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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Weekly Border Update: September 24, 2021

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.

A large group of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas faces horses, hunger, expulsion flights, and—for some—“notices to report” in the United States

This week, one of the remotest and most rural segments of the U.S.-Mexico border witnessed an event of major humanitarian, human rights, and political impact. Over the course of about a week a large group of migrants, mostly Haitian in origin, arrived en masse at the border crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, and Del Rio, Texas, a site where the Rio Grande is shallow enough to wade across.

By September 18, Del Rio’s mayor, citing information from Border Patrol, said that 14,534 migrants were encamped on the riverbank, under and around the border crossing bridge. There, while awaiting their turn to be processed by Border Patrol, they washed in the river and slept in tents, under shelters built out of vegetation, or in the open air. While access to the site has been restricted, the scene appeared to be chaotic but peaceful.

Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which sits east of Big Bend National Park and west of Laredo, usually ranks low among the agency’s nine land border sectors in number of migrant arrivals. By August of this year, though, Del Rio had broken its annual record for migrant encounters.

Between October 2020 and August 2021, Del Rio border agents encountered citizens of Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador, and Cuba at least 10,000 times each. Fear of organized crime in Mexico’s borderlands influences where migrants cross, and word had gotten out among citizens of these countries that Ciudad Acuña was a relatively safe place. “It’s unclear how these rumors started,” Nicole Phillips of the Haitian Bridge Alliance told the Intercept.

How they’ve arrived

Though Haiti this year has suffered COVID-19, the assassination of its president, an earthquake, and a tropical storm, very few of the Haitians in Del Rio have been there recently. Most left the country years ago, in the years after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, to pursue work opportunities in South America, especially Brazil and Chile. (Haitian labor was important, for instance, in Brazil’s effort to build infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.)

The pandemic hit South American economies hard, and several Haitian migrants in Del Rio told the New York Times that “they made the journey because they had lost their visas or their jobs and had no choice but to find a way to survive in the United States.”

At the moment, large numbers of Haitian migrants are backed up at key points along the migrant trail between South America and the U.S.-Mexico border. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document seen by NBC News claims that 3,000 Haitians are currently in Peru. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, said on September 22 that 19,000 mostly Haitian migrants were waiting in the Caribbean coast town of Necoclí for their turn to take ferries to Panama.

Once there, they walk through eastern Panama’s treacherous Darién Gap region, an ungoverned jungle area where unknown but significant numbers die of dehydration or illness, or are attacked and robbed—or worse—by criminals. This is the heaviest year ever for migrant flows through this route; estimates range from “more than 50,000” people to “more than 70,000 people, among them 13,000 children” passing through the Darién so far this year.

The DHS document cited by NBC estimates that about 1,500 Haitians are in Panama. In August, Panama’s migration authorities reported encountering 15,279 Haitian citizens exiting the Darién Gap.

In August, Chiapas Paralelo estimated that as many as 30,000 Haitians were stranded near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, especially in the city of Tapachula. There, most are confined to the area as they await decisions on asylum requests before Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR. Our weekly updates from late August and early September covered Mexican authorities’ repeated attempts to keep Haitian and other migrants from leaving Tapachula on foot. These included four operations to stop “caravans” in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. Some of these operations generated outrage, as photos and videos circulated of agents from Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) chasing and beating migrants.

Following a September 21 conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said that most of the Haitians in Mexico had refugee status in Chile or Brazil and were not seeking it in Mexico. (In fact, Haiti is the number-two country among COMAR’s asylum applicants.) “What they are asking for is to be allowed to pass freely through Mexico to the United States,” Ebrard concluded.

It remains a mystery how nearly 15,000 Haitian migrants could so quickly make their way to remote Ciudad Acuña so soon after INM’s repeated crackdowns in Tapachula. “Many of the recently arrived Haitians took buses through Mexico, expediting their arrival and increasing their numbers,” NBC reported. They were able to do so despite the INM, National Guard, and other Mexican agencies maintaining numerous highway checkpoints.

“The Haitian community did not arrive at the northern border without the complicity of the federal authorities,” alleges veteran migration reporter Alberto Pradilla of Animal Político. “Either they looked the other way or they benefited (there are policemen who asked for bribes and companies that charged tickets at a very high price).” Pradilla also speculates that the INM may have responded to criticism of its human rights performance in Chiapas by catching a case of the “blue flu.” He notes, “a week of looking the other way shows the consequences [of their inaction], and then they can tell the U.S., ‘don’t question our methods.’”

Many Mexican officials blame organized crime. “They are domestic gangs, they come from the south and everything derives from there, but whoever receives them here also has to do with the polleros [smugglers] who work between Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila,” said Coahuila governor Miguel Riquelme. The smugglers “have tricked them…telling them, let’s go to the United States because they’re going to give us residency or even citizenship,” said Ebrard.

According to the Associated Press, though, the Haitian migrants are “a population that relies little on smugglers and instead moves based on shared experience and information exchanged between the tight-knit community, often via WhatsApp or Facebook, about where it is safest, where jobs are most plentiful and where it is easiest to enter a country.” Earlier this year, the AP notes, Haitians were coming more frequently to the El Paso sector hundreds of miles west of Del Rio. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the shift to Del Rio “was unusually sudden.”

Following this word of mouth, Haitians are even leaving other Mexico border cities to travel—eastward or westward, often through territory under heavy organized crime influence—to Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio. In the Gulf Coast state of Tamaulipas, Mexican authorities forced a group of a few hundred Haitians to dismount the buses on which they had been riding. They walked or hitched rides northward, and by the middle of this week, many were sleeping near the border in San Fernando—a town notorious for a 2010 massacre of 72 migrants by the Zetas organized crime group.

Some arrived in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa, across from McAllen, Texas—a town known both for very high violent crime and for a very large population of mostly Central American migrants recently expelled by the United States. Few Haitians plan to stay or to cross there. (Milenio reported, though, that some intend to settle in the prosperous industrial city of Monterrey, just south of Tamaulipas.)

A Haitian woman in Reynosa told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor that her goal was to arrive in Ciudad Acuña, more than 300 miles away—and that she wasn’t even aware that Reynosa was on the border. On the other end of the border, other Haitian migrants are planning to leave Tijuana for Ciudad Acuña, according to Milenio.

Catching U.S. authorities unprepared

The rapid arrival of such a large population of migrants in Del Rio came as a surprise to U.S. authorities. CNN reported that Border Patrol agents in Del Rio had been asking management since June for more resources to process migrants, but—at least according to the local union—had not received an adequate reply.

In response to the Haitians’ rapid arrival, CBP surged 600 Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, and DHS volunteers to Del Rio, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said during a September 20 visit to the sector. CBP also shut down Del Rio’s official land port of entry (the border bridge), and closed Border Patrol checkpoints north of Laredo, Texas, allowing traffic to flow freely without inspection while personnel moved to Del Rio.

By September 21, CBP had constructed a field hospital and was more systematically providing food for migrants encamped around the border crossing. Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen also provided numerous free meals. But for the first several days, food and clean water were scarce at the Del Rio site. This forced migrants to wade into Ciudad Acuña, Mexico to buy food at local stores and restaurants, then wade back into the United States with their provisions.

Some disturbing images

On their return to U.S. soil, some of the migrants, often laden with bags of food, encountered hostile Border Patrol agents on horseback. Photos and videos showed agents appearing to charge at migrants, including some children, at the water’s edge, apparently trying to force them to return to Mexico. One can be heard using a profane slur against Haiti. Some are shown waving or making slapping motions with lariats or long reins, which bore a resemblance to whips.

“Video footage of Border Patrol’s actions in this incident clearly demonstrate that the migrants being encountered by mounted agents did not present an imminent threat,” an ACLU letter describes the scene. “In one video an agent stops a family with small children, makes derogatory and xenophobic comments to the family, and then maneuvers his horse in a way that comes dangerously close to trampling a child.”

Border Patrol Chief Raúl Ortiz, a former Del Rio sector chief, claimed the agents were attempting to control the horses with the reins. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote that “this was an apparently isolated encounter, one that soon resolved with those seeking to enter the country and return to or arrive at the camp able to do so.”

Nonetheless, images of uniformed White men on horseback menacing Black people with what looked like whips blanketed U.S. social media on September 19 and 20, inspiring horrified reactions.

Immigrant rights and civil rights groups joined in condemnation. In Miami, 200 Haitian-Americans protesting outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) field office forced road closures. The NAACP tweeted side-by-side “then” and “now” images: a drawing of a slaveholder whipping a Black man next to one of the Del Rio photos. A letter from civil rights groups said Biden’s promises for a more humane immigration policy “are being shredded before our eyes.” Human Rights Watch called it “the latest example of racially discriminatory, abusive, and illegal U.S. border policies that are returning people to harm and humanitarian disaster.”

Reactions in Congress were strong. The images were “horrific and disturbing,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We had not seen the horses and the whips with any other population of people, so that to us goes to racism,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. House Oversight Committee Democrats sent a letter demanding a briefing from Biden administration officials by September 24.

Strong words also came from the Biden administration itself. “As it relates to those photos and that horrific video, we’re not going to stand for that kind of inhumane treatment and obviously we want this investigation to be completed rapidly,” said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “What I saw depicted, those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were, was horrible,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “Human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it.”

On September 24, President Joe Biden addressed the images for the first time. “It’s horrible what you saw. To see people like they did, with horses, running them over, people being strapped, it’s outrageous,” he said. “I promise you, those people will pay. There is an investigation underway right now and there will be consequences.”

DHS promised an investigation and disciplinary actions, and suspended the use of horse patrols in Del Rio. However, “There is little reason to have confidence in the department’s willingness to hold its agents accountable,” Chris Rickerd and Sarah Turberville contend at the Los Angeles Times, noting that “CBP’s own records found that it took no action in 96% of 1,255 cases of alleged Border Patrol misconduct between January 2012 and October 2015.”

The state government’s “steel wall”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), an immigration hardliner who has made border security a signature issue as he heads toward a 2022 re-election campaign, sent hundreds of Texas state police to Del Rio, where they parked their vehicles in a tight line along the bank of the river. It’s not clear whether Haitian migrants were deterred by Abbott’s so-called “steel wall” of cars, since they were already on U.S. soil and waiting for Border Patrol to take them into custody and process them.

On the right, where some conservative media has been openly portraying this non-white migration as part of a Democratic party-orchestrated “great replacement,” politicians called for a Trump-style crackdown on asylum seekers and defended the actions of the Border Patrol agents depicted in the controversial horseback photos. “As tens of thousands of illegal immigrants come across the border, Joe Biden promises them citizenship,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) falsely stated on Twitter.

