Puerto Rico declares emergency, activates National Guard after earthquakes

By Luis Valentin Ortiz

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard on Tuesday after a series of earthquakes including one of magnitude 6.4 struck the Caribbean island.

The temblors killed at least one person, knocked out power across much of the island and caused significant damage, authorities and media reported.

Vazquez said all public sector offices except for emergency services would remain closed on Tuesday while emergency plans were implemented. The emergency order and activation of the National Guard were later published on an official government website.

The island has been rocked by a series of quakes in recent days, including a 5.8-magnitude temblor on Monday that damaged a few homes on the southern coast.

The U.S. territory is still recovering from a pair of devastating 2017 hurricanes that killed about 3,000 people and destroyed significant infrastructure across an island working through a bankruptcy process to restructure about $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

Vazquez, who assumed office in August after Ricardo Rossello stepped down in the face of massive street protests, tweeted pleas for people to remain calm.

“We want everyone to be safe. That is why all work in the public sectors has been suspended today, so that you can be with your family, implementing your emergency plans,” Vazquez tweeted.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported a small tsunami measuring around 20 centimeters (7.9 inches).

The first and biggest quake on Tuesday, of magnitude 6.4, struck at a depth of 10.0 km (six miles) at 4:24 am (0824 GMT) near Ponce on the island’s southern coast, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

A 73-year-old died there after a wall fell on him, newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported.

Witnesses on social media described the quake as “super strong” and lasting up to 30 seconds. It was followed by a number of hefty aftershocks including one measuring 5.8.

The impact along the country’s southern coast appeared significant.

Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Chief Executive Jose Ortiz said its Central Costa Sur power plant was damaged, and the utility was checking other substations on the island.

PREPA had cut off power on safety grounds and hoped to reconnect supplies as soon as possible, it said on Twitter.

The quake severely damaged the Immaculate Conception church in Guayanilla, leaving about half of it standing and surrounded by piles of rubble, according to video posted by Wapa TV. A picture published by El Nuevo Dia showed people removing artifacts.

At least eight homes collapsed in Yauco, El Nuevo Dia reported, citing Mayor Angel Torres. Wapa TV video showed one home in Yauco flattened, its roof intact atop debris and slanting until it touched the ground.

The international airport in Carolina, just east of San Juan, continued normal service with the help of power generators, El Nuevo Dia reported, citing Jorge Hernandez, chief executive of Aerostar Airport Holdings.

In the town of Guanica, several buildings collapsed. Further east in Maunabo, video on social media showed people evacuating to higher ground following the tsunami warning.

“Persons along coastal areas near the earthquake should be observant and exercise normal caution, otherwise no action is required,” the PTWC said in its warning.

Monday’s quake off southern Puerto Rico knocked several houses off their supporting pillars in Guanica and Guayanilla, crushing vehicles beneath them.

That quake also destroyed the Window of the Caribbean, a rock formation on a beach that had been a tourist attraction, but there were no reports of injuries.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

Cartel gunmen terrorize Mexican city, free El Chapo’s son

Cartel gunmen terrorize Mexican city, free El Chapo’s son
By Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Heavily armed fighters surrounded security forces in a Mexican city on Thursday and made them free one of drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s sons, after his capture triggered gunbattles and a prison break that sent civilians scurrying for cover.

Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said a patrol by National Guard militarized police first came under attack from within a house in the city of Culiacan, 1,235 km (770 miles) northwest of Mexico City.

After entering the house, they found four men, including Ovidio Guzman, who is accused of drug trafficking in the United States.

The patrol was quickly outmatched by cartel gunmen, however, and it was withdrawn to prevent lives being lost, the government said. Simultaneously, fighters swarmed through the city, battling police and soldiers in broad daylight. They torched vehicles and left at least one gas station ablaze.

“The decision was taken to retreat from the house, without Guzman, to try to avoid more violence in the area and preserve the lives of our personnel and recover calm in the city,” Durazo told Reuters.

