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Blackwater USA | Daily Brief

China

  • Pres. Trump said he actually hadn’t committed to rolling back tariffs on China yet, erasing some of this week’s optimism over a “phase one” trade deal with China. Apparently some in his administration—perhaps including Trump himself—still object to unraveling the new tariffs it put in place. Stocks fell on the news.
  • U.S. prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Long Island-based Aventura Technologies for falsely claiming to be selling the U.S. Government $20 million of American-made security equipment, when the goods in question were actually cheap Chinese imports. The case sounds more like greed than espionage: there are no allegations that the Chinese government was involved.

Hong Kong

  • A Hong Kong university student died after a Monday-morning fall from a ledge in a car park where the police were trying to clear protesters. His death—following a few days in a coma—sparked another round of protester outrage at police violence.

Afghanistan

  • 2nd VP Mohammad Sarwar Danish said the Afghan government is willing to release Taliban prisoners—in an orderly way—if the Taliban shows that it wants peace by entering into a ceasefire. His comments were rather vague, and certainly aren’t the government’s final offer.

Iran

  • As part of a new campaign that U.S. SecState Pompeo and Israeli PM Netanyahu are leading to talk EU countries into abandoning Iran, Pompeo accused Iran of plotting a “rapid nuclear breakout,” in response to its recent further violations of the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Iraq

  • Protests continue in Iraq, with no sign of abating: police shot dead at least six demonstrators in Baghdad, and five more at a sit-in in Basra.

Pakistan

  • Meanwhile, protesters in Islamabad are still staging a sit-in, even though PM Khan ignored their ultimatum to resign by last Monday. A minority pledged to continue the sit-in until he quits, but it sounds like their fight is just an inconvenience for other residents of the capital, who face a government-imposed internet outage and significant traffic getting to work (thanks to public transit being shut down, too).

Libya

  • A confidential UN report concluded—after a year of investigation—that Jordan, Turkey, and the UAE repeatedly violated the UN embargo on sending weapons to Libya: Turkey to the GNA, and Jordan and the UAE to Khalifa Haftar’s LNA.
  • The report doesn’t mention Russian mercenaries—several hundred of whom are reportedly in Libya backing Haftar. Maybe that’ll be in another report a year from now.

NATO

  • French Pres. Macron said that NATO is becoming “brain dead,” now that the U.S. isn’t taking the alliance seriously enough to consult it on critical decisions like withdrawing from Syria. Macron wondered aloud to The Economist whether NATO was still committed to collective defense.
  • German Chancellor Merkel objected to Macron’s “drastic words,” while Russia—whose predecessor was the major threat that frightened NATO into forming in the first place—praised them as “truthful words.”

Mexico

  • The Post had a really good article with more background on the LeBaron family that lost nine women and children to cartel attackers in Chihuahualast week: apparently some family members had sensed that the security situation was deteriorating for years. Full article pasted below.

U.S.

  • Pragmatic billionaire and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg is reportedly considering joining the 2020 Democratic presidential field. He’s late to the party: sources say he was only recently inspired to run because of how former VP Biden is slipping in the race.
  • Gossip! The anonymous “current or former” Trump official who penned last year’s brutal NYT op-ed about “resistance inside the Trump administration” has now written a book with pretty much the same message. The Post reviewed an early copy, and is publishing some of the most tantalizing claims, e.g. that a group of senior officials were considering resigning en masse in a “midnight self-massacre.”

Other News

  • The 39 bodies that were discovered in a truck trailer near London last month were not Chinese—as initially reported—but Vietnamese migrants.
  • For the 28th year in a row, the UN overwhelmingly (this time 187-3) voted to condemn the U.S.’s 60-year-old blockade on Cuba, which critics say is Cuba’s main obstacle to development. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Kelly Croft, retorted that it’s up to the U.S. to decide who it wants to trade with or blockade. The U.S., Israel, and Brazil voted against the measure; and Colombia and the Ukraine abstained.

How Mexico’s cartel wars shattered American Mormons’ wary peace (Washington Post)

U.S. relatives of slain Mormon women and children in Mexico speak out

For decades, this small village of American Mormons in the mountains of northwestern Mexico coexisted peacefully with the region’s most powerful drug cartel.

The Americans rolled down their windows at the cartel’s checkpoints. They nodded to the sicarios at local horse races and shared pomegranates during the harvest. When the cartel vehicles needed repair, La Mora’s American mechanic fixed them for the same fee he charged his neighbors.

Until this week, living as an American in one of Mexico’s most lawless areas meant maintaining an uneasy truce with the traffickers. “Basically it was, ‘We won’t bother you, if you don’t bother us,’ ” said Adam Langford, whose great-grandfather was one of the first American Mormons to move to Mexico in 1880.

Then on Monday, it became clear that no agreement could insulate La Mora from Mexico’s rising violence. That morning, gunmen stopped three vehicles on a dirt road outside of town and killed three women and six children, shooting babies at close range and targeting a mother as she begged for her children’s lives.

The Mexican government has suggested that the vehicles were attacked by mistake. But here in La Mora, that explanation makes little sense — and has infuriated residents.

