‘Cocaine King Of Milan’ On The Run After Uruguay Jailbreak

Rocco Morabito, pictured after his arrest in 2017, escaped from the Uruguayan prison where he was awaiting extradition to Italy.

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Polizia /Associated Press

Uruguayan officials have launched a manhunt for an Italian organized crime boss known as the Cocaine King of Milan who escaped on Sunday from a detention center where he was awaiting extradition to Italy, the Uruguayan Ministry of Interior said in a statement.

Rocco Morabito and three other inmates made a brazen escape from the prison in Montevideo Sunday, climbing through a hole in the roof of the building. Reports from ministry officials indicated that the men eventually broke into a neighboring property, robbed the owner, then fled.

But El Observador reports that one of the four men, a Brazilian also waiting to be extradited to his home country, actually avoided the hassle of the daring jailbreak by simply walking through a side door of the building “without anyone stopping him.”

Morabito, who is allegedly the son of another famed mobster with the same name, was one of the 10 most-wanted criminals in the world in 2017 as the leader of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta — one of Italy’s most powerful organized crime groups.

A 2013 Europol report found the ” ‘Ndrangheta is now recognised as a major threat not only in Italy but also in many other countries where it operates, including Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, US, Colombia and Australia.”

The drug kingpin was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison in Italy. Authorities have been chasing him since he was caught trying to import nearly a ton of cocaine into the country from Brazil in 1994.

Morabito had been living on the run for more than two decades under a false identity, but was eventually captured after trying to enroll his daughter in a school using his real name.

El Observador reported the director of prisons has resigned following Sunday’s escape.

According to the newspaper, officials were warned a year ago about an escape plan hatched by Morabito bearing an eerie resemblance to the weekend’s events. The only major difference between the 2018 plan and what happened around midnight on Sunday night is that in the earlier version Morabito was set to escape from the sixth floor of the penitentiary onto the roof of a supermarket — not a neighboring apartment building.

Italy’s Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini was furious over the breakout.

“I make two commitments. First: to shed light on the methods of evasion, asking for immediate explanations from the Montevideo government. Second: continue to hunt down Morabito, wherever he is, to throw him in jail as he deserves,” Salvini wrote on Twitter.

Interpol has issued a red notice — its highest priority international arrest warrant — for all four escapees.

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Europe’s Top Human Rights Organization Restores Russia’s Voting Rights

The Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, has voted to restore Russia’s voting rights. They were suspended after Russia seized Crimea five years ago.

Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

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Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

Europe’s top human rights organization is reinstating Russia’s voting rights, a major step in removing penalties for a country accused of grave human rights violations.

Russia was stripped of its rights in 2014, after it annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The seizure triggered international condemnation.

This week, the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based watchdog founded in 1949 to protect the rule of law and democracy on the continent, changed course. Its parliamentary assembly composed of member legislators voted to restore Russia’s voting rights 118-62, with 10 abstentions. The move gives Russia a greater say in human rights issues, from budgets to leadership.

A new Russian delegation presented its credentials on Tuesday morning.

The vote was praised by some leaders and activists who want Russia to be held accountable for human rights abuses. The council oversees the European Court of Human Rights which last year alone passed 248 judgments in Russia. It found human rights violations in 238 judgments.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called the result of the assembly’s vote “not a diplomatic victory of Moscow” but a “victory of common sense.”

But other officials lamented Russia’s reemergence at the negotiating table, claiming it undermined democracy and represented a shrugging off of Russia’s land grab and warfare in Ukraine.

A delegation from Ukraine walked out in protest on Tuesday.

In a written statement, Ukrainian comedian-turned-President Volodymyr Zelenskiy brought up the Ukrainian sailors who were captured last year near Crimea and remain in Russian custody.

He said he tried to convince French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to assess Russia’s compliance against the assembly’s fundamental requirements but “our European partners did not hear us and acted differently.”

According to the Kyiv Post, four out of 18 deputies in the Russian delegation are under international sanctions because they supported Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

Since 2017, Moscow had frozen its membership payments to the council. Before the vote, Russia threatened to leave the organization if it was prevented from taking part in a vote for a new secretary general on Wednesday. Germany and France ushered in a new compromise in May in an attempt to help Russia to return to the council.

Brookings Institution fellow Alina Polyakova tells NPR that the assembly vote has bad optics.

“The decision sends the message that it’s back to business as usual with Russia, even though Moscow hasn’t done anything to change its aggressive behavior,” Polyakova says. “The idea is that it’s better to have Russia in the Council because it gives some leverage. But this is a false assumption given that Russia invaded Ukraine and committed numerous human rights offenses before that, while it was a member.”

