Adam Isacson

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

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September 2023

Lowlife Dictator Lowers Himself Still Further

Nicaraguan author Gioconda Belli earned her money by writing novels that changed how people feel and see the world.

Tweet from Gioconda Belli @GiocondaBelliP:

Ayer la dictadura Ortega Murillo consumó la confiscación de mi casa de habitación en Managua, enviando policías a ocuparla. Es una casa que para siempre contendrá el recuerdo de mi energía creativa, la huella de mis libros y el paisaje que más amaba. Lo que era queda en mí.

Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega—who made his money by stealing from, terrorizing, and traumatizing people—just seized Belli’s home this week.

Good on Colombian President Gustavo Petro for showing solidarity and observing, “Ortega hace lo mismo que Pinochet.”

Promo Video for Today’s WOLA Mexico Podcast

As I noted earlier today, I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.

Here’s WOLA’s podcast landing page. And here’s the podcast, embedded:

WOLA Podcast on Mexico: “Demilitarization is not going to happen from one day to the next. But there needs to be that commitment”

I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.

Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

A new report from WOLA dives deeply into the growing power and roles of Mexico’s military, and what that means for human rights, democracy, and U.S.-Mexico relations.

WOLA’s Mexico Program published Militarized Transformation: Human Rights and Democratic Controls in a Context of Increasing Militarization in Mexico on September 6. The report voices alarm about the Mexican armed forces’ growing list of civilian tasks, and civilians’ diminishing ability to hold military personnel accountable for human rights abuse and other illegal behavior.

In some new findings, Militarized Transformation reveals official data showing that the military isn’t even reporting its arrests of civilians to civilian security authorities and oversight bodies. The report updates and group together various indicators regarding the justice system and respect for fundamental rights by the security forces, with a focus on the armed forces and the National Guard, as well as the differentiated impacts and situations faced by women. And it makes a series of short-term and long-term recommendations for needed reforms.

This podcast episode features the report’s principal author, Stephanie Brewer, WOLA’s director for Mexico. Brewer discusses the report’s main findings, conclusions, and recommendations, along with a general view of Mexico’s democracy, civil-military relations, and U.S. policy.

“We recognize militarization is is the reality we’re currently working in,” Brewer concludes. “But while that’s going on, what possible reason could there be for the country to want the armed forces not to be operating under effective civilian control or not to be transparent about things like their use of force? Or not to be fully giving information to Congress? That would have to be something that that is in everybody’s interest in the short term.”

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.

Militarized Transformation is the latest of several WOLA reports examining the military’s growing power in Mexico and its human rights and democracy implications. Among them:

U.S.-Mexico Border Update: September 15, 2023

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.

THIS WEEK IN BRIEF:

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that nearly half of all migrant deaths worldwide in 2022 occurred in the U.S.-Mexico border zone. The 686 deaths counted by IOM’s Missing Migrant Project are an undercount, limited by available data. Border Patrol is preliminarily reporting a modest decrease in migrant deaths in 2023, but the full toll of this summer’s record heat remains unclear.

Media reports from throughout the Americas in the past week point to record numbers of migrants transiting Panama and Honduras, while large numbers are stranded at the Peru-Chile border, northern Nicaragua, southern Guatemala, southern Mexico, and of course northern Mexico.

As happened in May, asylum seekers trying to turn themselves in between layers of San Diego’s double border wall are not being processed right away. Border Patrol is leaving them outdoors between the walls for a day or more with little food, water, or bathroom facilities.

The Biden administration is considering a policy change that would require many asylum-seeking families to remain in south Texas while awaiting credible fear interviews. Texas’s state government has now put 36,000 migrants on buses to the U.S. interior. An Illinois coroner’s report about a Venezuelan girl who died aboard a Texas bus has discrepancies with Texas’s account of her health when her family boarded the bus. A federal appeals court is allowing Texas to keep a wall of buoys in the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass while it considers a Justice Department lawsuit to take them down.