Meanwhile, life in the small town of Del Rio has been largely unaffected by the situation along the riverbank. “Residents collectively agreed the situation at the bridge and the release of migrants into their region and town are not directly affecting their daily lives,” read a Washington Examiner article whose headline nonetheless describes the town as a “dusty war zone.”

Expulsion flights

While voicing outrage about the horse patrol photos, Biden administration officials doubled down on the use of Title 42, the pandemic provision that the Trump administration implemented in March 2020 and the Biden administration has continued. Title 42 allows U.S. authorities to expel undocumented citizens rapidly in the name of public health, even without affording them a chance to ask for asylum in the United States.

“I want to make sure that it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States,” DHS Secretary Mayorkas said. On September 19, DHS began filling planes with Del Rio Haitians and expelling them back to Haiti, regardless of asylum concerns. The tempo of flights from Texas to Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien increased from three on September 19 to six on September 24.

By the evening of September 23, the number of Haitians taken from Del Rio and flown back to Haiti had climbed to 1,949. Those sent back to Haiti reported being shackled by their hands and feet for the duration of their flights. Some said they were not told where the planes were going, and only found out they were back in Haiti—a country most had left many years ago—when they landed. 

DHS is not testing the expelled Haitians for COVID-19. The Haitian government claimed it would provide food, a COVID test, and US$100 cash to the new arrivals, but “deportees said they got only half or a quarter of that amount,” according to the New York Times.

Expelled migrants vented their despair at the Port-au-Prince airport. They pelted a plane with stones and shoes on September 21. Authorities dumped their belongings on the tarmac; “video footage taken at the airport shows people scrambling for their personal belongings,” the BBC reported.

Jean Negot Bonheur Delva, the head of Haiti’s government migration office, pleaded for a suspension of the flights. “It is unconscionable to return migrants against their will to this situation of uncertainty and mortal danger,” read a statement from Doctors Without Borders, which adds, “The insecurity that we see today in Port-au-Prince is the worst we have seen in decades.”

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi put out a statement voicing his “shock” at the images from Del Rio and calling for the United States to “fully” lift the Title 42 expulsions policy. After a meeting between Congressional Black Caucus members and White House officials, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California, who WOLA presented with its 2021 Human Rights Award on September 22) called for a halt to deportations of Haitian migrants. Speaking from the Senate floor, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said, “I urge President Biden to put a stop to these expulsions and to end this Title 42 policy at our southern border. We cannot continue these hateful and xenophobic Trump policies that disregard our refugee laws.”

As we noted last week, on September 16 U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan ruled that Title 42 must no longer be applied to families—but he paused his ruling, which the Biden administration immediately appealed, for two weeks. If the appeals court doesn’t overturn Sullivan’s decision by October 1, it’s possible that DHS will no longer be able to expel Haitian or any other families.

Some are released

Only a fraction of the Haitians in Del Rio are being put on planes. Some, especially those with small children or unspecified “vulnerabilities,” are being given a chance to apply for asylum in the U.S. interior. These releases are happening on a “very, very large scale,” in the thousands, a U.S. official told the AP. Who goes where appears to be determined by a color-coded system of “tickets” that Border Patrol agents have been handing out to yet-to-be-processed migrants.

As often happens with asylum-seeking families, most are being released with a notice to appear at ICE offices, in or near their destination cities, within 60 days. These “notices to report” take less time to issue, but they are not appointments for a hearing to start immigration proceedings.

DHS, with support from the Defense Department, has been busing Haitian migrants from Del Rio to other, more populated, Texas border sectors, and flying a few to Tucson, Arizona, where Border Patrol then processes them. Those who are processed in Del Rio itself and then released are mostly dropped off at the town’s bus stop, which is really just a gas station.

Mexico starts cracking down

At least several hundred (or possibly several thousand) of the migrants, fearing expulsion to Haiti, fled back across the river from Del Rio to Ciudad Acuña. The Mexican town has since been encircled by migration agents and other authorities, who have been sweeping through parks and hotels where migrants have been staying.

While Mexico isn’t sending captured migrants back to Haiti—at least not yet—it has begun busing and flying many back to southern Mexico: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco, and Tapachula, Chiapas, where thousands of migrants are already living while they await decisions on their asylum applications. Detained migrants, an official told AP, may be “flown directly to Haiti once Mexico begins those flights” if they fail to ask for asylum.

Those who ask for asylum inside Mexico will wait many months for a decision from the country’s overburdened refugee agency, COMAR. As a steady flow of Haitians continues to manage to exit Tapachula, the COMAR office in Mexico City this week saw a big jump in Haitian asylum seekers applying there.

Guantánamo?

On September 22 NBC News, noticing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) contract announcement, reported that the agency was seeking a private contractor to run a Migrant Operations Center at the U.S. naval facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The facility, which was used in the 1990s to detain thousands of Haitians intercepted at sea, has not been used for that purpose since 2017.

“The facility has a capacity of 120 people and will have an estimated daily population of 20 people,” the request reads. “However the service provider shall be responsible to maintain on site the necessary equipment to erect temporary housing facilities for populations that exceed 120 and up to 400 migrants in a surge event.”

A DHS spokesperson was quick to clarify that the agency did not intend to use the facility to hold Haitians detained at Del Rio or elsewhere along the land border. It is apparently being stood up to respond to a possible increase in Haitians attempting to migrate by sea.

Dissent within the Biden administration

The persistence of Title 42 expulsions, and a general sense that the administration’s immigration and border policies lack direction, appear to have increased frustration among officials within the Biden administration. There are also splits between those who want a new approach to asylum-seeking migrants at the border, and those who urge tougher policies to “deter” large-scale migration.

“Several officials who have been involved in discussions about the border said that Susan E. Rice, Mr. Biden’s domestic policy adviser, has been a leading proponent of more aggressive enforcement,” the New York Times notes, “arguing that it is more compassionate to pursue an immigration system that is orderly in order to pass broader reforms.” However, “Esther Olavarria, a Cuban-born immigration lawyer who serves as Ms. Rice’s deputy, has often pushed to allow more migrants into the United States so they can pursue asylum claims.” DHS Secretary Mayorkas “is sympathetic to Ms. Olavarria’s view, several people said, but as the head of the department he has been the public voice of the harsher approach.”

Speaking anonymously, some of 20 government officials who communicated with BuzzFeed’s Hamed Aleaziz had some strong things to say:

  • There is a complete lack of direction. Everything is deferred to the White House National Security Council, which can’t see past low polls on immigration and are terrified their own shadow may be a pull factor. Career and political staff are equally concerned.”
  • “I don’t know what our immigration strategy is at all. I don’t know if we are building an infrastructure for the future, or what direction we will be going in as we head into a midterm election year.”
  • “They are almost exclusively focused on detention, deterrence, and generally treating asylum-seekers with as much violence and inhumanity as the prior administration. Honestly, I don’t know how much longer I can stay at DHS if this continues. I stayed because I believed Joe Biden and Kamala Harris when they promised to build it back better. The despair I am feeling about what they are doing now is indescribable. I can’t go on like this.”
  • “​​This administration’s immigration policy is schizophrenic. Their words are not backed up by policy choices or deeds. The border would be challenging under any circumstances, but this administration is stuck in a deterrence-only posture, expecting different results from similar approaches. Flows are going to continue. It would be better for the administration to focus on how to process them in a faster and more humane manner instead of focusing on how to convince desperate people not to make the journey.”

On September 22, the State Department’s special envoy for Haiti, Dan Foote, resigned with a very strongly worded letter. “I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees,” he wrote.

Numbers are going down in Del Rio

Meanwhile, at the Del Rio site, the number of migrants awaiting processing continues to fall. As of the morning of September 23, there were just over 4,050, down from the September 18 peak of 14,534. The chief executive of Val Verde County, of which Del Rio is the seat, said that the expectation is for the camp to be empty by September 25, as migrants are expelled, flee to Mexico, are moved elsewhere for processing, or are released into the U.S. interior. 

Update: as we write this on September 24, Secretary Mayorkas is reporting that the Del Rio site is now empty of migrants. 

Links

  • “Suddenly Ecuadoreans, Brazilians, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Haitians and Cubans are turning up by the hundreds of thousands, a trend that accelerated sharply in the past six months,” reads a Wall Street Journal analysis. “After the pandemic, what we are now seeing is like a pressure cooker in which the valve has exploded,” said Enrique Vidal, of the Tapachula, Mexico-based Fray Matías de Córdoba Human Rights Center.
  • As of September 20, Texas state authorities operating under Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) orders had arrested 925 migrants, mainly on trespassing charges. They’ve been sent to jails in Dilley and Edinburg.
  • Guatemalan authorities report that between August 22 and September 20, 238 buses had dropped off 8,594 Guatemalans and Honduras at the very remote Mexico-Guatemala border crossing of El Ceibo. Mexican authorities have expelled these migrants—many of them expelled by the United States on flights into southern Mexico—in most cases without offering any opportunity to request asylum or protection in Mexico.
  • A still-unreleased DHS Inspector General report finds that CBP improperly targeted U.S. advocates whom the agency believed had some involvement with 2018-19 migrant caravans through Mexico. These individuals were subjected to more intrusive inspections when crossing the border into the United States, and “sensitive information” about them was shared with the Mexican government.
  • Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s much-heralded effort to assist Central American nations with job-creation efforts—and thus reduce migration—has fallen far short of its objectives, reports Animal Político.
  • Just-retired former Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott authored a letter claiming—among numerous concerns—that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “and other political appointees within DHS have provided factually incorrect information to Congressional Representatives” and are directing Border Patrol to admit people who, in Scott’s view, should be expelled under Title 42.
  • A dozen organizations (including WOLA) published “a summary of migrant and refugee rights violations in Mexico documented by civil society organizations and journalists from August 2021 through the present.” It recommends an immediate rescission of the Title 42 expulsions order.
  • BuzzFeed reports that CBP officers insisted on expelling back into Mexico a Honduran LGBT woman whose spine was fractured in an anti-gay attack in Mexico, and who had also been raped by Mexican police.
  • In operations involving more than 28,000 personnel, Mexico’s armed forces claim to have had a hand in 63,614 migrant apprehensions between August 21 and September 20. That, if reported accurately, would shatter Mexico’s monthly migrant apprehensions record of 31,396 set in June 2019. Mexico’s INM reported apprehending 117,052 migrants over the first 7 months of 2021.
  • At National Geographic, Anna-Cat Brigida explores the “collective despair”—depression and suicide—plaguing Honduran youth, many of whom choose to migrate.
  • Border Patrol is expanding its hiring of “Processing Coordinators,” a new non-law-enforcement position, The Hill reports. They will be charged with handling asylum seekers’ paperwork and release or handoff to other agencies—tasks that have been up to armed, uniformed Border Patrol agents up until now.
  • The Texas Civil Rights Project reports that on September 21, “a federal judge ordered that Pamela Rivas be given back her land, which was seized for the border wall in Los Ebanos, Texas. This is the end of a condemnation fight that began under President Bush in 2008.”
  • A CBP officer was among those arrested at the small “Justice for January 6” far-right protest in Washington on September 18.

