Obituary: Efrain Rios Montt

Guatemala’s former military leader Efrain Rios Montt was one of the central American nation’s most controversial figures, who briefly seized power during one of the bloodiest periods of the country’s brutal 36-year civil war.

In May 2013, he was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, but the conviction was later overturned by the high court.

Legal battles over whether he was fit to stand for retrial endured until his death in 2018.

Born in Huehuetenango, Efrain Rios Montt joined the army as a young man and was an officer by the time President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was deposed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1954.

He rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general and the army’s chief of staff in 1970 during the military regime of President General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio.

He came to power through a coup in March 1982 in the middle of Guatemala’s bloody war, in which Marxist rebels battled the military regime.

Civilians – the vast majority of them indigenous Mayans – were caught in the crossfire, and an estimated 200,000 died before a truce was reached in 1996, making the conflict one of Latin America’s most violent wars.

Although Gen Rios Montt was overthrown by his Defence Minister Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores in August 1983, he is considered to have had a major impact on the conflict through the so-called Guns and Beans campaign.

The rebels were offered terms through which they would be fed if they supported the regime, but crushed if they continued fighting.

Prosecutors say that during his 17 months in power, Gen Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Gen Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, ordered the deaths of more than 1,700 members of the Ixil Maya ethnic group, whom they suspected were supporting the rebels.

In 2012, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom apologised to the relatives of the victims of a December 1982 massacre in which Guatemalan soldiers killed more than 200 people in the village of Dos Erres, saying it was a stain on Guatemala’s history.

‘Guatemala was in ruins’

General Rios Montt returned to the political limelight when he ran for president in 2003, despite a constitutional rule that no-one who had overthrown a government could stand for the presidency.

During the campaign, he was accused of orchestrating a violent protest by his supporters against the constitutional ruling.

A journalist died of a heart attack while running away from protesters in what became known as Black Thursday in Guatemala City.

But Gen Rios Montt was cleared of manslaughter charges in 2006, with prosecutors citing a lack of evidence.

He stood for president again in 2006 but was defeated in an election was marred by violence, with more than 22 people connected with political parties killed in the run-up to the vote.

The general returned to public office in 2007 as a member of Congress, which secured him immunity from prosecution over the war crimes allegations.

But that immunity expired with the end of his term in office in January 2012, and within two weeks of leaving office he was summoned to court and formally charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

Prosecutors called for 75-year sentences to be given to both Gen Rios Montt and his former spy chief.

Although the case was beset with delays, legal loopholes and a temporary suspension, the pre-trial hearing was held in January 2013.

The three-judge tribunal reached its verdict on 10 May, declaring him guilty and sentencing him to 80 years in prison.

Gen Rios Montt did not testify during the court proceedings, but broke his silence to give an impassioned hour-long defence before the three judges retired to consider their verdicts.

On more than one occasion, the 86-year-old apologised for appearing doddery, reminding the judges he was a great-grandfather. But he was crystal clear in claiming that there was no evidence he ordered the extermination of the Ixil ethnic group during his presidency.

“I am innocent,” he said. “I never had the intent to destroy any national race, religion, or ethnic group.”

He argued that his “mission as head of state was to reclaim order, because Guatemala was in ruins”, rather than overseeing the civil war at a local level.

On 20 May, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction.

A retrial eventually resumed in October 2017, behind closed doors and in special conditions because of his deteriorating mental health.

He died of a heart attack, aged 91, on 1 April 2018.

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Haiti: Six killed in anti-corruption protests

Thousands of demonstrators demand trial over alleged misuse of $3.8bn in public funds from Venezuelan oil programme.

    Six people were killed and at least five others wounded during anti-corruption protests across Haiti, police said, as anger grows over the disappearance of billions of dollars linked to a public finance programme.

    Thousands of Haitians marched in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and other parts of the country on Sunday calling for a probe into the spending of $3.8bn Haiti received from Venezuela as part of an oil assistance programme.

    President Jovenel Moise called for dialogue with opposition groups that are seeking his resignation for failing to investigate corruption.

    Clashes with police erupted on Sunday after protesters blocked streets and set fire to tires.

    Four people were wounded in clashes in San Marcos, northeast of the capital, and dozens were arrested, police said. There were also reports of clashes in smaller protests across the country.

    Police said they deployed more than 3,000 officers in the capital, the city of Cap-Haitien and smaller cities and towns.

    Tensions have been running high in the Latin American nation since an investigation by Haiti’s Senate revealed alleged embezzlement by at least 14 former government officials in former President Michel Martelly’s administration. 

    The Senate’s report, which was published in August, has accused two former prime ministers and former government officials of abuse of authority and forgery stemming from the use of funds in the Venezuelan-sponsored Petrocaribe programme. No one has been charged yet. 

