Where there’s smoke, there’s smuggling. Before the Ukrainian border became a dangerous war zone, it was a profitable bootlegging arena. ... In 2008 Ukraine, the international cigarette companies that control 99 percent of the cigarette market there manufactured and imported 130 billion cigarettes. And for a country that adores smoking like few others—according to the Tobacco Atlas, the average Ukrainian in 2008 smoked 2,526 cigarettes—you’d have to assume that all 130 billion would be gobbled up by the populace. You wouldn’t expect, however, that nearly 25 percent of them were not. ... Officially, according to the four leading international cigarette companies in Ukraine—Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International, Imperial Tobacco, and British Americano Tobacco—30 billion cigarettes were “lost.” The reality was that these cigarettes were sold wholesale to international cigarette traffickers. According to Tobacco Underground, a group of journalists determined to uncover the rampant cigarette smuggling throughout the world, cigarettes are the most smuggled legal substance on earth.
When I met al-Khal in late September, he was organizing two to three trips a day to the Greek island of Lesbos, about eight miles from the Turkish coastline. He fits 30 to 50 people a raft and charges $1,000 to $1,500 per person. Each crossing costs him between $10,000 and $15,000. In the past two years, he claims to have made more than $2 million. ... With nearly 400,000 people arriving illegally in Greece this year, the refugee crisis has been good to him. And he is not alone: the underground economy of human smuggling is thriving. According to some calculations, there are up to 2,000 fellow smugglers in Izmir, while the trade on European territory is thought to employ up to 30,000 people.
To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist. ... Legends of red mercury’s powers began circulating by late in the Cold War. But their breakout period came after the Soviet Union’s demise, when disarray and penury settled over the Kremlin’s arms programs. As declining security fueled worries of illicit trafficking, red mercury embedded itself in the lexicon of the freewheeling black-market arms bazaar. Aided by credulous news reports, it became an arms trafficker’s marvelous elixir, a substance that could do almost anything a shady client might need: guide missiles, shield objects from radar, equip a rogue underdog state or terrorist group with weapons rivaling those of a superpower. It was priced accordingly, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a kilogram. With time, the asking price would soar. ... Red mercury was a lure, the central prop of a confidence game designed to fleece ignorant buyers. ... When the Crocodile placed his order, Abu Omar said, the smuggler asked how much the Islamic State was willing to pay. The answer was vague. The Islamic State would pay, he said, ‘‘whatever was asked.’’ This was not the practical guidance a businessman needs. So the Crocodile sharpened the answer. Up to $4 million — and a $100,000 bonus — for each unit of red mercury matching that shown in a set of photographs he sent to Abu Omar over WhatsApp, the mobile-messaging service. ... the hoax has roots in an intelligence-service put-on, a disinformation campaign of phony news articles planted decades ago in Russian newspapers by the K.G.B. and one of its successors, the F.S.B.
The U.S. government has moved quietly and aggressively to prevent undocumented Indians from entering the United States, many of whom are Sikhs fleeing political repression or economic collapse at home. ... The number of Indian nationals caught trying to cross the southern border into the U.S. exploded suddenly in 2010, growing sixfold to 1,200 from just over 200 the year prior. ... Although the number has oscillated since then, it has remained near an all-time high. And that includes only those caught trying to cross undetected, leaving out Buta Singh and others like him — thousands, mostly young men, who walk up to a border crossing, turn themselves in, and plead asylum. The total number of Indian nationals who tried to enter the U.S. without papers, including through airports and other points of entry, also spiked in the last five years, peaking at close to 13,000 in 2013, more than double the number in 2009. ... Much of this influx, according to dozens of interviews with immigrants, experts, and current and former immigration officials, comes from young Indian men at the border, ferried there by transnational smuggling networks. Although border authorities do not track the religious or regional origins of migrants, government officials and other observers say that large numbers of the new arrivals are Sikhs from Punjab, a region in northwestern India beset by economic collapse and environmental degradation, a major drug epidemic, and decades of what human rights groups describe as political violence carried out with impunity.
In Cuba, where Wi-Fi is both slow and terrible, you will be an emissary from the future, a hint of the degeneracy to come. You’re a full-on mainlining internet junkie with the world’s uproar piped into your head 24/7, your emotional landscape terraformed and buffeted by whatever some narcissist just posted on Instagram or some windbag on Twitter. But like the “not even once” warnings around drugs like meth, you know that after the internet is in Cubans’ pockets, it’s over. Even backward, bitter-ender communist Cuba will become part of the vast data Borg ... The real irony is that if the internet does topple the government and bring democracy to this democracy-starved island, it’ll happen just as democracy itself is being undone by Facebook and every other filter-bubble-creating, political-polarization-amplifying, algorithm-optimized feed. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and also oversimplifying, because the Cubans—the very resourceful Cubans—haven’t exactly been sitting around sipping mojitos as the digital revolución passed them by. They have workarounds. Oh, do they have workarounds. ... the first workaround. Every week, more than a terabyte of data is packaged into external hard drives known as el paquete semanal (“the weekly package”). It is the internet distilled down to its purest, most consumable, and least interactive form: its content.