The New York Times 2024-02-13 18:34:07

Middle East Crisis: Mediators in Cairo, Including C.I.A. Chief, Renew Push for Gaza Cease-Fire

Talks in Cairo focus on the release of hostages in exchange for a cease-fire.

Mediators in Cairo were pushing on Tuesday for an agreement to stop the war in the Gaza Strip as international concern mounted over Israel’s plan to press its ground offensive into the southern city of Rafah, where nearly half of the territory’s population has sought refuge.

President Biden sent the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, to join the talks, and said that he had spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the leaders of Egypt and Qatar to “push this forward” over the past month.

The negotiations came as the United Nations, the United States and other countries have expressed increasing alarm about the prospect of an Israeli incursion into Rafah, where about 1.4 million people are sheltering, many in tents, without adequate food, water and medicine.

Mr. Netanyahu has ordered the military to draw up plans to evacuate civilians from the city, but many Palestinians say that no place in the territory is safe. Mr. Biden has said that the United States opposes an Israeli invasion of the city without a “credible plan” to protect civilians from harm. Egypt has said it will not let refugees cross the border into Sinai.

Negotiators in Cairo, Mr. Biden said, were hoping to hammer out an agreement between Israel and Hamas that would free the remaining hostages in Gaza and halt the fighting for at least six weeks. Mr. Burns was meeting with the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, the prime minister of Qatar and Egyptian officials, according to Al Qahera, an Egyptian state-owned television channel.

John F. Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, said on Tuesday that the talks were “moving in the right direction” but declined to provide details. Israel and Hamas, however, remain far apart in their publicly stated positions and have shown no signs of budging. Israel, for one, has said it will not stop fighting in Gaza until Hamas is crushed and the hostages are freed.

“Nothing is done until it is all done,” Mr. Kirby told reporters at the White House.

Asked about whether the United States believes that the American hostages in Gaza are still alive, he said, “We don’t have any information to the contrary.”

The expected Israeli advance into Rafah has led to mounting pressure on Egypt, which controls a major border crossing into the city.

Rather than opening its border to give Palestinians a refuge from the expected onslaught, Egypt has reinforced its frontier with Gaza.

There have been fears that any Israeli military action that sends Gazans spilling into Egyptian territory could jeopardize the decades-old peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, an anchor of stability in the Middle East. But on Monday, Egypt offered assurances that the treaty would stand.

Mr. Netanyahu has described Rafah as Hamas’s last stronghold. On Monday, after Israeli forces freed two hostages held in the city in a nighttime commando operation, he said that “only continued military pressure, until total victory, will bring about the release of all of our hostages.”

But the rescue operation coincided with a wave of Israeli strikes that killed dozens in Rafah, Gazan health authorities said, pointing to the risks to civilians of a full-scale invasion of the city.

Officials of the United Nations and the International Criminal Court have warned of catastrophic consequences if Israeli forces were to invade the city.

Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, said that an incursion into Rafah would jeopardize the delivery of essential aid through the city’s border crossing with Egypt.

The United Nations, he indicated, would play no part in Israel’s evacuation plans.

“We will not be party to forced displacement of people,” Mr. Dujarric said. “As it is, there is no place that is currently safe in Gaza.”

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, said that he was “deeply concerned” about a full-scale ground offensive in Rafah, and hinted at the possibility of prosecution for war crimes.

“All wars have rules and the laws applicable to armed conflict cannot be interpreted so as to render them hollow or devoid of meaning,” he said in a statement posted on social media.

A Hezbollah attack injures 2 Israelis as a push to reduce tensions intensifies.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, fired missiles into northern Israel on Tuesday that injured at least two people, emergency officials said, amid a fresh diplomatic push to end months of clashes along the border.

Hezbollah said that it had launched two separate attacks into Israel — one aimed at Israeli soldiers and the other at a police building in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona.

A 15-year-old boy and a 47-year-old woman were seriously wounded in Kiryat Shmona, according to Magen David Adom, Israel’s nonprofit emergency medical service. They had gotten out of the car they were traveling in when an anti-tank missile hit nearby, only to be injured when another landed, said Ofir Yehezkeli, Kiryat Shmona’s deputy mayor.

Israel and Hezbollah — an ally of Hamas in Gaza — have engaged in near-daily cross-border strikes since the deadly Hamas-led Oct. 7. attacks in Israel. The clashes have displaced more than 150,000 people from their homes on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border.

The United States and others have engaged in diplomatic efforts to reduce the tensions. A Western diplomat said on Tuesday that France had presented a proposal to Israel, Lebanon’s government and Hezbollah. The French proposal was first reported by Reuters.

The proposal details a 10-day process of de-escalation and calls for Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters to a distance of 10 kilometers (six miles) from Lebanon’s border with Israel, according to the diplomat, who is involved in the talks and who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive deliberations. The diplomat said that France’s foreign minister, Stéphane Séjourné, presented the proposal in writing to Lebanon’s government last week while on a visit to the country.

Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that the government had received the proposal. The French Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In recent weeks, Israel has warned that unless a diplomatic solution is reached, it would have to use military force to stop Hezbollah’s attacks in order to allow for tens of thousands of Israelis to return to their homes.

On Tuesday, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, dismissed the messages conveyed by Western “delegations” coming to Lebanon, saying they were focused only on protecting Israel.

In a televised speech, he said his armed group would keep fighting as long as the war in Gaza continues.

“You escalate, we escalate,” he said in an apparent warning to Israel.

Patrick Kingsley, Roger Cohen and Cassandra Vinograd contributed reporting.

Maps: Tracking the Attacks in Israel and GazaSee where Israel has bulldozed vast areas of Gaza, as its invasion continues to advance south.

Israel orders an evacuation of the largest hospital in Khan Younis, Gazans say.

As explosions sounded nearby, Israeli forces on Tuesday ordered the evacuation of one of the last functioning hospitals in the Gaza Strip, according to two doctors and the Gazan health ministry, raising fears that troops would attempt to storm a facility crowded with patients and displaced people.

Adding to the terror of those inside the hospital, Israeli forces fired on people who tried to flee the medical compound on Tuesday, with some being killed or injured, the doctors said.

The scope of the evacuation order at the hospital, the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, was not immediately clear. Two doctors said the Israeli military had given assurances that patients and medical staff could stay at the hospital. But one of the doctors said the military announced on Tuesday, using a loudspeaker attached to a drone, that everyone had to leave immediately and that an attack was imminent.

“The situation is very dangerous,” said Khaled Al-Serr, a general surgeon at the hospital. He said that the Israeli military had indicated just a day earlier that the hospital, which has been surrounded by Israeli ground forces for weeks, was safe.

The surrounding city of Khan Younis has been a focus of Israel’s invasion of southern Gaza, with airstrikes killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers shooting people in the streets, according to the Gazan health ministry and Palestinian news media reports. Many Gazans who fled Israel’s military offensive in northern and central Gaza had sought shelter in Khan Younis, only to be forced to flee again as Israeli forces advanced deeper into the strip.

