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‘When Will We Get Out?’ Parents Plead With California Son to Help Them Flee Afghanistan

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SACRAMENTO — 

Emal Salarzai woke up in the middle of the night a few weeks ago feeling like his skull was burning, a heat so real he went to the mirror and began shaving off his hair.

“I was thinking about my mom and my dad,” he said, “I am the only son, the only child.”

Kabul had fallen two months earlier, and his parents were trapped in Afghanistan. They still are. The Taliban is searching for his father and two uncles, he said, all of whom helped the American regime — as did he, working with the U.S. military to train Afghan troops in English and computing. His mother, Masoma, 56, incapacitated by heart disease and diabetes, could not understand why others have been able to land coveted seats on outbound flights when they have not.

When Salarzai, 34, speaks with her sporadically on WhatsApp and Signal from Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento that is his home, she asks him why he hasn’t been able to help.

“Every time, these are her words,” said Salarzai. “When will we get out?”

He has no answers.

The United States evacuated more than 120,000 people before the withdrawal of U.S. troops in August and the staggeringly quick takeover by the Taliban, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Thousands of Afghan refugees included in those airlifts remain in “lily pad” third countries, where they are waiting in transit to final destinations. More than 70,000 have arrived in the United States, many still living on military bases.

Emal Salarzai holds a photo of his father shaking the hand of retired U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

But thousands of at-risk Afghans remain inside the country, increasingly desperate to leave as options for doing so dwindle, say family members and aid organizations. A handful are U.S. citizens or visa holders. Many more, like Salarzai’s parents, lack official status or documentation but are at risk either because of their own activities in the country, or because their relatives helped the United States.

A U.S. Department of State spokesperson said it has continued charter flights to facilitate departures for U.S. citizens and residents, and remains committed to the “monumental” task of helping vulnerable Afghans who want to leave. It has evacuated about 600 people since its official withdrawal at the end of August, the spokesperson said. The majority of flights out, though, are now handled through American allies such as Qatar, and nonprofit and aid agencies that charter their own planes, create their own manifests, and work to gather the necessary governmental clearances both through the U.S. and the new regime in Afghanistan. It is a slow and disjointed process.

The State Department said it is working to “accelerate” the pace of charter flights and has created a cross-agency group to streamline its effort. But the removal of the U.S. government and the scramble to fill the void by myriad smaller players have left confusion and frustration for Afghans. With no central command and no clear information on who is involved and how charter flights are being filled, those seeking ways out are left depending on tips from friends, internet information and luck, said Salarzai and others.

“It’s not as simple as it used to be … when there were Army planes and people were hopping on and they were taking off,” said Ismail Khan, a volunteer with nonprofit No One Left Behind, which helps special immigrant visa holders — those granted entry into the United States for helping troops as interpreters or other critical roles. “There are a lot of folks that you need to get their approval to get someone on a flight.”

Emal Salarzai stands inside the warehouse at his e-commerce business in Sacramento.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Khan said that even with his connections through the nonprofit work, he is unable to get answers about his own family, who are also trapped in Afghanistan.

“There is not a follow-up,” he said. “You can’t get an answer from anyone that will tell you, ‘Hey, it’s going to happen in a month or two months or a year,’ or, ‘It’s not going to happen.’”

Recently, his 15-year-old brother was kidnapped and beaten by the Taliban, he said, freed after the family paid a ransom. Now, his family has split into four groups and is in hiding. But Khan fears that his high-profile work advocating for others will continue to make them targets. Like Salarzai’s family, they want to know why he can’t do more.

“The hardest part for me is I have been talking to senators and congressmen and news reporters and trying to do everything for others and my family as well,” Khan said. “My family, they call me every day and say, ‘Look, people are getting out and you are helping people get out and you are not helping us. What’s going on?’”

The pressure on those living in the United States to help family abroad is traumatizing Afghan communities — especially special immigrant visa recipients such as Salarzai and Khan who fear their families will die or be imprisoned if they fail to find a way out.

“I can guarantee you that everyone here already had PTSD and they are going through a mental issue right now,” Khan said. “I struggle at work. I can’t really focus. … It’s been a nightmare.”

Kerry Ham, executive director of World Relief Sacramento, a resettlement agency that works with Afghan refugees, said that mental health crisis is likely to grow. He receives multiple emails every day asking for help with evacuations, many from people who are refugees themselves and are just “getting up day by day, trying to figure out what they can do,” he said.

