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Stories of wolves, lambs and shepherd


Hearts, minds and conciences confronted by justice and compassion


Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan


Today I have decided to speak openly about my work over the past many decades in a variety of international institutions.  Why?  Because I see limits to what overstretched – even banckrupt public sectors can do, nowadays in their pursue of development, justice and security.  And therefore, through this academic institution, I plea for additional mobilization by voluntary associations, religious institutions, the private sector, the media, academicians and, generally, those able to influence young people like those in the audience.

Why make this plea at a Catholic University? Because in the background is Christ’s message to the expert in law, who asked Him how to inherit eternal life.  You recall the Saviour’s words:  learn from the Samaritan and do likewise. What a wonderful mission statement.


Yet, I’m neither a saint nor a prophet. I am and have been for four decades a professional on the ground, with institutional and working responsibilities. Hence, I interpret Christ’s words in the light of an operationally clear concept spelt out by St. Augustine: charity is no substitute for justice denied.  Justice is no substitute for charity withheld.   Christ speaks of individual accountability (go and do);  St Augustine confronts us with a shared responsibility (fairness and compassion). A couple of millennia since these words were spoken, people and institutions still fail to face their responsibility. 

I can now anticipate my three conclusions:

-        first, society must do more to administer earthly justice (logos);

-        second, the administration of justice depends also on individual good will (ethos).

-        moreover, and third, justice and compassion (logos and ethos) are complementary.

To prove the point, I’ll introduce the three characters that bond together justice and compassion, people I have and continue too deal daily:  criminals, victims, and Samaritans. They’ll show us the way.

-        Day-in day-out, I have met and still face offenders: ravenous wolves whose deadly deeds you would think impossible in this 21st century, if they weren’t well-documented.

-        I dealt also with their victims, whose laments move me deeply: God’s lambs whose suffering you would again think unacceptable in today’s world, but they are well-documented too.

-        In all of this darkness, I have been also exposed to humanity’s best -- the many Samaritans who help the helpless, mend the wrong, and speak against the unspeakable. 

These three characters are all brutal when they do harm, tragic when they suffer, and noble when they help.  Hear their stories to judge.


Stories of wolves

In this uncomfortable journey, let’s first start from the wolves. No!.  We are talking about jackals, so let me introduce you to the first flesh-eater in the person of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord Resistance Army in Uganda. Although he is now lost in the forests between Congo and Sudan, we can sense his presence and hear his victims’ screams.  His ambition to become the national ruler and the support from neighbouring powers (Sudan to begin with) have led him to un-heard of violence. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has indicted him for 12 counts of crimes against humanity, and 21 counts for war crimes including murder, rape, enslavement, and the forced recruitment of children.

But these are just legal considerations. If you want to really know about Joseph Kony, ask James:  a boy of 14, who, when he was 9, was ordered to bite his brother to death – guilty of trying to escape from a rebel camp.  You heard me right:  bite his older brother to death, with his baby teeth.

Or, ask Nancy (now 16) who, after being raped, had her nose, lips and ears cut off, the left behind, maimed and pregnant. She is now raising the child of her tormentor, with part of her facial features reconstructed by doctors. Or, ask Mike, from the town of Lyra, who was forced, with other child soldiers, to hack the skull of a dozen peasants to show to the other village boys that there was no way back home – as all the parents there had been massacred.  Or, ask the villagers of Gere-Gere, an hamlet 20 km north of Gulu, forced by insurgents to eat the boiled remains of 24 people they had massacred in the raid. 

If you have the stomach for it, let me tell you about some other demons.

Second, let’s go to Mexico, where narco-traffickers are threatening the sovereignty of the country.  Joseph Kony in Africa claims he is driven by the Holy Spirit and that he is doing the Lord’s work (hence the name of his army of killers). Mexican gunmen working for Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman are materialistic, motivated by Ferrari cars, posh haciendas, Cuban cigars, automatic weapons, and skanty-dressed, long-legged babs.  Yet, their lust for life is built on a hunger for death:  death on a massive scale, with 1000 victims in the past 40 months alone.

