I’ve got an interview and a long internal planning meeting this morning, a coalition meeting and a meeting with a border colleague this afternoon, and want to finish a weekly border update and a quick essay for a partner organization before I get out of this chair. I’m getting a late start because I was tired from some late-night writing earlier in the week. That’s all to say, I’ll be hard to reach today.
Social media influencers with large followings such as Cuban American YouTube celebrity Alexander Otaola argued there is a tendency among far-left liberals to “criminalize” Trumpism and warned “the opposition” that Democrats now have “absolute power”
He and his most loyal followers really do see themselves as visionary soldiers in a global battle against socialism and other ills, and if Brasília is to become the hemisphere’s sole remaining outpost, so much the better
Military commanders advocating for integral action have clashed with civilian policymakers, who tended to favor combat solutions to the nation’s insecurity, even as the number of combatants has declined
Cubans are ready to move on, a sentiment underlined by their president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who tweeted on Tuesday that the American decision had been made in “the death throes of a failed and corrupt administration”
Its policies punish people seeking protection, separate children from their parents, and turn the system created by Congress to protect refugees from persecution into one that delivers them back to danger
Según el presidente venezolano, los intentos por retirarlo del poder y las sanciones financieras estadounidenses fueron fundamentales para el colapso de la economía nacional, la cual se prevé pase seis años de recesión
I’m in morning planning meetings and have a mid-day interview. I hope to spend the afternoon adding a bunch of information to my database for future projects and publications, and planning a new resource about the border.
Desde o início, a trajetória política de Jair Bolsonaro foi marcada pela proximidade com policiais e militares de baixa patente. Isso, no entanto, não lhe dá o direito de usar o cargo de presidente da República para fazer agremiação política com soldados e policiais.
Rather than inviting Bolsonaro to a Twitter slugfest like Macron did in 2019 – a sphere where Brazil’s president feels at ease – the U.S. government will be far more effective if it resorts to traditional off-line diplomacy
“Mediante esta modificación al Decreto 265 las FF.AA. prestarán apoyo logístico, tecnológico y de transporte a nuestras fuerzas de orden y seguridad en el control de nuestras fronteras”, concluyó Piñera
El consejero para la Estabilización entrega un balance y responde por las críticas sobre lo alcanzado hasta ahora en temas clave del Acuerdo de Paz: los PDET, la reforma rural integral, la sustitución de cultivos y la reincorporación
La Fiscalía General de la Nación investiga, de manera diferenciada, los casos de “homicidios múltiples” ocurridos según la cantidad de víctimas: hasta tres y mínimo cuatro, los cuales corresponden a 107 y a 40
Hernández has long been portrayed by US officials as a key ally. As vice president, Biden even met with Hernández in 2015 to review joint efforts to “tackle corruption and target transnational criminal networks”
La lógica de esta expansión no responde ya primordialmente a la decisión de combatir el crimen o garantizar la seguridad, sino al deseo de suplir funciones del gobierno mismo, en cierto sentido, a suplir al gobierno civil, cada día más un gobierno civil/militar
In a call with reporters last week, Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said federal contractors are averaging between 1.5 and two miles of new barriers per day, with the scheduled completion of about 475 miles by the time President-elect Joe Biden takes office
The president-elect and his aides have cautioned that the policy reversals will take time amid the pandemic. He has also yet to say whether he will rescind the asylum limits unveiled towards the end of Mr. Trump’s tenure
I have a meeting this morning with a foreign diplomat this morning, and in the afternoon with congressional staff and a reporter, plus I’d like to sit in on the Forum on the Arms Trade’s annual conference. In the middle of the day I’ll be doing some writing about Colombia, and I should finish digging through all of the legislation that passed at the end of the year.
(I’ll deal with Donald Trump’s visit to the border if we have to—we’ve re-shared an analysis from late October that says everything we wanted to, and I’d rather not give that evil man the attention he craves.)
The figures represent a significant increase when compared with the reported USD3.2 billion of exports in 2018
Yohir Akerman, “De Armas Tomar” (El Espectador (Colombia), January 11, 2021).
