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.

En route to Arizona

This graphic shows Border Patrol’s apprehensions of unaccompanied children and families in all nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors since October 2016. The charts explain why three of us from WOLA are on a plane to Arizona right now. (Arizona’s two sectors are highlighted in yellow.)

The part of the border that has seen the most child and family arrivals continues to be south Texas (“Rio Grande Valley”), where we have visited more frequently, last time in December. That sector is getting heavy media attention, as it should.

But the city of Yuma (pop. 95,000) and its surrounding southwest Arizona desert is in second place, in a virtual tie with El Paso, even though it has been one of the border’s quietest regions during the past 10 years. The Tucson sector, which includes the border city of Nogales, comes next, ahead of California and most of Texas.

“Why are violence-fleeing Central Americans suddenly coming to Yuma?” is one of the questions we’ll be asking there, and across the border in San Luis Rio Colorado, tonight and tomorrow. Along with

  • “how is Jeff Sessions’ ‘zero tolerance’ policy affecting you”;
  • “what is happening to parents and children here”;
  • “how are asylum applicants faring at the ports of entry”;
  • “what is happening with the new National Guard deployment”;
  • “how are the policy changes being felt on Mexico’s side of the border,”

and others. Then we’ll go to Tucson and Nogales (Arizona and Sonora) to ask the same questions. In that more populated area, there is a larger community of migrant shelters, pro bono lawyers and public defenders, journalists, and activists doing important work. We’ll also talk to Border Patrol and any other authorities who will give us a meeting.

The plan is to report from the field as much as possible. Most of that will get posted to WOLA’s website or to social media, but I’ll link from here too.

The “cages”

That’s me in the white shirt, in this 2014 Border Patrol photo reproduced in a June 6 Washington Post fact-check piece. The article’s author found fault with Sen. Jeff Merkley’s (D-Oregon) portrayal of the site we’re walking through, Border Patrol’s “Ursula Street” Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, as “hundreds of children locked up in cages.”

The photo, which shows kids behind chain-link fencing (call it “cages”), comes from an August 2014 visit to McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts, yellow shirt). (Rep. McGovern published some photos from that trip, and we at WOLA made an elaborate podcast episode about it.)

We were some of the first to be let into the Ursula facility, which had just opened to deal with the wave of unaccompanied Central American children that made national headlines in May-June 2014. It was meant to be a place where unaccompanied kids would stay for a maximum of 72 hours while the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, located relatives or other shelters for each child to stay with.

Migrants who’ve been through there call the “Ursula” facility “la Perrera” because it looks like a dog kennel. And Sen. Merkley is right: kids were, and are, being kept in chain-link enclosures in what was once a warehouse. This was true even in 2014, when Barack Obama was president.

The facility was rather empty when we showed up in early August, as the 2014 unaccompanied children “surge” receded quickly after June.

We were jarred by the fencing, the concrete floors, the mylar blankets, and the always-on lighting reminiscent of a Costco. It was dehumanizing. But though I mentioned my shock in the podcast, I didn’t dwell on it.

Conditions at Ursula were—still are—illustrative of the American people’s stinginess with these unwanted arrivals: there was no budget for anything nicer than this, and Congress wasn’t about to put up more. And in fact, Border Patrol agents were happy to show it off because, after a mad scramble to attend to the previous months’ sudden wave of kids, they were relieved to have managed to scratch together the resources and to throw this space together. It brought some sanity to a chaotic resettlement process.

Harsh as the “dog kennel” was, it was far better than what came before it. As the Office of Refugee Resettlement struggled for many weeks to meet the sudden demand for its services, Border Patrol’s McAllen station found itself having to keep hundreds of kids and families in small holding cells designed to keep adults for no more than a day. Those filled up, and leaked videos showed kids crowding the floors of the Border Patrol station, even out behind on the loading dock, in medieval conditions. The Ursula facility was dramatically better.

Also, those boxes along the wall in the photo were filled with snacks, coloring books, crayons, and diapers. Border Patrol agents, many visibly exhausted from the past few months’ tens of thousands of arrivals, were trying to keep the kids comfortable while they watched the TVs showing kids’ shows in each enclosure. Nurses and EMTs were present in the facility. Kids were able to take showers for the first time in days.

Most of all, this was a temporary purgatory. The kids we saw were just a few days away from being reunited with relatives all around the United States, in many cases parents whom they hadn’t seen in years. The gears of refugee resettlement were grinding, and many if not most of their journeys were about to end happily.

That was then. Today, though, the situation is different. And the pictures you’re seeing now look similar but are more sinister.

At least since mid-April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared “zero tolerance” on all illegal border-crossers, the Ursula facility went from being a temporary warehouse to a scene of intense pain.

