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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New Report: Migrants in Colombia: Between government absence and criminal control

WOLA has just published a report about migration to, through, and from Colombia, based largely on fieldwork that colleagues and I did in the Colombia-Ecuador and Colombia-Panama border regions in October and November 2023.

(Did I have to go on work sabbatical to find the time to finish this report and get it out the door? No comment.)

I think it turned out great: it’s loaded with facts and images, and had a lot of reasonable policy recommendations for a situation that promises to remain extremely challenging for quite some time.

The text of the Executive Summary is below. Read the whole thing as a web page, a PDF, or un resumen en español.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

For this report, WOLA staff paid a two-week research visit to Colombia’s borders with Panama and Ecuador in late October and early November 2023. Here are 5 key findings:

1. Organized crime controls the migrant route through Colombia. From the informal crossings or trochas at the Ecuador border to every step of the way through the Darién jungle border with Panama, violent criminal groups are in control. That control is dispersed among many groups near Ecuador, and concentrated in a single, powerful group—the Gulf Clan—in Colombia’s Darién region. Their profits from migrants now sit alongside cocaine and illicit precious-metals mining as a principal income stream for Colombia’s armed and criminal groups, some of which the International Committee of the Red Cross considers parties to armed conflicts. [1]

2. The Colombian state is absent from both border zones, although this is a reality that we have observed in past fieldwork in many of Colombia’s zones of armed conflict and illicit crop cultivation. The national government is not doing enough to manage flows, determine who is passing through, or protect people at risk. At all levels of government, responsible agencies are poorly coordinated and rarely present. Checkpoints, patrols, and detentions are uncommon, but so are humanitarian services and access to protection. Despite ambitious plans to “introduce the state” to conflictive areas—most recently, Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—key points along the migration route are vacuums of governance that get filled by armed and criminal groups.

3. Colombia faces challenges in integrating Venezuelan refugees and migrants. Amid Venezuela’s collapse, Colombia’s humanitarian response to fleeing Venezuelans remains more complete and generous than those of much of South America. However, the Colombian government’s recent trajectory is troubling. It is now harder for Venezuelans—especially more recent arrivals—to get documentation and to access services in Colombia. Pathways to permanent residency, including asylum, barely exist. As those efforts lag and people fail to integrate, more are joining in-transit migrants, attempting the dangerous journey north.

This reality has a differentiated and more severe impact on the more than a quarter of people transiting Colombia, or seeking to settle in Colombia, who are adult women—especially women heads of migrant households—and the nearly a quarter who are children. The risk of physical harm including sexual violence, or of enduring hunger or lack of access to health care, is much more challenging for women, Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ migrants.

4. At the same time, U.S. supported initiatives to help Colombia integrate migrants, to open up legal migration pathways for some who wish to come to the United States, and to encourage greater cooperation and collaboration between states seeking to manage this moment of heavy migration are promising. However, we note that at the same time, the U.S government orients much of its diplomatic energy and security programs toward minimizing the flow and discouraging Colombia and other states from making the journey more orderly, for fear that it might encourage more to travel. As a result, governments and migrants receive a muddled, unclear message from Washington that, for migrants, can be drowned out by poor-quality information gleaned from social media.

5. Resources to help Colombia and other nations along the migrant route are scarce, meeting only a fraction of projected needs—and they are shrinking as wars elsewhere in the world draw humanitarian resources away.

Countries like Colombia that are experiencing large amounts of U.S.-bound migration have a very difficult needle to thread. Blocking migrants is a geographic impossibility and would violate the rights of those with protection needs. Providing a managed “safe conduct” and an orderly transit pathway with robust state presence would prevent today’s immense harms and loss of life while cutting organized crime out of the picture—but the impression of “green-lighting” migration alarms the U.S. government. While some states do something in between: some measure of blocking, detaining, and deporting that dissuades few migrants but creates robust opportunities for organized crime, human traffickers, and corrupt officials who enable them, Colombia is leaning into an additional option: do little to nothing, with minimal state presence, leaving a vacuum that armed and criminal groups are filling.

This poor menu of options for managing in-transit migration leads WOLA to recommend some version of “safe conduct,” even a humanitarian corridor—but with an end to Colombia’s hands-off, stateless approach. Creating a safe pathway through Colombia must come with vastly increased state presence, far greater implementation of migration policies from a protection and human rights approach, dramatically improved cooperation between governments, and strongly stepped-up investment in integrating people who would rather stay in Latin America.

Until it expands legal migration pathways and vastly improves its immigration court system’s capacity, much migration will be forced into the shadows. This situation will worsen further as the Biden administration implements a June 5, 2024 ban on most asylum applications between the U.S.-Mexico border’s ports of entry. In that context, the United States must be more tolerant of efforts to provide safe conduct to migrants. U.S. tolerance of such approaches, though, would hinge on big changes to the “neglect migrants in transit,” “de-emphasize integration,” and “cooperate minimally with neighbors” status quo in Colombia and elsewhere.

Read the whole thing as a web page, a PDF, or un resumen en español.

Darién Gap Migration through May 2024

After increasing at the beginning of 2024, migration through the Darién Gap has declined somewhat, settling at about 1,000 people per day.

Last month (May), 69 percent of migrants passing through the treacherous jungle region were Venezuelan. In fact, Venezuelans now make up 50 percent of all migrants who’ve passed through the Darién Gap since 2010, when Panama started keeping and publishing records.

Between January 2022 and May 2024, 588,872 citizens of Venezuela journeyed through the Darién. Venezuela had about 30 million people in the mid-2010s when the nation’s exodus began—so fully 2 percent of Venezuela’s population has made the jungle journey since the pandemic’s end.

Colombia for the first time was the Darién Gap’s second-place nationality in May. Haiti, Ecuador, and China are dropping. India and Peru are up.

Undoing a Human Right, Without Even Acknowledging that Alternatives Existed

When coming out in support of rolling back a decades-old human right, it’s best to at least make it look like you considered the alternatives.

Some prominent centrist and center-left commentators have published pieces supporting last week’s Biden administration imposition of severe restrictions on the legal right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Some viewed it as an unfortunate but necessary step; some were downright celebratory.

  • “I’m conflicted, finding myself caught between pro-refugee instincts and a practical recognition that the system wasn’t working,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Couching it as an “open borders” question, not a “right to seek protection” issue, he concluded, “we can’t absorb everyone who wants in, and it’s better that the ladder be raised in an orderly way by reasonable people.”
  • Also at the New York Times, columnist David Leonhardt called the right to enter the U.S. asylum system, which was created after the United States’ 1968 accession to the Refugee Convention and 1980 passage of the Refugee Act, a “loophole.” It may be true that some people are applying for asylum because they know the backlogged U.S. system will let their cases drag on for years, but Leonhardt does not discuss options for fixing that.
  • At his Liberal Patriot Substack, Democratic Party-adjacent demographer Ruy Teixeira excoriated the “progressive left” for holding Joe Biden “prisoner” on migration policy, and celebrated the new asylum curbs as a “jailbreak” for the President.

These columnists are entitled to their views. They may be right that inaction on the border could cost Joe Biden with some swing voters. And as noted, they may be right that the asylum system’s slowness and inefficiency could be a “pull factor” for some migrants.

These opinion pieces fail, though, by refusing to recognize that another option exists: an option that isn’t “swinging the doors open” (Kristof’s phrase). If the asylum system is broken (of course it is), then the Biden administration could fix it. This would be an administrative challenge—a fair amount of hiring and training—but hardly a moon shot for the U.S. federal government.

None of these columns talks about making the U.S. asylum system viable, and faster, adjusting it to a new era of historic worldwide migration. They don’t even mention it as an option to be discarded. Their analyses treat the asylum system as a fixed and immutable variable that we can’t do anything about. (So, incidentally, does the text of the administration’s interim final rule laying out the new asylum restriction: it laments the system’s backlog but scarcely mentions ways to address it.)

The new rule focuses only on the asylum system’s initial entry point: the U.S.-Mexico border. That makes it yet another in a ten-year-long series of efforts to deter asylum seekers at the borderline itself, or just before it. Like the others, from family separation to Remain in Mexico to Title 42 to Mexican government crackdowns, it will hurt people in the short term but will fail to move the numbers in the long term.

Where change is most urgently needed is further along in the asylum process. The backlog isn’t at the border: it lies in what happens afterward.

Imagine if it took less than a year to hand down most people’s asylum decisions, with full due process and without locking them up in detention. Imagine it being rare and unusual for cases to take longer than a year, because the system had enough judges, asylum officers, processors, case managers, and access to legal representation.

Right now—a full ten years after the first wave of Central American child and family asylum seekers surprised the Obama administration—the U.S. government is very far from that. With 725 immigration judges—9 fewer than in October!—and much fewer than 1,000 asylum officers available to attend to 1.3 million asylum cases and about 2 million other immigration cases, asylum decisions commonly take many years. In 2022, TRAC Immigration estimated an average of 4.3 years.

People who may not have understood the intricacies of U.S. asylum requirements when they came here—they just learned about the backlog’s effects via social media—end up in the United States, living their lives and awaiting a decision, for a very long time.

In many cases, such a long stay could be a good outcome because of the contributions people make while here. But it is insanity to require them to hire smugglers to get through the Darien Gap then run Mexico’s predatory organized-crime gauntlet just to touch U.S. soil, suffering abuse along the way.

Along with opening up other legal pathways, then, the goal should be to slash asylum backlog wait times while respecting and expanding rights. Fewer people who are unlikely to qualify would opt for the asylum system if the normal wait was shorter.

All that stands in the way of that is the hiring and training of a few thousand judges and asylum officers. A hiring expansion along these lines ($110m for new immigration judges, 4,338 new asylum officers) was part of the “border deal” legislation that failed in the Senate earlier this year.

Organizations and experts have recommended variations of this solution a ridiculous number of times. They include WOLA, Human Rights First, the Migration Policy Institute, the American Immigration Council, the National Immigration Forum, and the Bipartisan Policy Center, among many others.

What the Biden administration did last week is not that solution. Far from it. They decided to shut things down on the front end, rather than move to reduce the backlog.

Instead of shoring up and rebuilding the system to match an era of historic protection-seeking migration, they have made the system itself harder to access, in a way that is likely to endanger people and is almost certainly illegal.

