ProPublica: Articles and Investigations
The Last Shot
June 27th, 2017, 07:00 AM


The Last Shot

Amid a surging opiate crisis, the maker of the anti-addiction drug Vivitrol skirted the usual sales channels. It found a captive market for its once-a-month injection in the criminal justice system.

A decade ago, a small biotech company based outside of Boston faced a quandary. Its scientists had cracked a puzzle that long eluded the industry. But that soon led to another problem: There was no obvious way to market its promising new product.

The company, named Alkermes, had been tinkering with a medication called naltrexone, which had for years been prescribed with middling success to people with alcoholism. The drug reduced the pleasurable effects of drinking, and patients could take the pills until their cravings were under control. While the medicine also showed promise in suppressing opiate addiction, it was unlikely to be widely used for that purpose. Opiate addicts would have to first go through excruciating withdrawal and then have the commitment to pop a pill every day that didn’t make them feel any better. The trick was coming up with a version that didn’t need to be taken daily.

Now Alkermes had beaten its competitors to an extended-release form of naltrexone. Administered by a shot in the buttocks, it blocked the patient from getting high for 28 days.

Just as a scourge of opiate addiction was building in the U.S. heartland, Alkermes suddenly had a product it could pitch as a once-a-month solution. It won approval from the Food and Drug Administration, named the drug Vivitrol, priced it at $1,000 per shot and prepared to rake in the profits.

Instead of being hailed as a breakthrough, though, Vivitrol quickly ran into resistance. While some experts in the field of addiction science welcomed it as a new treatment option, many others expressed skepticism about Vivitrol’s effectiveness, questioning the company’s decision to go to Russia to conduct the clinical trials required by the FDA. The vast majority of addicts and their physicians continued to favor methadone and buprenorphine, proven medications that allowed for a more gradual exit ramp from addiction. And then there was the steep price.

If the usual route of selling medications — pitching them to physicians and directly to patients — wasn’t going to work, the company had to find another way. And so it did. It began focusing on a market where consumer choice was less relevant: drug courts.

Initiated in the 1980s and until recently a small slice of the criminal justice system, drug courts now number more than 3,000, a sprawling network that touches half the counties in the country. Tens of thousands of drug offenders are diverted to them each year, giving local judges wide discretion to impose alternatives to jail and prison time. Over the past five years, Alkermes has persuaded hundreds of them to favor Vivitrol injections. The judges say they don’t force anyone to take a particular medicine. But in effect, they give addicts a choice: the shot, or jail.

Thanks in great part to these judges, and to an explosive epidemic that only seems to be accelerating, some 30,000 people are now receiving Vivitrol shots. In the first quarter of 2017, sales totaled $58 million, a 33 percent increase over the year before. The company is ramping up manufacturing capacity, enough so that it could soon handle $800 million in annual sales, which it projects it will reach by 2020.

Leading the way in sales is Ohio, which has been especially devastated by the epidemic — more than 2,500 deaths in 2015, nearly 10 percent of all fatal opioid overdoses nationwide — and also happens be the site of the Alkermes factory that produces Vivitrol. Last year the state’s Medicaid program alone paid for more than 30,000 doses of Vivitrol at a cost of more than $38 million, a nine-fold growth over just two years, according to The Cleveland Plain-Dealer. And now every day, it seems, brings news of another hard-hit county in another state embracing the medication. It is the centerpiece of the drug court in Anchorage, Alaska. West Virginia is setting up a pilot program for using Vivitrol in five county drug courts, modeled on Ohio. Michigan is giving the shot to parolees who are picked up again on drug-related crimes. Illinois, Wisconsin, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and other states are giving inmates shots just prior to release, to serve as protection for their first few weeks on the street. All told, more than 450 public initiatives in 39 states are making use of Vivitrol.

The chief executive behind the success of Vivitrol is Richard Pops, who arrived at Alkermes as a 28-year-old banker in 1991, when it was an MIT-linked research lab with just two dozen employees, and has presided over its growth into a 1,900-person company. The anti-addiction shot became one of its most important products as the firm’s stock market value soared from about $2.5 billion in 2012 to more than $9 billion today. At an industry conference last year, Pops explained the strategy for the drug. At first, he said, “There was no treatment system that could accommodate the use of Vivitrol. So the last several years has been a story not about reps calling on doctors, not about generation of more clinical data.” He added, “It’s been about creating the milieu, creating the infrastructure, the ecosystems to be able to use Vivitrol.”

And it was plain where to build that ecosystem, he said. “Criminal justice has been a really important catalyst, because it’s the drug court judges and the police chiefs and the sheriffs in their communities who just got tired of seeing the same people relapsing and ultimately dying.”

The rise of Vivitrol, aided by the company’s political contributions and its advertising campaigns that have erected billboards from Ohio to New Jersey, concerns addiction specialists who say the drug’s popularity is outpacing the science behind it and the results it produces. Many question whether the criminal justice system is rushing headlong into a solution that’s too good to be true, not recognizing that Vivitrol should be only one option, one that’s carefully weighed against other means of treating the country’s worst public health catastrophe in years.

“In what other medical situation do judges prescribe specific treatments from the bench?” asked Mark Willenbring, an addiction psychiatrist in St. Paul, Minnesota. “If you get in a car crash because you’re diabetic, do they prescribe a specific medication from the bench? This is the only area in medicine or health care where judges think they know more than doctors.”

Jeffrey Junig, a Wisconsin psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse who himself overcame an opiate addiction, puts it more bluntly. “They make you an offer you can’t refuse,” he said. “People are being forced to take medication with jail over their heads.”

Judge Robert Batchelor convenes his drug court in this grand 142-year-old courtroom. Some participants are scolded for not attending 12-step meetings; graduates get a hug. (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

Drug court judges represented a ripe market for Vivitrol. They were at the front lines of the epidemic, with a growing stream of addicts coming through their courtrooms. They lacked medical training — a survey of drug court judges published in 2014 revealed widespread ignorance about treatment options. And while the whole purpose of their courts was to offer treatment as an alternative to incarceration, the judges (who were often elected) tended to reflect local cultural biases about addiction, viewing it as moral weakness that called for tough paternalism.

Few were as receptive as an Ohio judge named Fred Moses. A genial, plainspoken man in his late 40s, he had grown up in Columbus, the state capital, and spent a dozen years as a supervisor at the local Anheuser-Bush plant before deciding to go to law school. He was elected to the bench in 2011 in Hocking County, a hilly, wooded region that is Ohio’s gateway to the Appalachians. Its struggling towns and back-road settlements were becoming riddled with opiate addicts, most of whom had gotten hooked on prescription painkillers and many of whom were turning to heroin as authorities belatedly clamped down on the flow of pills. Not only was Moses working in a state where Alkermes was paying special attention — the company produces Vivitrol at a plant in Wilmington, employing more than 400 people — but he had become quickly disillusioned with the existing approach to treatment.

For years, the only real medication available for people seeking to break their addiction had been methadone and buprenorphine, which is commonly known by its brand name Suboxone. Both were opioid substitutes that quieted the brain’s cravings with less risk of overdose than heroin or opioid painkillers while allowing people to rebuild their lives and, hopefully, ease themselves off the drugs. Both were embraced by specialists who argue that opiate addiction is a chronic condition — that the damage done to the brain may require at least several years of maintenance on methadone or buprenorphine, just as people with diabetes or high blood pressure may go years on insulin or other medications. The emphasis, they say, should be less on strict abstinence than on a broader concept of sobriety — carrying on a normal life even if it involves taking a prescribed substitute.

But these medications faced resistance in some quarters. Many 12-step-based treatment programs viewed them as a crutch and disdained those who depended on them for falling short of true abstinence.

Ohio had never been particularly welcoming to methadone — there are only 23 methadone clinics in the entire state, far fewer than in, say, Massachusetts, a state barely more than half the size — and they are concentrated almost entirely in the state’s largest cities. While there was more institutional support in the state for Suboxone — which unlike methadone could be prescribed for home use, since it is harder to abuse — only so many physicians were willing to prescribe it, and they were concentrated in the state’s urban areas. Many small-town general practitioners were wary of having their waiting rooms fill with opiate addicts seeking the medication, were unsure of their ability to carry out the monitoring necessary to make sure people were using the medication as directed, or themselves viewed Suboxone as just another addictive drug.

As a result, even as the opiate epidemic soared in Ohio, there were entire swaths of the state without physicians prescribing Suboxone. Soon enough, the market responded to the unmet demand: Opportunists started opening up clinics where addicts had to pay $200 or more — cash-only — for the monthly appointments to pick up their prescriptions (the medication itself, which comes in the form of sublingual tabs, now typically costs less than $200 per month). To cover this cost, many took to selling some of their Suboxone on the side to people who lacked legal access to it. Some of these black-market buyers were using the pills more or less as intended: to get themselves off heroin or painkillers.

Logan, the seat of Hocking County, flourished for decades on timber, iron ore and its thriving firebrick industry. Though less than 50 miles from Columbus, it now feels a world away. (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

But others were trying to get high off of it — difficult but not impossible, especially if injected or combined with benzodiazepines like Xanax — or using it simply to stave off withdrawal between stints of heroin or painkillers. To clamp down, state medical and pharmacy boards imposed new requirements that, in some cases, simply had the effect of making responsible physicians even more reluctant to prescribe.

In well-managed treatment centers, buprenorphine was working as intended for addicts in the care of physicians. But in many small towns and cities, Suboxone took on a stigma — just another pill being sold on the street, one that, instead of allowing recovering addicts to function normally, often left them looking groggy, either because a cash-clinic doc had prescribed too strong a dose or because it was being misused.

This latter reality was very much in force in Hocking County, which holds just under 30,000 people and sits 50 miles southeast of Columbus, 25 miles away from the closest treatment center with methadone and buprenorphine, in Athens. Fred Moses knew that, in theory, buprenorphine was a help for many addicts, but all he saw before him were befogged defendants who were overmedicated or not using the drug as prescribed. “Doctors don’t want it because it’s a plague and no one does it responsibly,” he said.

In 2012, six months after he was elected to the bench, he traveled to the annual convention of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which was held in Nashville. There, he attended a presentation by Alkermes. He approvingly noted that the new drug worked very differently from methadone and buprenorphine. Whereas those “agonists” act by gripping the opioid receptors in the brain, thus delivering their own mild effect while preventing heroin or painkillers from latching on, the “antagonist” naltrexone acts like a glove over the synapses, preventing any opioid from reaching them. And it seemed more punitive in nature: Instead of providing a substitute high, it functioned as a roadblock, denying any high at all.

The salespeople said the company was willing to give some free starter doses to counties that were interested in incorporating it into their regimen. “You’ll give this to a rich county, but will you give it to a poor county?” Moses asked them. He gave them his card. “And to their credit, a month later, they called us up.”

Within just a few months, Moses had set up a special program within his jurisdiction. He called it “Vivitrol Court.” He never took a dime from the company, he said. But he was such a believer that he soon became a nationwide proselytizer for the medication.

As it made inroads into the criminal justice system, Alkermes moved to expand its gains. The company got heavily involved in politics. It has spent $19 million on lobbying in Washington in the past seven years, as The New York Times recently reported. But Alkermes has been especially active at the state level, where decisions about drug treatment and law enforcement tend to be made. It became a member, at the second-highest tier of corporate donor, of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, the corporate-backed group that promotes conservative ideas for state and local policy. Nationwide, the company’s PAC has given more than $430,000 in campaign contributions to state legislators, governors and candidates for other state-level offices in recent years, a striking sum for a small biotech company.

The company has made more campaign contributions in Ohio than in any other state, with top beneficiaries including Gov. John Kasich, as well as the chairman of the Senate committee that oversees Medicaid, the speaker of the house and the former No. 2 person in the House, all Republicans. The company also hired a handful of lobbyists in Columbus. One of them, Zach Holzapfel, reached out in 2013 to Ryan Smith, a newly elected Republican from his own district in southern Ohio. Holzapfel put Smith in touch with Moses, who highly praised Vivitrol.

Soon, Smith, who would become another top recipient of Alkermes support, joined an ad hoc group of legislators to travel the state and study the opiate epidemic. The group was chaired by Robert Sprague, a Republican representative from northwestern Ohio, who’d learned of Vivitrol from a constituent who’d seen both of her daughters succumb to opiate addiction — one had landed in prison, but the other, after countless failed rehab attempts, had had success with Vivitrol. (The mother, Tracy Morrison, was such a convert that she became Alkermes’ sales rep for northern Ohio.)

The group grew very enthusiastic about Vivitrol. “Most people want to see us use a non-opioid type of treatment,” Smith told me. “Why treat people who have a drug problem with another drug?” The group proposed several bills to address the epidemic, Moses came to Columbus to testify on his success with Vivitrol Court, and in July 2013 Kasich signed a bill that gave a big boost to Alkermes: $5 million to expand medication-assisted treatment in drug courts in seven counties. A year later, the state approved another $11 million to expand to 14 additional counties. “Courts are a good place to do” drug treatment, state Sen. Dave Burke, a Republican, told me. “You have a black robe and the threat of jail time.”

Since most of the drug courts were opposed to buprenorphine and methadone, or located in places that lacked access to them, the vast majority of the counties put their funding toward Vivitrol-based programs. As it had initially offered to Moses, Alkermes spurred the move toward Vivitrol by giving away rounds of the costly shots in some counties. In at least one county, Athens, adjacent to Hocking, the embrace of Vivitrol by the criminal justice system went even further: County prosecutor Keller Blackburn started a program that is providing Vivitrol shots not only to people facing charges, but to addicts coming in off the street seeking help, for a total of more than 150 people now getting shots. “We’re not forcing anyone into Vivitrol that doesn’t want it — it’s just one of our options,” Blackburn said. But, he added, “I’m a little more comfortable probably not sentencing someone to prison that wants to go on Vivitrol.”

The company reinforced its relationship with drug court judges in 2014, when it paid $50,000 to become a “champion” sponsor of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals. The group has sometimes aligned with the company’s best interests, as when it lobbied the Obama administration in 2014 against increasing a limit on how many patients an individual doctor could have at one time taking Vivitrol’s rival treatment, Suboxone.

In a telephone interview, Pops, the Alkermes CEO, said that Vivitrol’s rapid spread in the criminal justice system was the result more of local demand than of the company’s push into that market. “It was sheriffs, police chiefs and charismatic judges who took it upon themselves to see if they could drive better outcomes,” he said. “It was people saying the status quo isn’t working.” And he said the company did not believe in requiring drug court participants to get Vivitrol shots. “We’ve always said we don’t believe it’s the right drug for every patient,” he said.

As Moses touted his success with Vivitrol, the county sheriff and town police departments saw a way to lighten their growing drug caseloads. They would, he said, call him at night and say, “Hey, we busted somebody, we could probably hit ‘em with felonies but they’re not going to get the help up there [in state prison], would you take them down here?” According to Moses, they would tell the suspects: “Do you want to do this program? We won’t charge you with felonies, we’ll let you work it out down here.”

When I visited Moses earlier this year at his Vivitrol Court, he sat up at the bench, but everything else exuded informality — he was in shirtsleeves, and spoke to the 16 participants coming in for their weekly check-in, plus a half-dozen counselors, social workers and support staff, with a familiarity that seemed, at first, more teacher than judge. He asked a woman with dyed-orange hair about her dog and another about her mom’s cancer. He urged those progressing to the next phase of treatment to get a free T-shirt out of a box. There were the makings of solidarity — participants applauded for those advancing to the next level. The woman whose mom was fighting cancer said, “My mom wanted to thank everyone for all the help I got. She’s not worried about me now.”

But Moses grew stern with those who had missed counseling appointments or failed urine tests for drugs other than opiates, which some used to circumvent the Vivitrol block. “So what’s going on? Are you getting back on track?” he asked a young man who’d missed a couple appointments. “There’s, like, something missing you used to have, and you’re the only one who can figure it out.”

Overseeing Vivitrol Court, Judges Moses ranges from familiar praise to stern admonishment. “If you don’t respect this program, we’re wasting our time,” he told one man. (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

He sharply reminded another man with an Amish-style beard and yellow hoodie that he faced a four-year sentence in a nearby county if he didn’t succeed in Vivitrol Court. “You need to understand where you’re at,” Moses told him. “You’re being given an opportunity to be in a program where you can really succeed and get your life back on track. If I had four years sitting on a shelf I’d be here early every day.” The man said, with backup from the counselors, that he was just struggling to balance appointments with his excavation job and probation requirements. Moses was unswayed: “If you don’t respect this program, we’re wasting our time.”

And he admonished a man with a scruffy beard and long hair who recently failed a urine test. “What bothers me is that once the pressure got to you, you went back to your old behaviors. That’s the part that scares me,” he said. “The truth is, people won’t say it, but life sucks sometimes, the pressure gets on you and there’s nothing you can do about it and it’s always about how you react to it, whether you fold or are going to stand up and do what you’ve got to do. … Running’s easy. Running’s the coward act, running away from all your problems. You’ll be running all your life, you’ll be using the next 30 years and never get better. At some point, you need to man up.”

Moses still runs a regular drug court as well, where Suboxone treatment is allowed, but throughout this session, he made his preference for Vivitrol plain, urging those who were doing well in the program to talk about how much they preferred it to Suboxone. “My cravings have been really light. I’m a lot happier sober. It’s amazing. You can be sober and happy and not have to be high,” said one woman in a camo jacket. “I spent 10 years trying to get clean. With Suboxone, I was just trading one drug for another and it didn’t help,” said a man gripping a Monster energy drink. “This right here, it blocks everything. I have no worries now, I wake up every morning not sick. I’m a lot happier.”

Another man, a 31-year-old also in camo, said, “I’m pretty surprised with how it’s going, how easy it is. I tried to quit before. I did the Suboxones and stuff.”

Moses interjected, “That’s not really quitting, is it?”

“It’s not,” the man said.

“Big difference, huh?” Moses said.

“Big-time,” the man said. “I was on [Suboxone] for six months. Just substitute one drug for another.”

To see if the Moses court was just an outlier, I drove north for a couple hours to sit in on the proceedings of another Ohio judge, Robert Batchelor, in the stately 142-year-old Coshochton County Courthouse. Batchelor, a forceful presence with a shaved head and a pistol tucked in his belt in the small of his back, learned about Vivitrol at a state summit on opiate addiction several years ago. He told me that he had initially been leery — “Nobody was really interested in getting involved in some weird ‘Clockwork Orange’ thing where the government is making you take medication when you’re a criminal. That’s really how it came off to me originally.”

Coshocton County Judge Robert Batchelor was initially wary of Vivitrol. “Nobody was really interested in getting involved in some weird ‘Clockwork Orange’ thing,” he said. (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

But it appealed to him for what it was not: Suboxone. There were no physicians prescribing Suboxone in his county, and Batchelor didn’t want his drug court to have anything to do with it. So he welcomed Vivitrol instead. “If you want to get treatment, you’re scared enough to not want Suboxone because you know the Suboxone zombies aren’t getting a better — a lot of them are using heroin, etcetera, etcetera. It’s really bad. The people who want the Vivitrol are the ones who want to get healthy and get better.”

About two dozen people in Coshocton were getting Vivitrol through the court, including some who’d been released early from jail or prison on the condition that they take the medication. Every two weeks, a nurse practitioner administered shots at the local drug treatment provider. And every month, the Alkermes rep for eastern Ohio — whose LinkedIn profile notes that she was ranked No. 2 in the country for “consistently high levels of sales performance” at Alkermes — would swing by with free accessories, plus pizza for the treatment center staff. “She holds our hands,” said David Dosser, a counselor at the center.

Batchelor had the bailiff bring in that day’s five drug court participants, two of whom were on Vivitrol (the others had non-opiate substance issues). Batchelor stayed seated at the counsel’s table, rather than going up to his high bench, as he called up one participant at a time. He chided a man for not having done his reading in The Big Book, the Alcoholics Anonymous tract, and scolded a woman for not having gone to any 12-step meetings. He praised the two who had completed their regimen — one had delivered his final urine sample just moments earlier in the courthouse bathroom — and even gave them hugs that were made slightly stilted by the presence of the pistol.

What happens to addicts after they leave drug court — after they stop getting the shots that block the opiate effect — is key to the question of whether Vivitrol is as effective as its proponents say.

As of this this spring, 60 people had graduated from Moses’ Vivitrol Court — that is, completed a year’s worth of shots and the frequent counseling sessions that the court required and paid for with the help of nearly $100,000 in annual grants from the state. The judge and his colleagues told me that only three of his graduates had caught new drug-related charges. That’s a very impressive rate, suggesting that they fare well even after the coercion of the program is lifted.

But the numbers could be misleading, because they don’t take into account the many other people who did not make it through the yearlong regimen. More than 185 people were initially assessed for the program, and of those several dozen were not accepted. More than 50 others dropped out after starting, mostly for absconding or failing drug tests. (Vivitrol blocks highs from opiates, but not from other drugs, like methamphetamine and cocaine.)

Supporters of the drug cite a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year that showed, similar to the Russian study the company used to get FDA approval, that addicts fared better on Vivitrol than on treatment without medication — hardly surprising, given the drug’s blocking effect. But critics point out the study also showed that, a year after they stopped the shots, the rate of relapse for those on Vivitrol was the same as for those on the placebo.

Addiction specialists were startled to hear of a drug court being named for a specific medication. It “raises the question of the court stepping into the medical zone,” said one. (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

More disconcerting were the results of an in-house study by Alkermes, which it has not yet published. I viewed a PowerPoint presentation from the company, based on that study, which indicated that nearly 30 percent of the people being tracked dropped out before the second shot, another third dropped out by the third month, and fewer than 20 percent made it a full year. In another study just published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, only half of those participating came back for their second shot.

Skeptics of Vivitrol note that people who get a few shots or more and then relapse are at particularly high risk of overdose, given that their tolerance has plummeted while on the shot. In December, a 30-year-old in Germantown, Ohio, died after eight months on Vivitrol when he relapsed after being unable to get his next shot. One person in the state-funded trial died of an overdose shortly after having to go off Vivitrol to be able to take painkillers for surgery. And Dosser, the treatment worker in Coshocton County, told me that the Alkermes rep had notified him of a recent fatal overdose that occurred in her region when a woman tried to override the Vivitrol block with a large dose of opiates. The company declined to respond to a question on that incident.

Moses and his colleagues told me earlier this year they were aware of only one person who suffered an opiate overdose, a nonfatal one, after months in their program; they knew of another person who left the program and suffered a fatal overdose that they said was non-opiate-related. But because those who dropped out weren’t tracked, those who vanished after a shot or two wouldn’t come back into contact with the system again unless picked up on their outstanding warrant. If someone suffered an OD in that period, it wouldn’t necessarily show up on the drug court’s record — even if it was the drug court that had urged a course of treatment that turned out not to be the right one.

It makes for a striking lack of transparency. Drug courts are clearly an improvement on the old approach of just throwing addicts in jail. But they exist in a legal gray zone — hailed for successes, unaccountable for failures.

With this in mind, I spoke with one of Moses’ graduates — a former high school football star who’d gotten himself jammed up. His troubles began years earlier when he broke his ankle early in senior year and saw potential college scholarships melt away. He joined the Army instead and served in Paktita Province in Afghanistan. His company lost 12 men. In late 2012, this young man returned to southeast Ohio, where the opiate epidemic was raging. He was contending with night terrors and flashbacks. Escape was close by. “I kind of fell into an alcohol and pill routine to kind of deal with my own issues,” he told me.

Eventually he was arrested for attempting to pawn his grandfather’s heirloom rifle to pay for illicit painkillers. He faced three years in prison. But instead of pressing charges, the police asked Moses if he’d be willing to take the young man into Vivitrol Court. When he was offered the shot, “I was at rock bottom and knew that if I didn’t take it I was probably going to end up in prison or end up dead,” he told me.

He had already detoxed during his brief stay in jail, so that wasn’t an issue for him. For him, the shot helped eliminate cravings, simply by knowing that he couldn’t get high even if he tried. He attended the weekly check-ins in court with Moses and the required counseling sessions. He learned to avoid triggers, notably the friends who were still using pills. He learned to reckon with the hurt he’d caused others with his addiction, especially the mother of his young daughter.

And he had no regrets about relying on Vivitrol rather than buprenorphine, which he was hearing Moses denigrate on a regular basis. “The judge always said, ‘Suboxone is not a treatment.’ It really isn’t. It’s a temporary fix — it’s part of the problem, honestly,” the young man told me. “I’ve never specifically tried Suboxone, but I know friends who’ve tried it and I know there’s a black market for it and if there’s a black market for it then it can’t be effective. … It’s mask. It’s a mask to addiction, is all it is.”

His graduation from Vivitrol Court in April 2016 took place at the woodsy Hocking Hills Dining Lodge. Each graduate received a T-shirt, a proclamation from a local state senator and a graduation certificate. Moses presided over the ceremony. “Everyone graduating today are volunteers — they volunteered to go through the program. Was there some controlling, some convincing? Yeah, maybe,” he said, according to a story in The Logan Daily News. “But no one was ever ordered into this program.”

At a similar graduation ceremony I attended at the lodge in late 2016, Moses also emphasized this voluntary nature. “I heard a rumor last week that people were forced into this program. Were any of you forced into this program?” There was no response from the dozens in the room, just shuffling.

I originally interviewed the Afghanistan veteran in January, and I wondered if he’d managed to stay on the path to recovery. Earlier this month, I returned to southeastern Ohio. The phone number where I’d reached him before was no longer functioning. One evening, as storm clouds were gathering above, I went to the home of his grandfather. He came out on his back deck to talk. I asked him how his grandson was doing. “Not well, right now,” he said.

Vivitrol had seemed to help him, his grandfather said, but roughly one year out of the program, he had relapsed. “He was doing really well,” he said, “but when there’s no one controlling him with authority…” His grandson had checked in to a rehab center in Chillicothe, an hour west, but it had closed only a few days after he got there. Then he flew to Houston, where a friend runs an organization that takes care of veterans in need, but he returned very soon afterward. “And that’s the last we heard anything from him,” his grandfather said.

I checked back with Moses to ask about this graduate, whom he had previously raved about to me as a sterling participant. Moses had heard about the relapse, and said that the latest word was that he was now in treatment in Cleveland.

And Moses told me some other unwelcome news: In early June, he said, the program had suffered its first known fatal opiate overdose by a recent graduate, a woman who had graduated in late April. Moses said he knew that this would happen eventually, but that it was still “hard and terrible” to hear. “We gave every level of care we could,” he said.

Fatal overdoses in Ohio surged past 4,000 last year, up by more than a third. And in June, Hocking’s Vivitrol Court suffered its first known fatal overdose by a recent graduate. (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

Even addiction specialists long engaged in the Vivitrol vs. Suboxone debate were startled when I described what was happening in the drug courts of Ohio. One expert after another told me that they welcomed Vivitrol as another option, but were troubled by the prospect of judges with no medical training requiring or strongly favoring one treatment over another, because what works for one person may not be best for another.

Daniel Wolfe, an opiate addiction expert with the Open Society Institute, said that Vivitrol should be part of the continuum of options. But he added, “You don’t want prescriptions for treatment, especially from the criminal justice system, to run ahead of the evidence. When people make all kinds of claims for why Vivitrol is better and tell people they have to get off methadone or buprenorphine and have to go on Vivitrol, these are ideological decisions, not medical decisions. Anyone who says there is one answer to addiction treatment and one medicine is probably not motivated by the evidence.”

Wolfe said he understood the appeal of the medication for drug courts. “Judges feel like Vivitrol splits the difference — it allows them to be dispensing a medical solution as well as a punishment while still adhering to the drug-free message that has dominated so much of the addiction world.” But, he said, “The idea of a ‘Vivitrol Court’ raises the question of the court stepping into the medical zone in ways that are not medically or ethically appropriate.”

Others pointed to how relatively thin the research base remains for Vivitrol, compared with reams of studies showing the effectiveness of methadone and buprenorphine. “There are effective treatments for this condition, treatments that have gone through the gold standard for clinical trials, years of clinical experience,” said Andrew Kolodny, a Brandeis University professor who spent years as medical director at Phoenix House, a large New York treatment center. “We know that buprenorphine and methadone work. Vivitrol does not have the same evidence supporting its use.” Orman Hall, a former state addiction and mental health director in Ohio, told me, “The limited evidence we have is that methadone is the most effective, followed closely by buprenorphine followed distantly by Vivitrol.”

Even an executive of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals expressed misgivings about what I described having witnessed in the Ohio drug courts. The association’s chief operating officer, Terrence Walton, said the group is no longer actively lobbying against Suboxone, as it did in 2014. “We believe that for many participants [Vivitrol] has been a lifesaver, but that many others are unable to achieve the abstinence required to use that, and for them the only thing that would work is access to methadone and Suboxone and if that’s being denied across the board without medical guidance that’s a real concern.”

Supporters of methadone and buprenorphine say the evidence of efficacy shouldn’t be undermined by a moral or social stigma against long-term medication for a chronic condition like addiction. “There are so many other problems with lesser consequences that we’re comfortable treating for life — diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol,” said Kevin Fiscella, an addiction specialist at the University of Rochester. “With opioids, we’re uncomfortable with staying on it for life.”

Vivitrol advocates counter that with other chronic conditions, there is an effort to get people off medications, with changes in their diet and lifestyle. Vivitrol, they say, allows the equivalent of that effort, by getting addicts’ heads clear enough for six months or a year so they can fundamentally change their thinking and behaviors in a way that simply being maintained on buprenorphine or methadone would not. “To say you should always have someone addicted to something simply because they’re addicted is illogical to me,” said Dave Burke, the Republican state senator from western Ohio, who is a pharmacist by trade. “You’ve never really cured someone. That’s a replacement therapy — not a curative therapy.”

That argument doesn’t persuade Melinda Campopiano, the medical officer at the federal government’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. “If you had high blood pressure and I said, ‘Start exercising and cut salt out of your diet,’ and if you did that and it didn’t work, would I take your medicines away and say, ‘Too bad for you if you have a stroke?’” she asked. “With other people, we don’t punish people who don’t get better. If your diet didn’t work, we don’t take your medication away and say, ‘You’re a bad patient, too bad and go die.’”

Westley Clark, who served 16 years as the director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, grew indignant when I offered Burke’s retort. “My mother’s 98 and has been on insulin for 20 years. What’s with this ‘We don’t want people on medication’ rhetoric?” Clark said. “What we continue to have is a political philosophy colliding with therapeutic strategies, and that political philosophy has less to do with the individual and more to do with moral views about drug abuse. In these states, the issue isn’t what’s best for the client. It’s what’s best for the political appointees and the criminal justice system.”

More research is now underway that seeks to compare Vivitrol more directly with buprenorphine and methadone. One study in the works is an evaluation of Ohio’s state-funded drug court program. It is being conducted by the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia — where David Gastfriend, Alkermes’ former director for scientific communications, is now the scientific adviser. Gastfriend, who is a shareholder of Alkermes and still consults for it, told me he would be playing only a supporting role in the Ohio evaluation.

Pops, the Alkermes CEO, told me that the company has from the start discounted the value of comparing Vivitrol to other medications because they are such different treatments and are, he said, intended for different sorts of addicts. That’s why, he said, the company had tested the drug in Russia, which doesn’t even allow methadone or buprenorphine. “We don’t make any comparative claims. We really don’t need to. It’s a fundamentally different approach,” he said.

Alkermes has pushed Vivitrol hard as a treatment in drug courts. But its CEO, Richard Pops, says, “We’ve always said we don’t believe it’s the right drug for every patient.” (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

The Vivitrol expansion is likely to accelerate, considering that the federal government just committed $1 billion more to fighting the opioid epidemic. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act passed last year was one of very few bipartisan accomplishments in recent years, and Alkermes invested heavily in making sure its interests were represented in the negotiations. The company spent $4.7 million on its in-house lobbying efforts in Washington last year, five times what it spent three years earlier, and also contracted with seven other lobbying firms at a cost of $1.8 million. Among the lobbyists it hired was Jessica Nickel, a former aide to Sen. Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who was a leading proponent of the legislation. Portman is also the top recipient of the dozens of candidates for Senate and the House of Representatives, mostly Republicans, who have received a total of more than $170,000 in contributions from the Alkermes PAC in recent years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Alkermes’ chief lobbyist was at a Senate celebration of CARA’s passage.

Pops, who received more than $12 million in compensation as CEO in 2015, told me that the company invested so heavily in Washington not just to build the case for more resources to fight the epidemic, but also to build awareness of Vivitrol. The company still sees itself as an underdog, he said, and simply wanted to make sure its voice was heard. “We’ve been living this, fighting it hand-to-hand and the vast majority of Americans don’t know Vivitrol exists,” Pops said. He said the company was not lobbying to gain advantage against rival medications, he said. “When we advocate on behalf of better treatment, we don’t advocate for Vivitrol alone, we advocate for all medication-assisted treatment,” he said.

But a recent report by NPR and Side Effects noted that Alkermes’ lobbying in Washington also included the circulation of a document in the House that denigrated Suboxone for its potential for diversion and abuse, an echo of efforts by Alkermes’ lobbyists in Ohio to push tighter restrictions on doctors prescribing Suboxone.

For Ohio, the legislation will bring $26 million in additional funds in the first year. Alkermes wasted no time in trying to capitalize on that. In December, Holzapfel, one of the company’s lobbyists in Columbus, sent an email to the chief of the bureau of criminal justice services in the state’s addiction treatment and mental health department offering help in crafting proposals for spending the money. “I passed on to senior leadership your willingness to assist,” the bureau chief responded. Hall, the department’s former director, says Vivitrol’s momentum in Ohio is only growing stronger. “The overdose situation in our state is acute and every year is getting worse, and I think we need to take a more balanced approach with all three medications, but there is a growing bias against Suboxone and methadone,” he said.

