Taliban Try to Polish Their Image as They Push for Victory

KABUL, Afghanistan — In June, when the Taliban took the district of Imam Sahib in Afghanistan’s north, the insurgent commander who now ruled the area had a message for his new constituents, including some government employees: Keep working, open your shops and keep the city clean.

The water was turned back on, the power grid was repaired, garbage trucks collected trash and a government vehicle’s flat tire was mended — all under the Taliban’s direction.

Imam Sahib is one of dozens of districts caught up in a Taliban military offensive that has swiftly captured more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s districts, many in the north, since the U.S. withdrawal began in May.

It is all part of the Taliban’s broader strategy of trying to rebrand themselves as capable governors while they press a ruthless, land-grabbing offensive across the country. The combination is a stark signal that the insurgents fully intend to try for all-out dominance of Afghanistan once the American pullout is finished.

have begun to muster militias to defend their home turf, skeptical that the Afghan security forces can hold out in the absence of their American backers, in a painful echo of the country’s devastating civil war breakdown in the 1990s.

report. Some homes there were burned down by the Taliban, residents said.

“The Taliban burned my house while my family was in the house,” said Sirajuddin Jamali, a tribal elder. “In 2015, a military base was under siege and we provided food and water for them, but now the Taliban are taking revenge,” Mr. Jamali sobbed. “Do they do the same in any area the Taliban take?”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said the accusations of burning down homes was under investigation.

The group’s public responses, though rarely sincere, play directly into a strategy meant to portray the insurgents as a comparable option to the Afghan government. And they ignore the fact that local feuds drive large amounts of the war’s violence, outweighing any official orders from the Taliban leadership.

On the battlefield, things are shifting quickly. Thousands of Afghan soldiers and militia members have surrendered in past weeks, forfeiting weapons, ammunition and armored vehicles as the Taliban take district after district. Government forces have counterattacked, recapturing several districts, though not on the scale of the insurgents’ recent victories.

But little reported are Taliban losses, aside from the inflated body counts announced by the Afghan government’s Ministry of Defense. The Taliban, with their base strength long estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 fighters, depending on the time of year, have taken serious casualties in recent months, especially in the country’s south.

The casualties are primarily from the Afghan and U.S. air forces, and sometimes from Afghan commando units.

Mullah Basir Akhund, a former commander and member of the Taliban since 1994, said that cemeteries along the Pakistani border, where Taliban fighters have long been buried, are filling up faster than in years past. Pakistani hospitals, part of the country’s unwavering line of support for the insurgents, are running out of bed space. During a recent visit to a hospital in Quetta, a hub for the Taliban in Pakistan, Mr. Akhund said he saw more than 100 people, most of them Taliban fighters, waiting to be treated.

But despite tough battles, the weight of a nearly withdrawn superpower, and the Taliban’s own leadership issues, the insurgents continue to adapt.

Even as they seek to conquer the country, the Taliban are aware of their legacy of harsh rule, and do not want to “become the same pariah and isolated state” that Afghanistan was in the 1990s, said Ibraheem Bahiss, an International Crisis Group consultant and an independent research analyst.

“They’re playing the long game,” Mr. Bahiss said.

Reporting was contributed by Asadullah Timory in Herat, Taimoor Shah in Kandahar, Ruhullah Khapalwak, Farooq Jan Mangal in Khost and Zabihullah Ghazi in Jalalabad.

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Fight Over a Gentle Stream Distills Israel’s Political Divide

KIBBUTZ NIR DAVID, Israel — A whimsical chain of inflatable rafts tethered together by a flimsy rope floated along the Asi, a gentle stream that runs for a mile through a sunbaked plain in northern Israel.

The boats were packed with residents of the area, their children and day trippers from farther afield, but this was no picnic, even though it was a holiday. The goal of this unarmed armada was nothing less than reclaiming the small river.

“This is a strategic takeover!” the leader of the ragtag crew, Nati Vaknin, shouted through a bullhorn as he waded ahead of the group.

The flotilla’s destination was a forbidden paradise: an exquisite, aquamarine stretch of the stream that runs through, and that has effectively been monopolized by, Kibbutz Nir David, a communal farm founded by early Zionist pioneers, Ashkenazi Jews from Europe who historically formed the core of the Israeli elite.

Free the Asi campaign, a group fighting for public access to a cherished beauty spot and against perceived privilege. On the other is a kibbutz eager to maintain its hard-earned assets and tranquil lifestyle. The dispute has landed in court, awaiting resolution; in late May, the state of Israel weighed in, backing the public’s right to access the stream through the kibbutz.

But underlying the battle are much greater tensions that extend across Israel.

