Siege on Students in Nicaraguan Church Ends

At least one person is dead and several others wounded in the wake of a siege on a Nicaraguan church where about 150 students, priests and journalists had taken shelter from an attack by paramilitary forces.

Church officials negotiated a release of the captives, who spent Friday night trapped under gunfire in Managua’s Divine Mercy Catholic Church. 

The students were then taken out of the church and transported to Managua Cathedral. Supporters lining the streets cheered as buses carrying the students passed by.

The overnight siege came after protests calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega on Thursday and a nationwide strike on Friday.

The Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference said a young man killed in the attack had been shot in the head in what it described as an assault by police and paramilitary forces.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, who visited the church along with a colleague, told reporters he had been told there were two dead and several wounded.

A Washington Post journalist tweeted a snapshot of the body of a victim inside the church. He was later allowed by the paramilitary forces to leave, as were a few injured protesters.

In Friday’s nationwide strike, businesses closed their doors and streets emptied out. Some students from a protest camp at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua barricaded themselves into a university building while paramilitary fighters shot at them from outside, according to media reports. Several people were thought to have been injured.

The Catholic Church, which has been aiding in talks between the government and the protesters, has denounced the violence.

The protests, which have continued for months, are the deadliest in Nicaragua since the end of its civil war in 1990. They began in April after the government announced changes to the social security system. Since then, protesters have been calling for Ortega to step down from office. He was elected to a third term in 2016.

Ortega’s administration accuses the protesters of trying to stage a coup.

Months of violence between the protesters and pro-government paramilitary forces has cost 300 lives.

Criminal Gangs in Guatemala Drive Many to Flee

Guatemalan Yeni González is one of the few mothers able to see their children after they were separated earlier this year under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy when they tried to cross the southern U.S. border illegally. VOA’s Celia Mendoza reported last week when González traveled to New York to see her children at the Cayuga Care Center, where they remain until reunification can be arranged. In this third installment, Mendoza goes to the Guatemalan village where Yeni González used to live and spoke with her relatives about why the mother of three decided to embark on such a dangerous journey.

Mexico Calls on Pompeo to Reunite Migrant Children with Their Parents

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a high-ranking delegation to Mexico, at a time when that country is in transition after elections, and both Mexico City and Washington seem eager to repair relations strained over immigration, security and trade. But the newest border crisis of migrant children separated from their parents loomed large over Friday’s talks. VOA’s Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Colombia Peace Tribunal Opens with Rebel Leaders on Board

Dressed in blazers and collared shirts, leaders of Colombia’s once largest guerrilla army made their first appearance at a new special peace tribunal Friday to respond to allegations of war crimes during five decades of bloody conflict.

“I’m here at your disposition,” said Rodrigo Londono, looking more like a professor in a pair of thick-rimmed glasses than a former rebel leader. “Watching with profound emotion as the dream we weaved together in Havana comes to crystallization.”

The procedural hearing for “Case No. 001” lasted three hours and was attended by just three of the 31 leaders of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia who were summoned. Most instead were represented by lawyers.

One, Seuxis Hernandez, appeared on a live television feed from inside the detention center where he is being held on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S.

“This is an illegal detention,” Hernandez said during a rant protesting that he had not been permitted to attend in person. The audio from the transmission was eventually cut off, after which Hernandez waved a peace sign to the audience.

Case No 001

The tribunal was set up under terms of the peace accord signed by the government and leaders of the FARC.

Its first case concerns kidnappings that FARC guerrillas committed between 1993 and 2012, a time when the rebel army was expanding. Kidnappings were a common practice used to extort money from families and to show control of the civilian population.

Victims included high-profile politicians like Ingrid Betancourt, who was abducted while campaigning for president, but the identities of many are still unknown.

Some kidnapping victims were rescued or escaped while others were killed.

Magistrates have reports from the chief prosecutor’s office and independent organizations providing information on several hundred cases. One of their key tasks will be determining exactly how many people were kidnapped by guerrillas and what happened to them, though the number is likely too large for each case to be fully accounted for.

Step to end the conflict

Magistrate Julieta Lemaitre said the tribunal’s first case represents “a fundamental step in the effort to put an end to the armed conflict.”

The prosecutor’s report has not been released publicly, but Colombian station BLU Radio obtained a copy in which investigators allege there were more than 8,000 kidnapping victims. Nearly 75 percent were men and about a quarter were peasants.

