- Thousands of protestors took to the streets of Honduras to call for President Juan Orlando Hernández to resign after U.S. prosecutors filed court documents accusing him of receiving $1.5 million in drug money during his campaign for president.
- In November, the president’s brother was arrested in Miami and charged with trafficking thousands of kilograms of cocaine to the U.S.
- The U.S. has strongly supported Hernández’s government and given them millions of dollars to stop the flow of drugs from South and Central America.
- Hernández has faced increasing pressure recently, with some arguing he has become more authoritarian, noting that he changed the constitution so he could be re-elected to another term in 2017, in an election that many said was fraudulent.
Protests in Tegucigalpa
Thousands of protestors in Honduras took to the streets of the capital city Tegucigalpa Monday calling for President Juan Orlando Hernández to step down after allegations surfaced accusing the president of receiving drug money to secure power.
The demonstrations became violent when protestors clashed with the police. Police fired tear gas and water cannons at protestors who reportedly responded by attacking authorities with sticks and stones.
It was also reported that three businesses caught fire during the protests.
The protests come days after U.S. federal prosecutors filed a document in the Southern District of New York alleging that President Hernández received $1.5 million from drug traffickers during his campaign for president in 2013.
According to the Associated Press, the court filings say that Hernández co-conspired with his brother, former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, and former President Porfirio Lobo “to use drug trafficking to help assert power and control in Honduras.”
The AP also reported that prosecutors claim both the president and former president received money from drug traffickers in the form of “cash bribes to Honduran officials as well as gifts and favors to local politicians,” adding the court filing “also alludes to multiple payments of $1 million or more from drug dealers to Lobo.”
Regarding former President Lobo, AP additionally noted that his son was sentenced to 24 years in prison in the U.S. for drug trafficking in 2017.
Hernández’s office responded to the allegations on Saturday, writing on their official Twitter account that Hernández “categorically denies the false and perverse accusations.”
Later that same day, Hernández himself responded to the filings in a press conference, where he claimed that the allegations were made by drug dealers who were trying to retaliate against him.
“The drug traffickers are looking for revenge against the only president who’s done what he’s needed to do,” the president said. “These are false accusations made by a drug trafficker.”
The allegations in the new court filing are serious, but they also do not come as a complete surprise.
Back in May, U.S. federal court documents revealed that Hernández and some of his advisers were the subjects of a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation. That announcement was significant because it caused many to cast doubt the U.S.’ relationship with Honduras.
The U.S. government is a strong supporter of Hernández and his administration and has given the country millions of dollars to stop drugs from going from Central and South America to the U.S
Another reason the filings should not come as a surprise is that they are part of the pre-trial documents in a case against the current president’s brother, Tony Hernández, who was arrested in Miami in November 2018 and charged with trafficking thousands of kilograms of cocaine to the U.S.
Prosecutors reportedly described Tony Hernández as a “violent, multi-ton drug trafficker” who has a lot of influence and power over high-level officials in Honduras.
They claimed that he had directed Honduran National Police to escort his cocaine through international waters and airspace.
They also alleged that the president’s brother orchestrated the murders of rival drug-traffickers, and in one instance, instructed a member of the police to carry a murder. That officer was later appointed as chief of police.
Since the arrest of his brother, President Hernández has come under increased pressure.
In fact, Monday’s protests are not the first demonstrations against Hernández, or even the first protests calling for him to step down.
In April protestors in Tegucigalpa launched anti-government demonstrations opposing proposed health and education reforms, which the protestors said could lead to mass lay-offs of teachers and doctors.
Those protests became violent and hundreds of people had to be evacuated from buildings in the capital that had been set on fire.
Then in June, Hernández deployed the military after protests in the capital against the reforms again became violent. A few weeks later, the military received backlash after they opened fire on students protesting the same reforms and calling for Hernández to resign.
Others have also criticized Hernández as becoming increasingly authoritarian in recent years, specifically noting the fact that he changed the constitution so he could be elected to another four-year term in 2017.
After that election, the U.S. State Department still certified that Honduras met good governance benchmarks, despite the fact that Honduras was in turmoil over what many believed was a fraudulent election.
