A day without women: strikes in Mexico and Argentina follow huge rallies

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Millions of women in Mexico and Argentina will stay away from offices, school and government offices on Monday, stepping up historic protests against gender violence that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets over the weekend.

The one-day action dubbed “a day without us” is intended to show what life would be like if women vanished from society. In Mexico, the strike stems from a surge in disappearances of women and femicides, or gender-motivated killings of women.

FILE PHOTO: Women protest against gender violence and femicides at Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City, Mexico, February 22, 2020. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

Femicides in Mexico jumped 137% in the past five years, government statistics show, as gang violence pushed the national murder tally to record heights. Most violent crimes go unsolved.

On Sunday, women took to the streets in unprecedented numbers across Latin America as part of International Women’s Day, demanding abortion rights and action from leaders to stem the violence.

The mostly peaceful protests saw anger boiling over into some outbreaks of violence, such as Molotov cocktails thrown at Mexico’s national palace, after the killing of a 7-year-old and the murder and skinning of a young woman shocked the nation.

The impact of Monday’s strike, in contrast, will stem from the absence of women in businesses, universities and government ministries. Not all women, however, will take part.

“We are tired of being victims, of being abused and mistreated. Enough is enough,” said Alma Delia Díaz, 45, a beautician in the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec.

Diaz said she supported women making their voice heard, but personally could not miss a day’s work.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said government employees are free to join the walkout. But he has also accused political opponents of seeking to exploit Mexico’s security problems to undermine his administration.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Army pulls out of violent Cape Town suburbs after show of force

Soldiers patrol as they are deployed to quell gang violence in Manenberg township, Cape Town, South Africa, July 18, 2019. Picture taken July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Shafiek Tassiem

By Wendell Roelf

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South African soldiers pulled out of gang-ridden suburbs of Cape Town on Friday after a brief show of force, leaving residents uncertain about what to expect next.

Streets were quiet on Friday morning after a convoy of armored vehicles and hundreds of soldiers deployed the previous day in Manenberg and Hanover Park to help police end a surge of gang violence that has killed hundreds of people.

Police and army spokesmen did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the operation.

“The army is a good thing for now, but when they are gone the gang fights will start again,” said Nizaam Sharmar, a 32-year-old construction worker.

Cape Town is famous for its tourist attractions, including Table Mountain, but has some of South Africa’s highest murder rates, official data shows.

There is an entrenched gang culture with thousands of young men belonging to street gangs with names like “Hard Living” and “Young Americans”.

Bloodshed over the past seven months in mainly poor black and mixed-race areas has killed more than 2,000 people, almost half gang-related, Western Cape provincial officials said.

The South African National Defense Force said last Friday it would deploy a battalion with support elements to communities in a vast area called the Cape Flats, where high unemployment rates and drug abuse have fueled gang activity in apartheid-era townships and working-class suburbs including Manenberg and Hanover Park.

“Innocent people are being shot and we need drastic change, but it’s just like they showing their faces and then leaving,” said 28-year-old mother of two Ledgeme, who did not want to give her full name for fear of reprisals.

The soldiers were promised following a visit by Police Minister Bheki Cele to the Cape Flats shantytown of Philippi, after almost a dozen people were killed earlier this month.

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by MacDonald Dzirutwe and Angus MacSwan)

Special Report: As Mexico oil sector sputters, crime and violence rattle industry towns

Broken windows of an abandon bar, due to the local violence are seen in front of the Pemex oil port known as Dos Bocas en Paraiso, Tabasco, Mexico April 24, 2018. Picture taken on April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Gabriel Stargardter

PARAISO, Mexico (Reuters) – Until recently, Edgar Barrera enjoyed a life many Mexicans could only hope for.

In a few short years, the 36-year-old bookkeeper rose from handyman to white-collar worker at what seemed to be one of the most stable companies in Latin America: state-owned oil firm Pemex.

Thanks to Pemex, Barrera met his wife, vacationed on the Mayan Riviera and envisaged a rewarding career without leaving his hometown in Tabasco, a rural state at the southern hook of the Gulf of Mexico where more than half the population lives on less than roughly $92 a month.

Then everything changed.

Oil prices plummeted, forcing Pemex to cut his and thousands of other jobs across Mexico. An energy reform, meant to spur business with private competitors, struggled to attract immediate investment. And the gang violence that has crippled Mexico over the last decade finally spread to Tabasco, previously a relatively peaceful corner of the country.

Mounting consequences, from an economic recession to soaring murder rates, have rapidly made Tabasco one of Mexico’s most troubled states. Its small, but once seemingly solid, middle-class now struggles with a downturn and lurid violence.

Barrera himself, after brushes with extortionists and kidnappers who may have once been Pemex colleagues, recently sought asylum in Canada.

