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He Was Mexico’s Defense Chief. The U.S. Says He’s a Drug Dealer

From the outside, General Salvador Cienfuegos, with his stern visage, ramrod salute and beribboned chest, presented the image of a front-line warrior against drug traffickers.

As Mexico’s defense chief from 2012 to 2018, he directed his forces to brutally corner cartel chiefs and stealthily move patrol vehicles in pursuit of heroin shipments. Under his watch, Mexican marines arrested infamous kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman twice in two years.

But Cienfuegos, who was arrested by U.S. officials as he landed at Los Angeles International Airport late Thursday, was, according to their indictment, wielding the vast power of his office and military not to interrupt drug traffic but to help a cartel known as H-2.

Prosecutors cite thousands of intercepted Blackberry messages to paint a picture of Cienfuegos, nicknamed “Padrino” or “Godfather,” as an all-powerful benefactor who made sure thousands of kilograms of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and marijuana made their way into U.S. cities, producing millions of dollars in illicit cash.

“The defendant prioritized his personal greed over his sworn duties as a public servant, and he assured the continued success and safety of one of Mexico’s most violent drug-trafficking organizations,” the prosecutors wrote in a letter accompanying his indictment.

He not only smashed rival gangs, prosecutors say. He stopped military operations against H-2, introduced the cartel to “other corrupt Mexican government officials,” arranged ships to move their supplies and helped them capture more territory. He warned H-2 when the U.S. was using witnesses to testify against them, leading to the murder of a cartel member, the documents say.

The cartel “committed countless acts of horrific violence, including torture and murder, in order to protect against challenges from rival drug-trafficking organizations, fight for territory and silence those who would cooperate with law enforcement,” the letter says.

The indictment dates from August 2019. Cienfuegos, 72, hadn’t set foot in the U.S. until now, when officials could nab him. It’s unclear why he saw no risk in visiting. Prosecutors are asking that he be held without bail and tried in New York City where, if convicted, he could face decades in prison.

He made a brief appearance by video conference before a judge in Los Angeles Friday, speaking through a Spanish interpreter. Cienfuegos agreed to be held in a federal jail until a detention hearing Tuesday. His lawyer, Duane Lyons, said he will ask that his client be released on bail at that time. Lyons didn’t respond to a request for comment after the hearing.

His arrest comes 10 months after the U.S. charged Mexico’s top police official with protecting a different drug gang in the 2000s. The pair of indictments speaks to a mind-boggling level of corruption and intermingling of Mexican crime and law enforcement.

The military has a central domestic role which has grown dramatically since then-President Felipe Calderon began using it to escalate the war against the cartels in the late 2000s.

Cienfuegos was a driving force behind that expansion, testifying to lawmakers that only the military could be trusted to fight organized crime. In 2017, he successfully pushed President Enrique Pena Nieto to codify the military’s role in the drug war into Mexican law.

Since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2018, the military has moved far beyond combat operations. Soldiers now do everything from protecting oil facilities and ports to undertaking public works including airports and even government bank branches.

Its reputation as one of the country’s more efficient and less corrupt institutions has been central to its expansion. Where local police forces have long been seen as working hand-in-hand with the narcos, the military can rotate troops and commanders around different regions to stop those relationships from forming — and it has at least scored high-profile captures of major figures.

Its culture and framework may have left it open to abuse by a bad actor at the top.

“No one is going to question the secretary on what he does or doesn’t do,’’ said Craig Deare, a former assistant U.S. defense attache in Mexico City and author of a book on U.S.-Mexico military relations. “That’s a pretty strong characteristic of the Mexican army: Whatever the boss says, you do that.”

It’s clear from the indictment that Cienfuegos had collaborators at official levels, some witting and some perhaps unwitting.

“Whatever he did, he didn’t do alone,” said Athanasios Hristoulas, security expert and professor at ITAM, Mexico’s Autonomous Institute of Technology, a private university. “There’s undoubtedly a whole bunch of other people in the army that are at least somehow co-conspirators in this.”

There were signs that Cienfuegos, while in office, might have, as U.S. prosecutors wrote, “no respect for public authority or the rule of law.”

Human rights groups railed against disappearances and extra-judicial killings allegedly committed by the military under his tenure, most notoriously in the unsolved kidnapping and murder of 43 students. “There was just an egregious failure” to hold people accountable under his reign, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an organized-crime expert at the Brookings Institution.

The prosecutors in New York say Cienfuegos wielded his considerable power to help not only the H-2 cartel, but other unnamed gangs. Witnesses testified to the cartel’s “regular employment of violence to further its drug trafficking, its use of bribery to ensure government protection, as well as the assistance of the defendant to the H-2 Cartel and other drug trafficking organizations,” they wrote.
Cienfuegos was allegedly involved with H-2 when the organization was headed by Juan Patron Sanchez, who died in a 2017 shootout with the Mexican military. H-2 Cartel is a successor to the Beltran Leyva Organization, which was once led by Hector Beltran Leyva and operated in the Mexican states Nayarit and Sinaloa.

