With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
Title 42, which may be in its last days, exacts a humanitarian toll
Between March 2020 and May 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expelled 867,673 migrants whom the agency encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border. Often, this has meant sending them back to Mexico within an hour or two, even if they are not Mexican, with little or no opportunity to ask for asylum or protection in the United States.
This is due to a Trump-era order citing the COVID-19 pandemic as justification to expel migrants with minimal processing. The process is called “Title 42” after the section of the U.S. Code containing an old border quarantine authority. The Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, though it has not expelled unaccompanied children and it has expelled a declining number of migrants who arrive as family units. (8,986 family members expelled in May, down from 17,795 in April and 21,423 in March.)
Citing “administration officials and others familiar with the discussions,” the Wall Street Journal got further confirmation that the Biden administration is moving toward lifting Title 42. Families requesting asylum at the border may be able to do so without expulsion by the end of July. Title 42 will continue, however, to expel single adults “for the next few months.” (This was first reported by Axios and the New York Times during the week of June 20.) The Journal notes that the change “is expected to come in conjunction with a phased reopening this summer of nonessential travel at ports of entry along the Mexican and Canadian borders.”
Some officials are concerned that lifting Title 42 will lead to a sharp increase in arrivals of migrant families at the border; the Journal reports that the administration is considering options to speed migrants’ asylum processes in order to minimize the length of their stay in the United States pending decisions. Measures may include allowing asylum officers—not just immigration judges—to rule on cases, and allowing asylum seekers to make appointments at border ports of entry using a CBP app.
Large numbers of expelled migrants, meanwhile, continue to accumulate in Mexican border cities, often in strikingly miserable conditions. In Tijuana, 2,000 mostly Mexican, Central American, and Haitian migrants are encamped outside the Chaparral pedestrian port of entry into the United States. (Many there were not expelled under Title 42, but believe they need to be near the border crossing before it reopens.) Mexico’s government human rights ombudsman (CNDH) is warning of numerous health risks at a site that lacks basic sanitation, and city authorities say they plan to clear the encampment soon.
Across from south Texas, in the notoriously organized crime-ridden city of Reynosa, over 1,000 asylum seekers are encamped at a plaza not far from the port of entry. Humanitarian workers from the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers toldBorder Report of an outbreak of COVID-19 among those in the plaza. Those who test positive for the coronavirus are being quarantined in one part of the park, while workers are racing to move many of those who test negative to an expanded area of Senda de Vida, an evangelical-run shelter not far from the port of entry.
More migrants arriving from “other” countries
As a recent weekly update noted, a sharply rising portion of migrants encountered at the U.S-Mexico border are neither from Mexico nor from Central America. Citizens of these “other” countries made up 23 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters with undocumented migrants in May, and 45 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters with migrant family members. The “other” countries whose citizens were most frequently encountered were Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua, Haiti, Cuba, and Romania.
The Associated Press reported on June 28 from Del Rio, Texas, a small border town that has seen a jump in arrivals of migrants from Venezuela. Though about 5.4 million Venezuelans have fled their country in recent years, very few have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico land border until recently. 7,484 were apprehended or showed up at ports of entry in May. That monthly number is nearly triple the 2,787 Venezuelans apprehended in all of 2020 and more than triple the 2,202 apprehended in all of 2019. Of those 7,484, 5,465 (73 percent) showed up in Del Rio. Nearly all are turning themselves in and seeking asylum in the United States.
The AP notes that the Venezuelans wading across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, to Del Rio tend to be more highly educated (“bankers, doctors, and engineers”), and many had first emigrated to elsewhere in South America, where they were living and working until COVID-19 collapsed the region’s economies. Most fly to Mexico City or Cancún, then contract with smugglers who take them to Ciudad Acuña. Their trip takes “as little as four days.”
The sharply increasing numbers of migrants from Venezuela and other unusual countries at the border, the AP notes, are “a harbinger of a new type of migration that has caught the Biden administration off guard: pandemic refugees.”
Republican politicians focus on the border
Five days after Vice President Kamala Harris’s quick June 25 visit to El Paso, former President Donald Trump was in south Texas’s Rio Grande Valley region for a meeting with border authorities, a speech, and a Fox News “town hall” event. The visit was one of several ongoing efforts by Republican political leaders to challenge the Biden administration on border security and rising migration numbers.
From a lectern placed at a point where a section of border wall ends, Trump attacked Joe Biden for undoing his policies. “Biden is destroying our country,” he told the assembled crowd, which included former officials from his Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from Texas’s Department of Public Security (DPS), Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), and 31 Republican members of Congress.
“I used to go around in speeches and say, two things that will never get old are a wheel and a wall… The wall worked, really worked,” Trump said. “Within two months everything could have been completed. It would have been painted.”
Valerie González of the Rio Grande Valley Monitor noted that of 28 officials participating in a briefing with the former president, only three were from the local area: “Javier Villalobos, McAllen mayor; Benny Martinez, Brooks County sheriff; and Paul Perez, president of the National Border Patrol Council RGV 3307.” The only one who spoke was Martínez, whose county hosts a Border Patrol highway checkpoint around which migrants walk. A large number get lost in the surrounding ranch land and die of dehydration or exposure. The Sheriff said that this year has seen a 185 percent increase in migrant apprehensions in Brooks County, and a 490 percent increase in 911 emergency calls.
Brooks is one of about 28 Texas counties that agreed to be included in a disaster declaration that Gov. Abbott issued in late May to respond to a “border emergency.” The original declaration covered 34 border-area counties, but several—including those in the majority-Democratic Rio Grande Valley area—objected, citing a lack of evidence. On April 26, Abbott had sent letters to all 254 of Texas’s counties requesting estimates of their financial needs resulting from the border “disaster.” Only eight counties had responded as of June 18, the Monitor reported, and only two had provided monetary amounts, which totaled less than $25,000.
In Brooks County, Martínez said the disaster declaration would help authorities deal with grass fires set by lost migrants seeking to alert rescuers. In Culberson County, in west Texas near the border, Sheriff Oscar Carrillo told the Dallas Morning News’s Alfredo Corchado that authorities had signed the disaster declaration, “but not for political reasons. I’m just practical. We need to be reimbursed for the $30,000 we spent on the migrants who’ve died so far.”
Sheriff Carrillo called “just a show” another of Gov. Abbott’s initiatives: a request, issued with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) for other state governors to send law enforcement personnel to help secure the border. Abbott’s request appears to have attracted short-term visits of small contingents of state police or National Guardsmen from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Tennessee. All of these states have Republican governors.
“It’s unclear what these out-of-state forces will be empowered to do, and some states aren’t offering much detail,” a PolitiFact investigation finds. “Based on what we’ve gathered, they will be limited to investigative work and backing up highway patrols.” Lt. Col (Ret.) Geoffrey Corn, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, told the New York Times that National Guard troops’ role would be largely “ceremonial duties, though they will have the authority to make citizens’ arrests.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said it would cost his state $575,000 to send 30 guardsmen for 90 days. Idaho said its deployment would cost about $53,000.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) would not divulge how much it would cost to send 50 of her state’s 3,100 National Guard members to the border for 30 to 60 days—her office cited “security reasons” for the silence—but she came up with a controversial way to pay for it. The deployment’s price tag will be paid by a private donor: Willis Johnson, the Tennessee-based billionaire chairman of Copart, an automobile auction company, who describes himself as a “hardcore Republican.”
While the governor’s office insists that paying soldiers with private funds is legal in South Dakota while the guardsmen remain under the governor’s command, the New York Times described it as “a fuzzy area of the law that officials in the state said had never before been contemplated.” Roger Tellinghuisen, a former Republican attorney-general of South Dakota, told the Times, “I don’t have a clue if it’s legal. It’s a question in my own mind.”
“The military is supposed to be used to further our national security interests and ensure the safety of all citizens, not just the whims of a few private individuals with the means to pay for its services,” Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Center for Defense Information’s Straus Military Reform Project, told the Guardian. “It’s basically money laundering, and it’s turning the state National Guard into a mercenary force,” Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force lawyer who teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, told the New York Times.
Beyond hosting Trump, declaring a disaster, and inviting other states’ law enforcement, Texas Gov. Abbott—who is up for re-election in 2022 and may be eyeing a 2024 presidential bid—is active on other fronts. He continues to move toward stripping licenses for Texas childcare facilities that are housing migrant children who arrive unaccompanied. This would force the Biden administration to scramble to find shelter space for these kids, who have been arriving in record numbers since March.
Five Texas sheriff’s departments, meanwhile, have sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), citing a Biden policy that requires the agency to take into custody only migrants considered national security or public safety threats, when they are released from criminal custody. Nationally, ICE’s detained migrant population has risen this year from 14,000 to nearly 27,000; 80 percent of those adding to the population are single adults apprehended at the border, BuzzFeed notes. 4,000 of those in custody are asylum seekers who, for some reason, ICE has determined to be flight risks and required to be detained.
Republicans’ efforts to raise the border and migration and issue do not appear to be resonating beyond the party’s base, according to a June 11-17 Reuters/Ipsos poll. Just 10 percent of 4,420 adult respondents ranked immigration as the United States’ top priority, down from 15 percent in April. Republicans who ranked immigration number one totaled 19 percent, down 10 points from April. President Biden, though, maintains a low approval rating for his handling of immigration: 40 percent of Reuters/Ipsos respondents approved and 47 percent disapproved.
The Biden administration is formalizing a process to allow U.S. resident military veterans who were later deported, often because they committed minor crimes, to return to the United States.
In rural Culberson county, between El Paso and Texas’s Big Bend region, the sheriff’s office has already handled 13 migrant deaths so far in 2021, reports Alfredo Corchado at the Dallas Morning News.
Between now and August 2, the Biden administration will be closing six of the large emergency shelter facilities it has set up to house migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied. Children stay in the austere shelters while awaiting placement with relatives or sponsors in the United States, with whom they stay while immigration courts rule on their protection needs. Facilities set to close include one at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; a former oil worker camp in Midland, Texas; tent-based facilities in Carrizo Springs and Donna, Texas; and convention centers in Long Beach and San Diego, California. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra said that the population of children at the largest and most notorious of these shelters, Fort Bliss, Texas, has dropped to 790 from around 4,800 two months ago. An average of 401 unaccompanied children arrived at the border every day in June. As of July 1, 14,416 were in shelters, approximately 6,100 of them temporary emergency shelters.
At a July 1 hearing before the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission, 32 organizations and the Mexico office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argued that Mexico’s use of security forces for migration enforcement, including “pushbacks” of migrants, has exacerbated illegitimate use of force against migrants.
Mexico’s human rights ombudsman (CNDH) found migrants being held in crowded conditions at a detention center run by the country’s National Migration Institute (INM) in the remote border town of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. About 13 more migrants were being held in the Piedras Negras municipal jail in very unsanitary conditions, while unable to contact relatives, the CNDH reported. A coalition of mostly southern Mexican human rights groups (Colectivo de Observación y Monitoreo de Derechos Humanos en el Sureste Mexicano, Comdhse) denounced cases of torture by immigration and National Guard personnel in INM’s migrant detention centers nationwide, including “violence, beatings, threats, lack of food or rotten food.” The worst situation, the group claims, is at Siglo XXI, the INM’s largest detention facility, in Mexico’s southern border-zone city of Tapachula.
During at least the first half of 2021, we’re producing weekly updates in English about peace accord implementation and related topics.
