefight.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule when it comes to Hollywood’s depictions of firefights – movies that manage to offer a realistic representation of how armed conflicts actually play out while still giving the audience something to get excited about.
These movies may not be realistic from end to end, but each offers at least one firefight that was realistic enough to get even highly trained warfighters to inch up toward the edges of their seats.
1. Delta’s time to shine: ‘Sicario’
The border scene in 2015’s Sicario is worthy of study from multiple angles: As an exercise in film making, this scene puts on a clinic in tension building, and although some elements of the circumstances may not be entirely realistic, the way in which the ensuing firefight plays out offers a concise and brutal introduction to the capabilities boasted by the sorts of men that find their way onto an elite team like Delta.
Unlike the Chuck Norris depictions of Delta from the past, these men are short on words and heavy on action, using their skill sets to not only neutralize opponents, but to keep the situation as contained as possible.
The tense lead up and rapid conclusion leaves the viewer with the same sense of continued stress even after the shooting stops that anyone who has ever been in a fight can relate to, despite the operators themselves who are seemingly unphased.
As real special operators will often attest, it’s less about being unphased and more about getting the job done – but to the rest of us mere mortals, it looks pretty much the same.
2. The Gold Standard: ‘Saving Private Ryan’
When “Saving Private Ryan” premiered in 1998, I distinctly recall my parents returning home early from their long-planned date night.
My father, a Vietnam veteran that had long struggled with elements of his service had been excited about the new Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg wartime epic, but found the opening scene depicting the graphic reality of the Normandy invasion of World War II to be too realistic to handle.
My dad, who never spoke of his time deployed, chose to leave the theater and spent the rest of the evening sitting quietly in his room.
This list is, in spirit, a celebration of realism in cinema, but realism has a weight to it, and sometimes, that weight can feel too heavy to manage.
A number of veterans have echoed my father’s sentiments about the film (he did eventually watch it at home by himself), calling that opening sequence, often heralded as a masterpiece of film making, one of the hardest scenes they’ve ever managed to watch.
3. Val Kilmer helps train Green Berets: ‘Heat’
The dramatic 10-minute shootout in “Heat” has become legendary in Hollywood for good reason.
For six weeks, the film’s production team closed down parts of downtown Los Angeles every Saturday and Sunday to turn the city into a war zone, and the actors came prepared to do their parts. Production brought in real British SAS operatives to train the actors in real combat tactics at the nearby LA County Sheriff’s combat shooting ranges.
Legend has it that Val Kilmer took to the training so well that the shot of him laying down fire in multiple directions and reloading his weapon (without the scene cutting) has been shown at Fort Bragg as a part of training for American Green Berets.
Marines training at MCRD San Diego have also been shown this firefight from “Heat” as a depiction of how to effectively retreat under fire.
Almost a year after the US invasion in March 2003, Iraq was starting to spiral out of control, with a complicated Islamist and sectarian insurgency forming up.
On a normal spring day in 2004, a gang of Iraqi kidnappers abducted five contractors, four Italian and one Polish, off the streets of Baghdad.
Soon after the abductions, the Iraqi kidnappers executed one of the hostages, releasing a video of it as a warning. If the Italian and Polish governments didn’t pay a hefty sum, the rest of the hostages would be executed one by one.
US and Coalition special-operations units began looking for leads on the location of the four remaining captives. The task fell primarily to the top special-missions unit in-country: the US Army’s Delta Force.
Alongside Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), formerly known as SEAL Team 6, Delta Force is the US military’s dedicated counterterrorism and hostage-rescue special-missions unit.
With four squadrons (A, B, C, D) of about 70 operators each, the Unit, as Delta Force is known, has an exemplary hostage-rescue record, with several successful high-risk operations since its creation in the late 1970s.
Part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Delta Force and DEVGRU are the US’s first responders for any urgent hostage rescue and counterterrorism contingencies.
Find, fix, and finish
A lot of groundwork has to be done before such an operation. The task force had to pinpoint the location of the hostages – a tall order in the middle of a growing insurgency that included several different sectarian militias and terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iran-backed Mahdi Army.
