Climate change, runaway development worsen Houston floods

By FRANK BAJAK and SETH BORENSTEIN

HOUSTON (AP) — With clay soil and tabletop-flat terrain, Houston has endured flooding for generations. Its 1,700 miles of man-made channels struggle to dispatch storm runoff to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the nation’s fourth-largest city is being overwhelmed with more frequent and more destructive floods. The latest calamity occurred April 18, killing eight people and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. The worsening floods aren’t simple acts of nature or just costly local concerns. Federal taxpayers get soaked too.

Extreme downpours have doubled in frequency over the past three decades, climatologists say, in part because of global warming. The other main culprit is unrestrained development in the only major U.S. city without zoning rules. That combination means more pavement and deeper floodwaters. Critics blame cozy relations between developers and local leaders for inadequate flood-protection measures.

An Associated Press analysis of government data found that if Harris County, which includes Houston, were a state it would rank in the top five or six in every category of repeat federal flood losses — defined as any property with two or more losses in a 10-year period amounting to at least $1,000 each.

Since 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid more than $3 billion in today’s dollars for flood losses in metropolitan Houston.

While repeat federal flood relief payouts average about $3,000 per square mile nationally, they are nearly half a million dollars per square mile in metro Houston. Six of Texas’ eight federally declared disasters since December 2013 included floods.

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Reward for ‘hero’ cop in Peru’s drug war: Neglect

By FRANK BAJAK

TALAVERA, Peru (AP) — Johnny Vega rarely carried his 9-mm pistol when he wasn’t on duty. He wishes he had that day.

The narcotics cop was chatting with a friend on a park bench, the Andean sun burning the dawn’s chill off this highlands town nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.

 On that morning of Aug. 20, 2014, Vega had dropped his son Juan at nursery school and then walked to Talavera’s main square. He noticed a tall young man strolling by and wondered if he knew him.

Vega was a rarity in this nation where cops, courts and congress are badly compromised by corruption . An earnest provincial narcotics officer, he had made a career of actually doing what he was trained for: locking up criminals.

Defying death threats from narcos, he led a hand-picked team of trusted officers who consistently scored trafficker arrests and record drug seizures even as Peru became the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer. In a country where police are as likely to take bribes as to make arrests, Vega was a hero. Three times, he had been named police officer of the year.

In this March 30, 2015 photo, narcotics police Sgt. Johnny Vega, poses for a portrait in Lima, Peru. Vega, 46, was shot during an attempt on his life in 2014 in what police called payback for taking down the region's biggest drug gang. He remains disabled and is struggling to mend. If he doesn't by August, he will be forced to retire. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

 Vega was deep in conversation when the young man walked by again, stopped and leveled a silencer-equipped Bersa at the cop’s head.

“What are you doing, dammit!” Vega shouted, jumping to his feet. The bullet ripped into him just below his solar plexus. Without hesitating, he dashed for a nearby taxi stand, leaning forward and zig-zagging to make himself a smaller target.

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South America hacker team targets dissidents, journalists

By FRANK BAJAK

LIMA, Peru (AP) — A shadowy cyber-espionage group that sent malware to the prosecutor whose mysterious death transfixed Argentina early this year has been hitting targets in left-leaning nations across South America, the Internet watchdog group Citizen Lab reported Wednesday.

The breadth and brazenness of the hackers’ activity bear the hallmarks of state sponsorship. So do its targets.

The group has been attacking opposition figures and independent journalists in Ecuador with spyware. It also ran dummy websites. The most elaborate, geared toward Venezuela, is a constantly updated news site featuring dubiously sourced “scoops” on purported corruption among the ruling socialists. In Ecuador, a similarly faux site seemed tailored to attract disgruntled police officers.

The researchers launched the three-month probe after determining that spyware found on the smartphone of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was written to send pilfered data to the same command-and-control structure as malware sent to targets infected in Ecuador. They said the hackers had a “keen and systematic interest in the political opposition and the independent press” in the three nations, all run by allied left-wing governments. That suggests it may have operated on behalf of one or more of those governments, the 60-page report said.

In September, the hackers threatened a Citizen Lab researcher as he poked around in a U.S.-based machine the group had infected.

“We’re going to analyze your brain with a bullet — and your family’s, too,” read a message that popped up on his computer screen. “You like playing the spy and going where you shouldn’t, well you should know that it has a cost — your life!”

That’s rare behavior among professional hackers, perhaps indicating little fear of criminal prosecution, said Morgan Marquis-Boire, one of the researchers.

In November, the group attempted to infect the computer of an Associated Press reporter, who was also investigating it, with a phishing attack aimed at stealing his Google password.

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Peru announces probe after AP drug plane report

MAZAMARI, Peru — Peru’s defense minister has announced an investigation into possible drug-related military corruption following an Associated Press report that Peru’s armed forces were turning a blind eye to daily drug flights to Bolivia.

The official, Jakke Valakivi, said Wednesday evening that the Defense Ministry and the joint armed forces command would jointly conduct the probe.