    ‘Tired of the system’

    Demonstrators on Sunday demanded a trial for officials involved in the alleged misuse of public funds.

    “The Haitians are tired of the system. They want the system to change, and reverse, and (for) the benefit of the community,” Samuel Louis, a protester, said.

    “This is the very reason why, today, they chose to invade the street,” he told the Associated Press news agency.

    Starting in 2005, Venezuela offered discounted crude oil with lenient repayment terms to countries around Central American and the Caribbean.

    Much of the financial support to help Haiti rebuild after the 2010 earthquake comes from the Petrocaribe fund, which gives suppliers below-market financing for oil and is under the control of the central government

    Moise has said that his administration would investigate the allegations of embezzlement and hold all those responsible accountable.

    As part of a purge linked to the corruption scandal, two top government officials and 15 advisers were removed from office last month.

    But on Sunday, demonstrators reiterated their demand for answers into the missing finds, as they marched with banners reading: “Where is the Petrocaribe money?”

    “We ask for the Petrocaribe trial,” said Adrien Jean, protester. “Second, the departure of accused (President) Jovenel Moise.”

    Haiti is the poorest Latin American country, with almost 60 percent of its population living below the national poverty line of $2.41 per day, according to the World Bank. 

    The impoverished country, which remains extremely vulnerable to natural hazards, is still rebuilding from the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

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    Mexico border city protests over migrants

    Hundreds of residents have taken to the streets of a Mexican border town, in protest at the arrival of thousands of migrants trying to get to the US.

    They were urging the migrants to leave Tijuana, to the south of California.

    The migrants are part of a large caravan of Central Americans which has been travelling though Mexico to the US, where they want to claim asylum.

    In response to their arrival, the US and Mexico installed heavier security at the border crossing.

    Tijuana Mayor Juan Manuel Gastelum said on Friday he expected the number of migrants arriving in the city in the coming weeks to reach 10,000, warning the city was not prepared to handle the “avalanche”.

    The city’s shelters are already struggling to cope, and authorities have asked for government assistance.

    Mr Gastelum’s words were seized on by US President Donald Trump on Sunday.

    “The Mayor of Tijuana, Mexico, just stated that “the City is ill-prepared to handle this many migrants, the backlog could last 6 months.”,” he tweeted.

    “Likewise, the U.S. is ill-prepared for this invasion, and will not stand for it. They are causing crime and big problems in Mexico. Go home!”

    The anti-migrant feeling could also be seen on the streets of Tijuana.

    “They are invaders! They are armed! Get out of the country,” protesters shouted, according to Reuters news agency.

    Esther Monroy, 58, told AFP news agency she feared the numbers of migrants gathering in the city would lead to the US closing the border crossing,

    “Most of us in this depend on business from people coming and going across the border,” she said.

    “If they close it, it will be [the migrants’] fault.”

    “If the government can’t control all this, organised crime and drug cartels will,” America Villa added. “We don’t care who does it, but they have to take responsibility for these people.”

    However, not everyone was protesting against the migrants. A smaller demonstration was also held in support of the new arrivals, who say they are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

    And there was even understanding from the migrants themselves.

    “They have the right to protest because they don’t like that we’re here but in spite of everything, they [Mexicans] are good people,” Karina Rosales, a migrant from Honduras, told Reuters.

    “They are the same as us. But we’re only passing through. We won’t stay here.”

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    Will Argentina recover lost San Juan submarine from 900m depth?

    Recuperating the vessel will be extremely challenging given the depth and the kind of seabed upon which it is resting.

      Argentina’s ARA San Juan submarine disappeared a year ago about 430km off the country’s Atlantic coast with 44 crew members on board.

      The 66-metre vessel was located on Friday by a remote-operated submersible from Ocean Infinity, a US-based seabed exploration company, in the waters off the Valdes Peninsula in Argentine Patagonia, about 600km from the port city of Comodoro Rivadavia.

      Relatives of crew members have demanded a quick recovery of the remains of their loved ones and an investigation into the sinking to prevent similar tragedies.

      However, the government said on Saturday that it was unable to raise the vessel due to the country’s lack of “modern technology”.

      The submarine, which has imploded and broken into pieces due to water pressure, is lying at a depth of 907 metres, making a recovery mission extremely challenging.

      The depth at which the German-built diesel-electric vessel was located is in the lower reaches of what is known as the twilight – or dysphotic – zone (200 to 1,000 metres) where light is almost non-existent.

      Such a minuscule amount of light penetrates beyond a depth of 200 metres that photosynthesis is no longer possible, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.

      Pressure at a depth of 907 metres reaches more than 90 bar. The human body, without a reinforced atmospheric suit, can withstand a maximum of four bar of pressure.

      Exploration from about 609 metres requires special equipment, predominantly unmanned.