We need an explanation for why the administration chose not to pursue the “reduce the backlog” option (and why that hasn’t been an important part of DHS budget requests since 2021). Defenders of last week’s “asylum shutdown” should at least add a sentence somewhere saying, ”We considered this but decided against it because X.”

The opinion columnists defending the “shutdown” fail even to mention action to reduce the asylum backlog. None even glance at building up asylum processing and adjudication capacity to get those ridiculous wait times down.

They don’t even raise it in order to shoot it down. They don’t say “this is impractical,” “this costs too much,” or “this might be a good way forward, but it’s gradual and can’t move the needle between now and November.” Instead of engaging this viable alternative, they blame “the left” for constraining the President from cracking down on asylum seekers.

Others have pointed out factual inaccuracies in these widely read pieces. But the most unsatisfying part of what they wrote is the failure even to acknowledge the “reduce the backlog” option, even just to dismiss it.

The United States is watering down a human right granted in past generations. This shouldn’t be done lightly, by blithely ignoring widely proposed, doable alternatives.

Within Six Months

I had to do a triple-take on this observation, from a recent On Being podcast episode about Hannah Arendt. The speaker is Arendt scholar Lyndsey Stonebridge:

I hadn’t realized this until I’d looked either, that in The New Yorker, between ’62 and ’63, the autumn of ’62 and the spring of ’63, three essays were published. One was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Then that was followed by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. Then Hannah Arendt on the Eichmann Trial. Within six months. And with laying out with visionary precision, the poisonous master plots of contemporary life: violent racism, planet catastrophe, banality of evil, right in front of us.

Wow. Silent Spring, The Fire Next Time, and Eichmann in Jerusalem, all published within six months of the life of a print magazine.

If there’s an outlet that vital today, I don’t know about it. (I’d love to hear about it.)

Or maybe there are outlets, and individuals, out there today doing similar caliber work. If so, they’re no doubt being relegated to obscurity by “the algorithm” and by gatekeepers saying things like “nobody is going to read a 40,000-word piece.” I hope they keep on producing their best work in spite of all that.

Sabbatical, Day 9

I’m in the middle of week two of this two-month work sabbatical. I’d hoped that by now, I’d have had many moments of solitude and calm, as I caught up on reading and posted deep thoughts to this site.

There haven’t been a lot of deep thoughts posted here, and I haven’t been having many to begin with.

I recall that this happened the last time I had a sabbatical: I spent the first part catching up overdue projects that my regular schedule hadn’t allowed me to work on. It’s happening again.

This time, the main project is a long-suffering report. Back in October and November, I spent two weeks in Colombia (I posted many photos here at the time). I came back, got all my notes together, and then started writing about it. I worked bit by bit, section by section, whenever I had the chance to move the project forward.

As winter and spring passed, there were entire weeks—even some two-week periods—when I did not have that chance at all. It turns out that running a communications-heavy advocacy program about the U.S.-Mexico border and migration, during the highly charged 2024 election year, doesn’t lend itself to also writing an in-depth field research report about migration in Colombia.

Now that I’m on sabbatical, it’s finally happening. I’ve put in about 24 of the past 96 hours working on it, and today I handed off a polished draft to WOLA’s program and communications teams. It’s really nice to no longer say “the report is coming.”

It hasn’t been painless. What was a 16,000-word draft at the beginning of the weekend, with 170 footnotes, by Monday night was a 20,000-word draft with 242 footnotes. By today, I’d managed to whack it back to 14,500 words and 169 footnotes.

If you’ve never had to cut 5,000 words from a 20,000-word report, eliminating entire lines of research that you’d gathered from your fieldwork… well, I don’t recommend it. It’s brutal.

Between that and posting “daily border links,” I never made it outdoors at all today. (It was raining, anyway.)

But it’s great to have it behind me (except for suggestions and revisions). Being able to shut down much of the work over the past 10 days is what made it possible.

It still doesn’t really feel like a sabbatical, though.

What AI is Useful For Right Now (It’s Not Web Search)

Many more good ones in this Twitter thread
(Update: as of the evening of May 29, Google still provides the pictured result.)

Some things generative AI tools are really useful for:

  • Translation
  • Transcription
  • Suggesting code in many programming and scripting languages
  • Summarizing or pulling specific information from long, already-existing documents or collections of documents
  • Assistance with classifying or archiving information for easy retrieval
  • First drafts of low-priority correspondence
  • Thinking through complex ideas or narratives
  • Making entertaining images to help visualize things (but not to share publicly as embarrassing “boomer images“)

What generative AI tools really are not useful for:

  • Answering questions using information drawn from the open web: the answers are often vague or hallucinated, at times hilariously so, and always require further verification

You’d think that Google and other companies rushing to “put AI in everything” would know this. Anyone who has used even the best LLMs for more than a few hours has had the model tell them outrageously wrong things. It’s puzzling that Google put “AI overviews” at the top of their trillion-dollar company’s results pages when the tech is plainly not ready for that purpose yet.

The Biden Administration’s Rush to Curtail Asylum at the Border Doesn’t Even Make Sense as a Campaign Strategy

(I think I wrote this in a way to make clear that I don’t want the Biden administration, under any circumstances, to harm asylum seekers’ right to due process and protection at the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead of appealing to morality, however, this post instead emphasizes cold, strategic calculation. Its tone errs on the side of cynicism.)

Imagine that you’re a political operative in the Biden administration or at the Biden campaign. You believe that the stakes are as high as they could be in 2024, as your insurrection-backing, authoritarian-trending, ethically challenged opponent enjoys a slight lead in most polls.

You want the migration situation at the U.S.-Mexico border to be as far off the national radar as possible. That means no chaotic images of mass migrant arrivals seeping into any “mainstream” media outlets (that is, all media to the left of Rupert Murdoch’s properties). No screaming “border crisis” headlines, no big-city mayors going off-message.

You know there’s no way to “solve” the broken U.S. border management, immigration, and asylum systems in the five-plus months that remain until Election Day. You also know that any policy change that toughens conditions for migrants at the border usually brings a short-term reduction in their numbers, even if it doesn’t last for very long. (We call this “wait and see mode”: migrants and smugglers hold back for a while to see what the new policy’s consequences will be, and then numbers recover.)

With others in the presidential brain trust, you have been preparing a measure that would refuse asylum access to people at the border, moving to deport them quickly. This measure would get triggered not by asylum seekers’ protection needs, but by how busy the border happens to be. It would shut down the right to asylum whenever the number of migrants arriving at the border exceeds a certain daily average.

That measure appears in legislation that failed in the Senate in February, and that is being reintroduced—and likely to fail again—this week. An asylum “shutdown” is also likely to be at the heart of a legally dubious executive order that the White House is getting ready to issue.

Perhaps you lament rolling back gravely threatened people’s right to petition for asylum on U.S. soil. (That’s a right that emerged after World War II, has been a U.S. international law commitment since 1968, and has been part of U.S. law since 1980.) You know you’re watering down this right, turning the humanitarian clock backward, and perhaps condemning thousands to possible death, torture, or imprisonment.

But perhaps you justify that, somehow, by telling yourself that you’re “saving democracy.” By pushing the migration numbers down for a few months, you reduce the salience of the border issue, one of the Trump campaign’s main themes, thus weakening the former president’s prospects for a re-election that could be catastrophic for the American experiment.

But then, so far this year, something unexpected has happened: migration at the border has declined even without harming asylum. The number of Border Patrol apprehensions lately is half of what it was during the record-setting month of December 2023. There has been no normal springtime increase. March was less than February, April was less than March, and the number of new arrivals seems to be dropping, too, in May.

The main reason appears to be a migration crackdown inside Mexico. Mexican authorities report stopping about 120,000 people per month, way more than they ever had before. (Mexico is also in the midst of a presidential election, with voting on June 2, a week from Sunday.)

This is causing enormous hardship for people stranded in Mexico, but as a hard-boiled political operative, that doesn’t concern you. What counts is that migrants are solidly in “wait and see mode” for now. Your campaign is enjoying a relative lull in media coverage and public consciousness of the border situation.

Maybe you won’t view it as politically necessary to eviscerate the right to asylum after all. Or, at least, not until cracks begin to show in the virtual wall that Mexico has built. No cracks are yet visible: May numbers are dropping at the U.S.-Mexico border, and also further south in the Darién Gap.

Even by your amoral political calculations, then, it makes no sense to drop an asylum-curtailing executive order right now. Do it too soon, and migrants’ “wait and see” period could fade before November, risking sharp migration increases at the border in the weeks and months leading up to Election Day.

If you share this view, though, then you’re not getting through to your colleagues. According to Politico, the White House is likely to drop the executive order in June.

A June announcement would likely come after Mexico’s election on June 2, half a dozen people familiar with the timeline told West Wing Playbook. It would also allow the White House to roll out the policy before election season really heats up and before the conventions later this summer. The current timeline will also put the president on track to announce the executive action before his debate with Trump at the end of the month.

That makes no sense. If your goal is to keep migration down before Election Day, here is a likely scenario for how this might play out—and it’s not what you’d want:

  • The June announcement of an executive order causes migration to drop further from levels that, apparently due to Mexico’s crackdown, were already among the lowest of the Biden administration.
  • The effect is that migration remains low throughout the summer.
  • But soon enough, migrants and smugglers discern that many asylum seekers can still be released into the U.S. interior. For instance:
    • So far this fiscal year, one-third of migrants apprehended by Border Patrol came from countries that (a) are not in Mexico and Central America, and (b) are not Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, the four states whose citizens Mexico has agreed to accept as deportees under the Biden administration’s post-Title 42 “asylum ban” rule.
    • Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) runs about 30 deportation flights per month to those countries, which means ICE’s aerial deportation capacity there is perhaps 4,000 people per month. But about 55,000 people per month from those countries have entered Border Patrol custody this year. These countries’ citizens’ probability of removal is quite slim, even with the executive order in place.
  • As has happened with so many previous short-term policy changes—most prominently Title 42—migration levels start rising, as the “wait and see” period eases. This could happen by early fall, just in time for the most intense period of the election campaign.

That’s why the possibility of a June executive order is perplexing, even from a cold, amoral, ends-justify-the-means political operative’s perspective. Why drop a nuclear bomb on the right to asylum when the migration numbers are already down, and when the effect on border arrivals is not likely to last long?

