Mexico's drug war: the victim of an apparent drug-related execution in Acapulco in February 2012. Photo: Getty
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Mexico's drug war: the battle without hope

Beheadings, torture, shootings uploaded to YouTube – the “war on drugs” has ravaged Mexico. But as the US considers treating the cartels as terrorist threats, the one solution it won’t consider is decriminalisation.

The bald, middle-aged man slumps against the wall in the yard. The blood from his companion’s head splatters his shirtless chest. He looks to his left, at the headless corpse lying next to him. The chainsaw continues to roar. The bald man rests his head against the wall once again. He awaits his turn.

The horrors of Mexico’s drug war, which has raged since December 2006 and the start of President Felipe Calderón’s administration, know no bounds. More than 50,000 people have died in drug-related violence since, and there is no sign of the bloodshed diminishing. In 2006, shortly before Calderón deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to combat the violence, a group of armed thugs rolled five heads on to the dance floor of a nightclub in central Mexico as a warning; by 2007 and 2008, beheadings had become commonplace.
In 2009, a man nicknamed El Pozolero – “the stew-maker” – was arrested and confessed to dissolving the remains of more than 300 people in vats of caustic soda for a drug kingpin. Later that year, a man working for rivals of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was found; he had been beheaded and his face had been carved off and delicately stitched on to a football. Dozens of mass graves were discovered throughout the Latin American nation last year, many of them in Tamaulipas, a north-eastern state notorious for its hazy fug of lawlessness and for the terror tactics of Los Zetas, a group of former paramilitaries who now run their own drug trafficking syndicate.
Videos of some of the atrocities have been disseminated over the internet. In the most recent one, described above, members of the Sinaloa cartel are put to death.
In Mexico, and in other countries such as Guinea-Bissau and Afghanistan, the war against drug trafficking and organised crime is a fight for social and political progress – 12 years ago, Mexico became a full-fledged multiparty democracy, as the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was ousted from 71 years of uninterrupted rule. It is also a battle to root out official corruption that for decades – in some cases, centuries – has allowed drug trafficking and other illicit activity to flourish. The violence will not end soon; even Mexican officials admit that it is unlikely the bloodshed will ebb for another six years or so, and the Mexican electorate is largely in favour of state execution for drug traffickers (polls show that about 70 per cent of Mexicans want the death penalty reinstated for narcos, as traffickers are commonly known). In July, the PRI was re-elected democratically, in spite of critics’ fears that it would again turn a blind eye to organised crime.
The drug war is also a war between rival cartels fighting for control over lucrative smuggling routes while trying to maintain their structure as the authorities crack down. The war between the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas – and that of the authorities against them – is a game-changer in a long, grinding process of attempting to manage drug trafficking and consumption, one that has cost US taxpayers $1trn since it was launched in 1971 by the then president, Richard Nixon.
The Sinaloa cartel – led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, son of an opium farmer from the mountains in the north-western state of Sinaloa – has expanded in recent years to become the most powerful drug trafficking organisation in the world. Under the reign of El Chapo (meaning “shorty”), the cartel has reversed the previous business arrangement with Colombian cocaine producers, which shipped the product through the Caribbean until a law-enforcement crackdown in the 1980s made Mexico a more attractive option. The Sinaloa cartel now buys cocaine from the Colombian cartels and takes full responsibility for distribution.
