COVID-19 tests: Central America’s latest tool to stop migrant caravans

By Sofia Menchu and Lizbeth Diaz

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) – As the first groups from Central America headed toward the Guatemalan border on Thursday as part of a caravan aiming to reach the United States, regional governments are using coronavirus measures as the latest tool to curtail migration.

Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico issued a joint declaration this week imposing coordinated health measures to deter migration, including requirements to produce negative coronavirus tests at border checkpoints.

The tightening by Mexican and Central American authorities, coupled with pandemic-linked U.S. border restrictions in place since March, represent a sweeping effort to use public health regulations to deter movement along one of the world’s busiest migration routes at a time when a fierce second wave of coronavirus is sweeping the region.

In Mexico, the pandemic has killed nearly 137,000 people and the capital’s hospitals are spiking with COVID-19 cases.

This week’s caravan, slated to depart Honduras on Friday, would be the first of the year.

Yet, Central American and Mexican authorities are stepping up efforts to stop migrants well before the U.S. border, which will likely be a relief for Biden, whose aides have privately expressed concerns about the prospect of a growing numbers of migrants seeking to enter the United States in the early days of his administration.

On Thursday, Guatemala cited the pandemic in order to declare emergency powers in seven Guatemalan border provinces migrants frequently transit through en route to the Mexican border. The measures limit public demonstrations and allow authorities to disperse any public meeting, group or demonstration by force.

Honduras and Guatemala have also announced they will deploy thousands of soldiers to preemptively stop caravan members not complying with health regulations.

“We barely have food to eat, how do they think we are going to pay for these (coronavirus) tests?” said 29-year-old Ulises Santos from El Salvador, who is hoping to join the caravan.

Central America is reeling from economic crises, high rates of violence, and the devastating fallout of two major hurricanes that battered the region in November.

Migration experts say the public health measures are part of a broader effort by Central American and Mexican authorities, under pressure from Washington, to stop migrants before they reach U.S. territory.

“The U.S. border is moving further and further south,” said renowned Honduran human rights activist Ismael Moreno.

“The goal (of local police) is to stop migrants, whether through repression, threats, extortion, or requirements to present a COVID-19 test.”

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Sofia Menchu in Guatemala, additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Honduras, Jose Torres in Tapachula, Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Diane Craft)

Mexico publishes medicinal cannabis regulation, creating new market

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s health ministry on Tuesday published rules to regulate the use of medicinal cannabis, a major step in a broader reform to create the world’s largest legal cannabis market in the Latin American country.

The new regulation was signed off by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and will now allow pharmaceutical companies to begin doing medical research on cannabis products.

The cannabis reform taking place includes the recreational use of marijuana, and will create what would be the world’s biggest national cannabis market in terms of population.

The new medicinal rules state companies who wish to carry out research have to obtain permission from the Mexican health regulator, COFEPRIS, and this research has to be done in a strictly controlled and independent laboratories.

The regulation also sets rules for the sowing, cultivation and harvesting of cannabis for medicinal purposes, which would allow businesses to grow marijuana legally on Mexican soil.

Foreign weed companies from Canada and the United States have been looking at Mexico with interest. Many had delayed making investment decisions due to policy uncertainty and were waiting for the final regulation to be published.

Mexico’s lawmakers are also in the final stages of legalizing recreational use of marijuana, with the bill expected to pass in the next period of Congress.

The regulation comes several years after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers must legalize use of cannabis.

The legislation marks a major shift in a country bedeviled for years by violence between feuding drug cartels, which have long made millions of dollars growing marijuana illegally and smuggling it into the United States.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Additional reporting by Raul Cortes Fernandez; Editing by Dave Graham)

Support for abortion jumped in Mexico last year, survey finds

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Support for abortion rose sharply in Mexico in 2020, according to a poll published on Monday, as attitudes towards the issue shift across Latin America.

In Mexico, a majority Roman Catholic nation, elective abortion is allowed only in the capital and the state of Oaxaca, but a growing pro-choice movement has been calling for a loosening of restrictions.

