Trump ratchets up pressure on Canada, Mexico over trade

WASHINGTON/MEXICO CITY – U.S. President Donald Trump increased pressure on Canada and Mexico over trade on Monday, saying the two could avoid being caught in his planned hefty tariffs on steel and aluminum imports if they ceded ground to Washington in talks on a new NAFTA trade deal.

Trump also said, after a weekend of tweets in which he threatened to hit German automakers with tariffs, that Mexico needed to do more to stem the flow illegal drugs to the United States, something not encompassed by the talks over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump’s determination to push ahead with a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent duty on aluminum, which he announced on Thursday, has prompted threats of retaliation from the European Union, Canada, China and Brazil among others.

His plan has roiled world stock markets as it raises the prospect of an ever-escalating trade war that would derail global economic growth. Trump has been criticized by a swath of senior lawmakers from his own Republican Party, but has won support from some Democratic legislators.

“We have large trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. NAFTA, which is under renegotiation right now, has been a bad deal for U.S.A. Massive relocation of companies & jobs. Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum will only come off if new & fair NAFTA agreement is signed,” Trump tweeted on Monday.

U.S. President Donald Trump announces that the United States will impose tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on imported aluminum during a meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 1, 2018. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

U.S. stocks fell for the fifth straight trading day in response to Trump’s comments, although falls were small compared with previous sessions. Treasuries rallied as investors sought out safe-haven securities.

In Europe, German car giants Volkswagen AG and BMW fell around one percent. German car companies urged policymakers on Monday to avoid a trade war with the United States “at all costs.”

“In such a trade war there are only losers on all sides,” Bernhard Mattes, president of Germany’s VDA automotive industry association, said in a statement.

Trump was expected to finalize the planned tariffs later in the week, posing a tough challenge for U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo. They were meeting in Mexico City on Monday to wrap up the latest round of discussions on revamping the 1994 NAFTA deal.

A White House representative did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s statement.

Trump has touted the tariffs as a way to revive the U.S. steel and aluminum industries. White House Director of Trade and Industrial Policy Peter Navarro repeated this point on Monday, telling Fox News, “As the president said, we can’t have a country without an aluminum and steel industry.”

Trump has long bucked the Republican Party’s broad support for free trade, promising both on the campaign trail and in the White House that he will seek deals that better favor American workers.

That has included the threat that Washington will withdraw from NAFTA if it is not satisfactorily renegotiated. He withdrew from a proposed Pacific trade pact on his first day in office.

NAFTA TALKS

In another comment on the NAFTA talks on Monday, Trump reprised two running criticisms of Canada and Mexico. Last year Trump came close to withdrawing from NAFTA after he visited American dairy farmers in Wisconsin who say they have been hit by Canadian rules that discriminate against U.S. milk exports.

“Also, Canada must treat our farmers much better. Highly restrictive. Mexico must do much more on stopping drugs from pouring into the U.S. They have not done what needs to be done. Millions of people addicted and dying,” Trump tweeted.

The Mexican and Canadian ministers were likely to press Trump’s trade envoy for more details on how their countries could be excluded from the blanket tariffs.

Officials have so far been evasive when asked how the three nations can continue trying to update NAFTA at a time when the U.S. president is about to take a highly protectionist measure.

Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau said on Monday the country was negotiating on NAFTA with a partner that has “changed the terms of the discussion.”

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Adriana Barrrera; Additional reporting by Eric Walsh, Sharay Angulo, Lesley Wroughton, David Ljunggren, Sujata Rao, Ilona Wissenbach, Michael Nienaber, Fergal Smith; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Andrea Ricci and Frances Kerry)

 




Lawmakers question Trump ties to Panama project linked to laundering, trafficking

SAO PAULO – Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee have asked the Trump Organization if it was aware of allegations that real estate agents and investors involved in the Trump Ocean Club in Panama had ties to money laundering and drug trafficking.

Democratic Representatives Norma Torres and Eliot Engel sent the letter, seen by Reuters, to the Trump Organization’s general counsel, Alan Garten, on Wednesday evening.

They asked what due diligence was done on investors and agents involved in the project, which earned President Donald Trump between $30 million and $50 million for lending his name to it, according to court records.

Garten wrote in an email on Thursday that he had not received the letter from Torres and Engel.

The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower Panama is seen between apartment buildings in Panama City, Panama February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Lemos

Torres and Engel largely based the questions in their letter on the findings of a Reuters investigation into the Trump Ocean Club published in November, in conjunction with U.S. broadcaster NBC News.

“Given widely reported allegations of money laundering and drug trafficking in connection with Trump Ocean Club Panama, we believe it is imperative to understand the Trump Organization’s knowledge of and role in sales at this property,” the representatives wrote.

