Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
Unaccompanied Miners: Down the Shaft with Bolivia’s Child Laborers
In 1936, George Orwell visited a coal mine in Grimethorpe, England. “The place is like… my own mental picture of hell,” he wrote of the experience. “Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” Orwell was a lanky guy, 6’3” or 6’2”, and I am too. So I was reminded of his comparison recently while crawling through a tunnel as dank and dark as a medieval sewer, nearly a mile underground in one of the oldest active mines in Latin America, the Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia. The chutes were so narrow that I couldn’t have turned around—or turned back—even if I’d wanted to.
Orwell wasn’t the first to equate mines with hell; Bolivian miners already know they labor in the inferno. In the past 500 years, at least 4 million of them have died from cave-ins, starvation, or black lung in Cerro Rico, and as a sly fuck-you to the pious Spaniards who set up shop here in 1554 and enslaved the native Quechua Indians, Bolivian miners worship the devil—part of a schizophrenic cosmology in which God governs above while Satan rules the subterranean.
As an offering to him, miners slaughter llamas and smear blood around the entrances to the 650 mineshafts that swiss-cheese this hill. Near the bloodstains, just inside the mine, a visitor can find beady-eyed statues with beards and raging boners—a goofy caricature of Satan known as El Tio, or “the Uncle,” to whom workers give moonshine and cigarettes in exchange for good luck. Before entering the mountain, I’d offered a small pouch of coca leaves to one of these little devils, requesting a bendiga, a blessing for my safety.
A few hours later, I was hundreds of feet underground, shambling through three-foot-tall tunnels, bony knees bruising over hard rock. My guide, Dani, a miniature man with the strength and temperament of a donkey, had burrowed so far ahead that he’d disappeared into the darkness. I called out to him. When he didn’t reply, my photographer Jackson turned to me and coughed. “I’m freaking out,” he said, and we soldiered on, trying to trace Dani’s path through the hot, sulfur-stinking tunnel.
The Boxer, the Murder, the Fall from Grace
The argument started over gas money. It escalated to the point where a man got shot in the testicles. And it finished with one of the participants murdered and the other—a professional boxer with 20 victories to his name—in prison.
The dead man’s name was Raul Bennett Sambola, and I’ll get to him, but it was the boxer’s involvement that made the argument and its aftermath famous up and down Nicaragua’s poverty-stricken Atlantic coast. Evans Quinn was a 28-year-old heavyweight at the time of the February 2012 murder; just nine months earlier he had been in Nevada fighting Seth Mitchell. That bout ended with Quinn getting knocked out in the first round, after which he returned to his hometown of Bluefields. But before that humiliation, before he got involved in a feud, killed Sambola, went on the run, and was finally thrown in prison, Quinn was already a local legend, beloved by the people of Bluefields because he was one of them. As he came up through the boxing ranks, they imagined he’d make it to the top and show the world that the people in this poor but lively region are fighters and winners.
“God gave Evans Quinn the ability to rise up the people of Bluefields,” a local pastor told me. “But he threw it away.”
It’s hard to describe Quinn without using words like “potential” and “ability.” He was charismatic as hell, handsome, successful, and able to make whoever he talked to feel like he was the most important person in the world. He claimed to have seven wives (“I’m Muslim,” he told me) and surrounded himself with friends, drugs, women, and guns. But he could also be dangerous—if you crossed him, he wasn’t afraid to use his immense physical talents to show you who was boss. Like when he punched that pastor’s son in the mouth just because the kid was at a nightclub with a girl Quinn thought would be better off with him.
“He was crazy, but he could have done great things,” the pastor said. That’s how eager many in Bluefields were to look the other way when Quinn did something most people would be hated for. That was the influence the boxer had once had here. Today Quinn is still a legend, but now that he’s in prison, his glory days long burned away to ash, his story is now one about wasted potential, or a cautionary tale about what happens when a man takes justice into his own hands. If you’re willing to forgive his excesses and his ugly violent streak, he could even be a folk hero who got thrown in prison by cops with a grudge against him.
Lean On Me: Instagram’s Codeine Kingpin Sent Me Emoji Death Threats
As I write this, a drug dealer wants me dead. It might be spelled out in Emoji, but a death threat’s a death threat.
There is an Atlanta-based drug dealer who is convinced I ripped him off for at least a few pints of Actavis-brand prescription cough syrup—a potent mixture of codeine and promethazine. You and I know it as “lean” or “drank.”
I’ve never consumed lean. I’ve never met this dealer. I’ve never even been to Atlanta.
