‘God will forgive me or not’: Inside the world of a people smuggler

By Hafizullah Maroof

Before he got on the boat to make the clandestine crossing, Shafiullah called his family in Afghanistan to tell them he was OK and on his way to Turkey.

After the call, Shafiullah, who was 16, boarded the boat. He was one of about 100 passengers that night, last June, and one of thousands of men who have have fled Afghanistan every month this year in search of a more secure life in Europe.

Shafiullah was already inside Turkey, but the people smugglers he had paid to ferry him to Istanbul were heading across Lake Van to avoid police roadblocks. The lake’s waters are dangerous, and the smugglers were setting out at night.

Somewhere across the water, the vessel they had chosen to carry their human cargo – including at least 32 Afghans, seven Pakistanis and one Iranian – sank. Sixty-one bodies were recovered, but the rest, including Shafiullah, are missing. Some bodies could be deep below the surface, Turkish authorities told the BBC, making recovery unlikely.

At least four of those thought to have perished, including Shafiullah, were sent by a smuggler in Kabul. The BBC approached the smuggler and he agreed to talk on the condition that his identity was disguised.

‘Everything is arranged by phone’

Elham Noor (not his real name) has well-established links with other criminals and claims a high success rate in sending people to Italy, France, and the UK.

“Smuggling is not an individual business, it’s a huge network,” he said. “We have connections with one another.” Nppr doesn’t travel with the migrants though. “Everything is arranged over the phone,” he said.

Noor has no shortage of clients. Many Afghans are desperate to leave their country. Afghanistan is among the poorest in the world, it has been ravaged by decades of war. According to the United Nations, 2.7 million Afghans are currently living abroad as refugees – putting Afghanistan behind only Syria and Venezuela in the list of countries which produce the most migrants and refugees.

So Noor has no need to advertise. His clients call him. Young Afghans looking to make the journey will typically seek out a trafficker who has already sent somebody else from their region.

But only a small percentage of those who try to reach Europe succeed at their first attempt, and some never return.

Shafiullah’s uncle Sher Afzal said the family knew the journey would be dangerous. “But we didn’t anticipate this,” said.

Afzal is in mourning, but it’s a strange, hollow kind of grieving that lacks certainty. Shafiullah is still listed as missing. The family, who live in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, would like to hold a memorial service for Shafiullah, but they have no remains. There has already been a ceremony for the two migrants whose bodies were recovered.

“Now we want to see his dead body. We don’t expect him to be alive,” Afzal said.

Shafiullah saw no prospect of a future in Jalalabad. He contacted Noor to get passage to Italy, paying the trafficker $1,000 (£741) as a first instalment. He was bundled together with other migrants and moved from one place to another in cars, trucks, and sometimes on foot.

Shafiullah crossed Iran and entered Turkey, but his journey came to an end on Lake Van, moments after he called his family.

Noor told the BBC he paid the money back to Shafiullah’s family and to others whose journey’s were cut short. Shafiullah’s family confirmed that they had received the money.

$8,500 to get to Italy

Noor said the tragedy had added to his misgivings about people smuggling. He recognises the human cost when things go wrong, he said. But it is a lucrative trade, and a hard one to leave after so many years.

“We charge $1,000 for Afghanistan to Turkey,” Noor said. “From Turkey to Serbia, it is $4,000. From there to Italy, we charge another $3,500. It is $8,500 altogether.”

These are huge sums of money in a country where the average per capita annual income is just over $500. Noor pockets between $3,000 and $3,500 for every migrant who successfully reaches Italy.

And all Noor has to do to is pick up the phone, arrange some money transfers and pay the occasional bribe to the Afghan authorities. He never meets anyone in person who is not known to him or a close relative or friend. He relies on his reputation to bring in clients and is wary of speaking to strangers.

It’s a comfortable life, particularly by Afghan standards, and the trappings of wealth are obvious – the cars, the clothes, the houses.

Noor knows that migrants face a risky journey without travel documents. They are kept hidden during the day and moved at night, using the network’s safe houses along the way, in cities like Tehran, Van and Istanbul, he said.

The migrants are advised not to carry any valuables like expensive jewellery or watches which could attract thieves. Noor usually tells the migrants not to carry more than $100 in cash.

The journey to Turkey, a major hub for Afghans heading to Europe, can take from a week to a couple of months, depending on what happens on the way.

One migrant who made it to Istanbul, passing through on his way to the West, was Hazrat Shah, a former soldier in the Afghan army.

After his village came under the control of the Taliban, the 25-year-old feared reprisal attacks on his family, so he deserted from his unit and decided to leave the country. He set off from Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan earlier this year, attempting to make it to Italy.

“After reaching the border [between Turkey and Iran], it took almost a month to arrive in Istanbul. I stayed there for a few months and worked in hotels to earn money to pay for the smugglers,” Shah told the BBC.

The eastern Mediterranean route, which involves crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece, is particularly favoured by migrants. The European border agency estimates that in the first 10 months of this year, more than 17,000 people crossed over to Europe through this route, and almost a quarter of these are thought to be Afghan.

It was difficult to get from Greece to Bosnia – Shah was deported several times before he made it – but his attempts to move further met with repeated failure.

“It was horrible. In the last attempt I was injured as well. The police beat me a lot,” he said. “They took our shoes and jumpers. We were forced to return in the dark. It is so hard to get through.”

‘The smugglers can’t help’

Shah is not sure if he will ever get to Italy, but he is in no mood to call the people smugglers back in Afghanistan for help. They disappear at the first sign of trouble, he said, and many who undertake the journey regret trusting them.

“There is a possibility that you can die or be injured or abducted at every stage of the journey – and nobody can help you,” he said. “It is not possible for them [the people smugglers] to help as they are afraid of the police. It is a dirty game.”

Shah said he had lived in horrific conditions for many months and has seen many die on the way.

