Adam Isacson

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

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Colombia peace update: April 10, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Updates on the situation at the Venezuela border

Fighting continued this week on the Venezuelan side of the common border in Apure, across from Colombia’s department of Arauca, between Venezuelan forces and a Colombian guerrilla dissident group. While confirmed information remains scarce, the intensity of combat and number of casualties appeared to be less than in the prior two weeks, since Venezuela’s initial March 21 attack on dissident targets. The combativeness of Colombian and Venezuelan officials’ statements, however, has intensified.

“We’re witnessing the escalation of tensions between the two countries, which is extremely dangerous,” observed defense analyst Rocío San Miguel of the Venezuelan think tank Control Ciudadano, adding, “I don’t remember, in terms of duration, a similar situation in the last 30 years.”

Indeed, Venezuelan forces likely did not anticipate that the 10th Front dissident group—whose leaders, and some of whose members, spent years as FARC guerrillas—would fight back with such ferocity. On April 5 Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino reported that eight Army personnel had been killed since March 21, including four officers. A mortar misfire on April 3 killed three members of an artillery unit, including its commander, a lieutenant colonel, and wounded nine others. Gen. Padrino added that a total of 34 troops had been injured, and that Venezuelan forces had killed 9 rearmed guerrillas and captured 33.

Despite the continued fighting, Venezuelan officials insisted that they are consolidating control of the Apure border zone. Measures include deployment of a temporary military command, an Integrated Operational Defense Zone (ZODI) for the region. (Reuters reports that “Venezuela’s military maintains standing ZODI units for each of its 23 states and the capital Caracas.”) In the zone, military personnel are restricting the population’s movements. Units from elsewhere are being reassigned to Apure and equipped with Russian-made Orlan-10 surveillance drones.

Venezuela continues to face charges that it is focusing its efforts on only one of three Colombian guerrilla, or post-guerrilla, groups active in Apure. Rocío San Miguel, according to Tal Cual, “pointed out that the Armed Forces’ actions do not seem to be similar with respect to all the armed groups present in the area, and that there seems to be a pattern of neutrality with respect to the actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN).”

Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, alleged that Venezuela is deliberately favoring a third group, the “Nueva Marquetalia” FARC dissidents headed by Iván Márquez, who was the guerrillas’ chief negotiator in the 2012-2016 peace talks but rearmed in 2019. “The objective of the operations there is not protection of the border, it’s protection of the drug trafficking business,” Molano told the newspaper.

Security expert Jorge Mantilla told the BBC that something must have happened to cause a breakdown in “arrangements, sometimes tacit, for the distribution of rents and territorial control” between Venezuelan forces and the three Colombian groups, causing Caracas to target the 10th Front.

Venezuelan officials haven’t addressed charges of armed-group favoritism, instead claiming that they are dealing with the effects of Colombia’s failure to govern its side of the border. Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza called Colombia a “failed state” and a “narco-state” lacking control of its territory. “I’d say it’s Colombia’s ineptitude, but sometimes I think this is in their interest,” added Gen. Padrino.

The humanitarian toll of the fighting continues to be grave. At least 5,000 Venezuelans have fled across the border into Arauca, Colombian officials say. Venezuelan officials claim the number is lower, insisting the border municipality of La Victoria had a total population of about 3,500. They also deny displaced people’s claims that Venezuelan forces extrajudicially executed civilians during the operation.

Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes said that some residents of the region have remained there amid continuing combat, mainly out of fear of losing their livestock or other property, or having their houses burned or sacked. Tarazona also alleged that elements from the 28th Front FARC dissidents—part of the same “First Front” dissident network as the 10th—were arriving in the region to reinforce the 10th Front in Apure.

Tarazona and FundaRedes don’t have a 100 percent accuracy record, though. The Venezuelan NGO director also alleged that Rodrigo Londoño, the maximum leader of the demobilized FARC’s legal political party, Comunes, had been holding quarterly coordination meetings with leaders of both main dissident networks. This made little sense to observers within Colombia, where Londoño has been a strong advocate of the peace accord and outspoken critic of the dissidents. It’s also hard to imagine the party leader, who is 62 and has had health problems, shaking his police guard for days to meet with dissident leaders in the jungle. “There is absolutely nothing that identifies me with them, and I am not an a**hole,” Londoño said in a video.

Amid concerns about the remote—but not zero—possibility of the border situation escalating into conflict with Colombia, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Arreaza said that his regime would submit a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres asking the UN to mediate or provide good offices, “establishing a direct and permanent communication channel” between the two neighboring countries, whose de facto governments maintain no diplomatic relations, “to resolve all issues related to the border.” This runs along somewhat similar lines to a civil society proposal, issued a week earlier, calling on the UN to name a special envoy to the border crisis.

At the same time, other Venezuelan officials issued more bellicose rhetoric. “The incursions into Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque,” said Gen. Padrino, the defense minister. Diosdado Cabello, a politician often considered the second most-powerful individual in the Maduro regime, was characteristically even more blunt. “Colombia has declared, internally, that it is going to try to set the table for U.S. imperialism to attack Venezuela. They will be making a mistake because if we have a war…with Colombia, we are going to do it in their territory.”

A decree makes it harder to challenge the president, and fumigation, through legal means

With a new decree changing how citizens can seek redress before the presidency, “the government of Iván Duque made an unprecedented display of power,” in the words of the news website La Silla Vacía. While it raises strong concerns about democratic checks and balances and will certainly face constitutional challenges, the decree could open the door to a much faster restart of a controversial U.S.-backed program to spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where farmers grow coca.

The change affects the “tutela,” a figure in Colombian law that gives citizens the right to seek a quick response from courts when government is infringing their rights. Supporters view the tutela as a major victory won in the drafting of Colombia’s progressively worded 1991 Constitution. It has been unpopular on Colombia’s political right, which views it as an obstacle, since it gives minority interests and activists the ability to block policies’ implementation.

Decree 333 of 2021, which Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz issued on April 6, states that from now on (and possibly retroactively—it’s not clear), all tutelas filed against the President, or considered important for national security—like those having to do with coca eradication—will no longer go to courts of law. They are to be considered by the Council of State (Consejo de Estado), a Bogotá-based high court that makes administrative rulings.

Going to the Council of State will make it harder for communities to challenge a re-start of the aerial fumigation program. This program, active since 1994, was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns about spraying the chemical glyphosate over residential coca-growing zones. In response to a tutela, in 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court laid out a series of health, environmental, and consultative requirements that the government would have to meet in order to restart the spraying, as Iván Duque has pledged to do. In 2020, as the pandemic made it difficult for communities to participate in consultations about renewed spraying, another tutela resulted in regional court rulings that paused the controversial program’s restart.

The decree may put fumigation on a fast track to re-starting. First, it appears to offer a way around regional courts that have ruled on the side of affected communities. Second, filing complaints with the Bogotá-based State Council is more challenging for people in the very remote areas where coca is cultivated and spraying may happen. “There is a direct violation of the right to equality,” explained Diana Bernal of the Orlando Fals Borda Lawyers’ Collective, which has represented communities subject to fumigation. “The decisions will fall to judges who lack regional context, and who will not have the same ability to go deeper because the plaintiffs will be in remote areas.”

Either way, if the decree stands, fumigation could restart in as little as a couple of months, once the government determines that it has met the Constitutional Court’s requirements. “The Government believes that the current actions will favor it, and that is why announcements have been made that spraying will begin in a short time,” an unnamed Justice Ministry source told La Silla Vacía.

Beyond coca fumigation, the new decree raises concerns about democratic checks and balances. It presumes that the Presidency can “choose its own judge” on a constitutional issue, cutting out courts that have proved more likely to issue rulings unfavorable to it. “The proposed reform is subtle and may go unnoticed by the general public,” wrote EAFIT University constitutional law professor Estaban Hoyos. “The Duque government is issuing decrees for its own interest, intending to evade judges’ oversight of its actions or omissions that disregard fundamental rights. This is profoundly undemocratic.” Hoyos recalled to El Espectador that President Duque is further weakening checks and balances at a time when he has already named political allies to the leadership of oversight bodies like the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

It’s not at all clear that such a change can happen by decree, bypassing the legislature. Law professors and opposition legislators, probably together with legal NGOs, are preparing a legal challenge to the decree. It is not clear when a lawsuit might be filed.

The peace accord’s special congressional seats for victims suffer a new setback

The 2016 peace accord had sought to “place victims at its center,” according to its negotiators. As part of that commitment, it promised to create special congressional districts that would represent 16 regions of Colombia hardest-hit by the conflict. For two congressional terms (eight years), residents of those zones would elect to Colombia’s House of Representatives candidates chosen by victims’ organizations, not political parties.

This never happened, and while Colombia’s Constitutional Court considers whether to make it happen, the special congressional districts plan suffered another setback this week with an unfavorable recommendation from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría).

The long story begins in 2017, as Colombia’s Congress was passing a series of laws to make peace accord commitments official. Among those was a bill creating the special districts for victims. The measure passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, and passed the Senate by a vote of 50 to 7 at the end of November 2017.

That, apparently, wasn’t enough. The Senate parliamentarian ruled that the measure had failed, arguing that it needed 52 votes to pass, as there are 102 senators. In fact, there were 98 senators at the time, because four senators had lost their seats due to legal problems like corruption. Still, that argument has not prospered in lower court challenges.

In December 2019 Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed to consider the case of the special electoral zones and the 2017 Senate vote. This week the Procuraduría issued its recommendation to the Constitutional Court, which dealt another blow to the plan to create the special districts for victims. The agency—now headed by a political ally of President Duque, whose party opposes the seats—called for the Court to strike down the measure because it lacks sufficient “immediacy and subsidiarity.”

The Constitutional Court could still decide that the special congressional zones are valid, ignoring the Procuraduría opinion and making this peace accord commitment to victims a reality. It is not clear how the Court might rule, or whether it would issue a decision with enough lead time before Colombia’s March 2022 legislative elections.

