Adam Isacson

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

January 2022

5 links: January 31, 2022

(Even more here)


Good explanation of last week’s Constitutional Court decision in Colombia, finding that the lack of protection for ex-FARC members is “a state of unconstitutionality,” which requires the recalcitrant government to act.

The jurist argues that elites’ refusal to implement the peace accord’s rural provisions is setting Colombia up for another wave of preventable tragedy.


“The odds that Castro will move Honduras in the right direction in these numerous issues are slim,” but “this new government represents one of the few bright spots in Central America.”

U.S.-Mexico Border

For those of us who’ve worked for reform and failed to see audacity from the Clinton and Obama administrations, the story of White House immigration staffer Andrea Flores is familiar but frustrating.

The dismantling of asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border is so complete that many migrants are now viewing placement into “Remain in Mexico” as reason for hope.

Latin America-Related Online Events This Week

Monday, January 31, 2022

  • 2:00-3:30 at Biometrics at the border: Balancing security, convenience, and civil liberties (RSVP required).
  • 4:00-5:30 at Cuba: An American History (RSVP required).
  • 6:00-7:30 at Zoom: Public Launch of the Washington Brazil Office (RSVP required).

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

  • 2:00-5:00 at Tenth Annual U.S.-Mexico Security Conference Part 2 (RSVP required).

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

  • 2:00-3:30 at Cybersecurity, Supply Chains, and the Development of Mexico’s ICT Sector (RSVP required).

Thursday, February 3, 2022

  • 10:00 at Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on “Overview of U.S. Priorities in the Western Hemisphere: Opportunities, Challenges, and the Path Ahead” (no online event announcement).
  • 3:00 at China’s Relations with Latin America (RSVP required).
  • 9:00pm at Intersectionality of Police Practices & Racial Justice in the Borderlands (RSVP required).

Logged way too many hours this week

This isn’t normal, obviously. I’ve been finishing a giant project about the border which should go public in a few weeks, while writing a border update, a commentary, two speaking engagements, some planning meetings, and… I’m sure I’m forgetting “what else” because I’m very tired.

This is all to say that next week looks way more “normal” on my calendar, and I look forward to posting normally to this site again.

Weekly Border Update: January 28, 2022

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.

December’s migration data

On January 24 U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data about its encounters with undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during December 2021. The agency took migrants into custody 178,840 times last month, probably the tenth-largest monthly total of this century. CBP’s Border Patrol component, which operates between official land border crossings (ports of entry), encountered 170,186 migrants, and its Office of Field Operations (OFO) encountered 8,654 at the ports of entry.

December’s total was 4,000 more than November—a 2 percent increase, the first month-on-month increase in the overall encounter total since June-July 2021. However, as CBP’s release pointed out, the agency actually encountered fewer migrants per day in December (with 31 days, after all, December is 3 percent longer than November).

As is common since the pandemic began, many of those “encounters” are the same person counted more than one time. The Title 42 policy, which expels many migrants back into Mexico with little time in CBP custody, has eased repeat attempts to enter the United States. The number of individual people whom CBP encountered in December was 135,040. While much lower than “encounters,” that “individuals” total was about 5 percent larger than November’s.

Walking through the numbers, an analysis from Philip Bump at the Washington Post points out that roughly one sixth of “encounters” result in a migrant being allowed to remain in the United States outside of detention while awaiting immigration court proceedings. The other five-sixths are expelled, or detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

In December CBP passed 1.5 million expulsions of migrants since March 2020, when the Trump administration first implemented Title 42. In many cases, these migrants were asylum seekers denied the chance to petition for protection from threats to their lives. 78,589 of December’s migrant encounters—44 percent—ended in expulsions.

That monthly percentage is the smallest since Title 42 went into effect. “CBP expelled only 44% of individuals under Title 42 in December 2021, again highlighting the Biden administration’s refusal to fully utilize the public health authority,” complained a press release from Republicans on the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee.

44 percent did not represent any slackening in the use of Title 42, however. It instead reflects the nationalities of the migrants encountered in December. Of migrants who avoided expulsion last month, less than a quarter came from Mexico or from the three Central American nations whose citizens Mexico agrees to take back under Title 42 (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). The other three quarters are from countries to which expulsions are more difficult, either due to the cost of flying migrants back (as has happened to over 19,000 Haitians during the Biden administration), or due to poor diplomatic and consular relations.

Remarkably, 48 percent of December’s non-expelled migrants—47,682—came from Venezuela, Nicaragua, or Cuba. (Venezuela was 2nd overall in migrant encounters last month, after Mexico.) The Biden administration almost never sendsthose migrants on planes back to Havana, Managua, or Caracas. It is, however, sending citizens of those countries to “Remain in Mexico” to await their U.S. asylum hearings under a court-ordered renewal of this Trump-era program, which since December 8 has been undergoing a gradual rollout.

11,921 of December’s encounters were with children who arrived at the border unaccompanied. That was the smallest unaccompanied child total since February 2021, and 14 percent fewer than November. The Biden administration is not expelling unaccompanied children under Title 42.

Members of family units (parents with children) increased 14 percent from November, to 51,926. Remarkably, 7 out of every 10 family members encountered last month (69 percent) came from countries other than Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

After shooting upward when the Trump administration began applying Title 42 in 2020, then peaking during spring of 2021, encounters with single adults have plateaued. They dipped by a few hundred from November to December.

Of the nine sectors into which Border Patrol divides the border, South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region continued to lead all others in monthly apprehensions, with 43,844, most of them Central American citizens. The number-two and number-three sectors are unusual and surprising: both are sparsely populated zones that saw little migration during the 2010s: Texas’s Del Rio sector (Del Rio and Eagle Pass the largest border towns), and the Yuma sector that straddles Arizona and California (Yuma the largest border town). Arrivals in Yuma during the first quarter of fiscal 2022 are up 2,391 percent over the first quarter of fiscal 2021.

Only 32 percent of migrants in Del Rio, and 7 percent of migrants in Yuma, came from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. These “unusual” sectors have seen high concentrations of migrants from “unusual” countries like Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, India, and Venezuela. 

This concentration of nationalities along specific geographic sectors seems to owe to fast-evolving smuggling networks, about which we have little information. “It is evident that migrants’ nationalities have concentrated route trajectories and precise points of arrival, unrelated to casual factors. We can say in jest that they share the same ‘travel agency,’” Tonatiuh Guillén, a longtime migration expert who was briefly the López Obrador administration’s first INM director, observed in a recent analysisof this phenomenon.

U.S. border authorities are expecting migrant encounters to rise in the spring of 2022, possibly exceeding 2021 totals. Two officials told Reuters that they “are preparing for as many as 9,000 border arrests per day by the spring”—which would mean record-breaking monthly totals above 270,000 encounters. That, however, is a “worst case scenario,” one of Reuters’s anonymous sources said.

In Mexico, meanwhile, on January 23 the government’s National Migration Institute (INM) reported apprehending more than 3,000 migrants in a 48-hour period, many of them discovered in the backs of cargo trucks. During 2021, a record-breaking year for Mexico, the INM apprehended an average of 690 migrants per day; reaching 1,500 per day over two January days is a strong sign that 2022 will be another year of very heavy migration for the region.

Mayorkas visits Border Patrol, hears griping

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas paid visits on January 26-28 to Border Patrol’s Yuma (Arizona-California), El Paso (Texas-New Mexico), and Laredo (Texas) sectors, where he met with many CBP and Border Patrol line personnel. Mayorkas filled his Twitter account with photos of him aboard Border Patrol boats and ATVs, showing up for early-morning muster, and conferring with sectors’ leadership. The Secretary repeatedly described agents as courageous, dedicated, mission-focused, talented, and impressive, while often calling for “more resources and support” for Border Patrol.

The feeling did not appear to be fully mutual. In Yuma, an agent surreptitiously recorded audio of the Secretary’s discussion with assembled agents and leaked it to, a right-wing website. The recording revealed some tense moments as Mayorkas fielded complaints from a workforce whose union—which claims to represent 90 percent of agents—strongly backed Donald Trump and vociferously criticizes the Biden administration’s policies.

