Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

Soldiers install barbed wire fences on the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo on Sunday, November 18, as part of a military deployment ordered by President Donald Trump to harden the US-Mexico border. (AFP)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Migrant caravan blockade: US Army unfurls fencing along border with Mexico

  • Some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops
  • ‘It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps’

LAREDO, United State: They started work in the cool of the morning and moved quickly, uncoiling reel after reel of vicious-looking fencing and tying it with barbed wire to green poles hammered into the ground.
Over the course of three days, a gleaming, shoulders-high barrier of concertina-wire emerged like a silver snake along a lush riverbank, stretching as far as the eye could see.
This was the work of 100 or so American troops from the 19th Engineer Battalion, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Rather than finding themselves in a far-off warzone, the soldiers are in Laredo, a busy border town overlooking a stretch of the Rio Grande river in southwest Texas, carrying out controversial orders from President Donald Trump.
He has sent about 5,800 troops to the border to forestall the arrival of large groups of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico and toward the US, in a move critics decry as a costly political stunt to galvanize supporters ahead of midterm elections earlier this month.
Before the election Trump called the matter a “national emergency” and warned that so-called migrant caravans were an “invasion” with “some very bad thugs and gang members.”
So far at least, the most visible aspect of Trump’s deployment is the fence, a visible deterrent and physical obstacle to migrants, designed to corral would-be asylum seekers toward organized points of entry into the US.
Over the weekend, Lt. Alan Koepnick’s platoon could be seen stringing concertina wire, which is built to snag clothing, along one edge of a quiet riverside park near downtown Laredo.
As families walked dogs, grilled sausages and relaxed, the soldiers mounted the wire, occasionally ripping their camouflaged uniforms on its metal barbs.
Koepnick said some Laredo residents had voiced disquiet about the fencing and the presence of US troops.
“But there’s also been a lot of support, people coming in, vets shaking our hands, bringing us cakes, water, things like that,” Koepnick said.
About 100 yards (meters) behind him, a group of people on the Mexican side of the river could be seen standing on the bank.
“You’ll see people across the river cursing at us in Spanish, throwing bottles at us. But on this side it’s more positive,” Koepnick said.
He and his soldiers were unarmed, but a group of armed military police officers stood by to provide “force protection.”
Under US law, the military is not allowed to conduct domestic law enforcement in most cases, so soldiers here will not have any direct interactions with migrants.
Trump created a media whirlwind by sounding the alarm about the migrant caravans before the November 6 elections. He has mainly stopped raising it since, though last week he praised the military’s work.
“They built great fencing, they built a very powerful fence,” said Trump, who wants to build a hardened wall along the entire 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border.
Laura Pole, a British tourist visiting Laredo for the third time, was less enthusiastic.
“It reminds me of Hitler and the concentration camps,” she said, but added: “I really don’t know what’s the best thing to do.”
The border mission has put the supposedly non-political military in an uncomfortable spotlight.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has hit back at critics who say the Pentagon should not be doing Trump’s political bidding, saying “we don’t do stunts.”
He visited troops on the border last week and reiterated that their job in the short term was to assist under-resourced Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and put up physical obstacles.
But “longer term, it’s somewhat to be determined,” he said.
After some rank-and-file troops grumbled about the purpose of the mission to US media last week, they are now under strict instructions not to voice personal opinions to the press.
Several soldiers AFP spoke to said their time on the border provided valuable real-world training, albeit without the risks of combat.
“We have a very large group of brand-new soldiers and it’s really good for them,” Corporal Samuel Fletcher said, citing a chance for the green troops “to do real work and put their skills to use.”
In Laredo, large groups of migrants from the caravans in Mexico had not arrived.
Instead they were mainly headed to Tijuana, about 1,300 miles away in San Diego, where authorities say more than 3,000 have already arrived.
Still, a CBP agent, who was not authorized to give his name, said he was glad of the military assistance as each day, “hundreds” of migrants attempt to cross the approximately 30-mile stretch of border he patrols.
The military deployment is set to wrap up December 15 and it is not clear what will become of the wire fencing.
Already, the winds whistling down the Rio Grande valley are strewing trash, clothing and plastic bags along the jagged wire.
“Nobody seems to know when it’s coming down. It’s not really our decision,” said Koepnick.
“If we are told to take it down, we will take it down with a smile on our faces, like good soldiers.”


