Venezuela’s Maduro threatens to gatecrash regional summit

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s unpopular socialist president Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday his right-wing Latin American counterparts showed intolerance by trying to exclude him from an upcoming summit in Lima and he vowed to go anyway.

Peru’s center-right government this week said Maduro would not be welcome at the Summit of the Americas in April, reinforcing his growing diplomatic isolation during a crackdown on dissent and a brutal economic crisis in Venezuela.

“Do you fear me? You don’t want to see me in Lima? You’re going to see me. Because come rain or shine, by air, land, or sea, I will attend the Summit of the Americas,” Maduro said during a press conference with foreign journalists.

Maduro also said Argentina’s center-right president Mauricio Macri should call a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) group of Latin American nations with him.

“Call a meeting, dare, don’t be scared of me, President Macri,” said Maduro. “If you want to talk about Venezuela, let’s talk about Venezuela.”

Government critics say Maduro for years has refused to listen to advice that he should reform Venezuela’s crumbling economy that has spawned shortages, hyperinflation, malnutrition, and the return of once-controlled diseases. They also say he refuses to acknowledge the extent of Venezuela’s humanitarian suffering, so it is futile to meet with him.

He says right-wing regional governments are part of U.S.-led international conspiracy to topple him and take control of the OPEC member’s oil resources.

“They’re the most unpopular governments on the planet,” he said, naming Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Hackers hit major ATM network after U.S., Russian bank breaches

By Eric Auchard

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – A previously undetected group of Russian-language hackers silently stole nearly $10 million from at least 18 mostly U.S. and Russian banks in recent years by targeting interbank transfer systems, a Moscow-based security firm said on Monday.

Group-IB warned that the attacks, which began 18 months ago and allow money to be robbed from bank automated teller machines (ATMs), appear to be ongoing and that banks in Latin America could be targeted next.

The first attack occurred in the spring of 2016 against First Data’s  “STAR” network, the largest U.S. bank transfer messaging system connecting ATMs at more than 5,000 organizations, Group-IB researchers said in a 36-page report.

The firm said it was continuing to investigate a number of incidents where hackers studied how to make money transfers through the SWIFT banking system, while stopping short of saying whether any such attacks had been carried out successfully.

SWIFT said in October that hackers were still targeting its interbank messaging system, but security controls instituted after last year’s $81 million heist at Bangladesh’s central bank had thwarted many of those attempts. (http://reut.rs/2z1b7Bo)

Group-IB has dubbed the hacker group “MoneyTaker” after the name of software it used to hijack payment orders to then cash out funds through a network of low-level “money mules” who were hired to pick up money from automated teller machines.

The security researchers said they had identified 18 banks who were hit including 15 across 10 states in the United States, two in Russia and one in Britain. Beside banks, financial software firms and one law firm were targeted.

The average amount of money stolen in each of 14 U.S. ATM heists was $500,000 per incident. Losses in Russia averaged $1.2 million per incident, but one bank there managed to catch the attack and return some of the stolen funds, Group-IB said.

Hackers also stole documentation for OceanSystems’ Fed Link transfer system used by 200 banks in Latin America and the United States, it said. In addition, they successfully attacked the Russian interbank messaging system known as AW CRB.

Once hackers penetrated targeted banks and financial organizations, they stole internal bank documentation in order to mount future ATM attacks, Group-IB said. In Russia, the hackers continued to spy on bank networks after break-ins, while at least one U.S. bank had documents robbed twice, it said.

Group-IB said it had notified Interpol and Europol in order to assist in law enforcement investigations.

The unidentified hackers used a mix of constantly changing tools and tactics to bypass anti virus and other traditional security software while being careful to eliminate traces of their operations, helping them to go largely unnoticed. To disguise their moves, hackers used security certificates from brands such as Bank of America, the Fed, Microsoft and Yahoo.

(Reporting by Eric Auchard; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Latin American nations seek Venezuela crisis mediation

President of Venezuela's National Constituent Assembly Delcy Rodriguez (3-L) talks to the media next to members of the Parlasur, the parliament of the Mercosur trade bloc, after their meeting in Caracas, Venezuela September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Jorge Pineda and Andrew Cawthorne

SANTO DOMINGO/CARACAS (Reuters) – Various Latin American nations will join an attempt to mediate Venezuela’s political crisis in new talks later this month, the president of the Dominican Republic said on Thursday.

Danilo Medina hosted high-level delegations from Venezuela’s feuding government and opposition for two days in the latest foreign-led effort to ease a standoff alarming the world.

