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News Brief: Spa Killings, Border Crisis, Alcoholic Liver Diseases

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The man accused of killing eight people in the Atlanta area on Tuesday is due to be arraigned today on murder charges.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Much attention is focused on the question that is hardest to know - why anyone would commit such a senseless crime. The gunman said he had a sex addiction after driving considerable distances to target specifically Asian businesses. Police said six of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent.

MARTINEZ: Let's bring in Lisa Hagen of member station WABE in Atlanta. Lisa, what's the latest on the investigation?

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: We do know that the suspect, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, was captured with a 9 mm handgun in his car. Investigators say he was driving to Florida after the shootings in the Atlanta area because he wanted to continue his violence. But what we're seeing is plenty of shock, anger and frustration about what happened, not just in Asian American neighborhoods but in many communities of color. People are angry about what happened. Last night at one of the shooting sites, the Gold Spa in Atlanta, people were showing up with flowers and signs. One of them was Kat Bagger. She was holding a sign that read Black and Asian solidarity.

KAT BAGGER: So I think we can really use our platform as Black people to push for the Asian community and support them in the way that we need to. I came out tonight because this is - I mean, this is the next day, and this is as sore as it gets. And I really wanted to let the Asian community know that they're supported, and they're very loved and that this is unacceptable and that we're as furious as they are.

HAGEN: Bagger says she's frustrated that the incident isn't being called racist violence.

MARTINEZ: So on that, six of the eight people killed were women of Asian descent. The suspect is white. Why is law enforcement so far not calling these shootings racially motivated?

HAGEN: Well, authorities say they've asked the suspect about that exact thing, and he denies that there's a racial motivation. But that's a tough sell here. As we've said, there's lots of anger about that. Both Atlanta police and Cherokee County Sheriff's Department are investigating the shootings. But Cherokee law enforcement officials' decision to focus on the suspect's narrative has been widely criticized, Cherokee County Sheriff's Captain Jay Baker's comments among them. On top of it, a Facebook page that appeared to belong to Captain Baker promoted a T-shirt with racist language about China and the coronavirus last year. People in the Asian community feel like they were targeted in these shootings. But many Asian American activists say this isn't new. Stephanie Cho was speaking during a community Zoom meeting last night to other organizers and told them white supremacy is, quote, "literally killing us."

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STEPHANIE CHO: Many communities of color have been dealing with this many, many years. Asian American communities have been under the radar on this issue. But really, honestly, this is a time for us to really come together in solidarity and really have those tough conversations, community conversations, around policy.

HAGEN: And others on that call are already looking ahead to Friday, which is when President Biden had already been planning to be in Atlanta to tout his new recovery package. They're hoping when he gets here, he's going to speak about the violence around the country that's been aimed at Asian Americans in the last year, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

MARTINEZ: What's been the reaction in the Atlanta area to all this?

HAGEN: So far, it's been a little muted. We should point out, of course, the pandemic is still a problem and probably keeping people away. And there was bad weather. We're already hearing that there are going to be demonstrations this weekend, things like marches and vigils to honor these folks who were killed here in Atlanta and in Cherokee County. But it's just clear that frustration and anger are bubbling up. Organizers here talking about what happened and how to figure out - marshaling resources and keeping attention on the victims and less on the suspect.

MARTINEZ: Lisa Hagen of member station WABE in Atlanta. Lisa, thanks a lot.

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MARTINEZ: The Biden administration is grappling with how to handle the largest influx of migrants on its southern border since 2019.

INSKEEP: Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas says an increase of unaccompanied minors at the border suggests the desperation in Central America.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: Imagine loving parents willing to allow their young child under the age of 18 to leave home, traverse Mexico alone to reach our southern border.

INSKEEP: Which is why the administration hopes to spend money in their home countries attacking security problems there. The president is urging migrants not to come to the United States now because the administration plans a new asylum process, which is not set up yet.

MARTINEZ: Let's talk to NPR's correspondent in Mexico City, Carrie Kahn. Carrie, what can you tell us about where many people are getting their information about whether to try to cross the border now?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: From a lot of different places. They listen to human smugglers who are telling them, you know, go now, that make all kinds of promises of getting them into the U.S. They listen to relatives that are already in the U.S. who can tell them about getting jobs. And mostly they really just are dealing with daily reality that's gone from bad to worse. You know, remember, in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, you have high levels of poverty, high levels of violence, horrible corruptions, that grinding poverty, then two hurricanes hit the region. And it's the year of the pandemic, too. It's been - it's just terrible there right now. President Biden wants to spend $4 billion in these three Central American countries over the next four years. But this time, he says there will be more conditions on that aid so it's targeted where most needed and won't fall into corrupt hands.