El 27 de noviembre de 2017 la Fiscalía 106 especializada contra Violaciones a los Derechos Humanos imputó a David Bastidas por su presunto rol en 32 homicidios, 14 desapariciones forzadas y 10 casos de tortura
In addition to the debilitation of the investigative capacity of the Public Prosecution Service, Congress nominated new prosecutor generals that represented the interests of congressmen instead of those of the judicial system
“Cuando se le pregunta a la gente sobre la confianza en las instituciones, están casi parejas en aceptación con más de 80 por ciento de aprobación la Secretaría de Defensa y la Secretaría de Marina, pero ya le sigue la Guardia Nacional”
The bloodshed began on Friday afternoon with an operation by two police units – the Special Action Forces, known as FAES, and the Special Tactical Operations Units, known as UOTE – in the gang-ridden neighborhood of La Vega
I’m probably reachable, but in writing mode, during the afternoon. (How to contact me)
It’s annual strategic planning time at WOLA. We’ve got all-hands staff meetings today, Wednesday, and Thursday. And this afternoon, when not in this morning’s meeting, I need to finish the second of two planning documents.
It’s not that bad—you have to have a plan on paper for the next 12 months, and some of that was hard to do until we knew who would be in the White House and running the Senate. The way things are going, I need to be forced to carve out time to think deliberately about strategy. But of course, as with everything, I’m running late on this, so I may be hard to reach even when not in meetings today.
Here’s a 600-word introduction I wrote to open my most recent e-mail newsletter. That edition also includes a collection of things I posted here over the past week—Colombia and Border updates, selected links—plus a collection of tweets that made me laugh.
The last thing you want to read is another take on the horror that took place 1.5 miles from my house last Wednesday. I’ll make mine quick, and it may surprise you. I’m feeling optimistic.
All around the world, illiberal elected leaders—”authoritarian populists”—are dismantling democratic institutions and persuading millions to live in their alternate truth-free realities. Look around, and it’s hard to find an example of one of these leaders being defeated at the ballot box before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. (Ecuador? The Gambia? Sort of.) As checks and balances crumble and lies proliferate, nobody seems to know what to do. Neither street protests nor recall votes nor comprehensive fact-checking dislodge or even affect the popularity of the world’s Orbans, Dutertes, Modis, Maduros, Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros.
In the United States, though, we’re doing it. It’s working. Our authoritarian populist is out in nine days, maybe less. Congress reconvened amid smashed glass and after 3:00AM, despite Republican dead-enders’ cynical efforts, it confirmed the truth that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won.
Getting rid of an authoritarian populist is really freaking hard. Here in America, we’re not doing it at all gracefully. It’s so ugly. Wednesday was as ugly as we’ve seen in our national politics in generations. But we’re doing it. It’s working.
Right now, the U.S. brand as “example of democracy for the world” is garbage. But if we can come back from this—if our battered institutions can peacefully break the authoritarians’ back and re-cage our historic demon, racism—then the United States will be an even stronger example than before. It will hold up a light for countries unable to break the spell of 21st century post-truth authoritarian populism.
We’re not out of the woods. The 2022 miderms and the 2024 presidential elections could go badly. There’s just a narrow window open for the majority of Americans who at least somewhat value truth and reason. By forcing everyone to stare consequences in the face, last Wednesday opened that window further. The outcome in Georgia on Tuesday—more reason for optimism!—opens it still further. But there’s a lot of work ahead in the next two to four years.
And as Wednesday made plain, a lot of that work involves our security forces.
Our legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. Wednesday’s insurrection shows how important that norm is. There must be accountability for violating it.
The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Some Capitol Police were amazingly brave, and at least one paid the ultimate price. But others appeared to be sympathetic with the rioters. Their small numbers and lack of backup sent a strong message too. The force’s management—and especially the Trump appointees at DHS and DOD who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent. This is utterly inviable. It must never happen again.
