Grisly Mexican gang battle near U.S. border leaves 21 dead

FILE PHOTO: A logo patch is shown on the uniform of a U.S. Border Patrol agent near the international border between Mexico and the United States south of San Diego, California March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Delphine Schrank

REYNOSA, Mexico (Reuters) – The charred remains of 21 people killed in a suspected gang battle have been found in a Mexican border town, just over the river from where U.S. President Donald Trump was seeking to win support on Thursday for his plan to build a border wall.

Officials in the notoriously violent border state of Tamaulipas said they were investigating the incident, which took place in Ciudad Miguel Aleman, after discovering the bodies on Wednesday. Seventeen of the bodies were burned.

Photos shared with Reuters by a state official show the deceased scattered along a dirt track in scrubland, alongside burned-out vehicles.

Trump visited McAllen, Texas on Thursday afternoon, about 90 kilometers (56 miles) from Ciudad Miguel Aleman. He threatened to use emergency powers to bypass Congress and get billions of dollars to pay for the wall.

He has justified that demand by saying that undocumented migrants, criminals and illegal drugs have been pouring across the border. Statistics show illegal immigration has fallen to a 20-year low, while many drugs are believed to enter through legal ports of entry.

In Tamaulipas, turf wars between the local Gulf Cartel and its chief rival, the Zetas, have been a key source of bloodshed over recent years.

One body found was wearing the remains of a baseball cap bearing the letters and logo of the Gulf Cartel, while others wore the remains of bullet-proof vests with the same insignia, according to the photos.

Luis Rodriguez, a spokesman for state police, said in a statement that it appeared gunmen from the Gulf Cartel had fought with members of the Northeast Cartel, a group that split off from the Zetas.

Irving Barrios, the state’s attorney general, said in a radio interview that authorities found semi-automatic weapons and bulletproof vehicles at the site.

The area is “greatly fought over” by traffickers of arms and drugs as well as those who help undocumented migrants to cross to the United States, he said.

Another confrontation on Thursday morning between an armed group and military forces in Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, also in Tamaulipas, left five people dead and one military officer injured, said a representative from the state’s peace coordination group.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Mexico during years of fighting between security forces and cartels warring over drug trafficking, extortion rackets and the exploitation of migrants.

(Reporting by Delphine Schrank in Reynosa, additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Michael O’Boyle and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City; editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

As U.S. shutdown ties record, Trump weighs emergency declaration

President Donald Trump salutes a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter as he stands with U.S. Border Patrol agents as it flies over the Rio Grande River during his visit to the U.S. - Mexico border in Mission, Texas, U.S., January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, facing the prospect of the longest U.S. government shutdown in history, is considering declaring a national emergency that would likely escalate a policy dispute with Democrats over his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall into a court test of presidential power.

To escape a political trap of his own making, Trump on Thursday suggested that he might declare an emergency so he can bypass Congress to get funding for his wall, which was a central promise of his 2016 election campaign.

As the partial government shutdown entered its 21st day on Friday, Trump reiterated his claim in an early-morning tweet, saying Mexico would indirectly pay for the wall, without offering any evidence. It would become the longest U.S. shutdown on Saturday.

He originally pledged Mexico would pay for the wall, which he says is needed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs. But the Mexican government has refused. Trump is now demanding that Congress provide $5.7 billion in U.S. taxpayer funding for the wall.

Democrats in Congress call the wall an ineffective, outdated answer to a complex problem. The standoff has left a quarter of the federal government closed down and hundreds of thousands of federal employees staying home on furlough or working without pay set to miss their paychecks.

With no Capitol Hill compromise in sight, Trump publicly ruminated on Thursday during a trip to the Texas border about declaring an emergency.

A close Trump confidant judged the time for such a step had come. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement: “It is time for President Trump to use emergency powers to fund the construction of a border wall/barrier. I hope it works.”

The Wall Street Journal, NBC and the Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that the White House had asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to look into diverting money from its budget toward the wall and to explore how fast construction could begin under an emergency declaration. Reuters could not immediately verify the accuracy of the reports.

