Mexico’s president disputes rights concerns over trapped asylum seekers

MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador brushed away concerns on Friday about the living conditions of thousands of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico under a U.S. program that President Joe Biden is scrambling to unravel.

Humanitarian organizations have documented cases of attacks, extortion, kidnapping, and sexual violence against those in the program. Most are from Central America and many live in shelters and cramped apartments in dangerous border towns or in a squalid tent city in Mexico’s far northeast.

Lopez Obrador disputed the accounts, saying he had “other data” and that his government would release a report on the migrants next week.

“We have been taking care of the migrants and we have been careful that their human rights are not affected,” Lopez Obrador told a news conference.

“…It’s nothing like it was before, when they were kidnapped and disappeared. We have been attentive and we have protected them.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under Biden’s new administration, said on Wednesday it would end all new enrollments in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, which since 2019 has forced more than 65,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearings, sometimes for months or even years.

The announcement did not specify what will happen to the tens of thousands currently waiting in Mexico under the program, saying only that they “should remain where they are, pending further official information from U.S. government officials.”

(Reporting by Laura Gottesdiener; editing by John Stonestreet)

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)

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)

Two killed as violence spills from Mexico protest against water flow to U.S.

By Jose Luis Gonzalez

LA BOQUILLA DAM, Mexico (Reuters) – Two people died in a gunfight with Mexico’s military police near a protest at a dam that diverts water to the United States, the National Guard said on Wednesday, as tensions rose between protesters and officials in the drought-hit region.

Mexicans in the northern border state of Chihuahua, angry at the water being funneled across the border, on Tuesday evening hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at security troops, eventually occupying the La Boquilla dam and closing the sluice gates.

The violence, which Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called “regrettable,” comes amid plans to divert additional water to the United States due to the so-called ‘water debt’ Mexico has accumulated as part of a 1944 bilateral treaty that regulates water sharing between the neighbors.

The National Guard said on Twitter that some of its agents from La Boquilla on Tuesday night detained three people found with tear gas and a firearm ammunition magazine, and took them for processing to the city of Delicias.

There, the National Guard unit was shot at and “repelled the aggression,” according to the statement. One person died at the scene and another from their injuries later in hospital, it said.

Chihuahua Attorney General Cesar Peniche told reporters that investigators called to the scene found a car hit by at least three bullets. Inside the vehicle, a woman had been killed by gunfire while a man was injured. Local police told investigators that the National Guard had left the scene shortly before, Peniche said.

News channel Milenio named the two killed as Jessica Silva and Jaime Torres, a couple who worked in agriculture and who had protested at La Boquilla.

A Reuters witness said groups of residents in towns surrounding the La Boquilla dam clashed with National Guard troops earlier on Tuesday after they refused to turn off the dam floodgates.

The residents lobbed Molotov cocktails, rocks and sticks at the security forces, who were clad in riot gear and retaliated with tear gas, the witness said and images show. Eventually, the protesters stormed the dam premises and shut the floodgates themselves.

When asked about the situation at his regular news conference on Wednesday, Lopez Obrador said the National Guard had been “prudent” to withdraw to avoid inflaming tensions.

He did not mention the deaths, which the National Guard reported on Twitter after the briefing.

Lopez Obrador has sought to assuage concerns of Mexican farmers and voters about water rights, while protecting delicate relations with the United States.

He has also warned that Mexico could face sanctions if it did not divert water, after building up a deficit in recent years by receiving more water than it has given back.

(Additional reporting and writing by Drazen Jorgic and Daina Beth Solomon, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

In Mexican heartland, ‘bad guys’ still hold sway amid bid to restore order

By Lizbeth Diaz

SANTA ROSA DE LIMA, Mexico (Reuters) – Burned-out autos littered empty streets this week in the town where Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador faces a first major test of his ability to take control of territory absorbed by organized crime during years of mounting violence.

Lopez Obrador said on Wednesday he was winning the battle for hearts and minds against a gang of fuel thieves in the central town of Santa Rosa de Lima, a few miles east of Salamanca, home to one of Mexico’s main oil refineries, and close to a center of the nation’s export-driven auto industry.