Like the Italian members of the Mafia, the Mexican narco-traffickers scare their enemies, the police and the population by dissolving victims in acid, or slitting their lips and cutting off the genitals.  Those supected of betrays have their heads chopped off and displayed on poles as a warning; corpses are hung from public over-passes to challenge the authorities. 

Los Zetasare professional killers who defected from an elite army group of that name.  Skillful in the use of the goat horn (their AK-47 assault rifle) they are now on the pay-roll of the Sinaloa narco cartel, in the north of the country. They carve their trade mark, the Z, onto the chest of their victims, before murdering them, at times by putting them into cages with wild animals in order to extract information, or punish them for disloyalty.

This is not the Roman circus. This evil is among us.

Please be patient and listen to the third sordid story, in another place in the world. This time it’s about a woman who owns a brothel in the western suburbs of New Delhi.  Mamy Chun, a mother herself, runs a profitable business:  she buys and exploits little girls aged 12-13 years old who have been kidnapped from, or sold by their families.

At first, as a form of induction and warning, the girls are beaten, drugged, and tortured with electric shocks. They are tied to the bed all the time, except when they attend to the customers: up to 100 per day when business is good.  The victims of Mamy Chun are paid with drugs, exposed to diseases and, when pregnant, forced into crude abortions. Since selling a virgin’s sex is the most lucrative business, Mamy Chun forces her slaves to be painfully stitched up several times, till the vaginal tissue subsides despite the strength of their young age, and infections take place.

Is escape an option for these girls?  Not really.  Those who try are beaten by Mamy Chun’s thugs in front of other girls.  Even when they do succeed and run away, it is often to no avail.  I know the story of teen-aged girl named Chin Me, who succeeded and returned to her village in Nepal, after selling her body all the way across northern India.  In her village Chin Me discovered that her father – the idol of her dreams, during her captivity in New Dehli – was the one who had sold her to slave-driver Mamy Chun.  At that point Chin Me committed suicide.

We have to face the fact that the problem of hell on earth is even greater and more extended than the individual cases of violence I have described. For every one of these diabolic characters there are thousands of foot soldiers who implement the cruel orders they receive, sometimes with a smile. In the past we used to think of the wardens at Soviet gulags, excited to comply with Stalin’s orders, or about the SS troops, zealous in Hitler’s extermination camps. They were often described as willing partners in the crime of tyrants. Today, throughout the world, there are equally willing partners in crime of the underworld.

          But there is more than that.

For the infantry of narco-traffickers and of transnational mafias, violence is just the way to make that quick buck and even afford the lifestyle. Think of the kids in the favelas of Rio, the tattooed delinquents in Central America’s maras, the teenage Somali pirates, the baby-gangsters in Africa’s mega-slums or, not so far away, think of the Camorra apprentices in Saviano’s Gomorra -- younger than the students of this university, yet more crime-prone than the aging mafiosos. Crime’s infantrymen use the AK-47 Tommy-gun like the taxi driver handles the steering-wheel, a teacher a piece of chalk, or the surgeon the scalpel.

I cannot draw a conclusion, because at this point there is no end to the story.  As a God-fearing human, I believe that those who cause misery to others will be judged in the next life.  As a law-abiding professional I hold a pragmatic concern:  to make sure that there is justice in this world.  Yet, compassion and charity are maimed by the denial of eternal retribuition and the absence of earthly justice. 

Let’s examine more evidence:  this time by the victims.  This chapter will be even more overpowering.


Stories of lambs

In my first story we go back to the jungle of northern Uganda, where I introduce you to Evelyn.  Kidnapped from her village when she was 12, she was turned into a sex slave by the Lord’s Resistance Army – Joseph Kony’s marauding group.  As I told you, typically, half a dozen rebels would approach a village at dawn and ignite the huts.  As villagers run for safety, the rebels shoot them or, to save bullets, kill them by machete.  A dozen kids are usually forced to follow the killers.  And so on, from village to village. 

