Adidas – The Underdog’s Three-Stripe Comeback Plan

By Uwe Ritzer

Soccer isn’t everything. At least not in the sports equipment business. Adidas is learning that the hard way. The brand with the familiar three-stripe logo used the World Cup in Brazil to its advantage  far better than global leader Nike  but the hoopla died when the games ended.

Adidas is in big trouble, primarily because of the weak market for golf equipment and flucuations in exchange rates. The company has been forced to retreat from previously announced goals, and the stock has taken a corresponding nosedive. Meanwhile, the gap with Nike widens as the American company springs ahead.

"I’m a striker, and I want to win," Adidas CEO Herbert Hainer recently said defiantly when he presented his plan to steer the company out of its rut. The 60-year-old hobby soccer player said the company would have to fight hard to win back trust lost with the financial markets, investors and the public. 

The Americans may be No. 2 to Adidas in soccer equipment sales, but in all other product categories and many regions, they surpass Adidas. They’re also growing significantly stronger — even on Adidas’ home turf of Germany. The gap is largest in North America, the most important market for the sports equipment industry. There, Adidas is slumping despite the fact that it is the exclusive sponsor of the NBA, one of the most important U.S. sports leagues.

Adidas hasn’t been helped by its 2006 decision to narrow the gap with Nike by spending billions to buy the U.S. brand Reebok. Since the takeover, Reebok has been a problem child for Adidas.

It’s not as if business for the Adidas and Reebok brands is terrible. Allowing for exchange rate fluctuations, they showed increases of 14% and 9%, respectively, in the second quarter. Adidas shirts and shoes are strong sellers in Western Europe and do exceptionally well in South America.

Investors demand better performance

But investors are not impressed. The global problems appear to them to be too great, and management lost a lot of credibility by issuing three profit warnings within the space of a year. The Adidas stock price sank to 55.5 euros per share Aug. 7, its lowest in two years. At the beginning of the year, its stock price was down by a third, more than any other stock in the German DAX index. So something has to happen fast.

Hainer, who’s been CEO since 2001, believes the way out involves a mix of investment, savings and reorganization. He has announced more stringent organizational structures in marketing and sales. The jobs of those working with the TaylorMade golf brand, which has lost over a fourth of its business in the first half of the year, are on the line, although just how many will be lost is still unclear.

In view of the uncertain ruble and the Ukraine crisis, Adidas will open only 80 of the previously planned 150 shops in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States countries this year and next. The prices for shoes and jerseys have already been lowered in those markets.

The sports equipment manufacturer wants to invest primarily in marketing. Its efforts during the 2014 World Cup demonstrated how successful Adidas can be when it engages in intense, direct communication with its customer base, Hainer said. So the advertising budget is being increased. Hainer called the 1.8 billion euros that will be funneled into advertising and marketing next year “the most ambitious marketing campaign of all time.”

Still, a number of recent company predictions aren’t quite panning out. For example, 2014 profits are expected to be a fifth less than anticipated. Other key figures such as operating margins were less than projected as well, and figures for the second half of the year aren’t expected to be much better. The cost of restructuring TaylorMade alone will reduce profits by 50 to 60 million euros.

(Translation by WorldCrunch, photo by Bloomberg)

Germany Dumps McDonald’s From School Nutrition Program

By Silvia Liebrich

That fast food chain McDonald’s should be involved in giving nutrition advice in German schools sparked widespread anger when the program emerged a little over a year ago.

Now after repeated protests from both parents and experts, the German Consumer Protection Foundation has ended its cooperation with the U.S. chain in terms of food education in schools, Berlin-based foodwatch — an independent nonprofit organization that monitors the food industry — has just announced. 

Some 37,000 people had signed a petition to have the McDonald’s presence removed from schools. McDonald’s had described the company’s commitment last year to healthy nutrition for children as “a contribution, as a responsible company in the food industry, to society,” rather than offering hands-on education programs in schools.

News that it was booted off the project was not well received at McDonald’s HQ, a spokesperson told Süddeutsche Zeitung. ”We are extremely irritated at having been dropped from the program as well as with the way that was handled. No real reasons were given for the dismissal, nor was there any personal discussion,” said the spokesperson, who noted that the consumer foundation itself had invited McDonald’s to be part of the program.

Foodwatch considers the exclusion of the fast food chainto be the first in a series of steps that must be taken. “Schools should be fre e of commercial interests,” says foodwatch expert Oliver Huizinga.

The protests went beyond McDonald’s to include all other private firms that were a part of the “Bündnis für Verbraucherbildung” (Alliance for Consumer Education) program. In the food industry these include Metro, Edeka, Rewe and Tchibo. Other firms that are part of the alliance include Deutsche Telekom, Commerzbank and the ING-Diba bank.

(Translation by WorldCrunch)

America’s Police, Friend And Sniper

By Antonie Rietzschel

The images showing a wall of armed, helmet-wearing men in camouflage uniforms look like something from a war zone. A sharpshooter sits on an armored vehicle, gun at the ready, looking through the rifle scope as if he were about to fire.

But the photos weren’t taken in Afghanistan or Iraq, although comparisons of images taken in both places have an uncanny similarity. They were taken in Ferguson, the small Missouri town that, for all the wrong reasons, the world is watching. The men aren’t American soldiers, but officers for the local police force.

Since last Saturday’s police killing of 18-year-old black teen Michael Brown, who was unarmed and repeatedly shot, there have been daily demonstrations in Ferguson. People have lost faith in the police, who in turn feel threatened and are arming up. Heavily armed police have unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters.

While the scenes playing out there are disturbing, they are actually the manifestation of a trend that has been building for years in the United States. Since 9/11 and the fight against terror that it engendered, American police have become increasingly militarized, both in terms of their training and their equipment.

Rise of the Warrior Copa book byAmerican journalist Radley Balko, tackles this very subject. In a Wall Street Journal essay, he estimates that between 2002 and 2011 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) distributed $35 billion of equipment to federal police and local police stations.

Add to that the support of the Pentagon. The police in Ferguson are part of Program 1033, through which military equipment can be acquired. And not just protective gear or small arms, either. The list of available items includes heavily armored vehicles of the sort used in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also assault weapons. In 2013 alone, the program distributed equipment worth $500 million to the police.

That fuels some bizarre situations. The city of Fargo, North Dakota, where there are fewer than two murders per year, owns an armored vehicle with a gun turret. In Keene, New Hampshire, $286,000 was spent on a BearCat armored vehicle. Between 1999 and 2012, there were three homicides in Keene. The local police chief said that the BearCat was mainly for use at major events — such as the Pumpkin Festival.

