Mexico Pipeline Blast Death Toll Climbs to 66

The death toll from Friday’s fuel pipeline explosion in central Mexico has climbed to 66, the governor of the country’s Hidalgo state said.

Governor Omar Fayad also said Saturday at a news conference in Mexico City that at least 76 others were injured.

Authorities initially said 20 people had been killed and at least 60 others were badly burned.

A leak and the resulting blast were caused by fuel thieves illegally tapping into the pipeline in Hidalgo state, officials said.

Video footage showed the fuel gushing into the air and people collecting the oil in buckets, garbage cans and other containers before the explosion.  

“I urge the entire population not to be complicit in fuel theft,” said Hidalgo Governor Fayad. “Apart from being illegal, it puts your life and those of your families at risk.”

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has launched a crackdown on oil theft, called on “the entire government” to assist the people at the site of the fuel explosion.

The government says fuel theft costs the country about $3 billion a year.

Miami Airport Haitian Restaurant Looks Out for TSA Agents 

When Wilkinson Sejour, owner of Chef Creole, the only Haitian restaurant at the Miami International airport, noticed TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents were no longer coming in to buy meals, he found it odd and wondered what was going on.

Sejour learned they were federal workers affected by the U.S. government’s partial shutdown. The federal security screeners are among hundreds of thousands of federal employees working without pay until President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats resolve a political dispute over construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

So Sejour devised a plan to show his appreciation.

“We’ve been at the airport for four months now, and they support us every day,” he told VOA Creole. “I thought if they were there since the beginning and helped me make money, now that they’re having problems, I have to thank them for their support and try to help them.”

The Chef Creole restaurant owner decided to offer free meals for a week — lunch and dinner — for TSA agents, customs inspectors and other federal employees working at the airport. They lined up to partake in the offerings, or sent a colleague to get meals for agents who were too busy to walk over to the restaurant.

“Food is important, more important than money — when you have food you’re OK,” Sejour noted.

So far, Chef Creole has distributed 1,400 free meals.  Sejour said he doesn’t have a lot of resources. He said he worried about how he was going to afford to give out free food. But he had faith. 

“The first day we gave out free meals, people saw and they offered to help, too. They said, ‘Chef, here are five cases of chicken, 50 pounds of shrimp, two cases of ribs — you don’t have to publicize it’ — that’s how it’s done. You have to have faith,” Sejour told VOA Creole.

What has been the reaction among the lucky recipients? Gratitude. 

“God bless you brother, no other restaurant in airport is doing what u are doing, all the money we spend in those restaurants and not one has offered to help tsa during a time like this, much respect to you brother we appreciate you, God bless,” @im_so_handsome commented on Chef Creole’s Instagram page. 

“We are humbled by your generosity. You deserve every blessing you receive and then some,” commented @stevieb305. 

The gratitude was echoed by members of the Haitian community who reacted to a post about Chef Creole’s efforts on VOA Kreyol’s Instagram page. 

“Good job. Kindness going around,” @farahfaroul commented. 

“Keep up the good work you’re doing, you’ll be rewarded, God is with you,” @maranata_christ_revien commented in Creole.

On Thursday, Haitian recording label Abstract Records gave Sejour a check for $500 to help pay for his efforts. 

“That will help me buy more supplies, because I promised I would feed them for a week,” Sejour said. 

Asked what motivates him, Sejour said he was inspired by the spirit of Haiti’s independence. 

“Remember, we are Haitians — and when we were the first to win our independence, all of South America came to us for help, so it’s in our blood to help our neighbors — not just our brothers and sisters.” 

Sejour added that he finds pleasure in feeding people. 

“What makes me happy is when you look in the person’s eyes — it’s just a plate of food — but it makes them happy,” he said.

Click here for related VOA Creole video.

Nicaragua Paper Runs Blank Front Page in Protest of Ortega Government

Nicaragua’s oldest and most-widely read newspaper published its Friday edition with a blank front page in protest against what it says is the government’s withholding of ink, paper and other materials needed for its printing press since September.

In a Friday editorial, the La Prensa newspaper asked: “Have you imagined living without information?,” and complained that the government of leftist President Daniel Ortega had impounded its supply of printing materials for 20 weeks.

“We don’t know how much longer we can keep printing the newspaper. Maybe two more months, maybe until tomorrow,” Jaime Chamorro, director of La Prensa, told Reuters by phone.

Human rights organizations and independent media say the Ortega government is attacking freedom of expression.

Arrests of reporters ordered by judge

The government recently shut down a broadcaster and held two reporters on terrorism and hate-incitement charges, while a judge ordered the arrest of three more.

The newspaper said customs agents at the behest of the government have been withholding imports of paper and ink in retaliation for critical coverage of simmering political tensions in the Central American country.