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Peru’s armed forces have failed to effectively impede the ferrying of more than a ton of cocaine a day to Bolivia from the world’s No. 1 coca-producing valley, traffic that has picked up in recent years, according to prosecutors, drug police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents.

In part because of that nearly unhindered air bridge from the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, Peru surpassed Colombia in 2012 as the world’s top cocaine exporter.

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Narco planes fly past Peru military unhindered

By Frank Bajak

MAZAMARI, Peru — It happens about four times a day, right under the nose of Peru’s military: A small single-engine plane drops onto a dirt airstrip in the world’s No. 1 coca-growing valley, delivers a bundle of cash, picks up more than 300 kilos of cocaine and flies to Bolivia.

Roughly half of Peru’s cocaine exports have been ferried eastward on this “air bridge,” police say, since the rugged Andean nation became the world’s leading producer of the drug in 2012.

Peru’s government has barely impeded the airborne drug flow. Prosecutors, narcotics police, former military officers and current and former U.S. drug agents say that while corruption is rife in Peru, the narco-flight plague is the military’s failure because it controls the remote jungle region known as the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley.

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Wilson Barrantes, a retired army general who has long complained about military drug corruption, said giving the armed services control over the valley is “like putting four street dogs to guard a plate of beefsteak.”

An Associated Press investigation found that “narco planes” have been loaded with partially refined cocaine at landing strips just minutes by air from military bases in the remote, nearly road-less valley where about two-thirds of Peru’s cocaine originates.

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Outsized risks face Peru’s expendable cocaine couriers

Cocaine backpacker arrest video

By FRANK BAJAK and FRANKLIN BRICENO

HUANTA, Peru (AP) — He slides two T-shirts, shorts, canned tuna, toasted corn and boiled potatoes into the rucksack atop 11 pounds of semi-refined cocaine. In a side pocket, a .38-caliber Chinese pistol.

Mardonio Borda is a 19-year-old native Quechua with broken Spanish and a sixth-grade education. But he has at least $125,000 worth of drugs on his back that he will carry out of Peru’s main coca-growing valley. He is among untold hundreds of cocaine backpackers who make the difficult and dangerous trek up Andean mountain paths first carved by their pre-Incan ancestors.

In this country that overtook Colombia in 2012 as the world’s No. 1 cocaine-producing nation, Borda regularly hikes within a few hours of the Machu Picchu tourist mecca, bound for Cuzco with drugs. Sixty percent of Peru’s cocaine comes from the remote Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro river valley, and the backpackers trek for three to five days to deliver cocaine to traffickers who move the drugs on for export. But it is not the lung-searing ascents to high altitudes that worry the young men. It is the armed gangs, crooked police, and rival backpacker groups who regularly rob cocaine’s beasts of burden on journeys that can extend 100 miles (160 kilometers) or more.

“It’s win or lose,” said Borda, “like casino gambling.”

Hauling cocaine out of the valley is about the only way to earn decent cash in this economically depressed region where a farmhand earns less than $10 a day. Beyond extinguishing young lives, the practice has packed Peru’s highland prisons with backpackers while their bosses evade incarceration.

It is a big business. Roughly one third of the 305 metric tons of cocaine that the U.S. government estimates Peru produces each year travels by foot.

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Top Peruvian Foe of Illegal Logging Slain

By FRANK BAJAK

EdwinChotaLIMA, Peru (AP) _ An outspoken Peruvian opponent of illegal logging and three other native Ashaninka community leaders were shot and killed in the remote region bordering Brazil where they live, villagers and authorities said Monday.

The activist, Edwin Chota, had received frequent death threats from illegal loggers, who he had tried for years to expel from the lands for which his community was seeking title.

Illegal loggers were suspected in the killings, said Ashaninka regional leader Reyder Sebastian. Pervasive corruption lets the loggers operate with impunity, stripping the Amazon region’s river basins of prized hardwoods, especially mahogany and tropical cedar.

“He threatened to upset the status quo,” said David Salisbury, a professor at the University of Richmond who was advising Chota on the title quest and had known him for a decade. “The illegal loggers are on record for wanting Edwin dead.”

Chota and the others were apparently killed on Sept. 1, the day they left Saweto, the village he led on the Upper Tamaya river, to hike to a sister Brazilian Ashaninka community, said the village schoolteacher, Maria Elena Paredes.

When the men did not show at the Brazilian village, worried comrades who had traveled ahead of them returned and found the bodies — apparently killed by shotgun blasts — near some shacks on the Putaya river, Paredes said.

She said by phone that vultures had begun to feed on the bodies, which were found a six-hour walk from the 45-inhabitant village.

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Top South America hackers rattle Peru’s Cabinet

By FRANK BAJAK
By FRANK BAJAK

By FRANK BAJAK

LIMA, Peru (AP) — The Peruvian hackers have broken into military, police, and other sensitive government networks in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, defacing websites and extracting sensitive data to strut their programming prowess and make political points.LulzSecPeru

Now the team calling itself LulzSecPeru has created a national political uproar.

