Adam Isacson

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

Archives

March 2021

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Luisa González/Reuters photo at The Guardian (UK). Caption: “A Colombian navy boat patrols the Arauca river while a Venezuelan navy boat remains anchored on the border between their two countries as seen from Arauquita, Colombia.”

(Even more here)

March 31, 2021

Western Hemisphere Regional

The corruption of Nicolas Maduro increased the dire humanitarian crisis of the Venezuelan people. In Nicaragua, the corrupt Ortega regime passed increasingly repressive laws that limit severely the ability of opposition political groups, civil society, and independent media to operate. Meanwhile in Cuba, government restrictions continued to suppress the freedoms of expression, association, religion or belief, and movement

Brazil

The Armed Forces are split between an officer corps that came of age during the disgrace that followed the 1964-85 dictatorship (whose “anniversary” is Wednesday), and generally is loath to be seen as political, and a younger generation whose hatred for the left tends to overcome such misgivings

Retired generals and military analysts in Brazil struggled to make sense of this week’s changes, which neither the president nor the outgoing commanders explained

“The other day I saw a pretty strong article saying Brazil was starting to be seen by its neighbors as a sort of leper colony … and it’s probably true”

Central America Regional

As the big families lose political influence, they may start to see more clearly the benefits of cleaner governance

Colombia

La colectividad denuncia que en los últimos meses se han recrudecido las amenazas y la persecución a sus miembros en la capital, donde viven al menos 750 firmantes de la paz

Ellos mismos (la Fuerza Pública) arrancan las matas de aquí y las siembran más allá. Luego pasan, arrancan y vuelven y siembran en otro lado y así, todo el año en esas

Es muy evidente la improvisación, la falta de planificación, la falta de persecución sistemática al crimen. A los militares y policías siempre los sorprenden. Parece que no existiera inteligencia militar ni policial

Colombia, Venezuela

The change in tack from the government of President Nicolás Maduro most likely reflects a conflict in other shared interests: cocaine trafficking and illegal gold mining

Witnesses have described human rights abuses at the hands of the FANB soldiers, including home break-ins and forced disappearances

Guatemala

El decreto gubernativo 3-2021, firmado por el Presidente Giamattei, restringe el derecho de protesta pacífica, la libertad de reunión y de locomoción, entre otros, en cinco departamentos del país. La firma de este decreto se da tras comunicaciones en redes sociales y medios de que podría formarse una caravana a partir del 30 de marzo

Guatemala, Mexico

Gen. Sandoval denied that any of the soldiers had been taken into Guatemalan territory, but the spokesman for Guatemala’s army confirmed it and the Guatemalan government released photos of Mexican soldiers with Guatemalan police

Luego de varias horas de negociación los vecinos de la aldea La Esperanza accedieron a entregar a los seis soldados mexicanos y su armamento

Honduras

Las autoridades estadounidenses trabajaron silenciosa y pacientemente 14 años para atraparlo, once meses en enjuiciarlo y declararlo culpable y un año y cinco meses para sentenciarlo

During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors and the judge repeatedly called out the Honduran president for his role in the drug trade along with his brother

In 2013, HERNÁNDEZ was campaigning to become a congressman and Juan Orlando Hernández was campaigning to become president. Around this time, according to testimony at trial, Juan Orlando Hernández solicited $1.6 million in drug proceeds from Ardon Soriano to support himself and National Party campaigns

Mexico

El presidente dedicó parte de su informe a resaltar las acciones de las Fuerzas Armadas en su administración, pues aseguró que sin ellas no solo no podría enfrentarse a la delincuencia organizada, sino que tampoco se podrían realizar obras de desarrollo, o enfrentar la pandemia

Las tres llegaron a Tapachula, Chiapas, donde solicitaron asilo ante la Comisión Mexicana de Ayuda al Refugiado (Comar) el 4 de septiembre de 2017, un año después de abandonar su país

De 2013 y de 2015 a mediados de 2019, al menos 20 migrantes —principalmente centroamericanos— fallecieron en su paso por México

El Ejército mexicano ofreció un millón de pesos como indeminización por el crimen de militares contra el guatemalteco Elvin Mazariegos Pérez en Chiapas, afirmó la familia de la víctima

Four police officers in the Mexican resort city of Tulum have been charged with femicide after a Salvadoran woman died while being restrained

U.S. efforts to battle powerful drug cartels from inside Mexico have ground to a halt since January as strained relations between the two countries have frozen attempts to corral drug kingpins, according to current and former senior officials in both nations

U.S.-Mexico Border

The children were being housed by the hundreds in eight “pods” formed by plastic dividers, each about 3,200 square feet (297 square meters) in size. Many of the pods had more than 500 children in them

To my frustration, many of my friends in the immigrant-advocacy community will not help shape these decisions; most are unable or unwilling to name any category of migrant who should ever be returned

Department of Homeland Security officials permitted the Associated Press and a camera crew to tour the Donna, Tex., temporary processing facility run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, where 3,400 unaccompanied minors were in custody Tuesday along with 700 members of migrant families

“I’m a Border Patrol agent. I didn’t sign up for this,” Mr. Escamilla said as he looked at some of the younger children, many of them under 12, being housed at the facility

Document is a PDF

Since November, a handful of nonprofit groups that work with unaccompanied children have compiled tallies showing that as many as 10-17 percent of children in custody were separated from relatives

Venezuela

En el marco de la cooperación bilateral entre los gobiernos de Nicolás Maduro y Vladimir Putin, se celebró una reunión de la Comisión Intergubernamental de Alto Nivel Rusia-Venezuela, en la cual Maduro firmó 12 acuerdos con el país europeo

Concessions from Maduro on one or all three of these points could allow the Biden administration to justify taking a bigger policy risk—like offering partial sanctions relief in return for a starting broader, credible negotiations

The day ahead: March 31, 2021

I’m in a few meetings, but mostly reachable. (How to contact me)

The lighter “holy week” schedule allowed me to get some writing done yesterday. Today I’ve got an internal meeting and a few interviews on the calendar, but otherwise plan to be at my desk, writing and catching up some overflowing inboxes.

Some articles I found interesting this morning

(Even more here)

Photo from Tal Cual (Venezuela).

March 30, 2021

Brazil

El ministro de Defensa, general Fernando Azevedo e Silva, anunció sorpresivamente su renuncia, horas después de que el canciller, Ernesto Araújo, comunicara su decisión de abandonar el cargo

Jair Bolsonaro’s ultraconservative foreign minister has resigned after a rebellion from diplomats and lawmakers who accused him of demolishing Brazil’s international reputation and putting Brazilian lives at risk

Ante la salida del titular de Defensa, la cúpula de las FF.AA. analiza la renuncia de los tres comandantes

Central America Regional

Immediate disaster relief, cash-for-work programs, COVID-19 vaccines, alternatives to irregular migration, and a clear break with predatory elites

Colombia

Salvatore Mancuso señaló a uno de los hombres más importantes de la inteligencia militar en Colombia, el general Iván Ramírez Quintero

En una carta enviada a la Casa Blanca, 25 organizaciones internacionales y colombianas piden que el gobierno estadounidense no financie la aspersión aérea en Colombia. Enviará familias campesinas de la pobreza a la extrema pobreza, le advirtieron

La implementación de los Acuerdos de La Habana está en deuda. ¿Cuál es la salida? Hablan algunos de los políticos de la región

Los combates entre el ELN y las disidencias de las FARC los obligaron a salir de sus hogares para buscar refugio en cascos urbanos

Está contemplado un encuentro con los directivos de la agencia Homeland Security Investigations (HSI/ICE) y de United States Marshals Service (USMS), y otros altos funcionarios de las áreas de inteligencia y operaciones internacionales de esta agencia federal del Departamento de Justicia

Colombia, Venezuela

El representante de la cartera castrense Vladimir Padrino López, señaló que los supuestos grupos armados continúan infundiendo terror en la población, al tiempo que los calificó como «mercenarios camaleónicos y desalmados»

El ministro de la Defensa de Colombia, Diego Molano, dijo que las instrucciones de Miraflores apuntan hacia un combate selectivo a uno de los grupos narcocriminales

El Salvador, Mexico

Videos echoing the death of George Floyd showed a police officer kneeling on the back of the woman, who died of a broken spine, just days before an international forum on gender equality began in Mexico

Guatemala, Mexico

Elementos del l XV Regimiento de Caballería Motorizada de la Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA) dispararon contra el guatemalteco Elvin Mazariegos Pérez, quien había cruzado la frontera con México para comprar mercancía

Mexico

Sólo en el primer trimestre del año, al menos 13 mujeres han sido asesinadas en Quintana Roo, entidad turística donde seis de cada diez detenciones se han hecho con uso excesivo de la fuerza

Las policías ministeriales se involucran periódicamente en actividades delictivas en perjuicio de la población. Nadie parece tener claro, sin embargo, qué hacer con estos cuerpos

U.S.-Mexico Border

The spotlight shone brightly on Anapra in the past week after members of Mexico’s National Guard allegedly held at gunpoint and roughed up six Central Americans who wanted to cross into the United States

Venezuela

Krull’s assistance mapping the shell companies and straw men strung across secretive jurisdictions like Antigua, Malta and Hong Kong where Venezuelans have hidden their ill-gotten wealth has proven decisive

The day ahead: March 30, 2021

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

For the first time in a long time, I have no fixed meetings or screaming deadline on the calendar. (Thank you, Easter week.) It’s a good day to catch up on unanswered email, update contacts and out-of-date websites, and do some writing about the border that doesn’t require typing as fast as my hands can go. I should be reachable if needed—though it’s a nice spring day and I may insist on breaking for a walk.

