Like many of you, I’m saddened and worried to see what Colombia is going through: only four years ago, the FARC were laying down their weapons and it felt much more like a time of possibility. The present crisis offers renewed possibility through real dialogue. The U.S. government can help by isolating some very powerful people in the country who oppose that, especially in the governing party. Read my just-published column at nytimes.com.
Today is tough, I should be easier to contact tomorrow. (How to contact me)
I didn’t actually make it to bed last night, I’ve been in this chair since about 9:30pm. So once my two long internal morning meetings are over (mid-day) I may need a bit of a nap before my two mid-to-late afternoon meetings start, one with a few Colombian colleagues and one with a partner organization at the U.S.-Mexico border. I expect to be less scheduled and more able to string words together tomorrow.
I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. The Colombia and border updates are long because so much is going on. Between that and spending a lot of the weekend away from my keyboard (it was Mothers’ Day and I’m lucky enough to have lots of moms in my life), I didn’t have time to add a lot of bells and whistles to this one, so it’s a bit of a slog to read.
Just a weekly Colombia update, a weekly U.S.-Mexico border update, and some upcoming event listings. Hopefully next weekend I can put more thought and creativity into it.
Monday, May 10
- 10:00 at Zoom: Pandemia, vacunas y derechos humanos en las Américas (RSVP required).
- 2:00-3:30 at wilsoncenter.org: Latin America’s Digital Divide: Overcoming Persistent Gaps (RSVP required).
Tuesday, May 11
- 10:30 at migrationpolicy.org: From a Humanitarian Exodus to Long-Term Growth: Latin America’s Journey Responding to the Venezuelan Exodus (RSVP required).
- 7:00pm at eventbrite: Canada’s Toxic Legacy: Pan American Silver and Mining Billionaire Ross Beaty in Latin America (RSVP required).
Wednesday, May 12
- 9:00 at IREE: The Future of Brazil – U.S. Relations under the Biden Administration (RSVP required).
- 9:00-10:00 at csis.org: Colombia Reacts to New Tax Reform: A Conversation with Colombia’s Minister of the Interior, Daniel Palacios Martínez (RSVP required).
- 9:00-10:00 at atlanticcouncil.org:What might the year 2035 bring for China’s trade with Latin America? (RSVP required).
Thursday, May 13
- 8:00-9:00 at atlanticcouncil.org: Combatting corruption in the Northern Triangle: Prioritizing a whole-of-society approach (RSVP required).
- 10:15 at hsgac.senate.gov: Hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee on DHS Actions to Address Unaccompanied Minors at the Southern Border.
- 10:30-11:30 at wilsoncenter.org: A Conversation with President Laurentino Cortizo of Panama (RSVP required).
- 2:00 at foreignaffairs.house.gov: Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere on A Race Against Time: Deploying Vaccines and Addressing the Disproportionate Impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Friday, May 14
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.
This is a special “protests crisis edition” of the weekly update. It is very long. To shorten it, follow these links to view only items about Dialogues, Human Rights, the International Community, Security Forces, Statements, Statistics, Stigmatization, U.S. Policy, and Vandalism.
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00pm on April 30, 13 alleged homicides committed by police, 655 arbitrary arrests, 18 uses of police firearms, and 68 victims of police violence including 8 people with eye injuries.
- After two days of somewhat less participation in protest marches, Saturday May 1—Labor Day in Colombia—sees a much larger turnout on the streets of hundreds of cities and towns around the country. During daylight hours, protests are mostly peaceful, though looting occurs on the margins in Bogotá. After dark, acts of vandalism and confrontations with security forces proliferate. The National Police announces that 330 of its agents were wounded, and 249 people were arrested for alleged acts of vandalism.
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 11:00pm on May 1, 21 alleged homicides committed by police, 672 arbitrary arrests, 30 uses of police firearms, 92 victims of police violence including 12 people with eye injuries, and 4 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
- The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 9:30pm on May 1, 5 people allegedly killed by security forces, 111 detained, 6 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 56 people wounded, and 9 assaults on human rights defenders.
- Confrontations with security forces also occur in Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Manizales, Pasto, and Pereira.
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts 851 cases of violence committed by police in the context of protests between April 28 and April 30, including 13 homicides, 655 arbitrary detentions, 18 cases of use of firearms, 8 cases of eye damage, and 4 cases of sexual violence.
- The crackdown on protesters appears to be most intense in Cali. The Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network, a Cali-based non-governmental organization, says it has received reports that police have killed 14 people in the city since the protests began, of which it has verified 7. The National Police acknowledge that 10 people in Cali have been killed by unspecified causes.
- Videos show Bogotá police firing their weapons at protesters in the Kennedy and Cedritos neighborhoods.
- Brayan Fernando Niño, a 24-year-old employee of a local HomeCenter store, is killed in Madrid, Cundinamarca. An ESMAD tear gas canister fired from an armored personnel carrier hits Niño in the eye.
- During the evening of May 1 Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, warns protesters to go home or find a place to take refuge. “The human rights situation is critical and there are no guarantees for life, integrity or the free exercise of social protest.”
- Under a legal framework called “military assistance,” President Iván Duque announces that the armed forces will help the police control public order in major cities. “Military assistance will be maintained until the serious disturbance of public order ceases. Our military forces are supporting the work of the National Police,” Duque says. The mayors of Bogotá, Cartagena, Medellín, and Cali , and the governor of Magdalena say that the military does not need to be deployed. Some cite the risk of escalating the protests.
- Acceding to one of the protesters’ main demands, President Iván Duque withdraws controversial tax increase legislation, which was opposed both by the left (because it increased regressive sales taxes) and by the business sector (because it raised taxes somewhat on corporations). Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla resigns. Protests continue. The government still faces a budget deficit equal to 8 percent of GDP.
- Social media videos from the weekend of May 1-2 “showed police firing at protesters sometimes from close range, ramming crowds with motorcycles, and bashing demonstrators with their shields,” the Guardian reports.
- “11 of the officially confirmed protest deaths occurred in Cali, with deaths also reported in the cities of Bogotá, Ibagué, Madrid, Medellín, Neiva, Pereira, Soacha, and Yumbo,” the BBC reports. “Most of the dead and injured are young people.”
- Social media video captures the death of Nicolás Guerrero, a 22-year-old artist, from a bullet fired by ESMAD riot police in Cali.
- Colombia’s Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) documents 33 aggressions against members of the press in the context of the protests between April 28 and May 1. The majority were carried out by government security forces.
- The Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) reports that 278 people have been arrested for involvement in “acts of vandalism, crime, and terrorism.” The Fiscalía counts 167 buses and 22 small police posts (CAI) vandalized, 269 roads blocked, and 399 wounded police.
- The Global Network Against Police Violence, a group of non-governmental organizations from nine Latin American countries plus Spain, issues a communiqué condemning “repression” of the protests in Colombia.
- One of Colombia’s most-read columnists, Daniel Coronell, devotes an essay to the case of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old participant in November 2019 protests who was killed by an ESMAD agent’s “non-lethal” projectile gun in downtown Bogotá. The case against the agent, Capt. Manuel Cubillos, is being heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The civilian Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) sent a report on the incident to the military judge. This report seeks to exonerate Capt. Cubillos and to portray Cruz as a troubled youth with a history of drug use. “Colombia’s Fiscalía is specializing in justifying perpetrators and prosecuting victims,” Coronell writes.
- The police response to protesters and some vandals claims many victims in Cali. “Police began confronting protesters at 8 p.m., opening fire in an attempt to disperse the crowd,” the Washington Post reports. “’They were even firing shots from helicopters,’ said Stiven Soñador, a 27-year-old human rights lawyer who took part in the protests. ‘Police started to fire shots and people ran to their neighborhoods, but inside the neighborhoods, there were more [police] waiting.’” At least five people die the evening of May 3.
- An account from several Colombian human rights groups details what happened in Cali on March 3 to a delegation of human rights defenders. The delegation included members of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Colombia. “The police officers surrounded them [part of the delegation] and shouted at them to leave the place, so the defenders accelerated their pace to leave amid threats that they were going to kill them. At that moment, police officers fired their firearms at the humanitarian mission, then ESMAD arrived and threw a stun grenade at them. The Mission was rescued by street inhabitants who acted as human shields and a police officer who arrived on the scene, interposed himself between the Mission and his companions and helped them run out of the area and meet again with officials from the OHCHR and the Attorney General’s Office.”
- Defense Minister Diego Molano seeks to blame acts of vandalism on Colombia’s remaining armed groups: “Colombia faces a terrorist threat, criminal organizations are behind the violent acts that tarnish peaceful protest. These are premeditated acts, organized and financed by FARC and ELN dissident groups. Thanks to the work of the Special Group against Vandalism and Related Crimes we have identified some of these criminal organizations: JM19 movement, Luis Otero Cifuentes group, Gentil Duarte’s Bolivarian Movement of FARC dissidents, the Blue Shields, the Black Shields, ELN urban cells, June 8 and 9: ELN camilistas.” Molano provides no proof.
- “There have been 19 deaths so far in Valle del Cauca, Bogotá, Neiva, Cali, Soacha, Yumbo, Ibagué, Madrid (Cundinamarca), Medellín, and Pereira,” notes the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría), adding that it “is evaluating and classifying 140 complaints that include information on deaths, missing persons, police abuse and injuries, among others.”
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 3, 26 alleged homicides committed by police, 761 arbitrary arrests, 56 uses of police firearms, 142 victims of police violence including 17 people with eye injuries, and 9 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
- The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and May 3, 18 people allegedly killed by security forces, 988 detained, 11 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 305 people wounded including 23 with eye damage, and 47 assaults on human rights defenders.
