Category Archives: Latin America

Colombian Nationals Extradited to U.S. For Bogotá Death of DEA Special Agent Terry Watson

– Domani Spero

 

In June 2013, we blogged about the death of DEA Special Agent Terry Watson in Bogota, Colombia (see US Embassy Bogota: DEA Special Agent James “Terry” Watson Killed in Colombia).  On July 2, 2014, the Department of Justice announced the extradition of seven Colombian nationals charged in connection with the DEA agent’s death.

Via USDOJ:

Seven Colombian nationals were extradited to the United States to face charges relating to the kidnapping and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Agent James Terry Watson.
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“DEA Special Agent James ‘Terry’ Watson was a brave and talented special agent who represented everything good about federal law enforcement and our DEA family,” said DEA Administrator Leonhart.  “We will never forget Terry’s sacrifice on behalf of the American people during his 13 years of service, nor will DEA ever forget the outstanding work of the Colombian National Police and our other law enforcement partners.  Their efforts quickly led to the arrest and extradition of those accused of committing this heinous act.”

All of the defendants were indicted by a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia on July 18, 2013.   Gerardo Figueroa Sepulveda, 39; Omar Fabian Valdes Gualtero, 27; Edgar Javier Bello Murillo, 27; Hector Leonardo Lopez, 34; Julio Estiven Gracia Ramirez, 31; and Andrés Alvaro Oviedo-Garcia, 22, were each charged with two counts of second degree murder, one count of kidnapping and one count of conspiracy to kidnap.  Oviedo-Garcia was also charged with two counts of assault.   Additionally, the grand jury indicted Wilson Daniel Peralta-Bocachica, 31, also a Colombian national, for his alleged efforts to destroy evidence associated with the murder of Special Agent Watson.

The defendants arrived in the United States on July 1, 2014, and made their initial appearance in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, today before United States Magistrate Judge Thomas Rawles Jones Jr.   A detention hearing is scheduled for July 9, 2014, before United States Magistrate Judge Ivan D. Davis.
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According to the indictment, Figueroa, Valdes, Bello, Lopez, Gracia and Oviedo-Garcia were part of a kidnapping and robbery conspiracy that utilized taxi cabs in Bogotá, Colombia, to lure victims into a position where they could be attacked and robbed.  Once an intended victim entered a taxi cab, the driver of the taxi cab would signal other conspirators to commence the robbery and kidnapping operation.

The indictment alleges that on June 20, 2013, while he was working for the U.S. Mission in Colombia, Special Agent Watson entered a taxi cab operated by one of the defendants.  Special Agent Watson was then allegedly attacked by two other defendants – one who stunned Special Agent Watson with a stun gun and another who stabbed Special Agent Watson with a knife, resulting in his death.

On July 1, 2014, the Government of Colombia extradited the defendants to the United States.

This case was investigated by the FBI, DEA and DSS, including the Office of Special Investigations and the Regional Security Office at Embassy Bogatá, in close cooperation with Colombian authorities, and with assistance from INTERPOL and the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs.

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U.S. Embassy Barbados: Paradise Inspected, Again — Still Expensive, Isolated and Uh-oh!

– Domani Spero

In 2009, we blogged about the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Barbados (see US Embassy Barbados: Paradise Inspected).  In 2012 Ambassador Larry Palmer, a career diplomat succeeded political ambassador Mary Martin Ourisman who was appointed by George W. Bush as U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Carribean from 2006-2008.

Embassy Bridgetown’s DCM is Christopher J. Sandrolini, who was post’s chargé d’affaires, a.i. prior to Ambassador Palmer’s arrival.  We remember him responding to our inquiry with an unofficial note in the wake of  George Gaines’ tragic death in Barbados in 2012.

This week, State/OIG released its latest report on the  Inspection of Embassy Bridgetown, Barbados, and Embassy St. George’s, Grenada (ISP-I-14-09A).

 

The view over Castries Harbor from a viewing point just below the Government House of St. Lucia. Photo by Cultural Affairs Assistant, Khalil Goodman, US Embassy Bridgetown/FB

The view over Castries Harbor from a viewing point just below the Government House of St. Lucia. Photo by Cultural Affairs Assistant, Khalil Goodman, US Embassy Bridgetown/FB

The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 3 and October 17, 2013, and in Bridgetown, Barbados, between October 20 and November 4, 2013. The overseas portion of the inspection was truncated due to the partial Federal Government shutdown. Ambassador Pamela Smith (team leader), Lavon Sajona (deputy team leader), Paul Cantrell, Eric Chavera, Mark Jacobs, John Philibin, Iris Rosenfeld, Scott Thayer, and Steven White conducted the inspection.  The following details extracted from the publicly available report.

Post Snapshot:

Barbados is the largest of the seven island nations of the Lesser Antilles to which the embassy is accredited. The others are the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Lucia, and Grenada, which has a small U.S. embassy whose existence is rooted in the 1983 ouster of Cuban troops by American military forces.

The mission includes 81 U.S. direct-hire positions representing 8 agencies, including the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, and Health and Human Services, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Internal Revenue Service. Two-thirds of the officers, including nine section and agency heads, turned over in summer 2013. Ninety Peace Corps volunteers are assigned to Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. Peace Corp operations in Antigua and Barbuda and in St. Kitts and Nevis ceased at the beginning of 2013 because of budget cutbacks. Embassy expenditures in FY 2013 totaled $46.5 million.

Key Judgments 

  • The Ambassador must address his leadership issues regarding his strategic vision, favoritism, team building, proper delegation, and overbearing treatment of some employees.
  • Embassy Bridgetown’s emergency preparedness program lacks direction and focus. The embassy has not exercised the safe areas and alternate command center to determine their adequacy. Embassy personnel are unaware of their roles and responsibilities in the event of an emergency.
  • The consular section services U.S. citizens spread over seven countries and numerous islands. Consular managers should exercise closer supervision over consular operations in Bridgetown and at the consular agencies in Antigua and Martinique.
  • Embassy Bridgetown’s consular section needs to improve crisis management planning and coordination with consular agents, wardens, and U.S. citizen residents in this hurricane prone region.
  • The management section delivers good customer service; however, the section needs to address several management control issues.