But in the grimy settlement of some 2,800 people where authorities say the eponymous Santa Rosa de Lima gang paid residents to obstruct marines and federal police with blockades and burning vehicles and by informing on their movements, some were less certain the government had the upper hand.

Police officers patrol a street after a blockade set by members of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel to repel security forces during an anti-fuel theft operation in Santa Rosa de Lima, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Police officers patrol a street after a blockade set by members of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel to repel security forces during an anti-fuel theft operation in Santa Rosa de Lima, in Guanajuato state, Mexico, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

“It’s very hard for people to change,” said Pedro Mendez, 52, who sells household goods in the town. “The bad guys know how to get to them and that there are people who’ll take money to do their bidding.”

Others accused security forces of damaging private property and breaking car windows in the raids, while denying they were in cahoots with the gangs.

Santa Rosa is a microcosm of the lawlessness that permeates large swathes of Mexico where cartels have for years replaced the state as benefactors, providing jobs and handouts in return for residents’ loyalty.

It lies in Guanajuato state, part of the country’s industrial heartland that was long peaceful and is a major magnet for carmakers such as Volkswagen, General Motors and Toyota, but that suffered a doubling of murders last year, official data shows.

The effort to capture gang leader Jose Antonio Yepez, known as “El Marro,” or “The Mallet,” and blamed for stealing vast quantities of fuel from the Salamanca refinery, is also a test of the government’s ability to end organized crime’s growing threat to legitimate businesses and ordinary citizens.

Fuel theft costing billions of dollars a year, along with dwindling output, has weighed heavily on state oil firm Pemex, threatening to damage the government’s creditworthiness.

This week, ratings agency Moody’s warned that “increasing insecurity, robbery and travel warnings hurt Mexican companies’ top lines.”

ONLY ONE BOSS

Lopez Obrador’s determination to reassert the government as the main provider of services in anarchic regions is an early hallmark of his presidency, which began on Dec. 1.

He set his sights on fuel theft soon after taking office, turning off oil pipelines and risking a public backlash as lines began to form outside gas stations.

Days after the country’s most famous gangster, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was convicted in a U.S. court, Lopez Obrador became the first president in decades to visit his home town, cutting the ribbon on a road project.

This week he addressed the violence in Santa Rosa by again urging Mexicans to reject criminal handouts.

“If you need work because of a lack of job opportunities, if you need welfare support, you can depend on us,” he said on Tuesday. “We’re the ones who offer you this.”

His rising popularity in opinion polls suggest Mexicans back the efforts so far.

“HARD TO CHANGE PEOPLE”

Eduardo Solis, head of Mexico’s automotive industry lobby, said on Wednesday the situation in Guanajuato was threatening business and had the look of a “crisis.”

Security has sharply deteriorated in the gangland struggle to control fuel rackets, and at 2,609 last year, murders in Guanajuato were over 10 times higher than a decade earlier, official data show.

Hundreds of police and armed forces arrived in Santa Rosa on Sunday to restore order and round up members of the gang.

Yepez has so far evaded detention, though federal forces arrested his sister-in-law, alleged to be his finance chief, along with six others on Tuesday, a security official said.

By Wednesday, the president was saying Santa Rosa had begun to reject the gang’s largesse, which locals said they heard included payments of 1,000 pesos ($52) or more. The burning blockades and protests vanished on Wednesday.

Among evidence authorities have found in raids was a wage envelope stamped with what appeared to be a symbol of a mallet, reading: “Relatives should go out to protest when required.”

Though reluctant to speak of fuel theft, several residents said they had seen El Marro and that the town was peaceful until “outsiders” began to arrive a few years ago.

Guanajuato’s governor, Diego Sinhue, estimated that around 300 people helped set fire to vehicles, although he defended the town against its infamy as a crime hotbed.