Paraiso, or “paradise,” is the Tabasco town where Barrera grew up and worked at a Pemex port. It is “now a hell,” he said.

Women take a stand for a photograph with the letters of Paraiso in Paraiso, Tabasco, Mexico April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

Women take a stand for a photograph with the letters of Paraiso in Paraiso, Tabasco, Mexico April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

It’s little surprise that industry turbulence would hurt Tabasco, home to Mexico’s first petroleum discovery and a state where more than half the economy, and nearly half the jobs, rely on the oil sector.

But the extent of the problems has caught locals, industry executives and government officials off guard, especially as criminals increasingly exploit what’s left of any prosperity by targeting Pemex resources, equipment and employees.

“The oil debacle hit us hard,” said Tabasco Governor Arturo Nunez. “It caused social problems that without question are contributing to higher crime.”

President Enrique Pena Nieto, now in his last year in office, made an overhaul of the energy industry his signature initiative, ending Pemex’s longstanding grip on exploration, production, refining and retail fuel sales. Proponents long argued that operators besides Pemex are needed to reverse more than a decade of declining crude output and unlock potential in untapped deposits.

But the reform, finalized in 2014, came into law just as global oil prices collapsed, dampening companies’ willingness to invest. Despite a recent rebound, the price of crude in global markets plummeted by as much as 76 percent as of June of that year.

Since then, Pemex has slashed nearly 18,000 jobs across Mexico, about 13 percent of its workforce, according to company figures. In Tabasco, Pemex let go 1,857 workers, or roughly 12 percent of the 16,000 jobs the state shed between 2014 and 2016, according to government data. Many of the other layoffs were among suppliers and other businesses that rely on Pemex.

Combined, the cutbacks gave Tabasco Mexico’s highest unemployment rate and mired the state in recession. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, Tabasco’s economy shrank by 6.3 percent. It is the only state where both poverty and extreme poverty, defined by the government as monthly income of less than about $50, have risen in recent years.

Compounding troubles nationwide, the woes have eroded support ahead of a July 1 presidential election for Pena Nieto’s successor as the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Instead, a leftist former Mexico City mayor – and native son of Tabasco – dominates polls. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the 64-year-old frontrunner, promises to build a refinery in his home state.

Although Pemex has recently begun to hire back a few workers, other companies have been reluctant to invest in states like Tabasco, where oil production is now nearly 70 percent below a peak in the early 1990s. With supply abundant worldwide, and an ever-growing flow of crude from U.S. shale, would-be investors are wary of Mexico’s crime, corruption and violence.

“We decided not to start,” said Javier Lopez, a Texas-based attorney who recently scrapped plans to launch a business trucking fuel from the United States into Mexico. “We really were afraid we’d get a truck stolen, a driver killed.”

For more than a decade, Mexico’s government has deployed police, the military and intelligence forces to topple powerful drug kingpins. As they fell, cartels morphed and moved into new rackets, including theft and extortion of businesses in industries from agriculture to mining and oil.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported how fuel thieves are crippling Mexico’s refineries and unleashing bloodshed in formerly calm centers of Pemex operations.

In Tabasco, police registered 388 murders last year, over triple the number in 2012. Despite a population of 2.4 million people, small compared with many of Mexico’s 30 other states and giant capital district, Tabasco had the fourth-highest kidnapping tally and sixth-highest number of extortions reported last year.

Current and former Pemex workers are at both ends of the crimes – some as victims but others as instigators, participants or informants. Emboldened by the impunity and graft that have enabled crime nationwide, some locals have turned to illicit businesses, joining or seeking to start gangs that steal Pemex fuel, machinery and supplies. Others are targeting relatively well-off current and former Pemex workers, such as Barrera.

In a statement, Pemex said it “has zero tolerance with any worker involved in any crime.” The company said it cooperates with local, state and federal police to investigate illegal activity, but declined to comment on specific episodes or cases involving individual workers mentioned in this story.

During a recent interview, Carlos Trevino, Pemex’s chief executive, conceded that employees are increasingly at risk because of their jobs and pay. “Petroleros have a better salary than many other people,” he said, using the Spanish term for oil industry workers.

Across Mexico, Trevino added, the company is increasing measures to ensure the security of personnel and property. It has taken its name and logo off trucks. It told workers to stop wearing Pemex uniforms off site.

Still, he said, “it’s hard to have a completely safe operation.”

“This thing in Tabasco,” he added, “it’s not good.”

CRUDE HISTORY

Mexico’s first known oil discovery took place in Tabasco in 1863. Manuel Gil y Saenz, a priest, was rushing to see his ill mother when his horse’s hoof got stuck in black sludge, according to a local history of the find.

