Pentagon approves additional 2,100 troops to U.S.-Mexico border

A member of the Texas National Guard watches the Mexico-U.S. border from an outpost along the Rio Grande in Roma, Texas, U.S., April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Wednesday it had approved a request to send an additional 1,000 Texas National Guard and 1,100 active-duty troops to the border with Mexico, the latest deployment in support of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration crackdown.

Major Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, told Reuters that acting Defense Secretary Richard Spencer had approved the additional troops on Tuesday night, and they would be assisting with tasks like logistical support and aerial surveillance.

There are currently about 4,500 active duty and National Guard troops on the border with Mexico.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Facing new asylum curb, nerves for those waiting at U.S.-Mexico border

A board with the number of migrants that are requesting asylum is pictured at the premises of the state migrant assistance office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Julia Love

CIUDAD JUAREZ (Reuters) – Number 12,026 – better known as Marcial Artigas, 33, from Holguin, Cuba – waited nervously at a migration office at the U.S.-Mexico border as a Mexican official called out numbers from a long list of hopefuls waiting to cross to the United States.

Artigas said he was praying his number would be called next, before a new U.S. policy announced on Monday enters into force that bars almost all immigrants from applying for asylum at the country’s southern border.

The Trump administration’s interim rule, set to take effect Tuesday, requires asylum-seekers to first pursue safe haven in a third country through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The former cafeteria worker said he left Cuba in February, traveling to Nicaragua by plane before heading north through Central America and into Mexico by bus. If the new policy sticks, he could be required to apply for asylum in Mexico, or any one of the countries he passed through en route.

He had been waiting his turn to cross to El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez since mid-April, joining a line of thousands, according to officials and a list of asylum-seekers the city keeps.

By 9.20 a.m, the official calling out numbers from the National Migration Institute’s Grupo Beta unit had read out 10. He reached number 12,025 and called it a day.

As the other migrants clapped, number 12,025 rose, pumped his fist, and followed the official to cross to the United States to begin his asylum process.

Artigas was wearing a black backpack stuffed with clothing and other essentials, ready to leave Mexico behind for good. If he felt despair at falling a single digit short, the Cuban remained stoic.

He hoped there would be another round of numbers called that afternoon at the migration office, he said.

Still, he said, the constant shifts in U.S. policy made him feel annoyed that while he was playing by the rules, people who crossed illegally and then requested asylum were at an advantage.

“One is here patiently doing things as they should be done,” he said. “There are people who go illegally.”

Beside him, most of the nearly two dozen migrants at the office, in the shadow of the bridge connecting the two counties, appeared not yet to have heard about the newest U.S. policy.

If they had, they appeared unsure about what it might mean for their asylum chances.

Carolina Puente, 35, still had a crushing wait ahead. At number 17,243, hundreds more were scheduled to cross ahead of her, she said.

“I’m desperate,” she said. “Desperate is the word.”

Puente said she had fled violence in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to Cuba two years ago, to live with her husband’s family. But in Cuba she faced poverty and a lack of economic opportunities.

Since June 24, she had been renting a house in Ciudad Juarez. But she said she had little faith in Mexico, which is racked by drug-related violence and high murder rates and notoriously unsafe for migrants.

“This country has opened the doors for us, but it’s an unsafe country,” she said.

Enrique Valenzuela, head of COESPO, the state population commission which oversees the center for migrants in Ciudad Juarez, said he had no prior knowledge of the new U.S. measure, having learned about it on television.

The number of people adding themselves to the asylum list in Ciudad Juarez had been dropping this month and last, he said.

But if the new policy holds, he said, “The number of (asylum) applicants will rocket in Mexico.”

(Reporting by Julia Love; writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Tom Brown)

U.S. border patrol faces probe; White House bashes asylum ruling

U.S. Border Patrol agents stand at attention during a 'Border Safety Initiative' media event at the U.S.-Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

By Makini Brice and Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has ordered an investigation into reports that border patrol agents have been posting offensive anti-immigrant comments and threats against lawmakers on a private Facebook group.

The move was announced amid mounting criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, with lawmakers and government investigators warning of dangerous conditions in migrant detention centers.

“Reporting this week highlighted disturbing and inexcusable social media activity that allegedly includes active Border Patrol personnel,” acting DHS head Kevin McAleenan said on Twitter on Wednesday, calling the reported comments “completely unacceptable.”

He said any employee found to have “compromised the public’s trust in our law enforcement mission will be held accountable.”