UN health chief orders probe into misconduct

Updated 30 min 49 sec ago
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UN health chief orders probe into misconduct

  • WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told staffers he had instructed the head of WHO’s office of internal oversight to look into the charges raised by the emails
  • Critics, however, doubt that WHO can effectively investigate itself

LONDON: The head of the World Health Organization has ordered an internal investigation into allegations the UN health agency is rife with racism, sexism and corruption, after a series of anonymous emails with the explosive charges were sent to top managers last year.
Three emails addressed to WHO directors — and obtained exclusively by the Associated Press — complained about “systematic racial discrimination” against African staffers and alleged other instances of wrongdoing, including claims that some of the money intended to fight Ebola in Congo was misspent.
Last month, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told staffers he had instructed the head of WHO’s office of internal oversight to look into the charges raised by the emails. He confirmed that directive to the AP on Thursday.
Critics, however, doubt that WHO can effectively investigate itself and have called for the probe to be made public.
The first email, which was sent last April, claimed there was “systematic racial discrimination against Africans at WHO” and that African staffers were being “abused, sworn at (and) shown contempt to” by their Geneva-based colleagues.
Two further emails addressed to WHO directors complained that senior officials were “attempting to stifle” investigations into such problems and also alleged other instances of wrongdoing, including allegedly misspent Ebola funds.
The last email, sent in December, labeled the behavior of a senior doctor helping to lead the response against Ebola as “unacceptable, unprofessional and racist,” citing a November incident at a meeting where the doctor reportedly “humiliated, disgraced and belittled” a subordinate from the Middle East.
Tedros — a former health minister of Ethiopia and WHO’s first African director-general — said investigators looking into the charges “have all my support” and that he would provide more resources if necessary.
“To those that are giving us feedback, thank you,” he told a meeting of WHO’s country representatives in Nairobi last month. “We will do everything to correct (it) if there are problems.”
But Tedros refuted claims that WHO’s hiring policies are skewed, arguing that his top management team was more geographically diverse and gender-balanced than any other UN organization after adopting measures to be more inclusive.
“There is change already happening,” he said during the December staff meeting, according to an audio recording provided to the AP.
WHO’s in-house investigation into misconduct comes after other UN agencies have been rocked by harassment complaints.
At UNAIDS, chief Michel Sidibe agreed to step down after an independent report concluded in December that his “defective leadership” had created a toxic working environment, with staffers asserting there was rampant sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power.
The author of the anonymous WHO emails also charged there were “crooked recruitment and selection” processes that were “tantamount to fraud, corruption and abuse of authority.”
In the latest anonymous message, the author singled out the supposedly flawed hiring process of a senior director in WHO’s emergencies department, suggesting that might have led to mistakes being made by incompetent officials involved in efforts to stop Ebola in Congo.
Some staffers feared that funds donated to stem the spread of the deadly virus “have not been used judiciously,” the email said, warning such blunders could undermine WHO’s credibility.
“A plane was hired to transport three vehicles from the warehouse in Dubai at the cost of $1 million. Why would WHO ship vehicles from Dubai? We would appreciate the rationale when jeeps in DRC (Congo) can be purchased at $80,000 per vehicle,” the email said, claiming that “corruption stories about logisticians and procurement in WHO’s (Geneva emergencies department) are legendary.”
David Webb, director of WHO’s office of internal oversight, told staffers that Tedros had asked him “to conduct an appropriate investigation” into the issues raised in the emails. Webb said he and his team would scrutinize those accusations, in addition to the approximately 150 other claims that have been reported to his office this year.
“My team is trying their best to go to DRC (Congo), to go to where the allegations are with an effort to find the facts,” he said.
The revelations about the alleged wrongdoing were likely to prompt discussions next week at WHO’s executive board meeting at its Geneva headquarters.
Webb said the investigation would be conducted independently even though it would be done by WHO staffers.
Critics outside the organization felt that was not enough.
“That’s the same office that botched the initial investigation at UNAIDS,” said Edward Flaherty, a lawyer who represents Martina Brostrom, the UNAIDS whistleblower whose sexual harassment allegations ultimately triggered Sidibe’s resignation. “Having an internal investigation at WHO is as good as doing nothing.”
Oyewale Tomori, a Nigerian virologist who previously worked at WHO and now serves on several of its advisory groups, wasn’t surprised by the emails’ claims of racism, sexism and corruption.
“After what I’ve seen at WHO, I have no doubt that everything in those emails is true,” he said, although he had no evidence to prove the specific claims.
Tomori said he and his African colleagues had often been subjected to “slights that turned to slurs, embarrassing humiliations and rudeness that escalated to abuse” from fellow WHO staffers.
He predicted that without an independent investigation, more complaints would continue to spill out.
“People have known about these problems for a long time,” he said. “But nobody wants to talk because they’re afraid.”