Global coronavirus cases surpass 5 million, infections rising in South America

By Lisa Shumaker and Cate Cadell

(Reuters) – Global coronavirus cases surpassed 5 million on Wednesday, with Latin America overtaking the United States and Europe in the past week to report the largest portion of new daily cases globally.

It represents a new phase in the virus’ spread, which initially peaked in China in February before large-scale outbreaks followed in Europe and the United States.

Latin America accounted for around a third of the 91,000 cases reported earlier this week. Europe and the United States each accounted for just over 20%.

A large number of those new cases came from Brazil, which recently surpassed Germany, France and the United Kingdom to become the third-largest outbreak in the world, behind the United States and Russia.

Cases in Brazil are now rising at a daily pace second only to the United States.

The first 41 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 10 and it took the world until April 1 to reach its first million cases. Since then, about 1 million new cases are reported every two weeks, according to a Reuters tally.

At more than 5 million cases, the virus has infected more people in under six months than the annual total of severe flu cases, which the World Health Organization estimates is around 3 million to 5 million globally.

The pandemic has claimed over 326,000 lives, though the true number is thought to be higher as testing is still limited and many countries do not include fatalities outside of hospitals. Over half of the total fatalities have been recorded in Europe.

Despite the continued increase in cases, many countries are opening schools and workplaces following weeks of lockdown that have stemmed the spread.

Financial markets have also been boosted slightly by promising early results from the first U.S. vaccine trial in humans.

(Reporting by Lisa Shumaker and Cate Cadell; editing by Jane Wardell)

‘Dengue kills too’ – Latin America faces two epidemics at once

By Oliver Griffin

BOGOTA (Reuters) – As the coronavirus kills thousands and dominates government attention across Latin America, another deadly viral infection is quietly stalking the region.

Dengue – colloquially called breakbone fever for the severe joint pain it causes – is endemic in much of Latin America, but COVID-19’s arrival has pulled crucial attention and resources away from the fight against it, doctors and officials say.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) expects 2020 to be marked by high rates of dengue, which can fill intensive care units and kill patients even absent the pressures of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Around the world, COVID-19 has affected other diseases in different ways. Though in Europe measures to stop the coronavirus have banished seasonal flu, in Africa border closures have stopped transportation of measles vaccines and other supplies.

In Latin America, a dengue epidemic that started in late 2018 is still being felt. Dengue infections in the Americas surged to an all-time high of 3.1 million in 2019, with over 1,500 deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the PAHO.

Cases of the disease should begin to decline in the second half of the year, the organization said.

Spread by mosquitoes, dengue outbreaks typically occur three to five years after the previous epidemic.

And with four strains of dengue in circulation, people may catch it more than once, with second cases more likely to be severe.

“COVID is the star right now, so all of the attention is being put on COVID, but there are still problems with dengue,” said Doctor Jaime Gomez, who works at a hospital in Floridablanca, in Colombia’s Santander province.

Although dengue is not usually fatal and can be treated with painkillers, some sufferers deal with persistent symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, and depression that affect their ability to work. Severe dengue is treated with intravenous fluids and those who do not get tested are at risk of dangerous complications.

Such medical intervention cannot be given if patients stay home, worried about contracting the coronavirus, or if overcrowded hospitals have to turn them away.

With relatively few cases of COVID-19 in the province where he works, Gomez said his clinic had seen hospitalizations fall by half, as people were fearful of venturing outdoors.

‘SYSTEM HAS COLLAPSED’

Paraguayan lawyer Sonia Fernandez avoided seeking care when she and her two daughters, ages 11 and 8, got sick with dengue at the beginning of April.

“All three of us had dengue, we had all the symptoms, the pain, the rash, but we didn’t go to a clinic or a health center so as not to expose ourselves (to COVID-19),” Fernandez said.

All three have since recovered.

Dengue cases in Paraguay have exploded this year. In the first 18 weeks of 2020, the country reported 42,710 confirmed cases and 64 deaths, compared to 384 confirmed cases and six deaths in the year-earlier period.

In Ecuador, where the coronavirus outbreak has hit hard and hospitals in the largest city of Guayaquil been overwhelmed, an apparent fall in the number of dengue cases could mask other issues.