The U.S. State Department also formally recognized Hernández as president following his re-election, despite calls from Congress and the Organization of American States to hold new elections.
According to reports, at least 30 people died in a wave of protests accusing Hernández of corruption and electoral fraud in the weeks before and after his inauguration.
Hernández responded with the promise that he would fight against corruption and drug trafficking, but instead, he has increased the repression of his critics and human rights activists.
See what others are saying: (Reuters) (BBC) (Associated Press)
Erdogan Rejects U.S. Call for Ceasefire
- Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rejected U.S. efforts for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria for the second time on Wednesday.
- Speaking during a press conference later, President Trump denied that Erdogan had said he would not agree to a ceasefire and expressed optimism that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Pence would broker a truce.
- Over the weekend the Trump administration also announced that it would be imposing sanctions on Turkey while simultaneously withdrawing more U.S. troops from Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his rejection to the United States’ call for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria on Wednesday.
The announcement comes the same day that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to travel to Turkey to meet with the Turkish leader and to try to press Turkey for a ceasefire in its incursion into Northern Syria.
The Turkish military operation started last week after the White House released a statement saying the U.S. would step aside while Turkey went ahead with a long-planned offensive against Kurdish forces in the region.
Turkey considers the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) that control the region terrorists and has said the operation is necessary to secure their border.
However, the U.S. has long been allied with the SDF, which has done the bulk of fighting against ISIS on the ground in Northern Syria and also guarded prisons holding tens of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families.
In a direct rebuke of the U.S., while speaking before the Turkish Parliament, Erdogan said that Turkey would not broker a truce because it has “never in its history sat down at a table with terrorist groups.”
“We are not looking for a mediator for that,” he continued. “Nobody can stop us.”
The president also called for Syrian fighters to lay down their weapons and leave the region immediately.
Although it appears that Pence and Pompeo still intend to make their trip, there have been conflicting reports about whether or not Erdogan would meet with Pence or Pompeo.
“I am standing tall. I will not meet with them. They will meet with their counterparts. I will speak when Trump comes,” he told Sky News Tuesday.
Later, his communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said the president had reversed that decision.
“He does plan to meet the U.S. delegation led by @VP tomorrow — as confirmed in the below statement to the Turkish press,” Altun said in a tweet.
Sanctions and Ceasefire
Erdogan’s statement Wednesday echoed a similar sentiment he expressed the day before, while also speaking about sanctions imposed by the U.S.
“They say ‘declare a cease-fire’. We will never declare a cease-fire,” the president said speaking in Azerbaijan. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”
In an announcement Monday, President Donald Trump said that he would “soon be issuing an Executive Order authorizing the imposition of sanctions against current and former officials of the Government of Turkey and any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.”
He added that, among other things, the U.S. would stop negotiations of a trade deal, increase steel tariffs by 50%, and “authorize a broad range of consequences including financial sanctions, blocking of property and barring entry into the U.S.”
U.S. Withdraws Troops & Kurds Side With Assad
Trump’s announcement of sanctions Monday came after a series of rapid developments the day before.
Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that following discussions with the national security team, Trump had directed that the U.S. “begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.”
Esper did not say exactly when or how many troops would be withdrawn, but he later told Fox News that the number would be “less than 1,000 troops.” According to reports, the U.S. only has about 1,000 troops in the region.
The announcement also came amid reports from Kurdish officials and others in the area that around 800 people held in ISIS prisons broke free. Erdogan responded by saying the claims were “disinformation” intended to provoke the U.S. and others.
But Kurdish forces maintained that this was a serious security threat.
Many experts and lawmakers have warned that the U.S. removal of troops in Syria would allow ISIS to regroup because Kurdish forces would be stretched too thin fighting a military attack and would not able to keep a stable hold on the region or stop ISIS fighters from escaping from the camps.
Some condemned Esper’s announcement, arguing that the U.S.’ decision to remove even more troops would just make the situation worse.
Just hours after Esper’s statement, Kurdish leaders announced that they had struck a deal with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and that the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, would be sending troops to help the Kurds fight Turkey.
Many described this move as a turning point in Syria’s eight-year-long war because it represents a notable shift in influence from the United States to Russia.
