Here’s a conversation recorded yesterday with Geoff Ramsey, who works on Venezuela full-time at WOLA. I wanted Geoff to talk about how to help restore democracy in Venezuela without a military intervention—but also without vague “dialogues” that just buy time for Maduro. He gave me a lot to work with.
We’re both fast talkers, so you don’t want to listen to this one at 1.5x speed; set your podcast-playing app to 1x.
How to Get Back to Democracy Without Military Intervention
After a failed attempt to deliver aid across borders, Venezuela’s opposition is regrouping and more outside commentators are discussing the unthinkable: military intervention. But not so fast: diplomatic efforts continue, both with and without the Trump administration. Pressure, multilateral sanctions, and dialogues specifically about the Maduro regime’s exit still offer hope of achieving a “least bad” outcome.
You may need to listen to this podcast more than once, because it covers a lot of ground. Geoff Ramsey, WOLA’s assistant director for Venezuela, covers the current moment, and the existing alternatives, in a wide-ranging, fast-moving discussion.
The nearly $3 billion that Congress has provided for barriers during the first half of Trump’s term requires that money be spent on designs that were in place before May 2017, effectively prohibiting the prototypes from being used
There is no necessary connection between judicial intervention and the maintenance of constitutional democracy. A court can intervene and increase the risks to democracy — precisely what happened in Chadha
Mientras el Estado hondureño se ensaña contra las personas que se oponen a un proyecto minero en la comunidad de Guapinol, Tocoa, en el departamento de Colón, varias organismos internacionales ha levantado la voz
I’m going to be in nonstop meetings and events today. An NGO sit-down with Mexico’s interior minister, a meeting of groups working on human rights conditions on foreign assistance, a meeting with visiting researchers on U.S. security aid programs, and an event at WOLA on the opioids crisis. I expect that I’ll be hard to reach today.
Under pointed questioning from senators, the top U.S. general for homeland defense said Tuesday that he sees no military threat coming from the southern border with Mexico, but his focus is on “very real” threats from China and Russia
Both developments came as the administration faces new legal scrutiny over the separations and the threat that a federal judge could force the government to comb through thousands of files to account for all migrant children
At least three of the nine are under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office. Prosecutors are investigating numerous killings by soldiers in units under the command of the others. The following is a summary of the evidence implicating the nine officers
No one should be fooled by this exercise, which achieves little beyond perpetuating the pretext for the regime’s one-party dictatorship. The entire process has been marked by carefully managed political theater and repression of public debate
The succession of setbacks left the opposition here scrambling Tuesday to sustain what has become the single biggest challenge to 20 years of socialist rule and manage inflated expectations of a rapid ouster of Maduro
Trump and other US leaders say that the time for negotiation has passed. They believe in a short, quick war if necessary. World leaders – and those in Latin American countries first and foremost – should open their eyes to the risks of a devastating war
The national emergency declaration and the profound cynicism that surrounds it are not just an attack on military construction and some other spending accounts. They represent an attack on the norms that preserve order and protect us from violence
Trump could do an end-run around Congress and scrounge up funds from other dusty corners of the Pentagon’s budget, but he’ll still need to reckon with the unsavory prospect of depriving some Republican allies of signature projects
Sectores políticos y de opinión pública creen que, aunque el gobierno Duque dice que no va a destruir lo pactado con las Farc, su estrategia es ponerle freno a la implementación y quitarle oxígeno por medio de los recursos
Pike said the main objective of the conference is to create a CAA guide to countering threat networks. This guide will be based on U.S. doctrine, but the intent is to make it acceptable for all partner nations to improve interoperability
La tendencia feminista a nivel mundial –aunque ninguna de las candidatas defiende este concepto– refuerza la trayectoria política de largo aliento de las tres presidenciables: Sandra Torres, Thelma Aldana y Zury Ríos
The bill has received pushback from the U.N., the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and other human rights groups that say it violates Guatemala’s international obligations to investigate human rights violations
Esta es la primera de las tres leyes que requiere la Guardia Nacional. Se prohíbe uso de fuerza letal para retirar bloqueos y manifestaciones. Se autorizan armas de descargas eléctricas pero no balas de goma
In the letter, the signing organizations urge the regional bloc to commit to migration policies that include “durable, coordinated, long-term measures and from a protection perspective in favor of people from Venezuela”
The Trump administration has repeatedly hinted at military intervention. But Saturday showed the regime is ready to call that bluff. That means Mr. Guaidó and his international alliance must settle in for a potentially prolonged economic and diplomatic siege
The officials would not detail which US military aircraft are being used, but the Navy and Air Force maintain several large fixed-wing aircraft capable of intercepting communications and monitoring the status of weaponry
The civil militia has an official membership of 1.6 million. Just last month 86 percent of Venezuelans said they opposed foreign military action. Invaders might not find themselves hailed as liberators
In the afternoon, I’m meeting with a foundation officer, then a colleague visiting from the U.S.-Mexico border. Later, I’m guest-teaching a graduate class. In the morning, I’ll be in the office processing my notes from my last border trip, among other research.
