Lowering the Sky-High Murder Rate in Latin America

Two women hold signs with the pictures of murdered relatives during a demonstration against the lack of safety on the streets, on June 20, 2009 in Caracas.  ​(Photo: Juann Barreto / AFP/ Getty Images);  featured background image by Creatyves / DeviantArt.

Sergio Vicente Goulard’s body lay naked on a hospital stretcher in Rio de Janeiro, waiting to be identified. A few hours earlier, paramilitaries had shot him in the head inside his home. Luiz Carlos Barbosa was found on the street in the middle of a favela controlled by two criminal gangs; he had been executed for switching his allegiance. Jorge Luiz Bento’s family found his corpse rotting near a stream in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu, headless and with his hands bound. Claudeir Francisco had been cycling when he was shot; he was still clinging to his cellphone headphones as his mother wept over his body. Leandro Alves died in the company of his wife and son after he pulled out a gun during an attempted carjacking. The ensuing shootout also took the life of one of the assailants.

On Jan. 28, 2017, we saw those six corpses in Baixada Fluminense, an area with the highest homicide rate in the state of Rio de Janeiro. In Latin America, the most violent region in the world, the victims will most likely be forgotten and the murderers will most likely go free.

Those bodies, found far from Rio’s beaches, attest to the average of six murders per day in this area. And they are just one example of what is going on all over Latin America, where each day the morgues receive the bodies of roughly 400 murdered people. The homicide rate is so high — about four people every 15 minutes — that we are no longer shocked by the deaths. Latin America is home to just over 8 percent of the world’s population but a third of its homicides; between 2000 and 2016, 2.6 million people were murdered. Most countries have seen their homicide rate fall, but in Latin American countries, it is on the rise.

Murder has become a normal part of life. But we must work to reverse that. Some cities are fighting impunity and have developed social programs to reduce violence. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. The cure for the epidemic is complex. It will come from difficult, long-term adjustments in everyday life. And, of course, from the enforcement of the rule of law.

That day in January we began investigating homicide in the seven most violent countries in Latin America — Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico — to understand how an act that takes place in the space of a second can represent an entire culture of violence, corruption and impunity.

Many lives are connected to the dead: drug traffickers, police officers, death squads, ranch owners and sometimes children with access to guns. There are the investigators, whose new cases are more likely to be shelved than resolved, and the overburdened judges and expensive lawyers. And there are the mothers, children and wives who will relive the fatal scenes over and over again in their minds.

Punishment is rare. The Latin American countries included on the Global Impunity Index, from Mexico’s Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice, are categorized as nations of “high” impunity. Mexico is No. 2 on the list, after the Philippines. If we take into account the crimes that are never reported and remain unaccounted for, the two countries have an impunity rate of 99 percent.

People kill because they can get away with it. They kill to gain territorial control, to traffic drugs, to settle political disputes. The United Nations’ Global Study on Homicide establishes three types of murders: criminal, interpersonal and sociopolitical. Latin America takes first place in all three categories.

Infographic: The Top-10 Most Violent Cities Worldwide | StatistaFind more statistics at Statista

Marco Antônio Pinto, a homicide investigator from Baixada Fluminense, in Rio de Janeiro, told us that he liked working in his unit because it was a “jungle” of murders with “a wild variety of fauna.” A juvenile judge who has heard hundreds of testimonies told us that the young people who pass through his courtroom rarely express regret for having committed murder, just shame for having been caught.

While most Latin Americans have seen murder victims only on TV and in the newspapers, there are indeed many — usually poor people with dark skin from marginal neighborhoods — who have actually witnessed far too many murders. They are also likely to be murderers and murder victims themselves. According to a 2016 report, 50 percent of the homicides in Latin American cities take place on 1.6 percent of their streets.

Not long ago we visited Fortaleza, the city with the highest rate of child and adolescent homicide victims in Brazil. In 2013, the murder rate was 268 per 100,000 inhabitants between the ages of 16 and 17, but the map of lethal violence was an almost perfect arc that covered an area far from the tourist zone, where some neighborhoods had gone a whole year without a single homicide. When we visited these areas and asked young people how many murders they knew of, they sometimes had to use two hands to count.

A majority of the murders committed in Latin America take place in the seven countries on the path that we have been covering since January. Three years ago we traveled to those countries, as well as 11 others in Latin America, to write “Narco América,” a book about the impact of drug trafficking. Whenever we asked authorities why they had such high homicide rates, the answer was usually the same: drugs.

Bodies of two victims of Mexico’s ongoing drug war are seen lying by the side of a road as police secure the area in the city of Veracruz, Mexico.​ (AP / Getty Images)​

Drug trafficking is a factor in these and other ills (30 percent of the homicides are linked to organized crime or gangs), but it doesn’t explain everything. Countries like Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, which also lie on the drug route leading to the United States, have the lowest homicide rates in Central America, light-years from their neighbors in the so-called Northern Triangle. Peru and Bolivia are major cocaine producers, yet their murder rate is nowhere near that of Colombia.

The most murderous nations are plagued with a number of common problems, but each also has it own particular issues. The drug war in Mexico is one of the most lethal conflicts in the world. Gang-related battles in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have rendered that small triumvirate the world homicide capital. In Colombia, on the other hand, deaths connected to the country’s conflict dropped by a third over a decade, but other types of violence led to more than 12,000 murders last year. Venezuela is in the grip of a social and economic meltdown: Last year there were 21,752 registered homicides. In Brazil, cities as well as rural areas are rife with territorial conflicts, and the national police force is among the deadliest in the world. All told, in Latin America 144,000 people are murdered every year.

Homicide is not just a consequence of something else: In our society it is a normalized practice for resolving conflicts. A 15-year-old told us he had killed his girlfriend because he had gotten angry at her.

As with any illness or addiction, the first step is accepting that we have become homicidal countries. For years, governments have massaged the statistics and assigned blame to their neighbors. In some cases, they have actively contributed to the problem, using violence to stop violence, as in the cases of Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico — a country that, a decade after militarizing the fight against crime, started the new year with the highest number of homicides in its history.

But there are a handful of positive experiences worth examining and replicating. In Honduras, the Association for a More Just Society has developed a project that supports homicide investigations. In Venezuela, Proyecto Alcatraz provides work, sports and educational opportunities to young people in criminal gangs. In Brazil, authorities have tried placing community police officers in high-risk zones with programs like Stay Alive and Pact for Life. The ban on carrying firearms in Colombian cities has resulted in a moderate reduction in murder rates. Regulating the sale of alcohol as a security measure has been successful in Bogotá and Diadema, in the state of São Paulo.

In April, 30 civic organizations from Latin America’s seven most violent countries began the Instinto de Vida (Instinct for Life) campaign, aimed at reducing homicides by 50 percent over the next 10 years through conflict mediation; gun, alcohol and drug regulations; recidivism prevention; guaranteeing access to justice and due process; and strengthening relations between the police and communities. These measures share a common vision: They repudiate hard-line policies, target specific areas with high homicide rates and view homicide as a social, educational, economic and cultural phenomenon rather than simply a security issue. All of this work is producing promising results.

​White crosses placed by human rights organizations in memory of victims of violence are seen around Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)​

It is impossible, however, to attempt to reduce crime without the rule of law firmly in place. When the justice system doesn’t work, when investigations are not pursued, when crimes go unpunished, more murders will be committed. The bottleneck in the Mexican justice system, for example, gets tighter and tighter in the path from police officer to judge. In Mexico, there are four judges per 100,000 inhabitants; the international average is about 40 per 100,000. We have an exorbitant number of murders and a system that is unable and unwilling to investigate them, whether because of corruption or because the dead simply don’t matter enough.

A few years ago at a crime scene in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, we found a homicide inspector holding an almost blank notebook, indignant because he couldn’t get any information. “Nobody gives a damn — this is a farce,” he told us, gesturing at the gawkers taking photos of the body. Each month his superiors asked him to solve just two of the 30 cases stacked on his desk.

If we want to change this, we must confront the homicides with security policies as well as social programs. Most important, we need to break the chain of impunity. The first 24 hours after a murder are essential: Investigations must be swift, exhaustive and transparent. A strong chain of justice, which would include specialized police officers and sufficient independent judges to deal with the volume of cases, would be the first steps toward reducing the number of people who kill and are killed in Latin America.

Source: Life Where the Murder Rate Is Sky-High -By Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza and José Luis Pardo Veiras | The New York Times | Leer en español @NYT

Alejandra Sánchez Inzunza and José Luis Pardo Veiras, the authors of “Narco América,” are currently doing research for En Malos Pasos, a project on homicide in seven Latin American countries. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.


