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The far right Republican wing uses the murder of two Americans at the border to fuel its anti-Mexico rhetoric | International




A Mexican soldier stands guard during the repatriation of two Americans killed in Matamoros (Tamaulipas) on January 9.
A Mexican soldier stands guard during the repatriation of two Americans killed in Matamoros (Tamaulipas) on January 9.DANIEL BECERRIL (REUTERS)

The shockwave of images of four US citizens at the mercy of Mexican drug violence in Matamoros, one of the country’s organized crime hotspots, spread like wildfire in Washington this week – through the halls of Capitol Hill, the offices of embassies and Joe Biden’s administration and the newsrooms of the major media – to the point of provoking an escalation of the most extreme camp of the Republican Party against the Mexican government. That barrage has included accusations against Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador by a former Trump-era attorney general, William Barr, for not doing enough to fight organized crime and also the response of the former, who revolted against these attacks and denounced his interventionism. “Mexico is respected, we are not a protectorate or a colony of the United States,” said López Obrador.

The four friends whose trip has unleashed the penultimate diplomatic storm had driven from South Carolina to supposedly accompany one of them to undergo cosmetic surgery. They crossed the border through the Brownsville (Texas) crossing and, once in Tamaulipas, they ended up in a chase involving up to nine vehicles, the outcome of which has been repeated over and over again on U.S. cable TV these days. Two of them returned home in a coffin. The other two were found alive on Tuesday and are now back in the United States.

The event provided succulent birdseed for the hawks of the most extreme wing of the Republican Party, who dusted off an old aspiration, as old as, at least, the presidency of Barack Obama, and, later, that of Donald Trump: to name the drug cartels as terrorist groups and empower President Biden to launch military operations in Mexican territory under the pretext of curbing the trafficking of fentanyl, a drug that has contributed to break the record of overdose deaths in the United States once again: 107. 107,000 in the last year.

Two Republican representatives, Michael Waltz (Florida) and Dan Crenshaw (Texas) introduced a bill in Congress in January that would allow the use of “military force against the cartels”. “We cannot allow lethal, heavily armed organizations to destabilize Mexico and bring people and drugs into the United States. We have to start treating them like the Islamic State, because that’s what they are.” And this week Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina senator, added to the tide of a hard-hitting article by Barr in The Wall Street Journal, with a call for a press conference on Wednesday to vow that the United States will “unleash its full fury and might.” “We will destroy their business model and their way of life because our security depends on it.” Graham specifically addressed López Obrador, as did Crenshaw: “Why are you protecting the cartels?” the latter asked the Mexican leader.

The Republican Party controls the House of Representatives, but the Senate is in the hands of the Democrats, so Waltz and Crenshaw’s initiative has little chance of succeeding. And if it did, it would run up against a wall of legal obstacles to carry it out, and, ultimately, with Biden’s opposition, although no one in his party has come out to discuss those plans: appearing weak with Mexico does not sell politically in the United States of the fentanyl crisis and on the road to the 2024 presidential campaign.

Because of this electoral interest, the Matamoros case has been especially relevant in the argument of a Republican Party that is fully engaged in the pre-campaign. To the insistent recourse to the border crisis, the specter of security is added, as could be seen last weekend in the speeches of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which convenes the most pro-Trump faction.

On the other side of the border, the United States is accused of not having recognized its share of responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking. It is a new clash between the country of drug demand and the country of drug supply. Between a society of consumers plunged into a deep crisis of opiate consumption and another that drags hundreds of thousands of dead in almost two decades of war against the cartels, the most powerful criminal organizations in the world.

“The problem they have in this country,” a Mexican diplomatic source in Washington said this week, “is that the focus is always on the supply side, and not so much on the demand side. It’s always: ‘Look at the poison the narcos are sending us. And they never look at other aspects of a terribly complex problem. For example: that four out of every five opiate addicts in the United States got their start thanks to the prescription of painkillers such as Oxycontin. That said, this week’s images are terrible, very difficult to counter.”

Mexico’s past presidents have had to deal with the security pressures coming from the North and accentuated after cases such as Tamaulipas. But this time, López Obrador’s government considers that it has gone too far. “Once and for all we set our position: we are not going to allow any foreign government to intervene, much less the armed forces of a foreign government in our territory,” said the president last Thursday.

“Mexico would never allow something like that,” said Marcelo Ebrard, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who hastened his return from a working tour in Asia after the episode of the kidnapping of the Americans. The foreign minister affirmed that the Republicans’ proposal is “unacceptable” and regretted that an anti-Mexican discourse is being raised for electoral purposes. “They know that the fentanyl pandemic does not originate in Mexico, but in the United States,” added Ebrard, who warned of “catastrophic consequences for binational cooperation against drugs” if the initiative goes forward.