- In a statement, Defense Minister Diego Molano shares statistics, omitting reference to civilians killed or injured by security forces. “540 policemen injured and one killed during the protests and 306 civilians injured. Also, 20 public transport buses have been burned, 59 commercial establishments looted, 21 CAI [police posts] destroyed and 43 vandalized. 94 banks, 254 stores, 14 toll booths, 4 statues, 23 institutional vehicles, 69 transport stations, 36 ATMs, 2 governors’ offices and 29 traffic ticket cameras have been vandalized.”
- In Cali, a mob burns the first floor of a hotel where some police were staying. Others blockade the road between the city and its airport, causing cancellations of flights. Other road blockades start causing food shortages.
- WOLA calls on the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress “to condemn police excesses, distance the United States from officials’ inflammatory rhetoric, and insist that the Colombian government reform the ESMAD and hold accountable those who violated human rights since the protests began.” WOLA calls for a cutoff of assistance to ESMAD and its members, if any exists, and for a suspension of all sales of crowd and riot control equipment to Colombia.
- The European Union condemns acts of violence in Colombia’s protests, which target “legitimate rights to demonstrate, freedom of assembly and expression,” European External Action Service spokesman Peter Stano said.
- “I am deeply disturbed by the brutal Colombian National Police (PNC) response to peaceful protests over the weekend,” tweets U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). “U.S. aid to the PNC needs strong human rights protections and conditions. We should apply Leahy Law. No U.S. aid to Colombian ESMAD riot units that engage in gross human rights violations.”
- More than 10,000 academics sign a letter to President Iván Duque urging him to order the security forces to respect human rights, and to avoid deploying the military in response to protests.
- Eight international NGOs including WOLA call on Colombia to respect and guarantee human rights in the context of citizen mobilizations.
- An analysis by the daily El Espectador notes that two independent branches of government meant to provide oversight and control, the Inspector-General’s Office and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Procuraduría and Defensoría), have been “conspicuous in their absence.” Both bodies had new leaders named in 2020, and both are considered close to President Iván Duque or his political party.
- In response to accusations that his office has been largely absent during the protests, Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) Carlos Camargo tells W Radio, “I have been dedicated 24/7 with my officials, in permanent contact [and] attending to all the situations of what is happening in Cali, it is of the utmost importance to us.”
- National Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas says that 26 investigations have been opened into police misconduct in the context of the protests.
- Ex-president Álvaro Uribe, the leader of President Iván Duque’s political party, tweets recommending “Strengthening the armed forces, which are weakened by being held equal to terrorists by Havana [the peace accord] and the JEP,” as well as to “recognize that terrorism is larger than imagined.” In a curious recommendation, Uribe calls to “Resist the Dissipated Molecular Revolution,” apparently a reference to a Nazi-sympathizing Chilean theorist’s notion that dissent is the work of an internal enemy bent on overturning the system and dispersed throughout the population.
- Accompanied by Defense Minister Diego Molano, Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro records a video calling the ESMAD riot police (whom he doesn’t command) “heroes in black” and urges them to stay the course.
- Police “have developed some strategies to avoid any responsibility,” according to a Verdad Abierta analysis contending that the aggressiveness of police behavior during protests has worsened markedly since 2019. “They hide their last names and internal identification numbers; they cover their faces with balaclavas; they are incapable of pausing to talk to the victim and to verify the data they believe to be rigorous, like name and ID number; and they shoot indiscriminately at the mob, protected by their own companions.”
- Nighttime violence erupts in Bogotá, mainly in poorer neighborhoods, as mobs vandalize 25 Immediate Attention Center (CAI) police posts, destroying 3 completely. 104 public buses are damaged, four of them burned. One of the CAI is set on fire with 14 police agents inside. “The level of destruction, of violence, of attack against citizens, against our public property, against our police, is truly unheard of,” says Mayor Claudia López. “What happened to our uniformed officers is unacceptable.”
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 8:00am on May 4, 31 alleged homicides committed by police, 814 arbitrary arrests, 77 uses of police firearms, 216 victims of police violence including 21 people with eye injuries, and 10 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
- A communiqué from the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights voices strong concern about police attacks on civilians in Cali on May 3, when police shot at non-governmental human rights workers participating in a mission that included employees of the UN Human Rights office. “We are deeply alarmed by the events in the city of Cali in Colombia last night, when police opened fire on demonstrators protesting against the tax reform, killing and injuring several people, according to information received.” The statement recalls that “to date, the majority of the protests have been peaceful.”
- “Since April 28, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has received reports of at least 14 deaths in the context of protests in different parts of Colombia, including that of at least one police officer”, reports the UN Human Rights office.
- The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) publishes a list of 87 people who have disappeared amid the protests between April 28 and May 3. On May 5, the National Police claim that 45 of the 87 have been located; La Silla Vacía argues on May 6 that the list “lacks rigor” and 52 have been located. Defense Minister Diego Molano says he knows nothing about that number. The National Unit for the Search for the Disappeared, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord, calls on the government to avoid repeating the experience of the armed conflict, when tens of thousands of people disappeared. The Unit notes that a human rights NGO, the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, has a list of 107 missing people.
- “I want to announce that we will set up a space to listen to citizens and build solutions,” President Duque says in a televised address. He calls for a dialogue “with all institutions, political parties, the private sector, governors, mayors and civil society leaders, motivated by service to the citizenry.”
- The “Coalition of Hope,” a grouping of centrist and center-left politicians who say they are open to dialogue with the government, rejects a meeting with President Duque, citing widespread evidence of police violence.
- “I’m extremely concerned by the brutal PNC and ESMAD response to protests in Colombia. I’m particularly alarmed by developments in Cali and call on President Ivan Duque to deescalate the violence and make clear that excessive use of force is inexcusable,” tweets Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “It is imperative that U.S. Leahy Law is fully implemented as we make clear that the United States will not support security forces involved in severe human rights violations.”
- “I’m greatly concerned about the situation in Colombia and extend my sympathies to the families of those killed and injured,” tweets Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas). “Excessive force by police against protestors is unacceptable and authorities have a responsibility to uphold human rights.”
- The U.S. State Department issues a statement. “All over the world,” it reads, “citizens in democratic countries have the unquestionable right to protest peacefully. Violence and vandalism is an abuse of that right. At the same time, we urge the utmost restraint by public forces to prevent additional loss of life. We recognize the Government of Colombia’s commitment to investigate reports of police excesses and address any violations of human rights. We continue to support the Colombian government’s efforts to address the current situation through political dialogue.”
- Juan González, the White House National Security Council’s director for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweets: “The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental freedom. Needless destruction is not. Violence that endangers lives is not. And proper observance of use of force standards is NOT negotiable.” On May 6 González tells The Hill, “Police, whether in the United States or Colombia, need to engage by certain rules and respect fundamental freedoms, and that’s not a critique.”
- Citing “reports of grossly excessive use of police force from several Colombian cities,” a statement from WOLA calls on the U.S. government to urge Colombia to return to internationally recognized use-of-force standards, to suspend all sales of crowd-control equipment, and to encourage dialogue efforts.
- A letter from more than 900 organizations and thousands of individuals denounces police brutality and government stigmatization and calls for guarantees for peaceful social protest. It notes that the tax reform is one of several reasons why people are protesting: other causes include health care reform, pension reform, stopping murders of social leaders and demobilized ex-combatants, stopping coca fumigation, implementing the 2016 peace accord, and guaranteeing a basic income for the poorest.
- In a statement, the Colombian legal/human rights NGO DeJusticia “urge[s] police authorities to reaffirm their role as guarantors of the life, honor and property of citizens; the Ombudsman’s and Inspector General’s Offices to wake up from their slumber and fulfill their role in this crisis, and Iván Duque’s government to create mechanisms for dialogue and citizen consultation.”
- A statement from the OAS Mission in Support of the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) “condemns and expresses its deep concern for the disproportionate use of public force in the context of the social demonstrations and protests.” The mission “joins the voices of repudiation against threats and violence faced by the Multisectoral Verification Commission members headed by the Attorney General’s Office and OHCHR during the night of May 3rd in Cali, Colombia.”
- In response to international criticism of the use of force in response to protests, Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Relations “strongly reaffirms” in a statement “that Colombia is a State governed by the rule of law with solid democratic institutions that guarantee citizens’ rights.” The Ministry announces that it will convene a meeting on May 5 with ambassadors to discuss the government’s response. Presidential human rights advisor Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez says she will monitor disciplinary investigations against police. In a passage that raises eyebrows, Gutiérrez adds, “human rights only exist if all citizens observe the duties we all have to be part of society.”
- Defense Minister Diego Molano insists that, despite much video evidence to the contrary, the National Police have been operating within the confines of the law. Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas says that “criminals” have been shooting at police in Cali, and that cases of police using firearms will be investigated.
- Defense Minister Diego Molano says that 47 police Immediate Attention Center (CAI) posts have been “affected” and 21 have been destroyed.
- Defense Minister Diego Molano reports that 579 police have been wounded, and 515 people have been arrested, within the framework of the protests since April 28.
- “Protest must be peaceful and the institutional response to sporadic acts of violence by some demonstrators must be within the framework of the Constitution and international human rights law,” reads a statement from the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice system created by the 2016 peace accord. The JEP notes that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) has counted 88 people disappeared amid the protests, while NGO reports claim more than 170.
