Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Nicaragua bureau chief and author of now-classic books on U.S. policy toward Guatemala and Nicaragua, published a column today about Daniel Ortega’s latest despotic crackdown in Nicaragua. It’s at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft site, and it’s a must-read from someone whom I’ve never met but whose writing prodded me, as a high-school student in the 1980s, toward a career advocating human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America.
This paragraph in Kinzer’s piece has stuck with me all day. I don’t know what to think about it.
Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it. Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority. In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy. Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.
Is that true? Is the United States, together with other states, powerless to confront a brutal kleptocracy in a nearby country? One with as many people as metropolitan Houston and a GDP similar to that of greater Charleston, West Virginia? (Or Akron, Ohio, if you use purchasing-power parity?)
I find “the United States cannot do much about it” hard to swallow, though “the United States alone, without any partnerships, cannot do much about it” is true.
Sure, Washington lacks moral authority in Nicaragua. But are there really no tools to promote democracy and to protect reformers and dissidents? Only the John Bolton/Elliott Abrams-style military interventions that drained U.S. moral authority, as Stephen Kinzer has chronicled so well? There have to be other options.
Kinzer is right: it is absolutely up to Nicaraguans “to shape the next chapters in their history.” But I still think the U.S. government and civil society, along with those of like-minded states, can give Nicaragua’s democrats a boost.
Not the kind of boost that we’ve provided in the past, like lethal aid to murderous Contra fighters. Many peaceful options are on the menu. Build coalitions for diplomatic pressure. Freeze assets, including of the regime’s key private-sector backers. Deny visas. Use the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Downgrade trade relations (suspending CAFTA but not going the full, feckless “Cuba embargo” route). Have the ambassador visit and take selfies with all human rights defenders, social leaders, and opposition figures. Help them keep their websites and social media accounts unblocked and accessible, while guaranteeing that those who produce credible content and have big audiences can make a living. Make sure those defenders and reformers aren’t just elite English-speakers from powerful families who don’t look like most Nicaraguans: include historically marginalized opposition movements, indigenous, women, labor, youth, LGBT, and others. Demand access to those in prison. Use the OAS Democratic Charter for once. Use whatever tools are available in the UN system. Engage frequently with allies on new ways to pressure Ortega and support reformers. I’m sure I’m missing many more.
All of this requires that the Biden administration devote bandwidth to the calamity in Nicaragua. And Kinzer is right: it has devoted almost none. (Nobody has. Can you imagine the New York Times having a Nicaragua bureau chief today?) To succeed, a U.S.-and-allies campaign to promote freedom in Nicaragua would have to be relentless, with daily messages and shows of support for dissidents. You’d need a high-profile official—perhaps a special envoy?—with resources and a crack (social) media operation, focused on this every single day.
U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is pretty far from that right now, just as it was during the prior administration. But I wouldn’t rush to say that the United States “can’t do much about it.” That demotivates people in this city who could be convinced to do more, and it cedes too much space to the Ortega/Murillo regime and its thugs.
La coordinadora del Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), Bertha Zúniga rindió testimonio este martes 15 de junio sobre la persecución que sufrió Bertha Cáceres previo a su asesinato
Ortega’s government has made many of the arrests under a new law passed in December granting it the right to declare citizens “terrorists” or “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running in elections
Expediente Público conversó con dos analistas para entender si la diplomacia de Biden hacia Nicaragua dejó pasar importantes meses para presionar por elecciones libres y democráticas y si es posible todavía un apoyo decidido que contribuya a revertir la ruta autocrática
In a public letter on Monday, several retired military commanders, including an ex-defense minister and a 99-year-old former military dictator, said there are reasonable doubts about vote tampering and warned of “grave instability”
For centrist Democrats like Cuellar, whose district includes hundreds of miles along the border with Mexico, the migrant surge has become a political and policy liability that Republicans have pounced on in recent months
I’m at my desk, having a few conversations, preparing a talk I’m giving tomorrow about Colombia, preparing for two upcoming trips (travel is back!), and doing some research. I’ll be in a Colombia coalition meeting from mid-afternoon to end of day.
Ten babies were shot in their mothers’ wombs and a single one survived. In addition, there is a growing trend of police lethality, which has increased even during the pandemic and despite social isolation
The Brazilian government on Monday authorized the employment of the National Security Force (FNS) to protect the Yanomami indigenous people and their reservation lands for 90 days in the northern state of Roraima
La Corte Constitucional acaba de pedirle al Juzgado 189 de Instrucción Penal Militar suspender el proceso que se adelanta en ese despacho contra un miembro del Esmad que impactó con su escopeta truflay al estudiante Dilan Cruz en medio de los disturbios del 23 de noviembre de 2019
La comparecencia del expresidente de la República a la Comisión de Esclarecimiento de la Verdad poco cumplió con las expectativas de quienes padecieron el asesinato de sus familiares a manos de tropas del Ejército
Mientras la Fiscalía y la Defensoría del Pueblo hablan de 84 personas “no localizadas”, organizaciones de derechos humanos registran más de 700 desapariciones forzadas en los más de 40 días de protesta de este 2021
By insisting on the same strategy, the government will crash into the same failures of the past. Only this time, it will have an aggravating circumstance: the country’s new social and political reality
En el documento que los familiares deben firmar se exige confidencialidad y se compromete a no hacer más reclamos. Hay afectados que denuncian que se les ofreció apoyo económico a cambio de no seguir con la denuncia ante FGR
Para la familia de Javier, y las organizaciones civiles Propuesta Cívica y Reporteros Sin Fronteras, el fallo es un paso en la búsqueda de justicia pero falta la parte más complicada que es la extradición de Estados Unidos a México del Minilic para juzgarlo como autor intelectual
Mexico’s president has announced plans to make the national guard part of the army, erasing the thin pretense of a civilian-controlled force that was used to gain approval for its creation two years ago
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, 75, who is running for a fourth consecutive term, has launched a broad campaign of repression since early June aimed at decimating the opposition ahead of November elections
“Lamentamos el uso político de las Fuerzas Armadas, ya que ello no solo mella su institucionalidad, sino que genera alarma, zozobra y división en momentos en los que el país requiere unidad y calma”, manifestó
As travel and trade volumes declined, some ports of entry reallocated personnel to other operations, such as cargo processing. In contrast, starting in May 2020 Border Patrol encounters with noncitizens steadily increased
I’ve got no meetings on the schedule today—an artifact of being out last week and not scheduling anything. I’ve agreed to do a few interviews but with no fixed times, so I should be available as I dig through many past unanswered messages and do some planning for the next few months.
More than one year into the pandemic, it is hard to overstate how much China has improved its standing in Latin America in terms of both its reputation among the general public and its influence with leaders and policymakers
Perdió su vida hace menos de 15 días en Villagarzón durante enfrentamientos con la Policía en medio de una manifestación. El Espectador visitó su casa para reconstruir la historia y alzar la voz de su familia, que hoy reclama justicia
Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori on Saturday said she trusts she will not be sent back to prison after a judge reviews her freedom in a money laundering case and insisted that fraud was committed by her rival
Following a review of the border wall construction projects, the Biden administration will also divert DHS funds to clean-up of construction sites formerly funded by the Pentagon, “including drainage, erosion control, site remediation, and material disposal”
I’m back from vacation and will be spending the day catching up. I also have three internal meetings that I know of, and a border coalition meeting, which will take up all morning and at least the first half of the afternoon. I should be reachable after that.
