Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.


January 2021

Latin America-related online events this week

Tuesday, February 2

  • 10:00–11:00 at The New Face of Multilateralism Under Biden (RSVP required).
  • 10:00–12:00 at Ninth Annual US-Mexico Security Conference: Part 2 (RSVP required).
  • 12:00–1:30 at Adelante: The Other Side (RSVP required).
  • 6:00 at A Deep Dive Into Guatemala’s Criminal Dynamics and Its Borders (RSVP required).

Wednesday, February 3

  • 9:00–10:30 at Digital Technology and the Fight Against Corruption in Latin America (RSVP required).
  • 9:00–10:30 at Zoom: Fiscalías y Estado de Derecho (RSVP required).
  • 10:00 at Zoom: Cuba ante la Agenda 2030. Cumplimiento del #ODS5 (RSVP required).
  • 11:30–12:45 at Zoom: Fiscalías y Estado de Derecho (RSVP required).
  • 12:00–1:00 at Corrupción en Centroamérica: desafíos, derrotas y destellos de esperanza (RSVP required).
  • 12:30–1:30 at The Future of U.S.-Mexico Relations (RSVP required).

Thursday, February 4

Friday, February 5

  • 10:00–11:00 at A Conversation with Martha Bárcena, Outgoing Ambassador of Mexico to the U.S. (RSVP required).

Colombia peace update: January 30, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

Transitional justice tribunal issues first indictment of FARC leadership, for kidnapping

Colombia’s post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz (JEP), issued its first indictment this week, charging eight members of the former FARC guerrillas’ uppermost leadership, or “Secretariat,” of overseeing at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Two of the accused now sit in Colombia’s Congress.

The JEP’s 322-page indictment for what it calls “macro-case 01,” along with an accompanying annex of heartbreaking excerpts of anonymized victims’ testimonies, underscores the brutality of the FARC’s crime. All seven regional guerrilla blocs raised funds and pressured for prisoner exchanges by abducting people and holding them in miserable conditions, at times for years. About 10 percent died or were killed in custody.

The cruel practice, which intensified after a 1993 guerrilla leadership conference, destroyed the FARC’s image before Colombian public opinion. This got worse as the guerrillas became more indiscriminate, kidnapping even poorer Colombians for small ransoms. The practice dehumanized the guerrilla captors and amounted to the FARC’s “political suicide,” wrote veteran El Tiempo conflict reporter Armando Neira.

The formal accusation is the product of a close read of numerous prosecutorial, governmental, and NGO reports and databases, along with testimonies from 1,028 kidnapping victims. It is also a sign to its many doubters that the JEP is not a mechanism for impunity and appears determined to hold the demobilized guerrillas accountable for serious war crimes. “It is a document that leaves groundless the idea that the JEP was created to suit the guerrillas,” write Juanita León and Juan Pablo Pérez at La Silla Vacía. (The JEP was created by the 2016 peace accord, its underlying law was passed in late 2017, and it began operations in 2018.)

The eight accused now have 30 working days to decide whether they accept the charges. During this period, 2,456 accredited victims may offer observations on the indictment. The ex-leaders haven’t said yet whether they’ll accept the charges, though a statement maintains that they remain committed to the transitional justice process. If they challenge the charges and lose, they face time in prison—up to 20 years.

If the leaders accept the charges, JEP judges will sentence each to a maximum eight years of “restricted liberty”—something less austere than prison—during which they must perform actions aimed at reconciliation. It’s still not clear what these punishments will look like, though they are likely to mean confinement to some of the 170 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties) that are prioritized for post-conflict programs.

Some poor areas on the outskirts of Bogotá have been added to this list of post-conflict zones, which raises the possibility that a judge might allow two accused FARC members who have seats in Congress to continue legislating while paying their penalties. While the peace accord appears to allow this, victims are calling on Pablo Catatumbo Torres Victoria and Julian Gallo to step down from their Senate seats. (The 2016 accord gives the FARC five automatic seats in the 102-person Senate and five seats in the 166-person House for two four-year terms.)

The JEP’s announcement indicates that this is only a first step: later this year, the tribunal will accuse many mid-level FARC commanders who participated in kidnappings. It is also moving ahead on “macro-case 03,” the Colombian military’s thousands of “false positive” killings of civilians.

From U.S. diplomats, a new tone on peace accord implementation

The Obama administration supported the Colombian government’s negotiation of a peace accord with the FARC, which was ratified at the end of 2016 during the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition. During the Trump years, while the U.S. Congress continued to approve aid packages that assisted its implementation, support for the peace accord dried up in U.S. officials’ rhetoric. Other than an occasional statement at the UN, it was very rare to hear a diplomat or other official praise the 2016 accord or call for its implementation. Near the end of the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign went further, adopting the loud anti-accord rhetoric used by Colombian critics like ex-president Álvaro Uribe.

During the Biden administration’s first full week, U.S. diplomats underwent a notable rhetorical shift, voicing support for the accord and its implementation several times in local and social media. Examples include:

  • Tweets on the U.S. embassy’s account (1) (2) (3).
  • A conversation between just-confirmed Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Foreign Minister Claudia Blum.
  • Interviews in Colombian media with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.

“I think the agenda between the two countries remains similar. However, perhaps we’re going to see some points with a different emphasis,” Ambassador Goldberg said in a wide-ranging January 24 interview in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Highlights of that interview include:

  • On peace accord implementation: “We’ve seen some progress, but we’ve also seen some problems with implementation, including opposition from illegal groups.”
  • On social-leader killings and security: “This problem of massacres and attacks against certain groups and leaders is something that needs much more attention. …The government is fighting them [illegal armed groups], but evidently it has not set a policy to prevent the problems they cause.”
  • On aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas: “This time, the fumigation, the aerial spraying, will be the total responsibility of the Colombian government. We’re going to help them in certain aspects, but they’re going to buy the glyphosate, they’re going to control the planes, it’s not contractors, as before. So now it will be completely different.”
  • On governing party members’ meddling in the U.S. election: “If there are some frictions as a result of that, we’re going to overcome it. It wasn’t President Duque or his cabinet, but some politicians.”

U.S. returns paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo, a voracious child rapist

On January 25 the United States returned to Colombia Hernán Giraldo, one of 14 paramilitary leaders whom the Uribe government extradited in 2008. Giraldo, whose “Tayrona Resistance Bloc” violently controlled the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region along the Caribbean coast, served more than 12 years in U.S. prison for cocaine trafficking.

Though the U.S. justice system is finished punishing him for drug-related crimes, Hernán Giraldo has yet to face Colombian justice for horrific war crimes. In the Sierra Nevada, he earned the nickname El Taladro (“The Drill”) because of his deliberate use of rape as a weapon of war. Giraldo committed hundreds of rapes, most of them of girls, some as young as 13 years old. He encouraged his commanders to do the same. In video testimonies from U.S. prison, he admitted to only 24 cases.

Hernán Giraldo, now 74 years old, is to face a court in Barranquilla. His many victims, including girls forced to bear his children, have had a long wait while the U.S. government first tried him for narcotrafficking. Even so, justice in Colombia is not assured: from his prison cell, Giraldo may remain powerful. An organized crime group descended from his Tayrona Resistance Bloc, known as “Los Pachenca,” today controls much territory in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.


  • Colombia’s Defense Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, died of COVID-19-related pneumonia on the evening of January 26. Trujillo was a leading contender to be the ruling Centro Democrático party’s nominee for the 2022 presidential election.
  • The FARC political party, recognizing that its acronym is a political liability (see kidnapping discussion above), officially changed its name to Comunes (“common people”).
  • Between January 1 and 24, the JEP counted “14 armed confrontations between criminal structures and the security forces, 13 death threats against social leaders, 6 massacres, 5 assassinations of former combatants of the FARC-EP, 14 homicides of social leaders, 3 attacks and 7 armed confrontations between illegal groups.”
  • As of November, there were 1.71 million Venezuelans in Colombia (over 3% of Colombia’s population), of whom 770,246 had “regular migration status,” according to the latest situation update from UNHCR.
  • A report from the Peace Accords Matrix program at Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute finds implementation of the peace accord’s ethnic provisions to be lagging. “Ten percent of the 80 provisions of the ethnic sub-matrix have been fully implemented, 9 percent show an intermediate level of progress, 49 percent show minimal implementation, and the remaining 32 percent have not yet begun implementation.”
  • “We have the hope that during your administration, the economic resources that the United States allocates for anti-drug policies in Colombia can be used more effectively to support productive initiatives for sustainable livelihoods and of good living,” reads a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris from Francia Márquez, a Cauca-based Afro-Descendant environmental leader and winner of the 2018 Goldman Environmental Prize.
  • El Espectador hosted a worthwhile panel on implementation of the peace accord’s vital rural reform chapter, with two top officials, the lead author of a critical January report from the Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), a Kroc Institute expert, and an activist from Caquetá. Video here, summary here.
  • The newspaper also produced an excellent multimedia feature on women searching for loved ones who disappeared during the conflict.
  • With Panama’s border closed due to COVID-19, about 1,000 U.S.-bound migrants from Cuba, Haiti, and several African countries are stranded in makeshift tents on a beach in Necoclí, in northwestern Colombia’s Urabá region, according to AFP.
  • Threats and killings—most likely by the ELN, although other armed groups are present—forced 11 town council members to flee the municipality of Argelia, in southern Cauca department.
  • The latest bimonthly Gallup poll, whose time series for some questions goes back to the late 1990s, shows growing discontent on many issues. La Silla Vacía shares the full poll as a Google Doc. Favorability ratings for the military and police have recovered a bit after scandals, though they remain low in part because of enforcement of pandemic lockdowns. Joe Biden has a 60%-11% favorable-unfavorable rating. By a 69%-24% margin, respondents see peace accord implementation as “on the wrong track.”