      Lacking technology and funds

      Officials showed images of the submarine on a seabed with its hull totally deformed. Parts of its propellers were buried and debris was scattered over up to 70 metres.

      Any move to recuperate the vessel would be an extremely logistically challenging undertaking based on the submarine’s distance from the coast, its depth and the kind of seabed upon which it is resting.

      Argentina lacks adequate technological capabilities for the operation.

      Navy commander Jose Luis Villan urged “prudence”, saying that a federal judge was overseeing the investigation and would be the one to decide whether it was at all possible to recover a part or the entirety of the ship.

      Ocean Infinity CEO Oliver Plunkett said his company “would be pleased to assist with a recovery operation”. But Argentina would struggle to afford the help.

      The country is currently facing a currency crisis and double-digit inflation that has led the government to announce sweeping measures to balance the budget and concretise a financial deal with the International Monetary Fund.

      The last precedent of submarine recovery took place in Russia in 2001. The 18,000-tonne Kursk vessel was lifted in a 15-hour operation costing the Russian government up to $80m. 

      Recovering the ARA San Juan would likely cost a lot more, as the Kursk was lying almost nine times closer to the surface, at a depth of about 115 metres.

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      What are Jair Bolsonaro’s policies?

      Jair Bolsonaro has won the presidential election in Brazil. Well known for his often incendiary statements, the far-right politician’s actual policy positions are harder to pin down.

      After being stabbed by a lone attacker on 6 September, Mr Bolsonaro spent time in hospital receiving treatment which took him away from the campaign trail.

      Even after he won the first round of the election on 7 October, he did not participate in TV debates with his Workers’ Party rival, Fernando Haddad.

      He has nonetheless remained active on social media and given interviews where he has offered some clues about the kind of policies his administration could pursue.

      Gun rights for ‘all honest citizens’

      Increasing security for Brazilian citizens has been one of Mr Bolsonaro’s flagship campaign issues. He has portrayed himself as a hardliner who will restore safety to Brazil’s streets.

      He has indicated that his government will aim to relax laws restricting the ownership and carrying of guns. “Every honest citizen, man or woman, if they want to have a weapon in their homes – depending on certain criteria – should be able to have one,” he said of his plans on Rede TV on 11 October.

      He has also strongly opposed the legalisation of abortion. Writing on Twitter on 12 October he said: “The money of Brazilians will not finance NGOs that promote that practice.”

      That stance has won him the support of many evangelic Christians.

      Mixed signals about the economy

      Many Brazilians said that they voted for Jair Bolsonaro as a reaction to what they considered the inadequate economic track-record of the left-wing Workers’ Party, under which Brazil’s economy went from boom to bust.

      Mr Bolsonaro’s economic policy plans resemble those of market-friendly right-wing governments in other parts of Latin America, and include proposals to reduce government “waste” and promises to reduce state intervention in the economy.

      However, on occasion he has also defended more nationalistic stances, arguing for the need to keep state control over industries he deems strategic.

      The former army captain has said that he wants to undertake a reform of the government in order to reduce and relocate “unnecessary expenses”.

      “I made a commitment to reduce the number of ministries, extinguish and privatise many of the state-owned [companies] that exist today,” he wrote on Twitter.

      In his party manifesto, he also suggested that state-run oil company Petrobras should “sell a substantial portion of its refining, retail, transportation and other activities where it has market power” in order to “promote competition” in the oil and gas sector for the good of consumers.

      However, in a TV interview on 9 October he expressed concern that privatising electric utility company Eletrobras could lead to it being bought by Chinese investors.

      He also rowed back on his earlier support for privatising Petrobras, saying that the “core” of the oil company should stay under state control.

      Affinity with Donald Trump

      Mr Bolsonaro has been called “Trump of the Tropics” and on foreign policy he is likely to follow an agenda closely aligned to that of the US president on issues such as the environment and the Middle East conflict.

      He has suggested that Brazil could pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, arguing that its requirements compromise Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon region. An editorial in São Paulo’s Folha newspaper called Mr Bolsonaro’s reasoning “an anachronistic fear”, but it is one that has won him the support of many landowners and agribusinesses.

      Mr Bolsonaro is also thought to favour moving the Brazilian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

      He also said he would close the Palestinian embassy in Brazil. “Is Palestine a country? Palestine is not a country, so there should be no embassy here,” he said in August.

      He has also said that his first foreign trip as president would be to Israel.

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      Migrant caravan group reaches US border

      Hundreds of Central American migrants travelling through Mexico to seek asylum in the US have reached the Mexican border city of Tijuana.

      The group of 400, who include LGBTQ migrants, broke away from the larger caravan of 5,000 people in Mexico City.

      US Defence Secretary James Mattis said he would go to the US-Mexico border on Wednesday, his first visit since thousands of troops were deployed.

      Larger groups are expected to arrive at the border in the coming days.

