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José Luis Ramón Velasco Guillén: The Mexican general who trafficked military weapons and got away with it | USA

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A Mexican soldier stands guard in La Morita, Sonora.
A Mexican soldier stands guard in La Morita, Sonora.Luis Gutierrez / Getty Images

Mexican Army Brigadier-General José Luis Ramón Velasco Guillén, who served as the director general of the Federal Registry of Firearms and Explosives Control during Felipe Calderón’s six-year presidential term (2006-12), trafficked weapons that had been donated to the Secretariat of National Defense (Sedena), according to an internal investigation.

In 2012, the Inspection and Comptroller General’s Office of the Army and Air Force, which supervises and audits all administrative and operative aspects of armed forces personnel, opened a probe that revealed the official had illicitly obtained at least 86 weapons handed to Sedena by two collectors. These arms were kept in the general’s office instead of being stored at the department in charge of buying and selling weapons and ammunition. Later, Velasco Guillén sold them to other members of Sedena and to a private collector who was subsequently linked by the authorities to organized crime. Despite the Comptroller finding evidence of disorganization, negligence and a lack of discipline during the general’s mandate, he was given only a reprimand. A military tribunal initiated a criminal case on charges of fraud, but in August 2014 it was shelved.

Various anomalies that occurred during Velasco’s administration were belatedly detected by Sedena. In a report compiled by an army inspection and audit commission, which falls under the remit of the Comptroller, it was determined that the officers in charge of the different sections of the Federal Registry had facilitated documentation to permit holders without going through the proper process, in favor of certain people and businesses. In the manufacturing and marketing section, for example, permits were issued for the purchase of weapons, cartridges and accessories without the applicants meeting the necessary requirements. “Some of the applicants claimed to belong to a hunting clubs and presented documents backing this. However, when the reports were checked with the clubs in question it was found they were not members and so it is assumed the permits were issued in exchange for gifts or on orders from a superior,” the report states. The military investigators mention a business that despite being involved in a number of irregularities in its activities had never been fined or had its permits suspended or revoked. “It is presumed that those in charge of verifying their monthly reports did not report the irregularities [the company] committed due to having some agreement with the legal representative or indeed through negligence.”

In the Comptroller’s audit it was found that Velasco’s office failed to carry out pertinent checks on those who had been issued permits as private arms collectors. In some cases, these permits were still valid even thought the renewal fees remained unpaid. “There are permit holders with individual licenses that have not been renewed, suspended or canceled,” the report states. In the case of the hunting clubs, various permits that were suspended or revoked still appeared as being valid in the archives of the Federal Registry. It was also found that some private security firms, who offer bodyguard and protection services for specialist transportation companies, did not hold valid firearms permits. Nonetheless, these companies have not been investigated or required to regularize their situation.

The general’s associates

National Guard officers and members of the National Army during an operation in Guanajuato.
National Guard officers and members of the National Army during an operation in Guanajuato. Monica Gonzalez

In 2012 the Comptroller carried out an audit of the documentation for the issue of a permit for a collection identified as Number 45. During this inspection it was found that General Velasco had given “incorrect” orders to a subordinate to pick up weapons from a private collection that had been donated to Sedena. Following several interviews with Federal Registry personnel, it was determined there had been a series of omissions and acts of negligence orchestrated by the general.

Captain César Abel Batres Ortiz, who served as a section chief at the registry, told military investigators that on July 15, 2011, the executor of a deceased collector arrived at the general’s offices to donate 60 weapons. Velasco ordered Ortiz to arrange a visit to the donor’s house. The following day, the captain arrived at the collector’s residence where he verified and took possession of the donated arms. These were then transported in an official vehicle to the general’s office, instead of being taken for storage at Sedena.

