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Trump And Netanyahu Sidestep Two-State Solution For Mideast Peace

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump (R) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US, Iran Remain Worlds Apart On Major Foreign Policy Issues

By Tracy Wilkinson, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The glow of goodwill that followed a surprise prisoner swap and the lifting of international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program over the weekend is already being tempered by the somber realization that the Islamic Republic is not likely to change course significantly on other pressing conflicts with the West.

Recent events marked an improvement in relations between Washington and Tehran after decades of open hostilities, and a victory, if only a temporary one, for moderates in Iran.

For the first time, there is an open diplomatic channel through which the two countries can communicate, and an especially personal one between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. They are said to be on a first-name basis, speaking almost daily by telephone and more frequently when there are fires to put out.

But it is highly unlikely that the momentum on the nuclear agreement will translate into substantial foreign policy shifts for Iran, particularly when it comes to other intractable conflicts in the region, U.S. officials say. The two countries remain worlds apart on numerous issues, and that chasm will not be bridged easily.

The first test comes Jan. 25 when world powers are scheduled to resume talks aimed at ending the civil war in Syria. Iran steadfastly backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, putting it squarely on the opposite side of the U.S., Saudi Arabia and most of the West.

Obama administration officials say they are keeping expectations low.

“Iran is not going to change dramatically in the next year or two years,” said a senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly. “If Iran does act in a more constructive fashion, it would be a positive development in resolving difficult issues. If they don’t, we will continue to enforce our sanctions and continue to have very strong differences.”

Critics of the nuclear deal predict that, with tens of billions of dollars about to pour into its coffers because of the agreement, Iran may further antagonize the West by using that money to finance terrorism and pro-Assad military operations.

“The changes in Iranian behavior that we have seen are tied to the fact they wanted the $100 billion,” Dennis Ross, a former longtime Middle East negotiator and now counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an interview. He was referring to the frozen Iranian assets released by sanctions relief; the exact amount of those monies is unclear.

“If you are looking for signs of potential change in Syria or Iraq, you won’t see it anytime soon,” Ross added. “The resistance ideology — as represented by the supreme leader and the (hard-line) Revolutionary Guard — is not going to change.”

The Obama administration’s decision to place new sanctions on Iran on Sunday, targeting 11 people and companies involved in that country’s ballistic-missile program, angered the government in Tehran. The new sanctions, a response to Iran’s launch of ballistic missiles last fall in apparent contravention of U.N. resolutions, are separate from those related to Iran’s nuclear program. They were announced shortly after three freed American prisoners, returning homeward, cleared Iranian airspace.

Iranian officials blasted the latest sanctions, saying they “have no legal or moral legitimacy,” according to a Reuters report Monday of a Foreign Ministry statement. The hard-line newspaper Kayhan ran a banner headline — “Sanctions are back!” — nearly crowding out coverage of a celebratory speech by moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

“Not only did Obama make a somewhat insulting speech to the Iranian people just hours after implementation of the nuclear agreement, but the U.S. then went and imposed these new sanctions,” said Professor Mohammad Marandi, an expert on American affairs at Tehran University whose views often reflect official Iranian policy. “How does the United States expect that to be interpreted in Iran?”

Changes in how Washington will now deal with Tehran are significant, but not profound, said Wendy Sherman, the longtime senior State Department official who led the team negotiating the nuclear deal.

“Iran foments instability in the Middle East, has been a state sponsor of terrorism, and its human rights record is terrible,” Sherman, now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Monday, speaking to NPR from Tel Aviv. “So we have a long way to go.”

Another factor rests with how much influence Rouhani will continue to wield, especially if economic gains from sanctions relief prove more modest than promised, as is likely given the historically low price of oil. Iran is also being allowed to rejoin the international banking system as part of the relief.

Rouhani may not have as free a hand to maneuver as he and his moderate supporters had wanted. He ran for president in part with a promise to solve Iran’s daunting economic problems by securing sanctions relief.

He has delivered on the relief, but the economy is in such a deep hole, analysts say, that it may not grow by more than 2 percent or 3 percent this year, far below what many Iranians had hoped for. Rouhani may not get the political bounce he no doubt believes he deserves.

The first chance to gauge Rouhani’s position will come in parliamentary elections next month; it will be crucial that Rouhani supporters and other so-called pragmatists are not disqualified from running.

