Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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WOLA Podcast: “We believe there are multiple armed conflicts”: Kyle Johnson on security in Colombia

There’s a lot going on, security-wise, in Colombia. We spent an hour on Zoom today with longtime colleague Kyle Johnson in Bogotá, who gave WOLA podcast listeners a grim but thorough tour of the complicated security landscape.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast page.

Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.

To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.

With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.

The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

5 links: January 19, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

We all wrote bits of this analysis of what’s gone well (a little) and what really concerns us (a lot) about the Biden administration’s approach to Latin America during its first year.

Colombia, Venezuela

An ex-FARC dissident deserter says 2 foreign mercenaries—possibly American—were among a 26-man team that killed two top rearmed FARC leaders in Venezuela last month. Is he telling the truth? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

El Salvador, Guatemala

“Despite recent attacks on judicial independence in both countries and intense political polarization surrounding the landmark agreements, the courts granted new openings for two watershed civil war-era cases”: El Salvador’s 1989 Jesuit massacre and the genocide in Guatemala’s Ixil Triangle region.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The first of two articles today about military activity—not Border Patrol activity—at the U.S.-Mexico border. Soldiers assigned to a National Guard deployment opened fire against civilians on U.S. soil: “The driver ‘put the vehicle in reverse and then into drive’ before gunning the vehicle in an apparent attempt to ram the first soldier, the incident report read.”

The second of two articles today about military activity—not Border Patrol activity—at the U.S.-Mexico border. “The Pentagon’s approval to support six Border Patrol-owned aerostats was eligible to begin in January, with the additional Defense Department aerostats available starting in April.”

The New Yorker visits the miserable migrant camp, populated mostly by victims of the “Title 42” expulsions policy, in the dangerous border city of Reynosa, Mexico.

5 links: January 18, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

The first of two academic articles here about the nature of organized crime in the Americas, including how much of a political actor it is.

The second of two academic articles here about the nature of organized crime in the Americas, including how much of a political actor it is.

Colombia

Demobilized FARC fighters who want to leave the conflict behind are having a hard time of it amid an eruption of inter-group violence in Colombia’s northeastern department of Arauca.

Guatemala

In Guatemala, police demand Venezuelan migrants pay them to avoid getting sent back across the border into Honduras. When the migrants say they have no money, the cops search their handbags and wallets to make sure.

Nicaragua

Daniel Ortega starts off the year by giving away large landholdings to the armed forces, presumably cementing in their loyalty to his regime.

U.S.-Mexico Border

“One year into the Biden administration, some of the most severe Trump-era policies that have decimated access to asylum—commonly known as ‘Title 42’ and ‘Remain in Mexico’— remain in force.”

Latin America-related online events this week

Wednesday, January 19

  • 11:00 at lse.zoom.us: Inequality and Trade Diversification: How Can Income Inequality in Latin America be reduced beyond Commodity Booms? (RSVP required).
  • 11:00 at migrationpolicy.org: Biden at One: Assessing the Administration’s Immigration Record (RSVP required).
  • 5:00-6:30 at ips-dc.org: Just Transition for Latin America / Una transición justa para América latina (RSVP required).

Thursday, January 20

Saturday, January 22

  • 12:00-2:00 at tinyurl.com/sacredterritories: Sacred territories/Territorios Sagrados (RSVP required).

5 links: January 17, 2022

(Even more here)

Cuba

“More than 620 detainees who have faced or are slated to face trial” after last July’s brief protests.

El Salvador

Very good takedown of El Salvador’s military, which after many post-peace-accord moves toward professionalism has reversed course, lending itself to Nayib Bukele’s political ambitions.

Honduras, Nicaragua

A migrant caravan left Honduras over the weekend and is already being dispersed in Guatemala. What’s new about this one is it’s nearly half Nicaraguan.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The politicized National Guard deployment at the U.S.-Mexico border: “There’s leadership issues, morale issues. Morale is lower and keeps getting lower.”

DHS does something it didn’t do during the Trump version of “Remain in Mexico”: offer statistics about how it was carried out in the previous month.

Weekly border update: January 14, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

Border Patrol’s vehicle pursuits and “Critical Incident Teams” get more scrutiny

A front-page story in the January 10 New York Times drew attention to Border Patrol’s frequent high-speed vehicle chases, and to its use of secretive investigative teams whose main mission appears to be to exonerate agents.

Citing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Times found that 21 people died in vehicle collisions in 2021 after Border Patrol agents pursued them at high speed. That is up from 14 in 2020 and an average of 3.5 per year from 2010 to 2019. The Southern Border Communities Coalition counts 49 deaths since 2010 in vehicle collisions involving Customs and Border Protection (CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency).

A 2019 ProPublica study examining three years of data found that one in three Border Patrol vehicle pursuits ended in a crash: at least one every nine days. Some injure innocent bystanders. The overall number of pursuit-related injuries jumped 42 percent during the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration.

Times reporter Eileen Sullivan cites the example of 25-year-old Erik A. Molix, who died near Las Cruces, New Mexico, in August 2021. Molix was transporting nine undocumented migrants in a sport utility vehicle; agents chased him at speeds reaching 73 miles per hour. A Border Patrol vehicle clipped Molix’s SUV, sending it tumbling off the road. Molix and an Ecuadorian migrant died. Molix’s mother, a 5th-grade teacher in El Paso, found out about her son’s death from a CBP news release. While he may have been doing something illegal, she told the Times, “That doesn’t mean you have to die for it.”

