UN Backs Anti-Graft Investigator in Standoff with Guatemala

U.N. Secretary-general Antonio Guterres on Wednesday rejected a request by Guatemala’s government to name a new head of a U.N. commission investigating corruption in the Central American nation. 

Spokeswoman Florencia Soto told The Associated Press that the agreement between Guatemala and the United Nations stipulates that Guterres gets to determine the head of the commission. 

“The secretary-general does not see any reason to change his current position of support for Commissioner Ivan Velasquez,” Soto said. 

Alfredo Brito, secretary for presidential communication, confirmed that the government had received a note from the United Nations but said he did not know its contents.

The refusal continues a standoff between the world body and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who announced in recent weeks that he would not renew the mandate of the commission. 

Morales also refused to let Velasquez, a Colombian national, return to the country from the United States, and on Monday gave the United Nations 48 hours to present a list of candidates to replace Velasquez as commissioner. 

Guterres and the commission have helped press a number of high-profile graft probes, including one pending against Morales himself. He is suspected of receiving more than $1 million in undeclared campaign financing, though he denies wrongdoing. 

Last year, after the commission and Guatemalan prosecutors sought to bring corruption charges against Morales’ brother and son, the president declared Velasquez persona non grata and sought to have him expelled from Guatemala. 

That move was blocked by the Constitutional Court, which also ruled this week that the president cannot bar the commission head from the country. But after the latest ruling, officials in Morales’ administration said they would continue to bar entry by Velasquez. 

The court reiterated its ruling Wednesday, this time specifically naming Vasquez instead of saying an unspecified commissioner should be allowed entry. It ordered the president and other officials to obey or face “legal responsibility.”

As sitting president, Morales is immune from prosecution. A motion to lift that protection is currently before lawmakers.

Rights Group Accuses Mexican Military, Police of Unlawful Killings

Mexican troops and police committed two extrajudicial killings while confronting presumed fuel thieves in the central state of Puebla in May 2017, a Mexican human rights group said Wednesday, adding to allegations of abuse against the military.

A report by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) said police and troops manipulated the scene by placing high-caliber firearms beside the two bodies. Eight other people died and 13 people, including four minors, were detained with excessive force, the report said.

Neither the defense ministry nor the Puebla police force responded to requests for comment. The state government declined to comment.

Police duties

The military has assumed some police duties in Mexico for more than a decade, working to combat rising drug violence that contributed to a record 31,000 homicides in 2017. Their increased responsibilities have coincided with accusations of human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and torture.

“As a result of its investigation, the CNDH has the evidence to show grave violations to human rights and personal freedom,” the group said of the reported deaths in Puebla.

The CNDH urged state oil firm Pemex to cooperate in investigations and not let its property be used to hold detainees.

Pemex did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The CNDH previously found that armed forces were involved in the murder of four people in the state of Tamaulipas in 2014, and that soldiers arbitrarily executed two people after an illegal raid in 2016.

“This case is one more example of how the Mexican military violates human rights,” Amnesty International said in a statement in response to the CNDH report. “It’s time for the armed forces to return to their barracks.”

Calls for investigation

The CNDH called on the Mexican attorney general’s office to investigate, and said national and state officials should provide reparations for the victims.

Mexico’s congress passed a controversial security law last year that would lay out the rules under which the armed forces can operate in the battle with organized crime. The law was strongly criticized by opponents who fear it could open the door to more abuses.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has said the law will not be implemented until it is reviewed by the Supreme Court.

Report: Extreme Poverty Declining Worldwide 

The world is making progress in its efforts to lift people out of extreme poverty, but the global aspiration of eliminating such poverty by 2030 is unattainable, a new report found.

A World Bank report released Wednesday says the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day fell to a record low of 736 million, or 10 percent of the world’s population, in 2015, the latest year for which data is available.

The figure was less than the 11 percent recorded in 2013, showing slow but steady progress.

“Over the last 25 years, more than a billion people have lifted themselves out of extreme poverty, and the global poverty rate is now lower than it has ever been in recorded history. This is one of the greatest human achievements of our time,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said.

“But if we are going to end poverty by 2030, we need much more investment, particularly in building human capital, to help promote the inclusive growth it will take to reach the remaining poor,” he warned. “For their sake, we cannot fail.”

Poverty levels dropped across the world, except in the Middle East and North Africa, where civil wars spiked the extreme poverty rate from 9.5 million people in 2013 to 18.6 million in 2015.

The highest concentration of extreme poverty remained in sub-Saharan Africa, with 41.1 percent, down from 42.5 percent. South Asia showed the greatest progress with poverty levels dropping to 12.4 percent from 16.2 percent two years earlier.