Links

  • The UN Verification Mission issued its latest quarterly report, which counted 14 murders of former FARC combatants and 24 killings of social leaders during the previous 3 months. 262 former FARC members of about 13,000 who demobilized, or 2 percent, have been killed since the group demobilized in 2017. The report also noted that “several actors… continue to question the Government’s view of the development programs with a territorial focus [PDETs], claiming that its approach is not in line with the Comprehensive Rural Reform as envisioned in the Final Agreement.”
  • WOLA published its latest monthly alert on Colombia’s nationwide human rights and humanitarian situation.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken placed a phone call to Colombian President Iván Duque on April 5. They discussed “ways to renew our focus on issues including climate change, the protection of human rights, and the regional economic recovery from the pandemic,” as well as “the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela and Colombia’s efforts to promote democracy throughout the region.”
  • The Colombian government’s State Legal Agency (ANDJE) asked the Constitutional Court to review a Supreme Court order calling on the National Police to curb rights abuses during social protests. It argued that the right to protest should be regulated because “the public will take advantage of it, ‘discrediting the police’s authority,’” El Espectador reported.
  • The ELN carried out 58 percent fewer offensive actions (27), was involved in 30 percent fewer combat incidents (14), and was responsible for 9 percent fewer deaths (19) during the first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think tank.
  • A Bogotá court met on Tuesday and Friday to consider the Prosecutor-General’s (Fiscalía’s) controversial request to drop witness-tampering charges against former president Álvaro Uribe.
  • Colombia’s Defense Ministry signed an 898 million peso (US$245,000) no-bid contract with a public relations firm that Minister Diego Molano “knows very well,” El Espectador reported. The contract seeks “to improve ‘public perception’ and ‘protect the collective imagination’” about the Defense Ministry.
  • As the former FARC leadership decides whether to accept the JEP’s charges of ordering and overseeing tens of thousands of kidnappings of civilians, its members are worried about their historical legacy, reports La Silla Vacía. “They fear they will go down in history as a criminal gang that committed crimes against humanity if they accept the charges against their leaders.”

The day ahead: April 13, 2021

My replies may be delayed today. (How to contact me)

I’m in New York visiting family whom I haven’t seen in a long time, now that we’re all vaccinated. I’m working intermittently, and reachable, but may not be able to respond immediately.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

April 9, 2021

Central America Regional

For those who remember recent history, the idea that the United States will uphold “security and rule of law” in Central America has an ominous ring

Colombia

Tras pasar 12 años extraditado en Estados Unidos, lo primero que pidió fue obtener el beneficio de libertad a prueba, pero un juez de Bogotá le negó la petición

Además de que centralizó en el Consejo de Estado todas las tutelas en su contra, determinó que todas las acciones relacionadas con la erradicación de cultivos ilícitos recaerían sobre esa misma corte

Honduras

Santos Rodríguez Orellana denuncia que hay un plan del presidente Hernández para asesinarlo

Mexico

For years, Mexico has sought humane treatment of Mexican and Central American immigrants in the United States. But that sort of moral authority has to be earned

El gobierno mexicano debe reorientar su política migratoria a una centrada en el acceso a la protección y avanzar en la cooperación regional para atender las causas estructurales

Lejos de la profesionalización y de una depuración eficaz, las policías del país siguen tan corruptas como antaño; en el Gobierno de la Cuarta Transformación este sector responsable de la seguridad pública está abandonado

U.S.-Mexico Border

President Biden’s discretionary funding request for fiscal 2022 nixed all funding for a border wall, including unused funds previously allocated to the project

Ms. Jacobson said that her appointment as a special assistant to the president and as the border coordinator in the White House was always intended to last for only about 100 days

Desperate immigrants who have sold everything back home to make the journey are trying to cross the border more than once after initially failing

Venezuela

La periodista Sulay García señala que la presencia de grupos militares en la zona no es un hecho nuevo sino histórico y que se debe, en gran medida, a la ausencia de políticas en la región por parte del gobierno

Weekly border update: April 9, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border.Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here

CBP reports its March migration data: key trends

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported encountering 172,331 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in March. This mostly happened between the border’s official ports of entry, where CBP’s Border Patrol component had 168,195 “encounters” or apprehensions, a 72 percent increase over February’s total of 97,549. This was Border Patrol’s largest monthly total in exactly 20 years, since March 2001.

Of these 168,195 encounters:

  • 101,897 (61 percent) were people who ended up expelled rapidly under the so-called “Title 42” pandemic order issued in March 2020. Mexico has agreed to take Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran migrants expelled back across the border, with some exceptions discussed below.
Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.
  • About 28 percent were people who had been expelled before, or “recidivist” in CBP’s terminology. This means there is quite a bit of double (or triple) counting, and the actual number of people encountered at the border is smaller.
  • 35 percent were from Mexico, 25 percent were from Honduras, 20 percent were from Guatemala, 6 percent were from El Salvador, and 14 percent were from other countries.
  • This means that in one month, Border Patrol encountered 46 citizens of Mexico for every 100,000 Mexican citizens living in Mexico; 146 citizens of El Salvador for every 100,000 in El Salvador; 194 citizens of Guatemala for every 100,000 in Guatemala; and 429 citizens of Honduras for every 100,000 in Honduras.
Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.
  • 96,628, or 57 percent, were single adults, a 40 percent increase over February. This is the largest number of single adults in the 114 months for which we have demographic data (since October 2011). 87 percent (84,545) were expelled under Title 42. The majority (57 percent) came from Mexico, 14 percent were from Guatemala, 11 percent from Honduras, 4 percent from El Salvador, and 13 percent from other countries.
  • 52,904, or 31 percent, were members of families (parents with children), a 174 percent increase over February. This is the fifth-largest number of family members in the 114 months for which we have demographic data. 33 percent (17,345) were expelled under Title 42. 47 percent came from Honduras, 22 percent were from Guatemala, 8 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Mexico, and 20 percent from other countries.
  • According to the New York Times, Border Patrol encountered “more than 1,360” family members on March 28 and expelled less than 16 percent (219). On March 26 the agency encountered “more than 2,100 family members and expelled less than 10 percent (200).
Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.
  • 18,663, or 11 percent, were children arriving unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, a 101 percent increase over February. This is the largest number of unaccompanied children in the 114 months for which we have demographic data, significantly breaking the earlier record of 11,475 set in May 2019. Almost no children (7) were expelled under Title 42, as the Biden administration is refusing to expel children alone without giving them access to protection. 47 percent came from Guatemala, 33 percent were from Honduras, 12 percent from Mexico, 8 percent from El Salvador, and 1 percent from other countries.

CBP encountered 4,136 migrants at its official ports of entry, which are generally closed to “inessential” travel and people without documents under pandemic measures. 73 percent were single adults.

As of April 7, a record 20,596 unaccompanied children were in U.S. government custody. Of these, 16,489 were in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS), including several temporary emergency facilities set up in recent weeks. The remainder—4,107—are stuck in Border Patrol’s inadequate holding and processing facilities, waiting for new ORR space to open up.

The overall trends for unaccompanied children are promising, though:

  • Those newly apprehended by Border Patrol are decreasing, from over 600 per day two weeks ago to an average under 500 per day today.
  • Those in Border Patrol custody fell to 4,107 on April 7, from a high of 5,767 on March 28, as more children have been transferred to ORR’s new facilities.
  • Daily transfers from Border Patrol to ORR have increased from less than 500 per day two weeks ago, to well over 700 per day on most recent days. Still, a child’s average stay in Border Patrol’s holding spaces is more than 135 hours. The law requires that it not exceed 72 hours.
  • As a result, the ORR shelter population of 16,489 represents a huge increase from the 11,551 children in shelters on March 23. ORR is “set to open at least 11 emergency housing sites with 18,200 beds at convention centers, work camps, a church hall and military posts in Texas and California,” CBS News reports.
  • ORR seeks to minimize children’s stay in shelters by placing them with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while their needs for protection or asylum are assessed. Transfers out of ORR custody are increasing, but only exceeded 300 per day for the first time on April 7. The number being newly apprehended by Border Patrol still exceeds the number being transferred to families or sponsors by roughly 150 per day.
Click the image to enlarge. Download a PDF packet of graphics at bit.ly/wola_border.

While the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children under Title 42, it is expelling as many families with children as it can. 80 percent of families Border Patrol encounters are from Mexico or Central America’s “Northern Triangle” (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), and Mexico has agreed to take in expelled citizens of the latter countries. Mexico can only take so many, however; as a result—as noted above—about two-thirds of encountered families were not expelled in March.

This contradicts President Biden’s statement at his March 25 press conference that “We’re sending back the vast majority of the families that are coming.” An unnamed Biden administration official—apparently trying to reassure critics—told the Dallas Morning News, “We are doing our best to expel under Title 42 authority, where we can.”

Families whom Mexico does not allow to be expelled get released into the U.S. interior with an order to appear in immigration court. In south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, where the largest number of Central American migrants arrive, the demand appears to be overwhelming Border Patrol’s processing capability. The Associated Press reported that “U.S. authorities are releasing migrant families on the Mexican border without notices to appear in immigration court or sometimes without any paperwork at all” in order to save time and ease pressure.

It is not clear which families Mexico will and won’t take back under Title 42. “It doesn’t seem to have rhyme or reason,” Joanna Williams of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales told the Wall Street Journal, which cited a CBP spokesperson explaining that expulsion decisions “were on a ‘case-by-case basis,’ based on factors including COVID-19 protocols, holding capacity, Mexican law and migrants’ health situations.”

CBP’s data for the fiscal year so far (October-March) show a wide variation across the nine sectors into which the agency divides the border. In the Rio Grande Valley, 32 percent of families get expelled to Mexico. The number is much higher in El Paso (88 percent) or Tucson (76 percent). The Rio Grande Valley may be lowest because authorities in  the Mexican state across that part of the border, Tamaulipas, are generally refusing expulsions of families with children under seven years old.

Central American families who do get expelled into Tamaulipas find themselves homeless in one of the most violence-torn states in all of Mexico. A Honduran mother in the Tamaulipas border city of Reynosa, which is disputed by factions of Mexico’s Gulf and Northeast cartels, told the Dallas Morning News that Border Patrol “dropped [her and her child] off at the international bridge into downtown Reynosa at 1 a.m. Several other immigrants said they had been dropped off in the middle of the night, too.” Under non-pandemic circumstances, this would wildly violate the terms of the U.S.-Mexico repatriation agreements, as it represents a grave threat to the migrants’ security. Under Title 42, though, Border Patrol or CBP simply leave the families at all hours in the middle of the border bridge.

At a park in downtown Reynosa about a block from the border bridge, expelled Central American families have begun to congregate around a gazebo. The scene threatens to resemble a recently disbanded tent encampment in the nearby border city of Matamoros, where over 1,000 Central American family members subject to the now-defunct “Remain in Mexico” program lived for over a year. “I have a big concern that the numbers will increase to the point where we have a refugee camp like in Matamoros,” Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley told the Dallas Morning News.

