Death toll from Iota slowly rises in Central America amid ongoing rescue efforts

By Gustavo Palencia and Ismael Lopez

TEGUCIGALPA/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The death toll from storm Iota is slowly rising in Central America as authorities on Thursday said they’d recovered more bodies buried in landslides triggered by catastrophic flooding that swept through the already waterlogged region earlier this week.

Nearly 40 people were killed across Central America and Colombia, and the toll is expected to rise as rescue workers reach isolated communities. Most of the deaths have occurred in Nicaragua and Honduras.

The strongest storm on record to hit Nicaragua, Iota struck the coast late on Monday as a Category 4 hurricane. It inundated low-lying areas still reeling from the impact two weeks ago of Eta, another major hurricane that killed dozens of people in the region.

On Thursday morning, Honduran authorities raised the death toll to 14 after confirming that eight members of two families, including four children, were killed when a landslide buried their homes in a village in a mountainous region populated by indigenous Lencas near the border with El Salvador.

In Nicaragua, where a total of 18 people have been confirmed dead, rescue efforts continue after a landslide in the north of the country killed eight people, with more missing.

While Iota largely dissipated over El Salvador on Wednesday, authorities struggled to cope with the fallout from days of heavy rain.

Numerous villages from northern Colombia to southern Mexico saw record rainfall swell rivers and trigger mudslides. Cities like the Honduran industrial hub of San Pedro Sula were also hit hard, with the city’s airport completely flooded and jetways looking more like docks, video posted on social media showed.

Some 160,000 Nicaraguans and 70,000 Hondurans have been forced to flee to shelters.

Experts say the destruction caused by the unprecedented 2020 hurricane season in Central America could spur more migration out of the region, which is coping with insecurity and an economic crisis triggered by coronavirus pandemic-related lockdowns imposed earlier this year.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Ismael Lopez in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Wilmer Lopez in Puerto Cabezas, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener and David Alire Garcia; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. opens Venezuelan diplomatic office in Colombian capital

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Charge d'Affaires for Venezuela James Story, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia April 12, 2019. Picture taken April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Julia Symmes Cobb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department on Wednesday opened a representative office for Venezuela in Bogota, Colombia, and said it will continue its opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and support for opposition leader Juan Guaido from there.

The Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU) will be headed by James Story, the U.S. charge d’affaires to Venezuela, who was among the last American diplomats withdrawn from the U.S. embassy in Caracas in March as conditions deteriorated in the country.

“The VAU will continue to work for the restoration of democracy and the constitutional order in that country, and the security and well-being of the Venezuelan people,” the department said in a statement.

Washington has been trying to cut off money to Maduro’s government in an economic and diplomatic campaign aimed at pressuring the socialist leader to step down.

The United States and most Western nations support Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate president. Maduro has accused Guaido of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt earlier this year.

In Caracas on Wednesday, Guaido announced the appointment of four new ministers for foreign relations, economic affairs, asset protection and human rights. The majority of them are out of the country due to legal measures from Maduro’s government.

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

Leopoldo López, founder and leader of Guaido’s Volutad Popular political party, will be coordinating the new ministers. López has been in the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas since May after ending his house arrest.

The new team is intended “to address the complex humanitarian emergency … and, of course, to prepare for the transition of government,” Guaido said.

More than 1.4 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia in recent years, fleeing the deep political and economic crisis that has caused long-running shortages of food and medicines.

Colombia has borne the brunt of mass migration from its neighbor.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

Disaffected Venezuelan military tell of rising desertions to Brazil

A Venezuelan military deserter of the National Guard, who doesn't want to be identified, is seen in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

By Anthony Boadle

PACARAIMA, Brazil (Reuters) – Venezuelan military personnel are deserting to Colombia and Brazil in growing numbers, refusing to follow orders to repress protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, six of them told Reuters.

A lieutenant and five sergeants of the National Guard, the main force used by the Maduro government to suppress widespread demonstrations, said the bulk were going to Colombia, the most accessible border, but others like themselves had left for Brazil.

Colombian immigration authorities said some 1,400 Venezuelan military had deserted for Colombia this year, while the Brazilian Army said over 60 members of Venezuela’s armed forces had emigrated to Brazil since Maduro closed the border on Feb. 23 to block an opposition effort to get humanitarian aid into the country.

“Most military people that are leaving are from the National Guard. They will continue coming. More want to leave,” said a National Guard lieutenant, speaking earlier this month. She had just crossed into Brazil on foot, arriving in the frontier town of Pacaraima after walking hours along indigenous trails through savannah.

Officials in both countries said the pace of desertion has sped up in recent months as political and economic turmoil in Venezuela has worsened.

The deserters, who asked to withhold their names due to fear of reprisals against their families, complained that top commanders in Venezuela lived well on large salaries and commissions from smuggling and other black market schemes while the lower ranks confronted conflicts in Venezuela’s streets for little pay.

