Daughter’s murder led activist to hunt for Mexico’s disappeared

By Christine Murray

(Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When a worried parent calls for help finding a missing child, Norma Ledezma says she often immediately has a sense of whether they are likely to be found alive.

Seventeen years after her daughter Paloma disappeared in northern Mexico, Ledezma has helped hundreds of families cope with the psychological and legal aftermath such cases, and experience has taught her how to react.

“You have to learn to understand human behavior, the victim’s environment, the possible perpetrator’s environment,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We’ve found a lot dead and unfortunately most are still missing, that’s the reality.”

The former factory worker, who left school at 11 but has completed a law degree since becoming a campaigner, is one of three finalists for the 2020 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.

The 53-year-old founded her organization Justice for our Daughters in 2002 and has had some success.

She succeeded in getting the government to name a justice center for women was named after Paloma, who was 16 when she went missing. She has also helped locate some victims alive, including several who were being trafficked.

Most, however, are never found.

Mexico’s president has promised justice for the more than 40,000 people who disappeared in the country, many in the last decade of corruption and violence fuelled by drug gangs.

But civil society groups have said the government is yet to implement the measures it promised.

They have often stepped in to do the job of authorities – particularly where investigators are unwilling or unable to take on organized crime.

Collectives of mothers who have lost children have scoured the Mexican countryside armed with shovels following tips of where mass graves might hold their loved ones.

About one in four of those listed as missing are women, though the government said earlier this year it was reviewing the data.

Ledezma said the government had no strategy to fix the issue.

The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier this year it said it would allow the United Nations to review reports on cases of disappearances.

Paloma left the house for school in March 2002 and never came home. Her killer was never found.

When her body was found, authorities did not run DNA tests on her, instead relying on clothing samples and the color of her nail polish. Ledezma could not bring herself to go into the room where her body lay.

“I saw very concretely, very clearly the impunity and the lack of justice…that unfortunately is still missing in Chihuahua and Mexico,” she said.

It was on the day of Paloma’s funeral that Ledezma decided to help those who seek justice for similar cases and she has pressed on despite threats from organized criminals.

“I haven’t left the country because I have a debt to my daughter… I’ll be here until the last day”, she said.

The 2020 Martin Ennals Award, named after the British activist who ran Amnesty International, will be given to one of the three finalists on Feb. 19 in Geneva.

(Reporting by Christine Murray, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Powerful typhoon kills two, snarls transport for thousands in Japan

Almost empty Kansai International Airport is seen after being shut down the service due to Typhoon Trami in Izumisano, Osaka prefecture, western Japan, in this photo taken by Kyodo September 30, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) – A powerful typhoon brought down trees onto railroad tracks and kicked up debris across Tokyo as it brushed past the Japanese capital early on Monday, killing two people and stranding thousands as train lines were closed or severely delayed.

Typhoon Trami made landfall in western Japan on Sunday evening and threatened heavy rains, strong winds and landslides on the northern-most main island of Hokkaido, the Japan Meteorological Agency said. The island was hit by a deadly earthquake last month.

The typhoon, rated by Tropical Storm Risk as a category 1, the lowest on a five-point scale, killed two people and injured almost 130, public broadcaster NHK said.

Another two people were missing, it said, and almost 400,000 households were without power.

Aerial footage on NHK showed hundreds of people waiting outside train stations, with several major commuter lines closed since Sunday. More than 230 flights were canceled, mainly in northern Japan, NHK said.

Kansai International Airport in Osaka in western Japan said it had opened its runways as scheduled at 6 a.m. (2100 GMT Sunday), after being closed since 11 a.m. on Sunday.

The airport had only fully reopened on Sept. 21 after being heavily flooded earlier that month by Typhoon Jebi, the most powerful storm to hit Japan in 25 years.

(Reporting by Tokyo Newsroom; Writing by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Paul Tait)

Vietnam braces for typhoon as Philippine toll rises to 230 dead

Vietnamese residents are seen at an evacuation center before Tempin storm hits the land in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam December 25, 2017.