A July 2020 complaint filed by Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas’s El Paso office, contends, “The high number of injuries and deaths resulting from Border Patrol’s actions suggest either that the policy fails to protect the safety and lives of pursuit subjects or that agents are consistently acting outside the bounds of agency policy.” Drake continues:

Under certain circumstances, a high-speed vehicle pursuit can constitute use of deadly force. …Border Patrol pursuits continue to include lethal tactics, such as boxing in moving vehicles, puncturing tires and other methods aimed at spinning vehicles off the road. These chases also happen in treacherous weather conditions and in populated locations including school zones, residential areas, and strip mall parking lots. Moreover, Border Patrol agents have no official cutoff speed.

Border Patrol had long refused to make public its vehicle pursuit policy, declining requests from the ACLU, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), and others. A redacted version appeared in November. “A vehicle pursuit is authorized,” it reads,

when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the occupant(s) of the vehicle failed to stop at an immigration checkpoint, failed to yield to an Officer’s/Agent’s attempt to stop a vehicle for an underlying violation of law, or committed a vehicle incursion into the United States at or between a POE [Port of Entry], and both the Officer/Agent and the pursuit supervisor have determined that the law enforcement benefit of the vehicle pursuit outweighs the risk to the public.

That standard appears to exceed those of most U.S. law enforcement agencies. Justice Department guidelines, the ACLU complaint points out, state that “[f]or anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase.” The ACLU told the Times that Border Patrol “gives agents too much discretion in determining the risk to public safety.”

At the site of the crash that killed Erik Molix, New Mexico State Police body camera footage captures a Border Patrol agent saying, “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.”

“Critical incident teams are rarely mentioned by Customs and Border Protection or the Border Patrol,” the Times pointed out. “There is no public description of the scope of their authority.” Their mission is controversial: a key role of Border Patrol investigators on these teams is “collecting evidence that could be used to protect a Border Patrol agent and ‘help deal with potential liability issues,’” an unnamed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told the Times.

The existence of units that show up at crime scenes just to find exculpatory information or narratives had avoided scrutiny until October 2021, when the Southern Border Communities Coalition filed a DHS Inspector-General complaint and called on Congress to investigate Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams’ (BPCITs) activities. The Coalition’s letter to Congress calls these units seriously into question:

BPCITs began in 1987 in the San Diego sector, followed by other sectors thereafter. They are known by many names including Sector Evidence Teams and Evidence Collection Teams. Their stated purpose is to mitigate civil liability for agents. There is no known equivalent in any other law enforcement agency. They are not independent investigators seeking facts. Instead they seek to exonerate agents. They act as cover-up units, protecting agents, rather than the public, and they answer to no one except the Border Patrol chiefs that control them.

The BPCITs are not authorized by Congress to engage in federal investigations in agent-involved killings and other use-of-force incidents. That authority is given to the FBI, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), and in limited circumstances to the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). They are also not formally deputized by any of these agencies to investigate. They are simply unlawful.

Every day that BPCITs continue to exist, abuses go unchecked and agents get away with murder.

The Times notes that a Critical Incident Team arrived on the scene in Nogales, Arizona in June 2021 shortly after a Border Patrol agent shot an unarmed undocumented woman in the head while she sat in the backseat of a car. Marisol García Alcántara spent three days in a hospital and was deported to Mexico 22 days after that, without ever being interviewed by U.S. law enforcement.

Alarms sound about Texas’s troubled National Guard border deployments

A series of reports since December 8 in Army Times, an independent news organization reporting on U.S. military issues, has highlighted a crisis of low morale, lack of mission clarity, payment and equipment shortfalls, discipline problems, and now a rash of suicides among national guardsmen assigned to two deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in Texas.

The first, a federal government mission to support CBP, was begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and today continues to post 4,000 guardsmen across the entire border. The second, begun in March 2021 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce critic of the Biden administration, has sent—by the governor’s office’s count—10,000 of the Texas National Guard’s 23,000 members to the border. This deployment is part of a border mission that Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star.”

In the U.S. system, national guardsmen are soldiers who receive the same military training, wear the same uniforms, and hold the same ranks as the regular military. Like reservists, though, they are normally civilians. Most spend about one weekend per month and two weeks per year undergoing training, and are called up in emergencies. Guardsmen are normally under the command of state governors, though (as happened often in Iraq) they can be called on to perform federal missions. In Texas right now, missions under both federal and state authority are operating at the border with Mexico. The state mission, commanded by Gov. Abbott, is larger.

Both missions are troubled. Army Times reported on January 13 that U.S. Northern Command—the Defense Department geographic combatant command that manages U.S. military activity in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas—is launching an investigation “into a wide range of alleged issues” with the federal deployment. Northcom’s independent investigation team, headed by a general and “composed of senior members,” will “take the time required to thoroughly answer the Commander’s inquiry.”

Also on January 13, 13 Democrats from Texas’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation wrote to the inspector-general of Texas’s state Military Department calling for an investigation of “deplorable conditions for our National Guard troops participating in ‘Operation Lone Star.’” The letter cites low morale in the state mission; payment discrepancies; “lack of cold weather equipment, body armor, first aid kits,” and sleeping facilities; guardsmen trespassing on private land; and “a growing number of confirmed deaths by suicide.”

Army Times found that four guardsmen assigned to the Operation Lone Star state mission died by suicide between October 26 and December 17. Another shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident on January 1, and two survived suicide attempts in late December and on January 9.

“The thing that’s most alarming about these four suicide deaths is that they happened in a two month span. And when you see clusters like that starting to form in a very short time frame, that’s what gets really alarming,” Davis Winkie, the Army Times reporter who has driven most coverage of the Guard deployments’ crisis, told Slate’s “What Next” podcast. “I had better conditions in Iraq than some of these soldiers have on the Texas border,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who was the Texas Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor until November 2021.

Even as they live crowded into trailers, the guardsmen don’t appear to have much to do. “There’s a sub task force that’s ostensibly building a border wall right now where I had a soldier reach out to me to say we’ve actually only had two workdays in the last two months. Other than that, we’re just manning guard posts around our base camp,” Winkie told Slate.

