Top hotels sued for ‘industry-wide failures’ to prevent U.S. sex trafficking

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Landmark U.S. legal action was filed on Monday accusing several major hotel groups of profiting from sex trafficking on behalf of 13 women who claimed they were sold for sex in hotel rooms.

Twelve hotel chains were named and accused of knowing and ignoring warning signs that women and children were sold as sex slaves on their premises, according to the filing, a consolidation of 13 existing cases, in U.S. federal court in Columbus, Ohio.

The filing marked the first time the hotel industry – which has long been accused of serving as a breeding ground for sexual exploitation of women and children – faced action as a group.

The case drew together 13 separate actions that had been filed in Ohio, Massachusetts, Georgia, Texas and New York.

Among those named in the 13 cases were Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Red Roof Inn, Intercontinental Hotels & Resorts, Best Western Hotels & Resorts and Wyndham Hotels and Resorts Inc.

Representatives of the hotel groups did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The milestone case was filed by the New York law firm Weitz & Luxenberg on behalf of 13 women, many of whom were minors when they said the trafficking occurred.

The hotels “derived profit” and “benefited financially” by “providing a marketplace for sex trafficking,” the case said, citing “industry-wide failures.”

“Such corporate malfeasance has led to a burgeoning of sex trafficking occurring in … hotels that has reached the level of a nationwide epidemic,” it said.

An estimated 400,000 people are believed trapped in modern slavery in the United States, from forced labor to sex trafficking, according to the Global Slavery Index, published by the human rights group Walk Free Foundation.

“This is not one bad apple that need to be dealt with,” said Luis CdeBaca, former U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador-at-large.

“The entire barrel has a problem … For years the hospitality industry has known that sex trafficking and especially child sex trafficking has occurred on their properties and yet it continues to happen.”

One of the women in the complaint said she was held captive at age 26 at various locations of Wyndham Hotels for six weeks in 2012.

During her captivity, she said her nose was broken twice, her lip was permanently scarred and her face grew infected from repeated beatings.

“I just wish that people realize how much it really is here in the U.S.,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a shady hotel or a nice hotel, it’s going on in all of them.”

Several hotel chains have launched initiatives in recent years to tackle trafficking, such as training staff to identify potential victims and raising awareness of the crime among guests.

“These changes have arrived far too late,” said the court documents. “Profit motives, not adherence to the law, continues to drive their decision making.”

The case seeks unspecified damages.

Weitz & Luxenberg has earned a reputation in personal injury and malpractice cases against companies that made or used asbestos, which has been linked to cancer.

“This is bringing that expertise from the multi-district litigation space to see if it could have the kind of impact in the trafficking world that it’s had in other spaces,” said Bridgette Carr, head of the University of Michigan’s Human Trafficking Clinic.

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

Killed American family may have been ‘bait’ in Mexican cartel fight: relatives

Killed American family may have been ‘bait’ in Mexican cartel fight: relatives
By Lizbeth Diaz

BAVISPE, Mexico (Reuters) – The nine American women and children killed in northern Mexico were victims of a territorial dispute between an arm of the Sinaloa Cartel and a rival gang, officials said on Wednesday, and may have been used to lure one side into a firefight.

Members of breakaway Mormon communities that settled in Mexico decades ago, the three families were ambushed as they drove along a dirt track in Sonora state, leading to U.S. President Donald Trump urging Mexico and the United States to “wage war’ together on the drug cartels.

Accounts emerging of Monday morning’s slayings detailed the heroism of a surviving boy who walked for miles to get help for his siblings, and heavy gun battles in the remote hill area that lasted for hours into the night after the attack.

“We were deliberately targeted, used as bait to lure one cartel against another,” said Lafe Langford, a cousin of some of the victims, who grew up in the same Mormon village.

Hitmen opened fire on the three mothers and 14 children traveling from a village in Sonora to meet with relatives in neighboring Chihuahua state and Phoenix, Arizona.

When the killers struck, the families were spread out along a 12-mile (20 km) stretch of road near the border of the two states, according to Mexican authorities and the families.

As bullets began to pummel the first car, a white Chevrolet Suburban, Christina Marie Langford Johnson stepped out waving her arms to show that they were not gang members, according to a family statement based on reports from the surviving children.

Christina was shot dead. Her baby, Faith, survived the attack in a child seat that her mother appeared to have placed on the floor before she got out.

Gunfire also ripped into a second white Suburban, carrying Dawna Langford and nine children, some two kilometers back, authorities said. Dawna and two sons were killed.

Reuters video of the vehicle showed more than a dozen bullet holes in the roof and sides of the vehicle. Inside, blood was smeared across seats and children’s toys.

A third car, 18 km behind, was shot up and burst into flames, killing Rhonita Miller and her four children.

