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César Peralta, the Best Middleman in the Dominican Republic’s Cocaine Trade

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On Christmas Eve 2018, the dancefloor was packed at Kuora Club, one of Santo Domingo’s most popular nightclubs. Hundreds had turned up to party that night with reggaeton star Arcángel, the evening’s headlining act.

The partygoers likely didn’t realize that holiday bash would be one of the club’s last.

Kuora was owned by César Emilio Peralta, alias “El Abusador” (The Abuser), allegedly once one of the Dominican Republic’s most innovative and powerful drug traffickers. He owned or controlled at least four other nightclubs in Santo Domingo, among almost two dozen businesses

*This story is the second in a three-part investigation looking at how the Dominican Republic became a crossroads for the transnational cocaine trade between North America, South America, and Europe, involving local kingpins, international drug traffickers, and venal politicians. Read the full investigation here.

The club’s dancefloor had served as a who’s who of Dominican society for years. Ángel, a former employee, told InSight Crime that on any given night, politicians could be found rubbing shoulders with athletes, movie stars, and drug traffickers.

SEE ALSO: Profile of César Emilio Peralta, alias ‘El Abusador’

Peralta’s nightclubs were also known for extravagance. A local patron of another Peralta club, called Flow, said that in its heyday a table there cost around 10,000 Dominican pesos ($185), and a bottle of liquor cost five times more than at the corner store. “Luxury sports cars packed its parking lot,” he said. 

Those days are long gone. One lonely guard, paid by the Dominican authorities, has replaced the expensive cars outside Kuora. Another one of Peralta’s clubs is now an office building, while a third has been abandoned altogether, with ‘For Sale’ signs fading in the harsh sun. Through the cracks at the boarded-up Kaprich, another club once owned by Peralta, piping can be seen hanging from the ceiling with bits of insulation strewn about the floor. 

Peralta was at the top of the Dominican Republic’s criminal underworld for several years, but by mid-2019, the tide had turned against him. All his businesses closed after he was formally identified as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker under the United States’ Kingpin Act. He was arrested in Colombia in December 2019 and extradited to Puerto Rico in December 2021, where he is currently on trial for drug charges.

Cocaine Trafficking Networks in the Dominican Republic 

It is not known exactly how and when César Peralta entered the drug trade. But he first drew attention as a drug trafficker in the 1990s and soon joined the network of a noted kingpin, Rolando Florián Féliz

At the start of that decade, Colombian traffickers began using the Dominican Republic as a stopping point along the route to the United States. The Colombians needed contacts with local knowledge and resources to receive the shipments, stash them, and send them onwards later. Florían Féliz fulfilled this role for the then-powerful Cali Cartel and regularly transported loads of cocaine through the island. He became the first of the Dominican kingpins.

Despite Florían Féliz being jailed in 1996 and later murdered in prison, he inspired a generation of Dominican traffickers that became progressively more sophisticated, brokering their own deals with Colombian counterparts and selling shipments on to American and European clients.

The man Peralta chose to work under, Quirino Paulino Castillo, was a standout among this new generation. An army captain and entrepreneur who owned dozens of gas stations and other businesses, Paulino Castillo successfully trafficked many tons of cocaine into the United States and collaborated with a number of other important traffickers before his arrest in 2004. Peralta rose through the ranks of Paulino Castillo’s organization, and likely learned enough to fill the void left by members of Castillo’s upper management team as they were apprehended by authorities.

By 2015, Peralta had firmly positioned himself as one of the main drug traffickers in the Dominican Republic and the entire Caribbean. By the time he was arrested in 2019, he was reportedly moving around 25 tons of cocaine a year, as well as laundering money and trafficking Colombian women. Such quantities led US federal authorities to compare him to infamous Mexican cartel boss, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo.”

Peralta’s success rested on three principles: collaboration with other crime groups on the island, cooperation with foreign organized crime, and the appearance of doing legitimate business.

The Art of the Deal

Peralta wasn’t the first trafficker to build ties with domestic rivals. While the island has seen some violent drug feuds, criminal networks in the Dominican Republic have been cooperating with each other for decades. 

“What I have seen in judicial cases is that the drug traffickers are good friends. They party together, go to clubs together,” a judge who wished to remain anonymous told InSight Crime.