“They already have their families living abroad. They live well, eat well, have good salaries and profits from corruption,” said the lieutenant.

The Venezuelan government’s Information Ministry, which handles all media inquiries, did not reply to requests for comment for this story.

In February, Maduro’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, told a Security Council meeting the number of military desertions had been exaggerated. Foreign ministry spokesman William Castillo said at the time that just 109 of the 280,000-strong armed forces had deserted under Maduro.

A Venezuelan sergeant, who proudly donned his National Guard uniform for an interview in a hotel room in Pacaraima, said he could not provide for his two small sons on his $12-a-month salary.

“We risked our lives so much for the little we were paid,” he said. “I left because of this and the bad orders the commanding officers were giving us.”

The head of Venezuela’s opposition-led congress, Juan Guaido, backed by most Western nations, is trying to oust Maduro on the basis that the socialist president’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

But top armed forces commanders have remained loyal to Maduro because they earn well in dollars and have too much to lose by abandoning him, according to the National Guard deserters.

Maduro has placed military chiefs in high-level jobs running state companies so they do not turn against him, the sergeant said.

“Maduro knows that if he removes them from those posts, the military will turn their backs on him and could oust him in a coup,” he said.

Maduro has called Guaido a U.S. puppet trying to foment a coup, and blames the country’s economic problems on U.S. sanctions.

INMATES IN UNIFORM

Rebellion in the middle ranks of the National Guard has been contained by intimidation and threats of reprisals against officers’ families, the deserters told Reuters. They said phones of military personnel suspected of anti-Maduro sympathies were tapped to watch their behavior.

With desertions on the rise and dwindling support for Maduro, the government has used armed groups of civilians known as “colectivos” to terrorize Maduro opponents, the interviewees said. Rights groups in Venezuela have warned of rising violence meted out by the militant groups.

The government has also released jail inmates and put them in National Guard uniforms, to the disgust of soldiers with years of military career behind them, the six deserters said. It is unclear if the former inmates or militants are paid by the government.

A lack of food, water and medicines, along with extended blackouts, have added to a sense of anarchy, the deserters said.

The uniformed sergeant said he feared bloodshed at the hands of the “colectivos” trying to keep Maduro in power if the armed forces balked at government orders to repress protests.

“There won’t be enough soldiers left with hearts of stone to fire on the people,” he said. “We military know that among the crowds on the streets there are relatives of ours protesting for freedom and a better future for Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Leonardo Benassatto and Pilar Olivares, Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota and Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Colombia rejects Russia warning against Venezuelan military action

Colombian President Ivan Duque speaks during the presentation of a security report, accompanied by the military commands in the presidential palace, in Bogota, Colombia April 2, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia on Tuesday rejected a Russian warning against foreign military intervention in Venezuela and said it supported a peaceful transition to democracy in the neighboring South American country.

“Colombia reiterates that the transition to democracy must be conducted by the Venezuelans themselves peacefully and within the framework of the Constitution and international law, supported by political and diplomatic means, without the use of force,” Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said in a statement.

He was responding to a March 28 letter from the upper house of Russia’s parliament, forwarded to Colombia’s Congress by Russian Ambassador Sergei Koshkin, that said the “illegitimate use of military force against Venezuela by other states that support the opposition will be interpreted … as an act of aggression against a sovereign state.”

Russia has emerged as a staunch backer of Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro as his nation descended into political turmoil this year. The United States and dozens of other nations have backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume Venezuela’s interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Colombia, which supports Guaido, has repeatedly denied it has any intention of launching a military offensive across its border with Venezuela.

But in his statement on Tuesday, Trujillo said military support for Maduro’s socialist government risked harming the transition to democracy while threatening regional peace and security.

The March touchdown near Caracas of two Russian air force planes carrying some 100 Russian special forces and cyber-security personnel has raised international concerns about Moscow’s backing for Maduro.

Russia, which has supplied fighter jets, tanks, and air defense systems to Venezuela, has dismissed U.S. criticism of its military cooperation with Caracas saying it is not interfering in the Latin American country’s internal affairs and poses no threat to regional stability.

Colombia acted as a staging ground in February as the United States and other countries supported Guaido’s effort to transport hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Maduro, who dismisses Guaido as a U.S. puppet, blocked the aid and Venezuelan troops pushed back protesters with tear gas.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape widespread food and medicine shortages in their chaotic homeland, seeking jobs locally and passage into other Latin American countries.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Tom Brown)

Colombia evacuates nearly 5,000 people amid fears dam may burst

People rest in tents set up at the municipal coliseum after the Colombian government ordered the evacuation of residents living along the Cauca river, as construction problems at a hydroelectric dam prompted fears of massive flooding, in Valdivia, Colombia May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Fredy Buile

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia has ordered the evacuation of nearly 5,000 people living along the Cauca river in the northern part of the country after construction problems at a hydroelectric dam prompted fears of massive flooding.