The reaction to Guzman’s capture was on a scale rarely seen during Mexico’s long drug war, even after his more famous father’s arrests. The chaos was continuing as night fell.

A large group of inmates escaped from the city prison. Residents cowered in shopping centers and supermarkets as gunfire roared. Black plumes of smoke rose across the skyline.

Families with young children left their cars and lay flat in the road. Bullets cracked up ahead. “Dad, can we get up now?” a small boy said to his father in a video posted on Twitter.

“No, stay there on the floor,” the man replied, his voice trembling.

Cristobal Castaneda, head of security in Sinaloa, told the Televisa network that two people had been killed and 21 injured, according to preliminary information. He said police had come under attack when they approached roadblocks manned by gunmen. He advised residents not to leave their homes.

It was not immediately clear if members of the patrol were harmed in the standoff. Reuters TV showed scenes of at least three bodies lying next to cars on the street.

WARNED OF REPRISALS

The chaos in Culiacan, long a stronghold for the Guzmans’ Sinaloa cartel, will increase pressure on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December promising to pacify a country weary after more than a decade of drug-war fighting. Murders this year are set to be at a record high.

Thursday’s events follow the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week, and the killing of 14 suspected gangsters by the army a day later.

Falko Ernst, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Mexico, said the release of Ovidio Guzman set “a dangerous precedent” and sent a message that the state itself, including the army, could be blackmailed and was not in control.

Presumed cartel members apparently intercepted a radio frequency used by security forces, one video showed, warning of reprisals against soldiers if Guzman was not freed.

A state police spokesman confirmed to Reuters that several prisoners escaped from a prison during the chaos. Video footage showed a group of at least 20 prisoners running in the streets. It was not immediately clear how many had escaped.

“They are freeing them,” a panicked woman said in the video apparently filmed from an tall building. “No we can’t go outside!” she said as other voices debated making a dash for their car.

In another video, a man driving repeatedly shouted: “There is a big gunfight,” before taking a sharp turn and leaving his car at a gas station to take cover. His voice then became inaudible because of the rattling roar of automatic gunfire.

‘El Chapo’ Guzman led the Sinaloa cartel for decades, escaping from prison twice before being arrested and extradited to the United States. He was found guilty in a U.S. court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.

He is believed to have about 12 children including Ovidio. The U.S. Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers in February, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the United States.

The indictment gave Ovidio’s age as 28, and said he had been involved in trafficking conspiracies since he was a teenager.

Jose Luis Gonzalez Meza, a lawyer for the Guzmans, told news network Milenio that Ovidio had been in touch with the family and said he was free.

(Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Writing and additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Mexico anxiously awaits U.S. response on immigration deal as deadline arrives

Members of the Mexican National Guard keep watch at the border between Mexico and U.S., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, July 20, 2019. Picture taken July 20, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico is on tenterhooks as a Monday deadline on a U.S. migration deal that removed tariff threats on Mexican exports arrived, and despite progress made in reducing migrant flows it was unclear what President Donald Trump’s next move would be.

The agreement reached in June laid out that if the United States deems that Mexico has not done enough to thwart migrants by the July 22 deadline, the two countries would begin talks over changing rules to make most asylum seekers apply for refuge in Mexico, not the United States.

U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard during a private meeting at the Foreign Ministry Building (SRE) in Mexico City, Mexico July 21, 2019. Mexico's Foreign Ministry /Handout via REUTERS

U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard during a private meeting at the Foreign Ministry Building (SRE) in Mexico City, Mexico July 21, 2019. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry /Handout via REUTERS

Mexico said on Sunday it had averted the so-called “safe third country” negotiations with the United States that it desperately wants to avoid after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Mexican efforts in reducing U.S.-bound migrant flows.

But while Pompeo praised the progress made by Mexico in helping cut apprehensions on the U.S. southern border by a almost a third in June to some 100,000, he also said there was still “more work to do” and that he would consult with Trump, who has been uncharacteristically hush on the topic.

“As for the next set of actions. I’ll talk with the president and the teams back in Washington and we’ll decide exactly which tools and exactly how to proceed,” said Pompeo.

Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard, who met with Pompeo in Mexico City on Sunday, was scheduled to attend Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s daily presser Monday morning.

Following the meeting with Pompeo, Ebrard said considering the advances Mexico had made, it was not necessary to initiate negotiations on a safe third country agreement between Mexico and the United States.

Eager to avoid being cornered into those talks, Mexico has deployed some 21,000 militarized National Guard police to decrease the flow of people across the U.S-Mexico border.

Mexico has long resisted U.S. pressure to formally accept the safe third country status.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; editing by Richard Pullin)

Mexico’s new National Guard was created to fight crime, but now it’s in a face-off with migrants

An agent of the National Migration Institute (INM) talks to Honduran migrants after being stopped from crossing the border into the United States by members of the Mexican National Guard, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

By Anthony Esposito

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – A convoy of Mexican state and municipal police trucks roared along the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez to confront cartel gunmen, past National Guardsmen patrolling the banks of the Rio Grande River for migrants trying to cross into the United States.

“We should be with them, not here. We’re soldiers,” one of three guardsmen in a green camouflage uniform grumbled to himself within earshot of a Reuters reporter. He was frustrated that orders kept him from going to back up police in the shootout with gangsters.

The National Guard is a new security force that was created by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to bring down record homicide rates. But now it has been tasked with patrolling the border to placate President Donald Trump, who has demanded Mexico stem the flow of U.S.-bound Central Americans that pass through the country or risk tariffs on Mexican goods.

If the deployment of some 21,000 National Guard troops at Mexico’s northern and southern borders can reduce the flow of migrants, Lopez Obrador will have successfully kept Trump’s tariffs at bay and averted opening up another front in the global trade war.

But using almost a third of the National Guard’s total ranks for migration duties means fewer security forces to tackle one of Mexico’s most pressing issues, spiraling violence, which last year cost a record 33,000 lives. Those numbers continued surging in the first six months of Lopez Obrador’s term in office, which began in December.

In Juarez, where drug cartel murders are especially acute, many people wish the troops were helping fight crime instead.

The city across the border from El Paso, Texas has long been synonymous with cartel warfare, which pushed the murder rate to 244 per 100,000 residents by March 2011, according to data compiled by Juarez-based advocacy group Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia.

With help from civil society groups and businesses, the city made hard-won gains to restore security, and by late 2015 the murder rate had been cut to 21 per 100,000, the group says, citing numbers from the attorney general’s office it corroborates independently.

Now, crime is climbing back towards levels last seen in the darkest days of the drug war, with homicides growing fivefold in the last three years to 107 per 100,000.

“Murders, kidnappings, extortion have taken a back seat so the Mexican army can patrol the border,’ said Juan Hernan Ortiz, director of Citizens for Better Government, a watchdog organization in Juarez that keeps tabs on the local government.

The Mexican government did not respond to requests for comment on the criticism.

The National Guard in Juarez, mostly made up of active-duty soldiers equipped with ballistic helmets, body armor and assault rifles, is identifiable by small armbands emblazoned with the letters GN, for the Spanish words for National Guard.

“We have the army dressed up as the National Guard making sure migrants don’t reach the United States while the city is headed towards a much larger crisis of violence,” said Ortiz.

   

SHOOTOUT BY THE BRIDGE

The police convoy that raced by the National Guardsmen was heading to free a 53-year-old American man kidnapped by members of the Assassin Artists cartel. A car chase through the streets of Juarez led to a shootout near the Zaragoza border bridge, said the attorney general’s office of Chihuahua state. The American was freed, four kidnappers were arrested, another was killed and two policemen were wounded.

Visibly vexed at not being able to take part in the rescue, the three guardsmen remained at their post on the lookout for migrants as one cop car after another, sirens blaring, zipped past them toward the scene of the gunfight.

Along this stretch of frontier, the Rio Grande River is parched dry. Reuters reporters saw a steady trickle of women, children and men walking along the U.S. side of the riverbed, out of the guardsmen’s jurisdiction and into the United States, where waiting U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents took them into custody.

