TIME Aviation

Balloonists Break World Record with Pacific Ocean Crossing

A hot-air balloon of the U.S. balloonist Troy Bradley and Russian Leonid Tiukhtyaev soars in Saga, Japan, on Jan. 25, 2015 The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

The U.S.-Russian duo are set to land in Mexico on Saturday after taking off from Japan a week ago

When Troy Bradley and Leonid Tiukhtyaev land in Mexico on Saturday in their large helium balloon Two Eagles, they will have broken at least one and possibly two world records.

After setting out from Japan on Sunday and flying across the Pacific, the duo are on course to set new records for longest distance flown as well as longest duration in a helium balloon, the BBC reports.

Bradley and Tiukhtyaev needed to surpass a 1981 distance record of 5,208 miles by 1% (which put their target at 5,260 miles) in order to lay claim to the first record, which they did on Thursday according to a tweet from the team’s account. The record for longest duration, set in 1971, is 137 hours, five minutes and 50 seconds.

The American-Russian pair had originally planned to land in the U.S. or Canada, but bad weather forced them to change course.

[BBC]

TIME Mexico

Gas Blast at Mexico City Children’s Hospital Kills at Least 4

MEXICO-HOSPITAL-EXPLOSION
Rescuers work amid the wreckage caused by an explosion in a hospital in Cuajimalpa, Mexico City, on Jan. 29, 2015. David Deolarte—AFP/Getty Images

Mancera said the blast apparently was caused by a leak in the hose carrying gas from the truck to the hospital

(MEXICO CITY) — A powerful gas tank truck explosion shattered a maternity and children’s hospital in Mexico City on Thursday, killing at least three adults and one baby and injuring dozens.

Claudia Dominguez, spokeswoman for the city’s civil defense agency, confirmed the deaths and said she expected an updated toll soon.

She said she could not confirm the report by the local borough chief, Adrian Rubalcava, that seven had died

Rescuers continued digging through the rubble even as smoke rose from remaining fires.

Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera earlier told the Televisa network that at least 54 people were injured, 22 of them children. Most of the injuries were relatively minor, he said, many caused by flying glass.

Fausto Lugo, the city’s civil defense director, said 37 people were transported to other hospitals and he said other people were likely still buried in the rubble.

The explosion sent a column of smoke billowing over the area on the western edge of Mexico’s capital and television images showed much of the hospital collapsed, with firefighters trying to extinguish fires. Mancera said the heaviest damage was near the hospital’s loading dock.

Mancera said the blast apparently was caused by a leak in the hose carrying gas from the truck to the hospital, which is operated by the city.

“The truck must have had some failure, the hose and that’s what caused the explosion,” Mancera said. He said that fire continued burning because firefighters recommended that they allow the truck’s remaining gas to burn off. He said there was no risk of another explosion.

Ismael Garcia, 27, who lives a block from the hospital, said “there was a super explosion and everything caught on fire.”

Garcia ran toward the hospital where the truck had exploded and was told it had been connecting to the kitchen when the explosion occurred.

Garcia and others entered the hospital and made their way to the nursery. “Fortunately, we were able to get eight babies out,” he said.

Rubalcava said the injured were being taken to a nearby hospital, but the area had insufficient ambulances.

Rafael Gonzalez of the Red Cross said one 38-year-old woman was stable in their hospital in Polanco while a 27-year-old man who had initially been taken there was transferred again with burns over 90 percent of his body.

President Enrique Pena Nieto expressed his sadness and support for the victims through his official Twitter account.

According to a government website, the hospital was founded in 1993 and counted 35 beds. It is located in a densely populated lower middle class neighborhood next to a school.

TIME Mexico

Mexico Says Investigators Certain 43 Students Are Dead

Mexico's Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam speaks during a press conference in Mexico City on Jan. 27, 2015.
Mexico's Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam speaks during a press conference in Mexico City on Jan. 27, 2015. Alfredo Estrella—AFP/Getty Images

Attorney General says students were "kidnapped, killed, burned and thrown into the river"

(MEXICO CITY) — Investigators are now certain that 43 college students missing since September were killed and incinerated after they were seized by police in southern Guerrero state, the Mexican attorney general said Tuesday.

It was the first time Jesus Murillo Karam said definitely that all were dead, even though Mexican authorities have DNA identification for only one student and a declaration from a laboratory in Innsbruck, Austria, that it appears impossible to identify the others.

