Nuclear, coal bailout worth any cost ‘to keep America free’: U.S. energy chief

FILE PHOTO: Power lines in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, lead away from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant (C rear) in Vernon, Vermont August 27, 2013. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Richard Valdmanis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said on Thursday that bailing out struggling coal and nuclear power plants is as important to national security as keeping the military strong, and that the cost to Americans should not be an issue.

“You cannot put a dollar figure on the cost to keep America free,” he told reporters at a press conference in Washington, when asked how much the administration’s effort to extend the lives of the facilities would cost. When asked about the cost of a potential bailout, he said he did not yet know.

“We look at the electricity grid as every bit as important to (national security) as making sure we have the right number of ships, aircraft and personnel,” he said. “What is your freedom worth?”

President Donald Trump ordered the DOE to take emergency measures to slow the retirements of coal and nuclear power plants, arguing those kinds of facilities can store months of fuel on site and therefore withstand supply disruptions that could be caused by storms, hacks, or physical attacks.

Aging coal and nuclear facilities have been shuttering at a rapid pace in recent years, pushed out by cheaper natural gas as well as renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

The Trump administration considers renewable energy vulnerable, because gas-fired plants rely on pipelines that can be disrupted, and solar and wind facilities only produce energy under certain weather conditions.

Perry said nearly all U.S. military bases rely on power from the civilian grid.

The emerging grid policy fits neatly with the administration’s broader agenda to boost U.S. fossil fuels production and to save the coal industry.

The DOE is currently studying ways to bail out coal and nuclear facilities, including potentially by mandating grid operators to purchase power from them.

Cyber experts have questioned the reasoning behind a potential bailout. They said it will not toughen the U.S. power grid against cyber attacks because hackers have a wide array of options for hitting electric infrastructure and nuclear facilities that are high-profile targets.

Perry said the DOE is examining the costs now.

“We don’t have a dollar estimate at this particular point.”

(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Gregorio)

Special Report: As Mexico oil sector sputters, crime and violence rattle industry towns

Broken windows of an abandon bar, due to the local violence are seen in front of the Pemex oil port known as Dos Bocas en Paraiso, Tabasco, Mexico April 24, 2018. Picture taken on April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Gabriel Stargardter

PARAISO, Mexico (Reuters) – Until recently, Edgar Barrera enjoyed a life many Mexicans could only hope for.

In a few short years, the 36-year-old bookkeeper rose from handyman to white-collar worker at what seemed to be one of the most stable companies in Latin America: state-owned oil firm Pemex.

Thanks to Pemex, Barrera met his wife, vacationed on the Mayan Riviera and envisaged a rewarding career without leaving his hometown in Tabasco, a rural state at the southern hook of the Gulf of Mexico where more than half the population lives on less than roughly $92 a month.

Then everything changed.

Oil prices plummeted, forcing Pemex to cut his and thousands of other jobs across Mexico. An energy reform, meant to spur business with private competitors, struggled to attract immediate investment. And the gang violence that has crippled Mexico over the last decade finally spread to Tabasco, previously a relatively peaceful corner of the country.

Mounting consequences, from an economic recession to soaring murder rates, have rapidly made Tabasco one of Mexico’s most troubled states. Its small, but once seemingly solid, middle-class now struggles with a downturn and lurid violence.

Barrera himself, after brushes with extortionists and kidnappers who may have once been Pemex colleagues, recently sought asylum in Canada.

Paraiso, or “paradise,” is the Tabasco town where Barrera grew up and worked at a Pemex port. It is “now a hell,” he said.

Women take a stand for a photograph with the letters of Paraiso in Paraiso, Tabasco, Mexico April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

Women take a stand for a photograph with the letters of Paraiso in Paraiso, Tabasco, Mexico April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

It’s little surprise that industry turbulence would hurt Tabasco, home to Mexico’s first petroleum discovery and a state where more than half the economy, and nearly half the jobs, rely on the oil sector.

But the extent of the problems has caught locals, industry executives and government officials off guard, especially as criminals increasingly exploit what’s left of any prosperity by targeting Pemex resources, equipment and employees.

“The oil debacle hit us hard,” said Tabasco Governor Arturo Nunez. “It caused social problems that without question are contributing to higher crime.”

President Enrique Pena Nieto, now in his last year in office, made an overhaul of the energy industry his signature initiative, ending Pemex’s longstanding grip on exploration, production, refining and retail fuel sales. Proponents long argued that operators besides Pemex are needed to reverse more than a decade of declining crude output and unlock potential in untapped deposits.

But the reform, finalized in 2014, came into law just as global oil prices collapsed, dampening companies’ willingness to invest. Despite a recent rebound, the price of crude in global markets plummeted by as much as 76 percent as of June of that year.