At the end of November, support for abortion stood at 48% in a survey, published by the news organizations El Financiero and Nación321 – a steep rise from the 29% recorded in March.

The poll, based on telephone interviews with 410 participants, asked if respondents agreed that “the law should permit a woman the right to abortion.”

Although Latin America has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, Argentina legalized the procedure last month.

The move was a triumph for the women’s rights movement in a region where the Catholic Church has held cultural and political sway for centuries.

Several nations in Latin American ban abortion outright, including El Salvador, which has sentenced some women to up to 40 years in prison.

Until recently, only Communist Cuba and tiny Uruguay permitted elective abortions.

In most of Mexico, abortion is banned except under certain circumstances, such as rape. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has declined to take a position, saying wider legalization should be a matter for public consultation.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

U.S. extends restrictions at Mexico, Canada borders through Jan. 21

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least Jan. 21 with coronavirus cases spiking to record numbers across the country, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said on Friday.

Canada has shown little interest in lifting the restrictions as the virus runs rampant across the United States. U.S. officials had previously sought some revisions especially for restrictions impacting residents along the Canadian border.

The United States recorded more than 200,000 COVID-19 cases per day for four straight days, according to a Reuters tally of official data. The U.S. also reported a record 3,253 deaths on Wednesday.

The United States has reported about 15.6 million cases and 292,642 deaths since the start of the pandemic. By contrast, Canada has had about 442,000 confirmed cases with just over 13,100 deaths.

Statistics Canada said in October that August visits to Canada by car by U.S. travelers were down 95.7%, and the number of U.S. travelers to Canada by plane fell by 97.9%.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been considering lifting restrictions that ban most non-U.S. travelers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and the 26 countries in the so-called Schengen border-free area of Europe.

Reuters first reported on Nov. 25 the White House was considering rescinding the European and Brazilian entry bans.

The plan won the backing of White House coronavirus task-force members, public health and other federal agencies.

Trump may still opt not to lift the restrictions, given the high number of coronavirus infections in Europe. One potential hurdle is the fact that European countries are not likely to immediately allow most Americans to resume visits, officials said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bill Berkrot)

Caribbean resorts get starring role in U.S airlines’ COVID-19 holiday playbook

By Tracy Rucinski

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. airlines are adding flights, and in some cases COVID-19 testing programs, for travel to Mexico and the Caribbean, a region central to carriers’ strategies to tap into pockets of holiday demand before a vaccine makes its way around the world.

Beachside resort destinations in areas like Cancun are the only spots that now have more flights from U.S. cities scheduled for November and December than last year, numbers from aviation data firm Cirium show.

Overall, U.S. airlines are flying about 50% less than 2019, with flights to traditional European vacation hotspots like Paris down by as much as 82% due to travel bans and quarantines.

While new revenue streams from destinations like the Caribbean will help, they won’t be enough to put airlines in the black for the year, analysts have said.

The holiday period is traditionally when airlines thrive ahead of slow months in January and February. But this year they have said they will continue to burn millions of dollars daily through the fourth quarter as they wrestle with slashed demand.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, U.S. airports saw their busiest weekend since mid-March, even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged Americans not to travel amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Still, demand is down by around 60% and airlines say it’s too soon to know how Christmas travel will play out.

Still, airlines are hoping to build up a base of customers who feel comfortable about flying before a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, eyeing the typically lucrative summer travel season.

More studies, including from the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, have said the risk of COVID-19 transmission in flight is low if people wear masks.

Recent positive vaccine developments have helped reassure investors that U.S. airlines can make it through the crisis. Sector shares rose 4% on Monday and are up 23% for the month.

But the speed and depth of their recovery, particularly from higher-margin business and international travel, will determine how they cut piles of debt they took on to weather the crisis.

Airlines are trying to reboot overseas travel through bilateral bubbles – deals between countries on COVID-19 testing protocols that would replace or reduce quarantines – though programs have been slow to take off.