First, Some Good News

  • Embassy Bridgetown maintains productive relations with the seven governments to which it is accredited. The Ambassador works hard and travels often in the region to build personal rapport with leaders and advance U.S. interests.
  • Interagency cooperation not only runs smoothly at the mission but also represents an achievement for which the Ambassador and DCM can both take credit. Prior to their arrival, internal frictions hampered embassy operations.
  • A combined political/economic section reports on issues in the seven countries to which the Ambassador is accredited, but the high cost of travel, unreliable transportation, and limited lodging compound the challenge of covering a vast geographic area. Despite these challenges, the section produced nearly 100 required reports and responded to nearly 1,000 taskings from Washington in the past 12 months.
  • This past year, the embassy was able to consolidate personal property into one warehouse, saving $75,000 per year in rent.
  • The Ambassador and DCM also make a priority of fostering a family-friendly work environment, an attitude appreciated by American employees with families and the locally employed (LE) staff.

 

Leadership and Management – Uh-oh! 

  • The Ambassador involves himself in administrative matters that he should delegate to the management officer or DCM. For example, until midpoint of the inspection, he personally approved all official travel. He sometimes calls entry-level American officers and LE staff to his office without their supervisors, often when he is dissatisfied with their work. These interactions should be delegated to supervisors or the DCM. The Ambassador also holds some decisions until the last moment or reverses his decisions, upending plans.
  • Most employees find the Ambassador’s leadership style inspiring, but some staff expressed that it is overbearing and inhibits their performance. The Ambassador did not realize he needed to modulate his behavior for different staff members until the inspectors pointed it out to him. He admitted that a few times he had lost his temper and reprimanded employees in front of others, which led some employees to feel intimidated and to fear retribution. The OIG team found no evidence of actual threats or retribution. The Ambassador stated that he harbored no intention to intimidate and was surprised to learn that some colleagues felt as they do. He accepted a packet of Department guidance, pertinent articles, and the inspectors’ advice about intimidation. He also agreed with the inspection team’s suggestion to turn to his DCM more frequently to address problematic issues.
  • The Ambassador does not have an official residence expense (ORE) house manager at his residence and relies on the human resources section to manage the ORE staff of four. As a result, human resources staff must perform daily operations, such as tracking time and attendance and ensuring that substitute staff are available when others are absent from work. This is burdensome and inappropriate, because ORE employees are the personal employees of the Ambassador.
  • Mission policy authorizes the Ambassador and DCM to travel officially using the lowest unrestricted fare as the cost basis, while requiring all other employees to use less flexible restricted fares.

 

No State Department EER since 2005

  • The Ambassador has not received an employee evaluation report prepared by a Department official since 2005. For subsequent years the Ambassador was assigned to an independent U.S. Government agency or filled temporary Department assignments. While the Ambassador is not required to receive a rating in the 2 years prior to his retirement, the WHA Assistant Secretary may prepare a rating at her discretion.
  • Prior to the inspection, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) was aware of some of the leadership issues covered in this report. More active engagement from WHA will solidify progress that embassy leadership pledged to make in addressing these shortcomings. The Foreign Affairs Manual (1 FAM 112 [3]) enjoins assistant secretaries of the regional bureaus to actively support chiefs of mission in carrying out their official duty to implement U.S. foreign policy and lead their missions effectively.

 

Morale and Workplace Issues: Divided Staff, Favoritism  and Which Staff Member?

  • Many staff members believe the Ambassador shows undue favoritism toward a member of his front office staff. The Ambassador’s and the DCM’s low scores on inspection questionnaires, corroborated by personal interviews, reflect this view. For example, many employees expressed that the Ambassador had empowered the staff member–whose conduct is widely perceived as inappropriately demanding, non-collegial, and unprofessional–to speak for him. In addition, the Ambassador allowed the staff member to take over duties more appropriately conducted by the DCM or other senior officers. Employees cited numerous examples of the employee’s inability to carry out basic duties. The staff consumes unnecessary time discussing this issue, which has become a distraction from the embassy’s central mission.
  • Among the conditions that have led to this untenable situation are poor implementation of normal front office procedures, a failure of the staff member’s work requirements to align with actual and appropriate duties, and a lack of clarity as to the responsibilities of front office personnel. A thorough review and operational realignment of duties among front office staff could resolve many of these issues and improve internal functions. Clearly articulating the results of that review to all mission employees is an essential step in the process.
  • Embassy Bridgetown’s staff is divided. Staff referred continuously to the “old team,” the new “Team Palmer,” and the “A Team.” Employees from the “old team,” many of whom departed the embassy in summer 2013, were at odds with the Ambassador, who is perceived to value new arrivals over them. The sudden death of a widely admired American colleague on the eve of the Ambassador’s arrival also split the embassy community into two groups: those who experienced the trauma and those who came after it. Although the Ambassador and the DCM get along well, the division of labor and leadership styles between them has not produced the collaboration of a true partnership.


Quality of Life

Despite beautiful weather and beaches, many Department employees at Embassy Bridgetown find life on Barbados extremely confining and isolated. Travel to the United States or to other locales in the region is expensive. As a result, employees receive one rest and recuperation trip for a 2-year tour and two trips during a 3-year tour. The rest and recuperation point in the United States is Miami, Florida. Employees are also authorized a 5-percent post differential due to the hardship of living on a small island, and a 50-percent cost-of-living allowance to reflect the high cost of goods and services on an island that imports nearly 100 percent of its consumer products.

