Colombian police announce the surrender of top narco to the DEA

Javier Antonio Calle Serna2BOGOTA, Colombia -- Authorities on Monday announced the surrender of one of Colombia's most wanted drug traffickers and leader of the notorious Rastrojos criminal band that allegedly funnels Colombian cocaine to Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Javier Antonio Calle Serna, a member of a clan known as the Combas, or warriors, surrendered to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Aruba on Friday and then was flown to New York City, where he faces a federal indictment on drug trafficking charges, Colombian police said.

Calle Serna had been negotiating terms of his surrender for weeks, sources told The Times. The U.S. State Department had offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to the 43-year-old’s arrest, alleging that he and his associates had shipped 30 tons of cocaine into Mexico bound for the United States. Calle Serna was once a member of the leftist rebel group FARC.

The Rastrojos are thought to be among the most powerful of half a dozen Colombian cocaine cartels known as bacrims, which is Spanish shorthand for criminal bands. The gangs filled the vacuum created by the demobilization of paramilitary militias, which along with the FARC were thought to have controlled the bulk of the illicit drug trade here.

At a news conference in Bogota, Colombian National Police Gen. Roberto Leon Riaño said the agreement leading to Calle Serna’s surrender was the end product of Colombian authorities’ “relentless pursuit” of the fugitive. A months-long operation that involved 3,000 wiretaps and the seizure of 15 tons of cocaine led to his arrest, he said.

As part of the same operation, Calle Serna’s brother Juan Carlos was arrested in Quito, Ecuador, in March by police who had been tipped to his presence there.

According to an indictment filed by prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York in 2009, Calle Serna  was responsible for various aspects of transporting loads of cocaine to Central America and Mexico via so called go-fast outboard motor boats and semi-submersible submarines.

The Calle Serna clan was part of the North Valley drug cartel until a falling out led to a bitter and bloody power struggle. At the news conference Monday, Riaño said Calle Serna was responsible for the 2008 murder in Venezuela of Wilber Varela, a former North Valley capo turned sworn enemy.

According to the State Department, the Rastrojos also conduct extortion of businesses and individuals in several areas of Colombia. Calle Serna has been linked to kidnappings, tortures and assassinations in Colombia, Venezuela and Panama.

Riaño issued a public ultimatum to Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, perhaps the nation’s most powerful drug trafficker still at large -- and Calle-Serna’s associate in the Rastrojos -- to surrender. Giving himself up, Riaño said, is the “only way out for narco traffickers and terrorists.”

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Photo: Javier Antonio Calle Serna in an undated photo. Credit: Colombian police


Al Qaeda posts video of kidnapped American development worker

Warren Weinstein, an American development worker kidnapped last year from his home in the eastern Pakistan city of Lahore, has appeared in a video released by Al Qaeda, saying his captors will kill him if President Obama does not meet their demandsISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- An American development worker kidnapped last year from his home in the eastern Pakistan city of Lahore has appeared in a video released by Al Qaeda, saying his captors will kill him if President Obama does not meet their demands.

Warren Weinstein, 70, was abducted from his home in an upscale neighborhood last August, just days before he was slated to finish his work in Pakistan and leave for the U.S. In December, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri appeared in a video and stated that his terror network was holding Weinstein.

Pakistani officials have said they believe that Weinstein is being held somewhere in the country's volatile tribal region along the Afghan border, where Al Qaeda militants and other Islamic extremist groups maintain strongholds.

The 2-minute, 40-second video of Weinstein, released on Sunday, shows him dressed in a traditional Pakistani tunic as he calmly urges Obama to acquiesce to Al Qaeda's demands. In the December video, Zawahiri demanded an end to all U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, as well as the release of all Al Qaeda and Taliban militants currently being detained.

"If you accept the demands, I live," Weinstein said in the video, directing his remarks to Obama. "If you don't accept the demands, then I die."

Weinstein appears alone in the video, which was posted on jihadist Internet forums by Al-Sahab, Al Qaeda's media wing. It is not known when the video was made.

Addressing his wife, Elaine, Weinstein said, "I'm fine, I'm well, I'm getting all my medications. I'm being taken care of." Weinstein, whose home is in Rockville, Md., suffers from asthma and high blood pressure.

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Counter-terrorism official says drones help prevent deeper conflicts

Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and  Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in Islamabad

WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor defended using drones to launch deadly missiles against militants and terrorist leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, arguing Monday that the unmanned aircraft have helped prevent deeper military conflicts.

The comments by John Brennan, shortly before the first anniversary of the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden, marked the first time that a senior White House official has spoken at length in public about drone operations, which have been widely reported but are officially covert.