Recommended…
Latin America’s Murder Epidemic: How to Stop the Killings -By Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabo de Carvalho | Foreign Policy
The World’s Most Dangerous Cities | The Economist
Mexico Can Catch All The Drug Kingpins There Are, But There’s a Different Problem Driving Crime -Christopher Woody | Business Insider
✻ How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico -By Ginger Thompson | ProPublica
✻ Duterte’s Murderous Drug War in the Philippines -By Alex Emmons | The Intercept
Open for Business, Not Human Rights: Trump’s Priorities in Central America -By Lauren Carasik | Boston Review
✻​ Crime Reporting in the Murder Capital: San Pedro Sula Nights​ | VICE News (Video)
✻​ Brazil Violence: Murders on the Rise in Rio de Janeiro | Al Jazeera (Video)
✻ Brazil Has Nearly 60,000 Murders, And It May Relax Gun Laws -By Lulu Garcia-Navarro | NPR
✻ Organized Crime, Gangs Make Latin America Most Violent Region -By Mary Murray | NBC News
✻ Latin America Is World’s Most Violent Region -By David Luhnow | The Wall Street Journal
✻ Inside the World’s Deadliest Country: Honduras

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Ten Dead, 39 Found Near Death in Sweltering Truck Used for Human Smuggling

A San Antonio police officer removes crime scene tape from near the area where eight people were found dead in a tractor-trailer loaded with multiple others, outside a Walmart store in stifling summer heat in what police are calling a horrific human trafficking case, Sunday, July 23, 2017, in San Antonio. (Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay)

It began on July 22 with a desperate request for water and a Walmart employee’s suspicions about a tractor-trailer parked outside. That led officials on Sunday to discover at least 39 people packed into a sweltering trailer, several of them on the verge of death — their skin hot to the touch, their hearts dangerously racing — and eight men already dead. Two others died later at a hospital, bringing the death toll to ten.

Authorities think they found an immigrant smuggling operation just 2½ hours from the Mexican border that ended in what San Antonio Police Chief William McManus described as a “horrific tragedy.”

The victims, as young as 15, appeared to have been loaded like cargo into a trailer without working air conditioning during the height of the Texas summer. It was unknown how long they had been in the trailer or where their journey started, but 30 of the victims were taken to area hospitals and 17 had life-threatening injuries, including extreme dehydration and heat strokes. Federal authorities said the victims were “undocumented aliens.”

Reyna Torres, consul of Mexico, confirmed in Spanish that Mexican nationals are among those dead and in the hospitals and said the consulate is interviewing the survivors. City Fire Chief Charles Hood said some of the victims appeared to have suffered severe heatstroke, with heart rates soaring over 130 beats per minute. In the worst cases, Hood said, “a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage.”

Even more people were thought to have been inside the trailer before help arrived, police said. Survivors at six area hospitals told investigators that up to 100 individuals were originally in the tractor-trailer.

Many of the immigrants had hired smugglers who brought them across the U.S. border, hid them in safe houses and then put them aboard the tractor-trailer for the ride northward, according to accounts given to investigators.

One passenger described a perilous journey that began in Mexico, telling investigators he and others crossed into the U.S. by raft, paying smugglers 12,500 Mexican pesos (about $700), an amount that also bought protection offered by Los Zetas drug cartel.

They then walked until the next day and rode in a pickup truck to Laredo, where they were put aboard the tractor-trailer to be taken to San Antonio, according to the complaint. The passenger said he was supposed to pay the smugglers $5,500 once he got there.

Another passenger, Adan Lara Vega, told authorities that he was in a group of 24 people who had been in a “stash house” in Laredo for 11 days before being taken to the tractor-trailer. The smugglers who hid him and six friends in a safe house in Laredo said that they would be riding in an air-conditioned space.

The Mexican laborer from the state of Aguascalientes said that when they boarded the truck on a Laredo street Saturday night for the two-hour trip to San Antonio, it was already full of people but so dark he couldn’t tell how many. He said he was never offered water and never saw the driver. Lara Vega said that when people are being smuggled, they are told not to look at the faces of their handlers — and it’s a good idea to obey.

The tractor-trailer was found outside the Walmart about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, police said. The store, which was closed at the time, is surrounded by a heavily wooded area. Police feared that some people had fled the trailer when emergency workers arrived. A search using a police dog and a helicopter found one more victim, who was taken to a hospital.

Walmart surveillance video showed cars stopping and picking up people as they exited the back of the trailer. But suspicions were not raised until an employee noticed a disoriented person, who asked for water. The employee then called police, authorities said. Then, a chaotic scene unfolded outside the Walmart on the city’s southwest side, as ambulances and police cars arrived and people were carried away, leaving behind shoes and personal belongings strewn across the asphalt and trailer floor.

James Mathew Bradley Jr., left, arrives at the federal courthouse for a hearing, Monday, July 24, 2017, in San Antonio. Bradley was arrested in connection with the deaths of multiple people packed into a broiling tractor-trailer. (​Photo: ​AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The truck’s driver, identified as James M. Bradley, Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Fla., has been charged under a federal law against knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally — a law that provides for an unlimited prison term or capital punishment, if the crime results in a death. Bradley did not enter a plea or say anything about what happened when he appeared in court on Thursday, July 20. But in court papers, he told authorities he didn’t realize anyone was inside his 18-wheeler until he parked and got out to relieve himself.

Bradley told investigators that the trailer had been sold and he was transporting it for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas. After hearing banging and shaking, he opened the door and was “surprised when he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people and knocked to the ground,” according to the criminal complaint.

He told authorities that he had stopped in Laredo — which would have been out of his way if he were traveling directly to Brownsville — to get the truck washed and detailed before heading back 150 miles (240 kilometers) north to San Antonio. From there, he would have had to drive 275 miles south again to get to Brownsville.

Although Bradley told authorities that nobody met the tractor-trailer when he arrived in San Antonio, one passenger said six black SUVs were waiting to pick up the immigrants and were full in a matter of minutes. And San Antonio police said store surveillance video showed vehicles picking up some of the immigrants.

Bradley admitted he did not call 911, even though he knew at least one passenger was dead. He told authorities that he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn’t work and that the four ventilation holes were probably clogged.

The truck was registered to Pyle Transportation Inc. of Schaller, Iowa. President Brian Pyle said that he had sold the truck to someone in Mexico and that Bradley was supposed to deliver it to a pick-up point in Brownsville. Pyle showed a reporter a copy of what he said was a bill of sale, dated May 10, which contained no sales price. Pyle declined to identify the purchaser or say where in Brownsville the trailer was to be delivered. The county treasurer’s office declined to say whether paperwork transferring the truck’s title had been filed.

“I’m absolutely sorry it happened. I really am. It’s shocking. I’m sorry my name was on it,” Pyle said, referring to the truck. He said he had no idea why Bradley took the roundabout route he described to investigators. “I just can’t believe it. I’m stunned, shocked. He is too good a person to do anything like this,” said Bradley’s fiancee, Darnisha Rose of Louisville, Kentucky. “He helps people, he doesn’t hurt people.”

James M. Bradley, Jr., who is being held without bail, appeared in court for another hearing on Monday, July 24. His defense lawyer, Alfredo Villarreal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bodies of the 10 dead, all adult men, have been taken to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office, which is working with other agencies to determine their identities, a spokeswoman said. Officials with the Mexican Consulate are also assisting. The men’s bodies will be returned to their families once their identities are established, a process involving fingerprint and DNA checks and other forensic tools that could take considerable time.

A vigil was held Sunday night by groups that support immigrants in San Antonio. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), a San Antonio native, addressed attendees at the end of the hour-long service. “This represents a symptom of a broken immigration system that Congress, of which I am a part, has had the chance to fix but has not,” he said. “That’s a colossal failure that has a human cost.”

It quickly became a political issue in Texas. The Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who has long denounced illegal immigration, took to social media to link the case to the state’s new and highly controversial law banning so-called sanctuary cities — those that do not cooperate with immigration agencies.

“Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law,” Mr. Patrick wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday. “Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform.”

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, a Democrat, said the comments went “too far.” Mr. Rodriguez said in a statement that when “10 people from any background perish under such horrific circumstances, it is an occasion deserving of solemnity and respect, not self-indulgent cheerleading.”

Advocates for immigrants in Texas are still reeling from the recent passage of the tough new immigration law, set to take effect September 1. The deaths marked yet another blow.

“It’s death by policy, and the government is complicit.”
— Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center

The grisly discovery in San Antonio illuminates the extreme risks immigrants face as they attempt to elude border agents in the searing summer heat. Some try to slip through legal checkpoints undetected, while others sneak illegally across the border. Often, they are fleeing violence and poverty in Latin America, advocates say. Many have died attempting to enter the United States, drowning in the Rio Grande, lost in the desolate ranch lands of south Texas, or collapsing from exhaustion in the Arizona desert.