Order at the border

I’m rushing these words out because we need to have this conversation now. Just like it says at the top of this site, these are my views, not necessarily the consensus view of WOLA. I base them on 10 years of border policy work. Still, I have blind spots—we all do, this is a very complicated issue—so I’m happy to be corrected.

Many Democrats, including those who support immigration reform, see images like this one and worry. They see themselves losing ground to the Greg Abbotts and Ted Cruzes. Even among Latino constituents who, until recently, voted reliably Democratic.

Why are they losing ground? Because these images look chaotic. They look disorderly.

You may feel empathy for the migrants, but you’re worried about your community too. Since COVID began—even since the 2008 financial crisis began—you’ve seen high-paying jobs disappear, crime rates climb, services cut back. It feels like the wheels are coming off.

You want government to stop the chaos. (Whether the chaos is perceived or real, you want it to stop.) As it spreads through communities, that desire for order is catnip to the Abbotts, Cruzes, and Stephen Millers out there calling for crackdowns on migrants.

But do you know who else wants order? Desperately?

These people.

The Haitians in Del Rio right now have circumnavigated the Western Hemisphere for a decade, trying to outrun chaos and severe uncertainty. They want an orderly, predictable, safe place to raise their kids and earn a living.

But when they finally get to the US border, do they find “order?”

No. They see this.

Agents charging at them on horseback. But also, a migration and asylum system so underfunded and rickety—so unable to adjust to what’s now a 7-year trend of asylum-seeking migration—that it’s easily overwhelmed, leaving them under a bridge for days.

Chaos.

So voters, including those who view themselves as welcoming, want order and predictability. Migrants want order and predictability too.

Also, residents of border counties and states—many of them hit hard by COVID and economic blight—don’t want to feel overwhelmed. That’s fine: most migrants have support networks elsewhere in the US, far from border counties and states.

So if everybody except the “deterrence through cruelty” crowd wants an orderly, non-chaotic process, what would that look like?

Obviously, nothing at all like Del Rio.

But what? Here are some ideas. Let’s go south to north.

In the region

First, ours should be a region of countries nobody feels forced to leave. That’s the “root causes” strategy we’re always hearing about. A key “root cause,” though, is so-called “partner” governments or elites that are corrupt and despotic. Help the reformers, not them.

If large numbers of people in a country are fleeing for their lives, don’t make them run the gauntlet of Mexico so they can touch US soil and ask for asylum. Make refugee status more available, in their own countries, to people in grave danger.

On migration routes

If people do have to flee through Central America and Mexico, the trip shouldn’t be terrifying. Some transit visas are OK. Help prosecutors, investigators, and others working to dismantle criminal networks that prey on migrants. And the corrupt government officials who enable them.

Many asylum seekers may be happy to settle in countries along the way, particularly Mexico, if those countries have credible, quick asylum processes and ways to make a living. Help those countries’ refugee agencies, like Mexico’s underfunded COMAR, to be more welcoming.

At ports of entry

Many, though, aim to seek asylum in the United States. That should mean going to a port of entry and asking for protection. What should happen then?

First, there should be no wait. After 7 years of large-scale family and asylum-seeking migration, our land border ports of entry need to adjust. There should be personnel at the port on hand to respond to asylum seekers, who can then be taken to nearby processing facilities.

What are these “nearby processing facilities?” We’re talking about a place where people spend a day or two while personnel take biometric data, look up criminal backgrounds, test for disease, start asylum paperwork, etc.

Those personnel need not be uniformed, gun-toting Border Patrol agents, who don’t want to do this paperwork anyway. CBP’s Processing Coordinator program is a start.

So to recap: asylum seekers come to a port of entry and are taken to (probably austere, warehouse-sized) facilities where they spend a day or two being processed. They get meals, a chance to take a shower, somewhere to sleep.

They get credible fear interviews, or dates for such interviews, or immigration court hearing dates in the cities where they intend to live with relatives or other support networks. And then, in nearly all cases, they’re released into the US interior.

Alternatives to detention

“The US interior” rarely means border towns, other than a moment at charity-run respite centers. Most migrants have relatives or support networks all over the country. Efficient processing and alternatives to detention means migrants spend very little time in border communities. Locals need not worry about absorbing them.

When released, asylum seekers go into “alternatives to detention” programs that supervise their stay in the United States. Case officers who link them with social services and ensure they attend all their hearings.

Past pilot “alternatives to detention” programs that involve case workers’ regular check-ins, and clear explanations of the process, have managed to get nearly all migrants to show up for their court dates. And they’ve cost a small fraction of what ICE detention costs.

Adjudication

The adjudication of asylum claims, though, shouldn’t take the 3 or 4 years or more that it currently takes in our backlogged immigration court system. If large-scale migration is our new reality, then we’re going to need more asylum officers and judges to reduce wait times.

How long should it take to adjudicate asylum claims? As long as due process allows. This is not my area of expertise, but I imagine it would probably be well under year inside the United States, normally, if our system weren’t so badly backlogged.

Once a migrant gets due process and a decision is handed down, what if they don’t qualify for asylum or other protected status in the United States? This is painful, but even under a pretty generous interpretation of our asylum laws, many would have to leave.

Some who don’t have strong asylum claims may still get to stay, for instance, if our temporary guest worker visa program expanded its country carve-outs to align with reality. (And clearly aligned with fair labor standards to avoid abuse.)

Make the border boring

The goal here is no more chaos, even in our 2014-to-present environment of very high family and asylum-seeking migration. Ideally, this entire process—work with other countries, processing, alternatives to detention, adjudication—would be efficient, data-driven, and… even boring.

There’s really no other choice but to bring order from this chaos. 10 different Latin American countries have seen large-scale out-migration this year. From COVID to climate change, there are many reasons this isn’t going to change soon.

An orderly, “boringprocess would mean no more Fox News B-roll, no more squalid camps, and no more anxiety in border communities. It would devastate smugglers. It would cost money, but probably less than hundreds of miles of border wall construction.

WOLA Podcast: A Conversation with WOLA’s New President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

At the beginning of the month, I recorded a reflective podcast with WOLA’s outgoing president, Geoff Thale. As a counterpart to that, here’s a conversation with our incoming president, Carolina Jiménez. We talk about her past work as a human rights advocate in Venezuela and Mexico, how civil society has evolved throughout Latin America, the threat of authoritarianism, opportunities in US policy, and her next (or first) steps at WOLA.

Enjoy this one. Here’s the text at WOLA’s podcast landing page.

This week, Adam introduces WOLA’s new president, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, to listeners.

The conversation addresses Carolina’s Venezuelan roots and the international experience that led her to pursuing a career in human rights, concerning trends across the Latin America, and the United States’ complicated legacy and present role in supporting positive initiatives in the region.

They also discuss WOLA’s upcoming Human Rights Awards ceremony and the Colombian groups that will be honored. The discussion paints a picture of what organizations working for human rights are doing to collaborate in a new era, and what the future of advocacy for human rights in Latin America may hold.

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

Photo

Saturday evening’s sunset at Washington DC’s MacMillan Reservoir.

Weekly Border Update: September 17, 2021

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

Judge orders halt to family expulsions

A September 16 ruling from Washington DC District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan blocks the Biden administration from using the “Title 42” pandemic expulsions policy to expel members of migrant families encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Judge Sullivan stayed his decision for 14 days in order to give the administration a chance to appeal or to adjust the way it implements Title 42. If his ruling stands, undocumented migrant parents arriving at the border with children must once again be processed under regular immigration law, which means if they ask for protection in the United States, they must be allowed to seek asylum.

“Title 42” refers to an old, little-used quarantine authority that the Trump administration implemented in March 2020, along with COVID-19-related border shutdowns, and the Biden administration has kept in place. In the name of preventing disease spread, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) uses Title 42 to expel—eject from the United States with minimal processing, often in a matter of hours—as many apprehended migrants as possible, usually without even offering an opportunity to ask for asylum or protection. Mexico accepts many expulsions of migrants at the border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, along with citizens of other countries who have any visas or migratory status in Mexico.

Between March 2020 and August 2021, CBP has used Title 42 to expel 1,163,582 people, including 1,027,506 single adults, 118,466 family unit members, and 15,915 unaccompanied children.

Most of these expulsions happened during the Biden administration. Since February 2021—Joe Biden’s first full month in office—CBP has used Title 42 to expel 704,009 people, including 610,249 single adults, 92,676 family unit members (the expulsions that Judge Sullivan’s decision would stop), and 32 unaccompanied children.

In November 2020, ruling on an earlier challenge to Title 42, Judge Sullivan had halted all expulsions of unaccompanied children. This ruling was overturned on appeal in late January 2021, but the Biden administration refused to resume expelling children, alone, to their home countries. (Unaccompanied Mexican children are still deported alone.)

Judge Sullivan’s latest decision comes after a month (August 2021) that saw CBP expel the largest number of family members (16,240) since April: 20 percent of those encountered were expelled last month, the largest percentage since May. Most families who are not expelled are admitted into the United States to await adjudication of their asylum claims, a process that often takes years due to immigration court backlogs.

Under Judge Sullivan’s ruling, the blue part of this chart would shrink to zero.

The ban on family expulsions is a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the other organizations involved in litigation dating back to the final month of the Trump administration. The Biden administration and ACLU had put this case on hold until August 2, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—citing the persistence of COVID-19 and its Delta variant—abandoned plans to phase out family expulsions, leading the organizations to resume litigation.

“We hope the Biden administration has no plans to appeal and continue to place families in grave danger,” Lee Gelernt, the ACLU’s lead lawyer in the Title 42 families challenge, had told CBS News on September 16. Nonetheless, on September 17 the administration moved to appeal Judge Sullivan’s ruling.

This is not completely surprising: the Wall Street Journal pointed out that DHS’s assistant secretary for border and immigration policy had defended Title 42’s implementation in an August 2 court declaration. That official, former Democratic Senate Judiciary staffer David Shahoulian, resigned his post this week, citing personal reasons.

Single adults, for now, can still be expelled under Title 42; CBP expelled 77 percent of single adults it encountered in August 2021.

Migration “levels off” in August

That August 2021 number comes from a September 15 CBP release and data update pointing to a 2 percent drop, from July, in the agency’s “encounters” with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. CBP reported 208,887 encounters with 156,641 individual migrants during August, the second-largest total (after July) in 2021 and one of the largest monthly totals this century.

Several trends stood out in our analysis of this data.