A bipartisan group of 58 former senior national security officials will issue a statement Monday saying that “there is no factual basis” for President Trump’s proclamation of a national emergency to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border
Para el CICR las donaciones que están varadas ahora en la frontera entre Colombia y Venezuela, no deberían ser llamadas ‘ayudas humanitarias’, dado que no están supeditadas por los principios de la imparcialidad y neutralidad
While the outcome of the referendum isn’t really in doubt, the percentage of who will vote for ratification is. It’s not expected to approach the 97.6 percent approval rate the current constitution got
Guaido is walking a delicate line. While saber-rattling could unnerve some in the top ranks of Maduro’s military and speed up defections, threats of foreign military intervention, especially involving the U.S., would likely strengthen Maduro’s stance among his shrinking base
Analysts warn there is a serious risk of sliding into armed conflict, and say many of those pushing for intervention are underestimating the cost and possible impact of sending foreign troops to Venezuela
Disclaimer: I’m not WOLA’s Venezuela expert. I’ve only visited the country once. Most of what I know about the country comes from press and NGO reports. The following exercise is me considering the unthinkable based on years of studying defense and security. I’ve discussed the military intervention issue only briefly with WOLA colleagues who work on Venezuela. (As a rule, nothing on this site is a WOLA document that has gone through WOLA’s editing and approval process, unless specified as such. This is me, nights and weekends, thinking things through.)
On the evening of February 23rd, the number-one worldwide “trending topic” on Twitter was #IntervencionMilitarYA, or “military intervention NOW.”
This came after a day of frustrated attempts to deliver humanitarian supplies into Venezuela from across borders. Many Venezuelans, both inside and outside the country, appear ready to have a foreign (that is, the U.S.) military come in and get rid of the Maduro regime and its corrupt, cruel, authoritarian misrule. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who has refused to rule out a military situation in the past, tweeted that the events of the 23rd “opened the door to various potential multilateral actions not on the table just 24 hours ago.”
While it’s still unlikely—in the sense that “less than 50 percent probability” means “unlikely”—U.S. military involvement in Venezuela is a greater possibility now than it has been at any moment in this long crisis.
“Military involvement” doesn’t mean that the Trump administration is about to start firing Tomahawk missiles at the Miraflores palace in Caracas. Yes, the White House includes a vociferous proponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion (John Bolton), and has strong domestic incentives to create a distraction (Mueller investigation near conclusion). But the War Powers Act allows the president to carry out a foreign military operation for only 60 days, plus a 30-day withdrawal period, if that operation lacks explicit congressional approval (like the 2002 authorization for use of force in Iraq).
The White House would need this approval, because it’s likely that any hostilities in Venezuela would last longer than 90 days. If the White House got it—or if it chose to ignore the War Powers Act, throwing the issue to the courts—what might U.S. military intervention in Venezuela look like?
Here, I argue that it would probably last quite some time: perhaps first as intense hostilities, then as a drawn-out insurgency. It would involve Colombia—and Colombia might in fact be the initial flashpoint. Civilian casualties would probably be in the low thousands. Damage to infrastructure would total in the billions, possibly tens of billions, of dollars. Open hostilities would end quickly: the Maduro government would probably collapse under military pressure. But combat could drag on for months, perhaps years, as a well-supplied chavista insurgency digs in.
The military option would not be easy. While it wouldn’t be as much of a quagmire as the Iraq war, a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela would not be a quick in-and-out affair like Panama 1989, an analogy that Sen. Rubio is now explicitly employing.
How could a conflict start?
I wouldn’t expect the Trump administration to launch an Iraq-style invasion without some pretext or provocation involving non-Venezuelans. There would have to be an initial spark, a “Gulf of Tonkin” moment, that makes the Maduro government appear to be the aggressor.
A likely scenario here would be an incident on a border involving loss of life. The more populated Colombian border most lends itself to this scenario. In December, a high-ranking Colombian military officer told me that “shots had been fired” along the Colombia-Venezuela border 147 times over the previous two years. While most of those incidents were between non-state actors, like organized crime, this shows how volatile the border region already is.