Since then, Pemex has slashed nearly 18,000 jobs across Mexico, about 13 percent of its workforce, according to company figures. In Tabasco, Pemex let go 1,857 workers, or roughly 12 percent of the 16,000 jobs the state shed between 2014 and 2016, according to government data. Many of the other layoffs were among suppliers and other businesses that rely on Pemex.

Combined, the cutbacks gave Tabasco Mexico’s highest unemployment rate and mired the state in recession. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, Tabasco’s economy shrank by 6.3 percent. It is the only state where both poverty and extreme poverty, defined by the government as monthly income of less than about $50, have risen in recent years.

Compounding troubles nationwide, the woes have eroded support ahead of a July 1 presidential election for Pena Nieto’s successor as the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Instead, a leftist former Mexico City mayor – and native son of Tabasco – dominates polls. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the 64-year-old frontrunner, promises to build a refinery in his home state.

Although Pemex has recently begun to hire back a few workers, other companies have been reluctant to invest in states like Tabasco, where oil production is now nearly 70 percent below a peak in the early 1990s. With supply abundant worldwide, and an ever-growing flow of crude from U.S. shale, would-be investors are wary of Mexico’s crime, corruption and violence.

“We decided not to start,” said Javier Lopez, a Texas-based attorney who recently scrapped plans to launch a business trucking fuel from the United States into Mexico. “We really were afraid we’d get a truck stolen, a driver killed.”

For more than a decade, Mexico’s government has deployed police, the military and intelligence forces to topple powerful drug kingpins. As they fell, cartels morphed and moved into new rackets, including theft and extortion of businesses in industries from agriculture to mining and oil.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported how fuel thieves are crippling Mexico’s refineries and unleashing bloodshed in formerly calm centers of Pemex operations.

In Tabasco, police registered 388 murders last year, over triple the number in 2012. Despite a population of 2.4 million people, small compared with many of Mexico’s 30 other states and giant capital district, Tabasco had the fourth-highest kidnapping tally and sixth-highest number of extortions reported last year.

Current and former Pemex workers are at both ends of the crimes – some as victims but others as instigators, participants or informants. Emboldened by the impunity and graft that have enabled crime nationwide, some locals have turned to illicit businesses, joining or seeking to start gangs that steal Pemex fuel, machinery and supplies. Others are targeting relatively well-off current and former Pemex workers, such as Barrera.

In a statement, Pemex said it “has zero tolerance with any worker involved in any crime.” The company said it cooperates with local, state and federal police to investigate illegal activity, but declined to comment on specific episodes or cases involving individual workers mentioned in this story.

During a recent interview, Carlos Trevino, Pemex’s chief executive, conceded that employees are increasingly at risk because of their jobs and pay. “Petroleros have a better salary than many other people,” he said, using the Spanish term for oil industry workers.

Across Mexico, Trevino added, the company is increasing measures to ensure the security of personnel and property. It has taken its name and logo off trucks. It told workers to stop wearing Pemex uniforms off site.

Still, he said, “it’s hard to have a completely safe operation.”

“This thing in Tabasco,” he added, “it’s not good.”

CRUDE HISTORY

Mexico’s first known oil discovery took place in Tabasco in 1863. Manuel Gil y Saenz, a priest, was rushing to see his ill mother when his horse’s hoof got stuck in black sludge, according to a local history of the find.

Despite warnings by natives that a witch there turned people into salt, the priest returned and began tapping the oil. With partners, he later sold his venture to a British oil company.

In 1938, Mexico expropriated foreign-owned oil assets and created Petroleos Mexicanos, as Pemex is formally known. Over the following decades, production grew in other regions along the Gulf coast. In 1972 prospectors found a giant deposit known as the Mesozoic Chiapas-Tabasco oilfield, prompting a rush to develop the state.

To handle growing output from Tabasco, Pemex in 1979 began building the Dos Bocas port and terminal in Paraiso, a hot, marshy town of 94,000 people surrounded by cacao and coconut plantations.

For locals, who previously subsisted on small-scale agriculture and fishing, “Pemex came and changed our lives,” said Ricardo Hernandez Daza, head of a local union of roughly 3,000 workers who staff many industry sites.

Barrera, the auditor now seeking asylum, joined Pemex in 2004.

That year, the country’s oil output reached a record high and opportunities seemed boundless. Mexico was one of many producers poised to benefit from steadily climbing prices as the global industry, before the shale boom, faced “peak oil,” the assumption that most of the world’s supply was known and diminishing.

First hired as a maintenance worker, Barrera worked his way up through other positions, got on-the-job training and eventually began reviewing company accounts for a salary of about $2,000 a month. He married a fellow Pemex auditor, bought two cars and enjoyed regular seafood outings with his wife, their daughter and two stepsons.