Operation Lone Star’s state-run National Guard deployment—whose 10,000 personnel count may include Texas state police—has already cost Texas $412 million, could amount to $2 billion during fiscal 2022, and would jump to $2.7 billion in 2023, according to estimates obtained by the Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, Texas has slashed its tuition assistance budget for guardsmen in half, as part of across-the-board budget cuts.

The federal mission is also troubled, as Army Times reported in early December and WOLA’s December 10 border update summarized. Three soldiers died in 2021 in motor vehicle and alcohol-related incidents, and commanders carried out more than 1,200 legal and disciplinary investigations into misconduct allegedly committed by the 4,000-person force.

Critics of Gov. Abbott’s deployment charge that, as commander in chief of Texas’s National Guard, he is politicizing a military force. “It is clear State leadership does not have our troops’ best interest in mind. Instead, they continue to use them as political props,” reads the letter from the Democratic members of Congress. Winkie told Slate that Operation Lone Star became more openly politicized over the course of 2021: “it started to change as we got into the fall months and when it appeared certain as well that Abbott was going to be facing a primary challenge from the right.” Guardsmen’s participation shifted from being voluntary to mandatory.

Abbott’s most prominent challenger in the Republican primary for Texas’s 2022 gubernatorial election is Allen West, a former congressman who first gained notoriety for beating and simulating the execution of an Iraqi policeman in 2003. Sgt. Featherston, the retired Texas National Guard senior enlisted advisor and vocal critic of Operation Lone Star, spoke at a press conference West organized in early January. Abbott’s likely Democratic opponent in the general election, former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke, wrote a January 2 column in the Houston Chronicle accusing the governor of dealing “a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve signed up to serve this state and country in uniform.”

Abbott defended himself by citing 476 suicides within the larger U.S. military over the first nine months of 2021 (the Texas Tribune could only find an official tally of 380). This number is similar to 2018 (541), 2019 (498), and 2020 (580).

Meanwhile, late in the week of January 3, a Honduran migrant drowned in a flooded gravel pit after running away from National Guard soldiers near Eagle Pass, Texas. It was a very rare case of a civilian death involving U.S. military personnel operating on U.S. soil.

The new “Remain in Mexico” closely resembles the old “Remain in Mexico”

As of January 10, DHS had returned 249 adult asylum seekers to Mexico since December 8, under the court-ordered restart of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which sends Western Hemisphere asylum seekers back to Mexico to await eventual hearing dates in the United States. Of that total, 229 had been sent from El Paso back across to Ciudad Juárez, and 20 from San Diego to Tijuana. As last week’s update notes, the overwhelming majority have been citizens of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. By January 12, the border-wide number of returned migrants had risen to 256, noted a new Human Rights First report.

During Remain in Mexico’s first iteration (January 2019 to January 2021), Human Rights First was able to document over 1,544 abuses and violent crimes committed in Mexico against migrants placed in the program. The organization’s January 13 report counts “over 8,705 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers blocked in and/or expelled to Mexico” since the Biden administration took office. The victims have been kept in Mexican border cities by the U.S. government’s Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy, continued port of entry closures to asylum seekers, and the revived “Remain in Mexico.”

For more background on Remain in Mexico, see our December 3 and August 27 updates (among others), and a historypublished on January 7 by the American Immigration Council.

The Human Rights First report finds that the program is returning asylum seekers to Mexico despite often quite strong claims of fear. It cites findings of the Border Project, run by the Jones Day law firm: of 87 returnees consulted in Ciudad Juárez in December, 70 percent “had been persecuted by Mexican police and other government officials,” but were sent back anyway. Among several examples cited is “a Nicaraguan asylum seeker who was kidnapped and tortured by electrocution and beatings for three weeks in Reynosa in November 2021,” with photos and video evidence sent by his kidnappers to extort his relatives, who still did not pass a non-refoulement interview and was sent to Ciudad Juárez in December.

For an article in the January 8 San Diego Union-Tribune, reporter Kate Morrissey interviewed the two Colombian men who were the first to be sent back to “remain” in Tijuana. She found that their experience “included many of the issues that plagued the program under the Trump administration.”

The Biden administration’s December 2 guidance for the restarted program promised access to counsel. But Morrissey found that “the two Colombian men were not allowed to speak with attorneys while in U.S. custody.” The wife of one of the men, a green card holder in the United States, could have hired an attorney for him to support his claim of fear of return to Mexico, but officials denied his request to call her.

The men, who had turned themselves in to U.S. personnel in order to seek protection after receiving urgent threats in Colombia, recounted miserable treatment in CBP custody. They were placed in a cell in a Border Patrol station with “dozens of other men,” forced to sleep on the floor for nearly a week, with lights always on, for lack of bed space. They were not given an opportunity to bathe or shower. “Though they do not speak much English, they realized that agents were speaking badly about them, they said. They recognized words like ‘stupid’ and phrases like ‘go back to your country.’

As required by the new guidelines, a Border Patrol agent asked the men if they were afraid to return to Mexico, although they said “another agent tried to keep that official from asking the question.” Under the Biden administration’s new guidance, after expressing fear the men were entitled to 24 hours to contact an attorney before speaking with an asylum officer. It was during those 24 hours, they said, that CBP personnel refused to allow them “to make any calls or otherwise access legal counsel.”

They said an agent told them that no matter what happened, they would be sent back to Mexico. So, when the asylum officer asked if they wanted to wait longer in custody in order to access attorneys, the men waived that right, not wanting to spend more time in the crowded cell with their fate already decided.