Two additional factors could yet complicate Vivitrol’s fast rise. Full repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be a major setback, since many of those getting the shots, including in Ohio, are paying for them thanks to the law’s Medicaid expansion. Also, last May, the FDA approved an implantable form of buprenorphine that releases the medication gradually over six months. It will be expensive, about $825 per month, and some addicts may be wary of having an implant, but it would address the concerns around the diversion and misuse of Suboxone. Judges might even be willing to encourage buprenorphine’s use in their courts as they now do Vivitrol’s — if they’re able to put aside their basic ideological opposition to agonist treatment.

And as the treatment battle wears on, Alkermes has recruited an influential figure to its side. In late April, Pops gave President Trump’s health secretary, Tom Price, a tour of the Alkermes plant in Ohio. Two weeks later, on a visit to West Virginia, Price weighed in against Alkermes’ competition. “If we just simply substitute buprenorphine or methadone or some other opioid-type medication for the opioid addiction, then we haven’t moved the dial much,” he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. This represented a sharp reversal from the Obama administration, which pushed to expand access to buprenorphine.

What was far more promising, Price said, was Vivitrol, which “actually blocks the addictive behavior as well as the seeking behavior.” “That’s exciting stuff,” he said. “So we ought to be looking at those types of things to actually get folks cured so that they can come back and become productive members of society and realize their dreams.”

The beautiful but isolated Hocking Hills were flooded with prescription painkillers last decade. When authorities belatedly clamped down on the pills, the heroin moved in. (Maddie McGarvey for ProPublica)

One evening, I met at a diner in Lancaster, between Hocking County and Columbus, with another recent graduate of Judge Moses’ Vivitrol Court. The man, who is in his mid-20s and asked that his name not be used, had gotten hooked on painkillers in the years after graduating from high school. His tolerance built up to where he had trouble getting high off the pills, but his fear of needles kept him from the next step of injecting painkillers or heroin, so he started abusing black-market Suboxone instead. He managed to hold his jobs in carpentry and restaurant delivery, but the hard living caught up with him — he got in a fight with his brother, was charged with assault and landed in Moses’ court. The thought of the Vivitrol shot scared him at first, but with the charge hanging over his head, he agreed to it. Withdrawal was very tough, and for the first several weeks, he was fighting the temptation to use, but over time things got better. He attributes this not just to the shot, but to the program’s structure — frequent counseling, the visits to Moses’ court, the frequent urine checks. “Just being in it helped at first, having to go every week,” he said. “Being accountable, being held accountable.”

He graduated last year, was now back working for a home-renovation contractor and, he said, he had not relapsed since he stopped getting Vivitrol. “I like to drink, that’s it,” he said. He had money to spend, now that he wasn’t blowing it on pills. “Back then I was never able to go out and buy myself a candy bar because I never had the money,” he said.

After he got up to leave, our waitress came over and asked, tactfully, what we had been discussing. Wanting to maintain discretion, I mumbled something about a medication. “What medication?” she asked. “Something called Vivitrol,” I said, assuming that obscure mention would curtail her curiosity.

Her face lit up. She knew all about Vivitrol, she said. Her name was Chelsea Vancuren, she was 30, and she, too, was a recovering opiate addict. Her sister was also an addict, and her niece and nephew were born with an opiate dependency. Her own husband had introduced her to drugs back when they were dating more than a decade ago, when she was in nursing school. They eventually got hooked on heroin. He died of an overdose three years ago.

This prompted her to seek treatment, after eight years of drug use. She had first tried Vivitrol, but had a very bad reaction to it, as happened with some people — terrible hallucinations, mainly. So she went on Suboxone instead. She was still on it, was doing well with it and was hoping to taper off of it over the next year or so. “I use it the way you’re supposed to,” she said. “We all have days when we want to get high, but I have a support system.”

Having been through the criminal justice system — she served three stints in jail — she was well aware of the bias against Suboxone. This was unfortunate, she said, since, as her own situation showed, Vivitrol wasn’t the right thing for everyone. Nothing was. “They should look at each case individually, but it’s black and white,” she said. “It’s Vivitrol or jail. That’s the hard part.”

The exchange left me slightly shaken — the fact that the epidemic had advanced so far that I should encounter two addicts in a single location, and end up discussing treatment approaches as casually as the weather. Soon afterward, The Columbus Dispatch reported that the number of fatal drug overdoses in Ohio had surpassed 4,100 in 2016, the vast majority of them from opioids and an increase of more than a third over the year prior. The Montgomery County coroner’s office in Dayton earlier this year became so crammed with corpses that it asked a funeral parlor to take in four bodies and looked into using refrigerated trailers for others. In May, the state’s lieutenant governor disclosed that both her sons had struggled with opiate addiction. And in the span of a single week earlier this month, three infants in the state suffered opiate overdoses, one fatal.

But it’s precisely this reality that gives Alkermes such corporate confidence. At the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco in January, Pops declared that when it came to Vivitrol, the sky was the limit, considering that the drug still held only a fraction of the market for medication-assisted treatment and that there was no sign of the biggest driver of demand abating anytime soon.

“There’s more and more opioid deaths,” he told his audience. “The country is ablaze with opioid deaths and it’s defying socioeconomic or geographic categorization. It’s just happening all over the place. So, that’s why we think at 2 percent market share, there’s only one way to go.”

Did something happen to you (or someone you know) in drug court that you’d like to tell us about? Email or here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely. For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on efforts to stem the epidemic.

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Alec MacGillis covers politics and government for ProPublica. He won the 2016 Robin Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

Production by Jillian Kumagai.

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The ‘International Man of Mystery’ Linked to Flynn’s Lobbying Deal
June 27th, 2017, 07:00 AM

This story was co-published with Politico.

More than two years ago, two men started visiting Washington to push Turkey’s agenda in the capital. They dined with dignitaries and enlisted prominent lobbying firms from both sides of the aisle.

It was an unremarkable Washington story, except for one thing: the last lobbyist one of the men hired was Gen. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s campaign adviser at the time, who was later fired as national security adviser for lying about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador.

Flynn’s client, a Turkish businessman named Ekim Alptekin, has gained attention as federal investigators examine Flynn’s apparent failures to disclose foreign contacts. But so far, the other man in the pro-Turkey efforts has largely avoided public notice.

That man, Dmitri “David” Zaikin, is not registered as a foreign lobbyist and has no apparent connection to Turkey.

What he does have, a ProPublica-Politico examination found, is a long track record of partnering with powerful Russian businesspeople and government officials, mostly involving energy and mining deals. More recently, Zaikin has done political work in Eastern Europe, advising parties in Albania and Macedonia that have drifted toward the Kremlin.

Zaikin also has business connections to Trump. Working at a real estate agency in Toronto in the 2000s, Zaikin brokered sales in one of the city’s new high-rises: the Trump International Hotel & Tower. Perhaps coincidentally, Zaikin was also close with a Russian woman who was the exclusive agent for one of Trump’s Florida developments and who was branded “Trump’s Russian hand” by a glossy Russian magazine.

Zaikin has not been accused of any wrongdoing. Alptekin and Zaikin have denied knowing each other and say Zaikin had nothing to do with Flynn’s lobbying deal.

As this reporter previously reported in Politico, three people with direct knowledge said Alptekin and Zaikin collaborated on Turkish lobbying, jointly steering the work.

Zaikin referred questions to his lawyer, who declined to comment. Flynn’s lawyer didn’t answer requests for comment. The White House referred questions to Trump’s outside lawyer, whose spokesman also did not respond to a request for comment.

Zaikin says he was born in 1967 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. In an earlier email to Politico, he wrote that his family long faced anti-Semitic persecution in their homeland and that they fled the collapsing USSR for Canada in 1990.

“Mr. Zaikin reserves nothing but contempt for the Soviet government, and whatever vestiges of it may still exist,” his lawyer, Tara Plochocki of the firm Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss, wrote to Politico.

But Zaikin gave a different account to Geoffrey P. Cowley, a British engineer who was his business partner from 2010 until they split in 2016. Cowley said he never heard Zaikin claim his family was persecuted, nor had he heard Zaikin criticize the former Soviet Union.

“That might be the official line,” Cowley said.

Instead, according to Cowley, Zaikin had said his father was in the Soviet military or diplomatic corps.

“When he was with me, whoever I wanted to see, David would pick up the telephone and I got to see him,” Cowley said, naming officials in Albania, Serbia and Guinea as examples. “That doesn’t happen with some Jewish refugee out of Ukraine who doesn’t know anybody.”

Settling in Toronto, Zaikin was active in the community of Jews from the former Soviet Union. He soon became a real estate agent, eventually with an upscale brokerage. He marketed properties to Russian buyers. He married a woman from St. Petersburg and had three children.

In 2002, Zaikin started a side gig. He became chairman of Siberian Energy Group, which was incorporated in Nevada and was listed over-the-counter on NASDAQ. The company’s archived website notes Zaikin’s “extensive ties to Russia’s business community, as well as to federal and regional government authorities.”

Zaikin worked to help the governor of the western Siberian province of Kurgan attract Western investors for energy exploration and infrastructure, according to Tim Peara, whom Zaikin hired to help raise money in the United Kingdom.

“He did the government of Kurgan a lot of favors in terms of helping to raise money for them,” Peara said. The governor reported directly to President Vladimir Putin, according to a company press release.

The region’s prospects didn’t pan out: Zaikin’s company never pumped a single barrel of oil or cubic foot of gas, according to disclosures filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC repeatedly queried the company about its financial dealings, specifically about its payments to Russian executives and consultants in shares and options whose values were opaque or shifting.

“We note that although you describe various transactions utilizing common stock of the company, it is not clear from your disclosures how the value of such stock for each transaction was determined,” SEC officials wrote in one letter.

In 2006, Siberian Energy Group used shares worth $2.7 million to buy a Russian company, Kondaneftegaz. Less than two years later, Zaikin’s company sold significant stakes in Kondaneftegaz to two Russian investors for just $10 each. Kondaneftegaz had actually been awarded two additional drilling licenses before those sales, according to SEC reports.

Zaikin previously told Politico that he was “not involved” in that transaction, though his signature appears on the purchase and sale agreements filed with the SEC.

Zaikin obtained Siberian Energy Group’s licenses at auctions that weren’t publicized and were only attended by people who had government connections, according to a contractor for the company. Zaikin’s lawyer refused to comment on this.

“David was on the inside track,” said Jordan Silverstein, who worked for a firm doing investor relations for Siberian Energy Group. “He seemed like an international man of mystery.”


1990: Dmitri “David” Zaikin arrives in Canada from the Soviet Union.

2002: Zaikin gets involved in the Russian energy industry, helping a regional governor attract Western investors.

2005: Zaikin brokers condos in the Trump Tower in Toronto.

2007: Zaikin helps lead a mining company for a Russian oligarch.

2015: Zaikin starts advising Kremlin-friendly political parties in Turkey, Macedonia and Albania.

2016: A businessman whom Zaikin worked with on Turkish lobbying hires Gen. Michael Flynn to lobby for Turkey.

Zaikin’s business career continued to involve both Russian oil work and Toronto real estate dealings. In 2005, Zaikin told the Globe and Mail newspaper about a new development he was promoting: the Trump International Hotel and Tower. The newspaper reported that Zaikin called his “top five international clients” and four agreed to buy.

“When this project was announced I instantly became a strong believer that it would be a significant winner,” Zaikin told the newspaper. “I have stayed at Trump Hotels and seen how other similar projects went in New York, Chicago and Las Vegas.”

Not long after, Zaikin and several colleagues from Siberian Energy Group became directors or shareholders of a mining company called RAM Resources, later First Iron Group, according to corporate filings. First Iron’s board included the deputy chairman of Russian state bank VEB, who had also been Putin’s deputy chief of staff. The company was registered in the British isle of Jersey, a haven for offshore companies.

Other investors in the company were themselves offshore firms, based in the Cayman Islands, Cyprus, the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere.

According to Zaikin’s partner Cowley, who served on the company’s board, the venture was ultimately controlled by Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek-born Russian iron oligarch. Usmanov’s representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Cowley, an experienced mining executive who had worked for other Russian oligarchs, said he was impressed by Zaikin’s global political connections.

A consulting firm that Zaikin and Cowley started advertised Zaikin as having “a network of contacts with senior executives and top government officials and Presidents in Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Ethiopia, Albania, Sierra Leone, Mali, Liberia, Moldova, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, [and] Romania.”

By 2011, Zaikin had moved to London. He set up several companies registered at his home address. One of them, EM Infrastructure Ltd., lists two names on a U.K. incorporation document: Neither is Zaikin’s. One is his wife, a jewelry designer, and the other is a Viktor Grabarouk, whose address is listed as Zaikin’s home and whose birthdate is listed as one day after Zaikin’s own.

A search of corporate records and the comprehensive British phonebook showed no references to a Viktor Grabarouk.

A few years later, Zaikin’s career took yet another turn. After working in residential real estate and the Russian energy sector, Zaikin became an adviser to the ruling parties in Turkey, Albania and Macedonia. He also began working with those parties to set up lobbying in the United States.

Zaikin told Cowley he wanted to be “working with the staffs of senators and high-profile people in the States,” Cowley recalled. The two stopped working together as Zaikin focused more on politics.

Starting around 2015, Zaikin helped run pro-Turkish nonprofit groups to lobby U.S. lawmakers, according to an American consultant who worked with him, John Moreira. Alptekin, the Turkish businessman who later hired Flynn, told Politico he worked with the main group Zaikin helped set up.

In August 2016, Alptekin signed a contract with Flynn for $600,000 to urge the U.S. to turn over Fethullah Gülen, a cleric now in Pennsylvania whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of trying to topple him.

The contract refers to Alptekin as “Capt. Ekim Alptekin.” Alptekin said he’s not a captain and he doesn’t know why the contract calls him one.

Flynn was paid by a Dutch consulting firm that Alptekin owned called Inovo, according to Flynn’s Justice Department disclosures. But records show Inovo had no significant business activity in the three years before the Flynn deal. In fact, the company was in debt for more than 125,000 euros in the months before paying Flynn. Alptekin acknowledged in an interview that Inovo lacked sufficient funds and said he used his own money to pay Flynn.

Flynn’s firm ultimately repaid $80,000 to Inovo. Alptekin has said it was a refund. Flynn’s filing with the Justice Department called the payment a “consultancy fee.”

Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian efforts to influence the election, is interested in the source of Flynn’s lobbying income, according to a person familiar with the probe. Mueller’s spokesman declined to comment.

While working on Turkey, Zaikin also facilitated lobbying and political consulting deals for the Macedonian political party VMRO-DPMNE, according to four people with direct knowledge of the activities. He did the same for Albania’s Socialist Movement for Integration, known as LSI, according to four people familiar with the arrangements. Zaikin introduced leaders of both parties to American lobbyists and campaign advisers, the people said.

VMRO, like Turkey, historically aligns with the West but has recently cozied up to the Kremlin. VMRO for months refused to leave power despite failing to win enough seats in a December election to form a parliamentary majority. The standoff put the party at odds with the U.S. State Department, whereas it’s received forceful backing from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Albania’s LSI and its leader, Ilir Meta, are avowedly pro-Western but have sometimes clashed with the State Department over the U.S.’s push to reform the country’s criminal justice system.

Around the same time Zaikin started getting more involved in Eastern European and American politics, he and his wife repeatedly met with a friend named Elena Baronoff who worked with the Trump Organization to sell condos in Florida.

On social media, Zaikin and Baronoff discussed plans to meet and posted photos of themselves dining out in London. In October 2013, Zaikin posted back-to-back photos of himself and Baronoff with the chef of a French restaurant in the posh Mayfair neighborhood. Two weeks later, he tweeted a photo of his wife and Baronoff hugging with the comment, “It was warm like in Miami.”

On another apparent visit, in July 2014, Baronoff posted to Instagram a photo of herself and Zaikin’s wife, Yana, on a London sidewalk and then a photo of the lobby of a five-star hotel captioned, “with love to Yana and David Zaikin.”

Baronoff was born in Russia, earned degrees in journalism and mass communication, and served as an official “cultural attaché in public diplomacy” for the Russian government at an unspecified time, she said in interviews and bios. In 1989, she moved to Iowa, then Florida.

Starting with little means, Baronoff became a travel agent and later a real estate agent. She wrote on LinkedIn that her diplomatic training was key to her success in “marketing and building the brand of high-end luxury condominiums under the Trump brand.”

By 2004, Baronoff was Trump’s on-site director of customer relations for the Trump Grande near Miami. She was photographed with Trump and his daughter Ivanka and celebrated on the cover story of The Women’s City magazine as “Donald Trump’s Russian hand.”

As the exclusive agent for the Trump Grande development, Baronoff sold 44 units to Russian buyers, according to an analysis by Reuters. An undated photo surfaced on Twitter showing Baronoff in Moscow with Trump’s children Ivanka, Eric and Don Jr.

Last month, Trump released a letter from his lawyers saying any of his firm’s transactions with Russians were “immaterial,” though Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008 that the company was seeing “a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Baronoff fell ill while traveling to Turkey in 2014 and was diagnosed with leukemia. She died in 2015. Following her burial, her family received visitors at the Trump International Beach Resort.

Her son, George Baronov, said his mother worked for Trump after first doing business with Trump’s partner in Florida. “She was the in-house broker,” Baronov said. “She did a lot of marketing and advertising and traveling around the world.” The Moscow trip with Trump’s children was in 2003 or 2004, he said.

Two years before she died, Baronoff worked on a $28 million Manhattan real estate deal with Turkish President Erdogan’s son and son-in-law, according to hacked emails published by Wikileaks. The emails also showed the son and son-in-law receiving updates about Zaikin’s lobbying efforts. In September 2016, as Flynn later disclosed, Alptekin arranged a meeting between the same son-in-law and Flynn himself.

Supreme Court Won’t Take Up R.J. Reynolds Age Discrimination Case
June 26th, 2017, 07:00 AM

The Supreme Court on Monday let stand a ruling that concluded the nation’s chief age-discrimination law has a much narrower reach than widely assumed. The high court’s decision will make it harder for some people later in their work lives to prove they were victims of bias.

ProPublica previously reported how the case, Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., could have a broad impact on the rights of older workers and the responsibilities of employers.

The decision was the latest in a string since the 1990s to shrink what counts as age discrimination. In Monday’s action, the justices declined to review the case from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which ruled 6-5 last year that when it comes to systemic bias, the 50-year-old Age Discrimination in Employment Act only applies to people who already have jobs, not those seeking them.

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The Supreme Court also leaves in place the circuit majority’s view that, for unsuccessful job applicants to stand any chance of making a case, they must “diligently” pursue why they weren’t offered a position, even if they weren’t aware at the time that age discrimination was involved.

Although the lower-court ruling only holds formal legal sway in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, which are covered by the 11th Circuit, it already is being cited as precedent in cases across the country.

“If the decision stands, it will make it significantly more difficult for older workers to find jobs and attack employer practices that prevent them from being hired,” said Casey Pitts, a partner with the San Francisco law firm of Altshuler Berzon, who represented the plaintiff in the case. He said other cases, now making their way through the legal system, could bring the issue back before the Supreme Court in the coming years.

David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds’ parent, Reynolds American Inc., said the company declined to comment on the Monday decision.

The lower-court decision runs counter to the policies of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which administers the nation’s employment discrimination laws and has consistently said the age discrimination law applies to both employees and applicants.

The law prohibits two kinds of discrimination — intentional, as when an employer demotes or fires someone because of their age, or, as is more common, systemic, when an employer practice has a disproportionate negative impact on older workers, no matter the intention. The 11th Circuit agreed with R.J. Reynolds that the protection against systemic bias didn’t apply to job applicants, only employees.

Do you have access to information about age discrimination that should be public? Email, or here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on the courts and age bias.

Despite Exposés and Embarrassments, Hundreds of Judges Preside in New York Without Law Degrees
June 26th, 2017, 07:00 AM

The news releases are sent out with considerable regularity, brief and basic accounts of actions taken by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct: A judge is sanctioned for misconduct on the bench; another agrees to give up their job because of questionable behavior in his or her private life.

Many of the announcements note that the judges, as part of their agreement with the commission, pledge to never seek or accept a job as a judge again. And some of the announcements include a fact that still packs a 21st century punch of surprise: The judges being disciplined are not, and never have been, lawyers.

Take, for instance, the announcement the commission issued today, June 26: “The New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct announced that Gary M. Poole, a Justice of the Rose Town Court, Wayne County, will resign from office effective July 1, 2017, and has agreed never to seek or accept judicial office at any time in the future.”

Poole consented to resign after the commission began investigating claims that he engaged in “repeated, undignified and discourteous conduct toward a woman with whom he had been involved romantically.”

Poole agreed to accept the commission’s action and signed a stipulation laying out the charges and results. He also waived any confidentiality protections and signed the stipulation knowing it would be made public.

“Among other things,” the commission’s announcement read, “the judge was alleged to have yelled demeaning and derogatory things about her and her new boyfriend in public, spuriously threatened her with prosecution, demanded the return of certain personal property and threatened to encourage her ex-husband to commence a custody battle over her children.”

And then the final line: “Judge Poole, who is not an attorney, has served as a Justice of the Rose Town Court since 1993.”

That some judges in New York state are not required to be lawyers, or to have any formal legal training, has been a little-understood fact for much of the last century. It has, on occasion, drawn some notice. In 2006, The New York Times published a broad and damning series on the work of what are known as town and village justices, some 2,000 or so of whom hold court in the state. It made for remarkable reading:

“Some of the courtrooms are not even courtrooms: tiny offices or basement rooms without a judge’s bench or jury box. Sometimes the public is not admitted, witnesses are not sworn to tell the truth, and there is no word-for-word record of the proceedings.

Nearly three-quarters of the judges are not lawyers, and many — truck drivers, sewer workers or laborers — have scant grasp of the most basic legal principles. Some never got through high school, and at least one went no further than grade school.

But serious things happen in these little rooms all over New York State. People have been sent to jail without a guilty plea or a trial, or tossed from their homes without a proper proceeding. In violation of the law, defendants have been refused lawyers, or sentenced to weeks in jail because they cannot pay a fine. Frightened women have been denied protection from abuse.

The examination found overwhelming evidence that decade after decade and up to this day, people have often been denied fundamental legal rights. Defendants have been jailed illegally. Others have been subjected to racial and sexual bigotry so explicit it seems to come from some other place and time. People have been denied the right to a trial, an impartial judge and the presumption of innocence …

The reporting by the Times provoked real and promised reforms. But what many felt was the core problem – not requiring the justices to be lawyers – remained unchanged.

And so the announcements still come from the judicial conduct committee.

June 22, 2017: A justice of the Rossie Town Court in St. Lawrence County resigned and agreed never to seek or accept judicial office at any time in the future after being accused of mishandling court funds and failing for years to file the dispositions of hundreds of cases over half a dozen years. The justice was not a lawyer.

June 21, 2017: A justice of the Spring Valley Village Court in Rockland County resigned from office, according to the commission, because his felony record disqualified him from being a judge. Despite a 1978 felony conviction, the judge had been appointed to fill a vacancy on the town bench after the prior judge had been removed from office by the commission.

“Judge Michel was ineligible to serve as a village justice in the first place because he is a convicted felon,” the commission said. “Under the circumstances, his departure from office was inevitable, and his agreement to do so sooner rather than be forced into it later was responsible.”

May 18, 2017: A justice in a town court in Broome County was ordered by the commission to be removed from office for trying to get his daughter’s traffic ticket fixed and improperly trying to influence the judge who was handling appeals of the justice’s decisions. The judge was not a lawyer.

The list goes on – a justice removed for drunk driving; another for physically abusing a colleague; another who, while not a lawyer himself, had nonetheless intervened in a friend’s case in another court by appearing as the friend’s lawyer.

The commission, first created in 1978, has responsibility for some 3,400 judges at all levels statewide. It handles close to 2,000 complaints a year, and, of course, any number of them can involve judges who are lawyers and who are handling cases in the state’s more professional courts.

Just last week, in fact, the commission announced the retirement of a judge working in state Supreme Court. He agreed never to seek or accept judicial office at any time in the future after it was revealed that he’d been accepting his six-figure salary despite never reporting to work for several years because of a health issue.

But the majority of the cases resulting in action involve the town and village judges. Marisa Harrison, the public records officer at the commission, said 70 of the cases resulting in discipline over the course of the commission’s existence dealt with such judges.

For New York Families in Custody Fights, a ‘Black Hole’ of Oversight

Critics say a state office’s professed inability to review the work of mental health experts in Family and Matrimonial Court leaves children at risk. Read more.

Dysfunction Disorder

NYC paid millions for flawed mental health reports. Family court judges relied on them routinely. Parents and children lived with the consequences. Read the story.

In 2006, the Times listed the explanations for the enduring existence of untrained judges in New York State:

“The powerful idea that communities should choose their own destinies, including their own judges. The considerable costs of updating courtrooms and hiring lawyers to preside. The always-popular calls to keep lawyers out of people’s lives. And, not least, the power of the justices, who are often important players in local politics, wired into the same party mechanisms that produce the state’s lawmakers, judges and governors.”

In an email exchange, Robert Tembeckjian, the commission’s administrator, said “the commission has advocated some reforms regarding the town and village courts.

“Two in particular that have come to pass are the recording of all proceedings — the court system has supplied every town and village court with laptops that have audio capability, and a rule of the Chief Administrative Judge requires all proceedings to be recorded and maintained, and more extensive ethics training for judges, which has resulted in the State Magistrates Association having commission staff make ethics presentations at all of their annual meetings and many of their regional meetings.”

Tembeckjian said the commission has not taken a position on whether to require all town and village justices to be lawyers, or whether to replace the current system with a full-time regional alternative such as a district court.

“One recent recommendation we have made that has not been implemented yet: a formal training and education program for town and village court clerks that would include accounting training, since maintenance of court fines and records is an important fiduciary responsibility of the town and village courts and the judges that is often delegated to the court clerks,” Tembeckjian said.

Nursing Home Workers Still Posting Nude and Vulgar Photos of Residents on Snapchat
June 23rd, 2017, 07:00 AM

This story was co-published with The Des Moines Register.

In the last year alone, employees of at least 18 nursing homes and assisted living facilities have posted unauthorized — and in some cases, vulgar and stomach-turning — photos and videos of residents on Snapchat and other social media platforms, a ProPublica analysis has found.

Six incidents were in Iowa, which has put a greater focus on identifying such cases. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has called upon Snapchat and other social media companies to do more to stop the problem.

The new cases bring to 65 the number of instances identified by ProPublica since 2012 of inappropriate social media posts by employees of long-term care facilities. Most involve Snapchat, a social media service in which photos appear for a few seconds and then disappear with no lasting record. Photos have also been posted on Facebook and Instagram. ProPublica has been tracking this issue since 2015.

While the problem isn’t new, the pace of reported incidents has certainly picked up — and it’s not clear why. It could be that there’s heightened vigilance among regulators and nursing homes, leading to more reports. Last August, federal health regulators said they would crack down on nursing home employees who take demeaning photographs and videos of residents and post them on social media. Another possibility is that the problem is actually getting worse as more and more people use social media apps on their cellphones.

Among the cases since May 2016, based on government inspections and media reports:

  • A community member notified the administrator at Clarksville Skilled Nursing & Rehab Center in Iowa earlier this year that an employee sent a photo over Snapchat of a resident’s buttocks and a staff member holding a bowel movement in the palm of a gloved hand. The photo included a caption that said something to the effect of “This is what I do at my job.” At least three staff members who received the photo did not report it to the facility’s administration. One said, “it did not cross her mind that it was wrong to take a photo and send it out on Snapchat,” according to an inspection report. The home did not return calls seeking comment.
  • A medical assistant at an assisted living facility in Florida took surreptitious video of two residents having sex and posted it on Snapchat. The worker, who confessed to detectives, was fired, arrested and charged with one count of video voyeurism and one count of video voyeurism dissemination. She has pleaded not guilty.
  • In Wisconsin, a nursing assistant took a photo of a resident’s inner thighs and genitals while the resident sat on the toilet and shared it on Snapchat with a former employee. The resident’s face was not in the picture but the former employee recognized the sweater she was wearing. The caption read, in part, “Delete that picture. / Thought you would miss someone.”

The resident’s son, in a meeting with inspectors, wiped his eyes with a tissue and paused, saying his mother would not react well if she knew this had happened. The son’s wife said, “She is the most God-loving woman who wouldn’t hurt a flea. The kindest woman, and for someone to do this to her …” The assistant, who was fired, initially denied taking the picture but later admitted it.

The American Health Care Association, the nursing home industry trade group, said it continues to offer training across the country to educate home officials and employees about the importance of protecting patient privacy and avoiding social media abuses.

“Any case of abuse is appalling and deeply troubling,” Beth Martino, the group’s senior vice president for public affairs, wrote in an email. “Actions that jeopardize the privacy, dignity and safety of the elderly should be condemned and prosecuted to the fullest degree possible. Ensuring the safety and well-being of our residents is the number one priority for our members.”

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees nursing homes, told state health departments last summer that they should begin checking to make sure that all nursing homes have policies prohibiting staff from taking demeaning photographs of residents. CMS also called on state officials to quickly investigate such complaints and report offending workers to licensing agencies for possible discipline. State health departments help enforce nursing home rules for the federal government.

“CMS continues to be concerned about the mental abuse that results from unauthorized use or posting of resident photos and videos on social media,” an agency spokesperson said in an email.

Of the six cases reported in Iowa, homes themselves reported four to the state Department of Inspections and Appeals, one was called in as a complaint, and the other was discovered during an on-site inspection.

Inappropriate Social Media Posts by Nursing Home Workers, Detailed

Read details of incidents since 2012 in which workers at nursing homes and assisted-living centers shared photos or videos of residents on social media networks. The details come from government inspection reports, court cases and media reports. Read more.

“We’re not alarmed by that number at all,” said David Werning, a spokesman for the state agency. “The facilities in Iowa, I think, are very much aware of the fact that we were looking at this issue. With the CMS directive that came out last August to develop social media policies, we’re not surprised at all that the facilities are calling us to say, ‘Hey, we have an instance you need to look at.’”

Werning’s department proposed a change in Iowa law after a certified nursing assistant in Hubbard, Iowa, shared a photo online in March 2016 of a nursing home resident with his pants around his ankles, his legs and hand covered in feces, and state inspectors discovered there weren’t any regulations to hold the aide accountable. In the future, the state’s definition of dependent adult abuse will include “the taking, transmission, or display of an electronic image of a dependent adult by a caretaker, where the caretaker’s actions constitute a willful act or statement intended to shame, degrade, humiliate, or otherwise harm the personal dignity of the dependent adult.”

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said other states need to follow Iowa’s lead.

“The number of reports in Iowa makes me wonder how well reporting is going in other states,” he said in a statement to ProPublica. “People should report these incidents. Reporting is key to enforcement, and enforcement is key to prevention. … They have to face the consequences of negative inspection findings and penalties if they don’t.”

Grassley also has pushed Snapchat and other companies to do more to curb abuse of seniors on social media and to make it easier for people to report suspected abuse.

“Images of nursing home abuse will never have a safe or welcome place on Snapchat,” the company Snap Inc. said in a statement. “This content not only violates the law and our guidelines – it offends our common decency.”

Snap is rolling out a system that allows users to report abuse within the Snapchat app itself rather than relying on users to go to the company’s website to file an abuse report. Snapchat has more than 65 million daily active users in the U.S. and Canada.

Some efforts to curb inappropriate photo sharing have been slow. The Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Health and Human Services could take action in such cases as part of enforcing the federal patient privacy law known as HIPAA. But that agency has not penalized any long-term care facilities for photos posted online and has yet to release any social media guidance for health care providers. An official told ProPublica last summer that guidelines were in the works, but to date, none have been issued.

Not all of the examples ProPublica identified were exploitative. A nurse aide at Northern Mahaska Specialty Care in Iowa posted a photo of a resident on Facebook last year. She said she had known the resident and family for years and they were OK with it. But there was no written permission and the home was cited by government inspectors. The employee was off duty at the time and did not realize the home’s social media policy applied to her when she took the photos. The home’s policy allows family members to take photos of a resident (so long as no other residents are in view) but staff members are not permitted to do so.

Care Initiatives, the home’s owner, said in a statement, “The incident in question runs counter to our employee social media usage policy and was not in line with the training we provide staff regarding our behavior expectations. Our own staff rightly alerted their supervisors of the post, we acted quickly upon learning of the post, reported the situation to proper authorities, and the staff member in question is no longer employed by our organization.”

Some nursing homes are pushing back.

Lone Tree Health Care Center, also in Iowa, appealed a $68,000 fine imposed because the facility did not conduct a timely investigation after receiving a tip about photos containing residents being posted on Snapchat in June 2016. Inspectors said the home placed residents in “immediate jeopardy” of harm by not investigating, as well as by not reporting the matter to the state or separating potential abusers from residents.

Chris Wolf, the home’s administrator, said she thought the fine was excessive. The photos did not contain abuse or nudity, she said, and did not put residents at risk. Three aides were disciplined and staff members at the home received training and were instructed to leave their phones in their cars or at home. Wolf said she was recently informed that CMS was withdrawing the immediate jeopardy designation and cutting the fine in half.

However, Wolf said, because of the ephemeral nature of photos on Snapchat, neither the home nor authorities saw the posts in question. “As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing is pretty ridiculous. Nobody in an agency capacity has even seen the picture nor can they see the picture, so how can you write a deficiency let alone a fine when there isn’t a picture to substantiate the accusation?”

Has your medical privacy been compromised? Help ProPublica by filling out a short questionnaire. You can also read other stories in our Policing Patient Privacy series.

Inappropriate Social Media Posts by Nursing Home Workers, Detailed
June 23rd, 2017, 07:00 AM

Related story: Nursing Home Workers Share Explicit Photos of Residents on Snapchat

Updated June 22, 2017.

