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BLACKWATER USA | DAILY BRIEF


China

  • SecState Pompeo declared that the U.S. no longer considers Hong Kong to be autonomous from China. The decision isn’t necessarily related to China’s new national security law for the territory (which was rubber-stamped yesterday and will probably go into effect in July)—the State Department was required to issue a verdict one way or the other under pro-democracy legislation the U.S. passed last year. (The same U.S. law also requires Pres. Trump to sanction foreigners who undermine “fundamental freedoms and autonomy in Hong Kong,” but it’s not clear Pres. Trump wants to cross that line yet.) Analysts say Pompeo’s decision is going to jeopardize the special trade relationship the U.S. has with Hong Kong and Hong Kong’s exemption from U.S. tariffs on China.

Iran

  • SecState Pompeo also said the U.S. would end all waivers that let Chinese, European, and Russian companies work with Iran outside of sanctions, effective in 60 days. Pompeo said Iran’s continued nuclear escalation means it doesn’t deserve waivers, but non-proliferation advocates say ending the waivers will actually make it more likely that Iran will secretly accelerate its nuclear programs, instead of adhering to some modicum of transparency.

Libya

  • Satellite images seem to confirm the U.S. claim that Russia flew 14 planes (MiG-29s and Su-24s) to support Khalifa Haftar’s LNA in Libya, and the U.S. added further detail to that claim yesterday: it says Russian military pilots flew the planes into Libya, and were escorted by Russian fighter jets. That suggests an even higher degree of official complicity in the shipment. Russia still denies any government involvement, but that’s getting harder to believe.

Afghanistan

  • SecDef Esper caveated reports that Pres. Trump wants to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the November election: Esper says that would be hard to do, adding that it’s only one—“and not a particularly strong one”—of several options on the table.

  • Pres. Trump’s critics also point out that the U.S. withdrawal stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban agreement is based on conditions the Taliban has to meet, implying that withdrawing before it meets those conditions would violate the agreement.

  • At least seven ANSF were killed in a Taliban attack in Parwan; another seven or so were killed in a second attack in Farah.

DRC

  • The Islamic State-aligned Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) killed at least 40 civilian villagers in a machete massacre in Samboko, Ituri after slaughtering another 17 villagers in nearby Makutano. ADF attacks have been rising in recent weeks, after two months of relative calm.

  • China’s biggest cobalt producer, Huayou Cobalt, bowed to pressure from rights activists and said it would stop buying artisanal cobalt from DRC over concerns about child labor in Congolese mines. Huayou was among the companies named in a Dec. 2019 class-action lawsuit in which child miners and their families charged major tech firms (e.g. Apple, Dell, Microsoft) for failing to curb child mining. Around 20% of Huayou’s DRC cobalt came from individual artisanal miners; Huayou will presumably continue to buy the other 80% of its DRC cobalt that came—at least on paper—from non-artisanal sources.

U.S.

  • The U.S. coronavirus death toll has now passed 100,000.

  • A U.S. soldier intervened in an active shooter incident in Leavenworth, Kansas, by striking the shooter with his car. Besides the shooter, one other person was injured.

Venezuela

  • The U.S. is reportedly preparing to indict Venezuela’s First Lady, Cilia Flores, on charges related to trafficking and corruption. One source says the charges will be tied to a botched cocaine deal that already saw two of her nephews convicted in Florida.

  • U.S. prosecutors in New York also accused a former Venezuelan legislator, Adel El Zabayar, of participating in the Cartel de los Soles and conspiring with Hezbollah and Hamas to attack the U.S.—in particular, by trading anti-tank rocket launchers it sourced in the Middle East with the FARC for cocaine in 2014. (Pres. Maduro and his Constituent (read: Puppet) National Assembly president, Diasdado Cabello, have already been indicted for the same cartel’s misdeeds.) A Miami Herald article pasted below has more.

  • Venezuela reached a deal with the UN Development Program (UNDP) for the UNDP to receive proceeds from the sale of Venezuelan gold held by the UK’s Central Bank and dispense it to buy food and medicine for coronavirus relief in Venezuela. However, it doesn’t look like the UK has agreed to release the gold yet.