Two high-profile attacks in Cúcuta in two weeks
The helicopter in which President Iván Duque and other top officials were traveling got hit by six bullets as it prepared to land in Cúcuta, capital of the conflictive Norte de Santander department in northeastern Colombia, on June 25. Duque, Defense Minister Diego Molano, Interior Minister Daniel Palacios, and Norte de Santander Governor Silvano Serrano were returning to Cúcuta from a visit to the municipality of Sardinata. All landed safely, with no injuries.
Sardinata is part of the Catatumbo region, which in 2019 made Norte de Santander Colombia’s number-one coca-producing department. It is an area of strong campesino organizations, but also has strong influence of armed groups like the ELN, ex-FARC dissidents, a weak remnant of the old Popular Liberation Army (EPL) guerrilla group, and organized crime.
As of June 26 no group had claimed responsibility for the attack on the presidential helicopter.
This was the second major attack in 10 days on a difficult-to-reach government target in Cúcuta. On June 15, a car bomb injured 36 people at the headquarters of the Colombian Army’s 30th Brigade. It remains unclear how—as security camera footage reveals—the bomber was able to enter the base after a cursory security check an hour and a quarter before his vehicle exploded. The blast slightly injured some U.S. military trainers who had been present at the base.
The ELN denied responsibility for the bombing; in January 2019, the group had quickly admitted to a lethal bombing at the National Police academy in Bogotá. At Razón Pública, researcher Jorge Mantilla points to reasons why the ELN or ex-FARC dissidents might not be responsible. While he also casts doubt on “self-attack” hypotheses, Mantilla faults the government for a clear failure of counter-intelligence and force protection, asking how an attacker could so easily enter a base in one of Colombia’s most militarily fortified regions.
Ingrid Betancourt faces her former captors
The Truth Commission hosted three “recognition encounters” during the week, in which those responsible for war crimes met with, and showed contrition to, their victims. The highest-profile of these took place on June 23 in Bogotá, where FARC leaders who have admitted responsibility for kidnappings met with several people whom the group had held captive for years. The post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), has estimated that the FARC kidnapped 21,396 people during the conflict, either to extort ransom payments or to press for prisoner exchanges.
The best-known former hostage at the Bogotá event was Íngrid Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician whom the FARC held captive between 2002 and a July 2008 rescue. This was the first time Betancourt had agreed to meet with former FARC leaders. She participated at the invitation of the Truth Commission’s president, Fr. Francisco de Roux.
FARC leaders Rodrigo Londoño, Pastor Alape, Julián Gallo, and Pedro Trujillo voiced contrition. “We committed a serious crime, a product of the process of dehumanization into which we fall when we only see the world as divided between friends and enemies,” said Alape. “When we believe that all resources are valid to win the war.”
In her remarks, Betancourt noted that the ex-guerrillas’ participation was cause for “hope.” But she said she had wanted more. “I must confess that I am surprised that we on this side [the victims] are all crying, while the other side has not shed a single tear.” From some FARC leaders, she said she heard a “political speech” of contrition, but not enough words spoken from the heart.
Betancourt asked her former captors to reflect more fully on how they lost touch with their humanity, tying her remarks to the ongoing social protests that have swept Colombia since late April.
Interviewed by El Tiempo, Betancourt applauded the work the JEP did in documenting the FARC’s kidnappings and leading the ex-guerrilla leadership to recognize its responsibility. “Now what we are waiting for are the sentences, which I hope will be at the same level as the indictment,” she said, hoping that the JEP hands down punishments in conditions as austere as the peace accord allows. “It would be very sad if after having done this exercise, after weaving together all the experiences of so many people, we end up with justice condemning them to planting trees.”
U.S. reports an unexpectedly large increase in estimated coca cultivation
On June 25 the White House Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP, also known as the “Drug Czar”) released the U.S. government’s estimate of coca cultivation in Colombia in 2020. It found a 16 percent increase from 2019, from a record 212,000 estimated hectares of coca to an even greater record of 245,000 hectares. This coca was potentially used, ONDCP estimated, to produce 1,010 metric tons of pure cocaine, up from 936 in 2019—an 8 percent increase.
The release notes that the cultivation increase happened despite Colombia’s government reporting a record 130,000 hectares of manual eradication of coca bushes, and the seizure of nearly 580 metric tons of cocaine and cocaine base.
In 2020, the Trump administration’s ONDCP release covering 2019 had called for more forced coca eradication, including aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate. The government of Juan Manuel Santos had suspended this controversial U.S.-backed “fumigation” program in 2015 due to public health concerns, but the current government of Iván Duque has been working to reinstate it.
The June 25 ONDCP release barely mentions eradication. It makes no mention of the (now probably unreachable) objective of cutting coca cultivation in half by 2023, which the outgoing Santos administration had agreed with the Trump administration in 2018.
The U.S. estimate emerged about two weeks after the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) made public its estimate of 2020 cultivation. (ONDCP and UNODC are the two institutions that estimate coca cultivation in the Andes.) Unlike the White House, the UN agency found a downward cultivation trendline. The UN estimate of 143,000 hectares is a 7 percent decrease from 2019, and 102,000 hectares fewer than what the U.S. government estimates.
While the two entities’ coca estimates are rarely close, it has been unusual for their trendlines to diverge, as has now happened for two consecutive years. The Colombian government considers the UN number to be “official” but does not publicly dispute the U.S. figure.
The UN estimate of Colombia’s potential 2020 cocaine production, however, increased by 8 percent from 2019 to 2020. More cocaine from fewer hectares probably means taller coca bushes, higher-yielding crops, and more robust chemical extraction methods. The UNODC estimate of Colombian cocaine production—1,228 metric tons—is, in fact, higher than the U.S. estimate (1,010).
“Technicians from both countries and the United Nations will review [the statistics] to identify methodological criteria necessary to harmonize for the next measurement cycle,” El Espectadorreported. We know more about how the UN derives its estimates than we do about the U.S. methodology. In coming weeks, we can expect UNODC to publish a full report presenting crop monitoring trends by region. That report usually includes a discussion of how the agency relies on satellite imagery and closer monitoring of selected regions. The U.S. government has been more secretive; the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Reportpoints to much extrapolation, noting that it “conserves limited personnel and technical resources by employing sample survey methodologies to estimate illicit crop cultivation.”
Some protests continue as Colombia has difficult human rights discussions
The committee of civil-society leaders—mainly union leaders—who called for a national strike (Paro Nacional) on April 28, only to see protests go on for many weeks, have stopped calling for street demonstrations for now. They are taking their demands to Colombia’s Congress, where they plan to work with sympathetic legislators to introduce a raft of bills when the next legislative session begins on July 20. Labor leader Francisco Maltés told Reuters that if the Comité del Paro’s demands go unmet, an even greater national strike will take place during the second half of the year.
The Comité does not command all protesters, of course, and groups of mostly young people continued to take to the streets in Bogotá’s poorer southern neighborhoods, in “resistance” sites around Cali, and in Medellín, Bucaramanga, Pasto, and Popayán. While demonstrations and blockades were mostly peaceful, violence between police and protesters broke out several times during the week. A protester was killed in Bogotá. In Tuluá, north of Cali, the decapitated head of a young man who had participated in protests was found in a plastic bag; police blamed local drug trafficking gangs.
As the country eased COVID-19 restrictions before vaccines were widely available, Colombia now finds itself in a devastating third wave of infections and deaths. Colombia recorded more than 23,000 new infections per day in June, about three times as many as in March, Public Radio International reported. More than 600 people are dying every day, well over double the number in the United States right now. Only India and Brazil are seeing more death. Intensive-care wards in major cities are over 95 percent full.
The government and human rights defenders continue to disagree vehemently about the extent of human rights abuses committed by security forces.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) counts 24 deaths linked to the protests and is investigating 11 more.
As of June 18, the widely cited NGO Temblores counted 43 homicides and was investigating 21 more.
As of June 22, an effort to cross and verify databases by the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacíafound 47 people likely killed in the framework of protests, 44 of them protesters. La Silla notes that the Fiscalía is omitting 23 killed people from its statistic even though they appear to meet the agency’s criteria.
Voicing “deep concern about allegations of serious human rights violations by the state’s security forces,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council that “from April 28 to June 16 we have recorded allegations of 56 deaths, including 54 civilians and 2 police officers.” Bachelet’s remarks, which contrast with the Colombian government’s official figures, drew an angry response from Colombia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Alicia Arango, who had drawn attention for troubling statements about killings of social leaders while in her previous post as interior minister.
Missing or disappeared people
A June 23 overview of people missing or disappeared in the context of the protests, compiled by La Liga Contra el Silencio, finds a variety of estimates of the missing, some of whom may still be in custody of the authorities. The Fiscalía counts 84 people who have yet to be found.
“Between April 28 and May 27, the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances registered 775 missing persons, of which 327 have yet to be found.”
“In the report that Temblores ONG, Indepaz and PAIIS delivered to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) during its visit to Colombia, 346 people were reported missing directly to these entities between April 28 and May 31.”
Just in the department of Valle del Cauca, of which Cali is the capital, “the Francisco Isaías Cifuentes Human Rights Network has a report of 179 people missing since the strike began. Of these, 75 remain unaccounted for. …More than twenty of the people found had been taken to police stations and held without the right to communicate with their families. Some of them had wounds from firearms and sharp weapons, and signs of torture.”
The La Liga investigation recounts the experience of a Bogotá protester who, after being detained, was one of several young men kept in the back of a truck that uniformed police drove around the city nonstop, changing drivers, for more than two days while they threatened to kill their captives.
Gender-based and sexual violence
The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría), which has come under fire and may be undergoing senior management changes after a less-than-vigorous response to the protests’ human rights situation, counts at least 113 cases of gender-based violence, the BBC reports.
Temblores counts 28 cases of protesters being sexually abused.
The need to reform Colombia’s National Police, which President Duque acknowledged with a series of modest proposals on June 6, continues to be a frequent topic of discussion.
Ingrid Betancourt, the former FARC hostage, raised it in a June 21 meeting with Duque. “What we have seen is that the security forces confronted them as if they were confronting the traditional enemies of this war, without the peace transition having happened,” Betancourt toldEl Tiempo. “The security forces have not been able to adapt to the new reality of peace.”
Defense Minister Diego Molano sent a letter to Chief Prosecutor Francisco Barbosa refusing Barbosa’s June 1 request to provide information about protest-related human rights cases currently before the military justice system. Molano said that, due to recent reforms, the military courts are no longer under his direct command, and that it is up to the judges in each case to share information.
American actor Kendrick Sampson, who is Black, wrote in El Espectador of extreme hostility from police while on a visit to Cartagena last December. “Two police officers pulled up behind me, yelling and gesturing for me to face the wall. This was the sixth time I had experienced Cartagena’s stop and frisk policy in five days.I thought I knew what to expect, but this time was far more violent.” He concluded, “Our political leaders are funneling the bulk of our taxes into violent, militarized policing and the oppression of Black and Indigenous communities worldwide, instead of bringing adequate housing, healing and care.”
La Silla Vacía’s Daniel Pacheco sat down with a group of police, who voiced grievance and a sense that the allegations against them are unfair and out of context. “If you make a mistake in your actions, if you do wrong, if you go too far, go to jail, my friend. But if you do nothing, you just lost your life, my friend.”
A Datexco poll gave President Duque an approval rating of just 16 percent, with 79 percent disapproval. 31 percent of Colombians surveyed approve of the National Police, compared with 64 percent disapproval. (March 2020 was the first time Datexco found the Police with higher disapproval than approval.) The Police’s anti-riot unit, the ESMAD, had 28 percent approval and 66 percent disapproval. The Army is still in positive territory, with 56 percent approval and 38 percent disapproval.