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Daniel Becerril/Reuters photo at the New York Times. Caption: “An encampment of more than 2,000 migrants seeking asylum in the United States last year in Matamoros.”

(Even more here)

January 29, 2021

Central America Regional

Biden needs to follow through on a proposed Central American regional anti-corruption commission. Otherwise, U.S. aid will not stop thousands of desperate people from fleeing


Mientras unos pidieron paciencia y reconocimiento hacia los logros alcanzados, otros reclamaron que los puntos altos son pocos y que en los territorios siguen marginados y desterrados

En efecto, la guerrilla se deshumanizó por completo con este delito

Conflict researchers, victims and former peace negotiators said the accusations are a signal to critics, who assert that rebels benefited from the peace process without fear of punishment, that the justice system set up by the accord is functioning

Se expedirán otros documentos en los que se individualizará la responsabilidad por Bloques de exmandos medios y ejecutores de las Farc en todos los territorios donde se cometió este delito de lesa humanidad

Miles de mujeres en Colombia luchan todos los días y desde hace décadas por sacar del olvido a sus seres queridos desaparecidos

Colombia, Cuba, Haiti

Now in makeshift tents on the beach of Necocli, these migrants hope to sneak into Panama en route to the US by crossing the dangerous Gulf of Uraba to the Colombian border town of Acandi


China and Iran are intrinsically more important than Cuba, which poses no real threat to the United States. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for the president to move quickly to re-engage with Cuba

The eight men argue that their ongoing detention violates a Supreme Court decision that generally blocks ICE from detaining people that it is unable to deport for more than six months, and who don’t pose a threat to public safety

Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela

Ecuador reforzará los destacamentos militares e incorporará una veintena de vehículos tácticos Hammer para ampliar la movilidad de sus patrullas en la frontera con Perú, con el fin de vigilar el ingreso de migrantes

El Salvador

El Salvador’s 39-year-old President Nayib Bukele sent local Twitter into a tailspin when he briefly changed his profile picture to an image of Sacha Baron Cohen from the movie The Dictator


A better approach with a realistic chance of proving effective would be to focus on a select number of regions producing the bulk of lethal conflict, such as Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Michoacán

In this case, it seems strange that the coyote was able to walk free and even alert the families in Guatemala that their relatives had been killed

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border, Western Hemisphere Regional

The impatience is a reflection of the soaring demand for relief among migrants amid an economically crippling pandemic and after four years of efforts by the Trump administration to choke off both legal and illegal immigration


The Fundación del Río (River Foundation), a conservation organization focused on Southeast Nicaragua, has been systematically reporting on the gradual environmental destruction of the Indio Maíz

U.S.-Mexico Border

Community leaders and experts consulted by the Guardian warned that urgent action is needed to stop the damage to fragile biodiverse landscapes and scarce water sources getting worse

In October 2019, DHS began pilots of the Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) and Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP) programs to quickly process migrants with claims of credible fear. We conducted this review to evaluate DHS’ effectiveness to date in implementing the programs

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also said that nominee Alejandro Mayorkas would head up a task force that seeks to reunite migrant families

“These Trump policies are alive and well on the border … it’s frustrating”

the critical work of rebuilding must also begin at the border, where our national bonds of solidarity and the rule of law have both been distorted and undermined

We write to urge the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to rescind – and not extend or re-adopt – xenophobic, cruel, and unlawful policies implemented by the Trump administration under the pretext of public health


Varios analistas consultados por la Voz de América consideran que revocar la restricción no levantaría la presión a Maduro, y en cambio, evitaría que el país se quede sin diésel, esencial para el transporte de alimentos

Weekly border update: January 29, 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.

Bodies of 19 missing migrants found in Tamaulipas, Mexico

Police responding to a call on January 22 made a grisly discovery in a rural zone of Camargo municipality, in Mexico’s violence-torn border state of Tamaulipas, about 45 miles from Texas. A burned-out pickup truck by a dirt road contained the incinerated bodies of 19 people, whom it seems were shot to death elsewhere and incinerated there.

The victims appear to be migrants from Central America who had hoped to reach the United States. Most or all may be from San Marcos, a department of western Guatemala that borders southern Mexico.

Nothing is confirmed until comparisons with relatives’ DNA are complete, a process that might take about two weeks. But just as they were passing through Tamaulipas late last week, a group of migrants from the towns of Comitancillo, Tuilelen, and Sipacapa—where most residents’ first language is Mam, an indigenous dialect—abruptly stopped contacting relatives back home via WhatsApp.

Most of the missing and presumed dead were in their late teens or early 20s. They had paid a smuggler to take them—“$2,100 upfront,” a mother of one of the victims told Vice—but that did not guarantee safety from Mexican organized crime.

“Camargo is near the edge of territory historically controlled by factions of the Gulf cartel and in recent years a remnant of the Zetas known as the Northeast cartel has tried to take over,” the Guardian reported. Camargo residents cited in the Mexican magazine Proceso pointed to the Northeast cartel as the likely killers.

The tragedy illustrates the outrageous degree of liberty with which criminal groups operate in Tamaulipas and other poorly governed, corruption-riven zones of Mexico, and the danger this poses to migrants. Tamaulipas is where the notorious San Fernando massacre of 72 migrants took place in 2010, and alarming crimes have been frequent since then.

“The toleration of these aberrant crimes demonstrates the lack of protection for the migrant population in Mexico,” read a statement from many non-governmental organizations. Rubén Figueroa of the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano told Vice, “These massacres are continuous. It’s an ongoing massacre. Sometimes they are big like this one. Sometimes it’s just two of three people that are assassinated, disappeared.”

Border wall construction pause goes into effect

One of President Biden’s January 20 proclamations ordered all construction of the Trump administration’s border wall to pause within seven days. Then, for the next sixty days, agencies are to review procedures for “redirecting funding and repurposing contracts.”

For days after January 20, activists at several points along the border denounced that construction crews weren’t stopping. “It’s a lie, I saw huge bulldozers digging up dirt on mountainsides, the crews were carving out new sections in some places and moving steel bollards closer to installation sites in others,” John Kurc, a filmmaker and photographer, told the Guardian. The Sky Island Alliance, an Arizona environmental defense group, set up a crowdsourced page to document continuing activity.

By the 27th, though, it appeared that wall construction had largely stopped. Now, the new administration must set about finding out what is left of:

  • $9.9 billion in Defense Department funds, which were to pay for 466 miles of wall, about 343 of which were completed; and
  • $5.8 billion in congressionally appropriated funds and $0.6 billion in Treasury seized asset forfeiture funds, which were to pay for well over 300 miles (the mileage to be built with 2021 funds is unknown), about 110 miles of which were completed.

By April 22, the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Justice, along with the White House Office of Management and Budget and National Security Council, are to come up with a plan for redirecting remaining funds, cancelling contracts, and (presumably) withdrawing eminent domain claims.

Some are suggesting using the money for border security technologies instead of fencing, an option that raises civil liberties and environment concerns. An unnamed “frontline CBP officer” told the Nation “that they had concerns about the growth of this technology, especially with the agency ‘expanding its capabilities and training its armed personnel to act as a federal police.’”

Border advocates are instead calling for investment to mitigate damage that wall-building did to fragile ecosystems and culturally sacred sites. “The right thing to do would be to tear them all down,” Laiken Jordahl of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity told Fronteras Desk. But “of course we have to be realistic with our demands. We certainly want to focus our energy on removing sections of barriers in wildlife corridors, in sacred areas to indigenous nations. In waterways where they’re stopping the flow of water.” Scientific American notes that this remediation is so necessary that “far more sites need restoration than funding would allow.”

Justice Department rescinds the “zero tolerance” rule

Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson has done away with the Justice Department’s notorious April 6, 2018 “zero tolerance” memo. Issued by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, this order called on the Justice Department to prosecute, in the federal criminal courts, the largest possible number of undocumented migrants who crossed the border between ports of entry, a misdemeanor.

This policy applied equally to asylum seekers, and it led to an outrageous expansion of family separations at the border. In about 3,000 cases, parents went into criminal custody while children got treated as unaccompanied minors. A scathing mid-January Justice Department Inspector General report found that Sessions and other officials knew that mass family separations would result from zero tolerance, and didn’t bother to prepare the responsible agencies ahead of time.

