• 'A threat to democracy': William Barr's speech on religious freedom alarms liberal Catholics

    Attorney general’s recent address at Notre Dame is a ‘dog whistle’ to conservatives who have aligned themselves with TrumpWilliam Barr, US attorney general, speaks to students at the University of Notre Dame law school on 11 October. Photograph: Robert Franklin/Associated PressProminent liberal Catholics have warned the US attorney general’s devout Catholic faith poses a threat to the separation of church and state, after William Barr delivered a fiery speech on religious freedom in which he warned that “militant secularists” were behind a “campaign to destroy the traditional moral order”.The speech last Friday at the University of Notre Dame law school, in which Barr discussed his conservative faith and revealed how it affects his decision-making as the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer, has set off a fierce debate among Catholic intellectuals from across the political spectrum, as well as among Catholics inside the justice department.C Colt Anderson, a Roman Catholic theologian and professor of religion at Jesuit-run Fordham University, said in an interview that he was unaware until this week that Barr was a fellow Catholic. Now, after reading the speech, Anderson believes the attorney general, in revealing his devotion to an especially conservative branch of Catholicism, is a “threat to American democracy”.He described the speech as a “dog whistle” to ultra-conservative Catholics who, he says, have aligned themselves to Donald Trump in a campaign to limit the rights of LGBTQ Americans, immigrants and non-Christians, especially Muslims, and to criminalize almost all abortions. “The attorney general is taking positions that are essentially un-Democratic” because they demolish the wall between church and state, Anderson said.In the hallways of the justice department in Washington, there has been a similar furor among some Catholics employees who answer to Barr. “I was shocked by the speech and all this fire and brimstone,” said a senior department career official who considers himself a devout Catholic, speaking on condition that he not be identified for fear of losing his job.“At least it helps me understand why Barr has been so willing to put his own reputation on the line to defend Trump so fiercely in every battle,” beginning with the congressional investigation that is likely to end in the president’s impeachment, he said. “Trump is Barr’s imperfect vessel in serving a much higher cause: the gospel.”In the speech, delivered to an invitation-only crowd at Notre Dame, one of the nation’s largest and best known Catholic universities, the attorney general described threats to religious freedom.He warned that Catholicism and other mainstream religions were the target of “organized destruction” by “secularists and their allies among progressives who have marshalled all the force of mass communications, popular culture, the entertainment industry and academia”.He insisted that “the traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” of the United States was under siege by “modern secularists” who were responsible for every sort of “social pathology”, including drug abuse, rising suicide rates and illegitimacy.Barr did not address the fact that many of the policies of the Trump administration are strongly opposed by the Vatican. Pope Francis has repeatedly pleaded for the United States to open its doors to more refugees, even as Barr has defended policies that turn away or imprison immigrants seeking refugee status at the US-Mexico border, even separating parents from their children.The reaction to Barr’s address came as another Trump cabinet member, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, was drawing fire from civil liberties groups over the state department’s decision this week to promote his recent speech titled Being a Christian Leader on the department’s online homepage.The speech by Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, was delivered on Friday, the same day as Barr’s speech, to a meeting of the American Association of Christian Counselors in Nashville.“It’s perfectly fine for secretary Pompeo to be a leader who is a Christian,” the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a statement. But the decision to promote Pompeo’s speech on the department’s official website sends “the clear message that US public policy will be guided by his personal religious beliefs”.Barr’s speech at Notre Dame was a reminder of a fact often overlooked in analysis of Trump’s political base - that while the president enjoys the support of many high-profile right-wing Christian evangelical leaders, he has also surrounded himself with conservative Roman Catholics associated with organizations that some others in the faith consider extreme.One example: Barr and Patrick Cipollone, Trump’s White House counsel, have both served on the board of directors of a Washington-based organization staffed by priests from the secretive, ultra-orthodox Catholic sect Opus Dei.William Barr departs the annual Red Mass at the Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle in Washington DC. