Laura Palmer from Small-Town Romania

“The police kill”; Photo: Hind Hammoud / Facebook

At the end of July this year, 15-year-old Alexandra was killed in Caracal, southern Romania. The fact that the police, whom she had called three times, took nineteen hours to locate the call and arrive at the scene of the killing, caused shock and indignation across Romania, but also pointed to the state apparatuses’ mechanisms of subordination, and the catastrophic effect of capitalism on the outskirts of Europe.

Due to the regional public transport restrictions, Alexandra Măceșanu had to hitch-hike or catch a “wild” taxi1, which had turned into common modes of local transport in the province. Caracal is, by the way, notorious after an affair discovered in 2012, which involved organized prostitution and sex trafficking of minors, and which implicated the local police, staff of a military (NATO) base situated in the town, and employees of an Austrian company engaged to overhaul a nearby hydro plant. Romania is, according to some, the country from which a shocking three quarters of victims of sex trafficking in Europe come.2

This was as much of the basic information about the case that could be learned from conversations with friends from Romania. The media in Serbia and the region reported on the crime and the initial results of the investigation without mentioning the broader context, which was mentioned and commented on in Romania in various occasions and from various stand points.

Usual announcements of increased measures of repression, surveillance and regulation followed soon. The resulting atmosphere and its unwanted and potentially dangerous contradictions, in terms of creeping normalization or widespread manipulation of violence against women, are adequately described in a manifesto of a group of feminist activists.

Since 1989 a fierce battle for the so-called democratization of society has been waged in Romania, with two main opposing sides. One is that of the “reformed communists”, that is, the very shy “social democrats” (agreeing and compliant with almost all austerity measures, although they primarily affect their electorate and erode their political capacity in the long run), and the other being that of the “democratic” bloc, assembled and disassembled over the last three decades out of various combinations and incarnations of nationalists, liberals and conservatives. In the last few years the most prominent battlefield has been the fight against corruption, either the actually existing and to a certain extent inevitable in the given economic and political conditions, or the one inscribed through propaganda, related with racist-mythical stereotypes about states and peoples that have not yet become “normal” (and are therefore practicing corruption in an untidy and “under the counter” manner, not in an open and administratively-legally-orderly way as it is the case in normal nations and states).

In the interlacing of affairs, accusations, lawsuits, defamation, threats and set-ups, a protest-research-defense-inquisitorial public has constituted, perhaps unique (for Eastern Europe), which tirelessly searches for “backgrounds” “conspiracies”, “cliques” which are, of course, all against the ever fewer and less enthusiastic citizens of Romania. Such constellation and dynamics are regenerated on every necessary and unnecessary occasion, when the opposing parties automatically seek to weaken their rival or strengthen their position in the light of a new topic.

These struggles and the related confusion are to a certain extent also favorable for the development of critical and investigative journalism in Romania. A kind of a bard of that domain, Catalin Tolontan, meets high standards when it comes to dedication, uncompromising stance, even obsessiveness in the search for inaccessible or unknown information, according to the prevailing opinion. After the expected expansion of all sorts of chaotic and opportunistic, accurate and inaccurate news in the days after the crime, he and his team of associates directly drew the public’s attention to the wide(st) context of the crime in Caracal.

In an article in a newspaper which developed from a tabloid (in which Tolontan took over the role of the editor) you can read all about the possible or obvious links between the previous and the last case in Caracal and Romania, whose common lessons are: sex trafficking is a systemic problem, and all power structures are involved and well benefiting from it. This reveals that the last case is a part of a broader system and long-term problems, not an isolated incident. The results of this research are troublesome even if you only check the Google translate of the headline: “16 Caracal minors forced into sexual relations with Romanian citizens, Austrian managers and US soldiers. The security service avoided to investigate military personnel from the base even though they were buying sexual services from girls between the ages of 14 and 16 through a macro.”3What follows is one horror after another:

  • one of the victims of the 2012 procuring told reporters that she repeatedly told her clients, including a police officer, that she was a minor and asked them to do something about it; they would do the “job”, pay and leave (which is, btw, punishable both under Romanian and European and American laws, as the authors emphasize)
  • a police officer who avoided to question defendants from a US base in 2012 has been promoted in service, and commanded the unsuccessful rescue operation for Alexandra, cooperating primarily with the local “bad guys”
  • in a similar case in 2014, a lawsuit and probation were imposed, but only for Romanian nationals; the suffering, torture and rape of victims aged between 13 and 16, unlike in 2012, were taken into account this time, but the possible involvement of the Chinese embassy staff in the sex trafficking was skipped.
  • digital registers of visitors of a local motel where the aforementioned acts took place were allegedly “damaged” and were not used by the prosecution and police in further investigations.