BOXED IN

Critics of the national emergency strategy have said it may be illegal. In any case, it was almost certain to trigger an immediate court challenge from Democrats, including an accusation of trying to circumvent Congress’ power over the national purse strings.

That would push the wall impasse into the courts, allowing the government to be fully reopened while the judges weigh the case, which could take months.

“After the emergency announcement, the path toward construction via executive order may be as unclear as a storm at midnight. But it will at least allow the president to move out of the corner he’s boxed himself into,” said Charles Gabriel, analyst at strategy firm Capital Alpha Partners.

Partial government funding expired on Dec. 22, leaving departments ranging from Justice, Agriculture and Treasury to Commerce and Homeland Security without money to operate programs and pay their workers.

An emergency declaration would come with risks. Even some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress have signaled worries about such an action. Given that the Constitution gives Congress the power to set spending priorities and appropriate money, they worry about a tough legal fight and an unwise precedent.

‘CROSSING THE RUBICON’

“If Trump crosses this Rubicon, what would prevent a Democratic president from declaring a ‘national emergency’ on Day 1 of their administration on climate change and/or healthcare?” Chris Krueger, an analyst at strategy firm Cowen Washington Research Group, asked in a commentary note.

Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat who has had good relations with Trump, said declaring a national emergency would be “wrong, but I think that’s his only way out.”

Manchin predicted that if Trump made the declaration, Congress would immediately move to pass bills funding the various agencies, knowing that the president would then be able to sign them into law.

While some Republican senators have begun clamoring for an end to the shutdown, party leaders toeing Trump’s line this week have ignored passage in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives of funding bills for government agencies. The House was expected to pass more such bills on Friday.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)

In Oval Office speech, Trump demands a wall but does not declare emergency

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a televised address to the nation from his desk in the Oval Office, about immigration and the southern U.S. border on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown, at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump urged Congress in a televised speech on Tuesday to give him $5.7 billion this year to help build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico but stopped short of declaring a national emergency to pay for the barrier with military funds.

Facing Democratic opposition in Congress to a wall that he promised to build as a presidential candidate, Trump said in his first prime-time address from the Oval Office that there was a growing security and humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Using blunt language in an attempt to win public support, the Republican president said illegal immigrants and drugs flowing across the southern border posed a serious threat to American safety.

“How much more American blood must be shed before Congress does its job?” he said, recounting gruesome details of murders he said were committed by illegal immigrants.

But after days of hinting he might use presidential powers to declare an emergency as a first step toward directing money for the wall without congressional approval, Trump said he would continue seeking a solution to the impasse with Congress.

Trump’s speech came 18 days into a partial government shutdown precipitated by his demand for the wall. Public opposition to the shutdown is growing and that could hurt Trump, as he said last month he would be proud to close the government to fight for the wall.

Democratic leaders, in a rebuttal also carried live on national television, accused the president on Tuesday night of using fear tactics and spreading misinformation about the situation along the border.

“The president has chosen fear. We want to start with the facts,” said Nancy Pelosi, Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives.

“The fact is, President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety and well-being of the American people and withhold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent workers across the nation, many of them veterans,” she said.

BLAME GAME

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday found that 51 percent of adults mainly blamed Trump for the shutdown, up 4 percentage points from late December, while 32 percent blamed congressional Democrats and 7 percent faulted Republicans in Congress.

Republican lawmakers have increasingly expressed concerns about Trump’s handling of the long-running dispute.

But he has shown no signs of giving up. He is scheduled to visit the southwest border on Thursday and may still choose to make the national emergency declaration.

Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Monday the president was considering the possibility and the White House counsel’s office was studying its legality.

Democrats and other opponents of a wall have threatened to take legal action if Trump issues an emergency order.

They say he is manufacturing a crisis in a bid to meet his 2016 presidential campaign promise for a wall that he said at the time would be paid for by Mexico. The Mexican government has refused to provide such funds.

Trump was to meet at the White House on Wednesday with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders.

Politics colored the remarks from both sides on Tuesday.

Trump said African-Americans and Hispanics were especially hard hit by the border crisis; both groups are key Democratic constituencies. Pelosi pointedly mentioned that veterans were hurt by the shutdown; Trump has courted veterans as a candidate and as president.

