DWEIR SHEIKH SAAD, Syria (AP) — The posters of slain Syrian soldiers, put up by families to commemorate their sons killed in the fight against rebels, are plastered on walls throughout the coastal province of Tartous, forming impromptu murals of death that illustrate the price supporters of President Bashar Assad are paying to defend his rule.
The khaki-clad men often pose with guns, with Assad's image often imposed above the slain soldier.
For government supporters, Assad is synonymous with Syria itself, particularly in Tartous, a scenic Mediterranean port that is majority Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is the faith of Assad's family. For Syria's Alawite minority, there is no other way out but to back the president, despite rumblings of dissent. Rebels often indiscriminately target Alawites because they are seen as the firmest pillar of Assad's rule — and because extremists among the rebels consider them heretics.
More soldiers have been killed from Tartous than any other region in Syria in the fighting to quell the armed rebellion seeking to topple Assad, now in its fourth year.
"This is the price we must pay for the country," said Ramadan Haidar, whose 23-year-old son Mahmoud was killed fighting in northern Syria. "Because if the country doesn't regain its sovereignty, then I have lost my son and my home."
It's unlikely that need for the sons of Tartous will ease, with the government seemingly desperate for soldiers as the conflict grinds on.
Some 4,000 soldiers from Tartous have been killed in the war, according to a Syrian official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to media.
The death toll forms some 10 percent of the estimated 40,400 soldiers killed, even though Tartous' population is fewer than a million people — less than one-twentieth of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million. Alawites form some 13 percent of Syria's population, concentrated in the coastal provinces and the central city of Homs.
They are not the only ones to die in the fighting. Syria's army represents the sectarian makeup of the country: it is largely Sunni Muslim, fighting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels. But Alawite troops are the most trusted by leadership.
School teacher Haidar's son Mahmoud was killed two years ago in a suicide bombing. The family home in the town of Dweir Sheikh Saad in Tartous province is now a memorial for the young man, strung with photos of Mahmoud in his army uniform, with his girlfriend, with his two sisters.
Haidar's wife Ibtisam, 43, stashed away her son's belongings, including red love-heart cushions his girlfriend gave him. She wore a necklace with a pendant of Mahmoud's face, often clutching it as she described her pride in her son for joining the Syrian army.
"He was sacrificed for the homeland," she said, smiling. "He is in my heart. I talk to him and it makes me feel better," she said.
The town, nestled amid olive groves, has lost 34 men so far, said mayor Mohammed Shaban.
Reflecting a broader trend, Shaban said most of the men were killed in the past two years, mostly by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and in mass killings perpetrated by the extremist Islamic State group as they seized a string of military bases in the country's northeast.
Among the massacres was the killing of more than 150 government troops captured when the militants took the Tabqa base in Raqqa province, in August. The militants stripped the soldiers to their underwear and forced to run through the desert before they were shot.
"We can't live with them. We are fighting ignorance and terrorism" said Issa Mariam, 54, whose son Abdullah was killed two years ago fighting in Aleppo.
Posters of Abdullah, 25, were plastered around the house, alongside his framed death certificate. His mother also bore a gold pendant bearing Abdullah's image.
There appears to be growing resentment toward Assad, particularly after the mass killings by militants. Some families say they felt their sons were sacrificed for the survival of one family.
But as Islamic militants become more powerful, many Syrians see little choice — better Assad's rule than the extremists.
An aid worker who works closely with Syrian officials said because the fate of Alawites was tied with Assad's rule, some were demanding the government pound rebel areas harder.
"If anything, their critique of Bashar is that he is too weak, so they would rather have a hard-line guy in power," said the aid worker, who requested anonymity because he wasn't meant to speak to reporters.
A demonstration in early October in an Alawite-dominated neighborhood of the central Syrian city of Homs may be instructive. After twin bombings killed 25 children there, hundreds of Assad supporters held a rare protest, accusing the Homs governor of not doing enough to stop rebel attacks on their neighborhood.
Haidar, the school teacher who lost his soldier son, suggested there was weariness.
"Certain provinces are motivated to go to the army, and perhaps they are affected more," Haidar said, referring to Tartous. "Many people were killed, and they are buried here in this cemetery."
The government appears to be trying to mitigate potential dissent.