The attorney general cited confessions and forensic evidence from an area near a garbage dump where the Sept. 26 crime occurred that showed the fuel and temperature of the fire were sufficient to turn 43 bodies into ashes.

“The evidence allows us to determine that the students were kidnapped, killed, burned and thrown into the river,” Murillo Karam said in a press conference that included a video reconstruction of the mass slaying and of the investigation into the case.

He added that “there is not a single shred of evidence that the army intervened … not a single shred of evidence of the participation of the army,” as relatives of the victims have claimed.

Murillo Karam’s explanation seemed unlikely to quell the controversy and doubts about the case, in which the federal government has been criticized for acting slowly and callously. Thousands of people demonstrated in Mexico City Monday night, demanding the students be returned alive.

“They pretty much gave the same story as they had given two months ago. There are not many additional details,” said analyst Alejandro Hope. “They are searching for closure but I’m not sure they’re going to get it.”

The attorney general has come under attack from many quarters, including the students’ relatives and fire experts, who say the government’s version of what happened is implausible. Family members are still searching in hopes of finding the students alive.

The Argentine Forensic Anthropologists, an independent team hired by parents to work with federal investigators, told The Associated Press on Sunday that there is still not “sufficient evidence” to link the charred remains found by authorities in a river in the town of Cocula to what happened at the garbage dump.

Valentin Cornelio Gonzalez, 30, brother-in-law of missing student Abel Garcia Hernandez, said the shifting theories of what happened to the students have left him and other family members not believing anything that officials say.

“On a personal level, it makes me mad because this is what they’ve always done,” he said of Tuesday’s announcement. “There’s no chance that the parents are going to believe the PGR (saying) that they’re dead. … They are going to look for them alive.”

Murillo Karam said the conclusion was made based on the testimony of a key suspect arrested two weeks ago, Felipe Rodriguez Salgado, who said he was called to get rid of the students. There are also 39 confessions. Based on samples of gasoline, diesel and steel from burned tires, he said, they concluded that the amount of heat from the fire and the location could have kept the blaze going for hours, and that the remains were crushed afterward.

Authorities say they were burned the night of Sept. 26 and over the next day, and their incinerated remains were bagged up and thrown into a nearby river. The remains in the bags found in the river had traces of the garbage dump where the fire occurred, Murillo Karam added.

The scene of the crime was an 800-meter (yard) ravine that resembled a furnace, said criminal investigations chief Tomas Zeron.

Murillo Karam said the information was based as well on 386 declarations, 487 forensic tests, 16 raids and two reconstructions.

So far 99 people have been detained in connection with the crime, including the former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca.

Murillo Karam said the motive was that the members of a local gang, the Guerreros Unidos, believed the young men were rival gang members when they hijacked some public transit buses in Iguala. But many of the suspects testified that they knew the men were students. The students, known for commandeering buses and taking over toll booths to support their leftist causes, said they were taking the buses for transport to an upcoming demonstration in Mexico City.

“They thought they were infiltrated,” Murillo Karam said at the press conference, adding that there is no indication that the students were part of any criminal group.

The case has sparked protests inside and outside Mexico over the four months since the students disappeared, and has forced the Mexican government to turn its attention from touting economic and education reforms to dealing with the country’s crime and insecurity problems.

Hope, the analyst, said the protests will likely continue as long as there is no unimpeachable evidence that the remains belong to the students. Also unclear are questions such as why the gang members thought the students were rivals, and why they would have killed them even after learning that wasn’t the case.

“We know the who, the what, the when and the where. We don’t know the why,” Hope said. “They have yet to tell a compelling story of why this happened. It doesn’t matter how many people they detain — unless they answer that question, the whole thing will remain under a halo of mystery.”

___

Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed.

TIME Crime

Magnets Used to Plant Drugs Under Cars From Mexico

Smugglers target "Trusted Travelers"

SAN DIEGO — Drug smugglers are turning “trusted travelers” into unwitting mules by placing containers with powerful magnets under their cars in Mexico and then recovering the illegal cargo far from the view of border authorities in the United States.

One motorist spotted the containers while pumping gas after crossing into Southern California on Jan. 12 and thought it might be a bomb.

His call to police prompted an emergency response at the Chevron station, and then a shocker: 13.2 pounds of heroin were pulled from under the vehicle, according to a U.S. law enforcement official. San Diego police said the drugs were packed inside six magnetized cylinders.