(Due to staff absence, there will be no border update next week. We will report again on June 19.)
Protests, negotiations, violence, and human rights violations continue
June 4 marked the 38th day of Colombia’s National Strike, probably the longest in more than 70 years. June 4 also saw the 12th meeting between government officials and the Strike Committee: a group of civil society representatives, including a large contingent of union leaders, who first called the Strike on April 28. Such meetings have been taking place since May 16.
The talks have not been advancing. Much of the discussion over the past week centered on the government’s demand that the Strike Committee call for an end to road blockades, which have choked off strategic roads between cities, leading to shortages and economic paralysis. The Committee meanwhile demands that the government do more to guarantee the physical security of protesters, including a softening of the security forces’ harsh and at times fatal crowd control tactics.
After a day of talks on June 3—cut short because government negotiators wanted to watch a Colombia-Peru soccer game—government representatives celebrated that agreement had been reached on 16 of 31 proposed preconditions to be met in order to move on to thematic negotiations. Speaking for the Strike Committee, Luciano Sanín of the NGO Viva la Ciudadanía said, “On 16 points we have an agreement, 11 need to be clarified, and on 9 there are major discrepancies, on issues such as the non-involvement of the military in protests, the autonomy of local authorities in the management of protests, the non-use of firearms in protests, the conditions for the intervention of the ESMAD [Police Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squad] in protests, and the mechanism for monitoring the agreement.”
Nelson Alarcón of Colombia’s FECODE teachers’ union was also pessimistic about the 16 agreements: “That’s nothing at all, we had already reached a pre-agreement on 34 measures that the government dismantled with its comments.” Alarcón refers to a pre-agreement that the two sides had reached on May 24, but which the government ended up rejecting on May 27, by demanding that the Strike Committee lift road blockades before going any further. At the time, the National Police counted about 200 blockades around the country.
It appears that, on the government side, politicians from the hard line of the governing Centro Democrático party got the upper hand. The party’s founder, former president Álvaro Uribe, called for “rejecting any negotiation with the Committee, because negotiating with blockades and violence is to continue with the destruction of democracy.”
Strike Committee members allege that the government has adopted a strategy of delaying and hoping that the protests lose energy.La Silla Vacíaobserved that in the street, “there is no longer the same mobilization strength of the first weeks.” Fabio Arias of the CUT labor union told El Tiempo, “we know with absolute certainty they are mamando gallo [roughly, ‘jerking us around’].”
President Iván Duque insisted on the importance of ending road blockades before continuing negotiations: “Blockades are not a matter of negotiation, they are not a matter of tradeoffs, much less of transaction. They have to be rejected by everyone.” On May 30, thousands of people protesting the blockades marched in several Colombian cities; a Colombian Presidency communiqué celebrated that “thousands of Colombians, on behalf of millions, have sent a clear message.”
Legal groups like DeJusticia say peaceful blockades that don’t affect the rights of others are a form of free speech. The Strike Committee moved during the week to lift some of the most damaging blockades at key highway chokepoints, which had been carrying a significant public opinion cost for the protesters. “There are more than 40 ‘points of resistance’ that have been suspended thanks to the de-escalation,” Alarcón of FECODE said on June 1. “Today, therefore, the national government has no excuse to say that it won’t sign accords.” Fabio Arias of the CUT said that day that 90 percent of blockades had been lifted. By June 12, many inter-city bus routes began running again from Cali’s terminal.
By June 3, about 23 blockades remained around the country, but the government continued to insist. Committee members responded that not all road blockades were their responsibility. “We can’t order the removal of what we didn’t order to be set up,” said Hami Gómez of the ACREES student organization. At a protest concentration in Cali’s Puerto Resistencia (formerly Puerto Rellena) neighborhood, a protester named “Pipe” told Spain’s EFE news service that the Strike Committee doesn’t speak for them. “They don’t have the legitimacy to tell us to lift the blockades.”
Partly to counter perceptions that the protests are losing momentum, the Strike Committee is calling on protesters to converge on and “take” Bogotá on Wednesday, June 9.
Over the week the government set about implementing a decree, issued late on the evening of May 28, giving the armed forces a greater role in undoing blockades and controlling protests in eight departments [provinces] and thirteen cities, mostly in the country’s southwest. The decree draws on a section of the country’s Police Code allowing authorities to seek “military assistance” at times “when events of serious alteration of security and coexistence so require, or in the face of imminent risk or danger, or to confront an emergency or public calamity.” The measure may triple the combined police and military footprint in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, where the protests have been most intense.
The decree promises that governors and mayors who fail to cooperate with the military “assisters” will suffer “the corresponding sanctions.” It does not specify what those punishments would be. Jairo Libreros of Colombia’s Universidad Externado toldEl Espectador that there could be no such punishments, because “the military can’t be placed above civilian authorities.”
While the latest bimonthly Invamer poll found 89 percent supporting protests, it also found 61 percent support for militarizing cities when “vandalistic situations” break out.
“It is a partial and de facto internal commotion [state of siege decree], which circumvents constitutional control, involves the military in the management of protest, and subordinates civilian authorities to military commanders, thus configuring a coup d’état,” reads a declaration from the Strike Committee. “Having more security forces on the streets is not a step in the direction of peace,” Sebastian Lanz of Temblores, an NGO that monitors police abuse, told CNN. Former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo, a leading centrist presidential candidate, strongly criticized the decree on Twitter: “this is not a war, nor should we turn it into one.”
Legal challenges to the “military assistance” decree came quickly. In Cundinamarca, the department that surrounds Bogotá, the Administrative Tribunal called President Duque to testify “about the reasons that led him to determine the need for the military forces to provide temporary support to the work being carried out by members of the National Police.” Two opposition legislators, Sen. Iván Cepeda and Rep. David Racero, filed separate injunctions (tutelas) with the State Council demanding that the military assistance decree be suspended on grounds of unconstitutionality. Cepeda contended that the decree is a backdoor “state of siege” (estado de conmoción interior), avoiding the legal requirements that Colombian law entails for such a temporary expansion of military power and restriction of civil liberties. Both argued that the decree omits required legislative oversight, and places military authorities over civilian officials.
Iván Velazquez, a former auxiliary magistrate who led 2000s “para-politics” investigations before going on to head Guatemala’s Commission against Impunity (CICIG), said that he will also file a “public action lawsuit” against the decree. A detailed legal analysis from Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the judicial think-tank DeJusticia, lays out four key reasons why Duque’s military assistance decree is unconstitutional. Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, contended that Colombian law requires that only police be used to control protests.
