The New York Times 2024-03-05 16:50:28

Middle East Crisis: Tensions Rise Between Israel and U.N. Chief Over Sexual Violence Report

Israel’s recall of its U.N. ambassador comes as tensions are rising.

In the latest sign of rising tensions with the United Nations, Israel has recalled its ambassador, claiming on Tuesday that the U.N. chief was failing to take steps to address a new report finding signs that sexual violence was committed during the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The U.N. report released on Monday, which was largely welcomed in Israel, found “reasonable grounds” to believe that sexual violence occurred in at least three locations, and “clear and convincing information” that hostages had experienced sexual violence, including rape, while in captivity.

Noting the array of fighters who took part in the attack from Hamas and other groups, the U.N. report said its experts could not determine who was responsible for the sexual assaults.

In a social media post, Israel Katz, Israel’s foreign minister, criticized the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, for not immediately convening the Security Council to discuss the report and to declare Hamas a terrorist organization.

He said that he had recalled the U.N. ambassador, Gilad Erdan, for consultation in protest of what he said was a concerted effort by Mr. Guterres to “forget the report and avoid making the necessary decisions.” Mr. Erdan was on a plane back to Israel on Tuesday, he said.

A U.N. spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, rejected the claim, saying that the work on the report was done “thoroughly and expeditiously” and that “in no way, shape or form did the secretary general do anything to ‘bury’ the report.”

The authority to convene the Security Council does not lie with Mr. Guterres but with the president and members of the Council, according to U.N. bylaws.

Tensions have been rising between Israel and the United Nations, which is broadly distrusted in Israel. Mr. Guterres has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza and has been pushing for an immediate and binding cease-fire. Israel has accused about 30 employees of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, of involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks, and the agency’s head on Tuesday said Israel was trying to undermine its operations.

Mr. Erdan has been an outspoken voice at the United Nations, and has previously called on Mr. Guterres to resign for remarks condemning the “collective punishment of the Palestinian people.”

The U.N. report was based on information collected in Israel and the occupied West Bank by a team of experts led by Pramila Patten, the secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict.

The U.N. report detailed significant challenges to determining what happened on the day of the attack. The report said it was nearly impossible to gain access to the sort of forensic evidence often used to establish sexual assault, and the experts noted a deep reservoir of suspicion among Israelis toward international organizations like the United Nations, as well as the fact that the team was on the ground for a limited period of two and a half weeks.

Many in Israel nonetheless welcomed the report. The foreign ministry said it pointed “to a pattern of rape, torture and sexual abuse.”

On Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog of Israel said on X that the report was “of immense importance,” and he lauded it for its “moral clarity and integrity.”

In light of what he called the “clear and present danger” to the remaining hostages detailed in the report, “We must all continue our relentless efforts to bring all the hostages home to their families,” Mr. Herzog said.

In a post on Telegram, Hamas rejected the report, calling the findings false.

In second airdrop over Gaza, the U.S. delivers 36,800 ready-to-eat meals.

The United States made a second round of airdrops of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, as the Biden administration continued its efforts to prevent a greater humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian territory.

U.S. Air Force cargo planes dropped 36,800 ready-to-eat meals, in a joint operation with the Jordanian Air Force, “to provide essential relief to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement on Tuesday. It said that army troops trained in aerial delivery were part of the airdrop, and that it was planning more such missions.

The operation on Tuesday followed a first round of airdrops on Saturday, two days after more than 100 Palestinians were killed as Israeli forces opened fire around a convoy of aid trucks in northern Gaza. Doctors at Gaza hospitals said most of the casualties were from gunfire. The Israeli military said most of the victims were trampled as they tried to seize the cargo, although Israeli officials acknowledged that troops had fired on some people who they said had threatened them.

After the convoy killings, President Biden said the United States would find new ways to get aid to Palestinians in desperate need because of Israel’s five-month military campaign to destroy Hamas. Only a trickle of aid has been reaching northern Gaza via land, but aid groups have criticized airdrops as ineffective. The amount of aid delivered by four planes in a French-Jordanian airdrop last week was much less than a single truckload.

Although Mr. Biden has implored Israel, which has largely sealed its border with Gaza, to clear the way for more aid deliveries, the demand for food, water and medicine there remains huge. Those conditions have put Mr. Biden under political pressure to do more to help the Palestinians, even as the U.S. supplies Israel with military hardware.

Despite his frustrations with Israel’s political leadership, Mr. Biden has not threatened to put limits on American military aid to the country.

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

UNRWA head says Israel is targeting the agency in a ‘deliberate and concerted campaign.’

The head of the United Nations agency providing aid for Palestinians in Gaza has said that his organization was being targeted with a “deliberate and concerted campaign” to undermine its operations when its services are most needed.

Philippe Lazzarini, the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, spoke on Monday before the U.N. General Assembly in New York in some of his strongest remarks in defense of the agency since Israel made public allegations that a dozen of its employees had participated in the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks. He warned that the worst might be yet to come if humanitarian services collapse.

Israel’s accusations in January prompted 16 donor countries, including the United States, to suspend about $450 million in funding. Mr. Lazzarini said the agency faced a financial crisis while functioning “hand-to-mouth” and would soon be unable to serve millions of people dependent on it for food, shelter and basic medical care.

Mr. Lazzarini noted that Israel made the accusations as UNRWA employees had provided testimony in a case before the International Court of Justice about the suffering in Gaza. The submissions were followed by a “corresponding increase in attacks against the agency,” he said.

The court, the United Nations’ highest judicial body, has ordered Israel to take immediate steps to facilitate the aid Gaza desperately needs and is weighing whether Israel has committed genocide in its war in Gaza.

“Attacks against UNRWA seek to eliminate its role in protecting the rights of Palestinian refugees and acting as a witness to their plight,” Mr. Lazzarini said.

Israel has a long history of friction with UNRWA, which was founded in 1949 and is one of the oldest U.N. agencies. Some Israelis say its very existence perpetuates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by preventing Palestinians from setting down roots elsewhere in the Middle East as they hope to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.

Israel has claimed that at least 10 percent of UNRWA’s staff is affiliated with Palestinian armed groups in Gaza and that what it says are employees’ links to Hamas fundamentally compromise the agency. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel laid out a proposal last month for Gaza’s postwar governance with his war cabinet, as part of which he said UNRWA should be closed and replaced “with responsible international aid agencies.”

Last week’s disastrous aid convoy that Israel helped to organize highlighted the steep challenge for other groups trying to provide services in Gaza, where order is virtually nonexistent after five months of war.

Mr. Lazzarini said he had not received any additional information to back up Israel’s accusations after they were initially presented to him in January, but that the agency had immediately terminated the staff members’ contracts because of the gravity of the allegation.

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, told reporters on Monday that the United States would wait for the outcome of the U.N. investigations into Israel’s allegations before deciding whether to resume funding for UNRWA. The Biden administration remains extremely concerned for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, he said.

“Parents are facing impossible choices about how to feed their children,” he said. “Many don’t know where the next meal will come from, or if it will come at all.”

“The situation is simply intolerable,” he said.

Only a trickle of aid reaches northern Gaza, where the threat of famine looms.

Only a trickle of aid managed on Monday to reach the desperately hungry people of the northern Gaza Strip, where the United Nations has warned that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians face a growing threat of famine after nearly five months of fighting and blockade.

Fifteen trucks were dispatched overnight to northern Gaza as part of a relief effort involving Palestinian businessmen, according to COGAT, the Israeli military body that regulates aid to the Palestinians. But at least five of those were looted along the way, according to an Israeli official who was not authorized to comment publicly, and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

It was unclear exactly how many of the trucks reached their intended destination, Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood. Izzat Aqel, a Palestinian businessman involved in the operation, said he aimed to send an additional 30 trucks with food relief to northern Gaza on Monday night.

Aid officials have warned that Palestinians in Gaza could be on the brink of famine unless relief is substantially stepped up, with over 500,000 people already facing a dire lack of food. One in six children under the age of 2 in Gaza is acutely malnourished, according to the United Nations. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, said visits to hospitals in the north by agency officials — the first since early October — found severe levels of malnutrition and “children dying of starvation.”

The dire conditions have prompted crowds of desperate people to swarm aid trucks and contributed to a bloody scene last week, when Israeli troops opened fire on Palestinians who had gathered en masse around a convoy of trucks that had entered northern Gaza. Over 100 Palestinians were killed, many by gunfire, according to Palestinian health officials. The Israeli military said the troops had fired on members of the crowd who approached them in a threatening manner and attributed most of the deaths to a stampede around the convoy.

In the wake of the bloodshed at the convoy, Israel has faced even greater international pressure to facilitate more aid for Gazans, particularly in the north.

“We’re continuing to push hard for more trucks and routes to get more aid to people,” President Biden wrote on social media on Monday. “There are no excuses. The aid flowing into Gaza is nowhere near enough — and nowhere fast enough.”

On Saturday, the United States made airdrops of food into Gaza for the first time.

Since October, Israel has told the population of northern Gaza, home to more than a million people, to flee the fighting and head southward. But many remained, though the Israeli invasion began in northern Gaza, and some who evacuated have returned.

The area has been devastated, with many buildings destroyed, and Israeli forces have effectively toppled much of Hamas’s governing structure, leaving widespread chaos and lawlessness.

All of the aid trucks entering Gaza have gone into the south, with only a few continuing on to the north.