Date: January 2012

Facility: CareOne at Livingston

City: Livingston

State: NJ

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A nursing assistant photographed a resident's genitals and sent the picture to a friend, who uploaded it to Facebook. The assistant was fired. Both were charged with invasion of privacy and conspiracy. The New Jersey Attorney General's office said the worker was given probation; her friend pre-trial intervention. A spokesman for CareOne, Tim Hodges, said in an interview that the home itself reported the incident to authorities and has a "very strict policy on the use of no mobile devices or cameras in our facility. Fortunately we have not had an incident since then."

Date: October 2012

Facility: St. Ann's Home

City: Rochester

State: NY

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A year after she stopped working at the home, a former nurse aide posted a video to Facebook in which an elderly wheelchair-bound resident was harassed. The video showed a hand briefly tugging at the resident's hair. Voices in the video could be heard taunting her, saying among other things: "The boss lady said that if you don’t wash the dishes, she will slap the black off you…and she called you a bitch.” The aide pleaded guilty to one count of willful violation of health laws, a misdemeanor. The home's administrator Susan Murty said an investigation started immediately when an employee discovered the posting and the home worked with authorities to determine its scope. "Most of the people who work in nursing homes are really wonderful people and it’s a shame that this is what people talk about. That’s always our frustration," she said.

Date: November 2012

Facility: Brookview Meadows

City: Green Bay

State: WI

Type of facility: Assisted living

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Two workers took photos and videos of nude or partially nude elderly residents and shared them on Snapchat. One picture showed a resident vomiting; another video showed a resident being assisted with an obstructed bowel, according to a criminal complaint. The employees admitted taking photos and sharing them with one another and with friends. Both pleaded no contest to misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and invasion of privacy through use of a surveillance device. A lawyer for the facility told the Green Bay Press-Gazette at the time the women were charged that both were screened before they were hired, and both were fired after an investigation. The current executive director declined to comment beyond saying the facility has changed ownership since the incident.

Date: December 2012

Facility: Dunmore Health Care Center

City: Dunmore

State: PA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Instagram

Description: The name and picture of a resident with Alzheimer's disease were posted on a nursing assistant's Instagram page. The resident "was incapable of granting permission for this social media post and did not give such permission," according to a government inspection report. In its plan of correction, the home said the photo was removed from Instagram and no other residents were affected. The home's administrator declined to comment. Read more information.

Date: Around December 2012

Facility: Saint Albans Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center

City: Saint Albans

State: VT

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: A video of a resident identified as having dementia was posted on an employee's social media website without the permission of the resident or family. The director of nursing services said "it was brought to my attention by (staff) that on (another staff's social media website) posted something that said 'this is why I love my job' and then there were people's feet but no faces and (Resident #3) was singing. I didn't do an investigation because there was no identifiable people and not sure if (Administrator) might have spoke to (her/him)." The home did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Date: January 2013

Facility: Valley Convalescent Hospital

City: Watsonville

State: CA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A nursing assistant posted a picture of a resident's hand on Facebook, with a caption akin to "I am holding her hand til she falls asleep." A comment posted below the photo by a second nursing assistant had a question that included the resident's first name. Both employees were "counseled" for not maintaining confidentiality.

Date: March 2013

Facility: Greenfield Health and Rehabilitation Center

City: Lancaster

State: NY

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nurse aide took photos of an incontinent resident's genitals covered in fecal matter and shared them with another staff member on Snapchat. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of willful violation of health laws and was given a year of conditional discharge and community service. The home's administrator, Darlene Crispell, told ProPublica that officials reported the incident immediately to the state health department and fired the staff member involved. "Our training has included the prohibition of electronic devices in the work areas as a result. We’re pretty aggressive in monitoring that. Technology is a problem for us, for everybody, these days... The resident involved was not harmed but certainly it was a serious incident."

Date: April 2013

Facility: Autumn Care of Norfolk

City: Norfolk

State: VA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: A newly hired nursing assistant posted a picture of a resident with Down's Syndrome on a social media network without consent. The employee admitted to posting the photo and said she would take it down. The employee was asked to come in and meet with the administrator but never came back to work. The home's parent company did not return two calls seeking comment.

Date: Around April 2013

Facility: Deer Crest

City: Red Wing

State: MN

Type of facility: Assisted living

How it became public: Government inspection report, news story

Social media site: Instagram

Description: A staff member took a photo of a resident on the toilet in the bathroom. The picture showed the resident's bare skin and was taken without consent and uploaded to Instagram. The staff member admitted taking the photo, was suspended and ultimately fired. The staff person also was directed to remove the photo from the social media site. The facility was found to be in compliance with state rules. It provided written reminders to all staff about its policies and procedures. Its executive director did not return multiple calls.

Date: May 2013

Facility: Sharon Health Care Pines

City: Peoria

State: IL

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: A housekeeper posted a picture of a vision- and hearing-impaired resident on her social networking webpage, with the caption "This is my friend," along with the resident's first name. The employee apologized and immediately removed the photo. She said she was not aware that a person could not do such a thing without the resident's consent. The home's administrator told ProPublica that the matter was corrected immediately and that annual training is conducted "so that we’ll never have a repeat issue."

Date: July 2013

Facility: Centers for Living and Rehab

City: Bennington

State: VT

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A staff member took a picture of a resident on the commode and posted it on a social media site. The facility failed to immediately report an incident of possible mistreatment by staff to government inspectors. Spokeswoman Ashley Brenon Jowett said in a statement to ProPublica: "The employee noted in the 2013 report was the granddaughter of a resident. While visiting her grandmother (and not working), she took a photograph and posted it to her personal Facebook page. The grandmother, a resident, was fully dressed in the photo, which was taken to share the excitement of her recovery. Only those who have familiarity with the facility would have been able to discern that the resident was sitting on a commode in the photo. There was no resident or family complaint; when the post was discovered by another staff member, we self-reported the incident as a cautionary measure. The employee was advised of the sensitivity of the situation and immediately removed the image. She understood the facility’s response, was remorseful, and mortified that she could ever have been interpreted as having put her grandmother’s privacy or dignity in jeopardy. "

Date: Around August 2013

Facility: Bishop Drumm Retirement Center

City: Johnston

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story

Social media site: Instagram

Description: Two employees posted at least one inappropriate photo on a social media website. Officials would not detail the nature of the photos but said both "rogue" employees were fired. In a statement at the time, Bishop Drumm president and chief executive Brian Farrell said publishing photos of a resident not only violates the home's core values, "it also violates the human dignity of the resident.” He said all employees are educated about handling of personal health information, including photos. "Such behavior cannot and will not be tolerated.”

Date: September 2013

Facility: Newaygo Medical Care Facility

City: Fremont

State: MI

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report, news story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant was accused of taking a photo of a female resident with Alzheimer's disease on the toilet with her private parts exposed, drawing on a picture of a penis with the caption "limp dick" and sharing it on Snapchat. She was fired and pleaded no contest to a felony charge of using a computer to commit a crime but denied wrongdoing in an interview. The facility had written up the employee twice previously for use of her cellphone and social media at work. Officials at the home did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Date: February 2014

Facility: Prestige Post-Acute and Rehab Center

City: Centralia

State: WA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant recorded a resident on the toilet and shared the video on Snapchat with another nursing assistant who was working on the opposite side of the building. In the video, the resident's face was visible while sitting on a bedside commode with her pants below the knees, cleaning herself while laughing and singing. A third nursing assistant told inspectors that use of cellphones by employees had been going on in the facility for an extended time. In a statement to ProPublica, PrestigeCare said it was an isolated incident and that it instituted new, stricter cellphone and social media policies. “Nothing is more important than the safety and well-being of our residents. When we learned about this issue last year, we took immediate steps to notify the police, along with other state authorities. We immediately placed the employee on suspension pending an investigation, and once complete, terminated her. We also met with the patient’s family and doctor to discuss what happened. We take these situations very seriously and are thankful that our own internal procedures alerted us so promptly to the issue."

Date: February 2014

Facility: Sevier County Health Care Center

City: Sevierville

State: TN

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story

Social media site: Facebook

Description: An employee posted an "inappropriate" picture of himself posing in a resident's room. The home's administrator told WJHL-TV at the time that the home fired the employee, but took no additional legal action because there was no evidence patients were in the room when the picture was taken.

Date: March 2014

Facility: Rosewood Care Center

City: St. Charles

State: IL

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report, news story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: One nursing home assistant recorded another using a nylon strap to lightly slap the face of a 97-year-old resident with dementia. The video was posted on Snapchat. On it, the resident could be heard crying out "Don't! Don't!" as the employees laughed. They were fired, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of battery and were sentenced to probation and community service. Ivy Gleeson, the nursing home administrator, told the Chicago Tribune in 2014 that the two women were fired. “In our facility, resident safety is our utmost concern,” Gleeson said. She did not return calls and emails from ProPublica seeking comment.

Date: April 2014

Facility: George L Mee Memorial Hospital

City: King City

State: CA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: Two licensed vocational nurses posted a picture of themselves on a social media site; a health chart with a resident's name was visible. A home official declined to comment, referring a call to its parent organization, which did not return calls.

Date: April 2014

Facility: Gridley Healthcare and Wellness Centre

City: Gridley

State: CA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report, news story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Five nursing assistants were fired and prosecuted for taking and sharing photos and videos of residents. In one, a nursing assistant was twerking (dancing in a sexually provocative way) over a resident's head. In another, a resident only wearing underwear was carried by a male nursing assistant over his shoulder. Some of the pictures involved residents who were inappropriately exposed or appeared to be deceased. One nursing assistant said pictures and videos were sent on many occasions. The facility did not report the abuse in a timely manner because the administrator told inspectors "there was no concrete evidence that it had occurred." Two of the former employees entered pleas of guilty or no contest to felony elder or dependent adult abuse; the others of failing to report the abuse, a misdemeanor. The home's current administrator said the facility changed owners on Sept. 1 and that she could not speak about prior events. A representative of the home’s operator at the time of the incident said in a statement to the Gridley Herald newspaper that the home was cooperating with authorities, took corrective action, and that its highest priority was to “ensure the best quality of care and treatment for our patients.”

Date: July 2014

Facility: Emmanuel Center for Nursing

City: Danville

State: PA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: An employee reported receiving a picture of another employee on the floor with a resident while the resident was being changed in the bathroom. The facility did not immediately try to verify the identity of the resident in the photo because only a small portion of the resident's knee was visible. The nursing home administrator and director of nursing told inspectors that their staff did not follow the employee policy on cellphone use or its policy on timely reporting of possible resident abuse. In a statement to ProPublica, Anthony Cooper, the home's administrator, said: "We have implemented a specific set of policies and procedures so as to capitalize on the benefits of social media while continuing to protect the privacy of our residents. Social Media is definitely here to stay and will continue to grow and change. It is an excellent vehicle for families to keep connected and can serve as an effective marketing tool. As long as agencies create a sufficient monitoring system it can have a more positive impact as opposed to negative."

Date: July 2014

Facility: Villa Pines Living Center

City: Friendship

State: WI

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A resident with one leg had a picture and video of him posted on Snapchat with the word "Jerk!" written across it. The video shows a staff member kicking the resident's wheelchair and the resident kicking back, with laughter in the background. The Snapchat came from a nursing assistant and allegedly was sent to several people. The nursing assistant initially denied taking the video but later admitted it. Jennifer Johnson, the home's regional director of operations, said in a statement: "We have strict guidelines in place to govern the use of social media and cellphone communication, as well as a thorough training program that takes place both at the time of hire and on an annual basis. If we encounter a situation that we believe violates our policies, we address it immediately, thoroughly and with appropriate action. Our guidelines clearly state that an infraction may result in discipline up to, and including, termination."

Date: July 2014

Facility: Nazareth Health and Rehab Center

City: Stoughton

State: WI

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: The facility received a phone call from a community member saying that she had received a Snapchat photo of a resident who was naked, lying in bed, and surrounded by feces. A nursing assistant, who was alleged to have sent the picture, denied it, but days later, admitted to taking Snapchat pictures of residents of the facility. According to inspectors, the facility did not adequately investigate the accusations. The nursing assistant was suspended. Jennifer Johnson, the facility executive director, said in a statement: "Our first priority at Nazareth Health and Rehabilitation Center is the health and safety of our residents and staff. We therefore have thorough policies in place to regulate activity that takes place within our facility. This includes extensive guidelines on social media and cellphone use as well as, of course, standards designed to ensure the confidentiality of our residents. Employees undergo training relative to these policies when they are hired and do so routinely on an annual basis. Should an infraction occur, re-education sessions are held. Also, our guidelines clearly state that an infraction may result in discipline up to, and including, termination."

Date: August 2014

Facility: Great Barrington Rehabilitation and Nursing Center

City: Great Barrington

State: MA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Instagram

Description: A photo of a resident's face and a video of the resident telling a joke was found on a nursing assistant's Instagram site, which was viewed by other nursing assistants and a nursing supervisor. The assistant denied that she had an Instagram site or that she posted the resident's picture on an Instagram site. The resident had no knowledge of a staff member taking his/her picture. Susan Moss, a spokeswoman for Kindred Healthcare, which operated the facility until August 2015, said, "Kindred’s policy strictly prohibits employees from taking photographs of patients without obtaining proper written permission. Appropriate disciplinary action is taken if it is determined that an individual employee violated the policy, including posting photographs of patients on social media. The Kindred organization takes its responsibility seriously and conducts regular training and reminders to ensure that the policy is clearly understood by individual employees."

Date: October 2014

Facility: Riverside North Enrichment Community

City: Ames

State: IA

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant recorded a video showing a resident's genitals. She pleaded guilty to one count of dependent adult abuse, a misdemeanor. A spokesperson at the facility told the Ames Tribune at the time that the woman is no longer an employee. The current administrator declined to comment when reached by ProPublica, saying she was not there when the incident happened.

Date: February 2015

Facility: Nevins Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre

City: Methuen

State: MA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facetime

Description: While talking to a friend on FaceTime, the live video chatting service from Apple, a nurse pointed the camera at a resident. At the time of the incident, an aide was washing the resident in bed following an incontinence episode. The aide said the nurse placed the cell phone in the resident's face and demanded that he/she say hi on camera to the person with whom the nurse had been talking. Administrator Joyce Shannon said in a statement to ProPublica that "this self-reported incident was very unfortunate and we are 100 percent committed to protecting and maintaining our resident’s privacy. This was an isolated incident where a temporary agency worker acted indiscreetly around social media. The worker no longer provides care at our facility and all of our staff have received social media, confidentiality and privacy retraining. Most importantly our resident did not receive any ill effects from this incident."

Date: February 2015

Facility: Autumn Care Center (now Price Road Health and Rehabilitation Center)

City: Newark

State: OH

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Someone from the community called the facility after being disturbed by a nursing assistant's posting on Snapchat of two residents lying in bed in hospital gowns being coached to say "I'm in love with the coco" (lyrics of a gangster rap song). As the male resident said the words, a banner appeared across his chest that said, "Hahahhahaha omg" with three laughing emoticons; as the female repeated the words, a banner across her chest said, "Got these hoes trained." The female resident's son said his mother would have been embarrassed because she had previously worked as a church secretary for 30 years. After facility staff learned of the conduct, they allowed the nursing assistant to complete her shift. The director of nursing said she did not send her home because "she didn't know the identity of the residents on the video and didn't feel it was abuse." The nursing assistant subsequently resigned. "A systemic breakdown in implementing the facility abuse policy was identified," inspectors wrote. The home's current owner, Greystone Healthcare Management, took over days after the incident. A spokeswoman said it "provides extensive, on-going training, support and oversight to insure that we provide patient centered care."

Date: April 2015

Facility: Village Creek Nursing Home

City: Fort Worth

State: TX

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: A nursing assistant posted a picture of a resident with severe cognitive impairment on a social media website. The nursing assistant told inspectors that she posted the picture because the resident had on a nice hat, and she had her hair done, so they took a picture together in the dining room. "She stated it was not a bad picture." The administrator and assistant administrator both told inspectors that they were unaware of the resident's picture being posted on the nursing assistant's social media page. The home did not return calls seeking comment.

Date: April 2015

Facility: Roselawn Gardens Nursing and Rehabilitation

City: Alliance

State: OH

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A facility audit of staff members' Facebook pages revealed two staffers had photos of a resident on their personal Facebook pages. John Ingles, the home's current administrator, said he was not in his position at the time and could not provide additional details. "We have not had it happen again," he said.

Date: April 2015

Facility: Golden LivingCenter - Pierre

City: Pierre

State: SD

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report, news story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: An anonymous caller told the home's executive director that a nursing assistant had sent her a photo and video of a resident in the bathtub via Snapchat. The employee was suspended but law enforcement was not notified. The executive director told inspectors she was unsure if the incident constituted abuse. The aide was charged with a misdemeanor for photographing the resident. She pleaded guilty to secretly recording the body of a person and was sentenced to three days in jail, according to the Argus Leader newspaper. In a statement to ProPublica, parent company Golden Living, said: “We conduct full background checks of every new employee in accordance with state and federal requirements. If they have done something abusive to another person in the past, they do not come to work for us. Unfortunately, everyone who has ever hired or supervised someone knows that there is an element of unpredictability in human behavior. Our systems of oversight in our LivingCenters offer reasonable protection against the possibility that an employee will misbehave, but there is always a risk that anti-social conduct will go undetected for a short period of time.” The woman’s family has filed a lawsuit against the home.

Date: May 2015

Facility: The Waters of Scottsburg

City: Scottsburg

State: IN

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report, news story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant took a picture of a resident's backside and buttocks and shared it on Snapchat. A second assistant admitted to taking a photo of another resident who was both cursing and calling people names. In September, one of the assistants pleaded guilty to a charge of voyeurism. The home's administrator referred a reporter to a corrective-action plan filed with the state. In that plan, the home said residents were assessed for mental disturbance related to the pictures but nothing negative was found. The home also re-educated staff about its cellphone policy and further restricted their use in resident care areas.

Date: June 2015

Facility: Bethany Woods Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

City: Albemarle

State: NC

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A geriatric certified aide took pictures and videos of a resident and posted them on Snapchat. One video showed the resident kicking his legs in the air, yelling, and on the video it stated his name and said it was after his "happy medications." In the other video, he was just lying there while the aide asked him what's wrong. She was terminated. The home's interim administrator said she has no knowledge of the incident and declined comment.

Date: July 2015

Facility: Windsor Place

City: Daingerfield

State: TX

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: A picture on the social media website of a nursing assistant showed a resident in bed with only a blue bed pad covering her buttocks. The resident had her arms crossed over her breasts and her legs drawn upward. The assistant said she took the photo because the assistant director of nursing asked her to do so, in order to show a physician bruising on her body (the assistant director denied doing so.) The nursing assistant said she was not aware the photos were uploaded on her account. She was terminated. The administrator told inspectors that nurses were the only staff with permission to take pictures of the residents, and that was only if a physician requested it. The home did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Date: July 2015

Facility: Wingate at Belvidere

City: Lowell

State: MA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Two nurses aides face charges of elder abuse for posting humiliating videos of residents on social media. According to the Lowell Sun newspaper, one video shows an elderly resident sitting on a commode while dressed and being asked about her sex life and if she smoked marijuana. Another shows the same resident sleeping when one of the aides yells in her ear, waking her up. A third shows a 75-year-old resident making noises to show her teeth with the caption, "Chuckie's Bride." The employees were fired. In a statement to New England Cable News, the home said, "The investigation revealed that the employees violated Wingate at Belvidere’s strict policies concerning patient safety and privacy of three residents and as a result, these individuals were terminated. We were able to confirm that no private health information, such as names or clinical information was captured on the videos." The home did not return phone calls from ProPublica.

Date: July 2015

Facility: Maplewood Center

City: Amesbury

State: MA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: not specified

Description: A nursing assistant posted a photograph of two residents in the facility dining room. When interviewed by inspectors, one resident was unable to respond to questions. The other did not recall being photographed and did not like the photograph and would not have liked it shown to others. The nursing assistant told inspectors that it was a known violation of residents' privacy to photograph them and said the picture was accidentally taken and posted. The assistant said the photograph and post were immediately deleted when he was notified by staff at the facility. Although staff were not allowed to have cellular telephones on the units or in resident areas, it was not enforced, the nursing assistant said. The home did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Date: August 2015

Facility: Sierra Vista Healthcare

City: Fresno

State: CA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Instagram

Description: A housekeeper posted photographs of two residents on Instagram. One photo showed a resident in a nightgown with her torso on the bed and her feet on the floor. The caption on the picture indicated that the resident was “trying to escape from bed.” At the bottom of the picture was a heart-shaped icon and 11 likes (from the public). A second resident was shown seated next to another person. The resident’s head and shoulder were visible. Below the picture was a heart-shaped icon and 20 likes (from the public). The caption below the picture said “A picture is worth a thousand words; and worth a million memories.” The resident’s first name was printed on the text under the picture three times. The home was notified of the photos by another resident’s family member. The housekeeper deleted the photos. The home’s policy does not allow staff to use personal cellphones with cameras in the facility. Citing privacy, DeAnn Walters, the facility’s administrator, declined comment on whether the housekeeper still workers there. Walters, who was hired this year, also declined to comment on the outcome of the facility’s internal investigation, saying only that staff had been retrained on the cellphone policy. “We always do everything we can to protect the privacy of our residents, and take the steps we need to make sure they get the treatment they need,” she said.

Date: August 2015

Facility: Yuma Life Care Center

City: Yuma

State: CO

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A youth volunteer shared a selfie on Snapchat that showed a 108-year-old resident urinating. The volunteer distributed the photo, which showed the resident’s buttocks, to her friends at school in August 2015. It was not reported to the facility until three months later, when a regular visitor to the facility was told of the photo by someone who had seen it on her co-worker’s phone. Government inspectors “revealed the facility had not conducted and routinely did not conduct background checks on volunteers or monitor, in any way, their presence in the facility.” The facility’s director of nursing also told police she was unaware of when the volunteer in question was in the facility because “she never kept track of the volunteers.” The volunteer reported to a police station in December 2015, telling police she’d taken the photo “because she thought it was funny.” Brittny Lewton, district attorney for Colorado’s 13th Judicial District, said the volunteer faces charges of invasion of privacy and will appear in court for a hearing on July 11. She expects the volunteer, a minor, will receive probation and a fine, but no jail time. “I have been here for 12 years and I have never seen anything like this,” she said, adding that the area’s nursing homes are “vital” to the rural community. The facility did not return calls for comment.

Date: August 2015

Facility: Luther Manor

City: Milwaukee

State: WI

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: An unknown person entered a resident’s room and filmed the resident calling out for help. The video was posted on Facebook by a user the facility could not identify. The facility did not report the incident to state authorities, who learned of the matter through a tip months later. Officials later said they didn’t report it on the advice of their attorney. Stephanie Chedid, the facility’s CEO, declined to comment on any changes the facility made to avoid similar incidents in the future, saying such steps were “internal information.” Chedid said the facility has “taken every step” to “ensure our community can be a safe and private environment for our residents and guests.”

Date: September 2015

Facility: Carillon Assisted Living

City: Newton

State: NC

Type of facility: Assisted living

How it became public: News story

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Three personal care assistants were fired after an employee took a photo of a resident on the toilet and posted it on Snapchat. Keith Ensey, regional director of operations for Carillon Assisted Living told WBTV, "We substantiated abuse for the three team members--the person taking the picture and the two team members seen in the picture. They were fired for breaking multiple company policies involving the cellphone policy, social media policy, violation of resident's rights and also violation of privacy policies." Ensey told the station that his investigation did not uncover any other similar incidents. "It's just such an appalling act," he told the station. "And such a defenseless resident."

Date: October 2015

Facility: LifeHOUSE Vista Healthcare Center

City: Vista

State: CA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: An employee took footage of a partially nude woman getting in the shower. A second employee is standing behind the resident laughing. Both were suspended and later fired. One of the employees was charged this month with misdemeanor counts of elder abuse and unauthorized invasion of privacy. Tom Allen, a lawyer for the home, told ProPublica that officials responded quickly when they learned about the video. The home was not cited by California regulators for any wrongdoing. "From my perspective, this is criminal elder abuse and we won’t put up with it and we didn’t put up with it." He said the facility was drafting new policies to deal with the issues.

Date: November 2015

Facility: Quabbin Valley Healthcare

City: Athol

State: MA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: After the state health department received a tip, two nursing assistants conceded to nursing home officials that they had shared photographs of three residents on Snapchat. The first assistant took photos of one resident sitting on the toilet and another in a bedroom. The other assistant took a photograph of a resident in a common area. The assistants said they took and shared the photographs as a means of keeping track of one another. One of the people who received the photographs via Snapchat complained to another person, saying, “If I had a dollar for every naked person on the toilet…” A complaint was then filed with the state health department. When questioned by government inspectors, the assistants denied taking pictures of residents. The assistants were fired immediately and the home provided education to staff about its cellphone policy and about patient privacy. The home did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Date: November 2015

Facility: Meadowbrook Behavioral Health Center

City: Los Angeles

State: CA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Instagram

Description: Police were notified after a video was posted to Instagram showing one employee bending “his rear-end over the resident’s head and [expelling] gas over the resident’s face.” The incident was reported to the nursing home’s administration in November 2015 by an employee who was also the mother of one of the employees involved. Inspectors interviewed the resident, who said “facility employees passed gas in his face as often as every month.” Both employees involved with taking the video (the one who passed gas and the one who taped it) no longer work at the facility. Neither the facility nor the Los Angeles Police Department returned calls for comment.

Date: January 2016

Facility: Parkside Manor

City: Kenosha

State: WI

Type of facility: Assisted living

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant admitted to taking video of a 93-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease sitting on her bed in a bra with no underwear or pants. She shared the video on Snapchat with friends. The employee said the resident “was giving her a hard time getting changed over for bed,” according to a criminal complaint. She was fired and charged with a felony count of taking a nude photo without consent. In a statement, David Richey, senior regional director of operations at Senior Lifestyle Corp., said the facility promptly investigated the incident and reported it to state regulators and to police. “The termination of this employee is consistent with our zero tolerance policy relating to actions contrary our code of conduct. Actions such as this will never be tolerated at our community. Our code of conduct contains very specific guidelines to govern employee behavior and includes policies regarding social networking and the use of technology that the employee in question clearly violated.”

Date: February 2016

Facility: Arbors at Michigan City

City: Michigan City

State: IN

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News story, criminal charges

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant was charged with felony and misdemeanor counts for posting a video of a patient in the shower. According to WNDU TV, the video “depicted an 85-year-old dementia patient naked in the shower while the staff sprayed her with water. Witnesses to the video told supervisors they heard [the aide’s] voice in the recording saying ‘look at this crazy bitch she doesn't like taking showers.’ When confronted, the aide reportedly told her supervisor she meant to take a photo of just the woman's face to show two other employees and ‘accidentally’ posted it on her public Snapchat feed.” Court records noted that the video included a caption “She f***ing hates showers. S***.” The home’s lawyer, Frederick Frankel told the TV station that "we are trying to take every step possible to protect the privacy of our residents." In April 2017, the assistant agreed to plead guilty and receive 180 days of home detention and one year of probation, according to the Northwest Indiana Times.

Date: February 2016

Facility: Friendship Village

City: Dayton

State: OH

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A picture of a sleeping resident was shared to Snapchat without permission. The photo showed the resident asleep in her room with “the fingers of one hand in the side of her pants, like where a pocket would be located.” According to a government inspection report, the resident had “severely impaired cognitive skills, impaired decision making and was totally dependent on staff for personal hygiene, including oral care.” The resident’s great-granddaughter called the facility to complain after seeing the photo, and the staff member was immediately suspended and later fired. The facility’s staff was reeducated on the use of technology. “We take the safety and dignity of all residents very seriously,” said Jerome Demmings, executive director of the facility, in an email. Demmings said Friendship Village provides education both at the time of hire and on an ongoing basis on cellphone use; he called this employee’s actions an “isolated” event.

Date: February 2016

Facility: Kindred Transitional Care and Rehabilitation-Kokomo

City: Kokomo

State: IN

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A nursing home employee was fired in May after posting a memorial photo on Facebook of a resident who had died. The photo, posted in February, showed the resident in a wheelchair, smiling, with the caption, “Fly away until another day soon soon we will be on are (sic) way.” The photo was discovered by the facility’s administration in May, and while the employee had told a nursing home official that the family had given permission to take the photo, government inspectors were unable to verify this. In an improvement plan provided to the state, the facility indicated all employees would receive additional education on social media policy. The state cited the home for a breach of personal privacy, but the facility disagreed, telling the state that, “the resident identified was deceased at the time the photo was posted to social media so was not affected.” In a statement, the facility’s executive director, Ginny Byrket, said Kindred’s social media policy “strictly prohibits employees from taking photographs of patients without obtaining proper written permission.” She said her organization “takes its responsibility seriously and conducts regular training and reminders to ensure that the policy is clearly understood by individual employees.”

Date: March 2016

Facility: Miller’s Senior Living Community

City: Indianapolis

State: IN

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: Two housekeepers filmed themselves dancing and singing a rap song with a resident and uploaded it to Facebook without the resident’s permission. A staff member brought it to the attention of the facility’s executive director, who suspended the two housekeepers pending an investigation. The resident, who was moderately cognitively impaired but required little regular assistance, told facility administrators that he was aware he was being filmed and was not upset about the incident. The resident did not seem to understand what it meant for the video to be uploaded onto social media, but told administrators that he “was not upset or concerned about the incident,” describing it as “just a little fun.” The facility did not return calls for comment.

Date: March 2016

Facility: Hubbard Care Center

City: Hubbard

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government Inspection Report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant was fired after sharing a photo on Snapchat of an elderly and incapacitated resident with his pants down and feces on his legs, shirt and left hand. The resident had extreme cognitive impairments due to dementia. The staff member captioned the photo “shit galore” and sent it to several other employees, one of whom reported it to the home’s administration. The resident’s family asked to speak with the aide to express their disappointment and told her “they hoped she never worked in another nursing home again,” the inspection report said. Kendall Watkins, a lawyer for the home, called the incident an “isolated act” and said the facility responded quickly and appropriately. He said the facility had an adequate social media policy in place prior to the incident, which the staff member ignored. Hardin County Deputy Sheriff Jeffrey Brenneman said his office had recommended the nursing home contact state regulators regarding the incident, but did not file criminal charges against the aide. The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals fined the facility $1,000 for the incident but did not pursue criminal charges because the resident’s genitals were not exposed.

Date: May 2016

Facility: Mt. Healthy Christian Home

City: Cincinnati

State: OH

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A nursing assistant posted a video on Facebook of a resident sitting in the shower room, with smiley face emojis obscuring her face. The video showed the nursing assistant holding up the resident’s white hair, asking “Is this your hair? Is this the best you have…?” before using an explicit word, which was censored in the government inspection report. While the resident was clothed, and only her hair and one ear were visible in the video, the director of nursing told inspectors it was clear the video was shot in the facility’s bathroom. The government inspection report said the resident was cognitively impaired. The video was reported to the director of nursing by another employee, and the nursing assistant removed the video from Facebook. Other employees knew of the video but did not report it to administration “in a timely manner,” the inspection report said. The nursing assistant was immediately fired, and the director of nursing re-educated staff on the facility’s policy banning staff from taking pictures or videos of residents, and on the requirement that all violations of the policy be reported the same day. The facility declined a request for comment.

Date: May 2016

Facility: Pacific Gardens Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

City: Fresno

State: CA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A housekeeper recorded an exposed resident with dementia who had her hands down her underwear and shared it on Snapchat with three coworkers and a former colleague. The former employee informed the home, but two nursing assistants who received the video did not. The former employee said, “I knew it was just wrong and didn’t think it was ok, so I called the facility to let them know.” The housekeeper said she was taking a picture of herself with the resident behind her. She said the resident was not exposed at all. The housekeeper said she was aware that employees were not allowed to access their phones in resident care areas and that photos of residents were not allowed to be taken. A worker who saw it said, “I didn’t know how to respond, this was just gross. I didn’t want anyone to think that I’m a pervert.” The resident’s daughter told inspectors, “It made me sick to know that this happened to my mother. How could people do this? My mother has dementia and would have felt mortified if she understood.” The home’s administrator did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Date: May 2016

Facility: Grand Ji Vante

City: Ackley

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant posted videos and pictures of two residents on Snapchat. One photo showed a resident sitting down with a sad emoji covering the resident’s face and a caption that read, “Stayed up all nighhhht. And can’t sit still.” A second picture showed the same resident’s face clearly with a laughing emoji with tears across the body. A video showed a different resident walking while wearing undergarments on the outside of sweat pants. An aide received a text from a friend who received the Snaps and questioned their appropriateness. The staffer who posted the material told home officials “she thought it was funny and that’s why she posted the pictures.” She asked who had turned her in and seemed “unremorseful of her actions,” the inspection report said.

Date: June 2016

Facility: Lone Tree Health Care Center

City: Lone Tree

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: An instructor of nursing assistants reported that students approached her about inappropriate Snapchats taken at the facility. Staff members were eating dinner and residents could be seen in the background. The administrator said she was told the pictures included a “bathroom, no naked residents and a resident laughing.” The bathroom photo showed what looked like a bowel movement on the floor. Inspectors said the home did not report the incident as required to the state and did not thoroughly investigate it. Inspectors declared that patients were in immediate jeopardy of harm. Chris Wolf, the home’s administrator, told ProPublica that it appealed the citation and a $68,000 fine. “Residents are not at risk. There is no degrading picture. There is no naked picture. There is no staff teasing a resident.” Wolf said the employees were disciplined and the home changed its policies to prohibit cellphones in the building. “As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing is pretty ridiculous. Nobody in an agency capacity has even seen the picture nor can they see the picture, so how can you write a deficiency let alone a fine when there isn’t a picture to substantiate the accusation?” Wolf said she was recently informed that CMS was withdrawing the immediate jeopardy designation and cutting the fine in half.