      What’s the latest?

      The 5,000 migrants, who say they are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have largely been making their journey on foot.

      The splinter group, which reached Tijuana on Tuesday, did so aboard a fleet of buses.

      They joined a smaller group of about 80 migrants who reached the border city on Sunday.

      Many of the smaller group are LGBTQ, media reported, who say they parted ways with the main caravan after weeks of what they call discriminatory treatment by local residents and fellow travellers.

      Undeterred by a harder US stance against them, the migrants have said they will continue the journey so that they can claim asylum.

      What is this caravan?

      The journey began from the city of San Pedro Sula in Honduras on 13 October – which means some will have walked abut 4,800km (2,983 miles).

      Because the route poses a host of dangers, such as attack by criminal gangs, many of the migrants say they feel safer travelling in numbers.

      Most previous migrant caravans have numbered a few hundred people, but after a former politician shared news of the planned caravan on Facebook, news of it quickly spread.

      More than 1,000 Hondurans were the first to leave, and thousands more people have joined them from neighbouring Guatemala and then Mexico.

      What is the US doing about it?

      President Donald Trump, who has taken a firm stance against the caravan he calls an “invasion”, has order the deployment of up to 9,000 troops to the border.

      US authorities closed down several lanes of traffic at two border crossings from Tijuana to California on Tuesday so that soldiers can install barbed wire fencing and barricades to reinforce security.

      There is a legal obligation to hear asylum claims from migrants who have arrived in the US if they say they fear violence in their home countries.

      Last week however, Mr Trump signed a proclamation temporarily barring migrants who enter illegally from claiming asylum.

      The caravans became a campaign issue in the US mid-term elections that took place in last week, with Mr Trump warning without evidence they were full of “gang members”, “hardened criminals” and even Middle Eastern “terrorists”.

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      Burned to death because of a rumour on WhatsApp

      Rumours of child abductors spread through WhatsApp in a small town in Mexico. The rumours were fake, but a mob burned two men to death before anyone checked.

      On August 29, a little after midday, Maura Cordero, the owner of an arts and crafts shop in the small town of Acatlán in the central Mexican state of Puebla, noticed an unusual number of people gathering outside the municipal police station next to her shop.

      Cordero, 75, moved closer to the door and peered out. Dozens of people were outside the police station on Reforma Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, and the crowd was swelling. Soon there would be more than a hundred people. Cordero could not remember seeing such a crowd in Acatlán outside of a holiday celebration.

      As she watched a police car passed her shop bearing two men into the small jail house. The car was followed by more people and cries went up from the crowd accusing the two men who were taken into the jail house of being child abductors. From behind a narrow metal gate at the entrance to the station, police replied that the men were not child abductors but minor offenders. They were minor offenders, the officers said again and again, as the crowd grew in size.

      Inside the station sat 21-year-old Ricardo Flores, who had grown up just outside Acatlán but moved to Xalapa, 250km to the north east, to study law, and his uncle Alberto Flores, a 43-year-old farmer who had lived for decades in a small community just outside Acatlán. Ricardo had recently returned to Acatlán to visit relatives, who said the two men went to the centre of town that day to buy construction supplies to finish work on a concrete block water well. Police said there was no evidence the men had committed any crime, and that they had been taken into the station for “disturbing the peace” after they were accosted by local residents.

      But the mob outside the station on Reforma Street was in the grip of a different version of events, a story stirred up somewhere unknown and spread through the private messaging app WhatsApp.

      “Please everyone be alert because a plague of child kidnappers has entered the country,” said the message that pinged from phone to phone.

      “It appears that these criminals are involved in organ trafficking…In the past few days, children aged four, eight and 14 have disappeared and some of these kids have been found dead with signs that their organs were removed. Their abdomens had been cut open and were empty.”

      Sighted near an elementary school in a nearby community called San Vicente Boqueron, Ricardo and Alberto became the child abductors conjured up by collective fear, and news of their arrest spread just as the rumours of the child abductors had.

      The crowd that descended on the police station was whipped up in part by Francisco Martinez, a long-time resident of Acatlán known as “El Tecuanito”. According to police, Martinez was among those who spread messages on Facebook and Whatsapp accusing Ricardo and Alberto. Outside the police station, he began to livestream events on Facebook via his phone.

      “People of Acatlán de Osorio, Puebla, please come give your support, give your support,” he said into the camera. “Believe me, the kidnappers are now here.”

      As Martinez attempted to rally the town, another man, identified by the police only as Manuel, climbed up onto the roof of the colonial-style town hall building next to the police station, and rang the bells of the government office to alert locals that the police were planning to release Ricardo and Alberto.

      A third man, Petronilo Castelan — “El Paisa” — used a loudspeaker to call on the citizens to contribute money to buy petrol to set the two men on fire, and he walked through the crowd to collect it.

