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Drug supply surge prompts record levels of murders in Mexico



A huge increase in the production and supply of drugs to the United States from Mexico is the cause of an explosion of violence in the Central American country that has seen record levels of murders in the past year, according to both governments.

A new war between competing drug cartels, after a series of arrests of high profile leaders, has only exacerbated the problem.

Authorities in the United States are warning it is out of control.

The most highly valued drug is heroin, produced in vast amounts in poppy fields dug into mountainous jungles, almost inaccessible from the ground and protected by thousands of armed gang members.

Some 90% of America’s heroin comes from Mexico.

:: Trump’s opioid ’emergency’ may be too little, way too late

After 12 months of negotiation with the cartel gangs we were told to meet our contacts in the mountains of Guerrero state.

We travelled on quad bikes over mountainous terrain, deep into the jungle.

We were escorted by two security guards carrying machine guns and dressed in camouflage with bandanas hiding their faces.

Nobody is allowed down these forest trails without permission and nobody can get here without being seen by lookouts for miles around.

The gunmen told us to dismount while two “farmers” sharpened machetes.

They then began to hack their way through the undergrowth.

There was a path but it had been grown over. It was not their normal route they told us, rather a short cut.

Eventually we emerged into one of the cartel’s poppy fields.

It is about 10 hectares and literally cut into the jungle. The almost constant clouds and size of the field make it difficult to spot from the air. The men told us they have a lot of fields spotted across the mountain range.

They said we are the only outsiders they have ever let in.

Here the opium business flourishes. The men showed me how the poppy is sliced and bled of its oil.

Farmers say they have to protect poppy fields from attack by gangs
Farmers say they have to protect poppy fields from attack by gangs

The raw material of what becomes opium and of course heroin.

For them this really is a matter of economics.

Ten hectares of Mango would earn a farmer $53,000 a year. Ten hectares of poppy nets them $350,000 a year.

The poppy growers see absolutely no correlation between what they produce and the drugs that ravage lives across the world and have directly led to the cartel wars and the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Mexico.

“It’s what we have to do to feed our families,” one of the gunmen told me.

Our guards, it transpired, were not there because of us. They are there to protect the poppy fields from raids by other gangs. Even in these wild remote mountains the drug wars are never far away.

“We come here and stay when the poppy is being harvested,” the guard told me.

“There are gangs who want our produce and will kill for it. We are here to stop them,” he said, starting up his quad bike as we headed to the home of the man who allowed our trip to take place.

Farmers say they have to grow opium poppies to feed their families
Farmers say they have to grow opium poppies to feed their families

That man is Ruben Granados. We met him at his modest home, where he was helping to prepare lunch with his second wife. His first wife was killed along with their two sons as a warning to Ruben some years ago.

Ruben says he is the head of a farmers union that grows a variety of products on the mountain, including mango, avocado, marijuana and of course the poppies used to make heroin.

The Mexican government says he is the head of a drug cartel, and sent in troops in three Black Hawk helicopters to arrest him.

He beat the charges and says all the arrest showed was that the government and the cartels are in cahoots. Basically everyone wants a slice of the action produced on his mountain.

“We live in a very complicated and testing country because the crime gangs extort, kidnap and kill,” he told me during his first ever interview.

Ruben Granados, who represents poppy farmers, says he is the head of a union that grows other products
Ruben Granados, who represents poppy farmers, says he is the head of a union that grows other products

“The government is hand in hand with them because the gangs pay them.

“If you are a criminal the government likes you. If you are honest people, the government wants to destroy you,” he said.

Every day Mexico wakes up to more news of violence, murder and chaos running in tandem with otherwise totally ordinary life.

Mexico is a wealthy country, but its drugs business eclipses its legitimate economy many times over. The drug business is at the root of the nation’s murder epidemic.

Its wealth has left Mexico inured to the horror of violent crime, and nobody from the government to law enforcement to gang leaders and humble farmers, think they are responsible.

:: Watch Stuart Ramsay’s report on Mexico’s drug trade as part of Hot Spots, on Thursday night on Sky Atlantic, and in a special report on Sky News at 9.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 4.30pm and 7.30pm on Wednesday.

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COVID-19: Millions of Indians travel to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela despite rising coronavirus rates | World News



They have gathered in their millions in the temple town of Haridwar, in Uttarakhand.

Hindu pilgrims have come to celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that happens once every 12 years.

And today is a very auspicious day in the religious calendar to take a dip in India‘s River Ganges.

Live COVID updates from across the UK and around the world

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
Coronavirus rates have increased in India the last few months, with the country in the midst of a second wave

All this amid a raging pandemic.

The festival has been been flagged as a super spreader as more than 50 million people are expected to attend this month-long event.

The country registered almost 170,000 new cases in the last 24 hours, the highest number of COVID-19 cases anywhere in the world.

With more than 13.5 million cases, India is second only to the United States.

In the same period, 839 people died, taking the total number of COVID-19 related deaths to 170,209.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
Millions will gather this month to celebrate the Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it

Sarasswati Dattani, 56, has travelled over 400 miles (644km) from Rajasthan with her husband.

She tells Sky News: “Our children had tried to stop us because of coronavirus.

“I am not afraid, Mother Ganga is with us all the time.

“People are getting the virus sitting at home. We have to die once, it’s all in God’s hands.”

Raghav, 25, from Jalandhar in Punjab, says “coronavirus could not stop me from my belief in God, our faith is far stronger than anything at the moment.

“I have also come to pray that this pandemic gets over soon.”

The devotees come from every part of the country and a majority are from smaller towns and villages.

The fear among health activists is that rural India will be exposed to the virus.