It is clear that Rouhani in recent months has received the blessing of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Without Khamenei’s blessing, the deal would not have been negotiated for more than a year, signed over the summer and implemented this past weekend. Nor would the five American prisoners, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, have been released.

Khamenei initially prohibited talks with the Americans on any matter other than the nuclear program. But about 14 months ago, U.S. officials noted an apparent opening for discussion of the release of Rezaian and other imprisoned Iranian Americans. A separate venue for that negotiation was opened, now with participation for the first time of intelligence officials who were the true arbiters of the fates of the American prisoners.

There were moments in the negotiations when the U.S. delegation thought it had reached agreement on certain points, only to find the Iranians returning to the table nixing it, apparently after consultation with the intelligence community or other hard-liners, Sherman recalled.

Under Khamenei’s direction, or push, hard-liners and moderates apparently came to the same page for the nuclear deal and prisoner swap. But it is likely to be a one-off, many analysts believe. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, there have been occasional periods of opening-up and expectation, such as the often-giddy electoral demonstrations in 2009 that were followed only by crackdown and retrenchment.

Another obstacle to rapid change and closer ties is the fact that it will be difficult for Western businesses to go charging into Iran. There are numerous risks for any potential entrepreneur; U.S. citizens, for example, would still be barred from doing business with Iranian partners tied to terrorism or human rights abuses.

Many Iranian businesses are actually fronts for the Revolutionary Guard, so an unsuspecting prospective company risks running aground of the sanctions that are still in place, or “snap-back” sanctions that will be imposed by the U.S. or the international community if Iran violates any of the nuclear restrictions.

©2016 Tribune Co. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: United States Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Mohammad Javad Zarif,  Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, at the United Nations in New York, September 26, 2015. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

As Improved US-Iran Relations Are Celebrated, Questions Loom About Road Ahead

By Tracy Wilkinson and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Amid celebration of the milestone nuclear deal and the depature from Iran of three freed Americans, the Obama administration offered a reminder Sunday of the gulf that remains in the countries’ relations.

The U.S. placed new sanctions targeting 11 people or companies that work to advance Iran’s ballistic missile system, and President Barack Obama promised to “remain vigilant.”

That announcement came almost as an aside in an otherwise upbeat message but illustrated the continued strains in what is being hailed as a new relationship between enemies Iran and the United States.

Addressing their respective nations, Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, praised the nuclear deal as a victory for tough diplomacy between two governments that just a short time ago were not on speaking terms.

Obama said the deal, fully implemented on Saturday, makes the world safer, allows Iran to join the world by lifting key sanctions, and is already providing sidebar dividends: the release of five Americans who were being held in Iranian jails and were “finally coming home.”

Three of them touched U.S. territory Sunday, at an American military base at Ramstein, Germany. The Swiss jet carrying Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and the others landed Sunday evening at the base, where the freed men will undergo medical checks.

Along with Rezaian, the other two were U.S. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. Also on board were Rezaian’s Iranian wife and his mother; locating them in Tehran on Saturday delayed the departure of the flight.

A fourth Iranian-American, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, about whom little is known, chose to stay in Iran, U.S. officials said, adding that it was his right to decide where to go. The fifth, student Matthew Trevithick, who was in Iran studying Farsi, left earlier.

With the exception of Trevithick, the prisoners were released in an exchange for seven Iranians who were jailed or facing trial in the U.S. They were charged with violating sanctions by attempting to illegally export prohibited items and will be granted clemency by Obama. They were on a much longer list the Iranians supplied but that was whittled down to include only those who hadn’t committed violent or terrorism-related crimes, U.S. officials said.

Obama said the nuclear deal, under which Iran has dismantled much of its nuclear arms capabilities and been rewarded by the easing of significant economic sanctions, serves as a reminder “of what we can achieve when we lead with strength and wisdom.”

And he told the Iranian people that they will be able to emerge from dark days of isolation. Iran will receive tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets as well as access to the international banking system and world markets for its oil and gas.

“We’ve now closed off every single path Iran had to building a (nuclear) bomb,” Obama said, speaking from the White House. “We’ve achieved this historic progress through diplomacy, without resorting to another war in the Middle East.”

In Tehran, before parliament, Rouhani lauded a “golden page” in the Islamic republic’s history that will be the beginning of economic recovery thanks to the injection of cash and trade.

“While we always remain ready to defend Iran, we bear the message of peace, stability and security for our region and the world,” he later tweeted.

