Judge promises probe into Argentina train crash that killed 49

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REPORTING FROM BUENOS AIRES -- An Argentinian federal judge promised to lead an investigation into the causes of a stunning train crash that killed at least 49 people and injured more than 600 Wednesday morning.

No official cause of the accident here had been determined by midday. "We imagine there was a problem with the brakes," Transport Secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi told reporters after federal Judge Claudio Bonadio said he would lead the inquiry.

Operator TBA issued a statement apologizing for the accident and promising to pursue all means of investigation to "promptly clarify" its cause. Several commuters interviewed at the station where the wreck occurred said they were familiar with the line and that it is notorious for its shabby condition.

PHOTOS: Train accident in Buenos Aires

The train that crashed was on the Sarmiento line, which brings commuters from the western regions of Buenos Aires to the center of the capital. It slammed into a barrier at the peak of rush hour. After impact, many cars pancaked or jumped the tracks, killing passengers and people waiting to board.

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49 killed as train slams into retaining wall in Buenos Aires

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REPORTING FROM BUENOS AIRES AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- A commuter train went out of control and slammed into a retaining barrier in a central Buenos Aires train station during peak rush hour Wednesday morning, killing at least 49 people and injuring more than 500, federal police officials said.
After impact, many cars pancaked or jumped the tracks, killing both passengers and people waiting at the station to board. No official cause of the accident had been determined by midday, but officials speculated that a brake or system failure or human error sent the train out of control.
Police spokesman Nestor Rodriguez said the train was traveling about 15 mph and that the toll could have been much higher had it been traveling faster.

PHOTOS: Train accident in Buenos Aires

The train that crashed was on the Sarmiento line that brings commuters to central Buenos Aires, the capital, from the western reaches of the metropolis.

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What a Falklander thinks about the Falkland Islands dispute


It's the conflict that seems to never end: Argentina and Britain have disagreed over who owns the Falkland Islands since the 19th century. Thirty years ago, hundreds of people died in a bloody war over the British territory after Argentina sent in troops and the British ejected them.

They can’t even agree on the name: Argentinians call the islands the Malvinas.  

Tensions have grown after the British announced that Prince William would take part in military exercises nearby, which Argentina saw as a threatening sign of militarization. Argentina, in turn, has put new economic pressure on the islands, shutting Falkland-flagged vessels out of regional ports.

Plans for oil and gas exploration off the Falklands only raise the stakes of the perennial conflict. Argentinian officials want the United Nations to mediate negotiations and put the islands under its control. The British have refused, saying the islanders want to stay under British sovereignty.

But what do the Falklanders think about it? The Times talked to Mike Summers, a member of the Falkland Islands Assembly, about the sparring over the South Atlantic islands.

How does the recent escalation in rhetoric between Argentina and Britain affect people living on the islands?

It doesn’t really. We’ve been so used to this for so many years. It just goes on. For people in government, it’s slightly different. We have to keep reacting to things. But for most of the citizens, it’s just part of the background noise.

I’ve heard that the vast majority of Falklanders want to stay under British sovereignty. Has the issue of British vs. Argentinian sovereignty ever been put to a vote?

We’ve never had a referendum on the subject because it is just so self-evident to everybody that it’s the way people feel.

In every election, everybody who stands for election says we’re opposed to the Argentine claim to our country. Nobody has ever got anywhere in an election that didn’t make that perfectly clear. Public sentiment is not at all difficult to judge on this issue. I’m not aware of a single person on these islands who thinks we should be talking about transfer of sovereignty.

It’s hard to imagine what a change in sovereignty would mean. Why does it matter to Falklanders?

The Falkland Islands are largely self-governing. We have our own government, we make our own laws. The British sovereignty contributes a defense deterrent and assistance in foreign affairs matters and that’s it.

If Argentina became sovereign, that sort of arrangement is unlikely to exist. They would likely be trying to recolonize the Falklands. It would be an enormously retrograde thing.

We’d be governed by a foreign country with no knowledge or understanding of the people here, no knowledge or understanding of how this community works and how the people in it think. It would be a foreign country taking over our country.

You have to add to that the fact that Argentina is historically and culturally completely different than the Falklands. Their legal system is different from ours. Their cultural mores are different than ours.

And frankly, it’s a country that’s not very well governed. Corruption is rife. Press freedom is restricted. It's not a country you’d want to be associated with.

Is there any anxiety about the idea of the U.N. talking about its sovereignty?

People in the Falklands are not concerned about that because the U.N. is the guardian of the principle of self-determination. As far as people in the Falklands are concerned, this shouldn’t be judged as a dispute between England and Argentina, it should be judged as what the people of the Falklands want to do.

What do you make of what Sean Penn said? [The actor has taken Argentina’s side in the dispute, saying “the world today is not going to tolerate any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology,” the Associated Press reported Monday.]