The revocation of “zero tolerance” is largely symbolic: the horrified national outcry forced Donald Trump to order a stop to most family separations in June 2018. And now, under the “Title 42” COVID-19 border policy, nearly all Central American or Mexican parents with children are being swiftly expelled back into Mexico without a proper chance to ask for asylum.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, keeps rolling back Trump-era policies. Next week the White House may release three or more executive orders seeking to:

  • Set up a task force to reunify families separated by zero tolerance;
  • Address “root causes” of migration in Central America;
  • Improve and increase border-zone processing of asylum seekers;
  • End “safe third country” agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras;
  • End a Trump administration rule barring asylum to people who passed through a third country and didn’t seek asylum there first;
  • Reinstate the Central American Minors Program that allows children to apply for protection in their home countries;
  • Help strengthen Mexico’s asylum system; and
  • Increase refugee admissions.

The White House had originally slated these EOs’ publication for January 29, though there was no formal public announcement confirming that. They are being delayed by a few days as “details are still being worked out.”


  • WOLA released statements this week calling on Mexico to do more to protect migrants and punish those who abuse them, following the Tamaulipas massacre; and about the need for Mexico’s government to collaborate with the dismantling of “Remain in Mexico.”
  • A new U.S. Government Accountability Office report finds that, between October 2019 and March 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) put about 5,290 recently apprehended asylum seekers through two ultra-rapid border-zone adjudication programs, HARP and PACR. Of these, only 23 percent passed initial credible fear screenings and were allowed to pursue their claims; before HARP and PACR, “74 percent of people passed their credible fear interview and were allowed to continue to seek asylum,” according to the ACLU. (We understand that the DHS Inspector-General will be releasing its own report on HARP and PACR on January 29.)
  • On January 26 Texas Southern District Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee, slapped a 14-day temporary restraining order on the 100-day deportation moratorium that President Biden had mandated on January 20. The order comes from a lawsuit brought by Texas’s archconservative attorney-general, Ken Paxton, who has made recent headlines by leading lawsuits against Biden’s Electoral College victory and against Obamacare. At Slate, Mark Joseph Stern contends that this order from a judge who “does not appear to have a rudimentary understanding of…immigration law” doesn’t actually compel the Biden administration to deport anyone.
  • “It is more difficult to transit through Mexico to the Mexico-U.S. border. This new phenomenon has been changing Mexico from a transit country to, in some cases, a country in which African migrants are settling temporarily or permanently,” finds a thorough new report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the Institute for Women in Migration (IMUMI).
  • At CNN, veteran political analyst Ron Brownstein offers a detailed look at what lies ahead for the Biden administration’s immigration reform push, particularly the prospects for getting enough votes in the Senate.
  • James McHenry, who headed the Justice Department’s immigration court system (EOIR) during the Trump years, is stepping down. McHenry had established decision quotas and other measures that “made judges feel as if they were cogs in a deportation machine,” according to BuzzFeed.
  • The ICE detention facility in El Paso, which is much criticized for miserable conditions, is run by a subsidiary of a company run by members of a native Alaskan nation, who mostly live on an island a few miles from Russia. El Paso Matters tells the story of Bering Straits Native Corporation, which barely responded to its many inquiries.

The day ahead: January 29, 2021

I’ll be hard to reach today. (How to contact me)

I’m in meetings at 10, 11, 12, 2, 3, and 4:00 today, ranging from internal planning to informational interviews to coalition meetings. I’ll be hard to reach because I’ll be talking with people pretty much non-stop.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from La Silla Vacía (Colombia).

(Even more here)

January 28, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision revived an asylum bid by Juan Carlos Amaya, a citizen of El Salvador and former member of the gang MS-13

Sources involved with the discussions say they are delayed “by at least a few days,” but declined to say what is causing the delay

“Her chief of staff, Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, will monitor the federal reunification effort given her background as a lawyer”


The celebrated Chilean judge, Juan Guzmán Tapia, best known for his principled stand against human rights abuses and his pioneering prosecutions of former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, died on January 22, 2021


Ten percent of the 80 provisions of the ethnic sub-matrix have been fully implemented, 9 percent show an intermediate level of progress, 49 percent show minimal implementation, and the remaining 32 percent have not yet begun

Es un documento conmovedor que reconoce y documenta el sufrimiento y el daño causado por las Farc a las víctimas del secuestro. Es un documento demoledor para los congresistas del ahora llamado Partido de los Comunes

Así como es de intensa la tarea de los ambientalistas en Roncesvalles para proteger sus riquezas naturales, también son foco de amenazas contra su labor

En este documento, los magistrados de la Sala de Reconocimiento acusan a ocho excomandantes de la extinta guerrilla de haber sido los responsables de este delito de lesa humanidad

En este documento judicial, los magistrados de la Sala de Reconocimiento acusaron a ocho excomandantes de la extinta guerrilla de haber sido los responsables de este crimen y otros delitos conexos que vivieron sus víctimas en cautiverio

Dos investigadoras del conflicto armado colombiano señalan que el exjefe paramilitar violó a decenas de mujeres como una forma de control militar y social de la población de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

La JEP destaca la importante participación de más de 2 mil víctimas de secuestro que han insistido en la necesidad de establecer la verdad plena de lo sucedido e identificar a los responsables

Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela

El imponente despliegue de blindados y militares en la frontera de Perú y Ecuador para “disuadir” a la migración venezolana evidencia el inagotable drama del éxodo de connacionales


El caso más reciente ha sido la juramentación del juez Mynor Moto, señalado en casos de corrupción, para ocupar un lugar en la corte más alta del país

Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico

Fieles a su actuación servil, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Alejandro Giammattei y Juan Orlando Hernández, presidentes de México, Guatemala y Honduras, respectivamente, han convocado a las fuerzas armadas de sus países para contener la primera caravana del 2021

Guyana, Venezuela

OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro is condemning what he calls the illegal detention of two Guyanese-registered fishing vessels and their crew by “the Venezuelan dictatorship”


El crecimiento de las facultades militares no ha sido acompañado por el diseño de nuevos mecanismos de control, transparencia y rendición de cuentas

Coincidieron que, es evidente la falta de diseño e implementación de políticas de prevención de la violencia que garanticen el derecho a una migración segura

El sobrevuelo ocurrió luego que el pasado fin de semana campesinos de siete localidades confrontaran a soldados de los Batallones 40 y 27 del Ejército, después de que militares destruyeron 50 hectáreas de cultivos de amapola

Los habitantes del municipio de Chilón se enteraron por medios de comunicación sobre el acuerdo entre autoridades municipales, estatales y federales (incluyendo a la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional-SEDENA), para ceder un terreno dentro de su territorio para la construcción de un Cuartel

A las bajas por la enfermedad se suman las de más de 500 policías asesinados por ataques de los criminales. La violencia contra los uniformados está en el nivel mas alto de los últimos tres años

The evolution of the Mérida Initiative points to the importance of working towards a common understanding of security that puts citizens’ security at the center

  • Anita Isaacs, Anne Preston, Lives Derailed (Haverford College, The New York Times, January 28, 2021).

Between June 2018 and June 2019, we interviewed 430 former immigrants living in Mexico City. More than a third left the United States during the first 18 months of the Trump administration

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Los gobiernos de México y los Estados Unidos tienen la obligación de colaborar entre ellos para proteger a estas personas, y revertir por completo “Quédate en México”, un programa que ha generado un desastre humanitario sin precedente

U.S.-Mexico Border

“They think things are going change immediately. I’m trying to make them understand it’s not that easy”

The day ahead: January 28, 2021

I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)

While I didn’t try to steer meetings and commitments away from today, I have a pretty light schedule. I’ll spend part of the day pestering contacts in government about things like information requests, and part of the day writing a weekly border update, some Colombia website updates, and some longer-term projects. Tomorrow’s schedule is much fuller, so I’ll try to make the most of today’s unexpectedly open calendar.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from (Spain).

(Even more here)

January 27, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

The pandemic may ultimately be a turning point that saw unfortunate crime and security-related trends of the past three decades accelerate even faster. The question is what governments can do to stop it

The percentage of Latin American students who complete high school may fall from 61% to 46% because of the pandemic

While some changes are possible, the realities of a split U.S. Congress and a crowded domestic agenda will probably prevent the kind of bold experiments such as drug legalization that some progressives support

Congressional Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups seem content deferring initially as Biden seeks Republican support for change. But it’s clear that both groups have only limited patience for that approach if Republicans don’t quickly show signs of interest

Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee, granted a temporary restraining order sought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, saying the state had demonstrated a likelihood of facing immediate harm from Biden’s pause


Secco is attacking money laundering by criminal organizations at a national level, a strategy that isn’t frequently seen in Latin America


This news was devastating. Diemar felt she had accepted that her adoption was done in the proper manner because she couldn’t handle the emotional fallout


The death leaves a void for the ruling Democratic Center Party, which is trying to decide on a candidate who could win in next year’s presidential election

En lo que va del 2021 se han presentado 14 enfrentamientos armados entre estructuras criminales y la Fuerza Pública, 13 eventos de amenazas de muertes a líderes sociales, 6 masacres y 5 asesinatos de excombatientes de las Farc-EP

Ecuador, Peru

Su objetivo será vigilar hasta 30 pasos fronterizos clandestinos que han sido identificados como los más frecuentes utilizados por la inmigración ilegal

