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Venezuelan gang’s arrival shakes Latin America’s safest nation

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Venezuelan gang’s arrival shakes Latin America’s safest nation

The grand Beaux-Arts Portal Fernández Concha building was once a fashionable hotel in downtown Santiago. Now, the 19th-century property in Chile’s capital has become the face of the country’s gang-driven crime wave.

As Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua gang made its first push into Chile — one of Latin America’s safest and most developed economies — over the past five years, men alleged to be members of the gang turned rented rooms in the downtown building into the base for a sex trafficking ring.

Police said they dismantled the operation in 2023, but on a recent afternoon, young women still hovered in the square outside, approaching passing men.

“At the peak, we had 1,500 people entering every day,” said a security guard at the building. “I was seeing knife fights outside most weeks. I had never seen anything like it.”

The historic Portal Fernández Concha building has become a hub for the sex trade © Vanessa Volk/Alamy

Experts say Chile has fallen victim to a regional trend, in which organised crime groups have embraced business models less tied to their home territories in the wake of the pandemic. Cells in different countries exercise autonomy while communicating with their home base and taking on contract-based work, enabling the gangs to expand into new regions.

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The Tren de Aragua, which was formed in a Venezuelan prison in 2014, has been one of the most successful. It has taken advantage of an exodus of some 7.7mn refugees from its home country’s economic collapse, which expanded the pool of poor, jobless and marginalised people vulnerable to exploitation across the region.

While Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have all reported its presence, Chile’s lack of criminal competition and relative wealth have made it an especially desirable target.

“The Tren de Aragua and other foreign groups saw a big business opportunity in the flow of vulnerable people towards the country,” Ignacio Castillo, director of organised crime at Chile’s public prosecutor’s office, told the Financial Times.

“They have fundamentally changed the nature of crime in Chile.”

Chile’s murder rate has nearly doubled since 2019 to 4.5 per 100,000 people in 2023, very slightly down from 2022. Last year it lost its spot as the country with the region’s lowest murder rate to El Salvador, where a crackdown on homegrown gangs dramatically cut violence, according to a ranking by watchdog group Insight Crime.

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Chilean Investigative Police officers take part in an operation against Los Trinitarios criminal gang in an area known as Nuevo Amanecer or New Dawn, in the Cerrillos commune of Santiago
The police launch a raid against an international criminal gang in the capital Santiago © Esteban Felix/AP
Members of the Chilean police work at the site where three policemen were murdered, in a Mapuche area in Cañete, Biobio region
Chilean society was stunned when three policemen were killed in April © Guillermo Salgado/AFP/Getty Images

Kidnappings, extortion and sex trafficking have also increased in Chile, Castillo said.

Fears over the gangs have transformed the country’s politics. Seven in 10 Chileans rank crime as their top concern, according to a March Ipsos poll. That has pulled attention away from economic inequalities that sparked mass protests in 2019, and helped to sap the popularity of leftist president Gabriel Boric even as his government works to beef up security policy.

“Crime and organised crime are the greatest threats we face today,” Boric said in his State of the Union address in June. “Without security, there is no freedom, and without freedom there is no democracy.”

On a recent afternoon in Maipú, a suburb of Santiago, salsa music played loudly from one of hundreds of homes improvised from MDF and corrugated iron beneath an underpass, which house mainly Haitian and Venezuelan migrants.

In March, a body was found here, stuffed in a suitcase and buried under cement: the corpse of Ronald Ojeda, a former Venezuelan soldier and critic of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime.

Chile’s public prosecutor said the Tren de Aragua had carried out Ojeda’s high-profile assassination. He later added that the killing had been “organised” from Venezuela and was probably politically motivated.

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Maduro’s foreign minister responded by claiming the gang “does not exist”, triggering a diplomatic dispute.

Similar migrant settlements to the one in Maipú have sprung up across Chile as the state failed to absorb millions of new arrivals: the country’s foreign-born population grew from just 1.8 per cent in 2013 to 13 per cent in 2023.

“The state loses control in these areas, and there is a generation of young people who aren’t getting access to education, healthcare and employment,” said Claudio González, director of the University of Chile’s Citizen Security Studies Centre. “It’s a perfect hunting ground for crime groups.”

Fears over organised crime have fomented anti-migrant sentiment among Chileans, polls show, but González said the gangs’ victims themselves were mostly migrants. Cases of violent gang crime targeting Chileans were “very exceptional”, he said.