By Mi Nguyen and Manuel Mogato

HANOI/MANILA (Reuters) – Authorities in Vietnam prepared to move a million people from low-lying areas along the south coast on Monday as a typhoon approached after it battered the Philippines with floods and landslides that killed more than 230 people.

Typhoon Tembin is expected to slam into Vietnam late on Monday after bringing misery to the predominantly Christian Philippines just before Christmas.

Vietnam’s disaster prevention committee said 74,000 people had been moved to safety from vulnerable areas, while authorities in 15 provinces and cities were prepared to move more than 1 million.

The government ordered that oil rigs and vessels be protected and it warned that about 62,000 fishing boats should not venture out to sea.

“Vietnam must ensure the safety of its oil rigs and vessels. If necessary, close the oil rigs and evacuate workers,” Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was quoted as saying on a government website.

Schools were ordered to close in the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City on Monday, a working day in Vietnam.

On Sunday, Tembin hit the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, parts of which are contested by several countries, including Vietnam and China.

No casualties were reported in outposts there.

Vietnam, like the Philippines, is regularly battered by typhoons that form over the warm waters of the Pacific and barrel westwards into land.

Tembin will be the 16th major storm to hit Vietnam this year. The storms and other disasters have left 390 people dead or missing, according to official figures.

SCORES MISSING

In the Philippines, rescue workers were still struggling to reach some remote areas hit by floods and landslides that Tembin’s downpours brought, as the death toll climbed to more than 230. Scores of people are missing.

The full extent of the devastation was only becoming clear as the most remote areas were being reached.

Health worker Arturo Simbajon said nearly the entire coastal village of Anungan on the Zamboanga peninsula of Mindanao island had been wiped out by a barrage of broken logs, boulders and mud that swept down a river and out to sea.

“Only the mosque was left standing,” Simbajon said.

“People were watching the rising sea but did not expect the water to come from behind them.”

Manuel Luis Ochotorena, head of regional disaster agency, said he expected the death toll to rise.

“Many areas in Zamboanga peninsula are still without power and communications, some towns are cut off due to collapsed bridges, floods and landslides,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people on Mindanao have been displaced by the storm, which struck late on Friday.

The Philippines is battered by about 20 typhoons a year and warnings are routinely issued.

But disaster officials said many villagers had ignored warnings this time to get out coastal areas and move away from riverbanks.

In 2013, super typhoon Haiyan killed nearly 8,000 people and left 200,000 families homeless in the central Philippines.

(This version of the story was refiled to fix spelling in paragraph two)

(Reporting by Mi Nguyen; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Robert Birsel)

Schumer calls on Trump to appoint official to oversee Puerto Rico relief

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) departs after a full-Senate briefing by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Charles Schumer, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, called on President Donald Trump on Sunday to name a single official to oversee and coordinate relief efforts in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Schumer, along with Representatives Nydia Velàzquez and Jose Serrano, said a “CEO of response and recovery” is needed to manage the complex and ongoing federal response in the territory, where millions of Americans remain without power and supplies.

In a statement, Schumer said the current federal response to Hurricane Maria’s impact on the island had been “disorganized, slow-footed and mismanaged.”

“This person will have the ability to bring all the federal agencies together, cut red tape on the public and private side, help turn the lights back on, get clean water flowing and help bring about recovery for millions of Americans who have gone too long in some of the worst conditions,” he said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Democrats contended that naming a lone individual to manage the government’s relief efforts was critical, particularly given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is already stretched thin from dealing with other crises, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the wildfires in California.

The severity of the Puerto Rico crisis, where a million people do not have clean water and millions are without power nearly a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, demand a single person to focus exclusively on relief and recovery, the Democrats said.

Forty-nine people have died in Puerto Rico officially, with dozens more missing. The hurricane did extensive damage to the island’s power grid, destroying homes, roads and other vital infrastructure. Now, the bankrupt territory is struggling to provide basic services like running water, and pay its bills.

“It’s tragically clear this Administration was caught flat footed when Maria hit Puerto Rico,” said Velàzquez. “Appointing a CEO of Response and Recovery will, at last, put one person with authority in charge to manage the response and ensure we are finally getting the people of Puerto Rico the aid they need.”

On Thursday, Trump said the federal response has been a “10” on a scale of one to 10 at a meeting with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello.