Lara Vega said he was deported from the U.S. three years ago but decided to take another chance because the economy is depressed where he lives with his wife, 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

Two weeks ago, Houston police discovered 12 immigrants, including a girl, who had been locked for hours inside a sweltering box truck in a parking lot, banging for someone to rescue them. Three people were arrested. A Harris County prosecutor said the migrants were at imminent risk of death.

In May, border agents discovered 18 immigrants locked in a refrigerated produce truck, with the temperature set at 51 degrees. Passengers were from Latin America and Kosovo.

One of the deadliest smuggling operations occurred in 2003, when 19 people died after being discovered in an insulated trailer abandoned at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas. The driver, Tyrone Williams, was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but in 2010, a federal appellate court overturned his 19 life sentences. He was resentenced to 34 years in prison.

Sources:
9 People Dead After At Least 39 Were Found Packed in a Sweltering Tractor-Trailer in San Antonio -By Eva Ruth Moravec, Todd C. Frankel and Avi Selk | Washington Post

Immigrants Wept, Pleaded for Water and Pounded on the Truck -By Frank Bajak and Nomaan Merchant | AP
‘Ruthless Human Smugglers’ Blamed for Deaths of 9 People Left in a Truck in 100-Degree Texas Heat -By Jenny Jarvie | Los Angeles Times
In San Antonio Smuggling Case, a Fatal Journey in a Packed and Sweltering Truck -By Manny Fernandez and Richard Pérez-Peña | The New York Times


Recommended…
Driver in Human Smuggling Operation Charged, Could Face Death Penalty -By Matthew Vann and Elizabeth Chuck | NBC News

Iowa Firm Tied to Truck Deaths Has History of Legal Problems -By Ryan J. Foley and Scott McFetridge | ABC News
A Path to America, Marked by More and More Death | The New York Times

India Plants 66 Million Trees in 12 Hours, Breaking World Record 🌳

Now aged 106, Saalumarada Thimmakka​ (aka Mother of Trees)​ has battled the arid conditions of southern India to grow​ 300 trees on the roads from her village. (Photo: Saalumarada Thimmakka International Foundation).

Although the feat has yet to be certified by Guinness World Records, Indian officials have reported that 1.5 million volunteers planted a whopping 66 million trees in just 12 hours in a record-breaking environmental drive on July 11, blowing past the previous record for most trees planted in a single day. Their previous world record was 49.3 million saplings in 24 hours planted in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India. In third place is Pakistan, which planted 847, 275 trees in 2013.

A reported 1.5 volunteers from Uttar Pradesh worked for 24 hours planting 80 different species of sapling trees along roads, railways, and on public land. Volunteers included children, the elderly and all age groups in between the two. The campaign was organized by the Madhya Pradesh government, with 24 districts of the Narmada river basin chosen as planting sites to increase the saplings’ chances of survival. The saplings were raised on local nurseries.

The effort is part of the commitment India made at the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015. In the agreement, signed on Earth Day 2016, India agreed to spend $6 billion to reforest 12 percent of its land (bringing total forest cover to 235 million acres by 2030, or about 29 percent of the country’s territory).

Trees sequester carbon dioxide from the air, thereby reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. India has experienced substantial loss of its forest cover over the past few centuries, as people cut down trees for firewood, pasture, and to make room for development.

Other countries are also replanting trees. In December, African nations pledged to reforest 100 million hectares. A wide range of stakeholders, from countries to companies, also signed on to the non-binding New York Declaration of Forests that month, with the goal of halving deforestation by 2020 and ending it by 2030. The declaration also seeks to restore at least 350 million hectares of degraded land with healthy forests.

Still, the young trees aren’t out of the woods yet, so to speak. Saplings need water and care and are susceptible to disease. Experience shows mortality rates as high as 40 percent after such massive tree plantings. Officials say they are aware of those concerns and will be monitoring the trees with aerial photography, to see which areas may need special attention.

“The world has realized that serious efforts are needed to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the effects of global climate change,” Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said at an event promoting the planting.

Officials also hope the trees will improve air quality in India, which suffers from some of the worst in the world. Trees can help remove some pollutants from the air. Right now, 6 of the top 10 most polluted cities in the world are in the country. Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in India, a nation of 1.25 billion people. Some of them may be able to breathe a little easier, and find shade under the trees.

“The biggest contribution of this tree planting project is, apart from the tokenism, that it focuses on the major issues,” Anit Mukherjee, policy fellow with the Centre for Global Development told the Telegraph. “It addresses many of the big issues for India: pollution, deforestation, and land use.”

Sources:
India Plants 66 Million Trees in 12 Hours as Part of Record-Breaking Environmental Campaign -By Chris Baynes | The Independent (UK)

66 Million Trees Planted in 12 Hours, Well Done India -By Lulu Morris | National Geographic


Recommended…
A Walk in the Woods: A Photo Appreciation of Trees -By Alan Taylor | The Atlantic (Photos)

#MPPlants6croreTrees  #ParisAccord

Two Haitian Students Invent Solar-Powered Backpack That Could Help 1.2 Billion People

Solo Bag inventors Mike Bellot (L) and Wendiane Torcel (R) demonstrate the power and promise of their solar-powered backpack. (Photo: Mike Bellot via gofundme)

A Haitian man who is currently studying in Taiwan has co-invented a school bag which can provide light for reading and power to charge mobile phones generated from a built-in solar panel.

Mike Bellot, 26, who came to Taiwan four years ago to study global politics and international trade at Tamkang University, is set to launch what he calls “Solo Bag,” a bag powered by solar energy that he believes will affect the lives and the future of 1.2 billion people who are living without access to electricity in developing countries.

Bellot and fellow Haitian Wendiane Torcel were inspired to invent the bag after the tragic death of his close cousin due to a fire caused by a candle used for light in his native Haiti. His cousin had been studying to be a doctor, but like 63 percent of the population in Haiti who lack regular access to electricity, he was forced to read by candle light, and after having nodded off during a late study session, the untended candle started a massive fire which consumed the home and killed his cousin in the process.

Because the tragedy hit so close to home, Bellot is very passionate about not only bringing this product to his native Haiti, but also to the 1.2 billion people or 16 percent of the world’s population who do not have access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency in 2016.

According to Bellot, Solo Bag comes with a solar panel, integrated battery, USB port, GPS tag for tracking, and an integrated LED lamp, enabling students who do not have access to electricity to safely and cost-effectively study and do homework during the night. The bag also provides enough energy for a family to charge mobile phones, tablets, and other electronic devices. The bag can store enough energy from one hour of exposure to the sun for six hours of light and charge two mobile phones.

To launch the product, he plans to launch a startup company called Solo Haiti and display the Solo Bags in an independent showroom during an event in Haiti and get immediate feedback from the buyers and retailers. After showcasing it, he will begin to take pre-orders and make it available also online for buyers outside the country.

💡If you would like to help crowdfund this innovative product, please visit the inventors’ gofundme page.

Source: Haitian Student in Taiwan Invents Solar-Powered Backpack for Reading -By Keoni Everington | Taiwan News

Venezuelan Torture Victim Detained in Miami Is Free

Marco Coello, accused of taking part in a 2014 demonstration against the government in Caracas, Venezuela, was beaten and jailed for several months. He eventually fled to the United States. (Photo: Scott McIntyre / The New York Times)

Marco Coello, then a skinny 18-year-old high school student, was grabbed by plainclothes agents of the Venezuelan security services as he joined a 2014 demonstration against the government in Caracas. They put a gun to his head. They attacked him with their feet, a golf club, a fire extinguisher. They tortured him with electric shocks. Then Mr. Coello was jailed for several months, and shortly after his release, he fled to the United States.

Human Rights Watch extensively documented his case in a report that year. The State Department included him in its own human rights report on Venezuela in 2015. With such an extensive paper trail of mistreatment in his home country, his lawyer, Elizabeth Blandon, expected a straightforward asylum interview when Mr. Coello appeared at an immigration office this April in Miami.

“I had this very naïve idea that we were going to walk in there and the officer was going to say, ‘It’s an honor to meet you,’” said Ms. Blandon, an immigration law expert in Weston, Fla.

Instead, he was arrested and taken to a detention facility on the edge of the Everglades. He was now a candidate for deportation. “Every time they would move me around, I would fear that they were going to take me to deport me,” said Mr. Coello, now 22.

Mr. Coello’s case drew extensive media coverage in both Miami and Caracas and, eventually, the intervention of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. The senator helped secure Mr. Coello’s release, though he could still be deported.