Photo

Washington’s Tidal Basin this evening.

25 Organizations Call for an End to U.S. Support for Aerial Herbicide Fumigation in Colombia

(Cross-posted from colombiapeace.org)

(Leer en español)

Colombia’s government is moving closer to reinstating a program, suspended in 2015, that would spray herbicides from aircraft over territories where coca is cultivated. Twenty-five U.S. and Colombian organizations have joined on this letter to President Joe Biden urging him to avoid supporting a renewed “fumigation” program, succinctly laying out the reasons why this would be an unfortunate policy mistake. The letter was shared with the White House on March 26.

March 26, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
The White House
Washington, DC

Dear President Biden,

We write out of strong concern about the imminent restart of a program that your administration is inheriting from its predecessor: an effort to eradicate coca in Colombia by spraying herbicides from aircraft. We encourage you not to provide funding for this program, which not only failed to achieve past objectives, but sends a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated.  It will undermine the peace accords that are a powerful legacy of the Obama-Biden administration.

Aerial fumigation can bring short-term reductions in the number of acres planted with coca. But past experience shows not only that these gains reverse quickly, but that the strategy undermines other U.S. and Colombian security objectives. Recurring to fumigation is like going back in time, ignoring much that we have learned about what does and does not work.

Many of our organizations have published studies documenting the harm that fumigation has done in the past. The December 2020 report of the U.S. government’s bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission found that forced eradication brought “enormous costs and dismal results.” Just since the end of February, we have seen strong critiques of forced eradication and fumigation from the International Crisis Group; the Ideas for Peace Foundation, a Colombian business sector think tank; a list of over 200 scholars, and seven UN human rights rapporteurs.

Between 1994 and 2015, a U.S.-backed program supported a fleet of aircraft, and teams of contract pilots and maintenance personnel, that sprayed the herbicide glyphosate over 4.42 million acres of Colombian territory—a land area 3 1/2 times the size of Delaware. In 2015 the Colombian government suspended the spray program, citing public health concerns based on a World Health Organization study finding glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

For a few years afterward, the Colombian government failed to replace the strategy with anything—neither eradication nor assistance to affected areas. During the late 2010s, Colombia’s coca crop increased to record levels. Nearly all of the increase happened in the exact municipalities and communities where fumigation had been heaviest. After 20 years of constant eradication, farmers continue to face the same on-the-ground reality.

Most Colombian producers of the coca bush are not organized crime-tied criminals or supporters of illegal armed groups. They are families with small plots of land. Estimates of the number of families who make a living off of coca vary from “more than 119,500” to 215,000. If one assumes four people per family, then more than 2 percent of Colombia’s 50 million people depend on coca. Households earn about $1,000 per person per year from the crop, making them by far the lowest-paid link in the cocaine supply chain.

They live in “agricultural frontier” zones where evidence of Colombia’s government is scarce. Paved or maintained roads are nonexistent. The national electric grid is far off. There is no such thing as potable water or land titles. In some areas, even currency is hard to obtain, and stores offer the option of paying for groceries with coca paste. 

These people need to be governed and protected by their state. An aircraft flying anonymously overhead, spraying chemicals on populated areas, is the exact opposite of that. But the program has other important disadvantages:

  • Because it targets poor households in ungoverned areas, chemical fumigation sends a message of cruelty, and associates that message with the United States. Your administration is steadily working to undo the Trump administration’s cruel migratory measures, which imposed suffering on a weak, impoverished population at the U.S.-Mexico border. We ask that you also avoid returning to “deterrence though cruelty” in rural Colombia.
  • Like any eradication without assistance, fumigation further weakens governance and threatens to worsen security in Colombia’s ungoverned territories, where illegal economies and armed groups thrive. Forced eradication, especially when uncoordinated with efforts to physically bring government services into territory, sends families from poverty to extreme poverty, with no official help in sight. This hurts the government’s legitimacy in frontier areas where it badly needs to be built up.
  • After perhaps a short-term drop in cultivation, fumigation is not effective at reducing the coca crop. Past experience shows a high probability of replanting and other means of minimizing lost harvests, in contexts of absent government and few alternative crops.
  • Fumigation goes against what Colombia’s 2016 peace accord promised. That document’s first and fourth chapters offered a blueprint for reducing illicit crops: first by engaging families in substitution programs, and then by carrying out a 15-year “comprehensive rural reform” effort to bring state presence to rural areas. Fumigation was meant to be a last resort, for circumstances when families were refusing opportunities to substitute crops and when manual eradication was viewed as too dangerous. Rushing to fumigate is a slap in the face to brave farmer association leaders who took the risky step of defying traffickers and leading their communities into the fourth chapter’s crop substitution programs.
  • Similarly, fumigation risks large-scale social discord in rural Colombia. In 1996, after the program first got started, much of rural Colombia ground to a halt for weeks or months as mostly peaceful coca-grower protests broke out around the country. Today, farmers are even better organized than they were 25 years ago.
  • Fumigation, meanwhile, may carry risks for human health and the environment. The 2015 WHO document is one of many studies that give us reasonable doubts about the health impacts of spraying high concentrations of glyphosate over populated areas from aircraft. Bayer, the company that purchased glyphosate producer Monsanto, has agreed to settlements with U.S. plaintiffs potentially totaling over $11 billion—another reason for reasonable doubt. While the environmental impacts are less clear, glyphosate’s own labeling warns against spraying near standing water sources, and we are concerned about its use in proximity to rainforest ecosystems. The largest environmental impact, though, is likely to be the way many past farmers have responded after losing crops to fumigation, while remaining in a vacuum of government presence: they move somewhere else and cut down more rainforest to grow coca again.
  • Like all forced eradication unaccompanied by assistance, fumigation is dangerous for the eradicators themselves. In 2013, not long before the program’s suspension, FARC guerrillas shot down two spray planes within the space of two weeks. While planes and their escort helicopters will be more armored than before, the vulnerability remains. Eradication is far safer when it is agreed with communities by a government that is physically present in its own territory.

In March 2020, Donald Trump met with Colombian President Iván Duque and told him, “You’re going to have to spray.” The country’s highest court has required Duque’s government to meet a series of health, environment, consultation, and other requirements. Colombia’s Defense Minister is now predicting that the spraying could restart in April.

This time, U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg has stated, the U.S. role in the program won’t be as extensive. Still, during the Trump administration, the State Department supported maintenance of the spray plane fleet, upgrades to bases, and training of eradication personnel, among other services. State Department reports sent to Congress in late February and early March hailed fumigation’s imminent restart as a sign of progress.

Nonetheless, we reiterate our hope that the Biden administration will turn away from supporting Colombia’s spray program while there is still time. The United States should not support aerial fumigation in Colombia again. Nor does it have to. We know what to do. 

Farmers with land titles hardly ever grow coca. Farmers who live near paved roads hardly ever grow coca. Criminal groups are badly weakened by proximity of a functioning government that is able to resolve disputes and punish lawbreaking.

This is a longer-term project, but Colombia’s 2016 peace accord offered a good blueprint for setting it in motion: a fast-moving, consultative crop substitution program, tied to a slower-moving but comprehensive rural reform program. Though those programs exist and parts of the Duque government are carrying them out diligently, they are underfunded and well behind where they should be as accord implementation enters its fifth year.

It’s not too late to help Colombia jumpstart the model offered by Colombia’s peace accord, which the Obama-Biden administration so effectively supported. We urge you to take that path instead of that of renewed fumigation, which we know to be a dead end.