A Syrian economics expert said the state was prioritizing social affairs spending on families of slain soldiers. But a decision to grant first priority in civil service jobs to those families was cancelled this week, said the Health Minister Nizar Yaziji. It appeared that the decision had caused an outcry.
As the war grinds on, with no decisive winner and no political headway, the military is becoming low on personnel resources, meaning there'll be no rest for Alawites soon.
"They will have to be patient, what can they do?" said Assad adviser Bouthaina Shabaan. "We all in Syria have to be patient, and we all have to persist in our resilience. What is the alternative?"
This week, soldiers at checkpoints in Tartous began stopping men aged between 23 and 42 years old, examining their ID cards and ordering some of them to report for reserve duty. Men were taking alternative routes to avoid being caught.
There was no formal announcement of the move, and an official on state-run television this week denied what he called "rumors" that men were being seized.
Parents of slain Alawite soldiers said they would allow their other sons to volunteer service if they wanted.
But the price is clear. In the provincial capital city of Tartous, an informal mural made of the posters of slain soldiers stretched for meters on a wall.
Further down, there was an official memorial: it was a large billboard featuring Assad's face, and thousands of names of slain soldiers scrawled on either side.
Across the road there was another billboard, also listing names of the killed. It too, was full.
WASHINGTON (AP) — A U.S. soldier returning from an Ebola response mission in West Africa would have to spend 21 days being monitored, isolated in a military facility away from family and the broader population. A returning civilian doctor or nurse who directly treated Ebola patients? Depends.
The Pentagon has put in place the most stringent Ebola security measures yet, going beyond even the toughest measures adopted by states such as New York, New Jersey and Maine and much further than the guidance set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for travelers returning from the afflicted region.
"I have one responsibility and that is the security of this country," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday. "And that means the security of our men and women and their families."
He called the Pentagon's step a "smart, wise, prudent, disciplined, science-oriented decision."
Yet, the policy far surpasses federal government standards. The CDC recommends that only people at the highest risk — those who've had direct contact with an Ebola patient's body fluids, for example — avoid commercial travel or large public gatherings for 21 days. Anyone who develops symptoms would be hospitalized immediately.
The differences are partly a function of the military's unique role, the constitutional authorities granted to individual states and the federal government's desire not to discourage health care workers from volunteering to help confront the deadly Ebola virus at its source in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
But the varying approaches have raised questions about whether and how different levels and agencies of government are coordinating the response to Ebola in the United States.
For now, the questions are mostly academic.
Only one Ebola patient has died in the U.S. and he contracted the disease in Liberia. Two nurses who were infected by that patient have recovered and have been declared Ebola-free. One doctor who recently returned from treating Ebola patients in West Africa has been diagnosed with the virus and is being treated at a hospital in New York.
IN A NUTSHELL, WHAT ARE THE VARIOUS PROTOCOLS?
— The Pentagon: Returning troops would have to undergo a 21-day quarantine even though their jobs do not require them to be in contact with Ebola victims. The military facilities could be in the U.S. or overseas. Already a group of 42 returning soldiers, including a two-star Army general, are in supervised isolation at a military base in Vicenza, Italy.
— The states: Not all have developed responses, but among those who have New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Georgia, Florida and Maine are imposing 21-day quarantines for health care workers and other travelers from West Africa who had direct contact with people with the Ebola virus but show no symptoms of the disease.
— The federal government: The CDC recommends 21-day isolation and monitoring for people who show no symptoms but who have had direct contact with an Ebola patient's bodily fluids, either through exposure or a needle prick, for instance. For those who have been in close contact with patients but have not been directly exposed to a patient's fluids, the CDC recommends daily self-monitoring for 21 days. Those recommendations are supposed to serve as guidelines for state policies.
WHY IS THE PENTAGON STRICTER?
Defense officials maintain that the Pentagon rules are necessary because even through troops will not treat Ebola patients, they will spend more time in the Ebola hot zone than health care workers.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. troops comprise the largest portion of the U.S. contingent in Liberia and will be staying there for six months at a time, compared with the 30-day to 60-day stays for U.S. civilian health care workers. Pentagon officials also note that the troop presence in West Africa will likely grow to up to 4,000 over time.