Congress lets peace accord bill expire
On June 21 Colombia’s Congress finished a legislative session that had begun on July 20, 2020. While Interior Minister Daniel Palacios celebrated that the legislature passed 49 laws during the past year, the session ended with the Senate failing to bring up for debate a law necessary to implement key elements of the 2016 peace accord.
The “Agrarian Specialty” law intended to fulfill a key commitment of the accord’s first chapter, which covers “comprehensive rural reform,” seeking to address issues of land tenure, rural inequality, and lack of state presence that have underlain so much of the armed conflict.
The law would have established a system of judges specializing in rural issues. While Colombia’s cities have 11 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, the country’s notoriously abandoned rural areas have only 6 judges per 100,000. Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute, which the peace accord gives a formal role in monitoring implementation, noted in May that “other important Point 1 [chapter 1] commitments depend on the implementation of this system.”
The bill passed Colombia’s House of Representatives, with apparent support from President Duque’s governing Centro Democrático (CD) party. But it ran into trouble in the Senate, even as it sailed through committee on May 25 by an 18-3 vote. The three opponents were CD senators.
Ultraconservative CD Senator María Fernanda Cabal, an outspoken defender of large landholders’ interests (her husband heads Colombia’s cattlemen’s federation, Fedegán), began to campaign against the bill. Cabal, La Silla Vacíareports, “recorded a video urging peasants to call their senators to oppose the ‘dangerous desk law’ that would create ‘an agrarian JEP where judges will begin to persecute rural property.’”
The congressional session neared its end without the bill coming up for Senate consideration. President Duque and Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz told foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, that the Agrarian Specialty law would move ahead. But it did not. La Silla Vacíaalleges that Duque was saying one thing and doing quite another.
The reason [for the bill’s expiration], as La Silla was able to confirm with two sources who have ways to know, was that the Government expressly asked [Senate President Arturo] Char not to place it on the agenda. Calendarizing is a key step for a bill to be voted on the following day.
“The Colombian Senate adjourned its session and did not consider the Agricultural Specialty Law,” tweeted Rep. Juanita Goebertus, who before her election was a member of the government’s negotiating team with the FARC in Havana. “The government committed to moving it forward. The Minister of Justice lied and betrayed his word. They swore to the entire international community that they are implementing the peace accord, and they’re laughing in our faces.”
Longtime maximum ELN leader quits
After 23 years as top commander of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, Nicolás Rodríguez Batista alias “Gabino” is standing down at age 71. Rodríguez joined the ELN as a 14-year-old in 1965. He is among guerrilla leaders who remain in Cuba after the 2019 collapse of peace talks, and has been getting medical treatment there since 2018.
His replacement atop the group’s loose chain of command is longtime top leader Antonio García (the alias of Eliécer Chamorro Acosta), who is considered a hardline ideologue but has participated in past dialogues with the government. The new number-two ELN leader is alias Pablo Beltrán, who also remains in Cuba; he was the chief guerrilla negotiator during the peace process that failed following a January 2019 guerrilla bombing of Colombia’s police academy in Bogotá. The new number three leader, Pablo Marín, also known as “Pablito,” commanded the ELN’s largest unit, the Eastern War Front located in and around Arauca, and across the border in Venezuela. He is probably a skeptic of peace negotiations. Fighters under Marín’s command almost certainly carried out the 2019 bombing.
“Given the large volume of reports we have received from Colombia since the start of the national strike on April 28, we are releasing English-language information about these human rights violations in two parts,” begins WOLA’s latest regular overview of Colombia’s human rights situation. It is, sadly, a long document.
Colombia’s Defense Minister and National Police Chief told those at a June 22 press conference that Dairo Úsuga alias “Otoniel,” the maximum head of the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary group, is “cornered and going hungry” as security forces pursue him in the country’s northwest.
A graphical update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports a 101% increase in forced displacement in Colombia from January to May 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. The agency counted 29,252 people displaced in 63 events, with Nariño, Antioquia, Cauca the hardest-hit departments.
Senators Rick Scott (R-Florida), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced a resolution supporting Colombia’s government and condemning “efforts to undermine democracy.” It makes no mention of the Colombian security forces’ human rights record in the context of recent protests. Four Florida Republican House of Representatives members introduced an identical resolution in their chamber.
Former top leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary confederation, who demobilized in the mid-2000s, told a transitional justice judge that they feel unprotected and fear for their lives. Among those participating virtually in the hearing was former maximum AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso, who is in a U.S. immigration detention center, fighting deportation to Colombia after serving a drug trafficking sentence in U.S. prison. They said that 4,000 of the more than 30,000 paramilitaries who demobilized in the so-called “Justice and Peace Process” have since been killed, some of them in Colombian prisons.
The Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes reported that six members of the Jivi indigenous nation were killed by ex-FARC dissident fighters in the state of Apure, which borders Colombia and has seen combat between dissidents and Venezuelan forces since March. The crime may have been retribution for the indigenous people’s theft of government food handouts from a truck.
El Espectadorprofiles 11 social leaders and local government officials in Arauca whom authorities arrested in the early morning hours of May 27. Prosecutors allege that they are part of the support network for the “10th Front” ex-FARC group, believed to be aligned with dissident leader Gentil Duarte.
The Bogotá-based think tank CERAC, which maintains a database of political violence, reports a decline in deaths resulting from political violence since December 2020.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
Vice President Harris visits El Paso
Vice President Kamala Harris paid an approximately four-hour visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. She traveled with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), and El Paso’s House representative, Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas).
She toured Border Patrol’s “central processing center” for apprehended migrants, attended an operational briefing with border agencies, and met with representatives of several El Paso non-governmental service providers and humanitarian organizations. (The list included Las Américas Immigrant Advocacy Center, Annunciation House, Border Network for Human Rights, and Hope Border Institute. WOLA published a June 24 memo laying out some key issues for the trip, along with a Twitter thread suggesting effective organizations, including all of these, with whom the Vice President could meet.)
At a mid-day press conference before departing for California, the Vice President said that her encounters with migrant children were a reminder “of the fact that this issue cannot be reduced to a political issue.”
President Joe Biden has given Harris a lead role in engaging with Mexico and Central America on efforts to address migration’s “root causes.” Harris has sought to deflect the perception—which shows up often in Republican statements—that her role includes border security or that she is some sort of “border czar.”
Her El Paso visit comes after weeks of calls from Republican legislators (and a few border Democrats) that she visit the border to view firsthand what they call a “crisis” caused by increased migration. The announcement of her visit, issued June 23, came a few days after ex-president Donald Trump accepted an invitation from Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) to visit the border. Trump, who will visit south Texas’s Hidalgo County on June 30, responded, “If Governor Abbott and I weren’t going there next week, she would have never gone!”
The White House denies any relation. “The reason why it’s important that she go down: She’s now set up the criteria, having spoken with the President of Mexico and Guatemala, visited the region to know what we need to do,” President Biden said on June 24. Vice-Presidential spokesperson Symone Sanders said it was important for Harris first to visit Guatemala and Mexico, which she did in early June, as part of a “cause and effect” strategy.
Sanders said Harris chose to visit the border at El Paso because it was the “birthplace” of Donald Trump’s family separation policy—it was first rolled out there in late 2017. Republicans attacked the choice because El Paso, though busy right now, is seeing a less-heavy flow of migrants compared to border sectors further east in Texas and west in Arizona.
Alarming glimpses into conditions at Fort Bliss child shelter
Harris’s agenda did not include a visit to the massive emergency shelter for unaccompanied migrant children, currently operated by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) via a contractor at Fort Bliss, a giant army base adjacent to El Paso’s airport.
This facility, known as an Emergency Intake Site (EIS), was thrown together in March when Border Patrol processing centers were jammed with several thousand migrant children, mostly from Central America, who had arrived at the border unaccompanied. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is meant to take custody of these children while arranging to have them stay with relatives or other sponsors in the United States while their protection needs are evaluated. ORR quickly ran out of space, however, leading to the establishment of several large, austere facilities at convention centers and similar spaces around the country.
The Fort Bliss space—a series of giant climate-controlled tents—is the largest. It can hold up to 10,000 children, and reached 5,000 in April. By mid-June, that number had dropped to 2,300. About 14,500 children remain in ORR’s shelters nationwide.
Emergency facilities like Fort Bliss continue to lack enough caseworkers to locate children’s families and sponsors. This has forced some children to stay at the facilities, essentially warehoused with little to do, for long periods. The average nationwide stay is 37 days. At Fort Bliss, government data shared with CBS News indicate that more than 100 children have been on base for more than 60 days, 16 of them since the site opened on March 30.
Though access to Fort Bliss is restricted, very troubling accounts have emerged about conditions. Information comes from Rep. Escobar, shelter workers who have spoken to press, and from a federal filing from lawyers who visited to monitor compliance with the 1997 Flores judicial agreement setting standards for migrant childcare.
“Children at the Fort Bliss EIS sleep in rows of bunk cots in giant tents with hundreds of other children, enjoy no privacy, receive almost no structured education, have little to do during the day, and lack adequate mental health care to address children’s severe anxiety and distress surrounding their prolonged detention,” reads a filing from the attorneys.
Some children have required one-on-one, 24-hour supervision “to ensure they don’t hurt themselves.”
Some children are refusing food or spending most of their days sleeping in their bunk-bed cots.
Self-cutting appears common. The shelter has “banned pencils, pens, scissors, nail clippers and regular toothbrushes inside tents,” and is even removing metal nose clips from N95 face masks. A 13-year-old Honduran girl told the attorneys “some teens used their identification cards to cut themselves.”
BBC reported accounts of substandard food, including uncooked meat, and children unwilling to shower for many days at a time for lack of clean clothes to change into. Far more seriously, shelter employees shared sexual abuse allegations with BBC, including a possible rape and a contractor “caught in a boy’s tent, you know, doing things with him.”
On June 25 HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra promised a “thorough investigation” of allegations at Fort Bliss. Tyler Moran, who covers immigration at the White House Domestic Policy council, told reporters on June 22 that efforts are underway to add 50 mental health professionals and more caseworkers, as recommended in a June 24 memo from the ACLU of Texas.
“Remain in Mexico” dismantlement expands, Title 42 phaseout may accelerate
One of the Biden administration’s first actions at the border was to end the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” This was a Trump-era program that forced 71,000 non-Mexican asylum seekers to await their U.S. hearing dates on the other side of the border, in Mexico. While waiting in dangerous border towns for months or years, at least 1,544 migrants subjected to MPP suffered rape, murder, kidnapping, assault, or other serious attacks, according to a count kept by Human Rights First.
In February, the Biden administration began admitting into the United States those “remaining” in Mexico who still had pending court dates. By the end of May, 10,375 people with active asylum cases had re-entered the United States, according to TRAC Immigration, to await their hearings north of the border, usually with U.S. resident relatives.
It was unclear, though, whether there would be any redress for people in MPP who had their cases terminated while they were subjected to the program. According to TRAC’s data, 30,705 people had their asylum applications denied “in absentia,” meaning they failed to show up for their scheduled hearings.
This week, DHS announced that this asylum-seeking population will get another chance. “Beginning June 23, 2021, DHS will include MPP enrollees who had their cases terminated or were ordered removed in absentia (i.e., individuals ordered removed while not present at their hearings),” reads a memo to Congress obtained by BuzzFeed.