El Salvador

Bukele se vende como un mesías, como el parteaguas en la historia de este país y no pretende permitir que le compita ninguna guerra, con todos sus magnicidios y masacres; ni tampoco una paz, con todos sus logros e imperfecciones

Guatemala, Honduras

Thousands in US-bound migrant caravan were returned to Honduras this month, but many say they will try again. Here’s why

Guatemala, Mexico

Family members of the missing Guatemalans said their loved ones — most of them in their late teens and early 20s — started heading North on January 12, departing from Comitancillo, Tuilelen, and Sipacapa, small towns and villages just south of the border with Mexico


Las autoridades confirmaron que no se reportan personas heridas, pese al enfrentamiento y el siniestro de la avioneta que se quemó en un 90 por ciento


Dos grandes cárteles, siete u ocho organizaciones criminales de alto impacto y unos cien grupos menores de la delincuencia organizada, no menos peligrosos, conforman la geografía del narcotráfico en México

U.S.-Mexico Border

Prosecutions had dropped sharply after the Trump administration declared a pandemic-related health emergency that allows them to immediately expel Mexicans and many Central Americans


Johan León, Yordy Bermúdez, Layners Gutiérrez Díaz, Alejandro Gómez y Luis Ferrebuz estuvieron tres días en una clínica del municipio San Francisco, por presentar síntomas asociados al COVID-19

“Ten drops under the tongue every four hours and the miracle is done,” Maduro said in a televised appearance on Sunday. “It’s a powerful antiviral, very powerful, that neutralizes the coronavirus”

Talk to anyone in the Venezuelan community right now and you may hear really mixed feelings

The day ahead: January 27, 2021

I’ll be reachable, except when writing. (How to contact me)

Like yesterday, I’ve tried to keep today clear of meetings while I do a lot of correspondence and writing. I may have email, whatsapp, signal, text etc. turned off when I’m deep into writing.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Jorge Lezama photo at SinEmbargo (Mexico). Caption: “Campesinos solicitaron el apoyo del Presidente.”

(Even more here)

January 26, 2021


O ministro da Defesa, general Fernando Azevedo, viaja no próximo sábado para os Estados Unidos e só volta no dia 4 de fevereiro. Ele vai para Luisiana visitar o Centro de Treinamento de Preparação Conjunta, em Fort Polk

Central America Regional

We need the Biden Administration to set a new tone that unequivocally embraces the rule of law. That starts by holding corrupt actors accountable through tools like the Magnitsky Act


The FARC’s political party will now be known as Comunes, which translates roughly to commoners or commons

The fallout of a decades-long armed conflict, a peace process that appears to be coming apart at the seams, an impending economic crisis, and a government with far-right conservative leanings that has failed to appease the growing frustration —all factors driving the anger of everyday Colombians

Carlos Holmes Trujillo se desempeñó en este gobierno como ministro de Relaciones Exteriores y de Defensa. Fue precandidato presidencial para las elecciones de 2018

La llegada de Girado tiene en tensión a tres departamentos y varios municipios de la Sierra Nevada de santa Marta

Márquez requested direct communication with Vice President Harris to help ensure the United States’ continued commitment to an inclusive peace in Colombia

Guatemala, Mexico

30 indigenous men and women traveled to the foreign ministry in Guatemala City from distant highland provinces on Monday after word spread their relatives may be among the deceased


While once only a concern for those with means, now no one is immune from becoming a kidnapping victim in Haiti


With the president now infected, what most aggrieved many Mexicans was not only that he had flouted basic safety precautions, but that he also may go back to playing down the threat

Unos 200 campesinos de siete comunidades del municipio de San Miguel Totolapan, Guerrero, se confrontaron a jaloneos y empujones este domingo con efectivos del Ejército que acudieron a destruir plantíos de amapola

The group had kept in contact with family members back home, Coronado said, but there had been no word for them since Thursday, when they were apparently in or near Tamaulipas

Since 2019, the current U.S. and Mexican Administrations have been working together to externalize U.S. immigration enforcement into Mexican territory. This resulted in thousands of African migrants being stranded in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula

U.S.-Mexico Border

Determining which fence segments should come down and how to fix the damage they have caused would likely require some tough decisions

A frontline Customs and Border Protection officer, who asked not to be identified as they were not authorized to speak publicly, told The Nation that they had concerns about the growth of this technology, especially with the agency “expanding its capabilities and training its armed personnel to act as a federal police”

About 1,220 individuals received positive credible fear determinations placing them into full removal proceedings where they may apply for various forms of protection such as asylum. However, as of October 2020, DHS and EOIR could not account for the status of such proceedings for about 630 of these individuals

While the suspension of new enrollments in MPP is a critical first step, thousands of individuals with pending MPP cases remain in danger


“Del lado del chavismo sí hay gente que quisiera la negociación”

The day ahead: January 26, 2021

I’ll be reachable much of the day, but will be unresponsive when writing. (How to contact me)

I’ve deliberately avoided scheduling meetings today and tomorrow, after two weeks of very frequent commitments. I’m catching up, doing a lot of back-and-forth correspondence, and trying to get writing done. While writing, I’ll have all communications apps turned off.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Photo from Animal Político (Mexico).

(Even more here)

January 25, 2021


Sunday’s protests were called by conservative groups that had once backed the president, while those on Saturday had come from the left


El Ejército de Colombia adquirió 3.771 fusiles Galil ACE 23 de calibre 5,56 mm. El contrato, firmado con la Industria Militar de Colombia INDUMIL, por un valor de aproximadamente 4,4 millones de dólares

Organizaciones sociales ya han enviado sus peticiones al nuevo Gobierno para que respalde la paz

Un informe de la Procuraduría estableció que lo reportado por el Gobierno en términos del Fondo de tierras y la formalización de predios a campesinos, promesas del primer punto del Acuerdo de Paz, es inferior a la realidad

Los militantes de las extintas Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia han llegado a la conclusión de que esa sigla genera resistencia en múltiples sectores de la sociedad y han decidido identificarse a partir de ahora como Comunes

Solo esta semana hubo denuncias por la desaparición de once personas que se movilizaban de Tumaco al municipio de Mosquera y por el desplazamiento de 99 familias

“Puede haber una relación más distante entre los partidos de Gobierno de los dos países, pero nadie está proponiendo recortar la ayuda o cambiar la relación comercial”

“Hoy me atrevo a escribirle esta carta, con la esperanza que pueda ser leída por usted, a fin de establecer un dialogo que nos permita articular las acciones necesarias para cuidar la vida desde el amor maternal y el instinto del cuidado”, escribió la lideresa

En diálogo con EL TIEMPO, el embajador estadounidense en Colombia, Philip Goldberg, reconoce los esfuerzos del gobierno de Iván Duque para implementar el proceso de paz, proteger las vidas de líderes sociales y evitar masacres. Pero pide “hacer más”

El ex alto comisionado de Paz, vislumbra lo que significa la nueva administración de EE. UU.

Colombia, Mexico

Después de la extradición de los exjefes paramilitares a Estados Unidos en 2008 por orden del expresidente Álvaro Uribe Vélez, se produjo un efecto inesperado en Colombia y fue la entrada de los carteles de Sinaloa, Jalisco Nueva Generación y Los Zetas

Cuba, Nicaragua

El modelo de represión que ahora ocurre en Nicaragua, y desde 2014 en Venezuela, tiene sus orígenes en Cuba desde el año 2003


Lamentó que aún se registren enfrentamientos con pérdida de vidas humanas, aunque afirmó que ya se están sintiendo los cambios

En total el Ejército consiguió asegurar 6 mil 975 kilogramos de este estupefaciente, un crecimiento del 18.5 por ciento respecto a los 5 mil 886 kilogramos decomisados en 2019

La Secretaría de Marina (Semar) reservó por cinco años la hoja de servicios de mandos vinculados a la desaparición y posible ejecución extrajudicial de 47 personas en Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, entre enero y junio de 2018

Los testimonios de pobladores de Camargo señalan que un comando de pistoleros del Cártel del Noreste (CDN), los antiguos Zetas, localizaron en una casa del poblado Santa Anita a 19 presuntos ciudadanos guatemaltecos, a quienes asesinaron en ese lugar y luego los abandonaron

López Obrador has frequently minimized the severity of the pandemic and has rarely worn a mask

Campesinos de siete comunidades del Municipio de San Miguel Totolapan se confrontaron este domingo con efectivos del Ejército, luego de que estos les destruyeron 50 hectáreas de amapola

U.S.-Mexico Border

The future of the border wall is up in the air not only for what may still go in but what some want to see torn out


Alistarse en la FAN ya no es una opción para los venezolanos más pobres

  • Alberto Barrera Tyszka, Los Naca Naca (The New York Times, January 25, 2021).

El chavismo está criminalizando la solidaridad. Su modo ñaca ñaca, su estilo camorrero e impúdico, requiere de una respuesta más contundente —incluso más pública— de las Naciones Unidas

Venezuela’s Juan Guaido is a “privileged interlocutor” but no longer considered interim president, European Union states said in a statement

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on Monday will launch another effort to offer Venezuelan exiles protection from deportation through Temporary Protected Status — a move that the Biden administration supports

The day ahead: January 25, 2021

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

I’m trying to keep Tuesday and Wednesday of this week clear of commitments in order to get some overdue writing and website maintenance done. (We’ll see whether I succeed at that.) Today, I’ve got a long internal staff meeting on the calendar in the morning, a meeting with colleagues in Colombia in the afternoon, and a lot of messages in my inbox. I should be reachable most of the afternoon, though, if needed.

