POSTED OCTOBER 09, 2006 HTTP://BLOGS.NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/CHANNEL/BLOG/INDEX.HTML
World's Most Dangerous Drug
Meth really is the mother of all drugs. It's the cheapest, dirtiest and most powerful drug in existence today. It's also the
fastest spreading. Meth doesn't kill its addicts immediately. The process is slow, during which it takes an extreme
physical and psychological toll. Meth literally rots people's bodies—teeth, face and insides. Frankly, I was appalled by
how ugly it made frequent users.
I explored the impact meth is having on societies in Portland, Omaha and Bangkok. The reasons people start using the
drug differ from city to city.
In Portland, I was shocked to learn that 80 percent of that city's prisons hold people on meth-related charges. Whether
the charges are for drug dealing, identity theft or armed robbery, somehow they are connected to meth. Portland's
hospitals are overwhelmed by patients admitted for meth abuse. I've always considered Portland to be one of the most
beautiful cities in the U.S., but meth's impact on it has been tremendously ugly.
But there is hope. Addicts can recover. I had the privilege of meeting a man in Portland who is six months into recovery.
His name is Kobe. Kobe was very good looking, smart and athletic when he got addicted. But meth nearly destroyed his
life. I was amazed after I heard his story that he was even alive. The most poignant part of his story was that his
parents, who are loving and middle class, told me what a relief it was to learn that he had been arrested and jailed …
because that meant they knew where he was and that he was alive.
I also met a young woman in jail named Julie. She was a prime example of how meth deteriorates a person, inside and
out. She was incredibly paranoid, even though she has been clean since her incarceration. I saw pictures of Julie
before she became addicted to meth—she had been so attractive. It was truly heartbreaking to see what the drug had
done to her. Her face was riddled with pockmarks from sores that had gotten infected and her teeth were totally rotted
from years of grating and negligence.
In the United States, the drug has been rapidly traveling eastward. In Nebraska, meth has invaded suburban
communities and is wreaking havoc on them. We tell a powerful story in the show about a young couple from Nebraska.
You can hear their frantic phone calls to police and hear what people are actually like on meth, and it’s scary. They
were two promising young individuals with no prior history of drug abuse, but on one frigid night, meth sealed their fate.
In Bangkok, meth or “Yaba,” as it's known there, actually helped the economy grow. Like much of Asia in the early
1990s, Thailand was booming. Foreign investment poured into the country, and a rapid building boom ensued.
Skyscrapers were erected at record speed—the country couldn't build them fast enough. The tens of thousands of
construction workers who were building Bangkok needed something to keep them going at work. Enter Yaba. The drug
allowed workers to stay awake for days on end. It became so popular that at one time it was estimated that one out of
every five Thais had tried Yaba. It made the culture more productive—for a time, anyway.
But with increased worker productivity came the incredible paranoia that meth, more than any other drug, is known for.
Paranoia fueled by meth use led to rampant crime. Hardly a day would go by that Thai news didn't report that a Yaba
user had cracked. Ordinary citizens were being held up at gunpoint, having their throats slit and being robbed.
The Thai government has declared an all-out war against Yaba users. Anyone accused of using the drug can be put to
death. I spent time with some construction workers who continue to smoke Yaba, despite that fact that they can be
killed if caught.
What I learned is that meth deteriorates a person’s whole being, inside and out. On the outside, many people who were
very good looking before their addiction to meth become riddled with pockmarks from picking at sores that become
infected. Teeth rot from grating and negligence. On the inside, people become paranoid, detached, and apathetic.
Families and friends alienate themselves from the addicts’ crazy behavior. And meth use can become a life or death
situation. These are the harsh and destructive risks of this drug. They’re terrifyingly real. And I hope people become
aware of the steep consequences … and stay far away from meth.
POSTED FEBRUARY 27, 2007
Inside North Korea
I have traveled to many places on many continents, but I never felt my personal freedom limited as much as it was
during our time in North Korea. North Korea is usually off-limits to foreigners—especially to Americans.
In order to film the work of Dr. Ruit, a Nepalese eye surgeon, the only way that I could enter the secretive state was to
go undercover posing as part of his medical team. Ruit’s goal is to heal patients in poor countries who have gone blind
My cameraman and I hoped that we would also get glimpses of real life in North Korea. It turned out to be one of the
hardest assignments I had.