According to Ecuador’s health ministry, dengue cases peaked at 888 in the week ending March 14, two weeks after the country confirmed its first case of COVID-19. For the week of April 4, they fell to 257.

“Very clearly dengue is being under-reported,” said Esteban Ortiz, global health researcher at Quito’s University of the Americas.

“Cases haven’t decreased, the diagnosis of cases has decreased, which confirms the system has totally collapsed,” he added.

Ecuador’s health ministry said in a statement that the country was no more exposed to the double impact of COVID-19 and dengue than any other in the region, adding it has sufficient supplies to treat cases of the mosquito-borne disease.

Dengue has also spiked sharply in Central America. Cases in Costa Rica nearly tripled through May 1 compared with a year ago, to over 2,000.

“We are going through a difficult moment dealing with COVID-19 but unfortunately other diseases continue their cycle,” Rodrigo Marin, director of Costa Rica’s health surveillance agency, recently told journalists.

In Panama, where dengue has caused at least two deaths this year, Panama City health official Yamileth Lopez also sounded the alarm in an interview with Reuters.

“Dengue kills too,” she said.

(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; additional reporting by Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Alvaro Murillo in San Jose and Elida Moreno in Panama City; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. dream pulls African migrants in record numbers across Latin America

FILE PHOTO: A migrant from Cameroon holds his baby while trying to enter the Siglo XXI immigrant detention center to request humanitarian visas, issued by the Mexican government, to cross the country towards the United States, in Tapachula, Mexico June 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Torres/File Photo

By Daina Beth Solomon

TAPACHULA, Mexico (Reuters) – Marilyne Tatang, 23, crossed nine borders in two months to reach Mexico from the West African nation of Cameroon, fleeing political violence after police torched her house, she said.

She plans to soon take a bus north for four days and then cross a tenth border, into the United States. She is not alone – a record number of fellow Africans are flying to South America and then traversing thousands of miles of highway and a treacherous tropical rainforest to reach the United States.

Tatang, who is eight months pregnant, took a raft across a river into Mexico on June 8, a day after Mexico struck a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump to do more to control the biggest flows of migrants heading north to the U.S. border in more than a decade.

The migrants vying for entry at the U.S. southern border are mainly Central Americans. But growing numbers from a handful of African countries are joining them, prompting calls from Trump and Mexico for other countries in Latin America to do their part to slow the overall flood of migrants.

As more Africans learn from relatives and friends who have made the trip that crossing Latin America to the United States is tough but not impossible, more are making the journey, and in turn are helping others follow in their footsteps, migration experts say.

Trump’s threats to clamp down on migrants have ricocheted around the globe, paradoxically spurring some to exploit what they see as a narrowing window of opportunity, said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“This message is being heard not just in Central America, but in other parts of the world,” she said.

Data from Mexico’s interior ministry suggests that migration from Africa this year will break records.

The number of Africans registered by Mexican authorities tripled in the first four months of 2019 compared with the same period a year ago, reaching about 1,900 people, mostly from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which remains deeply unstable years after the end of a bloody regional conflict with its neighbors that led to the deaths of millions of people.

‘THEY WOULD HAVE KILLED ME’

Tatang, a grade school teacher, said she left northwest Cameroon due to worsening violence in the English-speaking region, where separatists are battling the mostly French-speaking government for autonomy.

“It was so bad that they burned the house where I was living … they would have killed me,” she said, referring to government forces who tried to capture her.

At first, Tatang planned only to cross the border into Nigeria. Then she heard that some people had made it to the United States.

“Someone would say, ‘You can do this,'” she said. ‘So I asked if it was possible for someone like me too, because I’m pregnant. They said, ‘Do this, do that.'”

Tatang begged her family for money for the journey, which she said so far has cost $5,000.

She said her route began with a flight to Ecuador, where Cameroonians don’t need visas. Tatang went by bus and on foot through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala until reaching Mexico.

She was still deciding what to do once she got to Mexico’s northern border city of Tijuana, she said, cradling her belly while seated on a concrete bench outside migration offices in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula.

“I will just ask,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘When I get there, I will do this.’ I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”

Reuters spoke recently with five migrants in Tapachula who were from Cameroon, DRC and Angola. Several said they traveled to Brazil as a jumping-off point.

