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Mexico At A Crossroads - Up Close At Ground Zero Of Nation's Deadly Drug War

As Mexico goes to the polls to elect a new president, a visit to Xalapa, a city that once attracted cultural elites and foreign university students --until the country's bloody drug war brought it to its knees.

Signs of the death toll on the streets of Xalapa (fronkonsteen0)
Signs of the death toll on the streets of Xalapa (fronkonsteen0)
Emiliano Guanella
XALAPA - The "ruta 140" from Mexico City to Veracruz goes up across the foggy Cofre de Perote mountain and then down to the valley which leads to city of Xalapa. Locals warn against traveling by night, due to the dangerous bends of the mountain road, and most importantly, due to the daily assaults on travelers. It is another sign of the risk for Xalapa, known as the city of flowers, to be cut from the rest of the country. Today this cultural destination and university city is the center of Mexico's current plague of violence.

Drug dealers are in charge. Kidnapping, killing, extortion, assaults…all run rampant. Murders regularly go unpunished. Xalapa is the capital of the state of Veracruz, a strategic crossroads on the route to smuggle drugs into the United States.

Boss "Chapo" Guzman's cartel battled over the route with the Zetas paramilitary group, which consisted of former commandos of the Mexican army who learned anti-insurgency strategies from American and Israeli experts. The Zetas, though, decided to go on their own, using violence and co-opting corrupted officials who were previously tied to the traditional cartels.

In Veracruz, virtually every day brings new victims -- investigations go nowhere. For two years, Ester Hernandez Palacios, professor at the Universidad Veracruzana, has been fighting to obtain justice for the murder of her daughter Irene, who was killed with her husband, the son of an important local builder contractor.

Irene's father-in-law was due to develop the tallest building of the city, a multipurpose tower with offices and luxury apartments, which was funded mainly with money from drug dealing. When the project got stuck, the money was given back, but without the huge interests claimed by the bosses. Revenge was destined to target the children.

"Irene and her husband Fouad had just told me that they wanted to leave Xalapa," says Ester. "They thought of moving to Houston to begin a new life. They were killed in the city center, at 8 p.m., in front of dozens of witnesses. Police never even looked for their killers."

Daughters and journalists, slaughtered

In the last two years Ester has written a diary addressed to her daughter. It will soon become a book that will be distributed in universities. She is a member of an organization of hundreds of victims' relatives. Once a month, they rally in the main square of Xalapa, in front of the governor's palace, wearing white shirts and holding candles and pictures of their loved ones. Every story is different, but the impunity for the perpetrators is always the same.

For the last two months, Maria Teresa Avila has not had any updates from her husband, a storekeeper who was kidnapped while heading home at the end of a workday. There are no clues, investigators say. They cannot explain why a security video camera in front of the store did not work on the day of the kidnapping.

Barbara Ybarra has hoped for three months to see her 17-year-old daughter who disappeared while going to school. Police haven't bothered to look for her. They blamed the mother for her daughter's escape. "Instead of thinking about it afterwards, you have to treat your children better, so they won't run away," a police chief told the woman. The girl's corpse was found in a park close to her home, the day after the case was covered on television.

In the square, the victims' relatives say that not long ago Xalapa was one of the most active cities in Mexico, with a bright cultural life and foreign students flocking to the local university. "In the last two years, everything has changed. After 10 p.m. you cannot see anyone around. Fear is everywhere," they say.

Veracruz holds the sad record of the largest number of journalists killed. There were five slain in the last month, and nine in the last year. The most notorious case is the one of Regina Martinez, correspondent for Proceso magazine. She was tortured and killed two days after the publication of an article denouncing the links between local government and organized crime.

Three photographers who worked in the harbor of Veracruz were butchered alive. Their remains wound up in garbage bags left in the street. Petrol bombs have been thrown against the doors of local newspaper newsrooms. The leading Mexican dailies withdrew their correspondents, some of whom sought political asylum in the United States. Sometimes, Governor Javier Duarte calls the journalists to warn them that they are in danger -- a clear invitation to leave.

The goal is to silence information, as has happened elsewhere in Mexico. During outgoing President Felipe Calderon's six-year government, the strategy was to fight openly against the drug cartels, but it is obvious that the state is on its knees. The Navy is the only institution that still has the people's respect. The federal and local police as well as the army are suspected of colluding with organized crime.

Even the most conservative data says that more than 60,000 people have been murdered and that 20,000 people have disappeared over the last six years.

Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), said that if he wins on July 1st, he will call the former chief of the Colombian police, Oscar Naranjo, to fight the drug dealers. Yet if rampant corruption among government authorities is not confronted, drug trafficking is sure to stick around.

Read more at La Stampa in Italian

Photo - Flickr/fronkonsteen0

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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