DHS Secretary Mayorkas had expressed doubt about whether the Remain in Mexico program was giving asylum seekers “adequate opportunity” to appear in court, the Los Angeles Times reports, “and whether conditions faced by some MPP enrollees in Mexico, including the lack of stable access to housing, income, and safety, resulted in the abandonment of potentially meritorious protection claims.” In some cases, migrants missed their MPP hearings because they had been kidnapped in Mexico and were in the custody of criminal groups.
It’s not clear how many of these 30,705 people would actually show up and avail themselves of the opportunity to seek asylum in the United States. Michele Klein Solomon, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) director for North America, Central America and the Caribbean, told the Associated Press that she expected at least 10,000 people—one-third of the “denied in absentia” population—to appear.
While dismantling MPP, the Biden administration has mostly kept in place another Trump blockage of the right to seek asylum: the “Title 42” pandemic policy mandating that undocumented migrants be rapidly expelled—and that migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle be expelled into Mexico.
Between February and May, the Biden administration used Title 42 to expel migrants 408,000 times, including more than 58,000 members of families—with little or no opportunity to ask for asylum or protection. A June 22 report from Human Rights First counted “3,250 kidnappings and other attacks, including rape, human trafficking, and violent armed assaults, against asylum seekers and migrants expelled to or blocked at the U.S.-Mexico border since President Biden took office in January 2021.” HRF found that DHS aggravates the situation by expelling many migrants late at night, “placing expelled people at increased risk of kidnapping and other harm.”
For families at least, that may end soon. Axios reported on June 20 that “The White House is considering ending—as early as July 31—the use of” Title 42 expulsions of family unit members. “President Biden has been briefed on a plan for stopping family expulsions by the end of July, as well as the option of letting a court end it.” The White House seems to be favoring calling an end to the policy rather than keep defending it in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU.
On June 24 the New York Times confirmed the Axios reporting: “It is possible that in the coming weeks, border officials could start allowing migrant families back into the country, with an eye toward lifting the rule for single adults this summer.” The most likely plan would be to place families asking for asylum into alternatives-to-detention programs in the United States—probably involving GPS ankle monitors—until their court dates in a badly backlogged immigration court system.
Under this plan, single adults would still be expelled for a while. “Lifting the public health rule for single adults is likely to come later, according to the most recent discussions, possibly by the end of the summer,” the Times reports. Single adults are the vast majority of those who are expelled, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been expelling 86 percent of those whom it encounters at the border. NBC News reported that the agency is even resuming “lateral expulsion” flights for single adults, taking some from the busy border sectors where they are apprehended, then expelling them back into Mexico in sectors that are seeing a less heavy flow of migrants, like El Paso and San Diego.
The Times expects that lifting Title 42 for asylum-seeking families by the end of July “is likely to sharply increase the flow of migrants, at least in the short term.” That may be, for families. For migrants who wish to avoid being apprehended, though—like single adults who don’t seek asylum—it’s possible that lifting Title 42 could lead to fewer encounters at the border. The pandemic period, since mid-2020, saw a very sharp increase in Border Patrol encounters with single adults seeking to avoid apprehension. This was in large part because being rapidly expelled, and not detained or charged, made it easier to cross back into the United States and try again. Without Title 42 easing repeat attempts, that sharp increase in single adult migration could fade.
Border Patrol Chief exits
In a message to his personal Facebook account, Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott made known that the Biden administration had given him a “three R letter,” meaning “resign, retire, or relocate.” Chief Scott, who had been on the job for 17 months, will stay on for up to 60 days before leaving the force.
Scott, who served most of his tenure as chief during Donald Trump’s final year in office, appeared to be supportive of the former president. “Scott appeared several times alongside Trump, eagerly defending his hard-line policies, leading some colleagues to privately express concern that Scott’s enthusiasm occasionally veered into partisanship,” the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff noted this week. As a result, “several of his current and former colleagues [were] surprised he remained in the post” as long as he did, even as he and other senior officials “chafed at Biden’s reversal of Trump policies they viewed as effective,” like Remain in Mexico. His exit was “completely driven by politics,” an unnamed source told the Washington Examiner’s Anna Giaritelli.
Scott’s successor will be his deputy, Raúl Ortiz, according to a statement from acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller. (The Post had earlier reported that Ortiz would serve “on an interim basis,” but that is not clear.) Like Scott, Ortiz has been on the force for 29 years. He was a featured guest during Donald Trump’s February 2020 State of the Union speech. The Examiner reports that his most likely successor as deputy chief will be either San Diego Sector Chief Aaron Heitke, Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Brian Hastings, or El Paso Sector Chief Gloria Chavez.
CBP, Border Patrol’s parent agency, continues without a confirmed commissioner to fill the role Miller is playing on an acting basis. The Biden administration named Tucson, Arizona Police Chief Chris Magnus in April, but like many Senate nominations, it is moving very slowly through the chamber.
The Republican governors of Florida, Idaho, Iowa, and Nebraska have responded to a call from the Republican governors of Arizona and Texas, Doug Ducey and Greg Abbott, to send law-enforcement personnel to the border. Iowa and Nebraska will each send about two dozen uniformed officers to Texas and/or Arizona for a couple of weeks. Gov. Abbott set up a website for private donations for the state government to build its own border wall; it received $459,000 in about a week. While that sounds like a lot, at the going rate of about $26 million per mile in Texas, it would only build 0.02 miles of wall. The Texas governor’s portrayal of the area as a danger zone is hurting tourism and other business in the border region, local leaders say.
In the dangerous Mexican border city of Reynosa, where U.S. agencies have expelled thousands of non-Mexican asylum seekers and families under Title 42, June 19 was a day of citywide attacks and firefights between three factions of the Gulf drug cartel and law enforcement, killing 19 people. Of the dead, 15 appeared to be innocent bystanders, the Associated Press reports. The surrounding Mexican state of Tamaulipas has long been under the influence of the Gulf and Zetas cartels, but those groups have fragmented. Now, the Mexican daily Milenio cites government intelligence reports mapping territorial disputes between six groups. The United States’ Title 42 expulsions into Tamaulipas “continue to endanger the migrant population” while “organized crime groups are taking advantage of the situation,” according to a new report by Global Response Management, a humanitarian organization that has assisted asylum seekers stranded in Tamaulipas by “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 expulsions.
Touring the border in the Rio Grande Valley, Border Report finds a profusion of makeshift wooden and rope ladders being used to scale the border wall. “When agents find the ladders, they pile them up just north of the wall. Once a week, a truck is sent down the dirt trail road that lines the border wall to gather and haul them all away.” The climbs are dangerous: “Almost daily, we receive two to three calls of individuals getting hurt,” a Border Patrol agent says. “Some more serious than others — fractured bones protruding from skin that will need medical attention. Other times, it’s just a sprain.”
Just over the state line from El Paso, in New Mexico, “Five times in the past four weeks, Sunland Park police or firefighters have assisted U.S. Border Patrol agents at places where migrants died of heat exhaustion or from falls” from the wall, Border Report notes.
A 51-year-old Bahamian man died of a heart attack last December when staff at a Natchez, Mississippi ICE detention center failed to provide an adequate medical response, according to a draft DHS Inspector-General report obtained by BuzzFeed. The detention center is run by CoreCivic, a Tennessee-based for-profit contractor.
Reps. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represent border districts, and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) voiced support for vaccinating migrants, like asylum seekers, who are allowed to cross into the United States.
Together with the country’s National Guard, Mexico’s migration authority, the National Migration Institute (INM), ran two deportation flights to Caribbean nations this week. It sent 89 Cuban migrants to Havana and 97 Haitian migrants to Port-au-Prince. INM also detained 241 Central American migrants at a warehouse in Puebla and 116 at a residence in Tamaulipas.
With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
CBP data points to a rise in migrants from “other” countries
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported on June 9 that in May, its agents encountered 180,034 undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. 8,023 of these “encounters” took place at official border ports of entry. 172,011 happened in the spaces between the ports of entry, where Border Patrol operates.
The Border Patrol number is a very slight reduction from April, when the agency encountered 173,686 undocumented migrants between ports of entry. Encounters with unaccompanied children dropped by 18 percent from April to May, and encounters with members of families dropped by 16 percent. Single adults increased 8 percent.
The May “encounters” number appeared to be the largest since April 2000, when Border Patrol apprehended 180,050 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, there is some double-counting.38 percent of the agency’s May encounters were with people whom it had already encountered at least once in the previous 12 months.
Of May’s 172,011 encounters, then, only about 107,000 were “new” people. That is still a very high monthly number by the standards of the past 15 years at the border, but it means that the number of newly encountered people in May 2021 was significantly smaller than in May 2019 (which was perhaps 124,000 people, at that year’s recidivism rate). “The trend of border apprehensions in May is a reduction of individuals (unique encounters) and families below the peak in 2019,” reads a White House release.
A 38 percent “recidivism rate” is probably unprecedented. That number averaged 15 percent of Border Patrol’s “encountered” migrants between 2014 and 2019, and it rose to 26 percent in 2020. The reason for the increase is the pandemic response. Under a COVID-19 border measure known as “Title 42,” Border Patrol is rapidly expelling most migrants it finds, sending Mexicans and residents of some other countries back across into Mexico without detaining them. The quick procedure makes it relatively easy for migrants to attempt to cross again.
Of Border Patrol’s 897,213 “encounters” with migrants between ports of entry since October, 137,176—15 percent—were not from Mexico or from Central America’s Northern Triangle countries. That’s up from 11 percent from “other countries” in 2020, and 9 percent in 2019. In May, the “other countries” share was even larger: 23 percent of Border Patrol’s encounters. Last month, the agency encountered more citizens of Ecuador (11,655) than El Salvador (10,011).
In May, the non-Mexican, non-Northern Triangle countries whose citizens Border Patrol “encountered” most were Ecuador (11,655 May encounters, up 110% since March); Venezuela (7,371, up 213%); Brazil (7,366, up 85%); Nicaragua (4,354, up 126%); Haiti (2,704, down 12%); Cuba (2,611, down 54%); and Romania (1,203, up 214%). The Romanians are mainly members of the oft-persecuted Roma ethnic group, as Reuters reported in late May.
The 2020-21 year-on-year nationality numbers are also striking. They show great variation in the parts of the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants of different nationalities tend to arrive. Central Americans and Ecuadorians tend to arrive in south Texas and the El Paso-New Mexico area. Brazilians and Indians arrive overwhelmingly in the westernmost border sectors. Cubans and Venezuelans are arriving in sparsely populated areas: west Texas’s Del Rio sector and western Arizona’s Yuma sector (many Venezuelans are also arriving in central Arizona). The Del Rio sector has seen the largest percentage increase in migration from 2020 to 2021.
A few other facts about May, from CBP and from Mexico’s migration authorities:
As in March (63%) and April (64%), Border Patrol expelled 64 percent of migrants it encountered, under the “Title 42” pandemic authority.
Virtually no unaccompanied children were expelled, as has been the case since mid-November.
Border Patrol expelled 22 percent of apprehended family unit members, down from 37 percent in April and 40 percent in March. The number of family members allowed into the United States, in most cases to begin asylum proceedings, has stayed very steady since March: 31,973 in March, 30,502 in April, and 31,722 in May.
As in March (88%) and April (86%), Border Patrol expelled 86 percent of single adults it encountered.
68 percent of encountered migrants were single adults. This is vastly different from May 2019, when only 28 percent were single adults. (This includes some double counting due to recidivism.)
