With inflation soaring, Venezuela prices shed five zeros

A 2.4 kg chicken is pictured next to 14,600,000 bolivars, its price and the equivalent of 2.22 USD, at a mini-market in Caracas, Venezuela. It was the going price at an informal market in the low-income neighborhood of Catia. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Tibisay Romero

VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela on Monday slashed five zeros from prices as part of a broad economic plan that President Nicolas Maduro says will tame hyperinflation but critics call another raft of failed socialist policies that will push the chaotic country deeper into crisis.

Streets were quiet and shops were closed due to a national holiday that Maduro decreed for the first day of the new pricing plan for the stricken economy, which the International Monetary Fund has estimated will have 1 million percent inflation by year-end.

The price change comes with a 3,000 percent minimum wage hike and tax increases meant to shore up government revenue and a plan to peg salaries, prices and the country’s exchange rate tied to the petro, an elusive state-backed cryptocurrency.

Economists say the plan announced on Friday is likely to escalate the crisis facing the once-prosperous country that is now suffering from Soviet-style product shortages and a mass exodus of citizens fleeing for nearby South American countries.

Venezuelans are mostly baffled by the monetary overhaul and skeptical it will turn the country around.

“This is out of control, prices are sky high,” said Betzabeth Linares, 47, in a supermarket in the central city of Valencia. “What worries me is how we’ll eat, the truth is that the way things are going, I really don’t know.”

After a decade-long oil bonanza that spawned a consumption boom in the OPEC member, many poor citizens are now reduced to scouring through garbage to find food as monthly salaries currently amount to a few U.S. dollars a month.

The new measures spooked shopkeepers already struggling to stay afloat due to hyperinflation, government-set prices for goods ranging from flour to diapers, and strict currency controls that crimp imports.

Growing discontent with Maduro has also spread to the military as soldiers struggle to get enough food and many desert by leaving the country, along with hundreds and thousands of civilians who have emigrated by bus across South America.

Two high-ranking military officers were arrested this month for their alleged involvement in drone explosions during a speech by Maduro, who has described it as an assassination attempt.

The chaos has become an increasing concern for the region. In recent days, Ecuador and Peru have tightened visa requirements for Venezuelans, and violence drove hundreds of Venezuelan migrants back across the border with Brazil on Saturday.

Maduro, re-elected to a second term in May in a vote widely condemned as rigged, says his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by political adversaries with the help of Washington and accuses the United States of seeking to overthrow him.

The United States has denied the accusations. But it has described the former bus driver and union leader as a dictator and levied several rounds of financial sanctions against his government and top officials.

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Susan Thomas)

Charlottesville confronts identity one year after clashes

A U.S. flag flies from the back of a car, ahead the one-year anniversary of the fatal white-nationalist rally, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Joseph Ax

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) – For many residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, last year’s white nationalist rally shattered the city’s carefully curated reputation as a progressive, idyllic place to live.

But for Nikuyah Walker, an activist who was elected mayor just three months later, the violent clashes only underscored deep racial and economic inequities that have long divided this picturesque college town. In her view, the rally has forced Charlottesville to confront its own complicated legacy.

“You can have three or four generations who are struggling, and that family has not been able to move out of poverty wages – that’s a significant portion of Charlottesville,” Walker, the city’s first black female mayor, told Reuters outside City Hall. “And then you have this very wealthy community that loves and raves about it.”

As Charlottesville prepares for the one-year anniversary this weekend, it is still agonizing over clashes last year in which one woman was killed when an Ohio man drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, stands at the memorial at the site where her daughter was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, stands at the memorial at the site where her daughter was killed in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., July 31, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Some residents have argued that the vast majority of the marchers last year were from out of town, but Walker said that narrative ignores the city’s broader problems.

She noted that the main instigators of the “Unite the Right” rally, Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe the loose coalition of white nationalists, and Jason Kessler, a local blogger, graduated from the University of Virginia on the western side of town.

The rally was billed as a protest over the city council’s plan to remove two Confederate statues from downtown parks. Last year, a judge blocked the city from taking down the statues, which are encircled by orange plastic fencing and are off-limits to residents.