Facing accusations the troops had been heavy-handed in their efforts to deter migrants from crossing the northern border, Lopez Obrador said on June 25 the National Guard does not have orders to detain migrants.

The guardsmen themselves, who are posted in groups at specific points along the border or patrol the frontier in military vehicles mounted with heavy weapons, say they do not detain migrants but are there to advise them not to cross into the United States.

Still, Reuters witnessed at least three adults and four children being detained as they tried to cross into the United States after Obrador made his statement.

Among them was 23-year-old Honduran Lixa Garcia, who was traveling with her two daughters aged 4 years and 10 months, when she was detained mere feet from crossing into El Paso and handed over to Mexican immigration authorities, who will decide if they are deported to Honduras.

And last week, Brigadier-General Vicente Antonio Hernandez, who heads the National Guard’s operations in Mexico’s southern states, said 20,000 migrants had been “rescued” since May 17, a euphemism for detained.

KEEPING TARIFFS AT BAY

Some business and industry leaders in Juarez said that with nearly 80% of Mexican exports destined for the United States they support the deployment of National Guard troops to the northern border if that keeps Trump’s tariff threats on ice.

“What I care about is that the agreement is met so we’re not subject to tariffs. Regardless of whether the (National Guard) is effective or not, if it is part of the agreement, they have to be there,” said Pedro Chavira, head of manufacturing industry chamber INDEX in Juarez.

Mexico struck a deal on June 7 with the United States to avert the tariffs, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period for the Mexican government to make palpable progress in reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally. Under that deal Mexico agreed to send National Guard troops to the border.

Trump seems happy, at least for now, praising Mexico for its efforts and saying tariffs are off the table.

But, in Juarez doubts remain that containing migration is the right priority for Mexico’s newest fighting force in a city sinking deeper into lawlessness.

“That’s a political play to appease the United States and it’s not a job the National Guard should be doing,” said Isabel Sanchez Quirarte, who heads the Mesa de Seguridad y Justicia advocacy group.

“They should be doing crime prevention work,” she said.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito in Ciudad Juarez; Additional reporting by Rebekah F Ward and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City;editing by Ross Colvin)

Mexican president says he would like to disband the nation’s army

FILE PHOTO - Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador takes part on a 'unity' rally to defend the dignity of Mexico and talks about the trade negotiations with the U.S in Tijuana, Mexico June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Monday he would like to disband the army and put national security in the hands of the new National Guard militarized police force, though he recognized the proposal was unlikely to happen.

In an interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the leftist president said he favored guaranteeing the nation’s security through the National Guard, which he formally inaugurated on Sunday.

“If were up to me, I would get rid of the army and turn it into the National Guard, declare that Mexico is a pacifist country that does not need a military and that the defense of the nation, if necessary, would be done by all,” he said.

Only a few countries in the world have abolished standing armies, among them the Latin American nations of Costa Rica and Panama. Mexico’s army has traditionally kept on the sidelines of international conflict but has been deployed to tackle drug gangs since 2007.

Lopez Obrador recognized the political challenges to eliminating the military, adding: “I can’t do it because there is resistance. One thing is what is desirable and another thing is what is possible.”

The creation of the National Guard, which launched with 70,000 members and which Lopez Obrador intends to grow to 150,000 units across Mexico, has raised concerns about the militarization of law enforcement in Mexico.

Lopez Obrador has already tapped the force, which was created by a constitutional change, to patrol the country’s northern and southern borders in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s demands that Mexico do more to contain migrant flows.

The National Guard has been assembled quickly, drawing on members of the armed forces and federal police, who have often been implicated in abuses during ongoing efforts to subdue gang violence.

Lopez Obrador said he recognized the importance of curbing such abuses as the force ramps up.

The challenge the Mexican government faces, Lopez Obrador said, is “for human rights to be respected and for there to be a different conduct in the National Guard, made up of soldiers and sailors.”

