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Where Will the Next Pandemic Begin? the Amazon Rainforest Offers Troubling Clues

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MARUAGA, Brazil — 

The 10-year-old took off running down a dirt road in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, turning cartwheels, playing tag and picking fistfuls of wild bougainvillea.

Small fires flared all around Darah Lady Assunção Oliveira da Costa and her young cousins as men burned trees to make room for more farmland. On the horizon loomed what was left of still-virgin jungle, dense and impossibly green. A chain saw roared from within.

In the three decades since Darah Lady’s widowed grandmother first arrived in this remote stretch of northern Brazil, clearing the jungle by hand to build a house for her 14 children, the family has pushed deeper and deeper into the Amazon. It has been driven by the frontier maxim that prosperity comes when nature succumbs to human dominion.

A settler slashes and burns a patch of land near the edge of the rainforest in Maruaga, Brazil. Big and small encroachments happen throughout the Amazon on any given day. Since 1970, more than a quarter million square miles of Brazilian rainforest have been destroyed.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“To survive, we need to use what we have,” said Darah Lady’s father, 60-year-old Aladino Oliveira da Costa, who toppled old-growth forest to build homes for each of his four older children.

He and the rest of the community have been prepping Darah Lady and her 42 cousins for life on the literal edge of civilization, teaching them which insects to avoid, which plants cure colds and which wild animals can be hunted and eaten.

Darah Lady Assunção Oliveira da Costa, 10, picks flowers near her home in a jungle settlement called Maruaga. The girl’s grandmother settled in the area about 30 years ago, clearing the land and building a home for her 14 children. The family has pushed deeper into the Amazon with each passing generation.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Yet their growing outpost in northeastern Amazonas state — one of thousands of informal settlements throughout the world’s largest rainforest — could imperil not only their children’s future but also that of the entire planet.

It’s not just about trees. It’s about viruses.

More global pandemics like COVID-19 are on the way, scientists say, and the next one is likely to emerge from a community like Darah Lady’s, where people are encroaching on the natural world and erasing the buffer between themselves and habitats that existed long before a shovel cut this earth.

From palm oil cultivation in Malaysia to mining in Africa or cattle ranching in Brazil, as people demolish forest, they not only accelerate global warming but also dramatically increase their risk of exposure to disease. Lurking in mammals and birds are about 1.6 million viruses, some of which will be deadly when they leap to humans. The stakes turn catastrophic if a virus proves transmissible between people.

That’s what happened with COVID-19, which originated from close contact between humans and wild animals — whether it sprung from a natural setting or a laboratory.

The high rises of Manaus jut out of the Amazon rainforest along the Rio Negro in northwestern Brazil. Founded in the 19th century as a center for the rubber trade, Manaus now is a free import and export business zone. Commerce and industry here are bustling.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Scientists say that disease hot zones are multiplying from Africa to South America, and that deforestation has already triggered a rise in infectious disease. Zoologists have traced about a third of all known outbreaks around the world to rapid land use change, including Nipah virus, malaria and Lyme disease. The problem is worsened by warmer temperatures brought by climate change that allow disease-carrying insects to flourish.

Brazil has lost 270,000 square miles of the rainforest — the size of two Germanys — since 1970. Darah Lady’s hamlet of Maruaga is rife with risks for viral spillover, from omnipresent mosquitoes, roaming dogs and chickens, and the wild game her family regularly eats. Infected bushmeat consumption probably sparked the 2013 Ebola outbreak in the West African country of Guinea.

“Oh, it’s delicious!” Darah Lady said of paca, a hunched, striped rodent that lives in the forest, as she and her cousins stopped to say hello to her father, who was smoothing mortar between concrete blocks, adding a new room to their two-story house.

“But you can’t go overboard with the pepper,” Darah Lady continued. “There was this one time when he went to prepare the paca” — she stuck her tongue out and panted — “and it was so hot!”

