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‘There’s no employment’: Central Americans’ economic pain deepens

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After losing her job in Honduras, Gabriela Alvarado has spent the last six weeks crisscrossing towards the United States border, part of a small but growing movement of Central Americans heading north after the coronavirus ravaged the already poor region.

Alvarado and her husband, Jose, decided their only option was to leave their two children with relatives and try to reach the US, after a fruitless hunt for work at home.

“I went searching but there’s nothing, everything is shut down,” the 24-year-old former factory worker said on Tuesday from the northern Mexican border state of Sonora. “There’s no employment.”

Earlier this year, US-bound migration plummeted as Central American and Caribbean countries imposed strict restrictions on movement in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic, and the US implemented a new programme of rapidly expelling people caught crossing the border without authorisation.

The historic lockdowns threw the region’s well-trodden migration routes into such chaos that some “coyotes” – human smugglers – reversed course and began moving stranded Central Americans south to their home countries.

Now, only weeks before the US presidential election, the region’s complex migration machinery is reactivating, smugglers, experts and migrants say, as the collapse of Central America’s economies pushes families deeper into poverty, creating what could become a lightning rod political issue for the next US administration.

US Border Patrol conducted nearly 55,000 expulsions or apprehensions of migrants at the southwest border in September – a 238 percent increase from April, according to new data from US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Around two-thirds were Mexican nationals, a US Department of Homeland Security spokesman told Reuters, while Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were the next three largest countries of origin.

A group of Honduran migrants who are trying to reach the United States look at a Central America and Mexico map outside a migrant shelter as they wait to move towards the Guatemala and Mexico border, in Tecun Uman, Guatemala [File: Jose Torres/Reuters]

Early data for October shows the upward trend continuing, one US source with knowledge of the numbers said.

The data points to a rebound in traffic, although the CBP said more than a third of the people expelled under the new US programme had been caught more than once.

CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan on Wednesday said worsening economic conditions in the Western Hemisphere due to COVID-19 were expected to keep pushing migration higher.

‘Opening back up’

Back in February, a human smuggler known as Chicote, who oversees a network of coyotes, took his last trip to the US border, nervously eyeing migrants who coughed or sneezed while packed into the crowded safe houses the network uses to move people while evading authorities.

By March, as the coronavirus swept across the region, members of the Gulf Cartel in northeastern Mexico told him to suspend operations. Chicote said he works with the drug traffickers to help migrants cross the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas into Texas.

Then, in July, a Gulf Cartel operative looking for ways to boost the gang’s income asked Chicote to restart.

At first, still concerned about the pandemic, Chicote declined. But now, after a seven-month hiatus, he says he’s back in business, with a twist. He now insists both smugglers and migrants use masks and plenty of antibacterial gel.

“Everything is opening back up,” he said.

Guatemalan soldiers form a line to prevent a group of Honduran migrants who are trying to reach the United States from moving towards the Guatemala and Mexico border in Tecun Uman, Guatemala [File: Jose Torres/File Photo]

“People don’t have money and they have debt – and the easiest way for them to make money is to get to the United States,” Chicote said, explaining that his clients’ family members in the US foot the trip’s $12,000-a-head price tag.

Chicote asked not to be identified by his real name for fear of retribution.

‘The situation grows worse’ 

In Honduras, the central bank expects the economy to contract between seven and eight percent this year due to pandemic-related restrictions, marking the worst financial collapse in the country’s history.

“People migrate because of extreme poverty and violence,” said Ismael Zepeda, a researcher at the Tegucigalpa-based think-tank Foro Social de la Deuda Externa de Honduras (FOSDEH).

“With the economic contraction, poverty is becoming more profound.”

The controls on movement across the region, shrinking resources available to many potential migrants, and lingering fears of the pandemic still raging in Mexico and the US have so far kept a lid on migration.

But in a sign that pressure is building, thousands of adults, children, and elderly people joined a hastily organised and largely unsuccessful caravan that departed from Honduras two weeks ago, many grabbing their bags and leaving just days after learning on social media of the caravan’s planned departure.

“Every day the situation grows worse here,” said 21-year-old Enoc de Jesus Ramirez, who said he joined the caravan after he lost his job at a gas station and his girlfriend was laid off from the factory where she worked.

Plastic containers are filled with potable water in a pumping plant in the neighbourhood of Las Margaritas, after a failure in the water supply network that has affected the residents in Soyapango, El Salvador [File: Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

After the group initially overwhelmed Guatemalan border security, the Guatemalan government gave special powers to the army to round up and deport more than 3,000 of the migrants back to Honduras, including Ramirez.

While such large groups garner attention in Washington, the majority of Central Americans who migrate without authorisation do so either alone or through smuggling networks, largely out of sight.