Trump at times tried to adopt a softer tone. “This is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul,” he said, suggesting that women and children were among the migrants often victimized by trafficking across the border.

Hoping to demonstrate flexibility during his nearly 10-minute speech, Trump said of the border barrier he wants to be built: “At the request of the Democrats it will be a steel barrier and not a concrete wall.”

But Democrats have opposed not just the construction materials to be used, but the extent of a project that could end up costing more than $24 billion over the long run.

Democrats also argue that a mix of fencing, which already has been constructed in many parts of the border, and higher-tech tools would be cheaper and more effective in securing the border.

Pelosi said Trump rejected bipartisan legislation to reopen the government agencies shuttered as a result of the fight over the wall, and that he was obsessed with “forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall.”

She has previously called the wall immoral. Trump took issue with that in his speech.

“The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized,” he said.

U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who delivered a rebuttal along with Pelosi, urged the president to reopen the government while the debate over immigration policies continued.

“The symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall,” he said. “So our suggestion is a simple one. Mr. President: Reopen the government and we can work to resolve our differences over border security. But end this shutdown now.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Eric Beech and David Alexander in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Standoff over Trump border wall puts U.S. Congress in budget ‘pickle’

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol is pictured in Washington, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago/File Photo

By Richard Cowan and Amanda Becker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump and Congress, embroiled in a feud over his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, have only five days to reach a deal before a partial government shutdown could leave about a quarter of the federal workforce without paychecks.

Trump has demanded $5 billion as a down payment on construction of a huge wall that he argues is the only way to keep illegal immigrants and drugs from crossing into the United States, again pushing the proposal in an early morning tweet on Monday. Democrats and some Republicans argue there are less costly, more effective border controls.

FILE PHOTO: Workers on the U.S. side, paint a line on the ground as they work on the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., as seen from Tijuana, Mexico, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

FILE PHOTO: Workers on the U.S. side, paint a line on the ground as they work on the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., as seen from Tijuana, Mexico, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The money Trump wants is only a small fraction of the roughly $450 billion Congress was poised to approve – before the latest battle over the proposed wall – to fund several agencies which will otherwise run out of money on Dec. 21.

Large swaths of the government already are funded through next September, including the U.S. military and agencies that operate public healthcare, education and veterans’ programs.

Several Republican and Democratic congressional aides on Friday said there was no apparent progress being made toward resolving the standoff, after Trump and leading congressional Democrats battled each other on Tuesday in front of television cameras in the White House Oval Office.

“I am proud to shut down the government for border security,” Trump told House of Representatives Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

Since then, a senior House Republican aide said his party was “in a pickle” over how to keep the government open.

The aide noted that Republicans, who will control both houses of Congress until Jan. 3, will not be able to muster the minimum 218 votes needed in the House to pass a funding bill if it contains Trump’s demand for border wall money, which Democrats oppose.

Agent J. Cruz of the U.S. Border Patrol looks on along the newly completed wall during U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's visit to U.S. President Donald Trump's border wall in the El Centro Sector in Calexico, California, U.S. October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton

Agent J. Cruz of the U.S. Border Patrol looks on along the newly completed wall during U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s visit to U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall in the El Centro Sector in Calexico, California, U.S. October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Earnie Grafton

If funds run out on Dec. 21, the NASA space program would potentially be unfunded, along with national parks, the U.S. diplomatic corps and agriculture programs.

Similarly, the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security would be vulnerable to shutdowns, although “essential” employees, such as FBI agents, airport security screeners and border patrol agents, would still report to work.

Their paychecks, however, would not be issued until the shutdown ends and Congress would have to decide whether to award back pay for them as well as any furloughed workers.

A government in such disarray might not play well for Republicans over the holiday period, especially if Americans also view images for two weeks of Trump vacationing at his exclusive Florida beach-front mansion.

“After the president’s comments earlier this week when he said he was going to own the shutdown, that sealed the deal for Democrats. There is absolutely no reason for them to cut a deal with this president,” said Jim Manley, a political strategist and former Senate Democratic leadership aide.