- Amnesty International calls on Colombian authorities “to investigate quickly, independently, and impartially all complaints of excessive and unnecessary use of force against demonstrators.”
- A cyberattack from the “Anonymous” hacker group takes down the website of Colombia’s army. The group publishes the e-mail addresses and passwords of 168 members of the military.
- The organization NetBlocks registers disruptions in internet connectivity in Cali on the afternoon and evening of May 4.
- Campesinos and coca growers in Norte de Santander add a rural dimension to protests, blocking roads between Cúcuta, the department’s capital, and other cities like Tibu and Ocaña. One of their main demands is a rejection of plans to re-start the eradication of coca by spraying herbicides from aircraft, a program that was suspended in 2015 due to public health concerns.
- Colombia’s chief prosecutor (Fiscal General), Francisco Barbosa, tweets “It has been determined that the disturbances and vandalism that have occurred in Cali in the last few days are related to drug trafficking structures, the ELN and FARC dissidents operating in Cauca.” Barbosa provides no proof.
- In one of the protests’ largest turnouts, tens of thousands march through Bogotá on May 5.
- Police confront protesters, many of them throwing rocks, in the Plaza de Bolívar that sits between the Congress and the Supreme Court buildings in Central Bogotá. At one point some protesters charge the steps of the Congress; police quickly repel them with tear gas but the legislative chambers are evacuated. Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, tweets to U.S. Democrats that the incident was “like the 6 of january” raid on the U.S. Capitol.
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 12:00pm on May 5, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 831 arbitrary arrests, 110 uses of police firearms, 222 victims of police violence including 22 people with eye injuries, and 10 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
- The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 11:50am on May 5, 24 people allegedly killed by security forces, 1,180 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 381 people wounded including 31 with eye damage, and 58 assaults on human rights defenders.
- “We have received reports of 31 deaths in Colombia,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
- Colombia’s Congress names a special committee that might serve a mediating role between the government and protest leaders.
- The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) agree to form an “inter-institutional table” to provide clearer information about homicides, disappearances, and other crimes committed amid protests. Both institutions maintain numbers of such crimes that are well below what non-governmental organizations like Temblores, Indepaz, and the Campaña Defender la Libertad are counting. Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa cites 24 killings as of May 5, for instance, while Indepaz counts 31.
- Rumors swirl that President Duque is about to sign a decree declaring a state of siege (Estado de Conmoción Interior), which would limit some civil liberties and increase presidential powers for 90 days, including the power to temporarily suspend laws and detain people on suspicion of committing crimes. The government insists that the rumors are false, and no decree is yet forthcoming.
- El Espectador reports that Colombia’s Police has sent to Cali members of its elite Special Security Task Forces (Grupos Operativos Especiales de Seguridad or GOES), a unit usually employed for commando operations like takedowns of narcotraffickers.
- Protests are smaller on May 6, Reuters reports.
- Widely shared videos continue to show police surrounding and beating people in Bogotá neighborhoods on the evening of May 6.
- Videos show a disturbing incident in Cali in which police dressed in plainclothes fire weapons at civilians. Their vehicle is identified as belonging to the National Police. The police commander in Cali says the institution will investigate.
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 6, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 934 arbitrary arrests, 98 uses of police firearms, 234 victims of police violence including 26 people with eye injuries, and 11 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
- The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 3:00pm on May 6, 27 people allegedly killed by security forces, 165 presumed disappeared, 1,251 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 426 people wounded including 32 with eye damage, and 66 assaults on human rights defenders.
- “We have corroborated the use of tanks with multiple projectile launchers aimed at demonstrators. It is a dangerous and indiscriminate weapon,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
- “We have received reports of 36 deaths in Colombia,” tweets Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco.
- The Unit for the Search for the Disappeared announces that, using information provide by 26 social organizations, it counts 379 people who have disappeared amid the protests.
- U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) tweets, “Behind much of the violence occurring in Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies.”
- Police Chief Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas tells El Espectador that, since the protests began, one police agent has been killed and 601 injured. He offers the paper a thorough accounting of vehicles, banks, ATMs, stores, and historical monuments vandalized, destroyed, or looted. Gen. Vargas insists that the ELN and both main networks of FARC dissident groups are involved in acts of violence in Cali: “As director of the Police, I can certify that there are elements that link organized armed groups, the Eln, the dissidents of the FARc with criminals such as ‘Ivan Mordisco’ [of the “1st Front” network] and ‘El Paisa’ [of the ’Nueva Marquetalia’ network]. Likewise, there is evidence about the participation of common organized crime groups.“ Gen. Vargas does not provide proof. “This is not the first time that the government of Iván Duque has pointed to FARC dissidents or the ELN as responsible for serious disturbances of public order,” El Espectador had reported a day earlier.
- After meeting at the Presidential Palace with leaders of business associations, President Duque calls for “open and excellent” dialogue.
- About 6,000 indigenous activists and unarmed guards, most of them from Cauca, have arrived in Cali for a Minga (a “coming together”) to demand an end to violence.
- Wilson Arias, a senator from the left-opposition Polo Democrático party, reports that the Colombian government recently began a purchase of US$3.7 million worth of crowd and riot control equipment and munitions.
- A statement from the OAS Mission in Support of the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA) hails movement toward “necessary and urgent” dialogue, while calling on “all actors to always guarantee the right to peaceful protest free of disorder and violence, and to facilitate humanitarian corridors.”
- The “Coalition of Hope,” a group of centrist and center-left opposition politicians, meets with President Duque. Some show up at the presidential palace wearing t-shirts with the names of people killed during the protests. The group includes, among other well-known politicians, Humberto de la Calle, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator during the FARC peace process; Juan Fernando Cristo, who was President Juan Manuel Santos’s interior minister; and Sergio Fajardo, a former Medellín mayor, Antioquia governor, and presidential candidate. De la Calle says their agenda includes basic income for the poorest, urgent human rights measures, access to public college education, and a more progressive tax package. They also urged Duque to meet with the actual protest leaders—which may happen on May 10. After the meeting, Duque sounded a more positive note than did the “Coalition” members. La Silla Vacía pessimistically notes that “the agenda was imposed from the Palace and all meetings are held in Bogotá.”
- The Campaña Defender la Libertad counts, between April 28 and 4:50pm on May 7, 32 people allegedly killed by security forces, at least 216 and up to 471 presumed disappeared, 1,291 detained, 15 victims of gender-based violence at the hands of the security forces, 451 people wounded including 32 with eye damage, and 67 assaults on human rights defenders.
- Temblores, an NGO that tracks police violence, counts, between April 28 and 10:00am on May 7, 37 alleged homicides committed by police, 936 arbitrary arrests, 105 uses of police firearms, 275 victims of police violence including 28 people with eye injuries, and 11 victims of sexual assault at the hands of security forces.
- A statement from the UN system in Colombia calls on the government to respect the right to peaceful assembly and protest, among other basic human rights, citing the 2016 peace accord as a point of reference. It calls on protesters to abstain from violence and to avoid blockading basic food supplies, medical and humanitarian missions.
- The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission and its Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression issue a statement voicing “the deepest concern” for human rights violations caused by excessive use of force during protests. The Commission also condemns vandalism and violence that has wounded at least 676 police.
- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) tweets video from her district of a vigil in solidarity with Colombian protesters.
- 650 Colombian and international non-governmental organizations call on the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to visit Colombia “to verify the seriousness of the human rights violations” and to “establish an independent mechanism on the ground to collaborate with national authorities in the investigations.”
- El Espectador talks to 15 protesters released from police custody, who say they were beaten, tortured, and teargassed at close quarters within police installations.
- The Inspector-General’s Office (Procuraduría), which has the power to fire or suspend but not to convict, announces it is carrying out 32 disciplinary investigations of police misconduct during the protests.
- 26 U.S. NGOs call for respect for the right to peaceful protest, pulling the military out of crowd control, more vigorous work from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and Inspector-General’s Office, a “respectful and meaningful dialogue” with civil society, a visit from the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and for the U.S. government to demand an end to Colombian security forces’ human rights violations.
- Colombia expelled Omar Rafael García Lazo, the first secretary of Cuba’s embassy in Bogotá. The Foreign Ministry accused García of violating the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. It provided no further detail on García’s alleged offense, or whether it was related to the ongoing protests.
- Retired Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, one of very few generals ever to be convicted of human rights crimes, appeared before the JEP on May 5. While he said he was willing to cooperate with reparations to victims, he denied arming or aiding paramilitary groups that carried out large-scale human rights violations when Gen. del Río commanded the Army’s 17th Brigade in northwest Colombia’s Urabá region in the mid-1990s.
- About five people may have been killed in combat between Venezuelan forces and likely ELN or FARC dissident members on May 2 near a clandestine airstrip in Venezuela’s border state of Zulia.
- With numerous examples from around the country, conflict analysts Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, Kyle Johnson, Ángela Olaya, and Juanita Vélez discuss in Razón Pública the confusingly fragmented nature of the FARC dissident networks active around the country nearly four years after the group’s demobilization. “Colombia is going through a new, more fragmented and diffuse cycle of war, limited to local or subregional areas—especially along the country’s borders.”
- A May 5 speech by Álvaro Uribe at New York University generates controversy because of the former president’s human rights record and his provocative messages during the ongoing protests. Uribe is scheduled to talk about environmental sustainability.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
Unaccompanied child population declines, temporary shelters pose challenges
Daily reports from the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) point to a slow month-long decline in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border, after a record-breaking, headline-grabbing increase in March.