Good luck to Sean Penn. I don’t think many people [care] what Sean Penn thinks. I hope he’s a better actor than he is a politician.

Why do you think tensions have grown so much recently?

The main factor is really Mrs. [President Cristina Fernandez de] Kirchner racking up more and more harassment and attempts to intimidate the people of the Falklands by trying to cut trade between us and mainland Latin America. The British government, to their credit, has responded to it.

Effectively, Argentina is trying to blockade the Falklands and force us to go and discuss sovereignty. It’s like a schoolyard bully trying to beat someone up to give them their sweets. It’s intolerable that a country of that size should be trying to bully a country of 3,000 people into submission.

The upcoming anniversary of the invasion of the Falklands will also cause some focus in the next few weeks. [April 2 is the 30th anniversary of Argentina sending troops to the islands; June 14 is the 30th anniversary of end of the war.] I hope very much once we get past June that Argentina will relax and take a more mature attitude toward its neighbors.

How does oil exploration play into this conflict?

I think it does, in modern times. But of course the Argentines started on this track in the 1950s when [former President Juan] Peron decided claiming the Falklands would be a good way of distracting the public from problems he was having in Argentina at the time.

Whilst Argentina may shout and scream that they’re pinching our oil, that’s not how it started. It was an attempt to divert attention of the common man in Argentina from problems there and find a common rallying point.


Argentina protests British naval exercises near the Falklands

Sean Penn stokes Falklands furor; critic says his films are 'turkeys'

Son of British vet of Falkland Islands war becomes a citizen of Argentina

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Prince William and his crew lift off at the beginning of a six-week deployment in February in the Mount Pleasant Complex, Falkland Islands. Credit: Andy Malthouse / MoD via Getty Images

Why Argentina, Britain and Sean Penn care about the Falklands

Argentines in Buenos Aires protest Prince Williams' arrival in the Falklands

The Falkland Islands are under British control and have been since 1833, but Argentina says it inherited the South Atlantic archipelago from the Spanish crown. The two countries have lost lives over the small territory: In 1982, Britain drove off Argentine troops in a war that killed more than 900 people.

The fury over the Falklands can seem strange to outsiders, and even to Argentines and Britons. Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges once described the Falklands conflict as “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”

Why are the Falklands so important to these two countries?

To Argentina, having a British territory so close to home is seen as a vestige of colonialism. Argentines call the islands the Malvinas and bemoan them as “the lost little sisters” of Argentina. The quest to reclaim the islands has repeatedly been raised as an anti-imperialist cause. President Cristina Kirchner has slammed Britain as "a crude colonial power in decline."

Many Latin American leaders have sided with Argentina. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared, "Give the Malvinas back to the Argentine people." Actor Sean Penn recently stepped into the fray, saying the world would not tolerate  “any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology.”

But British leaders say it’s become a question of self-determination. Falklanders overwhelmingly want to stick with Britain, which has given it autonomy and military protection. They tend to be leery of Argentina, fearing it would have a heavier hand. And though the islands are geographically much closer to Argentina than Britain, their inhabitants speak English and identify with Britain.

“We’ve got 3,000 people of British descent who’ve been living quiet lives as shopkeepers and fishermen for the last 175 years,” said Robert O’Brien, a Los Angeles attorney who writes about Falkland affairs. “Just because there’s a bigger neighbor next door doesn’t mean they can take over.”

Besides the emotional claims on both sides, there is also an economic reason that both countries would want to control the Falklands: Britain is now planning oil and gas exploration around the islands.

“For Argentina, it’s a red-hot issue. It’s one thing for islanders to make money from squid fishing. It’s quite another to be drilling into the seabed and become the next Kuwait,” said Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Yet the dispute was raging long before oil came into the conversation. Some experts believe that the international argument is now so wrapped up in nationalist pride that it isn’t rational anymore.

“That war is like some toxic waste that will keep on surfacing until the issue is solved,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “A poll would show that the issue isn’t all that important. The problem is, it’s endlessly revivable.”

Why is the dispute over the Falklands heating up again now?

The 30th anniversary of the Falklands War is this spring. That puts the subject of Argentine defeat in the conflict squarely back in the spotlight.

In addition, Britain recently announced that it would send a destroyer to do routine military exercises near the Falklands, with Prince William taking part. Argentine Defense Minister Arturo Puricelli called it “an unnecessary ostentation of firepower.” Argentina has complained to the United Nations over British "militarization" of the islands, with Kirchner calling it "a grave risk for international safety."

Falklanders counter that Kirchner has stepped up the conflict by trying to put economic pressure on the islands. Argentina has convinced several South American countries to not let ships with Falkland flags dock at their ports, for instance.