The Asi dispute pits advantaged scions of the country’s socialist founders against a younger generation from a traditionally marginalized group. And it has resonated across Israel as a distillation of the identity politics and divisions that deepened under the long prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s fourth in two years, 93.5 percent of the vote in Beit Shean, with a population of about 18,000, went to right-wing or religious parties mostly aligned with Mr. Netanyahu, then the prime minister. Three miles away in Nir David, a community of about 650 people, over 90 percent of the votes went to centrist or left-wing parties that belong to the new governing coalition that ousted him.

Free the Asi campaign has attracted a variety of supporters, including left-wing social justice advocates and environmentalists. But left-wing political parties have mostly stayed mum to avoid alienating the kibbutz movement, their traditional base of support.

Some on the right have enthusiastically taken up the cause, like Yair Netanyahu, the former prime minister’s elder son, who has called to liberate the Asi on Twitter. It was a lawmaker from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi party, who brought the court case against the kibbutz.

“It’s worth it for them to fan the ethnic narrative,” said Lavi Meiri, the kibbutz’s chief administrator. “It gets them votes.”

Nir David denies any discrimination, asserting that 40 percent of its population is now Mizrahi.

To end the standoff, Nir David has backed developing a new leisure area outside the kibbutz or extending the Asi’s flow toward Beit Shean. But the Free the Asi leaders said that could set a precedent for the privatization of natural resources.

Perah Hadad, 36, a campaign leader from Beit Shean, said the relationship with Nir David had always been one of “us on the outside and them inside.”

Ms. Hadad, a political science student, argues that part of the kibbutz could be opened to the public with fixed hours and prohibitions on barbecues and loud music.

“After all,” she said, “there are not that many streams like this in Israel.”

The flotilla led by Mr. Vaknin took place on Mimouna, a North African Jewish holiday marking the end of Passover.

Mr. Vaknin, 30, an information systems analyst, had organized a noisy and festive demonstration that began outside the kibbutz gate, complete with a D.J. and piles of mufletot, Mimouna pancakes dripping with honey.

“Open your gates and open your hearts!” Mr. Vaknin shouted, inviting kibbutz residents to join the party.

An eclectic mix of about two dozen people turned up to protest.

While the kibbutz offers the most practical entry into the Asi, it is possible to reach the water where the stream meets the irrigation channel. But that way involves several hazards, including clambering down a steep incline off a busy road and the possibility that sharp rocks in this untamed part of the stream would tear a raft.

Despite those obstacles, the protesters moved from the kibbutz down the road to launch their flotilla from that unblocked spot and later disembarked near the kibbutz cemetery. Children swam and chased ducks as grim-faced security guards looked on, filming on their cellphones.

The wet interlopers then sauntered off into the heart of the kibbutz. Nobody stopped them, and they posed for victory photos on the manicured bank of the Asi.

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From the Heart to Higher Education: The 2021 College Essays on Money

Despite the loud busking music, arcade lights and swarms of people, it was hard to be distracted from the corner street stall serving steaming cupfuls of tteokbokki — a medley of rice cake and fish cake covered in a concoction of hot sweet sauce. I gulped when I felt my friend tugging on the sleeve of my jacket, anticipating that he wanted to try it. After all, I promised to treat him out if he visited me in Korea over winter break.

The cups of tteokbokki, garnished with sesame leaves and tempura, was a high-end variant of the street food, nothing like the kind from my childhood. Its price of 3,500 Korean won was also nothing like I recalled, either, simply charged more for being sold on a busy street. If I denied the purchase, I could console my friend and brother by purchasing more substantial meals elsewhere. Or we could spend on overpriced food now to indulge in the immediate gratification of a convenient but ephemeral snack.

At every seemingly inconsequential expenditure, I weigh the pros and cons of possible purchases as if I held my entire fate in my hands. To be generously hospitable, but recklessly drain the travel allowance we needed to stretch across two weeks? Or to be budgetarily shrewd, but possibly risk being classified as stingy? That is the question, and a calculus I so dearly detest.

Unable to secure subsequent employment and saddled by alimony complications, there was no room in my dad’s household to be embarrassed by austerity or scraping for crumbs. Ever since I was taught to dilute shampoo with water, I’ve revised my formula to reduce irritation to the eye. Every visit to a fast-food chain included asking for a sheet of discount coupons — the parameters of all future menu choice — and a past receipt containing the code of a completed survey to redeem for a free cheeseburger. Exploiting combinations of multiple promotions to maximize savings at such establishments felt as thrilling as cracking war cryptography, critical for minimizing cash casualties.