The administration’s growing reliance on drones has stirred deep controversy at home and abroad. On Sunday, unmanned aircraft killed at least three suspected militants in the tribal region of northern Pakistan despite the Pakistani government's insistence that the U.S. attacks have infringed on the country's sovereignty and killed or injured hundreds of civilians over the last three years.

But in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington-based think tank, Brennan said civilian casualties from drone strikes were “exceedingly rare.”

“We take it seriously,” he said. “We go back and review our actions.”

Brennan strained to answer critics who have sought information for years on how U.S. officials decide whom to target, and how often civilians have been accidentally killed.

“We only authorize a particular operation against a specific individual if we have a high degree of confidence that the individual being targeted is indeed the terrorist we are pursuing,” he said. “This is a very high bar.”

Brennan said the campaign of targeted drone strikes has reduced danger to U.S. pilots, limited civilian casualties and helped prevent deeper U.S. military actions overseas.

“Large, intrusive military deployments risk playing into Al Qaeda’s strategy of trying to draw us into long, costly wars that drain us financially, inflame anti-American resentment and inspire the next generation of terrorists,” he said.

Until recently, no Obama administration official publicly acknowledged the covert drone program, although hundreds of CIA drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since 2009.

Obama acknowledged the classified program Jan. 30 when he said the U.S. has to be “judicious in how we use drones,” in response to a question about attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Brennan said he was speaking about the drone program because Obama had instructed officials to be more open about it. 

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Photo: Marc Grossman, right, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, holds talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, left, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 26. Pakistan reiterated its opposition to U.S. drone attacks in its territory. Credit: Sajjad Qayyumsajjad Qayyum / AFP


Millions in Sahel are short on food; aid agencies scrape for cash

Foodcrisis

Aid agencies put out an SOS on Monday, saying they have fallen far short on funding to feed people in the Sahel area of West Africa, a shortfall that could lead to millions of people starving.

The four groups -- Action Against Hunger, Oxfam International, Save the Children and World Vision -- say they have raised only $52 million out the $250 million they need to help 6 million people avoid hunger in the Sahel region, south of the Sahara, which has been afflicted by droughts and overgrazing.

Political turbulence in Mali has added to the strain in the area, displacing people and disrupting markets. Desperate for food, women in Chad have been digging through anthills, searching for grains to survive. More than 2,000 severely malnourished children poured into a single feeding center in Chad last month, according to Action Against Hunger.

Fifteen million people are affected by the crisis, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week, calling on the world to "do more -- and do it quickly.”

The U.N. has also fallen short, raising less than half of the projected $724 million required to tackle the crisis, the aid groups said. Food shortfalls are expected to be worst from July through September.

"We have to act now before the crisis reaches its peak when the most vulnerable will be among those dying from preventable hunger and malnutrition," World Vision response manager Chris Palusky said in a statement Monday.

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Photo: Accompanied by her mother, Zara Mahamat, suffering from malnutrition, diarrhea and fever, receives treatment Wednesday in an intensive care tent at the hospital in N'Gouri, a desert village in Chad. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press


U.S. easing sanctions on Myanmar after elections

Hillary Rodham Clinton

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will send an ambassador to Myanmar and begin easing financial, foreign aid and travel sanctions in recognition of the long-isolated country’s first free and fair parliamentary elections, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

Clinton called Sunday’s historic elections, which will seat opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other pro-reform candidates for the first time, “an important step in the country’s transformation.”

The unraveling of the first of many U.S. sanctions will come slowly and could be reversed if  political reforms don't continue, U.S. officials said. Yet the moves represent a substantial gesture from the Obama administration, which has sought to coax change from Myanmar’s autocratic regime for the last three years.

The administration is consulting with Congress and the Myanmar government but expects to nominate an ambassador soon, officials said. Derek Mitchell, who is now special envoy for Myanmar, is the likely choice, said a congressional aide. Washington hasn’t posted an ambassador to Myanmar, previously known as Burma, since it downgraded relations in 1988.

The administration will selectively ease restrictions on American investment in the country and on the services that can be provided by U.S. financial services firms, according to U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. goal will be to help ordinary residents, rather than the military-dominated regime, which controls much of Myanmar’s valuable natural resources, officials said. Instead of permitting investment in the regime-controlled gem or timber businesses, an official said, the administration might, for example, allow investment in agriculture, tourism and telecommunications.

But the official said U.S. firms are likely to be cautious because Myanmar is a difficult environment for foreign investors.

