Stepping away from the swine flu crisis for a moment, the LA Times has another top story from Mexico this morning on alleged human rights abuses committed by the army in its prosecution of the drug war there. In a new report released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch highlights 17 specific cases, involving 70 victims, of suspected human rights violations for which Mexican soldiers have not been held to account. In one case, the LAT writes, the case began with gunmen ambushing a military patrol pursuing drug traffickers, the military retaliated by rounding up dozens of town residents, and ended with four girls being detained and allegedly raped by army soldiers. HRW’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, blames much of the problem of human rights abuses on a dysfunctional justice system and has urged President Felipe Calderon to move military cases into the civilian justice system. “It is impossible to rein in organized crime if those fighting it are also flouting the law,” Roth remarked. Mexican officials have denied that the military has abused human rights, arguing that with current laws “no public servant, including those in the armed forces, enjoys impunity.”
And now to the latest on the swine flu crisis and, particularly its most recent effects on public health and the economy in Mexico. The New York Times leads with a headline that the World Health Organization raised its alert level to “phase 5” on Wednesday, the next to highest warning level. The warning system began in 2005 after the avian flu scare, and this is the first time any disease outbreak has warranted such an alert level. “All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparedness plans,” said Dr. Margaret Chen, director general of the WHO. The Washington Post gives three different looks at the disease from Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak. An AP report in the WaPo says “all nonessential activity of the federal government and private business” has been suspended in Mexico from May 1-5. Essential businesses like transportation, supermarkets, trash collection, and hospitals will remain open. Another report from Cancun says tourism, Mexico’s biggest moneymaker after oil and remittances, is one of the first economic casualties of the flu crisis. The paper writes that Mexican business groups estimate the country has lost more than $1 billion in revenue since the outbreak began as beaches have been abandoned and hotels emptied. And an interesting report from the two border towns of Mexicali and Calexico where the WaPo writes that just 50 feet apart, very different precautions are being taken (or not). “A border population that moves daily between the countries has begun to act as though people are simply safer on the American side, complicating efforts to contain the outbreak,” the paper writes.
Meanwhile, on the U.S. side of the border, the Wall Street Journal reports that President Obama has resisted calls to place tighter restrictions on cross-border movement, arguing that such a move was medically unnecessary and would have devastating economic consequences. The United States’ current border efforts are so far limited to having guards conduct “passive surveillance” of people coming into the U.S. from Mexico. And as of Wednesday night, the Department of Homeland Security said that border guards had referred only 49 suspicious travelers for tests, 41 of whom tested negative for swine flu with 8 cases still pending. And in the Miami Herald, columnist Andres Oppenheimer takes up swine flu in his column as well, arguing the externalities of the pandemic could include a prolonged economic recession, increased migration pressures, and a much-slowed fight against drug traffickers (President Calderon’s daily meetings with his Cabinet's anti-drug national security team have already been temporarily suspended, and troops in Mexico City have been deployed to give out face masks on the streets.) Again, the LAT is the only paper that gives a voice of calm amidst the panic in a piece that argues “genetic data indicate this outbreak won't be as deadly as that of 1918, or even the average winter.”
In other news, an AP story in the MH seems to indicate that the fight against drug gangs has not all-together ceased in Mexico. On Wednesday Mexican police arrested suspected Zeta gang leader Gregorio Sauceda Gamboa, one of Mexico's 24 most-wanted drug traffickers. Sauceda Gamboa was nabbed in his home in the border city of Matamoros, Texas—wearing a surgical mask as a precaution against swine flu. The report says the police who paraded him by reporters were also wearing “tapabocas,” in addition to the black ski-masks they normally use to hide their identities.
From Venezuela, the MH reports that the National Assembly has approved a law that forces Caracas’ elected mayor, Antonio Ledezma to transfer the city's municipal budgets, personnel and infrastructure to a Chávez political appointee. The new law will go into effect following its approval by the president, which is expected shortly.
From Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a McClatchy story on “Shock of Order,” a new policy instituted by Rio’s law and order mayor Eduardo Paes, and apparently modeled after former NYC mayor Rudy Guiliani’s law enforcement efforts in the 1990s. Under the plan, “state military police have continued aggressive raids on the city's violent drug gangs and taken on local crime syndicates,” says the report, but the initiative has gained the most attention for combating small-scale infractions that are part of daily life in Rio, such as street vending.
And finally, ending again with swine flu, the MH reports that Russia banned imported pork from at least 11 U.S. states, even though health officials say there is no link between eating any kind of meat and being infected with swine flu. Costa Rica’s health minister, on the other hand, has recommended that his citizens temporarily stop greeting one another with the traditional kiss on the cheek.
Photo: AP/ Guillermo Arias