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7/19/12 5:00am

Morning Roundup: July 19, 2012

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Dangerous in the wrong hands
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By Chrisanne Grise

Sober stars

7/18/12 5:36pm

Sober MasterChef Contestant Turns in Her Apron

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Stacey Amagrande, MasterChef competitor.
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Last night ended the deep run of sober-and-proud Stacey Amagrande in the third season of FOX’s MasterChef. The 29-year-old “home cook” worked as a farmer’s market manager prior to landing her spot as one of 18 amateurs competing for the MasterChef title. Viewers were introduced to Amagrande during an early “audition” episode, in which the judges initially voted her down—until judge Joe Bastianich changed his mind and headed out into the audition anteroom to offer her a MasterChef apron after all.

It was an outcome that Amagrande could never have imagined when she was a kid in Apple Valley, Calif. “They always had a saying growing up in the High Desert that you were either stuck-up, fucked-up or knocked-up—and I fell under that fucked-up category, unfortunately,” said the spirited, tattooed chef during the audition show, copping to a liter-of-vodka-a-day habit. But no longer. Amagrande got sober, and attributes her new-found confidence to that change. “My sobriety means more to me than anything now, because I’m not afraid to do anything.”

Speaking with The Fix, Amagrande says she started smoking pot at 12 years old, drinking at 14 and doing speed at 15. Although she managed to drop the drugs, she later became a full-blown alcoholic, with a serious physical dependence on liquor. A little over two years ago, after a particularly bad six- to nine-month period of vowing on a daily basis to quit “tomorrow,” Amagrande says she “looked in the mirror and saw my soul was depleted.” She adds, “It was in that moment when I said, ‘Is it going to be tomorrow or is it going to be today?’”

That was one Friday in May 2010. The following Monday, she checked into Cedar House Life Change Center, in Bloomington, Calif. (Funnily enough, Amagrande is of the mind that certain aspects of life in rehab were good prep work for starring in a reality-TV show.) When she left Cedar House three months later, clean and sober—and with a rediscovered love for yoga, Pilates and running—she also threw herself into cooking. “It was the only thing I could think of that made me dizzy with every part of me,” she explains. “When I’m cooking, all of my senses are actively working and enlightened. I’m using my creativity and I’m instantly gratified.”

Two years sober today, and waiting to hear back regarding an executive chef job on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, Amagrande feels it's her responsibility to be open about her journey from active alcoholism to sobriety. “I think it’s kind of my duty not only to not be ashamed, because I’ve moved forward in my life, but to be an example,” she says. Although she doesn’t participate in AA—“It really just wasn’t for me,” she explains, preferring instead high daily doses of exercise—she doesn’t judge those who do: “I feel like everyone needs to follow their own path.”

The next new episode of MasterChef airs Monday, July 23, on FOX, at 9pm Eastern/8pm Central.

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By Hunter R. Slaton

Mexican drug cartels

7/18/12 4:50pm

Mexican Cartel Becomes a Bizarre Cult

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An altar for Saint Nazario. Photo via

Mexico’s drug war has brought pain and suffering upon countless thousands. It's also helped a few hundred participants find a new spiritual path. The death of one of the country’s most feared drug traffickers, Nazario Moreno—known as “El Mas Loco” or “The Craziest One”—has led to the creation of a strange cult-like group known as the "Knights Templar." Moreno’s cartel, formerly called “La Familia Michoacana,” is one of the biggest traffickers of crystal meth to the US, and boasts an army of around 1,200 gunmen. But its late leader still considered himself an evangelical Christian and was known for spreading the gospel. When he was shot dead by police in December 2010, he had been handing out washing machines and cars as Christmas presents at a festival.

His legacy lives on now through the Knights Templar. While the group’s exact religious beliefs are unclear, police have found plastic helmets used in initiation ceremonies as well as altars topped with three-foot high statues of Moreno, shown in golden medieval armor and carrying a sword. Meanwhile, the local “Prayer to Saint Nazario” portrays Moreno as a holy being: "Give me holy protection, through Saint Nazario, Protector of the poorest, Knights of the people, Saint Nazario, give us life," it goes. And members continue their idol's generous giving: "They help people out by giving them presents like bags of cement,” says an anonymous undercover military intelligence officer. Nevertheless, the Knights Templar are believed to be behind the majority of the 480 drug-related murders in Michoacan in the last year and a half—including dozens of decapitations and dismemberments.