“These are speeches for domestic consumption, in which a nationalistic component is present, but the relationship between the two countries goes beyond all that,” said Roberto Zepeda, an academic at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In his opinion, the scenario of a definitive rupture is still distant and improbable. Both countries share more than 3,000 kilometers of border, the most intense border flow in the world and commercial activities that exceed 660 billion dollars annually, according to official data. “Mexico is part of the U.S. security perimeter and it would not be convenient for it to open that front,” he continues, especially at a juncture such as the trade conflict with China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

From Mexican diplomatic circles in Washington, it is recalled that an initiative such as the one being proposed has been confronted in the past with the wall of its dubious legality from the point of view of international law. Also, that in the midst of the tensions, Lopez Obrador received Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, White House advisor for Homeland Security, at the end of this week at the Government headquarters to discuss fentanyl and arms trafficking. That is, what each partner is demanding from the other: Washington wants to curb drug trafficking and Mexico wants the illegal trade of U.S. rifles to stop feeding the cartels.

At the same time, US Ambassador Ken Salazar met in Mexico City with Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero to discuss the same issues. Since October 2021, both countries announced a new security framework known as the Bicentennial Understanding, which has accelerated the extradition of Mexican drug lords in recent months and the exchange of information to capture them. On Washington’s wish list are names such as Rafael Caro Quintero and Ovidio Guzmán, El Chapo’s son, and the process is already underway for the extradition of the two countries.

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Boris Johnson says ‘partygate’ untruths were an honest mistake | International




Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that he misled Parliament about rule-breaking government parties during the coronavirus pandemic — but insisted he never intentionally lied. Johnson said it never occurred to him that the gatherings — which variously included cake, wine, cheese and a “secret Santa” festive gift exchange — broke the restrictions his own government had imposed on the country.

Britain’s boisterous former leader is set to be grilled by lawmakers on Wednesday over whether he lied when he denied there had been parties in his Downing Street offices in violation of Covid-19 lockdown rules that barred socializing. If found to have lied deliberately, he could be suspended or even lose his seat in Parliament.

In a dossier of written evidence to the House of Commons Committee of Privileges, Johnson acknowledged that “my statements to Parliament that the Rules and Guidance had been followed at all times did not turn out to be correct.”

But he said his statements “were made in good faith and on the basis of what I honestly knew and believed at the time. I did not intentionally or recklessly mislead the House.”

The committee will quiz Johnson in person on Wednesday afternoon about “partygate,” the scandal over a string of gatherings in government offices in 2020 and 2021. Police eventually issued 126 fines over the late-night soirees, boozy parties and “wine time Fridays,” including one to Johnson, and the scandal helped hasten the end of his three years in office.

Revelations about the gatherings sparked anger among Britons who had followed rules imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, unable to visit friends and family or even say goodbye to dying relatives in hospitals.

Becky Kummer, spokesperson for the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said Johnson’s claim to have acted in good faith was “sickening.”

“He isn’t fit for public office,” Kummer said.

When reports of the parties first emerged in late 2021, Johnson initially said that no rules had been broken. He later apologized and said there had been “misjudgments.”

But in the 52-page dossier he said he “honestly believed” the five events he attended, including a sendoff for a staffer and his own surprise birthday party, were “lawful work gatherings.”

“No cake was eaten, and no one even sang ‘Happy Birthday,’” he said of the June 19, 2020, celebration, for which he received a police fine. “The primary topic of conversation was the response to Covid-19.”

Johnson said suggestions that people in government considered themselves to be “in a guidance-free bubble where the requirements we imposed on the rest of the country did not apply” could not be further from the truth.

“Drinking wine or exchanging gifts at work and whilst working did not, in my view, turn an otherwise lawful workplace gathering into an unlawful one,” he said.

Johnson said he was assured by “trusted advisers” that no rules had been broken — assurances that turned out to be wrong. He said he was later “genuinely shocked” by the rule-breaking uncovered by police and by senior civil servant Sue Gray, who led an investigation into partygate.

Johnson and his supporters have also questioned the impartiality of Gray because she has now accepted a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

If the committee finds Johnson in contempt, it could recommend punishments ranging from an oral apology to suspension or even expulsion from Parliament, or it could recommend no sanction at all. Any punishment would have to be approved by the House of Commons.

Johnson was forced to resign in July after a slew of scandals over money and ethics finally proved too much for Conservative colleagues, dozens of whom quit the government.

For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Wednesday’s televised hearing will be an unwelcome reminder of the turmoil that engulfed the Conservative government under Johnson — just as the party’s poll ratings are starting to edge upward.

Sunak took office in October, replacing Liz Truss, who stepped down within weeks of becoming prime minister after her tax-cutting budget plans caused turmoil on financial markets.

Johnson, once considered a secret weapon with voters, is now a liability, said Robert Hayward, a polling expert and Conservative member of the House of Lords.

“He is a serious negative for most people,” Hayward said. “Boris’s polling is far worse than is the case for Rishi (Sunak).”

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Drought caused 43,000 ‘excess deaths’ in Somalia last year, half of them young children | Global development




A new report released by the Somalian government suggests that far more children died in the country last year due to the ongoing drought than previously realised.

