A Family Braves Floods, Rats, and Hunger in Tijuana as They Wait for a Chance to Ask for Asylum

Eric and his wife, Oneida, took turns pushing a stroller and carrying or walking next to their two sons for nearly 2,500 miles, from southern Mexico to Tijuana. The Honduran couple and their boys, 9-year-old Kelvin and 18-month-old Julian, arrived in mid-November, shortly before winter rainstorms soaked the camps of thousands of people who have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of refugee caravans in the last few months.

After sewage-infested flooding left an earlier camp uninhabitable, Eric and his family roughed it for 10 days in a small cluster of tents under a damp concrete overpass between two busy streets, a spot that also occasionally flooded. I found them just a couple hundred yards from the El Chaparral port of entry, one of the cross-border bridges that leads to the United States. Safety and a new chance at life seemed tantalizingly close, even as despondency and the damp Tijuana winter seeped into their tent.

Throughout the city, there are now an estimated 28 shelters housing approximately 4,000 members of the caravans, who are enduring hunger, unsanitary conditions, and anxiety about their fates as the Trump administration slashes options for asylum-seekers. Without easy access to bathrooms, water bottles filled with urine are stashed against walls and behind tents. Islands of trash swirl in puddles; sopping blankets and water-pulped cardboard pile up in corners. The refugees work to sweep up and clean, but struggle against the constant flux, the rains, and the cold. One day as I spoke with Eric, a driver passed by and yelled, “Go back to your country, faggots!” The insult was typical. A strip club sat about a dozen yards from the family’s tent, and on nights when it was open, the patrons sometimes mocked and cursed at them.

Each day around 7 a.m., a couple hundred people idle near the bridge, awaiting the morning call of the now infamous “notebook” — a makeshift response to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s practice of “metering,” in which they let only a few dozen people each day into the U.S. port of entry to request asylum. A committee of refugees manages the list, overseen by Mexican immigration officials who are informed each morning by CBP how many asylum-seekers may present their claims. Eric’s number was in the 1,500s, and he estimated that he’d have to wait at least another month before his number might be called. On November 29, a group of mothers began a hunger strike, demanding that CBP permit at least 300 people a day to stake their claims. Eric and Oneida joined the strikers two days later (to protect their security and privacy, The Intercept is using pseudonyms for the family.)

As we sat at a folding table set up in the street, which served as the hunger strikers’ headquarters, I asked Eric why he had left his home in Honduras, about his experience with the caravan, and why he’d joined the strike.

Eric, silhouetted from the harsh mid-morning light, reads a passage from a abridged bible that was donated to the camp on December 8, 2018.

Eric, silhouetted from the harsh, mid-morning light, reads a passage from a donated Bible on Dec. 8, 2018.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

“I worked in Danlí selling fruit, bags of strawberries, grapes, watermelon,” Eric began. “I cut it up and sold it. I had a cart and I would walk from neighborhood to neighborhood. But because of the crime, the gangs, I had to leave my business. They wanted taxes. If you enter into a neighborhood, you have to pay. I had to pay 25 lempiras [about a dollar] to enter into a neighborhood, but in some neighborhoods, there were three different competing gangs, and I had to pay 75 lempiras. I’d make about 200 lempiras a day, so almost half went to them.

It’s pretty dangerous, you can’t avoid paying. All you can do is stop negotiating and stop working. But if you stop working, you can’t eat, and you can’t raise your kids. And with the 200, maybe 300 [lempiras], I had to take care of my family. I had to buy shoes for my kid. My son was going to school. So maybe I could eat, but how am I going to buy clothes, buy shoes for my sons? My kids need medicine. If one of them gets sick …”

The family decided to move, selling much of what they owned — the fruit cart, some furniture, their pig — and relocating to a neighboring state, where Eric found work clearing land for coffee growers. Oneida sold French fries at local fairs. One night, Oneida was kidnapped as she was leaving work, taken to the home of a local narco, and raped. When she didn’t come home, Eric called the police, suspecting the worst. The next morning, the police located Oneida (her kidnapper had been harassing her and was the first person Eric had suspected) and she was able to escape. “It changes you forever,” Oneida said. “There are scars you have inside. You try to live with it and try not to remember, so you can be at peace.” After her testimony led to a conviction, gang members began hounding the family, pressuring Oneida to retract her statement. It got bad enough that they soon had to flee again, this time to the capital, Tegucigalpa. But that didn’t prove far enough, Eric said.

“We never felt good in Mexico where we were. We never felt safe. So I told my wife, the caravan is coming, it’s time to go.”

“They found us. They started calling again to get us to retract the charges. They were going to give us 60,000 lempiras. They started talking to us, and then they started calling my dad, who was living with us in Tegucigalpa. My dad told them, ‘You can’t buy someone’s dignity with money. It’s with respect.’ And that’s when they said, ‘OK, this is when we stop playing nice, and we start playing mean.’ That’s when they started threatening us, telling us they had found us. They knew where our family lived. And where we were from. And if they didn’t get us, they were going to get our brothers and sisters, our parents. So we decided to flee to Mexico. We moved to Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas. The situation there is pretty difficult because the Guatemalan gangs are there, and so are the narcos.”

Kelvin and Oneida watch news on television about the Central American Exodus while Eric and Julian play in the background in their room at Hotel Belen, on December 9, 2018.

Kelvin and Oneida watch news on television about the Central American exodus, while Eric and Julian play in their room at Hotel Belen on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

The narcos who had been harassing them back in Honduras originally showed up at Eric’s mother-in-law’s house: “They came in a truck, the same ones who kidnapped her [Oneida]. They have contacts everywhere. They were asking where we were. And they were asking our neighbors, wanting to pay them off. And so, this is like six months ago. … I was working in an egg warehouse, where you inspect and sell eggs wholesale. So we thought to move again, maybe outside the city. So we moved to La Libertad, another part of Ciudad Hidalgo. And then we saw that the caravan was coming, and I said to my wife, ‘Look, we have an opportunity now to go further north where they can’t find us.’ And it’s safer to go with the caravan, because we all know that in Mexico, it’s hard for Central Americans to go further north than Tapachula [in Chiapas]. We never felt good in Mexico where we were. We never felt safe. So I told my wife, the caravan is coming, it’s time to go.”

Traveling with the caravan, Eric said, “some people were generous and offered us rides. I’d say we walked about halfway and rode halfway. Some days, we walked all day. Some men came by themselves, without kids or wives, and when a car would stop, they would get on and there wouldn’t be enough space for me and my kids. There were times when they left everyone but us. We wanted to follow the caravan, but sometimes they left us behind. They’d jump on the trucks, and there wasn’t room for us, and we would be by ourselves. Night would come on and we’d look for a spot in the woods where nobody could find us, because there are always bad people. There were some really long walks, and so we’d hide in the mountains, by ourselves. Because we couldn’t keep walking at night, we were scared we’d get kidnapped. We didn’t have a tent or anything, just some blankets.”

Eric, Oneida and Kelvin walk back to the Hunger Striker camp after they receive news that they can move to a church the next day, on December 9, 2018.

The family walks back to the hunger strikers’ camp after they receive news that they can move to a church the next day.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

Eric had first heard about the caravan on TV while the family was in Chiapas.

“I would work from six in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. They paid me 1,000 pesos a week [a little under $50] to work seven days a week. So at night, I’d watch this secondhand TV we had. We didn’t have cable, but we had a little antenna and watched Guatemalan TV, and I said, ‘Look, the Honduran caravan is coming, it’s time to get out of here. Time to go.’ We left because of our kids, we really love them. I don’t want something to happen to me and for our kids to be abandoned. So let’s go, I said. So the caravan passed through Tecún Uman [on the border between Guatemala and Chiapas] and that’s where we joined. We sometimes put both our kids in that stroller or my wife would carry the littlest one, and that’s how we did it. It was pretty difficult because we didn’t have any money.

I went to my boss, before we left, who was the municipal president, and I said, ‘Boss, honestly …,’ OK, I lied to her, I said that I was sick, because otherwise she wasn’t going to pay me. So she paid me just for the days that I worked that week. She gave me 492 pesos. I bought a bag of dried milk that cost 72 pesos, and we bought some diapers for 30 pesos, and we packed the milk and some sugar, and we had about 200 pesos left.

In the morning, we’d get up and start walking again. I remember when we got to Juchitán [in Oaxaca], we started asking for money, with my wife and kids, and we got about 400 pesos. The Mexicans were nice to us. Then a truck trailer passed and offered us a ride for 500 pesos each, and I said, OK, but I don’t have it. I told him we had 452 pesos. And finally he did take us, he gave us a ride to Puebla, outside of Mexico City, and then we got to Mexico City at like 11 at night, and it was so cold. … It was freezing, we were sleeping outside in the city. I couldn’t sleep at night, because of my wife and kids with me. I was always looking over them, but during the day, sometimes I could sleep a little. It was a lot of suffering, but sometimes we laughed.”

Oneida embraces her head in her hands while she talks on the phone in front of the Hunger Striker camp on December 9, 2018.

Oneida holds her head in her hands while talking on the phone in front of the hunger strikers’ camp on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo: Tracie Williams for The Intercept

When Eric joined the hunger strike, there were about 25 people involved. The strike, he said, was “to pressure the U.S. to start hearing asylum claims more quickly.”