Sincerely,

  • Amazon Watch
  • Center for International Environmental Law
  • Centro Estudios sobre Seguridad y Drogas, Universidad de los Andes (Colombia)
  • Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America
  • Colombia Human Rights Committee
  • Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Colombia)
  • Corporación Viso Mutop (Colombia)
  • Drug Policy Alliance
  • Elementa DD.HH. (Colombia/Mexico)
  • Fellowship of Reconciliation: Peace Presence
  • Healing Bridges
  • ILEX Acción Juridica (Colombia)
  • Institute for Policy Studies, Drug Policy Project
  • Institute on Race, Equality, and Human Rights
  • Latin America Working Group
  • Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
  • Missionary Oblates
  • Oxfam America
  • Oxfam Colombia
  • Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness
  • Presbyterian Peace Fellowship
  • Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Colombia)
  • United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
  • Washington Office on Latin America
  • Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective

Some articles I found interesting this morning

Víctor Peña photo at El Faro (El Salvador). Caption: “After nightfall in Roma, Texas, nobody was running to evade authorities. Groups of 5, 10, even 20 people traveled along the side of the road to turn themselves in to Border Patrol and claim asylum. Every night, agents wait for the groups of Central Americans to arrive.”

(Even more here)

March 29, 2021

Chile

La petición formal de no prorrogar el estado de excepción, amenaza de renuncia de un ministro de Defensa y molestia por la disminución del presupuesto son parte de la bitácora que han marcado los últimos meses entre las FF.AA. y el gobierno

Colombia

Hay quienes cuestionan que el país esté en esa negociación, que sería de US$4.500 millones, cuando enfrenta una crisis social y económica por cuenta de la pandemia

Siento que se están inflando las cifras sin ningún proceso judicial y sin reconocer el trabajo serio de entidades que sí se han dedicado a eso

Esta idea de no pasar a la Historia como los únicos responsables de las atrocidades que se cometieron ha sido una preocupación reiterativa para los exjefes guerrilleros desde La Habana

Durante el último año nueve personas han sido asesinadas en operativos de erradicación forzada de cultivos de coca

Los casos que han llegado a la Corte IDH demuestran que Colombia ha tratado de esquivar su culpa, incluso con maniobras jurídicas revictimizantes o buscando la forma de señalar a otros o a las mismas víctimas, para atrincherarse

La confrontación armada comenzó desde el viernes pasado en el corregimiento El Plateado, de Argelia, donde más de seis mil campesinos “quedaron expuestos ante el uso de artefactos explosivos convencionales y no convencionales por parte de los actores armados ilegales”

Young people — trapped between an often absent state, the aggressive recruitment of armed groups and the firepower of the military — are once again the conflict’s most vulnerable targets

Colombia, Panama

Atraviesan miles de migrantes que llegan desde Haití, Cuba, e incluso desde Senegal y otros países africanos, como parte de su peligroso periplo para llegar a Estados Unidos

Colombia, Venezuela

Clashes continued on Sunday on the Venezuelan side of the border

Presuntos disidentes de la Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) habrían atacado entre la noche del 28 y la madrugada de este 29 de marzo un puestos de control de la Fuerza Armada Nacional (FAN) en La Charca, municipio Páez, estado Apure

En redes sociales, periodistas venezolanos han comenzado a publicar desgarradores testimonios de personas que vivieron los combates y que incluso han llegado a denunciar que son víctimas de ejecuciones extrajudiciales, conocidos como falsos positivos

“I couldn’t stay because they are killing people. They killed some neighbors and dressed them in Venezuelan army uniforms to pass them off as guerrillas,” Castillo said

ONG locales han pedido que se investigue si hubo una violación a los derechos humanos tras la muerte de cinco personas en el marco del operativo de la Fuerza Armada de Venezuela en Apure

Cuba

So far the administration has taken few steps on Cuba. Its only major move was to appoint an official to oversee the State Department’s response to the “Havana syndrome” attacks

El Salvador, Mexico

The woman died on Saturday in the Caribbean beach resort of Tulum. A video published by news site Noticaribe showed her writhing and crying out as she lay face down on a road with a policewoman kneeling on her back

Guatemala, Mexico

Los representantes de las instituciones enfatizaron la necesidad de que se tomen todas las medidas pertinentes para asegurar el cumplimiento de los controles migratorios y protocolos sanitarios

Honduras

El gobernante Juan Hernández aseguró que los narcotraficantes no habían encontrado forma de influir en él o de intimidarlo y que “la prueba más poderosa” era una grabación de 2013 que había hecho un “agente infiltrado” de la DEA

Mexico

Miles de migrantes centroamericanos y de otros países llevan semanas encerrados en albergues y estaciones migratorias, donde a diferencia de otros éxodos masivos, hoy la presencia de niños, niñas y adolescentes va en aumento

El despliegue ocurre al cumplirse una semana del histórico cierre de la frontera sur que México realizó con el argumento de frenar los contagios de COVID-19

Se busca que los derechos de las personas sean respetados y así garantizar un debido proceso

Las autodefensas de Tepalcatepec mantienen una barricada en la comunidad de Pinolapan para frenar el avance del CJNG, que ha protagonizado distintos ataques a comunidades de la zona en la última semanas

U.S.-Mexico Border

If the words and policies of a US president, whoever they may be, had such a huge influence on flows of migration, then how do you explain 2019?

The issues involved are nearly impossible to settle as long as policymakers regard decency as a political weakness rather than as a moral strength

An anticipated month-by-month increase that could result in at least 158,000 unaccompanied children arriving from April through September

Jewish Family Service staff push themselves to support as many asylum seekers as possible who are passing through the organization’s migrant shelter program

Department of Homeland Security officials are privately warning about what they see as the next phase of a migration surge that could be the largest in two decades, driven by a much greater number of families

The current backup at the border stems from more than insufficient infrastructure. Most Central Americans hoping to escape crushing poverty, gang and gender-based violence, and the increasing ravages of climate change are not eligible to apply for any existing American visa

The fate of migrant families is less clear. The administration has emphasized that it continues to expel families, but the latest government data shows the vast majority are now allowed to stay

In just four hours on Friday, March 26, around 300 people crossed the Rio Grande and set off along the dirt roads to Roma, where they were detained by Border Patrol

Venezuela

Alvarado se preguntó como Padrino López puede justificar el asesinato de cinco miembros de una familia en El Ripial y ataque a las ONG y medios de comunicación por difundir las denuncias

The day ahead: March 29, 2021

I’m in meetings until late afternoon. (How to contact me)

As it’s a holiday week in Latin America, I’m hoping the pace of work will slow from “frenetic” to just “busy.” I’d like to answer my email, plan a bit, write, and maybe even go outside and see the sky.

Not today, though: I’ve got about three hours of internal meetings and a meeting with some Colombia researchers. Things will free up a bit mid-afternoon.

Weekly e-mail update is out

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

  • 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;
  • 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

Not much this week: it’s Holy Week (the week before Easter.) The U.S. Congress is in recess, and much of Latin America tends to shut down.

Tuesday, March 30

  • 10:30-12:00 at thedialogue.org: Freedom of Expression and Elections in Nicaragua (RSVP required).

Colombia peace update: March 27, 2021

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

Combat between Venezuelan forces and FARC dissidents

On March 22, residents of Arauquita, across the Arauca river from Venezuela, “woke up (hearing) explosions, machine guns, gunshots, with a very complex situation” on the other side of the border, the northeast Colombian municipality’s mayor told the Associated Press. In La Victoria, in Venezuela’s state of Apure, armed forces were carrying out an intense ground and air offensive against Colombian guerrilla dissidents, firing from helicopters and dropping bombs from aircraft.

Combat began on the 21st, according to a statement from the Venezuelan armed forces. That day, two Venezuelan officers taking part in border-wide military maneuvers called “Bolivarian Shield”—a major and a first lieutenant—were killed, apparently by landmines, a rarity in Venezuela. The statement claimed that government forces captured 32 people and destroyed 6 encampments while seizing drugs and war materiel, and killing a FARC dissident leader known as “Nando.” An opposition legislator, Karim Vera, said that about 20 Venezuelan troops were wounded.

Details are sketchy, in part due to power outages in La Victoria, but fighting continues. FARC dissidents attacked a Venezuelan military post on the night of March 23.

La Victoria, Venezuela is north and west of the river; Araquita, Colombia is south and east. (From Google Maps)

Civilians are being hit hard. As of March 25, 3,961 residents of La Victoria had fled across the border into Arauquita. “People we have spoken with are terrified and fear for their lives,” Dominika Arseniuk, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in Colombia, told the Associated Press.

Those who fled the Venezuelan side say that government forces—including the feared police Special Actions Force (FAES), rarely active outside cities—have been raiding homes, looting possessions, and beating people. FAES may have massacred a family in El Ripial, just east of La Victoria, and may have dressed the bodies in uniforms. Anderson Rodríguez, president of the Asociación Campesina de Arauca, told the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación that other families are presumed disappeared and some bombings were indiscriminate.