They asked if the Trump Organization at any time became aware that “any agents or investors involved in Trump Ocean Club were involved in money laundering or illegal narcotics trafficking,” and, if so, had they reported it to U.S. or Panamanian authorities and terminated business arrangements with any suspected individuals.

The Reuters investigation found that a Brazilian man, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, was responsible for between one-third and one-half of advance sales for the Trump Panama project, which was completed in 2011.

Nogueira is under investigation in Brazil for international money laundering. The inquiry started in 2013 after the Finance Ministry’s financial crimes unit noticed several transfers of more than 1 million reais ($308,500) from accounts in Panama to his accounts in Brazil.

In a November interview with Reuters, Nogueira denied any wrongdoing in Brazil.

He said that he only learned after the Trump Ocean Club project was almost complete that some of his partners and investors in the project were criminals, including some with what he described as connections to the “Russian mafia.”

Nogueira, whose whereabouts are unknown, said he had not knowingly laundered any illicit money through the Trump project, although he said he had laundered cash later in other schemes for corrupt Panamanian officials.

Garten said in November: “No one at the Trump Organization, including the Trump family, has any recollection of ever meeting or speaking with this individual.”

Torres and Engel wrote in their letter that obtaining answers from the Trump Organization on the Panama project was “essential as we carry out oversight of U.S. policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean.”

They said they wanted to ensure that Trump was “fully committed to the goal of dismantling the transnational criminal organizations that are responsible for smuggling drugs into the United States.”

“If the President, in a previous role, failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the laundering of drug money, it would be of grave concern to us,” the letter read.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)




Venezuelans scramble to survive as merchants demand dollars

CARACAS/CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela – There was no way Jose Ramon Garcia, a food transporter in Venezuela, could afford new tires for his van at $350 each.

Whether he opted to pay in U.S. currency or in the devalued local bolivar currency at the equivalent black market price, Garcia would have had to save up for years.

Though used to expensive repairs, this one was too much and put him out of business. “Repairs cost an arm and a leg in Venezuela,” said the now-unemployed 42-year-old Garcia, who has a wife and two children to support in the southern city of Guayana.

“There’s no point keeping bolivars.”

For a decade and a half, strict exchange controls have severely limited access to dollars. A black market in hard currency has spread in response, and as once-sky-high oil revenue runs dry, Venezuela’s economy is in free-fall.

The practice adopted by gourmet and design stores in Caracas over the last couple of years to charge in dollars to a select group of expatriates or Venezuelans with access to greenbacks is fast spreading.

Food sellers, dental and medical clinics, and others are starting to charge in dollars or their black market equivalent – putting many basic goods and services out of reach for a large number of Venezuelans.

According to the opposition-led National Assembly, November’s rise in prices topped academics’ traditional benchmark for hyperinflation of more than 50 percent a month – and could end the year at 2,000 percent. The government has not published inflation data for more than a year.

“I can’t think in bolivars anymore, because you have to give a different price every hour,” said Yoselin Aguirre, 27, who makes and sells jewelry in the Paraguana peninsula and has recently pegged prices to the dollar. “To survive, you have to dollarize.”

The socialist government of the late president Hugo Chavez in 2003 brought in the strict controls in order to curb capital flight, as the wealthy sought to move money out of Venezuela after a coup attempt and major oil strike the previous year.

Oil revenue was initially able to bolster artificial exchange rates, though the black market grew and now is becoming unmanageable for the government.

TRIM THE TREE WITH BOLIVARS

President Nicolas Maduro has maintained his predecessor’s policies on capital controls. Yet, the spread between the strongest official rate, of some 10 bolivars per dollar, and the black market rate, of around 110,000 per dollar, is now huge.

While sellers see a shift to hard currency as necessary, buyers sometimes blame them for speculating.

Rafael Vetencourt, 55, a steel worker in Ciudad Guayana, needed a prostate operation priced at $250.

“We don’t earn in dollars. It’s abusive to charge in dollars!” said Vetencourt, who had to decimate his savings to pay for the surgery.

In just one year, Venezuela’s currency has weakened 97.5 per cent against the greenback, meaning $1,000 of local currency purchased then would be worth just $25 now.

Maduro blames black market rate-publishing websites such as DolarToday for inflating the numbers, part of an “economic war” he says is designed by the opposition and Washington to topple him.

On Venezuela’s borders with Brazil and Colombia, the prices of imported oil, eggs and wheat flour vary daily in line with the black market price for bolivars.

In an upscale Caracas market, cheese-filled arepas, the traditional breakfast made with corn flour, increased 65 percent in price in just two weeks, according to tracking by Reuters reporters. In the same period, a kilogram of ham jumped a whopping 171 percent.

The runaway prices have dampened Christmas celebrations, which this season were characterized by shortages of pine trees and toys, as well as meat, chicken and cornmeal for the preparation of typical dishes.