(Reporting by Julia Love and Diego Ore; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Mexico says it will finish National Guard roll-out to stem migration this week

FILE PHOTO - Mexico's Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard speaks during a session with senators and lawmakers at the Senate building in Mexico City, Mexico June 14, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico will complete deployment of National Guard forces on its southern border with Guatemala this week as part of a new immigration control plan agreed with Washington, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard’said on Monday.

“The deployment of the National Guard ordered, with support from the Ministry of Defense and the Navy, will be completed this week,” Ebrard said at a news conference.

Mexico is stepping up efforts to cut the flow of mostly Central American migrants toward the U.S. border under pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump, who vowed to hit Mexican goods with tariffs if it did not increase immigration control efforts.

Mexico made a deal on June 7 with the United States to avert the tariffs, setting the clock ticking on a 45-day period for the Mexican government to make palpable progress in reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the U.S. border illegally.

Mexico has pledged to send 6,000 National Guard members along its border with Guatemala under the deal.

That deployment has been patchy so far. A Reuters reporter near the border this weekend saw a handful of officials wearing National Guard insignia and spoke to other security personnel who said they were part of the guard.

There has been a jump in apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, angering Trump, who has made reducing illegal immigration one of his signature policy pledges as he heads into his campaign to win a second four-year term in November 2020.

Most of those caught attempting to enter the United States are people fleeing poverty and violence in the troubled Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Dave Graham and Bill Trott)

Soldiers held hostage, villagers killed: the untold story of Venezuelan aid violence

FILE PHOTO: A crashed car is seen at the scene where Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By Maria Ramirez

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.

Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.

Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed toward the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.

But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.

Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.

Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.

The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back toward their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.

The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.

The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.

The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.

The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro’s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.

“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.

Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.

They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.

The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.

The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for this story.

However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.

The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”

Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.

“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”

U.S.-BACKED AID CONVOYS

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.

Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.

The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.

When residents learned of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.

That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.

They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.

Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.

“Everything was out of control,” he said.

A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.

The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.

The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.

However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.

“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.

Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.

Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.

A regional military command center operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)

Disaffected Venezuelan military tell of rising desertions to Brazil

A Venezuelan military deserter of the National Guard, who doesn't want to be identified, is seen in the border city of Pacaraima, Brazil April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

By Anthony Boadle

PACARAIMA, Brazil (Reuters) – Venezuelan military personnel are deserting to Colombia and Brazil in growing numbers, refusing to follow orders to repress protests against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, six of them told Reuters.

A lieutenant and five sergeants of the National Guard, the main force used by the Maduro government to suppress widespread demonstrations, said the bulk were going to Colombia, the most accessible border, but others like themselves had left for Brazil.

Colombian immigration authorities said some 1,400 Venezuelan military had deserted for Colombia this year, while the Brazilian Army said over 60 members of Venezuela’s armed forces had emigrated to Brazil since Maduro closed the border on Feb. 23 to block an opposition effort to get humanitarian aid into the country.

“Most military people that are leaving are from the National Guard. They will continue coming. More want to leave,” said a National Guard lieutenant, speaking earlier this month. She had just crossed into Brazil on foot, arriving in the frontier town of Pacaraima after walking hours along indigenous trails through savannah.

Officials in both countries said the pace of desertion has sped up in recent months as political and economic turmoil in Venezuela has worsened.

The deserters, who asked to withhold their names due to fear of reprisals against their families, complained that top commanders in Venezuela lived well on large salaries and commissions from smuggling and other black market schemes while the lower ranks confronted conflicts in Venezuela’s streets for little pay.

“They already have their families living abroad. They live well, eat well, have good salaries and profits from corruption,” said the lieutenant.

The Venezuelan government’s Information Ministry, which handles all media inquiries, did not reply to requests for comment for this story.

In February, Maduro’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, told a Security Council meeting the number of military desertions had been exaggerated. Foreign ministry spokesman William Castillo said at the time that just 109 of the 280,000-strong armed forces had deserted under Maduro.

A Venezuelan sergeant, who proudly donned his National Guard uniform for an interview in a hotel room in Pacaraima, said he could not provide for his two small sons on his $12-a-month salary.