“We advanced definition of an agenda on Venezuela’s big problems. A commission of friendly countries was agreed,” the Dominican leader told reporters, saying Mexico, Chile, Bolivia, Nicaragua would join the process with others to be announced.

The next talks would be held on Sept. 27, again in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo, he added.

Mexico and Chile have been bitterly critical of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government over rights and democracy issues, while fellow leftist-led Bolivia and Nicaragua are staunch allies.

Venezuelan’s government is eager to ease foreign censure of and its delegates came out of Thursday’s talks smiling.

“A dialogue of peace is being installed so that Venezuela can resolve its affairs among Venezuelans,” senior Socialist Party official Jorge Rodriguez told reporters.

Earlier, opposition leaders, who faced a backlash from supporters after failed talks with Maduro last year, insisted they had only traveled to push long-standing demands, including a presidential election and the release of jailed activists.

Decrying Maduro as a “dictator” who has wrecked the OPEC member’s once-prosperous economy, Venezuelan opposition leaders led street protests earlier this year seeking his removal that led to the deaths of at least 125 people.

Maduro says they were seeking a coup with U.S. connivance.

Though both sides met the Dominican president this week, it was unclear if they had also sat down and talked together.

In a statement after Thursday’s meetings, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition said it had accepted an invitation by Medina and the United Nations to an “exploratory meeting” in the hope of advancing Maduro’s exit by constitutional means.

“Only through democratic and non-violent change will it be possible to overcome the current social and economic tragedy afflicting all Venezuelans,” it said.

The coalition said six countries would be acting as guarantors, and any final accord must include a date for a presidential vote, reform of the national electoral board, release of political prisoners, and emergency humanitarian aid.

Any agreement should go to a referendum, it added.

The government delegation included Delcy Rodriguez, leader of Venezuela’s all-powerful and pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly whose creation brought widespread foreign condemnation as it overrides the existing opposition-led congress.

The opposition delegation was led by Julio Borges, head of that congress, fresh from a trip to Europe where he was received by the leaders of Germany, France and Spain.

Maduro routinely calls for dialogue, but his adversaries suspect he may use talks as a stalling tactic to help his image without producing concrete results. A dialogue brokered by former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and the Vatican in 2016 did nothing to advance opposition demands.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Latin America to tackle dual problems of hunger and obesity

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Latin American governments have pledged to work toward ending hunger within a decade while tackling an epidemic of rising obesity in the region – itself considered a form of malnutrition.

At a regional meeting of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), government representatives from across Latin American and the Caribbean drew up plans to accelerate cuts in hunger, which has halved in the region in the last 25 years.

At the same time, far more attention needs to be paid to combating obesity, particularly among women, in a region where nearly a quarter of all adults are obese, the FAO said.

“Countries have been very clear: the regional priority is to eradicate hunger by 2025,” Jose Graziano da Silva, head of the FAO said at the meeting in Mexico City which ended on Thursday.

Efforts to combat hunger will focus on Central America’s “dry corridor” running through Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where millions of people have been affected by a prolonged drought exacerbated by climate change.

“Today, climate change has caused those droughts to be more erratic, prolonged and unpredictable,” Graziano da Silva said.

He said Latin America and the Caribbean can be the first region to achieve two of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals – eradicating hunger and poverty – five years before the proposed target dates of 2030.

Since 1991, the number of hungry people in Latin America and the Caribbean has halved to 34 million from 66 million and the region was the only one that met the U.N. Millennium Development Goals on reducing hunger by 2015, the FAO says.

Aid in the form of conditional cash transfers targeting poor families, pioneered by some of the region’s biggest economies, including Brazil, have meant people have had more money to spend on food.

But changing diets have triggered a rising tide of obesity, with nearly a third of women and four million children now obese in the region.

Programmes aimed at making it easier for family farmers to access credit, insurance, seeds and fertilizers, to encourage them to grow traditional food crops are one way of addressing the problem, Graziano da Silva said.

“The rescue of the region’s traditional crops and food products will allow to promote better diets and face the double burden of malnutrition,” he said.

Initiatives that encourage local governments to buy produce directly from farmers to provide healthy food for school meals, already well-established and hailed as a success in Brazil, will be promoted across Latin America, the FAO said.

The agency said more needs to be done to help subsistence farmers adjust to the impact of climate change, which brings increasing extreme and erratic weather from drought to flooding.

Latin America’s agricultural sector lost $11 billion due to natural disasters between 2003 and 2013, the FAO said.

Efforts must also focus on sustainable fishing by states signing an International Agreement on Port State Measures, which seeks to combat illegal fishing. Three more countries need to ratify the agreement for it to come into effect, the FAO said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney, editing by Ros Russell)