The governor has asked the White House and Congress for at least $4.6 billion in block grants and other types of funding.

Senator Marco Rubio called on Congress to modify an $18.7 billion aid package for areas damaged by a recent swath of hurricanes to ensure that Puerto Rico can quickly access the funds.

 

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Diane Craft)

 

U.S. Navy recovers second body in search for sailors missing after collision

The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain is seen after a collision. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – U.S Navy and Marine Corps divers have recovered and identified a second body in the search for ten sailors missing after a collision between a guided-missile destroyer and merchant vessel near Singapore earlier this week, the U.S. Navy said on Friday.

The USS John S. McCain collided with the merchant tanker in waters near Singapore and Malaysia on Monday, which led to an international search-and-rescue operation for the missing sailors. The navy recovered the first body from inside the hull of the warship earlier this week.

“More divers and equipment arrived overnight to continue search and recovery operations for eight missing sailors inside flooded compartments of the ship,” the U.S. Seventh Fleet said in statement on its website.

On Thursday, the U.S. Navy suspended the wider search and rescue operation to focus recovery efforts on the damaged hull of the ship, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base.

The Navy has already released the names of all the sailors who were missing.

(Reporting by Sam Holmes; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

U.S. Navy suspends sea search efforts for missing USS McCain sailors

Royal Malaysian Navy personnel carry a body onto their ship during a search and rescue operation for survivors of the USS John McCain ship collision in Malaysian waters in this undated handout released August 22, 2017. Royal Malaysian Navy Handout via REUTERS

By Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The U.S. Navy on Thursday suspended wider search and rescue operations for sailors missing after the warship USS John S. McCain collided with a merchant vessel in waters near Singapore and Malaysia earlier this week.

A statement on the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s website confirmed the identities of one sailor killed and of nine sailors still missing following the collision.

U.S. Navy and Marine Corps divers will continue search-and-recovery efforts inside flooded sailors, the statement said.

“After more than 80 hours of multinational search efforts, the U.S. Navy suspended search and rescue efforts for missing USS John S. McCain sailors in an approximately 2,100-square mile area east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore,” it said.

An international search-and-rescue operation involving aircraft, divers and vessels from the United States, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia had been looking for the missing sailors over an area of about 5,500 square kilometers around the crash site.

The U.S. Navy on Tuesday found remains of missing sailors inside sealed sections of the damaged hull of the John S. McCain, which is moored at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base.

Earlier on Thursday, the Navy said a medical examination of human remains found by the Malaysian navy about eight nautical miles northwest of the collision site were not one of its missing sailors.

Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority said the multi-agency search and rescue operation was suspended from 9 p.m. local time on Thursday. Singapore will continue to support the U.S. Navy in their search on the warship, it said.

The pre-dawn collision on Monday was the fourth major accident for the U.S. Pacific Fleet this year and has prompted a review of its operations.

The Navy on Wednesday removed Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin from his post, citing “a loss of confidence in his ability to command” after the run of accidents. Aucoin had been due to step down next month. Rear Admiral Phil Sawyer takes command of the fleet.

This week, the U.S. Navy flagged plans for temporary and staggered halts in operations across its global fleet to allow staff to focus on safety.

On Wednesday, Seventh Fleet ships deployed at a facility in Yokosuka, Japan, participated in a one-day operational pause in which officers and crew underwent fresh risk management and communications training.

The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, operates as many as 70 ships, including the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier, and has about 140 aircraft and 20,000 sailors.

(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan; Writing by Sam Holmes; Editing by Robert Birsel/Mark Heinrich)

MH370 families launch campaign to fund search for the missing jet

A family member of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 which went missing in 2014 reacts during a protest outside the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing, July 29, 2016. The hat reads "Pray for MH370" REUTERS/Thomas Peter

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Families of passengers on board missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on Saturday launched a campaign to privately fund a search for the aircraft.

Flight MH370, carrying 239 people, went missing on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, nearly three years ago, on March 8, 2014.

Australia, Malaysia, and China jointly called off a two-year underwater search for the aircraft in January.