"Being in the hot zone is like being in a war zone; the longer you're there the greater the chances of being injured or killed," said James G. Hodge Jr., a professor of public health law at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
WHY NOT THE SAME POLICY FOR CIVILIANS?
It's a question some military spouses are certainly asking. Rebekah Sanderlin, a board member of the Military Family Advisory Network, said she hasn't heard complaints about the 21-day policy for service members. But, she added: "There is a lot of confusion over the quarantine policy because the military and civilian guidelines do not match. I do think if a quarantine period is justified for one group, it is justified for all."
Hodge, who is western director of the Network for Public Health Law, notes that service members, unlike civilians, can have their liberties curtailed. As White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted this week, "There might be some members of the military who think that the haircut that's required may not be their best, but that's a haircut that they get every couple of weeks because it is in the best interest of their unit and it maintains unit cohesion, and that is a policy of the military."
President Barack Obama has urged states to consider how their policies will affect the willingness of civilian doctors and nurses to volunteer for Ebola work in West Africa. Unlike those civilians, Obama said this week, the troops are not there voluntarily. "It's part of their mission that's been assigned to them by their commanders and ultimately by me, the commander in chief," he said.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The biggest Pentagon deployment is in Liberia with 1,000 troops. There are about 120 in Senegal, where they operate a staging base for operations in Liberia. Dempsey said Thursday that the troop presence is intended to grow to about 4,000.
As for civilians, since the CDC began tracking travel from West Africa, it has detected fewer than 100 people a day entering the United States, most of them U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, according to CDC Director Thomas Frieden. He said about 5 percent have been identified as either health care workers or someone who had been in contact with an Ebola patient, but not exposed to bodily fluids.
Seven out of 10 of those returning civilians go to six states: New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Virginia.
WHAT HAPPENS IF A SOLDIER CONTRACTS THE DISEASE?
Pentagon officials say any individual diagnosed with the disease would be transferred to the United States for treatment. Right now, however, there is only one aircraft designated to transport a sick individual from West Africa to the U.S. and it can only hold one person at a time and make only four trips a week, according to Maj. Gen. Lariviere, who testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week.
He said the Pentagon has a plan for isolation pods that could carry 15 people at a time inside C-17 military transport planes. He said purchase of those pods would not begin until January.
PAHOA, Hawaii (AP) — Ten miles from the Hawaii town of Pahoa that is being menaced by a stream of lava from Kilauea volcano, there's another community that was almost entirely swallowed by the molten rock nearly 30 years ago.
Today, a few dozen recently built homes sit on Kalapana's rolling black fields — offering a glimpse of life after lava.
"It's like nothing else. It's the newest land on Earth," said Hank Powers, a 47-year-old tour guide who is building a house on 24 acres of Kalapana lava fields.
Their example may be of little comfort to nearly 1,000 residents of Pahoa on the Big Island, who are watching as lava threatens to set fire to homes and split their small, rural town in half. As of late Thursday, the lava was 480 feet from Pahoa Village Road, which runs through downtown.
But Kalapana's residents show how some adaptability can make living with lava possible, albeit in some extreme conditions.
Powers said he moved in after getting accustomed to lava while taking people to view it as a tour guide. He's lived in Montana, Colorado and elsewhere in Hawaii, but he declares Kalapana's windy black plains his favorite.
The 47-year-old said he would be excited if lava returned. He's also prepared: He built his house so it could be loaded on a truck and moved away from a fresh flow if necessary.
That allows him to skip insurance. People in high-risk lava zones can buy insurance, but they usually have to pay a higher premium. The homes are covered by a fire policy due to the threat of the lava's heat.
Inexpensive real estate is a draw for some. A 7,500-square-foot lot in Kalapana Gardens sells for $5,000 to $8,000, according to Bill Parecki of Savio Realty in Pahoa. The average price of a home in the area is just over $55,000.
That's a fraction of what a home costs in Leilani Estates, a subdivision closer to Pahoa, where the average price is $207,000.
Ed Elarth, a 51-year-old who makes stone carvings and shell necklaces, said the new land has an energy that has made him feel healthier and younger since he moved in three years ago.
Life is rustic. People rely on solar and wind to power their homes, capture rain in tanks to wash with and truck in drinking water. Most people use composting toilets.
