Colombia’s police advises Haiti on tackling kidnapping crisis

By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – Colombia, once the kidnap capital of the world, reduced kidnappings by 95% over the past two decades. Now the anti-kidnapping unit of its national police hopes to help Haiti tackle its own epidemic of abductions for ransom.

Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Eduardo Tellez Betancourt told Reuters his team of four specialists had delivered its report on Haiti’s kidnapping crisis on Tuesday after three months of on-the-ground research.

Among the report’s conclusions are the need for Haiti’s anti-kidnapping unit to receive more specialized training – for example at Colombia’s anti-kidnapping school – and better equipment for investigating crime.

That includes the tools to intercept, analyze and block communications, he said, which in turn could help root out or disincentivize alleged connivance between politicians and the gangs responsible for kidnappings.

Haiti’s kidnapping crisis is terrifying Haitians, stunting economic activity in what is already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and last month prompted a change in government.

“Kidnappings have increased because gangs have strengthened,” Tellez said by telephone, adding that before 2016, Haitian police had often been able to rescue those taken hostage. Since then, however, “the gangs have strengthened in weapons and criminal structure… preventing police from being able to carry out these rescue operations.”

NO-GO ZONES

Tellez said insufficient border controls had allowed Haitian gangs to get their hands on more weapons, turning certain areas into no-go zones for Haiti’s understaffed, underequipped police force – and perfect locations to hold victims hostage until a lucrative ransom was paid.

Four policemen died in March in a gun battle with alleged criminals after attempting to enter a slum in the capital where kidnapping victims are often held.

The nonprofit Center for Human Rights Analysis and Research in Port-au-Prince recorded at least 91 kidnappings in Haiti in April, with requested ransoms ranging from $100,000 to $1 million. Only five victims were freed without paying a ransom.

Tellez also blamed politics for the growing power of gangs in a country plagued by instability, without going into details.

Haitian human rights experts say politicians from across the political spectrum use armed groups to achieve their own ends, supplying them with weapons. They accuse President Jovenel Moise in particular of fomenting gang crime.

One notorious gang leader, who last year formed a federation of nine gangs, the “G9,” even staged a march in January in favor of Moise’s government.

Moise, who took office in 2017, denies the charges of complicity with gangs and has said tackling gang crime including kidnappings is a priority for his government.

One of the obstacles to resolving the crisis is distrust in police among many Haitians. Some kidnapping victims have reported people wearing police uniforms or driving police vehicles carrying out kidnappings.

Tellez said Haiti needed to weed out possible corruption in the police with better control mechanisms and strengthen its capacity to investigate kidnappings. For that, it needed to hire more officers to its anti-kidnapping unit and train them up.

While Colombia’s population is five times that of Haiti’s 11 million, its anti-kidnapping unit, at 1300 officers, is 60 times bigger, according to numbers supplied by Tellez.

Haiti should also invest in technological tools for investigating such as a “room for intercepting communication”.

Tellez said his team was scheduled now to return to Colombia, handing off the case to a new team of specialists that would travel to Haiti to continue advising on the kidnapping crisis in an initiative agreed by the Colombian, Haitian and U.S. governments.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Murders in Mexico rise by a third in 2018 to new record

Murders in Mexico rose by 33 percent in 2018, breaking the record for a second year running, official data showed, underlining the task facing the new president who has pledged to reduce violence in the cartel-ravaged country.

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Murders in Mexico rose by 33 percent in 2018, breaking the record for a second year running, official data showed, underlining the task facing the new president who has pledged to reduce violence in the cartel-ravaged country.

Investigators opened to 33,341 murder probes compared with the previous year’s record of 25,036, according to information from the Interior Ministry published on Sunday.

Mexico has struggled with years of violence as the government has battled brutal drug cartels, often by taking out their leaders. That has resulted in fragmentation of gangs and increasingly vicious internecine fighting.

The complexity of fighting criminal groups is a major test for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who assumed office in December, vowing to try a different approach to his predecessor.

