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So mid-2000s

An elusive MIST hangs over the soggy BRIC.  The darlings of the developing world – Brazil, Russia, China and India – have been outshined by new kids on the economic bloc.  Once again, Goldman Sachs has coined another global acronym, this time to classify a group of second tier, but more agile rising powers.  With the stroke of four keys, Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey became the MIST.

But, their ascension into the world of invented global acronyms has irked many other countries eager to gain notoriety in the international arena.  The creation of the BRIC generated hype for these rising powers, leading other enterprising nations to petition for their very own acronyms.

Many have tried combinations that help dispel stereotypes and negative perceptions about their countries.  LUCKY, is a federation formed by the often less fortunate Libya, Uganda, Cambodia, Kosovo and Yemen.  With headquarters in beautiful Benghazi, LUCKY hopes for a radical rebranding.  Meanwhile, Somalia and Iraq have sought to shed their chaotic image by partnering with the uneventful countries of Kazakhstan, Canada, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Suriname.  Together they form KICKASS.

Others – Gautemala, Ecuador, Tanzania, Jordan, Israel, Greece, Ghana and Yemen – just want to GETJIGGY with it.  The delegation is in talks for the creation of a super coalition with the PARTYHARD nations of Poland, Australia, Republic of the Congo, Turkey, Yemen, Honduras, Algeria, Russia, and Denmark.  However, controversy shrouds the latter group over a disagreement with North Korea, which claims that its country, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), puts the Democratic Peoples Republic in PARTYHARD.

To show solidarity and perhaps gain some residual stardom from global pop sensation and heartthrob Justin Bieber, Bolivia, Iran, Ecuador, Brazil, Ethiopia, Russia, Finland, Eritrea, Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea and the Republic of the Congo, have come to represent BIEBERFEVER.  In a recent conference, they agreed upon a platform for global change and released this video as a teaser.

Meanwhile, Weakleaks, the less famous cousin of Wikileaks, has caused a row in Washington’s diplomatic circles after leaked cables showed the designation of troubled countries into an unsavory acronym.  PROBLEMS, composed of Paraguay, Russia, Oman, Bosnia, Libya, El Salvador, Myanmar and Somalia, began as a cheap joke, but evolved into a minor security commission.  Stable and wealthy Oman was most offended by the designation.  A hacked email from a US official revealed that the oil rich Mideast country was merely filler to complete the word. Both Oman and its neighbor Yemen are in high demand, for they control access to the only O and Y.

But, others have taken the acronym craze with a grain of salt.  As one Libyan scholar of international relations put it, “Hey, if you are LUCKY enough to KICKASS at your PROBLEMS, then PARTYHARD and GETJIGGY with BIEBERFEVER.”  None-the-less, it will be interesting to see the evolution of these blocs as the balance of world power continues to shift.

Reduvid bug

One night you are sleeping peacefully, when suddenly a small bug drops down from the rafters above and decides to feed on your face.  After sucking your blood to its heart’s content, the bug proceeds to defecate in the same space it had just enjoyed a meal.  You awake the next morning with a swollen bite and scratch away to relieve the itch.  In a few days you develop flu like symptoms – headache, diarrhea, fever, the works.  A few weeks later, you have conquered the sickness.  Years pass and the incident seems nothing more than the distant haze of a memory.  Then one day, 20 years into the future, your heart stops working and you die.  An autopsy reveals a megacolon (enlarged colon) and a megaesophagus (enlarged esophagus).

This story is repeated 20,000 times every year throughout the Americas.  Chagas: a parasitic infection passed through the fecal matter of reduvid bugs, is the disease behind the mystery.  Health services estimate eight to 11 million people carry the disease in the western hemisphere.  Though early treatment of the disease can prevent its delayed chronic symptoms, the majority of carriers do not know they have been infected.

T. cruzi

Chagas is caused by Trypanosoma cruzi, a unicellular flagellar protozoa, resembling a microscopic flat worm.  Once inside the blood, the parasite replicates itself by asexual binary fission and begins a long process of colonization throughout the tissues of the colon, nerves, esophagus, and heart.

Besides transmission via the reduvid bug, commonly referred to as the “kissing bug” for its habit of sucking faces, Chagas can also be spread through blood transfusions, organ transplantations, breast milk, and across the placenta.   Fourteen thousand infants are born with congenital Chagas every year and 13 percent of all still births in Brazil can be attributed to the disease.

The disease was first discovered in 1909, by Brazilian immunologist Carlos Chagas.  Though a major Chagas outbreak hit the country in the 1920s, it did not become an internationally accepted public health concern until the 1960s. Before discovery and treatment, the parasite went completely unchecked.  In fact, some evidence suggests that Charles Darwin had contracted Chagas during a stopover in Chile.  He described feeling ill for six months in the port of Valparaiso, but quickly recovered afterward to resume his travels.  A year after returning to England he developed mysterious symptoms, which debilitated him for the rest of his life.

