Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Glossary of Incompetence

It could be argued that the world does not need a new science, but Laurence J. Peter, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, has invented one. He calls it hierarchiology, or the study of hierarchies in modern organizations. According to a satiric new book called The Peter Principle (Morrow; $4.95), which he wrote with the help of Canadian Freelancer Raymond Hull, the basic premise of hierarchiology is that "with few exceptions men bungle their affairs." The proof? Look at any large bureaucracy.

The "Peter Principle" states that "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence; the cream rises until it sours." People who show competence are promoted whether or not they are qualified to perform competently at the next level. Eventually they go beyond their limits, become incompetent, and stop getting promoted. Macbeth, a success as a military commander, rose to become an incompetent king. Which is to say, "nothing fails like success."

As Peter points out, hierarchies have several well-tested techniques to deal with men who have clearly been promoted beyond their level of competence. One method is:

The Lateral Arabesque, which is used by many managers in place of firing a misplaced employee. If an office supervisor fumbles frequently, he is made "coordinator of interdepartmental communications, supervising the filing of second copies of interoffice memos." This is similar to:

Percussive Sublimation, the pseudo-promotion commonly known as kicking a man upstairs. Because it appears to be yet another promotion for merit, percussive sublimation has the added benefit of justifying the executive who promoted the man to his level of incompetence in the first place. Both this principle and the lateral arabesque point up an inadequacy in C. Northcote Parkinson's well-known law. Work not only expands to fit the time allotted but, says Author Peter, "it can expand far beyond that."

Final Placement Syndrome is "what the ordinary sociologist calls 'success.' " Freud's theory that frustration arises from foibles such as penis envy, the Oedipus complex or the castration complex is nonsense, says Peter, who cheerfully regards Freud as a "satirist at heart." On the contrary, "frustration occurs as a result of promotion," because most people who are promoted genuinely wish to be productive.

A frequent symptom is Abnormal Tabulology, which is any unusual arrangement of the desk, such as Phonophilia (installing a panoply of telephones, pushbuttons, flashing lights and loudspeakers) or Papyrophobia (the "clean desk" syndrome, indulged in because "every piece of paper is a reminder of the work the papyrophobe cannot do"). Other signs of the syndrome include Cachinatory Inertia, "the habit of telling jokes instead of getting on with business," as well as Side-Issue Specialization, a commonplace substitute for competence characterized by the motto: "Look after the molehills and the mountains will look after themselves."

Staticmanship is the way to avoid the disastrous final promotion. It is a stratagem summed up by the classic injunction: "Cobbler, stick to your last." Peter himself, author of two serious books on disturbed children, thinks that one way he has avoided rising to final placement himself is by turning down lucrative consulting offers. This is known as Peter's Parry, and he admits that if most people employed it they would be nagged to distraction by their wives. A more practical technique is Creative Incompetence, or "creating the impression that you have already reached your level of incompetence." Peter says that "for a clerical worker, leaving one's desk drawers open at the end of the working day will, in some hierarchies, have the desired effect." Other workers may have to shun the official coffee break or park in the boss's parking place occasionally. For women, "overly strong perfume works well in many cases." Should instant promotion threaten, more extreme action can be taken. Creating the impression of a sordid personal life is an excellent ploy. Arrange for a friend to telephone at the office, suggests Peter, and then within earshot of several co-workers cry out, "Don't tell my wife. If she finds out this will kill her." The hint of scandal ought to scotch any chance of promotion.

Peter ends his book with the hope that a philanthropist will soon endow a chair of hierarchiology at a major university. "I am ready for the post," he says, "having proven myself capable in my present endeavors."