Nearly everywhere in the world, security forces tend to be made up of conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader is a common challenge. If the United States is going to be a “democratic example” again, we need to show we’re up to that challenge. That means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies right away, starting with the highest levels of their chain of command.
At Nexos, scholar Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo offers a devastating assessment of civil-military relations in Mexico, as the López Obrador government further increases the armed forces’ role in Mexicans’ daily lives. “We had a parenthesis of civilian rule that lasted about 50 or 60 years. That parenthesis has closed.”
At Mexico’s SinEmbargo, veteran crime journalist Ricardo Ravelo offers a sweeping who’s-who of the country’s current constellation of cartels and regional organized crime structures. Pair this with Ravelo’s January 1 look at the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which may be eclipsing Sinaloa as Mexico’s largest and deadliest.
The UN Verification Mission in Colombia released its latest report on the peace process. With a lot of new statistics, it puts front-and-center concerns about rampant killings of social leaders and ex-combatants.
OpenDemocracyprovides a grim point-by-point evaluation of Colombia’s compliance—or lack thereof—with each chapter of the 2016 peace accord.
DHS’s Office of Immigration Statistics is an island of seriousness at the troubled agency. Its latest Enforcement Lifecycle Report has a wealth of information, including detailed appendix tables, illustrating what happens to undocumented migrants after DHS apprehends them, including those who make claims of fear.
This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.
U.S. Congress passes 2021 foreign aid bill
On December 27 Donald Trump signed into law the U.S. government’s budget for 2021, including the foreign aid appropriation (see “Division K” here). As in nearly all of the past 30 years, that bill makes Colombia by far the number-one recipient of U.S. assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The law appropriates $461,375,000 in State Department and USAID-managed aid for Colombia this year, about $30-40 million more than the past few years’ laws and about $50 million more than the Trump White House had requested in February.
The proportions between programs and priorities are similar to prior years. Our best estimate (derived here) is that 47% of the $461 million will go to economic and civilian institution-building aid programs; 18% will go to strictly military and police aid programs; and 34% will go to programs, mainly counter-drug programs, that can pay for either type of aid but for which we don’t have a breakdown.
In addition to the $461 million in the foreign aid bill, a significant but unknown amount of military and police aid will come from the Defense Department’s $700 billion-plus budget. In 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service, Defense accounts contributed another $55.39 million or more to benefit Colombia’s security forces.
As in previous years, the law includes human rights conditions holding up about $7.7 million in military aid until the State Department can certify to Congress that Colombia is holding gross human rights violators accountable, preventing attacks on human rights defenders and other civil society leaders, protecting Afro-descendant and indigenous communities, and holding accountable senior military officers responsible for “false positive” killings.
After some very concerning military intelligence scandals in 2020, the law includes a new condition on the $7.7 million: the State Department must also certify that Colombia is holding accountable those responsible for “illegal surveillance of political opponents, government officials, journalists, and human rights defenders, including through the use of assets provided by the United States.”
Killings of former FARC combatants accelerate
The UN Verification Mission’s latest quarterly report, dated December 29, voices strong concerns about “248 killings of former combatants (six women), including 21 during the reporting period (two women, three of indigenous origin and two Afro-Colombians) and a total of 73 during 2020.”
The problem is worsening. Five demobilized FARC combatants were murdered over a 12-day post-Christmas period.
Rosa Amalia Mendoza Trujillo and her infant daughter were among several victims of a December 27 massacre in Montecristo, Bolívar.
Manuel Alonso, killed on December 27 on the road between Florida, Valle del Cauca, and Miranda, Cauca.
Yolanda Zabala Mazo, killed on January 1, together with her sister, on January 1 in Briceño, Antioquia.
Duván Armed Galíndez, shot on January 2 in Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá.
Diego Yule Rivera, who had been displaced from Caloto, Cauca after receiving threats, was shot in Cali on January 7.
This, according to the FARC political party, brings the number of assassinated ex-combatants to 252 since the peace accord went into effect.
