The World Today for July 03, 2024

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A Declaration of War

ECUADOR

Ecuadoran prosecutors recently asked the South American country’s highest court to convict Carlos Angulo, the leader of the drug-trafficking Los Lobos gang, and his associate, Laura Castillo, of hiring hit men on motorcycles to kill presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio last year.

The assassination in the capital of Quito exposed how organized crime had gained power in Ecuador over the past few years, reported the Associated Press. Villavicencio was a former journalist who revealed government corruption and the links between politicians and gangs who work in the drug trade that moves through Ecuador’s Pacific coast ports to Mexico and Europe. It showed how the country has become enmeshed in a narcotics economy that also includes Colombia, Peru, the US, East European crime lords, and other producers, consumers, middlemen, and corrupt government officials – and let the country become battered and desperate.

Daniel Noboa, who took office in November, was elected to turn things around. Soon after, in January, the crime lords directly challenged him. Then, hooded gunmen took over a live television show in Guayaquil, the country’s largest city, and held hostages on air, wrote NBC News. On live television, one of the masked gunmen addressed the nation directly in a monologue. “You cannot play with the mafia,” he said.

A few days later, added the Evening Standard, Noboa declared a state of emergency after Adolfo Macias, or “Fito,” the leader of another gang, Los Choneros, escaped from prison. Noboa ordered the Ecuadoran army to “neutralize” 20 drug gangs. They immediately arrested 300 people and since then have brought some gang leaders to justice.

Fito remains at large, however, and Noboa continues to deploy the military to match the deadliness of the gangs he faces, describing the fight as an “internal armed conflict.” The world is waiting to see who will prevail and the terrible consequences if Noboa fails.

Experts are mixed in their opinions. Analyst James Bosworth at World Politics Review understood Noboa’s response – but warned that a more regional push was necessary to destroy the extended supply chains of illicit drugs that drive the violence.

“Thee clashes among Ecuador’s various gangs that have fueled the country’s skyrocketing homicide rate appear to be related to the violent rivalry between Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, both of which back different Ecuadorian factions,” he wrote.

Noboa has other problems to solve, too. The country’s economy is struggling. In April, the International Monetary Fund granted Ecuador a $4 billion economic rescue package as power shortages undermined production, wrote Agence France-Presse. Drug companies and health facilities have had to cut back as the economy has contracted, added Prensa Latina.

Ecuador’s busy ports face issues besides drugs, too. They have become one of the biggest reception points for Chinese nationals seeking to enter the US illegally, for example, noted Voice of America.

The new president has his work cut out for him. And he only has until May 2025 to get things done before a new election is held, one that will judge him harshly if he doesn’t make progress, said analysts.

Still, so far so good. Voters gave him a resounding “yes” in a referendum in April when asked whether the government should tighten security and heighten its fight against the crime groups.

“This gives him some vigor,” Andrea Endara, analyst and professor at Casa Grande University, told NPR. But “if the president does not begin to take actions to demonstrate that having voted ‘yes’ brings results to reduce insecurity, this support will quickly be diluted.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Another Save

UKRAINE

Ukraine’s military intelligence said on Monday it had thwarted an alleged coup, the latest of a long series of plots to overthrow the government and foment unrest amid Moscow’s war on its neighbor, CNN reported.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) explained on messaging service Telegram that it spotted a “group” of plotters who planned to hold a rally in Kyiv on June 30 before storming the parliament and removing military and political leaders.

The plan was allegedly to cause a riot after the rally, and benefit from the ensuing chaos.

“In this way, they hoped to undermine the socio-political situation inside Ukraine, which would have played into Russia’s hands,” the SBU added.

Moscow and its proxies have tried to destabilize Ukraine’s leadership with a series of plotted coups even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country in February 2022. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy himself has been the target of over a dozen assassination attempts.

But invading the heavily guarded parliament building would be no easy task, begging the question of how developed the latest plot was, the New York Times wrote.

Nonetheless, the SBU announced it seized weapons and electronic devices with “evidence of criminal action.”

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office said it identified four suspects, two of whom remained in custody. It added that the person leading the coup attempt was “a co-founder of an NGO known for its anti-Ukrainian actions.”

It was unclear whether the organizers had direct ties to Russia.

On the day of the alleged planned coup, Moscow launched missiles at the Ukrainian capital, the Kyiv Independent reported, after killing seven people in strikes targeting the country’s south on Saturday.

Russia has been slowly gaining ground in Ukraine, while Kyiv has suffered from a lack of troops and delays in Western support.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Hungarian Prime Minister and Kremlin ally Viktor Orbán paid a surprise visit to Kyiv, his first since the beginning of the war.

Orbán, who took over the rotating presidency of the European Union this week, said he proposed a cease-fire deal to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, RFE/RL reported. Zelenskyy declined to comment on the idea.

Wilting Olives

VENEZUELA

Venezuela will resume negotiations with the United States this week as part of an effort to reverse sanctions against the South American country, less than a month before a closely-watched presidential election in which he and his party face their toughest challenge in decades, the Associated Press reported.