 

The Consular Section: A Familiar Complaint

A number of LE staff members have more than 30 years’ experience working in the consular section. Among these veterans are the local supervisors in the nonimmigrant visa, immigrant visa, American citizens services, and fraud prevention units. The FAST officers in the section rotate through the four functional units for periods ranging from 4 to 10 months. During their time in the units, these American officers—some of whom have no consular experience— serve as unit chiefs and supervise local staff members. FAST officers like this policy, but their LE colleagues have reservations. LE staff members are constantly training new supervisors, which they report compromises the smooth running of operations. They describe examples of inexperienced American officers making uninformed decisions about workflow and policy without listening to the local staff. The inspection team concluded their concerns were justified. Each unit has a weekly meeting that the LE staff members and their immediate American supervisors attend to discuss workflow and processes. However, the consul general and deputy consul typically do not attend these meetings.

The IG report notes that the consular agents in Antigua and Martinique also failed to comply with all the requirements for consular agents. Both have expired appointment commissions. Neither agent responded to a required questionnaire about fee collection procedures that the Bureau of Consular Affairs sent to them in June 2013.The report points to post’s need to enforce the visa referral policy, the expectation that the cashier provide an OF-158 receipt for consular fees to the accountable consular officer on a daily basis, and for the DCM to review NIV adjudications. The DCM is not reviewing the nonimmigrant visa adjudications of the consul general because of functionality problems with the required software, according to the inspectors.


Art in Embassies Program Alert!

Inventory records for high-value artworks are incorrect. For example, works donated by the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, worth thousands of dollars each, show a value of one dollar.

$1.00 !!!

The Foundation also known as FAPE, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing permanent works of American art for U.S. embassies worldwide would not like that at all.

Read more here.  And hey, you cannot auction off laptops simply because the encryption keys were lost!

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US Embassy Venezuela: Local Employee Miguel Cartaya Killed in Caracas

– Domani Spero

We posted recently about the US Embassy Caracas where three embassy officials were given 48 hours to leave the country (see Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicks Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests).

The anti-government rallies has been roiling Venezuela for days with people expressing their grievances against high inflation, crime, and the shortages of staple goods such as toilet paper, milk, rice and cooking oil.  According to CNN, four anti-government protesters and one government supporter have died in clashes around the country. 

Amidst these chaos, local news reported yesterday that a former official of the Bolivarian National Police (BNP) who worked for the security office of the US Embassy in Caracas was killed at 4:30 in the morning during an attempted  robbery.

Local reports identified the employee as Miguel Angel Borges Cartaya, 39. He reportedly was  found at the bottom of a ravine with multiple gun shots wounds.

One report says that the victim was working escort duties at the American Embassy in Caracas.  Relatives cited in the report also said that the victim was leaving his house when he was attacked by several armed men who were after his belongings.  He was reportedly shot when he resisted.

The Regional Security Office’s 2013 Crime and Safety Report notes that violent crime is the greatest threat in Caracas, affecting local Venezuelans and foreigners alike.

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We are so sorry to hear this news.  This has been a tough couple of weeks for local embassy staff.  On February 12, we blogged about the death of an FSN working at USCG Peshawar (see USCG Peshawar Employee Faisal Saeed Killed in Pakistan).  On February 13, we posted about the arrest and detention of an FSN working at US Embassy Cairo (see  US Embassy Cairo FSN Ahmed Alaiba Detained Since 1/25–State Dept Still Seeking “Clarity”).

We have sent an inquiry to the US Embassy Caracas but received no response.

Our unofficial source in the country confirmed to us that Miguel Cartaya was an FSN, working at the Embassy as a security guard.  At this point, there apparently is no reason to believe the shooting is related to his work at the Embassy, but rather a sad fact of daily life in Caracas, which has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. We will have a blog update if we learn more.

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Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicks Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests

– Domani Spero

In October 2013, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro accused the top U.S. diplomat at the US Embassy in Caracas and two other embassy officials of “acts of sabotage” — allegedly, they caused the blackouts that plagued the country — and ordered them to leave (what career track is that?) U.S. Embassy Caracas Charge d’Affaires Kelly Keiderling and two diplomats, reportedly Consular Officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who worked in Embassy Caracas’ political section were given 48 hours to leave the country. Soon thereafter, the AP reported that the State Department  expelled Venezuelan Charge d’Affaires Calixto Ortega Rios, Second Secretary Monica Alejandra Sanchez Morales at its embassy in Washington and Consul Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida at the Venezuelan consulate in Houston. (see Venezuela Kicks Out Top US Diplomat, Two Other Officials For … Wait For It ….Blackouts!).

This weekend, Secretary Kerry expressed deep concern over  “rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela.”  His statement also says, “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”Here is Leopoldo Lopez on YouTube. See WSJ Venezuelan Opposition Leader Says He Will Risk Arrest.

The Venezuelan government wasn’t happy with this “interference.” Now the Miami Herald is reporting that Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Elías Jaua has given three American diplomats 48 hours to leave the country as  he accused them of fanning the flames of student protests that have rattled the country for more than a week.

The El Universal reports that Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jaua identified the three officials as Vice Consuls Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark.  They’ve been accused of  “trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing visa outreach.”We should note that the US Embassy Caracas has improved its visa wait time for Venezuelan visa applicants to 70 days in January but it is still #2 in Top Ten Visa Wait Time at U.S. Consular Posts (pdf) via Liam Schwartz’s Consular Corner.

We expect a reciprocal expulsion for three Venezuelan diplomats in the United States to follow. Today, the State Department denied these allegations releasing the following statement:

“The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-17

“To be Venezuelan today is to live on the edge of the apocalypse, convinced it will happen tomorrow,” said Alberto Barrera, a poet, screenwriter and biographer of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. According to Globe and Mail,  the oil engineers have emigrated to Calgary, the soap opera stars fled to Mexico and Colombia, and women “both rich and poor have cut back to just one blow-dry or manicure each week.”