This entire “encounter” took place on Instagram, where hundreds of accounts are selling lean, weed, and a variety of prescription pills in a virtual open-air drug market. Many of these accounts aren’t even private.
Remember Silk Road? That mysterious, deep-web drug market? (Which, by the way, was recently shut down and seized by the United States government) It’s kind of like that, but on the same iPhone app that you use to take a photo of your brunch. The same app that Facebook bought for a billion dollars, or roughly 2.85 million pints of Actavis, the leading lean brand.
They sell it, often overnight it, and you can text them your order.
/ / /
Lean, Oil, Mud, Texas Tea, Dirty Sprite, Drank, Sizzurp—the archetypal Styrofoam cup filled with purple liquid you’re picturing is a cocktail of promethazine and codeine, mixed with Sprite, and garnished with a Jolly Rancher. Lean is often touted by rappers and, like hip-hop itself, it took off in an isolated area (Houston) and propagated itself outwardly. H-Town luminaries like DJ Screw and UGK’s Pimp C championed the stuff—and they also died from overdoses.
And, recently, everything is purple. Houston-based rapper Fat Tony—who claims to never drink lean himself—says, “[Lean] has a long history of being associated with rap music because of DJ Screw and Houston music, but now, it’s so popular now because every rap song mentions lean.” The 25-year-old continues, “Look at the top 20 tapes on like livemixtapes and I guarantee that every one of them has several lean mentions, whether it’s a Lil Wayne tape, a Jeremih tape, a Chief Keef tape, a Migos tape, a Rich Homie Quan tape, a Kevin Gates tape, an A$AP tape, or TDE artists like Schoolboy Q or Ab-Soul—even Odd Future artists like Mellowhype. It’s more popular in rap music than I’ve ever seen it before.”
America’s First Hippie: Living, Learning, and Going Long with Gypsy Boots
Photos courtesy of Kees Van Voorthuizen
My mother hated hippies. She also wasn’t keen on meeting strangers, long-haired or otherwise. And her mood was especially dark that day in 1970 when the two of us were vacationing at the Hilton in Beverly Hills. She’d been waging a long battle with my father, her ex-husband, over me, their seven-year-old, and worried that she’d either lose custody or I’d “turn hippie” thanks to California’s corrupting influence. So when a hyperactive senior citizen with shoulder-length silver hair, a scraggly beard, and love beads around his neck approached us in the hotel lobby while banging a tambourine, shaking maracas, dancing a Russian cossack jig, and chanting, “I’m-a the Gypsy Boots, I live on nuts and fruits,” I wasn’t surprised when my mother yelled at him to get lost. I wanted him to scram, too. Ordinary hippies—the ones I saw on TV or hitchhiking through our New Jersey suburb—they intrigued me, but this one seemed crazy. Scary crazy. Why was this man who looked older than my grandparents behaving like a kindergarten escapee?
“Make him leave, Ma,” I whispered.
She certainly tried to. But Gypsy Boots was a man on a mission, which was to cheer up the sad-sack divorcee and kid he’d just come across. And, being irresistible, he succeeded. Within minutes, Gypsy had my mother and me smiling at him, then laughing with him, applauding his antics, trying out his musical instruments, and humming along to his inane ditties. Boots wasn’t drunk or on drugs, as I had heard other hippies were. Like the female protagonist of the film Harold And Maude, this guy was just chronically jubilant, the archetypal holy fool. After he was gone, leaving me with a free autographed copy of his self-published memoir, Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat, my mother admitted that she hadn’t felt this happy since before my father left her. It amazed me to hear her say that. And it amazed me to realize I felt the same way.
What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t know for a long time, was that Gypsy Boots was important, nationally important, an odd figure who had changed the course of American culture. He wasn’t just an old hippie, he was the ur hippie. His journey started in the late 1930s, when Boots, nearing 20, left the working world, grew his hair and beard long, and went “back to nature.” This was way beyond Thoreau at Walden Pond: For years at a time, Boots would sleep in California forests, bathe in mountain streams, feed himself by foraging for nuts and fruits and vegetables, practice yoga, and wear practically nothing in the way of clothing. A dozen other Nature Boys, as they were called, kept him company (including eden ahbez, who wrote “Nature Boy,” the hit song for Nat King Cole, supposedly about Boots), but Gypsy was the most visible of the gang, the one who would eventually become a star.
Long before the Baby Boomers turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, “Hollywood’s ageless athlete,” as Boots was known, created a counterculture for them to inhabit. He did this by performing fitness demonstrations on network television and in movies, opening one of America’s first health-food restaurants, racing around LA in his crazily painted van with organic treats for a network of customers—all to spread his message, which was deadly serious in spite of his constant clowning: “Why cling to sickly, fretful, conformist ways when you can be your healthiest, happiest, most authentic self?”
