Beyond the county: US-Mexico Drug tunnel, CA paves way for inmate sex-reassingment surgery
Major drug tunnel found on US-Mexico border in Calif.
SAN DIEGO — Authorities seized 12 tons of marijuana and arrested 22 people after discovering one of the longest cross-border tunnels between the U.S. and Mexico, officials said Thursday.
The passage connecting warehouses in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, was about 2,400 feet long and 30 feet deep. It was lit, ventilated and equipped with a rail system — hallmarks of the most sophisticated tunnels found along the border.
Near-simultaneous police stings on Wednesday resulted in six arrests in San Diego and 16 in Mexico. Authorities recovered two tons of marijuana in the U.S. and 10 tons in Mexico.
U.S. authorities said smugglers tried to move the first load of drugs through the tunnel on Wednesday but that nothing got through undetected.
The sting came after an undercover agent for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations agreed to provide the drug smugglers with drivers and use of a warehouse in exchange for a $10,000 payment for each truckload of drugs moved, according to a probable cause statement.
The discovery demonstrates the enduring appeal of tunnels to smugglers, despite the significant time and money required to build one. Dozens of tunnels have been found along the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years, some equipped with hydraulic lifts and electric rail cars.
The San Diego-Tijuana region is popular because its clay-like soil is relatively easy to dig with shovels and pneumatic tools, and both sides of the border have warehouses that provide cover for trucks and heavy equipment.
It was unclear which drug trafficking organization orchestrated the latest passage but the region is largely controlled by Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, whose leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a maximum-security prison in Mexico in July through an elaborate tunnel.
Mexican federal police said in a news release that those arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking told authorities that they had ties to a criminal group that operates in the state of Jalisco — an apparent reference to the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which controls that part of western Mexico.
The Mexican suspects were caught off-guard when authorities arrived at the Tijuana warehouse with a search warrant, police said. No shots were fired.
The drugs found were wrapped in 873 packages covered with plastic and tape.
On the U.S. side, the tunnel entry point in a warehouse near the Otay Mesa border crossing had no stairs or ladder. U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said smugglers were believed to be using pulleys.
David Shaw, head of Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego, said traffic to and from the San Diego warehouse was unusually heavy before the sting. The agency began investigating in May, he said.
Isaias Enriquez, 53, and Isidro Silva, 27, both of Tijuana, were charged with conspiracy in U.S. federal court. Four others were to be charged in state court.
Enriquez agreed in recorded conversations to pay the undercover agent $10,000 a truckload to provide a second warehouse and drivers, according to the probable cause statement. Drugs were to go there from the warehouse on the border in San Diego.
Calif. sets inmate sex reassignment rules
SACRAMENTO — California prison officials have set the first standards in the nation for determining when transgender inmates should receive state-funded sex-reassignment surgery — a move that came after it spent years in court fighting to block the operations.
Under the policy that took effect Tuesday, prison mental health professionals would refer inmates for the surgery.
To qualify, prisoners must be diagnosed with what is formally known as gender dysphoria; lived as a member of the preferred gender for at least 12 months; and expressed a desire for sex-reassignment surgery for at least two years.
The announcement came after California became the first state to agree to pay for surgery for one inmate and refused to provide the procedure to another inmate who has since been paroled.
The requirements were developed in cooperation with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees inmates’ mental health care, and are similar to those used by medical providers outside the prison system, said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the federal court-appointed official who controls California’s prison medical care.
“It’s a great victory for transgender people across the country, and I think it’s a model that other jurisdictions can follow,” said Flor Bermudez, detention project director at the Oakland-based Transgender Law Center that represented two inmates seeking the surgery.
The eight-page policy document calls for inmates who request the surgery and meet the criteria to be referred for evaluation to a committee of two doctors, two psychiatrists and two psychologists that would make a recommendation to a higher-level panel of medical professionals.
The policy prohibits procedures that are considered merely cosmetic, including hair removal, facelifts, breast augmentations or other implants.
Hayhoe said those prohibitions will help hold down the cost to taxpayers. She previously estimated the cost of full transgender procedures could approach $100,000, though the Transgender Law Center said that is exaggerated.