The men added that they were not asked detailed questions about their medical history, even though the Biden administration’s new guidelines specify medical conditions for exemption from the program. Though the new guidelines specify that those subject to Remain in Mexico are to receive COVID-19 vaccinations if they need them, one man who had only received the first of his two shots was sent over the border before officials could administer his vaccine.

CBP meanwhile confused the men’s paperwork, Morrissey found. Each man had the first page of the other’s notice to appear in court. And at first, they were scheduled for hearings months beyond the six-month limit that the Biden administration had agreed with Mexico. They managed to reschedule for February after raising the issue with their asylum officer.

Now in Tijuana, the Colombian men told Morrissey that they are “confused and terrified.” They refused to provide their names, fearing that their notoriety leaves them exposed to extortion or attack. “We’re the two from Colombia,” one said. “Everyone knows we’re them. We already have problems.”

Meanwhile, legal service providers continue to avoid involvement in the new Remain in Mexico, The Hill reports; an October letter from 73 service providers had notified the Biden administration that they would not enable the renewed program by participating in it. Many fear for their security while attending to clients in Mexican border towns; attorneys had been threatened while trying to do that during the earlier iteration of Remain in Mexico.

In The Hill, Nicholas Palazzo of the El Paso-based Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center summed up concerns about the impossibility of representing “Remain in Mexico” clients:

To assume that an organization will have the capacity to provide an attorney on the spot—‘cause they’re being called on a hotline—and drop everything to speak with someone, prepare them, discussing an incredibly traumatizing series of events, while also explaining a confusing legal standard over the phone while the person is in CBP custody and then hopefully represent them on the phone, I mean, there are very, very few organizations, if any, at least on the border, that will have actual capacity to do that. …This is a problem of the administration’s own creation. You can’t really blame anyone else but the administration for designing a program that is inherently flawed and then expecting that legal organizations are going to be able to drop everything to assist people on the fly like that.

Links

  • A heavily redacted report from the DHS Inspector-General finds that CBP officers “did not evaluate unsubstantiated information, and made unsupported conclusions” when they revoked the “trusted traveler” status of two U.S. citizens whom they believed were aiding migrant caravans in 2018 and 2019. NBC’s San Diego affiliate talks to a pastor who is suing because CBP officers, believing she was tied to a caravan, requested that the Mexican government deny her entry.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris is considering attending the inauguration of Honduran President-Elect Xiomara Castro, CNN’s Priscilla Álvarez tweeted.
  • The humanitarian group Humane Borders recovered more than 220 sets of human remains in southern Arizona in 2021, the bodies of migrants who perished of dehydration or exposure in the state’s deserts. “In Arizona, the death toll was at least on par with a 10-year high in 2020,” Fronteras Desk reports.
  • The Arizona Daily Star updates on CBP’s proposed border wall “remediation” projects in Arizona, for which the agency is seeking public input. The report notes that this will probably include closing small gaps where Trump-era construction segments did not fully meet up. Environmental defenders point out that these gaps are some of the only remaining corridors for migratory wildlife. Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, voiced support for closing the gaps in a December statement.
  • CBP reportedly encountered more than 29,000 undocumented migrants in its Yuma sector, in southwest Arizona and southeast California, in December. That monthly number is more than any of the Yuma sector’s full-year encounter totals between 2008 and 2018. Many are Haitians who continue to be quickly placed on expulsion flights to Haiti, the Washington Examiner notes.
  • Panama’s migration authorities reported apprehending 133,726 migrants in 2021, more than in the previous 11 years combined. About three quarters were Haitian, or the Chilean or Brazilian-born children of Haitian citizens. Caitlyn Yates of the Migration Policy Institute summarizes the data on Twitter, pointing out that Panama’s numbers fell sharply at the end of 2021.
  • A letter from 35 Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, asks the Departments of Homeland Security and State to grant or re-designate Temporary Protected Status for citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua for humanitarian reasons.
  • Reports continue to emerge of a migrant caravan likely to depart from Honduras on January 15. (No caravan has succeeded in reaching Mexico’s U.S. border since late 2018.)
  • The sheriff of Real County, Texas (pop. 3,400, about 100 miles from the border) “is under criminal investigation for allegedly having his deputies illegally seize money and a truck from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops,” before handing them over to Border Patrol, the Texas Tribune reports.
  • Migrant smugglers’ fees to reach the United States from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala have risen from about $3,200 in 1996 to over $18,000 today, Al Jazeera finds.
  • A new filing from the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force notifies that it has reunited 112 children with parents who were separated from them by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies. The task force has yet to reach the parents of 237 children. At the same time, the administration is arguing in federal court that families whom the Trump administration separated are not entitled to financial damages. Meanwhile, media reports that victims of family separation might receive financial compensation have already caused some families to receive calls from extortionists, the Associated Press reported.
  • CBP’s warehouse-sized “Ursula Avenue” processing facility for migrants in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, first opened during the first child migrant crisis in 2014, will reopen in a matter of weeks after more than a year of renovations. Its new design will no longer include its notorious pens surrounded by chain-link fencing.
  • Tijuana’s El Imparcial newspaper reports that a smuggling network charges an increasing number of migrants from Russia up to $10,000 to cross into the United States. CBP data show that of the 1,711 Russian migrants the agency encountered in November 2021, 95 percent crossed in the San Diego sector, which abuts Tijuana. That number more than doubled in three months.
  • During the holidays (December 30), Border Patrol’s El Paso sector tweeted about the apprehension of five migrants from Turkey, accompanying it with a graphic bearing the words “TURKISH INCURSION” in bright red letters.

Five links: January 14, 2022

(Even more here)

Colombia

A gain of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord was the creation of 16 temporary congressional seats that would be open to conflict victims, not political parties. But some creepy people are declaring candidacies for these seats in zones of longtime paramilitary influence, like the northern department of Bolívar.