For the majority of operations, that intelligence would come from other raids, including details from prisoner interrogations or from cellphones or other materials gathered by commandos during other missions.
Any information gleaned from interrogations or devices would give the task force additional leads for more raids in a perpetual cycle until they got to their primary target. Essentially, US and coalition special-operations units would “raid” themselves to the top.
“Time is really off the essence in HR [hostage rescue] and CT [counterterrorism] ops. Hostages or HVTs [high-value targets] can literally be moved in a matter of minutes,” a retired Delta Force operator with several deployments to Iraq told Insider.
“We’ve had occasions where when we launched a mission the target was there, but by the time we had arrived they had moved. These kinds of missions are very kinetic, and you can come up with a dry hole even if you’ve got overhead ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] monitoring the area,” the retired operator said, speaking anonymously to discuss mission planning.
On this occasion, intelligence about the location of the four hostages came from a coalition special-operations unit that had debriefed a prisoner.
Once the suspected location of the hostages was pinpointed, JSOC and the intelligence community began monitoring the compound for any signals intelligence that might reveal more information about the kidnappers or the hostages.
In addition, JSOC teams conducted close-target reconnaissance of the area to gather more information about the building’s layout and the pattern of life of those inside.
On June 8, JSOC managed to pinpoint the exact location of the four hostages. Within minutes, the operators had donned their gear and the helicopters spun up for a daring daylight mission.
Objective Medford was on.
Usually, special-operations units operate in the night, using their advanced night-vision and thermal optics and goggles as an advantage. Daylight operations aren’t unheard of but are rare.
In this case, however, the Delta Force operators had to get to the compound as soon as possible to avoid a last-minute relocation of the hostages or, even worse, an execution. Every minute mattered.
‘We’re Navy SEALs, we’re here to get you out!’
The assault force was composed of a troop of Delta Force operators from A Squadron and eight special-operations helicopters from the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, nicknamed the “Night Stalkers.”
Four MH-60 Black Hawk choppers carried most of the ground force, while four AH/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters provided armed overwatch and assault support.
The assault force flew fast and low across busy highways and farms, touching down just outside the target compound. Knowing that their loud entry would alert the hostage-takers, the Delta Force operators sprinted toward the building.
In record time – just over 17 seconds – the Delta operators swept the compound and located and recovered the four hostages alive. The kidnappers still in the building offered no resistance.
A leaked helmet-camera video provides unique insight into a real hostage-rescue operation by one of the world’s top special-operations units.
As the Delta operators stormed the compound and secured the four hostages, Delta Force operator Jamey Caldwell shouted, “We’re Navy SEALs, and we’re here to get you out,” jokingly quoting the infamous 1990 movie “Navy SEALs,” starring Charlie Sheen.
The movie is a sore point for the Naval Special Warfare community, which sees it as bad publicity.
“That’s what we’re trained to do. We specialized in hostage rescue, and to me that was the most satisfying work. You’re risking your life for someone in dire need and making split-second decisions on whether the guy in the room is a threat or needs help,” Caldwell, now retired, told Coffee or Die Magazine last year.
Delta Force and the Night Stalkers had once again pulled off an impressive operation. As the insurgency flared up in the years that followed, they would have to repeat similar and more difficult feats on an industrial scale.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
On August 9, 1974, most Americans watched President Richard Nixon resign in disgrace, but on the other side of the world, 178 of their countrymen were pulling off one of the most audacious intelligence operations in history.
On that day, the CIA completed the recovery of the Soviet Golf II-class diesel-electric ballistic-missile submarine K-129, which had sunk in the Pacific six years earlier while on a routine patrol.
The Soviets had given up on finding the boat after an intense search. The US, however, had an advantage.
K-129 lost and found
K-129 was launched in May 1959. After upgrades in the mid-1960s, it had a new suite of electronic systems and carried one of the Soviet Union’s newest weapons: three R-21 nuclear-tipped submarine-launched ballistic missiles – the first missiles that Soviet subs could launch while submerged.
On February 24, 1968, K-129 and its 98-man crew sailed out of their base in Kamchatka. The sub had been ordered to operate under radio silence for its first two weeks at sea.