Emails the hackers stole from the Peruvian Council of Ministers’ network and dumped online last month fueled accusations that top Cabinet ministers have acted more like industry lobbyists than public servants. That helped precipitate a no-confidence vote last week that the Cabinet barely survived.

The hackers, who describe themselves as two young men, are a homegrown version of the U.S. and U.K-based LulzSec “black hat” hacker collective that has attacked the Church of Scientology and agitated on behalf of the WikiLeaks online secret-spillers and Occupy Wall Street.

A lot of “hacktivism” out of the United States and western Europe has waned or been driven underground by police pressure and arrests, said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, who has studied the phenomenon.

“The hackers in Latin America, however, never really stopped,” Coleman said.

LulzSecPeru is widely considered the region’s most accomplished hacktivist team, said Camilo Galdos, a Peruvian digital security expert. Until now, their signature exploit was hijacking the Twitter accounts of Venezuela’s president and ruling socialist party during elections last year.

Nothing they’d done, however, had the impact of the online dump of an estimated 3,500 emails from the account of then-Prime Minister Rene Cornejo, dating from February to July. “Happy Hunting!” the hackers wrote when they linked to the upload destination.

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Peru state a violent ‘mini-dictatorship’

By FRANK BAJAK

CHIMBOTE, Peru (AP) — One by one, the senior officials from the capital took the microphone and apologized to an auditorium packed with angry people who had long been living in fear. The officials admitted they had failed to prevent a political murder foretold by its victim. Their integrity was in doubt.

Peru’s chief prosecutor, comptroller and the head of Congress’ investigations committee, which was now holding a public hearing, had all ignored evidence that Ezequiel Nolasco, now murdered, had thrust in their faces for months.

In this Nov. 26, 2013 photo, Ancash Gov. Cesar Alvarez talks on his cell phone. Alvarez ran a “mini-dictatorship” in a state plagued by political murder where the courts and prosecutor’s office were "taken over by criminals," Peru’s anti-corruption prosecutor alleges. A judge has barred him from leaving the country while more than 100 shelved corruption cases are revived. (AP Photo/Edwin Julca)

In this Nov. 26, 2013 photo, Ancash Gov. Cesar Alvarez talks on his cell phone. Alvarez ran a “mini-dictatorship” in a state plagued by political murder where the courts and prosecutor’s office were “taken over by criminals,” Peru’s anti-corruption prosecutor alleges. A judge has barred him from leaving the country while more than 100 shelved corruption cases are revived. (AP Photo/Edwin Julca)

Having survived a 2010 assassination attempt after he denounced government corruption, Nolasco had repeatedly warned that his home state, Ancash, was run by a criminal syndicate that plundered the treasury, killed people it couldn’t buy or intimidate, wiretapped foes and used police as spies and journalists as character assassins.

A gunman finished the job on March 14, pumping five bullets into the former construction union leader when he stopped for a beer heading home from Lima to this coastal city that is home to nearly half of Ancash’s 1.1 million people.

Ancash was living under the ironclad rule of a governor locals compared to U.S. mob legend Al Capone, his political machine allegedly greased by tens of millions in annual mining revenues that had made Ancash Peru’s richest state.

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Peru’s carte blanche for big mining leaves highlanders behind, battling contamination

By FRANK BAJAK

SAN ANTONIO DE JUPROG, Peru  (AP) epifania zorilla juprog– The Marzano-Velasquez clan lived a simple, pastoral life on a mountain that turned out to hold the world’s largest known copper-and-zinc deposit.

They didn’t expect riches when they and dozens of other Quechua-speaking families sold out to an international mining consortium. But they did believe the open-pit Antamina mine would lift their long-neglected highlands district from poverty, provide steady jobs, decent health care and schools.

Maria Magdalena Velasquez, who could not read or write, signed away her family’s land with a thumbprint in 1999. She and her kin looked on as hired hands dismantled their homes on windswept moorlands before trucking the families down to the adjacent valley — their sheep herds, fields of potatoes, oats and alfalfa abandoned.

“It was a disaster to see,” said Luis Marzano, her eldest son, who was 27 years old at the time. “They burned the roofs and knocked down the walls.”

Twenty years ago, this rugged, mineral-rich Andean nation bent over backward to attract multinational mining companies, and became Latin America’s undisputed economic growth leader.

But the boom has been more of a curse for thousands of peasant families like the Marzanos, who saw the $49,000 they got for their land evaporate as they struggled to adjust to an uprooted life

While colossal copper, gold, lead, tin and silver pits helped Peru’s economy more than double in size, the people in the rural highlands that they dominate have been largely left behind, battling one environmental disaster after another as expanding mines contaminated their water, air and livestock. Promises of steady work and modern benefits remain mostly unfulfilled.

Instead, across Peru’s mine-pocked highlands, lax government regulation and frustration has led to a growing fury of protests. In 2012, security forces shot and killed eight people protesting against two of the country’s biggest mining projects. In April, Peru counted 81 active environmental disputes between mines and neighbouring communities, according to the national ombudsman’s office.

Read entire story at Vancouver Sun