The country where inflation has been running reportedly at over 50%, where television stations are state controlled,  and where billboards apparently boast that “Venezuela has never been stronger,” almost no one has toilet paper in their bathrooms.

Whether its blackouts, protests or lack of toilet paper in the world’s fifth-largest oil producer — some people claim that there’s always Uncle Sam to blame.  As long as the Mr. Maduro’s government  convinced itself that all the country’s ails come from its powerful neighbor and refused to acknowledge how poorly it has managed Venezuela’s  affairs, nothing will change. It can continue blaming the United States, but sooner or later it will be forced to faced up to reality.  Venezuela produced 2.45 million barrels a day in 2012.  It exports on  average 792,000 barrels a day in the first 11 months of 2013 to the U.S. according to Bloomberg (apparently, the lowest since 1985). The report also says that Venezuela’s export basket price rose to $97.18 a barrel in the week of Jan. 27-31.

So the most important question — with that kind of money, how is it that there is a shortage of toilet paper in the country?

Early this year, LAT reported that U.S.-based American Airlines and United Airlines and Panama’s Copa Airlines were halting ticket sales in Venezuela in lieu of the government’s failure to pay arrears that has totaled $2.6 billion.  According to USA Today, Toyota Motor Co. said it would shut down its assembly operations in Venezuela due to  to the government’s foreign exchange controls.  The country is also running out of newsprint. Last week, the Guardian reported that El Impulso, the country’s oldest newspaper will be reduced to one section because it is running out of paper.

But to President Maduro this is all good since the late Hugo Chavez had reportedly appeared to him as a bird more than once telling him he was doing a good job.

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US Embassy El Salvador: Critical Crime Threat – Stay Off the Streets

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– Domani Spero

On January 14, 2014, the US Embassy in San Salvador sent an emergency message to U.S. citizens in the country with a reminder of the critical crime threat in El Salvador. At approximately 21,041 square kilometers, El Salvador is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America.

This message is to remind U.S. citizens residing and traveling in El Salvador of the critical crime threat in El Salvador.  Most travelers to El Salvador experience no safety or security problems, but as noted in our August 9, 2013, Travel Warning for El Salvador, both random and organized violent crime is endemic throughout El Salvador. U.S. citizens are not normally singled out based on their nationality, but are subject to the same threats as all other persons in El Salvador.

Over the last several weeks, several joggers and pedestrians were robbed at gunpoint in the immediate area around U.S. Embassy San Salvador.  Blogs associated with local running and cycling groups have also reported on runners being targeted in the Santa Elena area as well as other affluent areas, such as Escalon and San Benito.  Due to these issues, U.S. Embassy security officials advise all U.S. Government personnel not to walk, run or cycle in the unguarded streets and parks of El Salvador, even in groups, and recommend exercising only in gyms and fitness centers.

Stay aware of your surroundings at all times when in public, and avoid carrying any valuables at all, including watches or smart phones/tablets, as these items are often targeted by thieves.  Be especially vigilant when entering or exiting your home or hotel, car, garage, school, and workplace.  Whenever possible, travel in groups of two or more persons.  Walking in many areas of El Salvador can expose you to crime, especially at night, and visitors and residents should not walk alone on or near beaches, historic ruins, or trails.

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The 2013 Crime and Safety Report published by  Diplomatic Security says that “El Salvador is considered one of the most violent countries in the world. The criminal threat in El Salvador is unpredictable, gang-centric, and characterized by violence directed against both known associates and targets of opportunity.”

Crimes of every nature occur 24 hours a day; daylight is not a deterrent. There are no areas that are deemed free of violent crime. Robberies and robbery attempts, home invasions, and extortions occur in the most affluent neighborhoods, and closely guarded officials, independent business persons, and diplomats are not immune from these attacks.
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Most U.S. citizens (close to 90 percent) die of natural causes in El Salvador. The leading cause of non-natural death is homicide. In 2012, U.S. fatalities included 11 non-natural deaths (seven homicides, two vehicle accidents, one suicide, and one drowning). 2011 saw eight non-natural deaths (four homicides, two vehicle accidents, and two drowning). And 2010 saw 13 non-natural deaths (11 homicides, one vehicle accident, and one drowning). Of 32 non-natural deaths from January 2010 to December 2012, 22 were homicides.

The effect and threat of violent crime in San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many Americans live and work, leads to isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities. Based on current statistics, violent crime remains significantly higher than U.S. and international rates. El Salvador has the second highest per capita murder rate in the world: 69 per 100,000 in 2012 (UNODC statistics) (by comparison the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). Police statistics show there was an average of seven murders and three carjackings reported daily in 2012.

As of January 12, 2014, El Salvador is a 15% hardship and a 10% COLA post.

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Venezuela Kicks Out Top US Diplomat, Two Other Officials For … Wait For It ….Blackouts!

– By Domani Spero

Venezuela’s embattled President Nicolás Maduro accused the top U.S. diplomat at the US Embassy in Caracas and two other embassy officials of “acts of sabotage” and ordered them to leave the country.

In a fiery televised speech, Mr. Maduro says that the diplomats have 48 hours to leave the country, and for sound effects, adds the usual serving of “Yankees, go home!”.  According to BBC News, Mr. Maduro says he has evidence that the trio took part in a power-grid sabotage in September and had bribed Venezuelan companies to cut down production. (See BBC News – Venezuela expels three US diplomats over ‘sabotage’).

“We detected a group of US embassy officials dedicated to meeting the far-right and to financing and encouraging acts of sabotage against the electrical system and Venezuela’s economy,” the president said in a televised speech.

The Caracas Chronicles calls the proof the “Smoking Squirt Gun”; video here complete with a pirated soundtrack featuring the three diplomats.

The top U.S. diplomat in Venezuela is Charge d’Affairs Kelly Keiderling. The other two diplomats asked to leave are reportedly Consular Officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who works in the Embassy Caracas’ political section.