The chief prosecutor’s office’s (Fiscalía’s) Special Investigative Unit has managed 289 cases of killings and other attacks on ex-combatants, the UN report informs. Of these, the Unit has achieved convictions of responsible parties in 34 cases, while 20 cases are on trial, 38 are under investigation, and an additional 49 have arrest warrants issued.
The report notes that conditions are most perilous for ex-combatants in the zone surrounding the triple border between Meta, Caquetá, and Guaviare departments in south-central Colombia. This area, once the rearguard of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, is now under the strong influence of the largest FARC dissident organization, the 1st and 7th Front structure under alias “Gentil Duarte.”
Coca eradication hits record level as a restart of fumigation nears
In an end-of-year security declaration, President Duque announced that Colombia, with U.S. backing, had met its 2020 goal of eradicating 130,000 hectares of coca. This is a manual eradication record, the first time Colombia has exceeded 100,000 hectares and an area “roughly the same size as the city of Los Angeles” according to AFP. The 130,000-hectare goal will remain in place, Duque added, for 2021.
(Any discussion of eradication statistics must mention mid-2020 allegations from former officials and contractors, who contend that eradication teams may have inflated their results by as much as 30 percent.)
Duque added that Colombian forces had seized 498 tons of cocaine in 2020, which would shatter the 2017 record of 434.7 tons.
We probably won’t find out how much coca was planted in Colombia in 2020 until the U.S. government and UN Office on Drugs and Crime release their estimates in mid-2021. In the meantime, the Colombian government continues to move closer to relaunching a program, suspended in 2015 for health concerns, that would eradicate coca by spraying the herbicide glyphosate from aircraft.
On December 19 and 20 Colombia’s environmental authority (ANLA) held a virtual public hearing on one of the main requirements that must be fulfilled to relaunch fumigation: the National Police’s application to modify its environmental management plan to allow aerial glyphosate spraying. This hearing was delayed for months, as communities in remote areas with poor internet service objected to holding a “virtual” consultation due to pandemic restrictions.
At the hearing, National Police Gen. Julio Cesar González presented a summary of the force’s proposed modifications to the environmental management plan (available here as a large trove of Google documents). “We’re going to go to areas that are already deteriorated, so we don’t expect to affect them further. This is based on technology, and aerial spraying will focus on large plots.” The General insisted that the spray program’s technology has advanced over what it was before, allowing greater accuracy over the area to be sprayed and the amount of herbicide to be applied. More than 60% of the spray mixture will be conditioned water, glyphosate will be 33% (less than some commercially available mixtures), and the rest will be a mineral coadjuvant.
Diego Trujillo, the delegate for agricultural and environmental issues at Colombia’s inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría), voiced concerns about the proposed renewal of spraying. He argued that it runs counter to the peace accord’s commitments, and relies on purchases of Chinese-produced glyphosate that, according to El Espectador’ssummary, “led in 2015 to an investigation into corruption in the this herbicide’s acquisition, which was was not recommended by health and environmental authorities.”
Mauricio Albarracín of the legal NGO DeJusticia objected to the process, citing a lack of prior and informed participation of possibly affected communities who were being asked to consider an environmental management plan “that consists of more than 3,000 pages, contains language that is not accessible to the possibly affected population, and suffers a lack of transparency in information.” Albarracín added that information about harms and risks is “insufficient, poorly structured and biased,” and that the spraying plan fails to meet the obligation to implement the 2016 peace accord in good faith. (The accord sets aside aerial spraying as a last resort, when coca growers who have been offered help with alternatives persist in growing the crop, and when conditions on the ground are too dangerous for manual eradication.)
María Alejandra Vélez, director of the University of the Andes’ CESED (Center for Studies on Security and Drugs), argued that fumigation is not cost-effective and could carry unacceptable health and environmental risks. Vélez, an economist, found fault with the police proposal’s methods and quality of information.
Following the hearing, the daily El Espectador published a tough editorial titled “insisting on the useless.”
Presidency officials are investing their time complying with the requirements imposed by the Constitutional Court to resume an ineffective and insufficient activity that destroys ties with communities in the most affected areas. One would think that after decades of failure, the political consensus in Colombia would show signs of reflective capacity. But this is not the case. The useless is presented as the magical solution.