Meanwhile, many police stations not only have heavy weaponry but also SWAT teams. These special forces originally were to be used in life-threatening operations such as shootings or hostage-takings. In the mid-1980s, 80% of towns with populations of 50,000 inhabitants had SWAT teams, but by 2007 over 80% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had such a team.

In 1980 SWAT teams across the United States were called in for 3,000 operations. That has since become 50,000, as researcher Peter Kraska tells The Economist. They are dispatched to make arrests or break up illegal poker games. In 2010, a SWAT team burst into a bar that was supposedly serving alcohol to minors. The special has become routine. SWAT teams have also been called in during the Ferguson protests.

Balko writes that operations involving the heavily armed SWAT teams often end with bloodshed. He himself has counted 50 cases in which innocent people died. Some of these people were bystanders, some were police that suspects thought were burglars.

Of the current situation in Ferguson, Balko says, “The police no longer see people as citizens with rights. They see them as a threat.”

(Translation by WorldCrunch, photo by AFP)

Iraq, Obama Is A President Without A Plan

By Nicolas Richter

The U.S. commander in chief is on a two-week vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, where he was spotted playing golf over the weekend. In Washington, before the presidential chopper took him there, President Barack Obama quipped that it’d be a little while before he’d be wearing suits again and indicated that the U.S. airstrikes in Iraq could go on for somewhat longer than that.

Three years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, American bombers are again flying missions. It represents the return to a war zone in which the U.S. military fought — tenaciously and at great cost to life — from 2003 to 2011. One of the reasons Obama was elected was that he promised to end the war. And now he has ordered air attacks. But it isn’t just his vacationing as planned that demonstrates how he’s underplaying the significance of this latest U.S. intervention. He has also laid out very minimalist goals for the intervention.

Assuring Congress that the scale and duration of the intervention were to be “limited,” Obama said the main priorities were protecting U.S. citizens in the northern Iraqi town of Erbil as well as thousands of Yazidi people who had fled to the mountains to escape from ISIS terrorists.

An intervention with limited firepower makes sense in the context of Obama’s foreign policy — military force as a last resort. In Libya, Obama only stepped in when dictator Muammar Gaddafi's troops were about to annihilate the rebels in Benghazi. In Syria, he considered the possibility of rocket attacks only after the regime of President Bashar al-Assad gassed its own people.

In Iraq too, it has required a dramatic series of events to mobilize Obama. For months the president has been monitoring how the the Islamist terrorists have been capturing one Iraqi city after another. But only in the past few weeks has the crisis reached such intense proportions that Obama was forced to act.

In Erbil, most inhabitants are Kurds, which is to say faithful U.S. allies, and there is also a U.S. consulate. And while ISIS rebels were sweeping wide swathes of land clear, they were threatening the fleeing Yazidis with genocide. If Obama had let that happen, he probably never would have forgiven himself.

But the president is not beyond reproach. Republican Sen. John McCain accuses Obama of waiting too long and doing too little against “the most powerful terror organization in history” that poses not just a threat to Iraq but also to the United States. Opponents of any new engagements in the Middle East, Obama’s political friends among them, fear on the other hand that the United States will once again become disastrously entangled.

Reading the tea leaves

What strategy Obama is following — if indeed he is following one — is unclear to friend and foe alike. Contradictions abound. At the outset, the president’s advisers described the military intervention as a reaction to a “one-time” danger. On Saturday Obama said that the problem couldn’t be solved in a couple of weeks and there was no time plan. So it could conceivably go on for months, even years.

Obama’s priority explanation for the intervention is that protecting U.S. citizens in Iraq, as well as the consulates in Erbil and the embassy in Baghdad, is his “duty.” This justifiable reasoning is doubtlessly aimed primarily at the American public, who are not overly interested in Kurds or Yazidis. But what is the logical follow-up to that? That Obama is giving up on the rest of Iraq with the exception of Erbil and Baghdad? What price is he willing to pay to keep his diplomatic bases? What happens if ISIS terrorists aren’t stopped by the air attacks, or if they turn off Baghdad’s water supply?

All of these questions lead to a larger one: Just how far is Obama willing to go against the ISIS terror group, which now occupies parts of Iraq and Syria and wants to create a “caliphate,” a kind of religious state? According to The Washington Post, Obama doesn’t have a “credible plan” to deal with this threat. The think tank Center for a New American Security supports a broadly conceived commitment that would vanquish the IS extremists.

Obama asserts that his is a holistic approach and that the Iraqis themselves are responsible for the country’s setbacks. From his point of view, Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has excluded and discouraged other groups such as the Sunnis and the Kurds. According to the U.S. president, that’s why he didn’t send in planes earlier. That would only have taken the pressure off Maliki, Obama told The New York Times, and would have encouraged Maliki and other Shia to think, “We don’t actually have to make compromises. … All we have to do is let the Americans bail us out again.”

So Obama declared Saturday that the most important agenda was forming a new Iraqi government. To his mind, this is feasible without Maliki and would reconcile the three major groups. A unity government would then lay the foundations for the Iraqi military to solve the ISIS problem itself — with U.S. help. Obama said the U.S. didn’t want to play the role of air force to the Kurds or to the Iraqis in general. He was a partner of the Iraqis, he said, but wouldn’t do their work for them.

This argument is conclusive in the sense that Obama is selling military aid for the price of political progress. But something else results from it as well: If the Iraqis continue to prove unable to find common ground, ISIS terrorists will rule a considerable part of the country.

In his New York Times interview, Obama also mentioned a lesson derived from the Libyan war. After the military engagement, too little was done to rebuild the society there, and the price for that is being paid now. “So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’”

There doesn’t appear to be one for Iraq.

(Translation by WorldCrunch, photo by Bloomberg)

Last Stop: Caracas

By Volkmar Kabisch, Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer

image

Three days after a first meeting, the whistleblower got in touch again. The man, a former employee of the German small arms manufacturer Sig Sauer found something else, a secret “Letter of Authorization”. In it the Romanian company Romsauer—owned 95 percent by Sig Sauer—names an Italian, Roberto G., and the company Rarmexca as Sig Sauer’s “exclusive representatives” in Venezuela. The document came from one of the offices in Sig Sauer Germany. “My first thought,” the whistleblower says, “was, ‘Why the hell Venezuela?’”

The letter expressly mentions Sig Sauer guns, which the Romanians are meant to export to the “civilian, police and military markets in Venezuela.” But Sig Sauer doesn’t make any guns in Romania. And Sig Sauer Germany isn’t allowed to deliver guns to Venezuela—and definitely not without a license. So, why does the small arms manufacturer need representatives in Venezuela?