By March 8, however, K-129 still hadn’t reported in. After it failed to report for a second day, the Soviets panicked and launched a major search operation.
Thirty-six vessels scoured over a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. They were joined by 53 aircraft that flew more than 286 flights for over two months.
The Soviets even resorted to searching with submarines using their sonars at full power, and calling out to K-129 over open channels. But after months of operating in bad weather, with waves as high as 45 feet, they called off their search.
The US Navy had been watching closely. The Soviet search, done with no apparent concern about detection by US submarines and aircraft, made it clear that something extremely important had been lost – likely a ballistic-missile sub.
The US Navy had a massive advantage over its Soviet counterpart. The Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS, a network of underwater listening devices built to detect Soviet submarines, had picked up the sound of an exploding submarine in the search area.
The Navy was able to narrow its search area to 5 miles and sent USS Halibut, a cruise-missile submarine repurposed for intelligence operations, to find K-129. After more than a month of searching, Halibut found the Soviet sub.
K-129 was 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii, sitting 16,500 feet below the surface.
It had suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, but the most important parts of the submarine, including its missile silos, remained largely intact. At least one and possibly two of the R-21 missiles appeared to still be in their silos.
Realizing the value of a largely intact Soviet submarine with nuclear missiles aboard, the CIA immediately took the lead in a recovery effort, codenamed Project Azorian.
Early ideas included using rockets or underwater balloons to raise the wreck, but it quickly became obvious that the only way to recover K-129 was with a claw attached to a ship.
A perfect cover story
At that time, nothing had ever been recovered from a depth of 16,500 feet before, let alone an object weighing some 2,000 tons. The deep-sea mining industry was still in its infancy, but one American company, Global Marine, had a reputation as the best builder of ocean mining vessels.
The CIA secured Global Marine’s services in constructing and operating a vessel large enough for the mission. Lockheed was hired to make the claw, which was called the capture vehicle.
The CIA still needed a cover story. Fortunately, it found a perfect one in Howard Hughes.
A Texas oil scion and business magnate, Hughes had a reputation as an eccentric recluse, which made the cover story – a financially risky effort to find manganese nodules using unproven deep-sea mining methods – seem legitimate.
The Hughes Tool Company would be the public face for the Hughes Glomar Explorer, the massive 620-foot ship specially designed for one purpose: to raise K-129 from the sea floor and bring it into its hold through a “moon pool” in the ship’s hull.
The Glomar Explorer arrived over the wreck on July 4, 1974, six years after the sub had been located. It spent the next month lowering the capture vehicle.
The Glomar Explorer was twice surveilled by Soviet ships. The first time, a missile-range instrumentation ship watched the Explorer and flew a helicopter around it for a few days before leaving.
The second ship, an ocean-going tug used for intelligence-gathering, stayed on the scene for weeks. The tug positioned itself so it could recover the Explorer’s trash and repeatedly harassed the US ship, once sailing within 50 feet of it.
But the Soviets had no reason to believe anything suspicious was happening, and the Explorer’s crew continued working. After about a month of lowering the claw, the Americans grabbed the sub and began to raise it.
A few days into the recovery, disaster struck. Several hooks on the claw suddenly broke, and two-thirds of the submarine, including the portion with the missile silos and the code room, fell back into the abyss.
The fallen piece couldn’t be recovered, but the US crew continued to raise what was left. In a stroke of luck, the Soviet tug sailed away when the remains of the K-129 were just 1,000 feet below the Explorer.
With the wreckage aboard, the Explorer’s crew began picking it apart as the ship headed back to the US.
The CIA was preparing for a second recovery effort, called Project Matador, but on March 18, 1975, reporter Jack Anderson broke the story of Project Azorian.
CIA Director William Colby had personally persuaded other journalists, including Seymour Hersh of The New York Times, to hold their stories until after K-129 had been fully recovered. Anderson refused Colby’s requests and broadcasted his story on national radio.
A partial success and a lasting legacy
With the CIA’s cover blown, the White House canceled the second recovery effort. Project Matador was shut down, and the Soviet Navy began closely monitoring the ocean around the wreck.