Border Patrol encountered an average of 400 unaccompanied non-Mexican children per day over the four days between May 2 and May 5. That is down from 489 per day during the last week of March.
(These numbers don’t include unaccompanied Mexican children, who were 12 percent of all unaccompanied kids encountered at the border in March. A 2008 law mandating that unaccompanied migrant kids be turned over to the HHS refugee agency only applies to those from “non-contiguous” countries. Nearly all children from contiguous Mexico are swiftly returned, as Border Report noted this week.)
The reason for a decline during spring months, when numbers usually increase, is not clear. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council posits that pent-up demand to migrate may explain the earlier February-March burst of arrivals. It was very hard to migrate from Central America during the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial months, and the Trump administration was implementing its “Title 42” quarantine policy so severely that it was rapidly expelling even unaccompanied children—until a judge stopped that practice last November. It’s possible that some of that pent-up migratory demand is now exhausted, so numbers are dropping a bit. But nobody really knows: it’s entirely possible that arrivals could start climbing again in May.
For now, though, the population of children in U.S. government (DHS plus HHS) custody is starting to edge downward. Over the past 10 days for which DHS and HHS have reported data, 479 more unaccompanied children departed U.S. government custody than entered it. HHS, through its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), handed over 4,612 children to relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they will stay while their protection needs are adjudicated. Border Patrol took a smaller number newly into custody: 4,133.
As of May 5, 749 children were in Border Patrol’s austere holding facilities, awaiting transfer to ORR’s network of shelters. That is down from more than 5,700 at the end of March. Children are now transferred from Border Patrol to ORR in an average of about 24 hours, far less than the alarming 5 1/2 days or more that were the norm a month ago.
DHS posted a series of photos of CBP’s processing facility in Donna, Texas, where children had been occupying virtually every square foot of floor space in mid-March. Now, the holding spaces are nearly empty (though children are still lying on mats on the floor under mylar blankets). “The progress we have made is dramatic,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters on May 2.
The number of children in HHS/ORR’s network of about 200 shelters has also begun, very gradually, to decline, from a high of 22,557 on April 29 to 21,848 on May 5—3 percent over 6 days. ORR is endeavoring to minimize the length of children’s stay in these shelters, speeding up their placement with relatives or sponsors. The Wall Street Journal reports that the agency has cut the length of stay in its custody “from an average of 42 days at the start of the Biden administration to 29 days last month [April].” This owes in large part to “aggressive actions” to speed placements, the Associated Press reports, “such as by putting them on flights to be with their families.”
Normally, ORR’s shelters have capacity to hold about 13,500 children. With an assist from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ORR set up emergency facilities in at least a dozen convention centers, camps, army bases, and similar large sites. Three administration officials told the Journal that these sites are “a short-term solution while they work to open more licensed shelters.”
While the temporary emergency shelters remain open, though, child welfare advocates worry about conditions. Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute compared them to “hurricane shelters” in the Journal’s reporting. While FEMA logistical support has been important, the same story reported, its rapid pace left some ORR staff “feeling that it had lost control over the quality of the locations being opened.” Two facilities, in Houston, Texas and Erie, Pennsylvania, were shuttered shortly after being opened in April. ORR places strict limits on access to its shelters, citing both public health and child privacy reasons. While understandable, this makes conditions in the unlicensed temporary facilities impossible to verify.
- Deployed Resources LLC, based in Rome, New York, could receive up to $719 million for a 1,500-bed tent shelter in Donna, Texas. This company assembled the notorious “tent courts” where asylum seekers in the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program were subjected to immigration court proceedings via video conference in 2019 and 2020.
- Family Endeavors, based in San Antonio, Texas, could get up to $580 million for a facility in Pecos, Texas. Endeavors, whose CEO told AP, “Many nonprofits were asked but declined,” is also executing an $87 million contract from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold asylum seeking families in hotel rooms while their cases are being processed.
- Rapid Deployment Inc., based in Mobile, Alabama, has received two contracts totaling $614 million to manage the facility at Fort Bliss, outside El Paso, Texas.
- MVM Inc., based in Ashburn, Virginia, is getting a contract, and expansion of another, totaling $136 million for the transportation of migrant children to, and between, ORR facilities. The company gained notoriety during the 2018 family separation tragedy, when Reveal News reported that it was keeping migrant children, including some separated from their parents, in an empty office building in Phoenix. In July 2020, when the Trump administration was holding children in Texas hotels before expelling them under Title 42, the Texas Civil Rights Project posted a viral video of one of its lawyers being shoved into a hotel elevator by MVM guards yelling profanities at him.
Title 42 remains deeply controversial
The Biden administration’s maintenance of the Title 42 public health policy continued to generate controversy even as DHS began to ease it slightly. The policy, which the Trump administration launched in March 2020, seeks to expel most undocumented migrant adults and families without regard to asylum needs, in an accelerated process. Mexico has agreed to take citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. An April 20 report by Human Rights First, Al Otro Lado, and the Haitian Bridge Alliance documented at least 492 attacks on and kidnappings of expelled migrants since Joe Biden took office in January.
Authorities in Mexico’s state of Tamaulipas, citing a child welfare law that prohibits holding children in immigration detention centers, are not receiving most Central American families with children under seven years of age. Tamaulipas is across from south Texas; DHS has responded by flying daily planeloads of Central American asylum-seeking families to El Paso and San Diego, then expelling them into Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. “At least a hundred people are returned to Juarez daily” from flights, in addition to those turned back at the border, Juarez’s municipal human rights director, Rogelio Pinal, told Texas Standard.
In March, Mexico appeared to be accepting expulsions of about 32 percent of the Central American families whom Border Patrol was encountering. Those who don’t get expelled are allowed to begin asylum petitions and released into the United States with notices to appear in hearings.
There is still no real rhyme or reason as to which families get to stay, and which are expelled, whether by land or air. “Some families are swiftly expelled without due process while others are allowed to stay in the U.S. because of where they entered, the age of their children, or sheer luck,” reported Camilo Montoya-Galvez of CBS News. “If a person wants to come to the United States right now, the only chance they have is to maybe go through Reynosa [across from McAllen] and be one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get expelled,” Linda Rivas of El Paso’s Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center told the Texas Standard, in an article highlighting the resulting overcrowding in Ciudad Juarez shelters. “That’s not an asylum system.”
While we haven’t seen April data yet, there is some likelihood that Mexico is accepting more Central American families border-wide. Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, told Montoya-Galvez that “she has been receiving fewer families from U.S. border officials in recent weeks, compared to earlier in the spring. She said that is likely due to U.S. authorities expelling more families to Mexico,” including through the lateral flights.
Even while seeking to maximize family and single adult expulsions, the Biden administration has been moving to make exceptions for those whom advocacy groups identify as most vulnerable. Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told CBS that his organization has been sending a daily list of people stranded in Mexico who are most endangered, so that they might be brought across and allowed to continue their cases in the United States. The definition of “vulnerable” isn’t clear, but El Paso Matters reported that a number of trans women have recently been able to cross to El Paso.
In Reynosa, a city of 700,000 that is probably the most dangerous of all Mexican border towns due to frequent disputes between organized crime factions, a park near the main port of entry continues to fill up with expelled non-Mexican families. Border Report estimates that over 700 asylum-seeking migrants are now in Reynosa’s Plaza de la República. Tents are going up, reviving miserable images of the tent city in nearby Matamoros that had filled up with “Remain in Mexico” subjects in 2019 and 2020. Doctors Without Borders told AP that the improvised site lacks water supplies or health services.
Reynosa’s security situation is a major concern. The Doctors Without Borders coordinator in Reynosa, José Antonio Silva, told AP, “We have reports of people disappearing day and night at the square, which is very worrisome.” A Texas-based charity, the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers—which first began working in the Matamoros camp—is now taking one or two of the most vulnerable families each day and paying to check them in to Reynosa hotels or apartments, says Border Report.
Mexico’s migration enforcement solidifies “buffer” role
On April 12, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki had told reporters:
Mexico made the decision to maintain 10,000 troops at its southern border, resulting in twice as many daily migrant interdictions. Guatemala surged 1,500 police and military personnel to its southern border with Honduras and agreed to set up 12 checkpoints along the migratory route. Honduras surged 7,000 police and military to disperse a large contingent of migrants.
As the Intercept notes, Guatemala and Honduras soon backpedaled from that, insisting that there had been no agreement to deploy personnel to block migrants. Mexico, however, did the opposite: “The Mexican government clarified that its efforts involved 12,000 people, though not just troops and not just to the southern border.” Mexico also closed its southern border with Guatemala to all non-essential travel, a more restrictive standard than it maintains at its northern border with the United States.
Along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, in Tapachula, Yuriria Salvador, coordinator for structural change at the Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Center, told the Intercept that new Mexican migrant interdiction deployments at the United States’ request are nothing new: “The response of the Biden administration is very similar to the response of the Trump administration.”
This reinforces Mexico’s role as an “interdiction state,” or “a buffer zone where enforcement activities are fluid and subject to geopolitical negotiation,” the Washington Post reports. Migration researcher Cris Ramón told the Post that Mexico’s role increasingly looks like that of Turkey, which has received material and diplomatic benefits from Europe by serving as a buffer for Syrian refugees. “In both cases you’re externalizing your borders and making another nation your border authority.”
An increasing number of migrants are deciding to seek asylum in Mexico, where the government’s refugee agency (COMAR) reports receiving 31,842 asylum requests during the first four months of 2021. That sets COMAR on pace to shatter its 2019 record of 70,422 asylum requests. (As recently as 2015, COMAR only received 3,424.) Nearly half of COMAR’s 2021 asylum seekers are from Honduras, followed by citizens of Haiti, Cuba, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Guatemala.