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What They Teach you at Harvard Business School: My Two Years Inside the Cauldron of Capitalism by Philip Delves Broughton

In 2004, the journalist Philip Delves Broughton walked away from what sounds like a peach of a job, Paris bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph, to enrol in Harvard’s world-famous MBA (Masters in Business Administration) course. As a reporter he had managed to get himself blacklisted by the French foreign ministry for asking impertinent questions of the preening, poetry-writing Dominique de Villepin: surely a career high for any self-respecting hack. But he had serious doubts about his future in journalism, and indeed about newspapers themselves. “I wanted control over my time, my financial resources, and my life, and I imagined that a general competence in business would stand me in better stead.”

So off he went to Harvard Business School (HBS), where a coveted MBA represents the “union card of the global financial elite”. Harvard MBAs run the World Bank, the American Treasury, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble. Even George W Bush is an alumnus. To some indefinable extent, Harvard MBAs run your life: “The hours we work, the vacations we get, the culture we consume, the health care we receive.” And they are supremely confident they should.

The result of Delves Broughton’s time there is this funny and revealing insider’s view, revealing precisely because he is genuinely fascinated by the world of business, and his fascination is infectious. Yet feelings of unease emerge even before he arrives. He reads a student guide on What to Bring. “Don’t bring that guitar . . . Don’t bring any books from literature or history classes . . . Don’t bring your cynicism. Do bring all the diverse rest of you. We can’t wait to share the experience.” Immediately, his bolshie British bullshit- detector thrums into life: “Who were these people? And why did they talk like this? Why can’t I bring my cynicism? Or my books? Aren’t they a part of the ‘diverse rest of me’?” “Your calendar will be jam-packed with amazing, fun things to do,” warbles the guide.

Amazingly, despite this terrible threat, he persists. Instantly, he is swamped with work: company case studies, spreadsheet analysis, books called things such as Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado, intended to make him feel he’s doing something terribly daring and manly. He is surprised at the large presence of earnest Mormons and unimaginative former-military men in this cauldron of capitalism. But gradually this begins to make sense, for HBS is pervaded with an oppressive atmosphere of unquestioning obedience and creepy religiosity. There is the confessional My Reflected Best-Self exercise, to encourage students “to create a developmental agenda for leveraging their reflected best-self” and “work maximally from positions of strength”. Approved results sound like this: “I do not take on the negative energy of the insecure . . . I stay centred . . . I try to model the message of integrity, growth and transformation.” Delves Broughton is quietly incredulous that people actually talk about themselves like this, in public, straight-faced.

The weirdest and creepiest episode is when a student writes to the entire school, confessing to a “regrettable property- damage incident”, a gorgeous euphemism for urinating against a neighbouring student’s door. “His behaviour had made him realise he still had work to do figuring out exactly who he was.” Ye-es . . . or maybe he should just resolve not to pee against people’s doors in future. Even more creepily, Delves Broughton finds that he no longer responds to such tosh with a healthy snort of laughter. “It was serious, right? Leadership. Core values. Transformation. Being true to oneself.” It takes his wife — his American wife — to inject some common sense. “These people are freaks.”

The total bill for his time at HBS is $175,000. Was it worth it? For all its vast reputation, power and pomposity, you feel that HBS neither understands the complexity nor acknowledges the chaotic unpredictability of the world economy any better than anyone else. More conclusively, it encourages its little alumni to major in hypocrisy. You go there for one simple reason: to make shedloads of money. Fine, so it’s no crime in itself to want to be absurdly and pointlessly rich, although it’s certainly no virtue. What sticks in the gullet is graduates’ self-flattering delusion that they’re on some kind of crusade, their “very American” insistence, as Delves Broughton puts it, on being not only “the most powerful, the richest and most successful”, but also “the most morally good”. At the same time as learning how to manipulate billions in order to profit, say, from ordinary people’s fretful indebtedness during a recession, you can believe that you are a philanthropic leader of men. Yet these are people whose answer to their own question, “How will I know how much is enough?” is, “When you've got your own jet.” Any notion that such jet-setting plutocrats are truly concerned about the rest of us, or the planet, or the future, is laughable.

