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U.S. Charges Venezuelan Leader With Drug Trafficking, Narco-Terrorism

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  • The Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Venezuelan leader Maduro and about a dozen others.
  • The charges include narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and others.
  • The move marks the second time a foreign head of state has been indicted on drug charges in the U.S. and shows a significant escalation in the U.S. pressure campaign on the Maduro regime.

Maduro Charged

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro and 14 others, including senior regime officials, with narco-terrorism, corruption, drug trafficking, and other charges in a sweeping indictment unveiled Thursday.

The indictment, which was announced by Attorney General William Barr, accuses Maduro of conspiring with the Columbian rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces, known by their Spanish acronym as FARC.

FARC is a U.S.-designated terrorist group that has long secured its funding by smuggling cocaine.

“For more than 20 years, Maduro and a number of high-ranking colleagues allegedly conspired with the FARC, causing tons of cocaine to enter and devastate American communities,” Barr said in a press conference Thursday morning 

“The scope and magnitude of the drug trafficking alleged was made possible only because Maduro and others corrupted the institutions of Venezuela and provided political and military protection for the rampant narco-terrorism crimes described in our charges,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman of the Southern District of New York, who joined Barr via teleconference to make the announcement.

“As alleged, Maduro and the other defendants expressly intended to flood the United States with cocaine in order to undermine the health and wellbeing of our nation,” Berman continued. “Maduro very deliberately deployed cocaine as a weapon.” 

The charges also pertain to Maduro’s alleged leadership of a drug-smuggling cartel called the Cártel de Los Soles, or the Cartel of the Suns, according to a press release from the DOJ.

According to the release, Maduro has served as one of the leaders of the cartel since 1999. In that time, Maduro “negotiated multi-ton shipments of FARC-produced cocaine” and directed the cartel to “provide military-grade weapons to the FARC.”

He also facilitated “large-scale drug trafficking” with Honduras and other countries, and “solicited assistance from FARC leadership in training an unsanctioned militia group” that essentially functioned as an “armed forces unit” for the cartel. 

U.S. Ramps Up Efforts

Very notably, the release also said that the State Department was offering rewards of up to $15 million for information that could lead to the capture and arrest of Maduro.

While it remains unlikely that he will be arrested and actually see the inside of a courtroom in the U.S., the charges are still quite significant for several different reasons.

First of all, it is incredibly rare for the U.S. to indict a foreign leader on drug charges. According to the Miami Herald, it is only the second time the U.S. government has filed criminal charges against a foreign head of state.

Second, it marks a very serious escalation on the part of President Donald Trump and his administration in their pressure campaign on Maduro and his regime.

The U.S. and about 60 other countries have refused to recognize Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela after he was re-elected as president last year in an election widely considered illegitimate.

That prompted both a large protest movement and opposition leader Juan Guaidó to declare himself the true leader of the country. But Maduro has held onto power while the people of Venezuela continue to suffer.

The U.S. has slowly ramped up the efforts it’s taken against Venezuela, first imposing sanctions on individuals, then expanding those to a full-blown embargo on oil— Venezuela’s biggest resource.

The U.S. has also broadly moved to lock Venezuela out of the American financial system altogether. 

Venezuela & the Coronavirus

While the U.S. has taken these steps gradually over the course of the last year, the new charges represent a big jump and raised some questions about timing.

Venezuela’s protests movement, which once seemed to be making headlines everyday, has died down in recent months. Efforts to organize and demonstrate against the Maduro regime have also been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country has reported 106 confirmed cases, and like other countries, the pandemic has also significantly weakened Venezuela.

But Venezuela is particularly vulnerable. With its economy in shambles and its hospital system collapsed, the country was already facing severe medical supply shortages, dilapidated equipment, and unsanitary conditions in hospitals even before the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, the pandemic threatens an already dangerous situation.

Many reporters questioned Barr’s timing with the new charges amid the pandemic. Barr said the case had been in the works for a long time and the announcement was merely a coincidence. 

“We moved on these cases when we were ready to do it,” he said, adding that he felt the move was “good timing” for the people of Venezuela.

“They need an effective government that cares about the people,” he said. “We think that the best way to support the Venezuelan people during this period is to do all we can to rid the country of this corrupt cabal.”

Maduro, for his part, rejected the charges before they were even announced. 

“There’s a conspiracy from the United States and Colombia and they’ve given the order of filling Venezuela with violence” he wrote on Twitter. “As head of state I’m obliged to defend peace and stability for all the motherland, under any circumstances.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (The Washington Post) (The Miami Herald)

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Thousands Protest in Russia Demanding Release of Putin Foe Alexei Navalny

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  • Russia faced some of the largest protests it has seen in recent years after thousands took to the streets Saturday demanding the government release opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
  • Russian authorities declared the protests illegal and detained more than 3,500 people from more than 100 cities, including Navalny’s wife.
  • The government also released a statement addressing Navalny by name for the first time, attempting to discredit claims he has made, including the idea that President Vladimir Putin has a billion-dollar villa on the Black Sea coast.

Largest Russian Protests in Recent History

Russia experienced some of its largest protests in years Saturday after opposition figure Alexei Navalny called for demonstrations to be held following his arrest.

Supporters demanded Navalny’s release but also called for an end to perceived rampant corruption in the Russian state.

Tens of thousands took to the streets and clashed with police in more than 100 cities, with independent monitors claiming that 3,500 people were detained by police. Among those detained was Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, who was targeted by authorities during the protests. She is reported to have been released by Russian media agencies such as TASS.