“You will receive very little food and water to keep you alive. I saw people dying of thirst without water. Other migrants can’t help them because if you give your water to them, you face the same situation,” he said.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), more than 1,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. This is mainly because they are forced to travel on overcrowded boats, often during rough weather. Many others, like Shafiullah, die before reaching the Mediterranean and are not even included in this statistic.

But there is no shortage of Afghans wanting to migrate. After an explosion near the German embassy in Kabul in 2017, which killed at least 150 people, most European countries closed their visa application centres in Afghanistan, which has made travelling legally to Europe even harder and only increased the flow of clients seeking the services of smugglers like Noor.

From migrant to trafficker

Noor himself was once in a similar situation. Like so many others, he too once dreamed of living a comfortable life in the UK. He undertook the same journey when he was just 14. His dad paid $5,000 to smugglers.

“I still remember the difficulties of my journey, particularly in Bulgaria where we were kept hidden in trains – I was even forced to jump from a moving train,” Noor said.

In Calais, Noor was offered a commission of 100 euros (£90) for every migrant he introduced to a smuggler. This is how he got his start in the business of people smuggling.

Noor reached the UK illegally and continued to work with smugglers. But he returned to Afghanistan at the age of 21 when he realised the police were looking for him, he said.

Some of the migrants who managed to reach Europe through Noor’s network passed on his details to others, and his network and reputation grew.

“Despite the uncertainty, people still trust me to take them out of the country,” he said.

Noor said about 100 people who paid him to deliver them to a better life were currently on their way to Europe. But he insisted they would be the last. He was getting out of the business, he claimed. He said the disaster with Shafiullah’s boat had hurt him, but the migrants knew the risks.

“I apologised many times to the families. I told them clearly in the beginning, anything can happen on the way,” he said. “They have accepted this. God will decide whether to forgive me or not.”

Another trafficker who knew Noor said he would find it difficult to stop.

“People will continue to call him for years to come, and the chance to make money won’t simply go away the moment he calls it quits,” the trafficker said.

Whether Noor gets out or not, the people smuggling will continue. Many thousands Afghans will still be desperate for a safer and better life.

In Autumn, not long after Shafiullah’s boat sank, two of his relatives made it as far as Turkey. They have just been deported back home.

When the weather gets warmer next summer, they may try again.

Vanessa Bryant, her mother’s lawsuit and the value of childcare

By Ashitha Nagesh, BBC News

Vanessa Bryant, wife of the late basketball star Kobe Bryant, has found herself at the centre of a torrid domestic drama, within a year of the death of her husband and daughter.

She is being sued by her mother.

In the lawsuit Sofia Laine argues that she should be paid $5 million in back-pay for, as she puts it, being her daughter’s “longtime personal assistant and nanny” to her grandchildren. She also claims Kobe Bryant promised to financially take care of her indefinitely.

“Unfortunately, Kobe Bryant’s promise did not see the light of day as he is now deceased and Vanessa Bryant took each and every step she could to void and cancel all of Kobe’s promises,” she alleges in the 48-page lawsuit.

Ms Laine’s legal action attracted a swift and significant backlash, not least for coming just 11 months after the death of Bryant’s husband and teenage daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash. One well-known journalist called the lawsuit “repulsive”, for example, in a tweet that at the time of writing has been “liked” more than 28,000 times.

The strongest response has come from Bryant herself. In a statement, she denied her mother’s claims that she was a nanny and assistant, and instead accused her of attempting to “extort a financial windfall” from her. “This lawsuit is frivolous, disgraceful, and unimaginably hurtful,” she added.

With both sides contradicting each other, there is little way of wading through the right and wrongs of what is a messy, complicated and – ultimately – deeply personal family affair.

Regardless of the individual merits of this case, Ms Laine’s basic argument is not without precedent. Usually for much smaller amounts and in entirely different circumstances, the question of whether parents and grandparents should receive a wage for childcare within the family has been asked repeatedly for at least half a century.

Whether grandparents should be paid for babysitting frequently comes up on online forums. Last year two separate scenarios, posted on Mumsnet and the (unrelated) Netmums respectively, posed the same question from two different perspectives.

On Mumsnet, an anonymous mother wrote that her parents had asked for £50 a week to look after her young children when she returned to work after maternity leave. In the Netmums post, a grandmother said she was looking after her young grandchildren for around 10 hours a day; she and her daughter had agreed on a fee of £40 a week, she said, but she had “somehow ended up doing it for nothing”.

In both cases, the responses were split pretty evenly between those who believed it was the grandparents’ right to insist on payment, and those who felt that grandparents should help their children out without expecting to be compensated.

“In reality, she only occasionally babysat my older girls when they were toddlers,” Vanessa Bryant has claimed in response to her mother’s lawsuit. She points out that she herself was a stay-at-home mother who looked after her own children.

Her mother counters: “She is using my grandchildren to punish me for exercising my rights.” The language marries up her rights and her grandchildren. It’s not an unfamiliar argument, historically.

The history of wanting wages for housework

In the early 1970s, a global coalition of radical feminists launched the Wages for Housework campaign, which argued for families’ primary caretakers – predominantly women – to be paid regular wages for doing the household and childcare duties that were expected of them.

In its manifesto released at the time, the campaign wrote of women’s “life sentence of housework at home and outside, servicing men, children and other women, in order to produce and reproduce the working class. For this work we are never paid a wage”.

“Our destiny and the roots of our exploitation — our wageless work in the home — are the same in every country of the world, and so is our struggle against it.”

The coalition held demonstrations around the world, such as this one in Boston in 1977

But the campaign’s motivation was to highlight the value of housework in a language that the majority of the public would understand.

Their ideas came from the radical left theories of Friedrich Engels who in 1884 argued that while men were in charge of the “means of production”, by producing goods, women were responsible for the “means of reproduction” – which referred to child-rearing.