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/ReutersBarr’s speech last week was hailed by many conservative religious commentators. “Barr took the gloves off, saying that religion is not jumping to its death; it’s being pushed,” wrote Ron Dreher at the American Conservative magazine.“As we religious conservatives think about how to vote in the election next fall, we should ponder the fact that under Donald Trump, as awful as he is in so many ways, a man of William Barr’s convictions is heading up the Department of Justice,” Dreher continued. “Thank God Bill Barr is there.”Liberal Catholics, on the other hand, said they were dumbfounded at Barr’s willingness to so publicly link his Catholicism to his work at the justice department.“This should put the fear of God into anybody who cares about freedom, democracy and the separation of religion and politics,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a group that advocates for Catholics who support a woman’s right to abortion and other reproductive freedoms.Barr’s speech, he said, shows that “Christmas is coming very early” for conservative Catholics and other Christians who want to see an end to abortion rights.In his Notre Dame speech, Barr spoke of the need for the United States to recognize “natural law”, a concept in Catholic theology that has been cited by the Vatican in recent decades to try to outlaw artificial contraception and medical procedures such as in vitro fertilization.O’Brien said he worried that under Barr, who was sworn in last February, that the justice department could impose a de facto litmus test on federal judicial candidates, requiring them to commit themselves to “natural law”.Anderson, the Fordham theologian, said he was so alarmed by the tone of Barr’s speech that he was now concerned the attorney general intends to use his authority to put the United States on the path of increasingly authoritarian European nations like Poland, where democratically government leaders have cited their devout Catholicism to justify a crackdown on free speech and the purging of judges.That Barr is a devout, conservative Catholic is no surprise to anyone who has studied his writings and speeches. In a 1995 article in Catholic Lawyer magazine, Barr, who had previously served as attorney general under George H W Bush, warned that “we are living in an increasingly militant secular age” and that Catholic lawyers should “take the battlefield and enter the struggle” in support of laws “designed to restrain sexual immorality, obscenity or euthanasia”.The article denounced the “evil” of abortion and bemoaned the rise of the gay rights movement. “How can it be that the homosexual movement, at one or two percent of the population, gets treated with such solicitude while the Catholic population, which is over a quarter of the country, is given the back of the hand?” he wrote.But in his Senate confirmation hearings in January, Barr was asked few questions about his faith and how it might bear on his actions on the Justice Department.Barr was not questioned in any detail, for example, about his membership on the board of directors of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, the Opus Dei-linked group that offers as a meeting place for prominent Catholics in the capital.The center’s board has also included Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, the right-wing legal group tasked by Trump to help him pick federal judges, including members of the supreme court. Leo led campaigns to support of the supreme court nominations of John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, all of them Catholics, who now serve on the court.A week later, Barr’s speech at Notre Dame remains the subject of “a lot of chatter” on campus, said professor David Campbell, chairman of the university’s political science department.Campbell said in an interview that he was reluctant to be drawn into the debate about Barr’s religious views, although he suggested that the attorney general was wrong in one of his central arguments: that so-called secularists, a term generally applied to people who want a strict separation between church and state, were a threat to the freedom of Catholics or others to worship as they please.In fact, Campbell, who is just about to publish a book on the subject, said that opinion polls and other reliable scientific research showed that Americans who describe themselves as secularists are “quite supportive of the free exercise of religion, particularly when it comes to minority religions”. The attorney general and other conservative Catholics might believe that secularists are some sort of threat to their religious freedom, Campbell said, “But, the truth is, it’s a myth.”

  • 27-year-old New York City mom dies after going into hospital to have cyst removed

    A young New York City mother died at a local hospital after going in for what was meant to be a simple procedure, according to her family and their attorney. Rosemary Abreu, 27, went to Lincoln Hospital, in the Bronx, to have a cyst in her left thigh removed on Sept. 21, attorney Sanford Rubenstein told ABC News on Saturday. Abreu was pronounced dead the next day.