Peralta’s string of party venues served him well, offering his kingpin peers places to socialize and finalize business deals.

“They all know each other, and if necessary, they all work together,” said a senior law enforcement official in Santo Domingo, who also wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

This collaboration reached such levels that specialized criminal networks could provide specific services to the top traffickers. For example, Peralta retained the services of Rámon del Rosario Puente, alias “Toño Leña,” who specialized in moving vast shipments of drugs between South America, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and New York. del Rosario Puente was extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges in April 2021. 

    César Peralta is arguably the most successful Dominican trafficker in recent decades but he did not operate in a vacuum. He built his operation on top of those pioneered by his predecessors, forged business contacts within the Dominican diaspora, and learned his craft from some of the country’s most prominent criminal figures.

  • César Peralta rose from a small-time drug distributor in the 1990s to one of the most important traffickers in the Caribbean. At his height, he was a crucial link between cocaine suppliers in Colombia, such as the Urabeños, and distributors in Puerto Rico and the US mainland. Peralta allegedly had close ties to the regime of former Dominican president Danilo Medina. He was arrested in 2019 in Colombia and was extradited to Puerto Rico in December 2021.

  • A former Army captain, Castillo developed a drug trafficking network between Colombia and the United States, which used the Dominican Republic as a transit point. He was able to gather high-level military and civilian protection to cover his drug trafficking operations. With a fortune estimated at $62 million (2 billion Dominican Pesos), he had business interests in numerous legal sectors, seemingly to launder his ill-gotten gains. Arrested in 2004, he was extradited to the US and jailed on drug trafficking charges. He was freed in 2014.

  • Considered the first drug kingpin in the Dominican Republic, Florián Feliz moved tons of drugs for Colombia’s Cali Cartel toward Puerto Rico and the mainland United States. While the US sought his extradition, he was jailed at home in 1996, although he tried to escape on as many as five different occasions. In 2009, shortly after being granted a conditional release, he was killed by a prison official in controversial circumstances.

  • Figueroa Agosto made his career trafficking drugs between Colombia and Puerto Rico, via the Dominican Republic. After escaping jail in 1999, he evaded Dominican authorities for over a decade, buying luxury properties, having surgeries to change his face, and even escaping from police during a high-speed car chase. In 2010, he was caught, along with a dozen members of his organization, living lavishly in Puerto Rico. He was released in 2020.

  • Toño Leña was part of Peralta’s inner-circle of allies, trusted with overseeing the logistics of transporting tons of drugs between Colombia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and New York. He acted in a similar role for Junior Cápsula as well as running his own trafficking operation. He was arrested in 2018 and extradited to the US in 2021. He was sentenced to 15 years in 2022. Since then, he has seemingly given up information against Peralta, providing details about their drug trafficking collaboration.

  • Another lieutenant of both Peralta and Junior Cápsula, Cotto was wanted by the US for being a lynchpin in moving drugs from South America, through a range of Caribbean destinations, and onto southern Florida. He allegedly helped Peralta in a number of ways, including organizing drug shipments and arranging ways to launder money. In 2016, he survived an assassination attempt in the Dominican Republic. He surrendered to authorities in 2020 and is awaiting extradition to the United States.

International Appeal

The Dominican Republic’s geographic location makes it a natural platform connecting criminal economies in South America, North America, and Europe. Peralta used this to his full advantage.

In Colombia, he reportedly brokered a successful partnership with the Urabeños, one of the most important criminal groups in the country. The group calls itself the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), but authorities refer to it as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo). Peralta’s lawyer, Joaquin Perez, told InSight Crime that he did not believe Peralta was connected to the Urabeños.

Peralta exploited strong connections to criminal networks within the Dominican diaspora in the United States, and according to US authorities, his organization also trafficked drugs to Europe, now arguably the biggest market for cocaine smuggled through the Dominican Republic. 

European organized crime groups who don’t have direct contacts with Colombian suppliers often reach out to traffickers from transit countries like the Dominican Republic, Alberto Areán Varela, Caribbean coordinator for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Container Control Program, told InSight Crime.

European crime groups don’t even have to travel to the island. “Madrid is where meetings often take place,” Areán Varela explained.

Beyond Peralta, the Dominican Republic’s reputation as an international oasis for drug trafficking has attracted plenty of criminals. 