Michael Summers, a member of the Falklands Island Assembly, complained that Argentina also pressures shipping companies not to work with them. Argentina even tried to start a “squid war” in January, telling fishermen to catch squid before they reached the islands.


Argentina protests British naval exercise near the Falklands

Sean Penn stokes Falklands furor; critic says his films are 'turkeys'

Son of British vet of Falkland Islands war becomes a citizen of Argentina

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Demonstrators burn a British flag outside the British Embassy in Buenos Aires during protests this month against the arrival of Prince William to the Falkland Islands for a six-week military deployment. Credit: Daniel Feldman / European Pressphoto Agency


Sean Penn stokes Falklands furor; critic says his films are 'turkeys'

Sean Penn and Argentina's president. Penn is causing a flap with his comments on the Falklands
Sean Penn has opened his mouth again about the Falklands, this time criticizing the deployment of Britain's Prince William to the islands. And the British are bristling -- particularly media outlets, with one telling the actor to "shut up."

The Daily Mail, not known for keeping its opinions to itself, referred to the "left-leaning actor" and his "smug" grin.

Pushing for diplomatic talks between Britain and Argentina, Penn said Tuesday, "The world today is not going to tolerate any kind of ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology."

British Falklands War veterans considered his comments "moronic," reported the Telegraph on Wednesday, citing a quote from the Daily Mail by a former army officer: "A good number" of Penn's films "have been turkeys, so I suppose we shouldn't expect much better."

Penn lashed out at the British media Wednesday, according to the Associated Press, saying his comments the day before had been misconstrued and that the media were pushing for war instead of diplomacy.

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South American prison deaths tied to overcrowding, official says

Violence at prisons in South America, where at least eight inmates were killed in recent weeks, remains tied to alarmingly shoddy conditions and rampant overcrowding, a United Nations official said Thursday.

Inmates in Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile reportedly died during the last two weeks as a result of prison violence.

The “alarming pattern of prison violence in the region” points to problems with adequate space and unsanitary conditions, said Amerigo Incalcaterra, the U.N. human rights representative for South America. Prisons in the region are overcrowded by anywhere from 30% to 70%.

In Uruguay, three inmates died from inhaling smoke when someone intentionally set a fire, possibly because the prisoners robbed their cellmates, the Latin American Herald Tribune reported:

“The boys are tired of, for example, my mother bringing me things and them [the other prisoners] taking them from me. The problems inside here are for those reasons. They couldn’t take any more and set the fire when [the victims] were sleeping inside the cell,” said one inmate interviewed by El Espectador. 

In Argentina, one prisoner was stabbed to death by another prisoner, while another was killed by blows to the head, allegedly by guards. 

Venezuela is trying to tackle the problem with a new prison ministry after more than two dozen people died in prison riots in July. Officials are pledging to speed up trials for inmates charged with minor offenses.

Critics say the crowded prisons are the offspring of the South American war on drugs, which has led to severe punishments for even minor drug offenses.

"The implementation of harsh drug laws has fueled rising incarceration rates and has contributed to severe prison overcrowding," the Washington Office on Latin America and the Transnational Institute wrote in a study two years ago.


Tracking down Colombia's missing manhole covers

Brazil's poor seem left behind in growth spurt, observers say

Colombia attacks blamed on alliances of rebels with criminals

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

The worst air pollution in the world

India air pollutionYou may think the air is bad in Los Angeles, but researchers say it's worse in India and Bangladesh. A new study released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, found that India had the worst air pollution in the world, followed by Bangladesh and Nepal. The United States ties with a slew of other countries for first place, including Japan and Argentina. Other interesting tidbits from the rankings include:

-- Ecuador was the most improved country when it came to air quality; Russia and Iraq had the biggest drops in the effects of their air on human health.

-- The worst countries for air pollution are clustered in South Asia and Central Africa.

You can delve deeper into the study and explore an interactive map of the findings using the Yale University Environmental Performance Index.


An exquisite Mexico beach, cursed by plastic

EU high court to rule on airline pollution charges

As Olympics nears, Beijing still can't beat pollution

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: India Gate war memorial is seen through haze in New Delhi. Credit: Saurabh Das / Associated Press

Argentina protests British naval exercises near the Falklands



REPORTING FROM BUENOS AIRES AND BOGOTA -- Argentina reacted bitterly Tuesday evening to Britain’s announcement that it was sending the destroyer Dauntless to participate in  “routine” naval exercises near the Falkland Islands as the April anniversary of the war the two countries fought over the islands approaches.

It had been reported earlier that Prince William, heir to the British throne and a Royal Air Force helicopter pilot, would participate in the exercises near the British possessions beginning next month. His uncle, Prince Andrew, also a helicopter pilot, flew missions in the brief but violent 1982 war that left 650 Argentines and about 300 British servicemen dead.