After Moreno's death, Servando Gomez—one of the top lieutenants and a former rural school teacher—took over the gang and renamed it the Knights Templar, after the medieval military that protected Christians during the Crusades. But some members chose to stick with La Familia Michoacana and have now become the Knights’ rivals—10 people were killed this month in a shoot-out between them. The Knights apparently follow a strict code of 53 commandments, including instructions like: "The Knights Templar will establish an ideological battle and defend the values of a society based on ethics” and "Any knight who betrays the Templars will receive the maximum punishment, their properties will be taken and the same fate will befall their family.” Looks like president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto will be needing that new drug war plan when he takes office in December.

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By Chrisanne Grise

Social Smoking

7/18/12 4:01pm

Do Cigarette Taxes Drive Us to Drink?

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Chasing the buzz, one way or another.
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For those who smoke "socially" only while drinking, a cigarette is the cherry on top of the sundae of inebriation—giving just the right combo of stimulants and downers to hit that "sweet spot." But as cigarette taxes mount, rates of smoking have fallen—and a new study suggests that people may be drinking more booze to compensate. The study, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, shows that higher cigarette taxes correlate with higher rates of alcohol consumption—especially among adults aged 21-29, who are increasingly likely to binge drink when cigarette prices rise. The same association was seen in people older than 65, although this demographic is far less likely to binge. However, the study also tracked smoking rates and found that while overall rates have dropped, the twenty-something category is not actually smoking lessjust drinking more. Perhaps it's "to ease the lamentation of dropping $11 on a pack of cigarettes," as one source suggests. The report concludes: "Researchers, practitioners, advocates, and policymakers should work together to understand and prepare for these unintended consequences of tobacco taxation policy."

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By Gabrielle Wuhl

Prison Drug Smuggling

7/18/12 3:08pm

Prison Drug Smuggling: The Old Fashioned Way

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Which side is he playing for?
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When all else fails, prisoners turn to guards to sneak drugs into them. It's a simple matter of manipulation—and prisoners have mastered this art. "I can tell right away if I can get a C/O to bring in drugs for me," one prisoner tells The Fix. "I start it out with something small, like getting them to let me use their microwave or something. When they get comfortable with that I advance it a little by getting them to give me some of their food from the street. If all that works I will ask them to bring me in some Pizza Hut or McDonald's, nothing major. If they do that I know I got them. They will bring me whatever I want."

Part of a new guard's orientation is meant to teach how prisoners may try to prey on staff members to gain favors or leverage. But despite the precautions, guards still fall victim. They can catch romantic feelings for prisoners too: "My man pushed up on this young rookie C/O. She was green as hell," the prisoner relates. "Pretty, but not too pretty. He laid it on her real smooth, had her bringing him food, chewing gum, jewelry and it wasn't two months later she was bringing in packages for him. He finessed that girl something fierce. She was in love with him."

Guards can bring drugs in easily because they aren't generally subject to searches. As trusted employees, their complicity in smuggling rings largely goes undiscovered—unless they get snitched out by a coworker, or a jealous and bitter prisoner who thinks the C/Os should be bringing stuff into them. They smuggle drugs in lunch boxes, back packs, pockets, or however. And with fees of $500 or more to bring in a package of drugs, some of them are strictly money-motivated. "I've seen a lot of greedy C/Os get busted," the prisoner says. "They just don't know when to stop and they start fucking with the wrong dudes on the pound. Dudes who can't hold their weight and will drop a dime on the C/Os to save their own asses." With all the avenues available—and all the conniving drug addicts incarcerated—prisons are clearly incapable of denying prisoners their drugs.

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By Seth Ferranti

public health

7/18/12 2:13pm

Inactivity Is "as Deadly as Smoking"

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The new face of high-risk behavior.
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If you were looking for a reason to get off the couch, a new study suggests a that lack of exercise kills as many people across the world as smoking. It's recommended that adults take at least 150 minutes of "moderate exercise" a week, which includes activities like walking, biking or gardening. But about a third of adults worldwide don't meet this quota, the report estimates—and the global death toll reaches 5.3 million a year. This encompasses roughly one in ten deaths from heart disease, breast and colon cancer and diabetes. (Comparatively, smoking causes about five million deaths a year.) The report, published in The Lancet medical journal in the lead-up to the Olympics, calls the problem a "pandemic" and hopes to push physical inactivity into the spotlight as a public health issue. Pedro Hallal, one of the lead researchers, says: "The global challenge is clear—make physical activity a public health priority throughout the world to improve health and reduce the burden of disease." However, despite similar death tolls, people should be aware that rates of smoking are much lower than rates of physical activity—so smoking remains more dangerous to individuals. As Dr. Claire Knight of Cancer Research UK says, "When it comes to preventing cancer, stopping smoking is by far the most important thing you can do."

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