Her father, long-limbed and quick-witted like his daughter, smiled, putting his arm around the girl’s narrow shoulders. “And tapir,” he added, referring to a jungle mammal that resembles a large pig with a trunk. “They are also really good.”

Birds settle on a tree in the central square of Manaus, Brazil. Built on the banks of the Rio Negro, the city of 2 million people stands in the middle of the Amazon jungle. It is a bustling center for commerce, industry and trade.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angles Times)

Their family has already battled zoonotic illnesses — the term used to describe infectious diseases transmitted between animals and humans. Darah Lady’s father is a survivor of malaria and Leishmaniasis, a disease carried by sand flies that causes flesh-eating skin sores.

When 40% of a land area has been destroyed, according to Tom Gillespie, an Emory researcher focused on environmental change and disease, the region hits a sort of tipping point: Wild animals are pushed closer to humans for food, and viruses begin to spread.

Even small decreases in forest cover can drive up exposure to pathogens. In Brazil, Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that causes devastating birth defects, is a prime example. Scientists say deforestation has contributed to record heat and droughts that cause more people to store water in open containers — excellent breeding grounds for mosquitoes. With global warming, these vectors will probably creep north, breeding in parts of North America, Europe and East Asia where it had previously been too cold.

It is likely Darah Lady will confront another pandemic in her lifetime. But her family isn’t worried. When COVID-19 swept through the Amazon, her relatives say they survived by sipping tea made with the bark of a forest vine. Darah Lady’s grandmother Iracema, 81, went into the jungle to collect the ingredients.

“It’s something that God put on the face of this Earth,” Darah Lady’s aunt Ivaneide Assunção da Silva said of the virus. “And God gave us the tools to cure ourselves.”

A primate looks out from its cage at a wildlife research facility in Manaus, Brazil. Veterinarians and researchers constantly track and catalog pathogens found in the Amazon jungle. As people continue to encroach on the rainforest, buffers between humans and wildlife are erased, increasing the possibility of pathogen transmission between species.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The community here revolves around the small neo-Pentecostal church Iracema helped build. The church’s national leaders have claimed that the coronavirus is caused by Satan and will not hurt those who are not afraid of it. The whole family has declined to take the vaccine.

Iracema believes the family will meet any challenge, even a future pandemic, with the help of God — and the fruits of the forest.

“It’s important to know about the forest,” she said. “Because, when we live here, there’s no one to help us. We’ve always been here fending for ourselves.”

* * *

One hundred miles south of Maruaga, in the sprawling city of Manaus, a cemetery edges up against the rainforest, a sea of fresh wooden crosses giving way to a seemingly endless thicket of trees.

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when hospitals in Manaus ran out of oxygen and doctors could do no more than prescribe morphine to patients as they slowly asphyxiated, workers razed acres of jungle so backhoes could dig mass graves for thousands of dead.

Thousands of people in Manaus died in two separate surges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just about everyone in this city of 2 million people knows someone who died a slow and excruciating death after local hospitals ran out of oxygen. Officials bulldozed parts of the jungle for space to bury the dead.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

If there’s any place in the world that understands just how devastating a pandemic can be, it is Manaus, a city of 2 million that rises out of the forest along a tributary of the Amazon River. Scientists are concerned Manaus could also be the breeding ground for the next global epidemic, and say its poor performance responding to COVID-19 suggests it is nowhere near ready for what may come.

“We were not prepared,” said nursing assistant Ludernilce Peixoto Costa, 43, who works at one of the city’s main hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Peixoto lost both of her parents to COVID-19. In the ICU where she works, her father died holding her hand.

She worries about her youngest brother, 16, who has become increasingly withdrawn — another COVID-19 orphan in a city full of them. She worries, too, about her 6-year-old daughter, Adrielly, who can’t remember a life before protective masks and who says she wants to be a doctor one day because she has known so many sick people.