In Guatemala, a low-level smuggler named Pablo, who asked not to use his full name, told Reuters that when smuggling ground to a halt in the spring he rode out his unemployment at a barber shop, charging $1.30 per cut.

But in recent weeks he has resumed transporting people across the border into Mexico, he said. From there, other members of the smuggling network will help migrants continue their journey northwest, often working with the Sinaloa Cartel to cross the Sonoran Desert.

“We use scouts who search out [US] Border Patrol,” he explained. “For every 10 people, usually six get through [the border].”

Others, like Alvarado and her husband, make the dangerous trek up through Sonora alone, without the expensive services of smugglers. Some will then contract a smuggler to help them with the tricky final leg of the journey.

Victor Clark, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana and an expert in migration, said the pandemic has forced some smugglers to drop the price of crossing the desert into the US to as low as $5,000, from $8,000.

“Central Americans are worn out [economically], and their families in the United States are also absorbing the costs of the pandemic,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the southeastern Mexican state of Veracruz, a few dozen members of the caravan who were able to evade the Guatemalan soldiers and Mexican border officials waited on Tuesday afternoon by the train tracks, aiming to catch a ride further into Mexico.

“The people are going hungry in Honduras,” said Marcos, who didn’t give his last name. “So I left to see if I can survive in another country.”

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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Classic toy tie-up: Etch A Sketch maker to acquire Rubik’s Cube

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Spin Master Corp., the company behind the Etch A Sketch and Paw Patrol brands, has agreed to acquire Rubik’s Brand Ltd. for about $50 million, tying together two of the world’s most iconic toy brands.

The merger comes at a boom time for classic toymakers, as parents turn to familiar products to entertain kids stuck in lockdown. Like sales of Uno, Monopoly and Barbie dolls, Rubik’s Cube purchases have spiked during the pandemic, according to the puzzle maker’s chief executive officer, Christoph Bettin. He expects sales to jump 15% to 20% in 2020, compared with a normal year, when people purchase between 5 million and 10 million cubes.

By acquiring Rubik’s, Toronto-based Spin Master can better compete with its larger rivals, Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc. All three companies have pivoted to become less reliant on actual product sales, diversifying into television shows, films and broader entertainment properties based on their toys. Spin Master CEO Anton Rabie said he wouldn’t rule out films or TV shows based on Rubik’s Cubes, but he was focused for now on creating more cube-solving competitions and crossmarketing it with the company’s other products, like the Perplexus.

“Whoever you are, it really has a broad appeal from a consumer standpoint,” Rabie said in an interview. “It’s actually going to become the crown jewel; it will be the most important part of our portfolio worldwide.”

Hungarian inventor Erno Rubik created the Rubik’s Cube in 1974, a solid block featuring squares with colored stickers that users could twist and turn without it falling apart. It gained popularity in the 1980s and has remained one of the best-selling toys of all time, spawning spinoff versions, international competitions of puzzle solvers, books and documentaries.

The toy has been particularly well-suited to pandemic conditions. During lockdowns, parents have sought to give kids puzzles that boost problem-solving skills useful in math and science careers. Normally, toys tied to major film franchises are among the most popular products headed into the holidays, but studios have delayed the release of major new movies because of coronavirus. So classic products are experiencing a mini-renaissance.

“The whole pandemic has really increased games and puzzles,” Rabie said. “But whether the pandemic existed or didn’t exist, we’d still buy Rubik’s. It’s had such steady sales for decades.”

Rubik’s CEO Bettin said it was the right time to sell the company, with the founding families behind it ready to move on. London-based Rubik’s Brand was formed out of a partnership between Erno Rubik and the late entrepreneur Tom Kremer, while private equity firm Bancroft Investment holds a minority stake in the company.

Early on, Bettin felt Spin Master was the right home for the puzzle toy, he said. Spin Master, which was started by a group of three friends in 1994, has expanded through the purchase of well-known brands, including Erector sets and Etch A Sketch. Rabie says he works to honor the “legacy” of those products, which Bettin cited as a key reason to sell the brand to Spin Master over larger companies that were interested.

“It was important for us to not be lost in the crowd, and to be sufficiently important and cared for,” Bettin said. “And there’s a balance between being with someone large enough to invest, and agile enough to ensure you are key part of their plans.”

Spin Master won’t own Rubik’s Cubes in time for the holiday season – the transaction is expected to close on Jan. 4. At that time, the company will move Rubik’s operations from a small office in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood to Spin Master’s new games operations center in Long Island.

Some of Rubik’s Brand’s 10 employees will be part of the transition, but they won’t stay permanently, Bettin said.

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