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Blackwater USA | Daily Brief

Brexit

  • Today’s Brexit decision day. Parliament is debating PM Johnson’s deal, and plans to vote on it later—after it votes on a significant amendment raised by Conservative MP Oliver Letwin. Here’s the BBC’s easy explainer of what could happen:
Flowchart explaining how Saturday's votes could pan out

Syria

  • Turkish Pres. Erdogan threatened to go back on the offensive “the minute” this tenuous ceasefire ends in four days, if Kurdish forces don’t fully withdraw from the 30-km “safe zone” by then. (Local reports say the Kurds are actually withdrawing.)
  • Erdogan also said Turkey would set up 12 observation posts in northeast Syria to monitor the Kurds’ withdrawal.
  • Meanwhile, Islamic State is capitalizing on the chaos: its media wing taunted the SDF for being abandoned by the U.S., and warned that more attacks are coming.

Afghanistan

  • An explosion at a mosque in Nangarhar caused the roof to collapse, killing 62 worshippers. The Taliban condemned the attack, and blamed it on rockets shot by government forces, which is unlikely. Local reports say explosives were planted throughout the building, and Islamic State is active in the area, so it’s more likely that IS was responsible.

Lebanon

  • Lebanon is facing nationwide protests over new austerity measures announced Thursday to cure its ailing economy—including a $0.20 cent daily tax on using ubiquitous VoiP services like WhatsApp (though that tax was later rescinded, in response to outcry against it).
  • A frustrated PM Hariri challenged his opponents to agree on solutions within 72 hours, rather than merely block his proposals.
  • Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah voiced support for Hariri’s government, saying he doesn’t want it to resign—but still objects to the new taxes it levied.

Mexico

  • The WSJ had a great article on what went down when Mexican police tried to arrest El Chapo’s son in Culiacán: apparently the cartel not only engaged security forces in a firefight, but also threatened to—and almost actually did—blow up the compounds where their families were staying, freed 55 imprisoned gangsters, and then mocked the operation’s failure by thanking Pres. AMLO for seeing the light and releasing Ovidio Guzmán just hours after his arrest. Article pasted below.
  • Local reports say the Sinaloa Cartel is still in control of the city.

South Sudan

  • Once-and-future-VP Machar finally returned to South Sudan, where he and Pres. Kiir have only a month to figure out a power-sharing agreement that works better than the one that led to war between them in 2013.
  • Machar’s people had said he would only return if his security could be guaranteed in Juba, and they’re still implying that he’s not yet back in Juba for good.

Sudan

  • The SPLM-N—which had said it would boycott peace talks until the government addressed alleged attacks on its people in the Nuba Mountains last week—returned to the table for negotiations with the government and two smaller Sudanese rebel groups.

Ebola

  • European regulators approved Merck’s Ebola vaccine, making it the first one to get commercial approval in a major market. It’s one of two vaccines that has been used to counter the outbreak in DRC under a special waiver that allowed its use before commercial approval. It hasn’t yet received approval in the U.S.

Venezuela

  • As punishment for Cuba’s support of Pres. Maduro, the U.S. revoked Cuban state-owned airlines’ outstanding aircraft leasing licenses, and said it would not issue new ones. I don’t know how many of their planes are leased from American companies, so it’s hard to tell how much this will hurt Cuba.

Aviation

  • Investigators into the 737 Max claim that Boeing’s test pilots knew about the flaws in its MCAS flight control system years ago, but Boeing still didn’t tell regulators or even mention MCAS in its manuals. As a result, commercial pilots wouldn’t have even known the system existed; much less, how to handle its forced nosedives.

Other News

  • A bloc of EU countries led by France blocked Albania and North Macedonia from starting EU membership talks. EU Council Pres. Donald Tusk—who had dangled EU membership in front of the Western Balkan countries in exchange for reforms and political concessions—was upset: “It’s not a failure, it’s a mistake. I feel really embarrassed.”

Mexican Cartel Rules City After Gunbattle (WSJ)

Operation to free Ovidio Guzmán was unprecedented in scope and sophistication

A son of the infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is captured. Cartel gunmen respond with a vicious attack on soldiers and civilians across a major Mexican city, killing at least eight people. The government gives in and releases the son, a top figure in the cartel.

One of the most violent and harrowing days in Mexico’s long fight against drug cartels unfolded late Thursday as members of the Sinaloa cartel wreaked havoc across Culiacán, a modern, middle-class city of around 800,000 residents, in response to what appeared to be a botched attempt to arrest Ovidio Guzmán.

Heavily-armed gunmen riding in convoys engaged in more than 70 separate firefights with Mexican security forces, set fires to vehicles, shot at government offices and engineered a jailbreak that freed 55 prisoners, with six recaptured, officials said. By nightfall, it was clear that the cartel was in charge of the city.

Mexican cartels have a history of blocking streets with burned-out cars to protect their bosses and of going on rampages when their leaders are captured by authorities. But Thursday’s events were unprecedented in their scope and sophistication, showing that the Sinaloa cartel is alive and well despite the absence of its legendary leader, who is now serving a life prison sentence.

The incident stunned many in Mexico and raised pressure on President Andrés Manuel López Obrado to make headway against the country’s relentless cartel-fueled violence. On Friday, he defended the decision to release the younger Mr. Guzmán, after street clashes the day before left at least eight people dead and 16 wounded.