"A lot of people come out here and they can't handle it. It just drives them nuts," Elarth said. "Pele's got a way of weeding out the ones that don't belong here," he said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess.
Elrath said people in the outpost are like family, which he has not felt while living in other parts of the Big Island.
Robert Keliihoomalu, who has lived in Kalapana for all his 75 years, said lava reminds people to be humble, kind, understanding and open because it can't be controlled.
"It brings everybody close," said Keliihoomalu, whose home has been spared from past flows.
All of Hawaii's islands were formed by lava that emerged from a hotspot in the Pacific Ocean where magma has been poking through the Earth's crust for millions of years.
Powers said he could move his house to another spot on his 24 acres in Kalapana if another flow came. Or to a different lot he owns nearby. But he vows he would return after the new flow built more land.
"I'd just bring it back later. It would just be a little higher up," he said.
MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Remembering those who have died in the world's deadliest Ebola outbreak, Liberia's president opened one of the country's largest Ebola treatment centers in Monrovia on Friday amid hopes that the disease is finally on the decline in this West African country.
American and U.N. officials as well as Cuban doctors were among the crowd as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf opened the treatment center, which is set up to hold 200 patients and can eventually treat as many as 300. With the opening of the center, an Ebola treatment unit at JFK Medical Center has been closed. Many people with other diseases had been nervous about going to the nation's largest referral hospital, and officials hope they will now come back.
The opening of the center, built out of white plastic sheeting with USAID written across it, comes as fewer people are showing up for treatment at various centers. Officials are not sure how to interpret that. Some believe it's a sign that the Ebola outbreak is finally on the wane in Liberia.
"It is heartening to see that we are finally perhaps catching up with that boulder if not in front of it. It was rolling down the hill at a speed that we were never going to catch, we thought, two months ago, but we're starting to make progress," said U.S. Ambassador Deborah Malac.
Others believe Sirleaf's order that the bodies of Ebola victims in the capital be cremated has led to people with symptoms hiding at home, because cremation violates traditions.
Doctors Without Borders, known as MSF, said that as of Tuesday there were around 80 patients in its 250-bed facility.
"MSF teams are looking into the reasons for this; a widespread aversion to the government's mandatory cremation policy, poor ambulance and referral systems, changes in behavior, and other factors may play a role," the aid group said.
Assistant Health Minister Tolbert Nyenswah, who heads the government's Ebola response, told The Associated Press the JFK Ebola medical team and a team of Cuban doctors will be in charge of the new center, located in Congo Town in eastern Monrovia.
The World Health Organization said this week that the rate of infection in Liberia appears to be falling but warned that the response effort must be kept up or the trend could be reversed.
The international community's response was late and figures were mostly wrong, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told reporters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He said he is concerned about the "huge discrepancy" between announcements and the situation on the ground in the Ebola-affected countries.
More than 13,700 people have been sickened by the disease, and nearly 5,000 have died. The outbreak has hit Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea hardest and all three countries have resorted to extraordinary measures to combat it.
Sierra Leone has had a state of emergency in place for three months that bans public gatherings and, at one point, the entire country was locked down for three days to seek out hidden cases. There have been rumors that the emergency measures would be lifted, but Attorney General and Justice Minister Franklyn Bai Kargbo told AP on Friday that they are still in force. By law, they can last for 12 months and parliament put no time limit on them, he said.
While the disease is beginning to let up in some of Sierra Leone's eastern districts, infections are continuing in the capital and surrounding areas.
Despite some signs of hope in Liberia, many officials warn that the fight cannot be let up. Sirleaf said the memory of sick and dying people with no place to go is still too fresh.
"We can all imagine those early days when journalists .. went into the streets and into the communities and took those pictures that were put on all the television screens all over the world of the dying, the sick, the dead who could not be picked up on time," she said.
Despite those dark days, Liberia health workers fought on, she said
"To our health workers," she said, "we owe you a lot for the courage you continue to bring forth."
Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone and Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Shocked and offended by explicit questions, some U.S. servicemen and women are complaining about a new sexual-assault survey that hundreds of thousands have been asked to complete.
The survey is conducted every two years. But this year's version, developed by the Rand Corp., is unusually detailed, including graphically personal questions on sexual acts.