Until oil prices plunged.

Barrera weathered initial Pemex layoffs, but in November 2015 was let go. He immediately sought other jobs, but with many others already scrambling for work, he found only occasional freelance assignments.

Soon, Paraiso was reeling.

Two brothers, Mario and Pedro Maciel, emerged as local crime bosses, according to state prosecutors. Rumors swirled they had set up a branch of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, known for drug trafficking, fuel theft and countless other crimes across Mexico.

Some Gulf of Mexico oil workers, many of whom come from inland states, were already getting extorted by the cartel on trips into Jalisco New Generation territory.

Alayn Herver, a 28-year-old native of the central state from which the cartel took its name, until last year worked on offshore oil rigs that dot the Tabasco shoreline. Because of the intense schedules required there, Herver would spend two weeks on the rigs and then two weeks on leave back home in Jalisco.

In October 2016, while in a bar in his hometown of Ciudad Guzman, a stranger approached him and demanded roughly $1,000, about half his monthly salary. “We know you earn well,” the man said. “Do you want something to happen to you?”

At first, Herver thought the man was joking. Outside, though, some of the man’s colleagues awaited in an SUV, ready to take him to an ATM. Herver realized they were members of the Jalisco cartel.

He paid the men, who told him a similar payoff would be expected each month. For half a year, Herver complied. The transaction became so routine that the gang members appeared to lose interest.

Herver didn’t report the extortion. Like many Mexicans, he was wary of widespread corruption in police ranks and feared they would only make matters worse.

The following April, he decided to skip a payment.

On his next trip home, in May 2017, local police pulled him over, Herver said. They handcuffed him and put him in their patrol car. “You’ve got yourself into trouble,” he recalled one officer telling him.

Alejandro Romero, a senior officer with the Ciudad Guzman police force, declined to comment on the incident. The Jalisco state attorney general’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

As another policeman followed in Herver’s car, a 2007 Mini Cooper, the officers drove to a spot near the city dump, he said. There, six armed men, including the gang member who first approached him, pummeled Herver.

“Pull his pants down,” one of the gangsters said.

They beat his bare buttocks with a paddle and repeatedly threatened to rape him. One of the assailants put a gun to his head, while another grabbed his cell phone and began posting live video to Herver’s own Facebook feed.

Horrified, friends and family watched, the raw footage shifting from Herver’s drained expression to close-ups of his bloody behind.

“I thought they were going to kill me,” Herver said.

Instead, they let him go, keeping the Mini as payment.

“A PIECE OF THE ACTION”

In Paraiso, the Maciel brothers denied connections to the cartel or any such crimes. They published an open letter on Facebook stating they were law-abiding citizens.

“We are a family,” they wrote in the letter, “dedicated to its work for Pemex at Dos Bocas,” the port.

A worker named Pedro Maciel did, in fact, work for Pemex in Tabasco as recently as 2017, according to a database of company workers reviewed by Reuters. Mario’s name didn’t appear in the registry.

For locals, the brothers’ reassurances made little difference.

It was already apparent that a Pemex job wasn’t what it once was. Others besides the Maciel brothers were suspected across Paraiso of using their oil-industry positions as perches from which to steal fuel, extort workers and commit other crimes.

Those familiar with the industry say it makes sense that criminals, not just victims, could emerge from the Pemex payroll. Even if not committing atrocities themselves, some employees are believed to cooperate with gangs for their own cut of the proceeds or, merely, out of fear.

“They know the guts of the place, so they can provide information,” said Raul Munoz, a former Pemex chief executive, who now has private business with the company in Tabasco and says he faces regular security problems. “Everyone wants a piece of the action.”

Barrera, the auditor, and his family soon were swept up in the action. Last October, kidnappers captured a brother-in-law. Days before, after three decades of Pemex service, he had received a retirement bonus of roughly $20,000.

Within days, the family cobbled together a ransom of about $30,000. The kidnappers released him. With contact information stolen from his telephone, though, they began calling friends and family, demanding more.

The brother-in-law declined to speak with Reuters about the kidnapping.

Like Herver, the family opted not to go to the police.

“Pemex’s workforce is contaminated,” Barrera said, echoing family members who believe the kidnapping was planned with inside information. “The workers are feasting on one another.”

Last November, Barrera secured a few weeks’ work as a Pemex contractor. The threats grew closer.

A colleague told Barrera’s wife, who still works at Pemex, that suspicious men had been asking about her outside the office gates. Colleagues then told Barrera that armed men were waiting outside the office for him, too.

Terrified, he slept in the office that night.

Enough, he thought.

