Laura Kövesi knows a lot about fighting fraud and corruption in hostile conditions.
She served as Romania’s chief prosecutor at the anti-corruption directorate from 2013 until she was forced out from her office in 2018 by the then justice minister.
While in office, she brought ex-prime ministers, former ministers, MPs, and mayors to justice.
The 48-year-old Kövesi was also the first woman and the youngest prosecutor general in Romania’s history.
She was so effective, her country’s then political masters even lobbied against her during the selection process to become the EU’s first chief prosecutor.
On Tuesday (1 June), her office, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) launched its operations in Luxembourg.
EPPO’s task is to better protect the EU’s financial interests by fighting cross-border VAT fraud, money laundering, and corruption.
“For the first time, the offenses against the financial interest of the EU will be investigated in an integrated strategic manner by a prosecutorial body with supranational jurisdiction,” Kövesi told a group of journalists on Thursday (3 June).
The central office has 22 European prosecutors who will oversee cases from member states and approve the main decisions in an investigation, such as indictments.
EPPO also has a network of 140 European delegated prosecutors sitting in member states’ capitals, but working for the Luxembourg office under their own criminal code.
“There are no clean countries. So having now EPPO, we will have the same approach for all European delegated prosecutors, to identify and make investigation in these cases will be a priority,” she said.
Kövesi added there were huge discrepancies between member states: some countries have five or six cases per year, others hundreds.
Five member states decided not to join the office, including two countries which are under EU scrutiny for breaching rule of law, Hungary and Poland.
If there is any kind of link to a crime from a non-participating member state, the EPPO can get involved. Otherwise, as is the case now, the EU’s anti-fraud agency, Olaf, can conduct an administrative investigation in those countries.
“Of course, the efficiency and the protection of the EU money would be higher if we would have all the EU member states in the EPPO. But this is their decision. I hope our activity will convince them to join,” Kövesi said.
Kövesi is keenly aware of the responsibility she and her team have in building an effective and trusted institution from scratch. Her office will not solve corruption in all the member states, she warns, but will better protect EU money.
With the EPPO, there will be a much higher level of integration, coordination and information sharing than before, she said.
“What is missing is the fact that we need more staff. We need at least 50 more colleagues here in Luxembourg to work as case analysts and financial investigators,” Kövesi said.
She said that, for 2021, her office received a budget €7m more than previously foreseen, although less than what the EPPO originally asked for. It did not get an approval to hire more staff.
Kövesi said she will propose to give back part of the €7m which EPPO wanted to use for hiring staff, rather than use it for other purposes.
She hopes once the office was operational it could provide concrete statistics on the workload that will trigger the approval by the commission.
“Because if we don’t get the approval to hire more staff, we have this risk that our activity can be blocked because we don’t have enough resources,” she said.
“If the criminals have a Mercedes, and you have to follow them with a bicycle, it’s obvious that they will have the advantage,” Kövesi said.
The first cases registered with EPPO were from Germany and Italy. Kövesi said she could not say when her office will have the first result, as even if indictments are made this year, courts can take one or two years to rule.
EPPO cases will have to be decided by national courts. The office can choose which country is in the best position to investigate a cross-border case, and it will also be tried there.
“Without an independent judiciary you cannot work efficiently, you cannot touch the high corruption. And you cannot investigate the people that are in the key positions to decide, especially on EU funds,” she said.
On the new rule linking EU funds to the respect for the rule of law, Kövesi said that if during her office’s work “there is an attempt to influence or damage and reduce the independence of the judiciary”, they will single out this to the commission.
With regards to Slovenia, where prime minister Janez Janša has recently caused an outcry for not approving the appointment of the two delegated prosecutors to EPPO, Kövesi said a proposal for a candidate should be sent as soon as possible.
The move “undermines very seriously not only the EPPO but also the trust in the effective functioning of the management and control system of the EU funds in Slovenia,” she said.