Colombia’s Defense Ministry announced that the country’s homicide rate fell 4.6% in 2020 to a rate of 23.79 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest level since 1974. However, the country suffered a jump in massacres—killings of three or more people at a time—with 89, claiming 345 victims.
President Iván Duque said that his government has no intention of providing COVID-19 vaccines to undocumented Venezuelan migrants in Colombia. “Of course they won’t get it,” he toldBlu Radio. “Imagine what we would live through. We would have calls to stampede the border as everyone crosses asking for a vaccine.”
La Silla Vacíawades through the Fiscalía’s record on bringing social leaders’ killers to justice, and finds 30 percent of cases have reached the indictment stage but only 7 percent have concluded with a conviction. Meanwhile, WOLA published a second alert, just before Christmas, about threats to social leaders, a week after warning of a large number of urgent situations. And on January 1 Gerardo León, a community leader in Puerto Gaitán, Meta, became the first murdered Colombian social leader of 2021.
Colombia expelled two Russian diplomats, accusing them of espionage. The Putin government followed suit, expelling two diplomats from Colombia’s Moscow embassy.
As of December 22, Joe Biden still hadn’t given a call to Iván Duque to acknowledge his post-election congratulations. If a call has taken place since, the Colombian government hasn’t announced it. Governing-party officials’ meddling in the U.S. campaign is the most likely explanation for the presidential ghosting.
Colombia has a new National Police chief. Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, an officer with an intelligence background and the son-in-law of 1990s chief Gen. Rosso José Serrano, replaces Gen. Óscar Atehortúa, whose tenure was marked by protests against brutality and allegations of corruption. An El Espectadoreditorial urges the new chief to carry out badly needed reforms to the force.
Hernán Giraldo, a former top paramilitary leader from northern Colombia whose name is synonymous with systematic rape of young girls, is being extradited back to Colombia nearly 13 years after being sent to the United States to serve a sentence for another crime, drug trafficking.
Retired military officers are becoming more politically active. La Silla Vacíareports on a late October meeting at which former soldiers and police agreed to form a political party to run candidates in 2022 national elections, in order to counter what they see as “a radical left.” Meanwhile retired Gen. Jaime Ruiz, president of Colombia’s hardline association of former officers (ACORE), shared with El Nuevo Siglo his view that, largely because of the FARC peace accord, “2020 was not a good year for the security forces.”
December 31 was the deadline the government set for the FARC to hand over all illegally obtained assets, as mandated by the peace accord. The ex-guerrillas appear to have fallen short on turning over land and property, but claim that they face security and legal obstacles to doing so. El Espectadorexplains the “ABC” of the controversy.
As more military forces, more weapons, and more ammunition arrived, more money was destined for the construction of bases and war bunkers in the midst of our houses. And that was when the shootings started to return
En una entrevista con la cadena de noticias CNN, Michelle A. Mannat, estratega lo confirmó: “Habrá investigación en Cámara y Senado contra quienes intervinieron. Sin duda es un tema que va a tener un énfasis en los primeros días de gobierno de Biden”
El INM, que apenas el pasado 4 de enero reanudo el servicio, se encuentra rebasado en su capacidad, lo que sumado a la suspensión temporal que hubo provocada por la pandemia, ha hecho que la población migrante deba esperar más de seis meses
El presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador sugirió eliminar el principal órgano de transparencia del país, que es autónomo, y que se hagan cargo de esa tarea del INAI incluso funcionarios de la Función Pública
De acuerdo con informes de la DEA y de la Fiscalía General de la República (FGR), más de la mitad del territorio nacional está controlado por 14 cárteles, en su mayoría violentos, que están relacionados con altos mandos de las policías estatales y municipales
“How can you censor someone: ‘Let’s see, I, as the judge of the Holy Inquisition, will punish you because I think what you’re saying is harmful,’” López Obrador said in an extensive, unprompted discourse
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S. Mexico border. This edition is a “double issue,” longer than usual. Following a holiday break, it covers events of the past three weeks.