THE FULL UPDATE:

UN draws attention to mounting migrant death toll

A report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) found that the U.S.-Mexico border was “the deadliest land route for migrants worldwide on record” in 2022. IOM’s Missing Migrant Project, which maintains a large database of worldwide migrant deaths, counted 1,457 deaths hemisphere-wide last year, of which 686 occurred on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

As the organization acknowledges, this is an undercount. On the U.S. side alone, “In FY [fiscal year] 2022, more than 890 migrants died attempting to enter the United States between ports of entry across the SWB [southwest border]”—more than the IOM figure, the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice reported in March, in their draft of the May asylum “transit ban” rule. The departments offered no further detail, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has yet to produce the 2022 version of its Border Rescues and Mortality Data report. The 890 figure, too, is an undercount, as regional humanitarian groups along the border find a higher count of migrant remains than Border Patrol does in the regions that they cover.

“Although the data shows that deaths and disappearances in the U.S.-Mexico border decreased by 8 per cent from the previous year, the 2022 figure is likely higher than the available information suggests,” IOM notes, “due to missing official data, including information from Texas border county coroner’s offices and the Mexican search and rescue agency.” Of the 686 documented deaths in 2022, 307 “were linked to the hazardous crossing of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts” in Arizona and New Mexico.

Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, IOM counted 350 deaths on migration routes in the Caribbean in 2022, a sharp increase over previous years, and 141 in the inhospitable Darién Gap jungle straddling the border between Colombia and Panama.

Between October 2022 and August 2023, according to a recent WOLA interaction with a Border Patrol official, the agency found the remains of 640 migrants, a 24 percent decrease over the same period in 2022. This could be due to a somewhat smaller migrant population—Border Patrol’s 2023 apprehensions were down 9 percent through July compared with 2022—and stepped-up search and rescue efforts.

On the other hand, this year’s record-breaking heat, especially in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, may have killed more people than we yet know. Border Patrol told Border Report this week that it has found 140 remains since October in its El Paso Sector, which includes the area around the Texas city and all of New Mexico. That is up very sharply from 71 in 2022, and from an average of 13 in the 24 years between 1998 and 2021.

In the El Paso Sector, “the wall, the arrival of the Texas National Guard, the surge of Department of Public Safety patrols, all of that is pushing people to the desert,” Carlos Marentes, the executive director of the Border Farm Workers Center, told Border Report.

Reports of increased migration in transit, from Peru to Mexico

After a lull following the end of the Title 42 pandemic expulsions policy, countries along the northbound migration route are again experiencing elevated levels of migration, which may portend record arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border this fall. These narratives all come from news coverage from the past seven days.

On Peru’s border with Chile, Infobae reported that dozens of Venezuelan, Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Haitian citizens are stranded and sleeping outdoors in the desert border city of Tacna, as Peruvian police prevent them from moving further. The migrants had been living in Chile, which ended a state of emergency in its northern border zone on August 27, making northbound migration somewhat easier.

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Border Patrol is Once Again Keeping Asylum Seekers Outdoors, Between the Border Wall Layers, South of San Diego

From the Tijuana daily El Imparcial.

Border Patrol is once again keeping hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants outdoors, without even bathroom facilities, for one to two days between the double layers of the border wall between San Diego and Tijuana.

The last time we saw this practice, in May, it generated an outcry, including a letter from Democratic members of Congress and a complaint filed by the Southern Border Communities Coalition.

Now it’s happening again. From California Public Radio:

The camp is in San Ysidro, between the primary and secondary border walls. Migrants there sleep outside with little protection from the elements. There are no bathrooms, leaving men, women and children to relieve themselves in nearby bushes.

…Customs and Border Patrol personnel give the migrants water bottles, cheese and crackers. Everything else comes from volunteers in San Diego and Tijuana, according to several migrants interviewed by KPBS.

