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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Mexican authorities have found four American kidnapping victims. Two are alive; two are dead.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Americans were friends who crossed the border to Mexico, where one expected to get cosmetic surgery. Instead, they stumbled into gunfire last week, which the Associated Press described as a drug cartel shootout. Kidnappers hauled the four into a truck. Then, after days of searching, authorities found them in a wooden shack. Mexicans are asking how this happened and also why kidnappings happen so often.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Eyder Peralta has been following this story from Mexico City. Eyder, any word on the two survivors and on finding the people who did this?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah, local media are reporting that the two survivors are at a hospital in Brownsville, Texas. Mexican authorities said that the woman was not injured, and the man had an injury to his left leg, which was not life threatening. The Mexicans have made only one arrest, a 24-year-old man who authorities say was the lookout at the house where they found the Americans. But yesterday, the president and his security Cabinet promised justice. But they also reiterated that they believe that these four Americans were not targeted, but they were just caught in crossfire of warring drug cartels. Essentially, what they said is that the Americans were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

MARTÍNEZ: And this happened near the border, so probably not a stretch to think that politics punctuated reaction in Mexico.

PERALTA: Yeah, it's been politicized, but mostly, it's revealed a sharp contrast. Tamaulipas is a part of the country where mothers have begged cartels to let them search for their missing children themselves. In Mexico, there are over 100,000 missing people, and most homicides go unsolved. Political analyst Arturo Alvarado says the government pulled out all the stops in this case. In five days, they were able to find the victims, and that simply doesn't happen when Mexicans go missing or when they're killed. Let's listen.

ARTURO ALVARADO: They do have the resources to do these things. But they don't use them. They don't care about what is happening in the country in this topic

PERALTA: And he says that that is an awful realization to have about your government.

MARTÍNEZ: I know the State Department has different degrees of travel advisories to pretty much all of Mexico, but, Eyder, what should Americans who may be traveling there need to know about how often Americans get kidnapped there?

PERALTA: Well, they're rare. I mean, in the past, the FBI has documented about a hundred cases every year. But they're treated super seriously. Abelardo Rodriguez Sumano, who teaches international studies at the Iberoamericana University, says it's serious because it touches on a very sensitive issue here. Let's listen.

ABELARDO RODRIGUEZ SUMANO: Because it means that there's a sense of risk in terms of stability of the bilateral relations between the White House and the Mexican government.

PERALTA: And that relationship is paramount. It's not only based on deep cultural ties, but also money, a lot of money. Tesla, for example, just announced a $10 billion plant in neighboring Nuevo Leon. And something like this really shows how perilous Mexico can be. It's also worth noting that it's coming at a time when we're hearing suggestions from Republicans in Congress that the U.S. should take military action against the drug cartels. Mexico, of course, rejects that suggestion. But these kidnappings don't help its image.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thank you very much.

PERALTA: Thank you, A.

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MARTÍNEZ: The Senate today is set to vote on a bill that has formed unusual political alliances and exposed Democrats' historic vulnerabilities with voters on crime.

INSKEEP: Washington, D.C., changed its criminal code, reducing the penalties for some crimes and increasing the penalties for others. Republicans do not like this move by the democratically governed city, and that matters because Congress has so much power over the nation's capital. Republicans are now receiving support from President Biden, who said he wouldn't stand in their way. And Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia plans to vote with the Republicans.

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MARK WARNER: I think there might be a Democratic House if folks had handled the crime issue differently.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR political correspondent Susan Davis is following this story. Susan, this bill comes from a city council, so why does Congress even have a say?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Sure. I mean, it's outlined in the Constitution, but mainly in a 1970s law that gives Congress authority over any law that the D.C. Council might pass. It's not a very often-used power, but it's not unprecedented. And the specific law outlines a fast-track protection in the Senate, so they just need a simple majority to pass it. Senator Bill Hagerty - he's a Republican from Tennessee - he's the lead sponsor on it. And he and other Republicans argue that Congress has a unique interest in the public safety of the city. It's the nation's capital. It's a tourist hub.

But most of this law is not controversial. It's the product of a long process of review. But the two provisions at the core of this debate - one would reduce penalties for crimes like carjacking, which right now is a particular crime issue in the district. It would also expand the access to jury trials for certain misdemeanor offenses. And critics say that could overload an already taxed court system. But supporters of this bill do note that it would also stiffen penalties for things like gun crimes, which many supporters in the Senate are pointing to.

MARTÍNEZ: So when President Biden decided to support the red team over the blue team, how did that go over?