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, a cofounder of the “Sidewalk School” that offers lessons to the children of asylum-seeking kids stuck in Mexico, told the Rio Grande Valley Monitor that Reynosa is much more dangerous than Matamoros. While her group accepted U.S. volunteers to support its work in Matamoros, the security situation makes that impossible in Reynosa. “We’re not bringing any Americans into this because of the cartels. We just keep ourselves safe at all times and we keep our heads down and mind our business.”

CNN, meanwhile, reviewed Border Patrol data indicating that many expelled families are separating inside Mexico: Parents are sending their children back across the border unaccompanied, knowing that they will be taken in and eventually placed with relatives inside the United States. The potential number of family separations is jaw-dropping: “From February 24 to March 23, there were 435 incidents in the south Texas region where children were apprehended crossing the border alone after previously being expelled with their family,” CNN reports.

Envoy visits Central America as USAID sends a team

Ricardo Zúñiga, a veteran diplomat who since March 22 has been the State Department’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle, visited Guatemala and El Salvador this week. His purpose appeared to be to get to know some of the key actors in both countries—in government, the judiciary, and civil society—while laying the groundwork for a future U.S. aid package aimed at addressing the “root causes” of migration from the region.

In Guatemala on April 6, Zúñiga and National Security Council trans-border director Katie Tobin met with President Alejandro Giammattei and senior cabinet members, as well as with non-governmental organization leaders and judicial sector representatives, including the country’s special prosecutor against impunity and a judge who has been recognized for her bravery. At a press conference, Zúñiga indicated that, in addition to economic aid and supporting reformers, the Biden administration is seeking means “to create legal means for migration so that people do not have to use irregular and dangerous routes.”

The U.S. envoy’s visit to El Salvador on April 7 was a bit rockier, as the country’s populist president, Nayib Bukele, refused to meet with him. Bukele, who enjoys very high popularity at home, has had chilly relations with the Biden administration and other Democrats:

  • In early February, he paid an impromptu visit to Washington seeking to meet members of the new administration, who refused to see him.
  • On his busy Twitter account, Bukele has objected to El Salvador being lumped in with its neighbors as a “Northern Triangle” country, arguing that its citizens migrate far less than do Guatemalans and Hondurans. While this is true, 1,570 fleeing Salvadoran children—51 per day—did show up unaccompanied at the U.S.-Mexico border in March.
  • Bukele got in an ugly April 1 Twitter argument with Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the co-chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Central America Caucus. Torres told him the migration crisis was “a result of narcissistic dictators like you interested in being ‘cool’ while people flee by the 1000s & die by the 100s.”
  • Two of his aides told the Associated Press that “Bukele was angered by State Department spokesman Ned Price’s comments Monday [April 5] that the U.S. looks forward to Bukele restoring a ‘strong separation of powers where they’ve been eroded and demonstrate his government’s commitment to transparency and accountability.’”

Bukele does, however, place a premium on El Salvador’s relations with the United States. Among several contracts with Washington lobby firms is a new one with the law firm Arnold and Porter, signed on March 25: $1.2 million for the services of Tom Shannon, a former ambassador to Brazil and undersecretary of state for political affairs. “President Bukele is the most successful, politically stable and important leader in Central America,” Shannon said in a statement sent to AP.

In the end, Zúñiga and Tobin met with El Salvador’s foreign minister, its attorney general (who is a critic of Bukele), and private sector and NGO leaders.

Honduras was not on the U.S. delegation’s agenda. On March 30 a U.S. court handed down a life sentence for narcotrafficking to Tony Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was named frequently as a co-conspirator in the prosecution’s case. Evidence presented in court pointed to the depth of corruption at the highest levels of power in Honduras. So while the U.S. envoy skipped Honduras during his first official tour of the Northern Triangle,  the Hernández government’s foreign minister said that she had a “very fruitful” online conversation with Zúñiga during the week of March 24 and that Honduras’s dialogues with the Biden administration, which “started on February 4,” are “more advanced” than its neighbors’.

The Biden administration faces a conundrum of how to assist countries led by corrupt officials, or what National Security Council Latin America Director Juan González calls “predatory elites.” At his March 25 press conference, President Biden said the U.S government would seek to go around the elites where possible and assist communities directly, arguing that he pursued that approach when he was vice president: “What I was able to do is not give money to the head of state, because so many are corrupt, but I was able to say, ‘Okay, you need lighting in the streets to change things? I’ll put the lighting in.’”

This week we saw signs that the administration’s approach may have a shorter-term, faster-moving component. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the Northern Triangle countries “to respond to urgent humanitarian needs.” A USAID release notes that the agency “has provided approximately $112 million in life-saving humanitarian aid—including emergency food assistance, nutrition services, safe drinking water, shelter, programs to help people earn an income, and disaster risk reduction programs. Of this, $57 million is for people in Guatemala, $47 million in Honduras, and $8 million in El Salvador.”

While much past “root cause” discussions of Central America focused on gang violence and insecurity, the issue of the moment is hunger and severe malnutrition. The pandemic economic depression, two hurricanes in two November 2020 weeks, and a five-year climate change-caused drought, exacerbated by feckless government responses, have brought hunger to emergency levels.

“Guatemala now has the sixth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. The number of acute cases in children, according to one new Guatemalan government study, doubled between 2019 and 2020,” the Washington Post reported. “In Indigenous communities in the country’s western highlands, where a disproportionate number of people are leaving, the chronic child malnutrition rate hovers around 70 percent, higher than any country in the world.” A World Food Program “March to July 2021 Outlook” report finds 570,000 Hondurans, 428,000 Guatemalans, and 121,000 Salvadorans facing “emergency” or “phase 4” food insecurity. The only level higher is “phase 5,” which it calls “catastrophe,” or famine.

Some border wall construction could restart

Sources at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told the conservative Washington Times of a conversation in which Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas indicated the Biden administration might allow construction to fill “gaps” in the Trump administration’s border wall.

As a candidate, Joe Biden had pledged that “not another foot” of border wall would be built under his administration. On January 20, he issued a proclamation freezing wall construction for sixty days. That period has passed, and wall construction contractors remain on hold but poised to continue work.

In his conversation with ICE employees, the Washington Times reported, Mayorkas told them that CBP—which manages border fencing—has submitted a plan explaining how it would wish to move forward. “It’s not a single answer to a single question. There are different projects that the chief of the Border Patrol has presented and the acting commissioner of CBP presented to me.”

The Secretary added that there is “room to make decisions as the administration, as part of the administration, in particular areas of the wall that need renovation, particular projects that need to be finished. These could include ‘gaps,’ ‘gates,’ and areas ‘where the wall has been completed but the technology has not been implemented.’”

At a March 17 House committee hearing, Mayorkas had struck a firmer tone. Asked, “Are you going to be asking the president to finish the wall, and the wall that has already been appropriated by Congress,” the Secretary replied, “No, I will not.”

The abrupt January 20 freeze in wall construction has left gaps where the barrier is unbuilt. Environmental groups, community groups, property holders, and Indigenous communities argue that there should be even more gaps, taking down segments of what was already built. This would mitigate environmental damage in fragile ecosystems, reopen wildlife migratory corridors, and protect ancestral and sacred sites. A coalition of 75 organizations (including WOLA) produced a document in February listing priority areas where existing border wall needs to be taken down.

Links

  • Protection-seeking migrants aren’t just coming to the United States. In March Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, broke its record for most asylum requests in a month, with 9,076. With 22,606 requests in the first quarter of 2021, COMAR is on pace to exceed 90,000 requests this year,  breaking its single-year record of 70,440 requests, set in 2019. As recently as 2015, COMAR was getting only 3,400 requests. More than half of this year’s applicants are Hondurans, followed by Cubans, Haitians, Salvadorans, Venezuelans, and Guatemalans. “We don’t know if it’s their first or their second intention” to remain in Mexico, COMAR director Andrés Ramírez told the New York Times. “What we can tell you is that more and more people are coming to us.”
  • The Department of Homeland Security is examining 5,600 cases of migrant children with the expectation that it will find “a small number of additional [family] separations on top of thousands that have already been reported,” according to Reuters. “There is also a lot of misinformation in the files—wrong dates, confusion in names, doubled up cases,” an official said.
  • Mexico’s immigration authority (the National Migration Institute or INM) has classified for five years its files on the January 22 massacre of 16 Guatemalan migrants, allegedly committed by state police agents, in Camargo, Tamaulipas. Curiously, at the crime scene was a vehicle that the INM (which has gone through numerous corruption scandals and allegations) had seized in a counter-migration operation a few months earlier. Eight INM agents were fired, but now details will not be public until 2026.
  • A March 26-29 AP/NORC poll of 1,166 U.S. adults gave Joe Biden a 61 percent overall approval rating, but only a 42 percent approval rating on immigration and 44 percent on border security. Independent voters disapproved of Biden’s performance on immigration by a 37 percentage-point margin (67 percent to 30 percent). 40 percent disapprove of Biden’s handling of unaccompanied children, and 24 percent approve. The New York Times cites a recent Gallup poll in which immigration tied for third place among issues that respondents viewed as the country’s most pressing problem. It was first place for those who identified as Republicans.
  • DHS Secretary Mayorkas paid a low-profile visit to El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley this week, speaking with border security personnel and community organizations.
  • Asked by Politico what she would like her colleagues to understand about the border, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, replied, “Number one, migration doesn’t stop. Number two, deterrence doesn’t work. And number three, the status quo hasn’t addressed anything.” Escobar, a recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award, also gave an interview to the Intercept in which, among many proposals, she called for the imprisonment of former Trump advisor Stephen Miller.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Lynda M. González photo at the Dallas Morning News. Caption: “A young boy played with a single roller skate as expelled migrants sat around a gazebo in a public square in the Mexican border city of Reynosa on Wednesday, March 31, 2021. Migrants have resorted to living at the plaza as the U.S. continues to expel them after they cross the border under Title 42 — a pandemic-related public order still in place and left over from the Trump administration.”