With the clock ticking, the House is not even bothering to come to work until Wednesday night.

For now, Democrats are waiting for the White House to signal whether it will engage on legislation that would keep programs operating, but without money for Trump’s wall.

White House adviser Stephen Miller told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program on Sunday that the administration would “do whatever is necessary to build the border wall.” Asked if that included shutting down the government, he said: “If it comes to it, absolutely.”

If not, Manley predicted the government will limp along until Jan. 3, when Democrats take control of the House and Pelosi likely becomes the speaker and promptly advances funding, daring the Republican-led Senate to reject it.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Leslie Adler and Paul Simao)

Trump enacts anti-opioid abuse package in rare bipartisan step

FILE PHOTO: A syringe filled a narcotic, an empty syringe and a spoon sit on the roof of a car, where a man in his 20's overdosed on opioids in Lynn, Massachusetts, U.S., August 14, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyde

By Yasmeen Abutaleb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Medical treatment will be more widely available to opioid abusers while mailing illicit drugs will be more difficult under a measure to fight drug addiction that was signed into law on Wednesday by U.S. President Donald Trump.

In a year more typically marked by partisan gridlock, Trump signed the rare bipartisan package passed by Congress earlier this month to tackle a problem that led to a record 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017.

The legislation expands access to substance abuse treatment in Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor and disabled; cracks down on mailed shipments of illicit drugs such as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more powerful than heroin; and provides a host of new federal grants to address the crisis.

The Senate passed the measure by a vote of 98-1 in September after a 353-52 vote in favor in the House. The bill had 252 bipartisan cosponsors in the House, more than almost any other bill in recent years, according to website GovTrack Insider.

Trump declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency last year, which enabled the government to respond more quickly to crises. But addiction experts, advocacy groups and Democrats said the administration was not doing enough.

On Tuesday, Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Patty Murray released a U.S. Government Accountability Office report that they said showed Trump’s emergency declaration fell short of his promises. The report said the government has used few of the powers it could use, under the declaration.

“Hand waving about faster paperwork and speeding up a few grants is not enough. The Trump administration needs to do far more to stop the opioid epidemic,” Warren said in a statement.

Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said the criticism from the senators was “predictable and unfortunately very partisan,” noting that both voted for the opioids legislation.

In addition to educating the public and expanding access to treatment, Conway said the administration was also focused on securing the border with Mexico to stop drugs from coming into the United States.

(Reporting by Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Cynthia Osterman)

Exclusive: U.S. considers tightening grip on China ties to corporate America

FILE PHOTO: The People's Republic of China flag and the U.S. Stars and Stripes fly on a lamp post along Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit, in Washington, D.C.,U.S., January 18, 2011. REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang/File Photo

By Koh Gui Qing

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. government may start scrutinizing informal partnerships between American and Chinese companies in the field of artificial intelligence, threatening practices that have long been considered garden variety development work for technology companies, sources familiar with the discussions said.

So far, U.S. government reviews for national security and other concerns have been limited to investment deals and corporate takeovers. This possible new expansion of the mandate – which would serve as a stop-gap measure until Congress imposes tighter restrictions on Chinese investments – is being pushed by members of Congress, and those in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration who worry about theft of intellectual property and technology transfer to China, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Artificial intelligence, in which machines imitate intelligent human behavior, is a particular area of interest because of the technology’s potential for military usage, they said. Other areas of interest for such new oversight include semiconductors and autonomous vehicles, they added.

These considerations are in early stages, so it remains unclear if they will move forward, and which informal corporate relationships this new initiative would scrutinize.

Any broad effort to sever relationships between Chinese and American tech companies – even temporarily – could have dramatic effects across the industry. Major American technology companies, including Advanced Micro Devices Inc, Qualcomm Inc, Nvidia Corp and IBM, have activities in China ranging from research labs to training initiatives, often in collaboration with Chinese companies and institutions who are major customers.

Top talent in areas including artificial intelligence and chip design also flows freely among companies and universities in both countries.

The nature of informal business relationships varies widely.