Hawks are thinking about this too. “#MaduroRegime has fired into territory of #Colombia,” Sen. Rubio tweeted on the afternoon of the 23rd. “Receiving reports of injuries after this attack on sovereign Colombian territory. The United States WILL help Colombia confront any aggression against them.”
A serious border incident could escalate quickly. There are almost no diplomatic or military contacts between Colombia and the Maduro regime right now. That regime has all but pulled out of the OAS, complicating dispute resolution. The UN is playing a minimal role, and with Russia and China supportive of Maduro, the Security Council is hamstrung. There are almost no guardrails in place to prevent a border incident from escalating into full-on fighting between Colombia and Venezuela. Latin America would see its first major inter-state war since the 1930s conflict between Colombia and Peru.
Vice President Pence, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, and probably then-Defense Secretary James Mattis have offered security guarantees to Colombia if it suffers aggression from Venezuela. So if Colombian President Iván Duque were to request it, the Trump administration would jump in.
So there would probably be a period of fighting between Colombia and Venezuela before U.S. forces got involved. What might that look like?
We could expect only limited combat in the Colombia-Venezuela border zone, which is sparsely populated, with national capitals far away. Border zones might see some effort to damage larger cities and to control cross-border supply routes (which, ironically, could cripple the cocaine trade). Much of both countries’ oil infrastructure is also near the border—but attacks on oil facilities would be nationwide and aerial.
A ground push to take the other’s capital would be a latter phase, probably well after the United States got involved.
Within each country’s interior, aerial bombardments would be likely and widespread. Both countries’ air forces are among Latin America’s best-equipped. Venezuela’s is probably superior to Colombia’s, though not overwhelmingly so. Caracas has a fleet of Russian-made Sukhoi combat aircraft, which are probably in good condition, and some U.S-made F-16s, which probably aren’t. Bogotá has Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets and slower attack aircraft like A-10s and Super Tucanos. Aerial attacks would target infrastructure essential for transportation and economic activity. A longtime chavista official and politician speculated in July about using Sukhois to take out the seven bridges over the Magdalena river that traverses Colombia, “dividing it in two.”(Note added 2/24 2:15PM: Víctor Mijares at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes told El Espectador last year that only 4 of Venezuela’s 24 Sukhois are operational. That seems low to me, but even if true, a lot of damage could be done with 10-12 sorties each.)
Expect even limited aerial attacks to do significant damage, with civilian loss of life, in large cities and at refineries and other economic targets.
Naval blockades of major ports, at least on the Caribbean, would be more damaging to Venezuela than Colombia, which has ports on two oceans.
Colombia’s ground forces are larger and have more combat experience, and would likely give Colombia the overall military advantage despite Venezuela having some air superiority. Venezuela’s forces are of uncertain loyalty, probably far more corrupt and indisciplined, weakened by years of promotions based more on political criteria than merit, and less funded. I suspect that much of Venezuela’s military equipment is precariously maintained and semi-functional. Colombia’s forces aren’t corruption-free, but have undergone reforms over the past 15 years that have somewhat improved discipline and professionalism, and its equipment is in better shape. Colombia would also benefit from imagery, intercepts, and other intelligence and advice from the United States. While conflict would be hugely costly for both countries, Colombia would probably be the eventual victor, if it came to that.
A giant wild card, both at this phase and especially after a formal military defeat, is the chavista capacity for guerrilla-style fighting. The Venezuelan government has armed hundreds of thousands as “colectivos” and “Bolivarian Militias.” These, along with renegade Chavista elements of the security forces, intelligence agents, a small leftist insurgency called the FPL, and perhaps even members of Colombia’s ELN, could be factors in the fighting. However, these would probably play a larger role after the Maduro government is forced out, and I’ll discuss them more below.
Another wild card is Russia. Don’t expect a commitment of Russian troops, but we’ve seen Moscow’s capacity for cheaper forms of intervention: cyber-attacks; targeted assassinations of leaders, often through poisoning; and spreading false information. Russia can also ensure that Venezuelan personnel have enough fuel and ammunition. China, which has loaned massive amounts to Venezuela to be repaid in oil, would probably stay on the sidelines.
If this happens, the United States would almost certainly get involved militarily. What would that look like?
To envision this, we have to borrow from the U.S. performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. The early phases of a direct U.S. intervention would probably be marked by a “shock and awe” campaign of targeted bombardments, intended to force Maduro and his circle to leave power quickly.