(Even more here)

April 8, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

The effort is expected to uncover a small number of additional separations on top of thousands that have already been reported

Brazil

Mr Bolsonaro’s approval rating has fallen below 30%. And the pandemic is still raging: a record 4,211 deaths were reported on April 6th. To the army’s embarrassment, Eduardo Pazuello, a general, was in charge as health minister

Colombia

The recruits are useful. They can collect extortion fees, work in cocaine labs, or be forced into sex work. They can also sell and smuggle drugs, are used as assassins, and are often sent to the front lines of battle

La Andje pide urgente la regulación del derecho fundamental a la protesta pues, a su juicio, la ciudadanía se aprovechará del mismo, “desprestigiando a la autoridad policial”

La propuesta, bautizada también como las “curules de paz”, no prosperó en la plenaria del Senado y tampoco en los estrados judiciales, por lo que la única posibilidad que para sobrevivir depende de la Corte Constitucional

Temen pasar a la historia como una banda criminal que cometió delitos de lesa humanidad, si aceptan los cargos que les fueron imputados a sus jefes

El Salvador

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele refused to meet with a visiting senior U.S. diplomat this week over what he sees as a pattern of slights from Democrats and the Biden administration

Dos meses han transcurrido desde aquel desplante y, lejos de apaciguarse, las aguas no han dejado de estar revueltas entre Washington y San Salvador

Haiti

No longer is traveling Haiti’s already chaotic roadways a question of whether Haitians will reach their destination, but rather will they make it back home alive as armed robberies and kidnapping-for-ransom become almost daily occurrences

Mexico

Las menciones de los organismos internacionales de derechos humanos son falsas. Estas instancias han sido clave para documentar y llamar la atención sobre la crisis de derechos humanos que empezó a cernirse sobre México con el recrudecimiento de la llamada guerra contra las drogas

Mientras tanto la depuración y profesionalización de las fuerzas de seguridad locales – una de las justificaciones para la puesta en marcha de la Guardia Nacional – ha quedado en el limbo

Murieron más civiles de los que fueron lastimados en los enfrentamientos de la SEDENA (por cada civil herido, fallecieron 4.7 civiles)

The encounter between Ms. Salazar, a Salvadoran living in Mexico on a humanitarian visa, and four police officers was videotaped by a bystander. Her death sparked nationwide protests

La FGR exoneró al general Salvador Cienfuegos sin haber interrogado a Jesús Ricardo Patrón, el ‘H3’, único testigo encarcelado en México y quien de acuerdo a la DEA identificó al exsecretario

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

As a result of intensifying pressure from the U.S. to secure the border, the Mexican and Central American governments have cracked down on people trying to make their way to the U.S.

“I have a big concern that the numbers will increase to the point where we have a refugee camp like in Matamoros,” Pimentel said

U.S.-Mexico Border

Conditions on the southwest border represent a serious political challenge to President Biden

Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar reports back from her visit to an El Paso facility housing unaccompanied migrant children

The increase last month was so large that it did not fit on the y-axis of the CBP chart that tracks changes in monthly enforcement data

A record number of people petitioned for asylum in Mexico last month, drawn by family ties and high approval rates — and discouraged by the difficulty of getting into the U.S.

“We are doing our best to expel under Title 42 authority where we can and where there is capacity on the Mexican side,” the official added

Now that we have the official data, it is also clearly true that the administration’s efforts to play down the increase don’t hold up very well

Venezuela

Según el también vicepresidente del Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV), los comunicadores sociales cubren las noticias en Apure a la espera de que asesinen a venezolanos para «hacer fiesta»

The day ahead: April 8, 2021

I’m easiest to reach mid-day to mid-afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’m finishing some writing this morning, then I need to silence all alerts while I record an hourlong lecture, which may require a few takes. After that I should be reachable while I work on our weekly border update. I have a Spanish-language TV interview and a meeting with Colombian colleagues late in the day.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

April 7, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

In the Americas, Amnesty International Report 2020/21: The State of the World’s Human Rights documents how women, refugees, migrants, under-protected health workers, Indigenous Peoples, Black people and other groups historically forgotten by governments have borne the brunt of the pandemic

Colombia

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) received information about 24 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders

La fórmula de negociación de tierras y curules no funcionará con el Eln, pues en cada territorio tiene reclamos diferentes

Vía decreto, el Gobierno dispuso que las tutelas contra la Presidencia que involucran erradicación de cultivos ilícitos o seguridad nacional sean estudiadas exclusivamente por el Consejo de Estado. Se les anuló la competencia a los juzgados regionales

“I ask myself, ‘Maybe if she stayed in school, had some way to keep her mind occupied, maybe we wouldn’t be at this cemetery,’” said her father

Colombia, Venezuela

La presidenta de Control Ciudadano señala que no parece similar la actuación de la FAN frente a todos los grupos armados presentes en la zona y que además parece estarse dando un esquema de neutralidad frente a la actuación del Ejército de Liberación Nacional

A través de redes sociales ha sido revelado el despliegue por parte de la Dirección Conjunta de Fuerzas Especiales, de vehículos aéreos no tripulados (UAV) Orlan-10 de fabricación rusa

Arreaza insistió que la frontera venezolana está representada por la administración de Maduro, mientras que por el lado colombiano no existe la representatividad del Ejecutivo presidido por Iván Duque

El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

The White House is looking to create legal ways for Central American migrants to reach the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s special envoy Ricardo Zuñiga said

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team to respond to urgent humanitarian needs in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador

Honduras

Now, in Honduras, the Biden administration’s task has been made even more daunting because of the criminal cases against men linked to President Juan Orlando Hernández

Mexico

Ha de señalarse que entre 2019 y 2020 se incorporó un número de nuevos elementos superior al estado de fuerza total operativo de la extinta Policía Federal.

Paradójicamente, este orden moral justifica el uso de la violencia para la protección de la comunidad y se funda en ella para asentar la legitimidad de las autodefensas

López Obrador expuso que México está dispuesto a colaborar y “sumar voluntades” para que se salvaguarde la vida y los derechos humanos de las y los migrantes, pero especialmente de las niñas y los niños

Paraguay

Ulises Quintana “participó en actos que facilitaron la delincuencia organizada transnacional, socavaron el estado de derecho y obstruyeron la confianza de la población en los procesos públicos de Paraguay”, según dijo Antony Blinken

Peru

Indigenous communities in Peru’s central Amazon are experiencing an increase in violence, threats and harassment as drug gangs target their land to grow coca

U.S.-Mexico Border

Cecilia Muñoz discusses the Biden Administration’s response to the recent surge of arrivals and how conversations about the border have changed during the past thirty years

“We’re not bringing any Americans into this because of the cartels,” she said. “We just keep ourselves safe at all times and we keep our heads down and mind our business. But, we try not to dwell on the cartel part

From February 24 to March 23, there were 435 incidents in the south Texas region where children were apprehended crossing the border alone after previously being expelled with their family as a part of the pandemic health order

The day ahead: April 7, 2021

I’m unreachable today, due to a vaccine appointment, meetings, and a deadline. (How to contact me)

I’m getting my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine this afternoon, and since I can’t predict whether I’ll suffer side effects or not, I’m going to be unavailable. In the morning I’m attending WOLA’s event on Catatumbo, Colombia, have a meeting with a colleague in Colombia, and am finishing a presentation that was due yesterday.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from Milenio (Mexico). Caption: “La Guardia Nacional actualmente cuenta con alrededor de 100 mil elementos.”https://www.milenio.com/policia/guardia-nacional-reconocen-institucion-2-anos-creacion

(Even more here)

April 6, 2021

Brazil

Is it possible that, inspired by Donald Trump, Mr Bolsonaro contemplates hanging on to power through the use of might? No. It is probable

Brazil, South America Regional

The P.1 variant, which packs a suite of mutations that make it more transmissible and potentially more dangerous, is no longer just Brazil’s problem. It’s South America’s problem — and the world’s

Central America Regional, U.S.-Mexico Border

Last year, amid the pandemic, Central Americans endured the formation of 30 cyclones that devastated entire regions and fueled the need to emigrate

Colombia

La medida, que pretende erradicar los cultivos ilícitos de coca, mantiene en vela a los campesinos de la zona por las consecuencias económicas, medioambientales y sociales que puede acarrear

Forced eradication can undermine counterinsurgency efforts, which depend on winning support from local populations

Colombia, Venezuela

El teniente coronel del Ejército Raúl Roilander Quintero falleció este lunes 5 de abril en el Hospital Militar de San Cristóbal, en el estado Táchira, tras resultar herido en un accidente con un mortero

«Digo que es ineptitud de Colombia, pero a veces pienso que es interés de ellos», apuntó

Cuba

El artista Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara había planificado un “cumpleaños colectivo” y congregó a los residentes del área. La policía rodeó la sede e intentó impedir la actividad

Honduras

El presidente Hernández rechazó los cargos y criticó a la justicia estadounidense por basarse, según él, en testimonios de excapos de la droga perseguidos por el gobierno hondureño

Mexico

Varios de sus artículos personales, incluyendo equipo de cómputo, televisiones y dinero, fue robado, aprovechando que se encontraba fuera de la ciudad junto con su familia

Los datos recabados por la Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda al Refugiado (Comar) muestran que 22 mil 606 extranjeros llegaron al país para pedir protección en los tres primeros meses del año

>

Los señalamientos de Andrés Manuel López Obrador a la organización Artículo 19 fueron efectivos. Lograron desviar la discusión del tema sustancial que debiera estarse discutiendo estos días en el espacio público: la imparable y creciente crisis de derechos humanos

Ese punto es la entrada a Tierra Caliente y a lo más profundo donde se cocina la droga

Rosa Icela Rodríguez, titular de la SSPC, aseguró que quedaron atrás los tiempos de los cuerpos de seguridad reactivos, punitivos y autoritarios

U.S.-Mexico Border

Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the wall, has submitted a plan for what it wants to see happen moving forward

The recent increase in migration had begun well before Biden took office, and the reasons behind it form a complex web that was a long time in the making

Venezuela

Las cifra de presos por motivos de conciencia registra nueve personas menos con respecto al balance del mes de febrero, cuando que se realizaron algunas excarcelaciones

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Presidência da República photo at Veja (Brazil). Caption: “O presidente Jair Bolsonaro recebe continência do então comandante do Exército, Edson Leal Pujol Marcos Corrêa”

(Even more here)

April 5, 2021

Bolivia

La coca ilegal se incrementó en un 45% en 2020, según reveló el propio presidente Luis Arce, cuando presentó un anticipo del informe anual que la Oficina de Naciones Unidas contra la Droga y el Delito (Unodc) entregará en junio

Brazil

A sugestão do presidente, recebida como completamente despropositada, acabou ignorada pelo Ministério da Defesa durante a elaboração da Ordem do Dia

Central America Regional, U.S.-Mexico Border

The ad campaign is designed to combat a range of factors driving migrants to the border, including a slew of misinformation being spread by smugglers and the widespread belief among migrants that under the Biden administration, border enforcement has been relaxed

Colombia

Este centro penitenciario, inaugurado en 1960, lleva décadas siendo escenario de todo tipo de crímenes. Expertos creen que ocultaría hasta fosas comunes