Barrera booked a ticket to Canada, where Mexicans can travel with no visa. He landed in Toronto last Christmas and applied for asylum. He hopes to bring his family, who moved to Villahermosa, Tabasco’s capital, in order to avoid the gangsters in Paraiso.

Herver, the rig worker whose beating was streamed live on Facebook, also fled to Canada.

“I was doing well at Pemex,” he said. But after the assault, “my only alternative was to leave.”

He, too, applied for asylum.

A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada declined to comment on either case, citing privacy laws.

On January 31, coordinated shootings erupted overnight across Paraiso.

Among the dead: the Maciel brothers. Local prosecutors said they were killed in a fuel-theft dispute. Their assassins, prosecutors added, died two months later in a shootout with police.

Even what should be legitimate business is getting more violent.

Daza, the local union boss, said his sprawling collective of construction, welding, tubing and other laborers has grown aggressive to protect its share of dwindling oil work. The union is one of many independent labor groups that represent workers and compete with one another for industry jobs.

Among other tactics, he admits to assaulting rival union members to keep them from job sites. They wield baseball bats, not firearms or knives, to avoid felony charges, he said.

When strangers in out-of-state rental cars arrive in Paraiso, the union and others like it send members to their hotel to demand work at whatever project they’re planning. If they don’t deliver, the unions sometimes shut sites down.

The tactics are not out of the ordinary in a country and industry where corrupt labor leaders are known to bribe both companies and members in exchange for keeping positions filled.

But they have also fueled job losses.

Because of the unions’ demands, oil services companies Oro Negro and Constructora y Perforadora Latina left, depriving Paraiso of 300 jobs, according to a local newspaper report. Neither of the companies, based in Mexico City, responded to requests for comment.

Daza said he has little choice but to use force at a time when the oil business is both the root of Paraiso’s problems and its only hope of recovery. “We’re in danger of extinction,” Daza said. “If nobody comes to save us, we’re screwed.”

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla in London. Editing by Paulo Prada.)

Israel asks Cyprus to consider shipping route for Gaza: Cypriot official

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian fishermen ride their boats as they return from fishing at the seaport of Gaza City early morning September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo

ATHENS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has asked Cyprus to examine the possibility of establishing a shipping point on the island for sending goods to the Gaza Strip, a Cypriot government spokesman said on Tuesday.

Goods shipped by sea usually come to an Israeli port and are transferred to Gaza over land. Israel enforces a maritime blockade on Gaza, which it says is meant to prevent weapons from reaching the territory ruled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Both Egypt and Israel restrict movement across Gaza’s land borders as well. The United Nations has called for a freer flow of goods into Gaza, where most Palestinians live in poverty.

The idea of setting up a facility in Cyprus has been floated for years, and Israel recently made a request to explore the issue, according to Cypriot government spokesman Prodromos Prodromou.

“It is an old issue which is now being re-discussed,” Prodromou told Reuters.

“There will be contacts between the government and all interested parties in the region and, possibly, a decision will be taken. At the moment no decision has been taken. The request is being examined, it hasn’t been rejected,” he said.

Prodromou did not say when the request was made, but Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited Nicosia last week.

An Israeli news report late on Monday said Lieberman had reached an understanding with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades to pursue the port plan.

Lieberman’s office, in response to the report, said that Israel is working internationally in a number of ways to try to “change the reality in Gaza”, but that any move to improve the humanitarian situation depends on the return of Israelis who are missing or being held prisoner in Gaza.

“Beyond that we cannot relate to the details,” it said in a statement.

Israel has demanded the return of two Israeli civilians who it says crossed into Gaza and are being held by Hamas, as well as the bodies of two soldiers who were killed in a 2014 war. Hamas says it is holding them but does not give any details.

Hamas officials declined to comment on the port plan.

At least one Israeli cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, has been promoting the Cyprus port idea as a way to create a conduit into Gaza that does not go through Israel. Another Israeli cabinet minister has raised the idea of building an artificial island off the Gaza coast, a much larger project.

“I think that we can combine our security on one hand and open Gaza to the outer world on the other hand,” Steinitz said of the port idea in an interview in Washington.

A port would be a faster solution than an artificial island. Opening a port in Cyprus could take only a few months after getting international approval and could be shut down quickly if somebody abuses it, Steinitz said. Building an artificial island could take 10 years, he said.

Security checks at the piers, however, would have to be handled by Israel together with an international group such as the United Nations, Steinitz said earlier this month.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Nidal al-Mughrabi; Timothy Gardner in Washington; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool)

Israeli gunfire, tear gas injure 100 as Gaza protest resumes

Tear gas canisters are fired by Israeli troops at Palestinian demonstrators during a protest marking al-Quds Day, (Jerusalem Day), at the Israel-Gaza border east of Gaza City June 8, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Israeli troops fired tear gas and live bullets at Palestinians taking part in weekly protests at the Gaza Strip border with Israel on Friday, injuring at least 100 people, medics said.