“We need asylum,” he continued. “We don’t want to be sent back to our country. We need it. We don’t want them to kill us. In Honduras, you never forget. Revenge is revenge. They’d just disappear us. That’s what happens if you have an enemy. We’re just working people. I’ve sold bread, I’ve cleared land, I’ve taken care of animals, and sometimes I wonder, why did this happen to us? If I’m in Honduras, if I can earn enough for my eggs, my tortilla, my rice, I’m happy. But why did this happen to us? Sometimes I ask my wife, Why us? I’m happy living in a small hut, selling fruit. But like they say, out of the frying pan and into the fire. Horrible things happen — it’s the law of life.

“We’re not criminals, we’re not gangsters or thieves. No, we want to cross the bridge and we want them to hear our claims.”

It’s bad luck. I think we’ve had bad luck. Because like I say, poverty doesn’t exist for me. As long as you can earn your rice and beans, you can be happy. But then the injustice, the danger, people want to kill you — that’s bad luck. Maybe we’ll never even see our family again. My aunts and uncles, my grandmother is very old and you know. My brothers. My mother, my father, we’ve all been affected.

We’re not criminals, we’re not gangsters or thieves. No, we want to cross the bridge and we want them to hear our claims. If I were a criminal, if my wife was a criminal, if we were all criminals here, we’d be trying to do something else, but we just want them to listen to us. We want to come in legally, so they can hear our claims. I think it’s possible. With the help of God, I think it’s possible.”

When we spoke, Eric had already been fasting for three days. “Just electrolytes and water. I feel bad. I get tired. The hunger is … you have to bear it. You get used to it. Some people haven’t eaten in five days.”

It started raining again during the strike. Outside of one camp, an old baseball stadium called Benito Juárez, men and women dashed to scavenge for whatever scraps of plastic or waterproof material they could find. Parents hugged their children, trying to shelter them from the pounding rain and rising puddles. UNICEF came to deliver supplies, but their truck was full of toys and hula-hoops.

After five days, Eric decided to eat. He wasn’t feeling well and was worried about losing strength for his family. Oneida had stopped the strike the night before. Others continued, and the strikers planned to go forward in shifts of five days without food. Conditions in the camp were rough — the night that Eric broke his fast, a rat bit his youngest son’s hand as the family slept in their tent.

“We made a little lean-to, but it was freezing, and then the storm came and everything flooded, everything was wet, our clothes, we were so cold.”

“Before, we were in the Benito Juárez stadium. At first it was nice, but then the storms came, and the water, and everything flooded. We didn’t have a tent. Then some man came and gave us a tent. He saw us outside, we had wet blankets, and we made a little lean-to, but it was freezing, and then the storm came and everything flooded, everything was wet, our clothes, we were so cold. We didn’t have anything else to put on. The water was up to our knees, the camp was evacuated, and they wanted to take us to the Barretal [another refugee camp]. It’s further, but we heard about the strike, and we didn’t want to go farther away from the border.

So we’re here, we’ve been here 15 days, and I’ve been trying to get a work permit, but they’re not giving it to me. And, honestly, I’ve been looking for work anyway, but they ask for my papers. I heard that there was a job fair, and I went, and they said they were going to give out permits, and we kept going and going, but we never got the permit, and I got tired of going for nothing. And at all the construction sites, they always ask for your papers. I say, ‘I’m looking for work, I need something to support my wife and kids, and I don’t want to be in the street, I want to rent a room.’ ‘Do you have papers?’ they ask me.”

Eric rest his arms on his head during his security shift on the Hunger Striker camp on December 8, 2018.

Eric rest his arms over his head during his security shift at the hunger strikers’ camp on Dec. 8, 2018.

Tracie Williams for The Intercept

After nearly two weeks, the hunger strikers’ situation seemed increasingly precarious. Rumors circulated that the police were going take down the strikers’ camp, and they began to realize that their demands were being wholly ignored. Eric and Oneida decided to stop, and the strike ended two days later, on December 11, with a march to the U.S. Consulate. The family lugged their belongings and pushed the stroller across the city to a small hotel; they had been gifted a room for two nights. About a week later, I got a call from Oneida. Like many others, the family had run out of patience and jumped the border fence to turn themselves in and ask for asylum. Oneida and the children were being held in detention in San Diego; Eric had been separated from them.

As nonprofit groups have mobilized on both sides of the wall to provide legal and other basic services to families like Eric’s, the sheer number of people and variety of needs seems overwhelming. Yet, when the clouds break, the mood in the camps is often cheerful: kids playing, folks kicking around soccer balls, people repairing their tents, and ubiquitous huddles of three, four, or five migrants in which rumors, plans, fears, and hopes run together like water.

At one point, while the family was still camped out under the bridge, Eric and Oneida’s 9-year-old son pointed to the buildings visible on the U.S. side of the border and said that he had never imagined he would be there, so close to the U.S. I asked him why he thought some people could cross and others couldn’t. “I think it’s bad,” he said, “because God made a world without borders and they put up bars.”

The post A Family Braves Floods, Rats, and Hunger in Tijuana as They Wait for a Chance to Ask for Asylum appeared first on The Intercept.

Messianic Jewish Lobbying Group Builds Support for U.S.-Funded Ethnic Cleansing Plan in Palestine

A pro-Israel activist group is quietly pushing lawmakers on Capitol Hill and key officials in the White House to embrace a plan that would entail paying Palestinian residents in the West Bank to move abroad. The plan is a bid to reshape the ethnic and religious population of territories controlled by Israel, according to the head of the group, called the Alliance for Israel Advocacy.

If all goes according to the group’s plan, legislation will be released in January, when the new Congress convenes, that will redirect U.S. funds once dedicated to the United Nations for Palestinian humanitarian assistance into a voucher program administered by the Israeli government. A draft summary of the proposal states that the money will help finance the permanent relocation of Palestinians from the West Bank to countries such as Turkey, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, or the United States.

The effort is being championed by the Alliance for Israel Advocacy, a lobbying group formed by the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, a nonprofit that represents Jews who have converted to Christianity but who still practice some Jewish customs. The so-called Messianic Jews broadly share many spiritual beliefs of modern born-again evangelicals.

The Intercept was unable to confirm the Alliance for Israel Advocacy’s accounts of its meetings with Congress and the White House, and the lawmakers whom the group said were considering sponsorship of its legislative effort declined to comment on this story. But Paul Liberman, the executive director of the Alliance for Israel Advocacy, explained the policy plan — and his account of the lobbying push — in an extensive interview with The Intercept.

“If there are any Palestinian residents who wish to leave, we will provide funds for you to leave, with the hopes that over 10 years to change the demography of the West Bank towards an eventual annexation.”

“Our organization advocates, and it’s in our proposed legislation, we say, let’s offer sponsorship if there are any Palestinian residents who wish to leave and go to other countries, we will provide funds for you to leave,” said Liberman. “The only rights the Palestinians have are squatter’s rights,” Liberman continued. “If there are any Palestinian residents who wish to leave, we will provide funds for you to leave, with the hopes that over 10 years to change the demography of the West Bank towards an eventual annexation.”

Liberman said he was inspired by the Bible to build a single Jewish state in what is often called Greater Israel. His organization believes that most Palestinians must leave the country and that those who remain should “live under the doctrine of the sojourner,” according to Liberman, meaning they would not have the ability to vote and could “not participate in the sovereignty of the land.”

The Alliance for Israel Advocacy has avoided the spotlight while quietly soliciting backing from high-level officials, including conservative Republicans, evangelical leaders, and Israeli officials. When Liberman spoke to The Intercept, he was pitching the plan at the Council for National Policy, a gathering of high-powered donors and activists of the religious right. The closely guarded private event featured Nikki Haley, then the United Nations ambassador.

In the 2018 book “Trump Aftershock: The President’s Seismic Impact on Culture and Faith in America,” the Christian right author Stephen Strang, who chronicled the relationship between Trump and evangelicals, said Liberman has presented the Alliance for Israel Advocacy proposal at the White House. Strang wrote, “Liberman has been invited to three meetings at the White House to discuss their bold and viable plan.”

A summary of the legislation proposed by Liberman has been floated to several congressional offices, according to his account. The bill will propose that the money the U.S. typically budgets for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency fund — the agency that distributes aid to Palestinian refugees, the Palestinian Authority, relief nonprofits, and families living in the West Bank — would instead go into a fund designated to resettle Palestinians in countries all over the world. In 2017, the U.S. provided $364 million to UNWRA, though the funding ended in August of this year when President Donald Trump abruptly stopped the payments.

Human rights organizations were surprised to hear of the Alliance for Israel Advocacy’s proposal and quickly condemned the effort.

“Any reallocation of US funding from aid given to the UN for humanitarian work towards a voucher system set up to encourage Palestinians to leave their homes would represent support by the U.S. for ethnic cleansing,” Mike Merryman-Lotze, the Middle East Program Director for the American Friends Service Committee, wrote in an email in response to a summary of the Alliance for Israel Advocacy proposal.

“Any reallocation of US funding from aid given to the UN for humanitarian work towards a voucher system set up to encourage Palestinians to leave their homes would represent support by the U.S. for ethnic cleansing.”

Debra Shushan, the director of policy at the group Americans for Peace Now, said that under normal circumstances, any such proposal would never gain traction and would be viewed as comically extreme. But in the Trump era, once unthinkable demands have quickly become policy on Israel and Palestine, leaving Shushan concerned that the Alliance for Israel Advocacy proposal might be more than just a fringe idea.

“A plan to redirect U.S. foreign aid from supporting Palestinian refugees through UNRWA to paying Palestinians to leave the West Bank so that Israel’s own radical religious right can annex the occupied territory is morally outrageous and destined to fail,” said Shusan, adding that her organization would oppose the effort.