Grace Nathan, a Malaysian lawyer whose mother, Anne Daisy, was on the plane, said the families hope to raise $15 million to fund an initial search north of the previous search area.

“We won’t start fundraising until we’re sure that the governments are not going to resume the search and until the current data has been fully reviewed and analyzed,” she said at the campaign launch and MH370 memorial event held at a mall in Kuala Lumpur.

The three governments have said they will resume the search if any credible evidence on the whereabouts of the plane emerges.

International experts last year assisted Voice 370, a support group for MH370 next-of-kin, in mounting their own search along the East African coast where debris had been discovered.

“They pinpointed to us accurately where the debris would have made landfall. They’ve been very helpful both on a personal level and to the investigation,” Grace said.

The memorial event, the first held since the search was suspended, featured musical and dance performances, while family members and friends of those aboard made impassioned pleas for the search to continue.

Jiang Hui, whose mother was on the plane, recounted his experience discovering a piece of potential MH370 debris in Madagascar last year.

“I thought it was very miraculous and fortunate when I found the piece of debris that day, but I thought it was useless because this sort of searching activity should have been done by the government,” said Jiang, who traveled from China to attend the memorial.

“It should not be us, the family members, who should have been subjected to this pain, to go and face this cruel reality.”

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, who attended the event, said authorities had analyzed 27 pieces of potential MH370 debris along the East African coastline, including two new pieces found in South Africa two weeks ago.

The government has also signed several agreements with countries along the East African coastline to coordinate searches for debris, Liow said.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Richard Pullin)

Small plane with six aboard vanishes over Lake Erie in Ohio

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) – Rescue crews searched Lake Erie on Friday for signs of a twin-engine plane carrying six people that went missing on Thursday night soon after taking off from an Ohio airport, officials said.

The 11-seat aircraft dropped off radar just before 11 p.m. local time after leaving Burke Lakefront Airport on the shore of Lake Erie north of downtown Cleveland, U.S. Coast Guard Chief of Response Michael Mullen told a news conference on Friday.

The Cessna Citation 525, bound for Ohio State University Airport, disappeared after flying about two miles over the lake, Mullen said.

John Fleming, 46, the chief executive of Columbus-based beverage distributor Superior Beverage Group, is believed to have been piloting the plane, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

Also on board were Fleming’s wife, their two teenage sons and two of their neighbors, the newspaper reported, citing an interview with Fleming’s father, John W. Fleming.

The group was returning to Columbus after attending the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball game against the Boston Celtics, the Dispatch reported.

ROUGH GOING

Mullen said a watercraft search for survivors had been halted on Thursday night due to 12 to 14 foot seas, but it resumed on Friday morning.

Lake Erie is the fourth-largest by surface area of North America’s five Great Lakes, and also the most shallow. It is 210 feet at its deepest point, which makes for rough and unpredictable waters.

“The seas have subsided a little bit,” Mullen said. “We also have better daylight at this particular time and better visibility.”

Coast guard crews searched with boats, a helicopter and fixed-wing plane over a section of Lake Erie that is about 50 feet deep, Mullen said, adding that there were no signs of debris.

He said there was no evidence of an emergency call before communications with the aircraft stopped. He declined to identify the people on board.

The water temperature was around 35 degrees F, according to the National Weather Service.

Asked about the chances of survival considering the water temperature and high seas, Mullen said “it comes down to a person’s will to survive.”

(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Toni Reinhold)

Death toll rises to 36 from California warehouse inferno

Firefighters work inside the burned warehouse following the fatal fire in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California.

By Curtis Skinner and Peter Henderson

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – The death toll rose to 36 on Monday from a blaze that engulfed a converted warehouse during a dance party in Oakland, California, the greatest loss of life from a U.S. fire in over a decade, as searchers sifted charred ruins being treated as a crime scene.

Authorities said they were certain to find more bodies in the gutted building and were still trying to account for about 50 people reported missing by loved ones, while ruling out any drastic climb in the tally of deaths.

“If you have a best friend out there, please hug your best friend,” Franchesca Dickerson, a 21-year old hairdresser, told a candlelight vigil, as she held a collage of images of a friend who died in the blaze.