The report, which has not been seen by The Associated Press, also alleges the rebels obtained millions of dollars through kidnappings.

Luz Marina Monzon, who is overseeing the unit in charge of finding the disappeared, said officials continue to receive requests for help finding people who went missing.

She said the truth and recognition stage of the peace process that has now begun will “help resolve what happened to these people.”

Fraction of the brutal toll

Because of the immense scope of the conflict, the special peace tribunal is likely to delve into a small fraction of the war’s brutal toll. The struggle between leftist rebels, paramilitaries and the state resulted in at least 250,000 dead, 60,000 missing and millions displaced.

Under the peace deal, ex-rebels are required to fully confess any war crimes and make reparations to victims. The special peace tribunal is one of the most controversial parts of the accord, largely because it will allow most former combatants who cooperate to escape any time behind bars and enter politics.

President-elect Ivan Duque vowed throughout this campaign to change parts of the accord, including creating tougher punishments for those accused of crimes against humanity. Duque could make some changes by decree or in congress, though he would likely face considerable resistance.

Londono, best known as Timochenko, sat in a front row seat alongside two other ex-guerrilla leaders. One brought a bouquet of roses, the emblem of the group’s new political party.

After leaving the court, Londono read a lengthy statement in which he complained about the presence of journalists at the proceeding but also vowed that all those summoned would fully comply with the process.

Acknowledging that irreparable harm was done to many Colombian families, he said: “We ask them for forgiveness. We will do whatever it takes so that they can know the truth.”

Authoritarian Governments Try to Control Social Media Use

Filipinos tapped out text messages on their cellphones to mobilize protests against President Joseph Estrada. The effort mushroomed within hours into a “people power” revolution that forced Estrada to step down.

That was 2001. Since then, technology has created increasingly powerful smartphones that can link to the internet, provide instant access to news and connect people through social media.

In response, authorities in some countries are waging a battle to control what their people see and hear, with the goal of limiting dissent and heading off more “people power” takeovers.

“At first, it was journalists who were being threatened, it was media being suspended,” said Arnaud Froger, head of the Africa desk at Reporters Without Borders. “But now the authorities are preventing information from being spread on the internet.”

“It’s a clear attempt to silence critical voices and critical information,” Froger told VOA’s English to Africa service.

From China to Africa to Russia to the Middle East, countries have used national security as justification for passing vague laws against “inciting against public order” or even just spreading gossip. They have persuaded sites like Facebook and Google to take down content that they consider offensive.

Many countries have created their own strong web presences, both to ensure their messages get out and to monitor for anything remotely resembling criticism.

In Pakistan, bloggers have been kidnapped, allegedly by security forces, and tortured, with the purpose of intimidating them and others against criticizing the government. Vietnam has established a 10,000-strong military cyberwarfare unit to counter “wrong” views on the internet and collect data on government critics.

Saudi Arabia has arrested dozens for spreading dissent. Activists abroad have had their Facebook accounts deactivated for reporting on alleged Saudi war crimes against Yemen.

China allows only local internet companies operating under strict rules. And in North Korea, internet access essentially doesn’t exist for the general populace.

Bypassing restrictions

The restrictions have sparked a cat-and-mouse game for those seeking to get around restrictions. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) have provided one avenue by masking the user’s identity and location. In response, several countries have banned them.

Encrypted applications like Telegram have been banned in Iran and elsewhere. Several African countries, including Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, have imposed taxes on internet and social media use — even remittances from overseas relatives — or ordered websites to purchase expensive operating licenses.

“We are actually very much concerned,” Froger said. “It’s as if countries in central, eastern and southern Africa were involved in a race to restrict access to the internet in general and social media in particular.

“Journalists and citizen journalists are actually very much affected by this as they very often use Facebook to post articles and use Whatsapp to communicate with their sources.”

More protests

But in a sign of how much people have become dependent on the internet and social media, anger has started to bloom into legal action and the very protests that their governments have been trying to prevent.

Ugandan officials say they’ll rethink the country’s social media tax after a massive protest this week that police dispersed by firing tear gas and warning shots.

“Sometimes things can work out,” Froger said. “Legal actions can be taken, and protests can be held in the streets. Cameroon is now the first state ever in Africa to be brought before its own constitutional court for an internet blackout. Sometimes just by denouncing, alerting, raising public awareness is sufficient to encourage the government to back down.”