Despite the spiraling humanitarian crisis, Israel has maintained tight restrictions on aid to Palestinians in Gaza. Israeli officials have closely scrutinized trucks bearing desperately needed food and relief at the Kerem Shalom crossing, which aid officials have labeled one key bottleneck. Israel says the inspections are necessary to prevent aid from reaching Hamas, the Palestinian armed group which Israel seeks to root out in Gaza.

A day after Israeli officials said 277 trucks — an unusually large number — had been allowed into Gaza over the previous 24 hours, Juliette Touma, the director of communications for UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said 140 aid trucks entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing on Monday.

The spike in relief entering showed “when there’s a political will, there’s a way,” she said, but declined to say whether it meant that Israel had loosened its restrictions. The increase in aid shipments was still far beneath what was needed to mitigate the sickness and hunger menacing many Gazans, she added.

U.N. officials have said the current system must be overhauled in order to mitigate the unfolding disaster. Both UNRWA and the World Food Program have suspended their operations in northern Gaza, citing both Israeli refusals to authorize convoys and their inability to protect cargoes from being seized by desperate Gazans amid the anarchy.

In conversations with their Israeli counterparts, U.N. officials have agitated for Israel to open up a crossing that would allow them to ferry aid directly into northern Gaza, avoiding the perilous southern routes, Jaime McGoldrick, the U.N. humanitarian chief in Jerusalem, told reporters last month.

Palestinians were ‘completely traumatized’ after Israeli detention, aid agency’s chief says.

The head of the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees confirmed Monday that hundreds of Palestinians had reported abuse under Israeli detention, responding to a question about an unpublished investigation it had conducted that was first reported on by The New York Times.

“We have seen these people coming back from detention,” Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNRWA, told reporters. Most of them were “completely traumatized by the ordeal they have gone through,” he added.

Palestinians interviewed by UNRWA reported a “broad range of ill-treatment” from the Israeli soldiers, Mr. Lazzarini said, including being forced to strip naked, verbal and psychological abuse, threats of electrocution, sleep deprivation, extreme noise and the use of dogs to intimidate people.

“We have indeed an internal report about their experiences,” Mr. Lazzarini said, adding that it had been shared with human rights groups.

UNRWA staff members have also been among the detainees, the agency said in a separate statement on Monday. It said they reported “torture, severe ill-treatment, abuse and sexual exploitation” while under detention and interrogation, without providing details.

Some said that, under torture and ill-treatment, they were forced to give false confessions “in response to questioning about relations between UNRWA and Hamas and involvement in the Oct. 7 attack against Israel,” according to the agency. UNRWA is itself at the center of an investigation after Israel alleged that at least 30 of its 13,000 employees participated in the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7.

The unpublished report, which was seen by The Times, includes accounts from detainees who said they were beaten, stripped, robbed, blindfolded, sexually abused and denied access to lawyers and doctors, often for more than a month. Some, the report said, died in detention.

When presented with the findings of the report by The Times, the Israeli military said in a statement that some detainees had died in detention, including those who had pre-existing illnesses and wounds, without giving more details. It said every death was being investigated by the military police. The military said all mistreatment was “absolutely prohibited” and strongly denied any allegation of sexual abuse, adding that all “concrete complaints regarding inappropriate behavior are forwarded to the relevant authorities for review.”

In a separate report released Monday, the United Nations said it found signs that sexual violence was committed in multiple locations during the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel. That report was a result of the U.N.’s deployment of a team of experts to Israel and the West Bank, led by Pramila Patten, the secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict. The team said it also heard accounts of sexual violence against Palestinians that implicated Israeli security forces and settlers.

Palestinian officials and civil society representatives, it said, told the U.N. team of “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of Palestinians in detention, including the increased use of various forms of sexual violence.”

The team asked Israel’s government to give access to other U.N. bodies so they could investigate those allegations. The Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lior Haiat, said, “Israel rejects the report’s call to investigate Palestinian claims regarding ‘sexual violence by Israeli elements.’”

French Lawmakers Enshrine Access to Abortion in Constitution

French legislators on Monday voted to explicitly enshrine access to abortion in the Constitution, making their country the first in the world to do so.

Acutely aware that they were breaking historical ground from the grand assembly room inside Versailles Palace, the politicians delivered impassioned speeches about women’s rights around the world, paid homage to the courageous Frenchwomen who had fought for abortion rights when it was illegal and leaped up time and again to offer standing ovations.

“We are sending the message to all women: Your body belongs to you and no one has the right to control it in your stead,” Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said, before the gathered lawmakers voted 780-72 for the amendment.

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Shift in Russian Tactics Intensifies Air War in Ukraine

The Ukraine war has been fought largely on the ground in the past two years, with troops often locked in back-and-forth battles with heavy artillery and drone support. The countries’ air forces have played second fiddle because of Ukraine’s limited fleet of planes and Russia’s inability to gain the air supremacy it once expected.

But as the Russian military presses on with attacks in the east, its air force has taken on a greater role. Military analysts say Russia has increasingly used warplanes near the front lines to drop powerful guided bombs on Ukrainian positions and clear a path forward for the infantry. That tactic, used most notably in Avdiivka, the strategic eastern city captured by Russian forces last month, has yielded good results, experts say.

It has also come with risks.

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Gaza War Is Shifting Ties Between Secular and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis

In a neighborhood of Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents cheered a soldier returning from military service. At a religious seminary, similarly devout students gathered to hear an officer talk about his military duties. And at a synagogue attended by some of the most observant Jews in the country, members devoted a Torah scroll in memory of a soldier slain in Gaza.

The Hamas-led attack on Israel last October has prompted flashes of greater solidarity between sections of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority and the secular mainstream, as fears of a shared threat have accelerated the integration of some of Israel’s most insular citizens.

As Israel’s war in Gaza drags on and Israeli reservists are called to serve elongated or additional tours of duty, long-simmering divisions about military exemptions for the country’s most religious Jews are again at the center of a national debate.

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Big-League Dreams

In One Image Big-League Dreams By Atul Loke and Mujib Mashal

Maybe, just maybe, that was their future on the screen.

After a long day of school and cricket practice, two sisters in a Punjab village had their eyes glued on the pros.

India’s new Women’s Premier League was on, and Naina jotted down the highlights.

But nothing mattered more than one player, Harmanpreet Kaur. A village girl like them who had made it big.

The family trophy cabinet bore witness to the early triumphs of Naina and her sister, Sunaina, and hinted at possibility.

Their parents’ work clothes, worn down and fatigued like the wearers, spoke to the present. And to the long odds ahead.

We met the two sisters in a small village a thousand miles away from where the main event was taking place.

India had just launched a new cricket league for women, drawing a whopping $500 million in private investments, and it felt like a big moment. A career in sports for young women was no longer just a pipe dream. Now there could be economic opportunity — even stardom.

Most of the players on the glamorous new stage came from modest, small-town backgrounds, like Harmanpreet Kaur, who had risen from a village in Punjab to the top of the game, persevering despite all the obstacles.

We wanted to know how it all looked to other young Indian girls with dreams.

So we traveled to the village of Dharoki, in Ms. Kaur’s home province, where we met a joyous bunch of young girls training under the mentorship of a police officer who had carved a corner of his family land into practice fields. Among them were Naina, 13, and her elder sister Sunaina, 14.

The Women’s Premier League has just begun its second season to much fanfare, but back then, in the spring, it was still new as we watched the girls run their two-mile warm-up loop around the village, go through their drills with plenty of giggles and then disappear on their bicycles into the dusk.

Only when we climbed rickety stairs one evening to the single-room home where this photograph was taken — the girls’ parents both work as sweepers — did we fully grasp just how much the new cricket league might mean.

In India, any promise of upward mobility is hampered by the country’s struggle to generate enough jobs. For women, that challenge is compounded by the common view that their place is in the home.

Now, cricket may offer another path to some. Hugely popular in India, it is played or watched in nearly every household.

“The high nationalism of sport bestows a certain license to women to put themselves out there in the world in a way that almost nothing does,” writes Sohini Chattopadhyay in a new book on India’s female athletes.

Naina, Sunaina and their teammates are still working on their skills, still riding their bicycles through the mustard fields to their practice patch. Last year, the sisters were selected to play at a higher level, in competitions in other districts.

They returned with a piece of advice: The girls had to speak up, so they could be heard across the cricket field. There may be a life lesson in that, too, but for now, it is clear that they have taken the counsel to heart on the field.

On a recent visit back to Dharoki, we watched as they once again ran laps, and as they teased their mentor and joked with each other. They finished off with a new strength drill, taking turns climbing the rope hanging from a peepal tree.

There was a great air of confidence about them.

And loud they were, indeed.

Photograph by Atul Loke, written by Mujib Mashal

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Now It’s Germany’s Turn to Frustrate Allies Over Ukraine

First it was France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who angered his NATO allies by suggesting that soon the West could be forced to send troops to Ukraine, portending a direct confrontation with Russian forces that the rest of the alliance has long rejected.

Then Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany took his own turn exposing new divisions. Trying to justify why Germany was withholding its most powerful missile, the Taurus, from Ukrainian hands, he hinted that Britain, France and the United States may secretly be helping Ukraine target similar weapons, a step he said Germany simply could not take. While neither Britain or France has commented officially — they almost never discuss how their weapons are deployed — Mr. Scholz was immediately accused by former officials of revealing war secrets.

“Scholz’s behavior has showed that as far as the security of Europe goes he is the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time,” Ben Wallace, Britain’s former defense minister, told The Evening Standard, a London daily. Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative who once chaired a key defense committee in the House of Commons was widely quoted in the British press calling the statement “a flagrant abuse of intelligence.”