In August 2011, the general asked Ortiz if he knew any private arms collectors. The captain introduced him to Víctor Manuel Ríos López, who had been recommended by Gabriel Ábrego García, a former member of Federal Registry personnel who had helped him with paperwork down the years. Later that month the general hosted Ríos López at his office, where he showed the collector the arms that Ortiz had picked up. “The aforementioned general then said that he wanted 150,000 pesos for the weapons, to which the collector replied he would come back for them,” Ortiz told the investigation. A few days after his meeting with the general, Ríos López returned for the weapons and Ortiz helped load them into his car. Velasco then asked the captain to go with Ríos López and collect the money for the sale of the arms. When he arrived, he was handed an envelope with the 150,000 pesos. “The general told him to take a “ten” of this money, without him knowing what was being referred to, but he didn’t take any amount and gave the envelope to the general,” a court report issued after Ortiz filed an injunction reads.

Four months after the transaction, in December 2011, Ríos López called Ortiz again to tell him that several pieces from his collection had been stolen. According to the legal documents seen by EL PAÍS, the captain suggested Ríos López report the theft to the Public Prosecutors’ Office to protect himself from any illegal use the arms may be involved in, as they were registered in his name. While he was making his statement to the judicial authorities, Ríos López mentioned that he had purchased part of his collection from a general. This piqued the suspicion of the police, who ordered a search of his house. This uncovered various weapons, some of which were not registered with the Federal authorities. The investigation was expanded and soon reached the upper echelons of the Federal Registry of Firearms. In May 2012, details of the case started to be made public. The Mexican daily Reforma reported that the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) had arrested Ríos López on charges of carrying unlicensed arms and that the general and Captain Ortiz were also under investigation.

The case took an unexpected turn last month when the Federal Police announced the arrest of Ábrego García, who had been operating as an arms trafficker for La Resistencia, a gang of enforcers working for a criminal consortium including La Familia Michoacana, the Milenio Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, according to a statement. Prosecutors had been tapping Ábrego’s communications for several months and discovered a series of calls to Víctor Manuel Ríos López and one to Captain Batres Ortiz. As part of the investigation the PGR interviewed Ortiz, who told them about the arms the general had sold to Ríos López. The authorities tried to link Velasco to the sale of weapons to criminal organizations but were unable to do so, according to the documents consulted. A federal judge decided that the evidence presented by the PGR was insufficient to demonstrate a crime had been committed.

Sedena also launched its own inquiries. Military prosecutors opened an investigation into General Velasco and Captain Ortiz, but after two years it was shelved in 2014 by the public prosecutor due to a lack of “merit to prosecute,” according to a document provided to this newspaper by Sedena under transparency law. However, the investigation is still open in the administrative sphere. EL PAÍS contacted Sedena for an update on the status of the case against General Velasco Guillén but had not received a reply at time of publication.

Arms sales between military personnel

Military officers from Sedena on patrol in La Paz, Mexico.
Military officers from Sedena on patrol in La Paz, Mexico.Alfredo Martinez / Getty Images

The Ríos López case was not the only instance when General Velasco made improper use of the arms under his protection. On September 22, 2011, another collector asked that his permit be revoked and the weapons in his possession be placed on consignment for public sale. A colonel from the engineer corps was assigned to pick up the 66 guns at the collector’s home. A week later the Federal Registry under Velasco’s command sent 40 weapons to the Directorate of Military Industry to remain on consignment for sale through the authorized channels. What happened to the rest of the collector’s arms was unknown. A while later it was discovered they had been sold illegally with the general’s consent. During interviews carried out by the Comptroller’s investigators, a captain of engineers, a clerical lieutenant and a first sergeant said they had acquired weapons stored in the general’s quarters. “The engineer captain said that he acquired two firearms from the collection through the brigadier-general, paying the aforementioned general for the weapons,” the report states. Another clerk said that Velasco had shown him 30 weapons he had for sale. She told her brother, who in turn alerted a lieutenant who ended up buying four guns from the collection.

In the Comptroller’s ruling against Velasco, it was concluded that he had abused his position as the directorate under his command was not authorized to sell arms, munitions or explosives to private buyers. Sales of weapons arriving at the Federal Registry are only authorized through the Arms and Ammunition Marketing directorate, which reports only to the Directorate of Military Industry, beyond Velasco’s area of influence. “The general authorized the sale of firearms in question, overstepping his powers and responsibilities as a public servant of the Federal Registry of Firearms and Explosives Control, and as such the aforementioned public servant failed to comply with the principles of efficiency, lawfulness, honor and loyalty,” the Comptroller’s report summed up.