Yet to support this sense of righteous mission there’s a whole new raft of jargon, not just daft but pretentious and nauseating. These money-loving graduates must nurture “heightened self-awareness” and “a strong moral compass”, they must “foster integrity strategies”, acquire “leadership and values”. But why the hell would the rest of us want to be led by these spreadsheet-reading, PowerPoint-presenting swots who’ve devoted the best years of their lives simply to making moolah?

The final, oddly moving moment of epiphany comes to Delves Broughton as he is wandering through a rainy Boston and pauses to read the plaques on the Old North Church. One is to “Paul Revere, 1735-1818. Patriot. Master Craftsman. Good Citizen. Born on Hanover Street. Lived on North Street. Established his bell foundry on Foster Street and died on Charter Street.” The brevity and quiet pride, the pioneer hardiness and unshowy self-sufficiency of Revere’s plaque seem in powerful contrast to the bloated and blustery style of the town’s world-famous business school, its restless, rootless, money-driven alumni now “disappearing to the ends of the earth in search of opportunity, worrying about work and life”. On reflection, “I felt better not being among them.”

More dash than cash

Philip Delves Broughton confesses that his first few months out of Harvard Business School were difficult. While fellow students stampeded down Wall Street snapping up jobs (‘some filed as many as 30 applications and found themselves with 30 interviews in one week’), he found himself falling back on his journalism while ‘waiting to become a titan of business’. Two years on, unnerved by classmates straining ‘so hard to secure jobs they knew would make them miserable’, Delves Broughton is finally putting his MBA skills to use. After flirting with an idea for a ‘very high end laundry firm’, he’s now setting up a cutting-edge podcast company with a friend. ‘It is a turbulent frontier world, and enormous fun to inhabit, whatever becomes of our venture,’ he says in a tone noticeably lacking in HBS get-up-and-go.

What They Teach you at Harvard Business School by Philip Delves Broughton

Viking £12.99 pp283 Buy the book at Books First £11.69 including free delivery

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Cross us and we will crush you, warns Medvedev

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev

(Dmitrt Astakhov)

President Medvedev made his most hawkish statement yet

Ceasefire latest: Russia stalls on Georgia pullout

President Medvedev of Russia yesterday promised a “shattering blow” against any foreign power that moved against Russian citizens.

The threat will compound the fears of former Soviet states, which are concerned that they could be next after Russia’s attack on Georgia.

“If someone thinks they can kill our citizens, kill soldiers and officers fulfilling the role of peacekeepers, we will never allow this,” Mr Medvedev told a group of Second World War veterans in Kursk. “Anyone who tries to do this will receive a shattering blow.”

He continued: “Russia has the capabilities - economic, political and military. Nobody has any illusions left about that.”

Russia’s incursion into Georgia, and its reluctance to leave, has alarmed former Soviet states such as Ukraine and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The war was designed in part to send a message to the former Soviet states that “you can’t solve your problems by running to give the West a hug”, Liliya Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said.

At the start of the war, Mr Medvedev said it was his constitutional right to defend the “lives and dignity” of Russian citizens. Georgia’s allies now fear that Russia will begin to throw its weight around in defence of the millions of ethnic Russians who live outside the motherland.

The break-up of the Soviet Union left a huge Russian diaspora outside the country. There are more than 8 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine, 4.5 million in Kazakhstan and 1.2 million in the Baltic states.

Russia justified its attack on Georgia by insisting that it was acting to protect the 90 per cent of South Ossetians who have Russian passports.

How many of the passports are genuine is another question, as the region has long been infamous for smuggling and counterfeit passports and dollars.

Yevgeniya Latynina, a columnist, wrote last week that when the South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, received his passport, he opened it to find that it contained the picture of Abraham Lincoln from a $5 note instead of his own photograph.

Russia’s relations with Ukraine and the Baltic States have worsened in recent years after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined Nato and the EU, and Ukraine tried to follow them.