Relatives and friends of Mayra Castillo, a 13-year-old victim of violence, hug during a protest against criminal violence outside La Moneda government palace in Santiago
Relatives and friends of 13-year-old Mayra Castillo who was killed in gun violence hold a protest outside the president’s office © Esteban Felix/AP

A volunteer working with children on a community art project in the settlement, who declined to give his name because he also works for the government, said authorities had only carried out “isolated interventions” such as pop-up health clinics, and failed to reach undocumented migrants.

“Mostly they treat these communities as a security problem — they don’t prioritise their quality of life, so they won’t solve the problem,” the volunteer said.

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The Tren de Aragua differs sharply from more famous groups like Mexico’s cartels, said Ronna Rísquez, a Venezuelan journalist who published a book on the gang last year.

“Those groups are militarised, and [tend to stay in] fixed territories, while the Tren de Aragua is more fluid, with loosely connected cells,” she said, adding that the group numbered 3,000 people at most.

The gang picks up contract jobs, such as assassinations or transporting drugs for other gangs, González said.

“These are basically predators who look for niches to exploit — they do a lot of harm, but they’re not very sophisticated,” he added.

The arrival of organised crime in Chile, combined with a conflict with separatist indigenous groups in the south, has pushed security to the top of the political agenda ahead of elections next year.

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Chile’s rightwing has seized on Boric’s history as a critic of the country’s police. Its approval ratings have surged to an all-time high of 84 per cent amid the crime wave, according to pollster Cadem.

The situation has become a major headache for Boric, who had hoped to expand Chile’s social safety net and human rights protections, but has instead been forced to focus on security.

Since 2022, the government has created organised crime units within the public prosecutor’s office and police, launched the first national organised crime policy, and passed dozens of crime-related reforms.

Having imprisoned some 100 members of Tren de Aragua, according to authorities, Chile is preparing to launch the region’s first mass trial of the group, with 38 people — 34 Venezuelans and four Chileans — facing charges including murder, kidnapping, and human and drug trafficking.

However, the country is not immune from the institutional corruption that enables organised crime to expand. In April, Chilean media reported two members of Chile’s investigative police had shared information with the Tren de Aragua.

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“Our institutions have reacted very efficiently in an exemplary way,” Castillo said. “But when it comes to this type of crime, you have to be permanently vigilant.”

Additional reporting by Martín Neut and Benjamín Martínez in Santiago

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Netanyahu says end of intense phase of Gaza war very close

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Netanyahu says end of intense phase of Gaza war very close

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Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the end of the “intense phase” of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza was “very close”, and that Israel would soon redeploy forces to its northern border where it has been trading near-daily fire with the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 14, the Israeli prime minister said the end of this phase of fighting in the enclave would not spell the end of the war. He insisted that Israel would continue until it had destroyed Hamas and freed the roughly 120 hostages the militant group still holds.

But he said the switch to lower-intensity conflict there would give Israel “the possibility to shift some of our capabilities” to the north, where cross-border fire between Israeli forces and Iran-backed Hizbollah has escalated sharply in recent weeks.

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“We will do this, first and foremost for defensive purposes. And secondly, to allow our residents to return home,” Netanyahu said, referring to the roughly 60,000 Israelis who have been evacuated from northern Israel since the start of the war.

“If we can do this diplomatically, great. If not, we will do it another way. But we will bring everyone back home.”

Netanyahu said he hoped a full-blown war with Hizbollah, one of the world’s most heavily armed non-state actors, could be averted. But he said Israel would “meet this challenge” of fighting on multiple fronts if needed.

“We can fight on several fronts. We are prepared for this,” he said.

In a wide-ranging interview — his first with Hebrew media for 14 months — Netanyahu also ruled out the prospect of Israel re-establishing settlements in Gaza once the war with Hamas was over, and said that while he was prepared to countenance a brief truce to free hostages, Israel would resume fighting afterwards.

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“I’m willing to do a partial deal that will return to us a portion of the [hostages], but we are committed to continuing the war after a pause in order to fulfil the war’s objectives,” he said.

Despite the intensifying exchanges between Israeli forces and Hizbollah, which have displaced tens of thousands of people and caused casualties in Lebanon and Israel, the two sides have not been drawn into all-out war, with the US leading a diplomatic push to de-escalate the situation.

A drone launched from southern Lebanon lands in the Upper Galilee region of Israel near the Lebanese border on Sunday © AFP via Getty Images

However, Israeli officials have repeatedly said they are prepared to take military action in the absence of a diplomatic resolution to the stand-off, and the Israeli military said last week that senior officers had approved “operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon”.

That warning came after Hizbollah released a nine-minute video of what it said was footage gathered by its surveillance drones of Israeli military and civilian infrastructure in the north of the country, including the port in Haifa.