The U.S. government is giving Colombia up to 200 armored vehicles under the Excess Defense Articles program, which will keep “U.S. organic industrial base production lines hot.”

Cuba, Nicaragua

Nicaragua has stopped requiring visas for citizens of Cuba, which could lead to a new vector for migrants headed across Mexico to the U.S. border.

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Human Rights First’s latest report on the border finds “over 8,705 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers blocked in and/or expelled to Mexico” since Joe Biden took office.

Watch an award-winning documentary about some of the more than 100,000 Mexicans deported from the United States each year, even after growing up and spending most of their lives here.

5 links: January 13, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

Human Rights Watch’s annual report is out. Includes narratives for 15 Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Between 2015 and 2019 the State Department provided $38.1 million in “capacity-building assistance that may help disrupt firearms trafficking in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.”

Colombia

The latest quarterly report of the UN monitoring mission in post-accord Colombia finds that 303 ex-FARC members have been killed, out of 13,600 demobilized, since the accord’s late 2016 signing. Murders did drop from 74 in 2020 to 54 in 2021.

El Salvador

The Bukele government appears to be misusing the Pegasus phone-hacking software, produced by the nefarious Israel-based NSO group, against the brave and highly regarded independent media outlet.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The Texas National Guard mission at the border is fully politicized. This use of military personnel “started to change as we got into the fall months and when it appeared certain as well that [Republican Texas Governor Greg] Abbott was going to be facing a primary challenge from the right.”

5 links: January 12, 2022

(Even more here)

Photo published at Border Report. Caption: “Drone footage taken from the National Butterfly Center on Jan. 7, 2022, shows new construction on the border levee south of Mission, Texas. (Photo by the National Butterfly Center)”

Western Hemisphere Regional

Points to people on the left in the U.S. and Europe who still defend the rights-violating regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela because they’re supposedly “left.”

Argentina, Nicaragua

A really creepy Iranian official was present at Daniel Ortega’s re-inauguration in Managua.

El Salvador

With judicial independence all but destroyed in El Salvador, prosecutors who’ve investigated the Bukele government’s negotiations with gangs and other corruption allegations are now being harassed and persecuted.

Honduras, Nicaragua

Another attendee at the charming gathering in Managua that saw Daniel Ortega re-inaugurated: outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández. One of only three Latin American leaders to attend. Perhaps (like former Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes) he’s planning a move to Nicaragua to escape justice.

U.S.-Mexico Border

Is the Biden administration building levee or border wall in south Texas? It’s both, but it’s definitely border wall.

5 links: January 11, 2022

(Even more here)

Brazil

A fleet of small planes services illegal gold mining in and around Indigenous lands in Roraima, Brazil. The difficulty of stopping the flights points to the complexity of fighting organized crime when it’s totally encrusted within “legitimate/legal” local elites—something we see a lot in Colombia, too.

Colombia

In places where everyone has had to coexist with guerrillas for decades—like Arauca, Colombia—civil-society organizations (as well as politicians)) have to maintain some ties. But prosecuting civil society leaders on weak evidence is one of the stupidest ways to try to weaken an insurgency: it stigmatizes vulnerable activists, barely affects the violent group’s strength, and multiplies locals’ distrust in the state.

Guatemala

Good overview of a case that’s finally before Guatemala’s courts: the military’s systematic rape, together with paramilitaries, of dozens of indigenous women in Baja Verapaz in the early 1980s. It’s taken nearly 40 years to get even this amount of justice.

Haiti

“New evidence suggests the man who took over from Haiti’s murdered president had close links to a prime suspect in the assassination — and that the two stayed in contact even after the crime.”

Mexico

Along with hundreds of thousands of migrants, a lot of northbound drugs pass through Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It’s kind of remarkable that Chiapas remained violence-free for as long as it has. That’s ending: organized-crime violence is rising fast. Among recent cases is the October murder of journalist Fredy López Arévalo in San Cristobal de las Casas, a charming tourist destination.

5 links: January 10, 2022

(Even more here)

Brazil

Even if Bolsonaro loses in October, the damage he has done to civil-military relations in Brazil, where most military personnel have very hard-right political views, will take many years to undo.

Colombia

The post-accord fragmentation of armed actors in Colombia “began to diminish” in 2021.

Nicaragua

As Daniel Ortega swears himself in for another term as president, some of his most prominent political opponents are in the El Chipote prison where, according to reports from relatives who have managed to visit them very sporadically, they are suffering from malnutrition, mistreatment and barely have access to their lawyers.”

U.S.-Mexico Border

Border Patrol insists on carrying high-speed vehicle chases with a degree of recklessness that most police departments would avoid. Then it sends out its shady “Critical Incident Teams” whose purpose appears to be to help the agents involved avoid accountability.

This is infuriating. “Though Biden administration officials promised access to counsel, the two Colombian men were not allowed to speak with attorneys while in U.S. custody. Officials also failed to vaccinate one of the men for COVID-19. Confused and terrified, the two men found themselves back in Tijuana with the extra stigma of being the first returnees.”

Latin America-related online events this week

Monday, January 10

  • 3:30-4:30 at wilsoncenter.org: Latin America’s Lithium and the Future of Renewable Energy in the United States (RSVP required).
  • 4:00-5:00 at csis.org: Road to the 2022 Summit of the Americas: Trade and Investment (RSVP required).

Tuesday, January 11

  • 11:00-12:00 at wilsoncenter.org: The Alliance for Development in Democracy: A Conversation with Three Foreign Ministers (RSVP required).

Wednesday, January 12

  • 10:00-11:15 at thedialogue.org: Nicaragua 2022 – Is a Political Transition Possible? (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-4:30 at csis.org: Assessing the Impact of Artisanal and Small-Scale and Illegal Mining in the Amazon (RSVP required).