“I don’t think it’s a proper use of taxpayer money,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that represents crime victims. “This is basically an elective procedure. I mean, you’re surgically altering body parts which have nothing wrong with them because the person has a psychological issue.”
California could have kept fighting the court battle, as Massachusetts did after a judge ordered the state to provide the surgery, he said. That lower-court decision was overturned on appeal last year.
Bermudez noted that the U.S. Justice Department intervened in a lawsuit filed in April by a transgender inmate in Georgia. Federal lawyers said state officials must treat the plaintiff’s gender identity condition just as they would any other condition. However, inmate Ashley Diamond was paroled last month before any surgery was done.
There are currently 375 males and 26 females in California’s prison system receiving hormone therapy. They are housed in prisons based on their gender at girth unless they have had surgery. Many are in special protective housing or mental health facilities.
Hayhoe said she does not expect a flood of applications or approvals for the surgery because many people won’t qualify under the guidelines that she described as conservative.
A federal judge in Sacramento is considering the case of inmate Mia Rosati, after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June that the state may be violating her rights by denying her sex reassignment surgery. She also is serving a life sentence for a murder in Los Angeles County.
California utility gets $400M settlement tied to closed nuke
LOS ANGELES — The operator of the defunct San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California announced Thursday that it reached a $400 million insurance settlement covering power outages caused by failed equipment, most of which will go to customers.
The deal between Southern California Edison and Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited comes more than two years after the plant between San Diego and Los Angeles was closed for good.
Under the settlement, majority owner Edison will receive $313 million. Minority owners would get smaller slices: San Diego Gas & Electric gets $80 million and the city of Riverside, $7 million.
For typical Edison residential customers, it was expected to result in about a 2 percent to 2.5 percent cut in monthly bills beginning next year.
San Onofre was shut down in January 2012 after a small radiation leak led to the discovery of extensive damage to tubing inside virtually new steam generators.
The plant never produced electricity again. Edison closed San Onofre permanently in June 2013 amid a fight with environmentalists over whether the plant could be restarted safely.
Meanwhile, consumer advocates have called on state regulators to reopen a nearly $5 billion settlement that divided costs tied to the shuttered plant, under which the owners would pay $1.4 billion and consumers would pay $3.3 billion. Edison opposes reopening that agreement.
Edison is also locked in a long-running dispute over possible damages with the company that manufactured the flawed generators, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Earlier this year Mitsubishi disclosed that Edison had nearly doubled its damage claim to $7.57 billion in a proceeding before the International Chamber of Commerce. Mitsubishi says its liability is limited to $137 million by contract.
Calif. eyes 750,000 people for health care plan
SACRAMENTO — Heading into a third enrollment season with less fanfare and a more modest budget, California health exchange officials said Thursday they will strategically target about 750,000 uninsured people who qualify for health insurance subsidies but haven’t signed up for coverage.
The agency will spend $29 million on an advertising campaign aimed at lower-income and middle-class residents who don’t know there’s help available to pay for health insurance, Covered California Executive Director Peter Lee said.
In addition, Covered California will host enrollment drives at more than 500 storefronts as well as clinics and hospitals throughout the state.
A bus tour will begin in Los Angeles on Nov. 1, the first day of the three-month enrollment season.
“It’s big news that Californians still don’t know the basics that they can get financial help to get coverage,” Lee said Thursday in a call with reporters.
The state-run health exchange launched in October 2013 under the federal Affordable Care Act. It offers sliding-scale subsidies for private coverage to people with no access to health care on the job and directs low-income people to Medi-Cal, the state’s health program for the poor.
As a result, California has reduced the number of uninsured by millions.
Covered California estimates about 4 million Californians do not have health insurance, half of whom don’t qualify because they are in the country illegally. Another 1.4 million are eligible for Medi-Cal but haven’t signed up.
Lee said the agency will use the upcoming enrollment season to target a remaining pool of about 750,000 Californians eligible for Covered California subsidies.
While people who are lower-income have been signing up in high numbers, those who qualify for less subsidy because they make more money have not been signing up as fast. Officials don’t know why they have not been enrolling.
“They may be signing off the exchange without subsidies and that’s a piece of information we don’t know,” Lee said.