Ukraine war: Biden pledges more aid for Ukraine at close of ‘transformative’ NATO summit | Spain
At the close of a NATO summit in Madrid that world leaders have described as “transformative,” US President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems, artillery, ammunition and counter-battery radar.
The announcement came a day after the US leader pledged to boost America’s defense and deterrence capabilities on the European continent. “The US is doing exactly what I said we would do if Putin invaded, enhance our force posture in Europe,” said Biden. “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance […] but he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”
At the two-day gathering, which brought together around 40 heads of state and government, leaders agreed on long-term support for Ukraine and on a new Strategic Concept, a document that describes how the Alliance will address threats and challenges in its security environment in the coming years.
Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored one of the main achievements of the two-day gathering, getting Turkey to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s request to join the alliance following decades of non-alignment.
Formal invitations are being extended, but the process is not over and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned on Thursday that both Nordic countries will have to keep their promises in connection with their stance on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists. This includes a pledge by Sweden to extradite 73 individuals.
On Tuesday, Stoltenberg had said the goal of the summit was to chart a blueprint for NATO “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world” marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense.
Zebras, giraffes … and a cycle race through the Maasai Mara | Global development
In the world of long-distance running, east Africans have long been the dominant force, and soon they may also be setting the pace in the whitest of elite sports: cycling. This month, the Migration Gravel Race (MGR) brought together 100 of the world’s top cyclists in a four-day showdown on the rocky, red dirt roads of Kenya’s Maasai Mara. With a third of the entrants from east Africa, it was a rare opportunity for the region’s riders to show they can rival the best.
“Cycling is a very Eurocentric sport,” says Mikel Delagrange, the prime mover behind the event. “In over 100 years of the world championship, only three athletes outside of Europe have ever won, and they came from the US and Australia.”
For 11 years, Delagrange, a human rights lawyer, worked mostly in central and east Africa, for the international criminal court in The Hague. He quit last year and now works with the UN in Palestine.
“The obstacle for east African riders is that they lack access to international competition,” he says. “You might be the best in your neighbourhood but you won’t progress if you’re only beating people in your neighbourhood.
“But if we send an east African to an international race, we’re spending an unbelievable amount of money on visas because everyone thinks they’re a migrant, then on flights, plus staying in Europe is prohibitively expensive for most.
“After a lot of consultation, we thought: instead of clawing at the door, why don’t we bring international competition here?”
Against a backdrop of acacias and euphorbia candelabra trees, amid the zebras, giraffes, impalas and wildebeest of the savannah, the four-day race takes riders along 650km of rough roads, climbing above 3,000 metres. Each day, before the course is cleared by Maasai motorcycle sweepers, dressed in their traditional red plaid blankets, a helicopter goes ahead to check for elephants and buffalo.
“What Mikel is doing is giving east African riders a home-based platform, not a European one,” says Kenyan cyclist David Kinjah. “They get a chance to compete against the best, in their country.”
Organising a travelling band of 100 cyclists in a region that lacks infrastructure is a challenge. All the logistics, from security to cooking to building the campsites, is done with support from local Maasai.
Last year, Delagrange set up the Amani team – eight men and four women from the top cycling clubs in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. “Amani has changed my life, but not just mine,” says Suleiman Kangangi, 33, a Kenyan cyclist. “This is a big deal for east African riders. We selected the best for this race, and they know there’s something to aim for.”
Nancy Akinyi, 32, another Kenyan cyclist, says: “It’s not just about bringing these people here to compete, it’s to prepare these young riders for what could be their future if they excel. Thanks to Amani, we can send riders from east Africa and show we can do it. If you go to the world championship, you don’t see black people there.
“Amani is special because now black people can see that we can be pros. It’s unusual to see people from the northern part of Africa – I’m going to say black people – doing so well,” she says.
“It started here in east Africa, but now I get emails from women in Congo, Tanzania and even Lesotho who say they want to join the team.”
Non-African riders, who include big names such as Lachlan Morton from Australia, Italian cyclist Mattia de Marchi and Lael Wilcox from the US, paid €1,250 (£1,075) to enter, some of which goes towards funding the Amani team.