The bug that causes the disease has a variety of different names, including vinchuca in Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, bareiro or “barber” in Brazil, pito in Colombia, chinche in Central America, and chipo in Venezuela.  It is mostly found in rural areas, hiding in thatched roofs and other organic house materials.  Modern efforts to reduce the 40,000 cases occurring every year focus on spraying insecticide, raising awareness of bites, and encouraging testing and treatment.

On the bright side, once the initial acute symptoms of the disease have been identified, treatment is 60-90 percent effective in preventing the development of the chronic symptoms, down the road.  So if you fall asleep under a roof made of straw and palm fronds, check your face in the morning, do not scratch, and wash bug droppings from the bite.  Everything will be alright in a Chagas free future.

Chagas bite causes initial swelling of eye

Who knew that dried endangered seahorse powder works as the perfect aphrodisiac and cure for asthma?  Just a pinch of the stuff is equivalent to popping a Viagra and taking a hit off an inhaler at the same time.  It is important to make sure that the product is endangered; do not be fooled by imitators boasting a ‘vulnerable’ status.

But, the market for ground seahorse medicine took a hit yesterday when Peruvian Police seized more than 16,000 dried seahorses before they could be exported illegally to Asian countries.  The warm waters off the northern Peruvian coast make the perfect breeding ground for slow moving, yet ironically horse-shaped sea creatures.

Authorities say the shipment weighed 160 kilos.  At $6,000 per kilo, the cargo could have been worth nearly $1 million at street value.  However, other sources put the total retail price at around $250,000 – a figure based on values from the 1990s, when the underground market was first publicized in detail.

Last year, law enforcement seized a total of 20 tons of dried seahorse throughout the world, with half a ton found in Peru.  The extensive trade is estimated to be a $20 million annual industry, with Hong Kong as the hub for sales to mainland China, Singapore, Korea, and Japan.  However, Australia and the United States also import hundreds of thousands of dried seahorses every year.

Seahorse medicine has been around since the Ming Dynasty began raising the creatures for consumption in the 14th century.  But in the late 20th century, the animals were declared endangered due to over collection and the industry moved underground.  All specimens used for medicinal purposes come from the genus Hippocampus and vary in size for 10 to 300 millimeters or 3 to 25 grams.

Though we rarely hear about this illicit market, busts such as the one in Peru reveal the extensive black markets outside the world of narcotics.  Profitable illegality pervades all types of products throughout the world and no seahorse or snow leopard is safe.

Shipment intercepted by Spanish authorities

This morning, Spain announced the apprehension of four traffickers associated with the Mexican Sinaloa cartel, including the cousin of billionaire kingpin fugitive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Near the end of July, Spanish authorities discover the four men with a shipping container of 373kg of cocaine, worth more than $24 million in street value.  Today, Spain went public with the seizer and apprehensions.

According BBC News, “it was only a matter of time before the cartel tried to expand into Europe and Spain was the natural choice as an entry point, given the common language and its sea ports.”  Sinaloa, which controls near half of all US narcotics trade, may have connections in more than 50 countries.

Two of the detained: Jesus Gutierrez Guzman (left) and Samuel Zazueta Valenzuela

This extensive transnational criminal network may be uncovering a major strategy shift among Mexican cartels to distance themselves from the violent corridor into the US.

And speaking of “natural entry points,” landlocked Mongolia has become a new hotspot of narcotics trafficking.  Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) are packing up their supplies and heading to the steppes.  The opportunity of tapping the vast Mongolian market has encouraged Sinaloa and others to set up shop in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital.  “The pay-off is endless out here,” said an anonymous DEA spokesman, “they’re calling it the ‘Hot Gobi.’”

“What’s the point in fighting bitterly over millions of wealthy customers, when you can relax in a yurt all day and sell dime bags to a few thousand nomads,” said one former dealer.

Potential regulars

Such is the logic of ruthless DTOs.  First it was the Caribbean corridor, then it was Mexico and Central America, now it’s the entire Pacific Ocean with a rendezvous along Russia’s Eastern Seaboard, followed by a quick jaunt through northern China.  The balloon effect – a tightening of enforcement in one area leading to an expansion of trafficking in another – has really taken a bizarre turn.

What used to be a 3,500 mile journey from Colombia to the US border is now an 8,500 mile journey to Mongolia.  As of a few hours ago, the DEA announced it will relocate its Mexican and Central American operations to Ulaanbaatar.  “This is ground zero,” said another DEA agent.  The CIA is likely to follow, capitalizing on the lucrative and practical Mongolian corridor.

Disclaimer: Half of this news update is veritably untrue.  For real news on the East Asian drug trade follow this link: http://www.china.org.cn/china/news/2009-06/27/content_18023666.htm.

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