The Alliance for Israel Advocacy may appear obscure, but the group boasts high-level contacts throughout the Trump administration. Liberman said he has met with key administration figures, including Tom Rose, a close adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; Jason Greenblatt, the president’s chief adviser on issues pertaining to Israel; and Victoria Coates, an official with the National Security Council, among others. (The White House did not respond to requests for comment on whether any administration officials met with Liberman or his group.)

Behind the scenes, Lieberman told The Intercept, the Alliance for Israel Advocacy has nudged the administration in the direction of the overall plan for reshaping U.S. aid to Palestinians. Liberman said his group was instrumental in passing the Taylor Force Act, signed in March of this year. Critics say the law, which conditions American aid to the Palestinian Authority on ending the practice of providing financial assistance to the families of individuals who commit acts of terrorism, could be used to punish any dissent to the occupation. The Alliance for Israel Advocacy also lobbied on Trump’s recent decision to end UNWRA funding.

Public records show that the Alliance for Israel Advocacy retained the services of Fidelis Government Relations, a lobbying firm that employs Bill Smith, one of Pence’s closest former aides and his former chief of staff. The disclosures state that the firm was hired by the Alliance for Israel Advocacy in order to build relationships with the White House, including with the vice president’s office.

Originally, according to Liberman, the Alliance for Israel Advocacy had worked closely with former Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a committed Christian conservative and founding member of the Congressional Israel Allies Caucus, to sponsor the voucher legislation. But Franks resigned late last year, immediately following the revelation that he had urged one of his congressional staffers to serve as a surrogate mother to bear children for him. The next potential sponsor, according to Liberman’s account, was Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., who lost in November to Democrat Kendra Horn in one of the biggest surprise upsets of the midterm elections.

Liberman recently visited Capitol Hill in search of a new sponsor for his bill. In an update for Alliance for Israel Advocacy members, Liberman noted that he met repeatedly with Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who is open to sponsoring the legislation, though he will first “confer with his counterpart in the Knesset called the ‘Israel Victory Caucus.’” Other potential sponsors include Reps. Ted Budd, R-N.C.; John Moolenaar, R-Mich.; Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y.; John Curtis, R-Utah; Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.; and Daniel Webster, R-Fla.

The Trump administration has maintained unusually strong ties to figures in the Messianic Jewish movement. Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal attorney, converted from Reform Judaism to Christianity while attending Atlanta Baptist College, and later built a career as a fiery defender of Jews for Jesus and other likeminded Christian organizations. In October, Loren Jacobs, the leader of a Messianic Jewish congregation, gave the opening prayer at a rally in Michigan headlined by Pence. During his remarks, Jacobs prayed for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, sparking a minor controversy given the contentious relationship between the American Jewish community and the Messianic Jewish movement.

Adherents of Messianic Judaism are often viewed skeptically across the spectrum of more established strains of Judaism — and by the Israeli government, which views Messianic Jews as Christians, not Jews, for the purposes of Jewish immigration rights in Israel. The Alliance for Israel Advocacy’s religious status, however, has not prevented the group from making some inroads with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Liberman said he has met with several leaders in the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, including Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior figure in the Likud Party. (Strang also reported the meeting between Hanegbi and Liberman.) Hanegbi directed Lieberman to meet with Naftali Bennett, the chair of the hard-right party Israel Home, a partner in Likud’s coalition. Bennett, said Liberman, encouraged him to meet with Israel Home Knesset Member Moti Yogev, the chair of the Subcommittee for Judea and Samaria, which oversees the occupied West Bank. Liberman said he secured explicit support from Yogev for the Alliance for Israel Advocacy’s voucher plan.

Yogev made headlines in recent months for demanding that Palestinian Israeli lawmakers leave Israel. “Even Ramallah will be part of Israel. Go to Paris, go to Britain, go to your anti-Semitic friends, go to whomever you want. Your place is in the departure lounge,” Yogev thundered during a confrontation that occurred at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport in September. The Knesset member has previously sponsored bills to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including the city of Ariel, Gush Etzion, and others. (Yogev did not respond to a request for comment about his work with the Alliance for Israel Advocacy.)

During the interview with The Intercept, Liberman recounted his own religious awakening. Once a committed Orthodox Jew working in the Nixon administration as an agency liaison to Capitol Hill, Liberman said he had an encounter with an individual on a bus who urged him to explore Christian spirituality. That experience led him to re-examine the Torah and eventually view Jesus Christ as a messiah figure consistent with prophecies in his own faith.

Liberman founded a Messianic Jewish congregation in the Washington, D.C., area and today leads a congregation located in Palm Springs, California. He has long agitated for the Messianic Jewish cause, building relationships with major Jewish organizations and evangelicals.

With the unorthodox dynamics influencing Trump, Liberman believes a more low-key approach can get results on his plan.

That lobbying experience has helped him craft the voucher proposal. “The usual approach is to create a public relations campaign and influence the public,” said Liberman. But with this idea and the unorthodox dynamics influencing Trump, he believes a more low-key approach can get better results. Once there is public support from either the administration or the Israeli government for the voucher plan, Lieberman said, major Jewish advocacy groups will support the effort.

One Alliance for Israel Advocacy memo on its lobbying effort states that the group’s “Biblical orientation has always received a warmer reception among Republican Members.” The Alliance for Israel, however, has floated the idea that Democrats may be amenable to their approach. In the memo to supporters, the group noted that Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., proposed the UNRWA Accountability Act, a bill designed to give the administration more authority to shape how UNRWA funds are spent. Though bill was a far cry from Liberman’s proposal, he appeared to take solace in Democratic action on UNWRA spending. “Democrats love Israel, too,” Liberman told The Intercept.

Liberman dismissed the traditional funding of UNRWA as support for terrorism and said that his proposal will be popular among Palestinians. To that end, he cited support from a poll his organization conducted.

The Alliance for Israel Advocacy commissioned the poll last year among 650 Palestinians in the West Bank to gauge support for the relocation proposal. The poll found nearly one third of youth living without full employment, and about half have already discussed moving abroad in search of economic opportunity. The survey suggests respondents would be open to resettlement abroad in exchange for $1,000 to $100,000, with the median amount at approximately $5,040.

“Over time, there could be many families interested in a fresh start with $50,000 capital for a new life,” a memo published by the Alliance for Israel Advocacy declares.

Te fact that Israel is already divided into separate territories, with Gaza and the West Bank under nominal Palestinian rule, is “inconsistent with the Bible,” said Liberman, citing scripture.

The Bible’s always been true, and anything it predicts has come true or will come true,” he said confidently. God, continued Liberman, intended for Israel to have “the borders from the River Jordan to the Great Sea, the Mediterranean Sea.”

The post Messianic Jewish Lobbying Group Builds Support for U.S.-Funded Ethnic Cleansing Plan in Palestine appeared first on The Intercept.

Video: The Faces and Voices of the “Yellow Vests” in France

The French protesters known as the Yellow Vests, for the safety jackets that have become the emblem of their movement against austerity, income inequality and the government of President Emmanuel Macron, are hard to describe accurately on a left-right political spectrum.

That has not stopped politicians and activists of all stripes from attempting to claim the movement, but it is worth taking any opportunity to actually listen to the voices of the protesters themselves. So we can be grateful that the video journalist Raul Gallego Abellan spent last Saturday in Paris asking a broad spectrum of protesters how they describe the movement themselves, and what they say to observers who want to focus only on the sporadic clashes with the police that broke out along the Champs-Elysees.

What was striking about the protesters Gallego met and spoke with, he said, was how much more diverse, politically and socially, they were than the largely white, rural members of the movement who took to the streets last month, when the protests were triggered by a planned fuel-tax increase and joined by far-right activists.

Last weekend, Gallego said, more left-wing activists, students, ambulance drivers, truck drivers and others joined the protest. There were also, for the first time “people from the poor suburbs called the banlieues,” the filmmaker noted, “urban working class, middle class, second and third generation immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.”

On the streets of Paris on Saturday, the central message was that the poor, the working class and the middle class were being taxed too much to support policies that rewarded the rich. People said they were tired of the political system that had forced them last year to vote for Macron, a former minister and investment banker, just to keep out the far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen.

Macron “misjudged the nature of his mandate when he won,” the British commentator David Runciman argued this week on his Talking Politics podcast. “The key election was the first round not the second round of the French presidential system, when he won 24 percent of the vote. That’s his support. Everything else has to be coalition building, everything has to be compromise, and he has governed as the guy who won 66 percent of the vote in the second round.”

Protesters of all ages and races said that they were tired of being taken from granted. They also refused to let their movement be taken over by more violent elements — vandals known in French as “casseurs,” or “breakers” — but were also aware that until some parts of the wealthy French capital were smashed up in recent weeks, the government had all but ignored their demands.

“The police last weekend tried to seal off the center of Paris, but again did not succeed in stopping the demonstration or the violence or rioters,” Gallego explained. “Actually, the roadblocks and the attitude of the riot police this time created the violence. The start of the protest was totally peaceful, but the police were trying to intimidate and disperse the people, by passing into the middle of the protest with lines of officers in riot gear.”

There was, he noted, a lot of tear gas fired, as well as rubber bullets and stun grenades, but it was largely ineffective at actually dispersing the crowd of more than 8,000 protesters who persisted in gathering in the center. “Gas, if there is wind, leaves after few minutes,” Gallego noted, “and people lost their fear and even threw it back at the police constantly. They shot lots of rubber bullets, but when you have so many people, you’ll never have enough rubber bullets for everybody.”

The tear gas and rubber bullets, he said, seemed only to make people more angry and more inclined to clash with the police.