      In her shop, Maura Cordero watched with fright, until she heard from a someone outside that they should run because the crowd would set the men on fire. Dear God, she thought, this is not possible.

      Moments later, the crowd coalesced into a mob with one goal. The narrow gate at the entrance to the police station was wrenched open and Ricardo and Alberto Flores were dragged out. As people held their phones aloft to film, the men were pushed to the floor at the base of four stone steps and savagely beaten. Then the petrol that was brought earlier was poured on them.

      Eyewitnesses believe Ricardo was already dead from the beating, but his uncle Alberto was still alive when they set the two men on fire. Video footage shows his limbs moving slowly as the flames licked around them.

      The blackened bodies remained on the ground for two hours after they were burned, while state prosecutors made their way from Puebla City to Acatlán, and the reek of the petrol remained in the air. Petra Elia Garcia, Ricardo’s grandmother, was called to the scene to identify the men, and she said tears were still on Alberto’s cheeks when she arrived. “Look what you did to them!” she shouted at the remnants of the mob, which had begun to disperse.

      “It was one of the most horrific things that ever happened in Acatlán,” said Carlos Fuentes, a driver who works from a taxi stand near the police station. “The columns of smoke could be seen from every point in the town.”

      The road that runs into Acatlán is lined on either side by maize and marigold fields. Mango, fig and walnut trees grow from vast plots of land owned by local farmers. The town is nestled in the heart of the Mixteca highlands and is known as the “Pearl of the Mixteca region” — a reference to the Mixtecs Mesoamerican indigenous groups that first settled in the region centuries ago.

      Most families in Acatlán depend on remittances sent to them by relatives who have migrated to the United States. Like many other towns in Mexico, it has seen thousands of its citizens leave to head north in search of better opportunities.

      Among those migrants in the early 2000s were Maria del Rosario Rodriguez and Jose Guadalupe Flores, who moved north in the hope of providing better living conditions for their two young sons left behind, Jose Guadalupe Jr and his younger brother Ricardo.

      The two boys, aged seven and three, stayed behind with their grandmother, Petra Elia Garcia, in Xalapa in the state of Veracruz. Their parents, Maria and Jose Guadalupe, moved from city to city in the US before making their home in the east coast city of Baltimore. Maria became a domestic worker and Jose Guadalupe a construction worker, and they had a third child and called her Kimberley. Via Facebook and Facetime, they kept in constant communication with their two sons at home.

      Then on 29 August, Maria received a string of Facebook messages which seemed at first like a bad dream. A close friend in Acatlán was telling her that her son Ricardo had been arrested and was suspected of child abductions. It was a mistake, she thought. Ricardo would never be involved with such a thing. But the messages kept coming. Then came a link to a livestream on Facebook, and when she clicked on it she saw a mob, then she saw her son and his brother in law being beaten by the mob.

      In vain, she posted a comment on the livestream. “Please don’t hurt them, don’t kill them, they’re not child kidnappers,” she recalled writing. But her message had no effect and she watched in horror as the men were doused in petrol, and the same technology that allowed a man in Acatlán to summon a mob to kill her son allowed her to watch him die.

      Later that day, Maria, Jose Guadalupe, and Kimberley returned to Acatlán for the first time in more than a decade. There they met Jazmin Sanchez, Alberto’s widow, who had also watched the events unfold on Facebook. For decades Jazmin and Alberto had lived just 14km outside Acatlán, in Xayacatlan de Bravo. Every day, Alberto went to work in the Maize fields he had planted on the land he owned in nearby Tianguistengo. When he died he left behind a small, half-built house in Tianguistengo, as well as the wife and three daughters he was building it for.

      “He was a good man, he didn’t deserve to die the way he did,” said Jazmin, clutching a cap, a belt, and a wallet that had belonged to her late husband.

      Maria and Jose Guadalupe returned to another small house in Tianguistengo which they had left for their sons when they set out for the US. Standing at the back of the house, Maria recalled her son. He liked butterflies and running through the maize fields around the house. He left to study law because he wanted to defend people from injustices. “They took him from us and he didn’t even leave a child behind for us to take care of,” she said.

      In Acatlán, the family was met with a wall of silence. With the exception of Maura Cordero, the shop owners on Reforma Street said they were out of town when the violence happened, or that they shut their shops and fled, or that they never opened in the first place that day, which was not a holiday.

      “No one wants to talk about it,” said Fuentes, the taxi driver. “And the people who were directly involved are already gone.”

      According to state authorities, five people have now been charged with instigating the crime and four more with carrying out the murder. Martinez, who broadcast the livestream, Castelan, who called for petrol, and the man identified as Manuel, who rang the bells, were among the five. But the remaining two alleged instigators, and the four suspects charged with the murder were on the run, police said.