Speaking to Sky News, Dr Atulya Mishra, who is the medical officer in charge of a section of the banks, said: “People are very irresponsible, they do not follow any of the COVID-19 behaviour protocols.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
Health experts have urged people not to travel but people are not following guidance

“We provide them with face masks but people don’t wear them.

“We put our lives on the line while the public takes the virus very lightly. It is very frustrating for us health workers.”

The administration has enforced COVID-19 protocols – pilgrims must wear face masks and are only allowed to attend with a negative PCR test result.

Millions will gather this month to celebrate a Hindu festival, despite experts warning against it
People will take a dip in the River Ganges during the month-long festival

But in reality, social distancing is almost impossible to enforce.

India is in the midst of a second wave.

The low number of cases in the winter months had lulled people into believing it’s over.

Opening up society, a low fatality rate and vaccinations have led to Indians letting their guard down.

The festival will also mean people take a dip in the River Ganges
The festival is seen as a super spreader event

For many weeks the country has been immersed in state elections.

The prime minister, his cabinet and leaders of all political parties are campaigning at rallies with thousands in attendance.

Roadshows expose every nook and corner.

Experts have also said the new variants of the virus are far more infectious but less lethal.

Genome sequencing of all cases in Punjab show around 80% of them are due to the UK variant.

While millions will make their way to the Maha Kumbh over the next few weeks, the rising number of cases are sure of grave concern for the government.

India began its vaccination programme on 16 January but less than 1% of the population have been fully vaccinated.

Though the process had a slow start it has picked up pace over the last few weeks.

India may have one of the lowest fatality rates in the world, but it can ill afford a severe burden on its already inadequate and creaking public health care system.

For decades successive governments have spent just over 1.2% of the GDP on healthcare.

Over 70% of its citizens rely on expensive private health care and one illness can push a family into poverty.

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China deploys jets and bombers into Taiwanese airspace in ‘biggest incursion to date’ | World News



Twenty-five Chinese military aircraft have entered Taiwanese airspace in the largest reported incursion to date, according to officials.

Taiwan‘s government has complained in recent months after repeated missions by China‘s air force near the island.

The incursions have been concentrated in the southwestern part of Taiwan’s air defence zone.

Pic AP
Chinese vessels and aircrafts have conducted drills near Taiwan for several years, but in the last 12 months the actions have stepped up. Pic AP

The latest mission on Monday involved 14 J-16 and four J-10 fighter jets – and four H-6K bombers, which can carry nuclear weapons.

Two anti-submarine aircraft and an early warning aircraft also took part, Taiwan’s defence minister said.

It is believed to be the largest incursion by the Chinese air force into Taiwanese airspace, and officials said combat aircraft were dispatched to intercept and warn the intruders away.

Missile systems were also deployed to monitor the Chinese vessels as the aircraft flew in an area close to Thailand’s Pratas Islands, according to the defence ministry.

It came just three days after the US issued new guidelines that will deepen its ties with Taiwan.

The latest guidelines from the US State Department will mean American officials can meet more freely with their Taiwanese counterparts.

America, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but it has watched on as tensions between Beijing and the island nation have stepped up in recent years.

Pic Reuters
Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has vowed the island nation will ‘fight to the very last day’ if China attacks

Washington’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Friday that the US is concerned about China’s aggressive actions against Taiwan – and warned it would be a “serious mistake” for anyone to try to change the status quo in the Western Pacific by force.

Mr Blinken’s statement came after Taiwan scrambled an aircraft to broadcast a warning message after 12 Chinese jets flew over its airspace on 7 April.

The tense start to 2021 comes after a report released by a government-backed think tank found that China made a record 380 incursions into Taiwan’s defence zone last year.

China describes Taiwan as its most sensitive territorial issue and a red line the US should not cross.

Beijing sees the island as a breakaway province that will one day become part of the country again. It has never renounced the possible use of force to bring about eventual unification.

However, Taiwanese people see themselves an independent state and the dispute with their giant neighbour has left relations frayed with the constant threat of violence.

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January 2021: Taiwan military simulates China attack

China has in the past described its missions as being to protect the country’s sovereignty and deal with “collusion” between Taipei and Washington.

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has previously said the country will fight “to the very last day” if China attacks.

More widely, China continues to exercise its muscle in the South China Sea.

Over the weekend, military activity near the Philippines spiked as a Chinese aircraft carrier entered the region, and the US military is preparing joint drills with the Philippine military nearby.

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Off-duty Italian police officers find stolen Roman statue in Belgium – a decade after it vanished | World News



A first-century Roman statue has been recovered by two off-duty Italian police officers almost a decade after it was stolen.

The statue was stolen from the Villa Marini Dettina, an archaeological site on the outskirts of Rome, in November 2011 and has now been found in an antique shop in Belgium.

It was discovered by the off-duty officers from the Italian police’s archaeological unit.

The Togatus statue, featuring a headless Roman wearing a draped toga, is valued at €100,000 (£86,000).

The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP
The statue is believed to be worth 100,000 (£860,000) and was stolen from an archaeological site near Rome. Pic: AP

The two officers were on assignment in Brussels when they took a walk after work in the Sablon neighbourhood, known for its antique shops.

They spotted a statue that they suspected was from Italy and confirmed their suspicions when they cross-referenced it with their stolen antique database.

An Italian businessman, who used a Spanish alias, has been referred to prosecutors for further investigation. He is alleged to have received and exported the statue abroad, police said.

Italian authorities have been attempting to recover stolen antiques for years.

In 2019, a dozen pieces of artwork were returned to Italy by private auction house Christie’s. The items featured a marble fragment from the sarcophagus in Rome’s catacombs of St Callixtus, a piece worth £50,000.

In June 2020, officials found a stolen Banksy mural in Italy that was taken from the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.

The image was created in memory of the victims of the 2015 terrorist attack in the French capital. It was cut out and removed from the concert hall in 2019.

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