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Egyptians Are Buying and Selling Gold Just to Stay Afloat

Inside the wood-paneled shop in Cairo’s famed Khan el-Khalili market, the price of gold was slumping fast, and Rania Hussein was feeling the future slip through her fingers.

She and her mother watched the gold merchant weigh the necklace and three bangles they had brought in — jewelry Ms. Hussein had bought for her mother as a present five years ago but which they now needed to sell. Her brother was getting married, an expensive undertaking even in normal times, but the economic crisis and soaring inflation that have gripped Egypt for more than two years left the family no choice.

Years of reckless spending and economic mismanagement had come to a head in 2022, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helped plunge Egypt into a financial crisis. The war in Gaza has only deepened the pain.

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China’s Big Political Show Is Back to Normal. Sort of.

Finally, it appeared, things were back to normal.

As nearly 3,000 delegates filed into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tuesday for the opening of China’s annual legislative meeting, none wore face masks. Officials pressed together to shake hands and pose for photos. Around them, reporters and diplomats from around the world milled about the cavernous lobby, many invited back for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic four years earlier.

It was one of China’s highest-profile political stages, and the message being sent was clear: The country’s prolonged isolation was over, and it was once more open to the world and ready for business.

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The Maldives Is a Tiny Paradise. Why Are China and India Fighting Over It?

Alex Travelli and

Reporting from Malé and Hanimaadhoo in the Maldives

Between a few flecks of coral in the Indian Ocean, a ribbon of highway more than a mile long swoops up from the blue. Since 2018, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge has connected this archipelago’s hyper-dense capital, Malé, and the international airport — expanded by Chinese companies — one island to the east.

But China is not alone in chasing friendship with the Maldives. A 20-minute walk across the capital, next to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, an even longer sea bridge will link Malé with islands to the west. This one is being built by Indian workers, with money from India.

The Maldives, a tiny tourism-dependent country of 500,000 people, barely registers as a blip alongside India and China, the world’s most populous nations. Yet every blip counts in the two giants’ competition for influence across South Asia, and that has set the Maldives on a zigzagging course between them.

The map locates the Maldives, an archipelago off the southwest coast of India. It also locates the Lakshadweep archipelago, north of the Maldives.

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China Scraps Premier’s Annual News Conference in Surprise Move

China’s premier will no longer hold a news conference after the country’s annual legislative meeting, Beijing announced on Monday, ending a three-decades-long practice that had been an exceedingly rare opportunity for journalists to interact with top Chinese leaders.

The decision, announced a day before the opening of this year’s legislative conclave, was to many observers a sign of the country’s increasing information opacity, even as the government has declared its commitment to transparency and fostering a friendly business environment.

It also reinforced how China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has consolidated power, relegating all other officials, including the premier — the country’s No. 2, who oversees government ministries — to much less visible roles. China’s current premier, Li Qiang, was widely considered to have been elevated to the role last year because of his loyalty to Mr. Xi.

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As ‘Zombie Fires’ Smolder, Canada Braces for Another Season of Flames

Canada’s emergency preparedness minister is warning that this year’s wildfire season will be worse than the record-breaking season of 2023, when thousands of fires burned tens of millions of acres and set off massive plumes of smoke that enveloped major U.S. cities, including New York and Washington.

This year’s fires could be especially bad in two of the country’s most fire-prone provinces, where nearly 150 of the blazes that started during last year’s season are still burning this winter, under snow-covered ground.

While so-called “zombie fires,” a term recently popularized in the Canadian media, are an annual phenomenon in parts of the country, never have so many fires been reported in a single winter, raising fears that many of them may flare up again above ground.

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Surprisingly Weak Ukrainian Defenses Help Russian Advance

Russian forces continue to make small but rapid gains outside of the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, attributable in part to dwindling Ukrainian ammunition and declining Western aid.

But there’s another reason the Kremlin’s troops are advancing in the area: poor Ukrainian defenses.

Sparse, rudimentary trench lines populate the area west of Avdiivka that Ukraine is trying to defend, according to a Times review of imagery by Planet Labs, a commercial satellite company. These trench lines lack many of the additional fortifications that could help slow Russian tanks and help defend major roads and important terrain.

Avdiivka became the site of a fierce standoff over the last nine months, emerging as one of the bloodiest battles of the war. When Russia captured the city on Feb. 17, its first major gain since last May, the Ukrainian Army claimed it had secured defensive lines outside the city.

But Russian troops have captured three villages to the west of Avdiivka in the span of a week, and they are contesting at least one other.

Satellite imagery at the scale shown here is widely available. U.S. officials said privately that it was concerning that Ukraine did not shore up its defensive lines early or well enough, and that it may now face the consequences as Russian units advance slowly but steadily beyond Avdiivka.

British military intelligence said on Thursday that Russian forces had advanced to about four miles from the center of Avdiivka in the past two weeks, a small but unusually rapid advance compared with previous offensive operations.

Ukrainian commanders have had ample time to prepare defenses outside Avdiivka. The area has been under attack since 2014, and Ukraine has had a tenuous hold on it since Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago.

But the Ukrainian defenses outside Avdiivka show rudimentary earthen fortifications, often with a connecting trench for infantry troops to reach firing positions closest to the enemy, but little else.

Stronger Russian Defenses

The lack of robust Ukrainian entrenchments in the area is especially glaring when compared with the formidable Russian defenses that thwarted Kyiv’s advances last summer during the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which ultimately failed.

Russian fortifications outside the southern village of Verbove, which Ukraine tried and failed to retake this fall, show a much different picture.

Unlike the poorly fortified villages that Russian forces are trying to capture outside Avdiivka, Verbove has a concentric ring of fortifications. It starts with a trench wide enough to ensnare advancing tanks and armored vehicles, followed by a mesh of cement obstacles known as dragon’s teeth — also used to stop vehicles — and, finally, a sprawling trench for the infantry.

Satellite imagery from February shows the multilayered Russian defenses to the west of Verbove, with thousands of shell craters visible in the surrounding fields.

‘A Very Costly Option’

There are many possible reasons for Ukraine’s apparent lack of defenses.

Ukrainian officials may have been too focused on offensive operations last year to dedicate the necessary resources to building the kind of multiple trenches and tank traps that Russian engineers built since late 2022 in the country’s south, the U.S. officials and military experts said.

“Who cared and who considered it as an option — because it’s a very costly option — the construction of defensive lines? No one,” said Serhiy Hrabskyi, a retired Ukrainian Army colonel, noting that Ukraine had few resources to spare at the time.

There may have also been a psychological element at play, the U.S. officials said. If Ukrainian troops heavily mined certain areas to thwart Russian advances, it would be a tacit acknowledgement that they were unlikely to carry out offensive operations in the same area at a future date. They’d effectively be writing off that territory to the Russian military, the officials said.

While Moscow began building defensive lines in the south more than half a year before Kyiv’s counteroffensive, Ukraine appeared to have begun plans for new fortifications only three months ago, when government officials announced the creation of a working group to coordinate efforts between civilian and military authorities.

Responsibility for building the first line of defense would fall to the military units stationed in the area, the officials said, while the next defensive lines would be built by civilian authorities, with the help of private contractors. Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister, said that some 30 billion Ukrainian hryvnias, about $800 million, had been allocated for fortifications this year.

Areas in the eastern Donetsk region, where Avdiivka is, “will receive maximum attention,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a visit near the front line in late November, noting the “need to boost and accelerate the construction of structures.”

But Pasi Paroinen, an analyst from the Black Bird Group, which analyzes satellite imagery and social media content from the battlefield, said that “nothing significant has happened” since Mr. Zelensky’s visit.

Outside of Avdiivka, Mr. Paroinen added, “there are new positions being prepared, but they do not yet constitute a particularly formidable defensive line” and are not comparable in scale to Russia’s fortifications in the south.

The Ukrainian authorities have said they lack people able to carry out the construction work. In mid-January, local officials in the western Ivano-Frankivsk region said they were looking for 300 workers willing to help build fortifications in the Donetsk region, more than 500 miles to the east.

“We have a lack of engineering units. And even the units we have lack equipment,” Mr. Hrabskyi said. By comparison, he and Mr. Paroinen said, Russia had far more equipment, materials and experienced personnel when it built its defensive lines.

The absence of strong defensive lines outside of Avdiivka has been denounced in recent days by several Ukrainian journalists, in a rare show of public criticism of the military.

Delays in the construction of fortifications mean that Ukrainian troops may now be left to reinforce their defensive lines while under fire from the Russian Army, making the task exponentially more difficult.

Mr. Hrabskyi said Russia was currently preventing Ukrainian troops from shoring up their defenses by relentlessly bombarding them, including with powerful glide bombs carrying hundreds of kilograms of explosives that can smash through even well-prepared fortifications.

“The quality of these defensive lines cannot be good enough to resist massive bulldozer tactics by the Russian forces,” Mr. Hrabskyi said.

Oleksandra Mykolyshyn contributed reporting.

A Boring Capital for a Young Democracy. Just the Way Residents Like It.

Reporting from Belmopan, Belize

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Mention Belmopan, Belize’s capital that sits deep in the country’s interior, and many Belizeans will belittle the city as a bastion of pencil-pushing bureaucrats that’s not just dull, but also devoid of nightlife.

“I was warned, ‘Belmopan is for the newlyweds or the nearly deads,’” said Raquel Rodriguez, 45, owner of an art school, about the reactions when she moved to Belmopan from coastal, bustling Belize City.

Not exactly known as an Eden for young urbanites, Belmopan figures among the smallest capital cities anywhere in the Americas. It has only about 25,000 residents and a cluster of hurricane-proof, heavy-on-the-concrete, Maya-inspired Brutalist buildings.