One man was killed in demonstrations staged by Russians in Tallinn last year after Estonian authorities moved a Second World War monument that had been erected in the city by the Soviet regime. Moscow has complained that ethnic Russians are discriminated against in the Baltic states - an accusation that the EU has supported in some cases.

Ukraine and the Baltic States were quick to support Georgia, but Belarus, normally an ardent supporter of its only ally in Europe, meekly called for a ceasefire. There are more than one million ethnic Russians in Belarus.

The leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia condemned the actions of Russian forces and travelled to Georgia last week to show solidarity with Tbilisi. Estonia’s Postimees newspaper even published a map explaining the weapons Russia might use against the country.

Ukraine told Moscow that it could not use its Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet in armed conflicts without permission, after warships were deployed near Georgia. On Sunday Ukraine offered to create a joint missile defence network with the West amid fears that its port city of Sevastopol, home of the fleet, could become the next flashpoint between Russia and its former satellite states.

Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s reformist President, who visited Tbilisi last week to support President Saakashvili of Georgia, said that the use of Russian ships for a war violated Ukraine’s neutrality and risked drawing it into conflict.

Ms Shevtsova, however, dismissed the idea that Russia might attack other countries.

“It is not possible,” she said, arguing that Mr Medvedev’s rhetoric was for internal consumption. “It would be suicide for Russia; it is just a show.”

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry OK with teachers, staff carrying guns at schools

By CHRISTY HOPPE / The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry said Monday that he supported the Harrold school district policy to allow teachers and staff members to carry guns at school as long as they are adequately trained in gun safety.

"I'm pretty much a fan that if you've been trained and you are registered, then you should be able to carry a weapon. Matter of fact, there's a lot of instances that would have saved a lot of lives," Mr. Perry said.

The governor is a staunch advocate of right-to-carry provisions and has advocated allowing licensed gun owners to carry them into places where they can currently be banned, such as college campuses, churches, bars and private businesses.

"The issue with handguns is training and registration," Mr. Perry said, adding that those who complete the concealed weapons licensing program, which includes gun safety training, should be allowed to carry guns wherever they go.

Harrold is a small district near Wichita Falls that has about 110 students in its K-12 school. School trustees changed their policy last year to allow district employees to carry concealed guns on school property. School officials have cited the proximity of the school to a state highway and its 30-minute distance from the nearest sheriff's office as reasons for concern.

Thus far, Harrold is apparently the only school district in Texas that will allow its teachers to carry guns into their classrooms.

Texans for Gun Safety board member Linda Siemers said teachers or students carrying guns around school "is a terrifying idea."

"Schools are capable of providing a safe environment for teachers and children without either one carrying guns," Ms. Siemers said. "We must deal with our fear of crime in a more constructive manner."

But Mr. Perry said he would have no problem with other schools allowing guns.

"I think it's up to those local school districts," he said.

He mentioned the 1991 rampage in Killeen when George Hennard drove his pickup into the front of a Luby's and began shooting at patrons, killing 23 people before turning the gun on himself. Among the victims were the parents of former state Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp, who was one of the state's staunchest right-to-carry advocates.

"That's a great anecdotal story of not being able to have a weapon when you needed one," Mr. Perry said.

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The Afghan women jailed for being victims of rape

Zirdana, right, with her son and Saliha, centre, in Lashkar Gah prison

Zirdana, right, with her son and Saliha, centre, in Lashkar Gah prison

Beneath the anonymity of the sky-blue burqa, Saliha's slender frame and voice betray her young age.Asked why she was serving seven years in jail alongside hardened insurgents and criminals, the 15-year-old giggled and buried her head in her friend's shoulder.

"She is shy," apologised fellow inmate Zirdana, explaining that the teenager had been married at a young age to an abusive husband and ran away with a boy from her neighbourhood.

Asked whether she had loved the boy, Saliha squirmed with childish embarrassment as her friend replied: "Yes."