Former President Enrique Pena Nieto presided over a 40 percent rise in murder investigations across his six-year mandate from his first full year in office in 2013.

Of Mexico’s 32 regions, the central state of Guanajuato registered the highest number of murder probes opened in 2018, at 3,290, more than three times as many murder probes as the 1,084 investigations opened in 2017.

Guanajuato has been hit by bloody turf wars among gangs battling for control of a lucrative market for stolen fuel.

The data showed 861 cases of murders of women in 2018 compared with 735 in 2017.

Mexico’s national statistics office (INEGI) also calculated a record number of homicides in 2017, at 31,174 murders, or 25 per 100,000, using other methodologies. INEGI has yet to present its data for violent crime in 2018.

(Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Violence, gangs cast pall over life in Honduras

"El Fresa" (L), a Barrio-18 gang member, sits on a sofa next to another Barrio-18 gang member in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, May 27, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

By Edgard Garrido

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Reuters) – Ana Luz, sister-in-law of Ronald Blanco, looked on grimly as neighbors of the murdered Honduran man washed away the rills of blood left where his bullet-ridden body had lain outside his house in a troubled barrio on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa in Honduras.

 

The body of Ronald Blanco, 37, who was shot dead outside his house, lies on a police pick-up truck in Japon neighbourhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 2 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The body of Ronald Blanco, 37, who was shot dead outside his house, lies on a police pick-up truck in Japon neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, August 2 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

It was just one of many scenes I witnessed this year while on assignment in Honduras, where thousands of people sought to escape violence and poverty by joining a migrant caravan in hope of making it to safety across the Mexico-U.S. border. The problems in this small Central American country grabbed international attention as U.S. President Donald Trump cracked down on illegal immigration.

Honduras has for years been one of the world’s most murderous countries. Though official data show the homicide rate has fallen sharply, it continues to be a highly challenging environment in which to work.

According to Honduran government figures, the homicide rate reached 86 per 100,000 people in 2011-2012. This year, the rate should end below 40 per 100,000, the security ministry says. This compares to the latest statistics in the United States, where there were 5.3 murders per 100,000 in 2017, according to the FBI’s most recent report on its website.

Danger in Honduras is never far away.

Forensic workers carry the body of a man who was killed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Forensic workers carry the body of a man who was killed in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

During my roughly three months spent in Honduras in 2018, I photographed mothers waiting at the morgue for the bodies of murdered sons and daughters, police keeping watch over corpses left lying on streets after shootouts and families wailing over the coffins of loved ones.

Blanco, 37, lived in the Japon neighborhood, a breeding ground for gang violence, according to local authorities. It was here that I experienced the most tense moment of my time in Honduras, as I moved between police, soldiers, gang members, forensic experts, hearse drivers and pastors.

At Blanco’s funeral, I was stopped by a young man with piercing eyes, one green and one blue. He demanded to know why I was there.

Civilians and former gang members gesture inside a rehabilitation centre in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Civilians and former gang members gesture inside a rehabilitation centre in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

I explained that I was a journalist taking photographs of the event. But the youth kept pressing me with questions about what had brought me to Blanco’s funeral. As I continued taking the photos, I felt increasingly uncomfortable.

Finally, the tension eased when one of Blanco’s friends intervened, saying that the grieving family had authorized my presence.

 

(Reporting by Edgard Garrido; Additional reporting by Delphine Schrank; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon and Julia Love; Editing by Diane Craft)

Honduran migrant group grows, heading for United States

Thousands of Hondurans fleeing poverty and violence move in a caravan toward the United States, in Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras October 14, 2018. REUTERS/ Jorge Cabrera

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) – A growing group of more than 1,500 Honduran migrants headed for the United States moved toward the Guatemalan border on Sunday, witnesses and organizers said.

The migrants, who included families of adults and children, and women carrying babies, began a march on Saturday from the violent northern city of San Pedro Sula, days after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called on Central America to stop mass migration.