The country “has a lot of pull factors: not just the climate, the roads, and a cheap city, but also the access to luxury, the ability to change your identity, to be able to be seen, or to disappear,” the senior law enforcement official told InSight Crime.

Recent cases of foreign criminals in the country include a Dutch national, who was shot three times but survived in the resort town of Las Terrenas in January 2022. In another example, eight members of Italy’s Clan Contini mafia were arrested in 2020. They had been living in the country for years, owned businesses, and sent their kids to Dominican schools. 

“Most people entering the country just want to enjoy it, but some settle here as liaisons for international criminal structures,” Diego Pesqueira, spokesperson for the Dominican national police, told InSight Crime.

In fact, the presence of criminal expats may be growing, in part due to the early reopening of the Dominican Republic’s tourism industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There has always been European organized crime in the Dominican Republic. But with the country being one of the few places to remain open during the pandemic, there has been an increase in organized crime figures settling down here,” said the law enforcement official.

Make Money, Not War

The Dominican Republic has relatively low levels of organized crime-related violence, especially compared with many other waypoints for the cocaine trade.

Of the 841 murders recorded between January and September 2021, only 83 were linked to drug trafficking and drug use. The Dominican Republic’s 2021 homicide rate was estimated to be 10.3 per 100,000, lower than that of most of its neighbors in the region.

The business-first attitude of the island’s underworld may provide an explanation for the relative peace. 

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime’s 2021 Homicide Round-Up

“The people at the top don’t look like drug dealers. They take on the role of businessmen and are credible, they do business with banks and even with the government,” one money laundering expert, who requested to remain anonymous as she was not authorized to speak on behalf of her organization, told InSight Crime.

César Peralta’s clubs and other businesses allowed him to launder drug proceeds but also gave him an introduction to the Dominican elite. 

In phone calls recorded before he fled to Colombia in 2019, Peralta complains about how powerful figures, including former president Danilo Medina Sánchez, had betrayed him even though he helped them achieve their positions of power. 

Peralta can be heard saying in reference to Medina, “if he is going to continue with the persecution of my people, of my family and everyone else, I’ll also talk.”

The links between Peralta and Medina are clear. Medina admitted in July 2020 that he had received electoral campaign contributions from Peralta but said he did not know that the money came from illicit activities. This was despite the fact that Peralta had already been arrested for drug trafficking on multiple occasions.

Peralta’s connections could not save him once the United States took an interest. While US authorities had been investigated Peralta since 2017, his time began to run out following his designation as a significant foreign narcotics trafficker under the Kingpin Act in August 2019. His businesses were seized and he fled to Colombia. Using a false Colombian ID with a different name, he operated in both Venezuela and Colombia for months, allegedly having a direct relationship with the Urabeños.

It’s not clear exactly why, but Peralta’s luck ran out. By the time Colombian police arrested him in Cartagena in December 2019, he wasn’t just hiding from authorities. Having escaped an attempt on his life in Barranquilla just weeks before, he was also on the run for other criminal networks, possibly the Urabeños.

The Void Is Filled

Peralta’s arrest does not appear to have reduced drug trafficking through the Dominican Republic. Other networks have taken over, and the continued discovery of record quantities of drugs on the island show the Dominican route remains popular.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that Dominican transnational criminal organizations “have expanded their capabilities to have command and control originating in source zone countries and orchestrate the transportation of multi-ton quantities of drugs through the Caribbean with final destination of Northeastern cities in the United States and in Europe.”

“They are no longer simple transport networks,” Areán Varela told InSight Crime. “They buy, they stockpile, and they sell.” 

The Dominican Republic’s president, Luis Abinader, has declared war on drug trafficking in the country, and record seizures during his administration have been applauded, including by the US State Department. However, corruption and collusion between elites and organized will complicate Abinader’s campaign to squash the drug trade.

*This story is the second in a three-part investigation looking at how the Dominican Republic became a crossroads for the transnational cocaine trade between North America, South America, and Europe, involving local kingpins, international drug traffickers, and venal politicians. Read the full investigation here.


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The Courage to Counter Castro

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REVIEW: Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba

• September 11, 2022 4:59 am

What would I be willing to risk or endure in order to live a life where free political discussion and action is possible? This is a question that readers of David Hoffman’s Give Me Liberty might put to themselves after thinking through the life of Oswaldo Payá and his battle with communist tyranny in Cuba.