The government sent us six (!) minders who accompanied us all the way from Katmandu, Nepal to North Korea and
back. In Pyongyang they took away our passports and cell phones. There wasn’t a moment when we could wander off
and walk around unobserved. I had to stay within eyesight of the hotel, so I jogged in circles around the compound. This
is what prison must feel like.
The only North Korean citizens we were officially allowed to film were Dr. Ruit’s patients. The number of people who
came to see him was overwhelming. In the developed world cataracts hardly ever cause blindness, and mostly elderly
people are affected.
Here, children and old people alike had lived in the dark for years. All were hoping for a miracle. We witnessed Dr. Ruit
and his team operate on more than one thousand people in only six days. It was an act of unbelievable stamina, and
proved Dr. Ruit’s deep-rooted humanity.
Then the crucial day arrived. A thousand fearful and expectant patients with their eyes bandaged were gathered in one
room. What would happen when the bandages come off? Nobody knew and everybody, including us, held their breaths.
Dr. Ruit went up to every single person, talked to each one soothingly – and slowly took off the bandage.
One by one, we witnessed the miracle happening. Old women saw their grandchildren and children their parents for the
first time after years in the dark. But what was so remarkable was that immediately after regaining their sight, rather
than thanking the doctor, people started crying and bowing and giving thanks in front of pictures of the Dear Leader Kim
Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung as hundreds clapped and cheered in unison. I never saw such an extreme
personality cult before.
POSTED MARCH 25, 2005
Explorer: Surviving Maximum Security
National Geographic Explorer
As you first enter the endless series of metal gates and security checks at California State Prison, Sacramento (SAC),
there are a few rules. You do not wear blue—that’s for inmates. You do not carry a cell phone—that’s a security risk.
And if you are taken hostage your freedom will not be negotiated if it means releasing a prisoner.
This was our introduction to SAC—a level 4, maximum-security men’s prison near Sacramento, California. The facility
houses close to 3,500 men, locked up for the most heinous crimes—murder, rape, child molestation, assault…the list
goes on. Inside this fortress, and others like it, exist the most extreme of environments—a place where society's rules
don't apply and where everything is all about respect. Inmates live by a code of silence imposed on them by other
inmates. It's a dangerous and secretive world to which even prison officials aren't privy.
Though the job of prison officials is to control the facility, they are the first to admit that it’s the inmates who really
I have a fascination with the corrections system in America. There are an estimated 2 million people incarcerated in the
U.S.—that’s more than anywhere else in the industrialized world. From past stories and law enforcement contacts I had
learned that within U.S. prisons there is a covert culture that has evolved behind bars. I wanted to understand what
goes on within prison walls and learn about this secret world that the inmates don’t acknowledge publicly.
Our cameras were allowed exclusive and unprecedented access—for one month nowhere in the prison was off-limits.
The bizarre prison culture was more violent and terrifying than anything I had ever expected. You always say you never
want to end up in prison—this experience really revealed why. There’s no such thing as just going in and doing your
time. There is a whole language, economy, and system of justice that all the inmates must know. In prison you go in
and you have to fight to defend yourself. You always have to maintain respect for yourself and others and project a
We quickly learned that prison life revolves around race. If you don’t ally with people who share your skin color, you are
targeted for assault. If you are white, even if you are Jewish, you need to align with the Aryan brotherhood or the Nazi
Lowriders or one these white power groups. One of the weirdest rules is that white inmates don’t let each other drink
out of a drinking fountain after a black person has drunk out of it.
If a black inmate goes to use the latrines and it’s in the Hispanic area, he must ask permission. They walk in pairs and
one stands guard while the other uses the facilities. Many rival Hispanic gangs will become allies once they enter
prison. Currently the white and Hispanic inmates are amicable, but alliances change frequently.
Just setting foot in another race’s territory without permission is grounds for attack. If a white inmate enters an area
belonging to a black gang, chaos often ensues. In fact, while we were in the prison, the alarm would go off every so
often signaling a fight or a riot had broken out. That happens pretty much everyday. You never know what to expect.
When everything seems the calmest, that’s when things break out.