Las Agc se tomaron el territorio, después de un llamado de auxilio de Los Rastrojos, que estaban a punto de perder la guerra con el Eln

Colombia, Venezuela

«El conflicto se mantiene», afirma Tarazona, quien agrega este sábado 3 de abril persisten las explosiones y ataques en distintos sectores

The patterns of migration on this border have changed since the advent of COVID-19. The border may be closed, but there are hundreds of labyrinthine routes available to those wishing to cross for a price

La ONG FundaRedes reportó bombardeos en el estado Apure desde este viernes y la madrugada de este sábado 3 de abril, como parte del conflicto armado entre militares venezolanos y el frente 10 de disidentes de las Farc

Cuba

The plan to consolidate the prisoners was devised during the Trump administration, when their former compound, Camp 7, was failing

El Salvador

Bukele’s choice for security minister raised eyebrows due to Villatoro’s alleged ties to officials and political operators involved in major corruption schemes

Mexico

“They know that if they’d awarded the stretch here to a private company it would be easy to organise resistance, but not when it’s the army”

Un grupo de 33 migrantes menores de edad y 28 adultos fueron localizados en condiciones de hacinamiento y con signos de deshidratación en carretera Monterrey-Reynosa

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Policies that restrict families with minors over age 6 from crossing into the U.S. can dash hopes of migrants

U.S.-Mexico Border

Two inspectors appointed by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee to monitor conditions faced by children in U.S. immigration custody detailed “severe overcrowding” at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities in south Texas

Solo en marzo, llegaron 18.000 niños y adolescentes no acompañados. En Roma, uno de los puntos más activos de la frontera de Texas, EL PAÍS es testigo de cómo una decena de embarcaciones cruzan en una noche

More Americans disapprove than approve of how President Joe Biden is handling waves of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and approval of his efforts on larger immigration policy falls short of other top issues

Venezuela

Se envió un contingente de las FAES al estado Apure para “apoyar” en el conflicto. A partir de allí, iniciaron las denuncias de atropellos contra la población civil de la zona

Los periodistas de NTN24 Luis Gonzalo Pérez y Rafael Hernández denuncian que fueron detenidos, incomunicados y robados por funcionarios militares cuando intentaban cubrir el enfrentamiento en La Victoria, estado Apure

Weekly e-mail update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. The weekly updates are long, what with all that has been going on in Colombia and especially at the border. This edition contains:

  • Last week’s podcast about the border and letter on aerial fumigation in Colombia;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Latin America-related online events for this week;
  • And, finally, several funny tweets.

Here’s the page with past editions and a blank to add your e-mail address if you want these more-or-less weekly missives in your inbox.

Latin America-related online events this week

Monday, April 5

  • 8:30 at atlanticcouncil.org: Emerging markets recovery in 2021: A conversation with Mexico’s Finance Minister Herrera (RSVP required).
  • 10:30 at atlanticcouncil.org: Leaders of the Americas: A conversation with H.E. Carlos Alvarado, President of Costa Rica (RSVP required).

Tuesday, April 6

  • 10:00 at cries.org: América Latina y el impacto de la pandemia del COVID-19 (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-4:15 at wola.org: “None of the Above”: Peru’s Fragmented Politics and the April 11 Elections (RSVP required).

Wednesday, April 7

  • 10:00-11:00 at wola.org: Civil Society in Colombia’s Catatumbo Region Demand a Humanitarian Accord, Not Militarization (RSVP required).
  • 10:00-11:00 at thedialogue.org: Developments in the US-China-Mexico Triangular Dynamic (RSVP required).
  • 11:00-11:45 at heritage.org: Democratic Socialism: A Warning from Venezuela (RSVP required).
  • 12:00 at wola.org: Report Launch: Defending Human Rights in Venezuela (RSVP required).
  • 3:00-5:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Argentina’s Lithium Industry and its Role in the Global Renewable Energy Transformation (RSVP required).

Thursday, April 8

  • 10:00-1:00 at thedialogue.org: ¿Cómo medimos la calidad de los servicios de educación inicial en América Latina? (RSVP required).
  • 11:00-12:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Digital Autocracy: Maduro’s control of the Venezuelan information environment (RSVP required).
  • 3:00 at FundaRedes: Refugiados venezolanos y colombianos entre la espada y la pared (RSVP required).
  • 7:30-9:00pm at mobilize.us: Wall of Nations: Mexico, Guatemala and the New Southern Border (RSVP required).

Colombia peace update: April 4, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics. Get these in your e-mail by signing up to this Google group.

Fighting continues between Venezuelan military and 10th Front dissident group

Nearly two weeks since Venezuelan security forces attacked a FARC dissident group in Apure, along the border with Colombia, unusually intense combat continues, displacing large numbers of civilians.

On March 21, Venezuelan armed forces carried out bombings and land raids on six sites used by the 10th Front, an ex-FARC group. The New York Times called it “several days of airstrikes that security experts described as Venezuela’s largest use of firepower in decades.” Venezuelan forces also carried out house-to-house raids in border towns like La Victoria and El Ripial, terrorizing the population.

The 10th Front, made up of a few former FARC guerrillas and many new recruits, is affiliated with the 1st Front headed by alias “Gentil Duarte,” Colombia’s largest network of ex-FARC guerrillas who refused to demobilize. It is one of three Colombian armed groups active inside Venezuela in this part of the border zone. Venezuela’s military operations have not affected the other two: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and a second dissident group, the “Nueva Marquetalia,” which is led by Iván Márquez, who had headed the FARC’s negotiating team during 2012-16 peace talks.

The 10th Front has retaliated repeatedly. It has attacked a local office of Venezuela’s taxation agency, knocked out electrical power, attacked Army road checkpoints, and destroyed a Russian-made armored personnel carrier with either a rocket-propelled grenade or an improvised explosive device. “That civilian and military facilities are being damaged is something we had not seen to date,” Fr. Eduardo Soto, the director of Jesuit Refugee Service Venezuela, told Venezuela’s Tal Cual.

Estimates of the combat’s toll are high. Venezuelan officials cite nine dead, including four soldiers, along with 32 arrests and nine guerrilla dissident camps destroyed. The 10th Front denies that any of its fighters have been captured or killed.

Venezuelan human rights group statements, and press interviews with refugees who have crossed the river into Colombia’s also-conflictive department of Arauca, reveal many testimonies of Venezuelan soldiers and members of the notorious Police Special Actions Forces (FAES) unit raiding homes, looting possessions, dragging people into the street and beating them, forcing people to hold weapons while photographing them, detaining people and holding them incommunicado, and massacring a family in El Ripial, presenting the dead as combatants. The guerrilla dissidents, meanwhile, are accused of widespread and indiscriminate use of landmines and explosives.

On March 31 Venezuelan forces detained two reporters with the NTN24 news network, along with two members of the FundaRedes human rights group. They were released after 24 hours, without their cameras, mobile phones, or other equipment. A statement from Venezuela’s Defense Ministry mentioned “media scoundrels that deploy their dirty manipulations to fuel violence” in the region. “The role that NGOs are playing in this operation is striking,” it added.

As of March 31, Colombia’s migration agency had counted 4,741 people displaced by the fighting, who had taken refuge in 19 shelters in Arauquita, Colombia. That represents more than 10 percent of Arauquita municipality’s estimated population of 44,000. About 40 percent are children. At least several hundred of the displaced have Colombian citizenship but had settled on the Venezuelan side of the border. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is in Arauquita helping with tents, mattresses, hygiene kits and face masks. An unknown number of people have also displaced to other parts of Venezuela.

It is not clear why Venezuela has chosen to confront the 10th Front to the exclusion of other Colombian armed groups in Venezuelan territory, or why it has done so now. Colombia’s defense minister, Diego Molano, claims that Nicolás Maduro’s regime “doesn’t seem to be defending its sovereignty, but protecting its drug-trafficking business” and that it “orders that one narco-criminal group be combated selectively.” Most educated guesses do point to a corrupt relationship between Venezuelan security forces and organized crime.

Caracas may have decided to favor the “Nueva Marquetalia” dissident group, or perhaps, the Washington Post posits, “the 10th Front may have simply crossed a line by extorting powerful landowners in the area.”

An unnamed expert cited in El Espectador had a lengthy hypothesis:

An expert consulted by this newspaper, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that drug trafficking in the area involves “paying extortion, or a bribe, to public entities, particularly to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB). According to the expert, since 2019, both the dissidents of the Segunda Marquetalia, as well as those of Gentil Duarte, began to default on payments. “That undoubtedly generated a series of tensions with the FANB that escalated.”

…The expert added that the 10th Front began to increase the volume of drug trafficking passing through the route. “Then more members of the FANB began to charge and raise the rates. That’s when ‘Ferley’ appeared, he is the finance chief of the 10th Front and he began to have disputes with people in the FANB,” this person added.

The same article cited Sebastiana Barráez, a Venezuelan journalist, contending that “the sympathies that have been expressed, even by Nicolás Maduro himself, have been towards Iván Márquez, not towards Gentil Duarte.” Still, the Segunda Marquetalia presence in the region is less notable. “They have a strange presence because it is not so clear to identify who their combatants are, at least in Arauca and Apure,” researcher Naryi Vargas told El Espectador.

At the moment it is impossible to predict whether the violence will die down or escalate. The dissidents are showing a much greater willingness to keep attacking the Venezuelan forces than they do in Colombia, where attacks on military targets are usually followed by lengthy retreats.

The dissidents are reportedly calling for negotiations that might lead to a truce with the Venezuelan regime. Over 60 Colombian and Venezuelan organizations sent a March 31 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres asking him to name a special envoy to mediate, since the Colombian government and the regime in Venezuela have almost no remaining contacts with each other.

The two governments continue to ramp up bellicose rhetoric. While Colombia’s defense minister alleges Caracas is colluding with the Nueva Marquetalia, Venezuela’s defense minister insists that the Colombian armed groups “cross the river, make their skirmishes and return to Colombia with the protection of their authorities.” A Venezuelan Defense Ministry communiqué even sought to bring the United States into the picture:

They [the armed groups] are sponsored by the Colombian government and the Central Intelligence Agency, which is why their incursions into the Venezuelan geographic space should be considered an aggression sponsored by [Colombian President] Iván Duque, since he provides them with logistical and financial support, creating a criminal corridor on the border with the advice of the U.S. Southern Command.”