This idea of the “means of reproduction” being an equally valid form of work directly influenced the Wages for Housework campaign and others like it.

Where are we now?

According to a 2016 report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), women are still overwhelmingly tasked with unwaged work in the home – which, the organisation adds, is “holding back women and girls from advancing in other areas of their lives”.

On average, it adds, women spend 45 minutes more than men per day on paid and unpaid work, or about 5.7 weeks more per year. In the most unequal countries, this goes up to two hours a day.

Margaret Prescod, co-founder of Black Women for Wages for Housework, leading a demonstration in LA in the mid-1970s

But the housework gender gap has been brought to the fore in 2020. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), women in the EU already spent 13 hours more than men per week on unpaid care and housework before the pandemic – which only went up when schools in multiple countries were closed, and older relatives fell ill.

According to Selma James, one of the co-founders of the Wages for Housework movement, little has changed.

Writing in the Independent earlier this year, Ms James said that in 1972 she campaigned specifically for child benefits in the UK – then known as “family allowance” – to be retained. Women, she said, told her at the time that this small payment was “the only money I can call my own”, and was more liberating for women than encouraging them to take on low-wage work.

With an estimated worth of $600m, Vanessa Bryant – and even her own mother – aren’t the primary concern of these campaigns.

But within this family drama – regardless of its rights and wrongs – is the familiar language of rights and compensation when it come to childcare.

1 in 5 prisoners in the US has had COVID-19, 1,700 have died

BETH SCHWARTZAPFEL AND KATIE PARK OF THE MARSHALL PROJECT AND ANDREW DEMILLO OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — One in every five state and federal prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the coronavirus, a rate more than four times as high as the general population. In some states, more than half of prisoners have been infected, according to data collected by The Associated Press and The Marshall Project.

As the pandemic enters its 10th month — and as the first Americans begin to receive a long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine — at least 275,000 prisoners have been infected, more than 1,700 have died and the spread of the virus behind bars shows no sign of slowing. New cases in prisons this week reached their highest level since testing began in the spring, far outstripping previous peaks in April and August.

“That number is a vast undercount,” said Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex.

Venters has conducted more than a dozen court-ordered COVID-19 prison inspections around the country. “I still encounter prisons and jails where, when people get sick, not only are they not tested but they don’t receive care. So they get much sicker than need be,” he said.

Now the rollout of vaccines poses difficult decisions for politicians and policymakers. As the virus spreads largely unchecked behind bars, prisoners can’t social distance and are dependent on the state for their safety and well-being.

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This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and The Marshall Project exploring the state of the prison system in the coronavirus pandemic.

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Donte Westmoreland, 26, was recently released from Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas, where he caught the virus while serving time on a marijuana charge. Some 5,100 prisoners have become infected in Kansas prisons, the third-highest COVID-19 rate in the country, behind only South Dakota and Arkansas.

“It was like I was sentenced to death,” Westmoreland said.

Westmoreland lived with more than 100 virus-infected men in an open dorm, where he woke up regularly to find men sick on the floor, unable to get up on their own, he said.

“People are actually dying in front of me off of this virus,” he said. “It’s the scariest sight.” Westmoreland said he sweated it out, shivering in his bunk until, six weeks later, he finally recovered.

Half of the prisoners in Kansas have been infected with COVID-19 — eight times the rate of cases among the state’s overall population. Eleven prisoners have died, including five at the prison where Westmoreland was held. Of the three prison employees who have died in Kansas, two worked at Lansing Correctional Facility.

In Arkansas, where more than 9,700 prisoners have tested positive and 50 have died, four of every seven have had the virus, the second-highest prison infection rate in the U.S.

Among the dead was 29-year-old Derick Coley, who was serving a 20-year sentence at the Cummins Unit maximum security prison. Cece Tate, Coley’s girlfriend, said she last talked with him on April 10 when he said he was sick and showing symptoms of the virus.

“It took forever for me to get information,” she said. The prison finally told her on April 20 that Coley had tested positive for the virus. Less than two weeks later, a prison chaplain called on May 2 to tell her Coley had died.

The couple had a daughter who turned 9 in July. “She cried and was like, ‘My daddy can’t send me a birthday card,’” Tate said. “She was like, ‘Momma, my Christmas ain’t going to be the same.’”

Nearly every prison system in the country has seen infection rates significantly higher than the communities around them. In facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, one of every five prisoners has had coronavirus. Twenty-four state prison systems have had even higher rates.

Not all states release how many prisoners they’ve tested, but states that test prisoners broadly and regularly may appear to have higher case rates than states that don’t.

Infection rates as of Tuesday were calculated by the AP and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the criminal justice system, based on data collected weekly in prisons since March. Infection and mortality rates may be even higher, since nearly every prison system has significantly fewer prisoners today than when the pandemic began, so rates represent a conservative estimate based on the largest known population.

Yet, as vaccine campaigns get underway, there has been pushback in some states against giving the shots to people in prisons early.

“There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners … before it goes to the people who haven’t committed any crime,” Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told reporters earlier this month after his state’s initial vaccine priority plans put prisoners before the general public.

Like more than a dozen states, Kansas’s vaccination plan does not mention prisoners or corrections staff, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan prison data think tank. Seven states put prisoners near the front of the line, along with others living in crowded settings like nursing homes and long-term care facilities. An additional 19 states have placed prisoners in the second phase of their vaccine rollouts.

Racial disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system compound the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on communities of color. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. They are also disproportionately likely to be infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, and are more likely than other races to have a family member or close friend who has died of the virus.

The pandemic “increases risk for those who are already at risk,” said David J. Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

This week, a Council on Criminal Justice task force headed by former attorneys general Alberto Gonzalez and Loretta Lynch released a report calling for scaling back prison populations, improving communication with public health departments and reporting better data.