Three different Colombian armed groups, all of them nominally guerrillas or guerrilla-descended—are active on both sides of this part of the Colombia-Venezuela border. To varying degrees, they profit from extortion, taxing cross-border contraband, skimming from local treasuries, illicit mining of precious metals including the mineral coltan, and trafficking cocaine—though the ELN has prohibited most coca or cocaine production in Arauca, Colombia. Armed groups have also stepped up recruitment of Venezuelan migrants on the Colombian side of the border, especially of minors.

The presence of armed groups in this lightly governed zone goes back to well before Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election; as has happened in all countries bordering Colombia, Venezuelan forces tended to leave Colombian armed groups alone as long as they avoided violence (what Caracas Chronicles calls “a sort of laissez-passer secret policy”). The armed group presence has increased in recent years, though.

The three groups active now are:

  • The National Liberation Army (ELN), whose powerful Frente de Guerra Oriental (FGO) is the region’s largest and longest established. It has been operating in Arauca since the 1980s and expanded in Apure, Venezuela for more than 10 years “with the permission of the Chavista regime,” according to Jeremy McDermott of InsightCrime. The FGO’s leader, alias “Pablito,” is a member of the ELN’s five-member Central Command and spends much of his time inside Venezuela. The ELN does not appear to be a party to the past week’s violence.
  • The Venezuelan forces’ target this week, the 10th Front, a structure led by members of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who rejected the peace accord in 2016 and refused to demobilize. There are two main networks of FARC dissident bands active in Colombia right now, and the 10th Front appears to be affiliated with the largest: the “1st Front” group led by Miguel Botache alias “Gentil Duarte,” a former mid-level FARC commander most active in south-central Colombia. (InsightCrime’s McDermott says he has doubts about this affiliation.) The 10th may have as many as 800 fighters active in Arauca and Apure. Alias “Nando,” the leader whom Venezuelan forces claim to have killed on March 22, may have been the brother of the 10th Front’s finance chief. The 10th Front and Venezuelan forces have confronted each other in the past, but never on anything near the scale of last week.
  • Members of the Segunda Marquetalia, the other main FARC dissident network. This band was founded by FARC leaders who demobilized in 2017 then rearmed in 2019, led by Iván Márquez, who was the FARC’s lead negotiator during the 2012-16 peace talks in Havana, Cuba. The group, named for the site where the FARC began following a 1964 military attack, is smaller than Gentil Duarte’s organization, but may enjoy closer political relations with the government in Caracas. (Iván Márquez appeared with Hugo Chávez on the presidential palace steps in 2007, during a brief moment when Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, authorized Chávez to help broker a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.) McDermott says Márquez “has had ties to the highest levels in Venezuela, including the presidency, and many of those ties are still in place.”

These three groups together may have 2,000 or more members inside Venezuelan territory—only some of them in Apure—but have avoided fighting each other. “They are not together but they are not fighting either, it is like a toxic relationship,” Kyle Johnson of Conflict Responses told a forum last week, “but we must remember that the ELN is very present in that area. The ELN believes it owns Apure and makes people think that those who operate there do so because they allow it. I am not entirely convinced of conflicts between these groups as such.” Conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told La Silla Vacía, “In Apure there is a relationship of coordination, and in some cases collaboration, between the Segunda Marquetalia and the 10th Front. There is no rivalry.” The two dissidences “appear to have a live-and-let-live relationship on the border,” tweeted analyst Bram Ebus, who has written a few much-cited studies of this region.

The Colombian government frequently accuses Venezuela of allowing ELN and FARC dissident fighters to operate safely on its soil. “The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has done tremendous damage to the implementation of the [peace] agreements by sheltering criminals such as [Nueva Marquetalia leaders] Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, alias El Paisa, and alias Romaña,” Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, told Reuters on March 23.

Several sources cited by Caracas Chronicles hypothesize that Nicolás Maduro’s regime, in seeking to mediate, regulate, or “triangulate” among the Colombian groups active in the region, has decided that the 10th Front is out of line and must be reined in. “One unconfirmed interpretation of the flare up,” Ebus tweeted, “is a business dispute that escalated quickly when it hit political sensitivities. F10 [10th Front] has irritated Venezuelan military authorities before for failing to pay a cut. Their visible presence in Apure may have been a bridge too far.”

A frequent hypothesis advanced in media coverage contends that Venezuela’s government is favoring the Segunda Marquetalia. “The Venezuelan National Guard has generals in its service who protect the Second Marquetalia,” said former Colombian chief organized crime prosecutor Claudia Carrasquilla. “There is a sector of the National Armed Forces kneeling at the orders of Jesús Santrich and Iván Márquez,” said Venezuelan opposition legislator Gaby Arellano. “Some weeks ago we reported in our PRR [Political Risk Report] that, according to our sources, Iván Márquez was being moved to a more secure location, far from the border, to protect him from eventual operations by Colombian forces,” noted Caracas Chronicles. “The Venezuelan military operations have not touched the operations of the Segunda Marquetalia, which are especially robust in the state of Apure,” McDermott told La Silla Vacía, adding, “The offensive responds to growing reports in Venezuela that the 10th Front had dominance in the area. And it could open a space for Márquez’s dissidents to expand later.”

Cited in Venezuela’s Tal Cual, McDermott also found it notable that Venezuela deployed the brutal police FAES unit to Apure. “Apparently Maduro does not trust the military in the Apure area, the military does not have the capacity to confront the Colombian dissidents, or the military on the border is very corrupt and its capacity has been eroded.”

A statement from a 10th Front leader known as “Arturo” insists that “we weren’t the ones who initiated this confrontation,” vows to keep fighting Venezuelan forces, but also offers to withdraw units if the Venezuelan government sends a “top-level commission to clarify truths.”

Serious incidents like this raise concerns about an outcome that, one hopes, all would wish to avoid: a hot inter-state conflict between Colombia’s and Venezuela’s government forces. The Colombian government announced that it is reinforcing military presence along the Arauca border by about 2,000 troops, and Colombian media report that, though there is no official information, “there is speculation that the Maduro government is enlisting 2,000 men of the Armed Forces to be sent to the border with Arauca.” In Caracas Chronicles’ estimation, “We have no reasons to fear for a war between Colombia and Venezuela, but we can’t forget that Venezuela is protecting public enemies of Colombia (the FARC dissidents), and that this is always a source of risks.”

Ebus sounded concerned, too, on Twitter: “Herein lies the danger: now that the confrontation has escalated, there’s no turning back. The dispute between Chavistas and the guerrillas is out in the open and it will be hard for either side to back down. In a moment like this, the grave risks of the lack of communication between Caracas and Bogotá are painfully evident. Political leaders have limited recourse to calm tensions, leaving the cauldron of border tensions to play out for itself.”

Jineth Bedoya case: government admits partial responsibility

The lead story in last week’s update covered the case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court of Jineth Bedoya, a journalist abducted, raped, and tortured by paramilitares while doing her job in 2000. Bedoya, whose long quest for justice is the first Colombian case of sexual violence ever heard by the Inter-American Court, saw her virtual hearing interrupted and postponed on March 15, when government lawyers accused the Court’s judges of bias and abruptly exited the proceedings.

The hearing resumed on March 22 and 23, after the Court rejected the government’s objections. A few hours in, the government’s lead attorney, Camilo Gómez, read a statement partially recognizing the Colombian state’s responsibility:

On behalf of the Colombian State, I recognize international responsibility for the failures of the judicial system, which did not carry out a criminal investigation worthy of the victim, by collecting twelve statements, and ask Jineth Bedoya for forgiveness for these facts and for the damage they caused her. The State recognizes that these actions violated her rights to personal integrity and judicial guarantees, in relation to the obligation to guarantee the rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights.

This apology covers the Colombian judicial and prosecutorial system’s failures since the 2000 crime, in a case that has only seen the convictions of three low-level paramilitaries, and then not until 2016 and 2019. “Of the nearly 20 people involved in the process, only three have been prosecuted,” Bedoya told the Court. “Three convictions against material perpetrators, partial justice. Masterminds, none.”

The apology does not cover the Colombian executive branch’s failure to protect Bedoya even after she reported earlier threats and attacks, and in the face of evidence that a corrupt National Police General ordered her abduction. Gómez, the government’s lawyer, said that his team will respond to those charges in writing.

The government told the Court’s judges that in 1999, after Bedoya and her mother were attacked, the Presidency’s intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) studied her risk and offered her a bodyguard. Bedoya, they said, “did not make the necessary arrangements to obtain the accompaniment.”