Since April 2018, Nicaragua has been experiencing one of its worst crises since a civil war in the 1980s.

Protests raged for months before a government clampdown reined them in, but more than 300 people were killed during that time and over 500 incarcerated, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, one of the groups the government has blacklisted.

News outlets closed

Rights groups say four radio stations and one TV station have closed, while dozens of journalists have been beaten and threatened.

Nicaragua’s customs authority was not available for comment on the accusations made by La Prensa. The government did not respond to a request for comment.

The Ortega administration maintains there is freedom of expression in the country and has accused the opposition of seeking to mount a coup to oust him.

Canada Dismisses China’s Warning of Huawei Ban Repercussions

Canada’s government on Friday dismissed China’s warning of repercussions if Ottawa banned Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from supplying equipment to 5G networks, saying it would not compromise on security.

China’s ambassador to Canada issued the threat on Thursday as relations between the two nations continued to deteriorate after a senior Huawei executive was arrested in Vancouver last month on a U.S. extradition warrant. China has also detained two Canadians.

Canadian officials are studying the security implications of 5G networks, the latest generation of cellular mobile communications, but their report is not expected in the immediate future, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.

Some Canadian allies have already imposed restrictions on using Huawei equipment, citing the risk of espionage. Canadian Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, asked at a cabinet retreat about the Chinese ambassador’s remarks, said Ottawa had already made clear it would not cut corners on national security.

“We understand that those sorts of comments will be made in the process, but we will make our judgment based on what is right for Canada and not be deterred from making the right decision,” he told reporters.

“We are determined to stand our ground based on what is right for Canada … this is a tough and turbulent world.” Goodale noted that China had made similar comments after Australia banned Huawei from supplying 5G equipment last year.

Western intelligence agencies have for years raised concerns about Huawei’s ties to China’s government and the possibility its equipment could be used for espionage.

New Caravan of Honduran Migrants Crosses Into Mexico

A group of Honduran migrants entered southern Mexico on Friday, joining more than 1,000 people who departed Central America in recent days headed to the United States and putting to the test Mexico’s vows to guarantee the safe and orderly flow of people.

The cohort crossed into southern Chiapas state before dawn without needing wrist bands that migration officials the day before told migrants to wear until they could register with authorities, several migrants and an official told Reuters.

“The road today was open. … They didn’t give us bracelets or anything, they just let us pass through Mexico migration,” said Marco Antonio Cortez, 37, a baker from Honduras traveling with his wife and children, ages 2 and 9.

A migration official at the entry point, who asked not to be named because she was not authorized to speak to media, said that at least 1,000 people crossed from Guatemala into Mexico by around 5 a.m., without needing wrist bands.

The group proceeded on foot alongside cars on a highway, accompanied by federal police officers.

Mexico’s migration institute did not respond to a request for comment.

Groups of migrants departed from El Salvador and Honduras earlier in the week, the latest in a string of caravans of people largely fleeing poverty and violence.

The caravans have inflamed the debate over U.S. immigration policy, with U.S. President Donald Trump using the migrants to try to secure backing for his plan to build a wall at the southern border with Mexico.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is pursuing a “humanitarian” approach to the problem, vowing to stem the flow of people by finding jobs for the migrants. In exchange, he wants Trump to help spur economic development in the region.

Police: Death Toll From Colombia Car Bomb Rises to 21

Colombian police on Friday said 21 people were killed and 68 injured after a car bomb exploded at a police academy in Bogota in an attack that prompted fears of a return to the country’s violent past.

In Thursday’s attack, which the government described as an act of terrorism, the car broke through checkpoints into the grounds of the General Santander School before it detonated, shattering windows of apartments nearby.

There has been no claim of responsibility for the blast, the deadliest since the government struck a peace deal with the Marxist FARC rebel group in 2016.

President Ivan Duque called the explosion a “crazy terrorist act” against unarmed cadets and ordered police and the military to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

“We will not rest until we capture and bring to justice the terrorists involved,” Duque said late Thursday. “I tell the criminals that social repudiation awaits them, the rejection of all Colombians and the international community.”

Local Caracol radio said that a suspect had been captured. Investigators identified the car’s driver as Jose Aldemar Rojas Rodriguez, who was among the dead, Colombian Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez said on Thursday.

The vehicle, a gray Nissan Patrol SUV, was carrying 80 kilograms (176 lb) of the high explosive pentolite, which has been used in the past by Colombian guerrillas, Martinez said.

Car bombs were frequent in Colombia during decades of civil war between the government and various leftist rebel groups, as well as in violence involving the Medellin drug cartel led by the late drug lord Pablo Escobar.

The worst of the war, which killed some 260,000 and left millions displaced, ended when the government reached a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016.