Most people still stay here for less than 72 hours. But today, a section is dedicated to families—and it’s here where U.S. authorities are most frequently taking kids away from their parents: 1,174 of them so far in Ursula alone, of more than 2,000 nationwide since mid-April. Parents are being criminally charged for the offense of crossing the border improperly, sent to federal court and federal prison. And because people in the criminal justice system can’t be jailed with their kids, Border Patrol and CBP are taking their children away from them and treating them like unaccompanied minors.

“In the Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol agents who catch immigrant families have been advised not to separate them in the field,” the Los Angeles Times explains. “They wait until after they drive families to the central processing center in McAllen.”

Anne Chandler of the Houston-based Tahirih Justice Center explained to Texas Monthly what is happening right now at Ursula.

There is no one process. Judging from the mothers and fathers I’ve spoken to and those my staff has spoken to, there are several different processes. Sometimes they will tell the parent, “We’re taking your child away.” And when the parent asks, “When will we get them back?” they say, “We can’t tell you that.” Sometimes the officers will say, “because you’re going to be prosecuted” or “because you’re not welcome in this country,” or “because we’re separating them,” without giving them a clear justification. In other cases, we see no communication that the parent knows that their child is to be taken away. Instead, the officers say, “I’m going to take your child to get bathed.” That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath.” The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, “Where is my five-year-old?” “Where’s my seven-year-old?” “This is a long bath.” And they say, “You won’t be seeing your child again.” Sometimes mothers—I was talking to one mother, and she said, “Don’t take my child away,” and the child started screaming and vomiting and crying hysterically, and she asked the officers, “Can I at least have five minutes to console her?” They said no. In another case, the father said, “Can I comfort my child? Can I hold him for a few minutes?” The officer said, “You must let them go, and if you don’t let them go, I will write you up for an altercation, which will mean that you are the one that had the additional charges charged against you.” So, threats.

Media outlets and social-media users have come under fire for using 2014 photos of the Ursula facility to attack the new Trump policies. And the critics have a point—the conditions in the “kennel” are an artifact of the Obama years, nothing new.

But the critics are also wrong. Under the Trump administration, this facility has become a far darker place. Until this April, Ursula was where kids would spend a couple of days while awaiting family reunification and the beginning of an asylum process. Now, it’s the last place where they see their parents.

The day ahead: June 18, 2018

I’ll be reachable in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ve got a quick dentist appointment and a staff meeting, then I’ll be in the office the rest of the afternoon. I’ll be keeping up with post-election Colombia, and carrying out final tasks, both logistical and research-related, ahead of a trip to the Arizona-Mexico border tomorrow morning.

The week ahead

Three of us from WOLA are headed to Arizona tomorrow, where we’ll spend the rest of the week in Yuma, Nogales, Tucson, and across the border in Mexico. We’ll be interviewing pretty much everyone who’ll talk to us about “zero tolerance,” family separation, what is happening at ports of entry, the National Guard deployments, changes to asylum policy, and claims of gang activity.

I plan to post a lot from the road, and crank out a report as quickly as possible upon our return.

One reason I’ve been posting less frequently to this site has been the average 3-4 hours per day I’ve been spending preparing for this trip. Helping set up interviews and putting together what is now a 50-page research matrix has left a lot less time for other tasks, other than covering Colombia’s elections. The plan this week is to keep muddling through.

President No

The votes are counted in Colombia. Today’s elections were not a “second referendum” on the 2016 peace accord with the FARC: issues like corruption, a semi-collapsed healthcare system, and Venezuela’s crisis came to the fore.

Nonetheless, the coalition that criticized negotiations to end Colombia’s conflict with the FARC, and narrowly won an October 2016 plebiscite to reject the accord, is now in power.

In May of last year a prominent voice in the plebiscite’s “No” coalition, Fernando Londoño—who served as Álvaro Uribe’s first minister of interior and justice, and is now a right-wing radio host—said that “the first challenge” of Iván Duque’s and Uribe’s political party, the “Democratic Center,” is “to rip to shreds this damned paper that they call the final accord with the FARC.” Londoño had also argued that Duque was insufficiently rightist to be the Democratic Center’s standard-bearer, though—so what he says doesn’t tell us what Duque will do.

With Duque and his party now in power, Colombia will not be going back to war with the FARC. President Duque will bend the peace accord, both by seeking modifications and failing to act, but he won’t break it in a way that causes thousands of demobilized guerrillas to take up arms again. But neither will Duque’s government carry out the parts of the accord that aren’t about the FARC, but instead about guaranteeing non-repetition of armed conflict in Colombia.

Duque has promised to make changes to the accord’s transitional justice mechanism—still in its infancy—which intends to hold accountable people on both sides, guerrilla and government, who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It took the government and guerrillas 19 months to negotiate this system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). It is deeply unpopular with the No coalition, and with most Colombians, because it offers weak punishments to murderers and kidnappers in exchange for confessions and reparations to victims. Duque calls it a “monument to impunity.”