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to questions about the evacuation order and about the allegation that its forces had shot at those trying to flee.

The Israeli military says that Hamas uses hospitals as a cover for its operations, a claim that the group and medical officials have denied. Palestinians have sought shelter at hospitals even though Israeli forces have regularly launched strikes on and around them and in some cases raided hospital compounds.

Nahed Abu Taeema, the head of surgery at Nasser Hospital, said that explosions from airstrikes had grown closer to the hospital and more intense over the past few days. “But we won’t leave the hospital without our patients,” he said.

Amid the confusion over the evacuation order, many doctors and nurses, along with their family members who were sheltering at the hospital, had begun to pack their belongings and prepare to flee, Dr. Al-Serr said, even as leaving presented its own set of dangers.

There are about 8,000 people inside Nasser, he said, including badly wounded patients who have limb injuries and would be difficult to transport.

The situation inside the hospital has grown increasingly dire. Israeli strikes nearby caused fires that spread to the hospital’s medical equipment storage facility and supply warehouse, burning both nearly completely, said Dr. Ashraf Al-Qudra, the spokesman for the Gazan health ministry. Sewage has flooded into the emergency department, hindering the treatment of patients and threatening further spread of disease, he said.

The United Nations’ World Health Organization said that one of its teams was denied access to the hospital on Sunday. The head of the agency, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wrote on social media that he was “deeply concerned about the safety of patients and health personnel due to the intensifying hostilities in the vicinity of the hospital,” and warned that hospitals and health workers “MUST be protected at all times.”

Aaron Boxerman and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting.

A bill with $14 billion for Israel’s war in Gaza passes the Senate, but may falter in the House.

A $95 billion foreign aid package passed by the Senate on Tuesday morning includes $14.1 billion for Israel’s war against Hamas, though the bill still faces uncertainty in the House.

The $95 billion legislation also sets aside almost $10 billion for humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict zones around the world, including Palestinians in Gaza.

President Biden has recently escalated his criticism of Israel’s campaign against Hamas, calling it “over the top.” Aid to Israel has also faced opposition from some Democrats, who have expressed alarm at the death toll in Gaza, which the territory’s health ministry says has passed 28,000, most of those women and children.

Mr. Biden has nonetheless continued to press for military support for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In October, he requested the foreign aid package, including the $14 billion for Israel’s war effort.

Much of the debate on the measure has focused on the much bigger sum earmarked for Ukraine. Many Republicans oppose sending more money to the government in Kyiv, while others want to prioritize an immigration crackdown at the U.S. border with Mexico.

Speaker Mike Johnson has suggested that he has no intention of bringing up the bill in the House, where the majority of Republicans have opposed more aid for Ukraine.

Biden and Jordan’s king call on Israel to protect Palestinians in Rafah.

President Biden said on Monday that Israel should not proceed with a major ground offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah without a “credible plan” to protect more than one million people who are sheltering there.

Mr. Biden spoke after meeting at the White House with King Abdullah II of Jordan, a key figure in the push for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. It was the first face-to-face conversation between the two leaders since the Israel-Hamas war started.

“Many people there have been displaced — displaced multiple times, fleeing the violence to the north, and now they’re packed into Rafah, exposed and vulnerable,” Mr. Biden said during an appearance with King Abdullah. “They need to be protected.”

The visit came as King Abdullah sought to shore up international support for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza that would permanently halt the fighting.

Mr. Biden has rejected the idea of a general cease-fire, saying Israel has a right to defend itself. But he has pushed for a pause in the fighting that could allow for the release of hostages held by Hamas and something “more enduring.”

Much of Jordan’s population is ethnically Palestinian, putting the country — a close U.S. ally that has a peace treaty with Israel — in a tricky position as it navigates the fallout from the war.

King Abdullah said an Israeli invasion of Rafah was “certain to produce another humanitarian catastrophe.”

“The situation is already unbearable for over a million people who had been pushed into Rafah since the war started,” King Abdullah said. “We cannot stand by and let this continue. We need a lasting cease-fire now. This war must end.”

Mr. Biden issued a forceful condemnation of the soaring death toll in Gaza, where health officials say more than 28,000 people have been killed since the start of the war.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Mr. Biden said of the deaths. “Every innocent life in Gaza is a tragedy.”

While Mr. Biden’s criticism of the war has grown more blunt in the four months since the Oct. 7 attack, the United States has not signaled that it plans major policy changes, such as putting conditions on military aid to Israel.

On Monday, when asked if Israel would face any consequences for how it goes about its next military campaign, John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said that he was not going to get into “hypotheticals.”

He said that the United States was working to influence how Israel conducted its war.

“There have been moments and there continue to be moments where we have the opportunity and have taken the opportunity to shape their thinking and to help influence the way they have conducted some of these operations,” he said. “And that remains today.”

Both Mr. Biden and King Abdullah said the conflict should end with a two-state solution.

“I say this as a long, lifelong supporter of Israel,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s the only path that guarantees Israel’s security for the long term.”

King Abdullah said that “this is the only solution that will guarantee peace and security for the Palestinians and Israelis, as well as the entire region.”

Egypt and Qatar, acting as intermediaries between Israel and Hamas, have led talks aimed at halting the fighting and freeing hostages held in Gaza. The Biden administration has been actively involved in those negotiations, working publicly and behind the scenes to try to advance a cease-fire deal.

On Monday, Mr. Biden said the United States was working on a hostage deal with Israel and Hamas that could bring at least a six-week pause that could “take the time to build something more enduring.”

The C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, was expected to travel to Cairo for talks on the hostages on Tuesday, according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the discussions.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel publicly dismissed a Hamas proposal last week, Israeli officials have signaled that their government is still open to negotiation. The mere fact that more talks will be taking place in Cairo this week is seen as a positive sign.

From one war zone to another: A Syrian family is stranded in Gaza.

Ameera Malkash, a 40-year-old mother of three, fled one war only to find herself in another.

In 2012, Ms. Malkash was living in Damascus and was desperate to escape the civil war in Syria. She and her husband, Elian Fayyad, made a fateful decision: They would seek safety in Gaza, which he had left when he was 17.

“The war was getting very close to where I lived with my family,” Ms. Malkash recalled about Syria at the time. “The bombardments were very intense and very close.”

Now war has come to them again. After Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks prompted Israel to launch a retaliatory military offensive, Ms. Malkash and her children fled their home in southern Gaza for a makeshift refugee camp set up in a school. Then, as Israeli forces intensified their attacks in the south, she and her children sought refuge at a shelter in central Gaza. (Mr. Fayyad, her husband, died of cancer soon after the family arrived in Gaza in 2012.)

“There is no life here, no future,” Ms. Malkash said by phone recently. She left school after seventh grade and has never worked. Even before the war, she said, she lived on charity in Gaza, which has long been blockaded by Israel and Egypt and where even longtime residents struggled to find work.