But the operation was still fruitful. The CIA has never fully disclosed what it recovered, but the haul is believed to include at least two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and a collection of documents, as well as the sub’s bell.
The recovered section also provided insight into Soviet submarine design, such as where important pieces were manufactured, how often they were replaced, and the thickness of the sub’s hull.
Six bodies and a number of body parts were also recovered. In September 1974, as they sailed home, the crew of the Explorer conducted a burial at sea for the fallen submariners.
CIA director Robert Gates gave Russian President Boris Yeltsin a recording of the burial in 1992. The Russians were also given the sub’s bell.
An enduring legacy of Project Azorian was the “Glomar Response,” a bit of legalese devised by the CIA in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Rolling Stone reporter Harriet Ann Phillippi in 1976.
The agency was legally required to reply, so it said it could neither “confirm nor deny” the existence of records relating the program. A court later upheld it as a legitimate response.
After George Floyd was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police in May 2020, millions of Americans poured into the streets to protest his death and call attention to racial injustice.
In the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, Trump summoned Gen. Mark Milley, Defense secretary Mark Esper, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and other advisors to find a way to end the protests.
The president was incensed by a New York Times report that he had been taken to a bunker as protests near the White House turned violent, thinking the news “made him appear scared and weak,” according to a newly-released book by the Washington Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker.
To blunt the continued protests, Trump insisted that active-duty troops be used, which Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Esper sought to eliminate as an option.
When Trump mentioned the 1960s race riots to justify the use of troops to restore order, Milley threw cold water on the suggestion, part of a longer discussion that resulted in the president cursing out his top military advisors, which Leonnig and Rucker detailed in “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year.”
“Mr. President, it doesn’t compare anywhere to the summer of sixty-eight,” Milley said, according to the book. “It’s not even close.”
After senior advisor Stephen Miller chimed in to declare the protests as “an insurrection,” Milley pointed to a portrait of former President Abraham Lincoln, who led the country through the American Civil War.
“Mr. President, that guy had an insurrection,” Milley said, according to the book. “You don’t have an insurrection. When guys show up in gray and start bombing Fort Sumter, you’ll have an insurrection.”
Trump entertained the idea of invoking the Insurrection Act, which would let him deploy troops across the country to quell any civil disorder or insurrection, but Milley and Esper continued to fight against the idea.
On June 1, Trump had grown angrier over the press coverage of the protests, urging governors and law enforcement to “dominate” the nationwide unrest.
“How do you think this looks to hostile countries?” Trump said, according to the book. “They see we can’t even control our own capital city and the space around the White House!”
After once again calling for troops, Esper said that the National Guard remained the best option to stop any unrest, but the president proceeded to slam on the Resolute Desk and told the Defense secretary that he wasn’t done enough to solve the problem, according to the book.
Trump sought to make Milley the leader of an operation to restore order, but after the general reiterated that he wasn’t in an operational role, the president lost it.
“You’re all f—ed up,” Trump said, according to the book. “Every one of you is f—ed up.”
Trump then looked at Vice President Mike Pence, who had been a quiet observer, and directed his ire toward his No. 2.
“Including you!” the president said, according to the book.
Later that day, Trump, along with Milley, Esper, and several other advisors, walked from the White House complex to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The now-infamous photo op, which showed the president holding a bible in front of the church after protestors were violently cleared from Lafayette Park, immediately attracted criticism. However, the inspector general for the Interior Department determined in June 2021 that the US Park Police and Secret Service did not clear the park for Trump’s photoshoot, but to install anti-scale fencing.
A British and Romanian citizen was killed in an attack on the Israeli-owned Mercer Street crew oil tanker off Oman’s coast on Thursday.
Israel has accused Iran of carrying out the attack, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid calling it “Iranian terrorism” that warranted a strong response.
The petroleum product tanker is operated by London-based company Zodiac Maritime, owned by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer.
Zodiac Maritime described the attack as “suspected piracy.”
On Friday, Iranian government Arabic-language television network Al Alam TV said the attack was in “response to a recent Israeli attack on Al-Dabaa airport in the Al-Qusayr region in Syria,” which it attributed to “well-informed sources” in the region.
Iran has not officially responded to the accusations that it is responsible for the attack.