When Evelyn (now 16) smiles, or tries to, she covers her face with her hands. Not false modesty:  she is hiding the consequences of a blast to her face. Disfigured, she was left behind to die, but good Samaritans rescued her.  She was taken to the United States for reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. Her facial features are still horribly deformed, but she can speak, eat and drink, although it is painful. I wonder: how many other kids, similarly hurt in their body or mind, are in the countless theatres of violence in the world, with no other option than to hide for shame or anxiety? Hide from whom? and why? you could ask.  From the world! as Evelyn’s tragedy corroborates.

When I met her again, some days ago, she reported to me another chapter of her life.  But let me back-track for a second.  When child-soldiers survive, they continue to stay in the forest in order to be safe and be protected from society. Yes, because they are like lepers. People want them to be far away from their villages:  they have made violence and they have to pay with violence. Yet Evelyn’s family refused to chase her away and this is the reason the devil visited her again some months ago – this time under the disguise of her neighbours, who put poison on their family meal. That night, because of the pain from her face, Evelyn couldn’t eat. She was lucky, though not equally lucky were her mother and her sisters, who now rest in peace under a mango tree close to the village.

Our second stop is Haiti, at a maximum security prison in Port-au-Prince. I do not want to single out this prison, or a country that has suffered so badly because of the recent natural disaster.  I have seen equally terrible jails around the world:  from Guatemala to Somalia, from Brazil to Congo -- over-crowded, hungry, dirty and violent.  What struck me about the jail in Port-au-Prince was how young men (of high school age) are kept in cages, without light or air, so many together that they have to take turns to lay down and sleep on the bare floor. 

I wear a mask to bear the stench and chemical repellents against parasites and vermin that crawl all over. One boy, aged 16 (I don’t remember his name, let’s call him Pan) approaches me:  deep white eyes against a very dark background.  Arrested 8 years ago for beating up a neighbour, Pan was never judged because his file was lost:  I grew up here, in prison.  Help me, please….. he screams at me, as guards push him away.  Still he has time to yell again:  my file was lost…  Very possibly that is the truth.

Around the world, there are 10 million people behind bars today: the majority suffering in conditions not different from the ones in Port-au-Prince. Whatever the crime they may be accused of, they should not lose their human rights because they are in detention. There are international standards for prisons and prisoners, but most of the world is falling short: especially where the poverty of the judicial system shows the consequences of underdevelopment. I feel hurt that personally myself, or institutionally working with international agencies, cannot assist those for whom justice has been denied.

My thirdstop is with drug addicts in a bombed-out Russian cultural centre in Kabul – so-called because it was the center of the sovietization of Afghanistan. In the last quarter century, wars, bad weather and vandalism have turned this place into the worst cerchio of Dante’s Inferno.  People, a couple of thousand of them, lie on the floor smoking opium. Some of them are asking for money, some just pass by:  creatures of a tragic past who look straight through you with glazed eyes, as they move on to nowhere.  Among them I meet Hammad, a former mujahedeen General who fought valiantly against the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s – when he started to use drugs to overcome the pains of open-sky surgery following a war injury.  Now he crouches in knee-deep garbage, inhaling cheap heroin the way junkies do in the slums of Nairobi or Rio or Naples.

There are millions of stories like these, literally.  Yet, because there are so many, they risk becoming matter-of-fact.  No!, I keep telling myself, we cannot deny fairness (justice) or compassion (caritas) to brothers and sisters who might have been as successful as any of us – had the circumstances of their lives been different.  And vice-versa:  I picture myself quite frequently in their role, had my parents been less caring, generous and copmmitted.

As the third part of my trilogy, let me introduce you to a few Good Samaritans who are doing exactly what Christ intimated.


Stories of shepherds

I have spoken of wolves like Kony, el Chapo and Mamy Chun. I told you about lambs like Evelyn, Pan and Hammad. Now I want to relate to you my experience with humanity at its best. Finally!, you could say.

In my first stop meet Suor Angela, the head of a safe-house in the hills of Turin, Italy, used by the courts to protect victims of human trafficking willing to testify against their predators.  Sister Angela is tiny and speaks softly, but there is steel in her words and tungsten in her work.  When I met her she pointed to an Albanian girl under her protection:  Savina had been forced to eat roasted parts of a girlfriend’s body, an underage girl who had tried to run away from her pimp.  Unthinkable things do not happen only in northern Uganda where per-capita income is $400/y.  They occur also in the north of our planet, where income is 100 times bigger,  $40.000/y .                                     