“I know the policies of this administration are not particularly popular with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but that’s the reality and let’s see what we can do within that framework,” Mayorkas told the agents. Some blamed the Biden administration for the increase in asylum-seeking migrants during 2021 that required agents to care for children and families while processing asylum paperwork, instead of the law enforcement tasks for which they were trained. “I know apprehending families and kids is not what you signed up to do. And now we got a composition that is changing even more with Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and the like, it just gets more difficult,” Mayorkas said. One agent turned his back on Mayorkas after asking an aggrieved question about being forced to process children and families.

Another complained about the slow rollout of the Remain in Mexico program, ordered by a Texas federal district court judge, which to date has been applied to a few hundred migrants. In public, including in a strongly worded October memo“re-terminating” the program, Mayorkas has criticized “Remain in Mexico” and insisted that his department opposes the judicial order to restart it. In private, Mayorkas told the agent, “The numbers are not where they need to be. I agree with that.”

Though the Biden administration halted border wall building and publicly opposes Donald Trump’s use of resources to wall off the border, Mayorkas privately assured agents that “he has approved for gaps in the border wall system, which were created when Biden ordered a halt on construction, to be filled.”

After the audio leaked, DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa shared a statement with Reuters indicating that Mayorkas “welcomes candor during these conversations, and appreciates and respects the opinions of each member of the CBP workforce.”

In the Yuma meeting, an agent told the Secretary that “it has been ‘demoralizing’ to see politicians and others ‘demonize’ Border Patrol when they often save illegal immigrants from injury and death.” speculated—probably correctly—that this was a reference to an incident in Del Rio, Texas, in mid-September 2021. After video showed Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at Haitian migrants in an attempt to keep them from crossing the Rio Grande, Mayorkas had said he was “horrified” and President Joe Biden said “those people will pay.” At the time, the Border Patrol union shot back demanding an apology from the President.

“I want to assure you that we are addressing this with tremendous speed and tremendous force,” Mayorkas told the House Homeland Security Committee on September 22, days after the Del Rio incident, vowing that an investigation would “be completed in days—not weeks.” 128 days later, DHS has not made any public determination about what happened in Del Rio.

The DHS Inspector-General declined to take the case, and CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility shared preliminary findings with the Justice Department in October, to determine if criminal charges were warranted. Other than a list of next steps that DHS published in mid-November, there has been no further word. Now, unnamed DHS officials told the Washington Examiner that “a report may never be released.”

Congress steps up oversight of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams”

Accountability for alleged Border Patrol abuse came into focus in Congress on January 24, as the Democratic Party chairs of responsible committees launched investigations of secretive teams within the agency whose responsibilities appear to include protecting agents against abuse allegations. 

In an October 2021 document, the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) surfaced the issue of Border Patrol’s “Critical Incident Teams,” which often arrive at the scene when agents may have committed wrongdoing. While Critical Incident Teams may have other roles, coming up with exculpatory evidence to protect agents strongly appears to be one of them. No other law enforcement agency, the SBCC contends, has a similar capability, and the Teams’ existence is not specifically authorized by law.

SBCC was alerted to the Teams’ role while carrying out advocacy around the caseof Anastasio Hernández, a Mexican citizen whom border agents beat and tasered to death in a 2010 case caught on cellphone video. The Coalition found that a Critical Incident Team failed to notify San Diego police, controlled police investigators’ witness lists, tampered with evidence, sought to obtain Hernández’s medical records, failed to preserve video evidence, and “contacted the FBI and asked them to charge Anastasio with assault while he lay brain dead in the hospital. The FBI declined.”

Critical Incident Teams have existed in some form at least since 1987. (Their “challenge coin,” depicted in SBCC’s October document, says “Est. May 21, 2001” and includes images of a chalk outline and a rolled-over vehicle.) They are almost never mentioned in Border Patrol or CBP statements. “Their existence poses a threat to public safety,” SBCC argues, “by concealing agent misconduct, enabling abuse, and exacerbating impunity within the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Immediate investigations into BPCITs are imperative.”

The Critical Incident Teams came up again in a January 10 front-page New York Times story about Border Patrol vehicle pursuit tactics that have seen a growing number of fatal crashes. Following an August 3 crash in New Mexico, the Times reported:

Body camera footage from a state police officer captured one of the Border Patrol agents saying: “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.” The agent said that he and his colleague would give statements to the team, which it would share with the police.

This reporting, and persistent work by the SBCC, moved leading members of Congress to act. A CBP briefing about the teams late last year, the New York Times notes, “did not fully address our questions,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Subsequent information requests have gotten no replies from the agency.

The next step came with two letters on January 24:

  • Ten chairpeople of House and Senate Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight committees and subcommittees wrote to Comptroller-General Gene Dodaro, who heads the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO, the Congress’s auditing and investigative arm). They ask the GAO to produce a report about them: “We would like to better understand the roles and responsibilities of these Critical Incident Teams, including their authorities, activities, training and oversight.” The letter lists nine questions about the Teams’ authorities, procedures, training, budget, and track record.
  • The chairs of the House Homeland Security and Oversight Committees, Rep. Thompson and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) wrote to CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, informing him in a more strongly worded message that they are launching their own joint investigation into the Critical Incident Teams. “We have grave concerns about the lack of transparency in the role of Border Patrol’s Critical Incident Teams,” the letter reads. “Despite the apparent lack of authority to investigate agent misconduct, Border Patrol appears to have created special teams of agents to investigate and collect evidence following incidents that may create criminal or civil liability, including allegations of excessive use of force.”

The Thompson-Maloney letter requires that CBP turn over, by February 7, a list of all existing Border Patrol evidence collection teams; a detailed list of the legal authorities under which the Teams operate; all polices, procedures, directives, guidances, and training materials for the Teams; all incident reports filed since 2010; and all reports of “potential misconduct or interference with criminal, civil, or administrative investigations by Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams or team members” since 2010.

Bloomberg Government asked CBP Commissioner Magnus, a former Tucson, Arizona police chief who has been in his position since early December, about the Critical Incident Teams. A statement responded that “U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s specialized teams are ‘vitally important’ in the collection and processing of evidence related to enforcement activities,” Bloomberg reported. “The teams assist CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility and other law enforcement agencies when they conduct investigations involving agents and work on enforcement cases related to human trafficking and drug smuggling.” Magnus said that CBP would work with the committees and with GAO.


  • Vice President Kamala Harris was in Honduras on January 27 for the inauguration of President Xiomara Castro. The Biden administration hopes that Castro will follow through on her declared intention to pursue anti-corruption and other reforms to address “root causes” of migration away from Central America. Presidents of neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala have proved disinclined to pursue such reforms.
  • The revived “Remain in Mexico” program has begun operating in Brownsville, Texas, the third of seven ports of entry at which the Biden Administration is expected, under court order, to roll it out. The first three asylum seekers were returned on January 25. Brownsville is across from Matamoros, in Tamaulipas, a notoriously dangerous Mexican state for migrants. Those placed in “Remain in Mexico” in Matamoros will have the option to await their U.S. court dates four hours’ drive from the border in Monterrey, a large, and presumably safer, industrial city in Nuevo León state.
  • Lourdes Maldonado, shot in her car on January 24, was the second journalist to be murdered in Tijuana within a week. Concerns about insecurity and organized-crime violence are high in the border city, an active venue for the Remain in Mexico program. More than 2,000 members of the National Guard, Mexico’s new militarized police force, are to be deployed to Tijuana in coming days.
  • The U.S. embassy in Mexico tweeted photos of Mexican immigration agents being trained in what appear to be riot-control tactics, with plexiglass shields, in a November course in El Paso funded by the State Department and carried out by CBP.
  • The Intercept, the Texas Tribune , and the Houston Chronicle covered the unintended consequences of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s (R) border crackdown, which has arrested over 10,000 undocumented migrants for trespassing since April 2021. Many who spend time in Texas state jails end up allowed to stay in the United States to pursue their asylum cases, avoiding Title 42 expulsion. Now, an Austin judge’s ruling on the constitutionality of the governor’s plan could bring it to an end.
  • Arizona has deployed about 220 National Guard troops to its border counties under a law enforcement support operation Gov. Doug Ducey (R) calls “Task Force Badge.” This is a smaller use of resources than the approximately 6,500 guardsmen whom Greg Abbott has deployed to parts of Texas’s border.
  • Groups of single male asylum seekers are being released in Brownsville, Texas, which is unusual because ICE prefers to detain single men. The reason isn’t clear, but a big spike in COVID cases at Texas’s ICE detention centers might be a factor, the Rio Grande Valley Monitor notes.
  • A report from the DHS Inspector-General finds that CBP spent about 15 percent of its 2021 budget ($3.08 billion) on counter-drug-related missions. The report also includes the most recent available count of the number of Border Patrol agents: 19,513 as of October 10, 2021— down slightlyfrom 19,740 in fiscal 2020. CBP’s Office of Field Operations (OFO), which mans ports of entry nationwide, had 25,662 officers in fiscal 2021, up from 23,147 in 2018.
  • Colombia reported that 106,838 migrants passed through its territory last year, more than 87 percent of them Haitians. That is up from 19,040 in 2019 and 3,922 in pandemic-hit 2020. Authorities say they expect a similar number this year. The Caribbean coastal town of Necoclí, from where ferries take passengers to Panama, was crowded with northbound migrants during the second half of 2021. Panama, meanwhile, counted over 130,000 arrivals from Colombia.
  • Far-right groups are gathering in the border city of McAllen, Texas on the January 29-30 weekend for a rally featuring Mark Morgan, who was Border Patrol chief under Obama and acting CBP commissioner under Trump, and Gen. Michael Flynn, who was briefly Trump’s national security advisor. Border Report cites some almost nonsensically extreme anti-immigrant language on the organizers’ website.

