Dying for gas
At least 94 people were killed and hundreds more badly burned after a pipeline ruptured by fuel thieves exploded in central Mexico last week. The blast was particularly deadly because it took place in a rural, poor part of Hidalgo state and after the pipeline was tapped by criminals, villagers—including many children—rushed to the scene to collect gas. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been leading a crackdown against fuel theft, but said he does not blame the impoverished people who thronged the leaking pipeline. “If they have arrived at these extremes,” he said, “it’s because they were completely abandoned” by the government over the past decade. At least $3.1 billion worth of fuel was stolen and sold on the black market last year; López Obrador has deployed soldiers to protect pipelines.
Former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto received a $100 million bribe from Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a witness at the drug lord’s trial in New York City alleged last week. Guzmán was a fugitive when Peña Nieto took office in 2012. Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian narco, said on the stand that Peña Nieto approached Guzmán through an intermediary and offered to stop the manhunt for $250 million, which was negotiated down to $100 million. Guzmán was captured in 2014 and escaped the following year, only to be nabbed in 2016 and extradited to the U.S. Peña Nieto’s former chief of staff has denied the allegations.
Challenge to Maduro
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president of Venezuela this week, as hundreds of thousands of people protested in Caracas and called for President Nicolás Maduro to step down. President Trump immediately recognized Guaidó as president, saying that the National Assembly he leads is “the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people.” Maduro stripped the assembly of its powers in 2017, and this month he began his second six-year term after an election that international observers called rigged. The U.S. support for Guaidó dramatically escalates the international push to force Maduro from power—and now the question is what will the army do. “We will stay on the street,” Guaidó said, “until Venezuela is liberated!” Maduro has ordered U.S. diplomats to leave.
A car bombing by Colombia’s last remaining rebel group killed 20 cadets at a police academy last week, the country’s worst terrorist attack in 15 years. The National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist militant group that has been in stalled peace talks with the government for months, took responsibility for the attack. The perpetrator died in the blast, but officials said they didn’t know if it was a suicide bombing. ELN called the act retaliation for a government attack on one of its camps during a Christmas cease-fire. In response, President Iván Duque halted the Havana-based peace talks and demanded that Cuba hand over the ELN negotiators there.
After Parliament’s crushing rejection last week of her plan for Britain’s exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May presented lawmakers with a Plan B that looks almost exactly like her Plan A. She said this week that she can’t rule out a no-deal Brexit, won’t delay the U.K.’s March 29 exit date from the EU, and won’t hold a second referendum. May said she would, however, try to get the EU to give assurances that the Irish backstop—a clause that keeps the U.K. bound by many EU rules until a frictionless, high-tech customs border can be erected between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—would not be permanent. She has previously tried and failed to get such assurances from Brussels.
Politician’s mother dies in snow
An investigation has been launched after the 93-year-old mother of a separatist leader in the Canadian province of Quebec died during an emergency evacuation at her luxury seniors apartment building. Hélène Rowley Hotte, mother of former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, left the Montreal building at 4 a.m.—when it was minus 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit outside—after a carbon monoxide detector went off. A verbal message told residents they could stay indoors, but Rowley Hotte, who was partially deaf, went out an emergency exit and the door locked behind her. Her body was found in the snow-covered yard 12 hours later. Quebec’s Minister for Seniors Marguerite Blais called the death “shocking and sad” and pledged to tighten safety procedures if necessary.
Paul Whelan, the American arrested in Russia for alleged spying last month, has claimed he was set up. His lawyer said this week that Whelan was detained moments after he met a Russian man at Moscow’s Metropol Hotel to collect what he thought was a flash drive full of photos of Russian churches. The man instead handed over a drive listing the employees of a Russian security agency, and before Whelan could examine it, authorities surrounded and arrested him. Some U.S. officials suspect that Whelan, a 48-year-old former Marine, has been detained so he can be traded for Maria Butina, a Russian agent who pleaded guilty to attempting to influence the 2016 U.S. election. The charges against Whelan could net him 20 years in a penal colony.
Thousands of Sudanese have been taking to the streets nearly every day for more than a month to protest against the country’s longtime ruler, President Omar al-Bashir. More than half of Sudan’s 43 million people are under age 19, and the mostly young protesters blame al-Bashir—who has governed for nearly 26 years—for the country’s high inflation and bread shortages. In previous decades, al-Bashir pitted the ethnic Arabs of Sudan’s north against the black Africans of the south and west, particularly in the early 2000s during the unrest in western Darfur, where al-Bashir is accused of committing genocide. But the youth movement is made up of Arabs and blacks, united in their rejection of al-Bashir’s rule. While authorities arrested five prominent journalists for reporting on the demonstrations, the movement continues to spread via social media.
Israel vs. Iran
The Israeli military has openly admitted to bombing Iranian facilities in Syria, after conducting extensive airstrikes this week that hit an intelligence site, a weapons depot, and a military training camp. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 people were killed in the raids, at least 12 of them members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps. The strikes were a response to a missile intercepted by Israeli air defenses; Israel said it was Iranian-made and launched by Iranian forces backing the Syrian regime. The Iranian missile had been fired shortly after a strike on a weapons facility in Syria. Israel has long acknowledged hitting targets in Syria in general, but had not admitted to a specific attack until two weeks ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took responsibility for a strike on Iranian weapons warehouses in Damascus.
Jailed for interviewing gay man
An Egyptian journalist has been sentenced to a year of hard labor because he interviewed a gay man. Mohamed al-Ghiety was convicted of “promoting homosexuality” after his interview with a male sex worker aired last year on the privately owned station LTC TV. Al-Ghiety frequently makes homophobic comments on air, and he apparently ran the segment to show that the man was regretful. But authorities accused the TV host of portraying an upside to homosexuality by showing that prostitution could bring financial gain. Homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt, but gay men are often arrested and charged with pornography, debauchery, or blasphemy.
After the suicide bombing
The Taliban carried out one of the deadliest attacks in its 18-year insurgency this week, killing some 100 members of the Afghan security forces just hours before a round of peace talks was scheduled to begin. A suicide bomber drove a captured military Humvee packed with explosives into the Afghan military intelligence base, and then three other attackers tried to finish off the wounded. Afghan government forces have been taking such heavy losses for so long that Kabul has stopped publishing casualty figures. After the bombing, the U.S. and the Taliban confirmed they had resumed talks in Qatar. The militants are “conducting high-profile attacks to strengthen their position at the negotiating table,” said Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace—copying the U.S. policy of “fight and talk.”
Tourists from hell
Auckland, New Zealand
New Zealand has deported a British extended family whom it accused of terrorizing the nation for more than a month, shoplifting Christmas trees, trashing hotels, and littering beaches. Multiple restaurant owners said the family of about 12 would yell at waiters, threaten violence, and leave without paying for their meals. Locals began posting videos and sightings of the boorish group on social media, and authorities took notice. “They’re a bunch of a--holes,” said Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. “These guys are trash.” One member of the family, Tina Maria Cash, pleaded guilty to two counts of theft. Family member Joe Doran said the clan had been mistreated and had only wanted to visit a location used in the Lord of the Rings films. “We’re here to see the hobbits,” he said, but now “I feel very unwelcome.” ■