Disturbingly, migrant advocates in Tapachula told the Intercept that Mexico’s National Guard and migration enforcement agency (INM) may have begun carrying out sweeps outside COMAR’s offices during early-morning hours, detaining and presumably deporting undocumented asylum seekers as they begin queueing to fill out applications.
The U.S. National Security Council’s director for the Western Hemisphere, Juan González, told the Post that the Biden administration’s migration agenda with Mexico goes well beyond personnel deployments. “Yes, we talk about enforcement, but also about support for humanitarian programs, addressing the root causes of migration and promoting economic investment.”
Still, reporters Nick Miroff and Mary Beth Sheridan assert that U.S. officials’ dependence on Mexico to crack down on Central American migration, which reduces political pressure at the border, gives Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador leverage to push for U.S. concessions on other priorities. These may include abstaining from criticism of AMLO’s security policies or recent anti-democratic political maneuvers.
Luis Rubio of the México Evalúa think tank told the Post that a basic premise of the bilateral relationship “that dated back to the 1980s” held that the U.S. and Mexican governments would discuss different issues—trade, drugs, migration—as separate items. That way, “a dispute in one area wouldn’t contaminate the entire relationship.” By demanding cooperation on migration in exchange for concessions in other areas like trade or democracy, Rubio argues, Donald Trump undid that “separate lanes” tradition. That in turn allows AMLO to seek concessions on other issues in exchange for helping to push back migrants, including asylum seekers.
Miroff and Sheridan note, though, that a sharp recent increase in arrivals of Mexican single adult migrants could diminish some of López Obrador’s potential leverage.
- In what it calls a “trial balloon,” the Biden administration’s Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families reunited four deported migrant parents with children whom the Trump administration had separated from them in 2017 and 2018. The plan is eventually to reunify, in the United States, over 1,100 families who remain separated, from an overall total of about 5,500 separations. Deported parents still haven’t been located for at least 445 separated children in the United States. At the New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer recounts the end of a Honduran mother’s long wait to be reunited with her teenage sons after Border Patrol separated them in 2017.
- A 40-foot boat carrying 30 undocumented Mexican migrants and one undocumented Guatemalan migrant ran aground and broke up off of San Diego’s Cabrillo National Monument on May 2. Three migrants drowned, the rest are in U.S. government custody, and the boat’s U.S. citizen pilot is facing criminal charges. “Many of the passengers told authorities that they paid $15,000 to $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. “The Border Patrol tallied 1,273 smuggling arrests on the California coast during the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, a 92 percent increase from the same period a year earlier,” according to AP. “Since Oct. 1, it has made more than 900 arrests.”
- “Currently, the plan is for me to travel to Mexico and Guatemala on June 7 and 8th,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. She is scheduled to have a conversation with Mexican President López Obrador on May 7. This will be her second meeting with AMLO. At a Council of the Americas event, Harris discussed plans for assistance to Central America to address “acute causes” and “root causes” of migration. “If corruption persists, history has told us, it will be one step forward and two steps back,” she said.
- A challenge to those plans occurred on the evening of May 1 in El Salvador, as a newly seated legislative supermajority immediately fired independent high court justices and the chief prosecutor. “Just this weekend, we learned that the Salvadoran Parliament moved to undermine its nation’s highest court. An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy and a strong economy,” Vice President Harris warned.
- At Vox, Nicole Narea questions whether “root causes” aid actually reduces migration, noting studies that have found most migrants from Central America, while poor, have some resources and tend not to be among the region’s poorest.
- The Biden administration officially canceled border wall construction projects paid for with money that Donald Trump, declaring a national emergency, had drawn from the Defense Department’s budget. This money was to build about 466 miles of wall, of which about 123 remained unbuilt when Donald Trump left office. Documents seen by WOLA indicate that of $9.9 billion in money taken from the Defense Department, about $3.5 billion remains unspent, of which perhaps $1.4 billion would go to contract termination and suspension costs. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also announced it would use funds to repair Rio Grande levees damaged by wall construction in Texas, and to undo soil erosion damage caused by wall-building in San Diego.
- At Roll Call, moderate Senate Democrats Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) voiced support for the Biden administration’s plan to provide CBP’s infrastructure account with $1.2 billion in 2002 for facilities and technology—but not for border walls. “[W]e need to have area vehicles, satellite, the ability to interface with Border Patrol and Customs, and so I’m open to whatever it is. We’re not building a wall,” Menendez said.
- Two investigations by the Intercept, about anti-drone measures and harvesting data from cars’ onboard computers and mobile phone links, raised concerns about how providing CBP with new border technologies “could lead to further surveillance and militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.”
- A strong Washington Post editorial calls ICE “The Super Spreader Agency.” It contends that because the agency ignored foreseeable “red flags” about the spread of COVID-19 in its mostly privately run detention centers, “Nearly 13,000 detainees have tested positive—likely an undercount of the virus’ real spread—and at least nine have died.”
- A Pew Research Center poll found 68 percent of adult U.S. respondents saying the government is doing a very bad or somewhat bad job of dealing with increased numbers of asylum seekers at the border; 47 percent “say it is very important to reduce the number of people coming to the U.S. seeking asylum; another 32% say this is somewhat important.” A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found a first-place tie among Texas voters: 16 percent ranked the pandemic as the top issue facing the state, and 16 percent chose immigration and border security. A Civiqs poll commissioned by the Immigration Hub found “57 percent of Americans accept illegal immigration when the immigrants are fleeing violence in their home countries,” but the number falls to 46 percent when the cause is poverty or hunger, 36 percent for family reunification, and 31 percent for job-seeking.
- Dozens of U.S.-bound Haitian migrants were stuck for weeks in Honduras because the government is demanding they pay US$190 each to obtain exit visas after entering the country irregularly, reports the Honduran outlet ContraCorriente.
May 6, 2021
- Simon Ostrovsky, Charles Lyons, “Bolsonaro Faces Criminal Investigation, Possible Impeachment Over Covid Response in Brazil” (PBS NewsHour, PBS, May 6, 2021).
Brazil formalized a criminal investigation last week into President Jair Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic. It could lead to his impeachment
- “Quienes Son los 11 Generales Que Ha Llamado Jep por ‘Falsos Positivos’” (El Tiempo (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
Con el testimonio del general en retiro Leonardo Alfonso Barrero Gordillo, la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz completó esta semana 11 llamados a oficiales de alta graduación convocados a rendir versión en el macrocaso 03
- “Red Global Contra la Violencia Policial Ante Situacion en Colombia” (Several Latin American organizations, PROVEA (Venezuela), May 6, 2021).
El pueblo colombiano tiene derecho a mostrar su disentimiento a través de la protesta social, ya que el ejercicio de este derecho está estrechamente vinculado a la promoción y defensa de la democracia
- Sally Palomino, “El Acoso Policial a las Mujeres Que Protestan en Colombia: “Si Asi Son las Marchantes, Que Rico Echarles Gases”” (El Pais (Spain), May 6, 2021).
Si a plena luz del día, en una jornada normal, las mujeres en Colombia están desprotegidas -158 feminicidios en los tres primeros meses del año- el riesgo es mayor si es de noche y la calle está llena de policías
- Joe Parkin Daniels, “‘No Food and No Fuel’: Colombia Torn by Protests and Violent Crackdown” (The Guardian, May 6, 2021).
Much criticism has focused on the police response to the disturbances, with warlike scenes in cities across the country as officers in riot gear launch teargas and fire on crowds, sometimes with live rounds
- Steven Grattan, “Demands Grow as Colombians Hold Eighth Day of Mass Protests” (Al Jazeera, May 6, 2021).
Colombia’s human rights ombudsman says 24 people have died, while local NGO Temblores, which documents police abuse, estimates that 37 have been killed
- “El Fantasma de la Insurgencia en las Protestas” (El Espectador (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
El motín de La Modelo, las marchas del 9S y la minga indígena son algunos capítulos que el presidente Iván Duque señaló de estar infiltrados por las disidencias de las Farc y el Eln
- “¿Quien Da las Ordenes a Militares y Policias en el Paro Nacional? El Presidente Duque” (El Espectador (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
Lo que dice la Constitución Política de Colombia es que existe una línea de mando muy clara que se debe respetar
- Anna Portella, “‘en Colombia Nos Despertamos Cada Dia Con Mas y Mas Muertos en Manos de la Policia’: Ong Temblores” (La-Lista (Mexico), May 6, 2021).
La-Lista habló con Emilia Márquez, una de las directivas de Temblores ONG. Asegura que esta última semana de violencia es inédita en el país
- “‘el Estado de Conmocion Aumentaria la Crisis en el Paro Nacional’: Expertos” (El Espectador (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
Entre las acciones que puede tomar el presidente en el marco de un Estado de Conmoción, está restringir el derecho a la circulación y residencia; utilizar de manera temporal bienes e imponer la prestación de servicios técnicos y temporales; establecer restricciones a la radio y a la televisión
- ““Lo Que Paso Anoche en Siloe (Cali) Fue una Matanza”: Lider Social” (El Espectador (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
Al menos cinco personas murieron y 33 resultaron heridas durante la noche y madrugada del pasado 3 mayo en el sector
- Julie Turkewitz, Sofia Villamil, “Colombia Police Respond to Protests With Bullets, and Death Toll Mounts” (The New York Times, May 6, 2021).