Prison facilities are often overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Dormitory-style housing, cafeterias and open-bar cell doors make it nearly impossible to quarantine. Prison populations are sicker, on average, than the general population and health care behind bars is notoriously substandard. Nationwide, the mortality rate for COVID-19 among prisoners is 45% higher than the overall rate.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, public health experts called for widespread prison releases as the best way to curb virus spread behind bars. In October, the National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering released a report urging states to empty their prisons of anyone who was medically vulnerable, nearing the end of their sentence or of low risk to public safety.

But releases have been slow and uneven. In the first three months of the pandemic, more than 10,000 federal prisoners applied for compassionate release. Wardens denied or did not respond to almost all those requests, approving only 156 — less than 2%.

A plan to thin the state prison population in New Jersey, first introduced in June, was held up in the Legislature because of inadequate funding to help those who were released. About 2,200 prisoners with less than a year left to serve were ultimately released in November, eight months after the pandemic began.

California used a similar strategy to release 11,000 people since March. But state prisons stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails at several points during the pandemic, which simply shifted the burden to the jails. According to the state corrections agency, more than 8,000 people are now waiting in California’s county jails, which are also coronavirus hot spots.

“We call that ‘screwing county,’” said John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s secretary of corrections, whose prison system has one of the lower COVID-19 case rates in the country, with one in every seven prisoners infected. But that’s still more than three times the statewide rate.

Prison walls are porous even during a pandemic, with corrections officers and other employees traveling in and out each day.

“The interchange between communities and prisons and jails has always been there, but in the context of COVID-19 it’s never been more clear,” said Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, a professor of social medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies incarceration and health. “We have to stop thinking about them as a place apart.”

Wetzel said Pennsylvania’s prisons have kept virus rates relatively low by widely distributing masks in mid-March — weeks before even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending them for everyday use in public — and demanding that staff and prisoners use them properly and consistently. But prisoners and advocates say prevention measures on the ground are uneven, regardless of Wetzel’s good intentions.

As the country heads into winter with virus infections on the rise, experts caution that unless COVID-19 is brought under control behind bars, the country will not get it under control in the population at large.

“If we are going to end this pandemic — bring down infection rates, bring down death rates, bring down ICU occupancy rates — we have to address infection rates in correctional facilities,” said Emily Wang, professor at Yale School of Medicine and co-author of the recent National Academies report.

“Infections and deaths are extraordinarily high. These are wards of the state, and we have to contend with it.”

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Schwartzapfel reported from Boston and Park from Washington.

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This story has been corrected to remove a reference to infection rates for prison employees nationwide that undercounted staff populations in at least one state. The number of staff infected in North Dakota is one in four, not four in five.”

Damage from border wall: blown-up mountains, toppled cactus

BY ANITA SNOW

GUADALUPE CANYON, Ariz. (AP) — Work crews ignite dynamite blasts in the remote and rugged southeast corner of Arizona, forever reshaping the landscape as they pulverize mountaintops in a rush to build more of President Donald Trump’s border wall before his term ends next month.

Each blast in Guadalupe Canyon releases puffs of dust as workers level land to make way for 30-foot-tall (9-meter-tall) steel columns near the New Mexico line. Heavy machines crawl over roads gouged into rocky slopes while one tap-tap-taps open holes for posts on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.

Trump has expedited border wall construction in his last year, mostly in wildlife refuges and Indigenous territory the government owns in Arizona and New Mexico, avoiding the legal fights over private land in busier crossing areas of Texas. The work has caused environmental damage, preventing animals from moving freely and scarring unique mountain and desert landscapes that conservationists fear could be irreversible. The administration says it’s protecting national security, citing it to waive environmental laws in its drive to fulfill a signature immigration policy.

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement Friday that it has worked with the National Park Service and other agencies to minimize damage in construction areas, including not using groundwater within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, home to endangered species like the Sonoyta mud turtle. The agency said it also has replanted salvageable cactuses and has identified 43 places for small wildlife corridors along the Arizona border, with installation of some underway.

Environmentalists hope President-elect Joe Biden will stop the work, but that could be difficult and expensive to do quickly and may still leave pillars towering over sensitive borderlands.

The worst damage is along Arizona’s border, from century-old saguaro cactuses toppled in the western desert to shrinking ponds of endangered fish in eastern canyons. Recent construction has sealed off what was the Southwest’s last major undammed river. It’s more difficult for desert tortoises, the occasional ocelot and the world’s tiniest owls to cross the boundary.

“Interconnected landscapes that stretch across two countries are being converted into industrial wastelands,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

In the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge near Guadalupe Canyon, biologist Myles Traphagen said field cameras have captured 90% less movement by animals like mountain lions, bobcats and pig-like javelinas over the past three months.

“This wall is the largest impediment to wildlife movement we’ve ever seen in this part of the world,” said Traphagen of the nonprofit Wildlands Network. “It’s altering the evolutionary history of North America.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1982 established the nearly 4-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) refuge to protect water resources and endangered native fish. Diverse hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and bats also live there.

Since contractors for Customs and Border Protection began building a new stretch of wall there in October, environmentalists estimate that millions of gallons of groundwater have been pumped to mix cement and spray down dusty dirt roads.

Solar power now pumps water into a shrinking pond underneath rustling cottonwood trees. Bullfrogs croak and Yaqui topminnows wiggle through the pool once fed solely by natural artesian wells pulling ancient water from an aquifer.

A 3-mile (5-kilometer) barrier has sealed off a migratory corridor for wildlife between Mexico’s Sierra Madre and the Rocky Mountains to the north, threatening species like the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog and blue-gray aplomado falcon.

The Trump administration says it’s completed 430 miles (692 kilometers) of the $15 billion wall and promises to reach 450 miles (725 kilometers) by year’s end.