The U.S. Embassy in Honduras said it was deeply worried about the group and that people were being given “false promises” of being able to enter the United States. The embassy said the situation in Honduras was improving.

Children help each other get dressed, part of a group of Hondurans fleeing poverty and violence, during their journey in a caravan toward the United States in Ocotepeque, Honduras October 14, 2018. REUTERS/ Jorge Cabrera

Children help each other get dressed, part of a group of Hondurans fleeing poverty and violence, during their journey in a caravan toward the United States in Ocotepeque, Honduras October 14, 2018. REUTERS/ Jorge Cabrera

Honduras’ government echoed part of that language, saying it regretted the situation and that citizens were being “deceived.”

Mexico’s government issued a statement on Saturday reminding foreign nationals that visas should be requested in consulates, not at the border, and said migration rules were “always observed.”

March organizer Bartolo Fuentes told Reuters that participants were not being offered or promised anything but were fleeing poverty and violence back home.

Fuentes, a former Honduran lawmaker, said the group had grown on its journey to some 1,800 migrants from 1,300.

The so-called migrant caravan, in which people move in groups either on foot or by vehicle, grew in part because of social media.

The group began to arrive in Nueva Ocotepeque, near the Guatemalan border, on Sunday. The plan is to cross Guatemala and reach Tapachula in southern Mexico to apply for humanitarian visas that allow people to cross the country or get asylum, Fuentes said.

A man carries a baby as he walks with other Hondurans fleeing poverty and violence as they move in a caravan toward the United States, in the west side of Honduras October 14, 2018. REUTERS/ Jorge Cabrera

A man carries a baby as he walks with other Hondurans fleeing poverty and violence as they move in a caravan toward the United States, in the west side of Honduras October 14, 2018. REUTERS/ Jorge Cabrera

Honduras, where some 64 percent of households are in poverty, is afflicted by gangs that violently extort people and businesses.

Last week, Pence told Central American countries that the United States was willing to help with economic development and investment if they did more to tackle mass migration, corruption and gang violence.

(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Gang shootout at New Jersey arts festival kills one, injures 22

Broken window is seen after a shooting during the art festival in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S., June 17, 2018, in this picture grab obtained from social media video. Facebook/ Edward Forchion via REUTERS

(Reuters) – A suspected gunman was shot dead and 22 people were injured on Sunday after a dispute among rival gangs erupted into gunfire at an all-night arts festival in Trenton, New Jersey, officials said.

One of the shooting victims was a 13-year-old boy who was in extremely critical condition, Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri told a news conference. Three others were in critical condition.

At least two people opened fire around 2:45 a.m. at the annual Art All Night event in Trenton, about 60 miles (100 km) southwest of New York City.

The dead suspect was identified by police as Tahaij Wells, 33, and another suspect, Amir Armstrong, 23, was in police custody.

Of the 22 people injured, 17 people of them were shot, Onofri said, and multiple weapons were recovered from the scene.

Officials believe the suspect was killed by police, and the case was being treated as an officer-involved shooting, Onofri said.

More than 1,000 people were believed to have been at the festival when the violence started.

“It absolutely could have been worse, given the confined space and the number of shots that appear to have been fired,” Onofri told a news conference.

“The shooting appears to be related to several neighborhood gangs from here in the city of Trenton having a dispute at the venue,” Onofri said.

Organizers canceled the remainder of the event, billed as “24 hours of community, creativity and inspiration.”

The festival typically draws more than 30,000 visitors to view work from more than 1,500 artists as well as exhibitions of glass blowing and woodwork, The Trentonian reported on its website. About 50 bands also play on three stages.

“We’re still processing much of this and we don’t have many answers at this time but please know that our staff, our volunteers, our artists and musicians all seem to be healthy and accounted for,” the organizers wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “Our sincere, heartfelt sympathies are with those who were injured.”