  • Measured by individual migrants, not encounters, the first 11 months of fiscal year 2021 are about 18 percent ahead of the pace set in 2019, which at the time was the busiest year for migration at the border since 2007.
  • Encounters with single adults declined for the third straight month. Single adults are now down 15 percent from May, though their numbers remain far higher than in the decade before the pandemic. Numbers of single adults shot upward after March 2020, in part because rapid Title 42 expulsions trigger repeat attempts by adult migrants who wish to avoid being caught. Of the migrants the agency encountered in August, CBP had already encountered 25 percent at least once already this year. (CBP’s September 15 statement mentions a “Repeat Offender Initiative,” begun in July, that seeks to prosecute more repeat border crossers.)
  • Encounters with family unit members grew by 3.6 percent over July.
  • Encounters with unaccompanied children stayed near July’s record levels, dropping by just 0.6 percent—though, as noted below, new arrivals of unaccompanied children have declined in late August and so far in September.
  • 47 percent of those encountered by Border Patrol were expelled in August, the same proportion as July.
  • As noted above, Title 42 expulsions of family unit members increased from July to August. “The number of encounters with family unit individuals so far this fiscal year (415,185),” CBP reports, “remains below the number of encounters at the same point in Fiscal Year 2019 (505,102).”
  • Migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador declined somewhat from July to August (red arrows in the graphic below). All other nationalities with over 100 monthly encounters increased. The largest proportional increases were migrants from Colombia and Haiti.
  • There is remarkable variation, by country, in which nationalities are expelled most often under Title 42.
  • Fully 30 percent of encountered migrants—and 39 percent of family unit members—are from countries other than Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” We have seen no record of that ever happening before this year.
  • Daily reports from CBP (collected here as a large zipfile) point to declining arrivals of unaccompanied children since mid-August, to their lowest numbers in three months.

Data as of September 10 viewed by NBC News point to an overall decline in migration at the border over the prior three weeks: “the 21-day average of immigrants stopped crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by Customs and Border Protection was 6,177 per day, down from 7,275 in mid-August.” The daily number of Title 42 expulsions, however, increased over the past month—from 2,550 per day on August 11 to 2,733 per day on September 10.

This recent decline in migration at the border, however modest, means that “pressure on DHS from the White House to get a handle on migration across the southern border has cooled over the past two weeks,” a “source directly involved with internal discussions” told NBC. The source said that this has allowed DHS to devote more bandwidth to processing Afghan evacuees.

As thousands of mostly Haitian migrants arrive in rural Del Rio, Texas state government escalates crackdown

As of mid-September, migration is clearly not declining in at least one part of the border. The border sector centered on the town of Del Rio, Texas (population 40,000, across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila), is where CBP encountered 69 percent of Haitian migrants in August, along with 55 percent of Cubans and 64 percent of Venezuelans. The flow to Del Rio—which migrants and smugglers often view as a safer, if very remote, route—is pronounced: while nearly 20,000 Haitians came to Del Rio between October and August, only 12 (twelve) came to south Texas’s very busy Rio Grande Valley sector.

This week, Del Rio has seen a further increase in migrant arrivals, overwhelming CBP’s local processing capacity. As of the evening of September 16, the town’s mayor, Bruno “Ralphy” Lozano, was tweeting that 10,503 migrants—perhaps 70 percent Haitian, but also many Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans—were waiting under the Del Rio-Acuña border bridge for Border Patrol to process them. That number, the mayor said, was up from 8,200 that same morning. This is up from 2,500 on September 11, the sheriff of surrounding Val Verde county told the Texas Tribune.

The migrants’ wait to turn themselves in—in most cases, to apply for asylum—may take up to five days, several told Reuters. U.S. border agents are giving each person or family unit a ticket with a number that they will eventually call.

Once processed with an asylum claim, the majority will probably be allowed to remain in the United States to await that claim’s adjudication. Logistical and consular issues make it difficult for CBP to expel migrants to Port-au-Prince, Havana, Managua, or Caracas. However, on September 15 DHS sent a deportation flight to Haiti for the first time since August 14, when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake caused widespread devastation in the Caribbean nation.

The migrants in Del Rio are being concentrated outdoors where heat is in the high 90s; water, food, and sanitary facilities are scarce; and social distancing is difficult. Migrants with CBP’s “tickets” have been wading the knee-deep river back to Acuña to buy food, water, and other provisions on the Mexican side. “CBP is scrambling to send additional agents to Del Rio to help process the migrants,” the Washington Post reports. Pictures and footage from the area are striking.

Mayor Lozano told the Post that the migrants have been arriving on buses from elsewhere in Mexico to Ciudad Acuña. “It just sounds like there’s an off-grid bus system that’s not registered with the Mexican government that are driving these individuals north,” he observed.

The situation in Del Rio has drawn the attention of conservative media (Fox News battled CBP for the right to shoot drone footage) and figures like former Trump advisor Stephen Miller.

One of the most vocal proponents of a hardline approach to asylum-seeking migration, Texas governor Greg Abbott (R), announced on September 16 that he had directed state police and guardsmen “to surge personnel and vehicles to shut down six points of entry along the southern border to stop these [migrant] caravans from overrunning our state.” Abbott added that “The border crisis is so dire that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is requesting our help as their agents are overwhelmed by the chaos.”

It wasn’t clear what Gov. Abbott was talking about: state law enforcement agencies do not have the authority to shut down border ports of entry, which are run by the federal government. CBP spokespeople said they had made no requests to Texas for help, and had no plans to shut down ports of entry. Later on the 16th, Abbott reversed himself, claiming that the Biden administration “has now flip-flopped to a different strategy that abandons border security.”

Abbott, meanwhile, has plans to divert more than $2 billion into border security efforts over the next year, expanding a package of crackdowns, begun in March, that he calls “Operation Lone Star.” He has deployed Texas state police and National Guard personnel to the border zone, giving soldiers a rare power to arrest people. He plans to use state funds to build border fencing where landowners allow it, and the Texas Facilities Commission just signed an $11 million contract with two firms charged with planning and design of barriers.

In a program first rolled out near Del Rio, Abbott ordered police and guardsmen to arrest migrants found on state and private land, so that they may be charged with, and jailed for, the crime of trespassing. Hundreds of migrants—including some who turned themselves in with the expectation of asking for asylum—have been jailed at a facility in Dilley, Texas, and now at a second prison in Edinburg.

Migrants initially jailed in July are now being released, often with dropped charges. It is unclear what happens to them next: because they haven’t committed violent offenses, they are not a priority for ICE, and because they’ve been in the country for a while, they are not a priority for CBP. Texas authorities have started releasing formerly jailed migrants at a gas station bus stop in Del Rio. Under a new process agreed last week, CBP will process migrants released from Texas jails. Some who have entered this process so far have been deported, but roughly half have been released from CBP custody to await adjudication of their asylum cases within the United States.

In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, local station KRGV reports, “Operation Lone Star” has meant a sharp increase in often frivolous traffic stops as state police crowd local roads. Citations for “having anything on the car’s windshield,” among other examples, are up 1,060 percent. KRGV cites a 2014 study by the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, which found that during past deployments to the Rio Grande Valley border region, Texas state police oversaw a 127 percent increase in traffic citations for Hispanic drivers—and a 40 percent drop in citations for White drivers.

Links

  • As required by the judge in the case, the Biden administration has submitted its first monthly report documenting its “good faith efforts” to restart the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” program.        
    • The report explains that while Remain in Mexico hasn’t restarted yet, an “interagency task force” is “meeting regularly to quickly and efficiently rebuild the infrastructure and reapportion the staffing required.”
    • Rebuilding facilities to hold immigration hearings at ports of entry “will cost approximately $14.1 million to construct and $10.5 million per month to operate.”
    • Mexico, the report notes, hasn’t agreed yet to take back any migrants. Discussions between the United States and Mexico must determine where returns could happen, how many people could be returned, demographic questions (like whether Mexico would take families or would limit ages of children sent back), and how Mexico would support those made to remain in the country for months or years to await their U.S. hearing dates.
  • 68 organizations, including WOLA, sent a letter to President Biden and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas urging a series of policy changes and measures to reduce extreme heat-related deaths of migrants on U.S. soil, which have totaled more than one per day so far this year.
  • Mexican migration authorities apprehended 150 Haitian migrants near the Guatemala border-zone city of Tapachula, Chiapas on September 11, then expelled them into Guatemala.
  • As Mexican immigration agents and National Guard personnel continue to block asylum-seeking migrants from leaving Tapachula, Chiapas Parelelo notes migrants’ increasing use of northward routes through central Chiapas, like the Angostura Reservoir region.
  • “Women and children seeking refuge instead find themselves incarcerated in detention centers or prisons for migrants that are paid for with our tax dollars, whether in Tapachula (the prison-city as those womean call it) or in Iztapalapa or Tijuana,” reads a letter from dozens of women’s rights groups and activists from Mexico and several other countries.
  • The coordinator of Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR, which as of August had already broken its single-year record for asylum requests, pleads for a budget increase in an interview with Mexico’s El Universal.
  • An Alabama National Guard soldier assigned to the border security mission was arrested near McAllen, Texas, while transporting about a kilogram of cocaine in a Border Patrol vehicle.
  • At least 600 migrants per day are passing from Colombia through Panama’s dangerous, ungoverned Darién Gap region right now, and about a quarter of them are children, the Associated Press reports.
  • Ciudad Juárez has reappointed a former municipal police chief, César Omar Muñoz, who had led the force from 2013 to 2016. Human rights groups accuse Muñoz of ordering human rights violations and defense officials have alleged that he has organized crime ties, Vice reports.
  • “It hurts my heart” to see the effects in Mexico of cross-border arms trafficking from the United States, where weapons are easy to obtain, said Ken Salazar, the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico. The Ambassador added that there is a need for “a new bilateral migration model,” though he did not offer specifics.
  • The New York Times looks at residents’ disagreements about border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley border town of Los Ebanos, Texas.
  • A New York Times essay by journalist Lauren Markham recalls that past U.S. experiments with “alternatives to detention” programs for asylum seekers, including social work support, have achieved near 100 percent appearance at court dates.
  • “The Central American migrants crossing Mexico have undoubtedly been subjects from whom everyone has taken everything they can,” author and journalist Óscar Martínez tells Mexico’s SinEmbargo. “Both the state and organized crime, the small gangs of assailants who kill and rape. The passage through Mexico is a kind of enormous toll where the decision to seek a better life has to be paid with much suffering.”
  • “Few people will throw stones at a tree planting program, but Guatemalans aren’t going to stop leaving home because they got temporary work planting trees,” writes former WOLA executive director Joy Olson at Reforma’s Mexico Today. “The tree program is about Mexico looking like it is responding to a migration crisis without actually doing much. The US needs to provide serious numbers of work visas to Central America, and Mexico should push them to do it.”