Bedoya explained she could not do her job as an investigative journalist under such conditions, noting that agents of the DAS—which has since been disbanded after a series of scandals—were working with paramilitaries at the time. “Over time, it was demonstrated that this entity carried out illegal espionage, stigmatization, intimidation, leaking of sensitive information to paramilitary groups, and acts of intimidation,” Jonathan Bock of Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation said at a subsequent press conference. “Therefore, the lack of protection for the journalist generates state responsibility for failure to comply with the duty of prevention.”

The Colombian government attorneys’ theory that it is not responsible for Bedoya’s lack of protection and prevention “is especially chilling,” said her lawyer, Viviana Krsticevic of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), “because it advances a theory according to which Jineth is to blame for what happened to her. The State uses part of the factual information in a rigged way and omits saying important things.”

Jineth Bedoya called the government’s partial recognition of responsibility “one more slap in the face. To only recognize that on 12 occasions they made me testify about my rape, that there was no investigation into the threats, and that they do not admit the reparations that I have sought—it is like the cases that I denounce every day, where a husband beats a wife and the next day says ‘forgive me, I love you but I was in a bad mood’. That is what the State has done with me before the Court.”

The journalist, who is now the deputy editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, said that she continues to receive frequent death threats. She requested protection for her mother, who also receives constant threats and has no bodyguard. If it treats a person like her, a well-known journalist who has access to the media, in such an undignified manner, she concluded, “imagine how the state treats an anonymous victim, who does not have that possibility.”

Links

  • A car bomb detonated outside the mayor’s office in Corinto, in conflictive northern Cauca department, on March 26. Seventeen people were wounded, including eleven municipal employees.
  • Polarizing politics, approaching elections, a slow vaccine rollout, a regressive tax reform, street protests, worsening insecurity, Álvaro Uribe’s judicial case, and the Truth Commission’s upcoming report combine to make Colombia a “powderkeg,” writes Javier Lafuente at Spain’s El País.
  • A New York Times cover story dives deeply into the March 2 bombing of a FARC dissident site in Calamar, Guaviare that killed two minors whom the group had recruited. A new detail: one of the victims, 16-year-old Danna Liseth Montilla, had worked last year with Voces del Guayabero, a local media collective that published much-circulated reports and videos documenting violent government tactics during mid-2020 coca eradication operations. Last week soldiers found another 16-year-old girl who had fled the bombing and spent the next three weeks alone, lost in the jungle. The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) issued new charges of child recruitment, and arrest warrants, against FARC dissident leader “Gentil Duarte”—whose group had recruited the children killed on March 2—and key subordinates.
  • 75 people who led coca substitution programs in the framework of the peace accords have been killed, according to a report from Somos Defensores, Minga, and Viso Mutop.
  • “In Colombia we continue to speak of the existence of at least five non-international armed conflicts, whose actors continue to affect the dignity and lives of the civilian population,” reads the annual Colombia report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, released last week.
  • An analysis in La Silla Vacía finds that the commission that the peace accord set up to manage protection of FARC ex-combatants is moribund, with the government ignoring suggestions and treating it as a forum to present already-crafted policies. Meanwhile, the number of FARC ex-combatants who have been killed since the accords went into effect stands at 261. Protection was among the principal concerns voiced in a letter that the leader of the former FARC party (Comunes), Rodrigo Londoño, sent to the U.S. Congress on March 23.
  • So far this year, as of March 7, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) reported that 3,119 people have been displaced by violence in Colombia. “1,311 families have fled their lands to safeguard their lives and physical integrity.”
  • The case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester killed by a policeman’s “nonlethal” weapon in downtown Bogotá in November 2019, remains before the military justice system. An amicus brief that Human Rights Watch and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center submitted to Colombia’s Constitutional Court argues that the military system “fails to guarantee independent and impartial investigations into human rights abuses and should not handle Dilan Cruz’s case.”
  • A new U.S. Army Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) will deploy to Colombia, as well as to Honduras and Panama, later this year. This unit’s first deployment in mid-2020, which involved dozens of trainers providing instruction to Colombian military personnel in a few conflictive parts of the country, generated controversy in media and among opposition legislators.
  • Retired Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was imprisoned for working with paramilitary groups that carried out massacres in northwestern Colombia during the 1990s, appeared before the JEP and, to the disappointment of victims, denied any links with paramilitary groups. Del Río is free from prison for the moment pending his case before the JEP.
  • The Washington Post published a poignant profile of Gonzalo Cardona, an environmental defender who dedicated his life to saving the endangered yellow-eared parrot in often-conflictive southern Tolima department. Cardona, 55, was shot to death in January.

5 links from the past week

  • Lost in the “Biden border crisis” news framing is the crude fact that Joe Biden has kept in place a crown jewel of the Trump administration’s approach: the pandemic expulsions policy, known as “Title 42,” that expels most migrants. At the Los Angeles Times, Molly O’Toole explains the policy and unpacks data about how broadly it is being applied.
  • In The Invisible Wall, the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Center, and UndocuBlack Network show the toll that the Title 42 policy has had on one of the weakest and most vulnerable populations: Haitian and other black migrants.
  • Two years ago, the Bolsonaro government deployed the military to prevent Amazon deforestation. “Operation Green Brazil” has proved to be a predictable but disastrous failure, a Reuters investigation finds, in part because the armed forces were such an inappropriate tool for the job of environmental protection.
  • El Faro talks to a former Salvadoran military captain and others who repent of their role in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero.
  • Dissent runs a thoughtful critique from three left-of-center scholars of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who “continues to decry the faults of neoliberalism, but his government is, for the most part, failing to build an effective alternative.”

Weekly border update: March 26, 2021

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

This is a long update. Use these bookmarks to skip to topics:

Migration numbers, and projections

Total apprehensions and encounters

Migrants are arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border at a pace rivaling the large numbers encountered in 2019, when Border Patrol apprehended more undocumented people than it had since 2007. Unlike those years, though, about half of all apprehended migrants are being expelled, usually without ever seeing the inside of a Border Patrol facility (most are rapidly turned back into Mexico even if they are Central American). These expulsions are taking place under a public health authority known as “Title 42.”

The Trump administration began implementing Title 42 expulsions in March 2020, and the Biden administration has continued them for all migrant populations except children who arrive unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

Based on very partial data, mainly provided by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to journalists or on Twitter, we roughly estimate that Border Patrol may encounter 150,000 people in March 2021. (The Wall Street Journal, citing “internal Homeland Security documents,” reported that “border agents had recently averaged about 5,000 arrests a day”—which would be 150,000 over a month.)

150,000 would be the largest monthly total since 2006—except about half of those migrants will have been expelled. The number of migrants who actually have to be processed under normal U.S. immigration law would be perhaps half that: 75,000, a number that was exceeded during March, April, May, and June of 2019.

Unaccompanied children

At the end of the day on March 24, CBP reported:

  • 5,156 unaccompanied children were in CBP’s jail-like holding facilities, where they normally should only be for a maximum of 72 hours before being handed off to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which maintains a network of licensed shelters. The previous high, set in June 2019, was only 2,600 children.
  • 11,900 children were in custody of ORR, whose existing shelters can hold 13,200 children.
  • Add those two numbers, and that’s 17,056 unaccompanied migrant children in U.S. government custody as of March 24.
  • On March 24 alone, CBP apprehended 681 unaccompanied children.
  • CBP was able to transfer 437 children into ORR custody that day—so CBP’s net population in custody grew by 244.
  • ORR moved 268 children out oif its shelters that day, placing them with relatives or sponsors. The agency seeks to avoid having children in its custody for long-term stays: the goal is to place them with relatives in the United States (in over 80 percent of cases; in 40 percent of cases with parents residing in the United States, and otherwise with a sponsor).

According to the Washington Post, “Border officials are on pace to take in more than 17,000 minors this month, which would be an all-time high,” exceeding the record of 11,475 set in May 2019. Here is how that total would appear on a chart of unaccompanied child encounters since the COVID-19 pandemic began:

As the numbers above indicate, ORR has been unable to find space to take children into its shelter system as quickly as CBP is apprehending new children. That may change soon with emergency measures discussed below. For now, though, it is causing alarming backlogs in CBP’s inadequate facilities, mainly Border Patrol stations and processing centers. More than 822 children had been in Border Patrol custody for over 10 days as of March 22.

A temporary soft-sided (tent-based) facility set up to process apprehended migrants in Donna, Texas—a substitute for a more permanent processing facility in McAllen that is under renovation—had 3,889 children housed in its tents on March 20. It was designed to accommodate 250 migrants.

Families

The Biden administration has sought to expel asylum-seeking families under Title 42, continuing a Trump-era arrangement with Mexico allowing it to expel families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras back across the border into Mexican border towns. The data indicates, though, that apprehensions of mostly Central American families are rising sharply—probably more sharply than unaccompanied children—and that even if Mexico takes back more expelled families than it did in February, a large majority will not be expelled.