Though the probability of escalation into inter-state conflict remains low, it can’t be discarded. “This is the worst crisis I’ve seen in decades here,” an unnamed human rights worker told the Guardian. The paper went on: “The activist added that the bellicose rhetoric from Bogotá and Caracas was hardly helping. ‘I would say it is making it worse.’”

Car bombing raises concern about Cauca’s deteriorating security situation

The department of Cauca, in southwest Colombia, remains one of the most conflictive parts of the country. On March 26, a car bomb detonated in the center of Corinto, in the northern part of the department not far from Cali. Last week also saw the murder of a judicial police investigator near Corinto, and the forced displacement of 2,000 people in Argelia, in the department’s south.

The car bomb went off next to the mayor’s office in Corinto, wounding 43 people including 11 municipal employees. President Iván Duque said that a FARC dissident group powerful in the area, the Dagoberto Ramos Mobile Column, was responsible. The Dagoberto Ramos, like the 10th Front in Arauca and Venezuela, is believed to be part of the dissident network headed by “Gentil Duarte” and the 1st Front. Led by a former mid-level FARC leader named Johany Noscué alias “Mayimbú,” the unit has carried out some bloody high-profile attacks, including the 2019 assassination of mayoral candidate Karina García in Suárez municipality. The dissidents and the armed forces had been fighting in a nearby village in the days leading up to the bombing.

The Dagoberto Ramos unit is also believed responsible for the March 27 kidnapping and murder of Mario Fernando Herrera, an investigator with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía). Herrera was taken on March 26 at a roadblock that the dissidents had set up on the road between Corinto and the northern Cauca municipality of Santander de Quilichao. HIs body was found the next day.

Further south in Argelia, fighting remains intense between the ELN and another dissident group purportedly aligned with “Gentil Duarte,” the Carlos Patiño front. (To make things more complicated, this region also has a dissident group aligned with the Segunda Marquetalia, and the two have poor relations: Kyle Johnson and Juanita Vélez of Conflict Responses observed last year that Argelia may be the only zone where units of the two dissident networks are fighting each other.) ELN-dissident firefights have left residences riddled with bullets and shrapnel in the middle of the town of El Plateado, Argelia. Starting on March 27, 2,000 residents fled “at great speed.” Most headed for the county seat of Argelia, where many are gathered in the main church and the soccer arena.

Cauca has only about 1.35 million people, but has always been over-represented in measures of violence. It is strategically located for narcotrafficking, with coca fields, laboratories, and routes leading to Pacific transshipment points. Northern Cauca is also a center of Colombia’s illicit marijuana trade, with grow lights dotting the region’s hillsides at night. Illicit mining is common, especially near the Pacific. It is one of Colombia’s most ethnically diverse departments, but indigenous and Afro-descendant communities have historically been poor and excluded from political power, which has concentrated in the hands of a European-descended elite. Its topography is complex: Colombia’s three Andean mountain chains all converge there in what’s called the Macizo Colombiano (Colombian Massif).

Cauca leads the country in murders of social leaders and human rights defenders since 2016. So far in 2021, the department has suffered four massacres. The homicide rate in 2020 was 53.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than all but four or five U.S. cities. The ELN, three dissident units, a fragment of the EPL, and the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group all operate in Cauca, as do smaller regional organized crime groups.

Argelia social leader Walter Aldana described the situation to El Espectador:

What we have today in the department of Cauca is the presence of eight or ten illegal armed groups that exercise power and dominion in the territories. They fight among themselves for territorial control. But whoever is there at the time is the authority in the territory. For more than a year, since before the pandemic, we have had a curfew from 7 o’clock at night—depending on the armed group and how they want to handle things.

In response to all this, “the government has recurred to old formulas,” wrote Santiago Torrado at Spain’s El País, “such as holding a security council meeting, announcing the deployment of 2,000 uniformed personnel in addition to the 8,000 already in the department, and offering rewards for the ringleaders.”

“The improvisation, the lack of planning, the lack of systematic persecution of crime is very evident,” wrote Alfonso Luna Geller, of the group Proclama del Cauca, at El Espectador. “The military and police are always surprised. It seems that there is no military or police intelligence, no strategic or tactical operations, because they have been replaced by useless security councils. … The National Government only appears to make bombastic and opportunistic declarations on the smoking streets of our towns.”

“The only way to transform these conditions is with transformations driven by the State as a whole,” former human rights ombudsman Carlos Negret told Torrado. “With long-term policies and not with circumstantial projects; with sustainable and durable decisions, and not with fire extinguishers that sooner rather than later use up their loads. I believe that implementation of the peace agreement has many of these elements”.

Links

  • 25 U.S. and Colombian organizations sent a letter to President Biden asking his administration to cease funding for aerial herbicide fumigation in territories where farmers grow coca, before Colombia’s government re-starts the suspended program.
  • From Vorágine and Connectas, a new accusation that the government’s coca eradication statistics are artificially inflated: eradicators “arrived at the coca fields to negotiate with the landowner. This was a ‘pact’ in which the eradicators only completed half of their task or did it badly on purpose: they did not uproot the bush from its roots, but only stripped it halfway down its stem.”
  • Mutante, Baudó AP, and La Liga Contra el Silencio published an investigation alleging that nine farmers were killed in the context of coca eradication operations in 2020. The total death toll for coca eradication in 2020, then, was 25, since the Defense Ministry reported 16 eradicators or security-force escorts killed last year.
  • The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy published a “Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One,” which places emphasis on access to evidence-based treatment, harm reduction, and “a collective and comprehensive response” to supply reduction in Latin America. It does not specifically mention forced eradication of illicit crops.
  • The State Department’s annual human rights report draws attention to some of the more notable abuses that took place in 2020, while noting that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) “continued to take effective steps to hold perpetrators of gross violations of human rights accountable in a manner consistent with international law.”
  • Defense Minister Diego Molano told El Tiempo that the JEP’s estimate of 6,402 victims of military “false positive” killings of civilians between 2002 and 2008 “is a figure that seeks to create a negative image of our Armed Forces and extort the real debate, the one we need so that this country can have forces with greater legitimacy.”
  • An InsightCrime investigation into armed groups’ recruitment of children finds “the areas of most concern since 2016 include Bajo Cauca [Antioquia] and the Amazon state of Vaupés.”
  • It has been a year since Salvatore Mancuso, once a top leader of Colombia’s national AUC paramilitary network, completed a criminal sentence for narcotrafficking in the United States. He remains in a Georgia Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center, seeking to prevent his deportation to Colombia, either by staying in the United States under the Convention Against Torture, or being removed to Italy, as he is a dual citizen. By video, Mancuso has been sharing information with the JEP and the Truth Commission. He is revealing names of military officers and civilian third parties who aided and abetted the right-wing groups that, at the conflict’s peak in the late 90s and early 00s, committed the majority of killings and forced displacements.
  • Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, a longtime personal friend of President Iván Duque, drew criticism this week for indicting one of the opposition-party candidates with highest poll numbers ahead of March 2022 presidential elections, former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo. The Fiscalía is accusing Fajardo of a 2013 case of contracting irregularities: approving a loan to the Antioquia government that was denominated in dollars, without first performing a risk study.
  • Fiscal General Barbosa paid a visit to the United States this week, where he met with ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and U.S. Marshals representatives, among others. Barbosa’s delegation included Gabriel Jaimes, the prosecutor in the super-high-profile witness-tampering case against former president Álvaro Uribe. Jaimes has asked to drop the charges in Uribe’s case, and will present arguments before a judge on April 6. Investigative journalist Daniel Coronell points out that the majority of witnesses on Uribe’s behalf in this case have some relationship with the Oficina de Envigado, an organized crime structure descended from the old Medellín cartel.
  • Without Catholic Church-led organizing and a 1993 law recognizing Afro-descendant communities’ collective landholdings, the jungles of Chocó “could have been destroyed by the logging interests of the time,” says Quibdó Bishop Juan Carlos Barreto in an interesting interview with La Silla Vacía. “If it weren’t for that work, we would have this forest full of monocultures and agribusiness.”
  • The Colombian government appears determined to move ahead with a US$4.5 billion purchase of 24 F-16 fighter jets. This is controversial because the contract, equivalent to more than 1 percent of GDP, comes at a time when resources are lacking for other priorities, like peace accord implementation.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Dario Lopez-Mills photo at Associated Press. Caption: “A chid stands next to her family’s belongings as they wait for transportation at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas, on Palm Sunday, March 28, 2021. U.S. authorities are releasing migrant families at the border without notices to appear in immigration court, and sometimes without any paperwork at all.”

(Even more here)

April 2, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

President Biden has made clear that addressing the overdose and addiction epidemic is an urgent priority for his administration

Brazil

The three new chiefs are senior military officers and their picking eased fears among some analysts that Bolsonaro would prefer younger replacements so as to politicize the armed forces

Ora, a Constituição estabelece que as Forças Armadas são instituições de Estado, razão pela qual não podem ser “alinhadas” ao presidente

Chile

Solo entre diciembre de 2020 y marzo de este año han ocurrido al menos siete ataques contra civiles, que se suman a otros 18 atentados contra empresas forestales

Colombia

The number of youngsters being recruited by armed groups in Colombia has been rising steadily since the 2016 peace accords

Los C-17 son tipo carguero y desarrollarán misiones de apoyo administrativo a la embajada de Estados Unidos en Colombia así como llevar de regreso a su país de origen a varios funcionarios estadounidenses

Colombia, Venezuela

Refugees in Colombia interviewed by The Washington Post spoke of beatings and detentions in Apure as the Venezuelan military went from house to house

The Venezuelan assault, centered around La Victoria, a town of about 10,000, has been aimed at a faction of FARC dissidents known as the Tenth Front, according to local residents, leading security experts to suggest they may have broken unwritten rules

Funcionarios de la Guardia Nacional Bolivariana los detuvieron cuando realizaban una cobertura periodística sobre el conflicto armado en la zona fronteriza del estado Apure y permanecieron más de 24 horas incomunicados

Guatemala

Chronic childhood malnutrition doubled in Guatemala between 2019 and 2020. In areas where migrants are mainly coming from, the rates are higher than anywhere in the world

Guatemala, Mexico

El Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) clasificó por cinco años sus expedientes relacionados con la masacre de 19 personas en Camargo, Tamaulipas. De las víctimas, 16 eran migrantes guatemaltecos en ruta hacia Estados Unidos

Honduras

Prosecutors cited the failed September 2019 influence campaign by Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP — along with the murder of four people linked to the investigation and the defendant’s own alleged repeated lies and obstruction — in urging stiff punishment for Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández

Mexico

El presidente de México encontró en las fuerzas armadas un aliado. Las considera parte de su proyecto político personal. Y las premia y protege. ¿Protege su futuro con ellas?

