Adam Isacson

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

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January 2021

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 colombiapeace.org site. During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.

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.”

Links

  • 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

Colombia

“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

Mexico

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”

Venezuela

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

Colombia

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.

Links

  • 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

Brazil

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

Colombia

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

Mexico

¿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”

Venezuela

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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