Ostracised from her family and village, Saliha was convicted of escaping from home and illegal sexual relations. The first carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, the second 20. These are two of the most common accusations facing female prisoners in Afghanistan.

Two-thirds of the women in Lashkar Gah's medieval-looking jail have been convicted of illegal sexual relations, but most are simply rape victims – mirroring the situation nationwide. The system does not distinguish between those who have been attacked and those who have chosen to run off with a man.

Sitting among the plastic flowers around his desk, where an optimistic United Nations scales of justice poster competed for space with images of Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, Colonel Ghulam Ali, a high-ranking regional security officer, explained sternly that he supported the authorities' right to convict victims of rape. "In Afghanistan whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is," he claimed. "I think it is good. There are many diseases that can be created in today's world, such as HIV, through illegal sexual relations."

But there are signs of progress. A female shura, or consultative council, was established in Helmand province last week to try to combat the injustice of treating an abused woman as a criminal, and not a victim. British officers and Afghan government officials from the province's reconstruction team are also overseeing a project to build humane accommodation for the 400 male and female prisoners.

Inside the fortified compound of the prison in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's capital, the 330 male prisoners laze about in the shade of their straw huts. The prison security was was recently upgraded with new razor wire and guard posts following the attack on Kandahar's prison in which more than a 1,000 inmates escaped, including 400 Taliban. Past the main gate, inmates – whether on remand and awaiting trial or convicts – are incarcerated alongside 50 insurgents.

In a separate area are the female "criminals" – the youngest is just 13 years old – along with their small children, who must stay with their mothers if no one else will claim them. Their only luxury is a carpet, two blankets, basic cooking facilities and two daily deliveries of bread. They have neither medical care nor, as Colonel Ali acknowledged, "basic human facilities", such as washing areas, electricity and drinking water. All this he hopes will be rectified when the new building his finished.

Pushing her five-year-old son's arm forward imploringly, Zirdana, 25, pointed to the festering wound buzzing with flies. The little boy was just two months old when his mother was convicted of murdering her husband, his father. Zirdana had been handed over to him at the age of seven, as part payment in a financial dispute. She gave birth to the first of her children when she was 11 and was pregnant with her fourth when her husband disappeared and she was accused of killing him. Her three older children were taken from her by her brother-in-law. "When I first came to jail I cried so much blood was coming out of my mouth. My husband's brother told me he would give my children back when I came out of jail but he has become a Talib. Nobody comes to see us in jail. There are a lot of diseases," she said.

Next to her, Dorkhani, 55, sobbed so much that the glint of her tears shone through the mesh of her burqa. Married for four decades to a relatively wealthy man from Nowzad, the couple had fled to Lashkar Gah after a family dispute. When he returned to Nowzad, to try and reclaim his money, he disappeared. "The ones who killed my husband, they have money and they threw me in jail. I am 100 per cent innocent. I have no one, no brother to look after me," she said, explaining that those with cash could buy their freedom.

Last week, in Helmand, the new Women and Children's Justice Shura met and voted in its constitution with the help of advisers from the Afghan Human Rights Committee and support from the Women's Affairs Department, as well as a government legal adviser.

The shura, made up of 20 influential women, mostly teachers, hopes to tackle the inequality of the system by first ensuring that women in the province become aware of their basic right: not to have to endure abuse.

Earlier this year a report by Womankind, Taking Stock: Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, revealed that violent attacks against women, usually in a domestic setting, are at epidemic proportions – 87 per cent of women complain of such abuse, and half of it is sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced and, despite laws banning the practice, 57 per cent of brides are under 16. Many of these girls are offered as restitution for a crime or as debt settlement. Afghanistan is the only country in the world with a higher suicide rate among women than men.

In the UK, the MP Malcolm Bruce, chairman of the House of Commons International Development Committee, warned: "There is a dangerous tendency to accept in Afghanistan practices which would not be countenanced elsewhere, because of 'cultural' differences and local traditions."