The Sinaloa cartel produces its own marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine; it imports chemical precursors used to make methamphetamine from Asian nations such as India, Thailand and China. The authorities have spotted Sinaloa cartel operatives and scouts (conejos, or rabbits, in Spanish) on every continent; the Australian authorities believe the cartel is responsible for delivering as much as 500 kilogrammes of cocaine a month on to their shores.
In the spirit of globalisation, it is thought, El Chapo has bought properties in eastern Europe and throughout Latin America in an effort to launder his dirty money. In 2010 the US-based Wachovia Bank admitted to having handled $378bn for Mexican currency-exchange houses between 2004 and 2007, roughly $13bn of which was confirmed to belong to the Sinaloa cartel. (The US department of justice slapped sanctions of $160m on the bank for “wilfully failing to maintain an anti-money laundering programme”.)
Last month, executives of Britain’s HSBC confessed that a large portion of $7bn transferred by its Mexican subsidiaries into the bank’s US operation between 2007 and 2008 probably belonged to Mexican drug cartels. “In hindsight,” said David Bagley, head of compliance at HSBC, just before resigning in front of a US Senate investigative committee, “I think we all sometimes allowed a focus on what was lawful and compliant rather than what should have been best practices.”
“Forget hindsight,” admonished Senator Carl Levin. “Is there any way that should have been allowed to happen?” The obvious answer is no, but the Sinaloa cartel is big business and has exploited loopholes in the global banking system on unprecedented levels. Some officials warn that mafias such as the Sinaloa operation have capitalised on the global financial crisis in ways we have yet fully to understand. “The illiquidity associated with the banking crisis, the reluctance of banks to lend money to one another . . . offered a golden opportunity to criminal institutions,” Antonio Maria Costa, the former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in April. “The penetration of the financial sector by criminal money has been so widespread that it would probably be more correct to say that it was not the mafia trying to penetrate the banking system, but it was the banking sector which was actively looking for capital – including criminal money . . .”
The new guard of the Mexican drug trade are Los Zetas. Originally a tight-knit paramilitary-style unit of deserters from the Mexican army special forces, they have formed independent gangs – consisting of perhaps thousands of members – that have metastasised throughout Mexico and central America in recent years, and have seized on any business opportunity that has come their way. The Zetas gangs engage in CD and DVD piracy, human trafficking and extortion. Anyone with a weapon, tattoos and a crew cut can call himself a Zeta and immediately instil a sense of terror.
Their modus operandi: enter a small town, behead a local business owner and declare the territory theirs. It was members of Los Zetas who indiscriminately massacred 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in August 2010; it was members of Los Zetas who were responsible for the killing of a US special agent in the state of San Luis Potosí in February 2011. There are worrying signs that, in the cartel’s new incarnation, these gangs are consolidating. Last December, in an arrest operation spanning four north-eastern Mexican states, the security services seized nearly 1,500 radios and the same quantity of mobile phones belonging to the cartel; clearly, it had a communications network in place. In the past year, several leading Zetas have been captured or killed in far-flung parts of Mexico, evidence that they were trying to instil order in branches of the cartel operating in those parts.