Diplomats briefed on the US-led talks to de-escalate the tensions between Israel and Hizbollah — which fought a 34-day war in 2006 — say a deal would involve Hizbollah withdrawing its forces from the border, and the resolution of a series of territorial disputes between Israel and Lebanon.

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Netanyahu told Channel 14 that two senior Israeli officials who visited Washington last week had expressed hope that a diplomatic solution could still be reached. But he said Israel would ensure that Hizbollah’s forces did indeed withdraw from the border.

“It won’t be an agreement on paper,” he said. “It will include the physical distancing of Hizbollah from the border, and we will need to enforce it.”

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Woman accused of trying to drown Muslim child in Texas in possible hate crime

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Woman accused of trying to drown Muslim child in Texas in possible hate crime

A woman in Euless, Texas has been charged with attempted capital murder and injury to a child after trying to drown another woman’s three-year-old child at an apartment complex pool, according to reports.

The Texas chapter of a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, CAIR, is calling on state and federal law enforcement authorities to investigate a possible “hate crime” after a woman committed a “bias-motivated murder attempt targeting Muslim children” in Euless, Texas, a June 21 press release stated.

The shocking incident occurred on May 19, when Euless Police officers responded to a call about a disturbance between two women at an apartment complex pool off at around 5.45pm.

The woman, later identified as Elizabeth Wolf, 42, “who was very intoxicated had tried to drown a child and argued with the child’s mother,” witnesses said, according to a press release obtained by CNN.

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Wolf was reportedly pressing the actual mother — who was wearing a hijab and “modest swimwear” — of the children where she was from and if the children in the pool were hers, CAIR said. She also made statements about the mother not being an American in addition to other racist remarks, CNN reported.

Wolf then attempted to grab the woman’s six-year-old son, who pulled away and was scratched in the encounter, the mother told police. That’s when Wolf allegedly grabbed her three-year-old daughter and “forced her underwater,” the outlet reported.

Elizabeth Wolf is charged with attempted capital murder after allegedly trying to drown another woman’s child in a pool
Elizabeth Wolf is charged with attempted capital murder after allegedly trying to drown another woman’s child in a pool (Booking photo)

The little girl “had been yelling for help and was coughing up water” and the mother was eventually able to save her. The mother said a man helped rescue her daughter from Wolf, CAIR wrote.

Authorities placed Wolf under arrest for public intoxication. As she was being escorted away in handcuffs, according to CAIR, Wolf allegedly yelled to a witness who was helping calm down the nervous mother: “Tell her I will kill her, and I will kill her whole family.”

The mother, referred to as “Mrs H,” told CAIR that she and her children are American citizens who are originally from Palestine: “I don’t know where to go to feel safe with my kids. My country is facing a war, and we are facing that hate here.”

She continued: “My daughter is traumatized; whenever I open the apartment door, she runs away and hides, telling me she is afraid the lady will come and immerse her head in the water again.”

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Wolf was later charged with attempted capital murder and injury to a child, NBC DFW reported. The Independent has reached out to the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office for more information.

Shaimaa Zayan, CAIR-Austin Operations Manager, said in a statement that she was “devastated” after hearing that Wolf had been bonded out of jail the day after she was arrested.

“We ask for hate-crime probe, a higher bail bond, and an open conversation with officials to address this alarming increase in Islamophobia, anti-Arab, and anti-Palestinian sentiment,” she said.

A GoFundMe page was created to support the family in the aftermath of the incident.

“This incident impacted the family’s financial stability as the father had to take time away from work to accompany his wife and their four children to appointments and errands. In this heavy time, your support can bring back the hope and the trust to this devastated family,” the fundraiser says. It raised more than $16,000.

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Mining’s push for gender diversity threatened by ‘Andrew Tate’ effect

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Mining’s push for gender diversity threatened by ‘Andrew Tate’ effect

Deshnee Naidoo has spent her career climbing the ladder in mining and feels the mindset change towards women has been “phenomenal”.

But lately, the former head of Vale Base Metals, a nickel and cobalt producer, has noticed a worrying backlash. When candidates from diverse backgrounds secure jobs, some men in the industry have started using the acronym DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — in a derogatory reframing: “Didn’t Earn It”.

“I am hearing more anti-wokeism voices. The jury is still out on this one, whether it’s going to grow,” says 48-year-old Naidoo. “We are always taken back to the way things were rather than where they need to go.”