Despite Russian authorities declaring the protests illegal and warning of repercussions for those who attend, the protests managed to reach a wide range of people. According to the New York Times, over ⅓ of protesters in Moscow said they had never protested before.

Despite the movements current popularity, it may be difficult to turn the popular, anti-Putin movement into something more.The protesters span a broad range of the political spectrum, from far-left communist and anarchist groups to nationalists and libertarians, meaning that while they dislike Putin and the corruption in the Russian government, they agree on little else.

Changing the Message

The protests unveiled a new shift in how Russian authorities deal with Navalny. In the past, authorities and state-backed media never mentioned him by name in order to downplay him; however, that changed this weekend.

Newscasters aired multiple programs to discredit him and paint him as a tool of the West, while Putin denied Navalny’s claims that he has a secret, billion-dollar villa on the coast of the Black Sea. Based on his salary of $133,000 a year, Putin would only be able to afford a single home in Russia. However, there is speculation that due to corruption and embezzling, Putin is likely the actual richest person alive.

Regarding Navalny himself, he’s still in jail pending court proceedings on Feb. 2. If those go poorly for Navalny, he could be in prison until the mid-2020s, but he is more concerned about his immediate future.

In a video to supporters prior to the protests, he made it clear that he has no intention of committing suicide. That statement was likely made due to the fact that many Russian dissidents seem to die via suicide, with much speculation about whether or not that was actually the case.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Business Insider) (Associated Press)

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Some Flyers Are Forging Old COVID-19 Tests To Travel

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  • As a number of countries and airlines impose rules requiring negative COVID tests up to 72 before flights, more and more people have been forging old tests to make them look new.
  • In a recent report from Vice’s Motherboard, two anonymous men detailed how they forged documents to avoid having to pay for new ones.
  • “Fun fact, the document was in French whereas they were in Sweden the day it was supposedly made, but [airport officials] didn’t see a problem in that,” one man told Motherboard. 

Forging Old COVID-19 Tests

Many countries are now requiring flyers to present negative COVID-19 tests no more than 72 hours before they board planes; however, some people are reportedly forging their test results to get around the restrictions. 

According to Vice’s Motherboard, one anonymous individual used Photoshop to change the date of several of his friends’ older coronavirus tests. 

“Fun fact, the document was in French whereas they were in Sweden the day it was supposedly made, but [airport officials] didn’t see a problem in that,” the man told the outlet. 

Another person told Motherboard that he had changed the date of an old test result using Microsoft Paint in order to travel to Southern Europe for vacation.

Situations like this in Europe are not completely new.

“We needed a COVID-19 test for a family member and I spoke to one travel agent and he said, ‘Get it done and even if it comes out positive we will provide a negative one for you for £50’,” one person told The Sun in October.

While those people seemingly got away with potential forgery crimes, others haven’t.

Last week, it was reported that 45 people were caught trying to enter Croatia with fake COVID tests. Notably, they could each face up to three years in prison for forging documents. 

Earlier this month, a 17-year-old Dutch girl was also caught with a forged COVID test while trying to escape quarantine in Switzerland. 

Why Are People Forging Documents?

Part of the reason people are forging old COVID-19 tests may be to keep from being barred if a new test comes back positive; however, there also appears to be at least one other major reason: money.

Right now, tests in most European countries are free, but that’s not the case for people trying to go on vacation. 

In fact, people traveling for leisure have been warned not to use free COVID-19 testing services to meet flight demands. Instead, they are required to pay out of pocket to have their test sent to a private company. 

See what others are saying: (Motherboard) (The Independent) (TravelPulse)

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Russia Orders Social Media Sites To Block Calls for Navalny Protests

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  • Shortly after his arrest on Sunday, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called for protests to take place on Jan. 23 and was met with a wave of support online.
  • In response, the government ordered tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and Russian-centric VK to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”
  • TikTok has already deleted 38% of posts with such calls while VK and YouTube have deleted 50%, and Instagram has removed 17%.

Navalny Calls for Protests

Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and subsequent arrest earlier this week has set off a chain of events in the country.

Since his arrest, Navalny has called for protests to occur on Jan. 23. Now, Russian authorities are taking precautions and arresting his allies in an effort to slow down the momentum of the looming demonstrations. Among their many demands are that Navalny be released.

Throughout the week, thousands of posts shared by younger Russians have raged across social media asking that people partake in the protests. The reach of those posts, however, have been curtailed by the government.

Social media tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and the Russian-centric VK were ordered by the Russian government to “block all publications with calls to demonstrate on the 23rd.”

Roskomnadzor, the Russian communications watchdog, later stated, “Internet sites will be brought to administrative responsibility in connection with the dissemination of information prohibited by law and aimed at attracting minors to participate in unauthorized mass public events.”

“Participation in such events is in violation of the established procedure, including in a pandemic, and carries risks of harm to life and health,” it added.

Censorship Payoff Unknown

For many of the sites, which are often seen as a way to promote free speech in regimes that are far more restrictive, the order puts them in an awkward position. Still, many have already complied, at least to some extend.

According to Roskomnadzor, Tiktok has deleted 38% of videos calling for minors to attend the protests. VK and YouTube have both deleted 50% of similar posts, while Instagram has removed 17% of posts that violate the regulations.

It’s unclear to what extent this censorship will have on stopping Russians from attending tomorrow’s protests; however, some of the nation’s largest protests in modern history have been organized by Navalny.

See what others are saying: (Moscow Times) (Associated Press) (Reuters)

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