The NGO Temblores continues to maintain a thorough database of protest-related violence, with its most recent update on June 2. The Defense Ministry issued its most recent update on June 4. Since protests began on April 28, both sources report:
Up to 46 (18, plus 19 “not related to the protests” according to unclear criteria, plus 9 pending verification)
Security forces killed
Security forces wounded
Civilians missing or disappeared
327 (as of May 27, according to Coordinación Colombia-Europa-EEUU)
114 (111 being searched for, 3 denunciations of forced disappearance)
Arrests and detentions
Cases of eye damage
Discharges of lethal firearms
Victims of sexual violence
Victims of gender-based violence
9 (including 1 police agent)
Aggression against journalists
210 (as of June 3, according to the FLIP Press Freedom Foundation)
Attacks on the medical mission
256 (as of June 2, according to the Health Ministry)
Last week saw fewer killings than the previous week, which was crowned by the bloodiest single day of protests, May 28, when 13 people were killed in Cali. Last week:
In Cali, it appears that gunmen killed three people the evening of May 31. On the NGO Indepaz’s list of 75 people believed killed as of June 4, nobody has been killed outside Valle del Cauca, the department of which Cali is the capital, since May 17. Since then, between 26 and 35 people have been killed in Valle del Cauca.
Indepaz’s list does not include Yorandy Rosero, a 22-year-old student killed during a protest at an oil installation, convened by indigenous groups in Villagarzón, Putumayo, in the country’s far south. A short drive from Putumayo’s capital, Mocoa, Villagarzón’s commercial airport shares its runway with a Counternarcotics Police base that, in the past, was used heavily for U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation flights. The Counternarcotics Police, not a crowd control force, were called on May 31 to control a demonstration at a well operated by a Canadian corporation, Gran Tierra Energy. Putumayo’s governor says that the protests were violent. Local police leadership insists that while protesters wounded some soldiers and police, the shots that killed Rosero did not come from police personnel. The victims’ mother, however, told Blu Radio, “there are witnesses of those who were with my son at the time he was shot, who say [the police] were very clearly shooting right in front of them.” The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is investigating; this case should be of interest to the U.S. government since, unlike the ESMAD, the Police Counternarcotics Directorate is a unit that does receive U.S. assistance.
In another rural territory with several armed groups and much coca cultivation, northeastern Colombia’s Catatumbo region, protests have been ongoing since April 28 but have been peaceful, El Espectadorreports. There, one of the protesters’ main demands is that the government fulfill peace accord commitments to rural and coca-growing communities.
In Facatativá, a small city just beyond Bogotá’s outskirts in Cundinamarca, rioters vandalized and burned the courthouse on May 29, in an event that recalled the May 25 arson that burned the courthouse of Tuluá, Valle del Cauca to the ground.
A freelance reporter was stabbed, he says by a policeman, near the “Portal Resistencia” (or Portal Américas) mass transit terminal in southern Bogotá’s working-class Usme district.
Three women participating in protests in Barranquilla, aged 18 through 22, say they were taken to a police station on the night of May 21 and thrown into a jail cell with men whom the police encouraged to sexually abuse them. El Espectadorreports: “As they told the Fiscalía, ‘the patrolman who received us entered the cells and began encouraging the prisoners, saying that fresh meat had arrived.’ Next, the complaint states that the same uniformed officer began to shout: ‘they are here to be raped, these are the rock throwers.’” They say they were beaten, stripped, and forced to pay the prisoners in order to avoid being raped. Barranquilla’s deputy police commander, Col. Carlos Julio Cabrera, told the El Heraldo newspaper that what happened was “confused” and is under investigation. The Colonel cast doubt on their story: “According to the officer, the young women did not show any aggression when they left the police station: ‘they came out without any incident and signed a book that we have.’”
UN bodies released two statements voicing alarm at protest-related violence. “These events are all the more concerning given the progress that had been made to resolve, through dialogue, the social unrest that erupted a month ago, following the start of a nation-wide strike against several social and economic policies of the Government,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a May 30 statement noting that “since 28 May, fourteen people have died, and 98 people have been injured, 54 of them by firearms.” The chief of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, who is co-mediating talks between the government and the Strike Committee, said “the serious events in Cali and other cities and departments demonstrate the need to strengthen dialogue as a fundamental instrument for resolving conflicts.”
The ESMAD anti-riot police continued to receive significant scrutiny. Indepaz lists the unit’s members as those most likely responsible for at least 18 killings, especially in late April and the first half of May.
A Razón Públicacolumn by three scholars from Colombia’s National University questions why the unit is not being used as a last resort, why it often uses weapons indiscriminately and disproportionately, why it often chases protesters through city streets after already dispersing them, and why it often uses force without prior warning. Andrés Felipe Ortega, Farid Camilo Rondón, and Lina Paola Faciolince note that “The Esmad and the National Police showed a marked sentiment or prejudice against those who demonstrate publicly. This happens because of the belief that the demonstrators are vandals, because of the alleged infiltration of organized armed groups, which has not yet been proven in all cases, and because of the institution’s own ideas.”
The investigative website Cuestión Pública looked at 30 contracts for purchase of non-lethal crowd control materials since 2017, totaling about 22.5 billion Colombian pesos (US$6.1 million). Among its findings:
“Through these [contracting] processes, elements for crowd control, armored tanks, electric and gas cartridges for Venom [vehicle-mounted launchers], stun grenades, gas launchers, fragmentable sphere launchers, pepper spheres, rubber projectiles, propellant and gas cartridges, and paintball markers and spheres were acquired. A batch of 222 12-gauge shotguns was also purchased in 2017.”
“This entire battery of weapons was supplied by six companies. Two Colombian: Imdicol Ltda and 7 M Group; three American: Everytrade International Company (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS), Safariland LLC (authorized in Colombia by Nicholls Tactica SAS), and Combined Systems Inc (also authorized in Colombia by Imdicol Ltda); and the Italian, Benelli Armi SpA (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS).”
In recent weeks, though, most protester killings have been the work of people not in uniform. “We have registered 11 cases of violent interventions by civilians in the presence of the public forces,” reads the latest Temblores report. “This trend was seen again last Friday [May 28] in the city of Cali, evidencing the presence of armed agents, who omitted their duties and incurred in criminal acts by endorsing the illegal carrying of weapons and attacks against demonstrators.” That day, numerous citizen and security-camera videos showed men in plainclothes wielding, and at times firing, weapons while nearby police failed to act.
“The video shows at least ten policemen who do nothing,” reads a strong El Espectadoreditorial. “We have already seen this image on other occasions during this national strike. The echoes it brings from the past are not encouraging. Armies of death were born from such logic in this country.”
“In that place and at that very moment there were several law enforcement officers, who omitted their duty to prevent these events from happening and to capture these people,” recognized Gen. Fernando Murillo, the director of the National Police’s Criminal Investigations and Interpol Directorate (DIJIN). He announced that “a specialized team was appointed to carry out the investigation to identify, individualize, and prosecute these individuals and law enforcement officers, who will have to answer to the competent authorities.”
A gunman who appeared in May 28 videos confronting protesters alongside police in Cali’s wealthy Ciudad Jardín neighborhood went public trying to explain himself. Andrés Escobar, who identified himself as a businessman, posted a video on social media insisting that the gun he was shooting into the air can fire only non-lethal munitions like rubber bullets (arma de fogueo). Such weapons are easy to obtain in Colombia, even at shopping malls, El Espectadorreported, though gaining a permit for more lethal firearms is difficult. Escobar added that he had no intention of killing anybody, and that he was angered by “vandals” in his neighborhood.
