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Cases of ‘Havana Syndrome’ Reported at U.S. Embassy in Colombia

WASHINGTON — The State Department is investigating new complaints of brain injuries linked to the so-called Havana Syndrome at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, a senior administration official said on Tuesday, a week before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is scheduled to visit the country.

It was not clear how many people at the embassy in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, might have been afflicted by the mysterious illness and its symptoms of headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory loss. The State Department’s spokesman, Ned Price, said officials would ensure that employees “get the prompt care they need, in whatever form that takes,” but he did not describe the complaints in Colombia during a briefing in Washington.

The senior administration official confirmed the complaints, which were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal, and said that it appeared that at least two embassy employees had reported the symptoms.

President Iván Duque of Colombia said his country was aware of the reports. In an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday, Mr. Duque said while the United States was taking the lead, Colombia’s intelligence service was also investigating.

More than 200 U.S. government officials — spies, diplomats, military troops and others — have been afflicted by the illness over the past five years in diplomatic missions in several countries, including Cuba. Reports of an outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam, delayed Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit in August by a few hours.

Though the origins of Havana Syndrome remain unknown, its symptoms are similar to those caused by surveillance equipment used by Russia during the Cold War. As recently as this summer, however, U.S. intelligence officials were struggling to find evidence that the condition was a result of microwave attacks by Russian agents — a theory put forward in a study by the National Academy of Sciences in December.

More than half the victims have been C.I.A. employees, and Congress has approved more support for U.S. officials who have been affected by the illness. Last month, the House Intelligence Committee also demanded more resources to help find the cause of the illnesses and to review the C.I.A.’s handling of cases.

The National Security Council and the State Department have created task forces to investigate the reported injuries, which were a top concern for Mr. Blinken even before he took office. He is not expected to cancel or delay his trip to Colombia, during which he is likely to address the issue of migrants and the political and humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela.

Mr. Price said the State Department had sought to be more open with employees about reported attacks at diplomatic posts, aggressively tried to identify their cause and provided care to people who complained of symptoms.

“We have taken a number of steps, including in terms of communication, in terms of care, in terms of detection, in terms of protection for our work force,” he said. “And that is something that will continue to be a priority for the secretary.”

Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting.

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‘400 Mawozo’ Gang Suspected in Kidnapping Among Haiti’s Most Dangerous

The gang that the police say kidnapped 17 missionaries and their family members in Haiti on Saturday is among the country’s most dangerous and one of the first to engage in mass kidnappings.

The gang, known as “400 Mawozo,” controls the area that the missionaries were abducted from in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, the capital. The group has sown terror for several months in the suburbs, engaging in armed combat with rival gangs and perpetrating the kidnapping of businessmen and police officers.

The gang has also introduced a new type of kidnapping in Haiti — kidnapping en masse. For the first time Haiti began to see entire groups kidnapped while transiting on buses or together on the streets. The gang is also believed to have killed Anderson Belony, a famous sculptor, on Tuesday, according to local news media reports. Mr. Belony had worked to improve his impoverished community.

Croix-des-Bouquets, one of the suburbs now under control by the gang, has become a near ghost town, with many residents fleeing the day-to-day violence. The once bustling area now lacks the poor street vendors who once lined the sidewalks, some of whom had been kidnapped by the gang for what little they had in their pockets or told to sell what few possessions they have at home, including radios or refrigerators, to pay off the ransom. By some estimates, gangs now control about half the capital.

With every new generation of gangs that crop up in Haiti, new lows inch further toward normalization. Gangs have plagued Port-au-Prince over the past two decades, but were often used for political means — such as voter suppression — by powerful politicians. But they have grown into a force that is now seemingly uncontrollable, thriving in the economic malaise and desperation that deepens every year, with independent gangs mushrooming across the capital.

While older, more established gangs trafficked in kidnapping or carrying out the will of their political patrons, newer gangs like “400 Mawozo” are raping women and recruiting children, forcing the youth in their neighborhood to beat up those they captured, training up a newer, more violent generation of members. Churches, once untouchable, are now a frequent target with priests kidnapped mid-sermon.

Locals are fed up with the violence, which prevents them from making a livelihood and prevents their children from attending school. Some started a petition in recent days to protest the region’s rising gang violence, pointing to the “400 Mawozo” gang and calling on the police to take action. The transportation industry has also announced a general strike for Monday and Tuesday in Port-au-Prince to protest the gangs and insecurity. The action may turn into a more general one as calls have gone out to stay home across sectors and storefronts because of insecurity and fuel shortages in the capital.