However, while disciplined restriction of expenses may be virtuous in private, at outings, even those amongst friends, spending less — when it comes to status — paradoxically costs more. In Asian family-style eating customs, a dish ordered is typically available to everyone, and the total bill, regardless of what you did or did not consume, is divided evenly. Too ashamed to ask for myself to be excluded from paying for dishes I did not order or partake in, I’ve opted out of invitations to meals altogether. I am wary even of meals where the inviting host has offered to treat everyone, fearful that if I only attended “free meals” I would be pinned as a parasite.

Although I can now conduct t-tests to extract correlations between multiple variables, calculate marginal propensities to import and assess whether a developing country elsewhere in the world is at risk of becoming stuck in the middle-income trap, my day-to-day decisions still revolve around elementary arithmetic. I feel haunted, cursed by the compulsion to diligently subtract pennies from purchases hoping it will eventually pile up into a mere dollar, as if the slightest misjudgment in a single buy would tip my family’s balance sheet into irrecoverable poverty.

Will I ever stop stressing over overspending?

I’m not sure I ever will.

But I do know this. As I handed over 7,000 won in exchange for two cups of tteokbokki to share amongst the three of us — my friend, my brother and myself — I am reminded that even if we are not swimming in splendor, we can still uphold our dignity through the generosity of sharing. Restricting one’s conscience only around ruminating which roads will lead to riches risks blindness toward rarer wealth: friends and family who do not measure one’s worth based on their net worth. Maybe one day, such rigorous monitoring of financial activity won’t be necessary, but even if not, this is still enough.

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How Private Equity Firms Avoid Taxes

There were two weeks left in the Trump administration when the Treasury Department handed down a set of rules governing an obscure corner of the tax code.

Overseen by a senior Treasury official whose previous job involved helping the wealthy avoid taxes, the new regulations represented a major victory for private equity firms. They ensured that executives in the $4.5 trillion industry, whose leaders often measure their yearly pay in eight or nine figures, could avoid paying hundreds of millions in taxes.

The rules were approved on Jan. 5, the day before the riot at the U.S. Capitol. Hardly anyone noticed.

The Trump administration’s farewell gift to the buyout industry was part of a pattern that has spanned Republican and Democratic presidencies and Congresses: Private equity has conquered the American tax system.

one recent estimate, the United States loses $75 billion a year from investors in partnerships failing to report their income accurately — at least some of which would probably be recovered if the I.R.S. conducted more audits. That’s enough to roughly double annual federal spending on education.

It is also a dramatic understatement of the true cost. It doesn’t include the ever-changing array of maneuvers — often skating the edge of the law — that private equity firms have devised to help their managers avoid income taxes on the roughly $120 billion the industry pays its executives each year.

Private equity’s ability to vanquish the I.R.S., Treasury and Congress goes a long way toward explaining the deep inequities in the U.S. tax system. When it comes to bankrolling the federal government, the richest of America’s rich — many of them hailing from the private equity industry — play by an entirely different set of rules than everyone else.

The result is that men like Blackstone Group’s chief executive, Stephen A. Schwarzman, who earned more than $610 million last year, can pay federal taxes at rates similar to the average American.

Lawmakers have periodically tried to force private equity to pay more, and the Biden administration has proposed a series of reforms, including enlarging the I.R.S.’s enforcement budget and closing loopholes. The push for reform gained new momentum after ProPublica’s recent revelation that some of America’s richest men paid little or no federal taxes.

nearly $600 million in campaign contributions over the last decade, has repeatedly derailed past efforts to increase its tax burden.

Taylor Swift’s back music catalog.

The industry makes money in two main ways. Firms typically charge their investors a management fee of 2 percent of their assets. And they keep 20 percent of future profits that their investments generate.

That slice of future profits is known as “carried interest.” The term dates at least to the Renaissance. Italian ship captains were compensated in part with an interest in whatever profits were realized on the cargo they carried.

The I.R.S. has long allowed the industry to treat the money it makes from carried interests as capital gains, rather than as ordinary income.

article highlighting the inequity of the tax treatment. It prompted lawmakers from both parties to try to close the so-called carried interest loophole. The on-again, off-again campaign has continued ever since.

Whenever legislation gathers momentum, the private equity industry — joined by real estate, venture capital and other sectors that rely on partnerships — has pumped up campaign contributions and dispatched top executives to Capitol Hill. One bill after another has died, generally without a vote.

One day in 2011, Gregg Polsky, then a professor of tax law at the University of North Carolina, received an out-of-the-blue email. It was from a lawyer for a former private equity executive. The executive had filed a whistle-blower claim with the I.R.S. alleging that their old firm was using illegal tactics to avoid taxes.

The whistle-blower wanted Mr. Polsky’s advice.

Mr. Polsky had previously served as the I.R.S.’s “professor in residence,” and in that role he had developed an expertise in how private equity firms’ vast profits were taxed. Back in academia, he had published a research paper detailing a little-known but pervasive industry tax-dodging technique.