On December 27 President Trump signed into law an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal budget in 2021. It includes the Homeland Security Department’s appropriation, which was one of the most contentious areas of difference between the Democratic-majority House and the Republican-majority Senate.
The Senate had included $2 billion for further construction of Donald Trump’s border wall. The House’s version of the bill not only offered zero dollars for the wall, it sought to rescind wall-construction money from past bills. When leaders of both houses met to reconcile differences, the Senate got more of what it wanted so that President Trump might sign the bill: $1.375 billion for “the construction of barrier system along the southwest border.”
“We pushed back hard against this funding, and it was one of the last things resolved in our bill,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California), the chair of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, toldBorder Report. “The White House made clear to leadership, however, that if the omnibus did not include this funding level and reference the ‘construction of border barrier system’ purpose from the FY20 bill, there would be no omnibus. That could have led to a government shutdown right before Christmas and could also have put in jeopardy the coronavirus pandemic funding.”
The question now is whether President-Elect Joe Biden is bound to spend the money on border wall construction, against his stated will. House Democrats say “no”: that the bill language provides wiggle room. “There is no definition of ‘barrier systems’ and, therefore, the Biden administration can use that for so many options,” another top House Democratic appropriator, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Texas, told Border Report. “It could be used for technology, for roads, for lighting along the border, it can replace older existing fencing so therefore we don’t have to go with the new fence. It gives the administration a lot of leeway.” It’s not fully clear, but it may even be possible that “barrier systems” might include downgrading of wall designs in environmentally sensitive areas or Native American sacred sites.
This may all be moot, anyway, now that the Democrats are to assume Senate majority control following Tuesday’s election in Georgia. The new Congress is likely to approve any request from President Biden to rescind the border wall money.
Other border-relevant elements of the 2021 bill include:
A 1.4% increase in CBP’s operations budget (to $12,908,923,000, from $12,735,399,000 in 2020);
A 2% decrease in ICE’s budget (to $7,875,730,000, from $8,032,801,000 in 2020—the House bill had sought, but did not obtain, a sharp reduction in ICE’s detention capacity);
A 7% decrease in the budget of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations division ($4,118,902,000, from $4,429,033,000 in 2020);
“No funding for new Border Patrol Agents or personnel hired above the baseline funded in fiscal year 2020;”
A $110 million, or one-third, increase in the budget for alternatives to detention programs; and
CBP and ICE reporting requirements to Congress, and in some cases to the public, about border security metrics, its border wall-building expenditure plan, family separation events, numbers of asylum seekers, migrant deaths, alternatives to detention, inspections and due process in detention facilities, unusually long stays in holding facilities, infrastructure needs at ports of entry, assistance provided to other law-enforcement agencies, and a “risk-based” border security improvement plan.
Biden administration won’t dismantle Trump policies on day one
Past updates have laid out some of the hardline Trump administration border and migration restrictions that the Biden administration has indicated it will undo. Transition officials, however, are trying to set expectations. Voicing concerns about a rush to the border and a lack of processing infrastructure, the President-Elect and top advisors warned in pre-Christmas press interactions that the phase-out may be more gradual than migrants rights’ advocates would prefer.
“It will get done and it will get done quickly but it’s not going to be able to be done on Day 1,” Biden said, adding that his administration would need “probably the next six months” to get processing and adjudication infrastructure in place to receive significant numbers of asylum seekers once again. Undoing Trump’s policies without that capacity in place, Biden added, would be “the last thing we need” because the result could be “two million people on our border.”
“Processing power at the border is not like a light that can be turned on and off,” Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s national security advisor, told Spain’s EFE news service in an interview given jointly with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice to fill her old position. “Migrants and asylum seekers should not at all believe the people in the region who are selling the idea that the border will suddenly be wide open to process everyone on the first day. It will not be so.”