Heavy rains have increased water levels in the Cauca, which feeds the Ituango Dam in Antioquia province, the country’s largest-ever hydroelectric project. Problems with filling mechanisms and tunnels at the dam have authorities on high alert.

“We are working jointly with all institutions on the worst-case scenario, which is the breaking of the dam, which would provoke a huge flood in down-river municipalities,” said Jorge Londono, the head of Empresas Publicas de Medellin, the public utility company that owns the dam.

“That’s a catastrophic scenario,” Londono added.

The dam, which has not yet begun power generation, has cost nearly $4 billion to build and is meant to generate 17 percent of Colombia’s electricity needs. A total of 4,985 people from down-river areas were moved to shelters away from the flood zone, the Andean country’s disaster agency said in a statement.

Some 200,000 people live in the 12 towns and populated areas in Antioquia, Bolivar, Cordoba and Sucre provinces that could eventually be affected by possible flooding, authorities said.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Will Dunham)

South Carolina capital could be first U.S. city to ban gun bump stocks

An example of a bump stock that attaches to a semi-automatic rifle to increase the firing rate is seen at Good Guys Gun Shop in Orem, Utah, U.S. on October 4, 2017.

By Harriet McLeod

(Reuters) – South Carolina’s capital on Tuesday could become the first U.S. city to ban the use of bump stocks, a gun accessory that has drawn national scrutiny after being found among the Las Vegas mass shooter’s arsenal of weapons in the October rampage.

Last month, Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law that explicitly bans bump stocks.

Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, the South Carolina capital, said the city council was expected in a vote on Tuesday night to approve an ordinance barring the devices, which allow semiautomatic rifles to fire hundreds of rounds a minute like fully automatic machine guns.

“One of the common refrains that you hear, whether it was in Texas or Vegas or Sandy Hook, is that a good guy with a gun could have stopped the carnage,” Benjamin, a Democrat, said in a phone interview on Monday. “It’s time for the good guys with guns to begin to pass some really good policy.”

Authorities said Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had 12 rifles outfitted with bump stocks in the hotel room where he launched his attack on an outdoor concert, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Since then several states and cities have proposed measures outlawing or restricting the attachments, and the U.S. Justice Department said earlier this month it was considering a ban on certain bump stocks.

California and New York do not prohibit bump stocks outright, but the devices fall under the definition of an automatic weapon, which are illegal in those states, according to Anne Teigen, who covers firearm legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some other states and the District of Columbia have assault weapons bans that could include bump stocks.

“We are not aware of any cities that have passed ordinancesbanning bump stocks,” said Tom Martin, a spokesman for the National League of Cities.

In Columbia, four of the council’s six members approved the city’s proposed ordinance on a first reading earlier this month.

The measure also would ban the use of other gun attachments that allow rifles to fire faster. Owners would be required to keep them stored separately from any weapon.

Trigger-enhancing devices are not gun parts, gun components, weapons or ammunition, which state law prohibits cities from regulating, Benjamin said.

The mayor, who has a background in law enforcement and said he owns guns, said the measure had drawn support from local police and council members who support the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting gun ownership rights.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)

Hungry Venezuelans now smuggle Columbian food home

The Wider Image: Venezuelans shop for food in Colombia

By Alexandra Ulmer and Anggy Polanco

PUERTO SANTANDER, Colombia (Reuters) – Thousands of Venezuelans living near the border discovered years ago that smuggling heavily subsidized food into Colombia made them far more money than the meager wages from regular jobs.

But with crisis-hit Venezuela suffering drastic food shortages this year and local resale prices spiraling, some have decided to flip the business model: zipping into Colombia to buy flour, rice and even diapers for desperate shoppers back in Venezuela.

“There’s nothing left in Venezuela, what’s left is hunger. Colombia is what’s saving us,” said one 30-year-old smuggler who now rides his motor bike to shop in Colombia’s buzzing border town of Puerto Santander.

“Colombia is what is saving people,” said the smuggler, a former construction worker who asked to remain anonymous to avoid arrest. He says he keeps some food for his wife and three children but sells most of it to markets in Venezuela’s Andean border state of Tachira or in the capital, Caracas.

Leftist President Nicolas Maduro last year closed crossings into Colombia to try to end the smuggling he said was bleeding Venezuela dry.

But the about-face in smuggling routes in the last few months was clear one morning late last week when Reuters journalists saw hundreds of people streaming into Colombia to buy food, medicines, and basic hygiene products.

Dozens lined up on a bridge to plead with the military to let them through. Others drifted over in wooden boats right under the nose of Venezuela’s National Guard and army. A half-dozen said they bribed officials to cross over dirt roads, and a few swam from one leafy shore to the other.

