Kerry says progress made in peace talks
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry completed a new round of shuttle diplomacy Sunday without a hoped-for breakthrough in relaunching Mideast peace talks, but optimistically said he had narrowed the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians and vowed to return to the region soon to complete his mission.
Kerry said he was working on an emerging “package” meant to bring the sides together, and said he would leave a team of aides in the region to continue the efforts.
“With a little more work, the start of final status negotiations could be within reach,” he told reporters, shortly before leaving Israel for an Asian security conference in Brunei.
It was not clear how much progress Kerry had truly made. He refused to provide details of the package he is working on, and Israeli and Palestinian officials, at Kerry’s request, remained mum.
Even before negotiations have begun, the gaps remain wide on simply establishing the ground rules.
Negotiations have been stalled since 2008, in large part due to Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for a future independent state alongside Israel and have demanded that Israel stop building settlements on occupied lands before talks resume. More than 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in areas sought by the Palestinians, making it increasingly difficult to partition the land into two states.
The Palestinians also say Israel’s pre-1967 frontiers should be the baseline for the final borders between Israel and a future Palestine. Previous Israeli leaders have accepted the 1967 lines as a starting point for talks. But Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, while endorsing the idea of a Palestinian state, has refused the Palestinian demands, saying talks should begin immediately without any preconditions.
Netanyahu has ruled out a return to the 1967 lines, saying it would threaten Israel’s security and noting the Jewish people’s biblical connection to the West Bank. He also rejects any division of the holy city of Jerusalem, home to sensitive Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites.
His tough line and the continued construction of settlements have raised Palestinian accusations that he is not serious about pursuing peace.
The Palestinians also seek the Gaza Strip for their state. Israel, which captured Gaza in 1967, withdrew in 2005. Hamas militants subsequently overran the area.
Kerry was on his fifth visit to the region since taking office early this year. Starting Thursday night, he shuttled between Amman, Jordan, Jerusalem and Ramallah, West Bank, holding three meetings each with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Netanyahu.
Their talks were long, sometimes stretching into the wee hours of the morning. His last meeting with the Israeli prime minister and his advisers ended after 3 a.m. Sunday. Afterward, Kerry took a pre-dawn stroll in Jerusalem with senior advisers. Kerry, the sleeves on his white shirt rolled up, walked with a security escort to a park near the hotel, gesturing and talking with his top advisers on the Mideast peace process. Just hours later, he traveled by convoy to Ramallah for one last meeting with Abbas, cancelling a trip to Abu Dhabi to extend his work with Israel and the Palestinians.
Addressing reporters at Israel’s international airport, an exhausted Kerry, running on adrenaline, said he would have stayed longer if he did not have to attend the international conference.
“I am very positive,” he said. “I also know progress when I see it, and we are making progress,” he added.
He said both Netanyahu and Abbas had asked him to return to the region — on what would be his sixth visit. But he declined to disclose, even broadly, the main elements of the “package” being pursued to restart talks.
Kerry said it was best not to float ideas for others to “tear apart, evaluate and analyze.” He said he would not have agreed to leave his staff in place if he didn’t think it was possible to flesh out a “serious” framework for restarting discussions.
“I think this is worth it, folks,” he told reporters. “Obviously, the work has to be completed. People have to make a few choices still. But the gap has been narrowed very significantly.”
A Palestinian official who was briefed on Kerry’s efforts said the package would likely include, as a goodwill gesture, the release of some Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. He said the Palestinians were told that Netanyahu is prepared to restrain settlement construction and to discuss the 1967 borders, without any promise to withdraw to those lines. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The emerging deal is also expected to include large amounts of international aid to the Palestinians; Israeli agreement to allow the Palestinians to launch new development projects in the West Bank; and Palestinian pledges to halt their campaign of seeking recognition of their independence in international bodies before there is a peace agreement.
Over Israeli and U.S. objections, the Palestinians last year won upgraded observer status at the United Nations, and they have threatened to pursue war crimes charges against Israel if peace efforts remain stalled.
Israel’s Channel 2 TV, citing anonymous Israeli officials, said there had been progress, but sticking points remained in the areas of settlements, prisoners and borders. It said Kerry was expected back in a week or so and was aiming to restart talks before the Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins early next week.
Addressing his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu showed little signs of bending.
“We are not putting up any impediments on the resumption of the permanent talks and a peace agreement between us and the Palestinians,” he said.
At the same time, he said, “We will not compromise on security, and there will be no agreement that will endanger Israelis’ security.”
He added that any agreement would be presented to the public in a referendum.
Critics have said such a step would merely add an additional obstacle to implementing any deal, which would require a broad pullout from the West Bank.