Volunteers provided fruits, blankets, medicine, diapers, menstrual pads and generators to charge people’s phones.

…Migrants interviewed in the camp Tuesday told KPBS that they were not free to leave the camp whenever they wished. All of them had wristbands given to them by CBP personnel. Many of the people in the camp want to pursue asylum claims in the United States.

Volunteers told California Public Radio that the migrants are spending between 24 and 36 hours in the camp before agents pick them up for processing. In the meantime, they must relieve themselves in bushes between the fence lines.

Border Patrol claims that they are facing capacity challenges. These challenges are certain to increase as numbers of migrants, many of them asylum seekers, have been growing since July and may continue to grow into the fall. If that happens, and if Border Patrol is allowed to keep using the space between the walls as an open-air pen, then the wait times will get longer.

Many of the asylum seekers have given up on waiting for the “CBP One” smartphone app to cough up an appointment. Enrique Lucero, the director of Tijuana’s municipal migrant affairs office, told the local El Imparcial “there are between 5,500 and 6,000 migrants in city government-recognized shelters, who are waiting to obtain a CBP One appointment to begin their asylum process in a way that is safe and ordered by the United States.”

At the San Ysidro port of entry, CBP is taking 385 CBP One appointments per day—16 times smaller than the officially known portion of Tijuana’s migrant shelter population—plus maybe 10 more “walk-ups,” according to an August 31 report from the University of Texas’s Strauss Center.

88 Percent of 2022 Environmental Defender Killings Happened in the Americas

In its latest annual report, the UK-based group Global Witness counted 177 murders of environmental defenders worldwide last year. And 156 of them happened in Latin America.

Colombia tops the global ranking with 60 murders in yet another dire year for the country. This is almost double the number of killings compared to 2021, when 33 defenders lost their lives. Once again, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities, small-scale farmers and environmental activists have been viciously targeted.

In 2022, voters in Brazil and Colombia elected leaders who lean hard into pro-environment rhetoric. That may not mean daily life is any safer for those countries’ beleaguered communities trying to defend forests and other resources. Next year’s numbers, though, absolutely must go down. This is inexcusable.

Change in the Venezuelan Migrant Population in 17 Latin American Countries

This is from a September 5 update from the Regional Inter-agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V). Some changes owe to governments (like Panama’s) recalculating their population estimates, rather than actual movement of Venezuelan migrants.

Eight countries (not including the United States) now have at least 100,000 Venezuelan-born people living within their borders:

Table:

COUNTRY PREVIOUS UPDATE (PUBLISHED MAY
2023)
CURRENT UPDATE (PUBLISHED
AUG 2023) DIFFERENCE
Colombia 2,477,588 (as of February 2022) 2,894,593 (as of October 2022) +417,005
Peru 1,518,102 (as of March 2022) 1,542,004 (as of June 2023) +23,902
Brazil 449,678 (as of March 2023) 477,493 (as of June 2023) +27,815
Ecuador 502,214 (as of May 2022) 474,945 (as of June 2023) -27,269
Chile 444,423 (as of December 2021)
Dominican Republic 115,283 (as of June 2021) 124,141 (as of June 2023) +8,858
Trinidad & Tobago 35,314 (as of June 2022) 36,218 (as of June 2023) +904
Guyana 19,643 (as of June 2022) 21,676 (as of June 2023) +2,033
Aruba 17,000 (as of December 2021) 17,085 (as of June 2023) +85
Curaçao 14,000 (as of June 2022)
Argentina 220,595 (as of August 2022)
Bolivia 15,673 (as of July 2022) 15,854 (as of April 2023) +181
Paraguay 5,426 (as of March 2023) 5,341 (as of June 2023) -85
Uruguay 27,487 (as of December 2022) 32,939 (as of June 2023) +5,452
Mexico 91,359 (as of December 2022) 113,108 (as of June 2023) +21,749
Panama 147,424 (as of February 2023) 58,158 (as of July 2023) -89,266
Costa Rica 30,107 (as of June 2022) 29.405 (as of July 2023) -702
Other countries 1,188,909 (as of May 2023)
TOTAL 7,320,225 7,710,887 +390,662

The Chilean Military’s Conspicuous Absence

Chilean Presidency photo

Yesterday, outside the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chilean President Gabriel Boric held a dignified commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the September 11, 1973 military coup that replaced elected president Salvador Allende with military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

No leader of Chile’s armed forces deigned to attend.