Brazil Files Charges Against Former Executive of US Company

Brazilian prosecutors have filed corruption and money laundering charges against Paul Bragg, the former chief executive officer of Houston-based offshore drilling contractor Vantage Drilling.

Federal prosecutors said in a Thursday night statement that Bragg was involved in the payment of $31 million in bribes to a former executive of state-owned oil company Petrobras.

 

The statement says the bribe was paid to help Vantage win a $1.8 billion contract in 2009 to charter a drill ship to Petrobras.

 

The charges against Bragg are part of the probe into the corruption scheme at Petrobras and major construction companies through which kickbacks were paid for government projects.

 

In the last few years, dozens of politicians and top businessmen have been convicted and jailed.

US Delegation Meets with Mexican President, President-elect

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he “respectfully reinforced” the U.S. position on border security in each of his meetings with Mexican leaders during a visit to Mexico City to meet with the country’s president and president-elect.

Pompeo said after the talks that the U.S “is committed to making measurable progress that ensures security on both sides of the border.” One of U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign promises was to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. Trump promised, at the time, to make Mexico pay for the wall.

Pompeo said he and the rest of the U.S. delegation, which included presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, also discussed trade with the Mexican officials. Pompeo said it is important that the U.S. and Mexico have a “strong, fair, and reciprocal trading relationship” that will require an “updated” North American Free Trade Agreement.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray Caso said outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto vowed to work with his successor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to present a “unified front” for Mexico as it transitions from one administration to the next on Dec. 1.

The foreign minister said the Mexican officials expressed concern over the recent U.S. policy of separating children from their parents when apprehended at the U.S. border. They asked the U.S. delegates to give “their best efforts” to reunited children with their families as soon as possible.

The Trump administration’s effort to mend frayed relations and re-set bilateral ties between two neighboring countries took place just days after the leftist Lopez Obrador won a landslide election to a six-year team. Also attending the talks were Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray Caso, and the Lopez Obrador’s proposed foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard Causabon.

Causabon is expected to lead Lopez Obrador’s transition team from now until the Dec. 1 presidential inauguration.

Strained relations

The high-profile meetings came amid strained relations between the two neighboring countries over illegal migration, border security, and trade negotiations.

To curb the influx of migrants — mostly from Central America — the two countries are said to be discussing a proposed “safe third country” agreement that could significantly reduce the flow of asylum seekers who journey through Mexico and cross illegally into the U.S.

A “safe third country” deal between Mexico and the U.S. would require asylum seekers from Central America to apply for protection in Mexico rather than at the U.S. border. 

‘Important, complex’ issues

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch is also among those in the U.S. delegation.

When asked if Washington would consider providing Mexico financial aid as an incentive and to help the country settle new asylum seekers, the senior State Department official told VOA “migration issues are an incredibly important and complex issue” that the Trump administration is addressing. He referred to the Department of Homeland Security that is taking the lead on such discussions. 

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said migrant flows are a shared responsibility among nations in Latin America, and Washington is working with regional governments to “find options for these individuals to remain within or closer to their countries of origin.”

Critics warned such an agreement could put migrants fleeing violence in further danger. 

Due process a priority

American Immigration Council Policy Director Royce Murray told VOA Friday any such deal must ensure that Mexico can process “a high volume of asylum seekers …without compromising due process.”

“More importantly, we would need to assess whether Mexico can provide meaningful protections to asylum seekers,” Murray added. “While there are many issues on the table between the U.S. and Mexico, refugees cannot become a mere chit whose safety and security can be negotiated away.”

“The notion that Mexico is in any way safe for Central American asylum-seekers is preposterous,” Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the advocacy group Legal Aid Justice Center told VOA on Thursday.

“I have had countless Central American clients, mostly women, tell me that the treatment they received in Mexico — whether by the cartels, or the government, or both — was nearly as bad as the violence they were fleeing in their home countries,” he added.

Mexico officials had said the best way to tackle issues related to illegal migration and border security is to “spur development in Mexico.”

‘Better places to live’

Wednesday, the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary on western hemisphere affairs, Kenneth Merten, told U.S. lawmakers that Washington is working with Mexico in tackling pressing issues through aid programs.

“Our assistance programs in the region seek to support rule of law and governance, and to make these countries better places to live, better places to do business, and thus ultimately reduce migration,” Merten said during a hearing Wednesday at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Pompeo will also discuss “continued U.S.-Mexico cooperation with the Nieto administration throughout the transition” and work closely with Obrador to continue strengthening the U.S.-Mexico relationship after the new administration takes office on Dec. 1, said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. 