Since the war began, many people who held foreign passports have left Gaza after their countries secured permission from the Israeli government. But that did not include Syrians, leaving Ms. Malkash and her children trapped — like more than two million others in Gaza.

Ms. Malkash and her children, who were living in Al Qarara, east of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, first took shelter at the nearby Al Hinawi school, run by the United Nations, along with more than 5,000 others.

Her eldest son, Solaiman, 16, began suffering from severe stomach pains, but the nearest hospital turned him away because it was receiving “too many casualties,” she recalled. “They gave him some medicine and dispatched him.”

Solaiman recovered, but Ms. Malkash said she feared for the health of her children. U.N. officials report soaring cases of diarrhea, respiratory infections, meningitis and other illnesses in Gaza.

Ms. Malkash, whose Syrian passport has expired, said she would apply for a Palestinian passport after the war so she can leave Gaza for good. But she doesn’t know where to go. Syria was not an option, she said.

“Things in Gaza have always been harsh, but things in Syria have been extremely bad too,” Ms. Malkash said. She recently spoke to her sister-in-law there, who said she hadn’t had a decent meal in three years.

As the war rages, Ms. Malkash dreams of simple pleasures in a new home. “I want a place where I can feel alive and enjoy peace,” she said.

A Tunnel Offers Clues to How Hamas Uses Gaza’s Hospitals

Gaza’s hospitals have emerged as a focal point in Israel’s war with Hamas, with each side citing how the other has pulled the facilities into the conflict as proof of the enemy’s disregard for the safety of civilians.

In four months of war, Israeli troops have entered several hospitals, including the Qatari Hospital, Kamal Adwan Hospital and Al-Rantisi Specialized Hospital for Children, to search for weapons and fighters. But Al-Shifa Hospital has taken on particular significance because it is Gaza’s largest medical facility, and because of Israel’s high-profile claims that Hamas leaders operated a command-and-control center beneath it. Hamas and the hospital’s staff, meanwhile, insisted it was only a medical center.

Al-Shifa’s value as a military target was not immediately clear in the days after the Nov. 15 raid, even after the Israeli military released the tunnel video that was used to create the 3-D model seen here.

But evidence examined by The New York Times suggests Hamas used the hospital for cover, stored weapons inside it and maintained a hardened tunnel beneath the complex that was supplied with water, power and air-conditioning.

Classified Israeli intelligence documents, obtained and reviewed by The Times, indicate that the tunnel is at least 700 feet long, twice as long as the military revealed publicly, and that it extends beyond the hospital and likely connects to Hamas’s larger underground network.

According to classified images reviewed by The Times, Israeli soldiers found underground bunkers, living quarters and a room that appeared to be wired for computers and communications equipment along a part of the tunnel beyond the hospital — chambers that were not visible in the video released by the Israeli military.

The Israeli military, however, has struggled to prove that Hamas maintained a command-and-control center under the facility. Critics of the Israeli military say the evidence does not support its early claims, noting that it had distributed material before the raid showing five underground complexes and also had said the tunnel network could be reached from wards inside a hospital building. Israel has publicly revealed the existence of only one tunnel entrance on the grounds of the hospital, at the shack outside its main buildings.

The Israeli military says that it moved carefully because the tunnel was booby-trapped and ran out of time to investigate before it destroyed the tunnel and withdrew from the hospital. Israeli and Qatari officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel had to leave the hospital to comply with the terms of a temporary ceasefire in late November.

American officials have said their own intelligence backs up the Israeli case, including evidence that Hamas used Al-Shifa to hold at least a few hostages. American intelligence also indicates that Hamas fighters evacuated the complex days before Israeli forces moved into Al-Shifa, destroying documents and electronics as they left.

Hospitals are protected under international law, even if they provide medical care for combatants, but their use for other acts that are “harmful to the enemy” can make them legitimate targets for military action. But any action must weigh the expected military advantage against the expected harm to civilians.

Al-Shifa, Israeli officials have argued, is an example of Hamas’s willingness to use hospitals as cover and turn civilians into human shields. But critics say it is also an example of the toll on civilians when Israeli forces surround and raid hospitals to pursue Hamas fighters or rescue hostages, operations that can cut off doctors from fuel and supplies and residents from urgently needed medical care.

Five premature babies died at Al-Shifa before the raid “due to lack of electricity and fuel,” according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which helped organize the evacuation of 31 other infants.

“We all know that the health care system is or has collapsed,” Lynn Hastings, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for Gaza, has told reporters.

Israel launched its war in Gaza after the Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7, in which at least 1,200 people were killed and more than 200 were taken hostage. Since the start of the war, more than 28,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to health officials there.

In the face of international opprobrium over its raids on hospitals, Israel has publicized evidence that it says shows that Hamas hid fighters among the ill and injured, and held hostages in the facilities. The Israeli military said that before entering Al-Shifa, it warned the buildings’ occupants, opened evacuation routes and sent Arabic-speaking medical teams along with the soldiers.

Hamas and Gazan health officials say the hospitals have served only as medical facilities. But beyond accusing the Israeli military of planting evidence at hospitals, Hamas and Gazan officials have not directly refuted the evidence presented by Israel.

The Israeli military said it apprehended dozens of “terror operatives” at Kamal Adwan Hospital in December, and released videos, at the time, of men carrying weapons. A spokesman for the health ministry in Gaza said that Israeli forces had asked the hospital’s administrators to hand over the weapons of its security guards.

After the raid on the Qatari Hospital, the commonly used name for the Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani Hospital for Rehabilitation and Prosthetics, the Israeli military showed a video on Nov. 5 of what it said was the entrance to “a tunnel that was being used for terror infrastructures” on the hospital’s grounds.

But the video appears to show something else: a water storage area built in 2016, when the hospital was constructed, according to engineering plans and images from the hospital’s construction reviewed by The Times.

The Israeli military declined to provide additional imagery to support its assertion that this was a tunnel entryway or part of a tunnel complex.

Just before the Al-Shifa raid, Israeli forces entered Al-Rantisi hospital, on Nov. 13, soon after its remaining patients and staff had left. Within days, the military released two videos that showed weapons and explosives it said it found there, and a room where it said hostages had been kept. The health ministry in Gaza disputed the assertions made in the videos and said the weapons were planted.

One of the videos released by Israel showed troops rushing into the hospital and appearing to find explosives, weapons and the hostage room. In the other, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, chief spokesman for the Israeli military, showed off guns, explosives and other weapons that he said were found in the basement of the hospital.

The video included footage of a piece of paper taped to a wall in the hospital’s basement. Admiral Hagari said the paper — a grid with Arabic words and numbers within each square — could be a schedule for guarding hostages “where every terrorist writes his name.”

The Gazan health ministry said it was nothing more than a work schedule. But the calendar begins on Oct. 7, the day of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, and an Arabic title written at the top uses the militants’ name for the assault: “Al Aqsa Flood Battle, 7/10/2023.”