‘Israel will find it hard to turn a blind eye’
According to Israeli news website Ynet, there were two attacks on the ship within a few hours, and it was the second one that hit the bridge and killed the two victims.
A private maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global referred to a drone sighting involving the vessel before the attack, reported Al-Jazeera.
“The incident in the Gulf of Oman was apparently carried out by a kind of kamikaze drone,” wrote Seth J. Frantzman, Senior Middle East Correspondent and Middle East affairs analyst at the Jerusalem Post.
“Pro-Iran forces have used drones to attack US forces in Iraq, and Tehran has trafficked drones and drone technology to the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias,” added Frantzman.
A US official, speaking anonymously, told the Associated Press said the attack appeared to have been carried out by a “one-way drone.”
The Mercer Street is a Liberian-flagged, Japanese-owned ship, and the incident occurred about 152 nautical miles (280 km) northeast of the Omani port of Duqm, outside Omani territorial waters, according to the Oman Maritime Security Center.
“Iran is not just an Israeli problem, but an exporter of terrorism, destruction, and instability that harms us all. The world must not be silent in the face of Iranian terrorism that also harms freedom of shipping,” Lapid said in a statement.
He has reportedly told UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab that a tough response is needed.
Tensions in the Gulf have been rising in recent months, with Iran and Israel repeatedly accusing each other of attacking ships. The latest incident is seen as a significant escalation.
“Israel will find it hard to turn a blind eye,” an unnamed Israeli official reportedly said.
The Mercer Street has now been escorted to a safe location by the US Navy.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter said that Washington was “deeply concerned by the reports and closely monitoring the situation.”
A German retiree is at the center of a legal wrangle after police found World War Two Panther tank, an anti-aircraft gun, and a torpedo in his basement in 2015.
A team of prosecutors and lawyers is working to negotiate a penalty for the 84-year-old, which could include a suspended sentence and a fine of up to €500,000 ($594,050).
A debate has arisen whether the military collector has broken Germany’s War Weapons Control Act. The defense argues that the weapons are no longer functional, therefore not in breach of this legislation, and would accept a lower fine of €50,000, according to an RT-DE report.
However, this is contested by prosecutors, who argue that the weapons could still be used.
A horde of Nazi memorabilia
According to his lawyer, a US museum wants to buy the war-era Panther tank, with militaria collectors interested in the 70 assault rifles and numerous pistols owned by the defendant, Die Welt newspaper reported.
The armaments were discovered in the retiree’s basement in 2015 after local authorities were informed of its war-time contents after the property was searched for Nazi-era art, according to the BBC.
It took 20 soldiers nine hours to remove the trove of military hardware from the unnamed man’s home in Heikendorf, a suburb of Kiel, in Northern Germany.
There was also a horde of Nazi memorabilia, including a bust of Hitler, mannequins in Nazi uniforms, swastika pendants, SS rune-shaped lamps, and a statue of a naked warrior holding a sword in his extended hand that once stood outside Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin, by the dictator’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, reported War History Online.
At the time of the raid, the mayor of Heikendorf, Alexander Orth, told Suddeutsche Zeitung that the man once drove the tank in 1978.
When asked his thoughts on the ownership of the tank, the mayor replied, “One loves steam trains, the other old tanks.”
In early 2001, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug trafficker better known as El Chapo, decided he didn’t want to be in prison any longer.
El Chapo had been at Puente Grande, the maximum-security prison outside of the city of Guadalajara since 1995, locked up for his role in a bloody shootout in 1993 at the Guadalajara airport. And he’d been doing alright at Puente Grande, had enjoyed many of the same creature comforts during his years in Puente Grande as he had on the outside-good food, women, volleyball-and unlike his life on the outside, he even got to sleep in the same place every night. Much of this was thanks to his patronage of Dámaso López Nuñez, who’d taken over as deputy director of security in 1999 and had proved even more pliant than his predecessor in seeing to it that all of El Chapo’s needs were met. When Dámaso arrived, El Chapo immediately began to shower money and gifts on him: ten thousand dollars in cash here, a house there. When one of Dámaso’s children was injured in an accident, it was El Chapo who paid the child’s medical bills.
