Turncoat intel officer?
A senior Royal Canadian Mounted Police official who was overseeing an investigation into the laundering of stolen Russian tax monies was arrested last week on espionage charges. As director-general of the RCMP’s National Intelligence Coordination Center, Cameron Ortis had access to high-level intelligence from Canada’s foreign allies—including the U.S. At the time of his arrest, Ortis, 47, had been looking into allegations that Russian officials had funneled millions of dollars in misappropriated funds through Canada. That scheme was exposed by Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death in a Moscow prison in 2009. It’s unclear, though, whether Ortis is accused of spying for another country or a foreign crime gang.
No justice for murdered students
Family members of 43 Mexican students who disappeared from the town of Iguala in 2014 reacted with rage this week after 24 local police officers suspected of involvement in the case were set free. Authorities said that police abducted the trainee teachers as they returned from a protest and then handed the students over to a drug gang, which killed them and burned the bodies. But Judge Samuel Ventura said this week that the officers had been tortured into confessing and that there was insufficient evidence to hold them. Last week, another key suspect in the case, gang leader Gildardo Lopez Astudillo, was freed for the same reasons. Deputy interior minister Alejandro Encinas called the releases a “mockery of justice.”
Clashes on Independence Day
Hundreds of protesters marched alongside the official Independence Day parade in the Honduran capital this week, waving banners calling President Juan Orlando Hernández a “narco-dictator” and singing songs calling for his resignation. Riot police blasted the demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas, and protesters hurled rocks. Former President Manuel Zelaya addressed the crowd and called the current administration a “criminal dictatorship.” The left-leaning Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup widely seen as tacitly supported by the U.S. Since then, U.S. prosecutors have accused Hernández of accepting money from drug cartels to finance his first election campaign in 2013; many Hondurans consider his re-election in 2017 fraudulent because the Supreme Court waived the constitution’s single-term limit to let Hernández run again.
Maduro takes on Congress
Venezuelan authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro is trying to co-opt the only government body outside his control: the nearly powerless Congress. His government has signed a “peace deal” with several minor opposition parties that will see 55 pro-Maduro lawmakers retake seats in the opposition-dominated legislature after a three-year boycott. In exchange, Maduro agreed to minor reforms to the electoral council and the release of some political prisoners. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has the support of the U.S. and most other democracies, said Maduro is trying to divide the opposition. “These measures only deepen the crisis,” he said.
Golden loo stolen
A solid 18-karat gold toilet was stolen this week from Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill. The toilet, titled America, was part of an exhibition of works by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan that had opened just two days earlier. The artwork was actually connected to the plumbing—using it to take care of personal business is part of the artistic experience—and when the thieves ripped it out they “caused significant damage and flooding,” said Detective Inspector Jess Milne. Melted down, the 227 pounds of gold in the toilet would be worth $4 million, and experts fear it will not be recovered. America was previously exhibited, and used by gallerygoers, at the Guggenheim museum in New York City.
Massive data breach
Potentially every person in Ecuador may have had private data leaked online, it was revealed this week. The names, taxpayer numbers, and banking records of more than 20 million people, including some 7 million children, were sitting on an unsecured server run by Ecuadorean consulting firm Novaestrat—a breach identified by internet security firm vpnMentor during a routine project. Ecuador is home to nearly 17 million people, but authorities said the database seemed to include many deceased individuals. It even included information on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was granted political asylum by Ecuador in 2012 and lived at its embassy in London until his arrest earlier this year. “The database is now closed,” said vpnMentor, “but the information may already be in the hands of malicious parties.” Novaestrat’s chief executive has been arrested.
Explosion at virus lab
A gas canister exploded and caused a fire this week at a Russian facility that houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of dangerous viruses, including smallpox and Ebola. The blast at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology near the Siberian city of Novosibirsk blew out some of the building’s windows and left one worker with serious burns. Officials said the room where the explosion occurred held no biohazardous substances. Scientists at the center are developing vaccines for swine flu, HIV, and Ebola. Last month, seven people died when a suspected nuclear-powered cruise missile blew up during tests in Russia’s far north, causing a surge in radiation levels. Conflicting official accounts of that accident have raised concerns of a Kremlin cover-up.
American dogs abused
The U.S. State Department has been sending bomb-sniffing dogs to Jordan despite knowing for years that the animals were being abused. A report published this week by the Office of the Inspector General lambasted the negligence of the Jordanian military and the lack of U.S. oversight. It found that explosives-sniffing dogs were being starved, deprived of water, and kept in feces-ridden kennels. Mencey, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, was found emaciated and covered in ticks and sand flies after less than a year in Jordan and was repatriated to the U.S., where he was euthanized at the same facility that had trained him. Zoe, another Belgian Malinois, died of heatstroke on the Syrian border. The OIG recommends ending the program “until there is a sustainability plan in place to ensure canine health and welfare.”
ISIS leader speaks
Somewhere in Syria or Iraq
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called on members of his ailing jihadist group to launch new attacks and do all they can to free their detained ISIS “brothers and sisters,” in an audio message released this week. The extremist outfit once controlled a Britain-size area across Iraq and Syria, but lost its last pocket of territory in March after five years of fighting U.S.-backed forces. Thousands of ISIS militants are now in the custody of Iraqi authorities or U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria, while their wives and children languish in overcrowded Syrian camps. Baghdadi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head, is thought to be hiding out in the desert in eastern Syria or western Iraq.
Taliban strike at president
A Taliban suicide bomber this week blew himself up outside a campaign rally for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, killing at least 26 people. Ghani, who was due to address the crowd gathered in Charikar, was unharmed. A separate suicide bombing the same day killed 22 people in central Kabul. The Taliban have ramped up their attacks since President Trump tweeted earlier this month that long-running U.S. peace talks with the militant group were “dead.” The Taliban have warned people not to vote in the Sept. 28 national elections, saying they will target polling stations. Ghani condemned the attacks, saying the Taliban have “once again proved that they have no will or desire for peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
Choking on smoke
The smoke from hundreds of wildfires burning across Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra has sickened tens of thousands of people across the region and forced the closure of schools and cancellation of flights. Indonesian farmers set these illegal fires every dry season to burn away peatlands and rain forests to make space for palm oil plantations. But a lack of rainfall earlier this year has allowed the blazes to rage out of control, and the fires are now consuming forests where endangered orangutans live. Some 200 people have been arrested on suspicion of starting fires. President Joko Widodo said the government would seed clouds to induce rainfall but added that “the most important measure is prevention before fires occur.”
Australian intelligence has determined that China was behind a cyberattack on Parliament and Australia’s three largest political parties before the May national election. To avoid disrupting trade relations with Beijing—China buys some 30 percent of all Australian exports—the Australian government did not make its findings public, but five sources with knowledge of the investigation’s conclusions confirmed the story to Reuters this week. The hackers got access to Australian policy papers on topics such as tax and foreign relations, as well as private email correspondence between lawmakers and their staff. In recent years, Australia has become concerned about Chinese influence in its politics. In 2017, it banned political donations from foreigners and required lobbyists to declare their links to foreign governments. China’s Foreign Ministry denied involvement in the hack; Canberra had no comment.
AP (2), Newscom, U.S. State Dept. ■