Duque wants to strengthen the penalties handed out to ex-guerrillas, to make them look more like prison, or at least like life in an agricultural penal colony. He is unlikely to be able to do this, as Colombia’s highest courts have already approved the structure agreed in the accords. Should he succeed, though, the demobilized guerrillas will surely reject a punishment that resembles that normally meted out to combatants defeated on the battlefield, which the FARC were not.

7,100 ex-guerrillas have registered with the JEP; with the promise of real jail time, many if not most would melt away into the jungle. Duque doesn’t want this, so he probably won’t pursue a tightening of penalties.

Duque has also proposed a constitutional amendment to ban amnesties for narcotrafficking. The peace accord considers former FARC members’ drug trafficking on a case-by-case basis: if the JEP finds evidence that a former fighter gained personally from trafficking, he or she must pay the regular criminal penalty. If all the proceeds went into the FARC’s war effort, though, the trafficking would be amnestied as a “political crime.” (Any trafficking after November 2016, when the peace accord went into effect, cannot be amnestied and is a regular crime.) Duque would do away with that amnesty—but almost definitely cannot do so retroactively. Any constitutional change would apply to future peace processes, and wouldn’t apply to the ex-FARC.

Duque also strongly opposes the accords’ allowing ex-FARC members to hold political office—including five automatic seats in each of Colombia’s two houses of Congress until 2026—before they’ve paid their penalties for war crimes. This part of the accord does raise the absurd likelihood of former guerrilla leaders starting and ending their days in “restricted liberty,” but serving in Congress, or perhaps mayors’ offices, in between. Altering it, though, might cause some of the FARC’s most prominent leaders to abandon the process, bringing many of their followers with them. The number of dissidents this would create would be lower, though, than those created by an attempt to toss ex-FARC members into regular prison.

Despite the red-meat rhetoric of the more vociferous No coalition leaders, then, Duque is most likely to walk a fine line on the peace accord’s transitional justice measures. He will seek some retroactive changes that look tough, but will avoid taking steps that send thousands of humiliated ex-guerrillas back into combat.

Instead of striking dramatic blows against the accord, it’s more likely that Duque and his coalition will kill it through neglect. Casting the accord adrift, failing to take action and failing to spend money, will bring much the same end result as dramatically tearing it to shreds.

The peace accord envisions a 15-year implementation period. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has made clear that it is the law of the land and that the country’s next three presidents must implement it. But the accord can be slow-walked to death.

The accord’s chapter on rural reform and development would take up 85 percent of the foreseen cost of implementation. It promises measures to benefit smallholding farmers, ranging from a national mapping of landholdings, to building roads and irrigation systems, to offering credit, healthcare, and food security in the countryside. Duque’s coalition, though, is made up of large landholders who benefit from the current rural status quo, and urban-dwellers who would rather see resources go to urgent needs in cities, where 77 percent of Colombians live. They are unlikely to devote billions of dollars to the countryside just because the FARC-Santos accord says they must.

President Santos’s government drew up an ambitious plan for increased state presence and basic government services in 170 municipalities (or counties—Colombia has 1,100) where armed conflict and coca cultivation have been most intense. The “Development Plans with a Territorial Focus” (PDETs) have been the subject of thousands of meetings between Bogotá officials and rural communities, raising expectations in long-abandoned zones even while only the most incipient investments have begun to arrive.

But Santos never got around to introducing the legislation necessary to implement most of the rural accord. It’s most unlikely that this will be part of Duque’s agenda, nor is it likely that the PDETs will be generously funded, if they’re continued at all. Hopes are dim for a greater state presence in Colombia’s conflictive and neglected countryside, other than perhaps a presence of more soldiers and police.

The same goes for the peace accord’s provisions (chapter 4) promising a new approach to coca cultivation. Smallholding peasants who grow coca are the weakest and least profitable link in the cocaine production chain, but get-tough policies have tended to target them because coca bushes are a lot easier to find than cocaine shipments or financial flows. Following the accord’s principle of attacking the root causes for coca cultivation, the Santos government sought to sign agreements with more than 100,000 coca-growing families around the country, promising two years of assistance in moving to legal crops in exchange for voluntary eradication of their coca. This program has already been struggling, and Duque is unlikely to continue it: he promises a large-scale campaign of forced eradication, perhaps to include (if courts allow it) a resumption of aerial herbicide fumigation, whether by aircraft or small drones.

Breaking the Santos government’s promises to coca-growing households, and ramping up forced eradication, will make Washington happy; policymakers in both the Obama and Trump administrations have been alarmed by record levels of coca and cocaine production in Colombia’s ungoverned rural zones. But we can also expect a sharp rise in violent confrontations in those zones, as growers’ associations that were working on slow-moving solutions with one government suddenly find themselves facing eradicators and herbicides from the next government.