Gypsy died in 2004, just short of his 90th birthday. With his centennial coming up next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about him—what he meant to history and what he meant to me.
Two and a half decades after our encounter in Beverly Hills, Gypsy reappeared in my life. By this time, my mother was long gone—she’d died of breast cancer at 49—and I was living in New York City, volunteering as a cook at a soup kitchen for the homeless. I didn’t think much about Boots; he was a luminous childhood memory, nothing more. Then, while browsing my shelves, I came across the memoir he’d given me, and I decided to bring it to the soup kitchen. Maybe we could use some of the vegetarian recipes he’d included in his book. As I consulted Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat while cooking, a middle-aged woman I worked with noticed the book and grinned and said, “Wow, Gypsy Boots! When I was a flower child in Hollywood in the 60s, Gypsy was such an inspiration. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s still going—I just ran into him last year!”
“Wait,” I said, “he’s still alive?”
“Sure, and he hasn’t changed one bit since the old days. He came roaring into this ashram I was at, shouting, ‘Don’t panic, go organic,’ and making everybody crack up.”
Until then, I’d never met anyone who’d known of Gypsy. So, he was still around, inhabiting the present as well as the past! That night, I called 411 in Los Angeles County and requested a listing for Gypsy Boots. I was doing this out of curiosity, but also as a sort of tribute to my late mother.
ON THE ROAD WITH LIBYA’S LIONS OF THE DESERT
The smoke from Taha’s massive cone joint flowed through the cabin of our silver Hummer. The A/C was on high and blew long fingers of smoke to the back seat. We were all mellow. Taha’s aviator sunglasses hid his tiny black eyes as he cranked the volume on the Arabic Reggae beat until it became painful. Then he floored it.
Jesus Christ, he’s PTSDing again, I thought as the speedometer cranked past 100 mph.
“He has to drive fast here,” Hamid said in flat Arabic-accented Canadian English. “This is where the snipers were, and if we didn’t do this we were dead.”
The Hummer slalomed as we sped towards the sea west of Misrata. The dark asphalt was covered with sand on the edges, and I prayed Taha could keep the car from sliding out of control as it swung side to side on the twisting road. I kept thinking about what my father had taught me about a tire’s contact patch and how small it is; his father had been a champion racecar driver in Havana in 1920. I’ll never get to see Havana I thought sadly, convinced Taha was about to roll the car.
A white Mazda pickup appeared over a rise, coming straight at us. Taha expertly pulled right and slid the Hummer around him, lining us up on the sea road. We sat there for a second, staring at two T-55 tanks, burnt hulks that sat guard on the road like ghosts. Taha sat crouched in the driver’s seat, his sunglasses barely over the steering wheel as sweat covered his brow.
Hamid dialed back the music as Taha leaned back and we continued to Misrata.
“See, I told you he has to drive fast here.”
“Hashish no problem. Whiskey no problem. Music problem.” Taha said. His English was meager and talking to him was like conversing with George “The Animal” Steel. I looked at Lucian my cameraman.
“You get that?” I asked.
“Got it,” he said, sitting up next to me, taking the camera down from his face, rubbing it against his perfectly trimmed beard. At first I thought he was lying down next to me fearing for his life until I realized he was angling for a shot of Taha, the joint, and the speedometer.
I was back in the US after two trips to Libya in three months when I pitched Dan Rather with the idea of doing a documentary on Muammar Qaddafi’s death. I used to be one of the UN’s war crimes investigators in Libya after the war. I primarily looked at NATO’s bombing. But we were short staffed, and so I was also given the lead on investigating Qaddafi’s death. The UN wanted to know if he was “EJE’d” or Extra-judicially Executed as they say in international legal circles. It was an odd request I thought. Who gives a shit if he was EJE’d I asked? Should we give the guy a medal? If someone popped Bashar al-Assad earlier in Syria wouldn’t we all just be better off? Maybe so, but this was serious stuff so I went about it seriously doing two trips to Libya—November 2011 and January 2012—along with a team of about a dozen war crimes investigators.
Working for the UN is funny. Everyone thinks we have some great karmic authority. It is as if people say, oh, it’s the UN, how can we help? The reality is sometimes you show up at a site and an old bespectacled Libyan in fatigues and a beret tells you, “Take your fucking paper and shove it up your ass,” in perfect English. We drive around in huge white Land Rovers that scream “HERE I AM, SHOOT ME” and we are often confined to base for security reasons while our colleagues and friends in human rights organizations and the press call us from shisha bars on the beach in Tripoli telling us “It’s safe. Get your ass out here.”