A man sees at Bolivar notes hanging in a tree at a street in Maracaibo, Venezuela November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Isaac Urrutia

In one grim festive joke, a Christmas tree in Maracaibo, the country’s oil capital and second city, was decorated with virtually worthless low-denomination bolivar bills.

Most Venezuelans, earning just $5 a month at the black market rate, are nowhere near being able to save hard currency.

“How do I do it? I earn in bolivars and have no way to buy foreign currency,” said Cristina Centeno, a 31-year-old teacher who, like many, was seeking remote work online before Christmas in order to bring in some hard currency.

(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte and Leon Wietfeld in Caracas, Mircely Guanipa in Maracay, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal, Lenin Danieri in Maracaibo; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Leslie Adler)




Admirers honor ‘Che’ Guevara 50 years after his death


People wave pictures at an event paying tribute to Cuban Revolution hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara marking the 50th anniversary of his death in Santa Clara, Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

LA PAZ, Bolivia — A little band of guerrillas had been on the run through rugged, mountainous terrain, struggling unsuccessfully to build support among the indigenous people of rural Bolivia as a step toward a global socialist revolution.

Finally, on Oct. 8, 1967, the army ran them down. A day afterward — apparently at the behest of the CIA — an army sergeant shot to death their leader: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Fifty years later, the mountain village where he was killed and the nearby town where he was buried have become shrines to a sort of socialist saint, a man whose death helped cement his image as an enduring symbol of revolt. Some there even pray to him — an outcome that likely would have outraged the iconoclastic atheist.

Thousands of activists and sympathizers from many countries poured into La Higuera and Vallegrande this week for ceremonies to commemorate Guevara led by the country’s leftist president, Evo Morales, who laid flowers at a bust of the fallen guerrilla in the village on Sunday.

In Cuba, President Raul Castro — one of Guevara’s old comrades-in-arms — oversaw a memorial ceremony at the large mausoleum constructed to hold the revolutionary’s remains, though the main speaker was the man many believe may replace him, Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

“The colossal example of Che endures and multiplies day by day,” said Diaz-Canel, who added warnings that the United States, Guevara’s chief foe, had demonstrated “a marked interest in a political and economic reconquest” of Cuba.

Guevara was the very personification of the communist dream of spreading revolution around the world.

The Argentine-born physician was radicalized by a youthful trip through South America, witnessed the CIA-backed overthrow of a leftist president in Guatemala and ran across exiled Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro while working as a photographer in Mexico.

Despite an often-debilitating asthma, he turned himself into one of the most important fighters of Castro’s Cuban revolution, winning the climactic battlefield victory in the city of Santa Clara that prompted dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee the country.

In the aftermath of that triumph, Guevara commanded the Havana military fortress of La Cabana, where hundreds of men accused of crimes under the Batista regime were put to death.

Castro then made Guevara into an unlikely financial bureaucrat, naming him to head Cuba’s Central Bank and later the Ministry of Industry. He was famous for working long hours, and then turning up for volunteer work in the sugar fields.

But he felt the call to spread socialism to other nations. He left Cuba in 1964 to help rebels in the Congo, renouncing his Cuban citizenship but relying on Cuban aid. The mission was a flop and he had to pull out a year later.

Back in Cuba, Guevara secretly organized another revolution, this time in Bolivia. But his band there, which included several Cubans, failed to find the sort of popular support that Castro had won in Cuba during his revolution. Bolivia’s army tracked Che down and killed him.

An oddly Christ-like photo of the slain Guevara emerged and helped build the image of him as a martyr. An even more famous photo of the living Che, seeming to gaze into the future, has become an icon of rebellion on t-shirts, tattoos and key rings — sometimes to the consternation of Guevara’s socialist allies, who disapprove of the way it has become commercialized.

One of Guevara’s younger brothers, Juan Martin Guevara, said the causes he fought for remain important.

“The inequality today is greater than when he fought, the economic concentration is much greater. What he fought for is still present,” the brother said in Buenos Aires. “He would be in the same place that he always was, confronting it.”

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Puerto Rico Auto Industry Back on Track

“We were dealt a devastating blow, but we will go forward, we will rise and become stronger.” With those words, Ricardo García, president of the United Group of Automobile Importers of Puerto Rico (GUIA by its Spanish acronym) summarized the actual and future situation for auto deals in the aftermath of Hurricane María.

As soon as two days after the hurricane hit on Sept. 20, García went through sectors of San Juan in the northern and northeastern parts of the island, visually inspecting dealerships along the route. In a telephone interview with Caribbean Business, he said he saw everything from recently built or remodeled brand-only dealerships that held up well structurally, but with damaged glass and signage, to traditional, independent lots with high degrees of destruction.

On an industry level, the executive estimated that damages in structure and inventory, including parts and vehicles, could reach “tens and tens of millions of dollars and perhaps hundreds.”