      The day after Ricardo and Alberto died, a funeral service was held in Acatlán. Maria believed there were eyewitnesses to the crime among the crowd who gathered at the service.

      “Look how you killed them! You all have children! And I want justice for my loved ones!” she shouted as tears rolled down her cheeks and the cameras from the local and national TV stations filmed.

      Now the family lives in fear in Acatlán, Maria said. They are afraid to go to the market. “I lost my grandson who was like my son,” said Ricardo’s grandmother. “They accused them of being criminals, with no proof.”

      Maria still cannot understand why the mob was swept up in the lie. “Why didn’t they check? No children were kidnapped, no one filed a formal complaint. It was fake news,” she said.

      Ricardo and Alberto Flores’s deaths in small-town Mexico were not isolated. Rumours and fake news stories on Facebook and WhatsApp have fomented fatal violence in India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, to name just three. In India, as in Mexico, the technology — WhatsApp is an encrypted private messaging app that lets people send messages to large groups — has upgraded time-old rumours about child abductors for the 21st Century, allowing them to spread faster and farther with less accountability.

      WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook for $19bn in 2014, has been linked to a wave of lynchings across India, often fuelled by fake stories of child abductors. In the state of Assam in June, in an incident frighteningly similar to that in Acatlán, Abhijit Nath and Nilotpal Das were beaten to death by a mob of 200.

      Both WhatsApp and Facebook are widely used for news consumption in Mexico, according to a 2018 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. According to the same report, 63% of internet users in Mexico say they are either very concerned or extremely concerned about the spread of fake news.

      “The digital platforms serve as instantaneous vehicles to channel the best and the worst of us, including our fears and prejudices,” said Manuel Guerrero, the director of the School of Communication at Mexico’s Universidad Iberoamericana. “And that becomes more evident in the absence of effective authorities that can guarantee our safety,” he said.

      On 30 August, the day after Ricardo and Alberto died in Acatlán, residents of the town of San Martin Tilcajete in the southern state of Oaxaca attempted to lynch a group of seven men, a group of housepainters, who were falsely accused of being child kidnappers. That day, police officers were able to rescue the men.

      The day after that, the grisly scene from Acatlán repeated itself in Tula in central Hidalgo state, where two innocent men were accused of being child abductors, beaten, and burned to death.

      Beyond Mexico, in Ecuador, on 16 October, two men and a woman arrested for allegedly stealing 200 US dollars were killed by a mob after a message circulated on WhatsApp falsely accusing them of being child snatchers. And on 26 October, a mob in Colombia’s capital Bogota killed a man who was falsely accused in WhatsApp messages of being linked to the kidnapping of a child.

      Because of WhatsApp’s ironclad end-to-end encryption, the origin of anything shared on the app is impossible to trace. The company resisted calls in July from the Indian government to break its encryption and allow authorities to track messages.

      WhatsApp has taken steps to try and stem the tide, adding a label to messages that have been forwarded and limiting the number of groups messages can be forwarded to 20 worldwide and to five in India. “We believe the challenge of mob violence requires action from technology companies, civil society, and governments,” the company told the BBC. “We’ve stepped up user education about misinformation and provided training for law enforcement on how to use WhatsApp as a resource in their community.”

      A spokesman for Facebook told the BBC the platform “did not want our services to be used to incite violence”.

      “Earlier this year we identified and removed videos showing mob violence in the Mexican state of Puebla, and we have updated our policies to remove content that could lead to real-world harm,” the spokesman said. “We will continue to work with tech companies, civil society, and governments to fight the spread of content that has the potential to cause harm.”

      At least 10 state governments in Mexico, including Puebla’s, have now launched information campaigns alerting citizens to the wave of fake social media messages about child abductions, and Mexico City’s cyber police have created chat groups on Whatsapp to allow direct communication with residents of at least 300 neighbourhoods across the capital.

      Citizens ask the police via the groups to verify stories and police use the groups in turn to gather evidence against those who spread fake news. Also on the team’s remit: identity theft, extortion attempts, and human trafficking.

      “We believe that of every 10 crimes, technology is used in nine,” said Jose Gil the deputy minister for Information and Cyber Intelligence in Mexico City.

      “Social media can really alter a community through the spread of false information that many of us perceive as truthful, because it’s being sent by people we trust,” he said. “Society really needs to evaluate what is true and what is false, and decide what is trustworthy and what is not.”

      A lack of effective law enforcement and culture of impunity in Mexico made rumours inciting violence “pure dynamite”, said Tatiana Clouthier, a member of parliament in the country’s Chamber of Deputies. The lynchings in Acatlán had weighed privacy and freedom of expression against a terrible cost, she said.

      “But to what do we give priority? We have to give priority to freedom of expression, but where is the limit? And that’s a topic that none of us want to get into because nobody wants to curtail freedom of expression, but we cannot allow disinformation. The situation we are facing is very dangerous.”