One hopes that this phase would be surgical, limited to military targets. One hopes, too, that U.S. forces would take better care this time not to destroy infrastructure on which the civilian population depends, and that it will be essential to rebuild quickly: the electrical grid, clean water, transportation, medical facilities.
Still, it is hard to be surgical in a city of 3 million like Caracas. There will be collateral damage. U.S. bombs, missiles, and drones will kill civilians.
If aerial bombardments don’t succeed in dislodging the regime, then expect a commitment of land forces. That could mean urban warfare and house-to-house fighting. This is the worst-case scenario, as it would mean being bogged down with far higher U.S. casualties than anticipated.
A wild card here are the Venezuelan people themselves. About two-thirds to three-quarters of them oppose Maduro, but how many will welcome foreign occupiers? Will U.S. personnel be “greeted as liberators?” Will local leaders be able to overlook Donald Trump reviving U.S. gunboat diplomacy on a scale not seen in generations? And even if the Venezuelan people do welcome the foreign occupiers, can the chavistas’ irregular forces terrorize them from actively collaborating?
Between a U.S. invasion and multilateral efforts to silence the weapons, open hostilities would probably end quickly. As happened in Iraq, the Maduro government would almost certainly be pushed out. Top regime officials would either be killed or forced into exile. What would happen then?
The good news is that Juan Guaidó would become the interim president for real, with actual executive power. As foreseen in the constitution, Venezuela would have to schedule free and fair elections as quickly as logistically possible. And these elections would have to happen super-quickly because, coming after a military defeat and amid a U.S. intervention or occupation, Venezuela’s next government would need a clear claim to legitimacy.
A big question for this new government is how much latitude the Trump administration would allow it to have in making decisions about the future. What bureaucrats and officials get purged? Would Washington have veto power over which officials get put in charge of key aspects of government? In rebuilding its economy and energy sector, could the next government stray at all from free-market orthodoxy, or will it be compelled to construct a Milton Friedman utopia?
The Venezuelan military would likely be purged of the most radical chavistas, but we would probably not see a repeat of the abolition of the Iraqi military, which made it very hard to keep order after the invasion, and fed the ranks of the insurgency. Still, some purged officers could go fugitive and become leaders of a violent “resistance.”
Imposing order on what is already the most violent non-war country in the world will be a huge and expensive task. Preventing looting and generalized disorder—something the “Coalition Provisional Authority” failed miserably to do after the fall of Saddam Hussein—will require a big commitment. There will be much infrastructure to rebuild, too, so that people see quick improvements in their lives. Rebuilding will also have to happen in Colombia, if hostilities do indeed occur there. Billions, if not tens of billions, in foreign assistance will be needed.
It’s at this phase where the “Venezuelan insurgency” question moves to the forefront. How likely is this, and how large a challenge would it be?
While I dislike recurring so often to the Iraq analogy (“fighting the last war”), it’s pretty likely that a post-conflict Venezuela would, as in Iraq, be challenged by insurgents committing acts of asymmetrical warfare. I have no idea whether the colectivos, Bolivarian Militias, expelled officers, renegade security forces, intelligence services, ELN, FPL, and others would collapse or persist. But it’s very plausible that many would persist, even without a unified leadership structure. They’d have illicit revenue streams, like cocaine, extortion, and fuel piracy, to sustain themselves. They could also be supplied by Russia.
Look at the “Bolivarian militias” alone. They have between 500,000 and 2 million members. Many are poorly trained, and probably undisciplined. Still, if even 10 percent of the low estimate opt for clandestine warfare, that’s 50,000 fighters from this force alone. At its height, Colombia’s FARC had half that.
And again, add to them the armed thugs in the “colectivos,” the FAES and other police units, the SEBIN, the FPL, the ELN, and any other radical elements who opt for violence.
Already, GunPolicy.org, an international firearms observatory, estimates there are 2.7 million illicit firearms in Venezuela. That’s the highest estimate in South America after Brazil.
This “insurgency” could make governance impossible in several regions and urban neighborhoods, perhaps for years. It could develop a big capacity to carry out terrorist attacks.
Under this scenario, U.S. forces could find themselves in Venezuela for many months, or even a few years—perhaps even propping up the Venezuelan government with “hearts and minds” counter-insurgency campaigns. Even if it is only a tiny fraction of the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, it would cost many billions of dollars.