This site will be quiet this week

Back in November I neglected this site as I banged out a massive report on the fifth anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord. It was time well spent—several thousand downloads—but it did mean that was dormant for a couple of weeks.

The same thing is happening this week (January 24-28). I’m in the latter phases of a big project about the U.S.-Mexico border, documenting abuse, impunity, and organizational cultural problems at U.S. law enforcement agencies. By “latter phases” I mean “the point at which the project has seriously taken shape, and what remains to be done is very fun (despite the subject matter) but very, very demanding of every waking moment of time.” And also some sleeping moments.

So while I’ve bookmarked dozens of browser tabs, I haven’t been able to fill up my news database, so I haven’t been able to post links or anything else here this week.

Since I’m also giving two talks this week, writing a border update, and also a short commentary, I’m more than maxed out. I won’t be able to put any content here.

Next week looks way better on the calendar. See you then.

Weekly border update: January 21, 2022

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.

A girl from Venezuela drowns, as Mexico shuts down visas

Virginia Lugo Mayor, a 7-year-old girl from Zulia, in northwestern Venezuela, died on January 18 while she and her mother were trying to cross the Rio Grande to seek asylum in Del Rio, Texas. The drowning occurred three days before Mexico is to begin requiring visas of Venezuelans who arrive in the country, a move that may reduce the number who reach the U.S. border.

Del Rio is where nearly 10,000 Haitian migrants arrived during a few days in September, generating intense media coverage with photos of mounted Border Patrol agents charging at migrants by the riverside. In those images, the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, is quite shallow: ankle or knee deep.

The river was much higher on January 18. Virginia and her mother, Mayerlin Mayor, found themselves in over their heads, in a strong current. Ms. Mayor lost her grip on her daughter. Members of Grupos Beta, the humanitarian wing of Mexico’s migration authority (National Migration Institute, INM), found the girl’s body further downstream.

On the U.S. side, Border Patrol took Ms. Mayor, a former schoolteacher, into custody. According to the Venezuelan daily Tal Cual, Ms. Mayor has been released to pursue her asylum case. She is with a Venezuelan family inside the United States and is reportedly despondent.

U.S. border authorities have encountered a sharply increased number of asylum-seeking migrants from Venezuela in recent months. The monthly total of Venezuelan citizens taken into custody exceeded 1,000 for the first time in March 2021, remained between 6,000 and 7,500 between April and August, then shot up to 20,341 in November. (Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to share its full December “encounters” data, a delay angrily noted by House Republicans.)

In recent years, Mexico had not required visas of citizens from several South American nations. As of January 21, Mexico is requiring visas of Venezuelans unless they have a U.S. tourist visa or are a legal resident of the U.S. or a number of other countries, a process that usually requires applicants to demonstrate economic solvency or proof (like an invitation to attend a professional event) that their planned visit is temporary. A January 7 INM document cites a “more than 1,000 percent” increase in Venezuelan arrivals compared to five years ago. It alleges that a third of Venezuelans who arrived this year as tourists have traveled north to the U.S. border in order to seek asylum or otherwise emigrate into the United States.

For similar reasons, Mexico also began requiring visas of arriving citizens from Brazil and Ecuador, at U.S. urging, earlier in 2021.

Guatemala disperses a migrant caravan

As foreseen by local media reports, a “caravan” of migrants departed San Pedro Sula, Honduras on January 15. They gathered just 12 days before Honduras is to swear in a new president, Xiomara Castro—an event that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris is to attend.

No caravan—defined as a large group of migrants traveling together, usually to seek “safety in numbers” without paying a smuggler—has reached the U.S. border since late 2018. All have been dispersed en route by Mexican or Guatemalan forces. The same happened to the January 15 caravan, a relatively small group of 600 to 700 people.

As the migrants entered Guatemala on the evening of the 15th, in the town of Corinto, Izabal, they found further progress blocked by a human barrier of Guatemalan police and soldiers clad in riot gear. The migrants separated into smaller groups, seeking to enter. One group clashed briefly with the Guatemalan forces, hurling sticks and stones. Guatemalan authorities reported that 15 police and soldiers suffered injuries, most of them not serious. They provided no data about any injured migrants.

Normally, residents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may enter each other’s countries just by showing their national identity cards. Under pandemic measures, though, Guatemala is also requiring entrants to show proof of vaccination and a recent negative COVID test. Some migrants sought to show these documents to the Guatemalan forces arrayed at the border. Most were still sent back into Honduras.

Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry reported intercepting 622 “caravan” migrants in Corinto and nearby Agua Caliente, 23 percent of them minors. They were citizens of Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela, and some African nations.

An unusually high number—perhaps half of the group—were Nicaraguans fleeing Daniel Ortega’s dictatorial regime. The online news outlet ContraCorriente talked to migrants who had spent time in Nicaraguan prisons for political opposition activity. One said it was difficult to leave Nicaragua because Ortega “has the Army everywhere” along the border with Honduras. Most of the Nicaraguans had learned about the January 15 caravan via social media. “Nicaragua is going to become like Maduro in Venezuela, where everyone emigrated,” one told ContraCorriente.

Guatemalan and Honduran media also reported allegations that Guatemalan police extorted some caravan participants, offering non-deportation into Honduras in exchange for bribes up to 800 quetzales (US$100). Venezuelan migrants told Guatemala’s Prensa Libre that police even searched their bags and wallets to verify that they had no money to give.

Indicators of an increasing migrant population on Mexico’s side of the U.S. border

The number of protection-seeking migrants—both Mexican and non-Mexican—has been steadily increasing for at least a year, due to U.S. authorities’ “Title 42” expulsions and the pandemic-related closure of U.S. ports of entry to asylum seekers. The most recent (November 2021) “ Metering Update” from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center estimated that 26,505 migrants were on makeshift waiting lists to cross from Mexican border towns into the United States, up nearly 6,000 from August. Many more are not on any lists.