Date: August 2016

Facility: Green Hill Rehabilitation and Care

City: Greensburg

State: KY

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nurse aide posted a video on Snapchat of a resident with Alzheimer’s disease walking through the facility. Another aide saw the video and reported it to the director of nursing. The aide said she “thought it was cute and did not post the video to be mean or to disrespect” the resident. The nursing home suspended the aide and later terminated her employment. Inspectors determined that the director of nursing did not conduct a thorough investigation to ensure no other residents were involved. The home at the time was called Golden Living Center — Green Hill. In a statement, Golden Living Chief Privacy Officer and Assistant General Counsel Erin Pope said, “While social media has offered many the opportunity to share meaningful moments about patients and residents with their authorization, social media can create challenges in the healthcare setting. … Any alleged violations of privacy were taken very seriously in an effort to ensure that employees, residents, patients and guests shared the commitment to protecting confidential information.”

Date: August 2016

Facility: Brookdale Richmond Place SNF

City: Lexington

State: KY

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Three nursing assistants were caring for a resident in her room when one of them videotaped the resident’s naked body and posted it to Snapchat. Other staff members in the background were laughing at the resident, who was cussing at the staff. Across the lower portion of the video were the words, “What we deal with every fucking day.” A former employee saw the video and reported it to the facility. The assistant who recorded the incident acknowledged that the video included footage of the resident raising her gown, which exposed her entire body. In an interview with inspectors, the assistant “revealed she knew it was wrong and abusive towards the resident. She stated she wanted to capture the goofy side of the resident during care.” She also said she now felt bad, adding, “I don’t always make the best choices.” A second assistant who was in the room said she “felt stuck between saying something, and her friends.” The third assistant said the video shocked her and she should have reported that her colleague had her phone out during resident care. In an interview with inspectors, a regional director of care services “revealed he was not certain the incident was abuse because the resident was cognitively impaired, so it was difficult to determine how the resident felt.” He added that it was a violation of the resident’s dignity. Days later, the home’s nursing director said the regional director “was no longer affiliated with the facility and would not be returning.” The resident’s spouse said the resident would have been upset about what happened and said the home had not been fully upfront about it. The three assistants were immediately suspended and later terminated. Inspectors declared the nursing home’s residents in “immediate jeopardy” of harm. All employees were retrained about patient privacy, abuse and dignity. In a statement to ProPublica, Brookdale Senior Living Inc. said, “As soon as we were made aware of the situation, we immediately responded and terminated the associates involved. We cooperated with state regulators and retrained staff to make it clear that this type of behavior is never tolerated. The most important thing we have is the trust of our residents and their families and we cannot violate that trust.”

Date: August 2016

Facility: Bristol Court Assisted Living Facility

City: St. Petersburg

State: FL

Type of facility: Assisted living facility

How it became public: News report, police report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Police arrested a medical assistant for posting video on Snapchat of two residents having sex. A follower saw the video and informed the facility, which notified police and fired the worker. The worker, who confessed to detectives, was arrested and charged with one count of video voyeurism and one count of video voyeurism dissemination, according to WFLA. She pleaded not guilty. In a letter to Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the home said, “This event was deeply disturbing to us as it is contrary to our values, training, rules and culture at Bristol Court.” The home said as soon as it verified the events, it terminated the assistant. It said she passed a background check before being hired. “While background checks are an important part of the vetting process of employees, we can never truly know if an individual is going to make an extremely poor and immature decision,” the facility’s administrator David Gery wrote. The home said the medical assistant violated clear policies prohibiting this type of behavior.

Date: September 2016

Facility: Aberdeen Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center

City: Trenton

State: MI

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant posted on Snapchat a “potentially embarrassing” video of a resident with severe mental impairment. The assistant deleted it within minutes but was terminated for violating the home’s policies. The entire staff was trained on policies and confidentiality and the administrator told inspectors there had been no further incidents. The home did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Date: October 2016

Facility: Stevens County Hospital LTCU DBA Pioneer Manor

City: Hugoton

State: KS

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A licensed nurse repeatedly encouraged a cognitively impaired resident sitting in the home’s dining room to make a sexual gesture mimicking oral sex. At the end of the video, three distinct staff voices could be heard laughing. In the video, the nurse “asked the resident to show him/her what he/she used to do to his/her family member.” At that point, the resident lifted a hand and made “the oral sex gesture.” The nurse sent the video to a family member of the resident, who reported the matter to a liaison between families and the facility. During the investigation, the home learned of other pictures taken of the resident by different staff members using Snapchat. In one, staff members talked about sex and encouraged the resident to “use plenty of lube.” The resident’s family member reported there were other pictures staff sent that they found troubling, including one in which “the resident looked like a cross dresser.” The family member had previously told the home about it and thought it had been taken care of. After the oral sex gesture video, the facility suspended the licensed nurse but not the other staff members who were involved. After inspectors intervened, three other staff members were suspended. When questioned, the licensed nurse who took the videos “reported no one took offense because staff knew that was just how the resident is.” The staff member said he/she should not have sent the video and didn’t realize it “would be misunderstood.” Inspectors declared residents were in “immediate jeopardy” of harm. The home’s administrator did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Date: November 2016

Facility: Northern Mahaska Specialty Care

City: Oskaloosa

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A nurse assistant recorded a video of a resident and shared it on Facebook, tagging the resident’s family. Another assistant was at home looking at Facebook and saw the video and texted the first one to inform her that she could get in “a lot of trouble and needed to remove the video right away.” The staffer who took the video said she had the family’s permission. She “stated the family member knew and was OK with it.” She said she was off duty at the time and did not realize the home’s social media policy applied to her when she took the photos. The home’s policy allows family members to take photos of a resident (so long as no other residents are in view) but staff members are not permitted to do so. Care Initiatives, the owner of Northern Mahaska Specialty Care, said in a statement, “The incident in question runs counter to our employee social media usage policy and was not in line with the training we provide staff regarding our behavior expectations. Our own staff rightly alerted their supervisors of the post, we acted quickly upon learning of the post, reported the situation to proper authorities, and the staff member in question is no longer employed by our organization. We continue to educate and train all staff on the importance of respecting resident privacy and dignity.”

Date: December 2016

Facility: Tendercare Greenview

City: Alpena

State: MI

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant posted a photograph of an 81-year-old resident with Alzheimer’s disease. The assistant was suspended and later terminated. The assistant denied taking photographs of other residents. A report was filed with the state police. Amy Meyers, executive director for Tendercare Greenview, said in a statement, “At Tendercare Greenview, we take patient privacy very seriously; we do our utmost to provide a safe home for everyone who resides here. Thanks to a vigilant member of our small community, we were immediately made aware of the inappropriate Snapchat photo that was taken. We immediately took action in accordance with our policies and procedures, which included contacting the police and the State Department of Health Services Division of Quality Assurance, as well as the resident’s guardian to report the incident. We cooperated fully with the authorities and completed our own internal investigation, which resulted in the termination of the employee in accordance with our policies and procedures. We are sorry this incident occurred, and do not tolerate this type of behavior.”

Date: December 2016

Facility: Parkside Villa

City: Middleburg Heights

State: OH

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: A nurse aide posted a photo of a resident dressed in a pink top or dress with a pink head scarf or cap. She was sitting up in bed with white sheets and a pillow behind her. Her tracheostomy tubing and feeding tube could be seen coming up out of her top. The post accompanying the photo used the resident’s nickname. The aide was suspended. The aide was a close family friend of the resident and her family. The resident’s daughter said she had not been able to visit her mother and had asked the aide to take a photo. The daughter said she was not aware of the home’s policy and was not upset the photo was posted. Employees were trained about the home’s policies forbidding the posting of photos of residents by staff on social media. Eliav Sharvit, general counsel at Legacy Health Services, an affiliated management company to Parkside Villa, said the employee was a close family friend to the daughter of the resident. “The irony here is that the resident was really looking good. It was a shining moment and the relative said, ‘Can you take a minute and post it,’ because she was in a good state, she was well taken care of and looked content and felt good.”

Date: January 2017

Facility: Lebanon Veterans Home

City: Lebanon

State: OR

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: The Facebook page of the state-owned veterans home had a photograph of a resident, who was identified by name and his level of end-of-life hospice care. A program director confirmed to inspectors that he had not received the resident’s authorization before posting the information. In an interview with ProPublica, administrator Kelly Odegaard said, “We were honoring a veteran by telling his story and we had done a very special dinner for the veteran who was end of life and had published that on our Facebook page with his verbal permission to do so.” The home now requires that residents provide written authorization before anything is published. “It was all about honoring the veteran, not exposing him,” Odegaard said. “In this case it was a very minor technicality.”

Date: February 2017

Facility: Dove Healthcare-South

City: Eau Claire

State: WI

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report, news report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant took a photo of a resident’s inner thighs and genitals while the resident sat on the toilet and shared it via Snapchat with a former employee. The resident’s face was not in the picture but she was identified based on the sweater she was wearing. The caption read, in part, “Delete that picture. / Thought you would miss someone.” The former employee found the picture disturbing, took a screenshot of it and complained to regulators and the home. The home held mandatory training session for employees and reminded them of the social media policy and to not carry handheld devices during work hours. The assistant was suspended and later fired. He was charged with two felonies after admitting that he took a picture of a woman in her 90s, who had fallen asleep on a toilet, with her genitals exposed, according to WXOW. According to the home’s investigation, the assistant admitted to having his personal cellphone during his shift. He initially denied taking the picture but later admitted it. “He claimed that he intended the nude photo as a private joke” between him and the former employee. The resident’s son, in a meeting with inspectors, wiped his eyes with a tissue and paused, saying his mother would not react well if she knew this had happened. The son’s wife said, “She is the most God-loving woman who wouldn’t hurt a flea. The kindest woman, and for someone to do this to her …” The home did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but its parent company told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram last year, “We immediately notified and expressed our apologies to the resident and family members impacted.”

Date: February 2017

Facility: Clarksville Skilled Nursing & Rehab Center

City: Clarksville

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A community member notified the facility administrator that an employee sent a photo over Snapchat of a resident’s buttocks and a staff member holding a bowel movement in the palm of a gloved hand. The photo included a caption that said something to the effect of “This is what I do at my job.” At least three staff members who received the photo did not report it to the facility’s administration. One said the person who took the picture was a friend. A second said, “it did not cross her mind that it was wrong to take a photo and send it out on Snapchat.” Another staff member said she saw her coworker take out a camera but said she was not aware the employee had sent the photo to others. The staff member who took the picture said her actions were “immature and she just wasn’t thinking. She added that she did not mean any harm by her actions.” The facility policy forbids staff from taking or posting pictures of residents. The home’s administrator did not respond to phone calls.

Date: February 2017

Facility: Valley View Village

City: Des Moines

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Facebook

Description: The facility received a tip from an unknown source that an employee had posted live videos in which residents could be seen. The facility found that a dietary aide had posted four livestream videos on her personal Facebook page of her and a co-worker talking with friends; in some, two residents could be seen seated at a dining room table in the background. One post included the caption “Talk to us at work.” Other resident names were mentioned during the videos. The home instructed the aide to delete the videos. During interviews with inspectors, the two residents did not voice concerns about the incident. The aide told inspectors that he or she did not know that residents were within view of the camera. In a statement, the home said, “These behaviors by staff are against Valley View Village’s privacy and dignity training and direction for its staff from their hire and throughout their employment. While neither employee self-reported their involvement, the site’s administration promptly reported the issue to CMS after becoming aware of the situation. Following a thorough investigation, all employees were retrained on the existing social media and HIPAA privacy policies and practices.” The two employees involved no longer work at the home.

Date: March 2017

Facility: Windsor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center of Duval

City: Austin

State: TX

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: News report, criminal charges, government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: Police arrested a nursing aide for allegedly posting photos showing a sleeping elderly woman with her hand covered in what looked like feces. Another photo shows someone touching the woman’s nose with a tissue or feather, apparently with the hope that the woman would touch her face with her dirty hand. A third photo shows the woman touching her face with her fingers with the brown matter on them. The caption on the photo said, “Crusty a** s**t on her hands bro this hoe nasty af (as f**k)” with an emoticon of a face with a medical mask. In an online exchange with a private citizen after posting the picture, the employee wrote, “Who gone make me loose (sic) my job surely not you! I’m not even going to sit here and getting (sic) into a debate about this at all.” The private citizen took screenshots of the photos and reported them to the home. The citizen told inspectors that she called the home multiple times before she was able to reach managers. The citizen then posted the images on social media because “she didn’t feel the facility was taking appropriate action and wanted to share her story of the incident that took place in the facility.” The aide was suspended and terminated, and he was charged with misdemeanor injury to the elderly by contact. "How could you do this? Honestly, how can anyone do this to another human being?" the woman’s son told KVUE. Staff are no longer allowed to have cellphones in the building. The resident is now suing the home for damages. The home’s administrator, T.J. Helmcamp, did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica but told KXAN in March, “I’m a man of ethics. If something like that were to happen at a building I manage, I would take every exhaustive effort to ensure [residents’] safety. I would take any kind of personnel action and I would report it to all authorities to ensure that they can also look into that,” he continued. Read more about this incident.

Date: March 2017

Facility: Longview Home

City: Missouri Valley

State: IA

Type of facility: Nursing home

How it became public: Government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: A nursing assistant made a video of an incontinent resident’s bowel movement on the bathroom floor and shared it on Snapchat with two staff members. The resident’s leg was visible in the video. One of the staff members asked the assistant who was in the video and the assistant identified the resident by first name. That staffer said the video had the caption “A resident had a blowout.” A second employee who received the video shared it with at least two additional employees. A medication aide who witnessed staff in the hallway discussing the incident reported it to the director of nursing the next day. In an interview with government inspectors, the nursing assistant who took the video said the evening of the incident had been stressful and the home was short two staffers. He said he captioned the video “The Daily Life of a CNA” and used poor judgment in making it. He also said, “the incident was, in a way, funny.” Staff members were re-educated about the importance of reporting allegations of abuse. Administrator Julie Newton told ProPublica that the home takes matters like this seriously and implemented a plan to correct the problems identified by regulators. “We have good policies in place to prevent that from reoccurring,” she said.

Date: March 2017

Facility: Sweetgrass Court

City: Mount Pleasant

State: SC

Type of facility: Assisted living facility

How it became public: News story, government inspection report

Social media site: Snapchat

Description: In a video posted to Snapchat, an employee yelled “Stupid girl” at an 82-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease, The Post and Courier reported. In the video, an employee also said, “Betty, your mama’s stupid.” Two employees told officials at the facility that they believed their actions were funny, the paper said, and they were both fired. An inspection found that the facility didn’t submit a report of abuse in a timely way, as required.

Sahir Doshi contributed research to this report.

Many ‘Rent-Stabilized’ NYC Apartments Are Not Really Stabilized. See Where They Are.
June 22nd, 2017, 07:00 AM

If you’ve ridden the New York City subway lately, chances are you’ve seen posters promising relief from the city’s soaring housing costs. Featuring smiling tenants with names like Catalina, Evelio and Estella, the ads hold out the promise of a rent freeze if you live in one of the more than 800,000 apartments in the city subject to limits on annual rent increases.

Preferential Rents in NYC

Newly released data shows ZIP codes where rents could suddenly jump for rent-stabilized apartments. See the map.

Those limits are a big deal right now. The body that sets them — the city’s Rent Guidelines Board — will decide on June 27 how much owners will be able to legally increase rents in the city’s “rent-stabilized” apartments. During each of the last two years, the board has voted to freeze rents on one-year lease renewals.

But for renters who occupy about 31 percent of the city’s rent-stabilized apartments, the board’s freeze does not protect them from big rent increases. That’s because of a provision in the law that allows landlords to charge some tenants more than the city-set limits allow. And now, for the first time, we know which neighborhoods are most at risk of seeing rents soar: Preferential rents are often concentrated in the poorest areas of the city.

At issue is a 2003 law that allows owners to ignore the annual limits imposed by the Rent Guidelines Board as long as they charge less than the maximum rent they’re legally entitled to collect.

Under New York rent laws, there’s a limit on how much can be charged for the city’s approximately 840,000 rent-stabilized apartments. Sometimes, landlords offer a discount below that price, which is known as a “preferential” rent. That discount helps renters in the short run. But it leaves them vulnerable to sharp rent increases in subsequent years. The 2003 law allows owners to raise preferential rents to any amount up to the legal maximum whenever a tenant’s lease comes up for renewal.

As we explained in an April story, this arrangement puts many tenants at risk of sudden displacement or even homelessness if they can’t afford a sudden increase in their preferential rent. Others may find themselves paying more than they should if the owner incorrectly calculates the maximum “legal” rent, as many do. One Brooklyn family we profiled in our April story had to move when their landlord raised their preferential rent by $571 per month to the legal maximum.

Where else are tenants at risk of being displaced by similar rent hikes? Newly available data shows that six of the ten New York City ZIP codes with the most preferential rents are located in the Bronx — long home to some of the city’s poorest residents. Poverty rates in these Bronx ZIP codes range between 30 and 43 percent, indicating many tenants who have little ability to afford a big rent hike.

Even in areas with fewer preferential rents, the overlap with poverty can be striking. In South Bronx’s Mott Haven, for example — where around 48 percent of residents live below the poverty line — about 43 percent of rent-stabilized apartments are charged preferential rents, the data shows.

The distribution of preferential rents across New York City was a mystery until now because the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which tracks prices in rent-stabilized apartments, is barred from releasing the information to anyone except the tenant or the owner. ProPublica obtained the data after the city’s Rent Guidelines Board asked the agency to disclose aggregate data by ZIP code.

“I think it sends a really clear picture to me that we are in a housing crisis and rent-stabilized housing isn’t as stable as we think it is,” said Sheila Garcia, one of two tenant representatives on the board.

The board’s two landlord representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

To get a better understanding of where preferential rents are most common, we’ve mapped out the data by ZIP code. We also added related information such as the percentage of residents who live under the federal poverty line, based on the latest American Community Survey data.

If your neighborhood shows up in an area with lots of preferential rents, here are three ways in which the issue could affect you or your neighbors.

1. Gentrification

Preferential rents help tenants by giving them a break on their rent today. But as neighborhoods become more desirable, a big gap between the preferential and legal rent can give an owner the ability to raise rents sharply once the market moves higher.

Advocates for affordable housing fear that, as neighborhoods gentrify, owners will raise preferential rents, displacing tenants the rent stabilization laws were supposed to protect from sudden increases in their housing costs.

“It’s a time bomb of gentrification, stripping rent-regulated tenants of the exact protection they need,” said Benjamin Dulchin, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which represents affordable housing groups.

The Rent Stabilization Association, which represents owners, disagrees.

“There is a very limited ability to increase preferential rents because they are market rents.  And why should only preferential rent tenants be asked to pay for ever increasing real estate taxes and not the lucky 70 percent who pay below-market rents?” the group said in an emailed statement.

Buildings with a large number of tenants paying preferential rents can command a premium when they go up for sale because owners know they can quickly move to charge tenants more.

One 93-unit apartment building in Bronx’s Kingsbridge neighborhood recently sold for $20 million after being advertised with scores of preferential rents that could be raised; one unit featured a predicted increase of $734 in the preferential rent once the lease expires in August.

Here’s Our Data

Download the data about preferential rents in New York City from the ProPublica Data Store.

The sales broker, Seth Glasser of Marcus & Millichap, cited the “in-place preferential rents” as one reason why “the seller was able to achieve an above-market price,” according to the Commercial Observer, which covers real estate. Asked about his comments, Glasser said “I am not willing to give any other quotes pertaining to preferential rents.”

Another real estate publication, The Real Deal, recently wrote that investors seeking high returns are increasingly flocking to the Bronx, betting that rising rents will support higher purchase prices for apartment buildings.

For the Bronx’s poorer residents, dealing with the consequences isn’t easy. In ZIP code 10458, which includes the heart of Bronx’s Bedford Park neighborhood, the poverty rate is 38 percent and almost 30 percent of the area’s rent-stabilized apartments feature preferential rents.

Sally Dunford, who runs a local help center for tenants, says she often sees two or three families move in together when an owner revokes a preferential rent. Others go homeless.

“In a community like ours, where people do not know their rights and are living right on the line, it doesn’t take much to disrupt your life,” said Dunford, executive director of the West Bronx Housing and Neighborhood Resource Center.

2. Illegal Lease Clauses

What if your landlord said you can’t tell anyone how much rent you pay — and if you do, he’ll raise it by hundreds or even thousands of dollars? If that sounds too fanciful to be true, it’s not. Some New Yorkers who pay preferential rents are finding that language in their lease.

The language is an example of the legally questionable lease clauses that some owners employ when tenants agree to pay preferential rents. Because the prospect of a higher “legal” rent is included on the lease, some landlords use it as an opportunity to ask tenants to agree to instant rent hikes if they do something the owner doesn’t like.

Some owners say they’ll revoke the preferential rent and charge the full legal amount if tenants are late with their payments, or if they have to take the tenant to court. Others even forbid tenants from simply disclosing their preferential rent to anyone — a problematic proposition in case the tenant wishes to challenge the legality of their rent.

“You will not discuss the preferential rent with anyone else unless you have owner’s written consent,” demands one lease issued by Rockrose Development, a prominent New York City real estate owner and developer. As “consequences of your breach,” the company warns, “the rent will revert retroactively” to the legal maximum.

ProPublica spotted such language in leases in two luxury buildings in Manhattan as well as a multifamily building in the Bronx. For the Rockrose tenant who agreed to the terms, the clause implied she could see a sudden rent spike of more than $3,000 per month simply for discussing her rent.

As it turned out, the tenant needed to disclose her preferential rent because she chose to challenge its legality with the state housing regulator.

Threatening to raise a tenant’s rent for simply talking about their rent is “crazy,” said Ellen Davidson, a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society, which helps low-income renters. “Any court or administrative agency that considered this provision would find it to be invalid,” she said.

Rockrose did not return emails and phone calls seeking comment.

The state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal says in a fact sheet that it does not allow owners to condition receipt of preferential rent “upon the performance of an act by the tenant.” A spokeswoman stopped short of saying the clause is illegal, but hinted in a statement that the agency would look dubiously upon such lease language.

3. No Rent Freeze

If you’re elderly or disabled, you may be eligible for an even longer rent freeze than the recent one-year zero percent increases mandated by the Rent Guidelines Board. But if you pay a preferential rent, you may not benefit much — if at all.

The permanent rent freeze is available under a city-run program called NYC Rent Freeze. Here’s how it works. If you’re elderly or disabled, you can apply to have the city pay your landlord any future increases in your rent in the form of a tax break. The idea is to give stability to the city’s neediest residents while allowing their landlords to collect an increase — courtesy of taxpayers.

See the Documents

Here are data memos from the NYC Rent Guidelines Board.

About 69,000 senior and disabled residents have their rent frozen under the program, which had its beginnings in the 1970s and today costs about $169 million a year in uncollected tax revenues. Participants must live in a rent-stabilized apartment and make $50,000 or less, among other criteria. Because participation rates have been historically low — only about 39 percent of eligible residents take advantage of the program — the city’s making a big push to get the word out about NYC Rent Freeze and enroll elderly and disabled tenants.

But there’s a catch, which isn’t explained in any of the city’s subway ads advertising the program: The freeze applies to legal maximum rents claimed by landlords. With few exceptions, tenants can’t get their lower preferential rents frozen.

This discourages some eligible residents from applying. Aged 72, retired, and subsisting on food stamps and $2,123 in monthly Social Security benefits, Eva Tucholka of Harlem applied in hopes of freezing her $2,126-per-month preferential rent. But she ended up not even bothering to complete the application when she learned the “freeze” would apply to her legal rent, which is $2,251.

“I don’t really know what to do,” said Tucholka, who just got a one-year renewal lease offer that increases her preferential rent to $2,195 per month starting in July.

Gabriel Levicky got approved for a freeze under the city’s NYC Rent Freeze program but saw his rent go up anyway because it didn’t apply to the “preferential” rent he was actually paying. (Cezary Podkul/ProPublica)

Others who do apply and get approved may see their rent go up anyway. Gabriel Levicky of the Bronx, 68, lives just down the street from the building that recently sold for $20 million. He applied and was approved in February 2016 to have his rent frozen at the legal rate of $1,653 per month. But because the freeze didn’t apply to a lower preferential rent that he was actually paying, when his lease came up for renewal later that year, his landlord raised the preferential rent by $175 per month for a two-year term.

“This recent rent increase is rather steep and tough. Please reconsider and recalculate it,” Levicky wrote to his landlord, K.S. Realty. K.S. Realty did not respond to requests for comment.

The company made life a bit easier for Levicky by subtracting from his rent a portion of the tax break it was receiving from the city to freeze his legal rent. But the city’s Department of Finance said program rules do not require landlords to do so. ProPublica found that some owners simply keep the rent freeze tax benefit and raise the tenant’s preferential rent anyway.

A bill was introduced in the state Assembly last year to enable tenants paying preferential rents to benefit from the program, but it didn’t go anywhere in the Democratic-controlled chamber. Its prospects are even dimmer in the Republican-led Senate, where GOP lawmakers historically aligned with the real estate lobby do not let pro-tenant bills come to the floor for a vote.

Getting Help

What should you do if you’re unsure about the legality of your rent? Your best bet is to request a rent history from the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal (you can learn how to do so here) and reach out to a local community group such as CASA in the Southwest Bronx or PALANTE in Harlem to review your rent history and learn about your legal options.

We’ve also put together an FAQ about rent stabilization with additional resources.

Ken Schwencke and Marcelo Rochabrun contributed reporting to this story.

Preferential Rents in NYC
June 22nd, 2017, 07:00 AM

Newly released data shows ZIP codes where rents could suddenly jump for rent-stabilized apartments.

More Than 100 Federal Agencies Fail to Report Hate Crimes to the FBI’s National Database
June 22nd, 2017, 07:00 AM

In violation of a longstanding legal mandate, scores of federal law enforcement agencies are failing to submit statistics to the FBI’s national hate crimes database, ProPublica has learned.

The lack of participation by federal law enforcement represents a significant and largely unknown flaw in the database, which is supposed to be the nation’s most comprehensive source of information on hate crimes. The database is maintained by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which uses it to tabulate the number of alleged hate crimes occurring around the nation each year.

The FBI has identified at least 120 federal agencies that aren’t uploading information to the database, according to Amy Blasher, a unit chief at the CJIS division, an arm of the bureau that is overseeing the modernization of its information systems.

The federal government operates a vast array of law enforcement agencies — ranging from Customs and Border Protection to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Amtrak Police — employing more than 120,000 law enforcement officers with arrest powers. The FBI would not say which agencies have declined to participate in the program, but the bureau’s annual tally of hate crimes statistics does not include any offenses handled by federal law enforcement. Indeed, the problem is so widespread that the FBI itself isn’t submitting the hate crimes it investigates to its own database.

“We truly don’t understand what’s happening with crime in the U.S. without the federal component,” Blasher said in an interview.

At present, the bulk of the information in the database is supplied by state and local police departments. In 2015, the database tracked more than 5,580 alleged hate crime incidents, including 257 targeting Muslims, an upward surge of 67 percent from the previous year. (The bureau hasn’t released 2016 or 2017 statistics yet.)

But it’s long been clear that hundreds of local police departments don’t send data to the FBI, and so given the added lack of participation by federal law enforcement, the true numbers for 2015 are likely to be significantly higher.

A federal law, the 1988 Uniform Federal Crime Reporting Act, requires all U.S. government law enforcement agencies to send a wide variety of crime data to the FBI. Two years later, after the passage of another law, the bureau began collecting data about “crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” That was later expanded to include gender and gender identity.

The federal agencies that are not submitting data are violating the law, Blasher told us. She said she’s in contact with about 20 agencies and is hopeful that some will start participating, but added that there is no firm timeline for that to happen.

“Honestly, we don’t know how long it will take,”Blasher said of the effort to get federal agencies on board.

The issue goes far beyond hate crimes — federal agencies are failing to report a whole range of crime statistics, Blasher conceded. But hate crimes, and the lack of reliable data concerning them, have been of intense interest amid the country’s highly polarized and volatile political environment.

ProPublica contacted several federal agencies seeking an explanation. A spokesperson for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, which handles close to 50,000 offenses annually, said the service is adhering to Defense Department rules regarding crime data and is using a digital crime tracking system linked to the FBI’s database. But the Army declined to say whether its statistics are actually being sent to the FBI, referring that question up the chain of command to the Department of Defense.

We’re Investigating Hate Across the U.S. There’s No Shortage of Work.

The coalition of newsrooms behind “Documenting Hate” has recorded a wide variety of violence in all corners of the country. Read the story.

In 2014, an internal probe conducted by Defense Department investigators found that the “DoD is not reporting criminal incident data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for inclusion in the annual Uniform Crime Reports.”

ProPublica contacted the Defense Department for clarification, and shared with a department spokesman a copy of the 2014 reports acknowledging the failure to send data to the FBI.

“We have no additional information at this time,” said Christopher Sherwood, the spokesman.

Federal agencies are hardly the only ones to skip out on reporting hate crimes. An Associated Press investigation last year found at least 2,700 city police and county sheriff’s departments that repeatedly failed to report hate crimes to the FBI.

In the case of the FBI itself, Blasher said the issue is largely technological: Agents have long collected huge amounts of information about alleged hate crimes, but don’t have a digital system to easily input that information to the database, which is administered by staff at an FBI complex in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

Since Blasher began pushing to modernize the FBI’s data systems, the bureau has made some progress. It began compiling some limited hate crimes statistics for 2014 and 2015, though that information didn’t go into the national hate crimes database.

In Washington, lawmakers were surprised to learn about the failure by federal agencies to abide by the law.

“It’s fascinating and very disturbing,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who said he wanted to speak about the matter with the FBI’s government affairs team. He wants to see federal agencies “reporting hate crimes as soon as possible.”

Beyer and other lawmakers have been working in recent years to improve the numbers of local police agencies participating in voluntary hate crime reporting efforts. Bills pending in Congress would give out grants to police forces to upgrade their computer systems; in exchange, the departments would begin uploading hate crime data to the FBI.

Beyer, who is sponsoring the House bill, titled the National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act, said he would consider drafting new legislation to improve hate crimes reporting by federal agencies, or try to build such a provision into the appropriations bill.

“The federal government needs to lead by example. It’s not easy to ask local and state governments to submit their data if these 120 federal agencies aren’t even submitting hate crimes data to the database,” Beyer said.

In the Senate, Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota said the federal agencies need to do better. “I’ve long urged the FBI and the Department of Justice to improve the tracking and reporting of hate crimes by state and local law enforcement agencies,” Franken told ProPublica. “But in order to make sure we understand the full scope of the problem, the federal government must also do its part to ensure that we have accurate and trustworthy data.”

Virginia’s Barbara Comstock, a House Republican who authored a resolution in April urging the “Department of Justice (DOJ) and other federal agencies to work to improve the reporting of hate crimes,” did not respond to requests for comment.

Suspected Texas Serial Killer Charged With Death of Second Baby
June 21st, 2017, 07:00 AM

This story was co-published with Texas Monthly.

A San Antonio grand jury today brought a second new murder charge against former nurse Genene Jones, advancing prosecutors’ campaign to keep the suspected serial killer of babies behind bars for the rest of her life. The indictment — in a case that dates back more than three decades — charges Jones with killing 2-year-old Rosemary Vega, by injecting her with “a substance unknown.” In an interview this week, the child’s mother recalls watching Jones push a drug into her daughter’s IV line shortly before she went into cardiac arrest.

Jones, now 66, is suspected of killing more than a dozen infants in the pediatric intensive care unit at San Antonio’s charity hospital during the early 1980s. But she was never charged with any of those deaths at the time — partly because it was expected that she’d never leave prison after receiving a 99-year sentence for murdering a child in Kerrville, a nearby town. That assumption proved faulty. Thanks to a Texas law aimed at reducing prison overcrowding, it became clear a few years ago that the state would be forced to release Jones in March 2018, after she’d served about one-third of her sentence.

With that date fast approaching, San Antonio prosecutors last year launched a secret investigation to see if they could bring a new murder charge against Jones. It led to her May 25 indictment for murdering 11-month-old Joshua Sawyer in December 1981 with a massive overdose of the anti-seizure drug Dilantin. That charge — paired with a $1 million appearance bond — seemed likely to keep Jones behind bars at least until her new trial, perhaps two years off.

But at the time, Bexar County District Attorney Nicolas “Nico” LaHood vowed to bring further charges. “My goal is not to leave one baby behind,” he declared. “In a perfect world, we believe she’d be held accountable for every baby we believe she stole from their families.”

Indeed, the grand jury that indicted Jones for the death of Joshua Sawyer last month also heard tearful testimony that same day from Rosemary Vega’s mother, Rosemary Cantu, in anticipation of today’s charges.

Jones has always insisted she was innocent of any crimes. A prison spokesman says she has instructed officials to decline requests for interviews. She has yet to receive a court-appointed lawyer.

Rosemary Vega was admitted to Bexar County Hospital on September 13, 1981 for a relatively routine “de-banding” operation, required to treat a congenital heart defect. Her mom, Cantu, was 18 at the time. She worked in the housekeeping department at Bexar County Hospital, where her duties included cleaning the rooms when children left the pediatric ICU. She knew Genene Jones.

According to a doctor’s detailed two-page “narrative report,” a pre-surgical physical examination of Vega found “an alert child, playing, and in no acute distress.” Dr. J. Kent Trinkle, a star cardiothoracic surgeon who later went on to perform San Antonio’s first heart transplant, operated on Rosemary. According to medical records, “the procedure went without difficulty.”