García, who also is Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ (FCA) general manager for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, said that soon after the storm, the local auto industry was on its feet to restart business. In fact, by Monday, Oct. 2, two FCA dealerships were already back in service. By now, four of the 11 dealers that FCA has on the island, are back at work.

Likewise, other brands have several or all of their dealerships back in either full or partial operation. Such is the case of Mitsubishi, whose 18 lots across the island are all working, offering sales and/or services.

All of Ford’s nine dealerships are operational. Public Affairs & Communications Manager Vivian Dávila added that the only local dealer for Ford’s luxury marque, Lincoln, San Juan Lincoln, is also open.

Puerto Rico auto group optimistic about storm recovery

Another brand with a high percentage of working dealerships is Kia. Lynnette Veguilla, Kia’s marketing manager in Puerto Rico, said 12 of the brand’s local dealerships are open and 11  are offering both sales and service. “There’s a strong attitude to pick themselves up among dealer owners and their teams,” she said. Likewise, Nissan has 12 of 18 dealerships running.

Mazda’s Priscila Vélez, mentioned that six of the Japanese brand’s stores are back in business. The sales and marketing director also offered information on parent company Bella Group’s other brands and said Honda has three lots open in San Juan, Caguas and Bayamón, as well as Acura on Kennedy Avenue and Flagship Volkswagen and Chrysler in Bayamón.

Hyundai de Puerto Rico Marketing Manager Juan Rivera said 13 of its 19 stores are open. “We are hard at work to have the whole network operational,” he said. To reach that goal, Rivera mentioned that the brand is working closely with each dealership by providing temporary facilities. “We have rented air-conditioned trailers that are being used as dealership offices and will provide others with large tents.”

Subaru’s sole store in Puerto Rico, on San Juan’s Kennedy Avenue, is open as well. Sales Director Lilliam Portalatín explained that the dealership, Trébol Motors, is open for sales and service from Monday to Saturday.

Also on Kennedy Avenue is Gómez Hermanos, which carries luxury brands such as Porsche, Jaguar, Audi, Land Rover, Maserati and Ferrari, as well as Hyundai de San Juan. Marketing and public relations Manager Andrea López de Victoria indicated that all brands are open daily for parts, service and inspection of damages for insurance claims from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Other luxury brands that are also open are Mercedes-Benz (Garage Isla Verde), Infiniti (Ambar Infiniti), Volvo (Volvo Puerto Rico), and BMW (Autogermana).




Big Tech has big plans to help reconnect Puerto Rico 

Facebook and Google once aimed to connect the world. Now they would be happy just to reconnect part of it.

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to send a “connectivity team” to help restore communications in ravaged Puerto Rico. Google parent company Alphabet offered to send its Wi-Fi balloons. They were among several tech companies proposing disaster response ideas, most aimed at getting phone and internet service up and running.

Some of these plans, of course, are more aspirational than others.

In this Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017 photo, power lines are down after the impact of Hurricane Maria, which hit the eastern region of the island in Humacao, Puerto Rico. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti, File)

BATTERY POWER

Tesla CEO Elon Musk often takes to Twitter to mull over ideas, but on Friday his musings about sending his company’s solar-powered batteries to help restore Puerto Rico’s power attracted the attention of the island’s governor.

“Let’s talk,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello in a Friday tweet.

Musk agreed. Hours later, he announced he was delaying the unveiling of Tesla’s new semi-truck and diverting resources, in part to “increase battery production for Puerto Rico and other affected areas.”

The need for help in restoring power and communication after Hurricane Maria is great: The Puerto Rican energy authority reported Saturday that about 88 percent of the island is still without power. The Federal Communications Commission said Saturday that 82 percent of cell sites remain out in Puerto Rico; 58 percent are out of service in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The FCC’s daily status report also shows significant wireline, TV and radio outages remain in both U.S. territories. The agency formed a task force this week and approved an advance of $77 million to support carriers working to restore telecommunications services.

VAGUE PROMISES

But many offers of help from big companies remain somewhat vague. Google parent company Alphabet has proposed launching balloons over the island to bring Wi-Fi service to hard-to-reach places, as it has in other parts of the world.

The FCC announced Saturday that it’s approved an experimental license for Project Loon to operate in Puerto Rico. But that doesn’t mean it will able to get them in the air anytime soon.

“We’re grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it’s possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need,” said Libby Leahy, a spokesman for Alphabet’s X division.

But there are limitations, she said Saturday.

“To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network – the balloons can’t do it alone,” she said, adding that the company is “making solid progress on this next step.”

COLLABORATIVE EFFORTS

Cisco Systems has sent a tactical team and says it is working with local government, emergency responders and service providers to facilitate restoration and recovery efforts. The company, along with Microsoft and others, backs the NetHope consortium, which specializes in setting up post-disaster communication networks and has field teams now operating in Puerto Rico and several other Caribbean islands.