Several officials including the police chief, the city manager, and the city attorney left their positions after widespread criticism that Charlottesville had been ill-prepared to manage the hundreds of white nationalists who descended upon it, many armed with shields, clubs and other weapons.

“We recognize that we have to earn the community’s trust,” said Brian Wheeler, the city’s chief spokesman. “The way that we can best do that this year is learn from the mistakes.”

Local and state police have vowed to have zero tolerance for any violence this weekend, in stark contrast with last year when some officers did not intervene to break up fights. Virtually the entire downtown will be closed to vehicles.

Police have said that they are preparing for the worst, even though Kessler, who organized last year’s event, lost a bid to get a permit this year. Instead, he has received permission to rally outside the White House on Sunday and has said he will focus on Washington.

A boy passes tributes written at the site where Heather Heyer was killed during the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A boy passes tributes written at the site where Heather Heyer was killed during the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 1, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A CITY AT ODDS WITH ITSELF

The effects of last year’s violence are still felt every day in Charlottesville.

City council meetings have frequently devolved into shouting matches. At a recent community outreach meeting where police officials detailed security plans for this weekend, residents asked one after another how they were supposed to trust the police after 2017.

“Charlottesville has had a tendency to self-congratulation; it’s constantly in the magazines as the best place to live,” said Reverend Will Peyton, who oversees St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“The violence was perpetrated by outsiders, yes, but the response from the black community is like, ‘Really, this isn’t us? We don’t have a problem here?’ Because, of course, there’s entrenched inequality and entrenched structural racism,” Peyton said.

At the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in downtown Charlottesville, an exhibit documents the struggle of black residents who fought for equal access to public education.

“I don’t know that people understood that this narrative of progressive Charlottesville had flaws,” said Andrea Douglas, the center’s executive director. “Now those flaws have been exposed.”

When Mayor Walker, 38, announced her run for city council last spring after years of activism on behalf of low-income residents, she adopted the motto “Unmasking the Illusion,” aiming to dispel the notion that Charlottesville was a diverse, liberal utopia. She has focused her attention on issues like affordable housing and policing.

Last month, she joined residents on what they called a “civil rights pilgrimage” to the lynching museum in Montgomery, Alabama, bringing along soil from a site where a black Charlottesville man was lynched in 1898.

Reverend Tracy Howe Wispelwey, a local activist, said last year’s rally was eye-opening for many in Charlottesville.

“You have a lot of white liberals who have not grappled with our history and want to dismiss it,” she said. “That’s just not truth.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan hit record as suicide attacks surge

Afghan security forces inspect the site of a suicide attack in Jalalabad city, Afghanistan July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Parwiz

By James Mackenzie

KABUL (Reuters) – The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan reached a record in the first half of the year, despite last month’s ceasefire, with a surge in suicide attacks claimed by Islamic State, the United Nations said on Sunday.

Deaths rose 1 percent to 1,692, although injuries dropped 5 percent to 3,430, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in its latest civilian casualty report. Overall civilian casualties were down 3 percent.

Hopes that peace may one day be agreed in Afghanistan were raised last month by a three-day truce over the Eid al-Fitr holiday which saw unprecedented scenes of Taliban fighters mingling with security forces in Kabul and other cities.

“The brief ceasefire demonstrated that the fighting can be stopped and that Afghan civilians no longer need to bear the brunt of the war,” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the senior U.N. official in Afghanistan said in a statement.

But with heavy fighting seen across the country during the first half the year and repeated suicide attacks in Kabul and major provincial cities like Jalalabad, the report underlines the dire security situation facing Afghanistan.

It also pointed to increased activity by Islamic State, reflected in a doubling in casualties in Nangarhar, the eastern province whose capital is Jalalabad, where the militant group has conducted a series of attacks over recent months.

MINISTRY ATTACKED

The main causes of casualties were ground engagements between security forces and militants, roadside bombs, as well as suicide and other so-called complex attacks, which caused 22 percent more casualties than in the same period last year.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in attacks on targets as diverse as Shi’ite shrines, offices of government ministries and aid groups, sports events and voter registration stations.

On Sunday, the day the report was issued, at least seven people were killed and more than 15 wounded by a suicide attack as staff at a government ministry were going home.

The report said two thirds of civilian casualties were caused by anti-government forces, mainly the Taliban and Islamic State.