  • The Guardian publicized a U.S. grant that intended to fund a pro-democracy “battle of the bands” in Venezuela in 2011. Neither that nor USAID’s attempt to influence Cuban underground hip hop in 2014 seem to have yielded tangible results.

Mexico

  • The WSJ had a great article on Pres. AMLO’s extensive use of the Mexican military in construction projects and to fight both coronavirus and cartels. However, as the article points out, the Mexican army has seen its share of scandals, too: replacing corrupt contractors with military programs may not be a panacea.

Other News

  • France introduced a €8 billion stimulus plan for the auto industry that included increased subsidies for electric vehicles. European stock markets were elated at the news.

Feds claim government cartel in Venezuela conspired with Hezbollah to attack the U.S. (Miami Herald)

Federal prosecutors in New York accused a former Venezuelan lawmaker on Wednesday of participating in narcoterrorism in an indictment claiming that a cartel headed by government leaders conspired with the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas to commit attacks against the U.S.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan accused Adel El Zabayar, 56, of conspiracy to commit narcoterrorist acts, conspiracy to import cocaine, and two weapons-related offenses. If found guilty, he could face 10 years to life in prison.

El Zabayar is the president of the Venezuelan Federation of Arab Associations and Entities and was a member of the country’s National Assembly.

According to the indictment, El Zabayar is an active member of the Cartel de los Soles, or Cartel of the Suns, a network of officials of the Nicolás Maduro regime involved in drug trafficking. The cartel allegedly includes Maduro himself and his number two, Diosdado Cabello. They were both indicted along with other officials in March on charges of drug trafficking, “narcoterrorism,” corruption, and money laundering.

The federal prosecutors said that at the request of Cabello, El Zabayar obtained anti-tank rocket launchers in 2014 as partial payment for cocaine provided to the cartel by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which is considered to be a terrorist organization.

“We further allege today, for the first time, that the Cartel de los Soles sought to recruit terrorists from [Hezbollah] and Hamas to assist in planning and carrying out attacks on the U.S., and that El Zabayar was instrumental as a go-between,” said Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman.

The indictment claims that El Zabayar held several meetings in 2014 with Cabello, who instructed him to travel to Syria and Palestine to obtain weapons and recruit members of Hezbollah and Hamas to train them in Venezuela.

Cabello explained that the purpose was “to create a large terrorist cell capable of attacking United States interests on behalf of the Cartel de los Soles,” the indictment says.

After spending several months in the Middle East, El Zabayar returned to Venezuela. A week after his return, he went to the presidential hangar at the Maiquetía airport in Caracas to receive, along with Cabello, a shipment of weapons from Lebanon, prosecutors said.

Weapons allegedly obtained by El Zabayar included rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-103 assault rifles and sniper rifles.

The prosecution cites the testimony of an unidentified witness who was present at these meetings but presented no further evidence.

According to the indictment, El Zabayar also acted as a liaison between the Venezuelan government and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In 2013, media reports said El Zabayar, who is of Syrian descent, joined Hezbollah forces to fight in the Syrian civil war.

The Justice Department declined to comment on El Zabayar’s whereabouts. He reacted on Twitter to the U.S. accusation, at first saying he was surprised, then “daring” the department to pay his “round-trip ticket to the USA” to respond to the accusation “UNDER THE GUARDIANSHIP OF THE UN.”

In other tweets, he referred to the accusation as “infamies”, “lies” and “comedy”. “An honor that the empire HATES ME AS MUCH as the rest of the comrades,” he added.

President Donald Trump’s administration has imposed strong sanctions against the Maduro regime and the country’s oil industry. It has also supported the Venezuelan opposition’s attempts to oust Maduro. Since April, the U.S. has increased its military presence in the Caribbean in a counter-narcotics operation that also aims to cut the illegal funds flowing to Maduro and his allies.

Reuters also reported that the Department of Justice is considering pressing drug-trafficking charges against Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife.