Below is Charge Kelly Keiderling with her goodbye:

Late Tuesday, the AP reported that the State Department  was expelling Venezuelan charge d’affaires Calixto Ortega Rios and Second Secretary Monica Alejandra Sanchez Morales at the Washington embassy and Consul Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida at the Houston consulate. In the spirit of reciprocity, it gave the Venezuelan diplomats 48 hours to leave the U.S.

“It is regrettable that the Venezuelan government has again decided to expel U.S. diplomatic officials based on groundless allegations, which require reciprocal action. It is counterproductive to the interests of both our countries,” the State Department said.

Back in early September when Venezuela was crippled by a massive power failure that left 70% of the country without electricity, President Maduro insisted that the blackout was “the result of a plot by the extreme Right to mount an “electrical strike” against the country.”

According to the WSJ, Venezuela opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost April elections to Mr. Maduro as Hugo Chavez’ successor said that the power failure underscored mismanagement at state companies.

“The blackout today demonstrates one more time the terrible incapacity of this government,” Mr. Capriles said in a post on his official Twitter account. “Now they’ll come up with another story to try to cover up the failure.”

But really  — why stop at blaming the Yankees for just the blackouts? If he’s smart as he think he is, Mr. Maduro could solve his whole problem of things falling apart with a simple strategy — just blame the Yankees for everything!  Because why not? It’s free.

The thing is —  “Yankees, go home!” is really, really getting old.  It has lost its pizzazz and shock value, no?  So below are some helpful hints so Mr. Maduro has something else to talk and shout about:

Hyperinflation at 45.4%:  When somebody asks about the country’s 45.4% inflation rate, don’t answer the question. Presidents do not have to answer questions! Instead, ask this: Who are engaging in economic “sabotage”? Since you’re the president, you are allowed to answer your own question, too!  Here’s the cheat sheet: “The Yanquis and enemies of the people are teaming up with greedy Venezuelan shopkeepers to undermine the country’s currency.  They plan to push the inflation to 50% before the year is over.”  Get that?  Then you sit and wait until the inflation spikes to 50% around December, and you tell everyone, “I told you so.” Or you can shout – Yankees! ¡Te lo dije!

Scarcity Index:  The Venezuelan Central Bank’s scarcity index, a measure of products missing from store shelves edged up to 20% in August. Now this one is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.  Two things you can do: One, say that the Yankees obviously sends their agents routinely all over the country to buy up cooking oil, powdered milk, toilet paper, and all other products to keep the shelves empty.  Remember, these Yankees sent men to the moon, of course, they can make food items disappear, silly.  Two, if this doesn’t work, go ahead and declare all news related to shortages as war propaganda. Media outlets which report shortages should be punished or nationalized.  Go shout – “Shut up! The stores are not empty!” That should shut everyone upCállate!  Las tiendas no están vacías! Try it, try it, it works.

Violent Crime:  Venezuela remained one of the deadliest countries in the world in 2012, with a record number of homicides reported by both official and non-official sources. Venezuela had approximately 21,692 homicides in 2012, a rate of 73 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants; more than double Colombia’s rate, and triples Mexico’s homicide rate five years into its “drug war.”  Crazy, right? Don’t worry.  You can always say that whoever came up with these number do not know anything about math. Yankees — no saben matemáticas!  Repeat often, even if not needed.

Carjackings:  According to government statistics, in 2012 Caracas saw more than 3,300 carjackings and 2,800 forcible motorcycle robberies. These numbers are in addition to the approximately 2,800 cars and 2,900 motorcycles that were surreptitiously taken. Carjacking victims in 2012 have included business executives and foreign diplomats in Caracas.  Also skyrocketing numbers in kidnappings, home invasions, street gangs, blah, blah, blah.  Well, if you’re confronted with these numbers, just deny, deny, deny.  Of course, the Yankees must have paid these statisticians to over count these cases, too. Arrest them!  With feelings, you should shout, according to Google Translate, “arrestarlos inmediatamente!”  

Now that should help keep things spicy a bit.

One last thing though, and this is sorta important. We think the Venezuelan Government should stop declaring American diplomats persona non grata.  If President Maduro kicks out any more embassy official, there won’t be any American diplomat left in Caracas.

You don’t think this is going to be a problem?

Who is he going to blame for the shortage of toilet paper in the country?

(ñ_ñ)

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US Embassy Caracas: Two American Officials Wounded at “Some Sort of Social Spot”

The State Department has confirmed that 1) “two members of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas were injured during an incident early this morning” (May 28); 2) their injuries do not appear to be life threatening; 3) Embassy security and health unit personnel are at the hospital and have been in touch with the two individuals and their families; 4) that the incident occurred at “at some sort of social spot or somewhere outside of the Embassy grounds;” and 5) these are “other agency personnel.”

QUESTION: Were they Foreign Service – or are they Foreign Service officers, or are they other –

MR. VENTRELL: No, my understanding is that they are other agency personnel, not from the State Department. But if we’re able to confirm later in the day more about their status, we’ll do that for you.

According to CNN,  the two who were shot at a nightclub in northeast Caracas are U.S. military officials who worked with the embassy’s Defense Liaison Office.  A police spokeswoman said the shooting occurred at the Antonella 2012 club. The attending physician at a hospital in Caracas said one was shot in the abdomen and the leg, and the other in the abdomen,

Rodrigo@RodrigoEBR via CNN en Español tweeted that the U.S. Embassy staffers wounded were Roberto Ezequiel Rosas and Paul Marwin and that both are in stable condition after the shooting in Caracas.
Although not named, the two made it to the New York Times page:  2 American Embassy Officials Are Shot in Venezuela Strip Club.