The Facebook posts, first reported by the non-profit news site ProPublica included jokes about the deaths of migrants and sexually explicit content referring to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who was highly critical of the detention facilities after a tour this week.

The White House also criticized a ruling by a federal judge in Seattle who on Tuesday blocked an administration move to keep thousands of asylum seekers in custody while they pursued their cases.

“The district court’s injunction is at war with the rule of law,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement. “The decision only incentivizes smugglers and traffickers, which will lead to the further overwhelming of our immigration system by illegal aliens.”

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

Acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan attends a news conference in Guatemala City, Guatemala June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

The American Civil Liberties Union and other immigrant rights groups sued the government in April after Attorney General William Barr concluded that asylum seekers who entered the country illegally were not eligible for bond.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman on Tuesday ruled that people detained after entering the country to seek asylum were entitled to bond hearings.

MIGRATION FLOWS

The record surge of mostly Central American families at the U.S. southwestern border has begun to ease after tougher enforcement efforts in Mexico, although the situation remains dire, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.

The U.S. government’s internal watchdog on Tuesday said migrant-holding centers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley were dangerously overcrowded, publishing graphic pictures of cells holding twice as many people as they were built for.

Mexico’s government, citing unpublished U.S. data, said migrant arrests at the border fell 30% in June from the previous month after it started a migration crackdown as part of a deal with the United States to avoid possible trade tariffs.

The Mexican government said it was now busing home dozens of Central American migrants from Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, who were forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum claims to be processed under a U.S. policy known as “Remain in Mexico.”

“Mexico’s effort to control the flow of migrants appears to have broken a growing trend,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

After migrant arrests reached a 13-year monthly high in May, immigration has arguably become the biggest issue for President Donald Trump and the Democratic contenders vying for the chance to face him in the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker would “virtually eliminate immigration detention” if he wins the White House, his campaign said on Tuesday.

Presidential hopeful Julian Castro last week proposed decriminalizing border crossings as a step toward freeing up federal resources and eliminating thousands of cases clogging criminal courts – an initiative favored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also running for the Democratic nomination.

Trump, meanwhile, looked to stir up support for his policies, promising immigration raids after the July 4 U.S. holiday to arrest migrants with deportation orders.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Diego Ore and David Alire Garcia in Mexico City, Jonathan Allen in New York and David Alexander and Makini Brice in Washington; Writing by Andrew Hay and Paul Simao; Editing by Michael Perry and Bill Trott)

Mexico says it will finish National Guard roll-out to stem migration this week

FILE PHOTO - Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a session with senators and lawmakers at the Senate building in Mexico City, Mexico June 14, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico will complete deployment of National Guard forces on its southern border with Guatemala this week as part of a new immigration control plan agreed with Washington, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard’said on Monday.

“The deployment of the National Guard ordered, with support from the Ministry of Defense and the Navy, will be completed this week,” Ebrard said at a news conference.

Mexico is stepping up efforts to cut the flow of mostly Central American migrants toward the U.S. border under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump, who vowed to hit Mexican goods with tariffs if it did not increase immigration control efforts.

Mexico made a deal on June 7 with the United States to avert the tariffs, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period for the Mexican government to make palpable progress in reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally.

Mexico has pledged to send 6,000 National Guard members along its border with Guatemala under the deal.

That deployment has been patchy so far. A Reuters reporter near the border this weekend saw a handful of officials wearing National Guard insignia and spoke to other security personnel who said they were part of the guard.

There has been a jump in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, angering Trump, who has made reducing illegal immigration one of his signature policy pledges as he heads into his campaign to win a second four-year term in November 2020.

Most of those caught attempting to enter the United States are people fleeing poverty and violence in the troubled Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Dave Graham and Bill Trott)

Trump vows rapid, high tariffs on Mexico unless illegal immigration ends

FILE PHOTO: Joe Alvarado, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agriculture Specialist, checks imported broccoli from Mexico at the Pharr Port of Entry in Pharr, Texas, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

By Steve Holland and Frank Jack Daniel

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump, responding to a surge of illegal immigrants across the southern border, vowed on Thursday to impose a tariff on all goods coming from Mexico, starting at 5% and ratcheting much higher until the flow of people ceases.

Trump’s move dramatically escalates his battle to control a wave of tens of thousands of asylum seekers, including many Central American families fleeing poverty and violence, that has swelled alongside his promises to make it harder to get U.S. refuge and his efforts to build a wall on the Mexican border.