The army said it was taking action to disperse thousands of Palestinians, some of whom threw rocks the troops and burned tyres, and prevent any breach of the fortified frontier fence.

Israeli forces have killed at last 120 Palestinians in protests along the border since a campaign was launched on March 30 to demand the right to return to ancestral lands that are now part of Israel, hospital officials say. Israel says the dead included Hamas and other militants who used civilians as cover for infiltration attempts.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Death, POWs and buried silver: Chequered history of Trump-Kim summit venue

FILE PHOTO: Interpol's headquarters are seen in Singapore November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas White/File Photo

By Dewey Sim and Aradhana Aravindan

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – A resort island off Singapore that once housed a prisoner of war camp run by wartime Japanese forces and was called “Rear Death Island” is the venue for Tuesday’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The island is now called Sentosa, or Peace and Tranquility, and the two leaders will meet in the Capella hotel, a refurbished British Royal Artillery mess, where, according to legend, there may be silver buried under the lawn.

There were few tourists at the Capella on Wednesday but police, other security personnel and workers were thronging the luxury sprawling hotel to prepare for the meeting that is set to start in six days time.

The hotel is honoring existing guest reservations for now but no new bookings were being accepted.

While Singapore has hosted major summits in the past, none have been held on Sentosa, better known for its beaches, hotels, a casino and a Universal Studios theme park.

“That means having to plan the security strategy from scratch,” said Toby Koh, group managing director at Ademco Security Group, which provides security systems to businesses in several Asian countries.

Koh is not involved in security for the summit.

The United States and North Korea are technically still at war, being the signatories along with China of the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Trump has indicated he would try to sign a document that formally ends the war.

Singapore has declared all of Sentosa island a “special event area” for the Trump-Kim summit, which means it will be subject to enhanced security checks, potentially slowing the movement of traffic, and banning the use of loudspeakers and drones.

Even though hotels and other establishments on the island was bracing for disruptions for several days next week, the government agency that handles its management said it would be “business as usual.”

But those who live in the multi-million dollar homes on the island, linked to Singapore by a causeway, monorail and cable car, were braced for delays.

“Sentosa has only one entrance and if the entrance is blocked completely, it will definitely be a major inconvenience,” said Patricia Siswandjo, a Sentosa resident.

Once a graveyard and named Pulau Belakang Mati, which roughly means “Rear Death Island” in Malay, it was developed as a tourist attraction in the 1970s, when it was enlarged through land reclamation.

UNDER THE LAWN

Included in the Capella are two colonial-era bungalows that used to accommodate British artillery officers and was also their regimental mess. According to the hotel’s web site, the officers buried the regimental silver in front of the mess before the Japanese invasion.

Part of the silver was recovered from Malaysia in later years “but the whereabouts of the rest is still unknown, and possibly still lying under the lawn”, the web site said.

Today the Capella is a part of real estate development company called Pontiac Land Group, which is owned by Singapore’s billionaire Kwee family that bought the brand from former Ritz Carlton president Horst Schulze last year.

It has 112 rooms, suites, villas and manors, including the three-bedroom colonial manor, which goes for 10,000 Singapore dollars ($7,500) a night. The grounds have three pools, tennis courts and a spa.

Although no announcements have been made, the leaders are unlikely to stay on Sentosa.

Singapore has designated a separate area near its main downtown district as another special event zone, which has several luxury hotels, which could house the two delegations.

The Orchard Road district also has most major embassies, the Interpol regional office, condominiums, high-end shops and malls and some seedy bars and massage parlours.

The Orchard Towers, a short stroll from some of the major hotels that have been mentioned as possible venues to host Trump and Kim, is home to the embassies of Cambodia and Romania but also a series of establishments with names such as “Naughty Girl” and “Top 5” that come to life after dark.

Not far from there is the Shangri-La Hotel, the site for the historic and only meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and then-Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou in 2015. Last weekend, the hotel hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other defense ministers for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue and local media have said it could be where Trump stays.

Security will be the biggest priority for Singapore, ranked one of the safest countries in the world, but which has been stepping up efforts to deter terrorism in recent years.

While both leaders will bring their own personal security teams, elite Singaporean police, including its Gurkha Contingent, will be securing the summit venue, roads and hotels, according to diplomats familiar with VIP security in the island state.

“Because of the unique sensitivities and peculiarities of the summit, almost anything unpredictable could possibly affect the summit itself,” Graham Ong-Webb, a research fellow, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said.