The case may have been a sign of just how far the government is willing to go to carry out President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration. “It’s very unusual — almost unprecedented — that ICE would arrest an asylum applicant who is at a U.S.C.I.S. office waiting for their asylum interview,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School.

He was referring to two agencies that are part of the Department of Homeland Security but, as Mr. Coello discovered, have very different missions: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles citizenship and asylum cases, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which arrests people believed to be in the country without permission.

In the first three months of the Trump administration, ICE agents arrested some 41,000 people, an increase of nearly 40 percent over the same period last year. At the same time, the administration has expressed a desire to be stricter about allowing people into the country with asylum claims, as most such claims are ultimately rejected.

When Mr. Coello was taken to the Krome Detention Center, another asylum seeker was already there.

Denis Davydov is an asylum seeker who fled Russia as an H.I.V.-positive gay man. (Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times).

Denis Davydov, who fled Russia as an H.I.V.-positive gay man, had been on his way back to San Jose, Calif., from a vacation in the United States Virgin Islands. Though it is an American territory, travelers heading to the mainland must pass through Customs and Border Protection — also part of Homeland Security — and when Mr. Davydov did so, he was arrested. Agents flew him to Miami and sent him to Krome, shackled and chained at the wrists and ankles.

Despite his pending asylum case, Mr. Davydov still appeared in the system as having overstayed his original visa. “They would not let him go because he would still be found inadmissible to the United States,” said Jaime I. Ruiz, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. Mr. Davydov, like Mr. Coello, has been released but still faces potential deportation.

“My fear is that going forward this is business as usual,” said Aaron C. Morris, executive director at Immigration Equality, a nonprofit group that provides free legal representation to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The group is handling more than 620 open asylum cases. “We’re doing our best to advise the community about this new danger without scaring them all.”

Mr. Coello’s case is all the more striking given that Mr. Trump has attacked Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, who has used anti-terrorism laws and military tribunals to prosecute political rivals. Mr. Trump has even called for the release of the opposition leader Leopoldo López from prison. Mr. Coello said that his Venezuelan interrogators tried to coerce him into implicating Mr. López but that he refused.

Mr. Coello’s problems in the United States most likely began when he became drowsy working as a driver for the ride-hailing service Lyft and pulled over to sleep in a parking lot. A police officer rapped on his window, telling him it was private property and writing him a ticket. He was convicted of misdemeanor trespassing and paid a fine of $100 and $92 in court costs, according to court records in Fairfax, Va.

That conviction brought him to the attention of ICE. “Marco Coello has one misdemeanor criminal conviction and did not depart the country in accordance with his visa,” said Nestor Yglesias, an ICE spokesman, referring to the tourist visa he had arrived on. “As a result, he violated the terms of his nonimmigrant status in the United States.”

Paul Wickham Schmidt, a retired immigration judge who is now an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, said that ICE agents could legally arrest individuals in asylum proceedings. “Otherwise everyone could absolutely immunize themselves from removal just by filing with the asylum office,” he said.

But arresting Mr. Coello was also indicative of the Trump administration’s new priorities, he said. “As Jeff Sessions keeps pointing out, anyone here illegally shouldn’t feel safe,” Mr. Schmidt said, referring to the attorney general under Mr. Trump.

Mr. Coello was a high school student in El Hatillo in southeastern Caracas when he joined marches and demonstrations across Venezuela on Feb. 12, 2014, to protest Mr. Maduro, a close ally of Hugo Chávez who took office after Mr. Chávez’s death in 2013.

The protests that day turned ugly, with violence between government forces and civilian protesters, who in some cases threw Molotov cocktails. Mr. Coello, who said he was not involved in the disturbance, was struck on the leg by a tear-gas canister and fell to the ground. Security personnel in plainclothes began to beat him and took him into custody.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, based on interviews with Mr. Coello and five others arrested, the security forces put a gun to his head and doused him in gasoline. “They wrapped a thin mat around his body, tied it with tape, and approximately 10 officers kicked him and beat him with sticks, a golf club, and a fire extinguisher on his ribs and upper body,” the report said. He was tortured with shocks and told to confess to burning the vehicles. He refused.

Mr. Coello was accused of arson, among other charges related to an alleged attack on the Venezuelan attorney general’s office. After months in detention, he was released pending trial and fled to the United States with his father. His mother later joined them.

Following his time in Virginia, where he was studying English, Mr. Coello moved to Miami and found a job as an assistant cameraman at a local studio associated with the Spanish-language station Telemundo.

When he and his lawyer, Ms. Blandon, arrived at his asylum appointment in April, they were passed off to ICE. “We walk in, she didn’t even introduce herself,” Ms. Blandon said of the Citizenship and Immigration Services official who met them. “‘We can’t entertain your claim for asylum. These two gentlemen from ICE can explain.’”

After articles appeared in the local and Spanish-language news media — “Joven torturado en Venezuela es arrestado en Miami por inmigración” was the headline of one article in El Nuevo Herald — Mr. Rubio, a Republican from the Miami area, contacted Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff.

The next day, Mr. Coello was released.

Mr. Coello will still have the opportunity to plead for asylum in immigration court. His arrest was legal, but some experts question whether it was the best use of limited resources in an overburdened system. “In years of doing these, I’ve had probably only a few dozen cases where somebody can point to their name in a State Department human rights report and say, ‘That’s me,’” Mr. Schmidt, the former immigration judge, said of Mr. Coello.

With a backlog of nearly 600,000 cases in the system, he asked, “Why clog an already clogged court docket with a case that looks like a slam dunk?”

Source: Torture Victim, Expecting a U.S. Handshake, Was Given Handcuffs Instead -By Nicholas Kulish | New York Times

Recommended…
Marco Coello’s Lawyer Explains Detention During Asylum Interview (Video in English) | Elizabeth Blandon, Esq.*

Immigration Raids: Know Your Rights (Video in English) | Elizabeth Blandon, Esq.*

Know Your Rights When Asked About Immigration Status | ACLU*

Venezuela: A Country Divided -By Quintijn Kat | Al Jazeera

✻ In Venezuela, Prisoners Say Abuse Is So Bad They Are Forced to Eat Pasta Mixed with Excrement -By Rachelle Krygier and Joshua Partlow | The Washington Post

Note: The videos posted above are not intended to be an endorsement of or referral to the attorney or organizational presenter. Instead, the videos were posted for their informational and educational content.

Too Young To Wed: Child Marriage in the United States

Michelle DeMello and her husband, Eric DeMello, were married when she was just 16 and five months pregnant, and he was 19. This archival photograph was photographed in Lincoln City, Ore., on Feb. 7. (Photo: Amanda Lucier)

Michelle DeMello walked into the clerk’s office in Colorado thinking for sure someone would save her. She was 16 and pregnant. Her Christian community in Green Mountain Falls was pressuring her family to marry her off to her 19-year-old boyfriend. She didn’t think she had the right to say no to the marriage after the mess she felt she’d made. “I could be the example of the shining whore in town, or I could be what everybody wanted me to be at that moment and save my family a lot of honor,” DeMello said. She assumed that the clerk would refuse to approve the marriage. The law wouldn’t allow a minor to marry, right?

Wrong, as DeMello, now 42, learned.

While most states set 18 as the minimum marriage age, exceptions in every state allow children younger than 18 to marry, typically with parental consent or judicial approval. How much younger? Laws in 27 states do not specify an age below which a child cannot marry.

Unchained At Last, a nonprofit I founded to help women resist or escape forced marriage in the United States, spent the past year collecting marriage license data from 2000 to 2010, the most recent year for which most states were able to provide information. We learned that in 38 states, more than 167,000 children – almost all of them girls, some as young 12 – were married during that period, mostly to men 18 or older. Twelve states and the District of Columbia were unable to provide information on how many children had married there in that decade. Based on the correlation we identified between state population and child marriage, we estimated that the total number of children wed in America between 2000 and 2010 was nearly 248,000.

Despite these alarming numbers, and despite the documented consequences of early marriages, including negative effects on health and education and an increased likelihood of domestic violence, some state lawmakers have resisted passing legislation to end child marriage – because they wrongly fear that such measures might unlawfully stifle religious freedom or because they cling to the notion that marriage is the best solution for a teen pregnancy.

In this way, U.S. lawmakers are strongly at odds with U.S. foreign policy when it comes to child marriage. The U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls , released last year by the State Department, lists reducing child, early and forced marriage as a key goal. The strategy includes harsh words about marriage before 18, declaring it a “human rights abuse” that “produces devastating repercussions for a girl’s life, effectively ending her childhood” by forcing her “into adulthood and motherhood before she is physically and mentally mature.” The State Department pointed to the developing world, where 1 in 3 girls is married by age 18, and 1 in 9 is married by 15.