“The majority was peaceful, but there was a big group of people that joined in to make barricades and clash with the police. Then a smaller group started looting and breaking in to shops and burning cars,” the filmmaker said. “There were also protesters trying to stop the violence, but the areas of the city where they were burning cars and looting were where rich people live, so lots of people seemed to feel, ‘I’m against this, but people are angry and anyway: fuck the rich.’”

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Video: The Faces and Voices of the “Yellow Vests” in France

The French protesters known as the Yellow Vests, for the safety jackets that have become the emblem of their movement against austerity, income inequality and the government of President Emmanuel Macron, are hard to describe accurately on a left-right political spectrum.

That has not stopped politicians and activists of all stripes from attempting to claim the movement, but it is worth taking any opportunity to actually listen to the voices of the protesters themselves. So we can be grateful that the video journalist Raul Gallego Abellan spent last Saturday in Paris asking a broad spectrum of protesters how they describe the movement themselves, and what they say to observers who want to focus only on the sporadic clashes with the police that broke out along the Champs-Elysees.

What was striking about the protesters Gallego met and spoke with, he said, was how much more diverse, politically and socially, they were than the largely white, rural members of the movement who took to the streets last month, when the protests were triggered by a planned fuel-tax increase and joined by far-right activists.

Last weekend, Gallego said, more left-wing activists, students, ambulance drivers, truck drivers and others joined the protest. There were also, for the first time “people from the poor suburbs called the banlieues,” the filmmaker noted, “urban working class, middle class, second and third generation immigrants from North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.”

On the streets of Paris on Saturday, the central message was that the poor, the working class and the middle class were being taxed too much to support policies that rewarded the rich. People said they were tired of the political system that had forced them last year to vote for Macron, a former minister and investment banker, just to keep out the far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen.

Macron “misjudged the nature of his mandate when he won,” the British commentator David Runciman argued this week on his Talking Politics podcast. “The key election was the first round not the second round of the French presidential system, when he won 24 percent of the vote. That’s his support. Everything else has to be coalition building, everything has to be compromise, and he has governed as the guy who won 66 percent of the vote in the second round.”

Protesters of all ages and races said that they were tired of being taken from granted. They also refused to let their movement be taken over by more violent elements — vandals known in French as “casseurs,” or “breakers” — but were also aware that until some parts of the wealthy French capital were smashed up in recent weeks, the government had all but ignored their demands.

“The police last weekend tried to seal off the center of Paris, but again did not succeed in stopping the demonstration or the violence or rioters,” Gallego explained. “Actually, the roadblocks and the attitude of the riot police this time created the violence. The start of the protest was totally peaceful, but the police were trying to intimidate and disperse the people, by passing into the middle of the protest with lines of officers in riot gear.”

There was, he noted, a lot of tear gas fired, as well as rubber bullets and stun grenades, but it was largely ineffective at actually dispersing the crowd of more than 8,000 protesters who persisted in gathering in the center. “Gas, if there is wind, leaves after few minutes,” Gallego noted, “and people lost their fear and even threw it back at the police constantly. They shot lots of rubber bullets, but when you have so many people, you’ll never have enough rubber bullets for everybody.”

The tear gas and rubber bullets, he said, seemed only to make people more angry and more inclined to clash with the police.

“The majority was peaceful, but there was a big group of people that joined in to make barricades and clash with the police. Then a smaller group started looting and breaking in to shops and burning cars,” the filmmaker said. “There were also protesters trying to stop the violence, but the areas of the city where they were burning cars and looting were where rich people live, so lots of people seemed to feel, ‘I’m against this, but people are angry and anyway: fuck the rich.’”

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The Truth About Israel, Boycotts, and BDS

Incoming members of Congress Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have both come out in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — the first House members to ever do so.

Critics, however, suggest that BDS is anti-Semitic and undermines a two-state solution in the Middle East. Others say that supporters of BDS aren’t consistent in their criticism of human rights and unfairly focus on the actions of Israel.

In his latest video essay, The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan examines — and debunks — some of the myths and controversies surrounding the BDS movement.

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From Obama to Trump, Climate Negotiations Are Being Run by the Same Crew of American Technocrats

On Monday, the Trump administration hosted an event on behalf of the fossil fuel industry at the United Nations climate talks in Poland, known as COP24. It was almost identical to the one it hosted at last year’s climate talks in Germany: trying to write coal, oil, and gas into the world’s response to climate change, and bemoaning “alarmism” on climate. Both were disrupted by organizers from the United States voicing their opposition, and both received more media coverage than just about anything else happening at either talks, which this year are focused on arriving at a deeply technical rulebook to implement the Paris agreement.

What the flashy White House sideshow obscured, though, is that the U.S. position in Poland, when it comes to the substance of the talks, is indistinguishable on many fronts from the approach taken by the Obama administration. In fact, that agenda is being carried out by many of the very same people, a largely overlapping crew of career technical negotiators keeping a lower profile than Donald Trump team’s at the White House.

That’s not necessarily good news. While the rhetoric coming from the Obama administration was 180 degrees from that of the Trump administration, American negotiators under President Barack Obama were not intent on driving the world toward the most aggressive climate action possible. Quite the opposite.

Since Trump’s election, the narrative surrounding the team of U.S. negotiators at U.N. climate talks has been a largely sympathetic one, of well-meaning career diplomats simply trying to keep their heads down and make the best of it before the administration can officially pull out of the Paris agreement in late 2020.

There’s some truth to that, and the U.S. team is quieter than usual on several issues, according to those who have been in negotiating rooms at COP24. But U.S. negotiators are also hard at work and deep in the weeds of the Paris rulebook-crafting process. “They are actively engaging and they are making sure that the interests of the United States are represented. They are not innocent bystanders. They are active participants,” said Meena Raman, a senior researcher at Third World Network, who has tracked the talks closely for decades.

In something of a good cop-bad cop routine, the public campaign being waged against the Paris agreement by top Trump officials plays into the hands of U.S. negotiators, according to negotiation insiders who declined to be named. The loud condemnation of the agreement gives negotiators political room to demand changes that weaken it.

That the U.S. role behind closed doors is mostly the same as it was before Trump’s inauguration is a big problem for those looking for more ambition to come out of the COP24 rulebook discussions. “By putting roadblocks across all different areas of the rulebook, the U.S. is playing a very dangerous game here in negotiations, at a time when the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has sent a stark and scary warning that we have only 12 years and we have to raise ambition,” said Harjeet Singh, with nonprofit ActionAid. “I don’t think we are going to get anywhere with that kind of perspective coming from the U.S. What the U.S. is doing or not doing is affecting its own citizens, its neighbors, and people around the world. I think it’s nothing less than a crime against humanity and nature.”

The results of U.S. delegation interventions at COP24 could have far more dire consequences in the long run than anything that was said at Monday’s side event — particularly for the places hit worst by climate change. On Saturday night, for instance, the U.S. joined fellow fossil fuel producers Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait in blocking the Paris rulebook from formally recognizing the IPCC’s 1.5-degree report — the first to be produced by that body at the request of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — which found that meeting the goals of the Paris agreement would require far more ambitious action than anything currently on the table. After the U.S. and other developed countries backslid on compromises they had made earlier in the talks on climate financing, the Africa Group of Nations, comprised of all of that continent’s countries, boycotted certain talks this week. U.S. negotiators have also reportedly stymied any efforts from developing G77 countries to introduce equity requirements across countries into the rulebook.

As Raman notes, bad behavior by the U.S. at U.N. climate talks didn’t start with Trump. Documents leaked by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that the State Department enlisted the NSA to surveil private communications between other delegations at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. Just before those talks, the U.S. and other developed countries were widely suspected of influencing the Philippines’ decision to pull veteran negotiator Bernarditas de Castro Muller, one of the most notoriously fierce advocates for developing countries, from its team. At climate talks in South Africa in 2011, former American head negotiator Todd Stern famously told the main plenary, “If equity’s in, we’re out.”

What’s happening in Katowice, though, falls outside the narrow partisan framing of climate politics that has taken over after Trump’s election. The negotiators aren’t political appointees or mouthpieces for the administration; delegation head Trigg Talley was also a top negotiator in the Obama administration. Other delegates, and those tracking the process, largely understand that there’s daylight between the team that is in negotiations and the administration’s more bullish message to the UNFCCC, and that negotiators themselves walk a fine line between keeping the White House happy and pursuing long-held U.S. priorities in these talks. As debates about a “Green New Deal” capture headlines at home, the American negotiators serve as a reminder that returning to the Obama-era status quo of climate politics may not get us any closer to averting catastrophe.

In a statement provided by email, a State Department spokesperson only said, “The Administration’s position on the Paris Agreement remains unchanged. The President announced that the United States intends to withdraw from the Paris Agreement absent the identification of terms of participation that are more favorable to the American people. The United States is participating in ongoing negotiations, including those related to the Paris Agreement, at the COP in order to ensure a level playing field that benefits and protects U.S. interests.” Talley declined a request for an interview.

It’s not hard to tell what else his team is after, though. The operating theory among some delegates is that the U.S. is simply operating with the directives they were given in the Obama era, with potential points of departure being the US obstinance around embracing the latest IPCC report. There aren’t higher-level political operatives walking around to negotiating rooms and whipping up support on various issues, as John Kerry’s team did in the lead-up to the Paris climate talks, but the State Department team in Poland certainly isn’t staying quiet to fellow negotiators about what it wants.