Kids Fleeing Venezuela Left Hungry, Sick and Even Abandoned

On a recent humid evening in the Colombian border city of Cucuta, a Venezuelan woman wrapped her newborn daughter in a pale yellow blanket and left her with a note alongside a car parked near a stadium hosting a high school field day.

“I don’t have the means to take care of her,” she wrote on graph paper with a pink border of hearts, paw prints and flowers. “She is four days old and her name is Angela.”

About an hour later, another woman, her son and a teenage friend emerged from the stadium and heard the baby crying. They traced the faint wail to the car, just as the driver was starting the engine, coming dangerously close to striking the child.

“Stop!” they cried out.

The woman picked the girl up from the ground, later telling police she could see ants climbing on the newborn’s body. Officers arrived within minutes and took the child to a nearby hospital. Doctors found the child’s umbilical cord had been well cut and clamped, indicating she had been born in a hospital.

But aside from the note, which said the mother was Venezuelan, there was nothing to identify the girl, who begins life in the midst of an exodus from Venezuela in which children are increasingly becoming the victims of abuse, malnutrition and even abandonment.

“It’s sad the mother took this decision,” said Maj. Amaury Aguilera, the officer overseeing the investigation. “To just simply, so coldly, abandon her.”

As Venezuelans flee their country’s collapsing economy and an autocratic government in rising numbers, a grim toll is becoming evident among the youngest arrivals in Colombia: Children are sleeping on the streets, suffering from hunger and untreated infections, and sometimes being lured into sex work.

More than 500 Venezuelan children have been taken into custody in Colombia, according to government documents. Police in Cucuta regularly turn at least one or two children a day over to the nation’s child welfare agency, where many are then placed in foster homes. At the city’s biggest soup kitchen, some parents have even tried to give their children away.

Rosalba Navarro, a sister with Cucuta’s Roman Catholic archdiocese, says mothers on several occasions have begged her: “Please take them. I don’t have anywhere to keep them.”

Over 1 million Venezuelans have fled across the porous border into Colombia in less than two years, many of them young children. A recent census found that of the estimated 442,500 Venezuelan migrants living in Colombia illegally, about a quarter are minors — 10 percent are 5 years old or younger.

“It’s the young who are coming to the country,” said Belen Villamizar, a lawyer working in Cucuta with Colombia’s child welfare agency. “They are the ones more likely to take the risk. And they come with children.”

The escalating influx is putting strain on an already stretched child welfare system in Colombia, where decades of war, poverty and social strife have rendered countless children the victims of abandonment, sex abuse and recruitment by illegal armed groups.

Many Venezuelans have made long journeys by foot and bus when they reach Cucuta, a mountainous city where their homeland can easily be seen from its hilltops. They often have little more than a dollar in their pockets, if that, and several mouths to feed.

The result, police and welfare advocates say, has been a surge in the number of distressed parents lugging children along Cucuta’s smoggy, congested streets as they try to sell root beer or candy to pay for a roof over their heads.

On a recent evening, Cucuta police found 17-year-old Eliusmar Guerrero selling lollipops with her 18-month-old daughter. Guerrero said she and her husband had been unable to pay for their room in an apartment for the last three days. With no relatives in Colombia to help her care for the child, she said she was left with no choice but to go out in the streets hoping to sell a few candies with her baby in tow.

“We are going hungry here,” she said, balancing her smiling, seemingly oblivious daughter on one hip before the glare of a flashing police light.

As officers transported Guerrero and her daughter to Cucuta’s child welfare offices, she embraced her daughter and began to weep.

“I’m afraid they’ll take her from me,” she said.

In contrast to the United States, where more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents at the border with Mexico under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, Colombian officials say they are trying to keep newly arrived migrant families together while boosting the number of foster families available to step in at a moment’s notice when needed.

Authorities decided to place Guerrero and her baby together in a foster home.

“The nuclear family cannot be separated,” said Ingrid Velez, a social worker with the Colombian Institute for Child Welfare. “Emotional bonds would be broken.”

Figures provided by the government show 502 Venezuelan children have been taken into custody since the start of 2017. Ninety-nine of them were determined to be the victims of negligence, while 80 had suffered sexual abuse. Dozens of others were determined to be homeless, physically abused or in a state of malnutrition by the time they reached child welfare officials.