(Additional reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Jack Kim and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Business leaders turn up heat on Mexican government over crime surge

FILE PHOTO: Police officers guard the entrance of the Coca-Cola FEMSA distribution plant after it closes down due to the issues of security and violence during the campaign rally of Independent presidential candidate Margarita Zavala (unseen) in Ciudad Altamirano, Guerrero state, Mexico April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Ginnette Riquelme/File Photo

By Anthony Esposito and Sharay Angulo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexican business leaders called out the government on Monday over a recent wave of criminal activity that has terrorized large swaths of Latin America’s second-largest economy and led some prominent firms to cut back operations.

Two of Mexico’s top business groups urged the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto and the candidates hoping to succeed him in a July 1 election to stem the violence and robberies, which they say are putting workers’ lives at risk and hurting investment.

“The high levels of violence have become the greatest obstacle to (economic) activity,” Mexico’s powerful CCE business lobby said in a statement.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in turf wars between drug cartels and their clashes with security forces since former President Felipe Calderon sent in the military to crush the gangs soon after taking office at the end of 2006.

In recent weeks, dairy producer Grupo Lala shuttered a distribution center in the northern state of Tamaulipas and the world’s biggest Coke bottler, Coca-Cola Femsa, indefinitely shut down a 160-employee distribution center in southwestern Guerrero state.

Canada’s Pan American Silver Corp was the latest to act, saying on Monday it would reduce operations and suspend staff movements at its Dolores silver mine in the border state of Chihuahua because of recent security incidents.

Companies risk extortion, theft, attacks on their logistics chain and physical assault on their employees, according to the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico (AmCham).

“The impact of corruption, public insecurity, an inadequate justice (system) definitely impacts the cost of investment,” while fear of crime even keeps some executives from coming to Mexico, said Luis Gerardo del Valle, AmCham Mexico’s head of tax affairs.

Train and truck freight thefts have jumped as criminals employ more sophisticated methods.

Last week, miner and infrastructure firm Grupo Mexico said seven freight train derailments between the port of Veracruz and central Mexico were due to “sabotage” and would cost the company 312 million pesos ($16 million).

Mexican industry association Canacintra estimates that small and medium-sized companies spend the equivalent of 6 percent of their income on security, double what they did a decade ago.

‘WE CAN’T KEEP WAITING’

Mexican employers’ federation Coparmex called on the government to stop waiting until the election was over.

“Time is running out for this government, as is the public’s patience. We can’t keep waiting. This is the last call,” Coparmex said in a statement.

Pena Nieto took office in December 2012 promising to get a grip on gang violence and lawlessness. After some initial progress, the situation deteriorated and killings hit their highest level on record last year.

The president’s office had no immediate response to a request for comment.

Pena Nieto is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election, and the prospects of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) retaining power look grim. PRI candidate Jose Antonio Meade has been running third in nearly all opinion polls.

The principal beneficiary has been leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has built up a strong poll lead on the back of widespread disenchantment with the PRI over corruption and rising violence, as well as sluggish economic growth.

But Lopez Obrador has also faced criticism for floating a possible amnesty for criminals to restore order.

In a thinly veiled jab at Lopez Obrador, the CCE said: “While it is true that violence is not solved by violence, it is also true that crime is not ended by forgiveness or calls to Mass.”

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Sharay Angulo; Additional reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Dave Graham and Peter Cooney)

Canada granting refugee status to fewer illegal border crossers

FILE PHOTO: A family who identified themselves as being from Hait, are confronted by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officer as they try to enter into Canada from Roxham Road in Champlain, New York, U.S., August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Phot

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada is rejecting more refugee claims from people who crossed its border illegally as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government seeks to dissuade, block and turn back thousands more, according to new data obtained by Reuters.

Forty percent of such border crossers whose claims were finalized in the first three months of this year were granted refugee status, down from 53 percent for all of 2017, according to data provided by Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board. There were no claims finalized in the first three months of 2017.

FILE PHOTO: A group of asylum seekers wait to be processed after being escorted from their tent encampment to the Canada Border Services in Lacolle, Quebec, Canada, August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Ph

FILE PHOTO: A group of asylum seekers wait to be processed after being escorted from their tent encampment to the Canada Border Services in Lacolle, Quebec, Canada, August 11, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi/File Photo

The Immigration and Refugee Board said on Tuesday it has received no directives or guidance on how to deal with these border crossers.

The government’s “first priority remains the safety and security of Canadians and the integrity of our immigration system,” a spokesman for Immigration and Refugee Minister Ahmed Hussen said in an email.

The wave of border crossings started up in January 2017 and ramped up over the summer as many Haitian immigrants in the United States who were at risk of losing their temporary legal status streamed into Canada on expectations they could find a safe haven. In the months since, thousands of Nigerians have made the same crossing.