So what is that? At a side event on Monday, a former top lawyer on climate for the State Department, Susan Biniaz, outlined what she sees as continued American priorities when it comes to the Paris Agreement. “I think some countries left Paris thinking this agreement is great,” she said, “There’s not that much in the way of rules and we want the rulebook to keep it that way. We probably want a 20 page rulebook that is very light on requirements and not very legally binding. We want to be able to go home and keep Paris as is.” Other parties, though, were far less satisfied with that agreement, she noted, and “want to make up for that deficiency through the rulebook, and impose on the rulebook more top-down international guidance.”

At the heart of all this is a dispute over what the true meaning and spirit of the Paris agreement and even the UNFCCC really are, which various sides are fighting over in deciding what will make it into whatever rulebook is hopefully produced by the end of this week. “Some countries are bolder about relitigating. Some people claim it’s not relitigating,” Biniaz said. “Relitigating is in the eye of the beholder.”

US negotiators have long sought to move as dramatically as possible away from the regime of climate diplomacy that the Paris Agreement was crafted to replace, the Kyoto Protocol of 1992. That agreement was inked by the Clinton White House but ultimately not ratified by Congress. Shortly after that, Canada — another major emitter — left unceremoniously. “Everything that the US succeeded in getting in Paris was a reaction to the reasons the Kyoto Protocol got rejected by the Senate,” Jesse Young, senior climate advisor for Oxfam International and a former member of the State Department’s negotiating team, told me. That includes the development of Nationally Determined Contributions — each country’s voluntary emissions reduction pledge — to get rid of the Kyoto-era distinction between developed and developing countries in favor of a so-called bottom-up approach, where all countries (not just developed nations) are tasked with reining in their emissions — in part as a recognition that India and especially China have emerged as major polluters since the early nineties. That’s likely why George David Banks, the lead negotiator at last year’s climate talks in Bonn, called the Paris Agreement, “A good Republican agreement. It’s everything the Bush administration wanted.”

Among the biggest red lines for the US is the notion of a “dual rulebook”, which former members of the US negotiating team see as a return to the Kyoto rules and even a rewriting of the Paris Agreement itself. “If December’s talks deliver a dual rulebook, it could stop the US rejoining the deal under a different president,” Biniaz told Climate Home’s Karl Mathiesen. “Neither Stern nor Biniaz denies that making sure this doesn’t happen is guiding their involvement,” Mathiesen added, along with the fact that six current and former non-U.S. diplomats he interviewed also thought that was their goal in attending.

The idea that there are differences between countries on climate, and specifically the notion of “common but differentiated responsibility,” is baked into the UNFCCC itself, in Article 3.1, and can be found throughout the text of the Paris agreement. As such, developing country representatives say the bottom-up approach that the U.S. and other developed countries are pushing for amounts of a rewriting of the text. “What they’re trying to do is to weaken it by saying that we need one set of rules for everybody,” Singh says. “That is inequitable, because not all developing countries have that kind of capacity. What they’re trying to do is complicate the entire narrative and put the blame back on developing countries.” He argues that breaking down the distinction between developed and developing countries — like different levels of responsibility for the crisis, and current vulnerability to it — collapses crucial distinctions between big emitters like China and places like Tuvalu or the Marshall Islands, which are already being hit hard by climate change and have negligible carbon footprints. Still more concerning is the fact that it papers over developed countries’ historical responsibility for climate change — the fact that their thriving, carbon-intensive economies have been built on the backs of over a century of greenhouse gas emissions that are now helping render whole parts of the world uninhabitable.

Perhaps the biggest fault line on this front for U.S. negotiators has been around the related question of climate finance — that is, how much they and other developed countries should have to pay to mitigate, adapt to and rebuild from climate impacts around the world. In an intersessional meeting in the lead-up to COP24, the U.S. joined Japan and Australia to allow loans — contingent upon repayment — to be considered as part of the long agreed-upon goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year in climate financing by 2020, opening the door for that to include packages with potentially onerous repayment terms.

In Paris, Obama had pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, the agreed-upon body to help coordinate climate financing internationally under the UNFCCC, and governed by a 24-member board comprised of representatives from developed and developing countries. Only $1 billion was actually provided to the fund before Trump cut off America’s contributions entirely. Now, as the $100 billion target grows closer and with even less of a contribution from the U.S., developed countries, including the US, have been pushing back on setting a new target for 2025, despite need far greater than the initial goal.

Climate finance operates along a continuum: The less successful and well-funded mitigation efforts are, the more adaptation funds are needed. The more beleaguered the adaptation, the more funding is needed for loss and damage — effectively, compensation for when the worst happens. Now, without a major course correction on mitigation, the need for adaptation is estimated to reach up to hundreds of trillions of dollars as soon as 2030. Even so, there’s no agreed-upon definition of what climate finance actually means. Unlike the GCF, there’s also no mechanism through which to distribute loss and damage financing. For its part, the U.S. delegation has consistently looked to keep any discussion of loss and damage during climate talks off the table entirely, despite the fact that it’s featured in the Paris Agreement. In advance of COP24, U.S. representatives at the UN Standing Committee on finance refused to ratify a report on climate finance on the grounds that there is no agreed-upon definition of developed and developing countries.

Actions like that are why many have argued it’d be better for the U.S. to stay out of the negotiations entirely as it prepares to leave the Paris agreement. “At least even if you don’t want to be in the Paris agreement, don’t interfere with what’s happening,” Raman said. “They’re negotiating in very bad faith. Those people who argue that we should accommodate the United States — for what? The Paris agreement was an accommodation to the United States. If you want to continue to accommodate the United States it will be at the peril of developing countries.”

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Sen. Tom Cotton Is Trying to Cripple a Bill to End U.S. Support for the War in Yemen

With the Senate set to vote on a resolution that could end U.S. support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, hawkish Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has introduced two last-minute amendments that would largely undermine it.

The Senate will vote Thursday afternoon on a resolution that, if it were to also pass the House of Representatives, would direct President Trump to remove U.S. forces from hostilities stemming from Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, which has killed thousands and contributed to the world’s worst famine.

The measure was introduced by Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and failed 55-44 in March. But following the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Turkey, the measure gained broader support and easily passed two procedural votes. An amendment process and final vote is expected Thursday.

Cotton’s first proposed amendment would allow the U.S. to give Saudi Arabia “materials and advice” as long as they were “intended to reduce civilian casualties or further enable adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict.” That would essentially mean business as usual, because the Obama and Trump administrations have consistently claimed since the fighting began in 2015 that their backing — which includes providing weapons, intelligence, and logistical support — was aimed at reducing civilian casualties.

In a letter to the Senate earlier this year, Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote, “Since 2015, the United States has provided limited support to Saudi-led coalition military operations … focused on improving coalition processes and procedures, especially regarding compliance with the law of armed conflict and best practices for reducing the risk of civilian casualties.”’

Cotton’s second amendment would create an exception when U.S. assistance is intended to “disrupt Houthi attacks against locations outside of Yemen.” In retaliation for the bombing campaign, the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group that is fighting the Saudis, have conducted ballistic missile attacks on targets inside of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis frequently cite such attacks as a justification for their intervention. For instance, after the coalition bombed a school bus full of children in August, the Saudi Press Agency quoted coalition spokesperson Turki al-Malki saying the attack was a “legal military action to target elements that planned and executed the targeting of civilians.”

“Sen. Cotton’s amendments are a cynical attempt to leverage civilian protection concerns — not toward conflict de-escalation, but in favor of continuing U.S. support in perpetuity,” said Eric Eikenberry, advocacy officer for the Yemen Peace Project. “Senators voting for these amendments are knee-capping the very message they claim to want to send to the coalition regarding the thousands of Yemeni lives lost.”

It is unlikely either amendment will gain much support among Democrats, but it is unclear how many Republican votes either will get.

In response to congressional pressure, the Trump administration has already decided to cut off its mid-air refueling support for coalition warplanes. But the move did not stop opponents of the war in Congress from demanding the complete withdrawal of U.S. support.

The post Sen. Tom Cotton Is Trying to Cripple a Bill to End U.S. Support for the War in Yemen appeared first on The Intercept.

2,000 Clandestine Graves: How a Decade of the Drug War Turned Mexico Into a Burial Ground

Editor’s note: This story is an edited translation of an investigation carried out by a team of Mexican reporters and recently published in Spanish at adondevanlosdesaparecidos.org. This deep dive into Mexico’s mass graves comes as the country inaugurates a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has pledged to take a new approach to the drug war. Bloodshed in Mexico became more widespread and more brutal after December 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug cartels. His successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, continued the same strategy of militarization, which has done little to curb drug production or trafficking but has led to an explosion of murders, disappearances, human rights violations by the army and police, and other forms of violence. In Mexico, 37,485 people were reported missing between December 2006 and last October, according to official records. It is unknown how many of them may have vanished into mass graves.

On February 20, 1943, the Purépecha community in Angahuan, Mexico, watched with great astonishment as the earth opened up, expelled black smoke, and gave birth to the Paricutín volcano, the youngest volcano in the world. More than 60 years later, on September 7, 2006, the same municipality in the state of Michoacán was the scene of another uncovering. Police dug up six half-naked men with their hands tied, their eyes covered, and their jugular veins slit.

The clandestine burial pit was discovered in a wooded touristic spot only a half-hour away from the thriving city of Uruapan. Locals had reported seeing a luxury pickup truck drive by and soil turned over.

The discovery of these bodies marked the beginning of a new barbarity. From that point on, clandestine graves multiplied. In Mexico’s drug war, it is not enough for murderers to kill. They also go to a lot of trouble to hide the bodies.

A year-and-a-half-long investigation by a team of independent Mexican journalists, supported by Quinto Elemento Lab, shows that almost 2,000 clandestine graves have been found all around Mexico between 2006 and 2016 — one grave every two days, in 1 out of 7 municipalities.