Between January and May, Mexico’s refugee agency COMAR had received 41,195 requests for asylum in Mexico. That five-month total exceeds COMAR’s asylum requests in all of 2020 (41,179). 46 percent of requesters were from Honduras, followed by Haiti (17%) and Cuba (9%).
In April, the latest available month, Mexican authorities apprehended 18,709 migrants, the most since July 2019.
Biden administration loosens two Trump-era restrictions on asylum
The Department of Justice this week reversed a Trump administration restriction on eligibility for asylum, while the Departments of State and Homeland Security reinstated a program extending protection to some Central American children.
On June 16 Attorney-General Merrick Garland reversed decisions from his Trump-era predecessors, Jeff Sessions and William Barr, that severely restricted asylum for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. In the U.S. system, immigration courts are part of the executive-branch Department of Justice. This makes the attorney-general the maximum “judge” setting guidelines for immigration judges to follow.
In 2018, in a case called “the matter of A-B,” Sessions had overruled a prior decision granting asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had fled domestic violence. In 2019, in the “L-E-A” case, Barr determined that relatives of a Mexican man targeted by a criminal organization (in this case, the hyper-violent Familia Michoacana cartel) did not qualify as members of a “particular social group” eligible for asylum.
These two decisions had severely restricted possibilities of gaining U.S. asylum for tens of thousands of migrants, especially Central Americans, who had come to the United States fleeing abusive partners or violent gangs. “In the year after his [Sessions’s] decision,” the New York Timesnoted, “rates of asylum granted to people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras plunged 38 percent.” Attorney-General Garland’s decision, a response to an executive order from the first days of Joe Biden’s presidency, restores asylum eligibility to what it was before the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, on June 15 the Departments of State and Homeland Security announced an expansion of the recently restored Central American Minors (CAM) Program, allows parents living legally in the United States to petition to have their children in Central America reunited with them. A few thousand children gained admittance to the United States through the CAM during the last years of the Obama administration, but the Trump administration shut down the program in 2018.
President Biden had ordered the program’s reinstatement shortly after taking office. The June 15 announcement expands the CAM, adding new categories of adults who may petition for their children to join them. Now, legal guardians and parents who are still awaiting decisions on their status, including asylum-seekers, may also apply. An unnamed official told the Los Angeles Times that as many as 100,000 petitioners may now be eligible.
Once the parents apply, the CAM program interviews the children in Central America to determine whether they qualify for refugee resettlement status. If they do not qualify, they may still be granted humanitarian parole—a temporary residency status that does not place the children on a path to citizenship, CBS News explains.
Texas’s governor wants to build a wall
At a June 16 press conference in Austin, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) announced that “In the Biden Administration’s absence, Texas is stepping up to get the job done by building the border wall.” Abbott asked his state’s Facilities Commission to hire a program manager to oversee border wall construction.
Abbott’s administration said it would transfer $250 million from the prison system’s budget to a “down payment” on a state border wall. (Texas already spends $1.1 billion in state funds on what it categorizes as “border security.”)
It cost the Trump administration about $26.5 million per mile to build border wall in Texas; at that rate, Abbott’s “down payment” would be enough to build 9 1/2 miles of wall. At least 1,100 miles of Texas’s border is unfenced. “My guess is that if Texas has the willingness to go through multiple years of litigation, it will be able to build a smattering of wall sections,” former Bush administration DHS official Stewart Verdery told the Washington Examiner.
In Texas, most border land is privately owned. Abbott’s “program manager” will have to “identify state land and land that private landowners and local governments can volunteer for the wall,” the governor’s office’s release reads. The state land commissioner, George P. Bush, said he would grant emergency authorization to build wall on state-owned lands.
While costly private land seizures through the eminent domain process are certain to slow the Governor’s plans, he is also seeking donations of land and money, including through a website. In 2011, Arizona’s state government set up a similar wall-building donation website with a goal of raising $50 million. It ultimately collected $270,000.
While states are not empowered to enforce immigration law, Abbott signaled that he would have state police arrest migrants on charges like trespassing or smuggling, regardless of their intention to seek asylum, and to hold them in newly built jails near the border. Imprisoning parents who arrive with children would cause a new wave of family separations. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) announced that it is considering filing an injunction against Abbott’s “abuse of power and using refugee children as political piñatas.”
“We are being invaded,” Lieutenant-Governor Dan Patrick said at the Governor’s press conference. “That term has been used in the past, but it has never been more true.” He added that a 14-year-old Central American boy who arrives that the border would probably turn into a criminal: “You can’t put a 14-year-old in a fifth grade class. What is his future? Crime, low wages. No future.” Migrant advocates reacted sharply to this “invasion” rhetoric, similar to that used by a mass shooter who killed 23 people at an El Paso Wal-Mart in August 2019. “If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” tweeted El Paso Rep. Veronica Escobar (D).
As he eyes a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, Abbott is already trying to revoke licenses for federally funded shelters housing unaccompanied migrant children in Texas. He has also invited former president Donald Trump to come to the border; a visit is likely on June 30.
Together with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), he has called on “fellow governors” to send law-enforcement personnel to the Texas border. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) answered this call on June 16, announcing that state police and some county officers—mainly from the state’s western panhandle region—would head to the Texas border. “It isn’t clear what exactly the Florida officers will be doing at the border or how the mutual aid agreement will work out legally, logistically or strategically,” the Pensacola News Journalreported. DeSantis cited a jump in methamphetamine availability in Florida. About 90 percent of methamphetamine detected at the border, however, is found at official ports of entry, not the spaces in between where Florida law enforcement personnel would presumably be deployed.
GAO issues three reports and decisions about the border
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a U.S. Congress agency that carries out rigorous audits and evaluations, issued three documents related to the U.S.-Mexico border this week. Two covered the border wall.
On June 15, GAO responded to 122 House and Senate Republicans’ request for a ruling on the legality of President Biden January 20 order pausing border wall construction. Appropriations law requires that Biden spend money specifically assigned for border barrier construction, and the Impoundment Control Act of 1974 requires the President to spend appropriations as directed by Congress.
GAO determined that Biden has not broken the law by pausing wall construction: what has happened so far are “programmatic delays, not impoundments,” and he does not have to spend the money immediately, or could alter how it is spent while still meeting the “border barrier” definition. (The White House’s 2022 budget request goes further, asking Congress to cancel these previous unspent appropriations.) Unlike former president Trump’s refusal to provide assistance to Ukraine—part of his 2019 impeachment—“the delay here is precipitated by legal requirements,” GAO concluded.
A June 17 report looks into the money that President Trump, using an emergency declaration, wrested from the Defense Department’s budget in 2019 and 2020 to build border walls as quickly as possible. GAO found that in response to the Trump administration’s demands, the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversaw wall construction, obligated $10.6 billion for construction contracts. $4.3 billion of that was for “noncompetitive contracts,” which are usually more expensive. 88 percent of the $10.6 billion went to four contractors and two of their subsidiaries.
In the end, by the time President Biden called a halt to wall construction on January 20, the Trump administration had built a full “border wall system”—with electrical hookups, access roads, and similar components—on only 69 miles of the border. The approximately 400 miles of other new and replacement wall was primarily fencing panels without the accompanying components. “While the wall panels are typically the most costly part of border barrier construction, the full wall system remains incomplete,” GAO found.
On June 11, the Biden administration had returned $2 billion of this “emergency” funding back to the Defense Department, where it will be used for military construction programs that were delayed in 2019 and 2020.
The House of Representatives had challenged the Trump administration’s 2019 emergency declaration, alleging that the president had made an end-run around a Congress that refused to approve wall funding. That case is before the Supreme Court, but the Biden administration has asked that it be dropped because the executive branch opposes the precedent of one house of Congress being able to take spending disputes to court.
On June 14, GAO issued a report about how CBP responded to, and was affected by, the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that through February 2021, more than 7,000 of CBP’s 54,500 employees had contracted COVID-19, and 24 died. “Employee absences didn’t generally have a significant impact at air, land, or sea ports, which saw declining traffic, officials told” GAO.
Border Patrol responded to the pandemic, GAO found, by deploying agents closer to the borderline, moving away from interior checkpoints and “nonessential activities” further into the U.S. interior. It also responded with the Title 42 expulsions policy. By rapidly sending most migrants back across the border into Mexico, GAO found, agents reduced their exposure to COVID-19 but also lost opportunities to gain intelligence by interviewing migrants about smugglers and other illegal activity at the border.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Mexico on June 14-15, his first international trip as secretary. He met with several cabinet members. “We have challenged one another with respect to what more can each of us do to address the level of irregular migration that has persisted for several months,” Mayorkas told reporters, as he echoed Vice President Kamala Harris’s “do not come” message to would-be migrants. Mayorkas discussed with Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard the possibility of phasing out pandemic restrictions on cross-border trade and travel, though no details emerged. Ebrard also raised the issue of southbound flows of weapons purchased in the United States.
USAID Administrator Samantha Power also paid a five-day visit to Central America from June 13 to 17, which included several meetings with prominent civil-society figures.
Experts from WOLA’s Mexico and Central America/Citizen Security programs published an analysis of U.S. officials’ visits, with a series of recommendations for addressing migration’s “root causes,” engaging with Mexico, and collaborating on a rights-respecting approach to migration.
Secretary Mayorkas testified in the House Homeland Security Committee on June 17 about his department’s 2022 budget request. The hearing was notable mainly for several testy exchanges with Republican members.
The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published reports about families separating on the Mexican side of the border, usually after U.S. authorities expel them under the Title 42 “public health” order. The parents are forced to send their kids across to the United States alone, as unaccompanied children do not get expelled.
Janine Bouey, a former LAPD officer and veteran, filed a complaint against Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and DHS alleging that CBP agents sexually assaulted her at San Diego’s Otay Mesa port of entry. She got no result after filing an earlier complaint; this one, filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act, has an assist from Alliance San Diego.
Two soldiers based at Fort Hood, Texas were arrested at a Border Patrol checkpoint as they drove a civilian vehicle, in uniform, with two undocumented Mexican migrants aboard.
A 7,000-word Rolling Stone chronicle by Seth Harp finds that Mexico’s Gulf Cartel has come to dominate the migrant smuggling business along the easternmost 250 miles of Mexico’s side of the border, in Tamaulipas. (In fact, Harp explains, coyotes are independent, but have to pay the cartel a fee.)
The Associated Press reported on the psychological trauma suffered by unaccompanied migrant children held at the massive emergency shelter at Fort Bliss, Texas, while they wait for caseworkers to connect them with relatives or sponsors inside the United States. “Some had marks on their arms indicating self-harm, and federal volunteers were ordered to keep out scissors, pencils or even toothbrushes that could be used as a weapon. While girls made origami and braided friendship bracelets, a large number of the children spent the day sleeping, the volunteer [AP’s source] said. Some had been there nearly two months.”
The House Appropriations Committee will mark up (amend and approve drafts of) the 2022 Homeland Security appropriations budget legislation: in its Homeland Security Subcommittee on June 30 and in the full Appropriations Committee on July 13.
Stephen Kinzer, the former New York Times Nicaragua bureau chief and author of now-classic books on U.S. policy toward Guatemala and Nicaragua, published a column today about Daniel Ortega’s latest despotic crackdown in Nicaragua. It’s at the Quincy Institute’s Responsible Statecraft site, and it’s a must-read from someone whom I’ve never met but whose writing prodded me, as a high-school student in the 1980s, toward a career advocating human rights in U.S. policy toward Latin America.