Thursday, January 13

Weekly Border Update: January 7, 2022

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

Remain in Mexico has been applied to nearly 250 people

As of Tuesday January 4, the Biden administration’s “Remain in Mexico” (RMX) program had sent 217 asylum-seeking migrants back into Mexico to await their first U.S. immigration court hearings. The program, also known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), had been applied to 135 citizens of Nicaragua (62 percent), 46 Venezuelans, 16 Cubans, 13 Ecuadorians, and 7 Colombians.

By January 5 a source at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told Mexico’s Aristegui Noticias that 224 men had been sent back across the border since December 8, when the court-ordered revival of the Trump-era program began. In some of these cases, rights advocates have observed a failure to take steps that the Biden administration had promised to implement in order to make RMX more humane.

As explained in past updates, Remain in Mexico was a Trump administration initiative that sent 71,071 asylum seekers with U.S. cases into Mexico between January 2019 and January 2021. Most were sent across before March 2020, when the “Title 42” pandemic measure made requesting asylum nearly impossible by quickly expelling as many migrants as possible.

At least 1,500 asylum seekers suffered violent attacks after being made to remain in Mexico, according to information compiled by Human Rights First. Candidate Joe Biden pledged to end the program, and acted quickly to do so in early 2021, bringing more than 10,000 asylum seekers to await their hearings on U.S. soil. A lawsuit from the With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.

Republican attorneys general of Texas and Missouri led to a Texas federal judge, in August 2021, ordering the Biden administration to carry out a “good faith” effort to restart Remain in Mexico. The Supreme Court refused to put a hold on that order while lower-court appeals continued.

Title 42, which expels undocumented migrants without affording them a chance to request protection in the United States, is applied heavily to citizens of Mexico, and to citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, whose expulsions Mexico agreed to receive in March 2020. Citizens of other, more distant countries are harder to expel quickly, though (as discussed below) the Biden administration is implementing a large-scale airlift of expelled Haitian migrants.

If they are from the Western Hemisphere, asylum seekers from those “other” countries—who, including Haiti, made up 30 percent of all encountered migrants in November—are now increasingly likely to find themselves subject to Remain in Mexico. Not a single citizen of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras has ended up in the revived program yet. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to use Title 42 for people from those countries, which means that they (along with Mexicans) do not even get asylum cases or hearing dates in the U.S. immigration system.

It is notable that the top three nationalities to which “Remain in Mexico” has so far been applied—Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba—are undemocratic states whose human rights record the U.S. government forcefully criticizes. They are also countries less likely to accept expulsion or deportation flights—though as noted below, 18 flights landed in Nicaragua last year.

The new Remain in Mexico began December 8 in El Paso; on January 5 it expanded to San Diego, where two Colombian men became the first people sent across to await their U.S. hearings in Tijuana. There, IOM staff tested them for COVID-19, gave them information about what to expect in the RMX process, and took them to a shelter.

A U.S. Embassy representative told Tijuana shelter operators and migrant advocates that Remain in Mexico would steadily expand to a maximum of 30 people per day in Tijuana. The Biden administration plans to implement the program at seven ports of entry (San Diego and Calexico, California; Nogales, Arizona; and El Paso, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Brownsville, Texas). If it applied Remain in Mexico to that full complement of 30 people per day per port of entry, 6,300 people could be sent into Mexican border towns each month. The Trump administration only exceeded that monthly total three times during the earlier incarnation of RMX.

That many new returnees, along with regular deportations and an increasing number of migrants arriving from Haiti and elsewhere, will strain shelters and other humanitarian efforts in Tijuana, Father Patrick Murphy, who runs Tijuana’s Casa de Migrante shelter, told Border Report. “Tijuana is going to be in a difficult position with this constant migration and we haven’t seen much of a response from our government, there’s no help, and they won’t talk to us or take our input.”

The U.S. government has reportedly pledged to provide funding that would benefit shelters receiving RMX participants in Mexican border towns, but where that stands is not clear. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) referred San Diego Union-Tribune inquiries about funding to the Department of State, which did not respond.

In El Paso, the first hearings took place on January 3 for asylum seekers who had been sent across the border into Ciudad Juárez in December. Thirty-six people reported to the port of entry, some at 4:30 AM, and were brought to the federal courthouse in downtown El Paso.

The Biden administration had promised that migrants would have greater access to legal representation in the rebooted program; during the Trump-era program, only 10 percent (18 percent of those who were able to attend all immigration hearings) had lawyers. The situation so far is unchanged: only five of eighty-two asylum seekers brought to El Paso on January 3 and 4 had attorneys present, according to Yael Schacher of Refugees International, who observed the proceedings.

Observers’ access to the courtrooms was also spotty: reporter René Kladzyk of El Paso Matters was barred from attending hearings even though a Department of Justice fact sheet reads, “when court space is limited, media representatives have priority over the general public.” An official cited COVID-19 capacity limitations.

Human Rights First researchers noted other inconsistencies with the Biden administration’s promises of a more humane Remain in Mexico program. Some of the first returnees to Ciudad Juárez said they were not asked required medical screening questions that might exempt people with some conditions from being sent back: DHS personnel had simply checked “no” on a form’s list of medical conditions. Every person Human Rights First staff interviewed upon return to Juárez reported suffering harm in Mexico, including kidnappings, or violence from police or other officials—but they were sent back to Mexico anyway. The Border Project, a legal watchdog group, identified 24 returnees whom it determined should have been exempted from RMX for medical reasons.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports, “When asked about this issue in a press call on Monday [January 3], administration officials said that asylum seekers in the program can go to ports of entry or reach out to U.S. officials via email if they feel they’ve been incorrectly placed into the program or if their situations have changed.”