“Some sort of social spot” is really a strip club?  Apparently it is. Some days we just feel sorry for the guy on the podium.  Heavy.com has an interesting piece:  US Embassy Employees Shot After Brawl inside Caracas Strip Club — includes a statement from a club rep saying in part:

“Two men were shot. Who cares what they were doing here. It sure as hell isn’t our fault. Why does the media wants to ruin these guys lives – these guys who probably have a family and a wife – with this news that they were in our club? Its dumb. I have had to deal with police officers and with people from the embassy all day.” … Last week three people were killed in the mall. May 1st two people were killed and nobody came. Why do people only care when its not Venezuelan people who are dying and getting shot….I saw a man get killed in front of my house. He died and they took 20 bucks from him. Do you think the police came? No. Venezuela is worse than Afghanistan. Its worst than Iraq. This violence is our daily bread.”

The April 2013 report from the Regional Security Officer on Crime and Security in Caracas indicates that several neighborhoods of Caracas are off-limits to American employees of the Embassy. The Embassy has also mandated that all employees travel in an armored vehicle to and from Simón Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia as it judged the airport road especially dangerous after receiving numerous reports of robberies and murders in the areas around the terminal (street, parking lot, etc.). Here is a quick summary:

The U.S. Department of State rates the criminal threat level in Caracas as “Critical.” Much of Caracas’s crime and violence can be attributed to mobile street gangs and organized crime groups. A number of factors explain the pervasive criminality in Caracas, including criminals’ disdain for official reprisal; a poorly paid, under-armed, and sometimes corrupt police force; an inefficient and politicized judicial system; a system of violent and overcrowded prisons, frequently managed with impunity by prison gang leaders themselves; and (according to some sources) as many as six million illegal weapons spread out across the country.

Our embassy in Caracas has been problematic for years not just in relation with the host country but within the mission itself.  Almost as if its been forgotten by the bureaucratic gods.  Between July 2010 and October 2011, US Embassy Caracas had two interim chargés, and relied upon a series of acting DCMs. This contributed, according to the OIG, to inconsistency and confusion regarding internal direction within the mission.  In February 2012, we blogged this — US Embassy Caracas: Where do I begin, to tell the story of how bad a post can get?.  In May last year, there was something else — US Embassy Caracas: Former FSN Pleads Guilty for Receiving Illegal Gratuity. In January this year, remember that carjacking?

Letter From Caracas: Did You Hear About the American Diplomat Carjacked in Venezuela?

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, at approximately 7:50 p.m. an American employee of Embassy Caracas was carjacked in the Sebucan neighborhood of Caracas. The perpetrators were three or four men armed with handguns. The victim’s house keys, wallet, and cell phone were in the cup holders located between the vehicle’s two front seats at the time of the carjacking. They were taken with the car. The victim was unharmed, and with the aid of friends living in a nearby building, was able to contact the Regional Security Office which then dispatched an embassy roving patrol to pick up the victim.

As of this writing, Caracas is a 42% COLA, 20% hardship post and a 0% danger post.

– DS

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Where dangerous conditions are not/not created equal …

We have blogged recently about the critical crime and violence in El Salvador (see State Dept Issues El Salvador Travel Warning:  Critical Crime and Violence.  We have also blogged about the carjacking of a US Embassy employee in Caracas. (see Letter From Caracas: Did You Hear About the American Diplomat Carjacked in Venezuela?)  By the way, The Telegraph reported in December 2012 that “There are more murders in Venezuela than in the United States and the 27 countries of the European Union combined.” San Salvador (El Salvador) and Caracas (Venezuela) are both considered critical crime posts but are not designated danger pay post.

We’ve checked the State Department’s Allowances website and here is what it says about danger pay:

*The danger pay allowance is designed to provide additional compensation above basic compensation to all U.S. Government civilian employees, including Chiefs of Mission, for service at places in foreign areas where there exist conditions of civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions which threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well-being of an employee.  These conditions do not include acts characterized chiefly as economic crime.

Note the last line of that explanation.

Danger pay factors used in determining the allowance include post evacuation/operating status, acts of violence, and post environmental conditions (see Danger Pay Factors (DS-578).

Under operating status, factors assessed include: the evacuation status (ordered or authorized), percentage of Eligible Family Members (EFMs) remaining at post during an authorized departure and whether or not post is on unaccompanied status or if limited family members are allowed at post.

Acts of violence includes killing, risk of death or severe injury, aggravated battery, kidnapping, sabotage, property damages, extortion, rioting, and hijacking.

Post environmental conditions includes terrorism conditions and civil war, civil insurrection and warfare conditions.

While “attempted hijacking of a privately owned vehicle” and “the hijacking of a privately owned vehicle has become a commonplace occurrence” are some of the factors to be considered under the Danger Pay Factors (DS-578), it is also appears that for purposes of danger pay designation, these incidents are not considered relevant if they are economically motivated and if committed for reasons not related to terrorism, civil insurrection, and/or war.

In fact the danger pay description clearly notes that *“These conditions do not include acts characterized chiefly as economic crime.”

Okay. So kidnapping and carjacking incidents in Iraq or Afghanistan probably contribute to its danger post designation but kidnapping and carjacking in say Venezuela or El Salvador where they would be considered an economic crime, would not?

But then you get Haiti,  designated as 5% danger pay post as of 12/2010; that was down from 20% earlier that year. The embassy there also recently went on an embassy-imposed curfew due to security conditions.

Let’s note for the record that there are no civil wars or insurrection in Haiti or Venezuela.

That leave us with terrorism.

The Crime and Security Report for Haiti says that “The USG rates Haiti as LOW in the threat category of indigenous terrorism. There have been no terrorist acts specifically targeting American interests or citizens in Haiti.”

The Crime and Security Report for Venezuela says “Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are designated by the Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Both groups use Venezuela as a safe haven. The State Department has stated that the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah is using Venezuela mainly for fundraising. However, Venezuelan media reports suggest Hezbollah is also active in training, money laundering, and arms trafficking.