Power, corruption and lies


More than $1m US dollars and more than 41 Million Mexican pesos seized from Zetas in June 2012. Photo: Getty
Though the Mexican drug cartels have long been considered a threat to US national security, rarely has aggressive action to counter their growth been such a popular option. In Washington, calls to designate the cartels as terrorist groups have ratcheted up. On 13 October 2011, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican congresswoman for Florida and the chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, declared that “we must stop looking at the drug cartels today solely from a law-enforcement perspective and consider designating these narco-trafficking networks as foreign terrorist organisations”. She added: “It seems that our sworn enemy Iran sees a potential kindred spirit in the drug cartels in Mexico.”
On the same day, in written testimony to Congress entitled “Emerging Threats and Security in the Western Hemisphere: Next Steps for US Policy”, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing, Daniel L Glaser, highlighted the problem of the drug cartels and mentioned El Chapo by name.
The view that there is a link between the cartels and terrorism (some expressions of this are unabashedly hyperbolic, especially the attempts to label alternative Mexican faiths a “spiritual insurgency”, in line with the theories of the US Army War College’s Steven Metz) has grown amid several topical developments as well as vastly improved US-Mexican co-operation in the drug war. The two countries – Mexico is the third-largest trading partner of the US – have a long, often troubled history with regard to security and intelligence-sharing.
Asa Hutchinson, the former head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), still refuses to acknowledge that anyone besides the Mexican authorities is to blame for the failure to combat drug trafficking. “The culture of corruption that has developed in Mexico, the failure of the rule of law in Mexico, is one of the largest contributing factors to the violence we see today,” he says. “Mexico has allowed itself to be a major transit and source country. They resisted US help. In 1985, Kiki Camarena, a wonderful DEA agent, was tortured and murdered in Guadalajara, and there was a massive manhunt for the perpetrators, and Mexico [took the position] that we were infringing on their sovereignty. They have resisted any US assistance ever since. The cartels have operated with impunity, and that is not the fault of the United States.”
The DEA still works in Mexico, though Camarena’s ghost haunts its collective memory. In 1997, Mexico’s anti-drug tsar General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo was arrested for alleged links to the Juárez cartel. He was eventually sentenced to a total of 71 years in prison.
There have been setbacks during the outgoing Calderón administration, too. In 2008, two officials from Siedo, Mexico’s special organised crime unit, were arrested for being in the pockets of the Beltrán Leyva cartel. And in December that year, an army major assigned as one of Calderón’s bodyguards, Arturo González Rodríguez, was arrested and charged with feeding the cartels intelligence for $100,000 a month.
The allegations of corruption have hindered counter-drug operations: the Mexican military has had to fend off both credible accusations and propaganda disseminated by the cartels. While General Eugenio Hidalgo Eddy was stationed in Sinaloa and was in charge of local counter-drug operations, narco-mantas – banners made by drug traffickers – accusing him of protecting El Chapo were frequently found at crime scenes. Eddy insists that he fought the good fight. “Never did I make a pact! Never!” he told me, slamming his fist on his desk. “Others, I don’t know,” he added, quietly.
In January this year, General Manuel de Jesús Aviña was arrested and charged with ordering killings and torture and engaging in drug trafficking while stationed in the northern Chihuahua state. The Calderón administration had almost made it through its six-year term without a senior army officer being linked to traffickers. But since then, four other generals have been detained for alleged links to the cartels, including one who had served as defence attaché at the Mexican embassy in Washington, DC.
There have been allegations against US officials, too, and the ensuing questions of trust have complicated intelligence-sharing. “We’re in the business of collecting information,” the DEA’s then chief of intelligence, Anthony Placido, told me in 2010. “The problem with trying to share it is that we have to make sure we don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. We have to make sure our foreign partners are trustworthy.”
Human rights abuses – children and innocent adults have been gunned down by the Mexican military and there have been allegations of torture and rape – have raised eyebrows at the state department, which has issued several scathing reports on Mexico during the Calderón administration. (The state department has also commended the country for making some much-needed improvements.) “Human rights are stupid,” a former Mexican general told me.

The next insurgency?

Diplomats continue to stress that US-Mexican relations, not to mention co-operation in the drug war, can survive the setbacks. “At 35,000 feet, the muscle tone and the strategic direction of the US-Mexican relationship are fantastic,” Mexico’s ambassador to the US, Arturo Saru­khan, told me late last year. “In many ways it’s like a Dickensian tale of two cities – it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. If you look at the formal diplomatic traction and relationship, it has never been better. But if you look at public perception on both sides of the border, [that] would seem to be thousands of miles from where the relationship is.”
So, co-operation has continued to increase with little opposition, as has US funding for the counter-drug Mérida Initiative, which was introduced in 2008 and will eventually channel $1.6bn in anti-drug assistance to Mexico and, to a lesser extent, central America. Through Mérida, Mexico has received Black Hawk helicopters and X-ray scanners for customs posts, as well as assistance in professionalising the police and training in the justice sector.
Last year, the Pentagon began flying drones over Mexican airspace in an attempt to gather intelligence on drug trafficking suspects. There was little public dissent. Global Hawk drones have been deployed; flying as high as 60,000 feet overhead, they are able to survey 105,000 square miles in a day. A second counter-drug operations centre, where US and Mexican agencies work together in the fight against drugs, has been opened in Mexico City. US military experts regularly visit the Mexican capital to consult with the security services and offer strategic advice. The DEA has a dozen offices in the country, out of which its agents now operate in a purely advisory capacity. In January, the new CIA director general, David Pet­raeus, the advocate and implementor of the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq known as COIN, visited Mexico City and met with the national security adviser and the head of Mexico’s spy agency, CISEN.
Calderón, who will step down in December, has repeatedly urged Washington to halt the flow of guns and cash from drug sales into Mexico (estimates of how many guns used in drug-related crimes in Mexico come from the US vary, but it is believed that Americans supply most of them). On the US side, however, there has been little in response aside from rhetoric. A new Mexican president – Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI – was elected on 1 July, and has pledged to continue the fight against organised crime. Despite his promises, it is likely he will face suspicion from Washington because of his party’s long-standing “blind-eye” attitude to organised crime.