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For Car Thieves, Toronto Is a ‘Candy Store,’ and Drivers Are Fed Up

Vjosa Isai drove around Toronto in a Volkswagen Passat with 290,000 miles on it, a vehicle not coveted by car thieves, to report this article.

Whenever Dennis Wilson wants to take a drive in his new SUV, he has to set aside an extra 15 minutes. That’s about how long it takes to remove the car’s steering wheel club, undo four tire locks and lower a yellow bollard before backing out of his driveway.

His Honda CR-V is also fitted with two alarm systems, a vehicle tracking device and, for good measure, four Apple AirTags. Its remote-access key fob rests in a Faraday bag, to jam illicit unlocking signals.

As a final touch, he mounted two motion-sensitive floodlights on his house and aimed them at the driveway in his modest neighborhood in Toronto.

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Where Hostage Families and Supporters Gather, for Solace and Protest

A week after Hamas-led terrorists stormed his kibbutz and kidnapped his wife and three young children, Avihai Brodutch planted himself on the sidewalk in front of army headquarters in Tel Aviv holding a sign scrawled with the words “My family’s in Gaza,” and said he would not budge until they were brought home.

Passers-by stopped to commiserate with him and to try to lift his spirits. They brought him coffee, platters of food and changes of clothing, and welcomed him to their homes to wash up and get some sleep.

“They were so kind, and they just couldn’t do enough,” said Mr. Brodutch, 42, an agronomist who grew pineapples on Kibbutz Kfar Azza before the attacks on Oct. 7. “It was Israel at its finest,” he said. “There was a feeling of a common destiny.”

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An English City Gave Soccer to the World. Now It Wants Credit.

As far as the man in the food truck is concerned, the patch of land he occupies in Sheffield, England, is about as humdrum as they come. To him, the spot — in the drab parking lot of a sprawling home improvement superstore, its facade plastered in lurid orange — is not exactly a place where history comes alive.

John Wilson, an academic at the University of Sheffield’s management school, looks at the same site and can barely contain his excitement. This, he said, is one of the places where the world’s most popular sport was born. He does not see a parking lot. He can see the history: the verdant grass, the sweating players, the cheering crowds.

His passion is sincere, absolute and shared by a small band of amateur historians and volunteer detectives devoted to restoring Sheffield — best known for steel, coal and as the setting for the film “The Full Monty” — to its rightful place as the undisputed birthplace of codified, organized, recognizable soccer.

Map locates Sheffield, Manchester and London in England. It also shows where Wembley Stadium is in northwest London.

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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

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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.)

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Murder and Magic Realism: A Rising Literary Star Mines China’s Rust Belt

For a long time during Shuang Xuetao’s early teenage years, he wondered what hidden disaster had befallen his family.

His parents, proud workers at a tractor factory in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, stopped going to work, and the family moved into an empty factory storage room to save money on rent.

But they rarely talked about what had happened, and Mr. Shuang worried that some special shame had struck his family alone.

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Can Gabriel Attal Win Over France?

Gabriel Attal, 34, is a new kind of French prime minister, more inclined to Diet Coke than a good Burgundy, at home with social media and revelations about his personal life, a natural communicator who reels off one-liners like “France rhymes with power” to assert his “authority,” a favorite word.

Since taking office in early January, the boyish-looking Mr. Attal has waded into the countryside, far from his familiar haunts in the chic quarters of Paris, muddied his dress shoes, propped his notes on a choreographed bale of hay, and calmed protesting farmers through adroit negotiation leavened by multiple concessions.

He has told rail workers threatening a strike that “working is a duty,” not an everyday French admonition. He has shown off his new dog on Instagram and explained that he called the high-energy Chow Chow “Volta” after the inventor of the electric battery. He has told the National Assembly that he is the living proof of a changing France as “a prime minister who assumes his homosexuality.”

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Architect Embraces Indigenous Worldview in Australian Designs

Jefa Greenaway will never forget the first time he heard his father’s voice. It was in 2017, when he was watching a documentary about Indigenous Australians’ fight to be recognized in the country’s Constitution.

“It was poignant, surreal,” Mr. Greenaway recalled. “In one word: emotional.”

In the film, his father, Bert Groves, an Indigenous man and a civil rights activist born in 1907, recounts how he was prevented from pursuing an education because of the size of his skull, a victim of phrenology, the pseudoscience that lingered in Australia into the 20th century.

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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.

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Cleaning Latrines by Hand: ‘How Could Any Human Do That?’

When he came to fully realize exactly what his parents and older brother did for a living, and what it likely meant for his own future, Bezwada Wilson says he was so angry he contemplated suicide.

His family members, and his broader community, were manual scavengers, tasked with cleaning by hand human excrement from dry latrines at a government-run gold mine in southern India.

While his parents had tried hard to hide from their youngest child the nature of their work as long as they could — telling Mr. Bezwada they were sweepers — as a student Mr. Bezwada knew his classmates viewed him with cruel condescension. He just didn’t know the reason.

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Canadian Skaters Demand Bronze Medals in Olympics Dispute

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Nearly a month after international figure skating’s governing body revised the results of a marquee competition at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, stripping Russia of the gold medal and giving the United States team a long-delayed victory, a new fight about the outcome erupted on Monday.

Eight members of the Canadian squad that competed in the team competition in Beijing have filed a case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport demanding that they be awarded bronze medals in the team event. The court announced the filing but revealed no details.

The Canadians, whose case was joined by their country’s skating federation and national Olympic committee, are expected to argue that figure skating’s global governing body erred when it revised the results of the competition in January after a Russian skater who had taken part, the teenage prodigy Kamila Valieva, was given a four-year ban for doping.

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In Latin America, a New Frontier for Women: Professional Softball in Mexico

Reporting from Mexico City and León, Mexico

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In many parts of Latin America, baseball is a popular and well-established sport with men’s professional leagues in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, among others. But women wanting to play baseball’s cousin — softball — professionally had only one option: to leave. They had to go to the United States or Japan.

Until now.

In what is believed to be a first in Latin America — a region where men often have more opportunities than women, particularly in sports — a professional women’s softball league has started in Mexico. On Jan. 25, when the inaugural season began, 120 women on six teams got to call themselves professional softball players, many for the first time.

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Why the Cost of Success in English Soccer’s Lower Leagues Keeps Going Up

Geoff Thompson knows there are plenty of people who want to buy what he has to sell. The phone calls and emails over the last few weeks have left no doubt. And really, that is no surprise. Few industries are quite as appealing or as prestigious as English soccer, and Mr. Thompson has a piece of it.

It is, admittedly, a comparatively small piece: South Shields F.C., the team he has owned for almost a decade, operates in English soccer’s sixth tier, several levels below, and a number of worlds away, from the dazzling light and international allure of the Premier League. But while his team might be small, Mr. Thompson is of the view that it is, at least, as perfectly poised for profitability as any minor-league English soccer club could hope to be.

South Shields has earned four promotions to higher leagues in his nine years as chairman. The team owns its stadium. Mr. Thompson has spent considerable sums of money modernizing the bathrooms, the club shop and the private boxes. There is a thriving youth academy and an active charitable foundation. “We have done most of the hard yards,” Mr. Thompson said.

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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.

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

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.

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El papel de una ‘granja de cadáveres’ en el combate al consumo de fentanilo

Reportando desde una granja de cadáveres en Whitewater, Colorado, y una morgue en Denver

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

Las dos mujeres levantaron un cadáver rígido del suelo, lo que dejó a la vista un bicho que se retorcía en la tierra.

“¡Esa es una larva viva!”, dijo Alex Smith, director del laboratorio de la Estación de Investigación Forense de la Universidad de Colorado Mesa, mientras arrancaba la larva del suelo y la metía en un tubo de cristal. Los gusanos no son solo gusanos, explicó Smith: son posibles pruebas.

“De hecho, puedes analizar las carcasas de larvas y pupas en busca de drogas”, dijo con entusiasmo.

Su público era un grupo de forenses mexicanos que el mes pasado viajaron a las instalaciones de Colorado, conocidas como “granja de cadáveres”, donde decenas de cuerpos donados se exponen al sol para ser estudiados mientras se descomponen.

Los especialistas forenses mexicanos estaban ahí para aprender a analizar cuerpos en busca de fentanilo, y así fue como acabaron en un campo de cadáveres, observando cómo un investigador buscaba gusanos en la tierra.

Su viaje fue organizado por el Departamento de Estado de EE. UU., y las autoridades esperaban que contribuyera a lograr un objetivo diplomático clave: lograr que el gobierno de México se enfrentara a su propio problema con el fentanilo.

En el norte de México, grupos de ayuda y centros de rehabilitación han alertado por el aumento del consumo de fentanilo en los últimos años, informando de una oleada de sobredosis de opiáceos a lo largo de las regiones fronterizas con Estados Unidos. El gobierno mexicano afirma que la propagación de la droga está contenida y que el consumo general sigue siendo relativamente bajo.

En realidad, nadie sabe cuán común que es el consumo de fentanilo en México. Existen pocos datos recientes sobre el consumo de drogas a nivel nacional, y la mayoría de los patólogos forenses mexicanos no realizan pruebas sistemáticas en los cadáveres para detectar la presencia de fentanilo, según afirman los médicos forenses y las autoridades estadounidenses.

“En México, no salen casos de muerte por fentanilo, porque no hacemos el estudio, no porque no mueren de fentanilo”, dijo César González Vaca, jefe del servicio forense del estado de Baja California. Y añadió: “No lo estamos buscando”.