The eruption of anger in Colombia, where at least 24 have died as the government cracks down on the protests, could spread to other countries in the region that share the same combustible conditions
- “Ante Grave Escalamiento de la Violencia en Protestas, Pedimos a la Cidh una Visita ‘in Loco’ a Colombia” (DeJusticia (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
Junto a 22 organizaciones de derechos humanos, le solicitamos al organismo documentar en terreno las denuncias de víctimas y procesos organizativos afectados por expresiones violentas y uso desproporcionado de la fuerza
- Paul J. Angelo, “Duque’s Repressive Security Policies Have Failed Colombia” (Council on Foreign Relations, The Washington Post, May 6, 2021).
The Duque administration’s reluctance to implement the peace accord, a resurgence of violence in the countryside and the promotion of generals with questionable human rights records meant a return to the security sector’s war footing
- Paula Doria, Elisa Castrillon Palacio, Isabella Mejia Michelsen, “La Brutalidad Policial en la Protesta Deja Cada Vez Mas Victimas” (La Silla Vacia (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
A través de testimonios de heridos, familiares, amigos y testigos, La Silla reconstruyó las historias de algunas de las víctimas de los excesos de la fuerza pública
- “Protestas en Colombia Pueden Afectar Ayudas por Parte de ee.uu.: Jim Mcgovern” (La W Radio (Colombia), May 6, 2021).
“Los videos son perturbadores. Lamento la violencia contra los manifestantes”, indicó
- “Editorial: This Is How a Republic Dies” (El Faro (El Salvador), May 6, 2021).
We Salvadorans have lost our constitutional guarantees. The coup of President Nayib Bukele and his legislative bloc against the judiciary on May 1 leaves us defenseless
El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras
- Matt Spetalnick, Ted Hesson, “U.S. Targets Central America Officials for Possible Sanctions Over Corruption – Envoy” (Reuters, Reuters, May 6, 2021).
Ricardo Zuniga, President Joe Biden’s point man for Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, also said the administration was considering further sanctions against officials in the region for alleged graft under the Global Magnitsky Act
- Nandita Bose, “U.S. Vice President Harris to Go to Guatemala, Mexico June 7-8” (Reuters, Reuters, May 6, 2021).
“Currently, the plan is for me to travel to Mexico and Guatemala on June 7 and 8th. And I’m very much looking forward to that trip,” Harris told reporters while on a visit to Rhode Island
- Nilsa Hernandez, “Sedena Tendra Programa de Derechos Humanos; Se Estudiara Comportamiento de Militares” (Milenio (Mexico), May 6, 2021).
Dicho programa cuenta con metas diferentes por cada objetivo prioritario, como la comunidad LGBT+, los menores de edad, mujeres, personas con discapacidad, entre otros, para que en 2024 todo el personal de la Sedena sea de confianza y protección
- “Cndh Recibe en 7 Anos 3 Mil 799 Quejas Contra Sedena” (Proyecto Puente (Mexico), May 6, 2021).
30, es decir el 0.78%, terminaron en recomendaciones
- J. Weston Phippen, “Mexico Just Took an Important Step Toward Ending Military Impunity” (Animal Politico (Mexico), May 6, 2021).
These may be the first of many indictments stemming from that six-month deployment, which human rights activists said turned into an extrajudicial reign of terror over the city
- “Mexican President Says U.S. Vice President Harris to Visit Mexico Next Month” (Reuters, Reuters, May 6, 2021).
Lopez Obrador is due to speak to Harris on Friday
- Guadalupe Fuentes Lopez, ““Padres Fundadores” y Herederos del Narco Van Quedando Libres, Uno a Uno. Aqui, Pero Mas en Eu” (SinEmbargo (Mexico), May 6, 2021).
¿La liberación de estos grandes capos de la droga va a reconfigurar a los cárteles? Expertos creen que ya no volverán con el mismo poder de antes
- Caroline Simon, “Partisan Divides Emerge Over Border Infrastructure” (Roll Call, May 6, 2021).
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have vastly different ideas of what that funding should look like, teeing up a partisan battle when the narrowly divided Congress considers its annual spending bills
- Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “Migrant Families Face Starkly Different Fortunes Under Inconsistent Border Policy” (CBS News, May 6, 2021).
The Biden administration has continued to use a public health authority first invoked under former President Donald Trump to rapidly expel tens of thousands of migrants
- Adriana Gomez Licon, “Us Awards Huge Shelter Contracts Amid Child Migrant Increase” (Associated Press, Associated Press, May 6, 2021).
In its haste to provide new facilities, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded the largest contracts — worth more than $2 billion — to two companies and a nonprofit without a bidding process
- Corrie Boudreaux, Rene Kladzyk, “Trans Migrants, Other Vulnerable Groups Allowed to Cross Into el Paso Through New Pandemic Exceptions” (El Paso Matters, May 6, 2021).
A new exception to a Trump-era border policy has allowed some transgender people and other members of “vulnerable populations” to enter the United States and seek asylum
- Ken Klippenstein, Alex Emmons, “Border Police Wants a Bite of Burgeoning Anti-Drone Industry” (The Intercept, May 6, 2021).
CBP put out a request for information to private companies, seeking ways to respond to drones, including by radio frequency jamming and “kinetic attack”
- Luna Perdomo, “Comisionado Humberto Prado: Las Faes Cometieron 400 Ejecuciones Extrajudiciales en 2020” (Tal Cual (Venezuela), May 6, 2021).
Las víctimas arbitrariamente ejecutadas en el año 2020(por las FAES) fueron en su totalidad hombres jóvenes, generalmente no mayores de 50 años, pertenecientes a familias de bajos ingresos y habitantes de zonas populares con altas tasas de delincuencia
- “Chairman Meeks’ Statement on Venezuela’s National Electoral Council” (U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, May 6, 2021).
I believe that yesterday’s agreement between opposition representatives and the Maduro government marks an important step towards free and fair elections in the country
I’ll be hard to reach today, though later afternoon is easiest. (How to contact me)
It’s going to be a busy one. Taking my kid to the dentist in the morning, in-person lunch with a European diplomat, and writing the weekly border update the rest of the afternoon. The Colombia situation has me behind on news, so I’ve got some catching up to do. If—as often happens around this time of month—CBP posts April migration numbers, this will take longer. All of this means I’ll be hard to reach today.
I should be reachable much of the day. (How to contact me)
I’ve tried to keep today’s agenda clear to do some writing and research as due dates loom. I’ll be doing that, and taking the occasional break because I was up later than I meant to be, as I tracked the violence in Colombian cities last night.
I just sent off another e-mail update to those who’ve subscribed. It includes:
- Our statement on the brutal response to protests in Colombia;
- A link to last week’s podcast about U.S. policy toward Central America;
- A link to my Saturday NPR interview about the new ICE nominee and organizational culture issues at our border and immigration agencies;
- Full text of this week’s Colombia peace update;
- Full text of this week’s U.S.-Mexico border update;
- Latin America-related online events for this week;
- And a handful of funny tweets.
And here’s the introductory blurb, with a few initial thoughts about the past few days’ bad news in El Salvador and Colombia:
When I was in college in the early nineties, El Salvador was showing Latin America that a bitter civil war could end in negotiations, and that a country with a long history of dictatorship could start opening up and transitioning to democracy. Twenty-five years later, in the mid-2010s, Colombia held up hope that, once again, a negotiation between longtime combatants could usher in a new moment of hope, tranquility, political participation, and more inclusive governance.
Those hopeful moments had a lot of influence on me and my work. That has made it more painful to watch the past few days’ events in both countries.
As soon as it was seated, a legislative supermajority in El Salvador spent Saturday night firing the independent Constitutional Court and Attorney General, on behalf of authoritarian-trending President Nayib Bukele. Even Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted disapproval.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s security forces have responded in brutal and escalatory fashion to protests around the country: I can’t handle (or verify) the volume of abuse denunciations in my WhatsApp, Twitter, email, and other feeds. The death and injury is happening in several cities. This indicates to me that Colombia’s government—which the U.S. government describes as a close ally—has very likely given a green light to unaccountable state violence against those who dare to speak out against it, all in the name of fighting vandals and looters on the margins of otherwise peaceful gatherings.
It’s heartbreaking watching this sharp backward lurch. But there are a few reasons for hope. The Biden administration, for now at least, has broken with historical U.S. patterns and sent strong public rebukes of El Salvador’s putatively pro-U.S. leader. The U.S. government has been silent so far on Colombia, but the mere fact that street protests are able to persist—and forced President Iván Duque to withdraw a regressive tax reform—is encouraging. That would probably have been unthinkable before the peace accord, when protesters were easily marginalized by stigmatizing them as plainclothes guerrillas.
Still, it was an awful weekend for democracy in the Americas.
Most of what’s in this email was written before the weekend, with the exception of the below statement about Colombia that we rushed out on Sunday night. Otherwise, below you’ll find a podcast, a quick NPR interview about ICE and CBP organizational culture, weekly Colombia and border updates, links to upcoming events, and some funny tweets.
Tuesday, May 4
- 11:00 at Zoom: Autonomía estratégica en América Latina y Europa: ¿por qué y cómo? (RSVP required).
- 12:00-1:00 at thedialogue.org: 100 Days of the Biden-Harris Administration – What Lies Ahead for US-Mexico Ties? (RSVP required).
- 1:00-2:00 at csis.org: Gender Equality and Sustainability in Panama: A Conversation with Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes (RSVP required).