“I’m afraid to go out. If I leave the house something could happen to me because I can see the government’s angry,” said Estela Mendoza, a 44-year-old grandmother, speaking through a hatch in the door of the modest house she shares with her family and which she said she had not left since Sunday.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Additional reporting by Sharay Angulo; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Leslie Adler)

Explainer: Mexico’s fuel woes rooted in chronic theft, troubled refineries

People queue to buy gasoline at a gas station in Mexico City, Mexico January 13, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

By David Alire Garcia and Marianna Parraga

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Nearly a month after Mexico’s new president launched an ambitious plan to stamp out growing fuel theft, the strategy meant to crush corruption and organized crime is under heightened scrutiny.

On Friday, at least 89 people died from a powerful explosion at a gasoline pipeline in central Mexico that had been punctured by fuel thieves. Relatives of some of the victims said fuel shortages stemming from the government’s crackdown led people to risk their lives filling plastic containers from the leak.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, said the tragedy has not weakened his faith in the plan. Since late December, he has closed six major pipelines where criminal gangs and other thieves have siphoned off stolen fuel worth billions of dollars.

Lopez Obrador is moving distribution to trucks, but that switch has caused delivery delays and long lines at gas stations, threatening to crimp the economy and hurt his popularity if shortages persist.

The veteran leftist won a landslide election victory on promises to root out endemic corruption, strengthen ailing national oil company Pemex and ensure stable fuel prices.

WHY IS THERE SO MUCH FUEL THEFT IN MEXICO?

Mexico’s fast-growing motor fuel market is a juicy target for thieves. It is the world’s sixth biggest, according to energy ministry data, featuring a total daily demand of nearly 1.18 million barrels of gasoline and diesel.

The Mexican government’s lack of attention has allowed organized groups to open clandestine taps along Pemex’s main pipelines. Internal complicity at Pemex refineries and terminals have also opened the door for theft of entire trucks loaded with fuel.

Fuel stolen from Pemex’s infrastructure mostly ends in the hands of the same retailers that legally sell Pemex gasoline and diesel.

HOW DID FUEL THEFT START AND WHO IS RESPONSIBLE?

Fuel theft has been a problem in Mexico for decades but it has been growing in recent years. The crackdown on the drug war has caused gangs to turn to other forms of theft, and the nation’s network of pipelines proved to be ripe targets.

Theft escalated in recent years following reforms to the country’s oil sector by previous President Enrique Pena Nieto, who liberalized the industry for foreign investment. In turn, retail prices rose, giving cartels an opportunity to undercut those prices through black-market sales of gasoline.

Thieves tap into pipelines and are currently siphoning off the equivalent of around one-fifth of total national gasoline consumption, about 150,000 barrels per day (bpd) according to Reuters calculations based on official data. They then re-sell mostly to complicit gas stations.

Pemex documented more than 12,500 illegal taps to its fuel pipeline network during the first 10 months of 2018, more than in the previous year. The widespread theft costs Pemex more than $3 billion annually, according to official numbers.

Lopez Obrador has said upwards of 80 percent of the theft is organized by Pemex employees, though he has not provided evidence. He has also pointed to reports that the union has been restricting access to parts of the company’s operations.

Central and western states including Queretaro, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Michoacan and Jalisco are most afflicted by the pipeline theft, as well as Pemex’s Salamanca refinery, which has been especially plagued by organized crime and violent disruptions.

WHY ISN’T MEXICO PRODUCING ENOUGH GASOLINE?

For years, Pemex’s six domestic oil refineries have operated well below their capacity, due to a mix of underinvestment, deferred maintenance and frequent accidents, including deadly explosions that have provoked costly stoppages.

Las year, the refineries operated at about a third of their 1.63-million-barrel-per day crude processing capacity, compared with 2013, when they processed nearly 1.4 million barrels of crude a day.

HOW DOES MEXICO MEET ITS FUEL NEEDS?

Mexico has grown increasingly dependent on fuel imports in recent years, with imported gasoline, distillates and liquefied petroleum gas growing last year to about two-thirds of total demand. In 2016, imports and domestic production each accounted for roughly half.