WOLA Podcast: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must Begin: Justice for Disappeared Mexicans

A stunning 90,000 people have disappeared in Mexico. In a new WOLA podcast, our director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, Stephanie Brewer, emphasizes that the situation isn’t hopeless. She offers a really clear explanation of steps Mexico’s justice system can take, now.

Here’s the text from the podcast landing page at wola.org:

This week, Adam is talking with Stephanie Brewer, WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights, about our latest campaign: For Disappearances to End, Justice Must BeginThe campaign addresses the more than 90,000 people disappeared in Mexico (mostly since 2006) and the challenges to stopping disappearances.

In this conversation, Adam and Stephanie discuss how the crisis grew to today’s tragic scale, what has worked and has not worked for investigations into disappearances in the country, and some of the major findings of the campaign. Please visit the campaign’s website to see the in-depth findings and learn what you can do to support victims and family members of the disappeared in Mexico.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts,SpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Some online events about Latin America this week

Monday, September 13

  • 2:00-3:00 at csis.org: Haiti in Crisis: What Role Can the International Community Play? (RSVP required).

Tuesday, September 14

  • 10:30-12:00 at wola.org: Criminalized and Incarcerated in Latin America: How the “Drug War” Drives the Region’s Prison Crisis (RSVP required).

Wednesday, September 15

  • 4:00-5:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Central America at 200: What does the next phase of regional integration look like? (RSVP required).

Friday, September 17

  • 9:30-11:00 at wola.org: Voices from the Frontlines: Bolstering Collective Power to End the Incarceration of Women Worldwide (RSVP required).
  • 12:00-1:30 at gwu.edu: Humanitarian and Political Crisis in Haiti: A Roadmap for the Future (RSVP required).

5 links: September 10, 2021

(Even more here)

Colombia

Si queremos rescatarla debemos reformar nuestra Policía, desmilitarizarla de las viejas formaciones y prácticas heredadas del conflicto armado; que se reclute, forme y vigile a una policía civilista que no dependa del Ministerio de Defensa ni tenga fuero militar

Only one police officer has so far been detained, under house arrest, for the killings during protests a year ago

Cuba

Cubalex says 437 remain behind bars

Ecuador, Venezuela

Lasso dijo que el plan que se está preparando es más ambicioso porque incluye la incorporación plena de los migrantes al país que los ha acogido

El Salvador

Guzmán is standing in solidarity with other judges who may still lose their jobs. His stance is that he won’t stay unless all can stay. It still isn’t clear whether the El Mozote proceedings will ever come to a conclusion

Weekly Border Update: September 10, 2021

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

Mexico solidifies role as bulwark against U.S.-bound migration

On September 5, for the fourth time in about a week, Mexican immigration agents and militarized National Guard personnel broke up a “caravan” of migrants in Chiapas, near Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala.

Perhaps 800 people, mostly from Haiti, Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela, many of them parents with children, sought to leave en masse from the southern border-zone city of Tapachula on September 4. They got about 30 miles up Chiapas’s Pacific coastal highway to the town of Huixtla, where most bedded down at a basketball court.

There, before dawn on the 5th, about 200 agents and guardsmen descended on the migrants. The Mexican forces spent the next eight hours chasing people through Huixtla and its environs, capturing many and hauling them away in vehicles. An unknown number escaped.

We saw many people injured and wounded, in states of shock and fear,” reported Isaín Mandujano at Chiapas Paralelo. “Many people stated that the INM [Mexico’s National Migration Institute] took their documents and belongings during the operation.” Human rights defenders alleged that agents deliberately separated families “as a coercion strategy” to get people to turn themselves in. “They began to hit me all over,” a woman told the Associated Press “amid tears, alleging that police also beat her husband and pulled one of her daughters from her arms.” A Honduran man told Chiapas Paralelo that a National Guardsman threw him to the ground and hit him with his rifle butt. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Mexico office noted, INM and National Guard personnel also acted aggressively toward human rights defenders and journalists present in Huixtla, interfering with their ability to monitor the situation.

“So far the strategy of the authorities is to allow the migrants to walk, let them get tired, and then launch operations to detain them and return them to Tapachula,” observed reporter Alberto Pradilla at Animal Político. Some, however, are being expelled into Guatemala, even if they have documentation indicating that their asylum cases are pending.

While they await decisions on their petitions, Mexico requires asylum seekers to remain in the state where they filed their requests. For most, that means Chiapas: the country’s poorest state. Of the 77,599 people who have requested asylum in Mexico this year through August—a number that already breaks Mexico’s full-year record for asylum requests—55,005 applied in the Tapachula office of Mexico’s beleaguered refugee agency, COMAR. The agency is so badly backlogged that asylum case decisions—which used to come within 45 working days, before pandemic-related measures removed the deadline—are taking many months: a migrant who starts the asylum process in Tapachula today might receive an interview appointment date for January or February.

For tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Central America, and elsewhere, this means many months confined to Tapachula, a city of 350,000, with almost no ability to earn an income. With shelters long since filled, migrants are sleeping in slum housing, parks, and streets throughout what Pradilla and Chiapas Paralelo’s Ángeles Mariscal are calling a “city-jail.” Many of the caravan participants claim they are seeking simply to relocate to other parts of Mexico where they might find employment while they wait for COMAR to consider their petitions.

“What is collapsing us in Tapachula is the unusual arrival of Haitians who are not refugees,” COMAR’s coordinator, Andrés Ramírez, alleged in Animal Político. “They do not come from Haiti, they come from Brazil and Chile, but due to the lack of migratory alternatives they come to make their request with COMAR, oversaturating our asylum system and placing us in a very complicated situation to the detriment of those who really need protection.” Enrique Vidal of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center responded that the Haitians are, in fact, “de facto asylum seekers” because they’ve begun the procedure and deserve due process—or some other form of international protection inside Mexico, because their lives and integrity may be at risk if they are deported.

If its just-released 2022 budget request is any indication, Mexico’s federal government does not plan to expand COMAR’s capacity to consider asylum requests. Adjusting for inflation, the request for 45.7 million pesos (US$2.3 million) would represent a 0.58 percent reduction in COMAR’s budget from 2021 to 2022. (The INM’s budget would increase by 0.29 percent.)

Haitian and Honduran migrants interviewed by Chiapas Paralelo allege corruption at both the INM and COMAR. “It takes more than 8 months to get a humanitarian visa, but if you have 4,000 dollars, or 5,000 dollars, it will be granted,” said a man whom the publication identified as a leader of the failed fourth caravan. “They tell us that the [COMAR asylum application] process is free, but there are people who ask us for money to enter, there are people who tell us that we have to hire a lawyer,” said a Haitian migrant. Others contend that middlemen offer to quickly secure humanitarian visas for US$1,300 or refugee status cards for US$4,000 to US$5,000. COMAR insists that it does not tolerate any corrupt behavior.

Human rights defenders and migration experts are raising the volume on their calls for Mexico to change course. “We call on the Executive Branch, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Migration Institute and the National Guard to put an end to the repression, detention, and violence against forcibly displaced persons, and to provide real strategies to solve the root causes of this displacement,” reads a statement from numerous Mexican human rights groups.

Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former Executive Secretary of the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and now an independent senator, held a press conference to demand that top officials testify about the numerous abuse allegations coming out of Chiapas. The National Guard and INM are “out of control,” the senator said. “What Mexico is doing is the dirty work of the United States, first Trump and now Biden. We did not create the National Guard to chase migrants, but to fight crime.”

Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who headed the INM during the first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term, told Spain’s El País that the images of abuse in Chiapas “portray a profound regression of this government’s migration policy, which I believe had started out with a very different scenario, one of respect for human rights. We’re on the other side now.” This, Guillén added, is a result of Mexico’s “institutional internalization of the containment agreements established with the Trump Administration.” Now, “it is in line with militarization. The INM and the Guard are acting as though they’re confronting an enemy.”

WOLA’s Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer published a commentary calling on the Biden administration to “cease pressuring Mexico to act as an externalized U.S. border that blocks, contains, or deports as many migrants as possible, a bilateral focus that has led to a series of rights-violating practices. Current policies are producing outcomes as dangerous as they are absurd.”

“We don’t accept pressure from any government,” said President López Obrador in one of a few daily press conferences at which the migration issue came up this week. “Yes, we have this situation that concerns us and that we are dealing with, but it’s not because we’re puppets of the U.S. government, it’s because we’re putting things in order and helping, protecting.” López Obrador alleged that a “disinformation campaign” by his political adversaries is behind many of the allegations of human rights abuse and corruption.

“We do this,” the president said, “because we have to care for the migrants, though it seems paradoxical. If we allowed them to cross to the north of the country to cross the border, we would be running risks, many risks. We just rescued a very large group of migrants in the north who were practically kidnapped.” (Anarticle at the Mexican publication Lado B explores how Mexican migration authorities favor such euphemisms to describe their work: “rescues” instead of “apprehensions,” “repatriation” instead of “deportation,” “migratory stations” instead of “detention centers.”)

López Obrador mentioned that two INM agents had been fired for kicking a migrant on video during an attempted caravan the previous week. Francisco Garduño, the INM’s commissioner, told reporters that “more will also have to be fired,” but did not know how many more agents face abuse allegations. Asked about videos showing personnel beating migrants, the National Guard’s commander, retired Gen. Luis Rodríguez Bucio, responded only, “Todo tranquilo, estamos trabajando”—“don’t worry, we’re working on it.”

The Mexican president called on the United States to accept more migrants in order to face its labor shortages, and to provide more assistance to Central America. “That is what is going to be raised again today with the U.S. government, that work be done immediately in Central America because there has been nothing for years.”

By “today,” López Obrador was referring to a September 9 “High Level Economic Dialogue” meeting in Washington, inaugurated by Vice President Kamala Harris. That dialogue’s agenda has four “pillars” of which “pillar two” is “Promising sustainable economic and social development in southern Mexico and Central America,” something Mexico’s president has been advocating for years. López Obrador has particularly sought U.S. support for a program that would pay Central Americans to plant trees; the Biden administration has not yet committed to that. At the September 9 meeting, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard gave his counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a letter from López Obrador with a proposal for creating employment opportunities in Central America.

Migration via South America hits record highs

Hundreds of miles to the south, the number of migrants whose northward journeys might lead them to Chiapas keeps growing. In Colombia, according to the government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría), 11,400 people, most of them Haitian, are stranded in the Caribbean town of Necoclí. This is the last stop before ferries to the Panama border for migrants who mostly entered Colombia via Ecuador, 700 miles further south.