Despite warnings by natives that a witch there turned people into salt, the priest returned and began tapping the oil. With partners, he later sold his venture to a British oil company.

In 1938, Mexico expropriated foreign-owned oil assets and created Petroleos Mexicanos, as Pemex is formally known. Over the following decades, production grew in other regions along the Gulf coast. In 1972 prospectors found a giant deposit known as the Mesozoic Chiapas-Tabasco oilfield, prompting a rush to develop the state.

To handle growing output from Tabasco, Pemex in 1979 began building the Dos Bocas port and terminal in Paraiso, a hot, marshy town of 94,000 people surrounded by cacao and coconut plantations.

For locals, who previously subsisted on small-scale agriculture and fishing, “Pemex came and changed our lives,” said Ricardo Hernandez Daza, head of a local union of roughly 3,000 workers who staff many industry sites.

Barrera, the auditor now seeking asylum, joined Pemex in 2004.

That year, the country’s oil output reached a record high and opportunities seemed boundless. Mexico was one of many producers poised to benefit from steadily climbing prices as the global industry, before the shale boom, faced “peak oil,” the assumption that most of the world’s supply was known and diminishing.

First hired as a maintenance worker, Barrera worked his way up through other positions, got on-the-job training and eventually began reviewing company accounts for a salary of about $2,000 a month. He married a fellow Pemex auditor, bought two cars and enjoyed regular seafood outings with his wife, their daughter and two stepsons.

Until oil prices plunged.

Barrera weathered initial Pemex layoffs, but in November 2015 was let go. He immediately sought other jobs, but with many others already scrambling for work, he found only occasional freelance assignments.

Soon, Paraiso was reeling.

Two brothers, Mario and Pedro Maciel, emerged as local crime bosses, according to state prosecutors. Rumors swirled they had set up a branch of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, known for drug trafficking, fuel theft and countless other crimes across Mexico.

Some Gulf of Mexico oil workers, many of whom come from inland states, were already getting extorted by the cartel on trips into Jalisco New Generation territory.

Alayn Herver, a 28-year-old native of the central state from which the cartel took its name, until last year worked on offshore oil rigs that dot the Tabasco shoreline. Because of the intense schedules required there, Herver would spend two weeks on the rigs and then two weeks on leave back home in Jalisco.

In October 2016, while in a bar in his hometown of Ciudad Guzman, a stranger approached him and demanded roughly $1,000, about half his monthly salary. “We know you earn well,” the man said. “Do you want something to happen to you?”

At first, Herver thought the man was joking. Outside, though, some of the man’s colleagues awaited in an SUV, ready to take him to an ATM. Herver realized they were members of the Jalisco cartel.

He paid the men, who told him a similar payoff would be expected each month. For half a year, Herver complied. The transaction became so routine that the gang members appeared to lose interest.

Herver didn’t report the extortion. Like many Mexicans, he was wary of widespread corruption in police ranks and feared they would only make matters worse.

The following April, he decided to skip a payment.

On his next trip home, in May 2017, local police pulled him over, Herver said. They handcuffed him and put him in their patrol car. “You’ve got yourself into trouble,” he recalled one officer telling him.

Alejandro Romero, a senior officer with the Ciudad Guzman police force, declined to comment on the incident. The Jalisco state attorney general’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

As another policeman followed in Herver’s car, a 2007 Mini Cooper, the officers drove to a spot near the city dump, he said. There, six armed men, including the gang member who first approached him, pummeled Herver.

“Pull his pants down,” one of the gangsters said.

They beat his bare buttocks with a paddle and repeatedly threatened to rape him. One of the assailants put a gun to his head, while another grabbed his cell phone and began posting live video to Herver’s own Facebook feed.

Horrified, friends and family watched, the raw footage shifting from Herver’s drained expression to close-ups of his bloody behind.

“I thought they were going to kill me,” Herver said.

Instead, they let him go, keeping the Mini as payment.

“A PIECE OF THE ACTION”

In Paraiso, the Maciel brothers denied connections to the cartel or any such crimes. They published an open letter on Facebook stating they were law-abiding citizens.

“We are a family,” they wrote in the letter, “dedicated to its work for Pemex at Dos Bocas,” the port.

A worker named Pedro Maciel did, in fact, work for Pemex in Tabasco as recently as 2017, according to a database of company workers reviewed by Reuters. Mario’s name didn’t appear in the registry.

For locals, the brothers’ reassurances made little difference.

It was already apparent that a Pemex job wasn’t what it once was. Others besides the Maciel brothers were suspected across Paraiso of using their oil-industry positions as perches from which to steal fuel, extort workers and commit other crimes.

Those familiar with the industry say it makes sense that criminals, not just victims, could emerge from the Pemex payroll. Even if not committing atrocities themselves, some employees are believed to cooperate with gangs for their own cut of the proceeds or, merely, out of fear.