“I’d give 50,000 years to hug mine,” added Dickerson, who was to have joined her childhood friend, 19-year old Michalea Gregory, at the party, but changed plans because of work.

The cause of the fire, which erupted late on Friday in a sprawling two-story building leased to an artists’ collective, has yet to be determined.

Officials have said arson was not immediately suspected. But charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to murder could feature in a potential criminal case, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told a news conference.

Possible safety violations were expected to be one aspect of the investigation, with city officials having said the site was already under investigation for reports of illegal construction.

Investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives identified an “area of interest” on the ground floor that was still out of reach, said Sergeant Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

He described the spot as being at the rear of the warehouse, where makeshift studios and cubicles were clustered.

O’Malley said fire investigators and a task force from her office were working with recovery teams inside the wreckage to preserve any potential criminal evidence as they seek signs of victims and clues to the origin of the blaze.

Debris was being removed “bucket by bucket,” said Deputy Fire Chief Darren White, but a large construction crane at the scene required nearby electricity lines to be shut down for several hours, as a precaution.

FIRE HAZARDS

The nature of the fire has raised questions about possible building code violations. City officials have said the warehouse, known as the Ghost Ship, was already under scrutiny, with an inspector having visited on Nov. 17.

Municipal authorities also cited reports of people living in the structure, although it was barred to residential use. Some of those who entered the warehouse called it a potential fire trap.

The first floor, housing an artist cooperative, the Satya Yuga Collective, was a warren of partitioned studio spaces and rooms crammed with furniture, musical instruments and rugs, according to survivors, city officials and photographs posted on social media before the fire.

Two recreational vehicles believed to have been used as living quarters and work space were found parked on the ground floor inside, Kelly said.

The dance party was held on the second floor, which partially collapsed when the roof gave way. Survivors said flames spread quickly and billowing thick, black smoke blinded and choked those struggling to flee.

The 10,000-square-foot (929-sq-m) building lacked sprinklers or smoke detectors, and wooden pallets partially formed a makeshift stairway between first and second floors, officials said. It had just two exterior doorways.

Nancy Pike, 60, (L) and William Anderson, 3, put flowers at a sidewalk memorial near the burned warehouse following the fatal fire in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California

Nancy Pike, 60, (L) and William Anderson, 3, put flowers at a sidewalk memorial near the burned warehouse following the fatal fire in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, U.S. December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

YOUNG VICTIMS

The recovery of three more bodies took the confirmed death count to 36, making the blaze the deadliest in the United States since 100 people perished in a 2003 nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island.

“We absolutely believe that the number of fire fatalities will increase,” Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton told reporters. But Sheriff Gregory Ahern later said he was “not anticipating any more huge numbers” of victims.

By Monday afternoon, 33 of the dead had been identified and authorities were notifying families, said Ahern, adding that three victims were from Finland, South Korea and Guatemala.

Most victims had been in their 20s and 30s, but some were younger, officials said. The site was known as a “safeplace” haven for young members of the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Kelly said.

With many bodies burned beyond recognition, families were asked to preserve items that might contain DNA to help identification. Kelly said some people died of smoke inhalation.

Officials were unsure of the numbers present when the fire erupted. One survivor has estimated them at 60 to 70.

The warehouse was one of many converted lofts on the east end of San Francisco Bay in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, a mostly Latino district where rents are typically lower than elsewhere.

(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York, Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago, Deborah Todd in Oakland and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Writing by Daniel Wallis and Steve Gorman; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

Rescue Agency Admits Air Asia Flight “Likely At Bottom of Sea”

Search and rescue officials were admitting to the press what AirAsia officials have been trying to avoid:  that flight QZ8501 is at the bottom of the sea.

“Based on the co-ordinates given to us and evaluation that the estimated crash position is in the sea, the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” Bambang Soelistyo, Indonesia’s search and rescue agency head, told reporters at a news conference in Jakarta.

The plane disappeared on Sunday carrying 162 people.  Officials say that the pilots requested a change in course due to bad weather but then disappeared without a distress call.

A spokesman for the Indonesian air force says that they have spotted an oil slick but they have not confirmed that is the location of the downed plane.

We are very devastated by what’s happened, it’s unbelievable,” AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes said.