“Today’s charges against Adel El Zabayar for trading arms for cocaine, and recruiting extremists, further demonstrates the corruption inside the Maduro regime,” said Timothy J. Shea, acting director of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “As the layers of the Maduro regime are exposed, so are its immoral, unethical, and dangerous actions.”

Mexico’s Leader Has Answer for All His Needs: The Army (WSJ)

President López Obrador has boosted the military’s roles in public works, fighting coronavirus and confronting drug cartels, a tack some see as risky

On a recent day, Army Col. José Cruz Vargas Rangel rode atop a Humvee as thousands of workers and hundreds of dump trucks zipped back and forth just outside the Mexican capital, laying the foundations of a new $3.2 billion airport.

Unlike most major civilian airports around the world, this one won’t be built by private contractors or state construction firms. Instead, it is being handled by Mexico’s army, with no private operators or middlemen other than hired hands. It is even being built on an army base.

“We’re doing it all,” said Col. Vargas, one of 1,000 officers of Mexico’s Army Corps of Engineers that is overseeing the project. “Unlike private companies, we don’t make a profit, so the costs are lower. And we deliver things on time.”

Under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican army has gained its most prominent public role since the 1940s, doing everything from leading the assault on drug cartels and running hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic to building infrastructure—so much that the army now rivals some of the country’s biggest private construction firms in size and scope of work.

“There is no precedent…where the army has been given so many different and important tasks,” said Javier Oliva, a professor of political science at Mexico’s National Autonomous University and specialist on the Mexican army. “The president’s main political goals now rest on the shoulders of the army.”

The president has praised the army as a can-do organization that isn’t plagued by the deeply rooted corruption that he says has held Mexico back. Critics say relying so heavily on the army carries risks, including giving it too much money and power, as well as delaying deeper changes to strengthen Mexico’s civilian institutions, which economists have said is necessary for the country to develop and modernize faster.

After its independence from Spain in the first half of the 19th century, Mexico’s politics were largely dominated by military leaders until the 1940s, when a tradition of civilian leadership began. At the time, the military struck a tacit deal with the country’s then ruling party: The army would stay out of politics, and civilian rulers would leave the military alone. That left Mexico free from the military coups that plagued much of Latin America during the 20th century.

Because Mexico doesn’t have any natural military rivals next door—the U.S. is too big and Guatemala too small—the army has focused on domestic roles, first disaster relief and later fighting cartels. And it has sometimes served in past administrations as a builder of last resort, stepping in when civilian construction projects have gone over budget.

There are limits to the army’s influence in Mexico. No analyst expects them to become political power brokers. And Mr. López Obrador’s reliance on the military is a far cry from that of other Latin American leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain who has military officers, including active-duty generals, stacked throughout his cabinet.

Earlier this month, Mr. López Obrador issued an executive decree that keeps the army in charge of the country’s fight against cartels. While the decree merely formalizes the army’s longstanding role, it caps a remarkable turnaround for the leftist president, who for years on the campaign trail criticized the army’s role in taking on cartels, accusing soldiers of committing gross human-rights violations.

Defending the decree, he said he had “evidence to assert that within both the army and navy there is growing respect for human rights,” crediting himself as commander-in-chief for setting a new tone. In 2010, as Mexico’s main opposition figure, he said that he “couldn’t accept a militarized government” and called on the government at the time to return the army to the barracks.

Mr. López Obrador’s plan upon taking power was to create a civilian-run National Guard to pursue drug cartels. But soon after he won election in July 2018, he started changing his tone, praising the 300,000-member army as a bastion of the people. Over the next few months, army brass convinced the president-elect that ending their pursuit of cartels would leave the country ungovernable within months, say people familiar with those conversations.

By the autumn, Mr. López Obrador made it clear that the National Guard would essentially be run by the army instead of civilian leadership. The national guard chief is a newly retired military general. Some 80% of its nearly 75,000 members belong to the army, which pays their salaries and provides everything from training to uniforms.