Escobar appeared to have no explanation for the inaction of nearby police. Further clues about the relationship between Cali police and plainclothes gunmen emerged from the case of Álvaro Herrera, a 25-year-old French horn player whose May 28 treatment in police custody swept through Colombian social media. Herrera was playing his horn as part of a “symphony” accompanying protests in southern Cali. When armed, un-uniformed men arrived and attacked the protesters, some of them roughed up Herrera and took him away—to a nearby police station. There, police beat the musician until he admitted he was a “vandal,” in a video that went viral.
Civilians have also been aggressively following former FARC combatants in Cali, like Natali González, who had served as the Cali municipal government’s deputy secretary for human rights and peacebuilding. Since protests began, unknown men in pickup trucks and motorcycles have been following González around the city; none has yet made contact with her. At least six other ex-guerrillas say the same thing is happening to them, reportsEl Espectador.
Another increasingly alarming phenomenon is forced disappearances or missing persons in the context of the protests. According to a June 4 La Silla Vacíaoverview, government data as of May 30 pointed to 111 people reported as missing, after deleting the names of others who were found, often in police custody. NGO counts are significantly higher: on May 26, Indepaz counted 287 people missing, and on May 27 the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos (CCEEU) reported 327.
Adriana Arboleda of the Medellín-based Corporación Jurídica Libertad told La Silla that “The Fiscalía isn’t activating urgent search mechanisms, on the grounds that there is insufficient information.” Because it lacks information about many denounced cases of missing people, the prosecutor’s office is not acting quickly. “It is giving a different treatment than what the nature of the urgent search mechanism requires. Which is: with the information you have, you run as fast as you can and try find the person,” said Luz Marina Monzón, the director of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord.
Some of the missing may still be in government custody. An El Tiemporeport contends that many people detained at protests have been held at least briefly in “unofficial” sites, with no record of where they are.
President Duque and other top officials insist that police abuses have not been systematic, and promise “zero tolerance” with agents who commit them. In public comments, Duque said that Colombian justice moved more quickly against those responsible for the September 2020 killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez than did U.S. authorities against the killers of George Floyd in May 2020.
In an interview with Spain’s El País, Duque reiterated his government’s allegation, for which almost no proof has yet been produced, that the violence accompanying protests has been “low-intensity terrorism” often carried out by “organized armed groups linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents.” He added that he opposed moving the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, where it has been since 1953, because placing the agency in another cabinet agency, like Interior, would lead to its “politicization.”
Because the police are in the Defense Ministry, crimes committed by police agents go first to the military justice system. On May 31, Reuters reported, National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas said “that information concerning officers who may have broken the law or not performed their duties has been sent to the military justice unit.” The military justice system, however, is meant to try acts of service, and has a poor record of convicting personnel accused of human rights crimes.
As an El Tiempoanalysis points out, Colombian jurisprudence has determined that an agent’s alleged crime is not an “act of service” if “there is no ‘proximate and direct’ link between the offense and the service; if the offense is of such gravity that the link to the service is broken; and if there is doubt about any of these elements.” In such cases, the case must go to the civilian justice system, where the Fiscalía would prosecute it.
This distinction is pretty clear in cases like sexual abuse or torture in custody. Things get murkier in cases of improper use of force, when a police agent can argue that efforts to control disturbances were “acts of service.” On that basis, one of Colombia’s highest-profile cases, the November 2019 killing of 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz in downtown Bogotá with a shotgun-fired “beanbag” weapon, remains in the military justice system. On June 3, a military judge ordered the release of two detained police, a lieutenant and a major, who are under investigation for the May 1 shooting death of 17-year-old protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Fiscalíaasked on May 11 for this case to be moved to civilian jurisdiction.
This week Colombia’s civilian chief prosecutor (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, sent a request to Defense Minister Diego Molano asking for detailed information about protest-related cases that have been sent to the military justice system. It asks for “the immediate referral of proceedings initiated by the military justice system for possible homicides, intentional personal injury, and sexual offenses.” Barbosa also asks that the military justice system hand over all documents related to armed civilians’ actions in protests alongside police.
Civilian courts issued a few noteworthy protest-related rulings over the past week. A court in Popayán, Cauca banned use in the city of the Venom, a vehicle-mounted apparatus for launching tear gas canisters, flash-bang grenades, and other “non-lethal” munitions, until the National Police develops protocols and trainings for its safe use. A judge ruling on a tutela in Pasto, Nariño ordered they city’s police, especially its ESMAD, to register the names of commanders and the weapons to be deployed, in advance of any crowd control operation. The Administrative Tribunal in Santander is studying whether to suspend the use of stun grenades and 12-gauge shotguns in crowd-control operations.
Inter-American Human Rights Commission will visit imminently
Following a back-and-forth during Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez’s May 24-28 visit to Washington (discussed in last week’s update), the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH), an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), will pay a field visit to Colombia on June 8-10. “During the visit, the CIDH will meet with various representative sectors of Colombia, including authorities from different levels of government, representatives of civil society, collectives, unions, and business-sector organizations,” reads a tweet from the Commission. “In particular,” the thread continues, “the CIDH will seek to listen to victims of human rights violations and their families to receive their testimonies, complaints, and communications; as well as to people who were affected by actions of violence in that context.”
On May 29, the CIDH tweeted some cautionary words about the Colombian government’s “military assistance” decree. “The CIDH reiterates the international obligations of the State in internal security, and the Inter-American standards that provide that the participation of the armed forces in security tasks must be extraordinary, subordinate, complementary, regulated, and supervised.”
On June 7, representatives of Colombia’s Fiscalía, Inspector-General (Procuraduría), and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) are to hold three separate “pre-meetings” with the CIDH to “present in-depth reports that fully respond to the requests for information that the Commission issued to each of them,” as expressed in a letter from Ramírez to CIDH secretary María Claudia Pulido.
Vice-President Ramírez proposed that the commissioners visit Cali, Popayán, Cauca; and the city of Tuluá, about 60 miles north of Cali, where protesters burned the courthouse to the ground on May 25. El Espectadornoted that her letter made no mention of excesses committed by police or crimes involving armed civilians.
On June 3 the CIDH received a visit in Washington from a group of legislators from the most right-leaning segment of the already right-leaning governing party, the Centro Democrático. Senators and Representatives María Fernanda Cabal, Margarita Restrepo, Juan Manuel Daza, and José Jaime Uscátegui presented the commissioners with a dossier of acts of violence against members of the security forces allegedly committed by protesters. Among the allegations, El Espectadorreports, is that the ex-FARC dissident faction headed by former guerrilla negotiator Iván Márquez provided about US$160,000 to maintain disturbances around the country.
Just weeks earlier, Sen. Cabal had a testy radio exchange with the Commission’s president, Antonia Urrejola, who corrected the Senator when she said there was no international right to peaceful protest, and accused the Commission of bias. The group also met with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, and its ambassador to the OAS, Alejandro Ordóñez.