Those critical of the removal of U.S. forces in Syria have argued that it will pave the way for Russian forces allied with the Syrian government to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. leaving the region.
Trump, for his part, responded to the move in a tweet later on Monday, writing, “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”
Russia appeared to have taken that to heart, and announced Tuesday that they would be sending their own troops to patrol between Turkish and Syrian forces.
Trump Press Conference
Trump on Wednesday maintained that he will try to mediate discussions between Turkey and the Kurds.
While speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump claimed that Erdogan did not refuse to agree to a ceasefire, and downplayed U.S. involvement in the crisis.
“The Kurds are much safer right now, but the Kurds know how to fight,” he said. “And as I said they’re not angels, they’re not angels, if you take a look, you have to go back and take a look. But they fought with us and we paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that’s okay.”
“So, if Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them. They have a problem with Turkey. They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border, we shouldn’t be losing lives over it,” he continued.
The president also later seemed to echo what Erdogan said when Kurdish forces reported that ISIS prisoners had escaped.
“Some were released just for effect, to make us look a little bit like ‘oh gee, we got to get right back in there,’” Trump said.
Meanwhile, the violent military standoff between Turkey and Syria continues.
It is currently unclear how many military personnel and civilians have died, but what is clear is that the Turkish incursion is tearing up a country already ravaged by war, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in a country where there are already millions of refugees.
On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that “at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the offensive began,” also adding that “hospitals and schools and other public infrastructure hit or affected by the fighting.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (Axios)
LeBron James Criticizes Rockets GM’s Pro Hong-Kong Tweet As Protests Enter 19th Week
- LeBron James faced heavy criticism for saying Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey was “misguided” and was not thinking of the emotions and finances of NBA employees when tweeting a pro-Hong Kong message last week.
- In addition to criticizing James, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) said Hong Kong was on the verge of becoming a police state.
- On Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam called Hawley’s comment “irresponsible and unfounded.”
- Over the weekend, 201 demonstrators were arrested, with one demonstrator detonating a homemade bomb and another critically wounding an officer after stabbing him in the neck.
LeBron James Calls Morey Tweet Misguided
LeBron James faced backlash online after he called Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey “misguided” and said Morey wasn’t well-educated on the situation in Hong Kong.
Two weeks ago, Morey tweeted a photo reading, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” in support of pro-democracy protestors.
Though Morey deleted the tweet soon after posting it, China cut ties with the Houston Rockets and the NBA distanced itself from Morey. American politicians then criticized the NBA for bowing to China.
“We do all have freedom of speech, but at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others and you’re only thinking about yourself,” James said to reporters. “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed…”
James then continued, saying Morey should have thought about the financial and emotional stress his tweet could have had on people working in the NBA.
In response, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) blasted the Lakers forward, insinuating he is the one who is uneducated about the Hong Kong protests.
“Having just been in Hong Kong – on the streets & with the protestors – this kind of garbage is hard to take,” Hawley said. “LeBron, are YOU educated on ‘the situation’? Why don’t you go to Hong Kong?”
This statement is unbelievable. “So many people could have been harmed”? By Daryl Morey daring to express sympathy for democracy? News flash: people ARE being harmed – shot, beaten, gassed – right now in Hong Kong. By China. By the Communist Party the NBA is so eager to appease— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) October 15, 2019
In Hong Kong, protestors trampled on and burned James’ Jersey in retaliation.
James Attempts to Clarify Comments
Later on Twitter, James backtracked on his initial comments, saying he was not referring to the substance of Morey’s tweet and that Morey should have waited to post it.
“Let me clear up the confusion,” James wrote. “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that.”
“My team and this league just went through a difficult week,” he continued. “I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”
If James hoped his response would reduce the criticism he faced online, he was misguided.
“LeBron James, who has a $1 billion shoe deal with Nike, says pro-Hong Kong NBA exec needs to think more about others,” one user wrote. “Others do not include Chinese Nike laborers”
Improvised Bomb Explodes and Officer Stabbed
In Hong Kong, police arrested 201 people over the weekend—some as young as 14.