“When I needed anything, I would ask and he would give it to me,” Dámaso said years later.
Unfortunately for El Chapo, Dámaso had left Puente Grande in the fall of 2000, under a cloud of suspicion amid drastically belated efforts by the government to investigate corruption there. And on January 18, 2001 everything changed for El Chapo when the Supreme Court of Mexico ruled that the United States could extradite Mexican prisoners such as El Chapo, as long as the death penalty was taken off the table. His worst fear, an American prison cell, was suddenly much closer to reality.
Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images
So the next day he left, smuggled out the door tucked into a laundry cart, rolled to freedom by a guard known as El Chito. And nobody saw fit to stop him.
In the book Narcoland, journalist Anabel Hernandez argues that the laundry cart story was a tall tale cooked up in the wake of the escape to hide the real story: that El Chapo had simply walked out the door. Others have joined Hernandez in speculating that the laundry cart story was a fanciful tale ginned up to cover up a more mundane escape made possible by systemic corruption. (Years later, when El Chapo was finally put on trial at a U.S. federal court in Brooklyn, the laundry cart theory was retold repeatedly by multiple former accomplices.)
Regardless of whether El Chapo was rolled out, or walked out in a stolen guard uniform, it was his ability to buy the right people that allowed him to escape.
El Chapo was back. Within days, he was holding a series of meetings with his partners, including the man who in the ensuing years would become his most steadfast ally, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. At one of the first meetings at a lieutenant’s ranch, El Mayo made it clear that he was backing El Chapo to the hilt.
“I’m with you one hundred percent,” El Mayo said. “I’m going to help you with anything you need. And any kilo of coke that I receive from Co- lombia, I’m going to give you half. So for now, just take care of yourself, stay in hiding.”
Hector Guerrero/AFP via Getty Images
But the question was where. El Chapo was travelling with a hard-to-conceal entourage of armed men, and his face was plastered across televisions and newspapers all over Mexico. Where could he lay low without attracting attention?
El Mayo had an idea.
“Let’s go to Sinaloa,” El Mayo said. “Let’s go back to your native lands.”
Perched atop a peak that looms over La Tuna, a ring of cypress trees sits like a crown, blowing faintly in the breeze. From below, across the valley, the trees are all you can see of “El Cielo,” or the Heavens, the home El Chapo built for himself.
It’s a sanctuary he never got to truly enjoy, but which he visited from time to time, sneaking back into his hometown to throw a party or visit his mother.
It sits unoccupied now. With El Chapo serving a life sentence at a supermax federal prison in Colorado, it’s unlikely he’ll ever set foot here again. (But don’t tell his mother that-the family once threw out a television reporter who had the temerity to ask Doña Consuelo directly how she felt about her son spending the rest of his life in prison.)
If he were to get out of prison, however, he might want to head to this mountaintop retreat. Indeed when he escaped from Puente Grande prison in January 2001, it was to El Cielo that El Chapo returned, to plot his new empire-and to see his mom.
Things were looking good for him then. He was free, back in the mountains in which he had grown up and gotten his start, where much of the population loved and supported him, and where the remoteness and the rugged terrain provided a natural defense that allowed him to move about with relative ease.
He was moving coke again, and marijuana and heroin as well-there was always more money to be made in cocaine, but the local economy of his sanctuary still relied heavily on the production of those two trusty cash crops, the hills dotted with red poppy flowers and redolent stalks of cannabis.
By purchasing these drugs from local farmers, he could make a handsome profit, prop up local business, and buy an enduring base of support. Who’s going to turn on the guy who pays wholesale for their crops?
Among the farmers El Chapo bought from in those days was a man named José,* an affable father of three, born, raised, and still living in a small town just off the highway. (Names marked with an asterisk are pseudonyms.)
Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images
Like El Chapo, José and his neighbors learned how to grow weed and opium from their fathers, using tried-and-true methods to grow the crops on little plots of land in the hills above their village. In the early 2000s, José was working an area of land roughly equal to the size of about five football fields. The area was under the protection-or the control-of El Chapo, to whom José and other growers paid a 30% tax in exchange for protection from the soldiers who might otherwise raid the area, burning crops and sending months of work up in smoke.