“The violence suffered by the families has reached a new level in the horror,” the text of the petition reads. “Heavily armed bandits are no longer satisfied with current abuses, racketeering, threats and kidnappings for ransom. At the present time, criminals break into village homes at night, attack families and rape women.”

In April, the “400 Mawozo” gang abducted 10 people in Croix-des-Bouquets, including seven Catholic clergy members, five of them Haitian and two French. The entire group was eventually released by late April. The kidnappers had demanded a $1 million ransom, but it remains unclear if it had been paid.

That kidnapping in Croix-des-Bouquets, a town northeast of the capital, happened when the group was on its way to the installation of a new parish priest.

Michel Briand, a French priest living in Haiti who was part of the group, said the gang had forced their cars to divert from their course before kidnapping them. “If we hadn’t obeyed them — that’s what they told us afterward — they would have shot us,” he said.

The group was then kept by armed men for about 20 days, sleeping on the ground and sometimes out in the open.

“For several months, this group has been acting daily,” Mr. Briand said, adding that the group sought a ransom “to buy weapons and ammunition.”

Mr. Briand said the gang exerted violent control over the area surrounding Croix-des-Bouquets.

“The population complies with their demands because they are armed,” he said. “They have the right to life and death no matter who they meet. They sow terror to ensure their authority,” he said.

Armed groups have become increasingly powerful in Haiti, playing on the political instability and the growing poverty to seize control of large areas of big cities like Port-au-Prince.

“For some time now, we have been witnessing the descent into hell of Haitian society,” said a statement from the archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, released after the April abduction.

A recent upsurge in clashes between rival gangs has resulted in numerous casualties among civilians and extraordinary levels of displacement of people fleeing violence.

A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that more than 13,600 people had fled their homes in Port-au-Prince, which has a population of nearly six million, in the first three weeks of June. That was four times more violence-related displacement in the capital than in the previous nine months, the report said.

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Missionaries With an American Christian Group Kidnapped in Haiti

As many as 17 Christian missionaries from the United States and their family members, including women and children, were kidnapped on Saturday by a gang in Port-au-Prince as they were leaving an orphanage, according to Haitian security officials.

Details of the kidnapping remained unclear, but local officials said the missionaries were abducted from a bus headed to the airport to drop off some members of the group before continuing to another destination in Haiti.

Haiti has been in a state of political upheaval for years, and kidnappings of the rich and poor alike are alarmingly common. But even in a country accustomed to widespread lawlessness, the abduction of such a large group of Americans shocked officials for its brazenness.

Violence is surging across the capital, Port-au-Prince. By some estimates, gangs now control roughly half of the city. On Monday, gangs shot at a school bus in Port-au-Prince, injuring at least five people, including students, while another public bus was hijacked by a gang as well.

Security has broken down as the country’s politics have disintegrated. Demonstrators furious at widespread corruption demanded the ouster of President Jovenel Moïse two years ago, effectively paralyzing the country. The standoff prevented the sick from getting treatment in hospitals, children from attending school, workers from going to the rare jobs available and even stopped electricity from flowing in parts of the country.

Since then, gangs have become only more assertive. They operate at will, kidnapping children on their way to school and pastors in the middle of delivering their services.

The nation’s political turmoil intensified further after Mr. Moïse was assassinated in his home in July, a killing that remains unsolved. The few remaining officials soon began fighting for control of the country, and the factionalism has continued for months, with officials accusing one another of taking part in the conspiracy to kill the president.

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U.S. Arrests Alex Saab, Deal Maker for Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The United States extradited a top ally of Venezuela’s authoritarian government on Saturday, his lawyer said, prompting a swift retaliation from Venezuelan officials that immediately threatened a fledgling effort to resolve the country’s political turmoil.

The extradition of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, to face money laundering charges on American soil was supposed to be a victory for the U.S. government, whose efforts to topple Mr. Maduro have faltered in recent years.

Mr. Saab was detained more than a year ago by law enforcement officials in the West African island nation of Cape Verde. His extradition makes him one of the highest-ranking supporters of Mr. Maduro to be taken into American custody.