The long-term presence of U.S. combat troops in a major Latin American country would be unpopular throughout the region, even among centrists. That would fundamentally remake the U.S. relationship with the Western Hemisphere, erasing goodwill efforts going back to FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy.
Negotiations for their own sake are no longer an option. The Maduro government has used them to buy time, and they’ve gone nowhere.
Negotiations about the terms of the Maduro government’s exit still make lots of sense. They offer hope of a soft landing. That means negotiating how to hold internationally certified, free and fair elections as soon as possible. That has to be the central topic of any future dialogues.
This may include transitional justice for Maduro government and military officials, who are unlikely to exit peacefully if they believe they’ll be hanging from lampposts. Those who committed human rights abuses or gross corruption would have to be held accountable for what they did and make reparations to victims, but reduced sentences would be likely.
A negotiated arrangement may even include allowing Maduro or other regime officials to run in elections—though they’d likely lose a free and fair election by a landslide.
An International Contact Group, formed in early February, calls for dialogue aimed at organizing elections and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid. It specifically avoids dialogues that the Maduro government could use to delay action further. The Contact Group involves the EU (European Commission), eight European governments, and four Latin American nations. As David Smilde and Geoff Ramsey explain, this mechanism is hopeful and deserves serious consideration.
Even negotiations about elections will require consistent, external, multilateral pressure. Efforts that lay bare the Maduro government’s moral bankruptcy, like yesterday’s attempt to bring humanitarian aid, can help to apply that pressure. So do sanctions, as long as they affect the powerful inside Venezuela and don’t compound the suffering of the majority. And the Trump administration must avoid being perceived as getting out ahead of the rest of the region, which plays right into the Maduro regime’s narrative of resistance to a long history of U.S. bullying.
The status quo in Venezuela is tragic and untenable. I argue here that a military intervention could inflict serious harm, drag on at length, and compound the tragedy. Options still exist to thread the needle between these two extremes. Multilateral action and non-military pressure can still force the scheduling of free and fair elections. We must exhaust those options first.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is asking for a priority list, as well as the data used to generate that priority list, to help him determine “what projects we support” and what could be delayed
A series of increasingly tough actions in Mexico suggest Lopez Obrador has turned his back on those promises and is tacitly cooperating with the Trump administration to stop the flow of Central American migrants
Se acordó que las fuerzas armadas cedan temporalmente elementos de sus policías militar y naval para conformar la fuerza inicial de la Guardia Nacional, que se sujetará al fuero civil. La Guardia podrá investigar delitos del fuero común
“Podemos decir que es un resultado y un triunfo de la sociedad civil (…) este dictamen puede nos puede poner en la ruta correcta en que la seguridad pública siga siendo una tarea y responsabilidad civil”
He was a human rights activist, producer for a community radio station and long-time opponent of the Proyecto Integral Morelos (the integral project for Morelos) – which includes the plant and pipeline
Hugo Carvajal, 58, who is a congressman in the governing Socialist Party, urged the military to break with the president ahead of a showdown with the opposition on Saturday over Mr. Maduro’s blockade of aid shipments
The best role for the United States is to provide the diplomatic, economic and logistical support that is needed for collective action by the governments of Latin America to succeed, preferably by peaceful means
Yesterday was a bit of a wash for me. I was so tired from flying in late from the west coast, and from that string of 18-hour days of volunteering and research interviews, that it took me hours just to write the trip notes that I posted in the afternoon.
Today, after sleeping 10 hours, I feel a lot more coherent. I’ve got just one phone interview on the schedule, so will be in the office catching up on the inboxes that piled up while I was away for 11 days: e-mails, calls and whatsapps, and news. This will give me a better idea of how I’ll be able to use my time over the next month, but it will take several hours.
I spent the week of February 11, and some of this week, in San Diego and Tijuana. It was like holding down two jobs. Each day:
At 4:30am, I’d go to the airport and escort migrant families to the flights that, in most cases, relatives had purchased for them. The San Diego Rapid Response Network migrant shelter dropped them off at the terminal, and I’d accompany them through ticketing, the TSA, and to their gates. The shelter desperately needed airport guides: no family I accompanied had ever been in an airport before. I did a few families each day. By this week, San Diego TSA agents knew me by sight, and dreaded seeing me.
Then I’d go into either SD or TJ and do research, interviewing a few people working, in some capacity, on the humanitarian situation: shelters, experts, lawyers, journalists.
By 4:00pm, I’d head over to the shelter—that’s when DHS/ICE would start dropping off apprehended migrant families—and do whatever volunteer work was needed: copying immigration forms, sorting and handing out clothes, serving food, driving people to the bus station or, one time, the hospital. That shift ostensibly ended at 8:00 but sometimes ran longer—and ICE buses would make drop-offs as late as 11:00pm.