      On 24 October in the afternoon, a group of around 30 relatives of Ricardo and Alberto gathered under the sun at the Church of the Calvary in Acatlán for a memorial service. The priest prayed for both families and blessed two metallic crosses that they had brought. The service lasted for an hour, and then the families walked half a kilometre carrying the crosses to the place they had avoided for the past two months.

      Ricardo’s father, Jose Guadalupe, placed the crosses by the stone steps where Ricardo and Alberto died, and the group stood for a while in silence on a quiet afternoon on the main street in town.

      “It was very painful to be in the same place that the bodies were left charred,” Ricardo’s mother Maria said later. “All of this happened because of rumours and because people were carried away by those rumours.”

      Those rumours still exist on Maria’s phone – and perhaps on other phones all across the town and beyond — but she cannot bear to look at them now or show them to anyone else.

      The day of the memorial, she made a pledge with Alberto’s widow Jazmin to visit the site of the lynching once a week and replenish the votive candles they had left by the crosses.

      “The crosses should remain there forever,” she said, “so the people of Acatlán may see and remember what they did.”

      This story is part of a series by the BBC on disinformation and fake news – a global problem challenging the way we share information and perceive the world around us.

      To see more stories and learn more about the series visit

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      Chile convicts ex-army chief for role in Caravan of Death murders

      Juan Emilio Cheyre is the most senior figure to be held accountable for abuses committed under Pinochet.

        A Chilean judge has convicted the country’s former army chief for his role in the killing of 15 people in the early days of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship decades ago. 

        Juan Emilio Cheyre, 71, was sentenced on Friday to three years and a day under house arrest for covering up the killings of the infamous “Caravan of Death” following an inquiry by an investigating magistrate. 

        The so-called caravan was a military death squad which roamed the country targeting left-wing opponents in the months following Pinochet’s 1973 military coup that overthrew Chile’s democratically elected President Salvador Allende. 

        Cheyre did not form part of it but he belonged to a military contingent based in the northern city of La Serena, where the 15 people were killed.

        He is the most senior figure so far to be held accountable for abuses committed after Allende’s overthrow.

        Mario Carroza, the judge who led the investigation, told reporters on Friday that Cheyre’s conviction was proof of the “egalitarian” justice system Chile now enjoys.

        “It has been an extensive and complex investigation, above all because we did not have the cooperation of those implicated. It has been difficult to get to the historical truth,” Carroza said.

        Chile’s armed forces have long been accused of withholding information related to abuses committed during the Pinochet period, particularly in relation to the location of victims’ remains.

        The military initially claimed that no such documentation existed, but now maintains the paperwork has been destroyed.

        However, speaking to reporters in July, Carroza said Cheyre himself had “always collaborated” with the investigation.

        Victims’ representative Ana Merino criticised the ruling as being too lenient on Cheyre, saying he personally participated in the killings being investigated.

        Opening old wounds

        Following the 1973 coup, Cheyre served as adjutant to the commander of the infantry regiment for La Serena, some 470km north of the capital, Santiago.

        There, he witnessed the murder of 15 people by fellow officers on the orders of the caravan, which arrived in the coastal city a month after the coup. 

        When Chile transitioned to democracy following a referendum in 1988, with Pinochet remaining in office until elections in 1990, Cheyre became a key figure in the process, serving as commander-in-chief of the armed forces from 2002 until 2006.

        He was one of the first to ask forgiveness for the military’s actions during the dictatorship. 

        On Friday, the same court ordered Ariosto Lapostol, the former commander of the Arica regiment stationed at La Serena, to serve 15 years in prison for the multiple murders. 

        Carroza’s 335-page ruling named Lapostol the “sole author” of the killings, saying that the other accomplices were now dead. The ruling also awarded compensation to the families of the victims. 

        The convictions follow those of more than 1,000 former agents, soldiers and collaborators for human rights abuses during the dictatorship, despite initial reticence on the part of authorities to reopen old wounds. 

        During Pinochet’s 17-year rule, an estimated 3,200 people were murdered and another 28,000 tortured by the state. Enforced disappearances were also a common practice. 

        The Listening Post

        Remembering Chile’s 9/11

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        One Chilean’s long quest for justice

        Forty years on from Gen Augusto Pinochet’s military coup in Chile, Leopoldo Garcia Lucero is one of many victims of his regime who still wait for justice.

        Eighty-year-old Mr Garcia is house-bound in a cramped council flat in south London. He is disabled by the torture he suffered after he was arrested in September 1973.

        “I’m alive,” he says. “But it feels like a living death.”

        His front teeth are missing. His face still bears the scar from where he was hit on the forehead with a rifle butt. And he is in constant pain from the beatings he endured almost four decades ago.