MARTINEZ: Why does the Biden administration think those conditions are necessary? Why don't they think they can trust these Central American countries?

KAHN: Basically, because corruption is rampant and endemic in these countries. We're talking about collusion with drug traffickers and organized crime gangs, especially in the case of Honduras, where the president is facing allegations in the U.S. of taking bribes from drug runners. But there's a lot of embezzlement, too, personal enrichment by politicians, just outright theft and misuse. And checks and balances on power there is very weak. Past programs to shore up the police and the judicial system have not gone well. And now Biden says he's going to do this differently and insist on anti-corruption issues that be dealt with head on. And that money to do this work will go to community groups, civil society and international organizations first.

MARTINEZ: Now, we've seen other administrations try this, giving out aid as an incentive. It hasn't worked out the way the U.S. wants so far. So could it turn out differently this time?

KAHN: That's just difficult to say. We're talking about long-term development, institutional strengthening, democracy building. These are all tough, tough projects. El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, was on Fox News earlier this week talking about immigration. He was just saying a lot of what the Biden administration wants to hear and how he's creating conditions in the country so his people won't migrate.

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PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: The best thing for both of us is to keep our people here and to provide for our people right here in our country. And that's what people here want.

KAHN: But look, when Bukele was just in Washington, Biden did not invite him to the White House. Biden is sending this clear message now that he will give aid and deal with leaders that he trusts. You know, his top Latin American adviser was just in the region and saying the same thing - a leader unready to go after corruption won't be a U.S. ally. And that is a 180-degree change from the Trump administration's approach, where Trump turned a blind eye to corruption and the undermining of anti-corruption efforts in these countries. He just wanted to work with leaders that would crack down on immigration. Biden says tackling corruption in these countries is now priority No. 1.

MARTINEZ: NPR correspondent Carrie Kahn in Mexico City. Carrie, thanks.

KAHN: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Alcoholic liver diseases are increasing sharply, especially among young people.

INSKEEP: Yeah. These diseases are caused by a very high level of alcohol consumption. Rates were rising before the pandemic, and doctors say the pandemic has only accelerated that trend.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Yuki Noguchi has been reporting on this. Yuki, how bad is this problem?

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, there are no national figures yet, but a number of hospital systems are tabulating their numbers. And Jessica Mellinger, who's a liver specialist at the University of Michigan, says they've seen a 30% increase during the pandemic in the number of patients with alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis hospitalized, which is consistent with what other institutions also told her.

JESSICA MELLINGER: In my conversations with my colleagues at other institutions, everybody is saying the same thing. They're like, yep, it's astronomical. It's just gone off the charts.

NOGUCHI: Off the charts. And it usually takes years to get liver disease to this point. But, you know, like, a six-pack a day or even a bottle of vodka, you know, drinking a glass or two of wine is less likely to cause severe damage. So, you know, it's striking that Mellinger is seeing so many patients that are so young. It means that people started drinking very early in life. And what's also striking for the doctors I spoke to is that alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis is increasing even faster among young women.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, about that, so do doctors have any theories about why that's the case?

NOGUCHI: Yeah. For one thing, generally women who drink are more susceptible to liver disease. It's a biological difference. You know, estrogen and other sex hormones might make alcohol more damaging for women. And liver disease among women was increasing, as you mentioned, before the pandemic. And it's just worsened now. And the theories are that studies show women have lost more jobs and have taken on more responsibilities at home. You know, psychologists say it's surfacing a lot of underlying trauma, domestic or sexual violence, eating disorders. And, of course, social isolation makes those things so hard to deal with. And, you know, on top of that, alcohol is marketed as a way to wind down and to cope.

MARTINEZ: How do you treat alcoholic liver disease?

NOGUCHI: You know, that's a really good question. I mean, the first step is really for the person to stop drinking, and you can't treat the liver if you're still drinking. But if you're still drinking, you might also not qualify for a liver transplant. And in its severest form, cirrhosis can kill 90% of people who have it. Hepatologist Haripriya Maddur at Northwestern University told me this.

HARIPRIYA MADDUR: Unfortunately, transplantation is finite. There's not enough organs to go around. Unfortunately, means is that many of these young people, you know, may not survive and, you know, die very young in their 20s and 30s. It's horrific.

NOGUCHI: Yeah, so it's horrific. I mean, unless you deal with the underlying addiction issues, treating the actual liver disease becomes next to impossible and you end up stuck on this kind of merry-go-round, a very dangerous one.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR health correspondent Yuki Noguchi. Yuki, thanks a lot.

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