United Airlines last week launched a free rapid COVID-19 testing program between Newark Liberty International and London Heathrow airports, and on Monday said it was rolling out a test program for flights from U.S. energy capital Houston, Texas to 10 places in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Starting Dec. 7, passengers can take the self-collected, mail-in test 72 hours before departure for $119 to meet entry requirements at their destination.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

U.S. travel restrictions at Canada, Mexico borders set to be extended until Dec. 21 — official

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States’ land borders with Canada and Mexico are expected to remain closed to non-essential travel until Dec. 21 at the earliest amid a rising number of U.S. coronavirus cases, a Homeland Security Department official told Reuters.

The current restrictions expire on Saturday and the three countries are expected to approve another 30-day extension, the official said on Wednesday. The United States leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The restrictions were first put in place in March to control the spread of COVID-19.

Canada’s CTV News also reported that the travel restrictions in place at the Canada-U.S. land border were expected to remain in effect for at least another month.

The DHS official told Reuters the agency was “continuing to look at appropriate public health criteria for a future re-evaluation of existing restrictions.”

The restrictions are particularly painful for U.S. and Canadian towns along the border that are tightly intertwined.

Statistics Canada said earlier that U.S. visits to Canada by automobile had plummeted by more than 95% in August from August 2019.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

U.S. drops drug case against Mexican ex-defense minister

By Jonathan Stempel and Daina Beth Solomon

NEW YORK/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – A federal judge on Wednesday granted a U.S. government request to drop drug charges against former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, a move Mexico said would restore trust in severely strained security cooperation ties.

U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon granted the request at a hearing in Brooklyn, New York after Tuesday’s abrupt announcement by U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Mexico Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero that the U.S. case would end.

“Although these are very serious charges against a very significant figure, and the old adage ‘a bird in the hand’ comes to mind, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the government’s decision,” the judge said at the hearing.

Cienfuegos, 72, served as Mexico’s defense minister from 2012 to 2018 under former President Enrique Pena Nieto, and the case prompted the current government to threaten a review of agreements allowing U.S. agents to operate in Mexico.

Seth DuCharme, the Acting U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn, said his office “stands behind its case” against Cienfuegos, but that its interest in the prosecution was outweighed by the “broader interest” in maintaining cooperation between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement authorities.

Appearing in the court, Cienfuegos said he was in agreement with the request to drop charges.

Cienfuegos has signed a removal agreement that would allow his return to Mexico, his lawyer Edward Sapone said. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcel Ebrard said the retired army general could be flown back within days.

Cienfuegos was arrested last month in Los Angeles International Airport, becoming the first Mexican former defense official taken into U.S. custody for drug-related corruption at home. He pleaded not guilty to drug and money laundering conspiracy charges.

But U.S. prosecutors said “sensitive and important foreign policy considerations” now outweighed the U.S. government’s interest in continuing to prosecute Cienfuegos, and therefore their case against him should be dismissed.

Ebrard said the arrest had damaged the trust needed for bilateral cooperation fighting drug gangs. He celebrated the decision to drop the case and said it laid a foundation for future cooperation.

Cienfuegos has not been charged in Mexico and faces no arrest warrant there. The Mexican government said its case was based entirely on evidence provided by the United States.

Cienfuegos will return to Mexico as a free man, Ebrard said, adding that the attorney general’s office was studying the U.S. evidence and would decide next steps.

U.S. prosecutors accused Cienfuegos of abusing the power of his office to protect a faction of the Beltran-Leyva cartel, while ordering operations against rival gangs.

While in office, Cienfuegos had worked closely with U.S. counterparts on cross-border criminal matters and was a leading Mexican figure fighting that country’s drug war.

His arrest, which Mexico had not been warned about, shocked Mexico’s security establishment, where Cienfuegos has maintained close ties.

Following the arrest, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador questioned the work of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in the country, saying they had been close to Cienfuegos for years.

The case set off a flurry of frantic calls between Barr, DEA Acting Administrator Timothy Shea, and Mexican officials to calm tensions.