Emal Salarzai locates items on the shelves in his e-commerce warehouse and ships the items to his customers.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Thursday, Salarzai sat in the rented warehouse where he stores clothes to resell on Amazon. His dark eyes looked weary, his hair grown back to a short buzz. There were few lights on in the cluttered space, with boxes of shirts and shoes stacked to the ceiling. The room grew dim as the sun set on Veterans Day.

He was waiting for a call from his father but had no good news to give. He still had heard nothing back, except from a single source that was working to get his parents on a charter flight. The source said they needed to get passports first — theirs are expired.

But passports are hard to come by in Kabul, Salarzai said. Hundreds line up every day at the official office, now run by the Taliban. He is hesitant for his father to show up there, anyway.

Salarzai’s father worked as an intelligence liaison for the ousted regime and is known to his neighborhood as “Dagarwah” — the colonel — even though he is retired from military service. The family fled to Pakistan with nothing when the first Taliban regime took over. Salarzai was 4 and they lived in camps until his father could get established.

When the Taliban was toppled, they returned to a demolished Kabul. Salarzai was 14 and remembers coming through the Khyber Pass and seeing a soldier with a gun wearing traditional leather sandals instead of boots. It made him feel as though he was home.

Emal Salarzai stands outside his his e-commerce business in Sacramento.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

He grew up in a Kabul that was rebuilding around him. One television station became dozens. There was music, and girls doing things. His female cousins went to school — one becoming a teacher and another a doctor. His uncles worked dangerous jobs in support of the government while his family rebuilt too. He helped the colonel build an eight-bedroom “villa” where their extended family lived together, the colonel taking his grandkids to school every day.

Salarzai rose through the ranks to become a trainer at the Morehead English Language Training Center, an elite school that prepped Afghan troops to travel to the U.S. and other countries for courses with special forces such as Army Rangers, he said.

On his phone, he keeps a photo of Canadian Lt. Col. Jean-Guy Levesque giving him the Book of Operating Procedures when Salarzai became site lead and supervisor of the school, the first Afghan to take control of the facility, in 2012. He loved the job, loved helping Afghanistan become a new country, he said.

But he began receiving threats, and worried about his kids. In 2015, he came to the United States on a special immigrant visa.

He tried to return to Afghanistan after only a few months in the U.S., missing his parents too much. His mother told him, “People are dying to just get out of this country, and you have a green card in your hand and you are saying you don’t want to leave … Just go, and if [Allah] helps, we will be with you.”

Not long ago, members of the Taliban came to the door of the house where Salarzai’s grandfather and 8-year-old cousin were staying. They slapped the boy, he said, and demanded to know where the colonel was. Neighbors called the family to warn them.

“Just tell the colonel to not come home,” they said.

Salarzai and Khan both said they fear the Taliban will grow more bold as time passes and international interest wanes. They worry they will not be able to get their families out while there is still a slim window of opportunity.

“People are forgetting about them,” said Salarzai.

“There is this much hope,” he says, squeezing two fingers nearly to touching, “that is giving me strength.”

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Why Mexico’s President Is Promoting a Recall Against Himself

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MEXICO CITY — 

Standing before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Mexico City’s central square, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saved his most striking comment for the end of his speech.

He urged the Mexicans packed into the Zócalo to participate in an April referendum to decide whether they want to boot him from office more than two years early.

“None of, ‘They chose me for six years and I can do whatever I want,’” López Obrador said at the rally Wednesday to mark his midterm. “If one who governs is not up to the task and obeying the people, revoke their mandate and out!”

The president, 68, likely believes he has nothing to worry about.

Recent polls show that about two-thirds of the public approve of his performance since taking office in 2018 on a platform that promised a radical transformation of Mexican society to combat corruption and inequality and to roll back free-market economic policies.

Families and marching bands making their way to the Zócalo passed vendors hawking gray-haired López Obrador dolls and posters with the hashtag #QueSigaAMLO, or “may AMLO continue,” referring to the president by his initials. Many said they view a referendum, authorized by a 2019 constitutional reform spearheaded by the president, as proof of his honest character when compared to decades of presidents accused of corruption.

“AMLO is the first president that dares to put himself to the test before the people,” said Debanhi Andrea Garcia, 22, who drove 14 hours from the state of Nuevo León with her boyfriend. “Because he’s like that, we support him.”

Supporters of López Obrador hold banners in support of the president at Mexico City’s Zócalo.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

Mexicans have until Dec. 25 to sign a petition supporting the referendum, which can move forward only with the signatures of at least 3% of eligible voters, among other caveats.