FARC dissidents release some Venezuelan military captives
On May 30, Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes, which often reports rumors about security developments along the Colombia-Venezuela border, said that a temporary cessation of hostilities had been reached between the Venezuelan military and the “10th Front” ex-FARC dissidents, who had been fighting inside Venezuela’s border state of Apure since March 21.
The next day, Venezuela recovered eight soldiers who had been held captive by the 10th Front since April 23rd. They appeared to be in good health. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino said that the troops “were rescued” in an operation called “Centenary Eagle.” Tarazona of Fundaredes said that they were freed in an arrangement that involved assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On May 11 the ICRC had confirmed receiving a communication from the 10th Front that it was holding the eight soldiers and was looking for a way to hand them over.
“We continue to search for two more soldiers,” read Gen. Padrino’s communiqué. Tarazona said that three soldiers are missing, and that another 20 have been killed in combat with the Colombian ex-guerrilla dissidents in Apure.
We’ve covered this combat in several previous weekly updates, and Kristen Martínez-Gugerli of WOLA’s Venezuela Program published a helpful FAQ this week. The fighting displaced more than 6,000 Venezuelans into Colombia; questions remain why Venezuelan forces are focusing efforts on the 10th Front, even as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” ex-FARC dissident group are also active and present in Apure.
Colombia meanwhile had planned to reopen its official border crossings with Venezuela on June 1, for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in March 20. That plan was abruptly halted on May 31, when the Foreign Ministry postponed the opening until September 1. On June 2, though, Colombia appeared to partially reverse itself again, announcing a gradual opening at crossings as biosecurity measures and other capacity get put into place.
“Officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest,” reads a June 1 statement from WOLA.
President Duque’s “total incapacity to read the historic moment,” former high commissioner for peace Sergio Jaramillo told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, “is pushing us back to ‘conflict’ mode.”
“What is the Centaur state?” writes Julian Gomez Delgado in an interesting essay about Colombia’s political moment at Public Seminar. “It serves the interests of the upper classes, disciplines and regulates the lower classes, and is fearful of popular majorities. The parallel to a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a horse captures the dissonance of its approach to politics: a liberal state at the top cares for the upper classes, and a ‘punitive paternalism’ at the bottom fearsomely contains the popular majority. …Paradoxically at once democratic and authoritarian, instead of resolving social conflicts, the Centaur state reproduces them.”
“A significant proportion of protesters in Colombia’s southwest are Indigenous or Black—making the military police’s racial violence against them into a key issue,” write scholars Arturo Chang and Catalina Rodriguez at the Washington Post.
Colombian soldiers and police on May 27 killed Robinson Gil Tapias alias “Flechas,” the most recent leader of the Caparros, an organized crime group with great influence in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department. Forces killed Gil in that region, in the municipality of Cáceres, Antioquia. Bajo Cauca, a territory of coca fields, illicit mining, and trafficking corridors, is contested between the Caparros, the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary network, and smaller presences of the ELN and ex-FARC dissident groups. Defense Minister Diego Molano and National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas announced that this blow dismantled the Caparros, a group that can trace its lineage back to the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network. However, a faction of the group, under the command of alias “Franco,” still remains active in the Bajo Cauca region, El Tiemporeported. The Caparros’ largest rival in the Bajo Cauca, the Gulf Clan, also remains active. “This criminal group is the second most powerful in Antioquia and responsible for homicides against social leaders,” human rights defender Óscar Yesid Zapata toldEl Espectador. “What the structures do is mutate into other substructures and the only thing that is achieved is a change of command.”
The Colombian government approved the extradition to the United States, to face narcotrafficking charges, of Alexander Montoya Úsuga, the cousin of the Gulf Clan’s maximum leader Dairo Úsuga. Montoya, alias “El Flaco,” had been arrested in Honduras as part of an operation that involved U.S. and Colombian personnel.
A four-person commission from the Colombian government’s Land Restitution Unit went missing in Mesetas, Meta, on May 27. As of June 2, they remained missing. Mesetas, one of five municipalities from which the Colombian security forces pulled out during a failed 1998-2002 peace process with the FARC, today has a significant presence of ex-FARC dissidents.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, is studying a request from a FARC victims’ group to have the top ex-guerrilla leadership deprived of liberty and suspended from their ten congressional seats. Seven top FARC leaders recently accepted the JEP’s formal accusation of responsibility for over 20,000 kidnappings committed during the conflict. The JEP has sought opinions about the possible suspensions from 18 academic departments and think tanks.
Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, acknowledged in a radio interview that governing-party politicians “did do damage” when they acted to support Republican candidates in the 2020 U.S. congressional and presidential elections, that “they did create an important problem.” Santos insisted that the Duque government’s relationships with key U.S. Democrats have recovered.
Opposition legislators failed to get the majority vote necessary to remove Defense Minister Molano via a censure motion. As noted in last week’s update, several members of both houses of Colombia’s Congress sought Molano’s censure based on security forces’ excessive use of force against protesters. The motion failed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 109 to 36. The previous week, the Senate defeated it by 69 to 31.
I’m taking a week of vacation. I may spend a lot of it just doing maintenance: updating contacts, lists, websites, and procedures that have fallen way behind, during this year of 65-hour weeks brought on by the border situation and Colombia’s protests. While I may be at my desk a lot, “vacation” means I’m taking the prerogative of shutting down communications, barely updating my news database, and writing no border or Colombia updates this week. By design, I will be nearly impossible to contact. See you next week.
From Colombia’s El Espectador, here’s English of the story of Álvaro Herrera, a French horn player who had been playing in a “symphony” at some of the protest marches in Cali. Herrera became sadly famous on May 28, when he appeared all over Colombian social media in a video, dazed and bleeding in police custody, strangely confessing to being a “vandal.”
What was done to Herrera needs to be told in English because it casts severe doubt on the Colombian government’s narrative that the-police-force’s-“excesses”-are-just-a-few-bad-apples-who’ll-be-investigated-so-don’t-worry. A whole unexamined side of Colombia’s state—one probably familiar to poorer Colombians—seems to be revealed here:
Alvaro Herrera Melo, 25, says his greatest wish in life is to study music and conducting in Germany. He dreams of perfecting his technique on the French horn and learning to sing. …[On May 28 in Cali] the two most heated spots were La Luna, in the center, and Ciudad Jardín, an exclusive sector to the south, adjacent to the Universidad del Valle, where a symphonic cacerolazo was being held by music students, among them Álvaro.
…In an interview with El Espectador, Alvaro Herrera Melo narrated the moments of terror he experienced while he was detained, according to him, by civilians who later handed him over to the police at the La María station, south of the city.
“When the shooting started, I ran out towards 16th Street, there I saw that there were civilians with weapons and I took out my cell phone to record. At that moment a civilian grabbed me from behind and began to choke me, they beat me on the ground and destroyed my cell phone (…) then they took me to the police station”, said the musician.
Afterwards, he said that he saw a white van right in front of the police patrol car in the sector. “One of the civilians said why don’t they put me in that van, and then a policeman said why don’t they disappear me,” he said, his voice cracking. Alvaro recalled that he managed to scream and beg not to be taken in the white private vehicle.