It’s well-documented that the outgoing government of Juan Manuel Santos was not implementing the FARC accord with great energy. But now, hopes of full implementation are all but dashed. Most of the accord’s 310 pages may end up as unkept paper promises.

If that indeed happens, this will be a tragic squandering of a historic opportunity. What the No coalition misses is that the FARC accord wasn’t a gift to the FARC. The ex-guerrillas got little—no land reform, no constitutional amendments, no amnesty, not even land for ex-combatants—and they have since suffered utter defeat at the ballot box, their 74 congressional candidates winning a combined 0.3 percent of the vote in March.

Instead, the FARC accord, especially its chapters on rural development, coca, victims, and political participation, offered an opportunity to make Colombia a modern, prosperous country. It offered—still offers—a blueprint for replacing feudalism with rules-based market capitalism in a countryside that has been the source of ills ranging from coca to armed violence to deforestation.

For a moment in time, the accord buys time for government to “enter” rural Colombia without having to shoot its way in, and to provide the rule of law and other public goods that all states are supposed to supply. That moment in time is fleeting—rising violence data make that clear—but can be prolonged by having the state be present, keep promises, and punish corrupt or abusive behavior.

Slow-walking that plan, or defunding it, blows this opportunity to solve generations-old security and governance challenges in rural Colombia. The moment will end. In fact, the door into Colombia’s ungoverned territories is already closing as new criminal groups and guerrilla dissidences add to their numbers. Duque’s No coalition risks slamming the door shut, with results that Colombia would feel for a generation.

The day ahead: June 15, 2018

I’m in and out all day. (How to contact me)

I have two meetings and a call with allied non-profits and scholars today. When not doing that I’ll be doing some writing about Sunday’s presidential election in Colombia, and lots of research on border security in advance of a trip to the Arizona-Mexico border next week.

The day ahead: June 14, 2018

I should be reachable much of the day, but trying to get writing done. (How to contact me)

I’ve endeavored to keep the calendar empty today in order to close the door, write, and catch up on news (note that I haven’t posted news links here all week, I’m behind). So I’ll be reachable, but may not respond immediately.

The day ahead: June 13, 2018

I should be around in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I may stop by the Colombian embassy’s “Colombia on the Hill” event in the House of Representatives’ office buildings, but must leave early for a meeting with an advocate working on private security companies in the region.

In the afternoon, I’ll be splitting time between organizing next week’s trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, writing a Colombia update, and keeping an eye on the outcome of two events on Capitol Hill: the House’s markup of the 2019 foreign aid bill, and the Senate’s nomination hearing for Trump’s choice to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

The day ahead: June 12, 2018

I should be reachable in the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m back in Washington, as of 9:30 last night. This morning I’ll be attending an event about peacemaking in Colombia. In the afternoon, a visit with the Colombia director of a humanitarian organization. Otherwise, I’ll be in the office, organizing a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border next week, and working on last week’s Colombia update.

The day ahead: June 8, 2018

I’ll be nearly impossible to get in touch with today. (How to contact me)

I’m spending a few hours today in meetings with visiting Southern Command officials, and ending the workday early for my daughter’s 8th grade graduation. Before dawn tomorrow, I fly to Madison, Wisconsin for a conference with Colombia activists. So this may be my last post to this site for at least a couple of days.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(Week of May 27 – June 2)

First-Round Election Results: Petro vs. Duque

As polls predicted, no single candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote in Colombia’s May 27 first-round presidential election. The candidates who will go on to a second round runoff on June 17 are rightist Senator Iván Duque and leftist former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro. Duque got 39 percent of the vote, Petro 25 percent. Duque is broadly viewed as likely to win that runoff and ascend to the presidency on August 7—but most analysts caution that a Petro win, while improbable, is not impossible.

Some facts about the vote:

  • At 53 percent, voter turnout was the highest in a presidential election since 1998, and the highest in a first-round vote since 1974. Improved post-accord security conditions get some of the credit.
  • Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín leading a center-left coalition, outperformed poll predictions by winning 24 percent of the vote, nearly overtaking Petro. Pollsters’ head-to-head matchups had generally given Fajardo a higher probability than Petro of defeating Duque in a second round.
  • Former vice-president Germán Vargas Lleras was expected to perform better than the 7 percent he received, as he worked assiduously to court local political bosses—some of them rather corrupt—throughout the country. This shady get-out-the-vote “machinery,” which has contributed enormously to past elections, failed Vargas Lleras this time.
  • Humberto de la Calle, a former vice president who led the government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana, won the Liberal Party’s nomination but took in only 2 percent of the vote.
  • Candidates in favor of the FARC peace accord won a combined 51 percent of the vote, or 58 percent if one counts Vargas Lleras, who has flip-flopped a bit on whether he supports the accord or not (he most recently decided that he does).
  • Petro and Duque were in a virtual tie, far ahead of the other candidates, in zones most affected by the conflict.
  • Petro won, 35 percent to Duque’s 31 percent, in municipalities that voted “yes” in the October 2016 plebiscite on the FARC peace accord. Duque carried “no” municipalities with 42 percent, over 23 for Fajardo and 12 for Petro.