The shura is hoping to provide a place where women can report abuse and create a separate centre for women and girls incarcerated for running away. It would be a compromise of custody without the stigma of being thrown in jail.

"They are very aware of the inequality in the system," said Royal Navy Lieutenant Rebecca Parnell, a member of the Cimic, or civil-military co-operation, team. "The most refreshing thing is that there are plans coming from the Department of Women's Affairs. It is not just us pushing our ideas on to them." The military aid team has programmes for monthly health checks and trauma counselling in the prison as well as vocational training in carpet weaving, tailoring, literacy and basic health education.

As she was led away to her jail cell yesterday, Dorkhani lifted her burqa to reveal a sun-battered face streaked with tears and pleading eyes: "Please, please take our words somewhere where people will be kind and help us."

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Mexico's Cocaine Capital

The bullet holes in the safe-house door tell you who's winning Mexico's drug war. The armor-piercing ammunition, fired from the inside by drug traffickers, shredded the 20-gauge steel like small cannonballs; the rounds fired from the outside, by federal police, merely punctured the metal like so much bird shot. After that midnight firefight on May 27--the result of a botched police raid in the desert city of Culiacán in northwestern Mexico--seven cops lay dead. Only one narco gunman died; the rest, at least half a dozen, escaped. For neighbors, the carnage carried an unambiguous message. "I realized," says Victor Rodríguez, a fishmonger and family man, "that the power of the narcos has surpassed the power of my government."

People across the country are coming to the same depressing conclusion. There have been 2,000 drug-related murders in Mexico this year, including scores of ghastly beheadings, putting 2008 well on pace to break last year's record of 2,500 killings. Hundreds of victims are police, including the chief of the federal police, who was killed in May. While inaugurating a federal-police post in Mexico City in June, President Felipe Calderón insisted that the "state is stronger than any criminal organization." But in a poll released a couple of weeks earlier by the Mexico City daily Reforma, 53% said the narcos were winning the drug war. Even Washington, famous for ignoring crises south of the border, is alarmed. To back up Calderón--and keep the mayhem from spilling into the U.S.--Congress recently approved $400 million for Mexico in 2009 as part of his and President George W. Bush's Mérida Initiative, a three-year aid package for beleaguered drug-interdiction forces.

But is Washington making the smartest use of the Mérida money? More than two-thirds of it will buy tools like helicopters and surveillance technology. Events like the May shoot-out demonstrate the importance of improved hardware, yet Mexico, the hemisphere's fourth largest economy, already has a $7 billion federal-security budget and can acquire those tools by itself. What Mexico needs more of from the U.S., say security experts, is financial and technical help in recasting its dysfunctional police and judiciary--more professional training, infrastructure and especially pay. Too many of the nation's police, many of whom earn a measly $5,000 a year, moonlight for the drug gangs. That's why Calderón deployed 25,000 army troops last year to take on the narcos. The military may have dealt some telling blows, like larger cocaine seizures and more arrests, but armies tend to be lousy at long-term drug interdiction and are prone to human-rights abuses when they play sheriff. It's honest cops that Mexico needs. Unless the country develops modern police forces--investigative bodies that can attack not only the cartels but also the political and business interests that protect them and launder their money--efforts like Mérida will be largely symbolic. Says Arturo Alvarado, a security expert at Mexico City's Autonomous Technological Institute: "The Mérida plan is just a reproduction of the failed antidrug strategies we've been using for the past 20 years."

While they're glad to have more money to fight the narcos, Mexican officials also say the U.S. could do much more--like policing its own side of the border more effectively. The gangs owe their wealth to U.S. consumers (Americans still snort half the world's cocaine) and their firepower to the deluge of pistols, semiautomatic rifles and grenades smuggled in from the U.S. "The effort and lives the Mexican people are giving to this fight," Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora tells TIME, are "much larger than their share of responsibility for the problem." As if to concede that point, Congress inserted $74 million into the Mérida plan to combat the gunrunning.

