The world at a glance ...
Independence redux: Angered by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded this week that a new referendum be held on Scottish independence as soon as next year. Some 55 percent of Scots voted to stay in the U.K. during a 2014 independence referendum; unlike the English and Welsh, most Scots voted against leaving the European Union during last June’s Brexit referendum. Sturgeon says Scots who don’t want to leave the EU should be given a chance to form a new state. Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to start the two-year process of extricating the U.K. from the EU later this month, was exasperated by the proposal, saying, “This is not a moment to play politics and create uncertainty.” Spain, which has separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country, said an independent Scotland would not be guaranteed admission to the EU.
Hola, Canadá! Mexican tourists are increasingly choosing Canada over the U.S. for winter vacations. The number of visitors to Canada from Mexico increased nearly 70 percent in December, to 30,268 from 18,095 for the same month a year earlier, partly because Canada has lifted a visa requirement and partly because well-heeled Mexicans are choosing not to spend their money in Donald Trump’s America. “I don’t want to go to a country that does not accept the people from my country,” plastic surgeon Rodrigo Munoz said of his choice to ski the Canadian Rockies this year instead of Tahoe. President Trump, who called Mexicans “rapists” during his election campaign, has vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and has floated the idea of taxing Mexican imports.
Mass grave: Mexican authorities have found 250 skulls so far at what could prove to be the country’s largest mass grave of victims of drug cartels. “For years, organized crime has disappeared and murdered people—with the complicity of the authorities,” said Jorge Winckler Ortiz, the recently elected state attorney general of Veracruz. The state is a stronghold of the notoriously murderous Zetas cartel, which has waged a bloody turf war with the Jalisco New Generation cartel since 2011. Last October, Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte resigned and fled arrest on charges of racketeering. He is still at large.
Coca crop way up: Coca production in Colombia has shot to its highest level in two decades, according to a new White House report. Cultivation of the plant used to make cocaine rocketed 18 percent from 2015 to 2016, with 465,000 acres of Colombian land planted with the crop last year. The surge in cultivation comes in the wake of a peace agreement between the government and leftist FARC rebels, who financed their decades-long guerrilla war through drug smuggling. The peace accord provides subsidies to farmers who agree to stop growing coca, and that gives farmers an incentive to plant coca now so they can renounce it later for profit.
Headscarf ban OK: European firms can ban Muslim employees from wearing hijabs in the workplace so long as they ban all political and religious symbols, including crosses and yarmulkes, Europe’s top court ruled this week. The European Court of Justice upheld an earlier ruling by a Belgian court against Samira Achbita, a receptionist for security services giant G4S, who was fired after she wore a headscarf at work. Achbita said she was discriminated against on the grounds of her religion, but the European Court of Justice agreed that she had broken unwritten rules banning religious symbols at the company. The court also considered the case of Asma Bougnaoui, a French IT consultant who was sacked after a client complained that Bougnaoui’s headscarf made his staff feel uncomfortable. The court said a customer’s request was not sufficient to require an employee to leave religious symbols at home.
Killer goalie: A Brazilian soccer club has signed a goalkeeper convicted of having the mother of his child murdered after she asked for child support. Bruno Fernandes de Souza was a top-tier star before 2010, when he was arrested for plotting with friends to have his ex, model Eliza Samudio, kidnapped, tortured, and strangled to death. On de Souza’s orders, the 25-year-old’s body was then fed to his rottweilers. Although he was sentenced to 22 years in prison, he was released last month. Soccer club Boa Esporte signed the 32-year-old this week, only to see three of its sponsors sever ties as protests by women’s groups mounted. Killings of women have risen nearly 25 percent in Brazil in the past decade.
U.S. charges Yahoo hackers: The U.S. Justice Department has charged two members of Russia’s FSB intelligence agency with orchestrating the hacking of 500 million Yahoo user accounts in 2014, in the first U.S. cybercrime charges against Russian officials. Two hackers hired by the Russians were also charged. The agents, Dmitry Dokuchaev and Igor Sushchin, work for the FSB’s cyber investigation arm, and apparently wanted the accounts of Russian journalists and dissidents and U.S. government officials for intelligence purposes. They let the hackers use the rest of the information for financial gain, through spamming and other scams. The charges “show that we have the resources and capabilities to identify the people at the keyboard, even in the most sophisticated cases,” said Luke Dembosky, a former U.S. Justice official.
Social security crisis: Social security payments to 17 million people may end abruptly next month because of gross mismanagement at South Africa’s welfare agency. The system has been in chaos since 2014, when the nation’s highest court ruled that the company that distributes the benefits had an illegal contract. The government has failed to come up with a new contract or new firm to process the payments, and the existing contract is set to expire at the end of the month. A third of all South Africans— including disabled people, pensioners, and war veterans— depend on the payments, which the ruling African National Congress party uses to woo voters. The crisis is “a massive responsibility on the shoulders of the government,” said Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance.
Killing Kurds: Turkey has waged war on civilians in its mainly Kurdish southeast, the U.N. says in a new report, killing hundreds of people and displacing up to half a million more. Using infantry, artillery, and tanks, Turkish forces engaged in summary executions, torture, and rape from the summer of 2015 through 2016, the report says. “No credible investigation has been conducted into hundreds of alleged unlawful killings, including of women and children,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, U.N. high commissioner for human rights. Since a failed coup attempt in July 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increased the persecution of Kurds, arresting Kurdish lawmakers, purging Kurdish officials, and closing Kurdish-language media. Turkey did not comment on the report.
Change in policy? South Korea is scrambling to hold a presidential election in May to replace conservative President Park Geun-hye, whose impeachment by parliament was upheld by the nation’s top court last week. The front-runner is Moon Jae-in of the center-left Minjoo Party. Moon, 64, favors a delay in the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to South Korea, saying the next administration should evaluate the deal. The system, which Park supported, is meant to protect South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. from North Korean nuclear missiles. But it is strongly opposed by China, South Korea’s largest trading partner. Park was removed from office following massive protests over allegations that she colluded with longtime confidante Choi Soonsil to extort tens of millions of dollars from businesses.
Ozymandias statue found: Egyptian and German archaeologists have found pieces of a huge statue believed to be of Pharaoh Ramses II, also known as Ozymandias, who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. The Antiquities Ministry said the 26-foot-tall quartzite colossus is one of the most important discoveries ever from that period. It was unearthed near the ruins of Ramses II’s temple in the ancient city of Heliopolis, now the site of an eastern Cairo slum. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote his 1818 sonnet “ Ozymandias”—“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”— about just such a broken statue of Ramses II.
Ras Lanuf, Libya
Russians are coming: Russia has deployed special forces troops and drones to an Egyptian airbase near the Libyan border, apparently in preparation to intervene in the Libyan conflict, the U.S. said this week. The EU and U.S. have been helping Libya’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli consolidate control of the deeply divided nation. But this week the Russian-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar retook the key oil ports of Ras Lanuf and Es Sider for the rival government in the east. Haftar has met with Russia’s foreign and defense ministers, and Aguila Saleh Issa, a high-ranking member of Libya’s eastern parliament, said he had asked Moscow “to help us with training the soldiers in our armed forces and the repair of military equipment.” Russia denied sending special ops to Egypt.