“We risked our lives so much for the little we were paid,” he said. “I left because of this and the bad orders the commanding officers were giving us.”

The head of Venezuela’s opposition-led congress, Juan Guaido, backed by most Western nations, is trying to oust Maduro on the basis that the socialist president’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

But top armed forces commanders have remained loyal to Maduro because they earn well in dollars and have too much to lose by abandoning him, according to the National Guard deserters.

Maduro has placed military chiefs in high-level jobs running state companies so they do not turn against him, the sergeant said.

“Maduro knows that if he removes them from those posts, the military will turn their backs on him and could oust him in a coup,” he said.

Maduro has called Guaido a U.S. puppet trying to foment a coup, and blames the country’s economic problems on U.S. sanctions.

INMATES IN UNIFORM

Rebellion in the middle ranks of the National Guard has been contained by intimidation and threats of reprisals against officers’ families, the deserters told Reuters. They said phones of military personnel suspected of anti-Maduro sympathies were tapped to watch their behavior.

With desertions on the rise and dwindling support for Maduro, the government has used armed groups of civilians known as “colectivos” to terrorize Maduro opponents, the interviewees said. Rights groups in Venezuela have warned of rising violence meted out by the militant groups.

The government has also released jail inmates and put them in National Guard uniforms, to the disgust of soldiers with years of military career behind them, the six deserters said. It is unclear if the former inmates or militants are paid by the government.

A lack of food, water and medicines, along with extended blackouts, have added to a sense of anarchy, the deserters said.

The uniformed sergeant said he feared bloodshed at the hands of the “colectivos” trying to keep Maduro in power if the armed forces balked at government orders to repress protests.

“There won’t be enough soldiers left with hearts of stone to fire on the people,” he said. “We military know that among the crowds on the streets there are relatives of ours protesting for freedom and a better future for Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Leonardo Benassatto and Pilar Olivares, Additional reporting by Helen Murphy in Bogota and Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Search grows for victims of California’s deadliest wildfire

A volunteer search and rescue crew from Calaveras County comb through a home destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

By Terray Sylvester

PARADISE, Calif. (Reuters) – The search for remains of victims in the charred ruins of the northern California town of Paradise was set to expand on Wednesday, while firefighters stepped up efforts to contain the state’s deadliest-ever wildfire.

A National Guard contingent of 100 military police trained to seek and identify human remains will reinforce coroner-led recovery teams, cadaver dogs and forensic anthropologists already scouring the ghostly landscape, left by a fire that has killed at least 48 people.

Two hundred twenty-eight had been listed as missing, but on Tuesday night local county sheriff Kory Honea said those numbers were highly fluid as some individuals may simply have fallen out of touch during chaotic evacuations.

A Cal Fire firefighter walks between homes destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

A Cal Fire firefighter walks between homes destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester

The grim search is concentrated in the little that is left of Paradise, a Sierra foothills town in Butte County, California, about 175 miles (280 km) north of San Francisco, that was overrun by flames and largely incinerated last Thursday.

The killer “Camp Fire,” fed by drought-desiccated scrub and fanned by strong winds, has capped a catastrophic California wildfire season that experts largely attribute to prolonged dry spells that are symptomatic of global climate change.

Wind-driven flames roared through Paradise so swiftly last week that residents were forced to flee for their lives with little or no warning.

Anna Dise, a resident of Butte Creek Canyon west of Paradise, told KRCR TV that her father, Gordon Dise, 66, was among those who died in the fire. They had little time to evacuate and their house collapsed on her father when he went back in to gather belongings.

Dise said she could not drive her car because the tires had melted. To survive, she hid overnight in a neighbor’s pond with her dogs.

Forensic investigators search a community swimming pool for victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Noel Randewich

Forensic investigators search a community swimming pool for victims of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, U.S., November 13, 2018. REUTERS/Noel Randewich

“It (the fire) was so fast,” Dise said. “I didn’t expect it to move so fast.”