México es la fuente principal del fentanilo ilícito que se introduce en EE. UU., según el gobierno estadounidense, y aunque las fuerzas armadas mexicanas informaron de un aumento sustancial de las incautaciones de drogas el año pasado, los opiáceos sintéticos continúan inundando la frontera.

Según las autoridades de EE. UU., una estrategia para lograr que México haga más por frenar el flujo es demostrar que el fentanilo no solo es una adicción estadounidense, sino que también está matando a mexicanos.

El viaje a Colorado “fue un esfuerzo para ayudar a México a reconocer que tiene un problema, por muy inconveniente que sea”, dijo Alex Thurn, funcionario de la oficina de asuntos internacionales de narcóticos y aplicación de la ley de la embajada de EE. UU. en México.

Así pues, en una fresca mañana de febrero, más de una decena de forenses y químicos de los estados del norte de México se reunieron en la Oficina del Médico Forense de Denver para presenciar la autopsia de un hombre de mediana edad que fue encontrado muerto en el suelo de su garaje.

La noche de su fallecimiento le dijo a su novia que había tomado “10 azules”, probablemente en referencia a pastillas de fentanilo, según afirmaron los patólogos.

Ian Puffenberger, patólogo forense, apretó los pulmones del hombre y de ellos salió un chorro de espuma. Eso, según Puffenberger, era “un hallazgo habitual” en las muertes por opiáceos porque la respiración de la persona se ralentiza y los pulmones se llenan de líquido.

Cuando aserraron su cráneo se reveló otro signo de sobredosis: las protuberancias de su cerebro, conocidas como giros, parecían menos abultadas de lo que deberían.

“Si hay inflamación del cerebro”, otro efecto de la sobredosis de opiáceos, según dijo Puffenberger, “los giros empujan contra el cráneo y se aplanan”.

Más allá de sus cuchillos de alta gama y sus relucientes instalaciones —que fueron objeto de varias observaciones entre los forenses mexicanos—, los patólogos estadounidenses también disponían de un arsenal de costosas herramientas para confirmar que el hombre había muerto de sobredosis.

Hicieron análisis de sangre preliminares en una máquina de los Laboratorios Randox que cuesta más de 30.000 dólares, y que ofreció resultados positivos de fentanilo, metanfetamina y anfetaminas. Luego enviaron las muestras para un análisis toxicológico completo en un laboratorio de análisis de drogas de Pensilvania.

“Nos sentíamos en Disneylandia”, dijo Vaca. “Tienen todo”.

Los forenses mexicanos, dijo Vaca, con frecuencia acomodan los cuellos sobre botellas de refresco de dos litros y asierran los cráneos con sierras que suelen ser utilizadas para cortar metal. También explicó que, a menudo, ganan muy poco como para evaluar la causa de los fallecimientos en un país donde los criminales se especializan en lograr que sus víctimas sean irreconocibles.

“Aquí no ven a la gente descuartizada, metida en bolsas, quemada, con 200 heridas de bala”, dijo Vaca.

El médico forense mexicano ilustra lo mucho que se puede hacer con menos.

Tras observar cómo el fentanilo se convertía en un asesino en masa en Estados Unidos, Vaca empezó a presionar para que se hicieran pruebas en cadáveres de Baja California. Ha tenido que recurrir a un método de baja tecnología —sumergir tiras de fentanilo en orina, sangre u otros fluidos corporales— y solo está realizando pruebas en Tijuana y Mexicali, las dos ciudades más grandes del estado. Pero los resultados son asombrosos.

Desde junio de 2022, más de la mitad de todos los cadáveres que llegaron a las morgues de esas ciudades han dado positivo en drogas, y el fentanilo apareció en el 20 por ciento de ellos. “Esto es una crisis de salud pública”, dijo Vaca.

Durante décadas, el voraz apetito estadounidense por los estupefacientes impulsó el surgimiento de vastas redes delictivas en México, aunque históricamente las drogas no se consumían a gran escala en el país. Sin embargo, el consumo de drogas es cada vez más común, según muestran las investigaciones.

La última vez que el gobierno mexicano realizó su encuesta nacional sobre drogas, en 2016, el número de mexicanos que dijeron consumir narcóticos ilegales casi se había duplicado desde 2008. La demanda de tratamiento contra las drogas en México ha crecido rápidamente desde 2018, según otra investigación gubernamental.

Se ha encontrado fentanilo en pastillas falsificadas vendidas en farmacias del norte de México, así como en drogas recreativas como cocaína y MDMA en un festival de música cerca de Ciudad de México.

“Es barato de fabricar y sencillo de distribuir”, dijo Manuel López Santacruz, médico forense del estado de Sonora, al otro lado de la frontera con Arizona. Las pastillas de fentanilo, dijo, cuestan tan solo 3 dólares cada una, lo que hace que sean asequibles para casi cualquiera y eso impulsa las adicciones.

Hace poco, el gobierno reanudó la encuesta nacional sobre el consumo de drogas, tras un paréntesis de años, pero los expertos afirman que es poco probable que capte la verdadera difusión de los opiáceos sintéticos porque es posible que muchos consumidores no admitan que los consumen.

Según los expertos, el seguimiento de las muertes por fentanilo reflejaría de forma más fiable la magnitud del problema, pero requiere una inversión significativa por parte de las autoridades.

En Denver, la jefa de investigaciones, Erin Worrell, ofreció consejos para identificar posibles sobredosis.

Mientras proyectaba fotos de escenas de muertes recientes en una pantalla, Worrell destacó a un hombre que falleció con un cigarrillo a medio encender en la mano, y que más tarde se descubrió que tenía fentanilo y un cóctel de otras drogas en su organismo.

“Si estás sufriendo un ataque al corazón o algo así, vas a tratar de agarrar cosas”, dijo. “Va a ser más caótico, ya sabes”.

Worrell dijo que una pista era la posición del cuerpo. Las personas que cabecean y mueren tras tomar opiáceos suelen encontrarse encorvadas y con las piernas dobladas. Sabe que hay que buscar laxantes, porque los opiáceos provocan estreñimiento.

A veces, las muertes por sobredosis parecen asesinatos, como el caso de un hombre al que encontraron con heridas por toda la espalda y sentado en un cuarto de baño lleno de sangre.

“Esto parecen huellas de defensa”, dijo uno de los especialistas mexicanos, mirando las fotos de la horrible escena. En realidad, se trataba de una sobredosis, y antes de morir, el hombre se había mutilado.

“Muchas veces la gente empieza a tener comezón”, dijo Worrell. “Creen que tienen bichos encima”.

Al concluir la presentación de Worrell, Vaca se acercó y le mostró una foto en su teléfono: un hombre muerto por fentanilo con tanta rapidez que la jeringuilla seguía clavada en su cuello. “Lo vemos todo el tiempo”, dijo Vaca.

Natalie Kitroeff es la jefa de la corresponsalía del Times para México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. Más de Natalie Kitroeff

Por qué algunos colombianos llaman a sus madres ‘sumercé’

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

Cuando Altair Jaspe se mudó de Venezuela a Bogotá, la capital colombiana, le sorprendió la manera en que se dirigían a ella al entrar en cualquier tienda, cafetería o consulta médica.

Aunque ambos lugares formaron parte del Imperio español, la ciudad colombiana parecía más en sintonía con su pasado imperial. Jaspe ya no era una “señora”, como la habrían llamado en Caracas o quizá, en su juventud, “muchacha” o “chama”.

En cambio, le otorgaban un tratamiento honorífico que parecía más propio de una mujer con capa y corona: “su merced”.

¿Sumercé le gustaría un café?

¿Sumercé va a tomar la cita de las 3:00 p. m.?

Permiso, sumercé, le decía la gente con la que se cruzaba en una puerta o en un ascensor.

“Me llevó a la época colonial, automático”, dijo Jaspe, de 63 años, directora de logística jubilada, expresando su incomodidad inicial con la frase. “A la carreta, los caballos”, continuó, “a lo mejor un poco a la esclavitud”.

“Pero después de vivirlo”, continuó, “entendí”.

En la mayor parte del mundo hispanohablante, los pronombres más usados son el informal “tú” y el formal “usted”. Pero en Colombia existe una variante: “su merced”, que significa “su misericordia”, “su gracia” o incluso “su excelencia”, y que ahora se contrae como “sumercé”.

(En algunas regiones del mundo hispanohablante también se emplea el “vos”).

En Bogotá, ciudad de 8 millones de habitantes enclavada en la cordillera de los Andes, el “sumercé” es omnipresente, no solo entre taxistas y tenderos para atender a los clientes (con frases como: “¿En qué puedo ayudar a ‘sumercé’?”), sino también entre niños para referirse a sus padres o cuando los padres hablan de sus hijos (a veces con tierna ironía) e incluso entre maridos, esposas y amantes para referirse el uno al otro (“¿’Sumercé’ me pasa la sal?” o “‘Sumercé’, ¿qué dice, hoy me pongo este pantalón?”).

Lo usan jóvenes y mayores, urbanitas y campesinos. Claudia López, la última alcaldesa de Bogotá, fue captada en cámara cuando le gritó a una vendedora ambulante: “¡Trabaje juiciosa, ‘sumercé’!”, e incluso la vocalista de uno de los grupos de rock más conocidos del país, Andrea Echeverri, de Aterciopelados, suele utilizarlo.

Los españoles fundaron Bogotá en 1538 tras una brutal conquista del pueblo indígena muisca, y pronto la ciudad se convirtió en un centro de poder colonial.