Some military members told The Associated Press that they were surprised and upset by the questions, and some even said they felt re-victimized by the blunt language. None of them would speak publicly by name, but Pentagon officials confirmed they had received complaints that the questions were "intrusive" and "invasive."
The Defense Department said it made the survey much more explicit and detailed this year in order to get more accurate results as the military struggles to reduce its sexual assaults while also encouraging victims to come forward to get help.
The survey questions, which were obtained by The Associated Press, ask about any unwanted sexual experiences or contact, and include very specific wording about men's and women's body parts or other objects, and kinds of contact or penetration.
Here is a sample question, one of a series of 11 graphic questions out of 34. Some are even more detailed:
"Before 9/18/2013, had anyone made you insert an object or body part into someone's mouth, vagina or anus when you did not want to and did not consent?"
"We've had a number of complaints," said Jill Loftus, director of the Navy's sexual assault prevention program. "I've heard second- and third-hand that there are a number of women, officers and enlisted, who have gotten to the point where they've read the questions and they've stopped taking the survey. They found them to be either offensive or too intrusive — 'intrusive, invasive' — those are the words they used."
About 560,000 active duty, National Guard and Reserve members were invited to fill out the questionnaire — about five times the number the survey was sent to two years ago. Officials will not say how many responses they have received so far.
Early last year, a report on the 2012 anonymous survey results set off a furor when it estimated that 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted or subjected to unwanted sexual contact. Exasperated members of Congress complained that the Defense Department wasn't doing enough to combat sexual assault and tried, largely unsuccessfully, to force changes in the Pentagon's legal and command procedures.
In addition to the Rand questions, Loftus said the Navy sends its own survey to sailors and Marines that doesn't get as specific. She added, "We think we've done a very good job of trying to make people aware of what sexual assault is."
But Rand analysts say the more detailed questions are necessary. So does Nate Galbreath, the senior executive adviser for the Pentagon's sexual-assault prevention office.
"This is a crime of a very graphic nature," Galbreath said. "For us to improve our understanding, it sometimes requires asking tough questions."
He said the Defense Department hired Rand to develop and conduct the survey this year, based on new direction from Congress that the effort be fully independent of the Pentagon. He was aware of the complaints but said that the more succinct the questions are, the more accurate the results will be.
"Research has told us, if I ask someone, 'Have you ever been raped?' they will say, 'No,'" Galbreath said. "If I ask that same person, 'Have you ever been forced to engage in sexual activity against your will?' they might say 'Yes.' It's because of the loaded terms like rape and sexual assault, that it's not very clear to a lot of people what we may be asking about."
The survey begins with questions about sexual harassment, asking about jokes, "sexual gestures or sexual body movements," requests to take or share sexually suggestive pictures or videos or efforts to establish "an unwanted romantic or sexual relationship."
Kristie Gore, one of the project leaders at Rand, said participants were told they could skip questions they found upsetting, or simply not take the survey. In the end, she said, Rand received a "relatively small" number of complaints.
She said research suggests that "the discomfort from being asked about prior trauma in a confidential survey is temporary and that such questions cause no additional long-term harm to previously traumatized persons."
Andrew Morral, the other project leader, said the questions were based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"If you don't use precise language to describe different types of sexual assault and harassment, people define those terms for themselves in different ways, which leads to ambiguous results," he said.
The report on the 2012 survey, which was released early last year, showed sexual assault incidents rose from about 19,000 in the 2010 survey to 26,000.
Those totals far outdistance the number of sexual assaults that are actually reported by members of the military.
According to the latest report, the number of sexual assaults jumped by 50 percent last year as the military worked to get more victims to come forward.
Over the past two years, the military services have tried to increase awareness. Phone numbers and contact information for sexual assault prevention officers are plastered across military bases, including inside the doors of bathroom stalls. And top military officers have traveled to bases around the world speaking on the issue.
In the 2012 anonymous survey, about 6.8 percent of women who answered said they were assaulted and 1.2 percent of men. There are vastly more men in the military; so by the raw numbers, a bit more than 12,000 women said they were assaulted, compared with nearly 14,000 men.
MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) — Authorities are investigating a possible police connection to the killing of three U.S. citizens visiting their father in Mexico who were found shot to death along with a Mexican friend more than two weeks after going missing.