For several years after the escape from Puente Grande, José did not meet the man to whom he paid taxes. But that finally changed in 2005, when, short on funds, he decided he wanted to make a proposition. A friend agreed to make the introduction, and they drove together up the highway, onto the dirt road, and on to La Tuna. When El Chapo received them, José made his proposal: What if El Chapo covered the expense of planting, and then they split the eventual profit fifty-fifty?
El Chapo readily agreed; that’s just the kind of guy he was, José recalled.
“He was a very simple man, and very natural,” José said. “You just felt like talking to him, never found him to be aggressive.”
The relationship between trafficker-strongmen and the people who grow opium and weed is rarely an even one, and can sometimes be downright feudal: Growers rarely have much choice in whom they sell to, so the people buying are able to set the asking price. The exchange is one of constant negotiation, and often features a certain degree of coercion-whether through the direct threat or deliverance of violence, or through the local boss withdrawing his protection and opening the farmer up to the full fury of a state that is, technically, dedicated to wiping out the farmer’s livelihood.
Jonathan Levinson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Until very recently, small-time, self-employed farmers like José formed the backbone of the opium and marijuana industries. (This status quo has been upended in recent years as widespread legalization of marijuana in the United States and the introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl into the heroin supply have caused prices of both crops to plummet.)
As in any good capitalist system, farmers did most of the work, and were exposed to the most risk at the hand of the state. It pays well, better than most legal work; but by the time a stamp of heroin or a dime bag of weed has been sold on the streets of New York or Philadelphia, only about 1% of the total profits find their way back to the farmer.
The real profits, the billions of dollars that flow from the street sales to the money launderers to the front companies and bank accounts of traffickers, don’t trickle all the way down to little villages nestled in the mountains of Sinaloa or Guerrerro, or to the streets of the border towns through which the drugs pass on their way north. But it’s on the heads of these small-timers that most of the violence of the drug war falls.
Origin stories of the drug trade in Sinaloa often highlight the region’s legacy of upheaval, banditry, and rebellion. But early drug-trafficking clans of Sinaloa were hardly treated as outlaws.
The Mexican sociologist Luís Astorga writes that early Mexican drug traffickers emerged from within the state power structure, rather than as actors outside of it. They came along at a time when that power structure itself was just taking shape, and managed to negotiate for themselves a cozy little cubby within it, one that worked for the state, for the wealthy elite, and for the drug traffickers and cultivators. To a more limited extent, it also worked well for the poor peasants living in areas like Sinaloa.
There is a proud tradition of independence and autonomy in the Sierra, and the drug trade allowed the people of the Golden Triangle to continue to fend mostly for themselves without posing a true threat. The drug traffickers who came before El Chapo acted as local power brokers, playing a key role as unofficial intermediaries between the government and the people of the Sierra. The government allowed them to get rich trafficking drugs as long as the traffickers kept a relative peace in rural areas and made sure the local peasants showed up to vote for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
José and others in the highlands of Sinaloa talk of those years right after El Chapo’s escape as something of a Golden Age, when you knew who ran things and you could look the boss in the eye, make a deal with him, and then have a pleasant chat. As this went on, El Chapo would often pay José, who played in a band in his spare time, to perform at his parties. It felt good to hang out with a guy like El Chapo, José said, to be in the presence of someone regarded in these parts as a great man.
“He is a legend, truly, a legend,” José said. “It was a privilege to speak with him, to have a friendship with him like I did.”
Even if José was giving the sanitized-for-gringo-reporters version, many people in the mountains of Badiraguato knew only this side of El Chapo, the magnanimous local chieftain. This area of Sinaloa was, for many years, spared the violence that the drug trade-and the war on drugs-wreaked on other areas of Mexico. And when violence did arrive, it usually came in the form of the heavy hand of the state, rather than the cruelty of narco hit men.
But even as El Chapo was spreading his goodwill around his hometown and surrounding villages, he and his allies were inflicting violence elsewhere. For when El Chapo arrived back in La Tuna in 2001 and began to rebuild his empire, he was a man hell-bent on revenge.