“Sumercé” es, en efecto, una reliquia de esa época, y los estudiosos han documentado su uso como una muestra de cortesía en las relaciones institucionales (fue utilizado en una carta del gobernador de Cuba al conquistador Hernán Cortés en 1518); también era una señal de respeto en las familias (de un cuñado a otro en 1574); y, en particular, como un signo de servidumbre en las relaciones de los esclavos o en las comunicaciones de los siervos con sus amos.

Pero los defensores modernos del “sumercé” afirman que su popularidad actual radica en el hecho de que ha perdido esa connotación jerárquica y hoy en día significa respecto y afecto, no reverencia o una distinción de clase social.

Jaspe afirmó que con el tiempo terminó considerando al “sumercé” una expresión casual de cariño, como en “‘sumercé’, qué bonito le queda ese sombrero”.

Luego de que Colombia se independizara de los españoles a principios del siglo XIX, la expresión “sumercé” permaneció vigente en el departamento de Boyacá, una exuberante región agrícola en el centro de Colombia, al norte de Bogotá.

Jorge Velosa, un cantautor y famosa voz de Boyacá (en una ocasión se presentó en el Madison Square Garden vestido con la tradicional ruana de la región), recordó que en la casa de su infancia, “sumercé” era la manera en que él y sus hermanos se referían a su madre, y su madre a ellos.

“‘Sumercé’”, contó, servía como una especie de término medio entre el rígido “usted” —utilizado en casa solo como preámbulo a una reprimenda— y el casi demasiado informal “tú”.

Con el tiempo, “sumercé” migró al sur junto con muchos boyacenses, a Bogotá, convirtiéndose en una parte tan importante del léxico del centro de Colombia como “bacano”, “chévere”, “parce”, “paila”, “qué pena” y “dar papaya”. (Como cuando se dice: “Sumercé, no dé papaya en la calle, le van a robar”).

En mayor parte, “sumercé” sigue siendo una característica del centro de Colombia, y rara vez se utiliza en la costa del país, donde el “tú” es más común, o en ciudades como Cali (“vos”) y Medellín (“tú”, “usted” y a veces “vos”).

Pero en la capital y sus alrededores, el “sumercé” aparece estampado en gorros, broches y camisetas y está incorporado en los nombres de restaurantes y mercados. Es el título de un nuevo documental sobre activistas ambientales colombianos. Es celebrado en canciones, pódcast, y lecciones de español colombiano en Spotify y YouTube.

“En este momento no marca ninguna clase social”, afirmó Andrea Rendón, de 40 años, de Bogotá. “Todos somos ‘sumercé’”.

Un video musical estrenado recientemente, “Sumercé”, del rapero Wikama Mc, refleja el estatus folclórico y genial que la frase ha alcanzado.

En una escena de una fiesta casera que podría estar ambientada en cualquier lugar de los Andes colombianos, el artista viste una ruana mientras celebra el “flow colombiano” de la mujer objeto de su afecto, quien, se jacta, “baila carranga” —música folclórica popularizada por Velosa— y también reguetón, ritmo fiestero moderno popularizado por celebridades internacionales como J. Balvin.

“Hábleme claro ‘sumercé’”, rapea, antes de saludar cordialmente a su novia quitándose su tradicional sombrero de fieltro.

La canción ha recopilado más de 18.000 vistas desde que fue subido a YouTube en diciembre. Una cifra admirable, considerando que el artista tiene 500 seguidores en la plataforma.

Echeverri, la estrella de rock, vinculó su uso de la frase con una estética punk, la cual busca una relación “horizontal” con la gente cotidiana. (En una entrevista en video reciente, la utilizó para conectar con la presentadora del programa, cuando habló de una nueva versión de una de “esas canciones que tan pronto ‘sumercé’ las ha oído tantas veces”).

La palabra sumercé, explicó en otra entrevista, “es cariñosa, pero a la vez es respetuosa y a la vez es como cercana, pero tampoco tanto”.

Por supuesto, no todos lo perciben de esa manera. Carolina Sanín, una escritora reconocida, ha criticado a quienes alegan que “sumercé” es tan omnipresente en Colombia que debería ser aceptado, sin ninguna crítica, como norma cultural.

Incluso en una región conocida por su pronunciada desigualdad, las divisiones de clases en Colombia siguen particularmente arraigadas. Al colombiano pobre promedio le toma 11 generaciones llegar al ingreso nacional promedio, según la Organización para la Cooperación y el Desarrollo Económicos, dos más que en Brasil, tres más que en Chile y cinco más que en Argentina.

Décadas de violencia han reforzado estas barreras, permitiéndole a un pequeño grupo acumular capital y territorio. Para algunos, “sumercé” puede sentirse como una perpetuación o incluso una celebración de estas relaciones jerárquicas.

“También no pagar prestaciones sociales o la acumulación de la tierra es ‘vuestra costumbre’”, escribió Sanín en Twitter.

“Las palabras importan”, continuó. “Con las palabras se hacen los caminos a la justicia”.

Javier Guerrero-Rivera, un lingüista de Bogotá, encuestó recientemente a 40 estudiantes universitarios colombianos, y encontró que el 85 por ciento afirmó que no les molestaba el término, y sentían respeto y cariño cuando se les dirigía a ellos. Otro 10 por ciento se sentía indiferente ante la frase. Solo el 5 por ciento dijo que el término era despectivo o los incomodaba.

Juan Manuel Espinosa, subdirector del Instituto Caro y Cuervo, el cual se dedica a estudiar las particularidades del español colombiano, afirmó que creía que la división social descrita por personas como Sanín era precisamente lo que atraía a tantos colombianos hacia la palabra.

“El ‘sumercé’ es una manera de crear una conexión en una sociedad muy fragmentada”, dijo.

Jhowani Hernández, de 42 años, que opera máquinas de limpieza de oficinas, describió usar “sumercé” con su esposa, Beatriz Méndez, una ama de casa de 50 años, “cuando me saca la piedra” (expresión para denotar molestia), pero en su mayoría “para dar cariño”.

Aún así, Daniel Sánchez, un documentalista de 31 años en Bogotá, afirmó que había dejado de utilizar “sumercé” luego de que comenzó a pensar en “todo el trasfondo de la frase”, es decir, “esa cosa servil y colonialista que no es tan chévere”.

Ahora, cuando quiere transmitir respeto y cariño, utiliza un colombianismo diferente y menos cargado: “Veci”, diminutivo de “vecino”:

“Veci, no dé papaya en la calle, le van a robar”.

Simón Posada colaboró con reportería desde Bogotá.

En México, la contienda presidencial se perfila hacia una victoria aplastante

Simon Romero y

Reportando desde Ciudad de México

Read in English

Con las elecciones presidenciales de México a realizarse en apenas tres meses, hay algo claro: la candidata del partido gobernante parece ser la clara ganadora.

Claudia Sheinbaum, física y protegida política del presidente actual, mantiene una amplia ventaja de cerca de 30 puntos porcentuales en las encuestas sobre la candidata de la oposición, Xóchitl Gálvez, empresaria del sector tecnológico. Este viernes es el inicio oficial de la campaña.

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Jugando a lo seguro en un momento en el que el presidente saliente, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, sigue teniendo altos niveles de popularidad, Sheinbaum se ha mantenido tan cerca de sus políticas y su personalidad que no solo se ha comprometido a adoptar las prioridades del presidente, sino que en ocasiones imita su pausada manera de hablar en las apariciones que ha tenido por todo el país.

Pero si bien la campaña excepcionalmente disciplinada de Sheinbaum la ha consolidado como la amplia favorita, la candidata que podría ser la primera presidenta de México sigue siendo un misterio para muchos mexicanos.

“Claudia Sheinbaum sigue siendo el gran misterio de esta elección”, dijo Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, politólogo del Tecnológico de Monterrey. “Tiene la cabeza muy distinta a la de López Obrador. Es una científica. Tarde o temprano tiene que quitarse esa máscara de ser la repetidora de López Obrador”.

Por ahora, la contienda subraya cómo López Obrador, un político combativo que mezcla retórica nacionalista y de izquierda con políticas que son social, ambiental y fiscalmente conservadoras, ha dominado tanto la política mexicana desde que asumió el cargo en 2018 que la oposición fragmentada está teniendo problemas para hacerle frente a su posible sucesora.

Gálvez, una senadora con raíces indígenas que representa a una coalición de partidos en su mayor parte conservadores, causó revuelo el año pasado, cuando entró a la contienda. Pero no ha logrado obtener mucho impulso en un momento en el que la economía de México se está beneficiando de una transición en la manufactura, históricamente de China, lo que ha hecho que México sea el principal socio comercial de Estados Unidos.

Sheinbaum, quien forma parte de Morena, el partido gobernante, y fue jefa de gobierno de Ciudad de México, ha enfatizado constantemente su cercanía con el presidente, conocido por sus iniciales, AMLO.

Hija de padres judíos y nacida en Ciudad de México, Sheinbaum se convirtió en experta en temas energéticos tras estudiar física e ingeniería energética en México y realizar trabajos de investigación para su doctorado en el Laboratorio Nacional Lawrence Berkeley, en California.

A pesar de la ventaja de Sheinbaum, los expertos afirman que las encuestas podrían tergiversar el sentimiento de los votantes y que la contienda, que culminará con las elecciones del 2 de junio, está lejos de definirse mientras las candidatas discuten sus planes para el país de habla hispana más grande del mundo.

“Hay un buen porcentaje que apenas va a empezar a tomar decisiones sobre qué candidato le convence”, dijo Lorena Becerra, analista política y encuestadora.