The Butte County disaster coincided with a flurry of blazes in Southern California, most notably the “Woolsey Fire,” which has killed two people, destroyed more than 400 structures and at its height displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills west of Los Angeles.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and California Governor Jerry Brown were scheduled on Wednesday to pay a visit to both of the sites, which President Donald Trump declared disaster areas, making federal emergency assistance more readily available.

The fatality count of 48 from the Camp Fire far exceeds the previous record for the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California history – 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.

The origins of both fires are under investigation. Utility companies, Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric reported to regulators they experienced problems with transmission lines or substations in areas around the time the blazes were first reported.

Aided by diminished winds and rising humidity levels, fire crews had managed by late Tuesday to carve containment lines around more than a third of both fires, easing further the immediate threat to life and property.

On one small section of the fire containment lines in Butte County that crews have been erecting around the Camp Fire, wind conditions were actually helping those efforts early Wednesday morning.

Speaking to KRCR TV early Wednesday in the Feather River Canyon to the northeast of Chico, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) official Josh Campbell said strong wind gusts in the canyon of up to 30 miles per hours (50 km) were actually helping local crews by slowing the spread of the fire.

“This gives us the opportunity to construct our lines, so we can be ready for the fire and put it out,” he said.

Butte County Sheriff Honea said in some cases victims were burned beyond recognition.

More than 50,000 people remain under evacuation orders.

(GRAPHIC: Deadly California fires, https://tmsnrt.rs/2Plpuui)

(Additional reporting by Noel Randewich and Sharon Bernstein in Paradise and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by David Stamp)

Firefighters gain on massive California wildfire, six dead

Fire fighters battle the Carr Fire west of Redding. REUTERS/Bob Strong

REDDING, Calif. (Reuters) – California firefighters on Monday were gaining ground on a massive blaze that has killed six people and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, while rescuers searched for seven people unaccounted for in the wildfire.

The Carr Fire, outside Redding, California, ignited a week ago and doubled in size over the weekend, charring an area the size of Detroit, forcing 38,000 people to flee their homes and claiming lives of two firefighters and another person, as well as a woman and her two young great-grandchildren.

Centered 150 miles (240 km) north of Sacramento, it is the deadliest of the 90 wildfires burning across the United States. Collectively, wildfires have blackened 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares) of land so far this year, 21 percent more than the 10-year average for the time period, according to federal data.

A burned out home in the small community of Keswick is shown from wildfire damage near Redding. REUTERS/Alexandria Sage

A burned out home in the small community of Keswick is shown from wildfire damage near Redding. REUTERS/Alexandria Sage

The more than 3,000 firefighters battling the Carr Fire began to turn the tables by Sunday afternoon, cutting containment lines around 17 percent of its perimeter, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Previously the fire was just 5 percent contained.

Gale-force winds that drove the fire late last week have eased to moderate speeds, but temperatures are again expected to top 100 Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius), according to the National Weather Service.

Firefighting officials on Sunday also said they would begin to return people to their homes as soon as possible.

The fire grew rapidly beginning on Thursday, confounding fire officials with the speed of its movement.

“Unfortunately this new normal is kind of upon us in California,” Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox said on CBS This Morning. “More deadly, more destructive fires, more often and it’s obviously requiring additional resources.”

Hills are bare after being burned in the Carr Fire near Igo, California, U.S. July 29, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Hills are bare after being burned in the Carr Fire near Igo, California, U.S. July 29, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

At least 874 buildings have been destroyed by the 95,000-acre blaze, Cal Fire said. The fire leveled the town of Keswick, home to 450 people. It also sparked an effort to rescue people’s horses and livestock in the rugged region, a popular fishing destination.

Some 260 National Guard troops and 100 police officers were stationed in evacuated neighborhoods to guard against looting, and the Shasta County Sheriff’s office said two people had been arrested over the weekend for looting.

Another California fire prompted a rare closure of much of Yosemite National Park last week, while a third forced mass evacuations from the mountain resort community of Idyllwild, east of Los Angeles.

(Reporting by Bob Strong, additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)