Mexico has 16 marine terminals capable of receiving imported fuel, plus 74 storage facilities and over 8,800 kilometers of pipelines. The imports flow mainly through the Pajaritos, Tuxpan and Veracruz terminals on the country’s Gulf coast, which have recently turned into bottlenecks for the imports.

Mexico is a critical export market for U.S. refiners and trading firms, and is the biggest buyer of U.S. gasoline and diesel. In October, the United States exported 621,000 bpd of gasoline to Mexico, accounting for roughly 60 percent of the 1.03 million bpd exported that month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

While the volumes are much lower than supplies transported by sea, rail shipments of fuels across the U.S.-Mexico land border have also grown substantially as U.S. firms have capitalized on Mexico’s growing demand, hitting record highs several times since early 2017, according to data from the Association of American Railroads, the largest U.S. rail trade group.

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING?

The new government began the closure of major fuel pipelines on December 27. Production at Pemex’s Gulf coast Madero and Minatitlan refineries has also been partially or completely halted, which contributes to the need for imported fuels as a replacement.

Lopez Obrador hopes some 5,000 tanker trucks can distribute supplies to over 11,000 gas stations scattered across the country. While the vast majority of the stations are Pemex franchises, a growing number belong to new private entrants, including giant Exxon Mobil Corp and trading firm Glencore Plc, which in some cases import their own fuel.

The cost of transporting gasoline and diesel by tanker trucks is nearly 14 times more expensive than via pipelines, according to a study by Mexico’s Federal Commission for Economic Competition, or Cofece.

Both Pemex and Lopez Obrador have sought to assure an increasingly restless public that there is plenty of gasoline and that refineries and other key installations are being supervised by 4,000 soldiers. He has also pleaded with citizens to be patient while the new distribution system is normalized.

Lopez Obrador’s team has yet to explain how it will finance the much more expensive distribution costs it is now incurring.

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Marianna Parraga; Additional reporting by Adriana Barrera and Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City and Jarrett Renshaw and Stephanie Kelly in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Lisa Shumaker)

Mexico’s president did not discuss border wall with Trump

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrives for an event to unveil his plan for oil refining, in Paraiso, Tabasco state, Mexico, December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

By Anthony Esposito and Doina Chiacu

MEXICO CITY/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Thursday he has not discussed a proposed border wall with President Donald Trump, as the U.S. leader seemingly backtracked on threats to make Mexico pay for the controversial project.

“We have not discussed that issue, in any conversation. … It was a respectful and friendly conversation,” Lopez Obrador told reporters following a tweet in which the U.S. president said a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada would cover the cost of a wall.

The two leaders spoke by telephone on Wednesday. Lopez Obrador said they discussed the possibility of creating a joint program for development and job creation in Central America and Mexico.

One of Trump’s key campaign promises was to build the border wall and he had long pledged that Mexico — not U.S. taxpayers — would fund it.

In a Twitter post early on Thursday, Trump again insisted that Mexico will foot the bill for the border wall.

He wrote that payment will begin with savings for the United States as a result of the renegotiated trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada. “Just by the money we save, MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!”

Mexico has repeatedly rejected Trump’s demand that it pay for the project, and it is unlikely the country’s new president will reverse that course.

Funding for the border wall has been a sticking point in spending bills before the U.S. Congress, and Trump clashed with leading Democrats over the issue during an Oval Office meeting on Tuesday.

One of them, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, taunted Trump over his Mexico claim later on Thursday.

“Mr. President: If you say Mexico is going to pay for the wall (which I don’t believe), then I guess we don’t have to! Let’s fund the government,” Schumer retorted in his own Twitter post.

Lopez Obrador said he also discussed a possible meeting with Trump in Washington.

“He invited me. I’m also able to go to Washington, but I think that both for him and for us there must be a reason and I think the most important thing would be to sign this agreement or meet with that purpose,” said Lopez Obrador.

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito in Mexico City and Doina Chiacu in Washington; editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Jonathan Oatis)