“Communication is critical during a disaster,” Zuckerberg said after the hurricane hit, announcing that employees from his company’s connectivity team – the same group working to build high-altitude drones that can beam internet service down to Earth – were heading to Puerto Rico. But with its aircraft still in the testing phase, the company said Friday that the engineers it’s sent to Puerto Rico are focused on providing support to NetHope’s teams.

SMALLER ORGANIZATIONS

Much of the ground work is being spearheaded by nonprofit organizations and small firms with expertise in rural or emergency communications.

Lexington, Massachusetts-based Vanu Inc., which sets up wireless communications networks in rural parts of the United States, Africa and India, is sending dozens of its small, solar-powered cellular base stations to volunteer crews on the ground in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Aid workers are pairing Vanu’s devices with other technology, such as inflatable satellite antennas.

After setting up a network on the island of Vieques, off the main island of Puerto Rico, one team watched from a roof as local residents started getting text alerts from family members who had been trying to get in touch.

“They noticed everyone in the plaza pulling their phones out,” said CEO Vanu Bose. “You don’t have to announce you’ve lit up coverage. People know right away.”

 




ASSMCA establishes crisis management clinic

With or without medical plan. That way anyone who understands that they require psychological assistance can arrive to the first of several crisis management clinics, established for emotional support.
There, an interdisciplinary team composed of psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical social workers, will attend to anyone who cannot reach their service provider, because of the emergency situation, or who does not have one, but given the circumstances feel the need to seek help,” said Suzanne Roig Fuertes, who is in charge of the Mental Health and Addiction Services Administration (ASSMCA).
“Anyone whose psychiatrist has not been able to open and requires a prescription for their medications, including addiction patients. It is a free service to help alleviate the emotional burden our people have, “added the official, who was supported by Dr. Michel Finnigan, Mental Health Disaster Director of Maryland, who” helped us at a time to establish some priorities “. It is also backed by the United States Agency for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA). “We want to make sure it’s an organized and structured process and that the help really gets where it has to go.”
Shelters
As for the shelters, Roig Fuertes pointed out that the ASSMCA staff is finding support along with other behavioral professionals. In fact, on the island, there are already behavioral professionals of the state of Colorado who will join the several mental health groups to give psychological support. Emotional support needs at shelters are identified through mayors and agency heads. All help is welcome. Individuals who wish to volunteer with ASSMCA can write to volunteerssaludmental@assmca.pr.gov. Those who are interested can also go to the first floor of the Convention Center where the Citizen Assistance Office has a volunteer support desk. They must carry their identification of collegiate or document that identifies them as professionals of the mental health.
The situation in the streets
In the face of the anxiety that is observed in the streets, product of the despair of the people before the lack of communication and essential services, Roig Fuentes offered the following recommendations:

 

  • “Within everything, we must return to the routine, as, for example, the time of rest. If we do not take care of ourselves, we do not work. Many times, intolerance and irritability arise from tiredness, frustration and impotence. If we rest, we will feel better. The loss is painful and hard to recognize, but we cannot think “why did this happen to me”, but “what am I going to do with what is happening to me.”
  • “Reevaluate. While you are taking your break, think about our values and how they reflect our actions. It is difficult what we are going through as a society and, above all, those who have had losses, but we must begin to look at our reality, what we are going to do with it; thinking about what we could do differently does not help. You have to think in an organized way; how we are going to get ahead “.
  • “Continue the sense of brotherhood. It is part of our culture and will help us recover. When we unite to cleanse our community, in addition to creating and / or strengthening ties, we keep our minds occupied and feel useful. “
  • Ss for the children: try to re-establish the routine, what time we eat, what time we sleep; that gives them a sense of structure and organization. Find a space to, under the circumstances, review the materials with any book or newspaper that you find, create stories to maintain creativity and a sense of family unity.
  • Remember the aged. With so much leisure time, surely, we will find the time to help another.
  • Think positively. Criticism does not build, but thinking positive gives us energy to move forward. Every time have a negative thought, we must change it for two positive ones.

 

The new center is located in the facilities of ASSMCA, in front of the Veterans Hospital in the Medical Center. New ambulatory centers will be established soon in various parts of the island. The clinic has the support of the College of social work professionals, APS, the School of Psychiatry of the Medical Sciences Campus and other private and voluntary sectors.
 

 




Rio’s kids are dying in the crossfire of a wave of violence

RIO DE JANEIRO — An unborn boy’s lung is punctured by a bullet while still in the womb. A 2-year-old girl is shot in the head while playing at a restaurant. Three stray bullets cut down a 13-year-old during physical education class at school.

Rio de Janeiro, which just a year ago was in the global spotlight as it hosted the Summer Olympics, has always struggled with crime . But amid a national economic crisis that has exacerbated deep problems of inequality, this city famous for both its glamorous beaches and its sprawling slums is experiencing a wave of violence that’s the worst in a decade.