(My main problem with this piece’s argument is that it appears to green-light issuing an asylum-eviscerating executive order not in June, but later in the election cycle, should an increase in migration occur at that point. The only response is a grim one: if migrant arrivals do indeed start moving upward in the summer or early fall, a White House crackdown would be inevitable. The administration would be certain to take a drastic step to knock the numbers down ahead of Election Day.

In that miserable scenario, it would at least be less awful to see the administration drop its “asylum shutdown” executive order—which until then had been sitting, unreleased, on a White House hard drive—instead of adopting some new, even more harmful escalation on top of an executive order in place since June.)

Sabbatical, Day 2

I can’t really say that I’m in “sabbatical mode” yet, but I’m laying the groundwork, I suppose?

I’d stayed up a bit too late last night learning how to use Visual Studio Code and GitHub Copilot for my upcoming coding projects, and then I couldn’t stop myself from writing a data-heavy post about border trends. Knowing that I didn’t have to report to work the next day let me follow the topic wherever it took me, and by the time I looked up from my screen, it was 12:30 AM.

Though I was up later than on a regular work day, this morning otherwise looked like…a regular work day. I wanted to go through my news feeds and create a daily border links post because it’s impossible to look away from Senate Democrats’ deeply regrettable decision to move forward with asylum-restrictions legislation this week.

I also guest-taught a class of U.S. diplomats via Zoom. It was my second time trying out a 45-minute presentation about Latin America’s security challenges. The narrative flows across these topics:

  • The region’s chronic violence
  • Deforestation as an example of how laws are not enforced against the powerful and well-connected
  • What “impunity” means, and how impunity for official corruption tied to organized crime makes organized crime far harder to confront than insurgencies
  • How state absence from vast territories makes the problem even worse
  • Why a “pax mafiosa” is not progress, even if it lowers violence levels for a while
  • The solutions to violence that human rights groups and pro-democracy reformers propose: construction of a democratic security sector
  • A problem: my community’s proposed solutions can’t make people feel safer in six months. But some politicians offer short-term fixes to security
    • The “Bukele model” and why it may not work, and especially not in countries like Ecuador
    • Negotiations with armed and criminal groups, like gang pacts or Colombia’s “total peace”
  • Amid frustrations over short and long term timeframes, leaders (and U.S. policymakers) often content themselves with repeatedly pushing security challenges down to “manageable” levels
  • Where “manageability” falls apart (returning to the beginning) is deforestation and climate harm. There is no “manageable” level of that anymore.

While I’m on this sabbatical, I hope to polish this talk some more, then post a screencast delivering the narrative as audio over my slides.

After that talk, I spoke to a journalist about border trends for half an hour. Then I took my daughter out to the suburbs and sat in a cafe while she got a haircut. While in the cafe, I put out one of my weekly (OK, not quite “weekly”) emails to my mailing list.

I paid a quick visit to the grocery store after that, and upon returning home found on the doorstep some items that I’d ordered when I was in Medellín last week. I’m on a tight budget—non-profit salary, child at a private college—but had thought it would be worthwhile to set up a basic screen shelter and some sort of outdoor furniture in our tiny urban back yard.

More than two hours of assembly later, here it is. I now have an extremely rustic “writing shed” to work in during the coming months.

Yes I know, my back yard is a weedy mess. That’s a result of work deadlines, travel, family obligations on off-days, and a series of rainy weekends. I haven’t been here much when it’s nice out. I’ll clean it up during the sabbatical.

I’m writing in it now, and it’s just barely starting to feel, maybe, like I’m on sabbatical.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be working on some of the projects I’d discussed in my “sabbatical coming” post from last week. In the afternoon, though, I’ll be going to the Nationals baseball game with my mother and her husband, who live out in the suburbs. The weather is supposed to be perfect.

See also:

Texas Gets No Credit for 2024’s Drop in Migration

Of Joe Biden’s 39 full months in office, 2024 so far has seen the months with the third, fourth, eighth, and ninth fewest migrants apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. April was fourth-fewest.

This was unexpected, since it immediately followed some of the Biden administration’s heaviest months for migration, including the record-setting December 2023. The drop appears to owe to a sustained crackdown carried out by Mexico’s government, with migration agents, national guardsmen, and other security forces blocking migrants’ northward progress.

The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott (R), has been claiming that his state government’s border crackdown reduced migration there and pushed it to states further west. That’s not what the data show.

Since record-setting December, and also since migration dropped in January, Arizona—not Texas—has seen the sharpest percentage drop in migration. Arizona has a Democratic governor, and its state government is not carrying out a severe deterrent policy like Abbott’s $10 billion-plus “Operation Lone Star.” Yet Arizona’s migration reduction is similar. So Texas doesn’t get the credit.

We can zoom in further to look at what has happened to migration in each of Border Patrol’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors.

Viewed this way, one of Texas’s five sectors did see the sharpest drop in migration: Del Rio, in mid-Texas, fell 86 percent from December to April; 39 percent from January to April. It is the only Texas sector to have decreased more sharply than the border-wide average.

But Tucson, Arizona—Border Patrol’s busiest sector between July 2023 and March 2024—fell almost as steeply as Del Rio (61% since December and 38% since January).

And after a December-January drop, all other Texas sectors are increasing.

Del Rio’s migration decline was led by super-sharp drops in arrivals from Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, three nationalities (along with Haiti) whose citizens the Mexican government allows the Biden administration to deport into Mexico under its May 2023 post-Title 42 “asylum ban” rule.

Deportation into Mexico without allowing a chance to seek asylum is almost certainly illegal: a federal judge already struck this part of the rule down (it remains in place pending appeal). It’s possible that this practice—more than Texas’s concertina wire, buoys, and soldiers—may have affected the choices these nationalities’ migrants made in Del Rio since January.

Border-wide between January and April, for every Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, or Venezuelan migrant who crossed the border irregularly (43,040), more than five instead arrived via legal channels: either the “CBP One” app (about 120,000) to make appointments at ports of entry, or the Biden administration’s humanitarian parole program (about 108,000) for these nationalities.

In Tucson, no nationalities declined as steeply as did Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Cubans in Del Rio. But the drop has happened across the board, with only modest increases in apprehensions of Colombians and Peruvians.

From what we know of the month of May so far, migration along the border could be declining even further. Twitter reports from the San Diego and Tucson Border Patrol sector chiefs have showed both regions declining over the past two weeks. The El Paso municipal government’s “migrant crisis” dashboard is also showing flat, even slightly reduced, numbers of encounters there.

Medellín’s Comuna 13, 22 Years After Operación Orión

I’m off to the airport shortly to return to the United States. I had a few hours off here in Medellín today, though, to see an important part of the city that I’d visited in 2006 and 2013. Here are some quick notes.

Comuna 13 is a set of neighborhoods on the western edge of the city, first settled—often by forcibly displaced people—in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a “no go zone” for the rest of the city for many years, known for government neglect and gang violence. Guerrilla militias were dominant in the 1990s. Then, in 2002, the new government of Álvaro Uribe launched an intense military offensive in the neighborhood, “Operación Orión.” Soldiers and police fought hand-in-hand with brutal paramilitary groups to root out the guerrillas. Dozens were killed and disappeared; people still find bodies buried nearby.

The paramilitaries took over criminality in the neighborhood, which today continues to have a heavy gang presence. But Medellín’s mayors also started investing very heavily in Comuna 13, integrating these abandoned areas into the city’s civic and economic life, often working with community organizations.

See a report from my 2006 visit to Comuna 13 here (starting on page 11), with some photos of what the neighborhood looked like then. See, in Spanish, the National Center for Historical Memory’s report on Comuna 13 in 2001-2003.

Photos from my 2006 report.

So anyway, it was jarring to see the neighborhood now, after so many years. It is far more peaceful and prosperous, as gang disputes have eased and the government’s investments have borne fruit.

But most bizarrely, Comuna 13 is now a tourist destination. Not really because of its violent history—though hired guides will tell you about what happened there—but because it is accessible, has great views, and offers casual travelers a gritty, edgy, graffiti-artist atmosphere that you don’t find elsewhere in this business-friendly city of expressways and shopping centers.

So where not so long ago there were running battles and forced disappearances, you can take a series of escalators to areas stuffed with the kinds of bars and shops where you can buy a cannabis-infused beer and a Pablo Escobar t-shirt, or get tattooed. (There are more creative sites there too, but they’re being crowded out by a lot of stuff that…well, let’s just say it’s not for me.)

Comuna 13’s poverty is still there, very much in plain view, which makes the party vibe even more jarring. What I saw today is preferable to what I saw in 2006, but Comuna 13 is still, without a doubt, a very hard place to grow up or raise a family.

I’m glad I saw it, and I’m glad that Comuna 13 is now easy to get to from the rest of Medellín, and is now considered an important part of the city.

At a Migration Conference in Medellín

Here are a few things I learned from fellow panelists at today’s sessions of a migration conference at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín.

Me (back, 2nd from left) with some of the conferencistas.

  • The largest number of people traveling through the Darién Gap get their information about the migration route through word of mouth, followed by WhatsApp, followed by other social media, followed by more reliable sources like humanitarian groups.
  • Of all major Colombian cities, Medellín is where business owners report being least willing to hire migrants.
  • In Medellín’s north-central Moravia neighborhood, organized crime demands larger extortion payments from Venezuelan small business owners than from Colombians. Most Venezuelans in the neighborhood do not intend to stay in Colombia: they either want to return to Venezuela if things improve, or they plan to move on. So they tend to choose not to mix into community life.
Poor hillside neighborhoods in northeast Medellín’s Comuna 3.

  • Among Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, there is a strong correlation between being a woman and the likelihood of being a victim of violence, including sexual violence.
  • Many Venezuelan LGBTQ+ migrants are fleeing attacks and discrimination, especially trans people who have it very bad there. But they more often cite “sexual liberation” or the availability of medical treatments, like HIV retrovirals, as their reasons for coming to Colombia.
  • Armed and criminal groups causing a lot of displacement and cross-border migration along Colombia’s remote southeast border with Venezuela and Brazil include FARC dissidents’ 10th front, the ELN, Brazil’s Garimpeiros, Venezuelan “sindicatos,” and Venezuela’s armed forces. All are profiting from illicit precious-metals mining and other environmentally disastrous practices, principally on the Venezuelan side of the border and usually in Indigenous territories. States are either absent, or part of the problem.
An ibis crosses my path at the University of Antioquia.