The driver had just used a “trusted traveler” lane at the San Ysidro border crossing, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because some details of the case have not been made public.

Authorities have learned of at least three similar incidents in San Diego since then, all involving drivers enrolled in the enormously popular SENTRI program, which stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection. There were 12.6 million SENTRI vehicle crossings in fiscal 2013, more than double the 5.9 million four years earlier.

The program enables hundreds of thousands of people who pass extensive background checks to whiz past inspectors with less scrutiny. Signing up can reduce rush-hour wait times from more than two hours to less than 15 minutes at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry, the nation’s busiest crossing, where SENTRI users represented 40 percent of the 4.5 million vehicle crossings in fiscal 2013, the Government Accountability Office found.

But like other prescreening programs, there’s a potential downside: the traveler can become a target, and such cases can be tricky for investigators when people caught with drugs claim they were planted.

Using magnets under cars isn’t new, but this string of cases is unusual.

The main targets are people who park for hours in Mexico before returning to the U.S., authorities say. Smugglers track their movements on both sides of the border, figuring out their travel patterns and where they park. It takes only seconds to attach and remove the magnetized containers when no one is looking.

“It’s a concern for everyone, not as big a concern for me because I’m careful,” said Aldo Vereo, a SENTRI user and office assistant at the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency who parks in a garage when home in Tijuana and varies his routes. “People should be worried because they go straight home and straight to work.”

“Trusted travelers” were issued windshield decals for years, but they are no longer needed to identify vehicles approaching the inspection booths. New stickers haven’t been issued since 2013, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency says existing stickers can be removed.

Many haven’t heeded the call, which can make them a target. The Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce in San Diego told newsletter readers last week that decals should go.

“It’s basically demonstrating that you are a SENTRI user,” said Alejandra Mier y Teran, the chamber’s executive director. “Criminals are savvy, and they know they are part of a program where they are not checked as much.”

CBP says frequent crossers also should vary their travel routines and keep a closer eye on their cars.

There have been 29 cases of motorists unwittingly carrying drugs under their cars in the San Diego area since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement identified the trend in July 2011, including six drivers who made it past inspectors, said spokeswoman Lauren Mack.

Any driver who suspects something’s amiss under their car should immediately report it, to better show their innocence, authorities say.

Officer Matthew Tortorella, a San Diego police spokesman, said “it would be inappropriate” to make public more details about the Jan. 12 seizure, and CBP spokeswoman Jacqueline Wasiluk also declined to comment, calling it a local police investigation.

There have been three seizures since, all involving SENTRI drivers who were not charged:

—On Jan. 13, inspectors at the Otay Mesa border crossing found 35 pounds of marijuana in seven packages attached by powerful magnets to the bottom of a 2010 Kia Forte.

—On Tuesday, a driver alerted an inspector at Otay Mesa to a package under a 2010 Nissan Murano, and 8 pounds of methamphetamine were found in three packages underneath.

—On Wednesday, a dog at San Ysidro alerted inspectors to a 2000 Toyota Corolla with 18 pounds of marijuana underneath. That driver was enrolled in SENTRI but using a regular lane.

Pete Flores, CBP’s San Diego field office director, acknowledged that it’s unusual to have so many cases in fewer than two weeks.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Flores said. “Each change they make prompts a change from law enforcement, which in turn prompts them to again change their tactics.”

TIME Infectious Disease

Five Workers at Disneyland Have Been Diagnosed With Measles

Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. H. Lorren Au Jr.—AP

Unvaccinated workers who came into contact with them have been asked to take paid leave

Five employees at Disneyland, California have been diagnosed with measles, bringing the total number of cases in the outbreak up to 53.

All workers who have come into contact with the five have been asked to show vaccination records or do a blood test, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Those who have not been vaccinated have been asked to go on paid leave until their health status can be confirmed.

Earlier this month, nine cases of measles were confirmed in two California-based theme parks, and in Utah from people who had visited the resorts between Dec. 17 and 20.

Since then, the disease has spread across three other states and to Mexico.