The numbers are set to increase further as the Biden administration continues its court-ordered revival of the “Remain in Mexico” program, a Trump-era policy that sends non-Mexican asylum seekers back across the border to await their U.S. hearings on Mexican soil. This program began operating in El Paso in early December and in San Diego in early January; this week, CBP personnel in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector received briefings and guidance to begin implementing Remain in Mexico there, probably within the next few days.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics produced a brief reportabout implementation of Remain in Mexico during the month of December, when it operated only in El Paso. Among its key points:

  • 267 single adults were enrolled in the program in December, of whom 162 (61 percent) were from Nicaragua, 59 (22 percent) were from Venezuela, 32 (12 percent) were from Cuba), 7 (3 percent) were from Colombia, and 7 (3 percent) were from Ecuador.
  • 242 of those 267 people (91 percent) claimed they feared being returned to Mexico, and were given non-refoulement interviews with asylum officers.
  • The asylum officers rejected the fear claims in 78 percent of cases (186 people), but 22 percent (51 people) were taken out of “Remain in Mexico” due to the credibility of their claims of fear of being in Mexico. Of those 51, 28 had “positive fear determinations” and 23 resulted in “administrative closures,” which “are generally, but not exclusively, related to individuals who are disenrolled from the program due to a finding of vulnerability.”
  • Though migrants are presumably given 24 hours while in CBP custody to contact an attorney and prepare for their non-refoulement interviews, only 11 of the 242 who claimed fear had an attorney accompanying them. Four of those eleven people were taken out of Remain in Mexico due to “positive fear” findings.
  • In all, 191 people were sent back into Mexico in December 2021, or 72 percent of all 267 people enrolled in “Remain in Mexico” that month. The remaining 76 were removed from the program due either to fear or other vulnerabilities, like medical conditions.

An analysis by the organized crime-monitoring group InsightCrime warns that the reinstatement of Remain in Mexico, along with ongoing Title 42 expulsions, gives Mexican criminal groups “another opportunity to profit from kidnapping those returned, especially in border towns rife with organized crime threats.” Using very partial data from Mexico’s National Kidnapping Unit, InsightCrime finds that at least one of every ten ransom kidnapping victims in Mexico is a migrant trying to reach the United States.

“The true number of victims is likely far greater,” the analysis continues, “especially for migrants targeted by organized crime groups, which at times collude with local police and government officials.” At Business Insider, reporter Luis Chaparro cites migrants’ view that INM agents’ collusion with organized crime can make it “more risky today to go and ask for political asylum at the [Mexico-US border] bridges,” where migrants will encounter INM personnel, “than to pay a smuggler and try to get across illegally.” A smuggler in Ciudad Juárez told Chaparro that for a fee, INM agents routinely deliver to him migrants whom U.S. authorities have sent back via Title 42 or Remain in Mexico.

The INM indicated on January 13 that 105 of its agents “were reported to its internal control office as under investigation for alleged ‘misconduct’ in 2021,” the Associated Press noted. (In 2019, INM had about 4,100 active agents.)

An increasing proportion of the migrant population in Mexican border cities is Haitian. As the Biden administration has ramped up expulsion flights to Haiti— sendingnearly 19,000 Haitians back to their troubled country on 185 planes since Inauguration Day 2021—more Haitians are deciding to stay in Mexico and seek protection there. At Vox, Nicole Narea notes the sharp increase in Haitians seeking asylum in Mexico’s system, along with estimates that about 3,000 Haitians remain stuck in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula, while about 4,000 are in Tijuana, where they’ve been settling since the Obama administration halted humanitarian parole for Haitians in 2016. In Ciudad Juárez, Enrique Valenzuela of the Chihuahua state government’s Population Council (COESPO) tells Border Report that hundreds of Haitian migrants have recently arrived in the city “with (Mexican) humanitarian visas, so they’re mostly looking for work. They usually don’t ask us for shelter because they already have a place to stay.”

Arrivals of migrants from elsewhere in the region—including Mexicans displaced by violence further south—have swelled the population of Ciudad Juárez’s shelters, according to Border Report. “We know of 3,000 migrants, give or take, who are staying at the shelters,” Valenzuela said. “But only 30 percent stay at shelters, so Juárez must have a migrant population of 9,000 to 10,000 people right now.”

The city’s oldest shelter, the church-run Casa de Migrante, is at capacity with nearly 400 migrants living there. Low on supplies, the Casa is asking for “donations of clothing, diapers, baby formula and personal care items such as soap, toothpaste and razors.” When they show up for their hearings in El Paso, many of the asylum seekers enrolled in Remain in Mexico “listed Casa del Migrante as their address.”

Further west, in Sonoyta, Sonora, a desert town of 13,000, an increase in asylum-seeking families has led to rapid growth in shelter space. What was once a way station for single adult migrants “now hosts a migrant resource center and three shelters,” Melissa del Bosque writes at the Border Chronicle.

Still further west, in Tijuana, shelters are also expanding. The evangelical-run Agape shelter is enlisting migrants to help build new facilities on land donated by the Baja California state government. Pastor Albert Rivera told Border Report that the expansion will increase the facility’s capacity from 600 to 1,500. He added: “most of our migrants are from Mexico, the states of Michoacán and Guerrero, there are some from Central America and Haiti, but it’s mostly Mexico now.” Tijuana authorities say they expect increased shelter space to allow closure of an encampment that sprung up in early 2021 just outside Chaparral, the main pedestrian border crossing. Amid harsh winter weather, the estimated population living in tents in a square outside the crossing has dropped to 400, from nearly 2,000 in the summer. Here, too, most migrants are now “Mexican nationals who have fled violence in the states of Guerrero and Michoacán,” according to Border Report.

More reporting about the Texas National Guard deployment’s morale crisis

The New York Times and San Antonio Express-News published new details about a steadily escalating National Guard border mission that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a critic of the Biden administration’s border policies, launched in March 2021. They find miserable conditions, unclear missions, politicization, and severe morale problems.

The Times and Express-News stories build on reporting since early December by Army Times, which first revealed disciplinary problems, lack of payment, and poor housing and equipment for soldiers assigned to the Texas state government deployment, as well as for those assigned to a parallel federal government deployment begun by Donald Trump in 2018. Since October 2021, the state mission has suffered a series of suicides.

What Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star” has sent at least 6,500 National Guard troops to the border; earlier statements from the governor’s office cited as many as 10,000. (As last week’s update explains, National Guardsmen are part-time soldiers at the command of state governors.) Another 2,400 are assigned to the federal mission, supporting CBP in Texas and elsewhere along the border.

The Texas state National Guard mission grew by leaps and bounds during 2021, the Times reports, as Abbott neared a 2022 re-election campaign facing Republican primary challengers on the right. The Times gives some credit for the National Guard increase to an influential FOX News television host:

According to state documents, Mr. Abbott in September requested that 1,500 troops join the 500 or so who had already been deployed to the border. Later that same week, Tucker Carlson began attacking Mr. Abbott on his Fox News show, which is popular with conservatives, for not sending more National Guard troops, and in subsequent days invited Mr. Abbott’s Republican challengers onto his show to do the same.

Shortly after, Mr. Abbott requested that another 2,500 troops from the National Guard be sent to the border in October. The governor then appeared on Mr. Carlson’s show that month for the first time and said that 6,500 Guard members and state troopers were on the border.

Earlier this month, Abbott made his re-election bid official at an event in the south Texas border city of McAllen. His first television commercial, the Times notes, is sponsored by the National Border Patrol Council, the union that claims to represent about three quarters of Border Patrol agents, and features the National Guard deployment.

As Abbott increased the National Guard footprint at the border, it was no longer possible to call up guardsmen on a voluntary basis. Service at the border became mandatory, forcing guardsmen to abandon their families and civilian jobs, with a few days’ or weeks’ notice, for deployments that may last a year.

The mission was thrown together hastily. Many guardsmen, the Times found, “have complained of poor planning, pay problems and a lack of basic equipment, like winter gear for the cold or stethoscopes for medics. There have been Covid outbreaks on hastily created bases, where dozens of soldiers crowd together in mobile quarters so tight that commanders call them ‘submarine trailers.’” Guardsmen even lack toilet facilities while posted near the border. “They can call for a shuttle to get to a restroom, but that takes a while,” the Express-News noted. “Rather than relieve himself in the open, one specialist said, ‘I just hold it for 12 hours straight.’” Many have yet to be paid, forcing them to spend their downtime negotiating with bill collectors.

Some guardsmen say they’ve been given little to do, for a mission that “has appeared ad hoc, ill-defined and politically motivated.” One active guardsman told the Times, “All we’re doing is standing down here. If someone comes up, we ask them to stop and wait, we call Border Patrol. If someone runs, we call Border Patrol. We’re basically mall cops on the border.