While the numbers at home are nowhere near that dire, they are disturbing. Many of the children married between 2000 and 2010 were wed to adults significantly older than they were, the data shows. At least 31 percent were married to a spouse age 21 or older. (The actual number is probably higher, as some states did not provide spousal ages.) Some children were married at an age, or with a spousal age difference, that constitutes statutory rape under their state’s laws. In Idaho, for example, someone 18 or older who has sex with a child under 16 can be charged with a felony and imprisoned for up to 25 years. Yet data from Idaho – which had the highest rate of child marriage of the states that provided data – shows that some 55 girls under 16 were married to men 18 or older between 2000 and 2010.

Many of the states that provided data included categories such as “14 and younger,” without specifying exactly how much younger some brides and grooms were. Thus, the 12-year-olds we found in Alaska, Louisiana and South Carolina’s data might not have been the youngest children wed in America between 2000 and 2010. Also, the data we collected did not account for children wed in religious-only ceremonies or taken overseas to be married, situations that we at Unchained often see.

Most states did not provide identifying information about the children, but Unchained has seen child marriage in nearly every American culture and religion, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular communities. We have seen it in families who have been in America for generations and immigrant families from all over the world. In my experience, parents who marry off their minor children often are motivated by cultural or religious traditions; a desire to control their child’s behavior or sexuality; money (a bride price or dowry); or immigration-related reasons (for instance, when a child sponsors a foreign spouse). And of course, many minors marry of their own volition – even though in most realms of life, our laws do not allow children to make such high-stakes adult decisions.

Parental control over her sexuality was why Sara Siddiqui, 36, was married at 15. Her father discovered that she had a boyfriend from a different cultural background and told her she’d be “damned forever” if she lost her virginity outside of marriage, even though she was still a virgin. He arranged her Islamic wedding to a stranger, 13 years her senior, in less than one day; her civil marriage in Nevada followed when she was 16 and six months pregnant. “I couldn’t even drive yet when I was handed over to this man,” said Siddiqui, who was trapped in her marriage for 10 years. “I wasn’t ready to take care of myself, and I was thrown into taking care of a husband and being a mother.”

Minors such as Siddiqui can easily be forced into marriage or forced to stay in a marriage. Adults being pressured in this way have options, including access to domestic-violence shelters. But a child who leaves home is considered a runaway; the police try to return her to her family and could even charge our organization criminally if we were to get involved. Most domestic-violence shelters do not accept minors, and youth shelters typically notify parents that their children are there. Child-protective services are usually not a solution, either: Caseworkers point out that preventing legal marriages is not in their mandate.

I COULDN’T EVEN DRIVE YET WHEN I WAS HANDED OVER TO THIS MAN. I WASN’T READY TO TAKE CARE OF MYSELF, AND I WAS THROWN INTO TAKING CARE OF A HUSBAND AND BEING A MOTHER.
-Sara Siddiqui, 36, was married at 15

Those fleeing a forced marriage often have complex legal needs, but for children, obtaining legal representation is extremely difficult. Even if they can afford to pay attorney’s fees, contracts with children, including retainer agreements, generally can be voided by the child, making them undesirable clients to lawyers. Further, children typically are not allowed to file legal actions in their own names.

A young actress plays the role of a child bride during a protest organized by Amnesty International to denounce child marriage.​ (Photo: AFP)

Regardless of whether the union was the child’s or the parents’ idea, marriage before 18 has catastrophic, lifelong effects on a girl, undermining her health, education and economic opportunities while increasing her risk of experiencing violence.

Women who marry at 18 or younger face a 23 percent higher risk of heart attack, diabetes, cancer and stroke than do women who marry between ages 19 and 25, partly because early marriage can lead to added stress and forfeited education. Women who wed before 18 also are at increased risk of developing various psychiatric disorders, even when controlling for socio-demographic factors.

American girls who marry before 19 are 50 percent more likely than their unmarried peers to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college. A girl who marries young is 31 percentage points more likely to live in poverty when she is older, a striking figure that appears to be unrelated to preexisting differences in such girls. And, according to a global study, women who marry before 18 are three times more likely to be beaten by their spouses than women who wed at 21 or older.

Ending child marriage should be simple. Every state can pass the legislation I’ve helped write to eliminate exceptions that allow marriage before age 18 – or set the marriage age higher than 18, in states where the age of majority is higher. New Jersey is the closest state to doing this, with a bill advancing in the legislature that would end all marriage before 18. Massachusetts recently introduced a similar bill.

But when Virginia passed a bill last year to end child marriage, legislators added an exception for emancipated minors as young as 16, even though the devastating effects of marriage before 18 do not disappear when a girl is emancipated. Bills introduced last year in New York and Maryland languished and eventually died, though Maryland’s was just reintroduced. Other states have not acted at all. “Some of my colleagues were stuck in an old-school way of thinking: A girl gets pregnant, she needs to get married,” said Maryland Del. Vanessa Atterbeary, who introduced the bill to end child marriage in her state.

Only nine states still allow pregnancy exceptions to the marriage age, as such exceptions have been used to cover up rape and to force girls to marry their rapists. Consider Sherry Johnson of Florida, who said she was raped repeatedly as a child and was pregnant by 11, at which time her mother forced her to marry her 20-year-old rapist under Florida’s pregnancy exception in the 1970s.

Additionally, teenage mothers who marry and divorce are more likely to experience economic deprivation and instability than those who do not. If the father wants to co-parent, he can establish paternity and provide insurance and other benefits to the baby without getting married.

Legislators should remember that pregnant teenage girls are at increased risk of forced marriage. They need more protection, not less.

Nor does ending child marriage illegally infringe on religious rights. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that incidentally forbid an act required by religion, if the laws do not specifically target religious practice. Besides, most religions tend to describe marriage as an important union between two willing partners. That sounds nothing like child marriage, which often is forced and which has close to a 70 percent chance of ending in divorce. “There was a concern that we would be offending certain cultures within our society,” said New York Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who introduced the unsuccessful bill last year to end child marriage in her state. “So instead of seeing this as an abuse of young women, [some legislators] were seeing this as something we needed to protect for certain cultures.”

Betsy Layman, 37, shares Paulin’s goal. Layman was 27 when she escaped the marriage that had been arranged for her in her Orthodox Jewish community in New York when she was 17, to a man she had known for 45 minutes. Even after she fled with her three children, the repercussions of her marriage continued to plague her. She was a single mother with a high school equivalency certificate, no work experience and no money for child care. The temporary and part-time jobs she managed to get couldn’t cover the bills.

“I was on Section 8, Medicaid and food stamps,” Layman said. “There were times there just was not enough food for dinner.” When the electric company shut off her power for nonpayment, she would light candles around the house and tell her children there was a blackout. Only when her youngest child reached school age was she able to find full-time employment and gain some stability.

“Legislators have the power to prevent what happened to me from happening to another 17-year-old girl,” Layman said. “I beg you to end child marriage.”

Sources & Recommended…
Why Can 12-Year-Olds Still Get Married in the United States? -By Fraidy Reiss | Washington Post

The Joy Of Leaving An Arranged Marriage — And The Cost | NPR
11 Years Old, a Mom, and Pushed to Marry Her Rapist in Florida -By Nicholas Kristof | The New York Times
The “Ugly” Reality of Child Marriage in the U.S. -By Shanika Gunaratna | CBS News


Fraidy Reiss is founder and executive director of Unchained At Last, a nonprofit that helps women and girls escape arranged and forced marriages and works to end child marriage in the United States.

Venezuela in Crisis

A woman with her face painted in the colors of Venezuela’s national flag takes part in the blockade of a highway in Caracas on April 24, 2017. (Photo: Fernando Llano/ AP); Background image: A demonstrator against President Nicolas Maduro’s government during a protest on the east side of Caracas on April 19, 2017. (Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty)

Introduction
Venezuela is in the midst of an unprecedented economic and political crisis marked by severe food and medicine shortages, soaring crime rates, and an increasingly authoritarian executive. Critics of President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, say Venezuela’s economic woes are the fruit of years of economic mismanagement; Maduro’s supporters blame falling oil prices and the country’s “corrupt” business elites.

In January 2016, opposition lawmakers took a majority in the legislature—the National Assembly—for the first time in nearly two decades. However, the Maduro government has taken steps since to consolidate his power, including usurping some of the legislature’s powers. Maduro’s actions have been met with massive protests and international condemnation, including threats of expulsion from the Organization of American States.

I. Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian Revolution’

Chavez, a former military officer who launched an ill-fated coup in 1992, was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 on a populist platform. As a candidate, he railed against the country’s elites for widespread corruption, and pledged to use Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality. During his presidency, which lasted until his death in 2013, Chavez expropriated millions of acres of land and nationalized hundreds of private businesses and foreign-owned assets, including oil projects run by ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.

Chavez, whose rhetoric often drew inspiration from Simon Bolivar, the Venezuela-born revolutionary of the nineteenth century, aimed to align Latin American countries against the United States. He led the formation of ALBA, a bloc of socialist and leftist Latin American governments, and established the Petrocaribe alliance, in which Venezuela agreed to export petroleum at discounted rates to eighteen Central American and Caribbean states.

Chavez also greatly expanded the powers of the presidency. Shortly after he took office, voters approved a new constitution that allowed him to run for another term, removed one chamber of Congress, and reduced civilian control over the military. In 2004, two years after he was briefly removed from office in a coup, Chavez effectively took control of the Supreme Court by expanding its size and appointing twelve justices. In 2009, he led a successful referendum ending presidential term limits.

Chavez remained popular among the country’s poor throughout his presidency, expanding social services including food and housing subsidies, health care, and educational programs. The country’s poverty rate fell from roughly 50 percent in 1998, the year before he was elected, to 30 percent in 2012, the year before his death.

Maduro, who narrowly won the presidency in 2013, pledged to continue his former boss’s socialist revolution. “I am ensuring the legacy of my commander, Chavez, the eternal father,” he said after the vote.

In Pictures – Crisis in Venezuela
Click on images to enlarge and read caption.

II. An Oil-Based Economy
Venezuela is highly vulnerable to external shocks due to its heavy dependence on oil revenues. Oil accounts for about 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings and 25 percent of its GDP, according to figures from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The state-run petroleum company, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), controls all the country’s oil exploration, production, and exportation. Critics say PDVSA is grossly mismanaged and suffers from cronyism, a bloated payroll, underinvestment in infrastructure, and a lack of budgetary oversight.

As global oil prices fell from $111 per barrel in 2014 to a low of $27 per barrel in 2016, Venezuela’s already shaky economy went into free fall. That year, GDP dropped 12 percent while inflation soared to 800 percent. By early 2017, the country owed $140 billion to foreign creditors while it held only $10 billion in reserves, raising fears of a default.

Many critics fault the Chavez government for squandering years of record oil income. “Chavez did not use the massive oil price boom between 2004 and 2013 to put money aside for a rainy day,” wrote Harvard University economist Ricardo Hausmann in 2016. Instead, he “used the boom to expropriate large swaths of the economy, impose draconian foreign currency and price controls, and to subsidize imports. All this weakened the economy and made the country more dependent on imports, which Venezuelans can no longer afford.”

III. Price Controls and Shortages
Venezuela’s economic crisis is marked by soaring inflation and shortages of food, medical supplies, and staples like toilet paper and soap. Experts say the government’s strict price controls, which were meant to keep basic goods affordable for the country’s poor, are partly to blame. Many manufacturers in the country cut production because of the limits on what they could charge for their goods.

Another policy contributing to the country’s economic problems, many experts say, are currency controls, which were first introduced by Chavez in 2003 to curb capital flight. By selling U.S. dollars at different rates, the government effectively created a black market and increased opportunities for corruption. For instance, a business that is authorized to buy dollars at preferential rates in order to purchase priority goods like food or medicine could instead sell those dollars for a significant profit to third parties. In April 2017, the official exchange rate was ten bolivars to the dollar, while the black market rate was more than four thousand bolivars to the dollar.

Imports reportedly fell to $18 billion in 2016, down from $66 billion in 2012, as foreign-made goods became increasingly expensive. Many consumers are faced with the choice of waiting for hours in line for basic goods or paying exorbitant prices to so-called bachaqueros, or black market traffickers.

Experts say widespread expropriations have further diminished productivity. Transparency International, which ranks Venezuela 166 out of 176 on its perceived corruption index, reports that the government controls more than five hundred companies, most of which are operating at a loss. (By comparison, Brazil, which is more than six times as populous as Venezuela, has 130 state-run companies.)

IV. A Humanitarian Crisis

Observers have characterized the situation in Venezuela as a humanitarian crisis. In 2016, the head of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation estimated that 85 percent of basic medicines were unavailable or difficult to obtain. Hospitals reportedly lack supplies like antibiotics, gauze, and soap. Infant mortality rates reportedly reached 18.1 per 1,000 live births in early 2016, up from 11.6 in 2011, while maternal mortality reached 130 per 100,000, more than twice the 2008 rate. Diseases like diphtheria and malaria, which had been previously eliminated from the country, have reemerged.

Poverty has also spiked. In 2016, a local university study found that more than 87 percent of the population said it did not have enough money to buy necessary food. Another study by a local nutrition organization found that 30 percent of school-aged children were malnourished. According to a 2016 report from Human Rights Watch, the Maduro administration “has vehemently denied the extent of the need for help and has blocked an effort by the opposition-led National Assembly to seek international assistance.”

Poverty and lack of opportunity are exacerbating Venezuela’s high rates of violence. Long one of the world’s most violent countries, in 2016 Venezuela experienced its highest-ever number of homicides: 28,479, or roughly 91.8 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, an independent monitoring group. (The U.S. rate, by comparison, is 5 per 100,000.) Maduro’s administration has deployed the military to combat street crime, but rights groups and foreign media have reported widespread abuses, including extrajudicial killings.

The humanitarian crisis has spilled across Venezuela’s borders, with thousands of desperate people crossing into neighboring Brazil and Colombia; others have left by boat to the nearby island of Curaçao. By some estimates, as many as 150,000 Venezuelans left the country in 2016 alone.

V. Political Turmoil

Amid the crisis, the Maduro administration has become increasingly autocratic. Opposition lawmakers, under the Democratic Unity Roundtable coalition, won a majority in the National Assembly in 2015 for the first time in sixteen years, but Maduro has taken several steps to undermine them. In September 2016, Venezuela’s electoral authority, which is considered loyal to Maduro, ordered the opposition to suspend a campaign to recall the president, sparking protests and international condemnation. The following month, the Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly of powers to oversee the economy and annulled a law that would have freed eighty political prisoners, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The president and the opposition subsequently entered into Vatican-brokered reconciliation talks, but those were declared “frozen” in November after Maduro administration officials stopped attending meetings. Maduro said he plans to stay in office until his term ends in 2019.

In March 2017, the judicial branch briefly dissolved the National Assembly. The court revised its order days later following an international outcry, but kept the legislature in contempt, effectively preventing lawmakers from passing laws. A week later the government barred opposition politician Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential election, from running for office for fifteen years, citing Capriles’s failure to secure proper approval for budgets and contracts.

Government security forces have attacked journalists, and several foreign reporters have been detained and, in some cases, expelled, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2017, Freedom House rated Venezuela as “not free,” making it one of two countries in the Western Hemisphere, along with Cuba, with the democracy watchdog’s lowest ranking.

VI. The Region Reacts
Mercosur, an economic and political bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela, suspended Venezuela in 2016. In March 2017, the secretary-general of the Organization of the American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, recommended suspending Venezuela from the bloc unless the Maduro administration moved quickly to hold elections. The last time OAS suspended a member country was 2009, when it did so to Honduras following a military coup.

U.S. policy under Donald J. Trump appears to follow that of former President Barack Obama, writes CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Matthew Taylor. In February 2017, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Vice President Tareck El Aissami for his alleged involvement in international drug trafficking. Later that month Trump met with Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, and called for his release. In April 2017, as protests continued in Caracas, the U.S. State Department issued a statement voicing concern over government actions against Capriles and demonstrators.

On May 19, The Trump administration sanctioned eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, including the court’s president, Maikel Moreno, the U.S. Treasury Department announced. U.S. officials said the sanctions were a direct response to an incident in March in which the Supreme Court annulled the nation’s democratically elected National Assembly, which is controlled by Venezuela’s opposition party. At the time, the Supreme Court, which remains loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, justified the takeover by claiming that the National Assembly was in contempt of its rulings. The court ultimately sought to authorize Maduro’s oil joint ventures by bypassing congressional approval. Despite tensions between Washington and Caracas, the United States remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, the Maduro administration retains the support of allies in Bolivia, Ecuador, and several Caribbean nations. China has lent Venezuela more than $60 billion since 2001, and is the South American country’s largest creditor. Meanwhile, Venezuela has sought significant ties with Russia. Before oil prices fell in 2014, Venezuela was set to become the largest importer of Russian military equipment by 2025. In February 2017, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow’s support for the Maduro government, saying bilateral relations “are on the rise.”