The World Bank’s preliminary forecast is that extreme poverty has declined to 8.6 percent in 2018.

About half the nations now have extreme poverty rates of less than 3 percent, which is the target set for 2030. But the report said that goal is unlikely to be met.

Celebrity Chef in Hot Water for Hosting Venezuela’s Maduro

A Turkish celebrity chef with restaurants all over the world is coming under attack after he posted videos on social media of Venezuelan President Nicola Maduro feasting at his Istanbul restaurant amid claims that people in Venezuela are going hungry because of an ongoing economic crisis. 

Dozens of Venezuelans protested outside chef Nusret Gokce’s Miami restaurant on Wednesday, even after the videos were deleted Tuesday from Instagram.  Protesters, some draped in the Venezuelan flag, chanted and sang the Venezuelan national anthem, trying to deter diners from entering the upscale steakhouse in Miami’s Brickell financial district.

Others so overwhelmed the restaurant’s Yelp online review site with negative comments that the comments section was taken offline for an undetermined amount of time. 

One video showed Gokce, also known as “Salt Bae,” carving meat for the president and his wife, Cilia Flores, at the Nusr-Et restaurant in Istanbul, where each cut of meat can cost hundreds of dollars. 

Another showed Maduro puffing on a cigar from a box bearing his name. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio slammed the chef Tuesday.

“I don’t know who this weirdo #Saltbae is, but the guy he is so proud to host is not the President of #Venezuela. He is actually the overweight dictator of a nation where 30% of the people eat only once a day & infants are suffering from malnutrition,” Rubio tweeted Tuesday.

Opposition leader Julio Borges, who lives in exile in Colombia, tweeted: “While Venezuelans suffer and die of hunger, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia Flores have a good time in one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, all with money stolen from the Venezuelan people.”

But Maduro remained unrepentant for the extravagant outing. After returning home to Caracas, he said, “I send greetings from here to our friend Nusret. Comrade, soon I’ll return to Istanbul so we can see one another again. Thanks for the gifts.”

The once-wealthy oil-producing nation has been in an economic crisis for the past five years. The turmoil has left many Venezuelans struggling to find food and medicine and forced masses of people to flee to other South American countries.

According to the United Nations, more than 2 million Venezuelans have fled since 2014. 

A Meganalisis poll published in the Miami Herald last month found more than 30 percent of Venezuelans say they only ate one meal a day. Nearly the same number report eating “nothing or close to nothing” at least one day a week. A staggering 78 percent said they had trouble finding enough food. 

Mexico Commemorates Victims of Deadly Quakes

Mexico on Wednesday commemorated victims of two deadly September 19 earthquakes, one in 1985 that left at least 9,500 dead and another just last year that killed more than 360.

Victims’ relatives gathered at the site of a seven-story downtown office building that collapsed in last year’s magnitude 7.1 quake that killed 228 people in the capital and 141 more in nearby states.

The rubble was long ago cleared, but the building site remained blocked off with plywood. Friends and family of the 49 victims had posted signs with messages of love on the fencing.

One included a photo of a young man named Adrian wearing black-framed glasses. The message promised Adrian some pizzas at a popular restaurant across the street. “We miss you and you will always live in our hearts,” the sign said.

Rescuers in hard hats who responded to the emergency that day appeared with their gear.

Several women wearing black shirts that said “I love you Kari” lit candles and floral wreaths were laid along the sidewalk. A priest dressed in black embraced a woman who sobbed into his embroidered shawl.

Consuelo de Luna, whose son died in the collapse, said “it’s difficult.”

The city purchased the lot with plans for a permanent memorial, but it has not moved forward. The civic group Mexicans Against Corruption released an investigation this month that revealed that government experts had deemed the office building so unsafe in 1997 that they warned a government agency not to rent offices there. Nothing was done to make the building safe or warn other tenants.

Javier Martin Serrano, 55, who collects and sells scrap metal and lives as a squatter a block away returned Wednesday to the site of a collapsed five-story office and factory.

He had on the same threadbare pants and green nylon safety vest he wore when he went into the rubble that day to save a trapped woman.

“More than anything today I feel melancholy, helplessness for not having been able to save more people,” he said.

Rail thin, Serrano was able to squeeze through holes and crawl into the collapsed structure until he reached one of the businessmen who worked there, crushed and trapped under a concrete floor slab.

“He complained a lot, he didn’t let go of my hand until he died,” Serrano said.

Serrano had to drag himself out, losing his way in the choking dust. On Wednesday, he ran his hand over a marble floor molding that marked the edge of the building’s parking lot. “This is what guided me,” he said.