Wednesday, May 5
- 12:00-1:15 at Facebook Live: Amapola y militarización: desmontando los mitos y guerras.
- 4:00 at nyu.edu: Sustainable Colombia: Politics, Planet and Democratic Security: A Conversation with President Alvaro Uribe Vélez (RSVP required).
Thursday, May 6
- 10:00-11:00 at wilsoncenter.org: Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelan Migrants in Colombia: Opportunities and Challenges (RSVP required).
- 2:00 at homeland.house.gov: Hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Management, and Accountability on Stakeholder Perspectives on Addressing Migration Push Factors.
- 2:00-3:00 at thedialogue.org: Healthcare Investment & Economic Recovery in the Americas (RSVP required).
- 3:00-4:30 at wilsoncenter.org: Mexico’s Mid-Term Elections: What’s at Stake and What to Expect (RSVP required).
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.
Proposed tax hike spurs a new round of street protests
This is a developing story. We had to cut off information-gathering and start writing after Friday, so the next update will cover events from May 1 onward.
Tens of thousands of Colombians took to the streets of dozens of cities starting on April 28, in the third round of major protests the country has seen since November 2019. This time, the triggering factor of the “Paro Nacional” was a tax increase President Iván Duque had proposed to close a growing budget gap. The tax proposal proved to be a “last straw” sending people into the streets, with a long list of grievances, despite a record peak of coronavirus cases.
Colombia needs to raise funds to reduce its deficit (perhaps 8.6 percent of GDP this year) and guarantee basic income for the absolute poorest. However, the tax reform bill handed down by Finance Minister Alberto Carrasquilla is so unpopular that even Duque’s political patron, former president Álvaro Uribe, abandoned it and submitted an alternative bill.
Though it would raise marginal income tax rates on the wealthiest to as much as 41 percent—perhaps 25 percent of total income—it included surprisingly regressive elements, given sharp pandemic-related collapses in households’ buying power. Not only would it have applied income taxes for the first time to workers making as little as 2.5 million pesos (US$670) per week, it would have raised value-added (sales) taxes on public utilities, fuel, and other basic goods that even the poorest need to purchase. “There are tax measures that would only aggravate the conditions of the least favored people, but increase their number,” warned the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference.
The “strike committee,” heavily composed of union leaders, said that while the tax legislation left them no choice but to protest, they were also demanding an end to systematic killings of social leaders and the lack of guaranteed basic income. La Silla Vacía talked to a few dozen participants, who mentioned social leaders, corruption, lack of implementation of the peace accord, the likelihood that aerial herbicide fumigation could restart in coca-growing areas, and a generalized frustration with Colombia’s “traditional political class.”
The protests happened despite an April 27 order from a court in Cundinamarca, which has jurisdiction over Bogotá, ordering that any protest permits be suspended for public health reasons. Colombia is in the midst of its third and deadliest wave of COVID-19 cases, with over 450 deaths per day as the P.1 “Brazilian variant” of the virus sweeps through the country. There were no protest permits to revoke, however, as the “strike committee” didn’t seek any. Despite the restrictions, protest turnout exceeded organizers’ expectations, with marches in about 300 towns and cities around the country.
While the overwhelming majority of participants were peaceful, some individuals took advantage of the situation to commit acts of vandalism and looting, especially in Bogotá and Cali, and especially after dark. In Cali, reports Voice of America, “public buses were burnt, and across the country windows were shattered, with reports saying rioters had broken into into stores and banks. In Bogotá, local officials reported that vandalism left 11% of the city’s transport system affected or in disrepair.” The National Police health director told press that violence had wounded 87 police agents around the country. “We regret the isolated acts of vandalism that occurred in two or three cities and reject the strange looting that occurred in Cali in which the demonstrators were not involved,” said Francisco Maltés, president of Colombia’s largest union, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT).
Authorities committed many acts of violence as well, starting with the use of tear gas and stun grenades to clear a peaceful gathering in the central Plaza de Bolívar on the afternoon of the 28th. On that day Temblores, an NGO that keeps a database of police violence, counted “35 victims of physical violence by the police; three victims of homicidal violence by the police; one person killed during the mobilization; 22 arbitrary arrests of demonstrators; 27 violent interventions by the security forces; and five raids on demonstrators.” Several protesters suffered eye damage: as in Chile, some police appear to be directing their “non-lethal” crowd control weapons at eyes. In Cali, according to NGO reports, police went on a rampage the evening of April 30, killing at least seven people, probably more.
As during past protests—a November 2019 Paro Nacional and a September 2020 response to a brutal police killing caught on video—figures on Colombia’s political right sought to tie violent protesters to national armed groups, and called for more use of force. Former president Uribe called for the Army to be sent into the streets. Defense Minister Diego Molano said that “the violent events in Cali were premeditated, planned and sponsored by criminal organizations,” naming FARC dissident groups among them, and pledged to deploy 2,500 more security force members in that city.
“Those who organize to violate the citizenry and create anxiety and chaos in the residents of each city are terrorists,” said Chief Prosecutor (Fiscal General) Francisco Barbosa, who claimed that a “clandestine brigade” was behind acts of vandalism in these and earlier protests. “What they have done today is a crime against life, health and citizenship rights of all Colombians.”
Protesters vowed to remain on the streets through the May 1 Labor Day holiday, pushing the Duque government to withdraw or reconsider its tax hike package.
Demobilized guerrillas suffer a wave of killings
“The week of April 14-21, 2021 was one of the deadliest for ex-combatants since the signing of the Final Peace Agreement,” reads a statement from the peace accords’ transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). “According to the period analyzed, there were 7 murders, on average one every 24 hours, and 1 attempted homicide against reincorporated combatants in five departments.”
The list of demobilized FARC members killed since April 14 now totals eight, in seven departments of Colombia. All victims were men in rural areas:
- Fayber Camilo Cufiño, killed April 14 in La Macarena, Meta.
- Jhon Sebastián Ávila Romero, killed April 17 in a rural zone of Villavicencio, Meta.
- Yeison Ayala, killed April 18 in Puerto Cachicamo, San José del Guaviare, Guaviare.
- Luis Fernando Córdoba Hurtado, killed April 20 en a rural zone of Quibdó, Chocó.
- Mayiber Tapias Monsalve, killed on April 21 in an unspecified municipality of Antioquia.
- Adolfo Rodríguez, killed on April 21 in Fortul, Arauca.
- Wilmer Enrique Álvarez Medina, killed on April 22 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
- Hernando Guerrero Torres, killed April 25 in Dolores, Tolima.
INDEPAZ, a human rights group that maintains a database of killed ex-combatants, counts 22 murders so far in 2021. Figures from the JEP cited in El Tiempo are even higher: 24 murders of FARC ex-combatants so far this year—1.5 per week, a higher rate than the 1.3 in 2020—and 289 overall killings of ex-combatants since the FARC started demobilizing at the end of 2016. The count maintained by the ex-FARC political party, Comunes, is actually smaller: 271 as of April 26.
The JEP found “critical” levels of danger in 10 municipalities covering 7 departments, 4 of them in Cauca. It noted that about 20 percent of murdered combatants “were leaders in political issues, associated with productive projects, representatives of cooperatives, or leading illicit crop substitution processes.”
In a communiqué sounding alarms about the situation of ex-combatants and social leaders around the country, the UN Verification mission reiterated “Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for an immediate cessation of hostilities to advance recovery efforts in the country in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic,” and called for stronger measures to protect people.
Emilio Archila, who as presidential counselor for stabilization and consolidation is the government official with most authority over peace accord implementation, insisted that the Duque administration is working to protect excombatants. “We have an absolutely dynamic way of working,” he told El Tiempo, contending that ex-combatant killings dropped 10 percent from 2019 to 2020 and that 2021 so far has seen fewer killings than 2020. “Of all the entities that participate in this prevention, the technical directors meet once every two weeks, analyze and adapt the measures depending on the conclusions they draw from the increase or decrease of these murders. In addition, the heads meet once a month to make this type of analysis, and the intelligence bubble of the Ministry of Defense follows up on a daily basis to adapt actions according to the situation.”
El Espectador noted, though, that the Duque government has not been using the tools that the 2016 peace accord created to protect ex-combatants. “In 38 months of President Iván Duque’s administration,” the paper reported, “the National Commission for Security Guarantees—a body created by the Peace Accord to dismantle the groups that are heirs to paramilitarism and which should meet once a month—has only met on six occasions. And, according to members of civil society and human rights platforms in that Commission, none of those meetings has taken up the public policy for dismantling of those groups, which is in fact its objective.”
Renewed fighting on Venezuelan side of the border
Starting about April 5, our April 17 update had reported, there appeared to be a lull in fighting that first flared up on March 21 between Venezuelan security forces and FARC dissident groups in Apure, Venezuela, just across the border from Arauca, Colombia. That lull ended on April 23, with a renewed series of skirmishes and aerial bombings in the rural zone of the border town of La Victoria, Apure.
According to sketchy reports, members of the “10th Front,” a group headed by ex-FARC members who refused to demobilize, ambushed Venezuelan troops carrying out operations. Combat stretched well into the April 24-25 weekend. Juan Francisco García of FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO, told El Espectador that the dissidents brought 10 bodies to a local church and that another 9 cadavers were reportedly in a nearby hospital. “There are unconfirmed reports that FARC dissidents have seized a large quantity of weapons,” he added.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on April 26 that the armed forces had suffered casualties during the prior 72 hours, though he did not specify how many. Eight Venezuelan personnel had been killed in the earlier March-April round of fighting.