$89 billion in private equity assets — as being “abusive” and a “thinly disguised way of paying the management company its quarterly paycheck.”

Apollo said in a statement that the company stopped using fee waivers in 2012 and is “not aware of any I.R.S. inquiries involving the firm’s use of fee waivers.”

floated the idea of cracking down on carried interest.

Private equity firms mobilized. Blackstone’s lobbying spending increased by nearly a third that year, to $8.5 million. (Matt Anderson, a Blackstone spokesman, said the company’s senior executives “are among the largest individual taxpayers in the country.” He wouldn’t disclose Mr. Schwarzman’s tax rate but said the firm never used fee waivers.)

Lawmakers got cold feet. The initiative fizzled.

In 2015, the Obama administration took a more modest approach. The Treasury Department issued regulations that barred certain types of especially aggressive fee waivers.

But by spelling that out, the new rules codified the legitimacy of fee waivers in general, which until that point many experts had viewed as abusive on their face.

So did his predecessor in the Obama administration, Timothy F. Geithner.

Inside the I.R.S. — which lost about one-third of its agents and officers from 2008 to 2018 — many viewed private equity’s webs of interlocking partnerships as designed to befuddle auditors and dodge taxes.

One I.R.S. agent complained that “income is pushed down so many tiers, you are never able to find out where the real problems or duplication of deductions exist,” according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office investigation of partnerships in 2014. Another agent said the purpose of large partnerships seemed to be making “it difficult to identify income sources and tax shelters.”

The Times reviewed 10 years of annual reports filed by the five largest publicly traded private equity firms. They contained no trace of the firms ever having to pay the I.R.S. extra money, and they referred to only minor audits that they said were unlikely to affect their finances.

Current and former I.R.S. officials said in interviews that such audits generally involved issues like firms’ accounting for travel costs, rather than major reckonings over their taxable profits. The officials said they were unaware of any recent significant audits of private equity firms.

For a while, it looked as if there would be an exception to this general rule: the I.R.S.’s reviews of the fee waivers spurred by the whistle-blower claims. But it soon became clear that the effort lacked teeth.

Kat Gregor, a tax lawyer at the law firm Ropes & Gray, said the I.R.S. had challenged fee waivers used by four of her clients, whom she wouldn’t identify. The auditors struck her as untrained in the thicket of tax laws governing partnerships.

“It’s the equivalent of picking someone who was used to conducting an interview in English and tell them to go do it in Spanish,” Ms. Gregor said.

The audits of her clients wrapped up in late 2019. None owed any money.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Trump vowed to “eliminate the carried interest deduction, well-known deduction, and other special-interest loopholes that have been so good for Wall Street investors, and for people like me, but unfair to American workers.”

wanted to close the loophole, congressional Republicans resisted. Instead, they embraced a much milder measure: requiring private equity officials to hold their investments for at least three years before reaping preferential tax treatment on their carried interests. Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who had previously run an investment partnership, signed off.

McKinsey, typically holds investments for more than five years. The measure, part of a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts, was projected to generate $1 billion in revenue over a decade.

credited Mr. Mnuchin, hailing him as “an all-star.”

Mr. Fleischer, who a decade earlier had raised alarms about carried interest, said the measure “was structured by industry to appear to do something while affecting as few as possible.”

Months later, Mr. Callas joined the law and lobbying firm Steptoe & Johnson. The private equity giant Carlyle is one of his biggest clients.

It took the Treasury Department more than two years to propose rules spelling out the fine print of the 2017 law. The Treasury’s suggested language was strict. One proposal would have empowered I.R.S. auditors to more closely examine internal transactions that private equity firms might use to get around the law’s three-year holding period.

The industry, so happy with the tepid 2017 law, was up in arms over the tough rules the Treasury’s staff was now proposing. In a letter in October 2020, the American Investment Council, led by Drew Maloney, a former aide to Mr. Mnuchin, noted how private equity had invested in hundreds of companies during the coronavirus pandemic and said the Treasury’s overzealous approach would harm the industry.

The rules were the responsibility of Treasury’s top tax official, David Kautter. He previously was the national tax director at EY, formerly Ernst & Young, when the firm was marketing illegal tax shelters that led to a federal criminal investigation and a $123 million settlement. (Mr. Kautter has denied being involved with selling the shelters but has expressed regret about not speaking up about them.)

On his watch at Treasury, the rules under development began getting softer, including when it came to the three-year holding period.

Monte Jackel, a former I.R.S. attorney who worked on the original version of the proposed regulations.

Mr. Mnuchin, back in the private sector, is starting an investment fund that could benefit from his department’s weaker rules.

Even during the pandemic, the charmed march of private equity continued.