So far, the initiative has received more than 703,000 signatures from Mexicans who have valid voting credentials, or 25% of the required total, according to the National Electoral Institute, an independent agency overseeing the process. (That tally includes signatures that will be discarded because they are duplicates or have other irregularities.)

Officially called the “revocation of mandate,” the measure follows other efforts by the president to increase citizen engagement in public policy. López Obrador has also backed referendums to decide whether former Mexican presidents should be prosecuted for alleged crimes, on the construction of a new airport near Mexico City and on the development of a tourism train line that would run through the Yucatan Peninsula.

“He does conceive his power as being a function of people reiterating their support actively,” said Francisco González, a professor of Latin American politics at Johns Hopkins University. “He wants it officially confirmed to give him that comfort of being the popular leader who is doing the right thing for Mexico.”

Since taking office, López Obrador has also expanded social welfare programs while introducing sharp austerity measures. He has halted renewable energy projects, promoted a constitutional reform to increase the country’s control of the electricity market, and given more power to the military — putting it in charge of projects such as the tourism train.

President López Obrador gives an address to mark the midpoint of his term.

(Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

His critics say that he hasn’t done enough to reduce high levels of homicides, including many killings of women and attacks against journalists and public officials. Dozens of candidates across the country were assassinated ahead of last spring’s midterm elections for governorships and legislative and mayoral seats.

Critics also are concerned about López Obrador’s attacks against democratic agencies that could check his power, notably the National Electoral Institute. He has repeatedly disparaged the independent agency, which last May sanctioned him for making statements in at least 29 news conferences that it said could be considered government propaganda that could influence the midterm elections. In Mexico, such statements by public officials are generally barred during the election season.

But the president’s vision of transformational change continues to resonate among many voters who view him as a paternal figure. López Obrador is in constant dialogue with his electorate, holding press conferences every morning that last hours.

“The figure he has constructed of an honest man, an honorable man, an incorruptible man — that helps him in a society that is used to seeing terribly corrupt politicians,” said René Torres-Ruiz, a political scientist at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.

Even if enough signatures are gathered, hurdles to a referendum remain. The National Electoral Institute’s members have said that the agency doesn’t have the budget to carry out the vote and at least 40% of eligible voters must participate for the referendum to be binding. The referendum on former presidents last August fell far short of the 40% voting figure.

Ariadna Gomez, left, and another volunteer collect signatures for a referendum on whether Mexico’s president should continue.

(Leila Miller / Los Angeles Times)

Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights at the D.C.-based Washington Office on Latin America, said that winning a referendum would increase López Obrador’s perception that he could move forward freely with his agenda.

“What he wants is to come out of the vote, supposing there is one, politically strengthened with this renewed and amplified popular mandate,” she said.

Opposition parties have accused the president’s supporters of twisting the stated purpose of the referendum into a tool to promote López Obrador’s agenda. The 2019 reform called for a referendum to “revoke” a president’s mandate rather than “ratify” it and a complaint before the National Electoral Institute by the National Action Party referenced how volunteers have registered voters next to posters that advertise the referendum as a means of promoting the president rather than recalling him from office.

Luis Cházaro, a congressman from the Party of the Democratic Revolution, told The Times that the referendum “has been transformed into a promotional tool for the party.” He does not plan to participate.

In Coyoacán, a cobblestoned neighborhood in Mexico City known for Frida Kahlo’s home, volunteers last Sunday gathered signatures at a plaza in front of posters of the president that said “may AMLO continue.”

Ariana Garcia, a 24-year-old volunteer, said she uses the term “ratification” for people she senses like the president and “revocation” for those she thinks oppose him.

“People tell you, ‘But I don’t want my president to leave,’ so we tell them, ‘OK, then in this case you can ratify your support for the president,’” she said.

A supporter of López Obrador listens to his speech at a rally to commemorate the president’s midterm.

(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)

Roberto Garcia, a systems engineer in Mexico City, said that he would vote against the president, uncomfortable that the federal government recently issued a decree that requires federal agencies to automatically approve infrastructure projects that are deemed to be of interest to the public or national security. He also sees the referendum as “a type of manipulation,” suspicious of why the president has contradicted the National Electoral Institute, saying it has enough funding to hold a vote he himself has fought for.

María de los Angeles Resendiz, a grandmother of 10 from the state of Mexico, will support López Obrador without hesitation.

Resendiz, 62, watches the president’s 7 a.m. news conferences each day with her husband while preparing breakfast and washing dishes. If she needs to skip one, she’ll track it down later on YouTube. She also listens to summaries in case she’s missed something.