It’s clear that some parts of the wide spectrum of compromising details unavoidably reach the public, while others get omitted, falling behind the horizon of interest of the most mainstream media’s editors and journalists. And not only them, as the authors of the research and the text in “Libertatea” are rightly wondering what will come out of all the information, contacts, results of monitoring and wiretapping in the possession of the prosecution, in light of the latest tragedy?

Paying respects to Luiza Melencu; Photo: Nine O’Clock / Facebook

Timing is everything (but only after naming)

Let us pick out the most painful part of the description of the case, which was, according to all available data, probably the deadly one: after the three calls Alexandra made to the police4, during which the duty officer communicated in a scandalously superficial and understating manner to the tortured and panicked girl, the inspectors first contacted the local “shadow” people (i.e. local “criminals”). In doing so, they provided them with information obtained from Alexandra, although they contained details that a serious investigation should not reveal to anyone.

What follows is the agony of locating the call5, arriving at a crime scene where murder seems to be happening or has already happened (the investigation has not yet shown), and – a hesitation to enter the house. The police is provoking and harassing the girl’s father, warning him that he may find his daughter “in bed with a boyfriend “. For hours, a warrant by a prosecutor, which is in fact unnecessary in such an emergency, is waited for outside the house. Police even suggests that the father should break into the house in order to bear responsibility in case of a mistake. Nineteen hours after the call, they finally break in only to find the killer who immediately confesses everything and shows the remains of the girl…

Why did the police hesitate to intervene according to the urgency of the situation and the basic function of the security service? The most obvious answer is that the police was hesitant because the officers simply did not know who (might be or) was at stake as a possible actor or perpetrator of the abduction after all of the local and national affairs, cases of trafficking, torture and cover-up. As a result, the public anger came down on the police.

In the aforementioned political struggle, that sort of an attack on the police acts also as an efficient attack on the ruling PSD, whose political opponents therefore insist on that dimension of the case. The police chief was replaced, but immediately assigned to a new position – that of a border police director. The prosecutor was probably on the other end of the career-related see-saw, because the police could object that it was stripped of authority after all of the campaigns and new legal changes and initiatives, and the prosecutors, who are an important lever in the anti-PSD block – likewise –that they still lack sufficient authority.

Be it as it may, in such an atmosphere of tip-toeing around an awkward topic6, Sputnik and similar franchises begin their marauder feast. By no means sparing the victims and relatives in a difficult situation, they raise unpleasant, painful, but in fact unavoidable diagnoses and questions. First of all, of course, they question the involvement of US soldiers in this regard: how could the authorities not know who could or could not have participated or be suspicious in such a crime, when the intelligence services have to know the details of this entire traffic and prostitution network, if for no other reason than because of the “Natasha syndrome”, i.e. a Cold War character of a pretty KGB agent who uses her charm to pull information from officers of the opposing side (it would be useless to warn Sputnik editors against empowering such a post-coldwarrish colonial sexist projection, for which the author of this article is also warned). The clumsiness of the police was triumphantly ridiculed, questions were raised about the method of the rapid destruction of the body, which led to the question whether the girl was really dead, and the reason for the transfer of ninety soldiers from the base after the case also got under scrutiny. The suspected death of a leader of the “prostitution” chain in Caracal prison is mentioned also. Furthermore, such suspicions and intrigues were, willingly or not, enhanced by Alexandra’s uncle, who is claiming that she may be alive, that he did not trust DNA analysis etc. He is now, in such a half-outcome of the tragedy and related general constrain, running for president in the presidential election…

Facing a poorly analytically and self-critically ambitious public, in a flood of understandable despair and indignation with the murder and the accompanying torment by the police and media scenarios of the dark spectacle, “the murderer was instantly transformed into a symbol (for all guilty) of backward, corrupt, primitive, provincial Romania, which, of course, will never join the civilized and cultural world ” (as interpreted by Veda Popovici).