Everyone is racing for fun and glory; there is no prize money.
“The Europeans didn’t expect the African riders would be so tough to beat,” says Kinjah. “When we compete in Europe, everything is different: the food, the language, the roads. This affects your performance.”
The home advantage changes the odds. On the eve of the first stage, Delagrange thanks the non-Africans for coming, then adds: “Just for a change, you’re going to be the people who stand out and don’t speak the language.”
The fast-growing sport of gravel racing, essentially putting mountain bike tyres on high-end €10,000 road bikes, is more open and democratic than road racing. Like a marathon, anyone can line up with the best.
“What you have here – where you can sit around the campfire after a race and chat with people from all walks of life, make new friends and also hammer each other for five hours on the road every day – that doesn’t exist in the majority of races,” says Morton, who finished fifth overall, behind three Amani riders. “It’s an experience that’s so much more fulfilling. I’d come back in a heartbeat.
“In an event like this, the bullshit fades away. It’s like, here’s the start line, here’s the finish, go for it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we’re all going to sleep in tents and we’re all going to eat the same food, so let’s get on with it.”
Wilcox, who once rode 3,000km from her home in Anchorage, Alaska, to reach the start line of the 4,500km Tour de Canada, and then broke the women’s record by four days, is another fan: “It’s cool that there’s a really good women’s field here. They’ve put a lot of effort into inviting women and making them feel like they belong. It’s good to see.”
Juliet Elliott, a 44-year-old cycling pro, says: “A race like this, where we all race together but there are separate podiums, that’s pretty cool. If I’d had to do road races against guys, I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but gravel is more open. In these long-distance disciplines, women tend to do better.”
Delagrange says they had the good luck to be ready with a concrete proposal when the Black Lives Matter movement made some realise that “racial disparity is a thing, and continues to be”. There was some overdue reflection in cycling, he says, and many “were looking for a fig leaf to cover how white the sport is. We acted as a hub for corporations to know where to direct their resources.”
He believes the industry is beginning to understand that it’s not diverse enough to be considered an international sport. “Imagine if running was still just Roger Bannister. We aren’t pushing the limits of human capability. Without allowing the rest of the world to play this game, we still don’t know what can be done on a bike.”
The idea that east African cyclists can hold their own against the best was entirely vindicated. Amani’s John Kariyuki was the overall winner over the four stages. Two of his teammates, Jordan Schleck Ssekanwagi and Kangangi, came third and fourth. Fifteen of the top 20 finishers were Africans.
Distance rider Marin de Saint Exupéry, from Switzerland, says it’s the first time he’s raced against Africans. “I can’t keep up with this pace,” he says. “I was really attracted to the idea of this project, and met some of the team when they came to Switzerland last year. We shouldn’t need a project like this, but we do.”
Kinjah, 51, who finished 14th, believes many sporting projects in Africa fail because they have a European mentality and don’t understand the culture. “This project is different because they take the best from several countries,” he says. “They bring unity by putting these good riders in one team. Some of these guys have never been in the Maasai Mara or seen an elephant. Now they are having an adventure in their own country – and racing against the best in the world.”
“The scale is small,” Delagrange admits. “Right now, we have 12 athletes whose lives we’d like to improve through opportunities. We’re trying to make it easier for those outside east Africa to invest in great human beings. Maybe we will have those breakout athletes who will change the face of cycling. You’ve got to start somewhere.
“I think many Europeans still cling to a LiveAid mentality. People saw a bunch of things in the 80s, and they’re, like: OK, that’s what Africa is like. If you always see people in a disempowered position, it will reinforce your subconscious view of them. But when people come and meet athletes who kick their ass, they don’t see disempowered people, they see real competitors.
“Hopefully, after four days, they go home with a different view of what Africa is about.”