Here are a few observations from this visit. This is in raw form, as I just got back to Washington after midnight last night.
The San Diego Rapid Response Network receives the migrants whom ICE would otherwise be dropping off at the bus station, and provides them brief respite while they make travel arrangements. During my first week, I saw intakes range from a low of 40-something people per day to about 90. Two days this week, though, it shot up to way over 100. This requires use of overflow facilities. It’s not clear why the number surged.
Of the migrants I accompanied in the shelter and airport, most were from Honduras and Guatemala. The Hondurans (and a few Salvadorans) were largely from cities. Most Guatemalans, on the other hand, were from seriously remote parts of the western highlands, from Jutiapa to Quiché to Huehuetenango (I talked to people from at least seven departments of Guatemala, but none from the capital). The urbanites were more savvy and talkative. The rural dwellers were much quieter, more nervous and apprehensive; often, their Spanish was rudimentary.
Languages that people spoke into my phone, as they called relatives to let them know when they’d be arriving: Spanish, Haitian Creole, K’iche’, Kakchiquel, and Qan’jobal.
Lots of families had very young children, five or younger. One parent was the norm. Some had teenage kids, who usually did much of the communicating. A few babies were alarmingly listless and small for their apparent ages. Lots of kids coughing.
Many of the Guatemalans were from the northwestern department of Huehuetenango. Many had arrived in southern Mexico during the post-January 15 caravan/wave and had been given Mexican humanitarian visas.
I didn’t meet a single family who had waited on the “list” at the port of entry, though I heard many of them do pass through the shelter. Everyone who would talk about it said they went over a low part of the fence, or “in the mountains.” In most cases, Border Patrol was waiting on the other side. Some had only left their homes in late January or early February, crossed Mexico and gone in and out of Border Patrol custody—some made the whole trip in three weeks or less.
Will all of these people qualify for asylum? Probably not. Still, a significant portion no doubt have strong asylum claims, and it’s going to be up to judges to sort that out.
The “list” continues for asylum seekers waiting to present themselves at the Tijuana port of entry. The number being called was in the 1,960s on February 14. It was in the 1,650s on January 9. (Each number stands for 10 migrants, though many do not show when their names are called—they give up or cross elsewhere.)
The latest numbers on the “list,” posted outside Tijuana’s Chaparral port of entry.
I didn’t see anybody get “returned to Mexico” under the new DHS initiative called “Migrant Protection Protocols,” and challenged by a lawsuit filed last week. Those returns happen irregularly, at different times of day, and some days not at all. As of February 14, it had been done to 65 people, though it was accelerating with the February 13 return of 18 people, including the first families with children.
Few migrants with whom I spoke knew where in the United States they were, or how far from their intended destinations. Very few were headed to the west coast; nearly all were going east of the Mississippi.
None with whom I spoke had strong complaints about Border Patrol treatment. Mostly, agents were described as indifferent and ignoring them: no reports of rough or abusive treatment. A few sounded kind. Border Patrol did separate one migrant, though, from a 16-year-old cousin for whom that individual was a guardian. Many complained about the burritos that Border Patrol gives in custody, and said they were very hungry because there was nothing else to eat. Of those who told me, those who had spent the least amount of time in custody had spent just a day or two; a father and son said they had been together in custody for five days. Not clear whether that owed to Border Patrol suspicions about them, or to logistics.
The 17 or 18 shelters on the Mexican side are near capacity too, especially now that the Mexican government has closed the El Barretal facility that housed many of the October caravan members.
It’s incredible that these private/church run shelters are getting the burden of “Remain in Mexico” completely dumped on them. The Mexican government, which agreed to the short-term deportations, is putting up no resources to accommodate those who are returned.
The number of Mexican citizens deported to Tijuana is a steady 120 per day, with little variation. Deportees used to be most of the Tijuana shelters’ population, but with so many northbound migrant families, now only some of the shelters attend to deportees.
The Mexican government’s National Migration Institute is not allowing unaccompanied Central American kids to present at the border for asylum. If it apprehends them, the INM sends them to the DIF, the Mexican government child welfare institute. It’s not clear what happens next: it seems some may be sent back to their home countries, back to the danger that they’re fleeing. About 30 are in one Tijuana shelter, in a state of “limbo jurídico,” the shelter doesn’t know what to do with them. The unaccompanied children situation in Tijuana is untenable.