It was at that station where a uniformed officer, after beating him against a white wall along with other officers, intimidated him so that he would talk. “They asked me where I was and what I was doing, I answered that I was in a symphonic cacerolazo, but the policeman stopped the recording, hit me and asked me again, as if making me understand that this was not the answer they wanted to hear,” he denounced.
Within minutes, the video [of his forced “confession”] had been replicated in Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter groups. It was through him that his family and friends found out what had happened.
When he was being taken to the police station, and as was recorded in several videos on social networks, Alvaro was no longer carrying his French horn. Before the authorities he revealed that it was taken from him at the police station. “As soon as the civilians stopped me, I hugged my instrument so as not to lose it, but then the police took it from me and did not return it.”
One of several cases discussed in a La Silla Vacía article about people who’ve gone missing in the context of Colombia’s protests:
Valentina Smimmo Ramirez is a student at the Technological University of Pereira. She was a classmate of Lucas Villa, killed on May 5 by armed civilians in that city. Valentina was arrested on May 1 by ESMAD agents after participating in the protests.
It was near the San Nicolas CAI, which was burned down that day. Valentina told La Silla that she was running away from the gas and gunfire from the Police in that area that day when she was detained around 7:20 pm by ESMAD agents without visible identification.
“I fell down and when I got up I was surrounded by ESMAD agents and Police. One of the policemen told them to leave me alone, that they were looking for men, but one of the ESMAD said that if I were a woman I wouldn’t be marching, and kicked me,” she says.
She says that they did not take her to a CAI or a URI. “They put me in a black car and took me blindfolded to some warehouses near the fire station. Later I found out that’s where I was, when they released me. They had their implements there, like shields. There, they continued beating me. On the way, they turned off my cell phone, which was sending my location in real time. In the warehouse they discussed whether it would continue sending the location when it was turned off. They turned it on, saw that people were looking for me and got scared. Then they checked my wallet and found out that I am not a Colombian citizen, but Italian, and they released me.”
Valentina spent 5 hours in detention. According to her testimony, which La Silla could not independently verify, they did not respect her right to communicate, nor did they take her to a center to legalize her detention. She was also beaten and insulted, and then released without explanation. Two days later, Valentina says she was beaten again at a protest and had two ribs broken. She filed a formal complaint.
Unattended social, political, and economic maladies sparked social unrest in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Bolivia before the pandemic. Now, entirely predictably, the unrest has returned—most seriously, so far, in Colombia
We hope that the Vice President’s first visit shows that she, and the United States, are standing with the people and communities organizing for change, and not with corrupt and abusive government officials
El gobierno de Estados Unidos condicionó a México entregar fondos por 6 millones de dólares para actividades militares a cambio de que el gobierno de Andrés Manuel López Obrador demuestre que “está implementando medidas antinarcóticos creíbles y estrategias de aplicación de la ley
Este anuncio se dio unas semanas después de que el presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador se quejó del financiamiento que la Agencia para el Desarrollo Internacional (Usaid) y la Fundación Nacional para la Democracia (NED) dan a organizaciones
Remain in Mexico is no longer the most immediate crisis. But it will nevertheless go down as one of the most significant policies of the Trump era, one that was monumental in shifting how the US handles asylum
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.
(Due to staff absence, there will be no border update next week. We will report again on June 18.)
Preparations for vice-presidential visit to Mexico and Central America
Vice President Kamala Harris departs for Guatemala late on June 6 for her first foreign trip since taking office. She will spend June 7 in Guatemala and June 8 in Mexico. The trip is part of her designated role as the White House’s point person for partnering with Mexico and Central America on the “root causes” of migration.
Harris and her staff have resisted Republican and some media portrayals of her role as involving the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. It does not: the vice president is focusing on diplomatic efforts with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. At a June 1 briefing for reporters, vice presidential staff said “she will focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women and young people,” CNN reported.
In past months, Harris has held virtual meetings with Presidents Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico. She has met with experts, former officials, and reform advocates from the region and from the United States. The Biden administration has announced $310 million in emergency assistance for the Central American “Northern Triangle” countries. The foreign aid appropriation request that the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sent to Congress on May 28 asks for $832.6 million in new assistance to Central America for 2022. On May 27 Harris announced that 12 U.S. companies and organizations, including MasterCard, Microsoft, and Nestlé Nespresso, would be increasing their investments in the region.
State Department Global Health Programs $43,600,000
Development Assistance $391,735,000
Economic Support Fund $131,000,000
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement $219,665,000
NADR – Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction $2,000,000
International Military Education and Training $4,100,000
Foreign Military Financing $27,500,000
This request would increase Foreign Military Financing (FMF), the State Department’s main non-drug military aid program, by a surprising $15.1 million over 2020 levels. That year, the seven Central American countries got a combined $12.4 million, of which only $1.9 million went to the Northern Triangle (El Salvador). In 2021, Congress banned FMF for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras completely. (See Section 7045(a)(2)(D) of Division K here).
We are working to find out which countries would get the expanded FMF in 2022, and for what. The budget request only says: “In Central America, FMF will support the Administration’s Root Causes Strategy by addressing gaps in maritime interdiction and domain awareness capabilities to improve security.”
In her meeting with the president of Guatemala, CBS News reports, Harris “is expected to focus on the administration’s concerns with deep-rooted government corruption, threats to the country’s judicial independence and long-running U.S.-Guatemalan missions to target drug traffickers and the Guatemalan government’s desire for more economic aid, especially in the form of private sector investment.” Harris will also meet “Guatemalan community leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs,” Mazin Alfaqih, the vice president’s special adviser for the Northern Triangle, told reporters.
Concerns about corruption and impunity in Guatemala are growing, as explained in a June 2 statement from the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Due Process of Law Foundation, and the Center for Justice and International Law. “In Guatemala, the rule of law has continued to deteriorate rapidly since the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala was shut down in 2019,” it reads. Recent alarming examples include a refusal to allow anti-corruption judge Gloria Porras to take her Constitutional Court seat, legal actions against prosecutors and judges who have led past anti-corruption efforts, and the impending enactment of a law that would allow the government to dissolve non-governmental organizations.
The leaders will also discuss measures to reduce asylum-seeking migration from Guatemala, whose citizens were “encountered” by U.S. border agents 128,441 times between October and April. The agenda with Guatemala includes increasing “the number of border security personnel,” CNN reports. “The US will also increase the number of its own security forces on the ground to provide training, Alfaqih said.” The White House is also working with Guatemala on the opening of the first of what will be several “migrant resource centers… that would offer assistance to would-be migrants in their home countries.”
In Mexico, beyond her meeting with López Obrador, Vice President Harris will meet with female entrepreneurs and labor leaders, said Hillary Quam, Harris’s special adviser for the Western Hemisphere. The statement from WOLA and colleagues points out serious concerns about “security, the rule of law, judicial independence, human rights violations, and the role of the military” in Mexico. President López Obrador has given the armed forces a host of new internal roles without making the institution more accountable for human rights abuses or corruption. He “has also repeatedly sought to discredit civil society organizations and journalists that he perceives as critical of his government,” including recent demands that USAID stop funding press freedom and transparency organizations in Mexico.