Third-place finisher Fajardo, who like Petro supports the FARC peace accord, is not throwing his support behind either of the two second-round candidates. He announced that he will turn in a blank ballot on June 17, and said his 4.6 million voters are free to vote as they wish. This was a blow to Petro, whose only hope of winning is to have a large majority of Fajardo’s voters go to him. “To vote blank is to vote for Uribe,” Petro said, invoking hardliner Álvaro Uribe, Senator Duque’s patron and party chief, a former president (2002-2010) and current senator. (A blank ballot can be strategic under some circumstances: under Colombian law, if “blank ballot” gets more votes than other candidates in a first-round vote, a new election with different candidates must be held. This doesn’t apply to second-round voting, in which voting blank is only symbolic.)

Candidates’ Positions on Peace

Iván Duque actively supported the “no” vote in the October 2016 plebiscite on the FARC accord. He was the main plaintiff in the case that led Colombia’s Constitutional Court, in May 2017, to strip out much of the legislative “fast track” authority needed to pass laws to implement the accord—a key reason so many accord commitments haven’t become law. The same Court ruled last October that Colombian governments during the next three presidential terms are required to implement the peace accord and cannot change it. But since he is a leading opponent, a President Duque would be unlikely to implement it with vigor.

The ideal of Duque, and of ex-president Uribe and his supporters, is an accord that is generous with individual ex-combatants who demobilize and aren’t accused of serious war crimes, but offers no political reforms in exchange for that demobilization: just surrender terms. It is possible, then, that a Duque presidency might implement reintegration programs for former FARC fighters more energetically than has the Juan Manuel Santos government. But the accord’s other chapters—rural development, political participation, crop substitution, victims and transitional justice—could get short shrift, or Duque could even seek legislation to change them.

Duque has described as a “monument to impunity” the transitional justice system set up by the accord, the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP), which hands out punishments for war criminals that he and his party view as too lenient. Duque has proposed pursuing at least four big changes to transitional justice:

  • Tightening penalties for those found guilty of war crimes. These are currently foreseen as a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—not prison—for those who make full confessions and reparations to victims.
  • Eliminating amnesty for the crime of narcotrafficking, even if the perpetrator did not benefit personally from the trafficking activity.
  • Getting government personnel who perpetrated war crimes out of the JEP and into the jurisdiction of Colombia’s Supreme Court.
  • Prohibiting guerrillas accused of war crimes from holding office until they’ve paid a penalty.

All of these are very hard to change, not least because it took 19 months to negotiate these provisions and altering the deal could cause many guerrillas to prefer to take up arms again. As an analysis from La Silla Vacía points out, the transitional justice provisions have been made into law and approved by Colombia’s Constitutional Court.

Even if Duque manages to get a law passed that sends guerrilla war criminals to a proper prison, La Silla argues, the “favorability principle” in Colombian law states that when two laws contradict, the accused pays the lighter penalty—the “restricted liberty” foreseen in the JEP. Any change to amnesty for non-personal-gain narcotrafficking could not be retroactive, it could only apply to crimes committed after the peace accord, or to future peace processes. It would not affect demobilized FARC who have behaved.

La Silla foresees some possibility that Duque could push through a constitutional change prohibiting un-punished guerrillas from holding office, which could force changes in who holds the ten congressional seats granted to the FARC between 2018 and 2026. This, the site contends, “could cause mid-level commanders to leave the demobilization zones with some of their fighters and join the dissidences or start new groups.”

Duque would be likely to abandon the slow-moving peace talks taking place between the government and the ELN guerrilla leadership in Havana, out of a desire to negotiate only the guerrillas’ surrender and submission to justice and nothing else. Duque has said, according to El Espectador, that he would only continue the ELN talks under four conditions:

[The ELN’s] prior concentration in some part of the country with international supervision, suspension of all criminal activities, a defined timeframe for the conversations, and negotiations limited to a substantial reduction of sentences, but not an absence of penalties.

The ELN, which remains quite rooted in three or four parts of the country, is very unlikely to accept these terms. The group wants to continue talks, though. “If Duque wins, well, he’ll find us here, at the table,” chief ELN negotiator Pablo Beltrán said this week.

Duque has no enthusiasm for the coca crop-substitution scheme being implemented (slowly) under Chapter 4 of the peace accord, which he calls a “disastrous chapter.” He favors to a return of massive forced eradication, including through aerial herbicide spraying.