There were at least 1,978 clandestine burial pits in 24 states — a number that greatly surpasses information provided by the Mexican government to date. State district attorney’s offices in Mexico recovered from these pits 2,884 bodies, 324 craniums, 217 bones, 799 bone remnants, and thousands of other remains that belong to an as yet undetermined number of individuals.

The investigation found that only 1,738 victims have been identified, according to more than 200 requests made under freedom of information laws to authorities in all 32 Mexican states. And because of gaps in the official record, we know that this information provides only a partial map of the barbarity’s dimensions.

As Mexico’s drug war escalated, the phenomenon of mass graves reached catastrophic levels. In 2006, only two graves were found, while in the years that followed, the figure increased to several hundred per year. In 2007, 10 burial pits were discovered in five states. In 2010, the figure rose to 105 graves in 14 states; in 2011, it leapt to 375 throughout 20 states — equivalent to one per day on average. Since 2012, at least 245 clandestine burial pits have been found each year.

Illegal interments became a hallmark of the administrations of Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, with criminals digging holes to hide the bodies of their victims, and in some cases, burning them, in 372 municipalities in Mexico.

“This investigation allows us to know the municipalities where organized crime has the ability to murder people and make burial pits to disappear them; it allows us to see the new modes of operation and governance where people don’t dare report to the police,” said Sandra Ley, a professor and researcher from the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, known as CIDE by its Spanish initials, and an expert in criminality and violence.

The unprecedented figure of almost 2,000 graves over 11 years is supported by answers to public information requests that were provided by district attorney’s offices in 24 states. While the data exceeds all the numbers given previously by any authority, the information is still incomplete, and at times conflicts with press reports and figures from the Mexican national government.

Eight states answered that they did not find any burial pits: Baja California, Chiapas, Ciudad de México, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Puebla, Querétaro, and Yucatán. Yucatán is the only state where no one — not the local district attorney’s office; nor the national attorney general’s office, or PGR by its Spanish initials; nor the National Human Rights Commission, or CNDH; nor the press — has recorded finding any clandestine graves to date.

Los residentes de Carrizalillo, Guerrero, México. Localizan una fosa clandestina en una vereda carca de las instalaciones de la mina Carrisalillo. Los restos humanos fueron encontrados el 19 de noviembre del 2015. fotografía: Pedro Pardo.

Residents of Carrizalillo, Guerrero, locate a clandestine grave in a mine on Nov. 19, 2015.

Photo: Pedro Pardo

Plague of Graves

The stench started to saturate the landscape. In 2010, Juan Viveros and Nabor Baena, two watchmen for an abandoned mine on the outskirts of the city of Taxco in the state of Guerrero, heard trucks in the night and started to sense the unbearable smell of death coming out of one of the mine intakes. They realized that the intake’s end had been unsealed, and the mineshaft had reopened.

“It bothered us when we came, because there was a lot of blood,” said Viveros. “I told Nabor, ‘Look, where did that blood come from?’ He answered, ‘Who knows, maybe they brought an animal?’ Whatever it was, the smell came out, and it smelled bad. So, we went to work.”

Baena recalled, “Then, some people reported the bad smell, and when the people from the [municipal system for] Civil Protection searched, there was the hole where they threw them down. There were human beings down there.”

“We realized what was in there — that they were pulling people out, there were people stored, that the mineshaft wasn’t empty,” said Viveros.

Both workers learned through the news that people were being taken out in the carts normally used to extract silver, according to an interview they gave in 2010.

“55 bodies found,” reported the press at the time. The PGR’s records said “there were 41”; 64 were recorded in the local district attorney’s office logbook. According to the families that went to the morgue to verify whether any of the bodies belonged to their missing relatives, there were more than 120.

That moment was a prelude to hell. Since 2010, such discoveries have become more and more common. The official data obtained in this investigation shows that:

  • The states with the highest number of exhumed graves over 11 years are Veracruz (332), Tamaulipas (280), Guerrero (216), Chihuahua (194), Sinaloa (139), Zacatecas (138), Jalisco (137), Nuevo León (114), Sonora (86), Michoacán (76), and San Luis Potosí (65).
  • The states where the most corpses were found in mass graves were Durango (497 bodies), Chihuahua (391), Tamaulipas (336), Guerrero (325), Veracruz (222), Jalisco (214), Sinaloa (176), Michoacán (132), Nuevo León (119), Sonora (96), and Zacatecas (81).
  • The cities of Veracruz and San Fernando, in Tamaulipas, had the highest number of reported graves of any municipality. In Veracruz, 125 graves and 290 skulls were found. In one area, called Colinas de Santa Fe, authorities found 22,079 bone remnants. Authorities still haven’t reported how many people the remains correspond to, and disinterment work is still being carried out. In San Fernando, an hour and a half away from the Texas border, 139 graves and 190 bodies and bone fragments  were recorded over a two-year period.
  • Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, on the border with Texas, has appeared on the ghastly list of mass graves every year since 2008. The sum of the graves there — not taking into account the valley surrounding the city — amounts to 58. Acapulco has been on the list ever year since 2010; overall, the port city accumulated 108 burial pits from 2006 to 2016.
  • The state of Durango exhumed the most bodies, with 497. But the state of Veracruz reported that they had exhumed 222 bodies, 293 craniums, and 157 bone remnants — which adds up to 672 victims. Nuevo León was the only state to specify the number of people that corresponded to the number of bone remains; their records mention 119 bodies, as well as bone remains belonging to 475 people, for a total of 594 victims.
Graciela Pérez busca a su hija Milynali, quien el 14 de agosto de 2012 desapareció en Tamaulipas cuando viajaba con sus familiares José Arturo Domínguez Pérez, Alexis Domínguez Pérez, Ald0 de Jesús Pérez Salazar e Ignacio Pérez Rodríguez. Milynali tenía 13 años. Para seguir su rastro, Graciela se ha enfocado documentar incidentes o enfrentamientos en la zona de Ciudad Valles, Ciudad Mante, Reynosa, Xicoténcatl y Ciudad Victoria y se ha capacitado para elaborar un banco de ADN en esa zona para Ciencia Forense Ciudadana. Foto: Monica Gonzalez Islas/ Pie de Pagina Red de Periodistas de a Pie

Caution tape marks the discovery of a clandestine grave in Ciudad Mante, Tamaulipas, Mexico, during a search by the group Milynali Red CFC on Jan. 24, 2017.

Photo: Mónica González

In Mexico’s collective imagination, graves are located in remote and deserted places. However, this investigation proves that this is not always the case. Burial pits also exist in populated neighborhoods and along busy avenues.

In the spring of 2011, a noise woke a married couple, professionals who lived in a small house that had once been abandoned, in a neighborhood in Durango’s city center. The couple was surprised to discover some soldiers attempting to cut the chains of the entrance gate.

When the couple questioned them, the soldiers asked them if they could come in and dig in their yard. They dug a first hole and didn’t find anything. Then they went to the back of the yard, almost to the enclosing wall, where they found something. There were bodies. Elsewhere, under the cement floor of a palapa, there were more.

Ever since, a rusty chain keeps the black gate locked. Grass has grown over the piles of dirt in the yard where the army found 12 bodies.

Most of the 350 bodies recovered in 2011 in Durango were buried in urban areas: some in the city center, others in houses, repair shops, workshops, construction sites, empty lots, in the street — even next to a high school.

This is far from extraordinary. In 18 out of the 24 states that responded, there are records of burial pits in the municipalities of the capital cities.

F-Tamaulipas_MONICA-GONZALEZ-edit-1544409079

Clothes found in a safe house in Ciudad Mante, Tamaulipas, Mexico, during a search by the group Milynali Red CFC on Jan. 24, 2017.

Photo: Mónica González

Dancing Numbers

A sky blue tarp laid on the ground serves to display what appear to be some underpants, a shirt, black plastic bags, shapeless pieces of fabric, and babies’ clothes. Everything is stained with the same muddy color due to the time they remained underground.

That image, published by the government of Veracruz, ran in newspapers on September 7, alongside the news that 32 clandestine graves had been found with 174 skulls in the center of the state. “Little trousers, bonnets and sweatshirts: babies’ clothes were found in clandestine mass graves in Veracruz,” read one headline highlighting the murderers’ cruelty.

That discovery prompted an erratic dance of figures from the federal government as to how many such graves existed in Mexico. Members of López Obrador’s SEGOB, the Spanish acronym for Mexico’s federal interior department, talked about extremely inconsistent figures given by the outgoing federal government. Peña Nieto’s SEGOB reported 855; the National Search Commission, which is in charge of leading search efforts for missing people, said 1,150.

CNDH, meanwhile, said that from January 2007 to May 2018, they located 1,306 graves, housing 3,926 hidden bodies and almost 36,000 bone remnants. From 2007 to 2016, they documented just 855 graves.

This investigation recorded a much larger figure for the period between January 2007 and December 2016: 1,976 graves.

This number is likely still incomplete. That’s because not every state acknowledges its graves. The governments of seven states reported that in their territory, there are no graves or similar sites, even when information coming from CNDH, PGR, or the press proves otherwise.

This was the case in Baja California, which denied having records of burial pits, body dissolution sites (or “kitchens,” as organized crime groups call them), or any similar place where criminals could have disappeared the bodies of their victims. This is despite the fact that in 2009 in Tijuana, the Mexican army captured Santiago Meza López, presented to the press as “El Pozolero” (pozole is a traditional Mexican stew) because he dissolved in acid the bodies of alleged enemies of Tijuana’s cartel.