Iranian officials are hopeful that the lifting of sanctions will help revive the nation’s economy, crippled by the sanctions in recent years, but the low price of oil means its immediate income will be lower than needed or expected.

Obama also announced the resolution of a long-standing claim Iran had brought in the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague, the international court through which such demands were pursued.

Dating to shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran said it was owed $400 million for military equipment the deposed government was buying. In the resolution, the U.S. paid the $400 million plus $1.3 billion in interest, which was much less than what the Iranians had sought, Obama said.

Within the framework of the nuclear negotiations, a less hostile relationship developed between the U.S. and Iran following decades of acrimony, especially through the personal contacts of U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif. Many hope that can be translated into cooperation on other persistent conflicts in the region, such as the civil war in Syria.

American officials are also hopeful that the success of the nuclear deal will strengthen the hands of Rouhani and other likeminded moderate Iranians.

With Iran, the tone of its rhetoric “very much changed when Rouhani was elected,” an administration official said. “He had a mandate to engage the West on the nuclear issues.”

Yet it is clear that change comes slowly in Iran, and discord between the two countries remains deep.

On Sunday, hours after the nuclear deal, the Obama administration slapped new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program in connection with alleged violations of United Nations resolutions last year. The sanctions had been prepared weeks ago but held up until the prisoners were freed.

The sanctions target “11 entities and individuals,” including a network based in the Middle East and China and another with suspected links to North Korea, as well as five Iranians who U.S. officials said had worked to secure ballistic weapon components for Iran.

“Iran’s ballistic missile program poses a significant threat to regional and global security, and it will continue to be subject to international sanctions,” Adam J. Szubin, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement Sunday.

The sanctions include a freeze of any assets that these entities and individuals have in the U.S. financial system, as well as prohibitions on doing business with them.

The sanctions are separate from the sanctions against the nuclear program that were lifted this weekend. Iran launched ballistic missiles on two occasions last year in violation of the U.N. restrictions; Iran says it has a right to use the weapons.

Other U.S. sanctions that remain in place on Iran include those related to activities considered by Washington to be terrorism and violations of human rights. Obama and other U.S. officials insist they can revive other sanctions at any point if Iran is found to be in violation of nuclear restrictions or any other sanctionable activities.

In swapping the prisoners, the Obama administration has come under criticism among Republicans and others for appearing to exchange innocents for convicted criminals. But administration officials Sunday defended the swap, saying it was a one-time, unusual opportunity that they saw arise on the margins of the nuclear talks.

(Wilkinson reported from Washington and McDonnell from Beirut. Staff writer Don Lee in Washington contributed to this report.)

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani waves during a news conference in Tehran, Iran January 17, 2016. REUTERS/President.ir/Handout 

Who Is ‘El Chapo’ And How Did He Become A Dark Legend In Mexico?

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

MEXICO CITY — Chicago compared him to Al Capone. Forbes Magazine listed him as one of the richest men in the world. And in Mexico, he was a renegade outlaw whose exploits were the stuff of legend and song.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s biggest drug kingpins, gained folklore status during his decade-plus on the lam, evading authorities thanks to his skill at building secret tunnels from his assorted mountain hide-outs, urban safe houses and seaside apartments _ as well as his ability to bribe, cajole and kill.

He was captured in February of last year by the premier agency here, the Mexican marines, a major victory for Mexican government and law enforcement.

Sometime late Saturday, Guzman broke out of a maximum-security prison for the second time, making his way through another tunnel, a mile-long passageway to an empty house under construction 50 miles west of the capital.

Gone again.

Guzman is the head of the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful of the many drug-trafficking organizations based here.

It was the Sinaloa cartel, under Guzman, that perfected the strategy of partnering with Colombian producers to seize control of the entire drug distribution system, becoming the largest brokers for marijuana, cocaine and heroin being transported into the United States, Europe and as far as Australia. This eventually enabled Mexican traffickers to become the dominant players in the global, illegal drug game.

His nickname, El Chapo, means “Shorty,” and comes from his relative short stature; he stands a little under 5 feet 5. He is thought to be 56, although there are discrepancies about his age. He is on at least his third known marriage, this to a former Sinaloan beauty queen with whom he had twin baby girls _ in a hospital near Los Angeles _ in 2011.