This is the second time in two months that the number of people waiting in Necoclí has reached 10,000 (see our August 6 update). They have filled hotels and private homes, and many are sleeping on the beach. Mayor Jorge Tobónsays that 1,000 people are arriving in Necoclí each day right now, but the ferries are only talking 500 per day—the result of an agreement between Colombia and Panama to limit the flow into Panama. As a result, “if this trend continues, by the end of September we’re going to have more than 25,000 migrants in Necoclí,” the mayor says.

Panama claims that Colombia is in fact permitting more than 500 migrants per day to depart. “Right now we have 6,500 more people than we would have if the accord had been complied with,” said the director of Panama’s National Migration Service. The country’s security ministersaid that a remarkable 70,000 migrants have arrived in Panama so far this year, way up from 7,000 in the same period of 2020 and 17,000 in the same period of 2019. The Associated Press reported a still-high figure of 50,000, of whom about 16 percent are children.

The most worrying aspect of this sharply increased migration is that this route requires people to cross through Panama’s roadless, ungoverned Darién Gap wilderness. Migrants who travel through South and Central America routinely say that the Darién is the most dangerous part of their journey. As a Pulitzer-winning April 2020 report from Nadja Drost vividly documents, migrants in the Darién are routinely robbed and see dead bodies in a forest dominated by criminal bands and armed groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that Doctors Without Borders began providing medical care in May to migrants exiting the jungle from the Darién Gap. Since then, the group has documented 180 cases of rape. 70 percent of the time, the migrants were raped on Panamanian territory. “The group believes the true number of victims is likely far higher since many migrants don’t report the attacks.”

Further south, Ecuador has suddenly become the fourth-largest nationality of migrants whom U.S. authorities encounter at the U.S.-Mexico border. This owes heavily to Mexico’s 2018 decision to lift visa requirements for visiting Ecuadorians. Many who could afford a plane ticket have been flying to Mexico, traveling north, and crossing the land border into the United States. There, most have avoided expulsion under the “Title 42” pandemic policy, since deportation flight capacity to Quito is limited.

Ecuador’s government says 88,696 of its citizens traveled to Mexico from January to July 2021, and only 34,331 have returned. During those seven months, U.S. border agencies encountered citizens of Ecuador 62,494 times.

In response, very likely at the strong suggestion of the U.S. government, Mexico has reinstated its visa requirement for Ecuadorian citizens. This may mean a brief reduction in migration from Ecuador, but experts interviewed by the Guayaquil daily El Universo expect that migration routes will adjust. Even if the route becomes more dangerous, the state of the country’s COVID-battered economy may still lead many Ecuadorians to risk the journey.

Biden administration weighs “Remain in Mexico Lite,” feeds into Mexico’s southern-border “chain expulsions”

The Biden administration continues to consider how it will revive the Migrant Protection Protocols or “Remain in Mexico,” a policy that it bitterly opposes and sought to shut down. As detailed in our August 27 update, the Supreme Court refused to suspend a Texas judge’s order, still under appeal, forcing the Biden administration to make a “good faith effort” to revive the program, which Donald Trump’s administration launched at the end of 2018.

“Remain in Mexico” sent over 71,000 non-Mexican asylum-seekers back into Mexican border towns, penniless, homeless, and vulnerable to crime, to await eventual immigration hearing dates in the United States. Over 1,500 suffered assault, kidnapping, or other abuse, and less than 2 percent of those who were present for all of their hearings were granted asylum. President Joe Biden suspended Remain in Mexico the moment he was sworn in, in January 2021, and officially ended it on June 1.

Now, though, the court is ordering a restart, and on September 15 the administration must provide Amarillo, Texas District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk its first monthly report on the progress of its “good faith efforts.” What those next steps might look like isn’t clear, but reporting is pointing to some sort of limited “Remain in Mexico ‘Lite.’”

Homeland Security Department (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeated his opposition to Remain in Mexico in an interview with CBS news, but acknowledged that “We’re planning to implement the program while we litigate the ruling.” CBS revealed that “the department’s policy office has been working on logistical plans to facilitate its ‘expeditious reimplementation,’ including cost estimates, according to an internal memo.” Mexico, too, will have to give at least an informal green light; it is not clear where talks about this currently stand.

“Some Biden officials were already talking about reviving Mr. Trump’s policy in a limited way to deter migration,” unnamed officials told the New York Times. They say the Supreme Court’s ruling gives them a chance to “come up with a more humane version of Mr. Trump’s policy.” A proposal under consideration, three sources told Politico, “would require a small number of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their cases to be processed but give them better living conditions and access to attorneys.”

Asylum advocates reject the idea that a “lite” version of the program can exist.

  • “There’s no lite MPP just as there’s no lite police brutality or lite torture,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council.
  • “The answer is not to simply find a gentler, kinder MPP 2.0. That completely flies in the face of his [President Biden’s] promise” to end the program, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of National Immigration Law Center.
  • “There’s no way to implement it in a way that will satisfy actual due process or keep people safe, because it’s impossible to keep migrants safe in Mexico,” said Taylor Levy, an attorney who represented many victims of Remain in Mexico.
  • “The reinstatement of MPP will place thousands of asylum seekers in harm’s way and deny them the right to a fair hearing of their claims,” said asylum officers’ union leader Michael Knowles.
  • “I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again,” reads a letter to President Biden, published in the Washington Post, from Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley’s large migrant respite center in McAllen, Texas. “We must not make children live for months in rain-logged tents. We cannot abandon them to communities where their mothers are afraid to let them use the bathroom at night for fear they might encounter a gang member or be assaulted.”

Instead, advocates are calling on the administration to meet the court’s requirements by “re-terminating” the program. That would mean issuing a memo, as it did when it formally shut down the program in June, addressing Judge Kacsmaryk’s and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals’ concerns that the administration didn’t consider the “benefits” of Remain in Mexico when it decided to close down the program.

A letter from 31 Democratic congressional representatives and senators, led by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), proposes exactly that. “The court orders leave ample room for your administration to ensure MPP never again puts another person in harm’s way,” it explains:

The decisions suggest that the potential perceived problem with your administration’s termination of MPP was that it did not say enough to demonstrate that it had sufficiently weighed the potential consequences of its decision to terminate. The court did not endorse the states’ claims that the government is actually required to return people to Mexico under the immigration statutes. As amicus briefs explained, those claims were egregiously wrong. Thus, we believe your administration can and should re-terminate MPP with a fuller explanation in order to address any perceived procedural defect of the termination.

While the Biden administration continues to deliberate over what to do about a program that sent 71,000 people to Mexico, though, it continues to carry out a program that, to date, has sent people—including asylum seekers—back to Mexico more than a million times since March 2020. “Title 42,” the pandemic policy permitting rapid expulsions of migrants, without regard to asylum or protection needs, remains in place. Mexico continues to receive expulsions of its own citizens and those of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Expelled migrants filling a plaza in Reynosa, Mexico are living in even worse conditions than Remain in Mexico victims who had inhabited an encampment in the nearby, and similarly crime-plagued, city of Matamoros, the Los Angeles Times reported. “There’s less potable water, fewer bathrooms, showers and other sanitation that U.S.-based nonprofits spent months installing in Matamoros. Mexican soldiers circle in trucks with guns mounted on top. Migrants face not only cartel extortion and kidnapping, but also COVID-19 outbreaks and pressure to leave from Mexican authorities.” Reynosa’s critical security situation scares off U.S. volunteers and attorneys. The L.A. Times estimates that 2,000 people are currently inhabiting the plaza. Sister Pimentel’s letter notes, “Recently we estimated that there are close to 5,000 migrants in Reynosa.”

Another encampment with a large number of expelled migrants persists at the other end of the border, right outside the main pedestrian border crossing in Tijuana. There, on September 3, migrants were gathering for vaccinations when word quickly spread—inaccurately—that U.S. authorities had opened the border. Hundreds of people rushed to the line, only to find a phalanx of riot gear-clad CBP officers.

Expulsions don’t just happen at Mexico’s northern border. Since early August, DHS has put expelled Central American migrants, including many families with children, on planes destined for Mexico’s far south: the cities of Villahermosa, Tabasco and Tapachula, Chiapas. Once those planes land, Mexico’s INM has gathered the expelled migrants onto buses and driven them to southern border crossings, instructing them to exit into Guatemala. At no moment do the expelled people have any migratory status in Mexico, much less any opportunity to ask for asylum or protection.

“These expulsions ridicule public health and human rights by crowding people into planes and buses and preventing legal access to asylum in violation of domestic and international law,” reads a report and list of recommendations for the U.S. and Mexican governments produced by several organizations, including WOLA. This document, based on Witness on the Border’s monitoring of deportation and expulsion flights, counted 34 planeloads of migrants to Villahermosa and Tapachula—about one every weekday—between August 5 and August 31.

There is no official count of the number of people who have been subject to these “chain expulsions.” Animal Político, citing Guatemala’s migration authority, reports that 4,243 people were expelled between August 22 and September 6. Many were pushed across the line into the very remote village of El Ceibo, a village of a few hundred people in Guatemala’s sparsely populated frontier department of El Petén, on the edge of the Lacandón jungle a few hours’ drive from Villahermosa.

The 4,243 are not all migrants from the U.S. government’s long-distance expulsion flights. The number includes some migrants whom Mexico’s INM apprehended in southern Mexico. Unnamed official sources tell Animal Político that the number of people expelled by the United States “could be around 3,500”: 2,000 whom Mexico went on to expel in El Ceibo, and 1,500 at the Talismán border crossing near Tapachula.

“While the majority are Central American, the expulsion of Venezuelans, Cubans, and even a Senegalese person was recorded.” One may have been a U.S. citizen, Reuters reports. Animal Político has seen evidence that southern Chiapas municipal police captured Haitian families in mid-August, then handed them over to INM, which expelled them into Guatemala.

“Upon their arrival,” migrants expelled at El Ceibo and Talismán “don’t have a peso or a quetzal in their pockets,” Mexico’s La Jornada puts it. At times, the expulsion buses have dropped people in El Ceibo in the middle of the night. “Mexican immigration authorities have not coordinated these expulsions with the Guatemalan government; nor notified the Guatemalan, Honduran, or Salvadoran consulates; nor arranged for onward transport,” reads a briefreport from Human Rights Watch. “Many of those expelled have been forced to sleep on the street upon arrival in El Ceibo.” Some of those expelled, HRW reveals, had pending asylum applications in Mexico.

On September 2, Guatemala’s foreign minister announced an agreement with the U.S. government to send expulsion flights to the airport in Guatemala City instead of to southern Mexico. That agreement, though, will not go into effect until the end of the month—and it of course maintains Title 42’s refusal to consider migrants’ asylum or protection needs.