“The situation became very difficult. Many citizens were at risk,” the president said at his daily news conference. “I agreed with that.”

Cartel gunmen had also kidnapped eight army soldiers and an officer, said Mexico’s Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval. They were released after the drug lord was freed.

Schools remained closed in Culiacán on Friday, as did many businesses.

Mr. Guzmán, who is only in his late 20s, has emerged as a top figure in the cartel along with his brothers Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo following the arrest and extradition of their father in 2017.

The incident was the third major gunbattle of the week. On Monday, at least 13 state police in Michoacán state were massacred by suspected gunmen from the country’s powerful Jalisco cartel. A day later, one soldier and 14 alleged cartel gunmen died in a shootout in southern Guerrero state.

The violence, along with widespread extortion of businesses by organized crime, is one factor in Mexico’s economic stagnation. The economy has failed to grow so far this year. A survey by Mexico’s central bank found that violence and political uncertainty are the top two obstacles to economic growth cited by economists.

The administration’s backing down to the cartel’s offensive was sharply criticized by many ordinary Mexicans and security analysts, who challenged Mr. López Obrador’s policy of using force only as a last resort in an attempt to pacify one of the world’s most violent nations. He has called the policy “hugs, not bullets,” promising to focus on attacking poverty rather than cartels.

Murders in Mexico are on pace for a record-high 37,000 this year, according to the country’s national statistics agency. The U.S., which has nearly three times Mexico’s population, has about 15,000 murders a year, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Security analysts said the Culiacán incident was a public-relations disaster for the government, which looked weak in the face of cartel firepower.

“Lopez Obrador was confident his call for peace and love—and not going after narcos—would lower violence,” said Raúl Benitez, an analyst at the Autonomous University of Mexico. Instead, he said the president has given free rein to gangs. “It shows the peace-and-love strategy is not working.”

Adding to the sense of impunity, a lawyer representing the Guzmán family held a press conference in Mexico City on Friday to thank Mr. López Obrador for freeing Mr. Guzmán.

“The calculus the president made was that a single Mexican life is worth more than all the violence that was, as they say in music, reaching a crescendo,” attorney Juan Pablo Badillo said, adding that “we have no idea what would have happened” if the drug lord hadn’t been released.

Mr. Sandoval said Friday that a unit of Mexico’s National Guard had located Ovidio Guzmán, but acted hastily and arrived at a safe house without a warrant. While they were waiting for it, cartel gunmen allegedly opened fire. Security forces captured Mr. Guzmán, officials said, but then found themselves surrounded by cartel gunmen who arrived as backup.

Within minutes of Mr. Guzmán’s capture, hundreds of cartel gunmen sprang into action. Convoys of SUVs and pickups filled the city streets. Gunmen wore bulletproof vests and toted assault rifles, and at least two had machine guns, including an intimidating Browning M2 set up on the back of a light truck, according to security experts who analyzed video footage of the events.

Gunmen also began firing on army barracks where the family members of soldiers lived, Mr. Sandoval said. One unconfirmed report said gang members had hijacked loaded fuel trucks and parked them near the barracks, threatening to blow them up.

“The criminal organization’s ability to call on its members and power of response was underestimated,” said Mr. Sandoval.

Mobsters sprayed bullets in front of key government buildings and gas stations, torching cars and sending plumes of smoke over the Culiacán skyline. It gave the impression of a civil war, sparking panic among the population, said Eduardo Guerrero, a former top Mexican security official.

Between 100 and 150 gunmen surrounded the area near the house where Mr. Guzmán was hiding out, outnumbering some 70 to 80 troops. Another 150 or 200 cartel members were deployed in various parts of the city to create havoc, Mr. Guerrero estimates.

Another armed commando staged a parallel raid, taking advantage of the chaos spreading across Culiacán to free more than 50 cartel members from a nearby prison. Security guards offered no resistance.

“They were more powerful and showed tactical supremacy. The government didn’t expect a reaction in such scale,” said Guillermo Valdés, Mexico’s former intelligence chief. “As soon as some 300 hit men came out, there was no capacity to counter them.”

Mexico’s powerful drug cartels are likely to take note of the Sinaloa cartel’s use of military power and tactics in freeing Mr. Guzmán, and emulate it, said Mike Vigil, a former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who has also served in Mexico.

“Releasing Ovidio sends a vivid message to criminal cartels that if a group’s leader is captured, all you have to do is go into a town, commit wholesale violence, and the government will release him,” he said.

Mr. López Obrador campaigned on ending Mexico’s drug war. Since 2006, as cartels gained increasing power, successive presidents have used the armed forces to kill or capture cartel leaders and break up powerful gangs.

The strategy reduced the clout of the largest cartels, but it also led to growing criminal violence as cartels splintered into rival gangs and fought each other for control of drug-trafficking routes and territory. Hundreds of thousands have died in the carnage.

Mr. López Obrador said his government would no longer focus on capturing cartel leaders but work on alleviating poverty. “What happened yesterday was lamentable, but in no way does it mean our strategy has failed,” he told reporters during his morning news conference.

The president is also relying on the force of his personality to tamp down crime, calling on gang members to think of their mothers.

“We’re calling on criminals to tone it down, that we all start to behave better. To hell with criminals. Fuchi, guacala,” he said, using colloquial terms that mean “gross, yuck.”

Thursday, as word of the battles in Culiacán spread on social media, the phrase #Fuchi/guacala was trending on Twitter.

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