DAVIS: It really took many by surprise. Even former Speaker Nancy Pelosi said publicly she wished the president would have made his position known sooner. Thirty-one House Democrats had already broken with the party to vote with Republicans on the House last month. You could argue that could have been higher had they known that the president would not veto it. His position has essentially given Senate Democrats a green light to vote however they need to. It's really not going to be a test of party loyalty. It's really about their own political self-interest at this point. It was already on track to pass even before Biden made his position known. Joe Manchin - he's the swing vote senator from West Virginia - said he would vote with Republicans before Biden's announcement. The question today is just how many Democrats are going to vote with Republicans - there's no doubt it will pass - and especially those red state and swing state Democrats that are on the ballot next year.

MARTÍNEZ: So what does this all say about the Democratic Party's position on crime reduction?

DAVIS: You know, there really is no unifying party position, and that's obviously going to be a weakness when crime is consistently listed as a top concern among voters, even on a local level. The D.C. mayor, Muriel Bowser - she's a Democrat - she initially vetoed the council bill, but they overrode her veto. Senator Cory Booker - he's a Democrat from New Jersey; he's been a very vocal advocate in the criminal justice space - gave a really passionate defense of the crime bill during a private meeting of Senate Democrats yesterday over this bill. But it didn't seem likely to change many minds. Even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer came out and told reporters after that meeting that he, too, will vote with Republicans today.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Susan Davis. Susan, thanks.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

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MARTÍNEZ: All right, who gets to make medical decisions over pregnancy complications? Well, that is the question at the heart of a new lawsuit filed in Texas.

INSKEEP: Anna Zargarian spoke in front of the state Capitol in Austin about her water breaking too early for a fetus to survive. She said doctors told her the safest option was an abortion, which they could not provide under state law.

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ANNA ZARGARIAN: I begged my doctors to give me the care I needed. They said they wanted to help but couldn't under Texas law. Where else in medicine do we do nothing and just wait and see how sick a patient becomes before acting?

INSKEEP: She's one of five women suing the state.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Sarah McCammon is in Austin. She spoke to the two doctors who also joined the lawsuit and why they chose to take legal action on behalf of patients. Sarah, what's the letter of the Texas law on situations like Anna's?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, that's really what this lawsuit is about. And I should mention, it's believed to be the first filed by patients challenging state abortion bans since last summer's major Supreme Court decision on abortion. And, A, there are several state laws in effect in Texas restricting abortion in various ways. They do include medical exceptions. But for Anna and the four other Texas women who are suing, even with those medical exceptions written into the law, their doctors did not feel confident that they could make the decision to terminate without fear of prosecution. The lawsuit is asking a Texas judge to clarify that doctors have the right to decide when their patients - with their patients when a pregnancy is too dangerous to continue.

MARTÍNEZ: Mentioned how you spoke to two doctors who also joined with these five patients. What did they say?

MCCAMMON: Yeah, Dr. Judy Levison and Dr. Damla Karsan. They're both OB-GYNs in the Houston area. They tell me doctors are afraid of saying the wrong thing, either publicly or even when privately counseling patients. They worry about running afoul of laws like the one known as SB 8, which allows private citizens to sue people who help patients in Texas get abortions. Karsan told me she feels it's important to make a stand against these laws.

DAMLA KARSAN: I don't have children, and I'm not employed by a hospital, so I have colleagues who would speak out but have been told by their employer that they are not to draw attention.

MCCAMMON: And the other doctor, Judy Levison, says she recently retired from seeing patients in part because she found herself hesitating about what she could say to someone who might be facing a serious medical crisis with their pregnancy.

JUDY LEVISON: Because we're never going to be able to list every complication or every situation where an abortion may be needed.

MCCAMMON: And Levison also told me that because she's at the end of her career, she has, quote, "less to lose" than some of her younger colleagues who worry they could face fines or prison time under these laws.

MARTÍNEZ: So what are abortion rights opponents in Texas saying? I mean, do they think these laws need to be changed at all?

MCCAMMON: Well, the president of Texas Right to Life told me he thinks some of these patients would have been allowed to have an abortion under state law, such as those facing life-threatening emergencies, but some of the others would not. Now, abortion rights advocates say that's exactly why they need more clarity because there are so many different circumstances that can arise. Texas Right to Life is working with lawmakers on legislation that would instruct health officials to provide more guidance to health care workers about these situations. So there may be a rare moment of agreement on both sides on this one point, the need for some clarification. But the question remains - will that come from lawmakers or state officials, or will the courts force the issue?

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks a lot.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.