Nowhere has the role of the army grown more than in construction. In addition to the new Mexico City airport, the army is building 150 barracks for the National Guard and 2,700 new branches of government-run banks across the country to distribute the president’s social benefits. Once the airport is finished, the army will be tasked with building two large sections of a planned, nearly 950-mile tourist train line in the Yucatán Peninsula that is expected to cost some $6.3 billion.

Mexican private contractors feel stigmatized by the government’s seeming veto in some of its infrastructure projects. “We have felt offended because we have not been considered in these big projects…The president has turned the army into a de facto state construction company,” said Eduardo Ramírez Leal, the head of a business group representing more than 12,000 construction firms.

Relying on the army fits with a president who is known for an authoritarian streak and frugal lifestyle, analysts say. He flies commercial airliners in economy class and slashed his own salary and those of top bureaucrats.

“He asks them to do something, and they say ‘yes.’ He loves that. It’s the only top federal agency that I think he feels comfortable giving them an assignment and knowing that not only will they say yes, but they’ll fulfill the assignment,” said Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on the Mexican military and professor at Claremont McKenna College.

In turning to the army for public works, the president has said he believes the projects will be completed more cheaply, on time and without corruption, which he blames on collusion between big business and politicians.

In March, the president announced a new state company run by 26 top military officials to manage and operate the new airport once it is finished. “The profits will be for the army,” Mr. López Obrador said. “On top of being a very important service, it’s a business.”

Before taking office, he canceled a bigger, more lavish $13.3 billion project for a new Mexico City airport that was a third completed, saying the project, in Texcoco, was riddled with graft. He directed the army to build “a bare, functional airport in the shortest possible time.”

The army says it will cost a fraction of the price and take just three years—four years faster than the Texcoco project.

Col. Vargas, who is in charge of runways for the new airport, said officials were saving money in several ways. One example he gave was the army’s negotiation with the local truckers’ union for hundreds of dump trucks to ferry materials. Col. Vargas said the union wanted to charge the army about $4,500 a month per truck, the price it said it was charging in Texcoco.

“We checked the market price and saw they were trying to charge us more than double the going rate. We said ‘no way.’ We eventually got them down to market price,” he said, standing on a nearly completed concrete runway.

A spokesman for the union denied that it was inflating prices and said that it is demanding only that the army pay a fair price.

Relying on the army for public works due to a lack of trust in government delays addressing Mexico’s deeper institutional problems such as corruption, say security analysts. It puts off the hard work of building police forces that can eventually take on the cartels and lower the high rate of impunity for crimes, these people say.

“The institutional weakness is why they are the go-to guys,” said Craig Deare, a professor of National Defense University and expert on Mexico’s military. “I’ve got these problems today,” he said, characterizing what he sees as the government’s thinking. “Rather than start some kind of deeper fix that may take longer than the time I’m in power, I’m going to put a Band-Aid on it, and the Band-Aid is the military.”

While Mexico’s army views itself as free from corruption, it has seen its share of scandals. The country’s antidrug czar in the late 1990s, Gen. Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, was found to be on a cartel payroll. He died in 2013 while serving a 40-year prison sentence.

The army’s record as a builder has also come under scrutiny. In the construction of the Texcoco airport project, the congressional audit office found irregularities for some $9 million in two contracts awarded to the army to build the airport’s perimeter fence and level one of the runways.

In a report released earlier this year, the audit office found the army badly mismanaged a fund for rebuilding after two devastating earthquakes in 2017. In 88 of the 93 service contracts given out by the army, worth some $25 million, it couldn’t prove it that had received the goods and services, according to the audit office.

Most of the contracts were awarded directly without a bidding process. The audit office said it couldn’t find two contractors hired by the army in the addresses provided to the country’s tax agency.

The army didn’t respond to a request for comment on the allegations.

Mexico’s military has never been formally investigated by civilian anticorruption watchdogs, nor has any military personnel been jailed on non-cartel-related corruption charges, said Raúl Benítez, a military expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“It’s like a guaranteed impunity. They never get investigated,” he said.

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