Hallway graffiti at the University reminds us to “unite under Maoism” and “down with revisionism.”

Slowing Down

That’s it until July 22. I won’t be in my office for more than two months, unless I’ve forgotten something.

I won’t be around to see the little orchid in my office bloom, as it’s about to do.

I’m off to Medellín tomorrow morning for an academic conference about migration. I return Saturday. And on Monday, my two-month sabbatical begins.

WOLA gives us a sabbatical every five years: a time to reflect and work on other projects. My last one was in the fall of 2015. Between the pandemic and my procrastination on the “sabbatical proposal,” it’s taken me eight and a half years to start a new one.

I’m lucky to have it. This is a much different period of my life than last time.

  • Last time, I’d been doing this work for 20 years and was solidly mid-career; now, I’m entering my mid-50s and thinking about what may be my final 20 (25? 30?) years of doing this work.
  • Last time, I was raising a 6th grader; now, she has just finished sophomore year of college.
  • Last time, I did not travel. This time, I’m going to be in Medellín now, Bogotá in June, and El Paso for three weeks in June and July. The first two are conferences. The border visit is just me hanging out.

My work plan for 2024 called for focusing on communications. (How could it be otherwise: I work on borders and migration during the 2024 election year. There’s a lot to communicate.) If you follow this site, you’ve seen that reflected in daily and weekly border updates, other written and quantitative work, lots of social media, and perhaps some regular-media appearances.

That work has been going well: I think it’s been the right strategic choice. But this late spring-early summer interlude is very welcome.

Lately, a typical week has included at least a dozen interviews, a few coalition meetings, a few internal meetings, and 20-25 email and text replies per day, on top of the writing and updates. Work that requires deeper thought has been falling behind.

So I’m ready to at least log out of WhatsApp and miss some of those meetings. The border updates will be infrequent, too, though I don’t plan to shut them down entirely. (I’m still reading the news.)

Now that there’s a chance, though, there’s a lot to think about.

  • Instead of “rapid response,” engaging in more “slow response”: taking the time to explain what a better security and border policy would look like. That means exploring both the “I have a magic wand” version and the “most we can do within existing law” versions. Of course, we already try to articulate that in a lot of our work at WOLA, but in my view it’s often rushed (tight word limits) or shoved into “recommendations” sections that hardly anyone reads. We’re not doing enough to paint a picture for people, whether of “selling a dream” or just “pursuing the least bad option.”
  • Preparing—both big-picture strategy and day-to-day survival tactics—for the strong possibility that Americans elect an administration that stands against most of what I care about, and that will seek to use its power against us.
  • Addressing an adverse funding environment for this work lately. I don’t cost much, but we need to keep the lights on. (This ties in with “paint a picture for people” above.)
  • Figuring out how to catch up, or abandon, parts of the work that are chronically behind.
  • Giving a hard look at the whole “border numbers and regular updates” approach that has characterized so much that I’ve posted on this site this year. It’s been regular, it opens the door to key audiences like reporters, legislative staff, and partner organizations. It’s certainly an example of “doing the work.” But is it creative? Is it helping those partners and audiences in the best way? I don’t intend to run a news aggregation service: is there a danger of falling into a rut?
  • Anticipating how this work will change because of climate change. I fear that this may be a historic summer for the planet, and it’s going to affect nearly everyone’s work. What we saw in Porto Alegre last week could just be a preview. And if I’m wrong, just wait until next summer.
  • Taking advantage of being in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez for a while without a fixed agenda. Mexico’s crackdown on migration can’t hold for too much longer, and things are already quite bad there. And the State of Texas is making the situation far worse.

In addition to all these things to think about, I’ve got projects that I’m eager to pursue, but haven’t had the time.

  • During my last sabbatical, I learned a lot of coding (PHP, MySQL, and the now-antiquated jQuery javascript framework) and built a personal research database, parts of which I still use every day. This time, I’ll be fixing some bugs and features there.
  • But I really want to build a new tool. This one will ease some of WOLA’s legislative work by keeping track of congressional offices and how we’ve worked with them. Years ago, I made a really primitive, bug-ridden version of that; I’ll be starting over from scratch and sharing it on GitHub as I go.
  • I also have a report on migration in Colombia that is nearly done: 16,000 words (which is too much), hundreds of footnotes. It needs some updating, and it will probably undergo a lot of internal edits and revisions before it goes public. It’s really good, though, and I look forward to releasing it.
  • I’m writing a chapter for a colleague’s book about drug policy. I’ve got the research in hand, so this won’t take too long.
  • I also want to get our “Border Oversight” database of CBP and Border Patrol human rights challenges back up to date.
  • I want to get my own archives and notes in order, with more of them visible to the public in a new subdomain at this site (something similar—though less ambitious—to those “digital gardens” that a few smart people have been creating). Keeping that together will ease my posting of more content at this site and elsewhere.
  • Here at this site, I hope to post more thoughts more often. My “sabbatical reflecting” will be much richer with a journal to record thoughts and observations. That would also help me to recall this period later, when I’m back in the day-to-day fray. (I didn’t do that during my last sabbatical, and my memories, sadly, are a blur.) This long-winded post is an effort to do that.

I know this is a lot. I’m not going to beat myself up if I don’t do all of these things, and I certainly don’t want to finish the sabbatical more tired than I started it. But if I spend this time well, I’ll emerge able to contribute more, and more creatively, for many years.

Finally, all of this means that you should not take it personally if I don’t answer your email right away, or if I end up ghosting your WhatsApp message or missing your DM. This is why I’m in “slow response” mode, and I’ll be back soon enough.

WOLA Hits 50

The Washington Office on Latin America celebrated 50 years since its founding last night. As someone who spent the past 14 of those years with WOLA, I was delighted to be on hand at a party with 400 people, all living former directors, and 3 inspiring human rights awardees.

The most moving moment was the acceptance speeches from the Collectives of Searchers for Disappeared Relatives of Guanajuato, Mexico. I couldn’t help but feel rage at the callous treatment they and other victims’ groups have received from Mexico’s government, which most of us thought would be an ally to them, helping to achieve justice and closure, after Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected six years ago. What a disappointment.

Left to right, the directors of WOLA’s programs for Venezuela and Mexico (Laura Dib and Stephanie Brewer); President Carolina Jiménez; VP for Programs Maureen Meyer; Drug Policy Program Director John Walsh; and me, towering over everyone like André the Giant.

I was home before midnight, then up four hours later to fly to Massachusetts to pick up my daughter at college. That’s where I’m writing from right now.

A truly great night.

The Border Crisis Demands Our Humanity. Passover Reminds Us How.

Good stuff here, from a Chicago Tribune column by a rabbi who often works at the border in Arizona.

The central reason of the Passover night is summarized right in the middle of the Seder, the ritual meal: “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themselves as if they left Egypt.” There are two key messages embedded in this obligation.

The first is empathy for the oppressed. We are instructed over and over again in the Bible to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the downtrodden “because you were a slave in Egypt.” When we encounter someone fleeing starvation, political repression and threats to their life and liberty, we should see ourselves in them. They are not a threatening, enemy “other,” because they are us. We know what it is like to need support, care and compassion, to need to be trusted though we are strangers. And so we will offer our support, care and compassion to those who need it now, and we will open our hearts with trust.

But there is another message. We are not only obligated to see ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt; we also are obligated to see ourselves with the knowledge that we left Egypt. Whatever misfortunes we live with, we must know that we are free. We have power. When we see ourselves as downtrodden and powerless, we react to outsiders as a threat and justify any hostility on our part as self-defense.

Ecuador Didn’t Suddenly Become a Cocaine Transshipment Corridor

This narrative to explain Ecuador’s sharp escalation of organized-crime violence—repeated by a BBC report this week is… kind of correct, sort of?

Between 2020 and 2021 alone, cocaine production shot up by nearly a third and international drug cartels began looking for new routes through which to smuggle the cocaine produced in Colombia and Peru.

Ecuador, which is sandwiched between Peru and Colombia and whose authorities lacked experience in fighting trafficking, was seen as the perfect option.

I don’t mean to single out the BBC: you see this “cocaine surged, then homicide rates multiplied” idea repeated a lot. There’s something to it. But it misses a lot.

Cocaine seizures (from the UNODC World Drug Report) point to trends. That data, for Ecuador, does show a big jump in the amount of cocaine transiting the country from 2020 to 2021.

Tons of Cocaine Seized by Ecuadorian Forces

1990	1.25
1991	1.16
1992	3.89
1993	1.2
1994	1.79
1995	4.28
1996	9.53
1997	3.7
1998	3.85
1999	10.16
2000	3.31
2001	12.24
2002	11.21
2003	6.85
2004	4.78
2005	43.36
2006	34.25
2007	32.97
2008	29.07
2009	66.18
2010	15.47
2011	21.34
2012	31.98
2013	48.91
2014	53.49
2015	65.58
2016	97.78
2017	83.57
2018	79.4
2019	33.78
2020	92.16
2021	176.66
2022 (through October 31)	154
2023 (through October 6)	155

However, the numbers also show that there was already a lot of cocaine flowing through Ecuador during the 2010s, when the country was regarded to be among the least violent in the Americas.

The correlation between narcotrafficking and violence exists, but its strength often gets overestimated. A larger part of the story seems to have to do with the structure of organized crime in Ecuador.

Peaceful arrangements among criminal groups, which involved corrupt people high up in government (as prosecutors are uncovering), fell apart sometime around the turn of this decade. The river of cocaine that was already flowing through Ecuador fell into bitter dispute as past equilibria shattered.

The demobilization of Colombia’s FARC probably contributed to that. An early indicator of trouble was an extreme wave of prison violence between fast-growing gangs in the late 2010s and early 2020s, signaling a big shake-out among the country’s organized crime groups. There may have been a perfect storm of factors within the criminal underworlds of Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, and perhaps elsewhere.

No matter what, the explanation rests on more than just a jump in the flow of cocaine. That flow was already quite robust, and quite tolerated by corrupt people in Ecuador’s security forces, judiciary, and government institutions.