In a statement on Tuesday, Barr and Gertz said the U.S. Department of Justice provided evidence it has gathered to Mexican authorities, and would support their probe.

Cienfuegos’ arrest came 10 months after U.S. prosecutors charged Mexico’s former top public security chief, Genaro Garcia Luna, with taking bribes to protect the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Garcia Luna has pleaded not guilty.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Mexico vows purge after ex-defense chief arrested in U.S.

By Diego Oré and Frank Jack Daniel

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s president on Friday promised to clean up the armed forces but backed its current leadership after the arrest of a former defense minister on U.S drug charges, which he called evidence some of his predecessors were “mafiosi.”

The stunning detention in Los Angeles of Salvador Cienfuegos, defense minister until 2018, took Mexico’s security establishment by surprise, senior federal sources said. U.S. authorities did not warn their counterparts of the operation.

The fall of Cienfuegos marks the first time a former defense minister has been arrested, and will have far reaching implications for Mexico’s drug war, which has been led by the armed forces for more than a decade.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador pledged to suspend anyone inside his government implicated in the charges

“We won’t cover up for anybody,” he said, before voicing fulsome support for Cienfuegos’ successor at the head of the army and his counterpart in the navy, noting that he had personally vetted them for honesty.

Under Lopez Obrador, the armed forces have taken on more responsibility, including establishing a militarized national police force, overseeing port security and working on infrastructure projects.

The arrest comes less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election. President Donald Trump, seeking a second term, has made clamping down on drug cartels a priority, though without major progress since he took office in 2017.

Some Mexican officials were privately shocked at the detention of Cienfuegos in Los Angeles airport, worrying it was an unprecedented U.S. intervention against a symbol of Mexican national security.

“It was totally unexpected, I never saw this coming, never, never,” said a senior police source.

Lopez Obrador quickly incorporated the arrest into his narrative that predecessors had presided over a debilitating increase in corruption in Mexico, which for years has been convulsed by often horrific levels of drug gang violence.

“If we’re not talking about a narco state, one can certainly talk about a narco government, and without doubt, about a government of mafiosi,” Lopez Obrador said.

“We’re cleaning up, purifying public life.”

‘WE’RE CLEANING UP’

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said he had received word from the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles that Cienfuegos, 72, was facing five counts of drug charges and would be transferred from Los Angeles to New York. Sources earlier told Reuters that one of the charges related to money laundering.

Lopez Obrador said he only heard about the arrest after the event, though he noted that Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Martha Barcena, had informed him about two weeks ago that there was talk of an investigation involving Cienfuegos.

There had been no open probe in Mexico on Cienfuegos and his arrest was linked to the case against Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s security minister from 2006-2012, who Lopez Obrador said.

Garcia Luna is on trial in New York charged with accepting millions of dollars in bribes from captured kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, which he was meant to fight.

Like Garcia Luna, Cienfuegos had been a major figure in Mexico’s drug war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the past two decades.

Under Cienfuegos, the army was accused of extrajudicial killings, including the June 2014 Tlatlaya massacre in central Mexico, where 22 drug gang members were shot dead.

A tall, imposing man, Cienfuegos fought to shield the army from potentially embarrassing investigations.

They included the kidnapping and suspected massacre of 43 student teachers in September 2014 in the city of Iguala by drug gang members in cahoots with corrupt police. Last month arrest warrants were issued in Mexico for soldiers linked to the case.

Mexico’s armed forces are generally perceived as less prone to corruption than the police. However, that image has been gradually corroded since former president Felipe Calderon first sent in the military to fight the gangs at the end of 2006.

(Reporting by Dave Graham, Diego Oré, Frank Jack Daniel and Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Tom Brown)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Biden rejects Trump claim that vaccine is imminent

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Thursday bluntly contradicted President Donald Trump’s suggestion that a coronavirus vaccine may be only weeks away, warning Americans they cannot trust the president’s word.

“The idea that there’s going to be a vaccine and everything’s gonna be fine tomorrow – it’s just not rational,” Biden said during a CNN town hall in Moosic, Pennsylvania.