For example, when U.S. chipmaker Nvidia Corp – the leader in AI hardware – unveiled a new graphics processing unit that powers data centers, video games and cryptocurrency mining last year, it gave away samples to 30 artificial intelligence scientists, including three who work with China’s government, according to Nvidia.

For a company like Nvidia, which gets a fifth of its business from China, the giveaway was business as usual. It has several arrangements to train local scientists and develop technologies there that rely on its chips. Offering early access helps Nvidia tailor products so it can sell more.

The U.S. government could nix this sort of cooperation through an executive order from Trump by invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Such a move would unleash sweeping powers to stop or review informal corporate partnerships between a U.S. and Chinese company, any Chinese investment in a U.S. technology company or the Chinese purchases of real estate near sensitive U.S. military sites, the sources said.

“I don’t see any alternative to having a stronger (regulatory) regime because the end result is, without it, the Chinese companies are going to get stronger,” said one of the sources, who is advising U.S. lawmakers on efforts to revise and toughen U.S. foreign investment rules. “They are going to challenge our companies in 10 or 15 years.”

James Lewis, a former Foreign Service officer with the U.S. Departments of State who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said if the emergency act was invoked, U.S. government officials including those in the Treasury Department could use it “to catch anything they want” that currently fall outside the scope of the regulatory regime.A White House official said that they do not comment on speculation about internal administration policy discussions, but added “we are concerned about Made in China 2025, particularly relevant in this case is its targeting of industries like AI.”

Made in China 2025 is an industrial plan outlining China’s ambition to become a market leader in 10 key sectors including semiconductors, robotics, drugs and devices and smart green cars.

Last month, the White House outlined new import tariffs that were largely directed at China for what Trump described as “intellectual property theft.” That prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government to retaliate with sanctions against the United States.

Those moves followed proposed legislation that would toughen foreign investment rules overseen by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), by giving the committee – made up of representatives from various U.S. government agencies – purview over joint ventures that involve “critical technology”.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers who put forth the proposal in November said changes are aimed at China.

Whereas an overhauled CFIUS would likely review deals relevant to national security and involve foreign ownership, informal partnerships are likely to be regulated by revised export controls when they come into effect, sources said.

To be sure, sources said the Trump administration could change its mind about invoking the emergency act. They added that some within the Treasury Department are also lukewarm about invoking the emergency act as they preferred to focus on passing the revised rules for CFIUS.

FOCUS ON AI

Chinese and U.S. companies are widely believed among analysts to be locked in a two-way race to become the world’s leader in AI. While U.S. tech giants such as Alphabet Inc’s Google are in the lead, Chinese firms like Internet services provider Baidu Inc have made significant strides, according to advisory firm Eurasia Group.

As for U.S. chipmakers, few are as synonymous with the technology as Nvidia, one of the world’s top makers of the highly complex chips that power AI machines.

There is no evidence that Nvidia’s activities represent a threat to national security by, for instance, offering access to trade secrets such as how to make a graphics processing unit. Nvidia also said it does not have joint ventures in China.

In a statement, Nvidia said its collaborations in China – including training Chinese scientists and giving Chinese companies such as telecom provider Huawei Technologies Co Ltd early access to some of its latest technology – are only intended to get feedback on the chips it sells there.

“We are extremely protective of our proprietary technology and know-how,” Nvidia said. “We don’t give any company, anywhere in the world, the core differentiating technology.”

Qualcomm did not respond to requests for a comment, while Advanced Micro Devices and IBM declined to comment.

Nvidia is far from being the only U.S. tech giant, much less the only chipmaker, that lends expertise to China. But it is clearly in the sights of the Chinese. When the country’s Ministry of Science and Technology solicited pitches for research projects last year, one of the listed objectives was to create a chip 20 times faster than Nvidia’s

“Five years ago, this might not be a concern,” said Lewis, “But it’s a concern now because of the political and technological context.”

(Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in WASHINGTON; Editing by Lauren LaCapra and Edward Tobin)

Sixty eight killed in Venezuelan police station riot and fire

Relatives of inmates at the General Command of the Carabobo Police react as they wait outside the prison in Valencia, Venezuela March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Tibisay Romero

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Rioting and a fire in the cells of a Venezuelan police station in the central city of Valencia killed 68 people on Wednesday, according to the government and witnesses.