The last major attack was in January 2018 when the biggest rebel group that remains active, the National Liberation Army (ELN), detonated a bomb in the northern port city of Barranquilla, killing five police officers and injuring dozens.

The ELN, made up of some 2,000 fighters and considered a terrorist organization by the United States, has been in talks with the government since February 2017 to end the conflict.

Duque, who took office in August, has said conditions for peace talks included the ELN suspending hostilities and releasing all hostages.

Nearly 1,000 Migrants Enter Mexico in New Caravans

Almost 1,000 Central American migrants entered southern Mexico Thursday in a test of the new government’s pledge to manage an ongoing exodus fueled by violence and poverty that has strained relations with the Trump administration.

Mexico’s National Migration Institute said 969 migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua crossed into Ciudad Hidalgo just days after new U.S.-bound caravans of people set off from Central America.

Caravans from Central America have inflamed the debate over U.S. immigration policy, with U.S. President Donald Trump using the migrants to try to secure backing for his plan to build a border wall on the frontier with Mexico.

Humanitarian approach

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is pursuing a “humanitarian” approach to the problem, vowing to stem the flow of people by finding jobs for the migrants. In exchange, he wants Trump to help spur economic development in the region.

The U.S. government has been partially shut down for more than three weeks as Democrats resist Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5.7 billion to fund his planned wall.

Mexican officials put wristbands on the migrants as they entered the country to monitor the flow of people. The bands must be kept until the migrants register with authorities.

Once registered, migrants who met the requirements to stay would be issued humanitarian visas, allowing them to work in Mexico or continue to the U.S. border, said Ana Laura Martinez de Lara, director general of migratory control and verification.

Those who entered Mexico at the official border crossing had done so in a “very orderly” and respectful manner, in contrast to clashes that took place at the frontier in October when a larger caravan began crossing from Guatemala, she said.

Some of the migrants expected to stay in Mexico to find work but it was too early to say how many, she said.

Hundreds waiting to cross

Martinez de Lara said about 700 people were still waiting to cross into Mexico from Tecun Uman on the Guatemalan side of the border. She could not say if any people had tried to cross into Mexico illegally.

Mexico’s government said Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard planned to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo soon for talks on their efforts to address the migration challenge. No date was yet set for the talks, a ministry spokeswoman said.

Canadian Kidnapped in Burkina Faso Found Dead 

A Canadian geologist kidnapped earlier this week in Burkina Faso has been found dead, the country’s security ministry said Thursday. 

 

Kirk Woodman was abducted by gunmen late Tuesday from a remote gold mine in the country’s northeast region. 

 

His body was found near the country’s borders with Mali and Niger in Gorom Gorom, the ministry said.  

 

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland confirmed Woodman’s death, saying, “Canada condemns those responsible for this terrible crime. We are working with the government of Burkina Faso and other international partners to pursue those responsible and bring them to justice.” 

 

Not much is known about who kidnapped Woodman from the mine, which is owned by Vancouver-based Progress Minerals.  

 

The company’s chief executive, Adam Spencer, said: “Kirk was an incredibly accomplished and highly respected geologist with a career spanning over 30 years, with 20 years spent in West Africa.” 

 

Woodman’s death raises concerns about Islamist factions making forays into the country, which so far has been spared the violence that has plagued its neighbors.  

 

Earlier this month, a Canadian woman and an Italian man went missing in Burkina Faso.  Family members have said Edith Blais, 34, and Luca Tacchetto, 30, were supposed to travel to neighboring Togo together for a humanitarian aid mission but never arrived. 

 

Woodman was kidnapped on the third anniversary of an attack on a hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, that killed dozens. That attack was claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. 

White House Ramping Up Pressure Against Maduro

The Trump administration is putting “all options on the table” to pressure Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro government as the White House considers whether to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate head of state.

Guaido is president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislative body.

“We have a range of options in our diplomatic, political and economic toolbox,” a senior administration official told VOA. “Frankly, we haven’t even scratched the surface of where we can go.”

The options include implementing an oil embargo and putting the country on the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

However, the official said that military action, something President Donald Trump hinted at in 2017, was not one of those options.

The Trump administration has placed a series of sanctions on the Maduro government and is evaluating whether to impose tougher sanctions on the country’s military and vital oil industry.

An oil embargo would be devastating to Venezuela, as oil accounts for 95 percent of its export earnings and 25 percent of its gross domestic product.

Maduro or Guaido?

Since Maduro’s Jan. 10 inauguration, 19 countries on the Organization of American States’ permanent council, including the United States, have voted to not recognize Maduro’s new term.

In a statement, White House national security adviser John Bolton said the U.S. does not recognize “Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro’s illegitimate claim to power.”

After Guaido announced he was willing to step in as interim president, Luis Almagro, president of the OAS, tweeted his support.