Gálvez no pudo ser contactada el jueves, y un portavoz de Sheinbaum declaró que, por ahora, no realizarán comentarios sobre las tendencias de votación.

Pero en el inicio de marzo, Sheinbaum está respaldada por el 63 por ciento de las personas registradas para votar, según una tabulación de encuestas realizada por Oraculus, una organización que estandariza y agrupa las encuestas de votación del país. Gálvez, su principal oponente, cuenta con el 31 por ciento, una diferencia del equivalente de casi 20 millones de votos.

Un tercer candidato presidencial, el político progresista Jorge Álvarez Máynez, perteneciente al partido Movimiento Ciudadano, se ha quedado rezagado con el 5 por ciento.

“Morena llega en condiciones inmejorables”, afirmó Carlos Pérez Ricart, politólogo del Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, en Ciudad de México. Reflexionando sobre los ciclos electorales recientes de México, agregó: “Nunca tuvo tanto viento a favor la candidatura oficialista como ahora”.

Hay varios factores que favorecen a Sheinbaum y su partido; por encima de todo, quizás, están los altos niveles de popularidad de López Obrador, los cuales superan los de cualquier otro presidente en los cuatro gobiernos más recientes del país.

Forjando una conexión visceral con muchos votantes que se habían sentido abandonados por otros presidentes, López Obrador le ha dado prioridad a populares programas antipobreza durante su sexenio (la reelección presidencial está prohibida por ley en México).

Alrededor de unas 25 millones de familias se han beneficiado de las transferencias directas de dinero. El gobierno ha incrementado los subsidios para reducir los precios del combustible y las facturas de electricidad. Además, ha desarrollado grandes proyectos de infraestructura, como una ambiciosa línea ferroviaria en la península de Yucatán, como una forma para desarrollar regiones históricamente empobrecidas.

Si bien Sheinbaum no ha jugado un papel en la creación de estas políticas, se ha comprometido a seguir los pasos de López Obrador, en gran parte consolidando sus proyectos de infraestructura, ejecutando sus medidas de austeridad y manteniendo sus populares programas de bienestar social.

Pero a diferencia de su mentor, afirmó Pérez Ricart, el politólogo, “podemos, con toda seguridad, esperar una candidata mucho más detallista en la ejecución. Si fue el carisma de López Obrador lo que lo mantuvo con números altos, ella va a tener que reemplazar eso por eficacia”.

Ya existen algunas evidencias de que un gobierno de Sheinbaum podría diferir del de su predecesor en algunas maneras cruciales.

Cuando fue jefa de gobierno en Ciudad de México, su gestión de la pandemia difirió drásticamente de la respuesta del gobierno federal. Sheinbaum intentó seguir la ciencia mientras López Obrador minimizaba los riesgos. También ha dicho que se enfocará en la energía renovable, en contraste con la prioridad que le dio López Obrador a los combustibles fósiles.

Luego está el persistente tema de la seguridad. López Obrador ha confiado en las fuerzas armadas para que lidien con la creciente violencia; Sheinbaum se comprometió a mejorar la capacitación de la policía, mejorar sus salarios e invertir en órganos de inteligencia, medidas que implementó durante su tiempo como jefa de gobierno de Ciudad de México.

Los resultados de cada estrategia están a la vista. Si bien los reportes de extorsión y desapariciones se han disparado por todo el país, los homicidios, robos y otros crímenes en Ciudad de México se han desplomado en un 60 por ciento.

“Las diferencias están frente a nosotros”, añadió Pérez Ricart. “Claramente tiene una forma de gobernar distinta y lo ha demostrado en los últimos años”.

Gálvez también ha dejado entrever algunas propuestas, como permitir que la inversión privada modernice la endeudada petrolera del país y promover las fuentes de energía renovable.

También crearía una fuerza policial de investigación nacional y reduciría el poder de los militares.

Las preocupaciones sobre la seguridad forman parte de la conversación de la campaña mientras México se prepara para su elección más grande alguna vez organizada, en la que los votantes elegirán desde cargos nacionales hasta cargos en niveles municipales.

Desde junio, Laboratorio Electoral, un instituto de investigación independiente enfocado en la democracia y las elecciones, ha documentado al menos 67 ataques, amenazas, secuestros y asesinatos relacionados con las elecciones. Al menos 39 personas han sido asesinadas, 19 de ellas candidatos a cargos locales. Una porción significativa de la violencia está vinculada a los cárteles y a otros grupos criminales que buscan influir en los resultados.

Sobre la contienda se cierne la campaña presidencial que se desarrolla actualmente en Estados Unidos. Si bien la reelección del presidente Biden sería una señal de continuidad, una victoria de Donald Trump, el favorito republicano, podría alterar la política de México al convertir la dependencia del país del comercio con Estados Unidos en una fuente de vulnerabilidad.

La campaña de Trump está impulsando una propuesta para un arancel universal del 10 por ciento sobre los bienes importados. Un arancel así “presentaría al próximo presidente de México, quienquiera que sea, un reto que AMLO y sus predecesores no enfrentaron”, dijo Andrew Rudman, director del Instituto México del Centro Internacional para Académicos Woodrow Wilson, con sede en Washington.

El propio López Obrador podría ser otro factor desestabilizador si su protegida gana la presidencia. Su plan, como ya ha mencionado en diversas ocasiones, es desentenderse de la política y mudarse a una finca en Palenque, en el sureño estado de Chiapas, que sus padres le dejaron a él y a sus hermanos.

A muchos en México les cuesta creer que López Obrador pueda simplemente desaparecer en el ocaso.

“Un personaje del tamaño de Andrés Manuel López Obrador, la capacidad que tenía de movilizar emociones y, con eso, suplir muchas de las carencias de su gobierno; pues eso no lo va a tener Claudia Sheinbaum”, dijo la politóloga Blanca Heredia. “Y va a ser difícil que no se le esté, sobre todo al principio, comparando con él”.

Simon Romero es corresponsal en Ciudad de México, y cubre México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. Se ha desempeñado como jefe del buró del Times en Brasil, jefe del buró andino y corresponsal internacional de energía. Más de Simon Romero

Emiliano Rodríguez Mega es investigador-reportero del Times radicado en Ciudad de México. Cubre México, Centroamérica y el Caribe. Más de Emiliano Rodríguez Mega

¿Qué pasó con el convoy de alimentos en Gaza? Hay versiones encontradas

El viernes, los líderes mundiales intensificaron sus exigencias a Israel para que deje entrar más ayuda en Gaza y dé más respuestas sobre la muerte de decenas de palestinos en una escena de caos en torno a un convoy humanitario que sus fuerzas estaban protegiendo.

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Muchas preguntas quedaron sin respuesta cuando el ejército israelí y funcionarios gazatíes ofrecieron versiones distintas sobre una de las catástrofes más mortíferas, en la que hubo civiles implicados, conocidas en los casi cinco meses de guerra. Annalena Baerbock, ministra de Relaciones Exteriores de Alemania, pidió al ejército israelí que “explicara plenamente” las matanzas del norte de Gaza y se sumó a los llamamientos en favor de un alto el fuego que permitiera la liberación de los rehenes israelíes y la entrada de más ayuda en el territorio.

“La gente en Gaza está más cerca de la muerte que de la vida”, dijo en las redes sociales. “Debe llegar más ayuda humanitaria. Inmediatamente”.

El ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Francia, Stéphane Séjourné, pidió una investigación independiente y afirmó que el caos mortal que rodeaba al convoy era consecuencia de una catástrofe humanitaria que ha hecho que los gazatíes estén “peleando por comida”.

“Lo que está ocurriendo es indefendible e injustificable”, declaró Séjourné a France Inter el viernes. “Israel debe poder oírlo y debe detenerse”.

El desastre se desencadenó el jueves por la mañana, cuando miles de personas hambrientas se congregaron cerca de un convoy de alimentos en la ciudad de Gaza, con soldados y tanques israelíes en las inmediaciones. Era una escena cada vez más habitual en Gaza: palestinos que enfrentan el hambre, en medio de la guerra de Israel contra Hamás, se congregan regularmente en torno al número relativamente pequeño de camiones de ayuda que pueden entrar en el territorio.

Lo que ocurrió después sigue sin estar claro. Funcionarios de salud gazatíes afirman que los soldados israelíes dispararon contra la multitud, matando a más de 100 personas e hiriendo a otras 700 en lo que calificaron de “masacre”. Un portavoz militar israelí dijo que los soldados habían hecho disparos de advertencia al aire antes de abrir fuego “cuando la muchedumbre se movió de forma que los puso en peligro”. Los militares afirmaron que la mayoría de las personas habían muerto pisoteadas y que los camiones de ayuda también habían atropellado a personas.

Ninguna de las dos versiones ha podido verificarse de forma independiente, y las imágenes parciales de video de drones publicadas por el ejército israelí, junto con los videos de la escena en las redes sociales analizados por The New York Times, no explican del todo la secuencia de los hechos. Los videos muestran a personas arrastrándose y agachándose para ponerse a cubierto. Un hospital de la ciudad de Gaza señaló que había recibido los cadáveres de al menos una decena de personas que habían recibido disparos y que había atendido a más de 100 personas con heridas de bala.

Un portavoz militar israelí, el teniente coronel Peter Lerner, declaró al Canal 4 británico que los soldados se habían encargado de la seguridad del convoy, en el que viajaban vehículos privados que distribuían alimentos de donantes internacionales. Israel ha estado sometida a una creciente presión internacional para que facilite más entregas de ayuda, ya que grupos como la agencia de ayuda de las Naciones Unidas para los palestinos —el principal grupo que distribuye suministros humanitarios en Gaza— afirman que se ha vuelto demasiado anárquico y caótico operar en gran parte del territorio, especialmente en el norte.