Cienfuegos’s arrest has raised the question of how deep the alleged corruption goes in Mexico’s armed forces.

When Lopez Obrador appointed current Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval in 2018, he thanked Cienfuegos for his “collaboration” in the decision-making. Cienfuegos soon lavished praise on Sandoval. At a press conference on Friday, Lopez Obrador said he had rejected all of Cienfuegos’s suggested candidates and that Sandoval was comprehensively vetted.

The president promised to remove anyone shown to be involved in the case, but gave little sign that he plans to rein in the armed forces’ power. The military and navy “are pillars of the Mexican state,” he said. “They are so strong that not even such lamentable matters as the involvement of a secretary of defense in narco-trafficking will weaken them.”

— With assistance by Patricia Hurtado

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World News

Rep. Budd introduces bill to limit Big Tech's Section 230 immunity amid censorship outcry

Fox News Flash top headlines for October 16

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North Carolina Republican Rep. Ted Budd introduced a bill Friday morning limiting the Section 230 immunity of Big Tech, after conservatives blasted social media giants for censoring a New York Post article about the Biden family’s alleged ties to Ukrainian energy firm Burisma. 

The bill, which mirrors Missouri Republican Josh Hawley’s in the Senate, would allow Americans to file lawsuits against Big Tech companies who breach good faith user agreements by censoring political speech or suppressing content.

The bill also withholds Section 230 protections from Big Tech companies unless they change their terms of service to promise to operate in good faith. They would agree to be subject to a $5,000 fine, actual damages and attorney’s fees if they violate the agreement. 

“Recent acts of political censorship by Twitter and Facebook are a disgrace,” Budd said in a statement announcing the bill. “Big Tech bias has gone too far in suffocating the voices of conservatives across our country. If these companies want to continue to receive legal protection, they should be forced to play by a fair set of rules in good faith. I’m extremely proud to join Sen. Hawley in this fight.”

On Wednesday, the Post released a report on purported emails they’d obtained from a whistleblower that appear to show that Hunter Biden introduced his father, the then vice president, to a top executive at Ukrainian natural gas firm Burisma Holdings less than a year before the Obama administration pressured government officials in Ukraine to fire prosecutor Viktor Shokin, who was investigating the company.

Facebook admitted to limiting distribution of the Post story until it could be verified by “independent fact-checkers,” and Twitter prohibited the story from being shared via tweet or direct message altogether. 

President Trump has called for stripping Big Tech of their Section 230 protections altogether. 

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

The section has been pivotal in the rise of today's social media giants by allowing not only Internet service providers –­ but also Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others –­ to be shielded from liability from content posted on their platforms by third parties, in most cases. But some critics on the right feel that tech giants should no longer benefit from protections of Section 230 if they censor conservative viewpoints, including controversial postings by Trump.

SENATE REPUBLICANS CALL ON TWITTER, FACEBOOK BOSSES TO TESTIFY AMID CENSORSHIP CLAIMS, SAY SUBPOENA IN WORKS

“Big Tech got something years ago that let them become Big Tech,” Trump said of social media platform’s liability protections. “We’re going to take away their Section 230 unless they shape up.”

The companion bill in the Senate is led by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., along with Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Mike Braun, R-Ind., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga. It was introduced in June. 

“For too long, Big Tech companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook have used their power to silence political speech from conservatives without any recourse for users. Section 230 has been stretched and rewritten by courts to give these companies outlandish power over speech without accountability,” Hawley said in a statement. “Congress should act to ensure bad actors are not given a free pass to censor and silence their opponents.”

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Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have also called for an emergency hearing before the Nov. 3 election to hold Twitter and Facebook accountable for "election interference."

Fox News' Tyler Olson contributed to this report.

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Economy

Should you roll your student loans into your mortgage?

When you combine mortgage and student loans, there are some pitfalls. Learn about the risks as well as alternatives. (iStock)

For many Americans, the coronavirus has created unprecedented financial challenges, which may make repaying your loans feel like even more of a burden. If you're trying to make debt payoff easier or otherwise looking to cut corners during these troubled times, you may be considering combining multiple debts, including a mortgage and student loans.

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While it is possible to combine your mortgage and student loans into one big debt under certain circumstances, this isn't always the best option as there are some considerable risks and downsides. There are also some other alternatives for providing more flexibility in your budget

Is it smart to roll student loans into mortgage?

Usually, the process of combining your mortgage and student loans involves taking out a cash-out mortgage refinance loan and then using the proceeds to pay off your student debt. There are upsides and downsides to rolling student loans into a new mortgage.

It's up to you to decide if this is a smart move for you, given your current financial situation.