Move on, please

The question now is whether the US state department will take the step of designating the cartels as terrorist organisations. It has already done so with the Farc in Colombia. If Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are categorised as such, the US would probably have more jurisdiction to increase co-operation with Mexico. Barack Obama’s signing of the National Defence Authorisation Act on 31 December could also allow US nationals suspected of narcoterrorism to be detained indefinitely.
What is unlikely to happen, however, is any move towards drug legalisation. Advocates of the policy, who grew optimistic with Obama’s election and the appointment of R Gil Kerlik­owske as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (Kerlikowske has repeatedly said that drug consumption must be treated as a health rather than a criminal issue), continue to be marginalised.
A growing number of former Latin American leaders – and even some current ones, such as the Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina – have begun to push for discussion of a fresh approach to the drug problem. Calderón, to his credit, took the risk of publicly acknowledging mounting calls for a debate on a change of counter-drug strategy; he decriminalised the possession of small quantities of almost every drug during his presidency.
American politicians are much more cautious. California, which has historically led the way on progressive laws, voted against the legalisation of marijuana in November 2010. Lacking support, the idea has been dropped from the ballot in this year’s election. The conventional wisdom is that if California doesn’t legalise it, no one in the United States will.
As for Mexico, the future remains unclear. Police reforms, which officials hope will instil a measure of trust in the authorities and allow state forces to maintain a semblance of security without having to resort to using the military, are slogging their way through a gridlocked congress. Peña Nieto has also proposed the creation of a national gendarmerie under civilian control. Judicial reforms, which introduced trial by jury in some Mexican states for the first time, have been enacted. However, most Mexican officials concede that it will be impossible to eradicate the drug problem entirely. Their best hope is to make Mexico so difficult for drug traffickers to navigate that they are forced to go elsewhere. Some hope indeed. 
Malcolm Beith is the author of “The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord” (Penguin, £9.99)


This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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Where are all the people going?

In a new wave of repression under the Sisi regime, Egyptians are being forcibly disappeared.

On Monday 1 June, Esraa el-Taweel, a 23-year-old sociology student, went out for dinner with two of her friends to Chili’s, a branch of a Tex-Mex chain that is popular among middle-class Egyptians. The restaurant is on a large ship permanently moored on the Nile in the Zamalek district, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in central Cairo. Esraa often hung out with Souhaib Sa’ad, an economics and politics undergraduate, and Omar Ali, who, when he wasn’t lounging around the city’s many cafés, could be found at an architecture college. Both men are slim with curly hair and Esraa is short, wears colourful hijabs and sometimes uses a cane to walk. Less than 18 months earlier, she had been shot in the spine by security forces at a demonstration. Despite months of physiotherapy, the feeling had not fully returned to her legs.

Earlier that afternoon, Omar had picked Esraa up from her home, as he had often done since her injury, and they went horse riding near the Pyramids. Souhaib joined them later at Chili’s. They liked to try a new restaurant every week and Omar, who initiated the tradition, had never been there before. When they finished their meal, they goofed around taking selfies. At about 8.30pm, after Souhaib had completed his evening prayers, they stepped out on to the corniche, the uneven, tree-lined pavement that runs between the river and a quiet, two-lane road. Shortly afterwards, the three friends disappeared.

By 11pm, Esraa’s younger sister Duaa, with whom she shares an apartment in Cairo, started to worry. Duaa tried calling several times but Esraa’s mobile was switched off, as were Souhaib’s and Omar’s. She tried to reassure herself that Esraa might be staying with a friend, but the next morning she learned that Souhaib and Omar were also missing. The families of the three students decided to wait until 3pm, when Souhaib was due to report to a police station as part of his bail conditions. He had been detained in January 2014 after police found footage of anti-government protests on his phone and he was one of the less-publicised defendants in the trial against the al-Jazeera journalists accused of spreading false news and supporting the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood. After more than 400 days in jail, Souhaib was freed in February pending a retrial, but had to report to the
police daily. If he didn’t show up, the families would know for certain that something was seriously wrong.