The study estimates that there were 43,000 excess deaths in 2022 in Somalia due to the deepening drought compared with similar droughts in 2017 and 2018.

Half of the deaths are likely to have been children under five. Up to 34,000 further deaths have been forecast for the first six months of this year.

Released on Monday by Somalia’s federal health ministry together with Unicef and the World Health Organization, the report was compiled by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, who looked at retrospective estimates of mortality across Somalia from January to December 2022.

Accurate statistics are difficult to compile from a population spread across remote areas, and with about three million people displaced from their homes. The highest death rates are thought to be in the regions of south-central Somalia, including Bay, Bakool and Banadir, that are the worst hit by drought.

Somalia’s health minister, Dr Ali Hadji Adam Abubakar, found cause for optimism that famine had so far been averted.

“We continue to be concerned about the level and scale of the public health impact of this deepening and protracted food crisis in Somalia,” he said.

“At the same time, we are optimistic that if we can sustain our ongoing and scaled-up health and nutrition actions, and humanitarian response to save lives and protect the health of our vulnerable, we can push back the risk of famine for ever.”

If this did not happen, he said, “the vulnerable and marginalised will pay the price of this crisis with their lives.”

“We therefore urge all our partners and donors to continue to support the health sector in building a resilient health system that works for everyone and not for the few,” said Abubakar.

For the first time, a prediction model was developed from the study. A forecast from January to June 2023 estimates that 135 people a day might also die due to the crisis, with total deaths projected at being between 18,100 and 34,200 during this period.

The estimates suggest the crisis in Somalia is far from over and is already more severe than the 2017-18 drought.

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Wafaa Saeed, Unicef’s representative in Somalia, said he was saddened by the grim picture of the drought’s impact on families, but added: “We know there could have been many more deaths had humanitarian assistance not been scaled up to reach affected communities.

“We must continue to save lives by preventing and treating malnutrition, providing safe and clean water, improving access to lifesaving health services, immunising children against deadly diseases such as measles, and providing critical protection services.”

There have now been six consecutive failed rainy seasons in the climate crisis-induced drought, which coincides with global food price rises, intensified insecurity in some regions, and the aftermath of the pandemic.

The study is the first in a planned series and was funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

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War crimes committed on all sides in Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict, U.S. says | International




The Biden administration announced Monday that it has determined all sides in the brutal conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The move carries no immediate U.S. policy implications but lends weight to calls for such allegations to be prosecuted.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the determination less than a week after he returned from a visit to Ethiopia during which he met with Ethiopian government and Tigrayan officials as well as victims of the conflict, but said little about the U.S. view of prospects for accountability.

His determination covers members of the Ethiopian and Eritrean national armies as well as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces aligned with the Amhara region. Blinken said those responsible for atrocities must be held accountable.

He said after “careful review of the law and facts” he had determined that members of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, Eritrean Defense Forces, Tigray People’s Liberation Front forces and Amhara forces committed war crimes during the conflict in northern Ethiopia.

Members of the Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces also committed crimes against humanity, “including murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, and persecution,” Blinken said. “Members of the Amhara forces also committed the crime against humanity of deportation or forcible transfer and committed ethnic cleansing in western Tigray.”

Blinken announced the determination as he rolled out the State Department’s annual global human rights reports, which cover 2022 and also called out Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and Nicaragua for abuses.

“I condemn the unspeakable violence against civilians and destruction that occurred in northern Ethiopia,” he said. “Recognizing the atrocities committed by all parties is an essential step to achieving a sustainable peace.Those most responsible for atrocities, including those in positions of command, must be held accountable.”

The formal determination is more measured than his assertion early in the two-year conflict that “ethnic cleansing” was taking place in parts of Tigray.

Last year, a United Nations commission of inquiry said it had turned up evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Ethiopian government forces, Tigray forces and Eritrea’s military. But the commission also said Ethiopian forces had resorted to “starvation of civilians” as a tool of war and that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces were found to be responsible for “sexual slavery” — while Tigray forces were not.

The conflict, which ended with a peace deal in November, killed an estimated half-million civilians in Tigray alone, according to Ghent University researchers, a death toll echoed by U.S. officials.

Blinken called on all sides to respect the agreement and follow through on pledges “to implement an inclusive and comprehensive transitional justice process.”

He said Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, which took power after the U.S. withdrawal from the country two years ago, “relentlessly discriminates against and represses women and girls” and has taken action that threatens humanitarian assistance to all Afghans.

On China, Blinken said Beijing continues abuses, including genocide and crimes against humanity, against Uyghur Muslims in it western Xinjiang area. It also continues the repression of Tibetans and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, along with mainland Chinese citizens who have tried to exercise basic freedoms.

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Blinken said human rights “have further eroded,” and in Nicaragua, he said “the authoritarian government continues to detain political prisoners and hold them in appalling prison conditions.”

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