It is exceedingly rare in the United States for soldiers to use force against U.S. citizens, or even to carry loaded weapons, as many Guard personnel assigned to Operation Lone Star are doing in Texas right now. On January 18 a National Guard soldier discharged his M4 carbine, shooting at and disabling a suspected smuggling vehicle near the border south of Laredo. While the incident report points to self-defense, and the soldier shot at the vehicle’s radiator and hood—not its driver—it is a highly uncommon case of military personnel firing weapons at a civilian target on U.S. soil.

National Guardsmen assigned to Operation Lone Star made further news on January 19, when one of the mission’s rental trucks, with two guardsmen aboard, crashed into a border levee gate on the premises of the National Butterfly Center, a private wildlife preserve along the Rio Grande. While they were unhurt, the guardsmen left the damaged vehicle, its hood crumpled into the gate. The Butterfly Center—which opposes border wall construction and has called on the National Guard to stop trespassing—posted several updates about the crash to its Twitter feed. (Border Report also published an update this week about the Butterfly Center’s legal battle with “We Build the Wall,” a private wall-building nonprofit, backed by prominent Donald Trump supporters, whose management is facing fraud charges.)

In other Defense Department border news, Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon has agreed to spend about $52.5 million to operate and maintain observation blimps along the border in Texas. Six of these “tethered aerostats,” which provide surveillance capability for as much as 200 miles, are owned by Border Patrol, and twelve are owned by the Defense Department. CBP had halted the program because it was deemed too costly; one of its main backers, though, is Laredo Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. (Cuellar, incidentally, had a difficult week, as the FBI raided his Laredo home on January 19 as part of an investigation possibly related to dealings with officials from Azerbaijan.)

Commentary about Joe Biden’s first year at the border

January 20 marked the end of Joe Biden’s first year in the U.S. presidency. His administration began with promises of reforms and a more humane approach to border, migration, and asylum policy. Several “Biden’s first year” media analyses came to similar conclusions about how that has turned out. A recent WOLA commentary also evaluates the Biden administration’s first year policies toward Latin America and includes analysis and recommendations on border policy for 2022 and ahead.

  • Camilo Montoya-Galvez at CBS: “In its first year, Mr. Biden’s administration made dozens of high-profile and little-noticed changes to the U.S. immigration system, many of them reversals of Trump-era restrictions. But the Biden administration also continued some policies instituted by Mr. Trump. …A year in, the Biden administration’s border strategy has divided the president’s appointees and frustrated critics on the right and left, who hurl accusations of lax immigration enforcement and outrage over the continuation of some Trump-era restrictions.”
  • Ted Hesson at Reuters: “Days after U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, two of his top immigration advisors outlined bold plans, including a major immigration reform bill, a 100-day deportation moratorium, and a strategy to restore protections for asylum seekers that were degraded under former President Donald Trump. …Now, the two White House officials who touted the plans, Tyler Moran and Esther Olavarria, are preparing to leave the administration, a White House spokesperson confirmed to Reuters. …Their departures are part of a greater exodus of senior Biden immigration staffers that suggests planned reforms could be put on hold or abandoned altogether as power tips to more security-minded White House officials.In the remaining camp is Susan Rice, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, who has tended to push for tougher enforcement at the border.”
  • Catherine Rampell at the Washington Post: “What, exactly, are these nativists unhappy with? In many respects, Biden is doing exactly what the Stephen Millers of the world want him to do — keeping Donald Trump’s worst border policies in place. …It’s unclear why Biden has maintained his predecessor’s policies. One possibility is politics — that these choices were intended to stave off right-wing attacks about lax enforcement. If that was the motivation, though, it failed. Instead, Biden has delivered the worst of all worlds: inhumane, immoral, potentially illegal policy — and bad-faith political blowback about ‘open borders’ all the same.”
  • Alicia Schmidt Camacho at the New Yorker: “To charges of human-rights abuses and failure, the Biden Administration, like others before it, answered weakly that they must follow the rule of law. But no law requires that people fleeing political violence and natural disaster should be met by the militarized cordon sanitaire in South Texas. …The U.S. government has largely excluded migrant-led organizations from the process of policy reform. And yet migrant communities have been crucial protagonists in the most vital struggles of our difficult moment.”
  • Maria Ines Taracena at El Faro (El Salvador): “From the resumption and expansion of the Remain in Mexico program, to the administration’s near-shutdown of the asylum system at the U.S.-Mexico border, and its ongoing invocation of Title 42 during the pandemic: Biden has embraced many of the same cruel practices as his predecessor. …Many of the executive actions on immigration Biden signed on his first day and initial weeks in office were, we can now see, largely performative.”


  • After a holiday lull during which fewer than 100 unaccompanied children per day were arriving at the border, CBP is now once again encountering nearly 500 unaccompanied children per day.
  • While CBP has yet to report migrant encounter data from December, a January 14 “Remain in Mexico” court filing points to 178,840 border-wide migrant encounters, a slight increase from November (173,620). That is the first month-on-month increase since June-to-July. Of those 178,840, CBP used Title 42 to expel 56 percent (100,251).
  • The Biden administration’s Department of Justice defended the Trump administration’s Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, which remains in effect, in oral arguments before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on January 19. The case against Title 42, brought by the ACLU and four other organizations, calls for an immediate end to the policy, which the organizations consider to be illegal. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has used this “public health” authority to quickly eject migrants, regardless of asylum needs, over 1.5 million times since March 2020.
  • CBP has published a request for input, including detailed maps, on plans to build 86 miles of border barrier in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region. This barrier would be built with DHS funds that Congress appropriated in past years at the Trump administration’s request. The Biden administration has requested that Congress rescind those border-wall funds, but Congress has not yet passed a 2022 budget.
  • The White House is considering requiring all migrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border and are granted court hearings to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, Axios reports.
  • Ciudad Juárez endured an outbreak of organized-crime violence the week of January 10, with criminals setting 11 vehicles and buildings ablaze around the city on the 12th. Mexico’s federal government sent over 2,000 members of the National Guard, a new militarized police force, to the city. In what may be a too-simplistic analysis, local media speculate about a possible alliance between the Jalisco and Juárez cartels against the Sinaloa Cartel.
  • Reporters from the Honduran daily El Heraldo talk with a smuggler who offers to take migrants across Mexico to the U.S. border by air, for US$13,000.

5 links: January 20, 2022

(Even more here)


An army general in charge of a “state of emergency” zone in an area of sometimes violent indigenous protests in southern Chile, causes outrage by defying people to attack his soldiers instead of other targets. “Why don’t you fight us? I invite you.”


There will be no aerial herbicide fumigation in Colombian territories where coca is grown. At least not until communities can properly be consulted with, which may take at least a year.


Wow. “A report concluded that most cases have environmental or medical causes, but the government remains focused on investigating two dozen incidents that remain unexplained.”

U.S.-Mexico Border

Imagine volunteering to serve your country in the National Guard, only to end up torn from your career and family for months of “mall cop” duty for a governor who needs political props as he enters reelection primary season.

Unless Congress rescinds wall-building money that Trump had requested in prior years, this will be the plan to wall off the Rio Grande virtually from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico.

WOLA Podcast: “We believe there are multiple armed conflicts”: Kyle Johnson on security in Colombia

There’s a lot going on, security-wise, in Colombia. We spent an hour on Zoom today with longtime colleague Kyle Johnson in Bogotá, who gave WOLA podcast listeners a grim but thorough tour of the complicated security landscape.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast page.

Colombia had a tumultuous start to 2022, as violence broke out in the northeastern department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, killing dozens. The armed groups involved are ELN guerrillas and a faction of ex-FARC guerrillas—but the actors are different elsewhere in the country. Colombia’s persistent armed-group violence has become ever more confused, fragmented, and localized, more than five years after a historic peace accord.

To make sense of the situation, Director for Defense Oversight Adam Isacson and Program Assistant Matthew Bocanumenth spoke with Kyle Johnson, an analyst and co-founder of the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a research organization that performs extensive fieldwork in conflict-affected territories.

With a nuanced but clear presentation, Johnson answers our many questions and helps make sense of this complex, troubling moment for security and governance throughout rural Colombia.