Arms Transfers in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Brazil

Visiting Brazil, French President Emmanuel Macron highlighted binational cooperation on submarines, which began in 2008. Brazil has used French technical assistance to build three of four planned diesel attack subs. While Brazil is cooperating with France’s Naval Group corporation on a Brazilian-built nuclear submarine, France is reluctant to transfer the most advanced technologies.

Ecuador

The U.S. government delivered to Ecuador a C-130H cargo aircraft and a mobile police barracks. The latter is a series of shipping containers converted into sleeping areas, food service, and other facilities for police operating along Ecuador’s border with Colombia. According to U.S. Ambassador Michael Fitzpatrick, the cargo plane, built in 1974 and part of Afghanistan’s Air Force between 1988 and 2021, is valued at $12 million.

At the aircraft handover event, Amb. Fitzpatrick also “highlighted an investment of US$10 million to rehabilitate the FAE’s fleet of Super Tucanos [Brazilian-made attack aircraft] and the delivery of night vision tools and weapons for the Ecuadorian military,” according to the Ecuadorian daily Primicias.

Faced with a possible Russian embargo on Ecuadorian bananas, the government in Quito abandoned a plan to send used “junk” Russian-made equipment to the United States in exchange for a shipment of U.S.-made items. The plan apparently had been to hand over Ecuador’s Russian-made equipment to the government of Ukraine.

Bolivia

Bolivia’s minister of government announced that the European Union (EU) had provided 20 million Bolivianos’ (about US$2.9 million) worth of “weapons, equipment, clothing, and reconditioned aircraft” to the Bolivian police force’s Special Force for the Fight against Drug Trafficking (FELCN). An EU communiqué sought to clarify, however, that its counter-drug aid to Bolivia “includes or can be used for the purchase of armaments.” The Ministry of Government, in response, specified that the aid included “night vision devices and portable equipment for the identification of controlled substances.”

Chile

Chile’s national police force (Carabineros) took delivery of four Hunter TR-12 armored vehicles built in Colombia by Armor International.

In protest of Israel’s human rights abuses in Gaza, Chile’s government banned Israeli companies from its annual International Air and Space Fair (FIDAE), one of Latin America’s largest air shows.

Colombia

For the same reason, Colombia’s government has suspended all military trade with Israel. Major Israeli defense items in Colombia’s arsenal include the Atmos artillery system, the Barax air defense system, about 300,000 Galil rifles, and some aging Kfir fighter jets.

Colombia is discussing with the United States a possible purchase of F-16 fighter planes, which cost roughly US$160 million apiece, to replace the Kfirs.

Colombia is also discussing with the United States a possible purchase of more UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. That helicopter model was a central item in the United States’ “Plan Colombia” arms transfers of the 2000s; combining grants and purchases, Colombia has the world’s sixth-largest Black Hawk fleet.

Nicaragua

The U.S. State Department blocked the export of all U.S.-originated defense articles to Nicaragua’s authoritarian government. While the United States has not been transferring such articles to Nicaragua, the measure seeks to stop third countries from transferring to Nicaragua any items with U.S.-made components.

Venezuela

Venezuela obtained a “Hunter SHH100” anti-drone system from Skyfend, a Chinese company.

Some of the F-16 jets that Venezuela purchased from the United States in the years before Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election are still operable. Three of them took part in an early March military exercise.

Uruguay

“Uruguay is negotiating the purchase of weapons, radars, and military trucks with the United States,” noted Southern Command’s Diálogo website.

Honduras

In late 2023, Honduras purchased 10 South African-built “Black Mamba” armored police vehicles and has already begun using the two that have been delivered on operations in urban neighborhoods.

Peru

Peru has almost completed a $25.5 million overhaul of four Russian-made Mi-8MTV-1 Hip H transport helicopters belonging to its army. Defensa.com reported that Peru has renovated more than 15 Russian helicopters in its arsenal in the past 5 years; many of them sustained bullet impacts on operations in the VRAEM region, where Shining Path remnants continue to operate.

Much of Peru’s army equipment is Russian-made, the result of a changeover made when Peru was ruled by a left-leaning military dictatorship that came to power in 1968.

No Plans to Expand CBP One Appointments…

Catching up on what was said at a House Homeland hearing last week about the CBP One app, which Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is using to allow 1,450 asylum seekers per day inside Mexico use to make appointments at U.S. land border ports of entry.

An official from CBP’s Office of Field Operations told the Committee that:

  • Asylum seekers’ average wait inside Mexico for a CBP One appointment is “2 1/2 months right now.”
  • CBP has no plans to increase the number of appointments.
With respect to the wait times for individuals in Mexico, it’s averaging about two and a half months right now.
We do have to take into consideration the operations at our ports of entry.
We are not there just simply encountering inadmissible individuals who are attempting to enter the United States.
We have the facilitation of lawful travel and trade.
We also have to work outbound operations to interdict weapons and currency. We have to make sure that we’re intercepting narcotics, specifically fentanyl.
So to ensure that we are not walking away from any of the missions, stream- lining this process, ensuring that we can advance information to officers and automate it to the extent possible, but not also walk away from those other critical missions.
We’re not looking to expand the number of appointments.

There is clearly a need for more appointments, as the number of asylum seekers crossing illegally to turn themselves in to Border Patrol is still a multiple of those who manage to get appointments at ports of entry using the app. And in some parts of the border, investigators from the University of Texas Strauss Center have documented, the wait is now as much as six months.

Once asylum seekers arrive at the port of entry, they cannot leave the physical line or they risk losing their turn. The individuals crossing have been waiting for six months.
Civil society organizations in the city report that some migrants are waiting for up to six months before they receive a CBP One appointment.15 This long wait time has caused stress and uncertainty among the migrant population, and people periodically cross the Rio Grande instead of waiting. On the U.S. riverbank, the Texas National Guard has placed more than ten rows of concertina wire. Migrants who cross the river in this zone become stuck between the river and the concertina wire.

U.S. Military and Police Equipment Arriving in Ecuador

Source: @USembassyEC on Twitter.

Ecuador took delivery of two big U.S. military and police aid items this week. The U.S. government’s security assistance program has been ramping up following a January 9 outbreak of organized-crime violence around the country and subsequent state-of-emergency declaration from President Daniel Noboa.

  • A “mobile police barracks” for use along Ecuador’s side of its border with Colombia, consisting of eight converted storage containers, a sewage tank, and an electric power plant. “An estimated 80 police officers trained for border control tasks, from the Unit for the Fight against Organized Crime (ULCO), will patrol nearby roads and border zones, then spend nights and eat in the containers, which have a kitchen, dining room, dormitories, and meeting areas, among other spaces,” reported El Universo.
  • A C-130H Hercules cargo aircraft that the U.S. government had originally scheduled for a 2026 handover to Ecuador, but reprioritized in light of the security situation. The plane, valued at over $12 million, was built in 1974. In 1988, the U.S. government gave it to Afghanistan’s Air Force; following the 2021 Taliban takeover in Kabul, the U.S. Air Force reconditioned and modernized the plane.

Ecuador is now almost certainly the number-two recipient of U.S. security assistance in the Western Hemisphere after Colombia, surpassing Mexico.

Civil-Military Relations in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Argentina

The rightist government of President Javier Milei is sending Argentina’s Congress a package of laws that would return the armed forces to internal security roles for the first time since the years following the country’s return to democracy. The government seeks to deploy combat soldiers—not just logistical support units, as now—to the crime-plagued city of Rosario. Soldiers would be empowered to carry out patrols, checkpoints, and arrests.

The armed forces are complying with the order to help fight organized crime in Rosario, but are uneasy with the new mission. Several generals communicated to Defense Ministry leadership “that they do not want any of their uniformed men touching ‘a single civilian’ in Rosario.”

Many Argentine analysts worry that expanding military roles to include public security and counternarcotics would be a grave mistake. “You have the armed forces as insurance, as if they were your car insurance,” Rut Diamint of Buenos Aires’s Torcuato di Tella Institute tells her students. “You hope never to use them, but when you have to use them, the fact that they have been working as policemen does not help you.”

“Countries that have used the Armed Forces to fight drug trafficking had negative results, there was no success,” said former Argentine Army commander Martín Balza. “The results were lethal, demoralizing for the forces, and seriously affected their essence and professionalism.”

The Milei government has prohibited the use of gendered names for officer ranks held by women (“generala”, “sargenta”, “soldada” or “caba”).

The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Laura Richardson, will pay a visit to Argentina on April 3.

Brazil

The former chiefs of Brazil’s army and Air Force told police investigators that then-president Jair Bolsonaro presented them with a plan to remain in power after he lost the country’s October 2022 elections. They refused to participate, though the chief of Brazil’s Navy “said he would put his troops at Jair Bolsonaro’s disposal,” one testified.

“It is said that, of the sixteen members of the high command, between four and six were in on the coup,” wrote Veja columnist Ricardo Rangel.

Chile

Faced with concern over urban crime, leftist President Gabriel Boric is voicing willingness to send the military into some neighborhoods using a legal authority to “protect critical infrastructure.” Presidential spokeswoman Camila Vallejo said, “Let’s not believe this is a silver bullet. There is a tone in public opinion or debate that makes people think that this is going to be the solution to fight crime, and the truth is that it is going to be one tool among many.”

Guatemala

Guatemala’s Constitutional Court officially closed the “CREOMPAZ case,” a years-long effort to prosecute a group of former high-ranking military officers accused of forcibly disappearing 565 people between 1982 and 1988, during the country’s long armed conflict. The victims were found in a mass grave at a peacekeeping training base in Alta Verapaz that the Army had used as a clandestine torture center. Among those questionably exonerated is Gen. Benedicto Lucas García, brother of dictator Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982).

Honduras

Generals who testified in a U.S. court in favor of ex-president Juan Orlando Hernández, who was found guilty of narcotrafficking on March 8, had careers deeply intertwined with that of the disgraced leader, Contra Corriente reported. Gen. Tulio Romero Palacios, who served as Hernández’s aide-de-camp, attended military school with Hernández since they were 13.

The deaths of three alleged gang members in a prison cell on February 18 raised to eleven the death toll in Honduras’s prison system since the armed forces took control of it in June 2023.