Rosemary was then taken to the pediatric ICU to recover, where Genene Jones worked. During the 3-11 p.m. shift, under Jones’ care, Rosemary began experiencing breathing problems, was placed on a respirator, and suffered seizures. At 2:15 a.m., a surgery resident noticed the breathing machine had been feeding her too little oxygen. “…Ventilator setting had been altered by unknown source,” the doctor’s narrative report noted.

After a difficult night, Rosemary “seemed to stabilize” throughout the next day, according to the doctor’s notes. Then, at 5:30 p.m. — again under Jones’ care — she suffered the first of three episodes of cardiac arrest resulting in severe, irreversible brain damage. She was pronounced dead at 7:52 p.m. on Sept. 16, 1981. According to a later internal hospital review, “Nurse G. Jones was in attendance during the final events.”

In an interview, Rosemary Cantu told me she had watched Jones inject something into her daughter’s intravenous line shortly before her first arrest. “Everything was good,” said Cantu. “I was sitting by her bed after the surgery. Then Genene Jones came on in the afternoon, and that’s when it all happened.”

“She walked in with the injection,” recalls Cantu. “I saw her and asked her: ‘What was she doing? What are you going to give her?’ The [other] nurse had just left and took all Rosemary’s vital signs. She said, ‘I’m giving her something to help your baby rest.’ After she walked out, not two minutes later, my daughter started turning purple. The monitors went off; people started running. She was doing good until Genene injected her. Then she started getting the code blue.”

After so many episodes, Rosemary’s “neurologic status deteriorated to the point of being unresponsive to pain …” according to the doctor’s narrative. Recalls Cantu: “I had to make the choice, me and my husband, to let her go, because there was nothing more they could do.”

Cantu said she had planned to make a career at the Bexar County Hospital. “I liked working with babies,” she said. But a short time after burying her daughter, she quit. “I went back, tried it and I couldn’t take it.” Cantu, now 54, has five surviving children and 20 grandchildren.

Rosemary Vega’s demise, along with other post-surgical deaths, surprised and infuriated Trinkle, who demanded that something be done about care in the ICU. Suspicions about Jones had been so widespread that other nurses had begun calling her hours on duty “the Death Shift.” After a secret internal investigation, the hospital ultimately handled the problem by removing Jones — along with the six other licensed vocational nurses — under the pretext of upgrading the ICU to an all-RN staff. All — including Jones — were given a good recommendation.

Jones went off to work in a pediatric clinic in Kerrville, where the death of a 15-month-old child named Chelsea Ann McClellan triggered criminal investigations in both Kerrville and San Antonio that generated international headlines. Jones was convicted of murder in the McClellan case and sentenced to 99 years; a two-year investigation in San Antonio resulted in only a single injury to a child charge, with a 60-year sentence, to run concurrently — but with the expectation that she’d spend the rest of her life behind bars.

The effort to bring new murder charges in San Antonio began in earnest last December, leading to the May 25 grand jury session that produced Jones’ indictment for the Sawyer murder. Rosemary Cantu was among three mothers who testified before the grand jury that day. Each left the grand-jury room in tears.

Prosecutors Race to Keep Notorious Angel-of-Death Behind Bars

Texas is scheduled to release Genene Jones, a former nurse and suspected serial killer of children, early next year. Prosecutors moved to prevent her release, bringing a new murder charge against Jones in connection with the death of a child 35 years ago. Read the story.

Left to deliberate on their own after prosecutors left the room, the grand jurors took less than two minutes to hand down the Sawyer indictment. They took less than five more minutes to set a $1 million appearance bond. As the grand jurors exited the courthouse meeting room, most of them were themselves in tears, and they hugged the three waiting mothers.

After the Sawyer indictment, Larry DeHaven, the 70-year-old DA’s investigator who made the Jones case his personal crusade, delivered the news to Jones at the Texas state prison system’s Murray Unit in Gatesville. DeHaven says Jones was “real polite.” On hearing about the new murder charge, he recalls, “she teared up a little bit. I don’t think she was expecting it.”

The same grand jury panel indicted Jones today for the murder of Rosemary Vega, setting a second $1 million appearance bond. “I’ve been waiting for this moment since my daughter passed away,” said Rosemary Cantu, in anticipation of today’s action. “It just hurts me that I waited so long before somebody would hear me.”

Peter Elkind is the author of “The Death Shift: Nurse Genene Jones and the Texas Baby Murders.”

How Two Common Medications Became One $455 Million Specialty Pill
June 20th, 2017, 07:00 AM

This story was co-published with The Atlantic.

Everything happened so fast as I walked out of the doctor’s exam room. I was tucking in my shirt and wondering if I’d asked all my questions about my injured shoulder when one of the doctor’s assistants handed me two small boxes of pills.

“These will hold you over until your prescription arrives in the mail,” she said, pointing to the drug samples.

Strange, I thought to myself, the doctor didn’t mention giving me any drugs.

I must have looked puzzled because she tried to reassure me.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It won’t cost you any more than $10.”

I was glad whatever was coming wouldn’t break my budget, but I didn’t understand why I needed the drugs in the first place. And why wasn’t I picking them up at my local CVS?

At first I shrugged it off. This had been my first visit with an orthopedic specialist and he, Dr. Mohnish Ramani, hadn’t been the chatty type. He’d barely said a word as he examined me, tugging my arm this way and bending it that way before rotating it behind my back. The pain made me squirm and yelp, but he knew what he was doing. He promptly diagnosed me with frozen shoulder, a debilitating inflammation of the shoulder capsule.

But back to the drugs. As an investigative reporter who has covered health care for more than a decade, the interaction was just the sort of thing to pique my interest. One thing I’ve learned is that almost nothing in medicine — especially brand-name drugs — is ever really a deal. When I got home, I looked up the drug: Vimovo.

The drug has been controversial, to say the least. Vimovo was created using two readily and cheaply available generic, or over-the-counter, medicines: naproxen, also known by the brand Aleve, and esomeprazole magnesium, also known as Nexium. The Aleve handles your pain and the Nexium helps with the upset stomach that’s sometimes caused by the pain reliever. The key selling point of this new “convenience drug”? It’s easier to take one pill than two.

Help Us Investigate Wasted Health Care Dollars

Experts say the United States might be squandering a quarter of the money spent on health care. That’s an estimated $765 billion a year. Do you believe you’ve encountered this waste? Tell us.

But only a minority of patients get an upset stomach, and there was no indication I’d be one of them. Did I even need the Nexium component?

Of course I also did the math. You can walk into your local drugstore and buy a month’s supply of Aleve and Nexium for about $40. For Vimovo, the pharmacy billed my insurance company $3,252. This doesn’t mean the drug company ultimately gets paid that much. The pharmaceutical world is rife with rebates and side deals — all designed to elbow ahead of the competition. But apparently the price of convenience comes at a steep mark-up.

Think about it another way. Let’s say you want to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day for a month. You could buy a big jar of peanut butter and a jar of grape jelly for less than 10 bucks. Or you could buy some of that stuff where they combine the peanut butter and grape jelly into the same jar. Smucker’s makes it. It’s called Goober. Except in this scenario, instead of its usual $3.50 price tag, Smucker’s is charging $565 for the jar of Goober.

So if Vimovo is the Goober of drugs, then why have Americans been spending so much on it? My insurance company, smartly, rejected the pharmacy’s claim. But I knew Vimovo’s makers weren’t wooing doctors like mine for nothing. So I looked up the annual reports for the Ireland-based company, Horizon Pharma, which makes Vimovo. Since 2014, Vimovo’s net sales have been more than $455 million. That means a lot of insurers are paying way more than they should for their Goober.

And Vimovo wasn’t Horizon’s only such drug. It has brought in an additional $465 million in net sales from Duexis, a similar convenience drug that combines ibuprofen and famotidine, AKA Advil and Pepcid.

This year I have been documenting the kind of waste in the health care system that’s not typically tracked. Americans pay more for health care than anyone else in the world, and experts estimate that the U.S. system wastes hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In recent months I’ve looked at what hospitals throw away and how nursing homes flush or toss out hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of usable medicine every year. We all pay for this waste, through lower wages and higher premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs. There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight — I just got a notice that my premiums may be increasing by another 12 percent next year.

With Vimovo, it seemed I stumbled on another waste stream: overpriced drugs whose actual costs are hidden from doctors and patients. In the case of Horizon, the brazenness of its approach was even more astounding because it had previously been called out in media reports and in a 2016 congressional hearing on out-of-control drug prices.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Health care economists also were wise to it.

“It’s a scam,” said Devon Herrick, a health care economist with the National Center for Policy Analysis. “It is just a way to gouge insurance companies or employer health care plans.”

Unsurprisingly, Horizon says the high price is justified. In fact, the drug maker wrote in an email, “The price of Vimovo is based on the value it brings to patients.”

Thousands of patients die and suffer injuries every year, the company said, because of gastric complications from naproxen and other non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Providing pain relief and stomach protection in a single pill makes it more likely patients will be protected from complications, it said.

And Horizon stressed Vimovo is a “special formulation” of Aleve and Nexium, so it’s not the same as taking the two separately. But several experts said that’s a scientific distinction that doesn’t make a therapeutic difference. “I would take the two medications from the drugstore in a heartbeat — therapeutically it makes sense,” said Michael Fossler, a pharmacist and clinical pharmacologist who is chair of the public-policy committee for the American College of Clinical Pharmacology. “What you’re paying for with [Vimovo] is the convenience. But it does seem awful pricey for that.”

Public outrage is boiling over when it comes to high drug prices, leading the media and lawmakers to scold pharmaceutical companies. You’d think a regulator would monitor this, but the Food and Drug Administration told me they are only authorized to review new drugs for safety and effectiveness, not prices. “Prices are set by manufacturers and distributors,” the FDA said in a statement.

Horizon acquired Vimovo in November 2013 from the global pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. Horizon knew it faced challenges trying to get top dollar for inexpensive ingredients. “Use of these therapies separately in generic form may be cheaper,” it said in its 2013 report to investors. But the company executed a shrewd strategy to give everyone — insurers, patients, doctors and pharmacies — the incentive to use Vimovo. It’s instructive to review its playbook.

To get Vimovo covered, Horizon made deals with insurance payers and pharmacy benefit managers — the intermediaries who help determine which drugs get reimbursed. The contracts generally included special rebates and even administrative fees for these intermediaries, the Horizon reports said, so the drug maker got paid much less than the sticker price, though it wouldn’t say how much. But the company’s net sales show the deals worked.

Horizon put boots on the ground to get the prescriptions rolling, expanding its sales force by the hundreds and focusing its marketing and sales efforts on doctors who already liked to prescribe brand-name drugs. The company’s message to doctors emphasized the convenience of prescribing the two ingredients in a single pill and that the single pill protected patients by making it more likely they would take their medication as directed.

Horizon also primed the medical community by giving donations totaling $101,000 to the American Gastroenterology Association, a specialty nonprofit for physicians. Some doctors refuse drug-industry money, if only to at least avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. ProPublica has done loads of stories showing why doctors taking money is indeed problematic, including one about drug makers’ influence on physician specialty groups. When I went on the American Gastroenterology Association’s website, the first thing I saw was a pop-up ad from a drug company. Several of the association’s board members have received drug-company money, too. Horizon has made clear in its annual reports that donations to the group “help physicians and patients better understand and manage” the risks of pain relievers causing gastric problems.

Horizon also zeroed in on patients’ worries about drug costs. To encourage them to fill their prescriptions, Horizon covered all or most of their out-of-pocket costs. That’s why my doctor’s office could promise me I wouldn’t spend too much for my Vimovo. The program, Horizon told investors in reports, addressed the impact of pharmacies switching to less expensive alternatives and could “mitigate” the effect of payers searching for cheaper alternatives.

The strategy worked on me. I didn’t even know why I was getting the prescription, but when they told me it wouldn’t cost more than I would spend on lunch with a friend, I gave it the OK. A pharmacy I’d never heard of sent me a bottle of Vimovo for $10, even though my insurance company rejected the claim.

Turns out paying the patient’s costs motivated my doctor, too. I waited until the end of my next visit to bring up Vimovo, and then we had a follow-up conversation on the phone. Ramani didn’t know the price of the drug and found it “disturbing” when I told him. That was a surprise to me, but not to him. He said he leaves billing to his staff and doesn’t even know how much he gets paid for a lot of the procedures he performs, let alone how much insurers are being charged for drugs. The marketing arms of companies like Horizon must count on this sort of blindness.

Ramani doesn’t receive money or gifts from Horizon. (I confirmed this on ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs website, which lists drug-company payments.) He said he likes Vimovo because Horizon covers the patient’s out-of-pocket costs, entirely in many cases. Prescribing the generics or over-the-counter medications separately would actually cost more, he said. Which of course is exactly the company’s plan. But Ramani agreed that the high cost of the drug to insurers ultimately raises overall health care costs for all Americans.

Knowing Vimovo’s price, I asked him if he would continue to prescribe it. “It changes my thought process,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I have to think about the patient and whether the patient will be able to pay out of pocket or not.”

Ramani said the Horizon drug rep told him Vimovo prescriptions had to go through a particular pharmacy for the patient to receive financial assistance. In its 2016 annual report, Horizon wrote that prescriptions for its drugs might not be filled by certain pharmacies because of insurance-company exclusions, co-payment requirements, or incentives to use lower-priced alternatives. So that’s why they didn’t give me the option of picking up my pills at my neighborhood drugstore.

Instead, my Vimovo was mailed to me from White Oak Pharmacy in Nutley, New Jersey, which is about 45 minutes from my house. I drove there to find out why. The neighborhood pharmacy is on the bottom floor of a two-story brick building on a street corner, next to a hair salon.

Vishal Chhabria, the pharmacist who owns White Oak, told me the drug company sets the price of Vimovo. He insisted his pharmacy has no special relationship or contract with Horizon. Maybe the drug company steers prescriptions his way, he said, because his pharmacy will process the coupons that reduce or eliminate the patient costs, which some pharmacies don’t.

America’s Other Drug Problem

Every year nursing homes nationwide flush, burn or throw out tons of valuable prescription drugs. Iowa collects them and gives them to needy patients for free. Most other states don’t. Read the story.

Chhabria said there is no approved generic alternative to Vimovo, so he can’t suggest one to patients. And while other drugs, like over-the-counter medications, would be cheaper for the health system overall, they are more expensive for the individual patient, he said.

In poring through Horizon’s financial filings, it appears the drug’s run may be ending. Horizon said in its report for the first quarter of 2017 that fewer insurance companies have been willing to cover Vimovo and many that do have demanded larger rebates. As a result, Horizon has been eating more of the costs of providing the drug to patients, as they must have in my case. The prescriptions have still been coming in, but net sales were just under $5 million in the first quarter of this year, down 81 percent from the first quarter of 2016.

Critics of Vimovo say that’s still more than patients should be spending on the drug. “That number should be zero,” said Linda Cahn, an attorney who advises corporations, unions and other payers to help reduce their costs. “If you want to talk about waste, that’s waste.”

Herrick, the health care economist, said Horizon cashed in by eliminating many of the barriers in the system that are meant to control costs. The company got patients on board by covering their out-of-pocket costs. It appealed to doctors by promoting the benefits to patients. And it did an end-run around chain pharmacies, which typically might suggest a lower-priced alternative, by steering prescriptions to pharmacists who would participate in their patient-assistance program.

“Somebody brainstormed: ‘How can we nullify any consumer check and balance in this supply chain? What can we do to keep the customer from asking questions?’” Herrick said.

The scheme that played out with Vimovo is bound to happen again, Herrick said. Maybe it already is. Drug companies are always on the lookout to deploy similar strategies.

I dutifully took my Vimovo for several days, until I noticed it kept me awake until 3 in the morning — a rare side effect. (Perhaps they need to add a third drug to the combo.) I probably have more than 50 pills left in the bottle on my bedside table. Maybe I could sell it back to Horizon for $1,500.

Help us investigate wasted health care dollars: Experts say the United States might be squandering a quarter of the money spent on health care. That’s an estimated $765 billion a year. Do you believe you’ve encountered this waste? Tell us.

If you’ve had difficulty paying for or accessing prescription drugs, ProPublica and The New York Times are interested in hearing from you. Please share your story.

In Flint Water Crisis, Could Involuntary Manslaughter Charges Actually Lead to Prison Time?
June 19th, 2017, 07:00 AM

Last week, Michigan’s top prosecutor announced that five officials, including the state’s Health Department head Nick Lyon, will face charges of involuntary manslaughter for a death resulting from the Flint water crisis.

It’s a move virtually unheard of in modern American history; legal experts couldn’t point to a single case in which government officials were charged in a citizen’s death because they knew about a problem but failed to warn the public.

Almost immediately, news of the charges sent ripples through the community of Flint, where residents like Melissa Mays, 38, still go door to door delivering bottles of water to their neighbors.

“We still have to take care of each other,” she said. “It’s still the poor and poisoned people taking care of the poor and poisoned because the state won’t do it.”

Flint’s water problems began in April 2014, when the city, in an attempt to save money, switched the town’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. In the switch, officials failed to add a $200-per-day anti-corrosion agent that would coat the city’s antiquated pipes. The omission would prove disastrous as lead from the pipes began to leach into the water that flowed out of the tap, endangering thousands of children. Officials asserted it was “safe to drink,” above the outcry of residents who suspected the brown, odorous water was contaminated.

The first outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease — a serious type of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria — hit by summer. According to the water crisis interim investigation report released last week, Lyon and others knew about outbreaks for nearly a year before the public was notified and an emergency was declared. In all, a dozen people died from Legionnaires’ disease, though residents suspect there may be other victims who were never tested for the bacteria.

While some see the severity of the charges as a sign that someone may actually be held accountable for the contamination, Mays is skeptical. She points to former state epidemiologist Corinne Miller, who was originally charged with felonies for failing to tell Flint residents about a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak. Miller’s felony charges were dropped, and as part of a deal with prosecutors in March, she pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor. Her punishment: Writing a letter of apology.

“People keep asking if I was shocked that the charges weren’t enough, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from the state,” Mays said. “Everything so far has been slaps on the wrist.”

An involuntary manslaughter conviction in Michigan carries a potential sentence of up to 15 years in prison and a $7,500 fine. But how likely is it that anyone charged with involuntary manslaughter in this case will see any jail time?

It’s more common to find cases internationally where government officials were charged and convicted in deaths resulting from disasters, said Denis Binder, a Chapman University law professor who studies criminal prosecution in disasters of all kinds, including oil spills, plane crashes, building collapses and earthquakes.

In 2012, an official from Italy’s Civil Protection Department was convicted of manslaughter — and eventually given a two-year suspended sentence — for downplaying the risks from earthquakes in L’Aquila a week before one killed more than 300 people. And in 2010, the mayor of La Faute-sur-Mer, a village in western France, was given a two-year suspended sentence for manslaughter after Cyclone Xynthia caused flooding that killed 29 residents who had built their homes in a zone where officials should have barred construction.

The Justice Department could not readily say how many individuals here in the United States have been convicted for environmental crimes. But after consulting with experts, news archives and academic reviews, ProPublica found that convictions related to deaths tend to hinge on a more direct line of responsibility. Take Richard Smith, pilot of the Staten Island Ferry in 2003. He passed out at the helm of the 3,000-ton boat after taking painkillers, causing a crash that killed 11 people. Smith served 15 months in prison; his supervisor was sentenced to a year and a day for failing to enforce a rule that required two pilots to be in the wheelhouse as the boat docked.

But causing deaths by doing nothing to stop them?

In these kinds of environmental disaster prosecutions, convictions and prison time have proven elusive.

Elusive Convictions

To understand why, ProPublica talked to experts — former environmental prosecutors and Environmental Protection Agency officials, lawyers and academics — and looked at three federal cases in which individuals were charged in the deaths of people. None of the cases ended in convictions for those deaths.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion — the largest oil spill in American history — dumped an estimated 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and left 11 workers dead. Initially, the Justice Department pinned the blame on two well site leaders — Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine — for not notifying engineers that pressure tests showed the well they were drilling was insecure. Unaware of the failed tests, workers continued to drill, leading to the ensuing well blowout and explosion. Kaluza and Vidrine were each charged with 11 counts of felony seaman’s manslaughter and 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter, as well as violating the Clean Water Act. The manslaughter charges carried maximums of 8 to 10 years in prison, but neither man would serve a day.

The felony counts were dropped in 2015 as the Justice Department said “circumstances surrounding the case have changed” and it could no longer meet the legal threshold for involuntary manslaughter charges. Vidrine, who died earlier this month, agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor Clean Water Act violation and was sentenced to 10 months of probation, 100 hours of community service and a $50,000 penalty. Kaluza fought his misdemeanor charge and in 2016, a jury cleared him of any wrongdoing. Ultimately, BP Exploration and Production Inc. pleaded guilty to felony manslaughter and several other environmental crimes, agreeing to pay $4 billion in fines and penalties. As a part of the settlement, money was set aside to help the affected communities recover from the oil spill.

Nick Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, walks out of the courtroom following his arraignment on Thursday, June 15, 2017, at Genesee District Court in Flint, Michigan. (Jake May/The Flint via AP)

It’s common for companies to accept responsibility, in the form of financial penalties, for their employees in environmental disasters.

“If there are individuals in the crosshairs of government prosecution, there’s a pretty strong inducement for the company to kind of, take the wrath,” said Scott Fulton, a former high-ranking EPA official and former assistant chief in the DOJ’s environmental enforcement unit. “There’s a dynamic where the company, out of desire to protect its people, will be willing to take a guilty plea as a means of accomplishing that.”

The Flint case is different, said Pat Parenteau, a former EPA lawyer now at the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Center. Without a corporation to take the fall, the governor, as head of the executive branch, would have to be the one to step in to shield the officials.

“Not a chance,” Parenteau said. “You won’t see the governor or legislature stepping in front of the bullet and taking the fall. These five officials will either go to trial or plead out. They’re on their own.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said investigators sought to interview Gov. Rick Snyder as a part of the water crisis probe, but were unable to do so. Gov. Snyder’s legal counsel, Brian Lennon, said Snyder has “always been willing to talk with the Office of Special Counsel under oath like every other witness,” but he never got a subpoena.

After the charges were announced, Snyder released a statement giving Lyon and another top official charged in the crisis, state Medical Executive Eden Wells, his “full faith and confidence,” after the charges were announced, calling them “instrumental in Flint’s recovery.” He also said Lyon and Wells will remain in their jobs.

“If he wanted to say ‘they’re following my directions,’ he could,” Parenteau said. “But he’s doing quite the opposite. He’s saying he thinks they’ll be vindicated and in doing so, he’s defending his own lack of action in the case.”

Gov. Snyder’s office pushed back against this statement when ProPublica asked him to respond to it. “The Governor did not fail to act,” said Anna Heaton, Snyder’s press secretary. “He has explained many times, including under oath and publicly to Congress, the timing and sequences of events as to what he knew, and when, and all of the actions he took in response. Further, these are allegations at this point. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”

In another environmental disaster case, an individual was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to prison. But that conviction was overturned by a legal rule that allows defendants to avoid a criminal conviction if they win a civil case based on the same facts.

In 2005, Dennis Michael Egan was the captain and owner of a petroleum barge that exploded in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal after crew members used a handheld torch to thaw a pump. One crew member died. A judge, in a bench trial, convicted Egan for negligent manslaughter of a seaman, finding that he “knew that the crew occasionally used an open flame to heat the cargo pump but nonetheless permitted the crew to engage in the illegal and unsafe practice,” according to the Justice Department.

Egan was sentenced to six months in prison, but an appellate court overturned his conviction, because in a previous civil trial, prosecutors had failed to prove that the victim was using a propane torch, or that Egan had ordered him to use a torch at all.

That probably won’t happen with the Flint case, Parenteau said, because it’s unlikely that any of the ongoing civil cases will seek to prove the same elements necessary for an involuntary manslaughter charge. There are multiple pending civil lawsuits pegged to the water crisis, including a class action suit seeking $1.1 million in personal and property damages from the EPA for failing to take quick action. “If two cases have different legal issues, then they’re just different,” he said.

As with Flint, news coverage drove public attention and, ultimately, prosecutors to Libby, Montana.

The small mining town produced much of the world’s vermiculite — a mineral used in concrete and insulation, among other things, because it “expands like popcorn when heated,” according to the Justice Department. A 1999 investigation by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found elevated levels of asbestos-related disease among Libby residents and alleged that the mine’s owner — W.R. Grace & Co. — knew the mines had been contaminated with asbestos since the late 1970s and said nothing.

By the time the Grace company and seven executives were indicted for knowingly endangering the town, hundreds of Libby residents had died and another 1,200 residents were sick from asbestos-related issues. Unlike involuntary manslaughter, the Clean Water Act violation of knowing endangerment is used for instances in which defendants knew they were placing “another person in imminent danger of death” or harm.

Government investigators found that people were 40 to 60 times more likely to die from asbestos-related disease if they lived in Libby than anywhere else in America. Prosecutors presented documents they said proved officials knew about the health hazards, but kept them secret, so the company could keep making money. The defense argued the company inherited the asbestos problem and worked for years to clean it up.

At the end of the three-month trial, the company and its executives were acquitted of criminal charges. Town residents were shocked. They ultimately received compensation and health care from a combination of government and court actions, including a Grace company bankruptcy case and a provision in the Affordable Care Act.

In a place like Libby, where Grace was such a big part of the town, Parenteau said he could imagine there might have been jurors who were sympathetic to the company.

“But not in Flint,” he said. “Not for state officials. Not among the public and the people most affected by this — or almost anybody who has paid attention to this. I can’t imagine these state officials getting any sympathy.”

Uncharted Waters

As environmental crimes go, the levying of felony involuntary manslaughter charges against high-ranking state and city officials has put the Flint water crisis investigation squarely into new territory. Unlike the three other cases ProPublica explored, the charges in Flint are state actions. The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan has confirmed an investigation into the water crisis.

“I’ve certainly never heard of a charge this serious,” Parenteau said. “My goodness — for failing to warn people.”

In addition to Lyon, involuntary manslaughter charges have been made against former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Earley, former City of Flint Public Works Director Howard Croft, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Drinking Water Chief Liane Shekter-Smith and Water Supervisor Stephen Busch. All of the charges are tied to the death of Robert Skidmore, 85, who died from Legionnaires disease in December 2015.

Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, a coalition of community organizers on the ground in Flint, said the charges were “troubling, infuriating and a disgrace,” since they failed to implicate Michigan’s governor directly.

“Many of the individuals charged [Wednesday] answered directly to Gov. Snyder,” Shariff said in a statement. “Enough is enough. Gov. Snyder needs to resign immediately and the people must know what he knew and when he knew it. Gov. Snyder must not be immune from accountability.”

Bottles filled with polluted water in Flint’s City Council chambers on Jan. 11, 2016 (Jake May/The Flint via AP)

Investigators said they stopped short of filing charges against Snyder because they hadn’t found probable cause to do so. Schuette said investigators will continue to follow evidence but are now shifting focus toward prosecuting the criminal charges they have filed.

Flint has never had it easy. The hardscrabble middle-class city, built on the back of the automotive industry, has seen populations decline over the years, factories demolished and crime spike. Today in Flint, 41 percent of residents live in poverty and the median household income hovers just below $25,000. After the water crisis, home values plummeted, leaving many without the means to leave the city. And while Congress and the state have given $127.5 million to upgrade Flint’s infrastructure, that process will address only part of the problem.

Mays, who lives on Flint’s west side with her three sons, said the charges for the Legionnaires’ disease deaths, while important, don’t address the long-term effects Flint residents will face.

“It’s great that they might get punished, but we need pipes, we need medical care,” she said.

This crisis is not of Flint’s doing. At the time of the water switch, Flint was under the control of an emergency manager — an official appointed by the governor with the authority to make unilateral decisions about the fate of the city’s finances, including where it sourced its water. Citizens — including the City Council and the mayor — had no say in the matter. Many believe the level of disenfranchisement seen in Flint would have never happened in more affluent cities.

“The people of Flint lost their democracy and their voice,” said Leslie Fields, national environmental justice director for the Sierra Club. “Now there’s this disproportionate effect. It’s the cumulative impacts and the stress. It’s not just about the water. People have to go to these extraordinary lengths — how do you bathe kids in bottled water?”

Advocates say criminal prosecution isn’t a cure-all, but it could signal to the people of Flint that their concerns are finally being taken seriously and that people are being held accountable.

From the outside looking in, Schuette’s investigation seems designed to do just that. In addition to the charges, Schuette also released an interim report of the five-month investigation into the Flint water crisis, subtitled “the most comprehensive investigation in Michigan history” and concluding that the ordeal was a “failure of leadership” and a “man-made disaster of significant proportions.”

But in Flint, distrust runs deep.

“If someone dies on your watch, that’s on you,” Mays said. “Everyone needs to be charged. It’s not justice until that man [Snyder] is hauled off in handcuffs.

“I’d like to see all of these people who are charged put in Flint jail, so they have to shower in Flint and be forced to live in Flint,” she said. “Maybe if they lived here, things would get fixed.”

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¿Quién exige responsabilidades a la DEA cuando sus misiones cuestan vidas?
June 19th, 2017, 07:00 AM


¿Quién exige responsabilidades a la DEA cuando sus misiones cuestan vidas?

En 2011, un operativo de la DEA dio origen a una masacre en un pueblo mexicano, pero la agencia nunca investigó qué salió mal.

Mark Smith para ProPublica

A principios del 2011, la agencia antidrogas de los Estados Unidos (la DEA por sus siglas en inglés), obtuvo un dato de inteligencia inusual y de alto valor acerca de los líderes del cartel mexicano de los Zetas, una de las organizaciones del narcotráfico más poderosas, e impenetrables, del mundo.

Un agente en Dallas había persuadido al distribuidor de cocaína más importante del cartel en el este de Texas para que le entregara los números rastreables de teléfono celular de los jefes más buscados del grupo, en particular Miguel y Omar Treviño, un par de hermanos sanguinarios cuya crueldad les había ganado altos puestos en la lista de los más buscados por la DEA.

Era un éxito de inteligencia, el tipo de información que se presenta solo una vez en una carrera profesional muy afortunada. Con esos números, las autoridades podrían rastrear los movimientos de los hermanos y finalmente capturarlos. Pero la DEA tomó una decisión con consecuencias fatales. Contra los deseos del agente al mando de la investigación — cuyo informante había advertido específicamente sobre el peligro de un derramamiento de sangre — la DEA pasó la información a una unidad de la policía federal mexicana con un largo historial de filtrar datos a los narcotraficantes.

En cuestión de días, los Zetas, a su vez, fueron informados de que la DEA había descubierto algo importante sobre sus líderes. Los hermanos Treviño adivinaron inmediatamente cuál de las células de su organización les había traicionado y empezaron la caza de soplones. Cuando los presuntos traidores no pudieron ser encontrados, los traficantes fueron por cualquiera que tuviera vínculos con ellos.

Docenas, posiblemente cientos, de personas fueron asesinadas y secuestradas dentro y alrededor de Allende, un tranquilo pueblo ganadero a unos 40 minutos de la frontera estadounidense en el norteño estado mexicano de Coahuila. Pistoleros de los Zetas atraparon a un chico de 15 años, jugador de futbol americano en la escuela secundaria, quien estaba pasando un rato con unos amigos cuyos padres administraban un club deportivo donde uno de los supuestos soplones levantaba pesas. Se llevaron a una mujer de 81 años y a su bisnieto de seis meses. Una familia perdió a casi 20 miembros.

Nubes negras emanaron de un rancho local donde el cartel convirtió un edificio en un crematorio improvisado para quemar los cadáveres de los que habían matado.

Durante años, las autoridades mexicanas no hicieron casi nada para investigar la masacre. Mientras tanto la gente de Allende, comprensiblemente desconfiada de las autoridades que habían jurado protegerles, mantuvieron las bocas cerradas.

Trágicamente, este tipo de desenlace se ha vuelto de sobra conocido en México, donde la impunidad es un azote nacional. Corrupción doméstica, avaricia y miedo han engendrado una epidemia de violencia virtualmente incontestada. Lo que hace este caso distinto es que la DEA prendió la mecha que desencadenó la matanza, y después se mantuvo muda — como si no hubiera jugado ningún papel. Oficiales de la DEA supieron casi inmediatamente que vidas inocentes se habían perdido como consecuencia de compartir los datos de inteligencia con México. La respuesta de la agencia entonces, y durante los siguientes años: nada.

No exigió respuestas de sus homólogos mexicanos, ni suspendió la cooperación con la policía mexicana hasta poder determinar cómo se había filtrado la información. No llevó a cabo una investigación interna sobre la decisión de compartir la inteligencia, ni reevaluó sus propias normas de cómo dar información sensible a México. No informó acerca de la violencia a sus superiores en el Departamento de Justicia ni a sus supervisores en el Capitolio.

Y, quizás enfatizando la percepción de que las vidas destrozadas fueron de alguna forma daños colaterales aceptables en la guerra contra las drogas, la DEA no ofreció ninguna asistencia a la gente victimizada por la filtración ni recursos para ayudar a identificar y arrestar a los responsables.

He pasado la mayor parte del último año investigando y documentando el ataque contra Allende para ProPublica y National Geographic, grabando historias detalladas, frecuentemente desgarradoras, de aquellos que lo vivieron y de aquellos cuyas acciones contribuyeron a causarlo. Docenas de personas en Allende aceptaron hablar conmigo oficialmente, muchas de ellas hablando públicamente por primera vez y a costa de un gran riesgo personal. Hasta los mismos ex-Zetas convertidos en informantes hablaron largo y tendido sobre sus actuaciones y las consecuencias catastróficas. El fiscal federal adjunto del caso se describió como “devastado”. Y eventualmente, el agente de la DEA que lideró la investigación, habló, a veces emocionado, de su parte en la tragedia.

