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Newsweek article on Mexican drug cartels in Northern California

In the January 19th edition of Newsweek magazine, I write about how the legalization of recreational marijuana in California may not be the silver bullet that ends Mexican cartel’s involvement in California weed. The piece focuses on the small California county of Calaveras, where local officials are struggling to get a grip on a recent boom in marijuana farms. It relies on state and federal documents, news reports, interviews with county and federal law enforcement, and interviews with a federally-funded scientist who has investigated more than 120 illegal marijuana farms on public lands. In total I interviewed about three dozen people for the piece, and spent more than a year monitoring events in the state before publishing.

You know that new adage “don’t read the comments”? Yeah, I didn’t heed that this time. So I’m writing up this note because I think journalists are more accountable to the public than they are to their outlets. I also think they have a right to defend their work when it gets criticized.

As I investigated for this article, I realized that there’s a stark difference between the soundbites surrounding legalization, and the firm grip that drug trafficking organizations have on narcotics production and distribution in California. They’ve had this grip for decades. California’s recreational marijuana system, on the other hand, is 14 days into its trial period.

A few readers thought the online version’s first title was over-the-top: “Mexican Drug Cartels May Use Legal Marijuana To Take Over Northern California.” Sometimes journalists don’t get to decide the title of their work before it gets published, and this was one such case. I asked my editors to change the title to “Mexican Cartels Show No Signs of Leaving California’s Weed Industry.” They didn’t accept, but they did change the title to something that, I think, is less incendiary than the original. (In the magazine, the article is called “Kings of the Stoned Age,” which I approved.)

There’s also the challenge of reporting on criminal organizations that invest heavily to obscure their operations. As one of my editors put it, reporting on the cartels is like trying to put a chalk outline to a ghost. It’s tricky, but you can do it because of a network of evidence and anecdotes from sources with verifiable, first-hand knowledge of the phenomenon.

I’d encourage readers to fact-check parts of the article they don’t trust. (My editors and I fact-checked the piece.) If I made an error, please report the factual error to me or my editors and we’ll correct it ASAP.

I’d also say that what stands out to me the most is a frustration that the article doesn’t take a stance on legalization. That’s alarming, to me at least, because such criticisms say a lot about what the media has conditioned us to expect from the media. I’m proud that the piece doesn’t take a stance, even if that does make it controversial. But if you read it you’ll find an interesting, non-partisan fact: after Calaveras started taxing and regulating commercial marijuana farms, the county collected millions in taxes and fees. They used that money to eradicate about 40 black market farms in 2017.

From what I understand, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office is already gearing up for more investigations into black market marijuana farms this spring. So we know that regulatory fees are helping law enforcement prosecute black market marijuana, which is where cartels thrive.

What we don’t know, however, is if California’s legalization framework is well-designed enough to cripple the state’s black market marijuana industry–the largest and most complex in the United States. It may be a while before we find out.

Thank you for reading. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or comments:

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Why people dressed as zebras dance in the streets of La Paz

On the face of it, the zebra programme is a playful way of making a point about traffic safety. But it’s also about changing lives. The programme moves at-risk youth from the shadows into highly public positions of civic authority. The training, structure, support services and social outlet — plus a monthly stipend of 688 bolivianos, or about USD 100 — helps the young men and women stay on track to finish school.

Marco Pachuri, a 24-year-old from La Paz, describes how the weekly work schedule, and support from the programme’s small team of psychologists, helped him become more accountable in day-to-day tasks like studying.

Pachuri’s mother abandoned his family before he enrolled in high school, and his father used to beat him. After his father’s business went bankrupt, Pachuri went job hunting as a teenager, assisting taxi van drivers and delivering crates of Coca-Cola to local businesses. That’s when the zebras caught his eye. “I would always see them in the streets, and sometimes they’d stop me,” he recalls. “I thought it was beautiful — they’d speak with everyone, kids, the elderly.”

Read the rest over at Citiscope. And yeah, that’s me in the photo!

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Talk at Solutions Journalism Network’s Bay Area chapter

The good people at Solutions Journalism Network invited me to visit San Francisco for a day and give a presentation on my reporting to their Bay Area chapter. They recently awarded me a travel grant to report this feature for Next City, which considers historic preservation as a tactic to prevent displacement in San Antonio.

WeWork SOMA: Room 6A

156 2nd Street

Wednesday, November 15 @ 12:30 PM

Here’s a link to the event page. Hope to see some of you there.

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Indigenous farmers fight eucalyptus damage to water source in Ecuador

The southeastern wedge of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi province is filled with rich agricultural land. It sprawls in small divided plots of greens and ambers across the region’s hills, ravines, and mountainsides.

But the indigenous farmers that call this area home are facing perennial water shortages that are crippling crop diversity. The shortages spurred an investigation due to start this year by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Aquaculture and Fisheries and the Secretariat of Water into possible causes.

A clear culprit is nearby tree plantations that cover hundreds of acres throughout the Nagsiche River water basin. Because they’re made up of exotic species like eucalyptus and pine, they wreak havoc on the soil, with each tree sucking about 5-10 gallons (20 to 40 liters) of water out of the ground every day.

This can thwart crop rotations for local farmers like Maria Beatriz Padilla.

“All this land used to give a great harvest,” Padilla said, listing her former crops. “Beans, peas, Andean lupin, lentils, garbanzos, quinoa.”

She’s spent her 50 years on this same small plot in the Cusubamba district of the Salcedo region, where she makes about $300 a month selling her produce. But now, across the plains surrounding her house are patches of eucalyptus trees reaching dozens of feet into the sky.

Read the rest over at Mongabay.

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Father and son butt heads in decades-long battle over bird tourism site

Five years ago, Sergio Basantes and his wife Doris made history when they decided to turn their lush finca just outside of Quito into a hotspot for bird watching. It’s the first bird tourism site of its kind in the Ecuadoran province called Pacto, which rests at the southernmost tip of 65,000 square miles (167,000 square kilometers) of the dense rainforest called the Chocó-Darién region.

It took decades for them to get this far.

Read the rest over at Mongabay.

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Can a Community Garden Outgrow Poverty in Southern Phoenix?

An example of the types of articles I’ve been publishing three times a week since August 2016, for my fellowship with Next City.

In South Phoenix, among suburban neighborhoods where liquor stores outnumber grocery stores, there’s a massive, untended plot of dirt as big as two and a half New York City blocks. Until recently, it was a void space between the housing tracts, collecting trash where it runs up against the streets. Residents really didn’t know what to make of it.

“Kids were mostly using it to dirt bike in,” says Quilian Riano, an architect with DSGN AGNC who’s been visiting the site on and off since August 2015. Nic de la Fuente, a Phoenix resident, says some knew it as the stomping grounds for local gangs.

But with nearly $600,000 from art project supporters the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and ArtSpace America, Riano is about to help turn the swath into a centerpiece of the neighborhood. And he’s hoping that the minority communities that make up the majority of South Phoenix will get an economic shot in the arm in the process.

Read the rest over at Next City.


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