Reprint (w/ relevant updates added by blogger): Venezuela in Crisis -By by Danielle Renwick and Brianna Lee | Council on Foreign Relations

Recommended…
✻​ Venezuela Is Falling Apart – By Moisés Naím & Francisco Toro | The Atlantic
✻​ Internal Splits, Immolations, and Burning Houses: Venezuela Gets Worse -By Emily Tamkin | Foreign Policy
✻​ Venezuela’s Crisis | Human Rights Watch
✻​ Thousands Protest Human Rights Crisis in Venezuela -By Tamara Taraciuk Broner | HRW
✻ ​Crisis Upon Crisis in Venezuela | New York Times Editorial Board
✻​ U.S. Sanctions Venezuela’s Supreme Court -By Aria Bendix | The Atlantic

The Underbelly of the Syrian War: Trade in Human Organs

A young man Syrian refugee named Raïd, shown here, recently sold his kidney in Lebanon.​ (Photo: ​Ulrike Putz)

The illegal trade in human organs has become widespread in Syria and neighboring countries, medical officials and victims say, with cross-border networks exploiting thousands of desperate Syrians.

These networks purchase transplantable organs such as kidneys and corneas from Syrians and ship them to neighboring countries, where they disappear into the murky world of the international organ trade, they say. There are also allegations that organs have been stolen from prisoners.

Yasser (not his real name) is one of those who sold one of his own kidneys, which he calls the “worst decision of my life.” The 29-year-old fled the fighting in his home city of Homs, in western Syria, around 100 miles north of the capital Damascus, after the start of the war. He made his way to Cairo, but like many other Syrian refugees he had trouble getting work and found himself with no money to survive.

He heard through acquaintances that some people would pay for one of his kidneys. “I was new to Egypt. I did not have any money, and I couldn’t find a job, so my only choice was to sell my left kidney,” he said. A broker invited him to his home and a date was set for medical tests and the operation. “I sold it for $3,000 to someone I knew nothing about. We met for no more than 15 minutes before we closed the deal,” he said.

After the operation, Yasser moved to Istanbul, where he now shares a crowded apartment with several other young refugee men and works in an auto shop. The operation has left him permanently marked—both physically and emotionally—and he felt uncomfortable sharing further details of the procedure: “I will never forgive myself for what I did,” said Yasser, who has had pain in his remaining right kidney and had a doctor tell him he could die if he is not very careful.

There are no reliable statistics on how widespread the practice may be.

However, Hussein Nofal, head of the department of forensic medicine at Damascus University and chief of the newly formed General Authority for Forensic Medicine, has been compiling evidence of the organ trade and estimates 18,000 Syrians have had organs removed for sale over the past four years of war.

Mu’azzaz shows her scar at home in Lebanon on Thursday, May 29, 2014. (Photo: Bill Kotsatos/Redux)

He said the trade is particularly active in border areas outside the control of the Assad regime and inside Turkey and Lebanon’s camps for Syrian refugees.

Nofal said organ prices vary across the region. In Turkey, someone can purchase a kidney for $10,000, while in Iraq the price may be as low as $1,000. In Lebanon and Syria, the cost hovers around $3,000.

He was also quoted last year in the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, which is reportedly close to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, as saying that gangs working with Syrian doctors sell corneas for $7,500 each to foreign clients and falsify their country of origin.

Even war-torn countries have laws; the laws surrounding the organ trade in Syria are opaque, though, and with the raging conflict, difficult to enforce or take as far as prosecution.

All across Damascus, for instance, there are hundreds of posters requesting organ “donation,” especially next to hospitals and pharmacies. A typical one reads: “A sick person is in urgent need of a kidney. Blood type needed: O+. Tissue analysis to be done. For those interested in donating, please contact the number below.”

Authorities can do little about such advertisements, since under Syrian law organ donations to relatives and strangers are legal. To further skirt the law, the organ “donors” who answer these fliers go to their local court and attest that they are donating and not selling their organ.

Nevertheless, at least 20 complaints related to the organ trade made their way to the Damascus courts between March 2011 and September 2015. No such cases were seen before the fighting broke out, according to the attorney general of rural Damascus, Ahmad al-Sayyed.

These complaints, which name alleged criminals, as well as doctors and hospitals, have largely been filed by relatives of those who have died. They are considered difficult if not impossible to prosecute since those involved are hard to track down amid the conflict.

However, al-Sayyed estimates that there have been at least 20,000 cases of illegal organ sales across the whole country since the start of the war, especially in border areas where there are no longer any courts or police officers to enforce the laws. A judicial source at the Syrian Ministry of Justice who asked to not be named said police do not have the resources to follow up on individual cases to ensure the person receiving the organ has not paid the “donor.”

One oncologist, Dr. Mohammed Awram (not his real name), said the trade is widespread in the northern rural areas of Aleppo and Idlib. “A dermatologist asked me to sell the organs of pro-government detainees in rural Idlib, since, as he put it, they were going to be executed anyway,” said the doctor, who specializes in surgical oncology and traveled to Syria recently to treat patients in the rural areas around Idlib. The dermatologist explained to him that there were many buyers who were willing to pay, and that the money would be used to buy much-needed medical equipment and to support the armed opposition groups.

Awram refused on ethical grounds. He was also worried that such operations might lead to innocent people being arrested in order to harvest their organs. His refusal resulted in his being accused of working for the Syrian government.

The Islamic State militant group (ISIS), he said, tried to kill him several times when he attempted to start manufacturing medicines, so he moved to rural Aleppo when Idlib was overrun with the Islamic extremists. “The area I moved to was [also] controlled by [ISIS], and we saw many cases of corpses with missing internal organs, mostly the liver and left kidney. However, I saw one case of a missing bladder,” he said.

Murhaf al-Muallem, director of the Consultative Center for Studies and Human Rights, said his organization has documented dozens of cases of Syrian organs being sold inside and outside Syria. “The center blames Syria’s neighboring countries for the situation, since they are not providing Syrian refugees with protection or job opportunities, which has led many of them to sell their own organs in order to provide for their families. Their poverty made them easy victims for the organ trade mafias,” he said.

Source: Underbelly of the War: Trade in Human Organs -By Ahmad Haj and Tamer Osman | Syria Deeply

Ahmad Haj Hamdo and Tamer Osman report for the Syrian Independent Media Group, which is comprised of five independent Syrian media organizations working together to highlight untold stories from the war-torn country: Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, Rozana Radio, Syria Deeply, Syria Untold and the Violation Documentation Center in Syria. The project is supported by International Media Support.


Recommended…
Meeting An Organ Trafficker Who Preys on Syrian Refugees -By Alex Forsyth | BBC News

Hidden Note from Chinese Labor Prisoner Found in Walmart Purse

An Arizona woman’s shopping discovery is the latest instance in a string of reports involving notes penned by Chinese labor prisoners that have purportedly been found inside U.S. goods.

According to KVOA-TV, which first reported the story, Christel Wallace found a note written in Chinese inside a purse she bought at a Walmart near Tucson. A published translation of the note read as follows:

Inmates in the Yingshan Prison in Guangxi, China are working 14 hours daily with no break/rest at noon, continue working overtime until 12 midnight, and whoever doesn’t finish his work will be beaten. Their meals are without oil and salt. Every month, the boss pays the inmate 2000 yuan, any additional dishes will be finished by the police. If the inmates are sick and need medicine, the cost will be deducted from the salary. Prison in China is unlike prison in America, horse cow goat pig dog (literally, means inhumane treatment).

Walmart has declined to comment in response to queries regarding their suppliers (in China or elsewhere), but the company’s national media relations director, Ragan Dickens, sent us a statement regarding Wallace’s discovery:

We’re making contact with the customer and appreciate her bringing this to our attention. With the information we have, we are looking into what happened so we can take the appropriate actions.

Walmart has also been criticized by the advocacy group China Labor Watch, which has accused the company of exploiting workers. The group’s executive director, Li Qiang, told us on 2 May 2017 that it is rare for prison laborers to attempt to communicate their situation for fear of punishment. Speaking through a translator, Qiang told us that the company submits production contracts to factories with a low budget:

Regular factories can’t afford such [a] low budget to produce the products. Usually what happens after is Walmart contracts with [a] prison that will accept the low budget to produce its products.

Dickens provided a separate statement regarding Qiang’s accusation, saying:

We care that our products are sourced responsibly and transparently, and we take these allegations seriously. We require from our suppliers that all labor in their supply chains is voluntary. It is false that Walmart does any labor contracting from prisons.

While the author of the letter Wallace discovered has not been identified, similar notes have been found in purchases from other major U.S. retailers. In September 2012, a New York City woman discovered a handwritten note pleading for help inside a shopping bag she bought at Saks Fifth Avenue.