Still, for every child Colombian authorities take in, many more are out of view living in equally or more precarious conditions. Police in Cucuta said they had found only one instance of a minor involved in sex work, but in just one visit to a park known as a hub for prostitution, The Associated Press spoke with three Venezuelan girls who described starting to work as prostitutes there at ages 15 and 16.

“I stood at that pole and began to work,” one girl, now 18, said, pointing to a street lamp along the edge of the small, concrete city park.

Speaking on condition of anonymity in fear of retribution, the teen said she started sex work two years ago after migrating to Colombia and being unable to earn any money. She described the work as “revolting” and said she manages to mask her pain by taking “cripy,” a modified form of marijuana that contains higher levels of THC.

“Can’t you see it in my eyes?” she asked, her dark brown eyes fixed in a numb haze.

Cucuta is a city with one of Colombia’s highest unemployment rates in a region that is a hotbed for drug-related violence, and Venezuelan families that get stuck here often live 10 to a room in tenements with no beds that rent for $17 a week.

A block from the church soup kitchen, 5-year-old Daniel Villegas shares a room with several extended relatives, his parents, and three siblings, including one with microcephaly. His father smuggles Venezuelan-made root beer across the border and sells crates for a little over a dollar each, giving the family barely enough money for food.

Daniel, a thin, soft-spoken boy who wants to be a fisherman when he grows up, sleeps on a dirty mattress with two other boys. He said he dreams of the soup kitchen, where he gets to eat meat, a delicacy he went without for months in Venezuela.

“It bothers me,” he said shyly of the uncomfortable sleeping conditions. Then, pointing at his back he said, “This hurts.”

Along the banks of the muddy Tachira River dividing Colombia and Venezuela, conditions for children among Venezuela’s Yukpa indigenous group are even worse: Many have lice and distended bellies from malnutrition or parasites. Indigenous groups in both countries have long gone neglected.

Yet even while their children survive off meager helpings of potatoes cooked over rustic fires, Yukpa leader Dionisio Finol said they are better off in Colombia than in Venezuela.

“At least here they can eat,” he said.

Some Venezuelan families, anxious to leave Cucuta for more prosperous cities in Colombia or other parts of Latin America but without the money to buy a bus ticket, are now choosing to walk to their next destination, children alongside them. If they are lucky, they are able to hitch rides with strangers for much of the way.

“I’m willing to walk for three, four, five years,” said Darwin Zapata, who departed from Cucuta with his 12-year-old son in hopes of reaching Peru, 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) to the south. He fled to Colombia after losing his job in Venezuela and being briefly kidnapped. Both wheeled suitcases along the side of a highway on a recent morning. “Whatever it takes.”

The most desperate are willing to give up their children entirely. Though police said the case of newborn Angela was their first, child welfare, church and social workers said there have been others. One hospital social worker recalled a young mother of four who took her 5-month-old daughter to the hospital for malnutrition and decided to leave her there, telling staff she had no means of taking care of her.

“She came back three times,” Andrea Portilla, the social worker, recalled. “Deep down, she did not want to abandon her. But the situation forced her to.”

Eventually, she didn’t return.

In the case of baby Angela, officers seized on the little information available to search newborn registries at every nearby hospital. In her note, Angela’s mother said only that she was Venezuelan and signed her name Catalina. Investigators now believe both names were likely made up. They couldn’t find any woman named Catalina who had given birth to a daughter named Angela in the previous week.

“She probably knew that was the first thing we’d go looking for,” Aguilera said.

When a child is found abandoned in Colombia, officials are legally obligated to make every effort to find a relative in Colombia or Venezuela who would be able to take care of her, a task made even more complicated as relations between the Andean nations grow testy.

As police continue their investigation, the little girl with a thick nest of black hair is being swaddled by what Colombia calls a “substitute mother.”

Guatemalan Mother Deported Without Son

Lourdes de León is among the mothers who have been deported by the U.S. government without their children after being separated on the southern border of the United States. Since her return to Guatemala, de León’s only objective is to be reunited with her 6-year-old boy, who is still in New York. VOA’s Celia Mendoza spoke Lourdes de León at her home in San Pablo, San Marcos.

Pompeo and Mexico’s President-Elect Seek Fresh Start

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to Mexico Friday, where he will meet with that country’s leftist president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Relations between the two countries are strained over migration and border security, what to do about refugees from Central America and negotiations over the North America Free Trade Agreement. VOA’s State Department Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington, both sides want a fresh start.