The protests—now in their 19th week—have continued to increase in scale in regard to their violence, with police firing tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets and even a live round at an 18-year-old man. Demonstrators have also hit back at police with bricks, stones, and gas bombs.
Pro-democracy protesters have specifically called for an end to the proposed extradition agreement between China and Hong Kong, which could force Hong Kong to extradite Chinese dissidents to the mainland. In September, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam promised to withdraw the bill, but protesters have since added to their list of demands.
The violence escalated Sunday as a protester reportedly detonated a homemade improvised bomb as a police vehicle passed. While authorities said the explosion did not injure anyone, they believe it was meant to harm or even maim.
That same night, another demonstrator reportedly stabbed an officer in the neck, severing several veins. The officer is now in serious condition.
Notably, Deputy Police Commissioner Tang Ping-keung associated the violence not with pro-democracy protesters but with rioters.
“These people doing violent acts are not protesters,” he said. “They are indeed rioters and criminals that are destroying our rule of law. Whatever causes they claim they are fighting for can never justify such triad-like behavior.”
Hawley Says Hong Kong is in Danger of Becoming a “Police State”
During peaceful protests Monday night, pro-democracy protesters pleaded for American lawmakers to pass a law that would support Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy.
That law—the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act—has bipartisan support in Congress, and according to the bill, it would, “assess whether China has eroded Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law as protected by Hong Kong’s Basic Law.”
It would also allow the president to “provide Congress an assessment as to whether to withdraw from the U.S.-Hong Kong extradition treaty, and what actions are needed to protect U.S. citizens and national security interests, if Hong Kong (1) amends its laws to allow the rendition of individuals to countries that lack defendants’ rights protections, or (2) passes a national security law.”
One of the co-sponsors of that bill is Hawley, which is why he visited Hong Kong over the weekend. Alongside Hawley, Senator Ted Cruz also toured the city.
While he was in Hong Kong, Hawley criticized police for making the crisis worse and using unnecessary force. He also said that the city is in “danger of sliding into a police state.”
Lam Decries “Police State” Claims
Lam bit back against Hawley’s criticism on Monday.
“I thought their visit to Hong Kong would enable them to see the actual situation in a comprehensive and objective manner,” she said at a press conference, “but unfortunately the feedback that I’ve got is most of them, or several of them coming here, they have very preconceived views about Hong Kong’s situation. That’s why for this particular senator to describe Hong Kong as becoming a police state is totally irresponsible and unfounded.”
At the same conference, she described Hong Kong police as civilized and professional. She then asked U.S. lawmakers how they would respond to large-scale violent acts if they occurred in their own country.
On Twitter, Hawley then doubled down on his statement, saying his use of the word was explicitly intentional.
“I chose the words “police state” purposely – because that is exactly what Hong Kong is becoming,” he said. “I saw it myself. If Carrie Lam wants to demonstrate otherwise, here’s an idea: resign.”
As for how events will continue to unfold, Lam is expected to give her annual policy address tomorrow. In it, she’s expected to address her plans to solve the protests.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Sunday night that any attempts to split China would result in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.”
See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (New York Times)
Thousands Flee Syria as Turkey Launches Military Offensive
- Turkey formally started a military offensive in Syria Wednesday, launching airstrikes, bombs, and sending in ground troops.
- Numerous civilian and military deaths have been reported, and an estimated 60,000 Syrians have fled the region.
- The move comes after the Trump administration announced it would step aside to let Turkey launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.
- Many world leaders and U.S. lawmakers, including Republicans who have been staunch supporters of President Trump, condemned the move, with some arguing that Trump will be responsible for the fallout.
Turkey Launches Offensive
Turkish military forces have entered the second day of an offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria.
The assault started on Wednesday with Turkish forces launching airstrikes, bombing and shelling the territory. Several hours later, Turkish troops crossed the border into Northern Syria, officially starting a ground offensive.
The move comes just days after the White House announced that the U.S. would be stepping aside to allow Turkey to go forward with the long-planned operation while also removing U.S. troops from the region.
The announcement appeared to follow a call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan has said that this military operation is necessary to secure Turkey’s border with Syria and clear groups Turkey believes are terrorists. The operation targets the Kurdish groups that largely control that region of Northern Syria.
