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Mexicans fear looting spree as shops robbed, online messages incite theft

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexicans on Wednesday feared measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak would lead to widespread looting after criminals robbed stores that were closed and posted calls on social media for people to ransack businesses.

Police in Mexico City arrested 10 people on Tuesday night who tried to rob shops in four neighborhoods, the city’s security ministry said in a statement.

Authorities have tried to reassure residents that this is not the beginning of a wave of looting, saying the supply of supply of food and medicine is guaranteed.

Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said at a news conference on Wednesday that authorities are conducting “permanent surveillance of social networks in case there are any calls” to loot and explained that the thieves targeting shops to steal televisions and the like “has nothing to do with” poverty.

That did little to assuage the fears of some shopkeepers as criminals organized heists on social networks and instant messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp. (FB.O)

“In the middle of this pandemic in Mexico, it’s incredible people are still organizing looting,” a shop owner in populous Mexico state, which neighbors capital Mexico City, said online.

“I ask authorities to vigilant because many business owners are afraid of being attacked by looters.”

The public security ministry of Mexico state said that on Tuesday it detected 29 Facebook accounts inciting residents to ransack stores that had closed due to the pandemic, which has so far infected 405 and killed five people in Mexico.

The head of the public security ministry of Mexico state, Maribel Cervantes, told local television station Milenio that the authority was coordinating with the Mexican retailers’ association ANTAD to beef up security.

In the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, home to tourist hotspot Cancun, police chief Alberto Capella took to Twitter to warn alleged looters plotting on WhatsApp that authorities were onto their scheme.

“We are watching you, along with the other members of your WhatsApp chat. After identifying you, we will charge you,” Capella said, directing his message to the administrator of the group.

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Mexican rights groups denounce crackdown on migrants protesting over coronavirus fears

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – This week, dozens of migrants in Mexico’s largest detention center gathered to protest over fears they will contract the coronavirus in the facility, which advocates have long denounced for overcrowding and poor sanitation.

They were met with a violent crackdown by the country’s federal police and national guard, according to Mexican human rights groups.

A coalition of local rights groups, the Collective for the Observation and Monitoring of Human Rights in Southeastern Mexico, on Wednesday denounced law enforcement’s response to the protest in the Siglo XXI detention center in the southern city of Tapachula, saying they beat migrants and transported them to an unknown location.

“We strongly condemn all acts of violence and disproportionate use of force against people, men, women and adolescents in immigration detention,” the rights groups said in a statement.

The account is the product of interviews with witnesses and victims, a representative of the groups said. Reuters was unable to independently verify the events described in the statement.

The National Guard did not respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the National Migration Institute (INM), which runs the facility, declined to comment.

Detainees in Siglo XXI described to Reuters last year being held in the facility near Mexico’s southern border for long periods without information about their cases, reporting severe overcrowding, sparse water and food, and limited healthcare. The center has a long history of abuses recorded by groups including the Mexican government’s human rights ombudsman.

Past protests at the facility have sometimes been rowdy, and security forces have defended their operations as necessary force to restore order.

As cases of the coronavirus rise in Mexico, concerns are mounting about how to prevent the spread of the disease among the thousands of migrants who have been waylaid in the country as a result of hardline U.S. immigration policies. Mexican detention centers are seen as particularly vulnerable.

“They don’t comply with minimum health standards even in the best of times,” said Daniel Berlin, a deputy director for rights group Asylum Access. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that people are extremely frightened.”

Asylum Access wrote INM last week asking about its plan to contain the coronavirus in the facilities but has yet to receive a response, Berlin said, adding that he did not know the specifics of the situation at the Tapachula center.

In recent weeks, some advocates have suspended their visits to detention centers as a precaution against coronavirus, “which leaves people even more vulnerable,” Berlin said.

The conflict in Siglo XXI arose on Monday when 50 to 70 migrants, primarily from Honduras and El Salvador, gathered to protest long detention times, the rights groups in southern Mexico said.