To compound the dilemma, Sig Sauer Germany isn’t allowed to import guns into Colombia either—and an investigation by German public radio and television broadcasters NDR and WDR in conjunction with Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ, Germany’s leading broadsheet newspaper) shows the German pistols have been delivered there, too.

After reporting these findings two weeks ago, Sig Sauer’s office was searched and the company was served a temporary export ban. In the weeks since, the investigators have also searched the offices of the overseeing holding company and the private homes of the two owners. The first searches at Sig Sauer were in January, when the charges had to do with exports to Kazakhstan. Now the prosecutor is trying to consolidate the infractions into one large case: the Sig Sauer affair.

Not that international weapons trading is a particularly clean business, but our investigation into the oldest still-producing German armory proves Sig Sauer was running a business that turns out to be quite dirty.

Weapons exports are usually regarded as highly regimented, and the officers responsible for arms exports out of Germany got the impression that they’ve got things under close watch. Apparently Sig Sauer management thought their illegal gun running system could function as a work around.  A way for the folks in of the German authorities to never really get involved. The crux of the system was presumably to send deliveries on to ‘sensitive’ destinations such as India and Kazakhstan from the U.S. That way the gun shipments, on paper at least, would originate from the U.S. branch and not the one in Germany (both owned by L&O Holding, which is run by Thomas Ortmeier and Michael Lüke). Another way to elude the inspectors would be to have Sig Sauer guns manufactured in countries where export regulations are hardly worth the paper they’re printed on. For example: Romania.

That path from Germany through Romania and finally to Venezuela is slowly becoming visible. It’s clear that another company owned by L&O Holding—the SAN Swiss Arms AG—once exported Sig Sauer weapons to Venezuela. Their partner in Venezuela at the time? Rarmexca, the company with the secret Letter of Authorization for Roberto G. But then Swiss authorities have banned such exports in 2001. So, to keep up the business flow to Venezuela Sig Sauer had to find another way. One seems to have been Romsauer, the Romanian company owned 95 percent by Sig Sauer. Documents show that in 2007 a Romanian Sig Sauer representative named Dinu S. bought the company—for 100 euros.

The plan, according to a source closely involved at the time, was to license the production rights of Sig Sauer guns. The royalties would’ve gone to Romsauer. Under Romanian law, these guns could have been exported legally throughout the world—including to Venezuela. It would be another way to get German guns past German export regulations. Only: the parties involved say they have never heard of the Venezuela document. It’s clear that in 2010 Romsauer was dissolved and the project failed. But apparently not completely. It’s still a mystery where the six-figures in sales went. And though the company looked to be closed, the Romanian part of Sig Sauer operations continued: with a company called Transcarpat. Strangely enough, Transcarpat has the same address as the supposedly closed Romsauer. And it just so happens it was also incorporated by Dinu A. In 2007 some 2,000 pistols were sent to Trancarpat, allegedly for the Romanian Ministry of Interior. But Transcarpat was also acting as a kind of representative for Sig Sauer. That came out in a ruling in 2013 in Bucharest. The Romanian Ministry of Defense determined that three arms manufacturers were colluding to cheat the Ministry. Two of the companies named were run by L&O Holding: SAN Swiss Arms, which received a 650,000 euro penalty, and Sig Sauer Germany, which has to pay 1.5 million euro in penalties. The man who allegedly committed the fraud was none other than Dinu S.

Is this all just symptomatic of the international weapons trade? Fraud, secret documents, intricate export routes? We would’ve liked to discuss it all with L&O Holding or Sig Sauer, but requests went unanswered. Looking back through the early years of Sig Sauer, a clear pattern emerges: as soon as export routes start to get legally problematic, a new route is established using a partner that L&O Holding owned. Again and again the company hired dubious intermediary businesses to help the orders along.

Maybe we should start in Kazakhstan. In April 2009 the Presidential Guard ordered 70 pistols from Sig Sauer. Of course, this was done indirectly through an “exclusive representative” in Kazakhstan—a German company called Juwenta. (Juwenta has also exported toxic waste as well.) But German authorities obviously explained to Sig Sauer that “order number 156” was denied an export permit. So, as was their usual tactic, a Sig Sauer employee in the U.S. wrote to Juwenta in January 2010 saying, “We can get export license from U.S. - no problem - if we transfer the order to the U.S.” Sig Sauer Germany offers the Presidential Guard the contract for some 58,000 euro, and Sig Sauer USA writes the invoice.

The production manager Jens H.—who was also a manager at the Romanian Romsauer—thanked the Residential Guard for its trust and apologizes for the inconvenience in a letter dated March 18, 2010. “We asked you,” he writes, “to submit your enquiry to the United States of America, which has been successfully done.” By ‘we’ he means Sig Sauer Germany. That means: the order that was originated rejected by officials had found another way.

It shouldn’t matter how the owners of L&O Holding, Lüke and Ortmeier, make their money. That’s how holdings work: they just own the companies that make the money. But in this case, a lot of money is being made on guns that were made in Germany and exported without proper licenses to countries in crises. And that would be a clear violation of German export laws. And that’s exactly what the prosecutor is currently looking into.

As more and more German employees discovered the thousands of pistols they produced were headed to crises and war zones, concerns grew. Many in Germany didn’t want the questionable exports to be traced back to them, to say nothing of the responsibility of those killed unjustly with their pistols. They packed their concerns into an email to their U.S. colleagues. Things couldn’t go on like this. They knew the guns were being sent to Colombia and that that was illegal.

German employees learned that the Americans weren’t sticking to the rules

In Sig Sauer circles it became clear that the driving force behind the circuitous export routes was a Ron Cohen. In reality Cohen is more than just a boss in the U.S. Whether requests come from Sig Sauer Germany, SAN Swiss Arms or Sig Sauer USA, it’s allegedly Cohen who decides in the end whether, where and through which route the guns will be delivered.

Cohen (full name: Ron Judah Cohen) is a former commander in the Israeli Army and is said to be the brains behind the L&O Holding’s weapons division.  One coworker calls him “the mastermind”. Cohen did not respond to requests for an interview. Since he took over Sig Sauer USA in 2004, sales and production have risen exponentially. So did the number of employees: from an initial 139 to 900 today. Since more and more were placed through the U.S., German employees gradually learned that the Americans weren’t exactly sticking to the rules.

When it comes to guns, the only person above Cohen is essentially Michael Lüke, who owns the holding company. Lüke concerned himself with the guns and his partner Thomas Ortmeier looked after the textile side of the business, which was how the two made their money in the past. Cohen is said to have won over Lüke by his success and his profit margins.