The leaders of the various racial groups are called “shot-callers,” but even getting inmates to admit that they exist is
almost impossible. The identity of leaders of all the different gangs and factions must be protected at all costs.
When we explained to the inmates that we were trying to report a story on prison culture, most of them refused to talk.
The inmates are afraid—they know that if they are seen on camera revealing any secrets they could be killed
immediately. People die in prison all the time. They are murdered and stabbed and attacked every day. During the
month we spent at SAC there were several deaths.
Although some people agreed to speak to us off camera, much of what we learned came from inmates who were in
protective custody (PC). These inmates are considered “rats” by the rest of the prisoners and will never be able to
return to the general population. Because they have revealed the secrets of the system, they will remain in PC until they
are released or until they die. PC inmates share a facility with the most loathed prisoners: child molesters and rapists.
All inmates in the primary facility have been instructed to kill a PC individual if ever their paths cross.
Even though the inmates were tightlipped about the culture, system, and the rules, when you mention that kids will see
this, more of them were inclined to speak. As one inmate said “there ain’t nothing cool about this place.”
In SAC, some people are serving life sentences and so there is a “nothing to lose” kind of attitude. When you get put
into a prison for armed robbery, and you are forced to mix with people who are in for multiple homicides, and when
every single person around you has made a career out of crime, you are inevitably going to learn to commit more
crimes and exactly how to do it. It makes you wonder whether confining these groups together is the best solution.
POSTED JANUARY 31, 2006
World's Most Dangerous Gang
National Geographic Channel’s goes deep inside the world of MS-13 Sunday February 12 8P et/pt in Explorer:
“World’s Most Dangerous Gang.”
Correspondent Lisa Ling documented the experience of filming this special from El Salvador to Los Angeles.
Below are accounts of some of her chilling experiences, including finding out that she and her crew had been
targeted for kidnapping and touring MS-13 controlled territory in Los Angeles with an active MS-13 member.
Growing up in Los Angeles, it’s hard not to notice the graffiti that covers the sides of buildings, walls, fences and trucks
in many parts of the city. It looks like meaningless scribble, but it’s used to mark territory. Though it is home to
Hollywood and the entertainment industry, large swaths of the city are also claimed by violent street gangs. If you’re a
gangster and walk into territory claimed by a rival gang, you could be shot to death without question.
Although there are over 100 known gangs in L.A., my encounters with gangsters had been pretty limited. I thought I
could identify them by their shaved heads, baggy pants and tattoos, but then “gangsta” style became cool and it
became impossible to single out individuals as bonafide “bangers.” A gang called “White Fence” controlled the area
where I was working in the ‘90s. I’d also known about the gangs plaguing the L.A. streets, particularly the big ones like
the “Bloods,” “Crips” and “18th Street.” I recall hearing about a small Salvadoran gang with a really long name – Mara
Salvatrucha – that was considered somewhat insignificant relative to the bigger more established gangs. For those
reasons, law enforcement paid little attention to it and focused their efforts at suppressing other gangs. Big Mistake.
In a very short period of time, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has arguably become the biggest and most dangerous gang
in the world. In the 1980's a law was enacted that would deport non-U.S. citizens convicted of serious crimes back to
their home countries after serving their sentences. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of criminal offenders,
including thousands of gang members, being returned to countries that had never encountered gang problems – such
has been the case with El Salvador. Rather than return to the U.S., many gang members stayed in their home countries
and brought gangbanging culture with them.
Law enforcement officials (who’ve served as journalistic sources for me in the past) have kept me up to date on the
issues keeping them the busiest. Over the last couple of years, several of my gang detective colleagues urged me to
take a deeper look into MS-13 because members were starting to show up in many different parts of the U.S. and other
countries. They were also beginning to perpetrate heinous acts of violence in areas that had never experienced such
things before. The gang started to grow so fast that a federal task force was created to deal specifically with MS – a big
deal considering that it started as a small L.A. street gang.
My first foray into the world of MS came through a 20-year-old active member whom I call "Jester" in the show. He was
jumped in (members viciously pound and kick the individual for 13 seconds, for the purposes of initiation) when he was
only eight years old. Just a year later, at age nine, Jester was sent to “attack the enemy” – to walk up to a group of six
rival gangsters and open fire. He was so scared he closed his eyes. After the shots went off, he saw that one guy had
fallen—whether he survived is unknown. Jester says it’s the only time he ever felt sad or scared. He’s shot nearly
twenty others since then.