Following Sunday morning’s meeting in Ramallah, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, reported progress but said gaps remained.
“I cannot say we have a breakthrough,” he said. “All I can say once again is no one benefits more from the success of Secretary Kerry than the Palestinians, and no one stands to lose more from its failure than Palestinians.”
As Kerry strolled to the tarmac Sunday, his top Mideast adviser patted him on the back, but both knew the job was not finished.
Meth floods U.S. border crossing
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Children walk across the U.S.-Mexico border with crystal methamphetamine strapped to their backs or concealed between notebook pages. Motorists disguise liquid meth in tequila bottles, windshield washer containers and gas tanks.
The smuggling of the drug at land border crossings has jumped in recent years but especially at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry, which accounted for more than 40 percent of seizures in fiscal year 2012. That’s more than three times the second-highest — five miles east — and more than five times the third-highest, in Nogales, Ariz.
The spike reflects a shift in production to Mexico after a U.S. crackdown on domestic labs and the Sinaloa cartel’s new hold on the prized Tijuana-San Diego smuggling corridor.
A turf war that gripped Tijuana a few years ago with beheadings and daytime shootouts ended with the cartel coming out on top. The drugs, meanwhile, continue flowing through San Ysidro, the Western hemisphere’s busiest land border crossing with an average of 40,000 cars and 25,000 pedestrians entering daily.
“This is the gem for traffickers,” said Gary Hill, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego. “It’s the greatest place for these guys to cross because there are so many opportunities.”
Customs and Border Protection officers seized 5,566 pounds of methamphetamine at San Ysidro in the 2012 fiscal year, more than double two years earlier, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations unit. On the entire border, inspectors seized 13,195 pounds, also more than double.
From October 2012 through March, seizures totaled 2,169 pounds at San Ysidro and 1,730 pounds at Otay Mesa, giving San Diego 61 percent of the 6,364 pounds seized at Mexican border crossings. Much of the rest was found in Laredo, Texas; Nogales; and Calexico, Calif.
San Ysidro — unlike other busy border crossings — blends into a sprawl of 18 million people that includes Los Angeles, one of the nation’s top distribution hubs. By contrast, El Paso is more than 600 miles from Dallas on a lonely highway with Border Patrol checkpoints.
Rush-hour comes weekday mornings, with thousands of motorists clogging Tijuana streets to approach 24 U.S.-bound inspection lanes on their way to school or work. Vendors weave between cars, hawking cappuccinos, burritos, newspapers and trinkets.
A $732 million expansion that has created even longer delays may offer an extra incentive for smugglers who bet that inspectors will move people quickly to avoid criticism for hampering commerce and travel, said Joe Garcia, assistant special agent in charge of ICE investigations in San Diego.
Children are caught with methamphetamine strapped to their bodies several times a week — an “alarming increase,” according to Garcia. They are typically paid $50 to $200 for each trip, carrying 3 pounds on average.
Drivers, who collect up to $2,000 per trip, conceal methamphetamine in bumpers, batteries, radiators and almost any other crevice imaginable. Packaging is smothered with mustard, baby powder and laundry detergent to fool drug-sniffing dogs.
Crystals are increasingly dissolved in water, especially during the last year, making the drug more difficult to detect in giant X-ray scanners that inspectors order some motorists to drive through. The water is later boiled and often mixed with acetone, a combustible fluid used in paints that yields clear shards of methamphetamine favored by users. The drug often remains in liquid form until reaching its final distribution hub.
The government has expanded X-ray inspections of cars at the border in recent years, but increased production in Mexico and the Sinaloa cartel’s presence are driving the seizures, Garcia said. “This is a new corridor for them,” he said.
The U.S. government shut large methamphetamine labs during the last decade as it introduced sharp limits on chemicals used to make the drug, causing production to shift to Mexico.
The U.S. State Department said in March that the Mexican government seized 958 labs under former President Felipe Calderon from 2006 to 2012, compared with 145 under the previous administration. Mexico seized 267 labs last year, up from 227 in 2011.
As production moved to central Mexico, the Sinaloa cartel found opportunity in Tijuana in 2008 when it backed a breakaway faction of the Arellano Felix clan, named for a family that controlled the border smuggling route for two decades. Sinaloa, led by Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, had long dominated nearby in eastern California and Arizona.
Tijuana registered 844 murders in 2008 in a turf war that horrified residents with castrated bodies hanging from bridges. After the Sinaloa cartel prevailed, the Mexican border city of more than 2 million people returned to relative calm, with 332 murders last year and almost no public displays of brutality.