The announcement rattled investors who feared that worsening trade friction could hurt the global economy. The Mexican peso, U.S. stock index futures and Asian stock markets tumbled on the news, including the shares of Japanese automakers who ship cars from Mexico to the United States.

The president’s decision, announced on Twitter and in a subsequent statement, was a direct challenge to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and took the Mexican government by surprise on a day when it had started a formal process to ratify a trade deal with the United States and Canada (USMCA).

It raised the risk of devastating economic relations with the biggest U.S. trade partner for goods. Mexico, heavily dependent on cross-border trade, rose to that ranking as a result of Trump’s trade war with China.

The measures against Mexico open up a new front on trade and if implemented are bound to trigger retaliation that would hit heartland, Trump-supporting farming and industrial states.

Higher tariffs will start at 5% on June 10 and increase monthly up to 25% on Oct. 1, unless Mexico takes immediate action, he said.

“If the illegal migration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment, the tariffs will be removed,” Trump said.

Lopez Obrador responded in a letter he posted on Twitter, calling Trump’s policy of America First “a fallacy” and accusing him of turning the United States into a “ghetto,” that stigmatized and mistreated migrants.

“President Trump, social problems are not resolved with taxes or coercive measures,” he wrote, adding that a delegation led by Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard would travel to Washington on Friday. He did not threaten to retaliate, saying he wanted to avoid confrontation.

Lopez Obrador pushed back against Trump’s assertion that Mexico let immigration happen through “passive cooperation,” saying: “you know we are fulfilling our responsibility to stop (migrants) moving through our country, as much as possible and without violating human rights.”

Determined to avoid a break down in Mexico’s most important bilateral relationship, since Trump threatened to close the world’s busiest land border over the migrant surge, Lopez Obrador’s government has drastically tightened controls on the movement of migrants, detaining and deporting thousands in recent months, while calling for U.S. aid to tackle root causes.

“We’re in a good moment building a good relationship (with the United States) and this comes like a cold shower,” said Mexico’s deputy foreign minister for North America, Jesus Seade, who had been in Mexico’s Senate delivering the USMCA trade deal for ratification shortly before the news broke.

In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang expressed sympathy with Mexico.

“The United States has repeatedly taken trade bullying action. China is not the only victim,” Geng told reporters.

Cross border trade between Mexico and the United States: https://tmsnrt.rs/2V59n2R

SIDING WITH HAWKS

Despite Trump’s assertion that Mexico could easily end Central American immigration, its relatively small security forces, also struggling with a record level of gang violence and homicide, are having a hard time controlling the flows.

In the biggest migrant surge on the U.S-Mexican border in a decade, U.S. officials say 80,000 people are being held in custody with an average of 4,500 mostly Central American migrants arriving daily, overwhelming the ability of border patrol officials to handle them. A senior White House official said Trump was particularly concerned that U.S. border agents apprehended a group of 1,036 migrants as they illegally crossed the border from Mexico on Wednesday. Officials said it was the largest single group since October. Before unveiling the tariff threat, Trump posted a video purporting to be of the crossing on his Twitter feed.

A source close to Trump said there had been a debate inside the White House over whether to go forward with the new policy, with immigration hawks fighting for it and others urging a more diplomatic approach. Trump sided with the hawks.

“The last thing he wants is to look weak,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trump’s directive also spelled the potential for chaos for his efforts to get the U.S. Congress to approve the USMCA deal, which he negotiated as a replacement to the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona, which shares a 370-mile (595-km) border with Mexico, said on Twitter that he spoke to the White House and it was time for Congress to act on border security and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“Everyone knows I am opposed to tariffs and deeply value Arizona’s relationship with Mexico. I prioritize national security and a solution to our humanitarian crisis at the border above commerce,” he said on Twitter.

Trump said he was acting under the powers granted to him by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. He campaigned for election in 2016 on a vow to crack down on immigration.

Jaime Serra, Mexico’s former trade minister who negotiated the original NAFTA, told Reuters the announcement was unacceptable and “in total violation of NAFTA.” Another negotiator said Trump risked violating World Trade Organization rules.

WHITE HOUSE WANTS ACTION ‘TONIGHT’

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, asked in a conference call with reporters which products from Mexico could be affected by the tariffs, said: “All of them.”

Mulvaney added, “We are interested in seeing the Mexican government act tonight, tomorrow.”

Shares in Toyota Motor Corp, Nissan Motor Co and Honda Motor Co all fell around 3% or more, while Mazda Motor Co fell nearly 7%. All four operate vehicle assembly plants in Mexico.