While the Constitutional Court prevents Duque from doing away with the accord—and he insists that he doesn’t want to do away with it, just modify it—the rightist candidate can certainly “slow-walk” its implementation, carrying it out at a bare minimum. The choice between Petro and Duque, the La Silla analysis puts it, is about “whether the peace accord will serve as a roadmap for Colombia’s future, or whether it will be a marginal policy to guarantee that the demobilized don’t take up arms again.”

It explains that Duque can marginalize the accord, without killing it, by underfunding the agencies and programs set up to implement it, including the JEP and the Territorial Renovation Agency (ART) that is supposed to build state presence and rural development in the countryside. He can also “name second-tier functionaries,” with little political pull, to head such agencies, if he doesn’t abolish them entirely.

Gustavo Petro takes the opposite view. Although it doesn’t go into great detail, his campaign rhetoric mentions not only preserving the FARC peace accord, but improving the level of victims’ participation in it. He says he would increase civil-society’s direct role in accord implementation, particularly in the struggling coca-substitution programs, for which he proposes a greater role for coca-growers in “design, execution, and evaluation.” Petro would change the overall FARC accord, he says, only in ways that would make it possible for the Congress to pass the remaining laws needed to implement it fully. Petro also proposes levying a tax on unproductive large landholdings and directing the proceeds to programs that benefit conflict victims.

On a tour of Europe, President Santos told an audience in Brussels that “it’s impossible, legally and politically, to tear the peace accords to shreds.” He added, “Those of us who last Sunday saw the leader of the FARC, Timochenko, casting his vote within democracy—are we going to give him a rifle again so that he might return to the jungle? That’s irrational.”

Increase in European Union Assistance

During President Santos’s visit to Brussels, the European Union announced its approval of an additional €15 million of assistance “in support of the consolidation and implementation of the peace process in the country.” The aid, El Espectador reported with little additional detail, “will increase concrete measures, such as new programs to encourage economic activity and to contribute to rebuilding the social fabric in conflict-affected areas and the reinsertion of hundreds of FARC ex-combatants.” The aid is in addition to an EU trust fund announced in December 2016, which has provided €96.4 million to support accord implementation, especially in rural conflict zones.

73 U.S. House Members Call for Improved Protection of Social Leaders

Seventy-three members of the U.S. House of Representatives, all of them Democrats, signed and sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging more U.S. government action to help Colombia’s government protect human rights defenders and social leaders. “A Colombian social leader is murdered every two and a half days,” the letter warns.

“In the past,” it continues, “Colombian authorities have shown that when it is important to them to lower the number of such killings, they are capable of doing so. And, while physical protection is important for those facing the highest known level of risks, it is expensive and impractical to provide it for every individual under threat.”

The letter makes five concrete recommendations:

For these reasons, protection mechanisms must be combined with other decisive action. First and most importantly is to swiftly bring to justice those who plan and orchestrate these murders, and not just the “triggermen” who execute the killings. Second, is for Colombian authorities at all levels to send clear, public and consistent messages that perpetrators, collaborators and beneficiaries of these crimes will face consequences. Third, is to dismantle illegal and violent armed actors that continue to murder and attack social leaders and the economic structures that support them. Fourth, is for the Colombian authorities to establish security and functioning state resources and presence in regions vacated by the FARC guerrillas, as required by the peace accords. And fifth, is for Colombia to achieve a complete peace by advancing the peace process in Havana with the ELN.

The signers include 14 ranking Democratic members of House committees. All would rise to these committees’ powerful chairmanships if, as some polls indicate might happen, the Democrats win majority control of the House in mid-term elections.

Local Officials Meet ELN in Havana To De-Escalate Catatumbo Violence

Since mid-March, a wave of fighting between the ELN and a smaller, locally influential guerrilla group, the EPL, has brought violence back up to conflict-era levels in Catatumbo, a poorly governed coca-producing region near the Venezuelan border in Norte de Santander department. In an effort to stop it, officials from the Norte de Santander departmental government gained permission to visit Havana to speak with ELN leaders participating in the peace talks with the national government. It is not clear what concrete gains the commission, led by departmental victims’ office director Luis Fernando Niño, achieved after meeting with the guerrilla leaders. However, the intensity of ELN-EPL fighting, which had displaced thousands, appears to have ebbed in the past few weeks.

Handoff of Cases To Transitional Justice System

The transitional justice system (JEP) is beginning to operate, even though it is still awaiting a Constitutional Court decision on the basic law governing its structure, and Congressional approval of another law governing its procedures. On May 30, the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) handed over to the JEP three of eighteen expected reports on crimes committed during the conflict by guerrillas and government agents. The documents register 223,282 cases involving 280,471 suspects and 196,768 victims of serious human rights abuses. According to Semana’s coverage:

  • 52,220 of the Fiscalía’s cases correspond to the FARC;
  • 13,934 cases correspond to the security forces;
  • 10,164 cases correspond to the ELN;
  • 55,768 cases correspond to the former AUC paramilitaries;
  • 3,324 cases correspond to other guerrilla groups; and
  • 87,872 cases do not identify a responsible group.