More than 27,000 asylum seekers have walked across the Canada-U.S. border since President Donald Trump took office, some of whom have told Reuters they left the United States because of Trump’s policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The influx has strained Canada’s backlogged system for assisting people seeking refugee status, leaving aid agencies scrambling to meet growing demand for housing and social services.

Trudeau’s government has sought to stem the influx by amending a U.S.-Canadian border pact that turns back asylum seekers at border crossings, but allows immigrants who enter the country outside of an official border crossing to apply for refugee status.

Canada sent its immigration and refugee minister to Nigeria, asking the Nigerian government to help discourage its citizens from crossing into Canada, and asking the United States to deny visas to people who might then go to Canada.

Immigration and Refugee Board data shows that while only a small number of border-crosser claims have been processed, acceptance rates are down for all groups seeking refugee status. The success rate is especially low for Haitians and Nigerians, with overall acceptance rates of 9 percent and 33.5 percent, respectively.

Graphic on the impact asylum seekers are having in Canada: tmsnrt.rs/2HCp4aD

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; editing by Jim Finkle, Leslie Adler and Bill Berkrot)

Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal discharged from UK hospital

FILE PHOTO: The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the centre of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Alistair Smout and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Sergei Skripal, the Russian former spy who was left in critical condition by a nerve agent attack in Britain more than two months ago, has been discharged from hospital, national health authorities said on Friday.

Skripal, 66, a former colonel in Russia’s military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain, and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury on March 4.

Britain’s accusations that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack led to a Russia-West crisis in which Western governments, including the United States, have expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats. Russia has denied any involvement in the poisoning and retaliated in kind.

The Skripals were in a critical condition for weeks and doctors at one point feared that, even if they survived, they might have suffered brain damage. But their health began to improve rapidly, and Yulia was discharged last month.

“It is fantastic news that Sergei Skripal is well enough to leave Salisbury District Hospital,” the hospital’s Chief Executive Cara Charles-Barks said in a statement.

Police have said they will not give any details of the Skripals’ new security arrangements in the interests of their safety, and neither they nor the hospital gave any details of Sergei’s new whereabouts. Yulia was taken to a secure location after her release, the BBC reported at the time.

Britain and international chemicals weapons inspectors say the Skripals were poisoned with Novichok, a deadly group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and 1980s. Foreign minister Boris Johnson called on Friday for a meeting of parties to the international Chemical Weapons Convention to find ways to strengthen the agreement.

A spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Theresa May, who called the Salisbury attack a “reckless and despicable act”, welcomed news of Skripal’s discharge.

Moscow has denied involvement in the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that had a weapons-grade nerve agent been used on Skripal, he would be dead.

Russia has suggested Britain carried out the attack itself to stoke anti-Russian hysteria, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month that the agent used in the attack may have never been made in Russia.

Putin on Friday welcomed Skripal’s progress, and Russia’s ambassador to London reiterated Russia’s desire to see the pair, saying that currently Britain was not fulfilling its obligations under international law.

“We’re happy that he’s alright,” Alexander Yakovenko told reporters.

“We’re still demanding the access to these people. We want just to understand how they feel and we want them to say personally what they want. If they don’t want our assistance it’s fine. We want to see them physically.”

Britain has said previously that Yulia, a Russian citizen, has chosen not to take up Russia’s offer of help.

Salisbury Hospital said that patient confidentiality limited the information they could give, but that the “acutely unwell” Skripals had been stabilized and kept alive until their bodies could replace poisoned enzymes with new ones.

(Additional reporting Michael Holden and Ana de Liz; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Catherine Evans)

Israeli fire kills one Palestinian, wounds 170 in border protest-Gaza medics

A demonstrator uses a racket to return a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli troops killed one Palestinian and wounded at least 170 protesters in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical workers said, bringing to 44 the number killed during a six-week protest at the Gaza-Israel border.

The man killed was protesting east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, said medics, who said that seven other people were critically injured, including a 16-year-old youth who was shot in the face.

Organizers of the protest, called the “Great March of Return,” said they expected tens of thousands of Gazans at tented border encampments in the coming days.

The protests peak on Fridays and are building to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians call the “Nakba” or “Catastrophe”, marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the conflict surrounding the creation of Israel in 1948.

Witnesses said Israeli soldiers used a drone to down flaming kites that protesters flew over the border in a bid to torch bushes and distract snipers.

A report by the aid charity Save the Children, published on Friday, said that at least 250 Gazan children had been hit with live bullets during the protests, among nearly 700 children injured overall. The analysis was based on data collected by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Israel has been criticized by human rights groups for its lethal response to the protests. The Israeli military said on Friday its troops were defending the border and “firing in accordance with the rules of engagement”.