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Amado Carrillo Fuentes: Mexico raffles off luxurious narco-mansion | International
It has been a hideout for crooks, a film set, and the headquarters of a foundation. In late June, a luxurious mansion once owned by Amado Carrillo Fuentes became the top prize in Mexico’s national lottery. The former Juárez cartel boss known as the Lord of the Skies (El Señor de los Cielos) built this US$4.5 million home in Jardines del Pedregal, an exclusive neighborhood south of Mexico City. The two-story residence measures more than 10,000 square feet, and has an indoor pool, expansive gardens, and enough garage space for 30 cars. The enormous home boasts a bar with a wine cellar, nine bedrooms; six Jacuzzis, numerous closets and dressing rooms, a huge kitchen, a steam room, a library, and a life-size playhouse for children. And for the price of a US$10 cachito, as lottery tickets are called in Mexico, some lucky player had a chance to win the opulent mega-mansion.
Lottery administrators put three million numbers up for grabs, but the tepid response from the public meant that multiple numbers had to be picked before one came up a winner. Suspense built as losing numbers came up again and again. “That number isn’t a winner, so we’ll try again. Good luck!” said the announcer 16 times. Almost 25 minutes later, the winning number was picked on the 17th try.
“How would you like a house in Jardines del Pedregal?” tempted the commercials. “I can already picture myself living there!” a woman replies enthusiastically. “Or you could sell it,” suggested the announcer. The property has long been a headache for the Mexican government. It was first auctioned in May 2020 by the “Instituto para Devolver al Pueblo Lo Robado”, a government agency created by Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador to liquidate assets seized from criminal organizations and corrupt officials. The auction hoped to raise at least US$2.6 million pesos for the house, but the best offer was US$2.47 million, from a mysterious man in a gray suit who raised his paddle amid cheers from the attendees. “I want US$2.5 million! Who says yes?” asked the auctioneer, as he anxiously counted to three. In the end, no one wanted to pay more. Then, the auction winner never paid up.
Seized in January 1995 from Carrillo two years before his death, the mansion became a white elephant, a prize nobody wanted. The drug kingpin had amassed a fortune by transporting huge quantities of drugs with his fleet of airplanes. Although his main center of operations was in the border city of Ciudad Juárez (Mexico), the Lord of the Skies owned properties all over the country. Wanted by authorities in Argentina, Colombia, the United States, and Mexico, Carrillo underwent several cosmetic surgeries to change his appearance and evade his pursuers. He died during a botched procedure in 1997. A television series about his life has become an international hit on streaming platforms and is getting ready to film its eighth season.
The white elephant raffle came about when the Mexican government wearied of the expensive maintenance, which included US$25,000 for security services. Photos of the mansion used to promote the raffle show that Carrillo’s palace has seen better days. “We’re doing this to support the Mexican people and help our neighbors,” said President López when he announced the raffle in early June. “There are a lot of abandoned public assets scattered around various government agencies,” said the president, “and they will go to ruin if not maintained properly.”
The narco-mansion is listed on the internet as the former headquarters of a foundation that trains unemployed and disabled people so they can find work. It was rented in 2003 for the filming of Man on Fire, a movie starring Denzel Washington, who plays a bodyguard trying to rescue a nine-year-old girl (Dakota Fanning), and destroys half of Mexico City in the process. When the movie came out, there were rumors in the press about underground tunnels connecting the property to other nearby houses in the area, but no mention of this was made in the promotional material for the raffle.
The raffle also included 200 lots of land in Playa Espiritu, a failed tourism development project in Sinaloa (Mexico) that cost more than US$100 million. The value of each lot ranges from US$40,000-US$65,000. “It was a fraud,” admitted President López in October 2021. His lackluster sales pitch included statements like, “It isn’t in a great location,” and “Nobody wants to buy it.” The highest praise the president could muster was, “It has a beach.” The raffle also includes US$2.9 million in cash prizes.
After being seized, borrowed, and auctioned, the mansion that once belonged to the notorious Lord of the Skies will finally have a new owner–winning ticket number 339,357–but the ticketholder’s identity will not be made public.
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