Families hoping for news outside the police station were dispersed with tear gas and authorities did not give information until late into the evening.

Relatives of inmates at the General Command of the Carabobo Police wait outside the prison in Valencia, Venezuela March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia

Relatives of inmates at the General Command of the Carabobo Police wait outside the prison in Valencia, Venezuela March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“The State Prosecutor’s Office guarantees to deepen investigations to immediately clarify what happened in these painful events that have left dozens of Venezuelan families in mourning,” said Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab on Twitter.

Venezuelan prisons are notoriously overcrowded and filled with weapons and drugs. Riots leaving dozens dead are not uncommon.

State official Jesus Santander said the state of Carabobo was in mourning after the incident in the city of Valencia.

“Forensic doctors are determining the number of fatalities,” Santander said. A policeman was shot in the leg and was in a stable condition and firefighters had extinguished the flames, he said.

Many Venezuelan prisons are lawless and have been for decades. Prisoners often openly wield machine guns and grenades, use drugs and leave guards powerless.

“There are people who are inside those dungeons (…) and the authorities do not know they exist because they do not dare to enter,” said Humberto Prado, a local prisons rights activist.

(Aditional reporting by Vivian SequeraWriting by Girish Gupta and Vivian Sequera; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)

Undercover investigator able to smuggle blades, drugs into NYC jails: watchdog

An undercover investigator with New York City's Department of Investigation (DOI) posing as a corrections officer passes through front gate security as part of an operation against smuggling at city jails, in an undated still image from video released in New York City, New York, U.S. February 8, 2018. Parts of the image are blurred at source. New York City Department of Investigation/

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An undercover investigator dressed as a jail officer was able to smuggle scalpel blades and drugs into the main city jails in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a city watchdog said on Thursday, the latest sign of ongoing troubles in the city’s jail system.

The report from the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI), which examines misconduct by city employees, was issued on the same day that federal authorities in Brooklyn unsealed an indictment charging two corrections officers and five inmates with smuggling drugs inside the Manhattan jail.

Evidence gathered as part of an undercover operation by New York City's Department of Investigation (DOI) into smuggling at city jails is seen in an undated photo released in New York City, New York, U.S. February 8, 2018. Part of the image is blurred at source. New York City Department of Investigation

Evidence gathered as part of an undercover operation by New York City’s Department of Investigation (DOI) into smuggling at city jails is seen in an undated photo released in New York City, New York, U.S. February 8, 2018. Part of the image is blurred at source. New York City Department of Investigation/Handout via REUTERS

Together, the two investigations highlighted the smuggling that continues to plague the city’s jails, most notably the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, according to DOI officials. The report comes after a similar 2014 sting operation in which an undercover investigator brought weapons and drugs through six Rikers entrances.

“Three years after a DOI undercover investigation demonstrated serious flaws in DOC security screening, the problems remain,” DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said in a statement, referring to the city Department of Correction.

DOC commissioner Cynthia Brann said the department had made progress in enhancing jail security.

“Notably, DOI didn’t find fault with our policy but urged us to better apply our procedures which we are committed to doing, and we have already begun implementing significant reforms,” she said in a statement.

The department cited statistics showing it has greatly increased its contraband finds among jail visitors since 2014, including a spike in weapons confiscations to 533 in 2017 from 88 in 2014.

Brann also said the two arrested officers would be suspended and, if convicted, fired.

Since 2014, more than two dozen corrections employees have been charged with smuggling contraband into city jails, according to the DOI. U.S. prosecutors said the two officers charged on Thursday accepted thousands of dollars from inmates in exchange for bringing marijuana into the Manhattan Detention Complex, known colloquially as “The Tombs.”

Rikers Island, which has been plagued by pervasive violence and smuggling for years, has received most of the attention, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for sweeping reforms at one of the United States’ largest jail complexes.

But Peters said Thursday’s report shows the problems are also present at other city facilities.