Pero cuando se les presentó este compendio de voces y pruebas, los funcionarios de la DEA se negaron a explicar qué había hecho la agencia, si había hecho algo, para responder a la masacre. El portavoz Russ Baer, dijo unicamente que la agencia atribuye la culpabilidad contundentemente a los hermanos Treviño: “Estaban matando gente antes de que esto pasara, y mataron a gente después de que se suministraron los números”. Me dijo que yo necesitaba tener claro una cosa: “Esto no es una historia en la cual la DEA tiene sangre en sus manos”.

Esto es técnicamente cierto, y tristemente parece ser hecho a propósito. Como resultado de la forma en que se libra la guerra contra las drogas de Mexico, Estados Unidos juega un papel preponderante — proporcionando entrenamiento, material e inteligencia a fuerzas de seguridad que tienen reputaciones de colaborar con narcotraficantes — sin compartir responsibilidad por las repercusiones.

Mark Smith para ProPublica

Algunas unidades o programas antinarcóticos mexicanos — incluída la unidad implicada en la masacre de Allende — no existirían si no fuera por los Estados Unidos. Los contribuyentes norteamericanos han inyectado cientos de millones de dólares en los programas antinarcóticos de México a través de los años. Pero aparte de listas imprecisas de capos de la droga que han sido arrestados y las ocasionales oportunidades de foto hechas para la televisión de alijos de droga incautados, no hay casi ninguna explicación pública de lo que estos esfuerzos han logrado, mucho menos de las maneras en que han fallado, o de los daños que han ocasionado.

Este arreglo cuidadosamente coreografiado es conveniente para México también. Permite al gobierno de ese país aseverar que sus policías y fuerzas armadas no reciben órdenes de los gringos. Mientras tanto, Estados Unidos puede atribuirse el mérito cuando ayuda a México a capturar a un capo de la droga, pero declararse inocente cuando algo falla.

Sergio Aguayo es un prominente investigador mexicano de derechos humanos del Colegio de México, que el año pasado lanzó una investigacion independiente sobre la masacre de Allende. Me dijo que, “Los Estados Unidos y su papel siguen siendo un enigma. Pero una cosa que parece clara es que el gobierno tiene sus políticas contra el crimen organizado, y las prosigue sin tener en cuenta los impactos sobre la sociedad mexicana”. Aguayo dijo que puede ser no intencionado, “pero los efectos son claros e inhumanos”.

Sin duda, los Estados Unidos no quiere que sucedan massacres. El objetivo de la DEA cuando obtuvo inteligencia sobre los Zetas, como parte de una operación denominada “Too Legit to Quit” era bueno: poner fin al reino de terror del cartel. La agencia había entrenado y escrutinado a los miembros de la unidad especial de la policía federal mexicana con la cual compartió los datos de inteligencia. Pero la así llamada Unidad de Investigación Sensible (SIU por sus siglas en inglés) opera con un defecto fundamental que ni México ni Estados Unidos han tenido la voluntad política para corregir: los supervisores mexicanos de la unidad están exentos del escrutinio.

“La unidad es solo tan fuerte como su eslabón mas débil”, dijo un ex-alto funcionario de la DEA quien ha pasado la mayoría de su carrera en México. “Si no se escrutina al supervisor, entonces ¿cuál es el punto de escrutinar a cualquiera?”

Pero los agentes de la DEA con quien he hablado dijeron que México desmantelaría el programa antes de someter a sus jefes a una inspección estadounidense. Y la DEA cree que es mejor tener la unidad especial, aún con la posibilidad de corrupcion, que no tener nada. A pesar de sus debilidades, dicen, la unidad ha ayudado en detenciones importantes.

Fuentes de fuerzas policiales federales de los Estados Unidos cercanas al caso de Allende culparon a un supervisor mexicano de la unidad especial por la filtración que desencadenó el ataque de los Zetas. No sería la primera vez. Durante las dos décadas que he estado escribiendo desde y sobre México, la unidad especial (SIU) ha sido rehecha numerosas veces, o como parte de una transformación completa de la policía federal, o porque la unidad había sido infiltrada por narcotraficantes. O en algunos casos, las dos cosas iban de la mano.

A principios de este año, uno de los supervisores de la unidad, Iván Reyes Arzate, se entregó a las autoridades de Chicago que le habian acusado de filtrar informacion a narcotraficantes. Dos de sus predecesores en la unidad, según actuales y antiguos oficiales de la DEA, fueron asesinados.

Una ampliación del escrutinio no haría daño. Pero no es infalible, como la DEA ha aprendido en sus alianzas con otras fuerzas de policías nacionales. Un supervisor aprobado de Colombia, según me dijo un agente de la DEA, pasaba información a traficantes. “Esa información causó que varios colaboradores fueran ejecutados”, dijo, “a la par que algunos de sus parientes”.

Lo que podría facilmente hacer la DEA, sin embargo, sería establecer protocolos firmes y formales para intercambiar información con México. Actuales y antiguos oficiales de la DEA describen el sistema como impreciso y algo aleatorio, con agentes haciendo decisiones independientemente – basándose en su experiencia y contactos – de con quien compartir información, tanto dentro de la DEA como entre sus homólogos extranjeros.

Esta imprecisión es impulsada, en parte, por la evolución de las redes de corrupción, dicen algunos agentes veteranos: resulta que ciertas fuerzas de seguridad Mexicanas podrían filtrar información a un cartel determinado, pero perseguir a otro eficazmente. Los agentes aprendían en consecuencia qué debían compartir y con quién.

Otra cosa que la agencia podría hacer es crear procedimientos obligatorios de control para dar seguimiento a los resultados de sus operativos. Y finalmente, podría y debería investigar a fondo las filtraciones, sobre todo las que tienen consecuencias desastrosas, y comunicar los hallazgos al Departamento de Justicia y al Congreso.

Es cierto que esto podría ralentizar un proceso que por su misma naturaleza requiere velocidad — los narcotraficantes cambian sus números de teléfono celular cada pocas semanas, precisamente para evitar ser detectados. Pero la medida también podría salvar vidas. Todavía no hay una cifra firme de cuánta gente fue asesinada y secuestrada dentro y alrededor de Allende. Una colega mexicana y yo encontramos unas 60 personas cuyas muertes o desapariciones han sido conectadas al asedio de los Zetas basándonos en información de parientes, amigos, archivos judiciales, grupos de apoyo a las victimas, y reportes de prensa.

La DEA ha sido criticada por su papel en otros operativos antidroga de alto perfil que han fracasado, más recientemente en Honduras. Si las autoridades de Estados Unidos van a operar en comunidades mexicanas, tendríamos que estar dispuestos a tratar a la gente que vive allí como trataríamos a los nuestros.

Ginger Thompson es una reportera senior en ProPublica. Thompson ha ganado el premio Pulitzer y fue previamente una corresponsal nacional e internacional del The New York Times.

Traducción al español por Carmen Méndez

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Who Holds the DEA Accountable When Its Missions Cost Lives?
June 19th, 2017, 07:00 AM


Who Holds the DEA Accountable When Its Missions Cost Lives?

In 2011, a DEA operation touched off a massacre in a Mexican town, yet the agency never investigated what went wrong.

This story was co-published with The Washington Post.

Mark Smith, special to ProPublica

In early 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration obtained a rare and highly valuable piece of intelligence about the leaders of the Mexico-based Zetas cartel, one of the most powerful, and impenetrable, drug organizations in the world.

An agent in Dallas had persuaded the cartel’s leading cocaine distributor in East Texas to hand over trackable cellphone identification numbers for the group’s most wanted kingpins, in particular Miguel and Omar Treviño, a murderous pair of brothers whose viciousness had earned them top spots among the DEA’s most-wanted.

It was an intelligence coup, the kind of information that comes along once in a very lucky career. With those numbers, authorities could track the brothers’ movements and ultimately capture them. But the DEA made a decision with fatal consequences. Against the wishes of the lead agent on the case — whose informant specifically warned of the potential for bloodshed — the DEA told a Mexican federal police unit with a long history of leaking to traffickers that it had the information.

Within days, the Zetas were, in turn, told that the DEA was onto their leaders. The Treviño brothers guessed immediately which of the cells in their organization had betrayed them and began hunting for the snitches. When the suspected traitors couldn’t be found, the traffickers went after anyone connected to them.

Dozens, possibly hundreds, of people were killed and kidnapped in and around Allende, a quiet ranching town in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, about 40 minutes from the U.S. border. Zetas gunmen grabbed a 15-year-old high school football player, who was hanging out with friends whose parents ran a health club where one of the suspected snitches lifted weights. They took an 81-year-old woman, as well as her 6-month-old great-grandson. One family lost nearly 20 members.

Black clouds spewed from a local ranch where the cartel turned one building into a makeshift crematorium to burn the bodies of those they had killed.

For years, Mexican authorities did next to nothing to investigate the massacre. Meanwhile people in Allende, understandably distrustful of the authorities sworn to protect them, kept their mouths shut.

Tragically, that outcome has become all too familiar in Mexico, where impunity is a national scourge. Homegrown corruption, greed and fear have bred an epidemic of virtually unchallenged violence. What makes this case different is that the DEA lit the fuse that triggered the slaughter, then stood mutely by — as if it had played no role. DEA officials knew almost immediately that innocent lives had been lost as a result of sharing the intelligence with Mexico. The agency’s response then — and in the years since — nothing.

It didn’t demand answers from its Mexican counterparts, or suspend cooperation with the Mexican police until it could determine how the information was leaked. It didn’t conduct an internal investigation into the decision to share the intelligence or reassess its own rules for giving sensitive information to Mexico. It didn’t report the violence to superiors at the Justice Department or to overseers on Capitol Hill.

And, perhaps underscoring the perception that the lives destroyed were in some way acceptable collateral damage in the war on drugs, it didn’t offer to provide any assistance to those victimized by the leak or resources to help identify and arrest the perpetrators.

I’ve spent most of the last year investigating and documenting the attack on Allende, recording detailed, often gut-wrenching, accounts from those who lived through it and those whose actions helped cause it for ProPublica and National Geographic. Dozens of people in Allende agreed to speak to me on the record, many of them talking publicly for the first time and at great personal risk. Even the former Zetas-turned-informants spoke at length about their roles and their devastating consequences. The assistant U.S. attorney on the case described himself as “devastated.” And eventually, the DEA agent who led the investigation discussed, at times emotionally, his part in the tragedy.

But when presented with this array of voices and evidence, DEA officials refused to explain what, if anything, the agency had done to respond to the massacre. Spokesman Russ Baer would only say that the agency placed blame squarely on the Treviño brothers: “They were killing people before that happened, and they killed people after the numbers were passed.” He told me I needed to be clear on one thing: “This is not a story where the DEA has blood on its hands.”

That’s technically true, and sadly seems by design. Because of the way Mexico’s drug war is fought, the United States plays a leading role — providing training, equipment and intelligence to security forces with reputations for collaborating with traffickers — without sharing responsibility for the fallout.

Mark Smith, special to ProPublica

Some Mexican counternarcotics units or programs — including the one implicated in the Allende massacre — wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the United States. American taxpayers have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Mexico’s counternarcotics programs over the years. But other than vague lists of kingpins who have been arrested and the occasional made-for-TV photo op of seized drugs, there is almost no public accounting of what those efforts have accomplished, much less of the ways they’ve failed, or of any toll they’ve taken.

This carefully choreographed arrangement is convenient for Mexico, as well. It allows that country’s government to assert that its police and armed forces do not take orders from the gringos. Meanwhile, the United States can claim credit when it helps Mexico capture a kingpin, but profess innocence when things go wrong.

Sergio Aguayo is a prominent Mexican human rights investigator at the Colegio de Mexico, which last year launched an independent probe into the Allende massacre. He told me: “The United States and its role remains an enigma. But the one thing that seems clear is that the government has its policies against organized crime, and pursues them without taking into account the impacts on Mexican society.” Aguayo said that may not be the intent, “but the affects are clear and inhumane.”

Certainly, the United States does not intend for massacres to happen. The DEA’s goal upon obtaining intelligence on the Zetas, part of an operation called Too Legit to Quit, was a good one: to bring an end to the cartel’s reign of terror. The agency had trained and vetted the members of the Mexican federal police unit with which it shared information about the intelligence. But the so-called Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU) operates with a fundamental flaw that neither Mexico nor the United States has had the political will to fix: The unit’s Mexican supervisors are exempt from scrutiny.

“The unit is only as strong as its weakest link,” said a former senior DEA official who spent much of his career in Mexico. “If the supervisor isn’t vetted, then what’s the point of vetting anybody?”

But DEA agents I’ve spoken to said that Mexico would shut down the program before submitting its leaders to U.S. inspection. And the DEA believes having the vetted unit, even with the possibility of corruption, is better than not having it at all. Despite its weaknesses, they say, the unit has aided in important arrests.

Law enforcement sources close to the Allende case in United States blamed a Mexican supervisor in the vetted unit for the leak that triggered the Zetas’ attack. It wouldn’t be the first time. Over the two decades that I have been writing from and about Mexico, the SIU has been remade numerous times, either as part of a complete overhaul of the federal police, or because the unit had been infiltrated by drug traffickers. Or in some cases, the two went hand-in-hand.

Earlier this year, one of the unit’s supervisors, Ivan Reyes Arzate, turned himself in to authorities in Chicago who had charged him with leaking information to drug traffickers. Two of his predecessors at the unit, according to current and former DEA officials, were assassinated.

Expanded vetting couldn’t hurt. But it’s not foolproof, as the DEA has learned in partnerships with other national police forces. A vetted supervisor in Colombia, one DEA agent told me, was passing information to traffickers. “That information led to several cooperators being executed,” he said, “along with some of their family members.”

What the DEA could easily do, however, is establish firm and formal protocols for exchanging information with Mexico. Current and former DEA officials describe the system as loose and somewhat random, with agents independently making decisions — based on experience and relationships — about who to share information with both inside the DEA and among foreign counterparts.

This looseness is driven, in part, by shifting networks of corruption, some veteran agents said: Certain Mexican security forces might leak to a specific cartel, but reliably pursue another. They learned accordingly what to share with whom.

Another thing the agency could do is create mandatory accounting procedures that track the results of its operations. And finally, it could and should thoroughly investigate leaks, especially those with disastrous consequences, and report their findings to the Justice Department and Congress.

Yes, that may slow down a process that by its very nature requires speed — drug traffickers change their cellphone numbers every few weeks, precisely to avoid detection. But it could also save lives. There’s still no firm count of how many people were killed and kidnapped in and around Allende. A Mexican colleague and I found some 60 people whose deaths or disappearances have been linked to the Zetas’ siege by relatives, friends, court records, victims’ support groups and news accounts.

The DEA has been criticized for its role in other high-profile foreign drug operations gone awry, most recently in Honduras. If American authorities are going to operate in Mexican communities we should be prepared to treat the people who live in them as we would our own.

Ginger Thompson is a senior reporter for ProPublica. A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Thompson was previously a national and foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

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Did Trump Get a Big Tax Refund After 2005?
June 16th, 2017, 07:00 AM

This story was co-published with The Washington Post.

The pressure is growing to force President Trump to turn over his tax returns. The other day, for example, 200 Congressmen filed a suit in federal court, arguing that voters and lawmakers have a right to know whether Trump’s businesses are violating the Constitution’s emolument clause, which bars the president from accepting payments from foreign countries.

The lead Senate plaintiff in the suit, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said that the legal effort could force release of the president’s tax returns and other business documents during the discovery stage of the litigation. 

“By failing to release his tax returns — reflecting payments and benefits from foreign powers — President Trump is thumbing his nose at the American people and the Constitution,” Blumenthal told my Washington Post colleague Tom Hamburger. “He is violating the Constitution by accepting foreign government payments and benefits without consent from Congress — which can’t consent to what it doesn’t know.”

But Trump hasn’t filed a tax return for 2017, which is the year he became president and the emolument clause began to apply to him. So even if we got his earlier returns, we wouldn’t know what he’s done since taking office Jan. 20.

As for the argument that seeing his returns would expose Russian connections, should they exist: I’ve written before, his old tax returns, should they ever see the light of day, are unlikely to tell us much about any possible personal foreign entanglements.

Those might show up, if they exist, in the filings of the hundreds of companies that make up the Trump empire. But Trump’s personal returns are unlikely to show them. 

But seeing his old returns would tell us something especially relevant about a president who wants to radically reshape our tax code.

It would show us how much and in what ways Trump has personally benefited from the legal loopholes scattered throughout the current system. And what impact the changes he’s proposing would have on him personally.

Trump’s tax returns would also let us see, I suspect, that a good part of the tax payments that showed up on Trump’s leaked partial 2005 federal return was refunded to him in later years.

When the first two pages of that return became public in March, he and his backers took victory laps because the return showed him paying $36.5 million of income tax and having made about $153 million during the year. 

Among the boasters was Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted about his father’s 2005 payments at least three times and at a May campaign rally in Montana told a heckler that his father’s 2005 return shows that, “You can do it all. You can be successful [and] you can pay your taxes.”

However, for reasons I’ll get to in a bit, I think there’s a very good chance that Trump got a major portion of his 2005 tax refunded to him in 2006 and later. If I’m right, it means that a good part of the 2005 payments that Trump and Trump Jr. and other Trump types boasted about amounted to temporary loans to the Treasury. Not tax payments as we normally think of them. 

If so, that would be yet another example of how Trump has gotten a free ride — okay, in this case a reduced-fare ride — on his income taxes. 

Getting refunds like the ones I think Trump got is perfectly legal. But for us to see the 2005 tax payments but not any subsequent refunds leaves us with a misleading picture. 

Should these refunds exist — I think they do, but I can’t prove it — they would show up on post-2005 tax returns that we haven’t seen and that Trump refuses to disclose. 

Seeing if he got refunds on his 2005 taxes is yet another good reason for us to want to see Trump’s returns, which presidents and presidential candidates had been providing since the days of Richard Nixon.

We’d find out about possible refunds of Trump’s 2005 taxes by looking at the “Other Credits” line on the second page of those returns and seeing if he took any credits on IRS Form 8801. 

I emailed both Trump’s tax attorney and the White House several weeks ago asking them to respond to my theory about Trump having gotten refunds in subsequent years. The law firm to which Trump tax attorney Shari Dillon belongs sent a quick and courteous “no comment” response. My email to Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks went unanswered. 

So I’m relying on my own analysis, which is based on information and guidance that I got from about half a dozen tax experts, some of whom I’ve worked with for decades in the course of writing about taxes. Some of the experts I consulted for this column are tax practitioners, some are theoreticians. Their political preferences range from pro-Trump to socialist. 

Okay. Now, here we go. 

If you look at Trump’s partial 2005 return, which made its way to veteran tax journalist David Cay Johnson (with whom I worked at The Detroit Free Press in the 1970s), who gave it to “The Rachel Maddow Show” and put it into the public domain, you see three telling things. 

First, you see the words “Client Copy” on the second page, which raises the possibility that the partial return was sent by someone in Trump’s camp with access to Trump documents. Because it puts Trump in a good light, this wouldn’t shock me. 

Second, you see that most of the income tax Trump paid — $31.6 million out of $36.5 million — arose from what he owed as a result of the alternative minimum tax, a provision of the tax code intended to make sure high-income people pay at least some taxes. 

Third, you see that Trump used $103.2 million of losses from previous years to reduce his taxable 2005 income. Those losses were lower than his total taxable income. This almost certainly means that he had no losses left to write off, because had more write-offs been available, Trump could have used them to lower his tax bill.

Now, let me try to make sense of all this for you.

The only other Trump tax filings that are public — partial 1995 New York, New Jersey and Connecticut state returns — show that back then, he had an astounding $915 million of losses that he could use in future years to offset income for federal, New York state and New York City income tax purposes.

The 2005 return indicates to me that Trump used up his losses in 2005 — he showed $48.6 million of taxable income after subtracting the aforementioned $103.2 million of losses. I’m assuming that from 1996 through 2004, he wiped out his taxable income for federal, New York state and New York City purposes by using the $915 million in losses, which were generated by the collapse of his real estate-casino empire in the 1980s and 1990s, and were probably supplemented with paper losses generated by a special tax code provision that benefits real-estate professionals such as Trump.

Now, I’ll give you a simplified version of why I think — but hasten to say, yet again, can’t prove — that Trump recovered a good part of the $31.6 million of alternative minimum tax that he paid for 2005. 

The AMT, as it’s known, has become a plague to middle-income and upper-income types who live in states with high income and real-estate taxes. That’s despite the fact that when Congress created the AMT in 1969, its goal was to stop a handful of rich people from avoiding income taxes all together. Over the years, however, Congress failed to modify the AMT sufficiently to keep it from ensnaring millions of middle- and upper-middle taxpayers. 

It turns out there are two separate types of alternative minimum tax. Most people — including me — who pay AMT on top of their regular income tax do so because state and local income taxes and the real-estate taxes on our personal residences aren’t deductible under the AMT the way they are for regular tax purposes. That leads to the AMT being higher than our regular tax, and the difference between AMT and regular tax gets added to what we owe Uncle Sam.

That kind of AMT payment — arising from what tax techies call an “exclusion preference” — isn’t refundable.

But judging from Trump’s tax return, it looks like the vast majority of the additional tax he paid as a result of the AMT arose from so-called “deferral preferences.” And that most of the $103.2 million of losses he carried over from previous years were deductible for regular income tax purposes in 2005, but not for AMT purposes.

There’s No Guarantee Trump’s Tax Returns Would Reveal Russia Ties

President Trump does business through a web of LLCs, and that makes it likely that basic facts are obscured, including the names of the individuals or banks to which he pays interest. Read the story.

Under the tax laws, Trump can get refunds, over multiple years, up to the refundable portion of the 2005 AMT that he paid. Which was probably the vast majority of his AMT. 

For instance, let’s say that Trump had the same income in 2006 that he had in 2005, but didn’t have the $103.2 million of losses from previous years. 

Because the AMT is assessed at a 28 percent rate and the top regular rate in 2006 was 35 percent, Trump’s regular income tax would probably have been $6.5 million to $7 million higher than his AMT would have been. This would have yielded him a $6.5 million to $7 million refund, with future refunds coming in future years when his regular tax was higher than his AMT.

To be sure, part of Trump’s 2005 AMT probably comes from not being able to deduct real-estate taxes on his personal residences. That “exclusion preferences” part of his AMT wouldn’t be refundable. 

But the vast majority of Trump’s AMT appears to be from “deferral preferences” — especially since it’s unlikely that he paid any significant New York state or New York City income taxes from 1996 through 2004 because the losses he carried over from previous years would have been deductible for New York state and New York City purposes and would probably have wiped out all or virtually all of his New York income. 

Given the size of the numbers we’re dealing with, his personal real-estate taxes and any personal income taxes he might have paid outside of New York are probably rounding errors, at most.

So unless Trump started running up big losses post-2005, when his losses dating back to the 1990s were all used up, it looks like his regular income tax (at a 35 percent top rate in 2006 and 39.6 percent in recent years) would have exceeded his 28 percent alternative minimum tax.

This means that a good part of the AMT that he paid in 2005 would likely have flowed back to him as credits in subsequent years. Hence my conclusion that although Trump paid $36.5 million of federal income tax in 2005, his ultimate income tax cost for the year was considerably lower. That’s the bottom line. Or at least, I think it is. 

Of course, there’s only one way to find out for sure, and that’s to view Trump’s post-2005 tax returns. If they somehow show up at ProPublica, whose mailing address is 155 Avenue of the Americas, 13th floor, New York, NY 10013, I’ll be more than happy to look at them. Even if they prove me wrong.

I collaborated with Cezary Podkul of ProPublica on this story, and received reporting help from Alice Crites and Tom Hamburger of The Washington Post.

The Breakthrough: Uncovering NYC Cops Making Millions in Suspicious Deals
June 16th, 2017, 07:00 AM

WNYC radio reporter Robert Lewis had been hounding New York Assistant Police Chief Edward Delatorre for weeks. He’d called. He’d emailed. He’d gone through the New York Public Affairs office. But he was getting nowhere and he had an urgent question.

A New York Police Department cruiser on patrol in Times Square (Craig Warga/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Lewis had learned that the assistant chief bought property from a missing loan shark, a man named Vincent “Jimmy” Durso, while the police department was actively investigating Durso’s disappearance. Naturally, Lewis wanted to know why.

So, when he got no answer, he went to building a Delatorre owned in the Bronx. When Lewis confronted him there, Delatorre tried to make a run for it. He had his assistant pull up a car, double park it in front of the building, then he briskly walked out and hopped in the passenger seat.

Lewis trailed him and asked, on tape, several times over: “Why did you buy property from a missing loan shark?”

Delatorre never answered.

It turns out Delatorre’s property purchase was just the tip of the iceberg.

Lewis ultimately learned that dozens of top department officials supplement their income with outside jobs and businesses, some of which, like Delatorre’s, appeared to conflict with, or even emerge from, the department’s work in law enforcement. The stories ultimately prompted two separate investigations, one internally, by the police department itself, and another from the New York City Department of Investigation.

Today Lewis tells us how the story came together in our season-opening episode of The Breakthrough, the ProPublica podcast where investigative reporters reveal how they nailed their biggest stories.

We believe it’s important, now more than ever, to show people how real, in-depth investigative journalism gets done. Our podcast aims to put listeners alongside reporters as they endure sleepless nights, pore over records, cultivate sources and experience all the adrenaline and anxiety that comes with cracking a breakthrough story.

Have an idea for an episode? Email us your suggestions at

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher.

The music for this podcast is from Podington Bear.

Trump Administration Quietly Rolls Back Civil Rights Efforts Across Federal Government
June 15th, 2017, 07:00 AM

Elizabeth Hill, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, told ProPublica that the new “enforcement instructions seek to clear out the backlog while giving every complaint the individualized and thorough consideration it deserves.” Lifting the requirement of collecting three years of data will allow complaints to be addressed “much more efficiently and quickly,” she said in an emailed statement. Read the full statement here.

For decades, the Department of Justice has used court-enforced agreements to protect civil rights, successfully desegregating school systems, reforming police departments, ensuring access for the disabled and defending the religious.

Now, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ appears to be turning away from this storied tool, called consent decrees. Top officials in the DOJ civil rights division have issued verbal instructions through the ranks to seek settlements without consent decrees — which would result in no continuing court oversight.

The move is just one part of a move by the Trump administration to limit federal civil rights enforcement. Other departments have scaled back the power of their internal divisions that monitor such abuses. In a previously unreported development, the Education Department last week reversed an Obama-era reform that broadened the agency’s approach to protecting rights of students. The Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have also announced sweeping cuts to their enforcement.

“At best, this administration believes that civil rights enforcement is superfluous and can be easily cut. At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights,” said Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the DOJ’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama.

Consent decrees have not been abandoned entirely by the DOJ, a person with knowledge of the instructions said. Instead, there is a presumption against their use — attorneys should default to using settlements without court oversight unless there is an unavoidable reason for a consent decree. The instructions came from the civil rights division’s office of acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore. There is no written policy guidance.

Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the DOJ, declined to comment for this story.

Consent decrees can be a powerful tool, and spell out specific steps that must be taken to remedy the harm. These are agreed to by both parties and signed off on by a judge, whom the parties can appear before again if the terms are not being met. Though critics say the DOJ sometimes does not enforce consent decrees well enough, they are more powerful than settlements that aren’t overseen by a judge and have no built-in enforcement mechanism.

Such settlements have “far fewer teeth to ensure adequate enforcement,” Gupta said.

Consent decrees often require agencies or municipalities to take expensive steps toward reform. Local leaders and agency heads then can point to the binding court authority when requesting budget increases to ensure reforms. Without consent decrees, many localities or government departments would simply never make such comprehensive changes, said William Yeomans, who spent 26 years at the DOJ, mostly in the civil rights division.

“They are key to civil rights enforcement,” he said. “That’s why Sessions and his ilk don’t like them.”

Some, however, believe the Obama administration relied on consent decrees too often and sometimes took advantage of vulnerable cities unable to effectively defend themselves against a well-resourced DOJ.

“I think a recalibration would be welcome,” said Richard Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, adding that consent decrees should be used in cases where clear, systemic issues of discrimination exist.

Though it’s too early to see how widespread the effect of the changes will be, the Justice Department appears to be adhering to the directive already.

On May 30, the DOJ announced Bernards Township in New Jersey had agreed to pay $3.25 million to settle an accusation it denied zoning approval for a local Islamic group to build a mosque. Staff attorneys at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey initially sought to resolve the case with a consent decree, according to a spokesperson for Bernards Township. But because of the DOJ’s new stance, the terms were changed after the township protested, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the New Jersey U.S. attorney’s office declined comment.

Sessions has long been a public critic of consent decrees. As a senator, he wrote they “constitute an end run around the democratic process.” He lambasted local agencies that seek them out as a way to inflate their budgets, a “particularly offensive” use of consent decrees that took decision-making power from legislatures.

On March 31, Sessions ordered a sweeping review of all consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide to ensure they were in line with the Trump administration’s law-and-order goals. Days before, the DOJ had asked a judge to postpone a hearing on a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department that had been arranged during the last days of the Obama administration. The judge denied that request, and the consent decree has moved forward.

The DOJ has already come under fire from critics for altering its approach to voting rights cases. After nearly six years of litigation over Texas’ voter ID law — which Obama DOJ attorneys said was written to intentionally discriminate against minority voters and had such a discriminatory effect — the Trump DOJ abruptly withdrew its intent claims in late February.

Texas Voter ID Law Led to Fears and Failures in 2016 Election

Efforts to implement the nation’s strictest voter ID requirements — a solution in search of a problem, according to one critic — foundered amid court defeats, confusion and at least one giant oversight. Read the story.

Attorneys who worked on the case for years were barely consulted about the change — many weren’t consulted at all, according to two former DOJ officials with knowledge of the matter. Gore wrote the filing changing the DOJ’s position largely by himself and asked the attorneys who’d been involved in the case for years to sign it to show continuity. Not all of the attorneys fell in line. Avner Shapiro — who has been a prosecutor in the civil rights division for more than 20 years — left his name off the filings written by Gore. Shapiro was particularly involved in developing the DOJ’s argument that Texas had intentionally discriminated against minorities in crafting its voter ID legislation.

“That’s the ultimate act of rebellion,” Yeomans, the former civil rights division prosecutor, said. A rare act, removing one’s name from a legal filing is one of the few ways career attorneys can express public disagreement with an administration.

Gore has no history of bringing civil rights cases. A former partner at the law firm Jones Day, he has instead defended states against claims of racial gerrymandering and represented North Carolina when the state was sued over its controversial “bathroom bill,” which requires transgender people to use the facility that matched their birth gender.

All of the internal changes at the DOJ have left attorneys and staff with “a great deal of fear and uncertainty,” said Yeomans. While he says the lawyers there would like to stay at the department, they fear Sessions’ priorities will have devastating impact on their work.

The DOJ’s civil rights office is not alone in fearing rollbacks in enforcement. Across federal departments, the Trump administration has made moves to diminish the power of civil rights divisions.

The Department of Education has laid out plans to loosen requirements on investigations into civil rights complaints, according to an internal memo sent to staff on June 8 and obtained by ProPublica.

Under the Obama administration, the department’s office for civil rights applied an expansive approach to investigations. Individual complaints related to complex issues such as school discipline, sexual violence and harassment, equal access to educational resources, or racism at a single school might have prompted broader probes to determine whether the allegations were part of a pattern of discrimination or harassment.

The new memo, sent by Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, to regional directors at the department’s civil rights office, trims this approach. Jackson was appointed deputy assistant secretary for the office in April and will remain as the acting head of the office until the Senate confirms a full-time assistant secretary. Trump has not publicly nominated anyone for the role yet.

The office will apply the broader approach “only” if the original allegations raise systemic concerns or the investigative team argues for it, Jackson wrote in the memo.

DeVos Pick to Head Civil Rights Office Once Said She Faced Discrimination for Being White

Candice Jackson’s intellectual journey raises questions about how actively she will investigate allegations of unfair treatment of minorities and women. Read the story.

As part of the new approach, the Education Department will no longer require civil rights investigators to obtain three years of complaint data from a specific school or district to assess compliance with civil rights law.

Critics contend the Obama administration’s probes were onerous. The office “did such a thorough review of everything that the investigations were demanding and very expensive” for schools, said Boston College American politics professor R. Shep Melnick, adding that the new approach could take some regulatory pressure off schools and districts.

But some civil rights leaders believe the change could undermine the office’s mission. This narrowing of the department’s investigations “is stunning to me and dangerous,” said Catherine Lhamon, who led the Education Department’s civil rights office from August 2013 until January 2017 and currently chairs the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “It’s important to take an expansive view of the potential for harm because if you look only at the most recent year, you won’t necessarily see the pattern,” said Lhamon.

The department’s new directive also gives more autonomy to regional offices, no longer requiring oversight or review of some cases by department headquarters, according to the memo.

The Education Department did not respond to ProPublica’s request for comment.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also proposed cutting over 40 positions from the civil rights office. With reduced staff, the office will have to “make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations,” according to the department’s proposed budget.

Elsewhere, Trump administration appointees have launched similar initiatives. In its 2018 fiscal plan, the Labor Department has proposed dissolving the office that handles discrimination complaints. Similarly, new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed entirely eliminating the environmental justice program, which addresses concerns that almost exclusively impact minority communities. The Washington Post reports the plan transfers all environmental justice work to the Office of Policy, which provides policy and regulatory guidance across the agency.

Mustafa Ali, a former EPA senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice who served more than 20 years, quit the agency in protest days before the plan was announced. In his resignation letter, widely circulated in the media, Ali suggested the new leadership was abandoning “those who need our help most.”

Ryan Gabrielson contributed to this report.

If you have any information about civil rights enforcement at the Department of Justice, contact If you have any information about civil rights enforcement at the Department of Education, contact You can also reach us on Signal. Here are our Signal contacts and a guide for how to leak to ProPublica.