As as result, the pandemic restrictions currently expelling people with fear of return will persist during the Biden administration’s early weeks. So will Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced about 70,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their immigration hearings in Mexico. Sullivan said, though, that Biden “will work to promptly undo” the “safe third country” agreements signed with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which would permit the United States to send other countries’ asylum seekers to apply for protection in those countries.
Policymakers are concerned about a “rush” of migrants to the border amid easing COVID travel restrictions and perceptions that a less hardline president is assuming power. Media in Central America are reporting about plans afoot in Honduras to organize a new migrant caravan, to depart on January 15.
CBP releases December border numbers
So far, U.S. government data are showing growing migration at the border, but not a surge. CBP’s numbers for December, released on January 7, showed a 3 percent increase in Border Patrol apprehensions of migrants from November to December.
The overall number—70,630 people apprehended—was very high by the standards of recent years. Of those, however, 60,010 were quickly expelled under pandemic border restrictions. And there was much double-counting, as the rapid expulsions have brought a sharp increase in repeat attempts to migrate.
Monthly migrant apprehensions have been roughly at the same level—the mid-to-high 60,000s—since September. The apprehended population, however, has become slightly less Mexican and more Central American. Apprehensions of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras increased 24 percent from November to December, while apprehensions of Mexican migrants—still the majority—fell by 6 percent. This was the second straight monthly decline in apprehensions of Mexicans, while apprehensions of Central Americans have been increasing steadily since June.
Only 13 percent of apprehended migrants were children or parents with children. That is a sharp reversal from 2019, when children and families were two-thirds of the apprehended population. The main reason is the current impossibility of pursuing asylum at the border, compounded by the controversial “Title 42” pandemic policy of expelling most migrants as quickly as possible, regardless of their fear of return. Border Patrol and CBP expelled migrants 393,807 times between March—when pandemic border measures went into place—and December.
The data points to increases in border-zone seizures of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine, starting a few months after the imposition of pandemic border restrictions. Though cartels have nimbly adjusted to the new measures, as Steve Fisher and Kirk Semple reported in a late December New York Times analysis, U.S. border authorities are intercepting a modestly larger share of their product. (No similar trend is evident for marijuana; smuggling from Mexico has plummeted in recent years as many U.S. states have legalized and regulated cannabis.)
The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is now law
On January 1 President Trump signed into law the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019 (S. 2174), a bill that helps border jurisdictions deal with the tragedy of hundreds of migrants who die of dehydration and exposure in borderland deserts and wilderness areas each year.
S. 2174 originated in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kamala Harris (D-California, the Vice President-Elect). It was not a controversial piece of legislation: it passed the Senate under unanimous consent in mid-Novembe, and an identical House version (H.R. 8772), co-sponsored by Reps. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Texas) and Will Hurd (R-Texas), passed quickly in mid-December under suspension of the rules.
The new law authorizes funding for proper care and identification of remains, which will assist their return to citizens of other countries who have often gone years without knowing what happened to their loved ones who migrated. It authorizes funding for 170 solar-powered rescue beacons in the desert so that migrants in distress can call for help.
The bill also includes detailed reporting requirements, since data about the migrant deaths problem have been very spotty. For instance, while Border Patrol listed only 43 migrant remains found in Arizona between January and September 2020, a joint project of the Pima County (Tucson) Medical Examiner’s Office and the NGO Humane Borders reported finding 181 during that period.
In fact, the Pima-Humane Borders effort recorded its highest-ever total of migrant remains in 2020: 227 deaths after the hottest summer in Arizona’s history. This was way up from 144 in 2019 and 128 in 2018. While the heat is a big reason for the increase, so is the pandemic border closure and “expulsions” policy, which eliminated incentives for people who might otherwise seek asylum to turn themselves in to border agents. “They can’t apply for asylum, so their options are considerably cut down and they’re forced into more and more dangerous situations,” Montana Thames, of the Arizona humanitarian group No More Deaths, toldMother Jones. Thames added that “wall construction is happening closer to Nogales and Sasabe, where there are more resources—so because of the wall constitution, they have to go to more dangerous and more remote parts of the desert.”