He was trapped when a concrete beam settled on him. A year later the government has not helped him with his injuries or offered alternative housing to squatters evicted from the lot where he lives.

Remembrances were held at other disaster sites across the city as well, including the Enrique Rebsamen elementary school where 37 people died, many of them children.

At 1:14 p.m. people observed a moment of silence, holding their arms aloft, before the quake alarm sounded and a primary school next door evacuated in a drill. Afterward, victims’ relatives recited some of their names, with tears streaming down their faces.

“We miss you a lot,” said Arturo Gomez, weeping with his arm raised, to his wife of 39 years, Maria Elena Sanchez Lira, who died in the quake. Her brother, Fernando Sanchez Lira, 51, said he also lost his mother Maria Teresa Lira, in the collapse.

He quit his job to pursue a lawsuit against the building’s owner. “This building was really bad. The owner knew it,” he said.

At a collapsed apartment building where nine people died on the south side of the capital, people yelled while the earthquake drill sirens blared: “This drill doesn’t represent us. We don’t want homages, we don’t want monuments, we don’t want drills. We want homes. We want reconstruction.”

Early Wednesday morning, President Enrique Pena Nieto presided over the raising of a massive Mexican flag to mark the anniversary of the shattering magnitude 8.0 quake of 1985.

A Year After Deadly Mexico Quake, Some Still Wait to Return Home

A year after a devastating earthquake struck Mexico City and killed dozens of people, Guadalupe Padilla is still waiting to return to her home.

The 60-year-old security guard has lived in a wooden shack in a park facing the now-empty apartment block where she spent three decades of her life.

Padilla is one of hundreds of people in the capital who have been unable to return to their homes, according to Reuters interviews with over a dozen people left homeless by the quake.

In early September last year, an 8.1 earthquake struck Southern Mexico, killing about 100 people and toppling buildings. Twelve days later on Sept. 19, the anniversary of a 1985 quake that claimed tens of thousands of lives in Mexico

City, a 7.1 magnitude tremor shook the center of the country, killing about 370 people.

Fearing her apartment was unsafe after the second earthquake, Padilla fled and waited for the building to be repaired.

Many of the people interviewed by Reuters said they are still waiting for assistance promised by the government. Others refuse to leave their homes, even if they are badly damaged, for fear they will be permanently displaced.

About three weeks ago, the building’s management told Padilla to remove the rest of her belongings, without providing information about what lay ahead, she said.

“It’s not fair for them to kick us out without explaining anything,” Padilla said.

Reuters was unable to locate the managers of the building.

President Enrique Pena Nieto’s office on Tuesday said the government had provided aid to help rebuild 166,000 homes of more than 169,000 that were damaged, mostly in the south. The Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on those left homeless.

But 434 buildings in Mexico City are still at risk of collapse and over 1,000 require significant reinforcement before they can be reoccupied, the capital’s government said.

The dilemma can be felt acutely in Tlalpan, a neighborhood in the capital’s southern reaches hit hard by the quake.

In the sprawling housing complex known as Multifamiliar Tlalpan where Padilla once lived, one building collapsed, killing nine people, and the remaining towers were declared uninhabitable. Some 500 families lost their homes, according to Citizen watchdog group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI).

Padilla said the government has been more concerned with launching new development projects than looking after residents.

“After everything happened here, the construction mafia got started,” Padilla said, referring to a wave of construction firms that she said came after the quake to redevelop the site.

In a report published last week, MCCI said it found evidence of poor construction in the Tlalpan complex and other buildings that fell in the city.

In some cases, residents had complained of severe structural damage before the quakes, the group said.

Rather than heeding residents’ complaints, city authorities slashed budgets for the buildings and continued to liberally grant construction permits, MCCI found.

City officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about MCCI’s findings and have not publicly commented on the report since it was released.

Since the quake, other problems have taken root, such as a spate of burglaries. The thieves picked locks and broke down doors, prompting some people to reoccupy their homes, according to owners of the apartments and police officers who requested anonymity.

Although his brother reclaimed his apartment, Ignacio Melo has yet to return. He lives in a small wooden shack, hastily built near a park where he used to walk.

“We’ve already been to many authorities, but no one listens to us,” he said.

Critics Skewer Venezuelan President Over Feast as Country Starves

Videos of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro feasting on steaks at an upscale restaurant have sparked worldwide outrage on behalf of the poverty-stricken people of his country.