With an estimated average of 15 shootings a day involving police and heavily armed gangs that control large swaths of the city, hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in the crossfire — and increasingly that includes children, many of whom have been felled this year by bullets intended for others.

In July, the federal government deployed over 8,500 soldiers to try to stamp out crime in Rio’s roughest neighborhoods. But so far they have not been able to stem the bloodshed.

Here are the stories of six children who died this year for no reason other than they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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JAN. 21: NO SAFE PLACE

As a police officer in Rio, where more than 100 of his colleagues have been killed this year, Felipe Fernandes always knew he was risking his life each day on the job. But he never imagined his 2-year-old daughter, Sofia Lara Braga, could become a casualty.

Police officer Felipe Fernandes never imagined his 2-year-old daughter, Sofia Lara Braga, could become a casualty.

As the family was dining early in the evening at a restaurant on the city’s north side, Sofia was romping in its play area. Suddenly a gunshot rang out from the street.

“Everyone was coming down from the playground, but not her,” Fernandes said.

He realized Sofia was motionless atop the jungle gym, and he ripped its protective netting to get to her. A stray bullet had hit the toddler in the head, killing her instantly.

Investigators have yet to determine whether it came from a gun fired by criminals or by police, who were pursuing a stolen car when the shooting happened.

Fernandes and his wife, Herica Braga, have since moved in hopes it will help them leave painful memories behind. But Braga is holding on to Sofia’s belongings. In their new home, a room dedicated to the girl has her dolls, teddy bears and clothes.

“I live with the illusion that maybe one day my daughter might come back home,” Braga said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

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FEB. 15: PLAYING OUTSIDE

Classes at Fernanda Caparica’s school in the Mare slum were canceled that morning due to gunfire between rival gangs, something that is all too common in Rio.

Thayana Caparica poses with a photo of her 7-year-old daughter Fernanda.

Thayana Caparica, 23, took her daughter home and ordered Fernanda, 7, and her two brothers not to leave the house.

But by afternoon Fernanda had grown impatient and wanted to play outside. She kept insisting. Finally Caparica let her go to a friend’s house.

Around 7 p.m. Caparica heard gunshots and immediately called the friend’s mother, who said the children were playing on the terrace. Moments later she learned that Fernanda had been shot in the face. The girl died at a hospital.

Their hearts broken, Caparica and her sons also now live in constant fear of more shootings. The eldest boy is especially petrified.

“Every time there is crossfire, he tells me, ‘Mom, I don’t want to die like my sister,’” Caparica said.

___

MARCH 30: KILLED AT SCHOOL

Maria Eduarda Alves da Conceicao, 13, had wandered from her PE class on an outdoor basketball court over to the entrance of her school when she was hit by three bullets. They came from police officers who were after armed suspects nearby in the northern Rio slum of Acari.

“They saw it was a school, and they kept shooting,” said Maria Eduarda’s mother.

“They saw it was a school, and they kept shooting,” said Rosilene Alves Ferreira, the girl’s mother. “Over 60 shots were fired.”

A police officer has been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The school is full of reminders of the curly-haired teen, who dreamed of becoming a basketball player or a flight attendant. On the outer wall, bullet holes have been painted over with red hearts. Maria’s smiling face is painted on a giant mural opposite the entrance. On the basketball court she is depicted with angel wings, taking a selfie.

After her death Rio’s security chief promised to revise police protocols for operating near schools. The mayor promised to build bulletproof walls around public schools in dangerous areas. Neither change has yet to materialize.

 

APRIL 26: A PUDDLE OF CRIMSON

Every night before going to bed, Tereza Farias looks at cellphone pictures taken by bystanders who witnessed her son’s slender body lying in his own blood.

Felipe Farias, 16, died in the Alemao slum complex while he was returning from a protest condemning the death of a 13-year-old who was also killed by gunfire.

Felipe was the fourth person killed in Alemao just in that week. The wall of the narrow alley where it happened is still pockmarked with bullet holes the size of bottle caps.

Several witnesses reported the fatal shot came from police. However, investigators have told Farias they will not go to the scene for fear of being attacked by gang members.

“The investigator told me that if he came here it would be like signing his death sentence,” said Farias.

Claudineia dos Santos Melo and her husband Klebson Cosme da Silva, hold the coffin containing the remains of their newborn son Arthur.

Felipe had hoped to join the army when he turned 18, following in the footsteps of his two older brothers and his uncle.

“I used to tell him, ’Don’t worry, your time will come,’” Farias said. “But his time didn’t come.”

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JUNE 30: SHOT IN THE WOMB

Claudineia dos Santos Melo, almost nine months pregnant, had just finished running errands at her local supermarket in a slum in the metro-area city of Duque de Caxias when she saw a police car racing in her direction.

She sensed a shooting could break out at any moment. But before she could take cover, she was hit.