He said Covered California has done a good job reaching minorities but acknowledges there’s more work to do. For example, Lee said the agency found it was effective at reaching African-Americans through church partnerships.
Also, a survey commissioned by Covered California found more Californians learned about the exchange through the news than through paid advertising, which Lee said was surprising.
Last season, Covered California fell short of its goal to sign up 1.7 million people for private insurance. Currently, the exchange has 1.3 million active members and the state is expecting to add between 295,000 and 450,000 people during the third enrollment period.
Russia shows military might in Syria, also pushes diplomacy
HEMEIMEEM AIR BASE, Syria — As Russia unleashed fighter jets Thursday from this air base in western Syria to pound militant targets, President Vladimir Putin pushed diplomatic efforts with the West, stressing the need “to consider each other as allies in a common fight.”
Russia put its military muscle on display, bringing Moscow-based reporters to view a day’s worth of fighter jets roaring off a runway in dozens of sorties as helicopter gunships patrolled the edges of the sprawling facility.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Friday in Vienna, joined by their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both staunch critics of President Bashar Assad.
Lavrov said he wanted to provide “firsthand information” about the Russian air campaign against Islamic State militants in Syria, but also talk about a future political process in the country that is now in its fifth year of civil war.
The U.S. and other Western powers have questioned Russia’s primary motive in the airstrikes that began Sept. 30 and have backed up a Syrian government offensive in central and northwestern regions. Moscow says it is fighting IS and other extremist groups like the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, but Washington and others say the intervention is to prop up Assad and is likely to fan the violence.
The intervention is also allowing Russia to portray itself as a major global player, projecting its military power far from its borders.
Assad met Tuesday with Putin in a surprise visit to Moscow to discuss the military operations. In a speech Thursday at a conference in Russia’s southern resort of Sochi, Russian news agencies quoted Putin as saying that Syria’s leaders “should establish working contacts with those opposition forces that are ready for dialogue.”
“As I understood from my conversation with President Assad the day before yesterday, he is ready for such a dialogue,” Putin added.
A military victory over the militants “will not solve all problems, but it will create conditions for the main thing: a beginning of a political process to encompass all healthy, patriotic forces of the Syrian society,” Putin said.
His words echoed those of Syrian government officials who have expressed readiness to negotiate with the “patriotic” opposition — a term generally used to describe unarmed, mostly Damascus-based government critics who are tolerated by Assad.
Putin also said Russia and the West are establishing contacts to coordinate their operations.
“We are close to the start of exchanging information with our Western counterparts on positions and movements of the militants. This is certainly a step in the right direction. The most important thing is to consider each other as allies in a common fight.”
Putin said he asked Assad about how he would view it if Russia identified Syrian armed opposition groups “prepared to oppose and really fight with terrorists, with IS. How would you regard it if we support their efforts in the fight with terrorism in the way that we are supporting the Syrian army?”
He said Assad responded: “I regard this positively.”
The Kremlin said Putin also talked on the phone with the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan ahead of the Friday session.
Lavrov said in televised remarks that Moscow is eager to invite other countries from the region to the talks, especially Iran — another supporter of Assad.
Although Lavrov said that Russia had agreed to meet with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey, he reiterated that Moscow “remained convinced” that a settlement of the Syrian crisis had no future without the involvement of Iran.
In Berlin, Kerry said the U.S., Iran, Russia and Europe agree Syria should be united and that Syrians should choose their own future leadership, but “one thing stands in the way of being able to rapidly move to implement that and it’s a person called Assad, Bashar Assad.”
Kerry spoke alongside German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said that finding a road to a political solution “depends on whether Washington and Moscow find bridges to each other.”
During Thursday’s visit to the Hemeimeem base near the coastal city of Latakia, reporters saw well-organized operations: Su-24s, Su-25s and Su-30s took off for their combat missions. A giant Ruslan An-124 cargo plane landed near two smaller Il-76 military transports.
Security forces with assault rifles guarded key facilities, and armored personnel carriers were parked nearby. Rows of prefabricated houses for servicemen were flanked by neatly kept canteens.
Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that in the past 24 hours, Russian planes made 53 sorties, hitting 72 targets — mostly weapons and ammunition depots and other infrastructure.
Konashenkov rejected Western allegations that Russia has mostly targeted other groups opposing Assad instead of the Islamic State. He said it was striking facilities preparing for suicide attacks, in addition to going after other terrorist targets.
“I don’t understand how terrorists could be divided into good and bad ones,” he told reporters.
He also dismissed reports that Russian planes were hitting civilians as “sheer nonsense.” He said the warplanes are not striking populated areas and are only aiming at infrastructure such as depots and bunkers, but only after the targets are verified using various sources.
In conducting the air campaign, Putin’s apparent goals are to help cement the Syrian government’s grip on the territory it still controls and to show that Assad cannot be unseated by force. Russia also wants to foster political talks that could preserve the Syrian state and allow Moscow to protect its interests in the region.
Another Putin goal has been to bring Moscow and Washington together for a security dialogue in which Russia is treated as an equal. The hope is that this would improve ties with the West and end Russia’s isolation that resulted from the crisis in Ukraine.
State-owned pollster VTsIOM on Thursday released its latest survey on Putin’s approval rating, which it said had reached an all-time high of nearly 90 percent. VTsIOM, which in the past has reported higher approval ratings for Putin than independent agencies, said the survey of 1,600 people was conducted Saturday and Sunday, and had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Teacher, student killed in stabbing attack on Swedish school
A masked man wielding what looked like a sword stabbed four people Thursday at a school in southern Sweden, killing a teacher and a student before being shot dead by police, authorities said. One student thought he was playing a Halloween prank.
Students fled from Kronan school in Trollhattan, near Goteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city, after the morning attack in a public cafe in the school’s lobby, police said. The school has 400 students ranging from pre-school to high school.
Trollhattan, located 350 kilometers (220 miles) southwest of Stockholm, is a former industrial city of 56,000 people with a large immigrant community.
Police arrived at the school to find one male teacher already dead and three other people seriously wounded — two boys aged 11 and 15 and another male teacher, police spokesman Thomas Fuxborg told The Associated Press. Police fired two shots, one of which hit the attacker, he said.
One student and the attacker died later at the hospital, authorities said.
The attacker, a 21-year-old from Trollhattan, knocked on the doors to two classrooms and stabbed those who opened them, police spokesman Thord Haraldsson told reporters at a press conference. Police searched the attacker’s home and found “interesting” things for their investigation, he added, without elaborating.
Laith Alazze, a 14 year-old student at Kronan, said at first he thought the attacker — who was clad in black and wearing a helmet that masked his eyes — had something to do with Halloween.
“One of my friends walked over to him to challenge him, but when we saw he stabbed him (the teacher), we ran away,” Alazze told Sweden’s TV4.
Dagens Nyheter, one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, posted a photo of a helmeted man with a dark mask, a dark outfit and a sword in his hand, claiming it was the attacker. The paper said the killer posed with two people before he started his rampage.
The attacker had a gunshot wound to his lower chest and died later Thursday at the hospital, officials said. Police spokeswoman Maria Randsalu said the second victim was a student, but did not say which one.
The three wounded, all in serious condition, underwent surgery at the Norra Alvsborgs Lanssjukhus hospital. Dr. Lars Spetz told reporters the teacher had been stabbed in the abdomen while the two students were stabbed in the abdomen, liver and chest.
“They hover between life and death,” Spetz said.
Swedish media said the school held a meeting Thursday morning to discuss teachers’ fears that they could not control access to the school. Students must go through the public cafe to reach the school’s cafeteria and other parts of the building.
A sober-looking Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven called the deadly stabbing attack “a tragedy that hits the entire country.” He spoke outside the school in Trollhattan after viewing the lobby where the attack began.
Lofven declined to comment on Swedish press reports that the attacker had right-wing sympathies, saying police were still trying to establish a profile of him.
“My thoughts go out to the victims and their families, the students and staff, and the whole community,” Lofven said earlier. “No words can describe what they are going through right now.”
King Carl XVI Gustaf said Sweden was “in shock” following the attack and that the royal family received the news “with great dismay and sadness.”
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