The New Jersey shooting occurred amid a debate about U.S. gun laws that was given fresh impetus by the massacre in February of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“It is a fact that our cities as well as our suburbs throughout America are experiencing an increase in public shootings and public unrest such as this,” Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson told the news conference. “This isn’t just a random act of violence. This is a public health issue.”

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy spoke at a Trenton church on Sunday, noting that he signed six gun control bills into law on Wednesday but saying the proliferation of guns required a national solution.

“Congress needs to act,” Murphy said.

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis and Daniel Trotta in New York; Additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Trump threatens to cut aid to countries that do not stop MS-13 gang migrants

U.S. president Trump supporter holds a banner against MS-13 before a forum about Central American-based Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang organization at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, New York, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Steve Holland

BETHPAGE, N.Y. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday he was working on a plan to reduce U.S. aid to countries he says are doing nothing to stop MS-13 gang members from crossing into the United States illegally.

“We’re looking at our whole aid structure. It’s going to be changed very radically,” Trump told a roundtable discussion about the threat posed by the violent gang.

MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha gang, was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s in part to protect immigrants from El Salvador and has since grown into a sprawling cross-border criminal organization.

Trump has made the fight against the gang a major part of his drive to stem the flow of immigrants illegally entering the United States.

Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, whose daughter Nisa Mickens was killed by MS-13 gang members, participate in a roundtable on immigration and the gang MS-13 attended by U.S. President Donald Trump at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, New York, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, whose daughter Nisa Mickens was killed by MS-13 gang members, participate in a roundtable on immigration and the gang MS-13 attended by U.S. President Donald Trump at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, New York, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Last week, he called gang members “animals,” drawing scorn from Democrats. On Wednesday, he defended his description.

“I called them ‘animals’ the other day and I was met with rebuke,” Trump said. “They said: ‘They are people.’ They’re not people. These are animals,” he said.

Trump was joined at the event by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has drawn criticism from the president for his handling of a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Rosenstein said MS-13 gang members were preying on unaccompanied children who cross into the United States illegally, most of whom must be released from custody.

“Some develop gang ties,” Rosenstein said.

Trump praised his homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, whom the president has criticized privately for not doing enough in his view to stop illegal immigrants.

“You’re doing a really great job,” Trump told her, adding that her job was “not easy.”

Trump did not give details on his plan to cut funding for countries from which MS-13 gang members originate, but said the penalties would be large. He also did not identify any countries by name.

“We’re going to work out something where every time someone comes in from a certain country, we are going to deduct a rather large sum of money,” he said.

Illegal border crossings fell to record lows with about 15,700 immigrants arrested along the U.S.-Mexico border in April of last year.

But those numbers soon began creeping back up and in recent months have surpassed levels seen during the administration of President Barack Obama. Trump has voiced increasing frustration with the trend as border apprehensions reached more than 50,900 in April 2018.

But longer-term, crossings have fallen sharply. So far in 2018, 212,000 immigrants have been arrested on the southwest border, a fraction of the more than 1 million caught during the same period in 2000.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Reade Levinson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Wolves to lambs: Finding God behind bars in El Salvador

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church participate in a religious service at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Jose Cabezas and Nelson Renteria

SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador (Reuters) – Pastor Manuel Rivera’s voice echoes through the crowded courtyard in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador, as hardened criminals weep and bow their heads in prayer.

Brutal ‘mara’ street gangs and chronic poverty have made El Salvador one of the most murderous countries on the planet, but the growth of evangelical Christianity behind bars is giving gangsters a way to break the spiral of violence.

Rivera, an ex-hitman from the powerful Barrio 18 gang, speaks to rows of men with spidery black tattoos on their arms, necks and faces, delivering a message of salvation: God had rescued them from violence. Returning to gang life would mean death.

“We used to say that the gang was our family, but God took the blindfold off our eyes,” says Rivera, 36, dressed like the other inmates in a white t-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals.