The suspect confessed to the crime, DNA analysis confirmed that the samples match the remains, the suspect also admitted the murder of an eighteen-year-old Luiza Melencu, from the same area, who had disappeared a few months earlier, admitted and explained everything, appeared in the media as a kind of a monster: a sixty-five year old mechanic, already known for abusing women. The assembled people cursed at him and threatened him. The investigation is still on-going, the original findings have not yet been officially confirmed and the case is, as far as most media are concerned, “pending” until further notice7.

On the borders of dormant provinces

Alexandra is not a girl like Laura Palmer. Nor is the trajectory of her affliction anything like Laura’s, except for the tragic outcome. In Lynch’s somnambulistic series, the plot and intrigue arise from the contrast of Laura Palmer’s status and reputation – a respectable and pretty winner of a school beauty pageant – and the dark side of her nightlife and final misfortune. The (extra)terrestrial flywheel of her double life and brutal death is a Jekyll-Hyde-ish character of her father, a prominent and exemplary citizen by day, and a diabolical usurper and rapist by night. It can be said that with the development of the series and the characters, this drastic duality extends to the entire Twin Peaks community, as a prototype of small-town America.

On several levels Lynch (does not) resolve the origins of such a pathologized image of small-town America; the first might be the infiltration of a kind of an evil spirit named Bob8 into the mind (and body) of the respectable father; the second would be the projection, quite astral, of all sources of this social pathology into an inexplicable timeless-alien dimension, which is, in fact, the real culprit for all the travails of the characters and the viewers. In the crescendo of the author’s postmodernist (de)lyricism, Lynch, admittedly, takes us through the realms of over and underground incarnations of the American dream9, but still does not in any way bother with the social structure that could take such brilliant and wonderful lauras10 down the murky smuggling paths to hedonistic paradise at the US-Canadian border. It seems to be all the fault of a force whose name is not pronounced out loud.

Alexandra also confronted boundaries, first those of the quality of schooling, for which she took private lessons 15km away, then those constructed by her mother who told her not to get in cars with younger people, and finally the boundaries expressed by the Minister of Education, who post-mortem warned her: “Lest she ever get in the car with a stranger,” which is why the minister had to resign.

Part of NATO base near Caracal; Photo: Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa U.S. 6th Fleet / Wikipedia

No name(d) NATO

If you try to take a photo of a Brutalist building in the centre of Turnu Severin, surrounded by a wall and with no signs or any notice revealing its purpose or accessibility, a security guard might appear from behind an iron gate and ask for your ID, with only one word of explanation: „Military“.

Precisely this lack of marking and identification is symptomatic in media reports on the Caracal case, both when the wider context or systemic dimensions of the tragedy are addressed: it’s always a “military base” and only rarely a NATO base that gets mentioned, the talk is about the economic system, and not about the capitalist system. It’s not the austerity measures that made Alexandra enter a car of a murderer, but “inefficient transport” in the province. What has thus been activated is a particular kind of censorship, opportune terminological and nomenclature filtration of the employed journalistic, juridical and political narratives. The big guardsman warns that he might pop up through the big gate that leads into the big civilized world.

The corporate media sphere, organized somewhat like Lynch’s secret red room divided by floating curtains and connected by hallucination-like floor, enables a game of hide-and-seek, in which one piece of an already known puzzle of a story is always missing. Instead of that missing piece by default comes a new room, a new surprise, e.g. the article in „Libertatea“, not taken seriously, as it is a tabloid. Just like the “Log-Lady” – who had continuously, a bit erratically but pretty truthfully, warned about what was happening or what could have happened – was not taken seriously.

For example, in a report on Radio Free Europe’s website, written around ten days after the major report in „Libertatea“ was published, there was no sign of the professionally documented indications and conclusions about the relations between the cases from 2012 and 2019, which were made public in “Libertarea”. On the other hand, Radio Free Europe didn’t miss the opportunity to take a stand for the “democratic coalition” (generally supported by the EU in the above described political battlefield), hence the criminals, police and government i.e. “politicians” were bound together in the headline, while the American and Austrian “clients” were pushed behind the curtains, even though the case from 2012 was mentioned.

Let’s check out the reactions of the coryphaei of alert and independent press: the „Guardian‟ − fallen asleep during guarding shift, the „Independent‟ − totally independent from wider history and context of the crime. They published pretty much correct news, of course; however, wouldn’t it be expected to see the following sentence in newspapers of such reputation and format, and in regards to such news and subject: “Caracal is a place where, a few years ago, a major affair happened, engaging underage girls in prostitution in which, beside processed Romanian citizens, NATO and Austrian company’ staff were most likely involved (but not processed)?”