Given its size and history, taking control of Al-Shifa was always a more important goal for the Israeli military than the other smaller facilities.

There is substantial independent evidence that Hamas constructed a vast tunnel network across Gaza. Senior Israeli defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, estimate the network is between 350 and 450 miles — extraordinary figures for a territory that at its longest point is only 25 miles. The officials estimate there are thousands of entrances to the network.

There is also established documentation that Hamas used Al-Shifa before the war to mask some of its activities. During Israel’s three-week war with Hamas in 2008, armed Hamas fighters in civilian clothing were seen roaming Al-Shifa’s corridors and killing an Israeli collaborator, according to a Times correspondent reporting in Gaza at the time. Six years later, during the next round of fighting, the militants routinely held news conferences at the hospital and used it as a safe meeting place for Hamas officials to speak with journalists.

After that war, Amnesty International reported that Hamas had used abandoned areas of Al-Shifa, “including the outpatients’ clinic area, to detain, interrogate, torture and otherwise ill-treat suspects, even as other parts of the hospital continued to function as a medical center.”

Israel’s critics, though, countered with statements made at the time by two Norwegian doctors, who described themselves as pro-Palestinian activists and had worked in Gaza during the 2014 war. They insisted that they saw no Hamas presence at Al-Shifa.

Israel has also released video footage, taken by the hospital’s own security cameras, which it says shows two hostages being brought to Al-Shifa shortly after being abducted in the Oct. 7 attack.

The Al-Shifa tunnel was discovered by following ducts that ran underground from air-conditioning units that were powered by the hospital’s electricity supply and mounted on one of its buildings, officials said. Israeli soldiers also found evidence that the hospital’s water supply was being fed to the tunnel.

The Israeli military has also displayed weapons and other equipment it said were found inside Al-Shifa, including grenades placed near an MRI machine. Among the cache presented to journalists were belongings that Israeli officials said had been taken from hostages, including a bag emblazoned with the name Be’eri, a kibbutz attacked by Hamas.

The military also said it found weapons in Al-Shifa’s parking lot, and a Toyota vehicle identical to those used in the Oct. 7 attack and loaded with the same equipment that militants carried during the raid, including guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Israeli officials speculated that it was a spare vehicle not used in the attack.

Some of what the Israeli military has shown so far does not wholly match the description of a terrorist headquarters that it offered ahead of its ground invasion of Gaza on Oct. 27.

Underneath Al-Shifa, the Israeli military wrote in a lengthy post on its website, “lies a labyrinth of tunnels and underground compounds used by Hamas’s leaders to direct terrorist activities and rocket fire and to manufacture and store a variety of weapons and ammunition.”

There may no longer be a way to directly assess that claim. Israeli forces remained at Al-Shifa for a little more than a week.

Hours before Israeli forces left the hospital on Nov. 24, soldiers lined the tunnel with explosives and destroyed it in a blast that sent plumes of smoke high into the air and rocked buildings on the ground above.

A ‘Democracy Party’ Like No Other: One of the World’s Biggest Elections

The young women and men moved from booth to booth, asking questions about the political hopefuls’ track records and visions for the country. A few steps away, first-time voters practiced casting their ballots in pretend voting booths. And onstage, talk show guests discussed how to make an informed choice in backing a candidate.

This gathering of more than a thousand people one recent Sunday in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, was a prelude to a celebration that is widely known here as “Pesta Demokrasi,” or Democracy Party.

Otherwise known as Election Day, it’s when tens of millions of people across this vast archipelago of thousands of islands head to polling stations that are sometimes decorated with balloons, garlands and flowers, and manned by officials dressed up as Spider-Man, Batman, Thor or other superheroes. After voting for presidential, parliamentary and local legislative candidates, people camp out near their polling places with food as they wait for early counts to trickle in. The next “party” is on Wednesday.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

How John Travolta Became the Star of Carnival

Jack Nicas and Dado Galdieri reported this article among the giant puppets of the Carnival celebrations in Olinda, Brazil

It was near the start of one of Brazil’s most famous Carnival celebrations, in the northern seaside city of Olinda, and the town plaza was jammed with thousands of revelers. They were all awaiting their idol.

Just before 9 p.m., the doors to a dance hall swung open, a brass band pushed into the crowd and the star everyone had been waiting for stepped out: a 12-foot puppet of John Travolta.

Confetti sprayed, the band began playing a catchy tune and the crowd sang along: “John Travolta is really cool. Throwing a great party. And in Olinda, the best carnival.” (It rhymes in Portuguese.)

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Deadliest Cholera Outbreak in Past Decade Hits Southern Africa

Sandra Mwayera wailed as her older brother slouched next to her in the back seat of a car — he had died from cholera as he waited for treatment among dozens of others outside a hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

“My brother! My brother! Why have you abandoned me?” she pleaded. “Come back, please. Come back!”

In neighboring Zambia, inside the 60,000-seat National Heroes Stadium in the capital, Lusaka, rows of gray cots lined rooms at a makeshift treatment center where 24-year-old Memory Musonda had died. Her family said they were not informed until four days later — the government buried her, and they have yet to locate her grave.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Its Forces Depleted, Myanmar Junta Says It Will Enforce a Military Draft

For more than three years, Myanmar’s biggest cities have remained under the unyielding grip of the military junta. But the streets of places like Yangon were uncharacteristically quiet Monday evening as a sense of fear pervaded the country.

Residents had a new reason to avoid contact with soldiers on patrol: Over the weekend, the regime said that it was invoking a decades-old law to start drafting young men and women into the army, setting off widespread alarm across the country.

The regime’s forces have been depleted in recent months as they battle a growing insurgency by pro-democracy rebels and armed ethnic groups. The move to conscription to beef up the forces’ ranks suggested that the junta was on the defensive and growing desperate.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Lost Images Reveal the History of Rio’s Carnival

Rafael Cosme was at a Rio de Janeiro antique fair six years ago when he found a pile of film negatives on the ground. No one wanted them, the vendor said. They were $2.

“I carried home two bags of negatives thinking: What am I doing with my life?” he recalled.

So began Mr. Cosme’s obsession with the lost and discarded photos of his city’s past. Since that morning in 2018, he has collected more than 150,000 film photos and negatives, nearly all shot by amateurs, that tell the story of Rio de Janeiro from the 1890s to the 1980s, one flash in time at a time.

In his work, he has noticed that one theme keeps popping up more than any other.


It is Rio’s annual collective exhalation — a four-day eruption of art and music, costumes and joy — that began again on Saturday.

The celebration has come to define Rio around the world, while also becoming an influential driver of the city’s culture.

“There is no researching this city without going through Carnival,” Mr. Cosme said.

But through the photos, taken over decades by photographers whose names are lost to history, he could see how Carnival had changed with the city, and vice versa.

From 100-year-old prints with a sepia tint to 60-year-old saturated Kodachrome slides, the images revealed changing trends in society, humor, fashion, drug use and sexual liberalization.