Some weep silently while he reads from a black bible. Others sing hymns, clapping and waving arms enthusiastically. They chorus: “Amen.”

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By embracing religion, these men can leave their gangs without retaliation, Rivera says. But if they do not show real devotion, their former gang-mates may kill them, fearing they will join other gangs and become enemies.

Convicted murderer Rivera’s own transformation came behind bars, when, battered by years of running from police and enemy gangs, unable to see his son, he turned to prayer.

When God appeared in a dream, prophesying Rivera would have his own flock, he became a pastor, he says. He is now half-way through an eight-year sentence for criminal association.

Evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in Central America in the past decade, coloring local politics. Dozens of lawmakers embrace it, defending hardline positions against gay rights and abortion.

The fervor has spilled into jails, where it is welcomed by officials who sense its potential for reforming ex-gangsters.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s government plans to use Gotera as a model of religious rehabilitation it hopes can be replicated.

Two years ago the prison, located about 100 miles (166 km) east of capital San Salvador, was almost entirely home to active gang members. Now, the majority of its approximately 1,500 inmates want to find redemption, says prison director Oscar Benavides.

The conversions “show the country that it is possible to rehabilitate those in the Mara Salvatrucha or other gangs,” says Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez, dismissing criticisms that the government should do more.

The Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious cross-border crime group also known as MS-13, was founded by Salvadorans in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

President Donald Trump has blamed MS-13 and illegal immigration from Central America as a major source of violence in the United States.

Outside the relative tranquility of the prison, danger permeates the streets of El Salvador.

Crime has fallen from a record high in 2015, but at 60 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, the murder rate is still one of the highest worldwide.

Inside Gotera, where some inmates are serving 100-year sentences for accumulated crimes, colorful drawings of angels and prophets decorate the walls alongside biblical quotations.

Inmates wearing shirts emblazoned with “Soldier of Christ” and “Jesus Saved My Life” study prayer books, weave hammocks and tend to a garden.

Rodolfo Cornejo, 34, with intricate black tattoos circling his neck, started praying and growing cucumbers when he entered the prison on a 12-year sentence for carrying firearms, wanting to leave the rough life that had isolated him from his kids.

“People on the outside don’t trust us very much: they think we can’t change. But yes, we can show them.”

Click on https://reut.rs/2HJg8kN to see a related photo essay.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

Rio de Janeiro Councilwoman, sharp critic of police killings, shot dead

A woman reacts next to a picture of the Rio de Janeiro city councillor Marielle Franco, 38, who was shot dead, during a demonstration ahead of her wake outside the city council chamber in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

By Brad Brooks

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – A popular Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman who was an outspoken critic of police killings of poor residents in shantytowns was gunned down in what police, prosecutors and even drug gang leaders said on Thursday looked like a political assassination.

Marielle Franco, 38, a rising star in the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), was killed along with her driver in northern Rio around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night. Her press secretary survived the shooting on Rio’s dangerous north side.

The killing comes just weeks after the federal government decreed that Brazil’s Army would take over all security operations through the end of the year in Rio, where murders have spiked in recent years. Franco had harshly criticized that move on Sunday, saying it could worsen police violence against residents.

Demonstrators react outside the city council chamber ahead of the wake of Rio de Janeiro's city councillor Marielle Franco, 38, who was shot dead, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Demonstrators react outside the city council chamber ahead of the wake of Rio de Janeiro’s city councillor Marielle Franco, 38, who was shot dead, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

“It is far too soon to say, but were are obviously looking at this as a murder in response to her political work, that is a main theory,” said a Rio de Janeiro public prosecutor, who spoke on condition that he not be named as he was not authorized to discuss the case.

An investigator with Rio’s police force also said that the prime motive appeared to be Franco’s calling out police for allegedly killing innocents in their constant battles with drug gangs.

Franco, who was raised and lived in the Mare complex of slums, long one of Rio’s more dangerous areas, received over 46,500 votes in the 2016 election. That total was only bested by four of 51 council members.