This paragraph in Kinzer’s piece has stuck with me all day. I don’t know what to think about it.
Appalling as Nicaragua’s situation has become, the United States cannot do much about it. Our long history of intervention there leaves us with little moral authority. In any case, Washington’s interest is so dim that Vice President Kamala Harris did not even utter the word “Nicaragua” during her recent speech outlining the new administration’s Central America policy. Nicaraguans, with carefully designed outside support—not directed from Washington—will have to shape the next chapters in their history.
Is that true? Is the United States, together with other states, powerless to confront a brutal kleptocracy in a nearby country? One with as many people as metropolitan Houston and a GDP similar to that of greater Charleston, West Virginia? (Or Akron, Ohio, if you use purchasing-power parity?)
I find “the United States cannot do much about it” hard to swallow, though “the United States alone, without any partnerships, cannot do much about it” is true.
Sure, Washington lacks moral authority in Nicaragua. But are there really no tools to promote democracy and to protect reformers and dissidents? Only the John Bolton/Elliott Abrams-style military interventions that drained U.S. moral authority, as Stephen Kinzer has chronicled so well? There have to be other options.
Kinzer is right: it is absolutely up to Nicaraguans “to shape the next chapters in their history.” But I still think the U.S. government and civil society, along with those of like-minded states, can give Nicaragua’s democrats a boost.
Not the kind of boost that we’ve provided in the past, like lethal aid to murderous Contra fighters. Many peaceful options are on the menu. Build coalitions for diplomatic pressure. Freeze assets, including of the regime’s key private-sector backers. Deny visas. Use the Magnitsky Act sanctions. Downgrade trade relations (suspending CAFTA but not going the full, feckless “Cuba embargo” route). Have the ambassador visit and take selfies with all human rights defenders, social leaders, and opposition figures. Help them keep their websites and social media accounts unblocked and accessible, while guaranteeing that those who produce credible content and have big audiences can make a living. Make sure those defenders and reformers aren’t just elite English-speakers from powerful families who don’t look like most Nicaraguans: include historically marginalized opposition movements, indigenous, women, labor, youth, LGBT, and others. Demand access to those in prison. Use the OAS Democratic Charter for once. Use whatever tools are available in the UN system. Engage frequently with allies on new ways to pressure Ortega and support reformers. I’m sure I’m missing many more.
All of this requires that the Biden administration devote bandwidth to the calamity in Nicaragua. And Kinzer is right: it has devoted almost none. (Nobody has. Can you imagine the New York Times having a Nicaragua bureau chief today?) To succeed, a U.S.-and-allies campaign to promote freedom in Nicaragua would have to be relentless, with daily messages and shows of support for dissidents. You’d need a high-profile official—perhaps a special envoy?—with resources and a crack (social) media operation, focused on this every single day.
U.S. policy toward Nicaragua is pretty far from that right now, just as it was during the prior administration. But I wouldn’t rush to say that the United States “can’t do much about it.” That demotivates people in this city who could be convinced to do more, and it cedes too much space to the Ortega/Murillo regime and its thugs.
La coordinadora del Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), Bertha Zúniga rindió testimonio este martes 15 de junio sobre la persecución que sufrió Bertha Cáceres previo a su asesinato
Ortega’s government has made many of the arrests under a new law passed in December granting it the right to declare citizens “terrorists” or “traitors to the homeland” and ban them from running in elections
Expediente Público conversó con dos analistas para entender si la diplomacia de Biden hacia Nicaragua dejó pasar importantes meses para presionar por elecciones libres y democráticas y si es posible todavía un apoyo decidido que contribuya a revertir la ruta autocrática
In a public letter on Monday, several retired military commanders, including an ex-defense minister and a 99-year-old former military dictator, said there are reasonable doubts about vote tampering and warned of “grave instability”
For centrist Democrats like Cuellar, whose district includes hundreds of miles along the border with Mexico, the migrant surge has become a political and policy liability that Republicans have pounced on in recent months
I’m at my desk, having a few conversations, preparing a talk I’m giving tomorrow about Colombia, preparing for two upcoming trips (travel is back!), and doing some research. I’ll be in a Colombia coalition meeting from mid-afternoon to end of day.
Ten babies were shot in their mothers’ wombs and a single one survived. In addition, there is a growing trend of police lethality, which has increased even during the pandemic and despite social isolation
The Brazilian government on Monday authorized the employment of the National Security Force (FNS) to protect the Yanomami indigenous people and their reservation lands for 90 days in the northern state of Roraima
La Corte Constitucional acaba de pedirle al Juzgado 189 de Instrucción Penal Militar suspender el proceso que se adelanta en ese despacho contra un miembro del Esmad que impactó con su escopeta truflay al estudiante Dilan Cruz en medio de los disturbios del 23 de noviembre de 2019
La comparecencia del expresidente de la República a la Comisión de Esclarecimiento de la Verdad poco cumplió con las expectativas de quienes padecieron el asesinato de sus familiares a manos de tropas del Ejército
Mientras la Fiscalía y la Defensoría del Pueblo hablan de 84 personas “no localizadas”, organizaciones de derechos humanos registran más de 700 desapariciones forzadas en los más de 40 días de protesta de este 2021
By insisting on the same strategy, the government will crash into the same failures of the past. Only this time, it will have an aggravating circumstance: the country’s new social and political reality
En el documento que los familiares deben firmar se exige confidencialidad y se compromete a no hacer más reclamos. Hay afectados que denuncian que se les ofreció apoyo económico a cambio de no seguir con la denuncia ante FGR
Para la familia de Javier, y las organizaciones civiles Propuesta Cívica y Reporteros Sin Fronteras, el fallo es un paso en la búsqueda de justicia pero falta la parte más complicada que es la extradición de Estados Unidos a México del Minilic para juzgarlo como autor intelectual
Mexico’s president has announced plans to make the national guard part of the army, erasing the thin pretense of a civilian-controlled force that was used to gain approval for its creation two years ago
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, 75, who is running for a fourth consecutive term, has launched a broad campaign of repression since early June aimed at decimating the opposition ahead of November elections
“Lamentamos el uso político de las Fuerzas Armadas, ya que ello no solo mella su institucionalidad, sino que genera alarma, zozobra y división en momentos en los que el país requiere unidad y calma”, manifestó
As travel and trade volumes declined, some ports of entry reallocated personnel to other operations, such as cargo processing. In contrast, starting in May 2020 Border Patrol encounters with noncitizens steadily increased
I’ve got no meetings on the schedule today—an artifact of being out last week and not scheduling anything. I’ve agreed to do a few interviews but with no fixed times, so I should be available as I dig through many past unanswered messages and do some planning for the next few months.
More than one year into the pandemic, it is hard to overstate how much China has improved its standing in Latin America in terms of both its reputation among the general public and its influence with leaders and policymakers
Perdió su vida hace menos de 15 días en Villagarzón durante enfrentamientos con la Policía en medio de una manifestación. El Espectador visitó su casa para reconstruir la historia y alzar la voz de su familia, que hoy reclama justicia
Peruvian presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori on Saturday said she trusts she will not be sent back to prison after a judge reviews her freedom in a money laundering case and insisted that fraud was committed by her rival
Following a review of the border wall construction projects, the Biden administration will also divert DHS funds to clean-up of construction sites formerly funded by the Pentagon, “including drainage, erosion control, site remediation, and material disposal”
I’m back from vacation and will be spending the day catching up. I also have three internal meetings that I know of, and a border coalition meeting, which will take up all morning and at least the first half of the afternoon. I should be reachable after that.
(Due to staff absence, there will be no border update next week. We will report again on June 19.)
Protests, negotiations, violence, and human rights violations continue
June 4 marked the 38th day of Colombia’s National Strike, probably the longest in more than 70 years. June 4 also saw the 12th meeting between government officials and the Strike Committee: a group of civil society representatives, including a large contingent of union leaders, who first called the Strike on April 28. Such meetings have been taking place since May 16.
The talks have not been advancing. Much of the discussion over the past week centered on the government’s demand that the Strike Committee call for an end to road blockades, which have choked off strategic roads between cities, leading to shortages and economic paralysis. The Committee meanwhile demands that the government do more to guarantee the physical security of protesters, including a softening of the security forces’ harsh and at times fatal crowd control tactics.
After a day of talks on June 3—cut short because government negotiators wanted to watch a Colombia-Peru soccer game—government representatives celebrated that agreement had been reached on 16 of 31 proposed preconditions to be met in order to move on to thematic negotiations. Speaking for the Strike Committee, Luciano Sanín of the NGO Viva la Ciudadanía said, “On 16 points we have an agreement, 11 need to be clarified, and on 9 there are major discrepancies, on issues such as the non-involvement of the military in protests, the autonomy of local authorities in the management of protests, the non-use of firearms in protests, the conditions for the intervention of the ESMAD [Police Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squad] in protests, and the mechanism for monitoring the agreement.”
Nelson Alarcón of Colombia’s FECODE teachers’ union was also pessimistic about the 16 agreements: “That’s nothing at all, we had already reached a pre-agreement on 34 measures that the government dismantled with its comments.” Alarcón refers to a pre-agreement that the two sides had reached on May 24, but which the government ended up rejecting on May 27, by demanding that the Strike Committee lift road blockades before going any further. At the time, the National Police counted about 200 blockades around the country.
It appears that, on the government side, politicians from the hard line of the governing Centro Democrático party got the upper hand. The party’s founder, former president Álvaro Uribe, called for “rejecting any negotiation with the Committee, because negotiating with blockades and violence is to continue with the destruction of democracy.”
Strike Committee members allege that the government has adopted a strategy of delaying and hoping that the protests lose energy.La Silla Vacíaobserved that in the street, “there is no longer the same mobilization strength of the first weeks.” Fabio Arias of the CUT labor union told El Tiempo, “we know with absolute certainty they are mamando gallo [roughly, ‘jerking us around’].”
President Iván Duque insisted on the importance of ending road blockades before continuing negotiations: “Blockades are not a matter of negotiation, they are not a matter of tradeoffs, much less of transaction. They have to be rejected by everyone.” On May 30, thousands of people protesting the blockades marched in several Colombian cities; a Colombian Presidency communiqué celebrated that “thousands of Colombians, on behalf of millions, have sent a clear message.”
Legal groups like DeJusticia say peaceful blockades that don’t affect the rights of others are a form of free speech. The Strike Committee moved during the week to lift some of the most damaging blockades at key highway chokepoints, which had been carrying a significant public opinion cost for the protesters. “There are more than 40 ‘points of resistance’ that have been suspended thanks to the de-escalation,” Alarcón of FECODE said on June 1. “Today, therefore, the national government has no excuse to say that it won’t sign accords.” Fabio Arias of the CUT said that day that 90 percent of blockades had been lifted. By June 12, many inter-city bus routes began running again from Cali’s terminal.
By June 3, about 23 blockades remained around the country, but the government continued to insist. Committee members responded that not all road blockades were their responsibility. “We can’t order the removal of what we didn’t order to be set up,” said Hami Gómez of the ACREES student organization. At a protest concentration in Cali’s Puerto Resistencia (formerly Puerto Rellena) neighborhood, a protester named “Pipe” told Spain’s EFE news service that the Strike Committee doesn’t speak for them. “They don’t have the legitimacy to tell us to lift the blockades.”
Partly to counter perceptions that the protests are losing momentum, the Strike Committee is calling on protesters to converge on and “take” Bogotá on Wednesday, June 9.