For the notorious extermination of the Patriotic Union, a FARC-tied political party, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Fiscalía’s records include 863 cases covering 1,620 victims and 277 perpetrators who were government forces.

The JEP will use this information to choose emblematic cases to pursue, and as evidence in trials of the nearly 8,000 ex-guerrillas, security-force personnel, and government civilians who have agreed to cooperate with the JEP in exchange for lighter sentences.

Visit from International Criminal Court Prosecutorial Official

The deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague paid a visit to Colombia this week. At an event about transitional justice, James Stewart reiterated the Court’s concerns about aspects of the peace accord’s provisions for judging war crimes.

Stewart praised the accord and the JEP as “an innovative, complex, and ambitious system, designed to assure accountability as part of the peace accord’s implementation.” However, Stewart—reiterating what chief ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has said in the past—recalled that the Court has its eye on how Colombia handles the following issues:

  • Cases of sexual or gender-based violence.
  • Extrajudicial executions or “false positive” killings, for which Stewart contended, Colombia’s “legal processes…don’t seem to have centered on the people who might bear the greatest responsibility within the military hierarchy.”
  • The responsibility of military commanders for crimes committed by their subordinates. At particular issue is whether the JEP will hold commanders accountable for crimes they “should have known” about (the Rome Statute standard), or just crimes that it can be proved that they knew about (the peace accord standard).

The ICC can only intervene in cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity if it determines that Colombia’s own system is not meeting the accountability standards laid out in the 2002 Rome Statute, to which Colombia is a signatory.

Three More Former FARC Combatants Killed

The FARC political party denounced the killings of three more of its members, all demobilized combatants, between May 22 and May 26 in the southwestern departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca. Cristian Bellaizac, Jhon Jairo Ruiz Pillimue, and Wilinton Bravo Angulo were murdered in the respective municipalities of Jamundí, Valle; Suárez, Cauca; and Buenos Aires, Cauca. The FARC communiqué cited 24 murders of ex-combatants so far this year, and alleged that “paramilitary successor criminal groups” are threatening and harassing its members in Bogotá. A day earlier, President Santos said that 40 reintegrating ex-guerrillas had been killed since the accord was signed in November 2016. The FARC says the number is now near 60. In early April, the UN Secretary General cited 44 murdered ex-combatants and 18 relatives of ex-combatants.

In-Depth Reading

The day ahead: June 7, 2018

I’ll be hard to contact today due to a full agenda. (How to contact me)

I’m meeting with a visiting Colombia expert, have a dentist checkup, and lunch with WOLA’s new class of interns. Then there’s an Inter-American Dialogue event on Colombia’s elections, and a farewell party for a departing staff member. Yesterday’s release of border numbers kept me from finishing a Colombia update, which I’ll try to do in the spaces today between those events.

Migration at the border in May was below average—except for kids and families

At 5:00 today, U.S. Customs and Border protection released its latest count of migrants it apprehended at the border. The Homeland Security Department’s release about the numbers, and some of the press coverage, seems certain to trigger another freakout from President Trump:

The number of apprehended illegal border crossers increased slightly from the previous month and climbed by 160 percent in May 2018 in comparison to May 2017. …As the May numbers indicate, we are seeing family units try to illegally cross our borders at staggering rates.

Wait, slow down. A few points here.

  • May is nearly always one of the heaviest months of the year. It’s seasonal. May is the last month before the summer heat gets most intense, and the journey becomes too risky. Look at this chart of the past 7 years’ monthly migration totals. The last 7 months of May are denoted with pink arrows. It’s normal to see a springtime peak now in apprehensions of migrants, followed by a drop in summer.The only time that didn’t happen was in 2017, when Trump’s January inauguration brought a sharp drop in its wake, bringing last spring’s monthly apprehension totals to levels not seen probably since the 1970s. The summer saw a gradual recovery from that anomalous drop.
  • Take away kids and families, and this was the second-lowest May of the last seven years. This is fascinating: subtract apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and members of family units—nearly all of whom come to the United States seeking asylum or protection—and the remainder (blue in the graph above) is historically low. For single adults not seeking protection—until recently the “typical” migrant profile—May 2018 saw the sixth lowest number of apprehensions of the last seven Mays. The only May that was lower was May 2017, when the so-called “Trump effect” was in full swing, radically depressing migration.