Souhaib missed the bail appointment. Relatives of the trio began to look for them frantically in hospitals and police stations across the city but found nothing. Esraa’s parents and three of her younger siblings live in Saudi Arabia, where her father works as a translator, and though her mother boarded the first available flight to Cairo, Duaa, who is 22, and her younger sister Alaa had to manage alone for the three days.

On Wednesday 3 June, 48 hours after Esraa was last seen, Duaa filed a missing person report with the prosecutor general, the standard first step when anyone goes missing in Egypt. She and a few friends set up a Facebook page and launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #Where_is_Esraa. They produced a video of her and posted it online. The film opens with footage of Esraa on her bicycle: she waves at the photographer and cycles into the distance. It shows a series of still photos of her with her arms wide open, a camera flung around her neck and a floppy sun hat over her headscarf, and she grins, wearing pink Mickey Mouse ears. Even in the final shot, taken while she was in a wheelchair, with a blanket over her legs and a laptop on her knees, she is smiling.

The video doesn’t show how Esraa struggled with her six-month confinement in a wheelchair – the countless times she tried to lift herself out of it, only to fall on the floor and cry with frustration – but Duaa thinks that it captures her elder sister’s personality. “She’s childlike. She just loves going out and playing and hanging out with her friends,” she said, when we first met at a Zamalek café in mid-July.

Duaa, an art student, is tiny and dresses trendily, her wavy hair piled high on her head, her iPod headphones dangling out of her handbag. She answered my questions carefully, almost robotically, and each time she finished speaking she slumped into her  chair as though she had been pushed. Esraa disappeared during Duaa’s end-of-year exams and, although some friends rallied around her, helping her to submit her coursework so that she wouldn’t fail, others were told by their parents to stay away from the el-Taweel family to avoid getting caught up in the case.

The two sisters are very close. Duaa moved to Cairo from Saudi Arabia for her studies in July 2011, a year after Esraa, and her elder sister seemed to have grown streetwise in the time they had spent apart. Two days after Duaa arrived in the city, Esraa took her to her first demonstration. When the crowd was attacked by beltagiya (“thugs”), the sisters were so scared for one another that they decided they would never protest together again, though they often went separately. I once suggested to Duaa that the way she handled her sister’s disappearance was brave but she just shrugged. She told me that she often wished that their roles were reversed: Esraa would have known what to do.

In the weeks after the disappearances, the photographs of the missing trio circulated online and the questions of their friends, relatives and young people – “Where is Esraa?” “Where is Souhaib?” “Where is Omar?” – echoed unanswered on Twitter and Facebook. Yet the families were starting to build up a picture of what had happened. They approached contacts in the security forces, who reported that all three had been arrested and were being detained. Former inmates at Egypt’s national security headquarters also reported seeing the trio there. Yet, without official acknowledgement, there was little that anyone could do. Esraa’s lawyer, Halim Hanish, told me that he had presented the families’ evidence to the prosecutor general’s office but received no response.

The three students had joined the swelling ranks of Egypt’s forcibly disappeared. The Freedom for the Brave group, a loose network of activists, lawyers and detainees’ families that monitors such cases, recorded that 163 people had been secretly detained by Egyptian security forces between April and June this year. Hanish, a member of the group, said that the figure could be higher, as some families are too afraid to speak out. Another local NGO, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, announced in August that it had recorded 1,250 cases since January. Sometimes, the disappeared are eventually located in a jail or at a police station. Often, new arrivals at a prison will find an inmate who is expecting a visit and ask them to pass on their name, family contact details and a short message. Families can be left waiting for days, weeks or months for news of missing relatives. Discovering that they are in prison is one of the better possible outcomes: occasionally, the disappeared resurface dead.


In 2011, many Egyptians believed that revolution was a way to end such police abuses. One of those who inspired the uprising did not live to see tens of thousands of people across the country take to the streets to chant their demands for “bread, freedom and social justice”. Khaled Said was a 28-year-old man who was beaten to death by security forces after being arrested at an internet café in 2010. A Facebook group created in his honour declared “We are all Khaled Said” and gathered hundreds of thousands of online supporters in the months leading up to the 2011 protests.