In most recent years, Arizona’s migrant deaths total had been second to south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. There, in Brooks County about 80 miles north of the border, migrants trying to walk around a Border Patrol highway checkpoint have died in large numbers. In 2020, though, according to the Brooks County sheriff’s office, migrant deaths fell to 34 in 2020, down from 45 in 2019. The problem is worst right now in Arizona as tougher border measures push migrants to some of the most remote deserts.
CBP released a “Strategy 2021-2026” document that, at 1,250 words over 32 photo-heavy pages, is more of a brochure than a strategy discussion. It does reveal, though, that the agency has increased Border Patrol agent hiring by 10 percent and CBP officer hiring by 22%, reversing years of decline caused by difficulties in recruitment and bringing the agencies closer to their authorized staffing levels. Notably, except for one photo caption, the document does not discuss the border wall.
The DHS Office of Immigration Statistics released its 2020 “Enforcement Lifecycle Report,” which provides data about what happened to migrants after they were apprehended or presented at ports of entry.
President Trump pardoned two CBP officers who were convicted in 2006 of beating an apprehended migrant with a shotgun, shooting him, and then attempting to cover up the crime.
A joint investigation by Human Rights Watch, Stanford University’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program, and Willamette University’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic documents trauma that children and families suffered as a direct result of the Remain in Mexico program.
At the Washington Post, Hannah Dreier tells the outrageous and sad story of Kevin Euceda, a Honduran asylum seeker who spent three years in ICE detention, asked to be deported as COVID swept through his detention center, and died—or was killed—shortly after his return.
The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kate Morrissey provides a helpful primer on the U.S. asylum system, its origins, and possible reforms like reducing the court backlog, providing legal aid, sharply reducing detention, and working with other countries.
The number of National Guard and other U.S. military personnel deployed to the border has fallen to 3,600—from well over 5,000 in 2018—reportsMilitary Times.
The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux examines the Border Patrol’s hardline, politically active union, which attached itself very closely to Donald Trump and his unsuccessful reelection campaign, and the larger issue of a politicized border security apparatus that is likely to clash with the Biden administration.
We salute the memory of two respected Mexican migrant shelter operators who died of COVID-19-related complications since mid-December. Juan Francisco Louriero of the San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales and Father Pedro Pantoja of the Casa del Migrante de Saltillo were both 76 years old.
I’ve got a near-solid block of coalition meetings and one-on-one interviews between 10:30 and 4:00, and need to finish writing a border update before that starts, so I’ll be slow to return calls and messages today.
I’ve worked on defense and security in Latin America for a long time, which colored my view of what happened in the Capitol yesterday.
As soon as we all saw rioters start calmly parading through the Capitol, I was immediately struck by our security forces’ slow and tolerant response. Starting with some of the Capitol Police (though others performed bravely), and continuing with the incredible lack of backup they received.
20 years after 9/11, of course the Capitol Police and other authorities have the resources, and off-the-shelf plans, for dealing with a situation just like this in a professional, efficient, rights-respecting way. I’m sure they’ve had drills and exercises. Why were those plans plainly ignored? Why did it all fall apart for a group of only a couple thousand people maximum?
Anybody who has paid attention to Latin America knows what a dangerous politicization of security forces looks like. We also saw it—in the other direction—with federal law enforcement in Portland and at Washington’s BLM protests.
Some cops at the Capitol yesterday seem to have felt some kinship with the pro-Trump mob, and treated them way differently than they do peaceful Trump critics and people of color. And their management was plainly politicized in its failure to prepare for a contingency we all saw coming, and its subsequent failure to rush help to the scene.
You don’t get to ransack the Capitol for hours, then calmly walk away, unless law enforcement and its command share your views. What we saw yesterday was tacit approval of the rioters. Full stop.
Let’s stare that directly in the face, then do our best after January 20 to get it investigated, punished, and reformed so it never happens again. Let’s find out if that’s even possible to do in America in 2021.
This non-response looked familiar to anyone who has studied Latin America’s militaries and police during times of transition to and from democracy. To me, it was the big story of yesterday, and it’s terrifying.