From Chile’s La Tercera, in an article entitled “The government’s frustrated attempt to involve the Armed Forces in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup”:

As an official activity, the Executive was expecting the presence of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force (Fach), but they did not arrive.

General Javier Iturriaga, commander in chief of the Army; Admiral Juan Andrés de la Maza, of the Navy; and the head of the Fach, Air General Hugo Rodríguez, were invited by the government to the ceremony in La Moneda, but all three, in unison, declined to attend.

The three branches of the Armed Forces excused themselves from attending, through the Ministry of Defense, to which they sent their refusal to participate in the event. When this ministry was consulted about the reasons given by the armed institutions, and about the specific absence, it did not mention them.

50 Years After the Pinochet Coup, Deep Divisions in Chile

At the 50th anniversary of Chile’s bloody military coup, the pollster CADEM found a nation that remains divided, at times sharply. Of Chileans surveyed:

  • 47% believe that September 11 is a relevant date, 13 points less than in June of this year, while 16% think that it is somewhat relevant and 35% (+13pts) that it is not very or not at all relevant.
  • 46% think that the coup was avoidable, compared to 51% who believe it was inevitable.
    • By political segment, 69% of those identified with the right say it was inevitable and 73% of those identified with the left believe it was avoidable.
  • Regarding responsibility for the coup, 44% believe that Augusto Pinochet and the Armed Forces are the main actors responsible for what happened on September 11, 1973, followed by Salvador Allende and the UP government, with 39%; leftist politicians, with 30%; the U.S. government, with 29%; businessmen and the media, with 19%; and right-wing politicians, with 17%.
  • 57% refer to the Pinochet government as a dictatorship, while 41% call it a military government.
  • 57% say that during Augusto Pinochet’s government human rights were systematically violated, 18% agree somewhat with that statement and 24% agree little or not at all.
  • Only 33% believe that justice has been done in cases of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship, compared to 25% who believe that some justice has been done and 41% who believe that little or none has been done.
  • 84% think that at present September 11 is a very or somewhat divisive issue.
  • Chileans consider that former presidents Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera are the figures who have collaborated most in making Chile a reconciled country, with 53% and 52% respectively.
    • Meanwhile, only 36% see collaboration from the Army, 33% from President Boric, 31% from José Antonio Kast and the Republican Party, 24% from the Frente Amplio and 23% from the Communist Party.
  • 75% consider that September 11 is a date that should be remembered so that human rights are never again violated in Chile, but at the same time 60% think that it should be left in the past.
  • In the case of military prisoners for human rights crimes who are seriously or terminally ill, 60% think that they should not have benefits and should serve their sentences regardless of their age or health.

At least there’s some rhetorical consensus here:

  • For 95% it is important that all political sectors, left and right, commit themselves to democracy and respect for human rights.

UNODC: 230,000 hectares of coca in Colombia last year

According to the Colombian daily El Espectador, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime detected 230,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in 2022. That amount—which extends the dark blue line in the chart below to 2022—would be the most coca that the UN agency has detected in any year since it began issuing estimates in 1999.