That Harris is visiting Guatemala but not El Salvador and Honduras points to the fraught state of the Biden administration’s relations with the Central American countries whose citizens migrate most to the United States. In all three, the Biden administration plans to provide little government-to-government assistance in its proposed 2022-2025 $4 billion aid package, for which the $832 million request for 2022 is a first tranche.
Giammattei, CBS News observes, “is seen as leading a more stable government than Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, whose brother was indicted in the U.S. for drug possession last year and Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, whose party now has total control of the country’s government and has moved in recent weeks to strip the nation’s judicial sector of many of its rights.” The vice president has not had conversations with Hernández or Bukele; “her staff is finding the best way to engage,” reports the Los Angeles Times’ Tracey Wilkinson.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Costa Rica on June 1 and 2 engaging with some of those other governments. At a meeting with the region’s foreign ministers and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Blinken planned to have “a very frank and honest” exchange of views, Julie Chung, the acting assistant secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, told Wilkinson. Blinken had separate one-on-one meetings with Ebrard and with the ministers of each Northern Triangle country.
In remarks while in Costa Rica, Blinken warned would-be migrants against taking “a very dangerous journey north,” adding, “People die along the way. They experience violence, and those who do make it to our border are turned around, because the border is not open.”
Some analysts worry that administration officials’ desire to stem migration in the short term could move them in a transactional direction, easing pressure on issues like corruption and democracy when leaders do more to stop migrants. In Honduras, where serious allegations beset President Juan Orlando Hernández, “the Biden administration refuses to denounce him,” writes journalist James Fredrick in a June 3 Washington Post opinion piece. “In fact, Biden administration officials are working with Hernández to try to prevent Hondurans from fleeing.”
The June 2 statement from WOLA and partner organizations voices concern “that in the name of reaching immigration enforcement agreements to limit the number of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration will overlook pressing human rights, rule of law, and governance issues that should be addressed with the governments of Mexico and Guatemala.”
While Mexico and Guatemala have embraced immigration enforcement, partly as a result of U.S. pressure, this neither represents an effective and holistic response to migration, nor should it be a pretext to avoid conversations about corruption, insecurity, judicial independence, and attacks against civil society organizations, journalists and justice officials.
In the midst of these concerning human rights trends, Biden administration officials have praised the Mexican and Guatemalan governments for militarized crackdowns on migrants—actions that provoke further human rights violations. In the April meeting between Guatemalan President Giammattei and Vice President Harris, the governments announced an agreement for the United States to train members of a Guatemalan task force charged with border security and immigration enforcement. Media reports leading up to Harris’s May meeting with López Obrador revealed that U.S. officials are discussing proposals for additional enforcement actions, including asking Mexico to increase detentions and deportations of migrants.
A June 4 letter to Vice President Harris from 17 organizations, including WOLA, similarly calls to ensure “that combating corruption, advancing the rule of law, and promoting respect for human rights will be central to the U.S. approach” toward the region. “At the same time,” it continues, “we are concerned by the continued focus on expanding migration enforcement in the region instead of increasing access to protection for refugees.”
Vice presidential spokespeople would not say whether conversations would cover another area where Mexico has been accommodating: the continued use of the “Title 42” pandemic authority at the border. The United States has employed Title 42 since March 2020 to expel over 200,000 non-Mexican migrants back across the border into Mexico.
Other recent moves have been less transactional. Vice President Harris met recently with four former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges who led anti-corruption efforts. USAID suspended assistance to Salvadoran security and justice institutions whose independence is now deeply in question after President Bukele and his congressional majority fired top judges and the chief prosecutor and redirected the aid to civil society and human rights organizations. In Costa Rica, Blinken said that “we’re meeting at a moment when democracy and human rights are being undermined in many parts of the region,” citing moves against judicial independence, the free press, NGOs, and opposition parties.
“Remain in Mexico” comes to a formal end as administration plans changes to asylum
With a June 1 memorandum, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas brought a formal end to the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy (MPP, also known as “Remain in Mexico”). In 2019 and 2020, MPP forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their court hearing dates in the United States, which for many families meant months or years stranded in dangerous Mexican border cities. Human Rights First documented at least 1,544 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults committed against those whom the Trump administration forced to “Remain in Mexico.”
On January 20, the new Biden administration paused new referrals into MPP. On February 2, a White House executive order called on agencies to review the program and decide whether to terminate it. Mayorkas’s June 1 memo finalizing the end of “Remain in Mexico” signals the end of that review.
Starting on February 19, the administration started letting into the United States asylum-seekers who had been in Mexico awaiting their court dates. The Los Angeles Times reported on June 1 that 11,200 people with active cases have since been brought onto U.S. soil to await their hearings with relatives or other contacts.
Many more—probably about 15,000—still have pending cases. They are either waiting their turn to be allowed into the United States, in a process managed in cooperation with Mexican authorities, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and NGOs, or their whereabouts are unknown. In addition, tens of thousands more had their asylum cases terminated, usually because they failed to show up on their appointed hearing dates. In at least a few cases, migrants missed those dates because they were actually being held by kidnappers in Mexico. The Biden administration has not decided whether a process will be in place to reconsider their cases.
Meanwhile the Biden administration, with a slowly growing number of exceptions, continues to maintain the “Title 42” pandemic policy. As discussed above, Title 42 has sent well over 200,000 Central American migrants back across the border into Mexico, without a chance to ask for asylum, since March 2020. Administration officials continue to offer no timeline for the policy’s lifting, even as new COVID-19 cases ebb and restrictions ease across the United States.
The result has been a confusing “lottery,” as NBC News puts it, for migrant families. In April, 35 percent of non-Mexican families (16,100 out of 46,499) whom Border Patrol apprehended were expelled under Title 42. The rest, however, got to stay in the United States to pursue their petitions for protection. In the same part of the border at different times, a family with small children can be expelled and a single adult can be allowed in.
The main reason for the inconsistency, Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector Chief Brian Hastings told NBC, “is that some enter on days when Mexico cannot take them back… ‘When they run out of shelter space a lot of times they were telling different Border Patrol sectors, ‘No, we can no longer take any additional people because we don’t have additional housing or we don’t have additional space in a lot of our facilities.’’”
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed revealed that the Biden administration is planning a significant change to the U.S. asylum system designed to ease immigration courts’ backlog of more than 1.3 million cases for just over 500 judges. It would allow asylum officers—employees of DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—to decide most asylum cases instead of immigration court judges.
Right now, asylum officers have this power in the cases of asylum-seekers who are already in the United States. For those recently apprehended at the border, though, asylum officers’ role is usually limited to performing initial “credible fear” screenings. Those whose cases meet that standard then move on into the clogged court system.
Instead, many asylum cases would end with the asylum officer’s decision, which could be appealed to the courts. This greater role for asylum officers was a key recommendation developed by the Migration Policy Institute in an October 2020 brief. “DHS officials have estimated that officers could end up adjudicating upward of 300,000 cases a year,” BuzzFeed reports.