Payá was 13 years old when the Castro regime seized his father’s newspaper distribution business in 1965. Oswaldo’s father Alejandro was arrested. This was the beginning of a campaign against private businesses that lasted three years—the implementation of a socialist morality that denounced and punished vendors and businessmen as parasites. Young Oswaldo had been the only boy in his class to refuse entry into the Jose Martí Pioneers—the communist youth organization in Cuba. The family’s observant Catholicism only added to the stigma the Payás experienced. Alejandro was released after one week and told his family not to express any complaint. He recommended a strategy of public compliance. He urged his children to do well in school, work hard, and prepare for the future. “You have to yield—in order to triumph,” he said. This was not a strategy Oswaldo would adopt.

Hoffman interweaves two other stories around the central tale of Payá’s confrontation with the communist regime. First, he encapsulates Cuba’s post-colonial history, focusing in particular on the story of the Cuban constitution of 1940. We meet Gustavo Gutiérrez, an advocate for constitutional democracy who wrote a draft constitution for Cuba in the mid-1930s. Important for Payá’s story, a key provision of Gutierrez’s draft found its way into the Cuban constitution of 1940: new laws could be proposed by congressmen and Senators, but also by citizens—in this latter case, the initiative would require the endorsement of “at least ten thousand citizens having the status of voters.”

Second, Hoffman explores Fidel Castro’s rise to power and his construction of Cuban communism. Castro initially presented himself as an agent of Cuban democracy, promising elections in the aftermath of a successful revolutionary seizure of power. He even pledged to make the 1940 constitution the “supreme law of the land.” By May 1961 he declared that constitution dead and promised a new “socialist constitution” that would introduce “a new social system without the exploitation of many by man.” This purported end of exploitation would of course require extraordinary levels of surveillance and coercion. Already in 1960 Castro put in place Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—what he called a “system of collective vigilance.” These organizations could be found in neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. Hoffman calls them the “foundation stones of the police state” as they created a vast network of monitors and informants. By the mid-1960s the regime had built the UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción) labor camp system to house anyone hostile or even potentially hostile to socialist revolution.

Oswaldo Payá ended up cutting sugar cane in one of the camps in the summer of 1969. After a year he was flown to the Isle of Pines, which housed a prison complex built in the 1920s where he would work breaking rocks in a quarry 10 hours a day. The restrictions here were less onerous than in the UMAP system, so Payá and some of his fellow prisoners were able to explore the small town of Nueva Gerona on the weekends. They stumbled on a library across the street from a church and read Orwell’s Animal Farm, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the works of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. These men who had been declared enemies or deviants found a refuge and “reveled in the freedom to think and talk.” As Hoffman puts it, “The forced labor camps attempted to ‘reeducate’ and ‘retrain’ the outsiders, to coerce them to believe in the revolution. But for Oswaldo Payá, the experience was the opposite. They had not conquered his soul. They had nourished it.”

It’s not clear whether Payá would share the sentiments of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (one of his heroes), “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life,” but he did find the atmosphere in Havana suffocating by contrast. He hoped to study physics at university but campus life was so conformist and ideologically charged he couldn’t stand it. “They didn’t kick me out but they asphyxiated me,” he noted. He eventually got a degree in electrical engineering via night school in 1983. Shortly thereafter he found his vocation through the Catholic Church.

Castro’s revolution had brought the Church to the brink of destruction. Prior to the revolution there had been about 1 priest for every 9,000 people in Cuba. By 1980 that figure was about 1 priest for every 45,000. Fewer than 1 percent of Catholics were practicing. In 1985 the archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, invited Payá to be one of 173 delegates to a conference on the future of the Cuban church. With his then-fiancé Ofelia, he prepared a document called “Faith and Justice.” In it he argued that Catholics must be free to speak the truth about injustice and oppression and to resist being pushed to the margins of society. He presented his ideas at a meeting of the delegates before the conference and was immediately denounced.

Just over a decade later Payá launched the Varela Project, a citizen petition demanding freedom of assembly, amnesty for political prisoners, the right to engage in private enterprise, and the establishment of a new electoral code allowing for free elections. The movement culminated in Payá submitting a formal citizen’s petition to the National Assembly on May 10, 2002—with over 11,000 signatures.