“Mexico is the U.S.’s largest trading partner and a flare-up in trade tensions was definitely not on the market radar,” said Sean Callow, a senior currency analyst at Westpac.

The benchmark S&P 500 e-mini futures dropped 0.82% to the lowest the contract has traded since early March. Investors scooped up safe assets, driving the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note to 2.18%, the lowest since September 2017.

The dollar surged more than 2.5 percent against the Mexican peso.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Eric Beech and Mohammed Zargham; additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York,Noe Torres and Anthony Esposito in Mexico City, and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Grant McCool and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. plans to send transportation staff to U.S.-Mexico border

FILE PHOTO: Concertina wire is seen atop a section of border fence near the U.S.-Mexico border in Donna, Texas, U.S. May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration plans to redirect Transportation Security Administration staff to the U.S. southern border to assist with immigration duties and migrant flows, the TSA said on Wednesday.

A TSA spokesman said in a statement the bureau was looking for volunteers to support efforts at the U.S. border with Mexico, where the government has said it is grappling with record numbers of people.

“TSA, like all DHS components, is supporting the DHS effort to address the humanitarian and security crisis at the southwest border. TSA is in the process of soliciting volunteers to support this effort while minimizing operational impact,” TSA spokesman James Gregory said in a statement.

The TSA border assignment will last at least 45 days and comes at the start of the busy summer travel season, which a U.S. official acknowledged carried “some risk,” CNN reported, citing an internal email it obtained.

TSA staff will include 175 law enforcement officials, including air marshals, and as many as 400 security staff drawn from six U.S. cities but will not include airport screeners, CNN said, citing two additional unnamed sources. The six cities were not immediately identified.

TSA law enforcement officials sent to the border will receive legal training and assist the Customs and Border Protection department as immigration officers, the report said.

The decision comes as the airline and travel industry urge lawmakers to approve funding for more Customs and Border Patrol officers, warning of excessive wait times for traveling and shipping as officers have been shifted to the border.

The Department of Interior has also doubled the number of officers it is sending for three-week stints to the border, from 22 to 47, The Hill reported on Wednesday, citing an internal memorandum.

An Interior Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. government reported earlier this month that border officers had apprehended nearly 99,000 people crossing the border with Mexico in April, the highest figure since 2007. More than two-thirds of those apprehended were children or people traveling as families.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Meredith Mazzilli)

Trump rejects Mexican efforts in face of fresh migrant caravan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Marines help to build a concertina wire barricade at the U.S. Mexico border in preparation for the arrival of a caravan of migrants at the San Ysidro border crossing in San Diego, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on Mexico to do more to block a new caravan of migrants and asylum-seekers traveling through the country toward the United States, reiterating his threat to close the border or send more troops.

“A very big Caravan of over 20,000 people started up through Mexico,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “It has been reduced in size by Mexico but is still coming. Mexico must apprehend the remainder or we will be forced to close that section of the Border & call up the Military.”

Trump said Mexico was not doing enough to apprehend and return migrants and, without offering evidence, said Mexican soldiers recently had “pulled guns” U.S. troops.

He said the incident probably was “a diversionary tactic for drug smugglers” and armed troops were being sent to the border.

Mexican officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has made cracking down on immigration a priority that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign and election victory. More than 100,000 people were apprehended or presented themselves to U.S. authorities in March, according to the White House, which said it was the highest number in a decade.

In response to what Trump has described as a crisis, his administration has sent thousands of active-duty and National Guard troops to the border and moved border agents to handle an influx of migrants. Last month, Trump threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border if the Mexican government did not immediately stem illegal migration.

When Congress declined to designate money to build a border wall, Trump declared a national emergency earlier this year over the issue in a bid to redirect funding for the project, thrusting the immigration issue to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race.

The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, Tonatiuh Guillen, on Tuesday pointed to an increase in deportations from the country, saying Mexico had returned 15,000 migrants in the past 30 days.

He did not specify where the people were deported to, but the majority of people traveling through Mexico to the United States are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where migrants say they are fleeing corruption, gang violence and entrenched poverty.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Susan Heavey and Bill Trott)

Mexican president says illegal immigration to U.S. ‘is not up to us’

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador looks on during a meeting with industry bosses and members of his cabinet to discuss the new administration's policy on the minimum wage at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico December 17, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Phot

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday he was committed to helping curb illegal immigration after renewed Twitter criticism by U.S. counterpart Donald Trump, but he suggested it was an issue chiefly for the United States and Central America to address.