The top five publicly traded firms reported net profits last year of $8.6 billion. They paid their executives $8.3 billion. In addition to Mr. Schwarzman’s $610 million, the co-founders of KKR each made about $90 million, and Apollo’s Leon Black received $211 million, according to Equilar, an executive compensation consulting firm.

now advising clients on techniques to circumvent the three-year holding period.

The most popular is known as a “carry waiver.” It enables private equity managers to hold their carried interests for less than three years without paying higher tax rates. The technique is complicated, but it involves temporarily moving money into other investment vehicles. That provides the industry with greater flexibility to buy and sell things whenever it wants, without triggering a higher tax rate.

Private equity firms don’t broadcast this. But there are clues. In a recent presentation to a Pennsylvania retirement system by Hellman & Friedman, the California private equity giant included a string of disclaimers in small font. The last one flagged the firm’s use of carry waivers.

The Biden administration is negotiating its tax overhaul agenda with Republicans, who have aired advertisements attacking the proposal to increase the I.R.S.’s budget. The White House is already backing down from some of its most ambitious proposals.

Even if the agency’s budget were significantly expanded, veterans of the I.R.S. doubt it would make much difference when it comes to scrutinizing complex partnerships.

“If the I.R.S. started staffing up now, it would take them at least a decade to catch up,” Mr. Jackel said. “They don’t have enough I.R.S. agents with enough knowledge to know what they are looking at. They are so grossly overmatched it’s not funny.”

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As Vaccines Turn Pandemic’s Tide, U.S. and Europe Diverge on Path Forward

LONDON — Over Memorial Day weekend, 135,000 people jammed the oval at the Indianapolis 500. Restaurants across the United States were thronged with customers as mask mandates were being discarded.

The formula, which gained the Biden administration’s blessing, was succinct: In essence, if you are fully vaccinated, you can do as you please.

But while the United States appears to be trying to close the curtain on the pandemic, across the ocean, in Britain and the European Union, it is quite a different story.

Despite plunging infection levels and a surging vaccine program, parts of Europe are maintaining limits on gatherings, reimposing curbs on travel and weighing local lockdowns.

Wellcome Sanger Institute, said of Delta. “It just means we have less certainty about what things will look like going forward.”

estimated on Friday that the Delta variant was roughly 60 percent more contagious than the earlier one from Britain. Health officials also warned that cases caused by the Delta variant might lead to a higher risk of hospitalization, though it was too early to say for certain.

The divergent strategies of European nations and the United States also reflect broader differences in how Western governments are thinking about their responsibility to unvaccinated people, scientists said.

in unvaccinated pockets of the United States, where the virus continues to sicken and kill people at elevated rates. The Biden administration is still searching for ways to overcome that vaccine hesitancy.

In Britain, even with more than 90 percent of people over 65 having been fully vaccinated, health officials have resisted as speedy a reopening as they seek to expand inoculation rates in lower-income and nonwhite areas.

“We know the virus predominantly hits poorer communities and people of color hardest,” said James Naismith, a structural biologist and the director of Britain’s Rosalind Franklin Institute, a medical research center. “The U.S. strategy perhaps reflects a more deep-rooted commitment to individualism. The U.K.’s vaccination campaign is highly managed and mirrors more a sense of being our brother’s keeper.”

Britain decided last year to delay second vaccine doses to give more people the partial protection of a single dose. That helped it weather the wintertime surge but also left it potentially exposed to the Delta variant. Health officials said this past week that there was strong evidence of “a reduction in vaccine effectiveness” for the new variant that was most pronounced after a single dose.

Health officials have since changed the guidance to speed up second doses, but many scientists are urging the government not to commit to reopening until the impact of the variant becomes clearer.

76 percent overall have gotten one shot. As a result, some scientists say, upticks in new infections are tolerable so long as the vast majority do not lead to serious illness or death.

“This variant is going to find it hard to spread, because it’s limited to younger people and limited to certain parts of the country,” Professor Spector said.

He said the government needed to help the neighborhoods where it was spreading and, beyond that, encourage people to keep working from home and socially distancing when possible. But delaying the easing of restrictions, he said, was not necessary.

“We need to get used to the idea there will be a few thousand cases every day and that this is a part of our life,” Professor Spector said. “Those cases will be milder.”

Germany, France and Austria all moved quickly to bar most visitors from Britain.

Like Britain, the bloc was chastened by a surge of the variant from Britain this winter that contributed to one of the world’s highest death tolls. Governments were hammered for failing to cement the gains of last summer, when lockdowns were lifted across most of Europe.

In the bloc, 47 percent of the adult population has received a first dose, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, but only 23 percent have full protection.

For those reasons, European leaders have said that vigilance is needed, even though infections have fallen about 80 percent since mid-April.