Payá’s stature grew internationally as he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament. He met with Václav Havel and Pope John Paul II, and the Varela Project continued adding signatures to its petition. Cuban state security was not unprepared for this challenge. In the 1980s a Cuban named Jacinto Valdés-Dapena had gone to Potsdam to study with the Stasi—East German state security. There he learned a strategy for dealing with dissidents known as Zersetzung or decomposition. He brought back to Cuba techniques of covert psychological warfare to infiltrate dissident movements, sow distrust among members, and exploit envy and jealousy. Hoffman relates the grinding battles between Payá and his allies and Cuban state security in riveting detail.

Oswaldo Payá died in a car crash on July 22, 2012—a crash many suspect was orchestrated by Cuban state security. Like many prominent dissidents of the 20th century, Payá embodied an extraordinary combination of courage and humility. Hoffman’s book is a powerful antidote to delusions about the reality of Cuban communism. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a study of character in action—a test of virtue in a soil of unfreedom. One hopes that the seeds of virtue left by Payá will bear fruit soon.

Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba
by David E. Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $32.50

Flagg Taylor, a professor in the department of political science at Skidmore College, was editor, most recently, of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, and hosts the Enduring Interest Podcast. You can find him on Twitter: @FlaggTaylor4




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House deal for Trump records lets accounting firm decide what to release

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A deal announced early this month by House Democrats for years of Donald Trump’s financial records allows his former accounting firm to interpret how to satisfy a congressional subpoena that was narrowed down by a federal appeals court in July, according to a settlement filed late Friday.

Under the proposed deal, Trump and several of his business entities will end litigation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A three-judge panel of the appeals court had upheld a lower-court opinion that said House lawmakers can see a limited range of Trump’s records with accounting firm Mazars to review his compliance with presidential ethics and disclosure laws.

Both Trump and the House Oversight Committee agreed that “Mazars and its counsel shall exercise their independent judgment in determining” what documents to turn over under four categories first sought by a House subpoena in April 2019.

If approved by a judge, the settlement will end a precedent-setting battle over how far Congress can go to investigate alleged corruption by the nation’s chief executive, after courts ruled on Trump’s claims that he was the victim of a political persecution and laid out protections that former presidents retain after leaving office from lawmakers’ probing under the Constitution’s separation of powers.

A six-page proposal by the parties submitted to U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta fleshes out a bare-bones announcement by House committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), on Sept. 1.

“After numerous court victories, I am pleased that my committee has now reached an agreement to obtain key financial documents that former president Trump fought for years to hide from Congress,” Maloney said in a statement.

The proposed court settlement — signed by Trump attorney Patrick Strawbridge, House General Counsel Douglas Letter and Mazars counsel Thomas Manisero — says that:

  • Mazars will turn over records, source documents and engagement letters from 2014 through 2018 that “reference, indicate, or discuss any undisclosed, false, or otherwise inaccurate information” about Trump’s assets, liabilities or income as reported in his executive branch financial disclosure forms to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) from 2015 to 2018, or as reported in the Trump Organization’s voluntary payments to the U.S. Treasury Department in 2017-18. Records to be turned over do not have to refer to the OGE or Treasury Department reports themselves. Mazars is to turn over communications related to any concerns raised in the preparation, review or auditing of such documents or the information they contain.
  • Mazars “can use all available information, including all documents in its possession and publicly available records” to identify responsive records, the sides agreed, but it is not required to undertake any new analysis. The stipulation also allows for Mazars to answer the subpoena for documents related to the federal lease for the former president’s recently sold Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office building in downtown Washington, spanning the period from his election in November 2016 through 2018, but only from the business that held the lease, Trump Old Post Office LLC.
  • Mazars will turn over documents from Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, through 2018 related to financial ties or transactions between Trump or a Trump entity and “any foreign state or foreign state agency, the United States, any federal agency, any state or any state agency, or an individual government official.” Such ties do not include payments to tax authorities. Mazars must redact unrelated information and cannot disclose information about “relationships, transactions, or ties” between Trump or his businesses with purely private individuals or entities, unless Mazars “has a reasonable belief” that they were acting on behalf of a designated government, agency or official, the agreement states.