The Biden administration continues to insist that it opposes the renewed program, even as it expands it. On December 29 the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to expedite its consideration of the lawsuit brought by the Texas and Missouri attorneys general, which had forced the program’s restart, urging it to hold oral arguments in April. It is far from certain that the conservative Supreme Court would find in the Biden administration’s favor.

Meanwhile, proponents of Remain in Mexico are arguing that the administration is not moving to restore the program as quickly as the court order requires. Former Trump White House advisor Stephen Miller published a tweet lamenting that Remain in Mexico has been applied to “about 200” single adult men so far “out of the many 100’s of thousands flooding across unimpeded,” claiming that “Biden is violating a fed court injunction.”

Migrant removal flights increased from 2020 to 2021

Guatemala City’s first U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contractor flights of the year landed on January 4, one from McAllen, Texas and one from nearby Harlingen, Texas. They discharged 251 deported or expelled Guatemalan citizens, 67 of them children. This continues the pace of removal flights set in 2021, according to Guatemalan authorities who counted 184 flights last year discharging 17,806 migrants. Many of those migrants—we don’t have an exact amount—were detained at the border and expelled under Title 42; others were detained by ICE in the U.S. interior. Last year, Mexican authorities deported another 45,498 people to Guatemala, 4,775 by air and the rest on 1,195 buses.

What a new report from Witness at the Border calls “the largest mass deportation campaign in 5 decades” continues in Haiti. As of the morning of January 7, the Biden administration had sent 162 planeloads of Haitian citizens back to Port-au-Prince or Cap-Haïtien, returning about 16,300 people in less than a year. Most are Title 42 expulsions. (In 2020, the Trump administration operated 37 ICE removal flights to Haiti, according to Witness at the Border, which monitors likely ICE fights.) About 126 of those flights have occurred since September 19, 2021, after thousands of Haitian citizens arrived en masse in the border town of Del Rio, Texas.

Overall, Witness at the Border found an increase in migrant removal flights from the Trump administration’s final year to the Biden administration’s first year. 975 flights operated between February and December 2021 (discarding January 2021, which was split between the two presidents). This is up 6 percent from 917 flights between February and December 2020.

Among other interesting findings in the organization’s year-end report:

  • Removal flights going directly to El Salvador (-21 percent), Guatemala (-26 percent), and Honduras (-26 percent) decreased from 2020 to 2021. However, “this decrease of 135 flights was more than offset by the 143 flights to Villahermosa and Tapachula [southern Mexico] that resulted in chain expulsions of an estimated over 14,000 people, primarily Guatemalans and Hondurans, expelled first by US to southern Mexico by air, and then expelled by Mexico by land to Guatemala. In neither case were these people afforded their legal right to assert their rights to seek protection.”
  • One or two flights per month removed people to Nicaragua, despite the deteriorating political and human rights situation and a poor bilateral relationship. Flights continued even after Nicaragua’s illegitimate November 7 elections: two in November, two in December, and eighteen in the year, similar to the nineteen that operated in 2020.
  • The 19 destinations with more than 1 removal flight in 2021 were Guatemala City, Guatemala (184); all of Honduras (149); Port-au-Prince, Haiti (132); Villahermosa, Mexico (112); San Salvador, El Salvador (90); Ecuador (72); Tapachula, Mexico (56); Guadalajara, Mexico (52); Mexico City, Mexico (49); Morelia, Mexico (23); Cap-Haïtien, Haiti (22); Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (21); all of Brazil (21); Managua, Nicaragua (18); Querétaro, Mexico (16); Bogotá, Colombia (12); Kingston, Jamaica (12); Puebla, Mexico (7); and Piarco, Trinidad (3).

Asylum claims in Mexico

Mexico’s small refugee agency, COMAR, reported a record-smashing number of migrants requesting asylum in the country in 2021. The 131,448 applications last year exceeded COMAR’s previous high (70,351 in 2019) by 87 percent. It is more than 100 times the number of people who sought asylum in Mexico as recently as 2013.

For the first time, Haiti led the list of nationalities of asylum seekers in Mexico, with 51,827. Another 6,970 people listed as from Chile and 3,836 from Brazil are also mostly of Haitian descent: many are children of Haitian migrants who first emigrated to those countries. Honduras, with 36,361 applicants, was in second place—though the number of Honduran asylum seekers exceeds 2019’s record.

While the U.S. government continues Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants, Mexico (without even counting those listed as Chilean or Brazilian) has considered asylum requests from 837 percent more Haitians in 2021 than in 2019. Working with the UN Refugee Agency, COMAR has launched a pilot program to provide 200 Haitian asylum applicants with temporary visas allowing them to work while awaiting decisions on their cases. Mexico’s largest convenience store chain, Oxxo, also announced its intention to hire Haitians.

The busiest COMAR office continues to be the one in Mexico’s southern border city of Tapachula, Chiapas. In this city of about 350,000 people, 89,688 migrants applied for asylum last year: 68 percent of all of Mexico’s 2021 asylum requests. Tapachula was followed by COMAR’s offices in Mexico City (18,959); Tenosique, Tabasco (7,161); Acayucan, Veracruz (5,809); Palenque, Chiapas (5,696); and Tijuana, Baja California (4,135).

Of the 37,806 asylum decisions that COMAR issued in 2021, 72 percent were grants of asylum and 2 percent were grants of “complementary protection.” The other 26 percent of applications were denied. Adding asylum and complementary protection, COMAR approved 97 percent of Venezuelans, 85 percent of Hondurans and Salvadorans; 69 percent of Cubans; 35 percent of Haitians; and 56 percent of other countries’ citizens.

Texas’s troubled National Guard border mission

Since March 2021 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has ramped up the National Guard presence along his state’s border with Mexico, part of a $2 billion crackdown that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” About 10,000 troops are helping to set up border fencing with state funds, to interdict migrants on charges of “trespassing,” and to support Texas state police in the border zone.

