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In Uvalde, closeness complicates accountability for shooting

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By Jake Bleiberg And Acacia Coronado in Uvalde

UVALDE, Texas (AP) — After the massacre at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School in May, Jesse Rizo was worried about his old friend, police chief Pete Arredondo.

Blame for the botched police response was being directed heavily at Arredondo when Rizo texted him just days after the shooting: “Been thinking of and praying for you.”

Two months later, with investigations and body-camera video spotlighting the hesitant and haphazard response by police to the killing of two teachers and 19 students, Rizo remains worried about Arredondo. He also wants him fired.

Rizo’s complicated feelings toward his Uvalde High School classmate capture the type of mixed emotions that families of victims and many residents of this close-knit community are navigating as they channel their grief and fury into demands for change.

“I care about Pete. I care that he’s mentally OK. I don’t want a human to start to lose it,” said Rizo, who is distantly related to a 9-year-old girl who was killed at Robb Elementary. “But I also want to hold people accountable who don’t perform their jobs properly.”

The 50-year-old Arredondo, who as head of the school district’s small police department was one of the first officers on the scene, has taken much of the blame for not immediately storming the classroom and confronting the shooter. He has not responded to repeated requests for comment from The Associated Press.

This week, the Uvalde school board abruptly scheduled a meeting to discuss firing Arredondo, only to cancel it days later. As officials weigh their options, residents are growing impatient with unanswered calls to hold people accountable for the bewildering 77 minutes of inaction by nearly 400 police officers who responded to the school shooting.

But the mere possibility of his firing after months of resistance from local officials stands as a demonstration of the victims’ families’ rising political clout.

The strain over how to move forward is visible in the signs that have popped up all over town. “Uvalde United.” “Uvalde Must Stand Together.” While those signs mean different things depending on whom you ask, other signs are more pointed: “Prosecute Pete Arredondo.”

Family ties and political struggles go back generations in Uvalde, a community where nearly three-quarters of the residents are Hispanic. Locals had largely revered the police before the shooting. Uvalde’s leaders, many of whom are white, share church pews with their fiercest critics. And demanding accountability can mean calling for the job of your friend, neighbor or employer.

It’s a town with a “power structure” and “unwritten rules” that make it hard for many people to speak out, said Michael Ortiz, a local college professor who moved to Uvalde 13 years ago and said his tenure allows him to be vocal in a way that’s not viable for many of the community’s mostly working-class residents.

“Someone’s boss might not like that,” Ortiz said. “They are afraid even to march.”

Since the shooting, the mostly Hispanic parents of the victims have struggled to make their demands heard by the city and school district. Local officials initially resisted releasing information and calls to fire officers. But things are shifting.

In a sign of growing political activism, more than 300 people have registered to vote in Uvalde since the shooting — more than double the number in the same period during the last midterm election season. And in July, over 100 protesters braved 106-degree heat to call for stronger gun regulations — including raising the minimum age to buy an assault weapon — and for greater transparency from local and state authorities investigating the shooting.

That was the largest local demonstration since 1970, when the school district’s refusal to renew the contract of a popular Robb Elementary teacher prompted one of Texas’ longest school walkouts over demands for equal education for Mexican American residents. That teacher’s son is Ronnie Garza, a Uvalde County commissioner.

Garza said the shooting has changed the community, uniting people in grief but dividing them on questions of accountability. “We are a desperate people right now. We are yelling here that way, we are yelling (the other) way, for somebody to listen to us, to come and help us,” said Garza.

Faced with incomplete and contradictory accounts from local and state law enforcement, the families of those killed in Uvalde have begun to make people listen.

After state lawmakers issued a damning report that found “systemic failures and egregiously poor decision making” by both police and school officials, the Uvalde school board held a special session to hear from parents. Superintendent Hal Harrell apologized for previously being “too formal” and not letting the victims’ families say their piece.

“Trying to find the right time, the right balance out of respect, I did not do well,” said Harrell, who is white and spoke in an auditorium named for his father, who was also superintendent.

For the next three hours, grieving parents and community members upbraided the board, saying that if it didn’t hold people accountable they would lose their jobs. Some told Harrell he wasn’t living up to his father’s legacy, while others referenced the 1970 lockout and said they hoped he would do better, drawing applause. People called for the whole school police force to be fired and jeered at state troopers standing at the room’s edges.

Rizo, who was at that meeting, said he cannot respect how the police chief or the many other officers he knows handled their jobs that day. “There are consequences to that,” he said. “I can’t understand why he wouldn’t just resign.”

But the long history between them tugs at Rizo too. In the text he sent Arredondo days after the shooting, he said: “Please be strong and be patient.”

Arredondo responded: “Good to hear from you, bro. Thank you and please keep praying for the babies.” They haven’t spoken since.