Operation Streamline—the criminal prosecution of migrants who cross between ports of entry—is much different in California’s federal criminal courts than in Arizona’s. The result is probably similar—guilty verdicts and jail time, not being applied right now to parents—but the process offers more of an opportunity to claim “not guilty” or at least to petition for a lighter sentence. Instead of 60-ish defendants saying “culpable, culpable” in succession, as in Arizona, the magistrate judge in San Diego asks 6-8 defendants at a time to each answer a series of questions: whether they were coerced, whether they are on medication affecting their judgment, whether they understand the consequences of a guilty plea, and a few more. The magistrate judge and the DOJ prosecutors seemed inclined to give “time served” sentences to all first-time offenders, and rarely threw the book at second-time offenders. Defense lawyers have a chance to seek lenience by describing some defendants’ life circumstances. Each group of 6-8 appeared to take 45-60 minutes to enter guilty pleas and receive sentences.
(I wrote this a few hours ago, before we learned that Trump is going the national emergency route. Either way, this is what’s in the law that he’s going to sign.)
Hi from Tijuana. I’m between meetings again and looking over the text of the budget compromise that Congress will be voting on, and that President Trump must sign into law by tomorrow to keep the government from shutting down again.
I only have time to go over the section for Customs and Border Protection, which includes Border Patrol, CBP at the ports of entry, and CBP’s Air and Marine office. I’m going to have to leave before I can give a good look to the ICE section.
The language is mostly good on CBP: the Democrats got a lot of what they asked for.
$58m for 600 new CBP officers at the official ports of entry. (While there are big downsides to increasing manpower of an agency with insufficient accountability, the ports of entry are overwhelmed, and this could help reduce border-crossing wait times, reduce “metering” of asylum-seekers, and interdict more opioids and other drugs.)
About $600m for new technology / scanning / canines at ports of entry. (Makes sense since well over 80% of all drugs except cannabis go through ports of entry.)
$1m for rescue beacons for migrants lost in the desert.
$192m for food and medical care for migrants in CBP custody: $128m for medical personnel, $40.2m for food, infant formula, and diapers; $24.5m for transportation between facilities. (This is fantastic. Democrats were shocked by what they’ve seen of detention conditions, and it’s great that they’re acting on it.)
Required briefing of committees about improvements in procedures for welfare of migrants in CBP custody. (Great. A public hearing would be even better.)
$192m for a new short-term CBP migrant processing facility in El Paso; $30m for improvements to the one in McAllen. Specifies that temperatures should be appropriate, no more chain-link cages, no more mylar blankets. (The famous facility with the “cages” in McAllen serves a purpose, as it can take up to 72 hours to place asylum-seeking kids and families. But the conditions in that facility are awful, mainly because of a super-stingy budget. These improvements are welcome.)
Urging, but not fully requiring, CPB to keep unaccompanied siblings together.
No increase in Border Patrol agents. (This is great, Border Patrol has quintupled in size since the 1990s. There are enough agents, but they’re poorly distributed geographically.)
Cuts to funds for recruitment and screening of new Border Patrol hires (to maintain current levels), and to Border Patrol agent relocation and retention. (This is less great. Good agents should get raises, it takes too long to hire replacements because of background-check backlogs, and it makes a lot more sense to relocate than to hire.)
Reporting on use of force allegations, drug seizures, checkpoint operations, roving patrol stops, deaths in custody, status of port of entry improvement projects, incident cameras. (Reporting is good. CBP needs to submit these reports on time.)
$1.375b for “pedestrian fencing”: 55 miles in the Rio Grande Valley sector of Texas. (Language does not specify that the “pedestrian fencing” must follow existing designs, so if Trump wants to make it look like a “wall,” he can. On the other hand, the White House was demanding $5.7b for 234 miles.)
(I wrote these notes earlier today, in the middle of “day 3” here at the border.)
Hello from a coffee shop in central Tijuana. I’m taking a moment between meetings to talk about what I’m seeing on my second visit here so far this year.
I’m interviewing experts, officials, and service providers on both sides of the border. In between, I’m pulling volunteer shifts with the coalition of local church and humanitarian groups providing brief shelter, food, and travel assistance to mostly Central American asylum-seeking family members whom ICE releases from custody into San Diego—several dozen every day.