On Sunday on her verified Facebook account, Franco decried what she alleged to be the police killing of two boys during a police raid in an area called Acari.

“We must scream out so that all know what is happening in Acari right now. Rio’s police are terrorizing and violating those who live in Acari,” Franco wrote. “This week two youth were killed and tossed into a ditch. Today, the police were in the street threatening those who live there. This has been going on forever and will only be worse with a military intervention.”

Calls to the police unit assigned to the Acari area were not returned. In a Sunday statement to the O Dia newspaper, police confirmed they carried out an operation in the area, were fired upon by drug traffickers, returned fire but had no knowledge of any deaths.

The car in which Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco was shot dead is towed from the crime scene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

The car in which Rio de Janeiro city councilor Marielle Franco was shot dead is towed from the crime scene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Franco was raised and lived in Mare, a complex of slums where about 130,000 residents must contend with the presence of Rio’s two most powerful gangs – the Red Command and the Pure Third Command, along with militias often made up of off duty or retired police and fireman, who are as feared as the gangs.

High-level members of both the Red Command and the Pure Third Command told Reuters their gangs had nothing to do with the killings. It was impossible to reach any militia members.

Raul Jungmann, who heads the federal government’s newly created Public Security Ministry, said at an event in Sao Paulo that what Franco’s killing was “a tragedy.”

“Another lamentable daily tragedy that takes place in Rio de Janeiro. We must understand extremely well the reasons behind this and go after those responsible,” he said. “But this does not put at risk the federal intervention.”

Jungmann said that federal investigators would be involved in the investigation and that he had put Brazil’s federal police at the disposition of local investigators.

Vigils and protests were planned in at least seven major cities across Brazil and about 150 members of the PSOL party carried flowers and signs into Brazil’s federal Congress on Thursday demanding justice.

The United Nations office in Brazil and Amnesty International demanded a quick and transparent investigation into Franco’s killing.

(Additional reporting by Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Simoes in Sao Paulo and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by David Gregorio)

With 25,339 murders in 2017, Mexico suffers record homicide tally

- A police cordon reading "Danger" is pictured at a crime scene where unknown assailants gunned down people at a garage in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – There were more than 25,000 murders across drug-ravaged Mexico in 2017, the highest annual tally since modern records began, government data showed.

Investigators opened 25,339 murder probes last year, up nearly 25 percent from the 2016 tally, interior ministry data released on Saturday showed. It was the highest annual total since the government began counting murders in 1997.

Mexico has struggled with years of violence as the government has battled vicious drug cartels that have increasingly splintered into smaller, more bloodthirsty, gangs.

Violence is a central issue in July’s presidential election. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto faces an uphill battle to keep his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in office.

There were 40 percent more murder investigations opened last year compared with 2013, Pena Nieto’s first full year in office.

Mexico on Thursday dismissed a claim by U.S. President Donald Trump that it was the most dangerous country in the world.

(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Violent crime in U.S. rose in 2016 vs. 2015: Justice Department

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Violent crime rose 4.1 percent nationwide in 2016 compared to the 2015 estimates, the U.S. Justice Department said on Monday.

Violent crime, which the report defines as non-negligent killings, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, had steadily dropped since 2006, but had increased slightly in 2015, according to the annual report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“The report … reaffirms that the worrying violent crime increase that began in 2015 after many years of decline was not an isolated incident,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

The report said an estimated 1.2 million violent crimes took place across the country in 2016, an increase of 4.1 percent over the 2015 estimate.

In cities with populations larger than 100,000, the violent crime rate in 2016 was up 3.4 percent compared to the estimate from 2015.

President Donald Trump, who took office in January, has said he would do more to fight criminal gangs and would send in federal help to stem violent crime in Chicago.

The Justice Department has reversed or distanced itself from many of the Obama administration’s policies, including consent decrees to reform police departments and limits on transferring certain types of military gear to local law enforcement agencies.

 

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Bill Trott)