“This progress is fragile,” Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s director in Europe, warned last month. “We have been here before. Let us not make the same mistakes that were made this time last year.”

Still, now that supply bottlenecks have eased, European officials are confident that 70 percent of adults will be fully vaccinated by July.

The quandary that Europe faces over how to react to the Delta variant may recur as the virus continues to evolve, some scientists said. As long as it remains in wide circulation, even more transmissible variants could emerge, forcing countries to grapple with whether to hunker down yet again or risk the virus spreading through unprotected populations.

Poorer nations are facing far more difficult choices, though. If the same sort of lockdowns that controlled the variant from Britain prove insufficient against this new one, those countries could have to choose between even more draconian and economically damaging shutdowns or even more devastating outbreaks. The Delta variant has already taken a horrifying toll on South Asia.

“Globally, it’s a nightmare, because most of the world is still not vaccinated,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport. “It raises the stakes.”

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Bouncy Castles and Grenades: Gangs Erode Maduro’s Grip on Caracas

CARACAS, Venezuela — From within his presidential palace, President Nicolás Maduro regularly commandeers the airwaves, delivering speeches intended to project stability to his crumbling nation.

But as the Venezuelan state disintegrates under the weight of Mr. Maduro’s corrupt leadership and American sanctions, his government is losing control of segments of the country, even within his stronghold: the capital, Caracas.

Nowhere is his weakening grip on territory more evident than in Cota 905, a shantytown that clings to a steep mountainside overlooking the gilded halls from which Mr. Maduro addresses the nation.

policing, road maintenance, health care and public utilities, to pour dwindling resources into Caracas, home of the political, business and military elites who form his support base.

Hunkered down in his fortified Caracas residences, Mr. Maduro crushed the opposition, purged the security forces of dissent and enriched his cronies in an effort to eliminate challenges to his authoritarian rule.

In remote areas, swathes of national territory fell to criminals and insurgents. But gang control of Cota 905 and the surrounding shantytowns, which lie just two miles from the presidential palace, is evidence that his government is losing its grip even on the center of the capital.

Across the city, other armed groups have also asserted territorial control over working-class neighborhoods.

“Maduro is often seen as a traditional strongman controlling every aspect of Venezuelans’ lives,” said Rebecca Hanson, a sociologist at the University of Florida who studies violence in Venezuela. “In reality, the state has become very fragmented, very chaotic and in many areas very weak.”

As the government’s reach in Caracas’s shantytowns withered, organized crime grew, forcing Mr. Maduro’s officials to negotiate with the largest gangs to limit violence and maintain political control, according to interviews with a dozen residents, as well as police officers, officials and academics studying violence.

In the process, the most organized gangs began supplanting the state in their communities, taking over policing, social services and even the enforcement of pandemic measures.

Police officers say the gang that controls Cota 905 now has around 400 men armed with the proceeds from drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion, and that it exerts complete control over at least eight square miles in the heart of the capital.

Gang members with automatic weapons openly patrol the shantytown’s streets and those of the surrounding communities, and guard entry points from rooftop watchtowers. The first checkpoint appears just a few minutes’ drive from the headquarters of Mr. Maduro’s secret police.

As the Venezuelan economy went into a tailspin, the Cota gang began offering financial support to the community, supplanting Mr. Maduro’s bankrupt social programs, which once offered free food, housing and school supplies for the poor.

After monopolizing the local drug trade, the Cota 905 gang imposed strict rules on the residents in return for stopping the once endemic violence and petty crime. And many residents welcome its hard line on crime.

“Before, the thugs robbed,” said Mr. Ojeda, a Cota 905 resident who, like others in the community, asked that his full name not be published for fear of crossing the gangsters. “Now, they are the ones who come to you, without fail, with anything that goes missing.”

During his tenure, Mr. Maduro has veered from brutal suppression of organized crime groups to accommodation in an attempt to check rising crime.

In 2013, he withdrew security forces from about a dozen troubled spots, including Cota 905, naming them “Peace Zones,” as he tried to placate the gangs. Two years later, when the policy failed to check crime, he unleashed a wave of brutal police assaults on the shantytowns.

The police operations resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings, according to the United Nations, earning Mr. Maduro charges of committing crimes against humanity and the hatred of many shantytown residents. Faced with the onslaught, the gangs closed ranks, creating ever larger and more complex organizations, according to Ms. Hanson and her colleague, the researcher Verónica Zubillaga.

Unable to defeat the Cota gang, Mr. Maduro’s government returned to negotiations with its leaders, according to a police commander and two government officials who held talks with the gang and worked to put the agreements in place.

Security forces are once again banned from entering the community, according to the police commander, who is not authorized to discuss state policy and did so on condition of anonymity.