Farmer turned business entrepreneur, Guzman was first arrested in Guatemala in 1993, extradited to Mexico and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Eight years later, he paid off guards and left hidden inside a laundry cart _ or, so the legend goes. (Some reports say he merely strode out the front door.)

Even as he was a fugitive, sightings of El Chapo were common. The most frequent tale was that he would enter a restaurant with his henchmen, order everyone to turn in their cellphones, then eat and pay the bill for all those present.

Federal indictments for narcotics trafficking and related organized-crime charges have been filed against Guzman in California and Chicago, where authorities labeled him a “public enemy No. 1,” like Capone.

When the Los Angeles Times visited his hometown of Badiraguato, in the highlands of Sinaloa, in 2011, a black SUV immediately began tailing the reporter and photographer. People were reluctant to speak of Guzman, or only spoke in glowing terms. When another Times reporter returned last year, after his arrest, residents feared a wave of unemployment and economic downturn.

Such is his charisma, a vicious criminal to many, a generous benefactor to others.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot: CNN

Cuba, U.S. Launch High-Level Talks In Havana

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HAVANA — Cuba and the United States launched their highest-level talks in a generation Wednesday, agreeing to disagree on basic immigration policies but recognizing a new spirit of cooperation.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first of two days of sessions here in the Cuban capital, the first official face-to-face talks since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to open diplomatic ties after a half-century of animosity.

As could be expected, however, little progress was made on long-standing disputes.

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s foreign ministry official in charge of affairs with the U.S., criticized the American policies that allow Cubans who enter the U.S. illegally to remain there. The so-called dry-foot, wet-foot rules are a “preferential treatment” afforded uniquely to Cubans that constitute the “principal incentive and stimulus” behind the flight of Cubans from the island, she said.

Vidal said the ease of immigration was also contributing to a brain drain of doctors and engineers who travel legally to third countries and then defect to the U.S.

Her counterpart in Wednesday’s talks, Alex Lee, said U.S. officials made it clear that the U.S government would keep the special status in place. The exchange comes after a significant uptick last month in the number of Cubans braving the seas to reach Florida.

The U.S. “is committed to assuring that migration remains safe, legal and orderly,” said Lee, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

Lee and Vidal, director-general of the U.S. division of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, briefed reporters separately following conclusion of the first round of talks. On Thursday, Roberta Jacobson, an assistant secretary of state, will join the talks that will move into broader issues involving the normalization of diplomatic relations. She is the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with the Cuban government here in 35 years.

Vidal said the migration policies, which have been in effect for nearly 20 years, contradict the new spirit of engagement. Still, both she and Lee sounded upbeat despite the differences and promised to continue working on the issue.

Obama, in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, said the “expiration date” on Washington’s adversarial policies toward Cuba had long passed and the government’s new attitude had “the potential to end a legacy of mistrust.” Cuban officials have been trying to play down expectations, however, warning that they have no intention of changing the Communist nation’s political system or one-party rule.

AFP Photo/Joe Raedle

Prisoner’s Release, U.S. Moves Are ‘Hanukkah Miracle’ For Cuban Jews

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HAVANA — “Feliz januca!” — Happy Hanukkah — announced the emcee, as Cuba’s tiny Jewish community gathered at Havana’s largest synagogue and sang first the Cuban national anthem, then that of Israel.

Jews here are celebrating the holiday with an air of optimism long in coming. The opening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, along with the release from jail of Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who is Jewish, has energized a dwindling community that struggles to survive.

“This was a Hanukkah miracle,” said Adela Dworin, president of the Jewish community based at Temple Beth Shalom. “It was about time.”

Teens danced to klezmer music in the celebrations Sunday night, which saw the kindling of the sixth of eight candles in an ornate silver menorah. Several hundred people filed into the sanctuary, men with colorful kippa, children with construction-paper likenesses of candle flames on their heads. Hanukkah, an eight-day holiday also known as the Festival of Lights, represents a second-century rebellion of Jews against their oppressors in territory that is now Israel.

Only about 1,500 Jews remain in Cuba, two-thirds of them in the capital, where there are three temples.

Jewish leaders made a point of visiting Gross during his five years in prison and a military hospital, especially during Jewish holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashana, when they would take him latkes, chocolate or a menorah.

“We tried to help him maintain his tranquillity and his faith as a good Jew,” said David Prinstein Senorans, another senior leader of the community.

Dworin said that in Gross’ darkest moments of desperation, especially toward the end, he spoke of not wanting to live anymore.