They say the families were targeted intentionally by a cartel from the neighboring state of Chihuahua — maybe as revenge for the community’s proximity to the local cartel in Sonora, where La Mora is located. The massacre comes amid an intensifying turf war between the cartels that residents had watched nervously for over a year.

After the massacre, a new reckoning: Should the American Mormons of La Mora remain in Mexico?

“We watched as things got more tense, but we thought the same thing we always did — they won’t come after Americans,” said Amber Langford, 43, a midwife in La Mora. “They would stop us at a checkpoint and ask what we had. We’d say honey or potatoes, and they’d let us go.”

La Mora was established in the 1950s, part of a movement of fundamentalist Mormons who broke away from the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For decades, they remained largely cut off from the United States and the rest of Mexico, without electricity or running water. Children welded their own bicycles with metal rods.

Residents developed pecan farms and ranches and brought money back from seasonal work across the border, and by the 1990s, the community was thriving. They built homes designed for U.S. suburbs.

When friends in the United States asked about their safety, many explained that they rarely locked their doors. They allowed their children to roam free in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. They had two schoolhouses — one for Spanish and one for English — and the students, fluent in both languages, divided their time evenly.

But amid the idyll, the residents of La Mora recognized their community’s strategic importance. It was directly off an unpatrolled dirt road that led to the United States border, a gem in the crown of any trafficker.

In 2009, two men related to the La Mora families but living in Chihuahua were kidnapped and killed, allegedly by the state’s biggest drug cartel. It was a shock, suggesting that maybe the community’s dual citizenship wasn’t enough to insulate its members from rising violence.

But many here believed that their unlikely relationship with the cartel in their state would protect them. Although there was little police presence in the area, some felt the cartel — sometimes known as the Sonora cartel — had come to serve as a kind of shadow police force.

“The fact is that the state didn’t provide law and order, but the cartel did,” said Adam Langford, a two-time mayor of the municipality.

Sometimes, the men at the checkpoints would apologize after stopping them.

“They would say, ‘Sorry guys, we are just guarding our territory,’ ” said Kenneth Miller, 32.

In recent months, there were signs the peace was deteriorating. For the first time, the local cartel demanded that the families of La Mora stop buying fuel in Chihuahua, which would fund the rival cartel. Unfamiliar men manned the usual checkpoints. They appeared jumpier, sometimes pointing guns at passersby. Rumors spread about the intensifying turf war between criminal groups.

“People started asking each other, is it time to move back to the U.S.?” said Amber Langford. The population dwindled to about 100.

Across much of Mexico, the strength of the cartels — and the inability of the government to control their influence — has been on daily display.

The number of homicides climbed to 33,341 last year. Another 40,000 people are missing.

The cartel attacks have become particularly brazen. In August, 27 people were killed in a Veracruz bar when the doors were locked and the bar was set alight. Last month, 14 police officers were killed in an ambush in Michoacan. Also last month, in the city of Culiacan, the Sinaloa cartel overpowered government security forces and forced the release of Ovidio Guzmán López, one of the country’s best-known drug traffickers.

Through it all, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has resisted calls to toughen his security policies. Instead, he’s trying to provide jobs to lure people away from the cartels. He has handed out millions of scholarships to keep kids in school.

“We aren’t going to change the strategy,” he reiterated Thursday. “We are going to continue to address the causes behind insecurity and violence.”

Residents of La Mora have taken their own precautions. They began traveling in convoys when moving between Sonora and Chihuahua. They decided it was time to secure legal firearms.

On Monday, when the three women and their children left town, Rhonita Miller paused before leaving. She told her mother-in-law, Loretta Miller: “I have a bad feeling about this. Maybe I shouldn’t go.”

Less than an hour later, Rhonita Miller was killed with her four children. When residents found her car, it was on fire, apparently set alight by gunmen.

The other victims were found later. Two surviving children walked for hours through the wilderness after escaping. One of them recounted that gunmen had fired at him as he ran into the brush.

Within hours, the massacre sent a shock wave through Mexico and the United States, renewing questions about Mexico’s failure to secure its territory, prompting President Trump to offer up the firepower of the U.S. military.

The residents of La Mora began preparing for the funerals. They made wooden coffins. Amber Langford, the midwife who delivered the children who were killed, now embalmed their bodies.

Hundreds of people arrived from northern Mexico and the United States on Thursday for the funeral of Dawna Langford, 43, and her children Trevor, 11, and Rogan, 2, in the family’s backyard. Troops from Mexico’s national guard stood near the entrance.

Family members wept as they spoke of their loss, remembering the way Dawna told stories, how Trevor devoured waffles, how Rogan couldn’t seem to stop smiling.

“When I heard what happened, I just felt a helplessness for my family,” Ryan Langford, Dawna’s son, said through tears in his eulogy.

As the community mourned, members became aware of how their ordeal had reinvigorated a debate about how to end Mexico’s years of bloodshed.

“I’m not saying I want the U.S. to come down here to revenge my family,” said Kenneth Miller, whose sister-in-law was killed, “but to help all of Mexico.”

For now, their quiet town has been flooded with Mexican security personnel. The troops will inevitably leave in the coming weeks. Everyone here seems to agree: Any reprieve from violence, in the civil war between cartels, is only temporary.

“The question we all have here,” Adam Langford said, “is how does this thing end?”

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