Instead, as in past years, families are being released from CBP custody into U.S. border towns with notices to appear in immigration court to pursue asylum claims. Most U.S. border towns have nonprofit “respite centers,” most of them now receiving federal funds, that receive families and help them with travel arrangements to destinations elsewhere in the United States.

CBP data reported by Axios point to 13,000 family members encountered at the border between March 14 and 21. Of these, 13 percent were returned to Mexico, far less than the 64 percent in January and 42 percent in February. On March 19, according to NBC News, Border Patrol apprehended 1,807 family members and expelled 179, or just under 10 percent.

The decreased percentage of expelled families is in part due to at least one Mexican state (Tamaulipas) refusing to accept families with children under age seven, perhaps because of a recent law prohibiting detention of migrant children. The main reason, though, may be capacity. As this rough projection shows, Mexico may in fact take back more expelled Central American families in March than in any prior month. But Mexico may have hit a ceiling of the number of family members it can absorb.

With increased family and child migration, there is an increase in the number of large groups of migrants arriving on the U.S. side of the border, mostly in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region, and awaiting Border Patrol apprehension. These voluntary mass apprehensions usually happen near the Rio Grande riverbank, south of any existing border fence. As of March 18, Border Patrol reported encountering 32 groups of 100 or more migrants since October, up from 10 such groups in all of fiscal 2020. As of March 22, 25 of those group apprehensions had taken place in the Rio Grande Valley, one of nine sectors into which CBP divides the border.

As of late March, it’s safe to say that family members have eclipsed unaccompanied children as the fastest-growing category of migrant now being encountered at the border. “I would’ve said two weeks ago that this was nothing like 2019,” the Migration Policy Institute’s Andrew Selee told CNN. “The fact now that a high percentage of families are being admitted means that it’s likely we’ll see an exponential increase of families getting across.”

Single adults

Single adults are probably still the majority of encountered migrants, and more than 90 percent of them continue to be expelled quickly under Title 42. With almost no hope of seeking asylum, single adults have little incentive to turn themselves in to border authorities; most seek to avoid them.

An unusually large number may be having success in doing that. “During the past seven days, border officials estimated that about 6,500 people evaded detection,” the Wall Street Journal reported on March 24, citing “a person familiar with the government’s internal estimates.”

Of those who are caught and expelled under Title 42, many try to cross again. “The percentage of migrants caught at the border who had already been caught once grew to nearly 40% during the past six months, compared with 7% in 2019,” according to the Journal. “That’s the wonderful thing now. You have the opportunity to bat again and again. That’s better for us,” a Honduran migrant said. Because of this recidivism, “too often it’s groundhog day,” an unnamed federal law enforcement agent in El Paso told the Dallas Morning News. “We encounter the same person again, and again and again. The harder we make it, the more profitable it becomes.”

“Remain in Mexico” returns continue

Every day, the U.S. government continues to admit about 200 non-Mexican asylum-seeking migrants whom the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program had relegated to Mexican border towns. As of March 18, the UNHCR representative in Mexico tweeted that 2,660 people subject to the program had been brought across the border to pursue their asylum claims in the United States. In a March 23 meeting, administration officials cited a figure of 3,200. The total population of Remain in Mexico subjects eligible for admission in the United States is estimated at over 25,000; as of March 20, 16,776 had registered to do so.

Admissions had been happening at three ports of entry along the border. Two more Texas ports of entry got added this week: McAllen and Laredo.

Title 42 isn’t going anywhere

Though children and most family members are now avoiding expulsion under Title 42, the Biden administration has been forcefully conveying the message that it intends to keep the Trump-era border restriction in place, offering no sense of a timetable for when it might be lifted. Officials also indicate that they are encouraging Mexico to accept more expelled families.

“The border is closed. We are expelling families, we are expelling single adults and we have made a decision that we will not expel young, vulnerable children,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Meet the Press, in one of five March 22 Sunday-morning news show appearances.

A March 19 Los Angeles Times analysis by Molly O’Toole offers a thorough explanation of the Title 42 expulsions policy, its impact, and its legality. It explains that when encountering migrants, Border Patrol agents may not ask them whether they fear return to their country. If migrants spontaneously claim fear, they are still expelled unless they can meet threat criteria under the Convention Against Torture, which are more stringent than asylum. In Title 42’s first year, fewer than 1 percent of encountered migrants have been able to seek protection.

After the Trump administration implemented Title 42 last March, O’Toole notes, “lawmakers—including then-Sen. Kamala Harris—called it an unconstitutional ‘executive power grab’ that had ‘no known precedent or clear legal rationale.’”

“The Biden administration’s use of Title 42 is flatly illegal,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, which sued the Trump and Biden administrations to stop the expulsions, told O’Toole. “There is zero daylight between the Biden administration and Trump administration’s position.”

On March 25, in his first formal press conference, President Biden offered a full-throated defense of Title 42, and urged its fuller application to families.

If you take a look at the number of people who are coming, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of people coming to the border and crossing are being sent back—are being sent back. Thousands—tens of thousands of people who are—who are over 18 years of age and single—people, one at a time coming, have been sent back, sent home.

…What about dealing with families? Why are not—some not going back? Because Mexico is refusing to take them back. They’re saying they won’t take them back—not all of them.

We’re in negotiations with the President of Mexico. I think we’re going to see that change. They should all be going back, all be going back. The only people we’re not going to let sitting there [sic.] on the other side of the Rio Grande by themselves with no help are children.

Biden’s remarks were clearly triggering to the ACLU, which had agreed to hold its lawsuit against Title 42 expulsions until the end of the month while the administration developed plans to stop applying it to families. “We put our Title 42 case for families on temporary hold in exchange for good faith promise to negotiate,” Gelernt tweeted. “But POTUS JUST said his hope is that U.S. wants to expel ALL families if Mexico will allow them. Then litigation may be only choice.”

The expulsions don’t just affect Mexicans and Central Americans. The Invisible Wall, a March 24 report by the Haitian Bridge Alliance, Quixote Center, and UndocuBlack Network, documents a sharp rise in Title 42 expulsions of Haitian migrants back to their politically convulsed country, via numerous ICE flights to Port-au-Prince. “More Haitians have been removed to Haiti in the weeks since President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took office than during all of fiscal year 2020,” the report reads. It notes that more Haitians have been arriving at the border, misled by misinformation that the Biden administration had lifted hardline Trump-era policies like Title 42 expulsions. Writing in The Nation, Jack Herrera discusses the disproportionate challenges faced by Black migrants and those advocating for them.

“What gave Donald Trump his wall was Title 42,” Ruben García, director of El Paso’s Annunciation House respite center, told The Guardian. “That has been incredibly more effective than any physical barrier. This was never about the pandemic to begin with. This was precisely about border enforcement.”

Facilities for unaccompanied children coming online

The thousands of unaccompanied children stuck in CBP and Border Patrol custody are largely invisible, but accounts of conditions in facilities like the Donna, Texas processing center have filtered out via members of Congress. A few senators who accompanied DHS Secretary Mayorkas on a March 19 visit described miserable conditions at the Donna facility.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) tweeted of seeing “100s of kids packed into big open rooms. In a corner, I fought back tears as a 13 yr old girl sobbbed [sic.] uncontrollably explaining thru a translator how terrified she was, having been separated from her grandmother and without her parents.” CNN reported that “children are alternating schedules to make space for one another in confined facilities, some kids haven’t seen sunlight in days, and others are taking turns showering, often going days without one,” CNN reported.

At his press conference, President Biden recognized the problem, and promised that 1,000 kids would be moved out of the facilities and into ORR custody within the next week.

A big part of the strategy for doing so involves opening up emergency housing facilities, in some cases with assistance from DHS’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense. They include the following (with a hat tip to an informative tweet thread from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas):

  • 952 beds at the Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, opened February 22.
  • 700 beds at a facility in Midland, Texas, opened in mid-March with significant American Red Cross involvement. On March 19 the Associated Press reported that this facility had paused new intakes as it “has faced multiple issues,” including a 10 percent COVID-19 positivity rate among the children.
  • 2,300 beds at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, Texas, opened March 19.
  • 500 beds, expandable to 2,000, at Target Lodge Pecos North, in Pecos, Texas, announced on March 20.
  • 500 beds at a second Carrizo Springs facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, announced on March 23.
  • 1,400 beds at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California, announced on March 24. Closed by COVID-19 until events are to resume in August, the Center was being used to shelter homeless people. It will be available for children for 90 days.
  • 2,400 beds at the Freeman Expo Center in San Antonio, Texas, announced on March 25.
  • 5,000 beds at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, announced March 25.
  • 350 beds at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, in San Antonio, Texas, announced March 25. A Pentagon spokesman, saying “we have just received this request” from ORR, said he had no details about Fort Bliss and Joint Base San Antonio.