“They know the guts of the place, so they can provide information,” said Raul Munoz, a former Pemex chief executive, who now has private business with the company in Tabasco and says he faces regular security problems. “Everyone wants a piece of the action.”

Barrera, the auditor, and his family soon were swept up in the action. Last October, kidnappers captured a brother-in-law. Days before, after three decades of Pemex service, he had received a retirement bonus of roughly $20,000.

Within days, the family cobbled together a ransom of about $30,000. The kidnappers released him. With contact information stolen from his telephone, though, they began calling friends and family, demanding more.

The brother-in-law declined to speak with Reuters about the kidnapping.

Like Herver, the family opted not to go to the police.

“Pemex’s workforce is contaminated,” Barrera said, echoing family members who believe the kidnapping was planned with inside information. “The workers are feasting on one another.”

Last November, Barrera secured a few weeks’ work as a Pemex contractor. The threats grew closer.

A colleague told Barrera’s wife, who still works at Pemex, that suspicious men had been asking about her outside the office gates. Colleagues then told Barrera that armed men were waiting outside the office for him, too.

Terrified, he slept in the office that night.

Enough, he thought.

Barrera booked a ticket to Canada, where Mexicans can travel with no visa. He landed in Toronto last Christmas and applied for asylum. He hopes to bring his family, who moved to Villahermosa, Tabasco’s capital, in order to avoid the gangsters in Paraiso.

Herver, the rig worker whose beating was streamed live on Facebook, also fled to Canada.

“I was doing well at Pemex,” he said. But after the assault, “my only alternative was to leave.”

He, too, applied for asylum.

A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada declined to comment on either case, citing privacy laws.

On January 31, coordinated shootings erupted overnight across Paraiso.

Among the dead: the Maciel brothers. Local prosecutors said they were killed in a fuel-theft dispute. Their assassins, prosecutors added, died two months later in a shootout with police.

Even what should be legitimate business is getting more violent.

Daza, the local union boss, said his sprawling collective of construction, welding, tubing and other laborers has grown aggressive to protect its share of dwindling oil work. The union is one of many independent labor groups that represent workers and compete with one another for industry jobs.

Among other tactics, he admits to assaulting rival union members to keep them from job sites. They wield baseball bats, not firearms or knives, to avoid felony charges, he said.

When strangers in out-of-state rental cars arrive in Paraiso, the union and others like it send members to their hotel to demand work at whatever project they’re planning. If they don’t deliver, the unions sometimes shut sites down.

The tactics are not out of the ordinary in a country and industry where corrupt labor leaders are known to bribe both companies and members in exchange for keeping positions filled.

But they have also fueled job losses.

Because of the unions’ demands, oil services companies Oro Negro and Constructora y Perforadora Latina left, depriving Paraiso of 300 jobs, according to a local newspaper report. Neither of the companies, based in Mexico City, responded to requests for comment.

Daza said he has little choice but to use force at a time when the oil business is both the root of Paraiso’s problems and its only hope of recovery. “We’re in danger of extinction,” Daza said. “If nobody comes to save us, we’re screwed.”

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla in London. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Sweden’s far-right eyes election gains as gang violence rises

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand at the scene of an explosion after what is believed to have been a robbery attempt on an ATM, in Genarp, southern Sweden March 21, 2016. REUTERS/Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency/File Photo

By Simon Johnson and Johan Ahlander

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A surge in gang violence has stirred anti-immigration sentiment before an election in Sweden, putting a far-right party on course for big gains in one of Europe’s most liberal countries.

Dozens of people have been killed in the past two years in attacks in the capital Stockholm and other big cities by gangs that are mostly from run-down suburbs dominated by immigrants.

In the latest bloodshed, three men were shot dead and three were wounded outside an internet cafe in the city of Malmo on June 18. A fourth man was shot dead days later and another man survived because he was wearing a bullet-proof vest.

FILE PHOTO: Police technicians examine the car which people who were injured were traveling in, after a shooting in southern Malmo, Sweden September 25, 2016. TT News Agency/Emil Langvad via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Police technicians examine the car which people who were injured were traveling in, after a shooting in southern Malmo, Sweden September 25, 2016. TT News Agency/Emil Langvad via Reuters/File Photo

With public calls growing for tougher policies on crime and immigration, support has risen for the Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots that wants to freeze immigration and to hold a referendum on Sweden’s membership of the European Union.

Their worried mainstream rivals have started moving to the right on crime and immigration to try to counter the Sweden Democrats’ threat in the Sept. 9 election. But so far, they are playing into the hands of the far-right.

“Right now they (mainstream parties) are competing over who can set out the most restrictive policies,” said Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin, whose Green Party is part of a minority government led by the Social Democratic Party.