Trump again said on Wednesday that a vaccine for COVID-19 could be ready for distribution ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Most health experts, including Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have said a vaccine will likely not be widely available until mid-2021.

Israel imposes second lockdown

Israel will enter a second nationwide lockdown on Friday at the onset of the Jewish high-holiday season, forcing residents to stay mostly at home amid a resurgence in new coronavirus cases.

The country’s initial lockdown was imposed in late March and eased in May as new cases tapered off, reaching lows in the single digits.

But in the past week, new cases have reached daily highs of over 5,000, and Israeli leaders now acknowledge they lifted measures too soon.

The new lockdown will last three weeks and coincides with the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, traditionally a time for large family gatherings and group prayer.

UK COVID hospital admissions double every eight days

Britain’s health minister said that the novel coronavirus was accelerating across the country, with hospital admissions doubling every eight days, but he refused to say if another national lockdown would be imposed next month.

The United Kingdom has reported the fifth-highest number of deaths from COVID-19 in the world after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University of Medicine.

COVID-19 cases started to rise again in Britain in September, with between 3,000 and 4,000 positive tests recorded daily in the last week. More than 10 million people are already in local lockdowns.

China reports highest new cases since Aug. 10

Mainland China reported 32 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, marking the highest daily increase in more than a month and up sharply from nine cases reported a day earlier.

Although the latest increase still remains well below the peaks seen at the height of the outbreak in China early this year, it is the biggest since Aug. 10 and suggests continued COVID-19 risks stemming from overseas travelers coming into the country as the pandemic rages on in other parts of the world.

The National Health Commission said that all new cases were imported infections. Mainland China has not reported any local COVID-19 infections since mid-August.

Canada’s Ontario clamps down on parties

Canada’s most populous province will clamp down on social gatherings to prevent “reckless careless people” from spreading the coronavirus at illegal parties, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Thursday.

His warning came as the nation’s top medical officer said authorities could potentially lose the ability to manage the pandemic.

Indoor social events in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city – along with Ontario’s Peel and Ottawa regions – would be authorized to include no more than 10 people, down from a previous limit of 50, Ford said.

“This is a serious situation, folks. We will throw the book at you if you break the rules,” he told a news conference.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Latin American nations seek more time to join WHO vaccine plan

By Anthony Boadle

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Several Latin American countries have informed the World Health Organization (WHO) they intend to request more time to sign up for its global COVID-19 vaccine allocation plan known as COVAX, an official at the WHO’s regional branch said on Thursday.

Countries have until midnight on Friday to formalize legally binding commitments to COVAX, a mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of eventual vaccines.

A representative for the GAVI Alliance, the COVAX secretariat, said by email that details of which nations have joined COVAX will only be made public after the deadline.

Health officials in Mexico, which has the worst outbreak in Latin America after Brazil, said their country would sign the commitment on time. Brazil, which has the world’s most severe outbreak outside the United States and India, was still studying what to do, a ministry spokesperson said.

More than 170 countries have joined the global vaccine plan to help buy and distribute immunization shots for COVID-19 fairly around the world, WHO’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.

Jarbas Barbosa, assistant director of the Pan-American Health Organization, said in a briefing on Wednesday that Latin American countries were having trouble meeting the deadline and some wanted to push back the date.

Barbosa said all countries in the Americas except the United States had expressed interest in the vaccine facility, even those that have separate agreements with vaccine makers, because it gives them an added guarantee of access to doses.

Ten Latin American countries are among 90 poor nations in the world that will not have to pay for the vaccine, while the others in the region will pay an “accessible” price through COVAX, Barbosa said.

Colombian President Ivan Duque confirmed on Wednesday that his government was joining COVAX and Paraguay’s health ministry said it has already signed, even as it plans to buy the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca PLC and Oxford University.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia, Diego Ore in Mexico City, Julia Cobb in Bogotá, Daniela Desantis in Asunción; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Chizu Nomiyama)