Meza López confessed that he had dissolved the bodies of at least 300 people; he said it while standing exactly in the location where he committed the crimes, an estate on the outskirts of the city on community-owned land called Ojo de Agua. Since that terrible day, families have worked alongside the authorities to search for traces of missing people, and every so often, they find teeth or pieces of bones, which the PGR has taken for their analysis. In other words, there are clandestine sites of interment in Baja California.

Mexico City, Querétaro, Hidalgo, and Chiapas also reported zero clandestine burial pits when they were asked for information. This information differs from that given by the PGR and CNDH, which report 10 graves altogether (including media reports, CNDH arrives at 17). Guanajuato and Puebla also both declared themselves free of graves; press reports indicate otherwise.

Other state district attorney’s offices often reported fewer graves than other records show. Consider the case of Michoacán, where the local government reported the discovery of only two graves in 2006: the six men found with their throats slit in Angahuan and another grave in Aguililla. The PGR, however, added another grave, in Lázaro Cárdenas, which held the bodies of three men with their hands and feet tied. Media at the end of that year reported two more graves, which do not appear in the government’s records.

Graves processed by the PGR, the exhumed remains from which end up in federal facilities in Mexico City, are not taken into account in the state records. This leads to underreporting of large-scale clandestine burial pits, such as in La Barca, Jalisco, where 37 graves with 75 bodies were discovered in 2013. Or the 175 bodies taken from 54 graves in the surrounding hills of Iguala, Guerrero, discovered by locals from a group called the Other Missing People, which was formed after the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa.

Because of these disparities, our analysis and map consider the data provided by the local district attorney’s offices and the PGR separately. Regions that are geographically remote or controlled by criminal groups may appear in white on the map, as if there are no clandestine graves. In fact, no one knows for sure, because these places can’t be reached.

“There is a time difference between when a grave is created and when it is found, and that shows us the time and spatial dynamics of violence. The discovery of graves could correspond to a moment in which violence in those regions has decreased, hardly when it is at its peak,” said Camilo Vicente Ovalle, a historian at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and an expert in the history of disappearances in Mexico. Vicente Ovalle says that in places like the mountains of Guerrero there are surely more graves that haven’t been discovered.

Silvia Ortiz busca a su hija Fanny, quien desapareció en Torreón, Coahuila, en 2004. Formó el grupo Vida para buscar en las "cocinas" de los zetas y en las casas de seguridad, recolectando los pequeños trozos de huesos que no recolectan los peritos. foto: Mónica González

A woman examines one of the 22 sites located by Grupo Vida as extermination sites, near the city of Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, on July 2, 2017.

Photo: Mónica González

Sites of Death

In 2015, María de la Luz López Castruita, who has been looking for her daughter Claribel Lamas López since 2008, found one of these previously undiscovered graves, in an area of land held in common known as Patrocinio, in Coahuila. As many families of Mexico’s disappeared have done, she had started her own investigation and found her way to places where there were rumors that people were taken and never again seen.

María de la Luz López, or Lucy, as she is known to most, started to go out looking disguised as a farmer – with a hat, handkerchief, a stick and a water jug on her back – and soon local goatherds helped her get to places where there were metal drums, ashes, buried human remains, shoes, and clothes spread across the ground.

A goatherd told her that he had seen 80 to 90 metal drums where people who had been captured were burned.

“So, there were hundreds of dead people?” she asked the goatherd.

“Thousands, ma’am. Everyday, trucks went by with people tied up in the back, piled up like animals, in the daylight, the sun was up high,” she recalled the man answering.

“And the metal drums?”

“They were taken to the junkyard, but there are still two over there,” said the man, and he took her to the spot.

Patrocinio is just one of the places that criminals established in Coahuila for the extermination of people. Grupo Vida, a group of trackers to which Lucy belonged, located other spots with drums full of holes made with a talache, or pick, in which they put their victims and burned them with diesel and gasoline. They used a truck tire to contain the fire, and then put the burned remains in holes.

Lucy, along with other families, helped organize an international caravan, known as Busqueda en Vida, or  Searching Alive, to carry out searches in the field in 2017 in Coahuila. These expeditions have taken place even when violence has not subsided, in the middle of the “war,” in territories that are still controlled by organized crime. Many burial pit discoveries have been made thanks to arduous investigations carried out by the families.

But that effort has brought little reward. Lucy and other women searchers have found a large number of graves, but the government has rarely done what is required to identify the remains they uncover. (The Scientific Police Division of the Federal Police is in charge of doing an analysis of these findings and notifying the family when someone is identified.) The body of Lucy’s daughter Claribel is not among the 1,738 victims in mass graves that the district attorney’s offices have already identified.

After years of searching, there is disappointment in Lucy’s voice. “Why do we waste time looking for graves, for the dead, if they don’t tell us who they are anyway? And we don’t have time for this. That’s why we decided to look for those alive.”

Identifying corpses is very difficult, and even more so when mistakes are made during disinterment. In Durango in 2011, bodies were destroyed by the excavator that extracted them. It’s also difficult when the remains were burned, incinerated, or dissolved using acids or alkaline methods — as in Veracruz, where there are six spots with at least 18,680 bone remains, from which only two people have been identified. Coahuila reports 87 clandestine interment sites from which 102,717 “biological samples” have been taken, and only 19 people have been identified. The district attorney’s office there refused to provide the location of each site.

In other states, it would seem that district attorney’s offices lost track of the bodies under their own custody. We requested information about one body recovered in Nogales, Sonora, in 2016, and were told, “We don’t know if the body was identified.” Regarding two bodies exhumed in 2008 in the municipality of Naco, officials stated, “There is no information because the doctor no longer works here.” Concerning other cases, they answered, “We don’t know if the bodies were cremated nor do we know where they are being kept.”

“Why take the bodies out if we won’t be able to identify them anyway?” asks Juan Carlos Trujillo Herrera, who has four missing brothers – two captured in Guerrero, the other two in Michoacán – and leads national search brigades. “There is not enough capacity. I believe that is the problem.”

Many of the places found where layers of graves have accumulated stand out because they are the locations of persistent dispute among criminal groups, fights that sometimes involve the armed forces of Mexico. All of them are along borders, either with the ocean or with the United States: Ciudad Juárez; Ahome, Sinaloa; San Fernando, Tamaulipas; and the ports of Acapulco, Guerrero, and Veracruz, Veracruz.

The data also indicates that in the northeast and the northern parts of the Gulf of Mexico – states such as Veracruz, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, Coahuila, or Nuevo León — incineration has spread as a method to get rid of victims’ bodies, leaving only fragments. In those places, families and authorities keep finding pieces of land with thousands of bone pieces, which make identification work even harder.

Pilar Calveiro, an Argentian with a Ph.D. in political science and the author of “Power and Disappearance,” suggested analyzing the moment when killing and throwing bodies in the street stopped being punishment enough, when criminals started burying bodies to disappear them, and the moment when murderers stopped burying bodies and switched to dissolving them.

“The technology used for the disappearance says a lot about the perpetrators and the power they hold,” she said.

MEXICO DF 6 SEPTIEMBRE 2011 La Secretaria de Turismo, Gloria Guevara Manzo, en coferenci de prensa FOTO MONICA GONZALEZ

DNA samples analyzed in the Forensic Medical Service’s facilities in Mexico City on May 9, 2011.

Photo: Mónica González

Forensic Tower of Babel

This investigation also came across fragmented information, often contradictory, other times sugar-coated. We found a lack of standardization in the state district attorney’s offices’ records when it comes to how they classify bodies, remains, bones, fragments, and graves.

To reach the our numbers, we had to figure out the array of names that every district attorney’s office gives to the places of the bodies’ removal. For Veracruz’s district attorney’s office, for instance, a hole with charred bone remains is a burial pit, but they also call it a “body destruction center,” whereas Coahuila calls the places where metal drums used to burn people were found “clandestine inhumation sites.”

Tamaulipas added to their answer the quantity of metal drums that were found with incinerated pieces of bone remains. And the 19 locations where bodies were burned were called “kitchens” by Nuevo León’s district attorney office. Meanwhile, Aguascalientes answered that they did not know the meaning of the words “clandestine grave.”

Jacobo Dayán, a researcher at Colegio de Mexico and lecturer at the Universidad Iberoamericana, who studies crimes against humanity, says that an investigation such as this “exposes the state’s failure.”

“There is no official information about burial pits in the country, nor about the bodies’ locations — if they were donated to medical schools, or if they are being driven around in trucks, or lost in institutes of forensic sciences, or who knows where. It’s urgent to have a clear record of missing people, and additionally of fragments, remains, and graves to start creating search, exhumation, and identification policies,” Dayán said.

Mercedes Doretti, director of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in Mexico, believes that the findings reveal the need to create a standardized protocol throughout the country to record graves and remains.

“They [every district attorney’s office] should explain what they mean when they say grave, bones, body, or remains. What do they call someone who was identified but whose family hasn’t been located? Unidentified or unclaimed? How do they count this person? How do they classify what they call ‘kitchens’? Or when the bodies are buried, or in rivers, dams, out in the open, or in a suitcase? Without these definitions, it is very hard to create statistics. This needs to be solved.”

The state and federal governments’ vague, incomplete, contradictory, or fragmented records force families to live in uncertainty about the whereabouts of their loved ones. Negligence combined with omission means that missing people go missing a second time.