We flew to Libya via Rome in November, shortly after Qaddafi was killed. There were 12 investigators, a chief of security, and a close protection guy that had the guns. The chief of security was a massive dark-skinned Brazilian and the close protection guy was a dashingly handsome Tunisian who never stopped smiling. We flew to Rome from Geneva when the Italian police showed up. It was a buffet of heavily accented English.
“What do you mean no guns?” the chief of security asked.
“Prego, we are sorry but there is a UN arms embargo on Libya. You must send your weapons back.”
“But we ARE the UN.”
With over 270 million guns in America, can anyone win the firearms debate? VICE’s Rocco Castoro examines Florida gun laws to find out.
The original version of this article appeared in the print edition of VICE’s December Hopelessness Issue. It was sent to press two weeks before Friday’s massacre in Newtown, Connecticut—one that ripped the heart straight out of America’s chest. An unfortunately timely piece, it has been updated accordingly.
The almost unfathomable national tragedy that happened on December 14th in Newtown, Connecticut, was the latest and most horrific example in a string of mass shootings that have occurred in the United States over the past 30 years. Unfortunately it took the brutal murder of 20 very young students and six of their caretakers at Sandy Hook Elementary School for Americans to truly attempt to wrap their minds around current firearms laws and reflect on the culture that has created them. And this time there will almost certainly be a massive legislative shift on the national level. How pivotal it will be remains to be seen.
However, what the nation will find—if history is any indicator—is that legal solutions to this dilemma will prove unsuccessful. Even worse, further restrictions on firearms may exacerbate the situation. This is because the information and decision-making process that is needed to responsibly unify firearms laws is inherently flawed from within.
There is a very specific reason that people—heroes, monsters, and especially Americans—like guns. It’s the same reason I like guns. I like shooting down a pockmarked range or sandy berm on a cloudy day. I like the feeling of curved metal behind my fingertip, knowing that the world can be forever changed with a simple pull.
My more sensible friends tell me I am this way because I’m a Floridian. And up until recently, I pretended to disagree. But I can no longer deny that they’ve been right all along. Then again, my most sensible friends were not born in Florida.
Growing up in the Sunshine State, I was brought up around guns and taught to respect their power, ensuring that I accepted the full spectrum of responsibility that comes with owning or even holding a firearm. Many of the people who raised me (with the important exception of my mother) felt that it was their duty to teach me the basics of gun safety, in the same way everyone should know how to fix a flat tire. This does not mean I agree with all or even the majority of American firearms laws. And in order to delve into the minutia of one of the most troubling catch-22s of our time, in mid-November I waded through the swampy backwaters of firearms legislation in my home state, which I hoped would serve as a microcosm for the rest of the nation. I believe it served its purpose.
For starters, to the vehemently antigun among you, to gain some perspective on how we arrived at this seemingly unsolvable problem, I issue this challenge: Put yourself in a place where your life or safety, or that of a loved one, is in grave danger. Then imagine that place is a sunny peninsula made up of hardworking citizens, self-reliant yet senile old folks, self-described “crackers” (google the etymology of that one if you don’t know it already), ultraviolent face-eating felons, disgustingly rich sociopaths, Miami-Dade County, and the creepiest boiled-brain tweaker weirdos on Earth. Welcome to Florida, population 19 million. Based on my years of experience trolling around with, at turns, some of the most interesting, valiant, and despicable residents of the state, I can assure you that many wholly sensible and productive Floridians of all stripes own guns. And yeah, a lot of scumbags have them, too, and they will shoot you without hesitation if they feel so inclined.
Decorated combat veteran and firearms enthusiast Eddie Cacciola stands in front of an American flag signed by fellow Marines who served with him in the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
One of the good guys is Philadelphia native Eddie Cacciola, a 32-year-old former Marine. Eddie moved to Florida five years ago. Before that, he served as a decorated combat engineer—“like the guys in The Hurt Locker”—during the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Eddie joined the Marines on September 18th, 2001. He was already considering enlisting, but 9/11 made the decision for him. He quit his dream job of running a motorcycle-racing team and importing MVs, Ducatis, and other high-end exotic bikes to fight in Iraq.
In 2005, Eddie returned from duty to Philadelphia and grew steadily more disenchanted with the War on Terror. “We maybe stuck around too long. People started not appreciating that we were there,” he said as we drove to a local Walmart to buy cheap ammo. “It was kind of a letdown of something that I think started as a good thing.”