But just hours after Mr. Saab boarded a plane to the United States on Saturday, the Venezuelan government re-apprehended six oil executives, including 5 American citizens, who had been under house arrest in Venezuela, according to a lawyer for one of the men.

That same evening, the Venezuelan government also called off negotiations with the American-backed opposition in Venezuela to discuss the conditions necessary to hold free and fair elections.

By virtue of this very serious action, our delegation announces that it is suspending its participation in the negotiation,” said Jorge Rodríguez, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly and a Maduro ally, in a meeting with reporters on Saturday.

The six oil executives are generally viewed as negotiating pawns in the antagonistic relationship between the United States and Venezuela. They worked for Citgo Petroleum, a Houston-based subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company, and have been held by the Venezuelan government on corruption charges since 2017.

But they had been released to house arrest earlier this year in what some viewed as a sign that Mr. Maduro wanted to improve relations with the United States under the Biden administration.

A lawyer for one of the men, Tomeu Vadell, said that members of Venezuela’s intelligence police appeared outside Mr. Vadell’s home on Saturday around 5:30 p.m. and took him away.

“We don’t know where, why or what for,” said the lawyer, Jesús Alejandro Loreto.

The extradition of Mr. Saab also threatened to derail the negotiations between Mr. Maduro and Venezuela’s political opposition, which has long been supported by the United States. The talks began in Mexico in September, and the opposition has hoped they will provide an opportunity to pressure Mr. Maduro into holding free and fair elections.

In an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, the head of Venezuela’s political opposition, Juan Guaidó, said he hoped the talks would push the government to play fair during regional elections set for next month, which would then serve as a “trampoline” to mobilize voters to push for a free presidential election in the coming years.

But the Venezuelan government immediately backed away from the talks on Saturday. In a statement condemning Mr. Saab’s arrest, the Maduro government said the move “threatens the good development of the negotiations.”

Mr. Saab’s lawyer, Jose Manuel Pinto Monteiro, claimed in a video sent to reporters that Mr. Saab had been “kidnapped” by the United States.

If Mr. Saab were to cooperate with American officials, he could help untangle Mr. Maduro’s economic web, aiding the authorities in bringing charges against other allies of the Venezuelan government.

Mr. Maduro’s government has maintained that Mr. Saab’s detention is illegal, saying he is a diplomatic envoy and cannot be prosecuted, and his supporters have undertaken an elaborate global public relations campaign to rally support for his cause.

But Cape Verde’s Constitutional Court rejected the diplomatic immunity argument last month and authorized his extradition to the United States to face charges.

In 2019, U.S. prosecutors indicted Mr. Saab in connection with a bribery scheme that siphoned an estimated $350 million from a Venezuelan government housing project.

Washington has also accused Mr. Saab of “profiting from starvation” through his involvement in a scheme in which he and others are accused of making off with large sums of government funds meant to feed Venezuela’s hungry.

According to investigators, Mr. Saab and a business partner bribed top Venezuelan officials to obtain contracts to import food meant for citizens enrolled in a food subsidy program known by its Spanish acronym, CLAP. But Mr. Saab brought in “only a fraction of the food” he was supposed to import, while he “reaped substantial profits,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

U.S. officials have said that this was part of a larger plot in which Mr. Maduro’s allies bought less or lower-quality food than specified in contracts and doled out the extra money to loyalists. The CLAP program, they say, has been a critical tool for social control, with food and money used to reward political support and punish criticism.

Mr. Saab is one of several Maduro-linked officials and businessmen indicted by the U.S. government in recent years, including Mr. Maduro himself.

Mr. Saab’s detention was closely watched in Venezuela, where for some he has become synonymous with the worst abuses of the Maduro government.

“Alex Saab must be one of the most detested men” in Venezuela, the journalist Blanca Vera Azaf wrote on Twitter last year. “He built his fortune on the hunger of our people.”

Mr. Maduro’s government has a history of harassing, arresting or imprisoning those who speak out against his government, and the Saab case has been no different.

On Thursday, the government called for the capture of Venezuelan journalist Roberto Deniz, who has covered Mr. Saab for years, accusing Mr. Deniz of the crime of “inciting hatred.”

The following day, said Mr. Deniz, who now lives abroad, authorities raided his family home in Caracas.

Anatoly Kurmanaev, Isayen Herrera and Ruth Maclean contributed reporting.

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