Fifty-two percent of the casualties from suicide and complex attacks were attributed to Islamic State, often known as Daesh, while 40 percent were attributed to the Taliban.

The Taliban, who say they take great care to avoid civilian casualties, issued a statement rejecting the report as “one sided” and accused UNAMA of working in close coordination with U.S. authorities to push propaganda against them.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for October, there is concern about more violence as polling day approaches.

The Taliban, fighting to restore their version of strict Islamic law, have rejected President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of peace talks, demanding that foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Edwina Gibbs, Robert Birsel and Keith Weir)

Death toll in Pakistan election rally bombing rises to 149

FILE PHOTO: Army soldiers carry the casket of Siraj Raisani, provincial assembly candidate of Baluchistan Awami Party (BAP), who was killed in Friday's suicide attack during an election campaign meeting, for the funeral in Quetta, Pakistan July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The death toll from a suicide attack on an election rally in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province on Friday spiked to 149, officials said, putting it among the deadliest attacks in the south Asian nation’s history.

As campaigning steps up for general elections on July 25, bombings across Pakistan have stoked fears of more violence in the country of 208 million, where political rallies can draw tens of thousands of people.

Friday’s attack at a rally for the Baluchistan Awami Party (BAP) outside the town of Mastung was claimed by militant group Islamic State. Among the dead was the party’s provincial candidate, Siraj Raisani.

A video clip showed Raisani beginning his speech just before the attack, greeting crowds seated on the ground under a large tent before the blast hit and the image cut off.

Provincial government officials said they were not told about the rally and so had not provided security to Raisani, beyond the bodyguards in his security detail.

“The death toll of Mastung carnage is now 149,” senior police official Qaim Lashari told Reuters, adding that more than 180 people were wounded and the dead included nine children.

Many of the wounded remain in critical condition at hospitals in Mastung, the provincial capital of Quetta and in the southern city of Karachi. Officials expect the death toll to rise.

Until this week, Pakistan’s election campaign had been relatively peaceful, compared with frequent Pakistani Taliban attacks during the 2013 election, when 170 people were killed, figures from the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies show.

On Tuesday, a Pakistani Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up at a rally by the Awami National Party (ANP) in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 20 people.

Among the dead in Peshawar was ANP candidate Haroon Bilour, whose father, senior ANP leader Bashir Bilour, had himself been killed in a 2012 suicide bombing in the city.

On Friday, another bomb struck the convoy of the religious Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal party (MMA) in the northern town of Bannu, killing four people.

Violence in Pakistan has ebbed since the military began major operations against Taliban militants along the tumultuous border with Afghanistan following a shocking 2014 attack on a Peshawar school that killed 153 people, most of them children.

(Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Haitian civil unrest enters third day despite fuel hike reversal

People run away as police uses tear gas to disperse people in a street of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

By Andres Martinez Casares

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Protesters blocked streets in Haiti on Sunday while many damaged or looted stores stayed closed for a third day following anger over steep fuel price increases in the Caribbean nation.

The mostly young protesters used felled trees and large rocks to block roads, as well as piles of tires set on fire, some of which still smoldered on Sunday, sending up thick clouds of black smoke.

Police used tear gas to disperse crowds in some places.

The charred remains of cars could be seen in several spots around the sprawling capital, including in front of the Best Western and Oasis hotels, in the capital’s southern hilltop suburb of Petion-Ville, as well as near the offices of telecommunications company Natcom.

The U.S. embassy warned its citizens to avoid the unrest in the capital Port-au-Prince and reschedule travel plans as several airlines canceled flights.

Two burnt buses are seen inside the customs facilities in Malpasse, Haiti, July 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

Two burnt buses are seen inside the customs facilities in Malpasse, Haiti, July 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

At the Toussaint Louverture international airport, dozens of stranded travelers camped out waiting for flights to resume, lounging on suitcases.

Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant announced the temporary suspension of double-digit government hikes to prices for gasoline, diesel and kerosene on Saturday afternoon – just a day after they were announced – but the unrest continued.

Across the capital, few cars and motorcycles were moving on the rubble-strewn streets on Sunday, while broken windows and damaged buildings were a common sight.

At a shopping center in Petion-Ville, police tried to secure shops, with broken glass and merchandise scattered on the floor.