The way forward, Johnson argues, goes through negotiations and a renewed effort to implement the 2016 peace accord, especially its governance and rural development provisions. It requires abandoning the longtime focus on meeting eradication targets and taking down the leaders of what are now very decentralized armed and criminal groups.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

5 links: January 19, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

We all wrote bits of this analysis of what’s gone well (a little) and what really concerns us (a lot) about the Biden administration’s approach to Latin America during its first year.

Colombia, Venezuela

An ex-FARC dissident deserter says 2 foreign mercenaries—possibly American—were among a 26-man team that killed two top rearmed FARC leaders in Venezuela last month. Is he telling the truth? ¯_(ツ)_/¯

El Salvador, Guatemala

“Despite recent attacks on judicial independence in both countries and intense political polarization surrounding the landmark agreements, the courts granted new openings for two watershed civil war-era cases”: El Salvador’s 1989 Jesuit massacre and the genocide in Guatemala’s Ixil Triangle region.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The first of two articles today about military activity—not Border Patrol activity—at the U.S.-Mexico border. Soldiers assigned to a National Guard deployment opened fire against civilians on U.S. soil: “The driver ‘put the vehicle in reverse and then into drive’ before gunning the vehicle in an apparent attempt to ram the first soldier, the incident report read.”

The second of two articles today about military activity—not Border Patrol activity—at the U.S.-Mexico border. “The Pentagon’s approval to support six Border Patrol-owned aerostats was eligible to begin in January, with the additional Defense Department aerostats available starting in April.”

The New Yorker visits the miserable migrant camp, populated mostly by victims of the “Title 42” expulsions policy, in the dangerous border city of Reynosa, Mexico.

5 links: January 18, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

The first of two academic articles here about the nature of organized crime in the Americas, including how much of a political actor it is.

The second of two academic articles here about the nature of organized crime in the Americas, including how much of a political actor it is.


Demobilized FARC fighters who want to leave the conflict behind are having a hard time of it amid an eruption of inter-group violence in Colombia’s northeastern department of Arauca.


In Guatemala, police demand Venezuelan migrants pay them to avoid getting sent back across the border into Honduras. When the migrants say they have no money, the cops search their handbags and wallets to make sure.


Daniel Ortega starts off the year by giving away large landholdings to the armed forces, presumably cementing in their loyalty to his regime.

U.S.-Mexico Border

“One year into the Biden administration, some of the most severe Trump-era policies that have decimated access to asylum—commonly known as ‘Title 42’ and ‘Remain in Mexico’— remain in force.”

Latin America-related online events this week

Wednesday, January 19

  • 11:00 at Inequality and Trade Diversification: How Can Income Inequality in Latin America be reduced beyond Commodity Booms? (RSVP required).
  • 11:00 at Biden at One: Assessing the Administration’s Immigration Record (RSVP required).
  • 5:00-6:30 at Just Transition for Latin America / Una transición justa para América latina (RSVP required).

Thursday, January 20

Saturday, January 22

  • 12:00-2:00 at Sacred territories/Territorios Sagrados (RSVP required).

5 links: January 17, 2022

(Even more here)


“More than 620 detainees who have faced or are slated to face trial” after last July’s brief protests.

El Salvador

Very good takedown of El Salvador’s military, which after many post-peace-accord moves toward professionalism has reversed course, lending itself to Nayib Bukele’s political ambitions.

Honduras, Nicaragua

A migrant caravan left Honduras over the weekend and is already being dispersed in Guatemala. What’s new about this one is it’s nearly half Nicaraguan.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The politicized National Guard deployment at the U.S.-Mexico border: “There’s leadership issues, morale issues. Morale is lower and keeps getting lower.”

DHS does something it didn’t do during the Trump version of “Remain in Mexico”: offer statistics about how it was carried out in the previous month.

Weekly border update: January 14, 2022

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.

Border Patrol’s vehicle pursuits and “Critical Incident Teams” get more scrutiny

A front-page story in the January 10 New York Times drew attention to Border Patrol’s frequent high-speed vehicle chases, and to its use of secretive investigative teams whose main mission appears to be to exonerate agents.

Citing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Times found that 21 people died in vehicle collisions in 2021 after Border Patrol agents pursued them at high speed. That is up from 14 in 2020 and an average of 3.5 per year from 2010 to 2019. The Southern Border Communities Coalition counts 49 deaths since 2010 in vehicle collisions involving Customs and Border Protection (CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency).

A 2019 ProPublica study examining three years of data found that one in three Border Patrol vehicle pursuits ended in a crash: at least one every nine days. Some injure innocent bystanders. The overall number of pursuit-related injuries jumped 42 percent during the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration.

Times reporter Eileen Sullivan cites the example of 25-year-old Erik A. Molix, who died near Las Cruces, New Mexico, in August 2021. Molix was transporting nine undocumented migrants in a sport utility vehicle; agents chased him at speeds reaching 73 miles per hour. A Border Patrol vehicle clipped Molix’s SUV, sending it tumbling off the road. Molix and an Ecuadorian migrant died. Molix’s mother, a 5th-grade teacher in El Paso, found out about her son’s death from a CBP news release. While he may have been doing something illegal, she told the Times, “That doesn’t mean you have to die for it.”

A July 2020 complaint filed by Shaw Drake, an attorney at ACLU Texas’s El Paso office, contends, “The high number of injuries and deaths resulting from Border Patrol’s actions suggest either that the policy fails to protect the safety and lives of pursuit subjects or that agents are consistently acting outside the bounds of agency policy.” Drake continues:

Under certain circumstances, a high-speed vehicle pursuit can constitute use of deadly force. …Border Patrol pursuits continue to include lethal tactics, such as boxing in moving vehicles, puncturing tires and other methods aimed at spinning vehicles off the road. These chases also happen in treacherous weather conditions and in populated locations including school zones, residential areas, and strip mall parking lots. Moreover, Border Patrol agents have no official cutoff speed.

Border Patrol had long refused to make public its vehicle pursuit policy, declining requests from the ACLU, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), and others. A redacted version appeared in November. “A vehicle pursuit is authorized,” it reads,

when there is reasonable suspicion to believe the occupant(s) of the vehicle failed to stop at an immigration checkpoint, failed to yield to an Officer’s/Agent’s attempt to stop a vehicle for an underlying violation of law, or committed a vehicle incursion into the United States at or between a POE [Port of Entry], and both the Officer/Agent and the pursuit supervisor have determined that the law enforcement benefit of the vehicle pursuit outweighs the risk to the public.

That standard appears to exceed those of most U.S. law enforcement agencies. Justice Department guidelines, the ACLU complaint points out, state that “[f]or anyone other than a violent felon, the balance weighs against the high-speed chase.” The ACLU told the Times that Border Patrol “gives agents too much discretion in determining the risk to public safety.”

At the site of the crash that killed Erik Molix, New Mexico State Police body camera footage captures a Border Patrol agent saying, “Our critical incident team is coming out. They’ll do all the crime scene stuff—well, not crime scene, but critical incident scene.”

“Critical incident teams are rarely mentioned by Customs and Border Protection or the Border Patrol,” the Times pointed out. “There is no public description of the scope of their authority.” Their mission is controversial: a key role of Border Patrol investigators on these teams is “collecting evidence that could be used to protect a Border Patrol agent and ‘help deal with potential liability issues,’” an unnamed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told the Times.

The existence of units that show up at crime scenes just to find exculpatory information or narratives had avoided scrutiny until October 2021, when the Southern Border Communities Coalition filed a DHS Inspector-General complaint and called on Congress to investigate Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams’ (BPCITs) activities. The Coalition’s letter to Congress calls these units seriously into question:

BPCITs began in 1987 in the San Diego sector, followed by other sectors thereafter. They are known by many names including Sector Evidence Teams and Evidence Collection Teams. Their stated purpose is to mitigate civil liability for agents. There is no known equivalent in any other law enforcement agency. They are not independent investigators seeking facts. Instead they seek to exonerate agents. They act as cover-up units, protecting agents, rather than the public, and they answer to no one except the Border Patrol chiefs that control them.

The BPCITs are not authorized by Congress to engage in federal investigations in agent-involved killings and other use-of-force incidents. That authority is given to the FBI, the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), and in limited circumstances to the CBP Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). They are also not formally deputized by any of these agencies to investigate. They are simply unlawful.