So this is a tad perplexing, no? How is it that Haiti with crime and security problems (but no terrorism, civil insurrection, and/or war) gets a 5% danger pay designation and Venezuela with crime and security problems (but no civil insurrection, and/or war, and is a terrorist safe haven) gets zero. Since we are not privy to the documents submitted, we have no way of knowing exactly the reason for this.

But you can perhaps understand why folks in Caracas might be troubled by this treatment.

We can think of a few possible reasons for this dissimilar treatment, pardon the speculation since no one would talk about this on the record for this blog:

Front Office Leadership? Somebody has to submit the Danger Pay Factors before any designation can be done. US Embassy Haiti during and after the earthquake has a chief of mission.  US Embassy Venezuela has been without an ambassador since July 2010 and is short staffed in key areas. According to the 2012 OIG report “Between July 2010 and October 2011, the two interim chargés [...] relied upon a series of acting DCMs, which contributed to inconsistency and confusion regarding internal direction within the mission and interactions with Washington.”

Skills and Collaboration? The person responsible for putting together the Danger Pay Factors is without a doubt the Management Office at post in collaboration with the Regional Security Office. So the Management Officer’s writing skills and excellent cooperation with the RSO who has to dig up the supporting stats and documentation is crucial in making a compelling case. The most recent OIG report on Venezuela says that “Management services are incoherent and customer service is poor.” Not only that, the inspectors reported that “weak management section leadership has exacerbated the situation.”  So while Management Officers were not spotlighted in the recent recruitment video from the State Department, they are the most important component of an effective mission. Next to excellent Front Office leadership, of course.  Our unscientific review indicates that the effectiveness and responsiveness of the management section has a direct correlation to the morale and performance of the mission.

Regional Bureau Attention? We do not know what kind of support US Embassy Venezuela get from the WHA bureau and its assistant secretary. But we can readily tell what kind of support has been extended to the US Embassy in Haiti, a post that even has its own Special Coordinator.  We do think that special care and support is necessary when a mission does not have the leadership of a Senate-confirmed ambassador, when post has more than the usual staffing gaps, when post has a good number of entry level officers working in upstretched positions in a host country with 19.9 percent inflation rate.  Particularly if post is also the receiving end of prolong official animosity towards the United States.  When  taken together, these can have a significant impact in the proper functioning of a mission.   The question then becomes — If US Embassy Caracas is getting the appropriate care and support it needs given its many challenges, how is it that its morale is in the mud and we’re getting love notes from there?

Danger Pay Office Out to Lunch? Would you please knock over there and check it out. Please?

Because somebody’s gotta ask why.

One of our readers just sent a question asking, “Where do Mexican border posts that have danger pay fit? Civil insurrection? Isn’t drug/gang violence for economic gain/profit?”  

And that’s why you’re looking at somebody just as confused.  Is it possible that the folks out to lunch also went off the tracks on this?  Something for the Secretary’s Sounding Board, anyone?

sig4

 

 

 

 

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State Dept Issues El Salvador Travel Warning: Critical Crime and Violence

On January 23, 2013, the State Department issued a new Travel Warning for El Salvador detailing the crime and violence in the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America.  For a while there, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world. It was  dislodged from the #1 spot by Honduras in 2010. In 2011, there were 82.1 murders per 100,000 people in Honduras.

The Crime and Security Report for 2012 issued by the embassy’s Regional Security Office says that “El Salvador is considered one of the most violent countries in the world. The effect and threat of violent crime within San Salvador, including the neighborhoods in which many Americans live and work, leads to greater isolation and the curtailment of recreational opportunities.”  Part of that report described the robbery at gunpoint of an embassy officer and spouse while stuck at a traffic circle near the embassy:

“In 2011, armed robberies continued at the accelerated 2010 pace and arguably could be the single greatest security threat facing U.S. embassy staff and business persons. As an example, in April 2011, an embassy officer and spouse were robbed at gunpoint at a traffic circle less than a mile from the embassy while stuck in late rush hour traffic. In this instance, two unidentified men approached the driver’s side of the car, pointed a gun at both occupants, and demanded their belongings. The couple complied with their demands, and the attackers fled the scene on foot. In another example, a U.S. tourist was robbed at night by two individuals with machetes directly outside a popular private beach club that is frequented often by embassy staff and other Westerners.”

US Embassy San Salvador, El Salvador

US Embassy San Salvador, El Salvador

Below is an excerpt from the new Travel Warning:

The Department of State has issued this Travel Warning to inform U.S. citizens about the security situation in El Salvador.

Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, business, and volunteer work. However, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country. In 2011, El Salvador had the second highest murder rate in the world: 71 per 100,000 people (by comparison, the murder rate in Massachusetts, with a similar geographical area and population, was 2.6 per 100,000). In 2012, a truce between El Salvador’s two principal street gangs contributed to a decline in the homicide rate. However, the sustainability of the decline is unclear, and the truce had little impact on robbery, assaults, and other violent crimes. Most of these crimes go unsolved. In March 2012, as a result of an administrative review of the security situation, Peace Corps El Salvador substantially reduced the number of its volunteers in country.

U.S. citizens do not appear to be targeted based on their nationality. However, 22 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador since January 2010. During the same time period, 230 U.S. citizens reported having their passports stolen. Armed robberies of climbers and hikers in El Salvador’s national parks are common, and the Embassy strongly recommends engaging the services of a local guide certified by the national or local tourist authority when hiking in back country areas, even within the national parks. In 2000, the National Civilian Police (PNC) established a special tourist police force (POLITUR) to provide security and assistance to tourists, as well as protection for the cultural heritage of El Salvador. It has officers located in 19 tourist destinations.

A majority of serious crimes are never solved; only five of the 22 murders committed against U.S. citizens since January 2010 have resulted in convictions. The Government of El Salvador lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases and to deter violent crime. The PNC is still developing into a modern and effective police force that can protect the public. While several of the PNC’s investigative units have shown great promise, routine street level patrol techniques, anti-gang, and crime suppression efforts are limited.