        “It still affects me every day,” he says.

        “Every time I comb my hair or shave, I see my scar and the fact that I have no teeth, and I think of Pinochet.

        “My head hurts. I need a hearing aid to hear properly. I have trouble walking because they almost fractured my spine. They put electricity in my eyes and testicles and mouth,” he recalls.

        Landmark case

        This is the story of what torture did to just one man – and the shadow it has cast over his family.

        Mr Garcia was a political supporter of Salvador Allende, the elected president whom Gen Pinochet ousted.

        He had been photographed with the former leader and was tortured while being interrogated about the whereabouts of Mr Allende’s ministers.

        Expelled by the Pinochet regime to the UK in 1975, he is seeking moral damages through the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where a verdict is expected imminently.

        It is a battle for justice that has lasted for almost half of Mr Garcia’s life. And human rights activists see it as a landmark case.

        One of many

        “Behind the case of Mr Garcia Lucero, there are more than 200,000 others who were expelled or forced into exile – many of whom were also tortured. And we are trying to make them and their right to justice visible to the world,” says Clara Sandoval, a lawyer for the charity Redress, which is representing Mr Garcia.

        The Chilean government argues that it has already paid adequate reparations for the abuses committed under Gen Pinochet.

        But his lawyers say no-one has been held to account for Mr Garcia’s torture and, as an exile, he has not received compensation.

        A key aim of the case, according to Ms Sandoval, is to force Chile to conduct a more thorough investigation into what happened to people like Mr Garcia, and to ensure that the perpetrators are punished.

        “It doesn’t matter that we are talking about an 80-year-old man living in the UK. He still wants and has a right to justice,” she says.

        “This is a great case to show that 40 years on, we won’t allow impunity to reign. We need to prevent these things happening again.”

        Mr Garcia does not know the identity of his torturers because he was blindfolded.

        “That’s why I want a full investigation to find out who did this to me,” he says. “It was a miracle I was not left paralysed and brain damaged.”

        Mental scars

        His eldest daughter, Maria Elena, describes the pain of watching her father still suffering – physically and mentally – four decades on, as he grapples with depression and anger.

        “The mental scars are not something you can just sew up or put stitches on,” she says. “You carry on living with what’s on your mind.”

        She says her father, a big personality who used to work at the Santiago racecourse, is a “completely different” person from the bon viveur she grew up with.

        “He would whistle and sing in the shower,” Maria Elena says. “He was very sociable. He loved life.”

        Mr Garcia, who was held at the notorious Chacabuco concentration camp in the Atacama desert after his torture, says that the worst moment was when soldiers threatened to shoot his six-year-old daughter in the back, and then kill him.

        “At some point every day, I want to explode with anger. Anything could set me off – I feel like I’m nothing,” he told the BBC.

        But, according to his family, his battle for justice helps get him out of bed.

        “If I win the case, it will help me regain my sense of self and allow me to live out the rest of my life in dignity,” Mr Garcia says.

        “This case is not just for me, but for others too.”

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        Mexican mothers search for mass graves

        A group of Mexican mothers looking for their missing children is digging up a site in the eastern state of Veracruz in search of mass graves.

        A spokeswoman for the group, called Solecito, said the mothers had received an anonymous tip-off.

        The mothers fear that more than 400 people could be buried in shallow graves in the area.

        Hundreds of bodies have already been found in other nearby clandestine graves in the past two years.

        Solecito was founded two years ago by relatives whose loved ones had gone missing in Veracruz and who had grown frustrated at the lack of official action. Most of its members are mothers who say they will not rest until they find out what happened to their children.

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        Official figures suggest that there are 3,600 open cases of disappearances in Veracruz but the state attorney general, Jorge Winckler, says that those are only the cases in which relatives officially reported the disappearance to the police. The real figure could be much higher, Mr Winckler said.

        Mr Winckler has in the past described Veracruz as “an enormous mass grave” which drug traffickers used as a dumping ground for bodies.

        Solecito spokeswoman Rosalía Castro Toss said the group had received information that led them to believe between 400 and 500 people could be buried at a site 5km (3 miles) north of an area known as Colinas de Santa Fé.

        Colinas de Santa Fé is where the group has dug up more than 150 shallow graves containing the remains of almost 300 people over the past two years.

        Another 166 skulls were found in September in a mass grave in the port city of Veracruz.

        Ms Castro, who has been looking for her son Roberto for the past seven years, said local officials and federal agents would participate in the search of the new site.

        “It was a killing field, or worse,” Ms Castro said of the number of dead they feared could be buried there.

        Most of the bodies found in Colinas de Santa Fé are believed to be victims of violent crime and criminal gangs. Veracruz is bitterly fought over by two powerful cartels, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Los Zetas.

        More than 25,000 people were killed in Mexico in 2017, the most violent year in decades.

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