We mention these particular newspapers because they had decent articles covering the social situation in the Romanian province (in the midst of media hype on its economic “miracle”). RFE, as we saw, were free-style jumping over the facts, firstly in a somewhat reserved and later an open manner… Blic, Index, N1 all applied the same, so called journalistic “sprinkling” (adding few introductory sentences to an already existing news). It’s only natural that this kind of tinkering will lead to the mentioned feast in the warmed-up cold war counter positions. As usual, the generated confusion gives chance for conspiracy theories to flourish – details become horror-like and daunting, appearing also in an article on Wikipedia (e.g. the one which tries to explain the reasons for the police’s late arrival to the scene of the crime, and the dispute on the very nature of the case, i.e. the abovementioned “murder or abduction” dilemma). Conspiracy theories seem to be the product of a justified lack of trust in bourgeois media, and spontaneous recycling of their selective focus and tendentious filtering of the information, at the same time.

The highlight (and the rock bottom) of it all, owner of a public(-secret) house in Caracal, which works under an indeed twin-peaksian title “NO NAME”, threatened journalists with a lawsuit in case they publish photographs of the inside of the building. In case you have forgotten, the building in case is the one from which the police, after the scandal in 2012, seized the lists of clients, which were allegedly, “damaged”, and as such rendered unusable in further operations and investigations. Hence, clients really cannot complain of how the business guarantees its visitors privacy, high quality clients are guaranteed high quality service, including secrecy (resembling the established public house in Twin Peaks, where Laura Palmer11, like the other girls from the vicinity, was gradually pushed into drug addiction and prostitution).

What is perhaps inconvenient in this whole mess is that even bleak investigations hint that underage girls are kidnapped, raped and then blackmailed (e.g. with sex tapes), forced to prostitution in a way that fits into the story of Alexandra’s abduction to a certain extent. However, the mentioned highlight does not refer to this analogy, but to the fact that the owner of the “NO NAME” public house threatened journalists by emphasizing that the commander of the NATO base is visiting that quality establishment. And now, a really supra-lynchian moment: this was not pointed out as some kind of a dark threat, more like a proof of unquestionable reputation and functioning of the house!

No Name club in Caracal; Photo: No Name – Caracal / Facebook

Someone had to (make) profit

Someone draws guaranteed and stable profit from the whole constellation and context of this tragedy – not that unique and maybe special only for its notoriety – (an article in the Baricadde questioned would it be possible for a case to reach such notoriety had the victim, for example, been of Roma population). Someone had to have profited from neglect and destruction of the weak but still existing social cohesion and existing infrastructure in European and Eastern European provinces. Someone has just bought his third expensive car and carelessly spends huge amounts of money that could cover a number of public transportation vehicles, also including the ones on that local line in Caracal. For the transportation that could have saved Alexandra, and that is still needed in the lives of tens of thousands of deprived inhabitants in rural areas.

Lynch illustrated this anticipated and direct conflict of interests and aspirations, alienation, nonfulfillment and need for adventure twice with conflicts between close bourgeois family members, placing them into an unexpected contact in an unexpected place, and suggesting that the core of the problem is as close as a twin sibling can be; that it is located within that presupposed symbol of security, solidarity, and stability of class society. However, that has not crucially helped the investigation, because in the end, our middleclass agent-avatar in Twin Peaks, agent Cooper, with whom every viewer could have identified (either because of his confusion or his sobriety and determination), discovers the evil spirit (even) within himself…The spirit has gotten between the sheets and under the skin, unnoticed.

And so, the fact that a new kind of a middle class emerged next to the devastated populations and societies in Eastern (but often also in the one on the West) Europe, drives us to preliminary score settling. That formation, generated by fantasies, mirage, and undisputed execution of commands coming from the hegemonic politics and culture, themselves dictated by the capitalist economy, does nothing more than to translate submissiveness, exploitation and disdain into operational and normalized mode. It pulls on the floating, smoke-soaked curtains (just like in Lynch’s fantasy) and it installs filters for information when “progress” (e.g. in investigation) is not in its class interest. Just as in the artistically lit darkness of Twin Peaks, except in a moment of murder, there is no direct causal relationship connecting the murderer to the victim, as the procuring network of partners in crime is ramified, overgrown and ingrown in an idealized middleclass world.