Wandering around Cairo today, you might still catch a glimpse of Said’s youthful likeness memorialised in graffiti: a clean-cut, wide-eyed kid in a hoodie. It is a symbol of defiance or, perhaps, of disappointment. In February 2011, when Egypt’s then president, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown after almost 30 years in power, the interim authorities were quick to abolish the much feared State Security Investigations Service, which was responsible for crushing dissent, replacing it with the Homeland Security agency. But in the past two years, following the popularly backed military overthrow in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Homeland Security has become ever more powerful.

Following years of unrest, Egypt’s military leadership promised peace and stability – after the bloodshed. In its first few months in power, it sought to regain control over the country’s streets by launching a brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing more than 1,000 protesters and arresting many more. In July 2014, an official from the interior ministry told the Associated Press that 22,000 people had been detained in the year since Morsi was ousted, most of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a local group monitoring political arrests, believes that the figure is closer to 41,000. Several prominent secular activists have also been arrested.

An armed insurgency in Sinai, where jihadists have declared loyalty to the so-called Islamic State, and a steady series of terrorist attacks in the rest of the country have convinced many Egyptians that their country needs the new marque of authoritarianism offered by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s imperious leader. Al-Sisi, who led the 2013 takeover and was elected the following year with an eyebrow-raising 96 per cent of the vote, had served as head of military intelligence under Mubarak. His new interior minister, appointed in March, shares a similar pedigree: Magdy Abdel Ghaffar is a former chief of Homeland Security. “It’s like the security services are controlling everything in Egypt now,” Nada Saad, a human rights lawyer, told me.

It might seem that Egypt’s security state is simply returning to its old ways but that is not quite accurate. The feeling, often expressed by activists and lawyers here, is that this new wave of repression seems to sweep up citizens indiscriminately. Mohamed Elmessiry, an Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told me that he had spoken to someone who had spent 11 years in detention under Mubarak and then been detained by Homeland Security. “[He] said at least under the Mubarak government, national security knew what they were doing and who they wanted. National security [operatives] now are completely random: they arrest people randomly; they charge and investigate and torture people randomly.”


On 17 June, the first day of Ramadan and 16 days after Esraa went missing, Duaa finally saw her sister. A stranger had called Duaa to say that she had spotted Esraa in al-Qanater women’s prison in Cairo. When Duaa arrived at the gate of al-Qanater, the guard on duty remembered the young woman who had arrived alone and been unable to walk, and advised Duaa to wait with him rather than go inside the prison. Though neither the family nor her lawyers had been informed, Esraa was due to be transferred to court for a hearing. A few minutes later, Duaa saw her sister being escorted into a police van. She called out her name and Esraa, fearing for Duaa’s safety, burst into tears and asked her to leave. Duaa called Halim Hanish, the lawyer acting for her sister.

Hanish and Esraa are good friends. They met during the 2011 street protests and when, on 25 January 2014, Esraa was shot at a peaceful demonstration outside the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, he carried her to hospital. He says that they were protesting in favour of a “third way” that rejects both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. It’s not uncommon now for Hanish to represent old friends. “You have to comfort them, even while you know for sure that nothing good is happening any time soon,” he said. “You have to comfort the families, as well. You have to lie to their faces, look them in the eye and tell them how it seems bright, insha’Allah they will be fine, even though you know [they won’t be]. It gets to you eventually.”

After the call from Duaa on 17 June, Hanish rushed to the prosecution office but was repeatedly told that Esraa was not there. Then he saw her from a distance. He shouted out to Esraa, to tell her that she was no longer alone and he was here for her now. As a result, he says, her hearing was cancelled because the prosecution lawyer wanted to speak to her privately. According to Amnesty International’s Elmessiry, this fits a common pattern for forced disappearances: often the first, second and sometimes third court investigations are conducted while the families are still unaware of their missing relative’s location and while the defendant does not have legal representation. This allows Homeland Security more freedom to conduct the initial investigation and usually extract a confession, which will form the basis of the case against the detainee.

It was not until 27 June that Hanish was able to attend a hearing. The judge said that he needed more time to consider the case against her and postponed her session until 29 June, but that day the prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat, was killed in Cairo in a bomb attack. Esraa did not appear in court until 11 July and since then her pre-trial detention has been renewed every 15 days.