“I reminded him our religion prohibits suicide; I’d like to think we planted a grain of sand and raised his spirits,” Dworin said in an interview after Sunday night’s Hanukkah celebrations. “We never would abandon a fellow Jew, whether you agree with his way of thinking or not.”

By March of this year, she said, Gross no longer wanted visitors, his depression that severe.

When he was first arrested for importing satellite and other sophisticated electronic equipment, there were reports that Gross was providing the material to the Jewish community. Cuban Jewish leaders quickly distanced themselves from that claim and say now that there was no formal relationship between the community and Gross in terms of providing Internet or other communications supplies.

“The Cuban government knew we were never involved; it would be ridiculous,” Dworin said.

Jewish leaders say that, despite their diminished presence, their relations with the Cuban government are good. They noted a Hanukkah visit to the temple a few years ago by President Raul Castro, who participated in the candle-lighting. In 1998, then-President Fidel Castro also dropped by in what was considered a groundbreaking gesture by a government that officially for years was atheistic and did not encourage free religious observance.

“Our synagogues are open, and we don’t need police guards,” said Fidel Babani, another prominent member and former president of the community.

Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba had a booming Jewish population, estimated to number at least 15,000. Jews had lived in Cuba since the era of the Spanish Inquisition, with a large influx in the early part of the 20th century from Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

The post-revolutionary communist government’s decision to nationalize businesses and seize many properties drove many Cubans, including Jews, into exile; others feared the official atheism of the ruling party’s early years. It was what Jews at the time called a migration stampede.

By 1989, considered the lowest point, there were fewer than 800 Jews left. The number has been on the rebound in recent years; it is no longer difficult to assemble a minyan, the 10 males required to hold a religious service, Babani said.

Still, no rabbi lives in Cuba. The person officiating over Sunday night’s ceremony was not an official rabbi; one visits periodically from Argentina.

“We hope the normalization (of diplomatic relations with the U.S.) means Cuban Jews will return and more Jewish groups will visit,” said Prinstein. “It is no secret: We live thanks to help from abroad.”

Photo: Children with paper likenesses of candle flames are among Cubans celebrating Hanukkah at Temple Beth Shalom in Havana. (Tracy Wilkinson/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Mexico Names Czar To Handle Issue Of Central American Migrants

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

TAPACHULA, Mexico — With pressure mounting from the U.S. government, Mexico on Tuesday appointed a czar to take charge of largely unimpeded migration from Central America, which sees tens of thousands of people each year enter southern Mexico and cross the country en route to the United States.

Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, in an announcement before reporters in Mexico City, said the new system would guarantee the safety of migrants as well as their eventual repatriation.

He called on the mayors and governors of key states along the migration route — Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and here in Chiapas — to cooperate with federal authorities to eventually stem the flow of migrants. Most of those traveling north board the notorious “La Bestia,” or “the Beast,” the freight trains that traverse the country toward the northern border with the United States.

Migrants have been clambering atop the trains for years. Many die every year, falling from their precarious perch or being tossed off by marauding gangs who attempt to extort or rape the migrants.

With new attention focused on the latest surge of young migrants, some of them children traveling without parents, U.S. authorities are urging Mexico, Honduras, and other Central American origin countries to do their part in stopping the flow.

Osorio Chong’s announcement was bereft of concrete details and fell far short of what many observers had expected. He did not specify security measures for “La Bestia” and merely named Humberto Mayans, a senator from his Institutional Revolutionary Party, as the head of an agency that would be independent of the Interior Ministry.

Osorio indicated that independence would make it more efficient, but many in Mexico saw yet another layer of bureaucracy.

He did not take questions from reporters.

Mexico has largely turned a blind eye to the thousands of Central Americans who have crossed the country for decades, despite millions of dollars from the U.S. government allotted for tightening the southern border. In the last several years, the numbers of Central Americans have increased as gang violence, poverty and a growing presence of Mexican drug cartels have made life at home impossible for many.

Previously, Mexico has said it will issue temporary permits for Hondurans and citizens of Belize to remain in this country briefly, but only in border states.

Mexico’s announcement Tuesday came a day after American authorities began deporting Honduran mothers with children and other migrants who arrived in recent days. The deportation flights will continue, the Obama administration has said.