[LAT]

TIME Mexico

Gang Member Held After Disappearance of 43 Mexican Students

Protestors and family of 43 missing students from Guerrero State in Mexico march to protest the government and demand answers of the missing students on Nov. 5, 2014 in Mexico, City.
Protestors and family of 43 missing students from Guerrero State in Mexico march to protest the government and demand answers of the missing students on Nov. 5, 2014 in Mexico, City. Brett Gundlock—;Getty Images

A purported hitman, Felipe Rodríguez Salgado may add more details to a tale of endemic corruption and endless gang warfare in Mexico

Mexican authorities have detained the leader of the criminal group that prosecutors say killed 43 college students and burned their bodies.

Felipe Rodríguez Salgado is believed to be a gang hitman who ordered the killers to remove all traces of the crime, the New York Times reported.

The case has roiled Mexico in the past months, exposing the depth of police corruption and criminal infiltration in the country’s politics. Police say 43 students were arrested by municipal police in the southern city of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero in September. According to Mexican authorities, the city’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, handed them over to an organized crime gang called Guerreros Unidos, who killed the students.

The students were in college and training to be teachers. Their families have questioned whether the students are dead, as only one has been identified in a special laboratory in Austria. A new search for the students began near Iguala on Friday.

Read More: Mexico’s Nightmare

Mayor Abarca and his wife, who are believed to be closely linked to the Guerreros Unidos, fled to Mexico City, where they were arrested. Abarca was charged with kidnapping on Tuesday, in connection with the students’ disappearance.

The case has challenged President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has sought to turn attention to the country’s economy.

Read More: How the Disappearance of 43 Students Has Tested Mexico’s President

TIME Accident

Disney to the Rescue After a Man Falls Overboard from Another Cruise Ship

A Disney drama on the high seas

A 22-year-old man had a dramatic rescue at sea when he fell overboard from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship and was picked up by a Disney Magic cruise around five hours later.

A passenger onboard the Disney cruise raised the alarm when he heard cries for help in the ocean at about 6.30 a.m. on Jan. 8, and a lifeboat was deployed to save the flailing man, CNN reports.

Video of the dramatic rescue was taken by passenger David Hearn and shows the man barely visible in the swell and an orange lifeboat coming to his rescue.

The man fell into the waters off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico, but it is not clear how he came to be in the water. He was taken to hospital and was said to be in good condition before being flown back to his home in the U.S.

[CNN]

TIME risks

These Are the Geopolitical Risks You Won’t Have to Fear in 2015

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014.
Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province in Syria, June 30, 2014. Reuters

TIME's foreign affairs columnist lists the global threats that everyone is scared of—but that you shouldn't be

Sometimes, the future can be easy to predict. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will continue to terrorize the Middle East and North Africa. Vladimir Putin’s Russia won’t back down in Ukraine or quit lashing out against the West. And of course, there will also be plenty of geopolitical risks that will come out of nowhere, like the sudden volatility in global oil markets.

Yet sometimes the biggest surprises are the false alarms—the overrated risks that end up nowhere near as disastrous as everyone assumed. They’re what I call a ‘red herrings’: risks that are largely expected to materialize, but that I predict it won’t pan out in 2015.

In a world where we get whipsawed by headlines and hyperbole, risks both real and overblown, it’s important to make bold predictions for some of the so-called major threats that won’t disrupt the world—at least not the way we think. I’ve outlined the biggest four.

1. The Islamic State

In 2015, the influence of ISIS will continue to grow. It has become the most powerful terrorist group in the world, eclipsing al-Qaeda, with funds and fresh recruits flowing in rapidly. As a brand, as a terrorist organization and as a regional menace, ISIS is on the rise.

But as a sovereign state, ISIS will not achieve similar success in 2015. The group will fail to expand the territory under its direct control, and it’s even likely to cede ground in Iraq and Syria. The U.S., potent Shia militias, Kurdish peshmerga forces, the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal forces will combine to contain the Islamic State’s power over the next year. Even though its influence will prove long-lasting, ISIS will not replicate the stunning military successes it demonstrated in the summer of 2014, nor create a caliphate that can be sustained over the long term.

2. Asia Nationalism

In Asia, strong, nationalistic leaders can seem like a geopolitical disaster waiting to happen. Take Japan and China, with their conflicting claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. The animosities run deep: in a recent Pew Research poll, only 7% of Japanese held a favorable view of China, while just 8% of Chinese viewed Japan positively.