Los efectivos de la Sedena habrían salido bajo fianza el 26 de marzo para continuar su proceso en libertad, mientras que tres permanecen en una prisión militar

They will wait in shelters in Mexico, often for months, for arrangements to be made. Then, they will be deported

Amlo also singled out press freedom group Article 19, which was cited as a source, in an outburst reflecting his disdain for civil society groups

Unlike El Chapo, who sought Sean Penn’s help to turn his criminal life into a Hollywood blockbuster, El Mencho prefers the shadows

U.S.-Mexico Border

This tactic has allowed the administration to buy itself some “breathing room” to build up those processes before it fully resumes asylum at the border

The Border Patrol began the unusual practice last week in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, which has seen the biggest increase in the number of migrant families and unaccompanied minors crossing the border

While Biden said last week that the “vast majority” of families are being sent back to Mexico under Title 42, U.S. government data suggests that is not the case

U.S. Customs and Border Protection took more than 171,000 migrants into custody along the Mexico border last month, according to preliminary tallies

While CBP has never claimed to interdict every border crosser, the number of so-called got aways recorded in recent weeks is the highest in recent memory, said two of the officials

New “emergency” facilities skirt safety standards, while facilities accused of abuse are still getting grants

Weekly Border Update: April 2, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can get these in your e-mail each week by joining WOLA’s “Beyond the Wall” mailing list. Since what’s happening at the border is one of the principal events in this week’s U.S. news, this update is a “double issue,” longer than normal. See past weekly updates here.

Migrant apprehensions may reach largest annual total since early 2000s, as most are expelled

The Washington Post published preliminary data from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about migrants encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border during March. It shows migrants came into the agency’s custody, at least briefly, on 171,000 occasions last month. That would be the largest monthly total since March of 2001, and a remarkable 76 percent more than February 2021. Here is how it would compare among the previous 115 months:

Of this “preliminary” figure of 171,000:

  • 99,200 appear to be single adults, a 44 percent increase over February and the largest number of single adults encountered in the monthly data WOLA has collected, which go back to October 2011.
  • 18,800 were unaccompanied children, a 102 percent increase over February, smashing the May 2019 record of 11,861.
  • 53,000 were members of family units, a 180 percent increase over February and the fourth or fifth largest monthly total since October 2011.

Under the Trump-era “Title 42” pandemic restrictions that the Biden administration has kept in place, about 90 percent of adults and 10-20 percent of family members are being expelled, usually in a matter of hours. So the population of migrants taken into U.S. custody at the border looks more modest, perhaps similar to 2019:

CNN reported seeing Border Patrol estimates predicting that the agency might apprehend or “encounter” 2 million migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2020 and September 2021. That number—up to 1.1 million single adults, 828,000 family members, and 200,000 unaccompanied children—would shatter Border Patrol’s annual record of 1,643,679 migrant apprehensions set in 2000.

That estimate seems dubious. Even with 171,000 migrants apprehended in March, getting to 2 million would require Border Patrol to encounter a record-shattering 241,000 migrants for each of the next six months—about 20,000 more than the largest monthly total ever measured. Deputy Chief Raúl Ortiz said on March 30 that Border Patrol expects to encounter “more than a million” migrants in fiscal 2021. That appears more likely, and would be the largest annual total since 2006, exceeding the 851,508 apprehensions reported in 2019.

Unlike past years, a large portion of these migrants—one half to two-thirds, perhaps—would be instantly expelled under Title 42. And much of the total would be “double-counting” as expelled migrants try to cross again. In February, about 25 percent of people encountered at the border had crossed more than once, CNN reports, up from 7 percent in 2019.

While not on pace for a record-breaking year, Mexico reported apprehending 34,993 migrants in its territory between January 1 and March 25, 7,643 or 28 percent more than the same period in 2020. About 55 percent were from Honduras, 29 percent from Guatemala, and 7 percent from El Salvador. Of all migrants, said National Migration Institute (INM) director Francisco Garduño, 4,400 were minors, about 1,200 of them unaccompanied. Mexico’s totals so far this year “roughly mirror the numbers from early 2019, before Trump forced Mexico” to increase apprehensions by threatening to levy tariffs, the Associated Press observed.

Unaccompanied children: flattening out or even declining?

Much media coverage of the border continues to focus on U.S. agencies’ struggle to accommodate the record numbers of children arriving unaccompanied, whom the Biden administration refuses to expel under Title 42. As of March 31, 18,170 children were in U.S. government custody: 13,204 in permanent and emergency shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS), and 4,966 awaiting ORR shelter space while stuck in Border Patrol’s inadequate detention facilities.

The most recent numbers we’ve managed to obtain do show a glimmer of good news, though, about unaccompanied children. The population in CBP’s custody has dropped under 5,000, from 5,495 on March 25, as new temporary ORR shelter spaces have opened up. And the number of non-Mexican unaccompanied kids Border Patrol is newly apprehending may be dropping. The agency took in more than 600 per day on each of the three days for which we saw data during the week of March 22, but between March 28 and March 31 it took in less than 500 on three of four days, and never reached 600. Though it’s early to be certain about trends, this points to a downward trendline:

The Washington Post, as noted, just reported a preliminary figure of 18,800 unaccompanied children taken into CBP custody in all of March—including Mexican children, who under current law are almost all returned to Mexico. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government expects to encounter between 18,600 and 22,000 children in April, and between 21,800 and 25,000 in May.

If the lower total since March 28 is sustained, though, unaccompanied child apprehensions will be on the low end, or even below, these estimates. One reason the number of kids arriving alone might decline is the increased probability, discussed below, that a family unit won’t be expelled under Title 42. If there is some likelihood of being released into the interior to pursue asylum, parents will be more inclined to accompany their children, resulting in fewer kids traveling alone.

In fact, Reuters revealed, a surprising number of “unaccompanied” children may have arrived with a family member—but because the adult relative was not a parent or guardian, Border Patrol separated the family. A data project managed by “a handful of nonprofit groups” estimates that as many as 10 to 17 percent of “unaccompanied” children actually arrived with an aunt or uncle, an adult sibling, cousin, grandparent, or other relative. Because they are not immediate family, CBP policy usually considers the child unaccompanied and expels the adult under Title 42. This very high estimate—between one in six and one in ten children separated from a relative at the border—has “not been made public before” and CBP “told Reuters they do not track such separations.”

In the meantime, the large population of unaccompanied kids continues to strain ORR and CBP capacities. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that CBP is “working around the clock” to move kids out of Border Patrol facilities and into ORR custody as space opens up. This space, as Mark Greenberg notes in a new Migration Policy Institute study, started out very scarce: “The Biden administration took office with less than half of the shelter capacity that ORR had estimated was needed for preparedness.”

Children are not meant to spend a long time in ORR’s shelter network: ideally, no more than about a month. The agency works to identify relatives or other sponsors who can take them while immigration courts rule on their protection needs. ORR has been moving between 200 and 300 children per day out of its system and into relatives’ custody, far fewer than the number of children being newly apprehended and transferred. This points to continued increases in the need for shelter space.

Internal government estimates reported by CNN and the New York Times indicate that ORR could need 34,100 or 35,500 shelter beds to keep up with the high projected number of arriving unaccompanied children. As last week’s update found, a series of emergency shelters—from convention centers to military bases—is increasing ORR’s capacity up to about 28,800 beds. And the New York Times reports that new facilities being “scouted” include “a Crowne Plaza hotel in Dallas, a convention center in Orange County, Fla., and a church hall in Houston.”

This new shelter capacity should alleviate the crowding in CBP facilities’ holding areas, where the law requires children to spend less than 72 hours. Transfers out of CBP custody have increased from about 400 per day the week of March 22 to about 800 per day the week of March 29.

On March 30 CBP allowed selected pool reporters to visit the largest of its holding areas, the temporary processing center in Donna, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. This site is a complex of tents built in January while a more permanent facility in McAllen, outfitted in 2014, undergoes renovation. The press visitors to Donna found 3,400 unaccompanied children and 700 family members crammed into a space intended for 250. Most children are in eight “pods” separated by plastic dividers, while the youngest are in a “play pen” area where they sleep on mats on the floor. More than 2,000 kids had been in the facility for more than the maximum 72 hours, 39 of them for more than 15 days. Oscar Escamilla, the acting executive officer of Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, told reporters that “250 to 300 kids enter daily and far fewer leave”—a situation that should begin to reverse as temporary ORR shelters come online.

“I’m a Border Patrol agent. I didn’t sign up for this,” the New York Times quoted Mr. Escamilla saying “as he looked at some of the younger children, many of them under 12.” However, as veteran immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson observed in The Atlantic, even after seven years of child arrivals, CBP has resisted building more family-appropriate holding facilities out of the unproven belief that, as a commissioner told her, “such a project could send a message that would encourage even more people to migrate to the United States.”

The border saw some tragic and outrageous episodes involving children this week. Border Patrol found a mother, her 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son unconscious on an island in the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The mother and son were resuscitated, but the girl died. In remote New Mexico desert, Border Patrol night-vision video meanwhile captured smugglers dropping two Ecuadorian girls, age 3 and 5, from atop a 14 foot tall section of border fence. CBP found the girls and “they are said to be in good health,” Al Jazeera reported.

Families: increasing

The category of migrant that appears to have increased fastest in March was family members. Border Patrol reported a 180 percent increase in encounters with families—parents or legal guardians with children—from 18,945 in February to 53,000 last month. The Washington Post noted that DHS officials “are privately warning about what they see as the next phase of a migration surge that could be the largest in two decades, driven by a much greater number of families.”

The Post noted that groups of asylum-seeking families “sometimes collectively numbering as many as 400” have been “showing up this month along the riverbanks in South Texas.” El Faro published a series of photos showing what these nighttime arrivals look like, as Border Patrol has set up card tables on a dirt road in Roma, Texas, at which they check in new arrivals.

What won’t be clear until we see CBP’s detailed March data is how many of these families were allowed into the U.S. interior to begin removal and asylum proceedings, and how many were expelled under Title 42. Under the pandemic expulsions policy, Mexico agreed in March 2020 to take back citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras apprehended at the border. It is still taking back nearly all single adults, who are the majority of all apprehended migrants. But even as it takes a larger number of expelled families than it did in 2020, Mexico appears to have hit a ceiling and is now refusing about 80 to 90 percent of family expulsions, especially of those with small children, according to the Washington Post. (That article’s co-author, Nick Miroff, notifies us that the percentage more recently appears to have fallen to 75 to 80 percent—perhaps due to U.S. requests that Mexico take more expelled families.)