DRUG CARTEL RIVALRY

Some hours earlier, the La Linea arm of the Chihuahua-based Juarez Cartel sent gunmen to defend the state border area, after attacks in a nearby town by the Los Salazar faction of the rival Sinaloa Cartel, a top Mexican general told reporters.

The Juarez Cartel wanted the Sinaloa Cartel off its turf, General Homero Mendoza said. While no official explanation has been given for the killings, Mendoza and other officials say the gang may have mistaken the families’ SUVs for those of its rival.

The Sinaloa and Juarez Cartels have for years been at odds over lucrative routes in the border region used to move cocaine, heroin and other narcotics into the United States. Mexico has long requested that Washington do more to control demand for drugs. Mexico has unleashed its military against cartels since 2006 but despite the arrests or killings of leading traffickers, the campaign has failed to reduce violence. In fact, it has led to more killings as criminal groups fight among themselves.

Mendoza said the Miller car appeared to have exploded because of the gunfire. More than 200 spent shell casings were left behind.

Relatives of the victims rejected the mistaken identity theory, arguing that shell casings and personal belongings found near the torched car suggest the attackers came close and made sure everybody was dead before igniting the vehicle.

“They shot us up, burned our vehicles to send a smoke signal into the sky,” Langford said, arguing that the gang’s goal was to draw the Sinaloa gunmen into battle.

The families’ account of the attacks and subsequent efforts to recover the surviving children include reports of shooting from the hillsides that continued well after dusk.

A man was arrested in a nearby town in a truck carrying a .50 caliber Barrett rifle and other military-grade weaponry, but the government later said he was not linked to the murders.

The Mexican government countered Trump’s call by urging Washington to help stop the flow of American weapons south of the border, and Security Minister Alfonso Durazo said Remington shell casings of U.S. origin were found at the crime scene.

“That’s one of the most relevant details we can give you,” he told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday.

HEROIC WALK

When the gunmen shot dead his mother and two brothers, the uninjured 13-year-old Devin Langford hid six surviving siblings nearby and walked for 14 miles (23 km) to find a rescue party.

“After witnessing his mother and brothers being shot dead, Dawna (Langford)’s son Devin hid his six other siblings in the bushes and covered them with branches to keep them safe while he went for help,” the families said in their statement.

For 11 hours, relatives had no idea about what had happened to their loved ones.

The youngest of Devin’s siblings, 9-month old Oliver, was shot in the chest; 8-year-old Cody had bullet wounds to the jaw and the leg, while Xander, 4, had been hit in the back. Brothers Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, lay dead.

When Devin failed to return, his 9-year-old sister Mckenzie, who was grazed in the arm, went after him and walked 10 miles before getting lost in the dark. Search parties later found her, the families said. Another sister, Kylie, was shot in the foot, while sibling Ryder was uninjured.

Nearby were the bodies of the Miller family, including 8-month-old twins Titus and Tiana.

“All shot and burned in their vehicle,” the statement said. “Only ashes and a few bones remain.”

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Canon, New Mexico and Lizbeth Diaz in Bavispe, Mexico; Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Sharay Angulo, Noe Torres and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Editing by Grant McCool)

Syrian, Russian jets bomb residential areas in eastern Ghouta: witnesses, monitor

People are seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3,

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Jets believed to be Syrian and Russian struck heavily crowded residential areas in a besieged rebel enclave near Damascus, killing at least 27 people and injuring dozens in the third week of a stepped-up assault, residents, aid workers and a war monitor said on Monday.

Civil defense workers said at least 17 were killed in the town of Hamoriya in an aerial strike on a marketplace and nearby residential area after over nearly 30 strikes in the past 24 hours that struck several towns in the densely populated rural area east of Damascus known as the Eastern Ghouta.

Four other civilians were killed in the town of Arbin, while the rest came from strikes on Misraba and Harasta, the civil defense workers said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said the casualties on Sunday were the biggest daily death toll since the stepped-up strikes began 20 days ago. The monitor said nearly 200 civilians were killed in strikes and shelling, including many women and children, during that period.

The Eastern Ghouta has been besieged by army troops since 2013 in an attempt to force the rebel enclave to submission.

The government has in recent months tightened the siege in what residents and aid workers have said is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

The United Nations says about 400,00 civilians besieged in the region face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the Syrian government were blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Eastern Ghouta is the last remaining large swathe of rebel-held area around Damascus that has not reached an evacuation deal to surrender weapons in return for allowing fighters to go to other rebel-held areas farther north.

“They are targeting civilians … a jet hit us there, no rebels or checkpoints,” Sadeq Ibrahim, a trader, said by phone in Hamoriya.

“May God take his revenge on the regime and Russia,” said Abdullah Khalil, another resident, who said he lost members of his family in the air strike on Arbin and was searching for survivors among the rubble.