In the United States, National Guardsmen are military personnel commanded by state governors, though they may also be called up for federal government duty. A separate federal National Guard deployment, begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and continued in the Biden administration, maintained about 4,000 troops along the border in 2021. An extensive December 2021 investigation by Army Times finds this federal deployment “falling apart” amid low morale, discipline problems, and an unclear mission.

The state mission is also deeply troubled, Army Times investigator Davis Winkie revealed in a subsequent report published December 23. Four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star died by suicide between late October and mid-December. A fifth “accidentally shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident Saturday [January 1] and another survived a suicide attempt during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day,” Winkie again reported on January 4.

A possible reason for the wave of suicides may be the disruption to the lives of guardsmen caused by call-ups on just a few days’ notice, causing significant hardship. Like reservists, most National Guard personnel are civilians, with non-military jobs and families, until they are called to serve.

The morale situation is exacerbated by Texas state government budget cuts that slashed tuition assistance grants for guardsmen by more than 50 percent this year. Meanwhile, many soldiers are not being paid on time, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Links

  • New arrivals of unaccompanied children at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped sharply in the new year. CBP encountered 55 children on January 2, 68 on January 3, and 81 on January 4. That is down from a range of 145 to 168 per day the previous week, which itself is down from an average of 402 per day during fiscal year 2021. The number of unaccompanied migrant children in the shelter system run by the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) fell below 10,000 on January 2, for the first time since March 2021.
  • 11 months after the Biden administration paused border wall construction, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will make improvements and remediations to include “closing small gaps that remain open from prior construction activities and remediating incomplete gates.” While we haven’t yet confirmed that this will happen, “closing gaps” appears to mean building some wall segments. “Some of the work involves ‘closing construction access gaps’ in the Tucson, El Paso and Yuma Border Patrol sectors ‘to address safety concerns,’” the Arizona Republic reports. “Other activities will involve flood and erosion prevention.” Environmental experts interviewed by the Republic foresee severe impacts on wildlife of closing remaining gaps in Arizona, where one stretch of border wall now runs for a continuous 70 miles, blocking animals’ migratory routes.
  • Biden administration attorneys filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought in a northern California court by three families whose members had been separated by the Trump administration’s notorious “Zero Tolerance” policy. “Actions speak louder than words, and by sending its lawyers to try to throw separated families out of court, the Biden Administration is effectively defending Trump’s cruel and unlawful family separation policy,” said Bree Bernwanger of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Negotiations over damage payments broke down in November between the Biden administration and attorneys representing families. “That pits administration lawyers against immigrants who had their children seized—a legally and politically perilous scenario for a president whose support from Latinos and liberals is already shaky,” the Washington Post put it.
  • CBP is conducting a review of “Operation Whistle Pig,” a Trump-era program in which the agency’s secretive Counter Network Division used government databases to “vet” journalists, NGO personnel, members of Congress and others.
  • Tijuana recorded 1,972 homicides in 2021, a slight decrease from the previous two years—but with a population of 1.7 million people, that would be a homicide rate of nearly 120 per 100,000 residents, far higher than the hardest-hit U.S. cities. The homicide rate in Ciudad Juárez was nearly as high as Tijuana’s, with 1,424 recorded murders in a city of 1.3 million. Juárez’s 2021 homicide total, though, was 13 percent smaller than a year earlier.
  • The 2021 U.S. Senate session ended without a vote on the Biden administration’s nomination of Ed Gonzalez, the sheriff of Harris County (Houston), Texas, to be director of ICE. Republican senators have opposed his nomination, as Gonzalez’s department had curtailed some migration enforcement cooperation with ICE. His nomination was reintroduced on January 5. If approved, Gonzalez would be the first Senate-confirmed ICE director in five years.
  • As their country slides deeper into dictatorship, 47,534 Nicaraguans applied for asylum or other refuge in Costa Rica during the first 11 months of 2021—16,846 of them in October and November alone. The total since 2018 is 111,712 applicants.
  • At least 2,000 Hondurans may be planning to attempt a new migrant caravan around January 15, a migrant rights activist told local media. No “caravan” has succeeded in making it to the U.S. border since late 2018, as Guatemalan and Mexican authorities have blocked their progress. Guatemalan authorities report that they are preparing “protocols” to respond to a possible caravan arrival.
  • About 150-200 migrants gathered at the border bridge between Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas late on the evening of January 2. They were apparently responding to a false rumor that CBP was processing asylum seekers. CBP closed the bridge for about an hour. Border Patrol told local news media that agents in its Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, are currently encountering about 1,000 migrants per day.

5 links: January 7, 2022

(Even more here)

Brazil

Brazil’s Army has front-loaded its exercise schedule for 2022, clearing the decks so that it can be available during the October 30 presidential elections and their aftermath.

Colombia, Haiti

The U.S. government is carrying out its own investigation of the July assassination of Haiti’s president, diverting a Colombian mercenary witness—apparently with his agreement?—so that he might testify in U.S. court.

Mexico

“On the militarism route, the equation is to centralize decisions as much as possible in the federal authority; on the municipalism route, the equation is to decentralize as much as possible.” Mexico’s government is choosing the former and abandoning the latter.

U.S.-Mexico Border

CBP encountered 55 children on January 2, 68 on January 3, and 81 on January 4. That is down from a range of 145 to 168 per day the previous week, which itself is down from an average of 402 per day during fiscal year 2021.

Mexico, Nicaragua, U.S.-Mexico Border

Nicaraguan asylum seekers placed in the “Remain in Mexico” program plead with their immigration judge not to send them back after their hearing. The judge says to take it up with an asylum officer.

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