Weekly e-mail update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s got:

  • The latest WOLA podcast, on Mexico;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • A piece about politicized security forces, which I wrote for a Brazilian think tank newsletter;
  • Video of a fun TV appearance with a Colombian panel on January 20;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • 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, January 25

  • 12:30–1:30 at Decolonizing Drug Policy: Perspectives from the Americas and Asia (RSVP required).

Tuesday, January 26

  • 10:00–12:00 at Ninth Annual US-Mexico Security Conference: Part 1 (RSVP required).
  • 3:00–5:30: Política energética, capitalismo extractivista y medio ambiente (RSVP required).
  • 8:00pm at Zoom: ¿Por qué hablamos de drogas? (RSVP required).

Wednesday, January 27

  • 10:00–11:30 at From Displacement to Development: Challenges and Opportunities to the Economic Inclusion of Venezuelans in Colombia (RSVP required).
  • 12:00 at Cowards Don’t Make History by Joanne Rappaport (RSVP required).
  • 2:00 at Zoom: In the vortex of violence. Lynching, Extralegal Justice, and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico (RSVP required).
  • 3:00 at Ethnic Report from the Barometer Initiative (RSVP required).
  • 4:00–6:00 at ¿En qué va la Reforma Rural Integral? Information here.

Thursday, January 28

  • 5:00–6:00 at Regional Security and Defense: The Next Decade (RSVP required).
  • 5:30–7:00 at Zoom: Author Meets Critics: MS-13 the Making of America’s Most Notorious Gang w/Steven Dudley (RSVP required).

5 links from the past week

  • Senate Foreign Relations Committee Western Hemisphere Democratic staff have been doing great oversight work on the Trump administration’s intensely harsh anti-migrant policies’ impact on Central America. In October they revealed that DHS personnel in Guatemala were packing migrants into unmarked cars and shipping them back to Honduras. A new report this week finds that of 945 non-Guatemalan asylum seekers shipped to Guatemala under a so-called “safe third country” agreement, not a single one received protection.
  • At the Los Angeles Times, Molly O’Toole provides a panoramic view of border and migration policy as Trump gives way to Biden. “I am just deeply worried that every single day the Biden administration waits to give clear indications of what’s going to happen at the border after Jan. 20, they put more people in danger,” Savitri Arvey, co-author of a series of reports on “metering” along the border, tells O’Toole.
  • In Mexico, the López Obrador government’s trajectory keeps getting more alarming. Animal Político finds that the presidency has shut down access to public information and official documents about a host of current issues, including “the Tren Maya, the Santa Lucía [new Mexico City] airport, contracts for vaccine purchases, data on COVID deaths, …the presidential plane, and the operation against Ovidio Guzmán.”
  • Writing for The Atlantic, Daniel Loedel reflects on retrieving the remains of an older half-sister he never met. Isabel Loedel was one of tens of thousands disappeared by Argentine forces during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.
  • Colombia’s Vorágine publishes an account, by reporters from “La Cola de Rata” and “La Liga Contra el Silencio,” of conditions along the San Juan River, which flows into the Pacific in southern Chocó department. This territory of collectively held Afro-descendant and indigenous lands is strategic for cocaine transshipment and other illicit income sources, and communities are caught in the middle of fighting between armed groups and the military. Virtually the only government presence is military patrols—who appear to be capturing community leaders based on false pretenses or bad information—and coca eradicators.

Colombia peace update: January 23, 2021

Cross-posted from WOLA’s site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

U.S. inauguration spurs reflections about the bilateral relationship

As President Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump, Colombian media speculated about how the bilateral relationship might change.

One of the most likely shifts is renewed U.S. support for implementation of the 2016 peace accord, which Trump, in the final weeks of the campaign, derided as “the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels.” Biden, by contrast, had counseled President Iván Duque, at a 2018 event in Bogotá, that “the peace agreement was a major breakthrough and should not be minimized or ignored.”

In the new administration’s first days, the U.S. ambassador to the UN gave remarks strongly supportive of the accord’s implementation (discussed below), and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, along with the Bogotá embassy’s Twitter account, made clear that the accord’s implementation is once again a key U.S. priority.

President Duque, whose party, the Centro Democrático, opposed the accord in 2016, did not refer to it specifically in remarks congratulating Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. He noted “the defense of democracy, the fight against transnational crime, against drug trafficking, against terrorism; of course, cooperation, comprehensive development, the commitment to renewable energies and to confront the vicissitudes of climate change and, of course, to continue strengthening investment ties.”

Much media speculation surrounds the possibility of cooling relations amid accusations that members of the Centro Democrático improperly favored Donald Trump and other Republican candidates during the U.S. campaign. “Joe Biden has spoken, after the elections, with Latin American leaders, such as those of Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina, but not with Ivan Duque,” noted El Espectador.

“The interference of some Colombian political figures in the U.S. election was inappropriate and not very strategic, and has left its mark especially among members of Congress, where the Democrats have a majority,” Michael Camilleri, a State Department official during the Obama administration, told the paper. Added WOLA’s Adam Isacson at Caracol, “the bilateral relationship will remain just as close, but relations between the Democratic Party and the Centro Democrático are not going to be the best.”

Opposition Senator Antonio Sanguino called for the resignation of Colombia’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco Santos, who was accused by his cousin, former President Juan Manuel Santos, of improperly favoring Trump. The Ambassador attended Biden’s January 20 inauguration ceremony.

Biden’s arrival “opens space for citizen diplomacy,” said much-cited conflict analyst Luis Eduardo Celis, adding, “we must prepare the messages and mechanisms to tell the new President of the United States that there is a peace to be built in Colombia.” Letters asking for more explicit U.S. support for peace accord implementation came from the Defendamos la Paz coalition, and from 110 Afro-Descendant, indigenous, campesino, and victims’ organizations.

UN Security Council meets to discuss peace implementation

The Security Council met virtually on January 21 for a quarterly review of Colombia’s peace process and the work of the UN Verification Mission, which produced its most recent report at the end of December.

“2021 is year five of the 15-year timeframe envisioned for the implementation of the entirety of the Peace Agreement,” said the UN Special Representative in charge of the Mission, Carlos Ruiz Massieu. “It is incumbent to ensure 2021 is remembered as the year in which bold steps were taken to bring to fruition the full promise of sustainable peace enshrined in the Agreement.”

The UN mission director said his office has been warning repeatedly about budget shortfalls in the Colombian government agency charged with providing physical protection to threatened social leaders and former FARC combatants. “More than 550 vacancies for bodyguards remain and over 1,000 requests for close protection are still pending review” at the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit, he said. These numbers far exceed results presented by Colombia’s Foreign Minister, Claudia Blum, who highlighted “more than 200 schemes to protect former combatants” in 2020, along with 24 sentences handed down for killing ex-combatants, 40 cases under investigation, and 48 arrest warrants issued.

The Security Council should find it “intolerable that more than 250 ex-combatants—signatories to the Peace Accord—have been killed since its signing,” said Norway’s UN ambassador, Mona Juul, who called for strengthening the National Protection Unit and three bodies created by the peace accord: the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the Special Investigative Unit of the Fiscalía, and the Comprehensive Program of Safeguards for Women Leaders and Human Rights Defenders.

Even during the Trump administration, U.S. representatives at Security Council meetings tended to give statements generally supportive of Colombia’s peace process. Richard Mills, the U.S. ambassador, was explicitly supportive, signaling an early change in tone with the arrival of the Biden administration. “What can often be often lost, I think, in the specifics of our discussions in this topic is the magnitude of the peace agreement, and the profound impact it has already had on Colombian society,” Mills began. He went on to voice strong concern about attacks on social leaders and ex-combatants, urging Colombia’s government to increase its presence in rural areas and to punish those responsible.

Ambassador Mills also voiced support for Colombia’s “truly innovative” transitional justice system, a topic on which U.S. diplomats have generally avoided comment. In 2019, the U.S. ambassador at the time even supported President Duque’s unsuccessful efforts to weaken this system.

Community leaders threatened in El Salado, a town that suffered an emblematic massacre

The village of El Salado, in El Cármen de Bolívar municipality, in the once-conflictive Montes de María region a few hours’ drive from Cartagena, is known throughout Colombia for the massacre and displacement its residents suffered at the hands of paramilitaries between February 16 to 21, 2000. About 450 AUC members killed 60 people amid days of uninterrupted torture and rape, while the security forces failed to respond.

The name “El Salado” evokes the worst moments of Colombia’s armed conflict. Those memories revived this week as 11 community leaders received a written death threat. A flyer circulated by the so-called “Black Eagles” on January 18 reads, “The people who appear on this list, whose pictures or names are here, leave, or we will come for you at any time.” El Salado social leaders have also received text messages reading, “Either you leave or you die. We know where you are,” “this is how we started 21 years ago,” and “we already know where every family member lives.”