BERTILA PARADO LOGRO QUE LA SUPREMA CORTE DE JUSTICIA DE LA NACIÓN LE RECONOCIERA COMO VÍCTIMA DESPÚES DE QUE SU HIJO CARLOS FUERA ASESINADO EN SAN FERNANDO TAMAULIPAS Y SUS RESTOS ENCONTRADOS ENTRE LOS 193 CADÁVERES EN EL 2011, ANA LORENA DELGADILLO DIRECTORA DE LA FUNDACIÓN PARA LA JUSTICIA Y EL ESTADO DEMOCRÁTICO DE DERECHO

Bertila Parada holds a photo of her son, Carlos Alberto Osorio Parada, a Salvadoran migrant found in a grave with 12 others in Tamaulipas in 2011.

Photo: Mónica González

Bertila Parada, a Salvadoran woman, had to rescue her son Carlos Alberto Osorio Parada from the mazes of the Mexican bureaucracy, where his body, rescued from a grave, was lost due to a lack of protocols.

The young migrant was murdered in March 2011 by the criminal group Los Zetas, in collusion with San Fernando’s municipal police. His body was identified in a grave with 12 others when exhumations started that April. In total, 189 bodies were recovered from about 40 graves in the area.

On April 17, Osorio’s body was taken to a morgue in another city, where, the following day, an autopsy was performed; 122 other exhumed bodies went to the PGR’s offices in Mexico City. Osorio was buried as an unidentified person together with 67 others; he lay in row 11, plot 314, block 16, in La Cruz municipal cemetery in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas’s capital city.

When his family found out about the discovery of the burial pits, they had genetic tests done so that the PGR could compare them with the genetics of the exhumed remains. However, at first, the PGR only tested the bodies that were sent to Mexico City — and so the young man spent three years and 10 months in Tamaulipas’s common grave, and was at one point about to be cremated by the authorities.

“He was buried here. Why did so much time go by without being able to bring him? He was here, in this hill,” said his mother, who sells pupusas in El Salvador, when she was interviewed in 2016. She showed a folder she received on January 28, 2015, that contains pictures of her son’s destroyed cranium and the cemetery where he was put to rest under a rusty cross that marked his tomb. His only identity was “Body 3, Grave 3.”

She complained many times to Salvadoran authorities before she found a Mexican organization, Foundation for Justice, and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which helped her rescue her son from abandonment and anonymity, and give him rest at home.

Only once her son’s body was recovered was Parada able to feel a little relief from the torment she experienced while trying to find out where he was.

“I feel pain, and at the same time I feel that we did achieve something. Because many people haven’t achieved it, many don’t know where their children are. When I buried him, I had a little peace of mind,” she said.

Visualization by David Eads.

Translation by Ashley Hermosillo Bawell.

Juan Solís, Gilberto Lastra, Aranzazú Ayala, Paloma Robles, Mayra Torres, and Erika Lozano contributed reporting.

The post 2,000 Clandestine Graves: How a Decade of the Drug War Turned Mexico Into a Burial Ground appeared first on The Intercept.

The Betrayals, Arrests, and Gun Battles That Brought Down a Top Drug Gang

One year ago, the eyes of many Brazilians were glued to the TV as a bloody battle raged for control of one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest favelas, Rocinha. The drug lord Rogério 157 and his men took on soldiers loyal to another, known as Nem. The death toll surpassed 50, but the true total is still unknown. Since 2005, Nem had controlled the drug trade of the entire favela — despite being behind bars for much of that time — and, until recently, he was Rogério’s boss and friend. Both men and their armies had belonged to a group called Amigos dos Amigos, or Friends of Friends, one of Rio’s oldest and most powerful drug cartels.

To most Brazilians, this incident looked like just another chapter in Rio’s increasingly violent criminal narrative. As TV news channels broadcast dramatic live coverage from the favela, calls for a full military takeover of the state’s public security apparatus grew louder. That intervention did come to pass, but the shootouts and the bloodshed across Rio only intensified. The government’s ineffective tactics are partially to blame, but something else was brewing that only became clear in hindsight: the wholesale restructuring of organized crime in the city that would push the Amigos dos Amigos to the edge of extinction.

In a monthslong investigation based on exclusive data from Disque Denúncia, a tip line for crime and urban violence; interviews with key players, specialists, and residents; and historical press accounts, The Intercept is able to tell this story in its entirety for the first time.

Once home to notorious drug lords like Escadinha, , Playboy, Bem-Te-Vi, and Nem da Rocinha, Amigos dos Amigos was once among the most powerful and respected cartels in Brazil, but at the first scent of blood in the water, enemies attacked from all sides to rip it apart, aided by internal feuds and betrayals. After losing control of 17 territories in little more than a year, now only one kingpin remains: Celsinho da Vila Vintém.

Click here to read the full story.

 

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Activists Found Guilty of Terrorism-Related Offence For Stopping U.K. Migrant Deportations

The guilty verdict arrived around lunchtime on December 10 — Human Rights Day, which this year marked the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It signaled the end of a nine-week trial and three days of jury deliberations in Chelmsford Crown Court, about 30 miles northeast of London. More than a year and a half after the 15 defendants had locked themselves around a deportation charter flight at London’s Stansted Airport, successfully stopping it from taking off, the defendants were convicted of intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome, a terrorism-related offense with a potential life sentence.

Known as the Stansted 15, the defendants had all pleaded not guilty to the charge, which falls under the United Kingdom’s Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990, an obscure law intended to fight terrorism. The activists were originally charged with aggravated trespass, but that charge was later upgraded to intentional disruption of services at an aerodrome — under the “endangering safety at an aerodrome” section of the act — and seen by many as a disproportionate response to peaceful protest. Now, the guilty verdict has sent a chilling message to those who may wish to follow in the Stansted 15’s footsteps. Amnesty International, which had been observing the trial, tweeted, “The rights and freedoms of all of us are being eroded. The UK should not be targeting human rights defenders in this way.”

In a statement released minutes after the verdict was announced, the defendants wrote, “We are guilty of nothing more than intervening to prevent harm. The real crime is the government’s cowardly, inhumane and barely legal deportation flights and the unprecedented use of terror law to crack down on peaceful protest. We must challenge this shocking use of draconian legislation, and continue to demand an immediate end to these secretive deportation charter flights and a full independent public inquiry into the government’s ‘hostile environment’.”

The Crown Prosecution Service published a press release about the verdict, outlining the disruption to airport operations, such as delayed and rerouted flights, caused by the Stansted 15’s action. Judith Reed, a deputy chief crown prosecutor, stated, “The [Crown Prosecution Service] worked with the police to build a strong case which reflected the criminality of the defendant’s actions, regardless of their motivation.” Tony Badenoch, who represented the prosecution in court, declined to comment.

“We are guilty of nothing more than intervening to prevent harm.”

On March 28, 2017, the 15 activists, members of anti-deportation groups End Deportations and Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, cut a hole through Stansted Airport’s perimeter fence and climbed through. Once inside airport grounds, they headed toward a Titan Airways Boeing 767 and broke into two groups. One intended to lock themselves around the plane’s front wheel with double-layered pipes; the other, to construct a two-meter pyramid structure out of scaffolding poles under the plane’s left wing and then lock themselves around it.

The plane had been chartered by the Home Office, the government department responsible for immigration, security, and law and order, and was set to fly migrants and asylum-seekers back to Nigeria and Ghana later that night. Instead, it remained in place until the next morning, when police officers managed to remove all of the activists. In grounding the flight, the activists aimed to prevent the deportees from being sent back to places where they faced threats of harm and even death; they also wanted to draw attention to the government’s practice of deporting people via private charter flights, where security personnel often outnumber deportees, there is little notice given to asylum-seekers in advance, and reports tell of excessive restraint used on passengers.

Most of the people scheduled to be on that flight were eventually placed on other flights and deported back to their countries of origin. However, the Stansted 15’s action also allowed additional time for some of the deportees’ asylum applications to be reviewed or for decisions to be appealed. As of this past July, 11 people scheduled for that flight remained in the U.K. According to the activists, two have been found to be victims of human trafficking and at least one has since been granted indefinite leave to remain in the country.

In an anonymous piece written by one of the deportees scheduled for that March 28 flight and published by The Guardian right after the verdict came down, a man explains how the Stansted 15 changed his life, giving him “a chance to appeal to the authorities over my deportation — a case that I won on two separate occasions, following a Home Office counter-appeal.” More importantly, he wrote, it also allowed him to be in the U.K. for the birth of his daughter.

This was precisely what the activists had hoped for when they cut a hole in Stansted’s fence and laid down on the tarmac below the Titan plane. And it was this goal of preventing harm that, they argue, justified their actions, regardless of any laws they may have broken in the process — a defense that Judge Christopher Morgan discarded when instructing the jury on what to consider during his summation on December 4. Instead, he told the jury, the decision hinged solely on whether the defendants had acted “in such a way as to be likely to endanger the safe operation of the aerodrome or the safety of persons at the aerodrome.” Jurors’ personal feelings about the Home Office, immigration policy, and the use of this charge, as well as any sympathy they may have for the defendants, were not to be factors.

Now, the 15 defendants — one of whom is eight months pregnant — remain in a state of limbo until their sentencing hearing, scheduled for February. “It’s disappointing to get this ruling, but I feel it’s not the end for us because we will appeal it,” explained Jyotsna Ram, one of the defendants, speaking to The Intercept a few hours after the verdict was announced. Ram, 33, works for a small organization in London that does research and campaigns around climate change and energy, although, she laughed, “It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what my life outside of this is like.” She said that, at least in some ways, the verdict did not come as a shock. “This was the wrong charge in the wrong court. So we’re not surprised because everything about this process has been wrong, and we have to fight a bit more.”

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