Peixoto wonders: What if the virus never really goes away, or another one appears, and the young have to live with pandemics forever?

“It scares me a lot,” Peixoto said on a recent morning after another exhausting night shift. “It’s an uncertain future.”

Ludernilce Peixoto Costa, 43, and her daughter Adrielly, 6, at their home on the outskirts of Manaus, Brazil. Peixoto works at one of the city’s main hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. She lost both of her parents to COVID-19.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Others share that worry, including Nelcicleide Vasconcelos Barbosa Reis, 39, who works for a Catholic charity in an informal settlement about three hours north of Manaus.

The town, with a name, Rumo Certo, that translates to Right Path, sprung up from the jungle less than three decades ago and is now sandwiched between a series of cattle ranches and a lake formed by a hydroelectric dam.

Vasconcelos was busy making sure children didn’t fall behind while schools were closed when last year she, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter fell ill.

Her husband died in a Manaus hospital in December. Her daughter, Emanuelle, is shattered, spinning with anxiety when anybody mentions the word “COVID.”

“It’s unfair,” Emanuelle tells her mother. “Couldn’t God see that a kid needs her dad?”

Schools have been closed for well over a year and there’s no sign she’s going back.

During a recent party at the church, where Emanuelle floated around with a group of kids, including a toddler in a T-shirt emblazoned with a photograph of his father, who also died from COVID-19, Vasconcelos wiped away tears. She wondered if children’s lives would ever feel “normal” again.

“Either they will mature quickly or they will get lost,” she said.

* * *

The capuchin monkey was out cold, sprawled on a metal exam table as veterinarian Alessandra Nava gently searched its legs for a good vein.

The monkey, an illegal pet turned over to Brazil’s federal environmental protection agency, was malnourished and underweight, but Nava finally found a decent site for a draw on its thigh. Blood filled a vial, and as the monkey was carried back to its cage to sleep off the sedatives, Nava dropped the vial into a tank of liquid nitrogen — another sample for her database.

Veterinarian Alessandra Nava draws blood samples from a primate at a lab in Manaus. Nava is a researcher with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil’s most prominent scientific institution, and tracks viruses in the Amazon jungle.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Nava is a virus hunter. As a researcher with Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a government-run lab, she spends her days in and around Manaus taking samples from primates, rodents and bats. Those specimens are helping build up the institution’s biobank — a library of the viruses that are circulating among animals in the jungle.

Unlike traditional biobanks that store human samples for genomics and personalized medicine, these repositories serve a more universal purpose: surveilling viral circulation. The scientists know that while reservoir hosts like the monkey can harbor many viruses without ever falling ill, when those viruses make their way into humans, they can trigger a disastrous outbreak.

Scientists like Nava stalk and study the pathogens in hopes of outsmarting them. If a mysterious case of disease were to appear in a human, lab workers could sequence the virus’ genome and try to match it to a virus in the biobank, speeding up efforts to contain it.

There are similar projects in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia — where scientists worry about a Nipah virus spillover — and the Congo basin, where Ebola and Marburg remain constant threats.

Internationally, the Global Virome Project is the most robust example: a massive research project that aims to catalog every virus that could threaten humans. Dennis Carroll, the researcher who runs it, believes that if such a data set had been available in the past, the coronavirus that spilled into humans some two years ago would have been identified much faster.

But many zoologists consider it too ambitious. Estimates suggest the project would cost about $1.6 billion over a decade to identify 75% of all the world’s viruses. And even a library of them all wouldn’t reveal which could be transmitted between humans. Some scientists think a wiser approach is convincing specific groups of people to adopt less risky behaviors: wet-market workers, mink farmers, chimpanzee hunters — and perhaps families living on the fringe of the forest, like Darah Lady’s.

Much of the research into zoonotic spillover has so far focused on Asia and Africa, but there is increasing attention on the Amazon. Brazil lost an estimated 5 million acres of its section of the forest in 2020, and scientists warn that section could be reduced by more than 40% by 2050. Outbreaks of zoonotic disease have increased globally in the last 30 years, and the virus that will mutate to cause the next one, though perhaps undetected, is already out there.