Before López Obrador took power, Resendiz tried to stay as far away from politics as she could. She became disillusioned when she was a little girl after the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which soldiers killed as many as 300 people at a student protest in Mexico City.

She called López Obrador a “simple” man who has won her confidence with his anti-corruption platform. She eagerly described how his government has set money aside for youth job training and expanded welfare payments to the elderly.

“He’s given us back our dignity,” she said. “I am proud to say that I am Mexican and that he is my president.”

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Original Post: latimes.com

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Op-Ed: the U.S. Shouldn’t Ignore Mexico’s Ongoing Human Rights Catastrophe

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On Dec. 1, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reached the halfway point of his six-year term. Since his election in 2018, López Obrador has not only failed to improve the country’s disastrous human rights record, he has worked to undo many of the hard-fought gains in transparency and the rule of law that rights groups, activists and campaigners have achieved since the end of one-party rule in Mexico in 2000.

The United States has been noticeably silent regarding the Mexican president’s accelerating attacks on democracy. President Biden has instead chosen to focus on enlisting López Obrador to prevent migrants from reaching the U.S. border.

López Obrador, a prominent anti-establishment figure in Mexican politics for decades, is the kind of populist leader that has become increasingly common in Latin America. He was democratically elected in a landslide on a promise to “transform” Mexico by taking back control of the country from the elites whose policies he blamed for economic inequality, social breakdown and growing violence.

López Obrador inherited a human rights catastrophe. When he came to office in 2018, 12 years of a military-led drug war had led to horrific abuses. Homicides hit staggering numbers. Thousands of people disappeared every year. But he has not addressed these problems. Soldiers continue to kill civilians. Homicides remain at historically high rates. And according to the government’s figures, more than 25,000 people have gone missing on his watch.

Even so, López Obrador has remained immensely popular with his base. He appears to believe that his continued popular support gives him the moral authority to concentrate as much power as possible in his own hands and to attempt to control every part of the state to bring about his promised transformation.

He labels anyone who criticizes him or stands in his way as a “neoliberal” or “conservative,” nebulous groups of supposed adversaries whom he describes as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Leveling this charge allows him to avoid responding to genuine concerns raised by journalists who question him, women’s rights campaigners upset at his lack of action on gender-based violence, Indigenous communities who oppose his megaprojects, environmentalists who disagree with his coal and oil-focused energy policy, and press freedom campaigners concerned about his government’s harassment of journalists, among others.

He has eliminated or proposed eliminating many government agencies not under his direct control, including the independent energy and telecommunications regulators, funds for protecting journalists and responding to climate change and natural disasters, the independent transparency agency and the independent electoral authority. He recently decreed that his government’s construction and infrastructure projects would be automatically granted permits without any review and that as matters of “national security,” would be exempted from transparency rules.

He has also gone after the judicial system, which has delayed or blocked a number of his projects and proposals as abusive or unconstitutional. His efforts to intimidate the judiciary have grown brazen. López Obrador has publicly singled out those whose rulings he dislikes and called for a judge who ruled against him to be investigated.

In April, his coalition in Congress passed a law — since overturned — to extend the term of the Supreme Court chief justice who has ruled in favor of the president. And in August, López Obrador held a referendum on whether the government should put five previous presidents on trial for alleged crimes such as “neoliberalism” and the “privatization of public goods.”

The U.S. policy of ignoring López Obrador’s attacks on the rule of law came into stark relief in June, when Vice President Kamala Harris visited Mexico and met with him. At the end of the trip, a journalist asked the vice president if the United States was concerned about López Obrador’s hostile attitude toward the media and civil society.

Harris initially responded that she had urged the Mexican president to respect the independence of the judicial system, the press and civil society. However, hours later, her spokesperson issued a correction to the Spanish wire service EFE, saying the vice president had been confused; she and the Mexican president had only discussed immigration and the economy, nothing else.

López Obrador will be in office for another three years. His coalition still controls both houses of Congress and he has made it clear that he is willing to amend the constitution if necessary to remove obstacles to achieving his goals. Unless the circumstances change, there are no signs he intends to alter his course.

José Miguel Vivanco is Americas director at Human Rights Watch. Tyler Mattiace is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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Source: latimes.com

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Photos: As Roe Vs. Wade Challenged, Demonstrators Gather Outside Supreme Court

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Juanito Estevez, of Freeport, N.Y., holds a cross as he and abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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