After studying the evidence and witness statements compiled by the investigation it was concluded that the general held clear administrative responsibility. “Existence of this conduct was accredited in the sense of carrying out acts that constitute abuse of his position and the use of the powers attributed to him for the performance of his duties for a different purpose,” the report stated. On September 3, 2014, the Comptroller issued a reprimand as it considered that Velasco’s actions did not constitute serious offenses. The general is now retired, with a monthly pension of 77,106 pesos ($3,725 or €3,140). His subordinate, Captain Ortiz, faced no punishment after the conclusion of the investigation.

English version by Rob Train.

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UK Pharmacists Warn Medicine Shortages Put Patients at Risk

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The issue first came to the fore in April, when shortages of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs resulted in an outcry, with doctors warning that some women will resort to unorthodox methods to get the medication they need.

British pharmacists have expressed concern over medicine shortages in the UK, which they believe put patients at risk, a new poll has revealed.

A survey of 1,562 UK pharmacists for the Pharmaceutical Journal found that more than 54% of respondents said that patients had been put at risk in the last six months due to drug shortages.

The outlet cited an unnamed pharmacist from a children’s hospital in England as saying that problems pertaining to variable supply of nutritional products may pose threat to patients’ health.

“We had to ration it, and this has potentially put patients at risk of vitamin deficiencies,” the pharmacist pointed out.

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They were echoed by another hospital pharmacist, who voiced alarm about drugs being unavailable at the end of a patient’s life.

“There was no alternative for one patient who had to deal with an additional symptom in his last days of life due to lack of available treatment,” the source told the Pharmaceutical Journal.

The same tone was struck by Mike Dent, director of pharmacy funding at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, who said in an interview with the journal that they are “becoming increasingly concerned about medicine supply issues and the very serious impact this is having on both community pharmacy teams and their patients.”

A spokesperson for the UK Department of Health and Social Care, in turn, stressed that they “take patient safety extremely seriously, and […] routinely share information about medicine supply issues directly with the NHS [National Health Service] so they can put plans in place to reduce the risk of any shortage impacting patients, including offering alternative medication.”

“We have well-established procedures to deal with medicine shortages and work closely with industry, the NHS and others to prevent shortages and resolve any issues as soon as possible,” the spokesperson added.

The remarks followed the UK government issuing a number of “medicine supply notifications,” which highlight shortages of a whole array of key drugs, including live­-saving ones such as antibiotics, insulin and antidepressants.

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The issue first came to light at the end of April 2022, when a shortage of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) medication left some women in the UK sharing prescriptions and feeling suicidal. HRT is used to relieve most symptoms of menopause and it works by replacing hormones that are at a lower level.

According to the UK newspaper Express, drug shortages “are being caused by a shortage of raw ingredients used to manufacture medicines. These are often supplied by countries in the Far East. There are also rising costs set by pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers.”



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Cannabis: Canada to spend $200 million on medical marijuana for veterans | International

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The Canadian government is on track to spend CA$200 million (around $154 million) on medical marijuana for veterans, an increase of 30% compared to 2021 and 135% compared to 2019. Since 2008, Canada’s Veteran Affairs has been reimbursing former military personnel for what they spend on medically prescribed marijuana.

Canada legalized recreational cannabis in October 2018 (the second country to make such a regulatory change after Uruguay). The government of Justin Trudeau justified the measure as a move to fight organized crime and ensure the safety of consumers. Marijuana for medicinal use, however, has been legal in Canada since 2001. The Canadian Health Ministry backed its decision on the grounds that studies show it can be beneficial for patients who suffer from problems such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.

In 2008, after overcoming various legal disputes, Veteran Affairs approved a measure to reimburse war veterans for the cost of medicinal marijuana, although reimbursements were to be decided on a case-by-case basis. In 2011, the authorities simplified the procedure to make it accessible to more candidates. That year, 37 people were reimbursed for a total amount of CA$103,400 (81,000). In November 2016, the ministry modified its compensation rules, reducing the daily limit from 10 grams a day to three. The current maximum rate for refunds is $8.50 per gram.