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) responded by sending a delegation to El Salado, led by Vice-Ombudsman Luis Andrés Fajardo. 2019 and 2020 “early warning” reports from the Defensoría point to a growing presence of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary organization, which moves cocaine through the Montes de María en route to the Caribbean coast. The National Police stated that it was sending an elite team along with representatives of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía).

The name “Black Eagles” (Águilas Negras) frequently appears on death threats sent to human rights defenders and social leaders around the country. But the group does not seem to have visible leadership or hold any territory. “The Black Eagles don’t exist,” said Ariel Ávila of the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación. “These are people, surely not among those wanted by the law, who use the ‘Black Eagles’ emblem to threaten. The authorities, led by the Fiscalía, must determine the threats’ origin. The problem is that this is never investigated.”


  • As the FARC political party begins an “extraordinary assembly” meeting that some key leaders are skipping, leader Rodrigo Londoño declared an intention to abandon the name “FARC,” in order to ease formation of coalitions and to distinguish the group from armed dissidents. Fundación Paz y Reconciliación analyst Ariel Ávila told El Tiempo that a name change “would help the Farc party to get off the list of terrorist organizations.”
  • Two prominent Colombians are hospitalized with severe cases of COVID-19: Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Luis Fernando Arias, leader of the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC).
  • The Inter-American Human Rights Commission ordered precautionary measures for Ricardo Calderón, an intrepid investigative journalist who, during his longtime tenure at Semana magazine, revealed several major corruption and human rights scandals in Colombia’s armed forces, particularly in military intelligence. Calderón is one of many reporters who left Semana after a recent management change, but he continues to receive threats.
  • Judicial proceedings have begun for Bogotá police accused of killing civilians during a violent citywide police response to anti-police brutality protests last September, in which police killed 13 people over two days. Defense lawyers are seeking to have officers John Antonio Gutiérrez, José Andrés Lasso, and Andrés Díaz Mercado tried in the military justice system instead of the regular criminal justice system, arguing that their role in four of the killings was an “act of service.”
  • El Espectador took brief looks at the activities in southeastern Colombia of Brazil’s Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) criminal group, and at those of Mexican organized crime throughout the country.
  • Vorágine looks at the grim human rights and security situation in southern Chocó’s San Juan River valley, a major narcotrafficking corridor with very little government presence beyond sporadic sweeps from security forces and coca eradicators.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Marco Ugarte / AP photo at USA Today. Caption: “Mexican soldier Gaspar Sanchez sits over his recently adopted puppy ‘Cloee’ following his troop’s overnight patrol along the Suchiate River, the natural border with Guatemala near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Jan. 21, 2021, after a caravan of Honduran migrants dissipated before reaching the river. Sanchez said he adopted the puppy from a litter of street dogs near his base in Tapachula.”

(Even more here)

January 22, 2021


“Con los Estados Unidos debemos volver a conversar sobre la paz que ellos apoyaron con el acuerdo firmado con las Farc, proceso del cual la administración del Presidente Obama participó”

Sacarlo de la militancia para acercar a otros sectores democráticos y, muy importante, tomar distancia de las disidencias que con sus acciones generan miedo entre la población

Analistas aseguran que con la llegada de Biden a la Casa Blanca se retome la agenda de paz en Colombia como uno de los puntos centrales entre las relaciones de las dos naciones

Líderes y lideresas sociales, defensores y defensoras de los derechos humanos, así como miembros de partidos políticos también siguen siendo, lamentablemente, víctimas


Both governments later confirmed that Lopez Obrador and Biden would speak by phone on Friday afternoon

U.S.-Mexico Border

What will become of a border wall that’s already been partially built? What does it take to reverse the damage to communities and ecosystems along the U.S.-Mexico border?

“They hear that there will be opportunities, or at least they hope there will be”


The socialist government of Nicolás Maduro and the U.S.-backed opposition are accusing each other of playing politics with proposals to finance United Nations-supplied vaccines

A Colombian businessman was carrying a letter from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accrediting him to Iran’s supreme leader when he was arrested on a U.S. warrant last year

January 21, 2021

Central America Regional

En el caso de un político, empresario corrupto o un narcotraficante, perder el acceso a los Estados Unidos es un gran problema para los negocios

Rather than shrink from Trump, the presidents of the three countries took advantage of his transactional nature


On January 20, Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos la Paz, DLP) published a statement addressed to President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in regard to the current state of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace accord

El Directivo para la veeduría de la Defensa aseguró que no hay claridad en “cómo va a ser distinta la política de Biden de la del segundo periodo de Barack Obama. Muchos de los encargados ya nombrados del gabinete de Biden vienen del gobierno de Obama”

This violence has a direct and damaging effect on the reintegration process and the implementation of the Peace Agreement and we join our other Council members and colleagues in saying it must end

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

After Wednesday, Trump’s outspoken political appointees will be gone and the 99% of CBP and Border Patrol employees who are career public servants will remain to work under a new administration with near opposite priorities

U.S.-Mexico Border

The order leaves billions of dollars of work unfinished — but still under contract — after Trump worked feverishly last year to build more than 450 miles

Pause work on each construction project on the southern border wall, to the extent permitted by law, as soon as possible but in no case later than seven days from the date of this proclamation

The funding appropriated by Congress since 2018 is enough to pay for 298 miles of barrier, about 71 miles of which have been completed. That would potentially oblige the Biden administration to complete up to 227 additional miles

For the opening salvo of his presidency, few expected Joe Biden to be so far-reaching on immigration

Even the Democratic senator leading the charge acknowledged on Thursday that passing it would be “a Herculean task.”

Effective tomorrow, January 21, the Department will cease adding individuals into the program. However, current COVID-19 non-essential travel restrictions, both at the border and in the region, remain in place at this time

Since the emergency controls were invoked, nearly 400,000 “encounters” have been made, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

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

Weekly border update: January 22, 2021

With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border.

Joe Biden’s first steps

The Biden administration devoted its first hours to a burst of executive orders, proclamations, legislative proposals, and policy changes. Several undo Donald Trump’s border and migration policies, charting a very different course. They include:

  • Ordering a halt, within seven days, to all border wall construction, after which the administration will spend sixty days assessing the wall-building contracts (which they don’t appear to have seen), and developing a plan for ending those contracts and repurposing unspent funds.
    • Biden’s proclamation cancels Trump’s February 2019 “national emergency” declaration that took $9.9 billion from the Defense Department budget to build fencing. The Army Corps of Engineers has ordered contractors to stop work.
    • The proclamation cannot cancel funding ($5.8 billion) that Congress directly appropriated for wall-building between 2017 and 2021. That would require agreement with Congress on reinterpreting past appropriations’ language ordering barrier construction, or on rescinding past years’ funds completely. Failure to do so “would potentially oblige the Biden administration to complete up to 227 additional miles of border wall,” the Washington Post reported.
    • “As of Jan. 15, the government spent $6.1 billion of the $10.8 billion in work it signed contracts to have done,” of a total of $16.45 billion secured for the wall, the Associated Press reported, citing “a Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of the contracts. The full amount under contract would have extended Trump’s wall to 664 miles” from the 455 miles that were completed.
  • Suspending new enrollments in the “Remain in Mexico” (or “Migrant Protection Protocols”) program. For now, though, those already enrolled—more than 28,000 people whose asylum cases are still pending before U.S. immigration courts—must remain in Mexican border towns.
  • Ordering the Homeland Security and Justice Departments to “preserve and fortify” Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA).
  • Ordering a 100-day freeze on most deportations during which the Homeland Security Department will review immigration enforcement practices and policies.
  • Revoking Trump’s ban on visas for citizens from several Muslim-majority and African countries.
  • Revoking a January 2017 executive order cracking down on so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions.”
  • Implementing a “regulatory freeze” that halts hardline immigration restriction rules and regulations issued in the Trump administration’s final months.

The new administration is introducing legislation, the “U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021,” that proposes to:

  • Provide pathways to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants in the United States, with a quicker process for DACA and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients.
  • Increase the integration and admission of refugees, including a restoration of the Central American Minors Program that allowed some threatened children to apply for refugee or asylum status from their home countries.
  • Fund the use of scanning, surveillance, and other technologies along the border.
  • Expand training and continuing education for border agents.
  • Codify a four-year, $4 billion package of assistance to Central America to address migration’s “root causes.”
  • Expand alternatives to detention and reduce immigration court backlogs.

Republican senators have already begun deriding the still un-introduced bill as “total amnesty” and a “non-starter.”

So far, there has been no mention of other measures that the Biden campaign or transition team had been floating:

  • A program or task force to reunify hundreds of migrant families that remain separated by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
  • Withdrawal from “safe third country” (or “asylum cooperation”) agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
  • Changes to the “Title 42” pandemic rapid-expulsions policy that has blocked migrants from requesting asylum.

Biden officials have indicated that some changes restoring the right to seek asylum at the border will have to wait until processing capacity is in place at or near ports of entry. A transition official told NBC News that would-be asylum seekers “need to understand they’re not going to be able to come into the United States immediately.”