Every day that BPCITs continue to exist, abuses go unchecked and agents get away with murder.

The Times notes that a Critical Incident Team arrived on the scene in Nogales, Arizona in June 2021 shortly after a Border Patrol agent shot an unarmed undocumented woman in the head while she sat in the backseat of a car. Marisol García Alcántara spent three days in a hospital and was deported to Mexico 22 days after that, without ever being interviewed by U.S. law enforcement.

Alarms sound about Texas’s troubled National Guard border deployments

A series of reports since December 8 in Army Times, an independent news organization reporting on U.S. military issues, has highlighted a crisis of low morale, lack of mission clarity, payment and equipment shortfalls, discipline problems, and now a rash of suicides among national guardsmen assigned to two deployments at the U.S.-Mexico border, especially in Texas.

The first, a federal government mission to support CBP, was begun by Donald Trump in 2018 and today continues to post 4,000 guardsmen across the entire border. The second, begun in March 2021 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), a fierce critic of the Biden administration, has sent—by the governor’s office’s count—10,000 of the Texas National Guard’s 23,000 members to the border. This deployment is part of a border mission that Abbott calls “Operation Lone Star.”

In the U.S. system, national guardsmen are soldiers who receive the same military training, wear the same uniforms, and hold the same ranks as the regular military. Like reservists, though, they are normally civilians. Most spend about one weekend per month and two weeks per year undergoing training, and are called up in emergencies. Guardsmen are normally under the command of state governors, though (as happened often in Iraq) they can be called on to perform federal missions. In Texas right now, missions under both federal and state authority are operating at the border with Mexico. The state mission, commanded by Gov. Abbott, is larger.

Both missions are troubled. Army Times reported on January 13 that U.S. Northern Command—the Defense Department geographic combatant command that manages U.S. military activity in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Bahamas—is launching an investigation “into a wide range of alleged issues” with the federal deployment. Northcom’s independent investigation team, headed by a general and “composed of senior members,” will “take the time required to thoroughly answer the Commander’s inquiry.”

Also on January 13, 13 Democrats from Texas’s U.S. House of Representatives delegation wrote to the inspector-general of Texas’s state Military Department calling for an investigation of “deplorable conditions for our National Guard troops participating in ‘Operation Lone Star.’” The letter cites low morale in the state mission; payment discrepancies; “lack of cold weather equipment, body armor, first aid kits,” and sleeping facilities; guardsmen trespassing on private land; and “a growing number of confirmed deaths by suicide.”

Army Times found that four guardsmen assigned to the Operation Lone Star state mission died by suicide between October 26 and December 17. Another shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident on January 1, and two survived suicide attempts in late December and on January 9.

“The thing that’s most alarming about these four suicide deaths is that they happened in a two month span. And when you see clusters like that starting to form in a very short time frame, that’s what gets really alarming,” Davis Winkie, the Army Times reporter who has driven most coverage of the Guard deployments’ crisis, told Slate’s “What Next” podcast. “I had better conditions in Iraq than some of these soldiers have on the Texas border,” said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who was the Texas Army National Guard’s senior enlisted advisor until November 2021.

Even as they live crowded into trailers, the guardsmen don’t appear to have much to do. “There’s a sub task force that’s ostensibly building a border wall right now where I had a soldier reach out to me to say we’ve actually only had two workdays in the last two months. Other than that, we’re just manning guard posts around our base camp,” Winkie told Slate.

Operation Lone Star’s state-run National Guard deployment—whose 10,000 personnel count may include Texas state police—has already cost Texas $412 million, could amount to $2 billion during fiscal 2022, and would jump to $2.7 billion in 2023, according to estimates obtained by the Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, Texas has slashed its tuition assistance budget for guardsmen in half, as part of across-the-board budget cuts.

The federal mission is also troubled, as Army Times reported in early December and WOLA’s December 10 border update summarized. Three soldiers died in 2021 in motor vehicle and alcohol-related incidents, and commanders carried out more than 1,200 legal and disciplinary investigations into misconduct allegedly committed by the 4,000-person force.

Critics of Gov. Abbott’s deployment charge that, as commander in chief of Texas’s National Guard, he is politicizing a military force. “It is clear State leadership does not have our troops’ best interest in mind. Instead, they continue to use them as political props,” reads the letter from the Democratic members of Congress. Winkie told Slate that Operation Lone Star became more openly politicized over the course of 2021: “it started to change as we got into the fall months and when it appeared certain as well that Abbott was going to be facing a primary challenge from the right.” Guardsmen’s participation shifted from being voluntary to mandatory.

Abbott’s most prominent challenger in the Republican primary for Texas’s 2022 gubernatorial election is Allen West, a former congressman who first gained notoriety for beating and simulating the execution of an Iraqi policeman in 2003. Sgt. Featherston, the retired Texas National Guard senior enlisted advisor and vocal critic of Operation Lone Star, spoke at a press conference West organized in early January. Abbott’s likely Democratic opponent in the general election, former El Paso congressman Beto O’Rourke, wrote a January 2 column in the Houston Chronicle accusing the governor of dealing “a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve signed up to serve this state and country in uniform.”

Abbott defended himself by citing 476 suicides within the larger U.S. military over the first nine months of 2021 (the Texas Tribune could only find an official tally of 380). This number is similar to 2018 (541), 2019 (498), and 2020 (580).

Meanwhile, late in the week of January 3, a Honduran migrant drowned in a flooded gravel pit after running away from National Guard soldiers near Eagle Pass, Texas. It was a very rare case of a civilian death involving U.S. military personnel operating on U.S. soil.

The new “Remain in Mexico” closely resembles the old “Remain in Mexico”

As of January 10, DHS had returned 249 adult asylum seekers to Mexico since December 8, under the court-ordered restart of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which sends Western Hemisphere asylum seekers back to Mexico to await eventual hearing dates in the United States. Of that total, 229 had been sent from El Paso back across to Ciudad Juárez, and 20 from San Diego to Tijuana. As last week’s update notes, the overwhelming majority have been citizens of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela. By January 12, the border-wide number of returned migrants had risen to 256, noted a new Human Rights First report.

During Remain in Mexico’s first iteration (January 2019 to January 2021), Human Rights First was able to document over 1,544 abuses and violent crimes committed in Mexico against migrants placed in the program. The organization’s January 13 report counts “over 8,705 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers blocked in and/or expelled to Mexico” since the Biden administration took office. The victims have been kept in Mexican border cities by the U.S. government’s Title 42 pandemic expulsion policy, continued port of entry closures to asylum seekers, and the revived “Remain in Mexico.”

For more background on Remain in Mexico, see our December 3 and August 27 updates (among others), and a historypublished on January 7 by the American Immigration Council.

The Human Rights First report finds that the program is returning asylum seekers to Mexico despite often quite strong claims of fear. It cites findings of the Border Project, run by the Jones Day law firm: of 87 returnees consulted in Ciudad Juárez in December, 70 percent “had been persecuted by Mexican police and other government officials,” but were sent back anyway. Among several examples cited is “a Nicaraguan asylum seeker who was kidnapped and tortured by electrocution and beatings for three weeks in Reynosa in November 2021,” with photos and video evidence sent by his kidnappers to extort his relatives, who still did not pass a non-refoulement interview and was sent to Ciudad Juárez in December.

For an article in the January 8 San Diego Union-Tribune, reporter Kate Morrissey interviewed the two Colombian men who were the first to be sent back to “remain” in Tijuana. She found that their experience “included many of the issues that plagued the program under the Trump administration.”

The Biden administration’s December 2 guidance for the restarted program promised access to counsel. But Morrissey found that “the two Colombian men were not allowed to speak with attorneys while in U.S. custody.” The wife of one of the men, a green card holder in the United States, could have hired an attorney for him to support his claim of fear of return to Mexico, but officials denied his request to call her.

The men, who had turned themselves in to U.S. personnel in order to seek protection after receiving urgent threats in Colombia, recounted miserable treatment in CBP custody. They were placed in a cell in a Border Patrol station with “dozens of other men,” forced to sleep on the floor for nearly a week, with lights always on, for lack of bed space. They were not given an opportunity to bathe or shower. “Though they do not speak much English, they realized that agents were speaking badly about them, they said. They recognized words like ‘stupid’ and phrases like ‘go back to your country.’