At least for 2015, however, pragmatic restraint should prevail. Stronger, more popular leaders in four of Asia’s key economies—China’s Xi Jinping, India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and even Indonesia’s new President Joko Widodo—all have their hands full with long-overdue economic reforms. With their focus turned to home, they have good reason to avoid foreign distractions, improve their regional economic ties, keep security relations in balance and contain any inevitable flare-ups. There will be scuffles, but don’t expect soaring tensions between the economic powerhouses of Asia.

3. Petrostates

There’s no way to ignore the relentless slide in oil prices, which have fallen by more than half since June. For consumers enjoying cheaper gasoline, it’s a welcome relif. For countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran—authoritarian petrostates that rely on oil exports as an economic lifeline—there’s a growing expectation that both their geopolitical weight and even their internal stability could be severely compromised in 2015.

It’s unlikely to happen. We’ll probably see a modest recovery in oil prices, but even if we don’t, massive cash reserves give many of these countries a lot of room for maneuver in the short-term. After all, Saudi Arabia has contributed to the oil price collapse by opting against a production cut. Nor will their foreign policies budge much: cheaper oil won’t make Russia pull out of Ukraine or Iran accept worse terms in nuclear negotiations. The notable exception is Venezuela, which may very well default if oil prices remain low. Yet in 2015, don’t expect petrostates to die out.

4. Mexico

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has his hands full. He’s fighting off accusations of financial impropriety involving his wife and his finance minister. Economic growth has been anemic. Many Mexicans, outraged by the murder of 43 college students who were handed over to drug lords by a local mayor, feel that the government hasn’t lived up to its commitments to improve security.

Despite the storm clouds, though, it should be a reasonably positive year for Mexico. Pena Nieto still has the popularity and the determination to push forward with economic reforms in the telecom and energy sectors. The President’s weakness has mainly benefited the right-of-center National Action Party (PAN), which generally supports his agenda. If he can make progress on his reforms, it will have a huge impact on Mexico’s productivity and competitiveness, which will help attract large-scale investment from abroad. Combine that with an economic rebound in the U.S. as well as improving cross-border trade, inbound investment and tourism numbers, and Mexico could be a bright spot for 2015.

* * *

Of course, for every false alarm, there are plenty of real and underappreciated threats. If pessimism suits you better, my last column focuses on the ten biggest risks of 2015.

TIME Mexico

Mexican Town’s Police Force Detained Over Journalist’s Disappearance

Moisés Sánchez Cerezo has been missing since Friday

A Mexican town’s police force was questioned by state prosecutors, following the disappearance of a local journalist.

Three dozen people in the Medellín de Bravo police department were asked to give statements related to disappearance of journalist Moisés Sánchez Cerezo, a social activist who went missing Friday, the Guardian reports. Three of the officers were still detained on Monday.

Sánchez was removed from his home last week by armed men, who reportedly confiscated his computer, camera and telephones, according to family members who witnessed the incident, the Associated Press reported. His brother, Juan Carlos Sánchez, claims that the missing journalist was threatened by town mayor Omar Cruz, though Cruz has denied being involved in the situation.

Medellín de Bravo is located in the state of Veracruz, an particularly dangerous area in Mexico for members of the press. Since 2011, three journalists have been killed while working in the state.

[The Guardian]

TIME Mexico

Mexico Charges Former Mayor’s Wife With Organized Crime

Handout of Maria de los Angeles Pineda Villa, the wife of former mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, as seen displayed on a television screen during a news conference, while she is transferred to a prison in Nayarit town, in Mexico City
María de los Ángeles Pineda, the wife of former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, on a television screen while she is transferred to a prison in Tepic, in the Mexican state of Nayarit, in this handout picture released Jan. 5, 2015, by Mexico's Attorney General's Office Handout—Reuters

She is being held in a maximum-security prison pending trial

The wife of the former mayor of Iguala, the Mexican city where 43 students disappeared in September, has been charged with organized crime and conducting operations “with funds of illicit origin.”

María de los Ángeles Pineda is being held in a maximum-security prison until the start of her trial, al-Jazeera reports.

It is unclear whether the charges are related to the 43 missing students, who are presumed killed. However, prosecutors have named Pineda and her husband José Luis Abarca as “probable masterminds” of the kidnappings and linked Pineda to a local drug gang.

Authorities say the students went missing after their bus was attacked by police, on the orders of the then mayor.

According to investigators, members of the drug gang said police handed the students to them, after which they were killed and their corpses burned.

[Al-Jazeera]

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