Democratic Congress Members Raise Alarm About Security at Trump Properties
June 14th, 2017, 07:00 AM

Two dozen House Democrats have sent a letter to White House counsel Donald McGahn, warning that digital security holes at the Trump Organization’s clubs and hotels are risks to national security and the secrecy of classified information.

“The White House must act immediately to secure the potentially sensitive information on these systems,” said the letter, which was signed by 24 Congress members and went to McGahn last week.

Their concerns were in response to an article published last month by ProPublica and Gizmodo that documented the cybersecurity vulnerabilities at properties the president has frequented since being elected. Our reporting found unencrypted login pages, servers running outdated software, accessible printers, and Wi-Fi networks that were open to anyone close enough to access them.

We were able to detect vulnerable networks at Mar-a-Lago — Trump’s “Southern White House” — from a small motorboat about 800 feet from the club on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway. We also found open Wi-Fi networks at the grounds of the Trump golf courses in Bedminster, New Jersey, and accessible Wi-Fi-enabled printers at Trump’s course in Sterling, Virginia.

“To leave these networks unsecured undermines our national priorities and the trust the American people place in the Office of the President,” the letter warned.

The White House and the Trump Organization did not comment on the letter.

Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the letter’s author, said the vulnerabilities revealed by our story demand immediate action, but he’s received no response from the administration so far. “It needs to be addressed quickly. Potentially every minute something is leaking,” he said. “It is too late to close the henhouse after the foxes come in.”

Since becoming president, Donald Trump has spent time at his clubs on most weekends and has met with foreign dignitaries like Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago.

In February, members of Mar-a-Lago posted pictures of a dinner meeting between Trump and Abe on the patio of the club. Cybersecurity experts warned that sophisticated hackers could turn guests’ cellphones into clandestine listening devices if they gained access to the networks at the club.

Hackers may not need to travel to each of the Trump Organization’s clubs and hotels in order to gain access. We found that the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., was hosting a server running software that is more than a decade old and is still accessible from the internet.

Any Half-Decent Hacker Could Break Into Mar-a-Lago

We tested internet security at four Trump properties. It’s not good. Read the story.

After we notified the company that administers the Trump clubs’ websites about our findings, they disabled an insecure login page that lead to a database of sensitive information that we found on Mar-a-Lago’s website. However, the company, called Clubessential, has not locked down its customer documentation website, which includes usernames and passwords to internal accounts and is accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

Clubessential did not respond to a request for comment.

“Cyber-criminals and nation states have both the incentive and the ability to hack these networks to obtain sensitive information critical to our national security and international diplomacy,” the Congress members’ letter said.

Since our visits to Trump’s properties in early May, the president has spent four weekends at his clubs.

“He’s the president of the United States,” Engel said. “We should make sure he’s secure wherever he is.”

Trump’s Personal Lawyer Boasted That He Got Preet Bharara Fired
June 13th, 2017, 07:00 AM

Marc Kasowitz, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer in the Russia investigation, has boasted to friends and colleagues that he played a central role in the firing of Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, according to four people familiar with the conversations.

Kasowitz told Trump, “This guy is going to get you,” according to a person familiar with Kasowitz’s account.

Those who know Kasowitz say he is sometimes prone to exaggerating when regaling them with his exploits. But if true, his assertion adds to the mystery surrounding the motive and timing of Bharara’s firing.

New presidents typically ask U.S. attorneys to resign and have the power to fire them. But Trump asked Bharara to stay in his job when they met in November at Trump Tower, as Bharara announced after the meeting.

In early March, Trump reversed himself. He asked all the remaining U.S. attorneys to resign, including Bharara. Bharara, a telegenic prosecutor with a history of taking on powerful politicians, refused and was fired March 11.

As ProPublica previously reported, at the time of Bharara’s firing the Southern District was conducting an investigation into Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Tom Price.

Kasowitz and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Kasowitz became a nationally recognized figure last week, after he acted as Trump’s designated spokesman to respond to former FBI Director James Comey’s landmark Senate testimony.

Kasowitz’s claimed role in the Bharara firing appears to be a sign that the New York lawyer has been inserting himself into matters of governance and not just advising the president on personal legal matters.

Kasowitz has also said in private conversations that Trump asked him to be attorney general, according to four people familiar with the matter. Kasowitz said he turned down the role. Ultimately, Trump decided to give the position to then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.

The Southern District of New York conducts some of the highest profile corporate investigations in the country. According to news reports, it is currently probing Fox News over payments made to settle sexual harassment charges against the network’s former chairman, the late Roger Ailes. The office is also looking into Russian money-laundering allegations at Deutsche Bank, Trump’s principal private lender.

Fired U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara Said to Have Been Investigating HHS Secretary Tom Price

Trump’s head of the Department of Health and Human Services traded stocks of health-related companies while working on legislation affecting the firms. A source says Bharara was overseeing an investigation. The White House didn’t immediately comment. Read the story.

Kasowitz has represented Trump over the years on matters including his failed libel lawsuit against a journalist, the Trump University case, and then-candidate Trump’s response to allegations of sexual assault by multiple women last year. Trump retained him to be his personal attorney in the Russia investigation last month.

The New York Times reported Sunday that Kasowitz has advised White House staffers about whether they need personal attorneys, raising conflict of interest questions.

Trump has also turned to Kasowitz’s firm to fill jobs in the administration. David Friedman, a former name partner of the firm, is now ambassador to Israel. Trump considered former senator and Kasowitz Senior Counsel Joseph Lieberman to replace Comey.

One of the names floated to replace Bharara is Edward McNally, a partner at Kasowitz’s law firm. More than three months after Bharara was fired, Trump has not nominated anyone to fill the Southern District job or most of the other U.S. attorney positions.

Bharara’s firing on March 11 came two months before the firing of Comey, head of the FBI. Critics charge that Trump obstructed justice in forcing Comey out.

Comey testified last week that Trump had tried to “create some sort of patronage relationship.” Bharara said in a television interview Sunday that Trump had attempted something similar with him: Comey’s testimony “felt a little bit like déjà vu.”

Robert Faturechi contributed reporting to this story.

Do you have information about Marc Kasowitz or his firm? Contact Jesse at or via Signal at 718-496-5233. Contact Justin at or via Signal at 774-826-6240.

Here’s more information on how to leak to ProPublica.

Anatomía De Una Masacre
June 12th, 2017, 07:00 AM


Mark Smith para ProPublica

Anatomía De Una Masacre

La historia del asalto mortal a un pueblo mexicano cerca de la frontera con Texas. Y la operación antidrogas estadounidense que lo desencadenó.

Este articulo ha sido co-publicado con National Geographic.

José Juan Morales, coordinador de investigadores, Subprocuraduría de Personas Desaparecidas en el estado de Coahuila: Tenemos testimonios de personas que afirman que participaron en el crimen. Se hablaba de alrededor de 50 camionetas que llegaron a Allende con gente vinculada al cartel. Ingresaron a domicilios, los saquearon, quemaron. Después de saquearlos, llevaron a las personas que vivían en los domicilios a un rancho a las salidas de Allende.

Primero los mataron y luego los metieron a una bodega donde había pastura, los rociaron con diésel y les prendieron fuego. Estuvieron alimentando el fuego horas y horas.

José Juan Morales Coordinador de investigadores, Subprocuraduría de Personas Desaparecidas en el estado de Coahuila

Los indicios de que algo innombrable pasó en Allende son contundentes. Cuadras enteras, en algunas de las calles más transitadas del pueblo, yacen en ruinas. Mansiones que fueron ostentosas hoy son cascarones desmoronados, con enormes agujeros en las paredes, techos carbonizados, mostradores de mármol agrietados y columnas colapsadas. Esparcidos entre los escombros quedan los vestigios raídos y enlodados de vidas destrozadas: zapatos, invitaciones a bodas, medicamentos, televisores, juguetes.

En marzo de 2011, el tranquilo pueblo ganadero, de unos 23 000 habitantes y a solo 40 minutos en auto de la frontera con Texas, fue atacado. Sicarios del cartel de los Zetas, una de las organizaciones de narcotráfico más violentas del mundo, arrasaron Allende y pueblos aledaños como una inundación repentina; demolieron casas y comercios, secuestraron y mataron a docenas, posiblemente a cientos, de hombres, mujeres y niños.

La destrucción y las desapariciones se sucedieron erráticamente por semanas. Solo unos pocos familiares de las víctimas — en su mayoría los que no vivían en Allende o habían huido — se atrevieron a buscar ayuda. “Quisiera aclarar que Allende parece zona de guerra” se lee en un informe acerca de una persona desaparecida. La mayoría de las personas a las que les pregunté por mis familiares respondió que no debería seguir buscándolos, porque a los de afuera no los querían y los desaparecían”.

Pero, a diferencia de la mayoría de los lugares en México destrozados por la guerra contra las drogas, lo que pasó en Allende no se originó en México. Comenzó en Estados Unidos, cuando la Administración para el Control de Drogas (DEA) logró un triunfo inesperado. Un agente persuadió a un importante miembro de los Zetas para que le entregara los números de identificación rastreables de los teléfonos celulares que pertenecían a dos de los capos más buscados del cartel, Miguel Ángel Treviño y su hermano Omar.

Entonces, la DEA se la jugó. Compartió la información con una unidad de la policía mexicana que, por mucho tiempo, ha tenido problemas con filtraciones de información, aunque sus miembros habían sido entrenados y aprobados por la DEA. Casi de inmediato, los Treviño se enteraron de que habían sido traicionados. Los hermanos planearon vengarse de los presuntos delatores, de sus familias y de cualquiera que tuviera un vínculo remoto con ellos.

La atrocidad en Allende fue particularmente sorprendente, porque los Treviño no solo habían basado algunas de sus operaciones en las cercanías — con movimientos de decenas de millones de dólares en drogas y armas por la zona cada mes — sino que también habían hecho del pueblo su casa.

Durante años después de la matanza, las autoridades mexicanas solamente hicieron esfuerzos inconsistentes para investigar. Erigieron un monumento en Allende para honrar a las víctimas, sin determinar por completo lo que había sido de ellas ni castigar a los responsables. Al final, autoridades estadounidenses ayudaron a México a capturar a los Treviño, pero nunca reconocieron el costo devastador de ello. En Allende, la gente sufrió, sobre todo en silencio, porque estaban demasiado asustados para hablar públicamente.

Hace un año, ProPublica y National Geographic emprendieron la labor de juntar las piezas de lo que pasó en este pueblo del estado de Coahuila: dejar a los que sufrieron la mayor parte del ataque, y a los que tuvieron algún papel en él, que contaran la historia en sus propias palabras, con frecuencia con gran riesgo para sus vidas. Voces como estas rara vez se han escuchado durante la lucha contra el narcotráfico: funcionarios locales que abandonaron sus puestos, familias asediadas por el cartel y por sus propios vecinos, operarios del cartel que cooperaron con la DEA y vieron asesinados a sus amigos y familias, el fiscal estadounidense que supervisó el caso y el agente de la DEA que lideró la investigación y quien, como la mayoría de la gente en esta historia, tiene vínculos familiares en ambos lados de la frontera.

Cuando le preguntaron durante una entrevista sobre su papel en el caso, el agente, Richard Martinez se desplomó en su silla, con lágrimas en los ojos. “¿Cómo me hizo sentir el hecho de que la información se hubiera filtrado? Prefiero no decirlo, para ser honesto con usted. Me gustaría dejarlo así. Prefiero no decirlo”.

La Masacre

Mientras caía la tarde del viernes 18 de marzo de 2011, hordas de sicarios del cartel de los Zetas empezaron a entrar en Allende.

Guadalupe García Funcionaria jubilada

Estábamos comiendo en Los Compadres y entraron dos hombres. Se notaba que no eran de aquí. Tenían un aspecto distinto. Eran unos huercos, entre 18 y 20 años. Pidieron 50 hamburguesas para llevar. Fue entonces cuando nos dimos cuenta de que algo pasaba y decidimos que era mejor irnos a casa.

Martín Márquez Vendedor de hot dogs

Empezaron a suceder cosas en la tarde. Llegaron hombres armados. Fueron casa por casa buscando a las familias de quienes los habían traicionado. A las 11:00 de la noche ya no había movimiento de autos en la calle. No había movimiento de ningún tipo.

Etelvina Rodríguez Maestra de secundaria y esposa de la víctima Everardo Elizondo

Por lo regular, mi marido, Everardo, llegaba a las 7 o 7:30 de la tarde. Yo lo esperaba en mi casa. Dieron las 7, 7:30, 8, 9. Y empecé a marcarle. El teléfono estaba fuera de servicio. Pensé que a lo mejor estaba en casa de su mamá y se le descargó la pila. Le llamé a su mamá. Me dijo que no lo había visto y que a lo mejor andaba por ahí con algunos amigos. Pero no tenía sentido. Él me hubiera avisado. Me salí a buscarlo en el auto.

Se sentía un ambiente tenso. Eran las 9 de la noche, no tan tarde para ser viernes. El pueblo estaba completamente solo.

A pocos kilómetros a las afueras del pueblo, los sicarios bajaron en varios ranchos vecinos a lo largo de una carretera de dos carriles pobremente alumbrada. Las propiedades pertenecían a uno de los clanes más antiguos de Allende, los Garza. La familia se dedicaba principalmente a la ganadería y realizaba trabajos diversos, entre ellos la minería de carbón. Pero, de acuerdo con miembros de la familia, algunos de ellos también trabajaban para el cartel.

Ahora, estos nexos resultaban mortíferos. Entre aquellos de quienes los Zetas sospechaban que eran soplones — de manera equivocada, se supo más tarde — estaba José Luis Garza, Jr., un miembro del cartel de rango relativamente bajo. Cuando las camionetas llenas de sicarios invadieron Allende, uno de sus primeros destinos fue un rancho que pertenecía al padre de Garza, Luis, a pocos kilómetros del pueblo, junto a una carretera de dos carriles mal iluminada. Era el día de pago y varios trabajadores habían ido al rancho por su dinero. Cuando aparecieron los sicarios, tomaron como rehén a todo aquel que encontraron. Al anochecer, las llamas empezaron a alzarse desde uno de los grandes almacenes de bloques de cemento del rancho, donde el cartel quemó los cuerpos de los muertos.

Sarah Angelita Lira Farmacéutica y esposa de la víctima Rodolfo Garza, Jr.

Llegó mi marido, Rodolfo. Me dijo: ‘Me duele muchísimo la cabeza, me voy a bañar’. Estaba totalmente cubierto de polvo porque estaba abriendo una nueva mina de carbón. Después de un rato empezó a sonar su teléfono. Yo pensaba que había ido a acostarse, pero salió del dormitorio, totalmente vestido, y me miró a los ojos de una forma que nunca había visto antes. ‘No salgas de la casa — me dijo. Está sucediendo algo. No sé qué es, pero no salgas de la casa. Voy y vuelvo.’

Poco después, me llamó: ‘Sal de la casa — dijo. Y no te vayas en nuestra camioneta.’ Me dijo que le pidiera a mi primo que nos llevara a casa de mi madre a nuestra hija, Sofía, y a mí.

El rancho de su tío Luis estaba en llamas. Y había muchos hombres armados en la entrada. Su hermana no contestaba su teléfono. Su padre tampoco contestaba. Rodolfo mandó a uno de sus obreros, Pilo, al portón a ver qué pasaba. Pilo había sido militar. Los hombres abrieron. Pilo entró, pero nunca salió.

Rodolfo estaba inconsolable. No encontraba a sus padres. No encontraba a su hermana. Y ahora su mejor empleado había desaparecido. Me dijo que iba a intentar entrar al rancho por la parte trasera.

Unos minutos más tarde, llamó otra vez. Hablaba tan bajo que casi no podía oírlo. Me dijo: ‘Sálganse de Allende. Dile a tu prima que te lleve a Eagle Pass. No hagas maletas. Váyanse nomás.’

Evaristo Treviño (sin relación con los jefes de los Zetas) Ex jefe de bomberos

Oficiales a mi cargo respondieron a reportes de un incendio en uno de los ranchos de los Garza. Hablamos de menos de tres kilómetros desde Allende. Aparentemente se celebraba un convivio de la familia Garza. Entre los primeros que acudieron al lugar había bomberos con una máquina de apoyo. Se percataron de que había personas conectadas con el crimen organizado, las cuales les indicaron, de forma muy vulgar y a punta de pistola, que se retiraran. Dijeron que iba a haber muchos incidentes. Que íbamos a recibir muchas llamadas de emergencia sobre balaceras, incendios y cosas así. Nos dijeron que no teníamos autorización para responder.

En mi papel como jefe de bomberos, lo que hice fue avisar a mi superior, quien, en este caso, era el alcalde. Le dije que encarábamos una situación imposible y que lo único que podíamos hacer era mantenernos al margen por la amenaza que también enfrentábamos. Había demasiados hombres armados. Temíamos por nuestras vidas. No podíamos responder a las balas con agua.

Desde Allende, los sicarios avanzaron hacia el norte a lo largo de un paisaje llano y seco, acorralando a gente mientras cubrían los 55 kilómetros hasta la ciudad de Piedras Negras, una extensión mugrienta de fábricas ensambladoras sobre el río Bravo. Los atacantes condujeron a muchas de sus víctimas hasta el rancho de los Garza, incluyendo a Gerardo Heath, jugador de futbol de secundaria de 15 años, y Édgar Ávila, de 36 años e ingeniero en una fábrica. Ninguno de los dos tenía nada que ver con el cartel o con la gente que el cartel creía que trabajaba con la DEA. Solo estaban ahí.

Claudia Sánchez Directora de asuntos culturales y madre de la víctima Gerardo Heath

Estaba empacando porque nos íbamos a San Antonio a las cinco de la mañana para ir a un partido de futbol. Gerardo iba a jugar, así que teníamos que estar ahí temprano. Gerardo y su hermana hacían tonterías afuera. Me asomé por la ventana y vi que llegaban dos amigos de Gerardo en coche. Eran nuestros vecinos.

Gerardo entró y me preguntó si podía ir con sus amigos. Le contesté: ‘No, Gerardo. Tenemos que empacar.’ Lo siguiente que supe fue que Gerardo traía puesta la ropa que le habíamos comprado por su cumpleaños. Acababa de cumplir 15. Su camisa era azul y hacía juego con sus ojos. Me dijo: ‘Anda, mamá. No me tardo.’

Le dije: ‘Está bien, Gerardo. No tardes.’

Alrededor de las 10 de aquella noche, mi marido llamó al celular de Gerardo para saber a qué hora volvería a casa. Gerardo no respondió. Mi marido llamó otra vez. Nada. Poco después tocaron a la puerta. Eran amigos de Gerardo, de la escuela. Parecían aterrorizados. Les pregunté: ‘¿Qué pasa? ¿Dónde está Gerardo?’

Los muchachos dijeron: ‘Se lo llevaron.’

Pregunté: ‘¿De qué están hablando? ¿Quién se lo llevó?.’

Los muchachos dijeron que vieron a Gerardo y a nuestros vecinos frente a la casa de ellos. Llegó una camioneta llena de hombres armados. Los hombres subieron a los vecinos y a Gerardo a la camioneta y se fueron. Los muchachos no reconocieron a los hombres. Y, como tenían armas, no se atrevieron a decir nada.

Unos minutos después llamamos al alcalde de Piedras Negras. Estaba en una boda. Nos dijo que se sentía terrible por lo que nos había pasado, pero que no había nada que él pudiera hacer. Ni una sola patrulla llegó.

Gerardo Heath, un jugador de futbol de la escuela secundaria de 15 años de Piedras Negras, fue una de las víctimas. Estaba pasando un rato con amigos cuando los Zetas se los llevaron a él, a dos amigos y a sus padres. Se presume que están muertos. El número que Heath llevaba en su malla de futbol, 55, cubre los escaparates de comercios y los parachoques de vehículos en su pueblo natal, un símbolo de la indignación que ha despertado su asesinato. Como muchas de las personas que fueron asesinadas durante la matanza, Heath no tenía nada que ver con el narcotráfico.
María Eugenia Vela Abogada y esposa de la víctima Édgar Ávila

Estaba en el trabajo, esperando a que el juez firmara unos proyectos de sentencia que yo había escrito, cuando me habló Édgar para decirme que Toño, su amigo, lo había invitado a ver un partido de futbol. Yo estaba embarazada y, cuando llegué a casa, me sentía muy cansada. Édgar le había dado de cenar a nuestra hija y la bañó. Le pedí que me comprara empanadas antes de irse. Me las trajo y me dio un beso.

No fue sino hasta que me desperté, a las 2 de la mañana, que me di cuenta de que no estaba Édgar. No entraba ninguna de mis llamadas. Me dije: ‘Qué raro que Édgar no me haya hablado.’ Édgar siempre me hablaba.

Me quedé en un sillón esperándolo el resto de la noche, hasta alrededor de las 6:30 de la mañana. Entonces llamé a mi hermana. Le dije que Édgar no había llegado a casa. Entonces ella vino a mi casa y, en pijama, fui con ella y mi cuñado a casa de Toño. No había nadie, pero había signos de violencia. Estaba todo tirado.

A la mañana siguiente, sábado 19 de marzo, los sicarios llamaron a varios operarios de maquinaria pesada y les ordenaron demoler docenas de casas y comercios en toda la zona. Muchas de las propiedades fueron saqueadas a plena luz del día, en colonias prósperas y transitadas, a la vista no solo de transeúntes, sino cerca de oficinas gubernamentales, jefaturas de policía y puestos militares. Los sicarios invitaron a la gente del pueblo a tomar lo que quisiera, desencadenando una ola de saqueos.

Los registros del gobierno obtenidos por ProPublica y National Geographic indican que a las autoridades estatales encargadas de responder ante emergencias les llovieron unas 250 llamadas de personas que reportaban disturbios, incendios, riñas e “invasiones a hogares” por toda la zona. Los entrevistados señalaron que nadie acudió a ayudar.

Rodríguez Esposa de una de las víctimas


El sábado empezó todo. Empiezan a tronar casas. Empieza a entrar la gente, a saquear, y todo lo que yo podía pensar era dónde podría estar Everardo. Todo el sábado lo pasé buscándolo y llamando a la gente para preguntar: ‘¿Qué has sabido?.’

Una persona me dijo: ‘Vi a hombres armados.’ Otra me dijo: ‘Las bodegas se siguen quemando. El humo es muy negro, es como si estuvieran quemando llantas. Es un humo muy negro, espantoso.’

Recibí una llamada de un hombre que trabajaba con mi marido. Mi marido criaba gallos de pelea. En esta región, las peleas de gallos son muy populares. Él trabajaba para José Luis Garza, pero no de tiempo completo. Solo iba en las mañanas y en las tardes a alimentar a los animales.

El hombre me dijo: ‘Las cosas están muy feas ahí en el rancho. No sabemos qué pasó con toda la gente.’ Yo pregunté: ‘¿Cómo que qué pasó con la gente? ¿Cuál gente?.’

Dijo que varios de los que trabajaban con mi marido no habían llegado a sus casas en la noche. Uno andaba con el tractor. Otro andaba regando. Y nadie regresó a sus casas.

Le pregunté: ‘¿Pues qué hacemos? Vamos a buscarlos.’ Me dijo: ‘Ni te acerques para allá, porque te llevan a ti también.’

Pasó algo que se me quedó aquí, esa imagen de cómo la gente entró a las forrajeras y sacaban los costales de alimento para los animales, hasta los pericos, traían las jaulas. Traían lámparas y juegos de comedor.

A mí, la imagen que se me quedó muy grabada fue de una motocicleta pequeña en la que, atrás del que manejaba, iba una señora. La mujer había convertido una sábana en morral. La traía así como tipo Santa Claus, a un lado, llena de cosas. Y del otro lado, en la mano llevaba una lámpara. Y así iban en la moto, no podían equilibrarse, parecía que se iban a caer, pero ellos felices, porque ya llevaban no sé qué tantas cosas.

Márquez Vendedor de hot dogs


Dos amigos míos se dedicaban a recolectar y vender chatarra. Se dieron cuenta de que el rancho estaba en llamas y los dueños ya se habían ido. Así que fueron — el papá y su hijo — para ver si había algo de valor para cargar. Vieron una freeza [un congelador] al lado de la carretera, una freeza grande. Y la quisieron mover. Pero estaba muy pesada. Y el padre dijo: ‘Ven ayúdame, vamos a echarla pa’rriba.’ La abrieron y había dos cuerpos ahí adentro. Huyeron.

Evaristo Rodríguez Veterinario y vicealcalde de Allende en aquella época

Se reunió todo el consejo municipal, no formalmente, solo estábamos reunidos: el alcalde, todos los regidores, el director de seguridad pública también. Y pues sí, había muchas preguntas. Lo principal: ‘¿Qué está pasando?.’ Pero todo el mundo quería saber, sobre todo, el porqué de las cosas. Ya todos sabíamos que había una balacera y algunos casos de desaparecidos y muertos.

Sí se preguntó mucho qué hacíamos, pero nadie quería hacerse cargo. Uno de los regidores incluso dijo: ‘Oye, pues vámonos de aquí, de la presidencia, no vaya a ser que vengan por nosotros.’

No me quería sentir héroe, pero sí quería que al menos nos quedáramos en nuestras oficinas para que la gente viera que no la habíamos abandonado. Pero todos los funcionarios querían irse. Todos se enfocaron en sus propias familias.

Con todo lo que estábamos viviendo, desconfiábamos de todos. Nos dábamos cuenta de que había una situación de doble gobierno; no sé si me explico: el gobierno oficial de Coahuila y lo que es la delincuencia, que tenía el mando. Sabíamos que la policía ya estaba infiltrada.

El director de seguridad pública nos comentó: ‘Es algo entre ellos.’ No dijo nada más. No hacía falta. Yo entendí: ‘No investiguen y no se metan, o ya verán.’

A la vista de transeúntes y no lejos de la estación de policía, el departamento de los bomberos y un recinto militar, los Zetas demolieron casas y comercios en Allende. El hombre que era alcalde durante la masacre todavía vive al otro lado de la calle frente a esta casa. Inicialmente, reportó que no había visto ningún indicio de violencia.
Lira Esposa de una de las víctimas

La última llamada con Rodolfo fue al cuarto para las 12. Sonaba agotado. Todavía no sabía nada de sus padres. Le dije que había hecho todo lo que podía por ellos y que ahora era tiempo de pensar en Sofía y en mí. Le rogué que viniera a Eagle Pass con nosotros. Él dijo: ‘Bueno, ahí voy.’

Nunca más escuché de él.

Sánchez Madre de una de las víctimas

No hay un manual que te diga cómo actuar cuando alguien te arrebata un hijo. No hay un primer paso. Te vuelves loca. Quieres correr, pero no sabes adónde. Quieres gritar, pero no sabes si alguien está escuchando. Uno de mis primos sugirió que lo pusiera en Facebook. Así que escribí: ‘Devuélvanme a mi hijo. Si alguien sabe dónde está, tráiganmelo de vuelta.’

Vela Esposa de una de las víctimas

¿Cómo puedo explicar lo que sentí? Era como si aquel día me hubieran secuestrado a mí también. De alguna manera, yo también morí. Mataron el futuro que teníamos, los planes, los sueños, las ilusiones, la paz, todo. En aquella época había vivido más tiempo con Édgar del que había vivido sin él. Solamente piense usted en esto. Además, estaba embarazada, no podía tomar ni un tranquilizante. Tenía que intentar mantenerme ecuánime, muy tranquila, pero llegaba a mi casa y sentía que se me caía encima. No encontraba dónde sentarme sin sentir que las paredes se me caían. No alcanzaba a comprender. Fíjese, a pesar de ser abogada, no alcanzaba a comprender qué había pasado.

Muchas de las víctimas fueron traídas a un rancho en las afueras de Allende, propiedad de la familia Garza. Se acusa al cartel de convertir este almacén, que contenía enseres y comida para animales, en un incinerador de cadáveres. Cenizas, un rosario, y lo que parecen ser hebillas de cinturones descansan en el carbonizado suelo de concreto.

El Operativo

Unos meses antes, en las afueras de Dallas, la DEA había lanzado el operativo Too Legit to Quit [Demasiado Legítimo para Rendirse], después de unas redadas que tuvieron resultados sorprendentes. En una, la policía había encontrado 802,000 dólares en efectivo, empacados al vacío y escondidos en el tanque de gasolina de una camioneta. El conductor dijo que trabajaba para un tipo al que solo conocía como El Diablo.

Después de más detenciones, el agente Richard Martinez, de la DEA, y el fiscal federal adjunto Ernest Gonzalez identificaron a El Diablo como Jose Vasquez, Jr., de 30 años, un nativo de Dallas que había empezado a vender droga cuando estaba en la secundaria y que entonces era el distribuidor de cocaína más importante de los Zetas en el este de Texas, donde movía camiones llenos de drogas, armas y dinero cada mes.

<Mientras se completaban los preparativos para detenerlo, Vasquez se fugó por la frontera hacia Allende, donde buscó protección de los miembros del círculo interno del cartel.

Pero Martinez y Gonzalez vieron en su huida una oportunidad. Si podían persuadir a Vasquez para que cooperara con ellos, les daría acceso a los altos rangos de un cartel, que era notoriamente impenetrable, y la posibilidad de capturar a sus jefes, especialmente a los Treviño, conocidos como Z-40 y Z-42, que habían dejado un sendero de cadáveres en su escalada a la cima de la lista de los más buscados por la DEA. Miguel Ángel Treviño era conocido como Z-40 y Omar como Z-42.

Lo que Martinez quería eran los PIN (números de identificación personal) rastreables de los teléfonos Blackberry de los Treviño. Vasquez, después de huir, le había dado al agente una amplia ventaja. Su mujer y su madre todavía vivían en Texas.

Jose Vasquez, Jr. Operario convicto de los Zetas

Mi mujer me llama como a las 6 de la mañana. Me dice: ‘Oye, la casa está rodeada.’

Le pregunté: ‘¿Qué quieres decir con que está rodeada?.’

Contestó: ‘Sí, hay mucha policía afuera.’

Le dije: ‘Pues, escucha, probablemente te van a detener. Déjame llamar [a mi abogado]. Sobre todo, no les digas nada. Intenta relajarte nomás. Te sacaremos con una fianza.’

Le dije: ‘Destruye los teléfonos.’ En la casa teníamos inodoros que descargaban con mucha fuerza, así que los rompió y los tiró al escusado.

Entonces me llamó Richard [Martinez] desde allí. Me puso en el altavoz, para que mi mujer pudiera escuchar.

Me advirtió que la iba a detener. Pensé que era un engaño, así que le dije: ‘Haz lo que tengas que hacer.’

Ernest Gonzalez Fiscal federal adjunto

Al principio, lo único que queríamos era que Jose se rindiera y cooperara, para que nos explicara la estructura de la organización de los Zetas. Creo que esto nos habría aplacado en aquel momento, porque realmente no sabíamos cuán cerca estaba — cuán próximo era — de Miguel y Omar. No sabíamos — hasta que empezó a decir con quién hablaba, con quién se veía — lo que estaban haciendo. Fue entonces cuando nuestra perspectiva de lo que podríamos hacer, y cómo, empezó a cambiar. Empezamos a idear planes para capturarlos.

Cuando Jose no se entregó y vimos que estaba dispuesto a sacrificar a su esposa, supimos que teníamos que apretar las tuercas aún más, o presionarlo más.

Richard le dijo: ‘Se van a presentar cargos contra tu madre.’

Vasquez Operario convicto de los Zetas

Le dije: ‘Hombre, oye, me voy ahorita mismo a la frontera, cruzo y me entrego. No peleo para nada. Firmaré todos tus papeles de incautación. Dame cadena perpetua. Tira la llave a la basura. No me importa. Pero deja a mi mujer en paz. Deja a mi madre en paz.’

Él dijo: ‘Oye, la única forma en que tu mujer no vaya a la cárcel, que tu madre no vaya a la cárcel, es si cooperas con nosotros.’

Le contesté: ‘Richard, no quiero cooperar, hombre. Esto va a traer muchos muertos.’

Él dijo: ‘Lo único que tengo que decirte es que, si no cooperas, ellas van a ir a la cárcel contigo.’

Le pregunté a Richard: ‘¿Qué quieres?.’

Los militares ayudan a la policía local a patrullar Piedras Negras, vigilando desde la periferia para que los agentes puedan interrogar a sospechosos de ser drogadictos o pandilleros. El alcalde actual de Piedras Negras, Fernando Purón, dijo que los soldados no solo proporcionan potencia de fuego adicional sino que impiden que la policía caiga bajo el control de los carteles de la droga — como ha sucedido en el pasado.
Richard Martinez Agente de la DEA


Yo quería los números. Buscábamos capturar a los líderes de los Zetas. Pensé que estos números nos daban la mejor oportunidad de dar con ellos.

A la hora de la verdad, muchos de estos tipos huyen de Estados Unidos. Pero, si creciste aquí, todavía es Estados Unidos, el mejor país del mundo. Todavía quieres volver algún día. Si tu familia está aquí, quieres estar con ellos. Pensé que, una vez que Jose se diera cuenta de que la fiesta se había acabado, iba a hacer lo necesario para ayudarnos. Yo iba a empujarlo para que lo hiciera mientras tuviera la oportunidad.

Esto nos desvía del tema, pero me acuerdo de cuando iba a México de niño. Mi mamá es de allá, de Monterrey. He estado en Coahuila. Tengo familia en Coahuila. No puedes volver ahora. Es triste decirlo, pero no puedes ir por esos caminos rurales. Me encantaría que mi familia regresara, pero no puede.

Vi esos números como una llave. Son muy significativos. Los vi como una oportunidad para detener el reinado de Miguel Ángel y Omar Treviño.

Gonzalez Fiscal federal adjunto

Era algo personal, totalmente. Era importante por mi origen, por mi herencia personal y por el conocimiento de lo que [los Zetas] le estaban haciendo a México. Pasaba los veranos con mis abuelos en ese país. Tenían granjas y ranchos. Disfruté mi juventud en México. Esta organización estaba destruyendo todo eso con su avaricia y violencia.