They were a small sampling of the hundreds of people – including Haitians, Cubans, Indians and Bangladeshis – clustered outside migration offices.

Political volatility in Cameroon and the DRC in recent years has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

People from the DRC made up the third largest group of new refugees globally last year with about 123,000 people, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, while Cameroon’s internally displaced population grew by 447,000 people.

The number of undocumented African migrants found by authorities in Mexico quadrupled compared to five years ago, reaching nearly 3,000 people in 2018.

Most obtain a visa that allows them free passage through Mexico for 20 days, after which they cross into the United States and ask for asylum.

Few choose to seek asylum in Mexico, in part because they don’t speak Spanish. Tatang said the language barrier was especially frustrating because she speaks only English, making communication difficult both with Mexican migration officials and even other Africans, such as migrants from DRC who speak primarily French.

Those who reach the United States often send advice back home, helping make the journey easier for others, said Florence Kim, spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in West and Central Africa.

Like their Central American migrant counterparts, some Africans are also showing up with families hoping for easier entries than as individuals, said Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute.

U.S. data shows a huge spike in the number of families from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at the U.S. southern border. Between last October and May 16,000 members of families were registered, up from 1,000 for the whole of 2018, according to an analysis by the MPI.

REGIONAL APPROACH

The grueling Latin America trek forces migrants to spend at least a week trudging across swampland and hiking through mountainous rainforests in the lawless Darien Gap that is the only link between Panama and Colombia.

Still, the route has a key advantage: Countries in the region typically do not deport migrants from other continents due in part to the steep costs and lack of repatriation agreements with their home countries.

That relaxed attitude could change, however.

Under a deal struck with United States last month, Mexico may start a process later this month to become a safe third country, making asylum seekers apply for refuge in Mexico and not the United States.

To lessen the load on Mexico, Mexico and the United States plan to put pressure on Central American nations to do more to prevent asylum seekers, including African migrants, from moving north.

For the moment, however, more Africans can be expected to attempt the journey, said IOM’s Kim.

“They want to do something with their life. They feel they lack a future in their country,” she said.

(The story adds dropped word “they” in final paragraph.)

(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon; Additional reporting by Paul Vieira; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

U.S. cracks down on transnational organized crime including Hezbollah: Sessions

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks to the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice Opioid Research Summit in Washington, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday said he had designated five groups, including Hezbollah and MS-13, as transnational criminal organizations to target with tougher investigations and prosecutions.

Sessions also said he had designated the Sinaloa Cartel, Clan de Golfo and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion for the crack down to be carried out by a special new task force.

A special team of “experienced international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and money laundering prosecutors” will investigate individuals and networks providing support to Hezbollah, Sessions said

Mostly active in Lebanon, Hezbollah was an outlier on the Attorney General’s list, which was otherwise focused on groups with ties to Latin America.

“With this new task force in place, our efforts will be more targeted and more effective than ever,” Sessions said, explaining that in 90 days task-force members will give him specific recommendations “to prosecute these groups and ultimately take them off of our streets.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Susan Thomas)

With Syria in focus, Trump cancels trip to Latin America

U.S. President Donald Trump receives a briefing from senior military leadership at the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to cancel his first official trip to Latin America this week to focus on responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, the White House said on Tuesday.

Trump had been scheduled to travel to Lima, Peru, on Friday to attend the Summit of the Americas and then travel on to Bogota, Colombia. The trip had been expected to be tense and awkward because of Trump’s repeated disparagement of the region over immigration, narcotics and trade.

His travel plans changed after a Saturday night attack on the Syrian town of Douma which killed at least 60 people and injured more than 1,000 others. Trump has vowed to make a swift decision to respond to what he called “atrocities.”

“At the president’s request, the vice president will travel in his stead. The president will remain in the United States to oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

Last year, Washington bombed a Syrian government air base after a chemical weapons attack. It was not yet clear what decision Trump will make in response to the latest attack. Syria and Russia have denied there was a chemical weapons attack and have proposed international inspections.

This will be the second trip to the region for Vice President Mike Pence. He met with leaders in Colombia, Argentina and Panama in August.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

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)