Here are a few impressions, as of day three:
— The airline employees and TSA agents at the San Diego airport are really nice. I’ve guided several families through to their flights to where relatives await—Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas, North Carolina, and elsewhere. (I’ve done some bus station runs too.) Flying isn’t easy when your ID is your ICE “release on recognizance” form, you’ve got an electronic GPS ankle monitor, you’ve got a small child or two, and (for everyone I’ve been with) you’ve never been inside an airport before. All the big airlines, though, have this figured out by now: if the flight is full, they bend over backwards to try to seat the parent and child together. I have no problem getting an “escort pass” to get to the gate. TSA agents, who have to pat everyone down, have all been patient and friendly. Some kids even got little gold “badge” stickers. Many of the other passengers have been cool. Good for you, San Diego Airport.
— A large number of the families I’ve encountered are from rural Guatemala and coastal Honduras. Nearly all are with children under five or six years old, and often with babies under one. Nobody has more than one or two small backpacks of belongings, and these are full of clothes donated by the community. Nobody I’ve accompanied has a mobile phone. Some of those arriving now had a less brutal journey across Mexico, because the new Mexican government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador briefly provided humanitarian visas to new arrivals from Central America. Many of these chose to stay in Mexico—but with a legal identity document, those who wanted to move on to the United States could at least take a bus instead of traveling in the shadows with smugglers.
— Most arrived by hopping the fence or crossing the border in a rural area, rather than presenting their asylum request to U.S. officials at an official land crossing (“port of entry”). Requesting asylum at the port of entry would be far better: it’s the safest way, because you don’t have to run a gauntlet of Mexican organized crime to get to un-fenced border areas. It’s technically the more legal way too, since crossing improperly is a misdemeanor. But the port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego—the busiest border crossing in the hemisphere, if not the world—is only accepting about 40-60 asylum seekers on a typical day. U.S. Customs and Border Protection calls this “metering.” Whatever you call it, there are at least 2,500 people on an improvised waiting list in Tijuana, awaiting their turns to approach the border crossing. The wait stretches about six weeks in uncertain, often unsafe conditions in Tijuana, a city in the midst of a record homicide wave. This creates a perverse incentive to take the risky route to a more rural area, climb the fence or hike through rugged terrain, then wait for Border Patrol to apprehend you and your kids.
— Now, even after waiting those six weeks, some asylum-seekers are getting sent back into Mexico to await their day in immigration court. The Trump administration is sending a couple of dozen Central Americans back into Mexico each day, under a unilateral program that they call “Migrant Protection Protocols” but we call “Remain in Mexico.” Under very heavy pressure from Washington, Mexico agreed to this, in principle, just before Christmas. But it has pushed back somewhat. For now, the Mexican government is only taking back asylum-seekers over the age of 18—no families—and only from Central America’s “northern triangle” countries. Still, every day now a group of exhausted-looking adult asylum-seekers crosses back in to Mexico, where they must find legal help to make their cases: many weeks from now, they’ll be admitted back across the border to appear before U.S. immigration judges.
— You don’t see it if you live in San Diego, unless you work for a federal agency, for one of the airlines or bus companies, or for a local service provider. But there’s a quiet humanitarian crisis going on, here and elsewhere at the border. Of every migrant whom Border Patrol is apprehending right now, 3 out of 5 are kids, or parents with kids. That’s never happened before: in 2012, it reached 1 in 10 for the first time. The San Diego Rapid Response Network’s respite center, which helps the new arrivals, needs all the resources it can get. Amid gang violence, rampant extortion, drought and extreme poverty, Central Americans are placing their hope in the U.S. asylum system.
— Some will qualify, some won’t. But the Trump administration’s response couldn’t be worse. That response is symbolized, for me, by barbed wire. There’s concertina wire everywhere along this border. It surrounds the “Mexico” sign as you enter into Tijuana. It tops the border fence that extends from the beach about 100 yards into the Pacific. It’s coiled along the barrier near the paved-over Tijuana River, where border agents used tear gas in November to disperse “caravan” participants, including women and children. It was put there by an ongoing deployment of active-duty military troops to the border, a use of active (not reserve or National Guard) troops that has very few modern precedents on U.S. soil.
— The Central American migrants I’ve met are hopeful and palpably relieved, even though much lies ahead of them. Their kids pay close attention when I point out a jet taking off, follow the route on my rental car’s GPS app, or read “Where the Wild Things Are” in Spanish. After spending time with them, it’s jarring to hear the lies and scare tactics coming from the White House and congressional hardliners, and repeated on Fox News and social media. We need the federal government to make the work of the service providers here easier, not harder. Until we get that, we need firm allies in Congress who’ll do good oversight and who’ll refuse to fund more walls or barbed wire.