Over the week the government set about implementing a decree, issued late on the evening of May 28, giving the armed forces a greater role in undoing blockades and controlling protests in eight departments [provinces] and thirteen cities, mostly in the country’s southwest. The decree draws on a section of the country’s Police Code allowing authorities to seek “military assistance” at times “when events of serious alteration of security and coexistence so require, or in the face of imminent risk or danger, or to confront an emergency or public calamity.” The measure may triple the combined police and military footprint in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, where the protests have been most intense.
The decree promises that governors and mayors who fail to cooperate with the military “assisters” will suffer “the corresponding sanctions.” It does not specify what those punishments would be. Jairo Libreros of Colombia’s Universidad Externado toldEl Espectador that there could be no such punishments, because “the military can’t be placed above civilian authorities.”
While the latest bimonthly Invamer poll found 89 percent supporting protests, it also found 61 percent support for militarizing cities when “vandalistic situations” break out.
“It is a partial and de facto internal commotion [state of siege decree], which circumvents constitutional control, involves the military in the management of protest, and subordinates civilian authorities to military commanders, thus configuring a coup d’état,” reads a declaration from the Strike Committee. “Having more security forces on the streets is not a step in the direction of peace,” Sebastian Lanz of Temblores, an NGO that monitors police abuse, told CNN. Former Medellín mayor and Antioquia governor Sergio Fajardo, a leading centrist presidential candidate, strongly criticized the decree on Twitter: “this is not a war, nor should we turn it into one.”
Legal challenges to the “military assistance” decree came quickly. In Cundinamarca, the department that surrounds Bogotá, the Administrative Tribunal called President Duque to testify “about the reasons that led him to determine the need for the military forces to provide temporary support to the work being carried out by members of the National Police.” Two opposition legislators, Sen. Iván Cepeda and Rep. David Racero, filed separate injunctions (tutelas) with the State Council demanding that the military assistance decree be suspended on grounds of unconstitutionality. Cepeda contended that the decree is a backdoor “state of siege” (estado de conmoción interior), avoiding the legal requirements that Colombian law entails for such a temporary expansion of military power and restriction of civil liberties. Both argued that the decree omits required legislative oversight, and places military authorities over civilian officials.
Iván Velazquez, a former auxiliary magistrate who led 2000s “para-politics” investigations before going on to head Guatemala’s Commission against Impunity (CICIG), said that he will also file a “public action lawsuit” against the decree. A detailed legal analysis from Rodrigo Uprimny, co-founder of the judicial think-tank DeJusticia, lays out four key reasons why Duque’s military assistance decree is unconstitutional. Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, contended that Colombian law requires that only police be used to control protests.
The NGO Temblores continues to maintain a thorough database of protest-related violence, with its most recent update on June 2. The Defense Ministry issued its most recent update on June 4. Since protests began on April 28, both sources report:
Up to 46 (18, plus 19 “not related to the protests” according to unclear criteria, plus 9 pending verification)
Security forces killed
Security forces wounded
Civilians missing or disappeared
327 (as of May 27, according to Coordinación Colombia-Europa-EEUU)
114 (111 being searched for, 3 denunciations of forced disappearance)
Arrests and detentions
Cases of eye damage
Discharges of lethal firearms
Victims of sexual violence
Victims of gender-based violence
9 (including 1 police agent)
Aggression against journalists
210 (as of June 3, according to the FLIP Press Freedom Foundation)
Attacks on the medical mission
256 (as of June 2, according to the Health Ministry)
Last week saw fewer killings than the previous week, which was crowned by the bloodiest single day of protests, May 28, when 13 people were killed in Cali. Last week:
In Cali, it appears that gunmen killed three people the evening of May 31. On the NGO Indepaz’s list of 75 people believed killed as of June 4, nobody has been killed outside Valle del Cauca, the department of which Cali is the capital, since May 17. Since then, between 26 and 35 people have been killed in Valle del Cauca.
Indepaz’s list does not include Yorandy Rosero, a 22-year-old student killed during a protest at an oil installation, convened by indigenous groups in Villagarzón, Putumayo, in the country’s far south. A short drive from Putumayo’s capital, Mocoa, Villagarzón’s commercial airport shares its runway with a Counternarcotics Police base that, in the past, was used heavily for U.S.-backed aerial herbicide fumigation flights. The Counternarcotics Police, not a crowd control force, were called on May 31 to control a demonstration at a well operated by a Canadian corporation, Gran Tierra Energy. Putumayo’s governor says that the protests were violent. Local police leadership insists that while protesters wounded some soldiers and police, the shots that killed Rosero did not come from police personnel. The victims’ mother, however, told Blu Radio, “there are witnesses of those who were with my son at the time he was shot, who say [the police] were very clearly shooting right in front of them.” The Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is investigating; this case should be of interest to the U.S. government since, unlike the ESMAD, the Police Counternarcotics Directorate is a unit that does receive U.S. assistance.
In another rural territory with several armed groups and much coca cultivation, northeastern Colombia’s Catatumbo region, protests have been ongoing since April 28 but have been peaceful, El Espectadorreports. There, one of the protesters’ main demands is that the government fulfill peace accord commitments to rural and coca-growing communities.
In Facatativá, a small city just beyond Bogotá’s outskirts in Cundinamarca, rioters vandalized and burned the courthouse on May 29, in an event that recalled the May 25 arson that burned the courthouse of Tuluá, Valle del Cauca to the ground.
A freelance reporter was stabbed, he says by a policeman, near the “Portal Resistencia” (or Portal Américas) mass transit terminal in southern Bogotá’s working-class Usme district.
Three women participating in protests in Barranquilla, aged 18 through 22, say they were taken to a police station on the night of May 21 and thrown into a jail cell with men whom the police encouraged to sexually abuse them. El Espectadorreports: “As they told the Fiscalía, ‘the patrolman who received us entered the cells and began encouraging the prisoners, saying that fresh meat had arrived.’ Next, the complaint states that the same uniformed officer began to shout: ‘they are here to be raped, these are the rock throwers.’” They say they were beaten, stripped, and forced to pay the prisoners in order to avoid being raped. Barranquilla’s deputy police commander, Col. Carlos Julio Cabrera, told the El Heraldo newspaper that what happened was “confused” and is under investigation. The Colonel cast doubt on their story: “According to the officer, the young women did not show any aggression when they left the police station: ‘they came out without any incident and signed a book that we have.’”
UN bodies released two statements voicing alarm at protest-related violence. “These events are all the more concerning given the progress that had been made to resolve, through dialogue, the social unrest that erupted a month ago, following the start of a nation-wide strike against several social and economic policies of the Government,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet in a May 30 statement noting that “since 28 May, fourteen people have died, and 98 people have been injured, 54 of them by firearms.” The chief of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, who is co-mediating talks between the government and the Strike Committee, said “the serious events in Cali and other cities and departments demonstrate the need to strengthen dialogue as a fundamental instrument for resolving conflicts.”
The ESMAD anti-riot police continued to receive significant scrutiny. Indepaz lists the unit’s members as those most likely responsible for at least 18 killings, especially in late April and the first half of May.
A Razón Públicacolumn by three scholars from Colombia’s National University questions why the unit is not being used as a last resort, why it often uses weapons indiscriminately and disproportionately, why it often chases protesters through city streets after already dispersing them, and why it often uses force without prior warning. Andrés Felipe Ortega, Farid Camilo Rondón, and Lina Paola Faciolince note that “The Esmad and the National Police showed a marked sentiment or prejudice against those who demonstrate publicly. This happens because of the belief that the demonstrators are vandals, because of the alleged infiltration of organized armed groups, which has not yet been proven in all cases, and because of the institution’s own ideas.”
The investigative website Cuestión Pública looked at 30 contracts for purchase of non-lethal crowd control materials since 2017, totaling about 22.5 billion Colombian pesos (US$6.1 million). Among its findings:
“Through these [contracting] processes, elements for crowd control, armored tanks, electric and gas cartridges for Venom [vehicle-mounted launchers], stun grenades, gas launchers, fragmentable sphere launchers, pepper spheres, rubber projectiles, propellant and gas cartridges, and paintball markers and spheres were acquired. A batch of 222 12-gauge shotguns was also purchased in 2017.”
“This entire battery of weapons was supplied by six companies. Two Colombian: Imdicol Ltda and 7 M Group; three American: Everytrade International Company (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS), Safariland LLC (authorized in Colombia by Nicholls Tactica SAS), and Combined Systems Inc (also authorized in Colombia by Imdicol Ltda); and the Italian, Benelli Armi SpA (authorized in Colombia by Euramerica SAS).”
In recent weeks, though, most protester killings have been the work of people not in uniform. “We have registered 11 cases of violent interventions by civilians in the presence of the public forces,” reads the latest Temblores report. “This trend was seen again last Friday [May 28] in the city of Cali, evidencing the presence of armed agents, who omitted their duties and incurred in criminal acts by endorsing the illegal carrying of weapons and attacks against demonstrators.” That day, numerous citizen and security-camera videos showed men in plainclothes wielding, and at times firing, weapons while nearby police failed to act.
“The video shows at least ten policemen who do nothing,” reads a strong El Espectadoreditorial. “We have already seen this image on other occasions during this national strike. The echoes it brings from the past are not encouraging. Armies of death were born from such logic in this country.”
“In that place and at that very moment there were several law enforcement officers, who omitted their duty to prevent these events from happening and to capture these people,” recognized Gen. Fernando Murillo, the director of the National Police’s Criminal Investigations and Interpol Directorate (DIJIN). He announced that “a specialized team was appointed to carry out the investigation to identify, individualize, and prosecute these individuals and law enforcement officers, who will have to answer to the competent authorities.”
A gunman who appeared in May 28 videos confronting protesters alongside police in Cali’s wealthy Ciudad Jardín neighborhood went public trying to explain himself. Andrés Escobar, who identified himself as a businessman, posted a video on social media insisting that the gun he was shooting into the air can fire only non-lethal munitions like rubber bullets (arma de fogueo). Such weapons are easy to obtain in Colombia, even at shopping malls, El Espectadorreported, though gaining a permit for more lethal firearms is difficult. Escobar added that he had no intention of killing anybody, and that he was angered by “vandals” in his neighborhood.
Escobar appeared to have no explanation for the inaction of nearby police. Further clues about the relationship between Cali police and plainclothes gunmen emerged from the case of Álvaro Herrera, a 25-year-old French horn player whose May 28 treatment in police custody swept through Colombian social media. Herrera was playing his horn as part of a “symphony” accompanying protests in southern Cali. When armed, un-uniformed men arrived and attacked the protesters, some of them roughed up Herrera and took him away—to a nearby police station. There, police beat the musician until he admitted he was a “vandal,” in a video that went viral.
Civilians have also been aggressively following former FARC combatants in Cali, like Natali González, who had served as the Cali municipal government’s deputy secretary for human rights and peacebuilding. Since protests began, unknown men in pickup trucks and motorcycles have been following González around the city; none has yet made contact with her. At least six other ex-guerrillas say the same thing is happening to them, reportsEl Espectador.
Another increasingly alarming phenomenon is forced disappearances or missing persons in the context of the protests. According to a June 4 La Silla Vacíaoverview, government data as of May 30 pointed to 111 people reported as missing, after deleting the names of others who were found, often in police custody. NGO counts are significantly higher: on May 26, Indepaz counted 287 people missing, and on May 27 the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos (CCEEU) reported 327.