Mexico

A report from Mexico United Against Crime (MUCD), a non-governmental research and advocacy group, documented a sharp growth in the Mexican armed forces’ economic power during the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, which began at the end of 2018. The military had no participation in state-owned companies before then, now it is involved in or managing 30. “Today, the Armed Forces are in charge of exercising, administering and strategically managing a large part of public money and the profits of state-owned companies with opacity, high discretion, and no accountability,” it concludes.

Migration control has become a key area of military involvement in domestic non-defense functions, contends a report from the Mexico City-based Universidad Ibero. The country’s migration agency (National Migration Institute, INM) now has retired officers in several high positions and works closely with the military on migrant control operations.

An August rescission of arrest orders against Army personnel allegedly involved in the 2014 Ayotzinapa disappearances “was a startling indication of the power of the Mexican military,” noted Alma Guillermoprieto in a thorough narrative of this high-profile case, which remains in impunity nearly 10 years after it happened.

Alma Guillermoprieto, Forty-Three Mexican Students Went Missing. What Really Happened to Them? (The New Yorker, March 4, 2024).

Mexico has 37,478 National Guardsmen assigned to policing tasks under the command of the federal government’s Public Security Secretariat (SSPC), wrote Lilian Chapa Koloffon at Nexos. That is a drop from the 43,724 civilian Federal Police that existed when the Andrés Manuel López Obrador government began in 2018. (López Obrador abolished the Federal Police and set up the National Guard, a militarized force that for now is nominally under civilian command.) Meanwhile, the number of military police in Mexico’s army grew from 14,822 to 69,461 from 2020 to 2024.

The Mexican military’s Cyberspace Operations Center carries out activities including the use of Israeli-made software to monitor citizens’ social media accounts, and “influence operations” to defend the armed forces’ public image, reported the Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales.

The newsmagazine Proceso recalled that Venezuelan civil-military relations expert and activist Rocío San Miguel, whom the Maduro regime imprisoned and has been holding almost totally incommunicado since early February, was a frequent critic of Mexican President López Obrador’s policies that increased his country’s armed forces’ power.

Nicaragua

As dictator Daniel Ortega ages and the power of his wife, Rosario Murillo, grows, Manuel Orozco wrote an analysis wondering whether the country’s generals will remain loyal to her, and if so which ones. It notes that the armed forces or retired officers control several entities, from civil aeronautics to tax collection to counternarcotics, that offer potential for enrichment.

A “Summarizer and Archiver” GPT

If you have a paid ChatGPT subscription, here’s a “GPT” I’ve made that gives you a bullet-pointed summary of an article or report, in Markdown format (plain text with simple formatting notation, which is easy to archive and share).

These are the instructions I’ve given it (which I think I’m done tweaking, but maybe not yet):

Summarizer and Archiver is designed to assist with summarizing lengthy articles and reports on topics such as security, defense, human rights, and migration in Latin America and the Caribbean. Summaries follow a structured format, beginning with the principal argument, including supporting findings, conclusions, and recommendations, and formatted as bullet points with boldfaced phrases. An approximate guideline is five bullet points for the supporting findings and conclusions section, though the number could be greater or fewer as warranted. Additionally, up to 10 consistent tags are suggested for archiving. The communication style is formal, ensuring consistency in language for ease of future search and archival. Responses are provided in blocks of Markdown code for ease of sharing.

I just ask the GPT to summarize an article or report, which is either an uploaded PDF attachment or copy-pasted text. (For added clarity, I put the pasted text between <article></article> tags.)

Here’s the result when I fed it a March 10 El País interview, in Spanish, with Chilean President Gabriel Boric:

- **Principal Argument**: Chilean President Gabriel Boric reflects on his tenure, emphasizing his commitment to addressing the country's pressing issues, such as improving pensions, stimulating economic growth, and tackling crime, despite facing challenges such as low approval ratings and the failure of constitutional reform attempts.

- **Supporting Findings and Conclusions**:
  - **Constitutional Reform Efforts**: Boric acknowledges the failure of two constitutional reform attempts but views them as learning opportunities rather than losses, underscoring the importance of updating the constitution eventually.
  - **Economic and Social Priorities**: He outlines his administration's focus on economic recovery, reducing poverty and inequality, improving public education, and addressing security as top priorities, with significant legislation passed to enhance security and police forces.
  - **Political Landscape**: Despite challenges, including high disapproval rates and the impact of political scandals, Boric remains optimistic about his government's progress and the tangible improvements in Chile's social and economic indicators since taking office.
  - **International Relations and Political Ideology**: Boric distances himself from authoritarian regimes and emphasizes the importance of a progressive government working in unity with the center-left to improve citizens' quality of life, contrasting his administration with right-wing movements in Latin America and globally.
  - **Future Outlook and Legacy**: He discusses his hopes for Chile's future, including the continuation of progressive policies and the development of a long-term coalition for progressive governance, while personally not aspiring for a second presidential term.

- **Recommendations**: Boric suggests that continued efforts to improve economic conditions, enhance security, and address social issues will be crucial in countering the rise of the far-right and maintaining democratic stability. He also emphasizes the need for political unity and the adaptation of progressive principles to meet current challenges.

- **Tags**: #Chile, #GabrielBoric, #Presidency, #ConstitutionalReform, #EconomicGrowth, #Security, #PoliticalChallenges, #ProgressiveGovernance, #InternationalRelations, #FutureOutlook

I now add long articles and reports to my personal archive with these summaries first. I’ve done this dozens of times in the past few weeks, and it’s working well. Hope you find it useful.

CBP Data Through February Added to “cbpdata.adamisacson.com”

At the end of the day Friday, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released data about migration and drug seizures at the U.S.-Mexico border through February. Within minutes, I added the migration data to my online tool that helps you search it, cbpdata.adamisacson.com. I’m glad this is so easy to do now.

Here’s what you get when you search for border authorities’ encounters with migrants during the first five months of the U.S. government’s 2024 fiscal year, listed by nationality. (This is everything: both migrants apprehended by Border Patrol between the ports of entry, and migrants—mostly “CBP One” appointments—who arrived at the ports of entry.) You can see an increase over January, but still well below late last year.

Visit the “cpbdata” tool to view migration data by country, by demographic category, by geographic area, and to see years going back to 2020. I’ll be updating our collection of infographics over the next several days.

Organized Crime-Tied Corruption in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

The drug-trafficking trial of former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández began on February 20 in New York. The prosecution’s witnesses, a series of Honduran drug traffickers, gang members. and corrupt politicians, have given extensive testimony about the former president’s relationships to the criminal underworld in Honduras and Mexico.

During his time in office (2013-2021), officials in the Obama and Trump administrations praised Hernández as a partner in counter-drug and counter-migration efforts. Meanwhile, Hernández was taking bribe money, often as campaign contributions, from traffickers. Some of the bribes were documented in a trafficker’s notebook ledgers. A witness alleged that the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, contributed $1 million.

Hernández is being tried alongside a former Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, another official whom U.S. officials had considered a partner despite lingering human rights abuse allegations. “The United States’ record of working with unsavory characters” may “offer foreign leaders and officials a false sense of security,” the Economist observed.

“The narco-state was consolidated in the midst of the polarization left by the [2009] coup d’état, and it happened over a history of violent polarization between traditional political parties, landowners, and opportunist politicians,” wrote Jennifer Ávila, director of the Honduran investigative outlet ContraCorriente. “A history of fratricidal confrontation that has only benefited the political elites who renew themselves in power over and over again.”

In the violent trafficking-hub city of Tocoa, along Honduras’s Caribbean coast near the conflictive Bajo Aguán region, longtime mayor Adán Fúnez stands accused of numerous drug trafficking crimes and human rights abuses, ContraCorriente reported. He remains solidly in power.

At journalist Ioan Grillo’s CrashOut, an essay from historian Benjamin T. Smith looked at Mexico’s three-stage transition, since the 1980s, from corrupt government “protection rackets” shaking down criminals, to today’s reality in which organized crime, having taken control of these “rackets,” now applies them to legitimate businesses and local governments.

The New York Times reported that the DEA had investigated possible contributions from narcotraffickers to the 2018 campaign of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and possible meetings with traffickers after López Obrador took office. This came on the heels of January allegations, revealed by ProPublica, that drug money may have gone into the President’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign.

Upon receiving word that the Times was working on the story, López Obrador retaliated by revealing the mobile phone number of the newspaper’s Mexico City bureau chief during his morning press conference. The White House stated that the U.S. government is not currently investigating López Obrador.

The U.S. Treasury Department alleged that politicians in San Marcos, Guatemala, near the Mexico border, have taken payments, via an organized crime structure called “Los Pochos,” from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel to allow them to store drugs in border areas.

As Colombia awaits its Supreme Court’s approval of a new nominee to be the country’s chief prosecutor, the acting prosecutor, Martha Mancera, is under a cloud of allegations that she helped shield a former head of the judicial police (CTI) in Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port, from drug trafficking and arms trafficking charges.

The Colombian media outlet Vorágine reported on evidence that a former mayor of Buenavista, Córdoba, Félix Gutiérrez, has done business with the Gulf Clan, the country’s largest organized crime network. Gutiérrez is married to Representative Ana Paola García, a member of “La U,” one of Colombia’s “traditional” (less-ideological, machine-based) political parties.

Wiretaps revealed that Eberson Páucar Sacha alias “Padrino,” a top cocaine trafficker in Peru’s conflictive VRAEM (Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valleys) region, maintains close relations with police and prosecutors. This allowed him to spring relatives and accomplices from jail.

More Asylum Appointments, Please

Figure 1: Number of CBP One Appointments per City (February 2024)

Tijuana CBP One: 385
Mexicali CBP One: 75
Nogales CBP One: 100
Ciudad Juárez CBP One: 200
Piedras Negras CBP One: 60
Nuevo Laredo CBP One: 55
Reynosa CBP One: 195
Matamoros CBP One: 380

The latest quarterly “Asylum Processing at the U.S.-Mexico Border” report is out, from Stephanie Leutert and Caitlyn Yates at the University of Texas Strauss Center. It is the resource to find out about U.S. asylum availability for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border’s ports of entry, the length of waitlists, shelters, and security threats.

As it has done since June, after TItle 42 ended, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) offers 1,450 daily appointments at the ports of entry for migrants who wish to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities. The process involves making an appointment using the CBP One smartphone app.