Alfonzo “Achilles” Arzate and his younger brother Rene, known as “The Frog,” have emerged as top Sinaloa operatives in Tijuana — the former known as the brains and the latter as the brawn. The elder Arzate has been mentioned on wire intercepts for drug deals as far as Chicago, Hill said.
He appears to have gained favor with the Sinaloa cartel brass after another cartel operative raided one of his warehouses in October 2010, leading to a shootout and the government seizing 134 tons of marijuana.
Methamphetamine has also turned into a scourge throughout Tijuana, becoming the most common drug offense for dealers and consumers in the last five years, said Miguel Angel Guerrero, coordinator of the Baja California state attorney general’s organized crime unit.
“It has increased a lot in the city because it’s cheaper than cocaine, even cheaper than marijuana,” he said.
Disputes among street dealers lead to spurts of violence in Tijuana, said Guerrero, including April’s murder tally of 56 bodies. But the killings pale in numbers and brutality compared to the dark days of 2008 and 2009. While president, Calderon hailed Tijuana as a success story in his war on cartels.
“The Sinaloa cartel, their presence here has been strong enough to the point that no one is pushing back,” said the DEA’s Hill. “They just simply want to focus on making money and moving the dope across.”
Texas filibuster star Davis still weighing future
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — State Sen. Wendy Davis, whose filibuster against Texas abortion restrictions gained her national fame, insists Democrats will be competitive in next year’s statewide races but hasn’t decided whether she’ll be part of the slate of candidates for offices currently dominated by Republicans.
The Harvard-trained lawyer told The Associated Press she has been fielding congratulatory phone calls from around the world since her marathon filibuster Tuesday that helped run out the clock on the special session and kill the abortion bill. But she hasn’t determined if she should seek re-election to the Senate or, as some have encouraged her, aim higher and perhaps run for governor.
Davis said she is concentrating on the second special legislative session that begins Monday, when Republicans will try again to pass a bill that likely would shut down at least 37 out of 42 abortion clinics in the state and impose other restrictions on the procedure.
“When we get through it, and I can lift my head up, and I’m back in my district with my constituents I will have more time to think about (the future),” she said. “I think the more important question is what will the people do with their newfound power? I think Tuesday was a game-changer in Texas.”
Since she first defeated a Republican incumbent in a swing district in 2008, Texas Democrats have seen in Davis the charisma and fight needed to win statewide office. But candidates can’t win on their own; they need local political clubs to get excited, county-based organizations to guarantee turnout and at least $16 million and hundreds of volunteers to run a campaign in the country’s second-largest state.
Democrats haven’t won such a race since 1994. Texas ranks 47th in the country in voter participation, and the party can’t seem to get more than 43 percent of the ballots.
Changing demographics, though, have given Democrats hope of reviving their party as Hispanics and young people make up a larger proportion of eligible voters. Davis won her district by building a coalition of Hispanics, African-Americans and low-income whites — groups that, when combined, make up the majority of Texans.
Davis said she dedicated her filibuster to people too often ignored by the Republican leadership.
“Their voice mattered, and they made a difference,” she said. “It may be that we go into this next special session and they are drowned out, but I don’t think they are going to remain quiet. I think this has engaged the public in Texas who are tired of the leadership they are seeing.”
National Democratic activists recognized the potential for change in the state last year and provided funding for a campaign called Battleground Texas. But recognizing the staggering challenge of activating a moribund state party, the group has talked about winning elections for Democrats in 2018 — not 2014.
Davis’ old-school filibuster — where she spent most of 12 hours standing and speaking — has strategists questioning whether she has sped up the timeline or if she’s too early. So far, no Democrat has announced a candidacy for one of the state’s seven statewide offices up for election next year.
Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who took over the Texas Democratic Party in 2011, insists the party is ready.
“Women have not always voted for the Democrats, and now they’ll see that we are fighting for them and they will vote for us,” he told the AP. “People in Texas are taking a look at the ugly face of the Republican Party and taking a better look at the Democratic Party.”
But whether they can win in 2014 may depend on whether Davis runs for governor and the party can recruit other Democrats to run as a group for the other six seats.
“Everyone is waiting to see what Wendy will do,” Hinojosa said. “If Wendy chooses to run for governor, the line to run with her will be long.”
Gov. Rick Perry, who has said he will announce his re-election plans when the legislative session is over and his presidential plans later this year, called the Democrats’ strategy a “pipe dream” when he appeared on the Laura Ingraham radio show last week.
“They use that to raise money nationally, but the state of Texas will continue to be a place that believes in freedom,” Perry said. “(Democrats) believe in higher taxes, they believe in more regulation, they believe in having litigation that keeps the courts all jammed up.”
But Davis said not to count out Democrats in next year’s Texas races.