Sen. Marco Rubio mocked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday for wearing a mask and face shield upon arriving in the Philippines.
“Our @SecDef is vaccinated,” Rubio wrote in a tweet alongside a video that showed Austin deplaning. “But he arrives in the Philippines wearing a mask AND a face shield.”
“Embarrassing COVID theatre,” he continued.
The Philippines requires anyone in public places to wear a mask and a face shield, according to the US Embassy in the Philippines. Some of the people Austin is greeted by in the video are wearing masks and face shields as well.
The Philippines is also facing a surge in COVID-19, prompting authorities in Manila to impose tighter coronavirus restrictions this week. Reuters reported Tuesday that the Philippines recorded its highest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases in more than six weeks. The country has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia, according to The New York Times.
Rubio’s home state of Florida is dealing with its own COVID-19 surge. The state leads the US in COVID-19 cases, and has the highest number of residents hospitalized with COVID-19 per capita, according to data compiled by the Times. It also has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita, after Louisiana.
Austin met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during his visit. After the meeting, Duterte reversed a past decision to withdraw from a defense pact with the US, the Visiting Forces Agreement, the Associated Press reported. The VFA allows the large-scale combat exercises between the US and Philippines forces, which have occasionally sparked concern from China.
“Our countries face a range of challenges, from the climate crises to the pandemic and, as we do, a strong, resilient US-Philippine alliance will remain vital to the security, stability, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. “A fully restored VFA will help us achieve that goal together.”
Wayne LaPierre, the former head of the National Rifle Association, and his wife, Susan, secretly shipped parts of an elephant they shot in 2013 to turn it into home decor, according to a new report published Thursday.
In late April, leaked graphic video footage obtained by The New Yorker and The Trace showed the LaPierres each shooting and killing two elephants in Botswana in 2013.
An export company in Botswana emailed the couple to confirm the shipment of animal parts, which included one cape-buffalo skull, two sheets of elephant skin, two elephant ears, four elephant tusks, and four front elephant feet, according to The New Yorker report published Thursday.
Susan LaPierre later requested that the shipment should have no clear links to the couple, asking to use the name of an American taxidermist as “the consignee” and that the company “not use our names anywhere if at all possible,” The New Yorker reported.
In one message sent by the taxidermist, who was not named in the report, to the shipping company, he explained that the LaPierre’s “can not afford bad publicity and a out cry,” which is “why they are trying not to have there names show up on these shipments so the information does not fall into the wrong hands,” according to records obtained by the news outlet.
Susan LaPierre also noted that the couple expected to receive “an assortment of skulls and skins from warthogs, impalas, a zebra, and a hyena” in the shipment, according to the report.
“Taxidermy work orders containing the LaPierres’ names called for the elephants’ four front feet to be turned into ‘stools,’ an ‘umbrella stand,’ and a ‘trash can,'” The New Yorker reported. “At their request, tusks were mounted, skulls were preserved, and the hyena became a rug.”
The request was made amid the public backlash against Tony Makris, a longtime adviser of LaPierre, after he shot and killed an elephant on the hunting show “Under Wild Skies.” The LaPierres’ hunt was filmed to air as part of an episode for the show, but it was canceled, The New Yorker reported.
There are approximately 415,000 African elephants in the wild, and the World Wildlife Fund lists the species as vulnerable, meaning they are not currently endangered but are at risk due to hunting and elephant poaching.
Representatives for the NRA did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment. Andrew Arulanandam, managing director of public affairs for the NRA, told The New Yorker that LaPierres’ “activity in Botswana – from more than seven years ago – was legal and fully permitted.”
“Many of the most notable hunting trophies in question are at the NRA museum or have been donated by the NRA to other public attractions,” Arulanandam continued.
Last August, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit to dissolve the NRA, saying the organization is “fraught with fraud and abuse” and accused LaPierre of leveraging his status as executive vice president of the NRA for personal gain.
In a complaint filed last August, James’ office claimed that the LaPierres received free taxidermy work, which “constituted private benefits and gifts in excess of authorized amounts pursuant to NRA policy to LaPierre and his wife.”