The administration plans to open the way for nonprofit organizations to expand activities in Myanmar. It will also selectively ease travel restrictions on Myanmar officials to allow pro-reform officials to visit the United States.

The administration will also expand the presence of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which helps coordinate and run U.S. foreign aid projects, by opening a regional office in the country.

While U.S. officials praised Myanmar’s president, they stressed that the regime needs to enact more reforms, including full release of political prisoners, severing the military relationship with North Korea and ending abuses against ethnic minorities.

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Photo: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton discusses Myanmar at the State Department in Washington on Wednesday. Credit: Michael Reynolds / European Pressphoto Agency


Red Cross chief presses for more aid access, cease-fire in Syria

Syria-red-cross
REPORTING FROM BEIRUT — Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger was meeting with top Syrian officials in Damascus on Tuesday in a bid to get greater aid access to those wounded and displaced in the crisis-torn country and to press for a daily humanitarian cease-fire.

"He already met with the minister of foreign affairs and is scheduled to meet with the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent," Saleh Dabbakeh, an International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman in Damascus, said by telephone. "He has gone to meet the minister of Interior and the minister of Health. In all these meetings certain issues are being discussed."

Kellenberger was seeking to expand the Red Cross' ability to reach Syrians in need, according to Dabbakeh. He also was seeking access to detainees and pressing to "implement on the ground" a daily two-hour humanitarian cease-fire to allow in aid — one of the conditions in U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan's proposed peace plan.

"There is an increasing number people of who need assistance, and that includes the ICRC being present in various places," Dabbakeh said. "And there is the protection of civilians through the humanitarian cease-fire. We want two hours at least every day in areas where there is fighting to be able to bring in humanitarian assistance and supplies. It was initially accepted by all parties."

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Death toll is 2 in Mexico quake; volcano rumor quelled

Damaged home at the village of Huixtepec, in the municipality of Ometepec, Guerrero, Mexico

REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- Two people have died after last week's large earthquake in Mexico, the first casualties reported since the magnitude 7.4 quake shook densely populated Mexico City and damaged thousands of homes across several southern states.

The mayor of a municipality in Guerrero state, near the border with Oaxaca and near the quake epicenter, said that one man died of his injuries after a wall fell on him and that another man died from complications of a heart attack suffered during the quake.

The deaths in the Cuajinicuilapa municipality were reported to the federal government during a tour Friday of the largely rural zone by Social Development Secretary Heriberto Felix Guerra (link in post in Spanish).

Previously, no deaths and no major damages had been reported since the quake, which was centered in Ometepec, Guerrero state.

It was one of the largest seismic events in Mexico since the devastating magnitude 8 quake of 1985 that left more than 10,000 dead. (A quake of equal magnitude hit western Mexico in 1995, killing 49, and a quake measuring 7.6 hit the same region in 2003.)

The low death toll in Tuesday's quake suggests Mexico's progress on earthquake preparedness since 1985 makes the country a "model for preparedness in the developing world," said an online story by Nature

Mexico's interior secretariat said 29 municipalities in Guerrero would receive funds for damage to homes and buildings during the quake. Thousands were damaged in Guerrero and Oaxaca, officials said.

Separately, the geophysics institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico released a statement contesting a claim made by Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre that caused a brief buzz on social networking sites. The governor said Thursday that the university's geophysicists were headed to the quake zone to determine whether a small volcano was emerging and therefore causing the seismic activity.

The institute said it was routine to send analysts to earthquake epicenters to study seismic activity after a large quake. "The earthquake ... had a non-volcanic origin," the statement said.

On Sunday, a quake measuring 7.1 hit Chile, resulting in no deaths. 

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Photo: A child picks up debris of his damaged home at the village of Huixtepec, in the municipality of Ometepec, Guerrero state, on March 23, 2012. Credit: Pedro Pardo / AFP/Getty Images


South Koreans rally around imprisoned political agitator

South Koreans rally around imprisoned political agitator
REPORTING FROM HONGSUNG, SOUTH KOREA -- Nearly 2,000 supporters of a former South Korean legislator and political podcast host jailed for spreading false allegations against President Lee Myung-bak recently staged a rally at a prison here to let the inmate know they haven’t forgotten his cause.

Ex-lawmaker Jung Bong-ju, a former panel member on the nation’s most popular political podcast, is serving one year behind bars after making allegations about Lee’s business connections during the presidential election campaign in 2007.

Many here view Jung’s imprisonment as a threat to freedom of speech.

“We believe that there were political motivations behind the judgment, as it is an issue linked to the current president,” said Lee Gye-hwa, Jung’s attorney.