Hanish understands that Esraa has been charged with belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, spreading false news and disturbing the public by showing footage of police brutality but he knows this only informally: his requests to see the report against her, which details the reasons for her arrest, have been refused. So, too, was a request for her to be moved closer to hospital so that she can receive treatment for her back problems. The ministry of interior did not respond to my requests for an interview, though previously officials have insisted that her detention was legal and have issued denials that forced disappearances take place. Esraa’s family and friends deny all charges against her.

The only available account of Esraa’s ­two-week disappearance is an open letter that her family smuggled out of prison, which was published on local news websites. She wrote that shortly after she and her friends left Chili’s, three men stopped them to ask for their ID cards and mobiles and then forced them into a minibus similar to those that operate as shared taxis in Cairo. Souhaib and Omar were blindfolded and one of the men – who identified himself as an “officer” – asked Esraa to use her hijab to cover her eyes. When her headscarf proved too short, Souhaib took off his T-shirt and she used that instead.

They were driven to Homeland Security headquarters, where she stayed for 15 days. Her blindfold was removed only at night, when often Esraa would ask for one light to be kept on so at least she would see something. “Day-long investigations, hearing voices and screams of tortured victims, men crying out loudly. Souhaib and Omar were taken away and I was alone. I was the only girl
there,” she wrote. On her final day at Homeland Security, before she was moved to al-Qanater, she was interrogated for 18 hours.

Esraa wrote another letter on 28 July. At times, it makes her she come across like a giddy teenager, joking that it is terrible to be stuck in an all-women’s prison as: “Everyone who knows me well knows that most of my close friends are guys. Do you know how tragic this is? J” She describes a cosy companionship with her cell mates (they eat crisps and drink chocolate milk together) but also the hardships: the cockroaches, the heat, the rationed bottled water and the tap water that smells like sewage and gives her skin infections, her worsening mobility, the boredom, the harassment from the “criminal” inmates. She seems to oscillate between dejection (“Sometimes I think, ‘Why do I eat? Why should I still survive?’”) and defiance, quoting the Egyptian activist Mahinour El-Masry: “We don’t like prisons but we’re not afraid of them.”


On 16 June – the day before Duaa caught sight of Esraa – Omar and Souhaib were spotted in Tora, a sprawling prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo. It wasn’t until 10 July, however, that their lawyer, Mohamed Elbaker, learned of the charges against them in a ministry of defence video that named Souhaib and Omar as part of “one of the most dangerous terrorist cells” of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged that they had been arrested at their organisation’s headquarters.

Souhaib is shown confessing to purchasing a pistol later used to kill a police officer, and to giving protesters fireworks to throw at security forces. You could easily fail to recognise him. His nose and lips are swollen, he is pale and he seems confused. Elbaker says that his client was tortured for ten days before filming.

I met Elbaker in the discreet, unmarked office of Adalah, an organisation he helped set up to represent victims of torture and students in detention. It moves every few months to avoid police raids. Elbaker wore a striped polo shirt and had a long, square beard; at the top of his forehead he had a zabeeba, or “raisin”, a patch of darkened skin that is worn down by Islamic prayer. He reeled off a list of his affiliations – a group called the Costa Salafis, which holds interfaith discussions at branches of Costa Coffee, and the Strong Egypt political party, which was founded by a reformist former leader of the Brotherhood – but said that his greatest political commitment was to human rights. It was 1 August and Elbaker told me that he was trying to record officially the torture used against Souhaib and Omar. Souhaib still had marks on his body but Omar, who did not appear in the ministry of defence film, was in a worse condition. He still could not lift up one of his arms and he was suffering from urinary problems as a result of being repeatedly electrocuted.

The use of torture by national security forces in Egypt has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and local rights groups (the Egyptian government periodically refutes their findings). New arrivals at a prison or police centre can expect what is commonly referred to as a haflat al-tashreefa (“welcoming party”), in which guards beat them up. My discussions with lawyers and rights groups suggest that the torture taking place in state security or military intelligence buildings is more systematic: detainees are often blindfolded and may be beaten, suspended from the ceiling, electrocuted, burned with cigarettes or raped to extract a recorded confession.