The business is driven by Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis. Poor and middle-class people brave food lines for hours but increasingly end up empty-handed. Many are forced to skip meals and survive on mangoes and plantains, or forage through garbage.

Unruly supermarket lines have become riskier and a woman was shot dead in Tachira this week after frustrated shoppers raided warehouses.

‘CRITICAL’ SITUATION

Venezuela’s opposition is pushing to have Maduro removed via a recall referendum, saying it is the only way to avert a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the oil-rich country.

“There’s nothing in my fridge,” said Gloria, 48, who got up at 4 a.m. on a recent morning to travel to Puerto Santander to buy rice, sugar and coffee for her family of eight.

“In the last month the situation has become more critical, we can’t find anything,” she said, taking a break from carrying heavy shopping bags.

Before shoppers like Gloria began showing up, Puerto Santander was suffering a downturn as Maduro’s border crackdown and Venezuela’s scarcities had dimmed the inflow of cheap goods smuggled in from Venezuela.

To be sure, children, gangs, and even middle-class Venezuelans continued to smuggle Venezuelan gasoline – the world’s cheapest – across the murky brown rivers that mark the 2,300-km (1,400-mile) border.

But it is the reverse flow of goods that has Puerto Santander’s once-shuttered stores humming again.

Venezuelans drag bulky bags or suitcases down busy streets, shoppers with fistfuls of Venezuelan bills elbow their way to counters, and Colombians on motor bikes offer their services.

“Thanks to the fact there’s nothing in Venezuela this town has shot back to life,” said store owner Jose Armando, 42, who now sells Colombian-made products to exclusively Venezuelan customers.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Colombia’s government declined to comment.

COLOMBIAN PRODUCTS – OR NOTHING

On the other side of the border, Venezuelan shoppers are scooping up Colombian goods.

Once out of reach, many goods have become a bit cheaper than the scarce and pricey Venezuelan products hawked locally by “bachaqueros” – resellers named for an industrious leaf-carrying ant.

Rice, for instance, can be bought in Colombia for the equivalent of about 1,300 bolivars and sold in Venezuela for around 1,800 bolivars.

Venezuela’s government fixes a kilo of rice at some 120 bolivars, but on the local black market the coveted product now fetches approximately 2,000 bolivars – just $2 at the unofficial foreign exchange rate but around one-fifth of a monthly minimum wage, factoring in monthly food tickets.

For two months now, Clarissa Garcia, 37, has bought Colombian soap, flour and sugar to sell in her small stall at the market of La Fria, a leafy town a half-hour drive from the border.

“People would be dying of hunger if there weren’t Colombian products,” she said, washing tomatoes as shoppers streamed by inquiring about prices. Some grimaced at her response.

Venezuela’s poor, and those who live far from the border, have no choice but risk ever longer and more dangerous lines in front of supermarkets patrolled by National Guards soldiers where scuffles are now common.

By 7 a.m. on a recent morning in San Cristobal, the capital Tachira, some 2,000 shoppers were waiting in front of a supermarket hoping to be among the lucky few able to buy soap and flour when its doors opened.

“We can’t stand this anymore,” said Talia Carrillo, 38, who arrived the night before, slept in the line, and woke up in the morning to find others in line being robbed.

“I earn minimum wage. That doesn’t give us the base to buy expensive products. But we can’t go on like this, we’re barely finding anything.”

(Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra in Bogota; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Kieran Murray and Jeffrey Benkoe)

“Miracle” Baby Survives Deadly Mudslide

Rescuers working in Salgar, Columbia were stunned to find an 11-month-old baby alive after a landslide that left 78 people, including the baby’s mother, dead.

The infant, Jhosep Diaz, was in a padded crib.  The water and mud slide picked up the baby’s crib which flowed like a raft and traveled more than half a mile.  Doctors who treated the boy say that he was cold but basically unharmed by his adventure.

“He was unconscious and didn’t open his little eyes but was breathing,” Dr Jesus Antonio Guisao told the AP news agency.

The boy’s mother was found dead along with 11 other family members by rescue personnel.  The baby will go to the custody of his grandfather, who said that he lost a total of 16 family members in the disaster.

“Amid so much bad news concerning the death of 16 of our relatives, my grandson’s survival is a miracle,” he said.

Officials say the landslide is the worst natural disaster in Columbia since 1999.  The landslide struck around 3 a.m. local time and stretches 25 miles along the Liboriana River.

Five Killed In Columbian Landslide

A landslide in the exact location of a previous landslide has killed 5 people and left 25 others missing near Neiva, Columbia.

Columbian officials say at least six cars have been trapped under the tons of mud and rocks. The landslide killed a heavy machine operator who had been clearing debris from a previous landslide caused by an earthquake in the area. Continue reading