President Nicolas Maduro, who is running for a third term, announced that after two months of consideration, he accepted a US proposal to reestablish talks, which are set to begin Wednesday.

The president wants Washington to lift crippling economic sanctions imposed over the past decade to topple him, adding that the dialogue is “urgent.”

The Biden administration did not comment on the announcement.

Previous negotiations with the US and the US-backed opposition coalition, the Unitary Platform, stalled following disputes over unfulfilled agreements and pre-election conditions. Talks were also held in Qatar, but the location for the latest round remains unclear.

Maduro’s comments come as Venezuelans prepare to vote in presidential elections on July 28.

Observers said polls pose a significant challenge to Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which has dominated the oil-rich nation in some form for nearly two decades. But the PSUV’s voter base has become disillusioned and divided after dealing with economic and political crises during Maduro’s 11-year presidency.

Voters will have to pick between 10 candidates, including Maduro. Observers said Edmundo González Urrutia, who represents the Unitary Platform, is seen as the only contender with a real chance of defeating Maduro.

Last year, Maduro agreed with the opposition to work toward improving conditions for a free and fair election. Following that agreement, the US granted sanction relief to Venezuela’s state-run oil, gas, and mining sectors.

But Maduro reneged on some of his promises following the rising popularity of opposition leader Maria Corina Machado. Venezuelan authorities blocked Machado and her substitute from running in the race, prompting the opposition to rally behind González.

In response, the Biden administration reimposed oil sanctions on Venezuela in April, saying Maduro and his officials “have not fully met the commitments made under the electoral roadmap agreement.”

Stretching the Days

GREECE

Greek businesses will be able to impose a six-day workweek on their employees starting this month, a measure that officials say is aimed at addressing Greece’s productivity issues – even as criticism by workers and labor unions has been fierce, Euronews reported Monday.

Starting in July, private sector employees working in industrial and manufacturing facilities, as well as businesses offering 24-hour services, could have a 48-hour workweek, instead of the current 40 hours.

The new measures will also apply to businesses in retail and agriculture. Food services and tourism are exempt.

Under the new law, employees will be paid 40 percent more for the extra hours – or 115 percent more if working on a Sunday – and can choose how they want to work the extra hours: They can either work two additional hours a day or a maximum of eight hours on the sixth day of the week, according to Business Insider.

The reform was first passed in September and ignited a huge backlash from opposition politicians and labor unions, prompting thousands of public sector workers to protest against the changes.

Critics and labor rights advocates warned that the reform “will kill off the five-day work week for good,” noting the bill will make the longer workweek the norm because of Greece’s poor history of conducting labor investigations.

Supporters, however, countered that the changes are necessary to tackle black market labor and boost employment.

Unemployment and a shrinking population have caused a decline in Greece’s labor productivity, which has left many employees working beyond their official hours without extra compensation.

Greeks work more than any of their counterparts in the European Union, as much as 39.8 hours a week. The European average is a little more than 36 hours per week, while US employees work about 35 hours a week on average.

Meanwhile, Greece’s plan to expand hours contrasts sharply with recent initiatives around the globe to reduce working days.

In April, Singapore announced plans for shorter workweeks and flexible hours. Iceland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Spain have all tested four-day workweeks.

Of 61 UK companies observed in a 2022 trial, 54 continued the shorter week, with 31 making it permanent.

DISCOVERIES

A Leech Leap

In 2017, Mai Fahmy was studying leeches in Madagascar’s rainforests for her PhD, when she saw some extremely bizarre behavior.

While observing a single leech on a leaf, Fahmy noticed that the limbless creature contorted its body in a peculiar way – and proceeded to jump from the foliage.

She returned to the island again in 2023 and confirmed what she only suspected: At least one species of leeches is able to jump, she and her colleague Michael Tessler wrote in their study for the journal Biotropica.

The team explained that Chtonobdella fallax species in Madagascar has shown this ability. Video recordings show the annelids coiling their bodies similar to a spring and launching themselves forward – just like a striking cobra.

“(The movement) is intentional, energetic and consistent in the way it coils back and jumps forward,” Tessler told Scientific American.

The researchers believe that this ability evolved in the terrestrial leeches to move quickly from elevated places to the ground or reach hosts more effectively. Unlike the passive ambush techniques typically associated with leeches, jumping suggests a more active approach to seeking out its victims.

While the videos only don’t show leeches leaping on their victims, it adds to the further body of evidence – albeit anecdotal – that there could be other species pulling these jumps.

“There have been previous accounts of leeches jumping … but those reports were often explained away as leeches just dropping from branches or attaching to passersby as they brushed against shrubs,” Fahmy said in a news release for the Natural History Museum in London.

Jumping is not unique to leeches: Other annelids, such as earthworms in the Megascolecidae family, also exhibit similar behaviors to evade predators by curling and flicking their bodies to jump.

Both leeches and these earthworms rely on their muscular systems instead of bones to maintain rigidity and perform these jumping actions.

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