Protesters were “violent, burning tires and hurling rocks,” it said in a statement. Israel’s military “will not allow any harm to the security infrastructure or security fence and will continue standing by its mission to defend and ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and Israeli sovereignty, as necessary.”

The Gaza Strip, home to 2 million people, is run by the Islamist group Hamas which has fought three wars against Israel in the past decade. Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade of the strip, which has the highest unemployment rate in the world and has become far poorer than the other main Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

A Palestinian woman drops tyres to be burnt at the Israel-Gaza border during a protest where Palestinians demand the right to return to their homeland, in the southern Gaza Strip May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

On Thursday in Gaza, Hamas leader Yehya Al-Sinwar described the protests as peaceful, and said: “We hope these incidents will pass without a large number of martyrs and wounded, and the occupation forces must restrain themselves.”

Samir, a refugee whose grandfather originally came from Jaffa, which now lies 40 miles up the coast in Israel, rolled tires toward the area close to the fence where he later burned them.

“My grandfather told me about Jaffa, where he came from, he said it was the bride of the sea, the most beautiful of all. I want to go back to Jaffa,” he said.

“Killing me will not change anything, Jaffa will remain Jaffa. They need to kill every last one of us to change the facts.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Catherine Evans and Peter Graff)

Hotel key cards, even invalid ones, help hackers break into rooms

F-Secure researcher Timo Hirvonen shows a device that is able to create a master key out of a single hotel key card in Helsinki, Finland April 19, 2018. Picture taken April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Attila

By Jussi Rosendahl and Attila Cser

HELSINKI (Reuters) – By getting hold of a widely used hotel key card, an attacker could create a master key to unlock any room in the building without leaving a trace, Finnish security researchers said in a study published on Wednesday, solving a 14-year-old mystery.

While the researchers have fixed the flaw together with Assa Abloy, the world’s largest lock manufacturer which owns the system in question, the case serves as a wake-up call for the lodging industry to a problem that went undetected for years.

Tomi Tuominen, 45, and Timo Hirvonen, 32, security consultants for Finnish data security company F-Secure, say they discovered the vulnerability about a year ago, and reported it to Assa.

“We found out that by using any key card to a hotel … you can create a master key that can enter any room in the hotel. It doesn’t even have to be a valid card, it can be an expired one,” Hirvonen said in an interview.

The researchers helped Assa fix the software for an update made available to hotel chains in February. Assa said some hotels have updated it but that it would take a couple more weeks to fully resolve the issue.

“I highly encourage the hotels to install those software fixes,” Hirvonen said. “But I think there is no immediate threat, since being able to develop this attack is going to take some time.”

Any fresh security risk remains low since the researchers’ tools and method will not be published, Assa noted.

The radio-frequency ID key card system in question, Vision by Vingcard, has been replaced by many hotels with new technology, but its current owner Assa Abloy estimated that the system is still being used in several hundred thousand hotel rooms worldwide.

Tuominen said the breakthrough was to figure out a weakness in how the locks are deployed and installed, together with a seemingly minor technical design flaw.

COLD CASE FILES

Sitting at F-Secure’s glass-and-steel-on-stilts headquarters by the Baltic Sea, the researchers show off a small hardware device which they have made able to write a master key out of the information of any card in the Vingcard system.

Clues date back to 2003 when a laptop disappeared from a computer security expert’s room at a high-class hotel in Berlin.

The thief left no traces in the room or within the electric lock system, hotel personnel said. The stolen laptop, which never turned up, belonged to a guest who had presented his research at a security conference.

Hearing of the theft at the conference, Tuominen and Hirvonen – then youthful computer guys in hacker-style black hoodies – asked themselves: Could one hack the locking system without leaving a trace?

For years, the two worked off and on to solve the mystery of the plastic cards, which guests often neglect to return. First it was purely a hobby, later a professional mission.

“These issues alone are not a problem, but once you combine those two things, it becomes exploitable,” Hirvonen said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if other electronic lock systems have similar vulnerabilities. You cannot really know how secure the system is unless someone has really tried to break it.”

The researchers say they have no evidence whether the vulnerabities they found have been put to work by criminals.

Assa Abloy stresses that its newer offerings are based on different technologies, including a system that allows hotel guests to open door locks with their smartphones.

“The challenge of the security business is that it is a moving target. What is secure at a point of time, is not 20 years later,” Christophe Sut, an executive at Assa Abloy Hospitality, said in a phone interview.

The researchers asked for no money from Assa for their work or discovery, saying they were only driven by the challenge.

“Some people play football, some people go sailing, some do photography. This is our hobby,” Tuominen said.

(Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl and Attila Cser, editing by Eric Auchard and Adrian Croft)