Adriana Arboleda of the Medellín-based Corporación Jurídica Libertad told La Silla that “The Fiscalía isn’t activating urgent search mechanisms, on the grounds that there is insufficient information.” Because it lacks information about many denounced cases of missing people, the prosecutor’s office is not acting quickly. “It is giving a different treatment than what the nature of the urgent search mechanism requires. Which is: with the information you have, you run as fast as you can and try find the person,” said Luz Marina Monzón, the director of the Unit for the Search for the Disappeared, an agency created by the 2016 peace accord.
Some of the missing may still be in government custody. An El Tiemporeport contends that many people detained at protests have been held at least briefly in “unofficial” sites, with no record of where they are.
President Duque and other top officials insist that police abuses have not been systematic, and promise “zero tolerance” with agents who commit them. In public comments, Duque said that Colombian justice moved more quickly against those responsible for the September 2020 killing of lawyer Javier Ordóñez than did U.S. authorities against the killers of George Floyd in May 2020.
In an interview with Spain’s El País, Duque reiterated his government’s allegation, for which almost no proof has yet been produced, that the violence accompanying protests has been “low-intensity terrorism” often carried out by “organized armed groups linked to the ELN or FARC dissidents.” He added that he opposed moving the National Police out of the Defense Ministry, where it has been since 1953, because placing the agency in another cabinet agency, like Interior, would lead to its “politicization.”
Because the police are in the Defense Ministry, crimes committed by police agents go first to the military justice system. On May 31, Reuters reported, National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas said “that information concerning officers who may have broken the law or not performed their duties has been sent to the military justice unit.” The military justice system, however, is meant to try acts of service, and has a poor record of convicting personnel accused of human rights crimes.
As an El Tiempoanalysis points out, Colombian jurisprudence has determined that an agent’s alleged crime is not an “act of service” if “there is no ‘proximate and direct’ link between the offense and the service; if the offense is of such gravity that the link to the service is broken; and if there is doubt about any of these elements.” In such cases, the case must go to the civilian justice system, where the Fiscalía would prosecute it.
This distinction is pretty clear in cases like sexual abuse or torture in custody. Things get murkier in cases of improper use of force, when a police agent can argue that efforts to control disturbances were “acts of service.” On that basis, one of Colombia’s highest-profile cases, the November 2019 killing of 18-year-old protester Dilan Cruz in downtown Bogotá with a shotgun-fired “beanbag” weapon, remains in the military justice system. On June 3, a military judge ordered the release of two detained police, a lieutenant and a major, who are under investigation for the May 1 shooting death of 17-year-old protester Santiago Murillo in Ibagué, Tolima. The Fiscalíaasked on May 11 for this case to be moved to civilian jurisdiction.
This week Colombia’s civilian chief prosecutor (fiscal general), Francisco Barbosa, sent a request to Defense Minister Diego Molano asking for detailed information about protest-related cases that have been sent to the military justice system. It asks for “the immediate referral of proceedings initiated by the military justice system for possible homicides, intentional personal injury, and sexual offenses.” Barbosa also asks that the military justice system hand over all documents related to armed civilians’ actions in protests alongside police.
Civilian courts issued a few noteworthy protest-related rulings over the past week. A court in Popayán, Cauca banned use in the city of the Venom, a vehicle-mounted apparatus for launching tear gas canisters, flash-bang grenades, and other “non-lethal” munitions, until the National Police develops protocols and trainings for its safe use. A judge ruling on a tutela in Pasto, Nariño ordered they city’s police, especially its ESMAD, to register the names of commanders and the weapons to be deployed, in advance of any crowd control operation. The Administrative Tribunal in Santander is studying whether to suspend the use of stun grenades and 12-gauge shotguns in crowd-control operations.
Inter-American Human Rights Commission will visit imminently
Following a back-and-forth during Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez’s May 24-28 visit to Washington (discussed in last week’s update), the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH), an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), will pay a field visit to Colombia on June 8-10. “During the visit, the CIDH will meet with various representative sectors of Colombia, including authorities from different levels of government, representatives of civil society, collectives, unions, and business-sector organizations,” reads a tweet from the Commission. “In particular,” the thread continues, “the CIDH will seek to listen to victims of human rights violations and their families to receive their testimonies, complaints, and communications; as well as to people who were affected by actions of violence in that context.”
On May 29, the CIDH tweeted some cautionary words about the Colombian government’s “military assistance” decree. “The CIDH reiterates the international obligations of the State in internal security, and the Inter-American standards that provide that the participation of the armed forces in security tasks must be extraordinary, subordinate, complementary, regulated, and supervised.”
On June 7, representatives of Colombia’s Fiscalía, Inspector-General (Procuraduría), and Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría) are to hold three separate “pre-meetings” with the CIDH to “present in-depth reports that fully respond to the requests for information that the Commission issued to each of them,” as expressed in a letter from Ramírez to CIDH secretary María Claudia Pulido.
Vice-President Ramírez proposed that the commissioners visit Cali, Popayán, Cauca; and the city of Tuluá, about 60 miles north of Cali, where protesters burned the courthouse to the ground on May 25. El Espectadornoted that her letter made no mention of excesses committed by police or crimes involving armed civilians.
On June 3 the CIDH received a visit in Washington from a group of legislators from the most right-leaning segment of the already right-leaning governing party, the Centro Democrático. Senators and Representatives María Fernanda Cabal, Margarita Restrepo, Juan Manuel Daza, and José Jaime Uscátegui presented the commissioners with a dossier of acts of violence against members of the security forces allegedly committed by protesters. Among the allegations, El Espectadorreports, is that the ex-FARC dissident faction headed by former guerrilla negotiator Iván Márquez provided about US$160,000 to maintain disturbances around the country.
Just weeks earlier, Sen. Cabal had a testy radio exchange with the Commission’s president, Antonia Urrejola, who corrected the Senator when she said there was no international right to peaceful protest, and accused the Commission of bias. The group also met with Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, and its ambassador to the OAS, Alejandro Ordóñez.
FARC dissidents release some Venezuelan military captives
On May 30, Javier Tarazona of the Venezuelan NGO FundaRedes, which often reports rumors about security developments along the Colombia-Venezuela border, said that a temporary cessation of hostilities had been reached between the Venezuelan military and the “10th Front” ex-FARC dissidents, who had been fighting inside Venezuela’s border state of Apure since March 21.
The next day, Venezuela recovered eight soldiers who had been held captive by the 10th Front since April 23rd. They appeared to be in good health. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino said that the troops “were rescued” in an operation called “Centenary Eagle.” Tarazona of Fundaredes said that they were freed in an arrangement that involved assistance from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). On May 11 the ICRC had confirmed receiving a communication from the 10th Front that it was holding the eight soldiers and was looking for a way to hand them over.
“We continue to search for two more soldiers,” read Gen. Padrino’s communiqué. Tarazona said that three soldiers are missing, and that another 20 have been killed in combat with the Colombian ex-guerrilla dissidents in Apure.
We’ve covered this combat in several previous weekly updates, and Kristen Martínez-Gugerli of WOLA’s Venezuela Program published a helpful FAQ this week. The fighting displaced more than 6,000 Venezuelans into Colombia; questions remain why Venezuelan forces are focusing efforts on the 10th Front, even as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and “Segunda Marquetalia” ex-FARC dissident group are also active and present in Apure.
Colombia meanwhile had planned to reopen its official border crossings with Venezuela on June 1, for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions went into effect in March 20. That plan was abruptly halted on May 31, when the Foreign Ministry postponed the opening until September 1. On June 2, though, Colombia appeared to partially reverse itself again, announcing a gradual opening at crossings as biosecurity measures and other capacity get put into place.
“Officials in the Biden administration have issued vague and insufficient pronouncements on the human rights violations that have taken place amidst the unrest,” reads a June 1 statement from WOLA.
President Duque’s “total incapacity to read the historic moment,” former high commissioner for peace Sergio Jaramillo told the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, “is pushing us back to ‘conflict’ mode.”
“What is the Centaur state?” writes Julian Gomez Delgado in an interesting essay about Colombia’s political moment at Public Seminar. “It serves the interests of the upper classes, disciplines and regulates the lower classes, and is fearful of popular majorities. The parallel to a mythical creature with the head of a man and the body of a horse captures the dissonance of its approach to politics: a liberal state at the top cares for the upper classes, and a ‘punitive paternalism’ at the bottom fearsomely contains the popular majority. …Paradoxically at once democratic and authoritarian, instead of resolving social conflicts, the Centaur state reproduces them.”
“A significant proportion of protesters in Colombia’s southwest are Indigenous or Black—making the military police’s racial violence against them into a key issue,” write scholars Arturo Chang and Catalina Rodriguez at the Washington Post.
Colombian soldiers and police on May 27 killed Robinson Gil Tapias alias “Flechas,” the most recent leader of the Caparros, an organized crime group with great influence in the Bajo Cauca region of northeastern Antioquia department. Forces killed Gil in that region, in the municipality of Cáceres, Antioquia. Bajo Cauca, a territory of coca fields, illicit mining, and trafficking corridors, is contested between the Caparros, the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitary network, and smaller presences of the ELN and ex-FARC dissident groups. Defense Minister Diego Molano and National Police Director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas announced that this blow dismantled the Caparros, a group that can trace its lineage back to the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary network. However, a faction of the group, under the command of alias “Franco,” still remains active in the Bajo Cauca region, El Tiemporeported. The Caparros’ largest rival in the Bajo Cauca, the Gulf Clan, also remains active. “This criminal group is the second most powerful in Antioquia and responsible for homicides against social leaders,” human rights defender Óscar Yesid Zapata toldEl Espectador. “What the structures do is mutate into other substructures and the only thing that is achieved is a change of command.”
The Colombian government approved the extradition to the United States, to face narcotrafficking charges, of Alexander Montoya Úsuga, the cousin of the Gulf Clan’s maximum leader Dairo Úsuga. Montoya, alias “El Flaco,” had been arrested in Honduras as part of an operation that involved U.S. and Colombian personnel.
A four-person commission from the Colombian government’s Land Restitution Unit went missing in Mesetas, Meta, on May 27. As of June 2, they remained missing. Mesetas, one of five municipalities from which the Colombian security forces pulled out during a failed 1998-2002 peace process with the FARC, today has a significant presence of ex-FARC dissidents.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the post-conflict transitional justice tribunal, is studying a request from a FARC victims’ group to have the top ex-guerrilla leadership deprived of liberty and suspended from their ten congressional seats. Seven top FARC leaders recently accepted the JEP’s formal accusation of responsibility for over 20,000 kidnappings committed during the conflict. The JEP has sought opinions about the possible suspensions from 18 academic departments and think tanks.
Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Santos, acknowledged in a radio interview that governing-party politicians “did do damage” when they acted to support Republican candidates in the 2020 U.S. congressional and presidential elections, that “they did create an important problem.” Santos insisted that the Duque government’s relationships with key U.S. Democrats have recovered.
Opposition legislators failed to get the majority vote necessary to remove Defense Minister Molano via a censure motion. As noted in last week’s update, several members of both houses of Colombia’s Congress sought Molano’s censure based on security forces’ excessive use of force against protesters. The motion failed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 109 to 36. The previous week, the Senate defeated it by 69 to 31.
I’m taking a week of vacation. I may spend a lot of it just doing maintenance: updating contacts, lists, websites, and procedures that have fallen way behind, during this year of 65-hour weeks brought on by the border situation and Colombia’s protests. While I may be at my desk a lot, “vacation” means I’m taking the prerogative of shutting down communications, barely updating my news database, and writing no border or Colombia updates this week. By design, I will be nearly impossible to contact. See you next week.