  • Mexico’s Murderous Super-Cartel CJNG Is Winning the ‘Narco Game of Thrones’

    Jeremy KrytVALLECITOS DE ZARAGOZA, Mexico-There is only one hotel still open in this cartel-besieged town and I am the only guest in it.The former owner of the Sierra Inn here in western Mexico’s Guerrero state is a local businessman and political candidate who was run off the road and shot to death by sicarios [hitmen] two years back. He’d envisioned turning Vallecitos into a hot-spot for eco-tourism-the town is nestled in an idyllic, wooded valley in the Sierra Madre del Sur-and at the time he was killed he had several other development projects in the works. Now only this lonely hotel remains.Eight Dead, Prisoners Escape in Botched Attempt to Arrest El Chapo’s SonIt’s early fall and the rainy season is underway in these mountains. When the storms are too bad to go out I wander the deserted halls, the silent dining room. I look at the empty pool, study paintings of the slain owner’s horses on the walls. All kept immaculate by the gerente, the caretaker, and his wife. The gerente went to school with the murdered owner and weeps to talk of him. The wife will not speak to me at all. “We keep hoping some day things will get better here,” says caretaker José Ramos, 46, while inspecting bullet holes in the hotel facade caused by a recent gun battle outside. “If the fighting ever stops, and the people come back, we want to be ready for them,” Ramos tells me. “That’s our dream.”Jeremy KrytThe surrounding streets are almost as deserted as the hotel itself. Like many rural hamlets across Mexico, Vallecitos has become what’s known as a pueblo fantasma. A ghost town. Shuttered shops. Bullet-riddled schools. Unstaffed clinics. The town’s population has dwindled from a high of about 6,000 people a few years ago to around 700 today. And locals say those numbers are still falling, as residents flee cartel assaults and growing poverty.A study this year determined that Mexico was home to 1.13 million people displaced by violence. Guerrero, long among Mexico’s most dangerous states and the nation’s top heroin producer, is also a leader when it comes to internal refugees, many of whom flee north to seek asylum. The U.S. border patrol deports more residents from Guerrero than from anywhere else in Mexico.There are two main factors driving the flow of refugees from small towns and villages like Vallecitos, and they are both tied to seismic changes in the cartel universe. The first has to do with an ongoing power struggle in the wake of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s capture and extradition to the U.S. The second is related to a profound shift in the habits of the cartels’ best customers: American drug users.These two key issues combined to push Mexico's homicide rate to historic levels this year. October has been marked by several major clashes, including one involving El Chapo’s son and another last week here in Guerrero that cost 15 lives. In all, some 17,000 people were killed in the first half of 2019, making this year the bloodiest in the 12-year history of the drug war.* * *THE FALLEN* * *To better understand these changes, and how they impact communities, I’ve sought out a mysterious man named José Ángel Contreras, leader of the powerful Contreras clan, and the de facto authority in this lawless stretch of the sierra. Some townsfolk I’ve spoken to claim Contreras is a freedom fighter, bravely resisting cartel incursions in order to protect his home. Other sources indicate he’s the leader of a crime family that until recently enjoyed a near-monopoly on heroin production in these parts, enabled by the tacit support of local authorities. In fact, both versions of the story could be true, as Mexico’s changing underworld landscape pits the old guard of quasi-paternal godfathers against the bloodthirsty new breed of narcos.Contreras, 66, sits on the porch of his house at the center of town, not far from the Sierra Inn. He’s soft-spoken and thoughtful. Almost dotingly polite. Dressed in a white cattleman’s hat and a button-down shirt. He is not armed, but his brothers and sons and nephews drift in and out of the house toting G3s and AR15 assault rifles. One of the men wears a Kevlar vest that bears the insignia of the Mexican marines. As soon as we sit down it begins to rain again. The sound of the downpour hitting the porch roof is so loud it’s impossible to converse. When the storm finally slacks off, Contreras leans in to speak:“We first began to hear of them in 2015,” he says. “At that time we thought they were nothing. An upstart band of thieves. Stealing our cattle. Robbing our people. But when they killed my brother Gerónimo [in 2017], we knew they were a real threat. That is when we began to confront them.”The “them” he’s referring is a well-connected gang of drug traffickers called the Cuernudos, so named for their members’ affinity for the cuerno del chivo [horn of the goat] which is what the AK47 rifle is called in these parts because of its curved clip. The Cuernudos, Contreras tells me, are a local cell of the larger Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which has risen to prominence over the last few years, and is now the most powerful criminal organization in the country, with a confirmed presence in 22 Mexican states. The CJNG is also active in the U.S., Central America, and South America.Before his downfall, Chapo Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel was so dominant it was able to maintain a so-called “Pax Mafioso” in which other, smaller cartels were kept in line. After Chapo’s arrest, the Sinaloa syndicate splintered, touching off a couple of years of brutal infighting to see who would emerge as the new top dog. Now the dust seems to be settling. Chapo’s old outfit has weakened considerably-as evidenced by his son being easily found and temporarily detained a few days ago-and it appears the CJNG behemoth has emerged victorious. Under brutal leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka “El Mencho,” the CJNG has surpassed the Sinaloa Cartel and appears to be hell bent on taking over the rest of the country as well.Jeremy Kryt“Mencho’s current positioning at the top in the ongoing ‘Narco Game of Thrones’ in Mexico is due to a combination of luck, ruthlessness, timing, and organizational skills, as well as well-placed bribes to federal officials,” says Robert Bunker, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, in an email to The Daily Beast.Just last week, in the neighboring state of Michoacán, Mencho’s bunch showed just how ruthless and organized they can be by ambushing and killing 14 police officers, apparently because the cops had refused to take orders from the cartel. Bunker describes the CJNG as having “achieved dominance by being edgy, dangerous, and highly profitable” and of “building out its presence through acquisitions of local criminal and drug gang cells as it franchises its operations throughout Mexico.”Provincial factions like the Contreras family are forced to compete with the CJNG’s sprawling, franchise approach, which includes providing gangs like the Cuernudos with funding and weapons in return for allegiance. It’s not unlike corporate superstores overwhelming mom-and-pop shops in the States.Contreras describes himself as the leader of an autodefensa (self-defense) militia, as opposed to a drug trafficker. Many of the locals I’ve met also see him as a sort of Robin Hood-like figure who aids the poor and staunchly suppresses crime in the region. But his sect has been unable to prevent the Cuernudos from killing and otherwise harassing citizens in and around Vallecitos. And that deadly violence is a major reason why so many residents have fled.Jeremy Kryt“They are too powerful now,” Contreras says of the Cuernudos. “We still hold the center of town but they control all the land outside. They own the roads. So we can’t leave Vallecitos. We can’t sell our products. It is like they’re strangling us,” he says. Even with his large extended family enlisted in the struggle, their fighting force is no match for the scores of sicarios the Cuernudos can deploy against them.“I never thought my children would grow up to become prisoners in their own town,” Contreras says.* * *SURRENDER AND DIE* * *In addition to the charter-cell strategy, another factor that has allowed the CJNG to thrive and dominate has been its ability to take advantage of a rather sudden shift in Mexico’s narco-economy.The power of the old-school dons dates back to the colonial era when their families came to power as landed elites in Guerrero, raising, and sometimes rustling, cattle and horses. Then came the heroin boom of the 1970s, which “empowered local strongmen,” according to Chris Kyle, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Kyle describes the sierra around Vallecitos as Mexico’s “Wild West.”“It’s almost feudal up there,” Kyle says in a phone interview. “And so it was ready-made for opium production. Local criminals have always been present, but centralization [of the drug trade] was very rare.”That free-wheeling approach wasn’t an issue while heroin prices were high, as groups like Sinaloa or the Beltran-Leyva Cartel paid as much as 20,000 pesos [$1,040 USD] per kilo of opium gum-the main ingredient in heroin-to local suppliers.However, heroin use in the U.S. has fallen sharply of late, as addicts increasingly turn to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The lack of demand is causing opium prices to plummet in Guerrero and the rest of Mexico, sometimes by as much as 90 percent. The sudden drop has undermined the revenue streams of smaller traffickers, while also destroying the livelihood of thousands of farmers who once eked out a living growing opium poppies.Jeremy KrytBunker calls the shift from naturally produced drugs to synthetics “highly disruptive” for rural communities, as many families once reliant on growing poppies have been “forced to migrate to where they can find work.”The CJNG and its affiliates, on the other hand, have been able to take advantage of these changes to the black market. Due to its “economies of scale and extensive networks” Mexico’s new super-cartel has “a better chance to exploit the fentanyl market than smaller criminal players,” Bunker says.The CJNG now controls several of the key Pacific ports where fentanyl and the precursor ingredients used to make it arrive from Asia. The next-gen narcos then funnel the chemicals up to their labs in the mountains of Michoacán and Guerrero where they can be processed or blended with cheaply bought heroin.In Mexico’s Cartel Country, a Murderer Who Kills Murderers Tells His StoryThis allows CJNG to make a profit while its competitors are being starved out. Fentanyl is faster to produce and far more potent-and deadly⁠-than heroin. It’s also easier to ship and smuggle across the U.S. border, and cartels can charge more for it, or even disguise it as legal opioids like Oxycontin.These emerging trends “may well force the smaller players into other illicit activities such as extortion, kidnapping, gambling and prostitution, or even the body-parts trade,” Bunker says. The also drive the forced displacement that is crippling rural communities like Vallecitos.Jeremy KrytBunker goes on to call the growing problem of internal refugees and ghost towns evidence of “localized state failure” on the part of Mexican authorities in the face of a “criminal insurgency” by the CJNG.Mencho’s insurgent network remains an existential threat to José Ángel Contreras, be he a vigilante patriarch or a mafia capo. The last time I see him he’s with some of his men on a hill overlooking the main road through town, taking advantage of a break in the rain to set up defensive breastworks against the next attack by the CJNG-allied Cuernudos. “We’re not going to give up our homes; we’ve shed too much blood to protect this land,” Contreras says, but his voice is weary and he sounds every one of his 66 years. In addition to his brother, at least eight other family members have died in the ongoing turf war, including two more this month. He also knew the owner of the hotel where I’ve been staying as the town’s lone guest, and had backed his candidacy for mayor before he was murdered.“We’re totally isolated now. We can’t surrender, because they’ll kill us,” Contreras says. “But we’ll fight until the end.”Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.