“It clearly benefits the Sweden Democrats.”

Opinion polls put the Sweden Democrats on about 20 percent support, up from the 13 percent of votes they secured in the 2014 election and the 5.7 percent which saw them enter parliament for the first time in 2010.

The Sweden Democrats’ rise on the back of anti-immigration sentiment mirrors gains for right-wing, populist and anti-establishment parties in other European countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria.

Immigration has risen back up the political agenda since far-right parties entered coalition governments in Austria and Italy, and will be discussed at a summit in Brussels this week.

Though the Sweden Democrats are unlikely to win power, the growing popularity for a party opposed to the EU is a concern for Brussels although Swedes broadly support EU membership, polls show.

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand guard at a cordoned area after a masked man attacked people with a sword at a school in Trollhattan, western Sweden October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/TT News Agency/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Police officers stand guard at a cordoned area after a masked man attacked people with a sword at a school in Trollhattan, western Sweden October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Bjorn Larsson Rosvall/TT News Agency/File Photo

BACKLASH

Five years ago, Sweden saw itself as a “humanitarian superpower” that generously welcomed migrants, many of them fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa.

But as in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has been cracking under pressure from her coalition partners to tighten immigration curbs, Sweden’s government now faces a backlash over the scale of immigration.

About 400,000 people have sought asylum in the wealthy Scandinavian country of 10 million since 2012, and it took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015 alone. Some voters fear schools, hospitals and welfare services cannot cope, and Sweden’s reputation for tolerance and social equality is threatened.

The Sweden Democrats still trail the Social Democratic Party but has overtaken the main opposition Moderates in many polls. All mainstream parties have ruled out working with them.

But they could emerge from the election as kingmakers, and a strong election showing could force the next government to take their views into consideration when shaping policy.

Their policies include a total freeze on asylum seekers and accepting refugees only from Sweden’s neighbors in the future. They also want tougher penalties for crime and more powers for police, and say tax cuts and higher spending on welfare could be funded by cutting the immigration budget.

Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democratic party, has described the situation as “pretty fantastic”.

“We are dominating the debate even though no one will talk to us,” he told party members.

RUTHLESS CRIMINAL UNDERCLASS

There were 129 shootings in Stockholm in 2017. Nineteen people were killed in the attacks, almost twice as many as in 2016, according to official figures.

In Malmo, where about 45 percent of the 330,000 inhabitants have an immigrant background, police say three or four gangs are operating. Swedish media say nine people have been shot dead in the city this year after 21 in the previous two year-period.

A 2017 police report into Sweden’s most deprived areas pointed to a heavily armed and ruthless criminal underclass.

All the areas identified by police are socially deprived suburbs with large immigrant populations, places where poverty and long-term youth unemployment are big problems.

Among these is the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby, where two men walked into a pizzeria packed with families in January and shot a man dead in what police said was a gang killing.

When it was built in the 1970s, Rinkeby was a symbol of modernity, part of what became known as Sweden’s Million Homes project to replace run-down inner-city slums with clean, well-planned suburbs with their own schools, shops and healthcare facilities.

With ninety-one percent of its 16,000 inhabitants born abroad or to parents born outside Sweden, only half of them working, the area is now synonymous with failed integration, unemployment and social exclusion.

Police say people in Rinkeby live in fear of a group known as the Death Patrol gang.

“A few individuals have kept an entire neighborhood terrified,” said Mohamed Nuur, 26, a local Social Democrat politician. Witnesses of the pizzeria shooting were afraid to testify against the suspects, he said.

Rinkeby was one of several suburbs in northern Stockholm hit by riots in 2013 which fueled debate about how Sweden is coping with youth unemployment and the influx of immigrants, issues raised by urban violence in France in 2005 and Britain in 2011.

“RIGHT-WING PATH”

Many Swedes were horrified in early 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump linked immigration to rising crime in Sweden, but an increasing number now agree with him.

The Sweden Democrats have succeeded in linking the two in the minds of many voters, even though official statistics show no correlation between overall levels of crime and immigration.

Sweden has one of the highest levels of lethal gun violence in Europe, World Health Organisation data showed. But while the number of foreign-born citizens has risen for decades, murder rates are roughly flat.

The government denies it has lost control but Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has not ruled out sending the military into problem areas.

Moving to the right, he has tried to deal with the threat posed by the Sweden Democrats by saying immigration – down to 26,000 in 2017 – should halve from last year’s level.

The government has also proposed tougher punishments for gun crimes and sexual assaults, wants to stop financial support for undocumented foreigners, put more of those whose identity is unclear in holding centers and accelerate repatriation of failed asylum seekers.

The Moderates have also toughened their stance on crime and immigration, promising a crackdown on welfare for asylum seekers and a ban on begging. Both main parties say Sweden will not return to liberal asylum rules suspended in 2015.