“I immediately thought of him because my belly hurt a lot,” Melo said, referring to her unborn son, in an interview with Globo TV a few days later.

Melo was taken to a hospital, where doctors performed a cesarean section to deliver the baby. The bullet had damaged his lungs and spine.

Melo met the son she named Arthur for the first time a week later in the intensive care unit. After spinal surgery, Arthur appeared to be recovering. Doctors even called him a “miracle” baby. But he died of bleeding July 30, exactly a month after the shooting.

To this day, police have yet to officially assign responsibility for the deadly gunshot.

At the funeral, the only sound was the clicking of journalists’ cameras as Arthur’s father silently carried the tiny white coffin.

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JULY 4: A RAID TURNS DEADLY

Police officers barged into the home of 10-year-old Vanessa dos Santos in the Lins slum complex, purportedly in search of a suspect. But the girl was the only one there.

From next door, Vanessa’s neighbor and godmother shouted a warning for her to get out immediately. As Vanessa bent down to pick up her flip-flops, a high-caliber bullet struck her head. She died on the doorstep.

“The first thing (police) said was that it was a stray bullet,” said her father, Leandro Matos, visibly outraged that they treated it as such. “It wasn’t. They started shooting inside the residence.”

To this day, police have yet to officially assign responsibility for the deadly gunshot.

Like relatives of some other victims, Vanessa’s mother and two older brothers have moved because they were haunted by the holes left on the yellow walls of the living room.

“I use to imagine the bad things that could happen — like a car running over my child,” said Matos, who had already moved years ago after divorcing Vanessa’s mother. “But now I’m neurotic. Everything scares me.”

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Memorials spring up at Mexico City’s quake collapse sites

By Moisés Castillo

MEXICO CITY — On sidewalks, on median strips and amid the brick dust and rubble of buildings that collapsed in Mexico’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake, impromptu memorials have sprung up across the capital as it begins to come to terms with its losses.

It is part of a process of grieving, remembering and paying homage to the victims as well as the volunteers and first responders who toiled for days to rescue survivors and recover the bodies of the more than 350 people who died.

In front of the campus of the Tecnológico de Monterrey on the south side of Mexico City, people arranged stuffed plush toys of rams — the university’s mascot — in piles under hand-lettered messages to five students who died Sept. 19.

Flowers, handwritten messages, and a Mexican flag are arranged in a makeshift memorial for earthquake victims, erected by the community in Parque Mexico in the heart of the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Isaias Medina, 33, visited the memorial with his wife, young son and daughter this week. Medina’s children attend school steps away from the campus, and when the quake struck he rushed to pick them up. They were safe, but falling walkways and walls killed the five college students.

“I was very sad to see the buildings all cracked up in places,” Medina recalled.

“For us, as a family, there is sadness. What happened is a tragedy that you feel in your heart, your soul,” he continued. “But now let’s move forward. As they say, ‘Be strong, Mexico,’ and we’ll get through this.”

To the north, white flowers and wreaths piled up at a previously existing statue of a family a block or two from where a wing of a school building collapsed, killing 19 children and seven adults. Some had taped images of Roman Catholic saints and psalms to a wall, and star-shaped balloons and stuffed animals topped the statue.

The plight of the children trapped in the Enrique Rebsamen school became an international focus of attention during the rescue effort, and messages of support poured from abroad — including from one of soccer’s biggest stars. Lionel Messi, of the Barcelona club, recorded a video dedicated to Leonardo Farias, 8, who was rescued from the school.

“Hello Leo. I wanted to send you a big hello and wish you all the luck. Take good care of yourself.”

At the site of a six-story apartment building that collapsed, killing a dozen people, someone spray-painted on a sheet of plywood fencing: “To the neighbors of 32,” a reference to the street address. Also scrawled on the barrier were the first names of those who died in the building.

On Peten Street, where a seven-floor apartment building collapsed, volunteers left construction helmets they had used during rescue efforts atop a flag at a shrine on the now-cleared lot.

“It is an honor to work with the marines, the city and federal police, students and civil society, all for one purpose,” a volunteer had written on one white helmet.

Where a five-story office and factory near the city center once stood, the rubble has now been cleared and all that’s left is a concrete foundation that traces the building’s footprint.

People left flowers and testimonials scattered among the five-gallon buckets that were used to carefully remove debris in the first days of the rescue. Colorful strips of cloth memorialized the clothing workers who died there, along with a banner reading “Not one more woman.”

“The life of one seamstress is worth all their machines,” read a message painted on the last part of wall still standing.




Mexicans displaced by quake: ‘This is like a horror story’

By Christine Armario and Natacha Pisarenko

MEXICO CITY — Inside the Francisco Kino Elementary School a miniature city has emerged at the site of a shelter for people who lost their homes in last week’s deadly earthquake.