Biden transition officials say he stands by his campaign promise — “not another foot” of wall. It’s unclear how Biden would stop construction, but it could leave projects half-finished, force the government to pay to break contracts and anger those who consider the wall essential to border security.

“Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders,” Biden’s transition team has said. It says Biden will focus on “smart border enforcement efforts, like investments in improving screening infrastructure at our ports of entry, that will actually keep America safer.”

Environmentalists hope for an ally in Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection.

Until construction is stopped, “every day, it will be another another mile of borderlands being trashed,” Serraglio said.

Environmental law attorney Dinah Bear said Biden’s administration could terminate building contracts, which would allow companies to seek settlements. What that would cost isn’t clear because the contracts aren’t public, but Bear said it would pale in comparison to the price of finishing and maintaining the wall. Military funds reappropriated under a national emergency declared by Trump are now funding the work.

Bear, who worked at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality under Republican and Democratic administrations, said she wants to see Congress set aside money to repair damage by removing the wall in critical areas, buying more habitat and replanting slopes.

Ecologists say damage could be reversed in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where thousands of tree-like saguaros were bulldozed, with some reportedly replanted elsewhere.

They say keeping floodgates open could help ease damage done by damming the San Pedro River, which runs north from just below the Mexican border through the central corridor of the Sierra Madre’s “Sky Islands.”

These high mountains have ecosystems dramatically different from the desert below, with 300 bird species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, nesting along what was the Southwest’s last major free-flowing river. The white-nosed, racoon-like coati and the yellow-striped Sonoran tiger salamander also live there.

In the nearby Coronado National Monument, scientists are using cameras to document wildlife as crews prepare to start building. Switchbacks have been slashed into mountainsides, but 30-foot (9-meter) posts aren’t yet up along where a Spanish expedition marched through around 1540.

The government plans to install the towering pillars 4 inches (10 centimeters) apart where there are now vehicle barriers a couple of feet high with openings large enough to allow large cats and other animals to cross to mate and hunt.

Biologist Emily Burns of the nonprofit Sky Island Alliance said construction will hurt elf owls, the world’s littlest at less than 5 inches (13 centimeters) tall. The birds are too small to fly over the fence and likely wouldn’t know to squeeze through.

“This kind of large-scale disruption can push a species to the brink, even if they aren’t threatened,” said Louise Misztal, alliance executive director.

Authorities know where the kidnapped Nigerian schoolboys are, says state governor

By Eoin McSweeney, CNN

(CNN) — The location of 337 students who were unaccounted for after gunmen attacked a school in northwestern Nigeria on Friday, is now known by government authorities, according to state governor Aminu Bello Masari. Talks are ongoing to secure their release and the children are safe, he told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Wednesday.

“We’re not hearing any concrete demand, but we’ll make sure that the children are simply back home,” he said. “All the areas have been secured but the security forces here are not firing because we want to make sure that… we don’t get any collateral damage.”

Local police said a large number of attackers riding motorbikes ambushed the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara, Katsina State, last week. The attack may have been a kidnapping-for-ransom attempt, they said.

There have been varying estimates of the number of children kidnapped from the school. Government officials said it was difficult to accurately track the numbers, as some children ran away during the attack and others escaped and made their way back to villages and to the school through the weekend.

“We [the government] are ultimately responsible,” said Masari.

A man claiming to be a leader of Boko Haram said on Tuesday the terror group was responsible for the kidnapping, according to a short audio message shared with Nigerian media and reviewed by CNN.

“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” said the man in the recording. Shekau is the leader of one of Boko Haram’s factions.

Masari did not dismiss the voice note entirely but cautioned that “more concrete evidence” was needed before it could be confirmed that Boko Haram was involved.

The kidnappers have not made a direct demand yet, but a child of a teacher who was among the kidnapped contacted his father. He only complained about the air force flying overhead and mentioned they may need money.

When asked if he would pay a ransom, Masari said it’s not “the policy of our government” to do so.

“We’ll find other ways of securing the lives and the freedom of the children,” he added.

The kidnapping is outside Boko Haram’s usual area of activity. Their operations have generally focused in the northeast of the country, though security analysts believe that their reach has shifted after a security crackdown in that region.

Boko Haram claims to have kidnapped Nigerian schoolboys, in unverified audio message

There have been multiple kidnappings for ransom in Katsina State in recent years, but not on this scale.

Several witnesses told CNN that those who targeted the school were Fulani gunmen, an ethnic group that has been involved in kidnappings and criminal activities in the area.

Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram was behind the 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Chibok. Their captivity lasted years and many of the children were never returned after a negotiated release.

In 2018, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram known as ISWAP kidnapped more than 100 girls in Dapchi. All but one was released weeks later, after negotiations.

While these are the most high-profile examples, Boko Haram has abducted well in excess of 1,000 children since 2013, according to UNICEF.

“We are now responsible and will live up to our responsibility of ensuring and making sure that we do the best we can to safeguard the lives of our people and now [the] priority is to make sure that these children are safely back into their families and back into school,” Masari said.

Amnesty condemned the attack on Wednesday and said it was a “serious violation of international humanitarian law” which “undermines the right to education for thousands of children in northern Nigeria.”

Instagram model Joselyn Cano ‘dies aged 29 after a botched butt-lift surgery’ in Colombia

By Lydia Catling, Mailonline

An Instagram model, dubbed the Mexican Kim Kardashian, is reported to have died at the age of 29 after a botched butt-lift surgery in Colombia. 

Joselyn Cano from Newport Beach, California, is claimed to have died on December 7 and a livestream of what is believed to be her funeral was shared on Youtube this week.

Influencer Lira Mercer broke the news of the model’s death on Twitter yesterday, writing: ‘Omg Joselyn Cano died in Colombia getting surgery. That’s wild.’

Cano’s death is yet to be confirmed by her family but people have been taking to social media to share their condolences.  

