March 30, 2007

The Young and the Uninsured

t was an unfamiliar pain, sharp and persistent, as if a rag were being twisted inside his abdomen. Tighter and tighter, crunching in on his organs, enough to wake Andrew Ondrejcak one morning in 2004 before his alarm went off. Indigestion? No, probably it was a return of the stomach ulcers that had plagued him as an undergrad a few years back. Ulcers felt somewhat different, it's true, more an isolated stabbing compared with the lateral serrations currently tormenting him. But it had been a while; you forget the specifics of pain. Whatever it was, Ondrejcak, who was 24, worried he might have to see a doctor, something he made a point to avoid. Like 47 million other Americans, including most everyone he knew, Ondrejcak did not have health insurance.

Telling himself the pain was nothing, he walked to Sweet Melissa, a bakery on Court Street, where he made $6 an hour plus tips. He had come to New York from Mississippi, hoping to become a designer—maybe in theater, maybe fashion—but for the time being, he paid his rent (barely) by serving pastries. "Health insurance wasn't even an option," Ondrejcak told me recently. "I was flying through my savings, trying to get a career started. I was doing a lot of assisting designers who were doing great work, but I wasn't making anything. The last thing I'm going to do is spend $300 or whatever on insurance, you know?" He paused before adding, "I'm a healthy person, I rarely get sick. I run, I do yoga. I take all the vitamins. Honestly, I never thought about it."

At Sweet Melissa, the pain only worsened. But what to do? How to even find a doctor? Only one-third of the uninsured have a regular physician, and he was not among them. He searched the Yellow Pages for doctors in Brooklyn with the prefix gastro near their names; most wouldn't take him. Eventually, he found a public clinic—a friend had been there—that recommended a specialist in Bay Ridge. "It's probably ulcers," the doctor said, after Ondrejcak said he suspected ulcers. He was given a prescription for Nexium ($73) along with a depressing bill of $200 for the visit. "Basically all the money I'd made that week. I left keeling over in pain but took the bus home because I was so broke," he told me. He swallowed the Nexium with a swig of Maalox and went to bed, hoping the pill would rewire whatever was wrong.

March 29, 2007

Terrorist Has No Idea What To Do With All This Plutonium

ZAHEDAN, IRAN—Yaquub Akhtar, the leader of an eight-man cell linked to a terrorist organization known as the Army Of Martyrs, admitted Tuesday that he "doesn't have the slightest clue" what to do with the quarter-kilogram of plutonium he recently acquired.

"We had just given thanks to Allah for this glorious means to destroy the Great Satan once and for all, when [sub-lieutenant] Mahmoud [Ghassan] asked, 'So, what's the next step?'" Akhtar said. "I was at a loss."

The 28-year-old fanatic said he and his associates had initially assumed that at least one member of their group had the physics and engineering background necessary to construct a thermonuclear device.

"Many eyes were upon me," said Basim Aljawad, whose knowledge of physics did not extend to the principles of nuclear fission. "I make nail bombs. That's it."

Not knowing where to turn, the eight men consulted the Muslim holy book the Quran, which proved unhelpful. Said Akhtar: "Even Umar Abd al-Malik, who interprets the ancient scripture more freely than the rest of us, could not find an instructive passage."


March 27, 2007

Heat Invades Cool Heights Over Arizona Desert

SUMMERHAVEN, Ariz. — High above the desert floor, this little alpine town has long served as a natural air-conditioned retreat for people in Tucson, one of the so-called sky islands of southern Arizona. When it is 105 degrees in the city, it is at least 20 degrees cooler up here near the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon.

Debbie Fagan, a 25-year resident of Summerhaven, Ariz., said of the changes she had witnessed: "Nature is confused. We used to have four seasons. Now we have two." More Photos >

But for the past 10 years or so, things have been unraveling. Winter snows melt away earlier, longtime residents say, making for an erratic season at the nearby ski resort, the most southern in the nation.

Legions of predatory insects have taken to the forest that mantles the upper mountain, killing trees weakened by record heat. And in 2003, a fire burned for a month, destroying much of the town and scarring more than 87,000 acres. The next year, another fire swept over 32,000 acres.