Illegal immigration across the U.S. border has caused persistent bilateral tensions ever since Trump launched his bid for the presidency almost four years ago, saying that Mexico was sending rapists and drug runners into the United States.

With initial campaigning for the 2020 U.S. presidential election already underway, Trump sent out a tweet early Thursday that again attacked Mexico over migration.

“Mexico is doing NOTHING to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants to our Country,” Trump wrote. “They are all talk and no action. Likewise, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have taken our money for years, and do Nothing.”

Trump again threatened to close the U.S. southern border.

At his regular morning news conference, Lopez Obrador was asked about Trump’s tweet, and said he was focused on addressing the root causes of migration. He repeated that he wanted a cordial relationship with Trump.

“We respect president Trump’s position, and we are going to help. That is, this is a problem of the United States, or it’s a problem of the Central American countries. It’s not up to us Mexicans, no,” Lopez Obrador told reporters.

“I just emphasize that migration flows of Mexicans to the United States are very low, a lot lower,” he said. “The Mexican is no longer seeking work in the United States. The majority are inhabitants of our fellow Central American countries.”

Trump’s latest broadside came one day after the United States, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador agreed to conduct joint police operations in Central America to improve border security and tackle illegal immigration.

The three countries account for the bulk of migrants apprehended trying to cross illegally into the United States.

Trump’s remarks also followed calls on social media for a new caravan of migrants to form in Honduras.

Over the weekend, a group of around 1,200 migrants, most of them from Central America, began moving toward the U.S. border from southern Mexico.

(Reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez, Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

After Venezuelan troops block aid, Maduro faces ‘diplomatic siege’

Venezuelan national guard members stand near a fire barricade, at the border, seen from in Pacaraima, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh and Roberta Rampton

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro faced growing regional pressure on Sunday after his troops repelled foreign aid convoys, with the United States threatening new sanctions and Brazil urging allies to join a “liberation effort”.

Violent clashes with security forces over the opposition’s U.S.-backed attempt on Saturday to bring aid into the economically devastated country left almost 300 wounded and at least three protesters dead near the Brazilian border.

Juan Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, urged foreign powers to consider “all options” in ousting Maduro, ahead of a meeting of the regional Lima Group of nations in Bogota on Monday that will be attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence is set to announce “concrete steps” and “clear actions” at the meeting to address the crisis, a senior U.S. administration official said on Sunday, declining to provide details. The United States last month imposed crippling sanctions on the OPEC nation’s oil industry, squeezing its top source of foreign revenue.

“What happened yesterday is not going to deter us from getting humanitarian aid into Venezuela,” the official said, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity.

Brazil, a diplomatic heavyweight in Latin America which has the region’s largest economy, was for years a vocal ally of Venezuela while it was ruled by the leftist Workers Party. It turned sharply against Venezuela’s socialist president this year when far-right President Jair Bolsonaro took office.

“Brazil calls on the international community, especially those countries that have not yet recognized Juan Guaido as interim president, to join in the liberation effort of Venezuela,” the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Colombia, which has received around half the estimated 3.4 million migrants fleeing Venezuela’s hyperinflationary economic meltdown, has also stepped up its criticism of Maduro since swinging to the right last year.

President Ivan Duque in a tweet denounced Saturday’s “barbarity”, saying Monday’s summit would discuss “how to tighten the diplomatic siege of the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Maduro, who retains the backing of China and Russia, which both have major energy sector investments in Venezuela, says the opposition’s aid efforts are part of a U.S.-orchestrated coup.

His information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, during a Sunday news conference gloated about the opposition’s failure to bring in aid and called Guaido “a puppet and a used condom.”

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Sunday that Venezuela, the Caribbean island’s top ally, was the victim of U.S. imperialist attempts to restore neoliberalism in Latin America.

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Venezuelan National Guards block the road towards the Francisco de Paula Santander cross border bridge between Venezuela and Colombia, in Urena, Venezuela February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

SMOLDERING BORDER AREAS

Trucks laden with U.S. food and medicine on the Colombian border repeatedly attempted to push past lines of troops on Saturday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two of the aid trucks went up in flames, which the opposition blamed on security forces and the government on “drugged-up protesters.”

The opposition had hoped troops would balk at turning back supplies so desperately needed by a population increasingly suffering malnutrition and diseases.

Winning over the military is key to their plans to topple Maduro, who they argue won re-election in a fraudulent vote, and hold new presidential elections.