One video show celebrity chef Nusret Gokce, also known as “Salt Bae,” carving meat for the president and his wife, Cilia Flores, at the Nusr-Et restaurant in Istanbul, where each cut of meat can cost hundreds of dollars.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio slammed the chef who was filmed with the “dictator,” who was shown eating “a five-star gourmet meal, smoking fine cigars while the people of Venezuela are literally starving.”

“It’s an outrage, disgusting … this is a man starving human beings and [Salt Bae] is celebrating him as some sort of hero – I got pissed,” Rubio told the Miami Herald on Tuesday.

“I don’t know who this weirdo #Saltbae is, but the guy he is so proud to host is not the President of #Venezuela. He is actually the overweight dictator of a nation where 30% of the people eat only once a day & infants are suffering from malnutrition,” Rubio tweeted Tuesday.

The senator also tweeted the address and phone number of the chef’s restaurant in Miami, which is home to scores of Venzeulan-Americans and Cuban-Americans who despise the socialist leader.

Opposition leader Julio Borges, who lives in exile in Colombia, tweeted: “While Venezuelans suffer and die of hunger, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia Flores have a good time in one of the most expensive restaurants in the world, all with money stolen from the Venezuelan people.”

The once-wealthy oil-producing nation has been in an economic crisis for the past five years. The turmoil has left many Venezuelans struggling to find food and medicine and driven masses to flee to other South American countries.

According to the United Nations, more than 2 million Venezuelans have fled since 2014.

A  Meganalisis poll published in the Miami Herald last month found more then 30 percent of Venezuelans say they only ate one meal a day, nearly the same number report eating “nothing or close to nothing” at least one day a week and a staggering 78 percent said they had trouble finding enough food.

Mexico’s Next Anti-money Laundering Czar Vows Action After ‘Shameful’ Odebrecht

Mexico’s incoming financial intelligence chief said it was “shameful” how little had been done about bribes that Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht executives said were paid to secure Mexican public works contracts, and vowed to reexamine the case once in office.

Santiago Nieto will head the finance ministry’s Financial Intelligence Unit, which analyzes suspicious financial records, once the new leftist government takes office on Dec. 1. He said in an interview last week that the unit had been misused for political ends, without elaborating.

“It’s shameful that Mexico and Venezuela are the only countries in Latin America that haven’t sanctioned anyone,” he said of the Odebrecht case, which is at the heart of Brazil’s Lava Jato, or Car Wash, corruption investigation that has reverberated across the region in recent years.

“In the case of Odebrecht, and in any other case, the first thing we would have to do is review what there is in the Financial Intelligence Unit related to the case,” he said. Nieto does not yet have access to files and records kept by the unit.

In Brazil, Odebrecht executives admitted to paying bribes within Mexico. Prosecutors in Mexico have said they are probing business between the Brazilian conglomerate and state oil company Pemex.

Pemex has declined to comment on issues related to Odebrecht, citing the ongoing investigation. The office of Mexico’s attorney general, the finance ministry and the Financial Intelligence Unit all declined to comment for this story. Odebrecht acknowledged receipt of an emailed request for comment, but did not respond further.

Anger at widespread corruption scandals, including the alleged bribes from Odebrecht, a lucrative house deal involving the family of President Enrique Pena Nieto, and hundreds of millions of dollars siphoned from government coffers through fake contracts, helped leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador win a landslide presidential victory in July.

Lopez Obrador pledged in his manifesto to clamp down on financial crime, and tighten money laundering, banking and tax regulations. He has given few details of how he will achieve this, but promises to set an example of probity from the presidency.

Tasked with helping to prevent and fight money laundering and terrorism financing, the financial intelligence unit receives and analyzes information that it should then pass on to prosecutors to investigate and construct a case.

A former lead prosecutor for electoral crimes, Nieto was dismissed in 2017 on the grounds that he broke a code of conduct when he gave an interview about his investigation into Odebrecht bribery during the 2012 presidential campaign.

Nieto has admitted his mistake, but denies breaking rules or revealing sensitive information. He said his firing was illegal.

Last month, two incoming administration officials told Reuters that Odebrecht may be blocked from participating in public works projects under the new government.

Odebrecht responded that wrongdoing at the company should not be used to impose sanctions against it in Mexico.

Corrupt System?

Nieto said he would press for more information sharing between federal departments that investigate tax, electoral and organized crime, and investigate possible corruption within the system.

“I have the impression that there is a factor of internal corruption,” he said, without providing specifics.

The Financial Action Task Force, an international organization that sets global standards for fighting illicit finance, said earlier this year that in Mexico “financial intelligence does not often lead to investigations of money laundering, underlying crimes, and terrorist financing.”

Following the report, Mexico’s finance ministry and the attorney general’s office issued a joint statement recognizing shortcomings and promising to improve efforts.