Taken by amateurs with the cameras of their day, the photos often have a ragged beauty to them, compared with today’s digital perfection, and also a special intimacy.

“I realized there are endless stories I could tell about this city,” Mr. Cosme said about his discovery of Rio’s lost photos. “Because inside every house, inside every closet, there is a box with revelations.”

Carnival, a days-long celebration ahead of the Christian observance of Lent, arrived in Brazil with the Portuguese colonizers, and for centuries retained traditions from Europe. It was a costume party of sorts, where revelers would hide their identities to play pranks on neighbors.

By the middle of the 19th century, Brazilians began adding music, dancing and revelry in the street. By the turn of the 20th century, it was a full-fledged party.

Around that time, Rio’s rich elites began parading around the city during Carnival in open cars, according to Maria Clementina Pereira Cunha, a historian who has written books about Rio’s Carnival.

It was partly a way to show off their wealth, she said. But when suburbanites began pooling money to rent cars to parade around, too, the trend fell out of fashion with elites and died in the 1930s.

Even with its constant evolution, Carnival remained a costume party. The photos show that many people, particularly among Brazil’s poor, crafted creative outfits at home using what they could find.

“Mothers sewed and embroidered so their children would look well presented at Carnival,” Ms. Pereira Cunha said. “That’s why they wanted their photograph taken.”

Costumes also were satirical and playful, sometimes referring to pop culture and current events — references that are not always so clear today.

One of the most popular costumes was men dressing as women. They were designed to be a joke, often playing up sexist tropes, and the costumes fell out of favor over time.

Clown costumes were long popular, but over the decades they grew more sinister. People who wore them often tried to scare other revelers.

Eventually, men from Rio’s suburbs created a style called “bate bola,” or roughly “slam ball,” a costume that involved menacing clowns who slammed balls tied to ropes against the street. This type of costume, seen in the fifth image below, became renowned for frightening children and is still common today.

By the 1910s, people began carrying glass bottles of a scented ether-based liquid that provided a brief euphoric high. Later the bottles gave way to pressurized cans. They were called “lança perfume,” or “perfume throwers.”

Revelers would spray the concoction into crowds or at strangers, often to flirt, said Felipe Ferreira, a Carnival historian at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

The government banned the sprays in 1961, but a stronger version is still used illegally today.

Look closely at these photos to see people carrying the bottles and cans.

The 20th century also brought “blocos,” or street bands, which became an integral part of Brazilian Carnival, and still are today. They are each a social club of sorts that play music on the street, with drums, horns and often matching outfits.

They frequently marched through the city, fueling impromptu parties, with different blocos offering differing styles of music, costumes and themes.

By the late 1920s, the so-called samba schools arrived. These were formal groups of samba musicians and dancers who performed increasingly elaborate shows that told stories through costumes, lyrics and dance.

They were made up of largely Black residents of poorer neighborhoods, and they focused on celebrating their Afro-Brazilian heritage.

As they became Rio’s most popular Carnival attraction, the city shut down a main avenue for the schools’ parades, adding large decorations and bleachers, as seen in the photos below. The schools, meanwhile, adopted even more extravagant costumes and floats.

Today the parade remains the centerpiece of Rio’s Carnival, held in a dedicated stadium built in 1984.

Produced by Craig Allen, Gray Beltran and Diego Ribadeneira.

Lis Moriconi contributed reporting.

Finland’s New President Faces Unexpected First Test: Not Russia, but Trump

Educated in the United States and deeply pro-American, Finland’s president-elect, Alexander Stubb, looked perfectly poised to lead his nation into a stronger trans-Atlantic partnership and redefine its role in the global order as a newly minted NATO member.

Instead, he will enter office next month at a time when U.S. politics has once again thrown the durability of that relationship — and the wisdom of European nations counting on it — into question.

For weeks, the two candidates in Finland’s runoff presidential elections, which Mr. Stubb won on Sunday, had played up their pro-NATO credentials and tough views on Russia. Then the former U.S. president Donald J. Trump threatened that, if re-elected, he would let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” against NATO allies that do not contribute sufficiently to collective defense.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

She Survived an Airstrike That Killed Her Entire Family in Gaza

Who Are the Major Players After Pakistan’s Stunning Election?

The stunning election success of a party whose leader is in jail has set off a political crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 240 million people.

The stakes are high: Pakistanis face soaring inflation and costs of living, frequent blackouts, resurgent terrorist attacks and tense relations with their neighbors.

Here are the critical figures competing for power.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Pope and Argentine President Appear to Find Some Common Ground

President Javier Milei of Argentina, who before taking office ridiculed Pope Francis as an “imbecile” and accused him of violating the Ten Commandments, met with the pontiff on Monday for an hourlong conversation that the Vatican described as “cordial.”

The Vatican said in a statement that the two leaders had spoken at a private meeting about their shared will to further strengthen relations and had addressed the Milei government’s program to counter the economic crisis in Argentina, where the annual inflation rate is at 211 percent.

On social media, Mr. Milei’s office posted a photograph of the pope with the president and the president’s sister, Karina Milei, one of his closest advisers.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

An Outburst by Trump on NATO May Push Europe to Go It Alone

Long before Donald J. Trump threatened over the weekend that he was willing to let Russia “do whatever the hell they want” against NATO allies that do not contribute sufficiently to collective defense, European leaders were quietly discussing how they might prepare for a world in which America removes itself as the centerpiece of the 75-year-old alliance.

Even allowing for the usual bombast of one of his campaign rallies, where he made his declaration on Saturday, Mr. Trump may now force Europe’s debate into a far more public phase.

So far the discussion in the European media has focused on whether the former president, if returned to office, would pull the United States out of NATO.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

‘This Is Where I Want to Be’

Sign up for the Israel-Hamas War Briefing.  The latest news about the conflict.

When Ayelet Khon moved back to the Kfar Azza kibbutz with her husband two months after the brutal Hamas-led attack of Oct. 7, the first thing she did was hang a string of rainbow-colored lights up on the front patio.

At night, when darkness drenches this community, the twinkling colors are the only lights visible.

“We are going to keep these lights on and never turn them off — even if we’re out for the evening — they are lights of hope,” Ms. Khon said she told her husband, Shar Shnurman.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Manhattan or Pulau Rhun? In 1667, Nutmeg Made the Choice a No-Brainer.

Richard C. Paddock and

Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono, along with the photographer Nyimas Laula, spent three days on Pulau Rhun to document life on the remote island.

The isles of Manhattan and Pulau Rhun could hardly be farther apart, not just in geography, but also in culture, economy and global prominence.

Rhun, in the Banda Sea in Indonesia, has no cars or roads and only about 20 motorbikes. Most people get around by walking along its paved footpaths or up steep stairways, often toting plastic jugs of water from the numerous village wells or sometimes lugging a freshly caught tuna.

But in the 17th century, in what might now seem one of the most lopsided trades in history, the Netherlands believed it got the better part of a bargain with the British when it swapped Manhattan, then known as New Amsterdam, for this tiny speck of land.