Under the deal with the government, the Cota gang has reduced kidnappings and murders, and began carrying out some state policies. During the pandemic, gang members strictly enforced lockdown rules and mask wearing, local residents said. And the gang is working with the government to distribute the scant remaining food and school supplies to the residents, residents and the two officials said.

“The gang is focused on the community,” said Antonio Garcia, a shantytown resident. “They make sure we get our bag of food.”

Mr. Ojeda said he received $300 from the gang the last Carnival season to buy toys and sweets for his family, a fortune in a country where the minimum monthly wage has collapsed to about $2. Residents said young people in the community are offered jobs as lookouts or safe house guards for between $50 and $100 a week, more than most doctors and engineers make in Venezuela.

Taking these jobs is easier than leaving them. Soon after the oldest son of Ms. Ramírez — who did not want to give her full name out of fear of the gang — began serving as a lookout in Cota 905, he discovered that his life now belonged to the gang.

“He had new clothes, new shoes, but he couldn’t stop crying,” Ms. Ramírez said. “He wanted to go back and couldn’t.”

Anti-government protests are banned in the shantytown, and gang members summon residents to the polling stations on elections, said the residents.

The members “tell us that if the government is toppled, we would be affected too, because the police would return,” said Ana Castro, a Cota resident. “The ‘Peace Zone’ would end, and we would all suffer.”

In private, some government officials defend the nonaggression pacts with the biggest gangs, saying the policy has drastically reduced violence.

Violent deaths in Caracas shantytowns have halved since the mid-2010s, when the Venezuelan capital was one of the world’s deadliest cities, according to figures from a local nonprofit, Mi Convive.

But academics and analysts studying crime in the city say the drop in homicides points to the growing power of Caracas’s gangs against an increasingly weak government. The imbalance, experts said, puts the government and the population in an increasingly dangerous and vulnerable position.

The power shift was evident in April, when the Cota gang shot up a police patrol car and took over a section of highway running through Caracas. The area was a five-minute drive from the presidential palace, and the blockade paralyzed the capital for several hours.

But the government stayed silent through it all. The security forces never came to retake the highway. Once the gang left, officers quietly cleared out the blasted patrol car.

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‘It’s Going to Be a Big Summer for Hard Seltzer’

The music should be pumping and the burgers and jerk chicken wings flying out of the kitchen this holiday weekend at the Rambler Kitchen and Tap in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago.

To wash it down, patrons might go with a mixed drink or one of the 20 craft beers the bar sells. But many will order a hard seltzer. The Rambler expects to sell close to 500 cans in flavors like peach, pineapple and grapefruit pomelo.

“We’ll sell a lot of buckets of White Claw and Truly seltzers,” said Sam Stone, a co-owner of the Rambler. “It’s going to be a big summer for hard seltzer.”

The Memorial Day weekend kicks off what many hope will be a more normal summer, when kids start counting down the number of days left in school, people head back to the beach and grills heat up for backyard parties that went poof last year because of the pandemic. And for the hard seltzer industry, it’s the start of a dizzying period when dozens of old and new competitors vie to be the boozy, bubbly drink of the season.

ad campaign with the British pop singer Dua Lipa. This spring, the hip-hop star Travis Scott released Cacti, a seltzer made with blue agave syrup, in a partnership with Anheuser-Busch. It quickly sold out in many locations.

“People were lining up outside of the stores to buy Cacti and share pictures of themselves with their carts full of Cacti,” said Marcel Marcondes, the chief marketing officer for Anheuser-Busch.

Also this spring, Topo Chico Hard Seltzer was released. A partnership between Coca-Cola and Molson Coors Beverage, it hit shelves in 16 markets across the country, chasing the cult following of Topo Chico’s seltzer water in the South.

“I feel like I can walk into a party saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I brought the Topo Chico,’” said Dane Cardiel, 32, who works in business development for a podcast company and lives in Esopus, N.Y., about 60 miles south of Albany.

How flavored bubbly water with alcohol became a national phenomenon is partly due to social media videos that went viral and clever marketing that sold hard seltzers as a “healthier” alcohol choice.

White Claw’s slim cans prominently state that the drinks contain only 100 calories, are gluten free and have only two grams each of carbohydrates and sugar. The brand is owned by the Canadian billionaire Anthony von Mandl, who created Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

“The health and wellness element is front and center in terms of the visual marketing,” said Vivien Azer, an analyst at the Cowen investment firm. “Every brand’s packaging features its relatively low carb and sugar data.”

On top of that, the alcohol content in most hard seltzers, about 5 percent, or the same as 12 ounces of a typical beer, is less than a glass of wine or a mixed drink. That makes it easier for people to sip at a party or while watching a game without getting intoxicated or winding up with the belly-full-of-beer feeling.