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For more AP coverage of the Uvalde school shooting: https://apnews.com/hub/uvalde-school-shooting

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A real zoodunit: Monkeys found but mystery deepens in Dallas

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By Jamie Stengle in Dallas

DALLAS (AP) — Two monkeys taken from the Dallas Zoo were found Tuesday in an abandoned home after going missing the day before from their enclosure, which had been cut. But no arrests have been made, deepening the mystery at the zoo that has included other cut fences, the escape of a small leopard and the suspicious death of an endangered vulture.

Dallas police said they found the two emperor tamarin monkeys after getting a tip that they could be in an abandoned home in Lancaster, located just south of the zoo. The animals were located, safe, in a closet, and then returned to zoo for veterinary evaluation.

Police said earlier Tuesday that they were still working to determine whether or not the incidents over the last few weeks are related.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, officials were investigating after 12 squirrel monkeys were taken from a zoo there on Sunday and considering whether there could be a connection.

Here’s what is known so far about the incidents:

WHAT HAS HAPPENED AT THE DALLAS ZOO?

The zoo closed Jan. 13 after workers arriving that morning found that the clouded leopard, named Nova, was missing. After a search that included police, the leopard weighing 20-25 pounds (9-11 kilograms) was found later that day near her habitat.

Police said a cutting tool was intentionally used to make the opening in her enclosure. A similar gash also was found in an enclosure for langur monkeys, though none got out or appeared harmed, police said.

On Jan. 21, an endangered lappet-faced vulture named Pin was found dead by arriving workers. Gregg Hudson, the zoo’s president and CEO, called the death “very suspicious” and said the vulture had “a wound,” but declined to give further details.

Hudson said in a news conference following Pin’s death that the vulture enclosure didn’t appear to be tampered with.

On Monday police said the two emperor tamarin monkeys — which have long whiskers that look like a mustache — were believed to have been taken after someone cut an opening in their enclosure.

The following day police released a photo and video of a man they said they wanted to talk to about the monkeys. The photo shows a man eating Doritos chips while walking, and in the video clip he is seen walking down a path.

WHAT COULD BE THE MOTIVE IN TAKING THE MONKEYS?

Lynn Cuny, founder and president of Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in Kendalia, Texas, said she wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out the monkeys were taken to be sold. Depending on the buyer, she said, a monkey like those could be sold for “several thousands” of dollars.

“Primates are high-dollar animals in the wildlife pet trade in this country,” Cuny said. “Everybody that wants one wants one for all the wrong reasons — there’s never any good reason to have any wild animal as a pet.”

She said there were a variety of ways the taken monkeys could have been in danger, from an improper diet to exposure to cold. Temperatures in Dallas dipped into the 20s on Tuesday during a winter storm.

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE VULTURE?

Pin’s death has been hard on the staff, a zoo official said.

The vulture was “a beloved member of the bird department,” according to Harrison Edell, the zoo’s executive vice president for animal care and conservation.

Speaking at a news conference, Edell said Pin was at least 35 years old and had been at the zoo for 33 years. “A lot of our teams have worked closely with him for all of that time,” Edell said.

Pin, one of four lappet-faced vultures at the zoo, was said to have sired 11 offspring, and his first grandchild hatched in early 2020.

Edell said Pin’s death was not only a personal loss but also a loss for the species, which “could potentially go extinct in our lifetime.”

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT SECURITY?

Hudson, the zoo’s CEO, said in a news conference following Pin’s death that normal operating procedures included over 100 cameras to monitor public, staff and exhibit areas, and that number had been increased. Overnight presence of security and staff was also raised.

Where possible, he said, zoo officials limited the ability of animals to go outside overnight.

After Nova went missing, officials said they had reviewed surveillance video but not what it showed.

The zoo was closed Tuesday and Wednesday due to the storm.

WHAT HAPPENED IN LOUISIANA?

The 12 squirrel monkeys were discovered missing Sunday from their enclosure at a zoo in the state’s southeast.

Their habitat at Zoosiana in Broussard, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of Baton Rouge, had been “compromised” and some damage was done to get in, city Police Chief Vance Olivier said Tuesday. He declined to provide further details on the damage, citing the ongoing investigation.

He said police did not have any suspects yet but were still searching through video files.

Zoosiana said in a Facebook post that the remaining monkeys have been assessed and appear unharmed.

HAVE THERE BEEN OTHER INCIDENTS BEFORE AT THE DALLAS ZOO?

In 2004, a 340-pound (154-kilogram) gorilla named Jabari jumped over a wall and went on a 40-minute rampage that injured three people before police shot and killed the animal.

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Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber contributed to this report from Austin, Texas.