Sister, what is your biggest success story?, I ask.  To convince Savina to testify in court, she answers.  What about the biggest failure?  The nun casts her blue yes down, as if to gather the strength to recollect. Martha was a Nigerian girl saved from sexual exploitation on the foggy Turin-Milan country roads.  Martha stayed at Sister Angela’s safe home, testified in the courts and helped nail the bastards who exploited her.  At this point,Sister Angela pauses:  a little grant was offered to her to start a small business.  What a lovely ending that would have been.  Yet, no:  eventually, after spending a night in the house’s chapel, Martha called on Sister Angela.  I’m going to go back into the business, she said and she returned among the sex-slaves -- this time as a mamma pimp of young ladies trafficked along the same foggy country road.

I make an observation that Sister Angela for sure would agree with: in our work we are too focused on the physical harm of the victims. Their psychological harm is just as painful and harder to treat. Victims are often mental enslaved, long after they have broken the chains of captivity.

Ms my second shepherd, I think of Els (De Timmerman), a petite, blond journalist from Bruges (Belgium) who, over a quarter century, has tried single-handedly to heal some of the LRA’s bloody wounds and to make known their crimes in order to catch Joseph Kony.

Ms. De Timmerman has established the Rachele Rehabilitation Centre in Lyra, northern Uganda, where several thousand former child-soldiers have been helped to reintegrate.  When 150 girls from a Catholic mission were kidnapped by Kony’s thugs, she assisted Sister Clara, an Italian nun, all the way to Khartoum to meet President Bashir and plea for his intervention (145 of them were returned, 5 killed in the ordeal).

Not only has Els demonstrated a big heart by rescuing so many children:  her articles (in the most important newspaper of the country) have made people around the world aware of the brutal massacres. Brave journalist that she is, she has written 6000 articles and a book on the crimes against humanity committed in the jungles of Africa’s great lake region, enabling the Attorney General of the International Criminal Court, Mr. Ocampo, to sign the warrant against Kony.

The third and final stop is on the other side of the world, in beautiful Doitung, Thailand, where the Mae Fah Luang Foundation runs humanitarian projects in a region once notorious for opium cultivation. Doitung, which covers 66,000 hectares, now produces the most beautiful orchids, as well as macadamia nuts, coffee, clothes, textiles and wonderful handcrafts. It is a thriving tourist destination, including to the world most-renowned Opium Museum right in the heart of the Golden Triangle. They are trying now to help farmers in the Andean countries and Afghanistan to develop licit rural livelihoods in place of coca and poppy cultivations.

Kun Chai is the animator of Doitung:  short and stocky he has the heart, courage and strength of a lion.  All these three qualities were needed in the ‘80s to turn northern Thailand, one of South-East Asia’s largest hideouts of drug producers, traffickers and insurgents, into a serene corner of humanity.

Three comments about the Samaritans:

First, these few examples concern distant places, but also recent times – just a few months ago. If you have no desire, time or money to travel to remote locations, but are curious about humanity at its best, then come with me after dark, not so far away, to the back streets of this very city (Milan) or, elsewhere in metropolitan Europe where volunteers of every age, gender, culture and income work in shelters to provide basic services, food, clothes, counselling and hope to the lambs: women who are victims of violence, drug addicts, homeless and marginalized people.

Second, the cases I told you about seem to occur in the third world when it is about pain, and in rich countries when it’s about help. This is just an illusion because, international agencies I have been associated with work mainly in the third world and what I have seen has comefrom these contacts. In point of fact, Europe has been for a whole century the theatre of demonic actions which has caused 100 millions of victims, killed in a similar brutal way. Wolves cannot be indentified by their skin colour, and packs do not attack just the southern hemisphere.

Third, the people I just mentioned are from civil society – trying their best to help those who are falling. This is admirable. When you consider the gigantic size of the challenge that they are up against, you’ll discover that compassion and charity are needed.  But they aren’t enough.  Justice on earth does count – and all too often is denied. Let’s see what to do.