Someone has created a network of pimping and exploitation, not only of unfortunate girls for whom also those immanently insensitive people like transition apparatchiks, proclaimers and town criers can deeply and sincerely feel sorry for, but also of the entire so called “transitional” societies, which are, hey!, just like by some rule – also the main “trafficking” societies?! When experiencing tragic and painful cases like the one in Caracal, those societies seem paralyzed with their own helplessness, disgradation, finally by “compliance”, which resembles the paralysis and compliance enabled by treatment of the abducted girls if and when they are forced into prostitution.

So, someone arrogantly uses gas, much needed for public transportation, someone – with their (non) doing – destroys safety and solidarity of the population and the related necessary infrastructure, previously built with great efforts of the entire society; slowly cooking and drowning the poor of the capitalist periphery (as occasionally reported by both „Independent‟ and „Guardian‟ in their own bright un-paralyzed moments). And we should not be surprised if the investigation in Caracal ends just like agent Cooper’s ended, when the agent so fairly, charmingly, rightfully, confusingly middle class and sober– spotted an other (him)self in the mirror. Regarding that experience, the latest, comforting news is that the FBI is coming to Caracal.

Translation from Serbian: Nebojša Milikić and Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Oct 8, 2019.

  1. unregistered, illegal
  2. Alarming estimations could also be an attempt to further attract attention due to the not at all bizarre fact that this phenomenon is almost normalized and becomes only routinely monitored and commented on by the relevant institutions and the media sphere.
  3. All articles in Romanian media have been translated using Google-translate, and the key cited sections have been checked with colleagues from associations and organizations dealing with sex work issues or theorists and activists sensitized for related topics. This is an opportunity to thank them for their patience and help.
  4. These recordings, due to the engagement of Alexandra’s uncle, otherwise an activist of the “Rezist” movement, can be found on the Internet, but we do not recommend listening, all our interviewees in Romania were particularly traumatized by listening to the recordings
  5. An important NATO defense base is a few kilometers away, so all the power of technology and know-how is seemingly at fingertips; still the police is unable to locate a call (three calls) from a mobile phone in the locale for hours
  6. From the beginning, bringing the whole case into relation with the previous one in Caracal and the fact of a steadily high local “demand” was routinely attacked as unnecessary or pretentious, even as a work of “Putin-agencies” etc; a quoted article on Advertulu’s site is one in a hundred in the period July 26 – August 1, but almost the only one to mention the Devesel base, in relation to the denial by investigators that Alexandra’s and Luiza’s kidnapper and killer was trying to locally “traffic” his victims. Sputnik, according to the article, in a sensationalistic and tendentious way tossed out one such unconfirmed assumption from the television debate. Just a few days ago, however, the investigative team did not reject such a possibility, and extended the investigation to the suspect’s wife (which, recall, David Lynch did in his last episodes of Twin Peaks).
  7. Of course, there are numerous debates in the media, but it is not easy to discern what is the problem of a particular crime, what of a sex trafficking and what of a prostitution, which in the words of consulted feminist activist in no way contributes to a better understanding of any of these problems, and easily transmits condemns and judgements to the most vulnerable actors in this domain. (The above linked text by Veda Popovici that thoroughly analyses this problematic is available in English on demand)
  8. On several occasions Lynch delegates the hosting of alien evil into the characters and domains of American poor, working class or lumpen proletariat known also under the “white trash” label. This may also be read as an ironic play with the class prejudices of the American middle class, but again, this is not an unusual tendency in corporate film production.
  9. From the kitschy romance of big or small family businesses to the challenges of sex, drugs & rock’n’roll suburban relaxation; from the banal cold everyday life and discipline of an evergreen northern province to the desert of foul(ish) Nevada and the corresponding gambling mirages and evaporations.
  10. Laura Palmer is the tragic heroine of the David Lynch‘s serial “Twin Peaks”. Her violent death reflects the dark, “mysterious” side of the middle-class idyll of the US province: abuse, alienation, usurpation, which is publicly well-known and equally well silenced, are all complicating an investigation led by naive FBI Agent Cooper, eventually dragging him into a swirl of mysterious intrigues.
  11. Thus, it is time for middle class inquisitors of abnormal and unknown to get into a time machine hacked by malicious agent Cooper’s twin, and travel to the time before the murder to stop their own twin character in his vicious doings. Regarding transition, vicious doings include in many direct or indirect ways, initiating and approving of abolishment of those huge “privileges” used by socialism to “spoil” people, for example, in Romania, especially in devastated provinces, which, for example, in order to make ends meet one more year, vote for PSD.

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