According to Jester, it’s either “him or me.” If he doesn’t shoot the enemy, the enemy will shoot him. I found out that
several weeks after my interview with him, he and his homie were arrested for murder. When I got the call from a law
enforcement officer, I felt sick. I had gotten to know Jester and he took me into his world, and now he was locked up
and facing murder charges. He and his friends told me many stories of having to “do what they had to do,” in order to
protect themselves and their neighborhoods. At the time I couldn’t distinguish between big talk and their reality. I guess
it was their reality.
Gangs operate as businesses in the criminal world. What’s disturbing is how young the recruits are and how vulnerable
they are to indoctrination. The young boys are made to prove themselves through violence, and the faster one becomes
a killer, the faster he or she will move up the ranks. Gangs are families who raise their kids to kill. With a presence in 33
U.S. states and more than five other countries, right now the MS-13 family is the biggest of gang operations. Law
enforcement is reigning in on their operations, but as soon as MS is weakened, there will be others anxious to fill the
Lisa – Emails from the ground in El Salvador - Thursday, August 25, 2005:
I'd been on the ground in El Salvador for less than 20 minutes when we got the news. By 8:30 p.m., we had arrived
from Los Angeles, picked up our bags and were headed to the hotel when our fixer got a call saying there was a
shooting in the middle of town. Immediately upon arrival we see a dead body lying in a pool of his own blood riddled
with M-16 bullets. It was a gruesome sight. As soon as they picked up the body to load into the truck, we noticed
something shocking. Tattooed across his chest was "Hollywood Locos." The deceased seemed to have been part of a
local Los Angeles clique of Mara Salvatrucha. We started our day in L.A. that morning and by night, we had
experienced L.A.-style gang-banging in another country. As we were about to head to the hotel, our fixer got another
call – another MS-related shooting a few blocks away. We stayed a couple more hours to learn more information. Then
a red-truck carrying the forensic investigators pulled up to the scene. In the back was a black trash bag with two legs
sticking out of the bag. There were four MS homicides the night of our arrival. It set the tone for the rest of our trip.
Friday, August 26, 2005:
This place is utterly wild. Our second day here we were on our way to an alleged MS controlled prison when our
producer got a call saying some guards overheard the inmates plotting a scheme to kidnap us! Eleven guys had
escaped the week before. We had to abort that visit. Instead, we went to a “drop out” prison where all 900 inmates are
former MS members, who have been greenlit (put on hit lists for murder by other MS members) for trying to leave the
gang. We interviewed two MS drop-outs deported from LA who told us on camera that "MS operates at a whole other
level here: they chop you up in front of your family." This was no exaggeration: the warden of the drop-out prison was
assassinated five days prior. He had been on the job for just two weeks. We interviewed a minister who said that MS
members drove to his house in a black Mercedes and put an “X” on his garage. They were trying to prove a point: MS is
on to you. On a random prison cell search, the minister’s wife's name was found on a hit list in a prison. I was awed by
the courage of the officials in El Salvador, they and their families are constantly under threat – they really deserve the
Yesterday was a trip. We went to the funeral of the guy who was shot the first night of our arrival. The family and friends
sat in front of the coffin and 30 gangsters stood behind the minister. It was a sight to behold. Then, the minister, while
delivering his sermon, turns around and points to the crowd of gangsters and says, "It’s never too late to turn to God!" It
gives me chills just thinking about it.
Then at the end of the day, while on patrol with local police, we get called to another double MS homicide. I wonder how
many dead bodies we'll see before we leave here.
It's an eerie place my friend. This gang is ruthless...ruthless.
Saturday, August 27, 2005 – 5 AM
The root of this problem is social inequity. There need to be other options for children who grow up in these barrios,
under the influence of gangsters who command both respect and fear. As for the spread of gangsterism, it is based on
nothing but pure crime and murder. Gangs espouse no revolutionary ideals nor do they seek to benefit anyone but
themselves. They murder without conscience, extort hard-working members of their community and have no respect for
authority or the rule of law. They thrive on terrorizing. And most tragically, they view incarceration as a badge of
honor—how does a society administer punishment in this light?