Both the Canadian and Mexican embassies in Haiti announced that they would be closed on Monday.

The decision to raise fuel prices was part of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which requires the impoverished country to enact measures to boost government revenue and services and strengthen the country’s economy.

“Due to continuing demonstrations, roadblocks, and violence across Port-au-Prince, as well as short staffing at the airports, embassy personnel have been instructed to re-book any flights originally scheduled for Sunday,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.

A boy carrying his bicycle passes through a barricade on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, July 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A boy carrying his bicycle passes through a barricade on the outskirts of Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, July 8, 2018. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A spokesman for U.S. carrier American Airlines Group Inc said it had canceled three out of seven round trip flights scheduled to stop in Port-au-Prince on Sunday.

The carrier’s Sunday route to Haiti’s Cap-Haitien airport had not been canceled.

JetBlue Airways Corp also canceled its flights to Haiti on Sunday.

Haiti’s Commerce and Economic ministries Friday said they would lower fuel subsidies in a bid to generate more tax revenue to better fund government services, which translated to a 38 percent jump for gasoline and 47 percent for diesel.

(Reporting by Andres Martinez Casares in Port-au-Prince; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and James Dalgleish)

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.)

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)

Afghan women denied justice over violence, United Nations says

Afghan women look down at part of the city from a hill top in the early morning hours in Kabul, Afghanistan July 30, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

KABUL (Reuters) – A law meant to protect Afghan women from violence is being undermined by authorities who routinely refer even serious criminal cases to traditional mediation councils that fail to protect victims, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

The Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) law, passed in 2009, was a centerpiece of efforts to improve protection for Afghan women, who suffer widespread violence in one of the worst countries in the world to be born female.

But its effectiveness has been weakened by continued reliance on mediation by local elders to resolve violent crime.

“The wide use of mediation when a woman or girl has been beaten, mutilated or murdered, or when she has been the victim of that awful concept of ‘honor killing’, normalizes such violence and makes it much more likely to recur,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“To use mediation for such offences is at its core a human rights violation by the State,” Al Hussein said in a statement accompanying a United Nations report, entitled “Injustice and Impunity: Mediation of Criminal Offences against Women”.

In many remote parts of Afghanistan, where the formal legal system has no sway, mediation is the only form of justice, but the U.N. report focused on cases reported to the authorities.

No comment was immediately available from the office of Afghanistan’s attorney general.

Improving the situation of women in Afghanistan has been a priority for Western donors, who have pumped billions of dollars into the country.

But more than 17 years after the overthrow of the Taliban, the report underlines the still-dire situation facing many women in Afghanistan, which ranks near the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index.

Tuesday’s report was based on 237 cases of violence against women and 280 cases of murder in 2016 and 2017, including murders within families sometimes called “honor killings”.

It found such crimes appeared to enjoy “de facto immunity”, fostered by a reliance on mediation, with just 18 percent of cases ending in conviction and a prison sentence.

“The resolution of such cases by mediation must never occur; and cases should be prosecuted under the applicable general murder articles in order to end impunity,” it said.

The report highlighted problems successive Afghan governments have had in building a functioning judicial system in a country that has traditionally relied heavily on religious leaders or elders to settle disputes.

It said many women faced pressure from family members and even some legal groups set up under the EVAW law to withdraw complaints or accept mediation. Victims’ rights were not a priority, and were even disregarded outright.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Trump threatens to cut aid to countries that do not stop MS-13 gang migrants

U.S. president Trump supporter holds a banner against MS-13 before a forum about Central American-based Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang organization at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, New York, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Steve Holland

BETHPAGE, N.Y. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday he was working on a plan to reduce U.S. aid to countries he says are doing nothing to stop MS-13 gang members from crossing into the United States illegally.

“We’re looking at our whole aid structure. It’s going to be changed very radically,” Trump told a roundtable discussion about the threat posed by the violent gang.

MS-13, or the Mara Salvatrucha gang, was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s in part to protect immigrants from El Salvador and has since grown into a sprawling cross-border criminal organization.

Trump has made the fight against the gang a major part of his drive to stem the flow of immigrants illegally entering the United States.

Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, whose daughter Nisa Mickens was killed by MS-13 gang members, participate in a roundtable on immigration and the gang MS-13 attended by U.S. President Donald Trump at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, New York, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, whose daughter Nisa Mickens was killed by MS-13 gang members, participate in a roundtable on immigration and the gang MS-13 attended by U.S. President Donald Trump at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, New York, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Last week, he called gang members “animals,” drawing scorn from Democrats. On Wednesday, he defended his description.

“I called them ‘animals’ the other day and I was met with rebuke,” Trump said. “They said: ‘They are people.’ They’re not people. These are animals,” he said.

Trump was joined at the event by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has drawn criticism from the president for his handling of a federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Rosenstein said MS-13 gang members were preying on unaccompanied children who cross into the United States illegally, most of whom must be released from custody.

“Some develop gang ties,” Rosenstein said.

Trump praised his homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, whom the president has criticized privately for not doing enough in his view to stop illegal immigrants.

“You’re doing a really great job,” Trump told her, adding that her job was “not easy.”

Trump did not give details on his plan to cut funding for countries from which MS-13 gang members originate, but said the penalties would be large. He also did not identify any countries by name.

“We’re going to work out something where every time someone comes in from a certain country, we are going to deduct a rather large sum of money,” he said.

Illegal border crossings fell to record lows with about 15,700 immigrants arrested along the U.S.-Mexico border in April of last year.

But those numbers soon began creeping back up and in recent months have surpassed levels seen during the administration of President Barack Obama. Trump has voiced increasing frustration with the trend as border apprehensions reached more than 50,900 in April 2018.

But longer-term, crossings have fallen sharply. So far in 2018, 212,000 immigrants have been arrested on the southwest border, a fraction of the more than 1 million caught during the same period in 2000.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by Reade Levinson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Charities warn of drowning danger as migrants camp along Paris canal

Tents where migrants live in a makeshift camp are seen on the Quai de Valmy of the canal Saint-Martin in Paris, France, May 15, 2018. Picture taken May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Julie Carriat and Clotaire Achi

PARIS (Reuters) – With hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers packed in tents alongside a Paris canal and under a nearby bridge, charities are warning of the risk from drowning and violence if the authorities do not act to tackle makeshift camps.

Two young men – one Afghan and one probably Sudanese – drowned in the canal this month from the camps housing more than 2,400 people by the Canal St Martin, a trendy area known for hipsters having picnics along its banks on sunny days.

France, which has received far fewer asylum seekers over the past years than neighboring Germany, has nevertheless been struggling with tackling new arrivals – for years in what became know as the Calais “jungle”, on the northern coast, and, since that was shut down, increasingly in Paris.

“If this situation continues, there will be other dramas, there will inevitably be deaths. And therefore I call on the public authorities to act, and give shelter to the people who are there,” said Pierre Henry, the director of the France Terre d’Asile charity.

Some bathe in the canal’s unsanitary waters, while the mobile phones and subsidies handed out by authorities to some of the asylum seekers are the target of attacks, with knives used as weapons to obtain them, said charity volunteer Pauline Doyen.

Pauline, a volunteer speaks to migrants near the truck where humanitarian association France Terre d'Asile works on the Quai de Jemmapes of the canal Saint-Martin in Paris, France, May 15, 2018. Picture taken May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Pauline, a volunteer speaks to migrants near the truck where humanitarian association France Terre d’Asile works on the Quai de Jemmapes of the canal Saint-Martin in Paris, France, May 15, 2018. Picture taken May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

“There is too much crazy people. I see, look, this is my face. I fight yesterday here,” a 24-year-old Pakistani man, who gave his name as Suleiman, said in broken English .

“I am new,” Suleiman said, showing a trace of blow on his cheek which he says he sustained trying to stop people stealing his belongings. “People take my phone, I have 300 euros, it is taken.”

The Paris municipality and government disagree on how to tackle the situation and blame each other for it, drawing criticism from charities.

In a letter to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe last week, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo spoke of the “chaos (that) now characterizes the campments”, asking the government for action.

An Interior ministry source described the relations between the municipality and the government as “complex” and said Hidalgo was blocking their plans to evacuate the camp. In her letter Hidalgo confirmed she thought the government’s evacuation plan was not the right solution.

(Additional reporting by Feyi Adegbite; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alison Williams)