Hearts, minds and consciences

To begin with, in order to fight uncivil behaviors like organized crime and terrorism we need much more serious engagement from governments.

Ignoring the bleating of the lambs, just because their economic and voting power is about nihil, will not make them go away. Nor will building gated communities, containment walls or tougher border controls.  Look at the waves of migrants who risk their lives to reach the shores of Europe, Australia or North America every year. They will keep coming until the peril of dying one day across a sea or a desert is no more serious than dying day-by-day in a poor village, without food, work or health.

In Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI writes that the interdependence of people must be matched by interaction of their consciences. This is certainly a noble sentiment. Even those who do not subscribe to it, who are not motivated by compassion to help, should do so out of enlightened self-interest. There is a moral imperative and a pragmatic advise:  do we want more people around the world lost to drugs? More regions threatened by crime? More terrorist attacks?  More slums out of control?  The common good is also selfish common sense.

Achieving the common good, sharing the feeble and facing responsibility, is a social doctrine and a basis for good-neighbourly relations. It means fighting public bads by means of public goods like health, development, justice and security. Allow me to elaborate, as this has been  very much at the centre of my professional preoccupations for decades. 


The practice of shared responsibility

First, on the issue of drugs, we must look at the problem from the perspective of healthMedical and scientific evidence shows that drug addiction is an illness, not a crime. So let’s treat it that way:  as a medical condition.

There are no ideological debates about curing cancer or diabetes. People to the left or right of the political spectrum are not divided on the need for preventing or treating tuberculosis or HIV.  Why so much ideology about drug addicts? Why not offer universal access to drug treatment as we do for all other illnesses?  Since addicts should be sent to treatment, not to jail, it is essential to ensure that drug addicts are assisted by national health insurance systems.

There is a development agenda as well. The regions where drug crops are grown or where violent crime is massive are also some of the poorest in the world. In these regions we must eradicate poverty, not just illicit activity. Law enforcement can only succeed if it works with, and not against, the grain of the socio-economic context.  Precisely for this reason financial institutions and the private sector must work together to boost living standards.  This is not charity, but a way to attract investment and promote stability.

There is, above all, a question of justice. Regions where drugs, crime and terrorism prevail are not only poor; they are also outside the control of authorities. In a mental experiment, visualize the areas of drug cultivation (in Afghanistan, Colombia or Myanmar), or of insurgency (Sahara, South-east Asia), or of generalized terrorist violence (West Asia and Somalia).  Then think of the areas in the world that lack government control:  you would have a perfect fit.  Then add the locations where the United Nations troops are sent as peacekeepers, and you just see that all these maps overlap.

Actually violence, injustice and illegality are all causes and effects of one another.  Criminals exploit vulnerable regions because of under development and weak rule of law. Tragically, as organized crime moves into these regions, vulnerability is made even greater causing the flight of social and human capital, scaring off tourists and investors, and spreading corruption. All over the world we have seen how crime perpetuates vulnerability to even greater crime.

But our work is not easy, because the understanding of the evil in society is deficient: how to fathom a crime economy that has become as big as nations, having a purchasing power greater than major corporate?  At one point in my life I have estimated the world drug economy to be US $320 billions per year. The same amount for weapons trafficking. Even bigger is the amount of money generated by corruption. Terrorism’s cost (damages and prevention) is hundreds of billions per year. And so on:  the economic extent of illicit activities is like the gross domestic product of a big nation.  What to do?

Let me start with the need for information.  There is a long way to go, particularly in understanding the dynamics of organized crime and corruption before the international community can engage successfully in the fight. We need the help of academia to conceptualize, measure and report what goes on in our societies, so as to respond with evidence at hand.  Transnational organized crime could become in a generation the human equivalent of the environmental threat of today.

This leads me to my final point, namely security:  its consolidation shrinks the zone of impunity enjoyed by anti-government forces. And it dries up a source of sinister funding.