Nino Goguadze, a parliament member from Georgia, challenged the resolution on Tuesday. At least 30 assembly members backed her proposal, according to a Council of Europe statement.

Deliberations were scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

The vote follows an announcement last week by international investigators who implicated three Russians with ties to military and intelligence services in the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. It killed all 298 people as they flew over war-torn eastern Ukraine.

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A Whole Lot Of Improv: Southwest Readjusts To A World Without The Boeing 737 Max

Southwest Airlines Network Operations Center is the heart and mind of the largest domestic carrier in the country with a 4,000 flight dance card every day.

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Wade Goodwyn/NPR

Enveloped in soft, blue, dim LED light, Southwest Airlines Network Operations Center in Dallas looks a little like a Hollywood set piece on a science fiction film. It’s the heart and mind of the largest domestic carrier in the country with a 4,000-flight dance card every day. Bad weather, mechanical breakdowns, delayed flight crews, improvisational dispatch performed here day and night.

That day in March when the Federal Aviation Administration said, “Park all your Maxes right now,” demanded a whole lot of improv.

“We had to go in and … piece things together to where we were able to run an operation with 35 less airplanes,” Tim Anderson, superintendent of dispatch in the Network Operation Center, said.

The Boeing 737 Max was grounded this spring after two of the jets nose-dived into the earth killing nearly 350 people. The airline most impacted by the FAA’s action is Dallas-based Southwest Airlines which only flies 737s and has nearly three dozen of the new Maxes.

Southwest has kept its 35 Boeing 737 Maxes off its base schedule through Labor Day, although that’s almost certain to be extended into the Fall. Regulators at the FAA have indicated the Max could stay grounded through the end of the year.

Unlike United, American or Delta, Southwest doesn’t utilize a hub-and-spoke network but flies point-to-point instead. A Southwest jet will start the morning in Oklahoma City, fly to Dallas Love Field then Austin, Texas, on to Houston Hobby, turn west to Phoenix followed by San Jose, Calif., and end the evening in Portland, Ore. If that plane’s a Max, that’s 175 seats times six flights — somewhere around 1,000 passengers with no plane that day. Multiply that by 35 Maxes and you’ve got an unholy mess. Anderson says they had one stroke of good fortune. The published flight schedule, called a “Base Schedule” was ending in three weeks.

A Southwest Airlines jet plane lines up for a landing at Love Field in Dallas.

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“And our team that that does the schedule planning was able to then kind of erase those planes off the books, come out with the new schedule that came out let’s say April 8th,” he said. “That had less flights on it.”

Schedulers targeted routes between cities that had numerous flights each day and tried to subtracting the flight that averaged the fewest passengers. Those planes were then used to plug the holes the Max groundings had left in the carrier’s schedule.

Once the new base schedule was in effect, Southwest could begin acting instead of reacting — notifying the affected passengers in advance they needed to call and rebook. Still a major inconvenience, but considerably less trauma than getting your flight cancelled a few hours before departure. Which was what had been happening in spades. Ten-thousand cancelled flights.

At Southwest’s home airport, Dallas Love Field, operations have largely returned to normal. The airline has grown into such a behemoth that the grounded Maxes represent just 6% of the airline’s flying. How much is this costing Southwest?

The mass grounding is a “net negative financially” to Southwest, says Andrew Watterson is an executive vice president and chief revenue officer.

Fewer seats means less revenue even though fewer seats also translates into those seat prices going up. Prices are set by supply and demand, Watterson said, but the grounding is still a net negative. “We wish it had not happened.”

The cost in foregone revenue due to the grounding, weather and other factors was north of $200 million in the first quarter. Still, the airline managed to beat analysts’ expectations in spite of all the cancelled flights. But airline analysts like Helane Becker at Cowen say the Max grounding will act as a drag on the carrier through the lucrative summer months. And not just Southwest either.

“We’ve said it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars possibly as high as a billion for the airlines in the Americas,” Becker explains. “But because it’s a moving target, we haven’t been able to quantify it specifically.”

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Medal Of Honor Awarded To Iraq War Veteran

President Donald Trump presents the Medal of Honor to retired Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday. Bellavia received the award for conspicuous gallantry while serving in support of Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.

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Alex Brandon/AP

In 2004, on the day he turned 29, then-Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia charged into a darkened house in Fallujah, Iraq and fired his weapon at lurking insurgents as the squad he led scrambled outside.