Heart of Darkness

Gun smugglers do a brisk business in Culiacán and surrounding Sinaloa state, where gangland-style murders--more than 600 this year--have made the region a byword for lawlessness. After the seven feds were killed in the May 27 shoot-out, Calderón sent 2,000 additional troops into Sinaloa. They have rattled the narcos, impeding some trafficking routes and increasing weapons seizures. But such success has prompted a criminal insurgency against the government, led by two powerful drug groups: the Sinaloa Cartel, headed by Joaquín (Chapo, or "Shorty") Guzmán, and its foe, the Gulf Cartel, dominated by the Zetas, an ultraviolent group of former military commandos.

When we visited the city this summer, there were a slew of narco murders each day: a 22-year-old man riddled with bullets from AK-47 assault rifles, known in Mexico as cuernos de chivo (goat's horns) for their curved magazines; a wealthy tortilla merchant shot 74 times in his stylish pickup truck at a busy intersection; two police officers massacred on a residential street by more than 100 rounds each; another man decapitated and his head brazenly displayed on a roadside pike. "These days [narcos] think nothing of killing us for no reason other than marking their territory," says a Sinaloa-state police commander who quit after seeing fellow cops murdered and concluding that police reform was hopeless. The gangs are likely to keep upping the ante: last month, there were two botched car-bomb attempts in Culiacán.

Sinaloa is the sweltering cradle of Mexico's $25 billion--a--year drug-trafficking industry, the birthplace of most major Mexican druglords, and many Culichis, as Culiacán residents are known, seem to take perverse pride in it. "This is a tough people who conquered the desert," says Elmer Mendoza, a popular Culiacán crime novelist. "Unfortunately, they admire people, like the narcos, who go in search of extremes." The state's patron saint, with his own downtown Culiacán chapel, is a 19th century bandit hero, Jesús Malverde. The local hit parade consists of narcocorridos, ballads in praise of druglords; fashion is set by narcos--including orange ostrich-skin cowboy boots (only an armed gangster could get away with wearing them) and gold jewelry in the shape of cuernos de chivo; and the Humaya cemetery is a garish shrine to countless young Sinaloa men cut down by cartel bullets. César Jacobo, a songwriter for the narcocorrido group Cartel de Sinaloa, has had numerous friends perish that way. "They still figure it's best to live large for a few years," he says, "than to live poor for life."

But the phenomenon is hardly confined to the poor. "Too many affluent Culichis," says Javier Valdez, a columnist for the muckraking newspaper Rio Doce, "complain about the narco problem during the day and then go to bed with it at night." Many are happy to launder the cartels' millions--which account for an economic boom in Culiacán, replete with new Hummer dealerships, and casinos and nightclubs where women sport diamond-encrusted fingernails. Laundering sustains a network of drug-tainted businesses--from cattle ranches to currency-exchange houses to motels--that the feds are finally probing and in some cases have shut down.

Culichis take for granted that many of their politicians are on the cartels' payrolls. The spotlight is currently on Oscar Félix, a state legislator. The military arrested three of his brothers this summer with a whopping 18 kg of cocaine, worth more than $500,000 on the U.S. market; Félix acknowledged that a top druglord is his brother-in-law and that the safe house where the feds were gunned down in May was once one of his campaign headquarters. He denies any wrongdoing and tells Time he's "just a humble representative of farmers who's being demonized by enemies." But colleagues are demanding that he be investigated. Yudit del Rincón, a state legislator who is among Félix's critics, says that in order to defeat the narcos, "we've got to tear down our narco spiderwebs" of gangsters, politicos and business. Because of her efforts to expose them, Del Rincón's car was attacked with baseball bats, and a funeral wreath was sent to her house as a warning. In Culiacán, and in countless other Mexican cities, the spiders have the upper hand.

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