“People expressed fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus and announced their intention to start a hunger strike if they were not released,” the rights groups said. National Guard and INM officers deployed poles, water hoses, pepper spray and Tasers against migrants, according to the groups.

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Mexican government officials send mixed virus social distancing signals

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s deputy health minister unveiled public social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus on Tuesday, even as some top government officials seemed to shrug off his appeal for people to keep a distance of 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart.

The defense minister and finance minister were among about a dozen senior officials who gathered for a news conference where the measures were announced. They stood on a cramped stage, with little space evident between them, as a slide showed a cartoon figure with outstretched arms to indicate safe distances.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been criticized for an allegedly cavalier approach to the virus, encouraging people to go out to restaurants, for example, despite more stringent measures recommended by his government.

Mexico so far has just 367 cases and four deaths but is bracing for a fast rise in infections in coming weeks.

At Tuesday’s event, Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell said Mexico had seen an increase in non-imported coronavirus cases and was stepping up mitigation measures, starting with suspension of large events.

“We have decided to temporarily suspend events with 100 people or more,” Lopez-Gatell said at the president’s regular news conference. “All gatherings – public, private, governmental, social – must be avoided throughout the month.”

The government also announced some work restrictions, low or zero interest loans for small businesses, protections for the elderly and vulnerable, and said some military medical facilities would be opened to the public.

Lopez-Gatell defended Mexico’s handling of the epidemic, saying it was adopting measures at an earlier stage than countries that have been hit hard by the virus, such as Spain, Italy and the United States.

“Mexico is entering the epidemic a month later,” he said adding it is best practice to “not take the measures too early but reserve them for the exact moment of the inflection point, which is the change in the curve in the number of daily cases.”

Lopez Obrador is due to sign a decree that companies must permit vulnerable populations such as senior citizens, pregnant women and people with chronic diseases to stay home from work, with pay.

Lopez Obrador suggested titans of Mexican industry are also stepping up, noting that billionaire Carlos Slim told him that he will not lay off any workers during the coronavirus crisis.

Slim’s holding company Grupo Carso said later Tuesday its employees would keep their jobs even if some of the group’s businesses temporarily closed.

Additionally, the Carlos Slim Foundation said it would donate 1 billion pesos ($40.36 million) to various public efforts to combat the coronavirus, including helping to provide medical equipment such as ventilators.

Lopez Obrador said the government has enough resources to maintain social programs, weather falling oil prices and proceed with signature projects such as the Mayan train and a refinery near the southern port of Dos Bocas.

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Economy

UPDATE 1-Mexico central bank cuts rate out of cycle, unveils financial system liquidity measures

(Adds details about central bank measures)

MEXICO CITY, March 20 (Reuters) – The Mexican central bank on Friday announced a 50 basis points out-of-cycle cut that brought its benchmark interest rate to 6.50%, along with other measures to support financial markets roiled by the coronavirus outbreak.

Banxico, as Mexico’s central bank is known, also said it was cutting the rates on its additional ordinary liquidity facility, and reducing by 50 billion pesos ($2.06 billion) the monetary regulation deposit that private banks must observe.

Banxico, in a statement, added there was heightened uncertainty about the inflation outlook, with risks both on the downside and the upside, along with increased slack in the economy.

At the last monetary policy meeting on Feb. 13, Banxico shaved 25 basis points of its benchmark rate to bring it down to 7.0%. It was its fifth consecutive cut amid sluggish economic growth in 2019, when the economy contracted 0.1%.

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Avoid U.S. visits over coronavirus, mayor of Mexico's Tijuana says

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The mayor of Tijuana, the biggest Mexican city on the U.S. border, on Wednesday urged residents to restrict visits to the United States to reduce the risk of catching the coronavirus, as Mexico’s tally of infections climbed.

The mayor, Arturo Gonzalez, said in a statement that residents should not cross into the United States unless it was imperative, in order to lower the risk of infection.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has resisted calls to order restrictions that could damage the economy, even as the United States and Canada toughen up measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus.

Separately, the Mexican health ministry said the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Mexico rose by 27% in the 24 hours through Wednesday afternoon to 118 from 93 a day earlier.