But the profits made by Sig Sauer USA are ultimately made at the expense of their German partners. More and more guns are being produced in the U.S. and at the same time the Americans accept contracts, which can’t be taken on in Germany, such as for Colombia and Kazakhstan.

Even the rights to the name Sig Sauer are assumedly now being held in the U.S., though the licensing fees and are paid in Germany, where the company was founded in 1751. If you believe the union representatives, Germanys oldest arms manufacturer stands at the brink of its demise.

The export ban to Colombia is a real problem, orders supposedly already being cancelled. But should we break out in tears that an obviously unscrupulous arms manufacturer is digging its own grave? No, we shouldn’t. But for the workers in Germany it would be a catastrophe. Sig Sauer, with its 150 German employees, is a large company. Many of those are third generation employees and proud of it. Now pride is turning into frustration. Many say they are paying for the mistakes made by Lüke and Cohen. The official word is that Michael Lüke is “absolutely not” involved in “the business’s operations.” Is it possible he really didn’t know about the large contract shenanigans? The Colombian contracts brought in some $70 million. Lüke—not only the owner of L&O Holding but also the CEO of Sig Sauer Germany, not to mention responsible at times for individual exports—didn’t know?

He’s the president of the legal council for SAN Swiss Arms and owns the arms trade license for Sig Sauer Germany. Each illegal order he fulfills jeopardizes not only the company’s arms trade license, but also his own hunting license. He’s a large wild game hunter with an estate in Namibia, far away from the German bureaucracy.

"Wining, dining and 69’ing govt officials"

Facts and interviews with involved parties suggest Lüke was also involved in some dirty lobbying tactics. That’s how he came in contact with a Sig Sauer middleman in India named Abhishek Verma, son of a politically connected family and a notorious arms dealer nicknamed Lord of War. Verma invited Lüke to a gala reception in New Delhi in December 2011. The evening’s program read, “In honor of Mr. Michael Lüke”. To be clear: India is one of the most  lucrative arms markets. The army and military there are massive, and their equipment is helplessly outdated. There’s a lot of work there—for Sig Sauer, too. But the German authorities disrupted the business, which was documented in the U.S. diplomatic cables leaks from October 2008, published by Wikileaks. In them the U.S. State Department at the embassy in Delhi asked the Indian police to check an order from Sig Sauer USA. It was an order of 500 SP 2022 pistols. The German authorities had not approved the export so the import authorization was assumedly “redirected”. That in itself is grounds for a case to be opened at the state prosecutor’s office. These specific pistols were at that time almost exclusively being made in Germany and to export them to India, even through the U.S., is illegal if the sender knows where the order is ultimately bound. It’s pretty obvious by now that the delivery was intentionally redirected. With the help of Abhishek Verma, Lüke and Cohen obviously wanted to boost business for L&O Holding.

Exactly how the deals went down was painstakingly laid out in emails turned over to the authorities. Verma was supposed to put up his own money to influence, Cohen wrote, the “politics of India.” In other words: bribery. Verma’s closest lobbying partner was his wife Anca Neacsu, a Romanian singer and presenter. In photos the busty blond poses in low-cut dresses with a wanton gaze. It could be the couple had a special brand of lobbying. Her husband sent a strange warning in June 2011: she shouldn’t write about serving “wining, dining and 69’ing govt officials.” That should only be spoken about—never written. What a strange warning, especially since he emailed it to her.

Anca Neacsu was also serving at L&O Holding. In 2011 an Indian official met for a “private dinner” at the Delhi Hyatt to discuss SAN Swiss Arms. They had apparently photographed internal documents concerning Sig Sauer USA. Abhishek Verma and Anca Neacsu have been in police custody since summer 2012. Indian officials are charging them with corruption and treason for disclosing state secrets.

(Translation by Candice Novak, photo by AFP)

Why Hamas Will Never Surrender

By Tomas Avenarius

How far will Hamas go? Twenty-six days of war, more than 1,400 dead, bombed homes, streets, fields — the Palestinian Islamist organization appears to want to run its people and its territory into the ground. The Israeli military machine has been attacking the tiny Palestinian area of Gaza relentlessly on land, by sea, from the air. Every hour that this war continues seems like a government-forced sacrifice of a people and the harakiri of a militia: Hamas cannot win this conflict militarily.

But that’s not the decisive issue for the Islamists. Hamas wants to — indeed must — win this war politically. Since 2011, the Arab world has changed so much that in 2014 the Palestinians now find themselves virtually alone in their political fight for a country for their people. Earlier, Hamas could hope for crocodile tears from Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Jordan, but also bonafide diplomatic support and real help. Today both Cairo and Riyadh are fighting their own Islamists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which lost power in Egypt in 2013, is a parent organization of Hamas. If Hamas and the suffering people of Gaza lose out now because of the war, more than one Arab government is likely to think it’s all for the better.

Egypt, which has unresolved issues with Hamas left over from the Arab Spring in 2011, contributes in no small part to that attitude. The new government run by Islamist-hostile Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has destroyed the tunnel at its Gaza border. Since the fall of 2013 hardly any weapons have gotten through to the Palestinians — and neither have many affordable food products, medicines, and durable goods.

When all seems lost

The Israeli blockade imposed on the other borders in 2007 is watertight. Despite international pressure the Israelis never made any significant concessions. So Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants remain politically and economically isolated, facing a gloomy hand-to-mouth future. The Gaza Strip has become a 360-square-kilometer prison guarded by the Israelis and the Egyptians.

If Hamas wants to continue to rule and later perhaps oust Fatah competition from the West Bank, it has to achieve something concrete, beyond the anti-Israel slogans. The Islamists have to force the Israelis and the Egyptians to lift the double blockade and link Gaza with the world.

Hamas masterminds have thought through where the group’s future chances lie. They know that Israel wants to destroy the organization and continually comes up with internationally accepted grounds to attack it under the pretext of its own security.

The political landscape in the Arab world is not going to change so quickly in favor of the Palestinians. So Hamas knows it risks losing clout with each passing day, particularly as it is cut off from the Egyptian tunnel financial support that Qatar has provided, and military help from Iran is unable to reach Gaza; meanwhile the anti-Netanyahu rhetoric out of Turkey in any case serves little.

So it’s all or nothing. A ceasefire dictated by Israel that keeps Gaza’s borders closed would for the people living in Gaza represent a return to the status quo after the death of 1,500. The people would hardly forgive Hamas for that.

Which means the Islamists can’t give in. As more children and civilians die, as United Nations schools are shot at, as Israel ignores all proportionality, and images of the horror make their way around the world in real time — Israel and Egypt both are going to start to feel international pressure. And at some point they have to yield. That is the moment when the military defeat of Hamas becomes their great political victory.