“Sweden is going down a more right-wing path,” said Nick Aylott, a political scientist at Sodertorn University said. “It is almost impossible to avoid according some sort of influence to a party with around 20 percent of the vote.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Photographer killed in Mexico as journalist death toll nears record

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The bullet-riddled body of a news photographer was found in central Mexico on Friday, state officials, putting 2017 on track to become the deadliest year yet for journalists in the notoriously violent country.

Edgar Daniel Esqueda, 23, who worked with Metropoli San Luis and Vox Populi SLP in the state of San Luis Potosi, was found in the state capital with at least three bullet wounds in the back of his neck, authorities said.

The news outlets where Esqueda worked reported had reported his abduction from his home by gunmen on Thursday morning.

San Luis Potosi’s governor, Manuel Carreras, told a press conference an investigation was underway. He did not say whether Esqueda’s murder was linked to his work as a journalist.

With Esqueda’s killing, 2017 could become the bloodiest year yet for reporters in Mexico, according to press freedom and journalists’ advocacy group Articulo 19.

The photo journalist was the 11th reporter killed so far this year, the group said. That matched the total in 2016, which was the highest number on record in a country torn by runaway levels of criminal and drug-related bloodletting.

Over the past 17 years, 111 journalists have been killed in Mexico, 38 of them under the current government of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Reporters Without Borders and the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) both rank Mexico among the deadliest countries in the world for reporters.

Activists have repeatedly criticized Mexican prosecutors for failing to fully investigate many journalists’ murders, allowing the killers to operate with impunity.

Mexico’s human rights commission has asked state authorities to provide protection for Esqueda’s family members, who were at home with the photographer when he was taken by force, according to Articulo 19.

Witnesses who spoke with the group said Esqueda asked his kidnappers for their identity when they broke into the home where he was asleep with his wife, and they responded that they were police officers.

The state police force said via Twitter that “there has not been any police action against a reporter in the capital.”

“Criminals, sometimes connected with state actors, know that they can get away with killing journalists in Mexico because of chronic impunity for these crimes. Until that changes, the violence will continue,” Alexandra Ellerbeck, the CPJ’s program coordinator for North America, said in a statement.

Esqueda had reported threats months ago to a government-run human rights group in San Luis Potosi, one of his colleagues told Reuters.

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon and Christine Murray; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.S. attorney general ties gang violence to immigration

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks on the growing trend of violent crime in sanctuary cities during an event on the Port of Miami in Miami, Florida, U.S. on, August 16, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper/File Photo

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) – Protesters gathered outside a federal court in Boston on Thursday where U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to address law enforcement about what he called the need to tackle transnational gang violence and to secure the Mexican border.

Sessions reemphasized what he said was a need to target cross-border criminal organizations, specifically the gang MS-13, which the Justice Department says has more than 30,000 members worldwide and 10,000 members in the United States.

Tying the effort to fight the gang and Republican President Donald Trump’s administration’s efforts to crackdown on illegal immigration, Sessions said the Justice Department was directing more prosecutorial resources to the U.S.-Mexican border.

He also made an apparent reference to Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, saying such a wall would help protect against gang members who are smuggled across it.

“Securing our border, both through a physical wall and with brave men and women of the border patrol restoring an orderly and lawful system of immigration, is part and parcel of any successful crime fighting, gang fighting strategy,” he said.

He also said the Trump administration was examining the “exploitation” of a program that helps unaccompanied refugee minors by gang members using it to “come to this country as wolves in sheep clothing” and to recruit new members.

Outside the courthouse, around 40 people gathered in a protest organized by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, holding signs saying “Jeff: Go Home” and “Racism is #Notwelcome.”

MS-13, also called La Mara Salvatrucha, has taken root in the United States in Los Angeles in the 1980s in neighborhoods populated with immigrants from El Salvador who had fled its civil war.

In Boston, federal prosecutors have since January 2016 brought racketeering, drug trafficking, weapons and other charges against 61 people linked to MS-13 in Massachusetts including leaders, members and associates of the gang.

 

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Diane Craft)

 

13 killed in gang battles in two Mexican states

Police officers stand guard as they carry out inspections at a checkpoint after 13 people were killed in battles between rival gangs in two states in central and western Mexico, in Uruapan, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Alan Ortega

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – At least 13 people were killed in battles between rival gangs in two states in central and western Mexico, officials said on Wednesday, as murders climb to record levels this year.

Five people were gunned down in a bar on Tuesday night in the capital of central Guanajuato state while seven people were found dead in two different places in the western state of Michoacan, according to officials at state prosecutors offices.