“It’s a nice drink for an afternoon on the patio,” said Shelley Majeres, the general manager of Blake Street Tavern in downtown Denver. “You can drink four or five of them in an afternoon and not have a big hangover or get really drunk.”

Blake Street, an 18,000-square-foot sports bar, started selling hard seltzers two years ago. Today, they make up about 20 percent of its can and bottle sales.

The industry has also neatly sidestepped the gender issue that plagued earlier, lighter alcoholic alternatives like Zima, which became popular with women but struggled to be adopted by men.

“I’ve got just as many men as women drinking it,” said Nick Zeto, the owner of Boston Beer Garden in Naples, Fla. “And it started with the millennials, but now I have people in their 40s, 50s and 60s ordering it.”

That kind of broad appeal is attractive to beer, wine and spirits companies.

“We view ourselves as the challenger brand,” said Michelle St. Jacques, the chief marketing officer of Molson Coors, which has been making beer since the late 1700s but hopes to end this year with 10 percent of the hard seltzer market.

Last spring, the company released Vizzy, a hard seltzer that contains vitamin C. Top Chico came this spring. “We feel like we’re making great progress in seltzer by not trying to bring me-too products, but rather products and brands that have a clear difference,” Ms. St. Jacques said.

While grocery and liquor stores have made plenty of space available to the hard seltzer brands that people drink at home, the competition to get into restaurants and bars is fierce. Most want to offer only two or three brands to their customers.

“Oh, my god, I get presented with new hard seltzer whenever they can get my attention,” said Mr. Stone, who sells six brands at the Rambler. The crowd favorite, he said, is the vodka-based High Noon Sun Sips peach, made by E.&J. Gallo Winery. “Everybody, from the big brands to small, new ones, are getting into the hard seltzer game.”

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Louvre Gets Its First Female Leader in 228 Years

The Louvre is to have a female president for the first time in the Paris museum’s 228-year history.

Laurence des Cars, who is currently president of two other Paris institutions, the Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, will take over the job — one of the most important in the art world — on Sep. 1, France’s culture ministry said in a news release on Wednesday.

She will take over the museum — which has an annual budget of 240 million euros (about $291 million), more than 2,000 employees and a regional outpost in northern France — at a difficult time. The pandemic has put a break on international tourism. Before it hit last year, the Louvre was getting about 10 million annual visitors, making it the most visited museum in the world.

Her mission will include drawing more young people into the museum, the news release said, and an increased focus on international partnerships.

Des Cars, 54, is something of a Louvre insider, having studied art history at the École du Louvre, the museum’s school. She oversaw the development of Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum in the United Arab Emirates that leases the Louvre’s brand and which opened in 2017.

Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” which focused on previously overlooked Black figures in French art and was developed with the Wallach Art Gallery in New York, is considered a landmark of her tenure.

“A great museum must face history, including by looking back at the history of our own institutions,” she told Agence France-Presse in an interview in April.

Des Cars is among few women to have led major French museums. That dearth is “a consequence of official institutions not reaching out to women enough, or not giving them enough confidence,” des Cars said in a 2018 interview with The New York Times. But there is also “the issue of self-censorship — of women thinking, ‘I’m not up to that kind of job,’” she said.

“Women need to overcome their personal doubts, and to tell themselves: ‘I’m capable of this. It’s coming at the right time in my life and in my career. I’m ready for this,’” des Car added.

The Louvre belongs to the French state, so France’s president appoints the museum’s leader.

A few months ago, it was assumed that Jean-Luc Martinez, the Louvre’s president since 2013, was assured a third, three-year term. Under his tenure, the Louvre grew visitor numbers past 10 million for the first time. Its landmark Leonardo exhibition, which ended a few weeks before France went into a nationwide lockdown last year, drew rave reviews and a record million visitors.

partnerships with brands like Uniqlo, allowing a couple to spend a night in the museum as part of a marketing campaign for Airbnb and leasing the space to Beyoncé and Jay-Z to film the music video for their song “Apes**t.” (The Louvre also features prominently in the Netflix hit “Lupin,” one of the platform’s most-watched series.)

In March, after a dispute over a new color scheme in one of the Louvre’s galleries became a weekslong talking point in France’s news media, Henri Loyrette, a former president of the museum, threw his weight behind Martinez’s critics. He and another high-ranking former Louvre official gave testimony in a lawsuit brought by the Cy Twombly Foundation, which said the new paint job had disfigured a ceiling mural by the abstract American painter.

Martinez will continue at the museum, which reopened on May 19 after months of being closed, until Aug. 31. He will then become a heritage ambassador, responsible for coordinating France’s participation in international projects, the news release said.

Des Cars did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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