Map locates the Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia. It also locates Pulau Rhan, an island in the Banda Island group, which is part of the Maluku Islands.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Welcome to ‘Dalifornia,’ an Oasis for China’s Drifters and Dreamers

To find the dance circle in the bed-and-breakfast’s courtyard, drive north from the bedsheet factory converted into a crafts market, toward the vegan canteen urging diners to “walk barefoot in the soil and bathe in the sunshine.” If you see the unmanned craft beer bar where customers pay on the honor system, you’ve gone too far.

Welcome to the Chinese mountain city of Dali, also sometimes known as Dalifornia, an oasis for China’s disaffected, drifting or just plain curious.

The city’s nickname is a homage to California, and the easy-living, tree-hugging, sun-soaked stereotypes it evokes. It is also a nod to the influx of tech employees who have flocked there since the rise of remote work during the pandemic, to code amid the picturesque surroundings, nestled between snow-capped, 10,000-foot peaks in southwest China, on the shores of glistening Erhai Lake.

Map locates the city of Dali in southwest China, on the shores of Erhai Lake.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

For New Moms in Seoul, 3 Weeks of Pampering and Sleep at a Joriwon

Four mothers sat quietly in the nursing room around midnight, breastfeeding their newborn babies. As one mother nodded off, her eyelids heavy after giving birth less than two weeks earlier, a nurse came in and whisked her baby away. The exhausted new mom returned to her private room to sleep.

Sleep is just one of the luxuries provided by South Korea’s postpartum care centers.

The country may have the world’s lowest birthrate, but it is also home to perhaps some of its best postpartum care. At centers like St. Park, a small, boutique postpartum center, or joriwon, in Seoul, new moms are pampered for a few weeks after giving birth and treated to hotel-like accommodations.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

The Friar Who Became the Vatican’s Go-To Guy on A.I.

Before dawn, Paolo Benanti climbed to the bell tower of his 16th-century monastery, admired the sunrise over the ruins of the Roman forum and reflected on a world in flux.

“It was a wonderful meditation on what is going on inside,” he said, stepping onto the street in his friar robe. “And outside too.”

There is a lot going on for Father Benanti, who, as both the Vatican’s and the Italian government’s go-to artificial intelligence ethicist, spends his days thinking about the Holy Ghost and the ghosts in the machines.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

A Child of Another War Who Makes Music for Ukrainians

When the owner of an underground club in Kyiv reached out to Western musicians to play in Ukraine, long before the war, there were not so many takers.

But an American from Boston, Mirza Ramic, accepted the invitation, spawning a lasting friendship with the club’s owner, Taras Khimchak.

“I kept coming back,” Mr. Ramic, 40, said in an interview at the club, Mezzanine, where he was preparing for a performance during a recent tour of Ukraine.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

A Woman Who Shows Age Is No Barrier to Talk Show Stardom

Pushing a walker through a television studio in central Tokyo earlier this week, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi slowly climbed three steps onto a sound stage with the help of an assistant who settled her into a creamy beige Empire armchair.

A stylist removed the custom-made sturdy boots on her feet and slipped on a pair of high-heeled mules. A makeup artist brushed her cheeks and touched up her blazing red lipstick. A hairdresser tamed a few stray wisps from her trademark onion-shaped hairstyle as another assistant ran a lint roller over her embroidered black jacket. With that, Ms. Kuroyanagi, 90, was ready to record the 12,193rd episode of her show.

As one of Japan’s best-known entertainers for seven decades, Ms. Kuroyanagi has interviewed guests on her talk show, “Tetsuko’s Room,” since 1976, earning a Guinness World Record last fall for most episodes hosted by the same presenter. Generations of Japanese celebrities across film, television, music, theater and sports have visited Ms. Kuroyanagi’s couch, along with American stars like Meryl Streep and Lady Gaga; Prince Philip of England; and Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Ms. Kuroyanagi said Gorbachev remains one of her all-time favorite guests.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Playing Soccer in $1.50 Sandals That Even Gucci Wants to Copy

The wealthy pros of Ivory Coast’s national soccer team were resting in their luxury hotel last week, preparing for a match in Africa’s biggest tournament, when Yaya Camara sprinted onto a dusty lot and began fizzing one pass after another to his friends.

Over and over, he corralled the game’s underinflated ball and then sent it away again with his favorite soccer shoes: worn plastic sandals long derided as the sneaker of the poor, but which he and his friends wear as a badge of honor.

Shiny soccer cleats like his idols’? No thanks, said Mr. Camara, a lean 18-year-old midfielder, as he wiped sweat from his brow.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Russian Skaters Stripped of Olympic Gold, Setting Up New Fight for Medals

International skating’s governing body on Tuesday sought to put an end to a two-year-old controversy by revising the disputed results of a marquee figure skating competition at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. But in stripping Russia of its victory in the team event, awarding the gold medal to the United States and denying Canada the bronze it had been expecting, the sport may have only set the stage for yet another protracted legal fight.

The revised finishes were announced by the skating body, the International Skating Union, one day after the teenage Russian star Kamila Valieva was banned for four years for doping. Disqualifying Valieva, a 15-year-old prodigy who had led Russia to an apparent victory, had the most immediate effect on the Olympic team standings: elevating the U.S. to gold and Japan to silver, while, surprisingly, dropping Russia just enough that it could still claim the bronze.

Within hours, Russia’s Olympic committee, already furious about Valieva’s ban, announced that it would appeal any outcome that denied it the team gold. Canadian officials quickly threatened to appeal the ruling as well. That left skating officials and the International Olympic Committee, which had chosen not to award medals in the team event until Valieva’s doping case was resolved, wondering how they could at last arrange a “dignified Olympic medal ceremony” for an ugly dispute that appeared nowhere near its end.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

FIFA Convictions Are Imperiled by Questions of U.S. Overreach

Sign up for Your Places: Global Update.   All the latest news for any part of the world you select.

Nearly a decade after police officers marched world soccer officials out of a luxury hotel in Zurich at dawn, revealing a corruption scandal that shook the world’s most popular sport, the case is at risk of falling apart.

The dramatic turnabout comes over questions of whether American prosecutors overreached by applying U.S. law to a group of people, many of them foreign nationals, who defrauded foreign organizations as they carried out bribery schemes across the world.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year limited a law that was key to the case. Then in September, a federal judge, citing that, threw out the convictions of two defendants linked to soccer corruption. Now, several former soccer officials, including some who paid millions of dollars in penalties and served time in prison, are arguing that the bribery schemes for which they were convicted are no longer considered a crime in the United States.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Depardieu Sexual Assault Suit Dropped Over Statute of Limitations

A sexual assault lawsuit filed against Gérard Depardieu by a French actress has been dropped because it was past the statute of limitations, prosecutors in Paris said on Monday, but the French actor is still under investigation in a separate case.