However, the Mexican government seized just 871 million pesos ($46.3 million) and $14.7 million between September 2017 and June 2018, and began just one criminal proceeding, according to official statistics.

Nieto, who called the outcomes “terrible,” pointed to the financial intelligence unit and attorney general’s office as the two “bottlenecks” holding back cases.

“It is a matter of impunity, a complicit government, and a lack of political will to fight corruption,” Nieto said.

Argentina’s Fernandez: ‘Dig Up My Home But You Won’t Find Illicit Funds’

Argentina’s ex-President Cristina Fernandez said on Tuesday that she never received corrupt payments and challenged investigators to scour her home region of Patagonia if they believed she had hidden cash, a day after she was indicted on graft charges.

Using her immunity as a senator to refuse to answer any questions, Fernandez handed a written statement to the federal judge investigating a sprawling bribery scandal that has ensnared dozens of former officials and construction company executives. The statement was published on her party’s website.

“They can dig up all of Patagonia, but they will never find anything because I never received any illicit money,” the statement said, citing official allegations that cash was kept in underground vaults at Fernandez’s private residence or hidden in containers in the southern Argentina countryside.

Federal Judge Claudio Bonadio said in the indictment that officials had found empty vaults under the house, but no money.

Fernandez, president from 2007 through 2015, is accused of heading a network in which officials in her administration accepted bribes from construction companies in exchange for public works contracts.

Known as the “notebooks” scandal, the allegations arose in August after a local newspaper published diaries kept by a former government chauffeur, who said his notes documented hundreds of millions of dollars delivered to the offices of Fernandez and her late husband and presidential predecessor Nestor Kirchner.

“There is no evidence that links me to this alleged network,” Fernandez’s statement said.

Fernandez was previously indicted on corruption charges in 2016 after her former public works secretary was caught trying to hide bags of cash in a convent.

Fernandez’s current position as a senator grants her immunity from arrest, but not from investigation.

The probe has implications for next year’s presidential election. President Mauricio Macri is expected to run for a second term in October 2019, and his arch political rival Fernandez is among his possible challengers from the country’s Peronist movement. But the scandal is expected to limit her chances.

Some 85 percent of Argentines expect corruption to “decrease substantially within the next five years,” a recent survey by the International Federation of Accountants said.

“The optics do not look good for Fernandez’s re-election prospects,” said Jose Arnoletto, President of the Argentine Federation of Professional Economic Scientists.

Venezuela Doubles Down on Chinese Money to Reverse Crisis

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said Tuesday that new investments from China will help his country dramatically boost its oil production, doubling down on financing from the Asian nation to turn around its crashing economy.

 

Already a major economic partner, China has agreed to invest $5 billion more in Venezuela, Maduro said following a recent trip to Beijing, adding that the money would help it nearly double its oil production.

 

“We are taking the first steps into a new economic era,” he said. “We are on track to have a new economy, and the agreements with China will strengthen it.”

 

A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is gripped by a historic crisis deeper than the Great Depression in the United States. Venezuelans struggle to afford scarce food and medicine, many going abroad in search of a better life.

 

Venezuela’s inflation this year could top 1 million percent, economists predict.

 

After two decades of socialist rule and mismanagement, Venezuela’s oil production of 1.2 million barrels a day is a third of what it was two decades ago before the late President Hugo Chavez launched the socialist revolution.

 

Maduro says under the deal, Venezuela will increase production and the export of oil to China by 1 million barrels a day.

 

However, China is taking a strong role in its new agreements. Over the last decade China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.

 

The head of the National Petroleum Corporation of China will soon travel to Venezuela to finalize plans on increasing oil exports.

 

Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at brokerage Caracas Capital Markets, said the influx of money appears to be investments China will control.

 

“The Chinese are reluctant to throw good money after bad,” Dallen said. “They do want to get paid back. The only way they can get paid back is to get Venezuela’s production back up.”

 

Venezuela also agreed to sell 9.9 percent of shares of the joint venture Sinovensa, giving a Chinese oil company a 49 percent stake. The sale will expand exploitation of gas in Venezuela, the president said.

 

Maduro also recently launched sweeping economic reforms aimed at rescuing the economy that include a creating new currency, boosting the minimum wage more than 3,000 percent and raising taxes.

 

Economist Asdrubal Oliveros of Caracas-based firm Econalitica said he doubts that Venezuela can reach the aggressive goal to boost oil exports to China by one million barrels a day given problems faced by the state corporation PDVSA.

 

“Increased production I see as quite limited,” Oliveros said. “The Chinese companies alone have neither the muscle nor the size to prop up production.”