“Staff Sgt. Bellavia single-handedly saved an entire squad, risking his own life to allow his fellow soldiers to break contact and reorganize when trapped by overwhelming insurgent fire.”

So reads the U.S. Army official narrative of the battle that first earned Bellavia a Silver Star medal, the military’s third most distinguished decoration.

On Tuesday, at a White House ceremony, that distinction was upgraded to the nation’s highest military award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

Before draping the medal around Bellavia’s neck, President Trump praised him for defying almost certain death to free squad members trapped by enemy fire.

“Alone in the dark, David killed four insurgents and seriously wounded the fifth,” Trump declared, “saving his soldiers and facing down the enemies of civilization.”

The medal was a turn of events Bellavia says he had no role in bringing about.

“Fifteen years goes by and you move on with your life, you put the war behind you,” says the 43-year-old resident of western New York state. “You focus on your family, you focus on work, and, you know, my life was 100 percent perfect without a valor award of any type.”

“Honestly,” he adds, “I always considered my award just being able to come home.”

Bellavia’s company commander, Army Col. Doug Walter, says it was he who pushed since 2005 for the upgrade of Bellavia’s Silver Star.

“I’m not sure why or how or what the reasoning was that it was looked at again,” Walter says of the decision to boost Bellavia’s battle award to the Medal of Honor. “I’m glad that it was and I think it demonstrates, at least in this case, the system works.”

Bellavia’s award upgrade to the Medal of Honor is the fifth of its kind to be made under a three-year Pentagon review of valor awards involving post-9/11 conflicts. He is also the first living Iraq war veteran to receive the prestigious medal; five others who also fought there were awarded theirs posthumously.

The battle in which Bellavia’s actions won him the military’s top decoration was part of Operation Phantom Fury, popularly known as the Second Battle of Fallujah. It was a second attempt by U.S., British and Iraqi forces to seize control of the city of 360,000 that was an insurgent stronghold.

The battle

Bellavia and his squad had been searching an abandoned block of houses for a half-dozen or more insurgents believed to be hiding out in the area.

The first nine houses they entered produced only stashed weapons. Inside the tenth house, they were met by a blast of machine gun fire from two insurgents hiding under the stairwell.

Bellavia’s troops were trapped inside the house and in mortal peril. He heard their screams as they were hit by bullets and shattered glass.

“A light switch went off,” Bellavia said. “I wanted that revenge. I wanted to be that leader that I promised I would be.”

Because his own gun had been disabled by an enemy bullet, Bellavia grabbed a heavier weapon – an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon gun, which he fired at the insurgents, giving cover to his troops as they escaped to the street.

“I just want to tell you that were it not for David Bellavia, I wouldn’t be sitting here today,” says now-retired Sgt. 1st Class Colin Fitts. “We couldn’t get out. We couldn’t do anything. We were stuck there and I had to ask David to help me out, and he did that – he put himself in the line of that fire and laid down a base of fire, overwhelmed the enemy long enough for me to get myself and the members of my squad out.”

Bellavia too left the house. But when he noticed an insurgent inside with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, he went back in to prevent it from being used.

“To protect the platoon and members of his squad, David Bellavia had to go back in to a darkened nightmare of a house where he knew there was at least five or six jihadis waiting,” says Michael Ware, an Australian journalist who embedded with Bellavia’s squad in Fallujuah.

“I had the privilege to actually witness a Medal of Honor moment,” Ware adds. “To see a man perform such an act of valor that it was humbling to behold.”

Ware filmed that moment, which appears in Only the Dead, his acclaimed 2015 documentary about reporting from war-torn Iraq.

Bellavia says that episode changed his views on war journalists, whom he’d previously considered “100 percent a nuisance and without any purpose on the battlefield.”

“Without men and women who do this job, America will never know what we do. It will go unremarked,” he says. “Our families would never know, our citizens would never know the sacrifice that goes on. I never saw that as a soldier and as a civilian I see it.”

After six years in the Army, Bellavia retired in 2005. In 2007, he published a book about the Fallujah battle, titled House to House. Bellavia now has his own daily talk show on WBEN News Radio in Buffalo, N.Y., sharing its airwaves with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity.

Bellavia speaks with pride and a touch of defiance about having fought in what was possibly the bloodiest battle of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

“We have nothing to apologize for. We serve our country. We do what our leaders tell us to do,” he says. “The narrative on the Iraq War has long been written. I’m not here to change anyone’s mind. I’m here to tell you that there are men and women who have served their country in Iraq, and…it is one of the honors of my life to be a part of that.”

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