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‘Hands off Africa!’: Pope blasts foreign plundering of Congo

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By Nicole Winfield, Jean-yves Kamale And Christina Malkia in Kinshasa

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis demanded Tuesday that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” as he arrived in Congo to a raucous welcome by Congolese grateful he was focusing the world’s attention on their forgotten plight.

Tens of thousands of people lined the main road into the capital, Kinshasa, to welcome Francis after he landed at the airport, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.

“The pope is 86 years old but he came anyway. It is a sacrifice and the Congolese people will not forget it,” said Sultan Ntambwe, a bank agent in his 30s, as he waited for Francis’ arrival in a scene reminiscent of some of Francis’ earlier trips to similarly heavily Catholic countries.

Francis plunged headfirst into his agenda upon arrival, denouncing the centuries-long exploitation of Africa by colonial powers, today’s multinational extraction industries and the neighboring countries interfering in Congo’s affairs that has led to a surge in fighting in the east.

“Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa!” Francis said to applause in his opening speech to Congolese government authorities and the diplomatic corps in the garden of Kinshasa’s national palace.

Calling Congo’s vast mineral and natural wealth a “diamond of creation,” Francis demanded that foreign interests stop carving up the country for their own interests and acknowledge their role in the economic “enslavement” of the Congolese people.

“Stop choking Africa: It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” said history’s first Latin American pope, who has long railed at how wealthy countries have exploited the resources of poorer ones for their own profit.

The six-day trip, which also includes a stop in South Sudan, was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis’ knee problems, which were still so serious on Tuesday that he couldn’t stand to greet journalists in the plane heading to Kinshasa and forced him to use a wheelchair on the ground.

It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.

The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Program.

Instead of travelling there, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy on Wednesday. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.

Sylvie Mvita, a student in economics in Kinshasa, said the pope’s arrival would focus the world’s attention and television cameras on Congo and the fighting in the east to show how its suffering has been forgotten by the rest of the world.

“This will allow the world to discover the atrocities of which our brothers in the east of the country are victims. And maybe for once, the little humanity that remains in some people will cause an awakening and the international community will not only be interested in what is happening in Ukraine but also in what is happening in this country,” she said.

President Felix Tshisekedi voiced a similar line in his speech to the pope, accusing the international community of forgetting about Congo and of its complicit “inaction and silence” about the atrocities occurring in the east.

“In addition to armed groups, foreign powers eager for the minerals in our subsoil commit cruel atrocities with the direct and cowardly support of our neighbor Rwanda, making security the first and greatest challenge for the government,” he said.

Rwanda has been accused of — and has repeatedly denied — backing the M23 rebels operating in Congo.

Francis’ tough words at the start set the tone for the trip, in which the pontiff is aiming to bring a message of peace, a warning to the international community to not look the other way and a recognition that Africa is the future of the Catholic Church.

The continent is one of the only places on Earth where the Catholic flock is growing, both in terms of practicing faithful and fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

And Congo stands out as the African country with most Catholics hands down: Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians — 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.

That makes Francis’ trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as the Jesuit pope seeks to reshape the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls,” where all are welcome, poor people have a special pride of place and rivals are urged to make peace.

Aid groups had hoped Francis’ six-day visit would shine a spotlight on the forgotten conflicts of Congo and South Sudan and their soaring humanitarian costs, and rekindle international attention amid donor fatigue that has set in due to new aid priorities in Ukraine.

Francis answered their call, pointing the finger at the role colonial powers such as Belgium played in the exploitation of Congo until the country, which is 80 times the size of Belgium, gained its independence in 1960, and neighboring countries are playing today.

Francis didn’t identify Belgium or any neighboring country by name, but he spared no word of condemnation, quoting Tshisekedi as saying there was a “forgotten genocide” under way.

“The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood,” Francis said. “May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent.”

“We cannot grow accustomed to the bloodshed that has marked this country for decades, causing millions of deaths that remain mostly unknown elsewhere,” he said.

At the same time, he urged Congolese authorities to work for the common good and not tribal, ethnic or personal interests; and put an end to child labor and invest in education so that “the most precious diamonds” of Congo can shine brightly.

Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis’ main event, a Mass on Wednesday at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as 2 million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis’ biggest Masses ever.

Banners emblazoned with the pope’s image carried messages including “Pope Francis, the city of Kinshasa welcomes you with joy.”

Some women wore colorful dresses and skirts made of pagne, a wax print fabric featuring images of Francis, the Virgin Mary or the Vatican keys, in a celebratory sign of welcome.

Jean-Louis Mopina, 47, said he walked about 45 minutes to Kinshasa’s airport before the pope’s arrival on Tuesday.

“He has come like a pilgrim sent by God,” Mopina said. “His blessing will give us peace in our hearts.”

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Christina Malkia in Kinshasa, and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

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