Argentina “laments the royal heir arrives on national soil in the uniform of a conqueror and not with the wisdom of a statesman working in the service of peace and dialogue between nations,” a foreign ministry statement read.

Argentina has long claimed the islands, about 300 miles east of its Patagonia region. Since the 1982 war, it  has asked the United Nations to mediate negotiations that would lead to its gaining possession. Britain has consistently refused, with Jeremy Browne, British foreign relations vice minister, saying recently that the sovereignty of the Falklands is “non-negotiable” and that London would take measures to “guarantee their security.”

Tension also has been rising because of plans unveiled by the British government to promote offshore oil and gas exploration around the islands.

Various commentators in Argentina described the announcement  of the ship’s participation in naval exercises as a provocation coming at a sensitive time.

The harsh tone of the Argentine Foreign Relations Ministry’s statement left little doubt that the government feels the same way. Argentina “rejects the British attempt to militarize a conflict which the United Nations has said on numerous occasions should be resolved in bilateral negotiations,” the statement concluded.


Argentina's Fernandez sworn in for a second term as president

Son of British vet of Falkland Islands war becomes a citizen of Argentina

Falkland Islands: Royal Navy packs considerable punch, warns William Hague

 -- Andres d’Alessandro and Chris Kraul

Photo: Britain's Prince William, seen in a recent photo, will deploy to the politically sensitive Falkland Islands for a naval exercise that has angered Argentina. Credit: John Stillwell / Associated Press. 

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has cancer


REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY -- President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina has become the latest Latin American leader to face cancer, officials announced Tuesday.

Fernandez has thyroid cancer and will be undergo surgery Jan. 4, government spokesman Alfredo Scoccimarro said (link in Spanish). It was detected last week and convalescence is expected to last three weeks. The spokesman said the cancer has not metastasized nor spread to her lymph nodes.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff and Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo have all been diagnosed with cancer, as have former leaders Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Chavez's case is the most serious, with questions looming over his bid for reelection next year.


Latin American leaders coping with cancer

Soybeans now rule the range on Argentina plains

Argentina's Fernandez sworn in for second term as president

-- Tracy Wilkinson

Photo: Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is seen at her Dec. 10 inauguration after her reelection. Credit: Alejandro Pagni / AFP/Getty Images



Argentina's Fernandez sworn in for a second term as president

REPORTING FROM BUENOS AIRES and BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was sworn in for a second term Saturday, extolling the country's remarkable economic turnaround and promising to continue extensive social programs and subsidies that critics say are increasingly too costly.

Before a full complement of Latin American leaders and legislators gathered in the national congress building, she referred several times to her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack in October 2010.

"Argentina has made an incredible leap," she said, referring to sharp reduction in poverty and joblessness since her husband took power in 2003. She succeeded him in 2007. "We have added 5 million jobs, and 96% of our retirees are covered" by government pensions, she said.

Fernandez won reelection in a landslide in October, garnering 54% of the vote, far ahead of the top vote-getter among her six rivals, with 17%.

Voters credit her and her late husband with having guided the economy back from the abyss a decade ago, when the country was convulsed by a debt default, a currency devaluation and unemployment exceeding 25%. She has been helped by the global commodities boom and rising demand for Argentina’s leading farm exports of soy, beef and wheat, which have boosted revenue for the government.

Fernandez has gained broad public support by redirecting tax and royalty windfalls to social programs, including pensions and cash to the poor in exchange for their children’s school attendance. But her restrictive export policies have riled many companies. inflation is running at 25%, and expectations of a devaluation have led to capital flight that could exceed $20 billion this year.

"I am not the president of the corporations but of 40 million Argentinians," she said before leaders who included presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Sebastian Pinera of Chile.

Several economists have warned that expensive subsidies on fuel, electricity and other services are no longer feasible as Argentina's fiscal and trade surpluses have shrunk.

Once rich in oil and gas, the country became a net energy importer this year because restrictions on oil companies’ profits have lowered exploration and production, requiring an increase in costly imports of natural gas and diesel to meet ever-rising demand.

Kirchner also pledged to bring to justice officials responsible for the killing and disappearance of between 11,000 and 30,000 people during the military dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983. A law that gave many accused impunity in the so called “dirty war” was repealed in 2005, but cases continue to be tied up in legal wrangling.

"I hope that in the four years of my term that these cases that have been delayed more than 30 years can be finalized," Fernandez said. "What I dream of … is that the next president doesn’t have to repeat the same phrase."


Nestor Kirchner dies at 60

Soybeans now rule the range in Argentina plains

Argentina's Fernandez easily reelected as president

-- Andres D'Alessandro in Buenos Aires and Chris Kraul in Bogota

Photo: Spain's Prince Felipe  greets Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner during her inauguration ceremony in Buenos Aires on Saturday. Credit: Juan Mabromata / AFP/Getty Images


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