Samantha Power, administradora de la Agencia de EE. UU. para el Desarrollo Internacional, dijo que, independientemente de cómo hubieran muerto, estaba claro que la gente había muerto o resultado herida al intentar conseguir alimentos para sus familias.

“Eso no puede ocurrir”, dijo. “No se debe disparar contra civiles desesperados que intentan alimentar a sus familias hambrientas”.

Power instó a Israel a abrir más pasos fronterizos para facilitar que la ayuda llegue al norte de Gaza y a flexibilizar las restricciones aduaneras que, afirmó, dejan la harina en los puertos mientras la gente está al borde de la inanición.

El Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores palestino pidió a los líderes del mundo que impusieran sanciones a Israel para obligarlo a proteger a los civiles y garantizar sus necesidades humanitarias, argumentando que estaba obligado a hacerlo en virtud del derecho internacional como potencia ocupante.

“Negaron completamente la verdad de la masacre que cometieron contra civiles desarmados agotados por el hambre y la sed como consecuencia de políticas racistas”, afirmó el ministerio en un comunicado el viernes.

Refugees International, grupo de defensa de los refugiados, exigió una investigación independiente inmediata sobre el desastre y pidió a Estados Unidos que suspendiera la ayuda militar a Israel hasta que los responsables rindieran cuentas.

“No hay nada que pueda justificar el asesinato de civiles desesperados por recibir ayuda vital para sus familias”, afirmó el grupo en un comunicado.

Entre el ajedrez y el chantaje: las nuevas amenazas nucleares de Vladimir Putin

El presidente Vladimir Putin ha amenazado con recurrir al arsenal de armas nucleares de Rusia en tres ocasiones durante los últimos dos años: una vez al comienzo de la guerra contra Ucrania hace dos años, otra cuando estaba perdiendo terreno y de nuevo el jueves, cuando percibe que está mermando las defensas de Ucrania y la determinación estadounidense.

En todos los casos, la beligerancia ha servido para el mismo propósito. Putin sabe que sus oponentes, liderados por el presidente Joe Biden, son los que más temen una escalada del conflicto. Incluso las bravatas nucleares sirven para recordarles a sus numerosos adversarios sobre los riesgos de presionarlo demasiado.

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Perot el discurso, equivalente al Estado de la Unión de EE. UU., que Putin pronunció el jueves también contenía algunos elementos nuevos. No solo señaló que redoblaba su “operación militar especial” en Ucrania. También dejó claro que no tenía intención de renegociar el último gran tratado de control de armamentos en vigor con Estados Unidos —que expira en menos de dos años—, a menos que el nuevo acuerdo decida el destino de Ucrania, presumiblemente con gran parte del mismo en manos de Rusia.

Algunos lo llamarían ajedrez nuclear, otros chantaje nuclear. En la insistencia de Putin acerca de que los controles nucleares, y la existencia continuada del Estado ucraniano deben decidirse de manera conjunta, está implícita la amenaza de que el líder ruso estaría encantado de dejar expirar todos los límites actuales sobre las armas estratégicas desplegadas. Eso lo liberaría para usar tantas armas nucleares como quisiera.

Y aunque Putin dijo que no tenía interés en emprender otra carrera armamentística, algo que contribuyó a la bancarrota de la Unión Soviética, la implicación era que Estados Unidos y Rusia, que ya se encuentran en un constante estado de confrontación, volverían a la peor competencia de la Guerra Fría.

“Estamos tratando con un Estado —dijo, refiriéndose a Estados Unidos— cuyos círculos dirigentes están emprendiendo acciones abiertamente hostiles contra nosotros. ¿Y qué?”.

“¿Van a discutir seriamente con nosotros temas de estabilidad estratégica”, añadió, utilizando el término para referirse a los acuerdos sobre controles nucleares, “mientras que al mismo tiempo intentan infligir, como ellos mismos dicen, una ‘derrota estratégica’ a Rusia en el campo de batalla?”.

Con esos comentarios, Putin subrayó uno de los aspectos distintivos y más inquietantes de la guerra en Ucrania. Una y otra vez, sus altos mandos militares y estrategas han hablado del uso de armas nucleares como el próximo paso lógico si sus fuerzas convencionales resultan insuficientes en el campo de batalla, o si necesitan ahuyentar una intervención occidental.

Esa estrategia es coherente con la doctrina militar rusa. Y en los primeros días de la guerra en Ucrania, asustó claramente al gobierno de Joe Biden y a los aliados de la OTAN en Europa, quienes dudaron en proporcionar misiles de largo alcance, tanques y aviones de combate a Ucrania por temor a que esto desencadenara una respuesta nuclear o hiciera que Rusia atacara más allá de las fronteras de Ucrania, en territorio de la OTAN.

En octubre de 2022, surgió un segundo aspecto sobre el posible uso de armas nucleares por parte de Rusia, no solo por las declaraciones de Putin, sino por informes de los servicios de inteligencia estadounidenses que sugerían que podrían utilizarse armas nucleares en el campo de batalla contra bases militares ucranianas. Tras unas semanas de tensión, la crisis disminuyó.

En el año y medio transcurrido desde entonces, Biden y sus aliados han ido confiando cada vez más en que, a pesar de todas las fanfarronadas de Putin, no quería enfrentarse a la OTAN y sus fuerzas. Pero cada vez que el dirigente ruso invoca sus poderes nucleares, se desencadena una oleada de temor de que, si se le lleva demasiado lejos, podría demostrar su voluntad de hacer estallar un arma, tal vez en un lugar remoto, para hacer retroceder a sus adversarios.

“En este entorno, Putin podría volver a agitar el sable nuclear, y sería una tontería descartar por completo los riesgos de escalada”, escribió recientemente en Foreign Affairs William J. Burns, director de la CIA y exembajador de EE. UU. en Rusia cuando Putin asumió inicialmente el cargo. “Pero sería igualmente insensato dejarse intimidar innecesariamente por ellos”.

En su discurso, Putin presentó a Rusia como el Estado agredido y no como el agresor. “Ellos mismos eligen los objetivos para atacar nuestro territorio”, dijo. “Empezaron a hablar de la posibilidad de enviar contingentes militares de la OTAN a Ucrania”.

Esa posibilidad fue planteada por el presidente de Francia, Emmanuel Macron, esta semana. Mientras la mayoría de los aliados de la OTAN hablan de ayudar a Ucrania a defenderse, dijo, “la derrota de Rusia es indispensable para la seguridad y la estabilidad de Europa”. Pero la posibilidad de enviar soldados a Ucrania fue descartada de inmediato por Estados Unidos, Alemania y otros países (Macron le hizo el juego a Putin, según algunos analistas, al exponer las divisiones entre los aliados).

Sin embargo, Putin puede haber intuido que era un momento especialmente propicio para sondear cuán profundos eran los temores de Occidente. La reciente declaración del expresidente Donald Trump de que Rusia podía hacer “lo que le diera la gana” a un país de la OTAN que no contribuyera con los recursos necesarios para la defensa colectiva de la alianza, y de que él no respondería, se hizo sentir profundamente en toda Europa. También lo ha hecho la negativa del Congreso, hasta ahora, para proporcionar más armas a Ucrania.

Es posible que el dirigente ruso también estuviera respondiendo a las especulaciones de que Estados Unidos, preocupado porque Ucrania parece encaminada a la derrota, podría proporcionar misiles de mayor alcance a Kiev o confiscar los 300.000 millones de dólares de activos rusos congelados desde hace tiempo que ahora se encuentran en bancos occidentales y entregárselos al presidente de Ucrania, Volodímir Zelenski, para que compre más armas.

Cualquiera que haya sido el detonante, el mensaje de Putin fue claro: considera la victoria en Ucrania como una lucha existencial, fundamental para su gran plan de restaurar la gloria de los días en que Pedro el Grande gobernó en el apogeo del Imperio ruso. Y cuando una lucha se considera una guerra de supervivencia y no una guerra de elección, el salto a discutir el uso de armas nucleares es pequeño.

Su apuesta es que Estados Unidos se dirige en la otra dirección, volviéndose más aislacionista, más reacio a enfrentarse a las amenazas de Rusia y, desde luego, sin mostrar interés frente a las amenazas nucleares rusas como hicieron los presidentes John F. Kennedy en 1962 o Ronald Reagan en los últimos días de la Unión Soviética.

El hecho de que los actuales dirigentes republicanos, que habían suministrado armas a Ucrania con entusiasmo durante el primer año y medio de guerra, hayan atendido ahora los llamados de Trump para cortar ese flujo puede ser la mejor noticia que Putin ha recibido en dos años.

“Cada vez que los rusos recurren a la beligerancia nuclear, es señal de que reconocen que aún no tienen la capacidad militar convencional que creían tener”, declaró el jueves en una entrevista Ernest J. Moniz, ex secretario de Energía del gobierno de Obama y actual director ejecutivo de la Iniciativa contra la Amenaza Nuclear, una organización que trabaja para reducir las amenazas nucleares y biológicas.

“Pero eso significa que su postura nuclear es algo en lo que confían cada vez más”, dijo. Y “eso amplifica el riesgo”.

David E. Sanger cubre el gobierno de Biden y la seguridad nacional. Ha sido periodista del Times durante más de cuatro décadas y ha escrito varios libros sobre los desafíos a la seguridad nacional estadounidense. Más de David E. Sanger