Para evitar la captura, los Zetas hicieron que su lugarteniente más cercano en Coahuila, Mario Alfonso “Poncho” Cuéllar, les diera celulares nuevos cada tres o cuatro semanas. Cuéllar le asignó la tarea de comprar teléfonos nuevos a su mano derecha, Héctor Moreno.

Ante la presión de obtener los PIN de los teléfonos, Vasquez recurrió a Moreno, utilizando información que él manejaba. Fue Gilberto, hermano de Moreno, quien había sido sorprendido al volante del camión con 802, 000 dólares en el tanque de gasolina. Con 20 años de prisión por delante, Gilberto había confesado que trabajaba para los Zetas y que el efectivo pertenecía a los hermanos Treviño.

Vasquez organizó que su abogado en Dallas representara a Gilberto y le prometió que no dejaría que nadie en el cartel supiera de las declaraciones incriminadoras de Gilberto. Moreno le devolvió el favor a Vasquez al aceptar conseguirle los números. Pero, llegado el momento, Moreno lo reconsideró.

Héctor Moreno Ex operario de los Zetas

Los Zetas controlaban todo. Hacían lo que querían. Cuando los soldados iban a una zona, alguien del ejército nos avisaba con antelación.

A veces llegaban aviones llenos de policías federales, con 200 oficiales, pero recibíamos una llamada una semana antes: ‘¿Almacenan algo en tal o cual casa?.’

Respondíamos: ‘No, no hay nada ahí.’

Decían: ‘Qué bueno, porque hay una orden de cateo para ese lugar y los agentes van a llegar el jueves.’

El gobierno nos dijo todo. Así sabía que, si el gobierno conseguía esos números, los Zetas se iban a enterar.

Vasquez Operario convicto de los Zetas


El día que Héctor me iba a dar los números, le llamé. Me dijo: ‘Conseguí los números, pero los tiré.’

Le dije: ‘¿Qué pasó? Dijiste que me los ibas a dar.’

Me contestó: ‘Estos números nos pueden meter en muchos problemas, así que los eché por la ventana.’

Le dije: ‘Tengo a estos tipos esperándome. Les prometí que les iba a dar los números. ¿Y mi familia?.’

Después de un rato lo convencí de que regresáramos al camino donde los había tirado. Lo recorrimos de arriba abajo por cerca de una hora o dos hasta que encontramos el trozo de papel.

Conseguí todos los números: el de 40 y 42, y de todos ellos. No sabía lo que iban a hacer con ellos. Pensé que iban a intentar interceptarlos o algo así. Nunca pensé que iban a mandar los números de vuelta a México. Les dije que no hicieran eso, porque iban a causar la muerte de mucha gente. No solo eso, yo todavía estaba allí. Todavía andaba con esa gente. Me dijeron que no lo harían. Richard me dijo que tenía que confiar en él.

La Ocupación

La gente de Allende no era ajena a la ilegalidad. Por su proximidad a la frontera norte — los vecinos hacen sus compras de fin de semana en el centro comercial de Eagle Pass, Texas — hacía mucho que familias dedicadas al contrabando vivían tranquilamente en la comunidad. Sin embargo, para 2007, los Zetas se establecieron ahí con el dinero y la fuerza de una ocupación hostil. Eliminaron a rivales, tomaron el control de agencias gubernamentales importantes, convirtieron a la policía local en su secuaz y transformaron la región en un refugio para todo tipo de criminales.

Se asimilaron a la sociedad, casándose con miembros de familias locales o asociándose con ellos. Algunos lugareños se unieron a las filas del cartel, incluyendo a varios miembros de un prominente clan de rancheros y mineros, los Garza.

Carlos Osuna Empresario retirado y organizador para el Partido Acción Nacional

La violencia que estalló aquí en 2011 no sucedió de un día para otro. Ya había narcotráfico desde hacía mucho. Y, por largo tiempo, solo había un jefe, llamado Vicente Lafuente Guereca. Todos sabían quién era y a qué se dedicaba. Pero había respeto mutuo. Él respetaba a la sociedad y la sociedad lo respetaba. Y, en ese tenor, la vida seguía con cierta normalidad. Las drogas pasaban, pero la sociedad no intervenía. Y Lafuente no intervenía con el gobierno ni con la sociedad civil. No había secuestros. No había nada de eso.

Pero la coexistencia pacífica acabó cuando asesinaron a Lafuente.

Moreno Ex operario de los Zetas

Cuando llegaron los Zetas, reclutaron a todos para que trabajaran con ellos. Todos los narcos de la región tenían que trabajar para los Zetas. Ya no había grupos independientes. Antes de que llegaran, Coahuila había sido una especie de libre mercado. Quien quisiera podía operar ahí. Los Tejas [banda con base en Nuevo Laredo] estaban ahí. El Chapo [Joaquín Guzmán, cabeza del cartel de Sinaloa] estaba ahí. Estaba abierto de par en par. Pero llegaron los Zetas y mataron a Omar Rubio, de los Tejas. Mataron a Vicente Lafuente y a unas pocas personas importantes más. Y todo el que quedó se les unió.

Mi familia había vivido en la región por mucho tiempo. Del lado de mi mamá tenía familiares que dirigían funerarias y ferreterías. Del lado de mi papá tenían ranchos. Pero la verdad es que nada de eso daba tanto dinero como el tráfico de drogas. Por eso me involucré.

Arriba: Un entrenamiento de la liga juvenil de futbol en Allende. El futbol americano es popular debido a la cercanía a Texas. Debajo: Una familia celebra una quinceañera, una elaborada fiesta que se celebra para niñas mexicanas cuando cumplen 15. La niña del cumpleaños creció en los alrededores de Forth Worth, Texas. Pero su padre es originalmente de la zona de Allende, y trajo a la familia de vuelta hasta allí para el acontecimiento. Muchas familias en Allende tienen parientes en ambos lados de la frontera EEUU-Mexico.
Ángel Humberto García Médico y ex legislador

Cuando fui miembro del Congreso, los agricultores y rancheros de Allende empezaron a venir a verme. Estaban aterrados porque sus vidas eran amenazadas. Dijeron que los criminales se habían apoderado de sus propiedades. Algunos me contaron que la única manera en que podían entrar a su propia tierra era si les pedían permiso a los criminales.

Uno de ellos era José Piña. Me comentó que había pedido ayuda a la policía y le dijeron que no podían hacer nada. Había un puesto de control militar a pocos metros de su propiedad, así que le pregunté: ‘¿Y los soldados?.’ Me contestó: ‘Les he dicho a los soldados y nada.’ Pregunté: ‘¿Qué quiere decir con nada?.’ Dijo: ‘No van a hacer nada.’

Indicó que [los Zetas] le habían ofrecido dinero por su rancho, pero no lo iba a tomar. Se había quejado con el presidente municipal y el gobernador, pero no conseguía que nadie lo escuchara. Así que vino a mí y me dio una carta escrita a mano para el presidente.

Dos días después, el señor Piña estaba muerto.

El diario mexicano El Universal publicó un artículo sobre el asesinato en 2009. Informó que el cuerpo de Piña, hallado detrás de una escuela primaria católica, estaba tan lleno de balas que parecía que había sido “cosido a balazos”. El texto decía que le habían cortado la lengua y los dedos, uno de los cuales se lo habían metido en la boca. Los asesinos dejaron una nota escrita: “Nosotros no nos metemos con ustedes, ustedes no se metan con nosotros”.

Moreno Ex operario de los Zetas

Los Zetas mataron a Piña porque su rancho estaba ubicado en el río Bravo. Tanto 40 como 42 solían pasar por ahí a diario. Dejaban el portón abierto y entonces su ganado se escapaba. Se quejó al respecto con los militares. Los soldados les dijeron a los Zetas y por eso fueron y lo mataron.

Ricardo Treviño (no tiene parentesco con los líderes de los Zetas) Ex presidente municipal de Allende

Una noche [los Zetas] golpearon a mi hijo. Fue muy feo. Tenía moretones en todo el cuerpo. Tenía la cara hinchada. Le pusieron una ametralladora en la cabeza y amenazaron con dispararle. Había estado tomando con unos amigos. Se detuvieron en una gasolinería. [Los Zetas] lo golpearon ahí, en frente de la policía.

Fui a la policía y pregunté: ‘¿Por qué por que chingados permitieron que estos cabrones golpearan a mi hijo?.’ Tomé las llaves de sus patrullas. Les dije: ‘¿De qué sirve tener oficiales en las calles si no van a proteger a la gente?.’

Me dijeron: ‘No podemos con ellos. Nos matan si tratamos de detenerlos. Traen muchas armas.’

Más tarde salí, me puse a tomar demasiado. Cuando caminaba hacia mi auto, vi a algunos policías cerca. Les grité: ‘Díganle al jefe [de los Zetas] que lo quiero ver.’

Al día siguiente, mientras hacía unas diligencias en el pueblo, vi una hilera de autos que venía hacia mí. Los autos frenaron frente a mí. ‘El jefe quiere hablar con usted.’ Me llevaron a uno de los autos. Entré junto al conductor. Era 42.

Preguntó: ‘¿En qué le puedo servir, señor alcalde?.’

Le dije: ‘Escuche, ¿cómo se sentiría si alguien le partiera la madre a su hijo? ¿No se encabronaría?.’

‘Por supuesto,’ respondió.

‘Pues estoy encabronado — le dije. Ustedes piensan que son muy cabrones porque tienen armas y no hay nada que podamos hacer. Puede que tenga razón. Pero en lo que a mi familia se refiere, si quiere tocar a alguien, viene conmigo. Si quiere matar a alguien, máteme a mí.’

Dijo: ‘No lo voy a matar. Usted no es mi enemigo, siempre y cuando se ocupe de sus asuntos y nos deje encargarnos de los nuestros. Pero, por favor, mantenga a su hijo en casa por la noche. Si quiere beber con sus amigos, que lo haga en casa. La noche es nuestra.’

Fernando Purón Presidente municipal de Piedras Negras


Hubo un punto en el que empezamos a ver señales de que [los Zetas] habían empezado una especie de toma hegemónica de todas las actividades comerciales. Además del tráfico de drogas y de armas, echaron a andar compañías y negocios en el sector de servicios, en bienes raíces, en la construcción.

Por ejemplo, empezaron a operar casas de cambio en la frontera, para cambiar dólares por pesos. Montaron conciertos y bailes. Abrieron restaurantes, bares y zonas rojas. Se metieron en la compraventa de autos usados. Luego fueron por negocios más grandes. Empezaron a construir centros comerciales, hoteles y casinos.

Y empezaron a vivir aquí. Después de un tiempo, sus hijos empezaron a asistir a las escuelas con nuestros hijos.

No crea que vivían en las afueras o en algún rancho al margen de la ciudad. Vivían justo aquí, frente al ayuntamiento. De hecho, desde este balcón puedo señalarle una de las casas en las que vivían.

Todos les tenían miedo. Los Zetas eran más fuertes que el gobierno, ¿entiende? Eran más fuertes económicamente. Mejor organizados. Estaban mejor armados. Todos les tenían miedo y, los que no, habían sido comprados.

Osuna Empresario retirado y organizador para el Partido Acción Nacional

El mayor efecto en la sociedad fue en nuestra sensación de libertad. Ya no podía ir a mi rancho, o incluso a la esquina, sin miedo de que alguien me confundiera con alguien más y me golpeara, o peor. Esa pérdida fue lo que más sentimos.

Y entonces, incluso si no estábamos involucrados [con el cartel], establecían vínculos con nuestras familias. Uno de ellos se casaba con una prima o hija de un amigo cercano, y de repente estaban en las mismas fiestas o cenas de Navidad.

Al principio solo nos quedábamos callados por miedo. Pero, por desgracia, el tráfico de drogas trae mucho dinero. Y nos gusta el dinero. Así que estos tipos se aparecen con él y empiezan a desparramarlo, y, antes de que uno se dé cuenta, son miembros del Club de Leones.

No era difícil darse cuenta. Somos una comunidad pequeña. Todos conocemos el nivel de ingresos de todos. Así que cuando alguien vive con 1 000 pesos un día y con tres millones de pesos al siguiente, dices espérate, algo está pasando. Desafortunadamente, todos lo aceptamos.

En octubre de 2015, las autoridades mexicanas erigieron un monumento para honrar a las víctimas de la masacre. Algunos residentes dicen que lo vieron como una afrenta, especialmente porque el gobierno no había hecho ningún esfuerzo real durante años para investigar la masacre. Aunque el obelisco de concreto se asienta en una rotonda de tráfico muy transitada en la entrada de Allende, poca gente se para a visitarlo.

La Filtración

Alrededor de tres semanas después de que Vasquez le diera los números PIN a la DEA, los jefes del cartel recibieron la noticia de que uno de los suyos los había traicionado y lanzaron una ola de venganza.

Fuentes oficiales cercanas al caso dijeron que un supervisor de la DEA en Ciudad de México compartió información relacionada con los números con una unidad de la policía federal mexicana conocida como Unidad de Investigaciones Sensibles, cuyos agentes habían sido entrenados y examinados por la DEA. A pesar de ello, tenía un pobre historial manteniendo información fuera de las manos de delincuentes. Un oficial de la unidad, dijeron las fuentes, fue el responsable de la filtración. Cuando ocurrieron los hechos, los jefes de la unidad no respondieron a múltiples solicitudes de entrevistas.

Sin embargo, a principios de este año, uno de los supervisores de la unidad, Iván Reyes Arzate, se entregó a las autoridades federales estadounidenses para enfrentar cargos por compartir información sobre las investigaciones de la DEA con narcotraficantes. No queda claro si Reyes fue la fuente de la filtración en el caso de Allende.

No fue difícil para los Zetas reducir la lista de delatores bajo sospecha, porque muy poca gente tenía acceso a sus números PIN. Entre ellos estaban Mario Alfonso “Poncho” Cuéllar, el lugarteniente más importante de los Treviño en Coahuila, y Héctor Moreno, mano derecha de Cuéllar.

Sin decírselo a Cuéllar, Moreno le había dado los números PIN a Vasquez. Le estaba devolviendo un favor. El hermano de Moreno, Gilberto, era el conductor del camión que había sido detenido con 802,000 dólares en el tanque de gasolina. Frente a la posibilidad de pasar 20 años en prisión, Gilberto había confesado que trabajaba para los Zetas y que el dinero pertenecía a los Treviño. Vasquez había arreglado que su abogado representara a Gilberto y prometió que impediría que nadie más del cartel supiera sobre sus declaraciones incriminatorias.

Mario Alfonso “Poncho” Cuéllar Operario convicto de los Zetas


¿Cómo sabía que había bronca? Porque yo tenía 596 kilos de cocaína del cartel y 40 mandó a un tipo para quitármelos. Esto era algo que les había visto hacer muchas veces. Cada vez que 40 planeaba matar a alguien en la organización, primero se aseguraba de recuperar su mercancía.

Me mandó una foto de sí mismo, cubierto con dibujos de sapos. Al pie de la foto escribió: ‘Mira, güey, me balacearon por los pinches sapos.’ Sapos es la palabra que utilizan para los soplones.

Llamé a 40 y le pregunté: ‘¿Oye, qué onda con eso?.’ No respondió. Lo único que me dijo fue: ‘Necesito verte. ¿Dónde vas a estar más tarde?.’

Le dije que iba a estar en las carreras de caballos. Pero no fui. Llamé a gente mía y les pedí que checaran qué pasaba allí. Después de llegar, me llamaron y me dijeron ‘Estás fregado.’ Uno de los hombres de 40 estaba allí, mentándome la madre porque no había ido. Ahí supe que me tenía que ir.

Empecé a llamar a toda mi gente, les dije: ‘Sálganse, que hay bronca.’ Ninguno de ellos me hizo caso, desafortunadamente. Cuando 40 no pudo encontrarme, fue por ellos.

Vasquez Operario convicto de los Zetas

Héctor [Moreno] me llamó y me dijo que se venía un desmadre infernal. Me preguntó qué había hecho con los números. Le dije que se los había entregado a la DEA. Me dijo: ‘Algo está pasando. De alguna manera, los Zetas se enteraron.’

Le llamé a Richard [Martinez] y le pregunté: ‘¿Qué hiciste con los números?.’ Contestó: ‘Hombre, los mandaron a México.’

Le dije: ‘Hombre, ¿cómo dejaste que eso pasara? Te dije lo que iba a pasar si esos números llegaban a México.’

Richard respondió: ‘Hombre, yo no fui. No fue mi decisión. Vino de más arriba. El jefe lo hizo. Mandaron los números a México pensando que tenían un amigo allí en quien podían confiar.’

Gonzalez Fiscal federal adjunto

Richard llamó y dijo que teníamos los números, pero que habían sido enviados a México. Exclamé: ‘¿Qué?.’ No nos habíamos reunido para discutir cómo manejarlos. Me enojé. Creo que Richard pensaba como yo. Tampoco quería que se hiciera de esa manera, pero estaba fuera de su alcance. Dijo: ‘Son los jefes. Es la gerencia.’

Sabía bien que había problemas de discreción en México. Cuando en ocasiones anteriores se había pasado información, siempre parecía que algo iba a suceder.

Habíamos tratado desde hacía tiempo de ubicar a los Treviño. Tratar de saber cuál sería el mejor mecanismo para poder decir, finalmente, ‘Aquí están, en este momento.’ Sabíamos que se movían mucho. Esta era una de las oportunidades en que podías hacerlo. Era algo con lo que habíamos batallado por mucho tiempo. Habíamos presionado a gente para que cooperara. Habíamos apresado a esposas y madres, y habíamos realizado todos esos grandes arrestos.

Era una gran oportunidad. Pero se desperdició porque no se hizo bien y se puso en riesgo.

Vasquez, Moreno, Cuéllar y Garza, cuyo rancho familiar fue la escena de muchos de los asesinatos, huyeron a Estados Unidos cuando empezó la masacre y accedieron a cooperar con las fuerzas de la ley estadounidenses a cambio de clemencia. Los escalofriantes reportes de lo que estaba pasando en Allende hicieron que las autoridades de Estados Unidos se dieran cuenta de la ira que había desencadenado aquella filtración.

Seis años después de la masacre, no se ha hecho casi ningún esfuerzo para limpiar las escenas de los crímenes. Cuadras enteras yacen en ruinas todavía. Esparcidos entre los escombros están los vestigios de las vidas que llegaron a un fin violento.
Cuéllar Operario convicto de los Zetas

Me acuerdo de mi primera reunión con la DEA. Les expliqué lo que estaba pasando en Coahuila, sobre toda la violencia. Me acuerdo que Ernest [Gonzalez] se levantó de la mesa, salió y enfrentó a uno de los jefes de la DEA. Empezó a gritarle. Dijo algo así como: ‘¿Escuchaste lo que está pasando? Todo esto porque mandaste aquellos números a México.’

Gonzalez Fiscal federal adjunto

Le dije que esto era una porquería. Las cosas nunca tenían que haber pasado así. Teníamos información que nos podría haber ayudado a capturar a estos tipos, pero, por la manera como se manejó, todo se desmoronó. Y ahora era un maldito lío.

La Secuela

Durante años, las autoridades estatales y federales en México no parecían hacer un esfuerzo verdadero para indagar en el ataque. Las autoridades federales mexicanas dijeron que sus predecesores no investigaron porque los asesinatos no se podían conectar al crimen organizado, pero reconocieron que ellos tampoco han investigado.

Los estimados de los números de muertos y desaparecidos varían enormemente entre la cifra official, 28, y la de las asociaciones de las víctimas, alrededor de 300. ProPublica y National Geographic han identificado alrededor de 60 personas cuyas muertes o desapariciones han sido conectadas por familiares, amigos, grupos de apoyo a víctimas, archivos judiciales o informes periodísticos al asedio realizado por los Zetas aquel año.

Los familiares fueron abandonados a su suerte a la hora de juntar las piezas de lo que pasó y reconstruir sus vidas.

En mayo de 2011, Héctor Reynaldo Pérez levantó un reporte de persona desaparecida con las autoridades estatales. Su hermana, que se había casado con un Garza, había desaparecido junto con su familia entera. Menos de un año después, el mismo Pérez desapareció. Un informe por parte de investigadores independientes de derechos humanos en El Colegio de México halló evidencia de que Pérez había sido visto por última vez en custodia de oficiales de la policía de Allende.

Después de eso, pocos familiares de las víctimas se atrevieron a buscar ayuda con las autoridades, mucho menos a hablar públicamente sobre su tragedia. Varios se mudaron a Estados Unidos.

Ninguna familia perdió más miembros que los Garza. Se cree que casi 20 de ellos están muertos, incluida Olivia Martínez de la Torre, de 81 años, y su bisnieto de siete meses, Mauricio Espinoza. Los hermanos del bebé, Andrea y Arturo, que tenían cinco y tres años en aquel momento, aparecieron en un orfanato de Piedras Negras después del asesinato de sus padres.

Su abuela paterna, Elvira Espinoza, camarera de un hotel en San Antonio, fue por ellos con su esposo.

Elvira Espinoza Ama de llaves de un hotel y abuela de los niños Espinoza

Andrea dice que fueron en una camioneta hasta un lugar donde las casas no tienen techos. Dijo que los hombres bajaron a su madre, su abuela y su bisabuela. Ellos les dijeron a los niños: ‘Quédense. Solo vamos a hablar con ellas.’

Los hombres tuvieron allí a los niños y les dijeron que se callaran. Que no lloraran. Andrea contó que le cambió los pañales a su hermanito y le preparó su leche.

Ella no recuerda exactamente cuántos días estuvieron ahí, hasta que los hombres la llevaron con Arturo y Mauricio a Piedras Negras. Andrea dice que los dejaron en un parque, pero se llevaron a Mauricio con ellos.

Contó que les había suplicado que le dejaran al bebé. Pero los hombres le dijeron que el niño era muy pequeño y lloraba demasiado para dejarlo ahí con ellos.

Andrea se culpa a sí misma de lo que pasó. Dice: ‘Si hubiera sido más fuerte, Mauricio estaría todavía con nosotros.’

Lira Esposa de una de las víctimas

Yo sí metí una denuncia. El investigador me dijo que sería confidencial. Me prometió conservar mi identidad en el anonimato. Luego, unos días después, recibí una amenaza. Alguien me llamó al celular y me dijo que, si seguía con la queja, lo mismo que le había pasado a mi marido le pasaría al resto de mi familia. Mis padres aún vivían en Allende. Nunca me habría perdonado si algo les hubiera pasado.

Llamé al investigador ese mismo día. Le dije que me había mentido respecto a mantener mi nombre en secreto y que quería retirar mi demanda.

También fui al consulado mexicano en San Antonio. No creerá lo que me dijeron. Me echaron la culpa. Dijeron: ‘Ah, ahora viene llorando porque su esposo no aparece. Todo este tiempo usted sabía en qué negocios estaban metidos sus familiares, pero no pareció importarle hasta que se vio personalmente afectada.’

Nunca más le pedí nada al gobierno.

Tres años después de la matanza de los Zetas, el gobernador de Coahuila, Rubén Moreira, anunció que oficiales estatales investigarían lo que había sucedido en Allende. Lo informó con bombo y platillo; los oficiales anunciaron una “megaoperativo” para recabar evidencia y averiguar la verdad. Las familias de las víctimas y los habitantes de Allende indican que ha sido poco más que un ardid publicitario. La investigación no ha arrojado resultados de ADN concluyentes ni un cálculo final de los muertos y desaparecidos.

Claudia Sánchez visita la cripta que sirve de memorial para su hijo de 15 años, Gerardo Heath, quien fue secuestrado y asesinado durante el ataque. Las autoridades nunca recuperaron sus restos. En su lugar, le proporcionaron a Sánchez una urna llena de polvo y cenizas del rancho de Luis Garza.

Menos de una docena de sospechosos han sido arrestados, la mayoría eran ex policías locales y peones del narco que seguían órdenes. Nadie ha sido acusado de asesinato. En 2015, la oficina del fiscal especial de Coahuila comenzó una serie de reuniones con familiares de aquellas víctimas que, como creían los investigadores — basados en confesiones — estaban muertos. Emitieron certificados de defunción, pese a no tener cuerpos, que enlistaban causas de muerte como “choque neurogénico” y “combustión total debido a exposición directa al fuego”.

Sánchez Madre de una de las víctimas


Cuando ellos [las autoridades del estado de Coahuila] me dieron la noticia, mi cuerpo quedó sin fuerzas. Me dijeron que Gerardo había sido llevado a un rancho y asesinado. Algo dentro de mí me dijo que era verdad. Aun así pregunté: ‘¿Están seguros de que era él?.’

Me dijeron que un testigo les había dicho que entre las víctimas había una familia con tres niños, y uno de los niños era mi hijo. Me dijeron que había empezado a llorar. Llore y llore. Esto los estaba estresando, así que lo mataron. Híjole. Ahí sí perdí los estribos. ¿Cómo podía haber alguien que mata a un niño de 15 años, que está asustado y llorando?

Los oficiales me preguntaron qué quería. Respondí que quería sus restos. Me dijeron que sería difícil, porque mi hijo fue incinerado junto a mucha otra gente. En su lugar, me trajeron cenizas y tierra del lugar donde murió. Les pregunté si podía ir allí. Me contestaron que no era seguro. Les dije que quería ir de todas maneras. Entonces nos llevaron con unas escoltas.

Me llamó la atención lo cerca que estaba el lugar. Pensé, ‘Gerardo era tan fuerte que, si solo hubiera escapado y llegado hasta la carretera, podría fácilmente haber llegado a casa.’

Rodríguez Esposa de una de las víctimas

El fiscal y su equipo tenían que llegar en la tarde, pero no lo hicieron sino hasta esa noche. Los esperamos por más de cinco horas. Y, cuando por fin llegaron, solo nos ofrecieron gestos simbólicos. Nos dijeron que nos expedirían certificados de defunción, con información basada en las declaraciones de la gente que había sido arrestada. Y tenían cajitas con tierra para cualquier familiar que las quisiera. Eso fue todo.

Les dije: ‘Esperen. Yo no esperé aquí seis horas para que llegaran y me ofrecieran un certificado de defunción y esta caja. Somos humanos. ¿Cómo pueden pensar que esta es la manera correcta de ayudarnos a darle cierre? Quiero saber de qué se enteraron y dónde. ¿Dónde está la persona que lo mató? ¿Cómo lo mataron?’

Expresaron que las respuestas podrían ser difíciles de escuchar. No querían ser crueles. Les dije que nada podía ser peor que las 20 000 cosas que ya me había imaginado sola.

¿Cómo sabrían los sospechosos el nombre de mi esposo si no eran de aquí? Todo este tiempo habíamos creído que a la gente que había hecho esto la habían traído de otro estado.

Al final nos enteramos de que era gente de aquí. Los monstruos que pensábamos que habían venido de Dios sabe dónde eran monstruos que habían vivido entre nosotros y que habrían tenido que protegernos.

Vela Esposa de una de las víctimas

Me dieron un acta de defunción con fecha del 19 de marzo de 2011, el día después de que desapareció. Lo único que les pregunté fue si estaban completamente seguros. Me dijeron que los especialistas forenses no habían podido hacer pruebas con los fragmentos que se habían recuperado, así que no estaban 100 % seguros. Pero me dijeron que estaban convencidos de que Édgar estuvo allí en el momento de la masacre. Creo que es porque tenían declaraciones de testigos.

Aún no sé qué creer. No había sabido nada de ellos en cinco años y después, de repente, me piden que crea que el caso está resuelto.

Apuesto a que si usted lograra echar un vistazo al expediente de mi marido, vería que está vacío.

Con todo, con el certificado de defunción empecé a hacer los cambios pendientes. Me mudé de nuestra casa. Solo me fui con nuestra ropa y los muebles de la recámara [de mi hija]. Toda la ropa de Édgar sigue ahí, colgada en el clóset, tal como la dejó.

Por fin pude hablar abiertamente con mi hija sobre lo que había pasado. No había sido capaz de decirle que su papá estaba muerto, porque ¿y si regresaba? Creo que de alguna manera ya lo había descubierto.

Los hermanos Treviño, al final, fueron capturados en 2013 y 2015, en operativos liderados por la marina mexicana. Desde entonces, el dominio del cartel sobre Coahuila se ha debilitado y la vida nocturna ha regresado a Allende, aunque muchos residentes todavía sobrellevan cicatrices emocionales y desconfían de los extraños. Se obsesionan con noticias de violencia vinculada al narcotráfico; temen que los hermanos Treviño controlen el tráfico de drogas desde la cárcel.

El dominio de los Zetas sobre el estado de Coahuila se ha debilitado y la vida nocturna ha regresado a Allende. Cientos de personas acudieron durante el otoño pasado a la Cabalgata, un desfile festivo de vaqueros que dura dos o tres días, se detiene en varios ranchos a lo largo de la zona, y termina con un rodeo nocturno.

La DEA se atribuye a sí misma las capturas, pero no dice si ha investigado cómo terminó en manos de los Zetas la información sobre los números PIN. Terrance Cole, el supervisor de Martinez en Dallas, y Paul Knierim, en aquel entonces supervisor de la DEA en Ciudad de México que ejerció como enlace con la unidad de la policía federal mexicana entrenada por la DEA, se negaron a dar entrevistas.

Knierim fue ascendido y actualmente es el jefe adjunto de operaciones en la oficina central de la DEA en Washington.

Pero Martinez aceptó hablar, con un breve nudo un la garganta cuando le pregunté sobre su papel en la masacre. Distinguido como agente del año en 2011, ahora tiene cáncer de colon y hasta ahora el tratamiento médico ha fallado. Russ Baer, portavoz de la DEA, viajó dos veces desde Washington, D.C., a Texas para monitorear las entrevistas con Martinez y otro agente. Mientras Martinez hablaba, Baer interrumpió para enfatizar que los Zetas más importantes estaban en prisión y que la investigación hecha por la agencia tuvo éxito.

Gonzalez Fiscal federal adjunto

Obviamente me siento destrozado por esto. Uno sabe que en este tipo de trabajo va a haber consecuencias. La posibilidad de que alguien sea asesinado siempre está ahí. Pero es devastador estar involucrado en algo así y no poder hacer nada.

El objetivo era justo: conseguir la detención de estos tipos y meterlos a la cárcel para que dejaran de matar gente. Pero, en aquel punto de la investigación, tuvo el efecto opuesto.

Había escuchado de la brutalidad de Miguel Ángel y Omar Treviño, y de la violencia sin sentido que habían cometido en el pasado, pero no me cabía en la cabeza que pudiera ser así; que cualquiera remotamente vinculado contigo, incluso por fuera del narcotráfico, pudiera ser levantado y asesinado. Eso no parecía posible. Quizá debería serlo. Pero no lo pareció hasta que estaba pasando, hasta que pasó.

Martinez Agente de la DEA

Conseguí los números. Se los pasé a nuestra gente. Hasta ahí. No tengo que ver con nada más.

Todos sabíamos que los números eran peligrosos. Si solo empollaba un número, ¿qué iba a hacer con ellos en Dallas? Intervenir un teléfono no es tan fácil como dice la gente. Debo tener una causa probable.

Para mí, solo conseguí los números y los pasé. Es mi trabajo.

No puedo hablar por la agencia, solo sé lo que yo hice. Hice todo lo que pude.

Lo intenté. Así es como lo sentí. Hice lo mejor que pude aquel día. Tuve la oportunidad de conseguir la información y entregarla. La conseguí. No puedo entrar por mi cuenta a México e intentar encargarme del asunto personalmente.

Russ Baer Portavoz de la DEA

Escuche a este tipo. Tiene familia que es de México. Habló sobre problemas de salud. Habló al respecto casi desgarrándose a veces, porque está muy involucrado emocionalmente en esto. Es alguien que empezó viendo el glamur de ‘Miami Vice,’ que dedicó su vida al servicio público para trabajar en la DEA y básicamente desmanteló el cartel de los Zetas. Esa historia personal … , mejor, imposible. Me da escalofríos.

Con respecto a lo que pasó en México y las repercusiones de la filtración, la postura oficial de la DEA es la siguiente: es por completo culpa de Omar y Miguel Treviño. Estaban matando gente antes de que aquello pasara y mataron gente después de que se entregaron los números. La DEA hizo el trabajo de ir por ellos e intentar enfocar y dedicar nuestros recursos en sacarlos del negocio. Al final tuvimos éxito en este sentido.

Nuestros corazones están con las familias. Son las víctimas, desafortunadamente, de la violencia perpetrada por los hermanos Treviño y los Zetas. Pero esta no es una historia en la que la DEA tenga las manos manchadas de sangre.

Residentes de Allende, sus caras pintadas para parecer calaveras, participan en las celebraciones del Día de los Muertos. La tradición, en la cual las familias honran a sus parientes muertos, no es tan común en el norte de México como lo es en otros lugares del país. Hace un par de años, las autoridades en Allende empezaron a organizar eventos públicos para marcar el día. Ahora, docenas de personas convergen en los cementerios para limpiar y decorar las tumbas de sus parientes y desearles lo mejor en la vida después de la muerte.

Las entrevistas que conforman esta historia han sido resumidas y editadas.

Ginger Thompson es una reportera senior en ProPublica. Thompson ha ganado el premio Pulitzer y fue previamente una corresponsal nacional e internacional del The New York Times.

Alejandra Xanic, una reportera freelance en Ciudad de México, contribuyó investigación y reportería a esta historia.

Traducción al español por Carmen Méndez, Claudia Muzzi Turullols y Marcelo Rochabrún. Fotos por Kirsten Luce para National Geographic y ProPublica. Audio producido por Adriana Gallardo. Diseño y producción por David Sleight, Rob Weychert y Jillian Kumagai.

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