Jung’s supporters have launched a series of one-person demonstrations around South Korea and in other nations, Lee said. They have also planned mass trips to the prison, this time chartering trains dubbed “Bong-ju trains” in honor of the politician.

Podcast listeners of all ages and backgrounds participated in the most recent trip earlier this month to voice support for Jung and the show.

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Kony and beyond: Could a video work for Syria activists? [Video]

  

If viral video can catapult notorious Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony onto Twitter trends, can it make more people care about the bloody, lengthy conflict in Syria?

A new video created by Syrian opposition activists is trying to do just that. Styled like a movie trailer with sweeping music and dramatic cuts, the activist video posted on YouTube on Wednesday splices amateur and news images of the uprising that has raged for a year.

If the video that zeroed in on Kony was criticized as being overly simplistic, the Syrian faux movie trailer is more so. Syrian President Bashar Assad is never mentioned.

Instead, the video focuses mainly on the killing and suffering of civilians. The video includes a SkyNews interview with wounded Sunday Times of London photographer Paul Conroy in his hospital bed, saying, "It's not a war. It's a massacre."

When the nonprofit Invisible Children launched Kony to Internet stardom with its video, pundits questioned why Syria hadn't attracted the same attention through online social networks. Riffing on that theme, comedian Jon Stewart aired a parody video of a talking dog explaining the Syrian crisis.

Foreign Policy magazine asked Al Jazeera social media head Riyaad Minty why Syria hadn't gone viral in the same way Kony did. It wrote that "grainy YouTube clips or dry accounts of dozens of people slaughtered in an anonymous city ... isn't favorable for attracting a wider audience."

"Syria isn't as personal, in terms of the narrative that is being presented," Minty told Foreign Policy. "There's a lot of death and destruction, but it just doesn't have that personal connection for people."

Thursday is the one-year anniversary of the uprising in Syria, estimated to have cost 8,000 lives. The United Nations has condemned rampant human rights abuses under the Assad regime and backed a plan that calls for the president to step down. Syria says it is defending itself against armed terrorists.

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Video: An activist video about the Syrian conflict styled like a movie trailer. Credit: YouTube


Health leaders: Average person lives to be 40 in South Sudan

An elderly man suffering from malnutrition in the village of Walgak, South Sudan.

The jarring statistics seemed a world away from the pristine hotel reception room ringed with people in smart suits: The average person lives only 40 years. More than a third of children are malnourished. And more mothers die in childbirth than anywhere else in the world.

Lul Pout Riek was in Los Angeles to talk about South Sudan, the planet's newest nation. The numbers fell almost casually from his tongue, all too familiar to him, but they shocked Angelenos in the Century City hotel who had gathered to hear him and another South Sudanese health chief.

“Tonight we are asking you not to cry with us;  we are asking you to get involved,” Riek told his audience, which included actor Danny Glover.

“Danny,” Riek added, “we need a movie.”

A movie might help,  but Riek needs almost everything. The Sudanese physician oversees community and public health in South Sudan, a Herculean task in the newborn nation.

Doctors are scarce after decades of civil war, with fewer than two doctors for every 100,000 people. Hospitals are short on everything, including mattresses, sheets and drugs to combat malaria.

The fledgling country doesn’t have a functional blood bank, Riek said. In the rainy season, roads are useless, leaving hospitals out of reach for many people in distant villages.

Then there  are  devastating rates of HIV/AIDS, malnutrition and a slew of tropical diseases, some never seen before. Almost all the global cases of guinea worm, a menace almost eradicated elsewhere, are in South Sudan.

Oil money was supposed to save them, Deputy Health Minister Yatta Lori Lugor said. But South Sudan shut off its oil in January in the throes of a dispute with neighboring Sudan over whether it was getting its fair share of the revenue.

"The money's not there," Lugor said.

So Riek and Lugor are trying to drum up help in the United States. They came to Los Angeles at the invitation of a health technology firm whose chief executive was inspired by what he saw at a conference in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

“In Jamaica, we have a saying, ‘No problem, man,’” said Richard Stephenson, chief executive of RISARC, which hosted the Tuesday dinner with the Black American Political Assn. of California and other groups. “But these people took ‘No problem, man,’ to new heights.”

But the two men seemed surprisingly hopeful in the face of the daunting statistics that Riek rattled off, convinced that things can and will change in a country that got its independence less than a year ago.

"If people understand what we're facing," Riek said, "we believe people will help."

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An elderly man receives treatment for malnutrition in a medical clinic in the village of Walgak, South Sudan, in February 2012. Credit: Pete Muller / Associated Press


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