Links

  • While border-zone migrant deaths from dehydration, exposure, or similar causes are horrifyingly common, most victims have been single adults: migrant parents and children have been rare. That seems to be changing.        
    • A 21-year-old Ecuadorian woman died of dehydration on August 28 after attempting to migrate with her 2-year-old daughter in the desert of Sonora, Mexico, near the U.S. border. Jazmín Lema left her country, likely fleeing domestic violence, on August 21, flying to Mexico and taking buses north until stopped at a migration checkpoint. The child survived.
    • Another Ecuadorian woman, traveling with children aged seven and one, was rescued in the Arizona desert near Yuma after calling 911.
    • These events come just days after the death from dehydration, near Yuma, of a Colombian woman and her oldest child, while her toddler survived.
  • Also near Yuma, a Mexican man died after falling from a 30-foot-high section of border wall. He fell on the Mexican side, requiring rescuers to open a gate in the wall that was not wide enough for an ambulance, then carry him for a mile before he passed away.
  • Texas’s state Facilities Commission has recommended that a joint venture of two companies, Michael Baker International and Huitt-Zollars, get a contract to build fence or wall, using state funds, along parts of the state’s 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Texas’s state budget for 2022 includes $750 million to build barriers. If built at the per-mile cost of the Trump administration’s border wall, this money would build about 30-35 miles of barrier.
  • Writing at the Border Chronicle, a new journalistic newsletter, Todd Miller narrates the rapid growth of a bipartisan “border security industrial complex” made up of well-connected technology, detention, and munitions companies that have been awarded large CBP contracts. These companies’ technologies, Miller warns, are often invasive and threaten civil liberties.
  • At the Intercept, Melissa del Bosque reveals the vast expansion in CBP’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams since their inception in 2015, finding that the secretive units detained and interrogated more than 600,000 travelers at airports and border crossings between 2017 and 2019, about a third of them U.S. citizens. The databases the teams use to flag suspected travelers rely on what is “essentially a black box algorithm,” as an ACLU attorney put it.
  • A third whistleblower has come forward with allegations of abuse of unaccompanied migrant children held at a giant emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, run by contractors of the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Valerie González at the Rio Grande Valley, Texas Monitor rebuts alarmist claims by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) by sharing recent data pointing to reduced migration to the busy Rio Grande Valley region during August.
  • About 1,500 people from Michoacán, Mexico have arrived in the border city of Tijuana, displaced by warring organized crime groups who often give them hours to leave their homes.
  • A Georgia National Guard soldier, assigned to the border security mission that Donald Trump launched in 2018, died in a drunk driving incident in McAllen, Texas. The Guard immediately imposed an alcohol ban and curfew on all 3,000-plus personnel assigned to the mission.
  • “Not a single terrorist has illegally crossed the Mexican border and then committed an attack on U.S. soil,” writes the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh in a scathing book review, citing numerous statistics, at Reason.

5 links: September 9, 2021

(Even more here)

Brazil

The threat to Brazil’s institutions has not lapsed, not from Bolsonaro nor from those who unquestionably back him

El Salvador

Santiago Cantón, former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, asks the Organization of American States (OAS) to invoke article 20 of the Inter-American Charter to redirect El Salvador to its constitutional framework

Mexico

Uno de los casos más destacables es en el presupuesto de la Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda a Refugiados (Comar), que, en términos reales, sufrió un recorte, en medio de la crisis migratoria en la frontera sur

El gobierno del presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador propuso para 2022 un incremento de más de 25 mil millones de pesos al presupuesto de la Guardia Nacional (GN) que, de aprobarse, significaría un alza de más de 60% de los recursos destinados a esta fuerza de seguridad

U.S.-Mexico Border

Anduril Industries’ sentry towers and ghost drones are just one of $2.4 billion and $1.6 billion worth in contracts doled out to CBP and ICE, respectively, from Biden’s inaugural month to the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Unaccompanied Children at the Border: Update through September 7

New arrivals of unaccompanied children are trending steadily downward at the US-Mexico border, after rising in July.

The population of unaccompanied children in Border Patrol custody is way down, below 500 for the first time in 4 months.

The number in the Health and Human Services Department’s (HHS) network of shelters, awaiting placement with US-based relatives or sponsors, remains stubbornly over 14,000.

HHS hasn’t increased the pace at which it discharges children since early May.

The data comes from 116 daily reports saved in a zipfile (13.5 MB) at http://bit.ly/uac_daily.

Photo

Northeast Washington DC’s Metropolitan Branch Trail this morning.

5 links: September 6, 7, and 8, 2021

(Even more here)

September 8, 2021

Brazil

The pro-Bolsonaro protests seem to take Brazil one step closer to a “January 6” scenario, a crisis similar to the insurrection and riots at the US Capitol

At least three times — once soon after Bolsonaro’s second speech of the day — groups of demonstrators in Brasilia tried to get past police barriers, but officers repelled them with pepper spray

Colombia

Gold is not only more valuable than cocaine but easier to launder, with a fraction of the risk involved in trafficking drugs

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Teams of prosecutors are being embedded in the U.S. embassies in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras tasked with providing backup to local law enforcement efforts. They are also being armed with a new authority to allow the more rapid revoking of visas, within days, of suspected criminals

Guatemala, Mexico

En Frontera Talismán, Chiapas, los expulsados son abandonados sin apoyo de ninguna institución


September 7, 2021

Colombia

Los generales (r) Jaime Alfonso Lasprilla Villamizar, Miguel Ernesto Pérez Guarnizo y William Fernando Pérez Laiseca, así como los otros siete oficiales, son comparecientes forzosos

El Salvador

The rollout of cryptocurrency has been upstaged by a more urgent concern: a series of withering attacks by Bukele and his ruling party on El Salvador’s three-decade-old democracy

Panama

Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical care to migrants in the hamlet of Bajo Chiquito, on the northern edge of the Darién, says it has documented 180 cases of rape since starting operations here in May

U.S.-Mexico Border

I rejoiced when you declared an end to this immoral policy on your first days in office, and despaired when the Supreme Court required your administration to implement it once again

This process of identifying vulnerable asylum-seekers, carried out by a consortium of nongovernmental organizations, has come to an end as of Aug. 31


September 6, 2021

Colombia

¿Por qué se decidió convertir los Acuerdos de paz en una razón de conflicto?

El Salvador

This week may go down in Salvadoran history as the week in which Nayib Bukele completed his consolidation of one man / one party rule in El Salvador

Nicaragua

Since June, the police have jailed or put under house arrest seven candidates for November’s presidential election and dozens of political activists and civil society leaders, leaving Mr. Ortega running on a ballot devoid of any credible challenger and turning Nicaragua into a police state

U.S.-Mexico Border

Unlike other law enforcement or intelligence agencies, CBP has been given the authority by Congress to conduct warrantless searches, which it uses to collect enormous amounts of personal information, often from U.S. citizens

Soon after the Matamoros camp was bulldozed in March, a new camp formed about 55 miles west across from the border bridge to the more dangerous, Gulf crime cartel stronghold of Reynosa

Colombia Peace Update: September 4, 2021

Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org.

Colombia Peace Update: September 4, 2021

Security deteriorates along the Colombia-Venezuela border

The ELN’s “Camilo Torres Urban Warfare Front” took credit for a bomb that detonated outside a police station in Cúcuta, the largest city along Colombia’s border with Venezuela, on the morning of August 30. The device wounded 14 people, among them 12 police, in Cúcuta’s Atalaya neighborhood.

“Cúcuta is subject to these types of terrorist acts and violence in its rural zones due to the presence of no less than 20 foreign criminal groups,” said Jairo Tomás Yáñez, the mayor of the city of half a million people. While Venezuelan organized crime operates in the area, particularly a band calling itself the Tren de Aragua, it’s not clear why the mayor would have specified “foreign” groups. Colombian groups active in Cúcuta, the conflictive nearby Catatumbo region, and on the Venezuelan side of the border include the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, at least two groups descended from the paramilitary networks of the 1990s and 2000s (the Gulf Clan and Rastrojos), a criminal group descended from the long-demobilized EPL guerrillas which the government calls the “Pelusos,” and smaller local bands.

The latest attack follows two high-profile events in June: a car bomb on the premises of the Army’s 30th Brigade headquarters in Cúcuta on June 15, and President Iván Duque’s helicopter being hit by gunfire as it overflew the region 10 days later. Colombia’s Prosecutor-General (Fiscalía) has arrested and charged several people, including a former Army captain, for both crimes, alleging their affiliation with the “33rd Front” ex-FARC dissident group.

These incidents, including the August 21 killing of the vice president of a Junta de Acción Comunal (local advisory board) in rural Cúcuta, “are a small sample of the complexity that the area is experiencing,” warns a Peace and Reconciliation Foundation analysis of Cúcuta, which sees the situation worsening as Colombia’s 2022 presidential and congressional elections draw near. “Some of the factors affecting this reality have to do with the closing of the border [both during and before the pandemic], the reconfiguration of armed actors, and the increase in cocaine cultivation and processing” in this region, “a zone without the rule of law or institutional presence.”

Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander department, is just south of Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo enclave, a cluster of about a dozen barely governed municipalities that currently grows more coca than any other region of Colombia. The region “effectively exists outside the presence of the Colombian state,” reads an analysis by Joshua Collins at The New Humanitarian. Catatumbo has easy access to Venezuela through the large border municipality of Tibú and the presence of all of the above-mentioned armed groups, while one of Colombia’s main oil pipelines (the Caño Limón-Coveñas) runs across its territory.

Catatumbo has strong campesino, Indigenous, and other organizations, including eight former FARC women, profiled this week in a lengthy Vorágine article, leading local reintegration efforts near the site where they demobilized. It has always been a dangerous place to be a social leader, though. This week, the “Madres del Catatumbo por la Paz,” a women’s organization, denounced that its entire leadership had received new and serious threats.

South and east of Norte de Santander, the oil-producing border department of Arauca is also seeing increased tensions. The department has been under heavy ELN influence since the 1980s, endured a bloody mini-war between the ELN and FARC in the 2000s, and is now seeing a growing presence of ex-FARC dissidents. In Saravena, Arauca’s westernmost border municipality, members of an armed group this week stopped employees of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared (UBPD, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord) and demanded that they hand over their official vehicle. Municipal authorities meanwhile held an “extraordinary security meeting” after an ex-FARC dissident group calling itself the 28th Front threatened local Indigenous communities, accusing them of petty theft.

An internal dispute between leaders of the 10th Front, a large and fast-growing ex-FARC dissident group, brought a jump in homicides in Arauca in August: at least 28 in a department of 230,000 people. La Silla Vacía notes how the dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the Arauca river. Across from the departmental capital, “We can stop at the river’s edge and look them in the face,” said Arauca’s chief of police.

Corruption enables this on both sides of the border. “In Arauca,” on the Colombian side, “there are rumors that all spheres of power are permeated by the dissidents,” La Silla notes. “The most frequent [rumor] is that a good part of the political class of the department works with them.” In the departmental capital, the accusations “even touch the municipality’s security forces.”