Though some 60 members of security forces defected into Colombia on Saturday, according to that country’s authorities, the National Guard at the frontier crossings held firm. Two additional members of Venezuela’s National Guard defected to Brazil late on Saturday, a Brazilian army colonel said on Sunday.

The Brazilian border state of Roraima said the number of Venezuelans being treated for gunshot wounds rose to 18 from five in the past 24 hours; all 18 were in serious condition. That was the result of constant gunbattles, which included armed men without uniforms, throughout Saturday in the Venezuelan town of Santa Elena, near the border.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, a local crime monitoring group, said it had confirmed three deaths on Saturday, all in Santa Elena, and at least 295 injured across the country.

In the Venezuelan of Urena on the border with Colombia, streets were still strewn with debris on Sunday, including the charred remains of a bus that had been set ablaze by protesters.

During a visit to a border bridge to survey the damage, Duque told reporters the aid would remain in storage.

“We need everything they were going to bring over,” said Auriner Blanco, 38, a street vendor who said he needed an operation for which supplies were lacking in Venezuela. “Today, there is still tension, I went onto the street and saw all the destruction.”

MILITARY INVASION?

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed on Sunday for “violence to be avoided at any cost” and said everyone should lower tensions and pursue efforts to avoid further escalation, according to his spokesman.

But U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on Venezuela policy in Washington, said the violence on Saturday had “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago”.

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

A car of the Brazilian Federal Police is seen at the border between Brazil and Venezuela in Pacaraima, Roraima state, Brazil February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Hours later he tweeted a mug shot of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was captured by U.S. forces in 1990 after an invasion.

President Donald Trump has in the past said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option,” though Guaido made no reference to it on Saturday.

The 35-year old, who defied a government travel ban to travel to Colombia to oversee the aid deployment, will attend the Lima Group summit on Monday and hold talks with various members of the European Union before returning to Venezuela, opposition lawmaker Miguel Pizarro said on Sunday.

“The plan is not a president in exile,” he said.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Sarah Marsh, Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Roberta Rampton in Washington; Additional reporting by Ricardo Moraes and Pablo Garcia in Pacaraima, Brazil; Ana Mano in Sao Paulo; Nelson Bocanegra in Cucuta, Colombia; Anggy Polanco in Urena and Mayela Armas in San Antonio, Venezuela; Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Jeffrey Benkoe, Lisa Shumaker and Jonathan Oatis)

Deep 7.5-magnitude quake hits Ecuador-Peru border region

People gather outside the hospital after an earthquake in Guayaquil, Ecuador February 22, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Edison Manjarrez via REUTERS

By Alexandra Valencia and Mitra Taj

QUITO/LIMA (Reuters) – A deep magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck the Peru-Ecuador border region early on Friday morning, the U.S. Geological Survey said, causing tremors that the Ecuadorian president said were felt around the country.

The quake’s epicenter was in a sparsely populated area 224 km (140 miles) east-southeast of Ambato, Ecuador, at a depth of 132 km. The USGS’s initial reading assessed the quake, which occurred at 5:17 a.m. local time (1017 GMT), at magnitude 7.7.

There was no risk of a tsunami being triggered, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, and there were no initial reports of casualties or damage.

Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said on Twitter that preliminary reports “do not indicate major damage,” though he added that provincial response teams had been activated and that the tremors had been “felt throughout the country.”

One resident in Cuenca, Ecuador, 253 km (157 miles) from the epicenter, described the temblor as very strong, while a second resident there reported experiencing “a good 30-second shake,” according to witness statements on the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center website.

Ecuador’s emergency response service said the main quake and other smaller ones had shook the south of the country with reports of some minor injuries, evacuation of patients and staff from several hospitals and damage reported in some Amazonian towns.

Some areas were without electrical power, authorities said, while the country’s oil pipelines and hydroelectric dams were operating normally.

In towns near the epicenter of the quake, the tremors caused alarm. “I felt the walls and the floor move. I was very scared and we went out to the street,” Lissette Alarcon, a 25-year-old university student, told Reuters.

“We still aren’t used to these earthquakes,” she said.

A magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck Peru’s southern coast in January 2018, killing one person, injuring scores more and causing roads and homes to collapse. A 7.8-magnitude quake in Ecuador killed around 700 people in 2016.

(Reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima, Alexandra Valencia in Quito and Jason Neely and John Stonestreet in London; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Alison Williams and Jeffrey Benkoe)