(Translation by WorldCrunch)

Are Mind-Powered Drones Next?

By Christoph Behrens

As the pilot sits in the cockpit with his hands in his lap, the airplane’s control stick moves all by itself. The plane lands perfectly. Automatic pilot? No, the pilot controls the flight simulator — using only the power of thought.

From electrodes on the test pilot’s head, “We read brain signals that form a complex pattern,” says Tim Fricke, who leads the experiments conducted with the Technical University of Munich’s flight simulator.

Test subjects focus on their left or right hand, and their brain’s electrical activity changes depending on which side is their focus. The activity is picked up by the electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes and produces a characteristic pattern of brain waves. An algorithm then “translates” these thoughts into piloting instructions for the light plane, with the computer making the relevant calculations.

Despite the fledgling technology, the brain-computer-plane interface works surprisingly well, at least with a simulator. So far, seven test subjects have tried telekinetic flight, and even those with no training as pilots were able to stay on course using the power of thought.

The EU is supporting this “Brainflight” project to the tune of 600,000 euros. Leading the project is the Portuguese company Tekever, which also develops drones and military technology. Berlin’s Technical University developed the algorithm. The engineers’ next goal is to identify the best brain-computer-piloting approach. Concrete usage of the system in the air industry is not yet under consideration, although the system should at least be tested in unmanned drones, according to the project description.

(Translation by WorldCrunch)

The dubious Colombia exports of German arms manufacturer Sig Sauer

By Volkmar Kabisch, Georg Mascolo, Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer

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 What a weapon. Black, compact and precise. A German dream gun.  Miguel S., an athletic 30-year-old Colombian police officer, lays his new duty weapon on his sleeping bag in his tent and begins photographing it from every angle. A wide shot, and then an even wider shot. And one from each side. Miguel’s unit is on an exercise somewhere in the Colombian jungle but right now he’s got some free time. Miguel likes guns. And he really likes this gun. Accurate, easy to clean and quick to reload. It’s also good for shooting from the hip when under attack—part of everyday life in this section of Colombia. Miguel will publish the photos as a slideshow on YouTube. When you press pause at the right moment you can clearly read the inscription on the barrel: “Made in Germany”. The weapon is a Sig Sauer SP 2022, and it’s not actually allowed in Colombia.

 For the past 50 years the Colombian government, guerrillas and paramilitaries have been fighting each other with seemingly no end in sight. For that very reason German companies such as Sig Sauer aren’t allowed to deliver arms there. And violations come with hard punishment: export bans, fines and prison sentences of up to five years.

 500,00 people have died so far from small arms in guerrilla wars in Colombia

 But it’s usually hard for export inspectors and prosecutors to prove illegal arms shipments. An investigation by the German public radio and television broadcasters NDR and WDR in conjunction with Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ, Germany’s leading broadsheet newspaper) proves, through internal documents and emails as well as statements from several insiders, that Sig Sauer has been intentionally been skirting regulations despite objections from within its own leadership.

 But, let’s start from the beginning. In 2009 Sig Sauer’s sister company Sig Sauer Inc. in Exeter, New Hampshire won a bid from the U.S. Army worth some $300 million. Included in that contract were some 98,000 SP 2022 pistols worth around $70 million. Those weapons were ordered by the Colombian federal police. And the U.S. Sig Sauer colleagues knew it. They are, after all, the ones who shipped the guns directly to Bogotá.

 The “Policia Nacional” is a valued partner for the Americans in their fight against drug traffickers and guerrillas. That’s why the U.S. Army provides trainers, money and guns. There’s just one problem. These particular Sig Sauer SP 2022s were made in Germany. But German authorities say the pistols are prohibited from ever landing in Colombia. So these must be different ones, right? But in Miguel S.’s video slideshow you can clearly read the German manufacturing serial number on his service pistol: SP0238567.

 Upon request a Sig Sauer employee explained that the pistol was manufactured in Germany and had been sold from the German office to the U.S. branch on September 29, 2010—when the large contract with Colombia was already running. And internal Sig Sauer documents show that this method was part of a larger system. Guns are manufactured in northern Germany, packaged and sent to the U.S. branch in New Hampshire. Then, the American colleagues take care of everything else to make sure the weapons end up in Colombia. Over the years thousands of guns apparently took this route. But end-use certificates and freight shipping documents state the guns will remain in the U.S. civilian market. Stamped, signed and ratified by the U.S. Department of Justice. So, delivering the guns to Colombia was probably accomplished through means not requiring an export license. And that would be a criminal offense.

 Over the last few years several accusations have been made. In February it was revealed that other German pistols made by the arms manufacturer Walther had surfaced in Colombia, though there was no authorization for an export. Another manufacturer, Heckler & Koch, is said to have delivered rapid-fire G36 assault rifles to troubled provinces in Mexico and hundreds of the same gun to Libya. An indictment by a determined prosecutor in Mexico has been pending since 2010 and is expected to be formally charged this year.

 In January, the German police seized several documents from a Sig Sauer building which reveal the sale of some 70 guns to Kazakhstan—another country in crisis. These were apparently also made available through a U.S. detour.

 In Germany, the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA for short) and its 200 employees are trying to ensure German arms manufacturers aren’t selling guns to war zones and countries in crisis. One of the countries on their list is Colombia, where some 500,000 people died from small arms fire in the past year alone. It’s estimated that there are some three million small arms in the country. The Colombian federal police are being accused of massive human rights violations. They’re said to have murdered innocent people and dressed them up in FARC guerilla uniforms to inflate their statistics. “Falsos positivos”, as they’re called in Colombia.

 For years Sig Sauer has known the weapons are used in this particularly bloody region

 BAFA and the public prosecutor have become interested in the Sig Sauer Columbia connection since NDR and SZ first reported about it in May. Insiders say Sig Sauer told investigators that they trusted the Americans and have written record that the deliveries were meant only for U.S. sale. Whether the guns eventually made their way to Colombia, they don’t know. But that assertion is becoming impossible to defend, as internal documents and emails between Sig Sauer’s German and U.S. branches prove that the colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic knew exactly what the plan was. And it’s becoming clear that the intended market for thousands of German-made guns was never an American one.

 Records and messages spanning from fall 2010 into spring 2011 which were shared with NDR, WDR and SZ show that both branches knew exactly where the weapons and weapon parts were ultimately headed—and where they landed. Since that period the systematic arms sales through the U.S. and into Colombia continued for weeks and months.