  • All of the increase is kids and families. Single adults are flat since March. May 2018 was the second-highest of the last seven Mays for child and family apprehensions. But single adults are flat: 24,367 apprehended in March, 24,323 in April, and 24,454 in May. That’s a variation of 0.5 percent. All the growth is kids and families.
  • The greatest growth in kids and families this year is from Honduras. Guatemala and Salvador are up, but it looks more seasonal. We still don’t have a solid reason why, though the turmoil surrounding Honduras’s disputed late-November elections could explain some of it.

  • Although it’s now the only way to avoid jail and family separation, people aren’t using ports of entry more—not yet, anyway. The Trump administration has started locking up, criminally prosecuting, and taking children away from asylum-seeking parents who cross between ports of entry, because they crossed “improperly” and broke the law. This generally does not happen to people who ask for asylum at the border’s 45 official crossings, or “land ports of entry.” (Dara Lind explained this well yesterday at Vox.) It’s still legal to ask for protection in the United States if your life is provably in danger in your home country.

    Because it’s the only clear way to avoid being imprisoned under the new “zero tolerance” regime, we may expect a sharp increase in arrivals at the ports of entry. We’re now seeing coverage of long lines forming in El Paso, Nogales, Miguel Alemán, and Reynosa.

    But the data don’t reflect that yet: more people did not use the ports in May. 5,548 children and family-unit members presented themselves at the ports of entry, down from 6,460 in April and 6,219 in March. This may be because word hasn’t gotten out yet, among protection-seeking migrants and their smugglers, that this is the best way to cross. But it may also be because Customs and Border Protection is using measures of dubious legality to try to prevent migrants at the ports from touching U.S. soil and petitioning for asylum.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Molly Hennessy-Fiske photo at the Los Angeles Times. Caption: “Central American families are camped out on a border bridge between Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico, and Roma, Texas. The man in red in the foreground is Marco Estrada from Honduras.”

(Even more here)

June 6, 2018

Brazil

The women known as the “seeds’’ of Marielle Franco are hoping to overcome all of that. About 10 from Rio intend to run for state assembly or federal congress

Everyone who values democracy and freedom knows what has to be done. Yet, as elsewhere, the old mainstream is out of step with the new realities

Elsewhere in Brazil, the number of PCC members is estimated to have grown from just over 3,000 in 2014 to more than 20,000 today

Guatemala

Lobbying firms financed by influential businessmen, in coordination with the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States, have been working for months on a misinformation and defamation campaign against the work of CICIG and Velásquez

Casi a las 14:00 horas la Conred elevó la alerta y consideró la evacuación. A las 15:20 horas, se produjo la segunda y más grande explosión del volcán

Mexico

Ahora, a 16 años de la agresión contra Valentina, está a punto de emitirse una sentencia por la vía civil contra los perpetradores del crimen. Una sentencia que debe ser condenatoria

Refirió que al realizar un reabastecimiento logístico en inmediaciones de Ciudad Guzmán un grupo de marinos fue agredido por más de un centenar de personas que presuntamente se manifestaban contra su presencia en la entidad

Da la oportunidad para crear un mecanismo extraordinario de justicia y verdad, afirmó Mario Patrón, director del Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez

Nicaragua

Its appeal to the Nicaraguan Government and other social actors to demonstrate commitment and engage constructively in peaceful negotiation with clear outcomes

“The people are out in the street demanding that Ortega leave, but he has shown an unexpected ability to kill”

If there is any bright spot for Nicaragua, it’s the student-led movement. Their bravery, solidarity, and leadership in the nationwide push for justice and democracy has inspired a nation

Los jóvenes aprenden de los mayores cómo fabricar morteros y establecer la defensa de la ciudad. La delegación policial está sitiada, sin acceso a víveres ni apoyo exterior. En los barrios, la población entierra a sus muertos

La ciudad de Granada fue el centro de fuertes enfrentamientos ayer entre paramilitares del régimen de Daniel Ortega y ciudadanos autoconvocados, dejando un saldo de dos fallecidos y varios heridos

Venezuela

19 is still far from the 24 votes required to launch a process that could end in a suspension of the South American country

To declare that the electoral process as implemented in Venezuela, which concluded on May 20, 2018, lacks legitimacy

Western Hemisphere Regional

Now, religious leaders are also speaking out against it, including evangelical Christians, one of the President Donald Trump’s main support blocks

Two uniformed U.S. Customs officials are stationed under a tent just on the U.S. side of the bridge’s dividing line, ensuring that none of the families pass

The number of apprehended illegal border crossers increased slightly from the previous month and climbed by 160 percent in May 2018 in comparison to May 2017

One thing that could be done is to recognize that elections and freer markets will not, on their own, improve people’s lives—governments are going to have to do more

White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Monday that Merkley was “irresponsibly spreading blatant lies” and “smearing hardworking, dedicated law enforcement officials” who deal with migrants

“I trust and hope you will be reunited with your family members,” he told the defendants. “But I also hope you understand that the reason you were separated is that you violated the laws of the United States”

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