Regarding the foreign ties and transactions, Mazars may use lists provided by the House of foreign and domestic officials to search for, as well as “reliable proxies” for government officials such as hotel guests charged a “government rate” or those “known or reasonably suspected to be acting for or on behalf of” a designated entity or official. Mazars is to exercise additional care in assessing guests known to have ties to about 90 State Department-designated “Major Money Laundering” countries, according to the agreement.

The long-running case began in April 2019 when Trump sued to quash a House subpoena for eight years of his financial records dating to 2011, which said that his presidency exposed weaknesses in oversight that could be addressed only with the information. The committee said it sought the documents to corroborate testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump artificially inflated and deflated the reported value of his assets for personal gain.

Those allegations have mushroomed into a series of challenges to Trump and his businesses by New York state authorities. Mazars cut ties with Trump in February, saying a decade’s worth of his financial statements “should no longer be relied upon” after scrutiny from the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).

In August, Trump invoked more than 400 times his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions in a deposition by James’s team about his businesses, property valuations and loans in a civil investigation of his finances. And longtime Trump Organization top financial officer Allen Weisselberg pleaded guilty to state criminal charges and agreed to testify in an upcoming trial against the company, although he refused to cooperate with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office against Trump himself.

Trump was the first major party nominee in decades to refuse to release his tax returns, even as he declined to divest himself of his business holdings, stonewalled congressional Democratic investigations and oversaw the government leasing agency for his flagship Washington hotel while his businesses took in millions from both the federal government and foreign powers.

The July appeals court panel headed by Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan revisited the case after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in July 2020 upholding Congress’s authority generally to issue subpoenas for a president’s personal financial records, but returning the matter to lower courts for further proceedings.

Trump filed suit in May 2019 to block the release, arguing that he enjoyed absolute immunity from legislative inquiries and that House Democrats only wanted to expose his data for political gain.

Srinivasan wrote that the committee had “amassed detailed evidence of suspected misrepresentations and omissions” in Trump’s required disclosure forms and provided substantial explanations of how requested information could inform changes to federal law meant to protect taxpayers and police self-dealing and other conflicts of interest among political officeholders, adding that if the level of evidence did not suffice in this case the court doubted that any Congress could obtain a president’s papers.


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‘Just go do it’: Portraits of Black Muslim community leadership in Oregon – Here is Oregon

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Nikki Brown holds gardening shears in a garden setting

(Intisar Abioto/Intisar Abioto | For Oregon Humanities)

This article, used here with permission, was written by Bruce Poinsette for Oregon Humanities and published at oregonhumanities.org. This article contains excerpted interviews from The Blacktastic Adventure, a YouTube series produced by Bruce Poinsette that explores Oregon’s Black diaspora; Part 1 of this episode features conversations with Mac Smiff and Nafisa Fai, and Part 2 features Nikki Brown. Bruce Poinsette is a current Oregon Humanities Community Storytelling Fellow.

Growing up, I learned about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar—international Black Muslim icons—on my own, with no thanks to the Oregon school system. But where did Black Muslims feature in the story of Oregon?

Like the icons I’d learned about before, this was a question I had to find answers to for myself.

In late 2020, I started a Zoom interview series called The Blacktastic Adventure to highlight the variety of stories of Black life in Oregon. For the series’ second season, I received the support of the Oregon Humanities Community Storytelling Fellowship and partnered with photographer Intisar Abioto and videographer Ifanyi Bell, via Open Signal Labs, to bring the interviews to life. I wanted to feature Black life in specific geographic regions of the state, hash out conversations happening within the Black Oregon zeitgeist, and create profiles of individuals from specific communities within the Black Oregon population.

As part of this project, I wanted to explore the stories of Black Muslims in Oregon—and why those stories weren’t more well known.

“Most people don’t understand enough about Islam to be more detailed in their Islamophobia,” says journalist and activist Mac Smiff. “I’m more obviously Black [to them].”

“Oregon is just so intrinsically racist and xenophobic that just being a Muslim becomes a hassle for a lot of people. I feel like a lot of Muslims in Oregon make being Muslim a secondary character trait.”

These portraits are in no way meant to represent the entire stories of these individuals’ communities, never mind Black Muslims in the state as a whole. Rather, they are part of a series of snapshots that showcase the diversity of stories within the Black diaspora in Oregon.