"Nature is confused," said Debbie Fagan, who moved here 25 years ago after crossing the country in pursuit of the perfect place to live. "We used to have four seasons. Now we have two. I love this place dearly, and this is very hard for me to watch."

March 23, 2007

Corruption in Chinese Banks to Go On for Decades, Auditor Says

March 22 (Bloomberg) -- China's financial watchdog, Auditor- general Li Jinhua, has a mixed message for the investors who've spent $74 billion on shares in his country's banks since 2001.

The good news, says the man nicknamed ``Iron Face'' for his perceived incorruptibility and because he rarely smiles in public, is that his campaign against corruption, embezzlement and waste has helped to improve banking practices in the past seven years.

The bad news: It may be a couple of decades more before the banks' management is acceptable by Western standards.

``It would be naive to think that once these state-owned banks are listed publicly they won't suffer any operational problems,'' says Li, 63, whose position at the head of China's National Audit Office gives him cabinet minister rank. ``It might take a whole generation to get these banks into reasonable shape.''

After three decades of economic growth averaging 10 percent a year, China's boom is still precarious, as the 9.2 percent plunge in mainland Chinese shares on Feb. 27, the beginning of a $3.3 trillion global stock selloff, shows. China's financial institutions hold $161 billion of bad loans, according to the country's central bank. Since 1999, Li and his 80,000 auditors have uncovered $6.4 billion worth of irregularities at state-owned banks.

March 17, 2007

Mexico meth raid yields $205 million in U.S. cash

MEXICO CITY — Authorities confiscated more than $200 million in U.S. currency from methamphetamine producers in one of this city's ritziest neighborhoods, they said Friday, calling it the largest drug cash seizure in history.

The seizure reflected the vast scope of an illegal drug trade linking Asia, Mexico and the United States, officials said. Two of the seven people arrested Thursday at a faux Mediterranean villa in the Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood were Chinese nationals.

The group was part of a larger drug-trafficking organization that imports "precursor chemicals" from companies in India and China for processing into methamphetamine in Mexican "super labs," authorities said. The methamphetamine is eventually sold in the United States.

The raid resulted from an investigation that began in December, when authorities seized 19 tons of pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine that is a key ingredient in the production of methamphetamine, at a Mexican port on the Pacific Coast.
A legally registered Mexican company, listed by a trade association as the country's third-largest importer of pseudoephedrine, was implicated, officials said.

Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have become increasingly important in the U.S. methamphetamine trade, because the U.S. has imposed tougher controls on the sale of the chemicals used to produce the highly addictive drug.

President Felipe Calderon hailed the seizure as a major development in his government's war on drug traffickers, who have ravaged several Mexican cities and towns.

"We are working in a decisive manner to save our country and to keep Mexico safe and clean," Calderon told an audience in Tijuana. "I don't even want to imagine how many young people this gang poisoned with its drugs. But I can assure you, they will do it no longer."

Mexican officials said the cash seized was mostly in U.S. $100 bills and weighed at least 4,500 pounds.

"Kudos for the Mexicans," said Donald C. Semesky, financial operations chief for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "They're very serious in this effort, and we commend them."

U.S. officials said that, if confirmed, the cash seizure would be several times larger than any other made from drug traffickers. A spokesman for the Mexican attorney general's office said that experts were still analyzing the $205.6 million in cash to check for counterfeits but that the bills appeared to be legitimate.

Officials with the attorney general's organized crime unit used a moving truck, guarded by a 25 patrol-car caravan, to take the money to its headquarters.

Authorities said the traffickers were led by a naturalized Mexican citizen of Chinese descent who appeared to have left the country.

Several machines for manufacturing pills were found at the site, but the group did not produce drugs there. The mansion appeared to serve as a financial operations center and cash storage facility.

Exclusive neighborhood

The neighborhood is home to some of the capital's wealthiest residents and many members of the diplomatic corps. The back of the property is contiguous with a racquetball court at the Ukrainian ambassador's residence. The Israeli Embassy is a few blocks away.

Most neighbors and the many maids and security guards who work in the area declined to comment on the raid. The few who did said they had no knowledge of illicit activity.