But how do we enhance security when and where organized crime groups -- enriched by their massive illicit gains -- are well-armed, well-equipped, and well-connected? Robust armed force and policing are necessary, but not sufficient. Improved border security also helps – as we have seen in parts of West Africa where more control over their airspace, ports, and land borders reduced drug trafficking from the Andes. We need to change the context that makes insecurity inevitable.

As corruption is the most critical contextual factor and a lubricant for crime, building integrity must be a priority.  The world has two strong legal instruments to promote the rule of law:  the UN Conventions against Organized Crime and against Corruption.  We must turn these treaties into a common legal basis against a common threat.

The next priority is to work together, across borders: we need to put nets at the windows – in order to let the fresh air of trade, tourism and investments come inside, while leaving infectious bugs outside. But in so many cases countries are not able to do this and need support. Some sceptics say that helping far away countries is a low priority, especially when budgets are tight. Yet in an inter-connected world, the impact of crime in one region – however remote – can affect us all:   time and space don’t exist anymore in our telematic world. It was an historical mistake to open the windows of the global economy without setting up suitable nets.


Civil vs. uncivil society

My last point is about our personal choices – day-in, day-out.  Without knowing it, we may be complicit in feeding the beast of organized crime. Actually, trafficking is a business – it brings products, at times licit merchandise, to the market. Very often, we are the market. You may say:  not me.  I don’t take drugs, pay for sex, or exploit other humans.  All you told us today, Mr. Costa, has nothing to do with me.

Wrong! Your mobile phones contain rare minerals like coltrane and casserites, mined by little enslaved people whose trade enriches big warlords in Congo (and elsewhere).  Many of the garments and leather products you use daily are made by slaves especially in Asia, most of the time underage. The great chocolate you will exchange over the holidays will have been produced with fruits harvested in West Africa (maybe in Ivory Coast) by people under bondage, paid not even a dollar a day.  Much of the hardwood covering your floors is illegally logged from Congo or Indonesia. The sparkling piercings on the nose of those ladies we meet at the mall could be blood diamonds from Sierra Leone. The coke snorted from the fashion models of Milan or London was smuggled by an 18 year old mule, swallowed in Nigeria and expelled at destination airport. And so on.

There is perhaps not a single item you wear, use, eat or drink that is not contaminated with the blood, sweat and tears of today’s many lambs. To stop the bleating of the lambs, each one of us, and particularly the private sector, has to stop being part of the problem. To be part of the answer we all have the responsibility to reduce the demand for products provided by wolves.

Uncivil behaviours like drugs, crime and terrorism are threats to humanity:  too complex, too cultural, too intertwined, in short too important to be left to governments alone. Civil society, namely all of us, must rally against uncivil society. This civil coalition has worked to great affect in large-scale campaigns against global warming, energy saving, tobacco smoking, waste recycling -- to mention a few. Once the public’s awareness was raised, people came together to take action to fight back against threats that are destroying communities.  The same thing can, and must, be done to fight drugs, crime and terrorism. When criminals realize that they have no partners to bribe, intimidate or collude with they have no environment in which to operate.   Like cock-roaches, they dislike light and fresh air.

In conclusion, the challenge for us all – as individuals in a community, or as a community of nations – is to face the sinister effects of globalization.  In the first instance, much will depend on our personal choice:  whether we are willing to mobilize hearts, minds and consciences to help, with compassion (ethos), those who are suffering. Everybody has to contribute proportionate to his resources and feelings. Personally, I’m so sick of Joseph Kony (the Ugandan criminal), that I’m ready to sell my house to put a bounty on his head.

In the final instance, it is above all a question of authorities’ behaviour:  are they serious about bringing the wolves to justice (logos)?  Are they committed to bringing the lambs, now on the margins of society, into the fold? Are they supportive of the egregious work of today’s shepherds, to draw in the less fortunate into our lucky circle?

As individuals, let’s listen to Christ:  go and do like the Samaritan.  As members of organized society, let’s practice St Augustine’s admonition:  charity is no substitute for justice denied, and vice-versa.

Thank you for your attention and I’m sorry if my stories have nauseated you.  I wanted to stimulate your brains, not turn your stomachs.




Last Updated on Sunday, 04 May 2014 16:58