Nikki Brown works in in a garden

“I can’t unsee the landmarks that used to be here”

I met Nikki Brown in 2013 while writing a profile of her for The Skanner. Early in the interview, I learned that Brown was a recent Nation of Islam convert and was fighting to be recognized as Nicole X at her then day job. As a young reporter, I was excited to help, in a small way, by printing her name as she desired in the article.

These days, when reporters call, she goes by Nikki Brown. In addition to being recognized statewide as a performer, she’s a foster parent of three, a doula, a grandparent, and serves as caretaker of the Emerson Street Garden in North Portland.

“I get frustrated when I hear, ‘We don’t have this and we don’t have that,’” says Brown. “Just go do it.”

When Brown took on the caretaker role in early 2022, she didn’t know much about the technical aspects of gardening. She just saw the need and hoped her ability to bring people together would help move the project forward.

The first community activities that Brown led at the garden were cleanups to remove needles, trash, and other items. A man who had been camping at the site even helped with cleanup efforts.

Later on, an older Black Muslim woman volunteered to teach Brown and others about gardening, and the Emerson Street Garden, which now includes an environmental classroom, has been active ever since.

On days when Brown is struggling to find the motivation, she loves getting calls from Black women who are interested in trying their hand at gardening and organizing impromptu get-togethers. She also loves organizing gardening activities specifically for youth.

Knowing that Portland is a hub for transplants, Brown sees special importance in Black Portlanders leading projects like the Emerson Street Garden. She’s spent most of her life living in Northeast Portland, where her family moved to from Louisiana when she was six months old. This is her second stint living in the Emerson Street neighborhood.

“People don’t understand how important it is to maintain our history as Black Portlanders,” says Brown. “I can’t unsee the landmarks that used to be here.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that what drew Brown to the Nation of Islam back in 2012 was the group’s reputation for community outreach and the opportunity it provided her to personally dive into Black history. Somewhat ironically, the subsequent journey led her to embrace the name Nikki Brown.

“I no longer have to fight to prove that this is what a Muslim is,” says Brown. “I realized that a good Muslim is just one who submits to God, and if I’m doing that, my work will speak to it, and people will see that.”

Seated, Mac Smiff holds a flower as he speaks

“You have to say what you want to be heard”

When Nikki Brown speaks about her call to serve the community, I can’t help but think of Mac Smiff, another person I met during my time at The Skanner. It was 2013, and Smiff was transitioning from a young rap career to a writing career. He recalls performing at the Portland State University park blocks during his lunch break, still wearing his work uniform.

In the early 2010s, he began blogging, and soon after, he started writing for We Out Here Magazine, a Northwest hip-hop lifestyle blog, where he eventually became the editor and owner. Since taking the helm at WOHM, Smiff has put a major emphasis on engaging the city and country alike with the story of Portland hip hop.

Seeing and filling community needs was something instilled in Smiff early on. In 1992, his family moved from New York to an area of Clackamas that is now Happy Valley. They found community at the Muslim Community Center of Portland, and his parents were involved in helping build the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington masjid in Vancouver.

At WOHM, Smiff has created a platform for a number of emerging writers (full disclosure: I wrote as a columnist for WOHM off and on between 2014 and 2016) and used the platform to influence politics. In particular, the site has shone a spotlight on Portland’s police profiling of hip hop, as well as police brutality and corruption in general.

The blog, along with local partners such as DJ Verbz, Vortex Music Magazine, and Portland State University, has also fostered the rise of The Thesis, one of Portland’s premier hip hop showcases. The monthly event at downtown Portland’s Kelly’s Olympian has been lauded for consciously incorporating local photographers and an unwritten “no more straight dude shows” rule, ensuring every show highlights the diversity of the local scene.

“People have said The Thesis is activism, in a way,” says Smiff, “because it does seek to teach by example.”

When Portland’s racial justice protests began in 2020, Smiff used his media experience and skills as a “connective tissue person” to provide regular coverage on the ground and serve as a consistent mouthpiece to voice the sentiments of the community to the press. In fact, he emerged as one of the most quoted people during the 2020 protests and amassed a large following on Twitter.