Tent facility for processing migrants being built in Rio Grande Valley

Because it may need to be built quickly, much of that processing capacity will look quite temporary, at least at first. Before the Trump administration’s end, on January 19, CBP began construction of a “soft-sided”—that is, made up of tents—processing facility in Donna, Texas. There, personnel will perform background and health checks and begin paperwork for migrants seeking protection in the United States. The facility will take about 30 days to build.

Donna is in the Rio Grande Valley region of southeast Texas, which is by far the number-one arrival point for Central American asylum seeking migrants. CBP built a more permanent processing facility in the Rio Grande Valley in 2014, the “Ursula Avenue” Central Processing Center in McAllen. That facility, notorious for its stark warehouse-like appearance and chain-link “kids in cages” internal fencing—is now undergoing a year and a half-long renovation.

Contracts for similar “soft-sided” facilities are pending for Laredo and Brownsville, Texas, according to the Rio Grande Valley Monitor.

Guatemalan forces turn back migrant caravan

As discussed in last week’s update, about 7,000 would-be migrants departed from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in the days leading up to January 15, with the intent of forming a “caravan” to the U.S. border.

They didn’t make it. About 25 miles inside Guatemala, in the southeastern department of Chiquimula, a large contingent of Guatemalan soldiers and police (part of a 2,000-person deployment) gathered at a highway chokepoint to impede the migrants’ progress. Video showed helmeted security forces beating migrants with truncheons and deploying tear gas to keep them from passing through the cordon. By January 19, most of the would-be caravan participants had dispersed, presumably returning to Honduras.

Guatemala, which had declared a state of emergency in seven of its eastern departments, cited COVID-19 concerns to justify the use of force. Normally, residents of Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua are free to travel in Guatemala without a passport.

Important population centers in Honduras were devastated by two hurricanes in rapid succession in November. That came on top of the severe public health and economic blows dealt by COVID-19, which in turn were layered over very high rates of violence and extortion—much of it gang-related and worsened by official corruption—that were already forcing large numbers of Hondurans to abandon their country.

Migrants view “caravans” as a way to employ safety in numbers to minimize the dangers of the journey through Mexico, without having to pay thousands of dollars to migrant smugglers. Though only a tiny percentage of migrants who have arrived at the U.S. border travel this way, U.S. anti-immigration activists and politicians are triggered by striking images of thousands of people coming to the border all at once. The Trump administration pressed Mexico’s and Central America’s governments to crack down on “caravans.”

No migrant caravan has gotten past Chiapas, Mexico since January 2019. Security forces have dispersed them in April and October 2019; in January, October, and December 2020; and now in January 2021.


  • Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, is to be named the White House National Security Council’s coordinator for the southwestern border.
  • DHS Secretary-Designate Alejandro Mayorkas faced some critical questioning from Republicans at his January 19 confirmation hearing, and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) has placed a hold on his nomination, which could delay confirmation for days or weeks.
  • The humanitarian group HIAS, which has worked extensively with “Remain in Mexico” victims in Mexican border towns, has published a detailed guide for how the Biden administration can dismantle the controversial program while observing public health requirements.
  • The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Democrats published a report documenting disastrous consequences of the Trump administration’s safe third country agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to the report, titled Cruelty, Coercion, and Legal Contortions, DHS shipped 945 non-Guatemalan migrants to Guatemala to seek asylum there, and none received it.
  • The U.S. immigration court backlog increased from 542,311 pending deportation cases when Donald Trump took office, to at least 1,290,766 cases today, according to TRAC Immigration.
  • In one of its last moves, the outgoing Trump administration granted an 18-month deferral of deportation for more than 145,000 Venezuelans in the United States.
  • Mexican National Guard personnel pulled over a semi truck driver, apparently for not using a seatbelt, on a highway in the southeastern state of Veracruz. After hearing shouts and pounding, they found 128 Central American migrants packed into the truck’s container.

The day ahead: January 22, 2021

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

I’m finishing a weekly border update (as you can imagine, there’s a lot to talk about), then editing and posting a new podcast. I’ve got two coalition meetings and a staff check-in this afternoon. By mid-afternoon I should be more or less reachable as I catch up on email and news.

What happened in the United States, and the danger of politicized security forces

Here’s the original English text of an article I contributed to Fonte Segura, a newsletter produced by Brazil’s Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Analítica Comunicação. It offers some warnings and lessons, for Brazil and elsewhere, from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It borrows a few sentences of language from my January 11 e-mail newsletter update, but is otherwise original material.

On the afternoon of January 6, as television images showed a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters entering and ransacking the U.S. Capitol building, my first thought—the first thought of many Americans—was: where are the security forces?

A thin line of U.S. Capitol Police (the force that protects the installations of the U.S. Congress), not outfitted for crowd control, was quickly overwhelmed. For far too long—hours—a few hundred Washington, DC city police were the only other law enforcement personnel to arrive on the scene.

The United States has been rigorously preparing and drilling its law enforcement forces to deal with attacks and disturbances since September 11, 2001. Off-the-shelf interagency plans exist. Tens of billions have been spent on new capabilities to protect federal government facilities and monuments. Displays of force and caution are so common that the term “security theater” is now part of the American vernacular. We all saw, in response to the June 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the remarkable and intimidating capability that U.S. law enforcement, both local and federal, can muster. In one night in Washington—June 1, 2020—police arrested 289 mostly peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protesters.

On January 6, though, when the protesters were mostly white and egged on by a sitting president, the deployment was far smaller, and agents were not initially equipped with riot gear. Capitol Police arrested only 13 people during the day of the rampage; Washington municipal police arrested 69 more.

The U.S. Congress’s Capitol Police force had seemed formidable. Though it only protects a neighborhood-sized area, its force of 2,000 officers has a half-billion-dollar budget, greater than that of the armed forces of Guatemala. They give an impression of being a thorough force that controls its territory on a micro level, known for scolding tourists for minor transgressions and arresting peaceful protesters, while mobilizing quickly when a threat arises.

But the force fell apart rapidly and spectacularly on January 6, and investigators are trying to figure out why. Clearly, a small but not insignificant number of Capitol Police officers shared sympathies with the pro-Trump rioters and were complicit, allowing them to enter the Capitol grounds and posing for selfies.

That’s of huge concern, and must be punished to the maximum criminal penalty. But the complicity of some doesn’t explain the failure: some Capitol police performed heroically to stop or divert the rioters. One died and more than 50 were injured.

The more urgent unanswered question is why the force received so little backup, so slowly, from a presidential administration that has been quick to contain other recent protests by deploying border agents, DEA agents, Bureau of Prisons personnel, and Army National Guardsmen. Barricaded in rooms with the mob just outside, congressional leaders and even Vice President Pence (who had been presiding the Senate) were calling urgently for help. Why did it take hours to come?

We now know that President Trump spent those hours glued to the television, appearing delighted at the spectacle and unwilling to call in security. Capitol security leadership and the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have spent days engaging in finger-pointing, blaming each other for not responding, or for not making requests “the right way.” But the message the delay left is clear. Federal security forces’ management—and especially the Trump appointees at Homeland Security and Defense who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard and other backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent.

The United States’ legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. January 6 shows how important that norm is. Ignore it—leave another branch of government vulnerable to mob attack—and everything falls apart if there’s no accountability. That’s why we obey democratic norms: because if we don’t, then nothing matters. We plunge into the abyss.

In the United States, for now at least, the norms have held. Congress made Joe Biden’s election victory official. The U.S. military remained loyal to the constitution, even as some in law enforcement seemed more loyal to the president. Donald Trump is now being impeached, even as he leaves office, for his role in enabling the January 6 insurrection—and the high-level delay in calling for more security will certainly be considered during his Senate trial.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Nearly everywhere in the world, security force memberships tend to be conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them apolitical while on the job, from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader, is a common challenge.

It means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies. This starts by removing commanders and officials who are more loyal to a political leader than to the constitution.

It also means returning to an ethic of service, actively fighting against an encroaching “us versus them” mentality. Too often, officers view themselves as a “thin blue line” guarding against an entire sector of society. As the wildly uneven response to recent U.S. protests indicates, that sector to be guarded against tends to be racial minorities and people who hold left-of-center political views. In the United States, those who hold this “thin blue line” view even have a flag depicting it. This is toxic.

Brazil is in a similar situation. It, too, has an authoritarian populist president who heaps praise on, and seeks to instrumentalize, the security forces. The country’s 2022 election promises to be very close. When it happens, Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters’ tendency to deny reality could lead them, like Trump, to dispute the result of the voting. If something like that happens, what role will Brazil’s security forces play?

Authoritarian populist leaders have been gaining ground worldwide, and there are very few examples of one being defeated in an election before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. The United States, though, is doing it. It’s not pretty—January 6 could hardly be uglier—but democratic institutions are holding. As one of the world’s very few “post-populist” democracies, the United States could end up being an even stronger example of functioning democracy than before.

There is much work to do, especially with our law enforcement agencies. But if the United States succeeds, it will hold up a light for countries, like Brazil, that remain under the the spell of 21st century “post-truth” elected authoritarians.