It appears that plans have been abandoned to use Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California and Fort Lee in Virginia. This would not be the first time military bases have been used to accommodate unaccompanied children. In 2014, the Obama administration sheltered up to 7,500 kids for about four months at Joint Base San Antonio; Naval Base Ventura County, California; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

All together, these facilities could shelter about 15,600 children which, added to ORR’s existing capacity of 13,200, would allow short-term care for 28,800 kids. These 15,600 beds, however, would be in emergency, often barracks-like conditions, instead of the more than 170 state-licensed childcare facilities that ORR normally runs.

ORR is also endeavoring to empty out its shelters as quickly as possible by placing children with relatives or sponsors in the United States. For so-called “category 1” children—those who have parents or legal guardians here—ORR is streamlining its background checks and approvals process, even paying the travel costs that relatives must incur in order to retrieve the children.

These measures could soon bring the child migrant situation more or less under control, at least bringing an end to the conditions revealed in a series of photos that Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) shared with Axios on March 23, depicting crowds of children in the Donna facility, lying on mats closely placed on a tent floor, under mylar blankets.

Rep. Cuellar said he shared the photos, which he had been given, because the Biden administration had been refusing media access to Donna. Both CBP and HHS have been refusing requests to visit their facilities, “due to agency COVID protocols and in order to protect the health and safety of our workforce and those in our care.”

Like Cuellar, other centrist Democratic legislators from border states have been urging the Biden administration to move faster. “The policy does need to change,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m concerned they don’t totally have this figured out.” Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) “pressed the president in a closed-door meeting earlier this week for a timeline for additional resources, facilities and coronavirus testing protocols,” the Journal added. Arizona’s other Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), produced a joint statement with Texas Republican John Cornyn (R-Texas) calling on the federal government to “rise to this challenge” without being “consumed by partisan battles on this critical topic.”

Accommodations for a rising number of families

As noted above, asylum-seeking families are now arriving in numbers that appear to exceed Mexico’s ability to receive expulsions, and many are now being released into the U.S. interior. This week NBC News and the Los Angeles Times reported that in some cases, the families are being released without an immigration court date specified on their paperwork. They were asked to provide contact information, then given documents with the court date “to be determined” with instructions to expect to be contacted within 30 days. Asylum attorneys cited say that migrants find this very confusing. A CBP document told Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol agents that they could release migrants without court dates when facilities reach 100 percent capacity, among other criteria—a standard that has long since been surpassed.

Most releases of asylum seeking families happen in border cities that have respite centers run by non-profit organizations, where migrants can often stay for a day or two and receive food and medical attention while making travel arrangements to their U.S. destination cities. One of the best known respite centers, the Catholic Charities facility run by Sister Norma Pimentel in McAllen, Texas, received 150 to 200 family members each day during the week of March 15, the Associated Press reported, while the Los Angeles Times learned that 350 family members were released into the surrounding Rio Grande Valley region in one day, March 22. The respite center run by Jewish Family Service in San Diego, California, is also busy. It sheltered 490 asylum seekers in February, while as of March 19 it had attended to a total of 1,510 for the month, with Hondurans, Brazilians, and Cubans the largest groups. As of March 21, it was lodging some of the family migrants in four hotels.

In Arizona, Border Patrol has begun releasing families into desert towns with few resources to attend to families, like Yuma, Ajo, and Gila Bend, forcing service providers to scramble.

Before releasing families, CBP is also facing challenges in processing them: collecting identifying information, performing background checks, starting asylum paperwork, and other duties. The agency is opening tent-based processing centers in Tucson and Yuma. ICE has signed an $86.9 million contract with the Texas nonprofit Endeavors to add 1,239 beds in seven Arizona and Texas hotels, where families can stay while completing paperwork. Families may be free to leave the hotels within six hours if paperwork is completed, they have transportation, and test negative for COVID-19.

The lack of processing capacity is leading to miserable conditions in the Rio Grande Valley, where up to 600 families have been spending up to a few days under the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission, Texas, sleeping on the dirt “without much food or access to medical care,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “We asked them why we were there for so long,” a Honduran mother of a five-year-old told the Times. “All they told us was, ‘That’s your problem.’”

Messaging and smugglers

Biden administration officials are aiming to be “more aggressive” in communicating that the border is “closed” and migrants shouldn’t come. “The message isn’t, ‘Don’t come now,’ it’s, ‘Don’t come in this way, ever,’” Amb. Roberta Jacobson, the National Security Council’s (NSC) coordinator for the southern border, told Reuters. “The way to come to the United States is through legal pathways.” The U.S. government has contracted radio ads across Latin America, in Spanish, Portuguese, and six Indigenous languages, warning people not to come.

Still, the administration has come under fire for perceptions that officials sent mixed messages by allegedly indicating that they would be more welcoming than Donald Trump. “You’ve got to be unambiguous,” Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) told the Wall Street Journal. “’Don’t come now, come later?’ What kind of message is that?”

It’s not clear, though, that what officials say matters. In Tijuana, a small plaza outside the main port of entry to San Diego has filled up with 200 tents, housing perhaps 1,500 migrants, none of whom have a chance of being admitted to the United States as long as Title 42 remains in place. “Badly misinformed, the migrants harbor false hope that President Joe Biden will open entry to the United States briefly and without notice,” the Associated Press reported. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told the Washington Post of an interaction with Central American teenagers at the Carrizo Springs ORR facility. “They said, ‘We see this on TV. We see images of people coming across. … We see people coming across, so we’re going to do the same thing.’”

Migrant smugglers, in particular, offer counter-messaging, on social media and through community ties, that almost certainly overwhelms whatever warnings a U.S. official might issue from a lectern. A migrant told the Dallas Morning News of being enticed by $10,000 to $15,000 smuggling package, with $6,000 up front, that “would include a paid Uber ride from a nice hotel to the border wall where he’d use a $6 rebar ladder to climb over part of a $15 billion structure.”

Smugglers know that the Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children, and some told Reuters that they’re encouraging parents to send their children alone. “It’s good to take advantage of the moment, because children are able to pass quickly,” Daniel, a Guatemalan smuggler, told the wire service. “That’s what we’re telling everyone.” A Mexican smuggler added that “the cartel that controls the territory along the border in his region mandates that he and other smugglers use the migrant children as a decoy for the cartel’s own drug smuggling operations.”

Kamala Harris to lead a foreign policy push

On March 24 the White House announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central American governments to address migration. Her mandate will focus on diplomatic efforts both to “stem the flow” of migrants and to collaborate on efforts to ease the “root causes” underlying migration from the region. The vice president’s involvement “could help shift part of the conversation away from the media-centric idea that the sum total of this ‘crisis’ is what’s happening at the border, and focus it on the deeper causes of these migrations,” observed Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent.

The diplomatic push is already underway. On March 22 Amb. Jacobson traveled to Mexico, accompanied by NSC Western Hemisphere Director Juan González and the newly named State Department special envoy for Central America’s Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zúñiga. González and Zúñiga were to travel to Guatemala on the 23rd, but ash from the Pacaya volcano closed Guatemala City’s airport, so meetings were virtual. 

In meetings with Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard and other officials, the U.S. delegation focused on how to cooperate “to manage migration” and make it “orderly and safe.” While we cannot confirm this, messaging probably included suggesting that Mexico interdict more northbound migrants and—as President Biden mentioned in his press conference remarks—accept more expelled families at the border.

Mexico cracks down

Mexico has clearly gotten the message, following up a March 18 agreement to do more to control migration with a deployment of immigration and security personnel to its southern border with Guatemala. On March 19, immigration agents and National Guardsmen in riot gear paraded through the capital of border state Chiapas. The next day, agents and a few guardsmen appeared at several sites along the Suchiate River bordering Guatemala, checking the credentials of all who cross irregularly—as both migrants and people conducting local business have done in this area for decades.

Mexico also declared its southern border closed to all inessential travel, which it had not done when the pandemic broke out a year ago. Counter-migrant operations in the border zone, officials announced, would include “the installation of sanitary and inspection filters [checkpoints] to verify the documentation and migratory status of individuals and families seeking to enter the national territory, through the use of technological equipment such as drones and night vision mechanisms for surveillance.”

Mexican Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval announced on March 22 that 8,715 army troops and national guardsmen (many of them army personnel on temporary duty) were deployed to the country’s northern and southern border. The Washington Post questioned whether this number was enough: “barely more than the average of 8,058 troops posted at the borders during 2020” and less than the 15,000 troops sent to Mexico’s borders in mid-2019 when Donald Trump threatened the country with tariffs if it failed to crack down on migration.