A boy is seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3,

A boy is seen during shelling in the town of Hamoria, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, December 3, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

The intensified bombardment of Eastern Ghouta follows a rebel attack last month on an army complex in the heart of the region that the army had used to bomb nearby rebel-held areas.

Residents said, however, that the failure of the army to dislodge rebels from the complex had prompted what they believe were retaliatory indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the Eastern Ghouta.

Government advances since last year have forced people to flee deeper into its increasingly overcrowded towns. The loss of farmland is increasing pressure on scarce food supplies.

The Eastern Ghouta is part of several de-escalation zones that Russia has brokered with rebels across Syria that has freed the army to redeploy in areas where it can regain ground.

Rebels accuse the Syrian government and Russia of violating the zones and say they were meant as a charade to divert attention from the heavy daily bombing of civilian areas. The Syrian government and Russia deny their jets bomb civilians and insist they only strike militant hideouts.

 

 

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Peter Cooney)

 

Dozens of Eritrean and Nigerian former Islamic State captives freed in Libya

FILE PHOTO: An Eritrean migrant touches a ring on her hand at a military building in Misrata, Libya, November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan authorities released on Wednesday 28 Eritreans and seven Nigerians who were captured and enslaved by Islamic State in Sirte and had been held in detention since the jihadist group lost the city in December.

The group, all but two of whom are women and children, escaped from Sirte, a former Islamic State stronghold in central Libya, while forces from the nearby city of Misrata battled to oust the militants late last year.

Some of the women were on their way to Europe when Islamic State fighters kidnapped and held them as sex slaves.

After they escaped from Sirte, they were investigated for possible ties to the group and held for several months in a Misrata prison.

Reuters has documented how Islamic State used enslaved refugee women to reward its fighters in Libya. In stories published last year, the women recounted how the group forced them to convert to Islam and sold them as sex slaves.

In November, a Reuters reporter visited some of the captives at a military post in Misrata. Their new captors, the women said then, starved and humiliated them. At least one woman, a 16-year-old, was pregnant and in need of urgent care.

The Libyan attorney-general’s office announced that it had cleared the women of any wrongdoing in mid-February, but their release was delayed for several more weeks, with no explanation.

On Wednesday, they were received by staff from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Libyan Red Crescent, before being taken to a shelter for medical checks.

“I’m very happy, I can’t describe how I feel, but I am very happy, I can start a new life and see my family again,” one 14-year-old Eritrean girl told Reuters before leaving the prison with the rest of the group on a Red Crescent bus.

A UNHCR official said the entire group had scabies, but otherwise appeared to be in reasonable physical condition.

The agency expects to resettle the Eritreans as refugees.

“We will send them to a safe house where they can be treated if they need medical treatment, and receive assistance from us, and be protected,” said Samer Haddadin, head of the UNHCR’s Libya mission.

“At the same time we will be processing them for refugee status determination … and we are doing this to make sure we can find a resettlement country for those who meet the resettlement criteria.”

The Nigerians, five women and two children, will be able to apply for asylum or be offered repatriation.

Dozens of women and children who escaped from Sirte or were picked up there by Libyan forces are still being held in Misrata. They include Libyans, Tunisians, and nationals from several sub-Saharan African countries. A group of Filipino nurses were freed in February.

Islamic State took control of Sirte in early 2015, turning the coastal city into its most important base outside Syria and Iraq and stationing hundreds of foreign fighters there. It took Misrata-led forces almost seven months to recapture the city.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Sahli in Misrata and Aidan Lewis in Tunis; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Syrian army says rebel bombardment of Aleppo killed 84 in three days

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s army said on Monday the Nusra Front and what the army called other terrorist groups had killed 84 people, mostly women and children, in Aleppo during the past three days, in a bombardment that included chemical weapons and rocket fire.

The Nusra Front broke allegiance with al Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July. It is one of the main rebel groups taking part in an offensive against government-held western Aleppo that began on Friday.

Syrian state media reported on Sunday that militants had fired poison gas at the Hamdaniya district of government-held western Aleppo. Rebels called that accusation a lie.

In a statement on Monday, the Army and Armed Forces High Command said rebels had targeted schools and civilians, fired 20 poison gas canisters, 50 Grad rockets and ignited 48 fires.

Human rights groups and Western countries have previously accused Syria’s army, backed by Russia’s air force, of targeting hospitals, bakeries and other civilian areas in their bombardments of rebel areas, including eastern Aleppo.

A U.N. report, attacked by Russia as not having credibility, has also found that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons at least twice, something it denies. Damascus refers to all the rebel groups fighting it as terrorists.

The insurgent offensive against government-held western Aleppo comes more than a month into an operation by the army to retake the city’s rebel-held eastern districts, which it had already put under siege.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Larry King)