Three dismembered bodies, including a woman’s, were found in the community of Angahuan near the drug-gang hotbed of Uruapan, the Michoacan prosecutors’ office said.

Michoacan has been one of the bloodiest states in Mexico because of battles between rival gangs involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion of local businesses as well as mineral theft and illegal logging.

Neighboring Guanajuato state has seen a spike in violence. Murders were up 37 percent in Guanajuato in the first seven months of the year compared to the same period last year.

The murder rate has already risen above levels seen in 2011, which was the deadliest year under former president Felipe Calderon who sent the army out to battle drug gangs.

Nationally, there were 14,190 murder investigations in the first seven months of the year, the highest total through July for any year in records going back to 1997.

The increase in violence has hit the popularity of President Enrique Pena Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ahead of next year’s presidential election.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Sandra Maler)

In New York, Trump to use gang violence to press for deportations

A makeshift memorial stands outside a park, where bodies of four men were found on April 13, in Central Islip, New York, U.S., April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Roberta Rampton and Mica Rosenberg

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will travel on Friday to a New York community shocked by a recent spate of graphic gang murders to highlight his efforts to stop illegal immigration and boost deportations.

Trump’s trip to Long Island gives the president an opportunity to showcase some progress on his agenda even as other legislative efforts flounder – and some respite from the chaos of a nasty power struggle among his senior staff that blew up on Thursday.

On Friday, Trump will highlight his administration’s push to deport members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, better known as MS-13, the existence of which his White House blames on lax enforcement of illegal immigration from Central America.

“It’s going to be a very forceful message about just how menacing this threat is, and just how much pain is inflicted on American communities,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the trip.

Trump’s visit comes as his Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to El Salvador to highlight progress on the gang crack-down.

The gang took root in Los Angeles in the 1980s in neighborhoods populated with immigrants from El Salvador who had fled civil war. The Justice Department has said MS-13 now has more than 10,000 members across the United States.

On Long Island – not far from the New York City borough of Queens, where Trump grew up – MS-13 was behind the murders of two teenage girls in a suburban neighborhood last September, and four young men in a park in April.

There have been 17 murders on Long Island tied to the gang since January 2016, the Suffolk County Police Department has said.

Under Trump, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has targeted the gang, deporting more than 2,700 criminal gang members in fiscal 2017, up from 2,057 in the whole of the previous fiscal year, the White House has said.

“We are throwing MS-13 the hell out of here so fast,” Trump said earlier this week at a rally in Ohio.

Trump made concerns about illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. One of his first actions in office was to scrap Obama-era guidelines that prioritized convicted criminals for deportations.

His administration is now taking a harder line on Central American youth who have crossed the border illegally without guardians – a group that law enforcement has said has been targeted for recruitment by MS-13.

Immigration agents plan to target teenagers who are suspected gang members, even if they are not charged with any crime, according to a memo seen by Reuters.

But civil rights groups say police and immigration agents have unfairly targeted some teenagers.

“We received complaints in recent weeks from terrified parents on Long Island that teens have already been detained on the thinnest of rationales, such as wearing a basketball jersey,” said Sebastian Krueger from the New York Civil Liberties Union.

There have been at least two lawsuits filed by people claiming they were mistakenly included in gang databases and then targeted for deportation, said Paromita Shah, from the National Immigration Project at the National Lawyers Guild.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Chicago’s gang violence catches highway drivers in crossfire

Mother cries for her son who was shot on the highway

By Timothy Mclaughlin

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Jonathan Ortiz and other members of his rap group, No Nights Off, stepped onto the stage at Chicago’s House of Blues in mid-September for a concert they hoped would propel their young, promising careers.

Less than two weeks later, the 22-year-old Ortiz, who forebodingly rapped under the stage name “John Doe,” was fatally shot as he drove on an expressway in Chicago. His girlfriend Alexis Garcia also got a bullet lodged in her back.

Ortiz and Garcia were victims of the 38th shooting on Chicago-area expressways in 2016, a record-high number for a city stung by a murder rate not seen in two decades.

“It is overwhelming that this is the reality in Chicago, that you can drive on the expressway now and get shot at,” said Tanue David, a family support specialist with the outreach group Chicago Survivors, who is working with the Ortiz family.

Officials say gang violence is increasingly spilling over onto Chicago’s expressways, with innocent drivers sometimes caught in the crossfire, while the state police force is shrinking.

The Illinois State Police, which has jurisdiction over the expressways, blamed gang warfare for the increased highway shoot-outs in 2016 that pose “an extreme danger to the motoring public.”

Ortiz was shot on Interstate 290, one of five expressways within city limits where shootings took place.

PERSISTENT INCREASE

Ortiz and Garcia were shot on the morning of Sept. 29 while Ortiz drove her SUV not far from his mother’s home.