Parents of the three siblings, whose bodies were identified Thursday, have said witnesses reported they were seized by men dressed in police gear calling themselves "Hercules," a tactical security unit in the violent border city of Matamoros wracked by cartel infighting. Nine of the unit's 40 officers are being questioned, Tamaulipas state Attorney General Ismael Quintanilla Acosta said.
It would be the third recent case of alleged abuse and killings by Mexican security forces.
The country is already convulsed by the case of 43 students from a teachers college in the southern state of Guerrero, their disappearance blamed on a mayor and police working with a drug cartel. Fifty-six people are under arrest, including dozens of police officers.
In a separate case in June, soldiers killed 22 suspected gang members in Mexico state, then altered the scene and intimidated witnesses to hide the fact that most of the dead were executed after they surrendered, a National Commission on Human Rights report said last week. Three soldiers face murder charges.
"We will apply the full force of the law and zero tolerance," Tamaulipas Gov. Egidio Torre Cantu said of the latest case, lamenting the death of the three Americans and a Mexican citizen, even though their identities had yet to be confirmed by DNA.
Presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez declined to comment when asked about the newest case. The U.S. Embassy said it was aware of the reports but had no information to share "due to privacy considerations."
The father of the three Americans, Pedro Alvarado, identified his children from photographs of the bodies showing tattoos, Quintanilla told Radio Formula. Clothing found with the bodies also matched that of Erica Alvarado Rivera, 26, and her brothers, Alex, 22, and Jose Angel, 21, who disappeared Oct. 13 along with Jose Guadalupe Castaneda Benitez, Erica Alvarado's 32-year-old boyfriend.
Each was shot in the head and the bodies were burned, most likely from lying in the hot sun for so long, Quintanilla said.
Tamaulipas authorities said it could take 24 to 48 hours for DNA tests to further confirm that the bodies were those of the Alvarado siblings, who were last seen in El Control, a small town near the Texas border west of Matamoros, about to return home to Progreso, Texas.
"They were good kids," said an aunt, Nohemi Gonzalez. "I don't know why they did that to them."
The three siblings shared their mother's modest brick home on a quiet street in Progreso less than three miles from the border. Erica, who has four children between the ages of 3 and 9, had been scheduled to begin studying next month to become a nursing assistant.
Brothers Jose Angel and Alex had been set to make their annual pilgrimage to Missouri as migrant farm workers more than a week ago, Gonzalez said. When they weren't on the road, they divided their time between their mother's house in Texas and their father's in Mexico.
On Sunday, Oct. 12, Erica drove her black Jeep Cherokee across the border to El Control. She dropped it at her father's house and went to visit with her boyfriend.
Her mother, Raquel Alvarado, had told her to be back in Progreso by early Monday morning, because Raquel had to work and Erica's kids had to get to school. Raquel put the kids to bed Sunday night and awoke at 4 a.m. to see Erica was not home. She began calling her daughter's cellphone and continued through the morning. "I'm always worried about her when she goes over there," the mother said.
Around 1 p.m., she reached her former husband. He told her Erica had called her brothers and asked them to bring her Jeep to a roadside restaurant under a bridge near El Control where she was eating with her boyfriend. One brother drove her Jeep and the other drove his Chevrolet Tahoe because they all planned to return to Progreso from there.
According to Raquel Alvarado, witnesses told family members that the brothers arrived around 12:30 p.m. and saw members of the police unit called Hercules pushing their sister and Castaneda and hitting Erica. When the brothers intervened, the police took all four of them, along with their vehicles. The witnesses said the armed men identified themselves as members of the Hercules unit and warned against intervening.
The Alvarados say they later found their children's cars at an import car lot belonging to Luis Alfredo Biasi, Matamoros director of social services. Quintanilla could not confirm that. Biasi did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Mayor Leticia Salazar officially introduced Hercules in September as a group with particular skills to confront crime in high-risk operations, according to a press release.
City Clerk Joe Mariano Vega, who was identified in the release as the group's commander, said in an interview earlier this year that Hercules was comprised of former marines and soldiers who policed hot zones for crime in the city's neighborhoods.
Neither Salazar nor the city's spokeswoman returned messages seeking comment.
Quintanilla said he saw no reason so far to interview Salazar or Biasi in the Alvarado case.