A sloth takes refuge in the hair of a researcher with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil’s most prominent scientific institution. As people continue to encroach on the rainforest, buffers between humans and wildlife are erased, increasing the possibility of pathogen transmission between species. Scientific researchers track and catalog pathogens found in animals from the Brazilian jungle.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“They cut down a chunk of pristine forest and build a shopping mall, and people think it’s progress,” Nava said. “But when you do that, you’re leaving an entire group of animals without a home.”

Nava, who has a young daughter, has been adding solar panels and cisterns to her house to make her family more self-sufficient in the face of future disasters. As she commutes around Manaus, with its urban sprawl ever encroaching on the forest around it, she thinks about her kid: “What kind of planet are we leaving her?”

If people truly care about avoiding future pandemics, she said, they will realize that the best approach is not her own — trying to learn about viruses before they take root in humans — but to stop their spread altogether.

“It’s not about searching for the next virus,” she said. “We have to stop deforestation right now.”

* * *

Aladino Oliveira da Costa, 60, and his daughter Darah Lady, 10, talk with a reporter outside their home in the village of Maruaga. Oliviera cleared old-growth trees from the jungle to build homes for each of his four older children. He hopes to someday do the same for Darah Lady.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Oliveira bristles at suggestions that families like his are doing something wrong by expanding into the jungle.

He supports Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right firebrand who has allowed an increase of logging, mining and cattle farming in the Amazon — activities that scientists say are linked to the emergence of infectious disease.

Oliveira says if scientists want Brazil to stop cutting down the rainforest, they should compensate those living there. “Pay me to preserve it and I will preserve it,” he said on a recent morning, sipping coffee in an open-air gazebo with his wife and his wife’s mother while Darah Lady sat in Sunday school at the community’s little church.

“Coming from the outside, you want the forest to remain standing,” he said. “That’s wonderful. But I live here in the forest. And I don’t survive on leaves and lizards.”

Around him were signs of how the growth of his family’s compound has already altered a land that less than a century ago was untouched and pristine. A paved road built recently is already lined with small stores and cattle ranches. Nearby, construction workers are preparing to clear more forest to build a hospital. Even where the lush green is relatively undisturbed, thick electrical lines stretch over the canopy, buzzing day and night.

The kids trickled out of the church, Darah Lady clutching a Bible. She accepted kisses from all the adults — including her grandmother Iracema, who decades ago pushed back the forest to make a home — then sat down with her cousins for a breakfast of fruitcake.

More than her elders, Darah Lady seemed to intuit the nuance of deforestation. Just days before, she had played on a lot that was being cleared.

It had once been a dense universe of life — towering trees, cacophonous birds, legions of rare insects and animals. But now it looked as if it had been flattened by a bomb, cleared of any valuable timber and blackened by a still-smoldering fire.

“I get kind of sad,” Darah Lady said. “Because, like, the forest is something I’ve loved since I was little. And they’re deforesting, right? It’s destroying nature.”

A man burning jungle in a settlement named Maruaga in Brazil.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“But it’s also going to help,” she said, exhibiting a child’s grasp of slash-and-burn agriculture. “This land they are burning, these trees, the nutrients from what they burn will go into the soil. And it will help to plant new things — like orange trees, guava trees — and people can build houses.”

On this Sunday morning, as she and her family finished up and retired to their home, smoke from farmers clearing more land again filled the sky, a sign of both progress and peril. Darah Lady was so used to it, she barely noticed.

Times staff writer Linthicum and special correspondent Ionova reported from Maruaga. Staff writer Baumgaertner reported from Los Angeles.

This is the sixth in a series of occasional stories about the challenges young people face in an increasingly perilous world. Reporting was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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Original Post: latimes.com

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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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