On Tuesday, the National Assembly officially declared Maduro a “usurper” to trigger a constitutional mechanism that would allow Guaido as the head of the assembly to take over the country’s leadership.

Some Venezuelan experts are urging the international community to recognize Guaido as the legitimate interim president.

Once they do, “governments, companies and international organizations will be able to begin channeling aid and contracts through the National Assembly,” said Moises Rendon, associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group.

Rendon added that this would “strike a monumental blow to the Maduro regime,” as international aid is a major source of its income.

But other analysts are warning that recognizing Guaido may not be the best option at this stage.

“Guaido and the National Assembly are carefully threading the needle and not trying to play all their cards at once,” said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization. “Ham-fisted efforts by international allies to force the situation will short-circuit the process.”

Smilde urged the administration to coordinate its strategy with Guaido and the National Assembly, and “not seek to pre-empt it.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said he had spoken by phone Tuesday with Guaido to express the administration’s support for the National Assembly as the “only legitimate democratic body in the country.”

According to a readout of the call from the vice president’s office, Pence “encouraged Mr. Guaido to build unity among political groups, and pledged continued support from the United States until democracy is restored.”

Maduro ‘illegitimate’

Since Maduro won another term in office last May in an election that was widely considered fraudulent, his government has been confronted with international condemnation and a growing list of sanctions.

“A concerted attempt by the international community to force Maduro from office by challenging his legitimacy may help Venezuelans get their country back,” Rendon said.

On top of pressing sanctions, Rendon said, the international community can challenge Maduro’s right to continue in office by reducing or cutting diplomatic ties, prohibiting “further international agreements with the Maduro regime” and, “in the event of illicit activities, preparing for detention and prosecution.”

The U.S. has accused Maduro’s government of crimes, including narco-trafficking, and has labeled Maduro a dictator who has implemented failed policies that triggered the country’s worst economic crisis.

Maduro contends he is the target of a U.S.-led “economic war” aimed at forcing him out of office.

Support from U.S. Congress

The Venezuelan opposition is receiving support from U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who has urged that the U.S. officially recognize Guaido.

On Thursday, Democratic Rep. Darren Soto and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, both of Florida, introduced the Venezuela TPS Act of 2019, which would allow Venezuelan nationals to become eligible for Temporary Protected Status in the U.S. That status would grant them work authorization and shield them from deportation.

Other Democrats in Congress, including Donna Shalala and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both of Florida, are also pushing for tougher actions against Maduro. In the coming weeks, they plan to introduce a series of bills targeting weapons exports to Venezuela and providing humanitarian assistance to the Venezuelan people.

New US Bill Would Offer Temporary Status to Venezuelans

Amid a deepening crisis and mass exodus from Venezuela, bipartisan legislation was unveiled Thursday to provide temporary protected status (TPS) to Venezuelan nationals in the United States.

The Venezuela TPS Act of 2019, introduced by U.S. Representatives Darren Soto (D-FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), cites “an unprecedented economic, humanitarian, security, and refugee crisis.”

“During [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro’s tyrannical rule, Venezuela’s economy has deteriorated at alarming rates, causing a scarcity of basic foods and medicine in the country,” Representative Soto stated. “Hyperinflation, drastic shortages, and egregious human rights abuses have forced many Venezuelans into exile, and the conditions in Venezuela remain too perilous for them to return,” added Representative Diaz-Balart.

TPS designation is granted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to citizens of certain countries suffering from ongoing armed conflict, environmental disasters, or “other extraordinary and temporary conditions.”  

If enacted, TPS would protect Venezuelan nationals from deportation and permit employment authorization documents for an 18-month designated period. 

​TPS terminations

Since September 2017, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and her predecessor, John Kelly, have ended TPS for more than 300,000 beneficiaries from six countries, Sudan, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Nepal, and Honduras. DHS also extended TPS for nationals of Syria, Yemen and Somalia through next year.

Last October, a federal court in California barred DHS from ending TPS for Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador.

The injunction, which will last while a class action suit makes its way through the court, shields more than 200,000 people from deportation.

In his ruling, Judge Edward Chen wrote, “There is evidence that the administration may have violated the Constitution when it made decisions to end TPS [for the four countries]. There is also evidence that this may have been done in order to implement and justify a pre-ordained result desired by the White House.” 

‘Fastest escalating’ crisis

In response to VOA’s request for comment on the Venezuela TPS Act, DHS Press Secretary Tyler Houlton wrote, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending legislation.”

It is unclear how many Venezuelan nationals would benefit from TPS, if enacted. 

The Migration Policy Institute has designated the Venezuela crisis as “the fastest-escalating displacement of people across borders in Latin American history,” with estimates of displaced Venezuelan nationals varying from 1.6 to 4 million people as of early 2018.