On the school’s open-air courtyard, doctors test blood pressure and glucose levels at a makeshift triage center set up on a plastic table. Nearby, children get haircuts while stressed-out parents receive massages.

But frustration is growing inside the gym, where families camp out on mattresses alongside piles of new, donated belongings. Days without easy access to a shower and the loss of simple liberties like deciding when to turn out a light to go to asleep have become aggravating.

They want to know: How long will they be stuck here?

“This is like a horror story,” said Ana Maria Castaneda, 49, who is living at the shelter with five relatives.

Shadows of rescue workers and volunteers are cast on the wall of an apartment building covered with the spray painted words in Spanish: “Evacuation route” in the southern neighborhood of Tlalpan in Mexico City, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.  (Natacha Pisarenko/AP)

More than 12,000 people whose homes were destroyed or damaged by the magnitude 7.1 quake have spent at least one night in a shelter since the quake, the Mexican government says.

Officials pledged Tuesday to give families chased from their homes a monthly payment of 3,000 pesos — the equivalent of about $170 — to find a new place to live for a total of three months. But an average one-bedroom apartment outside Mexico City’s center can easily run twice as much.

“We will directly support families with resources and materials to repair damages or build a new home,” President Enrique Pena Nieto said in a televised address Tuesday night.

Government employees fanned out Tuesday urging the 25 families living at the Francisco Kino school to visit a nearby park where officials have set up areas for victims to sign up for benefits, but the suggestion was met with skepticism and resistance. If they went to the plaza, some people worried, they might lose their coveted spots at the shelter. Some 500 families were forced from nearby apartment buildings after one collapsed and the school had space only for two dozen.

“Sorry to interrupt you,” one elderly woman sitting on a donated mattress said at a meeting with a visiting representative from Mexico City’s Women’s Institute. “They tell us if we leave here, we’ll lose our shelter. But if we don’t go there, we might miss out on government benefits.”

“After the fright of the quake, why are they scaring us with these threats?” she asked.

The residents were urged to go one-by-one to sign up for government assistance, leaving family members to watch over their belongings.

According to Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, inspectors have examined damage at 10,903 properties so far and 83 percent of the structures are safe to live in. That means about 1,800 have been marked uninhabitable.

In all, some 43 shelters across the capital have tended to 24,000 people since the Sept. 19 quake, though many came just for a plate of food before finding a place to stay with friends or family.

It’s unclear how long the shelters will be operating. Volunteers and government employees stationed at the Francisco Kino school — a shelter run largely by neighborhood residents — said it would stay open for the foreseeable future.

“As long as is necessary,” said Elizabeth Garcia, a government worker inspecting the site Tuesday.

The mountain-like piles of donated water bottles and medical supplies along with the growing level of organized services give the impression of a population that is starting to settle in. Rows of toothbrushes and toothpaste rest on sinks outside a children’s bathroom. A room that once held school materials has been fashioned into a space for medical donations. A cardboard box holds mounds of antibiotics. On a desk are Styrofoam cups holding injectable medicines like anti-inflammatories that are labeled with a black marker.

Dr. Misael Dominguez, an attending physician, said doctors have “practically everything we require.”

“We have seen a lot of high blood pressure and sugar levels from the stress,” he added.

At that moment, a doctor was poking one of Roberto Ramirez’s fingers with a needle to draw blood and test his glucose levels. Ramirez, a 33-year-old musician and computer programmer, is a diabetic and lives in an apartment that has been deemed too dangerous to inhabit. He was away from home when the quake struck and wasn’t able to retrieve his glucose testing kit.

He said he has been trying to take better care of his health since the quake, saying, “I value things more.”

The result came back high: 259.

To the left of the entrance are signs offering psychological services. Many of those sheltering at the school have arrived with the quake’s trauma still weighing heavily on their minds.

Florencia Cortes, 37, was pulled from the rubble of her apartment building along with her 20-month-old son, Jonatan. In order to get her son out, she had to swing him toward the building’s plumber, who happened to be outside. He caught hold of the boy by his foot.

Jonatan used to follow his mother around everywhere. Now she says he stick by his father, who wasn’t home during the quake.

“He’s not the same,” Cortes said. “Maybe he thinks I threw him and don’t love him.”

Many of the shelter residents harbor a deep mistrust of their government to set things right. While government workers occasionally come in, for the most part officials have been absent, they say. Some are vowing to stay until they’re given a new place to call home.

“The government has the last word and no one knows anything about the government here,” said Angelina Usuna, 81.

Night can bring the hardest hours. A lucky few have donated mattresses, but most are sleeping on uncomfortable foam mats. They get a few hours of sleep at best. Wary of sharing a collective space, no one feels entitled to tell someone else to be quiet or turn out a light.

In fact, it’s impossible to make the gym completely dark. As part of the shelter’s safety protocol, one light must be kept on in case another tremor strikes.