To be transferred from national security detention to prison is like “going to heaven”, Elbaker says, because it brings with it an end to this torture. Still, Omar’s and Souhaib’s struggle is not over. Unlike Esraa, they are facing a military trial. Their case now falls under the jurisdiction of the ministry of defence, not the justice ministry, and their judge (though fully trained) will be a military official.

A presidential decree of late 2014 has facilitated an increase in the use of military courts against civilians in Egypt. Halim Hanish, who is also representing Omar, described working on a military case as “a hundred times more difficult” than working on a national security case. Lawyers can’t bring their phones into court, so they can spend hours waiting around, unable to contact their colleagues or other clients, and are searched on their way in. Sometimes, they can’t take pens or papers inside. He ­remembers that once a lawyer was forced to take off his shoes and socks in case he was hiding paper in them.

Other than Souhaib’s filmed confession, the Egyptian ministry of defence has not made public any evidence in support of its accusations. The men’s lawyers say that they have not been allowed to see the prosecution reports. Both Souhaib’s and Omar’s fathers had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood – Omar’s was killed by security forces at a Brotherhood protest in August 2013 – but their lawyers and families insist that they do not share their fathers’ views and are not members of the group. Everyone I spoke to about Omar described him as fundamentally uninterested in politics – as Hanish, who knows him well, put it: “If you meet Omar for an hour, he will spend 45 minutes talking about food.”

Souhaib was different; he took to the streets to protest in 2011 and frequently after that. But his brother, Osama, told me that Souhaib worked on the presidential campaign of Strong Egypt’s leader, Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh. This suggests that Souhaib is critical of al-Sisi’s government but unlikely to be a member of the Brotherhood. The problem that Omar and Souhaib now face, however, is that the military video will now form the basis of the case against them. They are, in effect, guilty unless proven innocent.

When those who were forcibly disappeared emerge again, they must navigate a legal system that is already mobilised against them. The terms of their detention violate international as well as Egypt’s domestic laws. Egyptian law contains specific provisions banning the use of torture, requiring that detainees receive adequate medical attention and specifying that individuals may not be held in police custody for longer than 24 hours without charge.

Souhaib’s detention has caused him the additional complication that he ended up missing sessions of the Jazeera trial. When he finally did appear in court on 29 June, he tried to tell the judge why he had been absent, explaining that he had been held in secret detention for 15 days and tortured. The judge cut Souhaib off, saying that he could register a separate complaint if he wished but the information was irrelevant. On 29 August, Souhaib was sentenced to three years in jail in the Jazeera case – but the other charges against him are so serious that this news barely mattered to him.

Ezzat Ghoneim and Mohamed Sadek, lawyers with the Egyptian Co-ordination for Rights and Freedoms, told me that they tried to file a case at Egypt’s highest court, the court of cassation, to force the prosecutor general to investigate the disappearances. Their case has been rejected several times and they are currently appealing the decision. Neither is feeling optimistic. Those who defend the disappeared do so at great personal risk. In February, a lawyer died at a police station after being tortured. “We face harassment all the time. We always work in fear,” Halim Hanish told me. But last year, Souhaib’s bewildered and devastated father, Sa’ad, who had worked for many years as a metalworker, decided to enrol in law school. He has completed his first year of studies now and spends his evenings hunched over his books. If it’s too late to help his son, he reasons, he might yet be able to offer counsel to others.


The last time that I met Duaa el-Taweel was on 1 September, three months after Esraa’s disappearance. We chatted in Esraa’s bedroom, sitting on her floral bedspread, surrounded by her bright-coloured cuddly toys. A month earlier, Esraa’s beloved cat, Woody, had three kittens and Duaa had named them Esraa, Souhaib and Omar.

Duaa’s and her mother’s routine now revolves around their weekly visits to al-Qanater prison. They always bring her favourite foods, such as kofte and pizza – and deliver messages from Omar and Souhaib. It can take two weeks for the notes to arrive but they have helped the three friends keep up their old banter. Esraa jokes about how she, unlike the boys, has a bed. Omar writes that he can’t imagine Esraa in jail as she’s so pernickety about food and she replies that he’s not exactly tough, either.

Every week, Esraa tells her sister that this might be her last visit: perhaps next week she’ll be free. Then another seven days pass and Duaa makes the trip again.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left