As required by the new guidelines, a Border Patrol agent asked the men if they were afraid to return to Mexico, although they said “another agent tried to keep that official from asking the question.” Under the Biden administration’s new guidance, after expressing fear the men were entitled to 24 hours to contact an attorney before speaking with an asylum officer. It was during those 24 hours, they said, that CBP personnel refused to allow them “to make any calls or otherwise access legal counsel.”

They said an agent told them that no matter what happened, they would be sent back to Mexico. So, when the asylum officer asked if they wanted to wait longer in custody in order to access attorneys, the men waived that right, not wanting to spend more time in the crowded cell with their fate already decided.

The men added that they were not asked detailed questions about their medical history, even though the Biden administration’s new guidelines specify medical conditions for exemption from the program. Though the new guidelines specify that those subject to Remain in Mexico are to receive COVID-19 vaccinations if they need them, one man who had only received the first of his two shots was sent over the border before officials could administer his vaccine.

CBP meanwhile confused the men’s paperwork, Morrissey found. Each man had the first page of the other’s notice to appear in court. And at first, they were scheduled for hearings months beyond the six-month limit that the Biden administration had agreed with Mexico. They managed to reschedule for February after raising the issue with their asylum officer.

Now in Tijuana, the Colombian men told Morrissey that they are “confused and terrified.” They refused to provide their names, fearing that their notoriety leaves them exposed to extortion or attack. “We’re the two from Colombia,” one said. “Everyone knows we’re them. We already have problems.”

Meanwhile, legal service providers continue to avoid involvement in the new Remain in Mexico, The Hill reports; an October letter from 73 service providers had notified the Biden administration that they would not enable the renewed program by participating in it. Many fear for their security while attending to clients in Mexican border towns; attorneys had been threatened while trying to do that during the earlier iteration of Remain in Mexico.

In The Hill, Nicholas Palazzo of the El Paso-based Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center summed up concerns about the impossibility of representing “Remain in Mexico” clients:

To assume that an organization will have the capacity to provide an attorney on the spot—‘cause they’re being called on a hotline—and drop everything to speak with someone, prepare them, discussing an incredibly traumatizing series of events, while also explaining a confusing legal standard over the phone while the person is in CBP custody and then hopefully represent them on the phone, I mean, there are very, very few organizations, if any, at least on the border, that will have actual capacity to do that. …This is a problem of the administration’s own creation. You can’t really blame anyone else but the administration for designing a program that is inherently flawed and then expecting that legal organizations are going to be able to drop everything to assist people on the fly like that.


  • A heavily redacted report from the DHS Inspector-General finds that CBP officers “did not evaluate unsubstantiated information, and made unsupported conclusions” when they revoked the “trusted traveler” status of two U.S. citizens whom they believed were aiding migrant caravans in 2018 and 2019. NBC’s San Diego affiliate talks to a pastor who is suing because CBP officers, believing she was tied to a caravan, requested that the Mexican government deny her entry.
  • Vice President Kamala Harris is considering attending the inauguration of Honduran President-Elect Xiomara Castro, CNN’s Priscilla Álvarez tweeted.
  • The humanitarian group Humane Borders recovered more than 220 sets of human remains in southern Arizona in 2021, the bodies of migrants who perished of dehydration or exposure in the state’s deserts. “In Arizona, the death toll was at least on par with a 10-year high in 2020,” Fronteras Desk reports.
  • The Arizona Daily Star updates on CBP’s proposed border wall “remediation” projects in Arizona, for which the agency is seeking public input. The report notes that this will probably include closing small gaps where Trump-era construction segments did not fully meet up. Environmental defenders point out that these gaps are some of the only remaining corridors for migratory wildlife. Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat, voiced support for closing the gaps in a December statement.
  • CBP reportedly encountered more than 29,000 undocumented migrants in its Yuma sector, in southwest Arizona and southeast California, in December. That monthly number is more than any of the Yuma sector’s full-year encounter totals between 2008 and 2018. Many are Haitians who continue to be quickly placed on expulsion flights to Haiti, the Washington Examiner notes.
  • Panama’s migration authorities reported apprehending 133,726 migrants in 2021, more than in the previous 11 years combined. About three quarters were Haitian, or the Chilean or Brazilian-born children of Haitian citizens. Caitlyn Yates of the Migration Policy Institute summarizes the data on Twitter, pointing out that Panama’s numbers fell sharply at the end of 2021.
  • A letter from 35 Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, asks the Departments of Homeland Security and State to grant or re-designate Temporary Protected Status for citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua for humanitarian reasons.
  • Reports continue to emerge of a migrant caravan likely to depart from Honduras on January 15. (No caravan has succeeded in reaching Mexico’s U.S. border since late 2018.)
  • The sheriff of Real County, Texas (pop. 3,400, about 100 miles from the border) “is under criminal investigation for allegedly having his deputies illegally seize money and a truck from undocumented immigrants during traffic stops,” before handing them over to Border Patrol, the Texas Tribune reports.
  • Migrant smugglers’ fees to reach the United States from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala have risen from about $3,200 in 1996 to over $18,000 today, Al Jazeera finds.
  • A new filing from the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force notifies that it has reunited 112 children with parents who were separated from them by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policies. The task force has yet to reach the parents of 237 children. At the same time, the administration is arguing in federal court that families whom the Trump administration separated are not entitled to financial damages. Meanwhile, media reports that victims of family separation might receive financial compensation have already caused some families to receive calls from extortionists, the Associated Press reported.
  • CBP’s warehouse-sized “Ursula Avenue” processing facility for migrants in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley sector, first opened during the first child migrant crisis in 2014, will reopen in a matter of weeks after more than a year of renovations. Its new design will no longer include its notorious pens surrounded by chain-link fencing.
  • Tijuana’s El Imparcial newspaper reports that a smuggling network charges an increasing number of migrants from Russia up to $10,000 to cross into the United States. CBP data show that of the 1,711 Russian migrants the agency encountered in November 2021, 95 percent crossed in the San Diego sector, which abuts Tijuana. That number more than doubled in three months.
  • During the holidays (December 30), Border Patrol’s El Paso sector tweeted about the apprehension of five migrants from Turkey, accompanying it with a graphic bearing the words “TURKISH INCURSION” in bright red letters.

Five links: January 14, 2022

(Even more here)


A gain of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord was the creation of 16 temporary congressional seats that would be open to conflict victims, not political parties. But some creepy people are declaring candidacies for these seats in zones of longtime paramilitary influence, like the northern department of Bolívar.

The U.S. government is giving Colombia up to 200 armored vehicles under the Excess Defense Articles program, which will keep “U.S. organic industrial base production lines hot.”

Cuba, Nicaragua

Nicaragua has stopped requiring visas for citizens of Cuba, which could lead to a new vector for migrants headed across Mexico to the U.S. border.

Mexico, U.S.-Mexico Border

Human Rights First’s latest report on the border finds “over 8,705 reports of kidnappings and other violent attacks against migrants and asylum seekers blocked in and/or expelled to Mexico” since Joe Biden took office.

Watch an award-winning documentary about some of the more than 100,000 Mexicans deported from the United States each year, even after growing up and spending most of their lives here.

5 links: January 13, 2022

(Even more here)

Western Hemisphere Regional

Human Rights Watch’s annual report is out. Includes narratives for 15 Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras

Between 2015 and 2019 the State Department provided $38.1 million in “capacity-building assistance that may help disrupt firearms trafficking in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.”


The latest quarterly report of the UN monitoring mission in post-accord Colombia finds that 303 ex-FARC members have been killed, out of 13,600 demobilized, since the accord’s late 2016 signing. Murders did drop from 74 in 2020 to 54 in 2021.

El Salvador

The Bukele government appears to be misusing the Pegasus phone-hacking software, produced by the nefarious Israel-based NSO group, against the brave and highly regarded independent media outlet.

U.S.-Mexico Border

The Texas National Guard mission at the border is fully politicized. This use of military personnel “started to change as we got into the fall months and when it appeared certain as well that [Republican Texas Governor Greg] Abbott was going to be facing a primary challenge from the right.”

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