Three points, just from this map:

  1. 1,450 sounds like a lot of daily appointments. Still, it is less than a third—in some months, less than a quarter—of the number who give up on this app-driven process (or don’t even know about it), and instead cross the Rio Grande or seek a break in the border wall, then wait for Border Patrol to apprehend them. For those who resist doing that and stick with the app, wait times in northern Mexico now routinely run a few months.
  2. CBP grants 43 percent of these appointments in Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, the only border state that has a State Department Level 4 travel warning because of organized crime violence. Criminal groups in Tamaulipas specialize in kidnapping migrants, while corrupt Mexican agents and officials collude—and everyone, surely including CBP, knows it.
  3. Also, recall that Border Patrol’s Tucson, Arizona sector is the agency’s busiest right now, with hundreds of asylum seekers at a time turning themselves in to agents in the desert. You’d think Border Patrol agents would be the first ones pushing CBP to increase Nogales, Arizona CBP One appointments beyond a measly 100. Those 100—7 percent of the total—are the only ones available in the roughly 600 miles between Calexico, California and El Paso, Texas.

Deterring Asylum Seekers: an Increasingly Bipartisan Idea that Won’t Work

tl;dr: This piece doesn’t make a human rights argument about asylum access, though it does acknowledge cruelty and human cost. Instead, the argument here is cold, analytical, and practical: the past 10 years’ numbers and experience show that trying to deter protection-seeking migrants just doesn’t work. All it does is push their numbers down temporarily.


As President Biden and candidate Trump head to the Texas-Mexico border, immigration opponents are blaming the President’s border policies for the horrific, tragic February 22 murder of a nursing student in Georgia. But the case of the alleged killer, a 26-year-old Venezuelan man named José Ibarra, shows the futility of trying to put asylum out of reach at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Title 42 was a “nuclear option” for denying asylum—yet it didn’t deter people from coming

Since 1980, U.S. law has clearly stated that any non-citizens on U.S. soil have the right to apply for asylum, regardless of how they arrived, if they fear for their lives or freedom upon return to their country for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Once here, they are entitled to due process, and even Donald Trump’s administration had to honor that, hundreds of thousands of times (though they constantly sought to cut corners).

That is presumably what José Ibarra sought to do when he arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso in September 2022. But in fact, Ibarra came to the U.S.-Mexico border at a time when the U.S. government was going to extreme lengths to make asylum unavailable.

Between March 2020 and May 2023, the “Title 42” pandemic policy—begun by Donald Trump and continued by Joe Biden—used public health as a pretext for carrying out the toughest restriction on asylum seekers since 1980. Title 42 empowered U.S. border officials to expel—not even to properly process—all undocumented migrants they encountered.

If they said “I fear for my life if you expel me,” in most cases migrants still didn’t get hearings: they were expelled from the United States as quickly as possible. If they were Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran—and later Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, or Venezuelan—Mexico agreed to take many of them back across the land border.

In September 2022, when Ibarra turned himself in to Border Patrol, Title 42 was in full effect. But “expelled as quickly as possible” was often complicated.

In September 2022 alone, 33,804 Venezuelans—fleeing authoritarianism, corrupt misrule, violence, social collapse, and cratering living standards—arrived at the border.

Data table

That month was an especially busy time for Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector (one of the agency’s nine U.S.-Mexico border sectors, comprised of far west Texas and New Mexico). Agents there encountered 49,030 migrants over those 30 days, 20,169 of them from Venezuela, including José Ibarra.

(Let’s recall, too, that the vast majority of those people were seeking to step on U.S. soil and turn themselves in to Border Patrol. They weren’t trying to get away. The presence of a border wall near the riverbank is irrelevant: they just want to set foot on the riverbank.)

Of those 20,169 Venezuelan migrants in El Paso that month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used Title 42 to expel… 2.

Why so few? Because U.S. authorities had nowhere to “put” expelled citizens of Venezuela and many other countries. At the time, Mexico was accepting Title 42 expulsions of three non-Mexican nationalities, but not Venezuelans. (That came later, in October 2023, bringing a temporary drop in Venezuelan migration. But despite the threat of expulsion, by the last full month of Title 42—April 2023—the number of Venezuelan migrants had recovered to 34,633, at the time a record.)

In 2022—and again, now—Venezuela’s government, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States, was refusing deportations or expulsions by air. Those flights are very expensive anyway for a country thousands of miles away.

At that pandemic moment, but still today, the sheer number of arrivals at the border—often more than 200,000 per month, at a moment of more worldwide migration than at any time since World War II—often makes detaining asylum seekers impossible, for lack of space and budget. So then, and still now, U.S. authorities release many into the U.S. interior with a date to appear before ICE or immigration courts in their destination cities. (The vast majority show up for those appointments.)

This was the reality even during the draconian Title 42 period, when U.S. authorities did expel people—many of them asylum seekers—2,912,294 times. But even as Mexico took back land-border expulsions of many Mexican and Central American people with urgent protection needs, U.S. officials, unable to expel, released José Ibarra and many others into the United States.

Why cracking down on asylum doesn’t work

Let’s repeat: this is what was happening when it was U.S. government policy to expel as many asylum seekers as it could, as quickly as it could. Washington tried a massive crackdown on asylum, and it failed to deter people. This is what happened to Border Patrol’s migrant encounters during the Title 42 period:

Data table

Right now, though, curbing the ability to ask for asylum at the border is in vogue again. Language in a “border deal” negotiated by Senate Republicans and Democrats—defeated in early February because Republicans didn’t think it went far enough—would have switched on a Title 42-like expulsion authority whenever daily migrant encounters averaged more than 4,000 or 5,000 per day.

Read More

Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Links from the Past Month

Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group completed a sixth round of peace talks in Cuba on February 6. They agreed to renew a six-month-old ceasefire for another six months, through August 4.

The ceasefire is to include a halt in guerrilla kidnappings. As of February 7, according to lead government negotiator Vera Grabe, the ELN had released 23 of 26 people it had been holding. On February 18 the group released a dentist whom it had kidnapped in Magdalena.

Negotiators also agreed to create an international multi-color fund to support peace activities. The next round of talks is to take place in Venezuela.

Despite the ceasefire, ELN units in the southern region of the northwestern department of Chocó declared an “armed strike,” prohibiting people from transiting on roads and rivers for about a week in mid-February. It was the ELN’s third armed strike in this area in seven months. The ELN and the Gulf Clan have been fighting in southern Chocó for years, and the humanitarian crisis—especially forced displacements and confinements—is worsening for communities along the San Juan and Baudó rivers, which are busy smuggling corridors.

The ceasefire, which is limited to stopping fighting between the ELN and the government, is “incomplete” and does not specifically prohibit confinements of populations, said negotiating team member Sen. Iván Cepeda.

ELN negotiators announced on February 20 that they are putting the dialogues on hold. They were reportedly unhappy with the government’s approval of separate dialogues between a single ELN structure and the government of the southwestern department of Nariño (which shares a party affiliation with President Gustavo Petro). The ELN is contesting territory in Nariño with the Central General Staff (EMC) ex-FARC dissident network.

The ELN’s Comuneros del Sur front appears to be more disposed to a faster-paced dialogue; conversations began informally in September 2023. While the Petro government supports the idea of “regional dialogues,” ELN’s national leadership prefers that it negotiate with the group as a whole.

The government has a strong incentive to seek talks with individual ELN units, as the guerrilla group has a loose central command structure with very autonomous units. “The Eastern and Western War fronts, due to their operability and lethality, represent more or less 70 percent of the ELN and these structures are not at the table,” Carlos Velandia, a former ELN leader who is now a frequently cited analyst, told El Tiempo.

The EMC staged a 27-day “armed strike” in parts of southern Caquetá department.

Following recent ELN and EMC armed actions against civilians in Antioquia, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, Valle del Cauca, and elsewhere, High Commissioner for Peace Otty Patiño warned that “The ceasefire is not a permit to commit crimes.” Analysts viewed this as a hardening of the Petro government’s tone toward armed groups participating in negotiations, and a break with the approach of former High Commissioner Danilo Rueda.

Peace talks officially launched between the government and the Segunda Marquetalia ex-FARC dissident network. Nominally headed by Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator for the 2016 peace accord who rearmed in 2019, the Segunda Marquetalia is mainly active in Putumayo and Nariño departments in southwest Colombia.

This is the only negotiation with a group led by people who had already agreed to an earlier peace accord. Along with the ELN and EMC, the Petro government is now in active peace talks with three national groups.

Representatives of the 15 UN Security Council member states visited Colombia on February 7-11. The Council is considering expanding the scope of the UN Verification Mission’s mandate to include the Petro government’s new peace negotiations with additional armed groups; the U.S. government has been reluctant to approve a quick mandate expansion. In a press conference with Council members, President Petro acknowledged that aspects of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation, like land distribution, are running behind.

During their visit, UN diplomats traveled to Buenaventura and Cartagena, and to the former FARC demobilization and reincorporation site in La Montañita, Caquetá, which is now a fair-sized rural town.

Twenty-four of these reincorporation sites, in thirteen departments, continue to exist. As of October 31, the government recognized 11,269 people as ex-FARC, down from 13,394 in 2020, according to El Espectador.

Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office noted that the Petro government has increased budgets and resources for implementing the 2016 peace accord, especially its provisions on land and rural reform. In a new monitoring report, though, the Office voiced strong concern about how these resources are being allocated, and about armed groups’ continuing power to undermine people’s access to land, especially when landholders are women.

Of the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDET), a big peace accord commitment to bring state services to long-abandoned areas, less than 50 percent have even been launched, 7 years after accord implementation began.

Former FARC leaders sent an angry letter to President Petro complaining that the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal currently trying their war crimes cases is “moving away from the spirit and letter of the peace accord.” They are upset that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), in their view, is resolving cases separately instead of all together, moving slow on amnesties for political crimes, and focusing too much on mid-level ex-commanders. The JEP appeared to resolve the amnesty issue on February 21.

68 bills before Colombia’s Congress whose passage is necessary to comply with 2016 peace accord commitments are in danger of failing because they must be approved in the legislative session that ends on June 20, according to the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP).