Veteran Affairs stated that medical cannabis is “a developing area of treatment,” and it will continue to review information and “adjust the policy as necessary to guarantee the welfare of veterans and their families.” A Canadian Senate commission called for such a review in 2019, emphasizing the positive results of cannabis for therapeutic purposes, in particular as an effective substitute for highly addictive opioids against chronic pain. Senators also said that the maximum price needs to be constantly evaluated, as costs may exceed what some veterans can afford.

According to the latest data, some 18,000 ex-combatants were reimbursed for medicinal marijuana in 2021, which equated to CA$153 million ($118 million) in federal spending. While experts largely support the plan for veterans, they say it should be accompanied by psychosocial support, especially in cases of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Campaigners call on UN Women to pull out of BlackRock partnership | Women’s rights and gender equality

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The UN agency responsible for promoting gender equality is being urged to pull out of a partnership with BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment fund manager, over the company’s “record of prioritising profits over human rights or environmental integrity”.

Hundreds of women’s organisations and activists have written to UN Women demanding it rescind the partnership.

The letter, sent on Tuesday to Sima Sami Bahous, UN Women’s executive director, and her two deputies, Åsa Regnér and Anita Bhatia, said the partnership “gives BlackRock a veneer of feminist approval that it clearly does not merit”.

While details of the collaboration have not been made public, BlackRock published a statement on its website in May saying it had signed “a memorandum of understanding” with the UN agency “agreeing to cooperate in promoting the growth of gender lens investing”.

BlackRock has faced pressure from environmental activists to improve its climate action policies, given its vast holdings in fossil fuel companies, and wide global reach.

The asset manager has investments in some of the world’s largest weapons sales companies, the letter said, noting that BlackRock is “consistently” ranked among the worst performers on corporate accountability by civil society watchdogs.

From left to right: Pam Chan of BlackRock, UN Women representative Anita Bhatia and Isabelle Mateos y Lago of BlackRock at Davos this year.
From left to right: Pam Chan of BlackRock, UN Women representative Anita Bhatia and Isabelle Mateos y Lago of BlackRock at Davos this year. Photograph: UN Photo

The letter, signed by almost 600 groups and individuals, said BlackRock also holds large amounts of debt in Zambia and Sri Lanka. It was among the private sector lenders that refused to delay debt interest payments to prevent Zambia’s finances from collapsing. The country has had to cut health and social care spending by a fifth in the past two years to balance its budget, cuts that have disproportionately affected women and marginalised groups.

Sanam Amin, a Bangladeshi academic and activist, said: “We want this agreement to be rescinded. This will not have a positive outcome for UN Women or the feminist organisations it is working with.”

She said BlackRock was using UN Women for bluewashing and pinkwashing purposes, and that it was “a fantasy” to imagine that “gender-impact investment can keep investment bankers rich and also save the world”.

“This is an illusion and relies on the labour and resources of marginalised communities in a gendered fashion, in the global south and across global supply chains.”

This is not the first time UN Women has been criticised for partnering with the private sector. In 2015, after pressure from women’s groups, the organisation backed out of a deal with Uber to encourage 1 million women to sign up as drivers.

Emilia Reyes, a feminist activist, said a lack of money was driving the UN into partnerships with the private sector. “We are calling for member states to fulfil their commitments on funding for UN departments as a whole,” she said. “In the search for extra funding, [UN bodies] are undermining their mandate and pushing conflicts of interest inside the UN.”

A spokesperson for UN Women said it “understands the concerns of its civil society partners”, which “merit consideration”. They said the partnership had been “put on hold”.

BlackRock said the money it managed belonged to its clients, many of whom made their own investment decisions. It added: “We highly value UN Women’s leadership in advancing women’s empowerment around the world and respect their decision to put the agreement on hold while they review their strategy for private sector partnerships.”

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