 In a hotel in northern Germany we meet a former Sig Sauer employee who worked for the company while the orders bound for Colombia began—just as the gun running racket was being configured. “I know that we sent the guns to our sister company in the U.S. under the premise that they were to be sold in the American civilian market,” he says. On the U.S. import papers there was a check next to ‘not for military purposes’ — a false statement. “I myself saw many of these documents.” In fact, guns went through the U.S. Army to the Colombian federal police, which is supported by the Ministry of Defense. In the manufacturing plants in Germany the official line is that the guns are for the U.S. sports market. The German staff often learn that the guns are for the Colombian police as a side note. In the end, the gun business is just like any other business. And all angles are up for discussion.

 In several emails in November 2010 the discussion was about the laser inscriptions on the guns, specifically which parts of the gun should carry the logo. In one widely distributed email an employee points out that it’s ultimately up to the clients “in the U.S./Colombia”.

 In early 2011 an American employee complained to a German client manager that some of the pistol barrels from a particular production line had rusted before the customer had even taken them out of their packaging. In the future the Germans should pre-oil and specially package the Tacom guns. “What are Tacom guns,?” one clueless employee asked in an email to a German colleague. The response: “Tacom is the customer in Colombia.” To be exact, Tacom is short for Tank-automotive and Armaments Command and is the operation within the U.S. Army responsible for weapons acquisition. And with that comes the responsibility for arming the Colombians.

 What Sig Sauer employees deal with on a daily basis remained somehow hidden to the German authorities at BAFA. A handful of employees at BAFA oversee export permits for “handheld firearms.” Their scope is limited. They check freight papers, deadlines and quantities. And of course, they check which country is listed on the form. But on Sig Sauer papers it just says “USA”. The papers BAFA reviewed in 2009 and 2010 are basically impeccable. Import licenses, end-use country—all wonderful. But whether the weapons really stay there or whether they are further processed, for example to Colombia—none of that is checked by the authorities. One can only trust that the forms don’t lie. Not exactly ideal when it comes to weapons—and millions of dollars.

 The political dimension of the story boils down to this: a total failure of controls. Again and again, German weapons are found in conflict zones. And again and again the weapons manufacturers are totally surprised. Former United Nations weapons inspector Jan van Aken isn’t the only one who has criticized the system. “Every fries stand in Germany” is inspected more closely than German arms exports, he said. “In every fries stand now someone inspects whether the oil is really being changed. When it comes to arms exports, no one is looking any more.”

 The German government wants to change this with an initiative put forward by the Ministry of Economy’s Sigmar Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Gabriel says he doesn’t want “that blood on my hands.” The initiative proposes a kind of post-shipment inspection to test, for instance, whether the guns are sold where they said they were intended to be sold.

 Internal emails mention documents about “which we should know nothing”

 When it comes to guns, there are often starkly contrasting attitudes: the stuff of the devil in one place is an economic commodity somewhere else. And Germany finds itself in an international balancing act, active at both ends of the gun debate. On the one hand, the Federal Foreign Office is planning an 8 million euro project that would retrieve small arms from around the world. It’s a project Germans can easily get behind. At the same time Germany is among the top five largest small arms exporters in the world, providing the very same wares that would be among those scooped up by the initiative being planned.

 Military experts estimate that German small arms have killed more people around the world than were killed by the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. In just the past decade small arms and ammunition exports have been approved to the tune of nearly 1 billion euro. In 2013 the German government allowed exports amounting to 135 million euro, some 43 percent more than the year prior. Of course, there’s the sporting and police side of the arms business, but you might ask, what kind of industry and what kind of companies knowingly involve themselves in such highly questionable deals?

 At the German branch of Sig Sauer a number of employees are obviously aware that their exports to Colombia are punishable offenses. One German employee jokes that they should “plant one on the kisser” of an American colleague because he had passed along “customized documents (Colombian)” back to the German office. Documents, the German employee wrote, “about which we should know nothing.” It was similar knowledge that landed Sig Sauer’s export officer in hot water in 2011. Emails prove that by that time the Colombian orders had already come to German export authorities’ attention on several occasions. In addition, their U.S. counterparts had been requiring a Certificate of Conformity for the SP 2022 pistols. But for the guns to enter the country the certificate wasn’t mandatory. But export professionals and their colleagues know which countries require such a certificate. One of them is Colombia. That’s when an internal struggle at the company began, captured meticulously by a chain of emails.

 The export officer had the L&O Holding company’s lawyer look into the case. He confirmed that “no deliveries should be made” if it is “already known that” the deliveries end up in Colombia. “This would otherwise be a delivery without an export license and is strictly prohibited.” On April 28, 2011 the export officer promptly stopped 1,000 pistols from being shipped to the U.S. Scandal broke out. The vice president and general counsel of Sig Sauer U.S., Steven S. was informed via email that, effective immediately, Sig Sauer Germany would not be sending any more pistols to the U.S. The reason was clear: it’s been known for some time that the final destination was Colombia. This “positive knowledge” is a punishable offense in Germany and threatens sever consequences for the entire company. The Germans wrote that they expected suggestions for a solution. It didn’t take long. After several hectic emails and phone calls it was settled: Steven S. confirmed in an email from the office in New Hampshire that the German pistols were for the U.S. consumer market only and decidedly not meant for Tacom contracts. And that was enough. The leaders at the German Sig Sauer were happy and the export officer set the delivery of pistols on its way to the U.S. the very next day.

 But the export officer continued to have problems even after this supposed resolution. In an email the officer wrote that the new agreement amounts to nothing more than the old end-use certificate system—which were never respected to begin with. Fact is, the officer wrote, “that we—just as before—have positive knowledge, not only in oral contracts but also in written form as well.” Around this time, as the Colombian contracts were becoming a real problem, a series of high-level crises meetings were held in the German office, according to one former employee there.

 We met him on an afternoon in June in Berlin. As bicyclists rode by towards the Reichstag building, the man explained how bit by bit he had heard more and more about where guns were being sent—particularly places they weren’t allowed to be sent. “In the end,” he said, “the word ‘Colombia’ would come in.” The meetings always took place in what they called the ‘aquarium’—the executive board’s glass-walled office. Sig Sauer’s U.S. CEO flew in for a meeting along with Michael Lüke, one of the two owners of L&O Holding. There discussion in the ‘aquarium’ got tense. At one point a shredder was brought in. From the other side of the glass the employees watched as document after document disappeared into the machine. It was so many documents that the shedder had to be emptied in a rubbish bin in the courtyard.