In the lawsuit that was dropped, the actress Hélène Darras had accused Depardieu of groping her on the set of “Disco,” a comedy released in 2008. Her suit had been filed in September but was made public only last month, shortly before she appeared in a France 2 television documentary alongside three other women who also accused Depardieu of inappropriate comments or sexual misconduct.

The documentary, which showed Depardieu making crude sexual and sexist comments during a 2018 trip to North Korea, set off a fierce debate in France that prompted President Emmanuel Macron and dozens of actors, directors and other celebrities to defend Depardieu, splitting the French movie industry.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

An Olympic Dream Falters Amid Track’s Shifting Rules

Leer en español

Maximila Imali, a top Kenyan sprinter, did not lose her eligibility to compete in the Paris Olympics because she cheated. She did not fail a doping test. She broke no rules.

Instead, she is set to miss this year’s Summer Games because she was born with a rare genetic variant that results in naturally elevated levels of testosterone. And last March, track and field’s global governing body ruled that Ms. Imali’s biology gave her an unfair advantage in all events against other women, effectively barring her from international competition.

As a result, Ms. Imali, 27, finds her Olympic dream in peril and her career and her livelihood in limbo.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Ricardo Martinelli, refugiado en la embajada de Nicaragua, promete hacer campaña desde ahí

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

Mientras Panamá se preparaba para su ruidosa temporada de Carnaval, las celebraciones del fin de semana se producían en medio de un extraño drama político que tiene lugar en la capital.

Un expresidente, quien también es uno de los principales candidatos en las elecciones presidenciales de mayo de este año, se refugió en la embajada de Nicaragua en Ciudad de Panamá con sus muebles, incluidos un sofá y un escritorio, así como su perro, Bruno.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Australia introduce el derecho laboral a ‘desconectarse’

Cuando estén fuera del horario laboral y el jefe los esté llamando por teléfono, los trabajadores australianos —que ya figuran entre los más descansados y satisfechos del mundo— podrán pronto tocar la opción “rechazar” para entregarse mejor al dulce llamado de la playa.

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

En lo que significó un nuevo refuerzo contra el flagelo del exceso de trabajo, el Senado australiano aprobó el jueves un proyecto de ley que podría otorgarles a los trabajadores el derecho a ignorar llamadas y mensajes fuera del horario laboral sin temor a represalias. Ahora el documento regresará a la Cámara de Representantes para su aprobación definitiva.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Bolsonaro y sus aliados planearon un golpe de Estado, según la policía de Brasil

Jair Bolsonaro, expresidente de Brasil, supervisó una amplia conspiración para aferrarse al poder al margen de los resultados de las elecciones de 2022, incluida editar personalmente una orden propuesta para arrestar a un juez del Supremo Tribunal Federal, según nuevas acusaciones de la policía federal brasileña reveladas el jueves.

Bolsonaro y decenas de altos asesores, ministros y líderes militares trabajaron juntos para socavar la confianza de los brasileños en las elecciones y preparar el escenario para un posible golpe, aseguró la policía federal.

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Lo que revelan los videos de soldados israelíes: burlas y destrucción

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

Un soldado israelí levanta el pulgar ante la cámara mientras maneja una excavadora por una calle de Beit Lahia, en el norte de Gaza, empujando un auto maltrecho hacia un edificio medio derruido.

Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

Ecuador adopta el ‘noboísmo’ como respuesta a la violencia

Annie Correal y Federico Rios reportaron desde Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Read in English

Luego de que el mes pasado el presidente de Ecuador declarara la guerra a las bandas criminales, soldados con rifles de asalto han inundado las calles de Guayaquil, una ciudad de la costa Pacífico que ha estado en el epicentro de la espiral de violencia del país, un fenómeno que ya lleva algunos años.

El Times  Una selección semanal de historias en español que no encontrarás en ningún otro sitio, con eñes y acentos.

De los buses y los autos hacen bajar a los hombres, en busca de drogas, armas y tatuajes de pandillas. Patrullan las calles para hacer cumplir un toque de queda nocturno. La ciudad está ansiosa, sus hombres y jóvenes son posibles objetivos de soldados y oficiales de policía que tienen la orden de derribar a las poderosas bandas que se han aliado con los carteles internacionales para convertir a Ecuador en un centro del comercio mundial de drogas.

No obstante, cuando los soldados pasan, mucha gente aplaude o les muestra el dedo pulgar en señal de aprobación. “La mano dura la aplaudimos, la celebramos”, dijo Aquiles Alvarez, alcalde de Guayaquil. “Ha ayudado a tener paz en las calles”.

A principios de enero, Guayaquil fue azotada por una ola de violencia que podría ser un punto decisivo en la prolongada crisis de seguridad del país: las bandas atacaron la ciudad luego de que las autoridades tomaron medidas para recuperar las cárceles ecuatorianas, que estaban en su mayoría bajo el control de los grupos delictivos.

Hubo secuestro de policías, detonación de explosivos y, en un episodio emitido en vivo, una decena de hombres armados tomaron una televisora importante.

El presidente de Ecuador, Daniel Noboa, declaró la existencia de un conflicto armado interno, una medida extraordinaria para cuando el Estado es atacado por un grupo armado. Desplegó tropas contra las bandas que han tomado gran parte de Ecuador en su lucha por controlar las rutas de tráfico de cocaína y han transformado uno de los países más pacíficos de Sudamérica en uno de los más mortíferos.

El alto mando militar de Ecuador advirtió que todo integrante de un grupo delictivo se había convertido en un “objetivo militar”.

La agresiva respuesta de Noboa ha reducido la violencia y brindado un sentido precario de seguridad a lugares como Guayaquil, una ciudad de 2,7 millones de habitantes y puerto clave para el narcotráfico, impulsando la aprobación del gobierno a 76 por ciento en una encuesta reciente.

También ha alarmado a algunos activistas de los derechos humanos.

“Esto no es algo nuevo, innovador”, dijo Fernando Bastias, del Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos de Guayaquil. “Y más bien lo que está incrementando son casos de graves violaciones a derechos humanos”.

El enfoque de Ecuador ha suscitado comparaciones con El Salvador, en donde su joven líder, Nayib Bukele, en buena medida ha desmantelado las sanguinarias pandillas, lo que le ayudó a conseguir una arrolladora victoria de reelección y elogios por toda América Latina. Pero los críticos aseguran que también ha pisoteado los derechos humanos y el Estado de derecho al ordenar detenciones masivas en las que personas inocentes han sido capturadas.

“Ecuador es un caso importante porque es casi un segundo laboratorio para las políticas de Bukele”, dijo Gustavo Flores-Macías, profesor de gobierno y políticas públicas en la Universidad de Cornell que se especializa en América Latina. “La gente está tan desesperada que se compra la necesidad de estas políticas de mano dura para bajar la delincuencia”.

Dichas políticas pueden ser efectivas, pero, agregó, “el costo en libertades civiles es alto”.