“Democrats absolutely have the opportunity to make a powerful push in 2014, and I will be part of helping make that push happen, whether I’m doing it as a leader, or helping to push it forward in some other way,” she said.
Beneath NYC’s ground zero, a museum takes shape
NEW YORK (AP) — Gray dust blankets everything in the subterranean halls of the unfinished National September 11 Memorial & Museum. But while the powder may look ominously like the ash that covered lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks, this time it is a product of rebirth, not destruction.
After a yearlong construction shutdown because of a funding dispute, and additional months of cleanup following a shocking flood caused by Superstorm Sandy, work has been racing ahead again at the museum, which sits in a cavernous space below the World Trade Center memorial plaza that opened in 2011.
About 130 workers are at the site each day and there is much left to be done, but officials with the museum said the project is on track to open to the public in the spring of 2014.
Some of the museum’s most emotion-inspiring artifacts already are anchored in place.
Tears rolled down Anthoula Katsimatides’ cheeks Thursday as she toured halls holding a mangled fire truck, strangely beautiful tangles of rebar and the pieces of intersecting steel known as the Ground Zero Cross.
“It makes me sad,” said Katsimatides, whose brother John died at the trade center. But it’s also inspiring, said Katsimatides, who sits on the museum’s board. “Seeing it come to fruition is pretty intense.”
Work on the museum was halted for nearly a year, starting in the fall of 2011, because of a money fight between the memorial foundation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the trade center site.
In retrospect, that slowdown was a blessing. Shortly after the two sides worked out their differences, Superstorm Sandy sent the Hudson River thundering through lower Manhattan and filled the museum cavern with 7½ feet of water.
The flood destroyed interior walls and electrical circuits, but the construction delay meant that hundreds of artifacts and exhibits that might have been in the museum still hadn’t been fabricated or were sitting safely in storage. There was minor flash rusting to one of the fire trucks that had already been lowered into the space, but the damage was repaired by conservators and isn’t noticeable today, said National September 11 Memorial & Museum President Joseph Daniels.
Today there is no sign that there was ever a flood. Daniels said there has been “almost indescribable” progress on construction since the storm.
Structural work appears mostly complete on the glass pavilion and wide staircase and ramp visitors will use to descend into the museum, past two towering “tridents” that once helped form the distinctive base of the twin towers. Once silvery, the columns were stripped bare by the fires on 9/11 and are now the color of rusted, raw steel.
From a mezzanine, patrons will be able to peer into a deep, nave-like hallway nicknamed the South Canyon. The hall’s high western wall will eventually be covered with artwork that people around the world made in tribute to the victims after the attacks. Another exhibit will feature supportive notes and letters.
“They continue to send things. It’s amazing,” Katsimatides said. “That outpouring of support is one of the things that got the 9/11 families through.”
Further down the ramp, visitors come to a platform overlooking an even more massive cavern bordered by the slurry wall, a 70-foot-tall, steel-studded concrete slab originally built to keep the Hudson River from flooding the trade center construction site.
In the hall’s center stands the last steel column removed from ground zero during the cleanup operation. Recovery workers covered the pillar with their signatures before it was carried away, and visitors will get a chance to leave their own mark on another big piece of steel near the museum’s exit — though their autographs will be captured by a computerized touch screen and projected on the slurry wall, rather than left in ink on metal.
Throughout the museum, curators have hung pieces of steel that were bent and twisted into striking shapes, including one sheet of metal that now appears to ripple like a flag and a huge girder bent by the impact of the aircraft hitting the towers.
Many of them look like sculptures.
“In a strange way, they are like pieces of art,” Katsimatides said. But Daniels added that they weren’t chosen for their beauty, but to explain what happened at the site on 9/11.
A few design elements of the museum are still under discussion.
When visitors descend to the very bottom of the museum — where, in some places, they will be able to view the very bedrock that the towers once rested upon — they will enter a hall with a large wall bearing an inscription from Virgil. “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Behind that wall will sit a special mausoleum, off limits to the general public, containing the unidentified remains of hundreds of 9/11 victims. Most of the interior walls of the museum have the look of bare concrete, as a constant reminder of the site’s location within the old trade center foundation. But Daniels said the museum’s designers are talking about possibly cladding this wall in a different material, or a different color, to separate it from the rest.
“It’s a special place. Do we need something to distinguish it?” he said.
The bulk of the work remaining to be completed will revolve around installing the museum’s exhibits, which will include many artifacts, including a wall made up of portraits of all 2,983 victims and a room where visitors will be able to call up video presentations that tell a story about each of them.
“The idea is to learn about the lives that they lived, not just the deaths that they died,” Daniels said.