DOI officials recommended that the DOC screen corrections officers at staff entrances with drug-sniffing dogs, eliminate unnecessary pockets on their uniforms and place their personal lockers outside the front-gate entrances, among other measures. The DOC has agreed to adopt those improvements.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Susan Thomas)

U.S. senators want probe of drug trafficking tied to Venezuela government

Venezuela's Vice President Tareck El Aissami talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela November 17, 2017.

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two U.S. senators called on the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday to investigate allegations of drug trafficking by senior officials in the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, as the country struggles with economic crisis.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions seen by Reuters, Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democrat Robert Menendez said they were concerned about possible connections between Maduro’s government and drug trafficking organizations and wanted an investigation “in order to better understand the nexus between criminal actors and members of Maduro’s inner circle.”

Despite being a major oil producing country, Venezuela is undergoing a severe economic and social crisis, with millions suffering food and medicine shortages, hyperinflation and growing insecurity.

Rubio is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s western hemisphere subcommittee, and Menendez is its ranking Democrat. Both lawmakers are vocal critics of the Venezuelan government.

In their letter, they raised concerns that the situation in Venezuela could destabilize the region.

The Venezuelan Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In the past, Maduro has dismissed accusations about drug trafficking links as a smear campaign by Washington, adding that the United States is to blame for the drug trade because it is such a large market for illegal narcotics.

On Aug. 1, 2016, a U.S. District Court announced the indictment of Nestor Reverol, who is now Venezuela’s interior minister, on charges of participating in an international cocaine trafficking conspiracy. In February 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck el-Aissami for drug trafficking and other related crimes.

And in December 2017, two nephews of Maduro’s wife, Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, were convicted in U.S. federal court for drug smuggling.

The European Union announced new sanctions on several senior Venezuelan officials, including Reverol, on Monday, saying this was an expression of the bloc’s concern with the political crisis under Maduro.

Rubio and Menendez also asked Sessions to support efforts by the Organization of American States to address human rights concerns in Venezuela.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter, which was sent on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; editing by Susan Thomas)

Chicago police say Facebook ‘secret groups’ traffic in guns and drugs

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson speaks about the latest police districts to start wearing body cameras, during a news conference at the 20th District Chicago Police Department in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. October 30, 2017.

By Bernie Woodall

(Reuters) – Police in Chicago said on Thursday they have arrested 50 people suspected of using “secret groups” on Facebook to deal in guns and drugs, and have teamed up with the world’s largest social media network to crack down on criminal trafficking online.

Announcing the arrests at a news conference, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson initially criticized Facebook as being unhelpful during a 10-month investigation by his department.

“Quite frankly, they haven’t been very friendly to law enforcement to prevent these things,” he told reporters.

However, police later said the department and the California-based company agreed to work collaboratively “to target any illegal activity on the platform.”

Police did not detail charges facing the 50 men and women arrested through Thursday, but said there were “dozens and dozens” of private Facebook groups being used for illegal drug and weapons transactions. Arrest warrants for 18 more suspects have been signed, and most have prior criminal histories, police said.

Among the illicit sites monitored by police was one offering a “Thanksgiving special” on cocaine baggies discounted to $40 from a normal street price of $60.

In an emailed statement on Thursday, Facebook Inc, which boasts 2 billion users worldwide, said it had only just been alerted to the arrests in Chicago.

“We do not allow the sale of guns or drugs on our platform. We routinely work with law enforcement and outline how officials may submit a request on our site,” Facebook added.

Among those arrested was an elementary school teacher taken into custody at his Chicago school in possession of scales often used for weighing drugs, according to Anthony Riccio, chief of the police department’s organized crime unit.

Since a confidential informant alerted investigators about alleged criminal trade on Facebook in February, police detectives working undercover arranged for the purchase of 17 different types of drugs and 18 different illegal firearms, Riccio said.

Riccio said investigators created covert identities on Facebook and were invited into private groups, which are closed unless the user-administrator allows someone to join. Police then monitored messages and contacted those in the group via Facebook to make buys.

Chicago has been singled out by President Donald Trump as one of the most violent U.S. cities. In 2016, the number of murders there exceeded 760.

(Reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)