Relations between the ELN and local government have been alleged for decades in Arauca. This is the region of Colombia that the ELN, through its powerful Domingo Laín front, is believed to control most tightly. While the dissidents’ presence grows, though, the ELN “has been conspicuous by its absence,” La Silla Vacía observes. “According to a source close to a commander of that group, they continue in the tone of not confronting them in order to avoid a guerrilla war like the one the region suffered ten years ago. However, the tension between them continues to grow.”

Reuters reporter Sarah Kinosian documents the extent to which the ELN and dissidents have increased their territorial control on the Venezuelan side of the border. In a village in Zulia—across from Colombia’s department of Cesar, which lies north of Catatumbo—ELN members from Colombia “function as both a local government and a major employer,” recruiting people—including children—to work in Colombian coca fields, Kinosian writes. “Rebels who once hid from Colombia’s military in Venezuela’s jungles,” mainly ELN and ex-FARC dissidents, “have moved into population centers, ruling alongside Maduro’s government in some places, supplanting it in others.” ELN leader Pablo Beltrán, speaking from Havana where he was a negotiator until peace talks ended in January 2019, told Reuters that while guerrillas cross into Venezuela, he denies that they are present with the permission of Nicolás Maduro’s regime.

Gen. Montoya will not be indicted in regular justice system

In a decision that, El Tiempo reported, “didn’t cause surprise for the majority of sectors,” Bogotá’s Superior Tribunal refused to allow the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) to charge or indict Gen. Mario Montoya, the commander of Colombia’s army between 2006 and 2008, for human rights crimes. The court ruled on August 30 that Colombia’s regular criminal justice system, led by the Fiscalía, may continue to investigate Gen. Montoya’s role in the military’s numerous killings of non-combatants during his tenure. But while his case remains before the 2016 peace accords’ special transitional justice system (Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP), the Fiscalía cannot separately charge him or bring him to trial.

Gen. Mario Montoya, now 72, faces allegations of creating a command climate and incentive structure that led soldiers to kill thousands of civilian non-combatants. Throughout the country, under pressure to increase “body counts,” officers claimed falsely that civilian victims were armed-group members killed on the battlefield. The JEP is investigating these abuses, known as “false positives,” and has charged former commanders in two regions of the country so far. It surprised the country earlier this year by releasing a very high estimate of the number of civilians killed by the military: 6,402 between 2002 and 2008, which would be well over 40 percent of the armed forces’ claimed combat kills during those years.

A highly decorated officer whom many Colombians associated with the country’s security gains of the mid-2000s, Gen. Montoya resigned in November 2008 after a particularly egregious example of “false positive” killings came to light, blowing the scandal open after years of human rights groups’ denunciations. Former subordinates have portrayed the general as a key architect of the incentive system that encouraged officers to pad their units’ body counts even if it meant paying criminals to kill the innocent.

In 2018, Gen. Montoya agreed to have his case tried in the JEP instead of the regular justice system, even though the Fiscalía at the time was barely moving on its investigation of him. In his appearances before the transitional justice tribunal so far, Montoya has insisted on his innocence. This is risky: if he were to confess to his role in false positives and take actions to make amends to victims, Gen. Montoya would most likely be sentenced to up to eight years of “restricted liberty”—not prison. However, if he pleads “not guilty” and the JEP determines otherwise, he could go to regular prison for up to 20 years. The JEP has not yet formally charged Montoya with anything.

The Fiscalía, led by chief prosecutor Francisco Barbosa, surprised many in July when it announced it would seek to indict Gen. Montoya for his role in 104 “false positive” killings that took place after a 2007 order requiring the military to de-emphasize body counts. With his case already moving in the JEP, it was not clear whether the regular justice system had the legal standing to issue charges against Gen. Montoya at the same time. On August 30, Judge Fabio Bernal decided that it did not.

For now, Gen. Montoya’s case will proceed in the transitional justice system. While the Fiscalía is not appealing the August 30 decision, relatives of some “false positive” victims plan to do so, because they believe that separate charges in the regular justice system would increase the chances of the General being held accountable. According to Sebastián Escobar of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, who represents some of the victims, a Fiscalía indictment would have helped because of Gen. Montoya’s reticence so far before the JEP:

If the Fiscalía were to continue with these investigations and charge him for at least some of these acts, it would contribute to the participants reaching a scenario of recognition [of responsibility for crimes]. In the case of Montoya, although he submitted voluntarily to the JEP, because his case was not advanced in the regular justice system, he has come to the [transitional] jurisdiction with an attitude of denying his participation in the policy that promoted these acts, and of not recognizing his responsibility from any point of view.”

Government blames Nariño violence on court-ordered freeze in coca eradication

A firefight between anti-narcotics police and members of the “Óliver Sinisterra” ex-FARC dissident group left 14 police wounded in a rural zone of Tumaco, Nariño, not far from the Ecuador border, as they sought to raid a cocaine laboratory on August 20.

This is part of a worsening climate of violence in Nariño’s Pacific coast region, in Colombia’s far southwest, which is one of the country’s busiest and most fought-over drug trafficking corridors. The same municipalities host coca fields, processing laboratories, and coastal transshipment points. Just north of Tumaco, in the “Telembí Triangle” region, fighting between various armed groups, most of them ex-FARC dissidents, has displaced over 21,000 people—a large part of the population—so far this year.

Reporting from El Tiempo mentions fighting between three factions of ex-FARC dissidents, mostly derived from former Tumaco-area FARC militia members who did not demobilize: the “Óliver Sinisterra,” whose highest profile leader, alias “Guacho,” was killed in 2018; the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico; and more recently members of the Putumayo-based “Comandos de la Frontera,” a group made up of former guerrillas, former paramilitaries, and organized crime. The latter group is apparently aligned with the “Segunda Marquetalia,” the dissident faction founded by former chief FARC peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other top ex-FARC leaders.

All the armed groups “are looking to control coca crops and production,” a “church spokesperson who knows the region” told El Tiempo. “Everyone here has a Mexican ally, from a cartel, that’s what I’m talking about.”

Defense Minister Diego Molano is blaming increased violence on a court ruling. In May 2021, in response to a judicial appeal (tutela) from the Nariño Pacific Human Rights Network, which represents several Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities, the Superior Tribunal of Pasto prohibited all coca eradication—including that done by manual eradication teams—until the government engages in prior consultation with affected communities. The court ordered the Interior Ministry to carry out consultations within 100 days, with a possible 60-day extension. It is not clear how much progress the Ministry has made, if any, on consultations with residents of these remote, poorly governed zones.

Since May, then, coca eradication has been on hold in much of 10 municipalities along coastal Nariño. This includes Tumaco, which ranks second in coca acreage among Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities. Nariño, however, has seen a decline in coca cultivation, from nearly 42,000 hectares in 2018 to 30,751 in 2020, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Long the number-one coca-growing department, Nariño has been surpassed by Norte de Santander (see the Venezuela discussion above). About one-fifth of Nariño’s coca is planted in indigenous reserves, the UNODC estimates.

Molano, the defense minister, calls the result of the court order “a case of national security,” adding that “denying the possibility of manual eradication in 10 municipalities of Nariño has had an impact on the increase in homicides and forced displacements in that area.”

The communities themselves, though, blame a near-total absence of government presence, including security and other basic services. “We have been negotiating with the governments in power for almost 26 years, and we have not been able to get roads we need to transport our legal products,” a leader of Nariño’s Juntas Comunales La Cordillera organization told El Tiempo. “We have no roads, we have no schools. We want to substitute [coca], but they do not present us with options.” Community leaders note that the government is badly behind on payments promised to those who voluntarily eradicate their coca, in the framework of a program set up by the 2016 peace accords.

Unable to eradicate coca in coastal Nariño, “the authorities have opted for a path that, paradoxically, is the one that many experts recommend because of its effectiveness: attacking other links, such as inputs or capital for the purchase of coca leaf and coca base,” reads an El Tiempo editorial. It is not clear how energetically the government is pursuing these alternative measures, though, or whether they could possibly be enough to substitute for state presence in a climate of worsening combat between guerrilla dissidents and other armed groups.

Links

  • WOLA’s latest alert details numerous cases of human rights abuse committed around the country during July and August.
  • VICE reports on the National Police’s practice, during the April-June Paro Nacional protests, of taking arrested protesters to unofficial “black sites” in Cali, where hundreds were beaten and forced to make false confessions.
  • Colombia’s universities “were not exempt from the conflict, and were stigmatized. When I was director of police intelligence, I contributed to stigmatizing it, because I considered them to be related to armed groups and that guerrilla fighters were linked to them. What a big mistake,” said former National Police chief and vice president Gen. Oscar Naranjo, in an appearance before the Truth Commission.
  • Colombia and Panama have agreed to limit, to 500 people per day, the flow of migrants from other countries traveling northbound from Colombia through Panama’s dangerous Darién Gap jungle region. “So far this year, Panama estimates more than 50,000 migrants have come through the dangerous Darien route,” the Associated Press reports, adding, “An estimated 15,000 migrants are currently en route through Colombia heading for Panama.”
  • U.S. Army South, the Army component of U.S. Southern Command, held a two-day seminar for members of the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), who will soon deploy to Colombia, Panama, and Honduras for a lengthy military training mission. The SFAB’s first visit to Colombia, between May and October 2020, generated much publicity and some controversy.
  • An investigation by La Silla Vacía finds that the Land Restitution Agency—a body created in 2011 by the government of Juan Manuel Santos—has recently been inaccurately inflating the amount of land that it has been distributing to small farmers dispossessed by the conflict.
  • Interviewed by the New York Times, President Iván Duque said “he had done more than his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, to put in place the peace deal’s landownership overhauls and development plans that would give poor farmers and former rebels jobs and opportunities.”
  • WOLA laments the unexpected and premature death of our longtime colleague and friend Yamile Salinas, a great and generous legal mind, teacher, and fighter for land rights and human rights in Colombia’s countryside.

WOLA Podcast: reflecting on 40 years of Latin America human rights advocacy with Geoff Thale

WOLA’s president, Geoff Thale, retired this week. Geoff has been doing citizen advocacy for human rights in Latin America, full time, since the early 80s—before this sort of work was even a “thing.”

The work looks vastly different today. We go over how the region, work in Washington, and the role of places like WOLA have changed in a reflective new podcast episode.


Here’s the language from WOLA’s website:

Geoff Thale has been with the Washington Office on Latin America since 1995, and has served as its president since 2019. Much has changed about advocacy and foreign policy since the beginning of his time in Washington. In this conversation, Adam and Geoff discuss the evolution of human rights advocacy towards Latin America, WOLA, and the opportunities and challenges for human rights advocates working on the region.

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

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