The day ahead: January 21, 2021

I’m pretty booked up today. (How to contact me)

I’ve got at least 6 hours of solid meetings on the calendar today and will be hard to reach. An interview, an internal meeting, a podcast recording session, another internal meeting, a border coalition meeting, and a meeting with some USAID folks. Also there’s a lot of developments to catch up on, which was hard to do yesterday because I spent hours doing interviews with media around the region. And I want to have a weekly border update ready to go by tomorrow morning, which will have a lot to cover.

That’s all to say that contacting me today might be difficult. I’ll try and get back as soon as I can, hopefully by end of day tomorrow, but my messages are starting to pile up.

The day ahead: January 20, 2021

I’ll be mostly reachable, but have to do several interviews and watch the inauguration. (How to contact me)

67 months since Trump declared his candidacy. 50 1/2 months since Trump was elected. 48 months since he was inaugurated. 19 months since the first Democratic candidates’ debate. 2 1/2 months since Election Day. Finally, finally, we’re saying goodbye to Donald Trump. What’s left to say, except: that was awful and deeply weird.

Like the U.S. government, WOLA is closed today for Inauguration Day. But it’s not clear what that means anymore. I’ll be at home on my computer just like nearly every day since March. I plan to do some writing, and will probably be reachable if needed. I have several interviews on the calendar to talk about what’s going on, mainly with outlets in Latin America. And I’ll have the TV on—as will you, I imagine—to watch the transition of power and the Biden-Harris administration’s first steps.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Sandra Sebastian/AP photo at National Public Radio. Caption: “Honduran migrants clash with Guatemalan soldiers in Vado Hondo, Guatemala, on Sunday.”

(Even more here)

January 19, 2021


Candidates backed by Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro are expected to win control of Congress next month


El capitulo de violencia que más se recuerda en esta zona fue la masacre de El Salado cuando 450 paramilitares asesinaron a más de 60 personas en este corregimiento en febrero de 2000

La defensa del policía Andrés Díaz Mercado señaló que el caso debería quedar en manos de la Justicia Penal Militar, dado que la muerte de Germán Smyth Puentes se dio en medio de un acto del servicio

Since FARC fighters disarmed in 2017 as part of the peace deal, a total of 253 have been killed, including four already in 2021

Guatemala, Honduras

Hundreds of police and military forces quickly surged forward, pushing migrants and asylum seekers south along the highway and off the highway itself

Before the pandemic, nationals from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua were able to travel freely across each other’s borders. Officials now are requiring a negative coronavirus test to cross. Some migrant advocates say this requirement is being used to block some refugees


¿Qué gobierno va a querer compartir datos sensibles con México si el respeto a la confidencialidad depende del humor del presidente en la mañanera?

Parecería una mala broma: eliminar la institución que por dos décadas se ha encargado de construir el sistema de transparencia

Behind all those perceived slights is a fear that the Democrats are more likely to intervene to promote labor rights and clean energy, getting in the way of Mr. López Obrador’s ambitious agenda

“Queremos control en Estados Unidos de la venta de las armas. Eso de que vamos a tener un equipo para detectarlas y con eso nos vamos a quedar tranquilos, eso no es lo que México está planteando”

“¿Cómo va a ser débil? ¿Cómo la DEA va a fabricar evidencia? Si nosotros fabricáramos evidencia perderíamos nuestro trabajo”

U.S.-Mexico Border

Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, will join the NSC and help oversee an anticipated U-turn in U.S. policy on migration and asylum

The plan calls on the Department of Homeland Security to develop a proposal that uses technology and other similar infrastructure to implement new security measures along the border, both at and between ports of entry

Kerlikowske, the ex-CBP head said, “The public trust issue is pretty tough right now in law enforcement generally. But when you look at (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or CBP, I think it’s even more critical right now”


El regreso demócrata al poder en Washington aviva el recuerdo de unos lazos políticos de hace veinte años que solo han facilitado gestiones humanitarias

The day ahead: January 19, 2021

I should be around for much of the afternoon. (How to contact me)

Happy Final Trump Day. I feel so much older than I did 1,360 days ago.

I’ve got an internal meeting and a meeting with legislative staff this morning, and a coalition meeting mid-afternoon. Otherwise I’ll be around, mainly doing updates to our Colombia website, keeping an eye on today’s nomination hearings, and talking to reporters in the region covering the inauguration.

Weekly email update is out

I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It’s got:

  • Two off-topic end-of-Trump-era posts—photos from downtown Washington right now and some comments on that “thin blue line” flag;
  • Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
  • Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
  • 5 “longread” links from the past week;
  • A small number of Latin America-related online events for this week;
  • And, finally,
  • An extra helping of 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.

Can we talk about this flag?

I first saw a “thin blue line” flag in person in 2016 or 2017, on a drive through rural Virginia. It was flying outside someone’s home.

Since then, though, I keep seeing it—we all keep seeing it—in places where it really shouldn’t be.

It’s very popular with law enforcement, and with people who claim to support law enforcement. But it worries me. Its design, and the way it’s being instrumentalized, point toward one of the darker, more divisive paths that the United States might follow from here, if we don’t change course.

The flag’s origins are noble: a symbol to pay tribute to police personnel who died in the line of duty. But imagery gets perverted quickly, especially in this very online era.

Pepe the Frog was just a comic character. The Punisher was a Marvel antihero. Both of their creators have since voiced horror at what each has come to represent. The same is happening to this flag design, even as police associations and conservative politicians embrace it.

The problem isn’t whether it’s an emblem of white supremacy, although it sometimes gets used that way. It’s a more fundamental problem with the design. It evokes division, separateness, a country coming apart.

Take a close look:

First, the celebratory red, white, and blue are replaced by somber, forbidding black and white. That’s fitting if the goal is to commemorate fallen officers: it’s solemn and funereal. But it also gives the design a dark, menacing simplicity. The sort of thing set designers would use in a fantasy movie with fascist badguys, like The Last Jedi or V for Vendetta.

Second, though, and far more troubling, is that blue line. “The stars represent the citizenry who stand for justice and order,” reads a site tailored for police, the first Google result for “thin blue line flag.” “The darkness,” it continues, “represents chaos and anarchy.”

This is how many police see themselves, and where the phrase “thin blue line” comes from: a human barrier protecting “good” people from the others.

You can guess the danger, though, can’t you? Who gets to decide who the “good” citizens are? Who gets to be north of the flag’s blue line, with the orderly stars, and who is south of the line, to be kept out and pushed away? And in any case, why slash a dividing line across a flag, the ultimate symbol of national unity?

At the local level, line-drawing is bad policing. Police should be part of a community, and that community’s members—of all races and backgrounds—should feel comfortable working with their local police. A community is secure only when the line is very blurred.

At the national level, to draw a line separating people in a polarized country, between “us” and “them,” is toxic. Right now, “us and them” is the language of the day, voiced at every Trump rally and throughout social media. In unequal societies of Latin America where I’ve worked for years, you sometimes hear of “la gente de bien” and “los sectores populares.” Same thing: a line dividing us and them. It doesn’t work there, either.

Who is on the other side of that line? Because this flag started showing up as a retort to the first Black Lives Matter protests against police killings—during the Ferguson/Colin Kaepernick moment—Black Americans can be excused for thinking that it is they who are the undesirables on the other side of that line. The flag’s appearance at white supremacist gatherings reinforces that.

So can people with left-of-center political views, those who want to expand rights and rein in unbridled capitalism. Donald Trump and other extreme GOP candidates appropriated this image and indelibly associated it with their election campaigns. Those of all races, ethnicities, sexual preferences, and belief systems who don’t belong to what Trump supporters consider to be the “real” America are excused for thinking that they, too, are included among the undesirables south of that blue line.

We’re not going to make it if our society persists in drawing lines between us, glorifying them with flags, and guarding them with armed force. This is how you sleepwalk into an armed conflict.

Police have a very hard job, not least because we ask them to do too many things that they’re not trained or prepared to do. Some, like Capitol Policeman Brian Sicknick, pay the highest price. All Americans should want police to have a professional career path, a dignified income, the esteem of the population, and the accountability that makes that possible.

All Americans should feel pain when a law enforcement professional dies on the job. And it makes sense to have a flag to commemorate it.

But not this one. It’s time for a new design.

5 links from the past week

  • The Justice Department’s Inspector-General released a scathing and detailed report, years in the making, about the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” or family separation policy. It lays blame at the feet of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other top officials, for whom separating asylum-seeking migrant families without documenting the parent-child relationship was a feature—a “deterrent”—not a bug.
  • Investigators at El Salvador’s El Faro find that a healthy top MS-13 leader was taken out of maximum security prison for “medical emergency” reasons, a likely result of negotiations between the gang and the government of Nayib Bukele.
  • At Criterio, Aimée Cárcamo takes a deep dive into Honduras’s disappointing experience with reforming its 18,486-member national police force since 2012. It concludes that police “purification” can’t succeed in the midst of a “narco-dictatorship.”
  • Days after declining to prosecute its former defense minister, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, whom U.S. agents arrested last November in Los Angeles on suspicion of working with drug traffickers, Mexico’s government shared the 750-page collection of evidence that the U.S. Justice Department gathered about the case. Most of it is text messages.
  • Human Rights Watch’s latest World Report found a lot of backsliding throughout the region in 2020.
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