Groups like WOLA and Mexico’s governmental human rights ombudsman warned that a militarized Mexican crackdown on migrants could have grave human rights consequences, as such operations have in the past. The announcement from Mexico’s migration authority, WOLA noted

contains no reference to the possibility that any families might need asylum. Additionally, Mexico’s refugee agency, COMAR, is thus far glaringly absent from the list of institutions playing a role in the border operation. The institutions that are most visible instead include Mexico’s armed forces—whose core mission is to defend against enemies, not to carry out migration tasks—and the National Guard, which is composed mainly of military troops and has already been implicated in human rights abuses against migrants.

Central America aid

González and Zúñiga spoke with Central American reporters on March 23 about priorities for “root causes” assistance to the region. President Biden has voiced support for providing the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras)” with $4 billion in such assistance over four years.

The U.S. officials centered their message on countering corruption, which is “at the center of everything we have to do,” as González put it. They mentioned plans to create a task force to combat corruption, drug trafficking, and money laundering in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, with an emphasis on assisting “prosecutors, investigators, and judges in their own countries, who are carrying out these important investigations.”

Asked about relations with El Salvador   President Nayib Bukele (who has repeatedly attacked democratic institutions and rule of law), Zúñiga emphasized the importance of separation of powers and strong institutions in a democracy. On Guatemala, the officials voiced support for an independent Constitutional Court, following recent nominations of a majority of justices believed to have ties to corrupt interests.

President Bukele tweeted in English that he was opposed to a “recycled plan that did not work in 2014.” He rejected “the ‘northern triangle’ concept” that treats El Salvador the same as Guatemala and Honduras, which send more migrants to the United States. Measured by apprehensions since January 2020 as a portion of population, though, El Salvador is only modestly behind the other two Northern Triangle  nations:

  • Honduras: 849 U.S. border apprehensions/encounters per 100,000 population
  • Guatemala: 549 per 100,000 population
  • El Salvador: 459 per 100,000 population
  • Mexico: 316 per 100,000 population

For her part, Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), a member of the House appropriations subcommittee that allocates foreign aid, wrote a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recommending “severely restricting funding that goes to central governments of the region. Instead, our foreign assistance should go to civil society, non-governmental organizations, multilateral institutions, and other credible institutions.”

Republican reactions

Eighteen Republican senators are paying a visit to the border on March 26, led by Texas Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told Fox News that if the delegation is denied access to facilities where CBP is holding children, “we’re going to shut the Senate down.” Graham—who in 2013 was a member of the “Gang of Eight” senators who promoted a bipartisan immigration reform bill—added, “It will never change, President Biden, until you tell everybody to go home and stop bringing people into the United States.”

(Also coming to the border on the weekend of March 27 will be a delegation of Democratic members of Congress invited by another Texas legislator, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) of El Paso.)

Elsewhere in the Senate, five Republicans sought, and failed, to obtain unanimous consent for consideration of legislation, the “Stopping Border Surges Act,” that would make child and family detention legal, would make it possible to immediately deport children from non-contiguous countries, would reinstate “safe third country” agreements with Central America, and would tighten credible fear standards, among other measures.

More than 60 Republican House members and 40 Republican senators have requested that the Government Accountability Office, an independent auditing arm of Congress, examine the legality of President Biden’s 60-day suspension of border wall construction. The building freeze, mandated by a January 20 presidential proclamation, formally ended on March 21 without a plan in place yet for how to proceed. Construction remains on hold, however. The Republican legislators allege that Biden’s freeze is “a blatant violation of federal law and infringes on Congress’ constitutional power of the purse.”

Links

  • A DHS Inspector-General report made public on March 22 finds that, during the 2019 spike in child and family migration, the Trump administration threw out existing plans for dealing with the challenge, “created ad-hoc solutions,” and failed to get agencies to work together smoothly.
  • “Immigrant rights advocates and others claim that” March 11 footage of smugglers floating migrants across the Rio Grande, which aired on CNN, “was staged, potentially with the cooperation of the Border Patrol,” the American Prospect reports. Smugglers, it notes, “don’t normally provide face masks and life vests, nor ferry six boatloads of people across in broad daylight.”
  • The New York Times published a gripping photo essay from Comitancillo, Guatemala, depicting the return of the bodies of 13 migrants from that town who were massacred, apparently by Mexican state police, in Camargo, Tamaulipas, on January 22.
  • On March 18 the House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would create a path to citizenship for up to 4 million “Dreamers”—undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children—and recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Some articles I found interesting this morning

@miltonhav photo at El Espectador (Colombia). Caption: “Bomba en la Alcaldía de Corinto, Cauca.”

(Even more here)

March 26, 2021

Central America Regional

“You have, frankly, a predatory elite that benefits from the status quo, which is to not pay any taxes or invest in social programs,” said Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere

Colombia

La primera audiencia del general (r) Rito Alejo del Río no fue como las víctimas esperaban

El programa Somos Defensores, la Corporación Viso Mutop y la Asociación Minga presentan hoy un documento sobre las agresiones a esta población desde la firma de la paz

Agresiones a personas defensoras de derechos humanos y población campesinas vinculadas a cultivos de uso ilícito

De acuerdo con la administración municipal once de los heridos son funcionarios de la Alcaldía

Colombia, Venezuela

Kyle Johnson, cofundador e investigador de la fundación Conflict Responses, aseguró que hay intentos de reclutamientos de migrantes venezolanos dentro de Colombia

Colombian officials said more than 3,900 people have now moved from Venezuela to northeast Colombia, about 800 more than Wednesday

Guatemala, Mexico

The reality is it’s business as usual, with entire communities making a living off the passing migrants

Honduras

“In many foreign policy circles we have a tendency to look at the world, and in Latin America in particular, in terms of left and right, with the left as bad guys and the right as the good guys.”

Mexico

International monitoring groups say clashes that began over the weekend between Venezuelaâ??s military and a Colombian armed group in a community along the nationsâ?? shared border have continued

Un grupo de mujeres migrantes centroamericanas y sus hijos se amotinaron este viernes en el albergue conocido como La Mosca en el municipio de Chiapa de Corzo

Las fuerzas federales mexicanas se han desplegado por las peligrosas rutas migratorias entre el estado de Tabasco (sureste de México) y la frontera con Guatemala, hoy cerrada a toda actividad no esencial, lo que obliga a los migrantes a buscar nuevos caminos

El Gobernador Alfredo del Mazo ha sido incapaz de frenar al crimen organizado en el territorio que gobierna; tampoco ha puesto orden en las filas policiacas, consideradas una de las más corruptas del país

“Te enfrentas a una serie de obstáculos que coartan tu trabajo y la posibilidad de seguir avanzando, de seguir acompañando, de seguir señalando”, dice Anaís al recordar. Luego sentencia: “Tienes al aparato estatal soplándote en la nuca”

Nicaragua

La Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (RENACER Act) también busca reforzar los informes de inteligencia sobre las actividades de espionaje de Rusia en Nicaragua

Entitled the Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (RENACER) Act, the legislation proposes new initiatives to address corruption by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government and family, as well as human rights abuses

Peru

Add up the “don’t knows” and those who tell pollsters they will cast blank or spoilt ballots and they come to around 30%

También dijo que los bombardeos de los helicópteros eran “como caca de gaviota” para ellos

U.S.-Mexico Border

“It’s 30 miles to the next type of town — and that’s 30 miles of open desert,” Mayor Chris Riggs said on Tuesday. “Come July and August, we’re going to be finding bodies”

To the extent that the United States has a border crisis, it is an enduring one: the mistreatment of human beings in American custody

The Biden administration estimates that between 18,600 to about 22,000 children could cross the U.S. southern border in April. For May, officials are guessing the figure could rise to between 21,800 and nearly 25,000

Desperate migrants brave perilous river, ocean and desert crossings to reach the United States. Many have died of heat stroke after getting lost in the remote, rugged arid lands of Arizona

What they reported was not exactly great, but it was perhaps somewhat encouraging, particularly in light of other dire images of migrant families held at the border

Congressional Republicans and Democrats were about 245 miles away from each other in Texas Friday for firsthand observation of the children and families coming into the United States from Mexico — and worlds apart on how to handle the increase

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who fled civil war-torn Somalia with her family when she was 8 and spent four years in a refugee camp before moving to the U.S., said she saw herself in the children she talked to at the facility

The day ahead: March 26, 2021

I won’t be reachable until the afternoon. (How to contact me)

I’ve got a more open schedule today, but need to meet some writing deadlines (including what will be a beast of a weekly border update). I won’t be very responsive until I’m done—probably in the early to mid-afternoon.

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