Joselyn Cano is reported to have died after a botched Brazilian butt-lift procedure in Colombia on December 7. Pictured: The model’s last Instagram post on December 7

The death of the 29 year old model (pictured) from Newport Beach, California, was shared on social media by fellow influencer Lira Mercer

A three-hour livestream of what is believed to be her funeral was shown on Youtube, which saw loved ones paying their respects to Joselyn Cano.

Cano (pictured on November 9) poses in a bikini in the bathroom. Her Instagram page, which is typically updated at least once a week has not been updated since December 7

Cano was a model, social media influencer, building a following of more than 12million, and a fashion designer. Her LinkedIn profile also states she studied Microbiology at San Diego State University.   

A three-hour livestream of what is believed to be her funeral was shown on Youtube, which saw loved ones paying their respects to the young woman in a casket beside a large picture of her. 

A short message on the stream read: ‘Joselyn entered this life on Wednesday, March 14, 1990. She entered into Eternal Life on Monday, December 07, 2020.’

For Brazilian butt lift procedures, fat is taken from various parts of the body and put with the buttocks

Cano was a model, social media influencer, building a following of more than 12million, and a fashion designer Pictured: Joselyn poses in New York last year

She studied Microbiology at San Diego State University. Pictured: Cano shares a candid selfie

While reports of her death still remain unconfirmed, her Instagram page, which is typically updated at least once a week has not been updated since December 7.  

Taking to Twitter after the news of her death, one person wrote: ‘Rip Joselyn Cano so young and so beautiful.’

Another said: ‘What the f**k? Joselyn cano died from getting a [Brazilian butt lift]? That s**t is crazy.’

Funeral of Instagram model who died after botched butt-lift surgery

Through her Instagram modelling Cano (pictured) gained a following of more than 12million

During the livestream of what is believed to Cano’s funeral people approach her casket which sits next to a picture of her

For Brazilian butt lift procedures, fat is taken from various parts of the body and put with the buttocks.

It has grown increasingly popular in the United States, becoming the fastest-growing type of plastic surgery, according to 2015 statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

The rate of buttock lift procedures rose 252 percent from 2000 to 2015. The total went from 1,356 to 4,767 procedures over the course of that time.

Injecting fat into the butt can lead to problems if done improperly, including fat embolism – which is when fat enters the bloodstream and blocks a blood vessel.

The estimated death rate for BBL is 1 in 3000, according to PlasticSurgery.org. 

Ghost boat carrying 1,400 pounds of cocaine washes up on remote Pacific island

This December 15, 2020 photo shows a box filled with 2.2-pound (1-kg) bricks of cocaine found on a boat that washed up in the Marshall Islands.

(CNN) — A small, unassuming boat washed up on a remote island in the Pacific last week carrying no passengers — but loaded with around 1,430 pounds (649 kg) of cocaine.

The 18-foot (5.4-meter) fiberglass vessel was discovered on a beach at Ailuk Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a chain of coral atolls and volcanic islands between the Philippines and Hawaii.

The cocaine came sealed and wrapped in blocks, according to the Marshall Islands police, who then collected and destroyed most of the packages by burning them in an incinerator. Photos of the blocks show stained, yellowing plastic, stamped with a red logo that bears the letters “KW.”

One resident on Ailuk, which is home to around 400 people, discovered the boat last week, according to CNN affiliate Radio New Zealand. The vessel was too heavy for residents to lift onto the beach — so they investigated the inside, where a large compartment under the deck revealed the bricks of cocaine.

<img alt=”Marshall Islands police transport the confiscated packages of cocaine to an incinerator on December 15, 2020.” class=”media__image” src=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/201217112646-02-marshall-islands-cocaine-large-169.jpeg”>

Marshall Islands police transport the confiscated packages of cocaine to an incinerator on December 15, 2020.

The residents notified the authorities, and police brought the drugs back to the capital of Majuro, on another island. This week, police brought the cocaine to the incinerator; only 4.4 pounds (2 kg) were saved for the US Drug Enforcement Agency to conduct laboratory analysis, authorities said.

In total, the haul is worth an estimated $80 million, according to RNZ — and is the largest amount of cocaine to ever wash onto the Marshall Islands.

Authorities said they believed the boat had drifted over from South or Central America, and could have been at sea for one or two years.

<img alt=”Marshall Islands Police Captain Eric Jorban (left) empties packages of cocaine into an incinerator in the capital Majuro, on December 15.” class=”media__image” src=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/201217112647-03-marshall-islands-cocaine-large-169.jpeg”>

Marshall Islands Police Captain Eric Jorban (left) empties packages of cocaine into an incinerator in the capital Majuro, on December 15.

This may be one of the biggest drug hauls, but it’s certainly not the first; islands in the Pacific are on a major international drug trafficking route, and numerous drug packages have previously been seized or discovered in the Marshall Islands.

A resident found nearly 40 pounds (18 kg) of cocaine in 2016, and was arrested for not immediately handing it to police; a fisherman reeled in 105 pounds (48 kg) of suspected cocaine in 2018; just this year, police suspect a supply of cocaine may have washed up on Maloelap Atoll and contributed to an explosion in drug use and drug-related health complications.

Many of the packages that wash up are professionally wrapped; sometimes residents take the drugs instead of reporting them, fueling widespread drug availability and use. The problem has escalated so much this year that the Marshall Islands parliament established a drug task force in May as part of a larger crackdown effort.

US Joint Chiefs chairman meets with Taliban on peace talks

BY ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The top U.S. general held unannounced talks with Taliban peace negotiators in the Persian Gulf to urge a reduction in violence across Afghanistan, even as senior American officials in Kabul warned that stepped-up Taliban attacks endanger the militant group’s nascent peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met for about two hours with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday and flew Wednesday to Kabul to discuss the peace process with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Although Milley reported no breakthrough, his Taliban meetings represent a remarkable milestone — America’s top general coming face-to-face with representatives of the group that ruled Afghanistan until it was ousted 19 years ago this month in the early stages of what became America’s longest war. Milley served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first in 2003 and the last in 2013-14.