Transnational criminal organizations conduct narcotics, arms trafficking, and other unlawful activities throughout the country and use violence to control drug trafficking routes and carry out other criminal activity. Other criminals, acting both individually and in gangs, commit crimes such as murder-for-hire, carjacking, extortion, armed robbery, rapes, and other aggravated assaults. El Salvador, a country of roughly six million people, has hundreds of known street gangs totaling more than 20,000 members. Gangs and other criminal elements roam freely day and night, targeting affluent areas for burglaries, and gang members are quick to engage in violence if resisted.

Extortion is a particularly serious and common crime in El Salvador. Many extortion attempts are no more than random cold calls that originate from imprisoned gang members using cellular telephones, and the subsequent threats against the victim are made through social engineering and/or through information obtained about the victim’s family. U.S. citizens who are visiting El Salvador for extended periods may be at higher risk for extortion demands. Hitting its peak a few years ago, extortion has dropped in the last two years; however, recent reports show that there is an increase in the level of violence associated with extortion cases, including media reports of extortion victims and witnesses being killed. Extortion attempts can be transnational in nature and can include kidnapping of victims. For example, in 2011, a 2 year old U.S. citizen was kidnapped from the home of his grandparents in El Salvador by 8 to 10 armed men. Ransom demands made to family members in both El Salvador and the United States were traced back to a local prison used exclusively to incarcerate gang members.

Read in full here.

In 2011, police statistics also show an average of 12 murders and three carjackings reported daily to the police. While  El Salvador is a 10% COLA and 15% hardship differential post, it is as of this writing not listed as a danger pay post.

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US Mission Mexico: Mexican Federal Cops Shot at Embassy SUV and Kept Shooting

You’ve heard the news. Two US Embassy Mexico employees were wounded in the shooting of an embassy SUV with a diplomatic plate on August 24.  The wounded were described as “US Embassy officials” here. The LAT calls them “U.S. government employees” here. CNN originally described the injured as “three U.S. Marines” here.

We’ve been waiting for an official statement from the US Embassy in Mexico.  A statement finally came out late August 24, 2012. See below:

Mexico City, August 24, 2012 – This morning two U.S. Government personnel and a Mexican Navy captain were in a U.S diplomatic vehicle driving to a training facility, when they were ambushed by a group of individuals.

The vehicle attempted to escape, was pursued and sustained heavy damage.  They called for assistance from the Mexican armed forces, who responded.  The two U.S. wounded personnel were taken from the scene, given medical treatment and are in stable condition.  The Mexican Navy captain sustained no serious injuries.

The Government of Mexico has acknowledged that members of the Federal Police were involved and fired on the U.S. Embassy vehicle.  The Government of Mexico has begun an investigation and detained members of the Federal Police who were involved.

The Government of Mexico has stated it will conduct a full and thorough investigation of this incident.  The Embassy has been cooperating closely with the Mexican authorities and will assist in every way possible.

The Reuters report cites a Mexican government security official saying that the federal police had thought the vehicle belonged to a group of suspected kidnappers they were pursuing, and had opened fire on it.

“This was all because of a mix-up,” the official said.

CNN has more details:

The incident occurred at 8 a.m. Friday, when the two embassy employees and the Mexican were en route through the mountainous area to a navy facility in the municipality of Xalatlaco, according to a statement issued Friday by the Mexican Navy, which gave the following account:

The black SUV bearing a diplomatic license plate had just left the main highway that connects Mexico City with Cuernavaca and were driving on a dirt road that connects the small towns of Tres Marias and Huitzilac when a vehicle approached. When the occupants brandished firearms, the driver of the diplomatic vehicle tried to evade them and return to the main highway. At that point, the occupants sprayed bullets into the black SUV with diplomatic plates.

Moments later, another three vehicles joined the chase and fired shots at the embassy vehicle. The Mexican in the SUV called for help from the Mexican Navy personnel in nearby El Capulin who arrived after the shooting had ended and cordoned off the area.

Federal police, who were in the area working on a criminal investigation, participated in these acts, the statement said, but did not specify which vehicle or vehicles they were in.

Both embassy employees were taken — under federal police guard — to a hospital.

Photographs of the SUV showed the embassy vehicle pockmarked with more than a dozen holes and at least three of its tires flat.

Click on image to see video report

Potential to Get Swept Under the Rug?

Sylvia Longmire, a drug war cartel analyst and author of “Cartel: the Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars” told CNN that the long-term impact of the shooting will depend on how aggressively the Mexican government pursues the investigation.

“I’m somewhat skeptical that anyone will be brought to justice in this attack,” she told CNN Saturday. “Remember, nobody knows who shot the Americans. They’re still going to have to do ballistic reports.”

Though federal police have a reputation for being among the least corrupt of Mexico’s security forces, “I’m concerned that there is a potential for this to get swept under the rug,” she said.

Read in full here.

Attacks on USG Personnel in the Last 3 Years

This is not the first incident involving shooting and death of US mission personnel in Mexico.

In February 2011, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent was killed and another wounded while driving through northern Mexico.

In March 2010, three individuals connected to the US Consulate in Ciudad Juarez were killed in broad daylight. The AP says that the 2010 incident as “A drug-gang shooting in 2010 in the border city of Ciudad Juarez [that] killed a U.S. consulate employee, her husband and another man.” We still haven’t been able to connect those dots. The Barrio Azteca leader was extradited from Mexico in June this year, but the case remains toner dark.

How, where, when U.S. Consulate employee Leslie Ann Enriquez Catton, her husband Arthur Redelfs and Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros, the husband of a U.S. Consulate employee were dot–connected to a drug-gang that caused their deaths, we still don’t know.

And we may never know.

Domani Spero

 

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In a War That Must Not Be Named, Leadership and Security On the Line.

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