Specifically, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) which makes up most of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey claims that those groups are allied with a separatist movement called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been responsible for violent attacks in Turkey.
While Turkey considers the SDF a terrorist group, the U.S. does not. U.S. forces in Syria have recruited and trained the SDF for years to fight alongside them, and the SDF has done the majority of fighting on the ground against ISIS fighters in the region.
For a while, the U.S. has discouraged Turkey from launching a military operation against the Kurdish forces who have been fighting ISIS with them. But now, many have argued that the U.S. has basically given Turkey the green light to launch a military offensive against their own key allies.
The Numbers So far
Shortly after the operation began, pictures and videos began circulating showing civilians fleeing amid smoke from the sites of the bombings.
The New York Times reported that the airstrikes on the first day alone hit in or near at least five towns along more than 150 miles of the border, while Turkey’s Defense Ministry claimed on Thursday that it has hit 181 of its “terrorist” targets.
The Defense Ministry also said Thursday that 174 militants have already been killed, but that has not been independently verified.
Others have reported lower numbers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 23 SDF fighters were killed though dozens more were injured
As for civilians, the Kurdish Red Crescent reported that at least 11 civilians have been killed so far, including two children.
The Syrian Observatory also said that more than 60,000 Syrians have already fled the immediate region.
The fact that so many are already fleeing is likely to worsen the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria.
It also appears to complicate Erdogan’s plan to carve out a so-called safe zone at the border where he would return Syrian refugees. Now, many are saying that the military operation will just create more refugees.
World Leaders Respond
Concern over refugees and other humanitarian issues have been raised by numerous world leaders who have condemned Turkey’s actions.
European Union Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that the EU “calls upon Turkey to cease the unilateral military action,” continuing that the operation will “undermine the stability of the whole region, exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements.”
A spokesperson for the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also emphasized the need for civilian protections in a statement.
“Civilians and civilian infrastructure should be protected. The secretary-general believes that there’s no military solution to the Syrian conflict,” the spokesperson said.
A number of Middle Eastern leaders have also publicly criticized the move. In a statement, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry condemned “the aggression launched by the #Turkish army.”
“The seriousness of this aggression on northeastern Syria has negative repercussions on the security and stability of the region, especially undermining the [international] efforts in combating ISIS organization,” the statement continued.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also took to Twitter, where he said that Israel “strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies.”
U.S. Leaders Criticize Trump
After Turkey officially launched the military operation, President Trump was swiftly met with outrage by U.S. lawmakers, including notable Republicans who have been staunch supporters of the president.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) directly blamed Trump for the violence in a tweet on Wednesday.
“News from Syria is sickening,” she wrote. “Turkish troops preparing to invade Syria from the north, Russian-backed forces from the south, ISIS fighters attacking Raqqa. Impossible to understand why @realDonaldTrump is leaving America’s allies to be slaughtered and enabling the return of ISIS.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has also been very vocal in his opposition to the Trump administration’s decision.
“Pray for our Kurdish allies who have been shamelessly abandoned by the Trump Administration,” he said in a tweet. “This move ensures the reemergence of ISIS.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) spoke out on the issue as well, and added that Congress could take action against Trump’s decision,
“[The Kurds] actually fought on the ground. They had people dying. To just abandon them like that so the Turks can come in and slaughter them is not just immoral, it taints our reputation all over the world,” he said.
“It’s a terrible mistake. We’ll have to think of what options there are. I’m sure the Senate will, potentially, take some vote to disagree with that decision.”
Trump Defends Decision
But Trump, for his part, has continued to defend his decision.
In a statement to the media, Trump said that the U.S. “does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” and added that Turkey is “committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.”
During a press conference on Wednesday, Trump also reiterated that he would crack down on Turkey economically if they did something he did not like in Syria.
However, several of his later remarks received some backlash.
When asked about the U.S. alliance with the Kurds, Trump said: “As somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they’re there to help us with their land and that’s a different thing.”
He was also asked by reporters whether he was concerned about ISIS fighters breaking free from Kurdish custody, to which he responded, “Well they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes.”