More single adult migrants may mean more dehydration and exposure deaths on U.S. soil
The Washington Post and NBC News reported new information raising alarms that 2021 could be a record-breaking year for deaths of migrants on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border zone. Between 1998 and 2019, Border Patrol reports finding the remains of 7,805 migrants who perished of dehydration, hypothermia, animal attacks, drowning, or similar causes while seeking to avoid apprehension in very remote areas. Advocates insist the real number is much higher.
Between a pandemic-caused economic depression and because Title 42 expulsions make it easy for expelled migrants to cross again, Border Patrol is encountering more single adult migrants in fiscal 2021 than it has since the mid-2000s. The agency encountered adults 108,301 times in April, and Reuters and the Post say preliminary figures point to a further increase in May. Unlike families and children, who are mostly seeking asylum and want to be apprehended, most of this larger number of single adults instead seeks to avoid apprehension. This means they are walking long distances in sparsely populated areas, usually deserts, where the chances of being detected are smaller.
Numbers are up in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, where for years migrants have perished as they sought to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint in Brooks County, about 80 miles north of the border. Border Patrol Agent Brandon Copp, lead coordinator for CBP’s Missing Migrants Program, told NBC that this spring, even before the weather gets truly hot, he “is already responding to one to two reports of dead bodies found in the Rio Grande Valley sector each week. He said rescues of migrants in distress are up 150 percent year to year, while deaths are up 58 percent.”
Brooks County Sheriff’s Deputy Don White told the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff, “It’s going to be a brutal summer… I’ve never seen so many people coming through, it’s just crazy right now.” The county has already recovered 34 bodies and remains so far this year.
In southern Arizona, where the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s office found more remains in 2020 (220) than it had in a decade, “2021 looks like it will be pretty significant as well,” Medical Examiner Greg Hess told the Post. Miroff cites authorities who say “dangerous crossings have also increased” in the mountains of California between San Diego and the Imperial Valley.
Border-wide, Border Patrol “is on pace to make more than 10,000 rescues during fiscal 2021, twice the number recorded in 2019 and 2020,” the Post reveals. A CBP Air and Marine Operations official noted that many of these are happening in “mountain regions, which used to be exclusively narcotics traffic.”
Border Patrol is adding 15 rescue beacons in the Rio Grande Valley so that lost or struggling migrants can more easily call for help, NBC reports. Legislation passed in December 2020 authorizes the addition of up to 170 more rescue beacons border-wide.
The Post notes that the Trump administration’s border wall construction, much of it in Arizona and New Mexico deserts, hasn’t kept migrants from crossing in dangerous areas. “Officials say the barriers have made little difference in terms of where they are encountering bodies or human remains.”
WOLA held an event May 27 with partners along the Mexico-Guatemala border to discuss the impact of migrant enforcement policies there. We posted video this week. At Border Report, reporter Julian Resendiz noted panelists’ observations about how corruption enables smuggling in Mexico: “buses or trailers carrying migrants often pass right through some checkpoints after paying a $100 per-head fee.”
A June 3 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector-General’s Office (OIG) “has not adhered to a number of professional standards for federal OIGs and key practices for effective management.” As a result, oversight of DHS was weakened during the Trump administration, a moment when it was badly needed. During those years, the Department’s leadership was mostly “acting,” and its personnel became involved in controversial missions ranging from family separations to combating protesters in Portland, Oregon and elsewhere.
Amid pandemic border closures, drug traffickers have depended more heavily on U.S. citizens to bring their product in from Mexico, the Associated Press reports. “U.S. citizens were apprehended nearly seven times more often than Mexican citizens between October 2020 and March 31 for trying to smuggle drugs in vehicles,” according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data AP cites. This is a big jump over “roughly twice as often” in 2018 and 2019. “The use of American citizens kind of ebbs and flows. Drug organizations… are much more adept at changing than the government is,” former Border Patrol sector chief Victor Manjarrez told AP.
The Biden administration announced a new plan to speed asylum decisions for migrants recently apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, by placing them in a separate immigration docket with the goal of handing down a decision within 300 days. However, “immigrant advocacy groups say that prioritizing speed comes at the cost of due process,” Rolling Stone reported. CBS News points out that during past so-called “rocket docket” experiences, the faster timeframe made it harder for asylum seeking families to secure legal representation. The plan will be rolled out at immigration courts in 10 cities.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), who is running for re-election this year, issued a disaster declaration for 34 border counties, citing an “ongoing surge” of migrants and accusing the Biden administration of inaction. Rep. Henry Cuéllar, a conservative Democrat who represents a large swath of borderland, called Abbott’s move “a state version of [former President Donald Trump] declaring a border emergency.”
Part of Abbott’s order would end licenses for 52 Texas childcare facilities contracted by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to house children who arrived unaccompanied at the border. These facilities were housing 4,223 unaccompanied children as of May 19, the Dallas Morning News reports. (Temporary emergency facilities housing children, like Fort Bliss, Texas, are not licensed and would be unaffected by Abbott’s order.) An HHS spokesperson told the DMN that staff are “assessing” the disaster declaration “and do not intend to close any facilities as a result of the order.”
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Florida) announced that he is using procedural mechanisms to slow approvals of the Biden administration’s Homeland Security nominees until the President visits the U.S.-Mexico border. Those whose approvals could be delayed include nominees John Tien for deputy secretary, Jonathan Meyer for general counsel, and Robert Silvers as undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans. It is not clear whether nominees to head CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would be affected.
Senators Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) jointly toured Border Patrol facilities, including migrant shelters and “soft-sided” (tent-based) processing centers for apprehended migrants, in both of their states on June 1 and 2. The senators are co-sponsors of the “Bipartisan Border Solutions Act,” discussed in our April 30 update. The legislation would increase processing capacity and access to legal services at the border, but advocates have criticized provisions that would seek to hand down asylum decisions within as little as 72 hours, raising due process concerns.
Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Adriano Espaillat (D-New York), and Sylvia García (D-Texas) reintroduced the “Homeland Security Improvement Act” (H.R. 3557), legislation that passed the House in 2019. It seeks to improve internal controls, training, use of force policies, and other aspects of human rights and effectiveness at CBP and elsewhere within DHS.
As we await official statistics on migrants apprehended during the month of May, USA Today reports that the number of asylum-seeking family members may be reduced in Texas’s busy Rio Grande Valley. The Catholic Charities respite center, which receives nearly all families let out of Border Patrol custody, was receiving about 800 people a day in April, but “as of May, the organization had seen a decrease to 200 to 300 people daily.” In the USA Today article, local Rio Grande Valley officials and volunteers say that the Biden administration has been “slow” and is not coordinating with them enough on migrant reception.
Mexican asylum seekers “are the invisible refugees, a group that has historically been excluded from the U.S. asylum system and rarely featured in the media or even academic research,” in part due to “the uncomfortable and inconvenient political truths that recognizing them would pose for U.S.-Mexico relations,” a team of six U.S. and Mexican researchers writes at NACLA.
At Florida Public Radio’s WRLN, Tim Padgett reports on a big recent increase in asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in the remote crossing between Ciudad Acuña, Mexico and Del Rio, Texas. Many arrived in Mexico by flying there: reporter Dudley Althaus said “they were sort of what we call business-class border migrants. More professionals and fewer laborers than you see among the Central Americans.”