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Mexico frets about U.S. coronavirus spread, could tighten border

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico could consider tightening its northern border to slow the spread of coronavirus into its relatively unaffected territory, health officials said on Friday, with an eye to containing a U.S. outbreak that has infected more than 1,800 people.

Mexico so far has confirmed 26 cases of the coronavirus, with no deaths. In the United States, 41 people have died.

Deputy Health Minister Hugo Lopez-Gatell said contagion from the United States was a threat.

“If it were technically necessary to consider mechanisms of restriction or stronger surveillance we would have to take into account not that Mexico would bring the virus to the United States, rather that the United States could bring it here,” he told a news conference.

He did not provide details. A health ministry spokeswoman said she had no further information.

The risk of infection is of particular concern to residents in frontier cities such as Tijuana, opposite San Diego, many of whom cross the border daily for work or school. Some now fear picking up the virus in the United States.

Still, the low tally of proven cases of coronavirus in Mexico – a nation of some 130 million people where sanitary conditions vary considerably – has raised questions about the government’s relatively hands-off approach to the epidemic.

There are some signs that is starting to change.

On Friday evening, Lopez-Gatell said the government would this weekend recommend that private and public bodies suspend non-essential services linked to the public such as classes, seminars and forums in order to curb mass gatherings of people.

Mexican officials want to avoid aggravating the economic impact of the virus by imposing sweeping restrictions unless the situation worsens considerably. Mexico already faces the risk of a second straight year of recession, economists say.

U.S. President Donald Trump says coronavirus bolsters his argument for building a wall against Mexico.

Trump wants a wall to block migrants from entering the United States, and wrote on Twitter that the barrier is now needed “more than ever” as coronavirus spreads.

“Because we have had a very strong border policy, we have had 40 deaths related to CoronaVirus. If we had weak or open borders, that number would be many times higher!” Trump tweeted.

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau, called for cooperation on organized crime and illegal migration in comments to Mexican lawmakers on Thursday, and said coronavirus provided yet another reason to implement more border controls.

“For both countries, it doesn’t benefit us to have completely open borders,” he said. “We see it now with the virus, and hopefully we can work closely together because in health issues, political parties and borders aren’t important.”

Unlike other Latin American countries, Mexico has not closed schools or banned entry to people coming from places with high numbers of coronavirus cases. However, some universities have begun to suspend classes.

Meanwhile, the Guadalajara International Film Festival said it would be postponed until further notice.

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Mexicans wonder if Trump's wall could stop coronavirus spreading south

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – True to form, U.S. President Donald Trump has warned coronavirus could spread from Mexico, touting his anti-migrant wall as a solution. Seen from south of the border though, the greater risk is infection from the much bigger outbreak in the United States.

Residents of the city of Tijuana, just across from San Diego, California, have for years crossed back and forth daily to reach jobs and schools. Many say they are now wary of bringing back the contagious disease from the U.S. side.

Perla Macias, a Tijuana resident who heads into California to tend a make-up concession in a mall, now sees her commute as a daily risk, but an unavoidable one.

“I don’t want to get sick, but I don’t have a choice,” she said. “I work over there.”

In Mexico, authorities have detected 12 cases of the virus so far and no deaths, a fraction of the more than 1,000 confirmed cases in the United States, where there have been dozens of fatalities.

In California alone 50 cases and four deaths have been confirmed. In Tijuana’s state of Baja California, no cases have been confirmed.

WALL WISECRACKS

Last week, Trump wrote on Twitter that his signature border wall is needed “more than ever,” citing coronavirus as a new argument for the barrier.

The overwhelming majority of Mexicans oppose the wall, dating back to Trump’s campaign for president in which he routinely lashed out at Mexico and its migrants.

Across social media though, Mexicans joked on Thursday that the wall had taken on new purpose – to stop U.S. citizens infecting Mexicans.

Wisecracks aside, Julian Palombo, a Tijuana business chamber official said what was needed was much tougher measures to check for infections coming from San Diego.