Milley’s meetings came amid a new drawdown of U.S. troops, although under current U.S. policy a complete pullout hinges on the Taliban reducing attacks nationwide.

“The most important part of the discussions that I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for an immediate reduction in violence,” Milley told three reporters, including one from The Associated Press, who accompanied him to Qatar and Afghanistan. “Everything else hinges on that.”

Under ground rules set by Milley for security reasons, the journalists traveling with him agreed not to report on either set of talks until he had departed the region. It was Milley’s second unannounced meeting with the Taliban’s negotiating team; the first, in June, also in Doha, had not been reported until now.

Army Gen. Scott Miller, the top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview at his military headquarters in Kabul on Wednesday that the Taliban have stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and against roadways and other infrastructure.

“My assessment is, it puts the peace process at risk — the higher the violence, the higher the risk,” Miller said. Miller meets at least once a month with Taliban negotiators as part of Washington’s effort to advance a peace process.

Speaking in the same interview, Ross Wilson, the ranking American diplomat in Kabul, said he also sees growing risk from Taliban violence. He said it has created “an unbearable burden” on the Afghan armed forces and the society as a whole.

In the so-called Doha agreement signed last February by the United States and the Taliban, the administration of President Donald Trump agreed to a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, going down to zero troops by May 2021 if the agreement’s conditions are upheld. One condition is a reduction in violence by the Taliban, leading to a nationwide ceasefire. The Taliban also agreed to begin peace negotiations with the Afghan government, which are in an early stage.

The Taliban have demanded a halt to U.S. airstrikes, which have been conducted since February only in support of Afghan forces under Taliban attack.

Miller said he was saddened by what he called the Taliban’s deliberate campaign to damage roadways, bridges and other infrastructure as part of the militants’ effort to limit the Afghan government’s ability to reinforce its troops.

“Military commanders on the ground are now starting to do things that are not conducive to peace talks and reconstruction and stability,” Miller said, adding, “Clearly, the Taliban use violence as leverage” against the Afghan government.

Miller said he is executing Trump’s order to reduce U.S. forces from 4,500 to 2,500 by Jan. 15, just days before Joe Biden is sworn in as Trump’s successor. Miller said troop levels are now at about 4,000 and will reach the 2,500 target on time.

Biden has not said publicly whether he will continue the drawdown or how he will proceed with the Doha agreement negotiated by Trump’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Biden has not laid out a detailed plan for Afghanistan but has made clear he prefers a small U.S. military footprint and limited goals. He has acknowledged that he dissented from then-President Barack Obama’s decision in December 2009 to vastly increase troop levels in hope of forcing the Taliban to the peace table.

“I think we should only have troops there to make sure that it’s impossible for… ISIS or al-Qaida to re-establish a foothold there,” Biden told CBS News in February.

Trump has argued for withdrawing entirely from Afghanistan but was persuaded in November to reduce the force to 2,500 and continue the current missions of counterterrorism and training and advising Afghan forces.

Some believe that the further thinning of U.S. forces in coming weeks could lead to renewed Taliban gains on the battlefield and a weakening of the Afghan government’s position at the peace table.

Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international relations at Columbia University, says the main contribution of U.S. forces at this stage is political rather than military.

“In military terms, the war is a slowly decaying stalemate,” Biddle said in congressional testimony last month. “The U.S. presence can slow the rate of decay at the margin, but we cannot reverse it absent a major reinforcement that seems highly unlikely. This means that if the war continues, the Taliban will eventually prevail regardless of plausible variations in the size or nature of the U.S. troop commitment.”

Milley’s visit comes in the 20th year of a war initially aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime, running al-Qaida out of the country and laying the groundwork for a global “war on terrorism.” It turned into something more ambitious yet less well-defined and became far more costly in blood and treasure.

Looking back on the long-stalemated war, Milley earlier this month proclaimed the U.S. and its coalition partners had achieved “a modicum of success.”

14 million American households are at risk of eviction as protections expire

By Rosa Flores and Sara Weisfeldt, CNN

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (CNN) — John Ayers’ face filled with pride as he listed everything he used to be able to afford as an insurance agent — $2,000 monthly rent, hundreds of dollars in prescriptions for his severe arthritis and diabetes, and even a regular Uber driver, known as Fast Ice, to take him grocery shopping in a black Mercedes-Benz van.

But the pandemic — which Ayers described as a “wicked, giant octopus with very long tentacles” — upended his life.

“Fortunately, I haven’t gotten the virus, but I’ve fallen victim to it,” Ayers said recently, sitting outside the rental home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he lives with his certified companions Bella and Bear — a red nose pit bull and a pit bull mix.

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His eyes filled with tears as he described losing his job early last summer, exhausting his savings paying for rent, medications and utility bills, and getting slapped with an eviction notice.

“I need help,” the 62-year-old widower gasped. “I am about to be homeless.”

With the pandemic as a backdrop, more than 14 million American households are currently at risk of eviction and have an estimated $25 billion in rental debt, according to a report by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm. And 4.9 million of them are likely to receive eviction notices in January after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium expires on December 31, Stout found.

Help is not in sight, as negotiations over relief continue to stall in Congress. Despite efforts by state legislatures to fill the gap, states have run out of money. While Washington drags its feet, hardworking Americans around the country are on the brink of financial ruin and homelessness in the middle of a raging pandemic.

“Any meaningful pandemic mitigation strategy must include robust rent relief and eviction moratoria, or interventions will be thwarted,” said Emily Benfer, a professor at Wake Forest University Law School and co-creator of the Eviction Lab Covid-19 Housing Policy Scoreboard, a dataset of evictions in America.