Also on Tuesday, Thomas A. Shannon, a senior U.S. State Department official with extensive experience in Latin America, was expected in Tapachula to observe how Mexico was securing its southern border.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Michael Robinson Chavez

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Powerful Quake Jolts Mexico And Central America; At Least Four Killed

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY — A powerful earthquake jolted a wide section of southern Mexico and Central America early Monday, killing at least four people and damaging dozens of buildings in Guatemala.

The 6.9 quake was felt as far north as Mexico City, through central Guatemala and as far south as El Salvador. Its epicenter was on the Pacific Coast of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, near a border town called Puerto Madero, about 40 miles below the surface, the U.S. Geological Survey said on its website. It hit at 6:23 a.m. local time.

Most damage was reported in the Guatemalan state of San Marcos, where walls collapsed and electrical power was temporarily cut. Numerous landslides were also reported.

Two people were crushed to death in San Marcos and at least 21 injured, the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre reported. Another Guatemalan died of a heart attack, and a fourth person, identified as Jose Molina, was killed in Chiapas, authorities said.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina later spoke of a possible fifth death — a newborn crushed by a falling ceiling. Further details were not immediately available.

In a national address, Perez Molina said 36 people were evacuated from badly damaged homes in western Guatemala, and 44 schools reported varying degrees of destruction. One major highway from the city of Quetzaltenango was completely blocked by a landslide, and water systems in San Marcos were cut off when pipes fractured, he said.

In Chiapas, people ran from their homes in panic, but only minor damages were reported, Luis Manuel Garcia, a senior safety official, said. School classes were suspended at least for the day in some Chiapan towns.

Guatemalan Education Minister Cynthia del Aguila also suspended classes in the western half of her country.

The affected region of southern Mexico is known for seismic activity, with several quakes in the high 6 or low 7 magnitude registered in the last year.

Monday’s temblor was initially clocked at 7.1 but later lowered to 6.9, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Several lesser aftershocks were recorded, but no tsunami alert was issued.

The volunteer San Marcos Fire Department noted serious cracks and fallen walls in around 30 homes and buildings as well as toppled utility poles. Photos on social media showed one entire block of homes had shifted off of their foundations.

No damage or injuries were reported in the sprawling capital of Mexico City, parts of which were devastated in a 1985 quake.

MCT Photo

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Mexico Arrests Entrepreneur In Fraud Case Linked To Citibank, Pemex

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government on Thursday announced the arrest of a wealthy entrepreneur who is accused of a multimillion-dollar fraud involving Citibank and the giant Mexican oil monopoly.

Amado Yanez Osuna was placed under arrest and will be charged with fraud, the federal attorney general’s office said in a statement. He won’t go to jail immediately, however, because he is in hospital recovering from surgery. There, officials said, he is under police guard.

Yanez was head of the Oceanografia firm, which supplied services to Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the state oil company. According to prosecutors, Oceanografia fraudulently billed the firm for work not done and took out loans from the Mexican bank Banamex based on those false premises. Banamex is a subsidiary of Citibank.

Those fraudulent loans could total $400 million, possibly more, prosecutors say.

Banamex recently fired 11 employees in connection with the case, apparently for failing to detect the fraud. Citibank also fired an employee said to be involved.

The scandal comes as the administration of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto is promoting a major overhaul of the country’s dwindling oil-production industry. Laws that would open up the long-closed oil and gas business here are in their final stages of debate in Congress.

The president’s ability to clean up these alleged misdoings would go a long way in assuring international investors wary of endemic corruption in much of Mexican business and industry, experts say.

Michael Corbat, chief executive of Citigroup Inc., said Thursday during an investors’ conference in New York that employees missed “tell-tale” signs of the fraud, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Yanez was under a form of house arrest before Thursday’s order from the attorney general’s office.

Photo by bruceg1001/Flickr

Wide Area Of Mexico Hit By Earthquake; Preliminary Magnitude Put At 7.2

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY — A powerful earthquake shook a wide area of Mexico on Friday, terrifying residents and sending many fleeing into the streets.

There were no initial reports of injuries and only minor damage in the capital, though information from elsewhere in central Mexico was still coming in.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake at 9:30 a.m. local time had a preliminary magnitude of 7.2, which would make it one of the stronger temblors registered in Mexico City in several years.

The quake was 14 miles deep and felt in nine of Mexico’s 31 states, according to the USGS, with the epicenter located in the coastal state of Guerrero about 200 miles southwest of the capital.