Two years after his return to Philadelphia, Eddie moved to Sarasota, Florida, with his then girlfriend, who was from the area. The city’s immaculate white-sand shores include Siesta Beach, rated the top beach in the US in 2011 by “America’s Foremost Beach Expert,” Dr. Beach. It also happens to be my hometown, and I met Eddie through a mutual friend who knew I was planning to write a story from the perspective of responsible and thoughtful gun owners.
Eddie told me that before his time in the Marines he wasn’t much of a “gun person.” He had fired rifles and shotguns at various times while living in Philadelphia, but after his return from Iraq he began to see guns more as tools of life and outlets for recreation. Like many of his fellow Floridians, he believes in the public’s right to carry and bear arms pretty much wherever they choose. But while Eddie supports or is mostly indifferent to many of the state’s gun laws, he does take issue with one.
“In Florida, you can go ahead and buy, sell, and trade anything—as long as it’s not an illegal weapon,” he said. “You can just find somebody or something that you like, work out a deal with him, meet them in a local parking lot, do a third-grade trade with some money and a gun. Nothing else needed.” Alaska, Arizona, and Vermont are similarly lenient when it comes to these types of transactions.
Before my visit, a few weeks prior to the 2012 presidential election, I had asked Eddie whether he’d be willing to coordinate a trip out to the range with some of his shooting buddies. He happily obliged, with one caveat: “Get here quickly, because people are stockpiling. They think Obama might get elected again. If we wait too long it might be much harder to get ammo for certain weapons.”
It was the same story propagated in 2008 following Obama’s victory. Many firearms dealers in Florida and throughout the nation reported a massive uptick in background checks, which went from 11.2 million in 2007 to 12.7 million in 2008—a clear indicator that gun sales were spiking. The stockpiling resulted in an ammo shortage that, by February 2009, left many owners frustrated because dealers simply could not keep up with the demand. That month, the Orlando Sentinel reported that 9-mm and .45-caliber bullets for semiautomatic pistols and .38-caliber bullets for revolvers were becoming scarce, and that clerks at Walmarts in Apopka and Kissimmee had confirmed that the aforementioned types of ammo, along with .22-caliber bullets (one of the most common forms of ammunition), were on back order. Floridians, it seemed, were ready to rock ’n’ roll.
This October, a month before the election, background checks for potential gun purchasers nationwide were up 18.4 percent since the same time last year and, just as in 2008, sales of assault rifles such as the AR-15 and AK-47 increased after Obama’s victory. Many of the gun dealers and owners quoted in the press said they feared Obama would reinstitute the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, one of the most controversial aspects of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed under Clinton in September 1994. The ban relied on a convoluted flowchart to determine which sorts of weapons and accessories were to be made illegal for purchase by the general public.
Thanks to sunset provisions, the law expired in 2004. Since then, lawmakers like Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy of New York have unsuccessfully attempted to reinstitute the ban. Studies conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other independent studies found that the ban’s effect on violent crimes had been small if negligible. The Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice released a 2004 assessment of the decade-long ban, stating that if it were to be reinstated at a future date, its “effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement. [Assault weapons] were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban.” A dissenting study carried out by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence alleged data provided by the ATF showed that the proportion of violent crimes in which assault weapons were used dropped from 4.82 to 1.61 percent during the ban. A spokesperson for the ATF later said that his organization could “in no way vouch for the “validity” of that claim.
While it’s been perfectly legal for the past eight years to buy an AR-15 alongside a $200 aftermarket “bump-fire stock” (which effectively transforms it into a full-auto weapon), gun rights supporters have reason to be fearful of Obama reinstituting some iteration of the Assault Weapons Ban. Obama served as a senator in Illinois, home to what many say are the strictest gun laws in the country. Leading up to his first presidential election, he was cautious but outspoken regarding his opinion that certain types of weapons should not be available to the public. A 2009 Gallup poll reported that as many as 41 percent of Americans believed that Obama, at some point, would “attempt to ban the sale of guns in the United States while he is president”—as in, all guns. And this August, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters that the president fully supported a renewal of the ban.
When prompted with a question about federal firearms laws during the second 2012 presidential debate, Obama said that part of his strategy to curb street violence in America “is seeing if we can get automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.” This sort of reasoning doesn’t seem to take into account the legal rights of responsible gun owners—hardworking and scrappy folks who fully believe that the right to bear arms is inalienable, at least in America. Regardless of whether a new ban happens or not, the hoarding has already begun.