eyes on the U.S.

Duterte And Trump, When Tough Talk Leads To Deadly Action

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Alyssa Rosenberg

WASHINGTON, D.C. — During his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump boasted that "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." On the 100th day of his presidency, Trump invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has said that he used to roam the streets on a motorcycle looking for criminals to kill, to the White House.

A Duterte state visit to Washington or Mar-a-Lago would be a ghastly spectacle, given the way the Philippines have pursued a war on drugs even more literal than the one in the United States, leaving thousands dead. While Trump bloviates about "American carnage," the Duterte regime produces its own bloodbath.

Trump's courtship of a man who shares his taste in crude, violent political rhetoric might have been marginally motivated by the American administration's concerns about North Korea, as White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has claimed. But the substance of the leaders' conversation is a reminder of the dark — and now international — glamour of the war on drugs, and the dreadful consequences of that fascination.

Trump and Duterte are hardly the first two people to have discovered the macho power of harsh talk about crime, specifically drug-related crime. Bill Bennett, who ran President George H.W. Bush's Office of National Drug Control Policy, imagined taking a page from Saudi Arabia and beheading drug dealers publicly, though I'm willing to grant Bennett the courtesy of imagining he intended for those executions to take place after trials, rather than on an ad hoc basis like the killings taking place under Duterte.

duterte philippines drugs killings

Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency agents at work - Rouelle Umali/Xinhua/ZUMA

Bennett's fantasies about executing drug dealers echoed widespread sentiments in popular culture. As I wrote last year, the entertainment industry, despite its supposed liberalism, was quick to embrace drug traffickers as the industry's villains of choice during the rise of the blockbuster era. These fictional bad guys were convenient for an industry eager to ratchet up splashy, cinematically exciting violence: They had access to serious weaponry and were perfectly willing to inflict extreme damage, from crashing trains to torturing cops' families, to move their product. Their determination and utter amorality in turn meant that fictional cops were justified in shooting, and sometimes killing, these fearsome adversaries. If drug criminals wouldn't be taken alive, what could pop culture ask decent people who wanted to protect their communities to do?

Trump's declarations that Mexicans are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists," and his repeated invocations of "bad hombres' and "American carnage" in cities across the country, are the references of a man who for decades has taken inflammatory and irresponsible positions on crime to his own political benefit. Now, he has the ability to actually implement some of his tough talk.

Trump's defense of his invitation to Duterte was similar to the rationale that's kept Hollywood fighting the drug war decade after decade: They're both popular.

Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, intends to reinvigorate the American war on drugs. And for all major Hollywood figures did to oppose Trump's election, this is essentially a line the movie and television industries have also advanced for decades: that drug criminals are supervillainous threats to American cities who can be clearly identified and need to be executed without trial.

Of course, neither the American war on drugs initiated by President Richard Nixon, nor the massacres set off by Duterte in the Philippines, look much like Hollywood extravaganzas. In the United States, it more often looks like people frightened, injured or even killed in no-knock raids, people arrested on possession charges who languish in jail because they can't afford bail or lose access to the financial aid that makes higher education possible, and voter disenfranchisement. In the Philippines, the drug war means people lying shot dead in the street as the rain beats down on their bodies or struggling to rest in heinously overcrowded jails, depicted in shattering photos taken by the New York Times" Daniel Berehulak.

Trump's defense of his invitation to Duterte was similar to the rationale that's kept Hollywood fighting the drug war decade after decade: They're both popular. Of course, Trump has never had to live with any of the consequences of his demagoguery, whether he's demonizing the Central Park Five long after their exoneration or talking recklessly about jailing his opponents. Trump may have been touched by the gassing of Syrian children, but the ongoing slaughter of Filipinos seems like an abstraction to him, easily disguised with talk of toughness.

This is the thing about living in an era defined by a president who treats the world like a show he's producing, rather than a fragile thing for which he bears a fearsome responsibility. You can't stage the fictions of your imagination in the real world without exacting terrible costs, even if other people end up paying them. Rodrigo Duterte isn't an action hero; he's a monster. And whether Trump understands it or not, his actions could make him one, too.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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