Guerrero, between Acapulco and Zihuatanejo, is in seismically active region and is often slow to give accounts of damage because of the remoteness of some communities.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancerra said several walls had fallen down in the Zona Rosa section of the capital but that no injuries had been reported.

“The important part is that we have no reports of injured people,” he told journalists. “We did see that many buildings were evacuated of their people, and we are continuing to survey the capital.”

Ricardo de la Cruz, civil protection chief for the Interior Ministry, said: “We have only gotten reports of minor damage.”

Good Friday is an important holiday in largely Roman Catholic Mexico; most businesses were closed and people were home or attending religious services. Some fled from their houses barefoot and carrying pillows.

The quake knocked out electricity, traffic lights and cellular telephone service in some parts of the capital.

Much of Mexico City was destroyed and more than 10,000 people were killed in a magnitude 8.1 earthquake in 1985, but officials say they have put more safeguards into place since then.

Mancerra, who was in the middle of a Good Friday news conference when the quake struck, said “protocols” were being immediately launched in the sprawling capital, including dispatching helicopters to survey the most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Photo: Allen Ormond via Flickr.com

Critics Check Fine Print In Plan To Break Up Mexican Monopolies

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY — The government of President Enrique Pena Nieto says a proposed new telecommunications law would finally break up Mexico’s powerful and much-criticized TV and telephone monopolies.

The proposal and other reforms have generated considerable praise abroad for Pena Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled the country for seven decades before a 12-year hiatus and a return to power in late 2012.

But a growing number of domestic critics are reading the fine print of the telecommunications plan and finding many things to worry about.

For one, the increasingly powerful Interior Ministry would be charged with monitoring the content of television and radio broadcasts to be sure they conform to fairness and other regulations. Some Mexicans fear that would open the door to the kind of censorship that existed when the PRI ruled before, unfettered by little or weak opposition.

The proposed law “smells of authoritarianism,” said Sen. Javier Corral of the opposition National Action Party, or PAN.

Raul Trejo Delarbre, an expert in communications, said the Mexican equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission, IFETEL, would be robbed of powers while the Interior Ministry “would supervise content like in the old times.”

For years, most of Mexican television has been dominated by a single company, Televisa, the largest broadcaster in the Spanish-speaking world. (Most of the rest is controlled by another single company, TV Azteca.) That means that television in Mexico is heavy on low-brow soap operas and flashy celebrities, and there is a certain conformity to most TV news broadcasts, written and produced by a handful of people.

Meanwhile, telephone service, both land-line and cellular, is dominated by companies owned by Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, one of the world’s richest men, who has grown his businesses throughout Latin America. That means Mexicans pay some of the world’s highest prices for some of the spottiest phone service.

Breaking up these near-monopolies is a welcome goal for many Mexicans. But it is unclear whether Pena Nieto’s proposal will accomplish that, or, if so, at what other costs.

The proposed law, which the president presented to Congress last week, is complicated. The principal spokesman for the Communications and Transportation Ministry, asked to explain its main points, said he didn’t really have a grasp of it.

Among some of its provisions, Telmex and Telcel, the huge telephone companies owned by Slim, would see eliminated or reduced some of the high fees they charge, such as for national calls and calls made to phones under other systems.

The companies would also be required to share some of their infrastructure, such as towers, with upstart firms.

The plan, several experts say, is much harder on telecommunications — Slim did not support Pena Nieto’s candidacy — than on Televisa and the TV monopolies that backed the president’s campaign.

An unusual coalition of members of the conservative PAN and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party complained, along with a number of experts, that the regulatory agencies set up to govern telecommunications were being undermined by the PRI government.

The problem with this reform — as with many — is that many Mexicans don’t trust the PRI to execute it. It was the PRI’s supposed attempts at freeing up television and phone service in the 1990s that led to today’s monopolies because of the unfair advantages given powerful supporters.

But reaction has been mixed.

Javier Lozano, another PAN senator and head of the telecommunications committee in Congress, said he believed that the proposed law would promote much-needed competition and that it should come up for vote by the end of the month.

From a different angle, the law is being criticized by those whose wings — or profits — might be clipped, however nominally.

“We do not understand why, by law, a company should have to give away services free to its competitors,” said Carlos Slim Domit, Slim’s son and the head of Telmex.

He was apparently referring to the requirement that they share infrastructure — even though they originally received it free or at extremely discounted prices.

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