Al igual que Bukele, Noboa, de 36 años, desea construir megaprisiones, y sus publicaciones en las redes sociales muestran música animada con imágenes de prisioneros esposados y desnudos hasta la cintura. Lo llama “The Noboa Way”.

No obstante, las diferencias son importantes, a decir de Christopher Sabatini, un investigador sénior para América Latina en Chatham House, un grupo de investigación en Londres. Si bien Bukele desdeña la democracia, Noboa “ha presentado a su gobierno como una democracia asediada”, dijo Sabatini.

Noboa también enfrenta un tipo distinto de adversario, dijo Will Freeman, del Council on Foreign Relations.

“El Salvador nunca fue importante para el narcotráfico”, dijo. “Sencillamente es demasiado pequeño”. Ecuador, en contraste, ahora es clave para el comercio mundial de la cocaína, dijo, con vínculos entre los cárteles mexicanos y Europa. Como consecuencia, sus bandas criminales disponen de millones de dólares para armarse y combatir a las autoridades.

Las autoridades de Ecuador han llevado a cabo más de 6000 detenciones después de que el presidente declaró la guerra a las bandas.

En Guayaquil, efectivos militares y agentes de policía destruyen sistemas de cámaras instalados por las bandas para vigilar barrios enteros, invaden zonas que solían estar fuera del alcance de la policía y derriban puertas para descubrir depósitos de armas y explosivos.

Las medidas han tenido algunos resultados.

De diciembre a enero, la cantidad de homicidios en Guayaquil cayó en un 33 por ciento, de 187 a 125. Fuera de la morgue municipal, Cheyla Jurado, una vendedora ambulante de 27 años que vende jugo y pan dulce a las personas que esperan para recuperar los cuerpos, dijo que era evidente que la cantidad de gente había bajado.

“Ahora son accidentes de tránsito, ahogados”, dijo.

En el mayor hospital de la ciudad, la cantidad de pacientes que llegaban con heridas de bala y otras lesiones relacionadas con la violencia ha caído de cinco al día a incluso una cada tres días, dijo Rodolfo Zevallos, médico de urgencias.

El alivio temporal de las matanzas —si bien en sus primeras fases— ha hecho que muchos animen al presidente.

“Nos sentamos afuera de noche”, dijo Janet Cisneros, quien vende comidas preparadas en la zona Suburbio de Guayaquil. “Antes no, estábamos completamente encerrados”.

Noboa, heredero de una fortuna del banano, fue electo en noviembre para concluir el mandato de su predecesor, que terminó prematuramente cuando disolvió la Asamblea Nacional y convocó a nuevas elecciones.

En enero, al estallar la violencia, cambió sus trajes y sonrisa tímida por un mohín, corte al ras y una casaca negra de cuero al anunciar que Ecuador ya no recibiría órdenes de “grupos narcoterroristas”.

El mensaje severo iba dirigido a los ecuatorianos, que volverán a votar en elecciones presidenciales el próximo año, dijo Flores-Macías, el politólogo experto, pero también para granjearse el apoyo de líderes internacionales, en especial del presidente Joe Biden. “Lo que vemos con Noboa es que claramente necesita el apoyo, la asesoría, financiamiento y ayuda de Estados Unidos”.

Hasta el momento, el gobierno de Biden ha brindado a Ecuador equipamiento y capacitación con alrededor de 93 millones de dólares en asistencia militar y humanitaria.

Las autoridades de Ecuador han dicho que el ejército es clave para recuperar los barrios de las bandas que se han convertido en la autoridad fáctica y reclutan a niños de hasta 12 años para mover drogas, secuestrar y matar.

El despacho de Noboa no respondió a las solicitudes de comentarios.

En Guayaquil, la policía cubre los murales que muestran a líderes delictivos y los soldados hacen redadas callejeras en las que sermonean a los jóvenes que son sorprendidos con pequeñas bolsas de marihuana sobre los peligros de las drogas o la vida criminal.

Pero en las redes sociales han circulado videos que muestran a las autoridades empleando tácticas más severas: hombres y chicos agrupados en las calles que reciben golpes en la cabeza o son obligados a besarse entre ellos. En un video muy compartido se ve a un adolescente obligado a restregarse un tatuaje del cuerpo hasta que le sangra el pecho.

En las prisiones a las que el ejército fue enviado para desmantelar el control de las bandas, se llevan a cabo abusos similares, según defensores de las familias de los reclusos.

“A los presos los tienes flagelados peor que a Jesucristo”, dijo Fernanda Lindao, cuyo hijo está cumpliendo condena por hurto en la penitenciaría del Litoral de Guayaquil. “Para los PPL”, dijo refiriéndose por sus siglas a las personas privadas de la libertad, “no hay derechos humanos”.

No obstante, los videos de las detenciones son inmensamente populares y muchos ecuatorianos reconocen a los soldados y al presidente.

“La gente aplaude todo lo que pasa”, dijo Alvarez, el alcalde de Guayaquil, “y no lo aplaude por ser mala persona sino porque está cansada de toda la violencia que ha vivido”.

Para explicar su respaldo a las tácticas de Noboa muchos describen lo mal que estuvo la situación.

“Aquí mataban, aquí dejaban cuerpos botados”, dijo Rosa Elena Guachicho, quien vive en Durán, una zona de Guayaquil sin agua potable ni calles pavimentadas. “Hace un mes encontraron uno en una funda, hecho pedazos”.

Dolores Garacoia dijo que las bandas se habían adueñado de Durán. Los taxistas se negaban a entrar, por miedo de que los robaran o secuestraran, dijo. Ni la policía se sentía segura.

A los dueños de pequeños negocios, como Garacoia, los extorsionaban las bandas. Contó que cerró la tienda que tuvo durante años luego de que la llamaran para pedirle un pago de miles de dólares conocido como vacuna.

“Tuve que cerrar y bajar el letrero, de una”, dijo.

De la misma manera que los guayaquileños se han adaptado la violencia —quedándose en casa, comprando pitbulls— la apariencia exterior de la ciudad también ha cambiado. Las casas se han convertido en jaulas cerradas, rodeadas de barrotes que se alzan dos y tres pisos.

Ángel Chávez, de 14 años, estaba sentado detrás de las barras de metal de un centro comunitario en Monte Sinaí, parte del distrito más peligroso de Guayaquil, en donde se registraron más de 500 homicidios el año pasado.

La llegada de los militares le causaba sentimientos encontrados.

“Eso me parece bien para ver si por fin se acaba esto que estamos sufriendo”, dijo.

Pero añadió que le inquietaba la forma en que los soldados trataban a algunos adolescentes en los videos. “No me gusta cuando los maltratan”, dijo.

No obstante, para muchos en Guayaquil, el miedo es que el ejército se retire.

Cisneros, la cocinera que al fin puede servir comidas afuera dijo: “Que no se vayan, por favor”.

Thalíe Ponce colaboró con la reportería.

Annie Correal reporta desde Estados Unidos y América Latina para el Times. Más de Annie Correal