Florida residents have fewer protections

Tenants in Florida are among those at the highest risk of eviction, according to Benfer, in part due to the lack of tenant protections like rent control and late-fee restrictions. More than a million renters in the Sunshine State have “slight or no confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent.

Thousands of evictions have been filed in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Tampa since March 15, according to the Eviction Lab project.

In Broward County, evictions are expected to triple during the first three months of 2021, from 5,000 to 15,000, according to Administrative Judge Robert Lee of Broward County Court.

With all court proceedings held virtually, Lee said, he has told his team of judges “we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves.” To meet the skyrocketing demand, judges in the criminal, medical and insurance claims divisions are being diverted to hear eviction cases, said Lee. He is also boosting support staff and mediation teams who offer free services paid for by the county.

Patrice Paldino deploys attorneys to food-lines to help tenants fight to stay in their homes.

Patrice Paldino deploys attorneys to food-lines to help tenants fight to stay in their homes.

“It’s a strange time for us,” he said.

Pro bono attorneys are bracing for what could be a “tsunami” of eviction cases in southeast Florida in the new year, says Patrice Paldino, executive director of Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida.

Many tenants think they have eviction issues but once they consult attorneys, Paldino says, they realize they also have garnishments, credit card debt and other collections. Some of her current eviction clients are seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.

“I believe housing is health care and you have to keep people in their homes for their mental, physical and emotional health,” Paldino said.

Paldino has hired three extra attorneys. Due to the surging pandemic, she deploys some of them in the community in a “mobile justice” van retrofitted into a law office, with a walk-up window. Lawyers and clients are separated by acrylic glass for safety.

Evictions compound pandemic risks

Evictions are linked to an increase in Covid-19 infections and death because they result in overcrowded living environments, limited access to health care and an inability to social-distance or exercise hygiene, Benfer’s research shows.

“The United States’ repeated failure to address the eviction crisis is jeopardizing lives and the health and well-being of the nation,” said Benfer.

In Miami-Dade County, homelessness is on the rise, according to Ron Book, chair of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust. The call volume at Camillus House, the trust’s shelter, increased from an average of 800 calls a month to 1,200 last month.

“I’m deathly concerned,” Book said. He fears the “floodgates” of homelessness will open and thousands of people, including senior citizens, will be on the streets once the CDC moratorium ends.

More than 6,400 evictions were filed from March 13 to November 30 in Miami-Dade County, according to a county courthouse spokesperson. Book estimates those evictions could impact about 18,000 people.

John Ayers looks through eviction documents as his eviction date looms.

“The fact is that we’re going to lose lives in a massive potential proportion if we don’t find a way to solve keeping people in their homes,” Book said.

As for Ayers, he’s still looking for a job. He can’t afford his medications, and short of a miracle on his Gofundme page, he’ll be homeless on New Year’s Day.

His eyes swell when he explains he’s not worried about himself, he’s worried about Bella and Bear.

“[Being] hungry I can deal with,” Ayers said, sobbing. “It’s the thought of being out there [on the street] with a dog.”

In the midst of his desperation, he counts one new blessing: Fast Ice now drives him to the grocery store free of charge.

“There are still people in this world who have a kind heart and a wonderful spirit,” Ayers said.

Lawyers group presents scammed 9/11 NYPD hero with $400,000 check after $1 million theft by his friend

By Larry McShane, NY Daily News

A 9/11 hero NYPD officer, scammed out of a $1 million compensation fund check by a friend and fellow cop, received a welcome bit of holiday payback from a state lawyers’ group.

Cancer survivor John Ferreyra, who fell ill after working on the toxic pile at Ground Zero after the 2001 World Trade Center attack, was presented Thursday with a $400,000 check by the New York State Lawyers Fund. He was victimized by a former NYPD pal turned attorney — with the scammer now facing up to 10 years in prison at his Feb. 5 sentencing.

“I am both humbled and grateful to finally receive (nearly) half of the award that was given to me for my disabling 9/11 illness,” said Ferreyra, diagnosed in in 2005 with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. “It is my hope that no other member of the 9/11 community, or anybody else, ever has to experience what my family and I went through.”

Left to right: 9/11 survivors advocate John Feal, attorney Michael Barash, Lisa Ferreyra and her husband John Ferreyra. (Obtained by Daily News)

The lawyers’ fund provides financial assistance for clients victimized by unscrupulous attorneys like Gustavo Vila, who pleaded guilty to stealing 90% of his friend’s payout from the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. The lawyer and Ferreyra became close when Vila was working his way up through the NYPD ranks, eventually becoming a lieutenant and advisor to Police Commissioner William Bratton.

Vila, 62, admitted pocketing all but $100,000 of Ferreyra’s $1 million payout, using the cash to pay his taxes and write checks to his family worth nearly $300,000. It was later discovered that Vila was actually disbarred for a grand larceny conviction in 2015 — the year before the check to his old friend arrived.

Ferreyra endured incessant rounds of treatment, running the gamut from multiple surgeries to chemotherapy, from radiation to a stem cell transplant, in the years after he was diagnosed. The father of two girls said his longtime friend continued lying to him until this past January and never offered an apology for the cruel scam.

Vila pleaded guilty in White Plains Federal Court in October, four years after his friend’s check from the 9/11 fund arrived and seven years after he took on Ferreyra’s case.

“It’s inexcusable to steal from anyone, but to target and prey upon a 9/11 hero in this way is a despicable betrayal not of just John Ferreyra but of all those who have sacrificed their health and lives working to rebuild following the attacks,” said 9/11 survivors advocate John Feal.

Feal presented the $400,00 check to Ferreyra along with the victim’s attorney Michael Barash, whose firm has represented thousands of first responders.

“I could simply not stand by when I heard John’s devastating story, realizing he was being victimized again,” said Barash. “This was a betrayal of trust, plain and simple.”