 Requests, said the Sig Sauer press officer, usually land in the trash

  Lüke, who owns L&O Holding with his partner Thomas Ortmeier, is also the owner of Sig Sauer Germany, according to the company’s website. Leafing through the company’s export papers for pistols sent to the U.S., you will find that Lüke was also the one “responsible for exports” during the period of legally dubious exports. That means he is the one who, in the end, is responsible for the goods. It seems obvious that the system—Sig Sauer USA selling guns from Sig Sauer Germany to Colombia—was rigged from very high up. One of the former Sig Sauer employees says the people from L&O Holding looked “into the books daily” and always knew exactly “what we were doing.” An initial request to pose some questions to Sig Sauer via telephone was answered rather quickly: requests at Sig Sauer usually land in the trash. In a written request we posed 36 questions, among them the most crucial: Since when has Sig Sauer Germany known about the shipment to Colombia? We only got a pat response: the management in Germany declared they had, after careful examination, found “no wrongdoing”. U.S. authorities were responsible for their U.S. branch’s exports.

 Blabbermouth emails about the ‘Colombian method’

The insistent export officer supposedly left the company shortly after the disagreement. Before doing so the officer wrote a three-page memo summarizing the entire ordeal: the many people involved who knew about the “large-scale USA/Colombia contract”, the Spanish user manuals, the lack of wrong doing, the U.S. weapons numbers lasered onto the pistols made in Germany to cover up the German connection. And again: that the employees in Germany had ‘positive knowledge’ of the shipments to Colombia—a punishable crime. Near the end, the officer warns that if criminal investigators were to search the offices, “the authorities would be able to recover deleted data.” And that data could carry massive indications for the company: it could even prove Sig Sauer was gun running and that the delivery route via the U.S. was intentionally set up by the company leaders in Germany.

 Those are the issues the public prosecutor is now looking into, along with figuring out what the Germany Sig Sauer and L&O Holding employees knew. They must have known about what their subsidiary was up to. Just how aware they were about the legal problems of shipping arms through the U.S. is evident in an email from the manager, Andreas W. He writes about a phone call he had with the manager of Sig Sauer USA and says he didn’t find it very “funny” that the German Sig Sauer employees were writing about the ‘Colombian method’ over email. “Email is like a newspaper,” the American told him. That is, far too public a medium for a topic about which no one is supposed to know.

(Translation by Candice Novak, photo by dpa)

The ‘Other’ Pressure On Putin Is Internal: Russia Hardliners

By Julian Hans

Finally, an engagement that Vladimir Putin could enjoy. Wearing dark aviator glasses against the bright sun, the Russian president attended the Russian “Navy Day” parade last Sunday at the Norwegian sea port of Severomorsk. A warship recently put into service fired some salvoes, and sailors responded to Putin’s greeting with three cries of Hurrah!

Reactions like that have become thin on the ground for Putin recently. In his phone calls with Western government leaders the mood has turned steely, the tone sharp. When — even after the death of the 298 passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — no decisive sign came from the Kremlin that it intended to distance itself from the fighters suspected of having shot the plane down over eastern Ukraine, Brussels too begun discussing tough sanctions against Russia.

Before his appearance at the recent “Navy Day” parade, Putin seemed edgy and tense. After a series of late-night phone calls last week, he offered an apparently improvised video message, struggling for words as he called for an independent investigation of the crash. The video was shown at 1:40 a.m. Moscow time on the Kremlin website and was apparently directed at a Western public and Americans who at that hour had not yet gone to bed rather than to Russians and the pro-Russian fighters in Ukraine.

Two days later, at a meeting of the Russian Security Council, Putin came across to other participants as awkward and stiff.

Some observers took these behaviors as a sign that Putin is also being pressured at home in Russia. Bloomberg had reported the previous week that Russian entrepreneurs were “increasingly frantic” in view of new threats of sanctions and increasing isolation. The 19 richest Russians have already lost $14.5 billion in the crisis, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

But does any of that really have to concern Putin? His popularity ratings are higher than they’ve been in a long time. According to the latest survey by the independent Levada Institute, 86% of Russians support their president’s course. That’s a result that would make any politician think twice before changing direction. There is no indication that the results could change if the European Union were to announce that it is halting all trade in arms, and limiting Russia’s access to European capital markets and technologies relevant to oil and gas production.

In confidential exchanges, high-ranking members of the president’s administration admit that the fear of sanctions is considerable. “Whoever claims that sanctions don’t matter to us is a complete idiot,” said one member of the inner circle with daily access to Putin. Sanctions would be “very painful” for Russia and would probably plunge the country into lasting recession, “but they would not be deadly.” What Russia needs to do is re-orient itself towards other markets, the insider said.

Putin himself appears to be unimpressed by the threat of new sanctions. He even said on Monday that Russia was the one considering limits on arms imports from the European Union: Russia’s arms industry was “entirely” in a position to produce everything it needed on its own, and needed to “insure itself against the risks of our European partners breaking contracts.”

Mikhail Fradkov, who was Russian Prime Minister during Putin’s first term as president, is all together more skeptical: “If sanctions were to affect the whole financial sector the economy would break down within six months,” he says.

The Kremlin insider also confirms that the president is under major pressure. Radical powers supported by patriotically revolutionized citizens are trying to get Putin to send troops to march across the border into Ukraine. In fact, state-run television networks are keeping such sentiment alive with reports on both verified and invented victims of Kiev’s anti-terror offensive, as well as alleged broken promises by European politicians, and the United States’ attempts at creating splits between Russia and Europe.

Moscow observers don’t currently see any powerful counter-voices within the Kremlin. Since the beginning of his third term in May 2012, Putin has surrounded himself with yes-men, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist specialized in the Russian elite, who until two years ago was herself a member of Putin’s United Russia party.

She says she has no reason to assume that there has been any split in the inner leadership circle. “In our society, open discussion among the power elite is not something that’s done,” she says, adding that it is not in line with the country’s authoritarian traditions. “You either play along, or you leave.”

Yes, there is some disquiet in society and in the Kremlin as well: both regular folks and oligarchs worry about their prosperity. “But there are moments when people understand that a higher goal is at stake – the renaissance of a great power,” Kryshtanovskaya says.

So, even people in Putin’s closest circle — whose names are on the U.S. sanctions list — are prepared to endure the downsides to policy choices.

Liberals, however, don’t get much of a hearing at the Kremlin these days. When former Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin warned in an interview with the state news agency Tass last week that sanctions and other showdowns with the West could cost Russians one-fifth of their income, his remarks were kept off state-controlled TV, from which more than 90% of Russian citizens get their news.

It is only when remarks such as Kudrin’s also make it into TV news coverage that a possible change in direction could be underway, says Kryshtanovskaya. There has always been a right-wing, reactionary opposition in Russia even if it has received less attention in the West than the liberal, West-oriented opposition, she points out.

Indeed, what some in the West fail to calculate is that conservatives have been putting pressure on Putin since he came to power 15 years ago — only now there are hardly any liberals left to form a counterweight.