Chicago police said Ortiz had no criminal record and several family members and friends said he was not affiliated with a gang. He and Garcia met three years ago on the shores of Lake Michigan.

“He was calm, that’s how I knew that God took him fast,” Garcia, who grew up in a suburb of Chicago, said of the moments after Ortiz was shot.

In 2011 and 2012, there were nine shootings on city expressways, according to state police, which had no data prior to that.

That number jumped to 16 in 2013 and 19 in 2014. It nearly doubled the next year to 37 and climbed again in 2016 to 47. Three shootings last year were fatal.

The rise in highway shootings came as Chicago suffered a broader surge in violence that saw 762 people murdered in 2016, a 57 percent increase from 2015, and the highest number since 1996.

The number drew the attention of President-elect Donald Trump, who said that Chicago’s mayor must ask for U.S. government help if the city fails to reduce its murder rate. [nL1N1ES0LX]

Chicago police cite a number of factors, including splintering gang structures and police drawing back from confrontation out of fear of increased scrutiny for their actions.

Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has vehemently blamed lax regulations for gun repeat offenders. “The people committing these crimes think the consequences for their actions are a joke,” he said last month.

DIFFICULT CRIME SCENES, DEPLETED RESOURCES

State police launched the Chicago Expressway Anti-violence Surge in February 2016 after the seventh freeway shooting, deploying aircraft, undercover officers and unmarked vehicles.

But the shooting numbers remained high and arrests were made in only one of last year’s expressway shootings. Uncooperative victims and expansive crime scenes hamper efforts to solve the cases, state police said.

Political gridlock in Springfield is also a factor, said Joe Moon, president of the Illinois Troopers Lodge 41 Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing state troopers.

Feuding between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the legislature has kept the state without a full operating budget since July 2015. That meant no cadet hires in 2015 and 2016, and 2017 remains in limbo as well, state police said. [nL1N1DF1XU]

Since 2000, the number of sworn officers has declined steadily to just over 1,600 from around 2,100, Moon said.

State police said the budget impasse had no impact on the force’s work. Governor Rauner’s spokeswoman, Catherine Kelly, declined to comment beyond what state police said.

At a December vigil, friends and family gathered by a roadside memorial of flowers and photos as one of Ortiz’s songs thumped from a nearby sports car.

“Chicago I beg of you … this needs to stop,” Ortiz’s friend Sharee Washington, 29, said. “You are destroying people.”

(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio)

Victims of Gang Violence in Central America flee home to survive

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Children and women whose husbands were killed in front of them are among the growing numbers of people fleeing gang violence in Central America, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said, as it urged governments to do more to identify and protect refugees.

Every year, gang violence drives tens of thousands of people from their homes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – countries with the world’s highest murder rates.

Most head to the United States in the hope of refuge and a better life.

UNHCR said the number of refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras reached 109,800 in 2015 – a more than five-fold increase over the past three years.

“People who saw husbands shot in front of their eyes. People who don’t want their children to be drawn into gangs. It’s a very strong system of repression and exploitation imposed by organized criminal groups that makes violence a key reason why people flee,” said Volker Turk, UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection.

“They flee extremely precarious situations. The only way for people to save their lives is to flee,” Turk told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the start of a conference in Costa Rica on Central America’s forced displacement problem.

UNHCR said more than 14,600 Hondurans applied for refugee status worldwide in 2015, nearly double the figure in 2014.

The Honduran capital Tegucigalpa and the country’s industrial city of San Pedro Sula have the highest murder rates outside a war zone, UNHCR said last month.

“Some see it as only a migration problem, others see it is a refugee problem. It is both. We increasingly need to see this as a forced displacement issue,” Turk said by telephone on Wednesday.

“It’s growing in numbers, in scope and complexity.”

“UTTER DESPAIR”

Rights groups says governments in Central America have either downplayed or been slow to recognize that violence is the main reason why people are fleeing their homes.

Instead governments tend to list people seeking to be reunited with relatives already living in the United States, poverty and the lack of jobs as the key drivers of migration.

The flow of Central American migrants heading to the United States came under the spotlight in 2014 when nearly 70,000 children traveling alone were caught crossing the U.S. border with Mexico, more than double the number apprehended in 2012.

The children were mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“One of the features of this particular situation is the fact that there are many more children on the move, unaccompanied minors, which is usually an indication of a survival mechanism, of utter despair,” Turk said.

He said the problem was being neglected as the world’s attention focused on hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from North Africa, and war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq, who have been crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.

Turk called on Mexico and other Latin American countries through which migrants and asylum seekers are likely to pass, to strengthen their asylum services.

“We need to make sure asylum systems, including integration measures are robust, comprehensive and are appropriately equipped so that people who have fled violence have the option to stay in the first country they arrive in,” he said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)