While this is all at the level of rumor, conflict analyst Naryi Vargas told El Espectador that the fighting’s lull and resurgence may owe to back-channel negotiation attempts and personnel changes:
After the first change of the commander in charge of the operation, a context of tense calm had been generated in which the local and national government were inviting Apureños to return to the area. This happened approximately 12 days before this past weekend.
It is believed that the government may have been holding a confidential negotiation with the dissidents to try to reach an agreement. And indeed, although tensions existed, there were no military actions; no explosions or machine gun fire were heard again. However, at the end of last week there was a change of the person in charge of the operation and since Friday there were again bursts of gunfire in the rural area.
The initial fighting had displaced about 5,888 people from Venezuela into Colombia, according to Colombian authorities. A new report by Human Rights Watch observed that the number may be larger: “in late March, when official numbers indicated that 4,500 people had fled,” local officials in Colombia’s Arauquita municipality told HRW that “approximately 3,000 more were staying in homes of friends and relatives in rural areas.” During the period of calm, some of the displaced had been abandoning temporary shelters and attempt to return: as many as 30 to 40 percent, according to Colombian border management director Lucas Gómez.
Human Rights Watch and Venezuelan NGOs blame much of the displacement on “egregious abuses against local residents” committed by Venezuelan security forces carrying out operations against the 10th Front. Venezuelan units identified in HRW’s report include the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB), “the Special Action Force of the Bolivarian National Police (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, FAES), the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), and the National Anti-Extortion and Anti-Kidnapping Command (Comando Nacional Antiextorsión y Secuestro, CONAS).” Among the worst confirmed abuses in the report was the March 25 massacre of a family in La Victoria, which had been the subject of many prior unconfirmed reports.
Colombian armed groups operate freely in Apure and other parts of Venezuela, in part filling a vacuum of collapsed state presence, as a New York Times feature, focused mainly on another part of the border, reported on April 26. In Apure, there are three such groups: the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, who have been in the zone since the 1980s; the 10th Front FARC dissidents, which are affiliated with the largest dissident network, headed by alias “Gentil Duarte”; and the “Nueva Marquetalia,” the FARC dissident group formed by top guerrilla peace negotiator Iván Márquez and other high-profile leaders who rejected the peace process in 2019. The latter group appears to have a much smaller physical presence in the area.
Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano continues to argue that the Venezuelan regime is favoring the “Nueva Marquetalia,” seeking to ease its entry into Apure, forcing the 10th Front to negotiate with it. Molano, the Venezuelan opposition-aligned daily Tal Cual reported, “put forward a second theory that Miraflores [the Venezuelan presidency] was seeking to test the government of U.S. President Joe Biden in order to improve relations with Washington.”
In a good analysis of Colombian armed group activity deep within Venezuelan territory, International Crisis Group analyst Bram Ebus noted that although what is happening in Apure is much more intense than usual, “even if things sometimes boil over, the Maduro government’s wrath with [Colombian] guerrilla groups does not seem to last long.”
Along the Orinoco, as at other parts of the border, links among armed groups, state officials and residents are brittle relationships rooted in self-interest. The ELN and FARC dissidents run similar illicit businesses, such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining, and both work alongside local Venezuelan authorities and security forces, but each guerrilla faction manages its trafficking routes and contraband shipments separately. Alliances appear to depend more on profit than ideology or geopolitical position.
Ebus added that in other parts of the border, like Táchira, Venezuelan forces have cast aside any ideological claim by colluding with groups descended from Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups. He recalled that collusion with armed groups occurs on the Colombian side of the border as well, citing examples in Vichada department:
Within the Puerto Carreño municipality, there is a Colombian army battalion, a national police unit and a naval brigade patrolling the rivers. But clashes between Bogotá’s military and armed groups are infrequent. Some sources, including local officials, allege that corrupt elements in the military are collaborating with non-state actors, but most say the two sides have no more than a tacit understanding aimed at preventing violence. “Here, they [non-state armed groups] learned to behave well with public forces”, an official explained, arguing that more brazen violence results in a larger troop presence – which is bad for business.
As Venezuelan Defense Minister Padrino vowed to “continue and intensify military operations” in the zone, Ebus lamented the lack of a communication channel between the Colombian government and Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Caracas. Without it, the border region is missing a key brake that could prevent escalation to an inter-state conflict.
Without a means for the two governments to communicate even as they accuse each other of sponsoring armed proxies, any military build-up close to the border, outbreak of violence or guerrilla offensive could be misinterpreted as a plot hatched by the neighbor. Incommunicado deadlock is beginning to look more dangerous with each day.
- Seven top FARC leaders have taken the important judicial step of pleading guilty to charges of kidnapping. The JEP had issued the charges in January. It took the FARC leadership a few months, including asking for an extension, to come around to admitting their responsibility for at least 21,396 kidnappings during the armed conflict. Families representing seven Valle del Cauca departmental legislators whom the FARC kidnapped in 2002 and killed in 2007 demanded that the accused be removed from seats in Congress and confined in conditions of restricted liberty.
- Despite the victim’s family’s efforts, Colombia’s military justice system will hear the case of Dilan Cruz, the 18-year-old protester killed in November 2019 by a riot policeman (ESMAD) using a putatively non-lethal weapon. A new Supreme Court ruling finds that Cruz’s killing was an “act of service” and need not go to the civilian criminal justice system, where the probability of a guilty verdict would be higher.
- Colombia’s national statistics agency (DANE) published new data showing a huge pandemic-caused economic reversal. 3.5 million Colombians fell into poverty in 2020. 42.5 percent are now below the official poverty line of 331,688 pesos (US$89) per person per month (higher in cities), and 15 percent (7.4 million people, a 59 percent increase over 2019) are in extreme poverty, unable even to pay for sufficient food.
- The latest annual report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found Colombia, with Latin America’s third-largest population, in second place behind Brazil among the region’s defense budgets. SIPRI reported that Colombia spent US$9.2 billion on its military in 2020, 26th in the world. Thirty-three members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter asking that a trillion pesos (US$268 million) be transferred from Defense to pandemic-related public health needs.
- The commander of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command took a team of “security assistance experts”—people who handle arms sales, basically—to Colombia for a several-day, in-person visit.
- By a 553-77 vote, the European Parliament passed a resolution praising the 2016 peace accord, condemning recent violence against ex-combatants and social leaders, calling on existing armed groups to cease attacks on civilians and commit to peace, and calling on EU bodies to continue assistance to peace accord implementation.
- The Defense Ministry announced that seven people had been arrested in connection with the April 17 disappearance of an off-duty Army lieutenant colonel, Pedro Enrique Pérez, in the conflictive town of Saravena, Arauca. Lt. Col. Pérez, last seen leaving a Saravena hotel with a woman, is believed to be captive of the 10th Front FARC dissident group, possibly being held across the border from Saravena in Venezuela. Meanwhile, a likely ELN ambush in Arauquita, which neighbors Saravena, killed a sergeant and wounded four other soldiers.
- 27,435 people were forcibly displaced by violence during the first 3 months of 2021, a 96 percent increase over the first quarter of 2020, according to the Human Rights Ombusdman’s Office (Defensoría).
- At La Silla Vacía, Elizabeth Dickinson of the International Crisis Group published a fieldwork-based overview of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Putumayo. Fighting between FARC dissidents and a hybrid “Frankenstein” group called Comandos de la Frontera has placed social leaders in the middle, while the coca economy booms and peace accord implementation flags.
- Diana Bernal Ibáñez of the Colectivo Sociojurídico Orlando Fals Borda, which legally represents ethnic communities demanding prior consultation before aerial herbicide fumigation begins in coca-growing zones, wrote in El Espectador, “There are many factors that push populations to flee their territories, but none is as effective in forcibly displacing them as the arrival of glyphosate.” Thirty-five members of Colombia’s Congress sent a letter to Colombia’s Constitutional Court demanding that the spray program’s environmental approval be suspended because communities in remote areas could not participate meaningfully during the pandemic. Twenty-one Colombian and international NGOs, including WOLA, asked the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to hold a hearing to review the fumigation program, which may be revived by June after a 2015 suspension due to public health concerns. During his April 25 mass, the maximum Catholic Church authority in Colombia, Bogotá Archbishop Luis José Rueda, warned, “The campesinado is dying, because this wolf of drug trafficking has come to destroy them in their abandonment and oblivion. The solution is not glyphosate.”
- 10,000 migrants, mainly from Haiti, Cuba, and several African countries, are in northern Colombia awaiting a chance to migrate northward through Panama, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.
- Sociologist Francisco Leal Buitrago, who has written often about civil-military relations during his long career, proposed nine strategic reforms in El Espectador, ranging from taking the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, to hiring more qualified defense ministers, to increasing the role of Congress and high courts in approving senior military promotions.
- The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission issued a statement “expressing its concern about violence in Cauca, especially the forced displacement of the population and the assassination of social leaders.”
- Three children aged 11, 12, and 17 working as trash recyclers were murdered with machete blows in a marginal neighborhood of Quibdó, Chocó; authorities and civil society leaders believe they crossed an “invisible boundary” between neighborhoods controlled by rival gangs. One of the accused of massacring five minors in Cali’s majority Afro-descendant Llano Verde neighborhood says the August 2020 crime was a case of “social cleansing.”
The Biden administration has named reformist border-state sheriffs to head CBP and ICE—two agencies in serious need of reform. If confirmed, they may face real friction with management and rank-and-file. Great conversation about this today with Michel Martin on NPR’s All Things Considered.