Ultimately, any clean break in Putin’s circle of power is unlikely, says political adviser Yevgeny Minchenko who has close ties to the Kremlin. There have always been various camps, between which Putin functions as a sort of moderator.

“I do not believe that an opposition is now forming against the president,” Minchenko said. “That is a naïve hope of the West.”


(Translation by WorldCrunch)

Route 66, Cruising The Most American Road Of Them All

By Robert Meiszies

The road to Seligman, Arizona, carries a famous name — the roadside sign reads Historic Route 66. This is the right moment to slide the CD into the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide’s music player.

“Well, it winds from Chicago to L.A., more than 2,000 miles all the way. Get your kicks on Route 66,” goes the song, blaring from the speakers over the noise of the road. The cliché has become reality, the dream come true for bikers and tourists traveling by van, bus or vintage car down what may be the most famous road on the planet.

Robert William “Bobby” Troup Jr. wrote “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” in 1946 as a tribute to the “Mother Road.” The refrain lists places along the way — among them St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Flagstaff, Kingman, and let’s not forget Winona — that today more or less sum up the history of Route 66.

Coming from Kingman, Arizona, you drive along one of the longest and best-maintained segments of the first transcontinental connection between East Coast and West Coast American cities. Interstate 40, which gets people to Flagstaff in a hurry, is far away. Back here you only find people with time — real fans — on the lookout for a genuine Route 66 experience and hidden memorabilia.

Like the Hackberry General Store. If you’re going too fast, you’ll pass it without noticing it. There are no signs, nothing to point to one of the major relics of Route 66 history. At first glance, the store looks like a shack — until you notice the huge glowing red sign in the shape of a flying horse on the roof and the shiny red 1956 Corvette parked out front and belonging to store owners Kerry and John Pritchard. The old Mobil gas pumps, the rusty Ford Model T, and countless old posters on sheet metal look exactly as they would have back in the day.

The road was once hot

What comes to mind is John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath about poor farmers, so-called Okies, fleeing on Route 66 from the sandstorms and drought of the Midwest, the dust bowls of Oklahoma and Texas, to work in the California fruit plantations that seemed to promise a better life. Another of these soldiers of fortune was Bobby Troup, who ended up in Los Angeles and went on to make a career in music.

The stretch of 2,448 miles (about 4,000 kilometers) between Chicago and Los Angeles has since become a clichéd symbol of freedom and independence for many adventurers and travelers. But what used to be the most important East-West link has long lost this status, having been replaced by interstates with multiple lanes that take travelers straight through the country in less time.

Since October 13, 1984, Interstate 40 has replaced the last 5.7 miles of the original Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. The old, curvy, one-lane 66 still exists (about 80% of it is still drivable), but much of it is hidden and unmarked. The longest contiguous segments are mainly located in the West, in Arizona and southern California.

Among those who didn’t let the Mother Road go was Bob Waldmire (1945-2009), a hippy from Illinois, who earned a living as a painter. Since the 1960s, he’d been traveling the highway in a Volkswagen bus selling postcards, stickers and pictures he’d painted of sights along the Mother Road. He happened on the rundown Hackberry General Store that had been built in 1934 just outside Hackberry, then a mining town. On Route 66, the store was a major hub for cattle transports and supplied travelers with gas and provisions. Both the town and the store lost their raison d’être after the interstate opened. Hackberry became a ghost town, and the store closed in 1978. When Waldmire re-opened it in 1992 as a Visitor Center, he was Hackberry’s only resident.

When the interstate killed culture

Most of the businesses, hotels, gas stations and diners that used to exist along Route 66 didn’t survive the change. They had to close, and have since been quietly falling into decrepitude. The Mother Road herself has suffered: Tufts of grass grow through cracks in the asphalt, while the wind and weather do the rest. Route 66 now survives because of the charm of disuse — and pretty well in some cases, such as New Mexico’s 66 Diner in Albuquerque and the El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, both of which have achieved cult status.

But all that’s left of other places is pretty much the façade. Take Oatman in California, which became a ghost town in the 1970s. Located on one of the most beautiful segments of Route 66, this former gold diggers stronghold now attracts some 500,000 visitors a year, drawn by its Wild West Show and 66 souvenirs made in China. Thankfully, the drive over the Sitgreaves Pass is rich enough in experiences to make up for the tourist circus.

Even Seligman, Arizona, which calls itself the birthplace of the 66 revival, is more reminiscent of a souvenir shop than a serious repository of Route 66 history. Those unforgettable moments when Juan Delgadillo (who died in 2004) and his brother Angel, who is going on 90, held travelers spellbound in their Snow Cap Drive-In eatery and legendary barbershop with their tales of the rise and fall of Route 66 will soon be a thing of the past. Many of the hotels and diners, having used up their nostalgia bonuses, have had to be completely renovated. There’s nobody to take up the cause, and the present keepers of Historic Route 66 are slowly dying out.

Ever fewer of the institutions from the days before the advent of mass tourism survive. Exceptions are the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona, and Roy’s Cafe in the no-man’s-land of Amboy, California. And if John and Kerry Pritchard hadn’t by pure chance stopped off in Hackberry in 1998, the General Store might well no longer be in existence. Bob Waldmire hadn’t been able to agree with the authorities on the use of this public land, and moved back to Chicago after the Pritchards agreed to keep the General Store as a Route 66 museum.

“We actually never planned to buy the store,” says John Pritchard, the businessman from Washington. “We just wanted to help Bob repair the roof.” The Pritchards then changed the whole store back to the way it was in the 1940s and 1950s, restored the old gas pumps and decorated the place with items found along Route 66 that they’d been collecting for over 35 years.

A uniquely American road

But the General Store is no sterile museum: Route 66 comes alive for visitors who wander through checking out the old books, jukebox, photographs, cast-iron heating stove, memorabilia and T-shirts mixed in among traditional food store items and traveler necessities like cola, crackers and chewing gum.

The gas pump in front of a mom and pop store is as much a part of American life as wheat beer and veal sausage are to a German’s. “We were always hanging around the gas station,” Pritchard says of his relation to this arch-American institution. “That’s where the coolest cars and the prettiest girls were. We practically lived there. And now I’m back, so the circle closes.”

Whether some road other than Route 66 could have achieved this level of fame, the answer is clear. “No, on Route 66 anybody going from Chicago to Los Angeles sees everything that characterizes the United States of America,” Pritchard says. “He sees the big-city lights of Chicago and St. Louis, the huge expanse of the Midwest, Texas, cowboys and Indians, deserts, the California coasts. All on one road. Where else do you get that?”

(Translation by WorldCrunch, photo by AFP)