Chart: Coca Cultivation in Colombia

Hectares	US Estimate	UN Estimate
1994	44.7	
1995	50.9	
1996	67.2	
1997	79.5	
1998	101.8	
1999	122.5	160.1
2000	136.2	163.3
2001	169.8	144.8
2002	144.4	102
2003	113.9	86
2004	114.1	80
2005	144	86
2006	157	78
2007	167	99
2008	119	81
2009	116	73
2010	100	62
2011	83	64
2012	78	48
2013	81	48
2014	112	69
2015	159	96
2016	188	146
2017	209	171
2018	208	169
2019	212	154
2020	245	143
2021	234	204
2022		230

Colombia was governed for just over the first seven months of 2022 by Iván Duque, and for the remaining less than five months by Gustavo Petro.

Petro was still putting together his government by the time 2022 ended. His drug policy team only published their counter-drug strategy this past weekend. While that is a notably slow pace, it was not the cause for 2022’s result.

Petro has sought to de-emphasize forced eradication of small-scale coca farmers’ crops, which places the government in an adversarial relationship with poor people in historically abandoned territories. Through July, forced eradication is down 79 percent over the same period in 2022. Instead, the new strategy document promotes interdiction, targeting cocaine production and related finances, and other strategies.

Still, critics of the Petro government’s choices will use the 230,000 figure to oppose them. It’s possible, though, that the 2023 coca acreage figure could be reduced, because a historic drop in prices may be making the crop less attractive to many growers.

Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector Turns Very Deadly

Chart: Migrant Remains Recovered in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector

	El Paso, TX/NM
1998	24
1999	15
2000	26
2001	10
2002	8
2003	10
2004	18
2005	33
2006	28
2007	25
2008	8
2009	5
2010	4
2011	6
2012	1
2013	2
2014	1
2015	6
2016	2
2017	8
2018	6
2019	20
2020	10
2021	39
2022	71
2023 (Aug)	136

“This summer’s record-melting heat has pushed migrant deaths to a 25-year record with more than 130 victims and counting in the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which covers the westernmost tip of Texas and all of New Mexico,” reads a September 10 El Paso Times report on the discovery of the remains of 2 migrant women in Sunland Park, New Mexico. (Sunland Park is the first town you hit when you go west out of El Paso.)

On August 30, the El Paso Times’s Lauren Villagrán reported that, amid record summer heat, “U.S. Border Patrol reports at least 136 migrants have died in El Paso Sector” in fiscal year 2023, up from 71 in 2022.

The number of migrants who’ve died in El Paso and New Mexico since October 2022 is surely greater than 136, as many remains are never found. The chart above shows what 136 looks like in this sector, though.

The death toll has undergone a vertiginous increase in the past three years as people with no other apparent legal pathway attempt to defy the heat and enter the United States through the Chihuahuan Desert, often having to cross fast-flowing irrigation canals along the way.

Across the entire U.S.-Mexico border, Border Patrol hasn’t reported a migrant deaths total for 2022 yet, though the Biden administration’s draft asylum rule—shared in March—reported that “in FY 2022, more than 890 migrants died attempting to enter the United States between ports of entry across the SWB [southwest border].” That was up sharply from 565 in 2021 and 254 in 2020.

Pattern of “impunity” increases migrants’ risk of abuse by U.S. agents, report says

Emily Bregel published a terrific story at the Arizona Daily Star about our August 2 report, with the Kino Border Initiative, about abuse and accountability at Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol.

Bregel got comment about our findings from CBP, former CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus, and the offices of Rep. Raúl Grijalva and Sen. Mark Kelly, among others.

And she had a great conversation with my co-author on the report, Zoe Martens of the Kino Border Initiative:

At Kino, Martens offered to help the man file a complaint about the violation of his right to request asylum. She explained he likely wouldn’t get justice in his case, but that documenting it could help improve the system for others. The man quickly agreed, saying, “Don’t worry — we’re used to lack of justice in our own country,” Martens recalled.

The comment stuck with her.

“These are our U.S. accountability systems. I think we’d assume they are more effective than in places where we know impunity is widespread,” as in Mexico, she said. “We must, and we can, do better.”

Highly recommended.

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