Some have compared the indoctrination of young gangsters to that of suicide bombers or drug traffickers. But I
disagree. For suicide bombers, there’s to some degree a higher religious or political mission. Gangs don’t have any of
this. Gangs have no moral or social values, nor do they espouse any. Extorting one's own people and killing one's own
people, is the ultimate form of barbarianism and manipulation. I understand the brotherhood that evolves and I get that
gangs often fill a void that parents don’t, but they have no redeeming social value, nor do they seek to provide any to
The globalization of trash culture run amok has piqued an appetite for the same kinds of material excess. And all
anyone cares about is the fastest way to achieve it...criminal activity notwithstanding. Gangsterism has always been
around, but the ability for it to globalize through our plethora of ways to communicate has made it so much easier.
Having said all of the above, I felt God last night. We went hesitatingly to a church service filled with former gang
members. It was incredible – a miracle actually. I know what you're thinking... church? Working on this story has been
very emotional. I had felt such a lack of hope from the second we arrived. But meeting these gangsters who had killed
people and then risked their own lives to leave the gang and turn their lives around gave me a little bit of hope and faith
in the human spirit. None of us on the filming crew are religious, but we stayed for three hours and were all so moved. I
have never felt the presence of a higher spirit more than last night. To watch these former killers in such anguish over
the path that they had previously chosen, and emotion that spouted from their hearts was nothing short of...amazing.
I think I understand faith a little better now.
Saturday, August 27, 2005 – 5 PM
So we went back to the prison where the inmates were allegedly planning to abduct us. The prison officials told us that
they didn’t have a problem with us going in, but that we’d have to negotiate with the inmates and convince them to not
only let us come in, but also to let us go out. I’ve reported from a number of correctional facilities throughout my career,
but I’ve never had to confer with the prisoners before being allowed to work. Admittedly, we were scared s***less upon
arrival. We sat in a room with five English speaking MS prisoners, all of whom had gang-banged in the U.S. There were
guys from L.A., Texas and Nebraska. We spent about an hour with them trying to explain what we were trying to do.
They told me that they were proud of how big and strong MS has become. They finally acquiesced to our entering their
“home away from home.” Was I scared? Yes, but I also knew that they appreciated our treating them respectfully and
that more than anything they just wanted to be heard.
They showed us around and we discussed life in prison. They said that this prison is much less violent than others
because there are no enemies, only MS members housed there. Toward the end of our visit, one of the inmates told me
secretly that the leaders of the gang have been talking about how the situation has gotten out of control. “The young
ones,“ he told me, “are getting too crazy.” Though subtle, it seems that the church phenomenon is backlash to
globalization. As far as these gang/killers are concerned, my feeling is: whatever works. I must say this is one of the
most fascinating stories, from a sociological and psychological standpoint, that I’ve worked on in a very long time.
Sunday August 28 2005 – 11:00 PM – Los Angeles
We just got in. We started at 6:30 this morning. Can you believe this gangster wanted us to meet him for an interview at
7 a.m. on a Sunday? It seemed so ungangster of him. We spent the entire day in MS neighborhoods. I walked away
feeling really sad. So many of them are orphans or from very broken families. The gang took them in and raised them
like foster parents. Hence, these orphaned youngsters are willing to fight and die for the gang, like you and I would die
for our families. When I asked them if they ever dreamed of becoming anything else, they said that in the barrios it's a
near impossible dream. When the gangsters are the biggest and the baddest and they control the economy and the
neighborhoods, it's not so hard to understand why people join. After much negotiation we got approval to hang out in a
hard core MS neighborhood. It was exactly like you would have imagined. We rolled up and heard Snoop Doggy Dogg
and "Gangster's Paradise," blaring from inside. The homies were so young, but so hard...and amazingly cool looking.
They were decked out in L.A.-style gangster wear (and these were new styles and real designer labels). They were the
kinds of guys I wanted to date when I was in my bad boy phase... they just looked bad ass. They admitted – point blank
– to trafficking drugs and robbing from the rich. When there are an unprecedented number of millionaires in the U.S.
and around the world, if you could find a way to make fast cash and feel brotherhood, how do you convince them
otherwise? When Tyco and Enron executives try to subvert the law to make their pockets fatter, how does one argue
against MS doing the same?
All I can say is... only God knows.