“It makes sense to build a wall, but a public health wall from over there to here to avoid the risk of possible infections,” he said.

Like others consulted by Reuters, Palombo bemoaned the lack of checks at busy land crossings into Tijuana, or in nearby airports. He added that face masks and hand sanitizer were in short supply on both sides of the border.

Coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people globally according to a Reuters tally, most of them in China. In Italy there are 15,000 cases.

Some experts speculate that the outbreak is more acute in both Mexico and the United States than the relatively low number of confirmed cases suggests, due to insufficient testing for the virus. Mexican authorities say they have a clear containment strategy.

Tijuana Mayor Arturo Gonzalez Cruz has said that he is working with Baja California state officials to implement better health checks on persons crossing on foot each day.

Dulce Molina, whose husband works in a San Diego hotel, supported tougher sanitation measures at the border but said a physical barrier was not a solution to keeping the virus out.

“It’s all over the world,” she said.

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Economy

The end of the Mexican carry? Traders smarting from peso crash

MEXICO CITY, March 11 (Reuters) – Global currency investors who piled into the peso through the “carry trade” strategy are nursing a bloody nose after the Mexican currency tanked 12% in three weeks, and analysts are asking if it spells the end of the popular investment tactic.

In a carry trade strategy, an investor borrows money in the currency of a country with low interest rates, such as the United States and some European countries, to buy bonds of a high-yield nation like Mexico.

The juicy returns for investors offered by Mexico’s 5.75-6 percentage-point spread over the U.S. Federal Reserve’s benchmark rate long helped prop up the peso despite a stagnating Mexican economy.

However, the strategy relies on stability, and volatility in recent weeks due to coronavirus fears and a crash in global oil prices makes the carry strategy risky, since returns made on interest rate spreads can be lost in the exchange rate.

In turn, that may leave the peso more exposed in the short and medium term.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Juan Carlos Alderete, director of economic analysis at Banorte, saying there were signs investors had been rapidly unwinding their peso positions.

“Typically, currencies that have higher losses when there are volatility shocks are the ones that previously benefited most from a carry strategy,” Alderete added.

The peso had been outperforming emerging market currencies at the start of the year and even touched an 18-month high in mid-February, boosted by investors’ buying Mexican debt and using derivatives to bet on the currency appreciating.

The global wave of risk aversion, sparked initially by the spread of the coronavirus, led to speculators’ selling pesos to cover their losses from the long peso positions.

On Monday, the peso sank to an all-time low of 22.93 per dollar before recovering a chunk of the losses. On Wednesday, the currency slipped 2%. It is now 12.5% weaker against the greenback so far in 2020.

Mexican government debt in the hands of foreign investors was just over 2.17 trillion pesos ($102 billion) as of last week, remaining close to record levels, but that figure could drop in the coming days, according to analysts.

“Fixed-income positioning in Mexico is heavy, and part of (the peso sell off) may be efforts to hedge the FX exposure on the fixed-income holdings,” said Sacha Tihanyi, emerging markets strategist at TD Securities.

Following the U.S. Federal Reserve’s surprise rate cut last week, analysts anticipated a matching 50 basis point cut by Banxico, as Mexico’s central bank is known, at its next monetary policy meeting on March 26. But higher inflation and the collapse of the peso clouded prospects.

Forecasts range from keeping the rate at 7% to reducing it to 6.25%, which would leave Mexico with a spread of between 525 and 600 basis points against the U.S. benchmark rate.

Ahead of the Banxico meeting, the Fed will hold its next scheduled policy meeting March 17-18.

To stop the peso weakening further, the Mexican Currency Commission, made up of the Treasury and the central bank, on Monday increased to $30 billion from $20 billion the foreign exchange auctions program in force since 2017.

“If the exchange rate is stabilized with this, a cut by Banxico on March 26 will depend more on what the U.S. Federal Reserve does next week,” said Gabriel Lozano, chief economist for Mexico at JPMorgan. (Reporting by Abraham Gonzalez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Leslie Adler)

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