"The problem is that all of these houses are veritable fortresses," said one of the neighborhood's security guards, who asked not to be named. "You never know what goes on inside. The doors open automatically. The owners all have chauffeurs. People go in and out, and you never see anything."

A driver-bodyguard arrested at the house had told neighbors he was a retired lieutenant colonel in the Mexican army. Neighbors said he walked a German shepherd along the tree-lined streets.

Authorities said the chain of events that brought police to the mansion began in December, when they discovered a shipping container filled with barrels of pseudoephedrine on a storage lot at customs offices in Lazaro Cardenas, a port city about 175 miles northwest of Acapulco.

The chemicals had been manufactured in China and shipped to Mexico on a British-flagged vessel that was bound for Long Beach. The seizure led authorities to a chemical company, Unimed Pharm Chem, based in the city of Toluca, about 40 miles west of Mexico City. The company reported legally importing 32 tons of pseudoephedrine in 2004.

"The resulting investigation showed that this company illegally imported … pseudoephedrine acetate from India," the attorney general's office said in a statement. "These chemicals are used to illegally produce methamphetamines."

Mexican Atty Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora said in a radio interview that one of the Chinese exporters involved in shipping the chemicals to Mexico is an illicit "shadow" company not registered with Chinese authorities.

Last year, Mexican authorities raided what they termed the largest methamphetamine lab in the Western Hemisphere at an industrial park in Guadalajara. The factory had 11 custom-designed pressure cookers capable of producing 400 pounds of the drug each day, about 20 times the production of a typical California lab.

U.S. officials estimate that 80% of the methamphetamine sold on U.S. streets is produced by Mexican criminal organizations.

For these drug cartels, whose business mushroomed when they became the middlemen in the shipment of Colombian cocaine to the United States, methamphetamine is a lucrative side business worth billions of dollars, analysts say.

Officials at the DEA's Office of Financial Operations estimated that 90% of the money transferred from the United States to Latin American suppliers of drugs leaves the U.S. as cash. Drug traffickers transfer $8 billion to $24 billion to Mexico each year, according to authorities.

$100 bills preferred

Most of the cash is carried across the U.S.-Mexico border by car or on foot as $10 and $20 bills and later converted to $100 bills, officials say.

Semesky said $100 bills are the preferred method for making large payments between drug organizations, because they are less bulky. With $20 bills, $1 million weighs 110 pounds.

"They don't want to build a storage location for 20s," the DEA's Semesky said of the drug traffickers. "You're talking about decreasing that bulk at least five times."

Before Friday, the largest reported amount of cash seized by Mexican authorities was $7 million, which was found inside electric appliances at Mexico City's international airport in 2005. The appliances were headed for Colombia.

Mexican officials said they worked past midnight Thursday to count the seized bills, which were hidden inside locked metal shelves, suitcases and closets. It was five times the amount that was seized in all of 2006 by Mexican authorities in anti-narcotic and money-laundering operations.

To provide a sense of the scale of the money involved, Mexican media compared the amount seized to various items in the 2007 federal budget.

The $205.6 million was more than the funding allocated to pensions for the handicapped by Mexico's social security agency. It exceeded the amount of public funds provided to Mexico's political parties for campaign spending and also surpassed the budget of the Mexican Senate.

"It's a lot of money, and we didn't know a thing," said one security guard assigned to a nearby property. "We work outside and can't even imagine what goes on inside these houses."

March 2, 2007

Immigrant-Rich Spain Creates Half of Euro Countries' New Jobs

Feb. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Vartan Avakyan, his wife and 18-year-old son arrived in Spain five years ago on tourist visas from Ukraine. They had no desire to see the Prado museum or sun themselves on the Costa del Sol.

Vartan, 43, says he went right to work as a bricklayer on a Madrid construction project. He's been moving from one building job to another ever since.

The Avakyans and thousands of other Ukrainian immigrants are just one of the streams running into Spain's river of immigrants. About 4.3 million foreigners now live in Spain, according to Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's economic research office, with 3.6 million of them arriving in the past 10 years. That makes them 10 percent of Spain's population of 44 million. About 600,000 arrived in 2006 alone, the office says.

Since the government says only 3 million of Spain's residents are registered as foreign born, that means 30 percent of the immigrants are in Spain illegally.