Naidoo’s experience points to how a transatlantic backlash to diversity initiatives — in which high-profile conservatives have criticised schemes such as bias training, or targeting under-represented groups in recruitment — threatens efforts to narrow inequalities between men and women. In mining, one of the industries furthest behind on gender equality, the risk of reversing hard-won gains is especially stark.

Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person and the owner of an iron ore empire, has introduced pink mining trucks to raise awareness around breast cancer

“Globally we’re seeing this Andrew Tate effect, where men are taking back power,” says Stacy Hope, managing director of advocacy group Women in Mining UK, referring to the self-described “misogynist” social media influencer. “We need to bring men along on the journey to make sure they become allies.”

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A belief that women are being promoted based on gender, rather than ability, has permeated to middle management and boardroom level, according to some female leaders. Naidoo says she has been accused of being “too aggressive and pushy”. “At the executive level, despite the champions we have . . . we just look so far from what we need to look like,” she adds. “The industry still looks like yesteryear at the top.”

Mining has made notable progress on gender equality over the past decade. The number of female directors at the 500 largest mining companies jumped from 4.9 per cent in 2012 to about 18 per cent in 2022, according to White & Case, a law firm.

One of the most high-profile female executives in mining is Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, the owner of an iron ore empire that has introduced pink mining trucks to raise awareness around breast cancer.

Bar chart of Percentage of companies with no women directors showing In 2022 far fewer large mining companies had all-male boards

But the industry is far from parity. Of the top 100 mining groups, 16 still had no women on their boards and one in four of the largest 500 companies had none, the 2022 White & Case figures showed. Diversity at “junior” mining companies, which explore and develop mines and make up the majority of the industry, is still woeful.

The struggle to recruit women comes as the mining sector — crucial to producing the raw materials for the international shift to clean energy — is struggling to attract the most talented staff. Young people, say executives, are increasingly more interested in becoming data engineers than mining ones.

A survey of mining industry leaders by consulting firm McKinsey found that 71 per cent said talent shortages were holding them back from delivering on production targets and strategic objectives. Another survey by PwC found that two-thirds of leaders expected skills shortages to have a big impact on profitability within the next 10 years.

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A particular challenge of the extractive industries is location: mines are often in remote spots around the world. At times, the rural communities they are in have different norms to western companies, putting female workers at risk of gender-based violence or local backlash.

To align with the interests of a new generation, the industry is hoping to position itself increasingly as a technology and data-driven business that does not necessarily involve getting mucky in pits or going deep underground.

Hilde Merete Aasheim, right, last month ended her five-year term as chief executive of Norsk Hydro, Europe’s largest aluminium producer. ‘As leaders, we have to be active,’ she says

“I hate when people talk about our industry as heavy industry,” says Hilde Merete Aasheim, who last month ended her five-year term as chief executive of Norsk Hydro, Europe’s largest aluminium producer. “That’s an old word, it’s not about raw muscles any more. It’s really high tech.”

Hope says a perception of mining as a “boys club” has not done it any favours in attracting women. The industry, she says, needs to become “visible” to young people, including as a sector essential to meeting green targets, such as restricting emissions to limit global warming to 1.5C.

“We need young people who are innovating with AI and digital toolsets,” she says. “We’re not doing a good job to make it the industry that needs young people and diverse talent to drive that change.”

Management scandals have not helped that reputation. A 2022 report into workplace culture at British-Australian mining group Rio Tinto discovered bullying and sexism were “systemic” across its worksites, a finding its chief executive Jakob Stausholm called “deeply disturbing”. Rio has now tied executive pay partly to performance on gender diversity and will release results of another review this year.

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Elizabeth Broderick, the former Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner who led the Rio report, says discriminatory incidents in mining were “not isolated workplace grievances” but “symptoms of a permissive culture”.

The situation across the industry is improving in some ways, however. The new amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act in Australia is a “game-changer” in making employers responsible for not just responding to grievances but taking preventive action to create inclusive workplaces, says Broderick.

Aasheim of Norsk Hydro is one woman to have benefited from supportive male leaders throughout her career, which began in a bakery as a teenager. “I have never applied for a job,” she says. “But I have gotten lots of opportunities because I’ve had key leaders that have seen my potential and challenged me on what I could do . . . As leaders, we have to be active.”

But in the face of a backlash against DEI, some say executives need to take a more proactive approach to embed support for women’s advancement across the workforce.

“We need to listen to men’s concerns about the changing workforce demographics and ensure that their fears are heard and addressed,” says Broderick. “Organisations that are increasing the representation of women are working [not only] to change mindsets and behaviours but also to embed everyday respect into their systems and structures.”

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Additional reporting by Nic Fildes

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