Smiff tries to keep the attention in perspective. “Most of these people are following me because they just want some kind of protest news,” he says. “They want some information on what’s going on with the cops. They want some rhetoric to run with.”

A little over a decade ago, Smiff was rapping in his work uniform at the PSU Park Blocks. Now, his imprint can be found across the city, from the crowds he addresses at the Multnomah County Justice Center and Kelly’s Olympian, to the youth he educates at the Numberz FM content camp and his WOHM creative office.

Ultimately, he says his speaking acumen comes from a simple lesson learned while on stage and from working for years in the media: “You have to say what you want to be heard.”

Seated, Nafisa Fai folds her arms as she poses for a photo

“Coming to America, I had this idea that anyone who is Black is from Africa”

For as much of a culture shock as it was for Mac Smiff and his family to move from New York to Clackamas, it was that much more of a transition for Nafisa Fai and her family. They immigrated from Somalia in the 1990s, when Fai was seventeen, to escape the country’s civil war. Before beginning the immigration interview process, she’d never even met a White person.

Once in Portland, Fai’s family was placed in a housing development occupied mostly by other African immigrant families near Northeast Portland’s Dawson Park. Early on, she spent a lot of time listening, trying to pick up on the nuances of American culture and her new community.

She recalls the way girls at her high school would follow her and her sister around because they were holding hands. Her uncle suggested she write the girls a letter to ask them what they wanted. When Fai did, the girls wrote back that they thought Fai and her sister were lesbians. She later transferred to another school, where a classmate thought she was Samoan, and they got into a confrontation. The two would ultimately become good friends, but it was all part of a social learning curve. This was especially true when it came to understanding the complexities of Portland’s Black community.

“Coming to America, I had this idea that anyone who is Black is from Africa,” says Fai. “I learned about the different ethnicities within the Black community.”

Fai eventually translated those experiences into founding the Pan African Festival of Oregon in 2017. She was initially going to call it Marcus Garvey Day but settled on an umbrella term that specifically highlighted all Black communities. Featuring food, businesses, and live performances showcasing the African diaspora, the Pan African Festival has since become an annual event and a Portland favorite.

With the success of the festival, Nafisa turned her eyes to politics. She went through the Emerge Oregon program, which recruits and trains Democratic women to seek public office, and then successfully ran for Washington County Commissioner in 2020. As the first Black and Muslim woman to hold the position, she and her campaign received a more virulent version of the bigotry she faced growing up—this time from a significant portion of her largely White constituents.

“When I was running, anti-Blackness was real. Islamophobia was real,” says Fai. “They accused me of being a baby killer. A terrorist. You name it.”

Fai has prided herself on not allowing the hatred to distract her. Likewise, she rejects notions that seek to divide either Black or Muslim communities from within.

“When it comes to leaders, I like to think we’re getting smarter, learning from past experiences and unifying to say, ‘We’re Black,’” says Fai. “Disaggregating Blackness is a distraction and doesn’t help us. The goal is to get as many resources as possible funneled into our community.”

“The children still deserve magic”

While they might seem to represent different sides—the politician and the activist— Fai and Smiff demonstrate that leadership is a puzzle made up of a variety of pieces. One of those pieces might even wear green hair and a clown nose.

Despite experimenting with clowning and converting to the Nation of Islam around the same time, Nikki Brown personally struggled to embrace her clown character early on. Specifically, she looked at the work of her peers like Imani Muhammad (who encouraged Brown to join the NOI), Mattie Khan, and Michelle X Pratcher and felt like clowning didn’t measure up.

That all changed when she was invited to perform at the Nation of Islam’s National Savior’s Day convention in 2013. She found peace in her role, she says, walking through the Savior’s Day children’s village and observing young people playing games, getting their faces painted, and riding the carnival train.

“In any activism, there’s children,” says Brown. “In our fight for freedom, the children still deserve magic. The children still deserve fun.”

She likens the children’s interactions with her to those of theme park mascots like Minnie Mouse or Spongebob Squarepants. The big difference, of course, is that Nikki Brown Clown looks like the Black children she serves.

“Black children rarely get to experience icons who are human,” says Brown. “To stand next to Nikki Brown Clown is to say, ‘Maybe that could be me,’ or ‘Hey, that’s my friend.’”

— Bruce Poinsette, For Oregon Humanities


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