A FIP report found that Colombia’s armed groups increased their strength and reach in 2023, even as some negotiated with the government and some humanitarian indicators improved. “Disputes between the groups for territorial control increased 54% in 2023. Total armed actions by the groups also increased 11%. Disputed zones between groups increased from five to nine,” said FIP Director María Victoria Llorente.

FIP cited data from Colombia’s security forces pointing to an increase in the combined membership of the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, and the Gulf Clan in 2023: from about 15,000 to about 16,700.

Arms Transfers in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Ecuador has been in a diplomatic dispute with Russia over a reported deal to send used Russian-made military equipment to the United States, in exchange for a U.S. government transfer of U.S. equipment worth $200 million. U.S. State Department official Kevin Sullivan told an Ecuadorian television interviewer that the used Russian equipment was to be transferred to Ukraine. The government of President Daniel Noboa may be backing down from the deal after Russia suspended five Ecuadorian banana exporting companies.

Beyond the possible Russian equipment exchange, U.S. aid to Ecuador announced in the past month includes:

  • construction of a new Ecuadorian Coast Guard Academy,
  • renovation of a canine veterinary clinic,
  • a renovated office for the corruption prosecution unit,
  • eight mobile border units to support an elite border task force
  • a joint National Police-Coast Guard operational unit in Guayaquil
  • digital forensics support to identify, map, and target criminal networks
  • a team to train 175 Ecuador migration officers on the use of biometrics collection
  • training of 35 members from the Ecuadorian Presidential and Vice-Presidential protective details
  • an increase in FBI advisors in-country
  • a C-130H military plane to be delivered by the end of March
  • more than 20,000 bullet proof vests
  • more than $1 million worth of critical security and emergency response equipment
  • $13 million in equipment to protect the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense computer networks
  • $2.4 million in additional vehicles and security equipment for Ecuador’s police
  • 6 Navistar Defense 7000-MV trucks

Peru is completing an approximately US$50 million overhaul of eight Russian-built helicopters used by its army and air force and first acquired in the 1990s.

Peru‘s $27 million purchase of 10,000 Israeli Arad 7 rifles has come under scrutiny from the government’s comptroller because “a guarantee of only two years has been given, when the technical requirements demand 12 years,” La República reported.

In the waning days of Alejandro Giammattei’s administration in Guatemala, on December 12, 2023, the country’s air force received a Bell 429 GlobalRanger helicopter purchased from the U.S. government. Guatemala and the United States are discussing the purchase of two Bell 407 helicopters.

The U.S. government is donating 14 Osprea Mamba MK7 vehicles to Uruguay, which is also purchasing some additional vehicles. The announcement follows a visit to the country from U.S. Southern Command Commander Gen. Laura Richardson.

U.S. officials said that transfers to Guyana, which faces a territorial claim from Venezuela, will include aircraft, helicopters, a fleet of drones, and radar technology.

CBP Reports that January Border Migration Dropped Sharply

Late this afternoon—right around the time House Republicans were impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas—CBP released data showing that Border Patrol’s apprehensions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border dropped by 50 percent from December to January.

I’ve got monthly Border Patrol data going back to October 1999, and 50 percent is the steepest one-month drop of all of those 24+ years. Steeper than the first full month of the pandemic (April 2020). Steeper than the first full month after Title 42 ended (June 2023).

It’s peculiar that migration dropped so much over two months during which no policy changes were announced. I’ll repeat the most probable reasons, as laid out in WOLA’s January 26 Border Update.

  • According to a few accounts, numerous people sought to cross the U.S. border before the end of 2023 because they were misled by rumors indicating that the border would “close,” or that the CBP One app would no longer work, by year’s end.
  • Seasonal patterns are a factor: migrant apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border have fallen from December to January every year since 2014 (except for a 6 percent increase in January 2021). Rainy conditions in the Darién Gap corridor straddling Colombia and Panama, and a tendency not to migrate during Christmas, may also explain some of the reduction.
  • U.S. officials are crediting Mexico with reducing migrant arrivals by stepping up patrols, checkpoints, transfers, and deportations.

Also, while there were no policy changes, there was one under heavy discussion: the Senate “border deal” that died a quick death on February 7. The spread of vague, confusing news about impending asylum restrictions could have cooled migration more than usual last month.

Anyway, here are two charts.

Here is all migration at the border, combining people apprehended by Border Patrol and people who, mainly with appointments, showed up at land ports of entry. This is what it looks like when the heaviest month for migration on record at the U.S.-Mexico border is followed by the third-lightest month of the Biden administration’s 36 months.

Data table since FY2020

And here is just Border Patrol’s apprehensions of migrants between ports of entry. Look at Venezuela: apprehensions of Venezuelan citizens fell by 91 percent from December to January. This does seem to point to everyone feeling like they needed to cross to the United States before 2023 ended, leaving few on the Mexican side after the new year.

Data table

Rocío San Miguel, now a political prisoner, discusses politicization of Venezuela’s military in 2010

I don’t get to work on Venezuela very often, but I did get to record a conversation in 2010 with activist and civil-military relations expert Rocío San Miguel. Here’s an excerpt where we discussed the military’s politicization.

Rocío was arrested last Friday in Caracas. Authorities are accusing her of terrorism and treason, which is as horrifying as it is absurd.

Civil-Military Relations in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

As part of Ecuador’s crackdown on organized crime, the armed forces have intervened in 17 prisons, with troops still present in 10 of them.

Troops are also stationed along highways, at airports, and at 10 Pacific seaports.

In coming months, Ecuadorians will vote on this referendum question: “Do you agree with allowing the complementary support of the Armed Forces in the functions of the National Police to combat organized crime, partially reforming the Constitution?”

After his tumultuous January 14 swearing-in, Guatemala’s reformist president, Bernardo Arévalo, swore in a new high command and paid respectful visits to the country’s Army and Navy. Arévalo, who as an academic had published at least seven books about security and Guatemala’s army, said that the Army will continue in its role of supporting civilian security forces against organized crime.

The Arévalo government promoted four female army officers to command positions in non-combat units.

In Argentina, new president Javier Milei followed the December firing of 22 Army generals with the forced retirement of 16 Navy admirals—more than half of all officers of that rank.

Milei’s budget cuts include nonpayment of installments of a previously promised raise for military officers. Under current pay scales, Pagina12 reported, an army general earns about US$350 per month less than a police commissioner.

Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said that the Milei government is working on a plan to deepen the armed forces’ support for police in border security and fighting organized crime. Since its transition to democracy, Argentina has been reluctant to give the military new internal civilian security roles.

Mexico’s Supreme Court had ruled last year that, contrary to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s wishes, the country’s new National Guard must not remain under the command of its defense ministry (SEDENA). López Obrador called two of the justices “traitors.”

As of January 1, the Guard was to come under the security ministry (SSPC). A January 6, 2024 document circulated to guardsmen challenged the Court, stating that while the National Guard is under the SSPC’s “operational” command, it remains under SEDENA’s “administrative” command.

On February 5 President López Obrador submitted a series of proposed legal reforms, among them a constitutional amendment that would place the National Guard under SEDENA’s control.

A military court has now released from pre-trial detention 13 of 16 Mexican Army soldiers who allegedly carried out an extrajudicial execution of five civilians in May 2023 in Nuevo Laredo. The incident was caught on video.

Eight of thirteen Mexican military personnel allegedly linked to the 2014 forced disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero will be released, as a federal judge lifted their pre-trial detention.

A hard-hitting report from the Guerrero-based NGO Tlachinollan documents how President López Obrador has sought to exonerate the military of the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa teacher’s college students, adopting and promoting the armed forces’ version of events.

Armed with sticks, stones, and machetes, residents of rural Chicomuselo, Chiapas, blocked Mexico’s military from entering their communities, demanding that the armed forces first evict organized crime from nearby areas that they already occupy. Communities in the region have been forcibly displacing to escape violent competition between Jalisco and Sinaloa cartel fighters.

In late January, the Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano called on the government to modify a 9-year-old decree authorizing the military to use deadly force to control demonstrations. The organization also called for due process after the late-January demotion and expulsion of 33 military personnel on allegations of “conspiracy.”

On February 9, authorities detained the organization’s director, Rocío San Miguel, in the Caracas airport. As of this writing, her whereabouts are unknown.

A judge in Colombia ruled that retired Army Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita is guilty of ordering the murder of a demobilized FARC guerrilla, Dímar Pérez, in the Catatumbo region, in a high-profile 2019 case.

Colombia’s Marines swore in their first 60 female members following three months of training.

The former commander of Chile’s armed forces, Gen. Ricardo Martínez, voiced gratitude to ex-president Sebastián Piñera for having listened to his advice and abstained from sending the military into the streets to confront protesters in 2019. “I will always be grateful to him for not having taken the Armed Forces out of it, because we were not in favor of it.” Piñera died in a helicopter crash on February 6.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, federal Border Patrol agents have had their access to part of the border blocked by National Guardsmen—trained soldiers whose patches say “U.S. Army” on them, but currently at the command of Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Some are calling on President Joe Biden to “federalize” the Texas National Guard, taking them out of Abbott’s command. In an analysis, Joseph Nunn of the Brennan Center for Justice acknowledged that doing so “would certainly pass legal muster” but should be an absolute last resort.

Darién Gap Migration Through January

At some point last month, the 500,000th Venezuelan migrant of the 2020s crossed the Darién Gap. 61 percent of everyone who has migrated through this region in this decade has been a citizen of Venezuela.

Data table

The latest data from Panama show that 36,001 people migrated through the treacherous Darién Gap region in January. That’s an increase from December, reversing four months of declines. But it is still the fourth-smallest monthly total of the last twelve months.

At some point last month, the 500,000th Venezuelan migrant of the 2020s crossed the Darién Gap. 61 percent of everyone who has migrated through this region in this decade has been a citizen of Venezuela.

Actually, to be precise: the 500,000th Venezuelan migrant since 2022 crossed the Darién Gap last month. Out of 503,805 Venezuelan migrants between January 2000 and January 2024, 500,917 came in the last 25 months. There were about 30 million people living in Venezuela: so 1 out of every 60 has walked this nightmare jungle route. In 25 months.

The 30,000th Chinese citizen of the 2020s crossed the Darién last month. A year ago (after January 2023), the decade’s total migration from China was just 2,998 people.

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