The person who wrote that letter was identified as Tohnain Emmanuel Njong, a Cameroonian national who was imprisoned under fraud charges in the city of Qingdao at the time he wrote it. It read in part: “We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags in bulk in the prison factory.” Njong was released in December 2013.

A month after Njong’s letter was discovered, an Oregon woman reported finding a prisoner’s letter inside a box of Halloween decorations she bought at Kmart. The letter asked anyone who found it to notify the World Human Right Organization, adding, “Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

A 47-year-old Chinese national who asked to be identified only as Zhang told the New York Times in 2013 that he wrote the Kmart letter while imprisoned inside the Masanjia labor camp, saying it was one of about 20 notes he secretly wrote while serving a two-year sentence: For a long time I would fantasize about some of the letters being discovered overseas, but over time I just gave up hope and forgot about them.

Of course, it’s always possible that at least some notes of this nature are not on the level and/or are being inserted into products after their arrival in the U.S. and not during the manufacturing process in China. This does not appear to be such a case.

Sources:
Sierra Vista Woman Finds Note from ‘Chinese Prisoner’ in Walmart Purse -By By Aalia Shaheed| KVOA (News 4 Tucson)
Arizona Woman Reportedly Discovers Hidden Note from Chinese Prison Laborer? -By Arturo Garcia | Snopes


Recommended…
Chinese Prisoner Who Hid SOS Letter In Kmart Packaging Identified -By Meredith Bennett-Smith | Huffington Post
An S.O.S. in a Saks Bag -By Emily Greenhouse | The New Yorker
Behind Cry for Help From China Labor Camp -By Andrews Jacob | The New York Times
10 Companies That Still Use Child Labor -By Hannah Lamarque | Career Addict
Buy Slave Free | End Slavery Now

Out of Time in Arkansas

It’s done. The state of Arkansas executed four death row inmates in the span of eight days. From April 20 – April 27, inmates Ledell Lee, Jack Jones, Marcel Williams and Kenneth Williams, all paid the price of their crimes by being put to death by lethal injection. Eight death row inmates were originally scheduled to die in Arkansas over that span, but half were spared. During that eight-day span, Arkansas also made history by performing the first double-execution the United States has seen in 17 years. Jack Jones and Ledell Lee were both killed Monday, April 24, just hours apart. The article below appeared in The New Yorker on May 8.
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Arkansas wanted to execute all eight inmates featured above in April. Half were spared. The names of those not spared are in bold. The inmates, clockwise from top left, are Don Williamson Davis, Bruce Ward, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee;  bottom left, are Jack Harold Jones, Marcel Williams, Kenneth Williams and Jason McGehee (Photo: Arkansas Department of Correction).

By the opaque reasoning of capital punishment, the state of Arkansas grew some unknowable fraction safer on the evening of April 24, when Jack Jones, a fifty-two-year-old, overweight, hypertensive, diabetic amputee, was strapped to a gurney in the Cummins Unit prison and administered drugs to successively sedate him, impair his breathing, stop his heart, and kill him. According to the state’s timeline, the process was a model of efficiency, taking only fourteen minutes to complete—less time than one might spend registering a vehicle at the Little Rock D.M.V. This was significant, as the night’s work was just getting started. Arkansas was staging the first double execution in the United States since 2000. Three hours later, Marcel Williams, a forty-six-year-old man who also suffered from diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, was strapped to the same gurney, injected with the same cocktail of drugs, and declared dead within seventeen minutes.

Jones’s and Williams’s executions were the second and third in a four-day period; at the same facility, on the preceding Thursday, Ledell Lee, aged fifty-one, became the first prisoner to be put to death in Arkansas since 2005. A fourth man, Kenneth Williams, aged thirty-eight, who had been on death row since 2000, was executed at Cummins on Thursday, shortly before midnight, when his warrant was set to run out. These four were among eight men whom Arkansas sought to execute in eleven days. With the state’s supply of the sedative midazolam due to expire at the end of the month, the proposed schedule came to resemble a lethal clearance sale. To socioeconomics and race—the known and inescapably arbitrary factors in the application of the death penalty—we may now add a novel dynamic: the shelf life of benzodiazepine compounds. There is a banal horror in the bureaucratic diligence that noted the drug’s expiration date, calculated how many people might be killed before it passed, and generated the warrants that Asa Hutchinson, the state’s Republican governor, signed.

McKesson Medical-Surgical, Inc., which distributes vecuronium bromide—a drug that is commonly used during surgery but that can also be used to stop a person’s breathing—filed suit against Arkansas, claiming that it had been duped into providing an ingredient of the cocktail. Four of the executions were blocked by court order. The Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual” punishment served as a measure of the elastic morality that facilitates the death penalty: does it constitute cruelty to infuse the condemned with a sedative, rather than a stronger anesthetic, particularly if, as attorneys for Jones and Williams argued, the circulatory conditions of the men might impair its effectiveness?

The rush of executions is notable not only for its barbarism but also for its contrast to prevailing thinking about capital punishment. Support for the death penalty peaked in 1994, with eighty per cent of Americans in favor. Last year, a Pew study found that the number had fallen to forty-nine per cent—the first time since 1971 that less than half of the public supported it. The declining crime rate accounts for part of the drop: in the mid-nineties, murders were twice as common as they are now. At the same time, the idea that death serves as a deterrent to other criminals has been consistently unsupported by evidence. Data from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that, in the past forty years, there have been eleven hundred and eighty-four executions in the South, compared with four in the Northeast, yet homicide figures in 2015 were nearly seventy per cent higher in Southern states than in Northeastern ones. The death penalty is about retribution for past offenses, not prevention of future ones.

There is also a growing awareness that it is perhaps impossible to create a justice system that both executes criminals and avoids killing innocents. The sclerotic appeals process insures that years, if not decades, will pass before the condemned meet their state-authored fate. But streamlining the process only increases the likelihood that innocent people will die. Since 1973, a hundred and fifty-nine inmates on death row have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were sent there. A prisoner in Ohio named Ricky Jackson spent thirty-nine years on death row before a key witness admitted to lying in the testimony that led to his conviction. Jackson is alive solely because of the inefficiency of the system that sought to kill him.

That complexity has been reflected in the politics of death-penalty prosecutions. In January, Bob Ferguson, the Washington State attorney general, proposed a bill that would eliminate the death penalty in his state. The same month, Beth McCann, the Denver district attorney, announced that her city was done with it. In March, Aramis Ayala, the state attorney for the Ninth Circuit, in Florida, announced that her office would not pursue capital punishment in any cases. Her office was in the midst of prosecuting Markeith Loyd, who is accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend and a policewoman. Ayala said, “I’ve been unable to find any credible evidence that the death penalty increases safety for law-enforcement officers.” She added that the expense of death-penalty appeals drains resources from other prosecutions. In response, Governor Rick Scott removed the Loyd case, along with twenty-two others, from Ayala’s jurisdiction—an action she is challenging in court.

Last year, the Presidential election was won by a man who had demanded the death penalty for five young black and Latino men who were convicted of a brutal rape in Central Park that they did not commit. He appointed an Attorney General who had successfully fought to vitiate federal prohibitions on the execution of the mentally ill. He chose a Supreme Court Justice who, in his first major vote on the Court, cast the decisive one, in a 5–4 decision, to allow an execution to proceed—that of Ledell Lee, who died minutes later.

These are the actions of powerful men in service of outmoded ideas. We in this country are unaccustomed to mass executions carried out under government auspices. We would prefer to believe that such things happen in less evolved locales. Yet that is precisely what the state of Arkansas set out to achieve. The condemned men perpetrated a litany of horrors, but the rationales for putting them to death—a decades-delayed catharsis for the victims’ families, a lottery-slim chance that some future violence will be deterred—are as close to their expiration as Arkansas’s supply of midazolam.

Source: The Banal Horror of Arkansas’s Executions -By Jelani Cobb | The New Yorker

Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2012, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture. He is the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”


Recommended…
✻​ Arkansas Wants to Execute Seven Inmates Before Their Drugs Expire -By Garrett Epps | The Atlantic
✻​ Four Arkansas Executions Are Tied to the Expiration of a Drug That Does Not Work in Lethal Injections -Jessica Wapner | Newsweek
✻​ Fourth Arkansas Execution in Eight Days Prompts Questions About Inmate’s Movements -By Mark Berman | Washington Post
✻​ After Arkansas Executions, Lawyer Criticizes Use Of Capital Punishment | NPR
✻​ A Century of Death: 196 Executions, 15 Governors, and Arkansas’ Deadliest Day | KATV
✻​ Bearing Witness to Executions: Last Breaths and Lasting Impressions -By Alan Blinder and Manny Fernandez | The New York Times