In order to get around this, DHS has been flying some families from segments of the border where Mexico is refusing expulsions to segments where Mexico is still accepting them. Planes continue to arrive daily to El Paso, where El Paso Matters has documented the anguish of parents with small children taken from the airport to the middle of the border bridge and left in Ciudad Juárez.

Garduño, the director of Mexico’s INM, told press that smugglers are advising would-be migrants to bring children. They “suggest that migrant parents travel with their children ‘to facilitate entry into Mexico and the United States.’”

Families often get to remain in the U.S. interior for a long time as badly backlogged U.S. immigration courts consider their requests for asylum or other protection. “On average, it takes almost two and a half years to resolve an asylum claim,” Jonathan Blitzer reported in The New Yorker. The Biden administration, NPR, reported, is considering a plan—devised with heavy input from the Migration Policy Institute—that would seek to speed the process by empowering asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to decide more cases of people apprehended at the border. They already do this with asylum seekers who apply elsewhere in the United States. (We discuss this in an April 1 WOLA Podcast with asylum expert Yael Shacher of Refugees International.)

Mexican Army kills Guatemalan citizen amid southern border crackdown

Mexico has responded to the Biden administration’s appeals to reduce migration flows by deploying more military, security, and migration personnel to its border with Guatemala. On March 27 a large number of soldiers, marines, national guardsmen, local police, and INM agents—3,000 people by one estimateparaded through Tapachula, the largest city near Mexico’s southern border, then arrayed themselves along frequently used border crossings. On the Guatemalan side, in the border town of Tecún Umán, security forces increased their presence as well; officials from both sides held a protocolary photo-op in the middle of the border bridge over the Suchiate River.

Mexico’s Army is part of the deployment, making migration control one of many internal non-defense roles that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has encouraged the military to take on more fully. One army unit carrying out these duties, the 15th Motorized Cavalry Regiment, was involved in a tragic incident along the border on March 29.

Soldiers shot and killed a 31-year-old Guatemalan citizen, Elvin Mazariegos, a passenger in a truck near a usually unmonitored land border crossing in Mazapa de Madero, near Motozintla, Chiapas in the mountains north of Tapachula. When the truck, en route back into Guatemala, shifted into reverse upon seeing a group of Mexican Army soldiers, one fired at the vehicle in an incident that Mexico’s Defense Secretary called “an erroneous reaction.”

Like about 10 percent of residents of a zone where Mexico and Guatemala blur together and many road crossings lack customs or INM presence, Mazariegos, a resident of the Guatemalan town across the border, worked transporting products to and from retail stores on both sides. On March 29 he had gone with co-workers “to drop off money at bodegas where he worked.” Like most, he did not have an official border crossing card.

In areas like Mazapa de Madero, Mexico’s Animal Político notes, encounters with government forces often mean dealing with corruption. “An ‘assist’ to the authority in exchange for not having a rigorous inspection. According to his sister, the victim had already suffered on occasion from having to pay these bribes.”

That may explain why the vehicle in which Mazariegos was traveling appeared to seek to flee the scene. One of the combat-trained soldiers responded by firing several shots at the vehicle, despite the lack of any provocation or danger—a textbook example of why civil-military experts frequently warn about misusing armed forces for internal duties like migration control.

Hundreds of angry townspeople took the soldiers into custody—which sometimes occurs in Indigenous communities—and brought them to the Guatemalan side, where they stayed until the community received some assurances that the responsible soldier would be brought to justice and the family would receive some recompense.

Mexico’s Defense and Foreign Relations secretaries said the responsible soldier is “at the disposal” of the civilian criminal justice system. The Army told Mazariegos’s wife that it would pay the Guatemalan’s funeral expenses and reportedly offered a payout of 1 million Mexican pesos (US$50,000), which his family says is not enough to support the deceased man’s three young children.

Though not part of its ongoing southern border migration crackdown, Mexico was shaken this week by another official killing of a Central American migrant. Four police officers killed Victoria Esperanza Salazar, a Salvadoran mother of two daughters, who worked as a hotel chambermaid in the beach resort of Tulum. In a scene reminiscent of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a female police officer knelt on Salazar’s neck, breaking her spinal column and killing her, while onlookers recorded the incident and entreated the police to stop.

Salazar, 36, fled Sonsonate, El Salvador in 2016, and sought asylum in Mexico’s system, citing “gender violence.” Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR granted her asylum in 2017, and she had worked and raised her daughters in Tulum since then.

On March 27, a convenience store video showed Salazar appearing agitated, as though in the throes of a panic attack. After she left the store, police came and subdued her, inexplicably using extreme brutality and killing her. The attorney general of Quintana Roo, the state that incorporates Tulum, said that the four police officers are in custody and will be charged with “femicide.” President López Obrador lamented the crime: “She was brutally treated and murdered … It is an event that fills us with pain and shame.” In a stream of tweets about the incident, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele called on Mexico to hold the police officers accountable.

Articles this week in the Mexican publications SinEmbargo and Chiapas Paralelo provided updates on the miserable conditions faced by Central American and other migrants in the INM’s detention centers. In Chiapas and elsewhere near Mexico’s southern border, these detention centers are near capacity right now as migrant flows rise and the government’s crackdown intensifies.

Using partially available INM data, SinEmbargo counts the deaths of at least 20 migrants in INM detention in 2013 and between 2015 and 2019 (2014 and 2020 data are unavailable). Causes range from cardiac arrests and infections to “falling from bunk beds.” Brenda Ochoa of the Tapachula-based Fray Matías Human Rights Center (recipient of WOLA’s 2020 Human Rights Award) told the publication that migrants in INM detention receive “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, ranging from pressure to sign their deportation papers to physical and psychological abuse, particularly of women.”

Guatemala prepares another caravan response

Amid word on social media that Hondurans were planning to form a northbound migrant caravan on March 30, representatives of the Guatemalan, Honduran, and U.S. governments held a virtual “high-level working meeting” to coordinate their response.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei declared a “state of prevention” for five of the country’s twenty-two departments, restricting freedom of movement, assembly, and public protest in order to ease the security forces’ efforts to block or disperse any migrants traveling in a caravan. While it is normally legal for residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to travel in each others’ territories without a passport, Giammattei based his order on COVID-19 precautions.

A statement from Amnesty International, the Mexico-based Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI), and the El Salvador Independent Monitoring Group warned Guatemala “that imposing measures that could incite the excessive use of force against migrants and applicants for international protection is inexcusable.” The statement recalled Guatemala’s January 16 dispersal of an attempted Honduran caravan near the countries’ common border, in which “soldiers severely repressed people who tried to move forward.”

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, the Biden administration’s point person for outreach to Mexico and Central America on migration issues, spoke by phone with President Giammattei on March 30. “They discussed the significant risks to those leaving their homes and making the dangerous journey to the United States, especially during a global pandemic,” along with priorities for economic assistance, according to a White House readout of the call. Even as the Guatemalan president decreed a state of emergency, the official record notes, Harris “thanked President Giammattei for his efforts to secure Guatemala’s southern border.”

In the end, by April 1 Guatemalan forces had quickly dispersed a small caravan whose members crossed the border.

As the Biden administration develops a U.S. assistance response to Central America, Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Latin America director during Barack Obama’s first term, argued in The Hill that some forms of U.S. aid to the region—while not solving migration’s “root causes”—could show results more quickly than most might expect. These include “immediate disaster relief, cash-for-work programs, COVID-19 vaccines, alternatives to irregular migration, and a clear break with predatory elites.” On that latter point, Restrepo suggests publicly indicting Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was repeatedly named as a co-conspirator in narcotrafficking, in a U.S. trial that concluded this week with the president’s brother being sentenced to life in prison.

Speaking with NPR, Juan González, who holds Restrepo’s old position in Joe Biden’s NSC, repeated the phrase “predatory elite” to describe Central America’s corrupt political class. “You have, frankly, a predatory elite that benefits from the status quo, which is to not pay any taxes or invest in social programs,” González said. “Migration is essentially a social release valve for migrants.”

Links

  • WOLA’s latest audio podcast discusses the border situation and how the asylum system should work, with guest Yael Schacher of Refugees International.
  • Though the Biden administration’s 60-day pause in border wall-building has expired, it remains in place pending an eventual announcement of a plan. However, eminent domain cases in Texas courts have not been closed, and the government continues seeking to seize private property along the border for wall construction.
  • NBC News, USA Today, and the Guardian covered Democratic and Republican legislators’ separate “dueling” border visits, to different parts of Texas, over the March 26-28 weekend.
  • Reuters’ interviews with migrants and smugglers, and reviews of closed Facebook groups, indicate how “coyotes” are feeding migrants many false messages about the Biden administration’s policies toward migrants at the border.
  • Felipe de la Hoz at the New Republic and Julia G. Young at Time make the point that the history of U.S. foreign policy in Central America is a key “root cause” underlying migration from the region.
  • House Homeland Security Committee ranking member John Katko (R-New York) and border district Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced legislation creating a $1 billion contingency fund, from which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could draw to attend to migrants at moments when they arrive at the border in large numbers.
  • “Predicting a problem is not the same thing as having the right tools at your disposal,” writes Cecilia Muñoz, who headed the Domestic Policy Council in the Obama White House, in The Atlantic. Muñoz voices exasperation with “immigration advocates who project confidence that 100 percent of migrant families are fleeing danger and deserve asylum,” adding that “most are unable or unwilling to name any category of migrant who should ever be returned.”
  • “The bottom line is that through expulsions and deportations, the United States is returning migrants and asylum seekers to situations of instability and danger amidst a pandemic, and this must be stopped,” reads an explainer document from the Latin America Working Group.
  • “Immigrants are not coming to the U.S. because they are attracted by President Joe Biden’s inclusive language, and they were not repelled by former President Donald Trump’s use of racist imagery,” argues Greg Weeks of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. At Mother Jones, several immigration experts voice doubts about whether Biden administration messaging makes much difference for would-be migrants’ decision making.
  • “One of the reasons why Mexican migration [to the U.S.] went down so much after 2007 is that there are about 260,000 people every year who come from Mexico to work legally in the U.S. and go back home,” Andrew Selee of the Migration Policy Institute tells Politico in a wide-ranging interview. “In 2019, the comparable number [for Central Americans] was 8,000; last year, it was about 5,500. There really is no line for a Central American to get into.”
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