Pros of rolling student loan debt into a mortgage

  • You could end up with just one debt to pay off
  • You may be able to reduce interest rates on your student loans
  • It could lower your monthly payments
  • You can deduct the interest costs (mortgage interest is tax-deductible on loans up to $750,000)

Cons of rolling student loan debt into a mortgage

  • You risk losing student loan protections available with federal student loans
  • You put your house in jeopardy if you can’t pay off your loans
  • Your home may also not appraise for enough to pay off your loans, which would mean this isn’t an option for you at all
  • You could also make student loan payoff costlier, even if you drop your interest rate, as you may end up paying off the new mortgage over a much longer period of time.
  • If you don’t itemize on your taxes, you won’t be able to deduct mortgage interest and you’ll also lose the student loan interest deduction, which you don’t have to itemize to claim.

HOW TO PAY OFF STUDENT LOANS WHEN YOU'RE BROKE

Other ways to pay off student loans

These downsides may outweigh any upsides — but there are other good options for freeing up cash during the pandemic to consider, including the following:

Refinance loans

Refinance loans could help you lower your mortgage rate, your student loan interest rate, or both. You can refinance your mortgage to take advantage of today's record-low rates or could refinance your student loans with a private loan refinancing lender to do the same.

If you can qualify for a student loan refinance at a lower rate than you're currently paying, there are often no downsides to refinancing. You can use Credible to compare student loan refinancing rates from multiple private lenders at once without affecting your credit score.

SHOULD I REFINANCE MY STUDENT LOANS?

You can use an online student loan refinance calculator to get an idea of how you could change your monthly payment and total loan costs by refinancing your student debt.

Rates are near record lows right now, so by securing a refinance loan, you may be able to both reduce your total interest costs over the life of your loan and make your monthly payment much more affordable by slashing your interest rate.

Visit Credible to compare mortgage rates and terms to see what type of loan you can qualify for.

5 WAYS TO LOWER MONTHLY STUDENT LOAN PAYMENTS

Debt consolidation loans

Debt consolidation loans can be used to consolidate multiple types of debt into one.

If you secure a student loan refinance loan, you can use it to pay off multiple existing student debts. You can also consolidate other types of debts as well. For example, you could use a personal loan to pay off other high-interest loans, including credit cards and medical debt.

You can visit Credible to view debt consolidation loan options and see if they'll save you money.

WHY NOW IS THE BEST TIME TO CONSOLIDATE CREDIT CARD DEBT

Balance transfer or 0% APR credit cards

A balance transfer credit card could also allow you to reduce the interest rate on some types of debt.

If you have other credit cards at high rates, you could transfer the balances on them to a card offering a 0% promotional APR. This would substantially reduce the costs of repayment during the promotional period since every payment would reduce the principal. It's also often possible to transfer the balance from multiple cards onto one new balance transfer card, thus simplifying repayment as well as making it more affordable.

Credible's online marketplace enables you to view multiple credit card options at once so visit today to see if this could help you to get some extra wiggle room in your budget.

WHAT APR MEANS ON YOUR CREDIT CARDS

If one of these other approaches will work for you, you can make getting through the pandemic easier by cutting your costs without putting your home on the line by combining your mortgage and student loans.

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World News

Poll shows Arizonans support legalizing marijuana

Fox News Flash top headlines for October 3

Oct. 3, 2020 – 3:04 – Check out what’s clicking on Foxnews.com.

A newly-released poll of likely voters shows Arizonans favor legalizing recreational use of marijuana through a ballot measure that will be decided in the November election.

A Suffolk University/USA TODAY Network live-interview poll from Sept. 26-30 found support for Proposition 207 came in at 45.6% versus 34.2% opposed, with about 19% of the 500 likely voters surveyed still undecided, AZ Central reported.

POLICE FIND 87 POUNDS OF MARIJUANA ON SAN FRANCISCO-NASHVILLE FLIGHT

The Smart and Safe Arizona Act would allow for adults 21 and over to possess as much as an ounce of marijuana and permit sales at around 130 existing medical-marijuana dispensaries in the state.

(AP Photo/Morgan Smith)

The legislation would also let those previously convicted of crimes that would no longer be illegal under the act to have their records expunged.

Proposition 207 would place a 16% excise tax on recreational marijuana sales and offer 26 retail licenses to those historically disadvantaged by marijuana laws.

While the poll was relatively evenly split – with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points – it may have undercounted Republicans, who had a 2.4% registration advantage in Arizona, according to AZ Central.

Democrats heavily support the act, with 59% of respondents saying they will vote for it. Republicans only give the measure 30% support.

A similar poll of 800 likely Copper State voters released last week showed a wider margin of support, with 50% of respondents saying they would vote to approve the measure, and 34% opposed.

The campaign to approve the law is drawing nearly all of its funding from medical marijuana dispensaries in Arizona.

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While the measure faces an opposition campaign, AZ Central reported Friday that the group is far less active and carries a smaller bankroll.

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